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.

 

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.

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.

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.

Excerpt from Kinski in the Attic by Simon K Brown

Simon K Brown is a writer who lives in Edinburgh. He won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in 2017 and has had his work published by 404 Ink. He’s currently trying to squeeze out his third novel.

The following piece is an excerpt from Simon’s second novel, Kinski in the Attic.


 

Excerpt from Kinski in the Attic

 

Fraser Ross. Fraser Ross with his fucking fake tan and faux-hawk. Fraser Ross with his banger of a car parked in the square, honking and shouting at any women that pass. Fraser Ross with his fucking misspelt tattoo (“follow you’re dreams”). Fraser Ross with his monopoly on all the rich American golfers who come to play on the course. Fraser Ross with Becky Sutherland in the toilets at lunchtime. How could you, Becky?

It’s still chucking it down outside. Don and I scurry beneath the giant umbrella I nicked from the clubhouse, bounding over puddles as one. The few streetlights we pass bleach the raindrops. We vault the wall bordering Fraser’s back garden and take shelter beneath a plastic slide. The grass tickles our chins. I’m in no position to criticise, but if his house is anywhere near as cluttered as his back garden we’re going to be here all night.

But it could be worse. At least we’ve got ourselves a rain-free nook here. A square patch of light spills over the fence which runs round to the front of the house. He’s in. I slink up to the back door and try the handle. Locked. I tuck myself in beneath the dark double windows and skirt round the side, moving slow, soon passing what I take to be the living room window.

Farther along I find the bathroom window ajar. I listen for a moment to make sure no one’s in there, then push it open. It squeaks—I stop and drop to the ground. I listen again. Just the faint sound of things exploding on the TV. Don arrives and boosts me through. I swing one leg inside, half-expecting to knock something over but I don’t and, as I heave the rest of myself through, I see it’s actually quite fastidious; certainly not what I was expecting, what with the state of the garden. The room feels clammy and smells like cinnamon. Someone just took a shower.

I move from the bathroom into an L-shaped hall. The floor’s carpeted, which is just as well because my shoes were squeaking on the tiles. Light seeps out from under a door to my right; sounds like it’s where the explosions and throaty bellows are coming from. Other than that the hallway’s dark. Door open on my left. I can just make out a wedge of chintzy quilt. I tiptoe in.

Someone’s in the bed. Becky, curled up in the foetal position.

She stirs. I fall to the ground as silently as possible and get into a foetal position of my own. I lie there, willing every part of me invisible.

Creaks.

Need to move.

I drag myself under the bulging mattress. I think my legs are hidden but I can’t move my head to check. More creaks, a groan.

Becky plods into the bathroom and as soon as the door clicks I scramble out from under the bed and tap-tap on the window so Don knows where I am. He appears a few seconds later, hands shielding his eyes as he peers in, the tip of his nose squished against the glass.

I scour the room, keeping on ear on Becky’s progress. They’re not going to be in the chest of drawers, or the clothes basket. The walk-in closet?

Its mirrored door opens with a squeak. I brush aside all the shirts and dresses and there they are, tucked away at the back: Fraser’s golf clubs. The light is poor so I have to grope the club heads. Two drivers. Fifty-fifty. Fuck it. I pull both out and shove them down a trouser leg each, tucking the grips into my socks.

The toilet flushes.

Not enough time to make it out. I get back into the closet and palm the squeaking door shut. It’s still wobbling when she plods back into the room. The bed creaks. Could be waiting here a while. Shit, her dresses smell just like they did at school. If she were to catch me now, with a face full of laundered dresses, it’d be the talk of the town for months. There are people whose couches face their living room windows, where they lurk for hours on end, waiting for the slightest whiff of gossip.

The bed creaks again. Becky approaches the closet – and goes past it. She must open the living room door because suddenly all I can hear is tense music and constant gunfire. Might not have another chance. The closet opens easily enough. I hobble out into the hallway, where the door to the living room is open.

‘I’m not asking for silence,’ Becky’s saying. I scamper past the door, catching a glimpse of her in an oversized grey t-shirt.

‘Fine,’ shouts Becky, her voice coming into the hallway. ‘We’ll see how you like it tomorrow.’ I run round the corner and throw myself up against the wall with a clatter. Becky storms out of the living room and slams the bedroom door shut. I sigh and slide off the wall, no doubt leaving a sweaty impression behind.

The kitchen is cold and dark. I can see the top of the slide through the windows. My shoes squeak on the linoleum as I make for the adjoining utility room and the back door. The living room door opens, letting loose another flurry of gunfire and screamed dialogue.

Footsteps clomp in my direction.

I stride into the utility room, speed trumping silence, and lean into the bit of wall to the left of the archway, nearly tripping on a mucky old pair of boots. The clomping arrives in the kitchen, pauses. I think I’m breathing too loud. The clomping carries on, still heading towards me and my minimal cover. A noise like suction—the fridge. Glass chinks, the fridge closes. A few more clomps, a pop and a hiss, and the footsteps recede back to the living room and the yelling becomes muffled. I wipe my hands on my inner thighs. The key is in the back door and I slip out into the curtain of rain. A smile spreads across my face as the door closes behind me.

I skirt the house again to find Don, still beneath the bedroom window. He’s frowning but it fades when he sees me.

‘Get it?’ he whispers; I nod. He grins and we pick our way back through the garden, past a rusted trampoline collecting rain, past faded and deflated footballs, past reams of nettles, back over the wall into the street behind, striking out eastward, the cathedral’s floodlit edifice looming over the rainswept streets. At first I’m laughing along with Don, but as we get farther away from the house the smile fades from my face and a familiar gnawing at my insides starts up.

 

Outside the Social, cherries light up in arrhythmic patterns; little red constellations peppering the darkness. All the smokers hide under thin bits of piping despite it providing little protection from the rain. The whole building throbs to a muddied beat. If I touched the brick, I’d feel it. We handshake and fistbump our way through the usual suspects and ignore the half-joking, half-serious requests for drink.

Inside, there’s a decent-sized crowd. Seem to be a few from other towns as well, always the ones you have to watch. Anonymity and alcohol don’t mix well. The DJ’s shit. He’s trying his best to appeal to the only two who’re on the floor – a couple of girls who were the year above me, who pinch one another’s noses and shimmer up and down, their laughter exaggerated so it’s perfectly clear that they’re not to be taken seriously – which means we’re being subjected to some hideous early 00s pop. Perhaps because of this, everyone else has moored themselves against the wall.

There’s no sign of Joe so we get ourselves a couple of nips. Single malt – the Social’s got some sort of deal going with the nearest distillery where they sell a measure of it for a quid. I suppose the thinking is that if we get it on the cheap we’re more likely to recommend it to the rich Americans that come over, the ones with the disposable income to splash out on the more expensive bottles. Me and Don hung around with the son of one of these rich Americans a couple of summers back. He took us up in his dad’s private jet and circled the town. It was weird because I could see everything at once. My house, Don’s house, the schools, the cathedral, the golf course – our whole world visible through one tiny window. And that’s all well and good but it’s hardly a fucking driver is it?

This is it though: these are our Friday nights. Same faces, same chat, week in, week out. I feel like we’re all in a cuckoo clock, each of us following our little paths as we stream in and out of the house, performing the same stilted actions, day in, day out.

Joe and Campbell appear midway through our third. At first when I hold out the club – the expensive one, the other’s bog standard – he looks livid.

‘The fuck’s this?’ ‘It’s a golf-‘ begins Don, but I cut him off before he can finish.

‘I see you out there when I’m caddying.’ I whip the furry cover off the head. ‘Titleist 915D3. Worth about four hundred quid.’ Joe takes it and studies it. Anger has changed to irritation.

‘This isn’t the same thing.’

I shrug. ‘You’re right. But like I say, I see you out there. I think you need all the help you can get.’ Hope that was the right side of playful.

Joe snorts and tries to shake the smile from his face. ‘Aye, maybe you’re right.’ He holds out his hand for the other club. ‘That’s you then, Donny boy. As for you…’ Joe shoots out a hand and pins me against the wall by the neck. ‘…don’t you ever point so much as a fuckin finger at me again,’ he says, his spit flecking my face. I nod. He kicks my stomach so hard that I crumple and fall to the ground, trying not to throw up. The floor reeks of stale beer, which doesn’t help. I watch two pairs of shoes head to the door.

Don picks me up. He looks sheepish. ‘Sorry mun. Kind of all my fault.’ I bat his apology away. Still can’t speak. ‘Thanks though,’ he adds, slapping my arm. ‘Lifesaver.’

I get some air back into my lungs. ‘Welcome. Don’t do it again though, eh?’

Don offers me a drink (!) but I decline. The gnawing that started on the way from Fraser’s has only gotten worse and if I drink any more the evening might be a weepy affair.

I stop off at the shop on the way home. Place stinks of wet clothes. Sodden cardboard disintegrates beneath my feet as I search the shelves for a prompt. I’m perusing the eggs – organic, free range, or both? Why does the smallest decision have to have an ethical dimension tacked on? – when the shop bell dings and in walks Holly of all fucking people, with some huge hispanic looking guy in tow. Our eyes meet and she gives me this guilty look and she might say something but I’ve already pushed past her and fled out into the pissing rain.

I’m passing the cathedral when I hear an engine in the near distance that sounds as though it’s seconds from exploding. I look behind me: a pair of headlights blossom from pinpricks to golf balls and continue to swell.

I don’t have to think about it.

I step out onto the road and make like I’m crossing but loiter on the white lines, fumbling with my laces. When it’s close enough I lurch into its path. Brakes screech. The Beetle skids, carving up rain. The moment stretches out. The car glides towards me. I can see the horror on their faces, I can hear their screams. The car pirouettes round me in a neat arc and spins for a few more feet then stops, straddling the white lines. The driver winds down his window. His teeth are dazzling; there’s something of the Hollywood actor about him.

‘What the fack do you think you’re doing?’

I flap my arms. They fall back against my sides with a squelch. ‘Sorry.’ The driver swears at me and tears off into the night. I stare after him, watching his car become a red smear in the distance, then scrape the hair up off my forehead and continue to the Social.

I march straight up to the bar and get four whiskies lined up. Down they go, one after the other. I’m getting another when a girl I don’t recognise approaches the bar. Rosy cheeks, like she’s worked a farm all her life. Her features crowd the centre of her face. She catches me staring at her.

‘You’re a bit wet.’

‘This season’s look,’ straightening my duds, ‘marine chic.’

‘Suits you. Wait, you’re the one who got punched earlier, eh?’ I nod. My whisky arrives. I lift it up and knock it back. The girl leans in towards me. ‘You alright?’

I gaze far away, like a grizzled war vet. ‘I’ll live.’

The girl pays for her drink and comes close. ‘I hear that guy’s a drug dealer.’ As she mouths the last part I catch the vodka on her breath.

‘I’ve heard that too.’

‘So are you, like…’ Her eyes widen with suggestion.

I straighten up, roll the shoulders a bit. ‘Well I uhh, couldn’t say one way or the other.’

Real close now. Hint of blue above the eyes. ‘Could you get us some speed?’

‘Oh aye, sure, no bother.’ Like no one’s ever lied to The Girl From Another Town before. She looks back over her shoulder at her mates. ‘Wait here.’ I slink off to badger Valdas and return with a little bag of something clenched in my palm. She offers me some. I accept. Be rude otherwise.

Aggy (short for Agnes. ‘Dad says I’ll grow into it. Arsehole.’) and I tell each other everything about one another but it’s not for the simple pleasure of knowing; we rattle through our histories at a hellacious clip, like we’re cramming for an exam. Waves of artificial happiness carry us to my house. Afterwards, too wired yet to sleep, I stare at the ceiling, feet twitching, and try to ignore reality tugging at the corners of my consciousness.


Simon can be reached on Twitter, @SKBwrites, or via his website, www.simonkbrown.com.