It was September.
We were going to the island of Coll just off the west coast of Scotland, a group of friends, seakayakers all of us.
We departed from Oban with too many kayaks piled on the roof of one vehicle, cramming as much gear inside the car as we could, and carrying the surplus over our shoulders onto the CalMac ferry.
Coll was magical, 13 miles long, and welcoming.
We camped on the west side, at the bottom of a crofter’s field beside the Atlantic, a clear view to the horizon, its ragged sea-stroked line curving off to everywhere. We paddled in and out of little skerries draped with weed, and made the crossing to the Isle of Tiree for picnics and curiosity.
An orca breached far off one day and we who didn’t see it made fun of those who did, because they had obviously had too much sun and were seeing things. But we all saw basking sharks, they were everywhere, alone, in twos and threes, and even four in one wide channel. In every bay they swam to and fro, and with their giant mouths agape sucked the goodness from the ocean. Simple fish in a complex soup of life and possibility.
In one bay we met an island family having a picnic, one young lad swimming out past us “for a bet, to swim with a basking shark!” but turning back quickly and resting on my prow temporarily, as the windsurfer-sail dorsal fin grew larger as it closed the distance between us. “God, they’re bigger than they look! Bugger it, I just lost some money!” he said with a hint of disappointment.
We went to the pub in Arinagour village in the evenings, small and cosy, full of life and living and stories of the sea and island life. Returning to our campsite one night we gasped in astonishment, as each breaking wave crashing on the strand glowed green with phosphorescent plankton, then fading, then glowing, then fading. The green pulse of the sea. And far off, hanging low on the horizon, a long low arc of aurora borealis glowed, its flickering emerald shades an echo of the pulsing ocean below. A jet high above on the Atlantic run winked at us. We all sat, looking and quietly wondering at it all. Then slept.
Early next morning Mike and I set off on a long paddle north to the top of Coll and then south down the east side, heading for Arinagour and a late lunch. Another of the party would meet us in the pub with the car and drive the boats back to camp.
It started calm, the dark sea treacle-split by our skinny boats. Until we neared the Cairns of Coll mid-morning, and the wind rose. A turbulent chop and veering gusts jostled us and we had to dig hard for purchase as the tide began to turn. The final push along the coast was hard work, shoulders tingling with the effort. But we made it, tired and happy, cheeks glowing with wind and salty spray.
The pub was full on this warm afternoon.
Full, but utterly silent. Strangely quiet.
Then “Oh god, oh god, oh god” a woman muttered in a pained voice, wiping a tear from her eye. Her partner clenched her arm. A low murmur grew, and another voice interjected, “What the…” and more quietly “….oh no, no, no, no, noooooooooo…..”.
We looked around, confused, all eyes were staring past us, and above us, to a distant point of focus. To a tv set on the wall. We pushed forwards, past slack-jawed faces, consternation furrowing their brows, and turned to face the screen.
On another 13 mile long island, Manhattan, the first of the twin towers was just collapsing, tumbling down in a cataclysm of smoke and dust and confusion.
By the next morning, the day of our departure, it was over.
But only beginning.
And on that ferry-day, we stood on the jetty waiting for the boat home, and watched it slide in to fetch us. The skipper announced, with emotion cracking deeply through his gentle island voice, that when he was loaded we would all observe a minute’s silence.
And we did.
A boat, a pier, a group of people, and a soft sigh of waves rising and falling, half a world away from terror.
Overhead a gull punctuated our silence with its raucous call. All was as it had always been. But something had shifted.
Out in the bay a basking shark continued its slow purposeful progress. A lens of liquid sorrow blurred my view of it.
Both of us tasting salt.