You must understand that when I say that this is true, I do not mean it in the most literal sense. It is many years since the night of the storm and the full moon and I do not doubt that my recollection of events has changed with time. It was only years later that I learned that the long, deep boats that were once used by the fishermen of the Northumbrian coast are called Cobles, yet now I remember clearly his hoarse voice calling on me to ‘haul the coble’. Similarly, I now recollect seeing the light of his lantern from where I stood on the harbour breakwater, but when I returned to the village of my childhood a few years ago the rotting and charred remains of the boat were half-way round the bay – well out of sight of the harbour if the storm was as severe as I recall. Were it not for the sharp white of the rope-burns on my palms that linger to this day I would doubt what I recall, dismissing it as a childish fancy, as I have the black fox or the man with no eyes.
But my palms do carry a shock of white, a shock that burns like cold fire when a storm sweeps in from the North Sea, and I know that what happened that night was real. I will tell you it as I now remember it, and can only apologise for details that have been added with the telling.
It was the bleak end of November, the darkening of the nights hastened by heavy cloud that had covered the sky for the best part of the week. Back then my parents still owned a bakery in the next village over, so my mornings were early, be they school days or not. For reasons that I still do not understand I took the bus to school every morning, even though their bakery was perhaps five minutes’ walk from the Middle School and they drove in. It was a Thursday, I remember clearly, and that morning I waited next to the stone-built shelter as I did every morning, not wanting to stand inside and breathe the fetid smell of stale urine. A grey sea fret had rolled in overnight, wrapping our coastal village in a cloying dampness and muffling all sounds. My friends – named such because they were the only children of a similar age to me in the village rather than because of any particular connection – and I shivered as we waited for the bus. Normally our conversations were animated, taking in topics ranging from the previous night’s television to how football teams were doing, but that morning I remember that we were subdued, our moods muted by the cloying greyness.
There were two of the old fishermen of the village waiting too, their faces wrinkled and crusted by a lifetime on the saltwater, crushed small between upturned collars and downturned flat caps. The one they called Monkey Jack, who had been like a grandfather to me, had died the year before and these were two who I did not know so well, despite having delivered the Sunday papers to them with my dad since I was a month old. I think they were Barty and Duncan, though I cannot be certain that it was not some other pair. No matter.
Duncan was filling his ever-present pipe with thick tobacco, pressing it down deeply into the bowl. My young eyes could see the bottle of the first drink of the day poking out of Barty’s coat pocket. I do not remember the substance of the conversation before it turned to John Hedley, but something made me listen when they mentioned his name.
“It’s been twenty years now, since John Hedley” said Barty, eyes fixed on the tar-painted huts that stood on the cliffs over the stony beach at the east end of our village. Duncan took a moment, pressing a flaming match into his pipe, before replying:
“Aye. We should do something with his boat.”
“You say that ever year, or I do, or Billy does, and we never do. I’m not laying my hands on the White Seal, it’s a bad thing to return to a burned boat.”
“It is. But to leave it there, with kids climbing over it in the summer and sheltering in the aft in the winter, that’s a bad thing too.”
“If you would touch the boat of a drowned man then you’ll hear no nay from me. But you will not touch it, Duncan Craster, and that’s a fact. Hedley wouldn’t want us there, in any case. We both refused to go out with him that night, we both carry guilt for what happened. And if you care to explain how the boat of a dead man can pull itself up the shore, stow its ropes and pots and then catch fire without a single print on the sand then you’re my guest.”
They both shuddered then, and though I suspect there was more to their conversation I never heard it, as our bus arrived and we filed onto it to head into school.