I’m still pissed off about the English guy the next morning. I don’t forget things like that; I don’t forget his sarcastic remarks; far from it. Some of my neighbours were there too. I bear a grudge, see, so I mark him down for a spot of revenge.
But he can wait. I’ve other fish to catch today. Literally.
This morning, I’ve to check the kreel pots with Denny. I love getting out in the boat. I’m okay out there, safe, at home. I was born around boats, see, brought up on them. There’s nothing I don’t know about them. I know every inch of the coast around here too, every rock, every cove, every stretch of sand. I know the currents and tides and I can read the weather from the sky. I’m more at home on the sea than the land.
We’re going out again tonight too. Only, I don’t feel quite so good about that trip. I’m excited, yeah, but I feel kind of guilty too. I have to remind myself that it’s only these night trips that keep the boat running, and it’s only the boat that keeps me running, so I shrug aside bad feelings. Yeah, it’s illegal, I know that, but needs must, right, and we’ve done it before and if it wasn’t us it’d be some other fucker.
The trouble is, it’s different this time. We’re taking extra risks tonight. We’re going way beyond anything we’ve done before. I don’t like it. It’s just plain greedy.
Christie is my partner tonight, so I figure I’d better call in on him on the way to the boat. I douse my head under cold water then I pour myself a glass of milk. Another glass follows the first, and then I’m ready. I’m lucky. I inherited my dad’s constitution and he could digest rocks. I wash away the debris of last night, and I’m ready for a fried breakfast before I set out.
I call at Christie’s cottage. It’s only a few houses away on the same narrow lane, the one which leads from the new harbour to the old across the neck of the headland. There’s a stream opposite, just small unless the weather turns bad. In storms on a high tide it can be a bitch, flooding the whole, fucking road.
A familiar, wizened woman in a dressing gown and slippers sticks a wispy head through a crack in the door – Christie’s mum.
‘Christie?’ I ask her.
She turns her eyes upwards. ‘I’ll not wake him. He’ll give me hell if I wake him. He was away till late.’
‘Remind him I need him tonight. Ten o’clock at my place. He’ll know what it’s about.’
She nods and wipes a bony hand across her face to stifle a yawn. ‘Your place at ten, I won’t forget.’
The door slips to and I walk on to the main harbour, where my boat lies ready at the quayside. I clamber down the iron ladder and set about preparing things. I glance at my watch; Denny’s late. I frown and mutter a few oaths. There are rules with my boat – no drink, no drugs, you come on board sober and you’re on time; same rules for me as for everyone else. Denny knows the rules. We’ve been mates since school and he’s always helped me on the boat.
I’m starting to get impatient when I see him hurrying down the quayside. He clambers down the iron steps onto the deck and, with just a nod, he prepares to cast off. He’s a man of few words in the morning is Denny. Anyway, we head away from the harbour, westerly at first and then north around the promontory and out to where we’ve set our pots.
We’re the only ones out this early. Nowadays, most of the boats in the harbour are leisure craft. There are only a handful of working, inshore vessels. The deep-sea ships, for which the harbour and deep anchorage were built, have long gone. Most of the warehouses on the harbour-side are disused, or they’ve changed function and house heavy vehicles for the haulage industry. It’s a shame. The place used to be alive with people back in my father’s day. There’s just the one small factory now, for what’s left of the fishing industry. It has a manager, a secretary, a foreman and a couple of casual workers. Ron Cameron is the manager.
If I knew who to blame, I’d hate them.
Instead, I get angry with myself.
The old harbour, on the other side of the promontory, is largely unused. It’s been crumbling away for years and it’s only useful as an occasional anchorage. Maybe a passing vessel or an inshore boat will moor there for a night or two. Only the rusting haulage gear and crumbing stone buildings show how important it used to be. There’s a long harbour wall which still offers some protection; everything else is gone.
Once we round the headland, I steer north east and follow the line of the cliffs towards a small bay, where the first of my pots lies, marked by a buoy.
Denny holds the rope and guides the pot on board.
‘Empty,’ he calls.
We re-settle the pot and the engine chugs as we sail on to the next buoy.
‘Empty again,’ Denny calls and we both swear. Sometimes, you get days like this.
There’s no change in our fortunes at the third pot, or the fourth or the fifth. Each time, Denny helps it onto the deck, trailing water and weed. Each time, he inspects it and each time, the message is the same.
This is getting really irritating; no catch, no money. Suddenly tonight seems really important. Those drugs give us a steady income.
Eventually we turn towards a narrow bay. It lies hidden beneath towering cliffs, which cast a dark shadow over the sea. That shadow’s always there, except for a few days in the summer months when the sun slips through.
‘I hate this fucking place. There’s something about it; it makes my flesh creep.’
Denny isn’t the only person to feel that way. It’s a place avoided by other vessels – fishermen are a superstitious bunch. They say they get a strange, uncomfortable feeling as they pass that narrow bay. I used to tell them it’s just the shadows and the cold, when you slip out of sunlight into the shade.
But I don’t say that anymore.
Denny is watching the waves break against shingle, deep in the tiny bay. We call them geos round here, inlets left when a sea cave collapsed. Deep in its shadows, a stream tumbles from the cliff top and hops and leaps down a steep, mossy slope to the sea.
‘That stream looks as if it’s trying to escape the place,’ Denny calls across.
‘It’s you who wants to escape,’ I call back.
‘Something bad happened here, I fucking know it. I can feel it.’
He says the same thing every time.
‘Something bad will happen if that pot is empty,’ I shout back, but at that moment I feel it too.
‘This fucking place has something evil about it,’ Denny mutters.
He starts to raise the pot, but all the time he glances back towards the shore.
‘Empty,’ he shouts at last. ‘Now let’s get out of here. I don’t know why you have to set a pot out here. No-one else does.’
I don’t move. I’m staring towards the cliff top, to a point at the top of it, at the back of the geo. Someone is standing where the spray of the waterfall blows back towards the land.
‘Come on, Billy. It’s just a fucking tourist,’ Denny is growing impatient. ‘Let’s get going.’
‘It’s not a tourist.’
‘Whoever it is, let’s get the hell out of here. Hang on, what’s…?’
Denny turns sharply towards the stern, as if he’s been disturbed by a sudden movement. He stands frozen, his mouth half open, a cry stuck in his throat. It’s like he can’t speak, like he’s transfixed. He raises a hand as if to ward off some hideous apparition.
I don’t pay too much attention. I figure it’s just Denny, pissing about as usual, pretending he’s right about the bay and that something’s out to get him. So, I turn to look again at the strange figure on the cliff. It’s then that I hear a strange, strangled cry and, when I spin round, Denny is backing away towards the wheelhouse as if some devil has crept from the ocean and is crawling across the fucking deck.
‘What is it? What’s the matter? Stop pissing about, Denny, it’s not funny.’
Denny points but no sound emerges from his throat. He stumbles and falls backwards and covers his face and at last the scream comes, and it’s like nothing I’ve heard before. It’s unearthly and alien and savage. Within seconds, everything has gone to hell. It’s like something is dragging Denny towards the stern. His arms flail out as he tries to grasp anything that can save him, and the scream continues like something drawn bleeding from his throat.
At last the words come, ‘Help me, Billy! Help me! My God, have you seen it?’
He says nothing more. He rips at the boards to gain some purchase with his finger nails but nothing can save him. I watch like I’m glued to the fucking boards as he disappears over the stern, and drops beneath the waves. Then there’s silence and nothing moves. It’s like nothing has happened and Denny is still there, somewhere on the boat, like it’s just a weird dream or one of Denny’s stupid jokes.
I stumble towards the stern and peer into the water, but there’s nothing to see, nothing at all. Denny has gone, dragged to his death, drowned, and I can’t move and I don’t understand. Nothing makes sense. I kneel down and lean against the stern. The water, an oily blue, rolls beneath me. There’s nothing down there, nothing…until, slowly, rising from the depths, something appears, and its eyes meet mine.
I roll back, flailing my legs, and I throw myself back and back again.
On the distant cliff, the old woman watches.