The Knife

posted in: Member Writing Features | 3

By Sue Gourlay

Tom told Benny; yeah sure, he’d definitely seen it, true.  But I knew he hadn’t because there was no way he would have just stood there like that, looking through the water and not even trying to pick the thing up.

Between us, we’d collected heaps of stuff from the water’s edge, most of it useless bits of plastic, maybe a piece of glass.  Yeah, no, as usual, Tom had been looking, but I knew he hadn’t found the knife.  As if.  Maybe the sunlight playing tricks through the waves, I’d said, I thought that would make his lie easier. He just bocked me in the arm and called me a loser.

Benny, well, he was younger than me and Tom was his hero. Whatever Tom said, then, according to Benny, it must be true. What would I know? The middle brother, in-Pete-tween, as Tom called me.

That day, Benny had rummaged around in the seaweed all afternoon, trying to find the knife.  But I knew, like Tom did, that it wasn’t there, there was nothing but sea stuff, fish, rocks, shells, stuff meant to be in the water. It was just Tom, the big brother, big noting.

Later, Benny told dad what Tom had seen, how it’s out there now, just waiting to be found, and that one day, his big brother was bound to find it. Benny had this idea in his head that finding that knife would make things better.

Like everyone else in Lonnie, we grew up looking for bits of left over shipwreck, treasure, yeah why not, old coins, bottles, whatever. Stuff that would for sure, float in with the tide, drift past at the very time we would be wading around fishing for flatties. We’d never met anyone who had found anything of value, but everyone had heard about someone who had.

Dad ruffled Benny’s hair and I reckon a smile tried to form, but as usual, my father’s eyes remained blank, it’s no use, he said, you might as well give up, son. It would be gone by now, like everything else.

We were one half of the Brady bunch, the boy half, the three brothers, without the girls. We had the mum who wasn’t there, but we didn’t have the step mum or the step sisters. We had the dad, just the dad, on his own. We didn’t have Alice either, and I guess that’s why our house was always in a mess. Dad did his best, but he was never like the dad on the Brady bunch, and he was never like the ‘before’ dad either.

Back then, it was ok to let your kids roam down at the beach all day. The older one was ordered to look after the youngest, the middle one, me, to watch out for both. At first, dad had stayed working at the office, gotta make a living he’d said.

We had a week or so away until things settled down, then Tom and Benny and me, we were sent back to school because that was the best thing for us to do.  At the end of school day, instead of going home to mum we’d checkout the beach. Maybe these days, they might call it neglect, back then, it was just we Rowan boys hanging out, while their dad was coping as best he could.

Not long after dad got sick and the office work stopped, we were to become ‘those’ Rowan Boys and dad became someone who never left the house. Somehow, we kids just continued on like nothing had changed, like dad was still the ‘before’ dad.

On Saturdays we played footy or cricket depending on the season, and then after the match, we’d head straight down to the jetty. On Sundays we grabbed our rods before the sun had even had a chance to rise. Dad, he said he’d come with us, like he used to. One day. We waited for that day but his bedroom blinds remained drawn, his doona covering his head ‘til 2 maybe 3pm, who knew, so we gave up asking and got used to going on our own. It didn’t matter, besides, there were always plenty of other dads, sometimes a mum around to help us.

In any case, before, before when, dad used to show us how to do stuff. Reeling in the catch, he’d grab a knife and spear the thing between the eyes so as to make it a quick kill.  We used to look over his shoulder as he commenced cleaning, scaling from the fin just beneath the head, following the contour of the whole body to the tail, before sinking the blade into the soft white under belly of the fish. We learnt the importance of a sharp knife, a sharp knife that wouldn’t tear away and ruin the flesh. Benny and I had been too young but Tom, he’d been allowed to hold the knife, to get used to the feel of it.

We never got sick of eating the fish we caught. We’d fry up the fillets in a special fish frying pan so it didn’t matter too much if it missed getting washed up and still had a bit of yesterday’s catch clinging on the bottom. Sometimes though, if the flatties had been on the bite, we’d need the bigger pan for the extra catch, and when that happened you could usually taste the left over sausages and egg bits as well.

I reckoned it was ok to tell tall stories about the fish, the ones that got away, one meter in length when realistically a half a meter might have been closer to the fact, ok, 20cm, that kind of stuff, doesn’t really get you into too much trouble. Besides, by the weight and the pull at the end of the line, probably wasn’t really stretching the truth too much. There were whoppers down there, for sure.

But when Tom lost the knife, the be careful knife, the aren’t you kids too young to be using that on your own knife, the better hand it over knife, when Tom described how it had slid off the of the jetty straight into the deep, the lost knife, the knife now jammed under his mattress, listening to him saying that, felt different somehow from boasting about the size of a fish.

Knives, well mostly they’re no big deal. You eat dinner with them, you fillet fish, cut up an apple.  You watch TV and you can’t tell when, but one day it occurs to you, like that bloke on the screen, you could hurt someone with a knife. Kill someone. And you wonder why the hell your brother would hide one under his mattress.

Before when, the knife had lived in dad’s wardrobe, on the top shelf, in a leather sheaf. Dad had sharpened and polished it with every full moon, no one knew why he did that, not even Dad could remember except that’s what his father had always done, and, after grandpa died and Dad inherited the knife, he’d continued the tradition.

After when, I’d seen how that knife could slash a flap of skin straight off the top of a knuckle as the blade had slithered across Tom’s hand. Just checking how sharp it is, he’d explained, blood everywhere, yep it’s sharp, he’d winked at Benny. Didn’t hurt a bit.

Tom said it was his knife now because he was the eldest and dad was useless. I hated him saying that, but I didn’t care about the knife, he could keep the damn thing.  Keep it, not lose it.

Benny was so young when our mother went missing, he never really got to know what she was like, and even though I tell everyone I remember her, well, let’s face it, none of us really knew her. After she was gone, Tom used to cry out the loudest during the night, he and dad, together, all night long.  I can remember Benny and me crying along with them, more than I can remember my mum.

I can remember lots of other kids’ mums though, helping with the washing; all our wet sheets, every night, three lots of wet sheets, sometimes four, and the ‘used to be strangers’ from the next street calling in with a supply of home cooked meals for us to heat up.

Those dinners were disgusting. Tom and I would spoon a bit at a time into our mouths, before spitting it straight out, right there at the dinner table. Naturally Benny would copy us. Dad reckoned the food was off too but he said, we should be grateful, until one day he joined in, and all of us spat that food right across the room, chunks of mincemeat and noodles hanging from the walls. We laughed and laughed, probably because we were so sick of crying. But that mess, it never got properly cleaned up and left a huge stain on the wall. On all of us.

It took about a week for the police to let our father know that our mum wasn’t missing at all, just didn’t want to be found. Some people, like those people from up the road disappeared from our lives too; rather than having to talk to us and think of something positive, cheerful to say, it was easier to for them to simply avoid us.

Our mum, yes our mum. Mum! Mum woke up one day and loved someone else more than she loved us. One single person took the place of four, three Rowan sons and a Rowan husband. He was a nothing who worked at the local petrol station. Mum went away with a nobody who she loved fourfold and never came back. Truth.

I reckoned lies were easier to control so even though everyone would have known, we Rowan brothers, and the Rowan dad, we said the Rowan mum was dead.

After that, it seemed like the whole town spoke in whispers.

Dad stopped coming to the beach, he cut back his working hours, then some more, and then stopped going into the office at all. In fact, he stopped going out altogether and eventually he even stopped opening the door and letting people in.

There were a few weeks of nothing, talking to no one, staying put with dad before eventually he must have told us, that there were people out there who didn’t like boys whose mum had disappeared while they stayed with a father who never left the house.

Boys like us could be put into boys’ homes where you got belted for not doing your homework, the food was even worse than the neighbours’ cooking and you would never be allowed to go down to the jetty – ever. There were boys like us who got it up the arse every night, boys as young as Benny who couldn’t defend themselves.

So without a mum, without an Alice, we  Rowan boys grew up going to school on time, were polite as needs be, and when all said and done – a ‘credit’ to our poor, broken dad. We learnt very quickly, that as long as you looked ok on the outside, it didn’t matter what you were thinking on the inside, as long as you fitted in, people would stop hassling you, stop hassling your dad.

It was ok to talk about a shipwreck but no one would ever talk about a wrecked life.

While our father never made it to the beach, he did venture out when absolutely necessary, and like us, he played the game. The bank, the dole office, we would take his hand and give him a nudge to act normal and smile back whenever someone said hello, how’s it going’? No one wanted more, no one wanted to engage in uncomfortable conversations.

Back then, the knife remained under the mattress and shipwrecks remained under the waves.

About the author:

Sue left school the day she turned fifteen, accomplished VCE in her forties, and went on to complete a Diploma of PWE at RMIT.

Prolific in all areas of creative expression Sue’s stories and poetry appear in various anthologies including The Boroondara Literary Awards Anthology when she won first prize. Sue recently became a finalist with Geelong Writers Prize 2023.

Sue paints and regularly exhibits her work.  Her photographic image was selected for the cover of the 2022 Geelong Writers Anthology.

Sue’s employment encompassed various roles within the media industry, including the editing of children’s books together with providing both lyrics and melodies for a range of children’s songs.

Sue regularly meets with like-minded locals who enjoy writing simply for pleasure.

3 Responses

  1. Melissa Anson

    Absolutely fabulous Sue. I could have read more. It would make a great book.

  2. Guenter

    Extraordinary insight into the male psyche. It is indeed easy for males to talk about shipwrecks, however, it would never be a done thing for most to take the dive to explore a wrecked life. Beautifully written and totally engaging.

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