Zygmunt Frankel

THE SHARK REEF


THE DOLPHIN BAR

The next morning I sat down to breakfast with that half- elated and half-uncomfortable feeling when you're facing someone you've been to bed with the night before but have to keep it a secret. (It must have a common situation in the prosperous homes of old Europe when a young boy's first experience often came from a furtive trip to a maid's room at night.) Helga sat there, beautiful, demure, and seemingly relaxed by Werner's side, spreading jam over her toast, with both of us trying to look at each other neither more nor less that we did before. Werner seemed to be his usual self, good- natured and friendly, so I assumed that he either suspected nothing or, better still, suspected and did not mind.

Helga and I did not know when we could be together alone again; with six guests and five crew on board, a twenty-metre boat offered little privacy most of the time. But we were going to anchor for drinks at "The Dolphin" tonight, and some brief opportunity might present itself. We were now chugging at reduced speed towards Na'ama Bay, just north of Sharm-el-Sheikh and Ras Muhammad at the southern tip of the Sinal Peninsula, and I was beginning to tell them about the little bar when Maria ran in shouting "Dolphins! Near the bows!" as if the mention of the bar named after the creatures had brought them to the boat - and we rushed out, some guests grabbing their cameras on the way.

There were about a dozen dolphins there alongside Sinbad, one of them a mother with a child, now overtaking the boat and now falling back, jumping all the time, singly, in pairs, and in threes, the water streaming off their dark backs, looking at us out of their little shining eyes and seemingly smiling with their permanently upcurled mouths. It was one of the loveliest sights that can happen to you on a cruise, and the dolphins accompanied us for almost a quarter of an hour, turning back only when we entered Na'ama Bay. Coming in, you see a peaceful, mirror-smooth semi-circle of pure greenish-blue water, about half a kilometre across, with a white sandy beach. On the right, on a rocky promontory, sits the Field School, a hostel for visiting nature study groups which also accepts unorganized tourists when space permits. Spread along the bay are three diving clubs, each with bungalows and a little cafe of its own. On the left rises the luxury air-conditioned and wall-to-wall carpeted Marina Hotel where the well-to-do tourists stay. There are a couple of additional restaurants and a souvenir kiosk, and finally, at the very tip of the promontory on the left, a small hut with plaited reed walls, The Dolphin Bar.

Ah, The Dolphin! If this coast ever goes back to the Egyptians and if for some reason we are unable to visit it again, we shall miss everything here, but some evening, in some other bar, the sharpest tug at the heartstrings will be reserved for you. It isn't much to look at: a hut with plain reed walls enclosing a small bar, a dozen rickety little tables, a small kitchen hiding at the back, and, outside, behind a rock, a small generator chugging out what little electricity The Dolphin needs to run its tape-player and frigidaire. In front, the bar has a little beach of its own with a few larger round tables, actually large old telephone cable reels laid on their sides, surrounded by wobbly stools, and, here and there, a deckchair in varying degrees of dilapidation.

You might go there alone in the evening to watch the moon rise, order a cup of coffee - The Dolphin is no more expensive than the cafes in the bay - stretch out in a deckchair on the sand, sip half of your coffee, and fall asleep because it's been a long hot day and you have been diving and the moon is not due for another hour or two. Nobody bothers you, and you wake up around midnight, with the moon already well up, finish your coffee, cold by now, and order a glass of beer. Then you join one of the groups around a table, even if you don't know anyone; if the conversation is interesting, you stay; if not, you try another table. If you are an old-timer you always meet someone you know: divers, instructors, boat operators, soldiers from a nearby army camp, or someone from the north who came down for a few days to get away from it all. Sometimes you might see the American ambassador, Samuel Lewis, a devoted skindiver, sitting there in his shorts and T-shirt like everyone else, rubbing shoulders with the suntanned youngsters who live in the caves of the cliff behind The Dolphin.

"But by the time we get there tonight," I said, "you will almost certainly have seen your first shark, because we're visiting them today at the Shark Reef, about a kilometre from here, which happens to be their favorite hangout. Now, let me go over a few things once again: there hasn't been a single shark attack on divers in these waters in the past and no reason why it should start now. We shall be carrying bangsticks simply because Max and I have spent money on them so we have to get them wet from time to time. I shall give you a detailed briefing about the Shark Reef before we dive, but it'll boil down mainly to keeping cool, no splashing on the surface, and keeping close to the face of the reef. The reef itself is made up of two small oval-shaped flat-topped coral islands ending just knee-deep below the surface, with vertical walls going down some eighty metres; you won't see the bottom, just a dark- blue abyss, rather scary at first without a parachute until you remember that you can adjust your vest to float at any depth and also hold on to the reef wall; there is a current running down there. The wall is reputed to be one of the most beautiful in the world, and then, a dozen metres away, you will see another wall, of fish; most of them the deep-sea fish you know from the albums, starting from the striped sergeant, through barracuda and swordfish, to - yes, at long last - an occasional shark. Most of them should be comparatively small white-tip sharks, comparatively small meaning only a little larger than you, and, probably lower down, an occasional hammerhead.

"Damnation," Pierre was telling a group of French divers he and Claude got together with at The Dolphin that night. (My knowledge of German, French, and English came very handy down here, and now I stopped to hear Pierre's version in his mother- tongue.) The French divers had only arrived that afternoon and had only had time for a brief swim with mask and snorkel so they were a virgin audience. By tomorrow night they would have also seen sharks and have their own tales to tell to new arrivals.

"Damnation," he repeated. "You're twenty, twenty-five metres down, with Captain Cobi here leading us along what everyone agrees is the most beautiful stretch of coral reef in the world, and a dozen metres away there is a veritable parade" (Pierre was waxing poetic after a couple of glasses of the champagne the French have ordered to celebrate their arrival) " of just about everything you have ever drooled over in those coffee-table albums back home in cold grey Patrie with the sleet coming down outside the window: sergeant-major fish, angelfish, coral fish, emperor fish, surgeon fish, trigger fish, parrot fish, wrasses, groupers, barracuda, even large swordfish, this close to the reef. And then, right among them, as if it was just another fish, something you have seen hundreds of times, in photographs, films, on TV, and in your nightmares - but now, unmistakable, right there with you, a shark, mon Dieu. So you press your back against the reef almost squeezing your tank flat, and the bloody thing passes you by - it's beautiful, by the way, more graceful and effortless than any other fish in the sea - and slows down just a bit and looks at you out of a little round cold eye, and you repeat to yourself like a magic incantation, no, there haven't been any shark attacks around here ever, Captain Cobi says so, no, they only eat fish, don't they, look what a lovely lot of tasty fish swimming all around, nice tasty fish, nice fish, only an idiot would go for something in nasty black rubber suit, yichs, nice tasty fish, and even if it does there are nine of us down here, with two such appetizing shapely young girls, why should it pick on me, nice tasty fish, nice fish..."

"And then it speeds up again and continues on its way without having eaten you and you notice that you haven't breathed for a long time so you let the air out and take a new lungful and begin to entertain a faint hope that maybe on this particular occasion this particular shark might not eat you after all. You even start moving along the reef again, keeping close to it, and a little later you see another shark and even point it out to your buddy without sticking your hand out too far in case he hasn't noticed it but he has because he's pointing it out to you too, and, poor fellow, looks remarkably green in the face. And then you see one more and say to yourself, quite blase, "Oh, there's another one," as if you have been swimming among sharks all your life, and when you finally get out of the water you say to your friends "Not very big ones, were they?" and they answer "no, mere sardines", and the only thing is this strange thirst for the rest of the day"; and Pierre poured himself another glass of champagne.

Helga, Maria, Max, and Werner were at another table with a group of German tourists. Werner had his arm around Helga, and I felt a little pang of jealousy as I passed them even though she smiled at me very sweetly. Even Olaf found a couple of Norwegian girls and was talking volubly in his mother tongue, probably giving them a cooler version of Pierre's saga. It must have been a refreshing change for Sinbad's guests to be able to mingle with their compatriots after a few days on the boat which, in some ways, is something of a desert island. As for myself, I was continually running into old friends and acquaintances. The Dolphin was full tonight and, except for the American ambassador, just about everyone - toute la Mer Rouge - was here: the black-bearded Howard and the clean-shaved Yossi of the Red Sea Divers; the tall thin Gert and the short Top of the Aquamarine; plump Petra and blond Rolf of the Lucky Divers; round-faced, bald and bearded Ram Sahar, the skipper of the Sunboat, Sinbad's only competitor in these waters; David Pilosof and Shlomo Cohen, the underwater photographers; Lior Dinur, the son of the writer Katzetnik, living alone in Sharm-el-Sheikh, supporting himself by fishing and, evil tongues would have it, spearfishing as well, towing his catch on a three-metre line just in case the sharks felt like sharing it with him; and, as I passed a dark corner inside the hut, another hand fell on my shoulder, and a familiar voice said:
"Ahoy there, captain; everything shipshape?"
It was Yankele, wearing his striped T-shirt again, with a beer mug in his hand.
"Everything's just fine," I said, shaking hands with him. "And how are you, Yankele?"
"Never better, thank you. How are your guests and how are they enjoying their cruise? Nothing, er..." he looked around and lowered his voice, "nothing of the sort we have talked about?"
"No, everything looks just fine". I was not going to tell him about four missing pages in Max's logbook or the hidden spearpoint, because Yankele was quite capable of taking him off the boat and holding him for questioning; inferiority complexes combined with power can be very annoying. "We'll be anchored around here for the next few days; drop in for a drink one night."
"I'll be glad to if I can make it. By the way, Cobi, I am staying in Sharm for the next few days, at the army base, so should you want to get in touch with me for any reason, you can reach me there or leave a message."

Plump Petra was experimenting with her hairdo with the help of a large comb and a mirror; I stopped by and recited the relevant stanza from the Lorelei and she rewarded me with a smile and a kiss on the cheek. An Italian diver took the Dolphin guitar down from the wall and sang Sorrento in a lovely tenor voice. The German table outside was leaning over Maria who was telling Werner's fortune from her pack of Tarot cards. There seemed to be no chance of separating Helga from the group for the time being so I joined them.

"Your background first," Maria said. "Aha! You are rich and successful, and you have talent for some branch of practical science, possibly engineering. You have reached your present station in life" (another card) " through sustained effort and hard work, possibly combined with some, er, business deals which might have been, er, perhaps a little risky. Now, the present scene," (another card, and she laughed out in delight) "of course, a sea voyage Now, the surroundings. Oh, oh; a young man somewhere near you, might be treacherous; perhaps you should beware of him."

"Could it be," said Werner lowering his voice and throwing a surreptitious glance at the French table where another bottle of champagne was being opened, "could it be Pierre with his jokes?" and we all laughed. I, however, gave Maria a sharp little look, and I noticed that so did Helga. Maria may have seen us going into my cabin last night, but the night before that she had already lured handsome Max into the inflatable in the stern, so there was no justification for any little jealous tricks on her part. On the other hand I knew her as someone not given to such tricks, so something of the sort might have really turned up in the cards after all.

She winced at the next card, which pictured the devil, complete with long curved horns and hairy legs. "No," she said to Werner, "it's neither you nor that young man; rather something to do with the general atmosphere of this area. You've had two or three wars down here in recent years, haven't you, Cobi? The cards often feel these things and maybe that's why something like this has turned up. Or" she added brightly, obviously trying to dispel any gloom, "we're going on a desert trip with the Bedouin soon, and they keep those goats with just such horns and legs, which chew up everything and butt you sometimes, so maybe it's a warning to beware of them."

She turned up two more cards.

"Aha, Werner; a girl near you, light hair and blue eyes, friendly, lively, and magnetic; must be you, Helga."

We all agreed.

"And now the last card, the final outcome," said Maria solemnly, and turned the card up.

Wearing black armour, its skull grinning through the open visor of its helmet, Death was riding on a white horse through a desolate landscape.

"It's... er... don't..." Maria said lamely in the fallen silence. "I mean, it's practically never what you must be thinking of; the card has lots of other meanings as well, like, in most cases, some sort of change, of transformation, often to the good, starting anew, something of the sort, could be quite positive, you understand. You yourself may have brought it on with all this talk about sharks; cards can be very sensitive to things like that. Anyway," she said to Werner, trying to sound cheerful as she swept up the cards and put them into her bag, "I'll try telling your fortune again some other time, properly and without interferences. By the way, have you heard the one about the travelling salesman and the gypsy fortune teller?"

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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