October is dying quickly now. They bring me soup but I have no appetite. My skin is the colour of a dull, stale lemon. The door to my room is always open. I can sometimes hear the other people turn and shift in their beds. The doors of the red buses hiss in the street below. My limbs are not much more than a bundle of tent poles. I can see the tops of North London trees and beyond them the milky evening. When I am awake I think again and again of last year. When I sleep I dream of white shells on a dazzlingly fresh beach.

It was one of the last of the long days. An island in the Outer Hebrides where the water and sun drew my eyes out beyond all notions of distance. I had been following the coastal path, climbing the rocks and dunes, with the wind always in my face. It baffled ceaselessly like a light-bending banner, so that by mid-afternoon I felt as clean and cold as a sea-stripped shell. I had seen nobody.

About four in the afternoon I came to a long white strand bordered on either side by jaws of black rocks stretching out into the surf. I stood on the sand and watched the outward draw of the waves as they turned their backs to the land. It was at this moment that I felt London and the South, had at last been plucked and flung away, at least for a few days. The recent divorce, at times angry, but mostly numb and sad, had eclipsed everything. I had come north to walk and to wash my thoughts out. I sat down and put my knees under my chin between two skeins of black flotsam. Gulls sliced across the blue sky. There were starfish, limpets and razor clams at my feet.

Gradually the cold got inside my rustling jacket. I looked at my map and saw that the hotel was only about a mile distant. The sand pulled at my ankles as I climbed up to the path. Cresting the dune made me breathless. I realised I was tired. The wind was endless like fishing lines being paid out over my shoulders. However, a sharp scolding snap cut through it all and instinctively I turned my head. All I could see were ripples of the wind across tall grass, all the way up to the blue mountains. Snap, the sound came again. At the report of it the gulls banked away, mewling into the sun. Once more I turned towards the sound. The tall grass parted and now I saw the walls of a small house. It was down in a shallow hollow. The sound came a third time and I realised that it was a door slamming against the jam. And now I heard the creak as it opened again on the tail of the wind.

Now I had seen quite a few of the old blackhouses on my walk. I read all about them. I have heard that on other islands in the Hebrides people have restored some of them as holiday homes. But those I had seen on this island were in ruins. Yet from where I stood, I could see that the chimney was still intact, and there was also obviously a door. It lay off the path, across the tousled grass. It took me about six minutes of wading the grassy tide to get close.

I came up to it at the gable end. It was a tiny structure. The chimney was scarcely higher than my head. I walked around the right hand side and saw the low doorway. It was like the house a child might draw when thinking of the dark fairies, or a witch. I now saw straightaway that this dwelling was also long gone to disorder. At some time someone had patched the turf roof with sheets of corrugated iron, but some of these had sheared off, for they lay twisted in the grass. The one window was glassless.

I watched the door swing out. It was made of four planks. They were split and eaten at the bottom like a set of broken teeth. The seesaw wind pulled it away on its rusty hinges and then pushed it back. This house must have been inhabited far later than the others on the island. There were still flakes of green paint on the door.

The door swung out again but more slowly, for the wind had dropped a little. Moss had greened the dark stones. There was a sort of rough path up to the door, which I now saw sloped away in the direction of the beach. I guessed that sheep might huddle in the house on cold nights. I was stilled for a while in thoughts of transience and decay when I glimpsed flashes of white on the floor, just across the threshold. There in the gloom I saw three garlands of flowers. I bent slightly, still holding the door, but the muscle of the wind was strong and it was hard to wrestle against it. Clumsily I reached out into the gloom and grasped one of the garlands. To my surprise it was sharp, like clutching shards of porcelain. Stepping back I let the door go and it slammed furiously. This time even the returning wind could not budge it. I looked down at my hand. It was indeed a garland, but one made of seashells. White cockles, augers and dog whelks all strung together. They clinked dry and hollow between my fingers. There had been three of these on the floor of the blackhouse. What naïve, votive fancy, I wondered, had bought them here. I imagined a young girl placing them and then running back to her parents down on the sand. The garland, or bracelet, was the sort of thing I would have once saved to take home for my wife, but that was all done now. Nevertheless, I placed it in the pocket of my anorak, to lie alongside two mallard feathers and a piece of seaglass I had collected on my walk.

I went back down the sheep path to the beach. In the few minutes I had been poking around the blackhouse the balance of the day had tipped towards evening. For all the wicking and insulation of modern walking clothes, I began to shiver a little as I walked the last mile. The wind died away completely as I rounded the headland. There was the harbour and early lights in the windows of the houses. The sea was now more calm than it had been all day. I looked out and saw the bobbing heads of two or three seals. It was hard to tell exactly, for they dipped and surfaced at irregular intervals. They subjected me to a large-eyed and silent scrutiny. Watchful sea-dogs; seals always seem to have time just to linger and stare, safe in their chilly water.


I went back through to the bar after dinner. I had eaten fish pie. The waitress was a nimble, polite and serious Lithuanian. She didn’t want to talk much. The only other diners were a monotone Dutch couple in nautical clothes and their glum son who chased his scampi around the plate but didn’t eat it. The waitress seemed to want us to leave. She said that the kitchen closed at eight thirty, it being the end of the season. The Dutch family paid and went back to their yacht. I thought a single malt or two might do me good. The waitress clicked the lights off as soon as I left the room.

I opened my guide book and some postcards I had bought the night before fell out. As I sat up on the barstool I wondered who on earth would wish to receive them. My daughter was off travelling somewhere in New Zealand. My ex-wife had gone off to live in Cornwall. I had bought a flat with my share of the equity. Colleagues at the school never referred to my divorce. Never invited me to dinner either. Walking at least was something I could do alone with no fear of being singled out as odd. The very act of striking out across the landscape zipped into man-made fibres makes you an acceptable loner. I put the postcards away.

The bar was empty. I reached across and rang the bell. I could hear a television in the back room. I had taken my jacket down with me to dinner, in possibility of a walk along the harbour wall before the last of the sunset. I hung it on a hook by my knee. Three yachts were moored there. The light had not quite gone, and there were flecks of rain on the window. The door behind the bar opened. The landlord Mr Bisset had a swallow tattooed on each hand; obviously an ex naval man. When I remarked on this he pointed to a photo of himself in his chief petty officer’s uniform. He had bought Taigh Na Mara eleven years ago. He told me this as he filled my glass. He had the palest blue eyes and a mild Highland accent.

‘Our retirement,’ said Mr Bisset as he straightened the bar towel. He gave me a small jug of water for the whisky. ‘When we took over it was really run down. We spent a year fixing it up.’

‘Wonderful location,’ I replied, raising my glass to him. ‘Cheers.’

‘Sláinte,’ he said, quickly and almost without expression.

I sipped the whisky. ‘That’s good,’ I said.

Mr Bisset nodded, looking out at the harbour. ‘Rain coming in,’ he said. ‘It’ll be a mixed day tomorrow.’

‘I don’t mind the rain. At least, not up here. It kind of washes one’s hopes clean. It’s different in London.’

‘Is that so?’ Now he looked at me with a chief petty officer’s stare. Clearly Mr Bisset was not a romantic.

‘The fish pie was excellent,’ I said, after floundering for a second.

‘Aye, Shona does that well. Anything with fish. Desserts too. I couldn’t run the kitchen without her.’ He seemed to be half listening to the TV in the back room. I could hear snatches of Gaelic. It sounded like a chat show. ‘Mind you we’re quiet now,’ he added.

‘I suppose it takes a strong marriage to run a business like this.’

‘Shona’s not my wife,’ snapped Mr Bisset. ‘She lives along the road and comes in for the cooking. My wife died six years ago.’

‘Oh I’m sorry.’ I seemed to be making a blunder of everything that came out of my mouth.

‘No bother. You weren’t to know.’ Then he smiled slightly. ‘Retirement.’ He said. ‘You think you’ve got everything planned, but you can never tell.’ I nodded, agreeing silently that he was right on that score. ‘Another one?’ he asked, looking at my nearly empty glass.

‘Yes please.’ I shifted and felt the tiredness in my legs. It would not be long until I was for my bed. Mr Bisset poured the drink. It was the only sound apart from the ticking of a battered longcase clock in the corner. I searched for something to say. I remembered the shells in my jacket pocket. ‘Here,’ I said. ‘Look what I found on my way here today.’ I laid them on the bar.

Mr Bisset had refilled the little water jug and he paused slightly before putting it down. ‘Shells?’ He asked.

‘Yes, but all strung together. See?’ I touched the point on one of the spiralled augers.

‘Where did you get them?’

‘On the floor of one of the ruined houses. There were two others like this.’

‘We’ve a great many shells here on the island.’ Mr Bisset’s head was again inclined towards the back room and his television programme.

‘Yes but I thought it curious that they were strung together like this and placed on the floor. I wondered if it was a children’s folk custom or something?’

‘We’ve a great many shells,’ he repeated. I could see that it did not interest him at all. ‘If you want anything else just ring the bell.’ With that he left me in the bar alone. I was a little stung by the way he had brought the shutters down on our conversation. I drew my last whisky out for about twenty minutes. No one else came in. I sat alone looking out at the dark sea and the rain flecking more thickly against the window. Too wet for a walk, so at last I went up, taking the garland of shells with me.

A storm rose after midnight. I woke as it rattled at the roof and the gable. There were lulls and blasts. Occasionally the gale died away completely for a while and in those pauses only a low moaning filled the darkness and a curious chink chink sound like ice cubes being dropped into a glass. In one of these respites I got up and went to the window. It was all drenched darkness out there. The chinking continued and underneath it the soft mournful moan. My window was smudged. I sat on the deep sill and rubbed it away. There was the white hull of the Dutch family’s yacht bobbing in the harbour. I could see the moon through its rigging. Nothing else moved apart from the water. Chink chink. I realised that the sound was the slap of the metal halyards, for as the gust came again the sound grew more urgent, like the tapping of a toffee hammer. The moaning was again quickly stifled. I imagined it must also come from the wind vibrating in the rigging.

I went back to bed and must have fallen into half sleep for I dreamed I heard the knock on my bedroom door before it actually happened. I had probably heard the footsteps along the corridor. I sat up ‘Hello?’ I coughed for inflection in my voice was more high pitched than I intended.

‘It’s me…Bisset. Can I have a word?’ I rose and felt an odd dreary tiredness, realising that I had not been as awake as I had thought. I slipped into my jeans. Mr Bisset was standing in the hall with a bottle and two glasses in his hands.


I sat on the deep sill of the window. Mr Bisset was in the cane chair. He looked at the floor and rubbed the stubble of his chin. I must have had a rather tousled and confused expression but as he seemed to be struggling for words I too remained silent. I watched as he poured two drams. When at last he spoke his voice was hoarse.

‘I owe you an apology.’

‘What for? And why at this hour?’

He took a sip. He was sat in the lemon glare of the tall standard lamp over his shoulder. ‘I was abrupt with you this evening … More than I should have been.’

‘And you’ve come here with whisky to apologise for that? Do you rouse all your guests in the early hours like this?’

‘There are no other guests,’ he said. Again there was a note of irritation.I wondered how much he had been drinking. But then his tone softened. ‘Give me a minute’ he said. ‘This isn’t easy.’

‘Don’t worry’ I swirled the dram in my glass. ‘I was awake anyway. The storm…’

He interrupted me, ‘I know water. I have ridden the decks of frigatesthrough five day squalls above Iceland. I’ve seen days of sunlight and calm off Shetland when the sea buckles slowly and flexes like an oiled muscle. Black and white and green as glass, I’ve seen it. Many times as we were cruising home in the Channel I looked at weed suspended two fathoms down and felt my eye drawn to the deep.’ He paused, looking down at his knees.

‘You’re certainly more poetic than first impressions would suggest,’ I said. ‘However, I don’t see the pressing need to give me your thoughts on the sea.’

He held his hand up. ‘Please,’ he said. ‘I can only tell it this way.’

‘Very well. Like I tried to say to you – I can’t sleep with all the knocking outside and that groaning sound, whatever it is. Go ahead. I’ll sit and be quiet until you have finished.’

‘Thanks,’ he replied. He seemed genuinely relieved with my permission, but I felt I was bound to listen to him whether I liked it or not. Nevertheless, he sat back more easily in the cane chair. ‘I was twenty five years in Navy. Joined at seventeen; there was nothing but fishing here when I was a boy and now there isn’t even much of that. Or at least not enough to make a living. Anyway, I went to sea. It’s all our family have ever done, one way or another.

Now there was a great uncle of mine, Tom MaCPhail. He fished alone, for his two older brothers were killed in 1916 at Jutland. Tom was my mother’s brother. I never knew him. It was his cabin you were at today, or what remains of it.’ He paused and took another sip of his whisky. ‘My mother was very much younger than Tom, but even so she came from a world before television and films. The island was all Gaelic speaking then and folk would sit at night telling the old stories. What happened to my great uncle Tom MacPhail was part of an old world that is almost gone now. I had the story form my mother many times and took it to my heart, so I can tell it to you now as if she was whispering it in my ear.

He was a quiet young man and kept himself to himself. It may be a mile and half to his house but it could have been a hundred for all any one saw of him. He took the death of his brothers hard. My mother and my grandparents lived away near the manse on the other side of the island. Tom Macphail had grey eyes. He wore a blue ganzie and simple cuaran shoes. His trousers were patched and patched over again. He only came to the harbour when he had a good catch and that was rarely. The only time he bothered anyone was when he needed a stack of turf.

Tom knew the sea better than any of us. He knew its cunning and its treachery. He knew its gentle shift when the bright sunlight breaks on the waves and nearly blinds you. He knew that feeling of being watched when you are out there on quiet water. For years he slept alone in the wee blackhouse, eating his fried mackerel and oat cakes. Even in those days the island was half empty. Many had gone to Canada or Glasgow. There were few single girls. As soon as they came of age most just wanted to fly away. My thought that Tom had put marriage out of his mind altogether. After all he had little to offer a wife. He mended his nets and sat on the sand and watched the big clouds break on the mountains.

His house was just one room. It contained a bed, a stove, an iron chest and a table. As I understand it, one particular night he was sitting and reading a week-old newspaper by the light of his oil lamp. This would be in 1929. It was about this time of year. Tom looked up, for he had heard a sound outside. It was laughter. A girl’s laughter. Laughter like sunny seawater being poured from a pail. I have said that Tom was a quiet man. He never rushed. But he frowned at the sound of that laughter and went to the door. He opened it slowly. The strand was all silver in the moonlight. He walked out under the stars, cocking his head. Nothing. Nothing, save the quiet waves stroking the shells and making them chuckle at low tide. Now a man can hear many things in the voice of the sea and Tom began to think that he had been mistaken. There had been no laughter, he thought. Perhaps it was a woken curlew? He put his hand through his fair hair and looked along the whole length of the strand.

Then he saw her. Silver in the moonlight, she knelt by a pool at the far end where the rocks rise from the sand. Tom walked in silence. She knelt with her back to him. He heard her laugh again, and it was glad, like herring flashing in a creel. She was naked and as white as the breast of a gull. Tom went towards her with a strange trembling in his chest. He was nearly standing over her when she heard his footsteps in the sand. With a thin cry of terror she leapt up and away from him. In that instant Tom saw that she had been watching two crabs duelling in the moonlight. He glimpsed the cool white of her limbs and her breasts. Her upturned nose and black eyes. Her long hair was flung like oarweed away from her face. Dark also was the bundle she snatched up as she made to run. Yet Tom had taken hold of it as well. For a second they both pulled against each other but Tom was the stronger. With a look of wild panic her fingers slipped from the bundle and she ran away over the rocks to the water. Tom tried to follow her but she was nimble and had disappeared into the crags and crevices. He slipped on a sharp black edge and cut his knee. He called after her but she had been swallowed by the night. He was left breathless and amazed at what had just happened.

'The Selkie', Joe Machine. image taken from 'Britannic Myths', Steven O'Brien and Joe Machine (due to be published in December 2016)
‘The Selkie’, Joe Machine. image taken from ‘Britannic Myths’, Steven O’Brien and Joe Machine (due to be published in December 2016)

He looked down at the soft garment. He had no idea why he had held onto it. It was all tinged with moon silver. It was the pelt of a grey seal. Confused and stung with astonishment he walked back past his boat to his wee house. There by the light of the oil lamp he studied the pelt. Here were the two eye holes; here the mottled brown and black spots. He ran his hands over the soft fur. Tom was by no means slow witted but the reckoning of what he had in his hands took a while to come to him. Nevertheless, sitting at his table he recalled old stories that the islanders told throughout the generations. He sat there musing for a while then he reached down the collar of his blue ganzie. Around his neck was a leather thong on which hung a black iron key. Tom took the key and opened the chest which lay under his bed. This chest held what little money he had. Carefully he folded the sealskin and placed it in the chest. Then he poured a dram to steady himself and sat back down with his eyes on the door.

Around the time when the wind changed direction and Tom’s head was drooping to his chest there came a knock. The oil lamp was guttering low. He got up and opened the door. There against the night stood the young woman. She was naked and whiter than new linen. Her hair glistened darkly like sea coal. Tom took the woman’s hand and led her into his wee house. He told her that he wanted her to be his wife. He told her that he had her seal pelt locked in his iron chest. For a while she said nothing but the look on her face was as bleak and sad as a January morning. From her dark, dark eyes came a chain of slow tears. At last she spoke and her voice was indeed like a curlew. Her wild words made the hairs on Tom’s arms tingle.

“Fisherman,” she said. “You know that I know that you have what is most precious to me. You know that I know that I cannot go back to the sea without it.” The young woman breathed in and the hooks of her tears caught in her throat. She looked down to where her bare white feet stood on the rushes of Tom’s floor. “Yet I know that you know that I am bound to obey you.”

Tom MacPhail smiled. He told her that he would treat her well and that in time she would grow to love him. But the woman from the sea held up her hand. “Fisherman,” she said. “Many times I have looked up in cool green water and seen you draw in your nets. I have seen your face swimming in the air as you leaned out from your boat. I do not think I can love you. Your people are not favourable to me.”

“Be that as it may,” he said, “You will be my bride.”

“For all of seven years,” she replied. “And then you know that I know that you must set me free.” Tom nodded, realising that a solemn doom had settled between them.


The face of the woman from the sea was white and beautiful as midnight snow, but the wrack of sadness was ever in her eyes. Tom MacPhail did his best to make her happy. He ordered a dress for her from the mainland. He gave her a mirror and a comb of ivory. Shoes she would never wear. She learned to cook fish for him, for she had always eaten them raw. The turf fire was a new and absorbing object of fascination. She spent hours stoking it and watching the low flames. Yet she was always drawn away from the house to the shore. Sometimes Tom would stand in his doorway as she wandered the length of the strand in the rain. Her gaze was ever for the place nine waves out and Tom often saw seals there watching his wife. When she returned she would stand drenched and dripping on the rushes. She spoke little and of her life in the sea she would not speak at all, saying he would not understand. She would not come out in his boat.

When he stripped to wash sometimes he caught her looking at the black key he wore around his neck, but Tom knew that iron had a binding power over her kind. And so he also slept easy, never fearing that she would take the key at night. The two of them lived in near silence, away from other people. No one knew that Tom MacPhail had taken a sea woman for a wife. After a year her belly swelled. She went out to the rock pool one spring night and returned with a baby son. She wrapped him in seaweed and gave him sprats to eat. After another year her belly swelled again and she brought a baby girl home. She fed her shrimps. The two children were as quiet as their mother. They sat on the sand and played with white cockles.

The seasons came and went. The children grew. Tom became less and less successful with the fishing, for the seals out in the bay would often tear his nets. So his wife foraged for mussels and razor clams and stewed them for their supper. Every time he looked at the woman from the sea desire swam up inside him, but at night when oil lamp glowed over his family Tom found himself reflecting that his marriage had not brought him contentment. True that as time passed his wife’s affection for him had grown. She kept the wee house clean and washed his shirts. She sometimes smiled when he bought her flowers, or a piece of sea glass. Yet once or twice he had found his wife and children out near the rock pool laughing their high curlew laughter, watching together as two crabs duelled in the clear water. They never laughed that way with him. But Tom, being a steady man, of quiet disposition bore his sadness without comment.

However, it was a shock when one day his wife came to stand before him in the light of the morning with her hands on her hips. “Fisherman,” she said. “I have lain beside you for many nights. I have given you a son and a daughter. I have sewn your clothes. But now seven years has passed and I must take my freedom.” She was framed in the doorway and as beautiful as if she had been crowned with white hawthorn.

“Haven’t we made a life here on the strand?” Tom asked.

“I was only bound to you for seven years,” she replied. “And now I must go back to the water. You know it.”

Suddenly it was as though Tom’s limbs were being pulled by unseen hands or that he was merely a string puppet, for he felt himself walk towards the chest and take the key from below his blue ganzie. He saw his hands unlock and open the chest. And then he lifted out the lustrous pelt that had been folded away for seven years. The woman from the sea took her sealskin from him. “Do not think that this is easy, fisherman. You were good to me. We twined ourselves. But you tied me to the land and I was always looking forward to the day when I could go to my people.” Tears stood in her dark eyes like pearls. She turned and walked out of the wee house. And that was the last Tom MacPhail ever saw of his wife.’

Mr Bisset looked at me. He cleared his throat and looked down at his knees, as if he was embarrassed by the quiet space between us now that his story was finished. ‘Am I supposed to be searching for some kind of allegory in what you have just told me?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ he replied.

‘You have a gift for storytelling, but I must admit to being completely baffled as to why you have spent the last twenty minutes giving me a wonderful account of your uncle and his mermaid wife.’

‘No, not a mermaid,’ he said.

‘Whatever,’ I snapped. ‘I’m weary. Sleepless night and hotel owner pouring me whisky and relating fables in the early hours. This will look great on Tripadvisor.’

‘It’s the shells,’ he said. ‘That’s why I wanted to explain what happened.’

‘The shells?’

‘Aye, let me see them again.’ I went and took them from my coat pocket. Mr Bisset held out his hand. ‘Were there more?’

‘Yes, three in total.’

He nodded and frowned as he ran his fingers over them.

‘Look Mr Bisset, I…’ But he interrupted me.

‘You need to take them back,’ he said.

‘What on earth for? Have I really stumbled on some folk custom?’

He shook his head. ‘You need to take them back.’ Again he gave me his chief petty officer’s stare.



‘Can it not wait until the morning?’

He looked past me up at the window. ‘It is the morning. Do you not hear the wind changing? No? Well it doesn’t matter.’ He repeated it a third time, ‘You need to take them back.’


The rain had stopped. We walked along the road until it gave out onto the footpath. Mr Bisset was in front. I had that slightly sick and keen feeling of being out before dawn. It was still dark but there was a creeping grey promise of light on the horizon. My bones resented every step but I was curious, given what Mr Bisset had told me as we prepared to leave the hotel.

‘It is impossible to keep a wild woman,’ he said as searched for his keys. ‘Tom MacPhail learned that.’

‘Are you asking me to believe that his wife actually came out of the sea?’

‘I don’t care what you believe.’

‘What happened to him?’ Mr Bisset open the front door. His voice fell to a whisper in the fresh black air. ‘He carried on living alone. People saw even less of him than before.’

‘But he had the two children.’ I said as we stood on the front step zipping up our jackets.

‘She took the boy and girl with her.’

‘To the sea?’

‘That’s what he told my mother. In 1940 he sent a note to her asking her to come to him. She found him in his bed in the throes of a fever. That’s when he told her the whole story. She said he took her hand and told her that he had walked on the strand every night winter and summer, looking for his wife and children. Calling for them. When my mother came to him he was just skin and bone. She wanted to fetch the doctor and have him sent to the hospital on the mainland, but he would have none of that. He just held her hand and said “watch for the seals,” over and over until he slipped away.’

Now we were walking the footpath up to the dunes. High wet grass licked my fingertips. After a few minutes silence I whispered back to him. ‘Ok, if I understand this right, you are saying to me that there was some old island tradition of seals transforming into women.’

‘Understand is a good word. I’m not asking you to believe it, just to understand it’ he replied. ‘And yes, there are stories. There are some families who claim that they are descended from the Selkies.’


‘The seal people.’

‘It all seems completely absurd.’

‘Maybe to you,’ he whispered. ‘But as I said earlier, I know how wanchansy the sea can be. I’ve seen flotsam that looks like a face in the water. On watch at night about twenty miles off the coast of Malta myself and a young lieutenant could have sworn someone was calling both our names out in the fog. That put the chill up our necks.’

‘Probably nothing but the fatigue, I should say. You and I both heard that low moaning sound when the storm was lashing the windows. You could make something weird from that if you were tired and alone.’

Mr Bisset halted and leaned his close to me. ‘If I am right I think that sound could very well be something that you would call weird.’

‘What the do you mean by that?’ I ignored his sarcastic semblance of an English accent. ‘Let’s just wait and see shall we. I might be pushing this too far, so I don’t want to end up looking like a fool.’

‘Right now it’s me who feels like the fool. I’ve never had a night quite like this one.’ I stumbled on a stone.

‘Can’t believe how you talked me into coming out at this hour.’

‘Ah well,’ he said. ‘It’s not as if anyone is keeping tabs on you.’

Indeed not, I thought. Ordinarily I would not have been so easily led into this absurd tangle of myth and reminiscence. I would not have been so passive. But he was right; no one gave a damn about what I got up to anymore. And after all, this is what I had come to the Hebrides for, to cast off the settled thoughts of my daily life. At that moment that was why I was going along with Mr Bisset – for the odd pleasure of just seeing what might happen.

Soon enough we reached the dunes and we could see more now as the dawn came on. It was low tide. The sea lay quiet. The light was all grey and flat and gentle. Mr Bisset climbed up on the highest dune and cocked his head. ‘Do you hear that?’ he asked looking down at me. I strained my ears and heard far off the low moaning sound. I nodded to him. Together we stood looking out over the gentle waves. The more I listened I realised there were not one but two or three strands to the sound. A sonorous polyphony coming over the water.

‘I was wrong,’ he said at last, ‘Someone is keeping tabs on you.’

‘The seals?’

‘Aye the seals, or whatever they are that go about in the skins of seals. They want the shells put back where they left them.’ I grinned at him, feeling my wily city-self rise again, but just as quickly realised how out of place I was in this landscape and these dealings. Mr Bisset seemed aware of this, for he watched me steadily until the grin died on my face. ‘Come on’ he said.

The stones of Tom MacPhail’s blackhouse were as cold as a tomb. I put my hand on the windowsill and felt the chill seep into my fingers. Mr Bisset, slightly breathless, stood back and looked over the dwelling. ‘I used to come here and patch it up,’ he said. ‘I put some new roofing on it once. Don’t know why. Something for my mother, who loved him I suppose. I haven’t been here for a good many years.’

He was silent for a while but I cut across his thoughts. ‘So, what do we do? Put the shells back and then the seals will be satisfied? And then then you will be happy too? Honour restored?’

His pale eyes fixed me. ‘You still don’t understand, do you? This has nothing at all to do with making me happy. We’re doing this for you!’ Despite whispering there was force in his voice. I shook my head. ‘Look man,’ he continued wearily . ‘I heard them calling before ever you did last night. My mother said always said that it doesn’t do to vex the sea folk.’

‘Why, what’s going to happen if we do annoy them?’

‘I don’t know,’ he replied, ‘but it didn’t work out so well for Tom MacPhail.’ The moaning calls were rising behind us out in the minch. ‘And I’ve never heard that noise before.’

‘Very well,’ I said. I took the shells from my pocket, then together we both strained at the door until we got it open. The one room of little house was musky and black. I laid the clinking garland back with the other two on the floor. There was no puff of smoke or dazzle of stars, but as we stood back the door slammed.

‘Done?’ I asked, wiping my hands on my jacket.

‘I hope so. Now let’s get back.’

We went back to the dunes. The chorus rose again and it was like the wind itself humming through shells, or a sea cave. Then it was gone altogether. We looked but could not see any seals out there.

‘It will be a good story to tell when I get back to London,’ I said.

‘Aye, say that we are all bloody lunatics up here.’

‘But in all this palaver, I still don’t quite understand why we had to put the shells back.’

‘All I can tell you is that the old people said one must never cause any grief to come to the Selkies. That’s why the fishermen would never harm a seal, even when they damaged the nets. In taking the shells you disturbed them. They used to say that even to lay eyes on a Selkie in human form was terrible bad luck.’

‘How bad?’

‘Death,’ he replied. ‘A wasting death like that which came on Tom MacPhail.’

We had reached the black rocks at the end of the sand. ‘But why, if what you say is true, why would these sea people would leave the shells there in the first place.’

‘Because the sea woman loved him, after her fashion. As did her children. They are not of this world, but they are drawn to it. Drawn to us. They would be pining for the memory of him.’

The wind was in our hair as we stood by the rocks. It looked like it was going to be a fine yellow morning. Mr Bisset obviously thought the same. ‘There will be more rain later but that’s a good start to the day,’ he said. Then he put his hand on my arm. ‘I’ll make you a good strong cup of tea when we get home.’ He went a few steps ahead of me towards the footpath. ‘And don’t worry about the shells. Placing them back was an insurance policy…just in case.’ Gulls coursed the new sky. His laughter seemed to make them yatter.

I took one last look back and squinted as the sun flashed quickly on wet stone and clean sand. For a second I could have sworn to have seen a girl standing there by a rock pool, dark- haired, naked, and white as fresh sea foam.

‘What is it?’ asked Mr Bisset as he turned to see me rubbing my eyes. ‘

Nothing,’ I replied.

Steven O’Brien is a widely published poet. His most recent collections are Scrying Stone and Dark Hill Dreams. He has also recently published The Great Game: An Imperial Adventure with Endeavour Press. He lectures at the University of Portsmouth, where he leads the PhD in Creative Writing. He is also Visiting Fellow of Creative Writing at University College Chichester. His doctoral thesis formed an interrogation of the poetic imagination from a Jungian perspective. He has published short fiction and travel writing. His forthcoming book is a re-telling of British and Irish myths. He is a Sean Nós singer.

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