The image of Australia is of a man in an open-necked shirt solemnly enjoying an ice cream. His kiddy is beside him.
Have we done with the man in the open-necked shirt solemnly enjoying his ice cream? It would appear not. For a long time he was there in the flesh, as real as you or me. You could, if you wanted to, examine the hairs on his shins or press your hand to the pocket containing a biro and a small packet of Benson and Hedges. You could breathe in the cigarette and beer smell of him. But then he began to melt along with his ice cream in the sun. The sweetness melts and mingles with skin. You look again and he has become digital, a low-resolution copy of a copy, a little jagged around the edges. He is perhaps blending with parts of the caravan park in the background. Still, we have not done with him. We wait for him to lick again. To catch one more glimpse of that living tongue.
There are two photographs. In one, my sister and I stand either side of him, barely reaching his waist. In the other, it’s just dad and me: A man and his kiddy. I’m the one with the ice cream, not him. Both his hands are curled around the tail of an enormous fish. Its nose is balanced on his bare foot to keep it out of the sand. My expression is solemn, but his is more upbeat, referencing the size of his catch.
I’m five years old and he is 28. We are young and free. I’m wearing a dress with a deep hem, good for letting down as I grow. His shirt is not open-necked, but a jaunty striped T-shirt. We’re not on holiday. This is the first day of the rest of our lives. My father’s hedonism is supercharged, too big to be contained by weekend sprees. A steady pay packet is not a priority. He is following the fish and open red-earth roads and the way the sun sparkles as it dances on the Indian Ocean. He has keen eyesight and nimble, practical hands. He has skills in engine mechanics, carpentry, tyre-retreading, hunting and fishing. If push really came to shove, he could live off the land.
The story goes like this: he is sitting in the car in the main street of Carnarvon, a small town a little further north of the westernmost point of the continent. He’s just arrived after a year-long stint on a dairy farm down south. He notes a young Aboriginal boy with a fish almost as big as he is, slung over his back, going into the Port Hotel. When the boy reappears, sans fish and presumably a little money in his pocket, dad asks where he got it. The boy points in the direction of the one mile jetty.
Did he walk out to the end of that jetty by himself, or were we—wife and two little girls—all in tow? I think he went alone. It took no time at all to land the big one. I imagine him now, a man in a striped shirt and stretchy black swimming costume, carrying his fish all the way back to shore, hearing the slap of sea against sturdy wooden pylons, the slap of his worn rubber thongs on old planks.
It was because of that fish—so the story goes—that we stayed on in that little town between the red desert and the glittering sea with the great bowl of blue sky overhead. The air was thick with insects; the bush thrummed with life; little brown birds hid in acacia shrubs and called out in a circular, taunting trill: ‘Did y’ get drunk? Did y’ get drunk?’
• • •
I found my copy of The Lucky Country in an op shop in Newtown, Sydney, in the mid 1990s. The price on the cover is eight shillings and sixpence. There’s the Albert Tucker painting on the front, of a man with a beer in hand, the Ace of Spades in his pocket, the feather in his hat, the open-necked shirt, the white sails on a greenish sea. Those billowing white sails look like the fins of sharks. The man himself appears to be made out of stone, immovable, lips firmly closed. If this is innocent happiness, there is something guarded about it, something fierce. Even then, in 1964.
‘There has long been this element in Australia of delighting in life for its vigour and activity, without asking questions about it,’ writes Horne, just a few lines above the famous bit about the ice cream and the kiddy.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Carnarvon was humming. There was a NASA tracking station on the red sand dune just out of town, where men at consoles relayed messages back and forth in the Apollo missions; at night, the stars hung low in a perfectly clear sky; out to sea, humpback whales sucked plankton through their baleen mouths and squirted fountains into the sky. Bananas grew plump on water pumped out of the underground Gascoyne River. Giant fish ran in biblical schools past the one mile jetty; it was just a matter of being there to haul them out. It was as hot as blazes.
Women stretched out on the cool cement floors near their concrete laundry tubs to survive the middle of the day. Men’s shirts were permanently plastered to their backs. There was no television, no commercial radio station, just the ABC to call in the cyclones. During the first moon landing in 1969, the townspeople gathered in the old theatre in town, watching a special one-off broadcast on a single tiny television perched in the middle of the stage. At the back of the room, roo shooters aimed their rifles at the screen to get a better view through their sights.
I hoist my big green pre-internet Macquarie Dictionary onto my desk. Innocence. It is pure, guiltless, harmless; it is synonymous with simplicity or guilelessness.
My father had big brown eyes that would look at you steadily; long lashes and slightly slow blinks. Unlike Tucker’s still, taciturn man, dad was always in motion, always talking. He was effortlessly charming; he could talk his way into anything. But he was a good listener, too. I’m only remembering this now. As you spoke, his mouth would move in unconscious sympathy, mouthing the words you were saying. But there were secrets, elisions. We lived in the narrow shaft of pure sunlight—Horne’s phrase for the Australian mind—but I was cursed with the sense that there was darkness on either side. I was cursed with the desire to ask questions, to make incursions into the darkness.
The jetty was built at the end of the nineteenth century from the tall hardwoods of the south, constructed a mile out to sea to get to the deep water beyond the estuarine silt and mangroves. For decades the visiting ships were the high point of the week; the jetty a bustling scene. Before the road from Perth was properly formed, this is how bales of wool and boxes of bananas made their way out, and how everything to do with the wider world—newspapers, toys, machinery, letters, fabrics, household crockery—came in.
‘Was built’ is, of course, passive language; it sidesteps agency. Who built the jetty? Whose hands and backs? The usual suspects: the grandfathers of the roo shooters and publicans, sunburnt and wiry. But there are other figures, too. There is a photograph of warders Rooney and Hutchinson super-vising ‘native prisoners laying railway lines across Babbage Island to Jetty’. Not long afterwards, a new, strange export of sorts was loaded onto boats and sent away: Aboriginal men and women, many in chains, being sent to the lock hospitals on Bernier and Dorre Islands. One island for men and one for women. There, many died and were buried in the sand. There it is again: ‘were buried’. Who buried them? Whose hands and backs? They buried each other, the living burying the dead, overseen by warders simply getting on with a bit of detail, to use a phrase from Horne in which he is discussing the can-do attitude of the Practical Australian.
The English writer and biologist E.L. Grant Watson visited the islands during the lock hospital era (1908–19) and drew on his experiences there for his 1914 novel Where Bonds Are Loosed. He fictionalises the place—he puts the islands on the other side of the continent—but it is only thinly disguised. The jetty is described as two miles long early in the book, growing strangely to three miles long further in. Grant Watson describes the flyblown sores of the ‘broken and hopeless pieces of humanity’ and how, during a cyclone, six or seven Aboriginal women ‘tumbled helter skelter’ over the crest of a dune.
Daisy Bates, the prim Irishwoman who made Australia’s Indigenous people her life’s work, describes the ‘frightful dirge, indescribably weird’ that went up every time there was a death.
But there was resilience, too, on those islands. Life there achieved its own rhythms, its own small pleasures. Aboriginal women caught marsupials and wove their fur, or made message sticks for Mrs Bates to take to the menfolk on the other island. The men liked to catch giant turtles, cooked on the beach because they were too big to carry back to camp. Great succulent feasts were had.
I heard nothing of this as a child growing up in Carnarvon. The islands were fishing spots. At nine I could catch, kill, gut and scale a fish. The jetty was as much pantry as leisure activity. We’d walk out along the old planks, the sea welling in the cracks between them. You could tightrope walk along the top of a railway track. You could lean against the old sheds at the head of the jetty, to stay out of the wind. There would be a tentative, exploratory tug at the end of the line. And then a run. The gleaming body is landed, hook pulled back through lip. Tossed, still flapping, into a plastic bucket. Dying eyes staring up at you. My sister and I would brood over them a little, but not much. They were fish.
It’s not just dad and me in that photo with the ice cream. There’s the long, beautiful body of a mature mulloway. The signature spots down its side have already faded in death. We used to call them kingies. Dr Lauren Neaves, who studies them, tells me by phone from Glenelg in South Australia that the one in the picture could be 25 years old, or older. You can age a fish by its otoliths, the bones in its ears. Otoliths can be read like tree rings: every year a new layer of calcium carbonate is formed. The otoliths, suspended in a membrane, give a fish a sense of gravity and balance. Our own otoliths do the same for us.
The Australian eco philosopher Val Plumwood, who died in 2008, wrote of the agency of nature. The natural world is not an inert thing. That fish, at least a couple of decades in creation, had a life. Its eyes saw things. Its eyes saw my father’s face and hands and knife. It gasped for breath on the old wooden planks. It changed the course and tenor of my life, because I will always be the girl from Carnarvon.
• • •
It’s winter 2013. I lie in bed listening to the sucking, clicking sounds of the compressed air machine that delivers oxygen into dad’s nostrils by means of a long tube that snakes from computer room to bedroom. My parents live on the east coast now, facing the Pacific. My partner and I are visiting for a couple of days. In the morning I stand in the bedroom with dad, who is sitting on the edge of the bed, legs over the side. There is a red plastic bucket near the bed, and all the paraphernalia of illness. ‘This is unendurable,’ he says of a new pain in his chest. I exchange a flurry of text messages with my sister, a nurse, who lives in the next suburb. We decide to call an ambulance. Dad still has dark eyebrows, keen brown eyes, a good voice. He looks deceptively well. The ambos joke with him, perhaps thinking he is panicking unnecessarily. In hospital he draws our attention to the number above his bed. It is 13. He tries to give mum some last instructions. She won’t let him speak like that. ‘This isn’t it,’ she says.
But it is. We visit his teenage haunts on Stradbroke Island, sprinkling his ashes here and there. After a while we realise that this sprinkling caper is barely changing the level in the charmless hard-plastic container that we have been carting around in the back of the car. Standing thigh-deep in the water at Dunwich, I decide to get it over with, to pour. I hold the container upside down and let it flow in a thick, dusty, gritty stream until all of it—in a final little shake—has gone. The fine ash billows through the water. There’s a jetty here, too.
Off the south coast of Western Australia, scientists have been working on restocking vanishing mulloway. They pump hormones into captive adults to force them to spawn; they immerse the larvae in dye that soaks deep into the otoliths. They’ll check on the otoliths in coming years, breaking into the skulls of the maturing fish, lifting out the pearl-like bits of bone to see how big they might grow, how long they might live.
Around Carnarvon the mulloway still teem around the old jetty. The mouth of the Gascoyne River is still a cosy nursery for free-born fingerlings. But things are changing. Climate change is here, and with that the warming of once-temperate habitats. It’s a process known as ‘tropicalisation’.
‘We’re going to see a lot more tropical species in that Shark Bay–Gascoyne region,’ Euan Harvey, a marine biologist at Curtin University, tells me over the phone. ‘One of the things that people are interested in and concerned about is that you’re probably going to end up with a lot more tropical herbivores.’ The rabbitfish, a tropical herbivore, likes to get stuck into temperate algal beds, decimating them. That has impacts all the way up and down the food chain. ‘It’s a complete turnover of the system,’ says Harvey.
‘Men and women of Australia.’ Gough Whitlam addressed himself to grown, embodied adults. Adult human beings who live on this land we call Australia. This moment came and went. We’re families now, or Aussies, or perhaps battlers who deserve all the breaks in the world, indefinitely. Our houses and cars and waistlines get bigger every year. But we still see ourselves as small. Too small to make much difference. Too simple to understand limits. Fifty years on, we’re still solemnly enjoying our ice cream.
We return to the Carnarvon jetty, just mum and I, after a long air-conditioned road trip in a silver hire car. As usual, we have been talking about Him, as if with a capital H. The good and the bad of Him. Long-held secrets have finally come loose. He was certainly not innocent, and often not happy. We will never have done with this man. He is the text to which I endlessly return, noticing new things, underlining different sentences.
The old wooden jetty is rotting into the sea; within months of our visit it is closed indefinitely for safety reasons. There is a campaign to save it, but despair too. The iconic feature of this town, the object that carries tales of its industry, its sin, its happiness, is unlikely to find financial backing from city politicians. Carnarvon is flyover country now.
We walk all the way out to the end, passing kids with buckets dropping hand-lines over the edge. •
Tracy Sorensen is the author of The Lucky Galah (Picador, 2018). She is a PhD candidate researching climate change communication at Charles Sturt University.