by Hannah Nicholson
Magnie disappeared on a bright sunny afternoon in May, with only the lightest breeze in the air that had rustled the fresh green grass that made up the family’s land near Gutcher, in the north end of the island of Yell. His sister, Merran, who had only been nine, remembered the sky had been a brilliant shade of blue, with only the occasional white cloud, and the sun’s rays glittering on the surface of Colgrave Sound, the long stretch of sea water between Yell and the neighbouring island of Fetlar. Merran had never been there before, but on such a clear day she could see it from the front door of her family’s but-and-ben. She could also see Linga, the island that Magnie had told her about when she’d been younger. It was said that a man called Jan Tait had fought a bear in Norway as punishment for not paying his taxes, and when he’d beaten it, he had been pardoned and allowed to take it home. He’d left it on that island, tied to a post. Magnie had told her there were still circles in the ground in the place where the bear had once been. Merran had been enthralled. Maybe she would get him to take her to the island next time he was off and he could show them to her.
Since the weather was so beautiful, Magnie had declared his intention to head out in his little rowing boat and fish for mackerel for the family’s tea. He would only be on Bluemull Sound, the sheltered strait between Yell and Unst–another island nearby. He’d been in ownership of his vessel for around a year, having bought it with some of his Merchant Navy wages, and he revelled in his newfound freedom.
“Kin I come aff wi’ de?” Merran asked Magnie.
Magnie looked out of the window, then back at Merran, frowning.
“I doot no’ da day, peerie wife,” he replied, ruffling his hand through his youngest sister’s long brown hair. “Anidder day, mebbe.”
“Oh, a’right,” Merran sighed. Magnie smiled.
“Al come back wi’ a guid haal,” he assured her.
“Will it be lik’ yun Galilee at we learned aboot in Sundee skule?” Merran wondered.
“Better as yun,” Magnie said, winking at her.
The two exchanged smiles. Magnie may have been nineteen, and the oldest of the five, but he had always had a strong bond with his youngest sibling. This hadn’t changed even when he had been in charge of the croft during the Great War years, when their father, Ertie, was a prisoner of war in Holland. Merran hoped Magnie would manage all those fish on his own.
“Nixt time du’s aff,” she asked him, “will du tak’ me tae da bear’s island as weel?”
“Yea, I likely could,” Magnie said. “Canna be sure at da bear’ll be yundir, though.”
“Tak’ guid care oot yundir, Magnie,” Ruby admonished him as he left. “Da watters oot yundir at Bluemull kin cheenge ithoot ony prior keenin’.”
“Dinna du worry aboot me, Midder,” Magnie assured her. “Am been fishin yun watters fae I wis owld anoff tae hadd a pole. If am no’ back be tae time, send oot a search pairty.”
With that, he set off out the front gate and down the hill, and onwards to the pier. Since it was May, a lot was going on at the Williamson family’s croft, most notably the lambing. Ruby warmed up a bottle of milk, and sent Merran with it to the byre to feed the three orphan lambs being kept in there – she was the only one that did this job without complaint, as Ertie and the boys all considered the orphans to be a nuisance. When she had finished feeding them, she went back into the house and got to her knitting, which was her and Ruby’s way of contributing to the household income – and that of her sister, Betty, when she had still been living at home. Betty now lived in Lerwick and made a comfortable wage gutting fish down at the docks, a job which left her with little time to knit. Merran wasn’t jealous – she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life knitting clothes or gutting fish in order to earn money. She preferred to read, and hoped to become a teacher. She read as often as she could, but Ruby told her off for doing so when she should be knitting. Outwardly Merran was obedient, but secretly she decided that if she had a daughter, she would never discourage her from reading.
Magnie still hadn’t come back by the time Ruby was due to start making the family’s evening meal. The day remained calm and bright blue. Ertie came in for his tea, along with Lowrie and Peter, Merran’s other two brothers.
“Whan time did he say he wid be back, Ruby?” Ertie asked. “No lik’ him tae be dis laet.”
“He said tae time,” Ruby replied, as she gazed out of the ben end window towards Bluemull Sound, her brow furrowed. “Dir somethin’ no’ juist aafil right wi’ dis, Ertie. We’ll need tae geng an’ look fir him.”
So Ertie and his two younger sons made their way down to Breckon beach in order to see if there was any sign of Magnie or his boat. After an hour the three of them returned. This time Ertie was frowning, and his face was paler than usual.
“Dir nae sign o’ him, or da boat,” he said, his voice heavy with worry.
Merran felt her chest tighten. She looked up at her mother. Ruby looked even more anxious than she had before.
When the family went to bed that night, none of them got a great deal of sleep. The following morning, the search parties were sent out to dredge Bluemull Sound. Lowrie, Peter and Merran went to school as normal, but Merran found she couldn’t concentrate on her work – she often found herself looking out the window at nothing in particular. The teacher caught her and moved her to a different seat, but this wasn’t much help to her.
When she and her brothers got home, they found that Ruby had done little around the house. She had spent the day pacing the floor of the but-end of the house and looking anxiously out of the window, frowning at the sea.
“I dinna understand it,” she fretted. “Da waddir wis da boannie yisterdee, a beautiful fishin’ day, an da soond wis flat calm. Dey wir nae sign o’ da watters turnin’. Whit could be come at him?”
“I dinna keen, my lass,” Ertie replied, going to her and placing his hands on her shoulders in a half-hearted attempt to console her. “A’less dir been a whaal gotten separated fae its pod an’ laandit up here.”
“Wid it o’ gone fir him?” Ruby asked.
“No’ on purpose,” Ertie explained. “Yun kin worry dem, an dey sweem aboot in a blind panic.”
Ruby’s pained expression didn’t change at this. Merran and her brothers looked uneasily at each other
There had still been no news when they went to bed that night either. Then, the following day, their neighbour Bertie Fraser came striding up the hill and shouted to Ertie. Ertie called on the family and they all made their way down to Breckon beach. As they walked, none of them looked at one another, although Merran slipped her hand into Ruby’s.
Upon their arrival, they were greeted by the sight of an upturned little boat being dragged ashore by some of their neighbours. Merran recognised it immediately; it was finished with cream-coloured paint and had a blue trim. When it had been pulled up on to dry land, she let go of her mother’s hand and ran towards it. As she did, tears spilled down her cheeks, leaving salty tracks as they did. When she reached the boat, she threw herself upon it and the sobs engulfed her. She was so shrouded in her own sorrow she didn’t notice her mother collapse and have to be carried back up the hill to the croft. Finally, she felt a hand on her shoulder and peered up. Bertie’s kind face peered back at her.
“Come alang noo, my bairn,” he said softly. “Du canna lay here aa’ day.”
“Laeve me,” she choked through her sobs. “Juist laeve me.”
“Nah, Merran,” Bertie soothed, “come du, lass. Come hame tae de fokk, dey need de wi’ dem.”
He gathered her up in his arms and carried her back up the hill. Weak from sobbing, all she could do was lean helplessly over Bertie’s shoulder and allow him to take her away from the scene.
Merran didn’t remember much about the days that immediately followed. Ruby spent most of them lying in bed, swallowed by grief. Upon hearing the news of her brother’s apparent death, Betty returned from Lerwick. It was left mostly to her and Merran to keep the house in order and to cook the evening meal although they themselves were grieving. Meanwhile, Ertie, Lowrie and Peter kept the croft going as best they could. Since there was no body to bury, a memorial service was held in the kirk. Magnie had made many friends during his time in the Merchant Navy, and the presence of those who weren’t still away kept the turnout large. Still there was no good reason that this had come to pass, for how could Magnie have possibly got into difficulty when there was no obvious sign of trouble on the water? Ertie’s suggestion about the upset stray whale was the only explanation anyone came up with.
Some days after the memorial service, Ruby took all the photographs of Magnie down and put them away in a box, which she then placed in a drawer in the living room. When her mother wasn’t looking, Merran found the box and went through the photographs. Her lost brother gazed steadily out at her from them. Merran could picture the blue of his eyes and the black of his hair even through the sepia tinge of the pictures. She could also envision his smile, mischievous and warm, even though he was straight-faced in many of the photos. Her favourite was one of him at the peat hill from the previous summer, taken shortly after his return from sea. He was wearing the same outfit he’d had on the day he vanished–his blue flat cap, a knitted Fair Isle jumper, dark blue trousers and a pair of rubber boots. He was smoking his father’s pipe and smirking as he did so. Merran compared it to another photo of him in his Merchant Navy uniform. In that one he was neatly turned out and had a serious expression, and Merran could see his resemblance to their father – although Magnie was much more gentle and laid back than Ertie could ever be. She took her favourite photo and kept it in her bed, under her pillow. Magnie might have been dead, but she didn’t want his presence to disappear from the house, like those of her grandparents when they had passed.
Of course, despite everything, life for the Williamsons had to go on. Betty stayed at home for a few months until she was certain that Ruby could manage without her, then she returned to Lerwick. Lowrie left school that summer and also remained on the croft to help out his father. Merran and Peter both went back to school. Merran continued to do well, both with words and numbers, but when she was eleven – at the age when she would have been sent on to Lerwick to further this plan – her father was less keen.
“Dinna be sae stupeet, lass,” he scoffed at her. “De, a teacher?”
“Oh, but Faedir,” she protested, “I wid love tae…”
“Oh, of coorse,” Ertie sneered, “I sood send de awa’ tae hae an education, an’ den du’ll mairry an’ hae bairns an gie it aa’ up, an hit’ll o’ been a total waste. Du’ll do as du’s telt!”
Merran pleaded and begged, but her father wasn’t for backing down. Her teacher didn’t get much further with trying to convince him, and so Merran, too, was destined to leave school at fourteen like her siblings before her. She had to settle for the brief chances she got to read her books when there wasn’t much to do, although between helping on the croft, keeping the house in order, and having to knit clothes to sell it was safe to say her parents managed to keep her busy.
During this time, Magnie’s boat remained upturned on the spot where it had come to rest on Breckon beach. Steadily the paint peeled and the wood mouldered, and so the little vessel that had served to feed the family so many times fell into disrepair. Merran often thought how heartbroken Magnie would have been by this – the boat had been his pride and joy for the last year of his life. He’d bought it with his hard-earned Merchant Navy wages, and he had been enormously enjoying the freedom it had brought him. He and his brothers had hoped to eventually save to buy a proper fishing boat together so they never had to go back to the whaling or Merchant Navy, and, in honour of their brother, Lowrie and Peter still planned to do this when they found others willing to jointly buy a suitable vessel.
Even as the years passed, Merran never walked by Breckon beach without acknowledging her brother’s boat – without a grave it was all they had to remember him by. Sometimes while on the beach she would go and stand with it, and she would feel his presence. Merran sometimes couldn’t help but think of what Magnie would have made of himself, had he lived. He had been a handsome and cheerful young man, and had caught the eye of many a lass on the island. Perhaps he would have married one of them, and they would have had lots of children.
One particularly ordinary day, five years after Magnie’s accident, Merran was walking home from an uneventful day at school when she felt the wind begin to pick up. She shivered, and swept her long brown hair out of her face as best she could, then tightly pulled her shawl around her shoulders. She quickened her step, but as she passed by Breckon beach a figure standing next to Magnie’s boat caught her eye. She squinted. From that distance it looked like a woman, and judging by how she was looking around she seemed to be lost. Despite having never seen her before, Merran felt drawn to the woman, and decided to descend down the hill to the beach to speak to her.
The whole time that Merran made her way down, the woman never took her eyes from the rotting corpse of Magnie’s boat. She certainly didn’t seem to register Merran’s presence, no matter how close she got. When she was only a couple of feet away, Merran spoke up.
“Hello?” she called.