Conversations with the navigator

Walking alone, Roaring Forties buffeting our island, my haphazard heart cast away, I see Matthew’s sloop split the strait. I pick up a fragile paper nautilus, broken, as most of those washed up are, watch his sails billow my way, gulls’ cries, landfall’s geology, at least, familiar to both of us.

Waves lapping this coast in languid rhythm, I describe wonders taking place during two hectic, insane centuries, regretting my dearth of knowledge, articulate about great books, but awkward, stumbling into slang over the internal combustion engine, its delights, drawbacks and now, global precarity. Electronic finance, the internet and the camera that is now a mobile phone, also expose my ignorance of basal principles.

Lichened rocks, horizon, dwarf us as we swap binoculars for telescope. To this brave Lincolnshire cartographer whose love waits on our Earth’s far flank, who understands separation, I suggest the consolation of rum, hoping to ease us both into darker details concerning the shame of what became of the local muttonbirders.

Cruising in Sisters Passage, past terrain sighted by Matthew, he refers to sealers’ rough habits. We had seen the recent suicide’s plane, a crumpled white rag spreadeagled below Mt Killiecrankie’s dark crags. He understands suicide, but ah! powered flight. Wonder lights his eyes as I pause, unhooking a salmon into the esky’s throes, to explain. He knows the name, Wright, as a worthy occupation. I scan for the silver glint of a Sydney–Hobart flight.

A Pacific gull swoops to my trawled lure, hooking itself, wheels above Bass Strait, above us. It would be my form, now, I think, to split this keel on a rock with Matthew, of all mariners, witness. Earlier, he admired my rods as dolphins paced us like a mob of aquatic kangaroos. I reel the bird, a winged, animated kite, flying for’ard, frantic to be free, with care. Sidestepping along the gunwales, around the cabin to the bow, I wrap it in my arms, earning Matthew’s praise.

The great bird remains majestically still while I twist the hook from its beak. With a low cry it flaps sleekly skyward. Bligh wouldst fain have eaten that, Matthew says, humour in his slight fenland accent rippling like water. The tides be higher. I know, I say, I know.

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