Authors: Janis Mackay
I dedicate this book to my dad,
Alexander Ramsay Mackay
Also by Janis Mackay
Magnus Fin ran along the shore path in the grey dawn light. He cut down to the sandy beach, kicking up tangles of seaweed as he ran. Feeling like King of the Sea and Shore, Magnus Fin let out a good loud whoop. An oystercatcher down at the water’s edge whooped back.
Being alone at the beach in the early morning was always special, but low-tide mornings like this were even more so. Low tide meant secret rock pools, each like a miniature ocean. It meant more stones to scramble over. And it meant he’d be able to see the top of the mast of the sunken ship.
In a flash Magnus Fin was down on the skerries, the sloping black rocks that went out to sea. They spent half their lives hidden underwater. Now here they were, craggy, slippery and full of surprises. Fin leapt over stones and slithered on seaweed. He hoisted himself up his favourite rock, the high black one that jutted above all the others. Fin’s feet knew its ledges and craggy footholds. Panting hard, he reached the top and stood tall, just in time to see the beaming orange sun burst over the sea’s horizon. What an entrance! Up and up it rose, like King Midas, turning everything to gold.
Magnus Fin whipped out his penny whistle. He could only play one tune but he played it well and he played it twice.
And sure enough, up they came, their sleek round heads lifting out of the shining water. A wide smile burst over the boy’s face. Quickly he counted: sixteen, seventeen, eighteen seals, and every one of them watching him. There were black ones, mottled grey ones, small silver calves and huge long-whiskered bulls.
Fin pocketed his whistle, took a deep breath, cupped his hands round his mouth then shouted, “HELLO, SEALS!”
He waited for the reply. And it came: shy at first then lifting into a rousing choir – the seal’s song. Yelping, honking, soft for a moment then soaring. Like a trumpet, a bass guitar, bagpipes! What a sound!
When their song ended Magnus Fin clapped loudly, and the seals, lifting their flippers and splashing them together with yelping cries, clapped too. One by one they kicked out their tail fins, then, with a loud gurgling plunge, flipped under the water and vanished. Behind them the thin mast of the sunken ship remained, like a finger, pointing to the sky.
By this time the sun was up and the chill of the November dawn was gone. Glancing behind him Magnus Fin saw how everything was on fire. The golden sand on the beach shone. The hillsides and the cliff faces all glowed, meaning (because he could read time by the sun) that it was quarter past eight. That gave him half an hour to scramble about on the skerries, study the rock pools then comb the beach before a quick breakfast, then school.
In his bedroom Magnus Fin had a growing collection of pottery bits. He planned to make a mosaic picture, once he’d found a few more pieces of broken plates and coloured glass. The tideline was the best place to find broken pottery. Blue bits, that’s what he wanted.
He bent his knees and swung his arms back, ready to jump from his high rock – when something by his feet caught his eye. He dropped his arms and stared. To the side of his right foot he saw a strange white mark.
He peered closer. It didn’t look like gull droppings. He got down on his knees to examine it.
The mark looked like writing. It hadn’t been there the day before; he was sure about that. This was his rock, his lookout tower. Being high up, this rock let him see, close-up, what the black-backed gulls were up to, puffins even if he was lucky, or gannets, diving at sixty miles an hour into the sea, or, most importantly, the seals. So what was this mysterious white mark doing on his rock?
Forgetting his plan to search for pottery, Fin stared at what appeared to be silvery writing. He let his finger follow its trail. It looked and felt like the letter M. Fin pulled his finger back and a shiver ran down his spine.
He glanced over his shoulder to the sea. The seals had gone. Normally they stayed close by, tumbling over in the water, or simply staring at him with their large kind eyes. Where were they? Fin scanned the beach. Not even a dog walker was out this early.
“You’re brave now, remember that,” he said to himself, standing up straight. “And it’s only a silly mark on the stone. A rusty nail on a piece of driftwood, tossed on a high wave could have made that mark.” Magnus Fin looked around for driftwood but, save for a
tangle of seaweed and a plastic bottle, nothing else had been brought in by the tide.
He peered out over the bay. It was a crinkly kind of sea and, apart from the swishing sound of the waves breaking over the skerries, it was quiet. Most of the sea birds had flown south for the winter. Only the oystercatchers patrolling the shoreline and a few gulls bobbing on the waves remained. And they couldn’t write the letter M on his rock, could they?
He tried to shake off the mood. He bent down and rubbed his hand over the M to erase it, but the harder he rubbed the stronger it became.
“Don’t be daft, Fin – it’s nothing,” he said to himself out loud. Then he said it again, even louder, “Nothing at all!” Shouting like that made him feel braver. Magnus Fin jumped down, landing on a shelf of rock below. Now his heart really did thump wildly. Scrawled upon the ledge of this rock the letter F stared up at him. M F.
He bent closer. And – jeepers creepers – there were more. Loads of tiny scrawled initials. The rock was shouting with Ms and Fs! Fin felt his knees turn to jelly.
Someone, or something, was trying to contact him. His heart skipped a beat. Frantically he looked around, but the beach was empty. Who would write his initials on the rocks? Tarkin?
Forgetting about beachcombing, magic pools and mosaics, Fin scrambled over the rocks then raced across the sandy beach and up to the grassy path that led home. Tarkin liked unusual kinds of jokes. Trust his best friend to do something offbeat like rock writing.
“Find anything on the beach this morning?” Fin’s mother asked.
Magnus Fin shook his head.
His mother sipped her tea. “Well, did you see the seals?”
“And did the tide take your tongue away by any chance?” she asked, ruffling his mop of black hair. “Go on now. Eat your toast, son. You know how important breakfast is.”
He knew, but the strange marks on the rocks had done something to his appetite, and his tongue.
When Magnus Fin reached the school gates, early for once and out of breath, he looked down the hill to the sea below. It was strange to think of his initials down there on the rocks at the water’s edge.
That’ll be Tarkin playing a joke,
Fin thought, hoping so. Magnus Fin was still getting used to having a friend. There was a lot that Magnus Fin was getting used to.
Since turning eleven back in the summer his life had changed completely. Until then Magnus Fin had believed he was like everyone else, just lonelier. It was on his eleventh birthday that his father had told him the truth: that he was the son of a selkie father and a human mother. That’s why he had different coloured eyes: his green eye was for the water and his brown eye for the earth. That was also the reason for his webbed feet, though most of the time he kept them well hidden.
Sliochan Nan Ron
,” his father Ragnor had said, but Fin had shaken his head, not understanding. “Related to the seal folk,” Ragnor had said with pride. “You’re one of us.” That was five months ago. A lot had happened since then, like finding a best friend.
Tarkin, originally from the United States, turned up in June, with his ponytail, shark’s tooth necklace and enthusiasm for all things weird and adventurous. Tarkin’s mother had taken him halfway round the world looking for “the perfect home”, leaving Tarkin’s dad behind in the Yukon in Canada.
Fin’s loneliness ended the day Tarkin arrived and now, pushing the school gate open, Fin thought, maybe that’s what best friends do. Best friends write to you – in unusual places! Don’t they?
“You, boy, tell the rest of P7 what five per cent of six pounds is.” Mr Sargent’s voice boomed across the classroom, breaking in on a vision of the letters M and F blazoned across enormous rocks.
Magnus Fin blinked and the vision disappeared. His heart thudded beneath his ribs for the umpteenth time that morning. It thudded, not because he didn’t know what five per cent of six pounds was. He did. Tarkin, quick as lightning, had traced the number on his desk with his finger. It thudded because he hated Mr Sargent calling him “you, boy”. He was always doing it, and every time Magnus Fin bit his lip and said nothing. This time, though, he only had two choices: burst into tears or blurt out how he felt. The writing on the rocks had shaken him up and before he knew it out tumbled the words, “My name is Magnus Fin.”
“I said – Magnus Fin. That’s my name.”
Everyone stared at the skinny boy with the mop of black hair and the strange mismatched eyes. Nobody spoke back to Mr Sargent, least of all shy little Magnus Fin.
The teacher’s face turned red. His moustache twitched. The veins on his neck pulsed as if they might
explode any second. But Magnus Fin had started so he kept going.
“I mean – everybody else gets called by their name – except me.”
Tarkin was beaming at his friend in admiration. He made a thumbs-up gesture, winked then piped up, “I agree totally,” which was a bad idea.
“It’s not for you or anyone else to offer your opinion,
or otherwise,” shouted Mr Sargent, glaring now at Tarkin, who was twisting his long ponytail round his finger and chewing the end of it. “Break-time detention!”
Tarkin pulled a hair out of his mouth then shrugged his shoulders.
“And stop shrugging your shoulders. And stop eating your hair. And stop giving him, I mean Magnus, answers to questions.”
“Magnus Fin,” Tarkin said, then quickly added, “sir.”
Mr Sargent could have gone either way. His nostrils flared. His shoulders rose up and his neck sank down. His huge fists clenched. A hissing noise came from his mouth. The whole class stared and held their breath. Then the teacher sighed loudly, sat down, shook his head and counted with great effort up to ten. When he had finished he stood up and looked at Magnus Fin.
“Yes, a name is important. Of course it is. Then tell me, Magnus Fin, what
five per cent of six pounds?”
“Um … thirty pence?”
So it was lunchtime before Fin could tell Tarkin what was bothering him. They were in the games hall
because it had started to rain, on the climbing frame, right at the top.
“Don’t look down, Tarkin, but something’s up.”
“Like?” said Tarkin slowly, his cheek pressed against the side of the bar.
“Like – I have to know – was it you?”
“Who wrote M F on the rocks.”
Magnus Fin could tell by the baffled look on his friend’s face that it wasn’t. He groaned. “Well, I think someone or something’s trying to, um, write to me.”
“OK? Like who, Fin? Where? When?”
“On my rock. I saw it this morning. Something’s up under the sea, I just know it.”
Magnus Fin shifted his leg and for a scary second his foot dangled high in midair before it found the steel bar. He glanced down. “Wow!” he gasped.
“Don’t look down, Fin. Hey, could be they need you under the sea. You know? Your family down there. Hey, maybe I can go too? Cool!”
Fin lifted his chin and forced himself not to look down at the other pupils, playing dodgeball down below. “Come on, Tarkin, we’d better get down.” Slowly they climbed down the frame, feet feeling for the bars and hands clutching on for dear life. “It gives me the creeps,” said Magnus Fin.
“It’s OK. We’re almost down.” Tarkin clutched the steel bar. “Whatever you do, man, just don’t think about falling.”
But it wasn’t falling off the climbing frame that gave Magnus Fin the creeps. It was the letters on the rocks. He couldn’t get them out of his mind.
When he closed his eyes they were there, like neon lights, flashing.
When he opened his mouth to speak there they were on his tongue: “Must fly! Many fish! Mad fiend! Much fun!”
“What are you going on about now, Magnus Fin?” boomed Mr Sargent.
“Oh! Um? Nothing, Mr Fargent – I mean Sargent, um, nothing!”
The other boys at school gave him the weird look, raised their eyebrows and twisted their fingers to their heads. Fin knew what that meant. Having one green eye and one brown eye, he was used to other children calling him crazy.
Maybe he was crazy? Maybe he’d just imagined the whole thing? Or maybe the rain had washed the letters away, or the tide? He wanted to check after school but he and Tarkin had joined the basketball club and today was basketball day.
“Catch, Fin,” shouted Tarkin.
Fin caught it. He dribbled up the court. He dodged past Saul, then Emma, then Jamie-Lee. No one could stop him.
“Over here, Fin!” shouted Tarkin, who was now under the net, ready with his arms out. “Pass it here, Fin. Quick!”
Fin passed the ball and Tarkin caught it. But Pinky was right there, looming over Tarkin and defending the net. Pinky was tall and the school’s best basketball player. He waved his arms in Tarkin’s face, but Tarkin kept possession of the ball, then he jumped high, even higher than Pinky – and he scored!
So it was high fives all round, then oranges to suck on, then, all the way home, in the dark, it was the story of the incredible goal, the goal that won the match – again and again and again.
“You were fab, Fin, the way you dribbled up that court. I’ve never seen anyone dribble that fast. You should have seen Emma’s face. Awesome, man, you could play for the Harlem Globetrotters any day.”
“You jumped so high your head practically touched the net!”
“Not as cool as you standing up to Sargent Major though!” Tarkin gave Fin a friendly thump on the back.
The street lamps were on along the road to the harbour, making orange pools of light in the darkness. The two boys slowed down as they approached the bridge over the river. This was where they parted. Magnus Fin lived in an old fisherman’s cottage on the other side of the river, close to the sea, at the end of an unlit track. He had no neighbours except for the beach, the brae and the sea. Tarkin lived at the other end of the village on a croft.
“Well, see ya, Fin,” Tarkin said, swinging his rucksack in the air, still buzzing with the basketball victory.
“Yeah, see you.” But as Fin turned to walk alone over the dark bridge the basketball buzz suddenly left him, like bathwater drains away down the plughole. He shivered. Swinging round he called out, “Tarkin?”
“Do you want to hear the seals singing tomorrow?”
“And maybe we could see if that writing on the rocks is still there?” Fin blurted out.
“Sure thing. I’ll be there. What time?”
“Eight o’clock – down at the beach.”
Tarkin grinned and stuck his thumbs up, then he turned round, skipped high in the air and ran along the road.
Magnus Fin listened to Tarkin’s steps growing fainter until he couldn’t hear them any more. Then he turned and headed over the bridge. After the afternoon’s rain, the river was in spate and it gushed noisily under him.
Walking up the dirt track he counted the hours till eight o’clock the next morning. Fourteen – an eternity. Then he counted the minutes, or tried to. But by this time he could smell the tang of the sea and the smoke from their log fire. Then it wasn’t long before the sweet smell of apple crumble reached him. Magnus Fin sprinted the rest of the way home.
Basketball, and climbing – to say nothing of all that worrying. He was starving!