Excerpt from The Angel in the Stone by R L McKinney

R L (Rebecca Louisa) McKinney was born in Boulder, Colorado and was raised in Northern California; she came to Edinburgh as a student in 1995 and never left. In various incarnations she has been a bartender, horse trainer, teacher, researcher, community development practitioner, and local government dogsbody. Her first novel, Blast Radius, was published in 2015.

The following excerpt from Rebecca’s second novel, The Angel in the Stone, gives us a look at Calum as he manages the complicated responsibilities of his life in the West Highlands, working to preserve a present still haunted by the past…

 


 

Mary MacDonald’s Farewell

 

As Calum drove, his mind was a confusion of memories and emotions, all punctuated by the same sense of falling through open space that came to him in dreams. Sometimes when he took a corner too fast, he felt the wheels lift off the road and the vehicle turn in slow motion onto its side, roll and sail out into nothingness. The loss of control frightened him, forced him to lift his foot from the accelerator and wipe his sweaty palms on his jeans.

He found his mother on a bed in A&E, turning the pages of a gossip magazine. She was dressed in a hospital gown and sitting on top of the sheet, knotted white legs sticking out in front of her. Her toenails were long and neglected and he wondered for the first time whether she was even managing the basics of personal hygiene. The acrid stench of burnt plastic radiated from her hair.

‘Hi Mum.’

She looked up at him and seemed surprised. ‘I wasn’t expecting you. How did you get here so quickly?’

‘I drove.’

‘From America?’

He sighed. ‘From Glendarach. What did you do?’

Her eyebrows drew together. ‘What do you mean?’

He pulled up a chair beside her bed and sat down. ‘You started a fire. Jesus… I knew this would happen. You promised me you wouldn’t.’

‘Ocht, don’t be daft. I’ve done no such thing. I’m here for tests.’

‘Tests…’

‘Yes, tests.’

‘Right.’ Calum sighed and glanced around for a nurse.

‘Well if you visited more, you’d know.’

He looked at her again.

‘I saw you last Sunday. I spent most of the day with my head under your sink.’

‘Well I don’t remember. I must have blocked it out because you were unpleasant, as usual.’

‘Aye, no bloody wonder.’

‘Language!’ she said in an exaggerated stage whisper. Nothing wrong with her hearing, anyway.

‘What’s happening then? Are they keeping you in?’

She made an exasperated sound. ‘They don’t tell you anything in these places. I expect they’re waiting for Finn to arrive to take me home.’

Calum rose from his seat. ‘Jesus Christ, what’s the matter with you?’

People in surrounding beds stared. Calum drew the curtain beside his mother, sat down again and took a deep breath. ‘Finn’s gone,’ he said, very softly. ‘Don’t you remember?’

‘What do you mean he’s gone?’

‘Mum… he’s dead. You know that.’ It was not news he’d expected to have to deliver a second time.

Mary’s hands shook as she fingered the sheet. ‘He’s… no… that’s not right, Calum. Why would you say that?’ Her voice crumbled and she moved her head back and forth. ‘Why would you do that to me?’

He lifted his hand and held it above hers, afraid to touch her. ‘It’s been twenty-one years.’

She continued to shake her head, but her eyes had filled with tears and her lips trembled. ‘I… of course… I do remember now. I don’t know what I was… oh dear… I don’t know what came over me. I think I must have dreamed about him last night.’

Calum allowed his fingers to settle over hers, tried to expel his temper with a long, slow breath. ‘It’s all right.’

Her eyes narrowed as the recollection seemed to solidify in her mind, and he turned away from her so he didn’t have to see the accusation that would inevitably accompany it. Perhaps this creeping amnesia would cure her of the need to blame him for something that had never been his fault, but right now he could feel her gathering her energy for an attack.

The arrival of a young doctor diverted her attention. By the state of his stubble and crushed shirt, he looked to be nearing the end of a very long shift.

‘Now then, Mrs MacDonald, I see your son has arrived. I’m Dr Robertson. You must be Finlay.’

‘No, I’m Calum,’ he replied tartly. He wanted to walk away and leave Mary to the mercies of the NHS and Highland Council’s Social Work Department. He wanted to claim no further knowledge of his mother or the dilemma she now posed for ever-dwindling public budgets. He gripped the sides of his chair and held himself down. ‘My brother Finlay passed away in 1993.’

‘Oh… ah… ’ the doctor glanced down at his clipboard and quickly composed himself. ‘I’m sorry, she… asked for him.’

‘Mrs Macdonald is having some problems with her memory,’ Calum said, and glared at his mother.


The Angel in the Stone arrives in stores via Sandstone Press on August 17th; you can follow Rebecca on Twitter and you can stay up to date on her book’s release by following Sandstone Press on Twitter and Facebook.

Excerpt from A Message From the Other Side by Moira Forsyth

Moira Forsyth is the author of five novels and has also published poetry and short stories in magazines and anthologies. As editorial director of Sandstone Press, she has edited both fiction and non-fiction, including a novel long-listed for the Man Booker Award and the 2017 Betty Trask Prize.

The following excerpt from Moira’s upcoming novel, A Message From the Other Side, gives readers a glimpse into the life of Helen as she navigates the 1990s–and all the intrigue and excitement of a new, uncertain world…

 


 

Excerpt from A Message From the Other Side

 

You could not rely on Joe. Years later, Helen thought how different her whole relationship with him might have been had it happened twenty years later and they both had mobile phones. She could have kept track of him, and he might have told her what he was doing, or given her more warning if he wasn’t going to be around. As it was, Joe was one of the first people she knew to get a mobile phone, when many of her friends still scorned them. He saw the advantages.

There were times when Joe’s unreliability worked in her favour. He appeared out of the blue, probably letting someone else down, with a new car or–once, alarmingly, a huge motorbike–ready to take her out. He wanted her to drop everything, the moment he was back. Mostly she did, since being with Joe was much more exciting than being with anyone else.

‘Right–where do you fancy tonight?’

‘I’ve not had supper–do you want something to eat?’

‘We’ll eat up in town. Little place in Soho I fancy trying–my pal Bernie runs it. All right?’

‘I’m not dressed for that. ’

He was in her tiny hallway and she was in his arms. ‘Bed first? You lovely girl–come on then.’

It was ten o’clock before they were eating in Bernie’s cramped restaurant, full of people who knew each other.

‘You’re ruining my digestion,’ she told Joe. ‘I never eat so late.’

‘Try this,’ he said, pouring the rioja.

What was Bernie going to do when his friends stopped coming for dinner? It was such a small restaurant she didn’t see how he made any money, since everyone stayed for hours and he never got the tables cleared for another sitting.

Sometimes they were not back in her flat before three or four in the morning, taking expensive taxis home. He always had cash and rarely used his American Express card. He was not a man who liked paperwork. He took a roll of notes out of the inside pocket of his leather jacket, peeled off what he wanted, gave a generous tip, and was off and up the stairs before Helen.

‘Come on, girl, get your key out.’

‘Hush, you’ll wake the neighbours.’

‘Give them something to talk about.’

‘You’ve already done that, with a new car every other week and that motorbike!’

As soon as they were indoors his hands were all over her.

‘I wouldn’t like to get in a fight with you,’ she gasped, feeling the hardness of muscle as he gripped her. ‘How tough you feel.’

‘Women think they can fight men off,’ he shrugged, ‘but they don’t stand a chance. Men are always stronger.’

She wasn’t going to get in a fight with him, so what did it matter? His strength was good; she felt protected. He had old-fashioned ideas about the frailty of women.

He smoked but, in deference to her, not in bed. He sometimes got up again after sex, pulled on his jeans and a jersey and sat in an armchair with another cigarette. In those early days she rose too, giving up the night since it would soon be morning. During that first summer when Catherine went to Scotland, it grew light while they were sitting there, the grey London dawn coming bleakly into her little sitting room. ‘I’m exhausted. I don’t know how you do this.’

He shrugged. ‘It’s the weekend. Party while you can.’

‘If it was just the weekend–but I’ll soon have work to go to, even if you don’t.’

‘I’ve got work.’

‘What?’

‘I’m my own boss. I suit myself when I start and finish.’

‘What kind of business is it?’

They had been seeing each other for two months. The school holidays were nearly over and she still had little idea of how he spent his time when they were apart. They’d gone all the way to Brighton on the back of that motorbike, and walked over Hampstead Heath one morning he was full of energy he needed to work off. Once when he was driving a Jaguar, they had gone to Cambridge to meet someone who was keen to buy the car. She assumed he was some kind of car dealer, but he shrugged off questions about his business.

‘Ask no questions, you’ll be told no lies.’

She hated this answer. Seeing him lounging in her Windsor chair, dropping cigarette ash on the carpet, filling her room with smoke, she wondered if she even liked him. He wasn’t her sort. He said he had grown up in Glasgow then left at eighteen to find work in London. He had never gone to university, though he admitted to being ‘at college’ for a while, but she was no wiser about that than when she had first met him.

‘You know all about me,’ she said. ‘What’s the secrecy for?’

‘No secrets,’ he said. ‘I have a few things going, that’s all.’

‘Selling cars?’

He stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray she’d put by the chair. ‘Furniture, antiques, that kind of thing. We got a warehouse just outside Watford.’

‘We? You have a partner?’

‘Two. You met them. Charlie and Brian.’

She could not remember which was which, or even if Brian was the man she was thinking of, that they’d met one night at a club, and whose wife had said to her as they occupied adjacent cubicles in the Ladies, ‘Joe says you’re a teacher, right?’

Unused to carrying on a conversation while she peed, Helen said only ‘yes’ until they were out and washing their hands. In the mirror their eyes met, Gaynor’s heavy with make-up. She was older than Helen, glamorous in a showy way, with heavy jewellery and short skirts.

‘I’m a music teacher. I work in primary schools and I have a couple of private pupils too.’

‘You’re not his usual sort,’ Gaynor said, amused, ‘but he’s smitten right enough.’

She watched him now in the cold early light, the white sky outside revealing nothing about what kind of day was coming, though the flat was stuffy from yesterday’s heat.

‘It’s just that school starts next week. You could come here in the evening, and I’ll still have weekends, except I’ve taken on a couple of Saturday morning pupils, so–’

‘Will I move in?’

‘What?’

‘Would it make it easier for you if I move in?’

She had not reached that stage. Where, anyway, was his home? In bad moments she wondered if he had a wife somewhere. There had been a speculative look in Gaynor’s eye when she questioned her that night in the club. So you’re his bit on the side this time, she might have been thinking.

If he offered to move in, there was clearly not a wife. Relieved, she said, ‘Would you like to? What about your own place?’

‘I’ve been kipping at Brian and Gaynor’s when I’m not here, to be honest. I gave up my place weeks ago.’

Perhaps the wife had thrown him out. Perhaps Gaynor had had enough of putting him up.

‘We could see how it went…’

‘Just say if you’d rather not.’ His smile was rueful. ‘Sorry, didn’t mean to put you on the spot.’

‘No, no it’s fine, it would be lovely.’

‘Tell you what, I’ll give up the fags. You’d like that?’

Laughing, she went to sit on his welcoming lap, and put her arms round him. ‘I would.’

 

Afterwards, she began to panic. She knew so little about him, and there was a dangerous edge to Joe, with his secrets. Too late: he was moving in before school began.

She expected him to come and go mysteriously as he always had, out of contact for a few days, reappearing without warning. For the first few weeks, it was not like that at all; it was a kind of honeymoon. When she came home from school he was there, cooking the evening meal. He went outside for a cigarette when he couldn’t do without one, and he filled the only vase she had with flowers, then brought her a jug that looked old and valuable. Perhaps it was true about the antiques, for the next week he brought home a round mahogany table. Her kitchen was a galley, so she had no dining table and was tired of eating from a tray on her lap. The wood was burnished, the bow legs intricately carved. It took up most of the middle of the sitting room.

‘Pity you’ve got that piano,’ he said as they edged round the table on their way out one day. ‘Takes up a lot of space.’

‘Not as much as your table!’

‘I thought you liked it?’

‘I do. It’s beautiful.’ She kissed him. ‘But I need the piano.’

‘Got to get a bigger flat then,’ he said as they went downstairs to the street door.

‘I can’t afford a bigger one.’

‘Don’t you worry about that.’

He opened the passenger door and she got in. He made sure she was settled in the car before he got in himself. He always did this, just as he always walked on the outside of the pavement when they were together. In some ways, he was what her mother would call a gentleman. Not that her parents had met Joe and she was in no hurry for that to happen. They lived in the house where she and Catherine had grown up, in a leafy road of 1930s half-timbered houses, her father growing tomatoes and playing golf in his spare time, her mother a stalwart of the WI.

Joe took her to an exhibition preview at a small gallery in Highgate. Another surprising thing was how wide his acquaintance was, how catholic his interests. He knew the gallery owner, not the artist, but he said they should buy something as this was a painter whose work would increase in value.

‘What if you don’t like the pictures?’ Helen teased.

‘We don’t have to put the bleeding thing on the wall, girl. I’ll keep it in the lock-up, wait a bit, then in another year or two, sell it on.’

‘That seems a waste. I’d rather buy something I liked and have it to look at.’

‘If you like one of them,’ he said, ‘I’ll get it, and you can hang it on the wall in our new place.’

As they reached the gallery he said, ‘What about Highgate then? D’you fancy a place here?’

‘Can we afford it?’

He put his arm round her waist and squeezed. ‘Course we can. Come on then, this is it.’

There was no missing the gallery, since on this warm summer evening the preview guests had spilled out onto the pavement with their glasses of wine. She felt the buzz of excitement that went with all Joe’s excursions.

Joe introduced her to the gallery owner, a little man in an embroidered waistcoat waving a cigarette in an ebony holder. His laugh was hoarse with years of smoke inhalation and he had a Glasgow accent many times thicker than Joe’s, whose veered between Govan and North London depending on his mood and who he was talking to. Helen thought Frankie a bit of a poser, but he made her laugh and seemed such a friend within five minutes she felt she could ask him, when Joe drifted off to speak to other people, ‘Which one is the artist? I can’t imagine, looking at the paintings. Everyone looks too civilised to produce one of them.’

‘Over the top, eh?’ Frankie said with a wink. ‘They sell though. I don’t see him in this crowd. He’ll be outside having a fag, pontificating aboot his art.’ He reached out and caught a girl by the arm. ‘Never mind, here’s Rose, she’ll tell you about the paintings. Won’t you sweetheart?’

‘Oh, hi, Frankie,’ the girl said. She looked Helen up and down.

‘I’m Helen Guthrie.’

‘She’s with Joe,’ Frankie said, grinning, so that Helen worried this meant more to Rose than mere information. Not that Rose would attract Joe. She was stocky, with no looks, and dressed in dusty black. She also seemed, as Helen shook her hand, a bit grubby, her dyed red hair unbrushed and lank.

‘Right,’ Rose said. ‘How long’s that been then?’

‘That I’ve been with Joe? Oh, not so long. A couple of months.’

Rose raised her eyebrows. ‘You’re doing well.’

Catherine had a gift for chilling you with a look. It was a gift Helen longed for sometimes.

Later, she said to Joe, ‘Who was that girl, Rose something? Is she Will’s girlfriend?  The artist.’

Joe stopped outside an Italian restaurant. ‘This do? I’m starving after all that cheap wine. Frankie’s commission’s about ninety per cent and he still buys antifreeze.’ He pushed the door open. ‘Ok?’

‘Rose?’

‘Oh, give it a rest. I’ve known Rose for years. She’s always hanging round some guy’s neck. It could be Will now, for all I know. Piss, his pictures anyway–I wouldn’t waste my money.’

‘So you didn’t buy one?’ She wouldn’t have minded Will’s painting being consigned to a lock-up in Camden.

‘Too right. Frankie’s losing his touch.’

They went into the restaurant, where it turned out he knew the waiter and there was a long conversation about football before they even ordered their food.

Rose. They had barely spoken before Gaynor appeared, and Gaynor by contrast seemed quite a pal, so she had gone round the exhibition with her. Gaynor had drunk several glasses of the cheap wine, and was able to tell her a lot about Frankie and the artist and several other people, that Helen found illuminating. Joe’s world opened up a little more.

Gaynor said nothing about Rose, except, ‘That cow.’ Then with a squeeze of Helen’s arm, ‘You keep away darlin’, she’s not the kind you want to get friendly with.’

 

There was no need to worry about Rose–or anything else. In a fortnight Joe had found them a three-bedroomed flat in a 1930s block in Highgate, close to Hampstead Heath. He arranged it so that Helen got out of the lease of her own flat without a penalty, and he took her to Heal’s to buy furniture, since the new flat was largely unfurnished. She did not see whether he counted out several thousand pounds to pay for all that, since she had wandered off to look at lamps and coffee tables while he arranged delivery.

Go back to the Highlands and live with her sister? She was glad she hadn’t even considered it.

Three months after they moved into the new flat, Helen realised she was pregnant.


A Message From the Other Side launches in Inverness on July 20th. To keep up to date on the release, you can follow Moira on Twitter and Sandstone Press on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Notes and Addendum by Jenny Wu

Jenny Wu is currently working toward an MFA at Washington University in St. Louis, where she edits The Spectacle literary magazine. Recently, some of her fiction was selected for WTAW’s Features Chapbook Series and, on another occasion, shortlisted for the Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction.

 


 

Notes and Addendum

 

There was one who called herself a doctor on the expedition. I distrusted her right away. “You are not a doctor,” I said. We were now several months into the expedition, but I had not bothered to study her when we started out. Likewise, I have not mentioned her before because I found her trivial and typical of her kind. “You are a mystic,” I said. “Just admit it.” We were walking through a night market in the center of the capital; on both sides of the street colonial edifices with eighteen bays cast their twitching lights like fishermen’s nets onto the rubble.

Perhaps it was not the right time to say such a thing. We were trying to enjoy our night off. Amidst nocturnal peoples selling medicinal herbs like astragalus–slightly toxic, with giant hairy tuberous roots rolling off the stands despite not being round. Often the locals went to barber shops after dinner; visited massage parlors at three in the morning; bought a crate of oranges at midnight. Darkness was something expelled into the atmosphere. On the ground, poverty and its fluorescent reflections; the barber shop employees were all family members, large extended families always hanging around, drinking tea out of paper cups; and whose children were these playing poker? A man and a woman shivered in the cold, on the steps of a bar where workers on either side of the steps were rolling a fried dough balloon–a local favorite. They slapped the sphere of dough in the oil and nudged it with long, thin reeds until an air-pocket rose. They used the reeds–one in each hand–to roll the dough, while the bubble expanded, glistening with oil. So we were out walking in the middle of the night. They stared as I walked past, as if telling me to go to bed, as if simple foot-traffic laws could direct me like the changing chords of a jazz improvisation. Stop. Go. Let other people pass on your left. Do not flash your camera in their eyes. They want to be away from home but they want privacy.

The shorter the street, it seemed, the shorter the street name. Maybe the proportion had to do with the printing of the map. Some were horrifyingly long words, emblazoned on streets that careened off the edge of the paper, made you think the street would take your whole expedition into the Parcae.

Overhead, a white solarium with casement windows and slick tile walls, a ghostly light within. Four hangers arranged in a square, three jean shirts and a pair of jean pants, each piece a different shade of blue. Apartments with no right angles, the balconies turned into rooms with shabby roofs–in other words, rooms with glass doors; in other words, lean-tos suspended in the air. A drove of grey laughing-thrushes diving in from the north. We went to a shop to get our hair washed. Our hair had not been washed in a week and it was almost too enjoyable. The young girl, younger than me, began to tell me the story of her birth, how her parents abandoned her at an orphanage, as she lathered my hair. I would rather have done it myself. But in this city there were no membranes separating one person from the next. They looked inside your shirt when measuring you for clothes. They asked for advice on their bowels. Death and illness did not frighten them.

We scientists were all wearing hiking boots, which was somewhat conspicuous. But that was the only difference. We did not make trouble for the locals. We wore hooked scarves sewn into hoods with neck wrappings over our clean hair, since, in this city, most women on the street wore these. We were cold nevertheless; temperatures dropped below zero after sunset. That night I was drawn to the colonnade’s yellow light, having tricked myself into believing it might be warm.

According to this mystic, I was nothing more than a mouthpiece for my expensive education. I will admit, when I was younger, I knew nothing. By the end of my schooling, though, I had read extensively even outside of my own scientific field and continued to read extensively. By flashlight I read poetry and philosophy in three languages. She mocked me. She admitted to having no formal training, but claimed she had saved more lives than your average doctor. She was middle aged–more “life experience.” Later on, before I had even said anything, she pointed to an old couple inside an illuminated jewelry shop; they were sitting in the back on those fake leather swiveling stools, examining some jewel in the display case with their elbows on the glass, wearing winter coats. The mystic said she had sensed last night, while the rest of us were sleeping, that they were going to have a heart attack, that she had rushed over to save them.

Them?” I said. “Both of them? One heart attack or two? Where? Where did you rush to?”

She said nothing.

Them?” I repeated. I, for one, had never seen these people before.

The mystic pulled up her messaline sleeve, revealing a bracelet. “They bought me this bracelet in gratitude,” she said.

Doubtful, though the bracelet did look like something that would be sold in this city; it was a bit gaudy.

We had been eating cakes with crushed almond powder mixed in under an awning. It had started raining heavily. A restaurant worker was taking a bunch of pots to the back alley for scrubbing. She poured boiling water over an empty soup bowl, over her fingers, rubbing their leathery prints together to remove the oil. She began to explain to me the perplexities of human anatomy. The food here–the tubers–when you ate them your whole body itched, but they tasted so good, especially with salt…

When the heavy rain on the street subsided, we could hear street musicians.

*

In the daylight we each carried binoculars and a slide projector. The villagers of S– were friendly to our expedition despite the politics–first comes the scientific exploratory expedition, then come the army and tanks, as is always the case. I glimpsed the top of their heads from afar, in the ruins. Through one arch I saw a wall with another arch; through this hole I saw a vague figure the color of flesh. It ambled and swayed amidst oblong yellow flowers with dark, fecal bulbs sprouting from their heads, plants with red stalks, blackberries choking an old sawed tree with antler branches, vines and long green beans twirling overhead, weeds like white hairs stomped flat on the ground, and an array of snake skins and milk teeth. The mystic spoke of the field as being otherworldly, occult, spirited, eastern or easterly, of a man falling into the ground never to be found again. But I understood immediately that she was talking about the Greek philosopher Thales, who while walking, staring into the sky, fell into a well–in other words, while staring at air was consumed by water. I was annoyed that I understood this. I was frightened too. The field was quiet so our thoughts were loud.

Three of us explored the foliage. I would rather have been anywhere else–alone under a tree, for instance, getting started on the mandatory report. Instead, a persistent drone of insects. Standing by a stream, feet getting wet and cold. I had the feeling I was being watched. The mystic bent over suddenly.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m tying my shoe.”

After rain, the colors intensified, time passed slowly. The other two were talking but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. The mystic led me to the ruins–to look at something painted on the menhirs, or so she said. Again, that childhood habit–climbing on stones to prove you are not afraid of heights. Walking along the top of a stone wall the height of two men, one foot in front of the other; there was a gap in the wall. The mystic said she had been up here many times; she knew the structure of the ruins; she knew where to place her feet. She leapt effortlessly over the gap. She motioned for me to leap. I couldn’t. She held out her hand for me to shakingly take; she looked so far away; besides, I didn’t want to take her hand.

Outside the village of K– we sat around a small fire boiling tin cans. The cartographer rolled some tobacco and another expedition member, the conservationist, struck a match for him. The mystic was off to the side performing a bloodletting on a villager who had smelled our lunch and ventured into the field. Distracted by this spectacle, the two lingered with the match too long and the cigarette went up in flames like a candle. The cartographer shook it and embers fell to the dark wet ground. The conservationist pointed at the papers on my lap–the beginnings of my report. “I just finished mine.”

“You’re the first one to finish his report,” the cartographer said to him. Some of us who went on these kinds of expeditions were known to procrastinate for months after we got home. “Let me give you a gift of congratulation,” he said. Took out a small thing.

The conservationist suddenly panicked, leaned away. “No! Keep it! I don’t want your things!”

The cartographer rummaged through his bag. “Just a small thing I picked up. Thought you would like it.”

The conservationist grunted. He was drinking a soup made from berries, with a medicinal smell.

“Here is a photograph of that man who refused to be photographed,” said the cartographer, trying to give it.

“Mm!” said the conservationist, pushing his hand away.

“And here,” I said, retrieving another bulging envelope from the cartographer’s bag, “are the two-hundred Polaroid photos of a black sky that you took the other night.”

“Because I was trying to capture the lightning.”

“You were very drunk.”

The mystic came over to sit beside me. We spoke about our credos. “Once,” she said, “I was asked to read the palm of a man from the north who was visiting my city on business. His palm revealed to me that at the age of fifty a great tragedy would befall him.”

“What do you tell them,” the conservationist asked, strumming a lap dulcimer, “when the news is bad?”

“I tell them the truth,” said the mystic. “It does them no good to lie.”

“Do they get angry at you?”

“In fact, this man did not,” said the mystic. “What happened was this: the year he was supposed to turn fifty, one day in the spring I received an international call from him to meet me for tea; a few days later he flew all the way from another country to meet me. His twin had died.”

I said, “Ah, so the tragedies you predict are unspecific.”

She said, “Twins, you know. They have the same palms.”

The villager told us how to make it over the summit by sunset. His village was located on a crag that overlooked a treeless section of the mountain whose inner rock layers were showing, the orange colossus broken and lying at the bottom of the drop. The road ran dangerously close to the edge. The people in this region fetched their water from a nearby stream. Pleasure to see clear water slopping over the half-buried rocks–you could lie belly-down on a flat rock and drink from the green and black current. Upstream, in the middle of the rushing waters, was a woman squatting on a rock, washing her clothes.

Uphill the whole way and, mid-ascent, out came the peasants selling their wares–they charred sardines on sticks atop an open coal fire. A pile of skewered sardines sat raw on the side, their bluish-white scales still wet and glistening. Other vendors had skewered some sort of long-necked bird. In the fire these birds’ bodies turned gray and brown, their blue innards peering through transparent breasts, while their heads reddened and bulged. Some sellers had whole eggs boiling in metal pots, plates of red chili powder at their feet, their children crouched beside basins of live fish. A man smoking a waterpipe made from a stack of bottomless tin cans slumped on a footstool, swarmed by red-faced cockerels. Women sweeping with hand brooms. A single yellow monkey scoured the hillside for fruit, and, when it found some, turned and stared suspiciously at everyone as it ate. For half a kilometer beside the stream the mountain economy was concentrated where travelers passed by. The women sold charred meat.

The children sold flowers. The very small children sold pebbles. These were mountain people; despite the cold they sit outside.

We could no longer understand their language. For the rest of the day we communicated with rudimentary gestures. Went up the mountain and took a detour, picked up a stone from the grass, weighed it in my hand, and held onto it.

“Who needs to piss? Show of hands… Alright, we’re taking a detour.” The men unzipped their pants and pissed in the dirt, off the cliff.

“Would it be wrong to call us a choir?” They stood in a line, shoulder to shoulder, facing the abyss.

“I’ve heard that saying used,” said another.

“Next time we have to piss we’ll call it ‘going to sing,’” they chuckled.

I waded alone through brambles, sometimes cutting my own way through the entangled branches with my knife. I came this way because I wanted to–there was no other reason. Eventually I came down on another side of the mountain, evergreen trees and white twiggy underbrush: a vast expanse of land flanking a crude road stretching as far as the eye could see. Maybe I beat the expedition here; they should be coming up the road any time now. The road was gray gravel pounded into flat scales. It looked new, with no weeds between the stones and no cart ruts to either side. I had to criticize, however, the irrigation practices of these peoples; the deforestation; the roads, like the manmade ponds, partitioned with stone slabs that disrupted runoff. Water and land must have, I would argue, a natural meeting point. The trees on each side grew dense and green like spears over the land, gradually steepening into the sides of the mountains that contained them like a bowl, and the sky dropping–cloudless–in every direction like a dome. I continued west. Behind me, the gravel disappeared into the green hills, and I noticed every so often there was a big stone on the side of the road. As I walked on I realized that someone, for some reason, had been marking the distances on the road.

Wherever the trees stopped growing, the patch of land was left destitute and foreboding. Pockmarked landscape with cairns. Upon closer inspection, some of the cairns were mausoleums hidden under grass. At least five mausoleums in a jagged line, all facing the road. Were they, I wondered, a family? Or strangers who met only after death? Sitting on the roadside writing this entry, I looked at their land and saw that they could grow pears, walnuts, chestnuts, wild honey. There was even evidence that these crops had grown here before. There ought to be some goats in the mountains. The threat of tigers? After all, tigers factor into their paranoid superstition: on the first day of the fifth month, I was told, each person must sleep alone. Stay hidden while the ghosts and tigers prowl the yard, they said…and if a villager is sick, they pray to the tiger head.

*

Our first night in the countryside. Awake due to some indigestion. Snuck out and went into the field and took a night-photograph. It turned out blurry. The kitchens and outhouses in this region were communal; both types of mudbrick houses clumped together on the periphery of the village. There were giant crystals of salt on the road; they gleamed in the moonlight, winding down toward the houses.

Woke up in the morning to caterpillars and white butterflies. Found all sorts of animals in the garden: the usual gray rabbit, the locals gestured–now twice its original size–then a Maltese cat, then a prickly hedgehog, then an orange-and-black fox whose tail I snuck up behind, whose fur was rustling, who looked at me suddenly over his shoulder. As though our villa had become the setting of a fairy story.

The mystic came outside, stretching, and said, “It feels like we’ve lived here all our lives, doesn’t it?”

That day we found a village where they spoke our language; stayed there, visited homes, tasted their tea, even though the people were not particularly pleasant. The men in this village were gamblers. Subsistence farmers: grow some sprouts, eat them, and gamble. Any money in the village was locked in drawers, away from the prying hands of the women.

Next was a house with old man on the floor. Perhaps it was the age of the man, his refusal to present himself, refusal sit up straight, even when there were people observing him. He had coarse black and gray hair knotted in the back, but strands around the temples seemed to have been torn out of the knot and were standing on end. He had no eyebrows–probably from age–but his brow was permanently raised, his mouth permanently pursed in a horizontal line. His eyes stared at nothing, two pinpricks. Extremely long ears. He was wearing tweed trousers, dark gray, and a ramie collared shirt underneath a sweater in the faintest shade of lavender imaginable. He was resting on one elbow, the hand on his stomach, the other at an odd angle on an old quilt. The old quilts were all over the floor, gray bundles with the occasional square of city-colors. Not a scrap of furniture. “It’s been gambled away, so be careful,” said the mystic. “That old man sees that you have money on you.” Where the blankets did not reach there was cardboard taped to the floor and the corners of the wall with yellowed translucent packaging tape. The walls were covered in pages from an atlas, maps of the same area of land with different routes marked in red, showing different sized portions of the ocean. Above them, magazine clippings showing the latest styles of cassimere, voile, damask, muslin… all the pages pasted perfectly straight, not a slapdash effort. The paint on the windows was flaking; there were thin pages of some book printed with gray ink covering the window jambs. On the sill, strangely, two pieces of porcelain; they looked like soap dishes with dirt in them, a shriveled stem and some excavated roots still visible in one. On the wall–on top of the atlas pages, beside the magazine clippings–a colorful flower print, an ultramarine background with tricolored peonies and a golden border. Pasted on top of that, as though the larger flower print was a frame, a blown-up image of paper money–a bluish note with the profiles of the heads of state and everything. Was this decoration? The mystic explained. “They paste any paper they can find on the walls for insulation and because it looks better than the blank wall underneath. Every so often they need new paper because the existing layer turns black.”

An old woman hobbled into the room and told a story of their relative–pointing at the seated man–“his brother.” We listened to her story; we watched her hobbling around holding her wet laundry in a knot, as though she did not know where to put it. She was the shortest person I had ever seen in my life. “His brother,” she said, “gambled the entire family’s savings; his mother and father starved, some of the younger ones starved to death. He was the only one who took pity on this brother; the rest had planned to tie him to the bed and lock him in a back room for the rest of his life. Ah, I’m telling a story that’s fifty years old.”

“Whose brother?” the old man suddenly said.

Your brother,” the old woman said. “This idiot”–her index finger shaking–“brought his brother to come live with us, eat our food, and gave him a portion of our land and even a share of his ensete trees, livestock, and our business. He loved his brother so much, you know. They were closest in age. They went everywhere together, did everything together. When his brother got whipped in the yard he would cry, cry, cry for him. And the first thing he did was destroy our business. The fruit on the trees? The goat? All gone. Then he stole everything of value in our house. I set up traps for him and even caught him with my own eyes. Still this idiot took pity on him.” She set her wet shirt on the windowsill. “Our village has been debased by these men. Do you know how our women make a living? They sell rocks to travelers. Well. You want to guess what this man’s brother did after all that? You’ll never guess what happened then.” She cackled; she showed her silver teeth. “Then he disappeared!”

We spoke at length with local experts. Governments would be alerted. Aid would be sent to this village, preferably in the form of microcredit. We were to leave the village through a narrow mountain pass; from a distance we saw the women lined up on both sides. As we entered the pass a child approached–young, naked, protruding navel. He was holding something in his hand. A ruddy volcanic rock. The women, too, were selling stones–polished limestone bracelets, heavy pendants, crude sculptures. Some of them had stands, and some were sitting on threadbare blankets with the rocks spread before them. They clamored over each other, describing the rocks as artifacts unique to the region, that such-and-such rocks were blessed by a goddess. One of the rock sellers smiled at me. I realized that for however many months we had been traveling, I had not seen a single local smile. The girl was pale and fat and sleepy, but–was I mistaken?–she had smiled. I approached her without confidence; I approached her politely; I bought a rock. I felt oafish, conspicuous.

“You saw the village where I live?” she asked.

“I was just there,” I said.

“Why do travelers prefer to come in winter?” she asked. “In the summer no one comes.”

“A lot of travelers pass through in the winter?”

“Every three days or so, a group passes through.”

“Have you ever considered leaving with them?” I regretted asking; I could not make any promises.

But she shook her head. “I’ve never thought to leave my family. Or to be alone. Where would I go anyway?”

I told her I’d lived on my own for five years, since I was fifteen.

“We’re the same age then,” she said.

I didn’t know what to say; I wondered who was more surprised. So I told her, “It’s nice to be on your own. But being alone causes you to form all sorts of weird rituals.”

“Like what?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know… I can’t think of any off the top of my head.”

“You’re so brave,” she said.

Suppose I moved to this village and married this girl? Immediately following this thought I was seized by dread and tremors. I didn’t even know if this girl liked women. I looked up and down the mountainsides; their immensity dizzied me; for a moment I forgot which way we were walking, which way we were coming from.

“That girl,” said the mystic, “is your soul mate.”

Looked back at her over my shoulder; the sun was setting and getting in my eyes. “But I have an expensive education, remember?” I waited for the mystic’s reaction. Getting none, I said, “I doubt she can read.” I had never thought much about marriage, always buried in my studies. And I had no feelings for this girl beside the thought that I ought to…

“She will be very surprised.”

For the first time I looked closely at this mystic’s face. She had a square-shaped face, brown skin, crow’s feet, and black moles. Compared to the average head, hers was relatively small.

“She won’t know why, but she’ll say yes. She’ll never be able to understand why she said yes, but she will think about it much, and she’ll never argue with you.” The mystic seemed utterly convinced by what she was saying. “And day by day you will find yourself more accustomed to the traditions here.”

She embraced me. I patted her on the back. How rare, I thought, that my life should cross paths with the likes of this mystic. There was truly no one like her. She went on to predict that I would spend the rest of my life working with my hands, specifically with wood. We looked around at the trees of the region–aspens.

“I must catch up with the expedition,” the mystic said.

 

 

 

 

When the army and tanks rolled into the region, they were met, in this mountain pass, with a funeral. The funeral happened to be processing in the opposite direction, momentarily blocking the army’s path. The funeral, they learned, was for a young woman scientist who had, five years earlier, married one of the locals but for whom the combination of harsh working conditions and the high elevation proved to be too much. She had overworked herself trying to provide for her wife, a baby-faced woman seen walking in the procession with her head down, weeping tears of unmatched devotion.


Jenny can be found at her website, jennyzw.com.

 

Excerpt from The Health of Strangers by Lesley Kelly

Lesley Kelly is a Scottish novelist with twenty years’ experience in the public and voluntary sectors. Having dabbled in both poetry and stand-up comedy, Lesley Kelly’s fiction has won numerous competitions, including the Scotsman’s Short Story award in 2008. Lesley now lives in Edinburgh with her husband and two sons.

What follows is an excerpt from The Health of Strangers, Lesley Kelly’s upcoming novel, in which the North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team faces new threats and unforeseen risks.

 


 

Excerpt from The Health of Strangers

 

‘He’s dead all right.’

Mona stepped back, and ran her eye over the corpse. She’d seen worse than this, much worse in fact, but not in the last few months. Funny how quickly you forgot the sights and smells of death. Maybe you had to forget, maybe the amnesia was some kind of defensive mechanism; if you remembered what it was like you’d spend every night downing a bottle of wine while surfing jobs websites for less traumatising employment. She glanced over her shoulder to where her partner, Bernard, was standing, and quickly stifled a laugh at the expression on his face. From past experience she recognised the signs that he was channelling all his energy into keeping his breakfast safely lodged in its rightful place. He ran his hands over his short hair a couple of times, tugged at the collar of his polo shirt, and, despite his distress, managed to choke out a few words.

‘The Virus?’

‘Hard to say, with him being so decomposed.’ She took a further step away from the armchair. ‘I mean, when the skin’s turned black like this, and the teeth and hair have started to fall out there’s not much to go on. And look at this–there’s some kind of larvae on his cheek here.’ She waved him closer. ‘Come and see.’

He bolted out the door, and Mona gave in to a grin. You either had the nerve for these kinds of things, or you didn’t. That being said, the smell of the room wasn’t doing her stomach any good either. She gave a quick look over to the door to check Bernard wasn’t about to reappear, then negotiated her way between the heavy wooden furniture toward the window, stopping only to pull a handkerchief out of her pocket and clamp it over her nose.

The curtains were a seventies relic, a lurid orange-and-brown mess of swirls and curlicues. She pulled at them one-handed, and after a couple of tugs they opened, filling the room with weak April sunshine. Yellowed netting covered the length of the pane; she reached behind it and found the catch. She fiddled with it for a minute, succeeding only in cutting herself on the rusting paintwork. She cursed and pulled her hand back. The rust had dyed her fingertips brown, and a small cut was sending a river of red down her index finger. Wiping her hand on her jeans, she made a mental note to dig out the Savlon when she got back to the office. There were enough ways to die at the moment, without succumbing to good old-fashioned tetanus. She gave the catch another try, and to her relief, it opened. She hauled the window up a couple of inches and crouched on the floor next to the fresh air.

Mona pulled her notes out of her bag and gave herself a quick refresher on the facts. Their visit had been triggered by the non-appearance of one Reginald Dwyer at his monthly Virus Prevention Health Check. According to her notes Reginald was in his seventies, Caucasian, 5’6” tall, with grey hair and blue eyes. She poked her head and handkerchief back round the curtain and eyed up the corpse. The nylon trousers and woolly cardigan combination suggested a senior citizen’s wardrobe, but the other facts were lost to the indignities of decomposition.

Now it was a judgement call–phone the Health Enforcement Team first or the Police? Alerting the Police to a potentially suspicious death made it their problem. Phoning it in to the office as a Health Check Violation Due to Fatality left it resting firmly in her in tray, with a tonne of attached paperwork. She walked back into the middle of the room, and looked round in search of anything that could justify her phoning her former colleagues in Police Scotland.

A little wooden side table next to the corpse had a newspaper resting on it, open at the TV listings. She picked it up, trying her hardest not to disturb the deceased. The last thing she wanted was a shower of teeth, hair, or worse, falling off the late Mr Dwyer. The date on the paper was the 21st February, just over a month ago. Probably the length of time he’d been lying here, which fitted in well with her gut feeling about how long he’d been dead.

‘Bernard?’ She removed the hanky from her face.

‘Yes?’ Her partner’s voiced echoed feebly down the hall.

‘Can you check with the neighbours when they last saw him? Or when they first noticed the smell?’ She put her makeshift face mask back on.

‘I tried. No-one’s in, apart from a woman in the ground floor flat who doesn’t speak English.’

No surprise there. Getting the average Edinburgh tenement dweller to answer their doors to a stranger had always been a struggle, but these days a warm welcome would have been some kind of miracle. She didn’t blame people for their caution. After you’d spent a fortune germ-proofing your home, why take the risk of opening up to find someone coughing and spluttering on your doorstep?

Bernard’s face appeared in the doorway, wan as a waxing moon. ‘I peered through the letterbox of the flat across the hall and I don’t think it’s occupied.’ He paused and grimaced. ‘Can we get out of here now?’

‘Just a sec.’

There were two doors leading off the living room. She threw open the nearest one, which revealed a bedroom, the divan resplendent with an orange candlewick cover. She took a couple of strides and pushed open what she assumed was the door to the kitchen.

‘Bernard–look at this.’

He appeared at her side, and gaped, as she had done, at the tinned goods that were stacked from floor to ceiling all across the room.

‘He didn’t pay much attention to our advice about not hoarding food, did he?’ Bernard took a step back. ‘Ironic really, given how he ended up.’

Mona smiled. ‘Poor sod.’

‘Can we go?’

She took a last look around the room, and sighed. ‘Yup. Just let me phone it in.’ She dug out her mobile and selected the North Edinburgh HET office from her contacts list as she walked toward the stairwell. ‘Maitland, it’s me, Mona.’ She pulled the door of Reginald Dwyer (deceased) firmly closed. ‘We’ve got a stiff.’

 

‘So–did you puke?’

Bernard ignored the question and walked purposefully in the direction of his desk. Undeterred, Maitland rolled his chair across the office and ground to a halt an inch from his side, trapping Bernard’s little toe under a castor. Bernard pulled his trainer loose, booted Maitland back toward his desk, and was gratified to hear a tiny squeak of pain from him as he collided with a sharp edge. Unfortunately, the injury was not enough to silence him.

‘But did you?’ Maitland was beaming from ear to ear, every inch of his six foot three frame bouncing up and down with pleasure at Bernard’s discomfort. He sat back, knitted his fingers together, and rested them on his dark hair. ‘C’mon, Bern, did you spew when you found the body?’

‘No, Maitland, I did not spew, as you put it.’ Bernard reached the safety of his own workspace, and lowered himself into his seat. OK, so he had left Mona to deal with it and stood outside trying to overcome his nausea. But he wasn’t going to give his colleague the satisfaction of admitting it. ‘I’ve seen dead bodies before, as you are well aware.’

‘Aye,’ Maitland grinned and dived toward Bernard’s desk, ‘but those were in a medical setting, where everything is nice and clean and neat.’ He rested his elbows on the back of Bernard’s chair, and lowered his voice. ‘This time, we’re not talking hospital corners and disinfectant. We’re talking weeks-old corpse, maggots, bluebottles burying their eggs in the decaying flesh…’

Bernard’s stomach heaved, and he leaned on his desk with his hand over his mouth. After a moment, he pushed Maitland’s arm off the back of his chair, and his tormentor turned away, laughing.

‘Mona, so did he puke or what?’

She dismissed Maitland’s question with a wave of her hand. Her hair hid her face and Bernard wondered if she too was mocking him under the blonde bob. It was impossible to tell. He thought about going over to see if she was actually laughing, but worried he would seem overanxious. Mona had made it plain over the past few months that she did not like needy men.

Maitland wandered back to his side of the office, still chuckling.

Bernard sighed, and started looking for the piece of paper that would let him know just how bad the rest of his day was going to be.

It wasn’t in his tray, or on top of the neat pile of previous cases he’d left sitting prominently in the centre of the desk, in the hope that someone would file them. It wasn’t caught up in his personal papers, and, when he picked up his copy of the Guardian and shook it, it didn’t fall out from within its pages.

Bernard leaned back in his chair, sighing again. There was definitely no Defaulter List on his desk. ‘Mona–have you got our DL?’

Across the room his partner was still engrossed in paperwork. She looked up, shook her head, and shrugged.

In the four months he’d been working for the Health Enforcement Team this had never happened before. As surely as night followed day, by 9am every morning a memo appeared on each of their desks outlining who had defaulted on their Health Checks that week. The idea was that this notification arrived the day after someone had defaulted. The demise of Reg Dwyer was testament to how well this system worked. Bernard looked round the office for someone else to ask. Maitland’s desk was now empty, although his coat was thrown over the back of his chair.

He looked over at Carole Brooks’s desk. In amongst the pictures of her kids, and a range of handmade and, probably, fair trade clutter, Carole was on her mobile. Bernard overheard snippets of her conversation.

‘So, how much is his temperature up by?’

Bernard winced, and feeling suddenly breathless, sat down at his desk. This was what grief felt like, the poleaxing power of a stray comment, or a TV show, or, like this, an overheard conversation to knock him sideways. Six months now since his son had died, too young and weak to fight off the Virus. And when the memory hit him, it wasn’t just of the boy’s death; it was of the paralysis, the helplessness, the overwhelming impotency he had felt in the face of the illness. He’d not told his colleagues about his loss; how to describe it to these people he barely knew?

Carole ended the conversation but sat staring at her desk. She pulled out the band that was holding her hair up, and let it fall loose. She ran her hands through it, then after a second she gathered up the strands and tucked them away.

He decided not to bother her and reluctantly looked in the direction of his boss’s office. Once upon a time, the building that the HET occupied had been a grand Georgian house on the Southside of Edinburgh. It had remained intact until the owner had racked up gambling debts so astronomical that the only method of staving off creditors was the sale of the family home to the newly formed South Eastern Regional Hospital Board. Lothian Health Board had taken the premises over in 1972, and had knocked through rooms, boarded up chimneys, and bricked up doors with a cheerful disregard for the intricacy of the cornicing, or the delicate tiling on the Adam fireplaces. In a final mortification, when the HET moved in, a corner of the room had been partitioned off with MDF to create an internal office for the head of the team. Bernard knew that deep within this temporary structure sat Team Leader Paterson, drinking tea, regretting the day he left the Police, and thinking of new ways to make Bernard’s life miserable.

Bernard caught Paterson’s eye through the office’s window, and within seconds his boss threw open the door. He stood in the doorway, his greying crew cut scraping the top of the door frame. Paterson was a very big man, in a very small office.

He pointed a large finger at Mona, then Bernard. ‘You two–in here now.’

They exchanged glances and got to their feet.

‘You were right, Guv, the No Show was dead. Looked like he’d been lying there for weeks. Seems that he’d…’

Mona broke off as she walked into Paterson’s office. Bernard peered round her side and saw there was someone else in the room. This was interesting; Paterson was not in the habit of entertaining visitors. A stranger in the boss’s office, hot on the heels of the missing Defaulter List, meant that today was veering off the fairly repetitive course that Bernard had experienced since his arrival at the HET.

The man was tall, with neat blonde hair and square, brown-rimmed glasses. A raincoat was folded across his knees, and at his side was a brown leather briefcase. He radiated an air of controlled competency not often found nestling in the chaos of the HET office. The new arrival had been given the only comfortable seat in the office and was sitting behind Paterson’s desk.

The Team Leader leaned his considerable bulk against his desk, and gestured a thumb in the stranger’s direction.

‘This is Doctor Toller.’

The three of them shook hands, which involved a fair bit of manoeuvring, given the limited dimensions of the office. Mona sat on the plastic chair that Paterson had swiped from the canteen some months ago. Bernard looked round for somewhere to sit, and in the absence of options, stayed standing.

‘Toller here works for the German Government and is investigating a Missing Person. Heidi Weber, eighteen years old, exchange student at Edinburgh University. Showing up on our Defaulter List for the first time today.’ He passed a case file across the desk which Mona grabbed and started reading. ‘I want you to give Doctor Toller every assistance in locating this young lady.’ Paterson pointed his finger at each of them to emphasise the point. ‘Every assistance.’

Mona spoke without looking up from the file. ‘Can I ask why she is of interest to you, Sir?’

The Doctor smiled. ‘She is not, of herself, of particular interest.’ His English was good, but tinged with a German accent. ‘We are concerned about the Health Status of all our nationals who are living abroad. As you know our infected population is much lower than yours, which is twenty-eight per cent, I believe?’

‘Twenty-eight per cent average, lower for older people and children, higher for young adults.’

Paterson coughed. Bernard ignored the hint and carried on.

‘But the infection rate is falling year-on-year. We’re anticipating an eight per cent infection rate next year.’

A thin blonde eyebrow was raised by the German. ‘Yet you still have mortality of 2.5 per cent?’

‘2.4 per cent, to be precise.’

‘Bernard…’ Paterson had a familiar tone of warning in his voice. He wasn’t a big fan of Bernard’s ability to remember facts and figures relating to the Virus. Bernard was torn between avoiding his boss’s wrath and defending his country’s public health record. Patriotism won.

‘And twenty per cent of the population is already immune.’ He finished the sentence as quickly as he could.

‘In Germany we have mortality of less than two per cent.’ The Doctor smiled and folded his arms. ‘You can see why we are concerned about any health risk that our citizens may be encountering.’

Before Bernard could open his mouth to pursue the point, Mona spoke up. ‘She hasn’t been reported missing by her parents.’ She waved the case file in the air. ‘Although they have expressed concern that they hadn’t heard from her?’

Paterson jumped to his feet. ‘Doctor, I think my colleagues have enough to go on. I need to brief them about a couple of things, then the three of you can make a start on locating young Heidi.’ He yanked opened the door, causing the walls of the office to vibrate.

The Doctor stayed seated for a moment staring at Paterson, then slowly stood up. ‘I wish to use the lavatory before we leave. I will meet you in the main entrance.’ He stopped and turned to address Mona and Bernard. ‘I am not overly concerned about this young woman. We made a check of her room, and all her documents were there, including her passport.’

Paterson smiled expansively at his guest and extended an arm in the direction of the exit. He waited until the door shut behind the German. ‘Dickhead.’


The Health of Strangers releases on Thursday, June 15th, 2017, and will be available as a paperback and e-book, courtesy of Sandstone Press.

An excerpt from Lesley Kelly’s previous novel, A Fine House in Trinity, can be found here.

Voyager by Robert McGinty

Robert McGinty works and writes in Edinburgh, where he lives with his wife and son. He was a recipient of a 2016 Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in the Children’s and Young Adult fiction category. He is currently working on a Young Adult novel called The Dead Men of Pendragon House, as well as occasional articles and stories for his blog-site.

Voyager is a short story about a journey of escape for a space obsessed boy who feels a million miles distant from everything in his world, and his journey out into the universe through the stargate of his imagination.

 


 

Voyager

 

How could he make them understand that his signal took seventeen hours to travel from where he was to where they were?

‘You said you had one yesterday. Show us.’

Giles found himself backed into a corner of the school bike shelter by a crowd of boys from his class. Big Archie, the tallest boy in the year, stood at their head.

‘You haven’t got one, have you?’

Archie held his own mobile phone in front of Giles’s face—a sleek, black rectangle of technology.

‘Everyone else has got one. Are you a freak or something? Are your parents too poor to buy you one?’

They all laughed. They did not understand that their laughter would not reach him for a further seventeen hours.

‘What’s in the bag?’

Giles clutched a white plastic bag with something rather awkward and bulky inside that stuck out of the opening at the top.

‘Voyager 1,’ he said.

He held the bag open for the boys to see and Archie reached in and pulled out the delicate model by the long, latticed arm pointing upwards at him.

‘What the hell is Voyager 1?’ said Archie, turning it over in his hands.

‘A spacecraft,’ said Giles.

There was a sudden crack and the long arm snapped off from the main body of the model.

‘Aw, broke it. Sorry, Spaceman.’

Archie shoved the separate pieces back at Giles. The boys laughed and walked away, leaving him standing alone with the broken model cradled in his arms.

*

Giles did not hear Miss Teather calling at first because his mind was full of space, as it always was.

Sputnik encircled his thoughts, beeping simple messages. Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft streaked across the blue sky of his imagination, and the Eagle landed in the rocky terrain of his fantasies.

‘Giles!’

Miss Teather’s voice jerked him back to Earth, where he discovered that his class was laughing at him.

‘Yes, Miss?’

Miss Teather, with grey bags under her eyes, barely kept the exasperation out of her voice. ‘Are you ready to give your presentation? Come up to the front of the class.’

Giles picked up the plastic bag containing the broken model and made his way between the desks towards the whiteboard, just avoiding the wicked foot Archie stuck out in his path.

‘Do you have something with you to illustrate your subject, Giles?’ asked Miss Teather.

‘Yes, Miss.’

He fumbled awkwardly with the bag and removed the two parts of Voyager 1.

‘What a shame! How did your model get broken?’

Giles could feel Archie staring very hard at him.

‘Dropped it, Miss.’

He held up the long latticework section of plastic struts that had been snapped off.

‘It’s the magnetometer, Miss. I can mend it when I get home.’

Miss Teather nodded patiently.

‘Well, on you go Giles, when you’re ready.’

Giles turned to face the class and twenty-four bored, hostile faces stared back at him.

‘This is Voyager 1,’ he said, holding up the model.

As soon as he started speaking on his subject, he forgot all about those faces, as if they were no longer there. The spacecraft filled his entire field of vision and all he had to do was broadcast the voice that was always talking in his head, set his controls to autopilot and cruise.

The voice told his class about the launch of the space probe Voyager 1 on September 5th, 1977, sent by NASA on a grand tour of the outer planets. It described the main components of the model: the High Gain Antenna Reflector Dish and Sun Sensor; the boom arm that housed the Ultraviolet and Infrared Spectrometer and Radiometer; the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator; the Micrometeorite Shielding; the Hydrazine Thrusters and the Optical Calibration Target.

It explained how the once-in-two-centuries alignment of the planets had enabled the spacecraft to reach Jupiter; how Voyager had used Jupiter’s gravity to slingshot out to Saturn; and of its numerous discoveries among those far away worlds and moons.

The voice described the golden disc attached to the side of Voyager, with its engraved depictions of two humans, a man and a woman, and set of logical directions to Earth that would provide any curious aliens with a route map to find its makers.

The voice told of the Pale Blue Dot, which was the furthest away picture ever taken of the planet Earth–a tiny living speck engulfed in the blackness of space–and of the vast distances the spacecraft had traveled, and how it had crossed the heliopause in 2012, which is the point where the Sun’s solar winds die away and interstellar space begins, and how in 40,272 AD Voyager 1 would pass within 1.7 light years of AC+793888 in the constellation of Ursa Minor.

Finally, the voice explained that from its current position in space, a message from Voyager 1 took seventeen hours to reach Earth traveling at the speed of light, and that its broadcasts would become fainter and more distant until 2025, when the spacecraft would finally run out of power and stop sending messages home.

And then, as if it too had run out of motive power, the voice stopped talking and Giles saw once again the bored, indifferent faces staring at him.

‘Well,’ said Miss Teather, ‘that was a very…detailed…presentation. Thank you, Giles.’

*

As everyone was leaving the classroom for lunch Miss Teather asked Giles to stay behind.

It was strange being in the empty room with just his teacher and the smell of his classmates hanging in the air. Miss Teather sat behind her desk and looked with a kindly face on him.

‘Is everything quite alright, Giles?’ she asked.

‘Yes, Miss.’

‘I’ve noticed that you don’t play with any of the other boys. Has anything happened between you and them?’

How could he explain to her that he was now so incredibly remote from the other boys that anything they had to say to him took seventeen hours to reach him?

‘Nothing’s happened,’ he said.

Miss Teather was quiet for a moment, just looking at him, as if working out in her mind how to span those millions of miles between teacher and pupil.

‘Would you tell me if anyone was bullying you?’

‘Yes, Miss.’

‘Have you told me the truth of how your model got broken?’

‘Yes, Miss.’

‘Is everything quite alright at home?’

‘Yes, Miss.’

He thought fleetingly of his parents, Phobos and Deimos, circling cold and distant in his mind’s orbit.

Something about his answers seemed to make Miss Teather slowly crumple. She looked very tired again.

‘Go and eat your lunch, Giles.’

‘Yes, Miss.’

She called to him just as he was passing through the classroom door.

‘Thank you for the presentation this morning, Giles. It was very interesting.’

‘Thank you, Miss.’

*

He was orbiting Jupiter with his lunch, sitting under the leafless tree that grew on the patch of playing field furthest from the school. The voices of the other children floated to him on the air like distant messages from mission control.

His blue lunch box lay beside him as he ate a cheese sandwich. As well as sandwiches, it contained an apple, a packet of crisps, a chocolate bar and a carton of blackberry juice, all as artfully and economically packed as any astronaut’s provisions. It was important to be supplied with a carefully balanced nutritional package when so far away from home, circling a massive gas giant.

Giles thought of his home, millions of miles nearer the sun and so much warmer than these frigid wastes of space. He saw his busy bedroom walls with their posters of important satellites and spacecraft–from Sputnik to Mars Rover Curiosity–and the recreations of these machines which he had crafted from modeling sets and which stood on every available surface.

Would he ever return? Was there enough power in his engines to turn from his path and cross the distance back? He did not think so: he had traveled too far already. It was a one-way mission, after all. He wondered if his parents would be angry with him when they found out he had gone on such a journey without their leave, or if they would even notice.

Giles was so absorbed in these far away meditations that he was not aware of Archie until a foot kicked his lunchbox and sent his apple rolling off across the grass like an out of control moon.

A shadow fell over him: he looked up.

‘Did you tell?’ said Archie.

Giles shook his head. ‘No.’

‘What did she want?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Giles, shrugging his shoulders. ‘She just asked me some questions.’

‘What sort of questions, Spaceman?’

‘Just questions.’

Archie suddenly dropped on Giles, shoved him into the dirt at the base of the leafless tree and pinned him under his enormous knees.

‘Did you tell on me?’

Archie’s knees were squeezing so much air from Giles’s lungs that he could barely find the breath to answer: ‘No!’

‘Did you?’

‘No!’

‘Bloody freak.’

With a last vindictive shove at Giles’s head with his spade-like palm, Archie released him and jumped up.

‘Tell on me and you’re dead.’

‘I won’t,’ said Giles.

‘Shut up, Spaceman.’

*

Using Jupiter’s enormous gravitational field, Giles shot himself out on a new trajectory across the empty spaces of the playing fields and away from those distant laughing voices.

Soon he was beyond Saturn and still traveling, his lunchbox with his essential supplies gripped in his hand as he walked and walked. He was covered in dust and tears. His cheek throbbed where Archie’s hand had struck.

But Archie was seventeen hours from him and could not hurt him; he was so impossibly remote from all living things that none could touch him. Giles was on his way to places they could not even imagine, covering distances that seemed impossible to them: he was voyaging alone into an astonishing universe.

At last he reached the heliopause, the boundary of his solar system. The school walls stretched out on either side of him.

Pushing his lunch box to the top of the wall, he scrambled up beside it and sat looking at the distant school building, watching the scurrying dots that played inside its protective embrace—so far away that he could barely even hear their voices.

He turned and dangled his legs over the other side of the wall with his back to the school. Across the fields in front of him ran the main road out of the town, where cars passed continually on their journeys to unknown destinations.

He was at the limits of the solar system, his signal weak, all alone on the boundary of the Sun’s influence—so distant that he could no longer feel any of its warmth touching his heart.

The school bell was ringing and ringing, sending him a message which he had traveled too far to hear. He picked up his lunch box and looked out at the vast reaches of interstellar space stretching out in front of him.

He had a long way to go: he jumped off the wall.


Robert McGinty can be contacted via his Twitter account @robertmcginty1 or through his blog. More of Robert’s work can be found here.

 

Excerpt from A Fine House in Trinity by Lesley Kelly

Lesley Kelly has worked in the public and voluntary sectors for the past twenty years, dabbling in poetry and stand-up comedy along the way.  She has won a number of writing competitions, including the Scotsman’s Short Story award in 2008. Lesley lives in Edinburgh with her husband and two sons.

What follows is an excerpt from A Fine House in Trinity, Lesley Kelly’s debut novel, which was published by Sandstone Press in April of 2016. A Fine House in Trinity was also long-listed for the McIlvanney Prize 2016.


 

1939-1949

 

See, if I had to blame somebody for the state of my life, if I had to root around in the dark recesses of my past and choose the one person that I could legitimately point a finger at and say, ‘It was you. You started all this. You started me on the drinking, the sleeping around, the not holding down a job. Everything. It was you.’ See, if I had to do that, I know exactly who I’d name as the culprit, and I know exactly the date of his crime. The date? 24th July 1948. The person? Josef Wiśniewski. My grandfather.

If you’d met him though, God rest his soul, you’d have thought him the sweetest old fellow going. And to give him his due, my grievances aside, he was a good man. He steered clear of most of the vices of men of his generation. His wages never went to line a bookie’s pocket. He never had his fill in the pub then gave his wife the benefit of the back of his hand. I never even heard him curse, although maybe he confined his bad language to his mother tongue. And he was always, always good to Granny Florrie (who wasn’t really our granny but, well, we’ll get to that one later).

In fact, to my eyes the man only had one fault–an overwhelming love for Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II. I know not everybody would see that as a flaw, but when you grew up in the Workers’ Republic of Leith like I did, it seemed a wee bit odd at least. But, Christ, the man was mad for royalty. His front room had so many pictures of Elizabeth II it would have put your average RUC canteen to shame.

But to understand why he did what he did (and by-the-by ruined my life) you have to understand where he was coming from. Grandad Joe was born in 1924 in a wee village just outside Lvov in Poland. To hear him talk, it was a bloody countryside paradise. A rural idyll. Birds singing in the trees, sheep in the fields, yadda yadda. The only fly in the ointment was that he was Polish, and most of his neighbours were Ukrainian, but for the most part they all rubbed along together.

There were five of them—Dad Filip, Mum Ewa, and his two younger sisters, Alicja and Anna, and Filip had high hopes for a couple more junior farmhands in the next few years.

By 1939 Joe was fifteen. He was at the local school with ideas in his head about going on to university (first one in his family to go, if he made it, and everybody was rooting for him). He wasn’t really keeping an eye on world events, to be honest none of them were; politics was an urban thing—what did the government of Germany have to do with getting the harvest in? What did they care who was in charge of the Soviet Union? Stalin knew squat about keeping your chickens happy. No, Joe was not worried. He was spending the best part of his time mooning over the lassies in his class, with big plans for getting into their knickers. After all, they were not short of hay to roll around in.

But that’s the thing about politics—just ’cause you choose to ignore it, doesn’t mean that it’ll choose to ignore you. On the 1st September 1939 German forces invaded Poland from the north, south, and west. A couple of weeks later, the Soviet Red Army invaded the eastern regions of Poland with the full support and cooperation of the Führer.

Filip was worried, but as he kept telling Joe, Poland wasn’t on her own. The British and the French would be sending in troops any minute, there would be a bit of bloodshed, he couldn’t deny it, but Poland would be liberated.

He was still holding to this line when the Red Army arrived at their house to tell them they didn’t live there anymore. Eastern Poland was now officially part of the Ukraine, and therefore the Soviet Union. Poles were no longer welcome to stay. Within days, Joe and his family were booted out of their house, and were on a train bound for the Soviet Union, and a life of communal paradise on a labour farm.

Siberia was cold. Brutally, mortifyingly, cold. Before he left Poland, the coldest Joe had ever been was on the ritual 3 am trip to the outside lavvy in the middle of winter, standing there with his hands shaking and hoping his wee man didn’t get frostbite, and by the time he got back to bed he was always so damn cold he needed to go again. That kind of cold? Siberia on a good day. In summer.

Wee Anna was the first to go. It started with a cough, then she lost her appetite for the meagre rations that were on offer, then she couldn’t get out of bed. Two months after moving to the camp, Ewa woke to find Anna dead beside her. She didn’t have long to grieve though, because within six months, both Ewa and Alicja had also passed away.

So, Joe and Filip were left on their own to try to make the best of life on the farm. They were used to life being hard back in the Ukraine but it didn’t compare to this. No equipment, no horses–they were trying to farm the soil with their bare hands. Just when they thought they couldn’t stand it any longer, politics found them once again. By 1941 Stalin and Hitler were no longer bosom buddies, the Poles were no longer the enemy, and they were pretty much free to go, if they could find their way back to Lvov.

Joe and Filip got themselves on the first transportation they could find back to Poland. Joe would have been on top of the world, if it wasn’t for the fact that he’d noticed that Filip had started with that oh-so-familiar cough. Sure enough, Joe waved goodbye to his last remaining family member somewhere in Azerbaijan, as the train door was opened and Filip’s corpse was dumped by the side of the track.

At the age of eighteen, Joe was orphaned and alone in the world. He joined the Polish Army, and saw out the rest of the conflict in Italy. Come the end of the war, the Polish situation had become a bit of an embarrassment to Churchill. Stalin was keen to hang on to control over Poland, and Churchill was not going to rock the boat, so it was the bum’s rush for Poland and the Polish Army.

Joe was flown to England, and demobbed. He was then given the choice–get flown back to Poland and take his chances with Stalin, or stay in England and take his chances here. He talked it over with his pals and they all came to the same conclusion. God Save the Queen.

One of his pals had a brother living in Edinburgh, so the pair of them took the next train North. Old Joe’d got a few bob in his pocket from the demob, so when he got to Edinburgh he decided he was going to get a room to himself. Lebensraum. He’d never had a room all to himself before, between his sisters, the labour farm, then five years sharing with other squaddies, but Joe decided–the good life started here.

He waved goodbye to his friend then wandered down the cobbled streets of Edinburgh until he saw a ‘Room to Let’ sign and chapped the door. An old wife answered.

‘I looking for room.’

The old wife looked him up, and down.

Joe, sensing reluctance on her part, tried to reassure her. ‘I have money. Can pay good.’

‘Oh, aye. And what’s your name, son?’

‘Josef Wiśniewski,’ he said proudly.

To his surprise the woman started shaking her head. Through the rapidly closing door she said, ‘Oh no, son, I’m not having any of you Poles staying here. You lot should be long gone by now.’

And with this welcome to Scotland, Joe realised that not everyone was all that grateful for their war effort.

 

Joe was sleeping on a bedroom floor with five other men and working twelve-hour shifts down Leith Docks. But he was not without ambition. He could do well in this country, he thought, if only he could be a bit more, well, British. He looked at his fellow Poles, all living on top of each other, drinking themselves insensible at weekends, and wondered if there wasn’t more to life than this.

One Sunday morning he was out for a walk when he saw a sign in a newsagent’s window. ‘English lessons. Good rates. Enquire within.’ Suddenly it all became clear to Joe. He was going to improve his English, get a job in an office and go to night school. He’d get his degree, get a better job and woo some Scottish lassie. He pushed open the door to the newsagent’s and nearly fell over the step in his haste to begin his self-improvement.

 

Miss Ailsa Morrison was a very proper-looking young woman. She explained that she was a qualified primary school teacher and was offering English lessons in the evenings. Her father did not approve of her teaching foreigners so she was holding the lessons in the back room of the newsagent’s. She named her price.

In the first lesson he learned about English nouns, and noticed how beautiful Miss Ailsa Morrison’s eyes [noun] were. The second lesson covered verbs and adverbs, and Joe noticed how delightful Miss Ailsa Morrison’s laugh was. She laughed [verb] beautifully [adverb]. By the time they reach prepositions he realised he was completely in [preposition] love with Miss Ailsa Morrison.

Ailsa, for her part, played her cards close to her chest. It must have been obvious to any observer that she’d got a lovesick Pole on her hands, but she didn’t encourage, or for that matter, discourage, him. She was, however, happy to listen to his stories at the end of each lesson. He told her about his family, his experiences in Italy, and what life was like for him in Scotland. When he suggested they meet for a walk one Sunday afternoon, she blushingly accepted.

 

After six months of careful tutoring, Joe felt confident that his English was good enough to start implementing his plan. So he headed into town and presented himself at the first office he came to. There were three men in the office, so he addressed himself to the one who looked the most senior.

‘I am looking for work.’

The man looked him up and down in a way that was becoming familiar. ‘Oh aye. And who might you be?’

‘My name is Josef Wiśniewski.’ Joe hated himself for the small hint of defensiveness now in his tone.

The two other men sniggered.

‘The boss doesn’t employ papes.’

Joe thanked them for their time, and hurried back to find out what a ‘pape’ was.

 

‘Oh, Joe,’ said Ailsa, ‘It’s a rude word for a Catholic.’

Joe considered this new information. ‘But I do not go to church. How do they know I am Catholic?’

‘Well, your name I suppose.’ Ailsa sighed. ‘It’s a Polish name and Polish people are Catholic.’

‘I fight a war for this. I fight for Poland and now I cannot get accommodation and I cannot get job because of my Polish name.’

‘Oh, Joe,’ said Ailsa again. ‘I’m so sorry.’ And she took his hand.

They were sitting side-by-side in the room at the back of the newsagent’s. The newsagent had gone home.

‘Do not be sorry. It is not your fault. My name is my name and I proud of it.’

Ailsa was so moved that tears welled up in her eyes. Joe noticed her distress and wiped the tears away with his calloused hand. They were sitting very, very close together.

‘Oh, Joe,’ said Ailsa for the final time that evening. Joe put a finger to her lips and kissed her.

 

‘We can’t, Joe.’

They were sitting a respectable distance apart in the back room of the newsagent’s.

Joe threw his hands up in a gesture of disbelief. ‘I learn the words for nothing.’

‘And you said it beautifully,’ said Ailsa, tactfully ignoring the fact that he had just asked her to marry ‘it’. ‘But my father will never approve of me marrying a foreigner.’

Joe leaned forward and took Ailsa’s hand again. ‘Why not? I work hard, I get better job, I work harder for you and for our babies.’

‘The babies are the problem.’ Ailsa pulled her hands back to her lap. My father’s never going to accept his grandchildren growing up called Wiśniewski.’

Joe got to his feet. In one sentence Ailsa had confirmed all his fears. He walked slowly out of the room, and was halfway through the shop before he heard Ailsa call his name. He paused, looking at the tins of peas and the posters about sugar rationing.

‘I can still give you English lessons.’

He shook his head and opened the door.

 

Joe wandered the street for hours that night. He asked himself ‘in my position, what would Queen Elizabeth II do?’ (although I’m not sure she’d really have the frame of reference to imagine herself as a penniless twenty-four-year old Pole). But in a blinding flash of royal inspiration, Joe realised what Bessie would do, old Miss Saxe-Coburg-Gotha herself. What she would do is change her name to that of an inoffensive local town. So, he borrowed a map of the UK from work, closed his eyes, crossed himself for luck, rotated his arm three times above his head and came down hard.

On Staines.

Three days later he marched into the Victoria Street Registry Office and changed his name by deed poll. On 24th July 1948 Josef Alojzy Wiśniewski officially became Joseph Aloysius Staines.

 

Now, I’m not saying that things couldn’t have been worse. A couple of inches northwest and I’d be going through life as Joseph Bishop’s Itchington. At least that would have spared me a lifetime of ‘stain’ puns. In Joe’s position I might even have done the same thing. I can relate to his motives: he was too proud of his name to change it to get better digs, or a half-decent job, but the first whiff of a bit of skirt and he’d renounced all his patriotic fervour. I’ve done enough daft things over lassies myself.

And, I know that there was no malice in it. Old Joe didn’t realise when he went into the Registry Office, the repercussions his act would have twenty-five years later. He didn’t know the impact on my first day of primary school when the teacher sat us in alphabetical order. If old Joe hadn’t messed with nature I would have been nestling safely in between George Thompson, who went on to be Dux of the school, and Angela Young, who everyone agreed was the prettiest Gala Queen they’d ever clapped eyes on. I could have spent my formative years sandwiched between brains and beauty.

Instead, on my first day of school I sat down, turned my head, and stared into the fat, four-eyed face of Lachlan Stoddart.


Lesley can be reached via Twitter, @lkauthor. View an exclusive excerpt from Lesley’s new novel from Sandstone Press, The Health of Strangers, here.

The Archaic Smile by KC Murdarasi

KC Murdarasi is a Scottish author based in Glasgow. She studied Ancient History at the University of St Andrews, then worked as a missionary in Albania for a few years before returning to the UK.


 

The Archaic Smile

 

The van doors swung open, revealing the limestone figure, and Nicholas bit his lip to suppress a gasp. One leg in front of the other as if impatient to move, hands clenched into implacable fists, each muscle as perfect as the day it had been carved. Taking in every inch, Nicholas, curator of the Ancient World collection at the Royal Museum, swelled with pride. This was his purchase; he had negotiated it, organised the funds, arranged the transfer. Now here it was. Nicholas’ pale blue eyes burned as he stared at the statue. It didn’t meet Nicholas’ gaze, instead smiling impassively over his head.

“He’s a happy chappie, ain’t he?” said one of the couriers, jolting Nicholas back to the present. He realised he was shivering in his shirt sleeves.

“You’re late,” Nicholas snapped. “You should have been here two hours ago.” The couriers shot each other a look and started to wheel the carefully strapped statue up the ramp into the Royal Museum.

The London sunshine was weak, filtered by layers of cloud—nothing like the fierce sunshine of Greece, but it was welcome after centuries of darkness. One foot in front of the other, the statue entered its new home.

Nicholas led the way through the confusing passages of the museum, his quick steps sharply defined on the hard floors, until they reached the main gallery. In a small, dark room, off to one side, waited an empty plinth.

“Just here, please,” he said. His hands played nervously with his tie clip as he watched the couriers jack the statue to the right level, then painstakingly inch it on to the plinth. Nicholas’ thin frame, a picture of nervous energy, provided a contrast to the solid musculature of the limestone man who stared calmly over his head.

“Zakynthos Kouros,” read one of the men after they had finished. “Is that his name, then?”

“It’s what it is known as,” conceded Nicholas, frowning at the inexactitude. “It is a kouros, a statue of a young man, and it is from Zakynthos. Hence, ‘the Zakynthos Kouros’.”

“Who’s it supposed to be?” asked the other courier.

“No one knows,” said Nicholas. “It was probably a grave monument for a young warrior.”

“Well cheerio, Zak,” said the first man, “Keep smiling!” The two men laughed as they wheeled their platform back out to the van. Nicholas winced. The kouros kept smiling.

The young man in whose memory the kouros had been carved had been dead for some time when the commission was finished. His family, rich and influential, had the brand-new statue installed on the highest point of the island. The warrior’s grieving mother visited often, his other relatives less so. They left small presents, libations, remembrances, but soon the visits stopped and the young warrior was forgotten. The kouros remained, however. Unperturbed by the years he continued smiling to himself until everyone had forgotten why he was there. It didn’t take many generations before the islanders started to believe that his perfect form, larger than life, must represent Zakynthos himself, the legendary founder of the island. The small presents and libations began again, this time accompanied by prayers and requests for blessings from the hero Zakynthos.

Emma, the junior gallery assistant, popped her head into the room.

“Is this him?” she asked, “He’s amazing! You’d never know he was so old.”

Yes, you would, thought Nicholas, if you knew anything about it. He sometimes wished he could be more patient with junior staff like Emma. She had a real inquisitiveness which should be encouraged, but she knew so little that was of any worth. She had a degree in Cultural Studies. Nicholas thought Cultural Studies was the sort of thing people studied if they had no culture of their own, though he had never said this to her.

“Why is he in the side room? Why not in the central gallery?” Emma asked. Nicholas frowned. He had considered this for some time and still wasn’t sure about his decision.

“It’s easier to protect here. It would be preferable to display it in the main gallery, but I can’t take the risk of crowds jostling it.”

Emma nodded distractedly as she walked round the statue, looking it up and down. “There’s something funny about him,” she said. “It’s as if his forearms are on the wrong way. Or his hands are.” She made a fist and looked from her hand to his. “And his face–that funny little smile! Why did they make him smiling? Is he supposed to be a friendly warrior?” She gave a smile of her own to Nicholas. It wasn’t as effective on him as it was on other men, but it still had a thawing effect.

“It’s called the archaic smile,” Nicholas explained. “Early Greek sculptors found it hard to carve the mouth realistically. The solution, they discovered, was to carve little grooves on either side of it, giving the appearance of a smile. The archaic smile disappeared once sculptural technique improved.”

“Shame,” said Emma, “it’s really cute.” She reached up a finger to touch the kouros’ smiling face. Nicholas’s hand shot out, stopping just short of grabbing her wrist.

“Don’t touch it!” he snapped, shocked. “Never touch limestone without gloves. The acid in your fingers will damage the rock.”

Emma backed away, stung. She never seemed to be able to do the right thing where Nicholas was concerned. Nicholas saw that he had shaken her and wanted to apologise. But how could he apologise when he had only stopped her from doing something she should have known better than to do anyway? Instead, he spun on the heel of his shiny brown loafer and hurried off to his office.

The Zakynthos Kouros did not remain alone for long on his elevation on the island. Others arrived. Some were merely small relief sculptures, but others were kouroi like him, standing almost as tall as he did. These were in a new style. Their bronze bodies glowed like warm flesh. Their hair fell in realistic curls and the mouths on the faces of these boy-men had perfect, curved, pouting lips. And yet the islanders remained loyal to their Zakynthos, with his rock-cut, dependable, not-quite-right anatomy, his steady gaze and his cryptic smile; the offerings kept coming. From time to time over the decades an earthquake would shake the island. Some of the lighter bronze statues would fall and need to be propped up again, or repaired, or melted down, but the Zakynthos Kouros stood strong, the lord of the island.

Nicholas hunched over his computer, the light of its screen competing with the failing light of the autumn afternoon. He sighed and ran a hand through his unfashionable hair. More and more he had been feeling that he was not cut out for this job, or perhaps that the job was not cut out for him. At thirty-two he was one of the youngest collection curators the museum had ever had, especially of the prestigious Ancient World collection. Luck may have played a part, but Nicholas knew that his drive, intelligence and perfectionism had taken him this far this quickly. Yet now he found that what he’d achieved was not what he wanted. He was expected to line manage other people, people with no similarity to himself and apparently no sensitivity for the ancient world. He had free reign to display exhibits and design collections, which was his dream, but he was expected to submit reports detailing the educational value and accessibility of his choices. He was in love with the relics of the ancient world but he often felt that his work cheapened them.

Shaking his head, Nicholas pushed the subject out of his mind and went to work on his computer. There was a lot to finalise before the exhibition opened the next morning, and the central exhibit arriving late had not helped. He worked away doggedly at the final details of tour plans and exhibit guides before movement below distracted him. The smoked glass of Nicholas’ office looked down on the gallery, and he could see some of the junior staff near his prize exhibit. They had obviously come from other galleries to see the new purchase. Some of them had gone inside the room, and Nicholas could not see from here whether they were wearing gloves. Quickly saving his work on the computer, he hurried out of his office and down the stairs.

Earthquakes had become a feature of the kouros’ existence on Zakynthos, and he smiled on calmly as they passed him by over the decades and centuries. But the base on which he stood was gradually weakened, and the crevice in the side of the hill which had been there for centuries was gradually widening. Even he was not invulnerable; one day, much like any other, the shaking and rumbling started again, and this time the kouros did not stand strong. Tipped over onto the soft earth, with his fists clenched and his face still set in a smile, he rolled into the crevice. Dirt and debris piled on top of him, hiding him from sight. The islanders wondered what had become of their Zakynthos but, as after all earthquakes, they had more pressing concerns on their minds. The rain set the fresh dirt in the crevice, the grass sprang up, and the kouros was lost.

Down in the gallery, having protected the kouros from ungloved hands for the second time, Nicholas realised he would have to do something more permanent. There were Tensa-barriers in a storeroom. He didn’t like using them but it was obviously necessary–there were currently no glass cases large enough to hold the kouros. Nicholas looked around to make sure that nobody was waiting to prod his purchase while he was gone, but it was the end of the working day and the last of the assistants was leaving the gallery. Relieved, Nicholas hurried to the storeroom.

Other earthquakes followed while the kouros was buried in the hillside. He could feel them pressing on his stone limbs, the earth shifting around him, packing him in more tightly. Sometimes it seemed as if the pressure must crack the limestone, but each time the strong rock held out, surviving another year, another decade, another century beneath the ground. Goats walked over him, rains fell on the earth above him, but the kouros’ stone smile stayed in place.

Nicholas took a deep breath and released it slowly. He always felt more at ease when the museum was empty, when it was his private domain. He set up the garish black-and-yellow striped bands around his prize exhibit, a metre and a half from the statue, far longer than any arm. There was barely any space left in the small room—no risk of a crowd. This was the first time the statue had ever been on display since it was discovered, and Nicholas felt the responsibility keenly. Only expert archaeologists had ever seen this statue, and he could not allow it to be damaged now that it had been entrusted to the care of the Royal Museum. He set up a metal placard holder behind the barrier, then hurried up to his office for the final item.

In the end it was another earthquake which had released the kouros. A spate of tremors occurred close together, sending panic through the islanders, who now drove cars and carried phones but still feared the shaking and rumbling as their ancestors had. The crevice in the hill, so long filled in, started to open again. The dry earth shifted and broke apart. Eventually, one of the many quakes dislodged enough earth to reveal a piece of the Zakynthos Kouros: one foot poked out into the light, as if he had kicked the hole himself. Once the quakes and aftershocks were over, it wasn’t long before the foot was spotted. The exultant looks on the faces of his discoverers when they realised that they’d found a whole archaic kouros reminded him of his early admirers. He smiled.

A piece of paper flapped in Nicholas’ hand as he walked quickly to the centre of the gallery. He slipped under the barrier and placed it on the placard holder, behind the plastic panel. ‘CAUTION: Do not attempt to touch this statue as it is very delicate’. Yes, that would do. Now all that remained was to shut down his computer and lock up. He wanted to get an early night, ready for the opening of the exhibition in the morning. It would be his triumph. He leaned down to adjust the piece of paper in its holder.

The smile on the kouros seemed sinister in the half-light of the side room. Towering above Nicholas, it looked far from delicate. It had survived its identity being forgotten. It had survived new styles of art and new philosophies. It had survived earthquakes too numerous for even an ancient hero to remember. It was lord of the island of Zakynthos.

The limestone remembered the tremors, the shaking and rumbling. It remembered the sensation of toppling, falling, from so long ago. Slowly it began to move.

Nicholas looked up from fiddling with the paper, but too late. He tried to back through the door but the barriers hindered him. The kouros crashed down on top of him. Its clenched stone fists pinned Nicholas’ arms to his side. The weight of its torso stifled him from crying out. There was silence.

*

The opening of the new Archaic Exhibition the next day was a great success. No one commented on the empty plinth in the side room. Instead, people’s eyes were drawn to the star attraction in the centre. One of the junior staff hurried over to Emma as casually as he could and spoke in a low voice so that the spectators could not hear.

“What on earth happened last night? I heard Nicholas got crushed by a statue or something?”

Emma replied in the same low tone. “It was the Zakynthos Kouros, the new one. But it’s okay; Nicholas is going to be alright. A cleaner found him this morning. A few broken ribs, but it looks like that’s all.”

“Poor sod!” replied her colleague. “What have you done with the statue? Was it smashed? That thing’s worth millions!” Emma raised her eyebrows and leaned closer.

“It was completely undamaged!” she whispered. “Nicholas must have broken its fall.”

“Dedicated to the last,” chuckled the boy. “But you haven’t displayed it, have you?”

“Of course I have,” Emma said, obviously proud to have been the one to make the decision. “Nicholas would want me to. But it’s okay, I’ve taken precautions.” She led him over to the centre of the room where the largest crowd was clustered.

“I’ve moved it to the central plinth. The other one must have been unstable. And I’ve put up those metal security barriers, not the stretchy ones. And I’ve put up a sign too.” She pointed to the display board which stood in front of the strong barriers. “It was open on Nicholas’s computer so I just changed it a bit and printed it.”

The limestone statue now towered over a sign that read: ‘CAUTION: Do not attempt to touch this statue as it is very dangerous.’

Standing tall in the centre of the gallery, staring over the heads of its new admirers, the kouros smiled.


Karen can be reached via her website: www.kcmurdarasi.com.

Uncovered by Sheena Kamal

Sheena Kamal was born in the Caribbean and immigrated to Canada as a child. She holds an HBA in political science from the University of Toronto, and has most recently worked as a researcher for the film and television industry. Her debut suspense novel Eyes Like Mine has been sold in over a dozen countries and is published in the U.K. by Bonnier Zaffre.


 

Uncovered

 

They stared at the face, uncovered.

That’s her, said Esme.

Don’t be daft, said her husband. He walked away from the body on the slab.

Esme did not follow him. She confirmed her daughter’s identity to the police and got a cup of peppermint tea from across the road before going back to the car, where her husband waited.

The car ride back home was tense.

He made their afternoon meal, as he always did these days, but left the stir fry on the stove before she came down from her shower. Esme heard him in the basement, puttering around. He came upstairs with his golf clubs, announced he was going to play a few holes, uh huh, and left. Refusing to stay, refusing to grieve a daughter he didn’t want to say goodbye to.

She had expected something like this. He had been having an affair for three years now. She had become suspicious when he took up cooking and golf almost simultaneously. She’d canceled his golf membership after one year, and he still hadn’t noticed.

Nicole had told her that he was cheating, which Esme had denied, of course, because it wasn’t any of their daughter’s business. Besides, it was better this way. Imagine if he had taken up cooking and then stuck around to harass her each afternoon?

With Nicole gone, Esme was free. She loved her daughter, but when jewellery started to go missing, when her husband began sneaking money from their account to give to Nicole, when Nicole began running away from home whenever the mood struck, when Esme had come home early one day to find her teenaged daughter’s beautiful face buried in some jock’s crotch, her lovely dark hair held up in a sweaty male fist… it was all too much for Esme. Her life in this country was a joke. This was not the dream she’d had when she moved up here, at first taking a job as a maid. It had seemed a stroke of luck that she met her husband right away, in this very house. He had been married to someone else then, but he was open to straying and had never changed.

Esme got her suitcase out from storage and packed clothes that were lightweight, brightly coloured and in breathable fabrics. When the cab came to take her the airport, she made sure she had the deed to the land back home and all the proper information to access her accounts. She had always been good with money. So much so that her husband never noticed how much of his she took over the years. The sum was nothing to him, but amounted to a small fortune where she was from–and she knew how to stretch a dollar, especially on her island, where she could live like a queen.

She left, thinking of the young woman on the slab. Her husband was right. It wasn’t Nicole. But the life insurance company didn’t have to know that. Her daughter was still alive somewhere and, Esme knew, would come looking for her if she ever came to her senses. Maybe they could make new dreams together, if it wasn’t too late.


Sheena can be reached via her Facebook page.

The End by Samuel Best

Samuel Best is a Creative Writing graduate from the University of Strathclyde and has been published in British, North American, and Scandinavian magazines. His debut novel Shop Front was described as “a howl and a sigh from Generation Austerity” and he founded the literary magazine Octavius.


 

The End

 

We’re stood out in some field in the middle of nowhere, maybe a mile or so outside town. I mean, a mile isn’t that far, but tonight we could be on another planet for all the life around us. We’re sharing a bottle of rum, drinking it straight in mouthfuls that make us shudder. Above, the sky burns as meteors leave lightning trails. In the middle of town a crowd gathers; we might even be able to see them from here, if we looked. Your teeth chatter and I pass the rum over.

‘Will there ever be anything so beautiful again?’ you ask, letting the bottle hang from your hand.

I reach over, my fingers grazing your skin, and you go to pass the spirit back. I set it down amongst the grass and it tips over. There isn’t much left to spill.

Standing back up, I take your hand in mine and squeeze. Our eyes are still fixed on the sky, a hundred bone-white needles piercing the night. I don’t really know what to say to you, and that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we’re here now, seeing this. The sky is on fire and there is no future beyond us. Our eyes sparkle and blaze like little stars, and when we blink the whole world goes black.


Samuel Best can be reached via Twitter, @samuelboag.

Excerpt from Magnie’s Boat by Hannah Nicholson

Hannah Nicholson is currently working towards her MLitt degree in Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen. She also graduated from the University of Strathclyde with a BA (Hons) in English with Journalism and Creative Writing in 2010, and during her studies she was a 2009 runner up of the English department’s Keith Wright Memorial Prize. Originally from Shetland, and a 2005 winner of the local library’s Young Writer of the Year Award, she is particularly interested in promoting the isles’ distinctive dialect as a medium of written and spoken Scots. She also currently has a poem featured on the website of Quotidian magazine.

Her novel-in-progress, Magnie’s Boat, is set in Yell in the 1920s and is inspired by a combination of local folklore and a personal interest in family history. The dialogue is written in Shetland’s own dialect, although the narrative is not. For reference, a Shetland dictionary is accessible here.


 

Magnie’s Boat, Chapter 1

 

Merran could still remember the day Magnie disappeared.

She was nine at the time. It was a bright sunny afternoon in May, with only the lightest breeze in the air. It rustled the fresh green grass that made up her family’s land near Cullivoe, in the north end of the island of Yell. The sky was a brilliant shade of blue, furnished by the occasional white cloud. The sun’s rays performed a xanthic dance on the surface of Colgrave Sound, the long stretch of sea water between Yell and the neighbouring island of Fetlar. Merran had never been there before, but on such a clear day she could see it from the front door of her family’s but-and-ben. She could also see Linga, the island that Magnie had told her about when she’d been younger. It was said that a man called Jan Tait had fought a bear in Norway as punishment for not paying his taxes, and when he’d beaten it, he had been pardoned and allowed to take it home. He’d left it on that island, tied to a post. Magnie had told her there were still circles in the ground in the place where the bear had once been. Merran had been enthralled. Maybe she would get him to take her to the island next time he was off and he could show them to her.

Since the weather was so beautiful, Magnie had declared his intention to head out in his little rowing boat and fish for mackerel for the family’s tea. He would only be on Bluemull Sound, the sheltered strait between Yell and Unst–another island nearby. He’d been in ownership of his vessel for around a year, having bought it with some of his Merchant Navy wages, and he revelled in his newfound freedom.

“Kin I come aff wi’ de?” Merran asked Magnie excitedly.

But Magnie showed that face he made when he was full of doubts, and he looked out of the window, then back at Merran.

“I doot no’ da day, peerie wife,” he replied gently, ruffling his hand through his youngest sister’s long brown hair. “Anidder day, mebbe.”

“Oh, a’right,” Merran sighed, not even trying to hide her disappointment. Magnie smiled.

“Al come back wi’ a guid haal,” he assured her.

“Will it be lik’ yun Galilee at we learned aboot in Sundee skule?” Merran asked excitedly.

“Better as yun,” Magnie said, winking at her.

The two exchanged smiles. Magnie may have been nineteen, and the oldest of the five, but he had always had a strong bond with his youngest sibling. This hadn’t changed even when he had been in charge of the croft during the Great War years, when their father, Ertie, was a prisoner of war in Holland. Merran hoped Magnie would manage all those fish on his own.

“Nixt time du’s aff,” she asked him, “will du tak’ me tae da bear’s island as weel?”

“Yea, I likely could,” Magnie said. “Canna be sure at da bear’ll be yundir, though.”

Merran giggled.

“Tak’ guid care oot yundir, Magnie,” Ruby admonished him as he left. “Da watters oot yundir at Bluemull kin cheenge ithoot ony prior keenin’.”

“Dinna du worry aboot me, Midder,” Magnie assured her. “Am been fishin yun watters fae I wis owld anoff tae hadd a pole. If am no’ back be tae time, send oot a search pairty.”

With that, he set off out the front gate and down the hill, and onwards to the pier.

The hours went by, and Magnie hadn’t come back. The day was still calm and bright blue. Ertie came in for his tea, along with Lowrie and Peter, Merran’s other two brothers. Merran’s sister, Betty, was by this time living and working in Lerwick.

“Whan time did he say he wid be back, Ruby?” Ertie asked. “No lik’ him tae be dis laet.”

“He said tae time,” Ruby replied, as she gazed out of the ben end window towards Bluemull Sound, her brow furrowed. “Dir somethin’ no’ juist aafil right wi’ dis, Ertie. We’ll need tae geng an’ look fir him.”

So Ertie and his two younger sons made their way down to Breckon beach in order to see if there was any sign of Magnie or his boat. After an hour the three of them returned. This time it was Ertie’s turn to furrow his brows. His face had drained of what little colour was left in it post-war.

“Dir nae sign o’ him, or da boat,” he said, his voice heavy with worry.

Merran could feel her heart sink into her boots. She looked up at her mother. On Ruby’s face there had appeared lines that Merran had never seen before. The look on her mother’s face was something she never wanted to see again.

When the family went to bed that night, none of them got a great deal of sleep. The following morning, the search parties were sent out to dredge the sound. All day Ruby paced the floor.

“I dinna understand it,” she said. “Da waddir wis da boannie yisterdee, a beautiful fishin’ day, an da soond wis flat calm. Dey wir nae sign o’ da watters turnin’. Whit could be come at him?”

“I dinna keen, my lass,” Ertie replied, going to her and trying to console her. “A’less dir been a whaal gotten separated fae its pod an’ laandit up here.”

“Wid it o’ gone fir him?” Ruby asked worriedly.

“No’ on purpose,” Ertie explained. “Yun kin worry dem, an dey sweem aboot in a blind panic.”

This did not reassure Ruby, nor any of the children.

There had still been no news when they went to bed that night either. Then, the following day, their neighbour Bertie Fraser came striding up the hill and shouted at Ertie. Ertie called on the family and they all ran down to the beach.

They were greeted by the sight of an upturned little boat being dragged ashore by some of their neighbours. Merran recognised it immediately; it was finished with cream-coloured paint and had a blue trim. When it had been pulled up on to dry land she ran down towards it. As she did, tears left salty tracks down her cheeks. When she reached the boat, she threw herself upon it and the sobs engulfed her. She was so shrouded in her own sorrow she didn’t notice her mother collapse and have to be carried back up the hill to the croft. Finally, she felt a hand on her shoulder and peered up. Bertie’s kind face peered back at her.

“Come alang noo, my bairn,” he said softly. “Du canna lay here aa’ day.”

“Laeve me,” she choked through her sobs. “Juist laeve me.”

“Nah, Merran,” Bertie soothed, “come du, lass. Come hame tae de fokk, dey need de wi’ dem.”

He gathered her up in his arms and carried her back up the hill. Weak from sobbing, all she could do was lean helplessly over Bertie’s shoulder and allow him to take her away from the scene.

The days following were a blur. Ruby spent most of them lying in bed, swallowed by grief. Upon hearing the news of her brother’s apparent death, Betty returned from Lerwick. It was left mostly to her and Merran to keep the house in order and to cook the evening meal although they themselves were grieving. Meanwhile, Ertie, Lowrie and Peter kept the croft going as best they could. Since there was no body to bury, a memorial service was held in the kirk. Magnie had made many friends during his time in the Merchant Navy, and the presence of those who weren’t still away bolstered an already large turnout. Still there was no explanation for how this had come to pass, for how could Magnie have possibly got into difficulty when there was no obvious sign of trouble on the water? The only plausible explanation was Ertie’s suggestion about a distressed stray whale.

Some days after the memorial service, Ruby took all the photographs of Magnie down and put them away in a box, which she then placed in a drawer in the living room. When her mother wasn’t looking, Merran found the box and went through the photographs. Her lost brother gazed steadily out at her from them. Merran could picture the blue of his eyes and the black of his hair even through the sepia tinge of the pictures. She could also envision his smile, mischievous and warm, even though he was straight-faced in many of the photos. Her favourite was one of him at the peat hill from the previous summer, taken shortly after his return from sea. He was wearing the same outfit he’d had on the day he vanished–his blue flat cap, a knitted Fair Isle jumper, dark blue trousers and a pair of rubber boots. He was smoking his father’s pipe and smirking as he did so. Merran compared it to another photo of him in his Merchant Navy uniform. In that one he was straight faced and neatly turned out. She took her favourite one and kept it in her bed, under her pillow. Magnie might have been dead, but she didn’t want his presence to disappear from the house, like those of her grandparents when they passed.

Of course, despite everything, life for the Williamsons had to go on. Betty remained at home for a few months until she was certain that Ruby could manage without her, then she returned to Lerwick. Lowrie, who was fourteen, left school that summer and also remained on the croft to help out his father. Both Merran and twelve year old Peter continued their education. Merran hoped to become a teacher, but despite her academic achievements her father had other ideas.

“Dinna be sae stupeet, lass,” he scoffed at her. “De, a teacher?”

“Oh, but Faedir,” she protested, “I wid love tae…”

“Oh, of coorse,” Ertie sneered, “I sood send de awa’ tae hae an education, an’ den du’ll mairry an’ hae bairns an gie it aa’ up, an hit’ll o’ been a total waste. Du’ll do as du’s telt!”

Merran pleaded and begged, but her father wasn’t for backing down. Her teacher didn’t get much further with trying to convince him, and so Merran, too, was destined to leave school at fourteen like her siblings before her. During this time, Magnie’s boat remained upturned on the spot where it had come to rest on Breckon beach. Steadily the paint peeled and the wood mouldered, and so the little vessel that had served to feed the family so many times fell into disrepair. It made Merran sad–that boat had been Magnie’s pride and joy for the last year of his life. He and his brothers had hoped to eventually save to buy a proper fishing boat together so they never had to go back to the whaling or Merchant Navy. Lowrie and Peter still planned to do this when they found others willing to jointly buy a suitable vessel.

Five years passed, but Merran never walked past Breckon beach without acknowledging her brother’s boat–without a grave it was all they had to remember him by. Sometimes while on the beach she would go and stand with it, and she would feel his presence. Merran sometimes couldn’t help but think of what Magnie would be like now, at twenty-four, had he lived. He had been a handsome and cheerful young man, and had caught the eye of many a lass on the island. Perhaps he would have married one of them, and they would have had lots of children. Merran tried not to cry. It all felt terribly unfair.

The wind began to pick up. Merran shivered and swept her hair out of her face as best she could and pulled her shawl around her. She was turning on her heel to go home when a figure standing next to Magnie’s boat caught her eye. She squinted. It appeared to be a woman examining the boat. Despite having never seen her before, Merran felt drawn to the woman, and decided to descend down the hill to the beach to speak to her.

The whole time that Merran made her way down, the woman never took her eyes from the rotting corpse of Magnie’s boat. She certainly didn’t seem to register Merran’s presence, no matter how close she got. When she was only a couple of feet away, Merran spoke up.

“Hello?” she called.


Hannah can be reached via her Twitter account, @selkiesong, as well as on her Instagram, @tooriekep.