The Smell of the Sea
I believed what they told me. We had to get the job done
as quickly as possible, keep the planes in the air.
They couldn’t function with leaking fuel tanks,
so someone had to strip off the original sealant,
apply a new coat. I didn’t want to let my mates down.
I was in there hour after hour, scraping away the goop
with a dental pick, a wooden spatula. The cavity
too tight to wear a respirator. The pink Ansell gloves,
the white overalls useless against the liquid seeping
into my skin. I can’t describe the smell of SR51.
I just remember people changing queues at the supermarket
to get away from me, my wife moving to another bed,
the stench coming out of my body each night, staining
the sheets yellow. Crawling into those F-111 fuel tanks
was like crawling into a closed coffin, my arms,
my legs, my back stiffening—a living rigor mortis.
Now I walk in the open air on days when I’m well enough
to walk. Along the path by the river, the sun on my back,
market gardens stretching out over the flood plain, honeyeaters
swooping and chattering from their hidey-holes in the bushes.
A pelican stands tall on the top deck of a moored boat,
a dumb sentinel. It stares at me like I’m a private gone AWOL.
Closer to shore, the oysters have been shucked open,
desolate shells clinging to submerged rocks. A dead animal
floats on the surface. I stop to investigate, thinking it might be
a fairy penguin or possum, before I realise it’s a kitten.
I gaze at the jet-fuel storage tanks at Molineaux Point,
sitting there like eight white cup cakes laid out on a plate.
A jumbo glides in over Botany Bay, landing gear locking
into position. On the beach I bend to pick up a triangle
of brown glass, the size of a coin. Straining,
I grasp the shard between my thumb and forefinger
as the pelican takes off into the gunmetal sky.