Tuesday, November 17, 2009

in which the fish considers the deepest parts of the ocean

He is underwater.

Air is pumped into his lungs via a large tube. He wakes, and is frightened, scrawls a note, his hands  scrabbling in the air, like crabs dislodged from a rock crevice. He writes my name.

Dutifully, I appear when summoned. When he opens his eyes he seems to look at me as if from the bottom of the ocean, as if he has dreamt me. When I speak, his heart rate increases. I am not sure in what place or form he sees me. His eyes seem full of the ocean. He weeps.

Next day he is still peering at me from his subaquatic dreamspace. His hands, crabs again, clutch at the air, writing in the air with a finger. I can recognise the number 2, but I can't follow the rest.

 I give him a pen and hold the board up. He scratches laboriously with the pen:


Awareness dawns. The 2/19th Battalion:

He wants his father.

His father, my grandfather, was a prisoner of war, and worked the Burma railway. In the morning he would carry stones uphill, after noon he would carefully carry  them down again, so that no work was  actually done.  He of the secret diaries, he who only just survived Changi. He of the long face, the blue eyes and the secrets  unmistakeably shared his genes with me.

My father misses his dad.

Next day I bring a book.  Expecting the worst, I am prepared to read aloud to his  underwater stare and scrabbling fingers, but there he is, awake and talking. Breathing.
The first thing he tells me is that all children should know about Changi.
About the Burma railway.

I read aloud the chapter anyway. He listens obediently.

He speaks about his father, ceaselessly, like I have never heard before. I wonder where he has been, down there in the underwater caverns, whether he has been swimming with souls I never knew were there. Naturally enough, since he is the father of the fish, the one who taught me the ways of the ocean in the first place, perhaps when he was absent from his body up there in intensive care he went for a wander, and ended up in the deepest places of the ocean, face to face with ghosts.


The sea has risen overnight: to look towards the horizon is  like looking into the foaming jaws of a seamonster.  Along the edge are scattered groups of people, most of them skiving off from school. A group of young men, that gleam of strawberry gelato upon  their white flesh, are on their knees joyfully and energetically digging an enormous hole at the water's edge. They scoop great dollops of sand with their large hands, laughing. Making a pond. The foam crackles up at speed, and fills the hole, creating a fountain which explodes all over them.
On my return lap, I see from a distance that they have waded in. This concerns me, as the beach is closed. The pale lavender tints of their complexions tell me they are not from here, and I know the sea would fancy taking them and holding them deep in the underland, where they might meet old soldiers from Changi or God knows where.
As I try to decide what I will say to get them out, the lifeguard buzzes up on his trike, and gently coaxes them out of danger.


I find a quick place, and slither in, just to make my heart race. The water is turquoise flesh marbled with fat white streaks, totally opaque. I am under, over and around and out before anybody sees me.

In the rockpool the water is dancing wildly. I am surprised to see a swimmer, a grandma, clad in a crimson sunhat, paddling across the wild water. The ribbon on her hat is printed with crimson flowers and tied in a bow,  her bathers are black, against the ghostly white of her small white limbs. Her feet make tiny movements, which seem to propel her slowly, gently, a single lap across the end of the pool. She looks up at me, her face filled with joy, and I call to her hello, hello  so happy and pretty she looks you look so pretty in your hat I tell her and she smiles and swims on, her soft decolletage like a cloud billowing to the surface with each stroke. Watch out the tide is not yet full  I tell her.


The sea is full now, so I enter the rockpool with wild delight. Great rolling waves obliterate the edges, huge spilling surges roll on in. Here I am in my own element, the moment I hit the water I am all speckled underbelly and webbed fins, spinning through the slabs of creamy foam and the speeding water. Head down, body tight, elbow high, reaching as far as my fins will reach.  People drift by, and seeing me there cutting through the water, dive in too. They are not to know that just below the waterline I am all fishspecked belly, pouting jaw and  great goggling fish eyes. They are not to know that I flick to the bottom at the sound of the whitewater coming, without putting my head up. That I circle and hold fast to the sand at the bottom at the sound of a certain sea-pitch in my fish ears.

My dad taught me that.


Old Tony, shadow boxing at the top of the steps, smiles when these people clamber out, weak kneed at the hammering they have received. He says he is tempted to tell them not to go in, but my presence there is deceptive, so they follow me. I find it hard to say please get out, it is dangerous because that would sound arrogant, but they scramble out pretty quick smart anyway, thank goodness.


My dad says he wishes he had asked his dad a whole lot more, too many things he will not know. He says that his surf club colours were those of the Navy, the Army, the Air Force. He says somewhere there is a medal, that it is for me. Give it to me then I say to him but he says No. 

I swim on, like a fat speckled sea thing. There is no medal for this, I say, hanging onto the sand, feet in the air as the waves roar over . No medal needed for this.


Leenie said...

To the fish:
I felt the sea, the foam and the sand in your words. I saw your father seeking his offspring to comfort him as he comforted her long ago. Both of you sliding through your oceans, sometimes cautious but always brave. Be brave now. Help Dad be brave as he taught you to be.

Anonymous said...

When the body goes into crisis, we go to places that are always there but submerged – a massive tide arrives and reveals the hidden.

Last year, I was in emergency waiting for a spot in theatre (a delay of 18 hours - RNSH – where else!!). It was the Ides of March, the anniversary of my mother’s death, and I was the same age as my maternal Grandmother when she died from the same operation – no drugs around then. An image of my mother floated above my head, my favourite photo, she would have been my age (56 last year, younger this year...), all dark hair and laughing eyes. A hand swept across my face, a reassuring “you’ll be alright darling, see you another time” touch, then the needle and that spooky coldness crept into my hand.

Your lovely Dad had undoubtedly found that same, hidden place. It is wonderful fifi, not scary. It makes sense. When I expressed my doubts about my sanity at the time, my herbalist GP smiled and said that Aboriginal people would understand, and that there is a place in other societies for this way of seeing.

And my Dad always said that we (NZers) should have been brought home from Europe to fight with our Anzac mates. The Aussies suffered so much, but they hung onto the sand – what a beautiful Dad you have. And he is there in your writing.

(apols for the long-windedness in your blog - your images healed my spirit after a bit of a day on land.)

fifi said...

What extraordinarily lovely comments, both of you.
I did think that he was sonewhere, with someone. I was not certain he would return, but he surprised me.

My dad is a grumpy, self contained person usually, his tears and words have surprised me even more than his reappearance in this world.
Thank you both for saying such lovely things here and in other posts of mine. I feel very blessed that you read these things and respond so thoughtfully.

rb said...

Yes, they were lovely comments. Made me hesitate to leave one incase mine would be lacking in some way.

When I had meningitis years ago, far too many years ago, I lost 2 weeks of my life. Except I did and I didn't. I don't remember much about the time but it was certainly not an unpleasant time and I have some recollection of visitors - my daughter in particular who learnt to walk trying to get from the chair to my bed in the hospital. I am afraid of water so would never see it that way but it did feel like I was drifting between two places - both of which were good and where something was going on in both but where there was no requirement to engage with either which was relaxing in a way that nothing else ever is.

Oh I don't know. I don't believe in the afterlife at all but the brain has an amazing capacity to look after us and protect us I think.

I hope your father will be OK.

little red hen said...

Tears came as I read your post. I think I may have mentioned before that I lost my father when I was 26, pregnant with BB and he was only 48. There were so many things I didn't get a chance to ask him although in the lead up to his death he was on stress leave from work and I on maternity leave so I spent quite a lot of time getting to know him as an adult rather than as a child and he came to know me better too. Although he had been quite unwell for some time he managed to bounce back and be his very silly self- he was like a kid who never grew up! I can't imagine what it must be like to watch your father unwell as yours is not being able to communicate as he used to. It must be difficult for you. It is beautiful that you both know the sea so well and that he shared this with you and you seem to be so soothed by it. You have had a pretty difficult time all round of late haven't you? Sending you love and hope.

eurolush said...

Always incredibly moving to see the world through your eyes. Your writing is so powerful and thoughtful and heartfelt. It's poetic and evocative. Almost impossible not to smell the sea and hear the roar of the water from thousands of miles away.

Reading your words is like following you...like being one of those tiny, silvery fish who swims alongside larger sea creatures in the deep ocean...seeing what you see...feeling what you feel...following the rhythms and currents of language.

I'm sorry to hear your father's not well.

You and he are both in my thoughts.

Linda Sue said...

Your post must and will be read many times here- utterly beautiful...curious that water is very important during whatever this state of being is...my own Dad ,while he was in and out of post surgery which short changed him on oxygen leaving him damaged forevermore...though raised in high plains desert- went to the ocean in his head, his memory, his comfort, during his dieing time, and his mother became the foremost important figure ushering him through. Curious.
Your writing is amazing. Love your blog. Love you and your Dad...Just amazing and thank you for this post.

Isabelle said...

Oh Fifi, I hope he gets better.

ThirdCat said...


Jellyhead said...

fifi, I am literally slightly breathless after reading your post. To read it was like being washed over with a huge, bubbling, wondrous wave. 'Bittersweet' doesn't do it justice.

I am thinking of you, and your dear Dad.

Isabelle said...

(And, oh Fifi, I feel as if I'll cry for ever, never mind six months. But inside. )

Ulrike said...

Beautiful post; lovely comments.

I can't think of other words just now, but I wanted to let you know that you have moved me so.

Luhlahh said...

Thinking of you. Sending love.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I am finding myself quite breathless now. I am so sorry to hear of your father. Sending you thoughts and wishes. x

M said...

..it´s not easy nto find any words after a post like this.
The fish is too incredibly wise, I shall say, so I know not what to tell the fish.
Only that I am deeply moved. And that the the poetic of life is so beautiful enlarged through the fish´s eyes, even knowing either the ocean and the earth often reserve us unwished surprises.

Pam said...

I feel my words to be inadequate Fifi, others have expressed what I want to say so eloquently.I feel for you and your Dad.What you've written is so moving.

Meggie said...

I am filled with regret at questions I did not ask, because I thought it may seem rude, or intrusive.
I still love the sea, but find it frightens me now that I am older.

Debby said...

Oh, this post left me tearful. What a hard time for you.

Anonymous said...

Popped by to see if there was any news yet. Thinking of you. x