I am a man upon the land,
and I’m a selkie in the sea,
And when I’m far from every strand,
My home it is in Suleskerry.
Old Scottish Ballad
‘The forecast is good,’ Aidan says, in his soft way. ‘Cold Easterlies blowing at force four, bringing a bit of a chop to the skin of the water. That’s no bad thing, it brings the fish closer to the surface.’
‘Let’s get to it, then,’ Colm says, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
He casts off the lines at Deepwater Quay beneath the moon’s cold light. The trawler pulls away from Bantry harbour, motoring gently past the towering burial grounds, where a leaning clutter of Gravestones congregate on the steep slope like penitents.
On low revs they slip past Whiddy Island, then Aidan opens the throttles, driving hard past Bere Island through the yawning jaws of Bantry Bay, and into the Celtic Sea. The diesel’s growl stretches over the early morning silence as the indistinct outline of the Beara peninsula slips away behind them.
Colm’s gaze is on the open black water where iced tips of spume fluoresce in the white glow of a turning moon. This is the moment he loves and fears. He sees himself as a reluctant explorer, thrust by forces he doesn’t understand into a hostile environment which is both terrifying and strangely beautiful.
He glances back over the twin trail of their wake. His old farmhouse nestles out of sight beyond the cut of the Sheep’s Head ridge, sitting on the edge of its scrubby acres. He imagines Grainne asleep, stretching awake to the lazy dawn in an hour or so, snuggled in their warm bed, thinking of him out here on the cold sea. He’d like to be with her right now. He’s crewing on the Faery Queen for Aidan, along with Niall Mulcahy, a joint friend through the long school years, and Aidan’s cousin, Eoghan, over from Kerry for the learning of it all.
They skirt the Mizen Head lighthouse, sleepily blinking the night away behind them. The lights on shore twinkle like stars, then are gone, leaving just the ghostly red and green steering lights of the other boats flickering in and out through a soft swell as they take a south-westerly bearing into the Atlantic.
Dawn bleeds over the water as they head towards the curving horizon.
Aidan is a fishermen by trade, but Colm is a farmer by inheritance and choice, though in truth it’s not a living these days. Here, where the rocky fingers of West Cork reach towards America, he has 75 acres of marginal land, good for little; but they’re his. Hasped firmly to the land of his birth, rather than emigrate, he turns his hand to whatever comes his way. He’s helped Lén shoe horses at the Ballabuidhe Races in Dunmanway, served pints at the Harbour in Baltimore, dug land drains, roofed houses and fixed cars; and fishing is what he occasionally does when his sheep, bawling into the dense air of barns, are swelling with lambs and the grass is waiting for spring. And in the long summer evenings he drinks with his mates when the work is done. Being sociable, belonging, is second only to being alive, which is why he’s on the cold sea before dawn, not his favourite occupation at any time of day. When a deck hand calls in sick and a lifetime friend asks the question, how can a man refuse?
Aidan, up at the wheel in his yellow storm-gear, whistles down and points. Colm gives a thumbs-up, slides the offending fish crates to the hatch and throws them down. He, too, is thickly layered with fleece and gumboots and waterproofs, for the wind more than anything. It can be a cold old job out on the Atlantic, hauling in; but once you get working the heat builds up inside. Fishing isn’t his calling, but is simply part of West Cork life; like coming home to a warm fire, a hot supper and a hot young wife; the latter still somewhat a novelty to him. He is the luckiest man, really.
As the day rises, cold and clear, they seek the silver flicker of shoals, and finally loose the ratchets on the powerful winches, letting the nets fly. This is the quiet time before the frenzy of flapping, dying fish, and the cutting and gutting and boxing. It’s now that the gossip falls and tall tales are murmured as eyes focus on home or the past.
Colm and Aidan slouch companionably in the lea of the wheelhouse. Aidan is the same age as Colm, but the years on the sea make him seem ten years older, his skin toughened by the salt winds. He’s picking absently at a broken nail with his knife.
‘Anything new or strange?’
‘Not yet,’ Colm replies. ‘It’s early days.’
‘That the seed hasn’t set isn’t for the want of sowing?’
Aidan casts a sidelong glance and Colm echoes his slow smile. ‘You got that right.’
They’ve been friends since pre-school, and it’s no secret that Colm wants children. He’s a little concerned that it hasn’t happened yet, and questions whether there’s something wrong with himself. He’d discovered Grainne at a time when he was wondering if he’d ever find a girl that suited, and his contentment will surely be complete when she falls into the family way. He’d love to give those local mouths something positive to flap about. They all said it wouldn’t work: what, her from the city, to live on a farm in the middle of nowhere? She’ll be leaving as soon as she gets mud on her shoes, they said.
But she proved them wrong.
His inner smile is possessive. She’s his wife of just two years and he still loves the scent of her when his eyes are closed, the warmth of her in the darkness as she responds to his caresses. He’s realistic enough to know that this flurry of passion will fade to something softer, but young enough to hope it won’t happen too soon.
She’ll never make a farmer, he knows. Doesn’t want to be one, her an artist and all, but she’s a good wife, that’s a fact. She keeps a clean house and makes fancy London dinners the like of which he’s never eaten before. She’ll make a good mother, too. He saw it in her eyes when she’d held his cousin’s baby, Morgan, on their honeymoon in Canada, and what a blast that was; the diaspora of his own line arriving in droves to wish them well, gifts flying like snow, and the generosity, oh, my God.
Colm and Aidan fall into companionable silence, listening to the soft chatter of the other hands.
‘Mind the time when old Liam fell overboard? But we didn’t dare laugh, he was that mad…’
‘Fishing’s not so good now, not like it was once, for sure…’
‘I heard your Julie’s walking out with Chris O’Mahony, from Ballydehob?’
‘Back along, we’d be finished and home in time for breakfast…’
‘Jim-Joe got done for drinking and driving last week…’
‘The days were, when the fish would be jumping on board there were that many…’
Rolling broadside on a deep swell, something lurches in Colm’s belly, but he fights it back. He’s glad it’s a calm day. He has a love-hate relationship with the sea; it both fascinates him with its wild power and repels him with those miles of darkness under his feet. He’s never brought himself to learn how to swim, for what good it would do if he went overboard out here. The heavy-weather gear has an incorporated life jacket with some nifty little gadget on it which sends out a signal to say where you are, so the rescue boats can find you, even in the dark. Nifty, to be sure, but the best thing is to not be in the water at all.
For one born to a farm surrounded on three sides by salt, his fear of water is strange. He can stand on the point and revel in the storm, watching that huge expanse of water rise and beat itself to death, but can never as much as get his feet wet, not like the other lads who, as children, had thrown themselves off the black rocks in the bay, risking their lives and the wrath of their mothers. The sea has freaked him out for as long as he can remember, and his Da gave up trying to get him to swim, shaking his head, wondering where he found the courage to get washed in the mornings.
Hours later, when the sun has ridden low across the winter sky and shadows are falling far out on the water, Colm’s fingers are sore from the twine and stinking from the gutting. Although they can’t see the shore, the seagulls have found them, following the trail of guts with screaming delight.
‘We should head for home, lads, or the weight of it will surely turn us turtle,’ Aidan says. His brief smile betrays satisfaction. It isn’t always that way. The waters are over-fished these days; foreigners have no concern for boundaries.
Then Johnny yells over from the Callybird, ‘Stay on ’til tomorrow, lads? Give us a hand, and we’ll share the bonus in Annie’s bar.’
‘Greedy fecker, John-boy. We’ll hang on, but you owe us, OK?’
The Faery Queen is the smallest and oldest of the boats, loaded to the gunwales, but there’s an unspoken code: out together, in together, and when the fish are biting you don’t ignore the call. There are many days when the lockers stay empty as famine bellies.
Colm, looking towards home, a hot shower and a hot dinner, resigns himself to a cold night. The comforts of home are strange to him, being brought up by Da alone, and the novelty of having a woman of the house is still keen. It had been a man’s house before, with pockets of dust, working clothes hanging in the kitchen and dishes left at the sink. Now it is Grainne’s house, neat and clean, filled with the sunshine of her presence. She’s slotted into their lives easy as a cotter pin, holding everything together, and the time before her seems unreal. He doesn’t know quite how it happened, but she’s now central to every aspect of his life.
He spends a cold few hours below, huddled in his wet-weather gear, the only way to keep even a smidgen of warmth in a body, and drifts into a shallow sleep. He wakes abruptly to the knowledge that there’s a shift in the sea’s mood. It’s scratching at the side of the boat, lifting and dropping it petulantly.
Aidan’s head angles through the hatch. ‘Sea’s rising,’ he says. ‘Shame we didn’t go back earlier. I doubt they’ll get a strike now, for all John-boy’s wishes.’
Colm clambers up into the chill air. The seagulls have fled, leaving a massive silence over the sullen water. Sure enough, the radio crackles. He hears Johnny’s voice, distant and tinny.
‘Ahoy, Lad,’ Aidan yells back, hanging onto the wheel for support.
‘Heavy weather warning just came through. Old Tom’s up for making a run for home.’
‘I heard it. I’m with you there, John-boy.’
Colm assesses the peevish spit on the swell. It isn’t serious enough to be worried, and the imminent heavy weather hasn’t been given a bitch’s name, but if there’s a storm brewing in the wild depths of the Atlantic, he’ll be happy to turn tail ahead of it. Theirs isn’t a big commercial boat that could sit out a full-on gale; no, they’d be rattled like pennies in a beggar’s bowl, him spewing his guts up, no doubt.
They double-check that everything is shipshape, numb hands tightening the netted tarpaulins and battening the hatches firmly, then set a course to follow the Callybird and Lovely Lad. He’s pleased they feel more inclined to spend the following night with their families than battle on in the hope of a bonus catch.
The wind is fitful, now, the waves slapping the boat with annoyance. There’s still no gale warning, but this is the Atlantic, and she has her tempers. The engines pulse as they head nor-nor-east, not seeing the dawn for the blanket of clouds now hanging low over the water.
Colm is looking towards home when Eoghan asks, ‘What the feck is that?’
They look behind to see a grey curtain closing the gap between sky and sea.
‘Squall!’ Aidan yells. ‘Hook on!’
Colm clips his safety line to a bolt on the wheelhouse and feels the boat leap forward as Aidan piles on the gas. The water ahead turns to undulating black glass, marked only by the vee-wash of the other two boats speeding before them. But the calm is deceptive and as they run for home the sea rises under them as if pushed up by a giant hand. Then there’s a machine-gun spatter of sharp raindrops, followed by a downpour so heavy it seems as if they are battling through the weight of the Atlantic itself.
Colm braces himself into a corner below the wheelhouse, clutching a stanchion with one hand, the hatch handle with the other, and prays. Niall leaps to help Aidan hang on to the wheel, and for a while they desperately hold course, but the sea is running faster than the propellers. He hears Aidan scream a curse as the boat loses way. There’s a mighty snap and the boat catapults around, broadsiding the following sea. Colm stares up at the longest slope of water he’s ever seen. It culminates in a hand of foam which begins to curl over them.
‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, protect us,’ he whispers.
Then the boat is shunted around again and the bow ploughs into the dense black wall. Colm’s hands are torn from their grip, and he flails at the end of the lifeline into the freezing shock of water.