The latch, Hal thinks. Something as simple as the latch on the door.
He can’t bring himself to slide it home. To lock out the night; too final an action. It may be tonight, or any night. He’d always left the door unlocked. Always, when alone. Possibility, unbolted. But those possibilities are best left unnamed. Hidden in the fog, like the houses across the bay. He moves to the window, as if the view might have changed. Darkness, still. The hazy ghosts of spluttering dock-lanterns are the only points of light.
The kettle hanging above the fire begins to whistle. Old Ned opens one eye, cocks an ear and starts to whine. Hal turns, his vigil interrupted. ‘Sorry, Ned, must have woke you.’ The Labrador’s complaint continues until Hal removes the kettle with iron tongs. The whistling dies. ‘I’m waking all. Me, who can’t sleep.’
Hal watches the boiling water as it spills into the teapot. The leaves begin to cloud. He quickly replaces the lid lest his thoughts also steep black. Tea has been all he could stomach for a couple of days now; he is starting to feel weak. Food was too solid; like the ground he stands on.
While it brews he walks back to the window. Still no change. He speaks aloud, ‘It’s not unusual.’ To be late, he means, but that stays silent. A fisher’s month-long trip, does not adhere to any calendar. These were just a few more days to the score. But they never felt ‘just’.
He returns to the table and sits. At least he can focus on the tea. Something other than indeterminate shadows outside. He refills an unwashed mug. Wraps it in his fist to glean some small warmth. It is difficult to ignore the empty chair opposite. He focuses on his fingers accepting the heat.
There’s a quiet knock on the door. His heart sails, then drops again. A knock is not expected. Hal waits for a flinging of the unlatched door, a shout of greeting. The latch, he thinks again. What is it for but security? And who more vulnerable than a lonely soul?
The knock comes again. Too soft to open the door itself. But who could be knocking now? Surely dawn is closer than the sunset past.
The sound of an infant’s whimper answers his thought. He stands to open the door. The wind dances past the man on the step; entering uninvited. He is not alone in this separation. A boat is crewed by two. Leaving two at home – or three, counting the babe in the other man’s arms – to tend a land-life. And wait.
‘Evening Hal,’ says Piter. ‘It’s just me and Posie.’ As if that were not plain enough from circumstance and looking.
‘You must have heard the kettle,’ Hal jokes. The other man steps around Hal into the firelight and Hal closes the door; a dosey doe in the small room. ‘Ain’t she getting big?’ He nods towards the sleeping child.
‘That she is.’ Piter helps himself to the neglected chair; a habit, a regularity. ‘Her mama’s gonna need those net-hauling arms to lift her.’ The smile on his face is forced and both men know it. There is a small, empty beat. The father holds his child closer. The late hour sits low in their chests.
Hal says, ‘Right you are,’ to fill the space. He reaches to a timber shelf for another mug. ‘I wasn’t lying about the kettle. Tea?’
Everything feels restrained and polite to Hal. Tonight, he is too quiet with this, his closest friend. He missed the free flowing banter of the fortnight before. Sure, fishers were common enough in this town, as were their partners left behind. But Piter and Hal shared the exact same partings. A single boat left that dock, Hal thinks, carrying both our hearts. It must be lack of sleep, making us this way. His head spins and he sits to cover any signs. More tea.
After filling the mug for Piter, he leans against the back of his chair letting it steady him. It creaks, and the noise opens the conversation like a rusty hinge.
‘I’ve this,’ Piter says, reaching into the grey blanket that swaddles his child. He sets a small parcel wrapped in brown paper on the table. ‘Baxter gave it me this evening.’
Hal nods. ‘A good woman.’ The baker was always gifting the day’s remainders to the shore-wed. Hal was glad he was not the one to receive it. The unspoken concern in the townsfolk’s eyes is unbearable. He feels his stomach turn, but cannot tell if it’s in hunger or unease. His appetite waned with the due date.
‘Indeed,’ Piter agrees as he unwraps the dense cake and breaks it in two with his hands, Posie balanced on lap and arm. ‘There you are.’ He pushes one of the rough pieces across the small tabletop and brings the other to his mouth, taking a bite before following it with tea.
Hal picks up his mug, making no movement towards the cake. Then he laughs weakly. ‘You’d think it was mid-afternoon the way we’re carrying on.’
‘Well, what’s time for the want of company?’ Piter had clearly meant to lift their spirits but it set Hal thinking of a boat’s steady rise and fall. To be fair, there wasn’t much that didn’t set him off this way. Hal doesn’t blame the other man. When the heart is set on one thing, there’s little that won’t trigger a thought in its direction.
The silence in the room is broken by a log collapsing in the fire. Ned lets out a single snore in response. Both men smile; small, genuine.
Hal places his hands either side of the cake in front of him. His fingers worry the wrapping. ‘I didn’t leave the house today.’ It might have been said to himself, except for Piter being there. ‘It always surprises me; the way these rooms change size.’
Piter makes a noise, an encouragement.
‘When there’s the two of us – and Ned, of course – I always feel like we’re falling over each other. These two rooms, full to bursting. I look at those new manors that the merchants have built near the bluff. They fill me with envy. But then – but now – I’m like a single spoon in a draw.’
‘I know what you mean.’ Piter’s voice is quiet. ‘Lirel, when she’s home, talks of sellin’ and buying something bigger. Especially now, with Posie. I talked her out of it when last she’s home. When you quit the sea, I said, and not before.’
‘She just laughed.’ Piter trails off, his humour failing. Hal knows there is no humour in loneliness.
The fire is burning low. As grateful as Hal is for Piter’s midnight visit, he just can’t find conversation in himself. The brown paper rustles in his fingers.
Piter stretches out his arm and rests his hand on the other man’s, quietening the fidgets. There might not be any words left between them tonight but the touch is rallying. Hal turns his hand so he can better grasp the other. The two men hold hands as, with another falling log, the room flares then dims.
Hal does not know how much time passes. When Posie turns and yawns in her father’s arms, they concede the night. It’s time to try and get some sleep.
Standing, Piter squeezes Hals hand and says, ‘Eat something. I can see you’ve not, and it won’t do to faint when they arrive.’ Hal nods at Piter’s last try at lightening his spirits. A joke, hand in hand with real advice.
‘Yes, I will.’
Their hands separate and Piter opens the door to the night. Hal had forgotten how brisk it is outside. The wind dances about like a playful dog. Again, his mind flies to that same boat.
Hal clasps Piter on the shoulder and nods again. Then the door is closed and he turns to see the tiny room stretch all the way through to the bedroom. He downs the last of his tea and rinses both mugs in a bucket with a little of the kettle water. When they are back on the shelf, he sees the hunk of cake left on the table. What is so daunting about cake? He thinks. It’s heavy, dense. When he takes a bite, it’s somehow sweet and savoury at the same time. His mouth remembers how it is supposed to chew, even if he himself had forgotten. His stomach is grateful, undeceive by days of tea. He wraps the rest of it for the morning, when it comes.
As he swallows the last of his mouthful there is a noise behind him and he starts. The wind must be wild to blow the door open like that. The latch, he thinks, might have prevented it. But, turning, he finds himself staring at the face that has filled his thoughts.
Arms grabbing, hugging. His love. His husband, returned.
This is a short story I wrote and wanted to share.
Picture credit: J. M. W. Turner, Fishermen at Sea, 1796