It was one of those seasons when the fish came late. I worked my boat and crew hard, running far northwards each day, coming back into Grand Harbour long after dark each night, but it was November the 6th when we picked up the first of the big ones riding down on the wine purple swells of the Mozambique current.
By this time I was desperate for a fish. My charter was a party of one, an advertising wheel from New York named Chuck McGeorge, one of my regulars who made the annual six-thousand-mile pilgrimage to St Mary’s island for the big marlin. He was a short wiry little man, bald as an ostrich egg and grey at the temples, with a wizened brown monkey face but the good hard legs that are necessary to take on the big fish.
When at last we saw the fish, he was riding high in the water, showing the full length of his fin, longer than a man’s arm and with the scimitar curve that distinguishes it from shark or porpoise. Angelo spotted him at the instant that I did, and he hung out on the foredeck stay and yelled with excitement, his gipsy curls dangling on his dark cheeks and his teeth flashing in the brilliant tropical sunlight.
The fish crested and wallowed, the water opening about him so that he looked like a forest log, black and heavy and massive, his tail fin echoing the graceful curve of the dorsal, before he slid down into the next trough and the water closed over his broad glistening back.
I turned and glared down into the cockpit. Chubby was already helping Chuck into the big fighting chair, clinching the heavy harness and gloving him up, but he looked up and caught my eye.
Chubby scowled heavily and spat over the side, in complete contrast to the excitement that gripped the rest of us. Chubby is a huge man, as tall as I am but a lot heavier in the shoulder and gut. He is also one of the most staunch and consistent pessimists in the business.
‘Shy fish!’ grunted Chubby, and spat again. I grinned at him.
‘Don’t mind him, Chuck,’ I called, ‘old Harry is going to set you into that fish.’
‘I’ve got a thousand bucks that says you don’t,’ Chuck shouted back, his face screwed up against the dazzle of the sun-flecked sea, but his eyes twinkling with excitement.
‘You’re on!’ I accepted a bet I couldn’t afford and turned my attention to the fish.
Chubby was right, of course. After me, he is the best billfish man in the entire world. The fish was big and shy and scary.
Five times I had the baits to him, working him with all the skill and cunning I could muster. Each time he turned away and sounded as I brought Wave Dancer in on a converging course to cross his beak.
‘Chubby, there is a fresh dolphin bait in the ice box: haul in the teasers, and we’ll run him with a single bait,’ I shouted despairingly.
I put the dolphin to him. I had rigged the bait myself and it swam with a fine natural action in the water. I recognized the instant in which the marlin accepted the bait. He seemed to hunch his great shoulders and I caught the flash of his belly, like a mirror below the surface, as he turned.
‘Follow!’ screamed Angelo. ‘He follows!’
I set Chuck into the fish at a little after ten o’clock in the morning, and I fought him close. Superfluous line in the water would place additional strain on the man at the rod. My job required infinitely more skill than gritting the teeth and hanging on to the heavy fibreglass rod. I kept Wave Dancer running hard on the fish through the first frenzied charges and frantic flashing leaps until Chuck could settle down in the fighting chair and lean on the marlin, using those fine fighting legs of his.
A few minutes after noon, Chuck had the fish beaten. He was on the surface, in the first of the wide circles which Chuck would narrow with each turn until we had him at the gaff.
‘Hey, Harry!’ Angelo called suddenly, breaking my concentration. ‘We got a visitor, man!’
‘What is it, Angelo?’
‘Big Johnny coming up current.’ He pointed. ‘Fish is bleeding, he’s smelt it.’
I looked and saw the shark coming. The blunt fin moving up steadily, drawn by the struggle and smell of blood. He was a big hammerhead, and I called to Angelo.
‘Bridge, Angelo,’ and I gave him the wheel.
‘Harry, you let that bastard chew my fish and you can kiss your thousand bucks goodbye,’ Chuck grunted sweatily at me from the fighting chair, and I dived into the main cabin.
Dropping to my knees I knocked open the toggles that held down the engine hatch and I slid it open.
Lying on my belly, I reached up under the decking and grasped the stock of the FN carbine hanging in its special concealed slings of inner tubing.
As I came out on to the deck I checked the loading of the rifle, and pushed the selector on to automatic fire.
‘Angelo, lay me alongside that old Johnny.’
Hanging over the rail in Wave Dancer’s bows, I looked down on to the shark as Angelo ran over him. He was a hammerhead all right, a big one, twelve feet from tip to tail, coppery bronze through the clear water.
I aimed carefully between the monstrous eyestalks which flattened and deformed the shark’s head, and I fired a short burst.
The FN roared, the empty brass cases spewed from the weapon and the water erupted in quick stabbing splashes.
The shark shuddered convulsively as the bullets smashed into his head, shattering the gristly bone and bursting his tiny brain. He rolled over and began to sink.
‘Thanks, Harry,’ Chuck gasped, sweating and red-faced in the chair.
‘All part of the service,’ I grinned at him, and went to take the wheel from Angelo.
At ten minutes to one, Chuck brought the marlin up to the gaff, punishing him until the great fish came over on his side, the sickle tail beating feebly, and the long beak opening and shutting spasmodically. The glazed single eye was as big as a ripe apple, and the long body pulsed and shone with a thousand flowing shades of silver and gold and royal purple.
‘Cleanly now, Chubby,’ I shouted, as I got a gloved hand on the steel trace and drew the fish gently towards where Chubby waited with the stainless-steel hook at the gaff held ready.
Chubby withered me with a glance that told me clearly that he had been pulling the steel into billfish when I was still a gutter kid in a London slum.
‘Wait for the roll,’ I cautioned him again, just to plague him a little, and Chubby’s lip curled at the unsolicited advice.
The swell rolled the fish up to us, opening the wide chest that glowed silver between the spread wings of the pectoral fins.
‘Now!’ I said, and Chubby sank the steel in deep. In a burst of bright crimson heart blood, the fish went into its death frenzy, beating the surface to flashing white and drenching us all under fifty gallons of thrown sea water.
I hung the fish on Admiralty Wharf from the derrick of the crane. Benjamin, the harbour-master, signed a certificate for a total weight of eight hundred and seventeen pounds. Although the vivid fluorescent colours had faded in death to flat sooty black, yet it was impressive for its sheer bulk – fourteen feet six inches from the point of its bill to the tip of its flaring swallow tail.
‘Mister Harry done hung a Moses on Admiralty,’ the word was carried through the streets by running bare-footed urchins, and the islanders joyously snatched at the excuse to cease work and crowd the wharf in fiesta array.
The word travelled as far as old Government House on the bluff, and the presidential Land-Rover came buzzing down the twisting road with the gay little flag fluttering on the bonnet. It butted its way through the crowd and deposited the great man on the wharf. Before independence, Godfrey Biddle had been St Mary’s only solicitor, island-born and London-trained.
‘Mister Harry, what a magnificent specimen,’ he cried delightedly. A fish like this would give impetus to St Mary’s budding tourist trade, and he came to clasp my hand. As State Presidents go in this part of the world, he was top of the class.
‘Thank you, Mr President, sir.’ Even with the black homburg on his head, he reached to my armpit. He was a symphony in black, black wool suit, and patent leather shoes, skin the colour of polished anthracite and only a fringe of startlingly white fluffy hair curling around his ears.
‘You really are to be congratulated.’ President Biddle was dancing with excitement, and I knew I’d be eating at Government House on guest nights again this season. It had taken a year or two – but the President had finally accepted me as though I was island-born. I was one of his children, with all the special privilege that this position carried with it.
Fred Coker arrived in his hearse, but armed with his photographic equipment, and while he set up his tripod and disappeared under the black cloth to focus the ancient camera, we posed for him beside the colossal carcass. Chuck in the middle holding the rod, with the rest of us grouped around him, arms folded like a football team. Angelo and I were grinning and Chubby was scowling horrifically into the lens. The picture would look good in my new advertising brochure – loyal crew and intrepid skipper, hair curling out from under his cap and from the vee of his shirt, all muscle and smiles – it would really pack them in next season.
I arranged for the fish to go into the cold room down at the pineapple export sheds. I would consign it out to Rowland Wards of London for mounting on the next refrigerated shipment. Then I left Angelo and Chubby to scrub down Dancer’s decks, refuel her across the harbour at the Shell basin and take her out to moorings.
As Chuck and I climbed into the cab of my battered old Ford pick-up, Chubby sidled across like a racecourse tipster, speaking out of the corner of his mouth.
‘Harry, about my billfish bonus–’ I knew exactly what he was going to ask, we went through this every time.
‘Mrs Chubby doesn’t have to know about it, right?’ I finished for him.
‘That’s right,’ he agreed lugubriously, and pushed his filthy deep-sea cap to the back of his head.
I put Chuck on the plane at nine the next morning and I sang the whole way down from the plateau, honking the horn of my battered old Ford pick-up at the island girls working in the pineapple fields. They straightened up with big flashing smiles under the brims of the wide straw hats and waved.
At Coker’s Travel Agency I changed Chuck’s American Express traveller’s cheques, haggling the rate of exchange with Fred Coker. He was in full fig, tailcoat and black tie. He had a funeral at noon. The camera and tripod laid up for the present, photographer became undertaker.
Coker’s Funeral Parlour was in the back of the Travel Agency opening into the alley, and Fred used the hearse to pick up tourists at the airport, first discreetly changing his advertising board on the vehicle and putting the seats in over the rail for the coffins.
I booked all my charters through him, and he clouted his ten per cent off my traveller’s cheques. He had the insurance agency as well, and he deducted the annual premium for Dancer before carefully counting out the balance. I recounted just as carefully, for although Fred looks like a schoolmaster, tall and thin and prim, with just enough island blood to give him a healthy all-over tan, he knows every trick in the book and a few which have not been written down yet.
He waited patiently while I checked, taking no offence, and when I stuffed the roll into my back pocket, his gold pince-nez sparkled and he told me like a loving father, ‘Don’t forget you have a charter party coming in tomorrow, Mister Harry.’
‘That’s all right, Mr Coker – don’t you worry, my crew will be just fine.’
‘They are down at the Lord Nelson already,’ he told me delicately. Fred keeps his finger firmly on the island’s pulse.
‘Mr Coker, I’m running a charter boat, not a temperance society. Don’t worry,’ I repeated, and stood up. ‘Nobody ever died of a hangover.’
I crossed Drake Street to Edward’s Store and a hero’s welcome. Ma Eddy herself came out from behind the counter and folded me into her warm pneumatic bosom.
‘Mister Harry,’ she cooed and fussed me, ‘I went down to the wharf to see the fish you hung yesterday.’ Then she turned still holding me and shouted at one of her counter girls, ‘Shirley, you get Mister Harry a nice cold beer now, hear?’
I hauled out my roll. The pretty little island girls chittered like sparrows when they saw it, and Ma Eddy rolled her eyes and hugged me closer.
‘What do I owe you, Missus Eddy?’ From June to November is a long off-season, when the fish do not run, and Ma Eddy carries me through that lean time.
I propped myself against the counter with a can of beer in my hand, picking the goods I needed from the shelves and watching their legs as the girls in their mini-skirts clambered up the ladders to fetch them down – old Harry feeling pretty good and cocky with that hard lump of green stuff in his back pocket.
Then I went down to the Shell Company basin and the manager met me at the door of his office between the big silver fuel storage tanks.
‘God, Harry, I’ve been waiting for you all morning. Head Office has been screaming at me about your bill.’
‘Your waiting is over, brother,’ I told him. But Wave Dancer, like most beautiful women, is an expensive mistress, and when I climbed back into the pick-up, the lump in my pocket was severely depleted.
They were waiting for me in the beer garden of the Lord Nelson. The island is very proud of its associations with the Royal Navy, despite the fact that it is no longer a British possession but revels in an independence of six years’ standing; yet for two hundred years previously it had been a station of the British fleet. Old prints by long-dead artists decorated the public bar, depicting the great ships beating up the channel or lying in grand harbour alongside Admiralty Wharf – men-of-war and merchantmen of John Company victualled and refitted here before the long run south to the Cape of Good Hope and the Atlantic.
St Mary’s has never forgotten her place in history, nor the admirals and mighty ships that made their landfall here. The Lord Nelson is a parody of its former grandeur, but I enjoy its decayed and seedy elegance and its associations with the past more than the tower of glass and concrete that Hilton has erected on the headland above the harbour.
Chubby and his wife sat side by side on the bench against the far wall, both of them in their Sunday clothes. This was the easiest way to tell them apart, the fact that Chubby wore the three-piece suit which he had bought for his wedding – the buttons straining and gaping, and the deep-sea cap stained with salt crystals and fish blood on his head – while his wife wore a full-length black dress of heavy wool, faded greenish with age, and black button-up boots beneath. Otherwise their dark mahogany faces were almost identical, though Chubby was freshly shaven and she did have a light moustache.
‘Hello, Missus Chubby, how are you?’ I asked.
‘Thank you, Mister Harry.’
‘Will you take a little something, then?’
‘Perhaps just a little orange gin, Mister Harry, with a small bitter to chase it down.’
While she sipped the sweet liquor, I counted Chubby’s wages into her hand, and her lips moved as she counted silently in chorus. Chubby watched anxiously, and I wondered once again how he had managed all these years to fool her on the billfish bonus.
Missus Chubby drained the beer and the froth emphasized her moustache.
‘I’ll be off then, Mister Harry.’ She rose majestically, and sailed from the courtyard. I waited until she turned into Frobisher Street before I slipped Chubby the little sheath of notes under the table and we went into the private bar together.
Angelo had a girl on each side of him and one on his lap. His black silk shirt was open to the belt buckle, exposing gleaming chest muscles. His denim pants fitted skin-tight, leaving no doubt as to his gender, and his boots were hand-tooled and polished westerns. He had greased his hair and sleeked it back in the style of the young Presley. He flashed his grin like a stage lamp across the room and when I paid him he tucked a banknote into the front of each girl’s blouse.
‘Hey, Eleanor, you go sit on Harry’s lap, but careful now. Harry’s a virgin – you treat him right, hear?’ He roared with delighted laughter and turned to Chubby.
‘Hey, Chubby, you quit giggling like that all the time, man! That’s stupid – all that giggling and grinning.’ Chubby’s frown deepened, his whole face crumbling into folds and wrinkles like that of a bulldog. ‘Hey, Mister barman, you give old Chubby a drink now. Perhaps that will stop him cutting up stupid, giggling like that.’
At four that afternoon Angelo had driven his girls off, and he sat with his glass on the table top before him. Beside it lay his bait knife honed to a razor edge and glinting evilly in the overhead lights. He muttered darkly to himself, deep in alcoholic melancholy. Every few minutes he would test the edge of the knife with his thumb and scowl around the room. Nobody took any notice of him.
Chubby sat on the other side of me, grinning like a great brown toad – exposing a set of huge startlingly white teeth with pink plastic gums.
‘Harry,’ he told me expansively, one thick muscled arm around my neck. ‘You are a good boy, Harry. You know what, Harry, I’m going to tell you now what I never told you before.’ He nodded wisely as he gathered himself for the declaration he made every pay day. ‘Harry, I love you man. I love you better than my own brother.’
I lifted the stained cap and lightly caressed the bald brown dome of his head. ‘And you are my favourite eggshell blond,’ I told him.
He held me at arm’s length for a moment, studying my face, then burst into a lion’s roar of laughter. It was completely infectious and we were both still laughing when Fred Coker walked in and sat down at the table. He adjusted his pince-nez and said primly, ‘Mister Harry, I have just received a special delivery from London. Your charter cancelled.’ I stopped laughing.
‘What the hell!’ I said. Two weeks without a charter in the middle of high season and only a lousy two-hundred dollar reservation fee.
‘Mr Coker, you have got to get me a party.’ I had three hundred dollars left in my pocket from Chuck’s charter.
‘You got to get me a party,’ I repeated, and Angelo picked up his knife and with a crash drove the point deeply into the table top. Nobody took any notice of him, and he scowled angrily around the room.
‘I’ll try,’ said Fred Coker, ‘but it’s a bit late now.’
‘Cable the parties we had to turn down.’
‘Who will pay for the cables?’ Fred asked delicately.
‘The hell with it, I’ll pay.’ And he nodded and went out. I heard the hearse start up outside.