Impending tail of Hurricane Orphelia

Monday 16th October

Saturday fungus foray, website lesson, meal out the shore, aurora chasing. Food being nicked


How do I prioritise my time. I want to write write write but my head says I must try to sort my website. So much has happened and is as yet unrecorded.


It is 7.38am. I have been awake and writing for two hours. There is so much I want to say and do and it yet there seems so little time. I have been editing, adding to just a touch here and there and then publishing days old posts that really are not yet written.

I want to write, I want to walk beside the miraculously becalmed ocean, I want to develop my website. I want everything at once. I must choose. A heron flies in low across the water, lands by the lochan, I try to recite my favourite Edwin Morgan poem but it is lost to me in the moment. A gawky, stilted, fossicker among reeds, gun grey green one, gauntly watchful……

A handful of passengers carefully spaced themselves around the edge of the body of the ferry lounge as though not knowing each other, when I boarded to cross to Shapinsay yesterday. Shapinsay, three hundred and twenty inhabitants, lies just North of Kirkwall, a twentyfive minute ferry journey away. Reverse on, drive off, room for fourteen vehicles. I chat with Craig, Nurse Practitioner for the island, he is on call, 24/7, talks of mixed blessings living as a professional in a small community. I learn that Orkney has no helicopter, calls Aberdeen if one is needed, easily two hours before summoned help can arrive. The role of Nurse Practitioner on an island therefore is great. He can scramble the ferry at any time, crew are on call 24/7, two weeks on, two weeks off. At home, his wife runs a croft and he lists the many animals she cares for. It seems they are bit of a nomadic couple, a few years here a few years there.

Eleven geese fly overhead, not quite yet in formation. Grey, early morning ocean contours show stillness and currents. Last nights lights still sparkle across the bay. My eyes have been drawn by my ears, the thrum of an engine, 7.29am, this will become a daily rutual. Seals play, I watch from my window, as they play in The String, the body of water between Mainland and the Northern Islands with fast flowing currents. Now 7.44 as the next ferry sails by. Six ferry routes cross these waters daily, back and forth.

Seven skeins of geese fly by, more come, and more. Small skeins and larger groups that rise from the water, quarrelling, communicating, gathering in formation, an occasional bird, alone, playing catch up. And still they come and they come. I remember one early morning, full moon trip to Snettersham, West Norfolk on a new tide. Predawn navigation of meandering paths through spiky dunes in the dark. Cold arrival, flask coffee, sleeping birds not yet stirring. Waiting and waiting until as they began to rise, thousands, as if in continuous motion. The magnetic force from the rush of wind made the hairs on my arm tingle and stand as they flew overhead, lifting, lifting, lifting, from their sleeping grounds to head for morning grazing.

The 8am ferry and with it, my Edwin Morgan heron, crosses The String, I will watch tomorrow, will learn over time where these craft are headed and how to tell them apart.

Day breaks and becomes full of storm preparations. Hurricane Orphelia remnants are due. I cut vegetables and put a pot of soup on the stove, enough for two days or more. Thelma and I walk the dog out along the Ayre, the natural shingle bank that separates sea from lochs. A skimming stone beach with rounded red sandstone pebbles and slabs of striped seaworn pieces beneath drfits, hedges of seaweed. I want to pick, to collect, to experiment. Paper, I ask, can you make paper from seaweed but Thelma does not know. I see coloured rope and want to gather it, want to begin a collection for I plan to tidy and ornament the collection of neglect outside my winter cottage. I will take flotsam to my home.

A pungent aroma causes me to stop and sniff, to savour, try to identify but am unable to do so, musty yet ammonia. I ask, what is this smell, Thelma thinks for a while and then says, gulls are nesting in the cliffs and takes me through long, thick tussocky grass, each step sinking deeper into a springy tangled mass of matter just waiting to trip me up. Her smaller delicate feet and lighter body traverse this terrain more easily than I and I straggle behind. We approach the edge, but do not near it, for cliffs are crumbling. The red sandstone body hold a thick but fragile cap of earth and grass. The smell disappears once beside the cliff and I am not convinced, for me this is more fox like, kangaroo like but for now it is guano.

Returning to the path, an emerging torpedo of yellow club fungus pops its bright head out  of the grass and we climb a gentle ascent. The morning horizon displays most of the islands in the archipelago as a photographic backdrop and Thelma points them out, one with a nipple, a distinctive cap or a mast, I look and say yes, but many of these names are but a blur as yet.

Returning to the croft we dismantle the flag pole and carry it towards a long large building, the byre, that sports (thirty one by four) sheets of corrugated iron on its roof. We clear a space and deposit the flagpole against the wall. Inside, there is a camper van, and boat trailer amongst small, rusting agricultural machinery. The camper van is to be our transport for the kayak we will bring up from the harbour for winter protection, a job brought forward for the season by the impending Hurricane Orphelia. Heavy doors have been shut, bolted and then ratcheted tight, against winter winds, Thelma uses a mallet to loose the closure even after the ratchet has been undone. We push heavy doors to the sides and I recall the image of Amy Liptrots artic terns that she painted, on the doors of perhaps, a similar outbuilding.

Heading down to the harbour, the buffalo are not in the field this morning, long horned dark cattle, not yet yearlings, grazed by barbed wire fences on arrival yesterday. I noted an unrecognised breed but had not realised they were buffalo until I asked after them. Water buffalo on RSPB summer pasture.Unseen from the road, the field dips down over the rise to boggy marsh and these buffalo have proved successful grazers and make prized meat. Soon they will head to Mainland for the winter.

The kayak is light and narrow, it stows easily in the van and we turn in front of the follies wouter walls of Balfour castle. Thelma sees the postman, he stops and hand delivers mail, saving him a trip down a potholed drive. They laugh about the excitement of receiving what is clearly junk mail and I wonder whether, in winter, postmen might make executive decisions about the urgent delivery of such correspondence.

We begin our journey but Thelma soon stops again, waves down a Toyota pickup truck. Both drivers switch off engines, block the road. Formalities, discussion about winter use of the byre and then to business. Will the driver help bring the inflatable rib ashore? A plan is made for this afternoon as little other lull in the weather is forcast. It is early in the season to be bringing her in and Thelma mourns the decision, expresses regret at not being able to head out to uninhabited islands to visit breeding grey seals. Better in safe than in for repair, says John.

Instead of heading home with the kayak, we turn again to the harbour and secure the dinghy, move it along the slip, remove a basket of rope and belongings and tether it ready for pulling out after the ferry has gone. The rib walls are soft, need re-inflating but for now will be fine. Timing is all important, tide, ferry and weather all playing their part.

We dispatch the kayak then move and tidy clutter, garden tools, ropes, old farming equipment, a barley masher, You can have that, she says, it remains from this once small holding, raw barley being mashed before fed to cows. We prepare the byre for the homecoming of the rib. Thelma shows me other outbuildings for there are many. One homes meters for the three wind turbines in a carpeted office. Another, originally housed animals but now serves as a potting shed, the smaller Nissan hut is full of wood both useful and not with the roof giving way to the weather. From here, I can see the building pattern, the croft, a two storey house alongside it and a single storey extension. The small croft stood for many years before the 1980s two storey extension, (in which I am sleeping), and the single storey 1990s guest house, (our living room, kitchen and conservatory).

It is noon and we must eat before dinghy retrieval, I add a shake of worcester sauce and milk to the pot, smash it up a bit and we eat a nourishing thick broth with a generous strong cheddar sprinkled on top. I am grateful not to have loaves of bread on the table before me. I am grateful to have been asked to bring anything I would like to eat for the first few days and to be cook for us both. I have kitchen autonomy which pleases me. With surprise, Thelma notes the arrival of John and wonders why, with ninety minutes before the ferry, he is here to collect the trailer, ah just bring him in for a bowl of soup I say and she does.

Trailer attached, he heads out, another job to do before meeting us down at the harbour but he was collecting the trailer in readiness, apparently another trailer is positioned at the harbour waiting and we will now be in a race to be first down the slip. Pulling boats from the water requires skill and neither Thelma nor John want to be waiting whilst watching others manoeuvre.

I wash the dishes and note Thelma ready to go, I quickly dry my hands and don coat, hat and wellies. We arrive before the ferry. Today’s ferry queue is full, it is the first day of a two week half term and Thelma notes that many will be going into Kirkwall for shopping and visiting. No vehicles disembark just a scattering of passengers. An empty cattle truck reverses in first, followed by cars, then, with barely room after the cars have been wiggled and squeezed, three abreast, a range-rover and small animal box full of sheep begins to reverse in, down the slip, on to and up the ferry ramp. It is a tricky reversing manoeuvre and I note Craig, the nurse practitioner I met yesterday, in the passenger seat with his wife, the crofter, driving. Reversing a trailer up hill is not an easy task and requires several attempts and a few stalls. I remember Craig yesterday, in the waiting room, describing the reversing challenge as a public spectacle. The moment the animals are just squeezed on the ferry, the ramp begins to rise and it is away.

Thelma has released the dinghy from its moorings and has brought it round, sits waiting to position and drive up onto the trailer. John connects his four wheel drive axels and reverses the trailer. We are first on the slip. It seems the initial coupling goes well, I am given a rope to hold and tension keeping the dinghy from slipping backwards as we exit the water but something is wrong, the nose rises, I cannot hold it down and the rib engine scrapes on the slip causing the dinghy to drag back off the trailer. We must begin again. Others are waiting, watching.

This time John reverses deeper into the water, the dinghy is pulled much further forward on to the trailer and we exit safely but Thelma is unhappy. The dinghy is not positioned correctly, she says, it is too far forward and not central. This trailer will be the winter home for the rib and it is important that it sits safely. Thelma wants to repeat the process, re-float the dinghy and start again but it is not to be and as we follow on as John pulls away. Thelma calculates and ponders options on how to re-seat it, is cross with herself for not inflating it more firmly this morning, feeling this has contributed to the problem, weight out of the water will make it difficult to settle the rib into a better position. She considers removing the engine, wonders whether John is strong enough to do so, or strong enough to move the rib without doing so.

Once home and outside the byre, a plan is made. Wooden fence posts are used as levers to lift and gently edge the dinghy towards its correct place, it is now central but must be inflated to bump it further back, to sit where it needs to be. Once this is accomplished, there just remains the tricky challenge of reversing it into its winter home, tight in a corner so as to leave space for the camper van and John’s vehicle which he needs to work on over the winter. We move more things, another kayak, re site the flagpole, planks of wood encourage the wheels of the Toyota on to raised levels as John forwards and reverses, forwards and reverses, at angles. Once more or less in position the trailer is uncoupled and we manhandle it into place. Both are pleased that the job is complete.

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