even of the children on the Orkney mainland were survivors of the Sweats. Each of them was billeted with a foster parent who was usually, though not always, the person who had found them. The children all claimed to remember the time before the Sweats. They boasted to each other of the cars their parents had driven, the countries they had traveled to; houses they once occupied, glittering with electricity. Their memories became more intricate as the years progressed. Each child could see their dead parents’ faces; remember the scent of them. The children competed over details. They described the feel of their bedroom wallpaper, the view beyond the window, the color of their grandparents’ eyes, the taste of fast food and home cooking. Survivor children claimed to know the very atoms of the old world. But their memories only truly came alive when they were asleep, surfacing in dreams that woke their households and vanished upon waking.
The children were forbidden to enter abandoned buildings, but the grown-ups were often overwhelmed by the business of survival and left them to their own devices. Soon the small gang were daring each other into dead-eyed houses where they roamed through Mary Celeste rooms, as hushed as archaeologists entering a tomb. Looting was a crime worthy of banishment, but the remnants of the old world were irresistible.
The adults had agreed that, although the children were not biologically theirs, the next generation must be a priority. There were no teachers, mathematicians, linguists, engineers, historians, writers or scientists left on the islands, but a small committee was established to set up a school and take turns at teaching the children what they could. It was a plan that floundered on the demands of the post-Sweats world. The education committee struggled to relearn forgotten lessons. They agreed that science and mechanics were essential to restore civilization, but their knowledge of both was scant and the books in the islands’ library difficult to understand.
The arts seemed an easier option, but the fledgling teachers failed there too. History stretched behind them, an infinite past. Literature was fathomless and music had the power to evoke emotions better left buried. It was hard to know where to start and so they let the landscape around them take charge. Classes consisted of hikes to brochs and standing stones. They inspected the Churchill Barriers and the Italian Chapel, roamed the cathedral and read the names inscribed on gravestones and books of remembrance. Once, the small class broke in to the war museum on Hoy. But the losses of the Second World War were puny compared with the devastation of the Sweats and, gradually, classes began to concentrate on the immediate past.
At first the children loved the frivolity of the pre-Sweats world. They drank in misremembered pop songs, half-recalled TV shows and confused accounts of video games. They beguiled their teachers with questions about the old days. Sometimes the adults would come to, wet-eyed, and realize that hours had passed while they had been lost in tales of life before the pandemic. As the children grew older classes began to resemble interrogations. Students tried to pinpoint details their instructors had forgotten, or never known.
Seven years after the outbreak of the Sweats the Orkney children all knew how to ride a horse, skin a rabbit, wring a chicken’s neck, sail a boat and gut a fish. Even the younger ones could deliver a lamb and all were decent shots. They could each play the guitar well and build a shelter that would keep the rain out. The children could all read and count and most of the older ones could add, multiply and subtract. But there were gaps in their knowledge that in former times would have shocked a schools’ inspector. Their understanding of the geography of the world beyond their islands was confused, their knowledge of chemistry, physics and astronomy rudimentary. The books they read were confined to chance and personal taste. They were prone to strange dreads and superstitions.
When the adults worried, as some of them occasionally did, that they had let the children down, they consoled themselves with the thought that you could not miss what you had never had. And there were still plenty of books in the library that would, in time, teach them what they wanted to know. The adults did not foresee that there would be a price to pay for keeping the children ignorant.
t was Easter Sunday and all but the lookouts were gathered in the upstairs lounge of the Stromness Hotel. Afternoon sunlight spilled through dust-glazed windows. Magnus McFall sat on the sill of the bay window with his back to the view of the harbor thrashing out one of the old songs. There were around forty-five people in the audience, most of them crowded around tables where tourists had once dined. The remainder stood on the edges of the room, leaning against its walls, as if readying themselves for a sudden getaway. Magnus looked to where Shug sat, balanced on a high stool by the bar, a bottle of Stella in his hand. Magnus would have preferred him not to drink, but the boy was now around fifteen years old and he had resolved not to fight battles he could not win.
Green grow the rashes, O;
Green grow the rashes, O;
The room joined in the chorus. Magnus risked a smile in Shug’s direction. His son looked away and raised the bottle of beer to his lips. He was wearing a white denim jacket Magnus had not seen before. He wondered where the boy had found it. A faint blast of laughter gusted from the function room below where the smaller kids were watching Young Frankenstein. They had seen the film so many times they could join in with the dialogue, but the celluloid was fragile, the generator too precious to squander on fripperies and the screening remained a treat. A year ago Shuggie would have been with them, but here he was, lounging at the bar, torn-faced and half-drunk.
Magnus thought of the boy as his son, but as Shug had reminded him that morning, with enough force to make Magnus bunch his fists, they were not blood relations, just people the Sweats had thrown together. “You need me more than I need you,” Shug had spat in his half-English, half-island accent. Magnus feared he was right.
What signifies the life o’ man,
An’ ’twere na for the lasses, O.
He followed Shug’s gaze and saw Willow standing by the door. The girl had recently shorn her hair down to the bone. It was growing back in a dark fuzz that emphasized the curve of her skull. The loss of Willow’s curls had seemed like an act of violence, but it had not made her less pretty. The girl’s dark eyes met Shuggie’s and then she slipped out into the corridor beyond. Shug caught Magnus watching him and scowled.
Her prentice han’ she try’d on man,
An’ then she made the lasses, O.
Magnus whipped the song to its final flourish. He acknowledged the applause, knocking back his beer to give himself an excuse to go to the bar. He was halfway across the lounge when Poor Alice caught his sleeve and asked, “Did you write that tune, Magnus?”
The urge to pull away from the old woman’s grasp was strong, but Magnus crouched beside her chair and admitted that Robert Burns had come up with the song.
“Well, he could not have sung it better than you.” Alice smiled her sweet vague smile and patted his hand.
“Thanks, Alice.” Magnus pried her fingers from the cuff of his shirt and kissed her cheek. Her rosewater scent gave him a shiver of déjà vu, but there were days when everything seemed like a memory and he did not try to pin it down. He stood up and looked toward the bar. Shug was gone. On the other side of the lounge Bjarne lumbered to his feet and began to push his way toward the door. Magnus saw the set of the big man’s jaw and realized that he was not the only one who had been watching the boy. He caught up with him in the corridor. “Bjarne . . .”
Before the Sweats, Willow’s foster father had been an area manager for Ford motors, now he was one of the few islanders who traded beyond the Orkneys. The out-of-date Stella Artois they were drinking was courtesy of one of his deals. Bjarne had gifted a dozen crates of the stuff to the Easter celebrations as part of his election bid to become president of the Orkney Islands. He scowled at Magnus, his weathered face made even ruddier than usual by heat, drink and bad temper. They had talked about the children once before and Bjarne spoke as if they were midway through the same conversation.
“My lass, your boy, there’s a difference.”
Magnus was tempted to reply that it was the differences between them that attracted the youngsters, but he knew what Bjarne meant. There was no doctor on the islands and the stakes were higher for women.
“I’ve spoken to him. He knows to treat girls with respect.”
The condoms Magnus had given Shug were well past their sell-by date. He worried the latex might have perished.
Bjarne’s laugh was beery and sarcastic. “My father spoke to me when I was his age.”
Magnus nodded. “Mine too.”
“Did you listen?”
Magnus’s father’s contribution to his sex education had been succinct. If you must tomcat around make sure it’s not with an island girl and make sure you take precautions.
“I was no saint, but I didn’t get any lassies pregnant. If anyone got their heart broken it was me.” Magnus risked a hand on Bjarne’s shoulder. The gesture felt odd. He took his hand away and let it hang awkwardly by his side. “We need to trust our kids. If we don’t we’ll just push them closer together.”
He wanted to ask Bjarne what the Montague and Capulet shit was all about. Shuggie was a decent lad when he wasn’t being a pain in the arse. Why was he so set against him?
The big man’s feet were set wide apart, like a boxer making sure of his center of gravity. “I can read your mind, McFall. You think we should just let them get on with it.”
Magnus shrugged. “They’re teenagers. It’s natural for them to want to spend time with the opposite sex.”
“My girl’s only fifteen years old. She’s too young to be thinking about any of that.”
There was no way of knowing precisely how old the children were. They had each been orphaned by the Sweats and their ages guessed at by the people who had found and adopted them.
Stevie Flint stepped from the lounge and gave them a questioning look. “Everything okay?”
Bjarne ignored her. Magnus smiled. “Aye, fine.”
Stevie’s face was already burnished by exposure to the spring sunshine. She raised her eyebrows, but went back into the lounge where the trio of women who always sang “Harper Valley PTA” were going into their party piece. Stevie stayed sober at island gatherings. The New Orcadian Council recognized the need for the occasional ceilidh, but getting drunk was a risky business and there was an unspoken agreement that a few clear heads were needed. There had been too many accidents, too many brains blown out under the influence, for alcohol to be taken lightly.
The women’s voices reached into the lobby, stretched close to strangling point. The company in the lounge had started to clap in time, perhaps in the hope of hurrying the song along.
“Christ, please kill me now,” Magnus whispered.
“That can be arranged,” Bjarne said, his voice flat and free of threat. He turned and walked toward the stairs. The hotel corridor was dark after the sunlit lounge, but it was still possible to make out the stains on the carpet, the peeling wallpaper. They were living in the ruins of a civilization they had no means of restoring.
Magnus swore softly under his breath and followed the big man. It was like running uphill. The Easter celebrations had endeavored to cater to everyone and the day had been a long one. First there had been the church service in Kirkwall Cathedral. Then, in a spirit of cohesion, they had made their way in carts and on horseback through the blackened ruins of the island’s burned-out capital, back to Stromness, where they had embarked on a community lunch followed by a concert that was turning into a pub lock-in. Magnus had drank more than he was used to and his feet were not wholly his own.
Bjarne did not bother to look back. “I trust her, but she’d have no chance against that wee cunt.”
Magnus grabbed Bjarne by the arm. “He’s just a boy.”
Bjarne pulled away. He enunciated his words slowly, as if he was speaking to someone who had been hit on the head too many times.
“He’s a randy little shit and I don’t want him anywhere near my daughter.”
“Willow came looking for Shug. Maybe it’s your daughter who’s the randy one.”
Bjarne’s breath touched Magnus’s face, warm and beery. “Watch your mouth, McFall, and tell that boy of yours to keep away from my Willow, if he wants to keep his bollocks. I’ve gelded enough calves to have developed a knack for it. A quick flick of the wrist with a sharp knife, that’s all it takes.”
The blast of anger was sudden and hard to contain. “Go anywhere near Shug and you’ll wish I’d cut your balls off. I’ll slit you port to stern.”
Bjarne’s grin was satisfied, as if all he had really wanted was for Magnus to lose his temper. “Thanks for the warning.”
They were standing at the top of the stairs, an intersection of light and dark. Sunshine flooded through the stairwell’s high windows, outlining Bjarne’s body in gold and casting Magnus in his shadow. It would be easy to shove the big man down the stairs, but Magnus had sworn that he was done with killing. He took a step backward.
“I shouldn’t have said that about Willow. She’s a good kid. You don’t need to worry about her.”
“I meant every word I said about Shuggie. He’s a wee bastard. Keep him away from my girl.”
“She’s not your girl, Bjarne, no more than Shug is my boy. They’re both old enough to realize that now. We can look out for them, but we can’t make them do what we want.”
“You’d better try, if you want him to stay in one piece.” Bjarne turned and jogged down the stairs.
Magnus reckoned he had held him there long enough for Shug and Willow to get to whatever hidey-hole they were bound for and did not bother to follow him. The big man was a problem that would keep till later. The hotel door slammed below. He wondered if he should have a word with Shuggie, but knew it would do no good. The boy, who had once depended on him for everything, now barely gave him the time of day.
“Fuck him,” Magnus muttered under his breath. “Wee fucker.” He walked back to the lounge and another beyond-the-sell-by-date bottle of beer.
tevie Flint watched Magnus’s progress toward the bar and wondered why they had never slept together. It was nothing to do with looks. The Orcadian had aged since his return to the islands, but his hair was thick and black, and he was still in decent shape. Stevie smiled and rubbed Pistol’s ears. The dog set his head on her knee, smearing her trousers with saliva. Her mind always turned toward sex at island gatherings. She supposed that had been part of the purpose of get-togethers in the old days, to find mates.
Stevie scanned the room marveling at how easily people had partnered up in the years their small community had grown. They were incomers like her, who had washed up on the islands alone, like driftwood after a storm. All of them had been bereaved. Some of the new couples were so devoted it was hard to believe their relationship had been forged from death. Other liaisons were more fluid, people slipping from one partner to the next. There were moralists on the island who looked down on women who had been with a lot of men. Stevie had not slept with anyone since the Sweats, but she had no problem with promiscuity. Seeking comfort in a warm bed was more natural than always being alone.
She watched Magnus put a bottle of beer to his mouth and saw the rise and fall of his Adam’s apple as he glugged down its contents. His feet shifted as if he was trying to keep his balance and she realized that he was sliding from drunk toward fully tanked. He would be among the casualties sleeping it off between damp sheets in one of the Stromness Hotel’s abandoned guest rooms that night. There was no shame in it. It was men like Bjarne that worried her.
Stevie had her own theory about why Willow had hacked her hair off and why her stepfather was so against young Shug. She ran a finger along Pistol’s dark muzzle and wondered again if her suspicions were strong enough to act on. Bjarne’s presidential ambitions meant her motives could easily be misconstrued.
“You could do worse.” Poor Alice nodded toward Magnus. Little Evie, the most recent post-Sweats child born on the island, was bouncing on the old lady’s lap.
Stevie said, “Have you been spying on me, Alice?”
“Spying on you, while you spy on him.”
Magnus had picked up his guitar. Stevie hoped he was not going to sing one of his own songs. As usual the islanders had turned to making things over the winter and there was a glut of poorly written plague memoirs, gloomy melodies and murky paintings.
Poor Alice bobbed Evie up and down, up and down. She grinned at Stevie over the toddler’s head. “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe.”
Evie’s cheeks were bright red. She stretched, yearning toward her mother, Breda, wriggled free and slid gently to the ground.
Stevie gripped Pistol’s collar. “No secrets on an island, Alice. I like Magnus well enough, but I won’t be tucking him into bed tonight.”
Poor Alice’s smile revealed gummy gaps where her incisors should have been. “He wouldn’t be much use to you tonight right enough, but Magnus is a decent lad. He’s done his best for young Shug and he’s not one of those who are always drunk.”
Magnus was strumming out a tune, something soft and lively, that made Stevie think of sunlight shimmering through a waterfall. Most of the bar was chatting through the music but a few folk were swaying with the rhythm. Gentle songs were dangerous. They could evoke emotions best tamped down.
“I’m not looking for a man, Alice.”
The old woman shook her head. “You’ll dry up. Your skin will turn to leather and your twat will close tight as a clam . . .”
Stevie was about to tell Alice to mind her own business, but she saw young Connor barreling into the room, only just avoiding a collision with the fully laden tray of drinks John Prentice was ferrying across the lounge. Stevie shook her head. “Here comes a hurricane.”
The boy had recently gone through a growth spurt and was not yet used to the length of his limbs. Stevie had reckoned Connor ready for some responsibility. There had been recent talk of strange vessels sighted on the horizon. The number of lookouts had been increased and she had included Connor on the rota, setting him on watch in a hotel bedroom with a good view of the harbor.
“Whoa . . .” She caught hold of his arm, stopping him just short of their table. “Where’s the fire?”
The boy’s face was red. Pistol gave his hand a friendly butt with his nose. Usually Connor would have rubbed the dog’s ears, but he ignored him.
“There’s a boat.”
“Where?” Stevie got to her feet and strode to the nearest window.
“I wasn’t asleep.” Connor was on the edge of tears.
Stevie twitched back the curtains, careful to keep her body out of sight, and looked out. A handsome four-berth yacht was sitting just outside the harbor, its sails furled. A rowing boat was making its way steadily toward the quay. Stevie narrowed her eyes and was able to make out three people. Two of them were rowing and the vessel was making good progress.
“Jesus, Connor. A bit of warning would have been nice.”
The rowing boat docked and a man climbed from its stern, up the metal ladder onto the quay. Someone in the boat cast a rope toward him. He caught it and secured it around a bollard. The man was tall and rangy. As Stevie watched, the other passengers followed him onto solid ground: a blonde-haired woman, and another man, shorter than the first, but powerfully built. The distance between the boat and the barroom was too far for Stevie to be able to make out their features, but she knew everyone on the Orkneys and could already tell that the men and woman were strangers. The trio stood for a moment, in conversation. Stevie stayed by the window, caught between the need for action and an urge to observe them.
Connor whispered, “I’m sorry.”
She tried to hide her irritation. “You screwed up, now you have to help deal with it. Find Alan Bold and tell him he’s wanted.”
The boy’s face flushed a deeper shade of crimson. “I think he’s—”
Connor nodded and scurried off, determined to redeem himself, his chin set against the embarrassment in store.
Stevie glanced out of the window again. The strangers were dressed in a combination of combat gear and outdoor wear that made them look like a cross between arctic explorers and Vikings. Their clothes had probably been top of the range when they had looted them, but now they were scuffed and dirty. They were armed, the obligatory rifles strapped to their backs. Stevie felt the same shrinking in her chest that she had sometimes experienced traveling on the London Underground when terror threat levels were high. Strangers were not unknown on the islands, but they usually arrived in the company of one of the lookouts and most were tired to the point of deference, not straight-spined and combat-ready.
The woman pointed at the hotel and the men turned their heads toward it. Stevie ducked behind the curtains, though there was little point in hiding. The sound of music and chatter must have drifted down to the harbor.
She pushed her way to the front of the room, touching Magnus’s shoulder as she went, putting a finger to her lips. He gave her an irritated look, but strummed the tune to a clumsy conclusion. Stevie took the poker from its place beside the fire and banged it against the table in front of her, hard enough to crack the veneer. Pistol barked and the warm hubbub of laughter, chat and clinking glasses shivered into silence.
“We have some unexpected visitors.”
People seated by the windows looked down into the street. Stevie saw some of the islanders reach for their weapons and raised her free hand, telling them not to be hasty. “Unexpected doesn’t mean hostile. Remember, you were all unexpected visitors when you first arrived.”
Some of the islanders were getting to their feet. They said hurried goodbyes and hustled their small families out of the back door of the lounge. Stevie did not blame them. Adult survivors generally had some immunity to the Sweats, but children born since the pandemic were untested.
Stevie ignored the exodus. “Please remember, we greet all visitors with courtesy.”
Brendan Banks stage-whispered, “It’s easier to be courteous once someone’s been quarantined.” The Yorkshireman was sitting in the big bay window next to Magnus, a banjo resting on his lap.
Alan Bold stepped through the door, tucking his shirt into his jeans; his black hair and beard the usual wild tangle that had led the children to nickname him “Scribble.” “What’s going on?”
“Three newcomers. I suggest we go down and greet them.” Stevie patted her thigh and Pistol trotted to her side.
Alan Bold’s eyes were sleepy with drink and sex. His mouth had a bitter twist.
“Who fucked-up the lookout?”
Connor was standing, awkward and ashamed, on the edge of the conversation. Stevie gave the boy a smile and said, “Me, I was in charge.”
“Yeah and I’m fucking Spartacus too.” Bold threw the boy a look.
Stevie said, “Let’s go down before it’s too . . .”
It was already too late.
The sound in the room died and she looked up to see the strangers standing in the lounge doorway. The men were big enough to do some damage. Their beards were bushy and unkempt, their hair long and straggling. Stevie knew she should be cautious of them, but it was the woman who held her attention. She was dirty and travel-worn, her blonde hair kinked in matted waves across her shoulders. The woman’s face was drawn and she would have been nothing much to look at, were it not for the scar that ran the length of the left side of her face, straight as a knife edge. The wound puckered her top lip and stopped short of her eye. The weapon that sliced her must have touched some ocular nerve, because her left pupil was dull and milky and no life-light gleamed inside. The scar emphasized the clean symmetry of her face and tipped her into beauty.
Pistol growled and Stevie caught hold of his collar, “Shush.” She leveled her gaze at the trio. “My name is Stevie Flint. I’m the elected president of the Orkney Islands. We operate a strict quarantine here. Please do not come any closer.”
Little Evie sensed the tension in the room and started to cry. Stevie kept her focus on the newcomers, careful not to catch any of the islanders’ eyes. She felt the uncertainty of her position, the precariousness of her authority.
“None of us are sick.” The woman smiled and held up her hands, to show that she meant no harm. An eye was tattooed in the center of each of her palms. They stared out at the company, unblinking. “The boys and I are passing through. We heard your music and thought we should pay our respects. It looks like we chose a good day to arrive.”
Alan Bold said, “This is an island. We’re not on the way to anywhere. No one passes through.”
Stevie gave Pistol’s collar a small tug, making the dog sit tall and straight. He was her gun. “What’s your business here?”
The woman said, “This island is not on the way to anywhere and neither are we. It makes sense that our paths would intersect.”
Poor Alice said, “Christ Almighty.” Her voice was heavy with sarcasm and somebody gave a boozy laugh.
Stevie glared at the old woman, silencing her. She tried to keep her irritation out of her voice. “Peaceful visitors are welcome, as long as they make no trouble and contribute something to the community, but our islands are free of disease. We want to keep it that way. All newcomers must undergo two weeks of isolation.”
There was a murmur of assent from the people at the bar, but the woman’s attention was no longer on Stevie. She stepped beyond the shelter of her companions, beyond the invisible quarantine line, toward the bay window where Magnus still sat, his guitar resting on his lap. This time her smile was genuine. It lit up her face and Stevie realized she would have been pretty, even without the scar. The people at Magnus’s table shrank into the lee of the bay window and Stevie raised her voice, “Stay where you are.” Pistol growled. She tugged his collar again, and the dog rose up on his back legs, barking.
“For fuck’s sake.” Brendan Banks shifted back in his seat, holding his banjo in front of him as if it were a talisman against infection. He clamped his free hand over his mouth and nose. Beside him, Jenny Seybold raised her cardigan to her face, her eyes wide behind the makeshift mask.
Only Magnus seemed unafraid. He looked up, his expression cloudy, as if he recognized but could not place the woman. He shook his head. “I don’t . . .” Magnus set his guitar down and rose rustily to his feet. “Belle?” His voice was tinged with shyness. “What happened . . . ?” He ran a finger down his face, mimicking the route of her scar, and took a step toward the woman. Brendan caught the hem of his jacket in an attempt to hold him back, but he tugged free of the Yorkshireman and held out his hands to the woman. Belle took them in hers, as if they were about to dance a reel, and Magnus pulled her into an awkward hug.
Stevie felt suddenly embarrassed. She glanced around the bar and saw that the islanders were staring at the couple. Even Brendan and Jenny, too close to the stranger for comfort, were caught in the drama. She said, “You know each other?”
“Aye,” Magnus disengaged himself. “This is Belle. I met her soon after I left London.” He nodded to his audience. “She’s okay.”
Stevie said, “You vouch for her?”
“I vouch for her.” Magnus’s voice was thick with drink, his smile as beery as a barroom darts champion’s. He glanced at the two men, still standing broad-shouldered and silent on the edge of the room, their eyes wary and edged with deep creases that suggested long days of walking into the sun. Magnus gave an expansive grin. “And I vouch for these lads too. If they’re with Belle, they’re all right.” He put his arm around Belle’s waist, pulling her close.
Poor Alice had edged her way to the front of the room, unable to resist being part of the action. She nudged Stevie. “Looks like you missed your chance.”
Stevie whispered, “Life is full of second chances, Alice. Otherwise you and I wouldn’t be here to miss them.” She looked at Magnus. “You can’t vouch for people you don’t know, and you can’t guarantee they aren’t carrying the Sweats. If they intend to stay, they must go through quarantine. I suggest you keep your distance if you don’t want to join them.”
Magnus gave Belle a last squeeze and disengaged himself. “She told you, they’re clean.”
“For Christ’s sake man, how many times did you hear that right before someone started coughing?” Brendan’s usually mild voice was sharp. “How many people do you know who looked in the pink, right up until the moment they dropped dead?”
One of the men said, “We’ll go into quarantine.”
Stevie had expected the demand to send the trio on their way. Their sudden acquiescence unsettled her. Pistol gave another low growl and she caught hold of his muzzle, silencing him.
“Leave the hotel. Keep a good distance from anyone you see. We’ll make arrangements on the street . . .” They turned to leave, but Stevie called them back. “Before you go . . .” she asked the question she asked all new arrivals, “. . . are any of you doctors?”
“I was an art history student and part-time coffee barista. Ed worked in a mobile phone shop.” Belle nodded toward the tall man. “Rob’s the only one who had a half-useful job.”
Ed glanced at his feet.
“I was a car mechanic,” Rob said. “I worked for Kwik Fit.”
The mention of the cut-price tire fitter with its jaunty advertising jingle made the lounge bar laugh.
Brendan said, “I think you ripped me off for a set of new treads back in 2006.”
Rob gave a small smile. “Could be.”
Someone shouted across the lounge, “Have you any news from outside?”
The tall man leveled his tired gaze at the company. “The news is, you’re right to stay on an island and you’re right to quarantine us, even though we’re well. The cities are still burning. People are still dying.”
The islanders began to shout out names of towns and cities where they had once lived, asking for news of them. Stevie said, “They need to go.” She nodded toward the door. The trio strolled from the room, taking their time.
The good feeling that had risen with the laughter of a moment ago was fractured. The younger children and families were gone, leaving hardened drinkers to the rest of the long night. The committee had rationed out bottles of branded beer the day before, but there was enough home brew on the islands to intoxicate a school of whales. Stevie knew that soon Mason jars and screw-topped bottles would appear on the tables, filled with liquid that spanned a spectrum of browns and yellows, making the lounge look like a busy day in an urologist’s lab. She released her hold on Pistol’s collar and went over to where Magnus was sitting.
“The only reason I’m not putting you in quarantine with them is because I know things are difficult between you and Shuggie at the moment. Don’t make me regret it.”
Magnus stared her out. “You want me to promise not to come down with the Sweats?”
Stevie’s hand tingled. “I want you to stop being a wanker.”
She would have said more, but Alan Bold was heading out of the lounge, following the newcomers into the gloaming. Stevie caught a glimpse of her deputy’s ruddy face, his cunt-struck eyes, and hoped he was not going to be trouble.
lan Bold’s bravado seemed to have deflated in the dimness of the hotel lobby. He stood loitering in the entrance hall, amongst photographs of Victorian hunters armored in tweed, posing with shut-faced gillies in front of their kills. One of Bjarne’s election posters was pasted to the wall.
BJARNE for PRESIDENT!
VOTE BJARNE for ELECTRICITY
VOTE BJARNE for FUEL
VOTE BJARNE for PROGRESS
VOTE BJARNE for NORMALITY
For fuel in your tank & electricity in your home
VOTE BJARNE! BJARNE! BJARNE! BJARNE!
Stevie resisted the urge to rip the big man’s empty boasts from the wall. She peered through the etched glass of the hotel’s front door onto the quayside. The sun had started to sink toward the sea, so red it seemed the water might hiss with its descent. Pistol thumped his tail on the lobby floor and scratched at the door, keen to go out into the night.
Bold said, “Where will you put them?” This was how it was with the deputy. He played the big man, but found it hard to make decisions.
Bold shrugged. “As far as I know.”
Stevie nodded toward the strangers. “What do you think it is with them?”
Bold put a hand on her shoulder. “They’re looking for somewhere to settle. We should hope they pick here.”
The deputy was right. The innovations of the last century had been lost and strong bodies were essential to the community’s survival, but Stevie felt apprehensive. She pushed his hand away. “There’s something about them . . .” She let the sentence tail away. “They look hunted.”
“We’re all haunted.”
Stevie did not bother to correct Bold. She called Pistol to heel, pushed open the hotel door and stepped outside, hoping that whatever was hunting, or haunting the newcomers, would not follow them to Orkney.
The trio heard the door open and turned toward the sound. Stevie stopped six yards from them, resisting the reflex to hold out a hand in greeting. Pistol stood still by her right side, Alan Bold on her left, an irritating step beyond her eye-line. Stevie said, “I’m sorry we couldn’t give you a warmer welcome.”
Rob, the tall man, had olive skin and eyes almost as dark as his hair. The complexion of his companion, Ed, was pale with the faint blush that would have been described as English Rose, had he been a girl. Rob said, “These are difficult times. You’re right to be cautious.”
The door behind her opened, Stevie heard ragged footsteps on the cobbles and turned to see Magnus coming out of the hotel. Pistol got to his feet, wagging his tail.
“Don’t worry,” Magnus said. He had sobered a little, but his walk still had a stagger to it. “I’ll keep my distance.”
Belle gave him a tired smile. Her good eye was cornflower blue, the damaged one a blue shade of white. She looked at Stevie, “Do I address you as Madam President?”
“If you like, but most people call me Stevie. How long do you plan on staying?”
“We don’t plan things.” Ed’s voice was soft, with a faint burr which made Stevie think of warmer coastlines. “We see where the wind blows us.”