This is a tale told in broken spars and bladderwrack thrown high up on a stormy beach . . .
After Urra left, Mattie swam on, thinking. There were other seals in the bay. Could he talk to them? What else didn’t he know? He swam away from the cliffs and out towards the wide North Sea.
spaceIt suited his mood when the sky clouded over. He shook off a few heavy raindrops that made circles on the dark and oily sea. The light dimmed. Then a sudden burst of hailstones made him gasp.
spaceHe hung still in the water. The sea around him rose and then fell in a slow, deep trough. He waited for the top of the wave and scanned the shore. A thin line of land glared yellow against a purple sky. He couldn’t make out any landmarks.
spaceThe water drew him down, and the coast disappeared. Rolls of heavy cloud padded the sky. Their sodden weight pulled them down over the horizon and blocked out the light. He struck out for where he hoped the coast was.
spaceHe could see nothing. The sky frayed into veils of grey and icy rain. They twisted and billowed like old net curtains. Raindrops fell and bounced off the sea, pummelling the surface and his skin. He dived away from their blows.
spaceUnder the surface, it was inky black. He was thrust forwards, dragged across, shoved by currents. He fought back, but the sea pushed and pulled without even noticing.
spaceA deep boom surged through the water. It reverberated down his flanks and rippled past him through the heavy seas. Another shook his skin. He surfaced.
spaceLightning split the sky and left its lava-bright pattern on his eyes. He blinked, half-blinded, and waited for the rumble of thunder. Somewhere to the north, it muttered gigantically.
spaceThe boom in the water came again. He felt hissing and rushing too. The water prickled with bubbles. He span round. He knew where he was.
spaceEven in the murk, the rocks stood out like the skin of a monster. Broken waves spat and slavered through the crusted skin. They shattered on the stone barbs and tumbled back over the remains of shipwrecks. He pushed against the heaving current.
spaceEvery muscle ached. He swam beyond tiredness, his blubber keeping him afloat. Salt stuck to his raw and painful nostrils and the cold stung his eyes. The lightning flashed. A spire glistened for a second and he propelled himself towards the shore.
spaceThe water grew shallower and warmer. It must be a bay. Wreckage tilted and bumped on the short, angry little waves. Floats and spars jostled him. He pushed them aside. Something white shone in the gloom and he thought he heard calling, but then thunder and the noise of waves breaking filled his ears.
spaceLights flashed straight in front. Bright dancing commas swept across the beach ahead. He thrust forward and reached the swash of the falling surf. It pounded him with shingle, but he could see torches and the shapes of people.
spaceShouts came across the breakers. Different voices.
spaceGrandma’s call was high-pitched and anxious. He swam right up to the shallows. Stones grated against his belly.
space‘Are you sure he went off here, Tommy?’
space‘Aye, Auntie Anne. He allus swims off Hob Hole.’
spaceMattie called, but all that came out was a strangled yelp.
space‘Did you hear that?’
spaceGranddad answered steadily.
space‘Nobbut a seal.’
spaceMattie didn’t stay for the rest of the conversation. He lumbered up the beach and into the cave. Lights glanced off the entry. They were too close. A girl spoke urgently.
space‘Look – there, Mr Henshaw.’
space‘I thought I saw summat,’ Tommy said.Their footsteps retreated.
spaceIt went quiet outside. The rain settled to a steady hiss, and the thunder dwindled to a murmur off beyond Strenshall. Sea-broken timber clanked against the boulders. Mattie trembled as he changed. His claws shook, and it was hard to peel his skin off. Cold flooded his guts and his spine shuddered.
spaceOutside, Grandma gave her orders.
space‘Lorna – take Tommy back. No point you two catching your death of cold. Off you go now.’
spaceHis fingers fumbled with buttons and zips and stupid human clothing. He hoped they couldn’t hear his harsh breathing. Cold sand immediately beneath the cliff slipped away beneath his toes. He held his boots out of the rising tide and gritted his teeth. Passing torch beams showed a large bare shelf of rock ahead. It was jagged with mussels and foot-ripping barnacles. He stopped to put his boots on. Light glinted off the wet rubber.
spaceThe torches converged on him.His teeth chattered, but he forced himself to speak.
space‘It’s alright – I’m here.’
spaceHe waved like he’d just got back from a picnic. His grandparents did not wave back. Grandma spoke to Granddad.
space‘I’ll deal with this – I’ll have words with you later.’
spaceShe crunched over the rock and the shells. He braced himself for the scolding.
spaceHer arms wrapped tightly around Mattie. She held him still against her shoulder, saying nothing. He felt her warm breath spread down from his neck. Her love seeped in and bit by bit his body stopped shaking. When he was quite still, she held him at arm’s length and checked him up and down.She spoke quietly.
space‘What were you thinking?’
spaceHe hung his head.
spaceShe let go of his hands.
space‘Hand it over.’
spaceHe swallowed and shook his head. Her voice turned stern and sharp.
space‘Hand it over or do I have to get it myself? Have you any idea of the heartache you’ve caused?’
space‘I didn’t mean-’
space‘Never mind what you meant – go get it now and hand it over.’
spaceShe turned to Granddad, then shone her torch on the cave entrance.
space‘It’s in there, in’t it?’
spaceHe said nothing.
space‘Hold on to him while I go get it.’
spaceMattie went to stop her. His legs wouldn’t move quick enough. Granddad took his arm firmly and held it behind his back.
space‘You’re not going anywhere barring bed.’
spaceHe tried to wriggle away, but it was like fighting an oak tree. The rain eased off, and the night cleared. A few stars came out.
spaceGrandma came back with the skin tightly rolled inside out. She tucked it under her raincoat and jerked her head up towards the Nab House. Every window shone with light.
space‘Home and a hot bath,’ she said, ‘Let’s hope we don’t meet anybody we shouldn’t.’