Authors: Sharon Bolton
Somehow I manage to answer him. ‘He hadn’t lost his milk teeth.’ Without facial flesh and skin, two rows of dentition can be seen around Jimmy’s jaw, one above the other, waiting to push through. Perfectly normal for a child that age, but so very, very odd to see.
Ned lost a milk tooth days before he died. The lower-right central incisor. I still have it, in a tiny heart-shaped box by my bed. If this were Ned, I’d be able to see the gap. I can’t bear this. I can’t.
Callum lowers the torch. ‘I see his dad in the Globe sometimes,’ he says. ‘He works up at the hospital.’
He had a sister in Kit’s class. I try to say this out loud, to prove I’m OK, but I can’t. Emily, I think she was called. A pretty little thing.
Callum takes hold of me again, but I shrug him off, because something has occurred to me. ‘The others could be here too. Archie, even Fred. We have to look. ‘Archie!’ I call out. ‘Archie, can you hear us?’
I feel his breath in my ear. ‘Cat, there’s nowhere else they can be. This and the cabin are the only spaces above water. I’d checked the cabin before I saw him.’
It’s not that I don’t believe him, I just need to see it for myself. I push at the narrow, arched wooden door that takes me into the triangular-shaped cabin at the front of the boat. Someone, Callum I imagine, has opened the three lockers. They are all empty, apart from a few inches of water. The cabin floor, too, is under an inch or so of water. There is nothing in here.
The steps leading below deck are on the starboard side of the wheelhouse. As I head for them, Callum catches hold of me. ‘No way. You are not going below deck in the middle of the night.’
‘What if Archie’s down there?’
‘If Archie’s down there, he’s dead too. There are only two steps above the water line. It isn’t happening, Catrin.’
He takes advantage of my hesitation to push me out of the wheelhouse. He’s right, of course. There is nowhere else in here a body can be hidden and any below deck aren’t going anywhere in a hurry. The adrenalin that brought me on board, that made me fight and win against a man twice my size, that gave me the courage to search for a dead child, is gone. I’m exhausted and more miserable than at any time in the last three years. I honestly wouldn’t have believed that possible.
‘You were right,’ I whisper as we head across the deck. ‘Well almost. Congratulations.’
‘Aye, it’s a blast being brilliant.’
* * *
No need for stealth on the return trip. We use the outboard and are at my boat in seconds. Queenie gives a little ‘hurry it up, will you’ yip as I cut the engine and Callum ties the dinghy up.
‘Radio reception isn’t great here.’ I climb up after him and he turns to pull me up the last foot or so. ‘We should motor round the headland. It’s more sheltered there too.’
The next harbour along is Port Fitzroy, another anchorage I know well. While I’m securing the boat, Callum makes the radio call to Stopford. Knowing any number of others could hear it too, even at this hour, he keeps details to a minimum. I take off my oilskins and turn up the heater. He joins me, taking the seat opposite in the cabin that always feels ridiculously small when he’s in it. He too pulls off his coat. Queenie cuddles up close to me and stares at him.
‘I’m assuming that was a flashback,’ I say. ‘On the
just now. When you lost it.’
He pulls a face that indicates agreement. And one that reveals his shame.
‘You told me they’d stopped. You said you didn’t have them any more.’ It doesn’t escape me that I sound like a wife with a grievance.
The cabin light behind me is shining directly at him, because his odd-coloured eyes are apparent. I find my own eyes flicking from the green, to the blue. I could never decide which I preferred.
Shortly after Callum and I first met, he told me about the posttraumatic stress disorder that he, like so many soldiers from the Falklands conflict, suffers from. His particular mental illness – because that’s what it is, make no mistake about it – usually takes the form of flashbacks to the conflict itself. For hours at a time he goes to another place entirely. A darker, more violent place. I looked up PTSD once. Flashbacks are a common symptom.
‘When I told you that it was true. They pretty much stopped within a year of my moving back here. I can’t really explain why being here helps, but it does. Or rather, it did.’ He drops his head into his hands, pushes his fingers through his hair. ‘A couple of years ago, they started again. Normally, if I feel one coming on, I make sure I’m alone.’
He’s talking to the cockpit floor now. ‘They’re triggered by stress. Anxiety. It was stupid of me to come out here. I’m not good around water. Not since – sorry, you don’t want to hear this.’
‘What do you mean, you’re not good in water? I’ve seen you swimming. What’s water got to do with anything?’
He looks up, stares at me for long, long seconds. ‘Cat, do you really not know?’ he says, eventually.
‘Not know what?’ Suddenly, my heart is hammering. I have a feeling that I really don’t know. And that it might be better if I carry on not knowing.
‘The day Ned and Kit died, I was there.’
It is as though he has hit me again. I know practically nothing about the accident that killed Ned and Kit. I know that the car in which they’d been left alone started to roll, that one of them had probably been playing with the handbrake, that it went over the clifftop outside my house. That it fell twenty feet into a high tide.
‘I saw the car go into the water. I was the one who got them out.’
Callum was there. He saw it happen. And he didn’t save them?
He’s off the seat now, kneeling in front of me. ‘I had to climb down after them. It’s not steep there, as you know, not particularly high, but it took time. The car had sunk before I got to the water. I pulled Kit out first, then Ned. I pulled them on to the rocks and I was praying they were just concussed but I had to go back and make sure there was no one else in the car. I knew it was Rachel’s and I thought she might be in it too. Or her kids.’
I think I knew that someone had been at the scene. I hadn’t known it was him. No one had talked to me about the details and I hadn’t asked. I hadn’t gone to the inquest.
‘The impact killed Ned and Kit, Catrin. They didn’t drown. They were dead when I got them out.’
I knew this, I think, yes I did. That much seeped through the drug-fogged haze that was my life in the weeks following the accident. Ned and Kit didn’t drown. They were killed instantly. I have always taken some comfort in that. But the terror! Those last few seconds, as the car fell—
Callum is holding my hands. ‘There’s something else,’ he says.
I’m not sure I can deal with anything else.
He reaches into the pocket of his jacket. It takes me a moment to register the object that he pulls out and, when I do, I think I’m going to be sick. I gulp down something vile then stretch out for it. He hesitates for a second before handing it over.
‘That’s exactly what I thought, when I saw it,’ he says. ‘It was on the deck, caught behind some chains. I recognized it straight away, but I don’t think it can be. What are the chances?’
I’m holding a stuffed rabbit, with long ears, glass eyes and a blue jacket. The colours have faded, it’s been shrunken by the seawater, but I’d know it anywhere. Benny Bunny. Kit’s favourite cuddly toy. When Kit and Michael were tiny, Rachel and I both bought identical toy rabbits for our youngest. Kit loved his so much. I had to prise it from his sleeping fists to wash it. It was with him in the car the day he died. I haven’t seen it since.
‘They were pretty common on the islands a few years ago, weren’t they?’ Callum is saying as I can’t take my eyes off the toy. ‘It probably isn’t Kit’s. The beach here is quite popular for beach-combing. All sorts of things get washed in by the tide. I really don’t think it can be Kit’s.’
I nod again.
‘I’d seen Jimmy’s body, I was on my way back to you when I saw it.’ I think Callum is talking non-stop because he’s afraid of what I might do. ‘I think it was the toy, rather than the body, that brought on the flashback. The next thing I remember is you whacking me over the head with that piece of iron.’
‘Did it hurt?’ I take my eyes away from the rabbit to look at the wound on his temple. It doesn’t seem too bad, but I bet he has a hell of a headache.
‘Did I hurt you?’
My throat is still sore but there’s no serious damage done. What he would have done if I hadn’t stopped him is another matter. ‘I’m OK. But you should probably see someone.’
‘I already do.’
His hands are shaking. In spite of the warmth of the cabin, of the thickness growing in the air as the kerosene fumes fill it, we are both still cold.
‘I’ll get you some aspirin.’ I stand up.
‘Shhh. Did you hear that?’
He gets to his feet, squeezes around me and goes out into the cockpit. Puzzled, not sure whether to be alarmed or not, I follow and find him on the stern deck.
The sound of the wind and the ocean. The sound of loneliness. The sound of distance from everything. Then something else. Something musical, beautiful, heartbreakingly sad. Whale song.
‘They must be close.’ The wave of sound dies away and I reach back inside the wheelhouse for binoculars.
Callum is spinning slowly on deck, trying to locate the source. ‘I’ve never heard anything like it before. I thought whale song could only be heard underwater.’
The sounds have gone for the moment, all we can hear is the rumble of the waves and the wind coming off the hills. ‘It’s unusual but it happens. There are stories of whales having conversations with people. Even with dogs.’
‘What are they?’
I put my fingers behind my ear to indicate that I’m listening and wait for it to start again. A moment of nothing but water sounds and then a long, low growl followed by a purr like that of an enormous cat. Then the tone changes completely to one tuneful, high-pitched, almost a keening sound.
‘I don’t think it’s one of the dolphin species.’ I lift the binoculars and look in what I think is the right direction. ‘They make more of a chirruping, clicking noise.’ I can’t see anything. It’s too dark, the animals are too far away. ‘Could be humpbacks, they have the most complex song, but they’re not that common here.’
‘They sound sad.’
The sounds have settled into the rhythmic repetitions that bear some similarities to human song. Then there comes the whoosh of a blow. I give the binoculars to Callum but he can’t find them either. They’re not in this bay, but somewhere close. We listen for five, maybe ten minutes until the song fades into wind and wave. Then we go back inside. We don’t sit down. Something has changed. Suddenly, it’s not the dead child, or the missing one that’s uppermost in my mind.
‘How long before Stopford gets here?’
He shakes his head. ‘I’d like to say just over an hour, but he can’t mobilize as fast as we did. You should get some rest.’
We both look to the closed door of the bow cabin. I know exactly what he’s thinking. I’m thinking it too.
‘Callum, about— I’m sorry— I just—’ I have no idea what it is I want to say.
He gives me the first smile I’ve seen on his face in a very long time. Although I don’t think I’ve ever seen a smile quite this sad before. ‘I know,’ he says. Which is good. Because I don’t.
* * *
Queenie joins me on the bunk, her fur damp from the spray, and doesn’t complain when I cling to her. We lie together, awake and shivering. We listen to Callum moving around in the main cabin, we hear the pumping of the heads, then silence as he settles down to rest.
The wind gets up. Storms come from nowhere in this part of the world. The boat starts to rock and pull against its anchor and an eerie whistling comes from the headland. Just as I’m dozing off, I hear the whales again. Two distinct species this time, the steady mournful song of the large toothed whales, and the lighter, chirrupy notes of a dolphin species. Callum was wrong, I think, as I try not to wake properly. They don’t sound sad. They sound afraid.
* * *
When I was fifteen, my father and I rescued a young pilot whale from drowning. We were out in his large, flat-bottomed boat, fishing. Fishing, with my father, meant lowering massive nets at previously selected spots. Periodically, we’d scoop them up, counting, photographing, making notes before releasing the captured fish. We’d been at it around an hour when we noticed the large shape in the water. Grey-black, smooth, motionless.
‘What is it?’
‘Young pilot, I think.’ Dad moved us closer. ‘Can you see the round head? And that pectoral fin looks quite large.’
‘Is it dead?’ The whale proved emphatically that it wasn’t by exhaling loudly.
Something was wrong though, even I could see that. The whale was hardly moving and its tail end seemed to be weighted down in the water.
‘I’m going to have a look.’ Dad was already reaching for his snorkel and mask.
He approached the whale slowly, he wasn’t stupid, and swam the length of the animal’s body towards its tail. After a couple of minutes he came up and swam to the boat.
‘It – she – is caught up in a fishing net.’
I helped him on board.
‘It’s wrapped around her tail and both pectorals, stretching up as far as the dorsal fin. She can’t swim and her rear end is being weighted down.’
I looked at the sleek dark shape in the water. She seemed to be edging closer to us, had turned her head so that she could see us. ‘What will happen to her?’
Dad was out of breath. ‘Eventually she’ll get exhausted trying to stay near to the surface. She’ll sink and drown.’
‘Dad, we have to do something.’ At fifteen, you still think your father can achieve anything he puts his mind to.
I watched him think about it. Approaching a frightened, injured whale was an incredibly dangerous thing to do. One unpredictable flip, and we’d be in the water. On the other hand, if we did nothing, she’d die for sure.
We helped her, of course, it was never really in any doubt. I’d have cried all the way home if we’d left her and I imagine Dad would have too. We paddled right up to her and then, with me on board and Dad in the water, we began the painstaking process of pulling the net away.