Authors: Nerida Newton
Tags: #ebook, #book
NERIDA NEWTON was born in Brisbane, and has since lived in Malaysia, South Africa and the United Kingdom. Her first novel,
The Lambing Flat
, won the Queensland Premier's award for an emerging author, and was shortlisted for
/Vogel award, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for the Asia/Pacific region (first book) and One Book One Brisbane. In 2004, she was named by the
Sydney Morning Herald
as one of Australia's best young novelists. Nerida resides in Brisbane with her husband and son.
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
First published in 2006
Copyright Â© Nerida Newton 2006
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The
Australian Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.
This project has been assisted by the Commonwealth Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory board and the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland.
Allen & Unwin
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Crows Nest NSW 2065
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National Library of Australia
Newton, Nerida, 1972â .
Â Â Â Death of a whaler.
Â Â Â ISBN 978 1 74114 791 9.
Â Â Â ISBN 1 74114 791 3.
Â Â Â I. Title.
Set in 12/15pt Bembo by Asset Typesetting Pty Ltd
Printed in Australia by McPherson's Printing Group
To Vida, for the joy passed.
To Oliver, for the joy to come.
Byron Bay, 1956
Through this thick oozing stench, the town. Not much. A grilled brown mark on the edge of the farmlands, scratched out between the ocean and the rainforest. Buildings huddled together against a road, their backs or sides to the sea. Except the pub. The pub wide open to the elements. Sand on the verandas. The bargirls complaining that their hair is sticky because of the sea salt that blows in. The old blokes straddling the stools, their thongs hooked under the rails, sitting with their backs to the glare.
The whalers huddle over their beers, don't speak much. They are out of their butchers' garments, they've rinsed their galoshes of the dark blood and the soft, foamy fat that hardens like gum in the patterns of the soles.
The afternoon turns lilac and a half moon brightens into focus. The wind picks up and slices through the bar. The smell with it. The bargirls wipe the wisps of hair out of their eyes and wrinkle up their noses. The old men turn to look at the whalers as if they were responsible for this, this easterly. The industry. It's the way forward, people had said. The stink of cut flesh and guts unfortunately just part and parcel. A small price to secure the future of the town. They're less sure now, the people. Now that the clothes on their washing lines smell of it, and their fruit and milk taste permanently sour. What choice? they say, clucking their tongues. It was this or the death of us.
Byron Bay, 1962
A freak accident, it was one of those things that happen in a split second followed by months of disbelief. The knife, for example. Flinch had only just picked it up a second earlier. A big knife, more like a sickle. He was holding it with both hands.
It happened on the second last day before the station shut down. Some people mumble that they had it coming. Something like this was inevitable. Nay-saying the hobby of choice in the town by then. At Nate's funeral, a few of the drive-by tourists huddle together, stare unrelenting at the whalers. As if it's a usual part of the weekend spectacle. Before the priest has finished the sermon, the whalers are mumbling curses under their breath and a flick knife is pulled from a pocket.
Death seems bigger in some places. On the flensing floor with its torrents of blood it looms huge and formidable even in the harsh, stinking midday. In the graveyard under the circling grey skies it is smaller, subdued. Nate inside the coffin in his Sunday best lies with his arms crossed over his chest. It's a makeshift box, the cheapest coffin available, made from what looks like driftwood, or someone's old veranda boards. Lazy workmanship has left slits through which the worms and the ants will crawl. Nails in the lid already rusted as if sea-worn.
The priest holds his hand up. Flinch notices the rest of the men are standing with their fists clenched. The priest slaps his Bible shut and nods. The coffin is lowered into the ground.
Nate in a box that sounds solid, thick with his presence, when the clumps of earth are shovelled over it. Flinch thought it would be sandy earth, fine granules like on the beach, the same soil that is all around the bay, washing up then out to sea and back again with the tides. But here in the graveyard it is more like clay. It sticks to the sides of his only pair of dress shoes. Later, he will scrub it off with an old toothbrush.
Mumbled prayers and last rites gestures completed with a sigh that echoes the apathy of routine. The priest makes his way towards the out-of-towners, shaking his head, and they all leave soon after.
The knife that killed Nate could slice through blubber like it was butter. Had already many times. An old knife, but a good one still, kept sharp by the boys on the floor and on the boats. And the blood. Nobody noticed a man bleeding when they were all covered in it; it was on everyone's hands, on their clothing too, all over their faces. And he didn't cry out. Not initially.
They'd brought in the whale, hauled her onto the tray. She was a huge one, swollen with pregnancy, though the gunner couldn't tell that when he shot her. She'd been heading up the coast to birth.
The harpoonist had hit her hard, dead-centre, but the head of the weapon hadn't exploded, so her death was a long and violent one. She'd struggled at first, raged against them, dragging the boat askew more than a few times, streaming a red wake. She had thrashed against the harpoon, the boat pulled along like a dog on a chain. The men on the deck had to hang onto the masts or they would have been flung into the water, worse still onto the whale, been drowned in her fury. Flinch was in the crow's nest, crouched down inside it, so much sweat behind his knees that it trickled stinging into his jocks. He'd stayed, fingers clinging to the edge, acorns for knuckles that cracked when he tightened his grip, nails worn through nervous chewing to red, wet stumps. Flinch was the whale spotter. It was how he spent his days.
A struggle like this was a rare thing and Flinch thought they should have known then that this was a catch to be wary of. They don't battle them like they used to in the old days. No white water, no boats smashed into matches, no âthar she blows!' Just a quick shout from Flinch when he's spotted them through the binoculars and an easy turn into the path of the whale. The harpoon usually explodes on impact and then death is immediate. Pools of blood stain the surface like oil spill. The men strap the dead whales to the side of the boat by their tails, cutting the flukes off so they don't act as rudders and slow the boat down. Then a rubber pipe inserted, the air pumped into the body just the same as inflating an inner tube, so that the carcass floats. Makes it easier to drag back to shore. Sharks like abandoned corner-store mongrels steal alongside, hungry for a piece of the kill. Unable to gnaw through blubber, they wait until the whale is dead then attack the lolling tongue, the vulnerable flesh.
It's mechanical, technical, a process. Harpoon them, bring them in, slice them up, extract the oil, package the meat onto trays, snap freeze. Flinch had heard that most of the whale meat went to England as pet food, and he used to find it hard to believe that the massive animal dying in front of him would be eaten by someone's poodle in London a month later. The jaw bones, baleen the colour of sand hanging like a bristly curtain, are saved for museums and biologists, or used as attractions at curio shops up and down the coast. Schoolboys stand in the hollow remains of the open mouths and have their photographs taken.
This whale played out her last moments in the ocean like some fat old diva, theatrical throes then a sudden unexpected resignation. She had long stopped struggling when they dragged her onto the onshore ramp. Exhausting herself with the battle while still in the deep blue, she had stayed afloat the rest of the way in. She looked dead, though her sides swelled and dropped once or twice very slowly. They had to put hooks into her to get her onto the tray, then back to the meatworks where they could work on her properly.
She was rolled onto the floor on her side, her belly exposed for the first cut. And Nate, at his end, had taken his carving saw to start on her tail. He was standing over her, right next to her, when she let out a massive groan and with a sweeping blow knocked him straight back into Flinch and they had crashed against the railing. The knife lodged between Nate's shoulder-blades, slipped into his flesh as if into a sheath.
He slid off it slowly, his eyes wide and lips pale. He dropped to his knees and stayed propped there as if praying, the blood trickling thickly down his back.
Flinch cried out loud, he thought he was screaming but he was mouthing the words, like some beached fish, his mouth open and shut. Eventually a sound like a squawk, Nate keeling over onto his face into the sticky pool around the whale.
The police absolved Flinch of blame straight away and nothing more was said. There were enough witnesses. And Flinch, young Flinch with the one leg shorter than the other, wide-eyed and clumsy and as awkward and soft-hearted as a child, had grown up in this town. Nate was a drifter. Men die in this business, that's not unusual. It just usually happens at sea. Even the fishermen of the smallest fish drown, knocked overboard by waves, hitting their heads on the way down. Sometimes they wash up, swollen with the water they've soaked up, flaky and soft and white, their ears and the soft apple of flesh in their cheeks nibbled by crabs. Other times the whalers and the other fishermen help the local cops look for them. They drag fishnets between the boats. It's easy when they're floaters, but not all of them are.