There was this face hung in the darkness. There were these two eyes, lividly white and glistening, illuminated by the reddish glow of a cigarette, so they shone with a glittering and barbaric intensity through hair matted by rain. There was this figure squatted at the mouth of a dark cave one hundred feet aloft in the darkness of the night whilst every other soul was abed tucked in with their dreams of oblivion and sweetness. The rain whispered in shimmering curtains. Beyond was a great and roiling immensity of darkness: the sea.
Little could be seen of the figure except the eyes. Trembling beads of rain tasseled the mouth of the cave. The sound of the rain was louder in his ears than the boom of the sea below that smashed in a white broth around Pulpit Rock and to the South the fistula of layered and pitted sandstone called The Deil’s Heid. There was only the ceaseless susurration that goose-bumped the outer darkness of the sea’s surface. Nothing else to be heard except once suddenly the loud hiss of a raindrop hitting the tip of his cigarette and extinguishing it. About one and a half nautical miles out to sea beyond the rain, a pool of blinking lights pinpointed the position of the two trawlers and their drift nets.
There were shapes in the darkness behind him too dark to make out. A lamp the size of a bucket with a shutter balanced at the mouth of the cave.
For as many minutes he did not move, as still as if he had suspended even the cadence of his breathing. The rearing Deil’s Heid, a black and haphazard outline drifted in and out of squalls of rain. (See Nautical Charts 36 and 39, Grid Ref, 989989). A great steep-sided dome, like a smashed in skull, it guarded the entrance to the quiet and golden sands of Lunan where the massive stake nets of The Worshipful Salmon Fishers' Company were arrayed along the sands at high tide, older than the boat and the plough in their antiquity, a lineage second only to the harpoon, when fishermen were hewers of timber and ploughers of waves. Before even the Catholic seasons of Michaelmas as and Candlemas parceled the year. As if fishing were a religious rite and estranged from any idea of commercial gain. (Such thoughts have of late surfaced in The Press.) As if such a lineage was argument enough against the modern and unscrupulous trawlers who shot shining nets of untarred nylon and tyrelene, gossamer fine and strangle-hold strong from the bucking and slippery decks under cover of darkness. Poacher’s nets that were half a mile long with rows of bobbing corks shining as white as pearls in the foam-flecked darkness streaming off into the running sea.
He bent his ear to the radio and twisted the tuner back and forth, trying to conjure out of the crackle and static a voice that might let him eavesdrop upon how the uneasy sea-holdings of Stomna lay that night. It was possible to pick up the radio transmissions between the water bailiffs and the police and between the trawlers themselves out at sea. Voices across the waves upon unearthly static. Ears bent to transistors. But the snarled airwaves were silent.
It was a good night for poaching: the wind was in excess of Force 3 on the Beaufort scale and the sea surface was disturbed. Still and bright moonlit seas were useless for drift netting. The Easterly winds were rising up in a frenzied libretto, which whipped a mournful music around the cave.
Navigating in the vicinity of The Bar during heavy easterly weather was a hazardous occupation as the depths were subject to change and the outer buoys liable to break adrift. Between the Deil’s Heid and Pulpit Rock was Deidman’s Draft below which was sunk the wreckage of an unrecovered WWII Wellington bomber, where the salmon fishers’ bag nets became fouled and torn by the wreckage of its empennage. (There was rumoured to be down there, a dread and skeletal crew of six bombardiers whose fingers reached up through a rusted and breached hull to claw at the nets and to break propellers with a supernatural strength, still wearing the seaweed-coloured tatters of their uniforms, metal crosses dangling from their skeletal chest cavities, the plane as stripped and skeletal as its madly-grinning demonic crew. Attempts to salvage it after it had been located by skin divers with the aid of torches in about twenty feet were unsuccessful and so it lay, the haunt of conger eels nudging boned fingers aflame with gold rings and cod blown inshore in the ferocious Easterlies. Beware, said the old fishermen, beware the Gabs of May. And in the wreckage of the hold were waiting to be claimed those rusted finned pellets of such dubious origin as were sometimes washed upon the golden sands or uncovered by the restive movement of the dunes at Lunan.)
Out of the darkness and the rain, which was easing off, he heard it. An unmistakable noise of an engine directly below him. He swore and peered down through the fall of darkness like Milton’s warie fiend. Saw the sweeping double searchlights and frowned. A grayish boat, seeming lighter than a skiff appeared, different from the normal lumbering Fisheries Protection Squadron Vessel. Then he snatched off the shutter from the light and let it flicker a warning beacon to the men at sea. The cave became a restive world of marigold and shadow. In the light a pair of green fishing waders hung upside down from a ledge of rock and water dripped from them onto the floor collecting in a puddle. A net edged with white corks and lead weights lay rolled neatly on the floor beside two balls of rope, three empty sacks, a tin of rabbit poison and a hammer. The word for fisher and sinner are similar in French: pecheur and pecheur.
He flickered the warning out three times, now lying flat so he could peer over the edge. (The sea eroded great echoing caverns and chambers into the cliffs, so the slanted fields that ran to the cliff’s edge stood atop empty air and dark seething water both. Sometimes on a ferocious Spring tide, you could feel the power of the waves in an ominous rumbling beneath your feet as you planted potatoes at seedtime.) A new patrol boat, he thought, a sleek little Dell quay Dory with twin outboard engines which must be 65 horsepower. It had no covered wheelhouse, only a Perspex windshield to keep the spray from the helmsman. It glided across the waves with a wraith-like rapidity. At over thirty knots, it was just a glimmer of movement. The peaks of the waves loomed above it this way and that. He had never seen anything like it before.
A man stood at the wheel behind the Perspex shield, standing erect and hooded, a stranger who was none of the Bailiffs, or the directors or Board Members who also had powers of arrest who most often took to the seas in defense of a law that did not quite exist. The boat slid through the waves with an almost supernatural speed. It must have been no more than fourteen feet. A small flag fluttered from its radio mast.
The sea bore the fibre glass boat into the darkness. Man and boat passed under the crumbling archway that formed the trunk of Elephant Rock. The helmsman looked up as if he sensed the presence of the watcher above. Saw the light flash on and off.
The searchlights swung around and the light above died and he strobed the cliffs with two tumbling wheels of white light. The slick shadowed crevasses, the worn slick rock faces loomed out of the undifferentiated darkness. Around him in the high dark swell, the occasional bright buoy was borne, a few birds drifted. The noise of the engine was small and tinny. Gulls rose from the black sea on silent white wings, motionless, soaring souls. Rock, lurching shadow, crevasse, a single green guillemot egg illuminated as startling as a precious stone set alone upon a ledge.
The boat cut its engine and the man continued his strobing of the cliff. A face appeared within the circle of light and for the briefest spilth of a second their eyes met across the abyss of darkness that separated them. The trembling beads of rain at the mouth of the rain turned to white and beneath, the watcher suddenly refulgent with rain, stone still as if the light pinned him there. And then vanished. Withdrawn into darkness and shadow.
He crawled on hands and knees through the back of the cave, pulling his yellow oilskin over his head and yanking the hood up, erupted amongst the tilted gravestones of St Skeoch. Flaking and rusted iron palings thrust into the rocks where within that tilted palisade the dead kept their council. He vaulted over the palings and ran across the field in a half crouch up the side of the dry stone dyke, his heart hammering.
The smell of the wet and cooling earth was in his nostrils, of humus and loam, mixed with the stale, airless smell of the oilskin. He tied his sweater around his face so he would not be identified. He saw two of the water bailiffs appear over the rise, their bobbing torches cast across the stiff driels of the sloping field. He crawled up the side of the stone dyke on his hands and knees until he reached the rusted gate and climbed over the wall with a pard-like swiftness; his boots caked in mud and landed in the wet long vegetation on the verge of the single lane Stomna road. The Bailiff’s car was parked and he bent and slashed its tyres with his small fishing knife. His bike was hidden in the trees and he heaved it out and under the gate and stood, his chest heaving, his knees and hands caked in the brown clay.
He traveled down the swerve and tilt of the road, his head low, that ran parallel to the fields above the cliffs, buffeted by the East winds racing up the fields, the whir of the spokes lost in the wind. He could smell the scouring salt air lifting off the waves far below. Above were the lights of Tottery Steading, the singing swathe of coniferous forestry in the lee of the Garvock. The stars swam out in spiraling golden shoals above him, the ink black of night a chromatography of bleeding blue where it met the horizon of the sea. His lungs burned.
The road circled away before him and down and down he flew, a figure with high-winged shoulders and sunken head crouched over the handle bars and slow-motioned beneath the starscape and then far below him, he saw the clustered lights of Stomna, a pool of diffuse firefly lights at the edge of the high tide between the mysterious silence and solitude of the land and the ceaselessness of the sea.
He stared below him at the churning vastness of the sea, something shape-shifting and uncoiling out of some bunghole of the earth, (a hole, he imagined the size of an octupus’ eye) to threaten the pool of clustered lights of the fishing village that poised perilously upon the shore, and the rivers gathering and gathering conveyed out of the ramparts of Glen Lui.
Above the village was a precipitously sloping graveyard hedged by a high wall over which clawed a few twisted trees. There was an enormous drum roll of thunder and an eruption of lightning and in the sudden glower of light, he saw the sea below at the harbour wall roaring in a churning lake of frothed milk surging over the worn harbour wall black with spray. In the graveyard, in the flashlight of lightning, the gravestones were lit, so rain-splattered it seemed that the very stonework was melting into the dark earth the names of McBay and Blues and Dalgarno, melting the memento mori inscriptions, melting the greenish salt-scrimmed stone skulls.
The salt wind roared in his ears and the salt rain blew stinging in his eyes as he took the corner of the brae and the high wall, skidded past the tall house and stepped garden filled with creels, the general store, the village square overlooked by the church and skidded a left onto the harbour wall past the mural on the white wall of the Fisherman’s Mission.
The lights of the harbour and the bobbing masts clustered all around him and the hammering of his heart eased. Out there beyond the seawall was the boom of the sea. He could see waves breaking on the outermost wall of the harbour. He saw the dark shapes of warehouses clustered to the left of the harbour past the shapes of upturned boats and buoys and a wall of lobster creels. Empty washing lines thrummed. Great rusted anchors cast long lopsided shadows and from those shadows a single dog sallied stiffly forth to meet him and circled him, its muzzle low and dropped a gleaming stone at his feet. Its coat was a whorled oily thickness and its eyes gleamed. He leaned over his bike, picked up the stone and cast it into the darkness. Out of the darkness rose the haphazard outline of a tall warehouse: Johnny Blue’s Lobster Factory. He got off his bike and pushed it wearily around the puddles, which glinted like metal. Beyond it was the offices of The Worshipful Salmon Fishers’ Company and then Dundas, Boatwright, Coffin Wright, Carpenter.
He fumbled around for the key, which hung under the streaming gutter and heaved the heavy door open. It slid along rusted runners, groaning. Inside was the boat builders’ workshop, the skeletal curved larch ribs of a half built coble inured in darkness, the sweet smell of wood shavings mixing with the thick fug of seal oil with which Johnny Blues caulked all his boats and coffins. There were wide crooked wooden steps to the right up to the far side of the wall, like broad blackened ribs of a great whale and he knew his way well enough in the pitch dark to ascend them without tripping over the paint cans, the Seagull engines leaning against the wall and the stacked oak and larch. Above, the net loft was as warm and dark. There was only one slanted window opaque with spiders’ webs.
He reached up into the darkness and twisted the light bulb that hung down from the rafters like a Geiger counter festooned with fine dusty cobwebs and slowly light suffused the room. He had made a hammock out of an old doubled salmon net and hung it from a beam from bridle ropes attached to two old bits of saisin’ at either end, sequestered behind the veils of netting, above a folded grey pile of nets, draped and canopied about, with half made net courts hanging from rusted nails. Grey bag nets of twenty fathoms, fly nets, river nets, bales of rolled leaders piled to the sloping rafters, coils of orange anchor ropes as thick as a man’s wrist. Heavy curtains of manila and hemp and the shimmering silver of the new monofilament drift nets hung down like gigantic cobwebs illuminated by a stray moonbeam. Some of the nets were dirty with clinging riverweed and the reddish dust of dried jellyfish tentacles that raised a stoor to make a grown man weep. Some were torn by driftwood and loose poles, by seals and rocks. Up here he lay alone in his hammock between the warped raft of floorboards and the sloping rafters. The salmon scales trodden into the wide wooden steps glittered in the meager light like silver coins.
He didn’t have much in the way of possessions – a cracked mirror, a bottle of TCP, a threadbare pork pie hat with a hole in the crown, a pair of waders, work boots, hair oil, a couple of slender well-thumbed novels that his father used to collect with petrol tokens, a Hornet .22 that he slept with crooked in his arm and a tide table tacked above the hammock with a gold drawing pin. He stripped off his oilskin and hung it arms down from a nail in the wall. He stripped off his wet, muddy clothes and stood swaying in the marigold light cast by the pale light bulb beside the silver shard of mirror, holding his stomach tenderly between his hands. A single moth blundered in doomed orbit drawn to the bulb by some centripetal force of light.
He examined his temple in the mirror and carefully dried his hair and combed it repeatedly with his fingers, peering into the shard of mirror until it sat in some semblance of neatness. He found himself a clean shirt and with trembling fingers fastened the buttons and smoothed it down. He added some more hair oil to his hair so it gleamed and then took the threadbare hat from its peg and very carefully placed it on his head, adjusting it until he had it just so.
He made his way back down the stairs and out onto the harbour. He went back up the harbour wall, tilting into the wind and holding down his hat, stopping to light a cigarette in the lea of the lobster factory, wiping his hands which were oily and sweaty on the white handkerchief that hung from the hook. Written in dark red letters on the side of The Worshipful Salmon Fishers’ Company were the glistening words: ‘Leave Them Hangies Alone’.
As he walked across the harbour past the tilted anchors, he looked this way and that as if from the darkened warehouses would step more bailiffs, as if the silhouette of watchers could be seen from the upper stories of The Worshipful Salmon Fishers' Company. A seal lay on a trailer with a hole in its head. The deadness of its eye glowed in the light, a globed well of darkness. He took the cigarette from his mouth and stuck it in the seal’s and passed on. The port holes of the Corby’s Aunt spilled light like paint onto the ground.
He looked up at the sign swinging above the door: the mastheads of a ship tipped by white fire - an unholy trinity of tapers aflame before a black altar: ‘The Corby’s Aunt.’ He tapped the barometer outside the door with a dirty fingernail and then shouldered into the smoky gloom of the bar. The needle flickered, pointing to omens in the sky that men did not see.
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