You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
At sea, February sang.
If you listened hard enough, you could hear it.
It was muted, edges sanded down by the waves, but it was there.
Anderson Riley’s father shared the secret with him the day before he disappeared.
“Listen, son,” he said, cupping his hand behind his fleshy ear, “the song is there, if you listen hard enough.”
If anyone had seen them they would have looked a funny sight, leaning over the side of their tiny boat, wobbling, waiting for these magical notes, but his father was right. Anderson could hear it.
“I heard,” he said, but as soon as he said it, it was gone again, slipping through his senses like water in his hands.
When it came back it was even better, high, angelic, soaring, like white-froth water on a shiny-shiny day, and at the same time, low. Low and muffled, muzzled, it sounded like dark retching bellows from the deep.
“See?” his father replied, nodding, “February is special.”
And it was, not just because of the song.
February was striking.
Not bleak, cold, or any of those clichés usually bandied around about the second month. No, Anderson found that in February, the early morning light on a clear day was like gossamer, so fragile, he was scared to sail his boat through for fear of shattering it. On days like those, he pictured the sky raining down on him, jigsaw fragments of blue battering his tiny boat until he was upturned, bobbing.
On cloudy February days there was a ridiculous depth to the sea that had nothing to do with metres. As the clouds shifted, great pockets of colour would appear in the sea, inky- dark blues and gunmetal greys that cloaked the spitting froth of the waves.
Now, ten years on from his father telling him about the song, it was another February, and Anderson was on his boat eating breakfast, thinking about it all. Thinking, and waiting.
A small queue of people stood patiently and impatiently for him on the harbour side. There were two women in their sixties huddled together in puffy coats, talking. One of them was wearing inappropriate shoes, little spiky heels that kept getting caught between the uneven stones, ankle bowing outwards in a comic turn.
There was a man, serious looking, with a pointy beard, holding a camera like it was a lover.
Then…and his breath turned hot in his throat with this one, then, he saw a woman. A tiny woman wearing square framed glasses. Pocket –sized. He pictured her there, in his pocket, fighting with the handkerchief his mother ironed yesterday and the small metal tin of Extra Strong Mints.
He could choose to take them all on his boat, or he could choose to take none. Oh, the power, he thought, smiling, eyes tracing the tiny-tiny woman, because if were someone who got a kick out of power, then he would get a kick out of this. Knowing that these people were watching him and pretending not to watch him, hoping they were the chosen ones.
The ones who would get the special tour.
Anderson unwrapped his second bacon sandwich. It was cold now, the bread soggy, and he bit, chewed, a piece of stringy fat caught between his teeth, and waited. It would only be minutes before his queue was approached.
Ian was the assailant, Ian Moorbright. Skipper extraordinaire. He ran, what was, until Anderson came along, the most popular passenger ferry in the bay. It still was, if you counted popularity in terms of numbers, as Anderson couldn’t compete with that hulk of a boat, but in terms of reputation, in terms of desire, Anderson was way out in front.
People loved his little boat. ‘Lady’ he called her, though she had no painted name. People loved sitting beside him, bobbing about as they travelled across the bay. Loved the something special.
Ian hated the Lady’s popularity and now he hated Anderson. He’d recently taken to shouting on the harbour side, bellowing at the people waiting for Anderson. “Come Aboard,” he bellowed, “the best blue boat in this bay.”
People did, of course, some people responded to his alliterative tourist abuse. But when his shouting didn’t work, as it didn’t on some of them, Ian would actually canvass Anderson’s potential clients as they waited. Punctured their body space, harassing.
He harassed Anderson too. There was a coffee shop next to the harbour, open early. Ian always arrived at the same time as him. Ahead of Anderson in the queue, he’d stand there in his oil stained jeans like he was a proper fisherman, flirting with the woman behind the counter, who was nice enough but hardly a boot-y as his father would have said, as if his prowess in making this woman smile was some sort of victory.
She became a weapon.
“We’re off to Spain this summer,” he said last week.
“Oh, yes,” the woman said, sloshing blackened coffee into his cup.
Anderson could feel his half-eyed glance.
“A villa,” Ian said, “right by the sea.”
“Lovely,” the woman replied, wrapping up his sandwich in a papery bag, “I say to Jack, a villa’s the only way to do it. Keep away from the masses.”
“Two weeks,” Ian said, fumbling for change, “sunshine, all that food.”
“Paella, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Ian said, smacking thin lips together, “paella.”
That’s when he turned, actually grinned at Anderson like Anderson would be jealous of paella.
Anderson was right. Ian was now sidling up to the two puffy women, glossy leaflet in hand. Anderson could only imagine what coffee-scented silken chat he was pouring into their ears. Promises of secrets of the sea revealed, and craggy bits of rock that only he knew the name of. Comfy seats (ergonomically designed), top deck, if you didn’t mind the sea spray and the biting wind at this time of year.
Anderson watched the pair shake their head, politely decline. Ian bared his teeth and moved on to the girl. He was bending down. Anderson was almost wincing, because he could see Ian flexing his knees, ready to crouch, crouch! Like you would do with a child. He didn’t think she was a child, did he? Anderson wanted to save her blushes, shout out, Ian, fool, she’s not a child, but just in time, Ian stooped, stood upright. He’d realised, just in time.
He wasn’t all bad.
A shout broke the air.
“I’m not interested!”
It was her, the pocket girl, heavy fringe swaying with the excitement. Ian stepped back, uncertain.
There was one bite left of his sandwich. Anderson pushed it in, stood up, shaking the crumbs off his wax coat. He wiped the grease from his mouth with his hanky.
Stepping off the boat, his stomach fluttered. He had made his choice.
It would be the pocket girl. He knew from the minute that she would be the one to get the special tour today.
He wanted her, wanted her stepping onto the boat, behind him. The boat would barely move, he realised, when she came aboard, as she was so light. A featherweight.
Walking towards her, his heart was thud-skipping. A big doof, then trip trip.
“Would you like to take the trip?” he said, running all over the words, scared she might change her mind.
She nodded, already moving towards him, not even turning to look at the others.
“Apologies,” he said to the rest of the queue, palms upturned and saying sorry. “I can’t take more than one today.”
They knew he was lying, knew his boat, though small, could take six or eight or more, but they seemed happy with his explanation, as it was undoubtedly part of the story they wanted to believe. Part of his allure.
“Next time,” said the taller puffy lady with the spindle heel. Her friend nodded, hoisted her bag up onto her shoulder. “Yes. There’s always next time.”
The man with the camera was less forgiving. He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes, or his mouth, hovering, uncommitted. The camera loomed sinister, swinging on his neck, a big glass eye.
“Shall we?” Pocket woman said, tapping her miniature canvassed foot on the stones.
She knew he would pick her, he thought, noticing her tight little smile, an elastic snap of a mouth that already knew its destiny.
After they clambered aboard, (he was right about her weight, the boat didn’t even react to her) she looked at him.
“Joy,” she said, extending her hand, “my name is Joy.”
“Anderson,” he said, taking it, clasping it. It felt cool, not cold, just the cool-box cold of a cool box gently stewing in the sun.
She was wearing tights. The same colour as flesh, well, they were meant to be, but they weren’t, not really, and she had tiny ankles. Chicken bones.
She was wearing a flowered dress, like a 1950’s dress, with a nippy-in waist and tailored shoulders. He wanted to lend her his jacket. Wanted to put it around her fragile shoulders, but he felt sure it will slip off, shoulders rejecting the weight.
“I’ve been waiting for this,” she said, taking a seat on the left hand bench with the scratches on, “I read your reviews on Trip Advisor.”
He pictured her, with those severe glasses, huddled over a laptop computer, reading and reading again. Perhaps making notes, annotations in a notebook.
They were just out of the harbour and he realised he was asking a question he knew the answer to. He already knew his Lady was mentioned on there, on all the popular holiday forums.
‘You MUST, MUST take this quaint little boat we found across the bay. It’s not touristy at all and the man who owns it is charming. He only takes a few passengers, and he’s not there every day, but you might strike lucky. We did.’
Only takes a few passengers. He’d laughed at that one.
‘And there’s a special tour he does in February. I can’t give all the details as I don’t know them ( yes, shocking I know, because I hate to give information not based on fact as regular readers of this forum know) and passengers are sworn to secrecy, but all I know is that it’s a personal tour. A very personal tour. (No, don’t be icky, I don’t mean that!) If you get lucky with this one, let me know!’
This was true at least; he did only take a few passengers. Ones that caught his eye.
She frowned. There was a mole above her lip, he noticed. Pinprick small.
“Well, it wasn’t Trip Advisor that recommended you, exactly,” she said, “it was ERP1969.” She smiled, as if remembering something very funny. “That’s his user name on there. ERP1969. I go by all his recommendations.”
“And you always travel using these recommendations?” he said, almost shouting as he started the engine.
She looked serious, waited for the growl and throb to subside. “I pick through,” she said. “The best recommendation I had was Brazil.”
“Brazil?” He steered through the harbour, nodded at Ian who was helping a group of people, not more than six or seven, aboard his boat. Ian pretended not to see him.
“I saw Firefox mushrooms,” she said, making her dome with her white hands. He guessed she was miming a mushroom. “They glow in the dark.”
“And where do you find these Firefox mushrooms?” he felt stupid suddenly, though he didn’t know why.
“Ribera Valley Tourist State Park. It’s near Sao Paulo.”
He nodded as if he knew it.
“The whole of the forest floor glows,” she paused. “Like someone has poured moonlight on it.”
He smiled. He could imagine her there. Walking along with her chicken bone ankles, drinking in the glow.
“You don’t like that man back there, do you?” she said as they passed the first beach. “The tall man that came up to me. I saw you watching him before he spoke to us.”
He nodded, grunted.
“He talked to me strangely, like this,” she said, aping him, her mouth open wide, clutching at the syllables, “DO YOU WANT TO GO ON MY BOAT?”
“I could see his fillings,” she said, “metal ones, and he had strange hands, sort of clutching. Claw-like. Saying that, the taxi driver that brought me here had weird hands too. Long nails, and trimmed, which is strange for a man. I imagined nail varnish on them. Strange.”
He grunted again. The sky looked bruised, grey black smudges pocketing the horizon.
“So you travel a lot, then?” he said, turning away, toying with the wheel. It gave him a kind of comfort, the feel of it. Though invisible to the naked eye, he could feel grooves in the wood, smoothed down through the weight of his fingers.
“It depends what you mean by a lot, but I suppose I travel more than the average person.”
He nodded, watching the water in front of them, just before the bow cleaved through it. Everyone always looked at the back, at the frothy glamour of the wake, but he liked the front. It was waiting, the water here, anticipating the boat slicing through it, rendering it useful. All those vibrations, the particles poised for action, for their turn. Lovely.
“I love travel,” she said. “It’s not about the places, it’s about the people. Everywhere I go, I see different people. People don’t realise, but they’re shaped by where they live, where they travel. Moulded. It changes them. A bit chipped off here, a bit chipped off there. You’re a different person.”
“I see,” he said. He thought about him, about his travel, making the same trip across the bay. Backwards, forwards, and back again. He wanted to laugh, ask her if she can see it in him, his watery boomerang journey, etched across his face.
“My friend doesn’t believe any of that,” she said, twisting her mouth to one side. “She says I travel because I can’t settle.”
“Can’t settle?” He cringed. He’d turned into a repeater. Lazy.
“She’s one of those psychobabblers,” Joy said. “She buys those ‘accessible’ psycho-what-not books in Waterstones. She says my mother abandoning me has messed me up, given me wanderlust, that I’m searching for her, everywhere I go.” She tutted.
“Wanderlust,” he repeated. He liked the sound of that.
“She had me adopted,” she said, tapping her creamy canvas feet on the floor, “my mother.”
Anderson nudged the wheel, struggling to keep up. Wanderlust. Abandonment. Adoption.
“It might sound silly, but I’m closer to her by not knowing her. This version of her I have up here,” she tapped her temple through a glossy shard of bob, “is intact. It’s probably, better, isn’t it? Not knowing.”
She looked out to sea, past the yellow bob-bob of the buoy to the right of them, peering over the black frames of her glasses. He wondered if she saw the frame of the glasses with every look. If every image is framed and becomes more beautiful.
He hesitated, cleared his throat, deciding that the middle of the silence was the time to tell her.
“At sea,” he said, heart a-jitter, “February sings.”
She was still perfectly still, and poised, but there was a flicker-glimmer in her eyes. She’d been waiting for this, he knew. She would never have asked him outright, like others had, but it was clear their earlier conversation had been merely the starter.
“And is this the special bit of the tour?” she said, quavering, “this song?”
“And only you know about this?”
A-ha, he thought. She wants unique. Something to write about on Trip Advisor.
He shook his head. “No. My father too. He found it.”
“It only happens in February?” Her words were rushed, breathy.
“Because February is special. My father told me that everyone else writes off this month. Wishing it along to March, but the Romans,” and he said this carefully, “saw it as the beginning of spring. A new start.”
He had more, wanted to tell her every meaning of February because he knew them all by heart, but he stopped. This was enough.
“He was always obsessed with February. I wondered, you know,” he said, “ages before he took me out, he built up to it. I saw clippings, things underlined in books. All about February.”
“In Finnish,” she said, slightly smug, “February is called Helmikuu.”
This was one thing he didn’t know. It sounded happy.
“Helmikuu.” He rolled the word on his tongue.
“It means month of the pearl.” She chuckled. “And it isn’t about jewellery, Anderson, it’s about snow. When the snow melts on a tree’s branches, it makes droplets. And when they freeze again, they look like pearls. Pearls of ice.”
Anderson rather liked that. It was February, he realised. The melting, the hint of spring, of hope, then the freeze. Not quite. Suspended. Anticipation.
“And,” he said, “I suppose it’s hopeful, the freeze, second time around.”
She looked at him, chewed the shine off her bottom lip.
“Because you know that the warmth isn’t far away. It’s coming, if you’re patient.”
“Yes,” she said. She smiled wide this time, so he could see the pinky-raw of her gum. “I suppose they are pearls of hope.”
He nodded, taken with the idea, picturing these frozen droplets suspended, just waiting. Waiting for the light, the warm. The awakening.
“And how long have you known about this song?” she said.
“Fifteen years.” He’d revisited the day countless times. Remembered the sky. A cloudless beauty. He remembered the banana sandwiches his mother had packed for them to take on board. They’d gone squashy, banana browning at the edges when they unwrapped them.
“We were out at sea when my father told me, Joy. He was acting strangely. Jumpy. And my father was never jumpy. He was solid. Proper old stock. You’d laugh if you saw a photo. He had a woolly fisherman’s beard.”
“I’m imagining you with a beard,” she shaped a beard around his face with her hands, “to imagine him.”
He smiled. “So I asked him why he was jumpy, and he looked shocked, scared. Took a while to answer, but when he did, he said it was because of the song. Said he was building up to tell me about it, but he was nervous, sharing it with someone. In case I didn’t hear. He said no one else believed.”
“You’ve got to admit it sounds funny,” she said, “a song, at sea, only in February.”
He railed at the words, and then corrected himself because she meant nothing by them. Her face was pure.
He nodded. “But I could hear it,” he said, “first time. Just like him.”
“He sounds a very special man, your father.”
“Was? I’m sorry…” She reprimanded herself with a jig of her leg.
“No,” he said, “he’s not dead. He went missing. The last Sunday in February. Fifteen years ago. The day after he told me about the song.”
“Oh,” she said, and she stared at her hands, at her little hands with perfect slice-cut nails.
“He said he would come back, Joy. I watched him go. Watched him get dressed into his boat clothes, and I asked to come with him, but he said he wanted some time alone.”
“Oh,” she said.
“He said he would come back.”
“And he didn’t?”
He shook his head. “But I believed him, Joy, and there’s still a chance, isn’t there? That he might be out there, waiting for the right time…”
“There’s always a chance,” she said, “always hope. If you believe…”
It was time, he thought, looking at her. It was time, time for her to hear.
“Shh,” he said, raising his hand to her mouth. He could feel her breath, hot against his palm. “It’s time to hear it. The song…”
Her eyes widened.
“Listen,” he said.
She closed her eyes.
Pause. Pause. Pause.
“So,” he said, the blood in his hands throbbing with anticipation. “Can you hear it?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I can’t hear it.”
“Listen again,” he urged, “block out everything else.”
She was straining, he could see that, her nails digging into the wood of the seat beside her. She shook her head again, hair slashing a black line across her face.
“No,” she whispered. There was sadness in her eyes, like he had disappointed her.
“Again,” he shouted, pulling his hand away.
“No,” she said, her lips stretched thin with the words. “All I can hear is the sea, Anderson. The usual sounds.”
He was desperate now. Desperate like Ian, waving leaflets at his queue, chatting up coffee lady with talk of paella.
“But everyone else has heard it,” he said, hating himself.
She was silent.
He listened. Felt something bubble in his chest.
“Now I can’t hear it either,” he said, panicked. “I can’t hear it…”
He couldn’t. He couldn’t hear a thing.
He listened again.
“He lied,” he said. The words hissed out of him like a puncture. “He lied.”
He looked at her with a horrible feeling of desperation. He’d never felt anything like it before. It was ugly.
All he could see was his mother’s face, that day, a week after his father had gone.
“Can’t you see?” his mother said. “He’s gone, Anderson. They found a hole in the boat, Anderson. A hole. They said he used a claw hammer. Deliberately. Flung the hammer over the side. He was planning it, Anderson. That day he took you out in that boat, he was planning it. It was a recce. A recce for …for…” She paused, “for it all…”
The words clattered about in his head.
“No,” he said, “he’s coming back. We went out that day to hear the song. He told me about it. I heard it.”
“No, Anderson. That was just a …” she stopped, reached for his hand.
They were nearing the shore now. The mouth of the harbour was looming, the flank of the red cliff top leaning towards them.
He tried, one final time, to hear it.
“There’s nothing,” he said, “nothing. It’s just February. He lied.”
The boat was rocking, the waves clawing at the sides.
“He’s a liar.”
Joy looked at him, head cocked on one side. “Wait,” she said, holding her finger in the air.
He stared at her.
“I can hear,” she said, “I can hear it.”
“Really?” He was shaking.
“I can!” She was beaming, waving her little little hands in the air, “I can hear it, Anderson!”
He stared at her face, studied it. Saw something there and then it was gone.
“I can,” she said, looking him right in the eye. “I can.”
Anderson nodded. He looked at her, at her perfect doll like face and her neat closed in body and as the waves lapped the boat, Anderson leant down, lifted one tiny leg in the air and kissed her ankle.
Kissed her chicken bone ankle.
Her tights were furry against his lip.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
There were nearing the harbour mouth, gaping its stony greeting.
He could see Ian’s boat, just ahead of him, and he waved.
“The song is wonderful, Anderson,” Joy said, nodding so her hair scissored her face, her fringe bop-bopping. “Beautiful, in fact.”
Anderson nodded, let the spray wash over his face.
Yes, he could hear it again.
His father’s song.
It sounded lovely.