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11/08/2016

The Last Pearl Fisher of Scotland

Julia Stuart

1998

It didn’t get much better than this. Brodie gazed at the sun flashing bronze on the scurrying river, trimmed with a million shades of green. Today was the day all right. He, Brodie McBride, the last full-time pearl fisher in Scotland, was going to find the largest pearl in living memory. The one that was going to save his marriage. This stretch of the Tay had been good to him in the past. It couldn’t let him down now.

He ran back to his car and hauled from the roof rack his home-made boat, a square wooden box with a canvas bottom that he used for deeper rivers. Inside was his long hazel stick, the end of which he’d split in two and whittled to resemble an old-fashioned clothes peg. Opening the boot, he grabbed his glass –a tin jug with a glass bottom that a smith had made about a decade ago when his old one started to leak. Mouth dry, he placed it carefully inside the boat, and hurried with it to the river. There was one last thing he had to check. His fingers reached inside his jeans pocket. There it was, the old aspirin bottle in which he would put Elspeth’s huge pearl.

There was a bigger wobble than usual as he sat astride the lying board, the wooden plank that stretched across the top of his vessel. He pushed himself away from the bank with his pearling stick, then paddled with it to the bend, thrusting against the water on alternate sides. He’d try here. Water splashed against his chin as he tossed the stone anchor over the side. As he lay face down on the board, he could feel his heart thudding against it. Through the water’s fractured surface he pushed the glass, and lowered his face to it. Holding it with his teeth so as to have both hands free, he peered at the riverbed.Patches of sand emerged between weeds fluttering across the riverbed like green ribbons. He couldn’t see a thing with them in the way.

There! Margaritifera margaritifera – the only word Dad had taught him how to spell. Partly buried in the sand, the pearl mussels stood tips ajar, like black hands in prayer. The old, ugly ones were always the best, with a line – often a parallel pair – running to the shell’s edge from where a pearl might be. But you could find a decent pearl in a shell without any markings at all, which meant any amateur weekender could come along with no clue what to look for and find something.

Brodie shifted his glass this way then that as he stared at the nodding mussels. Which one? Which one? Not that one. Nor that. They were too wee. What about that one there, by the rock? It must be about ninety years old, given the size. This was it, surely. Arm drawn back, he plunged his stick towards it.

 

He’d been convinced that the day had finally come moments after waking this morning. Mouth against the pillow, he listened for the cheerful song thrush. Nothing. It was the evil hour again – that no-man’s-land between one day and the next when his mind would conjure up a carnival of catastrophes that would last until dawn. He tried to slip back to sleep, but it was hopeless. It kept coming at him in capital letters. Underlined. Forty-three next month, and he still hadn’t found the largest pearl for Elspeth’s necklace after nineteen years of searching. He’d be the same age Dad had been when he died and left him without even a goodbye.

He turned towards the soft sleeping shape of Elspeth, fingers curled in front of those lips that had once sought his. It hadn’t always been like this. They used to be like sea otters, holding hands as they slept so they wouldn’t drift away from one another.

Then it came to him, like a whisper from God. Today he was going to find it. He tossed aside the bedding, toes searching for the comfort of his slippers. From their huddle on the chair he grabbed yesterday’s clothes, and felt in the drawer for his cosy underpants, listening to make sure that neither of them was up. Silence. Beyond the bookshelves, stacked with history, he knelt in the corner furthest from the fire. Another pause, just to be certain. He then lifted the loose floorboard, reached into the hidey-hole that neither wife nor thief could find, and grabbed it.

Settled on the settee, the tin resting on his ruined knees, he ran a finger along the raised lettering: Dr Foster’s Rain Pills – A Cure for the Deleterious Effects of the British Weather. It had belonged to James, his great-great-grandpa, pearl fisher to the Prince of Wales. Apparently, the future king had been just as besotted with Scottish pearls as was his mother, Victoria. Dad had given him this tin just before they left the house that very first day he took him pearling. Must have been about five. He could see himself now in those brown trousers that were too big for him, standing on the riverbank feeling sick with excitement at the prospect of finding something.

With a slight tug, the lid opened. Even after all this time, he still felt a thrill. Seventy-two white pearls as round as moons with the hint of a pink sky. They shifted on their cloth bed as he tilted them towards the window. Nothing compared to the misty beauty of Scottish pearls. Nothing. You couldn’t fake it.

He’d better rinse the pearls again before he left, otherwise they might crack. Leaving the tin on the coffee table, he went into the kitchen for a bowl and some distilled water. As he returned, he stopped. Maggie. Sitting on the settee, her blonde hair in uproar, and the bottom of her left pyjama sleeve hanging empty. She hadn’t spotted the tin, had she?

He stood in front of it. ‘Did you have another nightmare?’

‘Why haven’t you given all those pearls to Mum to sell to Mr McSweetie?’

He couldn’t believe it. The pearls had been his secret for nineteen years, and now Maggie was leaning around his legs to get another look at them. She’d seen thousands of his pearls over the years, but they’d always been a variety of colours and shapes: buttons, barrels and drops in anything from white to gold, silver and blue. She’d never seen a collection like this before – all round and the same exquisite white with tender pink overtones. No one had.

‘It must have been that cheese sandwich you had last night that woke you,’ he said.

She lifted her face, as pale as a snow bunting. ‘Mr McSweetie would buy all of them.’

‘I blame that English Cheddar your mother bought. I told her to stick to the Orkney stuff. It’s the cows. They get all depressed stuck down there in Somerset when they could be up here, kicking their hooves in paradise.’

‘Has Mum seen those pearls?’

‘On no account mention them to your mother. Come on, back to bed. I’ll smuggle you a monk biscuit. I’ve found out where Mum hides them. You’d think she’d have more imagination than the airing cupboard. It was the first place I looked.’

‘Why can’t I tell Mum about the pearls?’

He didn’t have time for this, he had to get his stuff together. ‘It’s a secret.’

‘I won’t tell anyone.’

She was still just sitting there.

‘If you go back to bed I’ll let you watch Columbo.’

‘Two biscuits, Columbo and the secret.’

It was like negotiating with some power-crazed despot, not a ten-year-old girl in pyjamas with penguins all over them. Outside, it was getting lighter. He had to get out of here. ‘Promise you’ll keep it to yourself?’

She nodded.

‘They’re for your mother. Been collecting them ever since we were married.’ Now he felt all exposed. ‘Right. Up you go.’

She frowned. ‘That was ages ago.’

See. That was the point. His mum had told him that Dad took fourteen years to collect the pearls for her necklace, and Brodie had been at it for nineteen years and he still hadn’t finished Elspeth’s yet. ‘They have to be the same colour and lustre. And be the right size and shape. Takes years.’ He jerked his head toward the door. ‘Bed.’

‘What do you mean, the right size? They’re all different.’

Why wouldn’t she just go back upstairs? Stifling a sigh he glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece, then swiftly arranged the pearls on the table until they formed a perfectly graduated necklace. ‘See how they start off small, get bigger and bigger, then become small again?’

‘There’s a gap in the middle.’

‘That’ll be the biggest one. I’m about to find it.’

He strode to the window and looked up. He had to be first on the river. Couldn’t bear someone else scuffing up the water before him.

‘Why is it a secret?’

‘Because it’s a love token,’ he said, his mind drifting with the river waiting for him. ‘All McBrides give their wives a pearl necklace. Family tradition.’ Why was he telling her this?

Now she was standing in front of Mum’s tiny black-and-white photograph on the wall. Elspeth had found it in a dusty taped-up box in the loft, got it framed, then hung it next to her parents’ pictures. It was meant to have been a surprise. A nice one. He’d avoided looking at that photo for years.

‘Like that one?’ she said.

Silently he stood next to her and stared at Mum’s cream pearl necklace. He could still remember her gripping his hand as they walked back home from Dad’s funeral, and pointing out a woman who she insisted was wearing it.

Maggie looked up at him, eyes blue and clear like her mother’s. ‘Will everything be all right again when you’ve found it?’

‘What do you mean? Everything’s all right now, isn’t it?’

Silence.

‘What happens if you don’t find it?’

His stomach shrank.

‘Dad?’

He didn’t know what to say.

‘What happens if you don’t find that big pearl?’ Her voice was higher, more worried.

He jerked his head towards the stairs. ‘Bed.’

The pearls back in their hiding place, and finally alone again, he returned to the kitchen. There was no time for breakfast or to make a sandwich. As he started to fill his water bottle, the stairs creaked. Who was that now? He had to go. It was a Saturday. Some of the weekenders might be out trying their luck.

‘Was it your back?’

Elspeth. Standing in the doorway tying her dressing gown across that slim waist of hers, dark hair ruffled past her shoulders. Thirty-two years after first seeing her barefoot on a riverbank and he still couldn’t look away.

‘Is that what woke you?’ Her voice had an earlymorning croak to it. ‘You should let the doctor have a look at it. All that bending. It’s no good for it. Did your father suffer with his?’

‘We’ve run out of Orkney Cheddar.’

Why was she sitting down? He had to get out of here. A part-timer might try their luck at that bend in the Tay near Meikleour where he just knew the pearl was.

‘I used it all up.’ She yawned. ‘Last night.’

‘Must have been hungry.’

‘Didn’t say I ate it,’ she said sleepily. ‘Said I used it.’ She got up and flicked on the kettle.

‘What for?’

‘Fancy some tea?’

‘Used it for what?’

‘It’s like what Michelangelo said. When they asked him how he sculpted David.’

‘He said he looked at the stone and removed everything that wasn’t David.’

‘So?’

She slid back onto the chair. ‘So I looked at the cheese and removed everything that wasn’t the Taj Mahal.’

There was a pause as he tried to take it in. ‘Maggie’s modelling clay. It’s in the fridge. You could have used that.’

‘She’s finished it.’

‘Already? I only just bought it.’

‘She’s made a surprise for you.’

‘Don’t like them.’

Silence.

‘What was it?’

‘A birthday cake. With your name on it and everything.’

He didn’t get it. ‘Out of modelling clay? And anyway, it’s not until next month.’

‘She said she didn’t know whether you’d be here to have it, and was worried it would go off if she made you a normal one.’

Now he got it. It was because of last year. He’d fished the Tay, then had a hunch about the Evelix, four hours north. Instead of coming home for his birthday supper, he’d driven up there and spent the night in his car so he wouldn’t lose any time in the morning. He didn’t find anything. Tightening the lid on his water bottle, he headed into the hall.

‘You do know how to get there, don’t you?’ she said, following him. ‘It’s that funny little road off the high street.’

What was she on about? He screwed his feet into his shoes. Thankfully his stuff was already in the car. ‘I’ll be back later,’ he said, unlocking the door.

‘You can’t go without Maggie. And anyway, it’s not even six. Come on, I’ll make you some eggs.’

He wasn’t taking Maggie to the shells. Not today. Not when he had to find that pearl.

‘For God’s sake don’t let her see the puppies.’ She sat down on the bottom step. ‘I’ve told her, but you know what she’s like.’

He blinked. The goldfish. But the pet shop was in Perth, half an hour away. He’d have to wait for the damn thing to open. ‘I’ll take her in the week.’ He opened the door.

‘You promised her that fish for the start of the summer holidays,’ she said, getting to her feet. ‘That was a week ago.’

‘Like I said, next week.’

‘It’s her first pet. You know how much she wants one.’

Didn’t she see? He was going to make it all better. By the end of today everything would be sorted. Neither of them would be disappointed in him any more.

‘I’d go myself, but she wants you to take her.’

‘Me?’

‘She’s got it into her head that you’re some kind of goldfish expert.’

He gazed at the worn carpet. Expert? The only thing he knew about goldfish was that you flushed them down the loo when they died. How could Maggie think he was an expert at anything? He felt a shift inside. There was something about that bairn that got him in the guts. Always had.

‘I’ll take her before I go to the shells, and pick up some more cheese once I’ve finished. Be back for supper.’ He’d come home a hero. On all fronts.

 

‘Everyone else has got a dog,’ said Maggie in the passenger seat next to him, fingering the edge of her sunflower shorts.

The handbrake squealed as he hitched it up as high as it would go. ‘We’re not everyone else.’

Head lowered, he peered through the windscreen at the purple facade dotted with black paw prints. Pet shops gave him the heebie-jeebies – all those trapped animals desperate for love. He wound down his window to get some air. The deserted street was just as ugly as the store with its tossed fried-chicken boxes and beer cans. You’d have to put a gun to his head before he’d ever live in a city.

‘How long do we have to wait?’ She was flicking the little finger of her prosthesis, the way she did when she was anxious about something.

‘Forty-three minutes.’ He tapped on the clock. ‘Got a feeling that’s fast, though.’

‘Why didn’t we just come when it opens?’

‘The early bird catches the goldfish.’

He leant back. All he could hear was the plastic ticking of the clock as if a bomb was about to go off.

‘Samantha Grey’s got one,’ she said.

He scratched at something on his trouser leg with his thumbnail. ‘Got what?’

‘A dog.’

‘Why don’t you get some sleep? I’ll keep a lookout.’

‘Not tired.’

She wanted that fish. Big time. Before they’d left, she showed him the spot she’d cleared on her dressing table for the bowl, pointing out that its occupant would have views of the garden. What it must be like to want only a goldfish.

‘Alice’s goldfish used to look at you like that.’ She widened her eyes with her fingers.

‘They get that vacant look after a while. All that swimming round and round does their heads in. We’ll teach it some tricks. Get it to jump through hoops like a dolphin.’

He stared at the door, willing it to move. Couldn’t they open early for stock taking? A hamster head count?

‘Thought about what you’re going to call it?’

‘Rover.’

She was looking ahead of her, seeing the wonder of it all. Then something happened and she frowned.

‘It won’t die, will it? Alice found hers floating on top of the water. Her mum said she must have fed it too much.’

He shook his head. ‘We’ll pick a clever one. One that knows when it’s had enough to eat.’

‘What do they look like, the clever ones?’

‘It’s all in the shimmer.’

There was a pause.

‘Dad?’

‘Yes?’

‘When will my freckles go?’ She was still worried about them.

‘Never, hopefully.’

‘Is it true what you said? Ages ago.’

‘What did I say?’

‘That there was a shower of gold when I was born and that’s why I’ve got them.’

‘How else would you account for them?’

She turned to the window, unbrushed hair obscuring her face. ‘Once we’ve got Rover you can go and find that pearl and give it to Mum with the others when you get home. She’s going to love them, I know it.’

Staring ahead of him, all he could see was nineteen years of failure. He was going to find it today, wasn’t he?

 

‘They’re opening!’

Something was stopping him from getting out of the car. He still had his stupid seat belt on, that was why. Once he’d finally released himself, he hurried towards the shop. As he advanced, a man in an overstuffed black T-shirt appeared on the horizon like a pirate ship. The numpty wasn’t going in, surely? Not after they’d been staking the place out for forty minutes. As he started to run, the man broke into one of those astonishing sprints normally performed by hedgehogs. As Brodie reached for the handle it was seized by a doughy fist, an inked swallow caught between the thumb and forefinger. Once inside, he
tried both over- and undertaking, but the way to the counter was irrefutably blocked.

Stiffly, he trailed after him down a gauntlet of horrors – lunatic budgies talking to their reflections in mirrors, wild-eyed gerbils trying to gnaw their way to freedom and  suspiciously silent vivaria in which evil lurked.

When, eventually, they arrived at the counter, he attempted to catch the attention of the assistant, a pale-skinned woman with hair as black as her lipstick. But she was staring at Maggie’s prosthesis, as stiff as a doll’s arm. Couldn’t she just look away embarrassed like everyone else did?

He tapped on the counter. ‘I’d like a goldfish. For my daughter.’

Both the assistant and the man looked at him.

‘The other customer was here first.’ She fiddled with her gold nose ring.

The man nodded, then pointed to the canaries. ‘I’ve got witnesses.’ He scratched at his stomach with histhumb. ‘I’m after something for my wife.’

‘What about a hamster?’ said the woman. ‘Great sense of humour.’

‘Be a waste. She hasn’t got one.’

‘How about a mouse? Very loyal.’

‘Too small. She’s short-sighted.’

‘A parrot. Something to talk to.’
He shot out a warning finger. ‘Wouldn’t want to encourage that particular aspect.’

Brodie tapped again. ‘While the gentleman’s deciding, may I have a goldfish?’

‘One of the clever ones,’ said Maggie. ‘It’s all in the shimmer.’

‘Run out, I’m afraid. Next delivery is due on Monday. But don’t take my word for it. You never know with head office.’

‘Run out?’ Brodie said, incredulous. ‘How can a pet shop run out of goldfish? It’s like going into an off-licence and being told they’ve run out of whisky.’

The assistant shrugged. ‘Everyone loves a goldfish. There was a run on them yesterday. Try your luck and come back on Monday.’

‘Excuse me, I was here first.’

‘Monday? I can’t come back on Monday.’ His voice was starting to rise. ‘The bairn needs one now. I promised.’

‘What about Tuesday? Though between you and me, you’re probably better off trying on Wednesday.’

He couldn’t stand the smell in here. It was getting down his throat. ‘I’ve got to get her one today. Don’t you see?’

‘Or next Saturday to be certain.’

‘What’s that?’ Maggie pointed to a cage behind the counter.

The assistant followed her finger. ‘Snowball.’

‘Looks like someone’s had a wee on that snow,’ said the man.

‘I love him,’ said Maggie.

Brodie peered. ‘Why is it reduced?’

‘A customer brought him back,’ she said. ‘Haven’t been able to shift him since.’

‘I love him.’

‘But what is it?’ said Brodie.

She looked at him like he was dim-witted. ‘A rabbit.’

‘A rabbit? It could fly with those ears. Shouldn’t they be sticking up?’

‘Just what I was thinking,’ said the man. ‘Like Bugs Bunny.’

‘He’s a lion lop,’ she said. ‘They’re meant to do that.’

There was something about pet rabbits that gave him the creeps. They were all teeth and no brain.

‘I love him.’

Maggie was staring at it like she was bewitched. It reminded him of those furry things on a stick you used to get rid of cobwebs.

‘Can it see through that fur?’

‘I wouldn’t stick your finger in to find out,’ said the man. ‘With teeth that size it’ll take your arm off.’

Silence. Even from an upside-down parrot.

Maggie’s cheeks were so flushed she looked as though she’d just been slapped.

‘We’ll take it,’ said Brodie, swiftly taking out his wallet. ‘Snowball.’

For a moment the assistant didn’t move. ‘Never thought we’d get rid of him.’ She reached up to the latch. ‘At least you won’t need a hutch. He’s a house rabbit.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Lives indoors.’

‘We’ll take a hutch anyway.’ He snapped down his credit card on the counter. ‘Best one you’ve got. Snowball might like a summerhouse with garden views. Isn’t that right, Maggie?’

She still hadn’t taken her eyes off it. ‘He’s not called Snowball. His name’s Frank.’

‘Well, let’s get Frank into the car pronto. And I’m driving.’

The day had started to die as he walked silently into the kitchen on his return from the Tay. Slices of chicken suffocated underneath cling film on a solitary plate on the empty table, a drop of congealed gravy spoiling the place mat below. Maggie, with her back to him, was pouring tea into the sink from the family pot. It was the one commemorating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee which had belonged to his greatgreat-grandpa. For some reason Mum had given it to him when she sent him a hundred and fifty miles south to live with Aunt Agnes for what was supposed to have been a few months. Elspeth, in a floral cotton dress and bare feet, was washing the dishes next to Maggie. There, on the wall, was the print of the Battle of Culloden he’d bought last week from a charity shop. He’d just driven along the enormous beech hedge said to grow heavenwards as the men who planted it had been killed in that battle. The heroes.

‘That’s a lot of teeth for a goldfish,’ said Elspeth as she turned, water dripping from her yellow gloves onto the tiles.

He said nothing.

She raised her eyebrows. ‘Did you get the cheese?’

Silence.

‘Did you find anything?’ Maggie was looking at him like it was the most important thing in the world.

A swallow.

‘Dad, did you find anything?’

He couldn’t say it. Just couldn’t say it. He shook his head then flinched as the teapot slipped from her hand, and china five generations old smashed into thousands of brittle shards. No one moved during the even louder silence that followed. Fear stirred his stomach as he heard the voice again. The one always whispering that he was going to lose them both.


The Last Pearl Fisher of Scotland is published 25th August 2016 by Vintage.

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