I saw Charlie the other day fishing at his usual spot. Looks like he’s always around when the wind and the tides are right. He comes with his cane and old backpack, dressed in his old terrycloth hat, a flanno with more holes than a fishing net, old boards and a pair of well-worn boots.
I walk my dog on the rock platform on the sand path most of the time when the weather permits. That’s when I see it, it can be early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Sometimes the dog runs to Charlie and sniffs his backpack for a lost piece, but that’s what the labs do, right? Usually the dog ignores it in favor of hunting for seagulls. It keeps well away from pelicans. Charlie and I aren’t talking, just a nod to each other as an acknowledgment that we share the same beach, the same rock platform, the same life, rather than a heartfelt greeting. We don’t have much in common these days.
I don’t know if Charlie does anything other than fish. I know he lives alone in a small HLM behind the shops down the street, but I never see him waiting at the bus stop to go to town, or to the club, or to the bottle shop or to the fish and chips. I just see him sometimes making his way along the street with a slight limp, up to the cliff and down the old goat trail on 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 sometimes we would see each other at the beach if we were chasing the same swell. We nodded and said goodbye, pulling a tea bag in the back while waiting for a wave, but never really speaking.
I left home after high school and went to college in town. I never thought much about home or old friends when I was studying and then started my career and my own family life.
At first I would come home to see Mom and Dad on vacation, but that happened less and less over the years.
When the kids grew up and left home, I retired and sold the practice. We had had enough of the city and went back to the old town and built a house on the cliff with big windows looking out over the rocks and the beach that I surfed as a boy. You can’t take the boy’s surfboard off.
I spoke to Margaret at the club last week; she goes downstairs for bingo and a fish and chip lunch most Wednesdays, and I sometimes go downstairs for a few beers with some of the old boys who still live here. It feels good to be back home; I feel like it was yesterday that I left, even though it’s half a life ago.
I don’t know if Charlie does anything other than fish.
I asked Margaret about Charlie, told her that I had sometimes seen him fishing and wondered what he had been doing over the years since school. Margaret just smiled and said “Charlie is Charlie, you see him fishing and that’s about it. It’s his life”.
“What did he do after school?” Did he work, get married, did he have children? I asked, for some reason, wanting to allay my curiosity.
Margaret put down her beer and motioned for me to sit next to her: enlisted and shipped to Vietnam, he was shot in the leg at Long Tan.
“He’s generally made a good recovery, but he lost some of his buddies. 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 going. well but didn’t say much about what happened.
“He picked up with Julie Thompson, she used to go to our school; remember? But it didn’t last. He never got to settle into a job, and after a series of chess he drifted to what you see today, Charlie on the rocks.
“He survives on his DVA pension and lives in his apartment on a low rent. I go around once a week and bring him a pot of stew or a curry, but he doesn’t need much else. . “
Yesterday I saw a few carnations giving Charlie a hard time. Above the wind, I heard them shout “tear off old derro” as they ran past him laughing and kicking his backpack, scattering its meager contents over the rocks. A nod was his only reaction, then he leaned down to pick up his tackle. I was struck by his quiet dignity.
I looked at Charlie through my binoculars again from my window today. He arrived just before the tide turned, put down his cane and took off his backpack.
He watched the ocean and the cloud formation, then took out some papers, a tobacco pouch and a box of matches, and rolled and lit his cigarette as if it was a ritual; His nicotine-stained fingers quivered a bit with the first strong draw of smoke, before putting his rod in place and throwing.
I don’t think he uses bait. I never saw him catch anything.
I can’t help but think about if Charlie was my age, and I was the older one who got called into the project.
How would each of our lives have been?
Thought I could take a few long necks down to the beach when I walk the dog next time when the wind and the tides are good. Maybe just nod and have a drink together on the rocks; we don’t need to say anything.
Bruce Jones, the author of this article, is a finalist in the 2022 Newcastle Herald short story competition.