Cathay

The cabin boy looked down from the crow’s nest, trying to make out the shapes of waves breaking against the ice floes in the fast-encroaching darkness.

“There’s nothing to see down there.” The old sailor muttered from behind an ice-flecked beard. “It’s too dark.”

“I liked it when it didn’t get dark all night.” The cabin boy blurted out, after a few seconds.

“Yeah, that was nice.”

“Is it true that the Sun doesn’t come up all winter as well up here?”

“That’s right.”

The old sailor pulled his cloak tighter around him, as the wind began to blow harder and colder from the frozen ocean.

“I can’t wait to get to Cathay.” The cabin boy said, into the wind.

The old sailor didn’t answer. He probably hadn’t heard.

“What do you think Cathay’s like?” The cabin boy continued, not put off by his companion’s stern countenance.

“Dunno. Never been.”

“I bet it’s amazing.”

“Yeah, probably.”

The cabin boy stopped talking, as if trying to think of something else to say. The old sailor was humming something, low and vague and tuneless. The cabin boy looked down again but in vain now, for the night had wrapped around the ice floes and the sea and the ship.

In the crisp moonlight, the old sailor pulled a piece of dried fish out from somewhere inside his cloak, tore a piece off, and began chewing, loudly. He handed a piece of his fish to the cabin boy, who tore at it with his teeth like a dog playing with a bone.

The sailor went back to humming his incoherent dirge. The wind was quieter now and the creaks of the sailor’s lips became one with the creaks of the ship far below, its anguished groans and pitiful sighs, heard by none but those within.

The cabin boy yawned, and a big cloud of his breath condensed in front of him, before disappearing into the night.

“Tired, huh?” The sailor observed.

The cabin boy nodded.

“Same.” The sailor continued. “But it’s too cold to sleep.”

The cabin boy took a gloved hand out from inside his cloak, and an absent-minded finger began rubbing abstract, swirling patterns out of the frost on the mast, sparkling in the moonlight.

“Have you ever seen the Northern Lights?” He said, suddenly.

“Yeah, I have.” The Sailor responded.

“What’s it like?”

“It’s beautiful. It’s nothing like anything else you’ll ever see.”

“Where do you think it comes from?”

“Dunno.”

“I hope I get to see it.”

“Don’t worry. You will. We’ve got a long winter night coming.”

“It’s my birthday in a week.” The cabin boy came out with, out of nowhere.

“Is it now? Well, I’ll remember to say Happy Birthday to you then.”

“Do you think we’re almost in Cathay?” The cabin boy asked, unsticking his glove from the frosty mast.

“Dunno. There’s no charts out here. Nobody’s been here before us.”

The Arctic wind had sent a great mass of cloud in front of the moon and right across the sky, and now the only things an eye could anchor on were the torches on the distant deck, before endless unknown and icebound darkness.

“Is it true that in winter all the sea up here freezes totally solid, like rivers do, and it doesn’t thaw for months?”

The sailor said nothing. He probably hadn’t heard over the wind and the waves. The cabin boy kept talking anyway.

“But we’ll be alright. We’ll find some land and wait for it to thaw and we’ll keep going to Cathay. We’ll be alright. Won’t we?”

The wind had picked up again, stronger than before. The cabin boy sunk his chin down into his coat.

“Won’t we?”

The crow’s nest swayed, the great oak beams moaned, and the unseen wind shrieked in the masts and hissed in the rigging, tearing across the unknown ocean.

Keep on Running

Entered in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2018.

The desert just, sort of, keeps going. That’s the first thing you notice about it. Endless sand on the left, and endless ocean on the right.

Nothing can live here but the most resilient tufts of grass, soaking up what moisture they can get in the wind from the sea.

I had been on the bus since last night. I had seen the Sun rise over the desert, and it was once more beginning to set over the shimmering sea.

I drifted off to sleep for a moment, with my face against the dusty window.
When I woke up, the bus was pulling over at some run-down old outpost. There’d be an overpriced shop, and a restaurant, and some scummy toilets. The usual. There were no signs of life except a skinny dog with patchy fur and one eye, wandering aimlessly around.

The Sun was almost entirely below the horizon now, and Venus was gleaming in the clear Western sky.

Most of the passengers got off the bus. I waited for the man sitting next to me to get up before I followed. It had been 4 hours since the last stop, at another of these lonely stations, where the desert meets the sea, and I could barely move my legs.

I stood up, clumsily, and walked towards the door, stepping out into the cool desert twilight. None of the other passengers were out here. They must all have gone inside. I paced around the yard a bit, with the decrepit dog watching me intently from a few metres away. I walked round to the other side of the bus.
I recoiled.

Then I looked closer, to make sure I’d seen it right.

There was a pile of sand, that had been blown across the road. And, sticking out from it, a hand. A human hand, with the end of a black sleeve.

I shouted for help, several times. Nobody answered.

I walked over, tentatively. I reached out and touched it, quickly withdrawing my hand at first, and then going back for longer.

It was cold, and stiff.

I took a few deep breaths and started to brush the sand away.
It was the body of a woman, face down in the sand, dressed all in black. I turned her head to see her face.

I leapt back. I leaned in. It was. It was her. I ran. I ran back round and back into the bus. I’d be safe in there. I’d be safe in there. It wouldn’t be real when I was back in there. But it was. It was Caitlyn I’d seen. Her face pure white, her lips grey, her jumper stained with congealed blood, a deep, gaping ravine of blood right across her neck.

It can’t have been. It was three years since she’d died. But it was. It was. She was real. I’d touched her. I’d felt her cold, clammy skin.

I stumbled back to my seat, tripping over a bottle of water that someone had left on the floor without the lid screwed on properly, sending it streaming down the aisle.

There was nobody else on the bus. Everyone who had been here must have left, but I couldn’t see anyone else out of the windows. Just that stray dog.
My phone buzzed. With shaking hands, I took it out of my pocket, unlocked it, and read the message:

“Keep on running, keep on running”

I didn’t think there was a phone signal here.

There definitely wasn’t a phone signal here.

I threw my phone down the aisle.

I began pacing, up and down, up and down, up and down.

Where had everyone gone? Was I alone here now, trapped in this desolate place, at the ends of the Earth?

Then I saw it on the back seat. I saw the swarm of flies first. I walked closer. I could hear them, buzzing incessantly. I knew what it was. I knew what it was that I’d see there. I turned round, and walked quickly away. There it was again, right in front of me this time, in one of the aisle seats.

There were maggots crawling in Caitlyn’s eye sockets. Her hair was falling out, along with chunks of flesh. Flies swarmed around her abdomen, where worms were devouring her viscera.

I turned again and ran for the exit, to get anywhere away from this place. But I slipped, on the water I’d spilled earlier.

I landed next to my phone.

It buzzed again.

The screen was facing up. I saw the message.

“See what I became?”

I ran once more, staggering down the steps and out of the door.

The dog was gnawing on a bone it had found.

It wandered round the side of the bus, back where I’d found the first body. I followed it. I didn’t know where I was going. I just wanted to be anywhere else.
Where the body had been, there were a pile of bleached bones, again half-buried in the sand. In the bright moonlight, I could make out a skull, a few ribs, a few vertebrae, and a femur. That was all there was.

And there was a buzzing sound, on top of the mound of sand. I looked, instinctively, and against my better judgement.

I saw exactly what I’d dreaded seeing.

It was my phone. It couldn’t have been my phone, because my phone was on the bus, but it was my phone.

It was too late. I’d already seen the screen:

“See what you made of me?”

“What do you want from me?” I shouted out loud, into the salty wind.

Another buzz.

I tried not to, but I glanced down, and there it was again. My phone, with a message on the screen:

“Can you keep on running forever?”

The Three Kingdoms

Once, there was a King, and he had three sons. He was old, and knew he did not have long left to live, so he decided that he would divide his kingdom up.

To his eldest son, he gave the North of his Kingdom. It was a vast land, with great forests in the Northern part, from which trappers returned with precious furs, and where huge pontoons of logs drifted down the rivers. And in the Southern part, there were vast tracts of farmland, rolling and golden and brown and green.

The eldest son thanked his father for his part of the Kingdom, and promised that under his reign the fields and forests would be more bountiful than ever before.

To his second son, he gave the South-West. It was much smaller than the eldest son’s portion, but had a coast lined with wealthy ports, where precious and exotic goods from distant and unknown lands beyond the ocean were bought and sold, and scholars from across the world learnt from one-another’s ideas.

The second son also thanked his father, promising to make his great cities wealthier than ever before.

To his third and youngest son, he gave the South-Eastern part of his kingdom. It had a coast, but it was rough and rocky, lined with towering cliffs and nowhere to land anything larger than a fishing boat. And the soil was thin and barren, constantly swept away by the Ocean’s roaring wind and the Sky’s biting rain, and was not suitable for anything but sheep. And the people here caught fish, and raised sheep, and they lived.

The youngest son followed his brother’s in thanking his father for his domain, small and impoverished though it was, and he promised that his rule would transform the land given to him into a mightier kingdom than that of either of his brothers.

A few years after the King’s death, the eldest son’s kingdom was hit by the longest and coldest winter that anybody could remember, and the crops failed. The next winter was longer and colder still, and the crops failed once again. Now ragged children begged, barefoot, by the snowy roadsides. Emaciated mothers looked on powerlessly as their children screamed from hunger. The people caught cats and dogs and rats for food, and some devoured the flesh of their own dead relatives to avoid starvation.

The King of the North sent an envoy to his younger brother, begging for him to assist the people of his Kingdom. The second son sent no assistance. “Why should I help my Brother,” he thought, “When he has taken the largest part of my father’s kingdom, and left nothing for me?”

But the next year, ships from across the Ocean brought with them pestilence, that wandered through the dark and twisted alleys of the Second Son’s rich cities. Roughly-painted crosses appeared on the doors of the tall, terraced houses of the merchants, marking where the Plague had reached its unseen tentacles. Infected corpses were flung hastily into unmarked pits far outside the towns, and covered with lime to keep the infection from spreading. The most learned doctors could do nothing in the face of this new disease. The richest merchants and the poorest beggars alike died in their thousands.

The King of the South-West dispatched a letter to his older brother in the North, pleading for whatever he could do to help. The eldest son offered nothing. “Why should I help my brother,” he thought, “When he has taken the richest part of my father’s kingdom, and left nothing for me, and then did nothing to help the people of my kingdom when they were suffering?”

The youngest son heard of all of this, of the struggles of his brother’s kingdoms, and all the while his subjects kept going. They caught fish, and they raised sheep, and they lived. But their lives of hardship had made them tough, and they were fiercely devoted to their King. He raised a great army from among them, and marched north to his brother’s farmlands, beginning to recover from the famine. The soldiers plundered the land for food and torched the cottages of the peasants. The eldest son’s weakened Kingdom capitulated, and the King of the North handed his crown to his Brother, before being thrown into a dungeon.

The King of the South-East, still seeking to avenge his meagre inheritance, now turned towards the South-West, where his brother ruled over cities devastated by the Plague. He marched his army south, and bombarded those cities with towering siege engines. The Second Son had lost too many men to raise an army to resist his brother, and each city quickly surrendered. Having resigned his Kingdom, he joined his elder brother in the dungeon.

Now ruling over the whole of his father’s kingdom, the King of the South-East watched as his two brothers were led to a scaffold and, before a taunting and jeering crowd in the South-Eastern capital, lost their heads. He then departed for a tour of his new domains. From his carriage, he saw burned-out cottages and barren fields in the North. In the South-West, he saw those once-great, rich cities, shattered and in ruins. And he hated all he saw. In one of the ruined cities of the South-West, he ran away from his retinue. He distributed his regalia among the people of the town, who had lost everything they had to his merciless troops, and, disguising himself in a beggar’s rags, he boarded the next ship leaving for anywhere a long way away.

The Experiment

“I want to show you a project I’m working on at the moment.”

The staircase wound up around the turret, its murky, twisting darkness ruptured by strips of blazing Sicilian sunlight through the arrow-slits. Frederick walked in front of me, his cloak rippling behind him as he negotiated the narrow and uneven steps.

“What is it?”

“You’ll find out.”

The Emperor stopped at a thick, dark door, where a Saracen guard waited, his weathered hand resting on his sword’s elegantly-crafted hilt.

“You see, I never managed to discover the language of Adam and Eve.”

I made a vague noise of acknowledgement.

“The problem is, when you deprive infants of all human contact, they don’t learn anything at all. They need to be shown attention and affection just to survive. So that one ended up as an abject failure.”

I didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t really want to know what had happened.

The guard bowed. Frederick said something to him in stern and abrupt Arabic, prompting him to stand to attention once more. The King pushed on the door and it slowly swung open.

“My guards are all Saracens.” Frederick explained to me as we walked inside. “You see, the problem with Christians is that they’ll just do what the Pope tells them. He says I’m getting excommunicated and I’m taking them with me, and they’re gone just like that. I mean, it’s understandable. Nobody wants to spend eternity getting prodded by a demon with a pitchfork.”

My eyes wandered around the room, bathed in the Sun’s dusty rays. There was a row of books on a shelf at the far end, and there was a table with pieces of a huge range of plants lined up, most of which I’d have no chance of identifying. There was a row of glass bottles next to them, distorting and magnifying the light coming through them, casting it into golden patches on the back wall.

On another table, beside an unlit candle with stacks of old wax rising up and surrounding it, a book was open, written in black ink in a precise, practical Arabic hand. I could not read Arabic, but I could make out diagrams of lines meeting and intersecting with circles in deep, black ink against blotchy parchment.

“What I am working on has the potential to either prove or to disprove the very foundations of Christian thought.”

A lizard lay on the window-ledge, its tense and sleek body soaking up the Sun. Hearing our footsteps, it scampered adeptly up the wall and into a crack between two stones.

“This way.” The King of Italy said, briskly, leading me round behind a bookcase. A pale, greasy-haired servant boy was sitting, hunched over, on a low stool next to a large, oak barrel, with an array of ropes holding it firmly against the ground. There was a noise from inside it. Something scraping against the inside, and letting out a strange whimper.

“This is what I brought you here to see.”

“What are you keeping in there?”

“Take a closer look.”

I bent down towards the barrel. There was a hole drilled in one side of it, about big enough to fit two fingers through. I peered in.

There, faint in the dark, was grey and clammy skin.

As my eyes got used to the dark inside the barrel, I made out more features. There, naked and emaciated, crouched in the barrel, with his knees pulled right in under his ragged and tangled beard, was a man.

He slowly began to turn his face towards the hole, and I recoiled at the mere thought of those sorrowful eyes, pleading to be released.

“What do you think?” The King asked, smiling.

“What are you doing?” I responded.

The King of the Germans turned to the servant.

“How’s it going?” he asked

“It’s going fine.” The timid servant replied.

“How long do you think we have left?”

“I think it’s probably a couple more days yet.”

Frederick continued, casually turning back to me. “You see, my purpose is to observe the soul of a man.”

He saw my surprised expression and smiled to himself.

“To that end,” he continued, “a man, like you saw, is deprived of food and water. Lacking such necessities, after a few days, he will perish. At that moment, if there is a soul departing for Heaven or for Hell or for wherever it goes, it will be forced to leave through the small hole in the barrel. My servant will inform me when the moment is imminent, and I will be ready to observe.”

Frederick bent down and stared through the hole, with a big grin. There was an incoherent groan from inside, and the ruler of half of Christendom stood up once more.

“Make sure you keep watching closely,” he said to his servant.

The Leviathan

An abridged version was entered in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2019.

The whale had appeared on the beach that morning. I think it was Patience Scott who saw it first, just as it was breathing its last, wheezing breaths out of its blowhole, abandoned by the waves along the strip of sand between two headlands towering above the sea.

Almost the whole village had turned out to help drag it off the beach. The harvest had been poor that year, but now we could feast on this extraordinary prize all winter. Tobias Earnshaw had let us use his barn, in the field by the beach, to keep out of the rain during the grisly task of butchering the carcass. Even Malachi Thorpe, who’d been sacked from Mr Earnshaw’s farm a few days ago, and John Wickham, who’d been arguing with him about some money he owed, were welcome today.

The leader was Nathaniel Crawford, whose cousin had gone off to Greenland on a whaling voyage, and who claimed to know what he was doing. He inspected the carcass, checking how everyone was doing, with their knives or axes or saws. Tabitha Holdsworth sat on top, hacking away slices of blubber and throwing them down to a grease-covered Harry Stobbs, who in turn threw them into a precarious stack, until he was beckoned away. Anderson Cockroft stood at the Sea Monster’s vast and bloody mouth, methodically sawing away the fibrous flaps that lined its jaws.

Apparently, they’re called “baleen”, and they’re what corsets are made of. Whales have them instead of teeth, and they use them to filter out the tiny creatures they eat from huge mouthfuls of seawater. There were probably 3 or 4 people in the village who’d ever worn a corset, and certainly nobody knew how to make them, but that hadn’t stopped Nathaniel from handing the 19-year-old farmhand a saw and telling him to get to work.

I don’t think he’d actually spoken to anyone all day, but he seemed happy enough, stinking of whale slobber.

Someone had found an old, rusty harpoon buried in the whale’s thick and clammy skin, that had grown around it years ago. It had been propped up carefully at one end of the room, where the workers occasionally walked past and admired its antique, exotic grandeur.

At sunset, Andrew Metcalfe’s son, who had been sent to fetch some lamps, ran into the barn shouting something incomprehensible. Nathaniel strode over and bent down to listen to him, before following him back out into the twilight.
Work resumed, with some of the other children returning with arms full of candles and lamps that bathed this terrible beast in their light and shifting shadows.

When Nathaniel returned from the dark, he climbed on top of the whale.

“Listen!” He shouted.

There was silence. Nathaniel had that effect.

“Tobias Earnshaw has been murdered!”

The silence became even more silent, before collapsing into a chorus of muttering.

“This was found by the body!”

He pulled a blood-stained butcher’s knife from inside his jacket and brandished it with theatrical relish.

The workers clustered around the head, upon which Nathaniel stood, dispensing justice as if from the mouth of this ancient creature of the deep, that mouth which had tasted the distant saltwater among the scattered atolls of South Seas and among the ice floes of the High Arctic.

“Tabitha Holdsworth! Step forward!”

The crowd parted and Tabitha gazed up to Nathaniel in his cetacean pulpit.

“I put it to you!” Nathaniel bellowed in the most legal voice he could muster, “That you were in possession of the knife that was used to carry out the murder of the late Tobias Earnshaw!”

“I was, sir.” Tabitha responded, meekly. “But it were here until the break. I couldn’t find it afterwards, and I’ve been here the whole time since.”

The crowd murmured assent. Nathaniel allowed Tabitha to fall back, and shouted again.

“Did anyone see anyone going out of the barn since the break?”

The crowd muttered and scuffled. Eventually, four people were pushed forward towards the whale’s jaws. There was Malachi Thorpe, John Wickham, Bethany Coulson, and on the end was Anderson Cockroft, fidgeting and looking anywhere but up to the Judge.

“Can anyone vouch for these people’s whereabouts at the time in question?” Nathaniel asked the crowd.

Harry Stobbs spoke up. He’d seen Malachi leaving the barn, but all he’d done was had a piss against a nearby tree, and then come straight back.
Malachi was removed from the list of suspects and allowed to merge back into the crowd.

That left three.

John was first before the Inquisitor’s scrutiny. He stepped forward, hands in his pockets, and looked up to Nathaniel’s stern face.

“Mr Wickham, were you responsible for the murder of the late Mr Earnshaw?”
“No, Your Honour,” he declared.

“Can you account for your movements at the time of the incident?”
“When I were out, I were just taking some fresh air, round the back of the barn, with my little flask of rum. It’s right smelly in here. I weren’t doing any murdering.”

A voice from the crowd suddenly shouted out.

“He owed Mr Earnshaw a fiver!”

“No, it were a tenner!”

“It were just two pounds!”

The Judge intervened.

“Silence! Silence! Mr Wickham, I put it to you that you did owe to the aforementioned Mr Earnshaw the sum of five Pounds.”

“It were a tenner, your honour, but I swear to God I’d never have murdered him about it.”

“Mr Wickham, that is all.”

John returned to the line. Bethany was next before the Leviathan’s weathered visage.

“Can you account for your movements in the interval in which it has been established that the aforementioned murder of Mr Earnshaw occurred?”

“I just went out for a walk, you see.” She said sheepishly. “I know you all know I’m next to inherit his farm and all, but it weren’t me who did it, I swear.”
She was dismissed and Anderson was summoned, bowing his head as Nathaniel towered over him.

“Mr Cockroft, are you able to account for your movements at the time in question?”

Anderson stared down at his boots. He looked up as if to speak, but then back down. The crowd began to stir.

“What were you doing at the time of the murder, Mr Cockroft?” Nathaniel declaimed again. Anderson remained silent, and looked around and then back to his greasy boots. The murmurings of the crowd grew louder.

Seeing what was going to come next, the Accused seized a hatchet that had been left on the floor close to his feet and darted past the huge and stinking beast, round its great, two-pronged tail and out into the murky night, waving his weapon at of anyone who tried to apprehend him.

It had started raining again, hard. There was no moon, and beyond the flickering circles of orange light from our lanterns, nothing could be seen. But still we searched, as the killer had to be brought to justice.

We’d reached the top of the cliffs, with no sign of our quarry, and the darkness was beginning to fade into twilight, when I saw a swinging lantern and heard, among the roar of the waves far below, a breathless voice coming up the hill.
“I did it! I killed him!” Malachi shouted frantically, between wheezes, as he approached.

We stopped. Malachi was bent over with his hands on his knees.

“He sacked me from my job on his farm. I couldn’t handle it and I just… went for him. I threatened Harry that he had to say what I were doing. But I couldn’t stand back and let you come after that boy. I couldn’t live with that.”

He stood with his back to the Edge, above the distant foam, as the Sun rose on the sea revealing, on a ledge halfway down the rockface, the glinting blade of a hatchet.

Svartskerry: Part 5

See also: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Abigail was sitting outside, in the dark, on a slimy rock, smoking a battered cigarette. Occasionally she glanced off to one side, or up into the mysterious heights of the tower.

Sophie took a few hesitant steps towards her from the doorway..

“Evening.” Abigail muttered to her.

“Are you… alright?”

“I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”

“What was that about, back there? You had me terrified.”

“I told you. this place just fucks with your head.”

“I’ll leave you alone, then?”

Sophie would rather not have left Abigail alone. The place was bad enough if there were two of you.

“You don’t have to.”

“I won’t, then.”

And she sat down, next to her sister. The wind was a bit less fierce now, but the rock was almost too cold to bear.

“You really scared me back there, you know?”

“That was the fucking point, you wanker. I properly had you.”

Abigail suddenly stood up and stared up to the lighthouse.

“Do you want to come inside? It’s very cold out here.”

Abigail hesitated for a moment.

“Sure.” She said, quietly.

Sophie had already got both sleeping bags out, and she took off her boots and climbed into one. As she struggled to find a comfortable position on the cold floor, Abigail just kept pacing, back and forth and back and forth.

Sophie lay awake and stared up at the ceiling. The dull, fading, flickering light of the lamp cast bizarre shadows that took on the hideous shapes of mysterious monsters. And she could not think of anything but that strange sheet of paper, compelling her to put it down, and what Abigail had said she’d heard.

And she was on the boat, with Abigail taking her to this abandoned lighthouse that Alex Jamieson had been to a while back. And the sky was thick with heavy clouds. And the spray from the sea bit at her frozen face and fingers. Abigail wondered where the Skerry was, but it could not be seen and the land could not be seen and nothing could be seen for miles and miles and miles, save for the empty sea, fading seamlessly into the empty sky.

She woke up.

She stared for a while at the ceiling, making out shapes in the cracks. There was something important she needed to get to. She couldn’t remember what, but she was already late. She tried to move, but she was stuck where she was.

She woke up.

Somehow, she had got some sleep. She didn’t know how much. It was still dark outside, although the window was now light up in a deep blue, rather than black. The nights were not long up here at all.

But Abigail was gone. Her sleeping bag was empty, and totally undisturbed.

“Abbie?”

“Abbie!”

“The fuck’s it you want?” Abigail shouted back, apparently outside.

Sophie pulled her hood tight around her head and stepped out to join her in the roaring wind and spray.

Abigail had found a piece of flat ground and was pacing back and forth and back and forth, just like a couple of hours earlier, muttering something.

“Abby?”

“Yes?” She seemed to have only partly emerged from her trance-like state. Only slightly.

“What’s going on?”

She stared, with a terrible stare, into Sophie’s eyes.

“I killed Alex Jamieson.”

“What do you mean? Isn’t he still alive.”

“No. I killed him.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Three weeks ago… I… we… we were drinking together. We’d been at The Ship and then we’d gone back to his place.

“It was stormy as fuck. a hundred times rougher than this. Nobody would take a boat out the size of the boat he had. Unless you were insane. But I said he should. I said he should.

“And of course by this point we’re both wankered. But he said he wouldn’t, but I called him a pussy if he wasn’t going to try and get over to Sutheray. At night, in that fucked up weather, pissed off his bollocks.

“And he fucking did it. I went home, I’d been joking the whole time. I didn’t think he’d do it. But the next morning he was gone. And the boat had turned over, and he was fucking gone.”

“What? Really?”

“For real.”

“You’ve been talking like he’s still alive the whole time. Why?”

“I didn’t want anyone to find out. I didn’t want it to be real. I killed a guy. Have you ever killed a guy?”

“You didn’t kill him. It was an accident. It’s horrible, but he was stupid to do what he did. You couldn’t have thought he’d do it. It’s not your fault.”

Sophie wrapped her arms around her sister, and held her, tight. Abigail was slightly taller, but Sophie was on marginally higher ground, and their heads fell onto each other’s shoulders.

And the Sun cast pink and purple and gold fingers across the clouds, shimmered on the sea, and lit up the world to the raucous screams of a thousand gannets.

Svartskerry: Part 4

See also: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5

When she was much younger, Sophie had been scared of the dark. The worst had been the long, winter nights, trapped between the desolate moors and the deep, black voe. As the Atlantic Wind howled in the windows, she would put on Radio 4, quietly, to keep her mind from whatever demons lurked out in the raging wind, and in the shadowy crevices of her room, as she struggled to get to sleep, or waited, wide-awake, staring at the bathroom light, through the gap where she’d left the door ajar, hoping nobody would realise and, assuming what she had carefully arranged to look accidental was, in fact, accidental, turn off the light or close the door or turn off the radio, plunging her into a terrible darkness, with no sound but the raging Wind. She would wait, pulling her duvet tight around her, for 7 AM, when Mum would switch on the lights and they’d get up and get dressed and have breakfast and Mum would drive her and Abigail to School. And eventually, the Sun would breach the dark Horizon, casting its golden rays over the worn-out, soggy Viking longship mural, before plunging back into that bleak and interminable Ginnungagap.

Of course, nobody could ever know. She could only imagine how everyone at school would laugh, and how Abigail would laugh, if they found out she spent every night in desperate fear of Nothing In Particular.

She’d grown up since. She knew none of it was based on reality, but then she knew that at the time as well, and that hadn’t stopped her mind from creating whatever it wanted. And even a few days before, in her flat in Glasgow, she would turn on her bedside lamp before turning off the main light, so she wouldn’t have to walk across the room in darkness.

Right now, on this lonely rock, harbouring such strange and unknown stories, the eerie shadows of the Simmer Dim were just as bad as those drawn-out midwinter nights. Every rock, every crack in the walls of the lighthouse became some lurking demon sent by those lost lighthouse-keepers to torment these intruders in their domain.

The cold had driven them back inside. Abigail had lit the hurricane lamp, and it cast eerie, flickering shadows on the walls, each one like some monster from the fringes of an ancient mappamundi.

She could run, but what would she be running from? There was nothing there. What self-respecting rational being would flee from nothing?

And where would she run to? There was at most a couple of hundred yards in any one direction, and then nothing but the relentless ocean, writhing and pounding and surging in the darkness.

There was nowhere to flee to, and nothing to flee from.

The book had been nothing more than a bad attempt at tacky, pseudo-Victorian fiction, left by Alex Jamieson, but she had definitely felt something. There was something strange about it.

She just sat there in silence, half terrified and half hating herself for being terrified.

Abigail had been silent too, up to this point, but now she started to sing.

She didn’t know the words to Chelsea Dagger, but that wasn’t stopping her.

She was quiet at first, but gradually crescendoed until she was belting out the chorus at full volume.

“Chelsea, Chelsea, I believe! Da-da-da-da-da-da-da! Da-da-da-da-da-da-da! Da-dada-da-da-dadadadada-Believe!

And now that dark and lonely rock didn’t seem quite so dark and didn’t seem quite so lonely.

Dadada-dadada-dadadadadadada! Dadada-dadada! Get my sister over here!”

She was standing up now, and she took Sophie’s hand and pulled her to her feet, spinning her round with surprising smoothness.

At once she was 17, and Abigail was 18, and they’d gone into town. Abigail had got her into Big Sam’s with a fake ID, and she was wankered on an embarrassingly small amount of vodka & Coke. And in that moment, on a sticky dance-floor in a club that, by a quirk of geography, had ended up as the hottest nightlife in over 100 miles, belting out trashy 90s and noughties anthems, she thought she had grown up, that that timid little girl had become a fully-fledged woman.

Sophie, who knew even less of the words, joined in. Surely there was no demon in all of Hell that could bear this raucous, tuneless and misremembered rendition of Chelsea Dagger.

And then Abigail stopped singing. Sophie stopped as well, and the darkness began to creep back around them.

“Did you hear that?”

Sophie had heard nothing.

“Did you hear it?”

“Did I hear what?”

“Like, someone shouting. Up in the tower. Did you hear it?”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“It’ll be nothing. I’m just hearing things. This place fucks with your head. That’s why none of the lighthouse keepers could handle it. There’s nothing there.”

“Stop trying to scare me. There’s nothing there. I know there’s nothing there.”

“But I definitely heard someone shouting from up there. But like what I said, this place fucks with your head. And if you didn’t hear anything, then, it’s just that.”

Or it was whatever was in that bollocks that Alex Jamieson had written. There was something there, something lived here that didn’t want them there.

But that was absurd. There wasn’t. But either there was or Abigail was going insane, which was at least as terrifying.

Abigail went back outside, walking unusually fast but trying hard not to run.