Julie Evans was the Runner Up of the Adults Category. Julie is from Guildford and unfortunately unable to come up to our Celebration Concert and prize-giving last Thursday. Her story - The Opening and Closing of a Gill - was read by Lucy Miller Trotter, a sixth form student at the Duchess Community High School.
The Opening and Closing of a Gill
She slept all the way, the car’s motion lulling her as the North’s magnetic field drew us along the iron trail of the A1. I’m glad. For weeks, there has been no sleep, no tears, just a hard, excruciating silence.
The village air is spiced with November wood-smoke. Harbour walls curl protective arms around a few bobbing boats, and beyond stretches an infinite, fretful sea. The skies are dark – it’s not yet three o’clock but the evening seems to have started already.
We decant the contents of the car into our rented cottage. Cases, groceries from the mini- mart. Wine. Plenty of wine.
‘It’s romantic,’ she says as we survey the view from the cottage window. There’s a weak low sun on the water, stippling distant waves with faint tips of gold. I make agreeing noises, but part of me is thinking that I don’t want to be here. It’s a raw place, granite-cold, the road outside empty of people. 'Let’s go out,’ she says, ‘before it gets too dark.’
‘It is too dark!’ I say, but she’s already outside, boots on, coat zipped against the wind. I follow her around the harbour. Small rowing boats lie upside down like turtles on a rocky outcrop that slopes down to the sea and there are dozens of little rockpools. We each find our own and crouch down to look. Separate. Apart. My pool is full of limpets and mussels, rusted metal, bits of boat tackle. A tiny long-clawed porcelain crab clings to the underside of an edge and the sight of it swirls a memory of my father into my mind. He always knew so much about the creatures we found, how they survived in places like this. A sadness overwhelms me. It’s not just for the loss of him, but for myself, for the times I thought I would be the expert, for the scenarios I had planted unconsciously in my mind. The seaside nets and plastic buckets, the yellow Wellington boots. The glow in my boy’s cheeks. The glow in mine.
She is walking back towards me. ‘Look what I found,’ she says. She hands me a shell, beige and pink. A barley sugar staircase spirals inside. I run my fingers over its brittle ridges. It’s beautiful, but I want to crush it to dust in my hand.
‘There’s the castle,’ she says, pointing to a ruin on the distant headland. ‘Dunstanburgh’. It is a broken thing. Fractured remains of grand towers stick up from collapsing knuckles of stone like arthritic fingers, a rude gesture from the past to the present. We walk silently along the grassy path towards it. Close up, the castle looms, forbidding and timeless. Its ghosts wail on the wind.
I put an arm around her and we walk across the headland together to the other side, where a sandy bay sweeps into a distant curve. It feels awkward, the unfamiliar intimacy. I have barely touched her for weeks, afraid that she might shatter like glass.
We are high now. Below us, the sea plunges and foams into hidden coves in the rock face. It’s wild out here. I let it race over me, winnowing the air with the pores of my skin, inhaling the stench of fossils and brine and tasting the pinch of green on my tongue.
‘I saw a mermaid once, down there. The boys laughed at me, but I was sure, I really was.’
I want to believe her. I want to believe in fairy tales.
‘How often did you come here?’
‘Every summer. Grandpa used to go fishing with his old friend, Ed, who kept a boat in Craster harbour. Sea trout for dinner every night, till we were sick of it!’ There’s a hint of animation in her voice. Perhaps she was right to suggest coming here? I had said Cyprus or the Canaries. Winter sun to irradiate the pain, cocktails to blot it out.
A more sheltered bay comes into view below us, rocks piled one on top of another, the roll of the sea and the force of the spray gentler here, more forgiving. We see them at the same time, the grey seal nestled into the rocks, the pure white pup rolling and wriggling at her side. Mother and baby. They look so vulnerable, all alone like that, just the two of them. She is staring at them, transfixed, the muscles working in her cheek as she tries to rein in the tears. I am aware of a fear, rising inside me, a fear of reliving that moment when they gave him to her and he lay in her arms, not wriggling like the seal pup, but still. Completely still.
‘So white,’ she says, eventually.
‘It’s a relic from the Ice Age.’ Fact, I think. Fact will steer us clear of the emotional tsunami that is waiting somewhere in the waves. I’m not ready, not ready at all. I shudder.
‘Will they be okay?’ she says.
‘Yes, of course.’ Perhaps they will. Perhaps they won’t. ‘They’re strong animals, seals. The baby will grow up really fast and turn grey.’
‘And leave her?’
‘And she’ll have another one.’
‘Just like that one?’
‘Just the same.’ I kiss the back of her head. ‘Just as perfect.’
She nods then.
We follow the path back down to the village. Over the sea, herring gulls dip and shriek on currents of air.
‘Brrr...It still feels like the Ice Age,’ she says. ‘I need a cup of tea.’
Over the village, the twilight sky is layered in purple and bright orange. It’s an oil painting. We stop for a moment to admire. Her face, in profile, is lit with sky-fire. She sees me looking and smiles. It’s her old smile, not easily given, but heaved from a yesterday place. Something lifts and flutters inside my chest – a tiny, life-giving movement, like the opening and closing of a gill.
Julie said: I know the area around Craster/Beadnell/Seahouses well. My sister and brother-in-law have a house in Beadnell and my brother-in-law is a fisherman fishing out of Beadnell harbour, and was brought up in Craster, so the location feels familiar and personal. We have had many windy walks up to Dunstanburgh and rummaged in the rock pools near Craster harbour.
Well done Julie!