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Silver Bay, Page 2

Jojo Moyes

  A sudden acceleration sent the boat shooting forward, and, above, squealing tourists collapsed on to their seats. We were flying.

  Lance was on the radio. As we clambered into the cockpit behind him, Sweet Suzanne was scudding along some distance away, bouncing over the waves, apparently heedless of the increasing numbers of miserable people now hanging over her rails.

  'Lance! What are you doing?' Yoshi grabbed at a rail.

  'See you there, bud . . . Ladies and gentlemen--' Lance pulled a face and reached for the PA system button. I need a translation, he mouthed. 'We have something a bit special for you this morning. You've already enjoyed the magical sight of our Silver Bay dolphins, but if you hold on tight, we'd like to take you to something really special. We've had a sighting of the first whales of the season, a little further out to sea. These are the humpbacked whales who come past our waters every year on their long migration north from the Antarctic. I can promise you that this is a sight you won't forget. Now, please sit down, or hold on tight. Things may get a little choppy as, from the south, there's a little more size in the swell, but I want to make sure we get you there in time to see them. Anyone who wants to stay at the front of the boat, I suggest you borrow a waterproof. There are plenty inside at the back.'

  He spun the wheel and nodded to Yoshi, who took the PA system. She repeated what he had said in Japanese, then in Korean for good measure. It was entirely possible, she said afterwards, that she had simply recited the previous day's lunch menu: she had been unable to focus since Lance had made his announcement. One word sang through, as it did in my own mind: whale!

  'How far?' Yoshi's body was rigid as she scanned the glinting waters. The earlier relaxed atmosphere had disappeared completely. My stomach was in knots.

  'Four, five miles? Dunno. The tourist helicopter was flying over and said they'd seen what looked like two a couple of miles off Torn Point. It's a little early in the season, but . . .'

  'Fourteenth of June last year. We're not that far out,' said Yoshi. 'Bloody hell! Look at Greg! He's going to lose passengers if he carries on at that pace. His boat's not big enough to soak up those waves.'

  'He doesn't want us to get there before him.' Lance shook his head and checked the speed dial. 'Full throttle. Let's make sure Moby One's first this year. Just for once.'

  Some crew members were doing the job to make up their shipping hours, on course for bigger vessels and bigger jobs. Some, like Yoshi, had begun as part of their education and had simply forgotten to go home. But, whatever reason they might have for being there, I had grasped long ago that there was magic in the first whale sighting of the migration season. It was as if, until that creature had been seen, it was impossible to believe they would be back.

  To be the first to see one didn't mean much - once the whales were known to be out there, all five boats that operated off Whale Jetty would switch their business from dolphins to whale-watching. But it was of importance to the crew. And, like all great passions, it made them mad. Boy, did it make them mad.

  'Look at that great idiot. Funny how he can hold a straight course now,' Lance spat. Greg was portside of us, but seemed to be gaining.

  'He can't bear the thought of us getting there before him.' Yoshi grabbed a waterproof and threw it at me. 'There! Just in case we go out front. It's going to get pretty wet.'

  'I don't bloody believe it.' Lance had spied another boat on the horizon. He must have forgotten I was there, to be swearing. 'There's Mitchell! I bet you he's been sitting on the radio all afternoon and now he swans up, probably with a cabinful of passengers. I'm going to swing for that bloke one of these days.'

  They were always moaning about Mitchell Dray. He never bothered to look for the dolphins, like the others: he would just wait until he overheard a sighting on the ship-to-ship radio and go where everyone else was headed.

  'Am I really going to see a whale?' I asked. Beneath our feet, the hull smacked noisily against the waves, forcing me to hang on to the side. Through the open window, I could hear the excited shouts of the tourists, the laughter of those who had been hit by rogue waves.

  'Fingers crossed.' Yoshi's eyes were trained on the horizon.

  A real whale. I had only once seen a whale, with my aunt Kathleen. Usually I wasn't allowed this far out to sea.

  'There . . . There! No, it's just spray.' Yoshi had lifted the binoculars. 'Can't you change course? There's too much glare.'

  'Not if you want me to get there first.' Lance swung the boat to starboard, trying to alter the angle of the sun on the waves.

  'We should radio ashore. Find out exactly where the chopper saw it.'

  'No point,' said Lance. 'It could have travelled two miles by now. And Mitchell will be listening in. I'm not giving that bugger any more information. He's been stealing passengers from us all summer.'

  'Just watch for the blow.'

  'Yeah. And the little flag that says, "Whale."'

  'Just trying to help, Lance.'

  'There!' I could just make out the shape, like a distant black pebble dipping below the water. 'North-north-east. Heading behind Break Nose Island. Just dived.' I thought I might be sick with excitement. I heard Lance start counting behind me. 'One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . whale!' An unmistakable plume of water rose joyously above the horizon. Yoshi let out a squeal. Lance glanced towards Greg, who, from his course, hadn't seen it. 'We got her!' Lance hissed. All whales were 'her' to Lance, just as all kids were 'squirt'.

  Whale. I took the word into my mouth, rolled it around and savoured it. My eyes did not leave the water. Moby One shifted course, the huge catamaran slapping hard as it bounded over each wave. Behind the island I imagined the whale breaching, displaying its white belly to the world in an unseen display of buoyancy. 'Whale,' I whispered.

  'We're going to be first,' muttered Yoshi, excitedly. 'Just for once we're going to get there first.'

  I watched Lance swing the wheel, counting under his breath to mark the number of times the whale blew. More than thirty seconds apart and it was likely to dive deep. Then we would have lost it. Closer together meant it had already dived, and we would have a chance to follow.

  'Seven . . . eight . . . She's up. Yessss.' Lance hit the wheel with his palm, then grabbed the PA system. 'Ladies and gentlemen, if you look over to your right, you might make out the whale, which is headed behind that piece of land there.'

  'Greg's realised where we're headed.' Yoshi grinned. 'He'll never catch us now. His engine isn't powerful enough.'

  'Moby One to Blue Horizon. Mitchell,' Lance yelled into his radio, 'you want to see this baby you're going to have to get off my coat tails.'

  Mitchell's voice came over the radio: 'Blue Horizon to Moby One. I'm just here to make sure there's someone to pick up Greg's overboards.'

  'Oh, nothing to do with the big fish?' Lance responded tersely.

  'Blue Horizon to Moby One. Big old sea, Lance. Plenty of room for everyone.'

  I gripped the wooden rim of the chart table so tightly that my knuckles turned white as I watched the scrubby headland grow. I wondered whether the whale would slow there, allow us to come closer. Perhaps it would lift its head and eye us. Perhaps it would swim up to the side of the boat and reveal its calf.

  'Two minutes,' said Lance. 'We'll be round the head in about two minutes. Hopefully get up close.'

  'Come on, girlie. Give us a good show.' Yoshi was talking to herself, binoculars still raised.

  Whale, I told it silently, wait for us, whale. I wondered whether it would notice me. Whether it could sense that I, of all the people on the boat, had a special empathy with sea creatures. I was pretty sure I did.

  'I don't - bloody - believe - it.' Lance had taken off his peaked cap, and was scowling out of the window.

  'What?' Yoshi leant towards him.


  I followed their gaze. As Moby One came round the headland, all of us fell silent. A short distance from the scrub-covered landmass, half a mile out to se
a in aquamarine waters, the stationary Ishmael sat, its newly painted sides glinting under the midday sun.

  At the helm stood my mother, leaning over the rail, her hair whipping round her face under the bleached cap she insisted on wearing out to sea. She had her weight on one leg and Milly, our dog, lay apparently asleep across the wheel. She looked as if she had been there, waiting for this whale, for years.

  'How the bloody hell did she do that?' Lance caught Yoshi's warning glare and shrugged an apology at me. 'Nothing personal, but - Jeez . . .'

  'She's always there first.' Yoshi's response was half amused, half resigned. 'Every year I've been here. She's always first.'

  'Beaten by a bloody Pom. It's as bad as the cricket.' Lance lit a cigarette, then tossed away the match in disgust.

  I stepped out on to the deck.

  At that moment the whale emerged. As we gasped, it lobtailed, sending a huge spray of water towards Ishmael. The tourists on Moby One's top deck cheered. It was enormous, close enough that we could see the barnacled growths along its body, the corrugated white belly; near enough that I could look briefly into its eye. But ridiculously swift - something of that bulk had no right to be so agile.

  My breath had stalled in my throat. One hand clutching the lifelines, I lifted the binoculars with the other and gazed through them, not at the whale but at my mother, hardly hearing the exclamations about the creature's size, the swell it sent before the smaller boat, forgetting briefly that I should not allow myself to be seen. Even from that distance I could make out that Liza McCullen was smiling, her eyes creased upwards. It was an expression she rarely, if ever, wore on dry land.

  Aunt Kathleen walked to the end of the veranda to put a large bowl of prawns and some lemon slices on the bleached wooden table with a large basket of bread. She's actually my great-aunt but she says that makes her feel like an antique, so most of the time I call her Auntie K. Behind her the white weatherboard of the hotel's frontage glowed softly in the evening sun, eight fiery red peaches sliding down the windows. The wind had picked up a little, and the hotel sign whined as it swung back and forth.

  'What's this for?' Greg lifted his head from the bottle of beer he'd been nursing. He had finally taken off his dark glasses, and the shadows under his eyes betrayed the events of the previous evening.

  'I heard you needed your stomach lined,' she said, thwacking a napkin in front of him.

  'He tell you four of his passengers asked for their money back when they caught sight of his hull?' Lance laughed. 'Sorry, Greg mate, but what a damn fool thing to do. Of all the things to write.'

  'You're a gent, Kathleen.' Greg, ignoring him, reached for the bread.

  My aunt gave him one of her looks. 'And I'll be something else entirely if you write those words where young Hannah can see them again.'

  'Shark Lady's still got teeth.' Lance mimed a snapping motion at Greg.

  Aunt Kathleen ignored him. 'Hannah, you dig in now. I'll bet you never had a bite to eat for lunch. I'm going to fetch the salad.'

  'She ate the biscuits,' said Yoshi, expertly undressing a prawn.

  'Biscuits.' Aunt Kathleen snorted.

  We were gathered, as the Whale Jetty crews were most evenings, outside the hotel kitchens. There were few days when the crews wouldn't share a beer or two before they headed home. Some of the younger members, my aunt often said, shared so many that they barely made it home at all.

  As I bit into a juicy tiger prawn, I noticed that the burners were outside; few guests at the Silver Bay Hotel wanted to sit out in June, but in winter the whale-watching crews congregated here to discuss events on the water, no matter the weather. Their members changed from year to year, as people moved on to different jobs or went to uni, but Lance, Greg, Yoshi and the others had been a constant in my life for as long as I had lived there. Aunt Kathleen usually lit the burners at the start of the month and they stayed on most evenings until September.

  'Did you have many out?' She had returned with the salad. She tossed it with brisk, expert fingers, then put some on to my plate before I could protest. 'I've had no one at the museum.'

  'Moby One was pretty full. Lot of Koreans.' Yoshi shrugged. 'Greg nearly lost half of his over the side.'

  'They got a good sight of the whale.' Greg reached for another piece of bread. 'No complaints. No refunds necessary. Got any more beers, Miss M?'

  'You know where the bar is. You see it, Hannah?'

  'It was enormous. I could see its barnacles.' For some reason I'd expected it to be smooth, but the skin had been lined, ridged, studded with fellow sea creatures, as if it were a living island.

  'It was close. I've told her we wouldn't normally get that close,' said Yoshi.

  Greg narrowed his eyes. 'If she'd been out on her mother's boat she could have brushed its teeth.'

  'Yes, well, the least said about that . . .' Aunt Kathleen shook her head. 'Not a word,' she mouthed at me. 'That was a one-off.'

  I nodded dutifully. It was the third one-off that month.

  'That Mitchell turn up? You want to watch him. I've heard he's joining those Sydney-siders with the big boats.'

  They all looked up.

  'Thought the National Parks and Wildlife Service had frightened them off,' said Lance.

  'When I went to the fish market,' Aunt Kathleen said, 'they told me they'd seen one all the way out by the heads. Music at top volume, people dancing on the decks. Like a discotheque. Ruined the night's fishing. But by the time the Parks and Wildlife people got out there they were long gone. Impossible to prove a thing.'

  The balance in Silver Bay was delicate: too few whale-watching tourists and the business would be unsustainable; too many, and it would disturb the creatures it wanted to display.

  Lance and Greg had come up against the triple-decker catamarans from round the bay, often blaring loud music, decks heaving with passengers, and were of similar opinion. 'They'll be the death of us all, that lot,' Lance said. 'Irresponsible. Money-mad. Should suit Mitchell down to the ground.'

  I hadn't realised how hungry I was. I ate six of the huge prawns in quick succession, chasing Greg's fingers around the empty bowl. He grinned and waved a prawn head at me. I stuck out my tongue at him. I think I'm a little bit in love with Greg, not that I'd ever tell anybody.

  'Aye aye, here she is. Princess of Whales.'

  'Very funny.' My mother dumped her keys on the table and gestured to Yoshi to move down so that she could squeeze in next to me. She dropped a kiss on to my head. 'Good day, lovey?' She smelt of suncream and salt air.

  I shot a look at my aunt. 'Fine.' I bent to fondle Milly's ears, grateful that my mother could not see the pinking in my face. My head still sang with the sight of that whale. I thought it must radiate out of me, but she was reaching for a glass and pouring herself some water.

  'What have you been doing?' my mother asked.

  'Yeah. What have you been doing, Hannah?' Greg winked at me.

  'She helped me with the beds this morning.' Aunt Kathleen glared at him. 'Heard you had a good afternoon.'

  'Not bad.' My mother downed the water. 'God, I'm thirsty. Did you drink enough today, Hannah? Did she drink enough, Kathleen?' Her English accent was still pronounced, even after so many years in Australia.

  'She's had plenty. How many did you see?'

  'She never drinks enough. Just the one. Big girl. Lobtailed half a bath of water into my bag. Look.' She held up her cheque book, its edges frilled and warped.

  'Well, there's an amateur's mistake.' Aunt Kathleen sighed in disgust. 'Didn't you have anyone out with you?'

  My mother shook her head. 'I wanted to try out that new rudder, see how well it worked in choppier waters. The boatyard warned me it might stick.'

  'And you just happened on a whale,' said Lance.

  She took another swig of water. 'Something like that.' Her face had closed. She had closed. It was as if the whale thing had never happened.

  For a few minutes we ate in silence, as the sun sank slowly
towards the horizon. Two fishermen walked past, and raised their arms in greeting. I recognised one as Lara's dad, but I'm not sure he saw me.

  My mother ate a piece of bread and a tiny plateful of salad, less even than I eat and I don't like salad. Then she glanced up at Greg. 'I heard about Suzanne.'

  'Half of Port Stephens has heard about Suzanne.' Greg's eyes were tired and he looked as if he hadn't shaved for a week.

  'Yes. Well. I'm sorry.'

  'Sorry enough to come out with me Friday?'

  'Nope.' She stood up, checked her watch, stuffed her sodden cheque book back into her bag and made for the kitchen door. 'That rudder's still not right. I've got to ring the yard before they head off. Don't stay out without your sweater, Hannah. The wind's getting up.'

  I watched as she strode away, pursued by the dog.

  We were silent until we heard the slam of the screen door. Then Lance leant back in his chair to gaze out at the darkening bay, where a cruiser was just visible on the far horizon. 'Our first whale of the season, Greg's first knockback of the season. Got a nice kind of symmetry to it, don't you think?'

  He ducked as a piece of bread bounced off the chair behind him.



  The Whalechasers Museum had been housed in the old processing plant, a few hundred yards from the Silver Bay Hotel, since commercial whaling was abandoned off Port Stephens in the early 1960s. It didn't have much to recommend it as a modern tourist attraction: the building was a great barn of a place, the floor a suspiciously darkened red-brown, wooden walls still leaching the salt that had been used on the catch. There was a shed dunny out at the back, and a fresh jug of lemon squash made up daily for the thirsty. Food, a sign observed, was available in the hotel. I'd say that the 'facilities', as they're now known, are probably twice what they were when my father was alive.

  Our centrepiece was a section of the hull of Maui II, a commercial whalechaser, a hunting vessel that had broken clean in two in 1935 when a minke had taken exception to it, and had risen beneath the boat, lifting it on its tail until it flipped and snapped. Mercifully a fishing trawler had been nearby and had saved the hands and verified their story. For years local people had come to see the evidence of what nature could wreak on man when it felt man had harvested enough.