I SPIED THE bull turning circles an hour out from Yellow Patch. I was alone on the Looma, the cool August air settling on the back of my neck as I leaned against the wheel. A day of rain had merged the horizon with the sky smothering the swell and the ocean slapped against the hull with an eerie calm. Watching the expanse of grey for the tell-tale spouts of humpbacks all morning in the drizzle, the Pacific had betrayed nothing. Then a hundred yards out the surface broke with sigh. I held the wheel steady. Spray like a flock of birds shot into the sky.
Measuring only thirty feet, on any other day, in any other season, I would have let him take the run on me but August 1962 was a different story. I needed this whale. And worse, I wanted it. With desire that rumbled like desperation, I approached. Isolated from his pod, he was skittish and saw me coming. He made one deep dive, then another and with a roaring engine I chased him north from the whaling grounds out into the channel. Each time the whale surfaced, his heaving back was just too far out to make the shot. Even without a crew, the Looma was peeling a neat wake through the calm waters and I stayed with the bull as he led me out past Bribie, all the way to the Sunshine Coast.
Just off Caloundra he made a wide turn, disorientated by his northern trajectory on a migration south. Finally he surfaced panting. His blowhole working short, quick breaths.
I left the bridge and hurried down the catwalk to the harpoon gun. As he made a shallow dive I lined up with the slick flat pools made by his descent. I knew the kill process by memory but working the gun was all muscle. After sharing the ship with Christian I knew I could take him in one shot. When he surfaced again I was ready. I fired. He bucked once against the run-out line as the harpoon bit into the backbone. The pulleys rattled behind me then fell silent. He wasn’t a brute, though I wished he was.
With practised ease I prepared him for the journey south. When he was inflated, tethered and the harpoon recovered, I let out a laugh and leaned over the side, running my hand along his barnacled flank. They said there were no more whales but I’d caught one.
MAKING MY RETURN passage in through the channel, Moreton Island loomed through the glare, sand hills and scrubby green glistening against the grey. With the noon sun dull in the sky, I tried to reach the towboat on the radio.
‘Looma 3 on approach.’
My calls were met by static. I flicked through the local channels with the same result. Even Looma 2 was silent. Coming in from the north I’d spotted my sister ship moored at Yellow Patch. There was a chance, with a full crew, they’d pulled their quota early. But I’d seen no other whales all morning and questioned if they’d gone out at all.
In range, I tried Tangalooma station on the telephone. With the blower to my ear, I squinted toward the island, searching for any movement on the decks or at the jetty, the ramps jutting out from the shore. The phone rang on and I threw it down, the hollow chime filling the cabin as I sounded my horn. A long, mournful blast announcing my arrival.
I dropped back to six knots and felt the surge of my own wash surf me toward the ramps. The unmanned landing rambled into the water and beyond, the squat grey flensing deck was silent. The place looked abandoned. Below the jetty the ocean water ran unusually clear against the sandy shore.
I docked portside and left the bridge. The Looma knocked against the jetty and I put a steadying hand to the pylon. My whale had all but bled out, but I kept an eye on the shallows for sharks. Here, dry land did not necessarily mean safety.
I pulled a line free and lashed it around one of the lower posts. I’d never had to tie up before and I wondered if Christian was playing some trick on me. Usually the deck workers secured our catch with an honoured efficiency but there was not a man in sight. Mounting the ramp, I tested my ankles against the log slipway. I took one step and then another, listening for the roar and gurgle of the boilers. The only sound came from the gentle waves slapping against the hull of Looma 3 and my own shallow breathing.
I turned back to the Looma and my catch. For eight whaling seasons the ship had been my home, now, against the bay, she cut a formidable silhouette. She was the only boat on the horizon and tethered to her was the only whale I’d seen all day. There had been talk around the station the bay was running short on whales. Had I made a catastrophic mistake by going out to hunt alone? If the other chasers had been dismissed, I had to get off Moreton and fast. Heart hammering, I straightened up. The Looma was just a few feet away. I could tow the whale, cut it loose. No one would need to know.
The slipway rattled as I made for the boat. Someone was coming. Fighting every impulse I held my ground, recognising the sturdy shoulders and clipped white beard of Karl.
‘Stay where you are!’ he roared.
With sickening finality I realised what Christian had meant by a shutdown.
OUTSIDE THE POINT Lookout Hotel Christian stood laughing with the other Norwegian captains. The afternoon had given way to sou’westers and my long journey from Moreton Island to North Stradbroke had left me wind-burnt and seething. When I saw Christian my jaw clenched tight. He was crisp-collared, not a hair out of place and I was at him before he saw me coming. My cold fingers gripped his shirt and I shoved him.
Christian laughed and took a swipe at me. But I wasn’t playing. I threw my arm around his neck, forcing his face toward my knee.
Curled over Christian I hissed, ‘Where were you?’
He was older than me and had always been a good fighter and he twisted out of the headlock and pushed me back against the bricks, pinning me there.
‘What’s the matter with you?’
I wrestled against him and he thumped me with his forearm.
‘You left me out there!’
‘You took my ship.’ Rage flashed across his face.
I made a grab for him but he pushed against my chest so hard my arm throbbed in defeat.
‘Are you crazy?’
I stared at him and felt the fight go out of me. I couldn’t win against him. Not like this.
I raised my hands.
He stepped back, brushing moss from his sleeve, straightening his cuffs.
‘You get a whale?’
‘What do you think?’
‘I told you we were finished.’
‘I thought you meant for the day.’
Christian laughed. But the joke was on him. This wasn’t some long weekend. We’d been shut down. The whaling station was closed. Done. Ferdig.
He opened his mouth to say something more but a roar escaped through the boxy windows of the pub. Inside, some forty men, my crewmates and comrades, had been released for the season and were making sure the island knew about it. That’s how they saw the situation anyway. A shutdown was a ticket to a spring without whaling. For those who had off-season jobs on trawlers and in town, it was a vacation. But I wasn’t one of them. I was twenty-six and out of work.
With his clipped accent Christian said, ‘You’re angry at me.’
‘Damn right I am.’
‘It’s just a slow season.’
I should have told him then I’d taken a unit without approval. For all I knew, I’d caught the last humpback in the Pacific. My career was ruined. I’d been fined by the whaling commission by the only man I’d ever looked up to. The less people who knew about the whale the better. Even if it meant keeping secrets from Camilla.
I blamed Christian. For the fine and for being left out there to hunt alone. I was going home to my girl after months at sea sick with guilt and a dirty mark against my name.
When we’d docked to refuel the night before, the crew had left the chaser for a rare evening on land. Christian had gone with them and as I was pulling out, he’d cupped his hands around his mouth and called out, ‘We’re all done, Rick.’
How was I meant to know he meant for good? I returned to Yellow Patch alone and when Christian failed to board at sun-up, I went to work without him. Christian was a lunatic, but he wasn’t stupid. There was no way he’d forget me out there on his ship. He was the captain of Looma 3, he should have phoned through to the vessel with the official order. We’d worked that boat for years. He knew me. He knew I’d go on alone when others would wait. This was a private betrayal. One I wouldn’t soon be forgetting.
‘Come in for a drink,’ he said.
‘You look like you could use one.’
‘Have you been home yet? Have you seen Camilla?’
‘And ruin all your fun?’ Christian jabbed his finger at me. ‘You know I have a plan.’
‘Of course you do.’
This was the crucial difference between us. In the few hours since he’d collected his things from the land base and returned to North Stradbroke without me, he’d found time to scheme and celebrate.
‘So what do you say, Rick?’ he asked, his dark eyes sparkling with threat and promise. He motioned to the doorway. ‘Are you in?’
I’d known Christian for six years. Dated his sister Camilla for four. I’d never trusted him a day in my life and there wasn’t a chance in hell I was about to start.
When Christian went inside, I leaned against the mossy brickwork and scouted the horizon. The pub was perched on the head of Home Rock. Across the gravel car park, just beyond the tree line, the ocean heaved and rolled. If there were any more whales out there, they were hiding.
The shutdown had thrown me back to shore too soon. I wasn’t done with the work, or with the season, and I wasn’t ready to face Camilla, even though every cell in my body missed her. I pushed away from the bricks and started down the steps.
Home for the three of us was a small shack at Claytons, below the headland from the hotel, right on Cylinder Beach. I came down the familiar path cut by foot traffic alone and went out onto the beach. Cylinder was protected by the twin headlands that formed a cove and the southerly barrelled over the trees, chopping up the swell.
Even though I didn’t expect Camilla to be home, nerves gathered in my stomach. I straightened my shirt and pushed back my mop of hair, catching my reflection in the pane of glass. I tried the doorknob and the window rattled with resistance. Our home was shut tight against the day. Christian hadn’t lied, he’d gone straight to the pub. I fished the key out from under the mat and let myself in.
Walking into the house I felt like a stranger. I recognised our mismatched furniture, our homemade art and our enamel mugs but the house had been scrubbed clean. When we left for the season, Camilla’s clothes hung over the back of every chair, sand covered the floor, the kitchen counter was ruined with wax by a candle that had melted all over the Laminex. There was no trace of anyone living here. The only evidence that Camilla had been here at all was her hairbrush, laying prongs up on the coffee table, full of ash-blonde strands.
With the sou’wester up, I had some idea of where Camilla would be. I took a shower and scrubbed my hands so hard the skin around my nails turned pink. I dressed in clothes I hadn’t seen in months, grabbed a fishing rod and trekked back up to the main road to hitch a ride around the Point.
THOUGH HER FRAME was slight, Camilla was the best fisher among us. When we carried buckets and plodded in our rubber boots, she slung a canvas bag across her back and held her two rods together tight to her chest. On tanned bare feet she crossed the rocks with efficiency and grace, her muscled calves tensing with each effortless leap and sure-footed landing.
Fishing was our passion and our pastime. In the off-season, from October to May, it fed our stomachs and our wallets. We fished from the beaches in front of our house, on the headlands to the right, in areas with dangerous reputations. Widow’s Rock and Deadman’s Beach. We caught whiting and snapper and jew. Seagulls chased us for scraps of mullet. We got to know the birds, the tides, the skies. In this way, we became part of the Pacific.
Our favourite fishing spot when the August winds came up was Whale Rock, a jutting formation right at the tip of Point Lookout. The spot was a hike through bush tracks around twin gorges. Through scrub and sand, across grass and rock, I passed dangerous swells and lurking sharks in search of Camilla. As
I came through the banksia forest I saw her on the rocks below a silhouette against a Pacific that stretched so far you could almost see the curve of the earth.
Behind her the ocean raged. The swell slapped white against the headland spitting foam into the sky. Descending the face of the headland the onshore wind thundered through me and I called her name. She turned, hair rushing all around her.
‘What are you doing here?’
I started to answer but my words blew back at me and were lost. I signalled for her to stay and adjusted my gear. To get across to Whale Rock a lone wire suspended between the headland and the formation over a deep, clear chasm. Hand over hand with a fishing rod was hard by any standard. Camilla always managed with elegance, ankles and knees crossed tight around the wire. I’d dropped once before, we all had at some point, gone down into the blue with the weed and surviving soft coral. Though I lacked Camilla’s grace, the day was kind and in minutes I was across, soothing my hands and my roaring pulse with the honeyed skin of her shoulders.
I buried my fingers in her hair and kissed her. Her mouth was cool and sweet and earthy all at once and I kissed her for every day we’d been apart. And like every season, I wondered how I could ever leave her again.
When she pulled away, eyes damp and shining, she asked, ‘Where’s Christian?’
On the walk around the headland I’d prepared a tidy explanation for her. I had the whole situation summed up. But her words wiped the morning from my mind. With so much I wanted to tell her, so much I needed to explain, I looked at her and tried to comprehend how after a season apart it was her brother she wanted to see.
‘Rick, has something happened?’
I put my arms around her and pulled her to me. ‘It doesn’t matter. We’re home now.’
As though summoned, the branches on the headland cracked and crashed and through them Christian appeared on the track. Still wearing his whaling shorts, carrying a bucket and a bottle of beer.
‘Christian!’ Camilla called, then to me she turned serious and said, ‘How is he?’
‘Drunk by the looks of it.’
‘You know what I mean.’
I did know. The westerlies were coming. Every August when the winds blew in Christian would get reckless. His behaviour was a little different each year, much to the same result. He’d push the booze, the boat, his crew. He’d disappear in town and return with women expecting them to come stay aboard the Looma. And every year, with the wind carrying ice from the great divide, he threatened to return to Norway. If he did, I knew Camilla would go with him. That’s why I feared August most.
‘Is that why you’re back?’ she asked, searching my face. ‘They’re still three weeks away. I heard it on the weather broadcast.’
‘It’s not the winds,’ I said.
And then Christian was upon us, throwing his arms around Camilla and reeking of gin and cigarettes.
WHEN FISHING AT Whale Rock we each had our superstitions. I relied on bird-sightings, Christian on bait choice but Camilla’s ritual was the most effective. She put her faith in distraction. She fished with two rods, one lodged into the rocks and the other in her hand. Her theory was simple: whichever rod was unattended would catch the fish. She liked to test it by casually abandoning the reel to offer sinkers and snacks to each of us. This was the beauty of her theory; she never appeared to be actually fishing.
Her canvas bag was key. It contained all kinds of distractions for her. Spare hooks already affixed to their trace and swivel, biscuits, a bottle opener, a measuring tape. She carried scraps of rag and bandages, a plastic whistle, a pocket guide to the shore birds of Australia, tanning oil and soap. Each of these was compartmentalised within neat and perfect pockets, and with all this slung across her shoulders she scaled the rocks like she was made for mountains. As a result, Camilla was often caught mid-sentence, dashing across the rocks to catch the handle of her rod before it was hauled into the ocean. And then she’d laugh, throwing her head back as she worked the reel, laughing at the thrill of it, or at being right, again. Whichever she found most enjoyable. And we’d watch her, letting the lines go slack in our hands while she brought out of the ocean the most exquisite parrotfish or snapper.
She caught more fish than any of us but she was selective too. She’d only keep what we knew we would eat. She’d slip the hook from their gaping lips, cooing to them, looking them right in the eye. Only the most noble, the most worthy, made it to our plates. Of this, she was more determined than anything.
When Christian had assured Camilla he was alright, Camilla said, ‘That’s interesting, because I heard a funny story today.’
An apology balled in my throat, ready to come out.
Camilla said, ‘I think we have the name wrong.’
‘What name?’ I asked, swallowing my surprise.
‘This one. Right here.’ She pointed to the ground. ‘It’s Wail Rock,’ she said, spelling out the word.
I bit the inside of my lip. She’d said the same of Cylinder Beach, named after the pipes unloaded there, so often misquoted as Cylinders for the barrelling waves. Because Camilla could at times be wrong, her insistence on these things was endearing and I found humour in her precision.
‘Where did you hear that?’ I said.
‘At the clinic.’
‘Where else would she hear it?’ Christian mocked and as if on cue a jet of seawater exploded from a spout in the rock known as the Blowhole.
Ignoring the sneeze of sea mist settling over us, she said, ‘I know I’ve been wrong before, but listen. I’m told they used to punish girls by sending them out here and leaving them overnight.’
I couldn’t imagine the cruelty of it. We’d fished the spot at night and the waves surged in black and heavy. The roaring winds filled your ears and iced your bones. Alone with the white caps and storm birds seemed punishment enough. The Blowhole, though, would be the worst at night. It was asthmatic, wheezing, ragged and fierce. Every time seawater shot upward from the rock you felt it your spine.
‘Wouldn’t they just swim back?’
‘How do you know they could swim?’
‘How do we ever really know anything?’
Camilla smiled at my playfulness. ‘It’s just what I heard,’ she said with finality. ‘We should try it,’ Christian said to me.
I watched the steel come over Camilla’s eyes. But before I could rebuke him, she said, ‘I heard something else, too.’
She put her rod down and curled her toes over the handle to stop it rolling away. I marvelled at everything about her, even the strength of her bones. Rummaging in her cloth bag she said, ‘It’s really funny all the things you hear. Sometimes people must forget how small this island is.’
A small tub of lanolin emerged from the bag and she twisted off the top and rubbed the cream into the back of her hands.
‘It’s silly, isn’t it? Why anyone would think they could keep secrets in a town so small.’
She slipped the tub back into place and bent to pick up her rod. I could see the way her neck was tensed and wondered if I’d be safer sleeping on the rock.
‘So you wouldn’t try keeping secrets, would you?’ she asked. My chest went tight. But she wasn’t looking at me. Camilla had made her lips into a cruel line. ‘Is there something you want to tell me?’
‘It’s not as bad as you think,’ I began. Of course she knew Tangalooma was closed.
Combined, our wages paid our rent for the year and with a bit of fishing, we made it through the summers. But it was only August and the station hadn’t made quota. We’d be short our wage, our barrel allowance for the season and I was already behind from the fine.
‘We can’t stay if Christian isn’t working,’ she said, and to hide the waver in her voice, she started reeling in her line.
I wanted to put my arms around her. But it wasn’t my fight.
‘The season isn’t over,’ Christian protested.
‘It is over,’ she hissed. And then, quietly, with a hint of accusation she’d never previously shared she said, ‘Bror, there are no more whales.’
That was my call to act but before I could get to her Christian handed me his fishing reel and had Camilla’s face in his hands.
‘Don’t say that, little sister. You think this bloke would let that happen?’ He gestured to me and shame rose up in me like bile.
Then he said, ‘Anyway, I got something for you.’
Christian was forever collecting little gifts for Camilla. From the bottom of his bucket he retrieved a scrappy hessian parcel. Unfolding the bundle, he held the contents toward Camilla. She hesitated, then collected the offering and raised it to the light. Christian’s offering was a leather band affixed with five sharp and pearly sperm whale teeth.
‘What do you think?’
‘You don’t like it?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘Where did you get those?’ I asked knowing they weren’t from our station.
‘It’s all about who you know, Ricky.’ Christian laughed and I wondered if the relief I caught in his voice was because Camilla liked the gift or because he had defused her.
‘I know everyone you know.’
‘This is true.’
I watched Camilla admire the pointed bones.
Christian said, ‘This bloke at the pub, he’d been in Albany. Said he could get me some. You won’t believe it, Rick, when I went to meet him he had a whole bag of them. Literally, Rick, he was dragging a sack. I thought he might bring one or two.’
Camilla handed him back the string of teeth and Christian tied it neatly around her neck while she held her hair to one side.
‘I had to rummage for these,’ he said. ‘Most of them were far too big.’
‘They are from whales,’ I said.
‘This big though!’ he went on, holding his hands apart to show the size. ‘You’ve got no idea.’
I did. Obviously. But I also knew there’d be no stopping him. I turned my attention back to the sea, adjusting my grip on both rods.
‘I got one for you, too.’
I ignored him but he came over, placing himself between me and the edge of the rock. He held up two thongs of worn leather, each lashed around a larger, single tooth.
‘One each,’ he said. ‘And I got all these,’ he tilted his bucket so I could see the collection.
‘What did you pay for them?’
‘Not much. A little, but not too much. Rick, we can make knife handles, all kinds of things.’
Our income had been cut off and Christian was out buying booze and trinkets. I wanted to throttle him. But Camilla seemed pleased by the gift fastened around her neck. She touched her fingers to it briefly then to Christian she said, ‘Let me tie yours.’
She put her rod down and turned her back on the sea. I didn’t even think to caution her. I should have held her by the elbow and pulled her away from the edge. I should have guessed that eventually her luck would run out.
Time slows down in these moments to remind us how quickly things can change. We’d dodged rogues before. Whale Rock was no stranger to the worst the ocean could throw at us, and it was a rogue that came upon us then. A fifteen foot monster, fat-lipped and thick in the back. Pushed by the southerly, the wave came surging at us rearing to full height right behind Camilla.
With her back to the horizon she had no way of knowing. I shouted at her to get down, and the wave roared as it broke, smashing against the rock. Foam barrelled up the face, surging around our ankles and pouring into our rubber boots. The wave struck Camilla, pushing her into Christian. The two of them collided. Braced, I didn’t go down on impact but the wave wasn’t done with us yet. Camilla’s abandoned rod lifted on the water and rolled for the sea. I lunged for the handle and the retreating wave caught me, knocking my legs out from under me. Camilla saw me go down, but it was Christian she reached for.
With barnacled rock biting into my flesh, I grabbed her rod and held there, splayed facedown as the water rushed past me. Caught in the run-out the bucket full of whale teeth went tumbling toward the ocean. The handle caught on the ledge, then tipped, spilling the teeth back into the sea.
I pushed myself up onto my knees, cuts on my face and hands. I had all three rods, their lines still cast. Christian and Camilla were untangling themselves. Neither of them had seen what I’d seen, the bucket of whale
teeth had gone over into the sea, along with the gift Christian had made for me. I couldn’t care less about his stupid, expensive teeth. But Camilla had done some damage. In a moment of crisis, she’d made a choice. She’d reached for her brother instead of me.
I straightened up, holding up my palms to inspect them.
‘You’re okay!’ Christian said, clapping his hands together. The sperm whale tooth glistened with salt water against his skin.
‘I’m okay,’ I lied.
‘Good man,’ he said. ‘Because you’ve got a fish on.’
BY THE TIME we arrived home a crust of dried blood had formed above my eyebrow. I moved my fingers over the cut and loosened the scab, causing a trickle of blood to slide down the crease of my nose and pool at the corner of my mouth.
‘Hold still,’ Camilla hissed, gently swabbing the trail I’d made.
‘Do you need to stitch it?’
She pressed the gauze against my stinging eyebrow. ‘I will if you keep playing with it.’
I heard the anger soften in her voice and she stepped back, cataloguing me with her clinical glare. She pressed her lips together and sighed through her nose. Not for the first time I wondered what she saw in me, with my freckled skin, my scars and scrappy haircut.
Her seriousness reflected on me and my brow creased, pulling the skin tight against the gauze and tape. I winced and Camilla rushed forward, her cool, determined fingers soothing the skin pinched by the adhesive.
‘I worry about you,’ she said.
‘You should see the other bloke.’
She crossed her arms over her bony chest.
‘I’m alright,’ I relented. ‘I promise.’
She placed a kiss gently on my head and then another on the bridge of my nose. I tilted my chin towards her and she kissed me on the mouth.
‘Is this how you treat all your patients?’
‘Only the stupid ones.’
She cleaned away her medical kit and I reached for my jacket and inspected it. The blood would wash out but the tear in the shoulder from where it had caught on the rocks would need mending. I unzipped the front pocket and pulled out a small pocketbook, the spine cracked in so many places the binding tape was exposed. I turned it over in my palm and flicked through the waterlogged pages to the date.
‘Ah,’ Camilla said. ‘Something to write in your diary.’
‘It’s a log,’ I corrected too quickly. I hated when she called it my diary. What I kept were records. I detailed the weather, the fish we were catching, my hours at work, at sea, and the hours at home. In a few short words I detailed my perfect life on this tiny island in the Pacific knowing one day the dream would end. I looked at the printed date at the top of the page and wondered if the shutdown meant the end to my existence here with Camilla. I flicked back through the previous months and noted my timesheets and our kills. The shutdown still didn’t make sense to me. Even with these pages and the visible decline of work, of my comrades returning to the mainland and of our refusal to believe the world was changing, I couldn’t quite see where we’d gone so wrong. Had I closed my eyes so tightly against the possibility of change I’d forgotten it could bite off your legs at any moment?
I caught Camilla’s scent of honey and looked up to see her hovering over me. I shook my mood, and smiled for her. ‘Yes?’
‘Will you write something for me?’
‘For you?’ I asked, snapping the book shut. I pulled her to me and she let out a little yelp of surprise. Lying in my lap, her hair settled in a veil over her face. I coiled my fingers lightly around her wrists and watched her struggle. She blew a huff of warm air and her hair feathered up, settling back over her face. She puffed again, with the same effect. I laughed. In these unguarded moments, when her mask was down, I truly loved her.
‘Here,’ I said in feigned exasperation. ‘Let me.’
With sloppy, comic fingers, I brushed her hair away.
‘Stop,’ she laughed, wriggling. ‘Stop.’
I held my palms up in surrender and she smoothed the last of her hair back blinking at me with her large dark eyes.
I said, ‘What do want me to write for you?’
A smile played at the corner of her lips, then in all seriousness, she said, ‘The shopping list’.
I wrestled her into a sitting position. ‘For when?’
‘But I just got back.’
She wrinkled her nose, surprised by my protest.
‘Okay then,’ she said. ‘How about the day after?’
‘Don’t tease him, Camilla,’ Christian said, coming in from the shower. ‘He might think he’s rid of you for good.’
I felt the air change around us. Camilla slipped from my knee and went past Christian and into the kitchen. He’d patched his knuckles with a scrap of rag and his bare chest showed ageing bruises in varying shades of brown and yellow.
To me he said, ‘How’s the head?’
Before I could answer he was in the lounge room, leaning over me and peering at my cuts and scrapes. He was grinning.
‘I’ll live,’ I said, pushing him away.
He took his wrapped knuckles in his hand and prodded the dressing.
‘Forget it,’ I said. ‘My head has no sympathy for your fist.’
He raised his palms to me, gave a small bow and backed away. To be fair, Christian couldn’t be blamed for what happened on the rock. It wasn’t his fault I’d gone down hard and he hadn’t. Despite the logic I couldn’t shake the idea that he was somehow responsible. That was the thing with Christian, I never could tell where his control ended and something as basic as luck stepped in. He was involved in everything, in some way. This new scar wasn’t the first I’d attribute to him.
I picked up my pocketbook and turned to the last pages where dates and numbers filled tidy columns. I flicked to August 5th and wrote, forehead no stitches. I looked over the other entries and could easily tell by the numbers the injuries I’d taken at sea or on land. A steady catalogue of scars was one of the drawbacks of doing the knife work at the station for so
I closed the book and tossed it onto my crumpled jacket. When I looked up, Christian was laughing with Camilla in the kitchen, sharing a tender moment, one I wasn’t meant to see. I wanted to ask Camilla again about her planned trip to Brisbane, but as she bent to collect beers from the refrigerator, she cast me a silencing look. I marvelled at the way she occupied the space between us. Christian liked to think he was the head of our household, but we were both kidding ourselves. I winked at her and she blushed, burrowing her head into her arm for the smallest moment. And then she was up, leading us onto the patio with bottles of beer.
I followed the sway of her petite hips, thinking about her awareness of each of us. She had an intimate knowledge of our skin and hearts. And she used it, brandishing a small touch, a secret glance, to one or the other, keeping us in line with her measured affection.
Outside, the Pacific glittered. Here, tucked protectively into the headland, we were safe from the sou’wester. I settled into a cane chair on the paved patio and Camilla curled into me, perfectly filling the crook made by my arm. She laid her head against my chest and I wondered if she could hear the beat of my heart regulating to the thumping of the swell against the headland.
Our home was not much more than a fibro shanty but to me it was palatial. We rented it from the Murrays for a tiny fee by agreeing to do the maintenance and upkeep for their other island properties in the summer. I was determined to own it one day for Camilla. We wanted our own slice of paradise. Like each of us, the state of the house rolled with the seasons. Through the winter it was filled with cosy pockets from the wind, littered with Camilla’s shawls and jumpers, and the smell of candle-wax and whisky.
In summer we did our best work, knocking out the window shutters and refusing to sweep the deck. We brought in the sand and strays, surfers and tourists and runaway teenagers from Brisbane boarding schools who paid their way in grog and cigarettes. Christian liked these times most of all, recruiting a small army of comrades and soldiers. He lined them up, set them to work on the house and against one another in games of rugby and beach cricket when he had the patience for explaining it. Mostly, though, we fished and lazed about with books and peeling skin.
Of these strays, some returned every year with freshly sprouted facial hair and new fashions from town. Others we never saw again. But those nights with strangers in our house burned in us through winter, reminding us what we were working for. We had a life they envied and this place made us gods.
Camilla came alive in the summer months. Her skin bronzed from honey to syrup and she warmed to me, as though filled with the heat of the day. She was matronly to the youngsters and a flirt with the tourists. She liked being the only woman in our lives and turned away anyone who arrived with girlfriends, denying we had space. She said all the lost boys reminded her too much of me, of the past I’d once dared confide in her and she couldn’t stand to share them. She was our Wendy. And for this, we adored and despised her.
The year everyone seemed to arrive with girls from the grammar schools, she built a fire on the sand and lay naked beside the smouldering coals. The heat remained in the earth though the sun had long since gone down. She’d turned them all away, the girls and our mates. Alone, she whispered their names into my ear while we made love. And this list of the fallen both disturbed and aroused me. Camilla had a hunger for the heat. In the winter, even now, curled against me, she was reptilian.
Christian sat down heavily with his back to the ocean and lit a cigarette. He’d put on a shirt but hadn’t bothered with the buttons. ‘You ready to hear me out?’
Camilla’s fist burrowed into my shirt but her eyes remained closed against her brother.
‘I’m not interested,’ I said. And I wasn’t.
Christian cocked his head, a smirk skirting across his lips. ‘Come on, Rick. When have I ever let you down?’
If he was joking I couldn’t tell. He talked then about the other workers, about how the hotel would be open every day. He told me how they were wasting the opportunities right there in front of them. He stood up then and went into the house. When I didn’t follow he came back to the doorway holding my jacket.
‘Come on. Let me show you.’
I curled my arm around Camilla and drew in the scent of her clean hair.
‘Rick, get up!’
He threw the jacket at me and I grabbed it before it landed on Camilla. I glared at him, held my words inside tight inside and let them grow rough with barnacles.
We weren’t captain and crew any longer.
‘You’ll regret it,’ he said.
And then he left, storming past us and down the path toward the beach.
Later, to the soundtrack of Camilla’s breathing, I traced the line of her flesh from her shoulder to her hip. I was enchanted. I watched her ribs expand with her breath and wondered at her capacity for this life. She hadn’t aged the way I had. She was still fresh faced and lean and eager for every day here. I felt the island growing over me, coiling around my wrists and throat. With the station closed, this was my chance to get out, if I wanted to. That was my problem. I didn’t know what I wanted. Brisbane had changed in the ten years I’d been adrift on this lump of rock and sand. If I went back, there might not be a place for me. More importantly, if I left, I wasn’t sure Camilla would follow.
I nuzzled into the nape of her neck. My whiskers scraping across her soft skin.
She stirred, and said, ‘Go to sleep.’
I moved closer to her, propping my head on my hand so my mouth was at her ear.
‘What do you think I should do?’
She groaned as though too exhausted to answer, and then rolled onto her back toward me. I slipped my hand onto her ribcage and curled my fingers in the spaces made by her bones.
‘My brother will go on doing what he always does,’ she said. ‘All you need to worry about is if you’ll let him do it alone.’
I waited, but that was all I was getting. ‘That’s not true.’
‘That’s not all I need to worry about.’
I kissed her lightly on her forehead and felt her smile fill her whole body.
‘Rick,’ she said. ‘Go to sleep.’
I WAS ALONE when I woke and for a minute I lay motionless. Truly motionless, without the ocean shifting under me, or the rumble of steam in the pipes, or the hum of propellers. I could hear the ocean outside, the whoosh of waves against sand and inside, the heavy rhythm of Christian’s snoring. I might have been on land, but there were some constants that went with me everywhere.
I got out of bed slowly, stiff in the joints from coming down at Whale Rock. The skin on my hands was raw with tiny cuts, but they were clean and healing. I went into the kitchen, shielding my eyes from the sun coming in through the front windows. Camilla had left a mug of black coffee on the bench, beside it my pocketbook lay open, the teaspoon forming a crosspiece against the pages. In her neat, upright script she’d written, Good luck! And below it, as if an afterthought, the words, no milk, followed by a single x. The brew had long since gone cold but I slurped it down.
Cylinder was a beach with cycles. At different times the cove filled with sand that buried the footholds of the headland and others it opened up to lagoons or tadpole infested tea-tree swamps we’d need to wade through to reach the sandbar and surf on the other side. In the humid summer months the hum of mozzies filled the reeds on quiet days and we’d pray for a sou’easter to blow them out to sea. The shift was seasonal, the way all things were. But August was a season of its own. August took the coil of winter and wound it so tight every morning pinched your bones. But cruellest of all were the August skies that swept blue and clear like an icy skin over the horizon.
I was far from owning my own patch of the Pacific, but I loved this place as if I did. As a kid, I’d roamed North Stradbroke, escaping from one boarding house to the next, always making enough friends to tide me over, week-to-week. When the station opened up at Tangalooma, I knew it was my ticket out of Brisbane. A wage plus board was more than I’d ever dreamed of and the paycheque that came at the end of the season was enough for me to go out alone, to put down roots where I’d always felt they belonged.
Camilla’s note was to wish me well on my search for work. With respite from the wind for the morning I knew where my priorities lay. Looking for work could wait. I wanted to swim out to Whalebone Reef. The submerged outlying of rocks was just off the headland in front of our house. In the summer months it became my morning ritual to dive the reef. The swim was less than fifty yards. The reef, nothing spectacular, was a cluster of exposed rocks with small scattered coral growth and some green sponge that often found its way to shore.
But the bones were incredible.
On the beach, I unzipped my jacket and pulled my shirt over my head. My skin rippled in the cold and even the sand had a bite to it. This was not a day for inching out past the breakers. I barrelled into the surf, throwing my body into the shore break before the chill could register. I hadn’t swum in months but after a few strokes heat filled my limbs and I relaxed into the rhythm of a crawl, pulling myself out through the surf.
On Stradbroke, whales beached themselves almost annually. The beachings were part of the great unexplained. There were theories, of course, disorientation, illness, heartache. But the reason whales hurled themselves onto the sand remained a mystery. These bones, I suspected, were from a carcass that had rotted on a nearby beach and been worked into the rocks by the currents and tides. How they got there didn’t matter. I was in awe of them. The work and the whale was a different thing. The same way I felt fishing for jew or snapper or turtle or dugong. I could still love the animal and hunt it.
Once I cleared the breakers, I treaded on the surface, sucking the air deep into my lungs. The bottom was barely two body lengths and what I could see and how long I could stay down varied on the conditions. After being away for so long, the thought of going under to be with the bones, even for a minute or two, made my heart race. Preparing to dive, I counted the seconds of each breath, in and out, then I tipped on the surface and dove straight down.
The past few summers I’d been trying to catalogue the remains. The rumour was it wasn’t a whole carcass just an assortment of bones, all the wrong order, like someone had tipped the pieces of a jigsaw out of the box. I believed the bones belonged to one whale. And I wanted to prove it. I’d been sketching the bones from memory after each dive, trying to capture one piece at a time; how they looked in the rock and how they’d look free of it. I wanted to know this whale through its parts. More than anything, I wanted to be right.
As my vision adjusted to the water the reef came into view. At first
I only saw the dull shape against the sand. I kicked hard to propel myself down. Being pulled by the current, I reached out, grabbing the rock to hold myself steady. My pulse was in my ears as I tried to comprehend what I was seeing. This was the same reef I’d visited only months ago. As the swell rolled above me I rocked with it, sand stirring, coral swaying, I hovered making a final check. I wasn’t wrong. My eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. The bones were gone.
I kicked away from the reef and pulled through the strokes to the surface, rage and exertion burning in my lungs. I was so close to finishing the sketches. With only a few bones to go, I felt both betrayed and punished. There
was symmetry there. I had taken the last whale and the sea had taken back the bones.
When I surfaced, Camilla was standing at the shore. She waved to me. I raised an arm and signalled back. Then started the swim in. As I reached the shallows, she came to the waterline, offering a towel. She kissed me briefly, the Pacific snapping at our toes.
‘What are you doing back so soon?’ I asked.
‘I was about to ask you the same question.’
I gestured toward the sea and she smiled.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘You’ve missed it.’
I put my arm around her and pulled her close. ‘I’ve missed you.’
I first met Camilla on this beach. In shorts and a parka she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I found her wandering the high tide mark, inspecting the offerings the sea had thrown up in the night. She’d heard I had an old canoe for sale.
‘You like to fish?’ I asked, trying not to look her over too sceptically.
‘The bigger the better,’ she said, revealing her accent. I hadn’t known then that she was Christian’s sister and I like to think it didn’t matter either way. Even as I walked with her to the path that lead down to the little house at Claytons, I felt myself falling for her.
At the house, I showed her the canoe and was immediately embarrassed by the state of it. The finishing was cracked in so many places the hull looked as though made from splinters.
‘Does it take on water?’ she asked, leaning over to look at the wood more closely.
‘Well, I wouldn’t go out at dawn or dusk.’
She laughed, ‘I’m not scared of sharks.’
‘But they might be scared by you.’
She didn’t take her eyes off me, just smiled in a way that made me realise the canoe had never really been what she was here for.
Camilla wrapped the towel around me and said, ‘I thought you were looking for work today.’
I pushed a feeling of guilt down and replaced it with anger. ‘Did you know the bones were gone?’
‘What do you mean gone?’
‘They’re not in the reef anymore.’
‘How would I know that? I don’t swim out there.’
‘You live right here,’ I said pointing to the house. I hadn’t meant to put the blame on her, but her eyes narrowed.
‘You think I sit around here all season waiting for you?’
Her venom silenced me. I said, ‘That’s not what I meant.’
She looked past me to the dark patch of sea where the reef lingered. She said, ‘If the whale bones are gone, what will they call it now?’
Before I could tell her the name wouldn’t change she laughed, squeezing me tightly and I realised this was her apology.
‘We should get back,’ she said, holding my shirt out to me. ‘Christian has company at the house.’
BERNARD SHORT WAS wearing an Akubra hat. He hadn’t taken it off to come inside and he sat with his elbows resting on his knees, leaning forward, square to the doorway as though he’d been waiting like that all morning.
‘Call me Bernie,’ he said and shook my hand with a clammy paw. When I recalled the moment later he was chewing his thick lips as he stood to greet us. Bernie was just that kind of man, always chewing and spitting and wheeling and dealing. Right away he was down to business. He threw an arm across the back of the chair like he owned it and said, ‘Christian tells me you’re the man of the house.’
‘Is that right?’ I said. I sat down opposite him and Camilla perched on the arm of the lounge. Bernie gave her the once over. She leaned her elbow gently on my shoulder and didn’t even blink.
‘I’m going to give it to you straight,’ Bernie said. He was an investor. He’d heard about the station closure and was determined to make a buck. He said everything was an opportunity and he was ready to buy up. He wanted the lot: the land at Tangalooma, the chasers, the boilers and equipment. And he wanted the men too, said we were the best he’d ever seen. Craftsmen, he called us, like he was doing us a favour. He said he’d stayed overnight at the pub, getting a feel for the place and he was glad he did, because now Bernard Short wanted Claytons too.
Camilla said, ‘That’s a cute story, but what’s this got to do with
‘I’d say it’s got plenty to do with you, sweetheart.’ He resumed his position with wide knees. Knitting his sausage fingers together, he said, ‘Now you tell me if this is true.’
He’d heard about an Aussie and a crazy Norwegian who’d been put off from the station. He’d heard a lot of things. Some rumours, some facts, some things I didn’t even admit to myself. But he had it summed up alright, the guts of it. And when he said, ‘I hear you’re the kid who took down the Blue Whale back in fifty-four,’ I wondered where the line between myself and Christian was really drawn. I hadn’t been working the chasers then, but it seemed that history had fused us.
‘Damn shame, that was,’ Bernie said.
Behind him, Christian rolled his eyes at the theatrics.
I stood up and went to lean in the doorway. With a bit of distance between us, I looked Bernie over and thought about what he was really saying. He wanted us to work for him. He had an opportunity and we were all caught up in it.
Impatient, Camilla turned to me and said, ‘I need to leave soon.’
‘All right,’ Bernie said. ‘Keep your hat on, princess.’
I moved behind Camilla and put my arm around her and said, ‘What’s our take?’
‘I reckon it can go two ways. One way will set you up for a good summer. The other way might land you in a bit of trouble. Especially if you stop making rent and I offer old Murray a price he can’t refuse.’
The truth was, I could see the alternative. With the westerlies about to blow up, I knew what island life could do to us. Without work Christian would lose himself in the drink. He’d sleep most of the morning, and go to the hotel after lunch. His skin would turn pale and fumes would seep from his pores. With me he’d be abrasive, but when Camilla arrived home, he’d sing to her songs from their childhood and relay the events from the pub like it was a radio serial. And every day there would be a new farewell, someone else leaving the cast, never to be seen again.
And Camilla would be forced into taking extra shifts at the clinic. Coming home exhausted, she’d lay her head in my lap. With sore feet, sore wrists, and without words, she’d lie there wilted until Christian got home. Then she’d get up, take a bath, and return to the living room speaking to her brother in Norwegian, something she’d never dare before. And though I wouldn’t protest, surely she’d sense how I grew stony sitting there wondering what passed between them in those sentences that were too quick for me to comprehend.
‘You know, I heard about your other whale, the last one. Did you get sick of paddling around North Point? Want to get a run out of Yellow Patch?’ Bernie said.
‘Something like that,’ I lied.
‘I might have just the run you need. I’ve got a buyer lined up at Cheynes. I’m looking for someone to crew the chasers to Albany.’
‘In Western Australia?’ I asked regretting the eagerness betrayed in my voice.
‘Christian tells me you’re…between things right now,’ Bernie, said licking his teeth and making a sucking sound.
‘So that would mean you’d be interested?’
‘You’re saying you want me to sail the chasers to Western Australia?’
‘That’s what I’m saying.’
‘You know that’s two boats and I only have one set of hands.’
He laughed. But I was serious.
‘He thinks of everything,’ he said to Camilla. ‘It works like this, you take one, I fly you back, then you do the trip again. Simple, right?’
I thought about that passage, down through the Great Australian Bight, the swells of the southern ocean pounding against the hull, the wind-chill like ice slicing through my skin. There was no way I was missing that.
‘And of course I wouldn’t be sending you alone. I reckon you might know a bloke from Norway who’s cut out for that kind of trip.’
I dared look Christian in the eye but he was thin-lipped, set against it.
‘He’s this one’s brother, if I understand correctly?’
‘What of it?’ Camilla said.
‘So what happens to you if he’s shipped back with the rest of them?’
‘We’re not shipping anywhere, mate,’ Christian spat. He left the kitchen and it was only then I saw the sway in his step and realised why he’d been so silent. I put together how Bernard Short made his way from the hotel to
our lounge room.
‘You ever been on an aeroplane, Rick?’
Christian threw him a crushing look. I got the feeling Bernard Short wasn’t the kind of man to be silenced by looks or otherwise but he got the hint. He rose up from his chair, and slowly reached out for Camilla’s throat, running his fat fingers over the tooth necklace.
‘I’m glad you like the gift,’ he said.
Camilla recoiled, swatting his hand away and quickly covered her throat.
He tipped his hat to Christian and laid his meaty paw on my shoulder. ‘Think it over,’ he said. Then Bernard Short left through the front door.
Camilla slipped off the edge of my chair and went to Christian. She smoothed back his hair and asked him if he was feeling okay. Without any of my own, I didn’t know much about siblings. I didn’t understand their relationship. I worried over their bickering, their embraces, their secret language of looks and sounds that carried so much weight they could plunge the room into a chill with the slightest of gestures. And they had a solidarity, especially against me. In times like this they were so alike, their jaws and brows mimicked the other as they stood, side by side, across the bench from me.
‘What were you thinking, Rick?’ Christian said.
‘You brought him here.’
Camilla opened her mouth to defend her brother but I pointed to the clock and said, ‘Go get dressed.’ She glanced at me on her way to our bedroom. I couldn’t read the look and I didn’t have time to decipher exactly what I’d done wrong this time. When she closed the door I asked him if he was drunk. He kept his eyes on me but his words weren’t coming. I splayed my hands on the counter and leaned in.
‘Did you hear him? If we don’t take his work contract, we lose the house.’
‘That’s very dramatic, Rick.’
‘What’s your problem? I thought you wanted to get back on the water.’
‘I don’t want to be Bernard’s errand boy.’
I made fists and rapped my knuckles against the bench. ‘It’s a bit of land work and two runs to WA.’
Christian mimicked me, bringing his fists so close to mine the knuckles almost touched. His smile gave him away. ‘We don’t need Bernard Short to make a run for WA.’
I searched his eyes. He was serious. I pushed away from the bench.
Camilla opened the door and stood there in her dinner coat, her hair pinned back. She’d tucked the necklace into the neckline of her blouse, but she hadn’t taken it off.
‘I have to go,’ she said to me.
Christian collected the keys off the bench. He turned to Camilla
and squeezed both her arms. I hadn’t seen that look in his eyes for a long
Then to me, he said, ‘Rick, we already have a boat.’
IN CHRISTIAN’S LAND Rover we trucked across the island. The tyres threw bark and sand in the open windows and Christian peered eagerly out of the grimy windscreen. Camilla had elected to get a lift with another nurse, dismissing us with the wave of a hand. I’d wanted to spend more time with her, but I couldn’t ignore Christian’s insistence. And if he did have the solution, I wanted to see it.
‘Amity?’ I asked, hoping he’d say somewhere closer.
‘We’re going to One Mile,’ he said.
‘That’s the other side of the island!’
‘It’s okay, Rick. I’ve planned ahead.’ He reached behind us and pulled a third of a bottle of rum from under the seat.
‘Watch the track,’ I said, instinctively reaching for the wheel.
We drove on, Christian churning up the evening with talk and swigs of rum. The problem with Christian was he believed his dreams were possible. When he talked, he painted his dreams in the sky so vividly they could only be true. And they were, for the most part. Without him, I’d be like the other crewmen, working two jobs and paying off a house in the south Brisbane suburbs. He’d saved me from that. Shown me that with a bit of courage you could have the life you wanted.
So, sure, I owed him. But I wasn’t an idiot.
When I stood on the mudflats at One Mile looking at Christian’s grand plan, swatting at the swarming sandflies, my stomach dropped. The metal carcass, our saviour hauled ashore, sat dark against the horizon.
‘Isn’t she beautiful,’ Christian said, pulling at the canvas that covered the deep hull. He couldn’t be serious. It was barely the size of a cray boat. Chasers were at least three times larger. This rusted out toy belonged in a swimming pool. I stripped back the cover and the reality was even worse. This was a Frankenstein ship, constructed from scraps. The very shape of it unsuited to the work.
‘Christian, it’s too small.’
‘What are you talking about? It’s perfect!’ he said, sizing me up alongside the boat.
I ran my hand along the patchwork hull. The boat wouldn’t hold up in a westerly, let alone in a chase.
‘Are you coming?’ Christian asked. He placed his hands on the gunwale and jumped easily over the side. We’d driven all the way across the island for this contraption, I figured I might as well look. I hauled myself in, somewhat less gracefully and joined him aboard. I walked into the bow and looked back at Christian who watched me like a salesman as I took an inventory.
Behind him, I could see Moreton Island in silhouette and I wondered if Bernie’s vision had any substance. Moreton was different to the other bay islands. Out there in the north, the ocean was hostile. Sharks circled the shallows, cruised the beaches for scraps of whale meat and frenzied over the bloody shore. The island itself seemed stoic and for ten years I’d feared her. I had no idea what would happen to the whale station. And not a part of me dared hope I’d ever have a chance of returning.
I entered the wheelhouse and checked the wires and the radio. The key was in the ignition. The bow was dry on the mudflats but the propellers were in a foot of water, probably enough to turn it over.
‘How does she run?’ I asked Christian who was loitering in the doorway of the wheelhouse.
‘I’ll admit she does need a little work.’
I eyeballed him and he grinned like I was the one who had contrived the whole thing. I felt my disappointment returning. If the engine was shot we’d miss the tail end of the season just working on getting it in the water. Christian was a chaser, not an engineer. Between us, there was a lot we didn’t know about boats. Even if we could rig up a harpoon, catch a whale and find somewhere to process it, after that, we couldn’t do it on our own. I pushed past him to get out of the wheelhouse and my windcheater caught on a hinge and the torn fabric ripped right to the seam. I slipped a finger in through the gash and felt for blood, but my skin was intact.
The hatch to the engine room was rusted shut. I gripped the handle with both hands and heaved. It wouldn’t budge. I heaved again. Christian’s eyes were on me.
‘You going to help or just stand there and watch?’
‘What’s the point? The engine isn’t there.’
I straightened up and surveyed the boat. There were no other hatches I could see.
‘Then where is the engine?’
‘I said it needed a little work.’
‘No engine is more than a little work, Christian.’
‘We can get it for cheap,’ he reminded me.
When he told me, I did the math. An engine would cripple my savings.
‘But the rewards, Ricky. Think of the rewards.’
I was standing on board a boat that was too small and had no engine by an ocean that had no whales.
And Christian started to paint again. He said Byron Bay and I saw the curve of the beach up to the lighthouse. He said Albany and I pictured
us there, Camilla with her hair in a ponytail showing off her necklace of whale teeth.
He said, ‘Rick, we can go wherever we want.’
I thought about Camilla’s yearning for the sunshine, her insistence on shaking a childhood of ceaseless winters. She was here for the sun as much as Christian was here for the whales. And I could still give her that. Two other stations were in operation. Christian was right about that. There was hope.
‘Okay,’ I said, ‘but we work fast.’
‘Like lightning,’ he said.
His dream was real.
When I jumped down from the boat, headlights swept the mudflats, catching me in their glare. I stood squinting toward the road until they dimmed and a lone figure got out of a mustard Holden wagon. I recognised that clipped white beard immediately. Just yesterday, that mouth had turned thin with disapproval while issuing me my fine.
‘Is that Karl?’ Christian asked, still on the boat.
Without taking my eyes off the car, I said, ‘We need to go.’
‘Screw Karl,’ Christian spat.
I was about to be busted by Karl on a boat intended for illegal whaling. Already he was coming across the mudflats.
I grabbed Christian by the shirt and tried to pull him from the boat. ‘Come on!’
‘You don’t work for Whale Products now, Rick. He doesn’t control you anymore.’
‘Christian, trust me!’
He must have recognised fear flare behind my words. Over my shoulder I heard Christian say, ‘We better run.’
I WOKE UP with a dead arm and a crick in my neck. Christian’s fuming breath had fogged the windows of the Land Rover.
‘He’s up.’ Christian said without humour.
I shoved him. ‘You should have woken me.’
We were parked at Claytons, the engine quiet, and I wondered how long he’d been sitting outside the house. It seemed Christian had simmered his mood in the remaining rum. Camilla was going to kill us. It felt like we’d been gone for hours. I shouldn’t have gone across the island with Christian. I shouldn’t have let myself fall asleep. Circulation returning, I stretched my limbs, pushing open the door.
Christian grabbed my elbow. ‘I’ll take care of Karl. We can get him onside.’
I was sore from passing out at odd angles. Pins and needles crippled me and the smell of sweat and alcohol brought vomit into the back of my throat.
‘Just forget it,’ I said, shaking him off, desperate for fresh air.
I stepped out onto the sand and Christian followed me around the truck. The booze had taken hold and his plans grew wider and more ridiculous as he stumbled through the door and flung drunkenly across the couch.
We’d escaped Karl but it didn’t feel like a victory.
In my first seasons at Tangalooma, Karl had mentored me when I was still a skinny-armed wild boy with fear in my belly and no place to call home. In the winters, regimented by time and tide, I learned to keep my heart in quarters. Karl was a familiar face in those days. A numbers man. A man who saw in black and white. With hard yakka and resilience he’d taught me to keep my nose clean. I’d never been a mouthy kid, but out there, away from the mainland, who knows what kind of beast I could have grown into. Instead, under Karl’s eye I ate my meals, I worked and slept. My conversations were brief and guarded. Until the season I was thrown in with Christian.
During the whaling season, Karl lived with us at the station on Moreton. He was on site to measure up our catch and report on our quotas. Like the rest of us, in the summer he lived on Stradbroke. He kept to himself, mostly, but on occasion I’d run into him yabbying around One Mile and we’d share a beer and exchange stories about the one that got away. Not always talking about fish.
When I first met Christian he punched me so hard in the guts I felt like I would spew out the Pacific. I’d been assigned to the Firern, Tangalooma’s towboat, my first post at sea. I’d been whaling for two years. I was eighteen and becoming cocky but I had a reputation for working hard and when two Norwegian chasers got crook from too much grog, Karl called me aboard the towboat. Only, I got on the wrong boat.
As instructed before the launch, I found my quarters, readied my bunk, stowed my rations. I had the second watch, so I slept on the way out from Yellow Patch. Four hours out from Moreton Christian woke me with a hard slap.
‘You asshole,’ he bellowed.
I raised up and he slapped me again just for moving but the pain and confusion fuelled me out of bed. I was taller than him and we both had to stoop in the cramped bunkhouse.
He threw a punch and I ducked. Barrelling forward, I thrust my shoulder into him.
‘What?’ I yelled, palms up.
I knew Christian only by reputation. Back then, like the rest of the Norwegian crew, he sailed out each season. I had no idea our lives would get so tangled. We’d never exchanged words before my posting. It wasn’t until he was slogging me hard in the guts and I was doubled over with his spittle on my neck screaming about Stan that I realised I’d gotten on the wrong ship.
That afternoon in June with Christian at the helm we caught our first whale. Early in the season we had the luxury of time. We picked off a female from the pod in calm waters. A gentle easterly was blowing but even so, Christian’s reputation had not been exaggerated. He had command of the vessel and the gun. As he came down the catwalk from the bridge there was not one dreg of doubt about him.
He lined up the cow in the site of the harpoon, taking a beat as she prepared to dive. The rest of the crew were on deck and it was as if everyone drew breath as Christian fired. He made the kill in one hit, landing the shot square into her backbone.
He winked at me then as if to say how easy it all was. But the crew were surrounding us, reloading the gun as Christian returned to the bridge. I stood, useless, as the crew lashed her aside, and the Looma 3 made a lazy turn back to the south. The bull was smaller than the female and he was also fatigued. Reappearing on the forecastle, in two shots Christian took the follow fish and the rest of the pod slipped below the surface.
Later, when the crew had retired for the night, Christian came to my cabin.
‘Aussie,’ he said, ‘come see.’
In the shadow of the hatch the slit of his mouth gaped like a cut throat.
I dressed quickly and followed him up into the night. On deck, with the ocean rippling like scales in the moonlight, it was as though the kill had cracked something open in him. He heaved with sweat, cutting away the flukes from the tail of the cow with a flensing knife. A streak of blood slashed across his bare chest. He’s just a fisherman, I reminded myself, approaching him with caution, still reeling from his earlier blow. Here, with two whales in hand, hardly out of Yellow Patch, was Christian, the whites of his eyes glinting off the knife edge.
‘Come on,’ he said. He hung over the side, holding the long handle out to me. We’d taken both whales along the starboard, keeping our port free. And when he looked at me, urging me, I gripped the gunwale, took the blade by the handle and leaned out to slash off the tail of the bull. The processing work was common to me but I knew that this was some kind of initiation. Christian might have been king of the seas, when it came to decks, but I was the broad-shouldered larrikin with a gift for the knife work. In two strokes I’d cut away the tail.
Christian took back the knife, tossing it onto the deck. Then with both hands gripping the side, he leaned far over the catch of whales and roared. The sound he made came from somewhere I’d never felt, some chasm of rage and pride and brotherhood. I wanted my own piece of that so I took hold of the edge and leaned out too.
I roared louder and longer and deeper until he turned to me and there we were, two grown men screaming into each other’s faces over a pair of whale carcasses. But I kept my eyes locked on his until that crack in him opened so wide I could have fallen in. Then he laughed. He pulled me back by the belt of my trousers and we stood on deck panting and laughing but for different reasons. He thought he’d seen a mirror image of himself in me. But what I’d done was swear a secret. Oh, my brother, we are not the same.
I knew enough to realise he should have radioed the Firern hours ago to collect me and our catch. But I also knew the Looma 3 could carry four whales before returning the flensing deck.
Wiping blood and gristle from his hands, I followed Christian up into the bridge. He tossed me the scrap of rag and said, ‘So, do you want to call it in?’
Instinct told me not to reach for the radio.
‘Thought we’d be going for four,’ I said.
I went to the wheel so my back was to him.
He said, ‘Aren’t you worried about the sharks?’
I chewed my words before replying. ‘Are you?’
He came and stood beside me but if he smiled I didn’t see it.
‘It’s only early,’ he said. ‘So, we can sail. We can hunt. We can drink. I don’t know Aussie, what do you want to do?’
‘It’s Rick,’ I said.
He thought on that for a minute and I knew at any second he could radio in the Firern and I’d be working the towboat for a living. But then he said, ‘Okay, Rick. What do you want to do?’
I’d known some crazed bastards in my time. Christian outweighed
I WAS SURPRISED to see Camilla back from dinner so early. She took one look at the state of us and shook her head. Her cheeks were flushed from walking home in the wind.
‘Is he drunk?’ She pushed passed me and went to her brother. With expert hands she untangled his limbs and made him comfortable. Half her make-up had been removed and her skin looked pale from the pressed-powder.
‘Camilla,’ I pleaded.
‘I don’t care!’ she said holding her hand up to fend off my excuses.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, trying to catch her by the wrist. She slithered from my grip then turned, squaring up to me.
‘Where did you take him?’
Her words stuck barbs in all the right places.
I tried to gather everything into a neat sentence about Christian’s plan and Karl but all I managed to say was, ‘It’s complicated.’
She squinted. Drawing her perfect features into an accusing pinpoint. ‘I’m going to bed.’
She made for the door to our bedroom then reconsidered. She came back to the kitchen and ran water into the sink to wash up the stack of mugs.
‘Just leave that,’ I said and reached over to turn off the tap.
Her eyes glistened with scorn.
‘Come for a walk with me,’ I said.
I moved behind her and slipped my arms around her waist. ‘Stay up with me.’
‘I’m so tired, Rick,’ she protested.
‘Just stay,’ I said, and I felt her relax into my embrace.
Wrapped in coats, we crossed the silver sand to the waterline. The moon was still rising and the whitecaps lead us to the headland. The rock had been worked smooth by swells and a slippery black scunge collected on the surface. We picked our way carefully to higher ground, finding a place among the pandanus palms shielded by the wind. The Pacific was glorious at night and we nestled together in awe of it.
Camilla took my hand in hers and said, ‘Apart from getting my brother drunk, what happened today?’
‘Christian seems to think he’s found a boat for us.’
‘It’s a death trap.’
Camilla laughed. ‘But you can you fix it?’
To me it wasn’t a matter of fixing the boat or catching whales. I wanted work to sustain us, not a scheme. ‘I don’t know.’
‘What’s going to happen to us, Rick?’
I squeezed her fingers between mine. ‘We’ll do the same as the rest, I guess.’
‘What’s that exactly?’
‘You know, spend our last dollars on beer and cards, drink too much, then move in with my parents.’
‘You don’t have any parents,’ she laughed, swatting me.
‘Well, there goes that plan.’
I didn’t have a lot of faith in Christian or his boat. For Camilla, though, I had to get her brother back on the water before the winds set in. After that, I could go to the mines or hold out for summer work on the prawn boats. Without work for the next few weeks, Christian would wreck himself. For Camilla’s sake, I couldn’t let that happen.
We watched the ocean heaving under the night sky. Just days ago, that ocean had been my home. I felt the pull of the Pacific and thought how easy, how selfish, it would be to take Bernie’s offer.
Then Camilla said, ‘Rick, if he wants to fix the boat, just let him.’
‘If only you saw it.’
‘It can’t be that bad.’
I pressed my lips against her forehead. ‘I’ll think of something.’
‘We should get back,’ she said.
‘To check on Christian?’
She gave me a questioning look.
‘To get you something to eat,’ she said.
I hadn’t thought about food until she mentioned it. Instantly my stomach felt cavernous.
‘I have missed it,’ I said, meaning Camilla, the island, the ocean and our home. She hugged me but she didn’t say anything back and for the first time I wondered about the kind of life she led here without us.
CLEAN SHAVEN AND in pressed trousers, I’d set out for the day in good spirits. I’d stayed up in bed with Camilla writing a list of potential employers on the island. Work had always been scarce but I hoped I’d find something, even temporary, for myself and Christian, to get us through the next few weeks.
By eleven, my courage was shot. Having exhausted all possibilities, I stopped in at the market in Dunwich. Roy was not at the counter, instead a stocky, grey-haired woman came to the till, flour spilt across her apron.
‘Any milk?’ I asked.
‘Not ‘til Thursday, love.’
I rattled the coins in my palm, thinking of what I could buy instead.
‘Did you get in a scrap?’ she asked.
‘Oh,’ I smiled, touching the forgotten wound. ‘Fishing accident.’
I flipped a coin off my thumb and caught it on the back of my hand. I said, ‘You haven’t heard of any work going round?’
The way she looked me over made me realise it didn’t matter that I’d ironed my pants.
‘Did you try at the mine?’
She nodded. ‘You’ll have better luck in the summer. Maybe when that cut’s healed up.’
‘Thanks for the tip.’ I flipped a coin to her and her hand shot up, snatching it straight out of the air. She closed her fist over the coin and slipped it into the pocket of her apron.
At the doorway I paused, tapping my knuckles against the frame. ‘Is there a ferry today?’
‘They’re running every day this week, love. Gotta get all those whalers back. You did hear about what happened over there? They’ve closed Tangalooma. Just shut it down. I’d say you’re not the only bloke looking for work around here.’
‘Good to know,’ I said and nodded in farewell.
When I left the shop and went out onto the main street, the barge was coming into the channel around Goat Island. I leaned on the bonnet of the car and took out my pocketbook. Flipping to August 7th I crossed out each entry of potential employers I’d made. I looked up as the barge was coming into the jetty and felt the pull of it. It would be so easy just to leave. To get in the truck and drive on, find work at a factory in town or on a charter boat at the Gold Coast. The address didn’t pin me to Stradbroke, the lifestyle did. Camilla thrived here. Even with good work somewhere else, there was no way I’d ever be happy without her.
Turning a few pages, I realised I hadn’t taken down Camilla’s shopping list. At the top of a new page I wrote milk. With the sun warming my shoulders I watched the ferry collect the waiting cars and raise the iron ramp again. When the barge pulled back into the channel, I realised I’d been holding my breath.
INTO THE SMOKE haze of the pub I went looking for Christian. The heat of the men had turned the air inside muggy and their chorus reverberated against the thin fibro walls. A beer was pushed into my hand as I moved through the crowd. Around me final wages were being cast at the publican in exchange for pots and whiskey and rum that spilled down the front of sweaty shirts. My crewmates, skippers, coopers and chasers circled me with their banter and eventually I found Christian settled at a high table by the window.
‘There he is!’ Christian grinned, flashing his too-perfect teeth my way. ‘Welcome back, Ricky.’
His cheeks were flushed red and he clunked his glass against mine. God he was crazy. Crazy enough to make it out here in the first place and crazy enough to thrive when he did. He was always right in the thick of it, pushing us. One more, he’d say. One more drink, one more hour, one more whale. And because he was infectious, we listened. And here he was, amongst the sopping beer mats and cigarette smoke, all the way from Norway, clean-shaven in a cream turtleneck like he’d just stepped out of a magazine.
‘Still want to build a boat?’ I called across the table at him.
‘You don’t want to work all the summer?’
‘You know I don’t.’
He wrapped both hands around his glass and stared at me evenly.
‘Rick, I can trust you with this? It’s not exactly standard, you know.’
I thought about my chase to Caloundra and knew if there was a line, I’d already crossed it.
Christian’s eyes glistened with whiskey and a plan. ‘Are you in?’
‘I’m in,’ I said.
He put a hand to his ear as though he’d misheard.
‘I’m in,’ I shouted. ‘Dammit, I’m in.’
He came round to my side of the table and put his arm around me.
‘We’re brothers,’ he said. ‘Let’s go get our boat.’
It was nearing dark as we pulled into One Mile. I cranked down the window to let in the fresh air. Pulling my sleeve over my fist I leaned forward and rubbed fog from the cold glass of the windscreen. The water in the One Mile channel was eerily still, a silver slick that ran out around Polka Point and into the main passage.
I rubbed my hands together, looking towards the mudflats. My throat went dry.
I leaned on the dash peering through the windscreen. I was staring at the space where the boat was meant to be. Tyre tracks cut deep into the mudflats before disappearing into the mangroves. Our boat was gone.
‘Karl,’ Christian sneered. His neck tensed and he sat rigid, fuming, in the passenger seat.
I opened my mouth to protest, but Christian was right.
The inspector for the Commonwealth Fisheries Office had seized
When Christian said one more, it was Karl’s job to say no. He was the law at Tangalooma and he wouldn’t be pushed. This steadfastness, this test of wills, caused turbulence among the crew. At sea, when Christian said one more, we said yes. But Karl was a man anchored in his ways and when we came ashore, there was no getting around him. On land, I didn’t back my brother.
We could see the boat from the roadside, hitched on the back of a tractor and tucked behind Karl’s caravan like a rat behind a cube of cheese. Karl lived on land as he did at sea, contained in tin squares on the edge of the world. His van occupying a grassy patch where the mudflats gave way to sand forming a gentle bay side beach. Apart from soldier crabs and pelicans, Karl had the place to himself.
We’d planned to drive in there, hitch up the trailer and steal our boat back. We hadn’t even made it down the driveway when Karl came out shirtless, holding a small set of binoculars, his pants belted high on his waist. Even at his age, his chest and stomach had the sturdiness of a boxer.
‘Dukes up,’ I said to Christian.
He laughed, ‘Why should we expect anything less?’
We parked on the track and got out.
Tucking his shirt into his trousers as we headed down the drive, Christian called out, ‘Good day, Karl.’
He stayed on the lower step of his caravan and waited for us to go to him.
‘We’re here to see a man about a boat.’
‘I thought that might be it.’
‘Kind of you to get it off the flats for us.’
Karl chewed his lip and looked from Christian to me. ‘You still living at the Murrays’ place?’ he asked.
‘You ahead on board or behind?’
Christian kicked his boot into the dirt. ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’
Ignoring him I said, ‘We’re ahead.’
I ran the numbers. ‘About six weeks, I’d say.’
With a tiny nod, Karl dismissed me.
‘So you won’t have any trouble paying off a loan to Buck Taylor for this contraption,’ Karl said to Christian, stepping onto the flat. ‘Should be on the scrapheap, though, if you ask me.’
‘We’re not asking you,’ Christian said with the kind of smile that made you want to break his teeth. And even though Christian had the height advantage, I’d seen him come to blows with Karl before. I knew who my money was on.
‘You see,’ Karl said. ‘I wouldn’t want you stiffing Old Murray after all he’s done for you. I reckon you can afford this thing. I just don’t know why you’d want it.’
He turned his back to us and we followed him around his caravan. I watched the sureness of his back as he walked. Even the tufts of white hair that sprang from his shoulders seemed certain of their place.
We rounded to the back of the van and the boat confronted me with bared teeth. Off the flats and braced against the trailer she looked in worse shape than I remembered.
‘To get her seaworthy, she needs a bit of work.’ Karl stopped abruptly and tapped two fingers against my shirt pocket. ‘You might want to write this down.’
I ran my hand over my shirt and felt the book concealed there but I didn’t oblige him. He started at the nose and worked down the hull listing the things inside and out that were wrong with our ship. He named the parts and where we could get them, noting roughly how much they’d cost and how long they’d take to arrive. He talked and I mapped her scars the way I’d mapped my own. I saw reefs and bombies in her past, violent winds and anchors pulled from sandbars. Loads of crabs and crays and muscles and mullet hauled around the country. This boat had seen things worse than most.
‘So,’ Karl growled, ‘without mentioning the obvious lack of engine, I’d say even there, that’s a handful of clams. And my guess is you’d be wanting to do something with it to earn a bit of that back.’
Christian folded his arms and leaned against the flank of the boat.
‘That’s what’s got you all worked up?’
‘I don’t feel worked up at all, Christian. I’m just interested on a professional level about the intentions for such a vessel.’
‘A professional level?’ Christian grinned. ‘Are you looking for a cut?’
Karl summoned a laugh right from his gut.
‘Ten per cent,’ Christian said.
‘Don’t you just stop and think for one minute?’
Christian flexed the muscles in his jaw. ‘Fifteen per cent.’
Karl looked at Christian hard, really looked. They were so close, nose-to-nose, they could have been counting whiskers. What Karl was looking for, I could only guess, but he’d stared me down in the same way when I was a mongrel squirt. With those eyes he peeled away husk and barnacle until he got to your fleshy insides. But not with Christian.
He spat into the dirt at Karl’s bare feet. ‘I don’t need this.’
Running his hands over his torso as if expelling a layer of silt, he said to me, ‘Are you coming?’
I watched Karl observe him with his small teeth set together, pulling in his brow. The act didn’t surprise him, Christian was just another sea bird preparing to take flight.
‘In a sec,’ I said. But Christian was already retreating.
Karl turned to me and said, ‘Why are you still getting around with that knucklehead?’
I said, ‘You know why.’
His attention swept over me like the beam of a lighthouse. He said, ‘You want some advice?’
‘I reckon you’ll give it if I want it or not.’
He tucked his thumbs into his belt loops and nodded in Christian’s direction. ‘Lose the deadweight. Marry her and just forget all about what we did over there.’
‘Ah,’ I smiled. ‘Easy as that.’
‘Easy as that.’ He turned then and set his shoulders square to the horizon. The tide was low and dropping and the mudflats shimmered. He said, ‘I see you’re still writing everything down in that little book of yours. You know it won’t change anything. It won’t ever make any sense to you. In this life things happen, Rick and we’re powerless to stop them. When we let them stop us, that’s when we have the real trouble.’
I thought about what he wasn’t saying and wondered what life would be like without him. Aside from Camilla, he’d been my only anchor.
He said, ‘When are you going ask her?’
I laughed. ‘You know, one day.’
He shared a smile with me and said, ‘That’s the worst line I’ve ever heard. Does she still make you crazy and happy all at once?’
‘Then just get on with it.’
‘I better get back,’ I said, even though he had, in his way, already said it.
‘You going to be able to talk him around?’
‘I doubt it.’
I thought about how that would go. I lay my palm against the warming steel of the boat. ‘What about this?’
‘I’m taking it to Buck Taylor. You can sort it out with him.’
‘You think we weren’t going to pay up?’
‘I think you weren’t going to think.’
He rolled his shoulders and pointed the binoculars at me. In a tone I was used to only at the decks, he said, ‘It’s not the money, Rick. It’s what the work will do to you. After this, you leave me out of it. You’ve got more sense than he does so listen up. We’re done out there, you hear me. Finished. You have no right to be hunting this side of the Pacific.’
‘I’ve always liked you, Rick. I don’t want to see you sink now for his stupidity. If I make this little niggle with the Commission go away, will you promise to leave it alone?’
‘You’d do that?’
‘The question is, can you?’
‘I’ve been offered some work with Bernard Short.’
Karl rubbed a hand over his face. ‘You sure can pick them.’
‘It’s honest work.’
‘I doubt that.’
I looked at Karl as long as I dared. I wanted him to see I hadn’t changed.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Take the work with Short. But after that, if I hear anything about you, or that other one, even looking at a humpback whale, God help me…’
‘We’re clear,’ I said.
THE NIGHT AT home was stony. Christian barely spoke to me for making a deal with Karl. He couldn’t see the logic. He believed in his ship even though we’d never be able to get it in the water or make a decent go of the work.
The next day, as Christian’s truck idled outside, Camilla leaned in the doorway of our bedroom
‘I don’t like this one bit.’
‘I have to take Bernie’s offer.’
She came in and stood on the other side of the bed as I stuffed socks and pants into my bag without folding anything.
‘What about Christian?’
‘He can do what he wants.’
‘You shouldn’t leave him here.’
I was sick of being his guardian. I knew the westerlies were nearing but I couldn’t sit around waiting for him to go off the rails. We were desperate for money – I was desperate.
‘He’ll make do,’ I said unable to look at her.
She came to me and placed her cool hands against my cheeks, her eyes pleading. I didn’t have a choice. I took her hands from my face and held them.
‘We’ll lose the house.’
‘I know.’ She breathed in deeply. ‘Okay then.’
As we pulled up to the ferry ramp, Christian turned in the driver’s seat and scowled. ‘We can work it out with Buck.’
‘Sure you can, but Karl will have you by your toenails if you even get within ten feet of a whale.’
‘He’s all talk.’
Christian stopped the car by the jetty and leaned over me, opening the door. ‘Out you get.’ Then under his breath he added, ‘Coward.’
THE AIR HAD a pinch to it. Westerlies were on the way. On deck, I put my arms around Camilla, pressing my torso against the sweep of her back. I was reeling from Christian’s final words, but if going to back to Tangalooma would clear my name I had to do it.
I kissed Camilla’s neck. Just being with her on the water calmed me. I’d travel with her into town, then catch the Norman R Wright across to Moreton Island. I didn’t want to say goodbye to her again so soon.
‘Are you warm enough?’ I asked. ‘We can go inside.’
She pressed against me. ‘Don’t be silly,’ she said. And then, ‘He’s always been too proud.’
I wanted her to tell me I was making the right choice, that Christian would come around. But I knew that was too much to expect from her, she was guilty of the same pride. She would always side with her brother. I knew better than to ask.
Bernie was, for the time being at least, a way to last until the summer fishing months kicked in. And then, as if I’d conjured him, the door swung open and he stepped onto the deck.
‘Here’s trouble,’ he said, striding up to us on his stocky legs.
Camilla and I both turned from the rail.
‘I thought I’d be seeing you.’
I shook his hand and he held it for a little longer than was needed.
‘Bringing the wife along?’
‘No,’ I laughed.
‘You’d think she was one of the director’s daughters dressed like that.’
Camilla tilted her chin dismissively. ‘Good,’ she said, with a smirk.
‘Well,’ Bernie said and let the silence hang between us. I realised she’d unsettled him.
‘I’m just going to town for supplies,’ she said generously. I slipped my arm around her.
‘Come find me when we’re in the channel. I’ll give you a lift.’
‘I have my own car,’ Camilla said. ‘But Rick can go with you.’
‘I promise I’ll take good care of him.’
‘I know you will.’ Camilla smiled warmly, for my benefit it seemed. And Bernie left us on the deck.
‘Bernie is a real charmer,’ she said.
‘I’m not worried.’
‘You ought to be. Why do you think he came out ahead when the rest of you got dumped?’
I hadn’t thought of it like that. ‘Come here,’ I said, gathering her into my arms. ‘This might sound crazy, but why don’t you come with me?’
Camilla held me and rubbed warmth into my spine. ‘I can’t, Rick.’
‘The other workers have gone. There will be plenty of space in the dorms.’
‘I can’t go to Tangalooma with you.’
I felt a chasm opening between us. This wasn’t about Christian or Bernie or a sail to Albany. This was something else. My throat went dry.
She filled her lungs and I understood, with finality, that I’d changed in her eyes. Even without her knowing about the fine and taking down the Caloundra whale, she thought I was responsible. She said, ‘I still look out at the horizon and expect to see them. I know it’s your work, but I didn’t think they’d just stop coming.’
‘It’s Christian’s work too,’ I said.
‘Christian has never run out of whales.’
I gripped the railing, my chest tight.
‘Am I being crazy?’ she asked.
I watched the line of the Pacific waiting for the one thing I knew wasn’t coming. The one thing that could make it right.
Then she said, ‘Back home in the summer, it only gets dark late at night. You’ve ruined me out here with all these stars over your ocean. I think that when I go back, I’ll look out at seven or eight in the evening and I’ll wonder where they are. Maybe it’s like that? Are they out there and I just can’t see them?’
I put my hand to her head and held her there against my chest. I didn’t want her to look at me. I didn’t want her to see how utterly I’d been shattered. Quietly, with my heart beating against her ear, I succumbed to what she was telling me.
‘I think it’s exactly like that,’ I said resting my lips against her hair.
‘Then we’re both crazy.’
RETURNING TO TANGALOOMA was like going back in time. After working so many seasons on the boats I was still a stranger to Moreton. When I pushed open the dormitory door Stan was inside making up the bunks.
I dropped my bag at the door and shook his hand.
‘Short wrangle you, too?’
‘What choice did I have?’
‘Did he threaten you with Claytons?’
‘I’m not worried about Murray. I just didn’t want to be around when they rounded everyone up.’
I took the corner of the sheet and tucked it in while Stan did the other side.
‘What do you mean?’
‘The party is over. Everyone is going home.’
‘Christian didn’t tell you? They’ve arranged the aeroplane tickets.’
‘Oh,’ I swallowed, taking in the news. I was used to farewelling the other chasers at the end of the season. ‘Christian stays here for the summers. You know that.’
‘It’s not exactly a summer this time,’ Stan said.
He couldn’t be right. If he was, I had made the biggest mistake of my life leaving Stradbroke.
I passed a message through Bernie, through the hotel, for Christian to contact me. When no word came back, I had to trust my gut that Stan was wrong. Stan himself had made the decision to stay. Christian’s name wouldn’t be on one of those tickets. I was sure of it.
I was thankful for the company at Moreton. Stan had a reputation for being a hard worker and over the next few days we fell in with each other as though we’d been paired on a Kos boat from the beginning. When the first of the westerlies came up, as promised we kept our heads down and worked double shifts dismantling the flensing deck, even though the headwind made our eyes sting.
Bernie was like an auto wrecker, cutting the best deal for every piece and like the wind he was wearing me down. He returned every third day, bringing investors in suits and their teenaged daughters who were already aware of their own beauty. They leaned on the rails and watched us work, trying to capture the last scent of whaling romance before it was snatched away by the wind.
When we finished with the decks the ramp was next, then we loaded up the chasers for trips to the Port of Brisbane to dispose of planks and equipment. Stan let me take the bridge on those crossings and I’d watch him standing at the fo’c’sle running his hand along the balustrade with his eyes on the horizon. Neither of us had been able to shake the habit. We were still watching for whales.
In a few days we’d overhauled the station. The ramp was gone, the deck was cleared. The boats had been swabbed and polished and even Bernie had rubbed some of his style on to us. For the trips to port he had us wearing pressed linen trousers instead of our standard heavy navy shorts. With clean fingernails and all my buttons in place, I didn’t resemble the whaler who’d left the decks just weeks ago.
I arranged to meet with Camilla on one of those trips. In a blouse and a woollen skirt she rivalled all the office girls on Queen Street. I was so used to seeing her wet-haired in shorts and knit jumpers that I’d forgotten how well she dolled up. In this world of banks and bakeries and barbers she carried herself with the pride of a beauty queen. I was a different case. Even with my new trousers, Brisbane was leaving me behind and, I felt fleetingly, so was she. As we browsed the dress shops, I trailed a few steps behind, watching the way she cut through the city leaving a wake of marvel behind her.
In a hat shop on Adelaide Street I watched while Camilla tried on the wares, coming through the racks to where I waited every so often for my laugh or nod of approval. She wanted a new scarf, a brighter one for spring to keep the sandflies out of her hair. She deserved silk but I knew she’d only allow herself to buy cotton. As I watched her, tilting her chin this way and that in front of the mirror, I worried over her report on Christian.
‘Everyone is leaving,’ she said. ‘You should come home.’
‘We need this money.’
I could see her struggling under the weight of him. She wanted me to pull him into line.
‘He won’t go,’ I assured her.
‘He’s a chaser. What use is he here?’
It took everything in me to hold my tongue. ‘And what about you?’
She untied the scarf she was wearing and folded it, then folded it again. ‘He’s family.’
She left the store empty handed and two hours later I was back on the boat with Stan returning to Moreton more unsettled than ever.
WITH THE STATION ready for inspection and visits from prospective buyers, we moved out of the dorms and returned to living on the whale chasers. The work at Moreton was coming to a close and all we could do was wait for Bernie to lock down his buyers. Each day I prayed I’d wake to news. I needed to be back before the weekend if I had any chance of recruiting Christian.
While we waited, we favoured Flinders Reef. Like me, Stan enjoyed free diving and the coral at Flinders far outshone anything we had at Stradbroke. When the tide dropped low, swells would peel over the exposed reef and I would sit in the forecastle, sketching in my pocketbook, pushing my wrist into the page to steady my hand with the roll of the swell.
The catwalk thundered as Stan came jogging down from the bridge.
‘It’s time to move!’ he called. ‘The sale has gone through.’
I snapped my book shut and returned it to my jacket. ‘When?’
‘Bernie just phoned it through.’
‘Let’s go, then.’
Stan was to sail the Firern north, delivering the boat clean to a private fishing charter company up on the Great Barrier Reef. He was staying around once he got there, a one-way trip to a life in the tropics.
‘What about the Albany sale?’
‘Cheynes has cleared too. Do you want to flip for it?’ he teased.
Without Camilla, I would’ve taken the gamble in a heartbeat. Shoals were a nightmare for any mariner but give me reef fishing and sunshine any day over great whites and squalls express from the Antarctic.
‘You know I can’t.’
‘Follow me to the Port at least?’
‘That much I can do.’
I’d arranged to meet Camilla that afternoon at Eagle Street and, with news of the sale, I hoped she’d be willing to travel with me back to Stradbroke. I was desperate for some time with her before leaving for Albany.
We returned to Tangalooma and after I’d packed my things I went into the whaling store to check the stock I was shipping to Albany. I ran my hand along the handle of a knife I found familiar, one that reminded me of my first days on the decks, of the work my body did as an eighteen-year-old boy. I lifted the knife down from the rack and it filled the groove in my palms so comfortably it was as if I owned it. I put the knife on the bench top. With a screwdriver I twisted the screws from the long handle and the blade came away. The weight of the metal alone was a chilling comfort. I dropped the handle to the floor and kicked it with the end of my boot so it rolled out of sight under the bench. Then I slipped the blade into the belt of my pants and covered it with my jacket.
We arrived at the port in the afternoon. The river was soupy as I farewelled Stan.
‘Keep in touch,’ he said, shaking my hand and pulling me into a sturdy hug.
As I waited for Camilla the daylight faded around me. Waiting on deck, I warmed my hands in my pockets. Then the lights of the Story Bridge
STOCKED WITH CARGO and supplies I sailed Looma 3 into Amity
Point. So much had changed since I’d last sailed her alone it was as though she was a new vessel. The sun was coming up as I motored into the jetty. Amity was mostly a gentle place, home to dolphins and cuttlefish, red sand and pelicans. The shore dropped away steeply into the channel and the ocean rubbed the shore with an oily calm. I hoped the Looma would be safe here overnight from the wind. I tied her off short, using every spare line to secure her to the posts.
Christian had been waiting for hours, expecting me home the night before. After losing so much time in Brisbane waiting for Camilla, I’d sailed through the night. That Christian had stayed filled me with hope that I could convince him to join me. I was actually happy to see the bastard. He tumbled out of the driver’s seat looking sickly pale and bloated like he’d spent the last few weeks underwater.
‘You’re late,’ he snorted, shaking out his limbs.
‘She’s in town.’
I took the keys from him and tried to justify what he was telling me. ‘I was just there. She didn’t come.’
Christian raised his palms at me as though that’s all he had to offer.
As I drove us back across the island, Christian asked about Stan, about the station and the ships. When his attention began to wander I let the silence sit between us and instead focused on the track.
On North Stradbroke spring was taking hold. At every turn I was reminded of why I was so determined to make this my home. Fat wallabies crowded the dune grass along Eighteen Mile Beach and the trawlers were hauling in new-season prawns. Already the summer that had felt so far off was ready to crack open.
We arrived to a house I didn’t recognise. It reeked of cigarettes and damp. Packing cases were stacked in the entry.
‘Your things.’ Christian went past me into the kitchen to begin making coffee. He put two mugs on the bench. ‘There’s no milk.’
‘We don’t need to pack anything if you come to Albany.’
Leaving Tangalooma I’d felt so sure of my decision. Now everything burned with apprehension. East Coast lows and summer storm cells lay ahead. I trusted Christian at the helm but I knew each day wasted on land meant we were one closer to being thrashed at sea. If he left for Norway, it would all be for nothing.
I’d negotiated a fixed fee for my work. Fifty up front and fifty on arrival in Western Australia. There was a bit of extra coin to cover meals and lodgings but Bernie had been surprisingly light on the route details, convinced he was doing us a favour by providing the adventure on the high seas. For Christian, I’d negotiated a daily allowance to be paid in cash each month to Camilla for safekeeping of our house.
‘You don’t want to go back.’
‘I don’t have a choice. If I don’t have work I have to.’
‘Christian, we have work.’
He slammed his hand down on the bench. ‘That’s your work, Rick. It has nothing to do with me.’
Camilla arrived home late after coming in on the final ferry. She’d bought a new scarf. Silk and powder blue. I touched the delicate fabric between my calloused fingers as she leaned in to give me a kiss on the cheek.
‘I missed you,’ I said. ‘I waited for you.’
‘I told you,’ she patted my cheek. ‘Not on that boat.’
Then she smiled thinly and went inside with her bags.
While she showered, I sat with Christian on the patio.
‘What does she want you to do?’ I asked.
‘How should I know? She spends all of her time in town now.’
‘Don’t you miss it?’
Christian looked past me out to the beach and I knew this was my chance to get him onside. I went to my bags and returned with the flensing blade, presenting it to him.
‘It’s just a token,’ I said. ‘We’re heading out to sail, not to hunt.’
‘A souvenir!’ he said, thrilled. The word triggered a memory of the sperm whale teeth but the memory felt far off, almost a lifetime ago.
I said, ‘You need to give me a coin for it.’
‘It’s a gift.’
‘It’s a superstition.’
‘You don’t pay people for gifts, Ricky.’
I tried to explain the reasoning but he was caught up in the weight of the long, curved blade. He held it by the fastening and slashed it through the air.
‘The blade will cut our friendship,’ I said. ‘Give me a coin.’
He laughed, wielding the knife, slicing up the space between us.
When Camilla came onto the patio dressed in leggings and a thick woollen jumper, she frowned at me.
‘What were you thinking, Rick?’ she said.
She stepped in to snatch the blade from him.
Christian swiped at her.
‘Watch out!’ I pulled her by the elbow and she stumbled back, falling into my lap.
Christian roared with laughter. ‘He’s severed us!’
Camilla pushed away from me. ‘Can’t you see he’s not well,’ she snapped.
‘We are gift-giving enemies,’ Christian bellowed.
‘That’s not what I meant,’ I said.
‘Chop chop!’ Christian mimed.
Camilla seized the knife. ‘That’s enough!’
Even without the knife Christian looked through her, finding my eyes he said once more, ‘Chop chop.’
THAT NIGHT, WHILE I lay awake with her back curved against me,
I thought about what two runs to Albany meant for her and for us. Earlier, when she’d fallen against me, she had pushed herself away so quickly it was as though I repulsed her. And maybe I did. She’d never held back her affection before and I tried to think of words to make it right with us but there
I stroked her arm and leaned in to kiss her shoulder, but she flinched, jerking away from my fingers.
‘What is it?’ she asked but didn’t turn to me. Between us the darkness filled up with all the things we couldn’t say.
‘I won’t go.’
‘You have to,’ she said. ‘Staying here will kill him.’
I knew then we’d both been counting the days for different reasons.
I was woken by rattling shutters and a heavy thumping against the front door. At first I believed it was the wind. Then I heard someone call my name and I rolled out of bed while Camilla slept on, or pretended to.
‘I’m coming.’ I pulled on my trousers and went out to the bright sunlit room. I squinted as I opened the door.
Karl stood at the door in his uniform. ‘Good, you’re back.’
‘Hello to you too.’
‘Is Christian here?’
‘What time is it?’
Karl put his hand on the doorframe and leaned in. ‘They’ve brought over the Wright. They leave today.’
Through my sleep haze, Karl’s words found their mark. If I didn’t get Christian on my ship, I’d lose Camilla forever.
Karl said, ‘Christian’s name is on the list.’
Just then a bullet of wind rushed the house, shaking the walls.
‘Is the Looma ready?’
‘She’s at Amity.’
‘You’ll have to go north-east, around the Point.’
‘It’s too rough out there.’
‘Wake him up.’
‘What about Camilla?’
‘Would she leave without him? This is your best shot.’ Karl glanced over his shoulder to where his station wagon was parked. ‘I’ll drive you. Hurry.’
THE LOOMA 3 was Christian’s ship. This is what I reminded him. She’d be renamed in Albany, this was Christian’s only chance to say goodbye.
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘How about just one more run?’
Looma deserved a memorable farewell, I told him. She needed her captain.
Like old times, Christian took the first shift at the wheel. Feeling nostalgic I made up the cabin right under the gun. Among the men, this was the most loathed position, the gun was right above the sleeping quarters and the force of it firing punctured even the deepest sleep, driving down into the shallow space above snoring heads. Not that there was much sleep when there where pods around. After the first few seasons, Christian schooled me on how to do the task with only two men, and then he showed how it could be done alone. Even if physically you only needed two, whether on watch or not, barbarian or not, chaser or deckhand or cook or cabin boy, when it came to bringing a whale in, everyone was on deck.
I lay in my bunk eyeballing the cannon. There would be no hunting this trip, but she wasn’t done yet. Albany to Esperance, she would be in use again. I wondered about the longevity of the operation, still grappling with the reality that Tangalooma had been shut down so decisively.
I’d always preferred the early shifts, this trip was different. We had a long afternoon ahead and already the sun was going down between the islands. At sea for the second last time, I wasn’t going to waste it below deck. I rolled out from under the cannon and pulled my windcheater on over my coveralls.
Christian was in the wheelhouse, reclined shirtless, steering with his feet. I could see his body remembered what it was like being at sea in a ship he’d known so well for so long. His colour was returning and he’d slicked back his hair, parting it in his old way.
‘Ah, Rick,’ he said. ‘Did the calm waters wake you?’
As if on cue a gust rammed our starboard and I was rocked with it. My knee dipped and my calf muscle flexed, absorbing the roll of the hull and keeping me level. I came around him and looked over the gauges.
‘Was I out long?’ I asked.
‘How long is long?’ he teased. We were barely round the southern point of Stradbroke.
On Karl’s advice, to avoid being seen by the crew of the Wright, we’d given up hope of navigating the calmer bay waters from Peel Island to Southport. Instead we’d set course for open water, coming from the north into full chop and increasing winds. The westerlies were upon us. We were expecting winds so fierce they’d tear the flesh from bones and ships alike.
‘How about a drink?’ Christian asked, as though he hadn’t already had one. He produced a bottle from the cabinet under the wheel. The mug he passed me was still damp in the bottom and when I looked at him his eyes were glassy. He sloshed the gin into the mug, his complacence highlighting his intoxication. He raised the cup in cheers, took a long slug then passed it to me.
All those years ago, my first night at Yellow Patch, he’d tested me in the same way against the other chasers. We came aside the Kos boats, stepping easily over the gunwale onto the other ship. I followed him down into the galley. I heard the chatter of the other crewmen, their language comfortable in the confined space and the safety that it brought them.
In those days, we didn’t hunt at night. We drank and slept with full bellies and calm hearts in the surety of whales. There was no urgency then. We could only kill what we could carry, so we picked them off the way a cattle farmer would. We knew the pod and we knew ourselves. And at night, after we were full of gin and aching muscles, we heard them humming as they passed.
Inside the galley, Christian’s comrades sat around the table, knees tucked up at all angles, cramped.
‘Who’s this?’ they asked and he shrugged as if who I was didn’t matter one bit.
When I took my place at the table, I was handed a mug and into it they poured a good measure of gin. At eighteen, I was the youngest. I also had the most to prove, so when the mug was handed to me, I knocked back the shot in one slug.
Around the table mouths gaped like mullet. I slammed the empty mug back down, swallowing the burn rising in my throat.
‘Christian,’ the other skipper asked. ‘Who is this man?’
Christian rubbed his chin and, after he had thought it over, he said, ‘This is my Aussie, Rick.’
The silence that followed was unanimous.
‘Well,’ the skipper laughed. ‘This Aussie Rick, he’s one tough bastard.’
The laughter that followed was at my expense but it buoyed me. I took in the faces of these men I had known but never really seen.
Christian joined us at the table then and took the mug and the gin bottle from another chaser. Looking at me he poured out a measure and said, ‘On land, you drink these nips in tiny glasses.’ He pushed the full mug back in my direction and I knew if I had to drink again I’d be sick all through the galley. ‘But we’re not in a hurry out here. We take small drinks,’ he said.
And as if signalled, the man beside me slid the mug toward himself, raised it and took a short drink. Then he passed it to his mate, who did the same, returning the mug to the centre of the table. I realised my mistake. The tall drink had not been for me, but to share, and had only been offered to me in the first instance as a gesture, not a test. I looked to Christian and I knew that my mistake had been forgiven.
I said, ‘Small drinks it is, then,’ and they laughed.
‘Lucky you agree, Rick. We do not have enough gin for you to drink like that every night.’
I felt my face get hot but the shame was in jest and one by one the men introduced themselves. They were just like me, more or less. Christian was a different beast.
And so I drank with Christian again, trying to forget my hollow farewell from Camilla, hoping her promise to see me again soon was not an empty one.
ON DUSK AS we were coming past the New South Wales border, Christian grabbed my arm, knocking the mug from my hand.
I followed his eyes to where a glossy curve broke the surface. A brief exhale followed and I felt every cell tingle with possibility. If I hadn’t wiped them out, if they had survived us, it meant Camilla was wrong about me.
Christian’s breathing quickened and he sprang from his chair, running out onto the deck.
He leaned out over the side.
‘Kill the engine!’ he called back to me.
With the motors silenced the wind screamed with a new fury. I joined him on deck, pulling my collar tight.
‘Where’d they go?’ I asked.
‘They took a dive,’ he said. Then he turned to me as though illuminated, and put his calloused hands to my cheeks. ‘It gives us some time.’
He was away then and I watched the decisiveness of his actions as he ran into the bow and up to the gun. He moved as though his earlier drunkenness was all a facade. With quick fingers he untied the ropes that lashed a canvas tarpaulin over the harpoon gun. I’d locked the spears themselves in storage under the fo’c’sle but Christian didn’t know this. I knew he’d work it out. In a few moments he’d have the tarp free and see the gun wasn’t loaded.
The whales surfaced beside us. A mother and calf. Rolling on the surface in formation, showing us their rippled white bellies. Mesmerised, I watched their slick flanks glide on the surface. Then I urged them to go, to dive and never look back.
‘It’s not loaded!’ Christian yelled in frustration.
I turned to see his arms raised, his face white. He kicked the canvas. ‘Follow them!’ he yelled, pointing to the water.
The words to calm him just wouldn’t come.
‘Do something, Rick!’ He pulled the canvas clear, and threw the bundle down toward me. Then he followed, jumping to the deck and pushing past me to the store.
‘We’ll bring her alongside,’ he said as though adrenaline had made him forget we were dead in the water.
He rattled the latch on the locked doors. ‘It’s stuck!’ he called over his shoulder. ‘Come help.’
‘We’re not here to hunt!’ I called after him, finally finding some words.
He turned and looked through me, barrelling past back toward the bridge. As he scaled to the upper deck, he called down to me, ‘Keep sight of them!’
I knew I had to stop him. I followed, making fists, trying to work the gin from my limbs. As I came round to the hatch, he wasn’t at the wheel, he was rummaging through his pack, spilling clothes and books and rations onto the navigation table. And then I saw what he’d been looking for. The curve of the flensing blade came clear of his luggage.
‘We’ll have to come in close,’ he said, his eyes flashing over me.
‘They’re gone,’ I said.
‘They’ll surface again. Keep watch.’
I moved into the doorway blocking his exit.
‘We’ll bring the young one in too,’ he said. ‘Imagine their faces when we bring them in.’
He put his hand on my shoulder.
‘No whales,’ he laughed. ‘No whales!’ He turned his back on me then and powered up the lights. The beam swept the water white and I hoped with every part of my being the whales were long gone. But I knew whales as well as Christian did. I feared for the cow. She would stay near the surface with her young. And then he spied her. Her exhale shooting white against the searchlight.
‘Christian!’ I said, grabbing him by the shirt and shaking him.
He grunted, pushing past with a shove that knocked me into the doorframe. My spine taking the brunt, I curled through the pain and hurled myself at him, catching him around the shoulders.
In the seconds it took me to recover, he left the cabin and was back on deck. The whales resurfacing.
His elation enraged me. And I ran at him, tackling him to the ground. The decking tore at my shins in the fall. Christian used the momentum to roll away from my grip.
‘What’s got into you?’ he said, and I saw something break through. Some ounce of reasoning.
‘We can’t hunt them,’ I said, getting to my feet.
‘We need to.’
The huff of the calf called our attention and Christian returned to the side, leaping onto the gunwale and raising the knife above his head with both hands. He was going to jump. I lurched for him as he was going over, grasping his belt at the last moment. He spun toward me his rage now turned on me. He grabbed my sleeve, yanking it toward him and bringing down the knife hard with the other hand. The seam was already split and with a rasping tear the sleeve came away in Christian’s hand. He stumbled backward, his knees knocking against the hull. With one push, I could have sent him over. Instead I grabbed him by the hair, twisting it into my fist.
‘It’s over,’ I said, feeling the message travel down my arm. ‘We’re done.’
He whimpered, releasing the knife which splashed into the saltwater at our feet. I loosened my fingers and cupped his head, helping him upright.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. And I was. For a million different things, for the way it could have gone. Around us I felt the night reverberate with whale song.
CHRISTIAN GATHERED HIS things from the wheelhouse. I retrieved my scrap of sleeve and the flensing knife from the deck. My book had fallen from my pocket in the scuffle, and I scooped it up, the pages already wrinkling from damp. I brushed the water from the cover against my knee and flipped to my last entry. The sketch I’d made at Flinders Reef. A design of the missing bones from the reef at Stradbroke. I’d made them tiny, and drawn a delicate chain linking them together. I thought I could try to carve something for Camilla. But I didn’t need a necklace made from whalebone if there were still whales.
Before I closed the book, I noticed the ink bleeding through the transparent page. Words I didn’t recognise. I lifted the corner and peeled it away. My eyes focused on her tidy script, my head fighting what the words were telling me.
I put Christian to bed and turned the boat around. Into the headwind we charged over the roaring swell. At full throttle the engine strained but I didn’t ease back. I couldn’t. I was going against the grain, as if everything in the Pacific was pulling me in the opposite direction. The last whales returning south with calves and hearts full of song. The westerly, the current, the outgoing tide. Everything urging me away from her. In her decisive handwriting, the words you lied to me. She’d found out about the whale. I knew she would. But it wasn’t the last one. There were others. She didn’t need to go back to Norway where the summer nights had no stars.
As Looma 3 rounded the Point I made out the shape of the Whale Rock against the headland. I kept wide past Frenchman’s Bay, wider still around Widow’s Rock. This coast had been the undoing of a whole history of ships. And I didn’t want to be another to wreck upon the rocks.
Past Deadman’s the wind picked up. In the thick of it I slowed, rounding the headland into the chopped cove of Cylinder Beach. I could see lights on at the hotel but the beach shacks at Claytons were dark and every bone in my body wished she was just sleeping.
I snapped the Looma into neutral as the hull scraped up onto the sandbar. The tide was low and I couldn’t risk bringing her in past the reef into the lagoon. From here it was a swim and I dispelled all thoughts of things with fins and teeth, jumping feet first over the side.
I wouldn’t let myself believe what I already knew. I pulled through the strokes, head down, counting the breaths that came raging into my chest. Out of the shallows, I stripped off my shirt. The sand slowed me down and I stumbled in the dark, particles clinging to my knees and hands. I was every shipwrecked fool that had come before me. I was a sea-monster. A desperado. And worse.
Down the short path through the reeds, I reached our home. The front door was locked and when I tried under the mat the key was gone. I broke the glass panel, forgetting my bare feet. I reached in, unlatching the door from the inside and swung it clear.
Trapped by my idiocy, glass glinted like sharp teeth across the floor. I called into the hollow of the house. ‘Camilla!’
And when I called again the westerly howling through the emptiness was the only reply.
Edited by Sally Breen