A touching coming of age story.

This Tuesday I am performing at Now Hear This a storytelling night put on by the ABC as a part of the 2012 You Are Here festival.

Here is a draft of the story I’ll be performing.

In many ways my Dad and I are very different people, and because of this, my Dad had to trick me into going fishing with him when I was 17. We were off to a big family BBQ that night and we’d been given the job of bringing fish. I thought we were off to the supermarket when we got in the car. It turned out my Dad was intent on fishing based male bonding, and more importantly, helping me catch my first fish.

Dad did this kind of thing a lot. My folks and split when I was very young and I’d grown up with my Mum. So Dad would try and make the most out of these holiday trips because they would be the only time of the year he would see me. He’d always have some activity planned for the two of us, and while I’m sure his top priority was to spend quality time with his son, I suspect his ulterior motive was to ‘man’ me up a bit. Don’t let my rugged manly adult self fool you, when I was a kid, I was a bit of a sissy. Like I said, in many ways my Dad and I are very different people. My Dad is an Aussie bloke, plain and simple. I am not. My idea of a great holiday was drawing, reading, watching TV or playing games. When I was a kid I quite never understood why we had to go to the football or out camping when he had an awesome computer at his house I could play instead. However the activity I hated the most, was fishing.

As I got older I wizened up and started appreciating the activities for what they were, I chance to hang out with my Dad. I still didn’t care about football, but I enjoyed going just to hang out with my Dad. He’d sneak me a beer, we’d eat some over salted chips, and I liked that. That was cool. But the one activity that I never changed my opinion on was fishing. I always hated it, and to be honest it’s mainly because I’d never caught a single fish. I went on heaps of fishing trips heaps as a kid, and everyone else always got a fish. It used to drive me nuts, I’d use the same rods and bait and everything as everyone else and I’d never get a nibble. It wasn’t fair. I came to believe that it was actually impossible for me to catch a fish.

I told Dad this; in the car right after he told me where we were really going. I told him we should go to the shops because I was incapable of catching a fish and that our family would starve and it would be our fault. Dad said he had a plan.

We went to a trout farm. If you don’t know what a trout farm is let me tell you. You go to a property where someone has dug a bunch of great big several metre wide holes in the ground, filled those holes almost completely with trout, then filled up the little space no taken up by fish with water giving the appearance of a pond. In no way does fishing on a trout farm count as real fishing. At the end of your trip you take all the fish you’ve caught up to this guy who then charges you on how many fish you caught. It’s a novelty supermarket.

Anyways I was starting to feel a little worried. I had long ago resigned myself to the fact that I would never ever catch a fish, I was ok with that. I felt no shame at my poor fisherman skills. But something about this trout farm just felt patronising. You know when you’re a kid playing tips and you’re the youngest kid in the group? You end up getting in and you’re fucked. Every other kid is just bigger and faster and there is no way you can catch them. So they start letting you catch them. Some big kid runs right in front of you and slows down. “Oh no! He’s going to catch me! Oh no! You’re really fast!” No I’m fucking not! As amazing as your acting skills are, running slower is not going to trick me into thinking I have started moving at super speeds. How about we just declare that I have lost tips and have to sit out. I know that’s not how tips works but it should be.

I was scared that my fishing curse would continue, even here. Out there in the real world, I can fail at fishing. That’s fine! But here, where I can see all the fish staring out of the water begging me to catch them, if I failed to catch a fish here I would feel pretty freaking pathetic, and also. I kinda wanted to impress my Dad. Here he was trying to mold me into a man, and I wanted to be that man. I wanted to catch the fish. Fortunately my suspicions about the place came true.

I hadn’t even put bait on the hook yet. Dad was just talking me through how to cast it. The second that hook flew over the edge of the water, I had one. I freaking tough as nails fish with freedom on his mind had managed to beat down all the other fish and leap into the air. With Dad shouting instructions, I reeled it in, and picked him up.

My first fish.

Despite what I’ve been saying, despite how lame the place was and how much I hated fishing, I can’t lie. That moment was fucking awesome. More than any other first, shaving, getting drunk, losing my virginity, nothing had made me feel more like a man that catching that fish. Dad was ecstatic. I could tell that this was almost as important to him as it was to me. For years he’d tried to foster my interest in anything manly. Sports, camping, cars… I’d never really taken to any of it. But fishing, he had gotten me into fishing.

“What next Dad?”

“You’ve got to pacify the fish.”

“How do I do that?”

“With the pacifier.”

I don’t know what I was expecting, but he handed me this round block of wood. I froze.

“What?”

“Hit it with the pacifier. Kill it.”

“I looked at the fish and my club. What? I’d never gotten this far. I wasn’t expecting this.

“I don’t want to pacify the fish.”

He insisted. I placed the fish down on the bench provided and raised my weapon. Trout aren’t pretty creatures, but they do have the most amazingly expressive giant eyes. I tried not to look into it. Just do it, I told myself. Dad’s watching. Kill the goddamn fish. I closed my eye and swung the pacifier down. Thwack.

When I was a kid, my Dad’s nickname for me was ‘Muscles’. I did not deserve that nickname.

I lifted the pacifier back up. I hadn’t killed the fish. It was bleeding a bit from the mouth.

“Give it a real hit son.”

I hit it again. More blood splashed from its mouth but it didn’t die.

“Again son.”

I hit the fish again, yelling this time to try and build up some manly rage. The creature’s eye popped out of its skull but it did not die. It just kept thrashing around under my left hand. I started to scream and flew into a flurry of blows, pounding this creature with my pacifier. It just wouldn’t stop thrashing. I felt a crack. Its jaw had been crushed but it was still alive. Another hit, I managed to finally pop the eye dangling out of its socket. I kept hitting, blood was spraying everywhere. I kept shouting. Everyone else on the property had stopped and turned around to watch. They must have thought it some sick joke. They didn’t know. This one fleeting moment I had felt like a real man and now I was caught in a waking nightmare. I kept hitting. I’d managed to beat its head into a shape that no longer resembled a fish head; its blood was all over me. I kept hitting. Eventually, after what seemed like hours it stopped moving. I fell to my knees and wiped fish blood off my chin. Dad picked what remained of my fish up and put it in our bucket.

“Well done son.”

He was trying not to laugh. I think that’s the moment Dad realised that if there had ever been a hope of molding me into a ‘manly man’ it had long since passed. It was also the moment I realised that it wasn’t actually that important to him. After a few moments of staring at each other we both burst into laughter. I don’t remember stopping laughing until well into the BBQ that night, where we cooked up that messy beaten sack of fish flesh and ate it for dinner.

Dad and I still meet up when we have holidays, we still do our male bonding activities, but they’re usually trips to the pub these days, and at some point each trip we usually end up laughing about that fishing trip. My favourite part of this is, and I notice it more and more the older I get, when Dad and I laugh, or lean back in a chair, or get up from our stool after a few too many beers we do it in exactly the same way. When we laugh together my laugh sounds like his and our eyes crinkly in the same way.

In many ways my Dad and I are very different people, but in so many more important ways my Dad and I are the same person.

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