In the latest stop on our literary tour through the pages of my novels, we’re taking a trip up the west coast of South Africa to a small town called Laaiplek, situated where the Berg River meets the Atlantic Ocean. This is the spot where my latest novel, Song of the Sea Goddess was conceived.
A visit to Mike Harvey’s lovely River Tides guest house just after New Year has become something of a tradition for us, although sadly our sundowners with Mike have had to be postponed this year with beaches and rivers out-of-bounds and travel between ‘hot-spots’ actively discouraged. But we will return.
Here I am, back in January 2019, sitting on the shady bench on the right hand side of the photo, busy with pen and notebook, during our customary short summer break. I might well have been writing the very words that eventually evolved into the first chapter of the book, which started as a short story involving Sam the fisherman and his little boat, Porcupine.
Sitting by the banks of the broad brackish Berg River, fishing boats periodically put-putter past. It was easy to start to imagine a story about one of them. A little blue-painted fishing boat, which I watched throttling past the old fish-processing factory as it set out on an evening voyage, captured my imagination.
I know from reading Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, that night-time is the right time to catch octopuses, using a little olive oil to ‘calm troubled waters’ and a light to attract them. But then, once Sam had caught his two octopuses, I desperately wanted to save them because, as we all know, they are at least as intelligent as dogs, and I really couldn’t bring myself to let them be despatched. And so the fantasy was created and the adventure begun.
Some of you might remember the original short story from when I put it up on my blog almost exactly two years ago, although it has undergone some reworking and refinement since then. But the essence of the place remains unchanged, for who could fail to be inspired by a location like this?
“Many ghosts of ships and men haunt Laaiplek. A place of adventure and romance.“
‘Coast of Treasure’ by Laurence G. Green (1932)
Excerpt from ‘Song of the Sea Goddess’
Sam casts off from the jetty in his little fishing boat, Porcupine. The last orange and gold sunset slivers are disappearing behind the blue-grey hills on the far horizon as he pushes the throttle forward and eases little Porcupine out into the broad brackish river that leads to the ocean.
Gulls wheel noisily overhead, their keening cries eerie in the twilight. The twin lighthouses blink at each other on either side of the bay. Sam pushes the throttle forward another notch against the growing sea swell. He runs his work-roughened hands around the little boat’s steering wheel and sets his course along the coast, inhaling the sharp sea air.
Sam grew up on the Cape Flats. Life had been hard there; it still is. But he’s escaped. He had to. On the run from members of an opposing gang, he got on the road and hitched up the West Coast. He slept rough; got work, casual stuff; then things started to look up. He found a broken-down little boat one day when he was exploring the shoreline for salvage. Slowly he fixed it up with the help of a retired ship’s engineer called Jannie, who spends his days giving advice and watching the activity in the little harbour by the river mouth.
Sam and Porcupine make a great team. He’s brought the little boat back to life and in return she gives him safe shelter and a means to make a living from the bounty of the ocean. Tonight he’s fishing for octopus, which is best done at night with a lamp and a little can of vegetable oil to make a window in the waves. He rounds the coast to his favourite cove and drops anchor.
Night comes quickly, and within half an hour Sam has two good-sized octopuses in his fishing bucket. He shifts a little on the makeshift perch of his old sleeping blanket, propping his back against the wheelhouse. Sam has been busy helping out in the harbour all day. He feels the stiffness of a hard day’s work; he’s tired. Lulled by the bobbing boat, Sam slips away into a glorious slumber.
He is awakened by the sound of voices. Someone’s on the boat!
‘Concentrate,’ says the first.
‘I am concentrating,’ says the second, rather indignantly.
Sam holds up the lamp. ‘Who’s there?’ He stands up and turns around sharply. There’s no one. He walks around the little deck, holding up the lamp and peering out into the inky ocean. Then he hears them again.
‘Over he-re,’ the voice calls in a sing-song voice.
‘Over he-re,’ joins in the second voice in a deeper tone.
Sam spins around. Where are the voices coming from?
‘Coo-e,” calls the first voice.
Suddenly a jet of water spurts out of the fishing bucket, wetting Sam’s feet. A tentacle waves at him. ‘Coo-e.’ It waves again.
Sam crouches down by the bucket. The two octopus heads bob up, their eyes fasten upon his. ‘What the…?’ Each of them winks at him. ‘No!” Sam stands up and takes a step backwards. More tentacles appear, waving at him. Sam shakes his head.
‘Let us go!’
‘Please, mister fisherman!’
Sam approaches the bucket again. He squats down. ‘No man. Fish don’t talk.’
‘We’re not fish,’ says the first voice indignantly.
Sam rubs his eyes; he pinches himself.
‘You’re not dreaming, you know.’ A tentacle extends towards Sam’s arm and prods him gently. ‘This is real.’
‘Tip us out and let us go,’ sings the first voice.
‘And lots of treasure you will know,’ choruses the second.
It’s as if someone has taken over control of his body. Sam picks up the bucket and steps over to the side of the boat where he gently inverts it. As the two octopuses slide into the sea, a huge wave breaks over the boat, knocking Sam flat on the deck. The empty bucket lands next to him with a clatter. Porcupine bobs about like a cork, and suddenly dozens of octopuses appear above the waves. As Sam tries to find his feet, a vast tentacle reaches onto the deck and grabs the bucket, swiping Sam across the head and knocking him out cold.