The sea lay cool and flat like mercury. It lapped against the beach without breaking into white water, and there was no trace of the violent swell which had taken hold the previous night. The only betrayals were the huge clumps of seaweed sluggishly resting on the shore so that barely a scrap of sand was visible. Thick enough to hide a body, thought Elaine. She had always been wary of the sea. You shouldn’t take chances with it. It was comforting to be close to but that was all. Walking out at night in a storm she could sit for hours watching the wind pushing against the incoming tide, making the white horses strain towards the stars. The sea would pull and tear at the machair and rattle the shingle till it screamed like bones, but it would always have to go back. That was why it took what it could, but not all the time – it was more cunning than that. Sometimes, when it was hungry and angry at the land, it would suck down what came to it until all the life was gone. Then it might throw back a shell. Sometimes! Elaine studied the white lines on the road. She let them pull her away from herself until she couldn’t feel anything anymore.
She awoke when the car engine stopped. Home again, she thought. Bloody brilliant. It was late-on in the afternoon and what looked like half the village had parked themselves in the living room of Avalon. There was an almost excited murmur of gossip rising like a tide and flowing out of the door. Elaine edged in with her cousin Jim close behind her. Her mother was flitting in and out with various plates of baking. When the collective conscious noted Elaine’s presence, an expectant hush fell over the gathering of women.
“Any news my dear?” enquired Betty. The steady consumption of tea ceased so that gossip could be more readily absorbed.
“Roddy and Kendo are still in hospital. They’re going to be OK though. There’s still no sign of Dad.” Elaine perched on the edge of a stool in the midst of a chorus of “Och well a’ghraidh.” The women returned to their recollections of village drownings through the years.
Roddy opened his eyes slowly and focused on his brother’s ever-happy face. He gave out a low and anguished moan.
“How’re you feeling man?” asked Kendo.
Roddy looked down at his hospitalized form. He was shrouded in a shiny silver blanket that bore more than a passing resemblance to baking foil. “What happened?” he groaned and tried to rub his eyes. His body didn’t seem to be responding too quickly. He tried to persuade his brain to come back online.
“I remember going out on the boat...” he said shakily. “There was a bit of fog … some … rocks?” he squinted painfully. “Jesus my head hurts.”
“You gave it a bit of a knock all right,” commented Kendo, happily tucking into a bag of crisps. “You dinged it against a buoy.”
“Well that’s just fucking splendid,” replied Roddy, his brain sufficiently awake to allow for sarcasm. “Exactly what was I doing in the water?”
“D’you no remember?”
“Would I be asking if I did? Come on Kendo!”. He finally managed to locate his hand and gingerly rubbed his head.
“Well,” said Kendo through a mouthful of ready-salted. “The boat went down. I think it was Kelpies.” He paused to take another mouthful.
“What! There’s no such thing!” replied Roddy incredulously.
“Well, they were big and black and they smashed the boat to pieces.”
“Harbour seals Kendo. They get pretty damn big, and vicious. Kind of like Smiler really. So she went down then,” he said softly.
Kendo watched in amazement as his brother wiped away a tear. “I was dead fond of that boat. I thought Charlie would sell her to us when he retired you know. She was a lovely boat.”
“Well I don’t think there’s a whole lot left of her,” reflected Kendo. “Nothing but splinters.”
Roddy pulled himself together. “Then what happened Kendo?”
“Well you know how we were in the water. There was something in there. It came up in front of us. I thought we’d had it for sure, but then it pissed off sharpish. It was something to do with this.” Kendo fingered the wooden amulet around his neck.
Roddy shook his head in exasperation. “You’re havering Kendo.”
“No I’m not. It was a hell of a sore – hot like – but it did the business. Then you clanged your nut on yon channel buoy. And you weren’t moving too much. You were a bit blue too. It was bloody cold, right enough. Anyway, I managed to get us up on the buoy. Good thing you’d put that rope round us cause it was heaving about all over the place as if something was pulling its mooring chains. That mist was strange and all. Still, it cleared all of a sudden. Then the ferry gave us a help.” Kendo tipped up his bag of crisps and poured the crumbs down his throat.
“How did the ferry help? A wee bit more information would be grand at this point Kendo.”
“Oh, they came in on the morning run, just after the fog cleared. They got a lifeboat out to us fucking pronto. Lots of people watching too. You know that big guy with the camera, works for the Malin Times? Ah, what’s his name? Wee Dolly, that’s it. Well he was there taking pictures and everything. Reckon we might make the front page. There were a few nice birds there too. I gave them a wee wave – might be in there later.”
Roddy put his head in his hands. “No! The ferry! It’ll be all over town by tonight. They’ll be pissing themselves laughing at me. Oh Shite … and Smiler. The money! I’ve lost the money. He’s going to kill us when he finds out. He’s coming on Friday. Oh fuck – what about Charlie?”
“No sign man. They’ve been looking with the helicopter but you know how it is. You can’t take more than a few minutes in there. Reckon he’ll be away under by now.”
Suddenly a plump and determined young woman flew in the door at a speed which defied her bulk. “Roddy! Oh Roddy I only went out for a quick puff. I’ve been so worried. I just knew something like this was going to happen. How are you feeling?”
“Yeah, yeah Anne. I’m bloody marvellous.” His girlfriend settled herself on a stackable plastic chair and took his hand. Roddy ached for a joint. Unfortunately due to the recent awful circumstances this was not going to happen. A large proportion of the young of Port Malin consumed dope on a steady and regular basis. Smiler was the only supplier and the town was running dangerously low. A number of people would have been anxiously awaiting the delivery van so they could lay in a stock for the winter. Without the calming and mellow influence of a nice joint the Celtic temperament could get a little heated to say the least.
Sleep, thought Roddy. A nap, a shower and food and I’ll think of something. He rubbed his head. “Possibly suicide, as long as it’s on land,” he muttered before rolling over in his foil blanket and drifting back off to sleep.
Kendo watched his brother for a minute. He turned to Anne. “Do harbour seals have red eyes?” he asked.
The shingle rolled and shifted down the beach. The elderly woman wrapped her shawl tightly around her and continued gathering seaweed. When her basket was full she made her way up the beach and onto the machair. She paused at the vegetable patch and dumped the kelp onto the growing pile on the soil. Charlie watched through the open door. He was weighed down by a pile of very pungent sheep fleeces. From the weight he would have sworn that the sheep were still residing in them. The previous day was unfortunately not a hazy memory. It was as clear as a bell and his waterlogged brain was insisting on replaying the entire incident at regular intervals. After the boat had … well, sank wasn’t quite the right word for it. Been trampled was possibly a bit more accurate. And then he’d found that patch of light. The fog had faded and he had been pulled along remarkably quickly, rather like that awful waterslide place he’d had to take the kids to on the mainland some years back. Only without the safety measures and warm water. Without the screaming, anarchic children as well, which had been a bit of a bonus. He had fetched up on the shingle in front of old Myra’s airigh probably just a few minutes after he went in. Even so, he had been so cold he hadn’t been able to speak for some time. The old lady had helped him though. Well she would, he thought. She’s no friend to the Kelpies. She’d keep her silence too. They’d be checking the coast for him with the coastguard chopper right now. Not that they’d be expecting to find him alive mind you. Some of the older fishermen would know to come and check Myra’s airigh. He’d even done that a couple of times himself. She always knew what the currents were up to. Onto shore or straight up to the Devil’s Tail and out into the ocean. If something was going to come ashore Myra could always tell you where it would be. But this time she’d keep her news to herself. Charlie knew her well enough for that.
Once a year he always took the wee boat round to see her. He would bring her some good smoked meat, some flour and other necessaries. Back in his father’s day it had been live animals. He remembered sitting in the prow of his father’s boat, desperately trying to hold onto a couple of pecking chickens. Da would tell him all sorts of stuff back then, and he would listen. He always listened to Da. Not like the way kids were today. He remembered the tale of the cow. Da would have been a young man, out with his own father and friends when they decided to take the cow round to Effie and young Myra. He reckoned it was by the grace of God alone that they didn’t all go straight into Mara Dubh, cow and all. That was only part of the story though.
Angus Morrison knew all about Myra Mackinnon and her family. He’d heard about it from his Da, but he remembered some facts himself too. Myra was the youngest by quite a long way in that family. The seventh child of the Mackinnons. Six strong lads and then Myra – and she was no weakling either. They lived just out of the Port and ran a successful fishing boat: the Silver Chord. They had built the airigh then too, when things had been doing so well for them. It was more like a proper blackhouse than the sheilings you usually saw, with a good bit of green land round it too, a walled vegetable patch and everything. They’d been thorough people, the Mackinnons. They liked everything to be properly set up. It was a bit of a steep climb by land though. Tricky with animals and goods. So old man Mackinnon used to drop Effie and young Myra off in the boat on the way out. Built a wee quay for the purpose. They’d all stay there through the Summer, then back to the Port for the winter, animals and all.
Then one particular summer it had all gone wrong for them. The eldest son was swept straight off the side, on not too rough a day either. It was one of those waves that comes clean out of nowhere. Of course, he couldn’t swim. Not many could in those days, there being no time and place to learn. The four oldest boys had been out that day. Two of them jumped in after their brother. Poor Calum had been the only one left on board. By the time he brought the boat back in to the Port he couldn’t talk. His voice was all gone from shouting out his brothers’ names, although it didn’t do any good. When they came back they were in no fit state to answer to anyone apart from their Maker. One after the other they came, on the Sunday morning tide, and washed up right in front of the airigh. Effie was never the same after that. She insisted on staying out there with young Myra, to be near her sons. She had them buried there on the machair. Poor Calum never really started talking again. Then one fine summer night he took himself off up the hill behind the airigh. Then – well, maybe he slipped or maybe he didn’t. Either way he ended up on the rocks beneath the cliff and that was the end of him. His family found him later that day and he joined his brothers under the machair, which is probably what he wanted.
After that, old man Mackinnon took to drink, and got very nasty with it too, which is not the best policy when you are out on a boat with two young lads. Well, the situation didn’t last long – the Kelpies saw to that. The whole boat went down in a ferocious gale. Effie went straight down to the beach next morning and walked up and down the stretch of coast till later that day she found her husband and one of her sons. Angus Morrison took his boat round to find out how she was. He helped her drag the bodies out of the water’s reach.
Then something happened in the middle of all that grief that gave Angus some hope that maybe the Lord did watch those shores after all. As they walked back toward the sheiling, with Angus already thinking about who he would get to come out and help with the funerals, and who would risk the ill luck of taking the minister over, they heard a shout. Young Myra was standing down the beach trying to pull the body of her last brother onto the machair. Angus ran towards them thinking of nothing but to get the young girl away from the sight of death. But when he reached Myra and pulled her away he realised that there was still breath in the boy. Back to the airigh they got him, and ill as he was, before grass had grown over the new graves he was back on his feet. He didn’t stay long though. As soon as he was well enough he put on the fisher gansey his mother had made for him, picked up his belongings and left Mara Dubh for the last time.
Before he went he told his mother, “This land has enough of the Mackinnons under its skin. It doesn’t need me, I’m going to find another place to make my own.” He never did come back, but Angus Morrison always remembered him. He knew enough of the sea and its ways to realise it could only be a miracle that brought that boy back to shore with life still in his body. Every now and then he would tell his son the story, and that’s how Charlie knew it so well. That was also why he still went round once a year and took Myra some food, as did others. She watched the sea and the currents for them, and sometimes when someone didn’t come back, she would be able to help the family return them to the land. He always remembered how he inwardly thought his father superstitious when he used to reach the end of his story. But now he wasn’t so sure.
“Your Granda always used to say to me – if you have a boy don’t call him Angus like we’ve always done. Call him Charles. Out of all of them, he’s the lucky one – the one that got away – and I think there’s maybe some luck in the name yet.”
Charlie smiled to himself. Maybe there was at that. His business was failing; his wife and daughter were as mad as march hares, and he was fed up to the back teeth with it all. But the Lord – or well, some other being – had decided to give him not only his life but a rather convenient sum of money. He patted the bag by his side. Best not think too hard about where it came from. Once he was well enough to walk he was going to walk over the mountain to Port Malin. It was a difficult walk over rough terrain but at the moment he welcomed the challenge. Nobody would recognise him when he’d grown some hair on his face. They wouldn’t expect to see him walking about God’s earth now, and the way he smelled at the moment nobody would want to get close to him either. They’d just think he was some alky. He’d clean up when he got himself down to the city. Clean up and move on. The family would be well provided for by the boat and life insurance, which was a tidy sum. He’d see Elaine though. He would let her know he was alive and ask her to keep an eye on her sister and mother. They’d be able to keep in touch. The other two would probably be happier with him gone, or was he just kidding himself? I mean I’ll be happier out of this, he thought, and for the first time in a year his headache was completely gone.