Starfish Flingers

Running along Cable Beach very early this morning I passed a couple who carried small plastic bags of a primrose colour. The two peered and bent repeatedly, picking up small items unseen and popping them into their yellow bags. I’d seen people at this before, collecting pippis, also known as cockles. Some collect them for bait (whiting love them) while others eat them cooked in garlic and herbs and wine. I sang to myself as I ran one of the old songs Dad used to sing with us kids as we travelled by boat or by car:

 

 

She was a fishmonger

And sure ’twas no wonder

For so were her mother

And father before

 

She wheeled her wheel barrow

Through streets broad and narrow  

Crying, ‘Cockles and muscles

Alive, alive O…’

 

 

I ran a long way before retracing my steps. On the return I passed the cockle collectors. I changed course to inspect their catch. ‘Are these to feed you or to feed the fish?’

‘They would have fed the fish, but not now,’ said the woman, a person in her early sixties, her skin fair beneath her tan. ‘Take a look.’ I looked into the bulging bag she held: no pippis, just sandy cigarette butts, scores of them. Her husband held his bag open. More butts, many more.

 

 

‘He collected 160 of them today,’ said the woman, ‘Same number yesterday.’ I stood and mused for a bit. The woman explained: ‘People sit on the beach and smoke and drop their butts on the sand. Later the incoming tide washes the butts out to sea where fishes see them and take them for food. After a fish swallows a butt it swells up in the belly of the fish and the fish suffers and dies.’

 

 

‘Look at this, and this’ – her husband pointed out filter tips – ‘These filters catch all the poisons and toxins, and if the fish happens to survive you might catch it and eat it.’

 

I looked at the man, his build compact, his face a scrotum. The white hat he wore had seen better days and even the best of those days wouldn’t have been much good. I liked the cut of his jib.

‘Are you locals?’

‘No. Bunbury’s home for us.’

I pictured the couple walking the beaches from the south of the state all the way north to Broome, collecting cigarette butts. One hundred and sixty butts a day.

 

 

 

And I recalled Jonathan Sacks, the immediate past Chief Rabbi of the English-speaking world (by which term I mean to exclude the USA), who quoted a vignette of two men strolling along the seashore which was littered with starfish washed up and freshly stranded on the sand. One of the two bent repeatedly to pick up the starfish and to throw them as far as he could out to sea. His companion watched and mused and finally spoke: ‘There are so many, hundreds, probably thousands. You can’t possibly save them all; even if you labour all morning, your effort won’t make any appreciable difference…’

 

The first man paused, starfish in hand. He regarded the creature, still alive, then threw with all his might. He said, ‘To this one it makes a difference.’

A High Churchman in Hobart

It is my first day at work in the Royal Hobart Hospital. Apart from my bride, I know no-one in this town. From the far side of the ward I become aware of a wide smile upon a moon face. The face sits above a clerical collar and a generous body and it is moving relentlessly closer to me. The nearer it comes, the wider the smile, until it is upon me and I am a bit wary.

I don’t know this bloke and he doesn’t know me. Why is he so happy to see me? It can only be the yarmulka on my head that attracts him.

I sense the imminence of uninvited salvation.

Friar Tuck sticks out his hand. The hand is soft and warm and firm. Hello, he says, welcome to the Royal. I’m Father Jim.

This bloke is irresistibly charming. I say – I’m about to go home to eat. How do you like Indonesian cooking, Father Jim? My wife is making fish, it’s a new recipe – would you like to join us?

Jim accepts and is delighted to meet Annette. He makes no comment about the fine garfish bones which are inextricable from Annette’s delectable Indonesian sauce.

It turns out that Jim is the Anglican chaplain at the hospital. That is his day job. By night and at weekends, he is one of the founders of a tiny Order of celibate Christian men who provide refuge for people who are lost or homeless or in crisis. They call their Community St. Michael’s Priory.

Every needy person, every demanding, manipulative and lost person in Hobart comes to the community and is greeted by wide smile Jim.

Celibate himself, Jim marries everyone else at the Royal. Nurses, doctors, morticians and clerks – Jim ushers them all into matrimony. But Jim’s best efforts are not proof against the rising tide of divorce that washes away his marriages. So he stops marrying people.

Father Jim joins us for Shabbat meals on Friday night. He reads the Haggadah with us at Passover, recounting our exodus from Egypt.

We leave Hobart but whenever he can, Jim visits us in Melbourne for Shabbat or Passover.

Years later, he leaves the Royal and the Priory and becomes a prison chaplain, then a chaplain to the dying in Melbourne. He welds himself to our children with the warmth of his smile. He comes to Synagogue with us, collarless, wearing one of my yarmulkas, and soon is taken for an Israeli.

He retires and goes to live in England, writing to us, posting us cuttings from texts by his favourite religious leader, Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi.

Over 35 years Father Jim is our friend. He celebrates the religious differences between us.