Strangers on a Boat

by Nathan James Thomas

It’s dark in Cairns and a Chinese couple is eating dinner on a small boat tethered to the harbor. They have just finished a plate of oysters, and the lady summons the owner over. “The we had before fish” she says, without preamble. The owner, a South African lady who runs the one-table joint with her husband, understands. A plate of raw salmon appears.

In Mandarin, the Chinese man instructs his wife on the correct English. “Shenme ‘fish’, what fish. Sanwenyu. Salmon.” The lady is immaculately dressed, taller than her husband and painstakingly made-up. Her husband wears thick glasses and, like the handful of other people at the table, is casually dressed in shorts.

They’re about halfway through their plate when a new group of Chinese visitors arrive. I shuffle along the shared table to make room for them. A young man with a radical hair cut, tank top and muscular arms is the leader of the pack, accompanied by two older men. Their Mandarin is clearer and more standard than the original couple.

The well-dressed woman is smiling at the new comers, and ostentatiously stands and walks over to the South African woman to take a selfie. The old man who has taken the seat to my right mutters “meinu” – beautiful woman – under his breath, and snaps a photo of the girl. Noticing this, her husband gets up in a huff, grabs his umbrella from the rail over his head, and strides off with his wife in tow.

Unfazed, the newcomers lounge out around the small table. A plate of fresh oysters arrive, followed by an enormous crayfish, served raw. The wine is poured, and ‘Cheers!’ is shouted. The old man raises his glass to me. Unconsciously, I follow the Chinese custom of clinking his glass as low as possible to show deference. He mirrors me, and we chase each other’s glasses down to the table. This is a typical occurrence in Chinese toasts, but my familiarity with the custom appeared not to be noticed.

A third group of Chinese diners have arrived. A younger couple, they sit away from the shared table, on a small bench facing outwards. On our way out I squeezed by them. They sat in total silence, gazing at the sea.

The moon is high over the esplanade, and bats shriek in the trees that line the path. People swim in an artificial lagoon, and on the other side of the sea wall a lone pelican sits with its enormous beak tucked into its neck. The pelican has been in the same spot every day, morning and night. At low tide, it sits on the sand. When the tide is in, its home is a rock.

A night before, we slept on a boat on the Great Barrier Reef. The sea was rough, and the firm ground beneath my feet now still seems to sway, and I have to remind myself that I’m on dry land.

On the reef, the fish were as colorful, eccentric and energetic as I remember from seven years ago. And yet you notice the dead coral. White sticks like discarded bones, fragments like ash coating the ocean floor. Divers talk enthusiastically of equipment and depth. The mood is cheerful. There is no talk of obituaries or decline.

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