The cover of this story is an amazing piece of art made by Sian Kellaway. You can find out more about her at the end of this story…
NIGHTS ON FAIR ISLE
Low, Fastnet, nine seven three, falling slowly. Expected Portland by 0700 tomorrow. Low, Fair Isle, nine seven six, falling slowly.
Low everywhere tonight, it seems. Aurelia likes that phrase, though: ‘falling slowly.’ Last night it was deepening rapidly around German Bight, and sometimes she can remember times when everywhere was rising rapidly. But recently it seems to have been the same story everywhere. Low, Faeroes, falling slowly. Low, Dogger, falling slowly. The whole world, it seems, is falling slowly.
She first heard the shipping forecast by accident. She’d dropped into bed one night and, fumbling to set the alarm, had flicked on the radio instead. It was soon after she arrived in London, and at the time the only English she knew was ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you.’ Still, the soft, rhythmic repetitions appealed to her and she listened right through to the national anthem and closing pips. The next night she tuned in again at the same time and was comforted to hear the same gentle male voice intoning the same words.
For a long time she believed it was a nightly prayer. She would close her eyes and clasp her hands beneath the blanket, moving her lips silently in the darkness. Gradually the movement of her lips began to correspond more closely to the words on the radio, and she became confident enough to start whispering them out loud, her tongue slowly familiarising itself with the strange words. ‘Dogger.’ ‘North Utsire.’ ‘Northeast veering northwest.’ ‘Moderate or poor.’
She started to notice that phrase, ‘falling slowly’, cropping up often. She thought perhaps it meant ‘our Father’ or ‘Amen’. But when she fumbled through the English dictionary and found the real meaning, she was puzzled. ‘Falling slowly.’ Who, or what, could be falling slowly so consistently, almost every night? She’d heard priests back home referring to the Fall in their sermons, but rarely in prayers, and certainly not repeating it every few seconds. She began to doubt. She asked other people in the house: they laughed at her. ‘This is a godless place,’ they said. ‘There are no nightly prayers.’
These days, of course, she knows what the words mean, more or less. The images of candles and incense have gone, replaced by ships bobbing on darkened seas, bearded captains listening by lamplight to the nightly incantations, perhaps jotting down in an old logbook: ‘Fair Isle, 985, falling slowly.’ She still doesn’t know what it all means, but the image comforts her. It reminds her of the stories of the sea that her mother used to tell her, sweet lullabies whispered into the darkness so softly that they chased away the shadows and the fears. Some nights, listening to the shipping forecast, she seems to smell her mother’s lavender perfume but, before she can quite be sure of what it is, a draught of icy London air from the ill-fitted window snuffs it out.
Tonight, as usual, it is over too quickly. Just as her eyes are starting to close, the forecast ends and she has to flick the radio off quickly before the raucous brass of the national anthem jars her back into the present. Lying in the cold darkness, she tries to float above sleep. Her aching body yearns to drag her under, but she kicks for the surface, desperate for another breath of her mother’s lavender perfume and a few more whispered stories of the sea. Aurelia has only seen the sea once, and it was a disappointment. But the blissful idea of the sea has never left her. Her mother grew up perched on the edge of the vast Atlantic Ocean, only leaving, reluctantly, for the city in her mid-twenties. The sea was always in her blood, she said, and Aurelia believes it is true. When she thinks of her mother, she thinks of two images: the dark, dreamy outline of her body leaning over the bed telling stories of the sea, and the defeated curve of her back as she stared out of the window all day, eternally disappointed to see only concrete reflected back at her.
Aurelia feels herself sinking again, so she forces her tired mind to repeat the words. ‘Fair Isle, nine eight four, falling slowly. North Utsire, South Utsire. Forties, Dogger, German Bight.’ She thinks of the sea again, the vast, dark sea with lone boats listening to the shipping forecast, and it buoys her for another few minutes, each of them precious. So much of her time she sells to others for a pittance; this time is hers alone. She imagines one of those lone boats coming for her, sailing across the ocean, up the English Channel, into the mouth of the Thames and somehow finding her in the morass of London, plucking her up and taking her away.
Of all the stories of the sea, Aurelia had one particular favourite, and she always believed it was her mother’s too, for she returned to it often. It was the story of a young girl in a fishing village at the edge of an ocean. Everyone tells her to marry and stay at home, but she refuses – she wants to go out fishing, like the men. She goes out every day earlier than the men, sails further, catches more fish, but back on the shore she faces ridicule. Nobody will buy her fish. They say she is shaming her family, spitting on tradition. Her response is to go out even earlier, to sail out even further, to catch even more fish. One day she sails out so far that she loses sight of the shore. A storm swells up, her boat is tossed around like a cork. Just as she is about to despair, a passing ship picks her up. The crew take her to their leader, a handsome prince from a faraway land. He is astonished by her beauty and bravery, falls instantly in love, and takes her away across the ocean to be his princess. They both live happily ever after.
An icy draught from the window jolts Aurelia, and she sits up slightly on her elbows and looks out at the sky, the clouds a strange milky orange that still strikes her as unreal. The draught carries the sharp sting of alcohol from the pub downstairs, and through the cracks in the window frame she can hear the distant clinking of glass and shouting of drunken men. She tries to go back to the sea, to imagine the prince taking her away, but it’s no use. The spell is broken; the story seems stupid and childish.
She looks at the clock. One thirty-five. At least she managed to keep the spell going for half an hour or so: not bad. One night she is sure that, hovering just above sleep, she will see the familiar curve of her mother’s face against that strange orange sky. It will be an illusion, but she doesn’t mind: she prefers illusions these days. She yawns. In a few hours she’ll have to be up again to catch the five twenty shipping forecast before work. It really is time to let go. She tries to drive out the cold, the alcohol, the shouts of men, the thoughts of work. She pulls the blanket up over her and whispers softly into the darkness, ‘Fair Isle, nine eight five, falling slowly. Lundy, Fastnet. Malin, Hebrides, Rockall. Moderate or poor. Occasionally good.’
The cover art used for this story was made by the Brighton based artist Sian Kellaway and formed part of a limited edition print run.