Authors: Rosie Thomas
BY ROSIE THOMAS
The boat turned a fresh furrow of ripples in the flat water. Doug Hanscom opened up the outboard motor and set a course from his dockside moorings towards the mouth of the harbour. There was a midday haze today, not a fog but a thickness of heat and moisture in the air that almost blotted out the islands lying off at the edge of the bay. Their crests of spruce trees stood black and two-dimensional against the pearly sky.
Another boat was nosing towards him. It was Alton Purrit in the
, with a half-dozen visitors he’d taken out to see the seals basking on the ledges at the tip of Duck Island. Alton raised his arm as they passed and called out, ‘Hope they’re crawlin’ right today, Doug.’
Doug nodded an acknowledgement. He was not noted for loquaciousness.
He turned towards the rocky teeth that guarded the south headland of the bay. The current ran viciously here and slapped collars of white foam against the rocks, but he negotiated the tideway without a thought. He had been a lobster man out of Pittsharbor, Maine for twenty years and he made the same run to haul his traps every morning. Today he had stopped first for hot coffee and a cherry muffin at the store on Sunday Street, and he could still taste the pleasant sweetness on his tongue. He was thinking that he could well have eaten another of Edie Clark’s muffins and at the same time began rummaging in the side pocket of his oil-stained pants. He took out his pipe and chewed on the stem, even though his daughter had long ago nagged him out of smoking it.
Beyond the headland the water was flat again. The first of his marked buoys floated here and he swung the tiller over and cut the engine to bring the boat alongside. There were gulls and cormorants standing sentinel on the rocks, and a dozen more made a slow circle over the buoys. Doug tilted his head to look at them and shrugged as he bent to work. The first trap he hauled was a good one. Two nice two-pounders, along with the dross of snails and hermit crabs.
The lobsters went into a tub of water in the stern and the rubbish was tipped back into the sea. The gulls widened their circle to glide overhead.
Doug manoeuvred his boat between the buoys, the stem of his pipe gripped between his teeth. The second trap was empty, but the sun was warm on his back, and he was dry and comfortable. He whistled as he worked, a sibilant ‘sss-sss’ that bubbled in the pipe.
He was leaning over the boat’s side to the third buoy when he noticed the woman’s body. It was the hair he saw first. It fanned out like fine weed, rippling gently in the current. She was hanging face down in the water, perhaps five feet below the surface.
Doug bumped down on to his knees, his hands fastening on the boat’s side as it rocked with his sudden movement. Looking again through the skin of the water he could see her quite clearly, it was no submerged log or trick of the light. Her pale shirt or vest, or whatever it was, ballooned lazily around her curved back.
The shock of seeing her had made his throat tighten and his heart bang in his chest, but now he began to breathe again. It was not the first drowning he had seen, nor did he imagine it would be the last.
With cold fingers he replaced the pipe in his pocket and groped beneath the thwarts for his boathook. Gently he fed the pole down into the water and tried to twist the hook in the loose cloth of her shirt. But his hands were not yet steady and the hook snagged, then jerked free. The body sank a foot deeper and Doug grunted with despair. If she went down any more he would lose her.
He waited a moment, gripping the hook in his right hand and bracing himself to hold steady against the boat’s rocking. Prickly sweat had broken out on his forehead and under his flannel shirt. Once again he lowered the boathook and drew wheezy breaths clogged with concentration as he tried to take a secure purchase on the clothing. He twisted the hook sharply and hoisted the pole. This time the body rose sluggishly but obediently. Doug eased it slowly closer, bending as far as he dared to meet it. When it hung a foot below the surface he knelt down again and reached with his left hand to grasp her arm. He let go of the boathook and the woman rolled over as he pulled her wrist towards him. Her head, then her face, broke the surface. The gulls circled closer over the boat.
Water streamed off her, plastering dark tendrils of hair across her features. She was not much more than a child. Perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old. Her eyes were closed and her lashes made delicate black crescents against her white skin. He could see no fish or crab damage yet, so she couldn’t have been in the water very long. But there was no question that she was dead.
Doug looked away. His granddaughter was pretty much the same age as this one. The difference was that he saw to it Stacy never went near the water without her lifejacket, and still he sometimes had bad dreams.
He raked among the gear stowed under the seat and found a good length of strong line. The waterlogged body was heavy and he didn’t think he could haul her in over the gunwale single-handed. To make her secure and tow her into the harbour was the best he could hope to do. He tied her wrist first to a cleat. Then the body bumped awkwardly against the hull as he struggled to pass more line under her arms and at one point the boat rocked so fiercely that he was afraid they would capsize. He waited until it steadied again. Sweat ran down his face as he rolled her over and tightened his methodical knots around her chest.
A huge gull settled on the transom, its hooked beak pointing at him. He cursed briefly and waved his arm at it and the bird took off again. It drifted in an arc around the stern.
Doug saw the sailboat then. It was one of those lightweight fibreglass affairs the visitors liked to sail about the bay in, a Mirror dinghy or Heron, or some such thing. It had drifted into a narrow cleft in the rocks and now it was wedged there, banging its hull as the waves slapped against it. The mainsail flapped as the boom swung dismally from side to side.
It was more than possible that the girl hadn’t been out alone.
She was tied fast now. He checked the knots and let out a length of the line so that she would ride free of the rudder and outboard. Then he made the rope fast to the cleats inside the boat.
He pushed her away from the side, fired up the motor again and cast off from the mooring buoy. At low throttle he nosed towards the inlet. The weight behind him sagged in the water, as if greedy to pull him in beside it.
Doug Hanscom searched thoroughly among the rocks and weed. But there was no sign of anyone else, in the dinghy or in the water.
When he was convinced that the girl had been sailing alone he turned his boat again and made slow progress with the unaccustomed weight sloughing at his stern, back around the headland and into the mouth of the harbour.
The rain fell in a steamy curtain. It hissed into the sea and blurred the windows, and pounded out a drumbeat on the roofs and decks of the five houses. Unseen in the darkness, rivulets coursed down the beach steps and washed the day’s sand prints into miniature river deltas and estuaries.
The car windscreen washers swept plumes of water aside as John Duhane followed the unfamiliar road out towards the beach. The route from Pittsharbor to the bluff was narrow, twisting back on itself two or three times, and as he drove he hunched forward to try to see ahead through the downpour. A flicker of lightning hollowed the sky and an instant later a thunderclap shook the car. The echoes rolled overhead for long seconds and the rain beat harder.
‘Great,’ Ivy sighed. ‘Just great.’
She sat slumped in the seat beside her father, twisting her body away from him even though the seat-belt bit into her bare neck.
‘It’s only a summer storm.’
In the back seat May said nothing at all. She hadn’t spoken for more than an hour, since they had passed Bangor and turned towards the coast.
They had driven all the way up from New York, stopping for a night to stay with John’s sister. May was tired of the journey and of Ivy’s sulking, but even so she was not looking forward to their arrival at the beach house. Everything would be the same as it always was, except that it would go on being the same in a different place. How could a family vacation be anything of the kind if there wasn’t a family to live it; if there were only a father and two daughters who didn’t get on?
May leant her head against the window of the station-wagon and closed one eye, squinting so the smears of rain blurred and shimmered into rainbow fragments against the lights of the last houses on the road out of Pittsharbor.
Elizabeth Freshett Newton stood in the window of her house up on the bluff. This was the evening room, that was what her mother had called it. It faced north and west, away from the beach and the ocean, and overlooked part of the sheltered pocket of garden, which had once required the full-time efforts of a man and a boy to maintain in the English style favoured by her mother. Elizabeth’s parents had liked to entertain in the evening room, where blinds filtered the setting sun and brightened squares of pattern in the old rugs. She remembered bridge evenings, and impromptu piano recitals on the baby grand that still stood between the two tall windows. The memories of those parties of fifty years ago made the house seem the more empty and silent now.
The lamp at her shoulder shone on the window glass and made broken reflections in the wash of rain. Aware that her silhouette against the light would be visible to anyone outside, she reached up and clicked off the switch. There was no one out there to see her, of course, but she felt easier in the dark. Until the sudden crack of thunder came the only sounds were the measured ticking of the long-case clock and the rain. Her hand held the cord of the curtains, ready to draw them and close out the storm. Then she leant forward, peering into the dark. The headlights of a car were veering slowly along the road.
Elizabeth stood still. The beam of the lights came closer and swept across her windows, before turning towards the gateway of the Captain’s House. She heard the engine stop and through the drumming of the rain a car door slammed.
Another sheet of lightning ripped the sky. In its split-second eerie brilliance she saw a girl, running, with her shoulders hunched and one arm crooked over her bent head in an attempt to shield herself from the storm. The flash froze her into immobility and left the image burning behind Elizabeth’s eyes.
The thunder crashed again. Elizabeth’s hand had flown up to her mouth, but as the darkness resettled she let it drop. She waited for her heart to stop pounding with shock.
It wasn’t the same girl.
It was someone else, just another girl of a similar age and build. The Bennisons had rented the old house out for the season and these were the summer tenants, that was all.
Two or three years ago Sam Bennison had laid out fancy garden lighting along the path to the Captain’s House and now these little flares suddenly shone out, lighting up sopping-wet billows of overgrown foliage. The back door of the house stood open and two girls were trailing mournfully back to the car, their hair already draggled and soaking. The lights picked out their T-shirts and denimed legs and big white sneakers. A man gave each of them an armful of luggage from the open back of the station-wagon and they trooped back to the house.
The younger girl was indeed in her early teens, just like Doone. She was stocky, too, with the same shoulder-length hair. Otherwise, Elizabeth now saw, there was no real resemblance.
She turned away from the window, leaving the curtains open.
May dumped her bag on the bed in the bedroom Ivy had not chosen. Then she sat down beside it and looked around her.
The bedhead was made of curly wrought iron, kind of French-looking, May thought, although she had no idea what a French bed might really look like. There was a pine bureau with a framed mirror screwed to the wall above it, an armchair with a worn slipcover and a set of bare shelves. Beside the bed lay a blue and grey rag rug hiding, as she saw when she pushed it aside with her foot, a burn mark in the haircord carpeting. The walls were wood panelled and painted a greyish white that reminded her of a bird’s egg. There were sticky-tape marks on the panelling showing where someone else’s pictures had once been fixed.