The Search

(Copyright 2001)

The sea was perfectly calm the morning after the last storm of winter. The sky had dawned a sullen grey, but there was no anger left in its tumbled clouds. A thick silence hung over the small fishing village; even the gulls had not yet returned from where they had waited out the howling wind and slashing rain during the night.

Only one boat remained tied up at the harbour wall, a battered old trawler with it's registration marks just visible under decades of weathering. The rest of the fishing fleet had left at first light to look for the missing boat. Jeyes had stood on deck watching them go, then turned back to mending his nets. He worked quietly on the boat all morning, tending to the many small jobs that never seemed to get done until the weather forced a lay-up.

Around midday, Jeyes climbed up onto the stone quay and walked across to the chandlery to fetch some fresh batteries for his torch and pay for the fuel with which he'd topped off his tanks yesterday. Bedford looked up from the counter as he walked in. Jeyes went across to the fireplace and warmed himself, stamping his feet and holding his chilled hands a few inches in front of the flames.

"Any of 'em back in yet?" Bedford asked. He took out his pipe and tobacco pouch.

Jeyes grunted. "No."

"You should have gone, too, Harry," said Bedford, filling his pipe carefully.

"Naught to do with me," said Jeyes, turning away from the fire and walking across to the counter. "If he was fool enough to go out last night, he deserves what he gets. I'm not wasting my time and fuel searching for a dead man."

"There's two of 'em, Harry. He had one of his kids with him too."

"That's another thing; what's he want to take his girl with him for? A working boat's no place for a kid, even in good weather."

"I don't see he's got much choice, Harry. None of the blokes in the village will crew for him. They're afraid of what you'll say. His own boy won't be any good, even when he gets older. Not with that arm of his."

"He still shouldn't have gone out last night," said Jeyes

"You know how the fish run before a storm like that, Harry. Don't tell me you weren't thinking about it too."

"Maybe," Jeyes admitted. "Thinking about it's one thing, but I got more sense than to do it."

"You just got more years, that's all," Bedford told him. "You know the last storm is the big one - over quick, but twice as big as anything else during winter."

"And I also know there's not much point looking for anything out there after it. Their boat's either on the bottom or smashed over five miles of coastline. If they ended up in the water, the cold would've got 'em in an hour."

Bedford lit a match and held it to his pipe. When it was drawing properly, he blew out the flame and looked at Jeyes, shaking his head.

"I don't know why you've got it in for him, Harry. If it was anyone else, you'd have been out there as soon as the wind dropped."

"I haven't got it in for him," said Jeyes. "I just don't know why he doesn't go back to where he came from - China or Hong Kong or wherever. We've got it tough enough as it is; the catch has been getting smaller each year. Soon there won't be enough left for us, let alone outsiders. Why doesn't he go up north - somewhere where it's warmer. He's no good down here. You should have seen his face when his winches iced-up last month."

"Give him a chance, Harry. He's OK. He took that old boat of Mac's and got it into shape. He comes in here and knows just what he wants. He might call things by different names, but he knows his way around a trawler."

"A lot of good that would've done him last night," replied Jeyes. He settled up with Bedford for the fuel and a couple of torch batteries. He went across to the Union Hotel and had a pint with his lunch of steak and kidney pie. As he left the pub and walked back down to the moorings, he noticed that a gentle breeze had picked up. The weak winter sun was breaking through the thinning clouds and the seabirds had returned, wheeling and diving over the moorings. The fishing would be good this evening. It would more than make up for not being able to go out last night.

There was someone sitting on the stone edge of the quay when Jeyes got back to his boat. Even from a distance, it was easy to see it was the boy by the empty jacket sleeve hanging at his side. He was staring out to sea and didn't move when Jeyes walked by. He stayed there, still as a statue, until the first of the boats returned four hours later.

Old Jackson eased his trawler in beside Jeyes' boat, gently scraping against the fenders, and cut his engine. Jackson's deckhand climbed up onto the quay and secured the fore and aft lines before trudging off towards the pub. Jackson came out of the wheel house and stepped across the gunwale to Jeyes' trawler. He knocked out his pipe against one of the fenders and opened his penknife to scrape the bowl.

"Nothing," he said. "The radio's been dead all day, too."

"Where'd you look?" asked Jeyes, in spite of himself.

"Up as far as Woolnorth Point. Down past Rocky Cape. Not a trace."

"A storm like that wouldn't have taken him past Rocky Cape," said Jeyes.


"I've got a bottle inside," Jeyes told him.

Jackson nodded. "I could do with a drink."

Jeyes disappeared into the wheelhouse and returned with a three-quarter full bottle of dark rum and two enamel mugs. He pulled the stopper with his teeth and splashed a generous amount into the mug he handed Jackson. They sat quietly on the gunwale drinking and watching the rest of the fishing fleet come in and tie up. Eventually, Jackson stood up and handed the empty mug back to Jeyes.

"Too bad," he said. "Lim was a decent bloke."

"He shouldn't have gone out last night," Jeyes told him.

Old Jackson said nothing. He looked back towards the village and noticed the boy, still staring out to sea.

"He hasn't moved for hours," said Jeyes, following his gaze.

"I'll get Jenny up at the pub to look after him 'til the coppers decide what to do with him."

Jackson climbed onto the quay and walked off towards the pub. He stopped beside the boy and spoke briefly to him before continuing on. Jeyes turned back to getting ready to head out. Billy Larson had been crewing for him recently, but he had been out all day on Jago's boat so it was unlikely he'd be in shape for tonight. Jeyes wasn't concerned; he could manage on his own if he had to, especially as the weather seemed like it was going to hold steady.

"You search for him now?"

Jeyes looked up to see the boy standing on the quay, staring down at him.

"I'm sorry, kid," Jeyes said, shaking his head.

"Others search. Why not you go out with them?"

"Son, you may as well hear it from me. There's no point in looking for anything after a storm like that. They're gone. I'm sorry."


Jeyes started to turn away. "Have it your way."

"My father, he sail in bigger storms than that - in typhoons," the boy told him, pride underneath the quaver in his voice. "Always he return. He is the best fisherman in my village. All the others look up to him."

"This isn't your village, kid." Jeyes pointed inland. "It was snowing in South Forest last week. That's only ten miles away. The water temperature is near freezing this time of year. No one could have survived out there last night. There's no point in searching any more."

"My father would not give up like that. That's not the way in our village."

"Like I said, kid, this isn't your village." Jeyes turned his back on the boy and went into the wheel house. He pressed the engine starter and it coughed into life before settling into a rhythmic thump. He went to the bow and slipped the forward lines then walked back to the stern to do the same there.

Jeyes eased his boat away from the mooring and pointed her towards the harbour mouth. As he cleared the breakwater, the last of the sun's rays faded over the horizon and the stars began to stand out against the darkening sky. The sea was still calm and Jeyes' trawler moved easily through the icy water, her wake spreading out behind like a shimmering fan. Jeyes held his initial heading for an hour, then swung north west to run up past Walker Island. He knew this was where the fish would be after the storm, not as many as last night, but more than enough to fill the nets of his lone trawler.

After another two hours, he saw the black shape of Walker Island in the distance and he watched as it slid slowly past on the port side and disappear astern. The moon had risen by now and it shone bright in the clear night sky, casting a silver glow over the ocean. Jeyes throttled back the engine until it was just turning over and went aft to begin setting his nets.

Lim probably would have been here last night, Jeyes thought. If he really knew what he was doing, he'd have known this was where the fish would be. He would have had time to set and pull his nets a couple of times before the storm hit. It would have come roaring down on them with little warning, unbelievably fast and savage. They would have known that the closest safe water would be Robbins Passage, but even if they'd cut their nets loose straight away, they wouldn't have made it halfway there before the storm's leading front passed and its full fury caught them. Mac's old boat was solid enough - it's keel had been laid by Jeyes own grandfather - but the storm would have tossed it around like an autumn leaf.

Jeyes watched as his nets slipped smoothly over the stern rollers and sank into the depths. The net lines pulled tight over the trawl arms as they swung out into position. Jeyes went back to the wheelhouse and throttled up the engine. He set a course that would take him in a broad curve back in the general direction of Walker Island. He tied off the wheel and opened the overhead locker where he'd stored the bottle of rum. He pulled the stopper and took a big swig, letting the raw liquor run down his throat and warm his belly. Each winter seemed colder than the previous one, or maybe he was just getting too old for all this.

The wreckage of Lim's boat was probably on Walker Island, Jeyes thought. If they'd been swamped and lost their engine, or capsized, the storm would have driven them that way. There was one sheltered bay on the island, but little good it would have done them to know that. The bay was guarded by a rocky reef that was almost impossible to navigate even in good weather. The storm would have ground the trawler to pieces on the reef and thrown what was left onto the beach. If Lim and his daughter had still been aboard at that point, their bodies would likely be in Walker's bay now.

Jeyes turned to look astern at the trawler's wake. Over the steady throb of the engine he could hear the trawl arms creak and groan as the net lines pulled against them. Jeyes had fished these waters all his life and had taken much from the sea but he knew that one day the sea would claim payment. His bones would never lie at rest in soil under a shady tree, instead his drowned soul would sink to the ocean floor somewhere. So it had been for his father and his grandfather. So it was for all the men of his village.

Jeyes remembered the night his father had been lost at sea. Old Mick O'Callahan - not so old back then - had knocked at their cottage door as dawn painted the sky. He'd spoken in a quiet voice to Jeyes' mother, but Jeyes had heard enough to picture the angry waves, the capsized boat, the panic and confusion, and the fruitless search in the dark. Jeyes mother had cried briefly on Old Mick's shoulder, then wiping her eyes, turned to make breakfast for young Jeyes and his sister. They had sat at the kitchen table, eating silently and staring at the place where their father would sit no more.

Jeyes watched the trawler's wake for a while longer, then abruptly came to a decision. Cursing softly under his breath, he turned around and throttled back the engine to idle again. He reached up and pulled a small axe from its bracket on the wheelhouse wall and made his way astern to the winches. The lines were tight against the trawl arm pulleys and Jeyes knew the nets would be filling with fish. He swung the axe and brought it down sharply where the net return lines ran over the gunwale pulleys. There was a spark each time as the axe blade met the steel rollers and the lines parted with a twang. Jeyes threw in the clutch for the winch and it started reeling in the nets. He could picture the catch spilling from the nets deep below as the loosed sides opened out like a flower, thousands of silver flashes darting to freedom. When the last of the nets had been pulled aboard, Jeyes shut down the winch and returned to the wheelhouse. He throttled up the engine and set course for Walker Island.

After about half an hour, he made out the dark shape of the island in the distance. He altered course to take him around to the southern side where the entrance to the bay was, all the time looking out for any sign of wreckage. Even on a calm night like this, the location of the bay was easy to spot by the foaming white water marking the guarding reef. The tide was turning by now and Jeyes knew it would be difficult to maneuver his boat against the strong current running past the island and thread through the narrow gap between the rocks. Jeyes let the trawler swing around until the bow pointed into the current and waited until he had drifted just past the entrance. He pushed the throttle all the way forward and the diesel wound up until it hit the rev limiter. The boat surged forward and Jeyes swung the wheel hard to port, aiming for the middle of the gap in the reef. He cleared the jagged rocks by about two feet.

As soon as he was in the clear, Jeyes knocked the throttle back to idle and the trawler glided slowly into the bay. Despite the cold, his hands were covered in sweat and when he reached up to the overhead locker to get the bottle of rum he couldn't stop them shaking. As he raised the bottle to his lips to take a drink, he gazed through the wheelhouse windows towards the shoreline in the distance. The full moon threw a soft silver glow over the beach and the dense trees beyond.

"Damn," Jeyes muttered.

The whole village was lining the quay as Jeyes' boat purred into the harbour at dawn the next morning. He had radioed ahead, so they knew what to expect. About thirty feet out, he cut the motor and his boat ran on slowly until it's fenders nudged the wall. Billy Larson jumped aboard and tied off for him. Jeyes climbed wearily onto the quay, taking Old Jackson's outstretched hand to steady himself. Four men went aboard and carried the two canvas-wrapped bundles ashore.

Lim's boy came up to Jeyes, his eyes red and swollen. He looked at Jeyes, unable to speak.

'I'm sorry, son," Jeyes said softly. "They didn't stand a chance."

"Thank you," said the boy at last, his voice trembling with grief. "Thank you for not giving up."

Jeyes nodded slowly. "It's not much, but at least you'll be able to say good-bye properly. It's the best any of us could hope for in the same circumstances."

He suddenly felt very tired. All he wanted to do was make his way home and sleep for a week. Old Jackson guided him through the crowd to where his battered old Morris truck was parked. As they drove off, Jeyes looked back and saw a small figure, empty jacket sleeve hanging limply, kneel down beside the two grey shapes lying on the quaystones.