Port Sorell feels like home as soon as we drive into town. Dad says it’s because he’s connected to the Country, because he was born down here after Nanna Winnie left her husband in Goondiwindi. He reaches out and touches Mum’s hand and says, ‘And it’s special because you were made here, Andrew.’ Even though he says my name, he looks at Mum, so I’m not sure who he’s talking to.
It’s a long way off the highway – it feels like we’ve driven for hours along a winding road that goes between paddocks full of bright-red poppies, green grass and hundreds of cows and sheep. Just when I think we’re never going to make it, we start to see more and more houses. They’re small and funny-looking, like they’re not really finished yet, and Dad says they’re mostly fibro shacks.
‘Not many people live here year-round,’ he says. ‘They come for holidays.’
Dad has always wanted to live here – he told me when we were packing up the Rocherlea house. He didn’t remember living here as a kid because Nan had had to move a lot when he was little. But before I was born, he and Mum had gone on a camping trip back there and Dad loved it. He loved riding his bike from Port Sorell to a place called Hawley Beach. He loved the small-town atmosphere and that summer-holiday feeling. He wanted to feel that way all year round. He’d never forgotten how much fun he’d had that summer, so that was why, when he’d seen the job in Devonport, near his dream town, advertised in the paper, he’d decided to apply for it. The change would be good for all of us, he said, and besides, it was technically his Country. He was born there and he was sure he belonged there, even if he had no idea who our actual mobs were.
We are going to be living in a caravan, which is even in the same place where Mum and Dad had been on that camping trip before I was born. Dad’s new boss owns the van and used to rent it out to his friends in the summer holidays. Because Dad was going to be getting paid more than what we got off his dole, before we left Launceston he bought me a bike and a fishing rod. They weren’t new ones – he got them out of the Trading Post – but they were new to me. As we drive through Port Sorell, all I can think about is going to the beach and using the fishing rod.‘
Smell that,’ Dad says, winding his window down and sticking his nose out the window.I wind my window down and put my head out. I take a big sniff but all I can smell is normal air smell.
‘What?’ I ask.
‘It smells like freshness and salt spray,’ he says. He glances around for a moment and grins at me. ‘It smells like a new beginning, kiddo.’ I have another sniff and wonder what a new beginning smells like.
‘Can we go to the beach?’ I ask.‘
No,’ says Mum. ‘We’ve got to unpack the car first.’
‘But after the car is unpacked?’
‘Then it will be dinnertime.’
I kick the back of her chair and she turns around and glares at me.
‘Andrew, enough! We’re living here now – you’ll see the beach so much you’ll be sick of it. Now, sit back in your seat, stop kicking me and be quiet.’
I can’t imagine ever getting sick of the beach. It would be like getting sick of going on holidays: impossible.
We pull up outside a little shop and Dad turns off the engine, but he leaves the radio going for Mum. ‘Just getting the keys,’ he says, and goes inside.
‘Can I go into the shop?’ I ask Mum. ‘I’m a bit thirsty.’
‘You can have a drink when we get to the van. And don’t ask for something to eat, either, because that can wait too.’
When Dad comes back, we drive into the caravan park and I’m finally allowed to take my seatbelt off. I stick my head out the window again and even though I can’t smell the ocean, I can hear it. It’s not like it is on TV, like the waves making a crashing noise as they break, but more like the whooshy air sound that you get when you put your ear up to a shell.
The park is huge and there are lots of vans but also lots of empty places. Dad explains that people come with their caravans in the holidays and then drive them away again. But other people, like Dad’s new boss, just have their vans there all the time. Some of the all-the-time vans have people in them all the time and others just sit there empty until the holidays.
Our van is pretty small. It’s just one room with bunk beds on one side, a little table and chairs and a sink in the middle and a bed for Mum and Dad in the back. They have a white door that folds up like a fan so they can have some privacy. There’s a huge black bag on the table that Dad says has a kind of tent in it. The tent will attach to the side of the van and become our lounge room. But we don’t have a proper armchair or couch because we sold all that stuff with the old house, so it won’t really be a lounge room.
I don’t mind the van at all, but I can see that Mum doesn’t like it. She wrinkles her nose up and sweeps her fingers over the top of the kitchen bench and the table. She says the van has a funny smell, like it’s been closed up for a long time. When I take a big sniff, I think it smells like the Vinnies shop in Launceston where we get most of our clothes. It’s not that bad, not really.
Once we’ve unpacked the car, Dad takes me around the back of the van and shows me where I can put the fishing rods in a special tube that’s on the outside of the van. He also gives me a chain so I can lock my bike to the van at night as well.‘
It’s probably not as likely to get stolen here as it was in Rocherlea,’ he says after he’s quizzed me on the combination – which is 170709 – five times, ‘but it’s better to be safe than sorry.’
After dinner I keep getting in the way while Mum is trying to make up my bed, so Dad takes me for a walk. I want to ride my new bike – it’s been so long since I’ve had one – but Dad says it’s too dark. We walk out onto the jetty, all the way out on the water where the wind is blowing so hard that it makes my ears whistle and bits of sand crunch in my teeth.
It’s cold, but I don’t want to go back inside.
‘I can smell it,’ I say, yelling so Dad can hear me over the wind.
‘My new beginning.’
Mum isn’t very happy in Port Sorell.
I thought at first that it was because we were living in the caravan. When we moved in, the van was always cold and had that funny Vinnies smell that she hated. But then Dad got a little heater and it warmed up. It didn’t take long after that for the van to stop smelling like dust and old clothes that had been worn by lots of people before and start smelling like our smells.
There is no toilet or bathroom in the van, so we have to traipse through the caravan park over to the toilet block. The block is all brown brick and concrete, and sometimes when I’m sitting on the dunny, wind blows through gaps in the bricks so it’s kinda like doing a poo outside. When we have a shower, we have to wear thongs so we don’t get germs in our toes. At night-time, tucked into the bottom bunk bed, I snuggle under the covers and fall asleep listening to the sound of my parents’ voices at the other end of the van. It feels like home to me, but from the way Mum’s voice keeps going all squeaky, I know that she still doesn’t like it here.
The low rumble of Dad’s voice follows, but I can only catch the odd word: ‘… Launceston.’
‘This is awful … hate … home … don’t know what to do with him.’ Dad shooshes her and they go back to whispering again.
I’ve missed a lot of school, nearly the whole term, but Dad says it’s okay. I’m clever – I’ll catch up. When I go back to school after Christmas, I’ll be in grade three. And Wesley Vale Primary is a little school, so there will be grade threes in my class too. That will be good because I can do easier maths.
Dad and I spend a lot of our time exploring Port Sorell on our bikes. When we first moved here, he showed me how to set up my fishing rod and cast out, and when I caught my first fish, he showed me how to clean and gut it. We took it home for tea and Mum cooked it on the barbeque in a pouch made from tinfoil.
Our favourite place to fish is a tidal pool that’s so deep that it’s never empty, even when the tide goes out. The fish that don’t get out as the tides begin to change are stuck until it comes up again. And that’s when Dad and I go fishing.
When it’s sunny, sometimes the tidal pool looks like a swimming pool and I want to get in for a dip. But Dad won’t let me. ‘We don’t know how deep it is,’ he said the first time I started wading in for a paddle. ‘And we don’t know if there are sharks or other nasties trapped in there. They’ll be angry about being stuck and hungry. If a nice, warm, nearly nine-year-old boy gets in, they might think you’re their dinner.’
So that’s why we don’t swim in the tidal pool, just fish.
‘Do you like it here?’ Dad asks as I cast my rod out. The sinker plops into the water, almost in the very middle of the pool. I’m real, real good at casting now.
‘I love it here. I love fishing.’‘
That’s good, that’s real good.’ He adjusts his line and the reel makes a clicking sound that I love. Sometimes I wind my line just to hear that noise. ‘What about school? Do you miss it?’
‘Not the yelling teachers. But I miss my friends.’
‘We were thinking, your mum and I, that it might be time to see about sending you to school here. I know we were going to wait until after Christmas, but I don’t want you to miss out on making friends and all that good stuff. You know you’ll have to catch a bus to Wesley Vale Primary? Mum will drive you some days, but she’s not going to be able to do it every day.’
‘I used to walk by myself all the time.’‘I know you did. But things are different here. We – your mum and I – we just want to make sure that —’My line jerks and suddenly bends towards the water. I screech – it always surprises me when a fish hits it – and jerk the line back. The rod bends even more and I think the fish might snap it or, worse, drag me into the ocean where I’ll drown.
‘Dad! It’s going to break my rod!’ I feel tears prickling at my eyes.He puts his own rod down and comes over to stand behind me. I lean back and feel a bit safer when he puts his big arms around me and adds his hands to the line with mine.
‘Don’t panic. The rod’s a good one – it’ll bring him in. Now wind it, just a little bit …’I wind just a tiny bit, and the clicking doesn’t sound quite so good to my ears. Dad shows me how to give the fish a bit more line, then wind it slowly, and then let it out again. He says that we have to play with it, make it tired, so that by the time it gets to the surface of the water, it doesn’t struggle as much.
The fish is huge and it takes a long time for us to reel it in. I have to give Dad a few goes by himself because my arms get tired, but he gives the rod back to me just as the silvery body of the fish hits the surface of the water. Dad cheers and my heart hammers in my chest as I reel the fish the rest of the way in. I’m so excited about my catch that instead of gutting it there at the beach like we usually do, he lets me carry it back to the caravan, pausing every so often to pat me on the back. When we get home, Mum takes the camera out and we all pose for pictures. I smile a lot, partly because I’m proud that I’ve caught a fish big enough for all three of us to eat for dinner, but also partly because Mum is smiling. Maybe I’m wrong, I think, and Mum is happy here. I think about movies and pancakes and Mum dancing to old Michael Jackson songs, and I feel like things might be good from now on.
We eat the fish for dinner with Mum’s special homemade potato salad, and after she tucks me into bed that night, I don’t hear any whispered arguing.
This excerpt is from the novel Burn, which can be found here.