Saturday, January 18, 2020

TERROR ON THE HIGH SEAS Part 2 - From HMAS Ovens to the U27

Penmore Press 2019
Submarine art U27 Danijel Frka
My challenge in the novel was to write a chapter that stemmed directly from my experience in HMAS Ovens (‘Terror on The High Seas’ posted 6 Jan 2020). It had to be written from the perspective of someone who knows little about submarines. That someone is Giovanni, a biology teacher from Florence. Now I had done a reasonable amount of research and, because I was a science teacher, I had a good working knowledge of physics, mechanics and maths – but I was not a submariner.

So the plan was to play it safe. Be simple and write about what you know. But I encountered a few problems.

Here was the biggest one:  I absolutely agonized over what to do about the hatches – open or closed?

The U27 in the novel, Austria’s most successful submarine, was launched in 1916. It was a small coastal vessel, only 37m long and not far above the waterline. It had the standard two hatches at the top and bottom of the conning tower, and the top one had to remain open to provide the oxygen that allowed the engines to burn diesel. 

But what about the bottom one? In order for poor Giovanni to be well and truly claustrophobic, it had to remain closed.

Now, I had spent a couple of weeks in the northern Adriatic where the novel is set and I knew that, although the sea doesn’t have the huge rolling swells of the Pacific, the surf can be vicious when the winds are up. I had seen it thundering over the breakwater in Novigrad, and the wind that had created that surf was not the famous Bora. The Bora is worse. Is it reasonable in the novel for the captain to order the bottom hatch closed in a high sea on the Adriatic? Yes, I believe so but, if he does, won’t the conning tower fill with water?

The answer to this will undoubtedly hit you straight away, but it took me several months of reading article after article on the internet to realize that the early submarines were very watery places and had numerous pumps, at least one of which drained the tower. So Giovanni has no option but to endure his claustrophobia as best he can. From my experience, what sort of mind games can he play to do this? If I was him what would I do?

And then I thought, ‘Well, I was him!’ when I visited HMAS Ovens back in 2016.    

Without further ado, here is the chapter:

His Most Italian City - Kindle edition by Walker, Margaret. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @

          His Most Italian City, Chapter Seven

Giovanni had lapsed into a state of controlled panic.

He had been unable to prevent himself losing consciousness again after the rat incident, and had woken an indefinite time later with no sign of the offending rodent, concluding that it was off pursuing its nefarious activities in another part of the vessel. He did not desire the company of the strange group he found himself with but neither did he relish solitude. While he’d slept, the bunks above and below him had filled with men, and three hammocks, also occupied, had been strung across the small space. Hot bodies and warm breath had produced condensation that bubbled visibly upon most surfaces, coalesced into rivulets and showered downwards sporadically, angling to the left or right as the boat rolled. Two of the men in the hammocks had covered their faces with oilcloths.

Giovanni thought briefly of remaining in what now resembled a campsite in a wet cave before deciding that men awake and silent were better company than men asleep. Scattered remnants of young male disorder lay around him: bunched-up socks, a crust of bread, a rind of cured meat, a water bottle in a canvas sack, a pair of discarded boots, a flat wicker basket designed to slot into a shelf, a balaclava and a thick cabled jumper whose intricacy of design bore witness to a patient parent and a warm hearth far from here. The boat chugged along with the same noise, smell and confinement he might have expected within the engine room of a coastal steamer and, feeling marginally better than he had earlier, he peeled himself from his bed and cautiously made his way through the narrow corridor, swaying with the roll of the vessel, supporting himself by placing his hands before him on the walls.

Scarcely had he left than he ran into a solid metal wall with a large round hole, through which he had to bend over double before at length unfolding into another space – he could not call it a room – lit by a single electric bulb strung in a cage from the ceiling. The space seemed to him like a narrow railway carriage with the blinds down and, though swarming in broad pipes and snaking cables, it had a higher ceiling than the sleeping quarters. Beside two spoked wheels, like a bicycle without a seat, a slender youth with buck teeth stood as patiently as though he had nothing with which to concern himself but to await orders. He might be about to milk the cows, thought Giovanni, observing the young man’s bovine tranquility, before upbraiding himself for his lack of charity. 

‘What is this?’ he asked.

‘The control room,’ answered the boy.

‘What do you do here?’

‘I’m the apprentice electrician. I stay until I’m relieved.’

‘May I sit down?’

He nodded, so Giovanni carefully arranged himself on the dampish deck plating, with a watchful eye on the bewildering tangle of ironwork surrounding him.

The control room resembled an automobile where body, muffler, exhaust and every moving part had been dismantled and reassembled into an area half the size, squashed and suffocating, for a complex network of pipes stretched over every available surface except the floor, even up into the arched roof. It was much hotter than the crew’s quarters and, through a further small curved door passing through a metal wall above him, he heard the booming rhythmic knock of the diesel engines from which the heat originated. Without windows the heat was unable to escape and the gloomy atmosphere had become very close, like summer without the sun. From time to time a young face flitted across the opening and another man, as youthful as his compatriot, seemed to busy himself at what might have been something electrical at the far end. Above him sprawled a structure like the many-headed hydra, its flanks mounted with dozens of wheels of all sizes, from fungus-sized buds to bloated gargoyles to enormous enteric flowers. In the turgid gloom, the complex and intimidating monstrosity loomed over Giovanni. Less and less easily could he call to mind the world he thought he belonged to, for he would never before have called a machine intimidating.

Under his arms and up into his groin his skin itched from being encased in his wet woolen suit – the crew worked only in trousers and shirts with the sleeves rolled up.

It’d be better to take my jacket off like them, he decided. Roll my sleeves up. Florence wouldn’t approve, but does Florence matter?

And he was just about to do that when an uncomfortable little voice whispered to him that by doing so he was condoning this situation. It would be best, his homunculus went on, if he did all he could to preserve the person he believed himself to be. So the boat stank with the odor of unwashed men and he just sat and sweated and added to it: sweat, diesel, urine, bile, rotten egg gas. To top it all off, they pitched and rolled in the swell and he was starting to feel seasick.

But worse, far worse than the stink, the machinery and his deteriorating self-perception was the need to leave this enclosure immediately: to escape the lowering ceiling and forge his way up to the sky. With the claustrophobia arose the conviction that there were not two people squashed into this iron cupboard but three. The third, an intangible menace, had arisen as he’d sloughed off his unconsciousness. Down the brief passage it had accompanied him, through the bulkhead and into the control room, and now it settled above his head, threatening and malevolent. By devious means it attacked his heart which began to thud wildly within his chest. Then it strangled his breathing. The weak tungsten globe fading in the clutch of its wire cage seemed like the last sliver of twilight and, as night closed in, the presence focused itself upon him. He felt as if he were travelling along a tunnel searching for daylight, with this awful phantom clinging to his back, and, at each moment, he anticipated the approach of the sunshine that would subdue it. But he saw no end to the tunnel. And no sun. And so the fear and the panic proliferated. It was distressing to think that he, a product of a comfortable home and a good education, had been reduced so rapidly to this desperation. The presence hovered just beyond his recognition so that he was unable to name it, but when he closed his eyes he saw its face melting like ice in a flame.

 Eventually he managed to control himself just enough to develop some distraction strategies while a dozen or more drops of warm condensation rained down upon him. First he said the Lord’s Prayer and the Gloria, then he recited his times tables in his head from one to twenty. That took him ten minutes, seventeen, eighteen and nineteen being the challenging ones. Next he reviewed his knowledge of biological classification systems which forced him to recall his Latin and Greek, and that moved his thoughts on to Epicurean philosophy which he hoped to emulate by living modestly and learning about the natural world. Finally with the engines pounding in his ears he listed the dukes of Savoy, the kings of Italy, the emperors of Austria, thirteen of his favorite Italian wines and the church’s calendar from Advent to Pentecost.

If the men coming and going beside him paid him no attention in the meantime, as little did he notice them, and gradually he derived the reassuring notion that he might not be a prisoner at all. No one had in so many words stated the terms of his captivity and it looked like, as their leader had said, they were still working out what to do with him.

So he cleared his throat and addressed the control room electrician as moderately as he might have done before a biology class with his fingers spaced before him on the lectern. Only the topic fell short.

‘How do I get out of here?’

The young man seemed surprised to be spoken to a second time, and his teeth protruded a little further from his mouth, but he answered Giovanni’s polite request agreeably enough.

‘Up there,’ and pointed to an aluminum ladder sliding into the room, which Giovanni had been too absorbed with itemizing Italian wines to notice.

 He shifted so that he could see what it led to, a heavy round object with a wheel, apparently sitting on the ceiling. 

 ‘The door? The lid?’

‘It’s a hatch.’

‘Oh yes, I see.’ Giovanni examined it through the humid murk. ‘It looks shut.’

‘We can open it. It’s not secured.’

‘Then why don’t you?’

‘Well,’ began the boy, before pausing in order to give his reply some placid consideration. (He has certainly come from a farm, decided Giovanni. He has milked the cows and now he is explaining the features of his new tractor.) ‘We’re not very big and we roll a lot, that’s all, especially when the sea’s up. You don’t want too much water getting into a submarine.’

‘Aren’t they like ships?’

‘No, no.’ He shook his head. ‘We’re not a ship. No superstructure. And a funny shape. Bit unstable.’

Dreadful things and dire warnings.

‘Are we going to sink?’ gasped Giovanni.

‘No,’ the boy answered, mildly startled at the alarm in Giovanni’s voice. He frowned before returning to the patient mode of explanation in which he was clearly more comfortable. ‘I don’t think so. But Captain doesn’t want water in the circuitry or the batteries.’

But Giovanni was already surrounded by water. Water draining in unseen cavities towards a slurp-gulp, slurp-gulp repeater that could only be a pump. Water chopping on the hull. Water in his hair, water on the walls and water in his dreams. In fact, water everywhere.

‘It does seem rather wet in here to me.’

Through the boy’s reserve came just the hint of a sly smile.

‘We’re not bailing the bilges yet. That would be wet.’

‘Ah, yes. Yes, I’m sure it would be. Thank you, um... what’s your name?’


‘And my name’s Giovanni. How are you, Anton?’

‘Good,’ mumbled the boy.

‘Well, you see, Anton,’ explained Giovanni, struggling not to sound desperate, ‘I don’t like being shut in. I would feel better if the hatch was opened a little.’

Anton seemed unsure how to answer and, though it was no use pretending the young man was part of one of his classes, Giovanni smiled to show that his reasoning was on the right track. The boy seemed pleased.

‘Well,’ he said, clearly relieved to feel that he had finally helped, ‘Captain might leave this one open for you if the sea were not so high… or if we were at war or something.’

‘What difference would war make?’

‘You’d probably want to get down quickly.’ He nodded as if he were agreeing with himself. ‘There’s also another hatch below the bridge, above the helm in the tower, but you’ve got to leave that one open for the diesels to breathe.’

Giovanni had not understood a word of this and he was beginning to see that any attempt to ask the boy to repeat himself would only end in more confusion. He gathered that the hatch was going to stay shut. Reflecting bleakly that teachers were doomed to consider duty of care in any and all circumstances, he commented in his attentive classroom manner, ‘You sound like you’re really interested in submarines.’

‘Yes,’ agreed Anton. ‘They are interesting.’  

This enterprising exchange was interrupted when a sudden shower of water tumbled into the control room, followed by a blast of cold salt air and a perfect ray of sunshine that played upon the floor at their feet. With a cry of joy, Giovanni grasped at it like a drowning man at a rope until the captain jumped down into the room from the middle rung of the ladder and shut the hatch behind him, cutting off the light.

As if the earth had shifted in its orbit, the atmosphere in the cramped room immediately tightened. Anton squared his shoulders, a face from the engine room checked to see if he were wanted, and even Giovanni sat up straighter. In his hand the captain held a sextant that he rested on the floor with a dull steel thud. Then he gave Anton some directions and presently the buck-toothed electrician disappeared into the crew’s quarters.

Giovanni waited alone on the lifeless floor. He had felt some companionship with the young man, and the sunbeam had heartened him. Now he sensed only a profound loss, and lurching back towards him inched that dark fear.

‘Please, please, could you leave that hatch open?’ he begged.

‘Not in these seas,’ said the man.

‘But not much water would get in if you opened it a little.’

‘Not now.’

‘But I could climb that ladder and you could close it behind me.’

‘There’s no room on the bridge at the moment.’

‘You don’t understand… I’m frightened. I’m so lonely.’

Given the tasks he had at hand, the captain allowed a look to cross his face that was midway between incredulity and annoyance. In its muted tone, Giovanni suspected that there may have been a time when he comforted small children but right now he’d forgotten how to do that. So he made an incorrect assumption and instead of soothing he said, ‘If you want to go up I can take you before sunset, after this watch.’

‘Sunset!’ lamented Giovanni. ‘I’m never going to get out of here! How long till sunset?’ He scrutinized his wrist watch, scrunched his eyes up, and managed only to look like a myopic clod. His academic colleagues would not have recognized him. Either through his dip in the salt water or because he had not wound it last night, the timing mechanism of the watch had stopped at three o’clock. He tapped it, fiddled with the winder, frowned at the hands. Why wasn’t it working?

The captain realized that it was broken but was not sure why Giovanni was looking prehistoric. ‘The sun sets at half past four,’ he said. ‘This watch ends at three.’

‘What time is it now?’

‘It’s gone midday.’

Giovanni sank back upon his soggy floor plate. Two drips landed on his forehead and ran down his nose.

‘I’ll just amuse myself until then,’ he volunteered miserably. ‘If you’ve no objections.’

Irony was not what the captain expected to hear. From his crew he expected, ‘yes, Captain’ or ‘no, Captain.’ He let out a terse sigh, as if he had been pumping up tires all morning and finally they were all filled. The last heave. He faced Giovanni as if he’d had enough of pumping.

‘What do you want?’

‘I want you to open that hatch.’

So the man heaved himself halfway up the ladder and shoved open the recalcitrant hatch. With finality. Don’t ask me again.

‘Thank you,’ said Giovanni.

The sun hovered just over the meridian. Giovanni couldn’t see it but it announced its presence by softening the silver of the aluminum rungs leading down from the world above, though it lacked the angle to dapple them. He thought that if he lay flat on the floor beneath the open hatch he might just have a chance to see it before it dipped westward. Only a fine mist was seeping down the cold tower. So he rested his head upon the slimy floor, positioned himself beneath the tower and scanned hopefully. Almost immediately he was hit in the face by a jet of water – a big whoosh as if from a blowhole – that cut him like a blast from a fire hose. Dripping wet, he shuffled along the floor plates into a safer position and watched the ladder change color as the vessel rolled. Back, gray, and forth, silver, back and forth, gray and silver, back and forth, gray and silver. As if launched from the hands of demented bailers, random showers started to spray the floor plates below the tower and soon Giovanni was aware of a substantial slosh of bilge water below him that until now he had noticed as no more than the purring of a tide. In response to the sound, he kept his eyes on the ladder as if it were a lifeline, despite the deluge further drenching him, so that he wished, bizarrely, that he had brought his umbrella.

One thing, though, salt water smelled clean. In the midst of Giovanni’s bath, the captain glanced up reproachfully but said nothing and after a moment more under the waterfall, Giovanni retreated to what he was coming to think of as his scullery. And the hatch stayed open.

He was getting his head together now, but the loss of control and his panic had been outside his experience and he remembered how they had possessed him. Here he was learning what fears prowled around the outskirts of his world.

 Above him the captain inspected a book and scribbled some figures with a pencil on a scrap of paper inserted between the pages. He transferred the result of his sums to what Giovanni assumed was a log, and placed both book and log on a flat iron surface adjacent to the phalanx of wheels. Next, he commenced scrutinizing a sea chart. Occasionally he tapped the pencil on his teeth or angled the chart away to protect it from getting wet, but he did not talk to himself, or belch, or fart or yawn. He did not even stretch. He seemed the most physically composed person Giovanni had seen for some time and he commenced observation of the captain.

For I have nothing else to do, he mused. And it is astonishing how one’s discernment is sharpened by captivity, monotony and the desperation to hold fear at arm’s length.

The dark hazel eyes turned upon the chart did not invite conversation; rather, they were focused on the task. Even the captain’s breathing in the stale air was regular, and seemed under his control. If he had thoughts to share, then within himself they would stay until he felt inclined to share them. Nevertheless, Giovanni passed the time formulating possible scenarios based on the man’s physical features combined with what he already knew.

He has stolen a submarine, Giovanni decided, because he wishes to approach by stealth. Therefore his actions reinforce the traditional criticism of submarines as being ungentlemanly. Opposed to this is the observation that he has the loyalty of his crew. They are quite pleasant, except that big fat one whose one redeeming feature seems to be his loyalty to his captain. The boy by the wheels could have been tense, but he wasn’t, and that other motherly man was almost kind. Not something one expects from terrorists.

He actually carries a sextant. He must be a pirate! Kind as his crew may be, I don’t know anyone who carries sextants except pirates, and people who kidnap biology teachers on the high seas are obviously pirates. It suits me to call him captain because an adventure story is the only scenario I can summon under the circumstances. He would be Captain Under the Water or Captain Unscrupulous or Capitano Sotto Voce, or something along those lines. This pirate captain, then, is only a little taller than I am, and a moderate height must be an advantage in a confined space. His face is tanned but not thickened by sun exposure, like fishermen, and his hair is plastered to his scalp with salt spray. I can smell the salt and his shirt is wet. It has welded to his skin, becoming the color of dried bone. Through it I can see him breathing in and out, as shallow as a fish. His chest is defined by his wet shirt, rather broad, and he has gills, certainly. (Giovanni spent some minutes determining how gills might  develop from human respiration.)

He is considerably older than his crew, perhaps twice as old, maybe more. One would expect a man of that age to have settled down to a desk job and not be gallivanting around the Adriatic badly dressed and bearded. Something in his past has rendered him an outlaw, or, more likely, somebody has done something to him. I wonder what it is?

He squinted his eyes towards the face that until now he had only wanted to elude.

There’s nothing more tantalizing than a man with a past, but how do you read a face that is unreadable? How do you discover his story? No one here is going to tell me because I am just part of the background. I have no purpose but to frame the purposeful. I cannot be found because I was never lost.

A single drop of condensation hung poised on the sextant’s telescope until it fell imperceptibly onto the measuring arc below.

That drop is my insignificance, mused Giovanni. Nobody wants me at all.

 So he continued to watch the captain with the same detached curiosity, as if they were moving in separate worlds, until the man completed his navigating and again approached the ladder and Giovanni comprehended that he was about to disappear and take with him the answers to his questions. Worse, he might close the hatch. He shook himself from his reverie, reached out and tapped the man on the calf. He turned around. Giovanni looked up.

‘Excuse me. Where are we going?’

‘Back,’ the captain passed a grimy hand through his beard. ‘To do what we should have done when we picked you up.’

‘Home?’ Hope sprung in his heart. ‘When? I mean, where are we now?’ 

‘South coast. Just off the shipping lanes.’

‘You mean…’

‘Not far away.’ He shot Giovanni a malicious grin. ‘Does that please you?’

The phrasing of this curt remark did not tally with his appearance.

He certainly has a past, concluded Giovanni to himself. Something has brought him to this, for in other circumstances he has been clean shaven and better dressed. He has come from a different world.

‘You’re educated?’

‘Less educated than you,’ the captain answered shrewdly.

‘I’m only a teacher.’

‘You teach in Italy but you’re not Italian. Enlighten me: what gives Italy the right to suppress another race? Education or a treaty drawn up by foreigners?’

Giovanni was struck by the inconsistency between his words and his looks. 

‘Who are you to ask me this?’

The man began to reply then apparently thought better of it.

‘Just curious,’ he said.

‘I don’t think you’d go to all this trouble over a treaty.’

‘I might.’

‘Well, I wouldn’t,’ replied Giovanni. ‘I know treaties are not fair. Allies betray each other. People who were once neighbors are now enemies. That’s what happens after a war. It’s a shame.’

‘You’ve got a comfortable view.’      

‘Yes, that’s true. I have fitted in, but I had little choice.’

Giovanni’s interest had been sparked and he felt determined, now he finally had a conversation established, that he would not let the subject go and meekly resume the role of prisoner. He pushed himself up on one elbow. ‘Referring to your earlier comment, I would like to know what it is you think you should have done.’

The resting head turned slightly.


‘When you picked me up. You said,’ he persisted, ‘“what we should have done when we picked you up.” You can only be looking for the person I was mistaken for.’ 

The captain paused. In the set of his jaw and the stillness that veiled his gaze, Giovanni knew, as if by second sight, that he nursed a hurt that differed as much from a grudge as a tree did from a splinter.

I was right! he thought, allowing himself some modest triumph.

That certainty quickened his emotional antennae. People said he was soft but his answer to this would have been that the natural sympathy that he possessed in abundance would not permit him to either deliberately hurt another person or stand by unmoved when he could help. It particularly pleased him, as well, that his instincts had been correct, and, as if the man were one of his pupils with a personal problem, he forged ahead when he should have held back.

‘You are, aren’t you?’

He moved his body forward into an attitude of compassion.

‘Whatever’s happened in your past,’ he pursued gently, ‘is none of my business, but I’m happy to listen.’

Now he had laid down the gauntlet. He had probed the man’s life like a seer. He had looked into his heart and seen its secrets. In his professional opinion, the time for revelation had arrived.

But the ploy could not have been more obvious if he had asked him to relate his story and offered support, and, too late, Giovanni realized his mistake. The captain’s composure disintegrated in front of him. Horror swept his face as he battled the rush of emotions Giovanni had provoked. His hands clenched by his side, the firm mouth warped and, for an instant, such a mask of penetrating regret obscured his features that Giovanni forgot his own troubles in his surprise. And, just as quickly, it was gone, replaced by anger, shame at a moment of weakness, and, with it, the desire of the wounded to wound.

In a second he had sloughed off the moment as if it were a pretense. He was in control again and his indifference was more terrifying than his anger.

He snapped his fingers. ‘Zorko!’

Zorko’s huge mass at once squeezed in through the engine room hatch, scraping his big ear. He’d had it pressed to the engine room bulkhead the whole time and he’d been looking forward to this.

The captain jerked his head at the conning tower.

‘Throw him overboard.’

The giant commenced pacing forward. As Giovanni struggled to his feet and backed away, Zorko grasped one of his shoulders and shoved it into the ladder.

‘Up!’ he barked.

Giovanni noticed little things then: the sunbeam had come back and, in the patch of seawater on the floor, a rainbow was shining on its scum of diesel. The frosty winter air swarmed into the high narrow opening like a gale through a tunnel, sweeping out the stench and the dead rankness, filling the steel hull with hope. But he could see nothing save the ladder leading up to the world he had loved and feel only a terrible sadness at leaving it. He shut his eyes. Somewhere very close were his parents, frantically wondering what had become of him. Close were the green hills, the parks of oak and pine, the fishermen sorting their catch, the blue waters of the bay, the grand and overarching sky. Giovanni stared numbly at the first rung, unable to move, wiping away the tears that would not stop.

When he saw him weep, Zorko slapped him on the back as if he were the presenter at a boxing tournament, leered familiarly into his face and said, ‘You’re not navy material, we regret, but have you tried the army?’

Then he roared so heartily at his own joke that at length he was forced to wipe his eyes with a sleeve smudged with oil, until he imagined he resembled the pistons he had just been lubricating. This notion caused him to laugh with even greater gusto and, as he returned to the engine room, his snorts were drowned out by the diesels, but only just.

The captain remained, watching Giovanni, pensive and grim, while something akin to gratification flickered across his features.

‘Nearly got what you wanted. And you’d better hope that we don’t run into any ships because, the minute I see something, we’re diving. You won’t like that.’

Back he went up the ladder, the hatch closed behind him and the end of Giovanni’s bid for freedom was like its beginning: the walls, the stink and the gloom.

A hollow shudder rocked his soul. He seemed lost in a moonless night upon a black ocean, alone but for the mournful cry of a sea bird and the clang of a warning bell laid upon a rock. Only that old fear to keep him company. Then grief surged in and its wave broke at the crest, snatching him away, sweeping him on towards the beach. Left alone on the swell, his unpleasant familiar drifted out to sea. And there was some sort of peace without it. Giovanni sat down and abandoned himself to sleep. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Monster in the Dunny – a story about a fisherman.

                      First published 1999, ‘Dead Things Magazine.’

My mother was a fish widow from a family of fish widows. This untimely fate, which she much bemoaned, was not her fault. Nature, realizing that long periods in an open boat restored sanity, had implanted in her that patient exasperation necessary for the task that men like my father recognized a mile off.

In the early seventies, that time of dark summer evenings, Imperial measurements and plentiful fish stocks, my parents, my brother, my sister and myself were on holidays at Wandandian, a hamlet south of Nowra, New South Wales, when something alarming occurred. That the adventure took place at all was undoubtedly the fault of lawless minds, but it was entirely due to fish that the clues were missed.

Along Wandandian’s single street was a small fibro house we used to rent from a friend of my father. Its rear yard sloped down to the creek where Dad moored his boat. Beyond the back door was a small market garden and, through the middle of this, a cracked concrete path led to that lair of all childhood terrors, the dunny. This was a small shed with a door that opened onto a polished wooden board that had two holes cut into it, one big and one small. Each had a lid. Within the holes were buckets emptied weekly by the night soil man. For some unimaginable reason, it was not the fashion long ago to put a light in outdoor toilets and, though a lot of thought had gone into making the dunny comfortable, once inside with the door shut, it could have been any hour after sunset, even at midday.

Now, I had a healthy respect for dark places, particularly dunnies. I knew that they housed all manner of nameless horrors and that it was a particular brand of parental sadism to force children into such an edifice and then refer to it as a call of nature. Thus, I and my siblings crossed our legs around the clock until desperation forced us to use it.

All went as well as could be expected until, at the end of the first week, the fridge broke down. Up to this time Dad had not caught anything, though he fished St George’s Basin from dawn till dusk and the January rains reduced his wardrobe to his pyjamas. This was pretty normal. Our Dad loved gadgets. He had lots of gadgets for catching fish: hooks, lines, sinkers, rods, even an echo sounder but, unfortunately, the more sophisticated his methods, the less he came home with. We, in fact, were happy eating chops, and Dad was happy with his gadgets, and Mum hated cooking fish anyway, so everyone was happy.

One dark night, while thunder rumbled above the tin roof and lightening like Frankenstein-plugged-in robbed graves on the horizon, I went to the toilet. I had to go. I could by no means fair or foul avoid that fateful journey out the back door and up the path, though all the world but carrots and cabbages might sleep around me. How reminiscent of yawning tombs were the cracks in the concrete! How hideously did the dunny rear skywards into the frenzied clouds. Ah, dread vision!

I entered. Car lights in the street intruded into the outskirts of the yard. I closed the door so that they wouldn’t catch my knees knocking. Being only twelve, I always used the smallest hole. I opened the lid and sat. Almost at once I felt a splash. The liquid contents of the bucket were foaming beneath me! I had held on for so long that retreat was impossible but, nevertheless, I was sure that the sound was not mine.

Splish, splash I went.

Splish, splash went the sound.

I stopped.

Splish, splash went the sound.

I leapt from my seat and ran shrieking into the house.

‘Aghh!’ I screamed. ‘There’s a monster in the dunny!’

I woke my brother and sister. I woke my parents.

‘Where’s the monster?’ they asked.

‘Right behind me!’ I yelled.


Any second now they would hurl at me that vivid imagination stuff parents were always going on about. I could tell by the looks on their faces.

‘All right, I’ll prove it to you.’

Dad grabbed the torch and we all tramped outside.

Splish, splash, splish, splash.

‘See!’ I cried. ‘I told you.’

‘You’re a nincompoop,’ laughed my father. ‘That’s not a monster, that’s my fish.’

‘But Dad, you never catch any fish.’

He shone the torch into the hole. Half a dozen long, grey bodies with marble eyes swished up at us.

‘What’s that?’ he demanded.

‘Fish,’ we replied.

There existed a set of rules I had once read regarding occurrence. The first says that, should the fridge break down, all fishermen will immediately catch more fish than they can eat. My father, that king of quick thinking, was simply storing his surplus catch in creek water in the most easily accessible bucket he could find.

‘When are they coming to fix the fridge, Dad?’

‘Not for a few days,’ answered my mother wearily.

That was the second rule: that the refrigerator repairman shall always be flat out south of Nowra.

‘And until then,’ said Dad. ‘You’ll have to use the big hole in the dunny, and if I hear any more screams, I’ll know you’ve fallen in.’

‘It’s okay, Dad. We can swim.’

‘And no more jokes about the size of Mum’s bottom, okay?’


One other thing about fish widows, they put up with a lot of teasing.

Thus it came about that we and the fish regarded each other’s motives several times a day for the next two days, suspiciously, covertly, carefully, and always damply.

Did they bite? I thought.

‘Flatheads don’t bite,’ said my father. ‘Particularly as you’re not using their dunny.

‘But maybe they’ll grow legs and get ideas,’ I rambled on. ‘I mean, we eat them, why shouldn’t they get a taste for us?’

‘We’re bigger than they are,’ my father pointed out.

Yeah, but had he heard about the secret nuclear testing south of Nowra? The fish might be really huge down here.

‘What is it with you and south of Nowra?’

‘Sorry, Dad.’

On the morning of the third day, my mother came in from the dunny and said, ‘That fish is really growing on me.’

We brushed her off.

‘There,’ we said. ‘You don’t smell so bad now.’

‘It must be cooking the stuff three times a day.’

My father took off down the path. We heard him open the door.

‘Pooh! This place stinks!’ he bellowed.

So, it wasn’t Mum after all.

We raced up and peered into the bucket. There were the fish, as happy as a meal could be expected to be. Not to see anything of forensic interest, though, was a bit deflating, but we had stuck our noses in a fair way and putting your nose in a toilet was a rather misanthropic operation, even a toilet teeming with marine life. So we left it another day, during which passed several more meals of fish, and Dad continued to catch more than we could eat, almost more than the dunny could hold but not enough, unfortunately, to stop him fishing.

Rule number three: that there shall be no relationship between fishing and the consumption of fish.

Day four dawned auspiciously. To begin with, none of us but Dad could get anywhere near the dunny. Its smell was overpowering. The air was thick with it and the repairman was apparently taking forever to come and fix the fridge. Desperation forced us to beg for help from the neighbours.

‘What had gone wrong with our dunny?’ they enquired.

‘What can go wrong with a bucket?’ we replied.

‘Then what do you want to use ours for?’

‘Dad,’ we complained, ‘the neighbours won’t let us use their toilet.’

‘This calls for desperate action,’ said our father.

He rang the police to tell them, we assumed, that the neighbours were committing child abuse.

‘Because they won’t let us use their toilet?’ asked my sister.

‘What else would you call it?’

‘That’s a bit drastic, isn’t it?’

The poor neighbours looked very alarmed when the white and blue car drove up outside out house, but the police went nowhere near them, heading instead straight down the garden path to the dunny. Very threatening and grim faced they were.

‘I wouldn’t like to be those fish,’ said my mother.

We stood in a worried scrum at the door, just barely restraining my brother from racing out to assure them that the flathead had nothing to do with it. After five minutes the body of a man with a filleting knife protruding from his back was dragged from the moist soil below the bucket. Homicide was called in, blue body bags appeared. A stretcher bore the victim away while we held our noses. It was all very distressing and we had a terrible time calming the fish down afterwards. Eventually Dad took the bucket down to the creek and tipped them in. They splashed their tails and swam away despondently, and when we returned to the house we found a policeman waiting to talk to us.

‘The victim had something written on his shirt,’ he explained. ‘Hard to make out. It was frayed and dirty, W.ST…HO.S. What is that, do you think? Some sort of code?’

‘Worsted hose?’ said my mother. ‘That’s stockings, isn’t it?’

‘Westinghouse!’ roared my father. ‘That’s the refrigerator repair man!’

No wonder he hadn’t come.

‘In that case,’ said the policeman. ‘What do you make of these? We found them stuffed roughly into his pocket.”

He produced a packet of photographs, all clearly labelled and dated. In chronological order, this is how they ran:

The One That Got Away.
The Elusive Four Pound Bream.
My First Tuna.
Fly Fishing In The Snowy Mountains.
Prawning At Merimbula.
Rock Oysters On The Hawkesbury River.
Sea Perch Five Miles Out The Heads.
The Wife Throwing Up When I Cut The Outboard.
How I Launched My Boat Using Newton’s First Law of Motion.
How The Men On The Jetty Got Such A Shock That Their Dentures Fell Out.
What A Good Laugh That Was!
But How I Broke The Back Seat Of The Car Doing It.
How The Wife Was Unimpressed.
All Right I’ll Do It The Old Way Next Time.
What Do You Mean There’s Not Going To Be a Next Time?
What’s Wrong With Fishing Anyway?
Stupid Wife. What Would She Know?
Hey Has Anyone Seen My Filleting Knife?

The policeman put the photographs away. There followed a respectful silence.

Then, ‘Poor bugger,’ said my father.

“I think I can understand,’ my mother responded.

My parents regarded each other wordlessly. It was so quiet we could hear the fish biting.

‘All right!’ said my father finally. ‘We’ll go to the beach tomorrow.’

‘And?’ replied my mother.

‘Bush walking the next day?’

She nodded.

‘And abseiling?’


‘Windsurfing, canoeing, bike riding. I’ll take the kids to the movies, and the museum and the zigzag railway. Then I’ll mow the lawn and clean the house, and do the shopping while you put your feet up.’

My mother clicked her teeth.

‘And no more fish for a week?’ Dad asked hopefully.

‘Ever,’ she replied.

Little did we know that the corpse itself had lived in Wandandian only two doors down and, on the night my father had removed the bucket from the dunny to fill it in the creek, the murderer had stuffed it into the gaping hole in his absence. Why hadn’t my father seen it when he replaced the bucket? Because there was no light in the dunny.

Rule number four: that tungsten shall prevent odours.

The refrigerator repairman’s wife (for she it was) was arrested and initially charged with murder though this was later dropped to manslaughter due to diminished responsibly. My mother questioned the wisdom of describing her as ‘diminished’ rather than ‘aggravated’ but, no doubt, the judge knew best. Being a man given to irony, he then handed down a suspended sentence that he obliged her to pass in sweeping the Sydney Fish Markets for a year, and during this time three of the local fishermen with loud mouths disappeared.

Final rule: that all fishermen shall mind the fish widow bearing a grudge.

Monday, January 13, 2020


Giovanni awoke in a coffin, to a tiny sawing noise like bone scraped upon wood. In the gradual awareness of consciousness, he did not immediately realize where he was or how he had gotten there. He did not open his eyes. He did not move. He lay oblivious to sensation. If this were death, then he was not initially alarmed.

But consciousness, like the thief who steals in the night, cast its rapacious eyes his way, and under its gaze he sensed a measure of concern about his dark, closeted environment. His hands lay still, two dead weights upon his chest. His feet he could not feel at all. His resuscitation had achieved particularity in some points and obliteration in others, so that his legs remained paralyzed even as in his fingers he detected the faintest tingling, which quickened over the minutes and forged a path towards his wrists. He wriggled one finger, then another. Some sensation returned to his palms, his wrists, and his forearms and, with that knowledge, he discovered that his hands were tied – and wasn’t that odd if this were death?

But there went his brain again and he couldn’t stop it, sailing over the horizon and into sleep once more. This time he dreamed that the gate in the sea wall opened to him of its own accord. The roof of the high old house reposed in shadow but, as he watched, the dawn forged a path across the ridge cap and at once the tiles lit up like autumn leaves. With the sparkling new day the Bora had ceased and Giovanni saw his father waving a greeting from the kitchen window. Relief coursed through him as he realized that everything was all right, after all. He smiled and waved back, but a distracted look had crossed the old man's face and from inside Giovanni heard the dog bark. His father peered down and said, 'There you are, Gilda! We were so worried.' Then he turned to Giovanni. 'Nice to meet you. A pity you have to go, but I have something for you.' He grappled within the room, pulled out a poker from the range and began to scrape it against the windowsill. Though it looked far away, it sounded very close and Giovanni was unable to resolve the paradox. Scrape, scrape, scrape.

I've got to get out of this dream, he thought. He shook his bound hands and stretched them upward.

Immediately they collided with a low lid and, when he shot out his left elbow, it hit wood. Oh, God. Quickly he rolled his head to the right and realized that, barely beyond his ear, there was a void. Yet, even as he welcomed it, such a cascade of dizziness overcame him that he was forced to lie back and let it pass. He waited in the cozy prickle of his wet wool suit until he detected wounds burning in his thigh and shoulder, a throbbing neck and a roaring headache from that crash onto the rocks now he remembered what had happened. He’d suffered an injury outside his home and here he was, lying fully clothed in a coffin with three sides. It all made sense! That noise that scraped and slid, as muted as a shovel into a grave, as persistent as a funeral bell. That sweating stink that sank into his lungs like corruption. Like a carcass that was returning to the earth.

Surely I have not been left alone with the dead!

Still too frightened to open his eyes, he eventually realized that he felt warm. If he were buried he would be cold, would he not? Vaguely, out of the fug in his brain, he perceived a rushing sound and a sense of movement. Perhaps it might even be that the walls vibrated and, very distantly… Could he hear an engine churning out a monotonous clunk?

Slowly and methodically, Giovanni forced himself to breathe in time with its rhythm, and imagined at each pulse the blood rushing through the wound in his thigh and on, to his knee. As he breathed he felt his calf, then his ankle and finally he imagined that life was returning to his feet, encased in wet socks and boots – and tied also!

At last it was that clunk piercing his skull, that persistent scraping and the odd combination of warmth and moving cold that persuaded his eyes to tremble apart. He unglued one eyelid and through the lashes saw a faint amber, trembling against one wall.

It’s not a grave, he marveled, for what grave ever throbbed and glowed? Therefore, I have not been buried alive. If there is a mechanical source of sound and a light source, it means that men are behind the creation of this sphere.

This calmed him somewhat while, in his more hopeful frame of mind, the overwhelmingly putrid smell even though it was still there now seemed tinged with something sharper. Something he had smelled from time to time along the thoroughfares of Florence and even on the farms of rural Istria: diesel. That smell at last convinced him. He opened both eyes completely and now he could tell that he was certainly in a machine of some sort that, with its throbbing pistons and dim lights, seemed to him like an industrial Dante’s inferno.

He strained his neck into the void and looked around. To the far left of his vision he saw a passage branching off towards the source of the light, so narrow that there was space for only one man to pass. To his right was blackness. Above him, beyond the confines of his niche ran pipes, and the low ceiling along which they lay seemed no higher than he was. The shadowy, shrunken room pressed in on him: a rank, suffocating, claustrophobic enclosure. For a moment, the discovery of diesel had quieted him, but now Giovanni, biology teacher, nature lover, felt the rise of panic.

He heaved himself up until his head brushed the board above him and by the clotted light flickering against the hem of his trousers he observed a large rat filing its front teeth on his boot - scrape, scrape, scrape. With a gasp of horror, he kicked his legs until his knees slammed into the wood above him. 

Va via!’ he yelled. ‘Go away!’

The rat plunged from its perch and disappeared. He heard its claws scrabbling for purchase on the floor below him.

Heavy steps sounded from down the disappearing passage and suddenly it seemed that five or six men stood directly in front of him, with more behind whom he couldn’t clearly see. With their arrival, the source of the stench was immediately obvious. Unwashed bodies, diesel, human waste, the glorious stench of young manhood, decayed dinners, and the rat. The whole lot had accumulated in the slim bunk upon which he had been laid, which they had probably all slept in. Even the metal ceiling with its dimly outlined pipes seemed to reflect and intensify it, and the walls pressed it in upon him like a dark cocoon. 

The men themselves did not seem to flinch under the sour reek, but the years spent among the Florentines had honed Giovanni’s natural fastidiousness. The smell was so overpowering he felt barely able to breathe. As much as he tried, he could not stop wrinkling his nose in disgust.

Rather than look offended the men laughed.

‘You’re in a pig boat,’ said one, a huge man, older than Giovanni and twice as heavy, who had to stoop to avoid knocking his crown on the ceiling.

He spoke the rough Italian Giovanni had heard on the docks of Trieste, and his human words, the laughter and the attention, broke the spell. Giovanni calmed down, realized he could breathe, took a gulp of air. The tiny room expanded. 

He examined the remaining men. They were all young except one. At a quick reckoning they might have been much the same age as his students, some smooth-cheeked, others on the verge of manhood, overgrown and resolute. All of them were curious about him rather than wary, knocking against each other in the small space, their back row digested by the gloom.  

The exception stood with his arms folded across his chest and his eyes focused on Giovanni with the direct stare of authority.

‘What’s a pig boat?’ Giovanni asked him because under such scrutiny it seemed scarcely permissible to ask anybody else.

‘No room to wash in a submarine,’ replied the man.

Nobody spoke. Giovanni didn’t speak either. Silly, really, not to talk, but it couldn’t be helped. It was as if he had relinquished control of himself, and his claustrophobia dissipated as he was held to attention by the man with the commanding eyes. 

Giovanni peered out from his prison. The man seemed to be of medium height but stocky, with a strong upper body, dark hazel irises, a short sparsely graying beard and hair of the same salt and pepper. Though the floor shifted with the movement of the boat, he maintained an experienced stillness and, if anything else were necessary to proclaim his profession of seaman, above blue military trousers he wore a loose, collared shirt like the fishermen of Cittanova. Nevertheless, Giovanni had the impression that he would look exactly the same whatever he wore because his mere presence demanded one’s attention so much that it would render any clothes unremarkable.

Even as Giovanni lay prone before him something in the tremor of the boat caught the man’s attention. His eyes lost their fixed gaze.

As they released Giovanni, his former panic abruptly returned.

‘Let me out!’ he cried, for he felt that the ceiling was falling on him and the walls were contracting. ‘I can’t breathe. Please, let me out!’

He twisted his legs violently towards the weakly lit corridor and only succeeded in tilting halfway off the bunk when the weight of his dead feet and wet boots dragged him into a sodden pile on the floor. At the level of his eyes stood a dozen pairs of sea boots ornamented in a paisley pattern of mold in white, green and orange.

The captain for what other term could be used to describe him? growled some command to the men crammed so tightly into the miniature room that their shoulders rubbed together, and one, producing a sailor’s knife, cut the ropes tying Giovanni’s wrists and ankles. Then he retreated, as shy as a child, without assisting him further. The huge man who had first addressed him scowled at the sailor, shoved two meaty hands under Giovanni’s arms and hoisted him to his feet.

Giovanni swayed weakly, clutching his spinning head until he overbalanced backwards and hit his shoulder on another shelved bed stacked above the one on which he had been lying. Three bunks lay on top of one another almost to the ceiling, which he could have brushed with his head by standing on his toes.

‘Thank you.’ He looked down. ‘Where’s the rat?’

‘Plenty more where he came from.’

‘In a submarine?’

There was no reply, either from the crew or from their intimidating leader, though Giovanni sensed that the young men were waiting for the man to speak first. He began to feel as restrained as one of his students. Any hope he might have had of striking up a conversation in this foreign world seemed destined to be disappointed. He tried again.

‘Is this the navy?’

The captain seemed to find this entertaining and his closed manner softened enough to permit a restrained amusement.

‘For you we’ll term it the People’s Navy.’

‘The People’s Navy? You’re a patriot? A pirate? A spy? Yet you speak Italian. What does that make you?’

‘We choose to speak to you in the Italian of the Austrian docks. That’s all you need to know.’

‘Then you come from Trieste? I thought the submarine base was at Pola.’

‘That’s where he stole it from,’ countered the huge man.

‘Don’t shoot us in the foot, Zorko, any more than you have already,’ returned the captain while the slightest indication of emotion entered his voice. It may have been frustration but Giovanni could equally have called it anger. ‘Let’s say I borrowed a submarine for the occasion.’

A ripple of mirth spread through the men.

‘What occasion?’

From the rear Giovanni observed a knuckle pushed into a palm accompanied by a muted sound like surf on a beach, a parody of an explosion which required little interpretation. A wind of fear raised the hairs at the back of his neck. They were all watching him, standing before them in his suit and tie, twisting his wrists like a nervous secretary and biting his lip. A shudder knotted his shoulder blades, an urge to gulp the fetid air instead of breathe it, and with it came a compulsion to talk. As he gained momentum Giovanni realized that he sounded like a man devoted to his family, who rarely had the occasion to be anything but neatly dressed and whose temperate wit was appreciated in academic circles. Which was what he was.

‘You stole a submarine? That’s innovative and, if the consequences don’t bother you, I have no problem with it but, if it was me, I would consider them first. And could you tell me why I’m here, please? I’m no threat to you. My parents were upset because the government changed their name. Did you know that? My father is seventy-one. What’s the point at his age?’ He swiped a rim of perspiration from his top lip. In a second, the hot prickle returned. ‘So I told them I’d just step out for half an hour to clear my brain, and they’ll be wondering where I am. Do you want money? I’m only a teacher. I don’t have any. I work in Florence. I was visiting my family. Do you think you could take me home or drop me off somewhere convenient? I promise I won’t say anything incriminating and I don’t mind a walk.’

‘You’re Italian?’

‘No. I told you. I was visiting my family.’ 

The group regarded this wordlessly while a wave of recrimination seemed to pass through them. After the minutes of restrained silence, the younger crew commenced speaking rapidly amongst themselves in a language Giovanni didn’t understand but recognized as Slavic. Clearly they were discussing him and not looking very happy about it.

The captain stood listening while they argued and interrupted each other, and the set of his jaw tightened with the emotion Giovanni had earlier detected until the sides of his mouth strained like a dam about to burst. At length he slammed his hand hard against the pipes above him and swore in the same language his crew were using.

The chatter abruptly stopped. The captain rounded on Giovanni.


‘Giovanni Di…, Micatovich.’

‘A teacher in Florence?’ broke in Zorko. ‘That’s not your real name.’

‘I just said the government changed it,’ insisted Giovanni. ‘But it is my real name. I studied in Graz when Istria was Austrian. I fought for Austria during the War, not Italy, but now Istria’s Italian I have to find work here in that language. I’ve taught in Florence for eight years.’ He rushed a breath. ‘And, anyway, what’s wrong with being Italian?’

Zorko spat on the floor in front of him.

‘Fascist,’ he said.

‘Fascist? I’m not a fascist!’

‘You look Italian.’

‘But I’m Istrian! My name is Micatovich, with a ‘k’. My mother’s name was Matjašić. Very Slavic,’ he insisted with more confidence than he felt. ‘I’m on your side.’

Zorko leered close with his enormous dirty face. ‘And which side is that?’

‘Well, weren’t you speaking in a Slavic language just then?’

‘Yes, and which one was it?’

When Giovanni stumbled for an answer, the captain nodded to his crew.

‘You see?’

‘We can’t let you go now,’ added Zorko. ‘You know too much.’ 

‘I don’t know too much!’ cried Giovanni. ‘I don’t know anything except that I’m sure I’m here by mistake.’

The captain refolded his arms across his chest.

‘Yes, you may be,’ he acknowledged, ending cryptically, ‘It would be wise not to be so well dressed next time.’

‘Or the same height,’ Zorko chimed in.

‘You’re impatient, Zorko.’

‘It was dark,’ remonstrated that man.

And, thought Giovanni absurdly, someone as big as you has no need of language to get your point across. I’m half your size and look how prone I am to illogical speech in desperate situations.

‘I really must escape this dreadful machine,’ he explained out loud while they squabbled tersely and the walls lurched in on him. ‘Point me to the exit, if you please, right now.’

The captain seemed not to be one for debating for he welcomed Giovanni’s prim request in order to turn away from his quarrelsome companion. He asked pertinently, ‘Can you swim?’


‘We’re halfway down the coast, Giovanni Micatovich. Until I work out what to do with you, you’re stuck here.’

Giovanni tried once more.

‘I need to get away from the rat.’

‘Yes, so do we.’ He turned to leave. He was losing interest. ‘The best thing for those who don’t like confined spaces,’ he observed in passing, ‘is to look down, not up.’

‘And then you’ll see that rat as well,’ Zorko said with a wink.

The captain allowed the younger men to go out before him, the courtesy of rank forbidden by the cramped enclosure. Then, with that rolling walk that seamen acquire from keeping their balance in rough seas, he finally retreated back down the narrow maze until his shoulders dissolved into the gloom.

With his departure hopelessness settled upon Giovanni. He sat down on the bed and stared at his boots, pulled at his trousers where the damp fabric clung to his skin, loosened his tie. He discovered that he had lost a cuff link, so he checked and removed the other one, laying it as carefully as a treasure in the deepest pocket of his trousers lest he lose it as well and by so doing unwittingly deposit a little part of himself in this tomb. He hoped that he had lost the first cuff link in the water by his father’s house where it would be free. The thought quickened a note of nostalgia in him and a faint smile washed a little of the sadness from his face. It dropped swiftly away and, as he watched its descent, there, en queue, was the rat. Its wicked little eyes had been watching him from its small corner the whole time.

He leapt up and stumbled after the men.

‘Wait!’ he cried. ‘Don’t leave me here!’

But he was overtaken by further dizziness and such a surge of nausea that he had to stop, holding his head in his hands, breathing harshly, fighting the urge to vomit. And one of the young men noticed. Shaking his head and clicking his tongue as if he were Giovanni’s mother, he put a hand beneath his arm and guided him back to the bunk, laid his head on the pillow and waited until he settled. Then he handed Giovanni a wrench.

‘If the rat worries you,’ he said kindly, ‘belt him with this.’ His Most Italian City (9781946409942): Walker, Margaret: Books