Archive | June, 2014

Night Calls (a short story)

27 Jun

The dream is always the same – a spinning marble.

He extricates himself from his tangled sheet. The sun is dipping behind the hills. “Time for work.”

The terrier pricks its ears at the sound of his voice.

Feet to the cold lino, he stands and inspects the map taped to the wall.

The red pins move further south each year – south and west. Woodenbong, Evans Head, Casino, Kyogle. These are the invasion fronts.

The enemy is getting better – more cunning, faster moving. It even has longer legs. “I think we can hold ‘em, Rusty, but there’ll be no slacking off.”

The dog wags its tail across the floor.

His bushy, grey eyebrows drop – the prognosis is dire.  “Twenty native animals almost gone for good – and that’s just this valley.”

Picking up on his tone, the dog climbs to its feet. Like its master, its hair is thinning, its legs creaky.

“Lucky we’ve got all night, ‘ay?”

He doesn’t sleep when it’s dark – hasn’t done for thirty-eight years. He’s tried, but it never works.

A sun-spotted hand shifts a pin. Picking up a pen, he circles the area for tonight’s operation. “Goin’ up the range tonight, Rusty.”

It’s a good night. A gentle rain taps on the tin roof. “Should be a decent catch.” He opens the fridge to check the storage – a lump of cheese and half a litre of rancid milk leaves plenty of room. “No worries there, mate.”

Flicking on his torch as he steps onto the verandah, he cocks his head – listening for the call.

Brrrrrr, brrrrr…

The males are calling. It’s like the dial tone of a phone in the rainforest.

Brrrrr, brrrr – is anyone there?

The dog trots behind him, pressing its nose into his leg before jumping into the front seat of the ute.

His first catch of the night is a big one – twelve centimeters. Hand inside a plastic bag he grasps the toad, knots the bag and drops it in his bucket. He gets back in his car, drives slowly down the dirt road.

The mountains rise above him – dark forest stretching all the way to Queensland. Two eyes shine in the headlights. He pulls over – another hopping hunchback. It would be easy to swing the wheel – to flatten it, but that’s not his way. You need to check it’s not a native. It can be hard to tell who’s who and what’s what on a dark night.

A quick grasp, a knot and it’s in the back with the others.

He never knows when it will happen.

A twig snaps behind him.

Instantly he’s back there – heart thumping, hands sweating – every shadow a potential enemy. The forest crowds him. A damp smell of rotting wood rises to his nostrils.

The only way to live is to kill.

            They’re only farmers.

            They’re growing rice for the enemy.

The dog whines, pulling him back.

What was it the Vietnamese said – the core of the body is not the heart, but the stomach?

Your stomach is chopped to pieces.

            What does that mean?

            You are in anguish.

There could be something in that. He still can’t stand the smell of Asian food – would choke on even one grain of rice. When in town he crosses the road to avoid the Thai restaurant.

He pulls out his map and the names blur, shift – are replaced by other names …

Maybe he should have moved somewhere more open – cleared plains. But this is what he knows. If he has a place in this world, it is these mountains.

            If he has a place.,,

It takes ten minutes for his heart to settle.

Back home he updates his records – sex, location, size – then puts his catch in the fridge. In the morning when they’re asleep he’ll move them to the freezer. There’s no need for cruelty. They’re just creatures out of place.

            Destroying without intent.

             Wrong country, wrong time, Mister.

Pulling more thumbtacks from a bowl, he pins them to the map. If there’s a strategy to their invasion he’ll work it out eventually.

Six whiskies into the night the clock hands meet at the top of their circuit. He lifts the phone.

Brrrrr, brrrr…

Calloused fingers touch the numbers, but he doesn’t dial. He imagines a phone ringing in a house in Melbourne he’s never seen. His eyes linger on their photo.

I can’t live with you like this anymore. You’re scaring Becky.

            I’ll get better, just give me time.

            It’s been twenty years – how much time do you need?

“Sometimes I wonder, Rusty, how things might have turned out if I’d been born one day later.”

The dog’s milky eyes regard him steadily. It’s heard this all before.

He pictures a hand digging into a barrel; pulling out the marble with his birth date on it. “Or one day earlier…”

If he hadn’t become a creature forever out of place.

Brrrrr, Brrrr…

He replaces the phone gently. “Come on Rusty, still six hours ‘til dawn.” Picking up his torch, he stumbles into the night.

Beside his path a barred frog glistens in the torchlight, its skin golden between the stripes.

Ok, ok, ok, ok, it calls.

The dog is well-trained. It cocks its ears, but doesn’t move.

Ok, ok, ok…

But without the marble – perhaps he wouldn’t be here… and someone needs to do it. “It’s alright, mate,” he murmurs to the frog. “I’m here now. We’re going to stop them.”

 

This story was the winner of the Byron Bay Writers Festival Short Story Award in 2008 and was originally published in the Northern Rivers Echo. I just came across it again and thought I’d pop it up here. 

Lighthouses and Shipwrecks – my review of ‘Coast’ by Ian Hoskins

20 Jun

Coast-A-History-of-the-New-South-Wales-Edge-by-Ian-Hoskins-610x734In these days of sea-change and the fight for sea views, it’s hard to imagine a time when we shunned the beaches. But our obsession with the coast is a relatively recent one, according to historian, Ian Hoskins. Prior to the turn of the 20th century, our national identity was much more closely linked to the rolling plains and mountains. The early colonists, Hoskins says, avoided living near the beach.

Hoskins has set himself quite a task – to write the first history of the entire NSW coast. Hoskins’ first book, ‘Sydney Harbour: A history’ won the history section of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards in 2010. In ‘Coast’, he now sets out to explore our relationship with this 2000 kilometre stretch of shore.

In delving into this subject Hoskins covers a broad territory. Chapters include natural and indigenous history, colonisation, convicts, fishing, lighthouses, surfing and the sea change phenomenon. He points out how as we journey along our coast, we can see traces of all the uses that have come before. Aboriginal fish traps and lighthouses have given way to coastal mansions.

The chapter on the people and politics behind the growth of harbours and shipping makes for fascinating reading. As shipping grew in the colony, so did the shipwrecks. By 1921 1300 vessels had been wrecked on the NSW coast, many disappearing without trace. These disasters led to a call for the coast to be ‘…illuminated like a street with lamps.’ The first lighthouse keeper was established at South Head in 1818 and by 1901 twenty-two lighthouses shone along the NSW coast.

Lightkeepers had to be hardy in these remote locations.  Being a lightkeeper, Hoskins says, was ‘a curious mix of the freedom that comes from inhabiting a near-empty landscape and the regimentation that follows such responsibility.’ His stories include that of the plucky lightkeeper at Cape St George, who took to shark fishing to support his eleven children.   It does seem an enviable lifestyle from the vantage of these overbusy times. But even in the late 1800s a visitor to Montague Island noted that, ‘These people are contented enough, and perhaps there are few of us in the bustling crowd, surrounded with problems that are driving the world crazy, as happy as the residents of this lonely sea-girt island.’

‘Coast’ is a beautifully laid out book with many colour and black and white photos, maps and paintings adding to its charm. Written in a readable style and researched in incredible detail through primary and secondary sources, it will satisfy even the most avid coast lover.

This review initially appeared in Inside History.

I’m looking forward to chairing a panel on lighthouses with Ian Hoskins and ML Stedman, author of ‘The Light Between Oceans’, at the Byron Bay Writers Festival in August.