Burrard Inlet is the body of water that divides Vancouver's North Shore from the rest of the Lower Mainland. In this collection of award-winning stories, Tyler Keevil uses that rugged landscape—where the city meets the mountains, and civilization meets the wild—as a backdrop for characters struggling against the elements, each other, and themselves.
|Edition description:||Second edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Tyler Keevil is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Gloucestershire and has published short fiction in a variety of magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, including Brace, New Welsh Review, On Spec, Planet, and Transmission. He is the author of Fireball and The Drive, both of which were short-listed for Wales Book of the Year and won the Media Wales People’s Choice Award.
Read an Excerpt
By Tyler Keevil, Claire Houguez
ParthianCopyright © 2014 Tyler Keevil
All rights reserved.
As usual, Roger's up before me – looking for his ducks. When I cross the breezeway from the bunkhouse to the cabin, I find him standing at the window with his back straight and his legs apart, like a sentry on duty. He's even got a pair of binoculars trained on the stretch of water between our barge and the shore. The morning sun has already hit the inlet, setting off crescent-shaped flickers. I know what he's doing, but I also know he doesn't like me to directly mention the ducks, so instead I ask, 'See anything out there?'
He grunts. 'No – not yet.'
I walk over to stand beside him, shoulder to shoulder. I'm six-one and he's still got an inch on me. He's got the weight, too – all top heavy like an old bulldog. Muscled arms and thick, scarred fingers. Nine of them. He lost the other one in a net, during his days on the seine boats.
'Here, you have a look. You got younger eyes than me.'
I accept the binoculars, which are heavier than I expect, and peer into the eyepieces. It takes me a moment to find the place to look – among the rocks and kelp beds and murky water swirling beneath our dock. There's no movement, though. No ducks. I study it awhile longer, listening to Roger breathe beside me, before I give up.
'Nothing doing,' I say.
'Ah, well – it's still early, yet.'
He means in the year, not in the day. The truth is, though, we usually see the ducks by mid-April, and it's getting close to May, now. He takes the binoculars back from me and fiddles with the focus wheel, as if he's hoping they might be broken or faulty in some way.
'Better get some starter fluid in you, greenhorn,' he says.
I head into the galley, where the coffee pot is warbling steam, and pour myself half a mug. Roger makes it strong and bitter as crude oil, and I always top mine up with milk to mellow it out. I'm in the process of putting the milk away when Doreen breezes into the galley, her brown dressing gown flapping about her like the wings of a bat. A grey nightie underneath. Pink curlers in her hair. Varicose veins bulging on the backs of her calves.
'You boys sit down,' she says, yanking open cupboards. 'I'll fix you some grub.'
'Get some clothes on, woman!' Roger says. 'You can't go wandering around like that. You're likely to scare this poor boy half to death.'
He always says this, and Doreen always gives the same answer: 'Oh – Alex is family, now.'
During the herring season, she would never have appeared in the galley half-dressed. Her cook's uniform of jeans and blouse and apron was as standard and consistent as my deckhand's coveralls. But it's different now that the others are gone, and it's just the three of us. The curlers and nightie are simply part of the routine – the same as the ducks, the coffee. The same as the scrambled eggs Doreen whips up for us. We sit down at the table together, Roger and Doreen on either end and me in the middle. I only take a spoonful of egg, and smear it across one piece of toast. This early in the morning I never have much of an appetite, which is something Roger doesn't understand.
'Better eat more than that,' he tells me. 'We got work to do.'
Roger makes sure that there's always work to do on the barge, even at the end of season: swabbing the decks or scrubbing the walls or cleaning the engine or replacing pipes in the ice-making machines. Today the two of us will be shovelling out the ice bins. It's a job I don't like, because of the ice rakes – but I've never told Roger this and I never will.
'Don't push Alex too hard, now,' Doreen says, 'or he might not come back next year.' She's smiling as she says it, and I chuckle politely, as if the idea of me not coming back is crazy, absurd. Totally ridiculous. 'By the way, do you think you boys could finish by two o'clock today?'
Roger stares at her like she's asked him to scuttle the barge. 'We got a full day to put in.'
Doreen purses her lips. 'Well, I'm only asking because Beverly's stopping by with little Josh, and I thought it might be nice for us all to have coffee and cake together.'
She says this carefully, letting the significance of the words sink in. Roger considers her proposal while lathering butter on a piece of toast. 'Suppose we could skip lunch, grab a sandwich on the go instead.' He glances over at me. 'That sound okay to you, Alex?'
'Sure. Sounds fine.' Beverly is their granddaughter – the one I haven't met. The oldest, I think. 'We should be able to get the first bin done by then.'
Roger nods, having decided, and bites into his toast. He likes it almost black, and as he chews I can hear it crunching between his teeth.
We put on gloves, take two snow shovels from the breezeway, and clomp out onto the back deck. Our barge, the Arctic King, is as big as the ferries that chug to and from Horseshoe Bay, except instead of cars and passengers it carries ice, which we deliver to the seine boats during herring season. When the fishery ends we moor up here, at a sheltered dock near the Westco shipyards in Burrard Inlet. Out on the water I can see a floatplane coming in to land, its fat pontoons skimming the waves, and in the distance the thin arc of the Second Narrows Bridge hums like a superconductor. Roger leads me down the steel stairway to the lower deck, moving heavily, getting slow in his old age. As we descend, he can't help but glance to his right, towards shore. But there's still no sign of his ducks.
At the bottom of the stairs, he asks me, 'Port or starboard?'
'Maybe starboard – we're listing that way so it'll level us out.'
Our barge was built to house the ice bins. There's two of them, about the size of tennis courts, running bow to stern. Each has its own freezer-style door, accessible from the back deck. A sign on the starboard door shows this diagram of a helpless stick man, all bent and mangled, caught up in the bars of the rakes. The warning reads, Do Not Enter Ice Bins Without First Raising Rakes And Shutting Off Power. I'm sure Roger's done this – he's very particular about safety – but that doesn't make me feel any better about stepping inside.
Our boots crunch on the leftover ice resting at the bottom of the bin. It's dense and compressed, about six inches thick. Roger tests it once with his shovel, to make sure it has thawed enough, before going to fetch the wheelbarrow. I'm left alone in the frosty darkness, alone with the rakes. I can see them glittering overhead – long girders fitted with talon-like steel hooks. During herring season, they rest atop the ice that fills this bin. When we service a boat, the rakes sweep the ice into an auger, which pumps it out our delivery hose. The rasp of rakes across flaked ice is a constant background noise to our weeks at sea. The noise doesn't bother me, but the nightmares do. Night terrors, almost. This recurring dream of being caught in the rakes and dragged towards the auger. It always starts like this – with me standing alone in the bins. Then the door slams shut, and the rakes lurch into motion. As they descend, I batter on the door, scream over the rumble of the generator. There is nothing I can do, except wake in a tangle of sheets and lie there sweating, heaving, waiting for dawn.
'Give me a hand here, will you Alex?'
The wheelbarrow is stuck on the lip of the freezer door. I go over and help Roger lift it clear. We lay down a piece of plywood to make crossing the threshold easier. Then we run an extension cord in from outside, plug in a work lamp, and hang it on one of the rakes.
'Well,' he says, 'this ice ain't going to walk out of here.'
He grips his shovel with both hands and drives it straight down. The steel blade crunches into the ice. Levering a chunk free, he dumps it into the wheelbarrow. I walk around to the other side, so we each have room to work. We fall into a steady rhythm of shovelling, lifting, and dumping, like clockwork men keeping time together. When the wheelbarrow gets full, Roger seizes it by the handles and trundles it out on deck. I stand in the doorway to watch him tip it off the starboard side. The ice slides out and hits the water with a satisfying splash.
As he wheels it back he says, 'Best to dump away from shore.'
I nod. The next time the wheelbarrow fills up, it's my turn to empty it, then Roger's, then mine. As we work we pause every so often to lean on our shovels, exhaling clouds of frost. We talk about the season just past, which was bad for herring roe, and we talk about our plans for the summer. Roger's going up to his family cabin in Sicamous, to hunt and fish. I'll be working as a landscaper – cutting lawns and pruning trees and laying paving slabs.
'You take to that work?' Roger asks.
'Not like being at sea. But I need the money.' I pump the handle of my shovel back and forth, prying loose a piece of ice. 'I got to save up if I want to see my girlfriend again. Out in Wales.'
Roger makes a sound in his throat. I know he doesn't understand it, this situation I've got myself involved in with a Welsh girl. It's not like in his day, when people stayed close to home, settled down young, got married. There was no such thing as a long-distance relationship. When I used that term around him, he looked at me as if it was an oxymoron.
'I'd take you out for salmon,' Roger says, 'but you know how it is.'
I nod. He only gets one deckhand for salmon season, and the union would raise hell if he picked me over some of the other guys who have more seniority.
'But next year herring should be good,' he says. 'Make up for the mess they made of it this time around.'
'You'll be going out?'
Roger's sixty-seven, two years past retirement age. He's talked about quitting since my first day on the barge, but each year the company lures him and Doreen back with a one-off contract. 'Don't rightly know,' he says. 'Man's gotta retire sometime, but I sure ain't gonna let this girl fall into the wrong hands. Besides, we have fun out there, don't we?'
I know I've got to tell him. Tell him there's a chance I might not be back next year. A chance I'll be moving to Wales, to be with her, if I get this work visa sorted out. I've been meaning to tell him and Doreen all season, but haven't found a way to bring it up.
So instead I say, 'Sure, Roger. You know it.'
And I listen to him go on about next season, about how it's going to be a big catch since the company didn't make their quota this year. He says he'll bring out his lobster pots for us to fix up and use. He's got a new lathe and scroll saw, too – so we can do woodwork during the lulls. And that's how we while away the morning, one wheelbarrow at a time. Our shovels shearing back the layers of ice, revealing the fibreglass floor beneath.
Just before noon, Doreen brings us down sandwiches and pop. She's dressed, now – in her trademark jeans and blouse, her grey hair carefully curled and her face grainy with make-up. I go to fetch the tatty lawn chairs from the storage compartment on the back deck. During our nights on watch, we'd sit in these, wearing our parkas and rain slickers, waiting for a fishing boat to materialise out of the dark. Today we set up the chairs in the sun, facing the shore. This is so we can keep an eye out for the ducks – though of course we don't say that.
Roger and I take off our gloves and unzip the top half of our coveralls, letting them drape down the backs of our chairs like discarded skin. The sun immediately starts steaming sweat from our undershirts. Doreen has made pastrami, pickle and mustard – her staple – and for a time we sit and chew in silence, listening to waves slap against the side of the barge.
Then Doreen says, 'Stanley called. Wanted to know when payday is.'
Roger chuckles. Stanley's one of the other deckhands. Fortyish. Big and blubbery. Likes sleeping in and drinking beer. Even though Roger keeps a dry boat, Stanley always hides bottles of Molson beneath his bunk, to suck back in secret after dinner.
'He'll be lucky if he ever gets paid,' Roger says, shifting around in his chair. 'The amount of work he done for us.'
Doreen says, 'We should give his cheque to Alex.'
'That would be fair.'
I crack open my can of cola and say, 'I sure could use it.'
We all laugh, enjoying our bit of mischief. Roger's no dummy. He sussed out Stanley the moment he set foot on the barge. He told me, 'That fat old hound is sniffing around after my job.' If he'd had a choice, Roger wouldn't have taken him on. But the barge belongs to the company, and they dropped Stanley on us like a hunk of ballast at the start of last season.
'I'll be damned,' Roger says now, gazing off the port side, 'if I'm going to let him take over this girl. They'll have to crane me off in a coffin, first.'
'Oh, Roger,' Doreen says.
There's some splashing in the river, which makes us all lean forward. Roger even half-rises out of his chair – that's how excited it makes him. Near the rocks, I spot the bird: it's got a dirty white body, grey wings, and a hooked yellow beak.
'Damn,' Roger says. 'Just a herring gull.'
The three of us settle back into our chairs, frowning.
'Don't you worry,' Doreen says. 'Your Mallards will turn up.'
It's the first time any of us have mentioned the ducks, and Roger actually winces, like he does when his arthritis is acting up.
'It's not safe out here for them,' he says.
'They're okay. They're survivors.'
'A lot of idiots in motorboats, these days. Not paying attention.'
'Ducks are fast, honey. They can fly.'
'Not the ducklings.'
'No, not the ducklings.'
'Then there's the Chinamen,' Roger says, 'with their snares.'
I take a big slug of cola. Roger's convinced that chefs from restaurants in Chinatown set snares in the grass along the shore, to catch ducks to serve on their menus. Saltwater duck is a delicacy, he says. I don't know if that's true, but I'm anxious about the ducks all the same. Doreen is, too. At first we only worried because Roger worried. Now, though, it's gone way beyond that. They've been a part of our routine each year, and we've never had to wait this long for them. It's like those oddballs in the States who wait for the groundhog to appear – and if he doesn't, it feels like spring might never come.
After lunch the pastrami is sitting in my belly, weighing heavy, slowing down the motion of my shovel. We're like two prisoners on a chain gang, Roger and I, digging and lifting with sluggish resignation. I can feel the ache in my lower back from stooping, and the burn in my biceps from all this lifting. I don't complain about it, though. I never complain around Roger. I figure I don't have the right, really – with him being nearly three times my age.
As we work, I ask him about this girl we'll be meeting later. His granddaughter.
'How old is Beverly, again?'
'About your age. She's Jim's daughter.'
Jim is Roger's youngest. A portly guy with a bristle-brush moustache. He visited us on the barge at the start of last season. He had a habit of fiddling with things: the tools in our gear locker, the dials in our engine room. He kept that up until Roger yelled at him about it, in front of the crew. Nobody gets preferential treatment on Roger's barge. Not even family.
'And Josh is her son?'
'That's right,' Roger says, sticking his shovel in.
For a second neither of us says anything. Roger is struggling with this chunk of ice, more solid than the others, that won't come free. He leans his weight on the shovel, using it like a crowbar, and finally the ice cracks loose.
Then he says, 'She's not married. Had the baby out of wedlock.' He says it all at once, quiet and defiant, as if he's confessing something. 'This fellow got her in a family way, and then refused to stand by her. Turned yellow-belly and took off some place.'
I didn't know people still said things like 'in a family way' until I met Roger. And I can tell he's worried I might think less of this girl – maybe even of their whole family – just because she's a single mother. Keeping my head down, I scrape up another scoop of ice.
'That must have been tough,' I say.
'Sure was. But you know what the kicker is?' He's scowling now, shovelling faster. Like he needs to get this off his chest. 'After Josh was born, this fellow all of a sudden reappears. He's decided he wants to be 'part of the baby's life.' That's what he said. Can you believe it? This is since months since the birth, mind you. God knows where he's been in that time. Living down in Mexico, apparently. Smoking dope with his hippy friends.'
'Had a change of heart, eh?'
Roger grunts and brings his shovel down hard, as if he's imagining splitting this hippy's head in half. 'Don't your worry,' he says. 'Me and Jim went down to his place and told him what we thought of that little plan. No way I'm letting my grandson grow up in a dope-house.' Roger smiles mischievously. 'Haven't seen hide nor hair of him since.'
Imagining the confrontation, I can't help but smile, too. 'Well, it sounds like she's better off without a guy like that.'
Excerpted from Burrard Inlet by Tyler Keevil, Claire Houguez. Copyright © 2014 Tyler Keevil. Excerpted by permission of Parthian.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.