Authors: Janis Mackay
That night, after supper, and after swimming in the sea with his wetsuit on, and after making a fire on the beach and toasting half a packet of marshmallows, Magnus Fin fell into bed exhausted. As he was about to drift off to sleep he heard the sobs of his mother coming from the room next door and the low tones of his father’s voice. Magnus pressed his ear to the wall and listened: “You should never have come ashore, Ragnor. Look at me, a decrepit hag. I’d be young still if it wasn’t for you. I wish I had never set eyes on you!” Barbara cried.
There was that word again –
. Magnus Fin usually held his hands over his ears through these arguments but tonight he wanted to hear more. Maybe it was something to do with turning eleven, but for once he really wanted to understand his parents and their strange illness.
“If it wasn’t for your deed, woman, we would both be young,” said Ragnor. “Now hush or you’ll wake the lad.” Magnus Fin had heard this before, this crying and blaming. Now he began to think, maybe whatever it was that was wrong with his parents was somehow his fault. His eyes
strange. He knew that. No one in school had eyes
like his. And his grandmother had told him the illness began after his third birthday. What had he done? He loved his parents. He wanted them to be happy. But always this crying, blaming, moaning, wailing!
He had heard enough. He held shells up to his ears, hummed a tune along with the sound of the waves and eventually fell asleep, off to sea in his boat. He dreamt he was playing tig in the playground at school. Then he dreamt he was swimming under the sea and a beautiful girl was swimming by his side.
When he woke early next morning the sun was streaming in the window. He loved Saturdays. Quick as it takes to throw on a t-shirt and pair of shorts he was up and out. Thank goodness for the sea, for the shore, the sand, the rock pools, the treasures the tide brought in, the oystercatchers and screeching gulls and the lone heron that stood hunched over a rock, staring at the flat sea. Magnus Fin loved the sea and the shore. He forgot his troubles when he was by the sea.
It seemed to him that his father loved the sea too. Every day Ragnor walked slowly along the shore to a place where he cast his fishing line out to sea. Every evening there was fish on the table, herring or mackerel. Barbara gutted the fish and cooked it, humming away to whatever was crackling from her radio. There were times when even Barbara forgot her troubles and sang away to herself, the old pop songs she used to love. Then Ragnor would put a shaky hand around his
wife’s waist and kiss her lined face and the rare sound of laughter would light up the little cottage. Magnus Fin loved those times and wished this laughing and singing could go on for ever.
Ragnor, when he wasn’t fishing, often sat in his cave by the sea. When Magnus was very young this had been the storytelling cave. He remembered the wonderful stories of life under the sea, and the way his father spoke brought the magical watery world to life. He would carry the boy on his back, striding out across the shore. And they’d make great sand castles and dig sand holes all the way to Australia. But though that was only a few short years ago, it may as well have been another lifetime.
Magnus Fin looked at his father now, limping slowly along the beach path with his grey head bent low and his thin legs shuffling shakily. What had happened? The other parents he saw every day standing at the school gates seemed much younger. Why did the clock in his house whirr so much faster?
Magnus Fin followed his father along the beach path to his cave. He ran to catch up, hoping for a story. After all, he was still a child, wasn’t he? But his father sat in the cave in silence, staring out at the stillness of the sea. It seemed there were no more stories.
“When you are older, son,” he said, looking slowly up at Magnus Fin, who stood expectantly at the mouth of the cave, “there will be other stories to tell you. Stories that will shock you to the core, but not now lad, you’re too young.”
Ragnor’s voice sounded weak and shaky.
“Please tell me now,” pleaded Magnus, stepping inside the cave.
“It’s not yet time, Fin,” said Ragnor, his face as wrinkly as the furrowed waves. Then he was silent for a long while.
“Look, son,” he suddenly said, pointing out to the sea. “Do you see how flat the sea is? Have you wondered where the big waves have gone?”
Magnus Fin turned to stare out at the great ocean in front of them. It was flat, crinkly with the brush of the breeze, but it
true, there were no waves. Now that Magnus thought about it, there had been no big waves for a very long time. He couldn’t remember the last time he had watched mighty rollers crash against the rocks or got out his surfboard.
“It worries me,” said Ragnor. “Something’s not right in the world under the sea and there’s nothing I can do about it. The waves clean the sea – and the waves have gone.”
Magnus Fin sat silent, hunched on his stone. Out at sea screeching herring gulls circled over the flat water. His father stared at them, talking as though he had forgotten his son was with him.
“Aye, no waves is not good. The sea has fallen on bad times. These small teacup waves hardly bother to break on the stones. It’ll be dirty in there, right dirty. Makes me think Neptune himself has fallen asleep. And all I can do is sit here and worry.”
“Don’t worry, Dad!”
Ragnor looked round, startled. “Ach! You gave me a fright, laddie. That’s what happens when you get old, you haver away to yourself. Don’t heed me, Fin.”
“But you’re not really old, are you?” the boy blurted out. “Why do you and Mum look so old?” Of course he had asked many times before but was never given an answer. Lately he had given up asking, but now it came again, out of his mouth before he could stop himself. “People at school say you must be ill, and Mum too. I’ve heard her crying at nights. The teacher said the doctors should know. Are you both ill? Are you?” Ragnor, staring now at his son, saw a tear glisten in his boy’s eye in the red glow of the sun.
“Ill? Aye, in a way. That’s all part of the story, son. Don’t ask yet. When you’re eleven. Then I’ll tell you. I promise, Fin. We’ll come back to the cave and we’ll make a fire and I’ll tell you the strangest story you ever heard. Until then, son, don’t ask me.”
Magnus nodded his head. His father spoke as though being eleven was a long way off. Had he forgotten? His only child would be eleven years old in two weeks time.
“That’s soon, Dad,” he said, thinking suddenly of the bottle he’d thrown out to sea. He wondered where it was now and whether anyone had found it.
His father nodded his stooping head. “Aye, Fin,” he said in a hushed voice, “soon and not soon enough. At long last you’ll be eleven – the age between the worlds. We’ll come back here and you’ll get your story. And you’ll get more than you
ever bargained for. You might be sorry you ever asked for a story then. Now let’s get back, eh? Your mum might be worried, wondering where we’ve got to. Porridge will be cold.”
They walked slowly back along the shore in silence, but it was all Magnus Fin could do to stop the excitement from jumping him up and down. He wanted to call out to the gulls, he wanted to shout to the sea, he wanted to hug his father. Some big change was on the way; he felt it in his bones. And it was something to do with turning eleven.
That very night, after his mother had cried herself to sleep, Magnus Fin picked up his prize starfish, turning it this way and that in the rays of the setting sun. The way the star flashed red lit up the boy’s face. Something good was coming; he was sure of it.
That Monday Tarkin arrived from America. The new boy in school, rather than being wary of Magnus Fin like everyone else, thought he had never seen such phenomenal eyes in his life.
“I am just so through with boring,” said Tarkin, who dashed over to talk to Magnus Fin at break. “I’ve been round the world, I’ve lived with Inuits and Aborigines but man, no one, like, no one has eyes as way-out as yours. Can I be your friend? That would be so cool.”
No one had ever asked Magnus Fin to be their friend before. He grinned. He recalled the way his starfish had glowed. He remembered the green bottle he had flung out to sea. He knew something good was coming. This was it – Tarkin!
Tarkin was tall with blond hair down past his shoulders, which he wore in a ponytail. He had two earrings hooped in his left earlobe and stick-on tattoos all up his arms. He wore a shark’s tooth round his neck and kept a photograph of his first dog in his school bag. He took it out to show Magnus.
“Samson,” said Tarkin sadly, “an Akita and the best friend ever. Got knocked down by a bus in New York. Gone now.”
Magnus Fin touched Tarkin lightly on the shoulder. “I’m really sorry about that,” he said,
and for a moment the two boys stared down at the half-torn, thumbed photo of Samson. Then Tarkin put the photo carefully back in his school bag and cheered up.
“So what’s it like here?” he asked, swinging his black rucksack on to his back and shaking his ponytail. “Like, is there anything to do around here?”
“Well, there’s the beach,” said Magnus Fin, “and there’s the caves and I’ve got lots of treasures. Um, do you want to come and see?”
“Sure. You just said three of my all time favourite words – beach, cave and treasure. Wow! I can’t wait!”
“Great – um, you could come after school if you want?”
“Sure, that’d be cool,” said Tarkin.
Magnus felt his mouth stretch into a wide smile that almost hurt his face. He felt happy and sad. Happy because it seemed he had found a friend at last and sad because as soon as Tarkin saw his parents that would probably be the end of the friendship. He opened his mouth to try and explain but no words came, and he stood in the playground like a gaping fish.
“Hey, man, that’s a great impersonation of a cod. Wanna see my shark impression?” Tarkin didn’t wait for an answer. He pulled back his mouth to bare his teeth then started running after Magnus, singing the theme tune to
as he did. Magnus Fin giggled then ran across the playground, pursued by a shark which jumped on him then pretended to eat him but tickled him
instead. The two boys lay on the grass laughing and Magnus had never been happier in his life.
Tarkin sat beside Magnus Fin in school, and Magnus couldn’t keep the smile off his face. This was the best birthday present ever – and he wasn’t even eleven yet. He noticed Tarkin had a big wristwatch that he said could work underwater, and beside it he wore a beaded leather string wrapped several times around his wrist. While Mrs McLeod was talking, Tarkin drew a picture of a mermaid in his jotter.
“You bairns are the future generation and it’s up to you to look after our planet – muckle great thing like a planet doesn’t grow on trees.” Tarkin brought out a pair of scissors from his rucksack, hiding them with his elbow from the teacher. He couldn’t understand a word Mrs McLeod was saying.
“And as the future generation, you should know that all the herring have gone. So what are you going to do about it? Clean the beach, that’s what! And what about the waves? Some morbid ones say the sea is dying!”
Tarkin cut out his drawing of the mermaid and pushed it across to Magnus Fin. Tarkin had drawn love hearts all around the mermaid. It was a good drawing. She looked pretty with lots of shells around her neck, masses of long dark hair and a blue and green fish tail. Magnus was delighted. He had told Tarkin at playtime about his birthday. Maybe this was an early birthday present.
Then Tarkin wrote the words Wot she sayin? in
his jotter and pushed it across to Magnus Fin. Mrs McLeod had turned her back to the class and was unrolling a huge map of Scotland. She pointed out where the world surfing championships were usually held, right up at the top in Thurso.
“Here you get the best waves – great big things. But now? Now girls and boys? Flat as a tattie scone.”
Magnus Fin wrote sea dying and pushed it back to Tarkin. Then both boys stared up at the map of Scotland with worried faces. Mrs McLeod suddenly stopped talking, her mouth fell open and she stared down at Magnus Fin’s desk. The picture of the mermaid surrounded by many large red love hearts had caught her attention.
“This is a serious matter, Magnus Fin. Fish are dying. The waves have stopped. And you doodle a mermaid. Mermaid! For heaven’s sake! Pupils in P6 should know the difference between fantasy and reality. Mermaids don’t exist. And if we don’t do something about it, fish won’t either.”
“Sure mermaids exist. I saw one – in Alaska – and she was awesome,” Tarkin said, not knowing he was supposed to put his hand up if he wanted to say something.
“Oh, right then, well why don’t you tell the whole class what this
looked like, Tarkin?” said Mrs McLeod, rubbing her hands together as though she was cold, or getting ready for a fight.
“Sure,” he said, standing up and facing the class. “Well, guys, like I said, she was totally awesome. I’m in Alaska and it’s wintertime, right? Dad has taken me fishing – Mom and Dad were still together back then, and we are just not
catching a thing and it is freezing, like, totally ice. I’ve got on this big fur coat we found in the cellar of this old house we were renting. That was, like, house number ten. So we’re on this lake and Dad gets out his flask and we’re drinking coffee and just letting the boat drift across the water and you can see your breath making smoke signals in the air. I tell you it’s so cold. Oh, man, even with that bear round my shoulders I am
. I’m ice.”
“Tarkin, I think we understand you were cold,” said Mrs McLeod.
“OK, yeah, well, we are just drifting and the moon comes up and suddenly I hear this sound. I think it’s a fish jumping. I turn and there she is, a mermaid. She has long black hair and shining skin and a necklace with shells and pearls. I stare at her like I’m totally struck dumb, and she stares at me, and my heart’s hopping like a rabbit. She is beautiful. Then I don’t know why but I shout out, “Dad – look!” and as soon as I do she disappears under the water. I wish I’d never shouted out. She never came up again. For ages we waited for her to come back. And I didn’t want to drop any more hooks under the water in case we hurt her. Well, we got too cold and Dad said we had to go back – he said I’d see her again one day. Well, I ain’t never forgotten her and I never will. Ever.”
Then Tarkin folded his arms and sat down, and for a while the class was silent. Mrs McLeod coughed and sat on her desk. For a second it seemed as if she was stumped for words.
“Right then,” she said, suddenly standing up.
“Well. Tarkin is a really good storyteller, isn’t he, P6? Well, thank you, Tarkin. So, um … when we do our beach clean-up before the summer holidays we might see a mermaid. Or we might not! Alaska is a long way away. Who can tell me where Alaska is?”
Tarkin mouthed the answer to Magnus Fin who shot up his hand. “The USA, Miss!” he said.
“Yes, very good, Magnus. Some people think it’s in Canada but it’s not. Right then, off you go, P6. And don’t forget to do your homework – name ten different kinds of fish and draw them!”