Saturday, 13 February 2016

Mary Rose

I opened the side gate and her voice boomed from the kitchen.

“Tom, have you finished cleaning out the shed?”

“Yes, Mom,” I call back. How does she do that? It's like some superpower that mothers get; knowing when one of their kids is making a break for freedom.

“Did you clean the bait out of the lobster pots?”

“Yes, Mom,” I said, getting as much impatience and frustration into my fifteen-year old voice as I could.

“Where are you going?”

“Jesus, Mom. A guard wouldn't ask me that,” I yelled back over my shoulder, rolling my eyes to heaven while doing so.

“Just as well I'm your mother then,” came the reply, not one bit phased in the face of pubescent truculence.

“I’m just taking Mary Rose out for a while.”

“Bring me back a couple of mackerel, will yea?”

“Right so, see yea later,” I said, hoisting my can of petrol and eventually making it all the way out the gate.  Anyone listening might wonder why a teenage boy would be so casual about taking someone out, and then being asked to bring back fish in response. The conversation makes a lot more sense if you know that Mary Rose is the name of my sixteen-foot skiff, and being the son of a fisherman, I'd spent nearly as much of my life on the water, as I had on land.

I walked down the road toward the pier, the petrol can swinging in my right hand, my fishing bag slung over my shoulder. In the winter, this road would be all but deserted, not today. In summer, the population of our little village tripled or more. City-folk, spending their holidays soaking up the semi-warm Irish sun. Ice-cream vans appeared and set up in the car park, the smell of vinegar laden chips mingled in the air with seaweed and drying fish. Gulls wheeled in the sky, while clouds raced across it, driven onward by the constant Atlantic breeze.

Today was far from warm, but it didn't stop me stripping off my top as I got close to the swimming platform. There were always girls hanging out there, swimming and showing off. You wouldn't find me down there, with the kids, but there was no harm in showing them what they were missing. When I was out of sight of the diving platform, I put my t-shirt back on because the breeze was cutting.

When I reached the harbour, Mary Rose was waiting on her trailer, exactly where I’d left her. I got the keys from my bag and unlocked the padlock. The other key opened a small locker built into the bow of the boat. In there I stored the life jackets, rope, baler and small anchor. The outboard motor and fishing rods were kept in the harbour master’s office.

I looked around and wondered where James was, he should have been here by now. I went to Mr Cooney's office and got the motor and rods. As I was passing the window when there was a knock. Mr Cooney poked his head out and said, "Stay inside the bay, Tom, there’s a swell running."

"I will, Mr Cooney," I said with a smile.

As I lumbered toward the boat James came running down the pier.

"You're late," I said, trying to make the heavy engine look light in my hand.

"Sorry Tom, the mother kept finding one more job for me to do," he said, slowing from a run to a walk when he was a few feet away.

"You're here now, let’s get moving before the tide turns," I said, using the tone my father uses with his crew. James smiled and his freckles danced across his nose. How could you stay mad at someone like him? Soon, we had Mary Rose ready for the water and we walked the trailer down the ramp until the light timber boat floated free. I drew the Mary Rose alongside the jetty, while James hauled the empty trailer back up the ramp leaving it in our parking place. The sun broke through the clouds and it got hot in the shade of the harbour wall. I stripped off my t-shirt for real, a sheen of sweat had formed on my rock hard and hairless body. While Jimmy wasn't looking, I took a moment to admire the ripple of muscle under my skin. I knew I looked ripped; I could see it in the eyes of the girls each time I passed.

James ran down the ramp with the last of the gear and we were finally ready to leave. I pumped petrol into the motor and ripped the starter cord. It fired on the second pull, idling nicely. I flipped the leaver forward and twisted the throttle a half a turn. As we steered a course out of the harbour, Mr Cooney was standing on the pier, his beard blowing in the breeze and he shouted, "Stay in the bay, boys!" We waved as one and continued on our way.

Jimmy jumped up on the bow, letting his feet dangle over the edge of the boat, his bare toes skimming the water. He was shirtless now and had his jeans were rolled up to his knees. We rounded the harbour mouth and came within view of the swimming platform. I saw James lie back a little further and flatten his tummy. I have to admit I sucked in mine as well. We idled passed the girls lying on the platform but never looked in their direction.

Once we were out on the bay the breeze whipped our exposed skin with no respect for our perfect physiques. It wasn’t long before we were bundled up in t-shirts and jumpers. James untangled the mackerel feathers and got the rods ready. I steered the boat into the channel and made for the middle of the bay. In twenty minutes, we had a bag full of mackerel. They were coming up two and three at a time. Pulling the fish off the hooks was soon was more trouble than it was fun. Mr Cooney was right, there was a swell running, but it was a big-old soft one. The rolling waves were well spaced. They were big, but nothing we couldn't handle. When James suggested going to Sullivan's Hole and trying for a few congers, I took a second look at the big soppy waves.

Sullivan's Hole was a famous fishing spot out on the bluff, where the bed of the ocean plunged deep and was surrounded by overhanging cliffs. It was a place where monster fish might still be found.

"Come on so," I said, pulling the anchor aboard.

We chugged up the bay, giving the entrance to the harbour a wide berth in case Mr Cooney was watching and soon were outside the shelter of the headland. Here, the big soft waves were big soft rollers, but still well within the capabilities of myself and the Mary Rose. I knew my boat inside out, I knew what she could do and what she couldn't. Still, I was glad to reach the shelter of the cliffs. Here there was nothing to anchor too, so I had to keep the engine running to keep us off the limestone buttress.

James dropped a line into the depths and was soon rewarded with a mighty battle from a six-foot-long eel. Then we swapped places, me trying my luck with the rod, while James kept us mostly in the same place. When the engine died, we had five eels lying the scuppers of the boat. James pulled and pulled on the ripcord but the engine refused to fire.

"Check the petrol," I said, dropping the rod and moving back along the boat. I pulled the stubby red canister toward me and felt plenty of liquid slosh around inside. I pumped the rubber ball on the hose, forcing petrol along the line. "Try it again," I said and James tugged on the cord five or six times. When nothing happened, he turned to me, his face stiff with worry.

"Let me try," I said, moving to the rear of the boat. I felt panic pierce my brain, and in my rush to pass James we nearly capsized.

"You get on the oars and pull us away from the rocks," I said, as I checked the connections on the motor, trying again and again to start the thing. I felt the boat rear up as a big wave passed beneath us and I looked over my shoulder. The wave wasn't actually any bigger than the others, we were getting closer to the cliff. The crests were being forced up by the rising sheet of rock below the water.

"Jesus Christ!" I said, jumping to James side and taking one of the oars in my hands. James was a lather of sweat and as white as a ghost.

"Come on, pull. PULL!" I screamed, and put every muscle I had to use. Inch by inch we moved away from the looming rocks. After thirty minutes frantic rowing, we were back where we had been when the engine died. Every part of my body screamed for a rest, that was when I noticed the oar James was holding was stained dark. I grabbed his hand and turned it over, the skin was ripped by the friction of the timber oars, blood oozed from his wounds.

"You take a rest," I said, taking both oars. James's shoulders slumped and he gulped in deep breaths of air, resting his ruined hands in his lap, the blood pooling in his cupped palm's. I pulled for all I was worth, but the swell and tide was winning the battle. I felt the power in my arms begin to go, the muscles of my shoulders shuddered, each stroke gaining us less and less ground. That was when James laid his broken hands beside mine and joined the fight once more.

No matter how much we tried, the wall of jagged rock came closer. Soon the waves were pitching the boat at nearly forty-five degrees before they released their grip on my tiny beauty. It was only a matter of time before one of the waves would carry the Mary Rose all the way in, and smashed us violently against the cliff.

"We're not going to make it," I said to James, who didn't need to be told the reality of the situation. "Our only hope is to get the timing right and try and get onto the cliff. We’ll be able to climb up to the top."

James nodded, but he looked frightened beyond words. "Put on the life jacket," I said, nodding to the thin gas operated unit which lay at James's feet. He slipped one over his head, then I got mine on. We kept pulling on the oars as I scanned the horizon for a smaller set of waves. In the end, the decision was taken out of our hands. A large wave rolled through which we just about managed to crest, the boat was sucked after the charging wave as it crashed to its death. The Mary Rose landed side-on against the cliff, timber cracked and water jetted in through the split planks. I reached out and grabbed the slippery stone with both hands, trying to hold the boat still and shouted, "Now, James!"

I felt the boat being sucked out from under our feet. My grip nearly went as the Mary Rose pulled away. James clung to the cliff beside me and we tried to drag ourselves up the barnacle crusted rock. The next wave reared up, exploding against the base of the cliff, engulfing me and James in freezing salt water. I forced my fingers to grip the stone like a vice. As the water ran off me, I felt the life jacket around my neck expand. I coughed out salt water and searched the rock face for James but he was gone. I looked down and saw him in the water at the base of the cliff. He was trying to grip the rock but his water saturated clothes were dragging him back into the ocean. His life jacket had not inflated. The gas canister must have been faulty.  The next wave picked that moment to hit, I managed to hold on, but James took the full impact and was driven hard against the rock. His head fell backwards, blood ran from his nose as he tried to climb clear of the water.

I scurried back down the cliff face, which was much harder than climbing up. I got low enough and grabbed the back of his jumper and hauled him up as best I could. From the corner of my eye I spotted the black wall of water a fraction before it broke over us. I just had enough time to let go of James's jumper and ram my fingers into a fisher. The water sucked my feet from the rock but my hand managed to hold on, the rough edges of the crevice anchoring me to the slippery surface. When the foam flecked water ran out of my eyes, James was gone. I searched the water under my feet, feeling tears mix with the stinging salt water in my eyes.


Just beneath my feet, his head broke the surface. He coughed out pink-stained water, and took a few feeble strokes toward me. He reached up his ruined hand and searched my face with terrified eyes.

"Help me, Tom!" he cried. I leaned out and reached for him. Our fingers brushed as I saw another wave approach. It was going to wash us both from the cliff, I was sure of it. I felt the brush of James's fingers once more, then they were gone. This time, after the wave hit and the water ran out of my eyes, I was alone.


I searched the ocean for him but it was empty. After another wave had died against the coast, and me. James had still not appeared. When I was horse from screaming, I began the climb to safety.

It took two days for the divers to find his body. The waves had pounded him against the rock and left him all but unrecognisable. I told everyone I couldn't remember those moments on the cliff face. But I could. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw him looking at me, terrified, blood dripping from the fingers that reached out for my help. I woke every night, sweating, knowing I had done nothing but save my own useless skin.

As I watched his coffin sink into the earth, I knew I would be haunted for the rest of my life.