Copyright © 2012 Harper Fox
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Five hours later I crawled into my bed. I’d fixed the tractor, only to clamber up into her cab, switch her on and have her jerk beneath me like a dying horse and lapse into silence again. Probably I was getting oil stains on the sheets. I couldn’t bring myself to care. I’d had to take the one remaining quad bike and make good my temporary fix on the cliff-side fence then slowly prowl the boundary Kenzie had abandoned. The dark little loch, barely more than a pond but apparently bottomless, exerted a dire fascination on the flock. The rain had turned to sleet, and I’d worked by the bike’s headlamps, hammering stakes and cutting lengths of wire, my hands turning numb.
I curled up, seeking nonexistent warmth beneath the quilt. My hot-water bottle scalded the bits of me it was touching and left the rest icy. This was where, if I wasn’t very careful, I would fall apart. I had weathered the loss of my family, the transformation of my life with a stoicism I knew was dysfunctional. I’d stood dry-eyed through the funerals. But right now I could close my eyes and weep for the loss of my cat.
It was just that she slept on my stomach in winter, keeping off the chill. She had been tiny for a full-grown queen, but her purr would resound through the room like the Calmac revving up for departure. I’d have taken her to uni with me if I could. During the holidays she followed me everywhere, a little shadow with mad golden eyes. Even Harry, whose fondness for farm cats began and ended with their mousing abilities, had bestowed on her the honour of a name—Clover, or Seamrag in Gaelic. The luck of the farm.
Well, that one had come back to bite us in the arse. She’d vanished in the night last February, one eerie day before we got the news from Spain. I recalled the old man, standing like a statue in the barnyard a fortnight later, a red-letter bill from the water board in one hand, a broken tractor drive shaft in the other. Aye, she’s gone. And taken with her the luck o’ the farm.
Gloomy old bastard. I balled up tighter, furious with him and with myself. I had maybe three hours before the grim routine of lambing season started all over again. I couldn’t waste good sleep time with useless thoughts like this. I couldn’t mourn a cat more than I did my brother, and I couldn’t…
I couldn’t go on.
It hit me with the force of revelation. What the hell was I doing, struggling to hold back the avalanche? I’d have given almost anything to help keep Harry king of his Seacliff acres. I’d ploughed my heart and soul into the struggle for a year. But the game was up. Surely selling now would be better than waiting for the bloody bailiffs.
For about thirty seconds, relief swept through me. I entertained a fantasy of Harry installed in a nice warm bungalow in Whiting Bay, playing darts with his cronies in the pub and revelling in his leisured golden years. Me, I was back in Edinburgh, cranking out my brilliant new linguistic model for my doctorate in between rounds of casual sex down in the Groat Market clubs.
The air castle fell. Harry, cut off from his ancestral soil, fell into a decline and pointed an accusing finger at me from his deathbed. I sat up, anticipatory pangs of guilt going through me. I ran my fingers into my hair. It was no good. No matter what the consequences, we were going to have to let the place go. All that remained for me to work out was how to break it to Harry. Well, I now had two and a half sleepless hours in which to do that.
The gale shook the house. It was a wild winter bitch of a night. Most likely I’d be digging sheep out of snow on my dawn shift. I caressed the patch on the quilt where Clover used to curl. A few black hairs still clung there. Grief and rage burned in my gut, bitter as the storm. Everything was gone.
Glass shattered somewhere off in the dark. I jerked my head up, listening. That was all I needed, for the wind to have broken a barn window. I’d have to get out there and patch it, or we’d lose another set of lambs to the cold.
The sound came again. Exactly the same as the first time—brief, deliberate.
Human agency, then. I threw back the quilt. Prodigal son or not, I didn’t really have to guess at the source. I knew every inch of Seacliff Farm. My nerves twitched out into the night, my body responding as if the broken glass had been my bones. Me, my mother, Harry, untold generations of us living and dying on this land… Two panes from the window at the back of the second-largest barn, enough to get a hand inside and undo the catch.
I surged out of bed. Heat blazed through me, a pure and perfect rage. God, it felt wonderful. I had a bloody burglar on my hands. He couldn’t have arrived at a worse or better time. I grabbed my dressing gown, shrugged into it over my pyjama bottoms and slammed out of the room.
In the hallway I paused for a second. Alistair’s gun cupboard was tucked into a corner of the landing. He’d always kept it conscientiously locked, and a good thing too, since his pride and joy had been a top-end hunting rifle more suitable to big game than the rabbits he’d needed to pick off around the farm. I’d never touched it. Guns, the distancing of predator from prey, had brought on half the horrors of this world. I called myself a pacifist and tried to act like one.
The cupboard was plywood. It yielded to one good kick. There was no chance of waking Harry, who slept like the dead in his bleak mausoleum of a bedroom at the far end of the house. The rifle came easy, sweetly to my hand. I couldn’t think why I hadn’t gone on an armed rampage before. Tucking it under one arm, I ran downstairs barefoot then paused for a second to push my feet into the mud-caked wellingtons I’d left by the back door.
The storm hit me the instant I left the porch, sideswiping me so hard I dropped to one knee before I could catch my balance. I got up, swearing. I was more likely to shoot my foot off with Al’s rifle than anything else. I didn’t even know if the catch was on, if it was loaded. Fighting through the wind-lashed sleet, I tried to rekindle my furies. It had felt so nice not to give a damn anymore, and already my workaday brain was trying to spoil that, to furnish me with reasons, with compassion. Who would come all the way out here to break into a barn? Suppose it was Kenzie, disgruntled after his sacking? He’d confessed to me a couple of weeks ago that he’d started using amphetamines to get him through the brutal schedule of lambing and his day job in the village. That must cost. Maybe he’d come back for our one remaining quad bike. God knew there was sod-all else to steal. Poor bastard, he’d offered me a hit of his speed, and I’d been sorely tempted…
Lightning blazed, and the outside security lamp on the farmhouse went out. Ditched into dazzled black, I hesitated then recalled that this beast of a weapon had a torch on it for night stalking. Many a time its beam had scared the life out of me, searching hungrily over the fields. I felt along its barrel till I found what I hoped was the right button.
Cold white light leapt from the sights. A thin, powerful beam, it illuminated one tunnel of sleet-filled air and made a target on the barn wall. I raised the gun until I could see the eastern window. Yes, the top two frames were gone.
Why hadn’t I brought the barn keys with me? Why, for that matter, hadn’t I stopped to put on a waterproof? My dressing gown was slicked to my skin, woollen deadweight. That made me good and pissed off once again, and I clambered into the barn the same way my intruder had done, grabbing the sill with one hand to haul myself up.
Once inside, I sat poised for a few seconds, playing the rifle’s searchlight around the blackness. “Who’s in here?”
Something rustled. I jerked the gun muzzle around, but the sound had only been the ewes Harry had put in here to foster our orphan lambs, shifting around in their straw. Their eyes with their eerie wrong-way-round pupils gave back the light of the torch, six green ovoids. Carefully I eased down from the sill.
“I know you’re in here,” I told the shadows. “I’ve had a s**t day, and if you think I wouldn’t use this gun, just come out and try me.”
Nothing. All right, that was fine by me. I was in the mood for doing it the hard way. There were only so many places a man could hide in here. The hayloft would be a good start. I laid one hand on the rung of the ladder and froze, listening. A sound from the sheep pen again, but this time… I frowned, trying to work out what the tiny rasp had been.
Like nothing so much as the sounds I made myself on the many, many occasions when Alistair and his mates had set me up for a fright. A giant rubber spider dropping off the top of a door onto my head. Or—another favourite—a string wrapped round the handle of the spooky closet door so it would swing open as I crept down the corridor. Growing up with him had been hard work. I’d been too proud to scream like a girl, and my efforts to stop myself produced a strangled gasp very like the one I’d just heard.
I stalked back to the pen. There were a couple of hay bales piled up in the corner. The lamb I’d rescued that afternoon, obviously partial to trouble, had managed to squeeze itself in behind them. Its bony little head was down, its tail flicking in frustration. It shifted, and whoever was hiding there made another sound of muffled fright.
“I see my attack sheep have cornered you,” I said, tone conversational, hefting the gun. I had used it before, hadn’t I? Al had tried to teach me how to shoot. The kickback of the stock into my shoulder had knocked me down the first time, but he’d persisted with the lesson. Why had I forgotten? I remembered now. I let my finger curl around the trigger. “Come out and show yourself.”
The bales moved. The lamb, undeterred, tried to scramble farther in.
“Christ, why the hell is it trying to…eat me?”
I stepped back. Someone was crouched behind the bales. In the harsh blue-white torchlight, I saw a skinny lad about my own age, soaked black hair plastered to his face. He was trying to thrust back the lamb, which was responding to his efforts by catching his fingers into its greedy maw. The scene would have been funny at any other time. It was threatening to crack a smile out of me now, but I resisted. My heart was pounding, adrenaline spiking coldly through my veins. I had every right to shoot an intruder.
“It’s not trying to eat you,” I said. “It’s hungry. It’s trying to suckle. Stand up.”
“I can’t. It weighs a ton.”
“Just get hold of it and move it. You won’t…” I paused. What would a hardened burglar care if he damaged the livestock? But this one was clearly worried, his hands shaking. “You won’t hurt it.”
He obeyed. Once he had freed himself and got to his feet, I took him in. He was even less suitably clad for the weather than I was, in jeans, a thin T-shirt and the kind of jacket designer knock-off merchants would flog in the Edinburgh street markets until moved on by the police. He held a rucksack, similarly flashy and cheap, clutched in one hand.
“What’s your name?”
He lifted his free hand to shield his eyes. Distantly I noted that they were an odd shade of blue, almost violet in this light, their pupils constricted. He would have been handsome if he didn’t look near starved.
His frightened face became defiant. “Sean Connery.”
I tried not to roll my eyes. My studies in linguistics had given me a keen ear for accents, and I recognised his. Not Glasgow and not Islands. Something in between, from the long, deprived, desolate stretch of villages and towns along the road from Larkhall. His trashy outfit went well with that. You couldn’t reverse the trend, could you? You could force economic migrants off the land and into the cities, but when the cities failed them, they couldn’t go back to their farms. The farms were gone. It was a one-way system, and it dumped lads like this into suburbs, concrete-poured hovels like Newhall and Borough Mills, jobless and hopeless. There but for the grace of God…
“Your real name,” I said, less harshly. “You owe me that much.”
“Cameron.” That sounded real. For a second I thought he was going to hand me a second one too, but then he blushed angrily and looked down at his wet, muddy trainers. “Just Cameron, all right?”
“All right. For now.”
“Are you going to call the police?”
It hadn’t occurred to me. For one thing, I’d left my mobile upstairs by the bed. “In good time. We fix our own problems round here.” His eyes widened, and I replayed my words. Yes, I sounded threatening. A nutcase wielding private justice with a gun. Well, if he was frightened, so much the better. “You can start by picking up your feckless bloody lamb and putting it down by that othaisg in the corner.”
“By the what?”
“The…” I shook my head to clear it of Scotch mist. I was getting really frayed if I was dropping into Gaelic. It was Harry’s native tongue, not mine. “The sheep. The ewe. Put the lamb down beside her and give her a prod to make her get up. She’s meant to be feeding it.”
I watched while he clumsily did as he was told. The ewe lurched to her feet, and the lamb got the idea and went to work, butting her udder, absurd little tail beginning a satisfied swing.
“Doesn’t that happen automatically? The feeding thing?”
“It’s an orphan. It still smells strange to her. It’s a good sign that it’s sucking now, but of course it might still die from the cold wind blasting through the windows you broke. Did that occur to you?”
“No. I didn’t know there were animals in here. I…”
“It’s a farm. You might have hazarded a guess.”
“I’ve never set foot on a farm till tonight. I’m sorry about the windows, okay?”
“That’s all right. You’re going to fix them. You see those empty sacks over there? Take those and fold them up to fit the frames. There’s tacks and a hammer in the toolbox by the door.”
“Okay.” He glanced around. I saw the nervous twitch of his Adam’s apple in his skinny throat. “Have you got any plastic? Sheeting, or a plastic bag?”
“The wind’ll tear it to shreds. Use the sacks.”
“I meant… Wrap it round the folded-up sacks. That way you insulate and waterproof it.”
I stared at him. I wasn’t practical, I knew. Born and bred among farmers, I’d learned the basics of my trade, but I’d been like a seal on the rocks—awkward, everything always an effort. Going to uni had been my ocean dive. I’d found my element. And now here I was on the rocks again, missing the obvious. “Okay. Empty that feedbag into the bin. You can tear that up. Pull the hayloft ladder over so you can reach.”
He worked well for a displaced townie, doing at least as good a job as I would have myself. He only banged his thumb with the hammer once, and he took that quietly, exhaling and briefly clenching his fist. I was glad he had his back to me and couldn’t see how I’d winced for him. That wouldn’t have gone at all with the business of holding him at gunpoint.
“Right,” I said when the windows were sealed. “That’ll do.”
“Are you going to use it, then?”
He was still poised on the ladder, his peculiar blue-violet gaze now calm. It was disconcerting to be at its focus. I said, stupidly, “What?”
“That bloody great Uzi you’ve got trained on me.”
I wanted to tell him it wasn’t mine. Nothing to do with me—that beyond the necessities of pest control, I’d never hurt a living thing in my life. I was starting to feel sick in the wake of my adrenaline surge, and very cold. “I don’t know.”
“I didn’t come here to rob you. Just to take shelter.”
“You expect me to believe that? Half a dozen farms round here have been ripped off lately.”
“Equipment mostly. Tools, chain saws, quad bikes if they can get ’em. Or just scrap metal. The deeper the recession bites, the more that’s worth, and…” I shivered, looking off into the dark where the broken hulks of our tractors, ploughs and harvesters lay rusting. “And that’s all I’ve got. Sheep and scrap metal. You broke into the wrong barn.”
He shifted uncomfortably. “Ah, come off it. You lot are always pleading poverty, aren’t you?”
“Farmers. Then the government gives you a great big handout and you’re tanking around in your Range Rovers again.”
“Right. You think it’s okay to rob a farmer because we’re all rich.”
“I didn’t say that. I—”
“Come down off that bloody ladder. I’ll show you how rich this one is.”
I marched him out of the barn and back across the yard. When he hesitated in the howling, wet darkness, I gave him a prod in the back with the gun and almost threw up at the savagery of my action. When he moved on, he did so with raised hands. He was thin and defenceless. If he’d knocked on my door for shelter that night, I’d have taken him in. I wouldn’t have turned away a dog. But something inside me was breaking, some rope trying to snap. I was seriously afraid I would shoot him. He found the back porch by bumping into it.
“It’s not locked,” I growled at him. “Open the door.”
It was colder inside than out. In summer that had always been such a blessing, I remembered. We’d work all day in a harvest blaze, me and Alistair, come home and step into mushroom-cool shadows, tender on sunburnt skin. It was how the old Arran farms had been built, to keep men, milk and cheese fresh and sweet in summer, and in the winter…
In the winter, if you didn’t tend their fires, they died.
“Go straight down the passage. Into the kitchen.”
The room stood stark and empty. I flicked a switch, and dusty yellow lights came on, the low-wattage bulbs Harry thought would save him money and wouldn’t let me replace.
I stood behind Cameron. I was shivering properly now. “This is where I live.”
He looked around. I followed his gaze, seeing the place myself as if I’d been a stranger. Big slate flagstones, old as the foundations. A massive oak table, supported at one end by crates. We’d called the room a kitchen but everything had happened here—meals, disciplinary actions, years of homework. My ma, a farmer’s wife at heart, although she’d only had the briefest benefit of a husband, had liked to keep her two front parlours spotless, smelling of polish and disuse. She, Harry, the farmhands, Alistair and me, we’d all piled in and out of here for everything. In the midst of all that chaos, I’d never seen how barren the place was. There was a threadbare rug, a huge cupboard Harry called a preas filled with cracked and broken china. The sink—more of a trough, ancient white ceramic—had been installed in the 1880s and not touched since. We still drew water into it from the old lead pump. Cobwebs drifted from the ceiling pan rack, stirring in the draught.
“Why is it so cold?”
“Oil went up fifty percent last year. Coal’s the same.”
“Are you all on your own here?”
“No. I’ve got…family upstairs. Brothers. If they’d found you out there, they’d have shot you where you stood.”
Cameron took a few steps farther into the room. I didn’t try to stop him. He pushed his hands into his pockets and lowered his head. Then he turned round to face me. “But you won’t.”
Something about the colour of his eyes, the tired patience in them, made it hard for me to think. “I won’t what?”
“You won’t shoot me. What’s your name?”
“Nichol. Nichol Seacliff.”
“Nichol…as in Nickelback? Er, like the group, you know—a dollar and your nickel back?”
“No.” My aim on him was trembling. The bloody rifle seemed to weigh a ton. My vision kept blurring then returning to painful, bitter clarity. “Nichol with a soft C-H, like loch, as in…” I cast around for a strong enough analogy. “As in I’ll take you out to ours and drown you if you ever mention that band in this house again.”
He smiled. It transformed him. He took two fearless steps forward, laid his hand on the snout of the rifle and gently bore it down. “Aye,” he said. “They are pretty sh**e. You’re not going to use this gun on me, Nichol Seacliff.”
“No.” I stepped back from him until I encountered the edge of the table, then I blindly swung the rifle aside and set it down. I pulled out a chair and sank into it. “I hate the f**king thing.” I buried my face in my hands.
I’d been running on three hours’ sleep a night since the lambing began. Before that I’d worked through a stinking bout of flu. And before that… I couldn’t even remember before that, the year that had whirled and crawled and racketed by since I’d got the message from the dean of my college to come and speak to him in his office, and I’d gone down whistling and pulled up short at the sight of the policeman standing by the dean’s desk. My brain was ready to shut down at the least excuse. The temporary darkness behind my hands would do. I closed my eyes and drifted.
A familiar scent reached me. There had been familiar noises too so ordinary that I’d failed to take them in. A rattle of crockery, the kettle’s rumble and click. Slowly I lifted my head and straightened. Cameron was standing in front of me, at cautious distance, holding out a steaming mug. “Nichol. Here.”
My burglar had made me a cup of tea. I accepted it on reflex. The mug was so warm, and my hands so cold, that it didn’t feel as if we belonged in the same universe. “Thanks,” I said weakly. “Er… Are you having one yourself?”
“No. I just wanted to give that to you. You looked like you were going to faint or something.”
“I’m fine. Just tired.”
“I’m sorry I broke into your barn, okay? And sorry for what I said about rich farmers. Look—if you’re okay, and you’re really not gonna shoot me or turn me in, I’ll be on my way.”
I tried a mouthful of the tea. I was surprised to find I did take sugar, at one o’clock on a freezing morning anyway. The jolt of it restarted my thinking processes. “Hang on,” I said, pushing the rifle a bit farther away from me so he’d know that wasn’t part of our dealings anymore. “If you didn’t break in to steal anything…”
“I told you. I needed shelter.”
“This farm’s three miles away from—well, anything at all, in all directions. You could’ve sheltered in the bus station at Brodick.”
He let go a soft breath. His rucksack was over his shoulder once more, one hand clenching anxiously at the strap. They were nice hands, I thought, watching him over the rim of the mug. Finely made but strong. I could see my rescued lamb’s attraction to his fingers.
“I lied to you,” he said. “I needed somewhere to hide.”
Oh, s**t. I looked him over again. There was a lively trade in crack along that western route from Glasgow. Occasionally it spilled over onto the island in the form of a runaway junkie with a pissed-off pusher on his tail. My visitor was painfully thin. There were shadows under his eyes.
“Sorry,” I said. “You chose the wrong farm for that too. A stranger stands out like a purple cow around here. You wouldn’t last five minutes.”
“Yeah. It was stupid. I’ll let myself out.”
“Hang on a second.” I pushed stiffly onto my feet. “I’m just going upstairs. Stay here.”
He was more or less my size, minus a couple of stone. In my room, I crouched by my linen chest and moved things around until I found a T-shirt and thick woollen jersey, both clean and warm but generic enough not to attract notice. A pair of grey sweatpants as well, and a blanket. That would do.
In the kitchen, he was waiting in the exact spot where I’d left him. He watched me, his face a blank of confusion, while I walked up to him and put the clothes and the blanket into his arms.
“What are you doing?”
“Go back to the barn. You’ll probably be warmer there than in this bloody freezer anyway. Get changed before you catch your death. You can keep the clothes.”
“Leave the blanket somewhere my brothers won’t see it if they’re up first,” I said. “Make sure you’re gone long before then.” He was still staring at me in astonishment. I turned him round by the shoulders. He didn’t resist as I steered him down the corridor towards the door. “And don’t come back. There’s enough trouble here without you bringing any more down on us.”
I unlocked the door and pulled it wide. The expected blast of cold wind didn’t happen. When I looked past Cameron’s shoulder, I saw that the rain had stopped. It was the first time it had let up in three days. If I wasn’t mistaken, patchy starlight was appearing between the rags of clouds. I drew a breath to point this out, though why I thought a fugitive junkie would have been interested, I had no idea.
It didn’t matter. He was gone. I hadn’t seen him slip away, and the barnyard, as far as I could see in its shadows, was empty.
A great tide of weariness took me. I stepped back inside and closed the door. The lock was awkward—I gave the keys their usual turn and a half but wasn’t sure if it had worked. I couldn’t bring myself to worry about it. I’d been worn to the bone before, but this was different. It had a heavy peace in it like honey, and I couldn’t fight it back.
I dragged myself upstairs, hanging on tight to the banister at every step. I felt warm for the first time in weeks. Probably I was in end-stage hypothermia. That possibility couldn’t shake me either. I got to my room and closed the door behind me. Yes, the skies were clearing. A pale patch of February moonlight lay across my bed. At some point I’d remembered to take my muddy boots off. That was good. That would do.
Surrendering, I crawled beneath the quilt, rolled onto my stomach and slept.