A short story by Jill Dawson
The mist was falling as we arrived at the jetty. Mackay was just as I remembered him. Skin as crumpled as an old tobacco leaf, cap pulled low, eyes that slid away whenever you searched his face too hard. He lifted my case onto the boat, asked if Mr Johnston wasnae coming, then, after all? I said that my husband had been detained by business and would arrive tomorrow morning and I hoped they could send a boat for him at sunrise? Mackay nodded.
The rain felt soft on our faces. Mackay held out his hand as my foot slipped a little on the algae growing slimy on the jetty. ‘Watch that, darling,’ I said, over my shoulder to Ben. ‘Aye, gets pretty treacherous,’ Mackay muttered.
Ben sat beside me on the small plastic seat, tendrils of blond hair dripping, sou-wester pulled up to his chin. Trying, I knew, to look tough. His first trip out on the water since the accident. My heart did a little flip, as it always did, at the painfulness of what it must be to be a boy. I nodded towards the life-jacket pointedly left by Mackay on the seat beside us but Ben shook his head. A grin flitted. Mum. I always felt better when he teased me. Fussing again. Only a fifteen minute trip.
Mackay whipped the engine into life and a waft of diesel drifted up. Last time I’d seen herons, four juveniles lined up at the shore, as if to see us off. I looked for them now but mist clotted the air. Ben stared out to sea. A muscle in one cheek stood out, shiny with rain.
I considered pulling him close to me, but resisted. We huddled behind Mackay as the pitiless open boat began to hit the waves in jerky thuds. Grey softness hid the sea until the green lump of the island at last appeared.
‘There it is’, I murmured. Mist made Ben invisible, hazy. ‘Do you remember collecting mussels there? They call it ‘the island that loves to be visited’...’
The hood hid his eyes. He was almost with me. Mackay cut the engine. He tied the boat to the jetty before helping me. He loaded our case onto the quad bike and trailer, and set off, towards the house.
Ben pushed his hood down, gazing at the house: the croquet lawn, the tennis courts, the spruces. Yes, he remembered the island. He’d loved the squirrels that chased around tree trunks, the way lights twirl up a barber’s pole.
Mrs McAllister had the fire lit. ‘Just you then?’ she asked. She showed me the bottle of wine in the fridge, and the fish pie she’d left in the Aga.
‘I’ll be off up the lodge,’ she said. ‘Shall I lock up behind me when I leave?’
‘No, it’s fine…’ She had surely heard something; she looked at me differently. She didn’t look at Ben at all.
The kitchen was warm with a fish-scented fug; wind whistling outside. I spooned fish pie onto warmed plates. Ben and I tucked in. His man-sized appetite; always so comforting. We raised a glass of wine to the island. He’ll be sixteen this summer. I can allow that.
But as dawn broke, something changed. Even in sleep I could feel it, something in my heartbeat; tapping at the window. Pink light crept under the curtain and a boyish voice called: ‘Mum, mum! Let me in!’
I sat up. Here it came. Did I dare to open the curtain? I could hear the wind, like blood rushing in my head. I pulled at the heavy linen drapes, and there in the glass was his face. His big eyes. A look so anguished, so alone, I almost screamed.
I grabbed my dressing gown and ran barefoot downstairs, pushing the front door (it felt as if someone was behind it, holding it firm) dashing across the lawn, wet grass underfoot.
‘Ben! I’m here!’
How did he get there – where was he? He had always loved to climb. What had driven him from his bed? What was he doing - was he at the water’s edge? Oh, it was a mistake to bring him, a mistake; Daniel had been right. We’d fought about it, and Daniel had cancelled our flights to Scotland. I’d booked myself onto a separate flight, rented a car without him and now he was on his way here, following. The siren call of it: the island which loves to be visited.
I ran to the shore. Dawn light stained the water sepia, icy cold lapped my toes. I started to see something…. a shape. Ben?
No, a boat. I could hear the soft purr of an engine approaching. Now I could make out the figure of Mackay and another figure hunched beside him. Ben? Had Mackay found him?
No. Daniel was standing up, and I could tell that he was concerned. He was waving. Did he know something; had he found him?
‘Oh Daniel’, I sobbed as he stepped onto the pontoon. ‘Ben was here! He was at the window and… I can’t find him!’
Daniel put his arms around me.
‘Love…’, Daniel said, ‘…he’s gone. The accident. You know that. Let’s get you back to the house.’ The two men talked softly, something important, something about me.
Yes. I knew Ben was dead. He drowned on a school kayaking trip, that summer, five years ago. Fifteen years old. The sunny one, always leaping, always diving into water. Playful, natural, the one without fear. This was our last holiday together.
But I had known that if I held my breath, one last trip over water, he would come.
I allowed Daniel to put his coat around me. I stared back towards the sea. There were the herons again. Lined up at the shore, just as they had been five years ago. Juveniles. And as I watched, they dived into the sea, disappearing one after the other, like knives.
Jill Dawson’s latest novel The Crime Writer is published by Sceptre.