A week on Coquet island: rocks and risotto

Sunday 1st October 

I wake up at 6.47am to the sound of the fog horn, which it takes me a moment to place. It is high pitched, closer to a beep than whatever rumbling sound I had expected – I think at first, blurrily, of alarms and oven timers and of throwing off my covers to go switch them off. It goes off at 30 second intervals, seeming to bypass my ears and instead drill its way directly through my forehead. With the shutters closed, my room is almost pitch black, with only a thin tracing of light around the shutters to distinguish it from night. 

A trill of birdsong joins the foghorn’s shrill. I put a pillow over my head. 

After breakfast, we walk to the roseate tern nesting platforms, beside the sea. One in a row has subsided into the cliff beneath it, needs shoring up with a stone dyke and levelling. I am left with a spade and instructions and set to work collecting stones from the shore. It is raining. The pitted rocks are slippery underfoot with green algae and strewn with the damp bedraggled carcasses of terns and other seabirds. I sing as I work, confident that only I and the sea can hear me. And a wide eyed seal by the shore, watching me curiously. There are hundreds of seals on the island, but in this moment there is only this one, lingering as I warble merrily to myself. W says that as seals are adapted to seeing below the water, above it things look strange and psychedelic to them. Humans are bright, standing seals.

Once the wall is built, I must gather rocks to weigh down the roseate nesting boxes come early summer. Heavy enough to weight them down, light enough to be liftable with one hand. I pick rocks from pools that won’t be here when the tide turns, disturb crabs and strange jumping slaters. It smells like decay, rotten seaweed and the clear salt tang of the sea.

W appears near the workroom, beckons. When I reach him, he says ‘Look’ and shows me a small bird. ‘Have you ever seen a redstart before? Flew right into our kitchen. Don’t think it meant to.’ The redstart has a bright, startled eye and an orange fan of a tail. W shows me where the foot ends – higher than I’d realised – and explains how to safely hold a bird, then lets it hop onto a fork head, and then away.

In late afternoon, I cut lengths of wire and bend them into U shapes, which will (I think) be used to hold down netting around nests next year. I listen to Pratchett’s Guards! Guards! on audiobook, absently imagine dragons. 

At sunset I down tools and go inside. I’m cooking mushroom and leek risotto for dinner, so when W finds a Spotify playlist called Risotto we decide it will be the soundtrack to the evening. This, we quickly realise, is a terrible idea. We listen to Postmodern Jukebox instead.

We say goodnight early – it feels much later than it is. I clean my teeth and then walk through the cool air of the courtyard to my cottage. Turning the corner, I look up and watch for a while the lighthouse light rotating. I could stand here forever. Then – because after all, I have been digging and carrying rocks all day – I yawn and head to bed.

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