They were using the boat with the grappling hook again. They’d been alerted to something below the water. All debris needed to be cleared so it didn’t hinder the boats that came into port. I watched as the hook was lowered into the dark sea. If I didn’t know better, I’d think it looked like a crane game at an arcade. There was a shout from a man on board and the hook was raised. Something hung from its claws. I thought I saw arms and legs, but the rest was obscured by metal. I walked closer to the edge of the harbour wall to get a better view.
The four men hauled the corpse off the boat in a plastic sheet. They were sweating; the body was heavy because it was water logged. The workers lowered it to the ground. I nudged the sheet with my foot and it fell away to reveal the bloated face. It was hard to tell if it was a man or a woman. The skin was grey and waxy, the matted hair tinged green like seaweed. One of the men remarked the body looked like a scarecrow and I understood what he meant.
A bird landed by the corpse and John shooed it away. I saw him most days and knew only his name and occupation. He was the head labourer and constantly scowled. I recognised the two other men standing by the body, but we only nodded to each other in passing. The fourth I hadn’t seen before. He was no more than twenty and I wondered why he was doing this job. His red wool scarf looked out of place amongst the grey buildings that surrounded the harbour. The other men wore dark, waterproof jackets.
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a corpse. By the time they were taken out the water, they didn’t look like people anymore. Mostly, they were suicides who’d drowned themselves in the sea and been washed into the harbour. I walked away to call the police and John shouted after me.
‘Hey Harding, take Wolf with you. He’s looking a bit pale.’ I hated the way John addressed me by surname only. I turned and waited for the boy to catch up. He moved uneasily across the concrete and his face had turned grey. Despite that, I noticed the tightness of his jeans.
‘Don’t worry,’ I told him. ‘You’ll get used to it.’ He smiled thinly, in a way that implied he didn’t believe me. The others had probably told him about me. To them, I was Harding the Loner. I’d overheard the men’s conversations and watched on CCTV as they huddled together, smoking and laughing.
I asked about his unusual name. It sounded adopted, as if he’d been trying to change the person he was before.
‘My parents liked it,’ he said. His accent was American, which was unusual in the town.
The sun was setting when the police and ambulance arrived. I gave them the details and the body was taken away. The process was quiet and formal. The workers started to drift home, but I would be there until the night guard took over.
The boats cast thick shadows on the harbour wall as I checked the area. The next day, they would carry cargo to Norway or go out into the North Sea to fish. The salty wind from the ocean stung my skin. It whistled and twisted around the harbour, rattling the fences. I pulled my jacket tight around me. The pubs were starting to fill with post-work drinkers and I looked forward to my first beer of the night. I remembered a time when I had a reason to go home; I always did when it grew dark.
‘Bye, Nick,’ Wolf called. I waved and watched as he disappeared out the gates. I hoped he wasn’t going home to an empty house.
In The Crown and Anchor, the lighting was dim and paint flaked off the walls like dead skin. A slot machine flashed orange and red in the corner next to a jukebox; unplugged with dust coating its surface. The weather forecast on the TV said the temperature outside was minus four.
I sipped pint after pint of flat lager. I read the newspaper until the words on the page started to swim. Three other men sat at the bar, not speaking, content to keep their stories to themselves. I rarely told mine. I used to, when it all first happened. I’d talk to strangers on the train and tell them my wife had left me.
The day she went, Elizabeth cooked us both breakfast. That was unusual because she was normally asleep when I left for work. Normally, I ate a slice of toast on the walk to the harbour, but Elizabeth was already awake, wearing the silk kimono I’d bought her one Christmas. She was breaking eggs into a frying pan, and a pot of coffee sat on the table. We ate together, and I talked about us going away somewhere. She suggested Italy and I said we’d look into it at the weekend. At the door, Elizabeth smiled and kissed me on the cheek. She smelled like the face cream she’d always used. I came home and Elizabeth was gone. I opened the bottle of champagne I’d been saving for our anniversary and thought about what I was going to do. She’d left a tube of her lipstick behind and I noticed the shade was Deception. I painted my mouth with the red bullet.
I swallowed the dregs of my drink and considered ordering a whisky. Instead, I stood up, steadying myself with a hand on the bar and concentrated on walking in a straight line to the door. One of the men looked at me, but I didn’t care what he thought.
The cold night air hit me full force. I hoped it wouldn’t sober me up because I would be troubled by nightmares. I saw him ahead. Wolf’s red scarf burned through the darkness and I recognised his walk; hunched shoulders, head down. I ducked into a doorway, but I kept watching. A woman stopped him. She was wearing baggy jeans, a black hooded jumper and a cap pulled low over her eyes. Sexless considering what she sold. Wolf nodded at something she was saying and she moved closer, talking quietly, a hand on his arm. She gripped it like she needed him. There was a street that passed under a bridge and she walked into its shadowed mouth. Wolf stood alone for a minute, waiting. He kept looking around. I saw his face illuminated briefly by a street light before Wolf followed the woman into the darkness. I was left shivering.
In the morning, the ground was slicked with rain. I woke with the putrid taste of alcohol in my mouth. I regretted watching Wolf and doubted my memory. Did he see me?
‘Horrible day,’ Wolf said, when I ran into him later. His cheerful tone was off kilter, given he was talking about the rain that lashed down on us. I moved closer to him, pretending I couldn’t hear that well and asked if he was enjoying the work.
‘I’m starting to get used to things. Back home, I just worked on the fishing boats. The ships are so much bigger here, so much more to do.’
‘Where’s home?’ I asked.
‘Connecticut. I travelled about a lot though.’ And I wondered why he’d come all that way to this lifeless town. I liked it, but it wasn’t a place for the young.
Wolf told me how his dad used to take him fishing in the river that snaked through the state. They would leave early in the morning, while summer fog still hung in the air and drive to where the woods were thick and where no one else would be. Wolf said he liked being enclosed in a circle of trees, sitting quietly with his dad.
‘In the summer the river was so blue,’ he said, ‘but when my mum got sick we stopped going there.’
His name was called from one of the boats and he had to go. Wolf asked if I wanted to get a drink that night. I shook my head and told him: ‘Some other time.’ Walking away, he looked back and smiled. I wished I could’ve taken a picture.
I got home a little after twelve. Normally, I left the pub earlier but the music was good: bands my dad used to listen to when I was a young. But then someone put a familiar song on and I couldn’t breathe. I hadn’t heard it in a long time. Elizabeth played it a lot when we’d first married. The day we moved into our new house, she made me dance with her in the living room. The room was completely bare, but as she swayed with her arms around my neck, it seemed like home. After the divorce, I threw the record away.
I tried not to think about Elizabeth much. I didn’t blame her for leaving. When we fought, she’d shout that I needed help with my problems. ‘What problems?’ I’d shout back. ‘You know exactly what I mean,’ she’d say. She re-married a few years after the divorce. I expected that; she was very beautiful.
Wolf didn’t show up for work and he wasn’t answering his phone. No one else seemed worried, but when he didn’t appear the next day I got his address from the records in the office and made my way there.
His house was further along the coast and I drove along the narrow country roads. No other cars passed by and I could see the bulk of the cliffs and the ocean. I rolled down my window slightly and the cold salt-tinged air invigorated me.
I passed a derelict service station. The windows were boarded, yet there was a sign outside that still gave the opening hours. On the roof, there was a fast food restaurant mascot: a cat wearing a chef’s hat. The cat’s eyes had been spray-painted black and its smile revealed yellowing teeth.
A car swerved around the corner, tyres screeching on the road. The car clipped the side of mine and I slammed my hand on the horn. The four by four didn’t slow down and it disappeared down a private road. As I got out to inspect my car, I considered following the driver, but decided it wouldn’t be worth it. The body of the car had a dent in it, but that was all and I didn’t care what it looked like. I got back in and unfolded my map. Three more miles.
When I drew into the village night was falling. It was merely a cluster of houses and a phone box. A white lighthouse was the only building of note and it stood on the cliffs so the eye was drawn to it. Wolf’s house was near there, facing onto the ocean. The lighthouse’s beam flickered across the bay, illuminating everything for an instant, before it was plunged into near-darkness once again. Ships must have been wrecked there years ago.
There was no answer when I knocked on the door of Wolf’s house. I went to look in the windows, but the curtains were drawn. I found the back door had been left open. I called his name and switched on the lights, hoping he’d appear and ask what I was doing.
Each room was haphazardly decorated. The living room had mis-matched sofas and a picture of an owl hung on the wall. The rug had burn marks on it and a chipped crystal ashtray sat on the table. It was full – I’d never seen him smoke. The air was stale. I looked around for pictures of his family or something to remind him of home. There was nothing.
Upstairs, I heard a flapping sound. A window had been left open and a magpie perched on the headboard of the bed. A thin layer of frost clung to the inside of the window and I could see my breath on the air. The creature squawked and flapped its wings. A lamp lay on the floor, its bulb smashed. I grabbed it and swung it at the bird. The magpie escaped through the window, and I was finally alone in the disordered bedroom. Books were stacked on the floor and the bird had shredded some of them, leaving a jigsaw of pages scattered across the room. There was a trail of black and white feathers across the unmade bed.
Amongst the clothes hanging in the wardrobe, I found the navy cable knit jumper Wolf was wearing when I first met him. I held it up to my face and breathed in. It smelled like his aftershave and I took off my shirt. For a moment, I stood like this, semi-naked, in Wolf’s bedroom. Then I put on his jumper. It was too small, but I kept it on anyway, enjoying the feel of the wool scratching against my skin.
His wallet lay on the kitchen counter. There was no money in it, but a photograph of a girl was tucked behind his bank cards. It was creased and had been unfolded and refolded many times. The girl had red hair and a Cupid’s bow mouth. I pocketed the picture, leaving everything else as it was.
I wasn’t sure what to do about Wolf’s disappearance. Perhaps he’d gone to be with the red-haired girl. The work at the harbour was difficult so it was common for people to drift away, but I’d hoped he wouldn’t. From the state of his house, it seemed like someone would be back soon. I got into the car and started the engine.
I took a final look at the lighthouse and there was a figure standing against its beam. The outline of a person flashed in and out. I killed the car’s ignition and got out to take a closer look. Someone was standing on the balcony that encircled the top. The figure leaned over the railing and as the light grew bright again, I noticed a red scarf flapping in the wind. I called out, my voice thin against the wind, but he was too high up to hear. Before I could do anything, Wolf leaned too far over and plummeted towards the ground.
By the time I reached the lighthouse, I was breathing heavily. I searched for his body, circling the building until I grew nauseous. I scanned the rocks at the bottom of the cliff, scared of what I might see. There was nothing, except for a wooden lifeboat with a large gouge in the side. I looked out at the ocean and watched the waves churn. He was gone.
In the car, I took out my phone and the photograph fell out. The red-haired girl mocked me with her smirk. ‘Look at you, wearing his jumper,’ she seemed to say. ‘The police will know you’ve been in his house.’ I tore the picture up and threw it out the car window as I drove away.
I watched as a boat stopped in the middle of the harbour and the claws of its grappling hook were immersed in the water. I couldn’t look as it was raised.
Three men carried a body off the boat and they lowered it to the ground.
‘Got another one, Harding,’ a man said, but I couldn’t see his face. He knew I was hesitating so he pulled the corner of the sheeting away. I just turned and walked away, leaving someone else to deal with it.
‘What’s the matter, Harding?’ one of the other men shouted after me. The corpse was wearing a red scarf.
Each night, with my heart pounding, I woke from that same nightmare. I lay in the darkness, thinking about the day his body would be discovered and the events at the lighthouse. Wolf’s navy jumper was hidden at the back of my wardrobe. Sometimes, I put it on, but it no longer smelled like him.
Shaunagh Jones is a short story writer and a graduate of the University of Glasgow’s Creative Writing MLitt programme.