Saturday, 13 February 2016

Mary Rose

I opened the side gate and her voice boomed out 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 dangling from my right hand, my fishing bag slung over my shoulder. In the winter this road would be all but deserted, not today. Every 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 loads of 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 as the breeze was cutting.

When I reached the harbour, Mary Rose was waiting on her trailer for me, exactly where I had left her. I fished keys from my bag, unlocked the padlock and unwound the long chain which secured it to the harbour wall. The other key on the loop unlocked the 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 masters office.

I looked around and wondered where James was, he should have been here by now. I went to the side of Mr Cooney's office to retrieve 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 is a swell running today."

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

As I lumbered out of the office, I spotted James running toward me.

"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," James said, slowing from a run to a walk when he was a few feet away.

"You're here now, lets 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 hauled back on the bow rope, drawing the boat into deeper water along side the jetty, while James hauled the empty trailer back up the ramp leaving it beside our parking place.

The sun broke through the clouds now and again, making the work of readying the boat sticky. 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 muscles under my bronzed skin. I knew I looked ripped, I could see it in the eyes of the girls each time I passed the funfair or the diving platform with my shirt off.

James ran down the ramp with the last of the fishing gear and we were finally ready to leave. I pumped the petrol from the can into the outboard motor and ripped back on the starter cord. It fired clean 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 happily on our way.

Jimmy jumped up on the bow cover, letting his feet dangle over the edge of the boat, his bare toes skimming the tiny waves. He was shirtless and had his jeans 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 cradle his head under his arm while flattening his tummy. I have to admit I sucked my belly in a little 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 was not long before we were bundled up inside jeans, t-shirts and jumpers. James unrolled the tangled mackerel feathers and got the rods ready for fishing. I got the boat nicely into the deep channel that ran up the middle of the bay and anchored up. It only took twenty minutes for our plastic bag to be overflowing with silver mackerel bodies. They were coming up two and three at a time with each cast. Pulling the fish off the hook soon was more trouble than it was fun. Mr Cooney was right, there was a swell running, but it was a big-old soft swell. The rolling waves were well spaced apart as they lifted and dropped the boat as they passed underneath. They were big, but nothing we couldn't deal with. When James suggested going out to Sullivan's Hole and trying for a few conger, 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 vanished right underneath the overhanging cliff face. It was a place where they still said monsters lived. Some people said they'd never found the bottom of that place, others say there are conger eels so big they could rip off a man's leg with one twist.

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

We putted 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 the anchor had nothing but slick rock to grab on to so I had to keep the engine running constantly, keeping the boat off the limestone buttress.

James dropped a line into the depths below and was soon rewarded with a mighty battle with 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 using the outboard motor. When the engine died, we had five eels lying the 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 back 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 get 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 bigger wave passed beneath us and I looked over my shoulder. The wave wasn't actually any bigger than the others, we were getting into shallower water where the crests were being forced up by the rising sheet of rock that would become the cliff face towering above us.

"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 over on 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 an get onto the cliff. We will 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 then 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 nook they were resting on, but the skin of my hand bit against 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.

"James!"

Just beneath my feet, James's 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 brushes as I saw a thick black shaddow appear in the corner of my eye. 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.

"JAMES! JAMES!"

I searched the ocean for him but it was empty. After another wave had died against the coast and me. James still had 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 that I couldn't remember those moments on the cliff face. The real answer was, it was too much to relive. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw James looking at me with terror etched across his face, his blood dripping fingers reaching out for help, and I had done nothing but save my own useless skin. As I watched his coffin sink into the earth, I knew that look would haunt me for the rest of my life.