We cleared the river bar at the top of the tide, and powered south into stiff southerly trades. Timing my movements with the Naika’s pitching, I set a couple of spoon lures on cord lines trailing from each corner of the stern, then worked on my article with a pencil and notepad.
Having soaked my new bronze medal all morning with lemon juice, after lunch I scrubbed it with steel wool, which removed more of the stubborn verdigris. The dragon on the front face was now revealed, its head surrounded by a mane of fire. I was pretty sure that I could see Chinese characters on the other side of the medal. Some had been minted with the coin, others scratched or engraved into the bronze.
I took close-up photos of both sides, wondering if I should incorporate the relic into my article for the Post. I had little enough to write about without it. The medal would make for an interesting side-story, particularly if I could find out more about it.
I sat beside the skipper in the wheelhouse, staring at the medal, turning it over now and again, sometimes looking up and out through the screen to the sea. We were passing close to a shelf of reef, the water deep blue, flecked with white caps, but otherwise dark and swirling with coral close under the surface, and here and there I saw a bait school attended by shearwaters and sooty terns.
‘Give us a look at that thing,’ said Tom. He took his left hand off the wheel and held it flat towards me.
It was strange, but I didn’t want to give the medal to him. I felt wildly possessive. I wanted to put it back in the nest of cotton wool I had made, and hide it amongst my kit.
Tom must have noticed the look on my face. ‘Settle down. I’m not gonna shoot through with the damned thing.’
I smiled sheepishly and laid the relic on his palm. Still steering with one hand he examined both sides at length, but it was the embossed dragon that held his attention. He ran his thumb over it several times.
‘It reminds me of war,’ he said at last, then handed the thing back to me, as if he couldn’t get rid of it quick enough. Now he lit a smoke with a zippo from the dash and drew back.
I realised then how thin he was, his nostrils like deep caves in the end of a nose of bone, and his eyes sunk deep in their sockets.
‘War?’ I asked.
Tom spat a lungful of smoke out into the air. ‘War is war. Now you and I both know what it means, don’t we? Not like the young fella back there – he hasn’t yet had the bloody pleasure of fighting for his country.’
I turned to look at Owen. He was sitting bare chested on an ice chest, splicing an eye on the end of a thick hemp rope, but he stopped dead and listened now as the skipper went on, smoking and talking.
‘You ever heard of a place called Songkurai? No? But I bet you’ve heard of a movie called Bridge on the River Kwai?’
I nodded. I’d seen it, of course, Alec Guinness and William Holding were the stars. All pretty convincing.
‘I was there. I spent most of ’43 in a work camp. I’ll tell you more about it one day when I have the stomach for it, but there were plenty of Chinese prisoners, mostly Cantonese from Hong Kong, and they were controlled by members of a very old and established tong they were scared witless of. The tong men had tattoos just like that dragon on that medal there. To the Chinese the dragon is a creator and a destroyer, but that one there is a tong Dragon – it’s bad.’
I made an awkward noise in my throat, ‘Where would a ten-year-old kid in the middle of nowhere have found something like that?’
Tom stubbed out his smoke in the crowded ashtray on the dash. ‘This coast has a history that would curdle your blood – most of it you won’t find in history books. My guess is that he dug up an old grave, some forgotten monument to war.’
There was that word again. War. Owen made a noise in his throat that might have been a chuckle, and the skipper rounded on him sharply.
‘That’s what people do. They build memorials to war. When did anyone ever build a monument to peace?’
We all went silent with our own thoughts for a time. I went back to staring at the medal, and Tom concentrated on driving, but there was a grim line to his jaw.
‘Hey skipper,’ called Owen, pointing astern with his splicing needle. ‘There’s a bloody boat followin’ us.’
Tom took his binoculars from the case on the dash and turned to focus them on a white vessel about a mile back. At length he said, ‘Pretty sure that’s the Steber we seen anchored up off the Wild Dog Camp. What d’you reckon?’
He handed me the instrument, and my breath caught in my throat. I forget people’s faces and names at the drop of a hat, but I remember boats and cars as clear as day, no matter how much time has passed. This craft was around the same length as the one we had seen, forty feet or so, and her lines were identical.
‘That’s her,’ I said. ‘You think they might be on our trail?’
‘One way to find out,’ said Tom, and he pulled the throttle back, letting the engine idle for a minute before switching it off. The wind took hold of the Naika, pushing her sideways into an uncomfortable beam-sea.
Hanging onto the stainless-steel grips at the back of the wheelhouse, I stood with Tom, watching the other boat as it also appeared to stop, as if the crew were discussing their next move.
When the Steber started to move, it swung far to landward, a couple of crew visible in the cockpit. One of them appeared to be looking back at us with their own binoculars. With the Naika at a dead stop, however, it didn’t take them long to move out of sight, cloaked by wind-borne spray, though we spotted them still heading south, albeit much closer to shore.
‘They might be headed into Cooktown,’ said Owen.
Tom made a noise in his throat. ‘So are we, mate, so are we. In this damned wind we’re using fifteen gallons of diesel an hour. We won’t get back to Cairns without refuelling.’ He leaned down and turned the key, and the big diesel caught and started to run, the Naika rumbling and vibrating until Tom opened the throttles and found the sweet spot.
We had been running south for some minutes before he turned to me again, nodding at the medal that I was again holding in my hand. ‘Throw that cursed thing in the ocean,’ he said. ‘Save us all a cartload of trouble. I’ve got a bad feeling, and best you put a stop to it now.’
I couldn’t do it. Not even seriously consider throwing the medal in the ocean. Instead, I put the relic in its box and took it below, hiding it in the depths of my luggage. I would have to be careful. It already seemed to be causing trouble.
©2023 Greg Barron
Continued next Saturday.
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