In the splinter of time as he woke Max wasn’t sure where he was. An unfamiliar white wall in front of his face flickered restlessly with splotches of light that merged and shifted on its painted surface.
"Max, breakfast’s ready."
Ah, now he remembered. The white wall belonged to his father’s trendy new launch, and the girl in the blue-striped nautical T-shirt was Jasmine, his similarly new step sister. Depression hit him like a fist and he sighed.
"you’re wasting a lovely morning, Max."
"So?" She'd woken him because it was a nice day? "Buzz off will ya!"
The smile on Jasmine’s face faded and she stepped backwards into the companionway. Max heard her feet moving slowly up the carpeted steps and he knew that he'd done it again. His mouth was getting him into a lot of trouble these days, and Jasmine would go tattle-tale to his father for sure.
So much for a great bonding weekend for the three of them.
Ah, who cared. He closed his eyes and tried for more sleep.
An hour later Max woke again, this time with a headache. He lay on his back listening to the creak of a rope somewhere and the small, continuous glup-glup-glup of sea water against the hull. The annoying thing about boats was that they were never really motionless, not for one moment, and there was that irritating movement of reflected light all the time! Max was steadily becoming more aware of last night’s dinner still sitting heavily in his stomach. He hoped it would stay there.
Sighing, he admitted to himself that the day had to be faced and now was as bad a time as ever to do it. He rolled out of his bunk and pulled on the clothes he'd dropped on the floor the night before. He slouched out of the room. At the threshold of the main cabin he stopped short and blinked. An excess of enamelled paintwork and stainless steel glittered in the late morning sun and attacked the retinas of his already sensitive eyes. The ache inside his head notched up another point or two as he eased himself into the room and collapsed carefully down onto one of the couches. If he stayed as still as possible his head might not fly apart and splatter all over the nice furniture.
Through the front window Max saw Jasmine again, padding barefoot over the swollen curve of the front deck. His step-sister was right about one thing, the day was a pretty impressive one. He squinted up at the deep-space blue of the sky. It looked spray-painted, layer upon layer of intense, buffed colour that made his eyes water all over again. Max wilted into the cushions of the couch and scowled.
How was he going to cope with all this for forty-eight more hours? Where was the energy going to come from?
Eric was fussing at the console in front of the helm seat, preparing to take his precious Dyad out of the bay. He gave Max a quick sideways glance and went back to tapping dials and checking gauges and switches. Without looking up again he gestured over his shoulder at the clutter of food on the galley bench.
"Help yourself to breakfast, son."
"Mm." Max stayed slouched on the couch cushions and watched Jasmine through the window. She crossed over to the double spools of a mounted winch on the foredeck, and knelt beside it, her face turned towards his father.
Ah yes. Her father too, now.
Max watched Eric start up the engine and signal through the glass for Jasmine to knee the deck winch-button. Her hair swung lightly around her face as she turned her head to watch the dripping anchor chain rattle up over the bow sprit. She raised an arm and circled her hand for Eric to engage the gears and slacken off some of the tension on the winch. Max noticed how well she and his father worked as a team and his mouth turned down as he recognised a stab of green jealousy. Shouldn’t he be too old for that sort of stuff? Yeah, he'd been caught off guard, that was all.
He got to his feet and turned his back on the two of them. He eyed the food on the bench. A saucepan of cold, congealing baked beans, some over-fried bacon and a few bread rolls on a board. He picked up one of the rolls and stuffed an end of it butterless into his mouth. He turned the gas on under the kettle and searched the galley cupboards for instant coffee.
Behind him he heard the lid of the anchor locker bang shut on the foredeck.
He staggered momentarily as Eric eased up the throttle and began to thread Dyad out between the dozen or so boats that were still moored in the cove.
Jasmine came back into the cabin by swinging herself neatly through a side window and landing compactly on the couch with her long legs folded under her.
"We should take Max for a look right around the island, Dad?" she suggested. "It’s a nice trip."
Eric was silent for a moment. "I'd planned on some serious fishing today," he said, "and it’s already late… but we could do that, if we make it just a quick tiki-tour."
He swung the wheel left as they motored out of the cove and turned the boat so that they began to run south, parallel to a long narrow flank of shelly beach. He lifted the engine revs until they were sliding smoothly over the water. The island raced by. Max carried his cup of coffee outside and settled himself in a sheltered corner of the deck with his back propped against the side of the boat. He closed his eyes against the dazzle of his father’s desire to overkill on white paint, and began to enjoy the sun’s warmth on his skin. The light breeze smelt of salt. This could be a bit all right, he thought, if only they'll leave me in peace…
Jasmine’s shadow fell across his face. He ignored her.
"That’s Ahikopua Point and those tall spires are the Sentinel rocks," she said. The shadow moved off his face and he heard her settle herself beside him. He continued to ignore her, mainly because now he was wondering how stable his stomach was going to be. Eric must have turned the boat around the south end of the island and Max was becoming uncomfortably aware of a new cross-current that was chopping up the water. He kept his eyes closed and took a cautious mouthful of coffee.
"That’s Bumper Point." Jasmine’s voice again. "See those rocks? They're just like sharks teeth, don’t you think?"
Max was amazed that she was still there. None of the girls he knew back home would tolerate being ignored. Was she thick, or something? She didn’t look thick.
"Hey, there’s a house boat!" She put a hand on his knee.
Max kept his eyes tight closed. If he continued to ignore her she had to go away.
"Look Max, it’s just like one of those Mississippi paddle steamers!" Her hand came off his knee but she stayed right there beside him. Small silence, then, "That’s Motutaika Point over there."
Max was stuck. Having Jasmine around was like having an over-friendly puppy make a fuss of you on the street. Ignoring it didn’t work.
"And that’s Peachgrove Bay. It’s lovely isn’t it."
Max gave up and opened his eyes. Through the open stern gate he saw a series of bright white beaches between the spreading mop-tops of pohutakawa trees and outcrops of weathered rock. He got to his feet and stared along the length of the coast.
What would it be like to spear fish off those beaches? Pretty awesome he thought. Behind the sand, valleys of grass and wildflowers reached up into high, bush-covered hills. Here and there, tucked into the tree line, Max could see the occasional coloured dome of a tent. Now that was something he wouldn’t mind doing. He pictured himself sitting under the stars on one of those lonely beaches, a small fire on red-hot stones cooking him a dinner of tinfoil wrapped potatoes and fresh fish -
Eric turned the Dyad again and Max’s view was cut off as they skimmed around the south-eastern corner of the island and out from its comparative shelter into bigger seas and a fresh breeze. The land beside the boat immediately climbed higher and cut off the warmth of the sun. A series of jagged headlands knifed straight up from the water, stark pinnacles of heart rock that finished at the skyline with a stiff black lacing of pine forest.
Now they would be worth climbing!
Max forgot his queasy stomach as he studied the cliffs. They had sloughed off huge chunks of rock to form a chain of grim little islands in the sea at their feet.
"I always think of Russian dolls when I see those islands," Jasmine said beside him. "You know, the little hollow wooden ones you can fit inside each other, or line them up from smallest to largest."
Max stared at her, and for some reason he had no answer to these everlasting observations of hers. His famously sarcastic mouth was out of ammunition. He couldn’t think of any way to shut her up.
The boat lurched as Eric mis-timed a wave and Max stumbled into Jasmine so that he had to steady her or they would have fallen. She laughed and brushed hair from her face.
"Sorry!" Eric called from inside the cabin, and they heard him laughing.
"He did that on purpose," Jasmine said. "He’s just showing off." She leaned in at the cabin door. "Cut that out, Dad!"
Max stepped into the cabin, ducking his head through the doorway. He looked his father squarely in the eye.
"You two okay there?" Eric asked innocently.
"We're fine," Max replied grimly. "And we like to make our own friendships, when and if we feel like it.
"Good." His father was laughing outright. "The boat handles well, don’t you think? Runs smoothly?"
"The boat’s sweet," Max said firmly. "It’s the captain I’m worried about."
His father chuckled again. "Want to take the wheel for a while?"
"you’re doing fine, Dad." Max put his coffee cup down on the bench. The caffeine had killed his headache and he felt a lot better. He looked up and caught his father watching him.
"When are we going to start on this fishing?" he asked.
"Any time you like."
Jasmine came in from the back deck. "We could start by dropping the anchor in Coralie Bay, Dad. It’s just up from here."
"Can do," Eric replied. "Then we'll go on up North Couvier way."
"Okay," Max said. "I'll let the anchor down, if you like."
Eric nodded. "Think you can manage that?"
"Of course I can." Max stepped onto the couch and swung himself out of the same open side window that Jasmine had used earlier.
"Oi," his father called behind him. "There is a door, you know."
Max was a lot bigger than Jasmine, and less supple. It was a push and scramble for him to make it through the window. On the other side he straightened his shoulders and rubbed a pulled muscle in his back. He stepped onto the front deck and headed across it towards the bow sprit. The upwards bulge of the teak decking was slippery under his sneakers. One foot shot out from under him and he staggered backwards, arms flung wide and grabbing at air. He crashed against the front windows of the cabin and his head bounced painfully on the glass. The fingers of one hand curled around something and he tore off the long-shanked, brass windscreen wiper on one of the windows.
Smack and bang! He hit the deck and his headache was back.
He pulled himself to his feet, carefully, and rubbed his head. Through the big window, luckily not broken, he saw Jasmine and his father staring out open mouthed. He grinned weakly and stepped back, catching his foot in the open hatch of the small deck vent above the loo. His ankle wrenched with an audible crunch and he staggered backwards, hopping on one foot. His sneaker caught in the heavy anchor chain lying looped between the deck winch and the bow of the boat. Max windmilled his arms uselessly, his balance was well and truly skewed. He had time to think sadly that his head was going to turn to mush on the deck - but Max was lucky; his backbone whacked into the stainless steel boat-rail, which was painful, but then he slid across it.
Over the side he went, down down down through water, soft, green, enveloping water.
It would be easier for everyone, Max thought, if I just stayed down here.
No more disasters. No more stuffing up.
Then there was a great flurrying of bubbles beside him and two small hands grabbed him under the arms. He was pulled upwards, his damaged ankle dragging painfully through the water.
It was Jasmine. Of course it was her. Jasmine would always be on hand, ready to grab up a buoyancy vest and do the odd spot of life saving.
Max gasped at the surface and coughed up sea water. The boat was a little way off, turning, and their father had his head and shoulders out of the cabin window, looking more worried than angry Max was relieved to see.
"I'll take him over to the shore!" Jasmine called, and she took him in tow again.
"I can swim," Max said, but he couldn't. Or not very well. Jasmine helped him towards the shallows and they made it to a small clay beach underneath an ancient pohutakawa tree. There they lay half in and half out of the water, panting, water streaming down their faces. Under her buoyancy vest Jasmine’s blue striped T-shirt sagged with sea water.
Max investigated his mangled foot cautiously.
"Is it broken?" Jasmine asked.
He shook his head. "Just sprained, I think."
Her face screwed up in sympathy. "Poor Max."
He turned his head and looked at her. "I've been a major jerk," he said.
"Sorry sis … and thanks."
Jasmine’s grin was quite blinding.
This story is dedicated to Jasmine and Shadow
© G. Brassi
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