I saw Charlie again the other day fishing in his usual spot. Seems he is always there when the wind and tides are right. He comes with his rod and old backpack, dressed in his daggy old terry hat, flanno with more holes in than a fishing net, old boardies, and a tatty pair of well-worn boots.
I walk my dog over the rock platform on the way to the sand most days when the weather allows. That's when I see him, it could be early morning, or late afternoon. Sometimes the dog runs up to Charlie and sniffs his backpack looking for a stray morsel, but that's what labs do isn't it? Usually the dog ignores him in favour of chasing the seagulls. He steers well away from the pelicans. Charlie and I don't speak, just a curt nod to each other as an acknowledgment that we are sharing the same beach, the same rock platform, the same life, rather than a sincere greeting. We don't have a lot in common these days.
I don't know if Charlie does anything else but fish. I know that he lives alone in a little council flat behind the shops down the street, but I never see him waiting at the bus stop to go to town, or the club, or at the bottle shop or the fish and chip shop. I just see him sometimes make his way along the street with his slight limp, up to the bluff and down the old goat track onto the rocks.
When we were kids, Charlie's sister Margaret and I were in the same class. Charlie was a year older. Charlie and I were never friends, but we would see each other at the beach sometimes if we were chasing the same swell. We would nod and say good'ay, teabagging out the back waiting for a wave, but never really talking.
I left home after high school and went to university in the city. I never gave home or old friends much of a thought when I was studying, and then starting my career and my own family life.
At first I'd come home to see mum and dad during the holidays, but that happened less and less as the years got on.
When the kids had grown and left home, I retired and sold the practice. We'd had enough of the city and moved back to the old town and built a house up on the bluff with large windows overlooking the rocks and the beach that I surfed as a lad. You can't take the surf out of the boy.
I spoke to Margaret at the club last week; she goes down for the bingo and a fish and chips lunch most Wednesdays, and I sometimes go down to have a few beers with some of the old boys who still live around here. It feels right to be back home; feels like only yesterday that I left, even though it is half a lifetime ago.
I don't know if Charlie does anything else but fish.
I asked Margaret about Charlie, said that I'd seen him fishing sometimes and was wondering what he got up to over the years since school. Margaret just smiled and said "Charlie is Charlie, you see him fishing and that's about it. That's his life".
"What did he do after school? Did he work, marry, have kids?", I enquired, for some reason wanting to ease my curiosity.
Margaret put down her beer and motioned for me to take a seat next to her: "I thought that you'd have heard, but I suppose you didn't because you moved out before it happened. Charlie got the short straw, he was conscripted and shipped off to Vietnam. He took a bullet in his leg at Long Tan.
"He mostly recovered OK, but he lost some of his mates. He was never the same person. He moved in with me for a while when he came back from repat and I thought he was doing OK but didn't talk much about what happened.
"He took up with Julie Thompson, she used to go to our school; remember? But It didn't last. He could never settle into a job, and after a series of failures, just drifted into what you see today, Charlie on the rocks.
"He survives on his DVA pension and lives in his flat on low rent. I go around once a week and take him a pot of stew or a curry, but he doesn't need for much else."
Yesterday I saw a couple of grommets giving Charlie a hard time. Above the wind I heard them yell "rack off you old derro" as they ran past him laughing and kicked his backpack, scattering its scant contents over the rocks. A shake of his head was his only reaction, then he bent down to pick up his tackle. I was struck by his quiet dignity.
I watched Charlie through my binoculars from my window again today. He turned up just before the tide was turning, set down his rod and shrugged off his backpack.
He looked out at the ocean and up at the cloud formation, then produced papers, tobacco pouch and matchbox, and rolled and lit his cigarette like it was a ritual; His nicotine-stained fingers shaking a little with the first sharp intake of smoke, before setting up his rod and casting out.
I don't think he uses bait. I've never seen him catch anything.
I can't help thinking of what if Charlie was my age, and I was the one that was older and had been called up in the draft.
How would each of our lives have turned out?
I have had a thought that I might take a couple of long necks down to the beach when I take the dog for a walk next time, when the wind and tides are right. Maybe just nod and have a companionable drink together on the rocks; we don't need to say anything.
Bruce Jones, the author of this piece, is a finalist in the 2022 Newcastle Herald Short Story Competition. Read the full list of finalists in this year's Herald Short Story Competition by visiting the Newcastle Herald website.
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