Another day brings another world in any seaside town. Sunshine disappeared to be replaced by high clouds and a cold grey sky, with scarcely a breath of wind. Helen found that most of the fishing fleet was out at sea again but her old fisherman was sitting on his bollard on the quay, quietly puffing at his pipe.
“Well, lass,” he said. “Finished that research of yours?”
“Far from it,” she replied. “I spent yesterday reading in the library. That’s left me with more questions than answers.”
The fisherman knocked out the ashes from his pipe against his heel.
“Fire away,” he said.
“Which cove did the Eyemouth smugglers use?” she asked.
“Killiedraught Bay,” he replied. “The big bay round the point. Anything unloaded there was out of the sight of town people. That’s where underground passageways lead to the smugglers’ houses, surfacing in their cellars. Contraband could be landed at low tide and stored away, long before the tide came in.”
Helen scribbled a note.
“How many locals were involved?” she asked.
The old man lit his pipe, fanning the smoke from his face, just as Jake Forbes had done back in his office. Giving themselves thinking time, Helen guessed.
“Of course there was some local involvement,” he finally replied. “Fishing has always had good years, and bad, when fishermen’s families had to tighten their belts and go hungry. So why shouldn’t they make some extra money, then set it to the side to cover the bad times? Dabble in the trade. But from everything I’ve heard, the serious smuggling was done by professionals. Men from outside the district, as far away as England . . . and as hard as nails. The locals took good care not to cross them.”
“Slow down,” she pleaded, scribbling. “What was being smuggled?”
The fisherman puffed out his cheeks.
“All the usual contraband, I suppose,” he replied. “There would be baccy and brandy, fine wines from France and Germany, silks and spices and brown tea from the Far East, and even simple things that were hard to get in those old days, like candles. But smuggling was also a political protest against the new English Government and its high taxes. Remember, the Act of Union was forced on most of us, when we’d been trading in these goods with the Frenchies for centuries the Auld Alliance. Why stop doing that, to please the English?”
“Political protest . . . I never realised,” Helen muttered, writing faster. “I always thought smuggling was for high profits.”
The old man took out his pipe and studied its stem.
“It was indeed. That’s what puzzles me right now,” he said.
“What does?” Helen asked, looking up.
The old man scratched his chin.
“Why the trade has started up again,” he finally answered.
“Not really. There’s all sorts of funny stuff going on at nights. Lights flashing out at sea ships riding silent as the grave, with no lights showing, then slipping off into the dark when they’re hailed by fishermen. There are always local boats out by night, but no fisherman would ride at sea and anchor without lights, it’s too dangerous. And we always hail other boats at night, that’s only courtesy. These have to be strangers but why should they stay silent, or slip away when they’re hailed? Why are they hiding from us?”
“So you think the smugglers have come back?” Helen asked.
“What other explanation is there? They’re not fishing. Whatever it is, we locals don’t want to know. The less we see and hear, the better. If it’s smuggling again, we’re not involved but someone is.”
“So what are they smuggling this time?” she asked.
“That’s just it. I don’t know. Why smuggle brandy or baccy when you can buy them cheap in the local shops? The old days of daft taxes are over so where’s the profit in it?”
Helen stared, unseeing, at her notes.
“No profit, no political protest, yet smuggling has come alive again,” she muttered. “An echo from the past but why?” A new thought struck her. “Have you spoken about this to the artist?”
The fisherman smiled wryly.
“I’d talk the hind leg off a donkey, and that sodjer lad has been asking all sorts of questions about smuggling. He’s as good a listener as you are to an old man’s tales.”
“So an old trade has escaped from the history books and come alive again. Only this time there’s no local involvement. In fact, locals are puzzled but are keeping their distance, saying nothing. Turning a blind eye.”
“What smuggling?” he asked, with false innocence. “Who mentioned smuggling?”
“A little fairy told me.”
The old eyes crinkled.
“Aye,” he said. “These fairies are always getting humans into trouble, so it’s better to ignore what they say.” His smile died. “But if what’s happening is that outsiders are running contraband, my advice is to stay well clear. In the old days, they were the wild ones, desperate men chasing high stakes. If they’ve come back, keep well out of their way . . . like we’re doing.”
The faded blue eyes stared directly at her.
“I told your artist man exactly the same,” he added.