We’re delighted to publish the winner of the HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Prize for 2019: The Daisy Fisher by Kate Jewell, and to announce that the 2020 competition is now open for entries. Full details are at the bottom of the page.
An hour has passed. One hour since the women sent her home with the half-heard whispers screaming in her head.
‘She’s young to be a widow.’ ‘Too young.’ ‘Not yet eighteen.’
Meraud sits at her window looking down Fore Street to the tiny harbour. She sees the Daisy Fisher moored up against the harbour wall and, winched up on the sloping beach, smaller boats in attendance: one- and two-man drifters left dry as the tide goes out. She is trying to make sense of it all, piece it all together, but her mind is full of a stultifying sea fog.
There is no place for any thought bar one.
What will she do without Tomma?
They were in the salting cellar when the cry went up. The Daisy Fisher was coming in. They’d been baulking last night’s pilchard haul, gutting and layering the fish, laughing at tales of incompetent excise men and grudging the duty on salt and tea.
‘An’ all to fund the war ’gainst those rev’lutionry ’mericans,’ grumbled Old Mamm Symons. ‘What, for good’us sake, do any of us here want with them pesky ’mericans anyway?’
Leaving the wall of salted fish, they collected their baskets and went down to the shore to help with unloading the mackerel. Meraud knew something was amiss as soon as the Daisy Fisher skirted the breakwater. The boat was high in the water and the men did not call out as they brought her round. The women slackened their chattering and the only sounds were the hull settling onto the shingle and the rush and drag of gentle waves.
Five women stood tightly together at the water’s edge and the way opened for Meraud to join them, for she was a Daisy Fisher wife and there was solidarity between a boat’s womenfolk. They watched as lines were cast and caught, the boat made fast. Someone on the breakwater called out but a gusting breeze snatched at the skipper’s reply, the words lost. Then the crew dropped down into the portside shallows and rounded the bow into full sight: four men and Jory, the ship’s boy. Jory’s mother cried out and the other women shushed her for there should have been one more to trudge up the beach.
Meraud hesitated but she was eased forward, supporting hands on her arm should she stumble. The skipper walked towards her, his face a mask of grim duty.
‘Mistress Hawes,‘ he said, ‘we have suffered a great misfortune. I am sorry. Your husband has been lost.’
She did not cry out, nor beat her chest, nor fall to the ground. She just stared, disbelieving, at the rigid mouth, at the deep-set eyes and salt encrusted eyebrows under the oilskin hat. At the coat so carelessly flung round his shoulders.
There was a sudden splash and she turned towards the Daisy Fisher, willing Tomma to emerge round the hull. But it had only been a cormorant, dropped from its perch atop a mooring post, bobbing neck-deep on the sea.
She took a great, gasping gulp of air for, unaccountably, she had forgotten to breathe. Her hands were twisted tight in her apron.
‘Where’s Tomma?’ she asked, ‘Where is he?’
‘I’m sorry,’ the skipper said, ‘He slipped and went over.’
The crewmen stood behind the skipper: Clem Lobb, Nate Bray and Harry Kittow. The boy, Jory, wide-eyed, gaping at her, was shaking, whether from cold or shock Meraud couldn’t tell. She was beginning to shake herself.
She heard a murmuring in the crowd. One of the women called out: started to speak. Meraud unwound her fingers from the apron and silenced her with an upheld hand.
‘How did this happen, Mister Pender?’ she demanded.
The skipper straightened his coat. ‘It was an accident, a mishap,’ he said. ‘Deckhand Hawes tripped and went over.’ He leant forward, lifting his arm as if to lower her still-raised hand but she dropped it before he could reach her.
‘And how…’ She breathed in. ‘How could this happen, Mister Pender, with only a gentle blow and the sea hardly stirred up?’ She took another deep breath trying to suppress the growing turmoil in her head. ‘You, a capable skipper with capable seamen around you. And Tomma equal to any of you. How could this happen?’ Her whole being was threatening to splinter into little pieces.
Harry Kittow scuffed forward. All in a hurry he said, ‘Was an accident, Meraud, a mishap. Just like Skipper says. A stray line and there were…’
The skipper dropped a firm hand on Harry’s shoulder: his voice dwindled away.
Meraud untied her shawl and deliberately retied it close round her body. In a clear, unequivocal voice she repeated, ‘Equal to any of you. And better.’
Not giving the skipper a chance to reply she abruptly turned and walked up the shingle towards the salting cellar. It wasn’t until she’d got through the whispering press of women that she faltered. All but collapsing against the net loft wall, she squeezed her eyes tight against the tears, her hands clenched into fists at her side.
Someone dropped an arm round her shoulders, saying, ‘Go home, Meraud. We’ll come and sit when we can.’
So Meraud is at the window looking down Fore Street, past the tumble of cottages to the tiny harbour with its rough wall: rock and stone flung out from West Cliff, a breakwater against the ocean beyond. She watches the Daisy Fisher in the shallow water left behind by the receding tide. She is the largest of the village boats, the only one with fixed masts, lugger rigged and decked out with a cabin of sorts: a sleek mackerel driver out of the Mount’s Bay boat yards.
It was troublesome at first, her from the village and Tomma being different. ‘A foreigner,’ they said; ‘From across the Tamar,’ they said. Some even thought he could be of gipsy stock: ‘Look at his curly black hair, his dark searching eyes.’
He told Meraud he was from Lowestoft, far away, on the eastern coast. ‘Where you can watch the summer’s sun rise out of the sea,’ he said, showing her on a map. But although she can read, it made little sense. She knew you could walk to Truro in half a day, getting there by noon if you set out very early and the weather was dry. If you were lucky enough to get a ride in a cart, it took half that time. But when Tomma had shown her how far he had come it made no sense at all. She couldn’t imagine how long it would take to ride all that way in a cart: let alone walk.
In the beginning it was hard for Tomma to find work but he threw himself into any task, proving himself at last on the breakwater. He helped repair the damage after the last winter storm, hauling stone from the old quarry. He’d not hesitated, either, going in after Jed Crowlass when he took a tumble off the seaward side of the wall. That was when the skipper said he’d give him a go as a deckhand on the Daisy Fisher. It was spring then and Meraud’s patch of garden was full of late daffodils and early beans.
She thought there might have been a child quickening.
They had been full of hope.
Now it is late summer and everything has changed.
Meraud runs her fingers over the wide sill, polished smooth by years of older, grieving hands. The group of women are coming up the hill. They have changed into their Sunday clothes, bringing parcels of food so she won’t go hungry when she forgets to cook. She has left the door ajar so she doesn’t have to move and they hover on the threshold: Connie Bray, Ella Lobb and Doryty Kittow.
Suddenly the cottage is full of bustle. Ella comes straight to her, squeezing out all her breath with a hug. Connie shakes her head saying, ‘Now, Ella, leave her be. You’ll fair suffocate her. Stand that jug of milk in the bowl. Under the cloth, mind.’
Doryty pokes life into the fire and swings the kettle over the heat.
Connie opens one of their parcels and brings out a packet of tea. ‘Got this from Preddy.’ she says. ‘Not bulked up with rose leaves neither. ‘Nothin’ but the best for Tomma’s lass,’ he said.’
This, Meraud can’t believe. Preddy Nantkivell has never had a kind word for her since she started going with Tomma. Never would serve Tomma in the Star Inn neither.
The women sit at the table with steaming earthenware mugs. Meraud has the only porcelain cup, got from a pedlar at Christmas. There are revel buns, sweet with currents and pungent with saffron, and a slab of heavy-cake, fat with raisins and criss-crossed with a knife on the crust.
‘Cake’ll last a while. I used extra lard.’ says Connie. ‘The Fisher’s not going out tomorrow. Nate and Harry are down Wheal Steven so I’m baking pasties. There’ll be one for you.’
Meraud says, ‘You don’t have…’
‘Don’t be silly, girl,’ interrupts Connie. ‘I’m making half a dozen. What’s one more?’
Ella breaks off a piece of cake. ‘Clem says the press are out again. What’ll we do if they take too many this time?’
‘They won’t do that,’ says Connie. ‘There’s rules, you know.’
‘You think they take notice of any rules?’ Doryty says. ‘Just have to hide the boys down the mine. Make sure the boats are out.’
Their chatter, moving easily from impressment, through poor catches to church tithes, drifts over Meraud.
Her tea has turned cold. She drinks it anyway, takes the cup out to the pump, swills it with water and tips the slops on her little vegetable plot.
Despite the warm sun she feels cold.
She returns to the others. The talk has moved on to the free-trade.
‘Preddy said two batsmen told him skipper Pender is planning on taking the Fisher right over to Roscoff.’
‘Preddy’ll believe anything.’
‘More profit that way. No foreigners to pay out at sea.’
‘Fitting her out to bring handguns over too, they said.’
‘What’s he gonn’a do? Make himself an army?’
‘He’ll ruin the trade if he’s not careful. Ticking over nicely at the minute.’
‘Magistrates won’t be turning a blind eye no more if he starts up a proper war with those excise men.’
‘Pender’s too full of himself. Superstitious too. I told Harry, he’ll not have to rile the bugger or he’ll find himself over…’ Connie jabs her elbow into Doryty’s ribs; Ella goes to speak but changes her mind. They move on to baking and what spices there’ll be after the next run.
Doryty rummages in her basket. She places a bundle of six white candles reverently on the table. ‘These are for Tomma. Memorial lights to ward off the evil soul-snatchers. Should be lit for forty nights by rights, but I’m sure Tomma’ll have the strength to fight those demons off. These’ll last a good two weeks if you don’t burn them ‘til dusk and snuff them before you sleep.’ She pokes around in a drawer. ‘Got a candlestick?’ she asks. Meraud finds a plate, a candle stub firmly stuck in the centre.
‘That won’t do.’ says Doryty, ‘Not for Tomma.’ And dives into the cupboard.
Meraud reaches up to the shelf and lifts down the pewter candleholder Tomma had bought at the October Fair. The metal is smooth beneath her fingers except for the tiny intertwined flowers he had scratched into the surface while they waited for the cart to bring them home. He was clever with his hands. He’d carved flowers on her old plain headboard. ‘So you can think of spring through the dark nights,’ he had said, with such a look he made her blush.
Suddenly Doryty is in front of her. ‘There you are,’ she says, a big smile creasing up her face. ‘Just what we need.’ and she takes the holder from Meraud, stuffing a candle into it.
Meraud looks at her empty hand.
She feels bereft.
Then, retrieving shawls and hats, the women are gone into the dusk, leaving soft words and promises to come tomorrow. She lights the candle, takes it to the window, sits and watches the little drifters set out to trap the pilchards, pierced braziers winking on each stern.
After two days Meraud takes herself back to the cellar. It is easier to be among the women, keeping busy with the gutting and salting, packing the dried fish into casks ready for pressing. Each night she lights the candle and sits for a while at the window, Tomma’s map book on her lap.
And when the tide is right she goes down to the beach to watch the Daisy Fisher set out across the bay, to snare mackerel, with a crew of five instead of six.
Another week passes and the Daisy Fisher has been gone three days. There is a blow on and tension creeps round the cellar. Jory’s mother, getting panicky, cuts herself with a gutting knife. The news comes midmorning; the Daisy Fisher has run into Portscatho, waiting for the wind to abate.
When Meraud goes down to the salting cellar the next morning the Daisy Fisher is in the harbour, the skipper talking to men in tailcoats and cocked hats. Something passes between them: hands are shaken. Nate, Clem and Harry are there but not Jory. When she gets to the cellar there is no sign of Jory’s mother either.
The catch has been small.
They are sent home early.
It starts raining.
Last night’s candle is almost burnt down to its end. There is only one left so she counts out some of the coins she keeps in the box Tomma brought with him. Their ‘Treasure Box’ he named it. There is a length of lace ribbon, two round yellow shells, a small locket he said had been his sister’s, and a twist of paper containing flat brown seeds he assured her would grow tall with great yellow flowers to smile at the sun. She has been keeping them for the spring.
Meraud settles in her usual spot at the window. She can hardly see the Daisy Fisher through the rain, it is coming down so hard.
Grey land, grey sea, grey sky: all one.
A boy slips on the greasy cobbles as he trudges up the street. He stops at her door and looks up. She goes to let him in.
‘Missus,’ Jory says. His whole body sheds water onto her floor, making a small, spreading lake as he stands in front of her.
‘Yes?’ she says.
He looks down, embarrassed.
‘I got something of Tomma’s,’ he says. ‘He gave it me. Keep me safe, he said. ‘Mam says it’s yours now.’ He pulls a leather thong over his head and shoves it at her. A St Peter’s coin is threaded onto it.
‘Oh, Jory,’ she says ‘Tomma gave it to you. You keep it.’
She tries to give it back but the boy shakes his head. ‘Skipper Pender, he cast me off. Said he didn’t need a boy no longer, not with the trading with those Frenkies he’s planning. Said he only took me on for bait setting and the fish’ll be just for show. When them excise men get too close. So I don’t need that charm no more. Tomma should’ve kept it.’ There’s a note of desperation in his voice; he is close to tears. ‘If he hadn’t given it me he’d still be here.’
‘Jory, it wasn’t your fault. It was an accident. You heard skipper Pender tell me. Tomma slipped and…’
It comes out so fiercely it steals Meraud’s breath.
‘No, he never. Skipper said Tomma had the evil in ‘im and we wouldn’t pull in anything, fish nor t’otherwise, with ‘im on board, ‘im not being one of us, if you sees what I mean.’ The boy hesitates. ‘Sorry, Missus. I shouldn’a…’
Aghast, Meraud says, ‘The skipper arranged for Tomma to go overboard? Is that what you’re saying?’
The boy just looks at her, staring with uncertainty.
‘Yes,’ she says, ‘that’s what you’re saying.’
Then, his voice rising, Jory says, ‘He shoved ’im, Missus. He shoved ’im and heaved ’im over. I saw ’im. I saw ’im push an’ shove an’ heave ’im right over the gunnel. Into the waves. Right out there.’ He points through the window towards the sea. ‘I saw ’im. And Harry an’ Clem an’ Nate, they saw too but they just stood and watched. They didn’t do nothin’.’
The rush of words stops; the boy shudders.
‘Please, Missus, I couldn’t do nothin’ neither. I was scared.’
Meraud goes to the dresser and pulls out a rough sheet.
‘Here, Jory,’ she says, ‘ you’re leaking-wet. Dry yourself. I’ll make a hot drink.’
She pours milk in a pan and puts it over the fire to heat, adding a little rum from the bottle she keeps for winter coughs and sneezes. As she stirs, she starts to think.
‘How far out were you?’ she asks, ‘You know, when it happened?’
‘Right out there, Missus, like I said. We’d not reached Creek Stephen but we’d passed Portscatho. Skipper said we’d be all right after. But we wasn’t. We set nets all past the Nare but there was nothin’.’
It is a few moments before she realizes Jory has stopped talking, so hard has she been thinking.
‘When the Skipper heaved him over did he hit Tomma first?’
‘Knock ‘im senseless you mean? No, Missus. He just pushed an’ shoved.’
‘And what did Tomma do when he went over?’
‘What do you mean: nothing?’
The boy looks confused.
‘Well,’ she asks, ‘did he try to stay up in the water? Did he shout out? He can’t just have done nothing.’
‘I dunno. He just went into the sea, all smooth like. Like a fish would. If you let it go. No splash nor nothin’.’
‘And did you see him after? As you sailed on? In the water?’ she asks.
‘No, it was like I said, Missus.’ Agitated, Jory grips Meraud’s sleeve. ‘Just like a fish. He never came up.’
‘And why were you so scared, Jory?’
‘Me? I can’t swim and Skipper could’ve heaved me over just for seeing. And Harry an’ the others, they wouldn’t save me, like they didn’t save Tomma.’
‘Don’t you think that’s why Harry, Clem and Nate did nothing? Because they were scared too? Can they swim?’ She pauses and looks down at the puddle on the floor, ‘No, of course not. None of you fisher folks can swim.’
As the boy removes his sodden clothes she asks him, ‘Why are you telling me all this now?’
‘A Portscatho fish-girl gave me this. All secret like.’ He pulls a water-stained fold of paper out of his trouser pocket, a smudged name on it: Mistress Meraud Hawes. ‘She said I was to tell what happened.’
At last, wrapped up in the sheet, drowsy from the rum and milk, Jory says, ‘I done right, Missus, ain’t I?’
When he is asleep in front of the fire, his clothes on the fender, she carefully unfolds the paper. Inside is a simple drawing: two flowers with their stems entwined.
Looking through the window at the Daisy Fisher, her masts silhouetted against the remnants of the day, Meraud says, ‘Yes, Jory, you done right.’ and remembers a day last summer.
They’d walked to the next cove, a private place where nobody went. It was hot and he’d stripped off his shirt before they got there. She’d sat on the beach, turning pebbles through her hands. Suddenly Tomma ran into the sea, striking out so strongly it seemed he would reach Shag Rock.
When he came back he flicked water at her face. ‘Come on Meraud, there’s no one about. I’ll teach you to swim.’ But she’d just laughed, saying, ‘No, not today,’ and watched him return to the sea.
Meraud sets the last candle in the window, lights a spill at the fire, touches it to the wick and watches the flame waver and settle. No longer a candle for remembrance or loss but a candle of welcome.
A candle to light the way home.
The Daisy Fisher by Kate Jewell is published, along with all the shortlisted stories, in an ebook published by the HWA and the Dorothy Dunnett Society. Copies are also available in paperback by print on demand.
The other shortlisted writers are Joanna Dodd, Liz Kershaw, Julie Evans, Monique Hayes and Cathy De’Freitas.
The winning story in 2018 was Nineteen Above Discovery by Jen Falkner.
Are you a writer of historical fiction? The HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition for 2020 is now open for entries.
Stories should be set a least 35 years in the past and be up to 3,500 words in length.
There’s a first prize of £500 and publication in The Whispering Gallery and in Historia, plus a mentoring session from an author and an agent. Entries close on Friday, 31 July, 2020 at midnight.
Kate Jewell has worked in advertising, as a book designer for a children’s book publisher, in a busy Local Government graphic design office, and as a Creative Arts lecturer in Further Education.
An avid reader, Kate was grabbed by historical fiction at an early age, reading Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth with a torch under the bedcovers late into the night. Her passion for the 15th and 16th century was ignited by a history teacher who, on hearing complaints about having to do more boring Napoleonic battles, suggested she join an archaeology summer camp run by medievalist Colin Platt.
Kate has had several non-fiction articles published in Whispering Gallery, the journal of the Dorothy Dunnett Society. She is currently working on a fiction project following a group of adventurers through the turbulent transition from the Plantagenets to the Tudors.
The Daisy Fisher is her first foray into the 18th century.
Four Fishwives on the Beach by Winslow Homer: via Wikimedia
Fishing lugger Lady Harvey by Frank Cowper: via Wikimedia
Map of Cornwall from Antiquities of England and Wales by Francis Grose (1786): via Ancestry Images
Portrait of Dorothy (Dolly) Pentreath of Mousehole in Cornwall, a fishwife and one of the last speakers of Cornish (1781) by Richard Scaddan: via Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales
Woodcut of fishing from Chap-books of the eighteenth century by John Ashton (1882): via Flickr
Brandy smugglers loading boats at the mouth of a rocky cave by moonlight by John Thomas Serres: Plum leaves via Flickr
Photo of Kate Jewell: supplied by author