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Authors: Nerida Newton

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BOOK: Death of a Whaler
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THREE

Flinch is used to penance. Childhood lashings and countless small moments of rejection have moulded him perfectly for the regret he now bears like a hunchback's lump. His mother Audrey, fattening his guilt with stories of her own failed attempts at happiness, left him in no doubt that he was the bane of her pitiful life. That he represented everything that went wrong with who she should have been, if only she had been given the chance she believed life owed her. Over the years she had become convinced that the very purpose of Flinch's existence was to remind her of how pointless life can be when one is pushed hard up against the odds.

But Flinch has always secretly believed that there was more to it than that. He decided early that there was only one way to find the purpose of his existence, his destiny, and that was to take to the seas.

Water, after all, has never left Flinch alone.

It has been with him since he was conceived in a grimy clawfoot bathtub in a small guest room above the pub. As soon as he could understand, Audrey let him know that he was an ugly child. He had been squashed in the womb, then bruised on the unforgiving bones of her pelvis as she shoved him out into the world, amidst her screams and a torrent of water that the midwife claimed she'd never before witnessed. His face was red and swollen down one side. He had a black eye. And of course there was the leg. Though its inadequacy was not so pronounced at first, and wouldn't be until he finally stood up to walk at the age of three.

All his life, Flinch has lived in a small pastel house near the top of the headland. Little more than a worn weatherboard shack perched above the ocean, a long walk from the town. The house is noticeably lopsided, leaning away from the sea-wind, as if scared to look down over the cliffs due to a fear of heights. It had been owned by the lighthouse keeper. An insomniac, he had stayed awake through the night, dutifully checking the light rotating in the lighthouse, and during the day he had painted the house: azure, then lemon, then violet, then dull orange, then, finally, candy pink. When the lighthouse keeper grew too old to manage his post, Audrey, out of work at the time, had presented herself on his doorstep and told him she would be his carer. She was seven months along, Flinch sloshing around inside her. The lighthouse keeper, hard-hearted and unmoved by most things, was fearful of God and pregnant women, and didn't have the stomach to turn her away.

When the lighthouse keeper died (a broken heart, Audrey sniffed, seeking melodrama, but the boys in the pub said it was too much whisky and excessive masturbation), the pastel house was overlooked by the executor of his will, whether accidentally or on purpose it was not clear, given its derelict condition and the general view that it should be pulled down. The lighthouse keeper's only relative, a second cousin, had never shown up to stake his claim. So the pastel house became theirs.

The surrounding cliffs are dotted with temperamental feral white goats that scale the rocks and ridges, teetering precariously above the ocean, eating everything they come across. They wander frequently into Flinch's backyard, eat the sheets off the washing line and devour whatever they can find in the stinking compost heap. Flinch has an uneasy relationship with them. They have been known to head-butt small children when apple cores or crusts aren't offered quickly enough for their liking, but will also observe Flinch knowingly from a few metres away and he can't quite detest them.

Audrey had allowed the place to stay pink, although gradually the paint flaked, and large patches came off in powdery clumps. By the time Flinch was ten years old, the house looked like an old woman who knew her age and, with a sigh of relief, was letting herself go.

From the pastel house, Flinch can see the ocean in all directions. When he was young, and had learnt to run in his lopsided way, he would chase the wind down the cliffs towards the ocean, and dive, hoping to be swept up above the sea, the way the gulls were scooped up, effortlessly. It never worked. He once broke his nose, and another time cut himself so deeply above the eye that it bled for days. So he compensated by looking out as far as he could over the ocean. He tried to see all the way south to Sydney and north to Cairns, but had to content himself with counting the ships and yachts that wound their way up around the point, sails bubbling and blistering in the wind.

From his vantage point, Flinch learnt to read the ocean. He knew that when it bristled like fur on a cat's back, there was a current that would bring tailer down the strait in July. When it curled like a scorpion's tail, it made for good surfing at the Wreck and the dolphins would be out playing in the breaks at the headland. When it rolled fatly and looked as if it had the consistency of dough, then you could dive under the water at Wategos Beach and it would be so clear you could see tiny silver fish darting between your fingers.

Between May and October, the whales came, spraying white water into the air like big old steam trains, rolling over the waves and then disappearing until the next year. The days Flinch spotted the whales were his favourite days. Sometimes, on those days, the ocean seemed to settle right down, as if the slap of the whales' tails had made it see that rough water simply made no sense.

Flinch never forgot the pleasure watching them had given him. But when he started whaling, there were days when seeing a whale brought to shore, its slow, thick death, made him feel like a god. Other days, it made him feel smaller than a grain of sand, and as worthless. Often it depended on the length of time on the water. The heat of the sun. The glare alone could make him delirious. Delusions of grandeur rose up from his stomach in much the same way as seasickness. From the same place.

When he left school at fifteen, he headed down to the jetty to try his luck on the trawlers. He leant against a pylon to watch them come in. The sea teased into a frenzy by a wild wind, the stiff arms of the boom masts asplay, the boats rocking and tipping like drunkards on their way home. The fishermen threw coils of rope as thick as Flinch's thigh onto the docks. The men swung themselves off the ship with the ease of gymnasts and Flinch, hobbling around them, that one skewed hip raised like a question, tried to catch someone's eye. Little chance, with caps squashed so hard over brows. He could only just make out the odd glow of a cigarette or an unshaven grey jowl.

‘Mate?' he said finally to one of the men crouched over a net, having dismissed ‘sir' as too formal and ‘excuse me' as too tentative.

‘No, son.'

‘What?' said Flinch.

‘Not for you, son.'

‘But—'

‘No.'

The fisherman stood up. He towered over Flinch, all sinew and gristle. The orange hair of his moustache streaked with grey. Smelling of mint and fish scales and fags. A faded tattoo of a mermaid with exposed breasts on his inner arm. ‘It's not for you, son.' Like a growl.

‘How do you know?' asked Flinch. ‘The leg's not a problem.'

The fisherman crossed his arms and shook his head. ‘How d'you reckon you're going to stand up in rough seas and haul a catch on only one good leg?'

‘I'll manage. The other one doesn't get in the way.'

‘Sure.'With a smirk and a snort.

‘Really.'

The fisherman sighed. ‘Persistent little bugger. Alright, you got one day.'

And that was it. Flinch found the element of his destiny. Although he spent that whole first day face over the side of the rollicking trawler, throwing up his breakfast and mumbling small prayers for land. He felt consumed by the sea, that day metallic grey and ripped to shreds by an unseasonably cold tempestuous wind. The wind not strong enough, though, to remove the stench of the fish as they died, the mass of squirming silver bodies as theywere dumped on board. The horror of it. All that accumulated panic in scales and fins.

‘Comin' back?' asked the fisherman, when they deposited him green and shaking on the docks.

‘See you tomorrow,' belched Flinch.

The fisherman turned a raw pink and roared with laughter. ‘Rotten bugger. See you tomorrow. What's your name, since I'm gonna have to write you in the logbooks?'

‘Flinch,' replied Flinch.

‘Flinch, eh? Nickname?'

‘Dunno,' said Flinch. ‘It's what my mum calls me, anyway.'

The fisherman didn't respond, but knew that the boy in front of him wore the name because he looked like a dog about to be slapped. Always blinking and squinting. That leg cowering underneath his torso.

‘Guess it'll do then,' said the fisherman. ‘Flinch.'

Unlike his schoolyard experiences, out on the sea he slotted right in. Instinctively knew not to talk much. When he did, he made the kind of quiet observations that would bring about a smile and a nod from the others. Became known as a good little worker. A battler. It made him feel as if he was a soldier who had been injured during a heroic act rather than the unfortunate recipient of a common enough birth defect. At night, feeling the sway of the ship and the churn of the water while lying in his bed, the room rocking about him, he would reach towards his short leg and pinch his toes. He did this for the same reason he imagined old soldiers fingered the scars of bullets. To remind themselves of who they were.

When he heard that the whaling station was looking for a new spotter, it seemed an opportunity for promotion, in a way. From small fish to big ones. He'd spent four years on the fishing boats by then, now a permanent shade of red-brown, wrinkled beyond his nineteen years and with the furrowed brow of a man straining under the necessity of hard labour. He presented himself at the station in a new blue shirt, buttoned up to the collar, with a stance he imagined was plucky, chest out and arms hanging out from his sides as if there were apples under his armpits. The captain of the main whaling boat looked him up and down and, seeing the salt-abraded skin of Flinch's young face and smelling fish even through soap, decided the leg was not important and hired him.

His first day on the job he spotted more whales than they'd hauled in weeks. When they harpooned the first one it didn't die immediately. It ploughed straight down dragging the boat bow-first towards the water before the captain wheeled it around. The whale then reared skywards and Flinch saw for the first time but not the last the whale's lip line in its permanent grin, the white underside of the lower jaw riveted with dark crevices, its massive unblinking eye looking straight at him. He crouched down in the nest and clung to the mast and when the crew called out to him to praise his keen sight he was pleased that they couldn't see he was crying.

Cutting the whale up was worse. After a few months of squatting nauseous and teary in the crow's nest after each sighting, Flinch grew used to spotting, to the swift shuddering kick of the harpoon as it was shot, the thud of the impact, but he never quite got used to the slaughter onshore. The way every whale looked different was more noticeable once they were out of the water, on their sides, slowly being crushed under their own weight. The lifetime of battle scars, tears and holes in fins and tails, the odd jigsaw pattern of an old shark bite, the broad patches of shining black and white on the bellies. The age of them, the size of them, like ancient monoliths. Occasionally barnacles were stuck to the whales as if they were just big old abandoned ships. Flinch had watched the live molluscs open and close as the whales were sliced up, tiny, hairy mouths, their inner flesh like tongues. Their outrage at their own small deaths.

After the accident, Flinch found he could remember with an uncanny and disturbing accuracy the minutest details of each whale they'd hauled that year. Still tests himself before he allows sleep to settle upon him at night, recounting each sea outing until that very last one. Every night for the past decade. He has heard of prisoners ofwar trapped in isolation chambers who recited the multiplication table in order to preserve their sanity. This ritual of his is nothing more than that.

Scared of the curse he must have inherited from Audrey, that cancerous decline of a life via a series of misfortunes, he has never returned to the sea. He figures that water as his destiny is therefore also the element of his inevitable downfall. He can still read the ocean with more accuracy than the local radio station's weatherman, but he is content to throw a line in from the shore. Gets wet only up to his thighs. More often than not, reels in a flashing silver fish to fry up for his breakfast.

He listens to the tide times announced nightly on his radio, and feels the same dull yearning usually reserved for lovers long lost.

FOUR

So many of the roads of Byron Bay are named after poets. Lawson. Tennyson. Wentworth. Somerset. Keats. At the time of their naming, an ill-informed council official in Sydney took it upon himself to maintain what he thought was a theme, though the bay itself was not named after the irascible poet but his grandfather, a vice-admiral and admired predecessor of Captain Cook. Better known as Foul-weather Jack. Cook named the bay after Captain John Byron during a period of fortuitous weather and successful landings. This was long before he grew sea-weary and became stranded on unforgiving reefs, before he became tired and desperate much further north. Those majestic northern shores and inlets still wear his mood and despair in their monikers. Thirsty Sound. Cape Tribulation.

Cook, sighting impenetrable swampland and some unusual mountainous formations through his telescope, did not bother to drop anchor in this bay. He could not have known that the headland and rocks around which he sailed formed part of the world's oldest caldera. Remnants of the rim of a gigantic volcano, now extinct, encircling a core that has over the millennia been whittled down to a solitary rock mountain much further inland. Still visible from the ocean, its nomenclature reveals nothing of its fiery past. Now simply a functional caution to sailors about the reefs they are soon to encounter once they spot it through their telescopes. Mt Warning.

BOOK: Death of a Whaler
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