Seagull Island

Submitted into Contest #8 in response to: Write a story about an adventure on a shipwrecked island.... view prompt




    “Well, what are we going to do now?” Janet asked. She was 15, so old enough for her tone to be defiant, but young enough for it to be anxious and there was a note of betrayal in it, too. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Graham and I hadn’t told her and her younger brother Maurice, whom we all called Mo, that there was nothing to worry about, because it probably hadn’t occurred to us there was. To say she’d been a reluctant fellow-traveller on our trip out to Seagull Island would be an understatement. Oh, by the way, the erstwhile nature reserve out in the North Sea wasn’t originally called Seagull Island, but something in a Celtic language (t had been news to me the Celts got this far east!) with lots of Gs and Hs and that nobody could spell or pronounce, but it almost certainly didn’t mean Seagull. But the sound was close enough, and so were the seagulls. Mo periodically pointed out that there was technically no such bird as a seagull, it should be either a gull or a herring gull, and when he said it once too often, I wasn’t as strict as I might have been with Janet when she called her younger brother a tedious know it all geek. 

    Now, though, when our outboard motor had failed, and we had somehow limped into the natural harbour (of sorts) on Seagull Island, at the expense of one of the emergency oars (which probably had woodworm or dry rot or both) splitting in two and drifting back towards the worryingly distant coastline, our offspring decided to put up a united front, Janet with a studiedly protective elder sister arm around Mo, which might have looked comical, but he’s two inches taller than she is now. To his credit, he only mentions that when she calls him her little brother. 

    “It’ll be fine,” Graham said. I didn’t dispute it, parental unity and all that, but his tone was more one that might have been appropriate to a group of wide-eyed three year olds.

    Not that he was wrong. Of course. It would be fine. We’d get a mobile phone signal again in a few minutes, and if we didn’t, there was bound to be a passing boat or even a low-flying aircraft, and yes, it was a pity we hadn’t brought flares, but no point to crying over spilt milk and all that (and the thought of milk reminded me that we hadn’t any food with us either). We might be uncomfortable for a while, and it had certainly taught us a lesson, but we were hardly in mortal danger.

    There was no danger at all of our children turning feral and brutal and indulging in strange rituals. Alas, if you wanted to make literary comparisons, nor did we have an eminently capable (and admirable) butler with us. Though come to think of it, in the end he turned into a bit of a control freak.

    Whilst my children might not (of course!) have homicidal tendencies, I admit that they had flickered across my mind on occasion when my boss, Geoff, one of those lovely m en but trotted out the Fail to Plan and Plan to Fail mantra for what seemed like the thousandth time in a day. I sent a silent mental apology to him. He had a point. 

    “Just, please, don’t ask us to see it as an adventure,” Janet said.

    I had half been thinking of it, and probably already would have done had they both been three years younger. As it was, I only said, lightly, “I wouldn’t dream of it, but would an adventure be such a bad thing?” I sounded far too hearty. I was even beginning to annoy myself. 

    Ignoring or being cynical about the weather forecast had been a significant part of the failing to plan. It’s almost, in a perverse kind of way, comforting, to think that they nearly always get it wrong. Actually they don’t. They more often than not get it right, and even that Michael Fish and the storm business was taken out of context. But no, I knew better (and Graham didn’t argue) when they spoke of storms later in the day along the east coast. It had been a gloriously sunny morning, with only the tiniest cooling tug of spring breeze. Almost too calm for a sailing expedition, never mind too windy.

    Mistake number 2 (though if we’d had more respect for the good services of the Met Office it would never have arisen) was not following the advice of Sally on reception at the Cedar Parks Holiday Centre where we had our lovely log cabin. “If you’re hiring a boat, I’d go for John Travis,” she said. “He has an office in town, next to the Pharmacy. He’s not cheap, but he has a good reputation.” We made polite noises and thanked her for her advice, which we didn’t follow. Graham and I had already set our hearts on the far more romantically named (not to mention cheaper) Yellowfin Yard on the quayside. 

    I wanted so much to believe that the owner really was called Yellowfin, but no, his name was Noakes, Christopher Noakes, and his father and grandfather before him (though not apparently him) had been fishermen. I wouldn’t have thought there was a profusion of Yellowfin Tuna in those particular waters, but that was just being pedantic.

    We did, at least, have enough sense to hire a motorboat and not a rowing boat. Chris Noakes went through the motions of asking us if we had any sailing experience but didn’t labour the point when Graham and I both said “A little” and neither of us had done much more than pilot a pedalo. He issued us with those tiny little round the shoulder life jackets that look as if they wouldn’t give buoyancy to an average sized dragonfly and reminded us that we were responsible for the children. I wouldn’t have put it past Janet, who could have a strange sense of humour (fair enough, she takes after me) claiming she was being held against her will, but she didn’t. She’s quite looking forward to it, really, I told myself. 

    I think, for at least part of the journey over the North Sea, she had decided she might as well make the best of it. But that “best” came to an abrupt end when the engine (and it had been sounding ropey, even to my ears, and I knew bugger all about it) finally puttered out, and refused to come back to life no matter how much we cranked whatever it was you crank, and even tried the old “turn it off and on” that doesn’t even always work with computers.

    I seemed to be holding my tongue quite a lot, but at least I probably did the right thing NOT telling the children not to panic. They didn’t show any signs of it, and there was no point to putting the idea in their heads. 

    It was merciful that although we had realised halfway through the journey we would have been wiser to pay heed to the weather forecast, the storm didn’t break in its full intensity until we were actually on dry land again. The word dry is relative, as it was decidedly marshy, and though we were wearing fairly sensible shoes (even Janet) we most certainly weren’t in waders. So far as we knew there was no quicksand on Seagull Island, but the sensation was far from pleasant, especially when a nearly opaque curtain, oddly both vertical and horizontal, curtain of rain with hailstones thrown in began to lash down from a sky that looked more as if it were evening than afternoon and the wind howled so loudly we had to shout to make ourselves heard.

    “There’s a building over there!” Mo exclaimed. He was right – and quite a substantial brick building too, only a hundred or so metres away. We decided that it was worth a bit of wading through the marshy ground to get some shelter, as the storm was set in for a while, though we told ourselves that the more dramatic ones always blew themselves out more quickly. True, we had less chance of spotting or being spotted by a passing boat, but decided that, too, was a price worth paying.

    Luckily, it only occurred to me after we had opened the door that it could have been locked. There were no signs warning us that the property was dangerous, and to be frank, we might have ignored them anyway!

    “This place is creepy!” exclaimed Mo - sounding duly impressed. Janet wasn’t going to come out and say it in so many words, but though I had long since stopped vetting her reading matter, I knew that she was still decidedly partial to Stephenie Meyer, and wasn’t immune to the allure of the creepy either!

    I almost wished I shared their reaction, and perhaps there was a hint of it, but my first and overwhelming sensation was one of sadness. We were in a space too big to have been a normal room – maybe some kind of foyer, or perhaps a conference space (my first impression was that it might be an abandoned hotel). It was a tall building, though there was a suspended ceiling - I’ve never cared for them, and the accumulations of grime in the corners reminded me why. Contradictorily, they seemed to make the noise of the drumming rain louder, not deaden it. Though the whole space was, undeniably, grimy, it was by no means as bad-smelling as it might have been. There was a touch of mould and a larger touch of damp (though the roof wasn’t letting in and though some of the faded green wallpaper was peeling, the walls didn’t have any over-noticeable wet patches. But I used to work for an estate agent, and we all knew only too well what we termed “unlived in house smell”. Even if a property were only unoccupied, unaired for a few months, and even if you didn’t have an over-keen sense of smell, it hit you. Some of my colleagues reported feeling actually ill, and faint, well, I didn’t go quite that far, but had to swallow down queasiness, fight a cough, and there was that involuntary “ugh” of recoil on touching things, even if they appeared clean. 

    There was only the after- or fore-echo of that in the abandoned property on Seagull Island. But this sadness – it was almost like the sensation that comes in waves when a person has died and you think of what you have done and not done, said and not said. 

    “Look at this!” Graham called. On one of the tables – functional, but of decent quality wood – there was a newspaper from 1979. It had yellowed, the way newspapers do, and looked as if it had that odd mixture of damp and brittleness old newspapers do, and also as if it were unread. 

    It was a funny sort of date – too far back to evoke my own childhood, not far enough to make me think about my parents’. And I don’t know why I suddenly dwelt on childhood memories.

    “Mum, Dad, this is so cool!” While I was mulling things over, Mo and Janet had decided to explore – and something was evidently to Mo’s liking. As he was a crusty old cynic in the making the fact his interest was piqued proved something.

    “Nobody says “cool” and hasn’t since, like twenty years, lamebrain,” Janet pointed out. It probably doesn’t speak well for me that I was more inclined to tell her off for that “like” that always grated on my nerves (though she was a lesser offender than many of her contemporaries!) than for calling her brother lamebrain. He could give as good as he got, anyway. And I wasn’t fooled. Whatever “this” was she was just as interested as her brother.

    “Coming!” I called. I could only agree with Mo. It was cool! The room had obviously been a radio studio! There was still some kind of tape deck and console and one of those “on air/off air” signs. Janet went to flick the relevant switch.

    “Love, it won’t….” I began – and was cut off in mid-sentence. It did. Amazingly it appeared the electricity in the building was still working. “I wouldn’t even have thought they had a supply here,” Graham said, “Maybe some kind of generator but – I’m not sure if we should use it – it could be lethal by now.”

    “Do I look frazzled?” Janet asked, but she had a healthy sense of self-preservation and stepped back from the switch. I was aching to see if we could still get any music to be heard, but could hardly do something I’d implied the children shouldn’t, and anyway, possibly it was dangerous – and I also didn’t know if I longed to hear it or dreaded it! 

    I admit I jumped when I got a text! I had been lost in a world before such things existed. But it proved my phone was getting a signal again. It was Chris Noakes. Am worried about weather deterioration. Please contact if any problems. Well, he might have hired us a sub-standard boat, but he was showing some concern now, and I couldn’t be too angry with anyone who used the word deterioration in a text. I opted to phone as there was rather a lot to say and I’m a slow texter (I could have asked one of the children, but had some pride!) 

    Well, at least he was redeeming himself thoroughly now. He apologised profusely and said he’d bring his boat out to rescue us – the weather was clearing a little, and anyway, his was more – be broke off, plainly somewhat embarrassed. “You were going to say more substantial!”

    “I can’t deny it.”

    “It could be worse. We’re sheltering in the old building, and that radio studio is fascinating.”

    “Oh er – right – but – come out to the harbour, will you?”

    It was a sensible and reasonable request. We didn’t converse much on the way back to shore – it was still choppy, and the wind made it hard to hold much of a conversation. He refunded our fee and we assured him it was fine – after all, we had told a few “extensions of the truth” about our sailing abilities, though I doubt Robin Knox-Johnson could have coaxed that engine back to life.

    We were all glad to be back at Cedar Springs. Janet was sure her life depended on a hot shower – I refrained from saying hadn’t she seen enough water for one day! – and Mo found a (fairly) willing audience for his tale of our “island shipwreck” with his friend from the cabin next door, Aaron – who had rather disconcertingly decided Mo was his role model. Graham and I stopped by in reception for a chat with Sally. “You were right about the Yellowfin Yard,” I said ruefully, “Though to be fair Chris did come good in the end and at least we had the old building to shelter in – I never thought I’d be saying this even an hour ago, but I wouldn’t mind having another look round it. It has this strange fascination!”

    There are times when you don’t even need to be looking at a person to know they’re looking at you in a rather strange way. “What is it, Sal?” I asked.

    “Well – I don’t know if I should tell you this, but let’s be frank, you could easily google it and quite possibly would. There was a radio station on the island – Radio Seagull it was called –“

    “That’s original,” put in Graham, but didn’t need my withering look to not interrupt any further.

    “Back in the 70s. I suppose you’d call it pirate radio, though of course it wasn’t on a ship, and it was never as famous as the likes of Radio Caroline. It just didn’t have the high profile presenters and it signal was pretty poor in comparison, so my Grandpa told me, though if the atmospherics were right, people managed to pick it up as far away as Birmingham or Dover – they asked people to send in postcards from where they heard it!”

    “Your Grandpa worked for them?” I interrupted her  myself.

    “Not really. He was never on the broadcasting staff and always came back to the mainland at night, but he was a plumber, and did do some work for them. It was run by a family from the mainland – well, mainly by a man called Godfrey Norton, though his wife and daughter came with him. He’d had some money left to him, and decided to fulfil a childhood dream of running his own radio station. “ As the cliché goes, it’s good to follow your dream, but I could feel a “but” coming.

    “Apparently it was pretty idyllic at first. But things turned sour – Godfrey began to suspect, and from what I gather, not without some reason, that his wife Sonia was getting closer than she should to Fred – he was some relation to Godfrey, and had agreed to stay over with them for a while to do some engineering work. On a small island – things come to a head. Godfrey saw the two of them together – and maybe came to the wrong conclusion, and maybe didn’t. But he stabbed Fred. Sonia had a surface wound, but escaped, and took their daughter, Iris, she was called, with her. “ There are things you know you are hearing but only take it with a kind of time-lag. “Godfrey took his own life, but before he did, he poured petrol – he had plenty, for his own boat – round the building and set it alight. It was burnt to ashes. It’s one of those things – everyone round here knows about it, but we don’t talk about it much. There’s been talk for years about making the island a nature reserve – an official one, I mean – or some kind of adventure centre. But nothing’s ever come of it.”

    We did google it, and after reflection, decided to tell the children – it was better than them finding out off their own bat. Mo did mutter, “Creepy,” again, but though, to my relief, it didn’t seem to traumatise him, he grew up visibly in a couple of seconds and it was plain he fully grasped the difference between the pleasurably creepy and the horrible real-life creepy. “I’m – just glad Iris was okay,” Janet said, soberly, “She was about my age.”

    We have tried, and, of course, failed, to find a logical explanation. We decided it was best to give up trying and we just have to live with it and get on with things. We are not scared of islands, or the sea, or old buildings, but I certainly don’t think we will ever set out in a small boat when there is a storm warning, or open doors we are not supposed to open.

    No, we aren’t scared of the sea. It was not the sea to blame. If I do have nightmares, and occasionally I do, then they are not about water, but are about blood and fire.

September 27, 2019 07:00

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