Homage to a big hearted river

Part 1a


Alex slowed the car coming into Abercrombie. 80, 60… Ahead was the general store, built in the 1920s, white weatherboard with faded pale-yellow trims and an awning. He didn’t want the store and drove around the corner. Parked.

The letter was on the passenger seat beside him; addressed to Michael. He’d left their house early that morning, dawn cool still. He was due back that evening. He wasn’t going to be there though. The letter explained why. Alex got out with the letter and went across to the post box, began to slide it in. He didn’t drop it in though. Held it, scratched at his beard, not really there. Then he looked at the post box, faded red. It was not used much these days, he guessed. Old technology. Had had its day. Pulled the letter back out, checked the address again. It was good. This time he tapped the envelope as he slid it in, propelled it, shot it in, heard it hit the side, then the bottom. Probably no-one had posted anything in this post box for quite a while. Still, the letter was in, gone now. No going back.

Alex got back in the car and did a U turn. At the corner he turned left, out of Abercrombie. There wasn’t much to Abercrombie but he always marked the town when he was coming to fish his river, marked the Ag college that was its raison d’être on the way in. That morning the lights along the dorm corridors had still been visible. He thought the big old fig trees must still be shading their sensors because he didn’t need lights to see as he’d driven in past the college. Hadn’t for a while. The day was already pretty bright, cloudless, but those big old trees threw some shade.

Abercrombie’s last house going out was on his right. It was an old church, chapel really, converted to a house. It was painted a stark, stark white and had a little tower, where he guessed the cross must have been. Alex remembered it as an unused church, vaguely, from long ago when he’d first come fishing this way. It had been someone’s house for more than 25 years now and you could see it as the converted house it now was a long, long way off. When he was coming back from fishing in the late afternoons Alex always saw it as the first sign of Abercrombie and the last of that day’s fishing. The road went more or less straight now for about 5 kilometres and you could see the white house, once chapel, from a long way out.

Past the house, he crossed the last of the cane train tracks you crossed over 15 times on this road before you got to the river. Nine kays to go. Alex slowed for the crossing, looked up and down the tracks, even though the trains weren’t working, listened to the pertumper-pertumper as he drove over.

Seeing the tracks reminded him again of that Nick Adams story he’d been re-reading two nights back. It was a favourite; the one where Nick came back to fish a stream he’d fished before. Nick Adams fished it alone, which was what Alex was doing now with his big-hearted river. There were a few other similarities, Alex thought. ‘More differences, though,’ he said aloud.

His voice out loud sounded odd, so he just thought about the differences. He was a fair bit older than Nick Adams was in that story. Make that a lot older. Alex was 52; he guessed Nick Adams was probably 20 or so in that one. Alex hadn’t climbed down from a train, either. And he hadn’t come back from a war. He, Alex, was damaged goods though, no doubt about that. Different war, same sort of damage, he jested in his head. Still, it was mainly differences. Start with the big ones; different country, different century… Different world. The trains here carried sugar cane and no-one other than a driver and sometimes a guard rode them in the season. The locals called them trams. Alex thought of them as trains. He wasn’t a local. Michael’s brother in law, also called Michael (he’d been Michael 2 until he’d done the dirty on his wife with a girl twenty years his junior; the girl worked at the mill and now, as of 11 months back, he was just ‘the shit’) had told him about working as a driver on the cane trains. Alex wrote feature articles for travel journals sometimes, among other things in an itinerant and part work-part hobby journalism career; he liked collecting such trivia. He’d grilled Michael 2, when he was still Michael 2, about driving the trains, about the sugar mill, about changing your life from being an engineer to being someone who drove cane trains. Change is good, Michael 2 had said.

It was late September. The sugar harvesting season didn’t start for a month or so. Alex had fished this river during the harvesting season quite a few times but that was a while back. He’d lived much closer then. They’d moved south over 20 years ago. He’d given up fishing up here in summer, mostly, because it was too hot. And the big horse and March flies had seemed to arrive earlier each year. It wasn’t pleasant both fishing and continually swatting at biting flies. These days he preferred fishing up here in the early spring. The fishing was good enough and wading was better in the cooler water. September was his favoured month. October was still good but once it hit November… He remembered coming up with Tilly six years back, the last time he’d fished it in summer, January it was. There’d been poor monsoon rains that year. The creeks were all low and wading had been in near tepid water. They’d caught a few but not like in the old days. Tilly didn’t fish with him too often and he’d resented the poor fishing. He’d sworn he wasn’t ever coming back with her to fish in summer again. Hadn’t either. He’d been back with Tilly again in spring and once in the early autumn. It was much better, Tilly had agreed.

The road ran now towards where it started climbing down to the river crossing. Alex saw the pencil thin line of the waterfall on the ridge to his right. The fall fed some rill that fed his river. He always looked for it. It always was there.

It wasn’t, of course, really a river. More of a creek, a stream. Fishing big rivers here, wading them, was too dangerous because of the crocs. He hadn’t waded any size of  river in these parts for 30 years. He’d promoted this stream in his head to river status because it always made him think of the Hemingway two-hearted river story. Always. The river in the story was the Black. There was a Black River nearby here too. He ‘d even once carried a book of Hemingway stories with him up here and read them by lamp light back in the old days, when he and Michael and Dave had sometimes camped beside the river… creek, he corrected himself, under the fig tree up a little past the bridge. Tilly hadn’t fished in those days. It was something she’d taken up for him a dozen or so years back. She’d done it grudgingly, it had always been his thing. Then she loved it.

Mostly. She hadn’t been too keen on that summer trip, he remembered. Nor had he. He wished he could have camped with her by the creek and listened to its susurration put them both to sleep. He never would camp it with her now. The river, his big-hearted river, whenever he thought about it, like now, and when he fished it, restored him. She’d felt it too. Loved this river — creek — with him. Alex looked ahead, at the road and the power lines running in dips and rises along the road, and the sugar cane growing and thought he still loved it. Things were very different now but he loved it. And September, Alex thought, is the perfect time.

It was still cool enough to sleep in the little room at Michael and Celeste’s house without the AC. And in September the fish were definitely on the move and feeding again after the shut down of winter. Sure, they didn’t hit quite as hard or willingly as they did in summer (if the rains had come, Alex reminded himself) but it was much, much more pleasant. Of course, if the rains did come as they should with the early summer monsoons then wading upstream was hard. Alex remembered that. He preferred fishing upstream. Wading downstream dirtied the water, he figured, and gave every fish downstream notice of your coming.

The road rose and fell but it’s general trend now was down. Swamp box and cadagi lined the road and he was in the sweep around the bend before Cunningham’s place. He knew the Cunninghams. Tilly had been with him seven years back when they’d called in at the house. The Cunninghams had brought the farm from the Illuci family. He and Michael and Tilly had called in at the house in the early morning to let the new owners know they’d be on the creek. They’d done the same with the Illucis that Michael wife’s family had known for years and years. Celeste was the local. Walking back out across what was now the Cunningham farm land from the creek to re-join the road and then back down the road to where the car was parked, was a short cut.  They’d been taking it for years. The Cunninghams were happy to let them keep using it. They didn’t do it very often these days because mostly they preferred to fish the creek higher up. Alex thought they’d seen the Cunninghams only once or twice since that time. He couldn’t, for the life of him, remember Mr. Cunningham’s first name. She was Alice, he remembered. That was Tilly’s sister’s name…

[This is the first part of a 7000+ word story; let me know if you want to read the rest of it.]

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