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Adrift – Rae Cowie

Mum took a summer job on a ferry, serving plates piled with slices of black pudding and greasy triangles of fried tattie scones, to tourists and lorry drivers with stomachs of steel. 

‘We’ll sail somewhere new,’ she said.

Except each day we chugged back and forth, crossing the empty grey firth, from Ardrossan on the Scottish mainland to the holiday isle of Arran.

‘Stay in the restaurant,’ she said, ‘where I can keep an eye on you.’

She tugged on her apron and a smile, then chatted and laughed as she ladled sticky beans.

I placed my colouring jotter on the Formica table, anxious as my fluffy pencil case slid one way then back again.

The ship’s mate cracked jokes as he ordered bacon rolls and Mum’s face set, hard as the shortbread she served. Perhaps it was the white shirt he wore, or the shiny buttons on his jacket?

My ‘damned useless father’ was a policeman who won an award when he rescued ‘that bitch’ June, along with her ‘stupid mutt’, a labradoodle named Ozzy. He dragged them from the tumbling waters of the Witch’s Linn to the safety of the riverbank, and June was so grateful she asked him to move in.

Sometimes, when the restaurant stank of burnt toast, I slipped to the lower deck and felt the engine thrum through my trainers, let spray mist my face. Dogs whimpered at the ghostly wah wah wah of car alarms that floated up from below, so I fed them cheese from my sandwiches. Greedy short-legged Scotties, floppy-eared spaniels. Even the labradoodles – none named Ozzy.

Until each Thursday, when Murdoch clambered aboard with a guitar slung over his shoulder, curls bouncing, and Mum’s smile grew extra wide. His eyes were dark as the mountains and he played in the Brodick bars, told legends of selkies and sea gods. He said he was vegan. Mum added oat milk and veggie sausages to the menu.

Summer wore on and tanned holidaymakers returned with tales of the turreted castle and its glittering silver dodo, of sparkling fairy pools and bike rides in the sun.

Someone nicked my colouring book but left my favourite pencil, Papaya Whip, which was only a stub now. I suspected a group of schoolgirls who wore dental braces and bright polo shirts, laughing about tipping a keelboat and the race to the top of a tower.

‘Leave it,’ Mum said. ‘We’ll visit the island soon. You can play crazy golf and watch seals on the shore.’

But Murdoch signed with a record label and began a European tour, posting photos of screaming fans in Bruges and Berlin. Mum scowled as she ladled beans. The days grew shorter, the waves choppier. Fewer visitors ordered black pudding with fried tatties scones. There was a gas leak in the engine room, and the ferry bobbed in the harbour awaiting repairs.

Some days, Arran’s mountains rise as a faint hump on the horizon.