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The Sea Raven



by Annabel Frazer



Published by

Copyright 2018 Annabel Frazer

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Author’s note: This story takes the liberty of continuing from Mary Stewart’s short story The Lost One and novella The Wind Off The Small Isles. It borrows some of the characters of those two stories in order to ‘finish’ the tale, in an attempt to satisfy the author’s original intention of creating three ‘Perdita’ stories.

In that sense, the third story was itself a ‘lost one’ and always will be. This effort to fill the gap could never hope to do so completely, but I hope it will bring some pleasure to those who love Mary Stewart’s writing as I do.



For Allison, who found the original ‘Lost One’ and inspired me to write this story – indeed, without whom I would never have known there was a story to write.






First Watch


At first glance, from the train, the Granite City lived up to its name. Aberdeen on a rainy day was grey and bleak. And this was July, I reminded myself ruefully, as I dragged my case in search of a taxi.

The Grand Hotel, from the outside, was yet another bleak lump of granite, but on entering, I was thankful to be met by a bracing warmth. There was a real fire burning in the lounge to which I swiftly gravitated as soon as I had checked in. My intention was to sit quietly and read a magazine and wait, but despite myself, I soon found myself pacing the room restlessly.

The usual worries that surfaced at the beginning of every holiday crowded into my mind. What if Stella had changed, transformed by the mysterious alchemy of boarding-school? I was, in short, nervous.

Absurd for a mother to be nervous about seeing her daughter. But then, Stella and I had never been exactly the run-of-the-mill mother and daughter. She had always had a preternatural reserve, as though determined to assume control of a situation that she had had little choice about. From a quiet baby, she had become a silent, indefatigable toddler and then, in the blink of an eye it seemed, a sturdily independent schoolchild. From that point, she had steadily receded from me, a metaphor acted out for real at the end of each holiday as I waved from the station platform at her departing train. And now, a teenager returning from boarding-school three times a year, she felt like someone I did not know at all.

What, I wondered uneasily, would we find to talk about on the six-week holiday that lay ahead of us? What would she like to do? Maybe she wouldn’t want to do anything.

I didn’t know much about teenagers. A job in television production didn’t exactly bring one into their orbit. I thought of the only other thirteen-year-old I knew – myself, more than twenty years ago. An aeon of time, unbridgeable. I had been quiet, too, with an almost painful shyness that was nothing like Stella’s self-sufficiency – something she had very evidently not inherited from me.

At that point, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the spotted and aged glass that hung over the hearth. Long brown hair habitually suppressed in a fashionable up-do. The grey eyes that were my one claim to beauty. For the rest, too pale, too thin, too serious-looking. My regulation workwear - matching coat and skirt in the burnt yellow colours that were in this year, with a dark brown cashmere polo-neck – did little to lift my mood.

I could still hear Irene’s voice echoing in my ears. “My dear, women in television are here for one reason only, our looks. Until we’re forty, of course, then there’s no hope for us. I’d make the most of it if I were you.”

I knew what she was trying to tell me. It wasn’t as though women in their thirties on television were exactly a valued commodity. I had worked my way up to a point at which I was trusted to handle directly such luminaries as the physicist Professor Latimer and Sir Julian Gale, the celebrated Shakespearean actor who, having triumphantly returned to the footlights from his temporary retirement, was now ensconced firmly in the category marked National Treasure. But I was never allowed to forget that I was a woman in a man’s world – there on sufferance and required to prove myself a million times more than any man.

My mind went back to Stella. She hadn’t inherited her looks from me either. She had my eyes but with them, red hair that seemed to have come from nowhere as far as I could tell. In a few years, I thought she would be strikingly beautiful – just now, to an impartial eye, which mine of course hardly was, she would no doubt be considered too tall for her age, too thin, too angular.

I checked my watch again. She was late. She must have met with some accident, lost her case at the very least – and then on that thought, there was a series of heavy thuds from the hall and I emerged from the lounge to see my red-headed daughter, dressed in her hideous navy serge uniform, drop her big shabby case in the middle of the marble floor with a bang. With a self-possession I had never had at her age, she looked around for a porter.

I cleared my throat. “Stella?”

She turned. “Hello, Mummy.”

I hugged her awkwardly. “You’ve grown,” I said feebly.

“Well, children do.”

“I suppose so.”

An awkward silence fell – already, I thought. I searched for something to say, but Stella saved me.

“Have you had tea already?” she said hopefully. “I’m absolutely starving.”

Her appetite had always been startling, I remembered, although it seemed to have no effect on that thin, greyhound figure. “Well, it’s so late, I thought we might as well roll it into one and go for an early dinner. We’ve got an early flight, remember.”

“Don’t remind me. It’s extraordinary of Granny to choose somewhere so tucked-away and remote.”

“Well, Granny can be rather extraordinary, can’t she?” My mother had always had a taste for eccentric impulses. Half my life had been spent, hand clasped to head, wondering what on earth she would decide to do next. Having unexpectedly become a successful artist late in life, most of her time now, in her seventieth decade, was spent in the US. But her roots were still in Britain and her latest whim had been to rent a house on the Shetland archipelago, over a hundred miles out into the North Sea, apparently considering this the ideal holiday spot for a restless teenager.

As I turned to pick up Stella’s case, I almost bumped into a portly and small gentleman in a shabby Burberry hastening across the hall. He turned quickly to apologise. “I’m terribly sorry.”

I recognised him at once. “Why, Professor Latimer. How nice to see you.”

The Professor’s profound insights into the physical forces of the planet had fascinated our television audience the previous autumn. I had been part of the production unit organising his broadcasts. He peered at me short-sightedly, adjusting a loose buckle on his raincoat. “I’m afraid I haven’t the –.”

“Perdita West,” I reminded him. “I was the one frightening away the wasps that were after your sandwiches on the outside broadcast.”

He chuckled. “Of course. I’m afraid that when it comes to wasps, I prefer to be an armchair expert. Well, what an unexp – that is, pleasant surprise, my dear. I’m afraid I didn’t recognise you at first. My memory, you know. Simply appalling and gets worse every year. Not something one can easily admit in the academic community.”

“I thought,” Stella said innocently, “that the absent-minded Professor was quite a staple of fiction.”

“This is my daughter Stella,” I said hastily.

Professor Latimer shook hands with her politely.

“Are you really the Professor who talked about electro-magnetic storms on the television last autumn?” Stella demanded. “My year were all allowed to stay up and watch. Is it true that a volcano can produce the same force as an atom bomb?”

“Well, if you think about the effect on the landscape, my dear, it can be both destructive and fertile, bringing life. For instance, in the islands off Japan, as I recall it you will find –.”

I had a sudden memory of my own – a volcanic landscape, surrounded by warmer seas than the icy fringes that savaged Britain’s shores. Blue waters, black ashy earth and the brilliant beauty of sky and mountains. A time before my life had become so complicated.

The main contributing factor to those complications was currently absorbing the Professor’s words on atomic physics. “I’d love to be a scientist.”

“Well, my dear, anything is possible,” the Professor said, rather dampeningly. “If one could only be done with the conventions.” He turned back to me. “So, you’re – er – going on holiday?”

“Yes, we’re flying to Shetland tomorrow.”

The Professor rubbed his forehead as though he could not recall such a place. “Shetland, eh – a delightful part of the country. And will your husband be joining you later?”

“I’m afraid it’s just me and Stella,” I said swiftly. “And what are your plans, Professor Latimer?”

“Oh, work, I’m afraid. Science is a hard taskmaster. Edinburgh and then – er – Inverness.” The Professor sounded more absent-minded than ever, but I suspected that this was in fact due to his awareness that he had blundered. The Professor, in short, was not as much of a fool as he looked. I looked at Stella and saw that her expression had shut down into a fixed stoniness.

I made some excuse to the Professor about seeing to our cases and followed her into the lift. “Darling, I wish you wouldn’t freeze up like that when people ask. It’s perfectly natural. And the Professor didn’t mean any harm.”

She sighed. “I just get sick of people asking.”

“So do I,” I said with feeling. Of course, as I had said to Stella, it was only natural. I had gradually schooled myself out of touchiness. But Stella was less forgiving, perhaps understandably.

At any rate, our hotel room provided a welcome distraction. It was grandly proportioned and must once have been designed as a suite for significant guests. Now it was a twin bedroom with luxurious drapes to make up for the cold, dead fireplace and a wonderfully tiled bathroom in dark green and white.

Stella expressed immediate appreciation of the latter and I sympathised, thinking of what boarding-school bathrooms must be like. I left her to luxuriate in a long, hot soak while I unpacked as much as I thought would be needed for a single night.

It was nearly an hour before she emerged, with her hair in a towel. As she padded past where I was sitting at the dressing-table, her feet encased in the Grand Hotel’s expensive monogrammed slippers, she paused to peer into my open jewellery-case. “Are you going to wear your amber beads?”

I laughed. “With jeans in a hotel dining-room? I’m afraid I wasn’t planning to dress up.”

She sighed. “I suppose not. I do love it when you dress up though, you look so pretty.”

“So do you, darling. You wear them, if you like.”

But she had picked something else out of the open case – a silver bead on a chain. “What’s this?”

I looked at the battered piece of silver lying in her palm. A bead made in the shape of a leaf of the cochineal pear. As always when I saw it, memories came flooding back. It had been found in a cave in Lanzarote and it had been part of a whole rosary then. The rosary had gone to a museum, but a single bead had become detached from it. For the fairest, Mike had said, dropping it into my palm. I bit my lip. Why remember things like that now? One could never go back, after all.

Stella was watching me curiously. “I found it on a holiday once,” I said hurriedly.

“You never wear it.”

“Well, no.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a long story and I’ll tell it to you one day. But right now, I’m starving and unless you’re planning to dine in a bath towel, you’d better get dressed.”


Second Watch


After dinner in the hotel restaurant followed by an early night, we were up at five to take a taxi to the airport.

“Raining again,” Stella lamented, as we dashed from the hotel door through a hard, icy splatter of raindrops to the waiting taxi. “Is Scotland always like this?”

“I wouldn’t know about Aberdeen. But it says in the guidebook that the Shetland islands have an unusually mild and temperate climate, due to the influence of the surrounding ocean. And very little rain.”

Stella brightened. “That sounds better.”

“And listen to this.” I was reading from the guidebook as our taxi moved off into the traffic. “In summer, the sun doesn’t really go down at all. Instead, there’s just a perpetual twilight – doesn’t that sound romantic? They call it the simmer dim.”

But at the airport, our plans suffered an unexpected hitch. “I’m afraid the plane to Sumburgh is grounded, Madam,” the woman at the check-in desk told me in a soft, Highland brogue.

“You mean the flight’s delayed? But we got up at four to get here!”

“Cancelled,” she corrected me. “It’s the fog. I’m very sorry. It’s very common in summer, I’m afraid. It may be better tomorrow. Or there’s the Bressay, of course. The ferry. All the Shetlanders use it. And the fishermen, of course.” She eyed my expensive coat and skirt dubiously. “Of course, it’s not at all comfortable.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Stella said cheerfully. “We’re used to roughing it.”

“I’m not,” I said firmly. “And I don’t know what your boarding-school is like, but I’m not sure they would take kindly to being described as ‘roughing it’.”

All the same, there did not seem to be any other option. I cancelled our air tickets and we took another taxi to the ferry-terminal, which was a beacon of busy lighted industriousness at eight in the morning. To my relief, there was no difficulty about tickets to Shetland.

“The boat sets off at two this afternoon, calls at Kirkwall en route and gets in at six. You land with the milk, quite literally.”

“Six o’clock in the morning?” I could hear my voice running up the scale.

“Yes, Madam.”

I looked accusingly at the large-scale map on the wall behind the clerk. Like most maps of the British Isles, it placed the Shetland Islands in a box located handily in the Moray Firth. While I had grasped that this was not intended to be taken literally, I had not quite understood the actual distance.

“It says here,” said Stella, who had taken over the guidebook, “that Lerwick is actually closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to London. Think of that!”

The clerk cleared his throat again. “There are cabins.”

Stella’s face lit up. “Oh, Mummy, I’ve always wanted to sleep on a boat.”

The clerk said persuasively: “First and second class. With a first-class cabin, you can take your meals in the Caledonia Lounge, which I do recommend. The ferry crossings can get busy in the summer and there can be a long queue for so much as a cup of tea.”

I purchased two first-class tickets from Aberdeen to Shetland and made a mental note never to let my mother choose a holiday destination again.


Third Watch


The Bressay proved to be a ferry of the roll-on, roll-off variety, smartly decked out in navy blue and cream. Boarding for foot-passengers was achieved via a rather terrifying metal gangway temporarily fixed between the quay and the ship. It was hardly the single wooden plank of pirate films, but nonetheless, I felt rather queasy as I looked down through the iron rails at a sullen-looking green swell below.

“Don’t worry, Mummy, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” Stella said impatiently.

The gangway brought us into the reception area of the main passenger deck, boasting the aforementioned Caledonia Lounge, a second-class lounge, and for those without cabins at all, the choice of a canteen bar and a seating area with ‘reclining’ chairs in which to spend the night. I shuddered slightly at the thought.

Fellow-passengers were already boarding – mostly elderly country folk sensibly attired in thick Mackintoshes and hats. In a small seating area reserved for pets, three dogs were tied up, looking dejected as though they knew what was in store for them.

A smiling stewardess came to check our tickets but before she could do so, a high, elegant voice cut in. “Oh, stewardess, about my Morocco leather case –.”

I turned to see a woman in furs. She made a quick, graceful gesture. “But you were first.”

“It’s quite all right, we’ve finished,” I said as the stewardess clipped our tickets.

“Have you? Are you sure? Only I simply must get them to sort out my case before the ghastly ship sails and I find it’s been left on the quay. I can’t imagine what’s become of it.”

Stella’s eyes were wide with intrigue as we made our way downstairs to the cabin deck with our cases. “That was Marcia Maling. You know, the actress. She’s terribly famous. Of course, she hasn’t been in anything for years. She’s still terribly beautiful though, isn’t she?”

I had recognised the celebrated three-cornered smile for myself. “She is. But I don’t imagine she’d appreciate the ‘still’.” I made a few rapid calculations. As Stella had said, it was years since Marcia Maling had graced the stage. I remembered seeing her as Lady Macbeth in the serious repertory phase which had followed the musical comedies. She must be in her late fifties now – but she still had that charm that crossed the footlights and could be felt right up to the balconies and what was perhaps more important to an actress, the priceless type of bone structure that doesn’t age.

Our cabin was small and wood-panelled – a narrow bunk on each side of the door, a porthole opposite and a small table and the tiniest of bathrooms. But compared to the alternative of the reclining chairs, it looked a very heaven.

“The bath’s gorgeous too,” Stella’s voice reported hollowly from the bathroom. She reappeared, looking purposeful. “Come on, let’s explore.”

I allowed her to drag me the full length of the ship – the canteen/bar at the front, then the general lounge with its reclining chairs, followed by the first and second-class lounges. There were doors on both port and starboard sides that let out onto a narrow gangway. We chose the starboard one and found that from here, one could climb the stairs to the promenade deck. Here, a brisk wind blew around the Bressay’s distinctive blue and white funnel and plastic chairs nailed to the deck suggested the unlikely possibility of sunbathing.

As I turned to take in the prospect of the Granite City and beyond it, the rolling green smudge of the Scottish hills, I caught the eye of a middle-aged woman in a voluminous red Mackintosh. She offered an immediate conversational gambit. “One gets a splendid bird’s eye view from up here, doesn’t one?”

I agreed, warily.

“My name’s MacTavish, Fiona MacTavish,” she continued. “I have a little gift-shop in Lerwick. Ceramics, you know, and knitwear. Are you and your daughter here on holiday?”

I gave in to the inevitable. “Yes, we are. I’ve never been to this part of the world but it’s very beautiful.” One could always safely say this of anywhere, although admittedly, the immediate view of Aberdeen’s port infrastructure did not precisely bear my remark out.

Miss MacTavish turned her attention to Stella. “Now, let me see, you must be at school. General Examinations, or what do they call it now?”

“I’m only thirteen,” Stella said in a tone that barely achieved politeness. “I’m just tall for my age.”

“And what lovely red hair – such an unusual colour.”

I could feel her eyeing my brown hair thoughtfully and to forestall the inevitable next question, I said hurriedly: “Do tell us about your shop. What sort of things do you sell – other than ceramics and knitwear, I mean?”

Thankfully, I had hit upon the perfect topic to distract Miss MacTavish. She furnished me with an exhaustive inventory of her emporium, which lasted until we felt the thrum of vibration beneath our feet and heard a groaning cacophony of engines, along with a series of long blasts on the whistle that thankfully made it impossible to hold a conversation. The whole ship seemed to shudder with purpose. The Bressay was preparing to depart.

We watched as the ship began to manoeuvre her way towards the open sea. I relished the unfamiliar sensation of being on my way to somewhere new and unknown. I had forgotten that sense of adventure that voyaging brought with it.

I wondered suddenly what else I might have forgotten in the fourteen years that separated me from a young, carefree Perdita West.


Fourth Watch


Now that the ship was under way, I went for a lie-down. Stella, of course, was scornful at the mere notion and I left her to continue to test the limited delights offered by a medium-sized passenger ferry. In the relative quiet of the cabin, I took off my skirt and sweater and hung them up, then stretched out on one of the beds and closed my eyes.

I must have dozed and it was past four o’clock when I woke. I pulled on my skirt and sweater and went to look for Stella.

The main passenger deck was now a thriving hubbub of large burly men, bearded and clad in heavy boots and the kind of thick knitted sweater I vaguely associated with fishermen. They must be regulars, I supposed, who worked on the islands.

I stepped out on deck and was immediately blasted by the wind. With some difficulty, I climbed the stairs to the top deck. A handful of passengers were clustered at the rail, watching the Bressay’s passage through the grey waves. A few hardy souls were even sitting in deck-chairs, in thick coats and headscarves.

I crossed to the rail. Above my head, gulls wailed as they were tossed on the wind like rag dolls. They did not seem to relish this wild weather but looking down at the water, I could see the dark, sleek shape of a cormorant, always at home in the bleakest of oceans, known to sailors as the sea raven.

I leaned on the rail and watched it for a moment, remembering the legends that attached themselves to this mythical bird. Their distinctive outstretched wing-drying pose had led some romanticists to link them with the Christian cross. Yet in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Devil himself took the form of a cormorant as he watched Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In Norwegian tradition, the spirits of those lost at sea traditionally returned to comfort their loved ones under the guise of a cormorant. There was a further variant of this story that credited the cormorant with the power to return lost souls to their grieving relatives…

The cormorant uttered his strange harsh cry and dived. I crossed to the port side of the deck, leaning against the stiff wind, and began to descend a similar set of metal stairs. But as I began my descent, a stronger gust blew me forwards and I lost my balance, stumbling awkwardly down a few steps and then, in an undignified manner, into the arms of a passenger coming the other way. A fisherman, judging by his height and breadth and the thickness of the sweater he was wearing.

I spat out a mouthful of Fair Isle sweater and mumbled an apology.

“It’s quite all right,” the fisherman said, setting me carefully on my feet. “I’m afraid it’s rather slippery on those stairs.”

I looked up sharply. That voice. The height and square build. But more than that, the sixth sense that tells you when you have met someone before. The hazel eyes that met mine confirmed it, as did the dark-brown hair and the remembered quirk of his amused smile – a crease running vertically down his cheek. For a second, I thought he had not recognised me but then his eyes narrowed sharply. He said incredulously: “Perdita?”

“Hullo, Mike,” I said feebly.

He had not changed much himself, if it came to that. A few fine lines on the brown skin and radiating out from his eyes, that was all – the mark of the traveller.

He let go of me and smiled. “I haven’t seen you in – well, it must be –.”

“Too many years, Mike, let’s leave it at that.”

He laughed. “You nearly fell right into my arms. You must have been in a tearing hurry. Where’s the fire?”

“Oh, no, it’s just that I was looking for S –.” I came to a dead halt, vertigo sending me rocking. “That is, I was looking for something. My – my scarf. But I expect one of the stewards has picked it up.”

My heart was suddenly racing, but Mike did not seem to notice. He was watching me quizzically. “You know, you needn’t have dragged my poor mother off on a tour of the Canary Islands just to avoid me. Oh, it was all very tactfully done, but a simple ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ would have done. My ego isn’t as fragile as all that.”

“Don’t be absurd,” I said hurriedly. “You know your mother wanted to see the other islands. That trip had been planned for ages and it’s so hard to say no to her.”

“Oh, I know all about that.” His tone was ironic. “But then resigning your job with her and going back to London? Admittedly, when your employer’s son takes a fancy to you, it can be a little awkward, but it was rather a drastic measure, wouldn’t you say?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said sharply. “It was just time for me to go home, that’s all. I hadn’t seen my own mother in several months after all. Cora always had great difficulty in remembering that I even had a family, let alone a life of my own.”

He shrugged and let it go. “So how is that life of your own treating you, Perdita? You look very well, I must say.”

I shoved my hands in my pockets, knowing that he would already have seen the lack of wedding-ring. Mike had always had sharp eyes. “I work in television.”

“Oh? I haven’t seen you? But then, I’ve been overseas. Do you –?”

“Behind the scenes,” I said quickly.

“Married?”

“No.”

A raised eyebrow. “Why on earth not? And don’t tell me nobody asked you because that I simply don’t believe.”

I said sharply: “Not every woman’s only object in life is marriage and family, you know. If it comes to that ...”

“All right, fair’s fair. I’m not married either. Haven’t had time. So, what are you doing here, Perdita? What draws you to this lonely spot? It’s not exactly the madding crowd.”

“I – I just wanted a holiday.”

“Alone?”

“Yes, alone.”

Mike laughed again. “All right, point taken. You needn’t worry that I’ll barge in on your lonely walks through the glens. Sentimental thoughts of the past don’t take me as far as that. Besides, I’m here for work.”

I felt my cheeks flame. “I didn’t mean it like that. So, what is your work?” I hoped my voice sounded politely inquiring. “Are you still writing?”

“Christ, no. I gave that up a long time ago when I did my National Service. I’m in a different line of country now.”

I glanced at his sweater and thick boots. “Fishing?”

He gave me a quizzical look. “Fishermen? I suppose they look like that to you. They’re oil-men. You knew that oil had been discovered in the North Sea?”

“Yes, I read about it. It seemed rather a pity to me. I mean, the old ways…”

“The old ways, Perdita? The Northern Islands are dying. Fishing and wool won’t keep those communities going. If it wasn’t for the post-war subsidies, these islands would be doomed. As it is, they have a bit of a chance to make a success of things and the oil gives them a better chance.”

I felt suddenly forced onto the defensive. “I only meant that it seemed rather a pity for the seals and the birds and things. Another natural marine environment spoiled.”

“Of course, I’d forgotten how much you loved skin-diving.”

“Well, you said I hadn’t changed.”

“So I did.” He glanced at his watch. “Blast, it’s after two and like I said, I’m here to work. But perhaps we could have a drink later –.”

“No!” Despite myself, I heard the edge in my voice.

His eyebrows lifted fractionally.

“I mean – I’m here to rest,” I said quickly. “I – I haven’t been well. I’m going to lie down in my cabin, as a matter of fact. It’s been nice to see you, Mike.”

“You really haven’t learned to be a good liar since I last saw you,” he said. “But I’ll let it pass.”


Fifth Watch


I found Stella in the gift-shop. “Oh, there you are, Mummy. Look, they have puffins made out of glass.” She stared. “Are you all right?”

I managed to force a smile. “I’m fine, darling. It’s just –.” At that moment, the ship rocked a little on the swell. “Seasick,” I said quickly. “I’m not sure I’ve got my sea-legs yet. Would you be an angel and come down to the cabin with me?”

I dragged her down to the cabin with me on the pretence of the need to freshen up before dinner and locked the door. Only then did I feel momentarily safe. I couldn’t risk Mike seeing Stella – one glance and he would know exactly what I had lied to him about.

While Stella took a bath, I sank down on my bunk and pressed my hands against my eyes until the sensation of nausea went away. I couldn’t afford to give way to weakness now. I needed to think – and think fast.

How could this have happened? By the sounds of it, Mike had been overseas for years. He had always been a rolling stone. Why had he come back?

Through the thin wooden panels, I could hear Stella singing in the bath and another wave of nausea swept over me. It didn’t matter about Mike. Once we were off the boat, we needn’t see him again. But Stella –. I thought of the thirteen years of careful lies, the house of cards I had built up for us word by word, the story of my short marriage to her father who had been killed in a car crash before she was born – how it might all come crashing down, due to a chance meeting on a boat we weren’t even meant to be travelling on.

I forced myself to focus on the immediate problem of the next fourteen hours. We could just stay in our cabins until the boat docked at Lerwick. I could pretend to be ill. But what about dinner? Stella had been looking forward to dining in the first-class lounge.

Well, perhaps I wouldn’t have to disappoint her. Mike had made it clear that he was travelling with his fellow oil-men. He had more or less accused me of looking down on them. It was almost guaranteed, therefore, that he would eat with them in the canteen. We ought to be safer in the first-class lounge than almost anywhere else on the ship.

At that moment, Stella emerged from the bathroom. “What are you looking so worried about? Oh, and guess who I ran into on the forward deck? A mutual friend.”

I must have looked entirely blank.

“Can’t you even take a guess? Professor Latimer. Which is awfully mysterious, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”

She rolled her eyes. “He said he was going to Edinburgh and then Inverness. And he looked frightfully put out when he saw me. Don’t you think that’s strange?”

“I suppose people change their plans,” I said vaguely.

Stella sighed in disgust at this feeble answer. “Well, I think there’s something very odd going on. He looked nervous, as though something was worrying him. I think he’s trying to cover his tracks.”

“Why,” I queried, “would a respected scientist have to cover his tracks?”

“Perhaps he’s carrying top-secret papers and the Russians are after him. Or some sinister anarchists.”

“Darling, your vocabulary. What are you reading at school? I thought you were supposed to be concentrating on the classics.”

“Sherlock Holmes. You can’t say that’s not a classic. Now, what time shall we go for dinner?”

For a moment, I had forgotten my anxious calculations. Now they all came rushing back. I pretended to consider. “How about six-thirty?” By then, I calculated, Mike would be safely settled in the canteen bar and we could eat and get back to our cabin before he emerged from the bar.


Sixth Watch


By six-fifteen, we were both dressed and ready to dine. Stella was wearing a dark cherry-coloured winter frock that I had bought for her the previous winter. She had persuaded me to put on a lemon yellow silk dress that was really rather too cold for dining a mere 250 miles from the Arctic Circle, with a soft pale grey cardigan over it.

It was a struggle not to look furtive as we made our way through the ship and I was relieved to reach the safety of the Caledonia Lounge. At first glance, it resembled an elegant hotel drawing-room, with armchairs grouped around small tables – but a drawing-room with no open fire and where all the furniture was screwed to the floor, a discreet reminder of where we were. At the other end of the room was a dining area with tables and chairs, also nailed down, with large windows overlooking the sea.

Stella steered me impatiently to an empty table. “I’m starving!”

Naturally. As we sat down, I cast an eye over our fellow-guests, mostly respectable-looking elderly couples clad in tweed and Fair Isle knits and tartan. It was hard to see any signs of the decline of the wool industry that Mike had mentioned.

On the table next to ours, a serious-looking young man in spectacles was intently reading a book. By screwing up my eyes I could see the title – Fissures in Time. It sounded like a modern novel and I tried unsuccessfully to spot the name of the author. Behind me, a young couple, perhaps honeymooners, gazing at each other in rapt admiration. Then two stout old ladies in tweed, seated at a table with Miss MacTavish, our acquaintance from on deck earlier. She was now in a summer skirt and a jumper crocheted with a picture of a sheep on it. I wondered if it was her own handiwork.

“It doesn’t look as though Professor Latimer is dining here tonight,” Stella said. “Maybe he’s afraid his pursuers are on his track.”

At that moment, the door opened and Marcia Maling came in with the air of someone making an entrance, wearing a black column of velvet with a marvellous gauzy wrap over it.

“Well,” I said sotto voice to Stella, “that puts paid to my fears that we’re overdressed.”

“She’s marvellous, isn’t she?”

I agreed. Somehow, Miss Maling’s mere presence seemed to shed some stardust over all of us. For the first time since that afternoon’s unexpected encounter, I found that I was enjoying myself.

The waiter paused at our table. “Would you care to order?”

“Goodness, we haven’t even thought about it.”

“If I may say so, I recommend the three-course menu. It is very good value.”

It was indeed good value, but I hardly thought I could do justice to three courses. But Stella’s eyes were round and I could see that she had gone straight back into schoolgirl mode. “Golly!”

“The three-course menu it is,” I said firmly.

We started with roasted tomato soup, followed by saddle of mutton for Stella and Shetland salmon for me. Outside the window, the sunlight faded gradually to a shimmering twilight over a gold-dust sea. Stella then had room for treacle tart, while I watched her eat and listened to the conversations going on around me.

“And you see, the wool must be hand-knitted or one can’t sell it as such in the shop. People are so particular about Shetland wool. But I do have a very nice line in ceramics.” That must be Miss MacTavish. “Darling, yes I know you do, and of course we’ll make time if that’s what you really want,” must be the honeymooners. While: “Nonsense, Muriel, it can’t be more than seven miles all told even if one detours to look at the lighthouse,” would be the two women in tweed. They looked like hikers, I thought.

At last, even Stella had to push her plate away. And when the head waiter announced that coffee would be served in the lounge, she yawned. “It seems a hundred years since this morning. I think I’ll go to bed.”

Outside, the sky was still fairly light. I glanced at the clock and did a double-take – almost ten o’clock. It was only then that I remembered about the perpetual twilight of the north – the simmer dim. “Good heavens, Stella, of course you must go to bed.”

“Aren’t you coming?”

“I – I think I’ll stay just for a little.” I ought to go with her, I knew. But truth be told, my own tiredness after our early start, the shock of seeing Mike and my insecurities over Stella were all being soothed by the cosy warmth and lights of the Caledonia Lounge and I was tempted to linger a little longer. “I’ll be down soon.”

“All right, Mummy.”

Once she was gone, I got up to fetch myself a coffee but was intercepted by the serious young man with glasses, clutching his book under his arm while balancing two cups of black coffee. “Do you take milk or sugar?”

“Why, that’s very kind of you. I don’t, as a matter of fact.” I accepted a cup.

“Well, that’s a relief, to be honest. Saves one struggling back to the cream jug and the sugar bowl. But one can’t carry it all and on the whole, it’s better to be wrong this way. My name’s Muir, by the way. Ewen Muir.”

“Perdita West. How do you do.” I glanced down at his book. “That looks to be rather a page-turner.”

“I assume you’re joking.” He brandished the cover at me. “It’s on my assigned reading list for the year. Fascinating stuff, if you’re a geologist.”

“And are you?”

The young man grinned rather engagingly. “For my sins. I try not to bore people with it, but it is awfully fascinating. Take the Shetland archipelago. There are the most extraordinary formations. For instance, there are places on the headland where the ground has caved in and you can look right down and see the waves dashing beneath.”

“It sounds terrifying. I’ll watch my step.”

“And rock stacks in the sea, carved out by the storms. The Wolves of Orcades, for instance.”

“The what?”

“It’s a rock formation north of the Orkneys. A line of jagged rocks, marked by a bigger rock that looks like a wolf crouching to spring, apparently. Sounds intriguing. Pretty treacherous for shipping, of course. Talking of which, the captain says there’s likely to be sea-mist tonight. Now that’s something I’d like to see.”

“Are mists common in these seas?”

“So I gather. The comparatively warm ocean temperatures are the main factor, but –.” He broke off apologetically. “There I go again, you see, talking shop. Now let me get rid of that for you.”

Despite his youth, Mr Muir was far too polished a social performer to monopolise one person for too long. Making my empty coffee-cup an excuse, he moved off through the crowd to dispose of it.

To my left, I could hear Marcia Maling’s beautifully modulated tones. “Oh, but surely it will be sunny. I went to Skye once and it rained the whole time. Never again. But the Northern Isles, they do say, are different.”

Curious, I glanced round to see who she was talking to and found myself looking straight into Mike’s eyes.

Shock jolted through me. How long had he been here? He must have come in as quietly as a cat. I looked away hastily. But before I could make a move to leave, the door opened and Professor Latimer catapulted into the room.

At first, I thought he was merely agitated at the prospect of having missed the dinner service, but as he made his way over to the waiter and began excitably on a story which seemed to have already begun in his head, I realised I was wrong. “I tell you, it was here. A soft leather briefcase. I’m quite sure I left it by that chair. It must have been stolen.”

I could not catch much of the waiter’s soothing response, as deliberately low-voiced as the Professor had been shrill. I must assure you, sir … room is never left unattended. Only first-class guests permitted.

“What’s wrong?” Miss MacTavish interjected into the conversation shrilly. “Is something missing?”

The waiter looked unhappy as a general silence fell. He indicated the professor uncomfortably. “This gentleman has missed a piece of hand baggage.”

“A soft briefcase,” Professor Latimer repeated edgily. “I left it in here before dinner.” His eye swept over the assembled group accusingly.

“Well, really,” Marcia Maling’s well-bred tones rose above the general babble. “My dear man, are you saying one of us might have taken your silly briefcase? I’ve never heard of anything so absurd.”

The Professor quailed under her look. “I left it in here,” he repeated defiantly. “Someone must have seen it.”

“Perhaps one of the other waiters removed it for safekeeping, sir,” the waiter suggested, in the polite tone that we keep for people we privately have no patience with.

“Am I to understand that something is missing?” It was one of the ladies in tweed. “I’m afraid I’m a little hard of hearing. My sister tells me that there is concern about a missing item of luggage.”

“A soft briefcase,” the Professor was beginning again.

“My sister and I found a briefcase left unattended here earlier today. In my opinion, valuable items should not be left unattended. It is putting temptation in people’s way.”

The Professor went a little purple. “Am I to understand, Madam, that you have seen my briefcase?”

“Of course, I have. I entrusted it to the purser, who promised to lock it in the safe at the reception desk. I do trust you will be more careful in future.”

The waiter seized the psychological moment. “If you will accompany me to the reception desk, sir, I will check the safe.”

“Well!” said Marcia Maling as the door closed behind them. “I do think –.”

Several other people burst into speech simultaneously, succeeding in the object of drowning out Miss Maling’s reflections. I turned to pick up my jacket off my chair and, to my irritation, the sleeve caught on the arm. Irritably, I jerked at it.

“Allow me.” It was Mike, of course, his expression entirely blank as he politely disentangled my jacket. He handed it to me. “I thought you said you didn’t have time for a drink.”

“And I thought you were eating in the canteen!” I stopped, furious with myself. I had not thought I could say anything quite so gauche.

He shrugged. “The Government insist on one keeping up certain standards when one’s travelling on their payroll. But just because I have a first-class ticket doesn’t mean I can’t think for myself.”

“The Government?”

“I’m their environmental consultant, Perdita. I’m here to make recommendations on how the oil companies can protect the local marine life.”

“Oh. Why didn’t you tell me, instead of reading me a lesson on the importance of oil to the economy?”

Another shrug. “Because you judged me without even waiting for the whole story?” Before I could answer that one, he added drily: “At any rate, I must say life in the first-class lounge is more intriguing than I expected. Who was that cantankerous old boy with the briefcase, or rather without a briefcase?”


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