This is a tale told in thrashings and foam, slithering ropes and sharp teeth . . .
Up to the north of Scoresby, a trail of moving lights crisscrossed the darkness. Dumpers and lorries trundled between the moor and the sea in convoy. Huge knobbly tyres squealed, and engines growled. Men forced their machines to work faster and carry more. They hefted loads of crushed factory waste and tipped it onto a coarse trail leading down to Slatter Landing.They stopped before dawn. The road rollers ground to a halt, and the sound of the rising tide covered the clanking of scaffolding and other equipment. A harsh glow invaded the sky above the headland. It wasn’t the sunrise.
spaceMattie woke. He leapt out of bed and dashed over to the window. The eyepiece of the telescope was cold against his skin. He scanned the cliffs and the scaurs. Nothing moved in the cold glare. He slid the tripod over to the window overlooking the harbour.
spaceA few torches moved around the unlit quays. Their shifting light gleamed back from something polished and smooth: Ice Cream Joe’s Humber Imperial. On every side of the car, scores of dark figures moved silently, climbing down ladders set in the seawall and piling into boats.
spaceThey were going now!
spaceHe dashed down the stairs, not caring who heard him, and out to the porch. He stuffed his feet in his boots, flung his parka on and belted outside. His legs found their own way down the cliff path. A cloud shifted, and the full moon shone on Hob Wyke. The beach rippled with movement. Oilskin trousers glistened as fishermen got ready. They checked ropes and nets, sticks and harpoons. The waves hissed with cobles being pushed out to sea. No one spoke.Standing on the drying ground let him see the whole bay. All the boats were out – even the patched and mended ones, the grey and faded relics from the long grass. They were all headed to the Nab.
spaceHe ran down to the sea.
spaceEvery cottage was dark. Every blind drawn, every curtain closed, even the shutters were fastened. No one wanted to see or hear what was going on.
spaceHe hid his coat and his pyjamas behind some lobster creels. He slid from the seawall into the waves and pushed off rapidly across the rising tide. A swift front crawl soon brought him to the cave.
spaceThe sealskin spread in the water like his shadow. He slid beneath and it grasped him. The power surged through him, contorting his body to its strong, sleek seal-form. He took some deep breaths and made for the open sea. All around the water felt disturbed with haste, fear and excitement – not all of it his.
spaceThe trails in the water ran meshed together and confused. The fish had left for the seabed and crevices in the rocks. Only the fishermen and his own people crossed the upper waters. One had left a strong imprint of thought and rage. He followed the trace to a darkly spotted head watching the boats.
spaceThe touch of their whiskers brought a flood of cold fury. That was no surprise with what the fishermen planned. He didn’t have time to let any other thoughts in. He forced his plan into his brother’s mind.
spaceYou have to go for the nets – there’s a weak spot at the bottom, where they’re joined to the lines…
spaceThe stark light from the headland picked out the boats on the horizon. They were full of men carrying boathooks, clothes-poles, old whaling gear – anything that could prod or poke. They turned towards the colony.
spaceMattie and Urra swam side-by-side with their heads down, speeding like twin torpedoes. They surfaced by the outer rocks. The high spring tide washed over most of the scaur. It gushed through the channels and spurted in white foam. It tore at everything loose and a soup of debris swirled around the colony.
spaceThe cobles arrived. Someone blew a whistle, and the fishermen began driving the seals into the sea. They shoved and they pushed with sticks and oars. Some shouted and flashed torches into the seals’ eyes. Startled babies shuffled into the cold water by the side of their mothers. They sneezed with the shock of the brine.
spaceIn the turmoil, Mattie felt someone nudge him. Urra’s thoughts cut through, sharp as acid.
spaceYou’ve broken our mam’s heart – she never thought…
spaceA black shape leapt over his head and Urra disappeared. A fisherman landed at the edge of the colony and beckoned to his mates. More jumped across and began to kick the remaining seals into the water. Any fighters were felled with clubs and left to die.
spaceThe water grew a gleaming pelt of dark seal fur, spotted with the white coats of the youngest pups. The mothers swam beneath. They pushed their babies up, trying to stop their waterlogged fur dragging them down.
spaceThe cobles herded them all into one rippling slick and drove them northwards. As they neared Slatter Landing, the glare grew. There was a hiss and a roar of gas, and more floodlights came on. The rough road snaked down to the shore, diverting the beck. It spewed streams of contaminated water into the bay.
spaceA line of vehicles stood on the foreshore. There were dusty West Riding Haulage Company wagons, Weighell’s delivery truck and a gleaming van from Langner’s Furriers of Leadcaster.
spaceA group of women stood closer to the waves. They gathered round wide metal sheets on blocks like low tables. Drainage holes pierced the middle. Close by, boxes held flensing knives and scrapers to deal with the blubber. Near the tumbledown cottage, metal barrels stood with their lids off ready. Large scales with hooks dangling beneath hung from a gantry of wooden poles. Frames for stretching skins stood in lines, waiting.
spaceThe convoy of seals was forced in-between the two arms of the bay. The water grew shallow. Mattie dived and found what he expected – a line of heavy chain on the seabed and a bundle of netting running along its length.
spaceHe came up and swam through the mothers and their pups. No use asking them – they had enough on to survive. He sought the youngsters with sharp teeth. There were a few who listened. He led them away from the main group and back out to sea.
spaceAbove their small group of swimming seals, a buzz of messages passed from one coble to another. The boats pushed the colony further into the bay. Torchlight skimmed over Mattie and his crew, then passed on.
spaceThe Scotsman’s coarse voice called out.‘Och, let’em go. Mr Scarano says –
space‘Who the hell’s he when he’s at home?’ a local voice asked.
space‘Ice Cream Joe to youse – he says we shouldna waste time on the scrawny ones.’
spaceEli Cammish’s voice spoke next. Mattie didn’t need the moonlight to know there was a sneer on his face.
space‘You must think we’re stupid – leaving’em for you lot to pick off later. Round’em all up. Every last one of the beggars.’
spaceThere were more mutterings. The boats split into two groups: the locals, and the incomers from the hostel.
spaceA whiff of diesel, followed by the thugga thugga thugga of an engine, spread above the waves. Mattie rose above the water as much as he dared. Wet ropes slithered over the boulders, leaving a shiny black trail. The winch had begun to haul the nets up.
spaceHe sank down and his crew came together.
spaceIf we go now, use the gap – we can get on both sides of the net. Spread out and they won’t find you.
spaceAgreement fanned out like warmth. They turned to go. Urra scraped past Mattie just long enough for his caustic thoughts to intrude.
spaceYou go first – save yourself.
spaceMattie shook his brother’s bitterness away and swam between the two groups of boats. A blade sliced down deep into the water, lashed onto a long pole. He dodged, but it tore away one of his whiskers. He rolled and turned to check on the others – nobody followed.
spaceUrra held them back. He turned round, darted back, and gripped his brother’s fin. It was tempting to bite down.
spaceLook, whatever you think of me, we’ve got to go now. The net’s almost done.
spaceHow do we know you’re not leading us into a trap? You keep crawling back to the mud – where you belong.
spaceThere isn’t time to argue – it’s now or never.
spaceThe winch graunched and shuddered to a halt. The rope twanged, scattering water and seaweed. It stretched taut from one side of the bay to the other, holding the net across the entrance. Groups of men waited on the rocks with billhooks and gaffs. Others stayed in the boats, armed with spears and harpoons. There was nowhere left to go.
spaceA Tannoy crackled and then Weighell spoke.
space‘Gentlemen, before we begin, a few matters of procedure. Remember first of all, we are looking for good deadweight carcasses, so don’t trouble yourselves with juveniles. All blubber is to be removed and weighed separately. Secondly, we want fine quality pelts – take care not to damage the fur of the snow-skin pups. Finally, two blasts signify an immediate halt.’
spaceThe fishermen tensed and raised their weapons.
space‘You may commence on my signal.’
spaceA single whistle screeched across the small bay. The slaughter began. On the rocks, clubs smashed down into skulls. In the water, blades hacked into skin and muscle. Mothers snarled and reared up to defend their pups. A few swipes with a knife silenced them.
spaceAll round him, Mattie’s team shook with anger and fear. He tugged at their fins.
spaceHe swam close to the roadway through the polluted water. The muddy concrete and chemical stained stream ran foul, but it hid them from the fishermen. He took them to the boulder-strewn shallows by the deserted cottage.
spaceLie still. The boats will move away from the chain soon. Then we’ll go.
spaceThey huddled together, flinching at the blows that rippled through the water.
spaceThe sound of an engine churned up the sea. It turned and stopped, casting a line of noisy spray. Mattie came up to the surface, with his eyes just above the waterline. A thunderous bellow made everyone look. Harpoons stopped in mid-air.
space‘Wait. Stop. Stop!’
spaceA wild figure leapt across the chain and into another boat. He jumped and scrambled across the tightly packed cobles. They swayed and tilted. His greatcoat flapped as he ran.
space‘Will ye keep that blessed loon frae off my boat!’ the Scotsman shouted.
space‘Who are you giving your so-and-so orders to?’ Eli Cammish yelled back.
space‘You, you wee weasel-faced radge. That gert scunner’s git sawdust for brains.’
space‘Don’t you call our Tommy. He might be ninepence to the shilling, but he’s ours. You keep your trap shut, you effing Scots herring- thiever.’
spaceThe Scotsman rolled up his sleeves. Cammish stripped off his jacket. The fishermen turned to watch.
spaceMattie darted down to his team. They cowered on the seabed. He nipped at their fins.
spaceCome on – now – they’re not looking.
spaceThe team dived with him towards the chain on the seabed. Clouds of bloodstained water darkened the surface. Further down, the movement of the heavy links had thrown up silt and blocked out the moonlight. It was impossible to see.They felt their way to the cords that held the net down, blocking out the fear and hatred all around. The sea tasted rank and bitter. Mattie swam from one to another, encouraging them and willing them to keep chewing. It wasn’t enough. He needed more.
spaceHe rose to the surface and took a breath. All around, the cobles rocked, and men grumbled and swore. Some tussled. Others fended the rival boats away. Oars clattered and rowlocks groaned. The moonlight glinted along the edges of gaffs, harpoons and knives tied onto broom-handles with band. Eli Cammish held up his hand.
space‘Time’s wasting. Let’s just gerron wi’it. We can have a proper scrap after.’
spaceThe Scotsman nodded.
space‘No!’ Tommy yelled. He lunged forward. The coble tipped, and he fell. A splash leapt up bright silver in the floodlights and the ripples jostled the boats.
space‘Somebody give the lad a hand.’
space‘He can’t swim.’
spaceBob Mainprize spoke calmly.‘Tell Weighell we have to stop. Jamie Tindall, you’re nearest.’
spaceA noisy burst of static and two harsh whistles got everyone’s attention.
space‘Cease all operations,’ Weighell’s voice boomed across the bay. ‘The cull will recommence when the incident has been dealt with.’
spaceTommy’s head came up, mouth gaping. His arms crashed into the water as thick and heavy as logs. He struggled to keep afloat. Huge eyes pleaded for help.
spaceMattie swam away.