Touch of Danger is the second book in my trilogy of books based on the Southern Moreton Bay Islands near Brisbane in Queensland, Australia. There are four sub-tropical islands in the group and Macleay Island is the central one in these stories. It’s also where I happen to live.
The blurb on the book says:
Bay sharks are safer than the sharks on Macleay Island.
That’s what Lockie finds when he clashes with hard men and stands in their way.
Peter, a hermit mariner, meets the retired Lockie and hours later is found, murdered. Lockie with his detective ally, Georgia Leah, sets out to find why.
He unearths a poignant love story between Peter and Lorna, and, with Lorna, becomes such a nuisance to an international, new technology drug smuggling organisation, that the gang takes Lockie and Lorna on the sinister sloop The Red Admiral. The gang takes them for their last journey anywhere – except Lockie and Lorna don’t see it that way…
Their survival instinct kicks in and with a little help from their friends, mainly Scotty and Georgia…
All hell is let loose on the night-time waters of Queensland’s Moreton Bay.
Here, for your entertainment and delight are the first three chapters of Touch of Danger.
TOUCH OF DANGER
“Wake up,” said Scotty, “stop admiring Australia. It’s your turn.”
It’s a spectacular view from the Macleay Island Bowls’ Club lawn. I never tire of looking westward from there over the southern reaches of Moreton Bay to the mainland coast at Redland. It’s a view some bowling clubs would pay millions of dollars to have, especially when the tide’s in.
“Yeah, sorry. I was watching that boat out there. It looks rather lovely sailing along in the sunlight.”
Scotty stood beside me for a moment looking out at the Bay. “Stranger. Never seen him before. Nice looking sloop. Classic oldie.”
“Is that what it is? A sloop?”
“Yep. One mast. Good looker isn’t she?” She was; everything about her a harmony of proportion as she heeled over lightly, quietly cutting her way toward our island.
We both concentrated on the mat and the job in hand. We weren’t doing too well against the visiting pair, part of a team from Russell Island. We were playing the final head and we were down ten to seven. Scotty and I each had one bowl left and it was my turn.
Very carefully I polished my bowl with my cloth, as Scotty stood over the head at the other end of the rink, impersonating a seasoned skip but giving me impossible instructions to follow. I stepped to the end of the mat and in one smooth, easy, athletic motion, released the bowl. It felt very good leaving my hand and I don’t know why it didn’t follow the path I’d envisaged for it. Bowls can be very wilful. Scotty took one look at the black sphere as it missed everything and toppled, exhausted, into the ditch at the back. He gave me one of his, Lord why me, looks and shook his head, saying as we passed in the middle of the green, “And it looked as though you knew what you were doing while you were polishing it.”
Golf is more my game.
In his turn Scotty took great care with his bowl while I examined the head. Our situation was hopeless but I held one corner of my duster and trailed it along the ground in an impossible line between bowls telling Scotty to follow that path precisely, then I stood back and smiled at him while the Russell Islander beside me positively smirked. Scotty lurched forward and sent down a too fast, perfectly awkward delivery. It bullied its way, clicking and clacking, through the cluster of Russell Island bowls, collected the Jack and trailed it neatly into a waiting posse of our bowls – and – we’d won! I couldn’t believe my eyes.
“That what you wanted?” came the laconic voice as he walked down the green.
“Yeah,” I said, “Should do.”
We shook hands with our astonished opponents and they joined the rest of their team in the clubhouse. Once they were out of sight, Scotty and I collapsed onto a bench and laughed until there were tears in our eyes.
“What happened?” I said.
“Tripped a bit as I delivered.” We were off again. It took us a while to regain our composure and risk walking up to the clubhouse.
“Where,” he said with a patient sigh, “would you Kiwis be if it weren’t for Australians?” Scotty always thought big. Our competitions were always of international importance, but it had been a great bowl and he deserved his victory.
“You reckon you can do it again?”
He gave me a lovely smile. “I don’t have to,” he said, “I’ve done it when it counted.” We had another laugh and headed for the clubhouse and a beer, just as the beautiful sloop passed from sight into Karragarra Passage.
I’d been fortunate to build my duplex on Macleay Island and extremely fortunate to have Scotty and Irma as near neighbours. From the first day they’d recognised a fish out of water, a newcomer from another land, and with tact and consideration helped me find my feet and settle in.
There is something spectacularly original about Australian speech. I love it. I love the humour, the irreverence, that lives just under its sunbaked surface and Scotty and Irma used it wonderfully to help me adjust. Because it is their nature, they delivered kindness without trying, and made me feel good in the process.
Scotty and I had evolved quite a routine: bowls on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, golf on Thursday and Saturday afternoons. That was the plan; sometimes it was interfered with by trips to the mainland, or the weather, but for most days when I wasn’t in my garden, or reading, or listening to music, or writing, I was with the laconic Scotty in a very comfortable place.
We contrasted strongly in many ways, not least in our houses. I had built a simple modern, duplex, living in one half and renting the other half out as an income earner. My furnishings ran to the simple and modern, all rather spare. Scotty had an old but beautifully maintained Queenslander, a house from a different era raised a floor above the ground with handsome, wide verandahs all around. Being a retired cabinet maker he kept the house in immaculate condition and underneath, next to his garage, he’d built a beautifully equipped, practical workshop. There, he made pieces of furniture on commission and I often sat or leaned in that workshop as he worked. That’s where we yarned and put the world to rights.
I retired to Australia after a lifetime in New Zealand, partially because I have a son and grandchildren in Sydney and a daughter and grandchild in Melbourne, but also to enjoy the comfort of warmer weather and to seek a place where I would not always be face-to-face with Mary. My life with Mary was one of those great fortunate relationships that happen to some people. Her heart had failed suddenly and I thought it might be easier to have my mind occupied by new things rather than dwell on loss. Loss can be so consuming. So what more engaging than a new landscape, a warmer climate? Macleay Island was a place I could afford. Again I had been very lucky.
The day after our undeserved bowls win I was about to leave home for the post office to pay a bill when Scotty saw me, and wandered over. He said he was going down to The Blue Parrot to talk to John Stone who wanted a table made, so we ended up going down together in my small red Honda Jazz.
Australia Post, The Blue Parrot and a gaggle of shops share a small terrace beside the street and two or three steps down from it. Tables from the restaurant scatter out from its front under a big blue triangular awning and close by there is a fountain which doubles as a fish pond. It’s not exactly the Trevi Fountain of Rome or the rude fountain of Brussels. It’s a plastered free-form red horror in a square oxygen-plant choked pool encompassed by a wooden slatted seat. The water dribbles or splashes and most of the time the seat is wet. No Michelangelo designed that one, and it could be called ugly but, as Scotty insists, it’s our own type of ugly and the kids crowd around it looking for the goldfish – which are there hiding under the greenery – somewhere. By design or accident, it’s a pleasant little space, that piazza.
“G’day John,” I said pulling out a chair. “Always nice to see you back. How long for this time?”
I like John Stone; mid-late thirties, tall and fit looking with short brown hair and an engaging manner. He lives in the middle of the island with his wife Karyn and daughter Sasha and is away for long periods.
“Maybe a month. Now that Christmas is over I’ll have another week at home and then a fortnight or so in the office drawing up a few plans.”
“Back to New Guinea to finish the job.”
“Bridge. It’ll make a huge difference there.”
“Good for you. Then where?”
“Nothing locked in yet, but East Timor’s looking good. Small power station and the road into it. Good project. Not too big but full of variation.”
“Well, I’m pleased to see you’re recruiting Scotty here. He needs taking out of the country; give us all a break.” John laughed.
I could see him doing well on projects. I can’t judge his engineering skills but he has this ability to deal easily with people and I imagine it would be the same whether he was talking to an official trying to skim the project money, or a lowly labourer. Of course the partnership he formed, with two of his university class buddies, must be good enough to be winning the contracts it does, but the nature and manner of John Stone were surely among the firm’s strongest assets.
“You obviously enjoy the work?” I said.
“Very much. It’s a strangely satisfying job; part engineering, part human relations, part financial and a surprising amount is political. There’s a lot of work and some luck in keeping local fingers out of the till. I don’t always win but I do enjoy the process, and at the end there’s a brand new road or power house, or bridge, or hospital, or whatever, to look at and surely that’s going to make life in the region better for someone; usually the women.”
“Wouldn’t mind a trip to the Pacific with you,” said Scotty coming forward in his seat and putting one elbow on the table. “Just sit up there in a big chair. Have the locals carry me around, food brought to me by dusky maidens––“
“My god Scotty, I think I should hire you, just for the pleasure of watching you get the big reality check. That’s a hundred and fifty years out of date. In fact I don’t think that version ever existed.”
“I’ve noticed it John, his mind’s wandering. Irma does all the thinking in that family now.” I said it sorrowfully.
Scotty glared at me, then said with a smile. “Wrong! She’s always done it.”
We laughed. It’s very companionable on the terrace outside of The Blue Parrot.
John took the plan of a dining table out of his pocket. He’d drawn it up on his home draughting table and it was a work of exactitude.
“Don’t think I’ve ever had such a precise plan to work from since I left the factory in Sydney” said Scotty looking at the sheet on the small table. “Can’t see any problems. Just a matter of what wood’s available. I’ve got a really nice slab of Robinia that might just be big enough for this.”
The waitress arrived with my pot of tea, and coffee for each of the other two. I poured, Scotty sugared, John stirred.
The other two chatted about the table project while I went inside to ask if my raisin toast had been forgotten. As I approached the double glass doors my eye caught that of the man sitting next to them, and so next to our table too. He had a startlingly freshly laundered look about him as he sat, with his cup of coffee and I probably looked at him a little longer than was polite. He glanced up and caught my eye. It was a gentle face and brought a smile to mine.
“Good morning,” I said as I went through the door.
He nodded his head gravely and politely said, “Good morning,” in his turn.
With my plate of toast in my hand I went back to my table. On the way, I again nodded and smiled to the still man by the door.
At our table the other two had wrapped up the production discussion and Scotty folded the plans and plaed them by his cup. They were talking about the places John had worked and when I had a chance I asked the engineer. “Will you come ashore one day soon, stop the travelling? ‘Swallow the anchor’, as the sailors say? Our world changes.”
“Always, Lockie. It’s always changing. It’s our saving and our challenge. And yes, I guess I am approaching settlement time; dream house time.”
“Dream being the operative word.” He shifted in his seat, a hand each side of his coffee and looked into the slow turning of its surface. “We planned to build a mainland house when it came time for Sash to go to university. Probably should be starting the planning now.”
“You’ll design it yourself?” I naturally thought that. He was an engineer, a design engineer, and people persisted in drawing up their own houses. Nobody takes out their own appendix but it is accepted that it’s normal to design your own house; maybe consult a sheaf of builder’s plans. I never could understand the readiness with which people consigned themselves to a lifetime of inferior design and subjected their children to it. They wouldn’t accept that in their cars.
“Oh, no,” said John, “We’ll use an architect.” The way he said it left no possible question about it and my rating of him rose steeply. “We’ve already got a list of wants as long as your arm.” His concentration was somewhere in the future, “It’ll be our chance to have a really nice place so, yes, there’ll be an architect.” He looked up at my beaming face.
“I’m so pleased to hear you say that. Most people seem to think it’s a job they do for themselves.”
He gave a wry smile. “They do, don’t they? But having grappled with design in engineering I have great respect for design skills. In fact I have a promise from a mate of mine that he’ll do it for me, and I think he’s pretty good.”
“Would I know the name?”
“Stephen Calderfield!” It came out as an involuntary exclamation as I sat upright.
“Yes, You know him?”
“No. No, of course not. Forgive my reaction but I know of him. He’s quite an emerging star and I’m really impressed by what I’ve seen of his work – which comes down to pictures in architectural magazines. Really impressed.”
John Stone was as delighted as I was. “It’s great to come across someone who’s actually heard of him.”
“All I can say is you’re a lucky couple to have a man like that to work with. Would it be possible to see the plans when you get them and have a tour of the house once it’s up? The very prospect of seeing a Calderfield house in reality excites me more than you know.”
“Certainly, but you’re way ahead of things at the moment. We haven’t decided on a date, although I suppose we should. Have you seen the house he’s built on the island?”
Surprise number two. “On this island?”
“Really? You never told me there was a Stephen Calderfield house on Macleay?” I was addressing Scotty who had been leaving us to our conversation. He shrugged.
“Didn’t know you were that interested. It’s just a house. Hasn’t got the command of a real old Queenslander.”
“It would certainly be different, but I’ll bet it’s got some command about it. Wow! A Stephen Calderfield. That’d be something.”
“Oh, it is.It certainly is,” said John.
“Yeah? Well my Queenslander maybe old but it suits me just fine. You can keep that modern rubbish.”
“I’d certainly love to keep a Calderfield house, if I could afford it,”I said. “And that takes nothing from your Queenslander, Scotty. Where is this place? I’ve not noticed it.”
John sat back. “It’s built on the south-east coast down a drive off Fallsworth Drive. You can’t see it from the road. It was built just before you came here.”
“I’ve not come across any photos of it.”
“Don’t think the owner allowed any photographs to be published. It’s built for privacy.”
“That’s a bit mean. You seen it?”
“Oh yes. Times I was home while it was being built, Stephen took me to see it. Fantastic place. Set back from the cliff edge, about ten metres above sea level with fantastic views over Karragarra Passage. The view sweeps south, and includes Lamb Island, Russell Island and down towards the Gold Coast. Stephen rebuilt the jetty too. It’s a fabulous property.”
“Who’s the lucky owner? Sounds pretty rich.”
“Of course he’s rich,” said Scotty, “He’s a bloody lawyer isn’t he?”
“What’s his name?”
John was laughing quietly. “His name is Hale Jennison, and yes, he’s a lawyer, quite a well known one because he’s very effective in getting desperate men off their charges. Bikie gangs use him a lot. Yep, he’s skilful and he works hard. Might just earn his money, Scotty.”
“Bloody leeches, all of them. I know a lot of blokes who’ve worked harder all their lives than that parasite, but they don’t have a fancy house and jetty and a flash-Harry launch.”
“Steady Scotty,” I said, “You’re back to thinking the world should be a place of justice.”
“So it bloody well ought to be.”
“Maybe lawyers are trying to make it so. Maybe they’re trying to have everyone pay their taxes fairly.”
“What? Don’t give me that bullshit.”
Both John and I laughed at the indignant Scotty. I was puzzled though.“How come I’ve never heard of this man or knew such a house existed?”
“The fact is,” John said, “he’s rarely here. A maintenance man lives on the property but most of the time it’s empty. Hale’s base is in Hamilton in Brisbane. I believe that’s a fine place too though it’s not by Stephen Calderfield.”
“So why build this house then?”
John blew out a breath. “I don’t know. I suppose he wanted a week-ender away from it all and he does like his comfort.”
“I wonder,” I said, “if he’d let me look at the place?”
“Ah,” said John. “He’s almost paranoid about his privacy. I think he’d be happy if no one on the island knew the house was there, or that he existed. Don’t fancy your chances of getting a look through.”
“That’d be right,” said Scotty. “Lawyers are tight. They’re made that way. Save your breath. Don’t even try.”
We chatted on for a few minutes, enjoying the tea or the coffee with Scotty greeting people as they drifted in or out of The Blue Parrot – always a word in passing.
We went into the building to pay and I was the last one up to the counter. By the time I was all settled the other two had walked to the foot of the small flight of steps leading up to the footpath a metre above this level. I saw them standing there, talking, as I came through the door, still putting my change in my pocket, when I felt a hand touch my left arm – lightly. So very lightly.
I turned and was facing the laundered man, now on his feet. A good handspan shorter than me, slight of frame and so thin he looked half-starved despite the impression of neatness. His khaki trousers and a squared off khaki sweat shirt were spotless. His hair was salted with grey and looked as though it had just been trimmed by the hairdresser. There was something more to his face. The skin across his nose and around his eyes was weather-beaten and wrinkled but the skin of his forehead, chin and neck was much paler as if long hair had covered it from the sun. He’s just been to the barbers I thought, and had a real clean up. The fingers of his hand now hovering above my left forearm were surprisingly slender and long. All that, I took in in an instant but what held me was his face, its contrasts, that weather-beaten walnut skin, drawn over his prominent cheekbones like lampshade parchment, and the eyes that stared at me. Under thick and greying eyebrows, in all that assemblage of weather-beaten skin those eyes shone like beacon lights and held me right where I was.
He appeared to be struggling to speak and to stand steadily. I wondered if he were drunk though I could smell no alcohol.
“Are you all right?” I said, hoping to get him to say something, even if only to ask for a cup of coffee. “Would you like to sit down?” I steadied him by the elbow and pointed to his seat, but he was consumed by urgency.
“Don’t go there,” he said in a low, rich voice. I expected him to say more but he stopped. I wondered what he meant and it must have shown on my face. He took a quick look around at the people crossing the terrace to the shops. No one was near us, no one had replaced us at the outside tables. “Pardon me,” he said quietly, “I heard you talking. Be careful. Stay away.”
I could see by now he was not drunk. I was trying to guess his age but the variations in his complexion made it impossible. I thought he might be in his forties though he gave the impression of being older.
“Would you care to sit down and tell me about it? Another coffee?” He worried me.
“No.” Those sharp eyes were flicking about nervously. “Too many people.” He held the edge of a table. “What do you do?”
That surprised me, but there was such intensity in the man I went along with him. “I’m retired on the island. I was once a school teacher. What do you do?”
“Sail.” I waited. Nothing.
“Just sail? On your own?”
“Sail to where, why?”
“Anywhere. I sail and I will keep on sailing. It’s a full life.”
“And if you have an accident or fall ill?”
He shook his head dismissing all that. “When the time comes, it comes. Doesn’t matter where you are.”
I was shifting in my mind from an initial suspicion, past thinking him drunk, beyond considering him mad. I was captivated by him; English I guessed, and possibly eccentric. One thing was certain he’d spent so much time on his own that he found talking, awkward. He’d made no move to take up my invitation to sit down and I could see he was getting edgier. He wanted to move.
“What did you mean, just now, when you said, ‘Don’t go there’?”
Around us, people were coming in, chatting, absorbed in their own business and it was too much for him.
“I’m sailing tonight,” he said so quietly I could hardly hear him. A swift glance around and he came closer to me. “This afternoon. Come to my boat. It’s the only safe place to talk. The Mountain View. Thirty-five footer, west of the jetty.”
He stumbled off leaving me baffled, and intrigued.
The prospect of seeing through a Stephen Calderfield house excited me and as soon as I arrived home I sat down and wrote what I thought was a very good letter to Mr Jennison, pointing out to him that I was a Macleay Islander, not just an idle rubber necker, that I had a deep and long standing interest in architecture and was fully aware of the significance of a Stephen Calderfield house. I went on and buttered him up just a tad. I quite enjoyed trying to impress a lawyer enough to get him to make an exception to his rule, and let me in. I was over estimating my powers of persuasion and under estimating his powers of resistance but I didn’t know that then.
Writing the letter and thinking about architecture put me in high spirits and I decided to post the letter immediately. In my carport I heard a distant electric saw going over in Scotty’s house. He had the doors of his workshop folded back to get all the air circulation he could and I saw him there, goggles and ear muffs on, feeding wood into his big bandsaw. I was always impressed with the protective gear Scotty used.
“I’ve seen too many fingers stolen by machinery,” he told me one day. “And I know they’ll steal your hearing and your lungs too if you let them. They’re great, machines, but they demand constant respect.” He was unusual in that, but then Scotty always did his own thinking.
I went across and propped myself against the heavy, wood planer machine and when he’d finished his sawing, told him about the masterful letter I’d written.
“What did you do that for?”
“I’ve told you, I’d just like to see it.”
“Because it’s a work of art.”
“How do you know, you haven’t seen it?”
“Look. If a Lamborghini came to the island would you like to see it? Have a ride in it?”
“Bloody oath. Now you really are talking a work of art.”
“How do you know? You’ve never seen one.”
“Oh very smart, very fucking clever dickie. Well I have seen Lamborghinis and more than one.”
“Have you now? Where?”
“Motoring magazines. Glossy pages. In the movies too. Actually on the street in Brisbane and Sydney. Oh, I know a Lamborghini from a go-kart, which you probably don’t.”
“I probably do.”
“Nah. By the time they picked up speed in New Zealand they’d run out of land wouldn’t they?”
He looked at me seriously, which was his usual look. I’d learned very slowly to pick the subtleties of his expressions. Stern was his default appearance. Now, there was the hint of defence about it though apart from Irma not many people could pick it. “If you can count photographs, so can I. Believe me, I’ve seen a stack of pictures of Calderfield buildings and I think even you might agree they are very, very special.”
“More like a special waste of money.” He pointed a finger at me. “I can’t believe a sober man like you could think of wasting money on an architect. They’re just a rich man’s way of beating the building regulations. They’re for people with more money than energy; another way of parading wealth, man, and if I had that kind of money I’d sooner buy the Lamborghini or a Ferrari.”
“Think you could get your lanky frame in and out of it every day for the rest of your life?”
“I’d like to try. Better than wasting money on an architect.”
“Yeah, most people would agree with you. I can only say that in the past when I used architects, they raised my enjoyment of life higher than I’d expected. Honestly, a good architect is a boost to living. That’s true, Scotty.”
“If you say so. Everyone in New Zealand uses an architect do they?”
I shook my head in sadness. “If only.”
I sat more firmly on his planer top as he marked out a piece of wood on his bench, my arms folded. I wondered about pointing out the care and detail that had gone into this beautiful workshop he’d built but he’d only have said he designed it himself.
What he did say as he bent over his work was, “So this lawyer guy, with all the money, what’s his name?”
“Yeah, him. What if he turns you down flat?”
“He could, but why would he do that? I’d have a better chance if I talked to him, but I’ve made a good job of this letter.” I patted my pocket. “Just going down to Lill’s to post it.”
“Probably talked your way in then talked your way out.” He turned the piece of wood around and began more markings.
He carried on working intently on the timber, which I thought was going to become a leg on John Stone’s table.
“Scotty, you remember this morning at The Blue Parrot?”
He looked at me. “Couple of hours ago? Yes, I think I do remember that far back.”
“Well a funny thing happened while you were talking to John, afterwards.”
He put that piece of timber aside, took another and began the same meticulous marking. “Oh, yeah?”
“An old character came up to me. Not that old actually, but it turns out he’s been at sea for a long time, sailing on his own. I thought he was drunk, but he wasn’t.”
Scotty turned and propped himself against his bench, pencil in hand.
“Gets them that way if they’ve spent a long time on the water. They still feel the heave and fall of the sea under their feet. He’s probably steadier on a boat than he is ashore. Where was he?”
“At the table between ours and the main door.” I folded my arms and looked at the floor. “You know Scotty, he reminded me of The Ancient Mariner.”
“That poem of Coleridge, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. You must have come across it in school.”
“Yes. If you don’t remember it you weren’t listening.”
“So it’s my fault that I don’t know some crappy poem, is it?”
“Yes. And you do know it because bits of it are stuck in the English language like fruit in a plum pudding.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake! ‘As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.’ And ‘water water everywhere/ and all the boards did shrink/ Water water everywhere nor any drop to drink.’ Don’t tell me you haven’t heard those lines before.”
“Yeah, yeah. Think I have. But they’re not by that Coleman chap you said.”
“Oh? Is that so? Then who are they by?”
“Banjo Patterson.” I breathed out hard and looked up at the wooden joists supporting the floor above. The traditional part of me was outraged but there was also a part which wanted to laugh at such wonderfl effrontery. “Everyone knows that.”
“Well, OK, one day when Banjo was going to church – to a wedding – on his own scraggly horse––”
“He’d have a good horse.”
“He was stopped by this old codger, an ancient mariner.”
“That’s right, on a sea horse.”
He’d gone back to laying out his pieces of marked-up timber and I couldn’t see his face.
“You won’t go to heaven you know, even if God really is an Australian.”
“So the point is,” he said, turning around, “this old guy nabs you. So what’s his story?”
I shifted on the planer’s hard steel deck. “That’s just it. From what I could understand, he’s spent years sailing single-handed. He couldn’t have known anyone around The Blue Parrot, yet he was fearful of something, looking about, speaking low. The first thing he said was, ‘Don’t go there’.”
Scotty had straightened and was watching me. “Don’t go where?”
“He never actually said. Invited me on his boat this afternoon. Sort of promised to tell me everything there.”
“Is he mad?”
“No. I don’t think so. Eccentric maybe, but not mad. Scared out of his wits I think.”
“Don’t know. I think he’ll tell me this afternoon.”
“What’s his boat?”
“The Mountain View,” he said. “Anchored west of the jetty.”
“Like to, but I don’t have any way of getting out to it.”
“I’ll take you.”
“In that.” He bent over and pointed through a door from the workshop and when I followed his arm I could see the smallest of flat-bottomed, plywood boats, lashed up firmly under the joists of the floor above.
“Didn’t know you had that. Never seen you use it.”
“Always been going to. Had it for years. It came with the house.”
“Is it big enough for two?”
“I’ve never seen you go sailing.”
“Goes to prove you don’t know everything about me. Did a lot of it when I retired. The water’s the main reason we came to live here.”
“But you don’t do it now.”
“Things change, don’t they? Costly outfits boats – and people kept asking me to build pieces of furniture, so in the end the boat money wound up in the workshop. I’m happy.”
“You in a boat. Fancy that.”
“Look, do you want to visit this nutter or not?”
It wasn’t a pretty sight, the two of us getting the boat off his station wagon roof and on to the water at the boat ramp. It was light enough but it was a new and exhausting action for us.
The moment we saw The Mountain View as it lay at anchor in its own still reflection thirty metres off shore, Scotty said. “That’s the sloop we saw from the bowling club the other day.” And so it was, ‘…stuck, nor breath nor motion, as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean’, its trim reflection looking as real below as it was above water. We’d stopped to look at it from the car park when we first came down.
“Traditional lines. Bloody nice,” he said, “wood,” and again I agreed with him. I didn’t need to know anything about boats to see that.
Despite our ineptitude we got the small craft in the sea and I, at least, looked anxiously for any little spouts of water around the flat bottomed seams.
“Looks more like a coracle than a dinghy,” I said.
“Coracles did the job.”
“We can’t both get in that, can we?”
“Swimming then are ya?”
It wasn’t pretty, our knees intertwined as we faced each other, Scotty doing the rowing with the two short oars that were more like extended paddles, but slowly we left the boat ramp and rounded the jetties. Going past the ferry landing pontoon we received encouragement from those waiting for the next boat.
“Rub-a-dub-dub, two men in a tub…” The Australian voice is well trained in barracking at the sports’ matches they’re so keen on. It’s a hard, flat voice; it’s clear and it carries.
“Don’t cough or you’ll sink.” All right for the person saying that and the laughter it caused, but I too could see how little freeboard there was. It looked a beautiful bay but I wasn’t so keen on what might be under the surface.
“Pedal harder, mate.”
“Think you need a new battery, Scotty.”
I was glad it was him they knew, not me, but eventually we got beyond the laughter and the advice and found ourselves closing on the The Mountain View.
“Hell of a name for a boat,” said Scotty, using the statement as an excuse for resting on the oars.
Who knows why people name things? At least it was original and a much better name than, ‘Sea Nymph,’ or ‘Wanderer’ or any of those other trite and tired names.
Slowly, doing more watching of the ship than rowing, we came closer. “Don’t think you’re supposed to anchor here,” said Scotty. “A man whose been sailing for years would know that from his charts.”
I expected some activity on board as we got closer but there was none. We were only a metre or two off the boat, watching the reflections from the cabin windows throw wavy gold patches on the water, listening to the ever-present slurp of the restless sea against the hull of the yacht.
“Ahoy there,” I called. It seemed an appropriate mariner’s thing to say. I had more sailing vocabulary that I’d learned from my years of reading the naval sagas of Marryat and Forrester as a youngster. “Permission to come aboard?” I used a loud voice but nothing in the scene changed.
“Well, bugger me! We come out and he’s ashore. You’ve been had, mate.”
I couldn’t help thinking something similar – and yet… Scotty shipped oars, wetting me through from the waist down, and I leaned out and held the rail of the boat to stop us bumping. “It’s just me,” I called, “the man you met at the café this morning… You asked me to come and see you this afternoon? My friend helped me get here.”
Scotty looked at me, but said nothing.
“Cabin door’s open, Scotty. Wouldn’t he close that if he were going ashore?”
“I’d think so.”
I looked about – as tranquil a scene as could be imagined. “I’m going aboard. I want to be sure he’s all right.”
Scotty nodded and held the boat fast while I clambered aboard in another turn of inelegance. I was in a small half-covered area with a steering wheel and a strange structure which I thought might have something to do with self-steering. Everything was wood or brass, nothing plastic to be seen and I went down the few steps into the cabin trying to adjust my eyes to the darker area after the glare of the sea.
For a minute, my eyes took in nothing. I was standing there blinking when I heard a groan and there, laid out on his back on a bench seat, was the ancient mariner. I stepped into the cabin, knocking my head on the ceiling, and with one hand holding my pained scalp, I looked at him. “Scotty. I yelled, “Need a hand, quickly.”
I squatted as close to his head as the fixed table would allow me and bent close to the weathered sailor. “You all right?” His face was sweating and seemed to be setting in a mask as he ground his teeth. He made a croak for an answer and tried to move but couldn’t. He moaned in a fit of pain, his head arcing back and down into the bench squab. I was shocked with alarm. He looked very ill. Above, I heard the thump as Scotty came on board and hastened down the steps cracking his head on the lintel harder than I’d hit mine. He swore and rubbed his crown. “What’s the matter with him?”
“He’s sick. Really sick. We need to get him to a doctor fast. You got your phone?”
“No. I put it on charge just before you came over. But you’ve got one now.” Automatically my hand grabbed my pocket – then another pocket – and another –
“Sometimes I don’t remember to carry it,” I said, my hands carrying on with their fruitlessly repetitive search.
“Bloody galah,” was Scotty’s immediate and justified judgement. He had a point. I felt terrible looking at the sick man.
“You go for help. I’ll stay here with him, but for Christ’s sake be quick. He’s not good.”
“Oh god!” said Scotty and turning his horror stricken face to me he said quietly, “He’s a gonner.”
Scotty took off and through the window I could see him rowing strenuously, heading directly for the shore where he would climb the rock sea-wall and run down to his car. A gonner?I was totally lost for words and dreaded that Scotty was right.
Alone with the man, I felt helpless and anxious.I knelt down by his side, jammed between table and bench and listened to his laboured and shallow breathing, watched the paroxysms of his body as it arched right up until his middle was off the couch altogether and I was frightened he’d fall off. I had never felt so helpless to assist another. What had happened to him? I didn’t think it was accident because there were no signs of physical damage on him and no sign of anything in the cabin that looked as though it had been upset. No evidence of anything like a fall; just this freshly shaved face of tanned and light skin glistening and spasmed in its pain.
As I watched, his eyes opened and gradually he seemed to be aware of where he was. His breath was panting and he looked at me, questions in his eyes.
“I’m Lockie,” I said. “Remember? You spoke to me at the café this morning.?”
I could hardly hear his voice but his lips moved. I bent close, listening.
“Is Alice here?”
Alice? I was sure I’d heard correctly. Alice? “No,” I said, and the eyes closed as if that were all there were to be said in the world. “I think she’ll be coming down later.” It was a desperate attempt to keep his attention alive and it worked. He opened his eyes again.
“Where am I?”
“On board your boat, The Mountain View. You’re snug and safe at anchor off Macleay Island, Moreton Bay.”
For the first time those eyes came slowly to life and I knew he was here in the present. Alarm spread through him and he struggled to rise though he had no chance of doing that. Pain struck at him and with a groan and a gasp of breath he stiffened again. “I’ve got to go,” he said in gasping gulps of air.
“Why? You’re safe here, ambulance men’ll be here in a moment. Just relax. You’re OK.”
“No.” He turned those large bright eyes on me. “The black men. The things. They’ll kill me.” There was no doubting the panic in his thin voice. “They’ll kill you too if they think you know.” There was no mistaking his seriousness.
“If I know what?”
He frowned at me, terror and pain in his eyes, his face running with sweat, and I felt so impotent. Wherever he was it was a million miles from here fighting a universe of pain and I wanted to know more about these ‘black men’. What was he talking about?
I put a hand on his very white forehead. It was cold and clammy. Even I could tell he was desperately ill and I thought he might be raving, his mind wandering in time past, its bearings unseated in a confusion of sickness. Alice? Black men? He was rambling. And he was tortured by convulsions which were growing in severity, his whole body arching up like a stiff bridge.
I was desperate to do something, anything, to help relieve his suffering. In a drawer under the bunk I found a blanket and placed it over him, alarmed at how cold his brow was. His eyes were open, bulging, staring fixedly up at the low ceiling, and I wanted nothing as much as I wanted to hear those medics stepping onto the boat. I folded the blanket back on his chest. “What’s your name? Here we’ve been chatting away and I don’t know your name. Mine’s Lockie. I’ve told you that. What’s yours?”
The eyes turned slowly and sadly upon me. I fussed with the blanket. “Would you like a drink of water… What was your name again?”
“Peter.” I heard it but took a moment or two to recognise the sound as his name.
“Well, Peter, I’ll get you some water.”
I found an enamelled cup quickly enough but trying to get water out of the swan-necked spout over a tiny basin was not as straightforward as turning on the tap at home. I had to throw a switch first and then when I turned on the tap, a rapid and light hammering of a pump told me that the water was coming, as it soon did. Back by Peter I decided against trying to sit him up. His body had a frightening will of its own that neither he nor I could control nor ameliorate. The least I caused him to move, the better. With my finger, I fed drops of water to his lips. A couple of drops and his mouth moved, the very end of his tongue appeared to receive the moisture and I felt good because for the first time I felt I was doing something helpful for him.
His eyes closed again and his breathing though slight was regular and I hoped he was in the mercy of sleep.
I sat at the small table and looked around at all there was of a man’s life. What a compact world: a fixed table, a galley in one corner, one side of the cabin given over to the maps and screens of modern navigation. How unbelievably small and tight the whole area was. The bench he lay on, down one side, served the table and I wondered if he ever bedded down there though I knew there would be sleeping quarters forward of here. Everything was so simple on a boat like this, the necessities of living, not much more, all stored so they couldn’t move. In a way, this was the ultimate accommodation, this was the minimalism of necessity and every day Peter must have heard the water against the hull as he navigated the sea in a simplicity of life that I envied as I sat. I’d like to be able to enjoy some of that independence, some of that closeness to the elements but… I sighed. The sea and I had never been good companions. I’d never been out there for as many days as it would take to get beyond sea-sickness. I admired the ability in others, but I was a land lubber pure and simple. Sitting there in the quiet of the slapping sea made me realize that I knew how much space a man required when he was dead but until now I’d never wondered how little he needed to live.
No sign of any relief coming, I stood, keeping my head down and moved about the cramped world of Peter. Peter who? I knew a Blue Peter was the flag ships raised when they were about to leave port. It was the only marine flag I knew and I wondered if yachts like this still flew it. What was his full name? Must be around the boat somewhere and I didn’t have to move far to explore.
I went through the narrow door forward in the wall (should I call it a bulkhead?) to a shower and a loo, and beyond to a compact cabin with two bunks, one on each side, lockers above and below. These boats were designed for a shorter generation than the present one. Always I had to watch my head. So many high school kids nowadays are well over six feet tall. What say they wanted to roam the seas? I wondered if modern marine architects had gradually increased dimensions.
I was looking for papers, a passport, something like that to identify the man but the only thing I came across in the front cabin was ten or twelve books, mostly well worn. One was a book of chess strategies, another was Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and the rest were by Whiting, Cobbett, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of Verse, half-a-dozen books on mathematics and a worn copy of Alice in Wonderland. Whoever Peter was, whatever his background, he was a man of some intellect living the simple life of a monk though choosing the sea as his contemplative cell.
I went back to the cabin where I could keep an eye on him. Every now and then he went though a heart stopping constriction and he no longer seemed aware of me.
I reached out to the drawers around me and in one, under the navigation table, I found a clipped clear plastic bag holding the ship’s log, a purpose printed book with a stout black cover into which the gold letters, ‘Ship’s Log’ had been impressed. I slipped it from the plastic bag and opened it to the front page. There it was, plain for all to see. The Mountain View was owned and skippered by Peter Fullton Haultain. It’s home port was Plymouth, England, and if the small neat writing that all but filled the volume, were to be believed, Peter had been on the high seas in this boat for the best part of twenty years.
I looked across at the still figure and startled myself when I thought he’d stopped breathing. I went to him but no, there was still the shallowest of breath. Out of the porthole above him I saw an aluminium dingy with an outboard motor, a craft universally known in Australia-speak as a ‘tinny’. It curved out from the boat ramp. Two of the men wore the yellow vests of the ambulance service and the long lean Scotty was the third. My relief was instant and intense.
In no time they were clambering aboard with their boxes of equipment and coming down the steps into the cabin.
For some reason the ambulance service on Macleay Island is staffed by big men and these two alone immediately filled the cabin.
As best we could, Scotty and I squeezed out onto the small after deck.
We didn’t say much but helped the medics where we could. When they brought him up he wore a mask and oxygen feed on his face and he was rigid. They got him onto a stretcher on the aft deck and between us we lowered him into the half-cabin run-a-bout. Very soon, with a promise to come back and get us, the boat pushed off and was soon streaking toward Russell Island. The plan was to meet the ambulance boat which had already left base on Russell. It would take him to the Redland Marina where an ambulance would deliver him to the Redland or to Princess Alexandra Hospital.
“So much for a quiet visit to an old geezer,” said Scotty as the noise of the ambulance outboard faded with the boat and we sat in the cockpit rocking gently in its wake.
“Yes, don’t like the look of him do you?” I said.
“Nah. He’s a gonner.”
“That your medical assessment, doctor?”
“Christ man, what do you think?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know.” But I feared.
“Trouble with you. You don’t know what to think unless you’ve read it in a book somewhere.” I winced at that. “Did he say anything to you?”
I thought about the ‘black men’ but decided against bringing it up. I didn’t know what he meant by that and it was so open to the charge of racism that I thought it best to let it die right there. The man was ill and for all I knew rambling. “He asked about Alice.”
“Alice? Who in hell is Alice?”
“No idea – mother, wife, sister, sweetheart – no idea at all. I know his name.”
“Did he tell you?”
“First name. Log book for the rest.”
We went back down to the cabin and found the log book. Scotty had a long look at it. “Poor bugger,” was the only thing he said. Then he looked for and found the charts and we both poured over them following the path of The Mountain View from South Africa to places up the West Australian coast, to Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, across through Singapore and ports of Indonesia to Cairns in Australia and south to Moreton Bay.“Don’t think I’d care to be sailing on my own in some of those places,” said Scotty. “The storms off the south east of Africa and the pirates around Thailand and Indonesia. No. I’d like to sleep more comfortably than that.”
As if to back up his opinion he thumbed back through the log books and said, “See?” I looked at the pages where his finger pointed and there, in July, was the sparsest account of what must have been the most appalling storm with comments like, ‘Wind, s-w to w, 60 knots gusting 70.’ Next day the remarks were: ‘sleet. Ice on deck and rigging. Nearly stood on end three times. Knocked flat, 02.30. Cabin full of water, 4°C.’ Later it said, ‘3 days, no sleep.’
“It’s a wonder he survived,” said Scotty.
“Down there at that time of the year, single handed? I wonder if he cared if he survived.”
That was his previous trip. This time he’d rounded Cape Horn from the South Atlantic, sailed up the coast of South America and from Mexico across the Pacific, calling at island groups on the way.
We were both of us quiet as we looked around the boat. Everything so neat.
“He lives a thin life,” said Scotty shaking his head.
“I’m not so sure. Maybe thin physically, but he knew what he was doing. He chose it. And if you look at his books he must think a lot. Seems to be keen on mathematics and logic. They’re well used those books.”
We went back to the cockpit and there, Scotty found a box in a small cupboard. “What’s this?” he said pulling it out. The wooden box – rosewood, Scotty said – with its brass corner fittings had seen a lot of wear but looked capable of withstanding a lot more. He opened it and there was a beautiful brass sextant with the name Cassens und Plath, Bremerhaven, Deutschland, on its main beam. In the lid of the box were original certificates of manufacture and guarantee with the year 1913 on them.
“What in hell would he want this for?” Scotty was amazed. “He’s got the basic digital navigation gear.”
I could only admire the condition of the complicated instrument. All it had been through and yet it presented as new, a tribute to maker and those who had cared for it. “Maybe, but this is his pleasure. He enjoys using this. It’s his fun. I’ll bet he navigates by it and uses the digital gear only for checking.”
“Fun? Wonder if he fills his own teeth.”
“I wish we knew more about him,” I said as we sat watching the ferry go past on its run, waiting for the slow swell of its bow wave to reach and rock us gently. “He seemed really worried about something this morning and now I’ve seen how he lives, seen something of his values, I’d like to know what that worry was. He doesn’t seem to be a man to worry about small things, not after what he’s been through in life.”
The medics came back sooner than I expected, their transfer completed.
“How is he?”
They give nothing away. “He’s a very sick man,” Martin, the senior, said. That much we knew. “They’re taking him to Princess Alexandra.” It was a further twenty minutes closer to Brisbane but it was an immense hospital with all manner of specialties.
Scotty was dropped off at his little plywood boat. I offered to help him but he said, “Easier on my own, Lockie, and you’ll never climb that sea wall. Drop him off at the boat ramp,” he said to the medics ignoring me completely, and climbed aboard his tiny craft.
He was getting the hang of rowing the boat and appeared back at the ramp much quicker than I thought. Between the two of us it wasn’t too hard to upend the vessel and tie it on the roof.
“If you’d just get used to carrying your bloody mobile phone,” he said to me as we were getting in the car, “We could ring Irm now and she’d have the billy boiling by the time we got home.”
“Sorry to inconvenience you,” I said as I buckled up. “If you call at my place, I’ll pick it up and ring her.”
“Yeah. You’re a Kiwi all right. A real clever dick.” He started the car.
We had a very good afternoon tea with Irma, scones thick with butter and strawberry jam.
“You shouldn’t have wasted your life on this man, Irma. You could have made fame and fortune as a TV chef.” She laughed in delight, Scotty glared at me and I shrugged at him. “No hiding the truth,” I said.
Once I was home, I rang The Princess Alexandra Hospital to see how Peter was getting on. I expected the usual palming off when they found I was not a blood relative, but I decided to give it a go.
The call started in the usual official manner but after a couple of transfers I found I was talking to a doctor. Encouraging. But instead of answering my question, he had a few of his own such as my name, my address, did I know the patient’s name, even asked what I knew about him? We were getting a little bound up so I told him the simple story: of how Peter had invited me to his boat, how I found him ill there and called the ambulance. Yes, I did know his name because it was there in his Log Book. We’d told the ambulance men what it was.
“That’s all I know,” I said “but he seemed like a recluse to me and I may be the only person he knows in Australia. Surely you could tell me how he’s getting on. I’d like to visit him.”
There was quite a long pause on the other end before he said, “Mr Lockie, I’m sorry to tell you that the patient was dead on admission.”
“Oh!” I felt a terrible thump in my stomach. “What did he die of?” I knew he was ill, desperately ill, I could see that, but I didn’t really concede the possibility of death. Scotty’s downright ‘He’s a gonner,’ I put down to his streak of pessimism. But death… We hold it at arm’s length… We bar the door against it, knowing it’s there, keeping it outside for as long as we can, but when we find it’s in the room with us, we are always surprised, shocked into a terrible stillness.
I still felt profoundly shocked the next morning. What to do? Peter Haultain was dead and I wondered if I were the only person in this region to know him. Not that I could say I knew him, I didn’t, but there was something about him, about his gentle demeanour, about his intense loneliness that made me feel responsible for him… and he had reached out to touch my arm. I wasn’t sure why he’d done that except that he had something to tell me. What? I’d never know now.
Since I’d given the hospital all the information I knew about Peter I reasoned they would pass it on to the police, who in turn would notify the English police, and so the Haultain family – if there were one – would learn of this tragedy. But the more I thought about it the more I felt it would be much less official, much kinder, more personal for them to hear from someone who had met Peter, even briefly. I felt strongly about it. And so I decided to write to the long address I’d seen in the front of the log book. The trouble was, I couldn’t recall it, which meant another trip to the boat and I wondered what Scotty would think of that. I went to see him straight after breakfast.
“I’m sorry to hear he died” he said, “but I can’t say it surprises me. He looked really crook.”
“He did. So what do you think of my idea to write? You on for another trip to The Mountain View?”
“Yeah, OK. Best if we go now.”.
We got to the boat with more confidence and speed if no more style and it was eerily sad standing in the cabin knowing Peter was dead. I almost felt sorry for the boat that such a long association had been broken. I think Scotty felt something of it too for we neither said anything for some time, just stood there looking about, feeling like trespassers.
“Scotty,” I said eventually, “do you notice anything different about the place?”
“It’s got a funny feeling,” he said.
“Apart from that. I left that blanket folded on the end of the seat.” We both looked at the blanket which had been pushed to one side.
“Yeah,” he said. “And that chart table was very neat the way Peter left it. It’s not now.”
“Whose been in here?”
“Don’t think so. They’d have put Police tapes on it wouldn’t they?”
“What for? It’s not a crime scene.” He was right.
“Why would they come if it’s not a crime scene? If they do turn up today, we’ll know his death is suspicious.”
“Probably just food poisoning.”
“May be; but he’s been looking after himself for a long time.”
I found the log book. In the front there was the longest address, I recalled seeing.Now I could write to it in the hope of reaching a relation, some family member who might take over responsibility for Peter Haultain’s possessions.
“The police’ll do that won’t they?” said Scotty.
“They may have got in touch already but you know, a wife, family – a real live human being – who’d appreciate hearing from someone who saw him at this moment… who…” I’d run out of words. “He took my arm, Scotty.”
“Fair enough, fair enough,” Scotty said, and nodded his head.
We looked around.
“Somebody’s been searching here since last night, haven’t they?”
“Yeah. Certainly looks like it,” he said. “Wonder what they were looking for?”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about Peter. He’s an ocean going recluse. Not that old. Certainly eccentric. A man of simple needs and wants, and he’s highly educated. I’d guess he has a pretty good English university degree somewhere.”
“I’ll agree with the first bit. In fact he could have been crazy, but where do you get the degree thing from?”
“His books. He’s a mathematician and a philosopher. Look at them.” I went to the small shelf with a hinged wooden bar across the front of it to stop the books falling out in pitching seas. I whipped open the bar to expose the books. “They’re solid stuff. These three are fundamental works on mathematics. These are mostly modern philosophers.”
“How about that thin one?”
“That? That’s a wonderful book about being the best person you can be in the world. That’s a rich book about humanity and it’s written by an ancient Roman. An emperor no less. That’s the book that tells me Peter wasn’t mad.”
“Huh. What would a Roman emperor know about humanity?”
“This one knew plenty. Leave it by your bedside and read a page every night. Then you can ask that emperor how much he knew about humanity.”
I took down the slim book of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It’s full of wisdom and I wanted to read a sentence to convince Scotty that the emperor was indeed a man of great humanity and worth reading.
“Bed’s for sleeping.”
“Bet you didn’t always think that.”
“Suppose not.” He gave one of his rare broad smiles and as if that had done it, a photograph fell from the pages of the book. I picked it up and we both stared at it. An old fashioned polaroid it had kept its colour well being hidden from the light all its life. The background was the inside of a luxury yacht and three people were there, apparently unaware of the camera.
“I’d say that’s Peter, wouldn’t you?” I pointed at a figure and Scotty bent over to have a closer look.
“Might be. He’s changed a bit. Cleaned up there and wearing decent clothes. But… yeah, maybe you’re right. There is a resemblance.”
There was more than a resemblance. It was Peter, no doubt, wearing a tie and in a very different circumstance.
“So who are the other two?” We both examined the square picture thoroughly but – nothing.
“She’s a good looking sheila,” said Scotty looking at the woman who was standing talking to Peter, and I had to agree; in her thirties, she had a beautiful face and a figure to match – what I could see of it – the picture came to just below the elbow of the arm she was holding a drink with. Peter too was upper half only and they were talking to each other.
“Tell me Scotty, what does this picture make you think about these two?” Without hesitation he said, “They’re smitten.”
“With each other?”
He looked at me. “Of course with each other. Who else do you think they’re looking at?”
“OK. I was looking at the bloke at the table behind them.” In the background, but clear enough, sat a man with a strong widow’s peak to his hair line, holding a glass, watching the pair with electric eyes.
Scotty gave a laugh. “Yeah. Doesn’t look the happiest Jack in the pack, does he?”
If Scotty could see all that in the small picture in front of us, I wasn’t imagining it. So who were they, these other two, and what was the significance of the photograph to Peter that he should keep it in a book where he’d come across it from time to time, most likely when he was in a reflective mood?
“On the other hand,” said the ever practical Scotty, “He might not be liking the taste of his drink.” I looked at the man in the background. It could be true but I didn’t think so.
“So what’s all this about?” He turned around in the small space, his head forward to clear the ceiling, hands outstretched as far as they could go without hitting me or a wall.
I sat down on a bunk and tried to go back to where I’d been before that photograph fluttered into being. “What I’m saying is, this man thought a lot. No man with his background would just think, he’d write it down. There must have been hours and days at sea when his mind was working full on and I’m sure he wrote it down. Where is it?”
“Of course he’s an eccentric.”
“As a bloody square egg.”
“Who knows what demons haunted him?” The picture flashed into my mind again and I looked at it – “demons we can’t see. In port, he did port things like repairs and supplies and hid his writing from any prying eyes. At sea, out it’d come again. What do you think?”
Another shrug. “Possible. So where is it?”
“Exactly. And that’s your job; find it, if whoever else has been in here hasn’t taken it already.”
“I know you’re not a boatie, but you were once, and you’ve had more experience of boats than I have, plus you’re a great woodworker. This boat is all wood, so I reckon you’d be the ideal person to find where he keeps his journals away from prying eyes like mine. If you can’t find it, nobody can.”
Scotty was struggling, I could see that. On the one hand he thought this was a very stupid thing to be doing and on the other his professional skills and judgement were up for testing. “Oh, Jesus,” he muttered as he surrendered, turned and started a detailed inspection of the whole ship. “Well, I suppose it’d have to be convenient for him to get at, so I don’t think it’d be down with the engine or in the bilges, any place like that.” He was muttering to himself. “Let’s see.”
I watched as he ran his fingers over surfaces and joins, tapped here and there and moved along, testing and searching thoroughly.
I tried to keep out of his way and went to the tight galley corner. I opened and closed drawers and cupboards but the only thing to catch my eye was a space. The stores had been replenished and every nook was stocked tight after his time in port, so why, right there in front of me, was there an empty drawer? It was one of three and the other two each had metal linings fitted. One was filled with sugar, another with rice, and this third one was empty. Where was its metal lining? A quick check on the contents of the galley and it was clear this was the drawer for flour and the lining would have been very useful. Where was it? It wasn’t missing by accident, someone had taken away the flour supply in the metal liner. Now why would they have done that? I remembered yesterday when we’d come aboard, there were five scones on a tray on the stove top. Maybe they were for me when I called and if so, he must have had flour then. Where were they now?
I was about to call out to Scotty, who had worked his way into the front cabin when I heard him yell.
“Come and have a look at this.”
He was experimenting with a panel at the head of the bunk. It moved slightly when he placed his hand on it and he was carefully testing to see what kept it in place and how he could unlock it. I admired his patience. Normally I wouldn’t call Scotty patient. In sport he had none at all but when it came to working wood he was a different man, taking infinite care and never pushing or forcing things. I once asked him about this personality split. He looked at me astonished and said,”Christ, you’ve got a lurid imagination.” Now he pulled back the top of the mattress fitted into the bunk space and had a very close look at the plain structure there. His long fingers felt around and there was a sudden shift of the beading which held the plywood panel and it clattered on the floor.
“Gotcha,” he said with satisfaction and pulled a white plastic bag from the small space he’d opened. It was obvious from the shape that it held books.
“Good man,” I said. He passed me the bag.
“Shouldn’t get past a good customs’ inspector,” he said, examining the simple catch that held the panel in place. The whole mechanism was clear to him now and he was satisfied.
“Don’t think he was worried about customs’ officers. Privacy was what he wanted. Security from prying eyes in port. Looks like he got it too.”
Scotty bent over and sat on the bunk. “D’ya reckon this is what they were looking for?”
“I do.” I was already leafing through the books. Journals, partially diaries, full of his thoughts and reflections. “Look,” I lent forward to show him. “Most of it’s hand written but there are some printed pages neatly tipped in here and there. I reckon he had a computer, a small lap top.”
“He’d need a printer to get those pages, and there’s not one on this boat.”
“Probably got them printed in port. No sign of a computer?”
“Not a beep.”
“I think our burglar took it” I said. “He found it and stopped looking. It’s gone.”
“Who in hell would want it so much, and why?”
“I’d like to know. As Alice would say in that book, ‘Curioser and curioser’”
“Bit creepy really. Let’s go.”
“OK. Got something to show you in the galley and then we’re off.”
We stumbled out to the cabin as the gentle wake of a ferry boat rocked us, and I showed him the empty flour drawer. He shook his head.
“Cops should know about this, shouldn’t they?”
“I suppose so.” I picked up the tea caddy from its secure shelf and said, “Wonder what kind of tea he drank?” It was a small tin but it weighed surprisingly heavy. I lifted the lid. It was about half-full and I took a good sniff of the contents. “Mm, good stuff.” I shook it and that’s when I felt the weight was wrong. In a drawer, I found an aluminium plate and poured the contents of the caddy onto it. The last thing out was a tightly folded plastic packet with some weight to it.
With increasing excitement I unwrapped the plastic, Scotty watching me intently.
“What are they?” he said as two small plastic and metal pieces rolled into my hand.
“Memory sticks. Two memory sticks. They store computer information. So he did have a computer, and he was worried about keeping something secret – and this is it?”
“Can we get at it?”
“We certainly can. I only have to plug them into my computer at home and we’ll know what worried him.”
Home, at my desk in the spare bedroom, I sat down and with Scotty by my side, I opened first one memory stick and then the other. Both were in French.
“Well, what in hell’s the use of that?” said Scotty in disgust.
I sat back. “Privacy, I suppose. It’s not exactly code but maybe it’s a little off-putting to people who know nothing but English.”
“Off-putting? Why go to all that trouble?”
“I don’t think it was any trouble to him, Scotty. I think his French is – or was – excellent.”
“Can you read it?”
“Not fluently. My French is very rusty. I’ve got a French dictionary one of the kids had at high school. I’d have to spend a bit of time on it.”
“Oh yeah, bloody clever chap that Peter. So smart with his French and his mathematics that nobody can understand him. You’re right, he’s as big a recluse as the Loch Ness Monster. I’ve got work to do. Let me know what it says when you’ve got it worked out,” and off he went back to his beloved workshop.
I wanted to catch today’s post so I put the memory sticks aside and wrote my letter to England. I explained who I was, how I’d happened across Peter, how I’d been invited aboard, and how I found him sick; all the events leading to his death in hospital. I sent my condolences, gave my contact information and asked if there was anything they wanted me to do.
I wrote the letter on the computer but once I’d printed it I thought it looked too formal so I copied it out long-hand. Addressing it gave me some trouble. In the end the first line on the envelope was to ‘The Senior Member of the Haultain Family’. I took it straight down to Lill, in the Australia Post shop and watched her stamp it and put it in the mail bag.
I was pleased I’d done it immediately and hoped that someone at that distant address in Somerset would get the letter and ease my responsibility.
I did one more thing. I posted a small enquiry notice in Brisbane’s, The Courier Mail newspaper, asking that anyone who knew Peter Fulton Haultain of The Mountain View yacht, get in touch with me. I gave my telephone number; my land-line telephone number.
With the letters out of my way and feeling much better for it, I sat with a cup tea by my side and gave the afternoon to reading the Log Book and Journals of Peter Haultain.
The Log Book was like reading a specialized shorthand in which figures of location, distance and speed of the boat and the wind were the skeleton everything was hung on. The major characters were the boat, the weather, the sea and time, and I learnt the difference between the wind backing and veering and what a storm a long way off could do to sea conditions. When the weather allowed sighting of the sun he gave his position calculated from sextant and chronometer alongside the digital readings, and I had the feeling that if all his electrics closed down, this mariner would still sail an accurate course.
There were occasional references to storms and difficulties like those off the south-east coast of South Africa, but his hardships were left to the imagination, the log recorded only dispassionate fact.
The journals, on the other hand, were the work of a disciplined mind.
He encompassed an astonishingly wide range of subjects, from government to the phenomenon of phosphorescence in the sea. Occasionally he would reason in mathematics and I had to skip those pages, but in other places he would write in beautiful transparent prose about the joy of food or the nature of a coastline. It was the work of an agile mind though I searched in vain for something about Alice, or his family in Britain. People in the abstract he could write about, but any reference to individuals he might have known, was absent.
I read long into the soft night totally engaged by those wonderfully personal journals. I was enchanted by them, but by the last page I knew little more about the individuality of Peter Haultain.
I made myself a quick sandwich for supper, dug out my daughter’s school French dictionary and started to work seriously on the French mysteries in the memory sticks.
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