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The North Water
Author:Ian McGuire

The North Water by Ian McGuire

To Abigail, Grace, and Eve


Behold the man.

He shuffles out of Clappison’s courtyard onto Sykes Street and snuffs the complex air—turpentine, fishmeal, mustard, black lead, the usual grave, morning-piss stink of just-emptied night jars. He snorts once, rubs his bristled head, and readjusts his crotch. He sniffs his fingers, then slowly sucks each one in turn, drawing off the last remnants, getting his final money’s worth. At the end of Charterhouse Lane he turns north onto Wincolmlee, past the De La Pole Tavern, past the sperm candle manufactory and the oil-seed mill. Above the warehouse roofs, he can see the swaying tops of main-and mizzenmasts, hear the shouts of the stevedores and the thump of mallets from the cooperage nearby. His shoulder rubs against the smoothed red brick, a dog runs past, a cart piled high with rough-cut timber. He breathes in again and runs his tongue along the haphazard ramparts of his teeth. He senses a fresh need, small but insistent, arising inside him, a new requirement aching to be met. His ship leaves at first light, but before then there is something that must be done. He peers around and for a moment wonders what it is. He notices the pink smell of blood from the pork butcher’s, the grimy sway of a woman’s skirts. He thinks of flesh, animal, human, then thinks again—it is not that kind of ache, he decides, not yet; it is the milder one, the one less pressing.

He turns around and walks back towards the tavern. The bar is almost empty at this hour in the morning. There is a low fire in the grate and a smell of frying. He delves in his pocket, but all he finds there are bread crumbs, a jackknife, and a halfpenny coin.

“Rum,” he says.

He pushes the single halfpenny across the bar. The barman looks down at the coin and shakes his head.

“I’m leaving in the morning,” he explains, “on the Volunteer. I’ll give you my note of hand.”

The barman snorts.

“Do I look like a fool?” he says.

The man shrugs and thinks a moment.

“Head or tails then. This good knife of mine against a tot of your rum.”

He puts the jackknife on the bar, and the barman picks it up and looks at it carefully. He unfolds the blade and tests it against the ball of his thumb.

“It’s a fine knife, that one,” the man says. “Hant never failed me yet.”

The barman takes a shilling from his pocket and shows it. He tosses the coin and slaps it down hard. They both look. The barman nods, picks up the knife, and stows it in his waistcoat pocket.

“And now you can fuck off,” he says.

The man’s expression doesn’t alter. He shows no sign of irritation or surprise. It is as though losing the knife is part of a greater and more complex plan which only he is privy to. After a moment, he bends down, tugs off his sea boots, and puts them side by side on top of the bar.

“Toss again,” he says.

The barman rolls his eyes and turns away.

“I don’t want your fucking boots,” he says.

“You have my knife,” the man says. “You can’t back away now.”

“I don’t want no fucking boots,” the barman says again.

“You can’t back away.”

“I’ll do whatever the fuck I like,” the barman says.

There’s a Shetlander leaning at the other end of the bar watching them. He is wearing a stocking cap and canvas britches caked with filth. His eyes are red and loose and drunken.

“I’ll buy ye a drink myself,” he says, “if ye just shut the fuck up.”

The man looks back at him. He has fought Shetlanders before in Lerwick and in Peterhead. They are not clever fighters, but they are stubborn and hard to finish off. This one has a rusty blubber-knife pushed into his belt and a gamy, peevish look about him. After a moment’s pause, the man nods.

“I’d thank you for that,” he says. “I’ve been whoring all night and the whistle’s dry.”

The Shetlander nods to the barman, and the barman, with a grand show of reluctance, pours out another drink. The man takes his sea boots off the bar, picks up the drink, and walks over to a bench by the fire. After a few minutes, he lies down, pulls his knees up to his chest, and falls asleep. When he wakes up again, the Shetlander is sitting at a table in the corner talking to a whore. She is dark-haired and fat and has a mottled face and greenish teeth. The man recognizes her but cannot now recall the name. Betty? he wonders. Hatty? Esther?

The Shetlander calls over to a black boy who is crouching in the doorway, gives him a coin, and instructs him to bring back a plate of mussels from the fishmongers on Bourne Street. The boy is nine or ten years old, slender with large dark eyes and pale brown skin. The man pulls himself upright on the bench and fills his pipe with his last crumbles of tobacco. He lights his pipe and looks about. He has woken up renewed and ready. He can feel his muscles lying loose beneath his skin, his heart tensing and relaxing inside his chest. The Shetlander tries to kiss the woman and is rebuffed with an avaricious squeal. Hester, the man remembers. The woman’s name is Hester and she has a windowless room on James Square with an iron bedstead, a jug and basin, and an India-rubber bulb for washing out the jism. He stands up and walks over to where the two of them are sitting.

“Buy me one more drink,” he says.

The Shetlander squints at him briefly, then shakes his head and turns back to Hester.

“Just one more drink and that’ll be the last you hear of it.”

The Shetlander ignores him, but the man doesn’t move. His patience is of the dull and shameless kind. He feels his heart swell, then shrink; he smells the usual tavern stench—farts and pipe smoke and spilled ale. Hester looks up at him and giggles. Her teeth are more gray than green; her tongue is the color of a pig’s liver. The Shetlander takes his blubber-knife out of his belt and places it on the table. He stands up.

“I’d sooner cut ye fucking balls off for ye than buy ye another drink,” he says.

The Shetlander is lanky and loose-limbed. His hair and beard are dank with seal grease and he reeks of the forecastle. The man begins to understand now what he must do—to sense the nature of his current urges and the shape of their accomplishment. Hester giggles again. The Shetlander picks up the knife and lays its cold blade against the man’s cheekbone.

“I could cut ye fucking nose off too and feed it to the fucking porkers out back.”

He laughs at this idea, and Hester laughs with him.

The man looks untroubled. This is not yet the moment he is waiting for. This is only a dull but necessary interlude, a pause. The barman picks up a wooden club and creaks up the hinge of the bar.

“You,” he says, pointing at him, “are a skiving cunt, and a damned liar, and I want you gone.”

The man looks at the clock on the wall. It is just past noon. He has sixteen hours to do whatever it is he must do. To satisfy himself again. The ache he feels is his body speaking its needs, talking to him—sometimes a whisper, sometimes a mumble, sometimes a shriek. It never goes silent; if it ever goes silent then he will know that he is finally dead, that some other fucker has finally killed him, and that will be that.

He steps suddenly towards the Shetlander to let him know he is not afraid, then steps away again. He turns towards the barman and lifts his chin.

“You can stick that shillelagh up your fucking arse,” he says.