‘You dying in your twenties is not romantic,’ he told me, his eyes dense black, half in shadow. He shook his head. ‘It would be a waste.’
I remember that we were in my living room at the time, and that I didn’t say anything back, but I thought about it for a long time after, the word waste swirling like an oil slick. I knew he was right. It would be a waste. But when I’d said I would die in my twenties, it was never about the romance of it, the old story of the young artist perishing before her time. It was more of a knowing. A knowing that it was my time.
I die on the eve of the day I was born, twenty-nine, almost thirty. I’ve always liked the numbers twenty-nine, two and nine, much more than I’ve ever liked thirty, three and zero: two is red, and nine dark pink; three is uneasy green and zero is empty white. But contrary to what you might be thinking, I don’t do it on purpose. Not really.
Then again, maybe I do. We’re made up of myriad choices, aren’t we?
I shrug. Shiver. It’s cold here, on the wet stern deck, on the edge of this decade and the next. Beneath me, it is dark, icebergs suspended in the grey. It is all spreading. And I look across at Brooke and she winks and I smile and it hurts my face.
I hold my breath. Do we choose to breathe?
I don’t know. I still don’t know. I wish you’d told me the answer. I wish you’d told me a lot of things.
Like that when I finally see the green flash, it will be equally amazing and dull.
Or that life is a series of words and the punctuation is in all the wrong places and when you want to take a breath someone has removed the comma so you, have to take one there and if you didn’t too bad it’s already, gone.
Maggie, I wish you’d told me. At sea, no one can hear you scream.
Caught in the in-between, I imagine the earth is rocking. It’s all back and forth, back and forth.
But now I’m coming to, and there’s drool caked to my chin and fur on my teeth, and I’m peeling apart puffy eyelids to see the sun through a skylight that’s only a few feet above my head. The sun is swinging back and forth in the sky and I realise the earth really is rocking. I prop myself up on one elbow. My head is pounding like someone’s clobbered me with a brick. I look around and, as the room comes into focus, I wait for this all to make sense. But it doesn’t. The walls are curved, and no wider than the bed— if you’d even call this a bed. I’m lying on a wafer-thin mattress, wedged between a huge canvas bag and a fishing rod. There’s a weird thumping outside and, when I look up, the sun is still swinging. I feel a tightening in my chest, a fierce contraction of my ribcage, like my breath is caught and can’t get out. Where the fuck am I?
I’m wearing clothes, at least: a silk dress, my denim jacket, two pink socks and one boot. I feel under my dress and I’ve got undies on. The contents of my bag are sprawled around my pillow. Wallet, check. Cards and cash are still there. I grab my phone, hands trembling. The battery is dead. ‘Shit,’ I mutter.
Wriggling out of the bed, I find my other boot on the floor beside a bucket full of sponges. My legs are wobbling as I clamber out of the room. I knock my head on the roof. Who the hell designed this house? I’m tall but I’m not that tall.
The earth is still rocking as I stumble into a room with a kitchenette, sling bunk beds, slit windows, and a table that’s bolted to the floor. I feel my way through, grabbing corners and edges for balance, to keep myself upright, dragging myself towards a ladder that leads to open sky.
Climbing up, it takes my eyes a second to adjust. The light is piercing.
‘Oh. My. God.’ The words are barely a whisper.
In front of me is an old man wearing an oilskin jacket, an orange beanie. His skin is weathered, salt-encrusted, with sunspots and a coarse white beard. Beyond him is ocean. Its surface is dark and choppy. My body shudders, my spine curls. The horizon is impossibly far away.
I stare at him blankly.
‘Where am I?’
‘Sorry?’ he says. ‘You’ll have to speak up.’ He puts a finger to his ear. ‘Bit deaf.’
‘Where am I?’ I repeat, louder this time.
‘You’re on the Tasman.’
At my feet, there are ropes coiled around metal stumps, and lines threaded up a towering pole. The old man pulls on one of the ropes and the creases in the sail above me are smoothed out, like skin pulled tight around bone. I feel the boat pucker, then lift a little.
‘The Tasman Sea,’ he says, pointing to the endless expanse of ocean, as if I’m meant to recognise this water as distinct from any other water. ‘But more specifically,’ the old man says, ‘you’re on a yacht.’ He rests a hand on the boat’s deck. ‘And her name is Sea Rose.’
I feel like a hand is wrapped around my throat, squeezing. I might throw up. ‘I need to get off.’
‘You will. In a few days . . . when we get to New Zealand.’
The blood drains from my face. ‘What?!’
‘I’m sailing her to New Zealand and needed an extra hand. You said you wanted to come.’
‘Are you kidding? When did I say that?’
I sink back into alcohol-soaked hours, searching for something, anything. But last night is a gaping black hole.
‘Why would you let me agree to this? I was legless last night!’
The boat rises over a wave, slams down. My head hurts. I feel bile surge in the back of my throat. ‘You’re basically kidnapping me.’
‘Kidnapping me! You’ll go to jail for this.’
‘Well,’ he says, reclining with a wide smile, ‘I’ll only go to jail if someone finds out . . . I guess I’ll just have to kill you.’
I take half a step away and my ankle rolls on a coil of rope. I fall back, landing heavily on the deck, the wind knocked out of my lungs.
Suddenly, the old man bursts into laughter, his eyes disappearing between deep wrinkles. Between bouts he wheezes, ‘You right, kid?’
I try to speak. But I can’t.
‘Look over your shoulder,’ he says.
I clamber to my feet and turn around to see land. A stretch of beach, houses dotted between greenery, a rocky headland, a lighthouse . . . I know that lighthouse. It’s Barrenjoey. Sydney. We’re still in Sydney.
I turn back to him.
‘You know where we are now?’
‘We’re going to the RPA Yacht Club in Newport; I need to drop my Rose off for a clean. Should be there within the hour with this wind. I’m giving you a lift back to the city.’
‘Chivalry, now . . . doesn’t change . . .’ I cough; I’m still winded from the fall. ‘You . . . kidnapped me.’
‘You, young lady, were blind. Couldn’t even tell me your name. Was I supposed to let you go home like that? No. Jane and I had to carry you to the boat.’
‘She manages the restaurant at the CYC. Apparently she found you in the women’s bathroom. I let you sleep the night on board . . . Woke you up this morning, said I needed to get going and you told me to leave you be.’
‘Well, I don’t remember that.’ The cold wind is snaking around my body. I cross my arms, trying to summon any recollection of the night before. ‘Where did you sleep?’
He meets my eye. ‘In my bed,’ he says. ‘At my house.’ And there’s something in his deadpan delivery, in the steadiness of it, that makes me believe him. He smiles gently. ‘You don’t need to worry about me, kid— I’ve only ever loved one woman.’ The smile fades and he looks beyond the horizon. ‘And she’s gone now.’
I relax my arms. ‘What was her name?’
He rests his hand on the boat’s deck again, smooths it the way you touch a lover. ‘Robynne. Robynne Rose.’ He clears his throat. ‘Anyway, I didn’t mean to kidnap you, but I gotta be at the boatyard by ten, and assumed you’d be out until we got there.’
Relief washes over me. ‘This is so weird,’ I say, shuffling towards him, my arm outstretched, offering my hand. ‘But whatever . . . My name’s Olivia.’
He gives me his callused, leather hand and we shake. ‘Mac.’
At first glance, Mac is grey slate. Cool and hard. But then he laughs and the slate ripples. I see then that he is impossibly deep, like dark ocean. Inky stories twist in him like sea serpents in underwater caves.
On the rare occasions when my dad told stories, they were painfully obvious. Like etching words into sleek metal with a needle, he’d trace them over and over until they bled.
Mac is different. His way is guiding me through crevasses studded with barnacles and adorned with starfish. Alive with dancing weeds.
Instantly, he reminds me of my pa who could tell stories that filled any room with colour.
Mac tells me about a time he and Robynne got so drunk on rum on a beach in Barbados that they rowed back to the wrong boat and made love in someone else’s cockpit. I lean in. His voice is like thunder beneath a roll cloud, bold and exciting. Electric. I could listen to him for hours.
He pauses. ‘You cold?’
I shake my head. ‘Nah, this tea is fixing me up.’
He smiles. ‘Good.’
I’m sitting with Mac in the cockpit, wearing one of his wetweather jackets. It’s huge, creasing and folding around me as I lift my hands to take a sip of tea. ‘Thank you.’
I look past Mac’s shoulder. The surface of the sea is raised like pricked skin, a wash of goosebumps as autumn reaches out into winter.
‘How old are you?’ he asks.
‘You aren’t meant to ask a woman her age.’
He snorts. ‘You, kid, are not a woman.’
‘Not yet, anyway.’ He draws the wheel closer to him and the boat tips harder on its side. ‘Are you even old enough to drink?’
‘I’m twenty-one,’ I say. Two, red. One, pale yellow. ‘I can even drink in America.’
He rolls his eyes, a wry smile bending his lips. ‘How’s your head?’
Mac laughs. ‘I bet. You could barely stand last night.’
I feel the hairs raise at the nape of my neck. ‘Don’t . . . I don’t want to know.’
‘You’re right,’ he concedes. ‘I’m sorry. Didn’t look like it was your fault anyway.’
I tilt my head. ‘What?’
‘That boy you were with— he looked like a right piece of work.’
And just like that, the previous evening washes over me like a wave across the deck.
Dinner at the Cruising Yacht Club on Sydney Harbour. And Adam. Clean-shaven, Rolex-wearing, Adam.
‘He’s my boyfriend.’
‘He left you passed out in the bathroom.’
‘We were having an argument.’ Though perhaps what I really mean is that Adam was having an argument with Adam. And I was both between and outside. Silent. Strangled.
‘An argument about what?’
‘My . . . my career, I guess. We’re just about to finish our economics degrees; I’ve been offered an internship at Lazard, this big investment bank, but I told him I don’t know if I’m going to take it,’ I explain. And I’m so ready for the usual response—What an opportunity!—that at first I don’t hear what Mac actually says.
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘What was that?’
‘I said, what’s it got to do with him?’
‘Well, he said I was throwing away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,’ I say, skimming over: I know ten guys who would kill for that gig. Skimming over: You’re lucky they even gave it to you.
Lucky, I think. After all that work.
Sheer luck. A fluke.
Mac shakes his head, and then, with a certainty that sets my world on fire, he says, ‘You’re your own person, Oli. Maybe he’s scared of that.’
I laugh. ‘No one’s ever called me that before.’
‘Do you like it?’
I smile. ‘Yeah, I do.’
We watch from the restaurant at the yacht club as the Sea Rose is hoisted from the water and slung up in the shipyard. Mac has bought me a huge strawberry milkshake and a portion of chips. I mix mayonnaise and tomato sauce together on a plate until it’s salmon pink, flecked with pepper, and Mac says, ‘Your accent—you didn’t grow up here, did you?’
I shake my head. ‘Lived in Manly until I was five, then Hong Kong and Singapore.’ I slurp my milkshake.
‘So what brought that about? Parents’ work?’
‘My dad heads the South-East Asia division of an oil company.’
Mac opens his mouth to speak, then seems to change his mind. He looks over to the shipyard where the Sea Rose is cradled above the ground.
‘I live with my grandpa in Manly now,’ I explain. ‘My dad sent me back here for uni.’
He turns back to me. ‘The business degree?’
‘So what are you going to do now?’
‘Dunno. Lazard, I guess . . .’
Mac gives me a sharp look. ‘I thought you didn’t want the internship?’
‘Well, if it was up to me I would have studied art, but Dad said he wouldn’t pay for that.’
Silence drapes between us.
I sigh. ‘There’s no money in art anyway.’
Mac laughs. ‘You should meet this friend of mine.’
‘Maggie.’ His mouth wraps around her name with the same kindness as an arm around a friend’s shoulder. ‘She was a curator in London for years. Retired now. Lives here in Sydney with me.’
I edge forwards in my chair. ‘That’s cool.’
‘You’ll like her,’ Mac assures me. ‘She’s an incredible woman.’
‘When can I meet her?’
‘I’m coming back up here on Wednesday to sail the Sea Rose back down to the CYC. Maggie’s coming with me. How about you join us?’
I think of our sail into Pittwater this morning, how hard I’d laughed. I grin. ‘Yeah, sure. I’d love to.’
‘But no drinking Tuesday night, okay, kid?’
‘Never again,’ I say, my cheeks hot.
‘Ha! Heard that before.’ He helps himself to the last of my chips. ‘Come on, let’s get out of here.’
We’re strolling across the car park, the sun falling through a hole in the clouds, when Mac excuses himself, tells me he’ll be just a minute, and heads over to the shipyard. He walks up to the Sea Rose, touches his palm to the bottom of the boat. It is full and round, white with tendrils of brown algae. Mac whispers something as he smooths the fibreglass, kisses it softly. And I find myself feeling awkward suddenly, shifting my weight from one leg to another, like I’m spying on lovers, witnessing a moment reserved for someone else.
In the car, Mac turns on the radio.
I feel it coursing through me in a stream of soft reds. ‘I love this song,’ I say. ‘It feels very pink.’
‘I said, it feels very pink.’ Then, considering how odd that must sound, I laugh sheepishly. ‘I don’t know. It’s just a feeling I have.’
Mac shakes his head. He’s smiling. ‘I can’t wait for you to meet Maggie.’
And then, just like that, a thought bubbles inside me. It's a beginning; a new beginning; my beginning. The beginning of the story I tell myself in order to survive.
We choose to breathe, don't we?
Twenty-one-year-old Olivia hears the world in colour, but her life is mottled grey. Estranged from her parents, and living with her grandfather who is drowning in sadness, Oli faces the reality of life beyond university alone.
When she wakes on a boat with no recollection of how she got there, she accepts the help of two strangers who change the course of her future forever. With Mac and Maggie, Oli learns to navigate a life upon open ocean and the world flowers into colours she's never seen before.
Four years later, Oli, fluent in the language of the sea, is the only woman among men on a yacht delivery from Noumea to Auckland. In the darkness below deck, she learns that at sea, no one can hear you scream.
Moving to London, Oli's life at sea is buried. When she meets Hugo, the wind changes, and her memories are dust blown into shapes. Reminding her of everything.
Below Deck is about the moments that haunt us, the moments that fan out like ripples through the deep. So that everything else, becomes everything after.
Sophie Hardcastle was born in 1993. She is an author, artist, screenwriter and scholar. In 2018, she was a Provost's Scholar in English Literature at Worcester College, at the University of Oxford, where she wrote Below Deck. In 2017, Sophie was an artist-in-residence with Chimu Adventures in Antarctica. Sophie is the author of the critically acclaimed Running Like China (2015) and Breathing Under Water (2016). She is the co-creator, co-writer and co-director of the online series Cloudy River.