Blog post? What blog post? Time for an addition to the short stories instead.
For a couple of weeks in the very early spring, every time I went down to walk by the sea, there was a log or a tree trunk or something submerged a couple of hundred metres offshore. All you could see of it were two sticks pointing straight up in the air, and ignoring the swells that tried to move it on.
Naturally, this made me think of sea monsters. If it had been in Australia, maybe I’d have thought of crocodiles wearing antenna, but maybe not. I’m inordinately fond of the idea of sea monsters. I adore any map that has monsters on it, and when I’m actually at sea I like spending time peering into the depths, hoping to catch a glimpse of… something. (To be fair, I’m mostly hoping to spot something cool like a sailfish, and mostly I only ever spot plankton, but I could be searching for sea monsters. I probably did when I was a wee small person).
But all that aside – here’s a short story about a sea monster, because why not? Read on!
“Thinking of going out?” Mrs Mallow asked Tim.
He looked up from his coffee, wondering why it tasted greasy, and nodded at the landlady of the B&B. “It looks like a nice day. I was thinking I’d go rent a boat in town.”
Mrs Mallow nodded, and whisked some crumbs off the table next to him. They joined a fine carpet of older debris on the floor, and Tim regarded his full English suspiciously. It all looked fine, but the milk jug had congealed circles inside it, marking older breakfasts like tree truck rings, and his fork had someone else’s egg stuck between the tines.
“Go see old Fred,” the landlady advised him. “Tell him Ruby sent you, and he’ll give you a good deal. Nothing fancy about his boats, but you don’t need fancy for a bit of fishing, do you?”
Tim agreed that he did not, and pushed beans around his plate with a piece of toast. He wondered if life-jackets were considered fancy.
The sun was high by the time he wound his way down to the waterfront. Fred, he’d been informed, kept his boats down by the fishing docks, so he avoided that particular area and wandered into the marina, his fishing pole case over one shoulder and a backpack over the other. Mrs Mallow had offered to fix him a pack-up, but he’d told her he couldn’t eat on the boat due to seasickness. He’d stopped off at Boots instead and bought up sandwiches and crisps and biscuits, as well as a breakfast wrap that he gnawed on contentedly as he walked. The day was looking up.
The first place he found was shut, which he supposed was only to be expected. It was out of season still. He took a photo of the phone number, and ambled further along the docks. He found a second boat rental not far from the first – the office had the blinds drawn, but there was a young man with his shirt off scrubbing the floor of a boat moored just outside it.
“Hello?” Tim said. “Are you from the rental place?”
The young man straightened up and regarded Tim without much interest. “Yeah.”
“Oh. Well – great. I want to hire a boat. For fishing,” he added, when the young man’s expression didn’t change. “Self-drive.”
“We do that,” the young man said, not moving.
Tim looked at the logo emblazoned on the hull of the boat – it matched the one on the dock. Self-drive and captained boat hire, it said. “Yes. So I see. Um – do you have any available?”
The young man gave an exaggerated sigh and turned his attention back to the cleaning. “You should have booked ahead. We’re full.”
“Full?” Tim looked around at the empty mid-week marina. The summer crowds, such as they might be, were still a month or so off.
“Full.” The young man didn’t look up.
“Well – where else can I try? Your neighbours there are shut.”
The young man’s expression finally changed – he frowned, as if Tim had asked him to solve for y, if x was shut fishing shops and z was a beautiful day in late April. “There isn’t anyone,” he announced eventually. “You’ll have to call later and book for tomorrow.”
“Can I book now?” Tim asked, although he didn’t really want to extend his stay in the B&B past tonight.
“No,” the young man said, dipping the scrubbing brush in a bucket of soapy water. “You have to call. Talk to the boss.”
“So I can call now?”
“No.” It was said firmly, in a way that suggested the young man though Tim might be a bit slow on the uptake. “There’s no one there, is there?”
Tim looked at the shuttered office, and sighed. “I guess not,” he said. “When will they be there?” Wondering what small business owner didn’t have a mobile these days.
“I dunno. I’m not the boss.”
Tim decided that it was best not to answer that, and trailed off down the dock again, wondering if he should just give up and go read a book on the beach instead. That might be nice. Have an ice cream. Take his shoes off and paddle in the sea. But he’d come here to go fishing, dammit. That had been the whole sort-of point. That he’d finished the latest contract, and he and Patty had agreed to do more of their own things these days, so they didn’t become one of those boring middle-aged couples that had no life outside each other. And he hadn’t been fishing in so long. So he’d decided that this would be his thing. He straightened his shoulders, a small man with small hands and calm eyes and a gracefully retreating cap of fair hair. He was going fishing.
Fred didn’t have a sign out. He didn’t have an office, either. But he did have two small aluminium dinghies pulled out of the water by the fishing dock, and they had rod holders on the sterns, and the outboards were padlocked to a beam inside a rotting wooden shed that stank of old fish and tobacco.
“Sure you can take one out,” he said to Tim, scratching his belly through a hole in his yellowing t-shirt. “You know how to use one?”
Tim admitted that it had been a while, but that he was pretty sure he remembered the basics.
“Course you do. Like riding a bike.” Fred gestured the younger man to help him slide one of the dinghies into the water, and stepped into it in his wellies, making it bob alarmingly. “Nice day anyhow. Can’t get into much trouble on a day like this.”
It felt alarmingly quick, the speed at which Fred got the engine in and showed him how to start it, then ran through the controls, clapping Tim on the back and laughing when he almost fell over backwards trying to get in. Then the old man was hooking a mildewed life-jacket over Tim’s head, telling him to stay in the bay and clear of the rocks at the eastern point, and the painter dropped into the bottom of the boat with a painfully loud clang, and Fred had pushed him off, and then it was just him and the growling motor. Tim stared at it, then back at the dock, then out to open water. Oh, he thought. Oh, I’m doing this, then. And he carefully pushed the gear lever to forwards, and grabbed the throttle on the tiller a little too tightly, and puttered towards the sea.
Out in the bay, the water was as silken calm as it had looked from the shore, although a long, slow swell rode in from behind the horizon. The little dinghy barely noticed it, cutting a slow V through the green water as Tim started to relax, the sun warming his bare head and face, and the wind of his forward motion tugging at the collar of his shirt and ruffling his hair. Out here, he could smell nothing more than salt and the not-unpleasant tang of outboard fuel, and the horizon looked bowed and close enough to touch. He loosened his grip on the throttle, tugged his life-jacket down, and smiled. This. This is what he’d been imagining. Not badly-lit guest houses that smelled faintly of old porridge, or even the sleek modern dinghies like the one the young man had been cleaning. This – the vibration of the engine humming under his hand, the sound of the water sluicing past the hull, and the cries of the seagulls following him hopefully. His smile broadened, and he opened the throttle a bit further as the dinghy described an arc across the wide, empty bay, and the sun turned the spray to rainbows.
By the time he slowed the dinghy and started to think about fishing – reluctantly, because he felt he could have driven about all afternoon, just for the sheer joy of it – he was only barely within the confines of the bay, the town looking small and squished under the green hills. The water out here was deeply green, sunlight forming shafts that ran down to meet in the depths below him, the surface pocked with floating mats of seaweed. There were bigger boats bobbing further out, no doubt fishing themselves, and he felt an almost uncontrollable urge to keep going, to just arrow out towards the horizon, past them and then further, seeing how far the little dinghy could take him. But that was silliness, so he turned the bow back towards the shore and tried to remember what the old man had said about fishing. That he should be near the rocks on the eastern shore? No, that he should keep clear of them. So which one was the eastern shore?
There was a compass sunk into the midships seat, but it was so yellowed by the sun that he couldn’t see anything in it. He supposed his phone would help – would Google maps work for this sort of thing? Maybe, but he didn’t entirely trust himself not to drop it, and there was an un-alarming but not insignificant amount of water sloshing around his toes. He tried to imagine the bay’s orientation on a map of the country, but he couldn’t, so he just motored slowly back in towards town and decided to stick himself somewhere in the middle of the bay. It seemed safest.
The afternoon passed pleasantly, to say the least. As the dinghy drifted in the centre of the broad bay, watched by the seagulls, Tim ceremoniously unpacked his fishing rods, baited the hooks, and dropped them over the side. Then he settled the rods into the rod holders and lay back in the bow, watching the birds wheel across the clear sky and trailing his fingers in the cool water. He knew quite well that this was not something he’d done as a boy, not where he grew up, but it felt like living a childhood memory anyway. He drank root beer and ate his sandwiches, and every now and then reeled the lines in and replaced the missing bait. He didn’t move from his fishing spot, though. It was all too perfect to be ruined by actually catching something.
He was sitting comfortably astride the midships seat, baiting a hook, when he noticed a shadow. It ran under the boat and was gone, and he felt the back of his neck tighten. It had been big. He looked up hopefully, but the sky was still cloudless. A basking shark, maybe? They were common enough. And harmless, he reminded himself. Still, he hesitated before dropping the hook carefully back into the water. Whatever it was, it wasn’t interested in the dinghy. And if he did snag it, it’d surely break the line. He stayed where he was, examining the dimpled green water around him. No dramatic fins cutting through the water, no menacing music. Whatever it was, it was gone.
He was just starting to relax when there was a swirl of turbulence on the corner of his vision. He turned jerkily enough to set the dinghy rocking, but there was nothing to see except spreading ripples. His heart was pounding. He’d caught something out of the corner of his eye. Something big, and – and green, maybe? Were basking sharks green? He’d never had to ask himself that question before. Or anyone else for that matter. He searched the water anxiously, half-standing with one hand on the warm engine cowling. Nothing, no shadows, no more turbulence. Maybe it was gone. Maybe it had even been a turtle, something like that –
One of the rods went. Not far, just an angry little rattlesnake hiss as the line was pulled out, then stopped. Tim sat down hard and started to reel the other rod in. He didn’t want whatever it was to try this line too – the reel snarled suddenly, the line spinning out, and he gave a little yelp of alarm. It stopped just as quickly as the first, both lines hanging limp into the green depths, and after a moment Tim started reeling one in carefully. It didn’t take long – he hadn’t put much line out, and it came up quickly. He turned to bring the second one in, then sat and regarded them anxiously. Both hooks were gone. It wasn’t strange, not with the size of that thing out there, but it made him uneasy anyway. Then dinghy suddenly seemed very small and fragile, the town very distant. He stood up again, searched the water for more shadows, then tugged the starter cord for the engine. He’d had enough. The day had lost its joy.
The engine coughed, then fell silent. He tried again, and again, sweat forming on his shoulders as he tugged stubbornly on the cord, almost falling backwards into the bow more than once. He played with the throttle, and the choke, and swore at it in a creative manner that would have surprised Patty. And finally, with the skin between his fingers raw from clutching the toggle on the end of the cord, he gave up and sat staring at the sea. No more ripples or turbulence, except those made from his own panicked movement in the boat. No shadows, either. He sighed, wondering if he’d imagined it, then unclipped the oars from under the seat and set them in the rowlocks. He could phone someone, he supposed, but he thought that maybe the engine would start again if he waited. He’d had an old car when he was younger that was like that. It seemed to sense urgency. He dipped the oars in the water and back out, and was gratified to feel the boat start slipping forward. Okay, so this wasn’t so hard. Good. He put his back into it.
This was hard. This was so hard. His back was aching, and his hands were sweating on the oars, and every time he looked over his shoulder (because that was how the professional rowers did it, with their backs to their destination, so he assumed it must be right), the town had slipped to one side or the other as he zig-zagged across the bay. Plus it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. He tried the engine again, but it still wouldn’t start, and he felt oddly determined not to call anyone. It wasn’t as if he had Fred’s number, anyway, so he’d have to, what? Call Mrs Mallow? He didn’t like the idea. And what could she do anyway? He settled himself back down at the oars, then gave an involuntary little yelp as a shadow slid across his stern. Long and tapered, but hard to get any other sense of it from here. The size of it, it had to be a basking shark. But it was fast. Were basking sharks fast? All the photos he’d seen of them they had their cavernous jaws open, and they certainly didn’t look as if they’d go very fast like that. He leaned into the oars. It wouldn’t be interested in him, anyway. He didn’t even have any dead fish aboard.
There was a bump from the bow, gentle but distinct, and Tim added a new level of creativity to his swearing. He never swore at home. It must be a sea thing, he thought, and craned his neck, hoping to see some debris bobbing away. There was nothing but a swirl of turbulence that made his stomach contract. Just keep paddling, he thought, then remembered the kids’ movie – although that was just keep swimming, wasn’t it? A bubble of nervous laughter rode up from somewhere, and he tried to speed up.
Another bump, but it was more of a tap, wasn’t it? Like someone knocking a walking stick against a door. Tap, tap, again, and he tried to ignore it, to paddle harder. Tap. TAP. A dent appeared in the bottom of the dinghy, popping up next to his foot, and he shrieked, and thrashed at the water with the oars. But now the boat wasn’t moving forward at all, in fact it was tilting, the bow rising as the stern was caught by something, and he tried to tell himself that it was a log, he’d just run over a log, that was all it was, a stupid log, and it was caught around the leg of the outboard, and he should just go clear it, just lift the engine over it and he’d be away again, and maybe he should call Mrs Mallow, or the Coast Guard, or the bloody National History Museum, because whatever was drifting towards the surface behind the boat was no log, and no shark, and it was twice as big as the dinghy at least, and it had one paw – claw – something – on the outboard, and as its head surfaced Tim screamed, then fainted.
He came to with the sun beating down on his eyelids, and a dull pain at the back of his head. He groaned, disoriented, and wiped drool from the corner of his mouth. For one foggy moment he was back on his stag do, passing out at lunchtime on a beach in Cornwall and waking up at 2pm with a thumping hangover and heatstroke. Then he smelt outboard fuel and something fishy, and he sat straight up and screamed again. The large, scaly head peering over the side of the dinghy screamed back, blasting Tim with fishy breath so strong it made him gag.
There was a pause then, as they stared at each other. Tim could hear blood rushing in his ears, and the – the thing at the back of the boat blinked at him with big silver-grey eyes. It had a ruff of fins sticking out just behind its head, little nubby horns, and a large collection of very sharp-looking black teeth. One heavy paw rested on the stern, and it had long grey claws. The rest of it was green and glossy and, admittedly, rather sleek and elegant. It cleared its throat, a gunshot of sound that made Tim flinch.
“Holy crap. What the hell. Holy Mary Mother of God. Bloody hell. Umm – Jesus Christ. Crikey. Holy cow.” It bared its teeth at him, then continued, swearing enthusiastically in a BBC world service accent. It finally finished on an expression that Tim had never even heard before, but that sounded anatomically impossible, then peered down at him expectantly, teeth still bared.
Tim licked his lips, and wondered if he’d been out in the sun too long. But, imaginary or not, at least the thing didn’t seem about to eat him. “Umm. What?”
The creature stopped baring its teeth and its eyebrow ridges drew down in something that looked remarkably like concern. “Did I miss something? You all say so many different things. I’m never sure what the correct greeting is.” It scratched its chin with one long claw, then hopefully added something that would have made even old Fred blush.
“Definitely not that,” Tim said.
“No? Someone said that to me only a year or so ago.” The creature looked so crestfallen that Tim smiled.
“They’re more, ah – expressions of surprise.”
“Really? I do knock. You heard me knocking, right?”
“I – I did. But no one expects a – a – what are you?”
“I’m a sea dragon,” the creature said, and Tim could hear the ‘obviously’ it had left off at the end of the sentence.
“A sea dragon?”
“Well, yes. What else would I be?”
“I was actually thinking a hallucination, possibly from toxic mould on the B&B shower curtain. Or food poisoning from the coffee.”
The creature looked puzzled, then shrugged. “Well, I’m not.”
Tim looked at the scratches the sea dragon’s claws had left in the aluminium stern, and thought that it really was a particularly vivid hallucination. “Okay, so, sea dragon-”
“It must be an unusual name for you humans. You always have to repeat it.”
“It’s – it’s not an unusual name for sea dragons?”
“Not really. I mean, my aunt’s called Fandance. That’s unusual.”
“Okay. Yes. Okay.” Tim ran a hand over his head and noticed that his scalp was quite hot. Sunstroke, obviously. He should have worn a hat. “So – Audrey – are you – I mean – are you planning to eat me?” It was easier to ask than he’d thought. But then, she was a hallucination, so she couldn’t really eat him.
Audrey looked horrified. “Of course not! Why in sea would I do that?”
“Umm – you have big teeth?”
“That’s a very personal thing to say.” She actually sounded upset now. “I’m very friendly. And no one eats people, not any more. Well, no respectable dragons do, anyway.”
“I – I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
Aubrey sniffed, a little dramatically. “Well, I guess if you can’t even recognise a sea dragon when you see one, you can’t be expected to know these things.”
“You are the first sea dragon I’ve met. First any dragon.”
They regarded each other for a moment, then Aubrey said gravely, “Pleased to meet you…?”
“Pleased to meet you, Ohtim.”
“It’s – um, yes. Pleased to meet you, too.”
There was another moment’s silence, and Tim could hear gulls crying further inshore. Aubrey scratched her head somewhere in the vicinity of where her ears probably were, and bared her teeth at him, making him squeak again.
“Are you okay?”
“I am, yes – but I should probably be getting back to shore. I have to give the boat back.”
“Yes, of course – you might want to use the engine, though. You won’t get back against the tide, rowing.”
Tim looked around in alarm, and added to Aubrey’s unsuitable vocabulary when he saw how far away the shore was. He was further away than he had been when he’d started rowing. “It’s broken. I’m going to have to call for help.”
Aubrey sank down in the water and gave him an unmistakably disappointed look. “Humans. A few people get eaten by sea serpents, a few rogue mermaids dress up and sink some ships, and you just can’t see past it. Why do you think I stopped by?”
Tim stared at her. “You’ll help?”
“Of course. I thought you were just some silly tourist, rowing for the fun of it, so I was just going to tell you to start the engine.”
Tim looked at the rods, the line coiling limp and useless. “What about my hooks?”
Aubrey dipped her nose like she was embarrassed, then said, “Okay, so I was hungry. Then I realised you might need help.”
“Oh. Well, that’s okay. I didn’t want to catch anything anyway, really.”
“Why did you have the lines out, then?”
“It was a reason for being out here.”
Aubrey lifted her snout out of the water and stared at him out of those silver eyes, then shook her head. “Humans,” she said again, then put one paw on the transom and started to swim.
They stopped just outside the breakwater, Tim sat in the stern with one hand on the outboard tiller for all the world as if he wasn’t being propelled by a large underwater dragon.
“There you go,” Aubrey said cheerfully. “Home safe.”
“Thanks,” Tim said, still fairly sure he was imagining the whole thing.
“No worries,” she said, and raised one paw to him. “Be more careful next time.”
“Will do,” he replied, but she was already gone, the water swirling in her wake. He put the oars back in the rowlocks and paddled back to the boatramp, sheltered from the tide behind the breakwater. The sun was still warm on his head and the seagulls were fighting behind the fishing boats. It was all very normal, and very dragon-less, and he thought it was time he got out of the sun.
Fred put a hand on the engine and grunted. “When did she die?”
“Just outside the breakwater.”
“Cooled down quick.”
“I guess,” Tim said, and gathered his gear together while the old man carried the outboard back to the shed. He was just pulling his shoes gingerly onto his sunburned feet when Fred stopped next to him, the oars in one hand and the fuel can in the other.
“Used to be, mariner types made offerings to the sea,” Fred said. “To ensure safe passage.”
Tim looked at him, feeling a dehydration headache starting behind one eye.
“Before the voyage, after the voyage, and other times too. You know, an offering to Neptune as you cross the equator and so on.”
Tim still said nothing.
“It’s worth thinking about. No one offers thanks, why should the sea look after you?”
“So, what – I should leave a fatted calf on the beach at full moon just because I went out in a dinghy one afternoon?”
Fred snorted. “You could. But I find some biscuits left on the end of the breakwater at sunset work a right treat.”
Tim summoned a laugh from somewhere. “I guess I could do that. Be in the spirit of things.” He definitely had sunstroke – or the old man was a bit strange. Probably both.
Fred handed him something from his pocket, a hard flat scale with a filigree pattern of waves running through it. The sun turned the fine edges into emerald glass. “There go. Little souvenir from the back of the boat. And I recommend chocolate hobnobs. Everyone likes chocolate hobnobs.” And he stumped away in his wellies, the oars swinging over his shoulder, ignoring the small man with the red nose making little squeaking noises at the edge of the boatramp.
Are you fishing or boating types, lovely people? Do you do it for the fish, or for the experience? Any sea monster stories to tell me? Let me know below!