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mara dubh

 

The Elaine slipped quietly out of the harbour as the last tendrils of sea fog were scattered by the wind. Charlie steered the boat out towards the mouth of the bay, the cool wind soothing the headache which seemed to have become a permanent fixture in his life. He motioned to Roddy to take the wheel, stepped out of the cabin and went over to the deckrail. The windows along the winding front street of the Port caught the light and winked back at him. He personally thought the town looked at its best at this time of year. It was too chill yet for the hoards of tourists who swarmed North for a glimpse of picturesque fishing life. The plague of ungainly and preposterous hanging baskets that took over the town’s every railing, shop front and corner also had yet to begin. As far as Charlie could see they were only there for the tourists to stub their cigarettes in as they studied their maps. Litter bins would have been a bit more realistic, he thought. Still, perhaps they wouldn’t bother this year; not after the accident late last July.

One of the town characters had become an increasing nuisance, especially in the tourist season. This was due to his habit of standing in shop doorways, opening his long black jacket and displaying a black pudding which was securely knotted about his waist with a piece of fishing line. People felt more puzzled than horrified at this action. The younger townsfolk wondered why he went to the expense of buying the sausage and line instead of just using the more traditional material. The older generation pretended he didn’t exist. The people most annoyed by his hobby were in fact the local butchers, who claimed that black pudding sales had dropped due to his unappealing way of advertising the product. Johnnie Sausage, as he became known, was elderly but still spry, and he could cover quite a lot of ground during the average day.

The problem was swiftly solved on one fateful occasion. Johnnie had eluded the minders assigned to him during the summer months, and was happily engaged in his hobby at the door of Fraser the newsagent, when the large basket over the entrance plummeted earthwards and killed him instantly. The council had tried to keep it quiet but the story found its way into the national newspapers. Some people even suspected murder. The sour-faced tank of a shop assistant, who felt it was her duty to insult each and every customer she served, had been spotted leaning out of the window directly above the culprit flowerbasket. Some said she could have been in the employ of one of the butchers, though others disagreed since her only redeeming feature was a complete lack of discrimination and bias – she hated everyone regardless of class or creed and had no reason to single out Johnnie for special attention. Charlie, who had himself been metaphorically beaten over the head with her insults on a regular basis, felt that Johnnie Sausage was probably the victim of divine intervention..

The boat chugged purposefully out of harbour. The green lowlands around the town gave way to hills of springy heather that terminated in rocky cliffs. As the Elaine drew further off from shore the sea began to swell, softly rocking and sucking at the prow as she cut towards the Sound. Part of Roddy’s brain was engaged in the process of navigating the boat safely into the open sea, while the other part was desperately trying to think of a remedy to the current situation. They were heading straight for the rendezvous where they were due to swap fifty grand for a goodly quantity of high-quality Moroccan dope. Charlie could not be expected to turn a blind eye to the transaction, which was rather bulky in nature. Unfortunately the Spanish crew were not the most subtle of customers either. They knew the Elaine and if there was no other vessel in sight then they were likely to be waving joints around and playing guitars. This was not going to pass unnoticed by Charlie. Roddy sighed and pushed the problem out of his mind for the time being.

Port Malin bay was a wide and calm stretch of water, well protected from most of the worst weather by a ring of steep hills which circled the town. It was one of the safest harbours to leave a boat during the winter, and as it was fairly deep there was little chance of running aground. The entrance to the bay was a different story: it was a narrow channel that would not admit any boat bigger than the mainland ferry and coal and gas supply boats. The cruise ships that stopped by during the summer all had to anchor outside and ferry their passengers into the town in launches. Though the channel was carefully marked with buoys and a small unmanned lighthouse, it was an unwise sailor who didn’t give his full attention when coming in and out of harbour. In front of the lighthouse, just out of view of the harbour, sat the circle of deadly rocks known as the Kelpies. Black, sharp and unforgiving, they had claimed many a vessel down the centuries. They stood in a treacherous current which swirled darkly around them before whipping out around the point, up past Eilean Beag and out to the Devils’ Tail – the last piece of land this side of the ocean. The current was known as Mara Dubh because even on a bright summer day when the bay was turquoise in the heat, the water round the Kelpies was never anything other than black.

Roddy had been steering boats in and out of Port Malin ever since he was a child, the most memorable occasion being a New Year party on the ferry. He had been thirteen at the time and had sneaked on by climbing one of the mooring ropes. They had gone right out of the bay before anyone had noticed. It had definitely been worth the sore arse, the large amounts of community service and the black looks from the ferry crew whenever he went to the mainland. But every time he took a boat out he was always careful and never gave it any less than his full attention, even with a wee fishing vessel like the Elaine. He was fond of the boat and knew her well, but like all fishing trawlers you had to be canny. There was a lot of boat underwater – far more than there was above. You only realised how big they were when you saw them pulled up on the slipway, so every time he went out of the Port he always kept a good eye toward the Kelpies. He made sure they were a fair bit away from him. The buoys were very accurate right enough, but you could never be too wary. They could drift in bad weather after all. He knew by eye exactly where he should be in relation to the shore to starboard and the Kelpies to port, and he always took things nice and steady, just in case. So today, like any other, as he approached the mouth of the bay he put his problems out of his mind and focused on the water, scanning the shore to get his bearings. But today was suddenly not like any other, and things were not as they were meant to be, for the entire coastline had disappeared.

Roddy slowed the Elaine right down and switched on the wipers. It made no difference to his view. In front of the lighthouse, where the Kelpies usually reared out of the sea no matter how high the tide, there was nothing but water. Roddy swallowed nervously. He knew life could be filled with unexpected events: you couldn’t have a brother like Kendo and not be well accustomed to all sorts of unpleasant wee surprises. However, they generally involved people and movable objects – the landscape was meant to bloody-well stay in one place and behave itself. His hands tightened on the wheel as he noticed that the black and choppy channel of the Mara Dubh was swinging out from the coast and starting to move through the sea towards the boat. The radio in front of him hissed and sizzled and went dead. He tried unsuccessfully to wake it up. Kendo burst into the cabin looking slightly worried.

“I think there’s something a bit odd going on bro,” he said, coming to stand beside Roddy. “It’s gone all misty fore and aft of us and I can see shapes in it. Do you think I’m having flashbacks?”

Roddy tore his gaze away from the angry looking path of water that was coming steadily forwards. “Where’s Charlie?” he asked tersely.

“He’s asleep down below. Looks like he had a rough weekend.” He paused for a moment and stared open-mouthed out of the window. “Where have the Kelpies gone Roddy?”

“Just hang on to something Kendo – alright?” The current had wavered for a moment in front of them before splitting in two and advancing towards them on either beam. Roddy yanked hard on the wheel and pushed the boat up to top speed, which as she was a fishing trawler, was not particularly racy. The boat groaned and creaked as she came round in a half circle to face back into harbour. Roddy let loose a string of violent Gaelic curses when he realised there was no harbour. Instead he was confronted by a bank of sea fog so thick he could barely see the bow of the boat.

“See, I told you didn’t I?” Kendo shouted. “You can see faces in it.”

“That’s bloody marvellous Kendo.” Roddy shut his eyes. “Now shut up. And don’t look behind us because I really don’t want to know what’s there.” He slowed the boat and began to steer his way through the fog with his eyes still tight-shut and a frown on his face. In front of them the fog twisted into strange shapes, now and then becoming something recognizably human. As the white blanket enveloped them Kendo gripped hold of the door frame and pulled the door tight.

Charlie had woken when the boat swung violently. He pulled himself from his bunk and headed for the door. As he opened it thick tendrils of fog poured towards him. Momentarily confused he took a step back and slipped, landing heavily on the lower deck. The mist surrounded him with an almost physical force. He lay back and tried to catch both his breath and his bearings. Mist filled the room making it impossible to see and the door to the sleeping quarters slammed shut, grazing the side of his leg. He heard fabric ripping. Putting his hand to his leg he realised that there was blood pouring from it, although he felt no pain. He pulled himself along the deck until he came to the emergency cupboard. Groping for the first aid box he came upon a waterproof bag filled with something bulky. The life jackets! he thought with relief. Best to take them just in case. Positioning the bag beside him, he continued searching through the cupboard until he found a roll of bandages. Blindly he wrapped it round his leg until the bleeding finally stopped. Sitting back he clutched the life bag to his chest and tried to see his way through the fog.

“The back of my hand, the back of my hand.” Roddy muttered to himself with eyes still shut. He had slowed the Elaine right down and was hopefully heading for the ferry pier, which should be empty and fairly easy to find as it jutted out quite far into the bay. He opened his eyes to see they were still enclosed in fog. He felt a tremor run through the ship. There was a dull thump and the boat dipped at the back. Roddy swung the wheel back and forth. “Oh shite!” he whispered.

“What’s happened?” asked Kendo in a panicky voice.

Roddy let go of the wheel and stood back with an expression of disbelief on his face. “The rudder … it’s not there anymore. There’s no way I can steer.”

Kendo and Roddy looked at each other. “I can’t swim,” said Kendo quietly.

“I know that for Christ’s sake. You can’t do much else either but you’re still here aren’t you?” retorted Roddy. He reached under the wheel for a length of rope that was kept hanging on a nail. He knotted one end about his waist and the other round Kendo’s. “Right. Open the door – we’ve got to get Charlie.” He wrenched open the door and went out on deck.

“Charlie! Charlie where are you?” he shouted. “Come on man!” There was no sign of him, but in the fog there was no sign of anything. The sea had gone completely still. It was like being in a padded cell, Roddy reflected. A shaft of light suddenly pierced through the mist and lit up the water aft of the Elaine. He looked up and froze for a moment. “This isn’t fucking happening. I’m dreaming. I’ve had some really bad grass. This isn’t real.” He felt Kendo beside him and decided to go along with the dream just in case.

Dark shapes rose in a semi-circle around the Elaine. Spindrift streamed off them as they towered out of the water and into the air. Roddy pulled off his boots and threw himself over the side of the boat pulling his brother behind him. Grabbing Kendo around the neck he back-stroked frantically away from the Elaine, through the freezing water. His concern for direction had mutated into a desire for anywhere but here. Even his capacity for plentiful bad language deserted him as he watched the dark water-shapes leap high into the air and come crashing down on the Elaine, filling the air with splintered wood. The shapes plunged back into the water causing the sea to swell and heave. Then there was no sign of the boat. Roddy was shivering uncontrollably as he tried to keep himself and Kendo afloat. Suddenly the water rose again before his gaping mouth and widened eyes. A black shape separated itself from the sea. Red eyes looked towards them and Roddy could feel a power bearing down towards them. The brothers both screamed as the amulets round their necks burned red hot, flooding their bodies with warmth and pain. The creature gave out a high-pitched whining sound and slowly sank beneath the waves. The heat continued to course round Roddy as he struggled to bring his breathing under control. Suddenly there was a sharp clunk and everything went mercifully dark.

Charlie heard Roddy’s voice and crawled to the door, the bag clutched in his arms. He banged his head on the edge of a chair and swore. Rubbing his forehead and swaying on his knees he became aware of a slight lightening of the mist. Just as he was thinking of standing up something came crashing through the cabin. He glimpsed red eyes and sharp white teeth as it continued its plunge through the hold of the boat. He wrapped his arms around the watertight bag and held his breath as the Elaine disintegrated around him. Fighting his way through the raging swirling water he tried to find the surface. He struggled and kicked but the water was so churned that it was impossible to tell which way was up. Colour started to drain out of his vision as his body weakened. He felt oddly detached as his eyes began to close and the chill water began to ease its way into his head. Then, as his eyes closed he heard a voice from far away calling his name. Forcing his eyes open he saw a beam of light come shining through the water. He willed himself towards it and broke the surface, tears streaming down his face. The water continued moiling around him as he struggled to keep breathing. As he felt the current drag him out he grabbed hold of a piece of wood and hauled himself up. Kicking off his waterlogged boots he stuck his feet in the water and did his best to steer himself towards the single beam of light that was all that was all he could see amidst the fog.

sweet perfection
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