First published 1999, ‘Dead Things Magazine.’
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.
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?’
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 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?’
‘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.