Sitting back-to-back, eyes on the horizon, adrift on the Arafura Sea in a cooler, a Tundra 350 litre, with its lid removed. One man holds an Aurora offshore flare in his raw and beaten fist. The other has a Bulla ice cream tub filled with rainwater, tucked beneath his knees so neither sun, nor companion can reach it. Wessel Marchinbar Island is somewhere to their south. Sabon, Konerau and Yawasi are elsewhere to their north. There is a strong tide holding them in a limbo rip.
Their first idea was to paddle in tandem, like two men in a horse suit, one of them the head, one man the arse. But when they jockeyed for the prime position, their struggle boiled over into a desperate fight. Eventually flare guy held his flare to water guy’s throat, while water guy held the rainwater ready to tip. It was a standoff that threatened catastrophe. No flare, no water, the certain end result. So, they found another way, though it’s a difficult arrangement.
Now they’re seated in the cooler, faced in opposite directions, a sardined Kappa logo. It has its benefits. They’re able to lean into each other, taking pressure off their fatiguing spines. Their opposing perspectives offer a 360-degree field of vision, should a rescue ship or a freighter pass by. Meanwhile, water guy plays a waiting game, expecting dehydration to loosen flare guy’s grip on his weapon. But flare guy is wise to it. He rests his hand over the lip of the cooler so if he faints, he’ll surrender the flare to the sea. Recognising this, water guy begrudgingly doles sips of water out to him, over his shoulder from his precious reserve. They’re not killing each other, but they’re getting nowhere fast as well.
Long, hot hours pass and then water guy notices something in the shimmer of the distance, a hard edge to a mirage. A ship. He begs flare guy to launch his flare, but flare guy is cynical and has to see for himself, so he dangles his free arm over the side to paddle in a circle, rotating their view. Water guy pitches in. It’s slow going. The cooler is a boxy vessel to control. They inch clockwise, imperceptibly. Minutes pass. The ship on the horizon is veering away. The cooler, a rotating snail, draws seawater over its rim. It begins to fill, though there is progress. The cooler is turning. But the ship is leaving. Hearing water guy’s shout of despair, flare guy twists and finally he sees the ship. He raises his flare, high above their heads, preparing to launch it. Then his salt-rimmed eyes squint and focus and he stalls.
With a deep acceptance of the joint fate that is his alone to control, he resets, returns his flare to its protective sheath. For the ship is not a rescue ship, not for him. Its colours tell a different story. It’s one of the water guy’s ships. It’s one of theirs.