Noah and the Blue Shawl (Parts 1 and 2)
In the darkness, the whispering of oars, dipping in and out of the water, went unheard as they propelled the tiny dinghy carrying Noah Grubb and the urn containing his wife’s ashes towards the harbour entrance. The frosted rooftops of Port Meridoc, illuminated by a full moon, curled silently around the horseshoe harbour. Here and there, below the darkened gables, lights shone from un-shuttered windows but Noah was relieved to see that the Harbour Master’s cottage remained in darkness.
He rowed easily and steadily, his lips permanently parted, blasting out clouds of steam like a fairground automaton each time he pulled back on the oars and felt the water’s resistance. This was his sixty-fifth winter. The tufts of hair curling out from under his dark woollen cap were white, the nose and cheeks of his creased and weathered face were traced over with thin red veins, and the whites of his steel grey eyes were jaundiced by time and tobacco. Despite his looks, beneath his heavy serge jacket and oilskin leggings, a lifetime of hauling nets had left him with a body as lean and as taut as steel cable. Molly’s urn was wedged into the stem of the boat, protected from the elements by a thick blue shawl that in life she had worn only on special occasions.
As Noah rowed across the black water, a memory stirred and bobbed to the surface of his mind; a picture of Molly in the same shawl, barely twenty, plain and sturdy, in an almost empty chapel, her jet black hair tied into a single plait. Others were there, her mother, old and bent and twisted like driftwood, who gave her away, Thomas the deckhand who acted as best man, and who went down with the Dancing Mary the following spring, Thomas’s twin brother, a deaf mute net mender who acted as the witness. And the Minister, as tall and thin as a harpoon, with the eyes of a dead fish. Beneath the blue shawl, Molly’s dress was fashioned from material bought from Scarbridge, the nearest market town, seven miles inland and rarely visited except for necessity. Her mother’s eyes being so bad, Molly had sewn it herself. Noah’s wedding suit, threadbare and shiny was a size too small and had once belonged to his father, Jacob, whose body had been recovered from the sea before Noah was born, and who had worn his better suit to his grave.
Theirs had been a marriage born of need. The parish was only concerned that the simple sons of fisher folk should have learning enough for them to follow their fathers onto the sea. Anything more would be a waste of parish resources. The parish cared even less about the girls. Whatever fisher girls needed to know they could learn from their mothers. In any event, their course was already set. They would marry the boys, keep their house clean and their pots full and, above all, bear children. Love seldom came into it, if at all. Certainly, the idea of love had not occurred to Noah or to Molly.
As they approached the harbour entrance, the boat began to bob and dip in response to the stiffening breeze and the open sea beyond. Overhead a lone seagull swooped in silence, lit from beneath by moonlight reflecting off the water, like a ghost bird. For a moment Noah felt a doubt. They could, if he chose, turn around and go back. No-one need ever know. Certainly Molly would neither tell nor complain. But then, what had they to go back to? He jammed his feet into the foot straps in the bottom of the boat and pulled even harder towards the open sea.
Immediately after their wedding, Noah had been pleased to find he had a wife who kept his house well. But after three summers it was apparent that she would not, or could not, bear his children. Molly believed it was a judgement from God. Their pride forbade them from consulting a doctor. It was left to the minister with the dead fish eyes to find an answer, which he duly did in the shape of Jonah, a four month old orphan wrapped in grubby rags, the product of a consumptive mother and an alcoholic itinerant.
Molly’s mother was set against the idea. She had stood by the hearth, her arms folded firmly across her chest, eyeing the minister and his bundle with suspicion. ‘No good will come of this,’ she warned. ‘You can’t defy God’s will. He punishes those who take what He has chosen not to give.’ In response, Molly took the blue shawl from the chest at the end of the marriage bed, wrapped it around the squalling infant and from that day forward treated him as her own. At the time, Noah had chewed on the stem of his pipe and said nothing. He was unsure then what to think. On the one hand this was another mouth to feed in a time when catches were poor and empty nets were commonplace. On the other, though he was not a greatly religious man, he was afraid to argue with a man of God for fear of calling down bad luck upon himself. Yet even now, as he drove the boat out of the harbour and into the open sea, even as he glanced over his shoulder to get his bearings, he wondered if his silence had been a mistake.
By the moonlight he could see the silhouette of the headland and Sparrow point, beyond which was Mounts Bay. The thought of rounding the Sparrow concerned him. The onshore breeze was stiffening by the minute and the sea was becoming more and more boisterous. Its cold white watery fingers were beginning to curl over the gunwales and cascade into the boat. The icy water sloshing about around his feet was getting deeper and was soaking through his boots. To round the Sparrow, he would have to turn across the swell, which might easily swamp them or even turn the boat right over. Still he rowed on into the worsening sea, beneath the cloud scudded moon, until he was far enough out to avoid the Devil’s Sisters, the line of razor sharp rocks that lurked beneath the surface and extended out from the Sparrow like a saw blade. They had ripped the bottom out of his father’s boat sixty-five years ago.
Noah turned the boat across the headland and almost immediately his misgivings were realised. A rising swell reached beneath the wooden shell and flipped it up onto its side. This is it, Noah thought. The boat was going over and there was nothing he could do about it.
Instinct took hold as Noah threw himself across the higher gunwale. For several seconds the boat balanced on its edge. Then Noah felt the boat begin to right itself, levered by the weight of his outstretched body. More by luck than skill, Noah had managed to keep the boat from capsizing. Salt water stung his eyes, almost blinding him as he fell back into the bottom of the pitching boat, retching the sea from his lungs. Mercifully, the sea had not managed to dislodge Molly, but they had lost an oar. For once Noah realised that they might not make it. Even with two oars they would be at the sea’s mercy. He suddenly felt every one of his sixty five years. Then, as he knelt on all fours, cold, shivering and hoping for a miracle, he became aware that the boat’s movement was less chaotic. Levering his reluctant body upright, he saw that a miracle had indeed taken place. Just as easily as the wind and the sea had tossed and battered them into defeat, the tides and current had delivered them into the lee of the headland and Mounts Bay. The water was still playful here, but it no longer threatened them and Noah could see the long silver strip of sand that stretched around the bay. He took the remaining oar and began to paddle Indian style, toward the shore.
By the time the Jonah was four, he hardly spoke and shunned company, content to sit apart and play alone. Molly thought her adopted son was deaf. He never paid any attention when she called his name. Noah thought the boy was an idiot, incapable of learning anything he tried to teach him and prone to surges of temper that, as far as Noah could see, had no cause. ‘Changeling,’ Molly’s mother announced, shaking her head. ‘I said no good would come of this.’ Noah raised his eyebrows. Changeling? God? Surely it was not possible to believe in both God and fairies.
Whatever the reason, all three agreed that the lad was ‘not quite right’. Molly and her mother decided that it was not in his interest to attend the local school – though secretly Noah thought it might toughen the lad up. He might even get some sense knocked into him. So Jonah was kept at home where Molly, between her chores, did her best to teach him his letters and numbers. Meanwhile, there was unease around the harbour. Beneath the black mastheads that scratched nervously against the storm grey skies, rumours began to spread. Wasn’t it true that the fishing went bad the day the boy arrived and had worsened ever since? When the other fishermen passed Noah in the street they would turn their heads away and, if Jonah was with him they would cross themselves hastily. As the years went by and the meagre catches continued, the black mood of the harbour folk deepened. It was obvious that the boy was a curse and that Noah was consorting with the devil.
‘Stay away from the other boys,’ Molly would often warn Jonah, but to no avail; the other boys would seek him out. He often came home with a torn shirt and a bloodied face. And the talking continued, in the pews, on barstools and street corners and on the quayside. The boy was a curse, sent by the devil, and was ruining their lives. Whenever Molly took Jonah on errands to the butchers or the bakers, people avoided them. When she asked for sugar from the grocer she was told there was none. ‘But it’s there on the shelf behind you,’ she would argue. But the answer remained the same. And she would grab the boy’s hand tightly and sweep out of the shop. ‘Come Jonah, sugar is a luxury for which we have no need.’
In the Crown and Anchor, the landlord wrung his plump hands together, and was careful to ensure that his black bead eyes did not meet with Noah’s as he asked him to drink elsewhere. His presence was upsetting the other customers. ‘I have my livelihood to consider,’ he offered as an excuse, and handed Noah his tankard that hung from the rack above the bar.
Just as being in a childless marriage had resolved itself without Noah’s intervention, so did the problem of Jonah. Perhaps the boy had suffered more than he could bear, felt his rejection despite his aloofness and seeming lack of wits. Perhaps, like Noah, he thought the villagers could be right about him being bad luck – if he understood them at all. Noah did not know what Jonah thought, only that one morning the boy had wandered off and had not come back. Molly and Noah searched all day and night until Noah found the boy’s clothes piled neatly on the sand in Mounts Bay and a line of foot prints leading down to the sea.
Molly took her shawl down to the sands. ‘He’ll come back,’ she said. All that day and the following night she stayed there, resisting all Noah’s pleadings to go home. ‘He’ll come back,’ she repeated, over and over, rocking herself back and forth with grief She would have stayed there even longer but on the second morning the chill took her and Noah carried her home, still wrapped in the shawl. For three days he nursed her through a fever, barely leaving her bedside. On the fourth day the fever worsened and he fetched the physician who could only shake his head and advise Noah that it would have been better if he had fetched the Minister instead. On the fifth day while he was fetching a bowl of broth, the life seeped from her.
‘You must thank God for giving you time to say your farewells,’ Fish Eyes said. Noah’s eyes narrowed and his fist clenched at his sides. God, thought Noah. God? My son is drowned. My wife is dead. I’m an outcast in the village of my birth. What has God ever done for me?
He made the necessary arrangements himself, refusing to let Molly lie in the shadow of the chapel, choosing instead to keep her ashes in a casket above the hearth. Jonah’s death changed nothing. The fishing continued to decline and one by one the boats were beached and their owners forced to find work elsewhere. But Port Meridoc survived, saved by the growing waves of tourists that flooded in from the towns and cities every summer. The old chandler’s became a fish and chip shop and a new chandler appeared, catering for the armada of pristine yachts that lined the harbour. The Crown and Anchor thrived; well enough for the landlord to sell up and retire to Spain. In time, the only fisherman left was Noah. But even Noah’s time was approaching. Six months maybe, the new doctor from the city explained. There were drugs that would relieve the pain but the outcome would be the same.
The tide was on the turn, in a little while it would be in full ebb and would carry everything in it and on it far out into the ocean. When he judged the remaining distance to the shore to be a cable’s length, Noah stopped paddling. By the moonlight he could see the spot where the boy’s clothes had once lain and where Molly had played out her vigil. He lifted the shawl and the casket it protected and hugged them tight to his chest. Stooping low, he eased himself over the side of the boat and with one arm lowered himself into the ice cold water, his free arm still clutching the shawl and its contents.
At first the water was so cold that Noah could hardly draw breath. The darkness and the pinprick stars overhead shuddered and slowly swayed as he bobbed and gasped in the water. He felt his body begin to sink, slowly deeper and deeper until he could see Molly’s face, twenty years old again, holding a bundle of grubby rags in her arms. He could not tell if she was angry or sad or happy. But he was no longer cold. He was warm and tired. He closed his eyes and slept.