moody ocean view with rocks and low grey sky

Our Lady Of The Shallows

George sighed deeply and took another sip of tea before replacing the oversized cup on the shiny plastic tablecloth. The winter sun threw weak shafts of amber light around the southern end of the kitchen at this time of day. Sometimes these would illuminate his introspection so that he would think himself an amalgam of jaded photons whose glow mimicked a guttering hearth.

Twenty years he had sat at this same table and vacillated. The promise youth made to itself had departed long ago and left him here, in a brown robe, to contemplate stagnation. He couldn’t even bring himself to watch television anymore as the commercial breaks aggravated him so much that he would become tearful. Marketers were the same carpet-baggers that they had always been, but it seemed so much worse now. How they eviscerated life; how they cheapened everything. It was the same with their infernal wares too. How was a man supposed to communicate properly when his students appeared absent? They seemed dulled and blunted by their constant companions which erupted from pockets and backpacks in a gaudy onslaught of pastels and chrome. Even the head of department had said that he should become more ‘au fait’ with the technological revolution that seemed to gather pace daily.

He suspected, however, that Mrs. Forester was prodding him yet again. She was a prodder all right. Fifteen years his junior, and with an attitude that could wither grapes on the vine. Of course she was too late for him; too late for a man whose withering had likely occurred around the same time that she had stopped wearing badges on her jackets. It wasn’t that George dismissed all of it out of hand, of course. It was simply an unwillingness on his part to be saddled with all the paraphernalia and its attendant responsibilities. Most people he met these days were welded to their mobile telephones and tablets and PCs. How many times a day did they engage with anything but a screen? How was he supposed to lecture on the works of literature that the syllabus stipulated in an age when nobody, that he met, ever actually sat down and read a book? Why did people seem to overlook the glaringly obvious?

Yes, they were all good questions. But to formulate a good question, surely one must have time in which to think, to ponder, to be silent?

That is how all the trouble started, really. That, and the fact that he really shouldn’t have lost his temper.

It was a fortnight ago, and he was just finishing summing up the main points for consideration in the novel they had been studying since September, when it happened.

Coldly surveying the collection of mature students who were strumming their instruments with total disregard for either himself or one another he had said, “Of course none of this will mean anything to you unless you can tear yourselves away from the unrelenting hilarity of a cat playing a fucking piano.”

In many ways he thought that the subsequent uproar had more to do with the fact that he had somehow dared to sully the new improved electronic ‘now’; that he had dared to comment adversely on the thing that united everyone from the farm labourer to the brain surgeon. He had been severely reprimanded for using foul language, and the departmental meeting had been another show trial in which he had had to feign remorse and apologise for ever having been conceived. The rumblings were ongoing and his fellow lecturers regarded him with what he felt was ill-concealed dislike. He was ‘old school’; that was what he was.

But George was a little worried about himself. There had never been a time in his career when he had spoken out the way he had. Sure, there had been plenty of times when he had felt like it, but to actually stand in front of a class and say something like that just wasn’t him. He was slipping. That’s why the TV ads provoked such a reaction too. He was not in full control of his emotions.

All his life he had been a guarded and self-disciplined man. It’s why he had never married. He could not bear to share his privacy with anyone, and he had most certainly decided against bringing any children into this world, ever. He was not an unsociable man. He was just not very sociable, that was all. He nodded to himself as he finished the last of his tea and brought the cup over to the sink to wash out the clinging strands at the bottom.

Today was Saturday. He listened to the small protests of the house gaining momentum as the central heating kicked in. A nose out of the back door told him all he needed to know about the weather. It was going to be a cold one tonight, that was for sure. Here they were, approaching the end of November, and this frost had bolted itself on to everything. The past week had seen January weather all over the north of the country, weather warnings had multiplied until one was no longer shocked that the statistics for the coldest November, since whenever, had now morphed into the coldest November on record. At the back of his mind George was sure that they regularly trotted these inane details out just to spice things up a bit. It seemed to him that it was always the coldest or hottest or wettest something-or-other.

None of it mattered anyway. Tonight was a spring tide; the highest of the month, and his old pal Con and he were going after big codling from the beach at Hearne cove. Con was an amiable man with a gleam in his eye and hands that could make a wooden spoon sprout leaves if he tended it. To a select few it was well known that his tomatoes were the best in the region, and the homing pigeons that he kept were champions of their craft.

Con was married to Theresa who was, perhaps, the single most aggravating woman that George had ever met. If the sun was shining and the flowers were blooming and murder had taken the day off, it still wouldn’t have been good enough. Maybe it was due, in part, to the fact that Con spent most of his time at his allotment that she was peevish to the extent that she was, but George wouldn’t bet on it.

Con had told him that he would pick him up tonight just before eleven so that they could set up at their spots an hour and a half after the tide had turned, and fish the incoming water until about an hour after high tide.

Both George and he wagered that this would be ample time in which to catch their prey. Still, it was early enough. No need to start getting things ready for hours yet.

George Moore walked slowly from the tiny kitchen into the scarcely larger living room and turned on the radio. It buzzed quietly into life and the agreeable background chatter made him feel instantly more relaxed. As he slumped in the old worn armchair another huge sigh eclipsed the tinny voices from the corner. He gazed at the cheap bookcase with its orderly collection of hardbacks and yawned. Although it was frigid in the room the radiator was just starting to take the chill off, and as he tightened the old robe around himself he was almost content.

It was funny how Con and he had become friends. Life was full of just such incidents, he supposed, but his life wasn’t. Looking back over his sixty years, rarely had one such chance encounter meant so much. He had had lots of friends as a child, but he had come to realise quite early on in his life that he was far from gregarious. His Father had been a domineering man who prided himself on the fact that he was a ‘man’s man’. Consequently, little George had been sent to the boxing club where he had surprised everyone, himself included, with his pugilistic zeal and accomplishment.

He smiled now as he thought that his dislike of his Father had been the one thing that had garnered his Father’s respect. His frustrations had made his small fists fly. It had never been an easy relationship. George senior could never understand his bookish son, and had never tried to either. A man’s man doesn’t do things like that. But George junior was an avid reader, especially anything that had to do with animals. He had always been interested in the natural world. He supposed that that may have sprung from the confines of a suburban upbringing. As a child he had scoured the railway tracks and sidings for caterpillars and shrews. Every weekend it was off to the canal to fish for quicksilver roach with their ruby eyes and catch struggling amphibians with a little beach net and bucket. Later on he had read everything ornithological that the local library had in stock. His little room had become a shrine to anything avian. He had had collections of nests and eggs and owl pellets. Even now his heart raced at the sight of a Kingfisher zipping low over the water. That was how he met Con.

One Saturday morning about fifteen years ago they had engaged in a vociferous argument at the library over the best diet for the Indian Hill Myna. It turned out that they had both kept these birds as younger men. He had had a pair called Punch and Judy, even though they had both been males, and Con had reared one called Digger. When they were politely asked to vacate the premises the two had fallen about laughing and Con had invited George up to his allotment to see his pigeons and consume several bottles of home-made wine. Needless to say it was a friendship that had lasted the tests of time thus far.

The need for a pee propelled George from the comfortable chair. As he stood in the bathroom watching his exhalations made flesh in the cold air he reasoned that tonight’s foray would be interesting from several perspectives.

Unlike most men his age George loved the dark and the cold; the onset of winter was fascinating to him. He knew why people disliked this season: they disliked it because they personalised it; they made it all about themselves, and it wasn’t. It was about the changing constellations above, when Orion came to hunt the night skies. It was about the migrants racing high overhead in the dark, Fieldfares and Redwings, Whooper swans and exotic Waxwings, and ranks of stiff-flanked whiting that made their way from the depths to congregate in the shallows and gambol over sandbars hidden by the flashing jet of the sea. It was the songs the rocks made in the winds from the north. Nature’s ringtones abounded.

But George was thinking of something else; something Con had said yesterday. It had been George’s idea to head for Hearne cove. He knew that the spring tide tonight would be the highest of the season so far. There, at the top of the cliffs, a redundant building sat hunched like a tramp in an alley, and a hundred feet below it the torn sickle beach was a precursor to a shifting mass of shingle that signalled a deep water drop-off that would hold fish easily. In the storms of the past few nights the flotsam and jetsam of the open ocean would be whirling through the basin of the cove like flakes in a snow-globe. It would be like ringing the dinner-bell come high water. The hunter’s mind processed all this calmly, as the hunter’s mind always did, but Con would not be persuaded. George once again tossed it around his mind. Why should he choose the river mouth when the cove was the place to be? Why? Try as he might, he still could not understand the other’s motivation. All Con had said was, “Never liked that place, it’s dangerous.”

George had laughed and replied that it was nothing compared to some of the places that they had fished over the years, but Con still remained adamant, and that was that.

George was lucky, he supposed. Fear was not at all a constant, or even fleeting, element of his thinking. Okay, he had a profound respect for nature and his surroundings but he had the confidence that comes from experience. He would never place himself in danger knowingly. He knew that the worst that he could expect down there would be a drenching if he was too close to the waters’ edge. That would be it, the sum extent of all potential misgivings. The thing was, he knew that Con knew the same. So there had to be another reason. There had to be something that he wasn’t saying. Unfortunately, George knew his friend well enough to know that, whatever it was, it would remain unsaid.

Hearing the muted radio downstairs comforted him as he turned on the shower. It was strange that recently he had succumbed to a faint feeling of loneliness. All the other lecturers were married or whatever passed for it these days. He knew that most of them suspected him of being homosexual.

Occasionally at Christmas, or the end of the academic year, he would go with the department to some soulless wine bar for an hour or two. That’s where he would notice. That dreadful prick Asquith or indeed the ice-maiden herself. It was in their tone; their emphases; their lying little touch-screen eyes. Asquith had slapped him on the shoulder once after four or five drinks, and he had had to stop himself from delivering a short powerful uppercut that would have laid the man out cold. George shivered involuntarily as he slid the shower curtain to the side and shouldered off his robe. As the hot water cascaded over him he soaped himself down and thought of fresh battered cod and chips. With any luck that would be Sunday tea taken care of and anything else could go straight into a nice fish pie. He had to remember to buy some peas. He smiled, all thoughts of loneliness banished by hot water and greed. Sometimes introspection gave you a free pass. And sometimes it didn’t.

George Moore was a man who knew the importance of maintaining an active lifestyle, even if it was oft-times a bit of a pretence. He could not afford to play out his remaining years in solitude— it would be an unhealthy thing to do because the abyss would stare back, and God only knew what horrors it held. To this end he met with the chess club on Thursday nights, at seven, in the parish hall. He played snooker on a Tuesday, from six to nine, and he attended Mass regularly every Sunday. He would have coffee and biscuits every Wednesday at the little cafe on Bridge street and talk to Moira, the owner, about the poems they were studying in his weekly Monday night class. Apart from these standards, he had his fishing and bird-watching and his regular meetings with Con. Being single had its advantages: he always knew where his things were and he came and went as he pleased. He just wished sometimes that there might be something more—something more soulful. He always felt as if he were missing something vital, that there was something he had overlooked or not seen. As he dressed he thought that maybe a lot of people could say similar things. It was just a vague feeling, that was it—a vague feeling that he should be doing something that he wasn’t, a vague feeling of unhappiness, perhaps.

These thoughts gradually dissipated as the day wore on and the darkness fell. Around half seven he made himself some cheese on toast and put the beachcaster, his small bag with rigs and bait, and his gumboots in the hall. Once again he put his nose out of the back door, but a surprise lay in wait. A fog had descended and the winds of the past few days had vanished. It was far from ideal. He had envisaged a bright star-lit night where he could have gazed into the vast heavens and watched the skies whilst his rod sat on the rest. Alas, it was not to be. Around half past ten he heard Con’s old van splutter to a halt outside in the lane. He opened the front door a crack and signalled for his friend to come in. He heard Con’s heavy tread down the hallway as he topped off the flask of hot chocolate that he was bringing with him. He would have put a little Brandy in it but he had none left.

“Evenin’ George, bad bloody night out there now.” Con screwed up his features to indicate the general state of affairs as he rubbed his large red hands together.

George smiled and replied, “Fish won’t mind Con, you’re early?”

“I had a bit of a problem getting the van started and then Theresa started a lecture about the weather and how we must be mad and… well… I just thought I’d come over a bit earlier is all…”

George stowed the flask and looked steadily at his friend. “Aye, well, we’ll take our time eh? We’ve plenty of it. I’ll even give you a couple of my fish so that you won’t have to go back to her empty handed, what you say?”

“I’ll be fishing next to you so there won’t be any need thank you very much.” Con took off his woolly hat and scratched his bald scalp with great enthusiasm.

“Oh, so you’ve decided to come with me down to the cove then have you?”

Con blew his large nose into a tissue and said quietly, “Let’s talk about it in the van.”

As they drove George learnt that Con had not indeed changed his mind. If anything, he was rather more forthcoming than in any of their previous discussions on the matter. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade George that the river mouth was the best bet. He said that if the weather deteriorated significantly they could retreat to the sanctuary of the van. “Toot Sweet.” He said. “Toot Sweet”.

But he had underestimated his friend’s stubbornness. George had made many journeys to the cove and it was there, when the tide was out and slack water held sway, that he had observed the sandbar many times. Tonight he had convinced himself that this feature would attract the browsing opportunists to a last supper of lugworm cocktail. Nothing that Con could say on the matter would have made any difference whatsoever. And Con knew his friend well enough to know this for a fact.

As they approached the cliffs the headlights were practically useless. The fog did not swirl around, it was simply everywhere like a great blanket of sodden cotton wool. The full moon was hidden completely, yet it lent a kind of silver backlight to the surroundings. It was not a glow exactly, more like a lightening here and there where the mist was thinnest.

“One last time George, how about it, eh?” There was a tone in Con’s voice that suggested something else.

George picked up on it right away. “No way, I could say the same thing to you, c’mon, why won’t you?”

Con pulled in to the little lay-by and cut the engine. He reached up and switched on the light and regarded his friend with such a serious expression that George could do nothing except laugh. “Right, ten past eleven now, so reckoning on the flood I’ll pick you back up at about half five here, okay?”

“Suits me fine.” George replied.

It was, of course, a standoff.

“Listen George, don’t go wandering down there, because in this weather and especially at night you can get cut off easily, you remember that awful story a few years…”

George laid a hand on his friend’s arm and assured him that he wouldn’t move from the small beach immediately beneath them. “I’ll be back at half five with a bag full of fish, you’ll see. And then you’ll have wished that you had gone with me.”

Con nodded a trifle ruefully as George unloaded his gear and switched on his headlamp. “Just be careful, that’s all.”

Once again, there was something in the way that he said it that gave George pause. With a sigh he shrugged and, shouldering his load, made his way down the steep steps towards the cove. He halted about ten steps down, to adjust the cumbersome rod rest, and watched the taillights of the van disappear into the murk. His head torch showed him nothing apart from his green boots and the merest suggestion of the steps below his feet. It was really something to see just how dense and impenetrable this fog was. But, he could hear the unmistakable sound of the sea and the far away booms and crashes of waves as they scythed through the freezing shingle which mostly comprised the small strand. He had been here many times during the day but never at night. It was good to come at night because there would be no people and better still, no dogs. He would have it all to himself for a few hours and this meant a lot.

He wondered what the tide would do. Sometimes the shingle could be replaced with white sand, as if by magic, but it was only the immense power of the surge and the winds and the shifting skin of the deep. George was glad that he had had a little doze around two, because now he felt all the sharper and better for it. The cold night and the amphitheatre of sandstone at his back served to focus his mind and hone his concentration into a tight beam that was of infinitely more use than the lamp that would only be useful for baiting up.

Moving extremely carefully, he made his way down the last few steps and was relieved to feel the satisfying scrunch of the stones underfoot. It took him about ten minutes to set up the long rod and rest. It was a long walk out as the tide had only turned a few hours ago and was now beginning to creep back up towards the cliffs. Soon, he knew, he would be backtracking and retreating in his own footsteps as the black surf harried him, and everything else in its path, back to the high tide line.

After about an hour the sounds of the night became familiar, not that there was much noise. In the summer the cliffs at his back would have a life of their own. Hundreds of Kittiwakes and Fulmars nested on the pockmarked face, and every now and then a cascade of stone that had broken away from its moorings would come crashing down on the little beach. The night would be alive with the cries and ‘skitterings’ of the gulls as they seethed on the rock-faces and danced out their timeless ballet.

But tonight there was a void. That was the only way that George could describe it. If the night had been clear, one could have seen the great sweep of the bay and the lights of the ships already at sea. The full moon would have silver-plated the waves and wavelets that barrelled and burst at his feet, but not tonight.

It was as if the scene had become somehow compartmentalised, fractured into short vignettes rather than existing as a whole. The fog, of course, exacerbated this fragmented state.

As George unscrewed the top of the flask he could scarcely believe that it had persisted for so long without any noticeable variation in its uniformity. The hot liquid felt good as it flowed into his stomach and suddenly his rod tip plunged down erratically. George counted one, two, three before lifting the rod from the rest and bringing the tip up above his head in a fluid movement. He began to pump the handle of the multiplier reel. Adrenalin flooded his system, and he rode the wave, as he wound in the line. Five minutes later a decent sized codling lay at his feet. In the lamplight he could discern the reddish mottling on its belly and flanks, this fish, he knew, was a local. He had not swum in from the depths, but was a resident of the rocks. It was the kelp that had given the crimson tinge to him.

As he unhooked his catch George surmised that the fish would probably weigh in excess of four pounds. He smiled, all-in-all the whole expedition had been worth it just for this one specimen alone. He glanced at his watch and saw that it was approaching three ‘o’ clock. He had reversed right up the beach by now and there was only about thirty yards to go before he was back at the bottom of the steps. He used his knife to kill and gut the codling and stowed it safely away in the fish bag. After re-baiting his hooks with fresh lugworm, he swung the entire rigging behind him and with a deft, practised, movement catapulted the whole ensemble far into the deep sea. The temperature dropped then and George began to feel it bloom in the fog around him.

As he was struggling to adjust his hood, he heard it. Slowly he turned in the direction of the sounds but the heavy hood which protected him from the elements was also a highly effective muffler. Normally he never wore it, but on a night like this he had felt it necessary because of the excessive moisture in the air. Several times he had observed the tiny rivulets running liberally down his arms and legs and dripping from the hood to slip down the front of his storm jacket. George slipped the hood off and stood, off balance, straining to hear the approaching noises. That they were approaching rapidly was plainly evident, but what they were was not so. For the second time that night adrenalin flooded his system, but it was not excitement that precipitated it, like before. This time it was fear.

He strained again and shook his head in disbelief. A seal maybe? Surely that is what it must be? The sounds that he was experiencing were simple sounds: the rhythmic tread of…

“Hello out there, is there someone there?” He could hear the hoarseness of his voice. Is this what you wanted boyo? Maybe this is the something more you were thinking about this morning?

There was no reply and the regular plodging, that sounded for all the world like someone walking through the water, suddenly stopped. George’s heart hammered against his ribs. The feeble headlight showed nothing in front of him. Nothing making its deliberate passage through the shallows towards him. Nothing.

He froze, straining to catch even the slightest sound but there was zilch. It must have been a succession of wavelets that had caused the sounds. Nature could trick you. Once, he had seen a mysterious glow in the sea. It had been a calm summer night. Suddenly, a light had appeared and gotten brighter and larger and just as he was about to flee he realised that what he was seeing was just the moonrise, but he had spooked himself for sure. This, he assured himself, was a similar scenario. It was just the fog, that was it, just this fucking fog. That was it. Had to be. Things were obscured and ill-defined, hidden they were, weren’t they? He laughed quietly to himself and shone the headlight onto the long droop of his line which disappeared into the black. The exposed line sparkled with a myriad of glinting water droplets each reflecting the light. The beauty of it, the normality of it, almost floored him. Relief coursed through him.

As he turned away to fix the hood back in place he caught a movement from the corner of his eye and the heavy waterproof dropped from his hands. The fog stirred in front of him, and at first he could not believe what he was seeing. It was a shape materialising from the left. George’s mouth fell open and his eyes almost split the skin of his cheekbones.

About ankle deep in the water the form approached, but it made no sound at all. In the headlight’s beam he saw the long dress and the bonnet that she wore on her head. She had a small basket in the crook of her arm and she appeared to be searching for something.

There was a smell in the air that reminded him, for a fleeting instant, of something that was vaguely familiar to him. He couldn’t quite pin it down. As suddenly as she had appeared, she was gone.

George was unsure afterwards how long he had actually stood rooted to the spot. He could never tell for sure, but he estimated that it could have been as long as half an hour. Soon after the figure had vanished a wind picked up that began to disperse the fog and reveal the world once more. Mechanically George had assembled his gear and begun the long climb back up the steps to the top. When Con had at last arrived, dawn was slowly beginning to manifest itself. Far out to sea the sun was an orange dot on the horizon.

George sat on the little wall next to the dilapidated building and cried like he had not cried for years. There was pain here in this place. There was pain and death. The friends did not speak of it. There was very little either could say.

Years later Con told his son Brian, on the night of his own son’s wedding, that his friend George had foreseen his own death. “I went to see him in the hospital and he seemed as fit as you or I lad. He told me that he dreamt she would walk the ward in the night, that sometimes lately she had taken to smiling in at him and crooking her finger, but that he knew when the time would be right.”

Brian had smiled and poured them another drink. “How did he know when that time was then dad?”

Con looked at the fluorescent kitchen lights and felt a shiver ripple down his spine, “He said that she’d give him a chestnut.”

Brian laughed until he saw his father’s face.

“Aye lad, a hot, sweet chestnut for a soul.”