Distress and Calling
by Chris Giangiordano
Every night, when her dad is asleep, Bretta creeps downstairs and listens to the voice in the boiler room…
It was nearly midnight in The Feathers. A thump of male laughter from the saloon bar downstairs set the mirror on Bretta’s dressing table vibrating.
Black midnight in the quayside town, but in Bretta’s bedroom-kingdom, time was fluid. Here under the duvet there was neither night nor day but what she made: her head the celestial tent-pole, her pocket-torch the sun.
A big storm was coming off the sea tonight. The gale mazed around the foursquare dockside warehouses to fling its fractured, shrieking self against the buildings on the parade. Bretta heard tin cans skittering along the street outside and scattered rain whipping her bedroom’s windowpane.
She called for quiet. Sensible Pelican turned his great beak questioningly in her direction. Her mariners, the throng of seafarers decorating the countless ships printed on her duvet, stopped singing their shanties. John Lewis, the teddy bear named for the shop tag which issued like ticker tape from his rump, grumpily cocked his one good ear. Someone downstairs coughed noisily and other voices shouted hurray. Her father was holding another lock-in for the regulars: the ragged elderly, maybe one or two filleters from the warehouse coming off their shift. Bretta began her proclamation.
“Tomorrow,” she whispered brightly, “I sew John Lewis’ ear!” A great cheer went up from her sailors. The bear’s black button eyes shone with tearful gratitude. She caught Pelican frowning doubtfully at her so she laid the soft toy face down on his beak. She would need a needle and thread, or maybe mum could do it when she got back off the boat. Her mother was a dab hand, repairing the nets and disentangling crabs down there on the blustery quayside. Bretta had always hung back, even as her mother had gestured to her to come closer, to see the process, to touch the black, slippery fibres of the lobster pots. But her daughter was frightened of it, the big sea she used to call it, to her father, in his arms at night as mum ranged the ocean. Her father would say nothing but just squeeze her tighter. That was years ago though, she was a big girl now, and took herself off to bed.
“Now,” she went on, “I make the dangerous journey once more. I go to The Boiler Room. I think dad will be sleeping soon.” (John Lewis muttered to Pelican, he’s in his cups.)
Before the journey there was work to be done. Everyone made space as Bretta readied her notepad and pencil and extended the aerial on her portable radio. She delicately thumbed the little notched dial on its side and the radio announcer’s voice swelled suddenly, loudly. Dialling minutely down, Bretta set the man’s incantation to a whisper. She listened, reverently.
“Forties, Dogger, Forth and Tyne,” he said to the world and to no-one but Bretta.
“Southwest gale 8 to storm 10, veering west, severe gale 9 to violent storm 11.
“Rain, then squally showers.
“Poor, becoming moderate.”
Bretta scribbled the words down on her pad as fast as she could. But what did they really mean to her, a nine-year-old girl?
Nothing, everything. The intricate perils of the ocean were a mystery to her but not to her mother, who was somewhere out there, riding the savage waves. What she really wanted to know was, was her mum safe? Would she return by morning or founder on rocks beyond the lighthouse? Haul good fish or be dragged beneath the waves in something’s greater net?
The voice on the radio did not say. He never revealed prognostications about any one voyager, always confined his liturgy to broader details, setting out conditions of reality like a God or absolute monarch. Bretta was cut from the same cloth.
“I shall need companions for the journey. It will be perilous. I choose John Lewis and Pelican to volunteer.”
The forecast soon gave way to magisterial music and then a graven hiss as the channel went off air. Bretta switched off the radio, wishing for some more of the pompous tune to embellish her forthcoming descent from her realm. She hadn’t long to wait before hearing her father’s footsteps stomping up the creaking bare boards of the staircase. She put a finger to her lips as he began to move deliberately down the short corridor to his room down at the end.
But he stopped. Right outside Bretta’s door. She heard the squeak of her door-frame and imagined him leaning his arm there, head bowed in befuddlement. Or was he listening for something? Listening for his daughter? She thought she could hear him breathing – or was that the wind too?
Then he knocked. Softly, barely grazing his knuckles on Bretta’s door. Three times.
Expecting at any moment for him to appear, looming unsteadily in her doorway, the next thing she heard was his feet shuffling along the hall to his room and his door softly closing. Bretta let out a big breath and everyone relaxed.
“Why did he knock?” she whispered.
To ward off spirits, suggested John Lewis.
Pelican tutted. Your father is very sentimental, he said.
Bretta shook her head and began putting together her expedition kit. Into her blue school rucksack went her notepad, and she stuffed Pelican and John Lewis in the netting on either side. She pulled off the pillow slip, similarly decorated with miniature ships and wrapped it around her head like a Japanese bandanna. Those seafarers now about the royal personage could report back to their colleagues later. Maybe even compose a new sea-song about her exploits.
Ready, rucksack over shoulders, she slipped out from under the duvet and felt the carpet with her bare feet. Big winds were punching The Feathers but their smaller, insidious cousins were inveigling themselves through the gap between the sash panes. They crept around the room, idly stirring Bretta’s short, curly, sandy-blonde hair, laying wraith hands on her blue nightie. They were ruffling the pages on her wall calendar too, telling her something profound about time. About the need for haste.
Dad was almost certainly asleep but the first mission was to make sure. It would have been lovely to light the fat yellow candle she kept above her bed but the flame would have guttered all over the place. She stepped out into the hallway, her torchlight illuminating a narrow path to her mum and dad’s room down the end on the right.
The two intervening rooms, both on Bretta’s left side, facing onto the street, were empty. They awaited Spring and the hard-up tourists or drinkers who occasionally overnighted here.
She saw the nearest door, ajar, flinch gently with the wind. She felt her toes curl on the floorboards.
The daughter of The Feathers prepared herself for the journey. But a child cannot go easily down a midnight corridor, amidst the echoing howl of a gale, past open doors and empty rooms. Transfixed by the swaying door, Bretta swung her torch on the gloomy oil painting that hung on the wall at the far end of the hallway. Her hesitant light picked out its blackened gilt frame and the murky galleon on the canvas. The painting was like a window out onto the ocean. The ship looked as if it were struggling through a thick soupy fog of sea-mist and Bovril.
She reached behind for Pelican and pulled him free from his net. John Lewis she swivelled around to face the rear. The bear would be her eyes behind for now. In the land of the blind the one-eared bear is king, he muttered. She tossed Pelican gently down the hall, into the dark and found him with torchlight, miraculously upright, pointing the way forward with his beak. All clear, he called softly. Bretta got down on all fours and crawled the deck to where he lay. She sat up and wiped the dust from her hands onto her nightie. From behind her parents’ door she heard dad’s bubbly snores. Snottering, her mum had once christened it. She started to get up.
Beware, said Pelican suddenly. Bretta froze and followed with the torch where the toy had been pointing, all this time, with his beak.
The second door was shut.
It was the littlest bedroom, the one with the horrible green wallpaper that no guest ever looked happy to be sequestered in. Bretta rose unsteadily, clutching Pelican tightly, holding him at arm’s length before her as she gingerly approached the room. The doors were never shut, unless tenanted. Dad had made a crack once about letting a through-draught in. As if the building was not always thick with tendrils of sea-air.
To ignore this would be cowardly. Brave girls raced to danger.
Turning the handle, she used her toy’s beak to gently prod the door open a touch. All at once, from behind her, a brine-scented breeze took up the job and the door swung in and came softly to rest against the side of the stripped mattress inside. She felt the breeze pushing her gently, encouragingly, into the room. The curtains were open. There was no-one here. But on the windowsill sat a lit hurricane lamp and two objects either side. Framed by the window casement, the collection reminded her oddly of the illuminated nativity display outside the village church. She moved to inspect, sidling awkwardly around the bed. On one side of the lamp was a framed photograph, facing out to the street; she picked it up and angled it to catch the light. Bretta recognised the picture: it was of her and her parents at a country fair, in front of a pen of exotically curly brown sheep. Bretta and her mother were frowning identically into the camera in the sun’s glare, mum’s strong forearms wrapped around her protectively. Her father was crouching down next to them but looking distractedly off somewhere, maybe eyeing the beer tent.
The other object was a small, crude, earthenware bud vase. She lifted it and gasped softly as an insubstantial paper flower swung around to her sight. She hadn’t noticed it at first, so gossamer was its pipe cleaner stalk, so frail its lone purple tissue-paper flower. A sea violet.
“I made this,” she whispered. Why was this stuff here? Had dad put it here?
It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, said John Lewis importantly.
It’s like a little lighthouse, opined Pelican, of the lamp.
“To guide ships home,” said Bretta.
Leave everything exactly as you found it. As she did so, a gust of wind flexed the window, putty cracking in its frame. Involuntarily, she pressed back, hands flat against the glass.
Shuddering with the chill, she once more found the landing, pushing back her worry about the shrine, its meaning, for another time. She did not want to be late for the boiler room. At the head of the stairs she summoned her mental map of the rickety treads stretching away below. Even if she did set-off an explosive creak of cracking wood in this heavy weather it would not necessarily mean discovery. However, it was important to be secret, the voice in the boiler room had once told her. Splinters were also a very real possibility. Next time she would bring duck tape…
You are not strapping us to your feet, girl, said Pelican, next time for heaven’s sake just wear your slippers. She went down. Bretta imagined she was stepping down the ridged back of a mighty, fallen redwood; a tree lurched over with age, depending into the black water one step below —
Into the pitch black, linoleum hall floor.
An abyssal plain, unlit until past the dogleg.
Everyone was afraid of it. The mariners faltered in their soft rendition of haul the bowline. Pelican’s nylon down stiffened in Bretta’s grasp. Her gaze found no purchase in that void. The more she looked the more she felt she were already pitching forward into it, her body falling or rather being absorbed into its null realm.
She murmured, “I could get lost in there. But I won’t.”
She fixed her eyes forward and instead of the usual tentative prod of a big toe, she jumped, two-footed. She was in the air long enough to feel alarm, seeming to hang for longer than could be explained before gravity pulled her and her entourage down, down, she was sinking, she should have hit the floor by now, where was the ground—
Contact. The sailors cheered and John Lewis said, Easy as falling off a log.
Hand on the wall now, around the dogleg and into the cool embrace of green light from the LED fire exit sign. She felt like a diver spotting some unearthly deep-sea specimen glowing a way off. Quick, quick, the voice is speaking, said the little man in the sign, waving her on frantically into the saloon bar.
The bar’s carpet had passed from tired old age into decrepitude. Efforts to dislodge it had been futile; the carpet man had come once, armed with a chisel and pronounced it welded to the floorboards. Patterned with elaborate pink and green curlicues it ever lay at the bottom of the pint glasses of drinkers. A swirling miasma. To Bretta’s sailors it represented the shallows where the difficult and dangerous mazing upthrusts of coraled rock could founder craft, or cut the soles of unwary waders. The big bay window curtains were open and down by the dock Bretta could see the aquatic rentals shop sign flashing against the dark. Surf Now! It commanded.
As if Bretta didn’t know how to get across the bar safely.
Her first leap took her to the banquette against the front wall. From there she stepped awkwardly over to the small, rickety, hammered-bronze table. Wobbling with the swell, she judged the moment to a physicist’s perfection and made the second big jump to the Chesterfield in the centre of the room—
And shrieked as she saw she was not alone on the sofa.
Shrinking into a corner, breathing hard and whimpering, she fumbled with her torch. She coyly played light over the man sitting there. His hair and beard were full and white; frothing curds of hair amidst which a pointed, craggy nose jutted like an islet from the waves. She watched his forehead wrinkling as he dreamed, his breath a torpid swelling beneath the heavy overcoat which had been draped over him.
Frank Clayton. One of the old regulars. Abandoned by his shipmates, castaway by his Captain, who’d obviously decided the effort to manhandle him home was too much trouble.
She knew this man, this old sailor. He was always in The Feathers. When Bretta staggered down first thing trailing her school bag she’d see him gamely dragging a beer crate along the hallway for her dad. When she took herself to bed, her father preoccupied behind the bar, his was the last face she’d see, his eyes upturned from his pint glass to watch her on her way.
When she was little she had sat on his lap while her father had fetched something from the cellar. A pair of pints into his day, Frank had taken the opportunity to scare her witless about the sea. With relish, he’d told her about lost mariners, the vanished souls under the waves who nightly sang their spiteful songs. Listen, Bretta, has your ma ever had occasion to tell you about the Sea Wolf? Your ma knows the Sea Wolf, even I’ve met him once or twice but your ma knows him best. Eventually Bretta’s mum had happened by and whipped him smartly with the edge of her tea-towel, liberating the round-eyed child into her arms.
Her mother said the sea wasn’t like that anymore, Francis Clayton, and to stop with all the bloody superstitions. It’s quotas, Frank, and fish stocks and EU regulations, she’d said, balling up the towel and chucking it on his shoulder. Here girl, Frank had muttered urgently, persevering despite mum’s temper. Let me give you something, and he’d fumbled some trinket out of a pee-stained trouser pocket. Stop it, Francis or he’ll bar you. Mum had leant in close, whispering savagely. Why does a man drink? Frank had called out then to dad over at the bar. Why does he drink, he that cannot stand the sea? Dad had stood silently, watching his wife bearing Bretta away upstairs on her mother’s hip. All the way up the steps and then later in her room she’d thought about what Frank had said about her dad and why he drank so much these days. Was it because mum was away so much, was he lonely, did he miss her too much? Was he scared because of that one time, when they had sat up for ages and ages until the grey dawn and mum still hadn’t returned?
The other thing she thought was, The Sea Wolf. The Sea Wolf.
The old man’s eyes opened suddenly and he gazed into the darkness. Age and drink and fear were hard lenses to peer through.
“Is that you, Jean,” he quavered, trying to reach out an arm.
“Oh yes,” replied Bretta, without thinking at all, coming before his gaze. “It’s me alright.”
“Am I home then, was the bus…” He tailed off.
“Yes, that’s it, the bus, you got off the bus alright and now you’re safe and sound all tucked up.” She added comfortingly, “Nothing’s going to get you here.”
“My good lass,” he wheezed. Then after a little while, “Did I ever give it to her, after all?”
“Give what to who?”
“To the girl, Jean. Did I give it to the girl, to ward it off.”
Bretta said huskily, “No. Whatever it is, you never gave it to her.”
Frank moaned softly.
Bretta said firmly, “Good night, Frank.” And he was under again.
Bretta stepped off on to the lower rung of a barstool and slid her bottom up onto the bar. Looking out at the room the old man was already gone into the shadows. She wondered if there were any more out there, sitting abandoned in the saloon bar, invisible old men trapped in sea-dreams. The boiler room, said Pelican, be smart about it.
Her feet clacking gently on the sticky lino behind the bar, she insinuated herself behind the long red drape at the end and into the small alcove which housed the mop bucket, a big box of peanuts and finally, the door to the boiler room.
It was small, sultry and stifling inside. The monolithic boiler gurgled away on the wall to her right, even at this hour urging fierce heat into the copper pipes that snaked across the walls. But Bretta’s prize was on the little table, where dad, sitting in his vest and underpants did his accounts once a year.
The VHF radio. A sturdy, marine-green metal box; briefcase-sized, with four knurled knobs and a big dial which said Distress and Calling in the middle. She carefully removed the black plastic handset from the top and turned the dial. She remembered that first night a year ago, when she’d stumbled in here looking for a soft drink in the small hours. Bretta had heard the radio quietly fizzing to itself, dad must have left it on, and remembered the ecstasy she’d felt when she’d pressed the receiver to her ear and the static had coalesced around a voice, her mother’s, calling out, Hello? Hello? Is anyone receiving?
Bretta had to be careful though. It wasn’t always mummy. There were other voices too. One time she’d just heard laughter, over and over, rising and rising in pitch until she’d hung up. Bretta never ever spoke to anyone else, no matter how much they pleaded. It was not something she and her mother mentioned in the day-time, ever. This was a special, magical night-time union, like whispering softly under the sheets with a favourite toy.
Bretta raised the creaking plastic receiver.
What was static and what was the sea?
“I’m so glad you’re here,” said mum. Her voice dipped and flexed, distorted then cleared blissfully as her ship bobbed and the lancing radio signal did battle with disturbed air. The crackle of static was the lunging froth of waves on the ship’s bow. Feedback, the gull’s scream.
“How are you mummy?” asked Bretta.
“Very well, my love. It’s fierce out here but we’re safe and sound. The air is very angry tonight.”
“Yes it is here too. Are there lots of boats with you?”
“Oh yes, many boats, all around.”
“Are you far out?”
“Quite far. But getting closer. Do you feel our breath on you?”
“Do you mean the wind?”
“Yes. Like an angry shout it can be or a sad whisper. Or it can be tender and kind.” Bretta at once felt a breeze lapping at her ears and her curly hair stirring at the base of her neck.
The boiler clicked and churned dumbly on.
“Mummy, now listen carefully.” Bretta got her notebook from her backpack and was leafing through to the most recent entry. “Forties, Dogger, Forth and Tyne,” she read aloud. “Southwest gale 8 to storm 10, veering west, severe gale 9 to violent storm 11. Rain, then squally showers. Poor, becoming moderate. There’s more. I don’t know what it all means but that’s what I got. Is that useful?”
“Yes. Just hearing your voice helps me get home, Bretta. It’s most useful indeed. Say some more.”
“Alright then, I’ll carry on.”
* * *
A few mornings later, on Saturday, Bretta ambled into the kitchen, holding pelican on one shoulder. Her father was bent over the porridge pan on the stove, eyebrows lowered and mouth grimly set. He started as she sat down, then shook himself tiredly.
“Morning Bretta. Bowl’s there, here comes breakfast.”
“Morning daddy.” Bretta hopped up onto a chair. She didn’t feel particularly sprightly herself, having been down in the boiler room again, listening for mum. It hadn’t been her this time, and the person that had arrived had spoken in a language she hadn’t understood. She listened to the scraping of the spoon in the pan.
“I thought I heard someone up and about at one point.” He flashed a look at her and turned off the gas.
“Not me. Must have been old Frank in the bar.”
Dad smiled sadly. “I’m sorry to tell you this Bretta, but I’m afraid Frank died last night.”
“No, he’d got home for once.”
“Oh. Maybe he knew it was going to happen.”
“Maybe he did.”
He turned away from her, looking out onto the back yard where the table umbrellas leant furled, like pine trees, against the outside toilet wall. Bretta saw in his hand a fragile bracelet. Tiny sea-shells threaded on green twine. She saw him touch each one in turn, passing them along the cord.
“Is that Frank’s, dad? He tried to give it to me once.” Her father turned to her and all of a sudden she saw how thin and dried-up he seemed. Like a long strip of beached seaweed. They looked at each other silently until she was embarrassed. She said, “I’m just going upstairs for something,” and pushed the chair backwards with her feet. Bretta was almost out of the door when she heard him murmur, almost to himself, “Please don’t go.”
“—Nothing. I’ll be up soon.”
* * *
The curtains were still closed in her parents’ room. A vertical slice of sunlight shone through the gap between the two halves of fabric, setting a sparkle on the mirror on the wall opposite and making a glowing mound of the rumpled bed-covers. Bretta looked for a while at the lumpen shapes made there by the sleep-thrashed duvet. The largest lump stirred and a hand appeared reluctantly from a fold.
“Good morning, Bretta.”
She grasped her mother’s hand, hearing dad’s footsteps coming up the stairs. She placed Pelican on sentry duty at the foot of the bed and bounced up beside her mum.
“Did you get home safe and sound then?” Bretta said.
“’Course.” Bretta pulled the duvet down until she saw her mother’s face, so like her own but larger, redder, puffy with sleep. “You’re looking at me aren’t you.”
Bretta couldn’t resist this time. Her father’s approach made her blurt,“even though I didn’t speak to you?”
“Speak to me? Is that your dad coming with tea?”
“Oh you know,” said Bretta, curling one lock of her mother’s hair around her finger, “just say you know what I mean. Please.”
Her mum’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about Bretta.”
“When—” started Bretta and looked at her mum. They shared an identically confused stare. “When I say the things to you,” and she leaned in and whispered in her mum’s ear. “The forecast.”
She yelped as her mum’s hand curled tightly around her upper arm.
Dad appeared bluntly in the doorway holding a mug of tea. “You left your porridge Bretta and I wish you hadn’t disturbed your mother.” Bretta shook herself free and turned away to the foot of the bed, hiding the quick tears smarting her eyes.
“I saw your little display in the window when I got in this morning,” mum said to dad. She said it unkindly, almost sneering at him. Dad didn’t reply, didn’t move from the doorway. He placed the mug of tea on the dresser.
“What’s the matter Bretta?” he said.
“She’s got herself in a tizzy about something,” said mum, and to Bretta’s alarm went on, spilling the beans to dad. “Something about a message she gave me, the forecast?”
“Is this to do with you wandering around downstairs?” said dad. She felt them both looking at her. “You might as well come clean, Frank said he’d seen you going behind the bar, Bretta.”
“Bretta, look at me.” Mum’s voice was shrill now, not quiet and comforting like at night. “What have you been up to when you should be in bed?”
She whispered, “the radio.”
“You aren’t supposed to go near the radio,” said her father.
“Mum told me to.”
“I did not.”
Outside, in the quiet street Bretta suddenly heard a scrape of footsteps coming along the parade. Who is that at this early hour, said Pelican. Go and see, Bretta.
“Come here,” said her mother sharply, from the bed. Bretta saw dad was still at the door, flashing looks between his daughter and wife. He had Frank’s charm entwined in the fingers of one hand and was rubbing, rubbing.
The window, Bretta.
Bretta darted over and drew back the curtains, earning a hiss of surprise from mum as daylight flooded the room. She looked down into the street and saw someone shuffling towards the pub.
They wore drab, oversized oilskin overalls and a sou’wester pulled low over their face. From here they looked to be sopping wet, and she saw damp footprints leading from the quayside alleyway.
“Close those curtains,” said mum.
As Bretta watched, the person halted beneath the swinging sign of The Feathers. She suddenly thought of Frank, wondering if this was his ghost, coming back from death to haunt the pub. The figure was really sodden, in fact it looked as though rain were still streaming onto its hat and flowing all down the great coat and puddling around its rubber boots. Bretta glanced up at the cloudless blue sky, frowning, and looked back down as the figure turned its head up to the window and pulled back the peak of its hat.
Its face was grey, features shrivelled, as of long immersion in water, but alive and achingly familiar. Bretta gasped.
“Mummy, there’s -” she said, turning away from the window. She saw movement in the mirror beyond the bed. The back of her mother’s head looked different—
Wet, slick. Mum’s hair not the familiar short curls but longer. Straighter. Moving gently as in a drowsy current, like a kelp forest, and something else half-buried but glowing amid the swirling strands. A pair of ruby-red eyes.
Her mother began to rise from the sheets.
Dad suddenly moved to the bed and purposefully grabbed his wife’s hands. “Bretta go down,” he said calmly, looking her straight in the eye, “leave the room, shut the door and go downstairs.” He took both his wife’s hands in one of his and thrust the seashell charm into her face. Mum twisted on the bed in a panic and began to turn over onto her front. “Stop, stop, you’re hurting her,” cried Bretta, but dad just kept saying, “Go. Go.”
As Bretta watched, unable to move, her mother managed to get over onto her front. Dad was now pushing the charm into the dripping murk on the back of his wife’s head and the red eyes were flashing and Bretta heard the creature howl, a sound part animal part ocean, like a wild creature cresting a foaming breaker. Other arms appeared from beneath the duvet, chitinous but taloned, grabbing her father, pulling him toward the creature in a foul embrace.
She saw something snaking toward her under the duvet and realised with horror it couldn’t be one of her mother’s arms or legs. Bretta darted for the door as the phantom limb erupted from the covers and she caught a glimpse of a barbed tentacle blindly seeking her before she made the hallway and slammed the door shut behind her.
All at once she heard the bellowing of the ocean from the bedroom, as if the entire room had suddenly been given over to the sea and the door pounded in its frame as waves struck again and again, and rising above the cacophony an unearthly vomiting howl of frustration and rage.
She ran. Along the hall and down the stairs, through the dogleg and past the saloon bar. She wrenched open the front door. The visitor from the ocean stood there patiently.
Bretta looked up into the mariner’s face, and saw her mother’s water-wrinkled features wreathed not in the rivulets that still dripped from her hat, but with tears.