Week 4 – 24 sep – last instalment of john Bryson The ship Ocean, off Hunter Island c. 1804
The ship Ocean, off Hunter Island c. 1804

In September, we share four installments of the short story Tasmania, a Lovesong, by Australian author John Bryson, which journeys us along the eastern waters of Tasmania. Here is the final part.

SUCH IS THE TIMING of these passages that I’ve never seen this part of the coast other than etched on the radar screen, at night. Bisheno town makes a bright circle, and you’d think so snug a harbour safe in any weather, but a bar-room wall somewhere in every fishing village carries a framed photograph of the tempest of the 1960s, this causeway astream with foam, trawlers at terrified mid-leap, overwrought anchor cables whining and defeated, hulls on the Esplanade already stripped to the ribs, where huddle the watchful townsfolk, awed, ruined.

A southbound freighter, chatty, nearly home, found the right frequency to tell us we would have a tough night once we made it around the corner. He meant Cape Naturaliste, and we knew already. The sea was still slick, but the deck was atilt from other pressures high in the rigging. Mathers, who delights in the advent of small miracles, found he could read a magazine at the stern rail, so bright was the luminous wake. This was partly the gift of the vanishing moon, now heading to the clouds.

The Eddystone Beacon, blinding as it caught the deck, swept then the path maybe a mile ahead, rain squalls and scuttling cloud at whitecap height. By Mussel Roe Bay, at the northern tip, we were into the gale. The tide was headstrong, so we stood toward Clarke Island, to quarter the seas, but maybe also because of the association with good fortune, for when the Sydney Cove went down around here in 1797 the nine survivors were taken by Captain Flinders only as far as the mainland edge, told to walk to Botany Bay, and Clarke, with one other, made it.

Mathers was showing considerable grit himself, and I revere the picture of him still. This was his first passage and he might have hoped for better. Making soup, he jammed himself by the stove to hold the kettle over the flame. He judged the troughs, rather than the crests, would give him the correct momentum to run a steaming mug up the stairway, from the galley through to wheelhouse. It was Mather’s idea to extinguish all deck lights, since what they lit best were the frightening seas, and no freighter could see us anyway. Meantimes, he lay on the saloon floor, not to be thrown again from the bunks, and it was his questing fingers which found water there, so we had damage the pumps were not holding.

At sour first light we swung for Franklin Sound, between Flinders Island and Cape Barren. The approach is long and lumpy in these conditions, but around midmorning we had company, a fishing boat waiting in the channel to stand alongside us the rest of the way in. I knew her well, had fished on her two years or more, and might have expected nothing less than her appearance here, at this moment, should have expected her clowning skipper to toss a can of beer off board so we could toast landfall in tandem, should have expected his waving wife, who is also the Harbour Master here, to shout of a readied birth at the wharf.

Astounding it was how these folk warmed the morning. Is this all it takes, these acts of kindness, to sweeten the world? To remember that these are seas of beauty and abundance, where you may happen on one hundred and fifty acres of resting shearwaters, watch ridiculous dolphin roll and dandy for hours under the bow, sometime follow wave upon wave of glittery tuna surfing the shoals?

To still the wind, to blue the deep, to summer the firmaments? Is this all it takes?

About the Author:

In 1985, the book Evil Angels by Australian author John Bryson was released. Its revelatory investigation into the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain shed new light on the controversial case and quickly became a career defining piece of work for Bryson. Other publications include the novel, To the Death, Amic (Viking/Penguin 1994) a collection of short fiction, Whoring Around (Penguin 1981) and a collection of reportage, Backstage at the Revolution. Bryson lectures in law, literary journalism, and fiction, acts on advisory panels to government, NGOs, and universities, and on literary judging panels. At the end of the millennium, a Schools of Journalism panel included him in ‘The 100 Australian Journalists of the Century’. In 2014, he was awarded membership of the Order of Australia.