It wasn’t long after Cye headed below decks, to make sure that Ben and Justin didn’t drink all of the coffee, that Ben joined me in the wheelhouse.
The weather wasn’t getting any better, rain was lashing against the windows of the wheelhouse and the boat was rocking from side to side, but I seemed to be managing all right for my first stint as pilot. I was actually feeling pretty happy with myself, and I guess that Cye must have thought the same, seeing as he had left me alone at the helm of his pride and joy.
‘Just keep ’er pointed into the waves boy, and we’ll be fine,’ he said as he slid the wheelhouse door open and then shut it behind him, leaving me there on my lonesome.
So far things had gone fairly well, apart from a couple of times when the old engines gave a few coughs and splutters and then that one wave that had nearly sent us sprawling across the floor. I think that was really what had sent Cye downstairs to check on the other guys, leaving me all alone at the wheel and terrified that I would stuff something up, so I was quite startled just a few minutes later when the door opened once more and I turned to see Ben entering the wheelhouse.
‘Hey mate,’ I said to him. ‘That was a quick cup of coffee.’
‘Yeah,’ he replied.
He stood to one side of me, leaning against the dash and looking out into the wild morning, but said nothing more. He seemed somehow distant, as if his thoughts were elsewhere. I asked him if he was all right, but he didn’t answer me, so I let him be, being now quite used to his rather frequent mood swings.
A few minutes later the door opened once more and Justin joined us.
‘How you doing, Matt?’ he asked me. ‘The boss reckoned you could do with a cuppa.’
‘Thanks,’ I replied. ‘That’d go down well.’
‘I’ll take over if you like. You head down to the galley.’
‘Yeah. Get going,’ he answered.
I handed the wheel over to Justin, glancing at Ben as I did so. He was no longer looking out over the sea that stretched before us. Instead, he was staring at Justin, although this time it wasn’t that dreamy look that I had seen so often in recent months. It was something quite different.
I slid the door open and stepped out onto the deck, then shut it behind me, and Ben didn’t look at me once as I left the wheelhouse. He was still too busy looking at Justin. The strange thing was, there was something in his eyes that seemed out of place. I couldn’t quite tell what it was at first, but as I headed down the stairs toward the galley it finally dawned on me.
He was looking scared. It looked like fear that I could see in his eyes. For a moment I stopped, thinking about going back to make sure he was all right but in the end I decided that I was better off just leaving things alone. He was old enough, and big enough and ugly enough to fight his own battles, I reckoned.
When I reached the galley I found that Cye had already made the coffees for us, handing me a steaming mug of his favourite murky brown liquid almost as soon as I had come through the door.
‘Everything all right up on deck?’ he asked me as he thrust the mug into my hand.
‘Yeah… I think so,’ I answered, rather tentatively, still a little bewildered about what it was that I thought I had seen on Ben’s face.
‘That’s good then. I reckon they’ll sort ‘emselves out,’ Cye replied, before taking a sip from his mug.
From his remark I figured that Cye must have also known something was up between Justin and Ben, so I left it at that, turning my attention to the mug of coffee and wrapping both of my cold hands around the mug trying to let some of its warmth spread through me also. Cye didn’t need to do anything like that though. It looked like he was used to the cold.
We both sat down at the galley table, a well-worn wooden affair bolted securely to the floor, and looked at each other across the tops of our mugs, neither of us saying anything and just enjoying our quiet time.
It looked as if Cye had given the table a fresh coat of paint once, about twenty years ago at a guess, but it hadn’t had a whole lot of loving since then. Much like the rest of the boat, really.
I remembered that when Ben and I first started with Cye we had both been a little unsure about what we were letting ourselves in for, or whether or not we would even come back from that first trip out to sea, but as the weeks have passed we have both found ourselves growing more and more fond of the old tub and thinking about her in the same way that Justin and Cye do.
When I think about it, I’m still amazed at how my life has changed in the past couple of years, first with Luke and me discovering each other in the way that we did, and then our moving down here to start our own lives. If anyone had said to me a year ago that not only would I be working on a fishing boat, but I would also be getting a heap of first hand mechanical experience by getting my hands dirty working on its temperamental old diesel engines, I would have told them that they were crazy. And yet, here I am, sitting across the table from a crusty old skipper that looks like he has just stepped straight out of the pages of ‘Moby Dick’, sipping black coffee that you could stand a spoon upright in, and loving every minute of it.
Life certainly can be funny, can’t it? Sure, it might have its up and downs – and right now I would say that things were definitely more up than down – but somehow everything always seems to work out, one way or another.
I don’t know how long we sat there, lost in our thoughts, but our reverie was eventually shattered with a blast from the horns coming from almost directly above us.
‘Ahhhh… good. We must be near to the island then,’ Cye remarked as he pushed his chair out from the table and got to his feet.
‘How far out are we?’ I asked, while doing the same.
‘’Bout forty miles, give or take a few.’
We put our mugs in the sink and I followed Cye back up onto the deck, where we were greeted by weather that seemed even worse than it had been earlier. Strong winds and driving rain seemed to be lashing us from every direction, but even in my short career at sea I have seen worse, so I wasn’t too worried.
I followed Cye forward along the deck and we soon made it to the wheelhouse, where we found Ben at the helm, under Justin’s watchful eye. He was looking a little nervous, but managing all right nonetheless.
‘Looks like you’re doing good there, lad,’ Cye bellowed above the sound of the engines and the wind and the rain. ‘Just keep her pointin’ this way and we’ll be fine.’
By the look on Ben’s face I wasn’t sure if he was reassured by those words or not, but Cye and Justin both seemed happy enough with what was happening, so who was I to argue. Thankfully, whatever it was that had appeared to be between Justin and Ben earlier now seemed to have disappeared and things were back to normal, but I made a note to ask Ben about it later on anyhow; assuming of course that he would tell me.
‘We’re gettin’ close, then?’ Cye asked Justin as he peered out into the rain, with the windscreen wipers slapping back and forth, doing their best to let us see where we were going.
‘Yeah. When I blew the horn we had caught a glimpse of the island then.’
‘And no sign of any other boats?’
‘Not a one,’ Justin answered, giving Cye a wink as he did so.
If there was one thing that we had learned in the short space of time that we had been working with Cye and Justin, it was that things were quite competitive amongst the owners of the boats in the local fishing fleet. Sure, they would help each other out when it was needed, but with things being so tight, with the cost of fuel and anchorage, and the taxes that they had to pay, quite a few of the operators, Cye included, often struggled to make ends meet.
It wasn’t surprising then to see that Cye was happy about there not being any other boats in the area today.
We powered on into the storm for a few more minutes, with Cye looking anxiously ahead for any sign of the island, amidst the clouds and driving rain, but finding no joy. Then, almost as if by some magical force, the rain stopped and we found ourselves in clear air. Above us hung a heavy bank of dark cloud, looking threatening as it rolled and swirled on the winds, while directly before us stood Kings Island, a dense green peak that rose up from the sea, pyramid-like and bathed in a single shaft of sunlight that somehow pierced the clouds.
‘Wow…’ Ben cooed as he slid the door open and stepped out of the wheelhouse into the icy morning sea air. When he reached the bow of the boat he turned around and called back, ‘What an unreal place.’
Cye and Justin laughed at him but I went out and joined him, gulping in great lung fulls of air and suddenly feeling very much alive.
Ben was right of course. The island looked totally unreal. Like something out of a Boys Own Adventure Annual or Lord of the Flies maybe. Either way, it certainly got the imagination going. Well, mine at least.
‘C’mon you pair,’ we soon heard Justin call. ‘It’s time we did some work.’
Reluctantly Ben and I returned to the wheelhouse.
‘Does anyone live there?’ Ben asked.
Cye just shook his head. ‘It’s under the control the National Parks people. The only people allowed on there are the rangers. They bring university students out here sometimes as well, and of course other folks like tourists and fisherman drop in unannounced from time to time,’ he said, adding a wink and a grin to the end of his sentence.
‘So people do visit there sometimes?’ I asked.
‘Sometimes,’ Cye chuckled. ‘They have been known to shelter there, but I didn’t tell you that.’
‘No, of course not,’ I answered, with a weekend escape plan already being formed in my head.
I was still gazing at the peak when Cye headed out onto the deck and leant out over the railing a few minutes later, peering down into the dark waters as if he were trying to spot the fish we were chasing.
‘All right then boys, that’ll be enough sight-seeing for now,’ he said as he came back into the wheelhouse rubbing his hands together as if he were trying to warm himself. ‘This here is as good a place as any to drop a net and see what we can dredge up from these bountiful waters.’
‘You don’t think we’re too close to the island?’ Justin asked him.
‘Nah, lad. I have a good feeling about this. We’ve got the whole island to ourselves and I reckon there’s a mountain of fish off these shelves, just waiting for us to take ‘em home.’
‘Whatever you say boss,’ Justin replied, then tugging at my sleeve added, ‘C’mon Matt, let’s get this show on the road.’
I followed him out onto the deck and toward the stern with Ben close on my heels to where the massive nets were rolled up, just waiting to be thrown into the churning seas.
We all knew our jobs well, and while Justin manned the motors that would unwind the first net, Ben and I untied them and swung the massive boom out over the side of the boat, that would guide them as they were released.
I unhooked several large orange floats and secured them to the end of the net with a lengthy cable, then threw them overboard. We watched as it drifted out behind us, bobbing up and down in the choppy seas while dragging the cable out with it, then as it reached the end of its tether Justin released the net and started to let it unwind.
We had to help the net a little as it unrolled, with Ben and me on either side, just helping it to unfurl and let it spread out as it disappeared into the water. The orange float soon became little more than a distant dot on the surface, then as more and more of the net rolled out we could hear the change in the old boats’ engines as the added drag made them start to labour.
Cye opened up the throttle a little more and the ‘Wanderer’ surged forward with renewed vigour. I could feel her power vibrating beneath the deck, sending a shiver right through me, yet despite her age and her unpredictable temperament there was no other boat in the fishing fleet that I would rather be aboard.
This whole experience, I have to say, of working on this boat for these past few months, even though it was basically only a labouring job, has given me a real sense of purpose and direction. Something that I think I’ve really been in need of.
I glanced across at Ben, dripping wet from the sea spray and with his damp hair plastered to his forehead. He looked up and caught me staring at him, flashed me a smile and gave me a thumbs-up sign.
He was enjoying this just as much as I was, and even though we’d had our differences since we had all moved into the house together, I was glad that not only had he finally found something he enjoyed and a place where he could fit in, but that the two of us had found some common ground.
With the net now in the water and spreading out behind us, it was time for a short break – but only until we were ready to haul it back in again, hopefully filled with the bounty of the seas. Ben motioned toward the steps that led down into the hull and headed in their direction, with Justin and me following closely. We all headed for the galley with thoughts of coffee once again on our minds.
While we waited for the water to boil I decided it was time for a pee break so I left Ben and Justin in the galley and went off in the direction of the head, not giving any thought to leaving them alone together.
With the deck rolling beneath me I made my way to the head, where I did what I had to do, then returned to the galley a short while later only to find Ben and Justin sitting at opposite ends of the small table busily ignoring each other. It was now obvious that something between them wasn’t quite right but I still didn’t think that it was my place to interfere.
The best option I thought would be to ask Ben what was going on the first chance I could get him alone. He might tell me to butt-out, but the way I figured it was that if something was going on between them that could affect us all, then someone should at least try and nip it in the bud before things got out of hand.
Just a few minutes later we heard the ‘Wanderer’ starting to cough and splutter as she started to struggle in the rough seas, not helped by the added weight in the net of what we were hoping would be a healthy catch. Cye eased back on the throttle and we immediately felt the old boat slow. Justin was on his feet in an instant and heading for the galley door, with Ben and me both making a move to follow as well.
I quickly realised that this was the perfect time to ask Ben what was going on, so before either of us had managed to make it to the doorway I grabbed him by the arm and stopped him for a moment.
‘Hey, listen,’ I said to him once Justin was out of ear-shot. ‘Is something going on between you two, or what?’
‘Wh-what do you mean?’ he stammered, suddenly looking quite pale.
‘It’s all right mate, it doesn’t worry me one way or the other, it’s just that you pair have been puss-footing around each other all bloody morning. What happened? Did Justin put the hard word on you or something?’
For a moment he said nothing. He simply stood there watching the doorway that Justin had disappeared through.
‘Well… no, not exactly,’ he finally answered, accompanied by a rather sheepish grin.
It took me a moment, but I finally realised his meaning.
‘You’ve got to be joking, right?’ I asked him, but the wink said it all. ‘What did he say?’ I asked, still not quite believing what I was hearing.
‘He said no,’ Ben replied. ‘Can you believe it? I thought all that every gay guy wanted was to get any piece of arse he could lay their hands on.’
‘No Ben, not all of them,’ I answered. ‘It doesn’t quite work like that. We’re not all total sluts, you know!’
‘Is that what you think I am?’ he asked.
‘No mate. I think you’re just a horny teenager who hasn’t yet figured out what he wants in life,’ I answered.
He simply grinned back at me.
‘So I’m not too far off the truth then?’
‘Maybe. Maybe not,’ he replied.
‘Jesus, Ben. I’m never going to figure you out.’
‘I hope not,’ he said, and then he was gone.
I followed him along the corridor, up the stairs and out onto the decks.
‘C’mon you pair, get a move on. Give Jay a hand with the net will you?’ Cye called out to us as soon as we stuck our heads outside.
‘Sure thing, Skipper,’ I called back to him.
By the time we reached him Justin had already started the motor to reel in the net, and it wasn’t long after that when they emerged from the ocean. Streams of water were running from a net that was bulging at the seams, alive with shimmering, silvery bodies twisting and turning and writhing in their nylon prison.
As Justin swung the huge boom inwards Ben and I opened the hatches covering the hold. The net soon sailed over the railing, stopping directly over the hold, and Justin expertly dropped the catch inside.
‘Woo-hoo,’ I heard Cye call out from the wheelhouse when he stuck his head outside to check on the catch we had brought up from the ocean’s depths. ‘That’ll keep the Fisherman’s Co-Op happy… and my bank manager even happier!’
‘Screw the bank manager!’ Justin called out to him. ‘Just don’t you forget our cut.’
With a laugh Cye waved him away then disappeared back inside the wheelhouse, leaving the three of us chuckling to ourselves about our eccentric employer. Like a well-oiled machine we quickly clicked into gear readying the ship for another run.
Soon the first net was packed and we readied another to drop out into the wild seas, then right after making sure the catch was stowed securely into the holds and the refrigeration system was working it was onto cleaning down the decks.
We all knew our jobs and we were becoming good at them. We had become a team.
‘You boys ready for another run yet?’ Cye bellowed from the wheelhouse doorway.
‘Yeah,’ Justin called back to him. ‘Let’s go!’
With a wave Cye disappeared inside once more and opened the engines up, giving a slight splutter before they cut in.
That wasn’t unusual for the old tub. She could be a temperamental old beast when she wanted to be. What was unusual though was the cough they gave out next, followed by a loud bang, a shot of dark smoke from the exhaust, and then… nothing.
‘What the fuck was that?’ Ben shouted.
Justin and I glanced at each other. We knew it didn’t sound good.
As the three of us rushed forward toward the bow Cye popped out of the wheelhouse scratching his head.
‘Nice place to be stranded, eh, boys?’ he remarked in his usual laconic manner, pointing at the island a few miles off.
‘That’s not funny, Cye,’ Ben replied.
‘C’mon Matt. You and me better take a look, eh?’ Cye said as he passed us, giving Ben a wink as he did so.
‘Yeah, sure,’ I answered.
I followed him back to the stern where between us we opened the hatch that covered the diesel engines, only to be greeted by a cloud of smoke billowing out of the hull.
‘Shit!’ I said out loud. ‘This ain’t gonna be pretty.’
‘You can fix it, can’t you?’ Ben asked me just a bit anxiously.
‘Yeah. With a snap of his fingers,’ Justin answered him, rather tersely demonstrating. ‘And while he’s at it he might be able to find a cure for the common cold or rid the world of hunger.’
‘Wise ass!’ Ben replied.
‘Well, what do you expect? They won’t even know what’s wrong with it until they get down in there!’
I saw the realization of that fact dawn on Ben’s face quickly, his open mouth quickly shutting even before he could say what it was that he was thinking. He crossed his arms in front of himself and then started chewing on the nails on his left hand, looking like a churlish little boy who had just been scolded by his mother.
Cye started down the ladder into the engine bay and I followed him, both of us waving smoke away after reaching the bottom as we felt our way around.
‘It’ll clear in a few minutes,’ Cye said to me.
‘Yeah. I just hope we don’t suffocate in the mean time.’
I looked up and could see the concerned faces of Ben and Justin peering in at us.
‘Can you see anything?’ Justin asked.
‘Not yet,’ I replied, before turning my attention back to the problem at hand.
As promised, the smoke cleared in a few minutes and we could at least see where we were going, but outwardly it didn’t seem to be doing us much good, as we couldn’t really see anything wrong with the engine. We poked and prodded for a little while, then scratched our heads, before Cye eventually said that he was stumped, so we had best start looking inside in the engine.
I knew what that meant. Pulling the motor down with minimal tools and on a rolling sea that was showing no signs of levelling out. Not something that I was looking forward to doing.
‘You going to put out a distress call then?’ I asked him. ‘Just in case we can’t get her going again?’
‘We’ll leave it for a bit,’ he answered, after thinking for a moment. ‘We don’t want to let everyone else know that there’s plenty of good fishing out here. We might want to come back tomorrow.’
‘Or we could still be here tomorrow,’ I added.
The look on his face told me all I needed to know. That we would still be here tomorrow was a distinct possibility.
What worried me however, was whether or not we would all still be in one piece if that was the case.