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Tight lines

We were at the Great Northern, a pub near my old flat in Carlton. I never actually went there with Joey, but in my dream we were seated inside, which is where we would’ve sat, away from the smokers. We were playing a game we’d played a thousand times in real life, where we’d run through different animals and decide on their collective gender. All sharks are boys, for instance. Whereas dolphins are girls. Cheetahs, girls. Frogs and lizards, boys. It evolved into one never-ending conversation. We could be in the middle of anything—groceries, an ad-break on telly or just a pause in the conversation—and either Joey or I would chime in. ‘Toucans?’ Boys. Then life would roll on, leaving anyone else with us baffled.
In my dream we were running through the core zoo ensemble I remember from the first few times we’d played the game. Elephants: girls. Giraffes: boys. Zebras? We had a lengthy conversation about zebras in the dream. Joey thought the stripes made them male. Joey always assigned animals with spots as female.
‘Just because ladybirds have spots doesn’t mean all animals with spots are girls.’
‘You said cheetahs were girls!’
‘But Dalmatians are boys.’
Dave wasn’t in the dream. He never really got the game.

In the beginning—or the end, depending on what way you’re looking—I dreamt of Joey all the time. Riding bikes along the track to Coburg lake, the last few slices of stale bread tied to my handlebars, swaying and knocking my front wheel. Baking together, teaching him how to cream the butter and sugar. Mostly what I dreamt of was the pier. Our canvas chairs side-by-side, tight lines. The water oscillating below us, making it feel like the pier was our own lonely boat rocking on top of the world.
Then Joey exited my dreams the way he’d left my life—instantly, no goodbye—and people started to notice my depression. I stopped going out. I stayed in and re-read my old reference books for work—’Kinematics of Soil Arching in Piled Embankments’—dulling my brain with facts it already knew, trying to incite sleep. I tried pills but they made sleep too thick and heavy for dreams. I called in sick and spent days in bed waiting for Joey to come back.
My friends told me it was normal. Everyone is positive initially in a breakup. It’s a relief when it finally ends and you’re full of hope for the next thing. It takes a few weeks for reality to set in—that what’s next is just the same old life, minus a huge chunk of it. Then the depression arrives, like a fire-blanket, a heavy barrier between you and the world.
Once I’d run out of compassionate leave, sick and annual leave, taken unpaid leave then started using my savings to make mortgage repayments, when I actually had to go to work, I learned to see the lack of Joey in my dreams as a positive. It gave me permission to dream of him consciously, where I could choose what to focus on.
I returned to work, showering and pressing my shirts in the mornings. I started wearing makeup again and delegated everything but the most menial tasks to my team. Originally, I was promoted into my role after the man who previously held it was hit by a bus. One person’s crisis usually does end up benefitting someone else at work. I plugged numbers into spreadsheets and thought of my sweet little boy.

I first met Joey at Slow Burn, the café that used to be under Dave’s apartment. Joey had pale, flawless skin. Brown curls thick like shrubs and solid blue eyes, no discolouration. He was a beautiful boy. Meeting someone you’ve seen lots of photos of—first from Dave, when he told me about Joey, and then (and mostly) the photos I studied on Joey’s mother’s Instagram—is like looking at photos of yourself. You recognise the person, but there’s an obvious yet indiscernible difference between the mirror and the photos and the photos and real life.
Dave nodded his chin at me from across the café. The barista asked if they’d like their usual. Joey high-fived the man in the apron, then kicked one foot out, releasing a wheel on the underside of his shoe, and rolled between the tables. Dave sat across from me, but Joey continued to idle around the café floor and didn’t join us until his strawberry shake had arrived. When he did, Dave introduced us.
‘Hi Joey.’ My voice was overly girlish. I smiled and nodded through his silence.
He eyed me over his drink, his mouth tightly suctioned around his straw. I was appalled at how fast he inhaled the pink milk, his throat undulating like water. I wondered if Dave should’ve told him to slow down.
‘Are you excited to start back at school?’ I asked.
I hadn’t learned yet how to talk to children.

My first few months of dating Dave had been filled with thirty-dollar bowls of hand-made pasta followed by dessert wines, and rambling conversations about Richard Linklater’s most recent film. Was the story a rare mimicry of the rhythms of adolescence? Or a treatise on the essential vacuity of the white liberal male?
It was the first time I dated someone I hadn’t met at university. It was a relief, not listening to a detailed explanation of someone’s thesis over dinner, and I mistook that giddiness for love.
Our first few weekends with Joey were marked by silence. It was rude not to include him in a conversation, but he was monosyllabic with adults and avoided eye contact. Conversations were basic: Do you need to sit down, Joey? Do you want some water? As was the food we ate—so many sausages and potatoes—and the movies we watched, filled with inherently good or bad people and unsatisfyingly neat endings.
Camping had been my idea originally. I used to camp a lot, first with my parents and in my twenties with peers. There were trips organised by the university and recreational ones that were exactly the same. One person from the group explaining the contours of the coastal rock strata, or if we were inland, the impacts of sedimentation on macroinvertebrates.
In my thirties most of my friends had children and they camped together as families. I had envisaged Dave and I lounging in canvas chairs all day, drinking mid-strength beer and swimming. When Dave told me he’d booked the campsite, we were in the car and he added the dates he’d booked straight on to the end of the comment. ‘It’ll be great! Joey’s never been camping before.’
I began to wonder aloud whether or not we were going the right way and lamenting the intersection, a pantomime for my irritation.
I figure it must’ve been a desire of Joey’s to go fishing, because it wasn’t a pastime of Dave’s. He purchased the rods from Kmart especially for the trip. The night before we left, he spent hours at the kitchen table, his laptop open beside him, various bearded men on YouTube counting the turns of a perfect clinch knot. His tackle box as clean and orderly as a dentist’s toolkit.
I hadn’t been fishing since I was very young and back then I’d hated it, vehemently. It was precisely because I hated it that I remembered the details. Not only my father’s words, but his intonation. Tight lines, Holly. Tight lines! Don’t fling the rod back like that, you’ll take someone’s eye out! He was furious like the fish we reeled in and I was bored shitless. An hour would pass without us catching anything and then when we did, I couldn’t stand it. Something trying to tug me off the pier into the water and then the poor fish, psychotic on the end of the line.
It’s just a fish, you silly girl!
Dave cast Joey’s first line in for him. Fifteen seconds later, Joey excitedly reeled it in, mistaking the pull of the tide for a bite. When he cast his own rod, the line dropped in below the pier, as saggy as drool.
‘Here.’ I positioned his hands on the rod, one in front and one behind the reel shaft. ‘First things first, turn the bail so it’s upward. Now don’t clutch your fishing line, just place it behind your trigger finger, nice and gentle. You want to be able to feel your sinker on the sand; to do that you need tight lines.’
I spoke softly, overly kind. Repeating my father’s words and trying to sound nothing like him. Except when the boats came by, of course. ‘Fuck it,’ I mumbled. ‘Reel your line in, Joey.’ I hadn’t sworn in front of Joey before. His father didn’t flinch.
It was all pointless as we were using worms in saltwater and it wasn’t dawn or dusk, the tide as low as a puddle. It wasn’t until another fisherman palmed off his leftover squid to us that Joey finally caught a tiny fish. A flathead, hardly the length of my hand. He squealed with delight as it flung itself around on the end of the rod. I held it down against the ruler on the pier and explained why we don’t keep the little ones. ‘It’s disheartening but you have to let them go.’ I jigged the hook out of the poor thing’s mouth and it plopped back down into the sea.
‘Bye fishy! Bye-bye!’ Joey waved at the ocean below us.
I don’t even remember what Dave was doing by that point.
I kept the leftover squid and the next morning I dragged us out of bed in the dark. The tide was rising and I caught three whiting. I got Joey to hold the fish down on the pier while I walloped it with a thermos. ‘It’s less cruel than suffocating in an esky.’
He looked serious, but not disgusted, as I killed the fish. He remained stern, concentrating hard, as he turned back to his own rod and stared out to the ocean. He tugged at his rod and adjusted the reel, checking for tight lines.
For the first time I was comfortable in our silence. Fishing is meant to be silent.

Most fish were boys. As were stingrays, seals and squid. Big nasty creatures. Urchins were girls. Starfish, anemones, seahorses. The small things that are either pretty or spiky.

In my thirties my friends had started to drop like flies, and there was collective jubilance at every announcement. Engaged, married, pregnant. Engaged, married, pregnant. Pregnant, engaged, married. Dave was met by joy, obviously—Public servants get great benefits! —but it surprised me that Joey wasn’t. The axiom was that being a step-mother is the hardest job. You have to work to prove your love. True, but only for mothers who have other children, I learned. They have to make their affection look equal, biological and not. You can’t look like you’re favouring or overcompensating in either direction. With no-one to compare him to, any amount I loved Joey was enough. I became so happy I never had my own.
Weekends with Dave became time to plan activities for the next weekend with Joey. We planned a hike, made our own scroggin of smarties and dried apricots. Built planter boxes for Dave’s balcony, planted herbs and eggplants. When the eggplants were big enough to eat, we made pasta from scratch, including the noodles. Fed ducks at the lake. Learned to boogie board at the suburban wave pool, then drove to the coast the following weekend.
Dave wasn’t tactile like Joey. He liked movies and music. I remember the three of us going to see Finding Dory. Joey groaned ‘Isn’t it the end yet?’ at the conclusion of each small story arc, of which there were about a hundred. Another time Dave took us to a gallery and we looked at photos of old Milk Bars.
‘What’s a Milk Bar?’ Joey asked.
‘It’s a shop that sells milk and bread and ice-creams.’
‘Like a supermarket?’
I ambled ten steps behind Dave, ten steps in front of Joey—the sinker, weighed down between two floating pieces of squid. When I looked back and Joey was gone, I stopped dead, my shoes squeaking on the polished floor. It was merely seconds before he called my name and even so I almost cried.
‘Holly! Holly!’
He was hidden in the alcove of a window, pointing to the street. ‘Look, there’s a cat outside!’
I looked to Dave, ahead of us, his face an inch from a frame.
‘Puss-puss-puss. Puss-puss.’ Joey had his nose pressed to the window, his breath fogging the glass.
That evening marked the genesis of the game. Hours later, between dinner and teeth-brushing Joey asked me, ‘Are all cats girls?’
I assured him, ‘No. Some cats are boys.’
He looked confused.
Cheetahs were girls. Tigers were boys. Lions were both. Lions didn’t really work for our game.

Someone older once told me that the amount of time that things are good in a relationship is the same amount of time things will be bad before someone calls it. For Dave and me that was true. Two good years, two years of nothing. When he told me he’d met someone else, he followed with, ‘I mean, it hasn’t seemed as though you’ve been in this relationship for a while.’
‘What are you going to tell Joey?’
‘I’m his father, Holly.’
‘Don’t use that as an excuse.’
‘It’s not an excuse, it’s the truth.’
I asked Joey’s mum to pass on a message for me. I still have her last email: For what it’s worth, Holly, I always liked you. I’ll be in touch next time I need a babysitter.
They never needed a babysitter, though. That was the great thing about being separated, Dave had told me back in the beginning.
Joey started high school last year. A few times when my resolve was lowest, I browsed the websites of schools near his mother’s house. One I hoped he was attending more than the other. Leafier and more open, no high wire fences around the basketball courts. It wasn’t until the end of the year that I found him. Standing knee deep in the Howqua River. Gaiters and a daggy bucket hat. A thick, shiny trout in his hands and a stupid grin on his face. ‘Joseph Everett, Fly Fishing Camp.’
I never called him Joseph.

I let my team know I won’t be in today. I don’t delegate any tasks; they know who does what by now. The drive is thirty minutes. One exit off the freeway, a few turns, and then everything is leafy and brick. Trampolines and rabbit hutches in front yards. Baskets affixed to wooden fences, overflowing with apricots and silverbeet. Friendly notes between neighbours: Free for the taking!
The school is tucked at the back of the town. The oval and the basketball and netball courts are all at the front of the property, a large brick building in the distance. I stay in the visitors parking area. Next to the car park is a large sign—Nurturing Tomorrow’s Adults—as though their current existence is less valid. I’m unsure what my plan is if someone asks why I’m here. Nothing, I guess. Just start the engine and drive off. Eventually a bell rings, monotone and clearly digital. The children spill from the building and fan out over the grounds. It’s been two years. Joey is thicker now, not a man, but more than a boy. His face has more definition and his hands look stronger. This I know from his mother’s Instagram and, occasionally, Dave’s new girlfriend’s.
I watch a group of boys play basketball and a group of girls watching the boys play basketball and I think back to when Dave first told me about Joey. My first thought was, Thank god it’s a boy. Dave flicked through photos on his phone, laughing affectionately, and I was years into our imagined future, envisaging Dave palming off the shittiest chores of parenthood to me.
Just looking at the girls makes me uncomfortable, like I can taste their insecurity from the car. They shift their feet constantly, a failed, feigned languidness. Even their uniforms look more oppressive. The dresses are solid blue, with white collars, like brightly-coloured maids’ uniforms. The boys wear grey shorts and white, short-sleeved shirts. Their socks and ties the only splashes of the school-issued blue.
He’s not playing basketball; even so, I flinch as the boys shove their bodies into one another. Although I know he is now the same age as these kids, I envisage the sweet seven-year-old I first met being pummelled by these testosterous beasts. I search for any other boys across the grounds. Any boys seated on park benches talking like the girls. Maybe the sweet ones are in the library. Joey wouldn’t like that, though. He is tactile, just not sporty. I keep looking, hoping to see a sandpit, even though I know this is a secondary school.
When the bell eventually rings again, the girls are compliant. They amble back to class. Like the boys, I loiter around as long as I can before I start the car. A teacher in a wide-brimmed hat like a zookeeper’s gives me a glance over her shoulder as she herds the young men inside.
I stop at the supermarket in town on my way home and buy the ingredients for pasta for one. I’m still single so most of my meals are bought like this. Thirty minutes before I plan to eat them. A plastic tub of the smallest serve of ricotta. The thinnest eggplant from the trough. I carry my shopping in my arms back to the car, not enough items to need to remember reusable bags.
At the far side of the carpark, on milk-crates next to the dumpster, sit three boys in grey shorts and white shirts, their top buttons undone, ties hidden away.
I recognise his hair. Even longer now, even curlier. Two of the boys are smoking, one of which is Joey. For the minute I stand still watching, he doesn’t lift the cigarette to his mouth. It is lit, though. A tendril of smoke curls around his face, like the remnants of a magic trick—a magician disappearing and reappearing from nowhere.
I take a roundabout path back to my car, inconspicuously edging closer. Joey is talking. I can’t hear clearly what he’s saying, but his voice is deep. He laughs in three lazy guffaws that sound as false as the school bell.
The non-smoker has his back to his friends, looking out across the car park. I wonder if he’s keeping watch. Eventually, he spots me staring.
I resist the urge to slink away. I stare back, although my eyes are locked with the third wheel, avoiding Joey. ‘Shouldn’t you boys be in school?’ My voice is soft and girlish. I at least manage not to smile.
‘Shouldn’t you be at work?’
It’s the other smoker who says it, not Joey. Although I see in my periphery that he takes a drag of his cigarette. I stand, staring, for a long moment. Embarrassed, yet unable to make myself leave. Which, of course, I eventually do. I walk to my car without looking back.

‘If kangaroos are girls does that mean joeys are girls?’
‘No! No! Joeys are boys, they’re boys!’
He was scandalised, that an animal that shared his name might be female.
‘Are you sure?’ I tickled him. ‘Are you sure you’re sure?’ He squirmed beneath my hands, laughing with horror and delight.
‘Are you sure joeys aren’t girls?’
Maybe I should’ve asked him why he was so offended. Pointed out that I was a girl, his mum was a girl. The kid he went to the skate park with, a girl. I could’ve explained non-binary genders. It was hard to be serious, though, when we were having that much fun. And anyway, I wasn’t his parent. All I had to know how to do was love.

 

 

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Allee Richards’s short stories have been published by Kill Your Darlings, Black Inc and Australian Book Review. ‘Tight lines’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Peter Carey Short Story Award. Her debut novel Small Joys of Real Life was published by Hachette in September 2021.

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