The boat bumps gently against the outcrop of rocks that mark the margin of the bay. I brace my legs and push the lad to his knees in the bow in case he stumbles in the darkness. Not got his sea-legs yet. Not sure if he ever will. A line of boats bob on the tide, an amber glow of lights stretch across the bay entrance, all eyes watching, waiting. Above us the sky is clear and full of stars. I give thanks for the calmness of the inky sea.
I track the dolphin’s path by the silver slither of moonlight skidding along his back as he circles in the water. Every time he swerves towards us, the boats close up and swing their spot-lights on the water to catch him in their beams. I see him heading our way.
“Now, Davy, now,” I shout. I grip my whistle between my teeth, blow with all my breath and slap the water with my paddle. Davy heaves his rattle. A crescendo rises around the bay. Shouts, yells, horns, rattles and whistles break the night silence, rising louder than a home goal roar at St Austell.
My heart is heavy with foreboding. I’ve seen it all before, man’s pointlessness against the power of nature. The dolphin scythes effortlessly through the water, curious but unperturbed.
Boats run together, weaving and turning, churning up the sea. The lifeboat running alongside him is no match for the dolphin’s speed and agility. We’d managed to turn the main pod away the previous day, but this one has returned, following an instinct too strong to resist.
We took the boy in after Sam’s death. Peggy insisted. Her heart’s bigger than an ocean liner. For me the loss was still too raw, too fresh in memory. Three months gone feels like only yesterday. Sam’s death hit me worse than a North Sea squall. It’s not supposed to happen like that….Forgiveness is an ocean away, the trough I’m in too deep to navigate.
I’ve been a fisherman all my life, like my father and his father before him, following centuries of tradition. Never known anything else – never wanted to. I worked on the boats when I was Davy’s age; so did Sam.
“Sea-water runs though your veins,” Sam used to say, but he was different. There was a softness to him I’d never had. Not a weakness though. Sam knew the sea and all its moods and dangers, but he never feared it. He’d work the nets on a pitching deck in a force ten howler, his bright yellow sou’wester the only thing visible in a shroud of mist and fog. What he did is beyond understanding.
Hope of turning the dolphin away is fading. I put my hand on Davy’s shoulder. “It’s no use lad. We can’t turn him. Time to go home.”
He gazes up at me, his blue as the ocean eyes wide with dismay. I see his father’s face – his wild, sandy hair and his determined jaw. My heart lurches¸ the knot of pain in my stomach tightens as the years fall way. Sam loved the freedom of the ocean, just as I did. There was no one happier on a good day when the mackerel were running high. I thought he’d stay forever. I never could fathom why he left it all behind.
The dolphin rises out of the water, so close I can almost touch it. “Go back. Go back,” Davy yells, waving his arms. The dolphin seems to nod, his eye bright and what looks like a smile on his face, before he turns and swims away. A huge cheer goes up from the boats. Davy’s face glows with joy. I wait until the dolphin’s chatter fades into the distance, then steer the boat back to shore. A crimson dawn spreads across the horizon, gulls screech overhead to greet the morning.
“Why do they do it Granddad?” Davy asks, his small voice almost lost in the chugging of the engine and the sound of the sea. “I mean, why has he come back, when he could be safe in the ocean?”
I sigh. How can I explain dolphin behaviour to a ten year old boy when it’s a mystery to me? “It’s their nature.” I say. “They can’t help it. Instinct, loyalty to the other dolphins?” I shrug, “Who can say.” I force a smile and tousle his hair. The dawn light shines on the boy’s face, so young, so eager and so like his father. Sam? How could he have…? I shut my mind to any thought. I bring the boat alongside the jetty. Other boats are tying up and unloading. Onshore the town’s beginning to come to life.
We fell out when Sam moved away, taking part of me with him. We never spoke after that. I curse the futility of the wasted years. What wouldn’t I give to have him back here? Back where he belongs. Anger rises inside me like a tidal swell¸ threatening to break out. I bite it back.
Davy helps me tie up at the jetty. “Is it the dolphin we saw yesterday? Is he looking for her?” he says, as if trying to get it straight in his mind.
We’d come across the beached dolphin the day before, its once graceful body inert and glistening grotesquely in the afternoon sun. A crowd had gathered trying to save it but without success. I recall Davy’s reaction as he crouched down beside it: the bewilderment in his eyes and his sombre silence as he patted it.
“Aye probably. His mate, like as not,” I say.
I’ve seen nature’s cruelty too often for it to move me like Davy, but I saw how deeply it affected him. My heart clenches. My mind spirals back to another time, another dolphin pod, another life. Sam was not much older than Davy when a pod of dolphins beached along the estuary. They all died, gasping for air, stranded along the foreshore of the river. Fishermen are used to loss, but the scale of the tragedy was striking. We did all we could to save to them, but they were hell-bent on self-destruction and there was no way of stopping them. Their deaths hit Sam harder than most. He grieved for them. He didn’t speak for a week, locked into deep personal misery. He took flowers to the place where we buried them and sat for hours, gazing out to sea. Daft beggar. My heart lurches as if rocked by a sudden wave.
I help Davy off the boat. “He must have loved her very much,” he says, no louder than a whisper. He turns to me for confirmation. It’s as if I can read his mind, but I have no answer to the question in his eyes.
“The dolphin,” Davy says. “He must have loved her very much.” He places his hand in mine. It feels small, warm and trusting.
Sam left to work as a roadie for a rock band. What sort of life is that for a man? He married the singer. Peggy went to the wedding. She said she was beautiful. Pale as a lily she was, and just as delicate it turned out. When she got ill, Sam nursed her. Just like Sam to give up everything to be by her side. Day and night by her side, they said. Her death left a broken man and a heartsick boy. But what he did…I could never forgive that. Some call it the coward’s way out. Inexcusable. He should have come home. What was he thinking? I blamed myself. Was I too hard on him?
“Perhaps he wanted to be with her forever,” Davy says. “Wanted them to be together for always.” He takes a breath. “Just like my dad,” he says. “He loved my mum very much, didn’t he?”
I see the vulnerability in his eyes: like he’s trying to make sense of it, trying to find an answer to somehow make it all right. He bites down on his lip to hold back the tears – a small boy trying hard to be a man. A lump rises in my throat. I swallow it. An unexpected surge of feeling for the boy swells inside me, like a wave that knocks you off your feet and drags you, helpless, into the sea. I can’t speak. Locked in silence I nod. I feel ashamed. Imprisoned in my own grief I’d given no thought to his. With difficulty I find my voice. “He loved her more than life,” I say, eventually. “I guess he couldn’t live without her either.” My anger ebbs like the tide.
Davy falls into step beside me. I see what Sam did as a betrayal of all I believe in, Davy see it as an act of all consuming love. Was I wrong? Have I misjudged Sam? I blamed him for uncaring, selfish, weakness. Was it in fact undying devotion? I battle with my feelings. A whirlpool of emotion envelops me. Have I become so hardened I’ve lost all compassion? Confusion rages inside me. I search for some sort of understanding, I try to put myself in Sam’s place but we’re too different. My heart aches for the loss of him.
I breathe in the salt spray that stings my eyes. Forgiveness is still an ocean away but I have a new priority now. Sam’s left Davy’s future in my hands. It stretches out ahead of me like a precious gift. He’s given me a second chance: one I won’t mess up this time.
We walk up the shingle beach. I feel Davy’s small hand in mine and the gap between us closes. I know it won’t be easy, there’s still an ocean to cross, but the icy resentment begins to melt. I swallow hard. “So, you think you might be a fisherman then?”
Davy’s face breaks into a grin. He nods. “The best ever,” he says.
“Aye, well, that’s as maybe,” I say, choking back the tears. “Come on. Nan’ll have breakfast ready and she’ll skin us alive if we’re late.”
If you enjoyed this story there are many more more in my Short Story Collections here.