Martin has always tried to induce a sense of wonder in his customers, but they have started leaving him bad reviews. They claim to have felt uncomfortable, and even unsafe, on his boat. They suggest he misunderstands erosion. A review from a quiet couple and their girl bothers him the most. Without elaboration, they gave him three out of five stars. They seemed to have connected with the coast, Martin thinks, but maybe he should have reached out his hand to them on that overcast Saturday, rather than smoking while they climbed from the pontoon into his boat. Maybe they were unconvinced by his claim that a flutter of white vanishing behind an amusement arcade was a spoonbill, the region’s most mysterious wading bird.
Weeks of fog pass before, to Martin’s surprise, they book a second tour.
As they follow the straight coastline northward on a still afternoon, he lends the girl binoculars so she can study the seven-mile concrete sea defence. Her face seems to be made up like a cat, and someone has gone to the trouble of painting her hands grey.
“I am not a cat, “ she says. “I am a seal.”
“That’s nice,” Martin says, but he dislikes the grey seal colony. As a coastal tour guide, there’s an element of shame in this, he feels. The seabirds keep him going. Once, he walked to the shingle shore with a sanderling he had nursed after it fell from the sky into his gravelled garden. When he released the bird, it took flight, but it landed suddenly in the heart of the groaning colony, where Martin believes it was crushed.
Trailing his fingers in the brownish water, he neglects to point out the churchyard where signs of the country’s earliest humans were discovered. Instead, he finds himself talking at length about a fenced-off caravan park and a pile of rubble that was recently a clifftop home.
“What other wildlife is there around here?” the girl asks.
“Badgers,” Martin says. “Butterflies. Deer.”
“Deer are the best,” the girl says, so he tells her how he was driving at sunset, once, when he saw a muntjac lying in the road. These tiny deer were imported from the rainforests of Southeast Asia and suffer in constant disorientation, he explains, but this one met his eye with an open heart as he wrapped it in a raincoat and lifted it into his passenger seat. When he went to bed—he tells the girl this in a voice almost as quiet as the sea—he realised he was breathing along with the muntjac, so he breathed in what he imagined would be the manner of someone in recovery.
Miles of featureless coast crawl by, until the girl points at dark shapes on the shore. Hundreds of seals are hauling themselves in and out of the sea, and battling on the shingle, in plumes of flies. Their moans are less bearable than usual. The smell is more powerful.
Martin kills the engine and they glide into the shallows. The girl spots an emaciated seal on its own. When a wave spills over it and drags it back with seaweed and stones, it tumbles, like someone panicking in a sack. Martin yanks the motor cord but it doesn’t make a sound. This is an ongoing issue he has ignored for months, and the girl wants to rescue the seal.
“It’s trying to swim out to us,” she says.
After searching for a tool he knows isn’t there, he gives up on the engine, climbs into waist-deep water, and starts dragging his boat shoreward. The girl covers her face with her hands. Her parents do nothing to comfort her. They are about to ask how they are going to get home, but Martin has no idea. When the seal gets close, he tells the girl it might still be moving, though he suspects it is just adrift, then he lifts it aboard, filling his passengers’ shoes with seawater.
The girl swipes a rove beetle away from the seal’s face. She holds a biscuit near its mouth. As a distant flock of oystercatchers peck the mudflats for worms, Martin trips on something underwater and almost loses his grip on the boat. On the beach, the seals have frozen. They are waiting for the boat to come ashore, but Martin stops. The water is deepening. A current is trying to get hold of them.
Motionless on the deck, the seal sees Martin try to apologise to his customers and shout obscenities at the surging water, then it rolls away from him and looks far out to sea, where the blades of an offshore windfarm turn.
Duncan lives in London. He is a lock keeper on the River Thames.