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Hilary McPhee

Reviews, Commentary, and Books

Silences

 

A short unspoken history of this part of the coast

Once upon a time, a long time ago, in the 1950s and 60s when photos were black and white and scarce, there was a beautiful place by the sea, unknown and unsmart, where old bathers and dirty sandshoes were all anyone needed, plus a jumper or two when the sun went down. There was a post office and a store and a pub and six fortunate families who practically lived on the beach throughout the summer. And it was here, when the tide was right some evenings, that the six fortunate families netted fish. Fathers and big kids waded out and filled the net to overflowing with mullet and salmon and sea bream and much else besides. The rest of us piled driftwood on the fire. And after the feast of fish the catch was divided up.

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It all sounds too good to be true, but I know it was true because I was there – in this unspoiled enclave, Protestant probably, Anglo-Celtic certainly, blissful and blinkered.

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Then sometime in the 1960s, when cars improved and the road was better, the day trippers began –  and so did the awkwardnesses. Italian and Greek families drove down for a day’s fishing – the men standing in the shallows with long rods, the women and kids snoozing on rugs under the cliffs in the shade. There was not a lot of eye contact – and I remember some muttering about them using wrong fishing gear and not being able to swim. Later came the Turks who wore shoes on the beachand next Vietnamese men on their own were seen climbing round the rocks on the point at low tide and filling white bags with abalone and pippis, sea urchins and squid.

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And the jokes about reffos who will eat anything got louder in the top shop and the pub – and so did the ones about protecting secret fishing spots from the Yellow Peril.

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It was true that fishing by this time was not a patch on what it had been. So my Dad showed my sons his secret fishing holes and how to flatten abalone steaks between two flat rocks. And about this time, the same kind and decent man lost it with my kids and their gang of friends for building a blackfella’s camp in the ti treein our garden near the well. And it is true that, not 5 generations earlier, there would have been real campsites on this spot, before the fences and the signs went up.

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All through my childhood, we found middens in the dunes and scrapers under the ochre cliffs. But nobody asked about the people who fished and hunted swans on the salt lake we called the Inlet and who dug their filtered wells on the plain beside the Painkalac Creek. The house on the plain where I first heard the surf booming had a deep well with a winch and a bucket on a rope to reach the fresh water. Much better to drink than water from the old tank next to the dunny.

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In February 1983 the fires brought many things to an end and some things shifted for good – or so it now seems to me. As of course it would when, beneath a sky still empty of birds, I watched as the old house, a mound of fire stormed fragments, was bulldozed into the well, as if it had never been.

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Some things came back. The birds were first then the redgum on the corner. And last year I found a spotted gum, which a Bermagui friend had planted as a seedling and a sign of hope on the burnt out block, its strong white arms now wrapped like a lovers’ around a scarred old ironbark.

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Another time and I was sitting in the dunes watching the surf at Urquarts Bluff. In the distance, a dark group, which could have been Edwardian ladies in those black and white beach postcards, was walking slowly towards me as if time had stopped. Only when they were close by did I see them as seven young Muslim girls in long grey coats and white head scarves, arms linked, laughing and talking together, utterly engrossed. Then out of the dunes burst a motley dog followed by a bunch of young surfers, boys and girls in wetsuits, clutching their boards, leaping and shouting  and making their way out beyond the break. The girls in their dark and modest clothes stood quietly watching. I imagine what comes next – as surely it will – The seven young women, with surfboards of their own are running into the sea, paddling out, turning to face the shore then rising to their feet as the huge swell catches them. There they go, heads thrown back, hijabs billowing, waving at us watchers on the shore.   Lighthouse Literary Festival 20-22 April 2012