“Cascade?” Asked JB, handing me a cold beer. Q. Why is Australian beer served cold? A. So you can tell it from urine.
“You and Robbie have a bed made up in the garage.” Said Deb.
“We think we’ve cleared out all the redbacks.” JB added, referring to one of the indigenous venomous spiders. I asked him why, with a diet that consisted of small insects, their venom had to be extravagantly toxic enough to drop a large horse.
“Tough neighborhood.” He said. “There are no survivors with sissy poison in Tassie.” JB explained that, since the arrival of his convict ancestors, entire species had been shot, hunted or worn into extinction. Facing this type of accelerated evolutionary existential challenge, any red-blooded redback would have automatically developed stronger venom and learned how to hide in the shoes of the invader.
“Either that, or its the justice of a vengeful God.” We shook out our bedding.
Whatever it was that burst through the garage door next morning, landed on my chest like a lost section of the old Tasman Bridge.
“Did you bring me a lolly from Santa?” She asked. I looked up into the eyes of my sugar-seeking niece, relieved that we had bought the jumbo size Toblerone in duty-free. In coming days, the garage would become the secret bolt-hole, where everyone snuck in, to wrap their Christmas presents they had bought for each other, in shifts so no one would see.
And JB and I would head for the water, to provision the family for Christmas Day brunch. He would dive for crayfish and abalone, and then we would drop our lines, for fish. But this was Tasmania, and nothing you hooked, wouldn’t try to hook you back.
“Watch the spines, mate.” JB said, as I pulled up the slimy brown mottled puffy prehistoric Pisces off the bottom. “They’re poisonous.” Like the adjective wouldn’t be surplus.
“Watch the teeth, too.” He said. “Flatheads bite.” I thought of romantic Polynesian words for other fish in the Southern Sea. Mahimahi, kawakawa, ahi, wahoo. But there was only one fish in this Tasmanian water. Flathead.
“Easy to catch, mate.” He said. “They’ll bite everything.” As we would do on Christmas Day.
There was bubbly with orange juice to start the festivities. In Australia, unlike in France, appetizers were called entrées, and for the size of them, could have been. Shiraz and chardonnay accompanied the main course. Debbie had baked a big ham, and assembled several salads, to go with our fish and seafood. And Win, not to be outdone, had three kinds of Christmas ‘pud’ on the table, each one more poisonous that the last. There were rum balls (with rum), trifle (with sherry), and Win’s own homemade Christmas cake (with enough brandy to bring down the new Tasman bridge).
“I like my sweets, Wink.” She said. “And my cuppa tea.” She settled back to watch her family, as full as bulls’ arses in the middle of spring, charge into the new above ground swimming pool, in the back yard. Uncle Wink put a dance CD on the blaster, and everyone waded around the water, churning the water around, waving their arms, in time to the music.
‘This summer I did the backstroke
And you know that's not all
I did the breast stroke and the butterfly
And the old Australian crawl, the old Australian crawl.’
Some of the purest water on the planet is in Tasmania, and its use and abuse has often unleashed a cascade of controversy in a population of rogues and rebels. In the 1970s, as the result of the state government’s announcement of a plan to flood Lake Pedder, the world’s first green party was established. Ten years later a dam proposed on the Gordon River, that would have impacted the environmentally sensitive Franklin River was damned and bulldozed by a populist blockade, resulting in 1217 arrests, and the subsequent imprisonment of almost half of them, for breaking the terms of their bail. In one of the oldest and most notorious penal settlements in the world, they had run out of cells to hold them. Let the Franklin flow, let the wild lands be.
Just east of Hobart, on the other side of the Carlton River, was the family shack on Susan’s Bay at Primrose Sands. Every landscape was a watercolor. We headed there on Boxing Day, and built primrose sandcastles. To see a world in a grain of sand And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand And eternity in an hour.
“In one drop of water are found all the secrets of all the oceans; in one
aspect of You are found all the aspects of existence.”