4. Friends or Foes?

Wednesday 10th June

Portree

Isle of Skye

Jess Harper pulled on the oars of his rowboat and addressed the two men seated at the rear. “As I see it, we need two things today. A fair wind in our sails, and clear, untroubled waters at our destination.”

Felix looked beyond his muscular friend. “Judging from the channel we’ll be using to set out, I think we’ll have a head start with the wind.”

“The wind isn’t a concern for me.” Nathan’s tone contained no excitement. He’d had hardly spoken since their early breakfast an hour earlier.

Jess said, “What’s concerning you, mate?”

Nathan briefly forced a smile. “What we may or may not find in the clear, untroubled waters.”

Felix turned to him. “You sounded okay about our plan, and last night you were ecstatic to be diving again.”

The younger man nodded. “You’ve heard the phrase, ‘the cold light of day,’ haven’t you?”

“Yes, but you’re not saying now that you don’t want to take part in this, are you?”

“No,” Nathan said. “There’s just something about the whole idea that’s eating at me now.”

Jess worked his big arms and shoulders back and forward as he took them closer to his yacht. They were the divers, so he’d leave them to discuss their issues about that side of the job.

*

Twenty minutes after unloading and hitching the rowboat behind the yacht, Jess was happy. He directed the other two and within minutes they felt the forces of nature taking over as the jib filled with the invisible power of the wind, and the yacht eased into its voyage.

“The breeze is concentrated through the Sound of Rassay and has a catapult effect on a yacht. By the time we’ve left the narrow channel and reached The Minch, we’ll be in full sail and cruising.” The Minch was a much wider sea channel than the one they were setting out from. In a natural progression, after The Minch, they would be in the North Atlantic.

Jess had been a sailor since his teens and felt more at home on the water than on land. He’d had a brief career in the Royal Navy but left because of the constraints of not being in control of his own destiny. It took many years of effort and hard-earned trust and experience before he was finally the skipper of his own yacht and working freelance.

“Hey, mate,” Felix said, looking left and right. “I can’t remember ever seeing more than a couple of dolphins before we’ve gone farther out to sea.”

“I haven’t either,” Jess said. “It’s unusual to see so many, but it’s extraordinary to have twenty or more on both sides of the boat.”

“Mainsail secured,” Nathan called back from midships.

Jess took one hand from the chrome wheel and waved his thanks. He turned to Felix, keeping his voice low. “Do you think Nathan will hold up okay?”

“Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t he?”

“You know, when you think of the circumstances when he stopped diving.” Jess paused and glanced at the younger man, standing at the port rail up ahead. “He’s been very quiet since breakfast.”

Felix turned to look at the other diver. “I think he’ll be fine once he’s in the water, and besides, I’ll be with him so he won’t freak out.”

“I hope you’re right, mate. I’ve seen more than one diver lose their confidence, and I mean both men and women.”

“Talking of losing things, you’re usually more jovial than this when we go out to sea. Is there something else bothering you?”

“Nah, it’s just the old superstitions that carry on through the years.” Jess grinned. “You know what we sailors are like when it comes to the mention of an albatross or a mermaid.”

“You steer this fine yacht of yours and don’t mention your superstitions around our friend.” He winked and turned to walk along the deck towards Nathan.

 The younger man turned and dimples showed in his cheeks. “Have you two been discussing me and whether I’m up to it?”

“No,” Felix lied. “We were saying how nice it was to have such a strong tailwind but reasonably calm waters.”

Nathan nodded and half-turned to indicate their unofficial escort. “You’ll be telling me next that you weren’t talking about the number of dolphins taking an interest in us.”

“There are quite a few.”

“Nathan, there are upwards of twenty off our port side—look at them.” He nodded towards the other side of the vessel. “I don’t have to look again to know that there are at least that many on the starboard side.”

“It’s just one of those phenomenons, mate. Sometimes you don’t see any and at other times you see lots of them.”

“Was it also a phenomenon that they were circling this boat before we left?”

“What are you talking about?”

“You know very well what I’m talking about. When Jess was rowing us out from the shore to the yacht he was facing back towards us, but we were both looking forward. Two other boats left before us and both were followed by no more than four or five dolphins. This boat was being circled by a large pod of forty or more, and I’ve never seen so many in one of the Scottish channels.”

“Nathan, I know you might be a bit on edge, but calm yourself, mate. Those creatures out there are the friendliest in the oceans. We know that they’re intelligent, but we can’t try to work out what they’re thinking or a reason for their behaviour.”

“Yeah, maybe you’re right and I’m over-reacting.”

Felix briefly placed a hand on Nathan’s shoulder and squeezed before he left him and went below.

*

Two hours from the wide channel called The Minch, the mass of the Isle of Lewis was becoming more prominent off the port side. Jess was satisfied with progress and steered towards the dark shape on the horizon; Neptune’s Finger. He glanced left and right to see that the dolphin escort was still in evidence, and when he looked forward again at their destination he got the strangest sensation in his gut. He tried too shake it off as nothing until a series of shrill cries caused him to look left.

Three of the closest dolphins were leaping from the water, spinning, and calling out.

Jess smiled, but when he looked ahead again and focused on the island with its distinctive tall feature in the distance, the strange sensation returned. “Get a hold of yourself, Jess, man.” He shook his big body and gripped the wheel.

Felix approached. “Talking to yourself now?”

“I do it all the time,” Jess said, and changed the subject. “Nathan seems to be content, keeping to himself up front.”

“Yes, I had a brief chat with him earlier but decided it might be better to leave him with his own thoughts for a while.”

“I want to ask you something, Felix, and I’d rather do it while Nathan is out of earshot.”

“Go on, mate.”

“When we set off from shore and I was rowing, I recall a couple of small craft set out before us. Do you remember seeing them?”

“Yes, one was a smaller yacht than this one, and a short distance behind was a small cruiser.”

“Obviously, I had my back to them while rowing, so wouldn’t know. Did you notice if they had any dolphins tagging along?”

Felix’ brow furrowed as he hesitated. “You know, I’m not too—”

“Please, Felix, this is important to me.”

Felix glanced forward at Nathan. “Has our friend been talking to you since I went below?”

“Don’t play games with me, Felix. What did you see?”

Felix sighed. “We both noticed that the other two boats only had a handful of dolphins in attendance when they left the Portree area.”

“Okay, so would you like to give me a reasonable theory as to why we have around fifty in attendance, and they haven’t let up in pace since we left?”

“Sometimes they swim alongside for a few minutes, and other times it can be for a lot longer.”

“Don’t bullshit me, Felix, I live on the fucking water and I’ve never seen anything like this. They’ve been with us for well over two hours.”

“I’m sorry, I’m stumped by it, mate. I’ve never seen or heard of anything like it before. Surely it’s not worrying you?”

“It’s not me personally that I’m fretting about, it’s your diving partner and the effect it might have on him. I’ll be staying on the boat, but you two will be in the water. If you’re at depth and he hits the panic button, you’ll have to deal with it. I don’t want to lose a diver.”

“He’ll be okay,” Felix said, but the words were uttered without conviction.

*

Neptune’s Finger

Over the final few miles, the natural feature had changed from appearing as a small, narrow dark triangle on the horizon to becoming a massive conical pyramid on a small island.

A short distance away, and in the leeward aspect of the island, Felix and Nathan dropped and furled the sails under Jess’s direction. The vessel bobbed gently on the surface as if in a lagoon. 

Jess shouted, “Dropping the hook.” When he was satisfied that the anchor had latched on to a part of the mountain under the water, the big man secured the line and turned to see that the dolphins were now swimming away.

“I like this spot,” Felix said. “The feature is tall enough and wide enough to shield us from any choppy water or high wind, and we’re not too far from the target area.”

Nathan moved aft to stand beside the others. “It’s much calmer than the last time I was out here. In fact, I think you’ve got us in a better position. How far are we from the island or the peak as you tend to call it?”

Jess said, “According to my chart we’re about eight hundred yards from where the mountain breaks the water. This is a good spot because right below us is a wide expanse where the gradient is much less, so it makes it easier to anchor.”

“It’s peculiar, isn’t it?” Nathan said as he stared at the island. “We’re looking at what appears to be a small island but beneath the surface, it goes down forever and spreads out across the seabed.”

The other two glanced at each other and both turned to listen to Nathan. He wasn’t the philosophical type and his look of wonder wasn’t something they’d witnessed with him before. Neither man spoke, hoping that he would come out of his trance and prepare for his first dive in three months.

Nathan walked forward and gripped the rail as he stared at the towering feature. Gulls, kittiwakes, and gannets soared, glided and dived as the mood took them, providing a spectacle of their own.

Felix stepped up behind the younger man. “It’s actually quite majestic when you see it this close.”

“It is, and in such clear water, it’s impressive below the surface too.”

“In a short time, we’ll be at one with nature and exploring the surface of—”

We won’t be, Felix.” Nathan turned and looked into his friend’s eyes. “You might be, but I won’t be. I’m not diving today, mate.”

“What do you mean?” Felix shook his head. “This is the ultimate dive … to see if we can spot a mermaid.”

“It isn’t though, is it, mate? It’s a dive to locate one and a rehearsal for capturing her later.”

“Yes, but think of the positive side. You’re going to be re-established as a diver, have incredible status, and it’s going to be an even three-way split when we have one of those beautiful creatures in captivity.”

“I know Jess isn’t acting normal and I don’t blame him. There’s something not right about this whole expedition and it has felt stranger because those dolphins escorted us all the way here.”

“It might not be the same ones. Perhaps we had a pod on either side of the boat and they were replaced by others on the way here.”

“Ah, right,” Nathan said and smiled. “What you mean is that the dolphins performed a sort of relay to maintain accompaniment?”

Felix nodded, unsure at first what to say.

“Well?” Nathan said and raised his eyebrows. “Do you really think they performed a relay?”

“Yes, why not? We haven’t learned all there is to know about them and we already accept how intelligent they are.”

Nathan slowly shook his head. “Have you heard yourself?” He laughed. “Let me ask you another question.”

“Go on.”

“If a mermaid were able to change form into another sea creature, which one do you think she would adopt?”

Felix laughed. “I thought it was a serious question.”

“It is, mate. Which creature would a mermaid adopt as an alternative life-form?”

“Okay, I’ll play your games … let’s say … a dolphin.” He inhaled deeply. “No, this is silly, neither of us believes in shapeshifters.”

Nathan smiled as he turned to face him. “Felix, until very recently, neither of us believed in mermaids.”

“Well, whatever you want to believe or want to do, Nathan, you’ve got one chance to be included in this deal. I’ll be ready to dive in about five minutes, and you’re either with me or not.”

A few minutes later, Felix came up from below, ready to dive. He had his face mask perched on his forehead, his M.B.A. in his left hand, and his fins hanging from his right hand. As he stepped onto the deck he looked aft at a solemn skipper.

Jess said, “He’s not diving mate, and he doesn’t care about the money or the deal.”

“It’s the chance of a lifetime,” Felix said. “What do you think is affecting him?”

“I don’t know what’s affecting him, but I’m glad that my part in this is a support role.”

“For crying out loud, Jess, what the fuck is wrong with you now?”

The big man nodded to the water between the resting yacht and the not too distant island. Upwards of fifty dolphins were surfacing, diving, leaping and generally frolicking to the port side, in the area which Felix intended to dive into. There were none fore, aft, or on the starboard side of the vessel.

“Holy shit.” He inhaled and forced a smile. “I’m going in whether Nathan goes or not.” He walked away and sat on one of the wooden benches to fit his flippers. As he did, Nathan approached and stood nearby.

“Felix, I feel like I’m letting you down, and for that I’m sorry.”

“Hey mate, no hard feelings. I know you must have gone through a lot since your last dive.” He stood, tugged his swimming trunks up, adjusted his face mask over his eyes and wedged the tiny air canister into his mouth. He checked his watch and blew out once to activate the M.B.A. before turning to dive.

Nathan leant forward and whispered, “Her name is Selena.”

Felix was still processing what he’d just heard when he submerged.

 ***

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