Tirza had never under-run her line so quickly. She lost at least four good crabs and a couple of throw-backs through hurrying too much. They didn’t seem to be biting very well anyway, and she only had six crabs in her basket when she wound the line down and rowed the dory back to the wharf. She checked that both Stormy Petrel and the dories were securely moored fore and aft, then deposited the crabs in the holding trap and left her line beside her jars of bait in the bait shed. She went to pick up some of the full berry pails from where she has left them near the Louisa Mary.
‘It’s looking some bad out there,’ she said to Ben Flett, who was tidying away the gear on his boat and roping down everything in sight.
‘Ayuh. Best take your sails and loose gear indoors tonight,’ he said.
‘Is everyone in?’
‘Everyone except Reliant. Walter has been takin’ her further out than the rest of us, since the fishin’ has been poorly. Reckon he went out past Matinicus last night. Ain’t seen him since.’
It took Tirza four more trips to carry all the blueberries, the sail, rudder, oars and centreboard up to the house. Then Nathan helped her unstep the mast and rope the tarpaulin cover down over the cockpit of Stormy Petrel. Between them they carried the mast up to the boat shed.
‘It may not amount to anything,’ said Nathan as they came into the kitchen, ‘but better safe than sorry.’
‘There’s a weather warning on the radio,’ Abigail said. ‘They say the hurricane running up the coast is beginning to die out, but they’re forecasting severe gales at least. Maybe even the last of the hurricane.’
Nathan shook his head.
‘I don’t like to think of Walter out there with only Eli and Wayne to crew. Walter’s a pretty man with a boat, but Eli is past seventy and Wayne’s nothing but a boy.’
Darkness fell early. Tirza did not see the clouds finally come up. Instead the whole sky closed over suddenly, as if something had been clamped down on top of it, cutting out the evening sun. Abigail switched on the kitchen light while they ate their supper, like the middle of winter. Looking out of her bedroom later, Tirza could see fragments of leaves and twigs whirling in the band of light cast by her window. Instead of blowing steadily in one direction they spun in tiny circles, no more than six inches across, so that the air seemed to seethe like boiling water. Under the harbour lights she could see clumps of men gathering, the light reflecting from their sou’westers and oilskins. Reliant was four hours overdue.
It was unbearable to stay inside with this sense of approaching calamity. She knew Abigail would forbid her to go out of doors, so she crept downstairs quietly in her bare feet and slid past the kitchen where her grandmother was dozing over the newspaper. Her cut-down oilskins hung on a hook inside the boat shed door. She put them on and let herself out into the night.
The men and boys were gathered on the wharf, the women stood in separate groups nearer the seafront houses. Nathan and Ben and a few others had stepped down on to the lobster car, as if the few yards this brought them nearer to the sea somehow made them feel better. Now she was outside, Tirza caught the full force of the wind and had to clamp her sou’wester down on her head with both hands to stop it blowing away. She caught sight of Simon on the fringe of the crowd and struggled over to him. He grabbed her by the elbow as a gust threw her sideways, almost off the wharf.
‘Watch out! You’ll do no good ending up in the harbour.’
‘Your dad and Ben were talking about going out to look for them, but it would be suicide. Latest news is, the last of the hurricane is headed right this way.’
Tirza was silent. There was nothing to be said. Either Reliant had foundered already, and Walter, Wayne and Eli were lost, or she was out there trying to battle her way in. It seemed unlikely. If she had still been afloat, she would surely have made harbour by now, even with the offshore rote. She couldn’t have been fishing a whole four hours further out to sea than the rest of the fleet.
The church clock struck eleven. The force of the wind was increasing and the group of watching women persuaded Josie Pelham to wait inside Flett’s Stores. She went stoically, her hands twisted in her apron but her face set in dignified lines of resignation. Clarice, trailing behind, was puffy-eyed as if she had been crying, but she walked now with her face averted and she shook off Jim from the gun crew who tried to stop her with his hand.
Tirza wondered whether the gun crew had left their post. And there were other soldiers in the crowd too, more than could be on duty tonight. The news of the missing boat had somehow reached them and they had gathered here with the other watchers. Nathan and Ben climbed the ladder from the lobster car up the side of the spindle-legged wharf, which rose high above the level of the water. The tide was at full ebb, and the reefs offshore would be at their most dangerous.
‘Eli’s bin fishin’ sixty-five years,’ Ben volunteered, ‘since he were ten. Barrin’ six years when he shipped on a whaler back in the nineties.’
There was a sudden violent surge in the wind, followed by a curious sound, like a great zipper being torn open. A cloud passed through the harbour lights like a flock of birds, and Tirza saw that a patch of shingles had been ripped off the bait shed roof. They were slicing through the air as deadly as knives. Instinctively, the Flamboro people ducked, but the soldiers were not so quick, nor was Reverend Bridges, who had joined the crowd. The minister was an inland man and he looked merely astonished when a shingle flying at ninety or a hundred miles an hour struck him on the head. He collapsed at Charlie Flett’s feet. At the same moment one of the soldiers who had instinctively raised his hands to protect his face gave a shriek. Blood was pouring down his arm where a shingle had sliced across his wrist.
The injuries gave them something to do. The soldier was helped into Flett’s Stores and two of the men carried the minister in and laid him on the Liars’ Bench. He was bleeding where the shingle had cut his temple. All the watchers from the foreshore crowded in behind. There was not much anyone could do, but there was a sense of doing something, just by being there. Mary Flett, who had been a nurse before her marriage, cleaned and dressed the wounds while Charlie lit the pot-bellied stove. It might be August, but the hurricane had sucked cold air into its vortex, and everyone found they were shivering.
The church clock struck one. Mary had ushered Josie Pelham and the other women into the Fletts’ apartment above the store and she brought down jugs of coffee and plates of hot biscuits to the men. The minister was sitting up now, pale and a little confused, while the soldier, it seemed, couldn’t stop talking.
‘Durndest thing I ever saw,’ he said. ‘Like a knife-throwin’ act at one of them there Wild West shows. Hurtlin’ through the air.’ He seemed to fancy the word, tasting it on the tongue. ‘Hurtlin’ through the air. Nearly sliced my hand right off.’
‘Jest be thankful it didn’t cut your head right off, Chuck,’ said one of the other soldiers dryly.
‘Elsen you would of had to stop talking.’
Everybody laughed, with a nervous, anxious sound.
The church clock struck two. Gradually people began to drift away. Nathan, who seemed to notice Tirza for the first time, hitched her up from the floor by her elbows.
‘Your grandmother is going to tan the backside off the both of us,’ he said. ‘Come on. There’s nothing we can do till first light.’
‘Doesn’t seem worth going to bed now,’ Tirza mumbled. ‘It almost is first light.’
They stumbled back together along the seafront. The lamps along the harbour looked sickly now that the sky was no longer so black dark. The wind was abating and a few stars flickered briefly between the torn shreds of the clouds. Out at sea beyond the islands there was a thread of paler sky along the horizon, where mountainous waves heaved and collided.
‘Can I come with you when you go out in the morning?’ Tirza asked as they hung up their oilskins on the boat shed door.
‘Hunting drowned men is no job for a girl,’ said Nathan bluntly.
She raised her chin defiantly. ‘I can be just as brave as any man. Wayne is my friend. And my eyes are sharper than yours.’
Nathan sighed and passed his hand wearily over his face.
‘Oh, child, I don’t know. I fear to think, sometimes, what your mother would have made of the way I’ve raised you. I don’t feel I’ve done right by you, treating you no better than a boy.’
Tirza put her arms awkwardly round his solid, barrel-shaped body and laid her cheek against the rough wool of his working sweater which smelled of lobsters and tar. He had never had time yesterday evening to change out of his hauling clothes.
‘You’ve raised me just fine, Dad. Maybe I’m not pretty and elegant like Martha, but I like things the way they are.’
He tousled her hair roughly. Then held up a strand of it between his fingers.
‘Hey, now. Look at this! It’s getting so long, we’ll soon be able to knit bait bags out of it. Come on, time you were in bed.’