By Stephen Thom
Unst, Shetland Isles
Mina pulled the curtains apart. Light flooded the room.
A panoramic seaview. The bed and breakfast overlooked Uyeasound and Fetlar. Silence. Peace. Bungalows and stone crofts were nestled beside fields of wild flowers. Little clouds of geese and curlews strafed the coastline.
She returned to the bed, sat down, and pulled a plastic file from her bag. Unclipping it, she spread eight passport photocopies over the duvet. Her fingers traced the paper.
Eight different names.
Every photograph was the same.
She stared at them for a while, biting at her nails. The wiry hair. The empty space beside the central incisor. She re-read the report, the package history. Flagged and inspected. Seized by HRMC. Everything had moved so quickly since then. CS Blair's red-pen notes in the margins:
Split/factions > gone to ground > different destinations? > arrangements
Stands out > worth it > all been a fucking reach anyway
The snooze alarm on her phone buzzed and she jolted, leaning over to cancel it. She slid the sheets back into their plastic envelope and levered herself off the bed.
The corridor outside the bedroom was creaky. She walked down a slender wooden staircase and through to the conservatory, the breakfast room. An old woman in a woollen jumper took her order. Mina caught herself staring at the woman's teeth. She averted her eyes to the hens clucking in the garden outside. Rain flecked at the glass panes. The old woman followed her gaze.
'Peerie drush,' she muttered.
The woman returned with her fruit salad and yoghurt. Mina could only manage a few mouthfuls. In the still of the conservatory it was as if time had ground to a halt, but she felt desperate. She placed her spoon down and looked out of the patio doors. Far across the bay, there was a large house set within acres of heather-clad hills. A sprawling, run-down Georgian property. Formal, walled gardens. Pavilions. The address. The address blacklisted on the database.
Drizzle glazed her fringe. She pulled her scarf up over her chin and dug her hands into her pockets. The path wound through barren moorlands scarred by peat trenches, hillsides strewn with bog-cotton. Small bungalows and ruined stone crofts were dotted amongst the spread.
Baltasound. A small village: a few shops, a post office, a church.
She checked the time on her phone as she crunched along the roadside, making for the play park. A molded plastic slide, a see-saw and swings inside a fenced-off rectangle of rubber mulch. She eased the gate open and sat on the bench. She checked the time again. Children's voices carried in the breeze and her chest tightened. She removed a sandwich from her handbag, peeled off the foil wrapping, and bit into it.
Five children rushed into the park. Three girls and two boys. A woman wearing a heavy tweed jacket and a large backpack bustled through the gate after them, huffing and chasing after the kids, stopping them to pull hats down tighter and button up jackets.
Mina swallowed. The girls made for the slide and the boys wriggled into the swings. The woman stomped over to the bench, rolling her eyes and grinning broadly. Mina checked her breath as it quickened. She shuffled along to give her more space. The woman swung her backpack off and sat down.
'It's going to bucket down soon, but they'll go stir crazy cooped up all day.'
Mina smiled and watched the children playing. She crushed the twist of foil in her hand. Her nails dug into it.
'Bless,' she said. 'They must keep you busy.'
The woman looked up as she rummaged around her bag, removing colourful lunch boxes and small juice cartons with straws. Her face was red and weathered.
'That's right,' she said. 'We have been blessed. We have been.'
Mina caught the gaps in the woman's teeth. The rain had picked up. One of the girls whooped as she skidded down the slide and Mina flinched. The woman tilted her head and watched her. Her smile had faded.
'I'd best... I'd best be getting on,' Mina said. 'Just stopped for lunch.'
The woman looked at the crumpled foil wrap, the sandwich with a single bite mark. She lifted her head and stared at Mina. Her face was solemn. Mina stood, shouldering her handbag and gathering the rubbish.
'Have a nice afternoon,' she breathed.
The woman smiled softly. She kept her gaze trained on Mina. One of the girls fell on the rubber mulch and began wailing. Mina turned, deposited her sandwich into a bin, and walked out through the gate.
She threw up around the side of the post office. Her heart was racing.
DS Brock was parked by the pier. Boats bobbed in a pontoon berth beneath them. She huddled into the passenger seat beside him. Rain lashed the windscreen. Brock watched a small ferry sliding between humps of isolated land whilst Mina levelled binoculars on the play park in the distance. She watched the family leave. Brock turned his head and peered through the window.
'Wait,' he said.
Dusk was setting by the time she clipped back through the gate. Swings creaked in the wind. She pulled gloves on and removed the crushed juice cartons, the sandwich ends, bagging and sealing them up. She worked quickly, watching the dark shape of the Georgian house on the hills beyond.
The old woman seemed terse when she took her breakfast order. Mina rubbed her hands beneath the table. She couldn't stomach anything more than a coffee. The radio was on in the kitchen and a slow fiddle air drifted through to the conservatory.
She wiped crumbs of sleep from her eyes. As she rubbed her tear ducts she saw black passageways unspooling before her and when she looked up there was a buck fawn tottering across the field beyond the garden. It had small pedicle cowlicks on its forehead, little bony lumps. It looked lost and helpless.
Brock was shattered when he arrived back from Lerwick. Mina brought coffees down to his car at the pier. He handed her a polypocket of sheets and slumped back onto the headrest. She slid the results out and scanned them.
'Four days,' she said. 'You did well.'
'They battered through it,' Brock whispered, rubbing his forehead. 'He's one of our own. It was some deal anyway, but it's proper riled them now.'
Wind rumbled against the windows. Brock closed his eyes.
'Eighteen alleles. Sixteen of twenty markers.'
Mina bit her lip.
'Relatives,' she said.
Brock straightened up, reaching for his coffee.
'Very... similar. Very similar genetic profiles. They ran a familial search against the sample in the database. It narrows it down to short tandem repeats on the Y-chromosome. It's DNA kinship.'
They sat in silence. Ferry lights floated above the water as if bioluminescent marine organisms were ascending from the depths. Mina slugged coffee back.
'When - '
'Emergency exception,' Brock wheezed. 'CS Blair's already on his way. You call it, I can't fucking think... we should probably pull in some local officers.'
Mina leaned forward and looked up at a sky full of stars, as if thousands of lit matches had been cast up into the gloom.
'Probably should,' she breathed.
'I think we should sit tight until Blair gets here,' Brock said, turning his head. 'This is a big one, you want the big guns in. I think we should stay still for now.'
Mina avoided his eyes. The phrase niggled. She felt a sudden rush of memories. She was holding her little sister's hand and they were lost. An old railway line. A dump full of timber and rubbish. The River Spey twisting beneath them. Her dad, watching her in the rearview mirror.
You should have stayed still. You shouldn't have kept going.
She clicked her fingers and breathed slowly.
'No,' she said. 'We're not staying still.'
Brock watched the kids enter the play park, the woman bustling after them. He placed his binoculars on the dashboard and turned his head to look towards the post office. He saw a plainclothes local officer pull up outside the park. His palms felt itchy as he reached for his phone.
Mina jolted at the single buzz. She cracked the car door open and paced up the driveway.
The walled garden was split into four quarters, separated by paths. The well-head at the centre was a circular three-foot wall with an iron overthrow. Everything was a curious marriage of stillness and the wired propulsion that carried her. Her fingers clicked frantically at her sides. Her mind threw a kaleidoscope of images and within them she saw Gillis shivering on the bench above Dumbiedykes.
Every moment is too long, every moment is too hard.
I'm always scared.
She passed the pavilions flanking the house. A large, classical Georgian building. Signs of deterioration: faded, chipped paintwork. Dislodged slates.
I am scared, she thought.
Wind sent a ripple through the garden flowers. She steadied her breath, caught flashes of the grey appointment room at Ballenden House.
It does take some bravery.
We all have to consider how weird we are, and what we need to do in order to continue and enjoy life.
She walked up the steps, looking back when she reached the door. Several cars lined the driveway. She saw a raised hand and nodded. She swallowed and turned the handle. The door swung open.
The corridor was dark. Ripped wallpaper. Peeling paint. Cobwebs and dirt.
She turned left into a large drawing room. Exposed floor. Bare walls. A musty sofa. A coffee table stacked with mugs, glasses and plates slick with congealed food. Overflowing ashtrays. Kid's toys, clothes and bottles littered the floor. She saw crushed tablets. Foil wrappers. Little medical ziplock bags.
She backed out into the corridor, bypassing a dusty kitchen with planks of wood across the floor. A cupboard beneath the stairwell was crammed with stacks of tupperware boxes. She lifted a box free and unclipped the lid. Plastic screw-top pill bottles. Labelled.
SCOPOLAMINE HYDROBROMIDE (SCOPOLAMINE)
She placed the box back in the cupboard and climbed the stairs slowly, steps moaning beneath her. A row of doors greeted her at the top. The second door was ajar. She walked over to it.
A single bedroom. Soft light: a lamp on the bedside table. A large pastoral painting hung above the bed. An old man was propped up on the pillows. He gazed at her vacantly; his eyes were swimming. His lips smacked.
Mina walked over to the bedside table. The old man's fingers pawed at the bedsheets and she noted the vague tattoo shapes on his bony knuckles. Her shadow grew around the lamp. More dispensing envelopes on the table. White tablets. A glass of water.
'... go home,' the old man whispered. 'I don't like this room.'
Mina glanced down at his shaven scalp. She looked back up at the painting. Little red latex drips dribbled beneath it, frozen bulbs. The old man coughed and flapped a skinny arm out.
'I don't like this room. Please.'
She felt her phone vibrate in her pocket as she pulled gloves on. The old man hugged his knees through the duvet as she reached above him and lifted the painting from the wall. She placed it beside the table and stood back.
A red double-disc. A jagged 'Z'-shape running through the circles. Dried paint bled down the wall.
Mina lingered on the symbol. She looked back down at the old man.
'Come on,' she said.
The old man's lips moved slowly. He lifted the duvet off his legs, eased round, and wobbled up. He was very tall. His movements were awkward. Mina held his arm as they descended the stairs.
'Are we going home?' He murmured.
'Something like that,' she said.
It was bright outside. Children were running up the driveway.
Mina gripped the old man's arm tightly. She hauled him out into the front step. He tottered. She knew he was uncomfortable but she did not care.
The woman trailed after the children. She was watching the cars lining the path. Her pace quickened. She peered into the windows and stopped dead. Moved backwards, uncertain.
Beyond the driveway fields of heather rolled down to the harbour. To sea stacks, beaches, cliffs and voes. Ancient things. Things that survived. Beautiful things. Good things, in abundance. A vast landscape. An endless cycle. As if there was still more good in the world - and in all the worlds before and to come - than could possibly be imagined.
The girls peeled away at the well-head and the boys chased them through the flowers. The woman passed the pavilions. When she saw Mina and the old man she screamed.
Sirens cut through the night. Ambulances and police cars were hemmed within a twisting dirt track leading up to the barn. Clouds rolled in low. Rain speckled windscreens. Empty fields framed the small strip of world.
Mina slammed her car door and ran up the path. The uniforms at the barricade waved her through. She hit the crest of the hill. The barn was a silhouette against the night sky. The doors rattled in the wind.
Stretchers were being carried out. She heard moans. People crying.
A portable lantern atop a tripod pulsed on. Someone was barking instructions. She made for the paramedics, the line of stretchers. She raced along the queue, checking the pale, sickly faces.
Wind whipped and the long grass in the fields beyond moved like some unearthly sentient entity. She saw him strapped to a stretcher. Frail and confused. She scrabbled over and clutched the handles as the paramedics struggled down a verge. She pressed her face down close. His eyes wavered. She blinked back tears.
'Do you still want to be one of the peaceful ones?' She whispered.
Gillis looked back blankly. Her hand fell away from the stretcher as it was ferried down the hillside. Rain tore down in sheets. The line of stretchers twisted down the pathway beneath a clear sickle moon. A crescent symbol. The journey of the soul. The final gate.
She felt her hands flapping at her sides and bunched them up, willed them still. Past the barn fields gave way to overhanging cliffs, sea-lashed sandstone indented by geos and caves. Inky water spurted from gloups, pools fizzing as waves pounded the coastline.
Roots. A small hunk of rock honeycombed, shrunk, battered by marine erosion. Still the roots were there, over centuries, millennia, in a world where everything was a sensory overload. Every exchange was unpredictable and disorienting. Everyone was unreadable and alien until there was time to process, to pick things apart, to understand; to solve it, make sense of it all.
Her fingers clicked and she felt a safety and familiarity in the rhythmic pulse. Her eyes followed the stretchers, the ambulance doors opening, and she was running again, wisps of hair blowing free from her ponytail, the hard rain and crisp air around her an aura, a fulcrum. Take it all, but not the roots.
She pushed through the crowd of hi vis jackets, ignoring the protests. The stretcher swayed and a paramedic shouted as she grabbed Gillis' hand. His head turned again and she was yelling peaceful ones, peaceful ones, a stuck phrase, stubborn echolalia, hands around her arms, figures pulling her back.
She saw his eyes flicker, fall on her and register. He managed a close-lipped, exhausted smile, as the North Sea roared around them, rushed in their ears; as if it would flow inside them, make them part of the world, make them hear it endure.