A small village harbour nestled at the foot of a perilous drop reached only by a narrow track which wound down the cliff like a ribbon. A labyrinth cut into the hillside. A magical place. A place which made men from boys.
Perched at the top, just visible from the main road, was the white washed church were he sat on Sunday mornings, hunkered at the back, close to the door, the salty draft and smell of the calling sea.
The minister droned on: old men snored (some drowsy with a Saturday night dram) ribs nudged by wives in their Sunday best: Jack and his friends fidgeted like boys with fleas, counting down the clock to the last hymn and their release: out of the cage like free feral spirits to roam the sandy coast.
Jack wasn’t a religious man. Even as a small boy he couldn’t get his head around the afterlife and angels and such stuff. As he got older he had his doubts, wrestled with his conscience: asked, what if? Why me?
Sitting, gazing out to sea, it was easy to be sucked into such thoughts.
The sea was beautiful. It was part of him. Jack and the sea.
Jack couldn’t swim. That simple fact was to change his life for ever.
Jack couldn’t swim.
But neither could most of his childhood friends. In Summer, they’d strip off and mess about in the shallows, tiptoeing over sharp shells and slipping on slippery water polished rocks. Chest deep in crab pools, searching for treasures. Then laying on the beach, side by side, eyes screwed tightly shut, rows of sunburnt flesh to dry. Swopping stories. Happy. Lullabied by lapping waves and coddling, cosseting sun.
The sea was first and foremost a provider, not a plaything. Small gaily painted boats chugged out of the picturesque harbour to fish. Their flanks creased with sea rust. Fishing was a way of life. Something men were born into. Born to do. Jack became a fisherman. A fisherman who couldn’t swim.
Then one cruel, stormy August evening Jack’s life changed forever.
They had set off at first light. Goodbyes and kisses at the harbour. They waved as they set off. Six in the crew. Still hungover from a final drink ashore and smoking rough cigarette after cigarette. Nets were mended on the go as they left the placid harbour and struck out across the Irish Sea for the fishing grounds beyond. Away to sea, land and landlubbers left behind.
At first the sea was benign, friendly, kissing the boat’s hull with gentle salty kisses. The men were stripped to the waist, readying crates and ice, readying for the catch ahead.
As night fell, they anchored within sight of the marker buoy for their mile long net. They’d let it soak until morning. Let it fill with fish. Fish they hoped would bring a good price at the wharf. Fish that would fill their bellies with porter and leave something for the rent and perhaps presents for the bairns.
They flopped exhausted into cramped, flimsy bunks and hammocks as the boat rolled like a baby’s crib in the gently rocking sea. All lights were out save a marker glowing red atop the mast. All slept save a watchman fuelled by hot tea and cigarettes. Alone in the wheelhouse. Peering into the lonely darkness. Trying to stay awake.
As dreams took hold, the boat started to lurch. The wind got up and howled like a million banshees. Men were thrown from their bunks and lay dazed where they fell. Bruised limbs and bloodied heads as bone met crunching steel. The water started to pour in. Jack remembered his drill. He put fear from his mind and groped in the darkness for his waterproofs and lifejacket. The captain roared and barked instructions “BALE, BOYS! BALE!” The pumps were stricken and the boat was taking on water like a sponge. The heavy fish crates on deck had broken free and were lurching on the slick wooden slats like granite curls which threatened everyone who ventured atop. Threatened to cut them down like fleshy skittles.
The lights suddenly went out. The boat’s engine was flooded. Pitch darkness, crashing waves, foaming sea, men tossed like rag dolls as the boat was knocked senseless. Knocked senseless by raging waves. Bloodied and beaten the bow nosed below the water and the salty black angry sea sluiced up the deck plucking crates and buckets and men. Jack was terrified. He wrapped himself around the mast as, in the eery gloom, the Captain, Bill the engineer and Arthur, still in the clothes they slept in, tried to launch a lifeboat. But it was useless. The boat let out a creaking sigh, a death rattle, then slipped below the water.
No one cried out.
Jack found himself alone. Alone in a soupy cauldron sea, still clinging to a piece of mast that had broken free as the boat sank.
Then, as suddenly as the storm had started, it finished. It was still deathly black. And Jack was so, so cold. He slipped in and out of consciousness but each time he came to he still had the mast in his desperate grasp.
He bobbed in the now still, calm, comforting water until day break. The sea was empty. No sign of his friends. In the distance he could see the shoreline. The tide was going in and carried him with it. He reached land. Spent, he curled up on the shingle and fell asleep. Exhausted. Drained. Frightened. Alone.
When he woke, he was back at home. Back in his own bed, a fussing armada of women busy around him. As his eyes opened, he could hear their dull, pained questions.
But he had no answers. He didn’t look at them. He couldn’t look at them.
Jack spends each day sitting in his favourite spot. Warmed and embraced by the sun which saturates the old stone wall. His dogs his only company. His confessors.
Looking out to sea he wished he had learnt to swim. Wished he could have helped his friends. Or died trying. Why was he the one who had to live?
Living in the shadows of widows’ whispers.
Waiting for answers.