Seafarers young and old, intertwined and
owned, for all eternity, by the killer sea
Killer Sea is the story of a young diver with a death wish who journeys through the South East Asian oil fields, finding a harsh and hostile world of survival and endurance amid a cast of cutthroat bastards and glorious sinners. It’s also a journey of self-discovery, a young man finding his real place in the world. It’s all here, the secrets of offshore oil drilling in South East Asia revealed: prostitution and drug dealing; oil company corruption and cover ups; back stabbing and murder; typhoons and shipwrecks; and last – but far from least – the danger of deep-sea diving.
A thoroughly enjoyable read … I like the voice established, and I think it’s likely to engage readers. Among the greatest strengths of the narrative voice, and a crucial aspect of maintaining it, is a straightness, honesty, and down-to-earth quality. Part of the ‘straightness’ of the voice is an implicit (and, given the events narrated, actual) wealth of experience that conduces to a slightly disenchanted, clear perspective on all manner of events, horrific and otherwise. In light of the characteristics of the narrative, and the extremity of the events narrated, a simple, literal description conveys the intensity of these moments.
I found the main character, Andrew, sympathetic – the register of the story is about survival, endurance, and getting through in a callous and cut-throat world, in which case a certain hardness and callousness of character is necessary. Which is not to say that there are no instances of community or friendship in the novel; there obviously are, but the broader context in which they occur is a harsh and hostile one. To put it briefly, I think Andrew and the other central characters are sufficiently sympathetic to engage the reader and keep them engaged.
First Editing: Editorial Review (abridged)
The Baby Diver
The van moved along Paser Ridge, the mud splashing under its tires, the driver not bothering to dodge the potholes as it rumbled towards the Petro-Corp office. When it stopped, the kid in the backseat got out, stepping on a discarded Coke can and wiping the sweat from his hands, unkempt and skinny in summer shorts and thongs. Not yet used to the sun and humidity, he walked half-sheepishly into the office.
Balikpapan, in east Kalimantan, had never been anything more than an important oil town. Motor scooters struggled through the mud and people sat outside their ramshackle huts, becalmed, needing a brisk gale to shift them. Although secluded in the solemn hush of the Meddassar Strait, Balikpapan had not escaped the commercial world: its shabby kampongs, Hungry Jacks, and mosques open to the sea.
In a high-ceiled room with a slow-turning fan, he met Mr Adriano, a Petro-Corp rep, dark and lean with a pencil-thin moustache, who led him into his office.
Mr Adriano sat behind his desk. The blinds behind him were closed. ‘Please sit,’ he said. ‘You have your passport?’
Andrew handed it to him. He knew the game.
‘Not many stamps.’ Mr Adriano flicked through it, his tongue licking his bottom lip.
‘It’s a new passport.’
‘Have you much experience?’
‘Ocean Advance – six months; Demonco – five …’
‘So, Mr Andrew, you done mixed-gas diving?’
Andrew nodded. Everyone he’d spoken to since he’d gone for the job had asked him this.
Mr Adriano smiled. ‘You see, very strict offshore. Must have gas. Air diving will finish soon. Deeper inspections ahead. Other divers, no gas and had to go. Petro-Corp quite strict.’
Andrew kept nodding. He knew the game: bullshit anyone you like, but not the other divers offshore.
‘Mr Tom will drive you to the jetty and a fast-boat will take you to the Labybird, Field 85, Attaka. Let’s go.’ Mr Adriano smiled nervously as he stood from his desk.
Andrew followed the driver outside, back to the van, feeling trapped in the heavy humidity.
He loafed on a seat for two hours down by the jetty, in front of the wooden shacks built on sticks over the inlet and the longboats nestled under the filthy grey. More crew flocked onto the jetty. When the fast-boat arrived, Andrew stepped into it and it cast off and headed quickly out to sea. Oil platforms dotted the horizon, their flare-booms burning incandescently against the giant dome of the sky. The fast-boat made the rounds, dropping crew off at most of the platforms. It would be another four hours before Andrew reached the Ladybird, fifty miles offshore, and he grew more tense with every passing minute.
The Oil Client
The Fat Man sat cumbersome on a frail chair behind his desk, fiddling with a pen, his red cheeks inflating every time he breathed. He had no neck – just a big head on big shoulders. He smiled at most people who walked into his office, whether they made money for him or not. His obesity – 340 pounds of mostly fat – not only intimidated his rivals but also complemented his lofty position and winner-take-all philosophy in the oilfield.
His real name was Matthew Joseph Horn. He was from Texas, and had previously run a fleet of rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. After spending three years in prison for tax evasion, he travelled to Indonesia and set up a shipping company with Indonesian drug lords. The shipping company was their ideal money-laundering outfit, sinking profits from drugs, prostitution, and gambling among the millions of dollars won and lost in the Indonesian oilfields. Contacts among the drug lords won him a position with Petro-Corp, a major American oil company, where he could manage oilfields, and open links with other drug lords in Bangkok and Taiwan.
His eyes, magnified behind big wide spectacles, gazed out his office window at the rusty container vans and I-beams stacked in the sun-baked yard outside. Petro-Corp’s logo – a seagull above a derrick tower – was painted on the side of each van.
He had just finished checking the contract on his desk, for a new pipeline in Attaka, and was now lazily smoking a cigar, watching a small Indonesian man in the yard outside. He threw the cigar into the blue marble ashtray on his desk and cursed silently, watching the man slink out of the yard and out of sight.
He hung around the yard often, Horn thought, that little Indonesian man: always pestering his staff, complaining about his daughter being sick, his farmland and water supplies contaminated, his kids unable to swim in the river, and blaming it all on the refinery. Last week he killed some of his own chickens, dumped them outside the front gate, and blamed that on the refinery too.
The Unwanted Child
They knew that one day she would come back, and dreaded that moment. They lived in a kampong down a hot, dusty street. Every day they prayed and sacrificed a bit of food and water to scare away evil spirits. When they saw Ruanne’s frail figure approach, they shut their windows and door. ‘Go away, witch!’ they cried. ‘The Devil has bought her back to us.’ To them, Ruanne was a mistake. They had never wanted her when she was born, and they refused to accept her now.
Ruanne stopped about twenty metres in front of her parents’ hut, her eyelids fluttering in the blistering heat, ignoring the sting from her mother’s words. She had heard them all before.
Her mother, with swelling breasts and a round face with large lips that were crinkled and cracked, stuck her head out the window. ‘Go away little devil!’ she cried. ‘We hate you!’
It was bad enough listening to her mother ranting, but when she opened the front door and threw all Ruanne’s clothes and childhood toys outside, then set them on fire in the middle of the street, it made the situation intolerable.
Ruanne dropped her bag, then went on looking at all her things burning. Her blood boiled and tears swelled in her eyes. ‘Oh, I see!’ she yelled. ‘It is easy for you to slander my name, see if I care, but how dare you destroy all my things!’
Her throat began to constrict and she found it difficult to breath. She walked forward, raised her fists and continued shouting, cursing her mother.
Other people emerged from their huts.
‘We should offer the poor little girl some help,’ a man with a crooked leg said.
‘Yes,’ his wife replied. ‘The sooner we show her some pity, the sooner the fuss will be over.’
Ruanne stopped in front of the fire, took out the clothes she had knitted for her parents and dumped them on the crackling flames. ‘I wanted to make you happy!’ she cried. ‘But it’s too late now. I’ll never pray for you again!’
Her mother, with fists like mallets resting on her rounded hips, slipped back inside the hut.
A small group stood behind Ruanne. She turned and saw them. As she walked through the kampong, away from her parents’ hut, the throngs of people followed her. ‘You poor little girl,’ the man with the crooked leg said. ‘You are so unhappy.’
Ruanne turned and looked at him, the rage still burning in her eyes. ‘My home was there,’ she said. ‘Now I will have to find a new place in the world.’
The Baby in Tiny White Tennis Shoes
Biff Bailey, the supervisor, was the only one who spoke, his cheeks puffy and red, thin strands of hair glued with sea-spray to one side of his face. ‘Just think of it as filling up bags of shit,’ he explained. ‘If that doesn’t work, then think of them as your friends, and you’re helping them to the surface.’
Simon agreed and bathed his face under fresh water, combed his hair back, then put on his diving hat, all the time a nervous energy running through him because this was his moment to perform. From portside, he heard a compressor in need of overhaul, and with it a clear Welsh tenor coming through the comms – Biff singing: ‘Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day!’
Simon stepped off the barge and after he hit the water, he looked around, sensing the darkness, feeling the downline before moving on. Far below the barge, tiny specks of light came from the surface like stars listening to his thoughts; then, not far away, he saw the dull glow of a light stick and followed it down. After his first glimpse of the plane wreckage, dark and soundless, he took a sack from the downline and entered it.
He came to a woman strapped in her seat: her face grey-green, eyes staring madly at him, and holding a baby with tiny white tennis shoes in her lap. The fish had already taken its eyes. Simon moved around on the right side of them and stopped over another body: a man with a business suit that had shrunk in the water and was now too tight for him, and a tie strangling his neck, with patches of hair on his skull and his mouth partly opened in a loose kind of grin. Much of the flesh had already been eaten away.
Simon fell back and for a minute he looked around to where they were sitting, his nerves and muscles unable to relax. A faint voice came through the comms, but he didn’t answer it. Then he unclipped the safety belt from a body next to a window, freeing it from the fish and crabs and the current’s indignity, and let it float above him.
‘Come on, buddy,’ he said, ‘you’re stupid being stuck down here. I’ll put you in this sack and send you to the top.’
The Water Rat
Lifeless. Like a fish out of water. White eyes, dilated, staring at him in the dark. Blood dripping from his mouth. Blood dripping from his ears. His face glossy, white, and cold. Mucus hung in drabs from his nose.
‘Rick, how many fingers am I holding up? How many fingers?’ Carl, the system’s tech, questioned the stricken diver, his voice echoing inside the chamber.
Carl knelt beside him, his feet soaked in bodily waste that flooded the floor of the decompression chamber. The stench overpowered him.
Rick closed his eyes and mumbled like a child, frail and sick. Carl removed his O2 bib and asked: ‘What day is it?’
Rick groaned, rolled his eyes, and sprayed the system’s tech with vomit.
‘Wake up! Wake up!’ Carl slapped Rick’s face and shook his shoulders.
Rick opened his eyes but, feeling distance, never looked at him.
‘Wake up, you bloody bastard!’
‘Wh – where am I?’ Rick wobbled his head.
The system’s tech placed the 02 bib back over Rick’s mouth. Rick lay there quietly, gripping Carl’s arm, watching the light from the porthole move magically through the air.
‘How many fingers am I holding up?’
Rick dropped his eyes sadly like a child who didn’t know why he was being punished. He could sense the man protesting his condition, but he could not understand it. All he could think about was water.
Andrew felt a tap on his shoulder; he turned, snarling, flashing his knife. Stanley crouched beside him: his eyes deep and focused.
‘He’s in there, isn’t he?’ Stanley whispered; his nose seemed sharper and his long hair hung over one side of his face. ‘There isn’t anything you should do.’
‘Go away,’ Andrew said. ‘I’ve got him, like I said I would.’
‘You don’t know what you’re doing – look at your hands, they’re shaking.’
Andrew lowered his eyes and stared at them. He felt his throat seize.
‘Little boy, you know nothing about fighting with knives. Reilly knows – he loves to fight.’
‘And you?’ Andrew stared at Stanley.
‘I know about killing,’ he said. ‘Shit, I’ve killed almost everything under the sun. I’ve wiped out whole villages. You’re scared. I can see that in your eyes. If you show fear, you’re already a dead man. Reilly will sense that fear – and kill you quick.’
Andrew stood his ground, the fire in his eyes still burning. ‘Do you think I can’t fight him by myself? I want to see his blood.’
‘Now Andrew, don’t argue with me. I’m your only help. Give me your knife and leave it to me.’
‘But Stanley – it’s not your problem.’
‘It is now.’
Andrew hesitated, tightening his grip on his knife.
‘Let’s not waste any more time,’ Stanley said, his hand extended. ‘War is my game. Give me your knife.’
His cold stare with those dark serpent eyes made Andrew shudder. He handed him the knife.
The Fifteen-year-old Prostitute
Noi sat in the rain, beside the old banyan tree, among the wet flowers and grass. She stared into nothingness, her dark hair hanging over her shoulders, her shrivelled-looking body wrapped in a faded hospital gown.
The rain stopped and the sun broke through the clouds. Suddenly the hospital, the fields, and the outline of the jungle became eerie with soft and beautiful light. But the recollection of cold thoughts forbade her to embrace them.
She heard the bell from the hospital, meaning food was ready. Only this time she wouldn’t come. She wanted to attach herself to some memory, to some remote vision she had been dreaming of – something romantic and tender, some silly, silly dream.
Within a short time, there were many people outside the hospital: patients dallying on the grass; nurses laughing and talking, sitting around a table shrouded in cigarette smoke. The sunlight sharpened and refined them. From a distance they looked so clean, but their voices sounded louder, more hostile.
Noi shut her eyes and imagined them laughing at her, calling her disgusting names. Her mouth was dry. She trembled, clutching the grass as if thorns grew through her flesh. A trickle of sweat seeped down her spine. She felt the sting from the bite marks on her breasts.