By Tony Murphy
It is a typically sun-drenched day on the Georges River at Milperra in late 1952. An old woman and a girl of seven are fishing from a narrow wooden jetty: each sitting expectantly on empty, up-turned, four gallon Atlantic kerosene drums. Maggie, a well weathered, humourous and forthright soul, shaded by a tattered straw hat, is showing little Carol how to fish.
Carol is trying to keep the line tension on her cane rod just right between the tip and the float as Maggie has instructed.
“Your line’s too loose – wind in the slack, Carol… that’s it; keep an eye on the tension” said Maggie, who knew fishing as well as she knew the Georges, winding back some of her own line onto her hand-held cork holder. She slid her right hand down her line, looped it around her index finger and held it tautly. A damp Hessian bag stays cool on the boards in Maggie’s shadow.
Maggie lived just several blocks down the river from Carol in Auld Avenue; a widow of some twenty years and aged about seventy five. Despite her age, Maggie carried herself with a straight back and moved energetically. She was of average height and her frame slim. Maggie had a long face which was rounded, somewhat, by frameless octagonal glasses and an afro-style mop of grey hair. She shared her house with her not much younger brother, Dan, a quiet man reading up at their house, directly above and behind the jetty. Dan is still a stranger to Carol because he only recently moved from Woy Woy. One other thing: Maggie’s habit is to write herself short messages on bits of paper and pin them to her top. True to form, this day there is pinned: CAROL – FISHING.
Through the cracks in the jetty boards Carol watched the clear Georges pass four feet under her and glide around the concrete supports as small teams of tiddler mullet flit between the shadows and light slits in the water. She daydreams and Maggie hums Begin the Beguin.
Suddenly Maggie says: “Carol – take in the slack. Look where your float is”.
Carol snapped to attention to find her float had drifted towards her and her line limp. Quickly she wound in the slack. By now, about twenty minutes had passed since they started and they hadn’t had a bite, so Carol asked: “Maggie”, she called her Maggie because everyone else did, ‘Today’s not a good day for fishing, is it?”
“The night is yet young, Carol, yet young. Have patience. That’s what’s good about fishin’ – you can’t force the egg.”
Carol loved hearing those figures of speech from Maggie and mimicked her often. It didn’t matter if Carol got looks of astonishment or glares of disapproval; she got a kick out of the way they sounded. However, one day Carol really put the scatter-gun into the chook house. Her parents were visited by relatives from Double Bay, one of the more ‘proper’ parts of Sydney, to go over the funeral arrangement s of an ancient grand aunt – Aunt Mabel. Over afternoon tea they were talking about how, towards the end, the old dear’s skin had wrinkled like a dry prune.
“Stiffen the crows.” Carol cheekily said, “Aunt Mabel sounds like Rumple Foreskin!”
Well…the rels stared aghast at Carol, her mum dropped her cup, and Carol flew out of the house with her dad in a rage on her tail.
“See that eddy, Carol? Fish”, said Maggie, pointing down to a small whirling pattern in the water.
“Fish?” Carol asked.
“As sure as the Pope’s a Catholic,” she said. “They’re swirling water with their tails. It won’t be long now.”
Another fifteen minutes – still no bites.
“Bugger it,” Maggie said, “reel in and we’ll check our bait.”
They had been using small pieces of raw steak and pieces of block cheese which, by the time they checked their hooks, had all but gone.
“Righto,” said Maggie, “the mixed grill isn’t workin’ and the tides movin’ in quick – we’ll give the worms a go.”
Maggie put her arm into the bag and pulled out a long pink sandy centipede looking worm about six inches long, tore it in two and threaded half of it onto her hook and the other half onto Carol’s as it’s legs go sixty to the dozen.
“That’s how they like ‘em, live ‘n’ kickin’. They’ll do the trick,” she assured Carol as they both cast out about fifteen feet. Each of them took up the slack and waited.
“A couple of years ago you could catch Jewees ‘round here. And Flat Head, Tailor and Bream by the bucket full. A feast for for Ol’ Ne’tune himself,” Maggie said.
“Yes, and Reggie caught a grey stingray there last week,” Carol said, pointing to the wharf of a property next to Maggie’s where Reggie lived. ‘And the mullet jump all night,” Carol said truthfully.
Maggie nodded, “Prawns by the millions. They catch themselves. Hang on a bit longer, Carol, and our luck’ll turn.”
They wait. Maggie hums. Carol daydreams.
“Hey – Dan,” Maggie startled Carol as she yelled for her brother, ‘come here for a minute.”
“Carol,” Maggie said out the corner of her mouth, “It’s dangerous pickin’ your nose. Look what happened to Dan.”
“But…But,” Carol said sheepishly.
Old Dan appears at the low wire fence, from where cement stairs lead down the steep bank to the jetty and peers non-plussed, “Yes Mag?” he asked.
“Carol’s been huntin’ oysters,” she said “Show her what happened to you last time you gave your snoz a workout.”
Dan held up his right hand. Carol saw half of his middle finger missing while Dan’s face stayed as straight and fixed as an Easter Island stone idol. He said nothing more, turned away and went on with what he was doing as Maggie said, “Thanks Dan.”
“See what can happen when you poke about up there, Carol,” she said – out the corner of her mouth. Carol self-consciously nodded.
This was one of the memorable fishing lessons Carol had with Maggie on the Georges at Milperra. Although this time it wasn’t a fish that was hooked.
And everyone knows, (don’t they?), that you’re dinki-di whenever you give someone the low-down out the corner of your mouth. So, for a while after, Carol felt compelled to check her fingers every time she blew her snoz.
(First published in Bankstown The Book - BRFAWNSW Inc. 1995)