Claire Gray (Victoria University, New Zealand)
Don Evans rolled over in his bunk and flicked the switch for the diesel. He heard a loud click and then a hum as the generator came to life. The full kettle he’d placed on top of the stove the night before would screech to a boil in just under six minutes. He stretched out his legs, stiff and aching after two days of hauling fish onto the boat. Floss was snoring gently in the bunk next to his.
“Time to get up lad,” Don said in a louder voice than was strictly necessary, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. He watched the younger man start and roll away from him with a long groan.
Don pulled himself up the ladder, stepped into one of the pairs of gumboots neatly lined up on deck, and walked over to the side of the boat to pee. Pitiful, he thought as he waited for the flow to start. Worse than pitiful. Once, his pee would have made a proud arc across the surface of the water, but now, it dribbled out, barely clearing the boat. There was a loud thump from inside the cabin and a muffled, “Fuck.” Two nights on board and Floss still hadn’t worked out there was a bunk above his head. Not much of a thinker that one. Not much of doer either when it came to it, unless Don kept his foot firmly up his arse.
Don had given Floss the work on account of his connection to Shirley Fleming. Floss had been with Shirley’s granddaughter Tracy for a couple of years. The two of them had since gone their separate ways, but they had a boy who Don knew to be around nine because he was the same age as Don’s own grandson. Over the years, Don had felt a growing sense of disquiet concerning Tracy Fleming. She’d been living with Shirley until the older woman had died suddenly. After Shirley’s death, Tracy moved in with her sister and the sister’s boyfriend. The boyfriend was scum, pure scum, and the sister not much better, but they were Tracy’s family and Don saw sense in the arrangement. Still, he’d always had the feeling that if Shirley had known she was going to die, she would have come around, perched herself on the edge of the sofa amidst Helen’s handmade floral cushions, and asked Don in that quiet way of hers if he wouldn’t mind taking Tracy in.
He wouldn’t have minded. It wouldn’t have placed any particular burden on him and, at the time, Helen had been making noises about the house being too big for just the two of them. “All those empty rooms make me anxious,” she’d said. The last of their children had just moved out, and Helen had turned one of the bedrooms into a sewing room. Don built her a set of cubbyholes along a wall, and she used them to arrange her fabrics by colour, either in neatly folded piles or—if the fabrics were particularly slippery—in square wicker baskets. But that still left them another bedroom, which Tracy could easily have used.
And the worst of it was that things hadn’t turned out well for the girl. She’d fallen pregnant the year after Shirley had died and ended up leaving school. He’d bumped into her outside the video store one day and admired her wee lad lying in his pram, a foot in his mouth. Don had shuffled his own feet awkwardly and said, “If you ever need anything, you just ask.” He’d felt the heat rise in his face, but he’d continued: “I mean money or anything like that.”
“Thanks,” Tracy had said. But her tone was wary and that made him turn an even deeper shade of red. And of course, she’d never asked him for anything. So, when Floss ambled onto the wharf enquiring about work over the tuna season, Don looked at the skinny lad in front of him with his greasy brown hair and faded jeans hanging low around his hips, and realised that this was his chance to make it up to Shirley. “Yeah,” he’d said. “I’m short a deckhand.” Surely, he thought to himself, if he employed Floss, the money would end up trickling down to Tracy and the boy.
Trickle. That was the best he could manage nowadays. A slow trickle. The boat rocked gently on the anchor as he shook the last few drops into the vast grey-green ocean. The sky was starting to brighten. Forty minutes or so until sunrise. Some of the other fishermen he knew would work through the night, but Don was too old for that. You needed to troll for Albacore tuna—throw the lines out the back and keep the boat at a slow, even speed—and he didn’t trust his eyes to do that in the dark. He walked towards the wheelhouse, taking a pair of overalls off a hook outside the entrance to the cabin. Inside, the smell of the corned beef that he’d boiled up for dinner the night before hung in the air. The kettle was boiling, sending condensation streaming down the wall behind the small stove.
“Get that will you lad?” Don said. He nodded at the stove as he leaned against the door frame and pulled on the overalls.
“What?” Floss was slumped forward on the wooden bench that stretched out from the wall behind the driver’s seat, head in his hands.
“The kettle. It’s boiling its head off.”
Floss raised his eyes to look at the stove, staggered to his feet, and switched the knob to the off position. “I’m fucking tired this morning,” he said with a long yawn.
“Yeah?” Don stepped into his gumboots again and crossed to the small fridge to take out a carton of eggs and the packet of bacon they’d opened the day before. He lifted a frypan out of the cupboard beneath the stove and put it on top of the element.
“Yeah, it was a big day yesterday.”
“You’re not wrong,” Don agreed.
Their first day out had been slow, but yesterday the fish were jumping onto the hooks as fast as they cast the lines out. They could have done with an extra pair of hands. Don usually took two deckhands out, but the other lad he’d taken on had broken his arm the day before they were due to leave. He and Floss had been run off their feet: Don driving as well as helping at the back of the boat. That was the way it was out here—long stretches of tedium followed by surges of sudden activity. Don enjoyed being busy, but he also savoured those moments of quiet stillness.
“Will you look at my fucking hands,” Floss said, holding them out. “The skin’s fucking ripping off.”
Don sighed and took two coffee cups from the hooks to the left of the stove. “There’s gloves out there if you need them,” he said.
Don fried the bacon, then pushed it to one side while he cracked eggs into the pan. The wind had come up, sending smoke eddying around the cabin. Glancing over at the clock, he saw it was time for the marine forecast. He switched the radio to channel sixteen and listened to a moment or two of dead air before a man’s voice started cycling through the regions. Finally, he got to the one Don was waiting for.
Variable ten knots northerly. Southwest twenty-five knots developing in the evening. Sea becoming rough in the north. Long period southerly swell three metres. Poor visibility in rain from afternoon.
“Bugger,” he said, putting Floss’s breakfast down in front of him and handing him the packet of toast slice white bread. They were only three days into a five-day trip.
“What?” Floss asked as he picked up a piece of bacon.
“Did you not hear the forecast?”
“I’m not bloody awake yet,” he said.
“The weather’s packing in,” Don said. “We’ll have to head back tonight.”
Floss pulled a piece of bacon slowly through his mouth, stripping the fat from the stringy outer rind. “Ah well,” he said eventually, his mouth shiny with grease. “It’ll be good to get home to the missus.”
Don eased himself onto a seat at the narrow wooden table and helped himself to a piece of bread from the packet. “You seeing someone then?”
“Yeah,” Floss said. He swallowed a mouthful of coffee. “A girl from away. Real looker. Blonde hair, big tits.” He put his coffee cup down and held his hands out in front of his chest, indicating the substantial size of his girlfriend’s breasts.
Don flinched. “You’ve some luck with the ladies then,” he said. “Tracy’s a nice-looking girl too.” Tracy looked like her grandmother Shirley did when she was that age, although not quite as tall.
Floss raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, she’s alright.”
“You see much of your boy?” Don asked. “What’s his name? Matthew?”
“Matt, yeah,” Floss replied. “Now and then.”
Shirley Fleming. She was Shirley Duncan when they first met. Her older sister had moved to the Coast after marrying a local. They lived in a small, cream weatherboard house next door to Don’s family down near the racetrack. Shirley had come to stay when her sister was pregnant and never left. Don first saw her out pushing a large pram with a thick blue canvas cover pulled up to shelter the new baby. She’d been wearing a grey print dress decorated with colourful geometric lines that reminded him of a game of pick-up sticks. Her long, brown hair was clipped back off her face and he thought she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
One Saturday afternoon when he was out mowing his parents’ back lawn, he’d heard a woman’s voice call out, “Hi.” It had been Shirley, midway through unpegging nappies from her sister’s washing line. He’d crossed to the fence and introduced himself, stretching out his hand, which she shook with a small laugh. After that, he’d sometimes bump into her when she was walking home from work at the Post Office, and he’d listen as she chatted away about her day: the Queen’s Coronation stamps that had just come in or the telegrams she was learning to send. She was going out with Jerry Fleming by that time, and Don often saw the two of them coming home from the pictures or dances down at the Community Hall.
“Tell me about you,” she said one warm evening as they walked home.
“Not much to tell,” Don replied.
“I don’t believe you,” she said. “Tell me about your fishing.”
Don was never one for words, so instead, he drove her down to the beach, where he showed her how to dig for tuatua in the shallows. Together, they strained to spot the green beards poking up through the black sand, and afterwards, they gathered mussels from the rocks. Don lit a fire and placed a piece of corrugated tin across it, and they ate the mussels there and then, grit and all.
When breakfast was done, Floss went to prepare the lines while Don washed and dried the dishes. It was getting lighter, but the sky remained grey. He rinsed out a cloth, wiped the table, replaced the honeycombed non-slip rubber mat, and then started up the engine. The boat had begun to pitch slightly from side to side. He stuck his head out the wheelhouse door. The wind had picked up, but it was still blowing from the east, and he couldn’t see anything too ominous—no clouds amassing on the horizon. He walked to the back of the boat to check on Floss’s progress. Only one of the lines was set and Floss was nowhere to be seen.
“Where are you lad?” he called as he began attaching the bright glittery lures to the remaining lines. The only response was the whirring of the toilet pump.
“Did you say something?” Floss asked, stepping outside the head and adjusting his overalls.
“Let’s get cracking, aye?” Don said.
“Can’t even have a crap in peace,” Floss muttered.
Don sighed and began feeding lines of varying length out behind the boat. He saw Floss pick up a line and flinch as the nylon monofilament ran across his hands. Walking back towards the cabin, Don took a pair of gloves from the ledge next to the wet weather gear and tossed them to the stern. “Get these on,” he said, and stepped back into the wheelhouse.
He drove slowly over the choppy water, keeping an eye out for petrels and titi feeding on bait fish. But all he could see was the occasional gull chancing its luck. It had started to drizzle, and when he left the wheelhouse to check on Floss’s progress, the younger man was staring miserably at the web of lines. “Maybe they’re not keen on the weather,” he said when he saw Don. “Too rough for them.”
“Albies often bite like crazy when there’s a bit of chop on the water,” Don replied. “The best days are when it’s overcast and lumpy.” As if to prove his point, one of the lines started twitching. “There, he’s bit,” Don said.
Floss reached for the line and jerked it out of the water.
“Consistent, steady pull,” Don said. “You don’t want those hooks to tear out.”
Floss hauled the fish up. It was a decent size—Don guessed around six kilos—with a dark blue back, fading to silver around the stomach, and a massive pectoral fin on the side of the body.
“Grab yourself a raincoat,” Don said, dispensing the fish with a screwdriver. The wind had started to swing around to the south now, and he had to reach out a hand to steady himself.
Shirley and Jerry broke up at the start of whitebait season. It was her who did the breaking up, or so she told Don. She’d taken to coming down to meet him while he was sitting on the edge of the riverbank with his long-handled scoop net, waiting for the fish to run.
“Definitely?” Don asked.
“Oh yes, definitely,” Shirley said. “Absolutely.”
“That is a surprise.”
“Is it really, Don?” Shirley had asked, looking at him quizzically.
“Yes,” he said. “It is.” A shoal swam across the white spotters he’d laid on the riverbed and he busied himself with the net, feeling the pressure of her gaze until she sighed and looked away. Later, he’d looked over at her slapping at the sandflies hovering around her legs and smiled as he emptied his whitebait out of the net into a wooden crate that he covered in mesh and placed back in the river.
The rain was really coming in now, and Don turned the boat wipers to full. He glanced up at the clock and switched the radio to channel sixteen again. The afternoon forecast was worse: the wind would get stronger, the swell bigger. It had come in quicker than predicted. He radioed the harbour master. Jacko was still letting boats across the bar, but wouldn’t for much longer. The entrance to the river was treacherous in rough weather. Waves stood up short and steep, pushing boats from behind and making them behave in unpredictable ways. “The weather’s hanging around,” Jacko said. “You’ll want to get back soon if you’re planning on sleeping on land this week.”
Don hurried out on deck. Floss was soaked to the skin, arms folded, hands gripping his armpits.
“Many bites?” He had to shout to be heard above the wind now.
“Nah,” Floss shouted back. “Be lucky to have caught twenty all day.”
Twenty. Wouldn’t even pay for a day’s fuel. Don held onto the side to steady himself. “The weather’s packing in, so let’s head back.” For once, Floss didn’t need to be told twice. The two of them worked quickly, pulling in the lines, removing the lures and hooks, and stowing everything away tidily. In this wind, everything that could be tied down had to be. They wound on the loose chains and moved the fish into smaller containers packed with ice so they wouldn’t shift with the boat. Don watched Floss turn over an empty Dolav and lash it down, and then glanced around at the deck, satisfied with their work. “Just move that bin out of the way of the freeing port,” he said as he walked towards the wheelhouse. “And make sure you remove all of the scupper pins so any water that comes on deck will flow straight back out.”
The sea was getting rougher by the minute. Waves broke over the deck and sprayed the windscreen. Visibility wasn’t good, but Don had been on this stretch of water often enough to know where he was. The wheelhouse door opened and Floss stepped in, slamming it shut behind him. “Fuck it’s rough out there,” he said. Don noticed he’d finally put on a raincoat, though he hadn’t bothered to do it up.
“You’re not wrong,” Don said. “It’s come in quickly.” He nodded at the table, where he’d turned the leftover corned beef into sandwiches. “Get some lunch into you.”
“We’ll be right getting over the bar?” Floss asked, a hint of uncertainty in his voice.
“Either we will or we won’t, lad,” Don replied. “But I’ll try not to make you swim home.”
“Good,” Floss said as he picked up a sandwich. “I can’t fucking swim.”
Floss wasn’t the only fisherman Don had met who couldn’t swim, but the recklessness of it still made him cringe. He changed the subject. “Not the best trip. But with yesterday’s catch, you’ll do all right.”
“Yeah?” Floss asked, chewing. “What’s alright?”
“Maybe a grand or so.”
“That’s great,” Floss said. “That’s fucking great.” He was silent for a moment or two. “Might take the missus out for a night on the town when we get back.”
“Yeah. A meal down at the new Chinese and then a few drinks,” he said, staring off into space as if picturing the two of them there already. Don could see it too. Floss in his faded t-shirt and old jeans, his new girlfriend wearing something lowcut and tight—the two of them urgently ripping the meat off ribs coated in black bean sauce, crunching their way through dim sims.
“Reckon any of that money will make its way to your boy?” Don asked, teeth slightly clenched.
“Matthew. Must be hard for Tracy bringing up a kid on the benefit.”
Floss laughed. “Nah, those solo mums get fucking loads … heaps more than the dole.” He laughed again. “Tracy does all right for herself. And anyway …,” he said, eyes narrowed at Don, “… what’s it got to do with you?”
Don flushed and looked away. “You sure nothing is in front of those freeing ports?”
“Yeah, it’s all good,” Floss replied.
It was near the end of whitebait season when Shirley told Don that she and Jerry were getting back together. She came down to the river and stood there awkwardly, her white blouse neatly tucked into a black skirt that formed the shape of an ‘A’.
“We’re getting married,” she said, and then blinked and put her head down.
“What?” Don looked up at her from his seat on the bank, thinking that maybe he’d misheard.
“I wanted you to get it firsthand,” she said. “Because you’ve been a good friend to me.”
“Married?” he said.
He noticed then that she was flushed, her eyes glistening with tears. She met his gaze and held it for a long moment. “I’m pregnant,” she finally said.
Along the river, someone laughed. Shirley turned towards the sound and then looked back at him. She pushed the heel of her hand into her eye. “Let them laugh,” she said. “I don’t care.”
“Shirley,” Don said.
He reached down and picked up his thermos, twisting the cup off the top to give himself time to think. He wanted to pull her to him, kiss her. Pick me, he wanted to say.
“What?” she repeated. “What?”
“I don’t think they’re laughing at you,” he said eventually.
Six months later, Don started going out with Helen O’Regan who worked at the haberdashery store, and within a year, they were married too. By the time Jerry died suddenly—a heart attack in the Star and Garter, a full glass of beer sitting on the table in front of him—Don and Helen had two children of their own. So, even though the news was unsettling, Don never entertained the thought that it would impact his own life in any way. He loved Helen and would never leave her. But when Shirley died, the news hit Don hard. He went out fishing for a week, and then came back in, restocked the boat with food and ice, and went straight back out again. Out at sea by himself, he thought about Shirley’s hair and her voice and the deep frown of concentration she wore as she prised open shellfish, and he admitted to himself something he had never dared acknowledge before: he’d always imagined Helen would go first.
Don radioed Jacko as soon as the rock walls of the tipheads came into sight.
“We’re bringing you in one by one,” Jacko said. “You got your boat lashed down and watertight?”
“Yeah,” Don said.
“Course you have,” the harbour master replied. “I’ll let you know when to approach.”
They watched two other boats proceed slowly between the rock walls that marked the passage into the harbour before Jacko radioed Don to start his run.
“You’re on lookout,” Don said.
“What?” Floss said.
“Oh yeah, right,” Floss said. “Swell building from behind, yeah?”
“Or the side. Stand outside the door, so you can see better.”
Floss mumbled something about the rain, but crossed to the door anyway. Don moved the boat gently forward. Rain hit the front windscreen and wind leaked through the cracks around the window frames. Don had made this trip many times, and the movement of the water underneath him was familiar as they neared the bar. He felt the first set of waves come up from behind, initially slowing the boat and then lifting it and pitching it forward. He braced himself for that moment when the rudder was no longer in the water and he lost steerage. The sea was rough, but he’d been out in worse. He was looking forward to getting home and into his own bed, Helen next to him making her small sounds of sleep. He scratched his cheek and smiled at the thought of her, and then suddenly, he heard Floss yell, “Jesus fucking Christ.”
Don flicked his head around just as the boat keeled sharply to the side, throwing him to his knees. The boat must have taken a cross wave, he realised, and he waited for it to right. Seconds passed, but nothing happened. The pitch remained the same. He ran through possible reasons in his head. The fish could have moved in the bins, but he’d packed the ice around the catch himself. The likely answer was that they’d taken on water. Another big wave and they’d be completely over.
“Floss,” he shouted as he tried to stand up. The boat was on such a lean that he was forced to place one foot on the seat, the other on the floor. “Where are you lad?”
Floss pulled the door of the wheelhouse open despite the angle. “What’s happening?” There was panic in the younger man’s voice.
“We’re broaching, lad.” Don had to speak up to be heard over the wind, but he kept his own voice calm. “Check those freeing ports again and see that none of the hatches are open. If you see water in something, empty it out.”
He could feel the sea heaving and roiling underneath them. The rudder was useless. There was nothing he could do except wait until the boat was up again and able to be piloted. He pictured Floss out on deck, willing him to move quickly. Don needed to be out there himself—it was his boat at risk of going under—but he couldn’t leave the wheel unattended. He saw the kettle lying on the floor, water fanning out across the black polypropylene carpet. Everything else in the wheelhouse had held securely in place, and he felt an absurd swell of pride. The boat continued to surge forward on its side. Water was starting to come in the back door now. Another wave must have broken on deck. How long had it been? Twenty seconds? Thirty? He turned to look behind him and saw a wall of grey water beyond the wheelhouse door. He braced himself for the wave to break. And then, just as suddenly as it had tipped, the boat righted itself. He sighed in utter relief and turned the wheel sharply to line the boat up. The wave caught them from behind and they surged further forward into the river.
Floss wrenched open the wheelhouse door.
“What happened?” Don asked.
Floss was clutching his side with his left hand. “Two of the freeing ports were blocked,” he said.
“I thought you said you’d checked them.”
“Yeah, well, I must have missed those. And fuck it, I think I’ve cracked a rib.”
Don stared at the younger man struggling to keep his balance on the pitching surface of the deck. The rain had plastered his long hair to his head and his raincoat flapped open in the wind. Don thought of Tracy again, and the look on her face when he’d offered her money: guarded and with the barest suggestion of disgust, as though he might have been making some sort of dirty joke. Or worse, not making a joke. “You’ll live,” he said.
Mikey Davis saw the Seafinch coming into the lagoon, stubbed out his cigarette, and walked quickly from his office down to the wharf to help Don tie up. It had been a quiet day: no boats going out and the ones that were unloading weren’t as full as they should have been because they’d come in early. It was raining steadily, and he zipped up his raincoat as he walked. This weather was doing his head in. He’d been thinking about a move to the Gold Coast. Sunshine, long sandy beaches, and the sky so blue it looked like a fucking painting. The Seafinch pulled in next to the crane, and it was Floss Peterson who threw him the rope to tie up, then jumped onto the wharf, complaining all the while about his ribs. Mikey hadn’t realised that Floss was working on the Seafinch, though he’d heard that one of Don’s deckhands had moved onto a bigger boat. He couldn’t blame him. Don Evans wasn’t much of a conversationalist, and a week at sea was a long time. Once the ropes were secure, Mikey lowered the bins and climbed down onto the boat to give the old man a hand. Don must have been nearly eighty.
“Get down here, you lazy fucker,” Mikey called up to Floss.
“I think I’ve cracked a fucking rib,” Floss replied, leaning against a bollard. “I need to see a doctor.”
Mikey tried to meet Don’s eyes as they filled the bins, but the old man kept his gaze on the fish. When they’d finished, Mikey climbed back onto the wharf, hoisted the fish up, weighed them, and then tipped the catch into the metal scow. He looked curiously at Don when he handed him the dockets with the final weights. “You’re not keeping him on, are you?” he asked.
“He’ll come right,” Don replied. “One more trip and he’ll come right.” A man of few words, Don Evans. And clearly half senile if he thought Floss would ever come right. The Seafinch was going to be Mikey’s last boat for the day. The harbourmaster wasn’t letting anything else over the bar now. Fucking rain—he was sick of it.
Claire Gray writes short fiction about relationships, society, and small towns. She is currently completing a Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Victoria University in New Zealand.