The three stood at the very edge of the sea and watched the moon laying a pathway of shimmering iridescence across the dark waters.
‘Full of the moon in two days,’ Jim Courtney said confidently. ‘The big reds will be hungry as lions.’ A wave came sliding up the beach and foamed around his ankles.
‘Let’s get her launched, instead of standing here jabbering,’ his cousin, Mansur Courtney, suggested. His hair shone like newly minted copper in the moonlight, his smile sparkling as brightly. Lightly he elbowed the black youth who stood beside him, wearing only a white loincloth. ‘Come on, Zama.’ They bent to it together. The small craft slid forward reluctantly, and they heaved again, but this time it stuck fast in the wet sand.
‘Wait for the next big one,’ Jim ordered, and they gathered themselves. ‘Here it comes!’ The swell humped up far out, then raced towards them, gathering height. It burst white on the break-line, then creamed in, throwing the bows of the skiff high and making them stagger with its power – they had to cling to the gunwale with the water swirling waist high around them.
‘Together now!’ Jim yelled, and they threw their combined weight on the boat. ‘Run with her!’ She came unstuck and rode free, and they used the backwash of the wave to take her out until they were shoulder deep. ‘Get on the oars!’ Jim spluttered as the next wave broke over his head. They reached up, grabbed the side of the skiff and hauled themselves on board, the seawater running off them. Laughing with excitement, they seized the long oars that were lying ready and thrust them between the thole pins.
‘Heave away!’ The oars bit, swung and came clear, dripping with silver in the moonlight, leaving tiny luminous whirlpools on the surface. The skiff danced clear of the turbulent break-line, and they fell into the easy rhythm of long practice.
‘Which way?’ Mansur asked. Both he and Zama looked naturally to Jim for the decision: Jim was always the leader.
‘The Cauldron!’ Jim said, with finality.
‘I thought so.’ Mansur laughed. ‘You still got a grudge against Big Julie.’ Zama spat over the side without missing the stroke.
‘Have a care, Somoya. Big Julie still has a grudge against you.’ Zama spoke in Lozi, his native tongue. ‘Somoya’ meant ‘wild wind’. It was the name that Jim had been given in childhood for his temper.
Jim scowled at the memory. None of them had ever laid eyes on the fish they had named Big Julie, but they knew it was a hen not a cock because only the female grew to such size and power. They had felt her power transferred from the depths through the straining cod line. The seawater squirted out of the weave, and smoked as it sped out over the gunwale, cutting a deep furrow in the hardwood as blood dripped from their torn hands.
‘In 1715 my father was on the old Maid of Oman when she went aground at Danger Point,’ Mansur said, in Arabic, his mother’s language. ‘The mate tried to swim ashore to carry a line through the surf and a big red steenbras came up under him when he was half-way across. The water was so clear they could see it coming up from three fathoms down. It bit off the mate’s left leg above the knee and swallowed it in a gulp, like a dog with a chicken wing. The mate was screaming and beating the water, all frothed up with his own blood, trying to scare the fish off, but it circled under him and took the other leg. Then it pulled him under and took him deep. They never saw him again.’
‘You tell that story every time I want to go to the Cauldron,’ Jim grunted darkly.
‘And every time it scares seven different colours of dung out of you,’ said Zama, in English. The three had spent so much time together that they were fluent in each other’s language – English, Arabic and Lozi. They switched between them effortlessly.
Jim laughed, more to relieve his feelings than from amusement, ‘Where, pray, did you learn that disgusting expression, you heathen?’
Zama grinned. ‘From your exalted father,’ he retorted, and for once Jim had no answer.
Instead he looked to the lightening horizon. ‘Sunrise in two hours. I want to be over the Cauldron before then. That’s the best time for another tilt at Julie.’
They pulled out into the heart of the bay, riding the long Cape swells that came marching in unfettered ranks from their long journey across the southern Atlantic. With the wind full into the bows they could not hoist the single sail. Behind them rose the moonlit massif of Table Mountain, flat-topped and majestic. There was a dark agglomeration of shipping lying close in below the mountain, riding at anchor, most of the great ships with their yards down. This anchorage was the caravanserai of the southern seas. The trading vessels and warships of the Dutch East India Company, the VOC, and those of half a dozen other nations used the Cape of Good Hope to victual and refit after their long ocean passages.
At this early hour few lights showed on the shore, only dim lanterns on the walls of the castle and in the windows of the beachfront taverns where the crews from the ships in the bay were still revelling. Jim’s eyes went naturally to a single prick of light separated by over a sea mile of darkness from the others. That was the godown and office of the Courtney Brothers Trading Company and he knew the light shone from the window of his father’s office on the second floor of the sprawling warehouse.
‘Papa is counting the shekels again.’ He laughed to himself. Tom Courtney, Jim’s father, was one of the most successful traders at Good Hope.
‘There’s the island coming up,’ Mansur said, and Jim’s attention came back to the work ahead. He adjusted the tiller rope, which was wrapped around the big toe of his bare right foot. They altered course slightly to port, heading for the north point of Robben Island. ‘Robben’ was the Dutch word for the seals that swarmed over the rocky outcrop. Already they could smell the animals on the night air: the stench of their fishladen dung was chokingly powerful. Closer in, Jim stood up on the thwart to get his bearing from the shore, checking the landmarks that would enable him to place the skiff accurately over the deep hole they had named the Cauldron.
Suddenly he shouted with alarm and dropped back on to the thwart. ‘Look at this great oaf! He’s going to run us down. Pull, damn you, pull!’ A tall ship flying a great mass of canvas, had come silently and swiftly around the north point of the island. Driven on the north-wester it was bearing down on them with terrifying speed.
‘Bloody cheese-headed Dutchman!’ Jim swore, as he heaved on the long oar. ‘Murderous landlubbing son of a tavern whore! He’s not even showing a light.’
‘And where, pray, did you learn such language?’ Mansur panted, between desperate strokes.
‘You’re as big a clown as this stupid Dutchman,’ Jim told him grimly. The ship loomed over them, her bow wave shining silver in the moonlight.
‘Hail her!’ There was a sudden edge to Mansur’s voice as the danger became even more apparent.
‘Don’t waste your breath,’ Zama retorted. ‘They’re fast asleep. They won’t hear you. Pull!’ The three strained on the oars and the little vessel seemed to fly through the water, but the big ship came on even faster.
‘We will have to jump?’ There was a question in Mansur’s strained tone.
‘Good!’ Jim grunted. ‘We’re right over the Cauldron. Test your father’s story. Which of your legs will Big Julie bite off first?’
They rowed in a silent frenzy, sweat bursting out and shining on their contorted faces in the cool night. They were heading for the safety of the rocks where the big ship could not touch them, but they were still a full cable’s length out and now the high sails towered over them, blotting out the stars. They could hear the wind drumming in the canvas, the creaking of her timbers, and the musical burble of her bow wave. Not one of the boys spoke, but as they strained on the oars they stared up at her in dread.
‘Sweet Jesus, spare us!’ Jim whispered.
‘In Allah’s Name!’ Mansur said softly.
‘All the fathers of my tribe!’
Each called out to his own god or gods. Zama never missed the stroke but his eyes glared white in his dark face as he watched death bear down on them. The pressure wave ahead of the bows lifted them, and suddenly they were surfing on it, flung backwards, racing stern-first down the side of the wave. The transom went under and icy water poured in, flooding her. All three boys were hurled over the side, just as the massive hull hit them. As he went under Jim realized that it had been a glancing blow. The skiff was hurled aside, but there was no crack of rending timbers.
Jim was driven deep, but he tried to swim deeper still. He knew that contact with the bottom of the ship would be fatal. She would be heavily encrusted with barnacles after her ocean passage, and the razor-sharp shells would strip the flesh from his bones. He tensed every muscle in his body in anticipation of the agony, but it did not come. His lungs were burning and his chest was pumping with the compelling urge to breathe. He fought it until he was sure that the ship was clear, then turned for the surface and drove upwards with arms and legs. He saw the golden outline of the moon through limpid water, wavering and insubstantial, and swam towards it with all his strength and will. Suddenly he burst out into the air and filled his lungs with it. He rolled on to his back, gasped, choked and sucked in the life-giving sweetness. ‘Mansur! Zama!’ he croaked, through the pain of his aching lungs. ‘Where are you? Pipe up, damn you. Let me hear you!’
‘Here!’ It was Mansur’s voice, and Jim looked for him. His cousin was clinging to the swamped skiff, his long red curls slicked down over his face like a seal’s pelt. Just then another head popped through the surface between them.
‘Zama.’ With two overarm strokes he reached him, and lifted his face out of the water. Zama coughed and brought up an explosive jet of seawater and vomit. He tried to throw both arms around Jim’s neck, but Jim ducked him until he released his grip, then dragged him to the side of the wallowing skiff.
‘Here! Take hold of this.’ He guided his hand to the gunwale. The three hung there, struggling for breath.
Jim was the first to recover sufficiently to find his anger again. ‘Bitch-born bastard!’ he gasped, as he stared after the departing ship. She was sailing on sedately. ‘Doesn’t even know he almost killed us.’
‘She stinks worse than the seal colony.’ Mansur’s voice was still rough, and the effort of speech brought on a coughing fit.
Jim sniffed the air and caught the odour that fouled it. ‘Slaver. Bloody slaver,’ he spat. ‘No mistaking that smell.’
‘Or a convict ship,’ Mansur said hoarsely. ‘Probably transporting prisoners from Amsterdam to Batavia.’ They watched the ship alter course, her sails changing shape in the moonlight as she rounded up to enter the bay and join the other shipping anchored there.
‘I’d like to find her captain in one of the gin hells at the docks,’ Jim said darkly.
‘Forget it!’ Mansur advised him. ‘He’d stick a knife between your ribs, or in some other painful place. Let’s get the skiff bailed out.’ There was only a few fingers of free board so Jim had to slide in over the transom. He groped under the thwart and found the wooden bucket still lashed under the seat. They had tied down all the gear and equipment securely for the hazardous launch through the surf. He began bailing out the hull, sending a steady stream of water over the side. By the time it was half cleared, Zama had recovered sufficiently to climb aboard and take a spell with the bucket. Jim hauled in the oars, which were still floating alongside, then checked the other equipment. ‘All the fishing tackle’s still here.’ He opened the mouth of a sack and peered inside. ‘Even the bait.’
‘Are we going on?’ Mansur asked.
‘Of course we are! Why not, in the name of the Devil?’
‘Well...’ Mansur looked dubious. ‘We were nearly drowned.’
‘But we weren’t,’ Jim pointed out briskly. ‘Zama has got her dry, and the Cauldron is less than a cable’s length away. Big Julie is waiting for her breakfast. Let’s go and feed it to her.’ Once again they took their positions on the thwarts, and plied the long oars. ‘Bastard cheesehead cost us an hour’s fishing time,’ Jim complained bitterly.
‘Could have cost you a lot more, Somoya,’ Zama laughed, ‘if I hadn’t been there to pull you out–’ Jim picked up a dead fish from the bait bag and threw it at his head. They were swiftly recovering their high spirits and camaraderie.
‘Hold the stroke, we’re coming up on the marks now,’ Jim warned, and they began the delicate business of manoeuvring the skiff into position over the rocky hole in the green depths below them. They had to drop the anchor on to the ledge to the south of the Cauldron, then let the current drift them back over the deep subterranean canyon. The swirling current that gave the place its name complicated their work, and twice they missed the marks. With much sweat and swearing they had to retrieve the fifty-pound boulder that was their anchor and try again. The dawn was sneaking in from the east, stealthily as a thief, before Jim plumbed the depth with an unbaited cod line to make certain they were in the perfect position. He measured the line between the span of his open arms as it streamed over the side.
‘Thirty-three fathoms!’ he exclaimed, as he felt the lead sinker bump the bottom. ‘Nearly two hundred feet. We’re right over Big Julie’s dining room.’ He brought up the sinker swiftly with a swinging double-handed action. ‘Bait up, boys!’ There was a scramble for the bait bag. Jim reached in and, from under Mansur’s fingers, he snatched the choicest bait of all, a grey mullet as long as his forearm. He had netted it the previous day in the lagoon below the company godown. ‘That’s too good for you,’ he explained reasonably. ‘Needs a real fisherman to handle Julie.’ He threaded the point of the steel shark hook through the mullet’s eye sockets. The bight of the hook was two handspans across. Jim shook out the leader. It was ten feet of steel chain, light but strong. Alf, his father’s blacksmith, had hand-forged it especially for him. Jim was certain it would resist the efforts of even a great king steenbras to sheer it against the reef. He swung the bait round his head, letting the heavy cod line pay out with each swing, until at last he released it and sent it with the chain leader to streak far out across the green surface. As the bait sank into the depths he let the line stream after it. ‘Right down Big Julie’s throat,’ he gloated. ‘This time she isn’t going to get away. This time she’s mine.’ When he felt the lead sinker hit the bottom, he laid out a coil of the line on the deck and stood firmly on it with his bare right foot. He needed both hands on the oar to counter the current and keep the skiff on station above the Cauldron with the heavy line running straight up and down.
Zama and Mansur were fishing with lighter hooks and lines, using small chunks of mackerel as bait. Almost immediately they were hauling in fish – rosy red stumpnose, wriggling silvery bream, spotted tigers that grunted like piglets as the boys twisted out the hook and threw them into the bilges.
‘Baby fish for little boys!’ Jim mocked them. Diligently he tended his own heavy line, rowing quietly to hold the skiff steady across the current. The sun rose clear of the horizon and took the chill out of the air. The three stripped off their outer clothing until they were clad only in breech clouts.
Close at hand the seals swarmed over the rocks of the island, dived and roiled close around the anchored skiff. Suddenly a big dog seal dived under the boat and seized the fish Mansur was bringing up, tore it from the hook and surfaced yards away with it in its jaws.
‘Abomination, cursed of God!’ Mansur shouted in outrage as the seal held the plundered fish on its chest and tore off hunks of flesh with gleaming fangs. Jim dropped the oar and reached into his tackle bag. He brought out his slingshot, and fitted a water-worn pebble into the pouch. He had selected his ammunition from the bed of the stream at the north end of the estate, and each stone was round, smooth and perfectly weighted. Jim had practised with the slingshot until he could bring down a high-flying goose with four throws out of five. He wound up for the throw, swinging the slingshot overhead until it hummed with power. Then he released it and the pebble blurred from the pouch. It caught the dog seal in the centre of its rounded black skull and they heard the fragile bone shatter. The animal died instantly, and its carcass drifted away on the current, twitching convulsively.
‘He won’t be stealing any more fish.’ Jim stuffed the slingshot back in the bag. ‘And the others will have learned a lesson in manners.’ The rest of the seal pack sheered away from the skiff. Jim took up the oar again, and they resumed their interrupted conversation.
Only the previous week Mansur had returned on one of the Courtney ships from a trading voyage up the east coast of Africa as far as the Horn of Hormuz. He was describing to them the wonders he had seen and the marvellous adventures he had shared with his father, who had captained the Gift of Allah.
Mansur’s father, Dorian Courtney, was the other partner in the company. In his extreme youth he had been captured by Arabian pirates and sold to a prince of Oman, who had adopted him and converted him to Islam. His half-brother Tom Courtney was Christian, while Dorian was Muslim. When Tom had found and rescued his younger brother they had made a happy partnership. Between them they had entry to both religious worlds, and their enterprise had flourished. Over the last twenty years they had traded in India, Arabia and Africa, and sold their exotic goods in Europe.
As Mansur spoke Jim watched his cousin’s face, and once again he envied his beauty and his charm. Mansur had inherited it from his father, along with the red-gold hair that hung thickly down his back. Like Dorian he was lithe and quick, while Jim took after his own father, broad and strong. Zama’s father, Aboli, had compared them to the bull and the gazelle.
‘Come on, coz!’ Mansur broke off his tale to tease Jim. ‘Zama and I will have the boat filled to the gunwales before you have even woken up. Catch us a fish!’
‘I have always prized quality above mere quantity,’ Jim retorted, in a pitying tone.
‘Well, you have nothing better to do, so you can tell us about your journey to the land of the Hottentots.’ Mansur swung another gleaming flapping fish over the side of the skiff.
Jim’s plain, honest face lit up with pleasure at the memory of his own adventure. Instinctively he looked northwards across the bay at the rugged mountains, which the morning sun was painting with brightest gold. ‘We travelled for thirty-eight days,’ he boasted, ‘north across the mountains and the great desert, far beyond the frontiers of this colony, which the Governor and the Council of the VOC in Amsterdam have forbidden any man to cross. We trekked into lands where no white man has been before us.’ He did not have the fluency or the poetic descriptive powers of his cousin, but his enthusiasm was contagious. Mansur and Zama laughed with him, as he described the barbaric tribes they had encountered and the endless herds of wild game spread across the plains. At intervals he appealed to Zama, ‘It’s true what I say, isn’t it, Zama? You were with me. Tell Mansur it’s true.’
Zama nodded solemnly. ‘It is true. I swear it on the grave of my own father. Every word is true.’
‘One day I will go back.’ Jim made the promise to himself, rather than to the others. ‘I will go back and cross the blue horizon, to the very limit of this land.’
‘And I will go with you, Somoya!’ Zama looked at him with complete trust and affection.
Zama remembered what his own father had said of Jim when at last he lay dying on his sleeping kaross, burnt out with age, a ruined giant whose strength had seemed once to hold the very sky suspended. ‘Jim Courtney is the true son of his father,’ Aboli had whispered. ‘Cleave to him as I have to Tom. You will never regret it, my son.’
‘I will go with you,’ Zama repeated, and Jim winked at him.
‘Of course you will, you rogue. Nobody else would have you.’ He clapped Zama on the back so hard he almost knocked him off the thwart.
He would have said more but at that moment the coil of cod line jerked under his foot and he let out a triumphant shout. ‘Julie knocks at the door. Come in, Big Julie!’ He dropped the oar and snatched up the line. He held it strung between both his hands with a slack bight ready to feed out over the side. Without being ordered to do so the other two retrieved their own rigs, stripping the line in over the gunwale, hand over hand, working with feverish speed. They knew how vital it was to give Jim open water in which to work with a truly big fish.
‘Come, my prettyling!’ Jim whispered to the fish, as he held the line delicately between thumb and finger. He could feel nothing, just the soft press of the current. ‘Come, my darling! Papa loves you,’ he pleaded.
Then he felt a new pressure on the line, a gentle almost furtive movement. Every nerve in his body jerked bowstring taut. ‘She’s there. She’s still there.’
The line went slack again, ‘Don’t leave me, sweetest heart. Please don’t leave me.’ Jim leaned out over the side of the skiff, holding the line high so that it ran straight from his fingers into the green swirl of the waters. The others watched without daring to draw breath. Then, suddenly, they saw his raised right hand drawn down irresistibly by some massive weight. They watched the muscles in his arms and back coil and bunch, like an adder preparing to strike, and neither spoke or moved as the hand holding the line almost touched the surface of the sea.
‘Yes!’ said Jim quietly. ‘Now!’ He reared back with the weight of his body behind the strike. ‘Yes! And yes and yes!’ Each time he said it he heaved back on the line, swinging with alternate arms, right, left and right again.