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Stephen Orr

Granny Knot

Woman with a rope


This ain’t gonna be no Moby Dick or anything, right? I’ve been fishing for mulloway for 38 years with my best friend, my only friend, Ted. All we do is fish, early mornings, dusk into night. No schooling, university, nothing, just an idea about how things function, why people do what they do. No books. My wife told me to put it down, people’d be interested, so I’ll tell you about that day, November last year. Me and Ted heading into port, and Ted says, ‘What’s with the sails?’ Staring hands on hips at a Brouns 1130, the mainsail flapping away, and we both watched for a minute then Ted said, ‘Can’t see anyone.’ Waiting, slowing, stopping, bobbing, and neither could I. No movement on the unlit yacht. So I shrugged and said, ‘Should we?’


We pull up beside the ‘Cloverly’ and Ted calls, ‘Anyone home?’ Nothing. Just the flapping sail, and some sort of feeling. I said to Ted, ‘What dyer reckon?’

‘Maybe we should keep our noses out of it?’

Me, calling: ‘Can we come aboard?’

We found torches and jumped up. The first thing I noticed was the pile of ropes, each with a knot: reef, clove hitch, box. Maybe a dozen, like someone had been practising.

Ted looked uncomfortable, but that’s Ted. ‘Could be drugs.’

I asked what drugs, and he said they run them up and down the coast.

I just called, ‘Is anyone home?’ It had been a home, because there was a pair of shoes, some sort of women’s loafers, and nearby two crafty magazines and, beside the wheel, an old plate with a half-smoked cigar. The life-raft missing, the lifejacket gone from its hook. And below, a neat cabin, a loaf of bread spilling its slices, one and a half sandwiches and a bottle of brandy. I said to Ted, ‘Like that, what was it … Mary Celeste?’ And he said if it’s drugs they could come back, then that’s me and you, done, Pete. I told him rubbish, cut the dramas, and we went up into the darkening night.


About then I saw the raft, two, three nautical miles away. I pointed and told Ted and he said, ‘Come on, then,’ and we left the yacht, got on the ‘Old Fart’ (my idea) and set off. By now it was mostly dark, a swell, a stiff breeze, and when we got close enough I saw her, this woman, sitting alone in the raft clutching the lifejacket, and I called, ‘You okay, missus?’ But she didn’t reply. Didn’t say a thing. Just stared into the raft, all blank and pallid and somehow there but not there. We got up close and Ted jumped down, sat beside her and tried to get her talking, but not a peep, nothing, just this look, these empty eyes. Ted helped her aboard – she resisted, but he insisted – then she said, ‘I thought it was an accident.’

‘What accident? The yacht?’ I said, indicating the Cloverly.

‘That’s what I thought, when I came up. I was making sandwiches.’

‘On the yacht?’

‘Grace, my daughter Grace was trying to tie … Ethan had been on at her to practise but she was never good with her hands.’

‘With knots?’

‘Ethan and Cooper were as thick as thieves … so that’s the only explanation, don’t you think?’

‘Think what?’

‘I didn’t reckon Ethan had it in him, but obviously I was wrong … I am wrong.’


Now it was dark, and there were three foot waves, choppy, so we sailed away from the raft and returned to the yacht. We tied up and reboarded, and as the woman got on she said, ‘It’d explain why Ethan insisted I invite Corrie along, he didn’t even like her … and why he told me to go make the sandwiches.’

Ted asked who’s Corrie, and the woman said, ‘She is, she was my best friend … Cooper’s wife.’

‘And who’s Cooper?’

‘Cooper’s … Cooper was Ethan’s best friend.’

I didn’t get all this who was who stuff and I asked her what had happened, and she repeated, ‘Grace was never good with knots. Ethan shoulda let it go but he couldn’t control his temper … he was always shouting at the poor girl.’

I asked, what do you mean, and she said she felt the tack first – a sharp, sudden tack – and it was strange because it wasn’t windy and they’d already set course for home. Then straight after, a big splash. And now she was talking like an outboard: ‘I ran up and Grace was standing astern calling to her – Corrie, Corrie! – and before me or Ethan could say a thing she was in, she was swimming for her, and Ethan said shit, tied the rope around his waist and jumped in, but he can’t swim, he tried to get Grace and he went out and out but it was a bad knot, a granny knot – Grace was hopeless – and it slipped and there’s Ethan and there’s Corrie and Grace and … I went for the life jacket, but see!’ She showed us the unpicked seams. ‘Who, who did that? It wasn’t an accident was it, mister? Corrie was going to make Cooper pay, she’d got a lawyer, but if you’re a good mate like Ethan, you’d do anything for a friend, anything, even … maybe they’d talked about it, or maybe it just occurred to Ethan, that moment?’


Obvious, I guess, that she got the raft too late, put it in the drink and tried to get to them, but by then they must have been miles away, the wet, snakey rope detached from the yacht – left over right, left over right – but Grace’d been told by her father, a thousand times – left over right, right over left. Ethan shouting at her, and the poor girl didn’t have the heart to tell him she couldn’t tie knots.

About the writer:
Stephen Orr is an Australian author of novels, short stories and various types of non-fiction. His most recent novel Sincerely, Ethel Malley is a riff on the 1944 Ern Malley literary hoax. He lives in Adelaide.

Image: Woman wearing bonnet, holding rope and standing on pier; fishing boat in background by Fitz W. Guerin (1846-1903). Photographic print. 1902. Public domain via LOC.

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