Archive for short story
Four bells sounded. The dead of the night, the moon obscured by clouds, the bearing light lost. The only sound the distant crashing of waves. “Do you make that headland off the port bow” yelled the First Mate, on duty now for over half an hour since the captain had retired to his bed and probably his bottle of Jamieson’s.
“ I make it to be the lee side of Goats Island” replied Burke though he wasn’t altogether sure.
“but the surf is off to the starboard and it is getting louder. I thinks we should be calling the captain”. The first mate, Thompson, sailing out of Corktown but really an Irish boy trying to make good in the new Australia, had a vision of the skipper, half in his cups being told they were lost. He did not fancy that trip down the stairs. He thought of Nate the cabin boy. The captain had a certain fondness for him and would not be abrasive should he be woken from a drunken slumber.
The ship shuddered as it slid up/down a wave/ swell and all of a sudden Thompson and Burke entertained similar doubts. They were not where they thought they were, off the coast of South Sealand, heading through Observation strait for Newcastle. The ironic thought went through Thompson’s mind. Bringing coals to Newcastle, for indeed they had a cargo of coal, mined from the plains of Pirie
“Nate, get the hell below and tell the captain to come to the bridge IMMEDIATELY “’.
Nate rushed for the companionway but not before the clouds temporarily let the moon through to light up the unmistakeable headland of Hippo Head and all on deck knew they were on the wrong side of the Strait and in notoriously foul ground.
The captain materialised on deck and he immediately saw what his deck crew had observed,
“hard a port, full steam ahead, hard port, hard port” he screamed as the unmistakable sound of keel hitting sand bought the vessel to a dramatic and shuddering stop.
“full steam ahead” he ordered, but it was too late. The vessel was grounded and the whining of the screws only emphasised they were going nowhere.
“shit, shit , shit” the captain manically chanted, seeing his future unravelling before his whisky reddened eyes.
Ten months previous things had looked different. As the new first mate, Thomson had signed on to the coal merchant after being told the captain was the best skipper on the coast. The first weeks were an affirmation of that but slowly, inextricably, things began to unravel. A wharf collision, a collision with another steamer on Sydney harbour (although officially not the Captains fault he had been absent from the bridge and Thompson had to lie at the official enquire), a late passage, a minor navigation error which Thompson put down to Jamieson’s, then the tempers tantrums. Too often he and Burke were on the receiving end of long tirades about the company, his wife (never met) the crappy navigation aids, the state of the vessel. These all added up to both of them tiptoeing around the skipper, especially when he had been drinking.
“the court calls Captain Thaddeus Simpcock.”
A desolate Simpcock shuffled into the dock, his captain’s hat under his right arm, his uniform somewhat threadbare, his demeanour belligerent.
“ Captain Simpcock. You have been charged and found guilty of dereliction of duty that on the night of November 2, year of 1913, you failed to take proper care when navigating dangerous waters. Furthermore you were found to be in no condition to be in command of a vessel and its crew by way of gross intoxication. This court finds that you are guilty of these offences and summarily orders you to submit your masters ticket and prohibits you from applying for any reinstatement of said ticket. Furthermore this court notes a series of incidents relating to you command recommends that you seriously consider seeking professional counsel for your obvious alcohol addiction. Have you anything to say Captain?”
The Captain mumbled something which was unheard by most of those in court but Thompson and Burke recognised the usual tone of injustices, double dealings, and other self serving gibberish that they were well used to.
Many years ago I watched and enjoyed a film called “breaking away” a coming of age film that garnered much praise. It essentially told the story of a group of high school grads who have now to make the decision of what to do with their lives. The central character is a talented push bike racer and loves everything Italian, a theme which is developed in multiple ways throughout the film. The highlight for him is the Italian racing team are coming to town and he has an opportunity to train with them. His adoration of Italianissa comes to a rapid end when he discovers they are a bunch of cheats and don’t like being bettered by an American, resorting to deliberately crippling his bike. Thus probably incubated my love of Italian cars, engines appliances, films, clothes, and eventually the people and the country. My father also saw service in North Africa and Italy and the few 5imes he talked of his experiences he made it sound an exotic place
Such are my feelings as we prepare to leave Bari which I have renamed Barriera. Barriera used to be the place where people left Italy to travel to Greece, and other parts. It has since partially reinvented itself through the historic centre as a tourist stop but has to go a long way to succeed in that. To attract tourists you have to appear to like them while fleecing them, but here you are treated like a piece of dog shit. Yesterday while trying unsuccessfully to find the beach we took lunch at a Ristorante. For some inexplicable reason they couldn’t fill my order, Alisons meal was not the meal she ordered, the couple sitting next to us were still waiting for their food a half hour after ordering and, two tables over, a meal not ordered was plonked in front of a customer who complained only to be ignored. She are it anyway figuring, I guess , that it was better than going hungry.
Later, at he gelatoria, I carefully explained, in Italian, what I wanted. Two cones, one with peach, one with melon, without the biscuit. And the small version. What I got was two cones half and half peach and melon, with a biscuit , at piccolo price but of giant proportions.
Then we sit down on a quiet bench at the centre of three intersections governed by traffic lights. For the next hour or so horns are sounded for each light change. Drivers are so impatient that if you don’t take off a microsecound ater the light changes you are treated like the road version of a leper. And I have yet to work out the rules for pedestrian crossings. You take you life into your hands stepping out onto one. No one will stop and I have nearly been struck down several times. Oh well. Gives me an opportunity to practice my Italian expletives and hand gestures.
And just why are three heavily armed military personnel and a aggressive humvee type vehicle doing in the middle of s peaceful park? Oh yes a group of arab chanting youth have just walked by. There IS a war on you know. ( I later see that they are part of a project on public safety) Yes Barriera is like the italian bicycle team. Loud, busy, rude, exploitive, part of the 21 century yet firmly embedded in it. I question my own attitudes to tourism. Just what do the endless buses, boats and trains offer the tourist?
The distant thunder rumbles and the military retreat to their vehicles with gelatos. The piazza quickly empties.
At the end of “ Breaking Away” the protagonist meets a French exchange student, who mentions the Tour de France and our hero starts thinking those thoughts of bikes and yellow jerseys. Ahh!! The innocence of pre Lance Armstrong 1970s.