The first time I saw him was on one of those clear autumn evenings where the coiling clouds on the horizon and an unfamiliar nightfall chill in the air whisper that winter is coming. It was my weekend with Josh, and I’d promised to take him fishing.
My dad taught me to fish. Out on the water, the boat rocking gently, he’d showed me how to find a reef, how to duck in behind the swell on an ocean beach and cast into the wash for whiting, how to follow the tide change up through the bay, how to keep the bait off the bottom on a drift, away from the rays and sleepy sharks.
But dad was gone, and when things turned bad with Karen and the divorce came I’d had to sell dad’s boat. So Josh and I clomped our way to the end of the Grey Harbour Jetty instead, rods over our shoulders. Josh matched my pace, but under his thatch of ginger hair his upturned eyes were bright, and I could tell that if he wasn’t trying so damn hard to be all grown he would be skipping around me in excited circles. I went to ruffle his hair, but hesitated, and clapped him on the back instead. I didn’t have to bend down to do that any more, and I blinked a sudden blurriness out of my eyes and stared far out to sea. Out there, miles from land, where the sunset was starting to reflect glittering of the evening calm, there waited waters dark and deep, reefs and holes and curling currents, ancient forests of kelp, and the strange things that sometimes surface beside the boat or take a hook, which fishermen throw back and always remember but never talk about.
But I’d had to sell dad’s boat.
So with my feet nailed to the coast and the old, bleached wood of the Grey Harbour Jetty, I set about teaching my son to be half a fisherman, while I tried to learn how to be two fourteenths of a father. I showed him how to thread bait onto a hook, hiding the shank but leaving the barb exposed. Down on my haunches, I wrapped my arms around him from behind, placed my hands over his small ones on the rod handle, and between us we cast out towards the channel. His gap-toothed smile shaded the setting sun.
Time stretches when you’re on the water, and patience is hard when you’re seven. It was probably about five minutes before he was winding up to ‘check the bait’. I remembered doing the same thing, a long time ago. I remembered dad’s patience. We checked the bait, and between us decided that it was acceptable.
“You’re not going to catch anything when the bait’s not in the water, Joshie,” I told him. “How about we give the fish some time to find it, hey?” We cast out again. His rod-tipped bowed slowly as the current tossed the bait around, and he tensed in excitement. I talked to him about the feel of current wash. I told him about what to expect from a fish, the rapid-fire pecking from small flathead and the slow pull of a bigger one, the wary fumbling of the snapper, the headlong bulldozer charge of the elephant shark.
The talking passed the time for him, a little. The sky faded to deep, glowing indigo. Beneath our feet the jetty timbers creaked and groaned. A few dozen yards up the jetty a small, hunched man, overdressed for the weather in a dark oilskin that cracked along the creaselines, flicked a long, old-style split cane rod rhythmically.
As I watched, the rod tip jolted and curved into a bucking arc. The small man leaned back and smoothly lifted from the water something that writhed and spurted rather than wriggling flashing silver under the jetty lights. Squid. Made sense, I supposed, with the old-style jig rod.
The small man caught three more squid that night. Josh and I got nothing, the water below us black and impenetrable as night fell. Far out to sea I knew the ocean, its moods and habits. Out on the bluewater, with a boat beneath me I could have found some fish for Josh, but the Grey Harbour Jetty was like a ball and chain around my ankle.
We packed up. Teaching Josh to clean a fish would have to wait for another weekend. He'd found a VB can from somewhere, about an hour after dusk, and now kicked it back and forth along the length of the jetty, his rod wedged in a bollard and line drifting slack in the breeze. He kicked the can soccer-style, dribbling it with the insides of his feet. I'd made the trip to the Eastern suburbs for his soccer games a few times, staying on the opposite side of the field to Karen and Marco. I'd always played footy in the winter, cricket in the summer, so when it came to soccer I had nothing to offer him.
Marco played soccer.
As I put the ute into gear and pulled out of the car park, I saw the small man still sitting under the lights at the end of the Grey Harbour Jetty, fishing alone as the night closed in.
The second time I saw him was the next weekend. I hoped he’d be fishing off the Grey Harbour Jetty again, and he was. The weather had darkened, the clouds were low. His oilskin didn’t look so out of place any more, as the odd knifing gust of wind blew cold salt spray off the sea and into my face.
Fishermen don’t go fishing to catch fish. The Vic Market on a Saturday morning is cheaper than bait, gear, licenses and fuel, if all you want is some flatties to throw on the barbie. We do it to be with the sea, and to be away from everything else. It’s something you’ve got to give another fisherman, respect for his silence, space and time. That’s not a rule that’s written down anywhere, but it’s as real as cement. I broke it.
“You’re doing well,” I said. The wind blew my words across the bay, making my voice seem small. There was only the two of us on the jetty, and it seemed like we were the only two people in the world. He glanced up at me sharply. He was older than I’d thought, his hair white and coarse but thinning like very old mens’ hair does. His face was a maze of lines and furrows wheeling around sharp, dark eyes and a huge, high-bridged nose like an ancient monument. The collar of a many-times-washed white dress shirt and tie peeked from the neck of his oilskin. Beside him in a galvanized bucket, two intertwined squid drifted translucent in a shifting slurry of seawater and ink. “I never learnt squidding. Can you teach me? For my boy?”