Dan couldn’t see the curves of the bay through the driving rain. The storm was getting worse, and Jenni was out there. He hoped she would circle round and wait. She was experienced; she’d know what to do.
The rocks at the end of the bay disappeared into the waves. Dan caught sight of a bent-over old woman struggling along the coast road. No one should be out in this, he thought, least of all someone so frail. He watched her turn and climb onto the rocks above the harbour. She drew herself up to her full height, and lifted her arms outwards as if willing the winds to take her.
She screamed, piercing the wind and rain. The noise made his bones hurt, like a knife scraping a china plate.
Dan grabbed his cagoule and rushed out of the cottage, heading over to her. What on earth she was doing there? What was wrong?
The scream was agony when it came again. He was half way down the road, at the junction. To the left the potholed tarmac took you down to the harbour. To the right the muddy path took you out to the tourist-information-approved viewpoints. Even with his walking shoes on he didn’t fancy the rocks ahead, but that’s where the screaming woman was. Her arms were outstretched. The rain and winds seemed to be circling her, blowing her long skirt back and forth. He couldn’t see how her shawl stayed on. The screaming grew louder, and Dan could barely hear the rain. The waves down on the shore burst up high into the sky.
In the distance Dan saw a ship, appearing out of the darkness. Jenni? No, it wasn’t her small yacht, but something larger, something older-looking. A giant grey beast appearing from the distant sea, about to turn and round the headland.
The woman’s arms thrust down and forwards. The waves obeyed her, crashing in different directions, pushing the grey ship back out away from the island.
Through a lull in the rain Dan made out the ship more clearly. Just one man, in a grey-green uniform, stood holding a rifle as he held onto the railing at the bow.
Behind the ship, thrown suddenly upwards by an unnatural wave, Dan saw Jenni’s yacht, clear as anything, tossed into the sky before disappearing.
He screamed for her. The woman turned, her own scream turning into echoes as the sound of the wind returned.
Jenni held on with all her strength. She was tied on, but that wasn’t much comfort; she’d be smashed repeatedly against the boat if she relied on that cable in this storm. To be so close, but so tired. The winds had been rising all afternoon, but it had been something she could cope with, especially knowing a hot bath was waiting. This storm hadn’t been forecast, and part of her grip on the rail was paralysis. She had seen the island from further out, but now it was hidden. A wave threw her small boat up into the sky. She caught sight of the harbour, with its tiny array of lights, but something else in front. Another ship. She hadn’t seen it before – where had it come from?
She stared, hanging on for dear life. The ship was too close, but surely it would have seen her. How could she have missed it? If she turned now she’d have a good chance of being blown away from the island, which would at least mean not crashing, but she was so tired.
The ship tried to make the turning into the bay. Jenni knew it was turning too soon. Surely it had to know about the rocks? They were clearly marked on the charts – there was even a wreck down there to make the point. A man appeared on the side of the deck – the only sign of life on board. Jenni became aware of a high-pitched scream in the distance.
The grey ship turned. Not much, but with the unmistakable grinding sound that meant it had run onto rocks. The sound continued for so long, it had to be tearing a hole in the side. The man on the deck looked down at Jenni, then up into the sky, as if saying goodbye, and leapt into the water.
Jenni knew there was no way he’d survive from out there. It might only be a few hundred metres, but there was no chance of swimming it. She grabbed her wheel and tried to turn herself around. She might be able to get closer. It meant getting closer to the rocks, but you can’t abandon someone…
Dan heard the grinding sound too, and with it the old woman began her scream once more. Flashes of other figures appeared on the ship. The beast turned, and began twisting in a way a ship would never do unless it was sinking.
Down by the harbour dim yellow lights appeared through the darkness, and as the old woman softened her scream, they joined in, giving the piercing sound some nightmarish harmony.
Dan saw Jenni’s yacht again, this time turning towards the rocks. He shouted, uselessly. Why was she going towards the rocks? What was she thinking? She knew this harbour like the back of her hand. If she couldn’t make it in, just head out to sea again and wait for calm.
“There won’t be calm,” shouted the woman. “There will never be calm again.”
“What?” He was amazed how loud her voice was – stronger than his.
The chorus in the harbour grew louder, as more faint lights appeared and disappeared again around the sinking grey hulk. As each light drifted under the water, a light on the harbour went out, until one by one they were all gone. Dan turned back to the woman.
“Any one of them could have made this harbour in their sleep, even in a storm.”
“And look. All of them. All gone!” She began her scream again.
Jenni could see the man in the water. He couldn’t be more than eighteen. He struggled in the waves in what looked like heavy clothing. He wasn’t going to last long. She wasn’t far away, but through the waves it was hard to get any closer, especially with the rocks. Jenni grabbed her lifesaver with one hand and pulled her arm back, then swung, hoping it would get close enough.
The man saw the bright orange object flying at him, and made one more effort to kick up in the water. His hand grabbed the rope behind the float, and he began pulling himself in.
Jenni turned the boat round, hoping now she could make some headway away from the rocks, assuming the man could hold on for a few seconds.
Her yacht turned and moved grudgingly, far enough that she felt safe enough to help pull him in. The weight of the rope was the only sign he was still there, until finally his face appeared through a wave, and she was close enough to lean down and offer a hand.
It took way more effort than she expected to get him up enough to grab the railing. He was wearing an insanely heavy jacket, and heavy boots – it was amazing he’d managed to remain afloat at all.
The wind turned again, and the gust caught her abeam. The yacht tilted sideways, almost knocking the man off again, and with horror she realised she was mere metres from the rocks. She grabbed the man’s hand, trying to keep him looking at her rather than turning. She knew he was about to be shipwrecked for the second time in a matter of moments.
“Where’s she gone?” shouted Dan as he lost sight of Jenni again.
The woman turned her hands, the winds swirled round her, moving outwards until the eye of the storm included Dan.
“They’re all gone. Any one of them, even my Bill, could have brought that ship in, even in their sleep. “
“Gone? Gone where?”
“Dead. All dead. We watched them die, and the women in the harbour all comforted each other, but they didn’t even know about me and Bill. They left me out. They told me I was just a foolish girl with a crush. They said Bill wasn’t even a man, and I was too young. I told them about us, and they didn’t believe me. I lost the baby, the last of him, and they didn’t believe that either.”
“Can’t you understand? For years we had waited for news, for them to come home for good, fearing every time anyone got a telegram, and after all the shelling, all the trenches, they were a hundred yards from home. We saw them. We saw them sink. I saw Bill jump, trying to get away from the rocks, but he sank. He looked at me as he sank. I never got a chance to tell him about the baby.”
Dan saw the yacht appear above a wave again, now close enough he could see Jenni on board. And someone else with her. They were way too close to the rocks.
“Is that him?”
The old woman turned and looked down, eyes wide. Her hands moved once more and this time the wind calmed for a second, then turned away from the rocks and towards the harbour. Jenni’s little yacht flew up on a wave, almost over the rocks, before slipping back again and out into safer water.
The old woman turned and began running. Dan followed.
Jenni let the man go and turned back to the wheel. The boat’s little engine might not be able to save them, but she had to try. She pushed the throttle as far forward as it would go, willing the boat to get away, but the wind was too strong. She could almost hold it, but that wasn’t enough any more.
Jenni felt a fear gripping her. She watched the rocks, and felt a pain in her gut where she realised she’d made a mistake, but she couldn’t have left him. That would be worse, surely, to get to the shore knowing she’d left a man to drown?
To be so close to home… She braced herself for the crunching that would mean the carbon fibre had been pierced, and the icy cold would take them. As she waited, she reached out and held the man’s hand. It was freezing cold.
A wave lifted them suddenly, and Jenni drew in a deep breath, tempted to shut her eyes, but knowing she’d feel the crunch. The boat lurched backwards underneath them. Her feet lifted momentarily up off the deck, so much so that if she hadn’t been holding the man’s hand, or he hadn’t been holding the rail, she might have been swept off.
The boat tilted, but no crunch came.
A wave crashed over them as they dropped back down, and Jenni could see the rocks. Slightly further away. She held the man’s hand even harder, not understanding how the wind could have shifted so suddenly. They must have flown almost over the rocks on that one wave, but somehow changed direction in the air. It made no sense.
Another wave crashed over the boat, then another, but each getting progressively smaller. She felt herself shaking all over, still feeling she was about to drown.
She turned the little boat to the harbour.
The water flattened as the harbour walls surrounded them, and in a blur Jenni threw her rope out to a man. Dan. She tied the boat, and leapt onto the harbour and into his arms.
Dan held Jenni. Over her shoulder he saw the old woman stop a short distance away. She stooped down, bent over almost double, her full age becoming clear again.
She looked at her hands, horrified, and seemed about to turn.
The young man stepped ashore and walked up to her. “My love,” he said. “Sorry I’ve been so long.”