from The Blue
Tory Channel, New Zealand, 1938.
The sky was the colour of barely beaten egg, and the sun newly-emerged from behind Arapawa Island streamed clear yellow on Lookout Hill and the men who waited there. Little else was lit at that early hour. A hundred yards below the Lookout the sea was still dark, and the hills behind were in shadow and crisp with frost. Each man on that hilltop felt privileged to be there, on the edge of, the very edge of, the waking world.
It was a promising day and Sarge was heartened by it, so promising that it made him want to try a bit of mischief. Waiting for the billy to boil, he clapped his hands together and stamped his feet to stop the cold setting inside the tips of his fingers and toes. That was a good reason – if he needed any – for a bit of fun. It always got the blood moving.
Ed’s Micky had come over for the first time since Sarge could remember. He’d come to replace Gunner who was crook. They’d been making wisecracks about his city ways all the way up from the beach. It had started the moment he’d got water in his boots climbing out of the dinghy and reached a peak when he’d spread his coat on the grass and started to remove his boots. They’d all watched Micky tip the water out before putting them in a patch of sun behind him to dry.
‘Thought you’d bring the sea up with you did you, son?’ said Sarge.
‘I guess they don’t have much call for gumboots on Lambton Quay,’ said Jimmy. ‘It’s only natural the boy would mistake them for bailers.’
Micky wrung out his socks and hung them over the boots, tucking his feet into his hat for warmth before picking up his binoculars. The boy had sent back some of the jibes early on, but now he wrapped himself in heavy silence and the laughter petered out.
Nevertheless, it seemed to Sarge that Micky was less surly than he used to be. He’d surprised everyone by angling to get on the whale boats the minute he’d arrived back from Wellington. Every day in the week he’d been back, he’d been down at the whale station looking things over, helping out, chiacking with the flensers as they cut into the whales.
If you asked Sarge, he’d say the time the boy had spent in the city had been good for his independence, but now he was back where he should be learning the job he was made for. Sarge couldn’t say it to Ed, though. He had his reasons for keeping the boy off the chasers.
They’d been sitting on Lookout Hill for an hour before Micky turned to Sarge and spoke in a low voice. ‘Hey Sarge, can I ask you a question?’
‘You can ask me a question, son, but I’m not sure you’ll get an answer.’ And Sarge had a good laugh at that, as a few of the others did round about. Micky waited.
‘What am I looking for?’
‘What are you looking for? You’re looking for a whale.’
When that laughter had subsided, there was the sound of Micky breathing deeply. Ed looked sharply at the boy and Sarge saw the look and the flare of the boy’s nostrils. Sarge remembered like it was yesterday Ed talking about Micky taking his place on the chasers when he was old enough; how he was a natural gunner and it ran in the blood. He’d stopped talking like that by the time the boy was thirteen, and on his fifteenth birthday, Ed was adamant. Micky would be better off working a farm or serving an apprenticeship than sitting behind a harpoon. Ed had gone over to Wellington himself and found his son the job in the fish shop and a place to board. It seemed he couldn’t get rid of Micky fast enough.
Then last night, Sarge had been the one to go and tell him they needed a replacement for Gunner. Ed was furious but Micky had jumped at it. The man and the boy had stared each other down, and Ed would have won except that Sarge stepped in and told him they had no choice. They were still short of people at the whale station so they couldn’t use any of them, and to cap it off, Gunner had specifically asked for Micky. The boy was a good shot and he’d have a chance at hitting a whale. It was the boy or nothing, and if it was nothing, they’d be one chaser down.
‘Son,’ Ed’s voice surprised Sarge, it seemed he’d got used to the idea since last night. ‘You’re looking for a whale spout.’ After the laughter subsided, it seemed the sea subsided too, hushed itself against the beach below and waited. ‘It’s like your breath on a cold morning.’
Micky turned his head to look at his father, but Ed’s face was behind the binoculars, his elbows on his knees to keep them steady. He was trained on a corner of the vast pitching blueness of the sea. Micky turned to his glasses again and stared at the porthole of blue they made in front of him. Sea, only sea. He would find a bloody whale; they’d laugh on the other side of their faces.
Micky’s eyes moved around the circle of shifting blue, paused on a breaking wave, travelled along a shiny slick, came back again to what looked like warm breath in cold air and waited. Nothing. It was strange to have the sea filling his eyes like that. It began to mesmerise him. He liked the way boats in the far distance blended into the line of water; the further out they were the more the water and light dissected them, eventually leaving nothing more than a shiver. And his thoughts, they travelled like the boats, too, disappearing when they’d travelled far enough. He could hear the others talking, they’d seen a fishing boat coming in from Cape Campbell to the south.
‘It’s the Sunset!’
‘Where are you, Jimmy?’ That was Sarge.
‘Between us and Cape Campbell, straight line down from the pyramid.’ And they all knew what that meant exactly and they shifted their glasses to that spot. Micky tried to follow but got lost until into the circle of his view came a triangle-shaped hill on the Cape Campbell shoreline thirty miles away to the south. In a straight line out from there he made out a small fishing boat chugging their way. It had to be twenty miles away yet, how could they make out which boat it was? He squinted hard but couldn’t for the life of him identify it.
‘I give up,’ he said. ‘How do you know it’s the Sunset?’
‘It’s pink,’ said Jimmy.
‘But you can’t see the colour from here,’ said Micky adjusting his lenses to try for more clarity.
‘You can see that colour anywhere.’
‘It shouldn’t be on the water,’ said Jock, ‘Bloody girl’s colour. His wife chose it and the name too. That Dave’s got no shame.’
‘They’re coming in early,’ said Sarge, ‘wonder what’s wrong.’
‘A lot’s wrong if it’s the Sunset!’ said Jimmy chuckling to himself. ‘Silly buggers, wouldn’t know a good boat if they fell over it. It shouldn’t even be out there. It’s a hazard to shipping.’ And they all erupted into laughter except Boots who was humming ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’.
‘There she blows,’ said Ed quietly. And Boots shut up.
‘Blows?’ spluttered Sarge looking to see where Ed’s glasses were pointing. ‘You doing a bit of mollyhawking over there, Lucky?’
‘He’s not poaching, you silly bugger,’ said Jimmy. ‘Your eye was off the ball.’
‘My eye is never off the ball,’ said Sarge. ‘So where the hell is it? I can’t see a thing out there.’
‘Five or six mile out,’ said Ed. ‘Straight out from here in the first patch of dark water. I seen six spouts. I reckon it’s a pair of humpies. They should be up again in five.’
‘Should I have a bird in the top of my glass?’ asked Boots.
‘No, it’s in the bottom of your glass, move it up a bit,’ said Ed.
‘Straight under that long thin bit of cloud?’
‘Yeah, you’ve got it. Right at the end of the finger of cloud.’
And it was silent for a moment as they looked. Micky was sure he was on the right spot and he waited, the blood beating in his temples.
‘Blow!’ said Ed, louder than last time, and then louder each time. ‘Blow! Blow! Blow!’
Micky felt something spurt in his chest.
‘Got it!’ cried Sarge. ‘You beauty! That’s another notch for you, Lucky. Let’s get out there.’ Micky hadn’t got it; he was moving his glasses about too fast, feeling himself a fool.
‘Got it!’ said Jock. ‘See you fellas later.’ And that’s when they knew it was all on and scrambled to their feet, grabbing lunchboxes and rain gear. That’s when Micky reluctantly put his binoculars down, pulled on his damp socks and pushed a foot into his right boot; and that’s when something in there shrieked and wriggled and bit his big toe and he shrieked too and fell over backwards and tried to pull his foot out as fast as he could. And Sarge was laughing the most and Micky was swearing like crazy holding his toe and out shot a blue penguin not much bigger than his foot but a whole lot more furious than Micky and louder than Sarge. Its flippers flapping, waddling in a hurry, squawking and gargling, it scrambled down the narrow path to the boats. And the others ran off after it, laughing at Micky as they went, Sarge laughing the most.
‘You’ve got to watch yer boots, son, at all times! You never know what’ll get in there!’
‘Or who will put it in.’
‘Move your Christmas parcel, kid,’ said Old Jock, not a hint of a smile on him. ‘I’ve just about had enough of your fussing around. I don’t know who you think you are – Little Lord Fishbreath of Lambton Quay or something – but you’d better pull your bloody weight and get out there now.’
Micky growled at the back of his throat and felt the colour shift from his neck to his cheeks. He stared at the dark veins on Jock’s nose.
‘Get a move on Micky!’ Jimmy had come back up the track to get him. Turning deliberately away from Jock, Micky tipped each boot upside down before pulling it on, and picked up the rest of his gear. At the bottom of the track before the swing bridge he and Jimmy caught up with the rest.
‘Looking for your friend, Mick?’ said Sarge pointing down at the blue penguin which was fast scrabbling away over the stones.
Boots and Nick had hit the beach first and were taking the first dinghy out to the Nautilus. The others had to pile into the second dinghy. That was the rule. First crew to the beach had an advantage. Within minutes all three chasers were firing and heading for the mouth of Tory Channel. Micky was at the front of the Balena holding the harpoon gun.
This is what it’s like to have your heart in your mouth. It was so tight in there at the back of his mouth in the opening into his throat where he needed room for air. Micky thought he’d be sick. He couldn’t do this, his Dad was right, he’d make a mistake, he’d be useless. They’d laugh.
How hard could it be to hit a whale? They were so much bigger than goats and he’d dropped so many of those he’d lost count. All I need to do is hang on and point. Ed had readied the gun for him and the bombs were where they should be. Micky held his lips tightly together as the swell rose, for his stomach was rising too, up into his chest and into the back of his throat, just where it was already tight with anxiety. Seasick, Micky hadn’t counted on that. And then they were through the heads and into Cook Strait heading south-east.
Micky stared at the water up ahead and the sickness gradually receded, or maybe he wasn’t noticing it as much. There was nothing between him and the wide sea, nothing at all. In the far distance the horizon was a dark pencil line and past that horizon was a world he could barely imagine. Here he was, as small as he was, a gunner on a whaling boat embracing the world. And out of the water it came, thirty feet to port.
Moving slowly and unconcernedly, the humpback whale let go a rush of wet stinking air. Micky was close enough to see the air holes like large nostrils on its back. The creature was as fine a sight as Micky had ever seen. At that same moment the blockage in Micky’s throat cleared, his head emptied out, his body leaned to take the thrust of the gun. It was as if he’d been doing it all of his life. It can’t be this easy.
He pulled the trigger and without meaning to, closed his eyes. He felt but didn’t see the explosion inside the barrel, the harpoon bursting from it and the kick of the gun. His eyes opened again and he was sucking at the air like an old man. It was a direct hit into the whale’s spine at the base of its tail; the harpoon was shuddering from the impact and as deep as it could go. Micky threw his fist above his head and yelped, ‘That’s it! That’s it!’ And he laughed in a way he couldn’t ever remember laughing. He’d never thought, not the first one. He looked to see where the other chasers had gone.
Both were only yards away, Boots and Nick grinning, Sarge giving the thumbs up, his father’s face grim. Ed pointed at the whale. It was moving again, slowly, lifting its tail and slapping the water, one hard agonised slap that flicked blood into the air. Micky scrabbled to line up a lance. This shouldn’t take long. He knew a defeated animal when he saw it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mary McCallum has just completed a creative writing MA at Victoria, 25 years after doing the undergraduate writing course with Bill Manhire. In between, she worked as a journalist and raised three children. Mary has been published once in Landfall but little else besides and she won the 2003 Lilian Ida Smith Award. She lives in Eastbourne with her family, writing her second novel and doing book reviews for National Radio.