This is a tale told in the blue-green of seawater, the red of blood, and the silver of tears . . .
The cull stopped. Men slumped back and rested. Some lit up cigarettes. Others took swigs from their flasks. A few looked across the disturbed sea.
space‘What have we stopped for?’
space‘Blowed if I know. Glad of a breather, mind.’
space‘Somebody’s fell in, I reckon.’
spaceTommy’s arms rose and then hit down into the water. His mouth opened – a wheezing hole that sucked in air. Shockwaves hit Mattie’s side. Terror and desperate effort shook through the water, urgent as a lifeboat flare.
spaceThen it went quiet. Tommy sank. His hands grabbed feebly at the water. He came up with his head tilted back, gaping like a goldfish. He made no call for help.
spaceA fisherman gestured with his fag end.‘He’ll be right.’
space‘He’s stopped panicking now,’ another said, ‘Even he can doggy-paddle to the shore.’
spaceThey sculled their cobles apart. The surface of the sea bulged where the power of the diving seals pushed the water up. Floodlights glinted on the oars and on the head of a darkly spotted seal.
space‘Shift.’ Cammish’s voice cut through the quiet, ‘That un’s mine.’
space‘I thought we were giving it a rest.’
space‘You might be – but I’m having the beggar that clawed me.’
spaceMattie sank quickly out of view. Through the murk, Tommy was trying to clamber upright. He grasped at an invisible ladder, but the weight of his coat pulled him down. His legs went still. His eyes widened and stared.
spaceMattie couldn’t leave him. He swam forward and ripped the buttons off Tommy’s coat with his teeth. The brass clanked against his jaw. He spat them out and yanked at the lapels. He tugged and clawed and pulled the heavy woollen mass away. Tommy still drifted down.
spaceMattie flipped over and swam beneath to push Tommy upwards with his back. A weak heartbeat fluttered. He swirled round and bit into Tommy’s shirt collar. His fins thrust against the sea, and he dragged the dead weight to the surface. Tommy gulped the air in with arasping breath, his cheek white against the oily water.
spaceThere was a call.‘Look – he’s come up again.’
space‘Happen now we can get started again,’ Cammish said.‘Come on Tommy, out o’ road- we’ve work to do.’
spaceSomeone tossed a cigarette butt into the water. It hissed by Mattie’s ear. He swam on, snorting the fumes out of his nose. His lungs burned. The air grazed down through his throat and scraped inside his ribs. It was made of thorns and poison. Strange lights sparkled round the edge of his sight. Shadows seeped in behind them. His tendons and muscles shook, his bones melted into pain. His strength faded. He waited for a wave and then let go.
spaceThe incoming surf cast Tommy onto the sand. He struggled a little way, retched and coughed. After a few breaths, he began to crawl towards the roadway.
spaceWaves pushed Mattie about like driftwood. He rolled and swung in the swash, too weak to shuffle up onto the shore. Shadows flooded into his eyes. Everything went dim, and then black.
At the bottom of the bay, a group of seals hovered near the seabed, dark shapes in the murk. They gnawed and chewed and twisted the ropes holding the net down. One of the ropes broke. The seals pulled harder. Tearing sounds ran through the water. The net ripped away and they surged across the seabed and out of the bay. The rest of the colony began to follow them.
spaceMattie came round to mayhem. Shouts came from the skinning tables and echoed off the weighing gantry and the floodlights. Men yelled and pointed.‘The bastards are escaping.’
space‘Must’ve bitten through the net.’
spaceThe Tannoy crackled. Ice Cream Joe came across loud and clear –no trace of an Italian accent.‘Get after them.’
spaceOars shattered the surface of the water. They stabbed into the sea and the cobles swarmed with fishermen keeping a lookout for seals to kill. The bay shook with anger. Lights flashed and darted.
space‘Look – there’s one of the beggars.’
spaceBoots landed near Mattie’s head. A kick cracked into his stomach, and then another into his chest. He turned over, winded. At the edge of his sight, something glinted and moved. A fisherman lifted his gaff high above his head. Mattie flinched and twisted away. His breath came back, and so did the pain.
spaceA ferocious growl came from the sea. There was a sound of scattering pebbles, and a bulky shape came between him and the fisherman. A huge and angry mother seal reared up, teeth flashing. The fisherman stood his ground.‘Come on then, old lass.’
spaceThe gaff fell. The hook pierced her fur and blubber and sliced through her muscle. She shifted and blood oozed round the metal and trickled down her flank. It rippled over a long thin scar running along her body. Her back fins swung round, and she pushed Mattie away. Even in her pain, she protected him. The touch of her skin scalded. Fierce heat ran through his veins. He felt years of stored-up love flood into his heart.
spaceHe knew who she was.
spaceThe fisherman pulled the gaff out with a squelch. Hot blood spurted onto his cheek. The fisherman prepared to strike again. Mattie dug his claws into the sand and pulled. The jigsaw of broken bones in his ribs crackled and aches filled his chest like iced water. One of the fisherman’s boots gleamed in front of him. He pushed his back fins down, stretched forward and bit hard.
spaceThe rubber gave way to greasy sock and skin. He closed his jaws, and the force of his anger clamped through the flesh and into the bone. The fisherman shook his leg. Mattie felt the bone splinter and fear rush through the fisherman’s limbs. He gripped tighter.
spaceThe gaff clattered down onto the pebbles and hit his side.
spaceHis eyes squeezed shut against the pain, but he hung on. The leg jerked and blood filled his mouth. He released his hold and spat it out. The fisherman fell, swearing and grasping his leg. Mattie’s mother lumbered towards the fallen man, leaving a smear of blood across the pebbles.
spaceMore boots landed on the shore.
space‘Get him away from her!’
space‘T’old bitch’ll kill him.’
spaceThe bitten fisherman swore and rocked, clutching his leg. His mates hauled him away and up towards the vehicles. Someone called over the commotion.
space‘Get that one an’ all– he’s still worth summat.’
spaceGloved hands took hold of Mattie’s rear limbs. They dragged him backwards. He snarled and writhed but they would not let go.
spaceA group of fishermen gathered round his mother. They kept well out of range of her snapping jaws and jumped back as she lunged at them. Together like a lynch mob, they raised boathooks, poles, clubs and gaffs ready to kill and tear apart. She kept trying to reach him. The weapons fell.
spaceMattie struggled but the hands held him tight. He lifted his head up, took it back and howled. He howled with rage and sorrow. His voice rang with loss and shook his bruised body. It soared up through the cave of his chest and echoed around the cliffs. Out at sea, other voices joined in his song.
spaceThe fishermen stood still, and their bloodied weapons slid downwards to rest on the beach. Some looked away. Others looked down. He dared to hope – they’d give up, they’d leave her alone. His song faltered.
spaceHarsh words rasped across the beach. It was Eli Cammish.‘What are you lot waiting for? Finish her off. She’s plenty of blubber and meat on her, even if her coat’s ruined.’
spaceThe fishermen began to pick up their weapons. Mattie’s mother lay quite still, only dark flows of blood pulsed down her side and sank into the damp sand. He rocked forward a tiny space towards her, but the relentless hands clutched him tight. His voice broke. Sobs clenched his throat. They clawed up from his guts, leaving a trail of raw grief.
spaceCammish snapped at the man holding Mattie back.‘Stop that bloody thing’s noise, will you?’ he said then muttered to himself, ‘Huh – Henshaws – useless the lot on’em.’
spaceMattie pushed himself up and looked round. Granddad held him, his face was set grim, and he didn’t look down. Mattie slumped onto the shore, silent.
spaceCammish moved over to the other fishermen. He pulled a rag out of his pocket and held it up like a starting flag. The fishermen held their weapons up high, waiting for his signal. Mattie’s mother didn’t move.
spaceThe floodlights flickered and something rumbled. Everyone turned to look. A lorry thundered down the roadway and drew up in a spray of broken rubble. The driver’s door flung open, and a thickset man leapt out. He waved and shouted.
spaceHis powerful black figure ran past the glaring lights. More people jumped down from the lorry and ran down to the beach behind him. A fat man with a glinting watch chain stood in the running man’s way. The runner felled the alderman and ran on.
spaceMattie tried to call but only whimpers came out.
space‘Hush,’ Granddad said, ‘Steady on now,’ and his grip loosened a little.
spaceThe lorry driver reached the knot of fishermen and wrenched two out of his way.
space‘Leave her alone.’
spaceThe driver knelt down. He stroked the bloodstained fur hesitantly.
spaceEli Cammish sneering voice asked, ‘Why? It’s only a seal – nought to you.’
spaceThe driver spoke clearly.‘She’s everything to me – she’s my wife.’
spaceThe cliffs rang with gasps and the sound of weapons flung down.
spaceDad slid his arms under her body and stood upright. The weight made him sway. His head rose and his words were strong.
space‘Aye – she’s my wife.’
spaceDad walked down the beach, his boots sinking into the pebbles and sand, then waded out till the waves reached his thighs. He lowered Mam’s body into the sea slowly. The lapping waves washed the blood away from her fur but nothing else moved.
spaceMattie squirmed and Granddad let him go. He inched his way down to the water. Every pebble prodded his broken bones, but he kept on going. He had to. He had to say goodbye.
spaceUrra surfaced. He swam inshore and his whiskers touched their mother’s. He let out a terrible wail. The sound died away and they lay side by side, their skin touching.
spaceDad spoke gently.‘Let her go.’
spaceThey moved off, and the swash of the surf lifted her away from the shore and his hands.
space‘Back you go to the sea, my love. The tide’s turned and it’s time for you to go home.’
spaceHe let the sea take her.