Katherine Robinson

Between Weathers

Mara was walking home from the hotel when she heard the alarm. She ran down the road, jumped a metal sheep gate, and raced down the dirt track towards George’s house. As she ran, she inhaled sharply but smelled no smoke. The sea air was damp and humid. She ran so hard, she began to gasp, but still, there was only the scent of salt and rain. Sheep bleated and scattered ahead of her. The blare was loud as a siren. Beyond George’s house, waves crashed up around sea stacks. The alarm obliterated the sound of the sea.  

She kept running. What if George had fallen? What if he had knocked something off the stove, set something on fire, then fallen? His niece, Lena, had come to stay, now he was losing his memory, but if she were there, she would have silenced the smoke alarm. Mara ran faster. 

The wind had risen, and wild white roses lashed against the garden wall. Kale leaves, gleaming with rain, fluted up inside the wall. Mara pounded on the door, but no one answered. No one locked their doors on the island. She opened it, and the scent of acrid smoke poured out of the entryway. The alarm blared. Lights blinked from the kitchen, from the lounge, from the hallway upstairs. An alarm, she realised, was shrieking, in every room. Wind, thick with fog, blew through the open windows, lifted the curtains. The house was cold. 

Lena appeared from the kitchen. 

“I’m so sorry,” Mara shouted. “I heard the alarm-”

“One minute,”  Lena held up a finger. She pushed envelopes off a shipping crate, carried it into the living room, and climbed on it. Her unbuttoned cuffs pooled at her elbows as she reached up towards the alarm. Wind blew her short dark hair across her face, and she raked it back with one hand, silencing the smoke alarm with the other. It blared again. She silenced it again. Smoke filled the kitchen, still. Looking back at Mara, she said, “I’ve been doing this awhile.” She waited, one eyebrow raised at the alarm. But the alarm was quiet now. 

Lena climbed off the crate. Mara watched her heft it up and carry it in front of her chest like a hollow shield. She watched her walk upstairs. Her black button-up shirt was too big, falling to her thighs. The loose sleeves snapped around her biceps as wind barrelled down from open windows. Mara thought of cormorants standing on shelves of rocks along the coast. They held their black wings outstretched for hours, drying. Lena silenced the alarm in the hallway. She closed the windows. 

“Sorry,” she said, as she came back. “I was making pancakes. My cooking isn’t great.”

“I’m sorry I walked in.”

“No, I’m glad you did— what if something had happened to George?” She dropped the crate. “Do you want tea?”

 “Sure,” Mara said, “but I also don’t want to keep you from your pancakes.” 

“Please keep me from my pancakes. The fire marshals will thank you.” 

Mara laughed. She peeled off her wet rain jacket and hung it above the Raeburn. She smoothed her grey jumper. The familiar smell of damp wool blunted the acrid scent of burning. Lena switched on the kettle, and its steady noise replaced the sea’s quiet thud. 

 “When I first got here, George would start frying an egg, then forget. He didn’t even have a smoke alarm. The multipacks were discounted.” She gestured at all the alarms she’d installed. “I was thinking I needed one in every room. It turns out I don’t.” 

“You can’t have too many smoke alarms.”

“Oh, but I can.” She opened a box of tea. “Oh, shit,” she said. “Lucy hates the alarms.” She went into the lounge and returned with a grey parrot perched on her wrist. Lucy extended her neck and hissed like a cat. Lucy’s eyes, set on either side of her head were amber. She seemed to be staring, intently, at two entirely different things. 

“Anyway,” Lena said. She prodded clumps of blackened pancake dough while pouring hot water into mugs with the other hand. “This did not work.”

“Pancakes are difficult,” Mara said.

Lena raised an eyebrow. 

“The timing is complicated because flipping them—you have to flip them at just the right moment, or else they burn or fragment.” 

“These are burnt and fragmented.”

“That sounds very postmodern.” 

Lena reached for a jug of milk. “Yeah. Well, not all postmodernism is edible.”  

Lucy bobbed on Lena’s wrist. She squawked and then Mara heard, very distinctly, the word, hello. 

“Hello,” Lucy said again.

“Hi,” Mara said. “Hello.” 

“Hello,” Lucy repeated. Compared to her loud, rasping squawks the word sounded clipped and contained. She’s learned the timber of human’s voice. 

Lena stroked Lucy’s head. “I ordered shopping, but it’s been delayed five days because of the gales.” She gestured out the window. Wind, roaring in off the sea, flattened the long tasselled grass. 

Cliffs and rocks encircled the island. There was only a small pebble beach, too small for the ferry. A crane lowered the ferry down from high cement docks. If winds blew in too strong, the boat swayed too much to be lowered. 

“I thought pancakes would be simple,” Lena said. “Most nights, George fries potatoes.” 

“It’s clearing tomorrow,” Mara said.  

“Yeah, a day between weathers, then more weather,” Lena said.  

Mara had loved that phrase when she first came to the island. 

“There’s force 7 wind on Friday. But hopefully the boat will go tomorrow.” Lena picked up her tea, and Mara watched her lean back against the countertop. Lena crossed one ankle over the other. Lucy clung to her forearm, and Lena lowered her arm to the countertop, slowly, keeping her forearm level as if it were in plaster so Lucy wouldn’t be unseated. 

“We could make gnocchi,” Mara suggested. “And have it with kale pesto.” 


“With potatoes.”

“I know gnocchi come from potatoes. But I don’t see cows in the field and think, let’s have beef stew.”

“Sure, but making gnocchi is easier than butchering a cow.” Mara knelt in front of the refrigerator and hauled out potatoes. Pale tubers sprouted up like ghostly crab claws. 

She tugged on Lena’s boots and stepped outside to cut kale. The wind was so strong it nearly held her in place. She leaned into it, and for a moment it held her upright. The tough island kale stayed green all year. Kale filled round stone enclosures on the hillsides. Kale sprouted, still, beside roofless, abandoned houses in the fields. 

Fog was coming in.  Banks of fog rolled down the grassy cliffs into the fields. She shook rain off cut stalks. Purple stems ramified into veins, delicate as coral. She felt, for the first time in months, that she knew exactly what to do. There was a problem, and she could solve it, easily. 

When she was pregnant, she had taught herself to cook. She had looked up vitamins, counted protein servings. After losing the baby, she kept cooking. Kale provided potassium and copper, she’d learned. She hadn’t known copper was a nutrient. Copper, she read, activated genes. She hadn’t known genes needed to be activated. 

When the potatoes finished boiling, she slipped off the skins. Translucent, they were mottled like seal skins. When she first came to the island, George told her stories about selkies, seals who shed their skin and become human. She had imagined a woman standing, suddenly, on the rocks, wet and shivering, baffled by a new body uncalibrated to water or cold. 

“Do you have a potato smasher?” Mara asked. 

 “No,” Lena said. “George always fries them. Weeknight special: heart attack on a plate.”

Mara laughed. “Historically, fat has been very valuable in northern places,” she said. Mara had first come to the island on an archaeology dig. They dug next to roofless stone houses, abandoned since scarlet fever emptied them three centuries ago. The island population had fallen, then, to six people. “In one dig, we found butter,” she said. “It was three hundred years old, preserved in the peat.”

“Yeah, I read about that,” Lena said. “There was a whole article in the paper. I guess they used butter to pay the rent.”  

“See? Fat was that valuable.” 

“I’m sure George would fry potatoes in butter exactly that old.” She stroked Lucy’s feathers. “What is it you need? A smasher?”

“A potato smasher.”  

Lena went outside. Lucy was gripping Lena’s thumb joint now with both claws. She returned with a wooden mallet. “I think that any implement specifically designed for smashing potatoes is a marketing ploy,” she said. “Smashing is not a specialised activity.”

Mara laughed. “Yeah, this’ll work.” 

She rinsed sawdust off the mallet, crushed the potatoes in a large bowl, stirred in two eggs, stirred in flour, added more flour, stirred again. As she stirred, the dough became fibrous, separating out like carded wool. 

She dropped it onto a bed of flour on the counter. She kneaded it, and the dough lost its porous texture, became solid, smooth, cool. She thought of selkies again. A woman walking across the rocks, carrying a velvet-smooth pelt, saltwater drying on unfamiliar skin. 

“Can I help?” Lena asked.

“It’s OK.” Mara said. Lucy was perched on Lena’s forearm now. She realised, then, that Lena’s cuffs were unbuttoned so Lucy could perch on her arm. 

“This is her thing- when she’s anxious, she won’t step down,” Lena said. When Jeanette, Lena’s sister, bought the hotel, Lucy came with it. She’d been there thirty years, in a cage near the bar. But one night Douglas, a crofter up the road, tried to drown her in a glass of beer. George punched Douglas, and now Lucy lived here with George. 

Mara moulded the gnocchi. She stripped kale from its stems and dropped it in boiling water. The leaves turned pliant, soft. They brightened and gleamed. They smelled like grass on a hot day, sharper, more acrid. 

“Cucumber,” Lucy said suddenly. “Cucumber.” 

Balancing Lucy on her wrist, Lena extracted a cucumber from the refrigerator. “I’m teaching her that cucumber means cucumber.” She cut a translucent slice and offered it to Lucy. Lucy shot her head forward, then delicately, slowly, pinched the cucumber in her beak. Mara watched Lucy’s carefulness. She seemed to understand the sharpness of her own beak, and the delicateness of skin, furless, featherless. Her beak never touched Lena’s fingers. 

“Cucumber,” Lena repeated.

Mara held out warm kale. “Kale,” she said. 

“That’s advanced vocabulary,” Lena said. Mara laughed. Lucy eyed the kale sceptically. Her smooth, shell-like beak brushed Mara’s thumb as she gripped the flimsy kale. She bit down, sputtered, spat kale onto the counter, and rasped her tongue over her beak, scraping off the kale. 

“Well, kale gets one star on Yelp,” Lena said. 

“Cucumber,” Lucy croaked, and Lena laughed. 

Mara watched her slice more cucumber. 

“Cucumber,” Lena said and offered it to her. 

Mara wondered if Lucy, disgusted by kale, had asked for cucumber. Or if cucumber was her word for vegetable, any green vegetable, or just a sound she made. 

“Cucumber,” Lena repeated. “Cucumber.” 

It was soothing, Mara thought, this welding together of names and things. 

Lena left to find George, who was in the shed building coracles. She paused in the doorway, letting Lucy re-balance. Lucy flapped her wings, a whirring sound like fast water. Her bright coral tail feathers fanned and closed.  

Watching, Mara realised that she wasn’t lonely when Malcolm, her husband, was away on the boat; it wasn’t company she wanted. She wanted this: this precise calibration of one creature’s carefulness to another’s vulnerability.  

Mara blended the pesto—kale, oil, garlic, cheese. She found red pepper flakes in the cupboard. The label curled off the bottle, and spice attenuates over time, so she added some, then added more. A splash of cream. Salt. Pepper. She browned butter and pan-fried the gnocchi. 


When Lena and George came inside, Lucy still gripped Lena’s wrist. Already the August nights were lengthening and getting cold. When they sat down, Mara felt the cold pouring off their jackets.

“Jesus Christ, this is amazing,” Lena said. 

“The pesto’s not bad,” George said. “Did you make it?” he asked. 


“Where did you get all the basil?” he asked. “That must have taken loads of basil.” 

 “It’s kale.” 

 “Kale? Our kale?”


“Our kale kept people from getting scurvy. But it’s not nice.” He studied the gnocchi, pinned on his fork. 

Lucy stepped down off Lena’s wrist. Her coral tail feathers fluted out in a counterbalance. She leaned down, gripped one gnocchi in her beak. She chewed it carefully, swallowed and said nothing. 

Mara studied the gnocchi, pleased. She liked that knowing that she could predict the result of combining ingredients in a particular way. The gnocchi had come out well. Their borders were crispy, distinct. It was a tidy sort of food. And she liked that it was light, easy to eat. As it boiled, air and water, trapped in the mashed potatoes, expanded and became steam, caught inside the dough, lightening it. 

After dinner, George went back to the shed. He was teaching himself to build coracles, Lena explained. They were small skin boats made from the skins of seals he’d hunted for meat in winter a long time ago, when rough seas kept the mail boat from sailing weeks at a time, and the airstrip hadn’t been built yet. Mara didn’t ask why George, who never went out in boats anymore, needed coracles. 

“Here,” Lena said. She took a chocolate bar from the cupboard. “I bought this when I changed trains in Birmingham.” 

Mara watched her close the cupboard door. She was conscious, suddenly, of how precisely she noticed Lena. She always had, ever since Lena came back to the island. When Lena first walked into the hotel bar, Mara had noticed everything- her canvas coat, how she shrugged it off, her red scarf, her exasperation when Jeanette suggested improvements for George’s house, her lips, which she puckered with disapproval, her hands, how her hands moved when she talked. 

“It’s ruby chocolate,” she said, holding out a pale pink bar. “It’s not dyed. Someone invented a new type of cocoa bean. And it’s pink.” She flexed one hand, and her knuckles became small grooves. 

Mara snapped off a segmented row. “I’ve never heard of ruby chocolate.” 

“It’s brand new.” 

With Malcolm, she had felt the giddiness of irrefutable logic: he was handsome, kind, funny. He lived on an island she never wanted to leave. What she felt for Lena was quieter: a heightened ability to notice, a desire to notice everything. 

Lena sat on the wooden cable reel George used as a coffee table. Mara sat on the small sofa. Lucy had returned to her enclosure. She slept on a driftwood branch, head tucked under one wing. 

Mara tasted the chocolate. “Wow.”

Sweetness resolved into the tart taste of berries. It reminded her of a particular berry, but she couldn’t match the taste to a name or image. The taste oscillated between sweetness and sharpness. As she chewed, sourness domed up, encompassing and containing the sweetness. “Currants,” she said. “It tastes like currants.”

“Yes,” Lena said. “Currants. I was going to say cranberries, but it’s currants.” 

“I should probably get going,” Mara said when they’d finished the chocolate. 

Lena stood, one thumb hooked in her beltloop. Lucy woke and lifted her head. 

“Last call,” she said. 

“That’s what she says when people are about to leave. It doesn’t mean goodbye. It’s her word- words- for those things you do right before someone leaves- putting on coats, saying good bye.” 

Mara laughed. She’d heard Lucy squawk last call in the hotel bar, back when she still lived there, echoing Jeanette who shouted “last call” from the bar. Out of context, it sounded slightly macabre. She retrieved her raincoat from above the Raeburn. It was warm and smelled like peat smoke. 

Lena walked her to the door. She reached out and adjusted Mara’s scarf. “Sorry,” she said. “It wasn’t even.” 

“Well, I don’t want the sheep to judge my asymetrical scarf.” 

“No. The sheep here are really judgemental.”

“There are more of them than of us,” Mara said, putting one hand in her pocket. The collar of Lena’s shirt was too big, and she could see the small divots of her clavicle. 

“Yeah,” Lena said. “A lot more.” She paused and leaned back against the doorframe. She looked away, then looked back. “I have a question that’s not about sheep. What’s your situation?” she asked.

“My living situation?”

“No,” she laughed. “There are twenty three people here, I know where everyone lives, where they work, and what type of digestive biscuit they order with their shopping.” She combed hair out of her face with one hand. “I meant,” she said, “does your situation prevent your wanting me to kiss you?”

“Oh,” Mara said. “No, no it doesn’t,” she said without thinking. “It doesn’t prevent that.” 

Lena leaned forward and kissed her. She put her hands on Mara’s hipbones, lightly, then pulled Mara towards her. She was deliberate in the way she kissed. She moved one hand to the small of Mara’s back. 

Mara remembered a story she’d heard about a selkie man who took a man down to his undersea home. Up on the cliffs, he breathed into the man’s mouth, then they dove. She thought of the underwater stillness, the drunken rush of too much oxygen, then the slow underwater attenuation to just enough.

Katherine Robinson’s stories have appeared and are forthcoming in journals such as The Kenyon Review and The Hopkins Review, and have been long-listed for the BBC National Short Story Award. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Poetry Ireland, Poetry Wales, The Hudson Review, Poetry Northwest, The Bloomsbury Handbook to Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes: Nature and Culture (Palgrave), and elsewhere. She is currently a PhD candidate at Cambridge University and a trustee for Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary in Shetland.

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