I watched them slumped on the sand bank. Two grey seals looked back at me with half-shut eyes. I turned off the engine and the noisy propeller slowed until there was just the lapping of the waves against the curved, wooden sides of the Nerma.
Mr Warwick squinted at the seals through his thick, misty glasses.
“Tell me, Aurellie,” he said as he gently stroked his dog, Lucy, who was resting her speckled head on his lap, “who is out on the bank today?”
I lowered my new camera and looked carefully at the two seals that lay on the long, narrow stretch of flat sand that surfaced, like a bare island, in the open sea. I tried to remember the name of the one with the three markings beneath its eye. “Seldra is there on the left,” I said as it came back to me.
“Very good!” He said. I don’t suppose he knew how many hours I’d spent staring at the photos I’d been gathering of the seals since I began my latest project. Their features, dark eyes, fur textures and folds of skin. Recognising them was becoming easier now.
“The other one next to him… I’m not sure.” I said, “It’s a lighter grey.”
“Shorter tail and a narrower face?” Mr Warwick asked quickly.
He let out a relieved breath as the familiarity of the seals reassured him. “That’s Juna. Those two are never far apart. You’ll get to know them soon enough, Aurellie.”
He was no longer squinting now the seals had been identified. He looked on confidently, though who knows what he could really see? I felt sorry for him. Eventually he’d only be able to see a few feet in front of him, the doctors said, but he never let on that he was worried about it, or anything else for that matter. I had begun to think it was spending so much time around the seals that made him like that. In the two and a half months that I’d been working for him on the seal watch tours, I’d noticed the seals having an effect on me too. They had an infectious attitude of being so unperturbed by anything. The elders would lie still on the sand banks, letting the cold wind rush over their thick skins, not flinching, not moving, the younger ones would play, spinning and swirling between the strands of kelp, none of them taking any notice of us, acting as they always did whether we were there or not. Mr Warwick was like that. That’s why it didn’t surprise me that we had still come out to the seals this morning.
The schools had started up again, the holidaymakers had left and the winter was coming. We were supposed to have a retired couple coming out for a seal tour today, but they cancelled on us last minute. Mr Warwick would still ask me to take him out whenever that happened. But it wasn’t the lack of customers that made being out on the water feel strange today.
Despite the favourable conditions, there were no other leisure boats out on the sea. No wind or kite surfers, no jet-skis, no kayaks. The entire north coast was still in a solemn state.
Yesterday there had been a remembrance ceremony at Grenham Bay – the site where little Jessica Holt had disappeared almost four years ago. Last week her toddler-sized tricycle was recovered in a chance find and it had brought the painful incident back to the surface for the whole community.
She had been riding the tricycle along the promenade when apparently she fell in and was swept away. Everyone with a boat or a board went searching for her, my dad and Mr Warwick included, but they soon had to give up. The tricycle, all this time later, is all that’s been found of her. The family buried it in the wild grass around the bay and almost the whole coast attended the ceremony. Everyone else seemed to need a day to recover. But the seals were here as usual and so were we. Mr Warwick was content to simply be around them, and for me it was an opportunity for some uninterrupted shooting.
“A new camera?” Mr Warwick asked without turning to face me but noticing the different sounding beep as I pressed the capture button.
“You can hear the difference?” I asked.
“Yes, these old ears are starting to serve me well. The body is very adaptable, Aurellie.”
I was astounded by his resilience. I would probably be a nervous wreck if it were happening to me.
“That’s the key in life, Aurellie. Adapt.” The wind parted his white beard as he spoke. “If there’s one thing the seals have taught me, it’s that you must never stop adapting.”
I looked at the seals lying there lazily in the sludgy sand. They seemed more resistant to change than adaptive, “But the seals always stay the same.” I said.
Mr Warwick’s smile turned into a gentle laugh. He seemed to enjoy my feeling that he was full of contradictions. “Yes. Day to day they do the same thing, but over time they’re getting better and better at it, because they’ve never stopped adapting. It happens so slowly you can’t notice it right away, but when you look back at how far the seals have come, there’s no denying it.”
“You’ve noticed them change over your lifetime?” I asked him.
“Yes, ever so slightly. Their size and colour has changed since I was a boy, but those are small changes compared to the way they’ve really adapted.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Seals have not always been suited to water, you know, Aurellie.” He began. “There was a time when they walked on land, as a dog of sorts. But the land did not treat them well and they took to the sea. Their skin grew thicker, their legs shorter and their feet flatter until they became the way they are now.” He spoke matter-of-factly, like he did when he was giving a talk to the customers, but he’d never spoken of this on a tour.
“You mean they evolved, from land mammals, over millions of years?”
“You might call it that, yes. But I’m no scientist, Aurellie. All I know is that that they changed. Just like the merren,” he said.
I almost dropped my camera as he mentioned them.
“I always knew you were interested in them, Aurellie. But now I know what you’re doing with all these pictures of the seals you’re taking. This latest project you’re doing. The picture you’re making, it’s going to be a merren isn’t it?”
“My sister told you?”
He didn’t confirm or deny it. “I normally try to discourage interest in the merren these days, you know.”
“I do know.” I said, probably revealing more of my frustration about his previous avoidance than I realised. I’d been talking around the topic for weeks hoping he’d open up, ever since I started the project, but Mr Warwick never spoke about the merren now, not like he used to.
“I know what people say about me, Aurellie. I know what that video looked like, but I’m not mad.” he said showing some agitation.
“Of course you’re not.” I said, “That video didn’t make you look mad. It was clear you were being berated, anyone with half a brain could see that. Besides, people have probably forgotten all about that clip by now.”
“You think so, Aurellie?”
“Definitely. It’s ancient history in the internet world, buried under a billion videos of cats playing the piano.”
He laughed and then looked out to sea, emboldened by my little white lie.
“So, you can tell me about them then?”
He spoke hesitantly. “Well I already told you that seals were dogs of sorts when they entered the water, didn’t I? People and dogs have kept company since the dawn of history. The one is never far behind the other. Isn’t that right, Lucy?” The old dog slowly opened one eye for a moment, looking a little annoyed to be disturbed.
“What are you saying?” I asked him directly.
“There were people that entered the water too,” he said with a deep breath, “and over time they’ve adapted just like the seals have. Where once they walked upright on land and crawled in the shallows for shellfish, now they swim gracefully in the sea, and on land their blubbery legs can scarcely stand. They live out here among the kelp and the banks. But they’ve got the sense not to let the likes of us get a glimpse of them, the merren have.”
“You believe they really exist?” I asked.
Mr Warwick turned to face me. “I don’t have a shadow of a doubt.” he said seriously. “You don’t believe in them, Aurellie?”
“Well, have you ever seen one?” I asked, still clicking away at the seals and avoiding giving him a cold ‘no’.
“Not I.” He said. “But my grandfather did.”
I turned to look at him now, almost struggling to believe that he could really believe it. My silence must have been enough to show I couldn’t believe him, but now he’d begun it was as if he wanted to convince me.
“It was not long after I came here to live with my grandparents that it happened. My grandfather was a lifeboater, one of the last on this island, but just like his own father and grandfather, he braved the waves pulling poor souls from the jaws of death. All the way back to the times of the wreck of the Northern Belle – 1857, my family have been lifeboaters. All throughout the wartime my grandfather was stationed up in the lighthouse, there on Ethel’s Rock,” he said looking in the direction of the disused lighthouse that still stood tall against the wind on the circular chalk flat that rose from the sea about half a mile from where we drifted.
“Back in the days before ships were equipped with all these computers to tell them what lies ahead, there were a lot of wrecks here on these sandbanks. All kinds of ships would pass through our waters on their way in to the Thames. Especially in wartime ships would come and go ferrying men to the continent, but those soldiers made poor sailors my grandfather would say. Often at low tide they would run aground on the banks. They’d be trapped, and then engulfed by the in-coming tide. There’s many a ship buried beneath these sands, and many a drowned soul too.
My grandfather told me of one ship and crew who wrecked on this very sand bank in wartime. He heard the distress call from the ship and sent the signal to the shore for the rescue boats to be launched. But the tide was coming in fast and the bank was sinking. My grandfather rowed out alone from the lighthouse in a raging storm and was the first on the scene. By the time the other boats arrived from the shore the tide had swept in and scattered the stranded sailors. They were pulled out of the dark water one by one. But they soon realised there was one man missing. My grandfather ordered the other survivors back to shore and he spent the whole night searching for the missing man alone, with only the dim light of his lantern.
By the time the dawn came up over the horizon he was looking for a dead body. But just as he was about to abandon, he heard a cry, far from the sandbank, back towards the edge of the kelp forest. He rowed to where the sound was coming from, and there, clinging to the thick strands of kelp seaweed that reached up to the surface, was the missing man. Blue in the face and half-dead. When my grandfather lifted him into the boat, the sailor claimed that a merren girl had seen him drowning and pulled him to the surface, dragged him through the kelp forest and placed him at the very edge of it. He said she’d stayed with him to keep him warm until morning. My grandfather thought the sailor had gone mad from shock. ‘Could it not have been a seal that you clung onto?’ My grandfather asked him. But the sailor swore on his life that it had been a girl. A girl with eyes like dark mussel shells and black hair, skin grey and speckled. And then, as my grandfather prepared to row back to shore, he spotted her with his very own eyes. She bobbed her head out from among the kelp leaves where she had been hiding. She stared at my grandfather for a moment, breathed out a foggy breath and then she went down. Her bottom half rose up and flopped into the water, two legs and two flat feet together. If he had seen only the end of her dive he would have been sure it was a seal.”
Mr Warwick mimed the diving movement with his hand like a tail. Then he looked down at the boat, gripping its side with one hand.
“I remember it was a September day just before the turn, still like this, when my grandfather first told me the story. He sat in this very boat where I am now, I was sitting there, just where you are, and he made me promise not to tell my grandmother. Fishing. That’s what we told her we were up to when we’d go out searching. But we never did find the merren again. Only the seals. My old grandfather wasn’t interested in them though. He was never the same after he saw the merren.”
“It must have been quite a shock.” I said, going along with his story, trying not to show any sign of disbelief in my voice.
“Maybe one day you’ll see for yourself, Aurellie.” Mr Warwick said, not fooled by my sympathy. “Maybe one day you’ll see,” he repeated.
“I’d like to go and visit the lighthouse some time.” I said. I had always seen it, even been up close to it in Dad’s work boat a few times, but had never been inside.
“Oh there’s nothing up there, Aurellie. Nothing but bad memories. The sooner that old thing sinks into the sea the better.” He forced a smile against the grey sky all around. “Come on now, we’d best be heading back.”
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