THE line whizzing off the reel made us both look up.
Youll have to get the rod, mate, my fingers are still crook. Too late. Grant shook his head. The fish just werent taking the bait. Bloody Murphy strikes again, I said.
Edward Murphy was a US air force engineer who needed to correct errors repeatedly made by a technician. If there was a way to do it incorrectly, this character would do so. If anything can go wrong, it will. Thats Murphys Law.
Mr Murphy started early with us on that day off.
We met on our first day at the BHP. We shared the red and yellow Hertogs bus in from Toronto, and the safety briefing that followed. On the way home, we talked about those graphic slides of accident victims.
After the BHP knock-off whistle at the main gate wed be in the crowd hurrying past the paper boys to the waiting buses. Id buy the Newcastle Sun: hed get Sydneys Mirror. It had more about the neddies and odds. There was a series of articles, I recall, about a couple of idiots peeping in windows, stealing womens underwear from clotheslines and cash.
When Grant inherited the launch, an old Towns-built clinker rowboat with a low, ply cabin, he moored it near the trawlers at Stockton. On Monday Id drop off a jam tin at Mo Stones fish shop at Boolaroo. On Friday, Id collect the mullet gut for bait. Wed go in on the Newcastle train then get the ferry across to Stockton.
This day it rained, so Grant was unsurprised by how much water was inside the boat. When he couldnt find the leather belt used to wrap around the fly wheel, he decided to start it by hand.
Grant gave the heavy fly wheel a couple of turns.The engine coughed and the partly submerged flywheel gave off a plume of oily spray into his face. He said a few things quietly, gripped the wheel and gave it all he had. The wheel rotated only half a turn. His face turned red and he repeated those few things. Very loudly. I asked if there was a problem.
Ill give you only the essentials of his response. Grants fingers were jammed between the bottom of the flywheel and the planking.I stopped pumping, ducked into the little cabin and turned the wheel slowly. There was certainly resistance so Grant may not have been exaggerating.
Are all my fingers there? he asked.
Youll be right, mate. Just wrap this around your hand. I always raided the rag bag when fishing with gut.
With shaking, bleeding fingers Grant retrieved his bottle of Bundy rum and took a swig. Want some?
It was 7.30am. Later, perhaps, mate.
Our favourite fishing spot was between Merewether Street Wharf and the Dockyards. We could see the periodic plumes of steam from the coke ovens.
We had a few bites, but no catches. Worse, past Nobbys we could see scudding showers.
Anchor up, said Grant. Lunch at the Stockton bowlo.Try again this arvo when the tide changes.
We enjoyed a few beers and put the change into a pokie. I did the handle-pulling.This machine just kept spitting out coins. When it stopped paying, we waddled out with bulging pants pockets.
We decided to try for flathead up the river towards Hexham. Grant no longer worried about the water in the bilge.The flywheel sprayed water about and the one-pot Simplex began to cough.
Bloody spark lead, Grant called. Then came a bang and a groan. Water plus electricity equals head bang. The motor stopped and Grant staggered out.
I can feel the blood, he groaned. How bad is it?
I grabbed another rag out of my bag and wiped his head.
Not bad. Here, hold this on it.
He looked at the rag.Its a Cottontail. Theyre womens underpants.
I grabbed them from our rag bag. Theyre clean. You have another pair wrapped around your hand.
Grant looked down disbelievingly. We dropped anchor and warmed up with the rum.
One thing, reflected Grant. Weve always got our jobs at the BHP.
Then the bottle was empty. It was time for home.
Grant knew the technique now and the engine ran smoothly. Nevertheless, I could see only opaque black plus some red and green lights. The engine stopped after a much louder bang. Grant staggered out, adjusting the bloodied underpants on his head.
Whats wrong? I asked as the boat made lazy circles in the river.
Wrong? shouted Grant. Wrong?
The water hose had also come off. Grant was holding the water hose in place with one hand and the spark lead with the other. Hed become part of the circuit.
I steered with the current. Hey, Grant, which side of these lights do I go?
Just go under the bridge and keep left.
Bloody hell, youve turned up into Fullerton Cove.
Grant staggered out, wet and bloody hair matted to his head. Turn in there. Well land somewhere along the Stockton shore. We can walk from there.
Eventually, the current did take us into shore. I took a mooring line and jumped into the shallows at the bow. Grant jumped in at the stern to push it around. And disappeared into the depths.
He had to jettison his trousers and all that coin to get to the surface. He now wore only his shirt and underpants, plus bloodstained Cottontails on his head and hand. I said nothing. We set off sloshingly.
A car came slowly past. We waved but it didnt stop.
Police radio carried the call. Send a couple more cars and the dog squad. Were setting up a road block. Weve got those two thieving perverts.