A Fishy Affair
By Richard Rupnarain
It was still very early in the morning, almost an hour before the scheduled beginning of the workday, when Aubrey James freewheeled his fenderless bicycle through the gates of the compound of the Fisheries Company. He never slowed or stopped at the gatehouse as was required for all employees for security purposes because he was well-known, being employed by the Company for over fifteen years. Besides, at that hour, with overnight dew still with crystalline sparkles on the chain-link fencing, and nary a soul in sight, he was sure the guard was still asleep.
He dismounted, unlocked the door to the workshop and rested his bicycle against a perforated metallic shelving, and proceeded to change into his greasy khaki overalls. Then he strolled lazily to the end of the pier, took a seat on an old engine block, plucked a cigarette out from a mashed up Alaska box and held it lightly between his lips as he fumbled with both hands for a box of matches. All the while he stared with unblinking eyes at the old wooden trawler that was held steadfastly to the end of the pier with a severely frayed jute rope.
The boat was about fifteen years old and belonged to a private operator who rented space on the wharf, to the consternation of some officials, who cited concerns over security of the premises and control over traffic. But the Company was losing money and grabbing at every opportunity to stay afloat, sold docking rights for supplemental revenue. Many private operators took advantage of the offer, mostly with devious intentions, as they were well aware that the Company kept its stores on the wharf and that for a few dollars they could tempt the minimum wage workers to grant them a few favors.
But today was an extra special day for the Company, for government officials, for private operators, and for him as well, for it was a day of new beginnings. Later that morning a fleet of spanking brand new shrimping trawlers was scheduled to dock alongside the pier and everyone was excited, including the myriad of flags that were strapped with galvanized wire to the fences surrounding the premises. These flapped rhythmically as a sustained gust from the Demerara fueled their applause. The only creature that seemed indifferent to all that was happening was the guard in the gatehouse. He was still sound asleep.
Aubrey inhaled deeply and observed as the waves continued to slap the sides of the lone boat moored alongside the pier, only to rebound in a trail of surf like that created by an engine in motion. But the boat was as quiet as the waters of the Demerara that serene morning and, judging from the height of the water against the mooring, he knew that it would remain quiet until later that morning when the tide would rise and allow the big boats passage upriver.
As he stared at the boat, a wave of guilt and shame washed over his soul. Due in part to his treachery, the old wooden trawler and many other private boats, continued to ply the waters of continental shelf, all vying for good fishing grounds to capitalize on the lucrative foreign prawn market. For a reasonable fee he secretly sold engine parts to private operators and to this day was able to avoid detection, partly due to an obsolete inventory system which used index cards that were never reliable, and partly due to the ignorance of the Fleet Manager about the day to day operations.
Mr. Trotz, a qualified mechanical engineer, worked all his life as a lecturer in a college in the Bronx, and was lured back home on the promise of an executive position and a lucrative benefit package from the Government. The Minister of Fisheries was least concerned about Mr. Trotz's practical experience with fishing trawlers, so long as he pledged his support for the party, and Aubrey took full advantage of the situation. Just the week before he tagged an expensive drive shaft for disposal with the explanation that the shaft was bent. When Mr. Trotz requested proof, Aubrey summoned him to the workshop, mounted the driveshaft on a lathe, and rotated it for a few minutes, in the presence of other junior workers, most of whom had gained employment through Aubrey's recommendation. As the shaft rotated at blinding speed, Aubrey challenged, "There, see the wobble?" His co-laborers responded affirmatively.
"If I see it? Even a blind man could see that shaft bend," said one.
"I could see it with one eye closed," boasted another.
"I didn't even need to spin it on a lathe. I could see it from across the river," exaggerated a third.
"You don't even have to see it. Just listen to that whirring sound and you know that thing off balance," explained the fourth as he checked the oil level on a dipstick under the hood of a GMC truck some fifty feet away.
To avoid embarrassment, Mr. Trotz confessed that he too saw the bend in the driveshaft and authorized its disposal. Later that day a flatbed truck drove up unto the wharf and took the driveshaft away, to a destination less than half a mile from the Fisheries compound, to another pier on the Demerara River owned by a private trawling company, where it was installed in a debilitated trawler. Aubrey received three thousand dollars for brokering that deal, a huge sum compared to his weekly wage and the pocket change he earned for huckstering spare parts.
But the guilt he felt for his deceitful dealings did not last for long, and never did, as he always found reasons to appease an accusing conscience and to justify his wrongdoing. Since he was twelve years old he was involved with the YSM, the youth arm of the ruling party, and since then he was always assigned menial tasks. He fetched chairs, carried equipment for meetings, conveyed drinks and food, distributed literature, hoisted pickets and banners, and marched behind numerous parades, sometimes walking for miles to his destination, barefooted, as he could not afford sneakers. But no one seemed to notice, for he could not recall ever receiving a single word of appreciation or a note of commendation not in all those years! It was fifteen years since he had devoted his soul to the party, sacrificed his own ambitions for an ideology which he never quite understood, neglected his own development for the advancement of the ideas of men he almost deified, taking the time to study their biographies, and memorizing all the letters behind their names, fully convinced that more letters one earned the smarter they became. And to this day he had seen no rewards, obtained no recompense, and saw no hope for advancement in the party. All he saw were the bureaucrats driving around town with their Russian-made Ladas, attending parties, being feted and lauded by sycophants who wanted the same progs. And he watched them go home to their fancy houses in South Ruimveldt Gardens and Bel Air. After a long day at work he would ride his rickety bicycle along Thomas Road on the way to the co-op village store in Kitty where he volunteered and he would see them in the national park, jogging, doing sit-ups in their fancy imported sweatsuits, picnicking with their families and strangely, he was never envious of them, but rather supportive, sincerely believing they had earned those privileges because of their commitment to the party and the government. But as he wiped the morning dew from his face he came to the realization that these people were opportunists, men and women who invested little or no time in the work of the party, but who, because they were black, and had graduated from the University of Guyana or some little known college abroad, and had given cerebral assent to party ideology, were being favored and rewarded while he was being ignored and forgotten.
To add salt to his wounded psyche he had voluntarily taken on the work of an informant, both for his party and his company. He apprised party leadership on conversations he had overheard among the ranks of its members and at work, he was the watchdog for executive management, keeping them abreast of the developments on the ground floor and of any anti-government propaganda among workers. He even juxtaposed himself into the role of union representative for mechanical workers just so he could keep management one step ahead of the Union. Rumors even had it that he was involved in the unsolved murder of a politician whom the party had deemed traitorous. Because of his track record, management had come to fear him, and his co-workers despised him and kept him at arms length. This rendered him a lonely person, a role he did not mind as he was convinced his service to his party was of the highest order. But after the best fifteen years of his life had gone by unrewarded, he felt cheated and he came to the conclusion that he was being used, and that without higher education he will never amount to anything within the ranks of the party, for there was a different kind of prejudice among his own party members, one that favored the qualified and articulate, and that if he would amount to anything he would have to take a proactive approach in the molding of his own destiny.
But he was too old, at least that is how he felt, to take the route of higher learning, as he had forfeited the fundamentals of lower learning in lieu of party commitments, and his brain was inactive for too long to awaken it to the demands of academia. It was then that he commenced the journey on the path of brokering deals.
At first, he did small favors for staff members, like tuning up their cars, changing spark plugs, adjusting their distributors and washing their cars, on company time and expense, but for a token "frek" which was usually paid off company premises. Then he moved to bigger things. As a worker in the mechanical workshop, he had access to inventory, both for company vehicles and the fishing trawlers. Very discretely he began to sell parts to private operators who rewarded him money and fish products. Then he moved to bigger things, the latest being the driveshaft which netted him three thousand dollars, the equivalent of four-months wages. With that money he was able to make a down payment on a bungalow in Albouystown, and now, driven by the power of revenge and ensnared by the taste of filthy lucre, he set his sights on the ultimate heist.
Unknowing to him, his petty acts of revenge were already having an impact on the bottom line of a company that was already beginning to limp financially. Profits had taken a dive due to losses in inventory, partly driven by his avarice, heavy public relations spending by executives, significant donations to the party, and lower levels of production, the latter being cited as the chief reason for the losses, and for the decision to acquire a fleet of new trawlers with booms that could haul two large nets at once.
What company officials did not know was that there were nightly rendezvous on the high seas between their vessels and several small fishing boats and that their captains and crews were selling off fuel, shrimp and prawns for a handsome wad of cash. To account for their meager catch and their prolonged stay at sea the captains explained that when they arrived at the fishing grounds they found them empty, being cleaned out by private operators who deployed faster boats with more efficient outriggers, and, of course, the company had no way of verifying their story as the only means of communication was by radio, which the captains deliberately refused to answer at times, citing bad weather as the culprit for loss of signal.
Management on the other hand, too preoccupied with running party favors and watching each other for possible traitorism, failed to notice that the local markets were inundated with shrimp and prawns, being sold at market stalls by small fishermen and their wives, and that private operators, using boats that were condemned by their company and sold for scrap parts, were operating on the high seas, gleaning bountiful harvests and exporting more prawns than their company could generate from a fleet of twenty trawlers.
Instead they bought the explanation, hook, line and sinker, and rushed into contracts for new steel-hulled trawlers with more horsepower and more efficient outriggers, thinking that move would solve all their problems, much to the delight of the American lending agency, the private operators who saw an opportunity to acquire more low-cost trawlers, cheaper spare parts, and much to the delight of small fishermen who licked their chops at the prospect of a greater second-hand harvest. And of course, much to Aubrey's delight as he saw the opportunity to make his final heist.
He crushed the butt of the cigarette on the bottom of his shoes, tossed it into the muddy waters and made his way back to the workshop. It was 7:45 a.m. and workers were beginning to arrive, some with an air of apprehension for there were rumors that some employees might be retrenched, while others who felt safe and secure because of their party affiliation and back-stabbing, emanated an air of cheer and optimism. Soon party officials began to arrive in their Mitsubishis with their aides, ignorant looking young men who hustled back and forth, from parking lot to pier, with crates of beer, food and vodka. It was Wednesday and the new boats were expected to arrive in about two hours, and everyone was being handed a flag and a program upon arrival at the entrance. Within what seemed like minutes party flags were everywhere, outnumbering the Golden Arrowhead by fifty to one. The blue Ladas arrived like a funeral procession and parked along the driveway with complete disregard for other traffic or fire safety by-laws, their drivers being immunized by favors that placed many of them above the law. As the party officials exited their cars they were greeted by members of the YSM, and then by senior civil servants, and then by company officials; and finally were escorted to a seating area on the southern end of the pier specially roped off for VIP's. Aubrey deemed the ones sitting in the front row to be senior men in the government as he saw them unfold sheets of exercise book paper with what looked like their speeches. He, on the other hand, could not find a chair on which to sit and had to stand at the back of the crowd.
Soon it was 9:30 a.m. and according to the Fleet Manager who was in constant radio communication with the lead captain, the boats should be visible within the next ten minutes. For once Mr. Trotz appeared to be correct about something. At exactly 9:40 a.m. the cry went up that first boat had entered the confluence and could be seen with a pair of binoculars. Still, those without a pair of binoculars strained their eyes out to sea and claimed to have seen the boats.
"I see them! All of them! They are black and yellow," cried one worker.
"Me too," claimed another, "they coming in fast!"
Yes, and I see the captain! boasted a third, He waving. Yall wave back!
Aubrey strained his eyes but could see nothing other than mist on the horizon. Besides he knew the two men and the lady were all lying as the river took a bend rendering a view of the confluence from Houston impossible. But the cry nevertheless produced a flurry of activity and excitement among the people, many of whom were waving as if they were lost at sea.
As the minutes evaporated in the rays of the rising sun other well-wishers, mostly executives from other Government corporations who had no choice but to be there or else face charges of insurrection against the comrade leader, continued to arrive, immaculately dressed in black pants and white shirtjacs or nehrus. Even workers from nearby firms began to trickle onto the adjacent riverside piers for a glimpse of whatever was creating the commotion on the fisheries wharf. Just then the secretary of the Chief Executive Officer, a hefty black young woman, stoic as a gargoyle and perhaps just as ugly, dressed in a grey skirt and a white blouse with a brooch in the shape of a palm tree pinned to her collar, her hair held tight in a bun with a large plastic clip, stepped up to the front and unraveled a roll of red ribbon which she tied onto the two posts of the main gangway. When she was finished she backed away and gave the CEO a pair of scissors and a bottle of Vodka, the conventional tools for blessing new assets. Then they continued to wait, in silence, intermittently straining their necks out to sea, hoping to earn boasting rights as the first to see the boats, delight clearly stamped on their faces. Some private operators were also present and they too were surrounded by a halo of delight, created by the thought of a brighter future for themselves. Aubrey twirled the little flagpole in his fingers and unfurled the party flag, aggrieved at the vengeful thoughts that stirred in his heart but becoming more convinced by the minute that what he was about to do was the right thing.
The boats arrived just off schedule and were greeted with an un-syncopated rendition of the National Anthem that sounded like a damaged record, the sound appearing and disappearing, not because of the south-westerly wind that had picked up, but because hardly anyone remembered the lyrics of the song.
Nevertheless, they gave themselves a round of applause, so thunderous and sustained that even the wharf began to feel like if it was hit by a minor earthquake. The applause subsided briefly and then resumed in intensity when the Chairman stepped up to the podium. But Aubrey held his applause for he had come to hate the man, both for his ruthless ambition and for his feigned blackness. He was more white than black, being of Portuguese and mixed-race parentage and, perhaps conscious of how he was being perceived by the black community, he made a concerted effort to be more reactionary against the Opposition parties and East Indians in particular, to the point where they feared him more than any other party official. But Aubrey knew he was a fake who preyed upon the gullibility of his constituents and who used the race card only to fatten his bank accounts. It was common knowledge that he had significant interests locally and abroad, including properties in Barbados and Miami, and that he was pressuring local East Indian businessmen into giving him significant bribes in order to keep their business safe from Government acquisition.
For the next ten minutes the CEO worked the audience with his anti-opposition diatribe, completely indifferent to the few Indians who were present, and he challenged his people to work hard and show the East Indians that they too can be successful in business. Riding a wave of euphoria he proceeded to cut to ribbon and the crowd erupted when he smashed the Vodka on the bow of the Gail Barker and declared it blessed. Then the crowd charged the food tables like hungry beasts before returning to their stations. Aubrey also returned to his station and donned his greasy overalls and gloves. For the last time! That night, at approximately midnight he had a rendezvous with an old trawler captain named Felix who was dismissed from the company after fourteen years of service on trumped up charges of anti-socialist sentiments. The company had elicited false testimony from his crew after threatening them with dismissal but Aubrey had known the man for a long time, even from childhood, and knew he was being set up because he rejected the amorous advances of the personnel manager, a godzilla-like woman whose used her position to secure sexual favors from young handsome black men. But Felix rejected her advances, despite her threats to have him dismissed and she, fearing that her rejection will soon be splashing all over the high seas, made good on her threat and had him dismissed.
It was ten months since his dismissal and it was a period of hardship. He had rent to pay, a wife and five children to support, and, with a resume that was so blackened by lies, he found it impossible to gain employment in the industry. Finally, hate and desperation for survival had driven him to the point where he was willing to do anything, criminal or civil, to save his family. When Aubrey heard the news of the impending arrival of a fleet of new boats it struck him that at last he could exact revenge for his ill treatment if only he could find a captain that might have a grievance with the party or the company, and, when the beleaguered and financially destitute Felix came by one night to borrow some rice and black eye peas, it occurred to him that his prayers might just be answered.
He still remembers vividly the birth of their alliance on that cloudless Saturday night.
"Hey, comrade, what's happening, man? Havent seen you in a few weeks. Everything okay?" Aubrey asked, visibly shocked at the sight of the unshaven and ill-groomed man.
"Well, I trying, but things bad, man. I can't find wuk nowhere, not even to drive pontoon. I even went by the dock workers pool at Lombard Street to see if I could get a few hours wuk but them boys say I have to join the union and wait me turn."
"I sorry fuh hear, man. Tell me if I can do anything fuh help out the situation."
"Well, buddy, I just asking for some rice and peas fuh de wife and pickney."
"Let me ask you something Felix. How you feel when them knock you off wrongfully?"
"I vex bad, you know."
"Godzilla? No! With the company! Them is big educated people who should have more sense than to know that I don't bad talk the govament. Is many years of me life I give to the party, not as much as you, and then one hooman come and talk lie pon me and them believe."
"So, how it make you feel?"
"Bray, I shame fuh tell you, because I know you is a comrade and all, but I wish that I had never join the party. The leader say he gon make the small man the real man but he liad! All them small man like me and you keep getting smaller and them real man who been out away and study come back, them is the real man. You see them in them fancy cars with them sweet lady? Them don't do no work but them get big money. And fuh what? Fuh go a meeting whole day. If them got to turn a bolt them got to call meeting. Everyday them in meeting and still dem can't get nothing done.... But them right fuh hold meeting all the time. Is only when ship a guh down captain a call meeting! Sorry, man, but I really vex."
"Listen, don't be sorry! I feel the same way."
"What you mean?"
"You know I was in the party since we wuz little boys. I wuk me fingers to the bone for them and I see the same thing happening all around. Me and you is nothing to them. Dem is new massa and we is the slaves, the real man slaves. You don't see how the comrade leader riding pon he horse on the coconut estate like white overseer and gat all de civil servants weeding grass?"
"It sounds like you fed up with them. What you plan to do about it?"
"Well, I have this plan..."
"Before you say anything, how I know you not setting me up?"
"What I gon set you up fuh? You already got no house and no job, what else you could lose? Besides, we grow up together in Tiger Bay and you know me is not a man like dat!"
"So, what's the plan?"
"You hear about the new boats coming from America?"
"Yes, I hear them boys who working for Viera talking bout it."
"You think you could drive one of them things?"
"Me? Me drive dragline, Hymac, tractor, tug, jackass cart, you name it. It don't matter that is steel boat. Is same water.
Why? You could hook me up with a job?"
"Yes, but I have a different plan."
"You losing me."
"How you feel about going to America?"
"America? Pardner, any day, any time me get a chance, vloops, me gone like hurricane."
"Well, you could get a chance, me and you and your family."
"By boat, man."
"Boat? Which boat?"
"One of them new boat."
"Na mek me laugh. You want to sail to America?"
"Listen! If me and you try to leave the country by airplane we going to raise suspicion. Them security people at the airport know me. Besides, we don't have money to buy ticket, and even if we had the money them white people will not give us visa. Auntie Doris say you have to be a professional or show nuff money. Is only so you getting visa. So, what you say? You in or not?"
"In? Pardner, things can't get any worse for me. Me pickney starving. I ready. But how you gon get the keys to this boat?"
"You leave that to me."
And so the plan was hatched, and now they were just hours away from the moment of truth. While everyone was pre-occupied with the festivities, partially inebriated with London Dry Gin and El Dorado bonded reserve rum, Aubrey entered Trotz's office, unhooked the keys to the Gail Barker and stuffed it into his pocket. The boats were not scheduled to undertake their maiden voyages until Friday and so he figured that no one would notice the missing key until it was too late. Felix came by later in the day, a few minutes after all workers had left for home, and Aubrey slipped him the keys, snuck him into the workshop and closed the doors, attaching the padlock but not squeezing the lock closed. Then he returned home to pack for the trip.
At exactly fifteen minutes past midnight, Felix tiptoed out of the workshop, looked at the gatehouse to verify that the guard was asleep, loosened the Gail Barker from its mooring, and leapt unto the sixty-foot vessel. The smell of fresh paint mingled with the crisp morning air brought back fond memories to the old sailor of his days behind the wheel of the Mabelline, a fifty-foot wooden trawler he used to pilot during his time with the company, and he licked his lips as if he could taste revenge. In his day, with a boat like this, he was sure he could bring in six to eight hundred pounds of shrimp per trip with just two crew members. Afraid that he might drawn attention if he turned the lamps on he switched on his pocket flashlight and perused a piece of paper with the drawing of a compass and directional degrees. He spent a few minutes getting acquainted with the sonar navigator and depth finder, instruments that were new to him, and then he waited for the Saguenay ship which was heading upstream for bauxite to pass and muffle the sound of the engine. When the ship was alongside he turned the ignition and the boat purred to life, but with the noise of the passing ship the sound of the engine was not loud enough to rouse the sleeping guard. Before the Saguenay had made it three furlongs upriver he had already turned the boat around and was on his to an abandoned wharf next to the Rice Marketing Board at Kingston where his family and Aubrey waited, packed and discreetly hiding behind some old crates. In less than a minute they were all aboard and were on their way to America.
The weather report in the Fleet Managers office called for calm seas and Aubrey hoped they could clear the territorial waters before daybreak when news of the missing boat would have coast guards combing the seas.
Felix figured that if they gunned the engine at it maximum speed of fifteen miles per hour they could clear coastal waters and be in the vicinity of Trinidad in about twenty-four hours. The boats were not scheduled to sail until Friday morning after license and registration papers were completed and if no one detected the missing boat until Friday morning they might be able to reach St. Vincent or even St. Lucia.
As fate would have it the Fleet Manager nor any of his staff realized that a boat was missing until early Friday morning when the new captain and his anxious crew arrived at 4:00 a.m. for their maiden voyage. The Gail Barker, moored to the front of the convoy on the outside row for want of room along the pier, was ideally positioned for a theft and Aubrey and Felix believed fervently that more than luck was on their side. Well, lady luck was with them for the first part of their journey. The bad weather combined with the fact that the Coast Guard had only one boat and a helicopter at their disposal and that they had a three-hundred mile head start before the first radio call was made to other ships, allowed them to avoid detection and capture. But then lady luck, having done her part, disembarked and left them alone for the remainder of the journey. When they were about one hundred miles from Puerto Rico some three days later a speedboat raced towards them and their hearts melted because they knew from the looks of the bearded men and the sub-machine guns they aimed at them that these were no friendlies. They were Colombian drug smugglers who picked up the radio call for the missing boat and, based on the information disseminated about the possible whereabouts of the boat, they were, with the aid of a chopper, able to locate the boat. Without saying much, they transferred Aubrey and his mates into the speedboat and seized the Gail Barker. Less than an hour later, terrified to point where they could not speak, and deathly afraid of being deported back to Guyana, the boat beached on a deserted strip on the island of Puerto Rico and their captors let them go, but not before granting them a generous gift of five thousand US dollars.
The five thousand dollars came in handy as they were able to buy fake identification cards and pay their way to Miami. From there they set off for Texas where Aubrey soon gained employment as a mechanic in a local autobody workshop and Felix found himself in the shrimping business once again. In the meanwhile, back in Guyana, the police and coast guard, along with insurance investigators, continued to comb the coastal waters in search of the missing boat. They gave up the search after a few weeks.
One year later a red trawler loaded with cocaine was intercepted by Venezuelan authorities off their coast and impounded. It was the same vessel being blamed by local police for bringing drugs into Guyana. The police held a briefing at Eve Leary to update the press on the seizure.
So how much marijuana was seized, officer? asked a journalist from the Chronicle.
Oh, plenty. Half of the ice box was full, he replied.
And what did you say the name of the boat was?
Carmelita. The name of the boat was Carmelita. But it was roughly painted over another name.
Was the CID able to determine the other name?
They said it was the name of a fish, hmmm, Gail something.
Barker? Gail Barker?
Yes, yes, thats it!
Richard Rupnarain lives and works in Toronto, Canada.
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