The Spike or Victoria College Review 1946
"Fill her up again," said Bill.
"Thanks a lot, boy," I said, marvelling at his hospitality. For as long as I could remember I had been hearing about these generous fishing people, and now I was experiencing their generosity for myself. Thirty years ago my mother and father had spent a holiday at this same place, and my mother had never stopped talking sense. I felt therefore that I had known this place all my life, and as I was feeling mellow my heart warmed towards it. The fullness of my stomach boosted my emotions until I was verging on the sentimental.
I looked philosophically into the communal glass. Reflected in the amber liquid with its hissing foam I saw the ailments of a sick world. The foam settled slowly into the beer, but it lay there dormant ready to hiss forth again at the slightest disturbing drop. I thought it a good symbol, but then I was getting pretty drunk. I looked at the beer in self-satisfaction.
"Here come on, knock it back," said Michael. "We're not here to make friends, we're here to make profits. No pikers in this school."
"Well its your beer. Here's to the girl who lives over the hill..." I drained the glass and handed it back to Sel.
"Another dozen," he reported, dangling and empty bottle upsidedown. Michael and I dragged a sugar bag of beer from the little room behind the freezer, and Sel went ahead efficiently with his self-appointed task of barman. There are some men who gravitate naturally to this job—they seem to be born with a bottle in their hands. Two bottles rather—one to take top off the other. Sal was one of those. He was half Maori, humorous and competent. He was clever, he didn't scintillate, he just talked and bubbled. He talked and bubbled now, joyously alive, in the middle of the carcases of several thousand very dead and disembowelled blue cod.
It was Saturday night and we sat drinking in the freezing shed of this fishing township. There was a dance later and we were just getting in the mood. The freezing shed wasn't the most comfortable place in the world, for it was cold and smelt fishy. But it was an exclusive club and the honour was such that we visitors sat on our fish boxes, froze and got drunk. We'd just had a lesson. There had been a knock on the door.
"Who's that?" Michael had shouted.
"Tom Jones," a muffled voice had shouted back.
"Bugger off," Michael had said, "or we'll throw you over the wharf with half a dozen bottles rammed down your throat—empty ones at that." The voice was silent. He knew the one local policeman was too intelligent to interfere with the crude but effective justice of the fishermen. After cursing filthily for some seconds the voice was heard no more.
"Just a bludger that one," Michael had confided to me. "I think he smells beer a hundred miles off." I realised how privileged I was. I stayed and froze and got drunk.
Michael was the leader of the fishermen. He was tall, dark-skinned and had a flashing smile. In profile he had good features and he was European in his ways and speech. His two-piece suit was well-cut, his open-necked shirt was clean and he was friendly. He was white inside and something of a philosopher. It was an honour to be accepted by him as a friend. He sat there now, laughing and page 21 doodling with the keys of his piano accordian. Even the doodling was tuneful, for Michael was enough of the Maori to have his people's love of melody. He improvised on the bass while he drank his beer in one gulp. While he talked he accompained himself quietly with a background of music. It made his harsh, but well-pitched voice pleasant to the ear.
Michael was a good fisherman and a good sailor. I went out with him one afternoon and to my landsman's eye he handled his boat very sweetly. I looked up at the threatening clouds and I said to him: "How do you navigate if the weather closes in on you?"
"Oh there's a compass in here," he said from the wheelhouse.
I glanced at it. It was an ordinary compass, but very old and dilapidated. The points and degree markings were almost worn off, and it's cracked glass top had been used as an ashtray for some time. It was covered with stained roll-your-own cigarette butts.
"Does it work?" I asked incrudulously.
"Bloody oath," said Michael, adding another butt to the collection. "It's only about ten degrees out."
I looked at him in amazement and respect. I thought of the spotless instruments I had used in the Air Force during the war. I thought of minute adjustments and painfully compiled correction cards. But Michael did not need these things. He had been brought up on the sea, and possessed a homing instinct which had little need of instruments.
I thought of this as I watched him talking and playing his piano accordian. My respect for him was unbounded. Here was a man. He was talking about sharks.
"Do we ever get any sharks down this way?" he said in reply to a visitor's question. "I'll say we do. Sel here and me, we went out after one last year—boy was he a whopper! Straightened our shark hook right out. When we dragged it in, it was like a meat skewer—wasn't it Sel?
"My oath it was boy," said Sel.
"Then there was that one we did catch. He was too heavy to bring aboard, so we towed him home. We got alongside the wharf and set up a block and tackle to drag him up. But he was too heavy for that even, so in the end we had to cut him up down below and bring him up bit by bit. No bull."
No one doubted him. Michael was the sort of man you couldn't doubt.
"Yeah, he was some shark that baby. The biggest damn shark I ever saw. Here—give us another drink, Sel, I'm goddam thirsty."
"Hey," said Bill suddenly, "It's time to go to the bloody dance."
"Gee so it is. Let's have another drink all round and get weaving." I said.
The glass did the solemn rounds again and I left the freezer with Bill. Bill was the only white man in the crowd except the visitors, and he was in charge of the freezer and paid the fishermen for their catches. He was slight, thirtyish and going grey at the temples. He was a good chap but very drunk. We walked down to the local hall together, down past the deserted boarding houses facing the chuckling sea. Then I lost him.
It was a nice hall with a good floor and I enjoyed the dancing. I felt clearer after the cool night breeze, so I danced with Julie. I'd seen Julie at our boarding house—she was the sort of girl you'd notice. About a quarter Maori, she had a compact figure, olive skin and raven black hair. Above all she had brown, mysterious eyes, and she was attractively shy. It was refreshing, for shyness is a lost art. It made me feel a lot better just to dance with her, though we didn't talk much.
The dance was half sophistication, half quiet shyness. The local girls felt their lack of glamour in comparison with the town girls, but they never lacked partners. Their friendliness and quietness was good after the forced sex antagonism of the town girls. To dance with a town girl was a challenge, to dance with a local girl was a trust.
Meanwhile Michael was playing his piano accordian, while Sel was beating it out on the drums. They were both blissfully onconscious of the outraged orchestra, who were arguing loudly with the proprietor of the hall. However a crisis was averted, for Michael and Sel left off in the middle of a dance and went outside for a drink. They were true musicians—they played for themselves, not for a hall full of rhythm chasers.
We left at midnight, Michael and I carrying Bill, who was paralytic as the result of drinking beer and wine.
"Bloody fool," said Michael. "Never could hold his liquor. He's a damn nuisance, but he's a good joker."
We left Bill in the freezing shed with his blue cod for company and walked down to the wharf. It was a wonderful night, a night to mix with alcohol.
"Look at those stars," I said. "They have a magic all of their own."
"Yeah," Michael paused. "It makes you think, don't it? I mean it makes you think of something big. I mean it makes a man feel small... ." He was embarrassed; he had touched the infinite. "Oh hell, you know what I mean."page 22
"I know." There wasn't any more to be said.
A crowd from a boarding house stood on the wharf. They crowded on to a gangplank pointing grotesquely up to the sky. Their bobbing heads were etched against the stars. It was morning and they were singing. Michael accompanied them. I stood there and sang—I didn't think, I just felt and I sang because I had to. Michael played because his fingers were no longer his. The beauty of the night held us spellbound, the music pulsed through the quiet hills.
It was over. We walked back to the freezer and we said nothing.