O Voyagers

story about the ocean

When Maggie Murray lost her husband to drowning, it came as no surprise. The sea had never made any secret of itself. She knew what it was and what it did, and she’d carried the weight of that knowledge since her earliest days.

She’d been just a bairn when her father paid for a pleasure trip on a flat calm day when the Firth was a lake and sunlight stippled the water. But as soon as the boat slid out of the harbour mouth, Maggie felt the deck move under her feet and began to scream. By the time the boat was brought back into the harbour, she was half-senseless. They laid her on the quay, and she stared at the muddy hems of the women’s skirts while her father went to fetch the pony and trap. Someone slipped a folded shawl beneath her head, but she heard their whispers.

In later years, her mother-in-law used to say that Maggie’s dread of the water came from the Murrays being people of the land. It was true that every year brought the same safe swing of the seasons at the farmhouse in Pitgarten: the creaking plough trailed by clouds of gulls, the spreading of seaweed across the red-brown earth, the pigs in the byre, the black-muzzled sheep clumped together in the field. There was a photograph of Maggie’s dead mother on the mantelpiece, a young woman in a high-necked dress, strong-faced, hair pulled tight against her head. Her father said she’d been prettier in real life, rounder, and with a flashing toothy smile. Maggie had no memories of her, but sometimes she thought she remembered floating in the womb, knees curled to her chest, hands fronding in the viscous space.

Every day, rain or shine, her father drove Maggie the three miles into the village to school. She liked the scratching of chalk on the slates, the heat of the coal stove, the colourful maps, but in the windy playground, the boys pushed and elbowed her, circling fingers at their temples – ‘Maggie Murray’s a daftie! She’s awa’ wi’ the fairies!’ When the spring tides came, the teacher let the children stand at the window and watch the fat-fisted sea grab at the tiny boats that carried their fathers and uncles and brothers. They cheered as each fought its way to the safety of the harbour mouth, but Maggie, unable to turn away, bit her knuckles until they bled, and the teacher had to wrap them in gauze.

After her school days were over, she only came down to the village on market days and on Sundays to go to the kirk with her father. She spoke along with the prayers, looking up at the dust and shadows of the high ceiling. The local men stared at her across the pews but gave her a wide berth at the kirk gate, ducking their heads and pinching their bonnet rims as they passed.

So by the time Billy Cruikshank began to walk up to the farm on Sunday afternoons, she was almost thirty and had never been courted. His wooing went slowly, so slowly she began to doubt him, and it brought out a longing in her that surprised her. Each time he sat in the farm parlour with his hat on his knees, she grew more desperate to feel his mouth on hers.

One Sunday he didn’t come and sent no word, and she rushed from window to window looking down over the fields to the village and the sea beyond, silvered by the full moon. Her father watched her silently from his chair by the fire. She lay awake into the night, staring at the stripe the moon threw across her ceiling. Then she heard something and sat up. Outside the window, Billy was calling her name, his voice different, ragged. She ran outside in her nightdress, and he cried out that his brother had been swept from his lobster boat and drowned. Cradling him as he wept, she had to struggle to contain her joy, so much did she want him.

Once Maggie became his intended bride, he took her to meet his mother. Ishbel Cruikshank met them on the scrubbed doorstep of her tall house on the foreshore, hands folded across her stomach, her black clothes sharp with the smell of cedar. They drank tea from her best bone china. Under a glass dome, birds perched frozen on a branch, and on the upright piano was a picture of Billy’s father, his long bushy beard and frock coat, a drop cloth of palm trees behind him. Billy’s mother followed Maggie’s gaze.

‘Ma late husband, he wis on the clipper ships as a boy. Sailed a’ aboot the woruld he did. Rangoon, Penang, the South Seas. He came hame wi’ enough money tae build his ain boat.’

‘The Ishbel?’

‘Aye. I always said ma boys are jist like their faither. There’s nae blood in the veins, it’s a’ salt water.’

‘I’m right sorry for the loss of your son, Mother Cruikshank.’ Maggie said, but it was as if she hadn’t spoken.

‘Bill, d’ye mind oor Jimmy up tae his oxters in herring guts asking wee Jennie Gourlay to walk out wi’ him? All stinking of herring he was, and still she said aye. Naebody could say no to our Jim, isn’t that right?’

‘Aye, Mither, right enough.’

Billy’s mother looked Maggie up and down. ‘Ye’ll no’ be used to the fishing life, child. Are ye sure ye’ve got the stomach fer it?’

Maggie gazed across at Billy, his brown eyes, his wide chest. He looked like someone who was a match for anything. ‘I believe I do, Mother Cruikshank.’

‘In my mither’s day, the women carried their men doon tae the boats on their backs and helped tae pull the boats ashore. D’ye think ye could do that?’

‘I’ll do whatever Billy needs of me, Mother Cruikshank. He won’t find me wanting.’

They married as soon as they could have the banns said. The only witnesses were Mother Cruikshank and Maggie’s father in his best Sunday coat. With the death of Billy’s brother still fresh, there was no circuit of the village, no supper at the Smugglers Inn with fiddlers and dancing, just the bringing of Maggie’s kist to Billy’s wee house by the boatbuilders yard that smelled of larch and sawdust. It was strange to be able to hear the waves night and day, sometimes a rhythmic inhale and exhale, sometimes a roar and boom. She’d been used to the farm where the deep stillness was broken only by the stamp of the horses and the high shrill note of a peewit crying across the fields.

Being a wife pried Maggie wide open. She swept and scrubbed and made the porridge and baked griddle cakes just as she had for her father, but now there was a husband, a man whose firm warm body lay beside hers in the curtained bed, who reached beneath her nightclothes with calloused hands, seeking her bare private flesh. Nothing prepared her for the pleasure, the almost fainting intensity when he raised himself above her, arms roped with muscle from hauling nets and hoisting sails.

Billy was a good husband, hard-working, kind, not too much for the drink. And he revelled in his new wife. He even wanted to rename the Ishbel the Maggie Murray, but Maggie begged him not to. It was bad luck to change a boat’s name. Besides, it was called after his mother, and that was as it should be.

Her old fears arose again whenever he put out to sea. In the first autumn of their marriage when Billy had to leave for the long southern drave on the Yarmouth grounds, Maggie fell to her knees, fists clenched to her head.

‘I cannae bear it, Billy.’

‘It’s no’ but the three months, my love. I’ll come back hame to ye, I promise.’

‘But isn’t that where your father was lost?’

‘Noo, Maggie. Ye canny fret. I’m a guid skipper, and the Ishbel’s a braw ship. It’ll be a’richt, my lass.’

She dreamt of Billy’s father pitched into the sea, bubbles rising from his gaping mouth, seaweed twined in his beard. She pressed her husband’s palm to her face to remember its shape and kissed his scabby knuckles until he gently drew them away.

‘Maggie love, I’ve got tae catch the tide.’

She walked on shaking legs beside him to the pier where the women and children were gathering to see off the fleet. Billy gave her a coin to toss in the boat for luck and pointed to the horseshoe hammered to the foremast.

‘I’ve got all the guid fortune in the world wi’ me, Maggie. And you here waiting for me when I come hame.’

He grasped her by the waist and gave her a deep kiss, his whiskers rasping her skin, the Watson boys down in the boat hooting and clapping, and then he sprang down into the Ishbel, pushed her off from the harbour wall and let the great brown sails unfurl.

While he was gone, Maggie went to the farm to help her father with the tattie picking. Women and children bent to lift the potatoes into their baskets, breath wisping in the cold air. At the piece break, Maggie and her father sat on a wall to unwrap boiled eggs, cold potatoes and smokies.

‘Will ye hear a few words from yer faither who loves ye?’

Maggie looked at him, her hand on the ginger beer bottle. ‘Aye, of course I will.’

‘Yer man disnae like tae see ye sae doon in the mouth, lassie. You mustnae be angry wi’ him for what he does to provide fer ye.’

The curlews strutted across the field, picking at the earth with their long, curved bills.

‘But why could he not become a farmer like you? He could sell the boat and we could buy a wee place out here.’

‘D’you no’ see, lass? He’ll niver be happy doing onything else. Ye married a fisherman, bonnie lass. This is the life you chose.’

He finished eating, wiped his hand across his mouth and patted her knee. ‘He’ll be hame afore ye ken he’s gone. Dinnae you fret.’

Billy wrote Maggie letters, the ink smeared with sea spray. She kept them in a box that had been her mother’s, inlaid with tiny pieces of ivory. And when he returned, there was the joy of having him back in the box bed beside her, solid with warmth and appetite. Very soon there was a baby, a tiny wee boy with slits for eyes and earthworm fingers. The women told her she’d be lucky at her age to have any more, but Billy came ashore with such passion for her that she fell pregnant again when she was still suckling the first. He cursed himself for putting her through it again so soon. She held his head against her leaking breasts and told him to shusht; it was everything she wanted.

She named the boys Mungo and Fillan, after the saints. They slept in the same cradle, their arms and legs tangled, sucking whichever thumb was closest. There was another baby, a girl, Iona, but she came too early, oyster blue and limp as bladderwrack. The women took the tiny body away but not before Maggie cut a wisp of the baby’s hair to wear in a brooch at her throat.

The boys grew up fast, Mungo with Billy’s rough curls and Fillan with her own silky straightness, not a bit alike to look at but inseparable as twins. They were always wrestling underfoot or up in the loft with the men mending the nets. Her love for them was a sharpness between her breasts. Mother Cruikshank snorted at how Maggie hung over them, but Billy never chided her. After kirk on Sundays, he’d borrow a trap and drive them all up the landward road to the farm. The boys would clamber over the hay bales and poke in the midden with sticks, while Maggie leaned from the window, calling to them to take care.

‘Leave them be, Maggie,’ her father said, holding his teacup against his Sunday waistcoat. ‘Ye’ll be making jessies out of them.’

But Billy would rise and go out to the yard and call the boys into the parlour, where they’d sit kicking at the chair legs.

After the children came along, it was easier to bear Billy’s absences as they distracted her with their infant needs and rowdy good humour. But there were days where she’d go about the house, hands shaking as she kneaded the dough. She’d tap the barometer a dozen times an hour and put her head outdoors to look at the sky. When the wind rattled the sashes, she’d pile the peat on the fire and pace the floor till sweat eased down her spine. When the boys ran back from the harbour to say the Ishbel was in, she’d knead the muscles of her neck, hearing the cracking as she circled her head on her shoulders. By the time Billy came in the door in his oilskins, smelling of brine and fish guts, she’d be making the dinner.

‘Mind your feet, man. I’ve not long scrubbed that floor.’

It was better in the summer at the Lammas Drave when the boats shot their nets out in the Firth, the sea flat as a pane of glass and the shoals shimmering just below the surface. In the late afternoons, Maggie took the boys down to the beach to watch the fleet hoisting the mizzens to turn upwind for the drifting. On those days, the sea curled round her ankles like a cat, but she dreaded its grey heaving in winter, the moon-driven push and pull of it, its lurking power, the smash and burst of it against the sea wall, spray as high as the rooftops. A fickle, scunnering sea, as dense and unyielding as granite.

She became an expert on the wind – the north and north-west winds from inland, feathering the surface of the Firth; the south-westerlies from the uplands, pushing the herring close to the shore; the easterlies that roared in from the sea. Billy’s mother told her, ‘It’s a weakness in you. You’ll no’ stop the worst from happening by scowling and worriting.’

If her daughter had lived, perhaps she could have borne it better, having someone to share the waiting as they sat over the fire. The boys never hung around her skirts or leaned their heads against her knee as she darned. There’d be a quick hug around the waist as they ran past, her hands too busy pounding dough or hanging clothes to touch them before they were gone. They were always up in the gear-loft among the ropes and floats and barrels, listening to the men’s stories about their biggest catches and greatest escapes, the schools of dolphin that guided the Ishbel to the shoals, the seals that honked at them from the May Isle rocks. And, once, the startling glory of a breaching humpback whale.

‘I wish you wouldn’t tell them such stories, Billy. You make it sound like an adventure story but it’s not. It’s hard and dreich and dangerous as you know fine well.’

‘Aye richt enough, but it’s a braw life for a’ that. I want them tae love it like I do.’

When the Ishbel was being spring cleaned before the northern fishing, Mungo and Fillan helped to sluice the deck and coil the ropes. Maggie watched them from the pier, forbidden to set foot on deck because having a woman on board was unlucky. And she watched as they learned to winch the nets into the loft and bark the Ishbel’s sails and tar her keel. The boys worked hard, eager to please their father, anxious to be like him.

Yet many a time she’d wake to Fillan shouting in the night, rigid and dreaming with wide open eyes. She’d gently touch his face to wake him and watch the terror drain away as the shadows became familiar, as he felt his brother’s warmth next to him in bed. He’d let Maggie stay with him and stroke his head till he drifted off again. Her feet grew cold and her knees ached yet still she stayed, watching her sons’ young bodies, limpid in sleep.

The winter the boys were eight and nine, Billy came home from Yarmouth, his kit bag full of interesting bundles that were locked away in the kist until Christmas morning. He had a whole long month at home, a month of hoar frosts and clear starry nights, a month when Maggie didn’t once look at the barometer. He took the boys to fish off the pier end and gather holly from the bushes on the inland road, then he sent them to stay with Grannie Cruikshank and took Maggie to St. Andrews for a holiday. They walked around the frozen town hand in hand, by the ruined castle, the bare arches of the Cathedral, along the great sweep of the West Sands. Then, raw with cold, they’d fall into the inn’s big white bed and warm each other from head to sole.

Their walks took them past the tall stone buildings of the University, stained with damp and softened by red ivy. Maggie thought of all the books gathered there, row upon row stacked high to the ceilings, or tucked under the arms of the hurrying students, their gowns blowing behind them like wings.

‘Can’t you see the boys here one day? Wouldn’t that be grand?’

‘Dinnae be daft. The university’s nae for the likes o’ us. Whit use wid it be tae the boys? They’re learning all they need tae know frae me and you and the wee school.’

‘There’s other things to learn than the fishing, Billy.’

‘For some folk mebbe. Nae fer ma bairns.’

She pulled her hand out of the crook of his arm, and he stopped short in surprise.

‘Whit’s the matter?’

‘Whit’s the matter wi’ you? Do you no want your boys to move up in the world?’

Billy tapped his foot. ‘No, I do not. What’s got into ye, Maggie? All this – it’s fer the well-tae-do folks, nae us. They wudnae let the likes of us in yon fancy door. We dinnae need them, thank you very much. The boys are jist fine as they are. Noo, let’s go and get ourselves a bit of tea. I’m parched.’

When the year turned, it was winter herring season out in the Firth, an icy glazed time of year, with bitter easterlies at every high tide. With the fleet working close to home, Maggie stayed up at nights wrapped in her warmest shawl, standing by the draughty window in the gear loft to watch the drifters’ lanterns flash and vanish as they rode the swell. Each time she heard Billy scraping his boots outside the front door was a reprieve, but the fret inside her grew and grew, and without noticing she’d hold onto her breath until the room around her went dim and she remembered to exhale.

So, on the bitter January night when a screaming gale tore pantiles from roofs and the sea roared in, smashing up against the sea wall and drenching the houses on the foreshore, she knew. Though she pulled on an oilskin and went out in the thick of it, her eyes raking the darkness for signs of lights out in the Firth, she knew. As she bent into the wind, her hands turning blue and numb, seeing Billy’s face as he was torn from the deck, his waders filling, she knew. As one by one the drifters staggered back to the harbour, but in the cold light of morning the Ishbel was still not among them, she was certain.

The church bells were rung, and the lifeboat was launched out into the Firth, now lying sullen under a slate grey sky. Maggie’s father hurried down from Pitgarten, and he and Billy’s mother sat with Maggie as they waited for news. Tommy Nisbet, the coxswain, came himself to tell them they’d searched the inlets and coves all along to the tip of Fife Ness, but there was no sign of the Ishbel on the North Carr Shoals.

A moan rose from the lips of Billy’s mother, but Maggie sat quietly, her hands clasped in her lap. ‘It’s no good,’ she said. ‘He’s gone.’

Her father tried to reason with her. ‘The boat’s out there somewhere, I’m tellin’ ye, lass. If she was wrecked, they’d hae found her by noo. She’s a Fifie – she’s come back from worse seas than that, isn’t that richt, Ishbel?’

Billy’s mother shook her head. ‘A woman kens. If Maggie feels it, it’s so.’

On the second day after the storm, Maggie opened her kist and brought out a high-necked black dress, the bodice and skirt edged with jet beads. Ishbel, her eyes narrowed with private weeping, was taken aback. ‘How long have you had that, child?’

Maggie put on the dress and pinned black crape around the mantelpiece and over the curtain poles. Billy’s mother helped. Sometimes the boys cried with their faces in Maggie’s lap, and sometimes they slept heavily together without moving, but mostly they fought and wrestled and roamed the streets as usual. As the skipper’s wife, Maggie paid visits to the other widows, holding their hands as they wept and hoped and despaired, but when she thought of Billy, there was nothing but a deep stillness and calm. She overheard Ishbel telling the other women, ‘For all the greiting and fretting she did while Billy was still here, she’s been a guid brave lassie these past days.’

On the second Sunday after the storm, there was a service at the kirk for the men lost on the Ishbel. Arm in arm with Billy’s mother, Maggie led the widows through the town to the slow tolling of the bells, the sea breeze tugging their black bonnet ribbons. Fillan held her hand and Mungo held Ishbel’s as they walked up the brae to the kirk. The minister preached a fine sermon, noting all the crewmen by name – Robert Boyter, Magnus Corstorphine, Davie and George Watson, Martin Gardner, Alex Gourlay, Doogie Anderson, and young Peter Jack, just thirteen years old. And their fine skipper, Billy Cruikshank, from a long line of fisherfolk, many of whom had also lost their lives at sea. Fillan poked at the pew in front of him with the toes of his new boots, and Maggie put her hand on his leg. They stood to sing ‘Eternal Father, strong to save, whose arm doth bind the restless wave.’ Voices rose up the whitewashed walls, and the clear latticed windows flared with light as the sun came out from behind the clouds. Maggie’s voice rose with the others, but Ishbel sat bent over, sobbing into her handkerchief as Mungo’s small hand patted her wide back over and over.

After the service, Maggie and Ishbel stood together in the kirkyard looking out at the sea, a washed-out silver in the winter sun.

‘My boys and their faither are a’ the gither, safe in the hands of the Lord.’

Maggie clutched Ishbel’s arm close to her body. From the edge of the town came the hoot and rumble of a train on the line to Dundee.

‘Oh Maggie, for the love of Jesus, why am I niver left wi’ a body tae wash and see intae their last rest? Why is that, d’ye think? Am I sich a sinner tae deserve this?’

Maggie looked out at the flat emptiness of the Firth, the sly, deceptive calm of it now that it had what it wanted. ‘Because the sea has no mercy, Mother.’

After the wake, after the mourners had shaken Maggie’s hand and gone home, after she’d tucked the boys into their bed and sat with them until they slept, she sank into Billy’s chair by the fire. With the mantel clock ticking into the silence, she breathed in the smell of brine and sweat and tar and Billy in the upholstery, and, gasping, pitched forward and tugged at her collar, the fire hot on her face. How could she live without him, without his hand high up on her thigh beneath her shift, his thumb teasing the pinkness of her so sweetly. Without his salt-caked ganseys to wash in the copper, the shreds of his baccy, the sand from his boots to sweep. With her whole body, she wanted him there in the room, his wiry hair and wind-chapped lips, the scar on his forehead from a blow from the foremast yard. How could she bear the naked space where he’d stood on his hearth, smoking his pipe, hoisting his children under their oxters. In the firelit room, Maggie reached out with both hands, fingers splayed, but there was nothing to touch but air.

After taking a dram and then another, she fell asleep in the chair, and the next morning there was nothing for it but to make porridge for the boys and get them off to school as always. And there was the hearth to scrub and the clothes to mend and the baking to do. Ishbel stopped in every day, and, when they walked down the foreshore together, Maggie sensed a new respect for herself, not only for her widowhood but for her steadiness in the face of the blow. Men in dark suits came from St. Andrews about the insurance for the Ishbel and told her it would take a month or two for the money to come through, and she began to think of what she would do with it. Most days it felt just as it had when Billy was away at the draves, except now Maggie carried her loss inside her like a fourth child.

On a mild February morning a month after the storm, of a mind to make new breeks for the boys, Maggie put on her hat to walk to the draper’s. The tide was coming in, lapping at the stinking heaps of kelp on the beach. The fleet was home after a long night out on the grounds, the harbour bristling, the cobbles silvered with frost and fish scales. It was cold enough to see her breath, but soon there would be the first mildness of spring in the wet air. A mass of snowdrops would already be out at the farm, she thought, and felt a far, faint whisper of gladness.

The draper was unfolding bales of tweed and worsted on the counter for Maggie when the bell jangled, and George Watson’s widow Agnes burst into the shop.

‘Mrs. Cruikshank! You’ll niver believe it. They’ve come back!’

Maggie stared and stared at Agnes Watson, seeing her lips move, but hearing nothing. The draper took hold of her arm, trying to guide her to a chair, but she held him off.

‘What’s that?’

Agnes reached out for her hand. ‘Come! You’ll see!’

A fistful of air pressed on Maggie’s chest like a stone. She couldn’t have moved her feet if she hadn’t been led, gently but firmly, out of the shop and down Rodger Street towards the foreshore. From every wynd, people were running, calling out the news, staring curiously at Maggie and Agnes hurrying down the brae. Ishbel stood on her doorstep, her face lit up like a thousand candles, and when she saw Maggie, she pointed, and there was Billy marching down the west pier at the head of his crew, a flock of children running and dancing alongside, screaming like gulls.

Maggie fled into Ishbel’s house, sank onto a chair and hid her face in her arms. She felt Ishbel’s hands on her shoulders and heard her say, ‘He’s coming! Here he is!’ Drawing a deep breath, she stood up just as Billy ducked through the door of his mother’s house, Mungo and Fillan hanging off him, his face full-bearded, eyes bloodshot. As the boys slid from his shoulders his wide hands hung loose and empty, then he pitched forward into Maggie’s arms, and the weight of him sank them both to the floor. His smell was what made it real, and the bristles of his beard pressed to her face, and then she felt Mungo’s warm arms snake around their necks and Fillan’s around their ankles.

At his mother’s kitchen table, Billy told his story to as many as could crowd into the room, catching at Maggie’s hand as she served out mugs of strong tea. The Ishbel had taken a beating in the storm, and both masts had snapped. As the drifter bucked and plummeted, the men roped themselves to the stumps and prayed. When the skies cleared, they could tell from the stars they’d drifted far out – almost halfway to the Nordic lands. They pulled up the planks of the decking for paddles but made little progress against the swell. After days of eating old bread and half-raw fish and gazing at an empty horizon, they were at last sighted by naval steam frigate, which took them in tow to Leith. The Fishermen’s Mission gave them clean clothes and a hot meal, and then they hurried to catch the paddle steamer across the Firth.

‘Not even a telegraph to send word!’ someone marvelled.

Billy shook his head.

‘There wisnae time – we were jist wanting to be hame.’

‘So what’s to become of the Ishbel, Billy?’

‘She’s in dry dock in Leith. We’ll be getting some new masts on her wi’ the insurance and she’ll be as good as new. Ready to go out and catch more herring.’

The men clapped their mugs to Billy’s, slopping tea onto Ishbel’s table. She tutted at him as she wiped it off, her old face still alight.

‘I see you’ve forgotten yer manners after yon wee adventure of yours.’

Billy caught his mother’s weathered hand and kissed it over and over.

Jugs of beer were fetched from the public house. Someone had sent word to Maggie’s father, who ran in pulling the bonnet from his head to pump Billy’s hand and slap him on his back. He took Maggie in his arms. ‘I telt ye the Fifie would see them richt. My heart is full for ye, bonny lass.’

When George Drysdale brought out his fiddle, there was singing, and the men pounded the table to the old jigs and reels. Billy tried to pull Maggie onto his lap, but she pointed to the boys whose heads were nodding by the fire. She ushered them up to Ishbel’s bedroom where they fell asleep as soon as the quilt covered their shoulders. She knelt beside the bed, pushing her fingers deep into the straight shininess of Fillan’s hair and Mungo’s tangled curls, cupping their small heads in her hands. They slept on, pink mouths tipped open, eyelashes brushing their wind-red cheeks.

Back down the narrow staircase, she edged through the crowded room, touching Billy on the shoulder. ‘I’m needing a bit of air. I’ll be back in a wee minute.’

Billy half rose, but Ishbel put a hand on his arm. ‘Leave her be, son. She’s had an awfy time of it these weeks.’

Swirling her shawl around her, Maggie stepped outside into the jostling wind and leaned against the house, feeling the sharp points of the harling in her back. An almost full moon stage-lit the boats rasping against each other in the harbour. She heard the far-off boom of the incoming tide, and her blood rose up into her throat and surged in her ears, and she turned her head from side to side to try to escape the whirling, dizzy dread, surging back like a dam had broken, the dread she’d faced down and seen off, now swelling, coursing back, rolling on with the relentless power of water in thrall to the moon. Another crack and boom near the harbour mouth, and her hands clenched, and then she was moving down the shelving beach beside the boat builder’s yard where the joists of a half-built Fifie rose like a cathedral. The wind growled and snapped at her face as she scrambled down the breakwater. The ribbed sand pulled at her boots as she ran towards the sound of the flood tide, climbing up onto the low rocks, slippery with weed that glowed in the moonlight, cold and slimy on her palm as she reached down to steady herself. A squall of rain smacked her face, and she gasped and slipped up to her ankle in a rock pool, wet sand seeping into her boot.

Soon, soon, they’d start to miss her, and Billy would come out into the night to look for her. She was almost at the point where the turned tide crashed against the end of the rocks. Poised on the last foothold, she was more at sea than on land. The wind was stronger and louder, it claimed the air, and she leaned into it, pushing back against it, water filling her boots, a wave slapping hard across her legs. ‘Ha!’ she shouted and spat into the darkness, standing her ground. The wind filled her ears now, and each wave staggered her, but she held her arms out for balance, refusing to yield as the sea dragged at her sodden dress and lapped at the jet beads on her skirt. She thought of her sleeping boys, of their fragile bones, their soft, tender bodies, and as she glanced back at the foreshore, a wave smacked her shoulder and took her under. At first, she punched and kicked out, flailing with fists and feet, and then in the bubbled blackness, clarity came. ‘So it’s me yer wantin’?’ like a voice heard out loud, and she let the sea take her, limp in its maw, and, as she opened her mouth to let the salt water flow in, she was tossed upwards, then seized by a great hurling that smashed her down hard on a spine of rocks. A sharp pain in her side and a gasping, blackness, stars, then another wave scooped her higher, tumbling and whirling, and flung her down at the tideline. As the wave ebbed it dragged her backwards, but she clawed at the sucking sand, dug in her knees, her elbows, against the next wave’s grasp, and slowly crawled up to where the sand turned gritty and dry.

Then there were voices and hands and a gentle lifting, and, eyes closed, she felt herself carried to Ishbel’s house, pain blooming red behind her eyes, the others shooed away, herself in a chair dripping by the fire, teeth juddering. A blanket around her, then Billy filling the tin tub with hot water from the range and Ishbel gently helping her to step in, the black dress crumpled on the floor. Maggie rested her head on her knees. She felt a warm sponge along her back and heard Ishbel say, “It’ll be the shock of it, puir wee lassie. Dinnae fret, my boy.”

Later, as she lay in Billy’s arms in the bed that had come to be hers alone and took his strange new beard in her hands, she told him what she knew for certain. ‘Other boys can go to sea, but mine are going to learn.’

He tried to argue as she knew he would, but when at last they fell asleep, their bodies locked together in the old way, she was settled in her mind. And the next day when Ishbel came to talk with them over the fire, she took Maggie’s side. She had money put by, enough to send the boys to the Academy in St. Andrews. As Billy began to protest, she put her hand on his arm. ‘Son, enough now.’

Mungo and Fillan did well at the Academy and went on to study at the University. One became a doctor, the other a solicitor. In Maggie’s last years, long after Billy fell dead by the hearth, his half-filled pipe still in his hand, she lived with Mungo and his cheerful wife Jean in Edinburgh New Town. From her comfortable sitting room, she watched motor cars rumble over cobbles and breathed in soot and petrol fumes instead of peat smoke and brine. Pausing in her knitting, she’d look out onto Queen Street gardens, dusty with pigeons, and think of the great muscle of the sea, how some days it clenched and unclenched and others lay flat as a bannock, and she missed it as she missed Billy and their long dead daughter, in the deepest sounding fathoms of her heart.




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