The Lobster Woman's Luck
by Rebecca Lloyd
Mainland Mary pulls away from the jetty, her leathery hands gripped hard on the oars. Her small face is puckered and the coils of her red hair swing across her shoulders. There is no wind to suck at the water and no birds follow her. The sea is as flat as a dish of cold tea and about the same colour, and the boat leaves no wake as it moves.
In those days, in the stretch of water between the island of Marraday and the mainland, a man could expect to find one lobster in every second or third creel between May and September if he was lucky. But when Mainland Mary was out there she caught one or two in every creel she laid. It wasn't the sites she chose, because men would watch her and set up close to where she'd been, and still only get about a third of what she caught.
We'd talk to the lads who went with her; thin lads she'd pick up on the jetty. 'It's worth a few beers if you can just watch out for anything unusual.' But to a man they'd said there was nothing. She'd use the same bait as us, haul in after three days and put back the berried ones, nothing different. Several times we asked her if she could smell them down there, and she laughed and said, 'Yes, and I can hypnotise them too.'
There were only a few of us who didn't like to give an opinion on the matter and shifted uneasily when her name came up; most thought it was the creels she used, old ones that'd been in her family for generations. There were those, me included, who thought she was just lucky. But we didn't begrudge her the luck because she was as cherished here as a good fire in the dark months with her wit and singing, and besides, the woman was not young and had no husband, so in some things she was not at all lucky.
Out of season, Mainland Mary ran a small laundering and mending business on the steep street that runs down to the waterfront. The sign is still there in the window: washing and ironing, all manner of mending undertaken, speciality invisible darning. She could iron a man's best shirt so it looked as if it had not been breathed upon, let alone worn.
She'd got her name because her mother, Mary Creel Maker, had come from Marraday, and that used to be an island of Mary's, there was Mary End House, Mary the Dogs, Mary Blue Boat, Old Mary. It was the island people who first called her Mainland Mary, and the name stuck with us even though she grew up here in Craighaven.
Marraday's a bleak place, shaped like a wedge of cheese with a massive cliff alive with guillemots and ancient colonies of stinking cormorants. The few stunted trees there lean to the south under the weight of the northern wind. Even back then there were few young people on Marraday; they'd all gone, looking for modern lives. There were only two men able to bring back wives and put children on the island again, one of them was Steven Stevens.
Now Steven Steven's, Double Steve, got closer than anyone else to Mainland Mary after her mother died, and whenever he came over for supplies he'd call in on her, or hang around on the jetty if she was out in the harbour. At the monthly dances in the Mast Makers Inn, where matches were made and sealed, Double Steve was blind to all but her. Not that he was first choice for any of our girls, he'd a funny hatched face as if he'd fallen asleep face down on a candlewick bedspread; he was born like it, rough criss-crossing lines all over. Mainland Mary was no beauty either; she'd the face of a pug dog and wide hands. When they were in their late twenties it was supposed they'd marry, and there was one or two who were hopeful Mary's luck with the lobsters would wane if her life fitted in more with what was expected.
At that time there was nothing to stop the marriage except Mainland Mary's own contrariness and liking for a passionate fight. At one time she threw Double Steve's newly ironed shirt out the top window of her shop straight at him and it landed at his feet still folded. It was peculiar, that shirt lay crisp and folded at his feet. She hollered out to him, 'don't talk to me about faces, you lamprey!' Then she flung a mug of tea out the window and it landed bottom down, not spilt and still steaming, next to the shirt. The whole thing was witnessed by Mrs Stobart and the story got around Craighaven as quick as a bolt of summer lightening, - some believed it and some didn't.
On Marraday, Double Steve lived alone on the calm side of the island by a grey-sanded oily cove. He'd a small croft with one field turned to meadow, a few chickens and some sheep. He caught his own fish and crab, and made a bit of money cutting peat for the old ones. He was hopeless with anything mechanical, his outboard was always breaking down, and we used to think he'd made a pact with King Neptune, the way he stayed afloat in that boat.
When Mainland Mary reached thirty one she came to an uneasy truce with her own tongue and a new kind of loving got between the two of them, more hushed and steady, easier for the rest of us to look at. Then Terry Bails, the other unmarried man on Marraday, began to turn up in Craighaven regularly, as if it was the town of London with shops as big as aircraft hangers selling fancy tea sets and coloured sheets. We didn't even have a cinema in Craighaven then; the only excitement we got was when whales came inshore.
Well, the attraction for him turned out to be Mainland Mary. By that time she'd lost a few teeth and her great hands were as rough and dry as marram grass. But she'd grown into her own face, it was as funny as the words she spoke and as beautiful as the wistful old songs she sang. She'd stopped chopping off her hair. It hung to her waist in heavy red coils that flailed about as she strode around Craighaven, or lay as shining as flame over the back of her chair when she drank in the Mast Makers Inn with her feet up on the fire fender.
Of course Double Steve and Terry Bails had known each other all their lives and must have fought and fished together when they were kids on the rock called Jute's that sticks out on the cove side of Marraday.
Well trouble started between the three of them all right, and all who drank in the Mast Makers Inn know it to be true. There were arguments and rough words flung about, and many times Mainland Mary would throw her chair to the floor and push her way out into the street before either man had time to stop her. One time she gave both of them a black eye, so that for a while we called them the twins. But Terry was as persistent as wasps round fish; where Mary and Double Steve were, there would be Terry, whatever the consequences.
A good year passed and the three of them seemed to have sorted things out, they went about Craighaven like two brothers with their sister. But the core of the matter remained; both men were convinced that Mainland Mary would settle for him. Bets were laid. There were those who couldn't see Terry in the picture, Mainland Mary and Double Steve were as like as two pegs, they said. Mrs Stobart, who read tea leaves, told us no, Mary would settle for Terry, in all the throwings she'd done, she'd never seen Double Steve at the bottom of her cup. She'd even changed cups, but it made no difference. Some thought a sensible woman would've thrown in her lot with Terry Bails if only for practical reasons. He'd more land than Double Steve and a smart boat with a new engine. He lived with his elderly mother in a decent sized house with a good well.
Three years more passed and the matter remained unsettled and it was as if the whole of Craighaven was holding its breath. Then a surprising thing happened. Just before autumn the inhabitants of Marraday came over together with Terry's mother in boats, and hired the old town hall for a day. Food was provided, it was an open affair and a few of us from the Mast Maker's Inn joined them out of curiosity. Now, it was not known to us which of those handful of people were for Double Steve and which for Terry Bails. It seemed that even within families there were different points of view, although it was certain that Terry's mother knew what would be the best thing.
It's hard to describe the sadness and grieving that comes to people when they see their way of life dying; it's a kind of endless silent lamenting. It was not just that they missed their young, but they feared to be without them because lack of strength to do the simple things like digging for peat, or turning the ground for planting was creeping up on more of them as the years passed. They'd come to plead with Mainland Mary to make a choice, or leave their two good men alone, or marry one, as the agitation she caused, in what some would describe as her waywardness, was a burden all could do without. It seemed that Terry had become idle and sloppy and Double Steve spent hours sitting on the cliff, unmoving.
'D'you want a man of your own or not, Missy, or are you so mannish yourself you even think time will do your bidding?' Terry's mother asked her.
'Mrs Bails, have you never wished yourself you could have your single life back?'
'Of course, all women look at the men they are wed to sometimes and have the feeling of drowning. Some even have a feeling of being a ghost. But do you want to get to my age and still be laying creels with no family to share your luck, no sons to haul in for you?'
'I'm never the best one to make big changes Mrs Bails, more than anything else it frightens me.'
'Perhaps you're just playing with them. Because by now you must know which one will do for you. Or are you after the babies without the men, like your mother?'
Mary promised the families she'd make her choice by the end of the week and that the wedding would follow quickly afterwards. She said she'd move onto Marraday with her boat and creels and leave the laundry business to the woman with four daughters who ran the post office.
Double Steve and Terry Bails went back to Marraday and returned together in Terry's boat to Craighaven late the following afternoon to meet the little missy in the Mast Makers Inn. The lounge bar of the pub was packed, as if nobody had any work to do.
It was hard to say which of the two men looked more the dandy. Double Steve had on a red shirt with tucks down the front and in his excitement his face burnt a bright red to match. Terry looked elegant in a narrow suit with the bottom of his trousers long enough to show no ankle. Mainland Mary was wearing a string of plastic beads in the guise of pearls, and had plaited chunks of her hair so that the rest of it was held down by the weight of these. The three sat at their usual table in the lounge and we watched them through the mirror behind the bar.
Mary took a coin from her jacket pocket and slapped it onto the table. We saw their heads come together. I watched the coin gleam in the light from the fire as she flipped it upwards three times, laughing lightly as if remembering the enchantment of a child's game.
I felt at that moment a sense of desolation; all that followed for Mainland Mary was to be decided by a game of heads and tails. I searched in the mirror for the eyes of my companions at the bar, but they were gazing into their beer as if they'd just come from the task of putting an injured animal out of its misery.
It was settled. Double Steve had won. Mary let us know as she came to the bar for a round of drinks, and Terry Bails was to be godfather of the children to come. The colour had drained from Double Steve's face; it was as pale as the head on my Guinness. Terry's shoulders were hunched and his suit looked as if it had grown a couple of sizes.
There was an atmosphere in the Mast Makers that night that was as close to half-wistful and half relieved as you could get, except at a funeral. I was sorry for Terry Bails, and still more sorry for what his mother would do to him when he got home, because it was known that he'd never taken a step without consulting her. It was said that at Terry's birth a remarkable freak wave had hit the windows of the house and scared the midwife to her bones so that the baby was close to lost. Such things are said to make a difference in a person's life and in the case of Terry Bails it was thought that the midwife, while cutting the physical umbilical cord, entirely forgot to release the spirit one in her agitation. Some believed it, some did not.
I got a few minutes with Mary alone that night myself and pressed her arm. 'Now then, Little Mary, what's to happen, will you tell Craighaven so it can breathe again?'
'The pair of them are going over to Marraday tonight on Terry's boat, drunk as they are. So, I'm pleased about that, you know what Double Steve's boat is like. I'm happy Jack, I feel as if I'm as light as a gnat. I only knew the truth of things when I threw up the coin, see?'
And the woman looked happy, radiant as a goblin queen.
Double Steve came up behind her and whispered in her ear, 'The wind on Marraday is so strong, Mary, I'll have to tie you to the tree in the yard when we live there to stop you being blown away, are you ready for it?'
'I am, Double Steve. I am.'
I can only imagine the rest. I see Terry trembling, his suit sodden with seawater, wetness creeping over the parlour floor. I see old Mrs Bails gather him to her and bend his head into her neck. I see the bride to be on her knees in front of her clothes chest, bare foot, looking for something to wear for the wedding, her hair about her in the alive way it had. I see Double Steve, mouth open like a dark cave, eyes pale, and all the lines gone from his bloated face.
When the news about Double Steve's death came back, Mainland Mary rowed over to the island sobbing, on a sea as calm as a dish of tea and about the same colour. She promised to marry Terry. Nobody in Craighaven has seen her for a long time. There never were any children.
Terry still drinks in the Mast Makers Inn when he comes over from Marraday. It takes a lot to get him to tell the story of the great wave again. It rose up from nowhere on a sea as smooth as satin as the two men made their way back to the island. They were a few hundred yards away from the cove close to Jute's Rock and were sucked straight under with no warning. For a few seconds they were thrown together, their limbs entwined in the heavy water as if they were wrestling. Terry surfaced and was carried on top of the wave way past the shoreline and pitched up onto the grass. Double Steve's body was never found and the boat was smashed to pieces on Jute's Rock. Well, some believe that and some don't.
Story Copyright © 2007 by Rebecca Lloyd. All rights reserved.
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About the author
Rebecca has been writing fiction since 1999. Her short stories have been published in journals, magazines and ezines in Canada, USA, New Zealand, and the UK. She is a creative writing teacher for Writewords, an online writers’ community. In Bristol, she teaches creative writing at the Grant Bradley Gallery and at Waterstone's Bookshop. She was the winner of the Bristol Short Story Prize 2008 for a story called 'The River.' She is a member of the Society of Authors.