When Richie McManus lost his hand in the hydraulic winch, he said he screamed like a banshee, but the North Sea winds whipped the noise away. I was hauling in gear on the port side and the alarm light was the only thing that snapped me out of my own thoughts. McManus was only a few meters away from me on the other side of the deck and I didn’t hear a thing.
It was clean off, just above the wrist. The hand was mangled and lost in the machinery. We got him onto the mess table and cleaned the wound. We heard him scream then all right. Brucey even ran back outside to throw up. The galley was usually quiet, but McManus shouted his fuckin’ head off that night. Who wouldn’t? It was a long steam back to port. Thirty-six hours of saying the same things over and over again.
‘Doctors can do wonders these days, pal. Prosthetics and all. And there’s jobs too for . . . you know.’
He looked, full stare, like he dared us to finish the thought.
Mostly we stayed quiet and watched the knots to shore tick down.
People sometimes ask us why we’re paid so well. Richie’s accident was why. Chances are we’d all have a lapse in concentration at some point. Every fisherman leaves something out there, whether it’s the best years of his life or his right hand. For once, none of the crew was thinking about the taste of that first pint in the Angus Arms, or the first leg-up they’d get.
I took a shift sitting up with him. After the shock died, the colour started to come back, but outside it was black. We listened to the force seven outside and watched the spray batter the glass of the navigation bridge. That was a long four hours.
During the sunrise, I changed the dressing. The gauze was stuck to his wrist, with an ugly bit of bone exposed. By then, McManus had used up all our painkillers. He winced as I fixed a new dressing, then calmed once it was done. We watched the dark horizon for other vessels but saw nothing.
‘Yous ever heard about that Portuguese word?’ he asked after a while. ‘Saudade.‘
‘Nah. No idea, pal.’
‘Saudade. Aye, it’s one of those words withoot a translation. It comes from their nautical culture.’
I turned to face him, keeping my eyes well away from his wound. ‘What’s it mean then?’
He straightened up in his seat. ‘It’s like a longing. You know, missing something.’
I inhaled on a cigarette I didn’t have. A longing. ‘Like a gut feeling?’
‘Aye, kind’ae. A feeling of not knowing. Families not knowin’ when sailors will be back. Or if . . .’ He looked out at the first light over the sea. It was placid now. ‘Sort of like love and loss all at once.’
The Portuguese have the whole bastard Atlantic to stare at, I thought. I packed away the medical kit.
‘I think aboot it on these weeks away. The water holds you at arm’s length from your life, you know?’
I did. We all did. Going back to shore was okay for a few days, then you got that craving to go back out, never at peace.
‘Been doing this seventeen years,’ he said, ‘and now’s the first time I haven’ae felt it.’
‘That saudade thing.’ He held up his ruined arm as if thanking it for setting him free.
When we docked, Skip took him straight to the hospital to get seen. All six of us visited him and his family the next day. They were philosophical about it, not angry. McManus knew all Skip had was a battered trawler, and traders were squeezing us on the price of prawn anyhow. There was no point in suing.
Soon as we knew he was okay we wanted to find a replacement and get back out there. It was peak season and we’d earned next to nothing on the trip. Skip suggested we wait a week out of respect.
So I went back to Aberdeen and told Aileen we’d have to cut some expenses over the summer. My wife dinnae know McManus well, but the news affected her. ‘Poor man, his poor family,’ she kept saying. ‘We ought to be thankful.’
We kissed and it was a real kiss. Not a protocol peck on the lips like usual. When I drew back and looked at her, I just about cried. Being away and being back was hard. I was never able to be in one place or the other. That kiss showed how much I loved her and wee Donny more than saying it ever could.
Our boy was on his school camp, so the old house was calm. Those few days without him, it echoed and creaked like an ageing vessel. I plugged a few draft holes and fixed a dripping tap, then shipped out again the next Saturday.
I suppose that’s why we dinnae call it home. It’s shore. It’s land. But the sea isn’t home either. You cannae own it, you can only own the space between the two, always pining for something.
McManus got a delivery job, which is sort of the opposite of catching fish when you think about it. I told him that, but he dinnae get it. He still drinks in the Angus Arms, only with his left hand now.
‘Yous lot are welcome to the prawn,’ he said, when we saw him after the season. ‘I dinnae miss it a bit.’
We all looked at each other, disbelieving, but he meant it. We’d only just got ashore but our minds were still tethered to the dark waters and white spray of the North Sea. And there he was, sitting with a glass of single malt and a grin on his face.
Philip Charter is a British writer who teaches writing skills to non-native English speakers. His work has been featured in Fictive Dream, Ellipsis Zine and Flashback Fiction among other publications. In 2018, he released his debut short fiction collection, Foreign Voices, and in 2021, his story The Fisherwoman won the Loft Books Short Story Prize. He likes orange cats, but hates oranges. Website: philipcharter.com Twitter: @dogbomb3