This is a tale told among cold wet rocks by harsh spurts of brine and foam . . .
space‘The answer’s still no.’
spaceGrandma took the pear-shaped brass pan off the weighing scales. She folded the flour into the cake mixture with a large metal spoon. She twisted it back and forth in a brisk figure of eight.
space‘But I just want to-’
space‘No. You’ll thank me for it one day.’
spaceShe took hold of a greased and lined cake tin. The cake mixture flopped over the edge of the mixing bowl and into the tin in soft folds. He didn’t ask to scrape out the bowl. In silence, he went to the porch for his coat. His back rubbed against the doorframe as he put his boots on. The door opened stiffly with the damp of autumn and he stood on the threshold, holding it ajar. She looked up as he meant her to.
space‘You know she’s out there. You just don’t want me to find her.’
spaceHe let the door go. The wind caught it and it slammed. He turned his face to the blowing rain and walked and walked. He didn’t stop till he could see the seal colony. The seals on the scaur huddled together, sheltering the youngest pups from the cold and wet. He listened to snatches of their songs for a while, wiped his damp face with his coat sleeve and went off to find Tommy.
spaceThey walked along the top of the Nab, collars up and hats pulled down. Grey spots of water hung on the grass, cupped in spider webs. Droplets shivered and fell. Summer-bleached stalks bent and fluttered and broken sea thrift hung in swinging globes. The pebbles on the path gleamed oily with moisture. It was a miserable afternoon.
spaceTommy sucked his teeth and tugged at Mattie’s sleeve.‘Can you see the time from here?’
spaceHe stopped and glanced down to the harbour.
space‘Blow – I forgot. I’ll have to go – I’ve a big job on.’
spaceTommy ran off with his coat flapping. Mattie leant over a wall for something to do. Down below, the sea jittered on the shore. It tossed up flotsam and snatched it back again. It fiddled with a brown trail on the strand: seaweed, nets, broken creels and damaged fish-boxes moved forward and back, forward and back. A long section of ship’s hawser rolled like a dead grey snake.
spaceHe pushed up from the damp topping stones. He had to move, had to get away from the Nab.
spaceToo many folk were picking over the strandline in Hob Wyke – he wasn’t in the mood for a chat. He walked on over the cliffs to Bulmer Ness and stopped when Slatter Landing came into view. He took a few steps off the path and peered through stunted trees on the cliff edge.
spaceThe tiny bay sat still. A new roadway lay empty. At one end, an abandoned cottage sagged into a pillow of bracken. In front, the beach curved round in layers of boulders, rocks and sand. Where the stones gave way to sand, little cheeping birds ran in between agitated waves, picking up minute bits of food from the strandline.
spaceThe sound of falling water rose from somewhere hidden. He pushed through bushes to the cliff edge. Below him a stream, brown as coffee, carved channels through the sand and smaller stones to the sea. A faint mewl came up from the beach. A creamy white blob lay between the steel and ash-coloured boulders, and it was crying.
spaceHe clambered down a thin path that burrowed under the slanting thorn trees. He ducked under seaweed caught in the low branches and came out by a little foss. The waterfall sent out a drenching mist. He blinked and turned to get a better view of the landing.
spaceA coble sat on the shingle. It was a local boat, painted bright as a puffin’s beak. It faced the bay stern-on, surrounded by debris and glistening shredded seaweed like so much brown tape. A piece of driftwood flew up and landed in the boat with a clunk, then a few more. With a yawn, an old fisherman straightened up on the other side. He peered at Mattie.
space‘You’re the Henshaw lad come back.’
spaceIt wasn’t a question, more of a statement to himself. Mattie just nodded.
space‘I remember you as a nipper down here fetching wood wi your Dad.’
spaceHe glanced at the old cottage.
space‘Not much now, is it? Better off at your grandmother’s.’
spaceMore to take in; more he didn’t know about. He put on a smile.
space‘I thought I heard a cry.’
space‘Oh aye – seal pup over yonder.’
spaceThe fisherman pointed and then nodded at the retreating waves.
space‘Often happens after a storm, they get washed away from their mams.’
spaceThe old fisherman went back to chucking wood inside the coble, and Mattie ran off to find the pup.
spaceHe slipped and scrambled over the boulders. He stopped to listen, but there was no sound. By climbing a huge outcrop, scabbed with barnacles, he got a view over the cluster of sea-worn rocks. The small shape slumped between the massive stones, flat as an empty glove puppet.
spaceIt was silent.
spaceIts eyes were shut, and its whiskers drooped. Sand stained the cream fur brown on its belly and sides. A herring gull stood waiting close by its head, its bright beak at the ready to peck. He shooed the gull away. It looked at him for a moment, made a loud kark then flapped off to a nearby rock. It was just biding its time.
spaceIt took a bit of wriggling to get close to the pup. He watched its flanks for signs of breathing. Such thick fur, he could hardly tell. He leant forward, steadying himself with one hand flat against a slimy green boulder. He touched the pup and then pulled back his hand. The coat felt dense, but life flickered beneath.
spaceHe stretched out and stroked the pup’s back. The soft pelt rippled under his fingers and sent another faint tingle through his arm. He could feel what the pup wanted, what she wanted. She opened her eyes slowly and looked up.
spaceIn the awkward space, he bent and crouched down. Twisted till he could get his arms underneath her. One deep breath, and he scooped her up. He rose to a half squat, then turned to keep her head away from the overhanging rock.
spaceA cry came from the water. He cradled the pup close to his chest and stood up.
spaceThe mother seal bottled in the water close to the rocks. She keened, then lifted her snout in the air and sniffed. Then she cried again. Another younger seal bobbed up in the bay. He knew that ring of dark spots – it was his brother.
spaceMattie shuffled towards the water on his bottom, using his elbows to fend the rocks away from the pup. It was slow progress over the jumble of large wet boulders.
spaceAfter a while, the cliff-fall gave way to smaller rocks. His arms trembled under the pup’s weight: he had to put her down for a moment. A slab made somewhere to rest on. The cry of the mother seal drifted over the waves and the pup squirmed and fidgeted. She was too young to hear his thoughts, but his voice might soothe her. He gave her another stroke and bent down to whisper.
space‘Keep still, lass. I’m doing my best. I’ll get you to your mam.’
spaceHe began lugging her again. He got into a rhythm; humming to himself and making his feet keep pace with any old tune he could think of. The waterfall splattered and hissed, drowning out the sound of the sea and the mother seal.
spaceThe old fisherman’s voice made Mattie jump.
space‘Stop there. That’ll do just nicely.’
spaceThe fisherman stood on the last of the shingle. He nodded approval.
space‘That took a lot of effort – set it down there, lad.’
spaceMattie lowered his heavy bundle. She caterpillared close to his ankles.
spaceThe fisherman got down on his hunkers. He looked the pup up and down.
space‘A fine snow-skin – well done.’
spaceMattie had hardly any breath left to answer.
space The fisherman bent over and fondled the scruff of the pup’s neck.‘They don’t keep that coat for long,’ he went on, ‘They lose it about three-week-old.’
spaceHe stood up and went back to his boat. He reached down inside and brought back a thick piece of timber.
space‘This should do the trick.’
spaceHe lifted the wood high above his shoulder.
spaceMattie flung himself down over the baby seal. She yelped and nipped him through his gansey. The wood thudded onto the beach, spraying shells and grit around.
space‘Stupid young beggar – I could have killed thee wi that. Now get out of my road!’
spaceSand blew against the side of Mattie’s face.The faint shadow of the wood disappeared. Something hard prodded his hip, trying to roll him over. He resisted. Holding tight onto the pup, he twisted his head round.
space‘I din’t get her all this way for you to kill her.’
space‘Her is it?’
spaceA glob of spit landed by his forehead. ‘What else do you do with seals but kill’em. Fish-stealers with flippers, that’s all they are.’
spaceHe kicked Mattie’s ankle. ‘And as for ruddy webfoots – where were they when the bay was snowed in and there was nought for land-folk to eat? Where were they when the herring failed and the boats were scrapped and whole families moved away?’
spaceHis spittle rained down on Mattie’s cheek.
space‘Out there – looking after their own – and taking our catches.’
spaceBeneath him, the pup writhed. Her terror stabbed through his chest and into his heart. He turned his head. The sea was only yards away. The pup gave a sniff and inched forward under his belly. He moved towards the shore, protecting her with his back.
space‘Oh no, you don’t.’ Rough hands grabbed at him.
spaceHe turned to defy the fisherman. ‘What are you going to do – batter me and flay my skin?’
spaceHe kneeled up and held her tight. His ribcage shook with the beating of his heart, and the pup quivered in his grasp. Stones shifted and rattled underneath his foot as he pushed up to standing. The old fisherman swore.
space‘Give that here, you-’
spaceThe sea roared. A huge wave crashed into the rocks, throwing up fistfuls of white water. It swept round onto the sand, grey and muscular. A seal rode in on its bulging force. His shining body landed on a patch of small stones with a crunch. Mattie’s boots sank into the wet beach. He lurched forward towards Urra; his arms full of squirming pup. Cold waves dragged the sand and stones from beneath his feet. He stumbled. The old fisherman waded across and blocked his way.
space‘I’m having that snow-skin lad, and there’s nought you can do about it.’
spaceHe snatched at the pup. Mattie clung on. Fierce growls ripped through the sound of the waves and the rolling stones. Urra reared up. His claws tore through the cloth into the back of the fisherman’s knee and brought him thudding down into the water. Urra rolled away from his flailing arms and into the sea.
spaceThe old fisherman thrashed, came up to kneeling and bellowed at the waves. ‘I’ll have you, you black-spotted beggar.’
spaceMattie staggered forward. A deluge of water and grit filled his boots as he pushed past the old fisherman. Gasping with cold, he leaned down and released the struggling pup. Urra’s dark shape led her through the surf, and in seconds she was safe.
Header image courtesy of https://www.shetland.org/