The boat pitched from side to side as the deckhands struggled to lower the rattling cage against the hull. The sky was a cloudless indigo blue, and the stars were beginning to blink out in rings as sunrise pushed past the horizon. The air was unseasonably warm, which lowered the chances of this being a productive trip, but I wasn’t going to complain. I loved summers in the Cape.
The waters of Van Dyks Bay were generally erratic, consistent in their inconsistency, and there were days I wanted to ignore the weather and wave report and just chance it, setting sail for Dyer Island without planning for what to expect. But this was our boat, our company, and we had a reputation that ensured us a steady stream of tourists.
“Oy! Hash! We need help securing the lines out here, hey?”
Abraham’s voice called to me from the stern, where he and two of the deckhands pulled at ropes used to fasten the cage to the side of the boat. The waves were too strong for divers to climb in just yet, but the wind was slowly dying and soon the pitch of the boat would turn to a slow, hypnotic roll. I left the tiny wheelhouse and helped them tie off lines, relishing the salt spray that hit each time the boat bottomed out on a wave.
We struggled to secure the cage, and Abraham switched to Afrikaans as we worked. It was my second language, but the mother tongue for most of our crew, and when things became tense, as they did now, the tourists wouldn’t understand one word we said to each other. The cage finally settled into the grooves worn into the hull from countless trips, and we fastened it tightly. Behind us, the divers talked nervously with each other, surveying the bay with suspicion, fear, excitement, or a mix of all three. They were already clad in thick wetsuits, masks hung around their necks or gripped tightly in fists. Abraham tugged at the ropes, checking them before turning to me and nodding.
“Let’s give it another ten,” I replied to the question he hadn’t asked. “I’d like it to be a bit calmer.”
I stopped to chat up the group of divers on my way to the wheelhouse. We had ten on board today, a full charter. As usual, it was a mix of nationalities and ages: six women and four men on an escorted tour of South Africa. The women today were especially flirtatious, and like any smart captain looking to see his business grow, I took the time to talk with each of them before moving on. Kerry liked to tease me I enjoyed this part of my job a little too much.
I wore my usual blue and silver board shorts hung low on my hips, with feet and chest bare. I leant down to speak intimately to the women, my smile flashing, my laugh genuine. My blond hair, just a touch on the long side, fell into my eyes and one of the ladies looked as if she wanted to push it back. I never discouraged it if they tried. I gave my excuses, begging off with the list of duties I had to complete. I pointed at Abraham and told them my boss made me work too hard. Abraham grinned and shook his head; he’d seen this too many times. Yet he still laughed, because both of us knew who the boss really was even though at twenty-seven, I didn’t look old enough to have my own company.
More importantly Abraham knew I wasn’t interested in any of them. No matter how free, easy, or beautiful they were. I had a gorgeous man, my partner in every sense of the word, waiting for me back at our shop.
Nothing about me proclaimed my sexuality; I’d never been loud about being gay. Most days, it was the least of what defined me. But I’d never hidden it either. For some, my choice to live with my sexual orientation as secondary, like every straight person had the pleasure of doing, was unsettling. So they made assumptions when it would’ve been easier to ask. But for most, especially the tourists, I was little more than eye candy. Someone pleasant-looking to flirt with when away from home.
The nervous anticipation of the divers relaxed as the winds died and the waves settled the boat into a gentle sway. The sun crested over the mountains to the east, chasing the rest of the stars away. Abraham gave his standard greeting and instructions before the first divers dropped into the cage. The energy of the tourists was palpable, pulling smiles from the tired crew.
We’d all been up for hours already, prepping the boat and supplies, and performing equipment checks. This moment―when Abraham, with a twitch of his lips, asked the inevitable question, “Who wants to go first?”―was my second favourite part of the workday. Nervous laughter skittered between the tourists, and Dominick, our videographer, circled them, capturing their reactions for a personalised DVD we would sell to them after the trip. Today, it was an American who stepped forwards, a goofy grin plastered across his face. He immediately put the rest of the tourists at ease as he joked about who would get his wife if he didn’t make it out.
I leant against the helm and pulled out my cell. A green light blinked at the corner and I flipped it open to read the text.
I chuckled. Three years after his arrival in South Africa and Kerry still hadn’t mastered the basic slang. He’d attempted it enough times that I knew he was asking how the charter was going, but the actual meaning of what he’d asked was “how are you?”
Lekker was my one-word reply: Excellent. We both spent so much time dealing with tourists that we usually had to curb the use of slang. But when it was just the two of us, jokes about the differences between his Irish English and my South African English were common.
I heard gasps and a scattering of loud curses and knew the first great white had been sighted. I peeked out of the wheelhouse to where the deckhands were tossing a fish head into the water. They dragged it back to the boat, drawing the shark closer to the cage. My cell pinged.
I can’t drag my ass out of bed.
He was lying. I’d heard his footsteps on the wood floors, walking from the bedroom into the shower, as I’d left early this morning. He would be in the shop now, hunched over his desk, coffee cup in hand, his black hair most likely dishevelled from running his fingers through it while he reconciled the monthly accounts. His work today wouldn’t be complicated, he was too organised for that, but it would be tedious and that drove Kerry mad. He needed to be constantly entertained, and I favoured the days I spent discovering new ways to keep him occupied and interested.
It’s right where I want it, hey? I texted back.
The tourist group was all smiles now, enthralled with the gigantic beast cutting lazily through the water around them. Selling the DVDs was going to be easy today. Abraham and the deckhands had the divers taken care of, the water had calmed to a leisurely roll, and the heat from the sun was tempered by a gentle breeze from the south. Newborn seal pups barked from the island off our bow. It was the birth of these young that had attracted the great whites back to Dyer Island and Van Dyks Bay despite the warmer waters, driving larger tourist groups our way to the point where we’d added a second boat and hoped to receive government approval for a third next year.
If you don’t want your books to balance this month, Erik Hash was his response.
He was using my full name. Not a good sign. I typed backFrustrated already?
He replied before I could look up I’d rather be on the boat.
I let out a low whistle. If he wanted to be on the boat more than in the shop, that meant he was more than frustrated. Kerry hated the sharks as much as I loved them. I’d met him three years ago when he’d walked onto my uncle’s boat with his sister, Kelle, in tow, and I knew then I would do anything to have him. It took me one day to get him into my bed, but almost a year before I knew he loved me as much as I loved him. Kerry and Kelle were only supposed to stay in the Cape for a week, and then move on to Durban, over to Johannesburg, and eventually into Botswana. After our first night together, Kerry decided not to leave Van Dyks Bay and Kelle reluctantly stayed on.
Worry lines creased my forehead as I tried to formulate a response. Kerry had been more distant than usual the last couple of days. I didn’t expect him to be overtly emotional anytime; it just wasn’t him. He was reserved, calm, and introverted, the opposite of me, but lately he’d been more withdrawn than usual. I knew he was joking when he said he would rather be on the boat, but I read the underlying annoyance in that statement and I doubted it had anything to do with reconciling the finances. Kerry was working through something and I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was bigger than he was letting on.
A collective gasp came from outside the wheelhouse and I grinned, an old joy filling me with each satisfied shriek that erupted from the deck, pulling my thoughts away from Kerry. I felt the boat pitch as the thundering footsteps of the divers followed the shark from aft to stern. It was rare I made a trip out near Dyer Island without spotting one of the apex predators, but my excitement never waned, and my admiration for their ancient power and beauty never faltered. I was seven years old again each time I connected with the black eyes of these stunning creatures.
What was I doing sequestering myself in the wheelhouse? There was nothing I could do for Kerry until the charter was done. We were on the sharks. I threw my cell into my hoodie hung by the door, and stepped out onto the deck. There were two divers in the cage, three standing where it was anchored next to the boat, and two on the bow. Feet shuffled above my head on the second level of the boat where the rest of the divers were chatting happily as they clicked off pictures.
Abraham sidled up next to me, put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed affectionately. His bone-white teeth stood out against the deep blackness of his skin and a jovial smile told me it was a good sighting. The silver streaks he’d developed in his hair over the last two years made him even more handsome.
“Almost four metres,” Abraham said, pointing at the shark on the aft side. “There’s a three metre juvenile creeping around as well.”
We made our way behind the cage, where a deckhand tossed chum into the water, bribing the sharks to stay with our boat. There were two other companies doing the same bait and view routine with their own tourists so we had to keep the sharks occupied or risk losing them to one of the boats that sat a respectable distance away. I peered into the water as I saw the large shadow draw closer. I slid my polarised glasses over my eyes to block out the glare of sun on the waves and felt my breath hitch when the larger one came into view.
The sides of the shark were scarred from the number of mating seasons it had been through, the twisted patchwork of white a testament to its age. It cut gracefully through the water past the cage, ignoring the divers in the cage that were pushing as far back against the metal as possible, and yet it was obvious the shark was aware of everything happening around it. It had decided we weren’t a threat long before it showed up alongside the boat. These creatures were cunning, intelligent, and ancient. I knew the black of their eyes almost as well as the green of Kerry’s.
The deckhand pulling the fish yanked it closer to the cage and the water surged as the juvenile crashed towards the floating fish head. The divers next to the cage jumped back with a cry of surprise, while the deckhands, Abraham, and I laughed until we were nearly crying. We’d seen the shadow underneath the water as the smaller one moved in. I put my arms around the shoulders of two of the divers at the side of the boat. The petite wife of the American man pulled me closer. Her wetsuit was soaked since she’d just exited the cage.
“You see that bro over there with the video camera?” I pointed them towards Dominick so he could get a good shot of their faces after the surprise. “He’s much more dangerous than the juvenile softie out there.”
Dominick winked, and they twittered and blushed.
“See, I told you. Sharks are incredibly evolved predators, but you shouldn’t fear them. They are shy, deliberate hunters and will rarely attack except when hunting. They will never attack the cage. Dom, on the other hand, you need to watch those teeth.”
Before I could slip my arms from around their shoulders, the American woman looked at me in amazement. Her teeth chattered. “I don’t know whether to be frightened or amazed. You really love them don’t you? The sharks?”
“I do. There is more to be amazed of than frightened of. Listen to Abraham. He’ll sell you.”
I excused myself and left my co-captain to do his work. While my brain was filled with all kinds of arcane and useless trivia about sharks and their appearances on TV and in movies, Abraham had been a part of my uncle’s research crew for years and could answer the important questions about shark biology and habits. Turning this part over to him was also carefully choreographed after our years of working together. I had a tendency to spout off about the evil that was TV’s Shark Week if given half a chance. Okay, any chance. But it also gave me time to do what I really loved to do, which was watch the sharks.
I sat in the stern with the deckhands and cut up chum. It was the perfect vantage point to watch the juvenile great white stay a deferential distance from the larger shark, which only circled back once the divers had calmed down and a fresh bucket of blood was dumped into the water. I watched the shark until I felt an itch to check on Kerry.
Back in the wheelhouse, I pulled out my cell and texted Okay?
I stared at the phone, waiting for a reply. I could picture him trying to think how to respond, of typing something and then erasing it. I closed my eyes and paid attention to the rolling of the waves beneath the boat, letting them rock me. The sun pouring through the wheelhouse window on to my shoulders and face, warm salt air filtering in through the open windows, and the rhythmic sound of the waves against the hull helped calm my worry over Kerry. I don’t know how long I stood there, mesmerised and half asleep, before my cell pinged again.
Just need more coffee. And your ass back in bed.
Only a couple more hours and I would be happy to oblige him on the second part. Because getting off the boat and coming home to Kerry, even after three years, was still my favourite part of the day.