On shaky legs, Annie climbed over the side of the old fishing boat, and swung herself down into the dinghy. She knelt on the floor and lent back against the narrow wooden bench as she had been shown. Her dad’s groans floated down to her and she shuddered, feeling very afraid. Annie took in a long, cool breath and tried to concentrate on what she had to do. She was terrified to leave him, but knew the only way to get help was to go and find it herself. With the radio busted and their supplies so low, she didn’t think he would survive the night out here on the ocean. Annie was very used to being out on the sea. It was a favourite pastime of her and her dad. They came out here all the time looking for seals and dolphins and watching the seabirds. She had learnt all their names and had come top in her class at school for her talk on sealife.
That morning they had seen a couple of porpoise fins but had been unlucky in everything else. Her father had lowered anchor just out from a sheltered cove they both loved. They could sit there and watch the puffins practising for their migratory flight, while they ate a packed lunch. Disaster had struck when a freak wave had swept over the side of the boat, just as her dad was pulling up the anchor. He had slipped and lost his grip and the heavy chain had begun to tear away from him. As he snatched and grabbed at the runaway chain, it had ripped at his right hand. Annie had seen blood and in terror, had fled and hidden beneath one of the benches that ran along either side of the deck. She could still recall the terrible sound of her dad moaning as she had rocked herself back and forth, pressing her fists against her ears.
Sometime later, Annie hadn’t known how long, she had become aware of her dad’s voice calling her. She had blinked tight, sticky eyes and shivered. She realised she must have fallen asleep because the sun was suddenly low in the sky. She had crawled over to her dad who now looked very sleepy and white. He had explained to her that she had to go for help; that she had to be brave. Annie had reminded her dad that she wasn’t yet old enough to do this by herself, but he had pleaded with her. And he had looked so pale.
Annie was afraid, but she was also headstrong and she had made up her mind that she could do this. She leant all of her weight on the oars of the dinghy and pushed. Then she sucked in her breath and pursed her lips, and heaved them back towards her. She kept pushing and pulling and little by little the boat glided closer to the rocky shoreline. From time to time one of the oars became caught in the softly swirling green seaweeds. When this happened she would briefly panic that a sea monster was trying to drag her in. But she told herself she didn’t believe in sea monsters anymore. Nevertheless, Annie soon started to feel that she was being watched. She looked up and scanned the silver shimmer of the sea, expecting to see someone kayaking or maybe another boat. But the surface of the water remained undisturbed.
It was getting late and the seals had started up their eerie singing. It always sounded a bit spooky to Annie, but she was surprised to discover that today the sounds comforted her. She welcomed the idea that she wasn’t entirely alone. Suddenly, the floor of the little boat puckered as it grazed a rock below. Annie was jolted out of her daydream. With a spike of fear she realised that the jagged rocks crowding the contour of the bay were now alarmingly close. She felt guilty that she had lost her focus. Her dad had always warned her about these rocks. They appeared to be heaped up, peeping prettily out from the sea, but it was very deep here; the water like a bottomless pool of tar. She heard herself let out a fearful whimper.
All of a sudden there was a Swoosh! in the water between her oar and the rocks. She wondered if it was just the movement of the oar. Annie held her breath. She kept as still as the now swaying boat would allow. Swoosh! . . . There it was again! . . . Swoosh! Swish! Swoosh! Now it was all around her. Annie grabbed on to the thick rope that ran through the rungs of the inflatable boat and spun her head around, trying to discern what was happening. She was far too close to shore for there to be dolphins here. The guillimots and razorbills were too small to make such noises, and now her boat was really starting to rock. Annie heard a Slap! and Splash! and some smaller splashes, followed by more Slap! Slap! Slap! One by one the seals were belly-flopping off the rocks and into the water. ‘Selkies,’ she thought. Her dad had told her stories about the magical Selkies, who kept watch over the fishermen of their village. To humans they looked just like seals, but some people claimed to see them in their true form - beautiful mermaids and mermen. Annie liked the stories but had never really believed them. Their now graceful forms glided alongside the boat and then dived, twisting and turning down and disappearing into the inky depths. Then reappearing, they propelled themselves up from the deep with such speed that she had to cling onto her rope tighter and tighter. ‘She was going to drown,’ she thought,
“Stop! Stop please!” Annie shouted.
But the more she shouted, the more the little boat was being tossed about. And then just as suddenly as it had all began, the sea about her became still. She floated. She loosened her hands that had become wound in the rope and looked about her in wonder.
She was so close to the sandy beach that leaning over the side of the boat she could pick out the grains of sand and tiny broken shells on the seabed. Annie carefully stepped out of the boat into the shallow water. The seal song continued but it sounded far away now. A cool wind rushed past her and she felt a renewed sense of urgency. She pictured her dad, all alone on the open sea, waiting for help. She shivered. Releasing the rope she took long, splashy strides through the shallows until her grateful toes sunk into dry sand. She was a few bays round the coast from the pier where there was an emergency radio used to alert the coastguard. Just as she started to panic about how she would climb over the cliffs on the headland, Annie spotted a familiar scruffy white Highland terrier tearing towards her, pink tongue lolloping out to one side. Annie collapsed with exhaustion and relief and laughed hysterically as the wet sandy muzzle busied itself about her ears and neck. It was her Uncle’s dog, and here was Uncle Jim. Everything was going to be ok, she just knew it.
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