An extract from Man Booker 2013 winner Eleanor Catton’s first appearance in Granta.
The harbour at Mana was a converted mudflat, tightly elbowed and unlovely at any tide but high. I had never been there when the tide was high. The birds were shags mostly. The fish were small. Low water showed the scabbed height of the yellow mooring posts, and the thick curded foam that shivered under the wharves, and the dirty bathtub ring on the rocks on the far side of the bay. The waves left a crust of sea lice and refuse and weed.
The marina was tucked into the crook of the elbow, facing back towards the shore. To make the hairpin journey from the shallow flats to open sea was dangerous, and so a central trench had been excavated in the seabed to create a channel deep enough for yachts to travel safely, even on the ugliest of tides.
‘Bad luck to have a woman on board,’ Craig said as I stepped down into the cockpit and took the tiller in my hand. ‘That’s the oldest in the book. But I’ll tell you something else. There are grown men on this marina, educated men, who will never leave an anchor on a Friday. Grown men. Never leave on a Friday. It isn’t just a quirk for them – something runs deeper. And you know the reason why?’
I did: he’d told me this twice already, the first time at the yacht club with a gale wind thrashing at the door and the second time in the conical dry space beneath a fir tree on the Plimmerton domain, passing the last cigarette back and forth between us with our fingers cupped tight to keep it burning.
‘No,’ I said. I smiled at him. ‘What’s the reason?’
‘Vendredi is French, that’s Friday. Right? That’s a word from way back when. And Vendredi means ruled by Venus. Right? And Venus is the ruler of women. And women are bad luck at sea. Right?’ Craig sucked in the wind through his teeth. ‘So never leave on a Friday.’
‘Would you?’ I said. ‘Would you leave on a Friday?’
Craig thought for a moment.
‘Say if the conditions were perfect,’ I said. ‘Say if the Strait was like glass.’
‘Depends on the journey,’ he said at last. ‘If it was a day trip I would. But if it was some voyage – some huge beginning – I’d think twice. You don’t want a curse on that.’
The limit was five knots inside the marina, impossibly slow. Even the speedboats seemed to drift. Once they passed the five-knot post you heard the grinding click and then the roar. The vessels ghosted by, passing close enough to whisper. I saw a seasick dog on a cabin roof and a charcoal smoker pouring steam and a scalloping basket hung like a flag from a boatswain’s chair. It was still morning.
We left Mana with our faces turned back towards the harbour, watching the leading lights that showed the safe passage out of the bay. The leading lights comprised three colossal lengths of sewer pipe, diverging in three spokes and set into the hillside against the scrub. The central pipe was aligned with the excavated channel down the middle of the harbour, so if you were sailing safely you would be able to look cleanly up the length of the pipe and see the white light at the far end. If you strayed from your course you would no longer be looking down the unobstructed length of this middle pipe, and so the white light would disappear. Too far port and you would come into alignment with the left-hand pipe, which showed the warning red light; too far starboard and you would be aligned with the right-hand pipe, which showed a warning green.
There were two sets of leading lights in the harbour. The first was to guide you out of the marina and past the moored yachts, all shelved and slotted into the skeletal docks like a vast nautical library. Once these leading lights diminished in the distance and the light became difficult to see, you looked around to find the next set, fixed at an obtuse angle to the first and mounted on the shore above the motorway. The leading lights fascinated me. I drove the tiller to the right and left just to see over my shoulder the warning flash of green and then of red, leaping out from the hillside like a private flare.
Craig was smoking a cigarette and the ash was whipping off the butt and shredding whitely in the wind. The mainsail was up, but tightly reefed, and we hadn’t yet switched off the diesel. He called the horsepower ‘not quite enough to make a herd’ and the description amused him so much that he had said it more than once, with minor variations. His foot was cocked, pinning a Primus stove upright against the hatch cover so it didn’t fall and gutter as we bucked and rolled. The pale flame was invisible in the brightness of the day but I could see that the water in the billy was beading and ready to boil.
I was standing braced against the sides of the cockpit, half-turned and holding the tiller arm behind my back. ‘Like backing a trailer,’ Craig said. ‘Just push the opposite to where you want to go.’ I was not strong and my hand seemed to shiver on the tiller arm, the stout taper of teak wound around its length with a tight coil of waxed rope bleached grey by the salt and the sun. My awkwardness showed in the bunching lather of our wake. Craig’s helming always left a crisp and minted streak; it conveyed a sense of purpose, a resolve. My wake was full of doubt. I looked back over my shoulder at the white spearhead stamp of our passing and watched the spume get sucked downward into the blue.
Craig flicked the end of his cigarette into the sea.
‘That’s what’s missing,’ I said. ‘A dog.’
‘You never met Snifter,’ Craig said. ‘Hell of a dog. He got so crook in the end, his skin just hung down. Kidneys. I cried. Could hardly see. That was a shit of a year. My dad died that year, and a bunch of other shitty stuff.The boys said goodbye and I said I wanted to take him to the vet myself, in the truck, just him and me. But I took him out to our Foxton plot instead and we walked into the trees and I told him to sit, and I shot him. I bloody shot him. God, I cried that day. I cried. Could hardly see. That was a shit of a year. My dad died that year, and a bunch of other shitty stuff. Never found it in me to get another dog in place of Snifter. Buried him myself, under the trees.’
I’d seen the grave on his land at Foxton. There was a pine cross driven into the earth and a piece of aluminium was stapled to the upright spar like a plaque. With a shaky engraving tool Craig had written LOOK OUT, LOOK OUT, THERE’S A TERRIER ABOUT! and underneath, SNIFTER MCNICHOL and a pair of dates. I’d come across it on my own, ducking off to take a piss behind a blackberry while Craig lopped Christmas trees with pruning shears and dragged them by their stump ends to make a pile. My hands were sticky from the sap. Later we sat on collapsible chairs on the Foxton drag and drank a case of beer and sold the trees for ten dollars, five for the ugly ones.
I thought about him sobbing as he dug the slender grave.
‘Christ, I loved that dog,’ Craig said. ‘It’s stupid. It’s stupid. Hell of a dog.’
He reached down and pinched out the Primus flame. With one hand wrapped in a gutting glove he picked up the billy and poured out the hot water into two plastic mugs jammed tight between a cleat and the steel frame of the windshield. He was alert to the pitch and roll of the boat and he poured in steady, deliberate gulps. Nothing spilled. He tipped in coffee grains and milk and used the saw blade of his pocketknife to stir.
‘It’s bloody primitive,’ he said as he passed the mug to me. ‘Bloody primitive, savage really. The milk – I steal those creamers, anywhere I can. I can’t offer – savage really. Acid in your mouth.’
He was embarrassed. I said, ‘It’s exactly right. It’s great.’ My hair was whipped across my face from the wind.
‘It’s bloody primitive,’ he said, scowling now, and then backed swiftly down the narrow hatch into the saloon. I heard him sliding the panels behind the engine where his tools were stowed. The tiller leaped against my hand and I flexed my arm to hold her firm. I listened to him rummage and over the noise I said, more loudly, ‘It’s exactly what I feel like.’
Craig was nervous when he showed me the marina for the first time. I think I’d expected something charming and toothsome, some old glamour gone to seed, but his boat was capable and wifely and broad.
The causeway between the berths had a central grip of chicken wire stapled flat to the planking and it was ridged every metre with a strip of dowelling that made our handcart ring out sharply as we walked. Sea Lady, Gracie, Taranui, Stoke. Craig pointed and said, ‘Wanker – wanker – he’s an alright bloke but the boat’s just for show – wanker’Craig pointed and said, ‘Wanker – wanker – he’s an alright bloke but the boat’s just for show – wanker – that boat’s been all around the world, would you believe it – she’s just changed hands, haven’t met the new owner – he’s a wanker – look at that, isn’t she a beauty? – see this one? That’s the boat I’d want if I downgraded to a sloop. Precision, she’s a piece of work. Owner’s a right prick though. And here,’ as we finally stopped, third from the end, beside the Autumn Mist.
She slotted snug between a pair of gin palaces, shining white bridge-deckers with tinted glass and squared-off cabins that sat high and proud in the water and bobbed brightly in the crosswind. The Autumn Mist didn’t bob. There was a weight to her, a low-slung gravity, a guarded economy of pitch and roll that seemed quietly to undermine the jouncing of the boats on either side. She was mute-coloured and scabbed with rust, trimmed with sky blue and antifouled with grey. I saw the new wind vane, mounted above the dented gutting tray at the stern, but the clean whiteness of the fin threw the rest of the boat into poor relief. Her sail covers were patched and tatted and fringed with loose threads. The gaskets hung slack. The cockpit windshield was coming apart from its steel framing. There was a dinghy strapped upside down on the bow and the triple bones of its keel showed darkly silver where a thousand landings had worn the paint away.
I thought about dogs that come to resemble their owners and turned to Craig with the tease already in my mouth, but I was startled to see that he was looking downright anxious. He had turned red and he was flapping his hand strangely, turning his wrist over and over.
‘What do you make of it?’ he said.
I put my hand up to shield the sun. ‘Didn’t you say once? Man can only have one mistress. Didn’t you say that?’
‘That’s the truth.’ He looked pleased, and ceased his flapping. After a moment he said, ‘Meet the mistress,’ and we stood in silence and bucked on our heels against the wind.
‘I’m looking for scratches on the hatch,’ I said.
‘Don’t say that when we get to Furneaux.’
‘Too soon, you reckon.’
‘All the boys in the yard been calling me Scott, or Mr Watson.’
‘That keel’s an inch thick and she’s been to Tonga and back.’
‘The name is from “Puff the Magic Dragon”. Silly really.’
‘Lived by the sea...’
Craig said, ‘I know she needs a paint job.’
‘Sorry,’ I said, repenting. ‘I shouldn’t have said about the scratches.’
‘But antifoul is a fuck of a business. It’s best to find some shallow bay, somewhere that gives you a big margin between the tides, low and high. Got to pop her on blocks and then paint like mad until the tide comes back. Or you can pay for the crane and lift, but you’d be looking at five hundred just for the privilege.’
‘She’s lovely, Craig,’ I said. ‘Really she is.’
‘I been thinking, a dragon on the wind vane,’ he said. ‘Some cheeky dragon with a spade on the end of his tail. I reckon I might like that. Always in my head I called that dinghy Puff.’
He leaned out over the water to grab the stainless braid of the shroud and haul the vessel closer to the marina where we stood. For a second she didn’t move. Craig’s biceps stood out on his arm. Then the great weight rolled towards us, against the grain of her keel, and slowly the gap of water between the marina and the boat narrowed and then closed. The low side of the deck touched the buffered planking with a thud.
‘Jen – my wife,’ Craig said suddenly, as I stepped over the braided rail on to the Autumn Mist and felt the slow dip as she rolled under my weight, ‘she’d be white-knuckled. Any time I tried to take her – she’d sit and clamp. White-knuckled. It’s the way she always was.’
He stepped past me on to the cabin roof to unlock the deadbolt on the hatch and the blond wool of his forearm touched my hand. I was disgusted at myself suddenly and I said, ‘But the badminton, and cycling, and the half-marathon. It isn’t like – I mean, she’s got the things she loves.’
Craig’s keyring was a plastic buoy, to keep his keys afloat if they ever fell in.
‘My marriage,’ he said. ‘You wouldn’t – you don’t – Francie – it’s just —’ and then he shook his head and rattled his keys and breathed hard through his nose and said, ‘Cunt-struck. I was cunt-struck when I married her. That’s all.’
I watched a gannet make a free-fall dive. Craig reappeared, holding a spherical compass that rolled around like a weighted eyeball in his palm. I watched as he climbed one-handed out of the hatch and fitted the compass into a socket in the centre of the boom. It was about the size of an infant skull, heavy and wet-looking, and it sat just low enough to show the phosphorous degrees that spun around its equator beneath the glass. The red needle swung and hovered in its lolling underwater way.
‘You got to have a compass above board,’ he said as he dropped back into the cockpit and unwedged his coffee mug from beneath the windshield sill. ‘If you got a steel hull you got to mount it up above. Makes the needle go funny below.’
We were flanking Mana Island now. I watched the red needle pitch back and forth and tried to hold her at twenty degrees. The northern fingers of the Sounds were still pale and fogged and flattened by the distance. I saw now that the surface of the sea had a pattern to it, a weave, and I could feel it through my arm and the arches of my feet as a push or a pull. The wind gusts showed a long way off before they struck; they approached like a little burnished patch of silver where the water was disturbed. You could predict exactly the moment when the flat hand of the wind would strike your face.
I said, ‘How long would they have lasted, the bodies of those kids? If he pitched them over and weighed them down.’
They had made an arrest for the murders, Hope and Smart. We saw it on the news. There were fingernail scratches on the inside cover of the hatch, and a slender female hair on a swab in the saloon. The evidence was small. But the man was sour and dirty and he had a bad family like a killer ought. It was too awful. The worst thing was that no one knew – no one knew the method of the kill.The story was he’d pitched them over, both of them, somewhere deep. He might have raped the girl. What were we doing that night, we all asked – that New Year’s Eve, a few dark hours past the midnight toll, while somewhere north of Picton two lovers were stabbed, or brained, or strangled, while the boats all around them trembled back and forth on some dark sheet of oily calm? Lovers. It was too awful. The worst thing was that no one knew – no one knew the method of the kill.
Craig said, ‘They’d disappear. Flesh like that. Fish would eat them away in days, maybe a week. If he weighed them down all right. They’d disappear.’
Scott Watson’s boat was called the Blade.
I said, ‘The temptation would be to cover them in plastic. That’s what I would want to do. Isn’t that stupid? To want to preserve the bodies somehow. Like an instinct. To make them keep.’
Craig laughed and shot me a sly look. We didn’t speak again for a long time. I finished my coffee and switched hands on the tiller and rolled my shoulder joint to feel it click. The cockpit floor was choked with empties, and mismatched sea boots, and the roped saltwater bucket, and a pair of life jackets that showed a fine spray of mould against the yellow. All of it shifted back and forth.
I watched him. Craig was short, five four. His hair had been reddish once but it was sandy now, white at the temples and the sides of his beard. He had a white scar above his left eye and a thick pink scar running down his left forearm like a vein. His hands were big. He was stocky and barrelled but his legs were slender and his calves were fine. I watched him watch the ocean and saw how his weathered squint had left the crinkles of his crow’s feet untanned, so when his expression softened you could see two pale stars at the outer corners of his eyes. The tawny skin on the back of his neck was creased three times.
The first time I went to sea was as a child, when the replica of the Endeavour came to circumnavigate New Zealand and retrace Cook’s voyage from the north. I sailed out to meet the great square-bellied ship in a restored yacht belonging to a friend of my father’s. Lionel was a giant wrathful man who cursed at his children and ridiculed his wife, but from time to time he would lay his hands upon his boat with such a private, secret tenderness it was as if he believed himself to be alone on board.
Lionel kept the Indigo like a thoroughbred mare. A poor knot would turn him purple with fury. He screamed across the water at any vessel that flouted maritime law, and blacklisted any sailor who jammed the radio channels with ordinary talk. He would flare with a scarlet contempt if you said rear instead of aft or back instead of stern. He let nobody in the steering house when the Indigo was at sea, and he called for complete silence whenever he drove her glossy hips in or out of her marina berth, in case his concentration broke. We tucked ourselves against the mast on the aft cabin between his children and his wife and we tried to touch nothing, but he called us lubbers anyway. There was a brass plaque above the freshwater pump that read THE CAPTAIN’S WORD IS LAW.
Craig was generous with the Autumn Mist. He showed me every part of her. He watched while I fumbled with the tiller or dipped my hand down into the streaky black damp of the bilges or traced the fuel line to understand why the ignition wouldn’t catch. He let me make the radio calls to the coastguard watch. He taught me to rope off the mooring line around the forward block and showed me how to cross the rope neatly over the top of the block so the knot could unravel with a single blow of an axe.
He said, ‘Imagine if the boom clocked my temple and I went out cold. You have to know everything.’
When the Endeavour docked at Lyttelton we went aboard and marvelled at the five-foot ceilings and the swarming hammocks clustered tight and the giddy drop of the overboard latrines. They served limes. We touched the flayed catgut fingers of the cat-o’-nine-tails and learned how a single lash could shred a man. The crew were dressed in period costumes, rough linen for the seamen and covered buttons for the captain’s men. Lionel hung back with his hands in his pockets and looked up the length of her mast. He said, ‘Square-bottomed, now, and ship-rigged. Nothing much to look at. But what a life.’
The kauri shelves above the swabs in the Autumn Mist’s saloon were stuffed with faded thriller novels and food for the week ahead. In the morning before we left Mana I went below to stow my duffel bag in the V-shaped cabin underneath the bow and I saw that Craig had stuffed a box of Cadbury’s chocolates into the stow hole beside the anchor chain. The box had been stowed so roughly: it was dented and a corner of the cellophane was pierced.
To read the rest of Two Tides, go to Granta 106: New Fiction Special.
Image by Paxson Woelber