Throughout December, we've been sharing stories about family - what it means, who they are, why they matter, and what they offer us as writers. Today's post comes from Melbourne writer Misha Adair.
Family is an idea that’s intimately linked in my mind to stories. And stories take me right to my grandfather. I hesitate to describe William Allan Adair as a great storyteller simply because it sounds so banal.
But I can’t come up with a better description. Raconteur won’t work – that’s a word and an art that reeks of formal dinners, cigars, brandy and cue cards. It’s close, but that epithet, and any other, doesn’t quite fit. But he told brilliant stories. He was at various times a barber’s apprentice and a stoker on steam railways; he was a sometime poacher and he won the good graces of his father-in-law by securing him a supply of poteen in the aftermath of the Second World War.
My grandfather was from Northern Ireland. His stories weren’t about the privations of rationing, or the historical depredations of the English, or about sectarian violence. Anyone living his life could have mined endless stores of bitter anecdotes from such seams. He didn’t. My grandfather’s tales were almost without exception about how funny, how silly and how marvellous people are.
Everyone in my family called him Homer. Even his own children. The official explanation is and was that he earned this appellation because he ran away from home so frequently as a child. That’s Irish logic. But like his Greek namesake he knew how to spin a tale and would have scorned the idea that really good stories are written rather than recited.
My favourite childhood memories are all the same: they take place on the porch of his home in rural Victoria. He’s sitting beside Nana. She has a sherry, he’s nursing a can of Toohey’s Red and they’re helping each other tell stories. It was magic and it’s gone forever.
They had a library of reliably fabulous stories, but this one’s my favourite:
He’s had a long and full day and doubtless he’s a wee bit jolly: alcoholic beverages may have had a part to play (‘Five or nine’ as Homer was particularly fond of saying). A stout or so, and then some poteen stirred into warm milk. It occurs to Tommy, as he contemplates the dark clear night, that the salmon are running and it’s just the sort of evening to snag a few on the quiet. The quieter the better, given that his preferred method – lurking unlicensed in some running body of water and jerking them onto shore with a gaff – is frowned upon by the authorities.
Image source: Flickr / smoovey
Tommy gets into his waders and coat, collects his gaff (imagine a giant fish-hook on a stout pole) and, just about to pad away without disturbing his beloved mother, surely long asleep upstairs, decides that a couple of slices of bread and dripping are called for.
To slip the loaf from the crock, saw off a couple of reckless slices and apply dripping is the work of mere moments. Out the door he goes, munching contentedly, the gaff doing sterling service as a walking stick, poteen glowing inside him, the cold air stimulating and the night quiet.
It’s a brief but dark walk to a patch of white water on the nearby river, with a tricky little descent to the bank. By now his eyes are used to the gloom and he’s ready to wade to a spot he knows well. Here he waits, spread legs knee-deep in the rushing current, waiting for the dark silhouettes of the muscular fish to swim within range.
It takes sharp eyes, reflexes honed by practise and a bit of strength to jerk home the gaff and swing a fighting salmon onto the bank. It takes patience and poteen to endure the cold. And it takes nerve to stand exposed in the middle of a river with the instrument of a poacher testifying to the illegal nature of his activity.
The trick is to stand immobile, with the gaff already in the water. Don’t spook the fish. After a time the rushing river, the cold and the focus are hypnotic. Tommy thinks of nothing at all, eyes intent: nothing exists but the water and the dark shadows moving in it. And then he’s aware of a movement from the corner of his eye. He looks around, guilty, trapped mid-stream.
No quick excuse will suffice here. (‘Just coolin’ me feet, a wee paddle to clear the head: and a good night to you and all, Sir!’) A man with a gaff in the river is a poacher. A poacher is liable to a hefty fine. A fined poacher is an inexpert poacher and can expect merciless teasing from his craftier colleagues.
Imagine his panic as he sees an apparition dressed in flowing white moving slowly and inexorably towards the river. Not a constable – something worse because inexplicable. Christ, a spirit! A fecking ghost drifting down toward him!
It’s not easy to move quickly in swift running water. He stumbles. The gaff falls and is lost, swept away. He trips and flounders to the bank, waders flooded, shivering equally with cold and fear. His mind is blank, the white noise of terror harmonises with the swishing of the current. On his back, soaked and speechless he scrabbles ashore…
“Thomas,” his nightgown-clad mother howls from the opposite bank, “You’ve disfigured the loaf!”
I’ve still got Homer’s stories and I can remember the rhythm and the cadence of his speech. I can remember the sheer joy he took and transmitted in the act of unfolding a tale. In this remembering and in the pleasure of remembering, we’re told, the dead are with us. Perhaps. Just not enough for me.
Misha Adair lives in Melbourne with one human, two cats and an eReader that his real books bitterly resent. He has written for Crikey and Kill Your Darlings and was the Books and Ideas producer for the C.31 arts review program Yartz. Michael Palin once thanked him "for asking a silly question."
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.