The clear night sky was a perfect reflection of the water below it, and the moon hovered amongst a quilt of black like a curled finger as if beckoning the sun to chase it around the earth.
A great shadow glided beneath the water at measureless speed. From the Irish Sea, it turned toward a narrow channel which led into the gaping mouth of Strangford Lough.
Sensing oncoming danger, many schools of various fish frantically began to flee; seeking shelter in the nooks along the shores of the small towns and villages in the vicinity. In almost every species on planet earth, however, there are always those that remain dormant, oblivious to the oncoming danger, and while most of the marine life in the area had now fled, those who remained swam aimlessly but in perfect synchronization, like an ensemble performing a flawless dance routine. The great shadow moved through the fish with yawning jaws, and in an instant, they were sucked into a bottomless vacuum.
As it continued steadily along the channel, it felt the vibrations of a boat engine in the distance.
Earlier that morning in the outskirts of Portaferry, Frank McGinn parked his green Land Rover in the driveway of his daughter’s three-bedroom cottage.
The sky was a pale blue, and the sun hovered above like a blinding angel that had descended from the heavens. The cottage itself had a slightly gothic aesthetic, like something out of a fairytale. The grass at either side of the driveway was well-maintained; short and a perfect green, with a dozen multi-coloured shrubs in full blossom planted across the garden. More thick green shrubs stood at shoulder height bordering the entirety of the property, and for miles in each direction there was nothing in sight except green tracts of field.
His daughter’s Mercedes Benz was parked to the left of the front porch, and his grandson’s Volkswagen Golf was parked in front of it with an L plate stuck to the rear window.
Frank walked to the front door and knocked. While he waited for her to come to the door, he looked all around him, admiring the heavenly greenery that stretched for miles in each direction.
Frank was a man who had devoted most of his life to his family and the water, and the local fishermen were apt to see him sailing the waters of the lough every day – especially since his wife had passed back in ‘03 due to diabetes complications. If his friends had been asked to describe Frank, they would have said that he was an affable and loving family man and a man of the water. He had spent a total of forty-seven years at sea with the Merchant Navy, and had worked his way up their rank before retiring to his family and the lough at the age of sixty-five. Since retirement, Frank had been a member of an organization tasked with preserving the lough and all its inhabitants, and he took his role with the upmost seriousness and frowned heavily upon anyone who didn’t. Frank now sailed every day, either by himself or as part of a small crew with the other fisherman he was friendly with.
A thin, middle-aged woman with short blonde hair opened the door. A bright smile quickly widened across her face, and she reached forward to embrace her father.
“Hi, Dad,” she said, hugging him tightly.
“Mornin’,” he replied. He had a big grin on his heavily wrinkled face as she let go of him. It was a face that, whenever she looked upon as of late, made her a little uneasy.
“Is Aidan ready to go?”
“Not yet,” she replied. “He’s in the shower. Shouldn’t be long.”
Frank frowned. “Does the wee lad not know to be ready on time? I’ve told him what time he’s to be ready by for about a week now.”
She glanced at him to determine if he was being sincere or not, but she could never tell the difference with him. His sense of humour was as dry as his interest in dating again.
“Sure, y’know what teenagers are like,” she remarked, grinning in that ignore-your-elderly-father-and-his-irritable-impatience kind of way. “C’mon in, I’ve bread in the oven. Should be ready any minute.”
Frank wiped his feet on the doormat and followed her inside. He turned right from the front hall where several coats hung against the wall on golden hooks to his left and followed her through a living room best described as cosy in the wintertime. There were family photos framed proudly along the mahogany-coloured walls, showing a young woman and a newborn baby, a slightly older woman with a smiling toddler, an even older woman with an energetic boy, then finally, a middle-aged woman with a grumpy teenager. Lining the hallway toward the kitchen were more family photos, except these were from Michelle’s own childhood.
Frank stopped to look at a picture he had taken of much younger versions of his wife and daughter on a beautiful white beach. It looked like they were standing on a beach somewhere in California, but they were only in Torquay.
The year was 1976; the hot sun blemishing their skin, the glint in their eyes matching the sparkling waves behind them. Frank smiled at it, reminiscing about that day. He remembered it well. Hell, it seemed like only yesterday that he had taken it.
Christ, where did the time go? At this thought, he felt himself shiver.
Frank walked through a door to his left and into the large kitchen, which had a homely ambience, in that old cottage sort of way. Michelle was at the far side of the room, kneeling by the oven. Using a pair of oven mitts, she lifted out a tray with golden bread on it. She stood for a moment with the tray in her hands (mitts), calculating whether she thought it was perfectly cooked or not, then gave it a look of approval. She rested it on a worktop while she grabbed a plate. Frank took a seat at the dark-oak kitchen table in the middle of the room then Michelle made her way across with the plate in hand. There was that week’s copy of the Portaferry Gazette to his left. He slid it toward him as Michelle set the plate down on the table.
“Wanna try a wee bit?” she asked. “I think this batch might top the last, y’know.”
He took a moment to quickly examine it for himself, then nodded.
“Aye, I could go for a slice. Thanks, dear.”
She turned back to grab a bread knife from the worktop as Frank spread the paper open on his lap and began to read. Michelle came back with the knife and a piece of kitchen paper in hand.
“Here – taste this and lemme’ know what y’think.” She had a giddy but slightly nervous expression on her face.
Michelle had taken a recent interest in cooking, as her little boy wasn’t so little anymore, and was now spending more time out of the house with friends and girls than with her. At first, she went through a phase of melancholy at the eerie silence left behind by her son; reminiscing over all those years when it was just the two of them against the world, when his laughter and joy would shake the foundations of the house all day long, and when he had no thoughts of girls and house parties; but then she decided to use her free time for something more constructive. She found herself interested in cooking programmes for the first time since watching her mother cook as a child and decided to try her hand at it, hoping to find a hobby in it. She decided that she would start her new hobby with some simpler recipes, beginning with baking bread. If, at a beginner’s level, you could call baking bread easy. The first batch had been a total disaster and was thrown straight into the bin with a look of disgust. The second batch was slightly more presentable, but the result was an evening spent on the toilet. The third batch had been a lot better and had gone down a treat. And after tasting it herself and after not feeling the sudden urge to run to the bathroom with excruciating stomach pains, she decided to share that batch with her father and her son, who both seemed to thoroughly enjoy it, and had even asked for second helpings. Michelle had been overjoyed when they came back wanting more. There was a sense of accomplishment in that joy that she hadn’t felt in years – not since securing herself a good career to look after her son and give him the best start in life.
Frank took the plate from her, lifted the warm slice of bread to his lips, and took a bite of it. He tasted it, not just chewing but really tasting it, which she got a real kick out of. As he chewed, his eyes lit up like Christmas decorations in late December. Then he swallowed it down and looked up at her, his face a blossoming flower of impressed and proud.
“Here,” he said. “That’s lovely! And you’re right, it is better than the last! Keep it up, you’re doin’ great, dear!”
“Thanks, Dad,” she replied with a wide grin. “Help yourself to more if y’want, while I make the tea.”
She turned on her heel and reached into the cupboard on her left for two mugs. Frank merrily began eating another slice then went back to his paper again. He turned to the last page – the sports page. As he read the headline, he emitted a sound like a soft ripple of wind.
“What is it?” she asked, her head half-turned as she stirred the milk into the tea.
Michelle would often mock her father about the way he liked his tea. He always enjoyed it strong, with the teabag left to brew for at least two minutes, and with little to no milk. Builder’s tea, she would call it, and she would jeer him by saying: you could stand on it, it’s that bloody strong!
“Says here that – Frank recited the article back to her, his eyes following the words carefully – Irish football coach sentenced to prison after allegations of sexual abuse toward youth players. It also says the police found thousands of pornographic images on his computer. Dirty bugger!”
“Christ! How many years did the dirty bastard get?”
“Three.” He clicked his tongue and shook his head in utter disgust. “But knowing this country, he’ll be out in eighteen months with parole.”
“Typical,” Michelle spat with disgust. “They should give those paedo bastards the William Wallace treatment: hung, drawn, and quartered! That’ll make em’ think twice before they ruin another poor wee child’s life!”
Frank grunted agreeingly without looking up.
He set what was left of the bread back down onto the piece of kitchen paper. His appetite had left him like the sudden vanishing of an apparition.
After fifteen minutes of mandatory chit-chat and tea-drinking, there was a stomping of feet down the staircase as if there were a stampede, and his grandson, Aidan, appeared through the kitchen door freshly showered and dressed, looking and smelling as if he were going out to a nightclub.
“Finally,” Frank said, as he turned around in his chair to face him. “Was beginnin’ to think you’d gotten lost up there.”
Aidan was tall and wiry, with short fair hair and a barely visible shadow of freshly shaven bumfluff around his jaw and lips. He was dressed in his favourite designer clothes, which were not at all appropriate for the conditions that lay ahead. Frank looked him up and down.
“Is that what you’re wearin’?” he asked, feeling a sense of hopelessness in the modern generation.
Aidan looked down and scanned himself from the shoes – which were basically brand new and didn’t have a single dirty mark on them – upward.
“Uhhh… yeah. Why? What’s wrong with it?”
“Y’do know that it’s colder out on the water. Don’t you, son?”
That answered that.
Frank raised his eyebrows in disbelief, then sighed as he turned back to face Michelle. He smiled at her, almost chuckling to himself. She grinned at him dismissively, shaking her head, then looked over at her son.
She spoke gently, not so much telling or ordering but simply suggesting. “Aidan, can you bring a coat wi’ ya, please? You’ll be out all night. I wouldn’t wantcha to catch a chill.”
“Okay,” he murmured in that sullen teenager tone, then turned and made his way to the front hall.
Frank sighed, half-dismally, half-jokingly. “Kids these days… if they’re the future, then God help us all.”
“Awk, he’s a good kid,” she said sentimentally, glancing toward the door with her cup of tea in hand. “And Dad, be gentle with him today, will ya? His girlfriend broke up with him yesterday. He puts up a front, but whatever went on between them – well, it really hurt him I think. He wouldn’t talk to me about it when I brought it up. Will you try and get him to talk about it? I’m a bit worried about him.”
Frank looked up at her thoughtfully, then nodded.
As he was going back to his tea, he glanced back up at her again. His face looked like someone trying to find the right pieces to finish a puzzle. “Who was the wee girl again?”
Michelle pondered to herself if he was finally starting to go senile then shivered at the thought. Five minutes ago, her father was forty-odd, and she was laughing as he pushed her high on a swing while her mother watched on; eyes wide with horror, hand clutching at her chest with every strong push into the air, anticipating a fatal accident at any minute. Now, he was seventy-seven and couldn’t remember who his only grandson’s (ex) girlfriend was. Shadows cast themselves over her heart as she smiled at him thinly. “Abbey.”
He shrugged, waiting for further description to prompt his memory.
“Awk, you must remember ‘er?”
He shrugged again.
“Sure, ya do. The wee blonde-haired girl – short, big lips, wears next ta nothin’.”
Frank: still nothing.
“They’d been goin’ out for about six months, Dad. You’ve met her here two or three times, for God’s sake.”
He shrugged for a third time, and she laughed with no real conviction behind it.
Aidan appeared at the kitchen door again, momentarily distracting her concerns about her father’s mental state. After Frank looked at him to see if he was finally ready to get going, he uttered an exaggerated sigh as he made a stand, his mug of tea stuck to his lips, drinking whatever was left of it in one big gulp.
He placed the mug back in the sink and hugged her, thanking her for the tea and the bread. “Well… time to shake a leg, as they say. Tide and time waits for no man,” he said, then made his way toward the door.
Frank was dressed lightly but functional, and he packed well in anticipation of all dramatic changes in conditions. He had packed an abundance of food, including two rounds of peanut butter sandwiches (the protein would fuel the body, the fats would keep it warm), two rounds of ham and cheese sandwiches (because it’s the old reliable, and who wouldn’t?), and two rounds of bacon and sausage sandwiches (because again, who wouldn’t?). He brought a multi-pack bag of crisps and some chocolate as a treat. He made two tall flasks of tea with their names labelled on each in black felt tip, and two two-litre bottles of mineral water. He also brought a woolly hat, woolly gloves, and a raincoat – in case, well–
At an earlier age, Frank would have sneered at such a feminine inventory such as gloves, hats, and coats during the summer nights on the lough; but he was an older man now and couldn’t afford to take such naïve risks. He was now what he had previously mocked for years, and boy was he ashamed. Last summer, he spent a night out on the lough wearing only a t-shirt and jeans and came home with a nasty cold that trapped him in bed for the next two days. As he lay in bed, shivering and coughing and constantly blowing his swollen red nose with tissues, he vowed never to be so careless again.
“You two stay safe out there,” Michelle called from behind them, as they walked through the front door and made their way across the driveway. The gravel crunched and popped under their shoes like bubble wrap.
“We’ll be fine, Mum,” Aidan replied as he reached the boot of the Land Rover.
Frank lifted it open as Michelle stood by the porch and smiled at her two favourite men in the whole world. She would wake up and wait for her boy to come home in the morning and make him a hot cup of tea and a delicious big breakfast.
At eighteen she had fallen pregnant with Aidan, and after breaking the news to her boyfriend – who was four years her senior – he renounced all responsibility for the child and fled so quickly his shoes nearly caught fire. She had endured the struggle of being a single mother with a full-time job as a solicitor in Newtownards over the years and had felt a great deal of shame as gossip spread around town, as she wasn’t married and had conceived out of wedlock. God forbid. Her mother and father – unprompted – had offered childcare while she worked sixty hours per week until Aidan turned fourteen. In those years, Aidan’s sperm-doner (that was the term she used for them, as father might have been a slight push) had four children who he apparently cherished, with a woman he had met merely three years after Aidan’s birth. She had often pondered if the new girlfriend had the faintest clue at all about Aidan’s existence, and if she did then she wondered how she could have children with a man with all the parental competence of a corpse. Two months after Aidan’s thirteenth birthday, the sperm doner had gotten her number and contacted her while she was at work. He had asked her if he could come to the house and visit Aidan sometime, and she replied that he should ask her father, who was currently babysitting him – if at fourteen years-old, you could really call it babysitting anymore. He hung up the phone and never contacted her again.
Frank slammed the boot of the Land Rover shut after Aidan loaded his bag inside, and the thud echoed like a gunshot through the surrounding fields. A flock of birds in a neighbouring field squawked and frantically scattered up into the sky, spreading their wings and gliding majestically toward the heavens. Frank and Aidan waved back at Michelle, who was waving frantically and blowing kisses into the hot air.
“Love you,” she called at Aidan.
He glanced back at her in that okay mum, now please stop you’re embarrassing me kind of way. She glared at him with her chin touching the bottom of her neck. If she had worn spectacles, they would be resting firmly on the bridge of her nose, like a strict old schoolteacher.
Ahem, she uttered as if clearing a sudden tickle in the back of her throat.
“Love you too, mum,” he sighed, then shot an endearing smile back at her. She could tell his smile was endearing because his blue eyes had glinted with that deep, unconditional love a boy has for his mother; a love that stays no matter how old they get.
She looked upon her son with awe and that same unconditional love, and in this moment the brightness of her smile would even contend with the sun. He climbed into the passenger seat and pulled the door shut.
She never saw them again.
Frank drove at a steady pace along the narrow country roads that twisted and meandered and were littered with potholes both large and shallow, and eventually they reached town.
Portaferry was small – rather a large village than a town – and contained a handful of the essential establishments. There were several pubs dating back a hundred years or more, a tackle shop, a Texaco station, a supermarket belonging to a global chain, a post office, several charity shops, several antique stores, several fish & chip takeaways (which each declared ownership of the freshest and best locally caught fish), and a hotel which faced the town harbour and advertised great views of the lough from dusk to dawn. There was also an aquarium which was renowned around the country and a celebrated tourist attraction.
While driving, Frank reminisced and talked of his late wife. They laughed at fond memories of her infamous stew, hilarious stories of Frank teaching her to drive in the old days, memories of travelling to countries like Germany and Switzerland and England, and a story that Aidan had asked of how his grandparents had first met after suddenly realising he had never bothered to ask.
Frank explained to him that he and his grandmother had grown up in the same street as each other in Belfast and that they had never really bothered with each other until Frank decided to grow a beard. He told Aidan that his grandmother thought it made him look older, and therefore more attractive. Without it apparently, Frank had looked twelve years of age instead of twenty-two. After he grew the beard, she took notice of him, because she had begun to speak to him more regularly in the street and had complimented him on it frequently. Frank, however, had always thought she looked pretty, but could never muster up the courage to speak to her. She had grown up in a family with four sisters, and Frank had grown up in a house with two older brothers who her father considered riffraff and nothing but lazy, welfare-sponging scumbags. So naturally, to her father, Frank fell into that category as well. But what her father did not know, was that Frank had some ambition. He wanted to make something of himself, to afford nice things for himself and his future family. They had gotten to talking one day, and after weeks of receiving compliments from his future wife, he decided to ask her out on a date. Less than three years later, they got married but received no blessing from her father. But that didn’t matter to either of them, as long as they were married. The marriage had lasted nearly fifty years.
“Forty-nine wonderful years together, and I wouldn’t have changed a thing,” he said, finishing his story.
Aidan noticed that his grandfather was quietly trying to fight back tears and attempted to brighten the mood a little.
“So, what you’re tellin’ me is that I should grow a beard?”
Frank burst into laughter as he wiped a lonely tear from his cheek.
They reached the town harbour in twenty minutes after leaving the cottage. Frank parked the car in a parking lot facing the entrance of the marina, then stepped out into the baking sun.
“Want me to get the bags?” Aidan asked politely.
“Not yet, son. First, we need to go to that wee tackle shop across the road for bait.”
They started to make their way across the lot which contained around twenty cars. It was the marina’s private lot, and with membership, parking was free. On the other side of the lot, there was a visitor car park for tourists and residents of the town needing a space. They continued to the pavement along the main road, waited for several cars to pass, then made their way across when Frank declared it safe to do so. The tackle shop faced the marina and had a large wooden board across its façade with the company name, Pete’s, etched into it in large black lettering. There were two windows on both sides of the glass door which displayed fishing rods, reels, hunting gear, wellies, and waders. Stuck to the glass was a laminated piece of A4 paper warning customers: CASH ONLY!
They stepped inside and a bell rang from above which sounded like a bicycle alarm. The shop was cluttered with clothing items and equipment for various outdoor activities and smelled of an abandoned attic in the middle of the ocean. A hoarse voice mumbled something from behind an open door at the back of the room behind the counter. The voice echoed then thinned out again as a man matching the voice stepped out from behind the door. When the man saw Frank, he beamed a smile and threw his arms up in a friendly gesture.
“Awk, there he is! The man himself! Back again, eh?”
“Unfortunately,” Frank replied with a wry grin stretching from the corner of his wrinkled mouth. “Need some bait, Pete.”
They walked up to the counter and met Pete, who was standing with his arms folded and had a broad smile across his face.
“You headin’ out on the lough again, I take it?”
“Aye, with m-grandson here. We’ll be out all night.”
Pete nodded at Aidan, who nodded back, then extended his arm for a handshake. Aidan shook his hand and winced at the man’s strength. When Pete let go, he glanced at his hand which was a milky red colour. For a split second, he thought his bones had been crushed into dust. The man’s hand was like a vice grip.
“Name’s Pete,” he said, beaming. “I own the place. Y’know, your granda and I go way back. We used to be in the Merchant Navy together.”
“That was a long time ago, Pete,” Frank said. “Those days are long gone, my friend.”
Pete looked back at Frank. His eyes had a sudden twinkle in them, as if a new star had exploded into life, filling an empty space in the universe. “Long gone, my arse. We’re still young yet. We’re only wee pups.”
Pete then turned to Aidan again, who was standing shyly with his hands in his pockets, looking around him awkwardly. “Your granda’ was my captain for a long time. And a bloody good one at that, lemme’ tell ya’!”
Frank rolled his eyes and Pete maintained his grin, as if he had transformed into a ventriloquist dummy. Aidan knew of his grandfather’s achievements at sea but smiled and nodded anyway. His mother had brought him up to be polite.
“We’re just two grumpy aul bastards now. Aren’t we, Frank?”
“Here, speak for yourself. And mind your language around my grandson, for God’s sake.”
Pete Wilkins had a smooth bald head, a pink face, and a forehead which was etched deeply with wrinkles. His teeth were stained a yellowish brown and his breath smelled of stale chewing gum. He wore a light blue short-sleeve shirt and dark blue jeans. There were multiple tattoos on his hairy forearms, but one stood out to Aidan in particular. It was a tattoo of a naked woman posing in front of a red heart with a dagger through it. It was the kind of tattoo that a stereotypical biker would have had inked on their skin. The woman’s perky breasts stared him in the face. They reminded him of Abbey’s.
“So, bait?” Pete asked, reaffirming.
“That’s right. Need traces for Mackerel and Pollack.”
Pete walked them over to the bait section of the store. There was a large collection of lures, spinners, hooks, feathers, small and large tubs containing live worms wriggling in damp soil, and traces. He picked a bag of traces from a rack and showed it to Frank, who nodded as if to say, that’ll do.
“Just buyin’ the one bag?” Pete asked.
“No, we’ll take two.”
“You got it, aul boy.”
Frank smirked at him. “Here, I may be aul, but I’ll still kick your arse! I’ve done it once before if you remember.”
Pete chuckled. “That was pure luck, my friend. And mine your language around the wee lad. Or I’ll bar ya’.”
Frank laughed until his complexion matched Pete’s. “If you barred me then there would be nobody left to sell to, ya bloody eedjit!”
Aidan looked at them both, smiling with bewilderment. Pete was much taller than his grandfather, and much broader, but what he picked up from their conversation was that their ranks had never seemed to leave them. Even though they had both retired from Navy life, Frank was still the Captain in Pete’s eyes. The level of admiration and respect was tell-tale from Pete’s tone and demeanour. He reckoned that Pete would follow his grandfather around like a lost puppy, and that these were ranks in their relationship that went on unspoken. It was just natural, like muscle memory, like a reunion with your old friends from high school.
“Listen, I’ll have you know that that bell never stops,” Pete said. “Can’t go for a damn pish without the bloody thing ringin’ like somethin’ from Deal or No Deal.”
They both laughed then Pete began to upsell several new items that were now in stock as he led them around the store, pointing out items that were hung high and barely visible. Frank made an eye-rolling glance toward Aidan, making him smirk.
“I think we’ve got everythin’, Lord Sugar,” Frank said. “But cheers for the grand tour anyway, although I prefer George Jones if I’m honest.”
“Frank, when are you gonna’ blow the cobwebs off that wallet of yours and buy somethin’ expensive in here?” Pete winked at Aidan, who stood beside his grandfather. A slight grin appeared on his young face.
Frank scoffed. “Expensive? From here? Ha! You must be jokin’! I value my pension.”
“I’ll have you know that this is the finest tackle shop in all of Portaferry,” Pete replied proudly. He turned to Aidan and spoke like an old-timey salesman, “Trust me, you only get the best gear from Pete’s!”
“Pete, this is the only tackle shop in Portaferry.”
“And what? Didn’t say it wasn’t.”
Frank chuckled. “Fair enough. Now, can I pay for these yet, or what?”
“Oh, alright, then. Keep your wig on, aul boy.”
Pete turned to walk back to the till then stopped. He glanced at Frank longingly.
“When are we gonna’ get back out on the lough together again, Frank? It’s been a while.” There was a hint of melancholy in his voice as he said this.
“Sure, we’ll talk about it at the till. Now c’mon, I don’t have all day here.”
“I know, I know,” Pete said, then began to mimic Frank. “Tide and time waits for no man.”
Frank paid him at the counter and talked to him about getting out on the lough again together, while Aidan wandered off and browsed around the store. Upon entering, he had noticed several hunting rifles on a floating shelf high behind the counter and had glanced at them regularly with curiosity. They were available for purchase, providing you had a license for hunting. The thought of owning and firing a rifle sounded surreal to Aidan. He had learned that in some states in America, people walked around with guns on their hips, like the old western movies his grandfather would watch on his VCR. Usually, it was the same actor on screen, a tall man with a unique cadence to his voice. A man with a way of talking and a way of walking, as his grandfather would say. An American hero of his time, as some critics had quoted on the back of the videos. Aidan liked a broad range of movies, from action to comedy to horror to thrillers. Rom-coms, however, were out of bounds. Abbey loved them and would make him watch them every time they went to the cinema in Newtownards on a date. But that wasn’t what became the deal-breaker. No, that was when Abbey fucked his best friend then laughed about it during their confrontation as if it were nothing out of the ordinary.
As Aidan browsed around the store, he heard Pete yelling: “See ya next week, Frank. Take care out there and tight lines!” and wondered what in the hell the phrase tight lines meant. He shrugged it off and then walked over to his grandfather, who waited for him by the front door. Frank yelled goodbye again to his old friend as they walked outside.
The door rang again as they opened it, and they finally headed over to the entrance of the marina. They collected the bags from the boot then Frank locked the car.
At the entrance there was a long unguarded boardwalk, and beneath it to the right was a slipway where a man in a Volvo was reversing a small boat toward the twinkling water. They ambled along the boardwalk then turned left, where twenty sailing and fishing boats were docked, getting some shuteye before their next great adventures. The swaying water of the great lough beyond them beckoned its visitors with unlimited possibility and soberly cautioned them with its vastness. They turned right onto another walkway and stopped at a large white sailing boat. On the hull, written in silver metallic, was the word: Swallow. Aidan looked upon the boat with fondness and followed Frank onboard. While Aidan oversaw the storing of the bags in the small cabin below deck, Frank would release the anchor then start up the engine. It began to chug and gurgle as it warmed up, then hummed in harmony as it signalled to Frank that they were ready to set sail. After they both put on their lifejackets, Aidan pulled a Nokia mobile phone out of his trouser pocket following a vibration against his thigh. He unlocked it with a pin code (0888, his birth month. It was easy to remember) and read a message from his mother, who told him to have fun and to stay safe and that she loved him and that she would see him tomorrow morning again. He smiled then texted back that he would and that he loved her too. When he really thought about it, as in when he was alone (without the influence of friends and girls around him) and could surround himself with his emotions and truly embrace them: boy, did he love his mum. He was truly grateful of how hard she worked at providing the best life for him and playing the role of both mum and dad. He had never thought about his father (Ha! Father… good joke!) much, perhaps only twice in his life. His mother had done such a good job at playing both roles that he hadn’t needed to think of him, whoever the hell he was. His mother had been fair and had gestured for him to join her on the sofa, then she offered to tell him all about his father. Aidan thought about it, and in his loneliest of moments, in those restless nights staring at the ceiling, he had wanted to know him and wanted to know why in God’s name he wasn’t good enough to stick around for. It angered him. But on the mornings after those restless nights, when he would walk downstairs and was instantly greeted by his mother’s warm smile and a delicious breakfast, the anger would disappear, and his father would be quickly forgotten about. So, he stated to his mother that he simply didn’t want to know. He had said that if his father didn’t care enough to come looking for him (not that he was hard to find), then why should he care enough to seek out his father. Frank had been a great role model over the years, anyway. Frank was a real man: a loving man, who made time for his family. And he led a good life: one of honour, one to look back on and have no regrets over. He looked at his grandfather’s life as a template to model his own life after. He thought back to that scene in The Godfather, when Vito Corleone remarked: “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.” He had laughed at that scene with his own father in mind. No, his mother deserved all his love. Like the iconic phrase from the Bible says: there was simply no room left in the Inn. The Inn had one room, and his mother was staying on a permanent basis.
After sending his mother the last message he would ever send her, he turned the phone off and stored it in the cabin below, so he couldn’t send Abbey any soppy (or angry) messages throughout the day. He wanted this to be a fun day. And as the boat moved out of the harbour and began to set sail, he leaned over the bars at the edge of the boat and looked down into the water. He took a deep breath and felt the fresh air fill his lungs. Then he watched as his hometown and Abbey faded into a blur.
After half an hour, Frank anchored close to the Irish Sea. There was nothing in sight for miles except for a small island in the distance. Frank stepped down into the cabin and returned a few moments later with two fishing rods, a tackle box filled with various fishing equipment, bait for different waters, and the lures that Frank purchased earlier that day in Pete’s. The tackle box smelled of stale fish which nearly made Aidan puke on the spot. After composing himself, he began to regret wearing his designer clothes to the boat. They fished for an hour with not even so much as a nibble, then eventually decided to move to a different spot along the narrow channel of the lough. They repeated this process for the remainder of the day as they ate, drank tea, and talked of Aidan’s plans for when he finished school. Aidan explained that he dreamed of becoming a football player for Chelsea Football Club, and they both laughed until he revealed that he intended to learn a trade at college, or perhaps even become a solicitor – just like mum. But he also explained that he didn’t think he could be capable of getting a job such as that. Frank assured him that he could do anything if he put his mind to it, and that he was certainly smart enough. After a moment of hesitation, Frank had asked Aidan of the break-up with his now ex-girlfriend, but he quickly changed the subject and looked to the floor glumly. As twilight had begun to take shape and the dark clouds now loomed larger in the phosphorescent sky, Frank decided they would find one last spot to anchor the boat and finish their days activities before bedtime. As the sky blackened like a rotting tooth, Frank switched on the navigation lights and set sail for the final time.
The cold sea air had begun to take its toll on Frank’s aging body, and he asked Aidan to fetch his jacket from the cabin below deck. As Aidan walked down into the cabin, he felt a sudden knock and the boat began to rock back and forth harshly. He heard his grandfather exclaim from the deck.
“You okay, Granda’?” he cried out, looking back at him. His grandfather looked rather bewildered by the whole ordeal.
“Felt a strong current below us. Shook me a bit just, that’s all!”
After the nauseating swaying of the boat eased, Aidan rushed down toward the cabin to grab the jacket for his grandfather. The room was pitch black and he ran his fingers against the wall to his left to feel for the light switch like a blind person reading braille. He felt the straight edge of the switch and pushed it down. The cabin lit up a yellow-orange hue. He began to survey the room to look for his grandfather’s jacket, when suddenly, he felt another violent knock from the side of the boat. It pushed him off-balance, and he had to put one hand on the wall to stop himself from falling over. He took a deep breath for a second and collected himself.
“You alright down there, son?” his grandfather called from above.
“Yeah, I’m alright! I’ll be two seconds!”
His head shot to the right, and he quickly spotted the jacket in the corner on the floor. He carefully made his way toward it, bobbing and weaving like Muhammad Ali away from the light bulb that swung back and forth violently from the ceiling. He grabbed the jacket then hastened back up the stairs toward his grandfather, who was looking rather bemused and gripping the steering wheel, his face and neck visibly tense.
Frank grabbed the jacket from him and pulled it on over the shoulders when another force began to rock the boat once more, like a strong gust of wind attacking the side of a motorbike. Aidan, panicking, rushed across to the side of the boat and peered over the bars into the murky water below. As Frank tried to maintain control, he overheard Aidan murmuring to himself. He turned his head toward him and noticed that Aiden’s face was as pale as the moon above.
“What’s wrong, son? You feelin’ seasick?”
When Aidan turned around, Frank saw that his lips were quivering as if from an extreme drop in temperature. Aidan pointed toward the water then rushed to the other side as another strong force struck the side of the boat.
“Aidan! What is it? What did ya see?”
They were sailing at a modest speed, and due to the strong currents violently rocking the boat, Frank decided to stop and anchor for the night.
“Don’t stop the boat!” Aidan exclaimed in a frantic scream.
Through his state of utter confusion, Frank began to grow irritated. “What on earth is wrong with you, for God’s sake?”
“Look!” Aidan yelled, pointing out toward the water again.
“I can’t come over while I’m steerin’ the boat, need to anchor first!” Frank explained. But as the words rolled off his tongue, he realised that Aidan was in some sort of trance or fugue state. Frank noticed that his grandson was shaking, almost trembling now. He slowed to a stop and dropped the anchor overboard. As the anchor dropped into the water and fell deeper, Frank heard a deep growl from the black abyss below, and a shiver jolted up his spine that wasn’t due to the chill of moonlight or the sea air. Aidan turned around and faced him. His face screamed terror with an exclamation point, and he clamped his hands to the sides of his head and began to shake. Frank attempted to speak, but the words had wrapped themselves around his tonsils and he almost choked.
“W-what in the hell was that?” he finally managed to stammer.
“I told you not to stop the boat.”
Aidan continued to mutter words that were frantic but incomprehensible, as his eyes shifted back and forth with his hands still clamped to both sides of his head. Then he dropped his hands, turned back toward the edge of the boat, and peered into the dark water below, now silent. The water stared back with insatiable appetite.
“Aidan, what’s below us?” His voice was grave, and the words trembled as they escaped his throat.
As Aidan fell back into a trance, the world suddenly fell mute, with only the soft humming of the engine in the background breaking the silence. The boat rocked again from underneath, and as Frank looked around frantically, he saw that the rope from his anchor was travelling along the water slowly, and not with the current.
What on earth?
He paced toward it in confusion, then yelled: “Aidan, come here and help me pull this damn anchor up!”
Aidan turned around and waddled stiffly toward his grandfather then gripped both hands on the rope. They both groaned as they pulled mightily, and after a few moments, the anchor flew back – sending them with it. There was another strident growl from below, and the anchor crashed with a harsh thud in the middle of the deck. Frank uttered a sharp gasp and complained of stabbing pains in his lower back. Aidan rushed to his feet then grabbed onto his granddad’s lifejacket and helped him up. They glared at the anchor then shared a bemused glance.
“Aidan, what did ya see?” His voice was a breathless whisper.
Frank’s hands were wet and sticky, and in the eerie silence, he could feel his heartbeat in his ears.
“I dunno,” he whispered back in terror. He was close to tears.
There was another rock, harsher this time, and there was another growl of Lovecraftian proportions; as if the sea itself had a voice, a voice that was cruel and unforgiving, a voice that intended to kill them. Aidan and Frank rushed toward the edge of the boat and attempted to trace the movement of whatever was below. Suddenly, the face of a monster quietly ascended from the depths of the lough and rested there as if it were paddling on the surface. At first, they exclaimed with fright then simply stared at it as it watched them from afar with glowing, snake-like yellow eyes. Then, it opened its colossal jaws and revealed hundreds – possibly thousands – of rows of gigantic teeth.
The creature seemed to be grinning at them, then it descended back to the abyss without a sound. They scanned the water intently in search of its movement. In all his years at sea, Frank had never encountered anything like it. All that experierience had been rendered useless by something that belonged in the deepest, darkest depths of hell. For a split second, the world had fallen silent yet again, then there was a high-pitched white noise ringing in his ears as if he were attacked with a stun grenade. It was quickly interrupted by another deep growl, and the creature suddenly leapt out of the water and wrapped its mammoth jaws around Aidan’s head. It landed back in the water with a tsunami wave rising high then crashing back down onto Frank’s body. It threw him onto his back, and he knew nothing but darkness. After ten seconds or so, he slowly gained consciousness again and began to look around in a daze for his grandson. Aidan’s headless body lay on the deck with a pool of blood and saltwater swimming around it. Blood poured in a thick stream from his decapitated head (neck?) and Frank shrieked in horror. There was another harsh rock, and a spout of water rose and hissed above his head from a hole in the middle of the deck. Frank quickly realised that with the gaping hole in the boat, it would inevitably sink. Before the night was over, the boat would be completely submerged into the depths. He had nowhere else to go; no safe haven to run to. His only option was to wait it out and pray for help. Although in the back of his mind, he knew nobody would come – only that what evil lurked beneath would slowly paddle toward his grisly demise with yawning jaws and gigantic teeth. Tears began to trickle from his chin as he mourned for his grandson. He took one look at the headless body covered in a puddle of blood then bent over and puked. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand then looked back up toward the stars dazedly. He noticed that one shone brighter than the others. He smiled deliriously through wet and misty eyes, and faintly began hearing a familiar song that he and his wife used to slow dance to as it played on the radio in the background of their love:
… We’ll meet again,
Don’t know where,
Don’t know when,
But I know we’ll meet again,
Some sunny day…
I’ll see you soon, my darling, he thought. He imagined her as beautiful as she was the day that he met her, then imagined her waiting for him with her arms open, wearing one of her favourite dresses with a loving smile on her face – welcoming him home. Jokingly, he wondered if she would yell at him for shaving his beard off. After she died, he did not want to look attractive to any other women; he had only wanted to wait to rejoin his late wife. And now it seemed that the wait was over. He would see her soon and fall straight into her arms in a land that knows no parting, like the Roy Acuff song they loved to listen to together. Together forever. Two white doves soaring the skies together for eternity.
Large chunks of metal and wood were starting to be ripped away from the boat from all angles and the boat began to rock as if it were being moved (or toyed with). He stood with his sinking ship as it was being shredded to pieces, then seemingly from every direction, he heard the creature roar again. There was a faint break in the water behind him, like a ripple, and he turned toward its direction. The creature was glaring at him again with those yellow snake-like eyes. They glowed like a set of fog lights in the dark. As he looked upon whatever-the-hell-this-thing-was, it seemed to be slowly coming closer until it came to a stop just beyond the boat, as if it were beckoning him to join it in the water – as if it were mocking him. Sternly, he stood defiant.
“Go back to hell, whatever the hell you are!”
In his defiance, he performed his final Navy salute as the captain of his sinking ship, his head held high toward the sky: toward his wife, toward old friends taken too soon from this world, and toward Aidan. Then he thought of his beautiful daughter and broke down.
“I’m sorry, Shelley! I’m sorry I couldn’t bring your boy home safe! Please forgive me!” he whimpered, tears flooding his cheeks.
The creature slowly backed away and it seemed to be grinning again. It descended once more, and Frank maintained the salute with his eyes now shut tight, holding back an ocean of tears like the hoover dam.
… So will you please say hello,
To the folks that I know,
Tell them I won’t be long…
He would go out like a real man in his final moments. There was no way in hell that he would beg nor plead. He stood firm and accepting, in the safe arms of the Lord, soon to be another bright star high in the sky next to his darling wife. Then in an instant, with another strident roar, the remains of the boat were dragged below, and Frank knew no more.
Credit: Aaron Thompson-Greer
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