Gavin and Grandad were fishing for mackerel from the harbor wall when the seal popped its head out of the water. For a moment Gavin thought it was a loose net-float bobbing about. Then he saw the two eyes, large, round, and glistening black, staring straight at him. The thing rose a bit more and he saw the whiskery muzzle and knew what he was looking at.
He'd never seen a seal that close. They often came to Stonehaven but usually stayed farther out. What's more, though it must have seen Gavin, it didn't duck out of sight but stayed where it was, staring. Gavin stared straight back.
"It looks like Dodgem begging for handouts," he said.
(Dodgem was Gran's dog, a sort-of-bulldog. He looked tough, but was really a total wimp, and lazy and greedy with it. You couldn't imagine him dodging anything. Gavin's elder brother, Donald, swore he'd once seen him collide with an old woman with a walker, though he'd been moving slower than she had. Grandad and Gavin didn't pay much attention to him. He was just there.)
Grandad hadn't seen the seal because he was putting his tackle away. The harbor wasn't the best place to fish, but there wasn't time to go anywhere else between Gavin coming out of school and getting home to cook tea. Still, they'd been lucky that afternoon. Gavin had hooked into a half-size mackerel almost at once. Perhaps he should have thrown it back, but he'd kept it because they mightn't get anything else, and by the time they'd caught five more good ones it was dead.
Now Grandad looked up, grunted, and picked the half-size fish out of his creel. Gavin took it and tossed it to the seal.
The seal wasn't a trained seal in an aquarium, so it didn't reach up and catch the fish in midair but snapped it up just as it hit the water, and dived out of sight.
Tacky Steward, fishing twenty yards off along the wall, shouted at Grandad for encouraging seals to come to the harbor. They scared the fish off, he said.
"Plenty to go round," said Grandad mildly. Nothing fazed Grandad. That made Tacky even madder. He hadn't caught much. He never did, and it was always someone else's fault. He shouted some more and the seal popped its head out of the water as if it wanted to see what the fuss was about. The mackerel's tail was sticking out of the corner of its mouth until the seal threw its head back and sort of gargled it down.
"You're welcome," said Gavin.
The seal blinked, as if it hadn't expected to be spoken to like that.
"See you soon," said Gavin. The seal seemed to nod before it dived out of sight.
"Mr. Steward's right, though, isn't he?" Gavin said as they trudged up the hill. "If you feed the seals they'll come for more."
"Maybe," said Grandad. "But Tacky's got no cause to go yelling at me like that. There's ways of making your point, and ways of not."
"I liked the seal," said Gavin. "It looked like it knew what I was saying to it."
"Could be," said Grandad.
"What do you mean?"
"There's more to seals than they show you on the telly. Know what a selkie is, boy?"
"They're seal-people, selkies. See them in the water, and they're seals all right. But come ashore, and you wouldn't know them from people. There's stories of selkie women falling in love with farmers, and marrying them, and living on land for a while and raising a family, until the pull of the sea got too strong for them and they went back and turned themselves into seals again."
"You don't really believe that."
"Tacky doesn't. No imagination."
You didn't always get a straight answer out of Grandad. Gavin tried somewhere else.
"Did they have children--the selkie women who married the farmers?"
"Says so in the stories."
"Some of them would have been selkies too, wouldn't they? Half selkies, anyway?"
"Stands to reason."
"Do you think we've had any of them in our family? We can't keep away from the sea either."
(Far back as anybody knew, the Robinson men had always been sailors, fishermen or seamen on merchant ships, mostly. Grandad had been a ship's engineer. Dad was first mate on a big container ship. He was in the Caribbean right now. Donald was in Edinburgh, training to be a doctor, but chances were he'd finish up doctoring people on a ship.)
"Don't see why not," said Grandad.
They fell silent and trudged on up the hill to Arduthie Road. Stonehaven was a steep, dark gray town nestling round its bay. It was always uphill going home.
Grandad was the most important person in Gavin's life. Once, when Gavin was smaller, his teacher had told her class to draw their mums, or whoever else looked after them. Gavin had drawn Grandad. It was a small kid's picture, of course, all wrong, but you could still see it was Grandad, short and square, with a shiny bald head, brown and mottled, and with spectacles and a bushy gray mustache. In Gavin's picture the mustache was almost as big as Grandad's head.
Gavin had a perfectly good mum, and she lived in the same house. So did Gran, and Dad too, when he was home, but most of the time he wasn't, and Mum and Gran both worked. Mum was an estate agent, helping people buy and sell houses, and Gran sold things at Hankin's, the big hardware store down in the square. Grandad was eighteen years older than Gran, so he'd retired when Gavin had still been small, and soon after that the family had sold their two separate houses and bought the one in Arduthie Road. The idea was that Gran would look after Gavin so that Mum could go back to her job, because they needed the extra money; but almost at once Gran had got bored with that arrangement--she needed people to talk to, even if it was only about size-ten countersunk screws and stuff--so she went back to work too and Grandad started doing the looking after.
So it had been Grandad who'd taken Gavin to his first school and fetched him back and done things with him after and cooked his tea and put him to bed like as not, because Mum often worked late, showing houses to clients, while Gran cooked grown-up tea. Nowadays, when Gavin didn't go to bed much earlier than anyone else, he and Grandad cooked what Grandad still called tea and Mum called supper. Sometimes Gavin wondered a bit guiltily if it would make a lot of difference if Mum and Gran just vanished one day and never came back. Not much, he decided, except that the house would be a lot quieter in the times when they used to be there. (Gran liked to talk. She did it like breathing--all the time. Mum wasn't so bad, unless there were plans and arrangements to be made. She could out-talk Gran then, no problem.)
But if Grandad vanished . . . He was seventy-four already. . . . He was bound to die one day. . . . Gavin couldn't bear to think about it.
The great thing about Grandad was that he understood what it was like being Gavin. He always had, even when Gavin was small--understood what made him miserable or happy or angry or afraid, even things that Gavin was ashamed to talk about to anyone. Like when Dave Murray had been giving him a hard time in his fourth year and he didn't want anyone to know how scared he was of going to school each morning, but Grandad had noticed and got it out of him and told him how to deal with it. He'd let Gavin think he'd done it all on his own too, but later on Gavin guessed that he'd gone round and seen Mrs. Whebbery after school and sorted it out with her.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Inside Grandad by Peter Dickinson. Copyright © 2004 by Peter Dickinson. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.