The whale ghosts

Some time ago, under the influence of the twin stars of employment and achievable rent, we came to live in Mosman, and it was here I first thought of the whale ghosts. I was working, then, as a salesman, helping wealthy people into worthless shoes, the kind designed to do nothing but proudly state their incapacity to the world. Mosman was and is a fine place to sell useless things, as it is full of money—so much so that, thanks to a small commission on each useless pair, and the aforementioned achievable rent, we found ourselves living fairly comfortably in Sydney’s richest suburb, our shared minimum wage allowing us a harbour view, and a vantage on the baffling behaviour of the rich. We were, we felt, living the life of fleas on a pampered but erratic dog.

Though it is the confluence of great wealth and extraordinary power, Mosman is also a fearful place, full of the listening and the overstrung. On quiet nights, walking home under the suddenly visible stars, my back to Spit Junction and my eyes on the moon rising over Middle Head, I noticed myself noticed, saw the twitching curtains and the frowns; the kempt mothers in their music-box porticos falling still, ushering children inside; a final stab of the hand holding the car keys, the jeep locking, the door slamming shut. Shut out with the currawongs, I walked on at the same pace, benign and bemused. The old couple in the apartment beneath us wrote us a letter within a few days of our moving in, complaining of our footsteps and the sounds we made when washing up—rattling cutlery, the note confided, was particularly upsetting. We brought them beer and flowers, those two sure-fire sweeteners of the post-war generation, flashed our wedding rings, and smiled. After a brief grace, the letters started again.

At first I wrote off these strange episodes of fear and complaint as the effects of Mosman’s seclusion, its isolation from all the regular chafes and strains of city life helped along by its geography, and its extraordinary wealth. It seemed anxious to repel boarders. It reminded me, sometimes, of the seaside towns I’d grown up in, with their suspicious, mad-eyed elderly; where a tight-jawed man in sunglasses might ask if you were local, and show you his teeth. But as time passed, I heard something else in the fraught confidences of my customers, a common theme of anxiousness and annoyance, about ‘people round here’, ‘people’, who’d complain endlessly, or, conversely, were deaf to complaint, overly precious or brazenly profane. Beach towns menaced strangers with the odd bit of theft or violence under the coral trees on hot afternoons—crimes of envy and defence. Mosman watched its neighbours. It judged, and felt judged. It compared, it juxtaposed. It felt loftily superior and queasily insecure. The glances I drew on the way home were not reserved for strange men passing by on foot at dusk—these same eyes took in their neighbours, before the brittle exchange of hellos. Mosman was most frightened of itself.

I looked closer. First to my notice were the signs, some slickly professional, others hand-written and lavishly insane. I was instructed to keep off lawns, to smile for cameras, to get my own newspaper, to beware dogs, to never, ever, under any circumstances, park here, to drive slowly, or not to drive at all: ‘Do Not Turn Around In This Driveway—IT IS PRIVATE PROPERTY!!!’ I was reminded, in tedious detail, that it was my responsibility to pick up after my dog, I was warned that trespassing was an offense, that this was a private path, that there was no point informing the council, because this garden was watered with tank or reclaimed water, and that ‘if you park in front of this house again, you will be towed’. Suburban grievances about stolen newspapers and dog shit, parking spots and water restrictions, were here backed up with threats of litigation and deadly force. I witnessed a long argument between two fat-faced men in polo shirts about the mowing of a nature strip. Both were shouting and, absurdly, watering their lawns, gesticulating furiously while their hoses gushed—two angry fountain cherubs gone to seed.

Approaching a house at night, it is possible to tell, from a distance, if the television is on. Even if the program is inaudible, the night walker, passing by, can discern beneath the sounds of wind and foliage, of cooling roof iron and cars ticking in their mechanical sleep, a kind of hum—a high and eerie keening, a dog whistle set to the human ear. The ghost in the television is electricity, pulsing at high frequency, causing the metal parts of the appliance to vibrate minutely, shaking its tiny ferrite bones. As I became more convinced of Mosman’s affliction, I began to think I could hear the suburb producing a comparable sound, a common chord of anxiousness, the ringing in the ears brought on by a collectively held breath. And so, gradually, I fell into listening, too. In our apartment over Mosman Bay, lying awake after the ferries had stopped, I heard the stealthy motions of the water and the small talk of the gulls. And, on some nights, when the southerly dropped and the bay was scaled over with moonlight, I had my first inklings of the whale ghosts—strange, rhythmic swells and puffing exhalations that set the yachts rocking on their moorings, as if vast bodies passed beneath them, the chiming of their masts like the tinkling of a nervous flock on a black hill.

The old couple beneath us stepped up their campaign. More letters, laboriously typed on an old word processor, appeared in our mailbox or were pushed under our door. (I knew they were typed—with my newly sensitised hearing, I could hear the machine working directly beneath the spot I’d chosen for my own desk). The notes were sometimes circumspect and sometimes personal, inflamed with capital letters and aggressive pronouns: ‘We’ was brandished over our heads like a spear. More ominously, the building itself was personified, its two redbrick wings suddenly teeming with feeling—’the building feels’; ‘this building has always valued quiet’—a composite organism, like a coral. Finally, on a night when I was out, the old man himself appeared, provoked beyond endurance by the sound of my wife igniting the pilot light on the gas hot water system in the kitchen, his face puffy and red as a baby’s knee, his teeth askew from shouting. When she apologised, and suggested that he might be kinder, he promised consequences.

Our real estate agent rang the next day. The old man had been in touch. Rather than describe the actual encounter, he focused on our original offence: the demoniacal racket of utensils as we washed up. In his volcanic imaginings, this was by far our most egregious act, and we did it every night. ‘What’s going on down there?’ the agent asked, genuinely baffled. ‘We’re having midnight dishwashing parties,’ I said, but hastily explained. The agent told the old man that if it happened again, we’d call the police on him—our very first Mosman threat of force, issued by an intermediary, but ours all the same. (It was satisfying imagining the old man arrested, his tortoise face crushed into the patterned carpet on the stairs, the cuffs snapping shut while he bawled.) Past tenants, we discovered, had had similar problems; some had even moved out, pushed past endurance by carping letters and unpredictable knocks on the door. What part the old woman played in all this we never discovered. Her moon-eyed silence whenever we met her on the stairs invited construal—she looked equal parts addled and afraid, shrinking behind her laundry basket, never saying a word.

These episodes were absurd, but took their toll. While he never confronted us directly again, the old man was, we knew, working quietly on our removal, sending letters to the body corporate and the building as a whole. From the window of my shop on Spit Junction, I’d see him, wheeling a tartan trolley, sometimes with his wife, sometimes alone, waiting at the lights, taking the steps up to the office of our agent one at a time, unaffected by my best efforts to strike him dead with my mind from across the street. At home, we were increasingly constrained. We kept any music we played low, never washed up after dark, and took to walking on tiptoe. If either of us dropped something, we’d both leap like cartoon cats. In making entirely ordinary actions the grounds of their complaint, the old couple had made it impossible for us to live unconsciously—even the simplest action was measured for its potential to disturb. Worse, constantly listening to myself made me hypersensitive to the noises of others, almost preternaturally aware of ambient noise. Unable to sleep, I would stand in our lounge room after midnight listening to the neighbours, or, in a kind of despair, imagine the old man doing the same—we two listeners, with only the floor separating us, each listening madly for the other.

Mosman was taking hold. We were, we realised, crouching—two rabbits hunkered down in a field while the hawk circled—waiting for a letter or a knock on the door; waiting for the suburb to assert itself, to shake us like a cold; sure we had no business living here with no money to defend ourselves, and that we would, in time, be dispatched by the old men, or the nervous mothers, or the nature strip hose cherubs. It took effort, conscious effort, to remind ourselves of the suburb’s madness; not to take it personally. At the same time, feeling myself surveilled, I naturally began to surveil, became a window-watcher and a snoop, a garbage bin wowser and a picker-through of other people’s misdelivered mail. The old man, I noticed, played his kitchen radio early in the morning, and, shockingly, sometimes transgressed to putting green waste in the wrong bin. I would note these tiny infractions with a petty, fascistical relish, plot the writing of my own letters, either to him or the body corporate, and curl up like a salted slug in self-disgust.

Meanwhile, the suburb waxed madder. I woke up past midnight to oafish laughter and a strange wet gushing sound: two teenage boys from a nearby mansion were using the building’s extinguisher to cover a neighbour’s motorcycle in fire-retarding foam. They ran away as the lights came on, even though everyone knew where they lived. We borrowed my wife’s parents’ aging Subaru, parked it under our building, and woke up the next morning to find someone had tried to hotwire it. The old man, always on duty, had called the police, who’d caught whoever it was in the act. Three streets east a woman was beaten, almost to death, by her drunken spouse. Walking home, we cut through a little park, disturbing a teen couple getting to grips on a bench, the girl arching while the boy, his knees in the dust, his short hair twinkling in the bright suburban dusk, pressed his face between her legs: public cunnilingus at ten past eight on a school night. I watched a mob of artfully dressed teens from the local high school stream across the road (crowding a mother with a pram off the curb into Spit Junction traffic) and corner a classmate against the front window of my shop. When I waded through the ranks to break up the fight, a kid half my age and a third my weight threatened to hurt me, pushing at me and stumbling backwards when my weight didn’t shift. Flat-footed, baffled and incredulous, I asked him how he’d manage that—did he have a knife, a gun, a grenade? A fearsome, curly girl beside him intervened: ‘If you touch him, it’s child abuse, and he’ll fucking sue you!’ Confronted with this apparition of the suburb’s mad logic, I hustled the kid they were lynching inside and shut the shop. The mob beat and spat on the glass, but subsided when I came out with a spray-bottle and a cloth to buff away the palm prints and the phlegm. That weekend, the curly girl and her mother bought shoes.

When the anticipated bad news finally arrived, it came as a phone call from our agent. The owner had decided to sell, and we took it as a kind of reprieve. Caught as we were—between an apartment from which the weather was so miraculously visible; where the refracted light of the afternoon sun flashed and shifted on the high ceilings like a school of fish; where you could watch the southerly sweep into the bay on great white wings, churning the water green, then grey, then white; where every storm had a sense of moral grandeur, and the spires of the city erupted over the green arm of Cremorne Point like an onrushing future; and a suburb whose aged and relentless emissary lived beneath us and gnawed at our sleep; whose warlike offspring, with shield-bearing, venture-capitalist names like Angus, Hudson, Saxon and Max, an unholy but compatible mating of skaldic epic and Atlas Shrugged, wrought havoc with our modest goods and livelihoods; where vast silver Range Rovers ploughed through pedestrian crossings like tanks, horns blaring as an afterthought; where anxiety and dysmorphia thrived symbiotically with the serried ranks of beauticians, cosmeticians, chemists, and the nail salons, whose bright windows presented a kind of colonialist tableau: small, deft Asian women working tirelessly on the long white feet of their blonde customers, painting and burnishing their pink toenails up to a violent and barbarous red—caught as we were, it was a relief to be forced out.

As the lease ran down, we watched the real estate websites, and thought about where we’d live next. My job was still good (for what it was), and we were in love with the water, but worn down by all the rest. And so we looked around, turned up with the crowds for Saturday inspections in Glebe, Chippendale, and further west: forty grumpy people struggling up and down narrow terrace stairs, resigning themselves to a converted garage, imagining their furniture into a squalid little flat. After the chalky blue skies of Mosman, the steep sandstone plunging into the bay, the terraced mansions sleeping on the hills, their gardens breathing sultrily, the gentle susurrus of the tall palms, and the sweet coastal rain, these metropolitan suburbs, fed by train lines and great roaring thoroughfares, felt stuffy and landlocked. And they cost more. The workers’ cottages were full of cool young couples driving up the prices, and the air was sulphuric with fumes. I thought back to our first house inspection in Mosman. We’d taken the ferry from Circular Quay and set out across the harbour under an ultramarine sky. At South Mosman, while the ferry pulled away, we stopped, astonished, to watch little penguins wing past beneath the waves.

And so we stayed. Once we’d decided, the suburb seemed to welcome us back. We found another beautiful flat in a rambling white house divided into four, with a private entry and a spectacular purple bougainvillea climbing up one side. It was even cheaper than our first place, and it was closer to the water—the lawn gave way to a break wall and a set of steps that lead into the bay. From the tall windows of the sunroom, we could watch the gulls fly past at eye level, or follow the flight of the terns, tracing the sickle shape of their wings as they swooped and plunged for fish. In the afternoon the bay turned glassy, a mirror to the sunset—only the shoulder of Cremorne Point, a hill of windows in the dusk, broke the water from the sky. Coming home after dark, I’d follow Raglan Street, and pick my way down one of the many sets of covert public stairs that led to the ferry, the great spiral of Scorpio visible overhead, with red Antares held like a sting in its tail.

From the windows at night we could see the ferry wharf, where the fishermen argued and smoked long past midnight, and the floodlights reached down into the water, as if to draw up something finned and massive, to lure some ghastly, cloud-vast fish from obscene depths, its eye bigger than the wave-riding moon. And one windless night when there was no moon, I woke up to the groaning of the wharf, moving with a great surge of water, rising and falling on its pylons, the pontoon bridge shrieking softly where it needed oil. I walked to the window and looked out. The bay was like black glass, but the yachts, like the wharf, were rocking wildly with a sourceless swell. And suddenly the water bulged up, the lights from the far shore writhing out across its mirrored surface like white scars across a great black back. As I watched, transfixed, the bay seemed to furrow, to push up into dunes, and finally I thought of the whale ghosts, huge travellers, passing into the bay in pods, their silent breaths pluming invisibly between the harbour lights and the faint encircling stars.

Told this way the whales seem unheralded, appearing out of nowhere, the suggestion of a moment that might happen anywhere, water being what it is, and darkness doing what it does. But Mosman was full of their loomings. I’d first noticed them as charming peripherals, of a piece with the turrets and crenulations of the federation houses, part of what made Mosman improbable and baroque. Over the municipal buildings hard by Spit Junction a whale rode the air, a sperm whale, its blunt head and upraised flukes the finial flourish at the apex of the council chamber’s many-gabled roof. When the local sports teams played, they played as the whale, and in the whale’s colour—the Mosman Whales always wore blue. Best of all, the white community minibus that picked up and dropped off seniors to the bowling club (its mascot: a killer whale) or library was called the Whale Rider, or, simply, The Whale, with the jaunty slogan, ‘Hail the Whale!’ emblazoned on its flank. This suburban Moby Dick cruised the backstreets of Mosman, swallowing the elderly and disgorging them on distant shores—I was pleased one day to see the old man get on—as fit an allegory for onrushing death as you could wish for. In Mosman, when you got old, you’d someday ride the whale.

After my first sighting of the whale ghosts, Mosman’s allegorical mascots took on a darker aspect. I looked into the suburb’s origin, and found it was built, figuratively at least, on whales, as if the story of Sinbad had been rewritten, and those unwise merchants who kindled a fire on the back of leviathan had somehow subdued it and set up shop. Archibald Mosman and his twin brother, George, Lanarkshire Scots, lately of the West Indies, decorously termed ‘planters’ by local historians, sold up their interests in sugar and arrived in Sydney in 1828, six shrewd years ahead of the commencement of the Abolition Act. Perhaps it was luck, or a sharp weather sense; perhaps they’d been tipped off—I was diving only shallowly into their affairs, reading between the websites and the pamphlets distributed by the library. In 1831, Archibald Mosman won a grant for a piece of what was then Great Sirius Cove, with the intention of setting up a whaling depot. The Government, eager to shift the reek of the whaling industry from Darling Harbour further afield, gave him money and convicts. Their free labour pulled timber and stone from what would soon be called Mosman’s Bay to build a storehouse, depot, outfitters, and ‘The Nest’, a grand home and Archibald Mosman’s seat, from which he could oversee his flourishing business without having to smell it.

Like so many extractive industries, like sugar, like slavery, like coal, the profits were vast. Mosman soon bought out his rival, John Bell, and acquired more ships, profiting meanwhile from the outfitting and careening of the ships of others. The men who crewed the ships, who risked the waves in thin boats, who hurled harpoons and did huge murder, were often paid a pittance, reduced, through a system of shares and tariffs for provisions, to something like indentured servitude. From ‘The Nest’, Mosman trafficked in the largest sentient bodies ever known, whose masses of blubber yielded up oil to light streets and grease machinery, whose subtler fluids anointed faces in cosmetics, while pet food, fertiliser and dresses were fashioned from their cathedral bones. The whales were hunted and killed, stripped and atomised, became blood, oil, and bone, and Archibald Mosman, like Rumpelstiltskin, transmuted these gargantuan piles of offal into gold.

To my eyes then Mosman Bay became a scene of unimaginable carnage, a great, weltering charnel house, an abattoir for god-sized bodies. I envisioned lines of ships pouring through the great jaws of the Heads, each one bearing with it a dead or dying whale, snug against their sides in gruesome parody of an escorted calf. Ignorant of the way whalers rendered down their prey at sea, I conceived a production line in Mosman Bay, a red mirror to the ships’ outfitters nearby, a place where whales were stripped down, and sweating men heaved chunks of blubber into giant cauldrons boiling with profit, or crabbed for ambergris through tortuous swathes of bowel. And in that epic butchery, what airs and fluids were released to seep into the land and water of that place? What sobbed from those lungs in which a man could fit, whose breath had weight and could move matter, its voice like a vast limb? What burst from those cuts, those lurid curtains of flesh parted by knives, the skin peeled back in spirals by the flensing spades? I thought of a sea made treacly with blood, and the creatures drawn by such a rich spill, the bull sharks with their brawny necks, the leech-like hagfish roiling into knots, and sleeper sharks up from abyssal depths, their eyes black and staring, their skin a pouched and putrid shade of grey. Or the creatures from inside the whale, itself an ecosystem, twining, hook-nosed intestinal worms as long and fat as eels, spilling out from their punctured atmosphere and finding new food in this strange external sea. I thought of the bay turned all red, the fish moving in it like maggots in a wound.

Archibald Mosman, shrewd as ever, did not stay long. His profits were enough that he sold his share in the business for a steady annuity. The bottom dropped out of whaling soon after: the whales were harder to find, their numbers drastically reduced, and anyway there were new fuels from organisms long dead—whales lost out to oil. Archibald Mosman moved inland, but the suburb remained. Its sea views and dramatic sandstone heights made it attractive to artists and wealth; property was already prohibitively expensive. Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts set up a bohemian artist’s camp around the point from Mosman Bay at Sirius Cove. Shedding its industry, Mosman bloomed. Mansions appeared on its hills, with tennis courts and flowering trees—bowers maintained for the courtship displays of the rich. Whaling was quickly reduced to a romantic aspect of the past. Henry Lawson wrote a clumsy poem about it. What was left of the whales in Mosman Bay was silted over, the depot gone, the storehouse now a community hall with an arched door fashioned from a whale’s rib, through which couples passed to dance.

But maybe they still lingered. It seemed impossible that so little trace of so many enormous lives should be left, that such an atrocity should be attended by no marker, no consequence, nothing. The bodies of the whales had vanished into profit, into so much organic material and economic activity, an immeasurable blood sacrifice offered up to prosperity, rich red gallons poured into Mosman Bay. Maybe the waters were rippling with their ghosts. The studies I read about whales had a spectral aspect—a kind of reverence for what was still unknown, and awe of what was. Sperm whales, I learned, used their bulky heads as sonic projectors, pulsing sounds that stunned their prey like an invisible fist; caused haemorrhaging in the tissues of squid. Bowhead whales, it was posited, lived for up to three centuries. Many whales navigated by listening, their ears attuned over hemispheric distances to the breakers on strange shores. Humpbacks learned new songs, and sang them. Blue whales communicated with each other by infrasound, a call so deep and low it was inaudible to the human ear. Killer whales had distinct dialects, and taught each other skills of such complexity they were said to have culture. One hypothesis stated that many whales were capable of religion. Their brains and lives were complex enough to warrant a cosmology and a sense of self. Above all animals, they seemed capable of ghostly returns, swimming in and out of memory, recalled always by the sea.

And so I fell to thinking, half-seriously, that what I’d witnessed were whale ghosts, intent on pilgrimage to the place of their slaughter. And maybe the whale ghosts, with their ocean-traversing voices, were singing of their sorrow, a titanic song of mourning for themselves and for their dead. And this song, rippling through the suburb’s many waters, passing unheard into the ears of its sleepers, was the source of Mosman’s madness, its hostility and dread. Perhaps the suburb’s making, Archibald Mosman’s great enterprise of death, had called up this doom on the place, blighted it with unquenchable grief.

It was a deeply seductive idea. It gave to my sense of paranoia and grievance against a suburb I barely knew an attractive aptness, as if I was on the side of the whales, riding in the bow waves of their ghosts. I felt sorrowful and righteous: brooding over man’s wrongs, seeing what was unseen. But if at times I swerved into seriousness, I was also amused—my eldritch speculations let the pressure off the real unpleasantness of Mosman, restored irony, humour and equipoise. Over time the whale ghosts settled into a useful idea, a coverall term for what was rotten in the suburb, a lens through which to view its freaks and starts. Still, though, on those nights when the wind dropped, and I woke to the groaning of the wharf, I always got up and watched for the strange travellers, whose saintly procession made the inky water boil.

Still, too, the suburb waxed strange—fishermen drowned in calm seas under a full moon, a woman was strangled by her partner in the west wing of our former building, and a cruel, stupid man strapped a fake collar bomb to someone’s daughter as a convoluted form of revenge. He’d left behind a series of obvious clues, sent his ransom note from a library computer on the Central Coast, and used references from James Clavell’s Shogun—an arduous philistinism that seemed to me the perfect emblem of Mosman’s rich. Finally, the interior of our first apartment caught fire—a freak accident caused by a shorting wire. The new owner’s face was in the paper as part of an appeal—we’d met her previously when she tried desperately to involve us in a lawsuit she hoped to pursue against the old man who was now making her life hell. Narrating all this to the barista at the café around from the shop, I laughed, and blamed it on the whale ghosts. When he asked, I gleefully explained—I had high hopes for them as an urban legend, a new aspect of Mosman’s grim mythology, a complicating element in the stories of its many high-profile tragedies, like the murder of Victor Chang, or John Wayne Glover the ‘Granny Killer’, who’d stalked the backstreets despatching old women with a hammer. But still they appeared.

On my days off I took long walks, following the water, past Camp Curlew, where Streeton and Roberts had painted; the treatment plant, its electric fence ticking in the wind; the musky lower reaches of Taronga Zoo. And then on, the land tending upwards, whipbirds calling, the harbour and the city at my right shoulder, out along the curve of Athol Bay with white boats winking on its brim. Each step more haunted than the last, each landmark brimming with portent, Bradley’s Head and HMAS Sydney, the keep-like stones, the hulking, gunmetal crucifix of the mast, and a lonely faux-Grecian column, suggesting all the rest had been eaten by the sea. North to Taylors Bay where yachts rode at anchor, and a tarnished sign told of more ghosts locked in the water: Japanese sailors caught in the submarine net. A grand mansion, bristling with chimneys and scaled like a dragon, loomed over the path to Chowder Head, once the meeting place for theosophists and quacks, now empty of everything but books and the molten gleam of copper that lined the walls (in their séances and circles, channelling saints, philosophers, and sometimes Napoleon, had they heard the whales?). Then Clifton Gardens rising up in perpetual sun; Chowder Bay, with swimmers, a shark net, and sometimes an oil tanker; and on, up great stairs in the footsteps of Bungaree, friend of Flinders and Governor Macquarie, to George’s Heights where kookaburras hunted on old fortifications stamped Victoria Regina. Past abandoned barracks shedding paint, past lightning rods courting the clouds, past tennis courts, ovals, and the path to Cobblers Beach, where sun-cured, leathery naturists stalked up through the trees, out onto the bulwark of Middle Head, Mosman’s terminus, sandstone cliffs washed by an elegiac blue-green sea.

On the brink of Middle Head I’d rest, on sandstone warm as a biscuit, or on the rounded sward of grass beneath the ruins of the fort, the pillboxes giving way to weeds and concrete rot, the great gun emplacement like an alchemist’s circle washed out by the rain. Lying on the earth, I’d listen for things moving beneath, the passage of air in the abandoned military tunnels that honeycombed the cliffs, their entrances barred or covert. Somewhere in this subterranean network were the Tiger Cages, barred enclosures too small to stand up in or sit down, where intelligence recruits were taken and incarcerated in preparation for possible capture in Vietnam. Here, too, was the Well of Truth, a round shaft of unremitting darkness in which men were interred and, at times, driven past breaking by the constant roar of water seeking them through the cliff. I thought of these tunnels, worming through the rock, as capillaries, great circulatory systems, but also points of ingress, where the waters and the whale ghosts could pass into the rock, into the marrow of Mosman’s bones. But then the light would change, or the weather would draw in, and I’d look up to the swallows snapping and arrowing over the fort, or out over the harbour, at the seabirds commuting home in the lanes between the smooth lines of swell, and walk on.

In the end, the whale ghosts were solved for me by accident. There was no real pattern to their appearance, save a preference for the smaller hours and mild weather. All my attempts to anticipate them failed and anyway my motives were unclear. I was captivated with their aptness, their usefulness as metaphor, and so warded off my own scepticism, watching with a closed or winking eye. Until one night, to avoid a sharp-nosed neighbour, I walked down to the wharf for a smoke.

We’d returned, that day, from Hobart, another place of whales. From Hobart we’d driven down to Recherche Bay, where I’d learned whalers processed their huge catch at sea, or in small camps near their cruising grounds—and so my lurid vision of a red-dyed Mosman’s Bay was dispelled with one swift flick of contingent fact. Recherche Bay was one such camp, and great butchery had been done in its sheltered waters. It had once been a nursery ground for southern right whales, and men had killed them in great numbers, wounding the young first so their mothers would not flee. On the point of the now empty bay stood a lonely memorial—a statue of a Right Whale pointed mournfully at the sea. The overwhelming air of the place was one of peace—a vast, sorrowful quiet, an ocean empty of whales and their ghosts.

I thought about this as I smoked, and looked down into the obscured waters where the wharf lights met the dark. A light fog passed over the harbour, and the wind stilled. On Cremorne Point, the lighthouse winked its Gatsby-green light. I began to listen carefully. What I was looking to see I did not know—a milky apparition passing beneath the surface of the waves, or great shapes, black on black, visible only by their profound absence—peering through the water, hoping, perhaps, to be pushed back into credulity by some marvel. But out of the dark came a vast luxury craft, high-storied with a prow part fist, part sword, not black or blue but tooth-white, with a soft, deep-throbbing engine, and a man in a white shirt drinking from a can at its helm. From where I stood the craft looked like the scrimshawed remainder of a whale, its dorsal fin pointing down, its body riding, against its nature, above the surface, become its opposite. As it passed into the bay, it was pursued at distance by its wake, and the bay heaved in its familiar, eerie way. And I realised then what Mosman’s whales became; what their killing left behind. Here was no nemesis, no cosmic doom drawn by sundering crimes. Countless whales had been killed, carved, pulled, and boiled into their sundry useful parts: some rich men grew richer, some fat men fatter. Mosman’s whales were gone, and even their ghosts had long since been turned into money.



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Elias Greig

Elias Greig teaches and researches literature—before that, he sold books, and before that, shoes. He is co-editor of Short Takes on Long Views, a book series forthcoming from Routledge, and his bookseller’s memoir, I Can’t Remember the Title but the Cover is Blue (Allen & Unwin, 2018), is available in all good bookshops and some bad ones. He rents on Gumbaynggirr country.

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