This story contains references to the death of a teenager.
“You’re lucky if you marry a fisherman.” That’s what they told us growing up, but there are not many fishermen left around here.
We made our own way, made our own fun, Mhairi and me. This was our place, the disused swimming pool built into the cliffside. Sure, there were junkies there before us, shooting up in the changing pavilion. There’s the wifey spray painted on the majestic hillside, her paps like two empty bags and a turned-up hair-do dripping down. But if you ignore all that, you can imagine that you are in some Planet of the Apes situation, and it’s just you left, and your survival is a triumph of things put right.
In its day, it was a marvel of engineering. The tide-driven pumps filled the pool with water from the North Sea, while high tide cleared out the old water. Gran said you could swim in that pool for maybe fifteen minutes before hypothermia set in. When she got out, her Ma would rub her down to get the blood back in and pop a sweetie in her mouth. She called it a “shivery bite.” It was a children’s boating pool in the front, the deepest part. Now the water is stagnant and you can never see the bottom. On a sunny day, in the shallow bit toward the sea, you can look into the bright water and see seaweed rolling about and tiny fish darting.
I have been there during storms, when the waves crash over the surface of the pool, battering the concrete rim nestled into the cliffside. It is a marvellous thing to see the pool stand its ground like that. I imagine if you needed to sacrifice something and you wanted the gods to watch, you would do it here.
“Stalinist Deco” is what we called it. It was our favourite place to have a picnic, me and Mhairi, when we were skiving off beauty school.
It was a Monday when she told me about the horse. We had our ginger topped up with grocery-store vodka from her Da’s larder. Mhairi shook the bottle, which I thought was a waste as it always fizzed up everywhere, but she said it was the only way to get them to play nice. We huddled in the shelter of the tea pavilion in front of the boating pool. It was pissing down, and we looked out at the grey sea. That endless vista was our medicine.
Mhairi cackled to the big sky, throwing back her faded blue hair, holding her throat up proud as if to say, “Go ahead and hang me, you rotters!” Which is something she did often say.
“You ever see the horse? Like, up on the cliff there?”
“You’re dead blottered.” I let her know I wouldn’t be fooled into another one of her stories.
“I’ve seen it. At sunset, when the neap tide’s out, right there.” She pointed to the green cliffside overlooking the pool.
I tried to hide the hurt I felt knowing she had come here without me. “A real one?”
“No, a unicorn, Kipper.” She called me Kipper when she thought I was being daft, though my actual name is Kylie.
“I never—” I put an end to that with a deep swig “—seen a unicorn in the shire, hen.”
I watched her pull up her hood to stalk out to the changing pavilion on the west side. It had been freshly boarded-up just last week.
I followed her; I always did.
“Can you imagine losing your mint in there, on that?” Mhairi said. We were peering through the boards into the darkness at the stained mattress and corners piled with junk. “You know it’s been done.”
“The beast with two backs,” I giggled.
I wanted to ask her if she’d done it yet. I thought that’s how I’d lose her — we would be separated in untold ways, and she would belong to someone, probably a boy who could bring her what we called a “normal for fish-town” life.
She turned to me wide-eyed and said, “Shhhhh….”
My heart went flip like the little summer fish in the pool. “What?” I hissed back.
“It’s still there. All boarded-up inside, trapped, like.”
That was what we called it, the thing that loomed over the place, that knew everything about it, what guarded it. We’d been calling it that since we were just girls, both of us from someplace else. Mahairi said her Ma told her a story once, about having to run from a Nucklelevee when she was a girl on Shetland, the thing half horse and half man with no skin on, so all his muscles and veins were clear to see. That shadow just chased her Ma all the way to the mainland.
I had a good look through the boards and saw nothing but darkness shifting with the movement of my own head. Mhairi snorted and made to push me into the dark water, and I almost fell.
Mhairi’s sister was getting married. All her friends loaded up in their cousin’s old truck and went out to the pool. We hid on the roof of the tea pavilion, watching them invade, drunk.
They were dressed in disposable boiler suits and carried bags of rubbish slung over their shoulders. Mhairi’s sister was in a pink taffeta dress from a charity shop, and the offshore roust-about she was marrying was in an old suit, too big and too short for him. The two of them were tied up back-to-back and made to perch on the rocky outcrop of the boating pool. The others pelted them with muck. It’s a local tradition called middening.
After they were covered in slimy rot, the droogs untied them and helped them down from their perch. The bride-and-groom-to-be ran into the sea on the adjacent beach to wash the gunk from themselves.
“Yeah, never doing that,” Mhairi said. She always said just what I was thinking.
We went back at midnight. We agreed we would clean up the mess they had made, as the sea wouldn’t be high enough to take it away. We’d come with bin bags, gloves, and a strainer duct-taped to a broom handle.
When we got there, the trash was gone. We looked down into the unknowable depths of the boating pool with the broken light of the moon reflected in it.
“Pure dead grim,” Mhairi muttered in wonder.
“The fair folk must have been here and cleared it.”
She gave me a sidelong look, rubbing the little star charm she always wore around her wrist on a woven string. It was warm that night, warmer than it had been in years. Mhairi looked at the starless sky and hollered hard.
“What are you doing?” I don’t know why I whispered. If we’d had any cover, it had been blown.
“Calling it down. Go on, it wants to hear you.” She cried out again, taking off her hoodie. “It’s pure dead bonnie, that horse.”
“Go on,” she urged me, all her contrary nerve stripped away.
I tried my best, but it was a half-formed yelp.
The wind picked up as if in answer, a rhythmic hoofbeat carried with it. She peeled off her shorts and tee shirt, standing in front of me in her bra and knickers. All I could think was how they matched, like she had gotten ready for this on purpose.
“You afraid?” she asked me, and then was naked, slipping into the pool feet-first, dog paddling, her voice a shiver. “Come on.”
I took off my leggings and tank dress and edged to the pool, but kept my underwear on. I never did need a bra. I put my feet in up to my ankles. It was freezing. My toes tangled in something slimy. I shuddered, testing the water with my hand, and she took it and pulled me down.
The green shock of it filled my nose and mouth, the tang of salt stinging me as I shook myself up, surfacing. “Mhairi!” I called to her, wiping the water from my eyes.
There, on the ridge by the changing pavilion, stood a man, all silvery in the moonlight.
“Hey, wankstain.” I tried on some of Mhairi’s courage. “What are you looking at?”
He laughed, his teeth white and in line, and he knelt down and dragged his fingertips in the water.
“Mhairi!” I shouted this time, turning away from him.
A ripple broke the surface near where the waves were coming in. I ducked under and swam in the freezing darkness. Stuff drifted about me — bits of fishing nets, blanched kelp, and below some rusted springs jutted out like a trap set to snare me, but no Mhairi. The detritus of middenings past and who knows what else tossed and turned about me, never quite making it out to sea. I surfaced from the murky darkness again, and the man was closer now, clothed in what looked like rags that hung from him like a flayed hide.
He offered his hand to me. “Your friend already got out.” He nodded toward the cliff. “You should, too.” He held my clothes, balled up in his fist.
I looked at his mottled reflection in the water. He was so fine, with a face like something from a perfume ad. I was reflected, too, rippling right next to him. He could have said, “You’ll catch your death,” or “What’s a pretty girl like you doing in a grotty old pool like this?” But he didn’t. He just stayed silent and watched me, like you’d do to some wild thing you wanted to come nearer.
I got it in my head I’d be better off running, so I pulled myself up, one knee and then the other, aware I was none too graceful about it. I called out to Mhairi again.
“Where is she?” I asked him as he held out my clothes. When I reached, I could see the channel-wrack yellow of his eyes and the long mane of his hair clumped together with sand and dulse. He was so close I could smell him, like the sea right before a storm, and something else I couldn’t quite place, barnyard-like.
“Kipper,” I heard her voice calling me from the far edge of the pool, “you dozy mare!” She was hot with a rage usually reserved for the boys at school or her father. I looked for her and saw nothing.
His hands were on me then, strong as an undertow and as cold. We fell in without a splash, and he pulled me down and under. He put his mouth to mine, and it was metallic and blood-like, a shivery bite. He breathed into me all the wrongness of the stray, all my wishes to be away. At first it felt right, the way familiar things do. We were sinking now, drifting towards the wall that divided the pool from the vast sea. There was a hole there, a crack big enough for us, and he had me fast.
Before he pulled me through the crevice, the surface broke above, the darkness churning with two pale legs and then an arm, the wrist glinting with a single star on a chord. Mhairi, always the better swimmer, was coming for me.
Then he kicked once and we propelled through the broken concrete eye to the darker black of the sea. I could feel Mhairi’s hands pulling on my legs, struggling to keep me with her. I was slipping.
All at once he relinquished me, and I swallowed a lungful of water. I writhed, half-in, half-out, the salt water burning my lungs. I fell deeper into the night sea, the sliver of moon beneath me.
Some dog walkers found me washed up there at the side of the pool. I was not in hospital for long. I came to, expecting Mhairi to be there next to me, in the orange vinyl chair reserved for hand-wringing kin. Surely, she’d be there, ready to roll her eyes at the state of me and call me Kipper.
It wasn’t Mhairi at all beside me but a slim nurse with cool hands, taking my pulse, watching the little watch pinned to her breast. “You’ve had a time of it, but you’ll be fine,” she lied, smiling.
A policeman watched through the big glass window, and my heart sank. He came in, hopping a little and rocking back and forth as he repeated lines he’d rehearsed in advance. I recognised him as the same policeman, pale, ginger, and fidgety, who talked to us about drugs in high school.
I fiddled with the plastic hospital tag on my wrist and didn’t look at him.
“I’m glad to see you are awake.” He cleared his throat, as if to get my attention. “Mhairi Milne, when did you last see her?” He wanted to know all the details of what happened that night.
I told him I was there alone, and I fell in. He typed it into his phone and seemed satisfied.
After I was discharged, I went back to look for her. The pool was taped off as a crime scene now. She was missing, somewhere between the living and the dead. It dogged me that she had gone down for my sake. Maybe he wanted her all along, and not me. I was just the bait.
Sometimes, when the sky is dark and that freezing sea mist called the haar rolls in, I’ll go down to the pool. It’s a long walk, and when I get there, I’m soaked through and hardened to this task of watching and waiting. She is disappeared and as present as a shadow. I know that thing with the yellow eyes will be there. Galloping over the cliff, it looks just like a tawny horse. It scores the grass with its hoof, nodding as if to say, “Your friend already got out.”