Fabulous Birds


Opening to Fabulous Birds, long-listed for the Mslexia Novel Competition 2019.

The thing is, I was supposed to have a sea burial but I didn’t. I jumped ship before it happened, in Lyttelton Harbour, New Zealand, 1905, en-route to Rio with a cargo of carcasses and wool.

When they noticed I was missing the other stokers would have argued about whether I’d done it on purpose, or just got left behind. Young Pete would have thought I had planned it. He knew how sick I was of shovelling coal into a boiler’s throat, day after day, night after night, in the merciless heat, that hell of swelter, the room so hot the sealants boiled in the metal cracks. Old Pete would have said I drank too much the night before, in one of those ‘g-damn fish-stink bars,’ and woken slumped on the sticky floor to find the boat gone. Old Pete had been at sea nearly forty years. He had a leather face and a mouthful of perfect teeth except one missing on the bottom left.

They never knew which Pete was right. A few weeks after I jumped, I came across an old newspaper. I was using it to polish up my shoes, and there in my left hand I saw a picture of the Maori. Embarking for Rio, the paper said, the boiler had exploded and all the stokers had died. I checked the paper’s date - it was the day after she set out from Lyttelton without me.

I imagined the men’s bodies crisped like bacon in the black smoke and flames; the awful smell of it. We had been complaining about that boiler for months. It was a hack of an add-on between the other two, to try and get the ship up past its 10 knots to the 15 she was supposed to do. We knew the danger of it, and of having the safety valves unscrewed and the pressure running faster than a priest’s pulse in a brothel. But what could we do? It didn’t bother the higher-ups - nor did the wicked heat it caused. Speed was profit.

The fire was contained, the paper said, and a rescue boat saved the other crew. They listed the names of the deceased. It was my watch, and I was there amongst them: Peter Thorn, Peter McDonald, Ciro Moretti, Charles Wright, Joe Palmerston, Jani Upsilo.

I put the paper down. I felt sick to think of it, but there were no remains. What was left of the stokers would have gone overboard, and amongst the carnage it would have been impossible to identify a missing man; no-one was counting the bones; no-one lined their teeth up. My friends were all dead but the fact of the matter was I had escaped both a tragic end and the grimy fingers of the law which, had they found me missing, would have got me in their mean grip and thrown me in prison for breaking my contractual obligations.

The next day I walked over the pass and down onto the Canterbury plains. I swore I would never set eyes on the ocean again. I kept my promise for many years.