Read the story being discussed onJesse Mulligan’s show on Radio New Zealand on 20 April 2017
By Bonnie Etherington
My mother was a half-Balinese, half-New Zealand blend of Maori-whaler-Polish missionary. Half of her body tugged towards the beat and roll of the waves eating the stories of their lives into the sandstone cliffs of Northland, and another half yearned for the electric green tropics she never had the chance to see. Before she died, she lived with my dad and me in one of the last curves of land beyond which the cliffs of Cape Reinga marry dark Tasman with bright big Pacific.
Sometimes my dad took me to collect crayfish where the sand was white and the blues of the sea mixed (a celebration of turquoise for the Pacific, a more moody grey-blue stolen from the mountains and the feathers of seabirds for the Tasman). Every time I went out to the sea, I thought of these lines from a song my mother sang:
Take care my son, beware my son:
never wear blue and green.
That’s all she remembered about the song, which was about a sea goddess far away who stole children who got too close, and she remembered it in English, not in the language that it was supposed to be sung in — the language of the part of her that hated the sea while the rest of her wanted to always, always keep it in her sights. This was a song from her Bali mother, who came to New Zealand as a teenager all rugged up against the cold, even though it was summer when she arrived. Wherever she moved, she left little offerings of rice and sweets on her doorstep for the spirits, until the neighbours complained that they attracted mice. Then she left them in front of her bedroom door instead. The spirits could still find them there. She met my grandfather while picking apples down south and together they made their way up North, where they hoped the sun would find them, too.
It was up North that their daughter met my father. My father loved the North, but after my mother died (breast cancer, peacefully, Dad would say if ever asked), he and I didn’t have anyone left there. Any relations still alive had moved to Auckland or Australia, and so once again the family (just father and son now) moved in search of warmth. Always, always we are a warmth-seeking family, though my Bali grandmother had to find cold first to know how precious warmth is.
This is how we arrived in Hervey Bay, Queensland, where Southern Australians go to retire in caravans and complain about the Great Immigrant Problem that’s nibbling the gold sand away from under their toes. My father had a friend of an uncle there who promised that he could have a job fixing cars with him, though that turned out to be a lie. And that’s where I met Fishing Boy and where I finally understood my mother’s song.
Fishing Boy was called Fishing Boy because he was once a boy and he always went fishing. People would yell out to him as he cycled past every morning: You fishing, boy? I think he must have been getting close to my Dad’s age when I first knew him, perhaps in his thirties, but I guess there is always someone older than boys to call them boys. Now, looking back, I see the child that perhaps the retirees saw in the man whose clothes didn’t fit and whose biggest dream was of fish.
He cycled down to the pier every morning on his bike. It was a tricycle, but not like a child’s one. At the back, it had a chilly bin (or ice box, esky, whatever you call it in your brand of English) for his fish and bait and ice. That tricycle could hold all his rods, too, and he had twelve of them sticking up out of their holders. I’m not sure how they were attached, but they were. Plus a few hand lines for good measure. The tackle box with his hooks, always shiny, was roped with a green cord on top of the ice box. To finish it off there was his knife, strapped to his leg as if he were a diver. He always wore swim shorts and a green t-shirt that shouted SAVE THE APES in big block letters. I think those were the only clothes he owned, though maybe I’m forgetting some occasional wardrobe changes that didn’t seem important at the time. I do know that he wore the same necklace every day — a carved pounamu pendant that he said he got off a backpacker once.
Does it bring you luck? I asked him one day, after we were on speaking terms.
Depends what you call luck, he said. It brings me fish, at least.
Cultural appropriation, Dad said. Ignorant bugger.
You don’t know where he comes from, I said.
So Fishing Boy went fishing. But not just on weekends or on holidays or summer afternoons like other men who confined their fishing to those socially acceptable time slots. Fishing Boy went at dawn every single day, barring his mum’s birthday, when he first ate her favourite ice cream from the dairy down the road and while telling everyone who would listen about how she died in a car accident. Only his mother never died in any car accident. Glen at the bait shop said Fishing Boy told that story to make himself feel better because he never met his mother. He was raised by a drunk bastard who at least told him her birthday, but who knew if it was her real birthday anyway? The drunk bastard was gone now (liver disease, predictable).
After finishing his ice cream, Fishing Boy would stand up. Off I go, he said, every year, according to Mia who owned the dairy. Time to catch a fish for Mum, make her proud.
You do that, said Mia, every time. Off you go.
That’s how I met him — fishing off the pier. Because there isn’t much else for boys to do when they’re wagging school in Hervey Bay except go fishing. It wasn’t only me, either. There was a group of us who fished off that pier. There was Kyle, who was fat and not mean at all unless you were a pelican or you snagged his line, and Jase who was fat and mean but that was probably on account of his White Pride dad who cooked meth and according to Jase cried himself to sleep at night holding a piece of the blanket that once wrapped around his only daughter (she had left long ago, got knocked up and ran away to Perth, where her father imagined her doing all sorts of horrible things, but really she was probably raising babies there). Nate, who was in the same class as me, wanted to keep to himself and focus on getting those fish, and then there was TK, who was too skinny to be much of a problem, but, just in case, he always carried a switchblade on him. He was Jase’s little brother anyway, so we understood.
We all got on okay with Fishing Boy. Not best of friends, I guess, but we got free bait from him now and then, and there were times he’d tell me stories about his mother if it was just me and him on the pier at night. Her perfume! He said. It smelled like orchids, like frangipani, like sweet vanilla.
I never told him about what Glen said about his mother. Instead I always nodded and said, You Gotta Hold On To Those Memories, like it was a mantra. And Fishing Boy would lean back and sigh.
Yep, gotta hold on to something.
Once Fishing Boy told us off for missing school. Make something of yourselves, he said. Don’t be like me!
I don’t know, TK would say. Seems like you’re doing okay. And they would both laugh because Fishing Boy was one of those guys who could laugh at himself, and everyone knew that he slept in the back room of the bait shop and didn’t even own a wallet (he kept any money he made selling fish in a little organza pouch. It’s an old-fashioned money bag, he said).
We didn’t skip school all the time, mind you. I never missed a history class, at least. I liked those dates arranging the mess of time and people into straight lines that told a story and made things make sense. And we didn’t only fish during school time. Occasionally I fished because I was awake too early after another one of Dad’s bad nights missing Mum, hating himself for losing the job, and trying to gather the courage to move again. Dad never was a drinker. Not of alcohol, anyway. Instead he pounded energy drink after energy drink while sitting in front of the TV at night watching shows like American Ninja Warrior and Biggest Loser. You see those people? he said. They’re going places, they’re making things happen.
The energy drinks made him shake, and on those nights he paced and paced the hallway. All those footsteps trying so hard to go somewhere.
At other times, I fished because it was one of those days when the sky is so bright that it hurts you to look at it and you can’t help thinking about fishing on days like that. I had to go out and stand on that pier, my eyes closed against the sun so all I could see was a web of veins over my eyes like the red lace of my mother’s old church dress that she thought might last forever if she only kept it nice. I thought I could faint on those days from that heat, but I still stood in it until I scorched brown and could feel my skin tingling under the sheets in bed later at night. Fishing made me feel like things were happening. Like I had spent the day doing something.
Mostly, all we caught were these things called toadies. I don’t know if that’s their proper name. They were these average-sized ugly fish with small mouths, and not even the birds would eat them because they were poisonous. So we dragged up all these toadies, day after day, and didn’t bother throwing them back because we knew we would just catch them again. Instead we slammed our bare feet down on them, breaking their backs and making their insides fly into their mouths, and now and then out of their mouths. Their guts were shell pink, and if you saw them in a different place they might look like rose petals spilling out in the sunshine. Their silver scales stuck to the bottoms of our feet and flashed golden in the sun when we moved. We were our own gilded lords of the sea.
What all of us on the pier dreamed of was one thing: we wanted to catch a tuna. A huge one with eyes that had seen sea monsters and a body that could outrun a shark. It was probably just a dumb kid’s impossible dream because we were only fishing off a pier. But no one had told us yet that we couldn’t do it. And so we kept on dreaming.
Things would have continued like this (wagging school, fishing, stomping on toadies) and we might have even reached the level of what could be called happiness if it wasn’t for the night when Fishing Boy hooked something big. TK was having a bad day. He’d already got into a fight with a tourist boy from Melbourne who had laughed at his hand-line. TK wouldn’t have any of that. He threw that tourist boy’s fancy rod in the waves and made him hunt for it.
Gotta be careful, T, said Nate. You don’t want people to start calling the police.
Piss off, said TK, but he never really meant things when he said them to Nate. Nate was too likeable because he was the kind of guy that moved easy, talked easy, but didn’t rub it in.
It was a hot day, and when the sun set it didn’t get much cooler. I didn’t feel like going home. Dad had planned to go out the whole day, filling out job applications, and I knew what he was like after that. He would be discouraged but with just enough hope to make you hurt for him.
For whatever reason, none of the other boys had gone home by evening either. And Fishing Boy was convinced that tonight was THE NIGHT, so he wasn’t leaving his lines. He kept on checking and rechecking each of them to make sure none of them had hooked a toadie or snagged.
And then one of his rods started bending and bending. It bent so much that it looked like it might snap in half. I knew it! said Fishing Boy. Tonight’s the night!
I’ll believe it when I see it, said Jase.
We were curious about what he had hooked, of course, but we didn’t want to let on. So we continued fiddling with our own lines as Fishing Boy battled with his.
I’m not sure how the fight started, exactly. Perhaps Fishing Boy thought his line had got tangled with TK’s. Perhaps it was the other way around, or perhaps it was nothing in particular except simple jealousy or the thickness of the day’s heat that still pressed down on us, and the knowledge that the faint flickers of lightning across the waves were too far away to bring any rain as relief.
TK started bullying Fishing Boy along the pier, down to the shore end of it, which was over the sand because it was low tide. Fishing Boy’s rod was secured tight to a pylon by then so he could get a bit of a break from fighting the fish, and his hands went up despite his being much bigger than TK. He never was much of a fighter, while TK had more than a bit of his dad in him. The rest of us weren’t paying that much attention at that point. We knew TK probably needed to let off steam from the day.
When it happened it was an action that almost happened too easily, not the kind of action you think would turn someone dead, even if death didn’t come straight away. Fishing Boy slipped. Just like that. TK reached out to stop him falling off the pier, grabbed Fishing Boy’s pounamu and it snapped off in his hands. Fishing Boy’s body kept falling, and it wasn’t a clean fall. His head hit one of the concrete pylons. There was a flash of white: of an eye, of bone. I’m not sure which. But a skull cracking is not a sound you stop hearing.
We weren’t barbarians (or is it too late to say that now?). We paid attention then. We called out to Fishing Boy, hoped to hear his voice call back. And it did, once, but it wasn’t the voice we were used to hearing from him. It was high and alone. Perhaps that was when his soul really left his body, though his heart kept beating for a little while longer. The sound of his voice triggered something in us. TK was breathing hard, and we cheered for him. We cheered because he had won, though we couldn’t name what he won and we had no idea what the fight was about. That wasn’t the point. In the growing dark, we suddenly felt like we could do anything, that nothing could stop us. Things seemed larger, possibilities wider. We loosened Fishing Boy’s rod so it, and whatever was attached to it, was lost. Fishing Boy lay with his back against a piece of driftwood on the beach, not moving as we did this. I could just make out the dark outline of his body, like it was seeping into the sand and the night as if they were one.
After a minute—
Should we call someone? said Kyle. An ambulance or somebody?
Nah, said Jase. He’ll be right.
The stars arched above us and below us as the sea reflected them back to themselves. They never seemed to end and we were caught up in between, not knowing how to escape from that endless blue-black-green of night and stars and water and life turning, turning, turning.
He’ll be right, said Jase again, though he didn’t sound sure this time. You’ll see. He’ll be back up there fishing in the morning. We left the pier one by one, returning to our homes and leaving Fishing Boy behind, alone with the sky and the sea.
But, in the morning, there were sirens, faintly. They found Fishing Boy on the beach where we had seen him last. The official report was that he died in an accident. No foul play, said the newspapers. I knew it, said Mia at the dairy. Poor Bugger.
Saw that one coming, said Glen.
The sirens collected Fishing Boy and left the beach. His obituary was in the newspaper that week. A Free Spirit it said under his name and death date. Frank Owen Bolger was his real name. No one knew his birth date, not even Glen, who paid for and wrote the obituary.
Nate, Jase, and I went to the funeral. Just for the food, said Jase, and we nodded with him as we stuffed our pockets with reheated mini sausage rolls, which we didn’t end up eating anyway.
A nice funeral, said Mia. A real tribute. Pass me a light, will you?
We smoked outside the church until Glen and his brothers loaded the coffin into his truck, and it went off to some graveyard. I never found out which one.
Got a job, boy, said Dad a week after Fishing Boy was buried. And, for that moment, there was one stable board beneath us, bearing our weight. For that moment, my life seemed miles away from Fishing Boy.
So my family moved north again, this time to the Northern Territory of Australia, where on a clear day there’s a cliff you can stand on and see one of Indonesia’s many provinces. I like to think that there’s something important in that, though the only way I’m really becoming closer to my mother and grandmother is to fear the sea. Here the jellyfish swim thick in the mangroves, and here is where those crazy late-night survival specials on the Nat Geo channel are likely to be set.
Dad and I left so fast that I didn’t get the chance to talk to the other boys again after the funeral, and this made me relieved. It meant I could invent tidy endings for them, like the kind of endings found in history books, even for TK.
But, years later, I still think of Fishing Boy and how what we did that day is one of the first decisions we boys all made that we couldn’t go back and change. When I think of him, I can’t get my mother’s song out of my head. I used to think this song was about tempting fate or taking risks, but now I see that it is more of a warning against getting so used to something that you start to think it belongs to you, that it will act the way you want it to every time.
The thing that really gets me is that Fishing Boy trusted us until the end. I saw his eyes right before he went over the side, the moon and stars were that bright. Those eyes didn’t believe he had just been killed. Deep down maybe everyone thinks they’re invincible, or at least you believe that the guy who shared sandwiches and fags with you isn’t going to be the guy that leaves you for dead.
If I could go back and change one thing I did, this is what I would say, but I would say it to myself, not to Fishing Boy: stay away from the pull of the sea. Never wear blue and green.
Bonnie's latest novel, The Earth Cries Out, is out now at all good bookstores.
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