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The Thickness of Water by Joe Miller

© Joe Miller

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THE THICKNESS OF WATER (A short story)


By Joe Miller



Davy wasn't a professional fisherman.

He just worked a few creels to keep his hand in. Sold most of what he caught to the island's only hotel. Not that he needed much money. But it was a useful top-up to his pension and small savings.

He held no romantic notions about seafaring. Thirty years in engine rooms and the questionable attractions of dockside bars had taught him well.

Now he went out a couple of times a week to pull up his pots, take what they gave him and bait them again. If a fish was too small or a lobster was gravid he returned them.

It was spring and summer work.

On this day, the sea was long and greasy. A hot, acid sun beat down on it.

Two lobsters and an over-inquisitive ling lay in the box on the slats of his small open boat.

He'd rebaited the last of his creels and dropped it over the side. Now he backed the boat away from the reefs known as the Dutchy Caps around which he'd laid his traps earlier in the year, before rousing up its elderly four-stroke engine and curling back towards the village hugging the edge of the bay.

The fishing boat, Feall Mhor, was idling a few hundred yards off. Davy had watched its approach while he worked. They'd be wanting a chat.

“Hello there, Davy,” shouted Sled from the deck above. “Too hot to be out here, eh?”

Davy throttled back and looked up.

“Aye, it's warm” he said, narrowing his eyes in the sharp light. “How's your day been then?”

He didn't approve of clam dredgers like the Feall Mhor. They ripped the seabed with frames of monstrous tines, leaving tracts of undersea desert in their wake. But he'd known Sled's family a long time.

“Ach, you know,” said the black-eyed skipper. “Enough to keep us in beer for another week or two anyway,” and he laughed.

Davy just nodded.

“I see you've a couple of lobster there. That'll keep the tourists happy then.”

“Aye well. The visitors do the island no harm,” said Davy.

“As long as there's not too many of them, eh?” said Sled. Then he reached down to the deck at his feet.

“Here,” he said, bringing up a grimy carrier bag. “We've some bait for you.”

And he threw the bag down into the small boat where it landed with a sloppy thud.

“That's good of you, Sled. Thank you now.”

“More use to you than us. Ach well. We'd better away and get this lot landed.”

Davy gave a short wave and headed his boat back on its original course. The Feall Mhor turned for the mainland.

<>

The old stone pier had seen better days. The development agency planned to build a new one, just around the headland. The work would start in a year and finish in another. Then the ferry would dock instead of anchoring in the bay and life would be transformed. Holidaymakers would be able to drive on, or step ashore instead of enduring the old whale boat in which The Wizard, harbour master on the little island, picked up passengers and mail.

Davy could remember days when fishing boats would be huddled round the end of the pier like newborns nuzzling a teat. But they wouldn't come again.

'The Wizard' also owned the small hotel. That name did not appear on his birth certificate. Before Jardine Guy had come to the island he had been a professional magician of some repute. But conjuring fish stocks back into being was beyond his powers. His harbour master duties were not taxing.

The boy, Will, was on the pier again. He'd grown in the year since the family's last holiday. This year's three weeks would soon be up for them. What would he be now, mused Davy. Eight? Nine?

He was with his mother, striking, athletic, raven-haired.

Davy had been a widower for over ten years. He and Imogen had had no children.

He coasted up to the pier, stepped nimbly onto the worn stone steps, then carried his painter to the top where he fastened it to a rusting cleat. He would put the boat up on the shore later, above the wrack line, on the sheep-bitten turf.

In the box, the ling's eyes were glassy in death, but the blue black lobsters seemed to glare at him in fury as he fetched them onto alien soil.

The boy came over.

“Aye then, Will,” said Davy. “How many eels is it today?”

“None today,” said the boy. “I haven't been to the burn yet. But I did catch two yesterday.”

Davy smiled.

“It's good for the eels, the burn.”

The boy peered into the box.

“Their claws are really big,” he said.

“They are. It's why I put bands around them. They'll hurt you otherwise. And each other.”

The boy continued to look. Stretched a hand toward the box, then withdrew it.

“They can't harm you now,” said Davy.

“Don't be a bother, Will,” said his mother, sharply.

“Oh, he's fine enough,” said Davy.

The boy glanced warily at his mother then turned back and looked up at the man, into his grey-blue eyes. He frowned a little.

“If they live under the sea, why are they still alive?”

“Well now, the lobster's what they call a crustacean. It can stay alive out of the water. For a few hours anyway.”

“Like a crab?”

“Aye,” said Davy. “A bit like a crab.”

He turned to the boy's mother.

“So where are the girls today then? Sorisdale again is it?”

“Sorisdale again,” said Edie Gerrard. “Jack wanted to take more photographs of the long dunes. The girls went with him. I thought he'd taken enough already but apparently not.

“For his new book,” she added.

Davy nodded. He already knew of Jack Gerrard's plans for a book picturing the island's natural habitat. All the islanders did. They neither approved nor disapproved.

“So, that'll be you all away soon?”

“Yes,” she said. Raised a hand. Ran fingers through her hair.

“We're on the Saturday ferry,”

“A few days yet then,” said Davy. “And have you enjoyed your time?”

“As ever, Davy. Though I can't imagine what it's like to live here permanently.”

“Och, you know,” he said. “It's like anywhere else. You get used to it and its ways.”

The boy watched the lobsters, scrabbling in their box.

The woman looked out to sea, past Davy.

“It looks peaceful out there,” she said.

He glanced back.

“Today maybe. Not always.”

“No. Of course.”

A solitary herring gull eyed them from the top of the wooden frame which held the pier's sun-bleached lifebelt. The cracked canvas ring had never seen use.

“Aye well,” said Davy. “I suppose I'd better get these fellows up to the hotel. They might be wanted for tonight's menu.”

And he turned to go.

“Is it hard work pulling up creels?” said the woman.

He hesitated.

“Not really. But I only have a few. Enjoy your last days,” he added, smiling, starting to walk away.

“Goodbye now, Will.”

“Bye,” said the boy running over to the side of the pier.

“Will, for God's sake come back from the edge,” said his mother. “How often do I have to tell you?”

The boy stepped back.

The herring gull lifted off its perch, hovered briefly then angled off over the water.

A single track road squared the pier. The bay lay to one side of it. A row of single-storey terraced cottages, the core of the village, lined the other. The road led to the other end of the island but branched off after a quarter of a mile or so to the hotel, a short distance away, conspicuous in its whitewash and perched on the side of a small, heather-clad hill. A squat, heavily lichened church, crouched on the skyline further on.

As he neared the road, Davy stopped and turned.

“I'll be going out again on Friday,” he called back. “If you want to come you'd be welcome.”

The woman looked round.

“Yes,” she replied. “I'd like that. What time?”

The boy pulled at her arm.

“Can I come too?” he pleaded. “Please?”

“Quiet, Will,” she said.

“Aye, well, I'll see you both here about ten,” said Davy. “Plenty of time for your breakfasts. No rush. Warm jerseys and something to keep the rain off, just in case.”

“We'll be here,” she said. “Thank you.”

Davy raised a hand and strolled off up the road with his fish box.

He would fry some of the ling for his supper.

<>

In the hotel, dinner was over. Jack and Edie Gerrard, their daughter, Jess and her school friend, Judy who was holidaying with the family, had all eaten lobster salad. The teenage girls had been determined to order 'sophisticated' food.

Though close friends, their ages differed by ten months. Judy, older, was nearly sixteen.

Will had chosen a gammon steak which had come with two pineapple rings on top. He liked the hot, sweet fruit.

Jardine Guy's wife, Elizabeth, had put on an extra ring of pineapple for him. Will liked Elizabeth Guy who allowed him into the kitchen if it wasn't too busy and, if she was baking a cake, let him scrape the bowl for leftover icing.

The Guys managed the hotel between them, Elizabeth in charge of the kitchen and Jardine, apart from the heavier jobs, running the small bar, the only one on the island. It was open to both residents and locals. Two or three local girls helped with cleaning and serving during the summer season. There were only seven bedrooms.

'Neilly John' MacNeill was parked on his usual stool at the end of the bar when the Gerrards walked in. A daughter normally fetched him home around nine o'clock. Two of his three daughters took it in turns. The other lived in New Zealand.

He glanced round at the Gerrards, grinned lopsidedly, held up his glass and mumbled: “Slainthe,” before turning back once more.

“Good evening, Neilly,” said Edie.

“Yes, yes,” muttered the old man.

The bar kept 'friendly' hours. The island received a police visit once a month. A surreptitious phone call usually preceded it. On those occasions the hotel's licensed premises closed on time and a small number of unlicensed vehicles were tucked away in sheds or discreet corners. There had never been a theft or a murder, save over fifty years previously when a farmer had bludgeoned his wife to death for no apparent reason. He had died in a Glasgow prison only a few years into his sentence having never revealed the motive for his brutal act.

“Ah, here they are, Mr and Mrs Gerrard, with my young apprentice,” said Jardine Guy from behind the bar's counter. “Have you been practising those card tricks, Will?”

“I can do one of them quite well now, I think,” said the boy.

“Good, good. You can show me tomorrow. Practice is everything if you want to be a magician.”

Will was not at all sure what he wanted to be, but he liked the thought of impressing school friends.

“And where are the young maidens this evening?” continued Guy.

“Gone for a walk,” said Jack Gerrard. “They've become strangely keen on exercise.”

His wife grunted.

The two girls were lurking around the village in the hope of seeing a local teenager, Iain MacDonald, in whom they had taken an interest and whose interest in one of them, was reciprocal.

“So. What can I get you?”

“Two gin and tonics please, Jardine,” said Jack Gerrard.

“You can have a bottle of Coca-Cola, Will,” said his mother.

“He can have a cider,” said his father. “Won't do him any harm. You'd like that wouldn't you, Will?”

“Yes please. And can I have some crisps?”

“Course.”

Edie Gerrard shrugged.

“Coming right up,” said Guy.

The boy and his mother sat down at one of the small round tables ranged round the dark, wood-panelled walls of the little room.

Jack Gerrard stood at the bar while the drinks were poured.

“Quiet in here tonight, Jardine,” he said.

“Well, it's a fine evening. The other guests are out and about.

"I'll put these on your bill.”

“Slainthe,” muttered Neilly John to no-one in particular.

“Are you alright there, Neilly?” said Guy in a raised voice. There was no reply.

“I'm sure Eilidh or Mhairi will be along shortly,” he added.

“Yes, yes, yes,” said the old man.

“I have a few odds and ends to attend to, “ said Guy turning back to Gerrard, “so help yourselves if you need anything else. The book's under the counter.”

The bar kept an honesty book for guest usage if there was no-one serving. Locals had to ring a small hand bell and wait until someone appeared.

Gerrard carried the drinks over on a small tray.

“Can I play with the skittles?” asked Will.

“Go on then,” said his father. “See if you can knock them over in one go this time.”

The set of bar skittles sat on the opposite end of the counter from where Neilly John perched. Jardine Guy had banned him from using them after a particular incident in which, after a heavier than normal drinking session, the ageing islander had decided to demonstrate a new method of clearing the skittles with an unorthodox swing of the ball. It had not proved successful. Until then he had always been difficult to control after a certain quantity of alcohol had been taken. But after Guy had proceeded to conjure a number of white rats from various of the old man's pockets and a boiled egg from his mouth, 'Neilly John' MacNeill had become wary of his host. The hotelier had gained his 'Wizard' epithet shortly afterwards.

Will managed to knock over only two of the nine skittles on his first attempt. He had yet to achieve a full clearance with one swing.

His father watched in amusement.

“I've shown him often enough,” he said to his wife.

“Let him be. He might look like you but he's not you.”

“Meaning?”

“Not meaning. Stating.”

As he rearranged the skittles Will tried to close his ears to the voices of his parents. A framed photograph of a leaner Jardine Guy hung on the wall behind the counter, Guy on stage, hands raised high and, above his head, snowy white doves bursting into the air like flung paper.

“Children become what parents make them,” said Gerrard.

“Then let's hope we don't make him into you, Jack.” She paused. “I'll do my bit.”

“Thanks for that.”

His wife glanced at him.

“Next you'll be telling me you came back because every child deserves a father's guidance.”

“For Christ's sake, Edie.”

“I doubt he's terribly interested,” she said, swallowing some gin.

“You can't leave it, can you?” said her husband.

She lit a cigarette.

“I can't forget it. Much as you'd like me to.”

“I'm here. Jesus. We're on holiday together. As a family. I've apologised. Continuously. What do you want me to do?”

“I don't know,” she said. “Yet.”

“It was an aberration, Edie. I've told you and told you.”

“Nice. An aberration. A six month one. Nice.

"An aberration,” she continued, “is a deviation from the normal. Something done, out of character. In your case, I'm not sure that it was.”

He shook his head, drank off some of his own gin.

Will swung at the skittles again. This time he managed five.

“She wrote to you, you know,” said Edie. “After you'd come crawling back. Wrote twice. Silly bitch.”

Jack Gerrard's face froze.

“You didn't tell me.”

“No.”

She turned to face him.

“I burned the letters.”

He said nothing.

“After I'd read them,” she added.

They stared at each other for a moment.

“What did they say?”

She laughed.

“You'll never know. But I wrote back. I don't think we'll be hearing from her again.”

Jack Gerrard downed the remainder of his gin. Placed the glass heavily on the table.

“I'm going down to check on the girls,” he muttered savagely, and walked out.

On his way to the village, he nodded at Eilidh MacNeill on her way to retrieve her father.

On the shore, Davy was checking the ropes securing his upturned boat.

In the bar, Will managed for the first time, to knock over all nine skittles.

“I did it! Look, Dad,” he shouted, before turning round.

“Slainthe,” slurred Neilly John.

<>

Edie Gerrard smiled.

A brisk wind pulled her hair back behind her face, emphasising her handsome, elegant features, as Davy's boat elbowed through the choppy cross currents on its way out of the shelter of the bay. The clarity of the air under a pallid sky presaged rain.

Will liked it when his mother was happy, instead of withdrawn and sharp-tongued as she had been for what, to him, seemed an age.

“But why can't we all go?” Jess had asked the previous day.

“There isn't room,” said her mother. “Anyway, he only asked me. And Will. You can help your father pack us up. I packed us all to come here.”

“Great,” said Jess and strutted into her room.

“Nice way to end our last week,” said Jack Gerrard.

“We'll be back by lunchtime,” said his wife.

“I'd like to have taken some photographs.”

“Well you can't.”

Judy was nowhere to be seen.

And now, the boat left the bay and heeled slightly as Davy adjusted its heading and the chop was more mature and the sharp bow butted into it and the sea threw a little spray over them from time to time to remind them they were there on sufferance and Edie Gerard smiled.

And Davy, neat, wiry, deceptively strong Davy, here in the element where he had spent so much of his life, held the tiller which was the arm of the engine and he was aware of the woman's enjoyment and told himself not to be an old fool.

“Are you alright there now, Will?” he said.

“Yes, thank you. Is it far where we're going?”

The boy had never been to sea in an open boat.

“No, not far. If you look up ahead there, aye up there, look,” and the man pointed, “you'll see some white water and some rocks showing. That's the Dutchy Caps. We'll be there in a minute or two.”

Will nodded.

Shortly afterwards, Davy throttled back as the first float appeared indicating the location of one of his lobster pots.

“I've got five creels set round the reef,” he said. “But one of them's a bit close in and we'll not bother with that one today.”

A couple of hundred yards from them, the sea simmered and slithered over the largely submerged rocks. Instinctively, Will disliked them. The black, wet stone seemed menacing, ominous and, incomprehensibly, tempting.

“Now then, Edie, you take the tiller here, we'll just keep a little bit of way on her, that's it and Will, you come forward with me and hold the bait bucket.”

“I'm enjoying this, Davy,” said Edie.

The man smiled.

Then he picked up his boat hook and reached for the float, pulling it on board and placing its rope into the vee of a small clamp attached to the side of the vessel.

Will's apprehension abated for the moment, and he watched with fascination as the man hauled steadily until the creel appeared, breaking through the surface, water sluicing out of it, before being pulled on board.

“Empty,” said Davy, “though something's had the bait. Ach well, not to worry. Right Will, pass me the bucket. That's it.”

And he rebaited the trap before lowering it back into the depths.

“Now, Edie, see that little lever there, under the handle you're holding, that's it, you've got it. Just press it down a little. We need just a wee bit more of the engine. Not too much. That's fine. Now head her a little to port, just the way you're going now, good, and we'll find the next one.”

But the next two creels were also empty.

“We're not bringing you much luck I'm afraid, Davy,” said Edie.

“Och now, don't be thinking that,” he said. “We've still another to go.”

“May I pull up the last one?” she said.

The man hesitated.

“Aye, well. Why not. You've seen how to do it. Just don't drop the boat hook, mind.”

Davy watched her as she hauled out the last of the four pots. She had hooked the float without difficulty and was now pulling with concentrated determination.

“It isn't really that hard is it?” she said.

“Not if you've only a few. But keep a steady pull on her.”

“There's something in this one,” she said, excitedly, as it broke surface. “There's something here. You've caught something, Davy.”

A writhing silvery shape thrashed urgently against the side of the trap.

“Right you are. You come back now and hold on to this tiller and we'll see what we've got.”

It was another ling, larger than the one Davy had taken earlier in the week. He opened the creel flap, pulled out the fish and threw it down onto the boat's slats where it lay gasping, dying.

“Just a ling then,” he said. “Not much for our efforts. But, it's something.

“Nosey devils they are. He would have had to force his way in there by the size of him.”

He pulled bait from the bucket and attached it inside the creel. Then he secured the weighted basket and lowered it back over the edge, letting go of the float as the trap struck bottom.

“Aye, well then. There we are. But at least you've had a trip, and you can say you've been creeling.”

“Thank you, Davy. Thank you very much. I've enjoyed it so much,” said Edie. “It's been great hasn't it, Will?”

But the boy was staring at the fish as it continued flapping around the bottom of the boat, its eyes staring, panicking, it seemed to Will.

“Put it back,” he said. “Put it back.”

“Don't be stupid, Will,” said his mother.

“It needs to go back,” said the boy, his face beginning to crumple.

“Stop it, for goodness' sake. It's just a fish. Where do you think they come from?”

Will started to cry. He could not help himself.

“It needs to go back in the water,” he managed to say.

“Will, you're being ridiculous,” said his mother.

Davy observed the boy. The man looked bemused more than anything though, for the briefest moment, a look of sorrow, almost despondency, flitted across his features. He glanced then at Edie Gerrard.

But she only looked fierce and vexed.

And he made a decision.

Taking the boat hook in one hand and holding the fish up by its tail, he clubbed it quickly, hard, behind its head. Then he tossed it back down by his feet.

“There, Will,” he said. “It can't feel anything now.”

Will said nothing, wiped at his tears with the back of his hand then, lips clamped, moved to the side of the boat, sat staring out over the sea and back towards the island. He did not look at the fish, blood leaking from one of its eyes.

“Aye, well,” said Davy, “perhaps we should be making our way.”

“I think that would be best,” said Edie Gerard. “I'm sorry about that.”

“Och, no need,” said Davy. “No need at all. Youngsters see things differently."

And he turned the boat towards its home.

The threatened rain finally arrived, cloaking them, discouraging further conversation.

Will picked at a loose, brass rowlock screw. It came out of the wood quite easily, though he had not been trying to achieve that. Neither Davy nor his mother noticed as he palmed it surreptitiously. He gripped hold of it all the way back.

It would be many years later when, as an adult, he would come to realise that without his mother's presence in the boat that day, the fish might have lived.

<>

Edie had given Davy a hug, which he had not expected, before mother and son returned to the hotel. Now, Davy walked slowly along to his cottage, bait bucket in one hand and oars balanced on his shoulder with the other.

Twenty yards ahead of him, Annie MacDonald, aunt of Iain who so preoccupied the thoughts of Jess and Judy, stepped out of her old Morris Minor.

“Well, Davy,” she said. “Did they enjoy themselves then?”

“Aye there, Annie,” he said, pausing for a moment. “I don't know. Maybe it was a daft idea.”

“You're looking pensive,” she said.

“Och, I was just thinking.”

The woman said nothing.

“I wonder,” said Davy, “just, well, just sometimes you know, I wonder what it might have been like if Imogen and I had had a child or two.”

Annie regarded him, her face expressionless. She knew no answer was required.

“I made a good pot of soup earlier this morning,” she said, finally. “I'll drop a bowl of it round later.”

“Aye,” said Davy. “Thanks, Annie. Thanks.”

And he walked on.

<>

The two girls had gone down early to the pier on the morning of departure. But Iain MacDonald was helping his father clear rocks from a field in another part of the island.

Jess was disappointed but Judy seemed untroubled. But then, secreted in her shoulder bag was a letter from the tall, sun-weathered youth. They had promised to write to each other and to meet up again in the future. And perhaps they even would.

She would not tell Jess. Perhaps some day, but not now.

The Gerrards, with Judy and one islander travelling to visit an ill relative, were the only ones transported out to the ferry when it appeared.

“Remember, Will. Practice is everything,” said Jardine Guy as the boy was handed up to the hatch in the side of the ship and helped on board by two crew members. The others followed and lastly, the luggage along with a small bag of mail before the process was reversed for those disembarking.

Jack Gerrard led the way as they climbed through the ship's innards to the upper decks. The family's car had been garaged at the port of departure until they returned. It was a three-hour sail.

They waved from the top deck as Guy manoeuvred the old whale boat away from the side of the big workmanlike ferry.

“Come again,” he shouted before gunning it up.

Judy waved even harder.

Then the ship sounded its horn and it eased towards the open sea before its captain fed power into the engines and it thrust purposefully away.

Her son looked so like his father, thought Edie as she watched him. His hair was the same shade of dark russet and he was going to be tall.

The boy leaned against the safety railings, almost the same height as he was for now.

“Come on, girls. Let me take some pictures of you,” said Jack Gerrard. And they walked off forward to the bow.

Edie put on her sunglasses and settled herself on one of the passenger benches with a book. Lit a cigarette.

Will watched a seagull which seemed to float in the air alongside, effortlessly keeping up with the ship now cleaving its way through the long swells.

“Mum,” he said. “That seagull's going as fast as we are. But it's not flapping its wings. How does it do that?”

The bird eyed the boy as it held position, watching to see if he might produce something edible from a pocket.

“I have no idea,” she replied without looking up.

He looked round at his mother.

“Can I bring my bike with me next year?”

She looked at her son, directly.

“We're not going back to the island, Will.”

He turned away, his throat tight suddenly, watched the small outcrop diminish in the distance, and then the seagull as it gave up hope and peeled away.

<>

In the poke of garden behind his cottage, his back to the bay and the ship now disappearing over the horizon, Davy earthed up his few rows of potatoes with a spade that was almost his age.

When he had finished, he intended to secure a loose rowlock on his boat. He'd noticed a screw was missing. It had been loose for a while. And he would have to order a tin of paint to be sent over from the hardware store in the town on the mainland. His cottage window frames would need repainting soon. The winter storms were no respecters of property.

He stood, stretched, leaned on his spade for a spell, then bent to his work once more.


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