Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

Up and Away

“Man is the merriest species of creation; all above and below him are serious.”— ADDISON.

“Let’s up and away, Bill,” said Breezy Jim, as he started to his feet. “I’m dog tired of this game. We’re just working for tucker for the boys and nothing — not even a smoke — for ourselves.”

“Don’t be in such a flurry. We might drop on a patch yet. I vote we stay for another week. The anchorage is all right, and the season’s young. The little bit of fish we’ve got ain’t too stinking. It’ll pay expenses.” Placid and patient, the half-caste Solomon Islander, Billy Boolah, kept cheek on his impetuous partner, whose restless disposition forbade him to continue long in one stay unless circumstances were essentially favourable.

Certainly fish were not too plentiful, but the aboriginal crew worked well, and were lighthearted almost to a fault. They had had no credit to pledge for the season’s stores. They had merely to pick up inert and unresisting béche-de-mer from among the coral five fathoms down, where the deceptive sea looked no more than ten feet deep under the squalid flatties; to smoke and jabber in idle moments; to eat and to sleep, and to listen to Mammerroo’s version of the opening phrases of “The Last Rose of Summer” on a mouth-organ worn with inveterate usage to the bold brass. The tune was not quite beyond recognition, and no musician was ever more in earnest, ever more soul-tied to an elusive, unwritten air than the black boy who wore little else than his own unwashed complexion and a strip of red Turkey twill. For long months he had pursued it with all the fervour of his simple soul, and though it said him nay, still did he hope and woo. Out of his scanty earnings he bought mouth-organs by the dozen, for he believed that owing to some defect on the part of such instruments the tune was impossible save to one. Would he ever obtain that prize? The organ which could play that tune as he had once heard it when his boss took him to a concert at Cairns had to be discovered, and to earn money to buy it Mammerroo shipped on these detestable béche-de-mer cruises. In the meantime he would play with all his energies and with endless repetition the halting, nerve-disturbing notes he knew to be incorrect.

“That boy will drive me mad. He bought ten mouth-organs at Cooktown, and he hasn’t got the one that plays the tune yet. Does this smell like ‘The Last Rose of Summer’? Why, you can hear those fish of yours humming! What with hardly any fish, the stink of the whole boat, and that maddening mouth-organ, I feel almost inclined to jump overboard and marry a mermaid. Let’s chuck it.”

“It’s you as got the bad breath, Jim. Every man when he gets nasty temper he gets bad breath. That tune it’s little bit close up. He can play right up to the ‘left blooming alone’ sometimes.”

“He’s taken four months to get up to the ‘left blooming alone’! At that rate it will be years before he gets to the finish. I’ll be mad if he stays on this hooker another month. I’ll chuck the three of them — organ, boy, and tune — overboard.”

“If you make yourself a fool like that, no more work from that boy. Don’t be a fool and spoil this game. We’re out till November. Let’s make the best of it.”

It was not clean work. The reek of the fish-raw, cooked, smoked, and drying in the sun-saturated everything, even the damper. The brown, shrivelled things were scattered in orderly profusion wherever the sun could catch them to top them off prior to bagging. The bitter, eye-searing smoke from the red mangrove fire in the hold, where the meagre catch of yesterday was lying on a couple of trays, stung the nostrils. The odour was as interminable as the half-accomplished tune, and Breezy Bill writhed. He was not new to the game, but bad luck had been the portion of the ship from the start, and small things irritated him, rasping his far from sensitive soul.

“I think you are going to catch fever, Jim. That’s what’s the matter with you. At the mission I used to read about that bird you call the brain-fever bird. It just keeps on whistling the same old thing, and white men go mad. That ‘Last Rose of Summer,’ it’s got hold of you. Don’t be a fool! It’s only a good tune half done. It won’t kill anybody — at any rate, a tough old shell-back like you!”

“Oh, bother! Stinks and rotten ‘Last Rose of Summer’ are driving me mad. I could stand lots of both if we were doing well. They might be forty overproof and played by forty bands, and every darned piccolo of them out of tune, if only we were making money. Come, let’s up stick and away. We can’t do worse and we might do better on that bit of ‘reef Mammerroo talks about. Here, Mammerroo, stop that blasted corroboree! Come and tell us where that little fella reef sit down.”

Mammerroo shuffled down to the hatchway covering and traced a chart of the locality with a grimy forefinger.

“That fella reef sit down ‘nother side Red Hill alongside mainlan’. No deep water. Plenty mangrove — my word full up pigeon. Reef him little fella. Full up tit fish, calla-calla, mainlan’ black. Fill’um up boat. Take’m alonga Thors’dilan’. Come back. Fill’m up one time more. Too much. Full up.”

“The same old yarn. I’ve been all over that ground. There’s no reef there, and if there had been it would have been found and skinned years ago,” said dogmatic Billy, with a sneer.

“I see,” said Jim; “the season’s over as far as you are concerned. You can go where you like. I’m sick of it now.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32