'It looks like it will clear up soon enough,' the captain said before they set sail. 'But for the time being, just roll with the punches, ladies and lads. You're with the Merlin of Mariners, the wizard of the west seas.'
The ship captained by the Merlin of Mariners was named the Kay Two, a large wise-looking old steamboat which had ferried tourists to and from the islands throughout its busy existence. Captain Merlin liked to tease his passengers when they asked why she was named Kay Two. You would imagine there was a story behind the name, but in fact, the only story behind it was the want of having a story to tell. Sometimes she was Kay Two because Kay One had run aground off the coast of Spain during a fierce storm. Sometimes Kay Two after Kay One, the girl who broke Captain Merlin's heart back in the days when he was just a lowly cabin boy with the soul of a poet. Sometimes Kay Two after the famous mountain to publicise its strength and savagery when tested and hopefully scare the oceans. He changed the story around to suit his mood. The steamboat was an unpopular vessel, too difficult to maintain and environmentally problematic, so it tended to be frowned upon as a relic, its thermodynamic genius underappreciated. However it still had its part to play in the tourism game regardless of modern opinion, its vintage charm proving attractive to nostalgia lovers in their sprinkled hordes. Lucy was one of ten such enthusiastic tourists now who had boarded the Kay Two for a short trip to the islands off the coast of Kerry. Most of her fellow passengers were older belated holidaymakers, and there was at least one younger couple there, in idyllic embrace, who were quite content to brave the harsh weather in the hope of seeing the puffins. That young couple were snuggled up together now, in matching yellow life-jackets, whispering delicate phrases of romantic assurance to one another, whilst gazing overboard into a cloudy abyss.
Earlier that day, Eddie had left her standing at the hotel with her oversized raincoat flailing in the wind and holding a soggy leaflet. She'd looked like a right fool standing there with that bloody raincoat on as he jogged off to wherever with his vulgar golf umbrella. Took a last look at the leaflet she'd picked up in the hotel lobby. 'Puffin Island Steamboat' was blotched from the rain and barely readable anymore. She'd dumped it in the nearest bin, and headed for the harbour.
As the Kay Two advanced out to sea, the rain sharpened and the wind pushed harder. There were yelps to be heard from passengers as the boat ploughed into the gnarling waves. 'Brace yourselves, folks,' cried Captain Merlin from the top deck. A shower of ice pebbles battered them as the boat was whipped around in the momentary chaos. Any time soon, they would be ripped to smithereens. While the others covered their faces, Lucy lifted hers up to the attack, and let the cold bullets and bluster pound her head-on. She enjoyed being in this death grasp....like tumbling around in a washing machine or something....maybe a good time to do some deep personal cleansing. Captain Merlin also seemed to be doing his laundry out here, throwing himself at the ocean, daring the wind, releasing his demons to meet those of his past....an apprentice Ahab, Lucy thought......I stab at thee....I stab at thee....I spit my last breath at you, you washing machine.
Lucy just wanted to see the puffins. It was all she'd talked about in the days and weeks leading up. 'Forget the puffins, I'm not going out in this rain,' Eddie had said to her that morning after breakfast and he'd had a point, to be fair. It was a horrible day and they no longer had time in their schedule to procrastinate, these being the final few hours of the trip. They had put the puffins off to the last day and now the heavens were disagreeing. It was so cold and damp the puffins would probably be tucked up indoors anyway, in their puffin-shaped caves on the cliffs. 'If you really want to see the puffins, go by your selfish self.'
Lucy could just about make out Puffin Island through the fog and frenzy in front of her. It looked ghostly and inhospitable. In the pictures she had seen, it looked like the most peaceful and wonderful place on Earth. Those images suggested the kind of enchanted place that every individual dreamed of owning, their own concealed world of calm and beauty, away from the clamour and the perils of the everyday. Those images diverged from the bleak violent landscape that now loomed. That song 'I am a rock, I am an island'. That metaphor didn't work in this case as the island seemed somewhat alien to human understanding. The 'I' could never get near this rock, let alone be it. It didn't look like a place for humans at all. Not what the postcard said. Great song though, no offence to Paul Simon.
The island was OFFICIALLY not meant for humankind. Tourist boats usually just drifted around it so that the passengers had an opportunity to view the birds. Special permission was required in order to board the island, and this was generally only offered to researchers and scientists and the like. Puffins were merely to be observed from a distance. You could admire their stunning black plumage. Marvel at their extraordinarily coloured beaks from afar. Study their habits if you got close enough and maybe come away with some new knowledge of fortitude in nature. The puffins lay in wait hopefully, so in the meantime, Lucy aimed her investigative beam on the happy young couple who were now smiling and joking with some other passengers and simultaneously kissing each other on the necks, ears, foreheads, hair. The ferocity of the conditions didn't seem to trouble them at all. They held a robust shape together, unfitted to, yet unconcerned with the environment surrounding them. They could have been standing in a gorgeous autumnal glade right now watching a blackbird build its nest in a tree while discussing their future together. Crackling rain, booming gales, and a world in turmoil. All this was just another backdrop of many for these two and their indestructible spirit the bastards.
Eddie called her his 'little cactus', referring to the spiky desert plant. It was meant as a term of affection, of course, jokingly noting her dry prickly demeanour, though she often thought there was a passive aggressive aspect to it. She couldn't fool herself about her own passive aggression in the relationship however. It was there alright, sitting in the background scowling, as most passive aggressions are known to do. She had a knack for starting arguments in public places, and elevating them to rows when they should have been voiced in the confines of their own happy house. She knew when she was doing wrong, but usually in hindsight, and in the heady moments of a bickering, you weren't given to general overview. You were regrettably given to general oversight as it was always going to be you who was in the right. Eddie was a good man, and she loved him, but he'd grown weary of the uproar. He was good at putting on the show of an ideal couple. He role-played stability on many an occasion. But recently even he had given up on the show, and was capable of fuelling the public conflicts too, handing the meek role back to Lucy. These quarrels were a strain on both of them. No matter who was stoking the flame.
'Horrible day,' came a voice to her left. A man wearing a bright red baseball cap had rolled up beside her. He was quite handsome, though he had a rough beard. Lucy didn't like beards. She got into a dispute on the subject one time with a close friend who only dated potential rock stars with nice clothes as a rule.
'Yes,' she replied. 'Extremely horrible.'
'It's a-huffin' and a-puffin'.......you get it........puffin'?'
'Yeah,' she laughed.
'Have you been out here before?'
'No. First time.'
'You know, I hope we can see the puffins.'
'I'm sure they will be there. This weather wouldn't stop them. They're used to it. And worse.'
'Yeah, they're pretty resilient, that's for sure. I've always had it in mind to come out to see them. I always loved puffins.'
'Same here. Since I was a kid.'
'No way. Fantastic. It's also the fact that we have to come way out here to see them. It's not like going to a zoo or anything. To get to see them, we have to drag ourselves through all this sludge. They're very special.'
'Sorry, I'm Gabriel.'
'Nice to meet you, Lucy. You're here alone?'
'Too bad. Me too. But at the same time, I like to take these trips by myself sometimes. It's good to be free from the rat-race, you know.'
'Oh, yeah. I like it too. Though my husband is with me, just not here right now. He's back on the shore. He wouldn't come out in the rain.'
'Oh, my. What a weakling.'
'Yeah,' she laughed.
'He wouldn't even take a spot of rain on the face and wind in the hair for you? I'd call that quite pathetic.'
'No significant other of mine would find herself sailing the stormy seas alone, that's for sure.'
He was laughing as he spoke, padding his delivery with jest, but Lucy felt a little uneasy about the comment, so she just smiled awkwardly and nodded. It was perhaps too strong a thing to say considering they had only just started talking. They were complete strangers. The small talk had taken a nosedive rather quickly. Even if Lucy did feel inclined at that minute to accept any input in the form of mockery concerning Eddie. The man continued talking for a while, but Lucy simply nodded and made faint responses without looking him in the eye. She knew it was quite rude to do so, but she wanted to convey that she'd been slightly offended by his abrupt comment about her husband, light-hearted though it may have been, so she worked to somehow bring him back to an appropriate level. She had often done this with Eddie, and it had worked a few times. Keep tight-lipped. Make him sweat. Not psychological torture, but within spitting distance. It was something she'd learned from her mother in the younger years before dad died of a perforated ulcer. However the device didn't seem to work on this particular man.
'You're not very talkative,' he said.
'Just not in a good mood.'
'Right. Why not?'
'Eh, I'd rather not talk about it.'
'Okay. Sorry. None of my business?'
'Well, no, it isn't, but mostly, I'd just prefer not to talk about it with a stranger. I'm on holiday. Trying to get away from things. A bit of peace.'
'Really? Peace? Take a look around you, doll.'
'Doll? I'm not a doll.'
'Fair enough. You're quite a negative person, aren't you? A bit cold.'
'I can see it. Anyway, forget about it, I'll step away. Don't need this shit.'
Had she done something wrong? Maybe she'd overreacted, met the conversation with a surfeit of sensitivity. She knew she could be a bitch sometimes, but the communication lines were always so blurred she couldn't be sure of her mark. As the man stepped away from her, she tried to get his attention and smooth things over, but he was muttering and swearing under his breath, so she just avoided him. The whole thing left her feeling shocked and aggravated.
The waters started to settle as the island got closer and the mist began to clear. Sunlight slowly bled through the dark smoky air. Above, a heavy ceiling of grey smear that made you feel groggy when you looked at it was now giving way for something more bearable. The Kay Two seemed to be floating on a bed of cloud which was now dispersing and the rippling ocean floor was once more becoming visible. Things were nearly blue again.
'I can see some, look,' shouted the young girl, unshackling herself from her lover for the first time on the trip. 'Where?' her man asked, trying to contain her. 'There.' Her eyesight must have been good because whatever she was pointing at was undetected by every other person on board. As the Kay Two closed in on the island, it gradually became evident that indeed her eyesight was excellent. A small group of puffins could be seen on a gigantic muffin-shaped rock at the bottom of the island's abrasive-looking cliffs. Plump little black statues with bright red and orange markings. The boat was overcome with giddiness.
The puffins barely moved, and when they did, they walked aimlessly and clumsily, like inattentive schoolchildren, often bumping into one another. There was a magic about them. A stillness. The clouds had broken enough to allow the sunlight into their zone, shrouding their part of the island in a warm syrupy glow. It was like the sun had started shining just for the puffins. It hadn't shined on anyone or anything else all day. And the puffins were doing a drowsy dance in it, a sweet shimmy to show their support. It is a fabulous thing to see a creature like the puffin in real life. It makes you think about all the things you have seen, and might see, all the things you want to see, and will never see. All things seen and unseen. That's the power of puffins. All observers on deck looked at these things that were for the first time not a talking puppet, not a humanised character on a cereal box, not a dancing animation. They were dancing alright, but just in their eyes, in real life, and in the dreamy sunlight.
For Lucy, the puffins now unlocked restrictions on the past. Childhood came bubbling back. Those memories incarcerated by the government of adulthood and widening of responsibility. Innocence. Adventure. Pure unadulterated joy. Butter melting on toast. Playing hopscotch with Ann and June, her best friends. Jason Donovan posters on her bedroom wall. Ms. Lundy, her English teacher, Sophia Loren at the blackboard, her idol. The smell of her favourite Nancy Drew book. She would go to the library everyday just to smell it. Breakfast. Puffin Pops. She would get up early each morning for a bowl and cover them in mountains of sugar and look at the cute puffin on the cereal box as she ate them all up.
As the Kay Two found a spot to sit for the passengers to get a good look, the puffins noticed them, and began to look right back. A long period of gawking began in which all present in the moment, whether off the rocks or on them, freely participated in. The puffins were tickled about what was unfolding before them, but they had no cameras to take pictures like their guests. You could see some of the elder puffins huffing grumpily in the background about this arrogant new technology and pining a simpler time for puffins, but the younger ones were captivated and just gawked at the Kay Two with curiosity.
One particular puffin seemed larger and was perched in the shadows overlooking the others, at the tip of a thin skewer-like rock that pointed out to sea like an arrow. The captain, when he spotted this puffin, left the wheel and grabbed his camera to take a picture. The passengers, seeing this moment of excitement arise, followed suit, grabbing their variously shaped cameras in unison. The enormous silhouette of the bird just stood there. Some people called out that maybe it wasn't a puffin. There were many other dark seabirds to be found on the island. Razorbills. Manx. Guillemots. Petrels. 'No, no,' said the captain. 'It's a puffin.....I think.' The other puffins began bleeping and blooping amongst themselves.....puffin-chatter....a peculiar sound....like synthesised versions of puffins to an audience of humans who had only heard these sounds through snippets of audio on wildlife websites. The birds then started tapping their bills together like they had been reunited after many years away. Eventually they stopped the commotion and suddenly all of them seemed to look straight up at the eerie figure on the skewer-like ledge.
As Lucy focused her attention on the larger bird, she noticed it was actually moving in a fluttery way, wriggling, almost as though it was shivering with the cold. These shakes began to increase, disturbingly so, and there were gasps from all the passengers when it fell seemingly dead from its stoop and splashed into the sea. A twenty foot drop at least.
'The poor thing,' cried a lady.
'Oh, that's terrible,' said another.
'We should get the body,' shouted Gabriel. 'It might be a rare one. People will be interested.'
'Perhaps,' said the captain, a little reluctant.
'If it's really rare, it might be worth money.. . and some media attention.'
'That's terrible,' said an older woman, the one who had said That's terrible before, her silent husband nodding in endorsing disapproval.
'Swing around, Cap,' said Gabriel.
'We'll take a look,' said Captain Merlin.
The Kay Two chugged leisurely to the area where the bird had fallen.
'I don't want to see a dead puffin,' protested the young girl who had first spotted the birds.
'Don't worry, sweetie,' said her other half. 'It might not be a puffin.'
'It'll still be dead though whatever it is.'
When the Kay Two eventually reached the bird, it looked like a crumpled old leather jacket someone had dumped in the sea. As the boat moved in closer, Gabriel stretched his arms out further. It still looked big on closer inspection, but maybe not as huge as they'd first thought when they saw it perched on the ledge.
'Well, is it a puffin or not?' someone asked.
'Get closer in,' Gabriel yelled to Captain Merlin. 'I can't reach it.'
'Be careful you don't fall over,' said the captain.
'I can reach it.....is there a big stick or something I can use?'
'Be careful there,' said the captain once more, but by then it was too late. Gabriel had been stretching so far out that he slipped over the edge of the boat and flopped into the water. Ironically Lucy had at that moment been picturing him falling over in a private revenge fantasy. Maybe she had willed it. Who knows?
Gabriel splashed around frantically looking for the bird, but it wasn't there. Soon after, he realised he couldn't swim so well and started struggling to get back on the boat. Lucy was the first to stretch out her hand, but as she did, he was suddenly sucked under. Maybe it was the current. Maybe Jaws. Maybe a Russian sub. Who knew what lay waiting in the depths of the devilish North Atlantic?
'Where'd he go?' asked Captain Merlin, still at the wheel.
'He's away under,' someone said.
Shocked insecure expressions, yet nobody on the boat was moved enough to help. Lucy thought of her last swimming experience. Three swims up and down the local 20 metre pool, only stopping twice. She'd done alright. Could she possibly be the one to jump in and save that asshole? They were all soaking wet anyway from the consistent spatter of sea and rain, so she would just get a bit wetter.
'Oh, okay,' Lucy said, resignedly, when there didn't appear to be any intention of rescuing him showing in the faces of the other passengers.
A bunch of puffins had gathered on the cliffs to get a better view of things as Lucy carefully lobbed herself over the side. She lowered herself into the water and eventually broke away, plunging into the freezing unknown. She immediately felt she would die of the cold and that Gabriel was probably already dead from it. Luckily, he was thrashing away underneath not far from the Kay Two, struggling to get a grip of the water as though it was something you could grab hold of.
Many shapes washed over her in the underwater gloom. Clumps of moss and grit swirled in a chalky mess, crystal froth and fizzle appearing like lonesome eyeballs expanding and vanishing. Bizarre creatures of the deep forming in the ghoulish vapour and passing by like ghost train dummies as she crawled toward an hysterical Gabriel. In the dusty space around her, she thought she glimpsed the fallen bird, come to life again, gliding slowly in a gleaming ball of light, then suddenly shooting downwards into the profound insides of the ocean like it had something very urgent to be getting on with down there. The mind plays tricks on you in the stark places of the world.
It wasn't long before she reached Gabriel and pushed him up to the surface. There were cheers and applause from the boat and some puffins high-fived with their beaks as Lucy guided him back to safety.
A tall young guy had come out of the engine room to help. He'd been stuck in there all the time and didn't know what was happening out on the deck. Nobody had clapped eyes on him until now. One of the old ladies nearly had a heart-attack when she saw him. 'Good God,' she cried. The engine boy was quite strong and he was able to wrench both Gabriel and Lucy out of the water without hassle. They were both given towels and taken to the doorway of the engine room to get more heat. Gabriel's face was white. In a bony anaemic voice, and extending very little in the way of eye contact, he told Lucy 'Thanks'.
Nobody on the boat had batted an eyelid about Lucy before the incident, apart from Gabriel before he approached her, but now she was the talk of their little floating and fleeting community. She had caused quite a stir. A valid hero. Like Xena the warrior princess or something.
'You're a wonderful girl, doing that,' said an old lady, coming up to Lucy as she stood shivering in her towel.
'My husband didn't do a thing, and him and his John Wayne films.......'
'I'm 78 years old,' the husband retorted, rushing to his own defence with a verbal sprightliness.
'Yeah, 78 years watching John Wayne do all the dirty work.' The lady turned to Lucy again. 'Here love,' she said, producing a small half-empty bottle of dark rum. 'Have a snifter on me. That'll warm you up.'
Captain Merlin grunted with some relief as he turned his ship around to make the journey back to base. The Kay Two also joined in the relief, releasing heavy blows of steam which bellowed loudly and decisively into the air. As Lucy was being praised and celebrated by the others, she looked back at the island moving away from them. It would soon just be a postcard again. The puffins too. Though before they were amputated from her life entirely, she saw one flying down from a higher ridge. It flapped its wings so rapidly and juddered around in the wind so much as it flew that she thought there would be another accident and another one in the ocean. But for every limp descent, there was a brave surge. This little puffin seemed to know what it was doing. It landed sloppily on the nearest rock fading from their sights and stared directly at Lucy as though it was saying goodbye to her. Actually it had simply forgotten its destination mid-flight and just stopped on the rock to see if it could remember, but that didn't matter. Not to Lucy, who waved bye anyway.
By the time the Kay Two returned to dock, the weather had soothed considerably. The day had been liberated of its dullness and was now reborn unstained, clean air and quiet breeze. The passengers offered goodbyes to Captain Merlin and the tall engine boy and then to each other before they set foot on the rock-steady mainland once more. They all had to take a moment to shake off their feeling of sea-woozy. Except Lucy. She held onto her wooziness. And it was quite a wooziness. Made more so by the rum and rescue.
Then she noticed Eddie.
He was waiting for her at the harbour reading a newspaper. She thought in that instant to disguise her unsteadiness in front of him, to hide herself and the day's events from him, but there wasn't much point. She kept on as she was. Eddie glanced up at her as she drew near and looked down at his watch, suggesting tacit scolding, and then he went back to his newspaper as she meandered woozily past him without saying a single word.
Back on the island, the puffins rubbed their beaks together and chatted excitedly amongst themselves about what might happen tomorrow when the fog cracked.