With an easterly drizzle coming in, which only served to dampen both our clothes and our spirits, I waved goodbye to Scott from the deck of the ‘Wanderer’ this morning, just like I did on most mornings after he had dropped me off at the wharves in the wee dark hours.
It is now July and winter has finally arrived on the north coast, making up for its late start this year by keeping the skies constantly dark, our clothes constantly wet and the seas constantly choppy. It is on days like this that I wonder how on earth I ended up in a job like this, especially considering how things were in my past life, which ended about a year ago.
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not complaining, it’s just that you wouldn’t even think I was the same person if you’d met me back then and then met me again today. A lot has changed since then, and every blast of that damp easterly wind and every wave that crashes over the bow of this old tub that I work on reminds me of that and makes me feel grateful that I am even alive.
Things could have certainly been a lot worse, but instead of that I have a job that I am enjoying and I have friends that care. So what more could a guy ask for?
As I gave him a final wave, Scott pointed his old Ford pick-up back toward town and gave me a blast of the horn, then I watched as the tail lights disappeared into the darkness of the early morning. Moments later they were replaced by a set of headlights coming my way and travelling fast. That would be Matt and Ben, running late as usual, and about to earn yet another good humoured tongue lashing from Cye, no doubt.
Their headlights swung across the car park, shining on the wet roadway, then the car came to a stop and the lights went out. Two familiar figures got out of the car and started running toward the wharf, with their rain coats wrapped tightly around them, and were soon thumping their way up the gang-plank and onto the deck.
‘About time you guys showed up! We were getting worried that you might have preferred to stay in bed today,’ I yelled at them above the combined sounds of the engine and the rain, which was now lashing against the wheel house with some force.
‘It would have been nice!’ Matt yelled back as he shook himself off. ‘But duty calls.’
‘Yeah, well… ya get that!’ I laughed back at him.
‘Is the old fella below decks?’ Ben asked, to which I nodded in reply.
‘We’d better go report for duty then,’ Matt added, before dragging Ben out of the cabin and along the deck. They disappeared through an open hatch that led down a short set of steps and into the bowels of the ship, where there were cargo holds and a small galley with some bunks against one wall, and the head, of course. Behind the cargo holds there was also the engine room, where the twin Perkins diesel engines were now idling, a little too roughly and a little too noisily today for my liking.
When I followed them down the steps a few minutes later I found them in the galley being lectured once more by Cye, the owner of the old tub we all worked on. I stood at the doorway and watched as he walked back and forth across the small galley area, with a steaming hot mug of coffee in one hand, mumbling stuff like; ‘It costs money to run this here operation,’ or ‘Do you think the fish are just out there waitin’ for you two to get out of bed?’
He gave me a wink as he did one of his little pirouettes at the end of his march in one direction when he spotted me there. I remembered copping the same blasts when I first started with him and now it was all I could do not to laugh as I leant against the doorway listening to him delivering the same lecture. I managed to keep myself under control however, as I knew how much he enjoyed ragging on the new chums whenever they were late, or stuffed up, even though it was all only said in jest.
One day I would have to tell Matt and Ben that he was really only joking about most of the stuff he said, but that day wouldn’t be today. To tell you the truth, I kind of liked the fact that Cye kept putting crap on these guys, and Ben in particular, because even though I liked them both, it was good that they didn’t get too big for their britches. Cye could keep them in line; he had just the right knack of being able to keep them both under control, just like he used to keep me in line when I first started with him, and despite their constant complaints, both of them were definitely better people for it.
‘All right then! Let’s get this show on the road,’ Cye finally bellowed, then downed the last of his coffee.
‘Aye, aye skipper,’ Ben replied, before rushing out past me and clambering up onto the decks, with Matt in hot pursuit.
‘Well? How did I do today, lad?’ Cye asked me once the two of them were out of earshot.
‘I think you’re getting better, Cye. I thought Matt was going to pee his pants there for a second,’ I laughed. ‘I especially liked the bit about the fish waiting for them to get out of bed!’
‘Yeah, it wasn’t too bad. I just thought that bit up this morning,’ he replied, giving me a wink as he did so, as he brushed past me and headed for the decks.
‘Where are we off to this morning then?’ I asked him, following close on his heels.
‘Thought we’d give it a try out off Kings Island,’ he answered, stopping for a few moments at the bottom of the stairs. ‘I got some reports that there’s been some good catches out around there. I just hope the weather holds of for a bit.’
‘This morning’s report said there were storms building for this afternoon.’
‘Yeah. I heard that. Hopefully we’ll be home by then though.’
‘Well lad, you know what it can be like out there,’ he answered. ‘But we won’t be back in time if we don’t shove off soon, so how about we get these two landlubbers workin’ eh?’
With a friendly slap on my shoulder he started up the stairs, with me following close behind, and when we reached the deck we found Ben and Matt at their stations, fore and aft, and ready to cast off.
‘Looks like they’re finally learnin’ sumpin’ eh?’ Cye said to me, with a mischievous grin after we had spotted them there.
‘They’re okay, Cye, and you know it!’ I chided him.
Without replying to me he called out to Matt and Ben, over the noise of the engine, saying, ‘Let her go, boys.’
Quickly they untied the boat and hauled in the ropes, while Cye and I made for the wheel house. With one almighty spin of the steering wheel from Cye, I felt the boat lurch beneath me, rolling away on a slight swell as she suddenly found herself free of the ties that had bound her to the wharf and was able to point her nose away from her berth and toward open water.
As Cye reached forward and opened the throttle we could feel the surge of power rush through the hull as the engines came to life and started carrying us away from our mooring. Ahead of us, through the rain streaked windows, we could see the row of lights that marked the two breakwalls which formed the entrance to our harbour and sheltered it from the open sea, and between which we had to pass. We could also see the weak glow of dawn that was lightening the early morning sky, while along the northern side of the little harbour that was home to the small fishing fleet that we were a part of, we could also see street lights and the occasional car as it crossed over the weir, which separated the harbour from the Thompson Lake.
Moments later we were joined by Ben and Matt in the wheel house, both of whom were dripping wet and complaining about the cold.
Cye just laughed at them and opened up the throttle a little more, while swinging the boat around to head between the breakwalls. As we did so, another boat swung in behind us and followed us out into the deeper water.
‘Here you go, Matt,’ Cye bellowed, when we were finally clear of the breakwalls. ‘Why don’t you take the wheel and get the feel of the old tub?’
‘Don’t make him have to ask you twice,’ I quietly said to him, while giving him a bit of a push forward.
Cye nodded to him and stepped aside, although he continued to hold the wheel with one hand until Matt stepped up to it.
‘Go on lad. It won’t bite ya, yer know!’
Somewhat tentatively Matt reached out and grabbed hold of the wheel with both hands as Cye took a step backwards.
I could remember quite well just how I had felt the very first time that I had taken the helm, with the adrenaline rushing through me as I pointed the ‘Wanderer’ out to sea, while waves broke over her bow and with the wheel feeling alive in my hands. Now, as I watched Matt’s face in the faint light emanating from the dash, I could see those same feelings coming over him as his expression quickly changed from one of nervousness to one of total excitement.
‘You’re doin’ fine, kiddo,’ Cye remarked, offering Matt a little reassurance. ‘Just keep ‘er steady… that’s a boy.’
Those few soothing words seemed to calm the nerves that had come with his excitement and Matt quickly settled down and concentrated on his new job. When finally satisfied that Matt was doing all right Cye turned to Ben and me and suggested we head below decks for some coffee, seeing as we were still a fair way off the fishing grounds we were heading for and had some time to kill.
‘Are you going to keep an eye on the driver?’ I asked. ‘We wouldn’t want to run aground on the reef or anything.’
‘Yeah, I’ll keep an eye on him,’ was the crusty reply. ‘You guys go get some coffee, then we can all trade places in a while and you can give Ben a driving lesson.’
‘Sounds good to me,’ Ben blurted out excitedly.
‘All right then. We’ll be back up soon.’
With Ben leading the way we left the wheel house and headed back along the decks toward the doorway that would lead us down into the hull, while Cye was pointing out to Matt the various dials and lights and switches on the dash in front of the wheel. I was following Ben and watching his every step in the gloomy conditions. Every few paces he seemed to glance back over his shoulder, presumably to see if I was still there, but I couldn’t be too sure about that, because over the past few months I had often found him staring at me in a way that was rather disconcerting.
I don’t know what it was that made me feel that way. It was as if he was checking me out or something and I wasn’t sure if I should be flattered or scared by that. There was just something about this guy, that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, that was a little different.
When we reached the doorway Ben ducked inside and then clambered down the stairs, with me in hot pursuit. The thought of a hot coffee at this hour of the morning was rather enticing, even allowing for the setting, so while Ben grabbed a couple of mugs from one of the cupboards and spooned in the instant coffee and the sugar, I lit the small gas heater that would supply us with hot water.
While we waited for the water to boil we sat down opposite each other at the small galley table, listening to the sound of the ocean rushing past the hull just a few feet from where we now were, accompanied by the constant hum of the engines. Every so often the rhythmic tones would be interrupted with a cough and a splutter that was enough to make a person nervous, but the old tub was often like this early of a morning and would usually right itself after a little while.
‘She doesn’t sound too healthy today,’ Ben remarked, breaking what had become a lengthy and somewhat uncomfortable silence between us.
‘Yeah, she gets like this every now and then,’ I replied.
Ben just smiled across the table at me, his eyes seemingly probing into me and easily holding my gaze.
‘How long have you guys been living here now?’ I finally asked him, trying to take my mind off the unwelcome thoughts that were starting to go round in my head.
‘About six months… give or take a week or two. How about you?’
‘Coming up on a year, I reckon. Man, I can’t believe it has gone by so quickly!’
‘Is that when you moved in with Scott?’
‘Yeah. I guess I was lucky he was around,’ I answered, guessing that he probably already knew the circumstances that led to my calling Thompsonville home.
‘Yeah, I reckon you were,’ he replied.
‘So, do you really like it here, or is it just because of Samantha that you are staying?’ I asked him.
‘Errr… how does all of the above sound? I’m crazy about Samantha, but at the same time there are other things about this place that make me want to stay here. I quite like it.’
‘That’d be right,’ I laughed.
Just then the gas water heater started to gurgle and hiss, indicating that the water was finally hot. I got up and walked over to the bench and switched it off, then poured the steaming water into our two mugs, before returning to the table.
‘Thanks,’ Ben said as I placed his mug in front of him. He was reaching for the mug even before I had let go of the handle and for the briefest moments our hands touched, sending a shiver right through me.
‘Any time,’ I replied, then sat back down at the table, studying him once more, with my head muddled by a mass of confusing thoughts.
As he sat there sipping his coffee and smiling back at me I came to the conclusion that he was actually quite good looking, in a rugged, footballer kind of way, though still not what you would call particularly handsome. He also had a certain charm about him that was quite different, and I guessed that that was something he seemed to be able to switch on and off at will.
I could certainly see what Samantha saw in him, and to be honest, if he hadn’t been straight and I didn’t have Scott, well, I…
And that was when it hit me! Like a four by two straight across the back of my head! It was like this light-bulb going off inside my brain, you know, like how they do it in the cartoons!
I suddenly realised that maybe he wasn’t totally straight!
Maybe that was why I always caught him staring at me? Maybe that was why I often found myself staring at him? Hell, maybe my gaydar has been working all along?
The question now was, what was I going to do about it? If anything at all?
‘Have I ever told you about the time I walked in on Tim and Guy?’ he asked, breaking the silence just as casually as could be, after taking another sip from his coffee. It was almost as if he were reading my mind.
‘Ummm… no, I don’t think so. When was that?’
‘Oh, it’s coming up on a couple of years ago now, I think. Right after they met for the first time and started seeing each other.’
‘You were friends with Tim first back then weren’t you? I remember Tim saying something about Guy arriving on the scene later.’
‘Yeah, the two of us go back a ways. Guy only moved to our home town in the middle of the year before last… when we were in year eleven at school.’
‘So, what were they doing when you walked in on them?’
‘Just kissing and feeling each other up.’
‘Wow! And how did you feel when you saw them like that?’ I asked, deciding to do a doing a little probing of my own to see where this was actually leading.
‘Just between you and me… it was actually a bit of a turn on,’ he replied with a grin.
‘Why am I not surprised?’ I laughed.
‘Can I ask you something personal? You know, just between you and me?’
‘What’s it like exactly?’
‘What is what like?’ I asked. I knew full well what he meant, but I was just trying to give myself a little time to think.
‘You know… doing it with a guy? Even being fucked by a guy?’
‘What’s this then? You aren’t turning queer on us all of a sudden, are you?’ I asked him, while feeling my own pulse start to race, a little uncertain about where all this was leading.
‘No, it’s not like that. I guess I’m just… errr… what’s the word?’
‘Yeah, something like that, I suppose.’
‘Have you ever asked any of the others that question?’
‘Not in so many words, no.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Well, I’ve had a bit of a chat with Tim and stuff, because for a while I was a bit worried, you know, thinking that I might actually be… ummm… gay, but he just told me that he thought I might be bi or something. The question is, how do I find out just what I am exactly if I haven’t tried both sides?’
‘Yeah well, that is a good question, isn’t it?’
As we both sipped on our mugs and stared at each other across the table, the silence stretched into minutes. I still couldn’t be sure why Ben was telling me all this, and to be honest, I was feeling a little uncomfortable with how personal things were getting. The strange thing was though, at the same time I was becoming a little excited by this conversation, despite what was going on in my own head.
I kept trying to put the wicked thoughts I was having out of my mind by thinking of Scott, but as quickly as an image of him appeared in my mind it just as quickly disappeared, only to be replaced by an equally tantalizing image of Ben. And that was driving me insane.
‘You still haven’t told me yet!’ Ben said when he finally put his mug down.
‘Haven’t told you what?’ I replied, being jolted from my guilty fuelled fantasy.
‘What’s it like?’
‘You really want to know?’
‘Yeah, I do.’
‘Well,’ I responded. ‘Try thinking of the most painful, torturous thing that you’ve ever endured.’
‘Then think of the most exquisite feelings of pleasure that you have ever experienced… and then just combine them both together. After the first shock of it, you’ll find it’s one of the most amazing experiences you’ll ever have.’
I could see by his expression that he was a little confused, but then his face seemed to change, as if it slowly dawned on him what it was that I was trying to say. I wasn’t sure what I should say or do next. Or even if I should say or do anything, so I got to my feet and picked up both of our empty mugs then carried them across to the small bench where I could rinse them out in the sink.
When I turned around again a few minutes later, I found Ben standing right behind me, staring at me in the same way that I had caught him a hundred times before over the past few months. I knew exactly what was on his mind. I have to admit that it was on my mind too, but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it. I couldn’t do that to Scott, no matter how tempting it may be. I just couldn’t.
Leaning with my backside against the bench I crossed my arms in front of me and grinned at him, shaking my head slightly. He grinned back, like a schoolboy who was about to get his first kiss, then he took a step forward.
‘Ben, it can’t happen,’ I said to him, my mouth and throat suddenly going dry and causing my voice to sound quite hoarse.
‘Why not?’ he whispered. ‘You know what I want… what I need to do. I thought all gay guys dreamed of getting themselves a virgin ass?’
‘Look, it’s… it’s not that I’m not attracted to you or anything. I am. But it just wouldn’t be right, that’s all. It wouldn’t be fair to Samantha, or to Scott, would it now?’
He was standing right in front of me now. I knew I needed to move, to get away from him, but I just couldn’t. My legs were feeling like they were glued to the floor that was rolling beneath me.
‘Jay, I need this. I need to know,’ he said, reaching out with one hand and placing it on my chest.
‘But you don’t need it from me, Ben. Like I said, it just wouldn’t be right. And besides, it would just complicate things too much around here, you know, with all of us being such good friends!’
I seemed to be saying the right things, but in my head I was thinking otherwise.
It was just then that I felt the bow of the boat rise up as we rode over the crest of a wave. It wasn’t a particularly big wave, but I knew what was coming next. We had to come back down again. I braced myself against the bench and was ready for it, but Ben wasn’t and when we hit the lowest point of the swell he was thrown off balance and fell into me.
I grabbed him and stopped him from falling and for what seemed an eternity we stood there clinging to each other and staring into each other’s eyes.
‘No one would ever know,’ he whispered.
I could only shake my head at him.
‘Jay, I’m not asking for it to happen right here and right now. But I am asking for it to be with you,’ he said, then before I could even think he cupped my face in one hand and kissed me on the lips.
My first reaction was to try and push him away, but for some reason it was a pretty weak fight that I put up and he easily held me there, even managing to push me back against the bench, despite my feeble protests. I knew I shouldn’t, but I soon found myself returning his kiss, and with interest, our mouths working feverishly against each other, while our hands were starting to explore each other’s bodies.
‘Jesus, I thought all I sent you boys down here for was coffee?’ a familiar voice suddenly bellowed a few moments later.
‘Holy fuck!’ Ben suddenly exclaimed and broke away from me.
All we could both do was stand there staring at Cye, like two kids caught in the act of doing something their parents wouldn’t approve of. I couldn’t tell if he was angry or not, but he didn’t look all that happy.
‘I just thought I’d see if you boys were all right after we hit that wave,’ he said to us as he walked past us and lit the gas water heater. ‘But there obviously wasn’t any need for me to drag my old bones down here for that though, was there? You boys seemed to be doing fine all by yourselves.’
‘Cye…’ I began, but he just held up his hand and stopped me.
Suddenly it all seemed too much for Ben and he bolted for the doorway, his heavy footsteps echoing throughout the small galley and along the short corridor to the stairs as he made his exit.
I stood there for a moment, not quite knowing what to say, then decided I should probably get out of there too.
‘Do you think that that’s a good idea, lad?’ Cye asked once Ben was out of earshot, grabbing me by the arm as I went to squeeze past him.
‘It’s… it’s not what you’re thinking Cye. Honest.’
‘They tell me that that’s what they all say, lad. I just hope you’re thinkin’ with the right head here, that’s all, ‘cause I’d hate to see anyone getting’ themselves hurt around here.’
‘Me too, Cye. Me too,’ I replied.
With a grunt and a nod he let go of my arm, having succeeded in getting his message across. I turned away and followed Ben, but I could still feel Cye’s eyes burning into me as I started to climb the stairs.
For just a second I glanced back along the corridor and saw that I was right. We held each other’s gaze for a second, then he turned away. Quickly I climbed up the stairs and headed for the wheelhouse.
Cye was right of course. I couldn’t let anything happen between Ben and me. The friendships that we had all formed over the past few months were worth more than some wild fling.
If Ben was going to get his wish then, it simply meant that it would just have to happen some other way. That was all there was to it.