On the Java Ridge, skipper Isi Natoli and a group of Australian surf tourists are anchored beside an idyllic reef off the Indonesian island of Dana.
In the Canberra office of Cassius Calvert, Minister for Border Integrity, a Federal election looms and (not coincidentally) a hardline new policy is being announced regarding maritime assistance to asylum-seeker vessels in distress.
A few kilometres away from Dana, the Takalar is having engine trouble. Among the passengers fleeing from persecution are Roya and her mother, and Roya’s unborn sister.
The storm now closing in on the Takalar and the Java Ridge will mean catastrophe for them all.
Read an edited extract below:
Cassius sometimes thought of Kevin Waldron as his punishment for being insufficiently mediocre. Mediocrity, he’d realised quite early, being generally rewarded by things like, to take a random example, getting to choose your own damn chief of staff. Not having a duplicitous turd like Waldron foisted on you by the PM’s office.
In a world where ages were not discussed, Cassius placed Waldron somewhere north of fifty, but there was little damage to indicate he’d seen much of the sun. His skin was soft-looking, barely lined, and his frameless lenses glinted on the soft pillows of his cheeks. He was neat and contained, a veteran of the role and a still point in the chaos. Maybe he liked to watch birds. Or club fur seals. Where his true allegiances lay, Cassius had no idea.
Now, on one of those crisp, clear Canberra Sundays when normal people were stripping the shelves at Bunnings, Waldron was leading someone into Cassius’s office. The rooms were all empty but for the three of them: the press people, the staff room, reception, all of it deserted.
‘Ron’s sent Nigel up to have a word,’ Waldron said. ‘Can’t wait, apparently.’ His expression betrayed no opinion about Smedley’s known tendency to brief compulsively on sub-crucial developments.
Nigel had turned up before. One of Ron Smedley’s new graduates, media studies major with a tech game; a few tiers down but rising. Neat beard, lacquered hair—Smedley’s crew were made in his image, well-presented even on the dog shifts. It depressed Cassius to think that Smedley had an army of these pop-outs coming after him.
This one’s job was to liaise with Australian Signals Directorate over specks and dots in the sky. Right now he looked edged with grime, like he’d been working in the same dull suit through the dark hours of Saturday night.
‘Coastwatch have picked something up sir. The assessment is that you need to be informed.’ He placed a briefing folder on Cassius’s desk. Stepped back from it. Cassius made no attempt to pick it up. He was tired of being made to read what the person in front of him knew in detail.
‘What does it say?’
‘Indonesian boat approaching our waters. It’s probably a phinisi, big timber fishing boat. They come from up round Sulawesi mostly. We can have the Core Resolve people fly over it to get a better look, but at this stage we’d be saying it shouldn’t be where it is. In those latitudes, sir, if it isn’t people smuggling, it’ll be trochus poaching.’
‘Do you know how many on board?’
‘No. And that’ll be the difference between fishing and illegals.’
‘All right. Is that all I need to hear?’
‘It is, sir.’
‘Hm. Keep it classified for now. Don’t write it up. I’ll talk to the PM.’
Waldron had watched their exchange in silence, but his face betrayed mounting unease. The man turned to leave, then reconsidered. ‘There’s one other matter sir…’
‘It’s, it’s not making much headway. Not quite dead in the water, but…the weather’s nasty out there at present.’
Cassius paused, chewing his lip. ‘Do we need to be concerned?’
‘Well, at a technical level, no. Under the new protocols, their welfare is Indonesia’s problem right now.’
‘Do we know what they’re doing about it?’
‘No. We’re chasing that up.’
Offshore, Pulau Dana
The Takalar had circled the island all day. Now night had come again.
It was a very small island. Their full journey around it each time took only a couple of hours, even at the poor speed they were making. But the air had become impossibly heavy, so thick that the Takalar seemed to be pushing through the atmosphere as much as the sea. There was no way of distinguishing the edge of the sea from the beginning of the sky: they had merged in the darkness. The damp was settling over everything: the timbers of the boat, people’s clothes, their itching skin.
Halfway around their second lap, the rain started falling, gently at first but enough to obscure the details of the landmass.
Eventually, a hubbub of voices indicated the men had found theopening in the reef that they were searching for, a place where patient inspection had revealed no breaking waves but a darker spill of deep water. Roya sat on the deck beside her mother, unconcerned about the rain but increasingly worried about the ocean.
Near the mouth of the narrow channel she had a clear view to each side. The waves curling along the sides of the reef were frightening, much taller than the boat and gouging hungrily at the sea before them, like they wanted to tear the reef off the end of the island. She could see them churning great boulders of foam in their bellies, reaching out towards the boat, trying to grab hold of it. The sea was alive; pocked with heavy raindrops, angry and cunning—it wanted to dash their hopes.
Even where they were, in deep water, the boat rode clumsily over the swells, wallowing like a sick animal. Roya stood up and steadied herself against the wall of the cabin. Her mother watched her with concern.
‘Darling, be careful. The waves are coming over now.’
They were. The waves were coming over, and the voices were growing louder and more panicked. The rain was drumming harder on the roof of the boat and trickles of water were running off its edges onto the people standing below. The island was getting closer, and so were the breaking waves. Everything was racing towards something, but Roya didn’t know what. The captain fought the wheel, his movements forceful, but the boat responded only to the sea: its high, sweeping nose was rising and falling, but it was pointed towards the reef. The deafening clatter of rain on the roof of the boat made conversation impossible.
And then, at the worst possible moment, the engine stopped. There was a grinding sound then a muffled bang, followed by a cloud of bitter black smoke escaping through the hatch.
Sudden silence. The darkness closed in.
Roya understood, though she had never been through this before, that the boat was paralysed now. It could only await the will of the sea. There were people praying, loudly beseeching Allah to deliver them. The white foam of the biggest waves was only a few boat-lengths from them. It made devouring sounds: this giant faceless malice was something new to her.
The men had resorted to tearing timbers from the decking and using them as paddles. But their thrashing at the sea was futile—it had them in its grip. Roya bent to her mother and reached around her back. Her hair was wet through. The straps of the lifejacket hung limp because tying them had been too uncomfortable for her. Roya made the knots fast and her mother hugged her. The lurches of the boat pressed her into her mother’s chest and then pulled her away. She held onto the straps a moment longer so they wouldn’t separate.
Then, simultaneously, a loud noise and a violent shudder.
The sound and the feeling were both unfamiliar and unmistakable to Roya—the front of the boat had slammed into something hard. People who were standing fell over. People sitting slewed across the slippery deck and tumbled onto their backs. Immediately the boat swung around the axis of its bow. Timbers cracked and popped as the weight of the hull in the current twisted them free.
Roya’s eyes, straining in the dark, could make out the line of the next wave coming towards them. The wall of whiteness was a horizontal avalanche, growing larger as it approached.
She grabbed for a hold. So did her mother, but their hands were weightless, like the futile screams of a nightmare.
The nose of the boat, almost perpendicular to the swell, sliced deeply through the whitewater and the wave was unable to force its will upon the sides of the hull. The boat rose up and floated free again, but now it was caught in the spill of water returning to sea off the back of the reef. Without power, and because the torrent of water was pushing them from behind, the boat fishtailed from side to side and raced helplessly out to sea.
Roya imagined that the island might be home to some rescuer,waiting out there in the darkness for them. But this far from Herat, she felt sure they wouldn’t understand Dari. She knew the English word from her book, and she hurled it into the night with all the force in her slight body.
Her mother clutched her harder in response. She had held Roya through bombardments and house searches, through the screams from unknown horrors in other homes. The strength of her embrace was the core of Roya’s world.
Amid the furious ocean there was now no human sound on deck: some people standing, watching the wave, but no one capable of words. The boat swung faintly left then straightened as the distance closed. For a second Roya felt relief, thinking the nose would again spear through most of the impact. But something took hold of the dying boat and this time threw it to its right, so that the whole starboard side of the vessel faced the impending blow.
Roya could feel it, that this was the worst possible way for the wave to meet the boat. She counted down the final breaths before the impact, looked at her mother and dropped to the deck. The last move she made was to wrap her arms around her mother’s ankles.
They were up high for an instant, the rain in the air around them. Then the furious water descended and the night disappeared.
The force of it was the combined anger of the whole sea and sky. The great roaring of the fist coming down, the timbers in agony, shrieking and splintering. Crashes, voices calling, rushing water and the ringing of struck metal and the deck was tilting up and up and up and people were sliding past them, some falling weightless through the air, and Roya and her mother were wedged against the small timber support that had been their resting place. The boy, the little one who’d been so sick, came racing past with his limbs flailing, his mother still reaching for him. He tumbled and slid across the deck until his head met one of the heavy timber buttresses with a dreadful thud. He remained there limp beside the fatal timber, palms upward beside his small hips.
As she slipped and grabbed, Roya looked down at the water surging beneath her, people already clambering to regain a hold on the boat while the sea pulled them away. There was another massive impact as the next wave hit the underside of the boat. Again it rode high and vertical for an instant, a ladder to the dark sky.
She saw the captain hit the water on his back.
A baby floating face down.
Empty lifejackets swirling.
She turned her face into the dark wooden corner they were hiding in, but fear drew her to look down again, to see the rushes of white from the exploded wave. Silent fingers curling up towards them, reaching for them.
In that moment, the boat stood tall on its end. Then it shifted straight down onto its stern, crunching hard onto the reef. Now the land is attacking us as well, she thought. There were bombing sounds again; crumpled air, giant forces. The stern had broken off and the boat was teetering over. The sea rushed forward to take them, and Roya felt only sadness. Her sister, the one she had never met but felt that she knew. Her mother, herself.
Their resistance had ended.
Onshore Pulau Dana
Isi had passed in and out of a restless sleep for a few hours. Her day would often end this way when she was working on the boat: thinking about forecasts and navigation and supplies and personalities. Joel managed to make these routines invisible, as though everyone simply woke up and fell into perfect conditions by accident. That smiling insouciance of his.
It was him she was thinking about, once she’d run the various checklists in her head. His absence. The opportunity to let go of him, to take a realistic view and call it a day.
She’d veer close to bringing all the competing strands together, and then sleep would take her again, robbing her of a conclusion. The rain started, waking her, drawing her attention with its small sounds against the tent. Then it intensified, and the steady drumming worked her into drowsiness until finally, she slept.
The first sounds to reach her were the voices.
For a time—Isi couldn’t tell how long—the voices were merged in her dreams, irrational and ghostly. But now they were becoming real, taking form.
They were cries. Male and female, deeper and higher in pitch, but frightened. Pleading. That was what woke her, dragged her mind from the fog. The rain was much heavier now, and the cries wove in and out of its roar.
She struggled to understand—were they pleading for her personally, or were they just crying out? At first her voice cried back to them, but her dreaming mind couldn’t give form to her replies. She rose from sleep into a restive semi-consciousness, and there were words. Words of supplication, none of them familiar. It was a foreign language, she realised, maybe more than one.
Now she could hear the surf over the rain, and the voices persisted.
Now she was emerging from her confused state: now she was conscious.
She was tired still, shoulders aching from the work of the previous day. The small coral cuts on her feet stung faintly. It was well before dawn and part of her wanted the sounds to cease, for deep and restorative sleep to return. The trees were slapping and tilting this way and that as the turbulent air rushed over the island.
She reached out and found the zipper that opened the tent. A feeling of unease was building in her. The voices were real. The dream was now behind her. With her head out, the rain stung her eyes. There were already puddles outside. And then, with perfect clarity, her ambivalence was swept away by a single word.
On the Java Ridge is out now, at all good bookshops, on the Text website and in eBook.