I wrote the first draft of "Coasting" in 1975 using a portable type-writer perched on my knee when on watch in the engine-room. (It was one of the periods when I returned to sea-going while I organized the next step in my planned career). I'd completed a short course in fiction writing and sold a couple of short stories to magazines, but three school-age children barred me from following a writing career. The story itself was a test to see if I could write book-length fiction and I chose something I knew intimately, life at sea on the Australian Coastal ships. Before I put it aside, I'd written ten drafts, all around 110,000 words and it was my eldest daughter's favorite story (mainly because she cast herself in the heroine's role, based of the similarity of their appearance).
It's a lot darker than the stories I eventually wrote and had published, but I'm currently rewriting it.
Here's an excerpt, a bit longer than most, that introduces the main characters:
Cecil Alan Barker , ‘Cabbie’ to his associates, for he had no friends, sipped his Bacardi & Coke in the back bar of the Wollongong Hotel. His eyes, hooded behind tinted glasses, followed the progress of an addict through the crowd. She’d come in from the Crown Street entrance and her thin, under-nourished body seemed to ricochet from one person to the next as if it had escaped from her control and was tumbling downhill towards the bar. She didn't see Cabbie, had eyes for nothing and nobody except the tall, good-looking Italian at the bar. The desperation in her expression told Cabbie she wasn't holding and making the rounds of her suppliers, hoping desperately for a charity shot.
Cabbie’s eyes left her and roamed over the crowd. Even the dumbest of coppers, fresh out of training school, would have the sense to follow this one. He’d pick a dozen pushers in a single night.
The only prospect was a big man drinking alone in the corner of the bar. He wasn’t one of the Drug Squad’s regular undercover boys, Cabbie made it his business to know them all and his contact tipped him off as soon as they recruited a new one. Still, Cabbie studied him covertly. His clothes were casual, expensive, and slightly out of date. Add the hard look of confidence of a man with both money and experience and he could easily be a copper, but Cabbie doubted it. The best bet was either a Mate or an Engineer from one of the ships at the Ore Berth in the Inner Harbor. Still—the muscles of Cabbie’s stomach tightened at the thought of being wrong—the hardness hinted he wouldn't be above giving someone a working over in a back cell.
The addict had reached the tall Italian, one of Cabbie’s front-liners and was making a fuss. Guido was nervous, glancing at Cabbie, not wanting to appear indecisive, but worried. Cabbie took one more look around and then deliberately reached up and removed his glasses with his left hand. His right hand came up and he massaged the bridge of his nose with his thumb and second finger, his right index finger pointing upwards towards his receding hairline. Guido turned away and spoke to the nearer of the two girls he had working that night.
Cabbie watched coldly as the desperation drained from the addict’s face and the eagerness flamed in its place as she followed the girl into the toilet. She'd get the stuff there—on the condition that she shoot it elsewhere. She wouldn’t be able to believe her luck and would come out of that toilet door as if she held the sure promise of paradise in her hands—which, in a sense, she did. In the morning, she would be beyond the torturous cravings for the white ‘magic powder’ that had turned her life into purgatory. She'd be lying in some gutter, like the garbage that she was; her ravaged young/old face twisted into a snarl of the agony that had ended her meagre years of life. The terrible, rending agony that a lethally adulterated dose of heroin gives as it tears the life from a wasted shell of a body.
Cabbie’s eyes followed her as she went out by the side door, then he turned away again. He was bored. Really, it served him right. He shouldn’t be interfering with Guido’s trade. He didn't employ top front-liners like him for nothing…
The awareness in the big man’s eyes jolted Cabbie. He knew exactly what was going on - perhaps he wasn’t the seaman that Cabbie assumed him to be…
“Hey Deuce! What time’s the board up for?”
The breath Cabbie had been holding unconsciously whistled out between his teeth. The speaker was a seaman Cabbie used as a courier and the question identified the big man as the Second Engineer of the Dargo.
Cabbie smiled to himself. He had a particular interest in the Dargo. She was due to sail in the early hours of the morning for Port Hedland. In four weeks she would be back...with a full load of stuff for him as well as her cargo of iron ore.
It was all so damn easy.... The stuff, flown in by private plane, landed at one of the hundreds of airstrips that dotted the North- West and picked up by one of the six men that he had working shift work at the mines. The Dargo came into Port Hedland and a seaman went up the road to do some shopping. He came back with two full shopping bags and the next time in Port Kembla he paid off to go on leave with an extra suitcase. There were no Customs, no searches, no dogs sniffing around; just a nice load of stuff coming in regularly, once every twenty-eight days or so.
Cabbie smiled at the thought. He felt he had every right to do so. He’d organized it.
The smile stayed on his face as the two men spoke briefly and then parted, the known seaman going back to his companions and the engineer resuming his solitary drinking.
It was still on his face when Terri came in and when Cabbie saw the girl with her the muscles of his stomach tightened again, for an entirely different reason.
She took his breath away. Slim, graceful, her hair long, the golden colour of rich brown honey, and falling around her face like a silken cascade, accentuating the elfin quality of her features and the vibrant life of her expression. Her clothes were simple, a red and white checked cotton blouse and a blue denim skirt, but they fitted her perfectly and lifted her above the level of the women around her as surely as if she carried a sign proclaiming her superiority.
Cabbie wanted her. He wanted her with a strength that shook him. He wanted her grovelling before him, pleading for him to give her the stuff that she needed, ready to do anything that he asked…
He forced himself to turn away. Terri had seen him. All he had to do was wait for her to make the chance to talk to him. He’d find out all that he needed to know then...
“Is this your friend?” was his first question, fighting to keep his voice casual, when Terri took advantage of Julie’s visit to the rest room.
Terri nodded and gave him a quick summary of events in Sydney.
“Get her up to
Brisbane. There’ll be jobs waiting for you both at the Matador and getting her on the stuff would be a favour I’d remember.”
When Terri left him, Cabbie was restless. Julie drew his eyes constantly. He couldn't force himself to ignore her no matter what he did...and every time that he looked at her, the need was there.
He stood it as long as he could and then initiated a series of signals with Guido.
* * * *
“See that fellow over there?” Guido asked, leaning towards
Sharon; the tall red-head that he was using as bait for the ‘Party-Poppers’ and the ‘First-Timers’.
“Where?” she asked, looking around with careful casualness.
“By the pillar, the fellow with the tinted glasses.”
followed the direction of Guido’s eyes and found Cabbie looking back at her. Even in this dim light, she didn’t like the look of him. His clothes were fair enough, a bit mod for his age, but expensive, as were the watch and jewellery he displayed, but a predatory expression and a suggestion of cruelty repelled her enough to trigger a small involuntary shudder. “Yes.” She admitted reluctantly, guessing what was coming next, “I see him.” Sharon
“I owe him a couple of favours.” Guido spoke softly. “It’d be worth a couple of packets to me. The good stuff,” he added persuasively.
looked up at Guido – then at Cabbie. It wasn’t the first time Guido had asked her to pay a favour for him. Offering two packets suggested he wasn’t too happy about it and would be very good to her afterwards to wash the taste from his mouth. She’d get a damn sight more than two packets out of him… Sharon
“OK.” She agreed, leaving his side to join Cabbie. “See you tomorrow, lover.”
Guido watched her go, irritated that he felt so uncomfortable. Cabbie was a sick bastard, but Sharon was only good for a few more months. She was showing too many of the signs of her addiction to be a good come-on for the mugs. He swore bitterly at himself and turned back to the job in hand.
* * * *
Julie was on her second drink and enjoying herself. The Crown’s back bar was unlike anything she’d seen before. Earthy and unrestrained, its gaiety fuelled by the easy flow of money—the honey pot for at least half those present—she was fascinated.
“Here’s Bill.” Terri touched her shoulder and pointed at the entrance from the rear car park.
Julie turned and saw a balding man she judged to be in his early forties, his face undistinguished until he smiled. It lit his face with mischief, merriment and good humour. It also revealed two gold-capped incisors.
“Hi, Gorgeous.” He swept Terri into a boisterous hug. “You miss me?”
“The peace was great.”Terri’s grin made a lie of her words.
“Who’s this?” He turned to Julie.
“A dancer friend,” Terri turned in his arms. “Meet Julie Tyrell.”
Bill nodded his acknowledgement of the introduction, his hands taking liberties Terri made no move to inhibit. “Are you going back to Brisbane? I’m rejoining the Kooyonga there in ten days time. The Union pulled me off leave to do a relieving trip on the Dargo. Bloke had to pay off in Port Hedland because his wife was sick. I signed off too late to catch the train to Sydney and fly back to Melbourne. I’ve been paid off in cash.”
Julie supposed this made sense to Terri. She could only guess at its meaning.
“You’ve got money burning a hole in your pocket then.” Terri understood that much.
Bill nodded. “She’ll never know. Drink up, I’m buying.”
A light dawned for Julie. Bill was married, had cash in his pocket and his wife couldn’t know about. It was her first experience of a seaman’s attitude that marriage ties went ashore with the last ropes that bound his ship to his homeport wharf.
Bill ordered refills of their drinks and a tall glass of beer for himself, downing half of it when it arrived. Then he noticed someone behind Julie, “Hi, Deuce. Join us?”
Julie turned to see who he was speaking to and was impressed by the quiet strength that made the man seem bigger than his physical size, not that he was small, but his presence made him seem larger.
“For one round.” The acceptance was qualified. “A friend is picking me up.” The voice matched the appearance, modulated to the surrounding noise level and educated, but the smile, like Bill’s, held genuine warmth. It softened his conscious authority by adding an element of self-depreciative awareness. Julie was prepared to like him.
“I’m Doug Parsloe and I overheard your friend say you were dancers.”
Julie winced at how far Terri’s voice had carried. “I’m afraid the jury is still out in my case. The show manager at the St George Leagues Club wasn’t impressed.” It was like feeling for the empty socket of a tooth with her tongue to find out how much it hurt.
“Noel’s a bit of a tartar they say, but his girls put on consistently good shows.”
“You know him?” Julie was impressed.
“Only socially, I live in the area and am a member of the club, a convenience when I’m on leave.” He shrugged. It wasn’t a matter of importance, his attention drawn to something behind her.
Julie turned, could see nothing significant, and turned back to find him studying her intently. “See anyone you know?” His tone was not quite casual.
She shook her head. “I’ve never been here before.”
“Known Terri long?” Another almost casual question.
“No.” Julie wondered where this was leading.
He glanced over her shoulder again and then looked down at his watch. “I’ve run out of time. Drink up and I’ll buy a round, but then I have to leave.”
Bill and Terri downed their drinks without further invitation, but Julie shook her head. “This is enough for me.”
“I’ll owe you one.” He turned to the bar and signalled, getting immediate service. He paid his tab, picked up his change and turned back to them. “It’s been nice meeting you.” He left, moving through a crowd that parted for him without apparent rancour.
Bill watched him pass out the door to the car park before turning back to them. “I have no idea why he did that,” he said. “He’s not one to cross the line. The only one of our lot I’ve ever seen him drink with is Les Frame and it’s said they go back a long way together.”
“I don’t understand.” Julie didn’t.
Bill hadn’t finished his musings, studying Julie with an intentness that matched the man who just left. “You’re a pretty kid, but I’ve seen the lookers who wait for him on the wharf in every port and you’re not in their class. I don’t think you’re the reason.” He looked around the bar, searching for enlightenment and finding none.
“I still don’t understand.” Julie was getting tired of being ignored and talked over.
“Probably not,” Bill agreed. “I’ll try to explain.”
He took a long sip of his beer. “Tastes better for him buying it,” He decided, and then turned to Julie. “Ships on the Australian Coast operate with five unions. Us, in the Seaman’s Union; the Cooks; the Stewards; the Mates; and, lastly, the Engineers. There’s a lot of history behind them all, most of it bad, so we don’t see eye to eye over much and the largest gap lies between us and the upper deck, where the Mates and Engineers live.” He took another sip of beer.
“Parsloe is Second Engineer. That makes him the working boss in the engine room, dealing directly with us in the Seaman’s Union. Unlike a lot of them, he’s a fair man, but he has to be tough as well and drinking with us ashore makes it harder. Some of our blokes would take advantage of it. And he’s too smart to let it happen.”
“Why is Les Frame different?” Julie had nodded her understanding at various points, but this puzzled her.
“Les was a union official on and off for years, but he's sailed with Parsloe more than a few times and they're almost friends. These days Les is an enforcer, what we call the Gestapo, he signs on ships where there’s trouble and pulls the boys into line. Doug knows he can trust Les, and vice versa. In many ways they could almost be brothers, they’re so alike. Too bloody deep for the rest of us.” Bill shook his head and emptied his glass. “I need another one after that.”