• Kim F Vaughan

The Shipping Forecast

The power of doing something creative to help us to re-align our thinking is well known. The focus required to produce a 'work of art' shuts out all other thoughts. The delight in completing it, and the confidence that comes from sharing it, can allow enlightening breakthroughs for people who believed they couldn't do it.


This short story is shared with you by someone I know who has taken to heart encouragement to 'just write it', initially as a creative outlet and, later, as a stress-busting activity whilst doing a high-pressure job on the front line of the health service. It's great example of what you can do when you close out day-to-day concerns and put your mind to it. I hope you enjoy it!


I was seven years old when Uncle Jack told me his secret.


“Did I ever tell you I can pick up radio signals?” he said casually.


“No”, I replied. “I don’t think you ever did.”


Although only seven years old, I knew a thing or two about weirdness and this was ticking all the boxes. “Is it doing it now?” I asked.


“Yes it is.”


“So what can you hear?”


“Just the shipping forecast,” he said. “I used to pick up all sorts of stuff when I was younger but now I just get shipping forecasts.”


I was still none the wiser but, being an obliging sort of fellow, Uncle Jack went on to explain exactly what shipping forecasts were.


“They’re weather reports for ships at sea,” he said. “Radio broadcasts that let sailors know what weather to expect and where the dangers lie. Take today for example. It advises giving Hebrides a wide a berth if at all possible.”


This was fascinating stuff to a seven year old but I had no idea what Hebrides was, or even what a wide berth was.


“What’s Hebrides?” I asked.


“It’s a sea area to the west of Scotland,” he said, “and gales are pretty common up there. As a matter of fact there’s one blowing up right now. Can’t be much fun for anyone caught out in it.”


Then he lowered his voice to a whisper. “It’d be better not to mention any of this to your Auntie Isobel. She’s not a great fan of shipping forecasts.”


And that was that. The conversation ended before I had time to ask about wide berths. I filed that one under ‘weird stuff’ in case I needed it later.


***


It was years before I heard the word Hebrides again. I was walking along the high street shortly after my eleventh birthday. It took a little while to register what it was but when I realised I was listening to a shipping forecast I didn’t know whether to be shocked, thrilled or worried. In the end I settled for quite interested. What was beyond doubt was that, like Uncle Jack all those years ago, I was hearing it in the absence of a radio.


I looked around in case there was one nearby. For all I knew there might have been. In a car parked outside the chip shop perhaps, or blasting out of a hairdresser’s window. But there wasn’t. The high street had double yellow lines from end to end so there were no parked cars, and hairdressers aren’t in the habit of playing shipping forecasts at high volume out of open windows.


No radios came crawling out of the woodwork; besides, I was walking at a fair lick and the shipping forecast, for that’s what it obviously was, followed me for almost half a mile.


I hadn’t forgotten my conversation with Uncle Jack, or the Hebridean gale he told me about. Now I was picking it up myself.


That was how my relationship with the Met Office started, but there was plenty more to come. And it wasn’t just Hebrides. There were loads of other sea areas which, in time, I became acquainted with. I was amazed to discover there were thirty-one altogether, each with its own shape and personality. It was like being introduced to cousins at a family wedding.


The forecasts soon became the highlight of my days and by the time I was twelve I was a regular listener. Shannon, Malin, and Rockall became close friends but if pressed to name a favourite, it was Hebrides every time.


I continued to follow Uncle Jack’s advice and never breathed a word of it at school or anywhere else. Our school already had a kid who heard voices and I didn’t feel it needed another. Besides, I rather enjoyed the secrecy of it all.


In time I came to regard shipping forecasts as a sort of secret power I could tap into, a superpower even, and so much better than the ones found in the pages of DC comics. I never had to snare criminals in spider’s webs or turn into a human fireball in the middle of a maths lesson. As for turning green and bursting out of my school uniform, it never happened.


My superpower was the best of all worlds, hidden from view for the most part, but a gateway to another universe when I needed one. When a forecast really took off and wind was howling in the rigging it was a wonder to behold. Like flying through storm clouds in a jet fighter, or riding on the back of an avenging God, backing easterly 6 to gale 8 increasing severe gale 9 at times. Showers. Good. These were without doubt the high points of my young life.


In time I learned to understand the forecasts and came to appreciate the impact they had on people who worked at sea. Looking back, I think it safe to say that they played a huge part in my emotional and spiritual development. I came to hold them in high regard and never once imagined that they could become a problem. But during one fairly nondescript evening bulletin there was a new development, one that gave me real cause for concern.


Southeast Iceland was having a fairly quiet day as I recall. “Northerly 5 to 6 becoming cyclonic 5 to 7. Moderate to rough. Wintery showers. Visibility good, occasionally poor.” Unremarkable for the time of year, I thought.


Then, instead of moving on to the reports from coastal stations, it got personal. “Not a great day for a trip to Iceland”, it said, “better stick to dry land and be sure not to miss your dental appointment. Ten thirty if I’m not mistaken.”


I froze as if I’d seen a ghost. A ghost or two might have been less of a shock actually.

The Icelandic travel ban wasn’t really a problem. Jetting off to Reykjavik wasn’t high on my to-do list anyway. But I was far from happy about the dental appointment reminder. I did have an appointment the following day and I had forgotten about it, but that didn’t mean I was happy to have shipping forecasts poking their noses into my affairs.


A feeling of unease accompanied me for a couple of weeks. It was hard to put my finger on why it bothered me so much but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that what had started as simply borderline weirdness may have blossomed into something decidedly unhealthy.


But I needn’t have worried. The forecasts never became unfriendly, nor did they lose their capacity to inform and support. My secret world remained as accessible as ever but now it gave lifestyle advice too. I got used to it very quickly and actually grew to like the new arrangements. Responsive shipping forecasts were rather like invisible friends, and being a fairly solitary youth I was in no position to discard them.


The most noticeable benefit of this development was the effect it had on my powers of concentration. Having effectively acquired an invisible PA, life’s little distractions simply melted away. And in addition to never missing dental appointments, study became easier too.


But by far the most useful characteristic of shipping forecasts was their uncanny knack of predicting exam questions weeks in advance. It would have been unproductive to ask how it worked or why, suffice to say that their accuracy was astonishing and like any sensible fellow I accepted the guidance with good grace. Consequently my schooldays were more carefree than they were for the majority. The phrase ’walk in the park’ doesn’t even come close. ‘A’ levels were brushed aside and my path to university was assured. In due course London found it had acquired another student.


***


It’s fair to say that those early student days in the capital were a time of great upheaval and uncertainty, as they are for most. But whatever life threw at me, the shipping forecasts had an uncanny knack of getting me through the worst of it. They gave structure to my days and took care of most, if not all, of my domestic arrangements. It would be arrogant to suggest I was in control of my life but that’s certainly how it felt at the time.


But despite indications to the contrary, winds of change were gathering in the distance and, although slow to build, they would exert a profound influence on my plans for the future.


Events started to move on a bright morning in October, while I was enjoying a caffeine fix in one of my favourite coffee shops. The coffee was hot and strong, the sun shone out of a clear blue sky, and London was filled with smiling faces, which is more than you could say for Bailey, Faeroes or Hebrides. There, gales were the order of the day. The forecast announced them with customary detachment. “Severe gale 9 veering northerly and increasing storm 10 imminent.”


It didn’t sound good. Winds like these often raised short nasty seas. The sort where lives are lost. I shuddered. But there was more to come.


“You shouldn’t worry about stuff you can’t control,” said the forecast. “It really isn’t healthy.”


I replied with a silent, "Easy for you to say."


“True,” it replied, “but sound advice often is. Could it be that you’re working too hard? You might benefit from taking some time off. The British Museum’s just around the corner you know. It wouldn’t do you any harm to be a tourist for an hour. You might even learn something.”


There was some sense in what it said. It was probably just the consequence of an urge to hit the ground running when I first arrived in London, but I had been going at it a bit lately. Perhaps I did need an hour off. But how do you see the British Museum in an hour? It’s vast. Where to start?


“Does it really matter?” asked the forecast.


"Not really."


“Just try not to do it all. An hour or two’s relaxed browsing is all you need.”


I finished my coffee and walked briskly to the museum’s main entrance. Inside, a tall sincere girl was standing by a desk marked ‘Audio Guides’.


"Do I really need one?" I asked.


“I can’t recommend them enough,” she replied. “You get a much better experience. Interactive is best, as we say in the audio guide business.”


“Then I’ll take one,” I said. “I’m a big fan of interactive.” I was also a big fan of tall, sincere girls.


“Which gallery are you interested in?” she asked.


“What would you recommend?”


“I wish I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked that question. Let me ask you one instead. Is there any part of the world that’s of particular interest to you?”


“Hmm, good question,” I replied. It was a good question, but not one I needed to think about for very long.


“The Hebrides,” I said in a flash.


“In that case,” she said, “I have just the thing. The Lewis chessmen are in room 40. They’re stunning, and they’ve been in the movies.”


“Oh?”


“Yes. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” She handed me an audio guide. “Just switch it on when you get there and you’ll get the whole story."


Room 40 was quite close by and I was soon standing in front of the cabinet that contained the ancient chessmen.


“Found in the Outer Hebrides in 1831,” said the guide. “The Lewis chess pieces are thought to have been made in Norway between 1150 and 1200.”


The day was taking on a magical quality. The chessmen were beautiful and the audio guide was excellent. My only concern was that I hadn’t switched the damn thing on. The narrative was coming from somewhere else entirely.


After tapping into shipping forecasts for years I can’t say I was particularly surprised by an audio guide with a mind of its own, but if every electronic appliance I came across insisted on getting up close and personal, life was going to get awfully complicated. I might even have to give up toast.


I looked closely at the chess pieces. I’d heard of them before of course. I even remembered seeing them in the Harry Potter movie, but I never realised just how charming they were. Yet for all their appeal, their expressions were surprisingly intense. The king in particular had a most unsettling gaze.


The guide continued.


“The hoard is made from elaborately worked walrus ivory and whale's teeth in the form of seated kings and queens, bishops, knights on their mounts, standing warders and pawns in the shape of obelisks.”


The voice became quieter until it was barely a whisper. The whole experience was surprisingly restful, reminiscent of summer days in a stuffy classroom when the here and now drifts gently into the distance. I stood in front of the display cabinet and slowly closed my eyes.


After taking a few deep breaths I fancied I could hear waves breaking on a rocky shore. There was even a faint smell of seaweed in the air. These were most agreeable sensations but I took them as a sign that I was badly in need of a rest.


I hadn’t gone crazy. I knew I was still in the British Museum but it was very easy to imagine I was somewhere else entirely, somewhere by the sea. When I licked my lips they even tasted of salt. I remained in this pleasantly detached state for perhaps three or four minutes but no amount of relaxation could prepare me for what was about to happen.


I opened my eyes to find the King had turned to face me. Surprising enough for a bit of bone, I thought, but this bit of bone had another trick up its sleeve. Fixed by his tiny chiselled gaze, I found myself unable to move.


“Enjoy your trip?” he asked.


I answered with all the nonchalance I could muster.


"Very much. Was that the Hebrides?"


“It most certainly was. Not everyone’s cup of tea but I’m glad you enjoyed it.”


I could still taste salt. "It was very pleasant," I said. I meant it, too.


“There’s nowhere finer on a good day but it’s all down to the weather really isn’t it?”


"It is. As a matter of fact there’s a gale brewing there right now."


“Oh?”


"Yes. Severe 9 veering northerly, increasing 10 imminent, apparently."


“Then we should be grateful for nice warm museums.”


"Absolutely."


I don’t often find myself chatting with royalty, especially ones made of discarded teeth, but I began to warm to the King’s company. Although small in stature he wasn’t short of old-world charm and I liked the flavours of the seashore that came with him.


"That little Hebridean experience," I said quizzically.


“Yes?”


"Any chance of a return trip?"


He paused. “Actually”, he said. “I see myself as more of a cultural icon than a tour guide. Have you tried TripAdvisor?”


I smiled. "I was hoping to cut out the middle man."


“I see. Then maybe I can help.”


"I’d certainly appreciate it. And a longer one if possible. The last one was an excellent taster but I could easily manage more. I don’t have much on today."


“Longer you say?”


"If possible."


“Then you should stand very still and look into my eyes.” I did as he asked. “Now,” he said. “Relax your shoulders and take deep, even breaths."


I followed his instruction exactly.


“Now close your eyes.”


Even with eyes closed there’s no mistaking the quiet echo of a museum gallery. But I swore I could hear the cry of a distant gull and the sound of waves. The hard museum floor slowly gave way to springy turf.


It was a compelling experience and I felt ready for more. After half a lifetime of shipping forecasts I wanted to feel the full weight of the wind on my face and watch clouds scudding across a pale autumn sky. In short, I needed to see the sea.


But the King’s instruction had been unequivocal. “Close your eyes,” he’d said. He couldn’t have made it much clearer. Yet the temptation to take a peek was overwhelming. Intoxicated by the moment I was in no mood to follow instructions even if they came from a head of state.


Very slowly, I opened my eyes.


When I did, I was disappointed to find I wasn’t standing on a rocky headland before a foam-streaked sea. I was still in the museum. But things were very different.


I was no longer standing by the display case looking in. For reasons I couldn’t begin to explain, I was on the inside looking out. Even more disturbing was that I was looking out at….myself. As far as I could make out, the King and I had changed places.


“What’s going on?” I asked.


“You’ve just had a trip to the Outer Hebrides. Was it all you hoped for?"


“Well yes. But I didn’t expect to end it trapped in a glass case.”


"Neither did I," replied the King. "Funny old life isn’t it?"


From where I was standing I found life anything but funny. “So what happens now?”


"What do you mean, 'What happens now?'?"


A sense of panic washed over me. “I mean, what happens next?”


“Oh that’s easy”, he said. “You stay here while I go for a coffee.”


"You are coming back,


aren’t you?"


“Hey, you’re a national treasure now. You’d better start acting like one. And don’t worry. The first 300 years can drag a bit, but it gets better.”


He turned stiffly and walked away.


Room 40 had few visitors that afternoon. By five o’clock it was empty. At ten the lights went out and at 10.56 the Met Office issued a gale warning.


"High 100 miles west of Hebrides 1037, expected Hebrides 1038 by 06.00 tomorrow. Losing its identity by midnight."


_______________

Copyright 2020

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