Authors: Sharon Bolton
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For Anne Marie, who was the first to tell me I could do it; and for Sarah, who makes me do it better
Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
I’ve been wondering if I have what it takes to kill. Whether I can look a living creature in the eye and take the one irreversible action that ends a life. Asked and answered, I suppose. I have no difficulty in killing. I’m actually rather good at it.
Tuesday, 1 November 1994
I believe just about anyone can kill in the right circumstances, given enough motivation. The question is, am I there yet? I think I must be. Because lately, it seems, I’ve been thinking of little else.
It is a minute after midnight. In two days’ time it will be the third of November. Two more days. Am I there yet?
Something is moving. Not the water surrounding me, that seems frozen in time, but the reflection of a bird. I don’t need to glance up to see that it’s a giant petrel. Massive, prehistoric-looking beasts with their six-foot wing span and their huge curving beaks, they often follow the boat, especially when I’m out at night, keeping pace with me however far I go or how fast I drive.
I’m not driving now. I’m sitting in the cockpit, staring at a photograph of my two sons. I must have been doing so for some time because my eyes are stinging. I squeeze them shut, then force myself to look away.
In the distance, the mountains are dark against a paler night sky and the water around me has the appearance and texture of an old glass mirror. Still, flawed in places, not quite translucent. It does this at times, this ocean, assumes a character so unlike itself as to take you momentarily unawares, make you forget that it’s one of the harshest, least forgiving seas in the world.
I’m anchored off the coast of the Falkland Islands, a tiny archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean, so distant from everywhere that matters, so unimportant on the world stage, that for centuries it escaped just about everybody’s attention. And then it became the discarded bone over which two ego-driven dogs of politics picked a fight. For a few brief weeks the whole world knew about us. That was over a decade ago and the world soon forgot.
We don’t forget though, and neither does Argentina. Every so often, even twelve years after it had its ass kicked, the Argentine government casts a leery eye in our direction. The Argentinians say the Islas Malvinas belong to them. We say ‘up yours’.
Not that we’re so very happy to be what we’ve become: an expensive indulgence, one of the last remaining scraps of the British Empire. We long for independence, for the income to fund our own defence. The hope is a faint one. And we never feel safe.
The photograph of my sons has faded. It’s not so obvious now but in the daylight the red of Kit’s jacket will be a dull pink, Ned’s yellow boots a sickly cream colour.
On the water, the reflected moon is so still and perfect that it might have fallen, whole and undamaged, from the sky. It lies a little way off the stern, as slender and unsubstantial as a sliver of wood shaving. Stars are scattered around it like litter, as though someone has sprinkled them randomly over the surface of the ocean. There is no light pollution in this far corner of the South Atlantic, and every star in the sky tonight is reflected directly below me. I seem surrounded by stars. When I lived briefly in the cities of the northern hemisphere, where the stars are pinpricks of light, sometimes invisible entirely, it was easy to forget their sheer number. Back home, every time I come out upon the ocean at night, I’m reminded of the vastness of the sky.
I rouse myself, not sure how long I’ve been sitting here, but knowing I have another twenty minutes or so of work to do before I’m done for the night. I change the tank, check the oxygen levels, put my mask and mouthpiece in place and step off the back of the boat.
Instantly the water wraps its cold blanket around me, chilling me in spite of the protective wetsuit I’m wearing, but I never mind this. I think of it as part of the acclimatization process, the transformation I have to undergo from land crawler to sea creature.
The water isn’t deep, twenty metres at most. Of course I shouldn’t dive by myself. I’m breaking the first rule of safety among divers even by being on the boat alone, but there is no one alive any more with either the authority or the influence to stop me, and I have little interest in safeguarding myself.
I look down, see the dive-line descending, disappearing into the darkness, then I let air out of my jacket and sink. A few feet down, I flip and start swimming towards the kelp forest that is coming into view below me.
Kelp, what most people call seaweed, grows in abundance here. Anchored to the seabed with a root-like structure, it stretches towards the light, its fronds and tendrils kept upright by gas-filled floats.
A boat was wrecked here, long ago, and since then the entire structure has broken apart to form the majestic, sub-marine architecture of the ocean floor. Huge pieces of wood, colonized by sea life, soar up from the seabed like underwater cities. Above it all, like an ancient forest, only one in constant, graceful motion, towers the kelp.
I reach its tip and continue down. In daylight, in clear conditions, the sheer brilliance of the colours around me would be astonishing. At night, seen only with the aid of my torch, they are softer, more muted. The custard of the kelp, the deep, smoky blue of the water, the occasional flashes of ruby red as crabs scuttle across the sand.
I am collecting samples of sea urchin. The kelp forests are important fish spawning areas but recently they’ve been in decline and one possible culprit is the sea urchin that eats away at their roots. The people I work with need to know if some new, invasive species is at large, or whether the normal population has just become a bit greedier. Potentially, selling fishing licences could be enormously lucrative for the islands’ economy. The fish matter, so the kelp forests matter, so my urchins matter. Overnight, they’ll be stored in refrigerated containers on the boat; in the morning I’ll take them to my lab in Stanley.
A couple of metres from the ocean floor, I make my way along a path I’ve already committed to memory. Many divers don’t like the kelp. They’re repulsed by the wet plant life brushing past them; they dread the occasions when it wraps itself, tendril-like, around limbs. I like the feeling of security it gives me. I enjoy being concealed, taking other creatures by surprise, sometimes being taken by surprise myself. My scavenging missions are always more successful when I am among kelp.
Suddenly, I realize I’m not alone down here. The kelp in front of me is moving at odds with the gentle sway of the waves. Something is coming towards me. A second later a young fur seal and I are practically nose to nose. It looks into my eyes then darts away again, following a fish that is moving too fast for me to note its species. I watch them zigzag across the ocean floor, but the feeling of unease doesn’t leave me.
It happens in an instant. A great shadow looms overhead, the water is pushed back against me with huge force, and a massive creature dives past after the seal. They make contact. There’s a frenzied squirming and tossing of flesh. The water erupts in an explosion of bubbles, then the two creatures break apart again.
The newcomer is an elephant seal, a large male, over two metres long. It is much slower than the fur seal but exceptionally strong. They begin a frantic chase through the kelp and I am in danger.
An elephant seal wouldn’t normally attack a human, it wouldn’t even bother a big seal, but this one is locked into the hunt, driven by the need to kill. The water around me is already stained with the young seal’s blood. If it escapes and the elephant spots me, it may just act without thinking. I freeze, crouched low in the kelp, hoping the chase will move away.
It doesn’t. The fur seal heads straight for me; it’s about to dive for cover in the dense vegetation when the elephant appears from above. The hunter locks its powerful jaws around the neck of its prey and shakes violently. Within seconds, the fur seal’s head is loose and limp. The elephant swims back to the surface with its kill.
And that’s how it’s done. Quickly, brutally, with no pause for doubt or reflection. That’s how we kill. I’ve been thinking a lot about death tonight, as I’ve sat on the ocean surface, as I’ve dived beneath it, about death and people’s ability to inflict it. About my own ability to kill.
After all, I come from a long line of murderers. My grandfather, the aptly named Bartholomew Coffin, was one of the most successful and ruthless killers this part of the world has ever known. Day after day, he and his gang went out, hunting without pause or pity, watching the ocean run red with blood. Of course, Grandpa killed whales, not people, but how different can it be, really?
When I’ve collected and bagged my last sample I’m ready to head up. Racing the bubbles around me, I see stars while I’m still several feet under. I break surface and for a moment can’t find the boat. In the time I’ve been below, the spell that held the ocean captive has broken and the water has started moving again. Waves rise up around me and I feel a stab of sharp excitement. I’m alone, far out to sea. If I can’t get back to the boat I will die out here. For some time now, I’ve had a sense of my life getting very close to its end. Is this it then? Am I to die today?
Then, there it is, not twenty metres away.
Queenie has woken up. She scampers along the side deck and yips at me until I catch hold of the ladder and pull myself up. I bend to pet her, covering her in water. She runs and fetches me the old towel from her bed. It’s covered in mud and dog hairs but I appreciate the thought.
Queenie is a Staffordshire terrier, tiny for the breed, a solid little bundle of muscle and silky-soft fur. Her nose, legs and the tip of her tail are white, but the rest of her is as black as the contents of my head. She is four years old and I swear there are times when she remembers the boys. When she grieves for them too.