‘Oh, Christ. Frankie, get up to the table and eat this. Liam as well.’
Abi shook the ketchup bottle and tipped it upside down. Behind her, Hayley was putting more bread in the toaster.
‘It’ll be OK, Abs,’ Hayley said.
Abi walked out and down the corridor to the shared toilet. But she knew that, for now, Hayley meant it. It would be all right. She’d scared herself. She’d look after the kids properly tonight, no problem, and for the next few times, weeks maybe, till it all started up again. It was a risk but Abi knew she’d have to take it. She always did.
When she got back, Hayley had put the rest of the sausages on and cracked two eggs into a cup. Frankie and Liam were throwing bits of chewed-up toast at each other.
‘Happy fu**ing families,’ Abi said.
In the end, though, it was Hayley who went out because both Frankie and Mia were sick again.
After she’d gone, Abi opened the window and leaned out, smelling the night. It was colder. She was not looking forward to winter, when the punters got fewer and the streets were bleak, but this was the last one, she told herself, the last winter. She’d go to the post office tomorrow, put more money away.
Liam was asleep wrapped in the old blanket, Mia too, but Frankie came crying to her, pale again and miserable. She picked him up and closed the window to keep him warm, then sat in the armchair with him until he too slept and the room went quiet. Occasionally, there was a racket from somewhere else in the house, someone shouting or dropping something, sometimes a car went by. But even that all settled eventually, so that Abi was left listening to the soft sounds of the three children breathing and stirring and mumbling now and again, and thinking about Hayley, out on the street.
The dawn was coming up a little later every day now but it was still the same soft, pearl-coloured light that sifted gently in through the window. He never drew the curtains and the bed faced the gentle slope of shingle that ran down to the silver water and the huge pale sky. Serrailler wondered how he could ever have woken to anything else.
He turned slightly. Her bare shoulder was towards him, her hair fanned out finely against the pillow.
She must have sensed him looking at her. She stirred slightly, murmured, turned. ‘What time –’
‘Twenty past six.’
‘Christ!’ She shoved back the duvet. ‘The boat’ll be here in half an hour, I’ve got to move. I said not to let me sleep in.’
‘I don’t call twenty past six “sleeping in”.’
But Kirsty McLeod was already on her way to the shower. Simon rolled onto his back and crossed his arms behind his head, propping himself up to look at the water, and at the heads of two seals which were bobbing close to the shore.
He had been on Taransay for six weeks and it felt like half a lifetime, remote from everything and everyone, in its own time that was somehow out of time. It had taken two days and a night of driving, a ferry and then a helicopter to get here, and it seemed as if he had fallen off the edge of the world. The last SIFT job he’d headed up had been exhausting, draining, terrifying and ultimately successful, but when he’d got back to his own CID the Chief Constable had taken one look at him and told him to take some leave.
‘Five young men were brutally murdered, one of them in front of you, Simon. You’ve been living like a rat in a sewer for weeks, you’ve been short of sleep and in some danger, and if your nerves aren’t in shreds they damn well ought to be. I’m extremely proud that you belong to us and you’ve done an amazing job, but I don’t want you back on my force until you’ve had a proper break. That’s an order.’
Sitting in the Chief’s office, he had suddenly felt all the wind go out of him, and as if he might be about to faint, throw up or burst into tears. Paula Devenish was right. He needed to get away. He had spent half an hour on the Internet tracking down this small, isolated cottage on the remotest Scottish island he could find, booked it, packed and set off. He had brought a single bag of old, rough, favourite clothes, some books and his rucksack of pencils, pens, inks and sketch pads. He had even thought of leaving behind his phone, but only for a moment – work wouldn’t call him, but family might. No one else. He had recently changed the number.
Kirsty was out of the shower, still damp, pulling on jeans, shirt and sweater which had been thrown across the back of the chair. He watched her. Thick, light brown hair with a deep wave at the end. Long legs. Blue eyes. A laughing face. That was what he had first noticed. A laughing face. She tied her hair up quickly in an elastic band.
‘See you,’ she said. She did not come over, did not kiss him goodbye, just waved and was out the door.
A minute later, Simon got up and went to the window, but by then, Kirsty McLeod was halfway up the track and away. In fifteen minutes she would be at the small cluster of houses, pub, shop and quay that was Taransay Village. Other than that, the islanders were scattered in single cottages and small houses across the island, overlooking other stretches of water, different fields and tracks, and the low violet and brown hills.
Kirsty was in a rush because the weekly ferry was due in with supplies and mail, and she was an essential hand, needed to carry boxes and crates from the boat to the one small hotel-cum-pub and the shop, in both of which she worked.
Kirsty McLeod. Serrailler shook his head, smiling, and wandered into the neat, small kitchen to make coffee.
There were virtually no trees on the island, which took the winds from all corners of the earth, so he did not have the usual markers for the onset of autumn, but the light had changed subtly, and everything seemed to be slowing gradually, like a creature moving towards a long winter. Not that anything ever moved quickly on Taransay. Life was lived at a steady, measured pace, quite different from the one he was used to; people did not hurry and there was little noise other than the sounds of nature. For the first few days here he had slept, taking sleep in great draughts like cool water after a drought, and had soon lost much sense of time and the progress of the weeks. Coming to, he had wondered briefly if he would become bored or restless. He need not have worried. He slipped into the life and the pace and floated on its surface, never for a moment missing anything about his usual life, other than his family. He sometimes woke late, sometimes early, sometimes went to bed before nine, hardly able to remain upright, sometimes went out walking on the shore at three in the morning. He ate and drank when he felt like it. And then, going across to the village pub for supper one evening, he had met Kirsty McLeod.
It was the most uncomplicated relationship he had had since the early days of Diana – more so because Kirsty had made it clear that she was not likely to fall in love with him and certainly would not want to follow him when he left the island for home. She was a local girl but she had left to study biology at the University of Glasgow, stayed to do teacher training and worked in schools in the city for three years before realising that she was homesick at too deep a level to stay away any longer. She had returned to the island to help the various members of her family run the hotel, pub and shop, and, more recently, had taken a business studies course online. She was no fool, she was even-tempered, cheerful, pretty, without baggage and they had fallen into an easy friendship. But it had been Kirsty who’d stepped the friendship up a level when she’d appeared at the cottage late one night.
Simon enjoyed having her in his bed, liked her company, found her straightforwardness and slight stubbornness attractive. But that was all. It was all for her, too. The whole thing worked pleasantly and easily, and when he eventually went home, it would end in the same spirit. He had found out, in any case, that a farmer on the other side of the island regarded Kirsty as his own for the future, if not just for the present, and Simon guessed that he was right – when Kirsty was ready to settle she would do so with Douglas and that would be for the best too.
He opened the cottage door and wandered out onto the strip of thin grass which was all the place boasted as a garden. From here there was an uninterrupted view down to the water. The seals had gone but they would reappear later, sleek dark heads surfacing and diving. There was barely a line between sky and sea and little colour but different washes of grey, soft brown, faded green.
He had spent hours walking about the island, sitting on outcrops of rock to draw the landscape, the hills, the bobbing heads of the seals, cormorants, gulls, divers. He had brought back sheeps’ heads picked bare and whitened by the wind and salt air, strangely shaped stones and pieces of driftwood, and had drawn those, sitting in the clear light at the table in the window, or, when it was warm enough and not too windy, outside. His drawing books were almost full.
He had met a few people, enjoyed his trips to the pub, bought what he needed from the shop, and avoided the visitors. Taransay was a paradise for birdwatchers and walkers, but had little else to offer. The cottages dotted about the island, like this one, were rented out for five months of the year – otherwise, the island was too difficult to get to, too bleak and windswept.
It was the end of September. He had another week, though he could extend the rental for as long as he chose, but he knew he wouldn’t enjoy a winter here even if he could stay. The Chief had been generous with the leave but he would not take advantage of that, though there were days when he was so content to sit in the open air, eating a sandwich, drawing, happy in his own company, that he wondered how he could go back.
He had had the time, space and solitude to clear his head as well as sleep away months of exhaustion, and, equally important, to think about his life – whether he still wanted to do his job, as a DCS and as head of the Special Incident Flying Taskforce, whether he wanted to try and take up again from where he had left off with Jane Fitzroy – wherever that had been. When he had first arrived on Taransay both had seemed complex, difficult areas of life, but, to his surprise, they had sorted themselves out rather quickly. He did want to carry on with his job. He enjoyed it, he was still challenged by it, he found it satisfying. He would never be content as a full-time professional artist, though by now he could have become one – the London gallery wanted to mount a new exhibition of his work, he was illustrating a private press book, and he had more than enough plans for what he wanted to do next, after he had sorted out the Taransay drawings. But he needed the other half of his life, the balance of the two, he was quite sure of that now. And Jane he would not see again. Jane had too many uncertainties and anxieties And, increasingly, he felt that he would never need, want or find a lasting close relationship. The Kirsty Mcleods of this world suited him fine.
When Kirsty had discovered what his job was she had shrugged and said ‘Great’, but shown no real interest, asked no questions – that was refreshing too. ‘You’d have nothing to occupy you here,’ was the only other thing she had said. It was true. Taransay was crime-free and only boasted occasional visits from the police during the season. They checked gun licences but were otherwise severely underworked.
An hour later, he walked down to the village. The wind had got up again, pushing at his back. He would find that tiresome through a long winter, the moaning and battering of the gale as it scoured the island for weeks on end.
The ferry had come in, the only contact with the outside world other than a small passenger helicopter which came twice weekly in the summer. Serrailler had a friend from training days who was now heading up the local force on the mainland and had called in a favour, to get his car mothballed at the police station pound while he was on Taransay. He would fly back soon, to pick it up and start the long drive home.
But for now, there might be mail and he needed bread, eggs and coffee. As he neared the landing stage he saw Kirsty carrying a couple of large cartons off the boat and offered to help her.
‘I’m fine,’ she said, laughing, ‘you just get the next one.’
He joined the others who were unloading, lifted a heavy box of groceries and headed across the shingle to the post office and shop.
There was no mail for him. He had hardly had any during his stay, and that suited him perfectly well. In any case, though there was no mobile phone signal here, Taransay, like many other remote places, had been parachuted into modern life and global communication with the arrival of wireless broadband. He had come down to the café a couple of times a week to access emails, mainly from Cat, though quite often from Sam too, and once or twice from his father. He had even received a flurry of them from his brother Ivo, who was a flying doctor in the Australian outback. Ivo wrote no letters, only the very occasional laconic postcard. His emails were equally terse but they were often funny, and Simon realised that he’d had more communication with his triplet during his weeks in the distant Scottish isles than he’d had for years.
But it was Cat he needed to keep close to him, Cat about whom he worried. He had been so concerned about how Chris’s death had hit her, how she would cope, he had almost decided not to come here at all. She had been the one to push him into it, insist that he needed the long break, and of course she had been right but it didn’t stop him worrying. Physically, managing work and family, she would be fine – she was competent, she would grit her teeth and get on with it, and she had plenty of friends and willing help. She also had Judith, with whom she had formed a close bond that Simon should not have resented – but did. But emotionally, he knew, Cat was only just holding herself together, was more vulnerable than she would admit. He was the one to whom she always turned.
He spent the next half-hour helping to unload the ferry, then got a mug of coffee and paid for access to one of the Island Café’s two computers. The shop was busy and noisy, the café quiet.
From [email protected] /* */
I am sending this from the school computer in lunch hour. Thanks for the pictures of the island. I wish I could come up theyre and see you. Im OK, school is OK. I have not been picked for the rugby or soccer teams but I don’t mind. I am liking hockey which I didnt play b4. Cricket is better. If you go to the Scottish island again can I come with you? I miss talking to you about things. I miss you being here, when are you coming home? Have you been fishing if so what kind of fish? I am reading a very good book called Northern Lights. Did you know the other name for Northern Lights was aurora borealis? Can you see those on your island?
Love from Sam.
PS Hannah still likes puke pink everything. Judith bought her a puke pink new bedcover. It is puke.
PPS I really wish you were here.
There were no other messages.
Simon spent the rest of the day on the other side of the bay, drawing two of Taransay’s ancient cairns and the hollowed-out section of rock behind them, which had been excavated a few years previously and found to be an Iron Age burial site. It was windy but he was well sheltered. He had been here several times, trying to capture the roughness and textures on the stones, the intricate overgrowth of lichens, the shading of the ground. There seemed to be so little in this bleak landscape and yet, the more closely he looked, the more detail he saw.