Northwords Now Issue 34

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Quines at Sea

57.69°N 2.01°W

by Shane Strachan


Editor’s note: this is the opening chapter of a novel currently being submitted to publishers. It tells the story of a group of women escaping small-town Scotland on a fishing trawler to travel around Europe.


Charlene Visser didn’t have time for prayers. Never had. So while the other women hid below deck, pleading with a god none of them believed in to guide their trawler safely out of the harbour, Charlene knew the only way to ensure it was to get up into the wheelhouse, get a grip on the wooden wheel and push down the throttle.

Word had been going round the town for a couple of days that a group of quines were heading out to sea, and folk were up in arms that these besoms had the nerve to be taking boats from men that had struggled so long to keep them. While they claimed that the boat would used as a mobile brothel, for smuggling drugs and for picking up immigrants overseas and sneaking them back to the Broch, Charlene was confident that none of them had yet worked out which boat and which quines given what she’d heard in the harbour pub the day before.

She’d managed to sidle the bright red trawler a few metres away from the concrete quayside before anyone realised that they had chosen this cold, overcast summer morning to leave, but a crowd soon appeared at the sight of a woman on board the Alexandria and were quick to line themselves along most of the Faithlie Basin.

As the vessel slowly crawled across the murky water, Charlene looked out at the townsfolk she was leaving behind. From the few faces she could pick out, it seemed they were all willing the boat to capsize there and then, their eyes screwed up, teeth bared. More cars and vans kept appearing, and folk streamed down from Kirk Brae and Commerce Street onto the quayside to get a closer look. Charlene had to block them all out and focus on the task at hand: navigating the boat out past the storm gates and into the harbour’s entrance channel.

—Ye’ll never survive! a man bawled at the top of his voice somewhere in the crowd. Charlene didn’t dare look round to see who it was amongst the long line of folk sliding past.

There was a loud clanking noise as she slowed the engine right down and turned the wheel sharply. The crowd cheered, believing the trawler had broken down, but Charlene was quick to get the engine thrumming once more and the boat began to pass through the basin’s narrow exit.

Ever growing, the bulk of the crowd had migrated to this spot knowing that the Alexandria would have to come close to the pier again. As the trawler snailed through the bottleneck, a couple of loons pushed through the mob, carrying something dark and round between them. They swung it back and forth, building up momentum as the crowd cheered them on until it was up in the air. Charlene realised what it was as it flew towards her: a dead pig. It landed with a heavy thud on the starboard deck next to the wheelhouse. She peered out of the window at the small lifeless lump of dark, hairy flesh as the crowd pointed and laughed.

—Fit was that? she heard Denise squeak below.

—Nae nithing to worry aboot, Charlene shouted down the hatch. She looked up above the jeering crowd and caught sight of two men up in the harbour’s control tower. They were waving their arms, signalling for her to stop, but the Alexandria continued on through to the Balaclava breakwater, the final stretch of concrete that led up to the harbour mouth.

There were two sharp knocks, one after the other, on the roof of the wheelhouse. She looked over to her left and saw a pack of younger loons hurling stones from the breakwater. Taking notice of them had only egged them on, and there was soon a drumming across the side of the boat as more and more stones pelted against it. One smashed through the wheelhouse window on her left – triangles of glass scattered across the floor. A sharp blast of wind whipped round the small cabin as she leant her head through the frame of glass shards.

—You little buggers! she screamed, her black hair flichtering in the cold breeze. She was quick to lean back from the window as more stones were cast. They pinged off the gunwale and bounced along the deck; Charlene refused to shelter herself and kept a firm grip on the wheel. The boat crept onwards, the stones hitting further and further from the wheelhouse until there was only a faint rattling against the stern.

Focusing back up ahead, Charlene spotted another trawler approaching the harbour mouth at an equal distance from the outside as the Alexandria was inside. It was a bright blue trawler around the same size; another vessel that would have slept eight men in its prime.

Charlene slammed the throttle forward. The engine groaned below and the needle on the speed-dial slowly crept up to the right.

The boat in front continued to cut through the waves towards the harbour mouth, showing no signs of slowing. Within a couple of minutes, it would block the exit and the Alexandria would never make it out of the harbour.

Charlene grabbed the radio and switched it on. She turned the dial to Channel 12 and the harbourmaster’s voice crackled through the speaker.

—Repeat… Ye have to stop! There’ll be a heid-on collision at this rate! Please, I repeat: ye must stop! Over…

Charlene pushed the button on the side of the radio.

—We’re nae stopping for naebody, she said calmly before releasing the button.

—Fit are ye playing at? Stop, for Christ’s sake! the voice begged.

—No, you tell them lot in front o ma to get oot ma road.

She switched the radio back off. With one hand steady on the wheel and the other pushing the throttle fully down, she finally caved and closed her eyes.

—Please god, get us oot o here, she whispered.

She stayed in the darkness of her own head as the boat ploughed onwards. She could hear the crowd shouting behind her in the distance, and voices ahead getting louder and louder. Their calls were suddenly drowned out by the blast of a horn. She managed to fight the instinct to let go of the controls and cover her ears, but she couldn’t keep her eyes closed any longer: the other trawler was only a few metres in front of hers – they were seconds away from crashing into one another.

Charlene pulled the throttle back and quickly spun the wheel to the left; her wedding ring clacked against its wood. Now more than any other time she’d sailed the trawler, she was aware of how different a vehicle it was to anything else she’d ever controlled: she turned the wheel as far as she could, but the boat barely curved to the left. She was thrown backwards as the trawlers’ starboard bows collided. A bang rumbled through the Alexandria. The quines shrieked below as the world tipped on its side. Charlene near fell over as the floor quickly seesawed back the other way. Driven on by the last of their momentum, both trawlers scraped alongside each other. A high-pitched whine cut through the air and made Charlene wince. She could see the blue paint of the other trawler’s hull being stripped off, exposing the red rust beneath.

The boats came to a standstill halfway past one another. The men ran out onto their deck and swore blind at Charlene. The two nearest looked tired and crazed, their matted hair flailing wildly in the breeze – this was clearly the last thing they needed after a trip at sea. She gave them a little wave before slamming the throttle back down. One of the men stepped forward, swung his legs over the side of his trawler and positioned himself to jump aboard the Alexandria, just as it started to pull away.

—Dinna you dare! a hoarse voice shouted from behind the wheelhouse. Charlene pressed up against the intact window on her right – Sandra was out on deck. At six foot tall and in a black velour tracksuit that clung to her bulk, Sandra was an even match for the man threatening to board their boat. Jump ower here and I’ll fucking droon ye.

The man froze, seemingly too scared to make the jump towards Sandra, and too scared to admit defeat in front of his crew. Sandra stayed put, laughing her gruff smoker’s laugh, until the boats’ sterns were well clear of each other and the Alexandria was finally free to make its grand return to the North Sea.

—We did it! Charlene shouted down the hatch to the other quines. We bloody did it!

—Ye beauty! Sandra shouted just outside the intact window, her big bust filling half the frame. Wisps of her bleach-blonde hair danced in the wind.

There was a muffled cheering below as Charlene slumped down on the skipper’s chair, sighing with relief. The cheering became clearer and closer as the other four quines streamed out onto the front of the deck.

Charlene turned to watch her mam Isobel. Unsteady on her little feet, she paced the deck, staring out at the sea in disbelief as her lank grey perm flapped in the breeze. She still had her black leather handbag slung over her shoulder as though she had only meant to pop onto the boat for a minute and had now found herself stuck out at sea.

Rachel and Denise were the first to notice the dead pig; Charlene lip-read the swear words that fell out their mouths at the sight. Ever the butcher, Rachel knelt down to inspect the beast. She tucked her thick auburn hair under her fleece before prodding and poking at the pig’s dark, hairy flesh. Charlene stepped over to the broken window to hear them better.

—Peer thing! Rachel said. It’s nae even fully grown. It’ll have been that pair o teuchter twats that did this. They were right pissed aff fan I cancelled aa my orders at the butcher the other day. She looked back down at the pig and smiled. Onybody fancy a hog roast?

—As lang as you prepare it, Denise said, standing well back in her pink trainers. Her bruised eye stood out more in the cold summer light than it had in the shadows below deck. I’m nae touching that thing!

As Denise scurried over to Isobel, she pegged her small button nose to block out the reek of diesel she’d whined about when they set foot on the boat that morning.

—But why a pig? Sandra asked as she helped Rachel start to drag the beast down the starboard deck.

—Because it’s bad luck aboard a boat! Charlene said loud enough to be heard through the window.

—Aye, that’s right, her mam said. Pigs, salmon… rabbits, ministers... and, worst of aa, women.

—We’re well and truly fucked then, Sandra said before she disappeared down towards the stern with Rachel.

Isobel started making her way down the other side but stopped at the broken wheelhouse window. She looked at Charlene in disbelief, shards of glass framing her.

—Fit are we deeing?

—Fitiver we want mam, Charlene replied. She looked over at the wide grey expanse of the North Sea. Its horizon rose and sank in the distance as the boat rocked onwards.