“There are no puffins,” the guide says. He’s standing on a box in the middle of the boat. Behind him the shingled cove and rock path with its metal handrail rise and fall. The clouds above the cliffs are black ink in milk.
“The forecast didn’t actually say rain,” the woman next to me whispers to her husband. I deliberately turn my head to stop myself from scouring the sky to the west.
“If anyone said there would be puffins, they’re wrong.” The guide looks round, disappointed when no one speaks. The redness of his stubbly cheeks and small, flint eyes give him the look of a man who’d lash out at his wife then spend the rest of the evening sobbing with his head in her lap, Rod Stewart playing in the background. “No puffins. Is that clear?”
“We’re delighted you’ve chosen us and we sincerely hope you enjoy your tour of Skomer island,” I mutter under my breath. Katrina, wedged next to me on the bench, snorts back a laugh and actually lets go of my hand, which she’s been clutching like I’m under arrest since we got on the boat. Her eyes shine like brown seaglass in the stormy light. I want to lean in and whisper “love you” but I’m worried it’ll seem hollow so I don’t.
I squeeze her hand and return to my survey of the boat. The wooden benches are crammed with families in striped wellies and posh macs. There’s no sign of a dinghy or lifejackets. This will make everything much harder when the boat founders.
My five year old step-daughter, Edie, sits opposite me, kicking her thin legs against a metal container. She can’t swim and kids are surprisingly heavy. I know this from playing in the water with her.
“If you’d come about three weeks ago, start of July, the island would have been full of puffins.”
“Super helpful to know,” I whisper.
“Cal, stop it.” But Katrina’s smiling.
The guide scowls at me but fortunately he’s distracted by a large family whose swarming kids are leaning over the side of the boat. “Everyone sit down.”
Katrina offers Edie an apple from the bag. Edie takes it dubiously and doesn’t bite into it.
“What do you say?”
“Thank you for my apple.” Edie’s intonation is impressively lifeless.
“No health and safety? No lifejackets, really?” I’m careful to make my tone ironic to show I don’t really care.
“Cal, stop.” Katrina’s smile is gone.
“I’m just saying they’re not the most professional outfit.”
“Don’t do this.”
I try to think about something else. The story I wrote with Edie this morning. She dictated, rarely hesitating, as I tapped it into my phone.
Once upon a time there was two girls who lived in different houses and they always said hello to each other when they were going to school. And then a wizard cast a magic spell on both of them and every night he put the magic on them. Then the super girls put him in jail and never let him out. And then the girls were free. It’s not the end yet.
Edie had granted me a rare smile when I said how clever her story was. I look at her now, holding her apple in both hands. Edie’s thin face is pale, except for her freckles. Tangled strands of ginger hair hang down to her shoulders. Her dark brown eyes hold a strange distance.
Yesterday Katrina told me that she’d found Edie in tears in her room. When she’d asked what was wrong for a long time Edie couldn’t say. Eventually without looking at her Edie had whispered that she was ugly. When I heard this I wanted to tear everything in our holiday home to pieces—the blue curtains, the shiny, white dishwasher, red tulips in a milk jug, the yellow walls, the sycamore tree, the pale grey sky—until I was surrounded by nothing but broken pieces of the world.
I remembered how, just before the boat trip, while Katrina was searching for our National Trust card in the glove box, I’d swung Edie round the car park until she screamed with delight.
Then I made my face go serious. “Edie, you’re going to have to go in the bin.” I dangled her upside down.
“No, you are.” Glee spilled out of her voice.
“Okay, into the bin it is.” I started to jog across the stony ground, with Edie clasped tight. “Oh, look, here’s the bin.” Holding her over white polystyrene trays painted with ketchup streaks, I could smell the liquid garbage stink.
I was waiting for her to shout, “No, no, Cal, don’t put me in the bin,” but when I looked down at Edie in my arms, half pre-Raphaelite child, half sprite from another world, she was waiting.
“You are absolutely, definitely going in this stinky bin,” I said.
Her unblinking, brown eyes stared up at me, completely unafraid. I turned her the right way up and set her gently down on the ground.
The boat is well underway, skimming out over blue swell and I haven’t really noticed.
I’ll have to leave them to drown, not that I won’t try to come back for them once I’ve rescued my family. But in all likelihood it’ll be too late.
“You OK, kid?”
Edie shrugs with a teenage impatience that makes me feel the redundancy of my question. Instead I tune in to what the guide’s saying – “make sure they buckle underneath, like this–” and then whisper to Katrina, who’s got her head turned to look into the wind, “Wow, that’s lively, starting the safety instructions after we’re out at sea.”
“Excuse me, are you listening?”
For a moment I think the guide’s talking to me but he’s looking at the woman with five children. I know why he’s chosen to pick on her. Her curly hair is held with a purple bandana, shaved at the sides with a rat’s tail at the back. An earring made of a long feather dangles from one lobe. The only other adult with her is her elderly mother who has the same short, wide build but is a conventional edition of the daughter with unfashionable, white trainers and a pink t-shirt.
The woman doesn’t say anything.
“Where did I say the lifejackets for children are?”
“In the cabin.” She points, her voice barely audible.
The guide gives a disappointed grunt.
“What a dick,” Katrina whispers in my ear.
I nod. I’d like to make it up to this woman by coming up with a rescue plan that includes her, her five children and elderly mother, but ultimately this isn’t realistic. I’ll have to leave them to drown, not that I won’t try to come back for them once I’ve rescued my family. But in all likelihood it’ll be too late.
The water has a gelid depth to it now. The black cliffs are sheer with jagged rocks at the bottom. Already we’re so far out that there’s no question of trying to swim back to the harbour. I’ve been in the sea this holiday in my wetsuit so I know how icy it is. Edie’s tiny which means she’ll get cold even quicker. I try to calculate how long I might have.
My crocs will be easy to kick off. I probably won’t have time to get out of my jeans, even though they’ll weigh me down in the water.
“Look, mummy, a seal!” shouts one of the reprimanded woman’s kids. Everyone strains to see and sure enough a whiskery, smiling head pops up near a rock.
Her eyes shine like brown seaglass in the stormy light. I want to lean in and whisper “love you” but I’m worried it’ll seem hollow so I don’t.
“Right, we’ve got a female grey there.” The guide jabs his finger. “They’re like human women, very nosy.”
No one really laughs. I’d expected a sexist chortle from the old man with the Daily Mail tucked into his beige gilet but he only steadies his binoculars.
“Hashtag everyday sexism, hashtag tedious,” I say.
Katrina rolls her eyes but she’s already lifting Edie up. “Can you see the seal?”
Edie blinks across the waves, then nods solemnly.
“Now there are around 350,000 pairs of Manx Shearwaters on these islands. That’s around half the world’s breeding population…”
But no one cares about the guide’s Manx Shearwaters as another seal sticks its head out, close to the first. They bob in the water, watching us like fond aunties.
As we round the coast, everyone else is straining to see the seals but Katrina catches me measuring the distance between the boat and where the white foam showers down against the bottom of the cliffs.
“Jesus, Cal, could you just try and enjoy the trip?”
“What?” My feint is so pathetic she doesn’t even bother brushing it aside.
“What are you thinking then?”
“I’m not thinking any–”
“Sharing these negative thoughts dissipates their power. That’s what Doctor Hyannis said.”
“And that’s exactly why I only went to see him once. He’s a half-wit.” That’s not to say I wasn’t grateful to him for writing me a note for another three months off work. If you pay enough, you can get anything.
Katrina darts a look at Edie, who is back on the bench opposite, staring down at something she’s holding in her clenched fist. Katrina lowers her voice. “OK, I bet you’re thinking you’d grab three life jackets–”
“There’s no chance that clown can sling the life jackets out fast enough, especially not the kids’ ones.” Katrina raises her eyebrows in a weary way that says she knew all along but I can’t stop myself. “Rucksack off, shoes off, then I’d take one of Edie’s arms.” I can picture Edie’s white face vividly as she struggles in the water, waves crashing down on us, but I’d hold onto her arm and I wouldn’t let go. I didn’t think Edie would panic or become hysterical but she was only five. I was prepared to slap her face to stun her into compliance if necessary; otherwise, she risked drowning both of us. “I should be able to support her long enough to get to the rocks.”
Katrina’s breath was hot on my cheek. “And you’re always the one who saves everyone else, are you?”
“This is just another way of making it all about you, Cal.”
I breathe in hard and the sudden inflation makes my chest hurt. “Could we not do this now?”
Her face closes up. “You’re not even trying.” And I can see her exhaustion so clearly as I turn to face her. The skin under her eyes is brown and translucent like a wormed apple.
I want to tell her that I’m going to come back for her as soon as Edie is safe on the rocks. I know Katrina’s not the best swimmer but I imagine us now, battling through the waves together, swimming hard for land, with me encouraging her all the way.
“You need to start dealing with this,” she hisses.
I don’t say anything, just turn my head away to look at the grey sea beyond the wheelhouse and calculate the distance to the shore, think about how grateful to me she’ll be. We’ll be out of the shelter of the island soon. The other passengers are still gormlessly chatting and taking photographs but overhead the clouds clot thicker, blacker.
Parts of the guide’s spiel are snatched by the rising wind. “–on Skokholm they dug so many burrows that they undermined the entire island.”
“Did you hear that, Edie?” Katrina translates, “Some of the birds that live on one island dug their houses in the earth so much that the island fell into the sea.” Edie stares thoughtfully into the middle distance. She’s smart enough to know that Katrina talking to her is just a way of Katrina not talking to me.
The largest wave we’ve yet seen slaps the boat. Fists of seawater hang in the air, then shower down. The woman next to me grabs her husband’s hand, her mouth a comic ‘o’ of surprise, as the deck lurches away. Here it is—the shivery thrill of my worst fear overtaking me. I slip my feet out of my crocs.
Another huge wave breaks over the deck but people are busy grimly clinging on to the boat’s rails and no one cries out this time. The guide is in the wheelhouse, conferring urgently with the weathered man piloting the boat.
“Nothing to be alarmed about, ladies and gentlemen,” he shouts over his shoulder. “We’ll soon have you out of this chop.” His hearty tone is remarkably convincing.
The reprimanded woman’s kids huddle together, silent and pale, as the boat lunges down a wave. There’s a pause at the bottom as small as a few seconds and as big as a boat being overwhelmed before we struggle up the slope of the next wave. I shuck free of the straps of my backpack. When I go to take Edie’s arm she’s standing, feet planted wide on the deck. Katrina has grabbed the back of her coat with one hand but, despite the boat’s terrifying pitch, Edie won’t sit down. Her arm is stretched above her head, holding a grey-green crab shell up to the sky. She is grinning, eyes crinkled against a column of sun breaking through the cloud cover.
A giant wave smashes over the side as the boat yaws to the right and begins to tip. A woman screams. I flash Katrina a reassuring smile as I reach for Edie’s arm. It’s not the end yet.
L.E. Yates was born in Manchester in 1981 but now lives in London. She’s interested in the imaginative loophole fiction creates out of the contract of everyday life. She has been awarded Arts Council, England funding and her short stories have appeared in anthologies from Parenthesis to Dead Languages. She has been an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at the Open University since 2007.
Her twitter account is @l_e_yates. http://leyates.co.uk
Her twitter account is @l_e_yates. http://leyates.co.uk