A gull’s wing tip topped the wave and just for a moment the air currents caught hold of its white feathers and the bird swung in the air, weightless as thistle-down. The sea twisted, turned and undulated but the stark unmoving line of the horizon didn’t alter. It was empty, a deep blue ribbon floating between an ocean of silver and a grey sky. There was not a shadow to be seen beneath the surface of the lulling waves and other than the gull not a single living thing above. The clouds stretched out over the water, still, in the last of the fading winter light.
Closer to the shore she watched, the sea spray was dancing up like a haze on the breeze. Moisture thrown up by the insistent waves butting time after time against the rocks below the cliff. The wet settled like a shining dust on her lashes and hair. The red woollen shawl she clawed around her with rough tired hands had a feather-like dusting of salty droplets on it and a wintery chill was setting in her bones. Time to leave.
Tamsin pushed the flat of her hand across her brow, partly to wipe away the salt spray and partly in frustration. Another day was ending and there was nothing. Her grey eyes turned away from the sea for the first time in what must have been hours. She gathered up the remains of her day of waiting in her old straw cowel and it creaked as she lifted it up to rest in the crook of her arm. “That blessed ‘andle’s bout ‘t give up” she muttered “woodyworm in’t an’ no mistakin.” A wistful sigh of a breeze tugged at her skirts. The weather was on the change she thought maybe with a little luck it’d bring them some good fortune this time.
Following the last of the light reflecting off the water she made her way down the path that tumbled down the headland towards her home. Her leather shoes slapped against the damp, black rocks as she neared the steps to the cove. The dropping sun was casting its last warm rays on the horseshoe haven of the harbour’s granite walls. A cart filled with seaweed for Mr Trengrouse to spread on his cabbage field had been left beside the empty crab pots and was attracting flies, Tamsin could smell the salty rot of it as she descended.
Small lugger boats were wriggling in the jostling currents of the harbour, tugging at their ropes and their strope-stones, as if trying to make their escape from the confines of the coast and out to the open sea. The cove was empty now, all the others had returned wordlessly home to their hearths and their hunger. One figure alone sat in the gathering gloom.
His old, blind eyes cared nothing for sunsets. His still-quick fingers were busy knotting the tatty net he had spread across his lap.
“Is the fixin’ just bout done Jago?” she asked with a sigh. Her voice had the sorry, high-pitched weariness of someone who hadn’t spoken aloud for a long while.
He griped the end of his clay pipe harder between his teeth.
The sound spat from the corner of his month.
“An’ what good’s it anyway Tamsin the Huer? No cry from you again today.”
She didn’t answer, there was nothing that she could say. She stood silently for a moment and watched his fingers move. How those hands could fix anything as delicate as those lines is a mystery to her but even sightless he did a better job than she ever could. “Skin as thick as a whales, mind as sharp as glass” she thought.
A late-to-roost gull screamed above them, its white head turned towards the wide ocean. Jago didn’t say anything more and Tamsin wondered if it was time she left him with his thoughts.
Even before he had lost his sight Jago had been as much a part of the scenery of the village as he was now. Always there. Always there waiting to bring in a catch and always ready to make the young ones giggle and gawp at his little tricks. His favourite was to grab up handfuls of green stingers from the hedgerow and rub them hard between his palms. “Don’t it hurt?” they would squeal, “don’t it string?” He would just smile and shake his head before throwing the remains of the sweet smelling nettles at their bare legs.
“Not a shermer for weeks now” she said quietly wishing he would provide her with his remembrances of other years when there had been this trouble. But he went on saying nothing, fingers moving tirelessly.
The cowel’s emptiness weighed heavy on her back and she looked across at the cellars on the quay standing empty as haunted caves. Where usually all was alive with business and laughter there was just dark and despairing quiet. The pilchards hadn’t come and the village was close to more than the usual winter-worry for food.
As the village Huer, she had watched all day from her hut on the cliffs. The wide ocean was never still, the clouds and the colours were constantly changing on the ceaseless swelling waves but for her there was nothing to see. No flash of white in the distance that might have been a jumping shoal churning up the water. No fighting, screaming flock of seabirds excited by a bellyful of silver fish. She had longed to cry out, ring the bell and call the men to the boats but the cool ocean may as well have been a desert of sand.
Despite the gathering dusk and cold Jago hadn’t moved from his perch on the small wooden bench. He sat, his back pressed against the harbour wall, his pipe unlit and probably empty, as immovable as a figurehead. The pipe pointed up a little towards his unruly eyebrows as he raised his face towards hers.
“They’ll come, Tamsin, never you mind, they always come”.
A shiver went through her as she looked into his eyes, his pupils covered with storm clouds, and for a moment she wasn’t sure that they were talking of the same thing.
“Time for croust now, Jago,” she said softly, “how you fixed tonight, shall I walk with ee?”
She was worried all of a sudden by the chill in her and keen to get home to warm her feet by the range. A wayward wind was picking up from the sea, it was snatching at her hair and pulling the words away from her mouth when she spoke. She found herself leaning in closer to him. His answer seemed a long time coming.
“Na, geddon with ya, I’ll be on me way by an by.”
His fingers kept on moving over the torn fishing net and as she straightened up and turned to begin walking for home she thought she heard him start to hum above the whip of the wind. It wasn’t a tune she knew.
Tamsin had known Jago as long as she had known herself, he had been as constant to her as the tide through all the seasons of her life and was as much a mystery as that invisible pull on the ocean. Now they were both heading for winter with nothing and no one to sustain them. But somehow his quiet presence comforted her and her thoughts wandered as she climbed the narrow road towards her cottage. Who would come she thought? What did he mean? The fish or something quite different?
She watched a spiral of smoke rising from the chimney above one of the old cottages ahead and as quickly as it rose the wind vanished it away. It was the same with Tamsin’s worries, by the time she reached her garden gate her only thought was of her cold feet, supper and climbing under her quilted covers. All worries wiped away.
But if you were to set one of those little dancing luggers or seine-boats free from is make-shift anchor and it was to make its way on the tugging currents out beyond the harbour wall, well perhaps if the wind was on its side it would drift along the coast to the west. Your little boat would float by Samphire Island, past the Cow and Calf rocks, bobbing like a cork in a bottle of port. Soon, if the unruly undercurrents didn’t latch on to it and drag it out to the open sea, it would pass close to the gaping dark mouth of a large cave.
The cave, which yawns below the same towering cliffs where Tamsin keeps her watch, is known locally as Hell’s Mouth. This is a place that no one knows too well, where no children go to play and no fishermen go to fish. Even on the sunniest of days no fool would ever go beyond the edge of sunlight that dissipates suddenly just a few feet inside the cave. The old men by the fire in The Wheelhouse Inn had been heard to say that the cave has no end to it. Over the rim of his ale jug Stuttering Billy would tell you that if you were fool enough to go too far inside, into that damp, dank darkness, you would find yourself falling down a great crack in the rocks that leads right to the fiery centre of the earth.
But really there is something else keeping the locals at bay, Jago knew this only too well and as his hands moved over his work he was trying to decide whether he was the only one who could go there to ask. But he was starting to believe that perhaps they were the only ones who could help.
In the uninterrupted dark, down beyond the far reaches of the cave, where the sea doesn’t stretch and the crabs never go, everything was still and silent as an empty chapel. The air was stagnant with the slow moving drag of time. Nothing stirred. They stayed very still and in their timeless, limitless patience felt the rocks breathing. For them almost always there was nothing to hear but somehow Jago’s restless thoughts were wrenching at them, pulling them up from a watery rest. They stretched their long, lank limbs, skin as shiny as seaweed and black as wet slate, and they waited.
Jago could smell the change in the tide. It was not so much that his lack of sight had heightened his other senses so that he had some strange power to detect the change but more a lifetime spent waiting for and fearing the sea’s smallest whim. He had lost hours staring at the sky, poised for a calming in the weather so that the escape from the harbour was an easy one rather than a battle. In the past he had often turned his boat around and set for home all because he didn’t like the smell in the air.
In his life before this hopeless, sightless travesty of a roos-fixing existence he had known this salt-licked world of his as well as a rabbit knows every tunnel-turn of its warren. He had always needed to know when the currents were running in his favour and today was no different.
Something that was caught on the quickening wind stopped his hands and instinct made him look up. Everything was silent apart from the steady motion of water against the harbour wall. Maybe now was the time.
He would have to find the boy. He stood and turned away from the sea. The tide-turning waves breaking on the pebbles of the little sheltered beach of the harbour hissed their reply.
There was no time to lose, he must call on the Bucca.
Glossary of Cornish words
Bucca: imp, hobgoblin, dweller in mines and caves, darkly mischievous good luck symbol
Cowel: a basket for the back, made from wicket used to carry fish
Croust: a little meal
Huer: A watchman posted on high ground to look for shoals of pilchard
Luggar: a small boat
Roos: a net
Seine-boat: a heavy framed rowing boat used in pilchard fishery
Shermer: a shoal of pilchards
Strop-stone: a large stone attached to a rope or chain used as a make-shift anchor
CORNISH ASSOCIATION NEWSLETTER. n.d. “Pilchard fishing.” [online]. Available at: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:t0bZRruJmE4J: oldcornwall.net/download/i/mark_dl/u/4011819032/4615291094/Pilchar d%2520Fishing.pdf+&cd=5&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk [accessed 20 November 2016].
CRITIC, The British. 1811. The British critic, volumes 37-38. Google Books. pp212
MORTON NANCE, R. 1963. A Glossary of Cornish Sea-words. First edn. Marazion, Cornwall.
WILLIAMS, Derek R. 2006. A strange and Unquenchable race: Cornwall and the Cornish in quotations. London, United Kingdom: Truran.
Citations, Quotes & Annotations
CRITIC, The British. 1811. The British critic, volumes 37-38. Google Books. pp212
“Pilchard have of late years altered their season of coming . . . instead of showing themselves about July, the time of harvest, they seldom come till December . . . during the last season there was a great failure of pilchard on the coasts of Cornwall.” (Critic 1811)