Authors: Aly Sidgwick
I’m very grateful to Zoe King, Liz Bonsor and Caroline Hardman for their invaluable feedback on my early manuscript. Also to Nina for her endless positivity, and for nudging me in the right direction. Thank you Sandra for the secret-keeping, lussebullar and Malmö japery. Thank you Ulrika, my Oslo partner-in-crime. Thank you Clara, Kevin, Douglas, Maija, Lynsey, Jon, Dougie, Davie and all my early readers for your support. Thank you to Mike for looking out for me back in the day, and to Astrid for the crazy years. Thanks to Paul and Sarah, Anna on Scoraig, and Dot and Brenda for your kind hospitality during the many edits of this book. Sorry to Kolbeinn for stealing your awesome name and turning you into a baddie! Thank you Bård for opening my eyes to the autumn leaves. Thank you to my fabulous family, and to all the musicians and writers who turned me into me. Thank you to Sim, who was there through the dark times, and without whom I would surely have given up. Father Dougal mittens to you!
Last of all, I’m immensely grateful to Janne, Kristen, Karyn, Laura, Alison and everyone at Black & White. Your professionalism, attention to detail and feedback have been amazing. Thank you for believing in me, and for making my dream come true.
Two hands, splayed softly on the stones. They relay secrets, like poison sucked through roots. Of a larger place than this. Grand skies, bleached pale. Faces. An’ a pain that tastes like salt.
Overhead, a darkness. Foam strokes in, pushin’ sand into clouds. A moment of chaos. A swirl. Then it curls over an’ the hands drain back. In circles, this goes on. I watch the frothin’ edge. Goin’ in. Out. In. Out.
Cold burns like acid. Dark specks stick on. Flounce off.
Another rush. Close my eyes too late. Cough water out. Lay my head down, an’ then I see the beach. Stretchin’ away through murky veils of rain. Rocks stand guard, as wet an’ dull as my nerves. I am part of this picture. I don’t understand. I don’t remember. I can only look, an’ shiver.
In time, I realise that the hands are mine.
The man’s coat is red. He jumps round my head. Scary shoutin’. Big eyes, like he’s gunna cry. Thur’s a dog. Runnin’ round,
Sea comes back,
. Hurts like fire.
Won’t keep still.
‘Wake up! Stay with me!’
Want him off me.
‘What’s your name?’
Hurts. Head hurts. So cold.
I move, jus’ a bit. I look.
Sand, all round. Sea whooshin’ up my legs.
Shells. Pain. A tree, far back, blown sideways.
Try to move. Heavy.
More men. Runnin’ close. Pebbles flyin’. Big feet slippin’. Hands. I’m scared. All shoutin’ fast an’ noisy. Grab me, move me. Now I’m high up, lookin’ down. Legs upside down all runnin’. My head hurts an’ my legs an’ my hands, an’ I see sand. Then mud. Then stone. I’m sleepy. They put me down. An old man with a bag. Kneelin’, plastic trousers, red face. Pulls my eyes open. Cold metal.
Growly noises. Like sea, but diff’rent.
‘Stay awake,’ someone says, a lot. An’ I think,
I don’t know what my name is.
Down down down. Shoutin’ stops an’ iss warm. Warm. Iss okay.
Bleep-beep, bleep-beep, bleep-beep.
This place is Invercraig. I heard the doctor say it. Him an’ the men that come here. They look at me. They talk about me lots. I don’t like ’em. They don’t know I’m lis’nin’. They said I’m prob’ly dumb.
I remember the beach. Cold an’ dark. Lyin’ there alone, before the shoutin’ an’ the men an’ the questions. I liked the quiet better. Questions hurt my head.
‘Who did this to you?’ They say that all the time. They make me look in the mirror. They point at my purple nose. At the squashy bits under my eyes. The black bits on my legs, the cuts an’ the bits under the bandages. ‘Who did that?’ they ask. ‘Were you with someone? Did you fall off a boat?’ I don’t like those men. They talk too loud, an’ they’re here too much, an’ they won’t let me be alone.
This is the doctor’s house. They put on my bandages here. But now I’m upstairs. My bed’s in the slanty bit under the roof. I’ve got a nightie made of paper an’ a jumper that’s too big. The men sit downstairs all day. Thur’s noise an’ cars. Thur’s a van outside, with a dish on top an’ black wires comin’ out. Men come with cam’ras, an’ a fancy lady talks at ’em with her finger in her ear. I listen through the window. She sounds sad, an’ mad too. At night the men talk lots.
One day they show me a telly. Thur’s words goin’ fast at the bottom, an’ a long number:
Loch Oscaig Girl Hotline
. Thur’s a man in a black-an’-white hat, talkin’. Then the fancy lady from outside comes on. She talks for a bit, all sadmad. Then the men turn off the telly. Iss the same men as before, an’ they ask the same questions. One time they put a pencil in my hand. They wait, but nothin’ happens. One man gets mad an’ shakes my arms. Then the doctor shouts an’ makes ’em go.
I wake up an’ thur’s a lady here. I’ve never seen her before. She’s not the telly lady. Her hair’s ginger. She smiles, an’ iss a nice smile.
‘Hello, my name is Rhona,’ says the lady.
Her voice is quiet. I don’t feel scared.
‘You’re going to live with me for a while,’ she says. ‘It’s a special house in the country, for people just like you. Would you like that?’
Downstairs, I hear men. I look at the door.
‘You’ll be safe there,’ says the Rhona lady. ‘There’s a big fence, and we only let nice people in. Does that sound good?’
I look at her. Thur’s some lines round her eyes, but not so much as the doctor.
‘All right,’ she says. ‘Let’s get you dressed.’ She opens a bag an’ takes out stuff. A jumper with a flower on it. A long, soft skirt. Pants. Socks. Wellies. The wellies are too big. ‘That’s okay,’ she says. ‘We’re not walking far.’
The doctor says byebye. Men stand round us, with hats like the man on telly. Rhona puts her coat on my head. We open the door. Thur’s shoutin’. Lights flash. Loud an’ bright. Rhona holds my hand. We run. I fall down. The hat men go in front. I see their legs. The shoutin’ gets louder. We get through. Round the corner. Thur’s a car. We get in. Rhona’s laughin’.
‘Elvis Presley, eat your heart out!’ she says. I don’t know what that means.
She drives the car. Thur’s one white car in front of us an’ one white car behind us. We go past fields, an’ ev’rythin’s brown an’ green. It rains. I see a cow. We go up a hill.
Rhona clicks somethin’, an’ a voice starts talkin’.
‘—will not release a photograph at this time. We have reason to believe her injuries were sustained
she went into the loch, and until we learn more we’re taking every precaution to protect her identity.’
‘Can you tell us more about the area? Loch Oscaig is tidal, is it not?’
‘Yes, it’s the sixth-largest sea loch in Scotland, and its tidal currents are notoriously strong. The area is sparsely populated, due to the mountainous terrain, and there’s no public transport for a twenty-mile radius. In fact, the north shore has no vehicular access whatsoever. We’re talking about one of the last great wildernesses here.’
‘So it’s unlikely that the victim came to the area by car?’
‘Unlikely, but not impossible. A B-road follows the south shore for several miles, but no abandoned vehicles have been found.’
‘So where do you think the woman came from?’
‘Personally, I believe it’s a boat we’re looking for. We’ve shifted our search to the water but, frankly, we haven’t turned up much. There’s forty-odd miles of coastline to comb, and the weather has not been ideal.’
‘Have you had much response from the public?’
‘Well, it’s still early days. We’re working closely with the Missing Persons Bureau, and there’s a
special going out tonight. Hopefully that will throw up more leads. The sooner we find out who this woman is, the sooner we can help her. Right now that is our number-one priority.’
‘Has she told you her name since regaining consciousness?’
‘Well, this is one of the things we’re trying to determine. She has not spoken at all, and—’
‘You’re saying she is mute?’
‘It’s … certainly a possibility. We’ll know more after her psychiatric evaluation.’
‘So it’s true she was moved to an institution this afternoon?’
‘Yes, that is correct.’
‘Detective Gordon Fraser there, of the West Highland police force, who spoke to our correspondent earlier today. Once again, here’s the number to call if—’
Rhona makes a noise with her teeth. She puts out her hand an’ the voices stop talkin’.
The rain is loud. The sky gets black. Rhona gets out the car, an’ gets back in. We go through gates. Thur’s a big white house, an’ iss windy an’ cold. My hair gets wet. Rhona takes me in. We go upstairs. Thur’s voices. The room is dark. I get in the bed, an’ Rhona brings me tea. Thur’s a dark-green stripe on the cup. I hear rain. Iss hard to hold the cup through the bandages.
‘This is Gille Dubh Lodge,’ Rhona says. ‘It’s your new home. And this is your room. No one can come in here without your say-so. Only I can come in, because I’m your case worker. So you’re safe. Okay?’
I look at Rhona. She looks sad.
‘I can’t begin to imagine what you’ve been through, sweets. But things will be better now. We’re all here to help you.’
My hands are sore. I look at them. Rhona hugs me. I don’t like that.
‘Little Miss Famous.’
I’m in a room an’ iss light outside. Iss a big room. Big windows, an’ thur’s people.
‘What happened to your face?’
A girl’s talkin’. Curly hair. Standin’ close. All eyes. Lookin’.
‘Another Mary on our hands.’
Curly girl waves her arms. I look at her.
‘See? Hey, Mary! You’ve got a twin!’
Thur’s a quiet girl behind the door. Her face goes red. People laugh.
‘No fun. Come on, Jess.’
Paper hats. Laughin’. Thur’s a cake an’ the curly girl blows on it. Songs. Music. Quiet girl’s lookin’. I look. She smiles. Her hair’s very long.
I’m sweaty. I sit in a chair next to Rhona. A lady with white hair sits down. I move away from her. They look at me funny.