The forecast was bad for the next week, a deepening low over Iceland moving south and bringing storm force winds. Fuel reserves for the generator were getting low so I’d asked people to use oil lamps and keep the cooking to a minimum.
At about nine o’clock, I went out to check that there was nothing lying around that the wind could lift away, and to see that the huts had their storm shutters on. Averil’s blinds weren’t down, and I could see her at the table, Arnie Greene sat opposite her sharing a meal. I felt ridiculous to feel jealous at seeing her with a guy old enough to be her grandfather, but I felt more jealous than ridiculous. I knocked on her door probably louder than I needed to. She opened it a few inches so the wind wouldn’t get in and I told her I’d be closing the storm shutters. “Thanks,” began and ended the conversation, and the door was pulled shut firmly. When I went round to the window, Arnie raised a fork in greeting and gave me a goofy grin. She was concentrating on her nutroast.
Arnie’s own hut was secure as were the others. Four were empty awaiting arrival of new residents. I was quite happy they wouldn’t be making the crossing in the forseeable future, life was easier without too many people around. I was making secure the last of the huts when I saw Sister Bernadette standing on her porch, arms raised as if to bless the wind, and looking beatific and filled with the power of something or other. I made my usual half bow and vague wave with a smile I hoped would substitute for my total ignorance of the correct etiquette when encountering a bride of Christ at one with the cosmos.
Down at the pier I adjusted the mooring ropes of our little launch. It’s reasonably sheltered there so I knew that barring a hurricane she wouldn’t end up as matchwood. Since my own level of seamanship just about qualifies me to take a boat out on a municipal lake, I decided I wouldn’t be using the launch for a while so lugged the ten or so litre tank of petrol from the deck to the generator shed.
In my own hut, despite having tried everything to block spaces in window frames and doors, the oil lamp was guttering in its glass chimney before I went to bed that night. I lay in bed thinking that this, after all, was what I had come for – remoteness, being cut off, the forces of nature and little human contact. But the image of Arnie Greene raising his fork in greeting rose in me like a phosphorescent ghoul in a ghost train. I listened to the shipping forecast: Rockall, Malin, Hebrides. Northeast gale 8 to storm 10, veering east , severe gale 9 to violent storm 11. Rain, then squally showers. Poor, becoming moderate. It pleased me. With such weather and so few people on the island perhaps I could begin to get Averil to warm to me over the coming days.
I slept fitfully at first, the hut’s creaking and the random cracks of big wind gusts against the wood turning into visual fragments of surface dreams, dreams tossed into each other like waves and foam on the stormy sea. A hundred yards from my cabin the water hissed and crashed; the nearby radio mast whistled like some spectral spirit. I was feeling the first delicious pull into deeper dreams, that giving up of myself, when I was startled awake by a loud banging. Then again. Someone was hammering on my door.
I pulled on my pants and nearly got blown inside when I opened the door. Against the thick early morning light, Averil was standing, shouting as she jerked her thumb behind her: “Boat!” “Quick.” “They need help.” Probably our longest conversation to date but ended as she turned to run towards the pier. I threw on my jacket and followed. “Out there!” There was a small yacht foundered in a crevice on Seal Rock that’s only forty or so yards offshore . As she pointed, she almost lost her balance in the howling wind, and I grabbed her. She shrugged me off, and handed me a pair of binoculars from her cagoule. They were covered in spray almost immediately, and I wiped them and tried again.
The mast had cracked and the sail was drooping. I could see two figures, a grownup and a teenager from what I could make out, both waving their arms wildly. Averil made to jump into the launch and I tried to stop her. I shouted, “Don’t be crazy! We’ll all drown if you try to go out in this.” She wriggled free of me, kicked me on the shin, and jumped in. It was one of those moments of decision for me, I shouted at her not to be stupid, that they’d be safe wedged on the rock, that I’d get air sea rescue out, but she was already unmooring the rope from inside the boat, and as she cast off, the launch slid six feet on a wave before she got the engine started.
As soon as she was out of the small shelter of the rocky harbour she was disappearing with every huge wave that rose, to reappear leaning precariously and making no apparent progress towards Seal Rock. I ran back to my hut and got off an SOS to the coastguard, but when I returned I couldn’t see her at all. The yacht seemed to be breaking up or at least shipping lots of water, and was tilted badly to the side. I thought I heard a girl’s screaming over the waves.
I was deseperately scanning the sea for Averil when Arnie Greene appeared at my side. I quickly told him what was happening. He snatched the glasses from me and located Averil speeding north east well beyond the rock. “She’s drifting!” he shouted. “She’s got no power.” With horror, I remembered I’d removed the spare fuel from the boat and hadn’t checked the tank for ages. As if reading my thoughts while at the same time giving the impression I was of no more significance than the two mooring rings that trailed loose ropes into the water, he spat out, “What the hell have you done?”
It’s not remotely in my power to convey what was going through my mind and body then. You can or cannot imagine it. Ten minutes earlier I’d been fast asleep and innocent; now I was alive with dread and screaming inside with guilt and panic.
The other four came down to the pier. If anything the weather was getting worse but, it sounds bizarre, it was like we were all entombed in a shell of totally silent apprehension. Then Sister Bernadette fell to her knees and prayed. Apart from my making another frantic call to the coastguard that was as near to doing anything as we could do.
The yacht was filled with water, and its two occupants were clinging as best they could to the glistening black rock as great green waves fell over them. The sky had darkened to look like some infernal machine of ragged edged metal plates sliding over each other. Averil had now disappeared completely. We stood. We waited. We hardly dared look at each other. I kept mey eyes on the bowed hump of Sister Bernadette’s back. We listened beyond hope for the sound of a helicopter but I knew it had miles to travel. All we heard was the crashing sea, the howling wind and again the nightmarish screaming of a young girl flung like a scrap of something dead over the land.
Jim Boyle saw it first. Soon we were all straining to see a red outline emerging then fading again from the thick cloud and rain that was suffocating the sea a quarter of a mile out. Sister Bernadette rose from her knees. I looked through the binoculars, saw nothing, swept the sea, then caught it blurred, adjusted the focus ring. It was a trawler and it was heading towards us towing behind it our empty launch.
“Our Maria,” said Arnie. “Out of Kirkwall. Brixham boat. Long way from home.” Near the prow I could see Averil’s red hair streaming.
Our Maria got nearer quickly and was soon just beyond Seal Rock. Hands on deck were pulling the launch towards her. I saw them get in with a fuel tank, start the engine, and still tied, get as near the rock as they could. They threw lifebelts, and the two from the yacht had only a few yards in the sea before they were pulled onto the launch. Our boat was brought alongside the trawler, and with a lot of hands to help and waiting for the sea to trough and peak at just the right moment, they were lifted onto the trawler. The skipper brought his boat to berth as if it were the easiest thing in the world, tying up our launch on the other side of the pier. Averil and the other two were helped ashore, then after a few taciturn comments and handshakes from the trawler’s crew Our Maria was out to sea again, the thud of its engine soon absorbed into the gloom and the storm.
What happened next was like a frieze, as if a series of static scenes were laid over each other, and again that uncanny sense of silence in the midst of a raging tempest.
Averil hugged Arnie and glared at me. He glared at me with scorn. The two of them went off together to his hut, he helping her along: she was in deep shock which is hardly surprising.
Sister Bernadette went off saying that she had her morning quiet time to do. She was looking extremely smug.
The two rescued from the yacht were Americans. She was a tough, wiry teenager called Bethany, shaking with cold but not with shock or fear. She kept telling her Dad not to fuss. He was named Bill, a big healthy guy oozing wealth. Magnificently apologetic, everything he spoke sounded as magnificent as his bank account. His monologue, continuous rumbling and deep just melded with the wind as if it were a sound of the earth itself, his earth, his planet. I was vaguely aware of his wishing to make a donation to someone or something, some charity or other, how he would track down those guys who saved his life. I put them both in one of the two roomed empty huts, and got the generator going so they could have a bath and get warm. Sister Bernadette, Averil and Arnie and the others brought them dry clothes, food and coffee.
I’d called the coastguard and told them everybody was safe. They’d been trying to contact me to say the helicopter couldn’t fly and that they’d directed a Royal Navy patrol boat that would be with us soon.
It had all happened in the space of an hour. One wave collapsing even as it is growing, one single wave of time among infinite waves that rise and fall and endlessly repeat themselves eternally upon space without beginning or end.
The rain was sheeting horizontally, the sea a dark turmoil. I found myself alone at the end of the pier. I knew then that never before had I known what to be alone is.