Authors: Sharon Bolton
‘Has Bob Stopford seen it?’
He makes an exasperated movement and the speed increases again. ‘Course he bloody has. Trouble is, he’s not listening. I’m an incomer. I don’t understand island ways. I’m judging what happens here by the standards of Glasgow’s sink estates. He used those exact words.’
We’re going recklessly fast. A big wave now could swamp the wheelhouse. ‘What do you want Stopford to do?’
‘Go through this list and find out where each person was when Archie disappeared. If they can’t account for themselves, he should search their properties. He won’t do that, though, because then he has to admit that I’m right.’
‘Why should that be such a big deal?’ I stand and gesture that I’m ready to take the wheel back. ‘I’m not saying you are right, but if you are, why would it be such a problem for Stopford?’
We swap places again. Callum tucks the spreadsheet away but doesn’t sit down. He stands behind me, holding on to the roof beam for balance.
‘Wouldn’t he want the challenge of working on a big case?’ I ease back on the throttle, but gently. He notices, though. He misses nothing.
‘It won’t be just about him, though, will it? The Governor, the Legislative Assembly, the Foreign Office, hell, probably the entire British Government, all have an interest in keeping this place under the radar screen. If you start making a nuisance of yourselves, if you put your heads above the parapet again, for the wrong reasons, then the groundswell of opinion that you’re not worth the effort or the expense any more might just become uncontainable.’
‘You’re saying we can’t afford a serial killer?’
He shakes his head, as though despairing of my naivety. ‘Of the whole frigging world, Catrin, the Falklands can least afford a serial killer.’
I ramp the speed up again and we travel on.
* * *
On the south coast of East Falkland there is a long, narrow harbour called Port Pleasant and, at the harbour entrance, the low-lying Pleasant Island. It is just about becoming visible as a darker smudge on the horizon. The
lies in the narrow strip of water between the smaller and larger islands. Large boats rarely come in here, which is just as well because the
is dark metal, low lying in the water and in the dark, other boats could easily ram it. On a rough night, you’d mistake it for a wave until you were practically upon it.
I keep an eye on the depth as we get closer. My boat has a shallow hull but the tide is low and there are rocks scattered around this stretch of the coast. I can see the wreck now. It sits on the ocean floor and its bilges and lower cabins will be flooded, but it’s a tall boat and the wheelhouse at least is out of the water.
About twenty metres away I stop and release the anchor. As the grinding sound of the mechanism wakes my dog, Callum takes a deep breath and runs his hands over his face. For the last twenty minutes he’s said nothing.
‘We’ll have to do the last bit by dinghy. I hope you’re prepared to get wet.’ As I check the anchor is holding, pull on oilskins and speak a few words of reassurance to Queenie, Callum hauls the dinghy from the cabin roof. I hand him a life jacket, grab my kitbag and we climb down. The dinghy has an engine, of course, but at a shake of Callum’s head I don’t turn it on. He picks up the oars and we move silently through the water.
The wreck looks enormous from the water. It rises up before us, black and dead. Maybe sixty or seventy years ago it was left behind by those it served well. Not for the first time, I wonder if ships feel pain when their days on the sea come to an end.
It’s swaying in the rough sea. As we get closer, it rocks and pitches in a sad echo of how it used to move on water.
I dive wrecks from time to time, but I never really enjoy doing so. They attract a particular sort of ocean life into their secret places. Boats belong on top of the waves, not beneath them. Wrecks speak of lost hopes, of wasted lives, of dreams that didn’t survive the storm.
This is a horrific place to keep someone imprisoned. I can think of few crueller things to do to a child. On the other hand, if he’s here, imprisoned, then he’s still alive.
‘How do we get on board?’ We are approaching the bow and I can’t help feeling that the old ship is watching us, that there is something sentient on board, and that our presence is unwelcome. Maybe Callum is more right about this than he knew. I have a moment to feel glad he’s with me, this six and a half feet of muscle, then remember that I wouldn’t be anywhere near this place if he hadn’t bullied me into it. The deck must be twelve feet above us. There is no way up that I can see.
‘There’s a ladder at the stern. Starboard side.’
Starboard side is facing away from the shore. Callum pulls hard, and we move into the deeper shadow between the great hull and the moon.
‘Wait here.’ He stows the oars in the dinghy and stands up.
‘You’re going up on your own?’
As he reaches out, I see his hand shaking. ‘We really don’t know what’s up there.’ He tugs at the ladder, testing its strength. ‘If anything happens, if I’m more than ten minutes, get yourself back to the boat and call for assistance.’
He really does expect to find something on this boat, I realize. His silences on the trip over. His sickly green colour. Shaking hands. He’s scared.
Climbing quickly and silently for so big a man he disappears over the side and I’m alone on the ocean.
I listen, for the sound of footsteps, for the voice of a small child, and hear nothing but waves slapping the hull and wind screeching around the nearby hills. I want to stand up, to follow Callum up on deck, or cast off and get back to my own boat. I don’t want to be here, tethered to this dead ship.
How long has it been?
I keep listening, but the wind is strong and the water pulls and sucks at the iron hull of the ship, as though trying to lift it from its grave on the ocean bed. Callum might have vanished into the night.
How long can it take to search a wreck? The wheelhouse is above the water line but much of it has been damaged by the elements. There will be a cabin to its front that is the most likely prison for a child. All the other cabins and storage space below will be flooded. There really isn’t that much to search and I would have heard something by now.
Some way off, my boat is rocking on its anchor. I think I can see the gleam of Queenie’s eyes on the side deck.
He’s been gone too long. I reach into my kitbag and find what I’m looking for, then tuck my grandfather’s handgun in my pocket before reaching for the ladder. Meaning just to climb and look, I take one rung and the next until I can see over the side.
Constant movement on deck. Water is splashing over it every few seconds and then racing back to the sea. Clouds overhead cast drifting shadows. I search, for the glimmer of movement that isn’t water, for darkness that isn’t empty. There is no sign of Callum. A big wave hurls the
to one side, almost throwing me off the ladder. Suddenly, climbing aboard seems the safer option.
I’m on deck now, but rooted to the spot. The iron beneath my feet is covered in wet silt, rough with clinging shellfish. Weed is everywhere, some left strewn by wind, some growing of its own accord. The wreck is in the middle of a kelp field and the vegetation is trying to claim it. The wind grabs hold of my hair, pulling it up around my head. I reach into my pocket and pull out my grandfather’s pistol, hoping my hand doesn’t shake too much. I am not, particularly, experienced with firearms. My footsteps squelch as I move closer to the wheelhouse and the dank darkness of the ship seems to wrap itself around me.
It smells vile. It smells as though the carcasses of long-dead animals are rotting here, as though unspeakable things have crawled out of the water to feed on them.
The door of the wheelhouse is missing and I can see only blackness inside. I draw closer still and a tall figure takes form. I’m startled, have half turned to run, even as I realize it can only be Callum. He is standing upright, completely still. I see his shoulders rise and fall. His head is fixed, looking at something in front of him. Something I can’t see. It cannot be a scared but still living little boy, because if it were, he’d have bent to pick him up by now, would be carrying him back towards the dinghy, grinning in triumph, the way he always looked when—
I’ve reached out, laid my hand on his left shoulder. He spins on the spot, knocks my hand away so forcefully I drop the gun and stagger back. The stagger is what saves me, or possibly the weed on the floor that gets beneath his feet and brings him to his knees. Without my stagger, his stumble, those reaching hands would surely have found my throat. He’s on his feet again in an instant, but I didn’t fall and have a split-second advantage.
I’m out of the wheelhouse, racing for the side of the boat, have almost made the ladder when he catches me. I hit the deck flat out. He’s on top of me. Impossible to move with that weight pressing down on my chest. His hands are around my throat. I reach out and my hand closes around something hard. A backward twist of the elbow and I make contact with his skull. His weight lifts as he rolls away, grunting. I spring forward, twist round and his eyes meet mine.
There is blood dripping from the wound I made on his temple.
‘What are you doing?’ Instead of getting away while I can, I whimper like a child. ‘Callum? It’s me. What the hell are you doing?’
One hand goes to his bleeding head. The other stays on the deck to keep him steady. ‘Christ, what did I do?’
For a few seconds we crouch, a yard or so apart, holding eye contact. Then I stand quickly and back away. I see the gun on the deck by the wheelhouse and race towards it.
‘No, don’t go in th— Christ, is that thing loaded?’
I spin round. ‘It is. It put down a one-and-a-half-ton beached killer whale last year with a single shot to the head. I’m guessing your brain’s smaller.’
‘I’m not arguing on that one.’
‘Now talk to me. Do you know who I am?’
He gets up, but slowly, not wanting to alarm me. Or give me an excuse to fire. ‘Catrin Quinn, née Coffin. You’re thirty-four years old and you live on a cliff above Stanley, in a house with the creepiest frigging garden I’ve ever seen.’
He waits, and sees in my face that this probably isn’t enough.
‘I’m Callum Murray, former Second Lieutenant with the Parachute Regiment, originally from Dundee in Scotland. Sir Bradley Rose is Governor of the Falkland Islands and back home in the UK, John Major is Prime Minister. Want me to go on?’
‘No. Are you OK?’
I flick my head backwards, indicating the wheelhouse. ‘What’s in there? What did this to you and what is it you don’t want me to see?’
His face tightens. ‘We need to call Stopford. Let’s get back to the boat and get him on the radio.’
‘What’s in there?’
He shakes his head. ‘Stopford.’
Going into the wheelhouse means turning my back on him, but I don’t think it’s Callum I need to be afraid of any more. So I spin round and step inside. Apart from the thin beam of light gleaming from the torch he dropped, the wheelhouse is in darkness. The stench is stronger in here, as is the sense that I am surrounded by the sort of creeping, half-rotten life forms that inhabit nightmares. I find myself thinking of the poem Rachel loved so much, the one she was always quoting at me. The one she thought I’d like, because I always loved the sea. I didn’t, I hated it, but I’m remembering too much of it now.
The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.
I bend to pick up the torch, slipping the gun into my pocket, and hear Callum step inside with me. ‘Bow locker. Port-hand side. If you’re sure.’
I’m far from sure. But I aim the torch and see the child’s foot. It seems to tremble in the thin beam, like old movie footage. The world tilts and I’m not sure whether it’s the
knocked by another big wave, or just me.
I step closer: three, four steps and shine the torch along the full length of the child’s body, from head to sneaker-clad foot.
‘Jimmy,’ I say.
This isn’t the corpse of Archie West. The ankle-bone sticking out of the canvas, lace-up shoe is almost skeletonized. This could not have happened to Archie in a day. Also, these remains are too big to be those of a three-year-old, even a five-year-old. Not Archie, nor Fred. We’ve found Jimmy.
‘I’d say so.’ Callum is in the doorway of the wheelhouse. ‘Looks about seven years old.’
The little boy in front of me, just a tiny bit younger and smaller than Ned was, is still wearing scraps of clothes, including both shoes. There are tufts of hair on his head still. Most of his skin is gone. The flesh that gave him firm, plump cheeks, a stubby chin, strong little arms and matchstick-thin legs is gone too. All that is left of Jimmy is the calcium framework that should have been allowed to grow, to get stronger, to turn him into a large, healthy man.
I looked upon the rotting deck,
And there the dead men lay.
Coleridge. I remember now. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
A ghastly piece of work. Ned will look something like this. My angel is a corpse in the ground now, slowly rotting away as this child is. Ned has been dead for longer, his body will be showing a more advanced state of decay. I have never thought of this before. In my head, Ned is still the pale, but otherwise entirely familiar little boy who slips in and out of shadows at home, chasing his ghostly brother from one hidey-hole to the next.
It’s as though I’m looking at Ned, as though someone has forced me to dig up his grave and confront the reality of what he’s become.
The boat sways, the torch beam falls and I feel the weight of two large hands on my shoulders. The temptation to lean back into them, to close my eyes, is almost irresistible.
‘His skull looks weird.’ Callum has taken the torch from me and is aiming it at Jimmy’s head.