It was over 20 years ago, now, that Kathy and I first travelled to Antigua. I’m not sure how we picked it as the place to go, though I’m sure I had nothing to do with the choice. At the time, I was between law jobs and we were still paying off student debt, with nary a pot to piss in, and when Kathy, worn to a frazzle by the stresses of lawyering on Bay Street, told me she wanted us to travel on holiday to the Caribbean, I was at a loss. We had no money. Trips to the Caribbean cost money. I called up my brother Mark for ideas, and he suggested, duh, that we take out a line of credit. The banks would be eager to feed a couple of young lawyers as much rope as they needed to hang themselves, right?
Righty-ho, then, they would and they did, so there we were, standing on a beach in Antigua as the Sun went down into the Caribbean, gobsmacked. I’d never been South before. The place seemed unreal. The water really was turquoise, and almost like bathwater. There really were palm trees and pelicans. It was warm, breezy, and perfectly pleasant, and I do mean perfectly – like it was climate-controlled. I didn’t want to move. Where could be better than right there, right then? If you’ve looked at some of my periodic blogs about the place, you’ll know that I still find Antigua a little hard to believe. At first impression, I felt like I must have stumbled on to the holodeck or something.
We just loved the island. It was an ex-British colony, relatively prosperous, with a little parliamentary democracy going. Everybody was friendly, spoke English, and accepted just about any currency you liked, US dollars especially. The weather was always wonderful, the sun very warm, but with the steady breeze of the trade winds taking the edge off. Truly, Heaven on Earth.
We’ve been back almost every year since.
That first visit we were staying at a place called the Royal Antiguan, a very middle of the road concrete monstrosity, three stars tops – hey, we weren’t quite ready to grab as much rope as the bank was willing to pay out – but it had one great feature, a restaurant built on piers right over the water. It was named, strangely, The Andes, which had nothing to do with Antigua, but was the name of a ship reputed to be sunk just off shore. There were underwater lights fixed to the piers, and at night the rippling glow would filter up through the floorboards. We ate there every evening.
There was always a short line of folks waiting to be seated, and one night we found ourselves right behind a couple of guys from Australia, talking in that wonderful accent about other vacations they’d had over the years. One guy was recounting a fishing trip, and as the narrative progressed I was at first interested, and then riveted. The guy was a natural storyteller. Try to imagine the Aussie twang:
“So we were out on a fishing expedition to the reef – y’know, the Great Barrier Reef”.
“And the buggers were really biting. We were reelin’ ’em in and chuckin’ ’em back.”
“Oh, you can catch some wicked things out there. Just wicked. I was standing there in the stern when Roger up in the bow starts hauling in something really large, puttin’ up a hell of a fight”…
“You hook a shark or something?”
“Damn near! Maybe worse! Roger is hauling, and reeling, and hauling, and SPLAT, there’s a stingray in the bottom of the boat.”
“Yeah, and it was a big one, practically filled the boat, and none too bloody happy to be hauled out of the water. It started thrashing around, whipping his tail back and forth”.
“That’s bloody terrifying.”
“Quite right, and y’know the bastards have these nasty serrated tails. It’s like a Wally Knife, so the barb with the poison’s only half your problem. And there he is whipping away, and I’m wondering whether my best bet is to jump out of the boat when he gets Roger by the leg. Cuts right through his rubber boot and slices into the muscle, long and deep. Blood everywhere.”
“Just Roger’s luck, eh?”
“Yeah, that’s our Roger all right! Leaves him with a real stitch job, and of course it goes septic straight away. So we’re out there in the middle of the Reef, stingray flopping all over the boat and Roger bleeding out bloody pints, and -“
Then they were seated! Mid-story! No! I was on tenterhooks, waiting to hear what happened next. I almost ran after him. What happened to Roger? How’d you deal with the stingray? Did it hurt you too? HOW DOES THE STORY END???!!!
I reconciled myself to never knowing, and made do by tucking into a really nice tuna steak, but then I had a chance to find out, later that night. As dinner was wrapping up, the same Australian guy was leaning over a railing, looking intently into the illuminated water beneath. There was something not quite casual about his posture, and his brow was a little furrowed, so being the curious type, I wandered over and peered down too, right next to him.
In the water below, small fish were swimming around one of the submerged lights, apparently attracted to it like moths, but that wasn’t what had the Australian interested. He was more concerned about the thing that was eating them. It was long, thin, robust, and silver, and man it was fast, it would grab a fish, gulp, and then just book it out to sea and out of sight, only to come right back at a high rate of knots as soon as the cloud of fish reformed around the light. As I watched, I was scrolling through my mental Rolodex o’Fish, trying to match real world observation to book knowledge. Let’s see now…predatory…fast…about, say, five, maybe six feet long…silver…shaped like a Mk. 48 torpedo… scary-looking thing really, with lots of little teeth, kind of like a piranha…
“You know”, the Australian says to me, like we’re old chums, “that’s a barra-cud-a”.
A barracuda. Yup, that fits. Those are dangerous, though, right? They bite? Take fist-sized pieces out of you? They told us that the really dangerous fish couldn’t come in as far as the beach, because they couldn’t make it over the same reef that had torn the bottom out of the sunken Andes, but there he was, chowing down, right near to where my pale, white, and no doubt succulent ass had been floating earlier that day.
This was a little disconcerting. The Australian didn’t seem perturbed though, just interested, and after a couple of more minutes, he’d seen enough. Not the first barra-cud-a he’d run across, I’d wager. As he turned to go, I almost blurted out “Hey what about Roger and the stingray!?”, but it seemed impolite that I’d been eavesdropping, and I thought I’d best not. I wish now I’d decided differently, because here it is over 20 years later, and I’d still like to know.
Hope you’re out there enjoying life, Roger. Hope you’re doing fine and entertaining people at parties with the story about how you got that nasty scar.
In all the visits since, no more barracuda sightings. We’ve seen tons of the somewhat similar but much smaller needlefish, though, which are harmless, and provided the name and front page imagery for this blog.
Having read this, you might well ask “What’s a Wally Knife?”. I don’t know. I probably heard it wrong. It was something with that cadence, like maybe Harvey Knife, or Ghillie Knife, and one got the mental impression of the Bowie Knife that Crocodile Dundee was carrying around in the first movie, except serrated.