With the fishing the way it is, the crew of the Kelly-Jo have to bring in any catch they can...
A 5000 word, single chapter, somewhat depressing dystopian short story. Y'all know me; Y'all know how I make a living... You have been warned.
Harvest Of The Sea
"Green zero-seven-zero; three hundred metres!" shouts Gary; but Quint the skipper has already spotted it and is turning the Kelly-Jo to starboard as well as throttling back the indomitably throbbing diesel. All four of we deck crew make ready to bring the catch aboard.
For a while we all were beginning to wonder if this trip was going to be another fruitless one; just using up time and fuel that could ill be afforded for no result, but Quint - as he always does - knows better. "Gah! You landlubbers don't know shit!" he said in his strangely unplaceable accent. "Grab your gear; we're going!" was his dismissive reply to our doubts about the wisdom of setting sail so soon after the gale had blown through. So we swaddled ourselves in as many layers as we could, topped them off with wellies, bright orange waterproof bib-trousers and jackets, then set sail for the bleak late November horizon of the English Channel.
Maybe the cap'n felt under pressure to get the Kelly-Jo back working as soon as possible. In a sense we are all under scrutiny, as we have to be seen to be earning our keep. Or perhaps Quint just knew with his intuitive sixth sense there'd be a reason to go. Whatever the motive he'll keep it to himself as he always does; carrying off his taciturn Old Man Of The Sea act which he does so well. Yes Quint - none of us knows his real name - actually models himself after the character in the old Jaws film. But this time, as we sheltered from the raw wind in the lee of the small wheelhouse while keeping watch for any signs of good fishing, we really thought he was leading us on a wild goose chase. Of course he was going to prove us wrong as ever he does.
"Keep your eyes on it!" Quint growls from the helm. Though we're all looking in the direction Gary indicates, no one sees anything yet. There are no drones or flocks of gulls wheeling above the target to aid us, the wind is too strong for both of them, so it's up to Gary on the lookout's position with the E-nocs to talk the skipper onto the position. It's not that easy when a sea this choppy can hide all manner of things, even when you're almost on top of them.
"I see it!" shouts Dave, and suddenly we all do. Like one of those books full of hidden images which can only be revealed by staring hard at the page, all suddenly becomes clear. From among the ever shifting peaks and troughs of the spray topped waves a tangle of flotsam resolves itself; on second glance what it is becomes clear. We are looking at the remains of a raft.
Now I've got my sea legs I don't usually suffer from seasickness, but my stomach lurches with nausea; not caused by the pitching and rolling of our craft, but a realisation of what the artisan vessel represents. Fortunately for us, but not so for the foolish, desperate people who tried to ride on it to real or imagined safety, it is empty now; in danger of becoming awash.
"Bring it alongside lads, and let's check it." Even Quint's freindly snarl is subdued now. Grimly we pick up boat hooks and attempt to snag the feeble little construction as Quint bumps the Kelly-Jo against it. It takes a couple of tries, but then we have the raft captured. Close-up it looks even more pathetic, crudely nailed together from scrap planks and baulks; the hull rendered temporarily waterproof by what look like lengths of clear horticultural sheeting joined with duct tape, with additional buoyancy provided by blue plastic drums of some kind, but with most of them having been swept from their orange twined lashings by the insistent pounding of the waves which are splashing over its sides, now it hardly appears capable of floating for much longer.
"How many?..." asks John of no one in particular. He doesn't need to finish the question; we all know what he means. By my reckoning as many as eight people - two families perhaps - might have crowded aboard that improvised dinghy. I wonder what they were thinking when they launched their ill-fated journey? What motivated them to risk their lives in this way?
"Bastards!" says Dave. Though we don't know if he's talking about the people once onboard the raft or those responsible for their being there. No one asks for a clarification.
"Better check underneath." says Quint. He passes out a telescopic pole from inside the wheelhouse. Dave extends it, switches it on, and submerges it next to the raft. We look at the tiny screen built into the rugged, waterproof handle. The camera at the other end, aided by a strong, stark, LED light shows the underside of the simple V-shaped hull. Fortunately there are no bodies trapped and entangled beneath it. Thank God for small mercies. The polecam is brought back up, switched off, and stowed.
"What shall we do with it?" asks Gary.
"Mark it and blow it." replies Quint. "It's still a floater and if it washed ashore some fool might try and use the motor again." As if that puny little outboard, possibly thirty or more years old, would be any use in attempting to cross the Channel, or even to reach a rendezvous with a promised larger vessel lurking somewhere in the international waters between Britain and France on which refugees could be hidden and complete their journey to a better life, or any life...
Of course Quint is right; someone would be mad enough to, so this death trap has to be disposed of. He unlocks the special steel case the Kelly-Jo has been issued with containing some explosives developed for this very purpose. Quickly making a note of a charge's serial number, he pulls the safety pin and checks the timer is set for the maximum ten minute delay. Meanwhile it's up to me to mark the raft, even though it's going to be blown to smithereens shortly. There's a logic to this apparent madness; if for some reason the charge fails to detonate, the vivid magenta I'm liberally spraying over the inside of the hull would tell anyone else who sees it that it has already been spotted and examined; the colour will make the shattered timbers more visible for the beachcombing squads to find; and if by some miracle this leaky hazard to navigation were ever again to be considered as a possible means of transport by another desperate group, the fact it had been known to have failed once already might just put them off from trying: And pigs might also fly.
Leaning right over the side and held not just by my safety harness but by John as well, I give the interior of the raft a good going over. The droplets of paint jetting from this oversized aerosol can held close to the wood are formulated to be heavy so as they don't get blown away by the wind, and also to dry on contact. The marking done, I squirt a good glob of quick setting glue gel into the keel, because you don't want the cannister to be washed overboard; then I'm handed the device and push it firmly into the congealing mass.
"Ready to go?" I ask Quint.
"Timer set... NOW!" I twist the locking ring to arm it, then push the start button and am pulled back onto the trawler's deck. Six hundred unstoppable seconds from now this raft will be nothing but splinters. Quint opens the throttle: Revved from its idling the Kelly-Jo's engine gives a reassuringly healthy burble, the raft is pushed off with boathooks, while Gary - who has been recording everything on the E-nocs - tracks the boat as it falls astern, as Andy monitors the elapsed time on a stopwatch. We watch the raft shrink in size as we pull away. Soon it is no more than a tiny lurid smudge between the waves.
"Ten seconds!" Andy counts the remaing time down.
It happens in an instant. There's a momentarily visible hemispheric shock wave and an eruption of spray, along with slivers of airborne debris; followed by the slightly delayed solid thud of a kilo of shaped C4 detonating which can be heard even over this blustery wind. The ripples of the blast vanish in the swell leaving only a spread of tiny driftwood scraps behind. I imagine the outboard is already settling into its murky eternal resting place on the sludge of the sea bed. So that's it for the raft; it's been accounted for. But what of its passengers? Who knows what happened to them? They wouldn't stand much of a chance surviving more than an hour or two in water this cold, and as there is no sign of them nearby we must consider them lost. The likelihood is no one will ever know their fate. They will remain further additions to the roll of unnamed, uncountable victims claimed by the cruel sea.
Nor will they be the last: Even with our waters as heavily patrolled as they are, there will always be people desperate enough to risk everything on an all or nothing gamble. If they can't steal a boat then they'll make a raft from whatever they can find washed up on the shore; and if there's nothing to be found on the beaches they'll get what they need further inland. We've seen plenty of examples of their ingenuity in the past.
The raft dispatched, we resume our heading South-Southwest, to our randomly allotted area for the day. It's not too far away from the Rampion offshore wind farm, where the relatively calmer waters created by the turbine tower bases are a magnet for the catches we're looking for; though we're not going to risk a confrontation with the Coastal Patrol for venturing out of our patch into a Protected Infrastructure Area. It wouldn't be wise in any case as the Newhaven mob have appropriated the Rampion Reef as their own, and they are a right bunch of cut-throats who don't need much of a reason to turn nasty on you. The camaraderie of the sea is just fiction out here, especially when we're all struggling to get by on ever diminishing quotas. Fishermen are intensely territorial in a way non-fishers could never understand. If you were in life-threatening distress they'd come and rescue you, that much you can still count on; but their animosity is borne of the brutal necessity to survive. We understand that and don't push our luck, even though we've been directed out here and have the law on our side. Besides, it works both ways; Newhaven boats won't come east of Beachy Head. Not if they've got any sense...
Once we arrive at our zone we begin to methodically trawl the prescribed grid pattern monitored in real time by GPS live link. We take turns freezing our bollocks off on lookout while the rest gather in the harvest of the sea, risible though it may be. The trouble is we pick up plenty of bycatch as well; it all has to be recorded upon being brought aboard, as well as returned to port. It's a relief to get my stint with the 'nocs over, and warm myself with a good mug full of strong sugary tea Quint has heated on the special electric stove powered by the Jo's engine which he's set up in the wheelhouse. It probably breaks plenty of Health and Safety laws, but these days no one is bothered or checking; they never got around to enforcing the installation of CCTV deck cameras on boats this size to monitor catches before the UK left the EU, and the new freewheeling, free market zeitgeist of our once again independent nation is set dead against that sort of regulation...
Anyway, clever Quint has the hot liquid contained in a covered pot with a tap, clamped down on the ring; it was a set-up he made himself, with the drinks decanted into a lidded vacuum cup with a plastic spout cover, so nothing gets spilt when the going gets rough. It's just another example of the way he looks after us: just as long as we push it that bit further than most of the other crews. It's what gives us the all-important edge over them. Life is hard for a share fisherman; it always was, but these days with crashing fish stocks it's getting worse; if it wasn't for what his ducking and diving deals set up for us on our enforced shore days we'd be as badly off as the rest of the poor sods on the water.
We reach the end of our track. We're feeling cold and tired, but we've got our haul aboard so now we can call it a day and set course North-Northeast back to Eastbourne. We're badly buffeted by the white capped waves as we aim for the candy striped landmark lighthouse built on the rocks just off the grubby beige cliffs of Beachy Head; its faded red and white bands the only sign of colour between the sea's metallic monochromatic grey and the glumness of the overcast sky. It's too rough out here to begin gutting our catch without risking serious injury, so instead we huddle inside the cramped wheelhouse.
Normally we wouldn't steer this close to the cliffs, but Quint is hoping they may give us some shelter from the worst of the weather. Otherwise we probably would have sailed right past without noticing. As we're this close to the rocks Andy has the E-nocs and is scanning the coast as we pass, just to be sure. "Oh shit! " he suddenly exclaims. "D'you see up there? Just above the light?"
Squinting we crane our necks and follow his directions up the 500 foot - imperial measurements are back in fashion now - wall of dirty chalk looming above us. All of us but Quint burst out of the wheelhouse onto the deck. It's difficult to see exactly, unless you have image-stablised 'nocs with the Kelly-Jo being thrown around like this, but we can just about make them out.
God knows how they managed to get where they are now; they must have encountered the razor wire barrier surrounding the coast of Fortress Britain further down where it meets the beach, then walked and clambered their way up the seaward side along the crumbling cliff edge. However they got this far, someone is going to pay heavily for letting their guard down. But now those dark ant like figures - four of them I think there are - Oh Jesus, a family! find themselves teetering on the narrow margin between life and death, right at the highest point of the precipice. Just a failure of balance, a strong gust of wind, a slip on the wet grass, or the treacherous chalk suddenly giving way beneath them and they'll have less than five heart-stoppingly weightless seconds to contemplate their fate before hitting the water. From that height the impact will be like slamming into solid concrete at 100 mph.
They seem to be frozen in place by fear, suddenly aware of the predicament they're in, realising there's no way through and being arrested or dying is their likely fate. From far down below we call to them, but our urgently shouted instructions not to move and stay where they are because help is on the way are snatched away by the wind as a ravenous gull swoops on takeaway scraps. They probably don't even notice us bobbing down below them - Don't look down! - let alone hear our cries. Quint radios the emergency call to the coastguard; he's instructed to hold station and await further instructions - as if he needed telling.
While Quint keeps the coastguard updated we watch on helplessly and hope the cliff rescue team can arrive in time. The longer the family are exposed to that biting wind, the greater the risk of them developing strength-sapping, judgement-clouding hypothermia.
Suddenly I can see some sort of movement; by their body language the two adults are seemingly discussing or arguing about something. Then - oh God no! - the group detaches as one from the cliff; cruel physics breaking their clasped hand holds to each other and drawing them apart in that final instant when they should be together. I see - I can't bear to watch but I can't look away - two of the tiny rag doll figures flailing as they fall, but their impact with the sea is mercifully hidden from view by the Kelly-Jo rising on a swell.
Our shocked silence is broken by the sound of pallid faced John throwing his guts up over the side. Rivulets of tears are streaming from Gary's eyes and it isn't the stinging wind which has prompted them. Only Quint seems unmoved, calmly relaying the news of the tragedy as he steers closer to the base of the cliffs. It's taking a risk but it's the least we can do; unbelievably people have survived their falls in the past and even if all hope is gone, as it most probably is, we can recover the bodies of those poor souls.
We find the father first; stone dead of course. He must have struck the cliffs as he fell because he's a pulped and bloodied mess. They'll have to ID him by DNA or fingerprints because a facial photograph of him now won't bear any resemblance to the way he looked in life, and dental records? forget about it! I suppose we ought to feel sorry for him, but our overwhelming emotion as we pull him aboard is one of anger at his foolishness.
Then we go after another body floating nearby before the rip current carries it away. The daughter can't be more than eight years old. Even in death her pretty little head is marred only by the way it lolls at a grotesque angle on a broken neck. At the sight of her young face I burst into tears that just won't stop. She should have had her whole life ahead of her, but instead she lies broken, bedraggled, and pathetic next to her father; covered by as much spare net as we can drape over them both, because that's all we have left.
The light is fading quickly now, and even with the Kelly-Jo's powerful floodlights there is little hope of finding the other two bodies. Reluctantly we inform the coastguard we must abandon the search and return to port. The inshore crews with their Zodiacs will resume the recovery operation at dawn tomorrow.
Back in the wheelhouse no one speaks; we're all too numb. All we want is for that dense sprinkling of distant orange dots to swell into a harbour where we can offload our catch - human and piscine - before going home and getting warm. Quint is in one of his sombre moods and I don't think it's all as a result of what has just happened. Looking at him illuminated by the weak red back light of the binnacle I can almost see that deceptively sharp mind of his going over this trip's balance sheet. We can't have brought in as much as he'd expected, and we used more fuel than we bargained for recovering the bodies. I'm sure we'd be running at at loss this time but for the Bycatch Credits, and they're not generous. So once again we're treading water at best. If it goes on like this we'll all be claiming the social by Christmas, and none of us wants to go through that ordeal if we can avoid it
The Kelly-Jo's puttering engine sounds an appropriately subdued funereal note as we enter Sovereign Harbour. Forewarned the coastguards are waiting for us, though they're just sat in their vehicles parked on the quay with the flashing lights switched off. Even though such tragedies have become more commonplace these days, there's no point in drawing attention to it; it's bad for public morale. We tie up in our usual place and the formalities begin. After checking that the bodies haven't been placed in a manner which might pose a contamination risk to our catch, they are placed in tough vinyl bags and removed first, before being driven away in a nondescript special ambulance. That done we unload our cargo while Quint uploads the video record of our day and completes the essential paperwork on a rugged tablet. This afternoon's incident being a land-based one, we all have to give statements as to what we witnessed, but I get the feeling this is just a formality done for procedure's sake.
With our catch crated and loaded in a chilled fishmonger's van our day's work is done. I'm the last to to climb out of the Kelly-Jo. As I make to leave Quint stops me.
"Are you all right?" There's a look of concern on his face which appears more drawn and care worn under the bright lights of the harbour.
"Yeah, I will be. Are we on again tomorrow?"
"I dunno yet; depends on the forecast, it might be a bit iffy. Give us a bell about seven and I'll let you know. If not the chances are I'll have something on. Do you want this fish?" he motions to a small mackerel wrapped in a plastic bag which he's kept aside.
"No thanks; I don't have any appetite at the moment."
"I know what you mean. Anyway, you look after yourself."
With the others gone already I'm alone with my thoughts as I walk through the town. I'm feeling knackered as usual, but also I feel a draining, depressive episode coming on which is worse than any I've had recently. Passing the backlit curtains of expensive houses I wonder about those people living in such snug domesticity; have they any idea what goes on outside their self-absorbed little lives? Do they even give a shit? The darkened windows remind me of the eye sockets in a skull.
The half mile back to my bedsit doesn't take long. My latest temporary home is a gloomy high ceilinged room in what was once a guest house during better times. It's never very warm despite me plugging as many of the draughts I can find with filler, but it's all I can afford. I'll strip off my sea gear and air it out, then hope there'll be enough hot water in the communal shower to warm me through and then... I don't know. Maybe if I get hungry I'll open a tin of soup, but as I said, I really don't feel like eating much. Then later I'll try to blot out today with some more of that bootleg hooch Quint can get hold of before going to bed early.
Perhaps with the drink's help I'll be lucky enough to pass an exhausted dreamless night. The slumber of the dead is what I crave; waking up to another, perhaps a better day, where the images disturbing my sleep are only the vague nightmares whose memories dissipate like a morning sea mist. But no; I'm sure I'll find myself suddenly awake at some time in the small hours, confused, heart racing, and sweating because what I've seen can't be so easily put out of mind. The swollen bodies, the eyes pecked bloody by gulls, the fish nibbled, pale, wrinkled, putrifying flesh, or the way the older corpses go to pieces and spill their intestines out all over you when you pick them up. And then there's the cloying sickly-sweet smell...
I don't know how the others cope with it; I haven't asked them. Maybe having a lover or a family to confide in helps. Or perhaps they don't talk about it; just hand the missus some fish which few people can afford these days when they step through the front door, and slump in front of the TV. Whatever, this job - no my life - is grinding me down. I can feel my sanity fraying. One day it will finally snap.
Oh we all thought we were so bloody clever, didn't we? Shocking the politicians who secretly wanted us to stay in Europe even though they made out they were in favour of us leaving; voting by a surprisingly large majority in favour of independence. Yes, we showed them: Told Brussels what to do with their migrants and free movement across borders, along with their Human Rights and supranational laws; yeah, right up there sunshine!
It was impossible to wriggle out of a vote that emphatic. No, everyone realised that they'd have to make the best of the decision, so a rash of post-separation agreements were quickly signed and we were left to get on with it. Then, as the strong sunlight of reality began to fade the red white and blue celebratory bunting, we began to understand what we'd let ourselves in for...
The Europeans wanted us to stew in our own juice for a while, thinking that if they turned the screw on us by way of higher prices and import duties, in a couple of years we'd have learned our lesson and be knocking on their door desperate to be be readmitted, but this time on their terms.
As our economy began to suffer the consequences, a particularly nasty sub-facist mood arose. But instead of blaming the eurocrats or our own poor leadership for the nation's problems, this perverted ideology turned the people of Britain against each other. The effects were noticeable within months as the eastern european workers left en-masse and returned to their countries of origin. People were jubilant at the news. Then the muslim exodus began, with many of them preferring an uncertain life in the Caliphate to the future they saw developing here. The celebrations of their departure were louder still.
With many of the 'foreigners' now gone the target shifted once again to the 'undeserving' poor, unemployed, and disabled. The phrase "Get in the sea!" once used as light-hearted banter, acquired a far darker meaning, to express the sentiment that they should shape up or ship out - by any means. And while we were all fighting each other like starving rats for the diminishing pile of scraps, the Hooray Henries of the parliamentary Bastard Party were whooping it up like drunken toffs at the races. Without the restraints of european law to protect the rights of the individual, they shredded most of them.
The news now is even more dumbed down and uninformative than ever before; or else people no longer care, or are too busy struggling themselves to worry about anyone else's problems. The cheering has long since ceased, though there are still plenty of people who ought to know better still in denial that It Could Ever Happen Here. Oh, but It has. Those who could leave have already gone, leaving the unfortunates who couldn't trapped to face the consequences of the mistaken choices made by others.
So here I find myself, single and alone with no prospects; slowly drinking myself to death in a damp, chilly room. Yes, I know I have a drink problem; I don't deny it, why should I? In fact I celebrate it. After all, what else have I got to live for? I've got qualifications in computing and website design, but on leaving college with a millstone of debt around my neck I found there was no market for my skills. The insular UK market is far too small to provide everyone with work, and in this interconnected digital world we have become a pariah nation. I'd have been conscripted into the workfare battalions by now if a mutual friend hadn't introduced me to Quint. He needed crew members, and despite his original misgivings about whether I could hack it he was impressed I stuck at the job and learned the ropes quickly. So at least I have a job; but fishing's only just about a living, but not a future.
Yes I've considered trying to go abroad, but it isn't easy now. In order to claim legacy citizen asylum status you have to physically be on EU soil, and that isn't easy when the Border Security Force are only too eager to open fire on anyone trying to stow away. Stealing the Kelly-Jo isn't an option either, as she's only fueled prior to sailing. With her being both slow and easily trackable I'd be lucky to reach the twelve mile limit. I could build a boat of some kind, but I've seen the likely results of that way out; it's just another method of suicide for those who lack the guts or skill to commit to an overdose, stand in front of a high speed train, or eat yew berries.
So if it ever gets the point - as I know it will sooner or later - when I can't take any more I'll probably be joining those leaving their crutches behind on the beach or power wheelchairs dashed on the rocks below. Like the family who realised all hope was lost and chose death over a hopeless future in this gulag island, my escape will be found in the cold embrace of the water. Like them I will become just one more statistic; 'Bycatch' as it is euphemistically described; yet another unwanted harvest of the sea.