A Blind Fish in the Shadows
“Are there people at the jetty today, Mum?”
“There’s a few down there, luv. I think I can see Sarah Halliday. She must be with her Dad.”
“Her Dad’s always at the jetty, isn’t he?”
I knew if Mum cut our conversation short like that, there was more to the story, but she wasn’t going to tell me.
Sarah Halliday wasn’t my friend really, but she always came to my best friend Connie’s house on the weekend because her Mum would drop her off at her Dad’s house. Sarah’s Dad lived around the corner from us, but she went to school in Wallaroo where she lived with her Mum. Connie said Sarah’s Mum had to work weekends at the pub, or else she never would have left her in Port Broughton. Sarah never talked about her Dad, so I never asked.
Connie Langston was two years older than me, but she was my best friend, and her house was only two doors down from ours, so Mum would let me walk there on my own. Connie’s Mum- Fiona Langston- was friends with my Mum, too, so we’d done everything together for as long as I could remember. I didn’t like it as much when Sarah Halliday was at Connie’s because she was always really bossy.
I lived in Port Broughton with my Mum and Dad, and my older brother, Stephen. Dad worked in the irrigation department at the back of Kelsey’s Hardware where he’d been working since he left school, so he knew everything about it. Stephen had nearly finished his apprenticeship with Graham Kelsey whose cousins owned the Hardware store. Graham’s business installed irrigation for farmers, so Stephen saw Dad nearly every morning.
“Is Stephen’s truck at Kelsey’s? He said he was going there this morning to get some pipe for the new council garden.”
“Yes, Sunny. He’s there. And before you ask, yes. Mr Granderson is on the bench having a cigarette outside the library. Is there anything else you’d like to know Little Miss Sticky Beak?” Mum and I both laughed. Sometimes I asked her too many questions.
My real name is Sandra Wilson, but my Dad was the one who first called me Sunny. When I was really little, Mum used to sit me in the sunroom along the side of our house at 5 Durdon St. The sunroom had a single wall of windows facing north, so in the winter, it was the warmest place in the whole house. There was a tree outside that scratched against the glass in the wind, and if Mum opened the window, I could hear the birds. That’s why Dad called me Sunny. Because I was happy just to sit in the sun all day and listen.
The thing is, that’s about all I could do when I was really little. Mum said I was born too early, so something happened to the retinas in my eyes and they were never going to get better. I couldn’t see anything, but it didn’t matter to me at all when I sat in the sunroom, as long as I could feel the sun and hear the birds.
Oops! I nearly forgot about Freddy the Fish.
I had lots of toys scattered all over the floor, but they always had bells and crinkly stuff on them that made too much noise. My favourite toy was Freddy the Fish because he was big enough to cuddle and sit quietly with me in the sunroom. Dad said that I could probably see Freddy in my own magical world where nobody else could see him. He said that my eyes only saw beautiful things where other people had to see ugly stuff in the real world. But I still wished I could see the real world sometimes, even if it was ugly.
“Oh, bugger it,” Mum said as she turned off the main street. It was the first Monday of the school holidays and we were going to the shops to get some flour, because we were supposed to make a mudcake together for Stephen’s birthday. Mum must have forgotten something because that was the only time she ever said bugger.
“I forgot that I’m supposed to be helping Karen Smith with Rhiannon’s wedding dress today.” Mum was a dressmaker before Stephen was born and she still made most of the wedding dresses for our friends. I hated being at home when she was doing it because she would be angry all the time, and I couldn’t hear anything else for the constant stopping and starting of the sewing machine. And Mum said bugger all the time when she was making a wedding dress.
“Sorry, luv, but you might have to sit around a bit. I promised Karen I would get the measurements done today.”
“Can I stay at Connie’s house?” I said. Mum always let me stay at Connie’s, and I would rather go there than sit and do nothing at the Smith’s. Mr Smith was a Sargeant at the Police Station and everyone said he was the best Sargeant our town ever had, but Dad said Mrs Smith was a stuck up cow.
“I guess we can call past on the way,” Mum said. “But only if Fiona’s at home, too. I don’t trust Connie when Sarah’s in town.”
“You said Sarah was at the jetty with her Dad,” I reminded her.
“Yes, I suppose.” Mum always worried about things too much.
When we got to Connie’s, Mum waited in the car while I went to the front door. There was a small step up from the gravel onto their front path, and a few steps later, a round hole in the concrete where a plant used to be. I knew every bush, bump and tuft of grass around the Langston’s house. I’d been getting to know the path from my house to Connie’s ever since I could walk.
I tapped the door knocker how I always did, so Connie knew it was me. One…two…three- four- five…Once I caught a fish alive. I was beginning to worry that nobody was at home until I heard Connie’s footsteps on the floorboards coming quickly down the passageway. When she opened the door, she seemed to be puffing.
“Hi, Sunny,” she said between deep breaths. “What’s up?”
“Mum has to go to Mrs Smith’s to help with Rhiannon’s wedding dress, so can I stay here with you?”
“Sorry, but I’m not going to be here much longer, Sunny. Sarah text me to come down to the jetty. She’s there with her Dad.”
“Yeah, Mum saw her before.” It was one of those disappointing moments when I knew that if I could see stuff in the real world, Connie would let me come with her.
“Why don’t you take Sunny with you,” her Mum’s voice called out from the kitchen. “Don’t be so mean, Connie.”
Connie didn’t answer straight away. She must have been thinking about what to say back. “I don’t think she would want to come, Mum,” she called back down the passage. “We’re going for a really long walk along the beach.” She grabbed my arm to pulled me in close and started whispering quickly, so her Mum couldn’t hear. “Just say you don’t want to come, Sunny. Sarah wants me to go with her to meet up with Greg Jones because he got some weed from his brother. Just say it. Please. I don’t want Mum to think it’s because I’m being mean.”
“Why are you going?” I whispered. “You shouldn’t do it if you don’t want to.”
“I’m not going to do it, Sunny, I’m just going with her.”
“Not going to do what?” her Mum asked from half way along the passage. “Whatever it is that you’re not going to do, you can take Sunny with you.” She walked between us and called out to my Mum who was still waiting in the car. “Don’t worry, Amanda. She can stay as long as you need. Do you mind if they go down to the jetty for a bit?”
“No, that’s fine,” Mum called back through the passenger side window. “But I think I saw Sarah down there with Phil.”
“Yes, I know.” Connie’s Mum didn’t hide the disapproving tone in her voice. “I’ll put a time limit on how long they can stay there. Apparently, he was getting quite worked up yesterday about the boats, but their keeping an eye on him. I think he’s getting worse, so I’ve told Connie to walk away if it gets too uncomfortable. Good luck with Rhiannon’s dress. I don’t envy you.”
“Thanks Fiona. Don’t get into any trouble, you two,” Mum called out. “I will be back in a few hours.” Her tyres crackled on the gravel kerb as she pulled back onto the bitumen and drove away.
“And you still have to clean your room first, young lady,” Connie’s Mum reminded her before returning to the kitchen.
Connie’s footsteps pounded back toward her room. She didn’t need to say anything for me to know that she was angry about having to take me with her. I ran my fingers gingerly along the passage wall, brushed over the clothes on their coat hooks, and then sidled guiltily into Connie’s room, feeling like I had ruined what she thought was going to be an exciting day. Connie had never made me feel like that before.
“Can you just sit on the bed then, Sunny. I want to clean this stupid room as fast as I can. Sarah probably won’t even wait for me now.” I guessed that was why she was puffing. Her room must have been really messy.
“I’m Sorry, Connie.” I said. “I didn’t know, or I would’ve gone with Mum.”
Connie stopped what she was doing. I felt her knee push down in the bed beside me and her arms wrap around my neck.
“It’s alright, Sunny.” The tone of her voice was enough to tell me she wasn’t really angry at me. “I know it’s not your fault. Mum just never lets me do anything, so I thought today was going to be fun.”
“It can still be fun,” I said. “I’ll wait on the bench by the jetty while you guys go for a walk if you want. Mum lets me sit there all the time when she goes to the shops, because Mrs Lambert can see me from the real estate building.”
“No way! Mum would kill me if I did that. We’ll just have to do something else. I don’t really care what Sarah says, anyway.”
Connie missed out on doing lots of things because of me and I hated knowing that, more than I hated missing out myself. I knew she could see what other people were doing and that must have made it twice as hard for her. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It especially wasn’t Connie’s fault, but she never left me to sit alone. And I don’t think it was because of her Mum either. She just cared about me, which is why she was my best friend.
“Mum,” Connie called out when she was done. “It’s finished.”
“Do you seriously, call that clean?” her Mum asked indignantly after a quick inspection from the doorway. “Lucky for you Sunny’s here or you wouldn’t be going anywhere. Now, remember what I told you about Phil, Connie. I would prefer that you stay away from the jetty if he’s there. Sarah will see you coming down the main street and she can come to meet you at the lawns. Have I made myself clear?”
Connie held my hand as we walked to the main street and then down to a memorial tower by the beach lawns. I could usually walk along the main street on my own if I was with Mum, but Connie was in too much of a hurry.
“Why is everyone so worried about Sarah’s Dad?” I asked her. Neither of us ever spoke to Sarah about him, but Connie’s Mum seemed to have explained more than my Mum had.
“I don’t know,” she answered dismissively. “I heard my Dad say he’s got a screw loose, or something. But Dad says that about everyone. Hey. There’s Sarah,” I felt Connie waving. “She looks really angry,” she whispered sneakily, trying not to laugh.
“Didn’t you text her?” I said.
“Yeah, but we’re really late. Oh well. Greg should still be there. I bet Buster’s with him, too.”
“I hate Buster,” I said. “He smells like a fart.”
“Sunny,” Connie laughed out loud. “You can’t say that.”
“Well, he does.”
“Hurry up,” Sarah yelled to us from the end of the street. “She sounded as angry as she must have looked. “Why is she here? I’m not babysitting her.”
“Shut up, Sarah,” Connie snapped angrily. “Do you want me to come, or not?”
“Yeah, but we have to hurry. Greg said he wants to meet us behind the shed at Buster’s place. You have to show me where it is.”
“It’s okay, Connie,” I said. “You go.”
“How long will we be there?” Connie asked Sarah.
“What difference does it make? Sunny’ll be alright, Connie. Everyone here knows who she is.”
But Connie was still thinking about something.
“Where’s your Dad?” she asked Sarah. “I can’t see him.”
“I don’t know.” Sarah snapped back. “Who cares, anyway? I’m trying to get away from him. He won’t come up here, if that’s what you’re worried about. He doesn’t want to leave the stupid jetty. Let’s just go, Connie!”
I felt Connie’s hand cup around my ear as she whispered to me. “I won’t be long. If anything happens, wait for me in the secret place.”
I nodded in agreement. We were the only ones who knew where our secret place was. I knew she hated leaving me, but I would have hated it more to make her stay. I didn’t really mind, anyway because it was a perfect day, and I was happy to sit on the bench as sunlight filtered through the pine trees like it did in the sunroom.
The sound of tiny ripples lapping against the jetty told me how choppy the sea was. Some days, it was almost like it was completely still, but there was just enough wind about, stirring the water up to dance around in tiny waves. Freddy the Fish would have loved being there, but thirteen year olds can’t take their toys down to the main street. Apparently, it looks funny, but what would I have known about that.
I heard a vehicle coming along the esplanade behind me. As it got closer, the horn blasted, and I knew it was Stephen’s work truck. He slowed down and pulled up behind me, so I spun around to face him.
“What are ya doin’ there, Sun?” Stephen was the only person who called me Sun for short.
“I’m listening to the water? It’s a little bit choppy today.”
“She’s at Mrs Smith’s doing something for Rhiannon’s wedding dress.”
“So, who brought ya down here. Ya better not have come on your own.” Stephen was eight years older than me and always treated me like I was still a little kid.
“I’m with my friends. Why does everyone always worry about everything?” I was angry with him because he was angry with me. That’s what always happened when he tried to boss me around.
“What friends, Sun? There’s no one here.”
“They’re on the jetty.” That was a mistake. I was so lost in listening to the water, I forgot to listen for the sounds of people. As soon as I said it, I knew that if there were any people my age on the jetty, they would have been screaming or laughing, or making some kind of noise.
“Unless you only have one friend whose a really old guy in a beany that decided to come fishing, then I think you might be lying to me, Sun.”
“Okay!” I amitted angrily. “Connie came with me, but she had to go off for a minute to do something for her Mum. She will be back soon, so stop worrying. Happy Birthday.”
“Thanks,” he laughed, and I could hear someone else in the truck laughing as well, which made me even angrier. “I’m going to see Dad to get some more pipe, and if you’re still here when I come back past, I’ll be texting him. You can’t stay here without Connie.”
I spun back to face the jetty.
“Sunny. Did you hear me?”
“Of course I heard you, Stephen.” I said. “I can hear much better than you.”
As soon as his truck pulled away, I knew what I had to do. If Dad found out that I was there alone, he would have to leave work to come and get me, and then Connie would get in trouble with her Mum. If I went to the secret place, Stephen wouldn’t be able to see me from the truck and he would leave me alone and go back to work. Connie already knew where she would find me.
The area in front of me was the hardest part to walk because tree roots were bulging up through the lawn, so I stepped very carefully, feeling for the trees to work out what direction I should take from there. Just beyond the trees was a large stretch of paving that went all the way to the jetty and then down each side to the beach. I knew where the jetty was from the sounds of water against the poles.
Ever since we were old enough for Connie to take me to the beach on our own, we always liked sitting beneath the start of the jetty where it crossed over the sand. We could stay there out of the sun where no one was watching and talk about whatever we wanted to. I ran my fingers along the steel beam that supported the fence rails until I was far enough across the sand to slip beneath the jetty. It was a perfect plan because when Connie got back, she would know exactly where to find me. Stephen already told me that there was only one old man fishing off the jetty, so no one else would have seen me, except maybe Mrs Lambert, but she wouldn’t have thought anything of it. I plonked myself down in the shade and clapped my hands to get the sand off.
A man’s angry voice snapped at me.
“If you’re going to be noisy, you can’t stay here.” I nearly jumped out of my skin. The man was sitting under the jetty in our secret spot. I was so afraid, I couldn’t breathe to speak. What if it was Sarah’s Dad? He spoke again, sharply like he was giving me instructions. “You’ll scare my fish away. Do you understand? I hate people who scare my fish away.”
“Yes.” I managed to say that much at least, because I didn’t want him to think I was going to be noisy. He sounded like he was angry at me.
“People can’t see how beautiful he is,” he insisted.
Then the man stopped speaking and I could hear by the direction of his breath that he was looking at the water. The sound of ripples lapping against the jetty poles echoed all the way along the underside of the jetty and disappear into the sand behind us. A mass of squawking seagulls suddenly got excited in front of the beach shelter. Someone must have thrown the last of their chips onto the beach. I heard the man’s breath turn towards the noise, but when the seagulls quietened back down, he faced the water again. I was too afraid to speak, but I was also too afraid to try and leave.
“I saw him yesterday, you know,” he said quietly. “But he only comes if you stay really quiet. Do you like fish?” There was no emotion in his voice, but I could tell that he was serious about what he wanted to say. He spoke in a way that kids even younger than me would say things, like everything is really important, even if it isn’t.
“My favourite toy is Freddy the Fish,” I said. “Or was, I guess. I’m thirteen now.”
“What does he look like? Is he beautiful?”
I was wearing sunglasses to cover my eyes, so the man mustn’t have worked out yet that I was blind. I decided not to tell him, so he would think that I could run away if I wanted to. He didn’t seem to want to hurt me. He was still sitting in exactly the same place as when I first got there.
“Freddy is about this big.” I held out my hands to show him. “About as long as a pillow. And he’s soft like a pillow, too.” It made me feel safer just talking about him. “He has a big, golden tail like his head, with scales that shine like a rainbow.” I only knew that because Mum told me. I didn’t know what Fred looked like in the real world, but I knew what he looked like in mine.
“That’s exactly like the one I saw yesterday,” the man said, “but the one I saw had a golden fin on top of his back, too. He was a beauty.”
“Fred does too!” I said excitedly, remembering the rest of Mum’s description.
“Hey!” he said all seriously again. “Keep your voice down. He won’t come back if you do that.”
“Oh. Sorry,” I whispered. “I forgot.”
“It’s okay, but don’t do it again or you’ll have to go away. This was the same time he came yesterday, so I reckon he’ll be here any second.”
I was quite sure that I could have left if I wanted to. The man was more worried about seeing the fish than doing anything to hurt me. I only had to stay there for a little while longer and I knew Connie would come to find me, anyway. And I was hoping the man would see his fish. He was so excited about it.
“Do you want to know something?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Did you know there are fish that live in dark caves, so they don’t even need eyes anymore. They’re called blind fish.” I wasn’t sure if he had worked out about me being blind, but I still didn’t say anything about it. “But somehow, they know if there’s light shining on them, so if you move a shadow through the water, they’ll chase after it to get away from the light. Can you believe it? How do they know where the shadow is if they can’t even see?”
“Because when someone can’t see,” I explained, “they get better at other things.” He didn’t say anything else for a while. I could tell he was still thinking about how the blind fish could see a shadow.
All of a sudden, I heard him move and his hand grabbed hold of my arm. It wasn’t hard like he was going to hurt me, but I wanted him to let go.
“Shhh,” he said, like something important was happening. “Here he comes. Listen.”
I could hear it, too. A noise that sounded different to the constant lapping of water against the poles, like it was moving through the water.
“There’s his fin,” the man said. “It’s gold, just like the one I saw yesterday.” I heard him lunge forward onto his knees nearer the water.
Connie had told me everything about how it looked under the jetty, so I knew exactly what it looked like in my world. As the fish got closer, I could hear him splashing higher in the water where his rainbow scales could glitter from the sheets of sunlight filtering between the wooden slats above. He circled in front of us like he had come to show us how beautiful he was.
“Can you see him?” the man asked, barely able to catch his breath.
“Yes.” I whispered, caught up in his excitement. He made it seem so real, like he was seeing my magical world exactly as I could see it. “He is just like Freddy.” I said. “I wouldn’t have believed it was true before, but now he’s here, he’s even more beautiful than you said.”
I could tell how excited the man was. His almost frantic silence was broken by uncertain giggles like a little kid watching a puppy chewing on a shoe, unsure if it was being funny or naughty.
“He’s looking at me,” he yelled and laughed aloud, before realising how much noise he made. “Shhh,” he hushed at me before turning away again, trying not to laugh. “Someone will hear us.”
As the man watched his fish, he gradually fell silent, and I sensed his dawning sadness that such a magical moment could not last forever. I knew that something was wrong in his heart, and it was all I could do to reassure him that I could see his fish just as clearly as he could. To share with him the one light shining into his own dark cave. To help him feel that it was real, and that he was not completely alone.
“You won’t tell anyone, will you?” He became serious again. “You know they’ll kill him. They always kill everything.”
“No. I won’t say anything.” I knew that no one would believe me anyway.
As swiftly as he arrived, the golden fish disappeared back into the water, and I heard the splash as he dived beneath the surface where no one could see him.
“Woohoo,” the man called out. He was happy to make as much noise as he wanted once the fish had been and gone.
“Does he come here every day?” I asked.
“I only saw him for the first time yesterday, but I’ve been looking for him for weeks. No one believed me. I was telling them to stop making so much noise with their boats, but they kept telling me to go home. But you believe me now, don’t you?”
“Of course I do.”
I heard footsteps coming across the pavers and onto the jetty.
“Shhh,” the man said again. “They’ll find us.”
We both stayed silent under the jetty, trying not to laugh, when a loud thump of feet landed in the sand beside the man. Before he could think, someone started yelling at him.
“Get out of there! Now!” I recognised instantly that it was Dad’s voice and he was really angry. “What the hell are you doing with my daughter, you filthy prick?”
“Calm down, Doug,” another voice said. “Find out what’s going on before you get too fired up.” It was Mr Kelsey. I didn’t understand what was happening. Why would Mr Kelsey come with Dad to find me? I heard the man getting dragged away through the sand and his muffled grunts as he tried to fight against whoever had hold of him. It must have been Dad. I heard more people walking onto the sand behind me.
“Hey. Come out, Sun. It’s alright.” Stephen took my arm and lead me out the other way. He tried to hug me. “Did he touch you?”
“Of course not. I told you not to worry about me.” I pushed him away because I was angry at him again for getting me into so much trouble.
“Jesus, Sunny. You scared the crap out of us. Dad almost lost it.”
More voices started to arrive, and Dad was arguing with everyone. No one could calm him down.
“Let go, Doug. He’s not going anywhere,” Mr Kelsey yelled, trying to reason with him. “Smithy’s gonna be here any minute, mate. Let him do his job.”
“She’s my bloody daughter. Ya reckon it’s not hard enough already.” I’d never heard Dad so upset. It even sounded like he was almost crying.
“I know. No one’s saying you shouldn’t be angry, Doug. Just don’t do anything stupid. Sunny’s alright and Phil doesn’t mean any harm, mate. It’s just a bloody shame what’s happening to him.”
“Why is everyone so angry?” I asked Stephen. “We were just sitting there.” I didn’t want to say anything about the fish because it was so important to the man. He wasn’t trying to hurt anyone.
“Something’s just happening to Phil, Sun. He doesn’t think straight like he used to. No one knows if he can be trusted anymore, and after this, I think they’ll have to take him away to live somewhere else.”
“He’s Sarah Halliday’s Dad, isn’t he? Why won’t anyone tell me what’s wrong with him?”
“Because no one knows. He used to work for the Fisheries Department, but he started goin’ on about weird fish at the jetty and he’s getting worse all the time. Poor bastard. Dad wants to kill ‘im.”
“But he wasn’t touching me. We were just sitting there. And what’s going to happen to Sarah?”
“I don’t know, Sun.”
Mum’s car pulled up on the road. You could tell she was upset by how hard the car door slammed, and that she was almost running across the lawn.
“I told Doug as soon as I saw her go down there, Amanda.” It was Mrs Lambert’s voice. She must have always been watching me closer than I thought.
Mum was in tears before she even reached me. “What did he do to her?”
“She’s okay, Mum. Nothing happened.” Stephen was nervous because Mum was screaming at him, but he didn’t even do anything.
“Where the hell is Connie?” She screamed even louder.
I’d forgotten all about Connie. Everything was turning into one giant mess. All I wanted was to let her do something for once without having to worry about me. Now, she was going to be in more trouble than ever.
Sarah’s Dad was going to get taken away somewhere, too, but he wasn’t a bad person. He was like those blind fish in the caves. He could feel the light around him but his eyes couldn’t see it anymore, so he was scared, and searching for safety in the shadows. I’d been in my own shadows since the day I was born, but I was never scared because Freddy the Fish was always with me. I wanted Sarah’s Dad to know that I wasn’t angry with him and I would never forget seeing his beautiful fish. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought. He was the only other person who ever saw Freddy as I could see him, in my magical world, and it was real.