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Fishing For Stars - Bryce Courtenay

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Published: 29th April 2010
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Nicholas Duncan is a semi-retired shipping magnate who resides in idyllic Beautiful Bay in Indonesia, where he is known as the old patriarch of the islands. He is grieving the loss of his beautiful Eurasian wife, Anna, and is suffering for the first time from disturbing flashbacks to WWII, the scene of their first meeting and early love. His other wartime lover is the striking Marg Hamilton, a powerful and influential political player in Australia who has remained close to Nick.

Marg suspects Nick is suffering the onset of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and organises for a specialist to meet with him in Sydney. But when they meet, Tony Freedman stirs long-buried emotions in Nick and the two men don't hit it off. Nick leaves in an explosion of anger and finds himself in hospital after being hit by a car.

Tony visits and encourages Nick to write as a form of therapy - to write about Anna. So he sets about writing about the woman who has inspired him since his late teens, and in doing so draws us into the compelling tale of the life he has lived post war-hero days building a shipping empire, navigating international corruption, supporting his wife's third-world education crusade and loving the women who inspire him.

About the Author

Bryce Courtenay was born in South Africa and has lived in Sydney for the major part of his life. He is the bestselling author of The Power of One, April Fool's Day, The Potato Factory, Tommo & Hawk, Jessica, Smoky Joe's Cafe, Four Fires, Whitethorn and Brother Fish.

Chapter ONE

'Frogs are one of our early-warning systems; when they start to be endangered it's time to take notice.' Nick Duncan, Port Vila, 1993

Some things from the past stay fresh in the mind of an old man: the curve of a young woman's breast, the sheen of suntan on her legs. A look, a sidelong glance, so beautiful your mind takes a snapshot to retain it forever, images in which the colours never fade. Out to sea on a pristine morning on the gaff-rigged cutter Madam Butterfly with the ocean spray hitting your face, when you were young and strong and anything was possible. Friends, partners, business deals, government bribes, drink, fortunes to be made and lost, islands, women, children, hope. Anna and Marg, especially Anna and Marg, the yin and yang of womankind. They're all there trapped in the brilliant blink of a flashlight, then stored as a lasting image. Mine as long as the lens in my mind remains clear.

I am sitting on the verandah of my home in Vanuatu looking over Beautiful Bay. It is near the end of the wet season and the morning air carries a vague hint of crispness. As I seem to be doing more and more these days, I'm recollecting the past. When almost everything that is going to happen to you has already happened, memories occupy more of your time.

Sitting in this large comfortable old cane chair, mentally meandering, flicking through mindscapes, I am attempting to banish what I have called 'The killing-of-Anna dream'. I woke at dawn again this morning clutching the pillow and bawling like a little kid, choking back my grief, thinking the pillow was Anna. If I don't exorcise this dream, cast out these demons, the dark shadows of the night will linger throughout this sparkling day in paradise.

Welcome to Paradise; another time, a different pace. I'd read that recently on a large poster as I left the airport after picking up Saffron, my goddaughter, who was visiting me from Port Moresby. Beautiful Bay is about as much paradise as anyone can take; add a little phoney Hawaiian music, frame up, roll camera and let Tales of the South Pacific begin.

Mine has been a fortunate life in so many ways, but in the end we live more in our head than we do in a place and lately there's some alarming stuff happening in my head. More and more I seem to be recalling the blood, sweat and tears of my life in the islands. Nick Duncan. Billionaire? Sailor? Lover? Soldier? Killer? Dreamer? Pioneer? Nice guy? Bastard? Adulterer? What?

Saffron disturbs my thoughts in a lap-lap sarong and bikini top, looking every inch a beautiful young woman. 'Uncle Nick, the phone. It's Great Auntie Marg.' She giggles. 'And she's talking green.'

'What else,' I sigh, then laugh, rising from my chair. 'It's morning, and her morning calls are always a dark shade of green.'

Saffron, brought up in the islands where the pace of life is relaxed, asks, 'But why is she always in such a hurry?'

I shrug. 'It's her way. Yesterday is a lost opportunity, a list of tasks not completed, so today all must be recovered. Marg is always running to catch up with herself.'

'She's seventy-seven! When I'm her age I won't be jumping around like Jiminy Cricket.'

'You mean jumping around saving Jiminy Cricket,' I retort. 'May we be spared from all zealots, religious or green, God-botherers or self-appointed custodians of all creatures great and small.'

'What about frogs, Uncle Nick . . . and butterflies?' Saffron asks mischievously.

'Ah, that's different,' I grin. 'If you kiss a frog he may turn into a prince, and butterflies are born to become princesses.'

'You're not really a cynic about the environment, are you, Uncle Nick?' Saffron asks.

'No, but there's a big difference between being concerned and being a zealot. Frogs are one of our early-warning systems; when they start to be endangered it's time to take notice. Old man trees must be respected not turned into chopsticks and cardboard cartons. Moderation in all things, my dear.' This last remark I recall coming from my Anglican missionary father when, as a child, I'd excitedly captured half a dozen of the same species of butterfly.

'Better hurry, you know how cranky she gets when she has to wait,' Saffron cautions, seemingly satisfied with my reply. Some of the kids today really seem to care and don't think nature is confined to the strip of grass beside the pavement where the dog takes a poo.

Marg Hamilton's morning calls from Sydney are always a machine-gun barrage of words, and usually I'm hit with a request. This time it's 'Nick, I need your help! Have the Japanese secured the fishing rights to your Marine Exclusive Economic Zone? Has that corrupt government of yours already signed away their rights? We've got to do something, darling! Did you know the Pacific tuna fishery is the last fishing resource not to be decimated by factory fishing!'

That's our Marg, straight to the point, no opening niceties, strictly business. Some item or other needs to be ticked off her inexhaustible list of crucial green issues, something that invariably involves my time or money or both.

I'm in inter-island shipping, though she's aware that I would, of course, know about the tuna resources in this part of the Pacific. She also knows damn well that nothing whatsoever happens swiftly in an island government department.

'Good morning, Marg. And how are you? Lovely day here on the island.' I glance through the large picture window overlooking Beautiful Bay and then further out to the harbour. 'Not a cloud in the sky, the bay is sparkling, God's thrown a handful of diamonds into the water, the harbour beyond is like a millpond. Unusual weather, even for this late in the wet season.'

The irony in my voice is lost on her. She's probably got the phone tucked between her shoulder and chin the way women seem able to do, freeing both hands to make notes, fish in her handbag for the car keys, check her make-up in the mirror. How do they do that?

'Nick, is there any way you can find out quickly? I thought Anna might have been mixed up in it. These things usually take a year or two to resolve,' she says, silently acknowledging that her agitation was merely for effect.

I feel an involuntary pang of guilt at the mention of Anna's name. Had she still been alive, she would almost certainly have been part of negotiations with the Japanese. And a small but significant percentage of the licensing fees would have been skimmed off the top as 'Ongoing Consulting Fees' or some such euphemism for appropriating the island people's money. As well, you could bet your army boots there would be a significant backhander from the Japanese for facilitating negotiations; 'smoothing' is the common word.

Marg Hamilton and Anna Til are the two women who have been equal halves of the whole of my loving, the greater part of my frustrations, probably the bulk of my infuriation and certainly most of the happiness and abundant love I've been blessed to receive. No man on earth, least of all myself, is sufficiently strong to manage two such beautiful, intelligent, articulate, stubborn and determined women who are opposed to each other in every conceivable way. Philosophically, in their aesthetic and gastronomic tastes (Marg eats pretty bland vegetarian; Anna, a contradiction as always, Japanese and French), in the movies, entertainment and music they love, I cannot imagine two people more at variance.

Anna, in her day a superb example of the work of the Big Craftsman in the Sky, passed away four months ago at the age of sixty-six, so I would have welcomed a soupçon of tact from Marg, also once a finely chiselled edition of the Maker's art. But even so soon after Anna's death, Marg's forthright opinions of the other woman in my life are unlikely to be tempered by mealy-mouthed niceties. She is too well bred to say so, but not only has she endured the ambiguities of her relationship with me, she has also outlasted her opponent and must feel that she therefore deserves certain rights. Women are by nature predatory creatures and I have long since understood that any influence I might have had on either Anna or Marg was based entirely on the constant threat that the other might gain the upper hand. Marg has waited a long time to have me all to herself again and she will make the most of it.

'No, I don't believe Anna was involved,' I say, deliberately keeping my voice matter-of-fact, abiding by the old rules even though there is no longer any need.

'Nick, it's important we know the very moment they sign. The media will give it a big run. Bob Brown may be able to get some sort of brouhaha started in the senate and that's very good for us.'

'Sweetheart, isn't it about time you threw in the towel, put your feet up?' I tease, mixing my metaphors. 'Let the youngsters save the planet. Come to Beautiful Bay and live with me all the days of your life. God knows, collectively we haven't got that many left. An insurance bloke told me recently that at my age they could estimate on average the number of minutes I could expect to live!' I chuckle. 'Minutes, mind you!'

Marg laughs politely, ignoring my deliberately insensitive invitation. I already know she'd find it unacceptable, not only because of the too recent death of Anna, but also because it's difficult to save the planet from Port Vila. 'All the more reason to use one's time productively,' she replies primly.

'Please, Marg, not the schoolmistress,' I tease. 'It's the least attractive aspect of your personality.'

'Don't be ridiculous, Nick. I'm an old head and old heads are hard to find in the movement. There are plenty of marvellous young people prepared to throw themselves in front of a whaling ship, and while these confrontations are very important for the movement, of equal or even greater importance is the silent force, the behind-the-scenes work. The kids don't know who to badger, threaten or compromise in Canberra.' Then she cleverly gets back on track, 'As I know you do in the islands.'

'I don't know about this fishing business,' I reply. 'I don't have the pull, the influence I used to have.'

'Nonsense!' Marg cuts in. 'You're the grand patriarch and, unlike us, the islands still respect the wisdom that comes with age.'

'It's changing fast, new generation, cocaine, piercings, youth culture.' Despite myself I'm flattered that she has referred to me as the grand patriarch, even if it is a bit of an exaggeration. However, I am aware that it isn't like the old days. Many of the new breed of politicians in the Pacific possess law degrees and almost all are university trained, a bequest to the youth of the various Pacific Islands from Australia, New Zealand, Britain or France. It doesn't make them less open to corruption, only smarter at it.

'I'll see what I can do; I can't promise.'

'Good boy,' she replies. I imagine her crossing the item off her list. Good ol' Nick, always comes through. But I know from experience Marg usually has two requests. I have come to think of this tactic as the 'double tap'. Moreover, she always makes the less important request first. A right jab followed by a vicious left hook. Suddenly she announces, 'Nick, I hear you've been giving away money . . . a lot.' A slight pause. 'Is it Anna's?'

'Would it matter if it was?'

Another pause. 'Well not now, I suppose,' she says, drawing out the last word.

'Don't go there, Marg,' I say.

'Nick, will you help the zoo?' Marg asks, ignoring my caution.

'Help? With what?'

'A frog. I know you're rather fond of frogs.'

'You'll need to be a bit more specific, darling.'

'The Southern Corroboree frog. It's facing extinction.'

Marg knows how to get my attention. 'Ah, Pseudophryne corroboree, unique to Australia, habitat – Snowy Mountains. What, the amphibian chytrid fungus?'

'Yes, amongst other threats. Guy Cooper, one of the directors with me at Taronga Park, estimates there are less than two hundred left in the wild. We want to begin a recovery program.'

'Hmm, how much?'

'For the Corroboree only?'

'Oh, I see. There's more?'

'Nick, you know there is! At least forty-seven Australian species face extinction, hundreds more worldwide.'

'Pliny the Elder said, ?Out of Africa always something new?.'

'Nick, you're changing the subject.'

'No I'm not. Some authorities suggest the fungus has spread across the planet from Africa in the last twenty years.'

'Well yes, Nick, thank you. The point is, frogs are dying. May I say you're good for a hundred thousand dollars?'

I pause deliberately to make her work for her money. 'That's a big ask.'

'She can afford it!'

'She? Watch your step, sweetheart. You and Anna – it's time to stop. Anna is no longer here.'

Marg doesn't know how to watch her step, or how to take a backward one. 'Darling, let's face it. Anna only liked frogs for their legs, lightly sautéed with fresh garlic and a sprinkling of truffles.'

I don't take the bait. The antipathy between the two women was always going to continue beyond the grave. If the situation had been reversed and Anna had outlived Marg, she would probably have been even more vituperative. Nevertheless, Marg can't have it both ways. I allow the silence to grow, then say, 'Pity you disapprove so strongly of Anna. After all, it was her money, and as far as I'm concerned still is. I rather like frogs – frogs and butterflies; both so wonderfully diverse. But you're right, frogs are having a terrible time. I tell you what I'll do. I'll send the money to the Bronx Zoo; they have an excellent frog conservation program underway.'

'You bastard, Nick! You're being a deliberate shit! It's different now!'

'What, now that Anna's dead? Why is that?'

'Anna!' Marg comes down hard on the name so that it seems to crack into two equal pieces, both parts whacking into my ear. 'The only thing Princess Plunder ever did was rob the environment! You name it – fish, old-growth forests, animal habitat – she contributed in no small way to their degradation!' Marg's voice is filled with righteous anger. 'It's time to make restitution, and charity begins at home!'

It's one of the things I love about Marg; she's not just tough and stubborn, she's got a good mind and the courage of her convictions, not to mention a whiplash tongue when she's riled. I know I'm defeated; she'll get her money. But nevertheless I attempt to regain the upper hand. 'Like you, Marg, Anna had a mind of her own. As a matter of fact, she made a number of significant bequests.'

'What, to the Institute of Chartered Accountants?'

I laugh despite myself, so she knows she's won. In the past I survived the invective of either of them by staying neutral, perhaps reflecting an ambivalence that has been the key to my relationship with both of them. 'Enough,' I say quietly.

I wait. Usually there's a fair bit of growling before the purring resumes, but Marg's dulcet tone catches me off guard. 'Nick Duncan, I've loved you for most of my life. I continued to love you even after I married the admiral. But at eighteen you were too young and at twenty-six I was too old for you. We started out as lovers and here we are, still the dearest friends.'

I'm not fooled for a moment. She's got what she wants and she's much too intelligent to have another crack at Anna, for now. But I'm not fool enough to think the donation of the money will lead to a modicum of respect for Anna's memory. Marg simply wants to keep a foot in the door in case she needs access in future. Yet, despite everything, I know she loves me and always has.

I've often mused about how I could have loved and continue to love two such completely dissimilar women, both utterly convinced they were right in all matters. Absolute conviction must be a nice thing to possess, but it's hell on everyone else.

'Nick, I have to go. I have a meeting this afternoon with Macquarie Bank. They're still young – unlike the others who are all ruled by old men with paunches – and they're considering throwing their support behind renewable energy. It looks very promising.'

I glance at my paunch. 'I see, and their money isn't tainted?' My voice is still a semitone too sharp.

She ignores this. 'I'll call you in a couple of days, darling.'

'Yeah, righto, I'll look forward to that. Morning business or evening pleasure?' I ask, a touch acerbic. While Marg calls me often enough from Sydney, her 'Lovely to speak with you, darling!' calls always come in the evening when she's through with her daily lists and is feeling mellow after a regulation gin and tonic.

'Bye, darling, love you!' The phone clicks in my ear. Corroboree frog will be duly ticked off as business completed. It is something I had wanted to do anyway. When you mention that frogs are endangered, people are at best only vaguely concerned. Frogs are not a priority on the endangered species list, yet they are often the canary in the coal mine, one of the warnings that our environment is changing, usually for the worse.

Despite the humidity outside, I walk back onto the front verandah and flop into the cane chair; the view over Beautiful Bay never fails to calm me. It's too early for a drink, although I'm almost tempted. That's yet another thing that has changed: the level in the Scotch bottle seems to be dropping more quickly since Anna died.

I am becoming dismayed at my despondency, a mood that in truth has little or nothing to do with Marg's call, but obviously has something to do with my recurring dream about killing Anna.

I've always been a loner, content with my own thoughts, but never moody or churlish. I've observed such weakness and self-indulgence in other men and thought less of them for it.

Now I know that if I should allow the small dark cloud of despair hovering above my head to envelope me, at the very least I will destroy this gorgeous day and be tempted to open the Scotch bottle far too early.

In an attempt to dispel my gloom I try to dismiss the Marg Hamilton of Japanese fishing licences and recall the stunning twenty-six-year-old WRAN in Naval Intelligence who stole my virginity in March 1942, a month after I'd turned eighteen.

By sailing Madam Butterfly, a twenty-nine-foot gaff-rigged cutter, across the Pacific from Java to Fremantle, I'd escaped the Japanese invasion with only hours to spare. It had been in Java that I'd first met Anna, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Dutch businessman and a Javanese woman who had died in childbirth.

Anna was my first love, a young girl so beautiful that my heart still pounds at the thought of her at sixteen.

Upon my arrival in Fremantle after a difficult and eventful month at sea, I was questioned by a Naval Intelligence team, which included Marg Hamilton. She took me home and joyously bedded me less than a month after Anna and I had said a tearful farewell, promising to be mutually faithful and to 'wait' for each other until we could consummate our love, however long that might take.

Alas, at eighteen, the one-eyed snake is king. Marg snapped her fingers and I was halfway through undoing my fly buttons before the snap had echoed round the room. She taught me everything a boy should know in the limited time we enjoyed before I left for Melbourne to join the navy. Whereas Anna made my heart pound each time she appeared, the WRAN with the beautiful breasts and long legs gave me a hard-on every time I looked at her. Duplicity had come early in my long life of loving these two women.
Bryce Courtenay

Bryce: in his own words...

I was born illegitimately in 1933 in South Africa and spent my early childhood years in a small town deep in the heart of the Lebombo mountains.

It was a somewhat isolated community and I grew up among farm folk and the African people. At the age of five I was sent to a boarding school which might be better described as a combination orphanage and reform school, where I learned to box - though less as a sport and more as a means to stay alive.

But I survived to return to a small mountain town named Barberton in the North Eastern part of the country.

Here I met Doc, a drunken German music teacher who spent the next few years filling my young mind with the wonders of nature as we roamed the high mountains. His was the best education I was ever to receive, despite the scholarship I won to a prestigious boy's school and thereafter to a university in England where I studied Journalism.

I came to Australia because I was banned from returning to my own country.

This was due to the fact that I had started a weekend school for Africans in the school hall of the prestigious boy's school I attended.

One day the school hall was raided by the police who then branded me a Communist as they considered educating Africans a subversive act.

While studying journalism, I met a wonderful Australian girl.

"Come to my country!" Benita invited.

I did, and soon after arriving in Australia, married her. Benita gave me three splendid sons, Brett, Adam and Damon. Brett, who married Ann has given me three lovely grandsons, Ben now 14, Jake is about to turn 12 and Marcus is almost 6 years old.

I have lived all my Australian life in Sydney (the nicest place on earth) and, until I started writing fiction, made my career in advertising working as a copywriter and creative director.

At the age of 55 I decided to take the plunge. I had been telling stories since the age of five and had always known I would be a writer some day, though life kept getting in the way until I realised that it was either now or never.

Bryce Courtenay died at his home in Canberra, Australia. He was 79. Courtenay is survived by his second wife Christine Gee and his children Adam and Brett.

Visit Bryce Courtenay's Booktopia Author Page


ISBN: 9780143011347
ISBN-10: 0143011340
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 612
Published: 29th April 2010
Dimensions (cm): 24.9 x 12.9  x 3.7
Weight (kg): 19.6