In At The Deep End by Penelope Janu

Chapter One

He vanishes in the sea spray of the stormy Southern Ocean, and then he reappears.

He’s hanging from the cargo net on the port side of The Watch. I’m on the bridge ten metres above him. When he lifts his hood our gazes lock. I’m stiff with fear and sick with nausea and I don’t want to leave my ship. But there’s something in the intensity of his stare that tells me he’ll come up and get me if I don’t go down. He gestures over his shoulder and I see an inflatable boat, battling to stay upright in the waves and gale-force winds.

I climb through the railing and feel for the net. It swings back and forth as I climb, airborne one minute, whacking against the ship’s side the next. I’m exhausted and trembling, numb with cold, but finally I reach the second last rung. I link my boot through it and steady myself. The man is hanging next to me. His dry suit outlines the shape of his body; he’s tall and lean, athletically built. His hood is back in place so I can’t see his face but I’m sure that he can see mine. The whiteness of my lips, the terror in my eyes.

He unclips a harness attached to a belt on his hip, and reaches for me.

‘No!’ I push his hand away. ‘If we fall, I’ll take you down with me.’

He extends his hand again.

I shove it away. ‘No! I can’t swim.’

There’s a moment’s hesitation. ‘Jesus,’ he says.

He moves behind me and presses his body hard up against mine, so his front is against my back. One of his arms wraps around my chest in an immovable grip, and the other one grasps my waist. I’m pinned to the net between him and the ship. Out of the corner of my eye I see the inflatable, closer to the ship than it was before. There’s someone on board, operating the console in the middle of the boat.

The Watch shudders on the crest of another wave, and then she heels to one side. I scream when the net suspends us over the ocean but the sound is lost on the wind. A chunk of ice, white and luminous, drifts below us on the swell. Then the inflatable reappears, impossibly small in the angry grey sea.

The man releases his hold on my body. ‘Let go!’ he yells. ‘Now!’

He throws me into the storm. Silence. I think I black out. And then I crash, legs and arms flailing, into the inflatable. The cacophony of sound returns—the thunderous winds and waves, the creaks and groans of the ship, my gasps as I suck in mouthfuls of air. Someone grabs my jacket and wrenches me onto my side. It’s a woman. She pulls back the hood of her jacket and leans over me. She’s young. Her voice is low pitched.

‘Harriet? You okay?’

I’m retching but nothing’s coming up. Migraine lights flash in front of my eyes. My lips move but no words come out.

‘Harry,’ she says. ‘You with me, or not?’

My head jerks, and I nod.

‘Right, then. Better go back for the commander.’

I drag myself on my hands and knees to the row of seats on one side of the boat. Then I pull myself into one, grasping rubber handholds to keep myself upright. My shoulder hurts, so does my knee. I can’t look at the ocean or I’ll retch again. My head feels like it’s going to explode. But I can’t lose consciousness now. So I swallow down my panic and focus on the woman. She’s back at the console. The insignia of the Royal Australian Navy is embossed on the front of her jacket. She raises a hand as if to warn me, and then she spins the boat around. I follow the line of her finger when she points.

We’re about twenty metres away from The Watch. She’s creaking as she lolls, awkwardly and drunkenly, in the water. The cargo net is still hanging from her side but there’s no sign of the man. I was wrong when I thought my anxiety had peaked. I’m shaking with guilt and fear and dread.

The woman manoeuvres the inflatable between two waves. We’re so close to The Watch that the ship blocks out the sky. There’s a lull in the wind. The woman’s words are clear.

‘Lost his grip when he chucked you,’ she says. ‘Guess we’d better go fish.’

She gives a long shrill whistle when she sees him. I turn in my seat and follow her gaze. The man is a sleek black shadow in the ocean, and then he disappears in the churning waves and whitewash. When we see him again he’s on the top of a wave. The inflatable is rising on the swell.

He dives out of the ocean and twists in the air. Then he lands on his feet on the floor of the inflatable. He gets his balance, turns to the woman and nods. She salutes him and laughs. As we plunge down the face of another wave she grasps the wheel with both hands. He pivots and crashes onto the seat next to me.

His arm and leg are pressed up against mine so I’m pinned between him and the bow. He’s wearing a balaclava under his hood. It covers his hair and the bottom half of his face. I think he’s older than me, but not by much. Thirty? Early thirties? All I can see clearly are his eyes. They’re angry eyes, narrowed and gunmetal grey. They share the colours of the ocean, black troughs and white caps that seethe around the boat.

He’s shouting, but I can barely hear his words over the roar of the wind and sea.

‘What did you mean when you said you couldn’t swim?’ he says.

‘I can’t swim.’

Jesus.

He shoves me sideways so I’m wedged even tighter into my seat, and when I try to push him away he swings one long leg over both of mine, trapping them. Then he pulls a life jacket from under his seat and thrusts it at me. My shoulder won’t move like it should but I manage to put the jacket on, struggling to secure the straps because my hands are numb and stiff. He watches me fumble, and then he shoves my hands out of the way and reaches for the straps himself, tugging them even tighter than they are already.

I’m doing my best to hold in my panic but the ocean is too close and the spray is too real. The light show in my head gets brighter and brighter and I want to be sick again. If he’s aware of how frightened I am he doesn’t seem to care. He shoves his gloved hand under my jacket and feels the inner layers of my clothes. They’re almost as sodden as the outer ones.

‘What are you wearing?’

I don’t answer.

‘You really can’t swim?’

‘No.’

We’re moving further and further away from The Watch. She’s sitting even lower in the water now. Waves crash over her decks as she rolls slowly onto her side. The bridge and stern are inundated. Water cascades into the hold and cabins. Her bow tilts towards the clouds and all I can do is stare, transfixed, until tears obscure my vision. There’s a single explosion, and then a series of explosions. It’ll be the watertight compartments, and the bulkhead, collapsing under the pressure. I wipe an arm across my face and turn to him.

‘Are the rest of the crew all right?’

‘You know they are. You were the last one off.’

The sleet whips my face with icy shards. The salt of the sea spray stings my eyes. The woman whistles again and points. HMAS Torrens, the navy patrol ship, is in the distance and we’re slowly heading towards her. The storm is abating but there’s ice to contend with. And there are bergs. No one speaks until we’re close to the navy boat.

‘You shouldn’t have done it,’ I say.

When the man takes my shoulders in his hands I flinch.

‘Shouldn’t have done what?’ he says, drawing me closer.

‘Come for me.’

He puts his mouth to my ear. I feel the warmth of his breath on my neck.

‘Harriet Hillary Amelia Scott,’ he says. ‘I’ll make you wish I never did.

I wrench myself out of his grip but I’m still anchored to the seat by his leg. He turns side on and barks instructions to the woman. There are people lining the bridge of the Torrens. The woman talks into her headgear about hoisting the boat up onto the deck.

The man knows all of my names. Yet I’m certain we’ve never met. My thoughts are muddled. I’m light-headed, nauseous, disoriented. It must be the migraine. Or shock. Hypothermia? I have to move around, to warm up. When I push at his leg he turns and glares, but then the woman asks him something. He removes his leg as he answers.

And then a wave crashes over the bow. It hits me square in the face. There’s water in my nose, my mouth, my eyes, my ears. I jump to my feet and twist to escape it but there’s something solid against my thigh that’s blocking my path. So I dive over it. And then I kick out, more and more frantically, against the vice around my ankle. At last I’m free. But then I’m tumbling, falling.

My head goes beneath the waves as the ocean sucks me in. Water clogs my throat. The cold is paralysing. I’m blind. But then I see Mum and Dad. The three of us are driving along a narrow road in the mountains of Brazil. The trees, and the vines that cling to them, rise up from either side of the road and form a dense green canopy over the car. It’s twelve years ago and I’ve just turned fourteen. I’m flat-chested and leggy. Mum has tied my hair into braids; the plaited ends hang over my shoulders like two flaxen ropes. We’re singing Waltzing Matilda at the tops of our voices as the car approaches a bend.

***

‘About bloody time.’

The woman from the inflatable boat is gazing down at me and grinning. I didn’t get a close look at her before but I remember her gravelly voice. My vision is blurred but I can see that she’s young, just like I thought. She has short-cropped bright red hair and a madly freckled face.

When I smile it hurts my lips. My voice is barely a croak. ‘Hey.’

I’m aware that I’m lying on a bed and covered by blankets. But the medical paraphernalia in the room, and my hand when I hold it in front of my face, is out of focus. I blink a couple of times. Am I drugged? Didn’t I fall into the Southern Ocean? Shouldn’t I be dead?

The woman must see the confusion on my face. She puts a hand on my arm and squeezes.

‘You’re on board the Torrens, Harry. And you’ll live. Only just though.’ She looks over her shoulder. ‘Isn’t that right, sir?’

The next time I wake up, the red-haired woman and the man with grey eyes are on either side of the bed, leaning over me. They’re rubbing the top half of my body. Forearms, upper arms, across my collarbones, down my sternum, over my breasts, and then my stomach and hips. They’re arguing, but I’m too sleepy to stick up for myself, and I have a horrible feeling I’m naked, so I close my eyes again.

‘No body fat to keep her warm,’ the man says. ‘Look at her. Pathetic.’

‘She’s got breasts, that’s body fat,’ the woman says. ‘And the rest of her is just … lean. Anyway, she’d been on the bridge for hours getting everyone out, so it’s no wonder she was frozen.’

‘Diving into the sea wouldn’t have helped.’

‘She didn’t know what she was doing.’

‘No life jacket until I gave her one. And the ocean terrified her. Jesus.

‘She said she couldn’t swim.’

‘It was more than that. I’m sure of it.’

Someone is wrapping my feet up. They’re tingling.

‘Easy with the heat packs,’ the man says. ‘Leave the extremities until her core temperature is up.’

‘Yeah, yeah, I know. Do her mouth again. Poor thing.’

He lightly touches my mouth, smoothing something over the bottom lip, and then the top one. At first it stings, but after a while all I’m aware of is the rhythmic slide of his fingertip. I open my mouth a little, and he presses gently into the creases at the sides. I feel his thumb on my chin as his finger returns to my bottom lip. It’s tingling now.

The woman is close again. ‘Her mouth’s not skinny. Look at it. Wish I had lips like that.’

‘She’s a fraud, Kat,’ the man says, as his finger leaves my lip. ‘Get over her.’

I turn my face towards him because I like the tingling feeling and I don’t want him to stop. But a moment later I feel his hands running up and down my arm again.

‘Can’t,’ says the woman. ‘She’s only a year older than me, and it’s like we grew up together. She was in all those documentaries her parents made, and she’s done some great stuff since.’

‘Assuming she actually did it. If she can’t swim, maybe she can’t ride, cycle or climb?’

‘You’re just pissed because she messed up your schedule.’

‘Schedule? She fucked up my project. Put me back a year at least.’

‘She’s hardly responsible for the iceberg The Watch collided with. Or the storm.’

‘No. But she is responsible for being stupid enough to be caught in a situation like that. She’s a schoolteacher, not a sailor. That ship was under resourced, ill prepared—’

The woman laughs. ‘Harsh! Let’s turn her again and do her back. Then I need another break. I don’t know how you’ve kept going, it’s so bloody hot in here.’

‘Watch her shoulder.’

He puts his hands around my waist and eases his arms up my back like he’s hugging me. Then he lifts me into a sitting position. Please don’t let me be naked.

I open my eyes and look straight into his eyes. They’re grey and hard like bitumen. He has chiselled features, a firm mouth, and short black hair with a widow’s peak. A six-centimetre scar follows the curve of his cheekbone.

Why couldn’t a crusty old salt, or a plucky galley cook, have rescued me?

‘We’re turning you over to warm your other side,’ he says. ‘This will hurt.’

Chapter Two

‘Better lying on your stomach or your back?’ Kat says.

I’ve been on HMAS Torrens for five days. My shoulder aches when I’m lying on my back because of the torn tendons. It hurts less when I’m on my front, but then my knee’s uncomfortable, and I can’t eat or drink. I’m thirsty all the time. Kat found me a straw because my lips bleed whenever I sip from a cup. My swollen hands are awkward and clumsy.

‘Better when I’m unconscious. Want to flip me over again?’

She grimaces. ‘Sorry about the other night. I didn’t support your shoulder properly. The commander tore strips off me when you passed out.’

‘The first time or the second time?’

‘Every bloody time. You slipped in and out of consciousness with the hypothermia, too. We almost lost you a couple of times.’

‘But that wasn’t your fault.’

She smiles, and fills my cup with juice again. ‘Course it wasn’t. It was Per’s fault, he said it himself, for not strapping you down in the inflatable.’

‘Pear? Is that his first name?’

‘Yeah. Nordic. It’s spelt P-e-r, but it sounds like “pear”.’

‘But why was he the one looking after me?’

‘He is a doctor, you know, but the other kind. PhD.’

‘Why didn’t I get a proper doctor? A ship this size must have medics.’

She laughs. ‘The ship’s doc gave you the once over, strapped your shoulder and knee, and then left us to do the nursing. Admitted Per knew more about the treatment of hypothermia than he did anyway. You complaining?’

‘Of course not. It’s only that you rescued me. You’re obviously … I don’t know how to put it. Active sailors?’

‘Active sailors?’ Kat laughs until she’s so flushed I can barely see her freckles. ‘Yeah, well, we were too “active” for the captain’s liking. Per took things into his own hands, coming to get you. The captain said we were so keen to pick you up, we could have the job of keeping you alive afterwards.’

***

Kat is doing her best to untangle my hair when the door opens and the captain of the Torrens walks in.

‘Can I have another word, Harry?’

This is the third time he’s interviewed me. He’s upfront about his investigation into the sinking of The Watch, and I’m grateful for the way he’s caring for the crew. Not that I’ve seen any of them yet—the captain has to guard against collusion, so I’m on my own until he’s finished with his questions.

‘Sure. Let’s get this over with.’

‘Lieutenant,’ he says to Kat, gesturing skywards, ‘Commander Amundsen is flying to the mainland later this morning, then heading back to Bergen. I understand he wants a word.’

Kat gives the captain a sloppy salute. He smiles and tells her she’d better sharpen up, because her sidekick won’t be around to stick up for her for a while.

‘Sidekick?’ I ask, as soon as Kat has gone. ‘What’s up with those two? And why is he going to Bergen?’

‘Because,’ the captain says, taking a notebook and pen out of his pocket, and sitting in the chair near my bed, ‘that’s where he’s based. He’s on secondment with us from the Norwegian Navy. A Special Ops man. We’re lucky enough to have him for a year.’

‘He doesn’t have much of an accent.’

‘He’s bilingual.’

‘You know he has something against me? He said I’d regret being rescued. What’s his problem?’

The captain raises his hand. ‘Enough, Harry. Surely Commander Amundsen is the least of your concerns?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You had responsibility for communications and safety equipment on The Watch. There were significant failures with both. My questions are just the beginning. There’s sure to be a maritime inquiry. You’ll be up to your neck in it. So will the Scott Foundation as the owner of The Watch. And so will Drew McLeish because he was responsible for preparing the ship.’

Drew. The captain is right. Per Amundsen is the least of my concerns. Protecting Drew and his reputation is what’s really important.

***

Drew McLeish and my father sailed skiffs in Pittwater when they were boys. In adolescence they took holidays together, crewing on ocean racing yachts. Then they went their separate ways—Drew left school when he was fifteen and joined the merchant navy; Dad finished school and went to university.

By the time Mum and Dad raised the money to finance The Watch, well before I was born, they were well-known environmental scientists with a string of documentaries to their names. Even so, it took time to convince Drew to join them as Dad’s second in command. This was partly because Drew has never pretended to be anything that he isn’t—an honest, modest, largely self-educated man, who cares about his planet. He always called Dad a ‘bloody greenie’. He must have thought the same of Mum, but he’d never have sworn at her.

After Mum was killed and Dad badly injured in a car accident in Brazil, Drew took over as captain of The Watch. He’s a founding member of the Scott Foundation as well. The foundation was set up not long before Dad died. He put most of his assets into it, and gave it ownership and control of his ship.

My students had exams in December so I wasn’t supposed to be on the Antarctica voyage. But then I got a voicemail message from Drew.

‘Little health problem, Harry,’ he said. ‘Doc needs to do more tests. I can’t go to Antarctica after all, and the foundation wants you to replace me. It’s a great crew, and The Watch has never been in better shape. Tom Finlay will captain the ship, but we need you to take over my other duties. And you can do the front of camera work. The ship will be leaving on Friday. Want me to call your headmaster and explain the situation?’

Drew had seen the doctor because he’d had problems with his balance. His brain scans showed signs of dementia, even though he’d seemed to be as sharp and organised as ever. I told him I’d go to Antarctica for him, and we’d get a second opinion when I got back.

The night before The Watch was due to leave, I called him at eleven and woke him up.

‘So the computer upgrade’s happened?’ I said. ‘We had all sorts of trouble with the readings when we went to Guatemala.’

‘All fixed, Harry. Weeks ago.’

‘Valves all good? Have the watertight checks been done?’

‘More than once.’

‘And the navigation and other equipment, in case we lose the satellite?’

‘You’ll find everything you’ll ever need on the bridge.’

‘Lifeboats okay? Jackets, storm gear, flares?’

‘Just go to bed, will you?’ Drew said. ‘It’s all shipshape and ready to go.’

It was only a few days ago that I realised how much Drew’s short-term memory had deteriorated. And how the rest of the crew and I had relied far too much on what he’d told us. But by then it was too late. The Watch was at sea, hopelessly off course, battling dangerous seas and winds. And that was before we hit the iceberg.

When the captain of the Torrens clears his throat I adjust my position on the bed, gingerly moving my shoulder into a more comfortable position.

‘We don’t have to do this now,’ he says.

‘I’m fine,’ I say. ‘Really. Ask whatever questions you like and I’ll do my best to answer them. I’m not sure what went wrong. Drew did everything he could to make this voyage a successful one …’


We hope you enjoyed this sample of In At The Deep End by Penelope Janu!

Available in print and e-book from January 23, 2017.

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