Arriving on a remote Scottish island to investigate an unexplained death, Ted Harris finds himself entangled in the life of the community – and becomes attracted to Athol, his enigmatic landlord. Soon they’re working together, depending on each other for survival in perilous circumstances, and slowly unravelling the mystery. Will they ever figure out exactly how and why Kieran Parnes died and who was responsible for his death, and what will it do to the island – and to the tentative beginnings of their relationship – if they tell anybody what they know?
As we crossed the island and I spotted the occasional distant croft or dogged tractor gleaming against the sky, it was easy enough to lose myself in my thoughts; I’d hoped to be a bit more observant right from the start and to hit the ground running, but actually I was tired. It had been quite a journey from Aberdeen to Kirkwall on the overnight ferry, and I had to admit that I wasn’t getting any younger. Maybe I should just cut myself a bit of slack for today, get a good night’s sleep and start fresh in the morning – assuming a good night’s sleep was to be had in the only B&B on the island with a room to offer me, of course.
When the Range Rover stopped outside an unprepossessing stone cottage, it was immediately obvious why the images on the island website had only shown the sitting-room and a couple of the guest rooms; this house was definitely no looker, and it was overdue a serious amount of external maintenance. As if it wasn’t ugly enough already, there was a fenced enclosure running up one side and across the back of the property with a locked gate and a sign reading ‘Calor Gas Sales and Service’. That hadn’t been mentioned in the advertising material either.
“Is this it?”
“This is it.” The engine was switched off.
Oh well; I’d booked it and now I’d have to stay here. Maybe when I was planning this trip I should have given a bit more thought to getting a room in Kirkwall and coming over on the ferry a day at a time – although though that would have been very much more expensive, both in terms of money and in time. “So what do I owe you?” I asked the driver; there wasn’t a meter in the vehicle.
“Fifteen pounds. But don’t worry, I’ll add it to your bill.”
“Your bill. When you leave.” And that was when the penny dropped that the driver had got out of the car – not, as I thought, to open the door for me, but taking the keys from the ignition, unfastening a gate in the lichen-covered wall and reaching towards the front door.
“Hang on, then, are you … ?” Following him up the path, I was trying to recalibrate my expectations; it would make sense, I thought, if the old salt’s son drove the taxi and regularly ferried people in his dad’s direction; that wouldn’t be a bad racket to be in at all.
“I’m Athol Grey.” The driver’s mouth twisted as though he was expecting a negative response. “You’re staying in my house.”
The mature and competent islander of my imagination vanished in an instant. I was left staring open-mouthed at a long-faced intellectual type with an air of disdain, who looked as if he’d be more at home at the controls of some all-singing all-dancing computer gizmo than engaged in any form of manual labour. Culture shock didn’t even begin to cover my reaction, which probably accounted for the next thing to come out of my mouth.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake – then you’re my landlord?!”
I regretted it immediately.
“I am, although I’d appreciate you moderating your language while you’re on my property.”
“Right. Yes. Sorry.” It was a long time since anyone had spoken to me in quite that tone of voice, but now I came to think of it weren’t they all ‘Wee Frees’ or something in the islands? I had an idea I wouldn’t be able to buy alcohol on a Sunday, for example, and probably not much of anything else. I was half-expecting the inside of the place to be all poker-work texts, with dismal Biblical pictures and a vinegar-faced landlady who’d object to incomers and Sassenachs on principle, but as soon as I stepped into the house it was obvious the website hadn’t lied; it was warm, clean and bright – although small and far from luxurious – and in the sitting-room there was a large-screen TV with a stack of DVDs beside it, so clearly I wouldn’t be required to forego twenty-first century living for the duration. There was also, in a basket beside the wood-burning stove, a grubby-looking Cairn terrier that could hardly be bothered to lift its head.
“That’s Sparky,” said Grey. “He’s twelve, and he spends most of his time asleep. You don’t mind dogs, do you?”
“Not a bit. Hello, Sparky, how are you?”
The dog managed to open one sleepy eye, but that was the extent of his reaction.
“He’d be out of his basket quick enough if you’d brought him anything to eat.” Grey dropped his car keys into a wooden bowl. “Speaking of which, would you like a cup of tea?”
“Thanks, yes, I would.” I hadn’t had much breakfast in Kirkwall; I’ve been on plenty of Jumbo jets and Airbuses in my time, but the thought of travelling on a tiny island-hopper with no aisle and no toilet had made me too nervous to eat much – and, as I watched the ground slip beneath us when we took off, I was grateful I’d stuck to the toast and fruit juice. Not that I wasn’t hungry now, though. “Actually, I don’t suppose you’ve got any food about the place? I reckon I could eat a horse!”
“Well – not a horse, anyway.” It was the first glimmer of anything that might have been humour; at close quarters, Athol Grey’s face seemed set in a permanently miserable expression as though nothing good could ever be expected to happen to him – and in fact he bore more than a passing resemblance to Eeyore. “D’you just want a snack, or would you rather have an early lunch? I’ve got some raisin scones, or I can defrost a burger if you like.”
“Raisin scones sound brilliant, thanks. Mind if I use the bathroom first?”
“Sure. I’ll put the kettle on, and then I’ll show you to your room.”