Chapter 6

However the weather threatened it, the rain never came. Such was winter in North Berwick. Such was North Berwick, in any season. Unpredictable, ever-changing. The only constant was the wind, which would chill you if you stood still. It was like a personal trainer, urging you to keep moving.

It was to be my last full day in my home town and I was going to take a good look at her, spend as much time with her before I left for Edinburgh, to spend a few more days with Mum and Siobhan, before flying back to Ottawa, where I would claim the supplies that would make life in South Korea a little more comfortable.

But today it was all about this seaside town. I would leave North Berwick on a high note.

Kristen was with me, had been sitting in the armchair in the bedroom when I awoke, had followed me into the bathroom and joined me in the shower (sadly, only to watch); she sat across the breakfast table while I ate my eggs and sausage, sipped my coffee. Sometimes, we chatted: I offered to make her some toast, which she accepted, but when I served it up she apologized and told me that she wasn't hungry, and so I ate it myself.

We walked hand in hand down High Street, passing Florence Bates Ladies' Outfitters, John Aitken's Sweet Shop, and the Cancer Research Charity Shop—which, in my youth, had housed the Playhouse Cinema. At Balderstone's Wynd, we turned past Carr's Shoes, and cut north, to Forth Street. A spot of sunshine cut through the cloud, but we knew it wouldn't last.

When we passed the Auld Hoose, I remembered how, when I was sitting at the bar, chatting with Katie, that Kristen wasn't sitting next to me. Was she only with me when others weren't around, or did she leave me when I was in the presence of another woman?

Katie was a visual distraction only. A pretty face in a pub of plain-looking patrons. We flirted, harmlessly: Lyle was ever-watching, still making sure his daughter was not being harassed. Pursuing anything more than friendly conversation was pointless, anyway. Katie was eleven years younger than me and would be half a world away.

And Lyle would kill me if I touched her: if not before I left, when I returned from Korea.

Passing Quality Street, Kristen and I walked down the short roadway of Melbourne Place and then deked to the left, to Melbourne Road, and the beach at East Bay.

Though my house was within a couple-minutes' walk to the beach on the west end of the town, my family and I always walked to East Bay. That's where the swimmers went: the other bay was where the fishing boats came and went. Row houses turned their backs to the west beach: the pretty, cottage-like houses faced East Bay. At East Bay, you had an unfettered view of Bass Rock, could see the Firth of Forth open into the North Sea.

No sunbathers came out to the beach today. Looking down Melbourne Road, no one even ventured outdoors. No one in his or her right mind would venture outside, when the temperature was barely above the freezing point. It was just Kristen and me, though I knew that anyone looking out a window would see only me.

The beach was uninviting, the sand, hardened by the cold, turned from a warm, sun-washed beige to a dull grey. It was difficult to imagine people in swimsuits, soaking up the sun—which was presently absent. Where some would cool off, the water appeared deathly frigid. You would catch your death in the Firth today.

East Bay had seen its share of death, and I couldn't help but remember the tragedy that unfolded before my family's eyes in the summer of 1973. I was eight years old: Siobhan was five. It was a Thursday, the day that Mum would take off, save for medical emergencies, to spend with her children. We would shop for groceries as soon as the stores were open, go to the bank to pay bills, and then return home, to change, pack a picnic lunch, and walk to East Bay. Siobhan and I would swim, build castles (even though we had our own real-life castle a few kilometres away), play with our friends, who were also at the beach, and collect shells.

There was supposed to be no swimming on that day. Red flags signalled that the wind was too strong and was causing powerful swells. Mum told us that we could only go as far as where the beach touched the water. Our feet could get wet but if they were submerged, we were out too far.

But the flags seemed to mean nothing to some, who went out into the Firth to frolic and swim. Helen Mullens, of Kirkintilloch (the papers would tell us later), would be one of the scofflaws who swam in the swells. There was always someone who felt he or she was a strong enough swimmer, who didn't heed the signs, who believed that warnings were for the weak.

Nature always won. Once beyond the shallow waters, once she was beyond the point where she couldn't touch the river bed, once the current took over, it didn't take long until we heard her calls for help: no matter how strong her strokes, the swell was stronger. Whether she liked it or not, she was being carried out to sea.

"What happened?" asked Kristen, the wind swirling her fair red hair in her face, her pale cheeks reddened by the cold air.

"A man from nearby Livingston, by the name of Philip Hacket, went in after her, but he just got pulled in, too. He drowned."

"How horrid," said Kristen. "Did Ms. Mullens drown with him?"

"No, she was still trying to swim back to shore but to no avail. A vacationing police officer, from Cheshire, went in after the two of them, but he also got into difficulties, and drowned. Other people waded into the surf, but knew better and stayed close to shore. But for a moment, it looked like everyone was going to go in after her. Mum feared that, like lemmings, everyone was going die in the process of attempting a rescue."

"Didn't someone call for the authorities? I know there was no 9-1-1 back then, but didn't someone phone for help?"

"Actually, 9-9-9 was available in the UK as far back as World War II. People did phone for help," I explained, realizing I was speaking out loud, to no one. Luckily, with the weather, no one was there to hear my conversation. "But it took time." I looked out into the Firth, remembering that day, remembering the tragedy that unfolded before my eyes, the screams. Siobhan, younger than I, unable to comprehend what was happening, cried anyway. "Poor David."

"Who is David?" asked Kristen.

"David Paget: Paul's big brother. Paul was a classmate."

"What happened?"

"David saw Helen Mullens when she first got into trouble and he ran to the marina. He had a small sailboat and got it out to help her. Unfortunately, he didn't get out on the Firth in time to save Hacket or the police officer. But he did manage to collect Mullens."

"That's good," said Kristen, who came closer to me, wrapped her arms in mine, leaned in to shelter herself from the wind that slapped at my back. "But you said 'poor David.' What happened after he rescued Ms. Mullens?"

"The wind was too strong for his boat, the waves to rough. The boat overturned as he changed tack and turned into land. The boat capsized. A Royal Navy rescue boat made it out to retrieve the boat, but only Ms. Mullens was saved. David drowned."

"Oh, Roland, what a terrible sight to see."

"At my age, I didn't fully understand what was happening, didn't realize the limp bodies that were pulled from the water were lifeless. But I knew it was bad enough. It was Mum who pronounced the three bodies dead, once they finally came to shore. Siobhan and I were told to stay with Mrs. Hunter, James' mother—James was another classmate who was on the beach, playing with me that day. When the ambulance arrived, Mrs. Hunter took us for ice cream and then home, while Mum stayed on. We didn't know what happened until later in the afternoon, when she came home."

"At least one life was saved."

"The one life that cost three others. She should have been charged with gross negligence causing death. The bloody flags were red." The town was angry at the woman who cost the loss of life, though no charges ever came about and Helen Mullens returned to her life, away from North Berwick.

"How old was David?"

"Eighteen. He was only eighteen. Brave lad."

The rain fell lightly, moistening my face and masking the tears that ran down my cheeks. Three deaths witnessed that day in 1973. More than twenty years later, three more deaths would change my life forever.

I looked out to the Firth, the distant shores of Anstruther obscured by low-lying clouds and heavier rain. "Let's get back before we catch our death," I said, before realizing I meant "my death."

I was already too late to prevent one.

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