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2020 Short Fiction/University of Essex Prize Runner-up: A SEA OR A WHALE - Jamie Charteris


‘And how old will you be next birthday, Mary?’

‘Eleven.’

‘Aye, of course. You and Catriona are the same. No wonder you’re peas in the pod. Fold out the table just now.’

With our four nimble hands we lifted a hanging flap of a small Formica-topped table that abutted the little kitchen’s wall, secured it, pulled spindly chairs scraping the stone floor from their place against the wall, and sat. Even the familiarity and the speed with which we completed readying ourselves for tea made us giggle. Mother tried to restrain her smile as she turned from the stove and put plates, each bearing a fried egg on toast, in front of us. She poured water into glasses and brought them to us with a knife and fork. The sound of the glasses bumping down on the table amidst the aroma of the dripping-fried eggs and buttery toast was also mysteriously funny. We kept our mirth to smirks on aching faces and ate in a bubble of silence that seemed it might burst at any moment and send us into hysteria.

It was my mother, her hands in the sink, who gave up. ‘You girls!’ she said, laughing.

‘Can we get a television, ma?’

‘A wha—? Where do you get these ideas?’

I blushed. Mary said, ‘No, but, Mrs Robison, my dad says there’s a place in Inverness where you can get them and give them back, and it’s no dear. My uncle has one.’

‘Is that right, Mary?’ My mother engaged gently with my friend, explained the business of renting to her and said she would think on it. I sneered at Mary to remind her that if I’d said it she would have told me to haud ma wheesht.

‘Will dad take us into town? He said he would.’

‘Your father’s up the hill. He’ll nae be home till late. Saturday and all – he’ll be away for a dram at the hotel with the shooters.’

We sawed, squeaking toast on plates, chewed and sipped.

Softly, with scarcely a movement of her lips, Mary said, ‘G’back.’

I convulsed and responded with my own sly grouse call from the top of the back of my mouth, ‘G’back, g’back.’

‘G’back, g’back, g’back!’

With rising merriment we “g’backed” louder and faster to a crescendo of laughter.

‘Aye, very good, girls. Mind you don’t do that when you go down the Englishman’s house, lest somebody shoots the pair o’ you,’ said my mother, still busy at the sink.

‘Aw, mum! We’re nae going doon there.’

‘Catriona! You are too. I told the lady I’d send you round with a fish.’

‘Aw, mum! A smelly fish!’

‘Very good. You can walk with me and Ally to town for the messages. But we’ll have to go by the ferry to drop the fish off anyway – your boots’ll nae have tongues to moan with after that, lassie. And mind, I’ll tell you, you’re nae wasting today inside with your books – you two’ll turn into Minnie the Minx and Dennis. The fish’s in the locker at back. The water’s doon so you can see what’s come in. Rock-pooling… and you’ll see the English folks’ wean – he’s a bonny wee bairn. Now, on with ye.’

She had wrapped up every protest and returned the errand to us as a gift. We dragged our chairs back from the fold-out, took our plates and beakers to the sink.

‘Wait.’ Mum looked us up and down: nibbled plimsoles, tatty print dresses that came down to our knees, a cardigan apiece. ‘Aye, okay,’ she said, happy we wore nothing that mattered. ‘There’s an apple if you want.’ She nodded at the bowl on the table.

‘No, ta,’ I said.

Mary giggled and said, ‘Thank you for my tea, Mrs Robison,’ then added, with considered enunciation, ‘it was… beautiful.’

We all laughed. ‘I’ll beautiful you, young Mary!’ my mother said and chased us, squealing, clutching at each other’s hands, out into the blinding sunshine.

The river ran in front of our house under the new road bridge and, just beyond, opened into a sea loch banked by airy woods of firs and silver birch that soughed and whispered without pause. Seen from the bridge, the loch was a great bowl of blue water, but the lie of the land concealed its true scale, for after half a mile or so it jagged east and ran a couple of miles to the sea. At low tide this end appeared almost empty, and gave up an expanse of sand apparently as smooth and pale as a child’s skin. But to be close to it, on it and in it, as Mary and I were then under the bluest sky, the sand revealed textures, detail and life. A delicate relief of the ripples that had lately slid away spread out, and in places gave way to smooth shallow scoops where some water remained, wherein tiny fish, crabs and translucent shrimps, not yet old enough for the profound, passed the time until the tide turned.

We stood in such a pool, the water up to our ankles, eyes narrowed against the brilliant light that was everywhere but for the indigo hills in the distance, and inhaled the visceral sea scents. I pushed my plimsole through the sand amidst sparse wisps of red weed and broken shells, making a trailing storm of silt. A small diamond shape not much bigger than a postage stamp, the same colour as the sand, lifted itself, cast a tiny shadow and with a frantic battering tail swam a few inches and settled once more into invisibility.

‘I’ve found one,’ I called.

Mary was some way distant, staring down the loch, delicate above her smeared reflection. The ghost of a breeze had caught her thin dress and cardigan; one pressed against her, the other was pushed behind. Mary had paps. Paps to go with her brown skin, freckles, sparkling blue eyes and a proper spill of shiny brown hair. I had only a chest and white skin and sawn-off hair the colour of mice and a dead fish in a canvas bag. We were no peas in a pod.

‘I’ve found a baby flattie.’ She looked but didn’t come. ‘Oh, maybe it’s not beautiful enough for you.’ We both laughed.

She ran to me, crouched, her head touching mine, and stirred her hands through the sand. In no time we had a cloud of murky water around us and the baby flounder would be seen no more.

‘Naebody says beautiful,’ I said. The word was from fairy stories and the films we saw at the hotel in winter. I could not think of an occasion when I would say ‘beautiful’. There was bonny and braw, and fine and grand, and nice… but beautiful was for posh people or old people, and books.

When we stood, the wet sandy hems of our dresses stuck to our calves with a cold caress.

‘Yuk.’

Mary laughed. Then replaced her white smile with a grimacing look of rage, planting one hand on her hip and wagging the forefinger of the other at me. ‘Catriona Robison! Look at your frock! You are a dirty wee gurrul!’

‘No! No! Wait; you, Mary Cowper, are a naughty wee gurrul! And I’ve a mind to take the strap to ye!’ I riposted.

We skipped away, arms linked, having conjured up the evil being of our form teacher, Mrs Doherty. We bellowed ‘naughty wee gurrul!’ at each other, and with every repetition amplified Mrs Doherty’s Glasgow growl, our laughter unfurling behind us like a banner. Breathless, we drew to a halt further down the sands, unhooked our arms and wandered apart. I could see the pier of the old ferry in the hazy distance. The English people’s house was hard by it. Mary was looking also, but her gaze appeared to pass way down the loch to the sea.

She said, ‘Catty, do you feel things in your middle,’ – she placed her hand on her belly – ‘or in your head… or your toes?’

I had to guess. ‘In my middle, always.’

‘Aye, me too.’ She stroked her front absently and added, ‘I think it’s because we’re girls. We feel it, here… forever.’

‘But you’ve had your tea,’ I said. Mary laughed and came closer to me, looking down at her feet as she shuffled them to make a trail that would baffle any hunters that sought to track us.

‘What like is the English folks’ bairn? Is he a babby?’

‘He’s a sweetie. White hair and always smiling. Last time I saw him he was walking all over.’

‘How come you know them?’

Ach, they get their venison off Dad sometimes. I go with him when he takes it round. Dad has a dram with them and the wifey lets me play with the bairn.’

‘Will we get to hold him?’

‘Aye. I think.’

Around our feet now were the casts of lug worms, tiny sculptures of piled string fashioned in wet sand by creatures we thought to be sinister and clatty. I crouched and ran my finger back and forth through a tangle of sand until it was erased.

Mary said, ‘Dinnae touch that. It’s worm shite.’ I was already standing with a look of mock outrage at her vulgarity, ready to say it, but she beat me. ‘You dirty wee gurrul!’

She ran and leapt onto an upturned wooden crate, as big as our settee, that seemed to have been recently placed in our path by persons unknown. So big and angular was it uprising from the sand, I wondered how I had not noticed it.

‘De – da, da, dun, diddy, dun, de, dun – well, looky there! She sure fine looking man, De – da, da, dun, diddy, dun, de, dun—’ Mary played an invisible guitar and swayed, jerking up her shoulders, twisting her legs, stopping and starting to the tune.

‘Oh! There’s a picture of Eddie Cochran in mum’s book from the hairdresser.’ I had heard the song on the radio, knew the name, but could not imagine that he performed as Mary did.

She stepped off the crate, put her hands on my shoulders, and said, ‘Well don’t get any ideas, dirty wee gurrul, because I’m going to marry him.’

‘Shall we play horses? We’ll be the Lost Stallions…’ My voice deserted me. Mary’s joy wavered; she seemed to look through me, and I was overwhelmed by a feeling of foolishness. ‘Will you take a turn with the bag? M’arm’s sair.’

As if I’d flicked a switch, Mary’s smile returned, she pushed a shoulder at me and looking over it, said in her best gentleman vampire’s voice, ‘Young laydee, might I asseest you viz your baggage?’ I bent double with mad joy.

‘What’s in there, anyways?’

‘A fish, stupid!’

‘Let’s see.’

We crouched and opened the bag. The fish within, no longer but fatter than my forearm, had a sooty back, and silver flanks peppered with black spots that shimmered with a strange vital light, even now, in death. A perfect lattice of overlapping scales gave way to a belly of ethereal white. The creature drew our concentration and the great expanse of the loch, the sky, Eddie Cochran, Mrs Doherty and the hills ceased to exist. A damp square of paper stuck to its tail upon which my mother had written in pencil “2/6. Thank you.” I reached into the shadow of the bag and pushed the paper off the fish.

‘Is that a salmon?’ whispered Mary.

‘It’s a sea trout,’

A ghillie’s daughter knows such things as the shape of fins, bodies and heads and the nature of salmonids’ spots. We gazed, mesmerised, into the bag, taking turns to run our fingers over the fish, then gently lift and let go its pectoral fin to watch it slowly fold back to the body as it might have in life.

‘Ken what my dad calls them?’ I knew Mary would not know. ‘Ghosts of the tide.’

‘Fus that?’

‘They’re awful hard to catch. You have to be in the right place at the right time – and be lucky.’ I was proud of my angler’s wisdom, gleaned at my father’s hip as he spoke to fishers who came to the house for permits.

Mary said, ‘We’re going to Australia.’

‘When?’

‘Not sure. Soon.’

I looked up. Over the top of Mary’s head I could see the Kirk Stane: a rock that only showed through the water at low tide and was used by those of us who belonged here to determine the rise and fall of the loch. It was occupied by an ink-black cormorant, as motionless as the rock itself, holding its crooked wings out to dry and its beak tipped up at a haughty angle. I thought of a stamp: not for posting, but something exotic from a foreign place that was banged down on documents then signed upon. Bang. Squiggle. Done. By order of the cormorant.

A gull cried directly above our heads, startling us. We looked up to see that three muckle birds had come to inspect what we had in the bag. They were close enough for us to discern the fibres of their pristine white feathers and the wrinkled skin around their yellow eyes. With muscular lunges of their wings they lifted themselves to a safe distance, then hung in the air, their heads twitching, tilting, watching.

Mary said in her best cowboy’s voice, ‘Them thar’s vultures. Reckon we bedder head off outta here, pardner. Eeeee-haaa!’

I smiled. Mary scooped up the bag and I followed as she set off at a canter, running near to the shore and woods. As we came closer to the pier, the hinterland of the loch changed. The sand gave way to potato-sized stones. Rising from them the low bank became higher, steeper, grassy, and led up to houses that once belonged to ferry people.

We hobbled, arms out for balance, and skipped over the stones rolling beneath our feet. Now the pier blocked our view of the sea beyond; we could make out the brown blocks of it, the rusty iron loops, clumps of purple mussels there attached and the patches of green algae that hung like heads of wet hair as if mermaids had turned their faces to the wall. At the end of this stone construction were remains of the wooden jetty which had long since been swept away and dissolved by the sea, only a few black broken ribs of varying heights dotted the water to mark its former place in the loch. Two tall timbers, as thick as trees, abutted each corner at the end of the stone pier, sticking up from the water, up to the blue yonder. Everyone roundabout called them the chiefs, for they stood strong and forever – never mind that they were remnants and the ferry had long gone. In the evenings, mums and dads leant against them and canoodled. Children would embrace them for comfort as they looked over the end of the pier, for even at low tide the water never entirely retreated from this part of the loch.

Mary said, ‘Last one to kiss a chief has to put a crab in their knickers!’

We ran, laughing again, hoicking at each other’s dresses. Mary got ahead of me, then stopped as if seized. I clattered into her, straightened and left my hand on her shoulder. She was staring at something in the water. I slid my hand down her arm and meshed my fingers with hers.

There, just three strides from the shore, was a boy. A toddler boy, in a sleeveless sweater and shorts. He appeared to be studying the coloured stones beneath him as he floated face-down in the clear water, his arms out to his sides with the slightest curve to them as if he were about to give his mother a hug. I waited for him to kick his little legs, lift his head, laugh at us, and paddle the few feet to the shore. But he did no more than rise and drop on the gentle swell; his fair hair fanned out, moving with a sinuous life of its own. I crushed Mary’s hand in mine. And I’m sure now I felt what she was feeling. For I thought we must be looking through each other’s stinging eyes, sharing each other’s ice-cold blood, so stifled were our reactions. We must be one being. We felt it in our middle, where we always felt everything. And beyond. The sensation went from our guts, prickling around our scalps and down our backs, through our legs to the ground. It flared out everywhere, shot up the firs and stopped the wind in the needles; it slashed the air, swept the gulls from the sky and forced the sea to take a hold of its wretched guilty self so that not a lap of a tiny wave could we hear against the stones by our feet. The world fell silent and we with it, as we stared at the little drowned boy. The both of us, powerless girls, felt saturation, the whole of nature in our centres, the elements in a tumult coursing through us, and all we could do was clutch each other’s hands and greet – bulbous, desperate tears.

‘We’ve to tell mum – now,’ I said.

‘She’s away, mind. We’ll—’ Mary choked on her words.

‘Come on!’ I pulled her; we turned and ran up the steep bank, up to where the grass was shorn neat by the rabbits, through an open gate of a picket fence, across rows of weary vegetables, to the door of the Englishman’s house which was open also.

We could see into the kitchen. The woman sat staring at the table, her hands made fists in her lap. The Englishman leant against the stove behind her, his arms crossed; he was saying something to the floor: important obviously, his brow being so furrowed and his eyes so black. Even as I raised my hand to knock, they looked up, started, and their faces flew at us like silent screaming ghosts.

‘There’s a boy—'. It was all I could say, willing it not to be.

We followed the Englishman to the loch shore and watched him wade, stumbling to his son’s body. He scooped it up, pressing it to his chest, shouting, ‘Billy! Billy!’, then turned, and with wild strides made his way over the slippery stones and up the bank to his wife who stood frozen, one hand over her mouth, the other a claw at her cheek. Mary and I, standing at the water’s edge, our hands welded together, watched them disappear from sight. I heard the garden gate shut with a smack and rattle, then silence, broken only by the lament of the gulls, the sighing pines and the slaps of the lapping water.

‘What will we do?’ I said.

‘I dinnae ken!’

‘Where’s the fish?’ I sobbed.

‘I don’t know!’ Mary shook her arm and freed her hand from mine. ‘We didnae do anything.’

‘Girls.’ It was a man’s voice. Atop the bank we could see the head and shoulders of Dougie, the English folk’s nearest neighbour. He beckoned to us as his wife rushed past behind him and I heard the garden gate open.

Dougie’s front room was dim, as dour as the man was said to be, despite windows on three sides. They made squares and rectangles full of the light we had left behind. Mary and I sat at either end of his faux leather couch, our tears now done, with Dougie, aching to show kindness, sitting opposite in a matching armchair, his newspaper put down for now on its arm. Dad once said of Dougie: ‘You wouldn’ae want him for Christmas.’

A panting spaniel rose from a dirty tartan cushion by his chair and visited us in turn, nervously wagging its tail, sitting, offering a paw until Dougie ordered it away.

‘Would you lassies like a biscuit? To bed, Meg!’

The dog retreated. We declined and waited in silence.

‘It’s a terrible thing – Meg!’ The dog retired.

How long we passed in this forlorn routine I could not say. Eventually, after another sortie, the dog withdrew again to its station, turned twice and collapsed, emitting a long human groan that translated so clearly as, ‘Ach! Suit yer sens, dinnae say I didnae try,’ Mary and I laughed. And in our relief began immediately to cry again. Dougie, who had managed a smile, sat up in his chair, his face now crestfallen. ‘Aw, girls…’

I heard a car pull up at the back of the house, at the same time Dougie’s wife came in; car doors slammed. The spaniel upped and barked. There was movement and hope now. Someone with words, someone who would talk and explain, someone I could hold on to. The place magically filled with people, like water to a rockpool.

Mary and I cried out, leapt and flew to our mothers when they entered the room followed by two men, all of them stiff, upright and gaunt. With my stinging eyes buried in the lightless smother of my mother’s embrace, I inhaled her scent and listened to her voice come and go among the others. She sniffled too as she commiserated, thanked Sheila and Dougie, Alison, Moira – and Tam for finding her and Ally in town and the ride he gave them. As she spoke, she stroked the back of my head with a thumb released from her clasping hands. It was discussed: the terrible thing, and who would give whom a ride home, and no – no tea, fine just now, thank you. Then the terrible thing was mentioned once more. More words came and went in the rush of conversation, bobbing up like detritus in a spate river – tragedy, mistake, accident, guilt, shame, sweet, innocent, stupid, even wicked. Eventually, to me, she said, ‘Right, now, Tam’s off to give us a ride home. Say cheerio to Mary and everyone.’

I could not. I pressed harder still against my mother; she reciprocated the squeeze and walked me that way to Tam’s car, to the back seat, whereupon I fell asleep instantly the motor started.

Sunlight blinded me when I woke to find my mother sitting at the end of my bed. A sickly-sweet smell of tobacco was hanging in the air. She smiled and leant towards me and laid her hand on my middle. ‘You needed that,’ she said.

‘What?’

‘It’s half past two in the afternoon, missus.’ All of yesterday woke in me like a wave of nausea, and I folded in half, throwing myself to my mother. ‘Aye, aye, aye,’ she said, laying a hand on my head in her lap, ‘now listen. Listen…’

He got away from them. His mum and dad. The one thought he was with the other – easy done. All the times, Da’s thought you were in the kitchen with me and I thought you were in the living room with him. The gate was open. No. Who knows? And och, a wee laddie. He thinks he’s safe till he isn’t. ’Course he doesnae ken – it’s all an adventure. And them stones. Naebody can stand on them, never mind a toddler. They’re all of a size, as round as tennis balls, as smooth as glass. You used to dump your backside on them and cry like you’d been robbed and I’d hoick you up and say serves you right, young lady. I smacked your legs a time or two. Yes, I used to go for a haver with Maureen and we’d stand right there, watching you splash about. Well, his mum wasn’t there to catch him. Naebody was. And a wee lad, he sees all those coloured stanes, the wee fishes, the crabbies. He follows his nose. No, he didn’t know. No. None of us know… aye, but for a wean it just takes a few inches of water. Yes, right. But listen. You’ve played at the loch all your life and I never let you go when you were a wean, and you know. Yes! You know because you’re old enough to know; you look at the river when its up and you can see that it’ll rip you away if you go near it, like you know you don’t put your hand on the stove because it’s plenty hot before you touch it. But you ken those stones are slippery. You’re eleven, he was two. Honey! I don’t know. Like falling asleep. Stop it now… he was… just too little. Of course Dad knows. He’s been in and out of here all morning, look ye, he’s left his ashtray on the sill. He’s out the back just now, sorting some kindling. Raging? No. Don’t be silly. It disnae matter about the fish! No. It doesn’t matter about the bag! Och, sweetie. I know. She telt me. Un-huh, Australia. Ally told me a few days ago. I know, I know, but you can write. Anyway, come along now, I’ve to get on. It’s been a hooley this morning – Ally’s phoned; she says Mary’s away with the fairies in the garden, galloping around like a horse. The minister phoned. Tam called round with his pony but you were asleep. And Mr Langley phoned—

‘Who?’

‘Mr Langley. The Englishman.’

I sat straight, my stomach churning, tears in my eyes and my skin prickling. ‘But mum, I—’

‘It’s all right. He just rang to say he wants to see you—’

‘No! Mum—’

‘Hey, hey, hey. He just wants to say thank you for doing what you did. We had a wee chat. The poor man and his wife…’ My mother lifted the back of her hand to her mouth and looked away, then turned her face back to me, her eyes brimming with tears. ‘They’re heartbroken. But, you know, he found the presence to think of you and wonder how you were faring. Don’t worry. I told him you were sleeping. There’ll be a time and place.’

I lay back, exhausted, as my mother left the room and thought of the “time and place” and how it would be unbearable and how he would turn on me and say, ‘Why didn’t you do something, you silly child?’ He would grab me by the scruff of my neck and march me back, out onto the sands of the loch and say, ‘You were just here, playing, laughing, in love with your little friend who’s going away forever and you had forever to do something. If you hadn’t shilly-shallied and thought only of yourself, you would have reached the pier in time, at the right time. You would have caught Billy, little Billy, by the hand and steered him away from the water. You would have picked him up, laughing…’

And I would have no reply; I would sway sullen in his grip, the gulls wheeling above us, casting out their sad cries to mingle with the knowing susurration of the trees and the accusing note of the oyster catchers: altogether a conspiracy of sound to prove my guilt; I would look down, culpable, at the minute rivers in the sand, at the infant life they held safe and I would say nothing in my shame. And the black cormorant would peel away from the Kirk Stane and fly out to sea, never to return. The two Lost Stallions would follow, galloping from my childish imagination, sleek and thunderous over the sand, then fading to spray as they disappeared in the surf. And the Englishman would ease his grip on me and point through time to where his wife stood by a diminutive grave surrounded by a crowd of stooped mourners, her face suggesting that she was absent and would always be so: away, resting somewhere, listening to the breath of her son as he slept in her arms. And I would hear the minister’s voice as he intoned to his bible, making a sign of the cross over the loch,

‘He shall return no more to his house,

Neither shall his place know him anymore…’

I leapt out of bed. Put on a blouse, cardigan and dungarees and ran downstairs to the kitchen.

‘Ah, well done,’ said my mother. She was lifting my dress of yesterday out a bowl of grey suds. ‘It’s another braw day, at least.’

Snatching an apple from the bowl on the table, I said, ‘Aye, it’s beautiful,’ and ran outside to find my father.

Jamie Charteris is a cartoonist, illustrator and writer. He has e-published two novellas under a pseudonym. A Sea or A Whale is from his first collection of short stories. He lives in York, UK.

A note from Short Fiction: Our judge Jon McGregor and the Short Fiction reading team chose 'A Sea or A Whale' as Runner-up in the 2020 Short Fiction/University of Essex Prize. The space given over to the two girls' relationship - the joy in it, the authenticity of it - provides a softening backdrop to the tragedy in the middle, and makes the story so much deeper and more wide-ranging than that one incident. We loved the nature writing in this piece, too, and were very impressed to find that the author is at a relatively early stage in his short fiction writing career. Congratulations to Jamie Charteris on this achievement.