The Ferry by Muriel Cooper
Miles sits on the balcony at Sorrento overlooking Port Phillip Bay and the ferry terminal.
“What’re you looking at through those binoculars uncle Miles?” Nick asks.
“I’m ferry watching.”
“Is that like train spotting?”
“I could never figure out what the attraction was. It comes in, it goes out. Seems boring to me.”
“There are other things to see, Nick. Whose going on and off, what they drive, who’s on the beach. It’s meditative. Didn’t you watch those slow TV programs where you’re on the Ghan going across the desert for hours?”
“Oh yeah, I did, come to think of it. I see what you mean. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen so far?”
Miles puts down the binoculars. “It could be over the last few weeks. I’ve seen a guy get on the ferry every Wednesday and Friday morning with a backpack on. Funny thing is he comes back on the next ferry without it. What do you make of that?”
“What does he look like?”
Miles strokes his beard. “Bit like a younger version of me, probably thirties. Dark complexion and hair, bearded, tall, chunky like me. Too many snacks,” Miles quips. Nick sees himself in his uncle, no beard though and not too many snacks… yet.
“What’s he doing?”
“That’s the mystery, isn’t it? What’s in the backpack. Why leave it there every time?”
“Drugs!” Nick says. “I bet it’s drugs.”
“Don’t get excited. Could be anything. He must have a never-ending supply of backpacks though.”
“What else could it be uncle Miles?”
“Want to find out?”
“Yeah, but shouldn’t we tell the police or something?”
“Tell them what? A guy gets on the ferry with a backpack and doesn’t bring it home? I don’t think they’ll be interested. Tomorrow’s Friday. Let’s get on the ferry and see what he does.”
“Cool. I’ve got the week off. I could stay down here if you like.”
“I can think of nothing better than an adventure with my favourite nephew. Let’s do it.”
They have a beer to celebrate and watch the sun go down. Nick practices ferry watching.
“It’s relaxing. I can see why you’re into it,” he says, “I might take it up,” and chuckles.
Next morning they’re up in time to wait for the guy to catch the ferry. They watch him walk down to the pier. He has the backpack on. He wears a tracksuit hood pulled over his hair and a puffer jacket. He buys a ticket. They wait back a bit in the queue and follow him. He goes up to the outside observation deck in the bow of the ferry. He holds the backpack between his feet.
“Let’s stay down here,” Miles says, “We don’t want him to notice us.”
It’s a cloudless day with only a slight breeze. Miles and Nick enjoy the ride. As the ferry docks in Queenscliffe, they wait for their guy to disembark. They watch him head off up to the town and follow at a discreet distance. He turns down a street running off the main road. Miles and Nick watch from the corner. The guy knocks on the door of a holiday house. The door opens, and he hands over the backpack. Miles and Nick can’t see if any money changes hands. An arm waves the guy inside, and the door is closed.
“What do we do now?” asks Nick.
“We wait. Feel like a coffee?” They head for a cafe that has a good view of the side street where they can sit outside. After two coffees the guy walks back up the side street and down the main road to the ferry without the backpack. Again, they follow, leaving a good amount of space. Nick starts to get nervous.
“What if it is drugs? What if he’s got a gun?
“You know I can handle that. Don’t worry. Anyway, it’s highly unlikely he’d be suspicious of us. We’d look like tourists to him. Especially if we don’t act weird,” Miles said, looking askance at Nick, “Like you’re looking now.”
“Sorry uncle,” Nick says, adjusting his demeanor to one of nonchalance.
At Sorrento, the guy gets off the ferry and walks towards the apartments behind a bar opposite the terminal. Suddenly he turns around. Miles seems to have anticipated this and pulls Nick around the corner of the building.
“You haven’t lost your touch,” Nick says, “they always said you were the best.”
“Well, let’s hope this is just a bit of fun,” Miles says. “Have you enjoyed it so far?”
Nick laughs, “It’s the best uncle Miles, I can’t wait to tell the others. But it’s not over yet. We still don’t know what’s in the backpack and why he doesn’t bring it back.”
“Now that you’re staying, we can try again on Wednesday.”
Nick says, “You’re on.”
They pass the time ferry watching and walking down to the back beach. In the evenings, they watch Netflix or play cards.
Nick says, “I’m glad I decided to stay. I didn’t realise how much I needed a break. But I can’t lie, I’m looking forward to catching up with Mr Backpack tomorrow.
The following day they take their place in the queue to buy their ticket for the ferry, making sure the guy doesn’t see them. Mr Backpack shows up on schedule and goes through the same routine in Queenscliffe and again back to Sorrento, where he heads for the same apartment. Miles and Nick are around the corner and watch him go through the gate to the apartment complex. Their plan is to wait for a while to see if he does anything else. Miles is about to say, “Let’s go,” when he feels something sharp and cold press into his back. A voice says “Stay still, both of you. I have something stronger in my pocket pointed at your young friend. Now, would you like to tell me why you’re following me?”
Miles doesn’t panic, he’s used to this. In a conversational tone, he says, “Straight out curiosity friend. I watch the ferry and I saw you take the backpack over but come back empty. We thought we’d see what you were up to.”
Suddenly, Miles twists and chops the knife from the man’s hand, pulling his arm up behind his back. At the same time, he pushes Nick out of the way and drops the man to the ground with a sweep of his leg. He pulls the man up and into the shadows of a laneway still holding him by the arm and gestures to Nick to pull back.
“Now, would you like to tell us what all this is about Mr Backpack,” Miles says, “Drugs? Weapons? It has to be something.”
The man begins to laugh. “What are the odds,” he says, “I can tell we’re both professionals, and here we are fighting over pastries.
“Excuse me?” Miles says incredulously, letting go of the guy’s arm. “Did you say pastries?”
It’s baklava!” He finally manages to say, “My day job is a chef at the bar. I make it for my auntie and take it over a couple of times a week. She owns the café you’ve been patronizing. I drop the pack off, and my cousin brings it back when he comes over for work. She swears no one makes baklava like me. Besides, I like the trip it’s relaxing.
Miles starts laughing too, Nick joins in until the three of them are staggering around the laneway howling with laughter. Miles and Mr Backpack have their arms around each other’s shoulders.
“I’m Giorgio – you’re in the trade?”
“I was,” says Miles, “I’m Miles – my nephew, Nick here is just along for the ride. Baklava!” Miles splutters.
“Best in the state,” Giorgio says, wiping his eyes. “Come on, let’s have a beer.”