At the age of twenty, after a traumatic sexual assault trial, Kathryn Heyman ran away from her life and became a deckhand on a fishing trawler in the Timor Sea. In breathtaking prose Fury: A Memoir recounts the adventure that followed her life-changing decision.
A roadmap of recovery and transformation, this is the story of becoming heroic in a culture which doesn’t see heroism in the shape of a girl.
Bloody Bonaparte. He shouted into the air, the words flapping away from him like seabirds. You fucker. This fucking gulf. His shouting turned to howling, the pitch running higher and higher. His face lifted to the storm-whipped sky, a fist raised to the wheeling seabirds, their clacking squeals drowning him out. I caught only occasional words: fucker, Bonaparte, useless. Some words flew out to me, teetering on the metal trawling boom, the rust sliding into my palms, the storm spray spitting up. The deck seemed an ocean away, never still. Even with the rolling of the boom, I could feel the constant tremor in my legs. I was fifty metres from the safety of the deck, standing on a piece of metal less than a foot wide. Twenty metres below me the dark ocean rose and fell, surging with its foamy mouth.
Rust, the taste of it, mixed with salt, with fear. Forever after this, I will associate the smell of rust with fear, with the arse-clenching terror of almost-certain death. Despite all the moments that led me to that trawling boom, and that storm in the middle of the Timor Sea – all the moments of near-death, near annihilation – this is the one that turns my stomach to liquid years, decades, later. Even now, writing this on solid ground, my legs have begun to tremble. My body, asking me not to remember. We have got this far, my body and me, without trawling up the mud and mess of it all, the memories that made me.
On the deck, next to the gob-spitting, fuck-shouting skipper, the deckhand – Davey – held a light above his head. Each time another wave roared up, the light was swallowed by the water and the dark. Behind each loss of light, he called, Sorry, I’m sorry. Sorry not just for the loss of light but for his wounded arm, bandaged to the shoulder, which meant that it was me out there on the slippery boom, trying to pass tools down to Karl, the first mate suspended from the broken boards with a spanner clenched between his teeth while the waves roared.
We should have hauled the nets up when the storm started. We should have learned some skills, had a less desperate, more capable crew. We should have – he should have – listened to Karl. We should have battened down, settled down, gone to ground. All the should haves, useless when the thick salt spray is in your face, when the black night is whipped by wind and wild rain. Desperation made us keep going, lowering the nets when we could hear the rumble across the sea, could feel the lift of the wind, the waves whitening as the sky turned dark. Karl had looked up at the sky, sniffed the air, and called up to Mick in the wheelhouse, ‘We shouldn’t shoot away. It’s going to turn bad.’ Mick had clambered out, standing with legs wide on the tray, hands on his hips, eyes narrowed while he followed Karl’s gaze. His first skipper’s job, a favour from the uncle who owned the fleet. It made him anxious, unsure of his own footing. The nets dangled above us; Karl’s hand hovered on the winch. Karl waited, and then added, ‘It looks like it’ll be rough, skipper. What do you reckon?’ He might as well have been an alpha dog, a wolf, rolling over to show his belly. But it didn’t work. When Mick shook his head and said, ‘We can’t afford to miss a catch,’ Karl nodded and said okay. It was only after the skipper scrambled back to the wheelhouse that Karl said, ‘He doesn’t know anything about what it’s like out here. He couldn’t read the gulf if it was printed on a poster in front of his stupid face.’
The booms on the Ocean Thief stretched out on either side of the boat, wide arms forming a crucifix across the moving palette of the sea. On a good day, these trawling booms glinted with tropical heat. Inhabited by temporary colonies of seabirds – terns with punk hairstyles, gulls spreading their white wings, sometimes a sea hawk – on those days they had something soothing, domestic, about them. A marine Hills hoist, an aquatic, static windmill. But not that day. Not that night.
My bare feet curved, my toes gripping the narrow width of the bar holding me unsteadily as the boat lurched. Following Karl’s instructions, I’d hooked my arms over the narrow band that formed a sort of rail above the boom. Mouth dry, terror at the back of my throat, I leaned forward, clutching a Dolphin torch in one hand, the beam rising and falling as the wooden boards below me slapped up and down with the slide of the ocean. Waves smacked against the boards with the force of a punch. The metal cut into the softness of my armpits. Framed by the black of the water snapping at his feet, Karl’s face flashed in and out of the light, his hand reaching up to mine.
The belt of tools at my waist dug into me, the handle of something – a spanner? a wrench? – stabbing into the flesh at my hip, a relief from the pressure of the thin rail across my belly. Karl shouted up at me, but the storm whipped his words away. Ack. Asser. Ick. Uck. It was all noise, a wash and a roar of noise: Karl’s snippets, half-words that disappeared into the storm; the punch-roar of the waves; Davey on deck calling sorrysorrysorry; the skipper behind him fist-shaking, shouting; the shriek of dolphins trailing the fishing boat; my own bloody heart, the thudding of it.
We had heard the first crack of thunder earlier, but we put the nets out anyway. We’d held to the deck as the six-berth fishing trawler slid up and down relentless waves, and, when the rain started pummelling us, huddled in the galley. It was the shrieking of the dolphins that called us back out on deck, pods of them trailing the boat, the strange squeal louder than the storm. Karl and I leaned out on the gunwale then, squinting into the rain until we could see. The boards that held the nets steady had broken. We couldn’t get the nets up without mending the boards. And if we couldn’t pull up, with unstable nets heaving in a thrashing sea, we were unbalanced, likely to be forced over, or under, to become one more weekend news story of boats lost in the Gulf.
Karl raised his face again as another wave hit. The screw. Iver. Need. Mash.
Folding myself in two, I leaned further down, a screwdriver dangling from my hand. Karl reached up, but not close enough. My foot lifted off the boom, while my arms gripped tighter. On the deck behind me, Davey shouted a warning. The boom lifted then fell and the boards smashed towards me. The torch dropped from my hand just as another wall of water surged, pounding into my face, my eyes, until I was blinded, only feeling the turn of metal beneath me. I grabbed at something near, while the wall of the world – dark, impenetrable – came closer. Terns screeched, counterpointing the shrieking of the dolphins and the rattling inside my skull, a bass reverberation. Karl’s voice sounded below me, a call, a warning, and then there was the clang of the chains and a sudden smack to my face. The thickness of blood then, and soundless dense black.
Fury: A Memoir by Kathryn Heyman is out now from Myriad Editions
(9781912408641, p/b, £8.99)