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Chapter 1

‘Let us pray.’

The light breeze that turned and gently blustered across the small heights of Beinn an Eòin had come from out beyond the open sea. Its movements seemed haphazard and all but irrelevant to the ordered lives which the island people followed in the glens below, its origins and intent obscure, impelled as it was by a force which drew nothing from the creations of man. The land itself, with its scarred cheeks of rock and heathers, of fleshy mosses and pliant grasses, this harrowed mass lay under the wind’s progress across the island hills, hills which were full of the light from a mute and distant sun. The people themselves, gradually drawn away from their old intuitions and their closeness to the earth by the call of a new and seemingly more rational world, had long since turned their faces from the hills and were now taken up with matters which they had let themselves be persuaded were more relevant to a modern style of living.

The breeze wandered on over the hill, combing and stroking at the soft surface of the ground, until it came to the lip of an escarpment. There, on the boundary between the two worlds, it gathered itself and sprang high into the thin blue air to form part of a current supporting the buzzards that ran this inland coast in search of food.

From these heights the land below stood in a strangely unreal perspective. Southwards, to the right, the twin coilings of a single-track road and a meandering river emphasised the shape of the glen which was closed by a low pass, from here out of sight behind the hills. To the north lay the spoonbill shape of a little sea loch, protected from the ocean surge by the wooded narrows through which the tides raced tirelessly twice a day. Where the slow river of the glen met the waters of the sea loch there was a spreading encampment of reeds, with pools and backwaters. And it was near here, at the very head of the loch, that there lay the clustered scattering of houses forming the isolated village of Acheninver. From Beinn an Eòin, little or no pattern could be discerned in the arrangement of the buildings which lay in a sort of easy disarray around the kirk with its squat tower.

Just now in the village nothing moved. Only the spiralling of the breeze and the occasional cry of a bird marked the relentless passing of time. Behind the veil of distance, this small human gathering seemed completely motionless, pinned flat beneath the rays of the late afternoon sun like a fieldmouse below the hawk.

‘Let us pray.’

The rustling and shifting died down and in the ensuing silence while the minister gained his composure for the coming prayer, the bleating of a sheep on a nearby hillside carried in through the open doors of the kirk.

In the front pew Murdo Munro glanced sideways at his woman. He looked away again quickly.

Behind them the villagers stood packed in ranks, men and women alike in their best clothes for the wedding. Shepherds and dairymen, tractormen, foresters, gangers, roadmen, builders and fishermen, their weathered faces creased and scabbed, their eyes polished by the year-long rota of sun and wind and rain, all shifted uncomfortably in their clothes and craned forwards to witness the ritual that would once more bind them closer in among themselves. And the womenfolk, gauded up in their coats and perching, flowered hats, were like mortar between the rough slabwork of the men.

Murdo stood there in thought, his pea-head with its great flapping ears tilted forward on the scrawny stem of his neck. He too felt ill at ease dressed in his old blue suit, with the collar of an oversized shirt hanging round his neck like a halter. One of his enormous hands, knotty and cut, came up slowly and attempted to arrange some comfort in the collar.

Behind the watery film of his eyes, the image of his woman, Margaret, persisted. He blinked and there out before him was the shape of his daughter, Flora, white and all white but for the blackness of her hair. And beside her, the thick frame of Hughie Morrison, the man that, before God, she was taking to herself.

It was August 4th. And the image of Flora confused itself with that of her mother. For it was twenty-six years to the day that he, Murdo Munro, had stood there in that very same kirk and taken young Margaret for his wife. How could this be? Was it really this same woman who now stood beside him? Young Margaret from the Borders. Pretty young Margaret with her laughing eyes and her laughing ways.

Murdo frowned.

With her white skin and small hands and her rounded, hidden body whose image he had tried to chase from his mind with the drink when, for those long months, he had feared he would never win her. Month on month, she had been civil to him and no more. And he had despaired and longed all the more for her—for her body and perhaps even her soul too. But little by little he had grown accustomed to this impossible longing and had slowly come to accept what seemed to him his failure. That was how it had always been for him.

So that when the two of them had met by chance, one wild, autumn day on the road high above the village and had taken shelter from a squall together, he had stood sullenly beside her beneath the overhang of black rock and thought of little beyond how long the rain would last. And then, against the sound of the rain, her light laugh had surfaced from their silence and he had turned to see her smiling at him.

‘Och, Murdo Munro, you and your black thoughts!’ she had laughed.

And with an inexplicable surge of his old passion he had seized her and kissed her fiercely.

Later, in the chill, dank silence of his house in the village, he had sat down at the table by the window with the tears running down his bony cheeks and there had been no way of telling whether this sudden, almost childlike collapse was from happiness and relief or from some desperate, dark-rooted misery.

But only a month later they were engaged and by that day in the following August they were man and wife.

It was hard for Murdo to connect the smiling young girl of his youth with the woman who now stood beside him. The tears that had bubbled up from his staring eyes that autumn afternoon had perhaps been some deep-rising warning that the kiss given so impetuously on the hill had set in motion the beginning of some strange and inexplicable decline. Aye, and a decline it had certainly been.

The first weeks—months even—of the marriage had passed well enough, buoyant with the hope of better things. But the better things had never quite come. He had felt himself open and willing, pliant and forgiving; and for a while Margaret had smiled back at him. But then, slowly and without drama, they had begun to move apart. There had been no furious quarrel, no open contention to mark the onset of their failing relationship. But slowly a silence, heavy and as cold as sheet metal, had risen between them. Murdo, with nowhere to go but the hotel bar when he wanted to get away, had slipped into the age-old habit of drink, not finding any true escape in the alcoholic haze but nonetheless sitting leaden-eyed before the pints of heavy and the oily drams with his mind closeted in a growing despair.

To begin with, the sense of failure and incipient decline had been bad for him, relentlessly bad. But when the long months had passed and he had finally given up any real hope of finding happiness with his woman, Murdo discovered that what he actually felt was something approaching relief, as if melancholy were his natural state.

The very coldness of his daily life with Margaret had however hardened him, giving him a crusty exterior that made people generally somewhat wary of him and the sharpness of his tongue. And yet those few who really got to know him saw beyond this, saw that he was basically a good and kind man, somebody who would be quick enough to spring to the aid of anyone in need. At work, the men, long inured to his acerbic ways, would purposely provoke him and chuckle to hear him curse and grumble. This of course was done without any sense of malice—something which Murdo recognised, responding in kind and playing his part, perhaps even finding some little relief in it. In any case for the island people with their small, interwoven communities there was not a tendency to speak up about their private selves and this daily charade provided Murdo with cover for the deep sadness lying within him.

And Margaret? What had she felt, he wondered, what had this woman really wanted of him? Murdo had no idea. Yet like many a strong-willed woman, she had turned the sadness of the situation to her advantage. She had taken her life out into the village and made herself into an irreplaceable part of the local community, befriending some, ingratiating herself with others and spiting the few who stood against her—and all the while speaking to people as if she genuinely loved her man.

Yet back in the house, with its two ground-floor rooms and its upstairs bedrooms, she had rarely bothered to show her true feelings of antagonism towards Murdo but, by casually ignoring him, had effectively crushed the last possibility of any warmth between them. It seemed clear that so long as he continued to bring her the weekly money, she would accept his presence. It was as simple as that.

And then, in the second year of the marriage, she had got from Murdo the very thing which was later to become the symbol of the division between them.

Late one snowy evening in March, Margaret, full-grown with child, had sent Murdo out for the midwife. As he crunched and slithered his way along the street, he had been full of hope that the coming bairn was going to set right the sadness of his home.

Having returned with the midwife, he had sat by the fire and listened to the noises and silences in the room above. The hours had drifted by but finally, deep in the frozen stillness of the night, he had been roused by a thin, rough-edged cry and a while later, the midwife had come down to tell him that he was to go up. Shyly creeping into the bedroom, he found Margaret lying there with a small, wrinkled face clutched close to her. And if the look on Margaret’s face had been one of pure maternal joy, there might just still have been the glimmer of redemption for the two of them. But in fact her look had seemed to him more one of triumph, a look that told him that the bairn was not to be something for them to share but was to be hers alone.

From that day on he and Margaret had scarcely spoken a word to each other on anything but practical, everyday matters. All Margaret’s affection and love poured forth on to the little girl, wee Flora. Watching her smiling and kissing the bairn, Murdo thought of what he and his wife might have had together and what as a couple they might have been to Flora. But the bairn, coddled with her mother’s love, was kept with jealous care from any possible closeness with its father. While Murdo was out at his work in the forest, the neighbours were ushered in to coo and admire the unsuspecting infant. At weekends, when Murdo was more about the house, Margaret would use every opportunity, every break in the weather, to go out and parade her little Flora up and down the village street. In speaking about Flora, Margaret always referred to her as hers: Murdo and Flora were rarely mentioned in the same breath.

As the years passed Murdo settled himself into his enforced role of mere spectator. And to ease this, he inevitably returned to the drink. Never quite into the cage of alcoholism but into its ante-room that was peopled by so many of the island folk.

Flora grew up to be a pretty, self-possessed girl with her mother’s good looks and none of her father’s black temperament. In fact, in the depths of his drinking, Murdo sometimes wondered if he had really fathered this bairn, so little did she appear to resemble him. She became one of the leaders of the village children, dominated the local school and, egged on by her mother, soon began to give herself airs.

It always seemed to Murdo that it was as if Margaret had given over to her daughter not only the hours of her days but also her own looks and well-being. For as Flora blossomed so her mother plunged steeply into decline, her body becoming fat and unmanageable in her clothes and her face slowly following suit, the wild, bright eyes of her youth turning pig-like and mean in the cushions of her cheeks.

All this Murdo had observed with neither particular concern nor sorrow, so deeply had his former love for Margaret been buried by her coldness towards him. As for Flora—it was difficult to say what kind of relationship he had, or might have had, with her. For her mother had instilled in her something akin to contempt for her father, something which served to drive Murdo ever deeper into his drinking as he struggled with the frustrated, stifled love he felt for his daughter. And there was a strange resemblance between the misery of holding this fatherly love unspoken and the pain of his first, secret longings for Margaret all those years before.

His suppressed passion drove him to work ever longer hours in the knowledge that the money gained would give the young girl the material things she needed. He longed to be able to do more than this; and when Margaret used money he had brought home to buy Flora a present and the girl threw her arms round her mother’s neck in delight and happiness, Murdo could only watch from across the room, happy for his daughter yet with his soul transfixed.

‘O God, who in Thy great mercy. . .’

Murdo bowed his head as the prayer began. He had been brought up in the tradition of the kirk and was by nature a God-fearing man though with little precise understanding of the minister’s words or any of the deeper tenets of the kirk. As always, the unworldly rhythm of the service held his inner being poised on the brink of some vague sense of comfort and security. There was some strange feeling, a dim awareness of it offering everything that he had been refused elsewhere—warmth and awe and longing.

He glanced up and the minister’s eyes were fixed on him. As he looked down again he took in the shape of his daughter, white as a gull’s neck beside the heavy build of her man. She, the sole balance to his existence, was going. And with the flash of some delayed understanding, it came to him that this day, this very service, was marking the end of his life.

August 4th! On this very day, twenty-six years ago, he had stood before the Revd. Alexander Donaldson and had felt that his life was beginning. Now he stood there once more to witness the departure of his daughter into her new world. With Flora gone, what position could he possibly expect to hold in his own house? Little by little the full shape of what was coming rose up before him. Years of pointless silence and alienation, trapped under the same roof as Margaret. And when retirement came and there was no longer even the daily escape into work, what then? The flutterings of panic turned dully in Murdo’s stomach.

Out on the slopes of Beinn an Eòin, far above the head of the loch, the breeze shimmered and puffed once more.

Murdo looked across at Hughie Morrison. He was a good lad, right enough, strong and dependable, with a steady job over on the estate at Dorusduan. He would provide for Flora, there was no worry there. And before the bairns came, Flora would be able to continue her work at the shop. No, they’d not want for anything: the lassie would be all right.

He thought of the other villagers behind him in the kirk. He knew them all well enough but now they were suddenly as nothing to him as his mind began to be caught up by a strange new idea.

Only old Donnie MacGillivray, a seventy-five-year-old bachelor, who was his drinking companion, came before his eyes as a reality. Well, there was always something to leave behind.

As Murdo bent forward and leaned on the back of the pew in front, the minister’s supplications and the congregation’s growled responses suddenly drifted away from his consciousness.

Locked in thought, he stared down at the hard wooden bench.

Again the breeze gave itself out in an increase of strength. And once again Murdo recalled the minister’s words that had lived in a corner of his mind since a Sunday service some weeks before: ‘If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.’

God have mercy on me a sinner!

With Flora gone, the family, the old sacred unit of the glens, would be reduced to just him and his woman. And they, in the inevitable drawing-in and cramping of old age, must carry each other into hell. . .

That at least was the dark way in which things appeared to Murdo Munro that August afternoon at his daughter’s wedding. And with the self-reproaching glory of the melancholic, it seemed to him that the offending member must be him. Margaret had made a life for herself (whether this life was good or bad was far beyond his judgement) and so it could only be him, him with his drinking and his terrible blackness, that was to be severed from the body. And with the sudden clarity of this realisation, it also became clear to him that no other practical considerations mattered.

His mouth and chin twisted violently to the left and his head stretched forward in a series of ludicrous contractions, a nervous twitch that turned his already scraggy and disjointed features into a mad tangle—something which the village bairns loved to imitate.

He felt Margaret staring at him.

The twitch continued again and again, ever more strongly.

Out on the crags of Beinn an Eòin a ragged hoodie was catapulted skywards by a new thrust of the wind.
They came to a sudden pause in the service as Hughie Morrison fumbled for the ring. And it was in the ensuing silence that Murdo spoke softly but clearly:

‘Aye,’ he said. ‘And so it is.’

And the breeze blew no more.

‘Murdo!’ Margaret hissed at him. ‘Murdo!’

He straightened up slowly and looked round into her face. Beneath her squat blue hat, the eyes, peeled of anything but angry determination, stared at him. The mouth was drawn into a tight ring of insistence in the lardy cheeks.

He nodded and spoke, almost as if to himself:

‘I’ve to go away out.’

‘For heaven’s sake, Murdo! Not now!’

‘I’ll no be long.’

‘Just wait, I tell you! Do you hear?’

For a moment Murdo paused and lowered his glazy eyes before the threat of his woman. Then quietly but firmly:

‘Just let me be, woman! I’ve told you—I’ve to go out.’

And as his woman prepared to remonstrate further, Murdo moved resolutely past her bulk and out into the aisle. He caught a glimpse of his daughter turning. He caught other glimpses, of Mairi Paterson and Jenny Melville frowning beneath their neat bonnets. He heard vague murmurs and felt glances from along the pews on both sides. But, with his ambling, clumsy gait, he passed on down the aisle, carving his way through the conventions of the villagers. His steps, crisp and steel on the stone floor, sounded out the measures of his new resolve. The colours of the wedding clothes flowed bubbling by his sides and then were gone as, with a final step, he issued forth between the dark, oaken doors of the kirk.

The moment before he left the kirk, he was still one of the village congregation and the half-view of the road outside was almost beyond his reach. And in that brief moment his resolve began to waver. But then with a single pace more he was out and part of the land and the circling ocean, with the blue veil and the combings of the high cirrus standing far above. And the people of Acheninver, the witnesses of his long years of defeat, were, quite suddenly, behind him, mere ghosts of his past.

He blinked and rubbed his chin with the back of his horny hand. A hedgehog lay curled on the verge. A beech tree, still and immensely strong, was suddenly ruffled for a moment by a straggler from the afternoon breezes.

Murdo walked up the small slope and turned into the main street. Apart from the scatter of houses lying in the outer neighbourhood, this one street constituted the heart of the village of Acheninver. A hundred yards of roadway with two rows of low buildings huddling close to the strip of tarmac as if for security. The houses themselves were mainly single-storeyed with perhaps a window or two in the roof, though every now and again there was a larger building with a full second storey. Since there was such little difference in the construction of the houses, their distinguishing features lay merely in the details of their exterior finish. Many were grey and dour in a clothing of stone or harl; some were thinly whitewashed; while a few others—largely holiday houses owned by people from the south—were brightly painted with the woodwork picked out in a separate colour. To Murdo there was something akin to an air of connivance about them all, the way in which they stood about like a crowd of gossips. Looking at them, they now seemed small and petty to him—while all around, the hills and the sea and the doming sky expanded free and without limit.

He passed the hotel which stood like a guard post at the entrance to the village street. The rough forecourt, the crates of empties, the plain green door to the bar—every detail touched open the springs of dark memory: for this had been his place of refuge through the long years of his marriage. He pursed his lips and walked on, leaving behind him a tangled wake of horror.

As he reached the first of the houses, he came to a halt and stood staring down the street.

With virtually everyone in the kirk, the street stood like an empty shell, sullen and unfeeling, almost as if waiting to see how the man would turn. Slated roofs shored up unmeasured weights of sky, a high attic window drank up the sun’s light in a trapped explosion, a low doorway gaped dank and humid, a thick cluster of elder, rank and miserable, sprouted in the narrow space between two buildings. Beneath the sunlit surface Murdo saw lurking an
image of horrific finality.

Each stone, every corner, every detail awoke memories in his turbid mind. Mostly these were far from good, full of all the sadness and pain from over the years. Even thoughts of the few good times, from way back in the first months he had been with Margaret, even those sparse images of happiness now seemed muddied by the events of later years.

Aye, this place had seen him pass through black times. And yet for all this, for all that he would have liked it not to be so, this was what made up the whole substance of his life to date. But to escape? Was that possible for somebody like him, a man in his late fifties? Simply to push everything aside and set off into a new and different life? Surely people just did not do that. A man grew up, got himself a job, a house, a woman, bairns—and whether he liked it or not, this would be his, his burden or his joy, till the very day he died. Was that not how things were?

He shuffled his feet on the rough tarmac and for a moment his heart was tugged down by a weight of fear. He should stop this madness and go back to the kirk, go back to what was real—his woman, his home, his responsibilities—and try and face things, face what was in fact his life. He had already survived twenty-six years of this way of living; and had indeed seen other people living out their lives in similar circumstances, bending themselves before the demands of convention and duty, occasionally finding small compensations and amusements, but otherwise waiting mutely for the release of death. Why should he, Murdo Munro, think himself an exception to all this, someone to stand against the flow of things?

He looked down to the far end of the street where his own house stood slightly back from the roadway. His face puckered and twitched and his hands, big as paddles, hung limply at his sides. He stayed like this for a while, quite still, staring, only his thoughts on the move as he sought to find resolution to what was toiling inside him.

Then, far above, a herring gull split open the silence in a relentless series of calls, violent and piercing. Murdo’s head went back and he gazed at the circling bird, a white cross halfway down in the ocean depths of the sky. For a while it swung and planed in silence, its head pricking round sporadically to look down at the man below, a small growth rooted in the gorge of the village street.

Then, as if filled by something outside itself, the bird’s cries burst out again, bugling and wailing without pause until the whole sky was covered by its webbing echoes, until it seemed as if everything must give way and wait in deference to its insistent power. On and on it cried, the smooth rhythm of its flight detached, undisturbed, the sunlight firing on its white breast. Finally, once again falling silent, the bird turned and, with two final cries, headed away northwards and out of sight behind the skyline.

To Murdo, it was as if the bird had come as a messenger, an omen, a spirit calling up courage and determination in him. After it had gone, the returning stillness seemed full of a new warmth, a new sense of the land’s smell, sweet and sharp. It cradled his mind and brought him added strength and a new sureness, something hitherto quite unknown to him. For those few brief seconds everything beyond himself and his own existence was put away, quite unimportant: his woman, his daughter, his job—all now seemed mere details of his past, the twenty-six years of his marriage. And in that same moment he suddenly saw them afresh, no longer as the obligations he had always imagined but more as hindrances, obstacles to his longing for peace, peace from the constant warring within himself.

All this came to Murdo not in any ordered, reasoned form of thought but more in the nature of a bright shaft of understanding. And with this he came out of his trance and, like an animal following an instinct, set off down the street.

He marched beneath the blind-eyed scrutiny of the houses, crunching the glassy silence with his footsteps, his face twitching and contorting from time to time as his mind wrestled with his plans. Occasionally his pace would slow and he would move like a person lost.

‘Who’ll that be?’

A shrill voice darted forth unowned from a house whose front door stood ajar, making Murdo start.
‘It’ll be yon man, I’m telling you. Aye, I know the sound of him. Away home with you! You’ve no right to be walking by the now!’

Old Annie McPherson, a bedridden widow, simple as a child these eight years past, called out in her garbled fashion. Murdo was about to answer her, calm her with a few words; but he thought better of it and hurried on.

His house stood back from the road on the eastern side of the street. A short path of cinders led up to the small squat building with its grey door and shining windows. Margaret had flowers growing in window-boxes and the whole exterior, recently whitewashed, looked cheerful and friendly enough. The two downstairs windows were framed with bright red curtains while up in the roof the yellow and blue curtains of the front bedroom stood out sharply against the slates.

Murdo pushed open the door and went in.

The overly cheerful aspect of the house had always seemed to him the final insult and humiliation, the bitter cruelness of irony weighing heavy and aggrieving. Flowers and bright colours and warmth and neatness had nothing whatsoever to do with the true nature of his home, were in fact no more than a terrible lie when all that actually filled the days spent here were the different shades of grief and darkness.

The arrangement, decoration of the house had by tradition always been the woman’s domain. And of course he had let this be for he wanted his bairn to grow up amidst brightness and warmth, if only in the hope that such things would compensate for the shadows that lay between her parents. But now, with Flora gone, a sudden and desperate need for the real truth to be revealed was alight and burning in Murdo’s mind. This day, coming as it did after the many long years of silence and submission, had brought him a fierceness of determination.

The wind on the hill had blown deep into his being.

Murdo stood there in the little sitting-room, the shiny, cherry-red armchairs facing emptily into the grate, the collection of china dolls and animals on the mantelpiece crowned by a print in which a beribboned cat gazed vacantly out into space, a vase of plastic flowers standing glossy and unreal on the window sill, the walls of the room papered in patterns of flowers and fruit.

The horde of crude colours jangled before his eyes, refusing to go away. And as he stood there gawping in horror, a dull wave of repressed fury broke over him.

He slumped into a chair and buried his face in his hands.

Behind the roughness of his palms, there opened up the image of another world, the world he saw every day from up in the forest. For looking out over the expanses of the island hills had always filled him with a kind of dreamlike longing, a longing that spoke to him of what still in some way might be.

Once again he saw the long shapes, the heathers dark and swelling, the open plateaux, the land forever rising, hummocks of coarse grass marked with purple-black patches of rock and run with secret cuts, coal and blue, where small burns tumbled downwards from the hiddenness of the hills. He saw the surge of the land, its brief falling away, its renewed surging, away into the distance where finally it was drawn up to the peak—almost as if the gentle momentum had gathered and grown to the point where at last nothing could hold its steepening ascent. Past crag and lower summit until far out, high above the glens and crofts, it rose up through the sharp winds of the ridge to explode into the sunlit, rocky crown known as A’ Mhaighdean, the Maiden.

Murdo envisaged all this and his heart clenched with a fierce sense of longing.

Deep in the cavern of his hands, he smelt too the airs, now thick with the scents of peat and sweet mosses, now old and hard with wet rock, now wafery and sharp with all the blueness and light. He felt the brushing of brackens against his thighs, the cushioning spring of warm grasses in a forest clearing, heard the long willowing spill of the curlew plaiting with the heron’s rasp against the damp clarity of the coast in the half-light. All this was so very different, so remote and separate from the coldness of his home. But it had
come to be the only thing that was truly real to him.

As he sat there in the chair, his lips trembled, his rough nails dug into his forehead, his eyes and mouth pinched tight. His large ungainly feet stuck out before him, solid and heavy, rooted to the floor as if they had no part in the turmoil raging in his brain. He ground his palms rhythmically against his eyeballs, trying to push back, erase the tension in his ragged head. The dull contours of a hymn, ordered and controlled, carried on the air from the kirk. He felt himself being torn apart, savaged by the confusions of longing and despair, fear and resolve. All reasoning, all clarity had been crushed from him.

Finally, with a sudden gesture of violence, he tore his hands from his eyes. His gaping vision was left veiled by sliding shapes and colours, stars, vipers and amoebic growths from the midst of which the beribboned cat stared down at him.

‘Aye, by Christ!’ The words stamped out sharply on the silence.

He got up quickly and walked from the room. Sounds were heard upstairs and a moment later he clattered down again in his work clothes: a heavy blue sweater, stained denim trousers and tackety boots.

He glanced in at the sitting room again, his rheumy eyes now fixed and determined. In the kitchen he packed his piece-bag with food, took some money from the tin behind the sugar-bowl and went out of the back door, returning shortly after with a can of petrol. This he methodically poured over the chairs and carpet in the sitting-room, using the last drops to make a trail of it as a fuse. From out in the hall he looked back bitterly into the sitting-room for the last time and then struck the match.

With a soft explosion, the trail ignited. Seizing his old thornproof coat and hat off the hook, Murdo hurried out, closing the back door firmly behind him. With smoke already beginning to seep out of the house, he stood with his head bowed for a moment but then was stepping out into the wilderness of grasses, nettles and tall foxgloves which separated the building from the open hill. He trod down the nettles, splashed his way across a foul-smelling ditch and came out at the foot of the brae which gave shelter to the village from the east.

He set off at speed and climbed away to the north-east, never so much as slowing but occasionally raising his head to gauge the distance to a fistful of pines that stood on the ridge high above him. Faster and faster he climbed, his gangly, crab-like movements strengthened by the exhilaration, the knowledge of what he had done.

But a moment later a child’s cry rang out down below, sharp and thin in the still, warm airs. Clutching wildly at the tussocks, Murdo heaved himself up the last few feet and vanished over the lip and into the shadow of the trees. Wide-eyed and gasping, dry-mouthed and dizzy, he collapsed on to the bed of pine needles but immediately rolled over on to his stomach to peer back over the
ridge.

Down below him the village stood in its neat lines. From his house thick smoke was flowering, curling up and around the building like a great black vine. Running back down the street, shouting at the top of his voice, was a young lad, a large black mongrel caught up in the sudden excitement prancing and bounding about him. Over at the kirk, people were milling about after the service and he could make out Flora’s white figure standing with her man in the doorway with a group of friends.

Murdo buried his face in the earth. What, in God’s name, had he gone and done?

But by now people were starting to run up the street towards the burning house.

The smoke thickened steadily. For a brief moment it fell away, flattened by a breath of wind but then as the drifting smoke cleared, Murdo saw the first flames, yellow-red burnished tendrils, leap out through the billowing darkness. They sank back briefly, almost as if lacking in strength, but then were once more snaking out again.

The fire was well under way.

Murdo Munro rolled over and lay on his back, gazing up at the hatching of pine branch and sky. A thin smile broke out on his face and he closed his eyes for the briefest of moments to look out on a countryside without horizons.

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