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The Tillerman

Part One

‘Who are you?’ the man asked, from behind a nicotine cloud. He proceeded to put his cigarette out in his whiskey glass.

‘Mitch Barnsley, meet The Tillerman’ the other man replied, with the excitement of a salesman.

The nickname really belonged to her father. He had been a mariner all his life, and steering a boat through the ravaging waters that surrounded the Irish island of Inishmore was the only skill he had possessed all his life.

‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me, Pol. Are you fucking kidding me?!’ Mitch Barnsley barked, making no effort to keep his voice down. His gold rings shone heavily on his obviously manicured fingers. His arms were outstretched as wide as the back of his seat allowed it. His shirt had one too many buttons open, enough to show off his golden chains, coiled around his neck like anacondas. She thought it screamed bad taste, on top of the unnecessarily vulgar discourse. She would have never considered this job if she did not owe a favour. This man was not her style.

She never really got to know her father, and not for lack of trying. Her mother left them when she was a baby, and since then, people said, he turned close to invisible. They said the heartbreak changed him. Growing up she found him to be a hard man with whom she could never connect. He almost never laughed and spoke very little. He liked to keep to himself and did not really have any friends. He did not keep in touch with his own siblings, and his parents were dead.

She did not appreciate his love for Inishmore, that wild, barren, and isolated rock, and when an opportunity arose for her to go live with her aunt and study in Dublin, she snatched it with both hands. He never wrote or phoned her, and he never cared to visit. She never asked why, nor asked him to come over.

In the end, he lived and died alone, and she believed that was what he truly wished for all his life: anonymity, and remoteness.

‘Listen, Mitch. The Tillerman is the best in the business.’

The man gave her a look which was both sleazy and appreciative.

‘So, tell me, sweetheart, what can you do for me?’ Mitch grinned, leaning in with the intention of touching her.

Before he could squeeze out another breath, she reached over the small round table between them and hit him over the right ear with an open palm.

The entire room paused what they were doing for a long-lasting second. The slap made a loud noise. The music seemed suddenly too low to cover that.

‘Nothing to see people, come on, these shots aren’t going to drink themselves!’ the bartender said, aware that his boss was going to have his testicles for dinner if he did not shift people’s attention away from his business.

It did not take long for the eyes around Mitch to be once more pinned on Tik Tok reels and Facebook memes.

Pol nodded disapprovingly, his hand covering his eyes. Mitch covered his ear and face.

‘You fucking bitch’ he gnarled.

‘Do not try and touch me, Mr Barnsley. I don’t appreciate that. Our arrangements can be perfectly viable without you putting your hands on me. Also, do not use such language with me, I have no stomach for it. Now, will you, please, tell me what the job is and stop wasting my time?’ The Tillerman said, her voice smooth and perfectly levelled.

Mitch’s blue eyes were steaming with rage. He saw, however, how coldly unbothered she was. If she was bluffing, she was doing a very good job of it. If she wasn’t bluffing, then maybe he needed to consider his actions around her. He decided to let things slide for now.

‘Listen, two weeks ago I sent a shipment through the Channel.’ He started, still rubbing his ear. ‘Just as they set off, the fucking Fog came and we lost contact with the boat. I want my cargo back. The Whale is going to have my guts for dinner if I don’t make up that kind of money by Sunday.’ Mitch whispered disdainfully ‘I can’t make up that kind of money.’ His eyes bulged.

The Tillerman looked back at the man, rather expressionless. She did not know who the Whale was, but she understood that in Mitch Barnsley’s world, he was someone of great consequence. She’d heard variations of this story many times before.

‘I can get your shipment back.’

Mitch sneered disbelievingly, looking left and right, then setting his eyes back on Pol, probing her credibility by watching his reactions.

‘Nobody comes back from the Fog. Why should I believe her?’

‘Mitch, I told you she…’ Pol started.

‘I have been through the Fog before, Mr Barnsley.’

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