August 1962 in Moreton Bay. The Tangalooma whaling station has closed and Australian Rick is twenty-six and out of work. Whaling since his teens, he’s made his home on North Stradbroke Island with Norwegian siblings, his bride-to-be Camilla and his crewmate Christian.
Without work Christian and Camilla face immediate deportation. If Rick can’t get Christian onto the whale chaser, the Looma, for their next contract in Western Australia, he will lose Camilla forever.
Megan McGrath’s moving novella about identity and industries in change returns the reader to Australia’s recent whaling past; it is a story about the mistakes we continue to make, about the crippling power of love and the grip of small towns.
I got out of bed slowly, stiff in the joints from coming down at Whale Rock. The skin on my hands was raw with tiny cuts, but they were clean and healing. I went into the kitchen, shielding my eyes from the sun coming in through the front windows. Camilla had left a mug of black coffee on the bench, and beside it, my pocketbook lay open, the teaspoon forming a crosspiece against the pages.
In her neat, upright script she’d written, Good luck! And below it, as if an afterthought, the words, no milk, followed by a single x. The brew had long since gone cold but I slurped it down anyway.
Camilla’s note was to wish me well on my search for work, but with respite from the wind for the morning I knew where my priorities lay. Looking for work could wait. I wanted to swim out to Whalebone Reef.
The swim was less than fifty yards. The reef, just off the headland in front of our house, nothing spectacular. But the bones were incredible.
Home for the three of us was a small shack at Claytons, right on Cylinder Beach. Cylinder was a beach with cycles. At different times the cove filled with sand that buried the footholds of the headland and others it opened up to lagoons or tadpole infested tea-tree swamps we’d need to wade through to reach the sandbar and surf on the other side.
In the humid summer months the hum of mozzies filled the reeds on quiet days and we’d pray for a sou’easter to blow them out to sea. The shift was seasonal, the way all things were. But August was a season of its own. August took the coil of winter and wound it so tight every morning pinched your bones. The cruellest of all were the August skies that swept blue and clear like an icy skin over the horizon.
On the beach, I unzipped my jacket and pulled my shirt over my head. My skin rippled in the cold and even the sand had a bite to it. This was not a day for inching out past the breakers. I barrelled into the surf, throwing my body into the shore break before the chill could register. I hadn’t swum in months but after a few strokes heat filled my limbs and I relaxed into the rhythm of a crawl, pulling myself out through the surf.
Once I cleared the waves, I treaded on the surface, sucking the air deep into my lungs. The bottom was barely two body lengths below but after being away for so long, the thought of going under to be with the bones, even for a minute, made my heart race.
The bones in the reef, I suspected, were from a carcass that had rotted on a nearby beach and been worked into the rocks by the currents and tides. The past few summers I’d been trying to catalogue the remains. Rumour said it wasn’t a whole whale just an assortment of bones, all the wrong order, like someone had tipped the pieces of a jigsaw out of the box. I disagreed. There was a whale down there. And I wanted to prove it. I’d been sketching the bones from memory after each dive, trying to capture one piece at a time. How they looked in the rock and how they’d look free of it.
I was in awe of them. I wanted to know this whale through its parts. For me, the work and the whale was always a different thing. The same way I felt fishing for turtle or snapper or jew; I could still love the animal and hunt it.
Preparing to dive, I counted the seconds of each breath, in and out, then I tipped on the surface and dove straight down.
As my vision adjusted to the salt water the reef came into view. At first I saw only a flat, dull shape against the sand and I kicked hard to propel myself against the current. This was the same reef I’d visited only months ago. My pulse was in my ears as I tried to comprehend what I was seeing. As the swell rolled above me I rocked with it, making a final check but I wasn’t wrong.
The bones were gone.