'WHAT DO YOU call a Kiwi with a harem?' Bernie asked over the intercom, hardly pausing for a response. 'A shepherd.'
'Good one, Bern,' Anton said. He pulled up gently on the collective and we rose further above the small lagoon and scruffy trees on the way to the coast. I leaned forward and could see the sand, tiger-striped with the low tide.
Bernie turned to me. 'You're quiet back there, Kiwi.'
'First time in a chopper, is it?'
'In the air, yeah.'
'A bird's only alive in the air,' he said, and seemed pleased with his moment of Zen. Then he added, 'Unless it's a kiwi.'
Bernie reminded me of the men I had spoken to at the mines. He had the same too-red complexion and dressed as they did in a short-sleeved shirt, tan shorts and steel-capped boots. Before he started with the jokes, before he even opened his mouth, I didn't like him.
We passed the second of two small islands and bore further to the right. I caught my first glimpse of the coal loaders at the end of two thin piers that seemed to curve with the Earth. Three ships were docked and loading. Dozens of others were anchored in the harbour, some just small specks on the horizon. Another helicopter passed to the left of us, heading back to the coast.
'We're heading for that one,' Anton said for my benefit, pointing at a vessel with a scuffed red and black hull in the inner anchorage. 'Santa Maria. It's a Panamax. Only seven holds. Not as big as the Capeys, which can have up to nine holds and push three hundred metres. Landing deck's astern on this one.'
'Doesn't that make it difficult when the sea's up?' I asked. 'The ship would move less in the middle.'
I saw Bernie and Anton exchange looks in the front seat.
'True,' Bernie said, 'but these babies take a fair bit of moving.'
'And Dalrymple Bay's not famous for its chop,' Anton added.
'Landing at sea's tricky, though,' Bernie said, becoming animated. 'Ship's pitching and rolling, pad's elevation is changing and the other sea, the invisible one – the air – that's pushing and pulling like always.'
'Bern here can fly anything,' Anton said. 'Fixed-wing, rotors, gliders. Isn't that right, Bern?'
'You name it, I've flown it.'
'Why aren't you flying today?' I asked.
'Hold on a tick, boys,' Anton said and started talking over the radio to the Santa Maria. From what I could gather they were giving him information on the wind speed on deck and other variables. I looked down at the long narrow ship lying ahead of us. It reminded me of the South Island as it appeared on the weather forecast back home.
Anton flicked a switch on the overhead panel and said, 'Sorry, Bern, I think the kid asked you a question.'
'I'd like to hear again, too. Why aren't you flying?'
'You know damn well I can't right now.'
'If you won't tell him, I will.'
'You just keep us dry.' Bernie turned to me in the back. 'Got no licences at the moment, Kiwi. Can't drive, can't fly.' He faced the front again but continued talking. 'So I have a few drinks at the pub one night and drive home all right, but I find the gate at my property is across. Normally I don't bother closing it, you see, so I'm doing a fair speed up the drive and instinct kicks in – wrong fucking instinct – and I try pulling up on the steering wheel instead of slamming on the brakes. Boomfa!' He clapped his hands together. 'Turns out, it wasn't even my gate.' He started laughing. 'I really was flying that night.'
On the deck of the Santa Maria, between the final hold and the bridge, men in white jumpsuits and white hardhats or orange jumpsuits and yellow hardhats bustled around according to some unaccountable hierarchy. Anton landed the helicopter with ease.
'The invisible sea must have co-operated,' I said, but neither of them responded.
'Right,' said Anton, removing his headset and rolling out of the craft so that one foot rested on a strut that led to the landing skids, 'time to play Santa.'
I looked up at the rotors, which continued to spin.
'Come on, Kiwi,' Bernie said, pushing me lightly on the shoulder, 'don't lose your head.'
I climbed forward into the front seats, careful not to knock any of the controls, and disembarked on Anton's side. He was unlatching the boot lockers that he and I had loaded while waiting for Bernie that morning. Rice, fresh vegies, newspapers in English and Chinese, four big rolls of industrial toilet paper and six mysterious brown boxes with red characters stamped on the top that an Asian man had dropped off at the hangar.
Bernie came around our side and said, 'Pretty tame load for Kiwi's first time.'
'Despite what Bernie might tell you, mate, the world of offshore service isn't all guns and hookers.'
I hadn't considered the possibility of a seedier side to the job.
'How long will this ship be in the queue?' I asked.
'Four weeks, maybe five.'
'Isn't that a bit wasteful? Having the ship just sit here. And the crew.'
'Shipping's a funny business. You can't book ahead. You gotta turn up and wait in line.'
'Me missus can book a cut and blow-wave weeks in advance -' Bernie said, walking off to have a word with one of the men in orange.
I looked at the faces of the men on deck. They didn't look too unhappy to be anchored a few kays off shore after weeks at sea. I guessed it was part of the job.
THE ARROGANCE OF youth led me down some spectacular dead ends. One of which was my plan to leave home after finishing my engineering degree and earn a hundred thousand dollars a year driving a dump truck around the mines of central Queensland. I'd seen exposés on TV back in New Zealand about the labour shortages at the mines, the exorbitant wages on offer, the twenty-something gasfitters who earned enough to have their own helicopter and would fly back to their own penthouse apartments on the coast for their three-day weekends. I'd read the newspaper articles about China's insatiable appetite for coal, the over-capacity railroads and seaports, the massive queue of tankers waiting off the coast to fill their hulls with the black stuff. This was the mid-2000s, before the global financial crisis and the graunch as economies changed down gears overnight, but last I heard the queue was back up around fifty ships.
I'd seen it all so clearly as I prepared for my last set of exams: I'd leave my family, put my shoulder to the wheel and return the next Christmas a man in everyone's eyes at last. I'd buy expensive electronic gadgets for my sister's kids, top-shelf booze for the grown-ups. I'd run into Katie Wallis at the Dux, just by chance, and one thing would lead to another.
The reality was somewhat different. I went around the agencies in Mackay and quickly learned the vocabulary of WorkCover tickets and HR licences, a vocabulary these places used to fob me off. The mines weren't taking 'cleanskins', regardless of what the media was saying. Even if I had all the tickets I'd need five years' mining experience just to drive a Cat 769 dumper. I smelt bullshit and hung around the bars on the weekend, got chummy with the supervisor types and tried to inveigle my way into the mines. I wasn't the only arrogant young thing after an easy hundred K. We were sport to the men from the mines; when they'd had their fun we were swatted away like gulls.
But when I spoke with the younger miners on their coastal furloughs, they told a different story.
'Just drive down, mate,' they'd say. 'They won't say no with you on the doorstep.'
'It's part of the test.'
'It's like a cleanskin initiation.'
'My mate Ivan,' one of them told me, 'he slept in his car three nights, but eventually they gave him a drive. He didn't even have any steel-caps.'
'But I don't have a car.'
'Shit, mate. You've got an excuse for everything.'
So I bought an old Falcon for eight hundred bucks. It sounded like it had kitchen blenders under the hood, but it got me out to Goonyella all right. They turned me down like they had in Mackay: three mornings in a row, puppy dog eyes, engineering degree, hammed-up Kiwi accent and all. They told me to try Callide, but that was a six-hour drive south. Instead, I tried all the operations around Moranbah and Coppabella. BMA, Anglo, Macarthur – they all said no. I drove north to Xstrata's mine at Collinsville and they offered me a job in their cafeteria. I was skint by then and had to take it. I wasn't much of a cook, but I didn't need to be: the biggest selling item required toasting an English muffin and whacking on a spoonful of Heinz spaghetti, a slice of Coon and a fried egg. I lasted two weeks before I limped back to the coast. I was done with the interior. Even if I'd gotten pally with some BHP bigwig in the Met and he offered me a job, promised to sponsor all my tickets, I'd have told him to shove it. I'd stretched and stretched my optimism out there in the basin, sleeping in the back seat of my Falcon – the temperatures near freezing after dark, being showered with little grains of cauterised foam that puffed out of splits in the upholstery – and eventually that optimism had snapped. No, sir. You could take your red sand, copperheads and black gold. As far as I was concerned the continent might as well be a giant atoll, the innards a festering lagoon of hungry, poisonous critters.
It's funny what one too many rejections can do to you.
But I couldn't go home just yet. I would not be a man in anyone's eyes. That's how I wound up working for Anton, servicing the coal ships stranded off the coast, those temporary islands. They sat there, helpless, churning through their dried noodles and bok choy until we came and brought them more, or they got a berth at Hay Point or DBCT.
I stayed in a caravan park off Nebo Road, renting an on-site van week to week. It was a tiny chrome thing, rounded with little fins; the sort of stylised silver bullet you might expect to see in an old Warner Brothers cartoon, but not in Mackay, not in real life.
There was no TV in the caravan and for some reason the park cut all power at ten o'clock every night, which meant I couldn't even read. The bars in town held no attraction after my flirtations with the miners, so I took to going to bed early. Still, there were times when I'd wake up in the middle of the night needing to take a leak and would have to fumble my way around the caravan in the dark to find my jandals and the keys to the facilities block, then the door. Being so far north, and Queensland not having daylight saving, I felt as if I spent half my life in the dark.
As well as supply runs, Anton's operation did marine pilot transfers – dropping off a pilot from the port authority to steer a ship safely to its anchorage – but there was no need for a spare set of hands on these trips. Bernie was due to get his pilot's licence back in a couple of weeks, at which point he and I would do the offshore service with the Bell 206 JetRanger, while Anton would handle the pilot transfers in the smaller Robinson R22. He also started spending a lot of time in the office trying to set up a flight-training arm to the business. We weren't the only outfit servicing the bay and Anton knew it was dangerous to rely too heavily on there always being a long queue of coal ships. There was a lot of red tape, however, and he still wasn't registered six months later when I was deported and it all went to shit.
My job involved checking we had everything that a ship had ordered, loading it onto the JetRanger, unloading it once we were on board and putting up with Bernie. We'd visit two or three ships a trip, hopping from one to another making deliveries, taking new orders, receiving left-field requests in mangled English for 'long fire sticks' or 'foot black'. Depending on the length of the queue, we'd make two or three drop-offs to an individual ship while it was anchored in the bay. Then one morning you'd fly out and there'd be a gap where the Monte Cervantes had been, or else another ship already parked in its place.
Most of the ships were from Hong Kong, according to the big white letters painted on their bows. The men in jumpsuits were mostly a mix of Asian nationalities, though the officers were often Europeans: Norwegian, Dutch, toffy-sounding Brits. Most of the ships left for Japan or Korea once they had their fill of coal, though the steel the coal helped produce would almost certainly wind up in China.
It was funny, the change that came over Bernie when he was flying. He'd keep up his side of a conversation but the jibes and the dipso flamboyance were gone. He was only half-listening, and who could blame him with the hundred other things he had to pay attention to up there in the invisible sea. I felt safe with this Bernie at the controls. But as soon as we touched down and he took the headset off, you could bet he'd have a sheep joke ready. He had plenty for the Asian crewmen, too. He'd say, straight to their face: 'What do you call a retarded Chinaman? Sum Ting Wong.' Whether they understood or not, the crewmen, orange jumpsuits or white, all reacted the same way, which was no reaction at all. Even in the midst of the side deals Bernie would strike in small huddles shielded from view of the bridge, he'd suddenly raise his voice to proclaim, 'I played the Chinese version of Guess Who? the other day on the Annoula, but it's fuckin'impossible. They all looked the same!'
Immigration restrictions meant we couldn't take any crewmen back to town with us. You could tell on the second and third visits they were getting stir crazy. They let their hardhats list on their heads, or rolled their pant legs up to the knee. They became less discreet with their requests. Bernie was able to keep the few who hankered for drugs satisfied, but the vast majority craved the company of women.
A fortnight after Bernie got his licence back he came into the hangar with two companions.
'Kiwi, this is Yanna and Felix. Yanna and Felix, this is Kiwi.'
'Matt,' I said, holding my hand out to Felix, an over-inflated gym junkie, the kind you know has never won a fight but you aren't about to give him the opportunity. He kept his bulging arms crossed, said nothing. I noticed he was clutching a small white leather gym bag that I guessed belonged to Yanna. I turned to her and said hi.
'Hey,' she said. She wore white boots that stretched to the knee and a white outfit – I guess you'd call it a dress – that covered her breasts with two vertical stripes of stretch nylon but left everything else above her waist exposed. She had that damaged-younger-sister look. Hot as hell – slender, dark, coltish – and she'd known it once, but this is where it got her.
I finished loading the boot lockers while Bernie showed Yanna around the JetRanger, explaining the difference between piston-driven and jet engines, why the number of rotor blades doesn't matter much, that they spin in different directions depending on where the craft is built and how this flips everything on its head for the pilot. I'd been working with him for a month and he'd never once explained any of this to me.
'All set, Kiwi?' he asked.
He helped Yanna up into the cabin and Felix followed her into the back seat. I sat up front with Bernie. As we flew out to the Orient Athena, a ship we'd visited only four days ago, I looked back at Yanna, wondering if she was cold in her skimpy outfit. She was staring out the window, entranced by the sea below as only a first-timer can be. I twisted further around to look at Felix, who was sitting directly behind me. 'All right, Felix?' I asked. This time he graced me with a grunt.
I wasn't sure that first trip if he was her pimp, her boyfriend, or both. I figured the silent treatment meant he wasn't happy about the acts Yanna was about to perform onboard. I soon learned that he'd actually been the muscle on hundreds of trips like this with Bernie over the years. They both had a deal with a brothel in town. When Yanna was spent, there'd be some other girl to take her place, but Bernie and Felix, it seemed, would always be there for the stranded crewmen.
We set down on the Orient Athena's landing pad, which was amidships on this particular tanker. I could see men in jumpsuits converge on us from bow and stern, others emerged from hatches in the deck and yellow hardhats popped out of windows in the tower that contained the bridge.
'Look at them run,' Bernie chuckled.
I felt sick. I jumped down and sucked in what I hoped would be the cool sea air, but it was mostly diesel and hot tar.
Felix clambered out and helped Yanna down. She flashed her white underwear in the process and this got the crewmen yabbering.
I pushed through the crowd that was right up to the landing skids and opened the boot locker to unload their box of vegetables: bok choy, savoy cabbage, squash, mung beans, daikon. A world away from the canned spaghetti of the Collinsville cafeteria, but Yanna was the only kickshaw the men aboard the Orient Athenawere interested in that day.
'Someone gonna sign for this?' I called out. I was lucky if two faces turned to me.
'Don't worry, Kiwi,' Bernie said. 'We'll be back tomorrow.' He climbed back into the JetRanger.
I shut the locker and went up to the pilot's side. 'We're not leaving her here overnight?'
'Would hardly be worth her while otherwise.'
'How many -' I stopped myself. I didn't want to know. I circled back around the tail rotor, checking everything was set for us to take off. As I climbed into my seat I could see Felix, twice as broad as the crewmen, and Yanna, taller by a head with the help of her high heels, being ushered back to the tower by the crowd of excited men.
'Cheer up, Kiwi,' Bernie said, flicking switches and adjusting his headset. 'She'll be right. Plenty of people would be jealous of a one-day working week.'
I shook my head. The rotors picked up speed and we pulled away from the deck of the Orient Athena.
We stopped off at two more ships that trip, both in the outer anchorage, delivering the usual supplies. Flying back to Mackay we passed over the Orient Athena. The decks were empty.
That night, alone in the silver bullet, I kept thinking about Yanna out there, stranded. I pictured her in a windowless room, sitting on a single bed that was pushed in the corner. Felix standing outside the heavy steel door with his arms folded. A queue of crewmen in their jumpsuits and hardhats interspersed with the odd bearded officer, blue and gold epaulets sitting proudly on their shoulders. The door to Yanna's cell opening and the first customer entering.
I considered going back to the hangar, rolling the JetRanger's trailer outside, taking off and rescuing Yanna. I tried to convince myself I knew the routine of switches and buttons to set the rotors spinning, the tasks the various levers and pedals performed, but there are some feats even the arrogance of youth cannot perform. I lay there on my creaking mattress in the dark, my head crowded with the looping image of men unzipping their jumpsuits, pushing them down around their shins, leaving their boots and hardhats on.
When we returned to the Orient Athena the next morning Yanna and Felix were waiting on deck. She was wearing a loose black sweater, the kind a dancer might wear after a rehearsal. Her crimped brown hair looked the same as it had the day before. Her face wore the same confident but removed expression. She was even quite talkative once inside the cabin. She asked Bernie questions about the JetRanger, which way the rotor blades spun. She'd clearly been listening the day before. It almost seemed like nothing had happened in between.
We stopped off at the Hav Konge. As Bernie and I unloaded their supplies, I could see Yanna inside the cabin rubbing Felix's head, teasing him about his thinning hair.
When we were in the air again Bernie checked in with the Rodeo IV, our last call that morning. The wind was picking up, but nothing Bernie couldn't handle. He even found time for banter.
'I guess it's a blessing,' he said, 'them being Asians, if you know what I mean.'
'Don't be coy, Bernie,' Yanna said, her voice deeper and older sounding over the intercom. 'You mean 'cause of their small dicks?' She laughed. 'Don't be so sure. I am, after all, in a position to compare.'
That shut him up.
A WEEK TO the day after their first trip, Yanna and Felix returned to the hangar. Despite seeing her comfort after the first overnighter I was still uneasy leaving her on board the Tong Jun III, not least because it was a nine-hold Capesize vessel. There must have been more than thirty men on board. I thought about telling Anton, but deep down I suspected he already knew. He must have, if Bernie and Felix had been running prostitutes out to the ships for several years before Bernie's licence was suspended.
As the weeks passed and I found out more about Yanna, I began to lose the tether of the moral outrage I'd felt that first time we left her on board. She didn't have a kid or a sick parent to support. It was clear she could stay ashore if she wanted and service the men of Mackay, or she could leave that world behind and study at CQU, or get a job in a clothes store or become a landscape gardener – whatever she set her mind to. But this was the path she'd chosen.
'It's only temporary,' she told me once, out of the blue. 'This gig. I'm just waiting to figure out what I want to do with my life.'
'You don't think maybe this'll have some impact, you know, down the road?'
'Besides giving me time and money to get my shit sorted?'
'I've got my head on straight.'
I asked her another time what she did on her six-day weekends.
'Well, I work reception at BJ's Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. I hang out there most of the other nights.'
'Watch DVDs, mostly. Have you seen The Wire? We just got season three.'
'Do you, you know, see clients on the nights you're at BJ's?'
She giggled at my coyness. 'I don't fuck for money in Mackay. Just the ships. It's easier to keep things separate that way. The offshore whore, that's what the girls call me now.'
'What about Bernie?' I asked.
'Well, yeah, before I worked on the ships, I saw clients. You're quite a prude, aren't you, Kiwi?'
'I'm just trying to understand.'
'How much do you earn working here?' she asked me.
I had the urge to share with her my developing philosophy about the difference between the pursuit of wealth and the pursuit of happiness that had first taken root those nights in my Falcon at the mines, a philosophy I refined nightly as I lay in the silver bullet, but I knew it would come out garbled.
'You know that first time we left you out there,' I told her instead, 'I couldn't stand it.'
She gave me a tell-me-more smile.
'I wanted to fly the JetRanger out and rescue you.'
'Why didn't you?'
'I can't fly.'
I kicked myself as soon as I realised I'd left the door open for another kiwi joke, but she just said, 'It would have been romantic,' playing a role now, toying with me.
'But you didn't need rescuing. Don't need rescuing, right?'
She shrugged. 'True, but I have a thing for white knights.'
I BEGAN LOOKING forward to Fridays, the days we flew Yanna and Felix out to the anchorage – to the conversations she and I would have. Friday nights were still a wash of conflicting thoughts and feelings, arguments with myself, rehearsed and rehashed conversations with her: a kind of torture, infuriating in its bluntness. The rest of the week I did my job on autopilot. I hardly gave a thought to the zip-lock bags of white and brown powders Bernie was handing out to anyone with a hardhat and a handful of cash.
We'd be finished flying by midday, have the hangar all cleaned and locked up before the inevitable afternoon storm swept in. When my Falcon refused to run Bernie started driving me back to the caravan park after work to save me getting wet. It almost wasn't worth it, for all the jokes about my 'hard-on' for Yanna. He had a whole routine built around my 'pecker', how Kiwis shove their noses where their dicks should go. Sometimes he'd stop by the bank on the way and change his yuan, yen, Philippine pesos and US dollars into Aussie notes. Other times we'd swing by a bungalow with a rusted chain-link fence and a sleepy-looking bullmastiff.
On board the ships I stuck to unloading the food and toiletries, ignoring the crewmen and being ignored by them, or so I thought.
How long would I have gone on like that? Earning bugger all, in bed before ten, fascinated and frustrated by Yanna. My mum tried to convince me to go back to Canterbury for my capping, but I'd already ticked the box to receive my degree by post. I might not have been working like much of a man, or earning like one, but I could at least make selfish decisions like one.
And then one Friday we'd dropped Yanna and Felix off at the MV Prestige and set down astern on the Ruby II. Bernie was off doing his deals and I had unloaded the ship's cargo and was about to shut the boot locker when I was grabbed from behind, one hot hand over my mouth, another pressing what I'd later learn was a box cutter into my neck.
My unseen assailant started yelling in what sounded like Spanish one minute and chak-chak-chak-chak the next. He pulled me back, away from the JetRanger. I considered driving a heel into his shin, but didn't fancy the blade going any closer to my carotid. The other crewmen straightened their hardhats and looked at me with wide eyes. I looked around for Bernie but I couldn't see him. Three men in orange jumpsuits approached with slow steps, their hands at their knees, palms down, fingers splayed. It seems ludicrous, but I had the sudden image of them clicking their fingers and launching into some kind of West Side Story dance-fight with my assailant. Their approach only set him shouting again.
I tried to get my head together. If my throat was about to be slit, I really should take this opportunity to reflect on my all-too-brief life, to think about my family back home, the house I grew up in, maybe even spare a wistful thought for Katie Wallis. But all I could think about was my useless Falcon, sitting idle beside my caravan, and how long it would take for someone to figure out I wasn't coming back.
'Hold on there.' It was Bernie, pushing his way through the jumpsuits until he was a few metres from me. 'Now hold on.'
The man behind me let his hand off my mouth for a moment before hooking the same arm around my neck in a chokehold and dragging me further back toward the bridge.
'Stay calm, Kiwi,' Bernie said, looking me in the eye.
'Fucking help me,' I managed to say.
'What does he want?' Bernie asked one of the crew.
My head started pounding, my ears roared. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the white shirt of an officer, then the pressure around my neck was released and I was yanked by the arm into a small room. The man was still yelling as he slammed the door shut, plunging the two of us into total darkness. A pressing pain possessed my shoulder, as if a soldering iron was being driven into the joint. He stopped yelling but I could hear his uneven breaths, hear him moving around the room, feeling around for a light switch or perhaps for me.
I had no idea what he wanted. It could have started as a protest about conditions on board the ship. Maybe he was angry at being gypped by Bernie on a previous visit or denied on this one, or maybe he'd scored and was already high and didn't know what he was doing. Maybe he'd smelt Yanna's perfume on me and that was enough to drive him over the edge. I tried to remember if we'd been to the Ruby II before, if Yanna had been on board, but all I could focus on was keeping my back to the wall. Despite the pain of my shoulder, which was almost certainly dislocated, I knew all those nights in the dark of the silver bullet had prepared me for this lightless showdown. I could hear him stumbling over the bed, knocking metallic items on the counter. He kept circling the room clockwise and I kept six hours ahead of him. People outside banged on the door, but it must have been locked.
At some point the ridiculousness of the situation overcame the pain and the fear, and it became a game, avoiding my would-be attacker in the dark. He was impaired in some way – he had to be. I pushed off the wall and stood in the centre of the room, hearing him circle me, muttering, hissing, keening. Perhaps he'd simply snapped, being stuck on this ship in the outer anchorage for however many weeks, waiting for its turn at the front of the queue.
'Señor,' I said, and heard a lunging thrust coming my way and dodged. 'Por favor, señor.'
'Fuck you,' he said, and lunged again. I wheeled away and to the bed, lifted the mattress, which was only thin foam coated in waterproof vinyl, and – forgetting my shoulder in a fit of adrenaline – swung around and drove the mattress forward until I connected with my attacker, knocking him down. I got quickly to my feet, adjusted the mattress and jumped back on it so that he was trapped beneath me, supine and helpless like an upturned slater.
'Señor,' I said, softly. 'Be calm.'
He continued to wriggle beneath the mattress for several more minutes, cursing in a dozen dialects, before succumbing to a sudden tranquillity.
Outside the door I could hear a kind of hissing as, I'd soon learn, the Ruby II's chief engineer attacked the door with a blowtorch.
It was nearly over – I could feel it. I was already ordering the events of the day for retelling. Here was my great triumph: defeating a crazed attacker with one good arm, my entree into manhood. And I'd have plenty of practise telling the story. First to the coast guard, who'd been radioed by the ship's captain and arrived in their own helicopter just as the door was busted open; then police, once we were back on the mainland; then Anton, who visited me in the hospital as they tended to my shoulder and the various cuts I'd received. Then there was the phone call to my folks back home, the court-appointed lawyer, the second raft of police.
I never did get to tell it to Yanna, though. I don't even know who picked her and Felix up from the MV Prestige.
My attacker, Rondel Santos of Quezon City, Philippines, was shown to be under the influence of methamphetamine. The ice was easily traced back to Bernie and the lab at the back of bungalow with the sleepy bullmastiff. Bernie was arrested and charged with trafficking and distribution of drugs.
A distribution charge hung over my head for a fortnight as I recovered. I couldn't talk to the newspapers and the story of me defeating my drug-crazed Filipino attacker with a foam mattress went untold to the public. In the end the police settled on deporting me back to New Zealand. All of Anton's assets were seized, pending further prosecutions. He escaped any charges due to a lack of evidence, but by then the other chopper crews had divvied up his share of the offshore service and marine pilot transfer markets, and he went bankrupt before the year was out.
MY PARENTS TREATED me warily upon my return, as if my six months in Queensland had robbed me of something essential and I was suddenly unstable, volatile. I had more to tell, but chose to confide in my big sister, Tania. I told her about Yanna and Felix, that I'd never touched the drugs, that I was in bed by ten o'clock every night. She wasn't satisfied. Mum and Dad were disappointed in me, so disappointed. I was lucky to be alive, lucky not to be locked up, lucky I hadn't jeopardised my career prospects too badly. I needed to smarten up my act.
'Thanks for the lecture, sis.'
'When are you going to grow up, Matt?'
'Excuse you? Of course. You've always got an excuse. I didn't touch the drugs. I didn't get any of the money. I didn't screw the prostitute. You think you had an adventure over there, but what you actually did was shift the course of your life. You'll always know you went along with the drugs and the pimping. You have to live with that.'
Back in New Zealand I was another kind of cleanskin: an engineering grad with no experience in the field who'd taken six months off after finishing his degree to travel. Recruitment agents questioned the wisdom of this route – why hadn't I applied for the countless graduate recruitment schemes last year, and would I be willing to wait till next year to start? – but things have a way of sorting themselves out.
This is not to say the last remnants of my youthful self-confidence didn't take me down a few more cul-de-sacs, or that I don't still wake some nights in the imperfect dark and remember those dark places in Mackay: the silver bullet, the Ruby II's sickbay and the room in which I always pictured Yanna, waiting for the next crewman to unzip his jumpsuit and climb on. Sometimes I think of her and Felix as if they are still on board the MV Prestige, still anchored there in Dalrymple Bay. Felix leaning with his back to the door, running his hand softly over his short, sparse hair; Yanna watching the other chopper crews flying around the bay, trying to figure which way their rotors spin as they pass overhead, dreaming of the day they fly out and find she has vanished.
Level 4, Griffith Graduate Centre
South Bank, Campus – Griffith University
Sidon Street, South Bank 4101 Australia
South Bank Campus, Griffith University
PO Box 3370, South Brisbane 4101, Australia
Phone: +61 7 3735 3071
Fax: +61 7 3735 327