The taste of tobacco filled his mouth and made it water. Jim spat, and he felt ready for the sea again. You had to be ready for the sea because, if not, then the sea would be ready for you.
He tucked the tin of tobacco away in his pocket next to a smaller one: snuff. A habit learned long ago. On his first voyage they crossed the Mediterranean, a sea warmer and calmer than any he’d known, then stopped in Istanbul to deliver one cargo and load the next before sailing across the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov. Jim was sixty now and had forgotten who it was had passed him some snuff and taught him to use it, he just knew that by the time he came home he had his own tin.
Jim’s wife, Nola, didn’t mind him smoking a pipe, but she disapproved of snuff so he never touched it at home. At sea he took a pinch now and again. One peck and his eyelids would be taped open for hours.
Friday dawned bright and clear. A perfect day for the Silver Strand. And yet when her daughters begged to take the ferry to Sherkin Island, Nola refused. She turned off the wireless and banged about in the back kitchen washing clothes, while her two youngest splashed each other in the curtains of water that fell from the mangle.
Next, Nola chased the younger ones outside to play and got out her baking bowl.
‘Can’t I stay, Mam, please?’ Rosannah asked.
‘I’m busy now, child.’
‘But I want to learn how to bake a brown cake.’ ‘Copy me, so, if you want to learn.’
Nola pulled on her apron. She flung ingredients into her bowl: two cups of brown flour, one of white; knob of butter, spoon of soda, pinch of salt. She made a well in the middle and filled it with buttermilk. A quick stir and the dough was soft and springy as it should be.
But when her daughter tried, flour smoked out of her bowl and frosted the table. Nola took over briefly: a drop more buttermilk, lick of the wooden spoon, and the dough came together. She watched while her daughter kneaded it and set it on the baking tray.
‘Don’t forget to make a cross.’
‘Why do you make a cross on brown cake?’
‘You just do.’
‘To keep you safe.’
‘How can a cross on a loaf of bread keep you safe?’
No answer. Rosannah scored the lines on it all the same, and the two rounds of dough sat side by side on the tray: one smooth, the other lumpy and fragmented. Soon the tray disappeared into the range and the scent of baking bread filled the house.
Four mile offshore
It was hard on Nola him being away so much, and these last years Jim had travelled no further than Wales if he could avoid it, to spare his wife the worry. Even going that far was not without its risks now, thanks to the war.
‘You’re never sailing for England?’ Nola said.
‘Only as far as Cornwall to pick up a load of china clay for the Arklow Pottery.’
‘Did you not hear they’d bombs right along the south coast of England? I saw it on the Pathé News at the cinema.’
He’d heard alright. Still, you had to put bread on the table somehow. ‘Don’t worry yourself, girl. Those planes haven’t the range to fly out west.’ Nola said nothing in reply but made a clatter as she went about cleaning the house. Jim hoped now it was true what he’d told her.
Loading at Par was not too bad once their turn came. They opened the hold, hooked a chute on the derrick, and shovelled the clay into it, the weight of it making the boat settle in the water. Jim left Hegarty and Jerome shovelling and hurried to the post office. Once he sent his telegram to Nola they could be on their way. He passed up the chance of a berth for the night in the hope they’d get home sooner by making a night crossing.
The land hereabouts had a lovely softness to it in the evening light. It would almost pass for West Cork, but he’d be glad now to see the back of Cornwall, all the same. He took care to keep four mile offshore, in international waters, because of the emergency rules.
Towards dawn when the Longships Lighthouse was behind them, he set an easterly course and passed the wheel to Hegarty.
Swans and trains
Rosannah tucked a few stale crusts in her pocket and went out back. At the end of the garden she leaned out over the gate and hurled the crusts in the river for the swans. Back indoors, her big sister Mara scolded her: ‘There you are. Get a move on, will ye, or we’ll miss the train to Baltimore.’
‘But Mam said—’
‘She’d a telegram to say Daddy’s left England and she changed her mind.’
As she fetched her swimsuit Rosannah wondered what present would Daddy bring? Last time it was pink sticks of rock, the letters ‘A PRESENT FROM SWANSEA’ running through the minty stick. They hurried up North Street, turned right at the square. At Bridge Street, Nola glanced behind her to check all her children were there. She’d lost Billy. She spotted him in the square by the Maid of Erin statue, chatting to some pals. ‘Mara, will you ever run back there and tell Billy from me if he misses that train he’ll be locked out for the day. That’ll shift him.’
Mara and the girls took seats together and Nola took a single nearby. Billy went into the next carriage, perhaps to smoke an illicit cigarette. Nola had forgotten her knitting, so she contented herself with gazing out at the Ilen, the same lazy trickle of a river that ran behind their house in North Street.
‘Mammy, are we nearly there?’ Rosannah asked. ‘Not long now.’
‘We will go swimming, you and me, won’t we?’ ‘Yes darling,’ Nola said, distracted.
Skiffs and planes
On Hegarty’s watch a light swell held them back. Jim swore softly as he took the wheel again. If they’d made better speed they’d be closer to Wexford than Wales by now. When they hit a light easterly he gave the order to hoist sail. It would help make up for lost time.
The seas were awful quiet these days. It was the small boats Jim missed, the one or two man fishing skiffs going about their business at dawn and dusk, and the sailboats darting out to the nearest rock and back for regattas. But bigger ships, too, were down in numbers.
When Jim first heard the planes he wasn’t worried. Yes, there was a war on, but it wasn’t their war. You’d only to see the Irish flag on the mast and you knew that. Still, the noise grew louder.
Jerome ran into the wheelhouse. ‘Three German fighters.’ His voice wobbled. ‘Coming right at us. Christ, what’ll we do?’
As captain, Jim was meant to have all the answers. He had none. The planes came in low over the Loch Ryan, looking so graceful it was hard to imagine they might be dangerous.
Jim sent up a silent plea-bargain to the pilot. He was near enough to see the flag. No question. The question was, what would he do about it?
Hardboiled eggs in silver paper, with sand
The ‘Dún an Óir’ only carried two dozen passengers and by the time they reached the pier it was full. But skipper Mikey Taidghín Ó Drisceoil found a way to squeeze Nola and her brood aboard. It was only a short stretch over to Sherkin, after all. And an easy stretch, too. Due south. Going west was where it got tricky; out towards Schull where the sea was peppered with small islands and rocks that you’d to keep in mind when they lurked beneath the surface.
On the middle stretch a younger man took the wheel and the skipper collected the fares. Nola held out the fare like she always did, and like always Mikey Taidghín said, ‘You’re all right, Nola. Enjoy yourselves now, and next time don’t stay away so long.’ This gave her a warm feeling: somehow, against the odds, he still held her for ‘a local’. If the day ever came when he let her pay the full fare, she’d know then she really had stayed away too long.
The boat slowed as they approached the harbour, and bumped gently against the pier wall. Passengers clambered up stone steps softened and rounded by year after year of waves. The children ran on ahead, up past the abbey and over the hump of the island. Nola was last to reach Trabawn. She sat down heavily and asked Mara to keep an eye on the little ones while she got her breath back.
Rosannah stamped her foot when her swimsuit was on. ‘But you said you’d come for a swim, Mam, you said.’
‘I said no such thing. Now you run along and be a good girl for Mara.’
Mara took her little sister by the hand and they set off for the shore. Their voices drifted back.
‘Don’t be silly. You know Mammy doesn’t swim.’ ‘Why not?’
‘When she was a girl not everyone learnt to swim.’ ‘Why?’
‘Because.’ Mara said the word firmly, borrowing some of her mother’s finality.
Their voices faded and their swimsuited bodies shrank to small blobs against the glare of the water. Nola laid the beach towels over the refreshments bag for lack of shade; it was a scorcher of a day. The towels mounded over the bag made a tempting pillow. No need to worry about crushing sandwiches, for she’d brought none. If the children were hungry after their swim they’d have a hardboiled egg each. Soon Nola was curled up, half asleep. In the distance her children argued over who had the ball and whose turn it was for the float, and over other issues that to them were the most pressing in the world.
The planes swooped in so low they almost tipped the mast. Jim tried to alter course but with a heavy load of china clay in the hold, the schooner handled slow and clumsy. Easy prey. He kept his hand on the wheel until the sound of it came.
All three of them ducked. The wheelhouse window shattered and a hail of glass fell over them. Jim tasted bile in his throat. Meanwhile the boat gently, pointlessly, swung around.
To the men cowering on the wheelhouse floor it seemed an age until they’d a chance to take cover. While the planes were turning to make ready for a fresh attack, the three men made a dash for it and scuttled below deck. Jim was last man in. Ears ringing, he slid down the handrails, his feet touching nothing until they slammed into the boards.
‘At least now we’ve an iron deck and two inches of planking between us and them guns,’ he said.
‘What do we do now?’ Jerome asked.
‘Sit tight,’ Hegarty said.
Famous last words. Because that’s when the bomb blew off the hatches.
It wasn’t the first bomb the planes had let fly, but the others had only boomed in the water. This one broke through the deck to land in the hold. The bulkhead rattled, and a fearsome thunder shook the whole craft. Wisps of smoke curled around them.
‘Mother of Christ,’ Jerome said. ‘What’ll we do if she breaks up on us?’
Jim bit his lip. A man who had been at sea as long as Hegarty or himself knew better then to say such things aloud. All he said was, ‘She’s stout built, lad, she’ll not break up easy.’ But inside he was thinking: this could be the finish of us.
The children’s calls and whoops echoed over the sleeping Nola. She too had once played on this strand as a child. Those long summer days, the smallest thing was enough to colour each moment: who caught the most shrimps, who stood in a cow-pat, who built the biggest sandcastle, who drank the last drop of water — the constant three-legged race of being part of a large family.
Sand worked its way under her nails, sun licked a red patch on her neck, but Nola felt none of it, for in her dream she was once more in Baltimore. Baltimore on a bright autumn day in its gladrags, a day that fooled everyone into thinking it was still summer. 1918, the week of her birthday, the day of the boat trip. She’d fought hard for a place on that boat and only thanks to her birthday had she won. All that pleading, and the trip to Schull was over in hours — ending with the ugly crack of hull on rock as the boat hit the Catalogues.
Nola’s face twisted in sleep. Darkness, the splash of someone jumping over- board. Her call, I’m going to jump! And her sister, Don’t you dream of it. The tilt of the deck, a deep breath, a jump into the dark. Salt in her throat. A hand on her shoulder, a rock underfoot. Listening, but no Elizabeth. Just that awful silence, and the waves.
Nola woke with ‘blessed art thou’ on her tongue, a tightness to her face from dried tears or sunburn. It still upset her to think of it, to this day. She glanced around. It was a while since she’d seen the children. She walked towards the waves, squinting to make out their figures against the brightness of the water.
Perhaps the pilots thought the smouldering boat was done for, or perhaps they were low on petrol; in any case the planes left. The engine noise faded and Jim could hear the timbers groaning.
Hegarty looked outside, gave a low whistle: ‘The state of her.’
Plumes of smoke wafted from the hold.
Jerome was on his feet as soon as Jim gave the nod. He rushed up the ladder and ran aft. Jim lost his breath as he surveyed the damage. His gaze darted over a deck littered with splinters: chipped masts, torn sails, the wheelhouse and galley all bent out of shape. Holes like a pox on every inch of timber.
Jerome returned slow and grey-faced. ‘The lifeboat,’ he said. ‘It’s shot to ribbons.’
In the shallows, Nola’s two eldest were teaching her youngest to swim. Yvonne was playing beachball with a group of friends and Lilly was with her, thank God. So that was Rosannah waving her shrimp net from the far side of the strand. Nola waved as she had to the others, but still the child agitated her net. Why did she keep on waving like that, what was wrong with the child?
She turned, looked once more, and knew. Rosannah was on a sandbank, the tide coming in behind her. She was scared she couldn’t swim back to shore. Nola’s pace quickened as she walked towards her. The sea was loud with the incoming tide as she did the very thing she’d feared since her thirteenth birthday. She entered the water.
Jim felt in his pocket for the smaller tin, tipped a line on his thumb and sniffed it back. If ever there was a time to be alert it was now. He took a deep breath and spoke slowly and calmly so as not to panic the boy.
‘If she does break up, lad, we’ll grab some timber and build ourselves a raft.’
They joined Hegarty in checking on the hold. Jim looked in wonder at where the clay had lain scattered in lumpy mounds. Now a white dust as fine as sieved flour had settled on every surface. Hegarty was whited over from head to foot. He threw some dust at them, a manic grin on his face.
‘Isn’t china clay gorgeous? Don’t you just love the stuff?’ ‘What?’
‘You all right there, Hegarty?’
A handful of white dust landed on Jerome’s chest. He made a dash below, and next thing the two of them were snow-fighting in the hold. When the boy was as white as Hegarty, the two of them fell down laughing.
‘Beautiful,’ Jim said. ‘This is what saved the Loch Ryan. All the force of that bomb went into grinding it down. It’s a miracle. Not a sign of a leak on her.’
‘She looks in need of fixing to me.’
‘She’s a bit shook alright, but she’ll see us back to land.’
Water crashed against the rocks, then seethed back again. Rosannah looked shorewards, wishing she’d never come on the sandbank. Where was Mammy?
At last, there she was, her dress hitched up, waves cresting her knees, calling out to her. Rosannah strained to hear, but a wave filled her ears with thunder. She was coughing salt water when the next wave hit, churning and foaming until it stole the sandy ground from under her feet, and with her face underwater she lost track of which way was up. Her toes nudged a rock. She pushed down and launched herself up off it, hard. She burst into the brightness and gulped air.
‘Hold on!’ her mother called, skirts floating around her like seaweed. ‘Hold on.’
Remembering her lessons, Rosannah reached out her arms and pulled the water behind her.
‘I am holding on, Mam,’ she said. ‘I am.’