Dolphins, ashes and a rainbow serpent

Watching these things with those from far off lands is like seeing them for the first time all over again through their eyes.

There it is, the hint of a dark shape moving swiftly beneath the creased surface of water. It’s so quick and so subtle at first you can’t be sure. You stare intently as a pulse of adrenaline courses through you like an eel. Then, there! A fin and a flank of taut, sheening grey skin – curving up through the surface before slipping away again as quickly as it appears. “DOLPHIN!” I blurt excitedly pointing like the village idiot.

My sister and niece’s head swivel. Now we’re all scanning the river with feverish intensity. My 15-year-old niece has her phone trained on the water expectantly and we’re all leaning over the side of the boat making it list and wobble as we drift in the current and then…we wait and then….nothing. My niece slowly lowers her phone and her face shifts from excitement to disappointment back to its default of teenage, bored indifference.   

I had tried to manage their expectations. I’d take them out on the river in my boat, The Raven, for a different perspective of the city from the water in dazzling Perth summer, which would be mind-blowing enough for a duo travelling from a gloomy Shropshire winter. There would be the slight possibility that we might spot a dolphin if we were lucky enough – but I certainly wasn’t promising either of them anything. Sure enough, they were suitably impressed by the expansive views of the suburban banks of Crawley, Nedlands and Claremont (the latter where we were to scatter some of our mum and dad’s ashes – but more of that later). They’d enjoyed the wind in their hair and the growl of the old Yamaha two-stroke as I’d opened her up to a flying 25 knots down to Point Resolution eliciting grins and “oohs” from them as The Raven powered down the river.

Now in the lower reaches of the river approaching Rocky Bay – the true porpoise of our trip might be revealed (aaaah, Ben, you just couldn’t help yourself again could you with another stinking pun to spoil the mood).  Occasionally, you’d spot one worrying a school of yellowfin whiting up on the sand bank that cleaves the river at this point. After my initial fleeting sighting, up ahead I spy patch of smoothed-out slightly undulating water – then BOOM! It surfaces, its glistening head, back, iconic dorsal and flank all exposed – and quickly another followed it. “THERE!” I yell excitedly grabbing my sister and niece and physically pointing them this time in the direction of the dolphins.

Now, it was all animated action on the boat as we all leant up against the boat gunnels, training our eyes on the water with laser-focus and we didn’t have to wait long before another two of the slick navy-grey mammals showed themselves. Saying a silent prayer of thanks, I stole a glance at Tash and Daisy and their wide-eyed, unadulterated joy sparked my soul. I had so wanted them to see the dolphins in the river – because you don’t get too many of ‘em in the Cannon Hill Park boating pond in my native Birmingham, or the industrial canals of the English Midlands or for that matter on the middle reaches of the River Severn that runs through Tash and Daisy’s hometown of Shrewsbury. But I also wanted to witness their joy at seeing them – because watching these things with those from far off lands – is like seeing them for the first time all over again through their eyes.

Sometimes your prayers get answered with some interest on top – this was one of these days with the aquatic acrobats clearly getting the memo and putting on a spectacular show of frolicking, rollicking, dolphin jollification for the English visitors. At one point we had a pod a half dozen strong following in the wake of the boat sending my sis and niece, and hell me too, into ecstatic fits of delight at the spectacle. I wouldn’t have been surprised had one of the porpoise-pursuit-team tail-finned up in water and given my niece a kiss with its beak – it was that kinda magical, miraculous morning.  

The dolphins and the river have always had a special place in my heart – early on in the whole moving -down-under piece, I was ‘doing it tough’ as they say here – at least, mentally I was – struggling in a corporate comms consultancy job in the city in which I felt hopelessly out of my depth. The Swan River, though, was my friend and every morning I’d cycle her banks along the Riverside Drive cycle path. The river’s  great expanse in the city’s heart is one of those things that gives this place its sense of unbidden space, which drew me here in the first instance. I always find comfort in that somehow – a place a man can breathe and dream. I clung to that thought hoping it could somehow free me of the gnawing anxiety that I couldn’t cope in this corporate world I had plunged myself into; free me of the guilt that I had dragged my young family to the other side of the world to live here; free me of the persistent nagging in my head that I was on the brink of falling apart.

Could I somehow be as utterly oblivious and indifferent as its mighty depths to the human throng and manic machinations a few hundred metres away? Usually, I could tap into that notion and steady the sinking feeling that clutched at me every morning I awoke. Except this one wet and blustery morning, I found myself unable to shore up the despair that was beginning to swamp my psyche. The foreboding squall that I could see inexorably rolling across the river wasn’t helping and before I could even think about finding shelter, I was getting absolutely lashed with hard, cold gobbets of rain and was soaked to the skin in seconds. “Great!” I inwardly groaned to myself – a wet commute is a wet commute whether it’s walking down Oxford Street on a dull Manchester autumn day or it’s cycling along a majestic city river-scape in Perth in late winter.

My cycling began to falter – struggling to find the will to turn the pedals over – what about if I just cycled headlong into the river and let it swallow me up? As I pondered this staring at the tea-stained water in front of me, there was suddenly a huge surge in the water literally yards from the riverbank. “What the flippin’ ‘eck was THAT!” I muttered to myself…or words to that effect. The fishing instinct in me completely overrode my maudlin moping and without a thought I leapt off my bike and chucked it on the grass bank to get a better view of what was going on alongside the limestone rocks below.  There it was again a quick powerful rush of the water adjacent to the bank for a couple of seconds before abruptly stopping leaving the water bubbling and fizzing. I had read about mulloway, metre-long silvery ‘ghosts’ that skulked around the river bed at night  croaking through their swim bladders and feeling for the electric pulses given off by their prey. Such fabled fish lived in the river I had learned – but these were generally nocturnal, stealth ambush predators – there was nothing stealth-like about these violent watery thrusts in plain view on a wet Wednesday morning.

Then the source of the submarine assaults revealed themselves as one of their number broke the surface – to my utter amazement and wonder – a dolphin! As I watched spellbound – having now plonked myself down on the sodden grass, not caring anymore about my sodden strides or being late for work, I could see there was three of them rounding up a school of mullet in the shallows. The pod corralled the panicking school of fish into the bank and then turning and nailing them as they darted to flee along the base of the rock wall. The powerful dolphins were just too explosively quick for the hapless mullet gulping them down like lollies. I gauzed on utterly enthralled, but soon they’d mopped up all their prey and dispersed off to the mass of water dividing the city. That was most definitely one of my “why-I-moved-to-Australia-moments” and it buoyed me sufficiently to get me through the day and a warm memory upon which I draw on this day if needing a mental lift.

But it’s not just the dolphins, magical as they are, there is a power in that river, I have come to learn. A couple of months later, my anxiety having continued to spiral, I found myself flailing once again in the torrent of expectations that came with my job and I was crippled by an imposter syndrome of Abagnalian proportions. My boozing levels were on the rise again to quiet the endless fearful churn in the pit of my stomach and I had earned a stern ticking off from the boss for excessively raiding the office’s bar fridge (reserved mainly for client schmoozing and for Friday afternoon sun-downers), while working late as I invariably did those days. My indignation and fierce, pointless denial when confronted by my boss, had given way to a miserable, shamefu despairing self-pity and as soon at the clock struck five, I traipsed out of the office without saying a word to anyone. I wearily got on my bike, not bothering to put my helmet on – ‘”Stupid West Australian law making dufus-looking helmets mandatory,” I sulkily pouted to myself.

It was a radiant spring early evening and the river shone silver beatifically – not that I noticed that much – self-absorbed in my gloomy introspection. Besides the Fremantle doctor had kicked in – that fresh cooling south-westerly blast that picks up in the warmer months off the WA coast bringing relief to the city and its sweating occupants. This made cycling along the river seriously ‘hard yakka’ and I had to grit my teeth, get up out of my saddle, puffing and panting to make any headway into the onrushing wall of air. I had my headphones on listening to Moby’s In My Heart a soaring, rolling uplifting anthem and suddenly everything was fluid – my legs pumped the pedals with ease, despite the wind not dropping a jot that I could discern. Then I was utterly enveloped in the silver light bouncing off the surface of the river. I felt a lightness and a warmth surging through me and the unmistakable sense that everything was going to be alright. I cried out from deep down with an ecstatic bellow and tears began to stream down my face – all the while I kept pedalling. The feeling held for maybe a minute, maybe two, but it had ebbed by the end of the song. The effect though was profound – it was the closest to a religious experience I have personally encountered and I can trace back to that point the beginning of a change in me that eventually built and took hold a few years later when I got sober. I cannot say nor do I know what the ultimate source was of that feeling – something beyond my ken  – but I do know that the river was its channel.

So, when my sister had asked me to think about where to scatter some of my mum and dad’s ashes, that she was going to bring to Australia, my heart told me it had to be the river. Neither mum nor dad made it to Australia when alive, even though I know they both would’ve loved it here. Mum for the abundant flora and fauna and the majesty of the natural environment and dad for some of that – but mainly because of the heat. Dad, like me, was always a heat fiend – although a devotee of the skiing, slaying and alpine scenes on his beloved skiing trips, he lit up in warmer climbs, basking and playful in the sun, full of lightness and fun, that’s how I remember him on our family summer holidays to France, Ibiza and America. Bringing and scattering some of their ashes in Aus, was a way some of their physical essence could make it here, although, I maintain, since they left us physically, they continue to be here in our hearts and minds. Every now and then I see their spirits’ footprint in one of my son’s mannerisms or in their eyes or in something they say…and I feel them quietly sitting with me at times as I meditate.

I had thought about the ocean as a place to scatter the ashes – but while they both liked the sea, neither  of them from their London and East Midlands roots had marine connections and it didn’t seem fitting somehow. Rivers on the other hand coursed through their origins – dad with the mighty Thames winding its way through the East End of London where he grew up and the River Soar – a tributary of the Trent – meandering through my mother’s native Loughborough in Leicestershire. I had also spent many a happy hour as a lad fishing with dad on the rivers of Warwickshire and Worcestershire. There was another connection though – my mother’s maiden name was Rainbow – a magical name I had always thought. She had been in decline for weeks, but the morning she passed after months of not raining here, out of nowhere, a shower descended on the personal training session I was taking. After my clients had gone and I had loaded all the gear into the car – I was confronted by the vision of a full double rainbow over the park field where I had been. I later discovered that, back in England, it was around that time that she had gone. That portentous vision and my myriad warm memories of mum inspired the rainbow and heart tattoo below my heart with ‘mum’ inscribed over it.

In the dreamtime culture of the Aboriginal Nyoongar people on whose land we live here in Perth and south-western Australia – the Swan and Canning rivers were created by the Wagyl or Waugal – a mega spirit-being that takes the form of a rainbow serpent – the giver of life that protects all fresh water sources. What better place, then, to sprinkle the remains of another rainbow spirit – the giver of so much, notwithstanding mine and my siblings’ lives and a mountain source for those of my sons.

It was a radiant Perth summer morning when we gathered at Mrs Herbert’s Park in Claremont to scatter the ashes, but the knee-high water was cooling and clear as we waded out. We each of us said a few warm words in memory of mum, dad, ‘Papa Sid’ and ‘Grandma So’ and cupped a little of the ashes into our hands. I bent towards the water and let the grey coarse powder slip through my fingers like an hourglass on to the glassy surface under which it formed a fine cloud before coming to rest in a small pile on the sandy riverbed. I said a silent prayer of thanks to both of these beautiful souls who had given us all so much and had loved us so well. I turned to look back at the narrow beach that formed the bank behind me where kids happily played and splashed in the shadows as their smiling parents looked on. Other families sat around picnic rugs or tables and camp chairs in the shade of the peppermint and palm trees. It was a happy summer scene to be sure and in my mind’s eye I could see mum and dad sitting on one of the benches beneath one of the big trees looking out across the river – he reading the paper or a book, with his clip-on shades flipped down over his glasses, looking up every now and then and across to his beloved wife and soul-mate, Sonia. She wistfully gazing, a hand affectionately draped on her beloved husband and soul-mate Sidney’s knee, smoking, a smile playing and dancing in her eyes as she drinks in the scene, in the mellow thrall of the river…no dolphins this time, but I…we….know they are out there.

Dolphins painting excerpt in feature picture – Lionel Doyle.

One thought on “Dolphins, ashes and a rainbow serpent”

  1. What a very beautiful piece my darling brother.

    What a wordsmith you are weaving so much colour, light, shade & grace through your words.

    Thank you, love you.

    Tash x x


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