The Language of the Seaby James MacManus
A lyrical and affecting family drama reminiscent of The Shipping News which challenges readers to re-examine their perception of nature
A striking blend of realism and contemporary myth-making, this unforgettable novel tells the story of marine biologist Leo Kemp. Having lost his teaching position thanks to outspoken views, Leo decides to/i>/b>/i>
A lyrical and affecting family drama reminiscent of The Shipping News which challenges readers to re-examine their perception of nature
A striking blend of realism and contemporary myth-making, this unforgettable novel tells the story of marine biologist Leo Kemp. Having lost his teaching position thanks to outspoken views, Leo decides to go on one last field trip with his students. The outing becomes disastrous when the weather turns and Leo is thrown overboard. The evocative description of Leo’s journey explores what can happen beyond our perceived knowledge of science. James MacManus tests the bounds of reality with his cunning narrative set within the beautiful community of Cape Cod.
“This is one of those rare things, a passionate book, written with feeling. Gripping drama plus well-drawn characters and a wonderfully absorbing and moving read.” Daily Mail (U.K.)
“Borrowing from the old Scots folk tale of the skelpies, it’s an expert and beautifully-crafted piece of work.” News of the World (U.K.)
“The sea in all its majesty, wonder, terror and secrecy, is the real star of this illuminating, learned novel.” The Daily Mirror (U.K.)
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)
Read an Excerpt
THE LANGUAGE OF THE SEA (Chapter One)
This was the best time, the time before the tourists arrived in their hundreds of thousands, the time when the winter gales had stopped battering this bent arm of land thrust into the Atlantic, a time when Cape Cod allowed you to look back on the harpooners, sailors and fishermen who shaped its past while urging you to put your dollars down and book a whitewashed shingle house for the summer.
May was always a good month on the Cape: buds breaking on the beech, birch, hemlock and maple trees, the old elms throwing a green tracery of young leaves against a spring sky, beach rose plants showing the first pink blooms; young birds on the wing along every stretch of shore – dunlin, sandpiper, yellow legs, oystercatchers, egrets; seal pups wearing big eyes and grey whiskers flopping on the sandbanks; and prices half what you were going to pay after Memorial Weekend at the end of the month.
Leo Kemp dropped in on the Foodworks café in Falmouth for a breakfast of free-range scrambled eggs and a mug of fair-trade Colombian coffee: Foodworks was run by a bottle-tanned Californian princess who wore bright green eye shadow and a T-shirt that said Overnight Sensation on the back and You Are What You Eat on the front. Leo paid $12.35 including tip for breakfast. It would be a third more in ten days’ time, he thought.
He had left Margot asleep in bed, lying on her back with Sam’s head nestling in the crook of her outstretched arm. Sam who at 16, half-woman, half-child, still burrowed into their bed at unreasonable hours of the morning. Two careless, sleeping faces framed by a tangle of fair hair.
The old Saab 900 pretty much drove itself the four miles to the Coldharbor Institute for Marine Studies while Leo let his mind drift to his nine o’clock lecture with the new class. They were second-year marine biology postgraduate students. For those who persevered – and the dropout rate was high – their Ph.D. would lead to more postgrad studies, a year or two of fieldwork, a series of papers in academic journals, maybe a book, and then on to the lower rungs of academia, where they would begin their scramble up the ladder towards tenure.
If you sat them down and asked them why they wanted to study oceanography, the answers would be variants on a single theme: climate change. Fair enough, thought Kemp: the oceans and the weather are inextricably linked; but the answer missed the real point.
And if you asked them what they really, really wanted to do with their careers, the honest ones would admit that they would prefer to stay and work here at the Institute.
And why not?
Coldharbor, as Leo had tried to convince himself far too many times, was a great and beautiful place in which to learn and teach; a place in which to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle, raise a family and grow old gracefully.
And it was true. The Institute dominated what had once been a little fishing village and was now the main terminal for the ferries that ploughed to and from Martha’s Vineyard, fourteen times a day in winter, eighteen times in the summer. Apart from a handful of restaurants, bars and tourist souvenir shops clustered around the terminal, and several hundred holiday homes for the yachting crowd, the Institute pretty much was Coldharbor.
When the pilgrims first came to the Cape in the 1620s they found to their amazement that the local Wampanoag Indians were already expert whalers. Canoes made from birch branches and animal hide carried those fearless fishermen on hunting expeditions into the Atlantic armed only with stone-headed arrows and crude spears attached to short lines with wooden floats.
The Coldharbor Institute saw its researchers and scientists as the intellectual equivalent of those daring early fishermen: seekers after the secrets of the seven great oceans of the world, rather than the oil and blubber of the mighty cetaceans that swam in them.
Here the world’s leading marine biologists and scientists from every discipline of oceanography gathered to study the salinity and density of the oceans, the currents that swirled within their uncharted depths, the topography of the seabed, the effects of wind on the sea and wave on the shoreline.
Coldharbor also concerned itself with the behaviour of sea mammals: whales, dolphins and seals, the warm-blooded, oxygen-breathing creatures that inhabit our oceans. But the stars of the Institute’s repertoire were the deep-sea submersibles, known more prosaically as autonomous underwater vehicles, which could descend to depths of 17,000 feet and which, with the ocean-going vessels that supported and launched them, all operated from this small harbour on the Cape.
Leo Kemp was a part of this family of scientists with a solid body of published research to prove it. A family – that was how the Institute thought of itself: a community of researchers, educators and explorers, bound together by loyalty and a common cause – unravelling the secrets of the oceans and of the fish and the mammals that live in them.
It had been a long, blustery winter, followed by an unusually warm spring. Crossing the quad, Leo felt the warmth of early summer on his back. He looked at the line of modern buildings, all steel, chrome and glass, functional but not inelegant, that stretched along the ridge overlooking Vineyard Sound. Research centres, laboratories, aquaria, offices, libraries, lecture rooms; all the academic infrastructure to drive the institute forward on its mission.
And there was plenty of money to make it happen. The Institute’s president and chief executive, Tallulah Bonner, 55 years old and with a treacly Southern drawl that stretched all the way back to her home town of Atlanta, made sure of that. ‘Bonner’s bounty’, they called it.
Chief Executive Bonner understood big money. She knew that for every big private donation there was always a payback.
Every year at the annual financial review with the Board of Governors she made the same speech. Coldharbor was a private institute that received funds from government departments, especially the US Navy, she reminded them. But it relied mostly on private endowments from the wealthy.
‘Big donors are not putting a down payment on eternity when they give to us. Sure, they get their name up somewhere carved in wood or stone. And they’re not looking for gratitude, because the rich can buy that any day of the week. No, what they’re looking for is fulfilment. They want the assurance they’re making a contribution to the development of scientific knowledge on which the future of the human race depends. And, gentlemen, I make damn sure they understand that their generosity is critical to our mission.’
And she did. She knew exactly how to make the super-wealthy feel good about giving.
‘The rich are like you and me when it comes to dying. They want to look back and feel they’ve done something with their life.’
At elegant fundraisers in New York and Boston, Tallulah Bonner knew better than to waffle on about the strategic importance of oceanography. Donors would always give for a good cause, and she gave them that cause through the simple but persuasive argument that the dawn of the space age should never detract from the study of marine science.
Let NASA spend trillions proving that there was no life on Mars, but spare a few hundred million for the study of what really mattered, the oceans that covered four-fifths of the earth’s surface.
Luckily the Pentagon had supported this thesis, or at least accepted that oceanography had an important if secondary role in mapping out future war scenarios. Submarines had proved themselves in the cold war era, and their territory – the canyons and valleys that shape the landscape of the ocean floor – was exactly where Coldharbor devoted the bulk of its research.
So while Houston and the space cowboys took the lion’s share of the money – and the glory – Coldharbor quietly took in enough funds to get on with what really mattered.
Trouble was, thought Leo, what really mattered on a warm morning, when the beaches were empty and the sea clean and fresh, was getting even a handful of students to listen to him.
He took the stairs to the second-floor lecture hall two at a time. His father, a retired doctor from Melbourne, had always told him that lifts were a greater health hazard than nicotine: ‘The elevator has contributed more to the high rate of heart attacks in America than cigarettes, alcohol and fatty foods put together.’ This oft-stated paternal thesis translated into equally frequent advice that not only should his son never take a lift, but that he should always eat porridge for breakfast.
His father was a living proof of the validity of his own advice, having reached the age of 92 without ever having taken a lift, or so he claimed. The fact that he continued to smoke and drink well in excess of the most liberal health guidelines merely confirmed the aged parent’s view about Mr Otis and the invention that had transformed urban skylines around the world.
There were thirty postgraduate students in the class but, as Leo had guessed, just twelve faces looked up from their iPods, BlackBerries, magazines and even a few copies of the Boston Globe as he walked in.
The tiered ranks of empty seating that rose before the podium seemed a perfect comment on the lecture subject: language and communication among mature pinnipeds.
Leo placed a sheaf of papers on the lecture stand. There was a reluctant rustle as the students stashed their papers, detached themselves from their earplugs and swung their attention to him.
He began with the traditional welcome, wishing them well in their studies. He then left the podium and walked up the staircase that divided the seating, speaking without notes. It was an old trick, but it always worked.
‘At the beginning of this course, I just want to say two things. First, we humans are defined not by what we know, but by what we do not know. The science that has brought you here, like all scientific disciplines, has no final frontiers, and it never will have.’
He explained that this world of theirs was a water planet. Their forebears had crawled from the oceans millions of years ago and begun to climb the evolutionary ladder. Many millions of years later, when man first emerged from the African rain forest on to the savannah and was forced to stand upright – some five million years ago – the marine mammals, the seals, dolphins and whales he had left behind in the sea, were fully formed and living in a complex ecosystem that had sustained them and us ever since.
‘Yet throughout human history we have slaughtered those mammals, and today we have gone a step further. We have begun to destroy the environment on which this planet depends – its oceans. We are urbanising and industrialising the great seas of the world.
‘So as you progress through your studies, I want you to remember that our future on this planet depends not on the exploration of space – important though that is – but on understanding the oceans that surround us and first gave us life, and still do today.’
Leo paused at the top of the staircase. Twelve heads had now turned, necks craned to keep him in sight. Was that a flicker of interest down there? Had his words triggered the smallest thought processes in those heads? Probably not.
He walked back to the podium.
‘What I want to talk about today is the language of sea mammals, and especially seals. Until recently we did not know that they communicated at all. Now we do know that whales, dolphins and seals all have their language, but we don’t know how they use that language. These are highly intelligent creatures – we know that – but how are we to decode the intelligence in those remarkable brains?’
A few pens were moving across the big spiral-bound notepads. It was always the girls first. Then the boys would follow suit. Pretty girls, too. Mostly American, but some from Finland, Norway and Japan, where they took marine science seriously. So seriously in Norway that they slaughtered seals as vermin and even ate them.
Leo decided to wake the class up.
‘We’re going to take a break,’ he said, and pressed a switch.
They all stirred, even the boys.
The room darkened. The students sat up, suddenly interested; a screen came down at the touch of a button.
‘You are here to study marine biology. Why? Because the oceans around us hold the key to our survival on earth?
‘Because the seas cover four-fifths of the earth’s surface, and we know so little about how they work?
‘And perhaps because we need to get hold of this fact: twenty-first-century science, science that can take a man to the moon and land a machine on Mars, cannot answer some fundamental questions posed by our oceans. Why not? Take a look at this.’
Leo pressed a switch. He loved and hated the Institute in almost equal measure, but on the love side came a real respect for the technology bought by all those endowments. Things really worked. Back at St Andrews University in Scotland where he had begun his career some eighteen years earlier, you were lucky to find a slide rule that worked.
The screen glowed into life, showing a snowy landscape. The camera tracked to the foreshore of a broad, tree-lined estuary, with a soundtrack of running water and wind in the leaves. It then zoomed in on a group of wading birds the size of small seagulls. The birds had brown-flecked plumage, long legs and curved beaks. They walked slowly along the water’s edge, pausing to stab their beaks into the soft mud and then throwing their heads back to swallow whatever morsel they had found below the surface. Suddenly alarmed, the flock wheeled as one into the air, their outsize wings lifting them rapidly away from whatever danger they had perceived.
A voice-over said: ‘The bar-tailed godwit has been tracked by the Pacific Shorebird Migration Project via satellite tagging, and has been proved to be the world’s avian migratory champion, flying further non-stop than any other migrating bird. The godwit flies 10,200 miles south from its breeding ground in Alaska without stop-ping in flight. It can make the flight in seven days with the benefit of a tailwind, and can return north in nine days. Incredibly, godwit chicks can make the southbound flight when only two months old. These are amazing journeys, which the latest technology has allowed us to track and feed into our ongoing research into migration patterns.’
Kemp flipped a switch, and the lights came back on.
‘OK, what’s missing there?’
A hand went up. It would be him. That studious boy from Michigan, Jacob Sylvester, a state scholar. Leo had met his new students at an induction class. He always tried to spot the ones that were going to make something of the subject but it was difficult. Sometimes the shy, silent types produced original thinking in their coursework while the pushy talkers simply regurgitated everything they had read.
Sylvester was a talker; he asked all the right questions and took notes in laborious longhand. He had a Ph.D. and academic career stamped all over him. Rachel Ginsberg wasn’t really shy but she pretended to be and looked at the floor while asking complex questions about the marking of grades. She would flash him quick looks from under long eyelashes to see if he was listening and smile slightly when he nodded her to go on. He sensed she was very ambitious and he knew her foxy-faced good looks would take her up the corporate ladder in some big company.
Then there was Gunbrit Nielsen, very serious, very pretty, with slate-grey eyes and a long plaited pigtail. She was far too beautiful to be sitting in anyone’s class studying marine biology. She should be on a movie set on the west coast. But here she was in his class working for a Ph.D. that would take her back home to a teaching job in Sweden, marriage to a man with a thick red beard and four children.
He would get to know them well over the course of the year and would watch to see how, just as in the wild, a natural leader emerged from the group. Already they seemed to take their lead from Sylvester, letting him ask the questions.
‘Sea mammals, sir. This isn’t our subject,’ said Sylvester.
Leo snapped out of his reverie.
‘Well, clearly a godwit is not a seal, Mr Sylvester. Let me repeat the question: what is missing from that commentary? Something important, really important, that has been left unsaid?’
Silence, heads lowered, sidelong glances: What’s he talking about? When’s the break?
‘OK, here goes. What that commentary did not tell you is that those birds, the godwits, make their migrations without food or water, flying huge distance for seven days southbound and nine days northbound. It didn’t tell you that because we don’t know how they do it. No one knows.
‘Scientists’, he continued, ‘cannot explain the godwit’s ability to lift and transport its body weight of eight to ten ounces for that distance without in-flight refuelling. And science does not like the irrational. The flight of the godwit is incomprehensible to science, because science tells us, and the naturalists tell us, and the nutritionists tell us, that a small bird like that cannot fly such a distance without sustenance.
‘We know that swifts and swallows make similar journeys, but they eat their natural food – flying insects – on the wing. Godwits do not. Their food – worms and molluscs – lies beneath the sand on the shoreline. And there are no shorelines at ten thousand feet. They should not be able to survive their annual migration. But they do.
‘Mr Sylvester.’ Leo pointed to him, arm outstretched, finger extended.
Leo had the class now; he loved it when he made a breakthrough and grabbed the attention of those media-choked minds, brains buzzing with electronic music, video games, sex, sport and fast food. Cut through the media dazzle with some original godwit-thinking and you find that there is life in the interior of their minds; thin soil maybe, but enough to plant the seed of thought.
‘Your point is that a godwit is not a seal?’
‘Absolutely correct, but my original principle applies. It’s what we don’t know that should interest and excite us, not what we do know. Seals have always had their own language, but we do not know what they are saying.’
The Swedish girl had put up her hand.
‘Yes, Miss Nielsen?’
‘Why are we only interested in the language of these seals? Surely there is much more to learn about the seas in which they live?’
She spoke in slightly guttural English that Kemp, whose own accent was a mixture of his native Australian layered with lowland Scottish, found hard to follow.
‘Well, we have only begun to understand how these mammals communicate. But you are right. Our oceans are all around us – we swim in them, travel on them, feed from them and prepare to make war beneath their waves. Yet we have little understanding of them, or of the creatures that live in them.’
He had said too much. This was very much the way he always kicked off the first lecture, but perhaps he had overreached himself this time.
Time for a surprise, he thought.
‘All right. What I am saying is this. Once we understand that the oceans remain the greatest mystery on earth, once we hold that thought in our heads and hearts – yes, in our hearts – then we can move forward. Acknowledge your ignorance. Take nothing for granted. Any questions?’
‘But who says we know it all anyway?’
That boy again. Jacob Sylvester.
‘Never underestimate the arrogance of the science establishment, Mr Sylvester. Big money goes into science in order to produce answers. Scientists have to play the game and pretend that there are answers. My point to you today is that sometimes there are no answers, at least not ones that conventional science can uncover.’
Then he surprised them: there would be an unscheduled field trip the next day, on the tug Antoine. Since only twelve students had turned up he would take them all. Tomorrow was a Friday, and a sea trip would be a great way to start the weekend. They were to meet at the Institute’s own landing dock at 10 a.m., he told them. ‘Bring wet-weather clothing. Packed lunches and lifejackets provided. See you tomorrow.’ He picked up his notes.
‘Where are we are going?’ It was Gunbrit Nielsen again.
He told her that, weather permitting, they would run up to Monomoy Island – a favoured hauling-up place for grey and harbour seals. They would take hydrophones and recorders and spend the day on the water. Field trips were not picnics, he said, they were hard work.
‘And if anyone who didn’t make it here today wants to come, please tell them they’ll have to wait for another time – the boat has a full complement.’
There was a buzz as the class left. Field trips were popular. As Leo liked to say, what better place for marine biology students than out on the ocean?
He picked up the rest of his papers and walked back to the car. The 15-year-old Saab 900 had doubled its resale price thanks to the film Sideways a few years previously, in which the same model had a key supporting role. It was probably his most successful investment. His cell chirped: two text messages.
The first was from Sandy Rowan, local journalist and Leo’s occasional drinking companion. Sandy’s passions in life were second-hand books, his cat (called Shakespeare), Cleo the waitress at his favourite bar in town and the Orleans wine company, a local vineyard in which he had made a modest investment some years ago and whose Viognier-Syrah blend he had pioneered, proclaiming the result to be better than anything out of California.
Hoover story really got them going. Watch your back – and your front.
The second message was from Margot. An official letter from the Institute had been delivered at home by courier. It was from the chief executive’s office.
Margot Kemp held the mug of coffee tight in her hands – no shakes today – and looked out over the roofs of Falmouth down to the harbour. She was hungry and needed breakfast. She checked her watch. It was 11 a.m. Call it brunch then. Betsy’s Diner with its large neon sign saying ‘Eat Heavy’ would do; eggs, bacon, waffles, more coffee, anything but a drink.
She turned the letter over in her hand: ‘From the office of the President, Coldharbor Institute for Marine Studies’ was engraved on the envelope.
She knew what it would say. Leo had blown it. All that stuff about Hoover the talking seal, the coded attack on the science establishment and the abuse of the big money that flowed into Coldharbor. Add in her husband’s obsession with the lobby behind the fishing industry and his unfashionable view that seals had nothing to do with depleted fishing stocks and you had layer upon layer of controversy: press reports, angry letters to the papers, the snide, back-stabbing comments of his colleagues.
He had been warned, of course. The Institute had told him a year ago to stay out of the media, stop giving interviews, stick to his work. It was in his contract, for God’s sake. She could recite the wording because she had read it out to him – well, shouted it at him – during one of their many rows.
‘In no circumstances must you bring the Institute or its officers into disrepute, nor damage in any way its reputation for academic excellence…approval for all media interviews must be sought from the director of communications…’
And now it had come to this. She fanned herself with the letter. A warm spring was turning into a hot summer, and it was not even Memorial Day yet.
Well, good. They could get out of this place, she thought.
She turned. Tilda had finished in the kitchen.
‘Can I do the bedroom now?’
‘No, let’s leave it for this morning.’
‘You want another coffee?’
‘No thanks, Tilda.’
She went into the kitchen to check. It was spotless, as ever. Tilda even rearranged the fridge letters which said sweet, silly things like I love you Mum and No 1 Dad, and made sure they also said We need milk.
She opened the fridge door. Tilda’s attention to detail extended to making sure that every level of the fridge had its own produce: dairy, fruit and meat, with eggs, wine and milk neatly slotted into the side section. Maybe she would have that drink. She took out a bottle of Pinot Grigio. There was enough for a decent glass left in the bottom. She poured it into a tumbler and slung the bottle into the recycling bin.
They had been married sixteen years, nine of them spent here in Coldharbor, where she had watched her husband vanish into a world of his own, a world in which the language of seals seemed to mean more to him than anything she had to offer.
That was what men did, of course, she thought: they displaced you, diminished you and then deserted you. What had happened to her interior-design business? It didn’t take a lot of money with it when it went bust, but it took away her pride, her sense of self-confidence. Leo had tried to help, but typically did so in the most hurtful way. ‘You’re a wonderful teacher. That’s where your talents lie, and that’s what you should stick to,’ he would say. ‘Do what you do best.’
She had told him over and over that teaching qualifications gained in the UK did not allow her to teach in America, and that she would have to retrain. But he didn’t listen. He just told her to face the facts: she was not good enough to be an interior designer, exterior designer, any kind of designer, at least not here on the Cape; she didn’t have the talent. It might have worked in Scotland, where they think haggis is haute cuisine, but it wouldn’t here. Cape Cod was stiff with designers, artists, interior decorators and every kind of smart-ass, trendy, boutique-owning fashionista.
The business collapse didn’t finish them, nor her drinking, nor his endless belittling of Scotland (why did he hate the place so much?).
What lay between them would always lie between them. It looked down from the mantelpiece, from the painting in the sitting room and from her bedside: Julian with the uncertain look of a 9-year-old in his first school uniform; Julian on the beach, tousled hair and head poking out from a sand burial; Julian aged 10, the last picture, on his bike outside the bookshop on Main Street. He had gone on the research trip in the Zodiac rubber dinghy the next morning with his father.
Margot took the wine into the bedroom and placed it on the bedside table beside the framed portrait of her son. She kissed the tips of her fingers and laid them gently on his forehead. She turned the frame to the wall, drank some wine and lay back on the bed. There were only ever two painkillers that worked for her and drink was one of them. The postman had been, the housekeeper had gone, and Leo was God knew where. She pulled up her skirt and let her hand drift between her legs, fluttering her fingers like butterfly wings.
She thought of the last time at the Squire bar in Chatham, the fisherman with salt tang on his body, the dragon’s head tattoo entwined around his thighs with long tongues pointing to his crotch, and whisky on his breath. It was quick, sordid, car-park sex. And why not? It was great. It made her feel good just thinking about it; not because it was any kind of revenge against Leo, far from it. But because, as she told herself, it was my choice, my pleasure, my sex, my lust, and I’ll have it how and when I want. I am a mother of two – well, one now – and with a husband lost to the sea just as all those widowed women on the Cape lost their husbands to the sea.
The sea is made of women’s tears, they say on the Cape, and they’re right. I know how those widows feel. I don’t have affairs; too bloody complicated, and anyway, you always wind up with a needy, whining man telling you he loves you more than anything in the world, when all he really wants is guiltless, risk-free, zero-cost sex. I will take my pleasures as and when I want to. She raised herself on to an elbow, drained the glass of wine, took the phone off the hook and reached into the bedside drawer. It was always there, her ever-dependable friend, none too discreetly covered by a clothing catalogue. She wondered if Tilda knew. She didn’t care if Leo knew or not. She lay back on the bed thinking of the fisherman with salt on his skin and whisky on his breath.
THE LANGUAGE OF THE SEA Copyright © 2010 by James MacManus.
Meet the Author
JAMES MACMANUS is the Managing Director of the Times Literary Supplement. His first book, Ocean Devil, was made into a film starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers. The Language of the Sea is his first novel.
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