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Hilary McPhee

Reviews, Commentary, and Books

It Happened on a Fishing Trip

 

Affirm Press, 2015.

Edited by Paddy O’Reilly

 

All the way down the South Gippsland highway in the back of Fred’s new car the women sang to Paul Kelly then to an old Tammy Wynette compilation, so no one heard the news. Warnings there may well have been, not unlike those signs about submerged rocks and tidal extremities bristling on the wharf at the Lakes. The first photo Hettie took with her new camera was of Jack and Fred with rods and reels, grinning beneath their battered hats, with Mira eyes wide pointing in mock alarm at a sign to the open sea.

The boat bobbing in the marina on a light swell early that Saturday afternoon seemed much bigger than the 36-footer of the brochures. They admired the good-sized cockpit, the blue canopy, the dymo-labelled switches, the raised compass next to the wheel, the gleaming teak and oak finishes of the main cabin and the sleeping berths. There was a mainsail, neatly bundled in a blue canvas cover, but none of the friends had sailed before and didn’t intend to start. Words such as port and starboard and gimbals on which the stainless steel stove was gently rocking, were bandied about as they changed their shoes then stashed the pile of weekend papers, food and wine, and fishing gear before listening to instructions from the boat hire people about switching fuel tanks and reversing out of the berth into the main channel and heading for the legendary fishing grounds of the Lakes.

In those days the Duttons and the Kormans saw each other all the time, close in the way of childless couples in their early forties, who’d been married before. Mira Korman and Hettie Dutton were not interested in fishing so much as being altogether, doing things. They were happy that their husbands hit it off. Best friends even. A perfect fit. Fred Dutton was a big shot in real estate and Jack Korman taught building construction. The couples met every Friday night at Mira’s cafe, where the idea of fishing the Lakes together first came up and the planning started.

Three or four meals of fresh flatties and bream or tailor, if they were lucky, so lots of potatoes, lemons and garlic. Hettie would make her boiled fruit cake and a meat loaf and they’d take a large tub of Mira’s famous lentil soup. They’d need a pepper grinder, oil and a sharp knife. And rubber gloves, said Mira. The women’s pleasure in the prospect was palpable. The men would book the boat for the long weekend and meet one lunchtime at the Compleat Angler to purchase new reels and tackle.

None of the four had motored out into an estuary at the wheel of anything at all let alone a middle-sized cruiser. The jokes had begun on the long drive down about the range of experience on board. Fred had once worked in a city car park where young blokes like him raced exotic cars between floors after-hours. Jack sometimes fished on the bay in a friend’s tinny with an outboard. Both women had holidayed years ago with a group on a catamaran up the east coast, sunbaking, reading and taking turns at the stove and the tiller. Hettie had written a couple of articles for a travel magazine during a month on a cargo boat around the islands just before she met Fred. Mira thought they could both remember how to take bearings with a compass.

Between them it would be enough. The men examined the engine, checked the chart, peered at the echo sounder, argued briefly about who should take the wheel and who should prepare the lines, and hinted that some fruit cake and beers from the esky wouldn’t go amiss. They’d bought local wrigglers and prawns on the recommendation of fishermen in overalls and waders in the bait shop near the quay, but planned to dig for worms ashore later when they’d found their safe haven for the night. Hettie’s photos show three of them standing on deck holding life jackets and beers, radiating happiness.

By mid afternoon they were underway, chugging out into a tailwind with Jack at the wheel and Mira reading the List of Navigation Aids from under a plastic shield in the cockpit to shrieks of laughter. ‘My handsome husband,’ cried Mira, ‘is Master of the Vessel who must maintain a distance of 100 metres astern of any other vessel proceeding in the same direction.’ No other boats were heading their way, Fred pointed out, as they started across the channel towards a point marked by a beacon that flashed occasionally.

Cardinal marks (yellow and black) and plain yellow marks have special significance,’Mira read. The chart, with its estuaries and channels indicated by depth, seemed to assume a degree of local knowledge. A couple of churches on headlands and lookout towers were marked, as were fuelling depots, and casual berthing jetties. ‘That sounds like us,’ said Hettie hugging Fred.

The marina was well in their wake when Jack slowed the engine so bearings could be taken. There’s a fuzzy photo of Mira and Hettie standing in the cockpit next to Jack, debating compass points. The plan was now to head towards the mouth across the main channel then make for a small island on the south-west shore yet to be distinguished from the grey-green scrub between them and the beach. Here they would berth, set fishing lines off the stern and bait the rods for the evening’s catch. It had to be there somewhere, they agreed.

An hour later, Jack was still cutting across lumpy water. There was spray now on the windscreen, though no one knew the correct name for it, and if there were wipers they didn’t work. Fishing boats of serious size lined the horizon and behind them, threatening the last of the sun, loomed a bank of purple clouds.

The island was still not visible, a strong southerly was getting up, and what might be a local fishing fleet was heading past them towards the mouth. The wash made Fred, in his straw hat, look up from the sporting pages and Hettie, leaning against his knees, from her paperback. Jack tried exchanging exasperated glances with his wife, but Mira had her eyes fixed firmly on the horizon in an attempt to still her stomach. The deep water had vanished and the sandy bottom with occasional beer cans could now be seen – but how much water they needed under a boat this size no one knew. Jack slowed the engine, tried but failed to take a depth sounding, and announced he was heading directly for the island. The Duttons returned to their reading.

By the time they nosed their way into what looked to be a creek with a low-lying bank of scrubby ti-tree and tussocks out of the wind, the sun was dipping into the sea behind them. When the canopy above the deck started catching on overhanging branches, Jack cut the engine. Fred threw the anchor over the side where it sank into the mud. Then he leaped ashore to tie loose lines to a couple of trees. There’s a photo of him thrashing at a cloud of mozzies with his hat, then another after Jack and Mira pulled him back on board, his woollen socks full of burrs.

How to read tide tables for a series of lakes with access at one end to the open sea? A mild argument broke out about applying the range between high and low tide and what might a half-flood be or a three-quarters ebb. The women found fenders and a life buoy in the lockers and positioned them over the side nearest the bank. A sea anchor mentioned in the navigation instructions to stop the stern swinging, didn’t seem to exist, and there wasn’t much room to swing anyway. ‘We’re up shit creek,’ Fred joked. No one laughed.

As night fell, the couples drank beer and red wine, ate cold meatloaf and cake, then slathered each other with insect repellent. Jack and Fred started on about real-estate values round the Lakes compared with Northcote then headed up on deck – Fred to smoke a cigar and Jack to set lines. Mira and Hettie finished their wine, cleaned their teeth over the side, and rolled out sleeping bags: the Duttons on either side of the main cabin and the Kormans in the stern. They could hear each other’s whispering and stifled laughter, then silence as the motion of the boat on the rising tide got to them.

Later the ugly sounds of scraping started against the hull. The Kormans climbed out of their sleeping bags to check the fenders – Mira hoping to sight the moon which should be almost full, she thought. But the lines were tangled in the reeds and a thick mist had enveloped the boat.

 

The couples awoke to heavy rain pelting against the hatch and streaming down the windows on a boat strangely still and tilted. The bow had swung with the tide and was now wedged tightly between tussocks. Fred and Jack stood in the gangway conferring gloomily about having no room to turn and having to reverse all the way out of the creek into the main channel before they could make for somewhere better for fishing. Hettie and Mira kept out of their way.

Their choices were few. No point in trying to fish in a deluge. No point in climbing into wet weather gear until they were ready to push off. No point in trying to push off until the tide turned. Whether heavy rain caused fish to rise to the bait or skulk in the mud was now up for debate. Jack knew about the joys of fishing as a kid for giant Murray cod in the rivers of western NSW. Was lake fishing the same as river fishing? No one knew. A fatalistic calm set in. The couples settled at the pull-out table in the cabin with the weekend papers and fried eggs, toast and pots of coffee, plus the round-up of the weekend footy over the crackling radio. The rain kept on streaming down windows made foggy with their breath.

By early afternoon the tide was surely on the turn. They should start to shove the boat away from the bank then, in reverse, make their way slowly back out of the creek. Like a ship of fools, said Fred. Then they’d head around the north-western shore of the lake into an estuary renowned, according to a brochure Jack had found on board, for flathead and bream – even perch on their way to saltwater to breed.

Freeing the bow of the boat from the bank required a reversing manoeuvre in a tight space to avoid impaling the hull on the submerged branches opposite. Mira was at the wheel with Fred standing in the stern shouting a bunch of rapid gear changes at her. On deck Jack and Hettie frantically moved fenders, shoving with the boat hook and their feet at tree trunks and tussocks. Slowly the bow came free, and Fred took over as the boat nudged its way stern first down the creek and back into the estuary.

Mugs of lentil soup were passed around. On the table, Mira had propped open The Age’s weather page with warnings of storms rolling in from the south-west. Hettie tied a rope to a bucket to slosh water and scrub in rubber gloves at the worst of the marks on the deck and hull. No one mentioned the damage clause in the hiring agreement but awareness of their incompetence was dawning. The weekend was half over. Sodden wet weather gear dripped in the corner of the cabin. Fred steered out into a channel well marked with buoys. Hettie cut slices of her boiled fruitcake and put the kettle on. Jack and Mira lay on their bunks. Silence fell.

By mid afternoon the wind was coming in strong gusts. The few boats on the horizon seemed to be heading east for the mouth or back into one of the several ports. The couples perhaps to emphasise their togetherness now took hourly turns at the wheel, one steering and one navigating by the chart. The course was towards a small cove indicated by a beacon that they would surely see flashing soon. Nothing was marked by way of a jetty, but the chart noted a swing moving buoy available for public use, which must mean they could tie up to it and fish.

It was a miracle, they agreed, when Jack spotted the buoy made from a rusty oil drum with a battered marker pole rolling in the waves. Fred instructed Hettie at the wheel to circle round and come back as close to the buoy as she could, then to slow the engine right down allowing the others enough time to pick the marker up with the boat hook. Then he reached across her and cut the engine. This took several goes, with Mira on deck hanging onto Jack’s legs as he leaned with the boat hook far over the rail. At last he managed to grab the buoy’s rusty chain and pull it towards him so Mira could tether it with a blue nylon rope through a ring in the deck. The boat rocked wildly then swung back into the wind, the waves slapping against the hull.

Everyone retreated miserably into themselves: Jack sneezing at the table, checking his box of fishing tackle; Hettie opposite him was writing in her notebook and singing something bright under her breath. Fred was back on his bunk with the business pagesand Mira, white-faced and puffy, lay flat on hers with a bucket by her side. Nobody spoke.

Later, they knew they’d been fortunate to be woken by a megaphone from a fishing boat twice their size that had come alongside to warn them off.

‘You need the nor’east mooring about another forty mins full throttle,’the loud hailer shouted. ‘This one’ll drag.’

The couples went quietly, dropping the old mooring buoy more efficiently than they’d picked it up and heading as fast as they dared towards what they hoped was north-east.

It was very dark but the rain had eased by the time they tied up at a wooden jetty under a flashing beacon. There were no other boats. No sign of life. No one mentioned that this was their last night nor that a night of fishing and frying the catch had become more than an imperative. The men, rugged up against the cold with towels around their necks, seated themselves in the stern to bait their rods with tired-looking prawns and wrigglers from the store. Now the worst of the weather was over, the fish would surely rise to the bait. Allegiances shifted subtly again.

Down below the women heated the last of the soup and handed up slices of meat loaf. Mira placed the frying pan on the stove with a flourish, then delicately positioned a couple of lemons, the knife and the olive oil next to it, so Hettie could photograph the still-life-in-readiness. Their disorientation had subsided. The men’s irritation was understandable. They’d of course lost face, their wives agreed. Now they’d bring home the bacon. Hettie and Mira would turn it into sublime fresh fish with perfect pommes frites on the side.

Your good girl’s gonna go bad,’ they softly sang together.

Through the hatch came the amiable rumble of men talking bait, the sounds of whirling reels, an occasional shout, then silence. Potatoes were peeled, finely chopped, drained and dried, and a saucepan of oil set ready. When Fred’s cigar smoke started wafting back through the hatch, the women found lipsticks and jackets then carried wineglasses and an uncorked bottle up on to the deck and settled themselves to watch the action.

The fish were biting alright. Bream by the dozen and the occasional flathead – but all well undersized and scrupulously unhooked and tossed back again and again.

‘So delicious crumbed and deep fried,’ said Mira sadly.

Another bottle of wine was called for as the cold set in, and then that the chips be fried up. Jack and Fred set lines with the remaining prawns and crumbled the last of the meatloaf over the side for burley.

 

The light on the water was dazzling next morning, the coastal dunes in the far distance as clear as the beginning of the world. Across the lake was the entrance to the marina where they’d set off two days ago. Black swans and a clutch of musk ducks were cruising past the jetty when the men, up on deck to piss and check the lines, found the eels. Two glittering silver-bellied creatures each more than a metre long were entwined together, twirling in the sunlight.

The Duttons and the Kormans swung into action. Rubber gloves, a half-filled bucket, the sharp knife, an emptied duffle bag. One at a time Fred manoeuvred the thrashing eels into the bucket then lifted them onto the deck where Mira in gloves grabbed and held them so Jack could impale them just below the head with the sharp knife. Hettie flicked them heaving into the canvas bag and secured it over the side. The four then cleaned up, packed their gear and motored back across the lake to the boat hire place where no mention was made of the marks on the hull.

Before the couples breakfasted ashore in a fisherman’s cafe, Hettie took the last lovely photograph of their time together. Jack and Fred and Mira are dancing on the jetty, their bagged catch held aloft, their faces ecstatic in the sunshine.

 

The eels were still twitching two days later when Fred nailed their heads to a fence post in the back yard, then gently ran the point of a knife around their necks just below the small fins. He peeled the silver skins off all the way to the tails in two perfect casings, slit the bellies to remove the guts, gave the heads to the cat, and the pink chunks to his wife to marinade in brandy and oil for Friday night’s dinner.

Hettie read up about eels to tell the others and copied the story into her notebook. They were very likely mature anguilla australis, short-finned females between the ages of ten and thirty-five years, full of eggs, millions of them, making their way from the freshwater lagoons that ringed the lakes to the open sea. There they would have turned north, heading thousands of miles up the east coast to spawn somewhere in Oceania near Vanuatu in the depths of the Coral Sea. Billions of fertilised eggs and baby glass eels would then drift on the currents back to the southern lakes and up into the freshwater rivers, where the cycle would begin all over again.

Mira rang midweek with an old recipe for matelot of eel and Hettie stewed them gently with prunes and shallots and a bottle of rough red. On Friday night, Fred drove carefully to the cafe, Hettie holding the hot casserole in her lap wrapped in a towel. She was happy with her new haircut and had started writing her travel piece. Jack was waiting with a bottle of special burgundy, and Mira joined them as the tables thinned out. They’d had the best time, they all agreed. They must do it again next year. Nothing had been heard about the scratches on the hull. The matelot was marvellous, the saffron rice the cafe served with it was just right. Jack’s burgundy could not have been better. Hettie’s photos would be ready next week when she’d tell them the amazing story of the eels.

But there wasn’t a next time.

On the way home Fred told Hettie he did not love her anymore. A few weeks later Jack told Fred he was going to live in Sydney with someone else. He told Mira eventually. She sold the cafe the following year. We found the photos in Hettie’s notebook; a fishing story none of them would ever tell.