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Sunset on Roan Inish

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The seal on the beach turned her large glossy eyes to Fiona. Her tail slapped the sand, and her whiskers flexed as she yawned. Fiona got the impression she was laughing.

"Jamie can't come out today," Fiona said. "We have to go to school."

The seal rolled on her side, the morning sun glossing her fur.

"It doesn't matter how long you wait." Fiona rocked on her heels, her smart new shoes sinking a little in the sand. She wanted to step closer, kneel down, to offer her hand to the seal. But seals were flighty, and she might quickly be standing on the beach alone.

In the distance a door banged shut, and Fiona heard the fast-paced slap of bare feet on the ground.

"Oh Jamie," she said, turning and sighing. "Jamie, where are your shoes?"

Jamie grinned and flipped a hand, as if to say 'who knows?'. Fiona couldn't help but grin back.

"I'll go get them, shall I?" she said, glancing back at the cottages. She could see her grandmother through a window, wiping down the table after breakfast, probably singing to herself, smiling contentedly as she did so often now they were back on the island.

"Aye," Jamie said, and Fiona rolled her eyes like her grandmother sometimes did, and began to trudge back up the beach.

She turned, walking backwards to keep an eye on her brother. "No swimming today," she said. "Eamon's taking us to school. Remember?"

"Aye!" Jamie nodded, his lips pursed. His sleeves were already rolled up, his trousers damp at the cuffs as the surf lapped at his feet. The seal rolled onto Jamie's foot.

Fiona shook her head, and ran for the cottages.

* * *

After school, Jamie’s shoes barely made it home to the island. He ripped them off the second they got back in the boat, and Fiona tucked them safely in her school bag before they could fall all by themselves into the depths. Jamie sat in the stern, hands dangling over the sides like he was still in his little crib coracle. Fiona kept him always in the corner of her eye as Eamon rowed them back to Roan Inish, a grin on his face far bigger than the one that had greeted them that morning.

The seal was still there when they came home.

On the beach Eamon tipped his hat to the seal, and gave her a wink as he dragged the small boat above the high tide line. She didn't seem too impressed, but lolled on the beach and stared at Jamie.

Jamie looked imploringly to Fiona, then to their grandfather coming down the path to help Eamon with the boat.

"Your grandmother's getting your tea," Grandfather told them.

Jamie shrugged, biting his lip. The seal rolled onto her back, flippers waving.

"Ten minutes," Grandfather said. "And mind it's only ten minutes. No swimming now."

The seal darted for the surf. Jamie whooped and followed, pausing only to roll up his trouser legs like Fiona had taught him, hopping as he rolled so as not to waste any time. He hit the water with a splash, and Fiona thought he'd have probably been better off if he’d stripped - or at least his clothes would - he was already soaked through.

The seal nosed his leg, flapping her flippers, and Jamie nodded. Then he straightened, with the waves lapping to his knees, and beckoned to Fiona.

"You better go," Eamon called. "He wants to play with both his sisters."

"We're not both his sisters," Fiona said, but Jamie was still waving and the seal was looking at her with eyes like the sea at night.

"His sister and his cousin then," Eamon said, as their grandfather swung a sheet of canvas over the boat and pretended not to hear them.

Fiona put her bag on the sand. With the seal still watching, she took off her shoes and socks. Jamie nodded, waving again, just like Fiona did when she wanted him to come in from the cold and sit in a blanket by the fire with a warm cup of tea.

The sea was cool, despite the warmth of the sun, and it took Fiona a moment to get past the chill and begin to enjoy the odd feeling of sand being sucked from under her toes.

Jamie smiled at her, and began to splash. The seal splashed back, and Fiona laughed, and waded a little deeper.

* * *

After tea Jamie went back to the beach. He liked to watch the sun set over the water and the seals' heads bob between the waves. Fiona sat beside him in her freshly dry dress and a thick warm cardigan. She didn't notice the seal return until her head broke the surf and her round body began to undulate up the beach.

"I'm sorry you can't see so much of each other," Fiona said to the seal and Jamie at once. Jamie stretched out his feet - still bare, his pink toes wriggling - and leaned his head on her shoulder. He yawned, and she put her arm around him, letting him nestle against her.

The seal slowed as she reached them, giving Jamie a curious look. Fiona expected her to sniff and slap her tail and speed off for the water again like all the other seals did, like she did every other time she came to see them sitting together in the fading light. But she continued to roll her way up the sand, and around to Fiona's side. Another smooth push of her powerful flippers and she was in Fiona's arm's reach.

Jamie yawned again, his breathing growing deeper. Fiona raised her arm ever so slowly, stretching out her hand towards the seal. For a moment the seal just watched her, then she lunged her head forward and pressed her nose to Fiona's palm. She held like that a while, not breathing or sniffing, just touching, before settling back onto the sand.

Cousin seal, Fiona thought, but couldn't bring herself to say it out loud in case it broke the spell.

The seal lay her head on the sand, wide eyes gleaming with the last of the light, and sat with Fiona and Jamie until the sun had set and their grandmother came to call them in for bed.