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Selkie on the Blockby Sarah Cuypers
"I still don't like it," she said as she parked the car.
"Come on, Ange," Jeremy pleaded, "it's actually a pretty good job. All things considered, having to sacrifice one night a week isn't terrible. And it's only until Sven's leg healed."
Angela's persistent frown showed she wasn't entirely convinced. Jeremy grabbed his bag from the back-seat and gave her a peck on the cheek before getting out. Leaning back through the open window, he added: "How about I take you south this weekend? To make up for how much you will miss me tonight?"
That at least broke through the frown. "Sweet-talker," she reproved him. But the accompanying smile was genuine. She blew him a kiss, started the car and backed out of the parking spot again. He watched her go for a moment, then turned and entered his workplace, the National Sea Life Centre.
Several hours later, the Centre lay quiet. The only thing that moved was Jeremy, making his rounds around the seal pens. The Centre occasionally took in weakened or sick seals and pups that were found washed ashore, or rescued out of harbours. These were kept and treated in separate indoor compounds, away from the resident seals to avoid any contagion. There were always quite a few patients this time of the year.
Jeremy carried a small radio with him as there was an important football match tonight. And while Angela could now commandeer their large TV screen at home for her favourite soap, Jeremy was not planning on missing out on his match completely.
"What's the score?" A voice called from the right suddenly. With a gasp of surprise, Jeremy whipped his flash-light towards the voice. In the light beam stood a boy with shoulder long dark-brown hair, maybe fifteen or seventeen years old. The boy was bare-footed, or rather -- Jeremy realised -- completely naked except for what appeared to be a seal's skin wrapped around his waist.
What was even more surprising was that the boy stood in the recovery-cage where one of the younger seals was put in a week before. The seal in question, however, was nowhere to be seen.
"You are either in a lot of trouble if that skin belongs to one of our seals, or the best practical joke I have ever seen," Jeremy said as soon as he found his voice again. He started to wonder whether his colleagues would really play such a prank on him on the first of his night-shifts.
The boy looked apologetic. "Sorry, didn't mean to startle you. I thought you were Sven. He always comes down when I'm here and the Shore Devils play."
"Sven broke his leg," Jeremy found himself explaining. "Rather badly too. He can't walk for two months. I'm replacing him. Um, if you don't mind my asking, are you what I think you are?"
"If you're thinking along the lines of a seal-skinner or practical joke, the answer is no. If, on the other hand, you're thinking in the direction of -- eh -- selkie, then, yes, I am." The boy flashed another apologetic smile. "I take it they didn't tell you, then. Fair enough, I suppose; most people are quick to presume various mental illnesses when confronted with the statement ‘Oh, your Sea Life Centre is used as selkie sanatorium', right?"
"The thought crossed my mind," Jeremy said weakly. I know I would have. If there hadn't been a boy dressed in a seal-skin standing in a locked cage where a seal should have been.
One could easily dress a boy in a seal-skin, Jeremy knew. But making a seal disappear was something else. And surely none of the staff would needlessly stress a young seal for just a practical joke … At least, he hoped not.
At that point, a loud cheering came from his radio, as the home-team scored a goal. Jeremy was startled by the sudden sound, but the boy cheered along. "All-right! I knew Dalton could score if he got Vanveldt and Guttierez to back him up. And this before half-time, sweet!"
"You're a fan of the Shore Devils, I see." Jeremy said as he grabbed a nearby chair and sat on it in front of the seal-cage. He might as well sit down for this.
"They're my favourites!" The boy said enthusiastically. "Ever since they got promoted to top division, I've been following their matches. Of course, I don't catch them all, you'd be surprised how hard it is to find a boat at sea with the radio on the right frequency. And a seal-mind has a disappointingly short attention-span."
"Ah," Jeremy said, still not quite sure what was happening. "I'm Jeremy," he said after a moment. "What's your name?" It seemed only proper to start with introductions, even if this seemed like such an unlikely place for social encounters.
"Three Spots," the boy said, "'cos I got three black spots on the muzzle, see?" The boy lifted the head of the seal-skin to show the name-giving characteristic. "But Sven and the others usually calls me by the name I'm on record here, Billy." The boy pointed to the filled-in chart that hung on the cage-bars.
"I'll stick to Billy too, if you don't mind."
"Not a problem," Billy said magnanimously. "We selkies are used to having seal and human names.
"We? So there are more of you? Are all of you --"
"No, no," the boy laughed. "Not all of the seals here are selkies. For the moment there's just me and grand-auntie Greyclaw. She's two corridors to the left, I believe she's Isabella on your papers."
"The old one with the tooth problem? Ah. Er… Is there anything I can do for her, you think? Some fresh fish?" It suddenly seemed terribly wrong to Jeremy to keep an old lady behind bars on a concrete floor without so much as a blanket. The boy wrinkled his nose at the suggestion. Jeremy couldn't help but smile.
"A seal that doesn't like fish?" He asked incredulously.
"Seals have poor taste buds," Billy said. "So we don't mind the fish as seals, but in human form, we have a bit more… civilised tastes. No, if you really want to make her comfortable, bring her a cup of hot tea. She'll love that. And if you do, just put it within her reach and don't bother to wait for her to change. She's old-school in that regard, still thinks all men are waiting for her to drop the skin to nick it and propose marriage."
"Right, I'll fetch her a cup of tea, then," Jeremy said, standing up. "Want some too?"
"No thanks, but can you leave the radio?" Billy pleaded.
Jeremy saw no problem with that. His mind wasn't entirely on football this evening any more. He went to fetch the Thermos of tea from his office. It would take him but a few minutes to see to Isabella, or rather, great-auntie Greyclaw.
The old seal didn't acknowledge him in any way and for a moment Jeremy thought he had indeed fallen for a very elaborate practical joke. When he turned the corner again, he halted for a moment, shook his head and wondered if he was letting his imagination run away with him. He froze when he heard a sloshing sound. He might have imagined hearing a faintly muttered ‘thank you' but there was no mistaking that slurping sound. Someone was drinking tea behind that corner.
For a heartbeat he considered turning back and catching a friend of his in the act. But then he thought better of it. Better to be thought a fool, he decided, than to surprise a naked old granny drinking tea in one of the seal cages. The first he could live with, the latter was just beyond embarrassing.
He returned to Billy's cage, still half-expecting the cage to be empty and his friends to emerge, laughing like there was no tomorrow. To his secret relief, the boy was still there, sitting on the ground against the bars, listening to the radio. A captive audience never had a more suitable image.
The game had stopped at half-time and the radio station ran commercials in the meantime. The perfect opportunity to try and have some of his many questions answered, Jeremy thought. It wasn't often local myths just sat down with you to listen to a football match.
"I know the old stories about selkies," Jeremy said. "I always wondered, that if the seal-women liked their human life and family, why none of them ever came back after finding their seal-skin again."
"It's the seal's mind," the boy explained matter-of-factly. "It's wired differently from a human one: sleeker, more to the point, and less likely to be encumbered by loads of memories. A seal's mind is perfect for a seal, but humans tend to have issues. And then there is the age thing, seals age faster. You can delay it by staying in human form for years on end, but when you go back to seal, wham! Old age catches up with you faster than an orca. It's not that the selkie-women forgot about their children or that their selkie-family wouldn't let them go, it's far more likely they died as an old seal before ever getting back."
"A rather depressing thought," Jeremy said slowly. "Which brings me to the next question, if you don't mind, are you human or seal?"
"Well, there are factors. But most philosophers reason we're human because, like me right now, I'm a human holding a seal-skin. You'll never see a seal with a human skin, outside possible horror movies, that is. So," the boy nodded, "technically human."
"You have philosophers?" Jeremy couldn't help but feel amused.
"Of course. Can you think of anything else to do when lying on sandbanks, trying real hard not to notice the lingering fish-taste in your mouth?"
"I suppose that makes sense…"
The commercials ended, and Jeremy and his guest turned their minds back to football. Billy proved indeed to be an apt football lover, but unfortunately the Shore Devils rewarded their enthusiastic fan with a 2-3 loss.
Billy took it philosophically. "You win a few, you lose a few and maybe next time you'll catch the tuna."
"I better get back on my rounds," Jeremy said. "You'll be okay?"
"Oh, don't worry about me. I should turn in any way. Tuesday I'm to be released."
"Well, I suppose this is goodbye, then. Have a safe trip, Billy." Jeremy rose from his seat, but then thought of something. "Say Billy, you don't happen to belong to the McKelly sandbank seal colony?"
"That's the one. Why?"
Jeremy grinned. "Next time the Shore Devils have a match, come to Sandright beach. There's a parking lot next to the pier, you can't miss it. We'll invite Sven. I'll bring the radio and a barbeque, you bring the fish."
Billy's eyes lit up and he jumped to his feet. "You would? Awesome! You're on!"
Jeremy smiled. "See you then."
Not surprisingly the rest of the night felt quite mundane to Jeremy and the remaining hours dragged on. So he was yawning heavily when Angela came to pick him up in the morning.
"I heard the Shore Devils lost," his girlfriend remarked as he got in the car. "You must have had a rather boring night."
"You'd be surprised," Jeremy said with a sleepy smile, "some seals make surprisingly good conversationalists."
"That boring, huh?"
"S'okay. And I think I've found a mate to watch football with next time, so we won't have to argue who gets to use the TV then."
Angela cast him a sideways look before turning her attention back to the traffic. "What? Among the seals?"
"Now, don't be daft, Ange. Just a nice kid I met at the centre who happens to be a fan, by the name of Billy."
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