Day four at sea found us beside the Velasco Reef, near the Palau Trench, in the Philippine Sea – the water looked soft, a deep, glowing, beautiful blue with a lighter sheen. The sky was cloudy but the Bridge wore sunshades pulled down against the glare, a transparent vinyl with just faint off-gassing in the heat of the sun.
The two young Third Officers sat on the floor, trying to fix a temperamental machine in a low cupboard. I looked at the map and saw we would probably be at the equator within a day. The next, we would pass Manus Island.
How bizarre that the winner of an Australian literary prize, a race that I had once entered, had been locked up on that terrible place while I had the luck of being born in the right place that allowed me three citizenships sailed by without a care in the world and two passports? Six years. Did that not demonstrate the absurdities of boundaries? I was chilled when I saw Manus Island on the map.
I had not realised how far above Papua New Guinea it was and how far removed from Australia. How far removed from compassion and humanity.
We just had a drill. It was a general alarm, so seven short blasts and one long. I reckoned I was supposed to go up. After I’d double checked with my notes I wandered up to find the Captain alone on the bridge. As a drill I needn’t have got involved but … as well to pay attention to these things.
I accepted the upgrade to Passenger Number One, or ‘The Owner’, and moved my chattles into the bigger cabin. Remember POSH? Port out, Starboard Home. I was starboard home.
I saw a pair of black birds, flying together over the tops of the waves. Started to realise how unusual a sighting of bird life was.
Looking out to sea rather than into the backs of containers, I felt lighter and brighter. As the weather became more clement I felt I had everything I required.
During meals, I was struggling with Neal Stephenson’s ‘Quicksilver’. I was sure it was brilliant for it had easily as many long, detailed lists as James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. I’ve a theory that most big, fat books with long lists are written by geniuses. Like ‘Little Life’ and of course, ‘Les Miserables’ where I was deeply bogged down in the description of the Battle of Waterloo. What was Victor thinking? Bit much for me.
‘Quicksilver’ did paint a fantastic, impressionistic picture, if he could have just stayed still long enough for me to focus; of London and thought and history of science and philosophy and sea-going battles. I supposed, like the mercury he invoked, he didn’t want the reader to be able to pinpoint or collect together such interesting, shiny observations in the shape of a plot. So far he didn’t offer a story, per se, rather a magic collection, an alchemy of ideas, an excitement of discovery. It was also very blokey.
Forty days since I’d left England. Tao 40 said, Reversal is Tao’s movement.
Forty days and forty nights I had been proceeding through a tunnel of my own making, onwards to catch up with my past in New Zealand. A reunion with my mother’s family, a pilgrimage to acknowledge my ancestors (my mother in the North and my father in the South) and a safe harbour to visit my university pals. I was going back but I was also going forward, looking for a new place to be.