Whales' Hunger
by Martin McIntyre.
Its loss has always been with me, a part of my internal system of definition. Inchoate and one-dimensional in the early years, now complex and baggaged and hopelessly enmeshed within my own losses.

He said it happened when they were swimming, Mum and he in Northern Mauritius; the beach rolled out and tingling for them alone, the ocean an infinite blue future. They didn't see the hidden monsters.

Whales, huge ones projected fantastically onto my four year-old screen of imagination. An exotic troupe of oversized crooners leaping wildly, ferociously through the surf in search of donated bounty.

They had gone to the shore to rejoice in the whale song, unaware of the price to be paid. Mum had left hers behind in a tidy improvised jewellery case, hidden carefully in the lower compartment of her dufflebag. Its subtle engraved surface snuggled safely amidst outlandish ear-rings. His carelessly, needlessly, slid on a slimmed down Mac an Aba - the fourth finger on the left hand.

Dad said he didn't feel a thing, his smooth badge of eight years of marriage abandoned him quite effortlessly. It calmly freed itself, unconscious of the struggle to keep it in place in the day to day of dry land.

When he emerged from the water, he removed the mouth-piece of the brine-filled snorkel and with the same raped hand lifted his goggles to his forehead. Mum was apparently back on the shore getting dressed. He felt a gut sickness.

The whales, however, yelped with delight and sang their names until dusk - long after the sacrifice had been made and its future implications explored. My arrival a year and a half later delayed the outcome somewhat, or at least its public announcement. Dad always said he would get round to replacing the gold band. Never did. Never saw the need. Then there was no need.

Today, on my island, I am free to beach-comb in my mind and along the craggy shoreline in search of any sea-gifts which might temper the beasts of my solitude. I may find old boxes, mostly plastic, perhaps discarded or lost by frustrated fishermen when their expectations of plenty have been dashed by weather or a bullying dredger from afar. I may find some interesting piece of wood to drag home and dry and then burn. An attractive shell may adorn my mantelpiece for the next few weeks until its lustre palls.

When the twins come here from their father's this evening, I may tell them the story of the lost ring in Mauritius. See what they make of it, where they put it. I will of course make no mention of the whales, as they are mine. The gentle giants of my Childhood, the uncaring savages of my womanhood.

And how will they find me, my lost daughters, who first screamed like possessed changelings when they wrenched themselves free from my flesh? Their shared journey through airless mire to be endured no longer. They smiled as they wailed, laughing at my desire to hold and own. I hid in a ball.

I will invite them to stroll with me on a bumpy sheep-track across marram grass machair whose firm spring belies a labyrinth of hollowing rabbit warrens. From the seaward side, voracious swells of thunder will continue to gouge away their sandy walls, chasing the pests inland, deliberately undermining our shy footprints.

We may then walk hand in hand amidst the rocks, stooping, supporting, talking, laughing, surprising barnacles with the deftness of our scuffed leather blows. Or perhaps we will slink through shingle in muted silence, cowering within inadequate cagoules before the roar of the ocean and the menace lurking within.

I would like to make a fire for their coming, flames to cleanse their minds on arrival; spitting, cracking brutes restrained, succumbed to glow warmly at dusk. I therefore need to search, prepare, clear my hearth, rip paper, select sticks, lay them out, put it all in order. Face those monster logs thrown on to my beach and raise an axe above their knuckled brows. No ring will glint in the spring sun, none could grace these gnarled paws. Only the blunting blade lumbering over my shoulder may enjoy a moment's respite, before crashing uncontrollably through splintered arms and faces.

But I can't make progress, I can't get on with the job despite the pressing need. Access to the cold empty fireplace is being blocked by the intruder. He visits me often, too often now, and unobtrusively intrudes. If I ask him to move, he will ask questions and not ask others, and when he eventually goes he may be well on the way to the wrong conclusìon. I loath that possibility. He says I refuse to talk. I think his inebriation is only partly due to alcohol.

As he is my neighbour, the rules here insist my best chair should harbour his bull-like boiler-suited arse from time to time unquestioned. The same code allows him to walk into my front room after only the slightest knock and then sit in silence or else in gesticulated animation. He is also caring, and importantly, he drives. Sometimes I miss not seeing him.

His mother is shrivelled and dying and the minor fluctuations in her well-being generally open our conversations. Today's more willed silence goes unnoticed. The marmalade I made for her (Christ's sake, I didn't apply for this rubbish) sits peacefully in his lap. No reason to rush it to her. Her clock is ticking away gently, not rushing past. His was never wound.

I have not yet told him that I have Children, although I think he strongly suspects. In that respect he doesn't pry, which is unusual on this island. His greying forested eyebrows observe more than enquire and are quite easy to meet. Not so the crude scarred mouth through which mumbled syllables escape in broken bearded rhythms.

Even in a savage drunken state he remains courteous, oddly erudite, often witty, and never lewd. I feel very safe with this uninvited beast. He is not a marauding sort. I have, though, witnessed expressìons of extreme tenderness and of definite sexuality in his spontaneous crying for a stillborn calf. The stench of dead blood and faeces still lingers round the edges of my hand-made dresses.

I have refused a lift to the store. I am well aware that I haven't been for over two weeks. Yes, I have varied my diet, sometimes brochan, sometimes porridge, ha ha again. Yes, I'm fine, I have been crunching oat bars in between. No, I don't want a leg of lamb from the freezer. Yes, bring me scallops, loads of them - we can fry them with wild garlic and white wine: because I like them that way. So do you, ya toothless freak, minimal mastication on the slippery flesh. Bring them in three days' time, we will sit by candlelight. I will spread newspaper on the kitchen table. Why? Because I want to - we might run out of conversation. He's a shitty wizard at crosswords. Can you finish your cigarette and go. Now? Yes, now, or at least soon. I've got things to do. Damned if I'm going to suffer his advice on fire-building. I want to clean the house. Yes, honestly, spring clean. No, I'm not on drugs, what about you, something must be retarding your exit - fast reaching new levels of honesty - still need him to go. Mach à seo! See you Tuesday night. Bye, look forward to it. Whew, hard going in this place trying to get the privacy to rot alone.

So, the fire now or a cup of coffee first? Definitely would miss the smell of coffee following the final act. Not yet worked out a way of taking it with me. Could be an important deterrent worth clinging to. Used to share a cafetiere with him for that blissful hour when the girls slept. Turns each. Strong bitter flavour deliciously sweetened by generous brown sugar. Over-spiced dhal puri puffing in the oven, their innards roasting hot. Us.

No cafetiere here. Wouldn't suit this wind-beaten cottage. Instead an old bashed leaky percolator that once magically turned handfuls of Ladak snow into hot liquid gold. The water inside purrs patiently, infuriatingly so, on the lacklustre stove. Eventually the fragrant climax spumes limply down the side of the pot. Let it go a little, let it sizzle on the iron rings, caramelise, easier to clean cold. Luxuriate in the reaChing of readiness, appreciate the loneliness wrought by good coffee.

It gets dark early here and I want to do most of the wood mutilation by natural light, as my torch glows almost as pathetically as my stove boils. The yellowing newspapers are arranged and waiting, two forgiving firelighters snuggle strategically in their folds. I am there sitting quite happily shaping kindling on the doorstep. Ankle-length Barnardo's overcoat, small hatchet in my gloved hand and my hefty neighbour's ridiculous woolly hat bobbing on my head. Quite comic, really. No, it's not. I'm not laughing, I'm crying and I haven't even faced the monsters with my axe.

It's about preparation, preparedness. Maybe the girls are not ready to meet me. Maybe they are still fighting off demons of defamation and distrust. I invited them, they agreed to come - just for the weekend. They agreed to walk with me on the beach, discover my new environment, experience its destructive and healing qualities, perhaps renounce other seas as containing venomous adversaries.

And when they prepare to go on Monday, in the early hours, when the fire is at its most dead and the sea and night and outside world a unified black, how will they feel then? Huddled on an open ferry, leaving me far behind, returning to normality, fleeing madness, loneliness, beaches, beasts, freezing cold, how will their numb minds make thoughts?

My sobbing, carried in the wind through regular hatchet chops, has alerted him. He hovers nearby, unsure. His exaggerated shadow leaves little light in my work space. I rise and he follows me indoors and we sit in front of the cold hearth. Without speaking (I am still sobbing), we place small pieces of wood together on their gentle pyre. He takes over the final arranging and positioning. From his tobacco pouch he removes a sturdy square silver lighter. Allowing the flame to assume full height and crouChing carefully, he encourages it to lick round and below its prey. The sudden excitement of the blaze soon soothes the wounds of splitting.

He is outside fighting the tossed-up beasts. He is well equipped and in a very short time retrieves some impressive slain parts. Two large chunks roast on the glowing embers. Four misshapen limbs now nestle innocuously in the large willow basket.

Will he be gone when they arrive, do I want him to be? Do I need him to stay and supervise my preparations - lift me when I stumble, take over the practicalities?

And for them, how would it be to find their estranged mother ensconced in a rundown dwelling with such a specimen? Shocking, terrifying, confirmatory? A depravity amply exposed.

It's he, not I, who makes the decisìon. When the large basket is full of logs and the worn Christmas biscuit tin replenished with clone-like small sticks, he sweeps the firestone meticulously with the matted wire brush. With a well practised wrist-flick he hurls its contents beyond the reach of the clambering tentacles up through the sucking flue. He smiles good night and makes his hulk disappear.

I know very well the crackle of the island taxi crawling on the pebbled track past my neighbour's house. It has brought me here once only and never taken me away. It dumped occasìonal large bags of groceries in my porch, early on, when I was still allowed to hide in doors and fake vague illnesses. It will no longer deliver whisky to my neighbour, even when his mother wails with terror. Now, its squealing brakes and souped-up engine are discharging my daughters, my own baby daughters. Here on this island. Now. It is pitch black outside.

Inside, I am faced by two beautiful grown women. As we hug and kiss, strip off rucksacks and raincoats, unclutter the rite before the roaring furnace, my eye is lured by the finely designed gold ring, smiling weightlessly on her neat left hand. But what could her fairy story be - who are her monsters? Could she possibly have discovered my father's band by chance in an eroded dune? Did she ever learn that I wore a ring once too, although I never found his and endured its loss?

Should I warn her now or never of the whales' hunger?

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