The Herring Gutter
By sean mcnulty
It was a clear day in Torshavn. A stark difference from the gloomy town they had come upon the day before. Sun. Cloudspecks. And people. Smiling. That gentle sense of order that reminded him of home. He even passed two white geese sitting in the middle of the road honking away – not a care in the world. He could very well stay a few more days in this nice little town but – as always – there was his resolve to weigh anchor, man of the savage pond and all.
Littlewood and Grimur Passer had arranged to meet at Dolores, and when he eventually got there, Grimur was waiting already, sipping from the largest flask you ever got a peep on.
‘What are you drinking?’
‘Barley water,’ replied Grimur. ‘Do you want some?’
‘No, I’m good, thanks.’ He was hoping it was something stronger than barley water. He had smelt licker on the others when he met them in the hotel and it had brought on a formidable thirst. He was cautious with Grimur though; he didn’t see him as a tee-totaller but he hadn’t spotted a single bottle in the Passer home the night before and an expression of disdain for the local drinkers had been expressed almost as soon as they stepped off the boat. So Littlewood spent the last evening aching to be offered something – anything at all – but it never came – and he was too respectful to ask. The four Redbreast bottles hidden in Dolores’ cockpit (well away from the priests for he wouldn’t trust the Irish clergy with his better tonics) were now golden lights in his mind. Nourishment for Dolores was the priority but he too required providing for. He had come to refuel. And refuel he would. Respectfully. Maybe Grimur would have a wee sip later. Maybe. Find the right time first.
They boarded Dolores Costello together and Littlewood proudly gave his Faroese host a guided tour of the vessel. When Grimur saw how many cases the priests had brought with them, he was somewhat startled and asked, ‘What are they carrying in there?’
‘Books, I think,’ answered Littlewood.
‘No, no – the seas around here won’t do for academics. Unless they’re looking for new beasts so they can write never to be published volumes about them. I take it you have weaponry on board, Fergal, to fend off any stray leviathans.’
‘A couple of blades, a few sticks.’
‘Well, at least that is something. I have a spare semi-automatic back in the house I can offer you.’
‘Oh, I don’t think I’ll need that. I’m not a good shot anyway. Buttery fingers, you know. But I’m good with blades. I can grip hold of a spear well.’
‘Then there’s a nice harpoon waiting for you too. But have the shooter, my friend. It’s there. And, as I’m sure you know, you just never know.’
They went off to meet Grimur’s friend, a big man named PER. In big letters, Grimur said. That’s how they distinguished him from the other Pers. Now Fergal Littlewood was an able-bodied man himself and unquestionably stout in the heart and there wasn’t much in the wide world that could put the fear in him; but for some reason PER did just that. Or maybe not fear. Just a considerable bundle of jitters. There was no threat or malice coming from the man – he had the demeanour of a gentleman – but there was something tremendous in his stature that Captain Littlewood had not seen before and which shrivelled his captaincy. Maybe that’s why PER had a big letter name. Irishmen weren’t made that way. Littlewood had yet to meet an Irishman with a big letter name. If the hefty priest Masterson cut an intimidating shape for some, he did not have that effect on Littlewood; but PER was a completely different specimen – his shoulders were downright panoramic and he had a gargantuan Moai-disgracing head on him.
PER said something in Faroese.
‘How many gallons do you want?’ Grimur then asked Littlewood, translating.
Luckily Father Geissel had parted with a clump of the British pound notes before Littlewood left the hotel which turned out to be more than enough for what PER was selling; there were still some notes left when the transaction was over. Littlewood was in that moment glad of the priests’ purses, but simultaneously the flush bastardry of the Irish church filled him with outrage.
After using up the rest of the pounds on further bits and bobs, the men returned to Dolores and Captain Littlewood, feeling that now was the right time, invited Grimur to join him for a whiskey. Just a wee one, mind. And by good chance Grimur showed little reluctance. Well, Littlewood was never happier to punch open a bottle and after he filled the shoddy beakers and they were sitting down, he began to tell the Faroese man all about the Danish people he had met earlier and what they had asked of him. Upon hearing about it, Grimur’s eyeballs swelled and he said: ‘So they eventually found someone.’
‘You know them?’
‘Yes, they are the strangers I warned you all about. They’ve been here a few days. They’ve made overtures to every single one of us by now.’
‘And you said no.’
Grimur nodded. ‘With great power in my voice I said no, Fergal. But not without sympathy for their predicament.’
‘Do you mind if I ask why?’
‘That island they are looking for. It’s bad news.’
‘It seems sketchy to me too. ’
‘We have had people come through here in the past who escaped whatever darkness lies out there. When I was younger, they would talk of it as God’s inviolable land. Not meant for human footing. It numbs belief that a whole community would live there. I’ll tell you this. A man came through just a few years back with a similar request to those strangers you met this morning. He had a cadaver in tow too. And desperate he was for a ship to bring him up there so he could bury that thing in the ground. He seemed like a military man. Had an educated way of speaking and was tall – assembled from the bits of a thousand lumber workers. I remember there was something shut off about him, as though he was a runner from the wars. But he came here at the right time. Kalvur Bru was one of the most well-known fishermen around these parts and he agreed to bear the man and his boxed remains across a stretch the rest of us have always dreaded. A brave man, Kalvur, sure – but it was true also that he’d chase a gust of wind for coinage. At the service on Sunday the reverend had us all pray for Kalvur’s safe passage and return. But neither of them did.’
‘Was the man you mentioned Norwegian? It’s just I think he may have been connected to these Danish ones. There was a man from Norway in the letter they read to me.’
‘Could have been. Cannot remember.’
‘Didn’t anyone go looking for them?’
‘A search party, you mean? Fergal, we are a wise people. If the prayers didn’t work, God had already made a decision on them. They were damned, I suppose. Oh yes. Dreygur Oyggj.’
‘Phantom Island. Sometimes it is there, you can see it, and sometimes, no. Like it’s hiding out there in the ice. That’s what they say. So you see it would have been futile to search for them. And dangerous. And this is why I would advise against taking these Danes , Fergal. Stay to the course.’
‘You certainly make a strong case....’
‘I don’t wish to sound harsh, Fergal. It’s just that we have all but turned to cremating our dead around here. All but, I’ll say. Not all. And these people lugging their corpses around – quaint it may be, but also frighteningly primitive. Crude even. In my opinion.’
Littlewood suddenly felt slightly embarrassed by his own conservatism in the face of Grimur Passer’s enlightened and progressive beliefs; and he thought to himself – could he ever break with tradition himself? This was a major sticking point in his time with Orla; she had a more broad-minded radical outlook on things in general and he was convinced she had left him for the Garda simply for reasons of airs and graces. The Garda came from Kilkenny after all, the Marble City. There’s sophistication for you. That man was no herring gutter like Fergal Littlewood.
And yet: maybe it was just a Catholic and Protestant thing. He hadn’t met any Protestants before. Grimur was his first one. Well, if he had met one before, they hadn’t announced it. Grimur had the day before. ‘I’m a Protestant,’ he declared after they had stepped off the boat, and again to each of them as he shook their hands. Littlewood had heard the Protestants were burning their bodies now. What was all the fuss? He had burned many things himself in his time.
And yet again: he thought of his mother in her grave. The coffin she lay in on that day with the rain tap-tapping as it was lowered into the ground, and inside, her body still intact, not a pile of dust. The white granite stone with her name in gold. In big letters. And flowers always bloomed there. He liked to think her body made that happen; but he knew they were probably changed each week by his Da and that’s why they were always perky and exuberant and alive.
He was glad those flowers bloomed there under the stone.