This is a tale told in swirling water and foam falling from fang-edged rocks . . .
Mattie woke before the alarm went off. He took the tin clock from under his pillow and forced the stubborn little lever across to silence it.
spaceLight filled the window overlooking the harbour. The sea lay glass-still, scribbled on by a scatter of boats. Their paint shone sky-blue, white and cherry-red in the early sun. Sounds of clanking chains, cheerful shouts and the hoot of the early train rose. He smelled diesel, fish and the first bread of the morning from the bakery on Kirkborough.
spaceGranddad looked up when he came into the kitchen but said nothing. Grandma was busy at the stove. He walked in careful stockinged feet over to the mantelshelf and took down the almanac. He found the right page and stared at the smudgy print. Numbers crammed the tiny chart. It didn’t make a lot of sense. He puzzled and then waited beside the table for the radio to go quiet.
space‘…and that concludes the forecast for inshore waters at five twenty BST.’
space‘Granddad – what do these mean?’
spaceGranddad polished his glasses and put them on. Mattie pointed to numbers beside a Wednesday.
space‘That’s the time Continental fashion – y’know, twenty-four hours. That way you can’t get morning or afternoon muddled up – I learnt that in the Merchant Navy. That column’s for the sunrise. This tells you how far the tide comes up above chart datum.’
space‘The measurement they made, where the water comes to rest.’
space‘So, like normal?’
space‘I reckon you could say that. And that’s the state of the moon up there.’
space‘Glad you’re taking an interest, lad.’
spaceBefore he put the almanac back behind the vase of spills Grandma lit the fire with, he’d found what he needed. Full moon on Saturday – and a spring tide. He checked the height twice and sucked his teeth. It would rise eighteen feet nine inches: the height of three men. There’d be hardly any rock left undrowned, nowhere left for the seal pups to hide. No wonder Cammish and his lot picked then.
spaceAll through the morning at school, he merged into the background. He avoided Tommy and Lorna. He avoided everyone – he had to find a way to buy more time.The dinner bell went and he sidled away. He found an empty bench and took his sandwiches out. The sliced meat had turned the bread pink. An idea surged into his mind. He raced down into the town, leaving his sandwiches behind.
spaceThe butcher looked up from a side of beef on the chopping block.
space‘You – what are you doing here? Of all the brass-necked cheek…’
space‘I’ve got summat important to tell you.’
space‘The only important thing you can do is to apologise to our Deirdre.’
spaceHe reached up to a hook hanging from a metal bar and tore off a sheet of greaseproof paper. He laid it out then picked up a saw and began to cut through a bone in the side of beef.
space‘It’s about the cull. If you leave it while Sunday afternoon, the seals won’t be there.’
spaceThe butcher stopped sawing and made a humourless laugh.
space‘And how’s that going to happen – are you going to row out and tell them?’
spaceHe sneered and turned back to the meat. He took up a cleaver. With a great blow, he cut off a slab of deep red meat, then wrapped it. Mattie waited till the rustling of the greaseproof paper stopped.
space‘You’ve been double-crossed-’
spaceWeighell looked round, the point of his cleaver resting on the chopping block. His eyes flashed, suspicious and intrigued. Mattie leant across the counter and spoke quietly.
space‘By Cammish – and Ice Cream Joe.’
spaceWeighell pushed the cleaver deep into the wood, then leant across and pulled the blinds on the shop window down. Mattie turned the Closed sign round on the door and followed the butcher into a backroom. He explained. Mr Weighell’s cliff of a face showed nothing. His pocket watch sounded quarter to.
space‘I have to go or I’ll be late back for lessons,’ Mattie said.
spaceThe butcher led the way past meat-chopping and bone-grinding machines. They walked by apparatus for packing dog-food into tins and then out into an alley. A heavy hand landed on Mattie’s shoulder. The smell of blood scorched into his nostrils.
space‘Thank you, son – I won’t forget this.’
spaceMattie ate well at tea-time. Grandma looked approvingly at his empty plate.
space‘Well – you look like you’ve had good day at school, Mattie.’
space‘You see, joining in – that’s the way to get on here.’
spaceShe cut an extra big slice of bilberry tart and ladled cream over it.
space‘There you go, love. Just what a growing boy needs.’
spaceHer voice slipped over his head and towards Granddad.
space‘Hasn’t he filled out nicely? And the muscles on him now- have you been making him row that coble of yours?’
spaceGranddad drank his tea and said nothing. Mattie licked his spoon clean.
space‘Are you wanting some help later, Granddad?’
space‘Never say no to a hand, lad.’
spaceGrandma waved a tea-towel.
space‘Off you go you two –I’ll do the tidying.’
spaceHalfway down Long Ghaut, Granddad stopped. He glanced back towards Nab House though they were well out of sight. His voice was quiet.
space‘Remember what I said before – you want to go down the boat sheds. She won’t expect either of us back while it’s almost dark.’
spaceQuestions fluttered round Mattie’s head. One settled on his lips. He looked up but his grandfather was yards away. He wanted to run after him, to slide his hand into his grasp and simply go together to harvest lettuces and cucumbers and tomatoes; to pretend there were no web-foots or shape-changing or culls. It would be so easy.
spaceHe stood still. Salt air flowed into his nose, stirring the little hairs and refreshing his courage. It was his family out there too. He took a deep breath and chose a different path down towards the sea.
spaceAt the boatsheds, Bob Mainprize the lifeboat coxswain paused from repainting ‘Mary Ellen’ on his coble. His enormous beard crinkled in a warm smile and he straightened up. It was like a bear filling a cave: Mattie couldn’t sidle past.
space‘Just the lad I’m looking for,’ he said and took a tanner from his pocket. ‘Go fetch us a quarter of Winter Mixture from Dewson’s – you can keep the change.’
spaceA gusty cough came from inside their boatshed. Robert Mainprize Senior spoke hoarsely. ‘That fret’s done me bronichals no good, no good at all.’
spaceHe couldn’t refuse. And it wasn’t that far.
space‘Right-o, Mr Mainprize.’
spaceHe came back panting.
space‘Nay lad, there weren’t such a rush.’
space‘I’ve a job to do for me Granddad before Gran puts the supper on.’
spaceThe coxswain dipped his paintbrush in a small golden tin and focused on the lettering. Mattie scarpered. He wasn’t going to row out to warn the colony – he’d had a much better idea.
spaceIt wasn’t too hard to undo the clamps holding the engine. He found an old roller towel, wrapped it round his fist and heaved. Pulling on the first metal bar left pale grooves in his fingers but a shake and a bit of blowing soon brought the colour back. The second came easier.Then he began to edge the shaft out of the oil drum. The weight of the fuel tank threatened to tip the engine into the water. He dragged the drum away, flinching at the squeals it made on the concrete floor. Little by little, he manoeuvred them apart. The outboard weighed heavier and heavier on his wrist. How on earth was he going to get it on their coble?
spaceA shadow made him look up. Bob Mainprize loomed over him.
space‘Looks like a two-man job. Your grandfather still up the allotments, then?’
spaceMattie nodded.‘Could you give us a lift wi’ it?’
spaceThe coxswain picked the engine up with one hand and strode down over the concrete forecourt and on to the beach. Mattie followed.
space‘Tell me when it’s lined up on the transom.’
spaceMattie signalled the OK and the engine slotted smoothly into place.
space‘Ta-’ he began but the big man’s boots were already crossing the concrete. As the coxswain tightened the bolts, Mattie went through starting the engine. He’d done it with his grandfather but never on his own. Was it the tickler on the carb before the choke or after? He wandered back to the boatsheds, thinking. Granddad kept all sorts of charts and leaflets and manuals at the back. One might help. Worth a try.
spaceThe front of the shed smelled of engine and penetrating oil and greasy metal. Further back, wood shavings took over, with a touch of varnish. But there was something more. Dust and a faint odour of canvas, he thought, and what else? He put a light on.
spaceThat was odd. His duffle bag sat squashed into a corner. It was Granddad’s once, but why was it here now? He leaned down to pull it out and the scent grew. It bloomed in his nostrils, swelling and filling his mind. One quick tug and the bag slid beside his feet. He squatted down and pulled the top open. A sheet of paper carefully torn from a newspaper lay on top. He took it out: it was a chart of this month’s tide times. Below the light caught on the silvery grey of his sealskin. Oh, Granddad.
spaceHis fingers lingered for a moment, then he stuffed the fur back down and covered it up with the newspaper. The duffle bag landed on his back with a whump.
space‘Bye, Mr Mainprize, I’ve got to go now,’ he called on the run.
spaceHe was boiling by the time he reached the cave. His feet sweated in his boots, and his back and shoulders felt sore. He stripped off. Green shade cooled his skin and the soft swish of the water soothed his toes. Just what he needed.
spaceHe laid his skin out ready on a large boulder, then stuffed his clothes into the duffle bag. His boots made good wedges to hold it in place. That bag wasn’t rolling off anywhere soon.
spaceHis sealskin clung to him. Fierce currents of heat ran through his arms and legs. His bones shook and distorted. He grasped at the cave wall and fell, writhing and growing strong. The desire to rush into the sea overwhelmed him and he pushed and slid into the quiet waves.
spaceOnce out beyond the scaur, he made a Victory roll. He came up wide-eyed and looked across the shimmer of the waves. A current tugged him gently way from the seal colony. He gave a flip and shot away from its pull. Smooth blue lines showed another stream. He felt for it, turned belly up and let the water do the work.
spaceHis eyelids shut and a film flickered across his imagination. In it, he reached out to Urra. His brother understood. They told the mother seals together. The whole seal colony swam away to…. oh, where? Ah – the rocks out by the old cottage. He saw the fishermen arriving at the Nab colony and finding no one. It was a good ending.
spaceThe depth of water beneath him changed. He rolled over and looked round. Almost there.
spaceA seal swam out towards him. Not one he recognised. It didn’t matter. He glided forward and formed the words in his mind. It should work. Maybe he’d have to concentrate more with a stranger.
spaceHe tilted until he was upright in the water and reached out to touch the seal. His thoughts were drowned out.
spaceGo back to land – traitor.
spaceHe shot backwards. Such hate in those thoughts. Why? He lifted his head and looked for help. The colony was silent. They stared at him but he made out no familiar faces. The strange seal had its back to Mattie. He swam forward, stretched out and touched its shoulder.
spaceTake me to my brother Urra – please.
spaceThe strange seal snorted and swam off. Mattie followed. The strange seal turned and snarled. It grabbed Mattie’s front limb and held it in gleaming fangs. Thoughts howled round inside Mattie’s head.
spaceThey don’t want to see you – nor any of your kin. Ever.
spaceThe strange seal let go and bellowed. More young seals slid into the water. He felt their anger thrum through the water. Necks stretched. Jaws gaped. Voices rasped and shrieked. With teeth and claws, they drove Mattie away.