by Mick Haining
Through the binoculars, Reader could see crabs on the body. Whoever it had been was no longer recognizable, not even to a mother. Reader carefully put the binoculars down on the parapet, glanced around and picked up the catapult. He glanced around again, then took aim. His first shot hit the skull and he felt instant satisfaction as well as a little guilt. He miscalculated the second shot – a wave lifted the body as he shot but the head caught on something, perhaps the guttering of the drowned house, and stayed where it was. His stone hit the roof tiles and bounced over the ridge. He put the catapult back on the pebble-box below the parapet and focused the binoculars on the road again.
Presently Little Crabber arrived with crab-meat. They touched cheeks and smiled as they had done since she was tiny. As he ate, she scanned the coast with the binoculars, pausing briefly at the body before focussing on the road. Watching her, he felt proud. He could say ‘the’ pebble-box, ‘the’ binoculars and ‘the’ catapult but he could say ‘my’ daughter. She wasn’t so little any more, he thought. A few men had already asked. Crabber had been proud of her, too, before she went, caught on or by something on a dive. By then she had passed on so much wisdom and skill to their daughter that Little Crabber had been the obvious name. But he could not bring himself to call her just Crabber yet.
“Dad, look!” she said. “The ginger. On the left.”
He looked towards the road and to where the lane ran off it in front of the nearest row of ruined, scavenged cottages. The ginger cat was immobile, a front paw off the ground. He glanced along the line of its stare and picked up the catapult.
“No, Dad, don’t—“ began Little Crabber.
“He’s after a rabbit,” said Reader, feeling for a stone.
“Get the rabbit!” she exclaimed.
“No,” he said. “If I hit the rabbit, he’ll have it.” He shot and the pebble bounced off a metal tank near the cat with such a clang that both animals fled.
“You missed!” she said.
He poked her cheek. “I didn’t,” he said.
“I love it that you’re such a softy,” she said, hugging him.
Over her shoulder, he saw Knotter hurrying towards them.
“Just practical,” said Reader. “Ginger will keep the rats down.”
“What is it?” asked Knotter, staring at Little Crabber.
“I hit that old cistern,” said Reader. He noted the extra few seconds it took Knotter to look at him.
“Nobody coming then,” said Knotter.
“Nobody,” said Reader. “You taking over?”
“Alright,” said Knotter, glancing back at Little Crabber. She was staring to where the ginger cat had disappeared.
Reader and Little Crabber walked back through the inner wall onto the stone path to the houses. Theirs was two from the end of the single street. Reader went straight through to the back garden and eased himself in the latrine. As he dug a trowel of earth to throw in, he noticed the buds on the little willow were nearly open.
“I’m done!” he called and sat on the bench by the apple tree. Little Crabber came out with a book and a cup. She handed him the cup and sat by him. As he stirred the nettle leaves in the steaming water, she opened the book. She looked as if she were about to read, but did not. He sipped the tea and nodded towards the willow.
“It’ll be Easter after the full moon,” he said.
“The three kings and all that,” she said.
“No,” said Reader, “they came when he was born. Easter is the re-birth.”
“Oh, yeah – eggs.” She raised the book. “Even though he died.”
“And was reborn,” said Reader. “That’s what they believed.”
“Eggs aren’t reborn,” she said. “They come out once and that’s it.”
She had never tasted chocolate. Like any other child born on the Nab, she had never travelled faster than she could run, never felt ice outside of the fridge, never seen a moving image beyond the shadow puppets, never spoken to anyone out of earshot and never heard recorded sound. All that had vanished at least two decades before her birth. He was glad that she had not lived through those unexpected surges of the sea, the astonishing bursts of savagery that followed and the education in dishonour that good people had had to learn. In the absence of a cause beyond survival, there had been little room for honour. He gazed at her and tried briefly to imagine her in school, in a shop, on a bus, but gave up, annoyed with himself. He smiled at her hair. She had cut it not for vanity but to keep it from getting in the way.
“That Prayer, he talks nonsense,” she said, raising the book. “‘Emma and Harriet had been walking together one morning and, in Emma’s opinion, been talking enough about Mr. Elton for that day. She could not think that Harriet’s…’”
She held the book towards her father.
“Solace,” he said.
“’She could not think that Harriet’s solace or her own sins…’ What’s a solace?” asked Little Crabber.
“You are,” said Reader. “You’re my comfort, my relaxation, my rest, that sort of thing. More comfort, really, consolation.”
She nodded and stared out to sea.
“There’s my solace,” she said. “If I’m fed up, I jump in and that’s that. Under the sea, I’m never sad.”
She raised the book eventually.
“Can I change my name?” she said.
The handbell startled them before he could answer. She carefully put down the book, still open, and they both picked up catapults as they hurried for the walls. Others were already moving urgently along the street. Like a puppy, Digger would run ahead of Grandad and run back to him. Big Fisher strode rapidly, his eyes fixed straight ahead towards the walls. Cobbler glanced from side to side as she sped, occasionally pointing a warning finger to instantly silence anyone making sounds of panic. When Reader arrived, he put his arm out to stop Little Crabber from going beyond the inner wall before joining those at the outer. Chopper, Wireman and Roper all held catapults with stones already pouched. Knotter was shaking the bell with all his might and Prayer was on his knees, ignored again by everyone.
About fifty metres away, on the road, a group of men sat on horses looking towards the Nab. Reader counted eight of them. That their hair was cut away from the front and sides meant they were certainly vikings. Two huge dogs stood panting together, looking towards the wall and occasionally glancing up at the riders. After a brief chat and some laughter, two of the riders walked their horses forward. The dogs followed. Cobbler stopped Knotter’s arm and the ring hung fading in the tense air.
“The left one has a gun,” said Cobbler softly.
The two horses stopped and the man on the right spoke.
“You got water?” he said, smiling.
“Not for horses,” said Big Fisher. “The beck’s reachable about a mile back. Water for yourselves?”
“Wireman, Roper,” said Cobbler in her quiet voice, “take the dogs.”
The viking smiled again and nodded. “You got food?” he asked.
“A few cod,” said Big Fisher. “Caught yesterday.”
“Cod?” replied the viking. He nodded again and turned to those behind. “Cod!” he shouted. The other Vikings gave a cheer of kinds, as if it were expected.
“What have you got?” called Little Crabber. Reader and some others turned to glare at her.
“Us?” said the viking, laughing loudly. “Us? We’ve got peace, that’s what we’ve got. Peace and quiet… if you want it.”
“Digger, get a bucket of water,” said Grandad. “And Little Crabber, get four big cod. And keep your mouth shut.”
They could not hear what words passed between the two nearest vikings but the silent one turned his horse and walked it back to those behind.
“The one he’s talking to now, the one with the fur,” said Cobbler, “he’s got a gun, too. He’ll be the gaffer.”
They watched as three vikings walked their horses into the lane between the ruined cottages and dismounted. They moved among the ruins, bringing bits of wood to one place.
“What’s on that roof there?” said the viking, pointing up to the solar panel.
“It’s for rainwater,” lied Big Fisher.
The viking smiled again. “Rainwater, eh?” he said. “Where’s the down pipe?”
“Underneath,” said Big Fisher. “Goes straight through the tiles.”
“And the tank’s in the roof, right?” said the viking.
“Right,” said Big Fisher.
“So it’s not an app for electric then?” said the viking.
“What, out here?” said Big Fisher. “Wish it was.”
“I bet you do,” said the viking. “I bet you do.”
The water and cod were lowered from the outer wall and two vikings walked forward to collect them. A rough word stopped the dogs from running ahead. The two men withdrew with the buckets towards the ruins where a fire had been lit. The speaker grinned, nodded towards the wall and tapped the side of his nose. He turned his horse and walked it to join his fellows. The Nab watched until every viking had dismounted and tethered their horses in the lane between the wrecked cottages.
“You stay, Big Fisher,” said Cobbler. “Wireman, Chopper, Roper, you, too. Prayer, on the inner wall, with the bell. The rest of you, put the kids in the boats, pack what you need, just in case. Rest, if you can. Go!”
Reader hurried to catch up with Little Crabber. Already cross with her, he was further annoyed to see her walking ahead with Knotter, laughing. In their house, he berated her for interfering – a wrong word from an inexperienced mouth could invite reaction more brutal than she could ever imagine and not just for her. She should know by now that Big Fisher was the only speaker in such situations.
“Then why isn’t he called Big Mouth?” snapped Little Crabber and stalked out of the door.
In their small garden, he paced back and forth to calm himself. He sat on the bench and lifted the book she had carefully put down, despite the alarm. Further down the page from which she had been reading, he saw the line ‘She had many a hint from Mr Knightly and some from her own heart, as to her deficiency’. He smiled at last.
In the dark, he passed the binoculars to Cobbler and leaned his back against the parapet. Above the rooftops, looking out to sea away from the beacon lights, he picked out some familiar constellations. In his youth, he had never seen so many stars. A line came to him, ‘I kiss my hand to the stars’ but he could not recall any more. Grandad would know and he would also be able to tell him the names. He resolved to ask him soon because he knew that when Grandad went, Reader would then become Grandad. There was so much to know and Grandad would take a lot with him. That’s how it was now, knowledge being extinguished, making black holes where there had once been stars. It wasn’t just knowledge, he thought… Wireman’s ingenuity had kept them going, but once anything irreplaceable went on the pump or the fridge, the solar panel would be useless. The last bulbs had worn out years before. Maybe there were communities somewhere else in the world where the genius of millennia had been preserved and schools, shops and buses had been kept going… Of course, this might be their last night and there’d be no Grandad at all. It did not worry him unduly – he had lived so many such nights by now. The only pang he felt was for Little Crabber – picturing her jogging behind one of those viking horses at the end of a rope, like some other animal, was sadly much easier to picture than her in a shop. Maybe she’d be smart enough to use the sea until they’d gone, he thought, but he knew that her temper would be more likely to push her to fight. And then she began to sing.
‘Away in a Manger’ cut through the darkness like the sight of fresh berries in a winter wood. He could not see her but knew she was by the inner wall, maybe even standing defiantly on it. He heard movement from the direction of the ruined cottages and turned to face the glow of the dying bonfire.
“I think a couple of others have come out,” said Cobbler quietly beside him. Reader felt his heart beat a little more heavily. “I think they’re all out. This could be it.”
“Digger!” whispered Reader. “Go and wake—“
“No, Digger! Stay!” said Cobbler. “I can’t see them moving now.”
Reader felt the binoculars touch the side of his face. He took them and carefully scanned either side of the distant embers. Although he could not identify what was ruin and what was human, there was indeed no discernible movement. From nearby, through the carol, he heard the grate of pebbles as Chopper and Roper took them from the boxes and clicked them onto the wall for easy reach in the dark. Without lowering the binoculars, he patted his scabbard to verify the handle of his dagger.
“Wait, Digger,” he said.
“Maybe they’re just listening,” whispered Cobbler.
Little Crabber finished the carol and the faint lapping of waves joined their own breathing as the only sounds they could hear. Their eyes and ears strained for anything that might signal the attack. Then Little Crabber began ‘Silent Night’. The darkness became a huge, reverent cathedral. The stars were distant candles and the smell of the fresh sea breeze was incense. Her voice sweetly rose and gently fell from purity to thrilling purity until the final note left an awed, deep silence. Reader passed the binoculars to Cobbler and wiped tears from his face. The world has nothing more beautiful to give me, he thought. Little Crabber then launched into ‘Yesterday’, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ and ‘White Christmas’. She sang ‘Silent Night’ again. Then she called across the blackness that she knew no more carols. There was a moment or two of silence. Then a pair of hands, from the direction of the ruins, began to clap. Others followed and then faded, leaving a deeper silence and a long, deeper night.
As light began to grow, those behind the wall were astonished by the sight of the vikings mounting their horses and gathering, not as if to attack, but as if to leave. The one who had spoken rode alone towards the Nab. He stopped his horse, nodded and smiled. He pointed towards the solar panel, tapped the side of his nose, turned his horse and rejoined the others. They cantered away.
The road was watched until the last viking had disappeared from view and for some time afterwards. Then Cobbler shook her head and looked at Reader.
“What do you think?” she said.
“I’ve no idea!” he said. “We’d better keep a few extra here for a couple of days.”
“If that’s all of them, then we’re probably OK,” said Cobbler. “There’s 27 of us, not including the kids, even if they have a couple of guns that aren’t just for show.”
“We’ll find out one way or another,” said Reader.
“You go and find your daughter,” said Cobbler. “She’s a one, that one. Defending the Nab with songs!”
Walking back for a sleep, he considered what he should say to Little Crabber. He hadn’t seen her leave the wall in the night. He smiled at the thought that, once, he’d have made sure she knew the difference between Christmas and Easter and what was or was not a carol. He considered teasing her by saying that the vikings had fled, terrified of her voice. She might be asleep – he did not know how long she had stayed at the inner wall.
Grandad was waiting by his door.
“They’ve gone?” he said, surprised.
“For now,” said Reader. He described the events of the night. “So now they know we’ve a solar panel,” he finished, yawning.
“Well, if it ends, it ends,” said Grandad. “Just like everything.”
Reader turned his sigh into a yawn. Grandad looked as if he was warming up for a speech and Reader desperately wanted to sleep.
“That sun over there will stop shining one day,” continued Grandad. “So, one day, there’ll be no life of any kind on earth. Some humans will have to face being the last ones ever. They probably won’t know it at the time. It might even be us, now, here. It seems like a tragedy, but if it were really a tragedy, then the whole of nature is a tragedy. ‘To mourn avails not: man is born to bear’. Even if every one of us did and had always done the very best we could, we’d still reach that very last day. And when our time comes, it won’t be because we’ve missed some kind of opportunity… it’ll just be that our time is up. We have no more right to survive than the dinosaurs. We’re part of it all – we’re not gods.”
Reader nodded, yawning.
“Carpe diem,” he said and yawned again.
“That’s right!” said Grandad. “This is the only moment we’ve got. This place, this second… seize it!”
“I’d still feel sorry for Little Crabber,” said Reader. “She hasn’t given it a real shot yet.”
“Why sorry?” said Grandad. “She’s alive, healthy, enjoys what she enjoys, hates what she hates – she’s as balanced as anybody I know.”
“Maybe you’re right,” said Reader and yawned.
“Maybe?” said Grandad. “I am right! I’m Grandad! I’m the Pope here. And you need a sleep. I don’t know why you’re standing around here.”
Reader grinned and opened his door.
“Oh, um, ‘I kiss my hand to the stars’, where’s that from?” he said.
“Lovely as under starlight,” said Grandad. “Gerard Manley Hopkins. I used to be able to recite all thirty-five verses. Now…” He sighed. “Go to bed.”
In the house, Reader stepped quietly. He ate a cold potato and thought briefly about Grandad’s words. Maybe you could train yourself to think that way, train yourself to accept rather than long for. Maybe Grandad was just saying it without really believing it. Reader had grown used to the sight of bodies – he’d had plenty of opportunity. Maybe that was a kind of training. He shook his head and yawned.
He paused to listen outside Little Crabber’s door. He wasn’t expecting sound, but the silence in the house seemed somehow deeper than usual. Slowly and carefully, he eased her door open.
Little Crabber’s bed was empty and cold. Surely she hadn’t gone crabbing, he thought. He had been sure she would be asleep. Had she stopped at someone else’s on the way home? She had never done so before. He drew in a long, deep breath, held it for a count of ten and let it slowly out.
He left the house and asked whoever he saw. Soon, the houses were being searched. She was not to be seen. Little Fisher had not seen her near the boats and he had been there since first light. Besides, no boats were missing. Reader and several others walked the perimeter of the Nab, calling her name. At the inner wall where she had sung, they discussed the possibilities. It was Knotter who suggested that she might have gone with the vikings – some of them were young, maybe she’d fancied one of them.
“We watched them go,” said Cobbler. She looked towards the ruins as she spoke.
Reader ran to the gate, picking up a catapult and a handful of stones as others heaved up the crossbeam for him. Digger ran ahead and ran back to him on the way to the ruins. Knotter, Cobbler and Big Fisher followed. At the first house, the ginger cat hurried from the door towards the undergrowth by the sea. Reader glanced after it and saw his daughter. She was bobbing face up by the roof of the drowned house, on the side where she could not be seen from the Nab. He scrambled down the slope to the water, automatically emptying the pebbles from his pocket. He threw himself across the narrow gap of water to the roof and pulled himself along to her. Her hands were tied together and hooked on a nail protruding from a beam. Her face was badly bruised. Digger joined him, dived under her and rose, lifting her out of the water on his muscular back. Reader unhooked her hands. He felt her neck. There was a pulse.
From her bed, as Reader stroked her head, she described to him and Cobbler the walk back in the dark with Knotter. She had liked his flattery and she had gone into his house. She had liked his arms around her and she had liked the kissing and the touching. But she wanted no babies and had repeated ‘no’ to his pleading. When she started a shout, he had choked it with one hand and slapped her hard with the other. She fought back and his slaps became punches. She had briefly lost consciousness and when she woke, he was on top of her and inside her, so she feared she might have a baby after all. Afterwards, he had tied her hands with one of his knots, in front of her, and carried her out into the dark, telling her that he was taking her to her father and she could tell him everything if she wanted. She wondered why he’d tied her hands, but remained mute, saving words for her dad. Confused, she had not realised that he was taking her to the far end of the Nab, towards the boats. He had stood her up, punched her hard in the belly and, as she gasped for breath, he had tied a weighing stone to her feet. She had time for one deep breath, however, as he pushed her over the edge into the sea. She had not panicked. She had let herself sink and concentrated on getting her tied hands in and out of her knife pocket. She had managed to open the blade and cut the weighing stone free but had stupidly dropped the knife. Back on the surface, she had turned onto her back, kicked a little and floated a little, exhausted, on the incoming tide, trying to work her way around the Nab to where the old road sloped into the sea. She had not shouted because she knew the vikings were nearby. She had cracked her head on the roof of the drowned house and pushed herself along into the little creek formed between the house and the bank. She had found the hole in the roof and hooked her hands over a nail. She could hear the occasional snort of a viking horse just above on the bank. She had shivered and shivered and then remembered nothing else until the rubbing of her body by Cobbler.
Reader continued to stroke her head until she was properly asleep. Then he stood and patted his waistband to feel the handle of his dagger. Cobbler stood with him and pushed him towards his own back door and into the garden.
“We’re not going to kill him,” she said.
“We don’t need to do anything,” said Reader. “Step out of the way.”
“No,” she said. “Death’s nothing anymore. What’ll he learn? What’ll we learn?”
He paced back and forth, taking huge breaths.
“What makes us human?” she said. He did not look at her. He picked up the book Little Crabber had put so carefully down and, with shaking hands, closed it.
“We talk,” she said. “That’s what makes us human – two-way talk. We’ll take one side of it away from him. Then he’ll suffer, you wait and see. Till the day he dies.”
Reader stood still, clutching the book.
Before the sun went down, Cobbler, Reader, Big Fisher and Grandad walked into Knotter’s house. They gave him an alternative. He could stay and no-one would speak to him again or he could leave the Nab, never to return. If he stayed and tried anything similar again, he would be drowned. He was given a stone count in which to decide. As Grandad began to count the pebbles from the bag onto the ground, Knotter declared that Little Crabber had wanted it, she’d left afterwards, maybe gone to the vikings, that’s where she was found, wasn’t it? Reader threw the knotted cord he’d taken from Little Crabber’s wrists onto the ground between them. Grandad continued the count as Knotter stared at the knots he’d made so well. At the end of the count, head down, he said he’d stay.
“Your knife,” said Cobbler.
Knotter passed it over and Cobbler handed it to Reader.
“For Little Crabber’s,” she said.
Knotter lasted around ten days. No-one answered his greetings or his questions, no-one interrupted what they were doing for his voice. He was asked for nothing and offered nothing, though he was not stopped from taking what he needed from the store or the fridge. On her feet again, Little Crabber looked at him without fear. Digger often walked behind him, growling. Though he lived among voices, it was as if his were leprous. Then, one night without a moon, he dropped over the wall and was not seen again.
Little Crabber had already returned to diving. One evening, she was taken by Reader to the end of the Nab where everyone bar the watch was waiting. Digger ran ahead and ran back to them, shouting joyfully. A small fire burned and Grandad took a stick onto which her name had been carved. He added it to the fire and, as it took flame, he handed her a stone onto which ‘Singer’ had been chiselled.
“There is no Little Crabber on the Nab anymore!” he called to the four directions. “Say hello to Singer!”
One by one, they approached her and said ‘Hello, Singer’. She smiled and laughed her way through all the greetings and gifts. When the last one had finished, she burst into ‘Yesterday’. In the dusk, she walked back home with Reader, to the home where the new leaves on the little willow had unfolded. Digger ran ahead and back to them, all the way to their house, shouting ‘Singer! Singer!”