Read by Katy Darby
"A whistling woman and a crowing hen can drive the devil out of his den" - Hull fishermen’s proverb
When I’d finished rubbing down the stove I took a bucket and brush out to scrub my doorstep. Mam was out there on her own step. I hadn’t moved far when I’d married Freddie.
‘Not pregnant yet?’ Mam asked every time she came round for tea.
‘We’re trying, Mam,’ I said. ‘He doesn’t get much time away from sea now. He wants to get enough saved up for when we have a family.’
‘The way I hear it,’ Mam said, picking up a spoon, stirring her tea, ‘he’ll have another mouth to feed soon.’
I blinked at her, ‘I’m not pregnant,’ I said.
Mam examined her reflection in her spoon and said, ‘there’s muck on this.’ She dropped the spoon back on the table. I felt the ground jolt underneath me. I bit my tongue and asked after the little ones. Mam barged on, gargling gossip. This was the third year in a row that Mam hadn’t been pregnant; maybe she was finally done with all that. At nineteen it was my turn. I felt her eyes patting down my dress where it slumped empty over my hips.
When Freddie came back from sea the house was scrubbed to shining. I brushed my hair out and drew it away from my face. I’d spent all afternoon cooking. Steak-and-kidney pie, and jam sponge for afters. The smell drifted out of the house and down the street. The little ones came over from Mam’s with big eyes. ‘Got enough for us Biddy?’ they asked.
Freddie came in and slung his kitbag down on the floor like his whole body wanted to follow it. I put my hand on his cheek. It was cold, hairy and rough, like a sea animal’s skin. He rubbed his face into my hand. ‘Your hands are soft,’ Freddie said into my palm. My hands were rough as any woman’s: made into leather by hot water and carbolic soap.
I took him to the table and sat him down. I poured him a beer and he stared at the bubbles rising in the glass. The seam across his face seemed paler than ever. His hair was so blonde it was almost white.
After a while Freddie said, ‘Okay girl.’ He lifted me off his lap and reached for his boots.
‘You’re off out.’ My voice fell flat, onto the floor at his feet. A pause stretched between us.
‘Just stay in with me can’t you?’ I tried to put my arms around him but he pushed me off. I could feel the restless sea moving in him.
He didn’t come back until late next morning. His clothes were wet. Mam told me later that he’d been found sleeping outside the pub. They’d had to put a bucket of water over him to wake him.
He only got three nights at home between sailings. He hadn’t spent a single one at home. I ironed his clothes and laid them out on a chair-back. He dressed without looking at me. He greased his hair and went to call for Tommy, his best mate, my big brother. Two fishermen out on the town between trips to the Arctic. If it weren’t for Tommy I might never have met Freddie.
The night I met Freddie, two autumns ago, Tommy peacocked around the kitchen in the clothes Mam had just ironed. The little ones were impressed with the bits Tommy brought for them; for me he brought stories of the sea. He talked about the pancakes of ice that could rip out the hull of a boat. He told me about the harshness of his skipper and how the cook had been put on a bread-and-water diet, after threatening to go on strike. He showed me where the salty sea-frost had cut furrows into his hands. The skin was red, raised, cracked. He took off his boots to show the fat blisters along his feet. I promised to knit him thick socks. It was all I could think of. He said, ‘You’re a good ‘un’.
That night there was no sign that Tommy’s feet hurt as he strutted around the kitchen. Dad was still at sea; for a few days Tommy was the man of the house. Tommy’s floor show was interrupted by a rattling at the door.
‘Is that Freddie?’ Tommy yelled. He was now in the habit of yelling everything he used to just say.
‘Aye, Tommy it’s me. Let’s go. You owe me a drink, you’d better have your money ready,’ the stranger said. His words were croaky. His nose was bent oddly so instead of being straight like Tommy’s, it listed to one side. Tommy shouldered past me, brushing off his clothes, and was gone with the stranger. Like two silver fish flickering and vanishing in the river, they were there and then they’d gone.
Tommy’s second day between sailings was spent in bed, and in the evening Freddie came to pick him up again. Tommy was still in bed when Freddie turned up, thudding not knocking at the door. Freddie sat at the kitchen table answering Mam’s questions with short creaking responses. I sat in the corner turning the heel of the sock I was knitting.
‘Could you make me a pair of those?’ Freddie said. He had to repeat himself; I didn’t understand him the first time. Mam threw a fork at me.
‘Don’t be ignorant, girl,’ she said.
‘I can knit you socks if you need them,’ Mam said to Freddie, ‘where’s your mam or sweetheart though?’
‘My family’s in Noreg,’ Freddie said, slowly, looking at me. ‘I’m from Norway. I’d like it if you could find the time, Bridget. Tommy told me your name. I don’t have anyone here to do that for me. I’m in lodgings.’
Everyone around here had brown eyes except for me and Freddie. His eyes were blue, like the sea, or the sky. No, more like the sea. I couldn’t see into them. I lost pieces of language when I looked at those eyes. I couldn’t reply, though I felt Mam’s fury building. Tommy came down the stairs then and the men flickered out, shining in their onshore threads.
Between the second day and the third day I didn’t sleep. By the time Tommy was packing his kitbag I had two sets of socks made.
‘Can you give Freddie this pair?’ I asked Tommy, ‘they might not be any good, I’m sorry.’ I put the socks on the table.
Tommy picked them up. He pulled the ribbing between his hands and rubbed the grain of the stitches with his thumb. ‘They’re grand Bridget, thanks.’ Then he was gone again. He didn’t look back, because if you look back you won’t come back. I never said, ‘goodbye’, because if you tell a fisherman that, you’ll never see him again.
When the birds were bringing in the dawn with groggy chirping I heard the shuffle of the front door as it opened and closed. I wasn’t asleep. I closed my eyes when Freddie entered our room. I felt his warmth near to me, smelt the sourness of his breath. His stiff chin-hair scratched when he kissed my forehead. I kept my eyes closed.
Freddie lay down beside me. I could tell from his stillness that he wasn’t asleep. A scent I didn’t recognise seeped through Freddie’s smell. Something womanly. He turned his body to me and moved his hand inside my nightdress. He handled me until I was face-down and underneath him. My nose filled with the scent of soap, rising from my laundered sheets.
I couldn’t hear the birds outside any more. Seemed to me that this time, before it’s decent to get up, is when bad thoughts become real. He couldn’t be seeing another woman. That couldn’t be what I smelt on him.
I made eggs and bacon while he packed his kitbag. It’s our sailing-day tradition. I put new socks out for him, thick red hand-knitted socks. He folded them slowly and put them in the top of his bag. When he left he held the back of my head; stroking my hair, he pulled me towards him and kissed the same spot he’d kissed when I pretended to be asleep. He emptied the loose change from his pocket onto the table, to avoid bad luck at sea. Then he was gone, no goodbyes, not on sailing-day, not unless you never want to see your man again.
I sat at the table, rolling the coins around in my fists. Then I went back to bed. Lying on top of the bedclothes I said out loud, ‘He’s not seeing no-one else. He’s mine.’ I kept repeating this, rolling the words around. I don’t remember falling asleep, I swear. I didn’t mean to dream it.
In the dream I’m walking to the dock through streets of dark-windowed terraces. My vision telescopes down to a focused circle: the dock is all I can see. I can hear the river rolling through the town. The river is all I can hear. My footsteps, breath and heartbeat become muted.
I step onto the docks. The sound breaks. I can hear everything now. It’s a clamour: men’s voices and money clanging onto the stone. Boys laughing and yelling as they scramble for the coins. It’s all a tumble and a mess of people. I have been to the docks once before in my waking life, and nothing has changed.
There he is: Freddie. His head is up, scanning the dock for his boat. He is true to taboo and doesn’t look back. Goodbye, say my thoughts before my lips echo them. I feel a snake uncoil in my chest and then re-spool around my heart, squeezing tighter.
‘Freddie,’ I whisper. He turns around, sees no-one, turns back. He boards the ship.
‘Freddie,’ I say. The word leaves my throat raw.
‘Freddie,’ I shout; the word is gunshot in my ears. I am deafening myself.
Freddie turns, despite tradition, and scans the dockside. I see his face change when he finally spots me. The colour leaves his face. I lift up my arm. It’s as heavy as an anchor chain. I wave at him with difficulty. ‘Goodbye,’ I say. With one word I break tradition and something is unleashed.
If he loves me, if he’s true to me, then the bad luck won’t touch him.
I woke up shivering; my whole body shuddering and shaking. I pulled the wool blanket that Freddie bought up to my nose. ‘It was only a dream,’ I whispered.
Winter was riding in and sunlight receded more each day. I put the dream out of my mind. It wasn’t real. I kept myself awake at night cleaning and re-cleaning. Knitting baby things, pulling them apart and re-knitting them. The night before Freddie’s boat was due back, sleep took me while I was sitting on a hard chair in the kitchen desperately sorting buttons.
In the dream Freddie is home. He is playing with a young girl. The girl has my hair, long and dark. I know, somehow, that I’ve plaited it for her. I’ve never seen this girl before. They’re both laughing. I join them, putting my arms around Freddie, looking into his sea-blue eyes. He says, ‘I love you.’
I smile and reach out an arm to include the girl. The knowledge unfurls: she’s our daughter. She comes into the circle of the hug. I look down and see that her eyes are green, same as mine. She’s crying.
I taste salt.
I woke up lolled over the kitchen table. Someone was at the door. It was Mam, carrying a packet of biscuits. She told me the news as I put the kettle on the stove. There’d been a storm at sea. All hands lost. Freddie wasn't coming back.
I suppose Mam was waiting to see how I'd react. She crackled the biscuits inside their plastic. The kettle began whistling. I felt something slide around inside my body, above my navel.
'I know,' I said. ‘I already know.’
Arike Oke, 2012
Arike Oke is a former rollergirl. She's superstitious and will always greet a magpie. She’s a dance archivist. She's studying creative writing at Royal Holloway University and wondering about writing a long story. Each month she puts a little piece of storyness on her blog 'arike writes'.
Katy Darby studied English at Oxford University, where she apeared in over 30 plays in Oxford, Edinburgh and London, and took her MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, where she received the David Higham Award. Her work has won several prizes, been read on BBC Radio, and appeared in magazines and anthologies including Stand, Mslexia, The London Magazine, the Arvon anthology and online at Untitledbooks.com, Carvezine.com and Pulp.net and her plays are published by Samuel French. She teaches Creative Writing at City University in London.