It’s a late spring day, bright but not too hot. Even here, a block back from the beach, the brisk breeze blowing in from the Pacific fills the air with the scent of seaweed and salt. I step into the café at Terrigal, pulling up one of the hard, white plastic chairs, then gripping it under my thighs to pull it in toward the table. The café has plenty of space in the early afternoon lull.
The waiter is the regular—a young man with pale, freckled skin, and the kind of too-neat haircut that suggests his mum still accompanies him to the hair-stylist. He knows already that I will have a large flat white; the familiarity of it is comforting without being stifling. I tip my head back a little, enjoying the breeze and the feeling of sunlight on my lowered eyelids.
I order the crispy-skinned barramundi. It will arrive, I know, perfectly cooked, the skin brown and crisp, served skin-side-up on top of a bed of salad and thick-cut chips. It’s comes with a side of extra-lemony hollandaise sauce and never fails to be delicious, and it is filling enough that I don’t need to eat again later.
Fish. I ate it frequently while growing up. My dad, a coal-miner and the father of six children, used to get up early in the morning and trudge off into the still-dark dawn, fishing rod over his shoulder. It was a way to feed the family for free. He would fish until 5 a.m. and bring back—if we were lucky—a clutch of the bream, or blackfish that are common in Tuggerah Lake. Sometimes it would be flathead or mullet, it all depended on what was biting, which fish liked the green-weed that he scraped from the rocks for bait – another penny-saver. After that he would drive to the coal mine at Munmorah, and climb into a cramped roofless carriage and head down the rails into the pitch dark, not to emerge again until night had fallen.
I take a deep breath and drink some of the hot, bitter coffee. No matter that I always ask for a flat white, it inevitably arrives with a layer of froth. I sip it carefully with tight lips so that the bubbles build up around my top lip and never enter my mouth.
The feeling of the coffee on my lips – warm and wet and frothy – reminded me of summer days on holiday, swimming in the harbour at South West Rocks and drying out in the hot sun. I would scramble up onto the rock-wall of the river-mouth where my dad was fishing, a feat that never failed to worry me. I had heard the tales of anglers being swept off into the ocean by large waves. Up I would climb, wet and warm, in nothing but my swimsuit, scrawny arms and legs brown from the sun, and long, sun-bleached hair sticking to my damp skin, the dry strands flying up, salt-brittle around my face and shoulders. Standing beside my father, I would watch the rocks, looking for the small crabs that hid there, and careful of the oysters that could cut bare feet so raggedly and swiftly.
I watched my dad pull in a fish, both of us smiling with the thought of flour-dredged, fried fish for dinner. What came up, though, was a misshapen thing, ugly,oddly coloured, and dangerous looking. My dad told me to keep back as he trapped the stonefish under his worn blue thong, and held it down while he cut the line. I watched with intense curiosity as he kicked the stonefish back into the water, careful not to let its pebbled skin touch his foot. I was upset about the hook that still poked from its mouth, a vicious metal spike showing on the outside of its lip, but there was nothing to be done, my dad said; they are highly venomous, and he couldn’t hold it to remove the hook. I wanted to pick it up, slide my hand down from head to tail the way I had been taught, pushing spiny fins down with my palm to avoid injury. I wanted to grab the sharp steel in my small fingers and curve it just so to remove it, but I didn’t. Instead, with a pang of sadness, I watched it swim off.
Growing up with six kids at the table and limited food to go around, I learned to eat quickly, always hoping that I was going to be the one to get the leftovers before they were all gone. We were taught how to eat fish properly—how to remove the spiny fins, and skirt the rib cage, lifting the fillet of mostly boneless flesh from the spine with the long bones that stuck from either side. We knew how to split the flesh into segments, carefully checking each for smaller bones, a must when eating tailor. Still, the odd bone did get swallowed, so we ate with bread on the table—plain and unbuttered with the theory that a wad of dry bread would push the bone down and not let it lodge in your throat. Apparently the Queen Mother had a fishbone lodged in her esophagus once, but the bread always worked for us, and swift-eating or not, we always knew to feel the flesh in our mouths first, carefully separating any small bones and spitting them out.
My ex-husband couldn’t have caught a fish if he’d had a trawler. I took pity on him one day and purchased a whole fish from the store. He had no idea how to prepare it. For a man who had an image of himself as tough and reliable he was useless when it came to the practical side of things. He watched in fascination as I lay the rainbow trout down on a board and proceeded to slide my sharp knife from the anus up to the gills. I removed the guts and organs of the fish while he made squeamish noises behind me and pulled a face at the blood on my fingers. The head and the gills came next, and, as I continued to work the fish, I told him how, when I was seven, I learned to kill fish from my best friend’s grandfather.
My friend and I watched as her grandfather reeled in a mullet from the muddy shores of Tuggerah Lake. He pulled it to the shore and instructed us on how to immediately kill it so that stress didn’t make the meat bitter. He handed me his fishing knife and watched approvingly as I dug it deep behind the fish’s head, severing its spine, and threw it into the white plastic fishing bucket. That white plastic, marked with age, just like the café chairs.
While I prepared the rainbow trout for my ex, I talked him through the process. Put the knife in here, slide it there so that the little fins around the gills are removed. This is how you safely get rid of the dorsal fin, this is how you take out the guts and clean the inside of the fish, making sure the membrane is removed. It was soothing to me, evoking memories of my dad doing it all on a sheet of newspaper, getting the fish ready for mum to cook. I’ve always thought you shouldn’t eat an animal unless you are willing to look it in the eye and take its life, unless you can prepare it yourself and be conscious of, and responsible about, its death. Granted, I have never killed a cow; but, I have kept chickens for eggs and later slaughter. I know how to skin small mammals, and even how to prepare the skins as leather or vellum. It’s something I am proud of, and will be useful in the event of a zombie apocalypse.
The waiter startles me from my thoughts, leaning over to tell me, “There’s no skin-on barramundi. We can make the same meal for you, but there’ll be no crispy skin.” I pout at him for a second.
“The skin is the best part!” I tell him. “Well…I guess I’ll have the BLT instead. Thank you.” I’m not annoyed exactly, but I am disappointed. The BLT arrives with deliciously crispy bacon, but it isn’t the same at all.