When My Father Was A Fisherman

In the lean years,
there wasn’t much work to be got on land,
so my father took work on one of the trawlers
that fished up and down the mouth
of the Tasman Bay.

When he came ashore,
he was like something out of a
romantic sea tale,
tattered woolen hat and gumboots,

the reek of fish scales,
sleeves rolled up,
sunburnt tattoos of skulls and flames,
salt in the creases of his smile.

I thought of his fierce arms
hauling up schools of mackerel and orange roughy,
and the angry sea spittle
lashing at his leathery face.

My mother wore her fear
in the strained, tired lines of her eyes,
this is the last time, she said,
after this, you’ll get a job in
the tobacco season,

promise me.
But she was a fisherman’s wife,
and he was proud of the living
he snatched from the teeth of a
capricious sea.

The captain was a real sea dog,
a missing tooth, a glass eye,
an anchor tattoo on his fist.
He was rolling drunk most of the time
and there was a sharpening in my mother’s voice
when he came round to drink with dad.

On good days he led his boat to
Eldorado,
but on bad ones he floundered
in used up hunting grounds,
where the big boats had greedily fed.

On good days
we were down the fish and chip shop,
dad hanging his tattoos out the car window,
on display,
thumping the door to ZZ Tops,
like local bogan royalty.
But too many bad days

and mum was at the neighbour’s
begging bread and sugar,
my sister and I would go off to the school bus
in mended crutches and mended knees,
skipping the cracks in our world.

And then the day came
when the Salvation Army people
pulled up at our house.
They handed mum and dad
brown paper bags,

a bounteous and bitter charity
of cans, bread, sugar and biscuits.
My little brother snatched up the ice cream,
bare-bum, ran out back with his catch,
my sister emptied a box of raisins in her mouth,
and whistled through it like a flute.

Mum was crying and wouldn’t look
the delivery man in the face
as she pushed a choked thank you from her lips.
Dad just stood there, fists clenched,
lips tight as wires,
and I shrank back inside,
cause I knew what he was thinking.

These were the lean years,
the nineties,
when the safety net was hauled up for good,
when my family got fed
if we could catch a break from the sea.

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