Old Fish

By Miles Boyle-Bryant

‘You smell like old fish.’

‘Yeah? Well you smell like dog farts, Leo.’

I’m Leo. My dad is old fish.

‘Yeah, but you look like a dog’s bum.’

‘And your mother says you’re my spitting image.’

‘Rack off old man. Grow some hair, your head looks like a big angry pimple.’

‘That’ll be you one day too kid.’

Yeah right.

We did okay, old fish and me. When he wasn’t busy trying to relive his twenties, he was decent, I guess. There was this giddy glint in his eye when we’d go out bush, this crinkle that ran from his eye all the way to his temple when he’d grin at one of his bad jokes or loud farts. He was as much a child as me sometimes. Sometimes I hated him for it, sometimes he was my best mate in the whole world.

He was big, my Old Fish. He wasn’t fat, but he wasn’t one of those blokes you’d see in the sexy fireman calendars my sister  hid under her bed, and my god he was clumsy. It made him seem ridiculous when he’d dance around the house at night, beer in hand, tripping on his big hairy feet, chortling to himself without a care in the world, tummy just creeping out of his faded jeans. You just couldn’t invite friends over, I tried telling him to behave once, it didn’t go so well. When they arrived, he had twice the beer and twice the bad moves and shimmies to show off. You couldn’t tell my Old Fish what to do.

Come to think of it, you couldn’t take him anywhere either. It wasn’t just at home that he was a shameless goof, it was everywhere. In the city, he’d jump around, dodging cracks in the footpath and clashing into people. At the shops, it’d be all sneaking beer, biscuits and lolly snakes into the trolley until Mum stopped pretending not to notice and swapped them for broccoli and beans. The worst had to be the sand though. Every summer, it was the same. For a man who spent five minutes wriggling into a pair of speedos before he ‘bodysurfed’ (it looked more like a pink walrus repeatedly being dumped by wave after wave); he sure brought home a lot of sand. In cracks of the old couch, on every bit of the floor, in the bloody bowls and cups for morning milo and Weetabix, there was sand. He’d spend all summer battling the swells with his head burning in the sun, and Mum would spend it battling with the vacuum cleaner. I don’t think she could hate him though, but bloody hell, he gave her enough excuses. I think the only thing that saved him was that smile. It never seemed to lose its power.

It’s funny though, how quickly you can forget all those things, when they’re suddenly gone. Old Fish became Sick Fish. I’d never seen a man go so skinny so fast. That crinkle by his eye now made him seem ancient and worn out. That glint now looked desperate. The chortling was replaced by a forced smile and a laugh that was a little too loud to seem real. Mum hated it. She hated all the dumb jokes he’d make when she wanted to talk to him, adult to adult. I don’t think they ever got to have that talk. I could see her crying in the room next door when he got too sick to talk, when his words turned to desperate grunts and mumbles. I guess there’s nothing harder than crying when the person you wish was there to hold you is the person you’re crying for.

These days, I can’t remember much of Old Fish. We didn’t take many photos, not serious ones anyway. My Old Fish always had the camera, always telling us to pull dumb faces or jump on Mum. I can’t remember his face clearly, not the Old Fish I’d sleep under the stars with. I don’t like thinking about the Old Fish I could remember. The gaunt, meek old man whose body got the better of him. I don’t like thinking about Mum bawling alone in the room next door. Mum doesn’t like thinking at all anymore. The best days are the days when neither of us think at all.

Last week I was down by the water, sand between my toes, sun burning my brow. I hadn’t been to the beach in years, not since dad used to take me out past the waves, with some customary head dunks and getting half the ocean up my nose. It never quite brought the same joy being down there without him, but Mum nagged me to go.

‘Take the baby,’ she’d say.

A soiled nappy and a few waterworks and wails later, I was ready to pack it in. That’s when it hit me. It was a smell. A familiar, salty smell. It made me smile. It smelt like dad. It smelt like my Old Fish.

‘You smell that junior? That smells just like grandpa.’



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