Monday, July 16, 2012

One Afternoon Out Sailing by John McCarthy ©

John, my friend and fellow writer, is an accomplished story-teller now completing his first novel OLD SINS, NEW HILLS , set in New Zealand in the early days of colonisation when Maori chiefs still hold the reins of power and when an honest policeman, fighting racial prejudice, his own weaknesses and his love for a young Maori woman, investigates the death of an unscrupulous white landowner. 

I have read the first draft of his novel. To my mind, it is nothing short of an epic.

I also enjoyed his recent short story, ONE AFTERNOON OUT SAILING, and had to share it with you. We would really appreciate your feedback on John's short story. He read it at the author's club which we belong to and where we (about fourteen of us) share our creations once a month. Needless to say, we come away inspired by one another and brimming with ideas

His email address is at the end of the story.
Tiny ripples breaking on the edge of the sand splashed around the dinghy.  Megan watched Giles tighten a mast stay.  She remembered his pleading,  “If only Julie were still here, Megan, she'd be so pleased to see us sailing together again.  Do say yes.”

Reluctantly, she had agreed.  Glancing out to sea at the clouds and white caps she knew it would be a challenging sail, the sort she enjoyed.   Sailing was part of her life.

As they pushed the boat into the water she found herself thinking of her sister in the early days – playing together, telling stories, laughing at the grown-ups.  Then,  she and Julie had been close.  Abruptly, Megan turned her head so her sudden tears were hidden from Giles. 

“Megan, will you take the tiller for the first stretch.”

He watched for a moment as she  steered  out of the bay under the mainsail alone; then  he adjusted the jib, hooked his feet under the foot rope and  laid back over the side. The boat surged faster with his weight providing the balance. 

Close to shore only ripples from the offshore wind ruffled the surface.  Uninvited, an image of other ripples on a different surface came into his focus, with  black hair swirling like seaweed in a tideway.  He shuddered, adjusted the jib sheet and tried to blink away the scene only to find it replaced by another image - the coffin sliding away through the chapel curtains forever.  As if replaying a video tape he saw himself closing his eyes to show the depth of his inexpressible grief,  then opening them and turning to Megan weeping beside him. Taking her hand. For a moment she had allowed her hand to rest in his and then withdrawn it.  An odd girl. Julie had been beautiful and vivacious while young Megan was plain and awkward, speaking seldom.

In the office she had shown real ability. It had been satisfactory to tell Julie that he could offer a part-time holiday position to her young sister.

For a few moments he let himself enjoy the scene - sails hard on the wind capturing the breeze, driving the bows through wavelets of blue and green, whitecaps glistening in the fitful sunlight.  He watched Megan,  intent on the delicate control of tiller and main sheet,  also keeping her eyes on the masthead pennant, the luff of the sail, the dark ruffled patches to windward that foretold a squall.  She was a good sailor.

Back in the days when he had been courting Julie he had taught Megan to sail. It had been Julie’s idea.

No two waters could be more different than the open sea, now merging into a deeper offshore blue, and the artificial tiled pool by the back terrace. He shook his head trying to dispel the dreadful unchanging details…  Angrily, he forced attention back to his task, tending the jib sheet while he lay back over the water,  both feet hooked under the taut foot rope.
Megan adjusted her sheet to take advantage of a wind shift and he kept the jib in tune with the main, watching with satisfaction the tell-tale ribbons streaming with hardly a flutter as the rising  breeze whipped through the gap between the sails.

"Darling, I’m so glad you taught Megan to enjoy sailing; she’s such a quiet shy girl. You know she likes you; I can tell."

He recalled his satisfaction to have both Julie’s love and the affection of  her sister.  Showing her the finer points of boat handling had been enjoyable… Once she had said, ‘Giles, what
I like about sailing – it doesn’t matter if I’m not pretty like Julie - the important thing is I can handle a boat well.’

The cool breeze,  raising the colour in her cheeks and pressing the thin shirt against her body
recalled the time when he looked at her differently,  allowing the anticipation of awakening her body to tease his senses.  Teaching her, as an older man could…  He even planned the campaign and began talking to her differently,  suggestively. 

But he had come to realise he needed more sophistication than she could provide, he grew bored and changed his mind.

It must have been sometime soon afterwards that money difficulties worsened and Julie found a new friend.  And Megan’s attitude to him changed. She stopped using his first name and  she would say,  "No thankyou. I don’t feel like sailing."  So he stopped asking her. Until today. 

Too much at stake now to miss the opportunity.

Police had questioned him yet again about his whereabouts at the time of Julie’s drowning…
Then there was money.  Twenty seven percent per month he was paying now on the second loan from the unlisted finance company and he only got that because he had married old Pontefract’s daughter.  Julie’s casual refusal. ‘Giles dear, you’ve had a hundred thousand already for the business. We must see some return before any more goes in. It is family money, you know.’

A charming manner not meant to hide the ironclad decision. When it came to family money he was just another outsider.  Responding with a smile,  a shrug, only a small matter… Daren't make her suspicious. That hundred thousand was long gone.

Not only money.  Despite promises, his discovery that she still met the young American officer.  Her careless admission that summer night in the pool, laughing at his anger, "You don’t own me, Giles. He’s only a boy but he makes me laugh. Like you used to, darling."

The pain hurt now as deeply as it had when she was alive. Would he ever forget?  That sight of  Julie responsive in another man’s arms, chuckling, black hair dishevelled as always  when she made love with him.  A memory that merged with her white body in the pool, the pictures locked hellishly together.

Young Megan was the weak link. He had come to realise that.  Naïve, but by no means stupid, she had surprised him with her excellent business judgment, inherited no doubt from old Pontefract. Perceptive too.  A mistake to have taken her into the office. The one person who might put together the information from different worlds and realise he was not in the office that night as he had told the police… And, knew of his desperate need for money.

Danger too real to ignore.

Don't rush it, man. Wait until it was his turn on the tiller. They'd be further offshore.

She'd be here on the jib sheet leaning back over the water, relying on the taut footrope for safety.  Anyone watching from the shore would see nothing violent. Without warning he would bring the boat partly into the wind.  Megan’s own weight would take her further over.  Ready with his razor sharp knife to slash through the foot rope. 

Helpless, with the loss of that support she'd fall back into the sea.

By the time she surfaced the sails would have filled again taking the boat out of reach. ‘Stay where you are, Megan. I’ll turn her round.’

But, of course, keep going.  No one could last long in that cold water.  The ebb tide would carry her to the notorious rip off the Fangs.  Dark in an hour or less. Later, throw out a life jacket, bottom boards;  evidence of  measures to save her.  "By the time I turned the boat round she was gone. I searched and searched. Oh God,  I’ll never forgive myself."

Insist on going out with the rescue launch to search again. Suspicious police would find no evidence to contradict his story. He must remember to reeve another foot rope as he sailed back. Even if they found the body  there would be no marks on it. Not from him. The sea birds might attack her.  Those strong hooked beaks… A feeding frenzy. He shuddered.

What was he about? How had he come to this? Couldn’t he go back?

The weakness passed.

Get on with it, man.
"I’ll take the tiller when you’re ready, Megan."

Never taking her eyes from the sail, she called back, "After this squall."

To windward the water ruffled and darkened; the pennant flapped once and then streamed out vigorously as the front of the squall hit them. The boat heeled and Megan brought the head up slightly to meet the veering wind. Giles savoured the joy of surging through the water just above the surface, every part of the rigging and sails taking an even strain. The boat performed like a winning horse in the hands of a skilled jockey riding clear of the pack.  A gust strengthened and he lent out still further.  There was no thrill quite like this and once he would have called out to Megan with a shout of delight and she would have laughed back.

Megan.  A nice child but it was the strongest and fittest who had to survive. That was just how life worked.  Nothing personal, Megan.

The sails began to flap. He called to her, "What are you doing?"

Again the sail flapped and cracked above his head. She had allowed the boat too far into the
wind so the pressure of the sails no longer balanced his weight. He was sitting in the bloody water.  In vain he struggled to pull himself back.  He was going to get soaked.  Blast the girl.  Another effort,  leg muscles straining against the foot rope… Now.  Heave.

His legs flew up and he fell backwards, hands thrashing uselessly…  No foot rope… It must have parted.

"Megan, throw me a…"

Gulping saltwater, eyes stinging, turning over… It seemed like minutes before he thrust himself to the surface, spluttering…  But the boat,  just moving,  was still close,  jib flapping. He blinked salt water from his eyes and pulled himself through the water.

She  was almost in his reach.  One hand on the boat would be enough.  He was twice as strong as that girl. Exerting every muscle he launched himself forward and upwards to grab at the gunnel. His fingers touched. Got it. Now… He summoned what breath he had left and with all his authority called,
"Megan.  Give me your hand."

Blast. He had relaxed too soon. His fingers slipped off the gunnel, clawed down the side strakes, tearing his nails before he flopped backwards.  

Up again.  Quickly, man. Vigorously, he struck out …  But the boat was now half a length away, wind filling the mainsail.

"Bring her into the wind."

He shouted the order but Megan seemed not to hear.  The boat was gathering speed.

"Tiller down,"  he called urgently,  realising too late that stopping to shout cost him distance. The skinny childish figure sitting upright in the stern of the boat never turned her head.  Another squall heeled the boat. Clumsily, Giles trod water.

"Bring her round…"  But the words choked off as a wave crest splashed into his mouth. The water was achingly cold.

Half way back to shore  Megan threw overboard a lifejacket and a bottom board.  She brought the boat into the wind,  leant down and  deftly replaced the severed foot rope, smiling to herself.  Once she knew his intention was to kill her the first task had been to lead him to make that plea for another sail together.  That success helped to inflate his ego, warp his judgment.

Ashore, there were too many ways to cause accidental death, but at sea she  had little fear of her ability to turn the tables. She knew herself to be the better sailor.

Even as she approached the beach, waving and calling out in a panic-stricken manner, pointing wildly - in the wrong direction -  her mind was clear.  Once, he had seen her as a desirable woman -  but had done nothing.  That had hurt.  But to imagine he could kill her as easily as he had killed poor Julie and then steal all the money.  Unforgivable. The man was a fool.  Dear Julie.

Flowing dark hair over a white body in a moonlit pool came into sight far away, as if Giles were looking through the wrong end of a telescope. The image grew fainter, vanished. He tried to call out again to Megan but more little waves splashed in his face and his voice was lost under the vast southern sky.  The sail grew smaller.  Black-backed gulls, gannets and  great molly-hawks, eyes fixed on their prey,  made a floating circle around him.  He watched the hooked beaks move closer.

2230  words.
Written by John McCarthy



  1. Replies
    1. Delighted you enjoyed
      the story. Getting feed
      -back is really valuable.
      I do not yet have my own

  2. Replies
    1. Thankyou. Very pleased you
      liked it. Getting feedback
      is so valuable.
      I do not yet have my own blog

  3. Nicely written article..Very interesting.

    1. I really appreciate your
      comments and value the
      feedback. Do not yet
      have my own blog

  4. Great story, I really love the way it was started.

  5. Very nice. Loved the way story moved and gripped me from begining to end.

  6. Many thanks for the feedback.
    It is encouraging.
    I am happy you enjoyed the
    the story.
    Do not yet have my own blog

  7. well written, interesting, the flow is impressive!!

  8. Thankyou, I'm delighted you enjoyed it.
    Good of you to take the time to
    let me know. Feedback is really helpful and
    I do not yet have my own blog.

  9. Short yet effective sentences......mystique and drama too. Good read.

  10. Very glad you enjoyed it
    I appreciate your feed-back -
    really valuable to know what
    the reader thinks. Thankyou.
    I do not yet have a blog.