Unfinished stories

bedwell-hbr-1977

Silk’s Post #154 — If you’re a writer, you have unfinished business. Don’t try to deny it. I can’t believe there’s a writer alive who doesn’t have at least one half-written manuscript stashed in some bottom drawer. I have two of them, frozen in the middle of the story, like the last-viewed frame of a movie put on “pause” and then forgotten.

But that’s not what this post is about. What I’m talking about is all those little mysteries served up for us every day, snatches of real life stories-in-progress we observe and, if we’re writers, we wonder about.

We don’t know what came before. We don’t know what will come after. All we’re left with is this one glimpse, this one clue, and the twin questions that are ever on the minds of story lovers: What’s the backstory? What happens next?

These moments can be inspirational for a writer because there’s a germ of a story in every scenario. Glimpses of life on the street, in an airport, at the mall, in a restaurant, on the beach … all those good “people watching” places. We can’t help following any interesting little drama that comes our way, to see how it plays out. Really, it’s none of our business.

But writers are like spies. We snoop.

Now, sometimes there’s really no story there. Just boring old, everyday, predictable stuff. After all, if life is full of little mysteries, it’s also full of little clichés. But maybe the writer takes away some bit of noteworthy colour – an accent, a gesture, some tension beneath the surface, or perhaps a micro-expression of tenderness – that can be recalled later to add texture to a scene.

But when you do observe a little piece of mystery, it haunts you. I’ll sketch out one of these incidents from my own life to show you what I mean, a scene seen and not forgotten. It happened years ago, but it still sticks in my mind …

The Runaway

It’s a late October Saturday in Bedwell Harbour, Pender Island, and we’re pushing the envelope on the cruising season in our small, unheated wooden sailboat. Only one other vessel, a 36′ Grand Banks trawler, is anchored in the small bay of a marine park that’s usually chock-a-block with boats in the summer.

We’re two diehard cruisers, apparently, sharing this lonely anchorage in the late-afternoon chill of an overcast day.

As an invisible sunset approaches, an eerie pink blush colours the western sky. I wrap myself in a heavy Cowichan sweater against the damp cold and grab my trusty Nikkormat, intent on capturing an arty portrait of the slightly surrealistic seascape. (The now-faded result is above).

What I also capture is a memory of a mysterious incident that has stayed with me for four decades.

Out of the Grand Banks cabin comes a coatless teenage girl, perhaps 14 or 15 years old. Her body language is agitated, her motions more a product of nervous energy than purpose. A late-middle-aged man follows her on deck. Pursues her, really. He’s the right age to be her grandfather. A woman who looks to be his wife sticks her head out of the cabin door to watch, an anxious expression on her face.

The choreography of the deck scenario is a pantomime of entreaty and rejection. I can’t make out their stuttering conversation because they’re downwind of our boat, but the drama unfolding is clear. He puts a hand out to her, tries to engage. She turns her back, shakes her head, steps away. Like a cat climbing further up a tree to avoid her rescuer, the girl stays out of reach. He advances, she retreats, again and again.

There is no reconciliation to be had, and it’s a small boat. The grandfather and grandmother confer, an intense discussion, their heads together. They keep glancing at the girl now standing alone in the cockpit hugging herself in the wind. Finally, he steps inside the cabin, leaving her to calm down.

Does their conversation go like this?

Grandfather: (frustrated) I can’t get through to her, she’s just unreachable. You can’t help someone who refuses to be helped. So what do we do now?

Grandmother: (calming) Let her simmer down, she just needs some alone time. Don’t worry, she won’t stay out there long, it’s freezing. And she can’t go anywhere.

If that’s what they say, they are wrong.

The girl steps onto the Grand Banks’ transom and pulls the boat’s dinghy in on its painter. It’s a small rowboat, the kind that was common 40 years ago. As the wind picks up, she climbs down, unties the dinghy, and fits the oars into the oar locks.

By the time Grandpa and Grandma come bursting out the cabin door, the girl is halfway to the deserted shore. She pulls at the oars with more fury than coordination. Choppy waves splash against the dinghy and the wind flings salt spray over her. She’s still coatless.

As she nears the narrow beach that fringes the steep, forested shore, I look back toward the Grand Banks at a scene of panic, with both grandparents now standing at the rail, yelling at the girl to come back.

She ignores them. She’s deaf to their increasingly urgent cries. When she hits the beach, she awkwardly jumps out of the dinghy, one foot in the cold water, and drags it partway up on the beach. Then, with one look back, she covers the fringe of beach in a few determined steps and plunges into the forest at a narrow trailhead.

Gone, just like that. The dinghy rocks with the waves breaking on the beach, half on shore, half still in the water. Dusk is approaching.

Back on the Grand Banks, the man and woman seem paralyzed with disbelief. They continue to strain against the rail, calling to the girl who disappeared. Then they stop calling and simply stare toward shore. The man retrieves binoculars from the cabin and scans the forest. They can’t follow her. The dinghy was their only way off the boat.

They retreat to the cabin.

Within half an hour, I hear a powerful outboard engine and our boat rocks from a wake. I go back out in the cockpit to see a small Coast Guard search-and-rescue vessel approaching the stern of the Grand Banks and watch the boat-to-boat conversation, full of urgency and gestures, between the rescuers and the grandparents.

The Coast Guard boat pushes off and follows the dinghy’s path to shore, two of the crew minding the boat and one disappearing up the forest path. Dark is falling quickly.

Then we wait. Coast Guard crew, anxious grandparents, and me – the spying neighbour.

Though I think the search seems like a fool’s errand, it would be unthinkable not to try to find the girl. But it’s now almost dark, and the shore is a vast, forested pile-up of bluffs, threaded with trails and not much else. It’s cold out in the cockpit, and there’s nothing to see. Our portable kerosene heater down below has warmed our small cabin and the brass lamps have been lit. But I can’t tear myself away. I’m hooked.

When I finally see the bouncing flashlight beam on the shoreline and the rescuer emerges from the shadow of the forest – with the girl in tow – I’m shocked, but relieved. She wears his oversized jacket. Her head is down.

They climb back into the search-and-rescue boat and take the dinghy in tow. In flashlight glimpses, I see the Coast Guard vessel stop alongside the Grand Banks and hand the dinghy painter to the skipper.

I wait to see the girl climb on board, back to the embrace of her grandparents, contrite perhaps, her tantrum over. I wonder if the incident is destined to become a future family tale that will be embellished and embroidered with years of re-telling. A colourful story that will be repeated by the girl’s grandchildren someday, to laughter and feigned disbelief.

And then, the rescuers – with the rescued girl – roar off into the night.

What?

Why didn’t they return the girl to her grandparents? But wait – are they her grandparents? Where are her parents? Why was she out on the boat? What was she upset about? Where did the rescuers take her?

You can probably think of a dozen more questions.

The next morning, Sunday, I expect the Grand Banks to depart at first light. It’s understandable that they didn’t up-anchor in the night to follow the girl, but now, in the light of day, they have urgent and unfinished business to attend to.

But they don’t leave. They carry on as though nothing at all happened the night before. Just an older couple enjoying a quiet, relaxing, off-season cruise. We leave at noon. Monday is a workday. They’re still anchored there, dinghy floating placidly off the stern.

Grandpa putters with some minor deck chore. Grandma calls him in for lunch.

The End.

Feel let down? I still do. An unfinished mystery story is an irresistible call to any writer – a call to fill in the blanks. We want to turn the page, and when the next page is missing, we feel compelled to write it.

Give in to that urge, and maybe the half-a-book in the bottom drawer will actually get finished one day!

2 thoughts on “Unfinished stories

    • Thanks Alison. I can’t believe it’s haunted me all these years. Something about the incident made me feel it was a life turning point playing out. Unforgettable!

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