Fugitive Diaries, Day 2: Malacca Straits
*An excerpt from Slippery
I’m woken from my tequila-induced slumber by the captain’s rushed Malay gibberish. He stops talking as he pulls the boat around to where I’m lying on the concrete wall. I sit up, rub sleep from my eyes and try not to whiff my rancid breath. I step down onto the boat, brushing off his outstretched hand to help me aboard, saying what any Aussie lamb to the slaughter would, “she’ll be right, mate.”
I’m no historian, but I’m fairly certain these words passed the lips of every doomed Anzac battler as they stepped onto the shores of Gallipoli, sensing the impossibility of the task at hand, just climb a sheer cliff with a heavily armed battalion of Turks firing nonstop at you from up top. No problem. She’ll be right mate.
I complete a quick father, son and holy ghost as I’m directed to my place to sit, a tiny plastic chair in the undercover engine room, first class spot. Jesus. My face is basically a snorkel for the boat’s lawnmower engine’s toxic fumes. Two deckhands jump aboard. They seem to be the captain’s sons. They look to be in their early teens and are each carrying four jerry cans.
They give me a smile. One offers me a cigarette as he places the jerry cans under my seat. I wave off the smoke but return the smile as a splash of petrol hits my shoe from a lidless jerry can. Here goes then.
The boat is probably 5m long with a timber hull. You could call it a dinghy, I suppose, but to say it’s many rungs north of raft status would be a stretch. The deck is already a couple of inches beset with water. We’ve barely set off. Fuck me dead. Both of the boys are busily scooping out water with plastic bottles cut in half. They’re sitting on a plank in the middle of the deck. I’ve got hemorrhoids just watching them. The plank seating design looks more inclined towards torture than comfort, covered in splinters and drenched in grime. The boys are sliding all over the thing as they scoop out water and prepare fishing gear.
The hull slopes skyward from back to front. The pointy peak of the bow is at least 2m higher than my spot in the stern’s engine room. I’m under the shelter of a plywood cabin, designed to keep the engine out of the elements I guess. The skipper is sitting atop the thing, only God possibly knows how. I reckon I could push the whole contraption over with the force of a few fingers, yet here the old cobber is, sitting up there chain smoking, barking instructions at his deckhand sons and expertly steering the ship with one bare foot on the tiller.
We seem to have stopped taking on water. It must have simply been from the afternoon rain. The boys are holding out hand reels with makeshift lures. The captain sings Malaysian lullabies to the moon in perfect time with the sputtering engine, the fumes drift untouched into the wake. Galactic vessels abound in the greater distance, the piercing glow of oil tanker lights filling the sea salt heavy horizon. There’s virtually no wind, even less swell, the flat seas allowing for the most tranquil of Strait crossings.
I’m using my scrunched up jacket as a pillow, resting my exhausted thoughts on my coat pressed up against the plywood cabin. This, to my amazement, is the most serene moment of my life. I drift off to sleep, watching the moon play hide and seek behind the bow, grateful to my inner demons for always giving me the misplaced arrogance to fuck the system and just have a red hot crack at life, regardless of the odds. The ending’s inevitable. We’re all dealt the same losing hand in the womb, but you can bluff and raise or fold and crack, your only choice is to go out swinging.
I’m wakened by the gentle shade of a pre dawn hazel glow enveloping the Strait. The boy to the right yells, the captain stops the engine. He’s hooked a fish, the slack in his hand reel flying away in a heartbeat. His brother jumps over, grabbing his twin around the waist before the force of the hooked fish almost catapults him into the ocean. The captain jumps down, helping his one son pull in the catch of the day while the other holds both of them by the belt, wrapping his thighs around the splintered plank, grafting the three of them aboard via the anchor of extreme groin strength and splinter resistance.
I watch on in awe at the teamwork display before assisting with pulling in the catch. Six hands work together to fight the marine beast. Four anorexic Malay hands do the lion’s share. The milky soft Anglo hands achieve little more than bleed into the Malacca. The struggle lasts at least thirty minutes. The sun is shining brightly on my second day as a fugitive before we finally outmuscle this monster Spanish mackerel.
The guys pull it aboard and lay it in the front compartment of the tiny boat, scooping in water with plastic jars to keep it fresh and covering the compartment with a green tarpaulin. We all smile and hug.
“You are good luck, boss.” I’m absorbed in the captain’s embrace, tears welling in my eyes. His wiry frame reminds me of my Grandmother. He can’t weigh more than forty kilograms.
He returns to his perch, the boys take their spots again, re-jigging their lines and lighting up cigarettes. They motion me back to the cabin, the only refuge from the blistering heat that will shortly engulf the Strait. I grab my coat and resume my seated sleeping posture, watching on as the rising sun turns the water a shimmering blue, the shipping super highway’s gargantuan vessels the only blemish on this tropical paradise.
“Please, boss, sleep. Long way. Ten hours. Sleep.”
The journey carries on. The fresh ocean breeze drowns out the otherwise unbearable heat. Some more impressive fish are brought aboard without the full contingent needed to complete the job. Contrary to populist mythology, we’re not required even once to fight off machete toting pirates. As the day plows on, I make my way through some masked Leonardo Decaprio Coachella ball tripping impersonations, thoroughly dehydrated, deadly certain a Bengal Tiger and Indian zookeeper are chasing us down on an inflatable igloo.
I’m positive it must be a hallucination, but after a full day of chasing the horizon, there is a clear stretch of palm trees separating the sea from the sky.