John Patrick © 2021
All Rights Reserved
I was standing ankle-deep in the murky shallows of Dublin Bay when I first saw Otto Werner. The tide was receding and I was following its path, scraping mussels off the rocks of the breakwater with my dull knife. My feet pulled out of the thick mud with a suctioning plop each step I took.
Otto stood at the far end of the pier above me, enduring the attentions of a woman—his mother, I guessed—as she fussed over him, tucking back his hair, straightening his tie, smoothing his lapels. He was nearly as tall as she was.
Just for a moment, a shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds and spotlighted him, a golden youth descended from heaven.
He looked dressed for Mass, or a wake.
My vantage point was limited by the height of the piled rocks, and I needed a better look. I wedged my wooden bucket into a wide opening between boulders and pulled myself up, slipping on seaweed and scraping my side.
The woman released him, smoothed the front of her coat, then placed one hand on top of his head, as if in benediction. Her other hand gripped her hat as a sudden gust threatened to lift it.
A man who had to be his father stood behind him, looking impatient. The man and his son were both tall, lean figures, with shockingly bright blond hair, although the youth would need to grow several more inches if he was to reach his father’s height. They wore hats of an unusual style. The man carried himself with authority and stood as if on parade. The son was gangly but tried to mirror his father’s pose now that he’d been released from his mother’s arms.
The Cambria mailboat was docked farther down, at the end of the pier, and when I pulled my eyes away from the youth, I noticed dozens of people waiting to board, along with stacked piles of trunks and packages staged for loading. All of the passengers were dressed in finery.
It was an odd time for so many people to be traveling to Wales, less than two weeks after the declaration of war.
I climbed down and stepped back into the shallows to continue my work, moving deeper into the bay as I filled my bucket. The top of the breakwater was just above my head, and all sound from the shore was washed out by the waves breaking against the rocks ahead of me. The sun was suddenly bright again, and the harbor waters shifted from deep purple to green and silver.
Once I’d filled my bucket with mussels, I added seawater and fixed the wooden lid to the top. I made my way back to dry land, green strands of rockweed clinging to my calves below my rolled-up trousers. Small cuts covered my fingers, and sandy grit smeared my face from when I’d leveraged myself up for a closer look at the people on the dock.
As I stepped from the narrow strip of stones above the tide line onto the pier itself, I saw the Cambria pulling away, steam whistling in a high shriek as the screws churned the water. Terns dove into the frothy mix.
The man and his son were still standing on the dock.
I put my bucket down and stretched my shoulders, then picked it up and walked to the harbormaster’s station at the front of the pier. My dad’s cousin, Eamon, worked for the harbormaster, and he was leaning against the side of the building next to my bicycle, finishing the black bread and cheese I’d given him when I arrived. He waved forward the group of children waiting their turn at the rocks, and they raced toward the sand with their jumble of buckets and rakes.
Eamon eyed my haul. “Good take, Jimmy?” he asked between mouthfuls.
“Yes, and there’ll be plenty left for that gang too.” I nodded to the children disappearing down the mudflat.
“Good. I don’t mind holding them off for you, but they need to get theirs too.”
I righted my bike, and Eamon helped me fit the weighty bucket into the square metal cage above my rear tire. “What’s with the mailboat?” I asked.
“That’s the Germans. We got word yesterday of some sort of deal to get them home. The ones who wanted to leave, anyway. Makes no sense to me. I’d rather sit the fighting out right here if I was them.”
I looked to my right, down the length of the dock, and saw the man and his son heading our way. It was obvious they were German now that I knew—sharp-angled faces and oddly cut clothes. Their hats made me think of the Alps. The son glanced back, once, at the Cambria as it made its way through the breakwater and into the bay.
I turned back to Eamon. “Who do you think will win?”
“I don’t know. Plenty wouldn’t mind seeing the Germans give the English a good thrashing, that’s for sure,” he replied.
I thought of my older brother, Liam, who’d been spending a lot of time with his IRA pals before he joined the Irish Defense Force. There was no love lost between him and the English. My dad didn’t offer an opinion. “Keep your head down and tend to your own,” he’d say. “We’ll have enough on our plates with our own Emergency.” But then, he was often half lost in drink and spared little time thinking beyond the next glass.
“Right. We’ll just keep our heads down,” I told Eamon, echoing my father.
The man and his son had stopped at the street, beside a fancy black car with a small German flag on its antenna. The youth kept pointing at me as he spoke with his father. I supposed I looked a proper mess.
I’d just gotten my bicycle rolling, not an easy task with thirty pounds of mussels on the back, when the man called out to me.
“Boy. Stop a moment.” I barely avoided toppling over as I brought myself to an abrupt halt next to them. I stood on my toes, straddling the bike to keep it steady.
“Those are mussels, yes? Are they for sale?” he asked.
I didn’t say anything. They weren’t for sale; they were destined for our stewpot at home. Meat of any sort had become quite dear since the Emergency was announced, with rumors of rationing ahead. Most families like mine had resorted to scavenging what they could. And anyway, mussels were working-people food, so why would this German gentleman be interested?
He must have read the suspicion in my eyes. “My son and I are celebrating our first night as bachelors.” He glanced at the young man next to him. “Isn’t that right, Otto?” Otto. A harsh, foreign-sounding name. Otto remained silent, studying me.
The man turned back to me and continued. “We had them once from a street vendor in France, and Otto loved them, but his mother wouldn’t permit them in the house. She said they were too common.” He seemed to realize that was a mistake, and he looked aside. “That is… I mean, Otto and I both liked them.”
When I didn’t respond, he asked, “How much do want for the whole bucket?”
I still hadn’t answered his question if they were for sale. The son—Otto—was staring at me. I had strands of seaweed wrapped around my legs, and my gritty hair was plastered to the side of my face. I was puzzling through the man’s accent, somehow crisply British yet guttural at the same time. I returned Otto’s stare, wondering if he would sound the same.
His piercing blue eyes didn’t leave mine as he took a step toward me and held out his hand. “I’m Otto,” he said.
Both of my hands had scrapes and cuts and were covered in sand and drying mud. There was no clean surface for me to wipe them.
“Otto…” his father began, before trailing off uncomfortably.
What else could I do? I extended my hand and, as lightly as I could without offending, closed it around his. “Jimmy,” I replied. Then, for some reason, I added, “James.”
“Hello, James. Would you sell your mussels to us? My father and I wouldn’t know where to buy them at the market.” His English was much better than his father’s but sounded more forced, perhaps because he spoke slowly, as if he wanted to be certain of each word before letting it out.
What was it about this strange, foreign youth that fascinated me? He looked to be about my age, sixteen or so. He was a good four inches taller though, and his skin was a smooth, rich cream, without scars or scrapes or sand or mud. He’d removed his hat and his blond curls shifted about in the wind.
His father spoke again and offered a ridiculous price for the bucket. We could buy a real Sunday roast with that, even carrots and potatoes, and have some to spare.
I schooled my expression. “Oh, sure, that’s a fair price for the lot of ’em,” I offered as casually as I could.
The man seemed relieved. “Good,” he said and glanced at his son, as if seeking to confirm he’d done the right thing.
Otto’s wide smile was a surprise. It transformed him somehow.
Something ticked over deep inside me.