A dark figure was struggling with the gate latch. It turned and, a moment before their eyes met, Rory recognised his father. He had a curious way of looking at Rory, head cocked to one side, bright eyes unblinking. It was benevolent, kind even, but more like a well-meaning stranger than a father. Of course, they hardly knew each other. Every year this black-clad semi-stranger appeared on the doorstep with a generous present and an invitation to spend the school holidays on Shellaig, the island where he was the lighthouse keeper. If he'd offered to take Rory somewhere decent, his son would have gone like a shot. As it was, Rory always declined. Lunches, walks, and a trip to the cinema, one weekend a year, were their only direct contact. Even so, Rory had grown accustomed to his father.
Those lowering brows and thick black hair had frightened the boy when he was little, but as he'd grown older, he'd realised he preferred this man to the other semi-stranger, the one in Rory's own home. Whereas he enjoyed his rare outings with his father, he liked it when his stepfather, Fraser, went out. Most evenings, Rory disappeared as soon as dinner had been cleared, usually to his room. Sometimes he went along the beach with his binoculars, a gift from his 'real dad,' to spot birds. Once, he'd watched a pair of dolphins playing offshore. There wasn't a lot of wildlife round their house as his stepfather used it for target practice with his air rifle.
When Fraser was at the pub, Rory could join his mum. Other times, he watched what he said, for he always seemed to say the wrong thing when Fraser was around. His stepfather never hit him, barely spoke to him, but withheld privileges. Rory would have to wait for football boots that fitted. The bike his biological father had sent a cheque for had been postponed so many times he knew it wasn't ever coming. Rory couldn't understand why his mum liked Fraser so much. Of course, he'd asked her about the long-ago times he couldn't remember. His mum had blamed Shellaig for the breakup of her first marriage. His father's job had kept him away and made him boring. 'He was a terrible husband, though I couldn't fault him as a dad,' Rory's mum had said. 'Even now, he's never late with your child support. And, to be fair, he wanted to visit oftener. Only I thought it was better if you had a clean break.' She'd sighed. 'I hoped you'd bond with Fraser,' she'd said. 'Once he moved in. Of course, we only started seeing each other after your father, and I split up.'
That wasn't what Morag Dempster, whose mum had been at school with Rory's mum, had told Rory. Instead, she'd said, 'My mum says your mum was seeing Fraser Lockhart for over a year before your dad found out.' More recently, Morag Dempster had claimed that Fraser Lockhart hit Rory's mum. Since then, Rory had kept an eye on the violet and yellow marks on his mum's arms. They changed continually but had always been there. New mauve marks deepened to indigo before fading through yellow to pale primrose. Their patterns swirled from elbow to shoulder of both arms but ebbed and flowed along his mother's forearms, sometimes barely visible, sometimes purpling both wrists. When he was little, he'd thought they were a decoration like tattoos, as normal as the green speckles in his mother's blue eyes.
Of course, he'd called Morag a liar, but now he wondered. His mum wore long sleeves outside the house. So one Friday night, he waited till Fraser was safely out and his mum had made them both a cup of tea. 'Are you happy, mum?' Rory asked.
'Of course, I'm happy, love.'
'Just. I've been wondering. Those marks on your arm. Like..., like bruises.'
'Well.' Rory swallowed and reddened. 'Does he hurt you?' he said.
'Who? Fraser?' Rory nodded. 'Of course not. I'm just clumsy. You know I bruise like a peach. But everything's fine. Don't you worry'
Once Rory started noticing things, he couldn't stop. Instead of sleeping, he listened, rarely making out words. Some nights the tone of his mother's voice told him he could relax and go to sleep. Other times strange muffled sounds kept him awake till everything was safely quiet. At mealtimes, when Fraser complained about how much Rory ate or how much school clothes cost, the boy no longer assumed the words were directed at him. Everything always ended up being Rory's mum's fault, with her apologising for having a child and being such a burden. Her eyes were often red. 'I wish I could do something about this conjunctivitis,' she would say. But she never went to the doctor.
One night he heard banging and sneaked onto the landing to eavesdrop. His mum and Fraser were rowing about the extortionate cost of keeping Rory, the lack of privacy that would only get worse now the great hulking thing was a teenager. Fraser couldn't stand the way Rory looked at him. He couldn't stand the way Rory looked. That's how Rory discovered that he resembled his father. 'Same bloody expression,' Fraser hissed. 'Like a bloody great carrion crow. Gives me the creeps.'
'He can't help his looks,' his mum apologised, though she was always telling Rory how handsome he was. 'He can't help taking after his dad,' she said. 'I keep him out of your way as much as I can.'
Rory returned to his room and peered in the mirror, his head tilted to one side. His eyes were bright and round, and, yes, his eyebrows were thicker than they'd been. They were as dark as his hair now. There was something bird-like about his dad's eyes and maybe about his own too. He shivered. Fraser shot loads of birds, not always cleanly. Rory heard another crash and opened the door, then shut it. Someone was coming upstairs, and he stood listening till he made out his mum's breathing, faster and heavier than usual. If he'd been sure she was alone, he'd have opened the door. While he was hesitating, her voice came from right outside, inches away. 'Good night, love,' she called. 'I'm off for an early night.' She didn't come in to kiss him goodnight. The next morning she had a swollen lip, and Rory knew it was his fault for looking like his father. No one mentioned her mouth till Fraser had left for work. Then, before Rory could ask, she explained she'd walked into a kitchen cupboard. 'You might have heard thumping,' she said. 'Last night. I was so angry after, that I slammed the cupboard shut.'
'Oh,' said Rory.
'I've been meaning to say,' his mum said. 'I think you should go to your dad's this year. For a wee holiday. A bit of island air would do you good. He's OK, your dad, a nice man really. I used to think he was boring, but he's been generous since we split up. To be fair, Fraser lets me have most of what your father sends. That bike money was an exception.'
This was the closest to criticising her husband that Rory had ever heard his mother. 'You could do with a break too, mum,' Rory said. 'Maybe we could both go. I'm sure dad wouldn't mind.'
His mother laughed, then winced. 'Och,' she said. 'Don't make me laugh. It'll bleed again. No,' she went on. 'I can't leave Fraser alone. I know he's hard on you. And maybe he seems hard on me sometimes. But he loves me really. You maybe don't see it, but he's harder on himself than on anyone.'
Rory had never seen Fraser being hard on himself. 'Would you be all right?' he said. 'If I did go to Shellaig.'
'I'd be fine,' she said. 'I'd miss my handsome lad, of course.' She tried to cuddle Rory, but he wriggled away. He wasn't twelve anymore. 'It'll be better if you go to your dad's,' she said. 'Give me and Fraser a chance to sort things out a bit. He's always easier when it's just the two of us.'
His father seemed pleased when Rory picked black jeans and boots for the trip, black tee-shirts, and even a black jacket. 'Snap!' he said, and Rory cringed. He did not want him and his dad to look like twins. But black was cool. He was glad his real dad didn't wear vomit-yellow joggers like Fraser. Rory had just said goodbye to his mum when Fraser returned from work. 'Bye, Fraser,' Rory said. No one had ever suggested he call his stepfather "Dad." Now he was glad. Fraser nodded, more to Rory's father than to him. His dad nodded back and headed for the gate. As he passed his stepson, Fraser cleared his throat noisily and spat on the garden path, inches from Rory's new-shod left foot. Rory stepped over the disgusting gob.
'It's a dirty bird that shits in its own nest,' Rory's father remarked. Rory waited for Fraser to explode, but maybe he hadn't heard. He just bundled Rory's mother inside and slammed the door. Fraser went on at his mum about the house being a "shithole," but Rory had never heard his father swear before. It was a good expression to apply to Fraser, who was always spoiling things that could have been nice. Rory moved closer to his dad. Three buses and two ferries later, they were sailing to Shellaig on his dad's own wee boat. That was cool too.
Shellaig wasn't a proper island -more a big rock. As they approached, a gap appeared in the cliffs leading into a cove with a tiny jetty. There was a trolley thing, and Rory helped his dad unload supplies and push them up the steep path. The lighthouse perched at one side of the grassy patch that crowned the island. Inside, another lighthouse keeper was waiting with a frying pan full of sausages that they shared before he headed down to the cove for his pick up. Then Rory was alone on a rock in the Atlantic with a father he'd never before spent more than a few hours with.
It turned out OK. Rory helped with the vegetable plot, weeding potatoes and kale, composting seabird droppings, and seaweed. He learned how the lighthouse worked. There was no TV reception but plenty of books, a few videos, and a wireless. You didn't need binoculars to watch the guillemots, puffins, and cormorants that nested here. All the birds were tame though the cormorants scared him at first. They came up so close and looked at him so intently that they seemed about to strike up a conversation. That was stupid, and he soon got used to them. Evenings his father taught him chess or they watched a film.
When their fresh meat ran out, he discovered his father fished, though unlike anyone else. Rory had expected to take the boat out. But, instead, his father walked onto the jetty and whistled. Soon a cormorant flapped down beside them. It nudged his father's hand like a pet cat, and his father stroked its neck. A second whistle sent it flying low over the water to vanish in the waves. Five minutes later, it reappeared. As soon as it landed, its throat quickened, and, to Rory's disgust, a silvery tail appeared in its mouth followed by a whole fish which it deposited at his father's feet. This procedure was repeated half a dozen times before his father offered the last fish back to it. 'There's two or three of them'll fish for me,' he said.
'Why?' asked Rory.
'Don't know, really,' his father said. 'Maybe they like me. I let them nest in peace. The previous keeper shot them for the pot. Claimed cormorant stew made a nice change from herring.'
'I'm not eating fish a bird has sicked up!' Rory said.
'These herring'll be the best you've ever tasted,' his father said. He pointed at the glittering pile at their feet. 'Can't get fresher than that.'
'No way. They've been in a bird's stomach.'
'Just in its crop,' his father said. 'Its crop is like a bird's... shopping bag. That fish hasn't been touched by the cormorant except to carry back to us. Japanese do it all the time. Fish with cormorants, I mean.'
'Oh,' said Rory. He'd thought it was a kind of magic. 'I thought it was just you.'
'Well, to be fair, I don't think Japanese cormorants do it voluntarily. The Japanese tether their birds and bind their throats so they can't swallow. A bit cruel, really. I wouldn't do that.'
As he grew to know them as individuals, Rory became comfortable around the ungainly birds. He learned to call them and fish with them, and he got used to eating herring every day. 'Maybe it's all that fish,' he thought when he woke up one morning scratching to find himself covered in fine black down. He hoped his dad wouldn't notice and asked if they could have corned beef and baked beans for dinner. The next day his skin was back to normal, thank goodness.
He saw a dark silhouette against a window that evening, returning from the garden. He thought it was his father till the shape raised its head and, for a moment, Rory was looking at the profile of a shallow flattish skull with a long hooked beak. Cormorants weren't allowed inside the lighthouse, and Rory hurried to shoo this one out. The room was empty. Rory moved rapidly through the darkening lighthouse. It had to be here and the only place left to check was his father's room.
'Don't come in,' his father called. 'I've got a migraine. I'll be down later.'
'Have you seen a cormorant in here,' Rory shouted. 'I think one of them might have got in.'
'That's impossible. Don't worry, I'll be down soon.'
So Rory went slowly back downstairs, rechecking the rooms one by one and finding nothing. He went out into the deepening gloaming and down to the jetty. Perched on it was the biggest cormorant he'd ever seen. That great beak could pierce a skull. Rory hesitated. The bird cocked its head and looked at him, its expression quizzical but friendly. It nudged his hand, and Rory's fear vanished as he stroked its neck. When it flew off, he returned to the lighthouse, his path across the grass lit by the regular sweep of the beam. His father's window was wide open.
At supper, neither of them mentioned what had happened, but Rory ate all his herring. The next morning the down had come back. He experimented and found he could will his skin back to normal or urge the down into sleek black feathers. The first time he turned fully was at night. He opened his bedroom window before expressing his full plumage, his intent cormorant face, his joyful wings. That first starry midnight, he was too scared to launch himself. It would be several nights and numerous bruises before he mastered flying. Luckily, his bird bones seemed unbreakable. Then it was time to tell his father. They spent many glorious afternoons together, and Rory became as adept at diving as at flying.
One suppertime, father and son, stomachs full of herring, had settled for a cup of tea when the news came. A mother and her teenage son had gone missing from Rory's hometown, and a police hunt was ongoing. His father turned the radio up, and Rory heard his own name. But he wasn't missing. He was here.
The next day's news reported that Rory was safe with his biological father. There was also an interview with a sobbing Fraser that left Rory in tears. His father promised to take him home to help in the search, but that evening the radio reported that a body had been found on moorland, battered and strangled. Neighbours were rallying around Fraser Lockhart with hot meals and home-baking, but he just wanted to be left alone.
Rory told his father about his mother's endless bruises. He told him about his stepfather's long rules and short temper. His father listened then suggested they return to Rory's former home. An hour later, Rory flew down to join the larger cormorant waiting on the grass, waddling back and forth on clumsy webbed feet. Together they took to the air, and all awkwardness vanished. Father and son wheeled twice round Shellaig then flew due east, low and swift and straight. They were going to give Rory's stepfather a surprise.