The following is the back story for one of ‘The Black Land‘s minor characters, Matty Dunn.
Matty Dunn is the man who agrees to sail Martin Walker from the port at Seahouses, over the strip of North Sea, past the Farnes to the island of Blamenholm.
This event originally happened at gunpoint, but, as my editor made me aware, such a thing would kick up a lot of extra fuss about how exactly Martin Walker managed to get a gun into the UK from the US. Not being a fan of such administrative procedure, as well as lazy I omitted this unnecessary piece of over-dramatisation from the story, to, in my opinion, its benefit.
The chapter is over 4,000 words long, so I, for your sake, present it in two parts. The first being below.
I welcome any feedback, positive, constructive or otherwise and I hope you enjoy reading this unpleasant little piece of fiction as much as I enjoyed writing it.
The Black Land
Matty Dunn part 1.
Matty Dunn lived his life amidst the sea; mam used to tell the same story about when he was three; tottering from one side of deck of his granda’s boat to the other as the waves of the north sea rolled it to and fro.
‘pitter-patter, pitter-patter, ‘ees little feet,’ she used to say ‘one side to the other and that was him, our Matty,’ her eyes would twinkle; ‘been a’sea since ‘ee was a bairn.’
He never thought did, but it was as if Matty Dunn’s very soul had been shaped by the blue-grey of the early morning light; honed by the tang of salt that edged the wind that whirled from the north waves. Matty had grown from a boy into a man with the cries of the gulls and the smooth coating of silver scales that clung to his fingers. He had watched the tides sweep up his years alongside Cod, Pollock and Herring, freezing, muscular bodies in his weathered hands, their glassy eyes and their silent gasps for breath were part of his very being.
The Dunn family generations were born of the North Sunderland coast and like his da and his granda and his granda’s granda, Matty had spent the frozen, January mornings reeling in the catch, heaving the crab traps onto the deck while the teeth of the cold gnawed at his bones. Eventually, Matty inherited the blue-hulled motor sailer, ‘Triumph’ that had cradled him atop the waves all his life, brought their catch to be processed and the fee paid.
Life was hard, you had to work, it was unforgiving, relentless, but it was their way and it had shaped the Dunns into hard men. They didn’t have a lot, but they didn’t need a lot, just a roof and a fire and a place to hand your boots. His father and granda shared the same stubborn spirit that Matty felt strong and proud within himself as the years rolled by in and out. The Dunns’ love was as hard as their hands, it burned deep and dark, like coal. Their love was the breakfast that ma cooked when the boats came in; the smoke and spit from the bacon, soft songs his granda sang as he cleaned the herring from the nets.
Oh, there was love alright.
Granda was not much of a talker, he could go for days only emitting short, intoned grunts and only when absolutely necessary. When he sang though, it was with a soft, lilting purr that spilled from deep in his stomach.
What’ll a dee with a harrin’s heed?
Oh what’ll a dee with a harrin’s heed?
Ah’ll mak in inte’ loaves a breed,
Harrin’s heed, loaves a breed an’ aal mannaer o’things…
They would sing it, all three of them as they worked the catch on the deck, the morning sun peering at them over the bobbing peaks of the sea.
How a ye the day, me hinny-oh?
* * *
In granda’s final years, when arthritis crippled him from the waist down and ‘Triumph sailed one man less, Matty spent a lot of time at the bungalow that looked across the bare shore of Seahouses. The two Dunns would sit in silence, watching the sea that had built these walls, that fed their bellies and clothed their backs. The old man still wore his thick, grey jumper he had worn at sea and it saddened Matty to see the watch the wistful twitches of his lips as he grew ever more hunched in his chair.
“She’s been a friend to me for years, Matty, son.” He said, one day.
His voice caught Matty by surprise.
Matty nodded, he didn’t need to ask. Both granda and grandson were staring at the horizon as the sea birds rose and fell on her surface.
“But she’s a fickle one, she’ll be your friend, for a time…but you cannit love her, Matty, she’ll not love you back.”
“Aye, true enough.”
Bothy men nodded.
The beginnings of evening were in the air and the sky was hinting at dusk. Granda gave a sigh, deep and weary and old.
“She’s got secrets too, Matty, secrets she’ll keep long after me and you are dust in the shore.”
Matty turned to hide his face. Something inside him was spilling, melting and he could feel an ending looming in his stomach. He wanted to grab his granda in his arms and weep into that salt-stiff jumper that smelled of fish scales and childhood and tell him he loved him, to wish him well because this was goodbye.
This was definitely goodbye.
But that was not the Dunn way. There was love but it was buried and black, like coal.
Matty sniffed a long wind of air and stared out of that window at the indifferent blue hue of the sea.
A memory so vast and so sudden in its surfacing caused Matty to nearly cry out. Instead, his back and shoulders stiffened and he quelled the gasp of air with a cough.
“Tea.” He said. and turned abruptly, padding from the thick warmth of the living room and into the kitchen.
The place was sparse, bereft of keepsakes and trinkets; a single hand-painted picture hung from a nail in the wall, its glass coated with a fine layer of dust. A blurry rendition of the sea, as if seen through tears; its foreground a pattern of green clad rocks that dissolved into the raging water. Distant humps of land were just visible on the edge of the horizon. Matty had no idea where or when his granda had acquired this picture but he recalled its haunting quality that had bothered him as a small boy on the rare occasions they had sat for long at the low semi-circular table, sipping steaming mugs of tea; hot china against frozen fingers.
Shame fell hot and leaden into Matty’s stomach as he broke the stillness of the air by noisily filling the kettle; water splashing against the tiles of the small window that looked into the grey concrete of the small back yard.
He must have only been about six or seven; St. Wilfred’s primary, aye, that was it. The memory came now, thick and fast, Matty felt his face scorch red. That new teacher, the new Miss they called her, Miss McKay; tall she was, skinny, with a great mane of curls that stuck out from her head in all directions.
“Bring in something you’ve discovered,” She’d said one Friday afternoon when they’d got in after lunch; their coats still steaming in the cloakroom and the smell of the rain on their skin.
“What does that mean?”
Alfie Donnely’s voice was a wail; the rest of them snickering and sighing.
“He always says that miss!”
“What do you think it means?” Miss McKay had a big, beaming mouth, all those teeth.
Their hands went up sharp, even Alfie’s so’s not to be the odd one out. They laughed again, even miss.
“Is it something you’ve found, miss?”
She’d smiled, even wider then and clapped her long fingers together lightly.
Matty shook his head as he clanked the old metal of the kettle onto the hob and turned up the heat. She was like that, Miss McKay, always pleased with you, just so long as you tried.
On the Monday they’d all sat at their desks with their leaves and funny shaped sticks. Harry Graham stinking out the place with a great clod of bladder-wrack in his bag and one by one they’d show their discovery to the class. What did I even bring in? Matty thought for a second, racking his mind as the kettle on the stove began to burble.
“I’ve got a discovery of my own I wanted to share with you.”
Harriet Wyatt had sat down and the applause for her limpet shells had abated and Miss McKay reached into her handbag, Matty remembered craning forward and staring hard at her face while the others tried to be the first to guess what was inside. He remembered the expression as her fingers closed around it, this mystery object, the millisecond of insecurity that flashed in her eyes as if she was not sure whether this was such a good idea after all. The moment when she had wanted to put it back…Matty’s stomach lurched horrible, just like it had back then. He felt a creeping menace over his skin; the touch of old, wrinkled fingers, that was much older he had been able to understand. He wanted to stand up and shout
‘Don’t! Whatever it is, just don’t! We don’t need to see, we’re fine.’
But he, just like the others in the class who had moved back, away from miss with a collective gasp, had deflated slightly in disappointment as Miss McKay pulled from her handbag, an ugly shard of rock.
“Is that it?” Someone had whispered.
“Divvint be cheeky man!” one of the girls had hissed and there were giggles.
Miss McKay, however was not listening, she was staring at the triangular lump of stone that now lay in her lap. It looked wrong somehow, too big to be pretty with a rough, almost splintery surface. Matty had closed his fists as the anticipation of how it would feel in his hands crept ghost-like over his palms.
Please don’t make us hold it. He had thought, staring hard at Miss. McKay.
Silence had fallen around the room and the rain from outside had begun a steady tattoo against the windows. There were faint ticks from the back end of the classroom where the metal buckets had been placed beneath the leaky points in the ceiling. Matty looked at the clock then, a cold panic rising in his stomach. Ten minutes to go.
Miss McKay looked up slowly, as if it were difficult to tear her eyes from the stone. her voice petered out and she tried again, the enthusiasm of before suddenly missing.
“Does anyone know why this stone is special?”
None of them had said anything; their heads went down. Even Alfie Donnoley’s.
“Well come on?” And this time her voice was sharp; it had that hard edge to it that the rest of the teachers had; the one thing that made Miss McKay different was suddenly gone.
Matty felt his hand rise weakly.
“Dunn?” Miss McKay snapped.
“Was it…” Matty felt his voice waver, “was it where you got it miss? Did that make it special?”
Silence in the classroom, the tick-tuck, tick-tuck from the buckets at the back getting faster. Miss McKay was all smiles again, her grin opening like a wound across her face.
“That’s right, Matty.” She stood up and lifted the stone awkwardly before her. Some of the children in the front row shifted backward in their seats. “I got this stone from a very special place…”
And at that moment he had nearly turned tail and fled from that steamy, draughty classroom that smelled of poster paint and seaweed. His bladder had swollen taught as Miss. McKay’s words burned into him because he knew where she had got it; of course he knew where she had got it. The rest of the class too, they knew, the way they had hissed as their little breaths turned in against their milk teeth.
She had laughed then, miss, she had laughed and the sound of it was like the crash of some black wave against some black rock far far away where the wind wailed through empty eye-like slits in ancient rock.
“Surely you don’t believe in such a silly old story do you?” and her voice carried a discordant plea that none of them had heard all those years ago but now seared through Matty’s head like hot wire. “It’s been in my house for the last week or so and nothing’s happened to…”
“Oh, Matty!” and her voice was soaring far away, right up to the ceiling and he had felt his cheeks flush as his bladder gave way. There were other sounds too, stifled sniggers that turned to gasps as his legs buckled beneath him and he was falling, falling….
The kettle was whistling and Matty gave a sudden, violent shiver. ‘Jesus man’, he thought, furiously ‘get a grip on yourself.’ Loudly, deliberately, tearing his eyes from that stupid picture and concentrating on what he was doing; he began to fumble in the cupboards for the mugs that Granda kept right at the back, next to his tins; he was going to get the big, thick ones that were behind the others and he was going to do that because his hands were not shaking, oh no.
That stone; he couldn’t get it out of his mind. Miss McKay left it on the edge of her desk and it sat there, coiled and grotesquely ready, like a bony fist. When miss called them up to do their flash cards or have a look at their books, Matty saw how the others avoided that corner of the desk; lifting their arms up, away out of it’s…reach? Sometimes, when it was quiet in the room save for the scrik-scrik of their pencils, Matty could feel it there, a few feet in front of him. ‘Look’, it seemed to say, ‘look, look over here.’
‘I won’t’ he thought back; ‘I won’t look at you’ but he always did and whenever he looked up, Miss McKay was always looking up too; their eyes would meet over that terrible stone.
‘I hate you.’ He thought, ‘I hate you.’
And he looked up from his book, his palms sodden with sweat.