A long way up north and far out to sea, at the very tip of an archipelago, there was a tiny island called the Northern Rock. The few families who lived on this island were prosperous fishing folk. They nearly always came home with huge catches. Then, everyone would enjoy an enormous feast of herring, halibut, mackerel, capelin, cod, and best of all, swordfish. The islanders enjoyed so much fish that they had grown fat and contented, and so had their cats. The cats had grown in number too, and sometimes it seemed that all those fat cats ate more fish than the people did themselves. And the more fat cats there were, the more fish the islanders had to catch to feed them all.
This meant going further out to sea where the fish were more numerous. They were most plentiful in an area called the Outer Bank, an underwater plateau where cold and warm currents met, bringing thousands of fish to the surface. It was an extremely stormy part of the sea, and the fishermen felt very brave going there, but they consistently returned with such bountiful catches that they believed the almighty sea god, Nix was rewarding them for their courage. So successful they were despite the terrible storms, that they felt that Nix has blessed them and would protect them always.
Nix had watched over men of the Northern Rock as they had built their fishing boat.
‘That boat is as solid as the ground we’re standing on,’ said Andy, the island chief when it was finished. ‘We’ll call it Northern Rock.’
The women of Northern Rock were more worried than their men. It was true that they came back with ever bigger catches but it seemed that the waters they were venturing into were becoming stormier and stormier. Each time the men went out, the wives felt less certain that they would return safely.
‘Call it off, tomorrow,’ pleaded Andy’s wife, Bess, as they sat mending nets. ‘There’s a storm brewing, for sure.’ The warning signs were there. It had been a hot muggy day and ominous gusts of wind were blowing in from the west.
‘Don’t be daft, woman. We never miss a trip.’
‘I wish you would, when it’s bad. I worry about you.’
‘Oh, you women! We would never go out if you got your way. Then what would you eat? You like your fish suppers a’right, don’t you?’
Bess had to concede that she did. But surely they didn’t have to take such terrible risks. She kept thinking about the terrible accident that had happened years ago to the fishermen on the nearest island, Overthere. They got caught in a storm and never came back. Their widows vowed they would never let anyone go out ever again, and from that time on no-one from Overthere ever did.
‘They get by a’right,’ said Bess, pointing across to the other island.
‘Aye, but what do they eat? Beans!’
‘And other vegetables… and they collect mussels…’
‘Mussels! Don’t make me laugh, woman! She’d have you eating mussels, Kitty,’ he said to the fat cat at his feet. ‘What do you think of that?’ He heaved the obese animal onto his lap. It answered him with a look of disdain and turned its back.
Bess persisted. ‘Not just mussels you find all kind of things in rock pools fish even. In fact, couldn’t we you know breed fish in the rock pools, then you’d never need to…’
‘Don’t be daft, woman!’ Andy laughed, shaking his head. ‘Now, get on with the mending, ye old trout.’
Bess took this as a compliment, knowing the high regard her husband had for the fish. But it didn’t stop her worrying.
The women watched from the beach as their men set sail in the choppy water towards the rising sun. They waited until the ‘Northern Rock’ had rolled and wobbled over the horizon, and they prayed to Nix, to look after their husbands. Then they trudged silently back to their cottages, to feed their children and the cats.
The storm came quickly. All day long the rain battered on the roofs and the wind rattled the shutters. Bess rocked in her chair and cuddled her children and her cats, and tried not to think about the fishing boat being thrown about in the heaving waves.
By late afternoon the storm had subsided, and the women and children came out of their cottages, and peered out to sea. Perhaps the boat would come home early.
But the boat did not come home early. Shadows grew longer and the sun dipped into the sea and still the boat did not come home. Some of the women paced back and forth along the beach, stopping every few seconds to scan the horizon. Some of them muttered prayers to the almighty Nix. Then the children, tired of playing, joined the vigil. They became clingy and some started to whimper. Then some of the women began to whimper too, and still the boat did not return. As the sun slipped below the horizon the whimpers turned to moans, then the moans turned to wails. They knew the boat would not come back now. Nix had betrayed them. All was lost: their men, their boat, their livelihood. The wives and children collapsed in a heap and wailed all night long.
No-one responded to the boy. The bereaved islanders had remained in a huddle on the shore all night long, wailing and moaning, and now they were exhausted.
‘Ma! There’s a boat!’
They all sat up promptly and looked out to sea. And sure enough, in the shimmering path of the rising sun a boat was coming towards them. They could hardly believe it. Was it a mirage?
‘I knew it!’ called one of the women. ‘I knew they would come back safely. Nix would not betray us.’
But the woman’s cries were met with silence as the others strained their eyes and peered into the sun. It was not their boat.
They could see more clearly now. It was a small rowing boat and it was coming from Overthere. The islanders watched motionless as the vessel came ashore, six female figures disembarked and walked up the beach towards them. Five of them carried heavy-looking cans and the sixth had a large basket. No-one said a word as they approached.
‘We heard your cries.’
‘Your boat your men they haven’t come back, have they?’
‘We’re so sorry for you.’
‘We’ve brought you food.’
The exhausted women, who had not risen from the ground, stared up at their visitors, then down at the cans they had put in front of them. They contained bean stew.
No-one had thought about food. Now, suddenly they were hungry.
‘Run and fetch some bowls,’ said Bess to her boy.
They supped in silence. It was a modest meal. It was not fish, but they were grateful; they weren’t going to turn their noses up at the offering. The beans, flavoured with garlic and herbs, were surprisingly tasty.
The cats did turn their noses up at the beans, but when nothing better came their way, one by one they realised they would have to go scavenging.
When the beans were finished the visitors passed the basket around. It was full of honey oatcakes. The children’s eyes lit up when they saw them and made to grab what they could.
‘Only one each, sorry,’ warned an Overthere woman. ‘That way there will be enough for everybody.’
They all complied. The honey oatcakes were delicious. They never made them on Northern Rock. Growing oats and keeping bees was too much work for too little reward.
When Bess had finished eating she looked up at the visitors. ‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘You’re good friends.’
‘Aye,’ one of them replied. ‘We all need friends.’
Revived by the meal, some children went down to play on the beach. The mothers watched their boys as they collected flotsam. Their eyes were soft with love for their sons, grateful that Nix had at least spared those who were still too young to go fishing.
The boys seemed to be fashioning bits of driftwood into a boat. The women turned to each other and shook their heads. They could not articulate their thoughts, but they each knew they were all thinking the same thing: life was full of uncertainties but some things were still predictable.