Authors: Ann Cleeves
Fran sat with her eyes closed. The small plane dropped suddenly, seemed to fall from the sky, then levelled for a moment before tilting like a fairground ride. She opened her eyes to see a grey cliff ahead of them. It was close enough for her to make out the white streaks of bird muck and last season’s nests. Below, the sea was boiling. Spindrift and white froth caught by the gale-force winds spun over the surface of the water.
Why doesn’t the pilot do something? Why is Jimmy just sitting there, waiting for us all to die?
She imagined the impact as the plane hit the rock, twisted metal and twisted bodies. No hope at all of survival.
I should have written a will. Who will care for Cassie?
Then she realized this was the first time in her life she’d been scared for her own physical safety and was overcome by a mindless panic that scrambled her brain and stopped her thinking.
Then the plane lifted slightly, seemed just to clear the edge of the cliff. Perez was pointing out familiar landmarks: the North Haven, the field centre at the North Light, Ward Hill. It seemed to Fran that the pilot was still struggling to keep the aircraft level and that Perez was hoping to distract her as they bucked and swivelled to make a landing. Then they were down, bumping along the airstrip.
Neil the pilot sat quite still for a moment, his hands resting on the joystick. Fran thought then he’d been almost as scared as she had.
‘Great job,’ Perez said.
‘Oh, well.’ Neil gave a brief grin. ‘We have to practise for the ambulance flights. But I did think at one point we’d have to turn back.’ He added more urgently: ‘Out you get, the pair of you. I’ve a planeload of visitors to take out and the forecast is that it’ll get worse later. I don’t want to be stranded here all week.’
A small group of people waited by the airstrip, their backs to the wind, struggling to remain upright. Perez and Fran’s bags were already unloaded and Neil was waving for the waiting passengers to come on board. Fran found she was shaking now. It had felt suddenly cold after leaving the stuffy cabin of the small plane, but she knew this was also a response to her fear. And to her anxiety about meeting the waiting people, Perez’s family and friends. This place, Fair Isle, was a part of who he was. He’d grown up here and his family had lived here for generations. What would they make of her?
It would be, she thought, like the worst sort of job interview, and instead of arriving calm and composed, ready with a smile – usually she could do charm as well as anyone she knew – the terror of the flight remained with her and had turned her to a shivering, inarticulate wreck.
She was saved the need to perform immediately because Neil had loaded his passengers on to the plane and was taxiing to the end of the airstrip to prepare for the return trip to Tingwall on the Shetland mainland. The noise of the engines was very close and too loud for them to have an easy conversation. There was a momentary pause, then the surge of the engines again and the plane rattled past them and lifted into the air. Already it looked as frail and small as a child’s toy, tossed about by the strong wind. It turned over their heads and disappeared north, seeming more stable now. Around her Fran sensed a collective relief. She thought she hadn’t been overreacting about the dangers of the flight. It wasn’t a southern woman’s hysteria. This wasn’t an easy place to live.
Jane cut margarine into the flour and rubbed it through her fingers. She preferred the taste of butter in scones, but the field centre ran to a tight budget and the birdwatchers were so hungry when they came in for lunch that she didn’t think they noticed. She paused as she heard the plane fly overhead and smiled. It had got off then. That was good. Half a dozen birders who’d been staying at the centre had gone out with it. Fewer centre visitors meant less work for the cook and when people were stranded here, stuck because of the weather, they became fractious and frustrated. It amused her to explain to a high-powered businessman that there was no way he could buy his way off the island – in a near hurricane neither the plane nor the boat would go no matter how much cash he offered to the skipper or the pilot – but she disliked the atmosphere in the place when people were marooned against their will. It was as if they were hostages and they reacted in different ways. Some grew listless and resigned, others became irrationally angry.
She added sour milk to the mixture. Although she made a batch of scones every day and thought she could do it with her eyes closed, she’d weighed the flour and measured the milk. That was her way: cautious and precise. There was a square of cheese that had been left unwrapped and needed using, so she grated it and stirred it in too. It crossed her mind that if the boat didn’t get out tomorrow she’d have to start making bread. The freezer was almost empty. She pressed down the scone dough, cut it into circles and laid them, touching so that they’d rise properly, on the baking tray. The oven was hot enough and she slid in the tray. Straightening up she saw a figure in green waterproofs walk past the window. The walls of the old lighthouse cottages were three feet thick, and the spray had streaked the glass with salt, so visibility was limited, but it must be Angela, back from doing a round of the Heligoland traps.
This was Jane’s second season in the Fair Isle field centre. She’d come the spring before. There’d been an advertisement in a country living magazine and she’d applied on the spur of the moment. An impulse. Perhaps the first impulsive act of her life. There had been a sort of interview over the phone.
‘Why do you want to spend a summer on Fair Isle?’
Jane had anticipated the question of course; she’d worked in HR and had interviewed countless people in her time. She’d given an answer, something bland and worthy about needing a challenge, a time to take stock of where her future lay. It was just a temporary contract, after all, and she could tell that the person on the other end of the phone was desperate. The season was only a few weeks off and the cook who’d been lined up to start had taken off suddenly for Morocco with her boyfriend. The true answer, of course, would have been far more complicated:
My partner has decided that she needs children. I’m scared. Why aren’t I enough for her? I thought we were settled and happy but she says that I bore her.
The decision to come to Fair Isle had been the equivalent of hiding under the bedclothes as a child. She’d been running away from the humiliation, the dawning understanding that Dee had actually found someone else who was just as keen to have a baby as she was, that Jane was alone and almost friendless. When she was offered the job in the field centre, Jane had resigned from her post in the civil service and because she had holiday still to take, had left at the end of the same week. There was a small ceremony in the office. Fizzy wine and a cake. The gift of a book token. The general feeling there was one of astonishment. Jane was known for her reason and her reliability, a cool intellect. That she should pack in her career, with its valuable income-linked pension, and throw everything away to move to an island, famous only for its knitting, seemed completely out of character.
you cook?’ one of her colleagues had asked, incredulous that the respected HR manager might be interested in something so mundane. And in the shambles of the telephone interview Jane had been asked that too.
‘Oh, yes,’ she’d said on both occasions with complete honesty. Her partner Dee had loved to entertain. She was a director with an independent production company and at weekends the house was full of people – actors and producers and writers. Jane had produced the food for all these gatherings, from the canapés for their famous midsummer parties to formal dinners for a dozen people. It had been a crumb of comfort to her, on walking away from the house in Richmond, pulling the large wheeled suitcase behind her, to wonder who would cater for these occasions now. She couldn’t imagine Dee’s new woman, Flora, who was sharp-featured and shiny-haired, in an apron.
Jane had arrived in Fair Isle without any real idea of what to expect. It was an indication of how disturbed she was that she hadn’t researched the place beforehand. That would have been her normal style. She’d have checked out the websites, gone to the library, compiled a file of important information. But her only preparation had been to buy a couple of cookbooks. She would need to prepare hearty meals brought in to budget and she wasn’t acting so completely out of character that she could contemplate doing a poor job in her new role.
She’d come in on the mail boat, the
. It had been a sunny day, a light south-easterly wind had been blowing, and she’d sat on the deck watching the island approach. There had been the excitement of discovery. It had occurred to her then – and it still did – that this was like meeting a lover. There was the first affectionate glimpse, then the growing understanding. Spring in good weather and it’s easy to fall in love with Fair Isle. The cliffs are full of seabirds; Gilsetter, the flat grassland south of the havens, is covered with flowers. And she’d fallen head over heels. With the centre as well as the island. It had been converted from the North Lighthouse, now automatic, which stood in magnificent isolation on the high, grey cliffs. She’d grown up in the suburbs and had never imagined she would live somewhere so wild or dramatic. She thought that here she could be quite a different person from the timid woman who hadn’t been able to stand up to Dee. The kitchen had become her place immediately. It was big and cavernous. Once it had been the senior lightkeeper’s living room and there was a chimney breast and two windows which looked out over the sea. She’d ordered it to suit her as soon as she’d arrived, before even she’d emptied her case. It was too early in the season then for guests but the staff still needed feeding.
‘What were you planning for supper?’ she’d asked, rolling up the sleeves of her cotton shirt and slipping her favourite long blue apron over her head. When there’d been no immediate response she’d looked in the fridge and then the freezer. In the fridge there was a stainless-steel bowl of cooked rice covered with cling film, in the freezer some smoked haddock. She’d rustled up a big pan of kedgeree, using real butter despite the expense and big chunks of hard-boiled egg. They’d eaten it around the table in the kitchen. The talk had been of wheatear nests and seabird numbers. Nobody had asked why she’d decided to come to Fair Isle to be a cook.
Later Maurice had said it was like Mary Poppins arriving and taking over. They all knew that everything would be all right. Jane had always treasured that remark.
She could tell from the smell that the baking was almost ready. She lifted out the tray and set it on the table, pulled the scones apart so they could cook properly inside, and put them back in the oven. She set the timer for three minutes though she wouldn’t need it. In this kitchen things didn’t burn. Not when Jane was in charge.
The door opened and Maurice came in. He was wearing a flannel shirt and a grey cardigan, cord trousers bagged at the knee, leather slippers. He looked like the crumpled academic he had been before moving to the Isle with his new young wife. Automatically, Jane switched on the kettle. Maurice and Angela had their own accommodation within the field centre, but he usually came into the big kitchen for coffee in the morning. Jane had a cafetière, ordered real coffee from Lerwick. He was the only person with whom she shared it.
‘The plane got off all right,’ he said.
‘Yes, I heard it.’ She paused, filled the cafetière, then lifted the scones out of the oven, just as the timer went off. ‘How many guests are left?’
Maurice had given the departing visitors and their luggage a lift to the plane in the Land Rover. ‘Only four,’ he said. ‘Ron and Sue Johns went out too. They’d heard the forecast and didn’t want to be stuck.’
Jane was transferring the scones on to a rack to cool. Maurice took one absent-mindedly, split it and spread it with butter.
‘Jimmy Perez was in today with his new woman,’ he went on, his mouth still full. ‘James and Mary were waiting for them. Poor girl! She looked as white as a sheet when she got out of the plane. And I don’t blame her. I wouldn’t have enjoyed a flight like that.’
Maurice was the centre administrator. The place carried out scientific work but it also provided accommodation for visiting naturalists or for people who were interested in experiencing the UK’s most remote inhabited island. During September the place had been full of birdwatchers. September was peak migration time and a week of easterly winds had brought in two species new to Britain and a handful of minor rarities. Now, in the middle of October, with the forecast showing fierce westerlies, the centre was almost empty. Maurice had taken early retirement from the university to act as a glorified B&B landlord. Jane wasn’t sure what he felt about that and it would never have occurred to her to pry.
But she did know that what he loved about the place was the gossip. Perhaps that wasn’t so very different from the slightly bitchy chat in a senior common room of a small college. He knew what was going on apparently without any effort at all. Jane had kept her distance from most of the islanders. She knew and liked Mary Perez, was occasionally invited to Springfield for lunch on her days off, but they were hardly close friends.
‘He’s the policeman, isn’t he?’ Jane wasn’t very interested. She looked at her watch. Half an hour to lunchtime. She lit the Calor gas under a big pan of soup, stirred it and replaced the lid.
‘That’s right. Mary was hoping he might come back when a croft became vacant a couple of years ago but he stayed out in Lerwick. If he doesn’t have a son he’ll be the last Perez in Shetland. There’s been a Perez in Fair Isle since the first one was washed ashore from a ship during the Spanish Armada.’
‘A daughter could keep the name and pass it on,’ Jane said sharply. She thought Maurice should be more aware of the dangers of gender stereotyping than anyone. All the visitors assumed that
was the warden of the place and that Angela organized the bookings and the housekeeping. In fact, Angela was the scientist. She was the one who climbed down the cliffs to ring fulmars and guillemots, she took the Zodiac out to count seabird numbers, while Maurice answered the phone, managed the domestic staff and ordered the toilet rolls. And Angela had kept
maiden name after they’d married, for professional reasons.
Maurice smiled. ‘Of course, but it wouldn’t be the same for James and Mary. Especially James. It’s bad enough for him that Jimmy won’t be home to take on the
. James wants a grandson.’
Jane moved out into the dining room and began to lay the tables.
Angela made her appearance after the rest of them had sat at the table. There were times when Jane thought she came in late just so she could make an entrance. But today there hardly seemed enough of them to make a good audience: four visitors plus Poppy, Maurice’s daughter, and the field centre staff, who should be used by now to her theatrics. And Maurice, who seemed to adore her, who seemed not to mind at all his changed role in life as long as it made her happy.
Angela had helped herself to soup from the pan still simmering on the stove and stood looking down at them. She was twenty years younger than Maurice, tall and strong. Her hair was almost black, curly and long enough to sit on, twisted up now and held by a comb. The hair was her trademark. She had become a regular commentator on BBC natural history programmes and it was the hair that people remembered. Jane supposed Maurice had been flattered by her attention, her celebrity and her youth. That was why he had left the wife who’d washed his clothes and cooked his meals and looked after his children, nurturing them to adulthood – if Poppy could be considered an adult. Jane had never met this deserted wife but felt a huge sympathy for her.
Jane expected Angela to join them, to move the conversation quickly and skilfully to her own preoccupations. That was the usual pattern. But Angela remained standing and Jane realized then that the woman was furious, was so angry that the hands that held the soup bowl were shaking. She set it on the table, very carefully. Conversation in the room dwindled to nothing. Outside, the storm had become even more ferocious and they were aware of that too. Even through the double-glazed windows they heard the waves breaking on the rocks, could see the spray like a giant’s spit blown above the cliff.
‘Who’s been into the bird room?’ The question was restrained, hardly more than a whisper, but they could hear the fury behind it. Only Maurice seemed oblivious. He wiped a piece of bread around the bowl and looked up.
‘Is there a problem?’
‘I think somebody has been interfering with my work.’
‘I went in to check the bookings on the computer. Roger phoned to see if we could fit in a group next June and for some reason the machine in the flat wasn’t working.’
‘This wasn’t on the computer. It was a draft for a paper. Handwritten.’ Angela directed the answer at Maurice, but her voice was pitched loudly enough for them all to hear the words. Listening, Jane was surprised by the image of Angela writing by hand. She never did, except perhaps her field notes when no other form of taking a record was possible. The warden was beguiled by technology. She even completed the evening log of birds seen with the aid of a laptop. ‘It’s missing,’ Angela went on. ‘Someone must have taken it.’ She looked around the room, took in the four visitors sitting at their own table and her voice was even louder. ‘Someone must have taken it.’