This is a story ending with the whispers of quiet waters and petals falling on clean wood . . .
The waves were gentle, and Mam’s body drifted away with the current. A few subdued splashes came from men rowing their cobles away to leave a path for her. The last of the moonlight shimmered on a quietening sea. Beyond the headland, her pelt gave off a faint lustre, then vanished from sight.
The crunching of footsteps broke into the stillness. People left the roadway and gathered on the shore. There were fishermen’s wives, guesthouse owners, and shopkeepers from Scoresby. A group of Hob Wykers stood apart, and a few from Furzedale huddled together.
spaceMattie lay on the strandline, too tired to move. Waves sucked the sand from beneath him, and he felt the water buoy him up. He heard Urra’s sorrow, but the rest of the sea was silent. He strained to sense any other sealfolk. Nothing. He shuddered.
Dad knelt by his side and put his hand on his back. The warmth spread. His shaking lessened and the pain in his chest eased. He stretched forward and reached out towards Urra. Dad let go and his fingers left a glow of tenderness.
spaceHis brother snuffled lightly, and they touched noses.
spaceYou go now. The colony needs you.
What about you? You’re badly hurt.
I’ll mend. My Dad’ll look after me.
spaceUrra moved off a little way, then returned. Their whiskers just touched, and there was no need to say anything. Then Urra swam away, his sleek head shrinking to a dark spot in the distance.
spaceMattie looked for Tommy. His name came up in snatches of conversation from the old ruined cottage. He sat sheltered by the garden wall and wrapped in a thick blanket. People drifted closer. They clustered around him, and the talk grew louder.
space‘…we all but lost the lad…’
space‘Who saved him?’
spaceA commotion broke out and the crowd parted to look up the track.
space‘What happened wi our Tommy?’
spaceAlderman Weighell strode downhill, with his overcoat flapping. His hat was missing and his hair stuck out in a grimy ring, coated with yellow concrete dust. The gold watch chain swung and beat against his filthy waistcoat. Little puffs of dust sprang up from his belly with each step. He did not look at the crowd. His eyes stayed fixed on Tommy. He ran the last few yards and flung his arms round the lad. After the bear hug, he checked Tommy’s face, ruffled his hair and turned to Bob Mainprize.
space‘He’ll be fine, won’t he?’
space‘Right soon enough.’
space‘Where do I go? Who can I thank?’
spaceThe coxswain pointed over to the strandline. Mattie shrunk back into the ebbing tide. He just wanted a rest – not all this fuss. But Dad turned to Alderman Weighell. His powerful voice needed no loudspeaker. ‘Here – he saved Tommy’s life. My son.’
spaceAlderman Weighell shook his head. He mouthed no.
spaceTommy pulled himself up to standing.‘It’s true – it were a seal pushed me out of the water.’
spaceHe took a few stumbling steps. The two men supported him over the beach and the crowd watched open-mouthed. At the water’s edge, Tommy made them let go and bent down close. The weight of his large hand rested on Mattie’s skin. No words formed but he felt Tommy’s fingers stop shaking. Tommy’s doubt gave way to hope.
spaceMattie roused himself. If he didn’t speak up for his own folk, who would?
spaceHe shook and shook till his head came free from his skin. Tommy stepped back. Mattie pulled one arm out and pushed up out of the water. The noise of the crowd grew louder. He pulled his skin off his shoulders and thrashed about in the shallows, straining to get free. Dad helped him up on one side. The skin slackened its hold and lay in folds round his middle. He tried to sit up.
spaceA small figure pushed past Tommy. Lorna’s warm and gentle grasp took his other arm. Together, they got him upright, and he sat with his chest bare and heaving. The onlookers drew closer.
spaceGrandma elbowed her way through the crowd with his parka on her arm. ‘We can’t have you going around half naked, young man.’
spaceMattie gave her a brief smile, then shook his head. ‘No. I want them to see me as I am.’
spaceGrandma gave Lorna the coat, and backed off with something like a bow.
spaceHe breathed in the cold air and set his jaw. It was hard to turn to face the crowd. Lorna gave Tommy a poke and they manoeuvred him onto a boulder. He sat up straight and shook free of their hold. They moved away and the crowd went quiet.
spaceThe floodlights felt hot. He shielded his eyes. ‘Don’t look away,’ he began, ‘I need to speak to you all…’ His voice was weak, and the crowd started murmuring. Something moved along the shore. A figure scrabbled up onto a large rock, his face pale and frowning in the floodlights. He gave his leg a rub, then shouted out.
space‘Pay no mind to him and his sort. It’s all lies.’ Eli Cammish sounded harsh as a herring gull. ‘Take no notice of that filthy half-breed. It’s a set-up. All his kind do is spread disease and disfigurement. The only thing they’re any good at is stealing our catch.’
spaceSome began to agree. Bob Mainprize held up his hand for quiet. The crowd looked from one man to the other. Eli Cammish raised his fist.
space‘I won’t be taken in by a stinking fish-breath.’
spaceThe coxswain’s face grew stern. ‘I know what I saw. Let the lad have his say.’
spaceThe Tannoy crackled. Alderman Weighell cleared his throat and picked up the mouthpiece. Grandma stepped forward, right in front of him.
space‘Hold your noise – nobody’ll take any notice of you,’ she said.
space‘Somebody responsible has to take charge.’
space‘Aye – and it’s not going to be you.’
spaceHe opened his mouth. She glared, and he shut it. She poked him hard on his lapel. He flinched and people laughed. She poked him again, looked round fiercely, and the crowd quietened. They moved closer to watch.
space‘Right, you two-faced beggar – you can stop all your blackmail right now, can’t you? It won’t work – nobody’s going to listen to you anymore. We’ve all had enough. You just look after your lad – properly.’
spaceShe looked at Tommy. A wave of nods ran through the crowd, and then the voices all started at once.
spaceMattie bent down and reached for a gaff. Tommy grasped it first and passed it over. He frowned at its bloodstained end. Mattie clanged it against one of the skinning tables, took a deep breath, and tried again.
space‘Don’t look away!’
spaceHis voice came strong and true. Dad gave him a proud look and even onlookers from Furzedale paid attention.
space‘You all know me – you know I’m a Henshaw, a born Nab Ender, – and that I used to live in Lawefield. You know I go to the same school as everybody else my age and my Dad drives lorries for a living – and I eat fish and chips out of newspaper like a proper human being.’
spaceThere were nods and a few smiles.
space‘But look – look at this.’ He gave the skin hanging from his waist a shake. Water flew off, and the silvery fur rippled and shone.
space‘This is me too.’ He let it go and looked round.
space‘I’m not ashamed of what I am. I’m not ashamed that my mother was a seal. I’m not ashamed that my brother hauls out on Scoresby Nab and catches herring with his bare teeth. Why should I be?’
spaceHe turned to the Hob Wyke folk. ‘And why should you be?’
spaceSome shook their heads. Others stood up straight. They began to murmur and to argue. The noise grew like breakers. His head swam. Somewhere behind them, a car engine rumbled.
spaceMattie’s finger shook. He tried to point out the Humber disappearing up the track, but his voice failed. He could barely hold his arm up. His body faltered and slumped back on to the boulder. Tommy flung a blanket round him, and Lorna wrapped the parka across Mattie’s shoulders. They sat by his side and the warmth was good.
spaceDad’s voice boomed out of the Tannoy. ‘Right then. We need some help round here. I can’t promise wages – but I can promise breakfast.’
spacePeople looked at Grandma. She nodded, rolled up her sleeves and summoned scores of women.
spaceDad pulled back from the mouthpiece. The Tannoy stopped hissing. ‘All the bodies go back into the sea – they need treating wi dignity. The skins go to any as want’em.’
spaceThe Hob Wykers glanced at each other, looked down at the sand or shuffled pebbles around with their boots. No one moved. Then Lorna stood up.
space‘I’ll have one.’
space‘Don’t look past the floodlights,’ Mattie said softly and gave her hand a squeeze. She made a sad little smile and walked over towards the sealskins. Scores of faces turned to watch her pass. The gas floodlights sputtered. Her hair shone as she held her head up high.
spaceEli Cammish forced his way to the front of the crowd. He screeched at her. ‘Come back here, girl! I’ll have no daughter of mine known for a webfoot.’
spaceShe turned and looked at her father coldly. ‘Then you’ll not have a daughter,’ she said, and walked on.
Dawn came up over Scoresby Nab. It was cool and silvery as the inside of a mussel shell. The floodlights fizzled out. Grey shapes shuffled on the scaur, and the sound of wailing drifted over to Slatter Landing. The seal folk mourned their dead.
The crowd on the beach fell silent. In groups of two or three, they hung their heads. Men took off their hats and held them, eyes fixed on the ground. Some shed tears. Parents shielded their children’s eyes.
spaceThe keening of the seals faded, and Mattie tried to stand. Tommy helped him up. He cleared his throat and put all his strength into his words.
space‘Never again,’ he said.
spaceDad’s voice was loud and deep.
spaceBob Mainprize’s rang out deep as an organ note.
spaceThen came Lorna’s, high-pitched and clear.
space‘No. Never again.’
spaceGroups of Hob Wykers repeated it, one after another. Some Nab Enders joined in and then more and more. The whole bay rumbled with the sound of the promise like waves on a winter shore:
Later that year
Afternoon sunlight slanted in broad stripes through changeable autumn clouds. It warmed the fur of seals basking on the rocks of Scoresby Nab. It gleamed across the gently moving sea and on land, gave roof-tiles an orange glow.
spaceThe heat sank into the creamy stones of the lone cottage beside Slatter Landing. Around it, the garth spread dark brown with freshly dug soil and new glass shone in the windows. A rowan tree stood by the door, clear of brambles and scrub. A blackbird pecked at its scarlet berries.
spaceMattie rowed the coble into the shallows in front. His father and grandfather leapt out and dragged it stern first onto the beach. He shipped the oars, leaned down, and pulled something out of the boat. Then he stepped ashore, dragging the body of a large conger eel on a hook.
spaceSatisfied the boat was secure, Mattie and Granddad looked out to sea. Three seals bottled in the water close by, one with a white-blonde coat.
space‘By, she did well to catch yon beggar,’ Granddad said.
spaceDad admired the grey body of the eel smooth but for teeth marks on its throat. ‘Bit of a different housewarming present, that.’
spaceMattie grasped the hook in both hands and turned towards the cottage. ‘Come on, mi arms are dropping off.’
spaceThe blackbird flew away from the rowan tree.
spaceAn outshut leant against one side of the building. Dad nipped ahead and took out a tin pail. He took it to the stream and scooped up some clear water. The metal scraped and dinged, filling the bay with noise. Mattie lowered the eel inside, making a muscly grey spiral, and left it in the shade. He rinsed the hook, found a piece of string and hung it up to dry. He headed for the front door of the cottage.
spaceSomething rested on the doorstep. Mattie picked it up. The package was squishy and heavy, wrapped in plain off-white paper. Butchers’ string divided it neatly into quarters. He turned it over. Oversized capital letters spelled out:
spaceME DAD SENT THESE – TOMMY
spaceDad looked over his shoulder. ‘Bangers, I reckon. Well, we won’t have to have fish for every meal, then.’
spaceMattie passed him the package and took a key from his pocket. He opened the door, and the house breathed out the scents of fresh paint, linseed putty and bleach.
space‘It wanted a bit of fettling,’ Granddad said. ‘But he’s a good worker is the lad, and we had it done soon enough between us.’
spaceMattie said nothing. He paused by the rowan tree and waited. Dad didn’t move.
spaceSunlight streamed across scrubbed floorboards. Long shadows stretched from table and chairs across a stobbed rug made from rags, and towards the hearth. Kindling lay in the log basket and wildflowers bloomed in an old medicine bottle on the mantelshelf.
spaceMattie took his father’s elbow and tugged him towards the threshold.
space‘Come on, Dad,’ he said, ‘Time we were home.’