The wind had died down. The water now seemed to lap and nuzzle with gentle insistence. Everything was shaping up for a perfect midsummer night. Rainey stowed the wok and the coolers with the oil, samosas, fruit, ice and bottles in the prow of the dinghy.
“Anything else you want?” Pete called down from the boat.
Rainey checked the rucksacks. “That’s it!” She gave him the thumbs up, then watched as he climbed down the ladder with the small camp stove. When he stepped aboard, the dinghy rocked under his weight. He had a belly now – marriage became him, she thought with a flash of pride, and she reached out to squeeze his shoulder.
He turned towards her. “All right?” he said, adjusting his baseball cap.
Rainey nodded, smiled. She could feel a wetness at the corners of her eyes; humidity, that was all – it was hot today, hot for Scottish latitudes at any rate.
The late-afternoon sun was still high in the sky, though sinking now and strewing the water with a starry glitter that presaged a nightfall that would never really fall, and there was the beginning of a redness in the west, the faintest orange flush, like a fire that hadn’t quite caught. Above her a flock of birds streaked across the brightness, black arrowheads seeking an invisible target. Rainey glanced at Pete, but he was bent over the outboard, starter cord in hand. He pulled. The metallic retch-and-rasp, so ordinary, so familiar, made her flinch. As if it had wrenched apart the here and now, and the world around her could no longer be trusted. Then the motor gave a stuttering cough and, with a lurch and a churning of waves, they were on their way, cutting a passage across the glassy surface of the loch towards the wooded hump of the island.
A few minutes later Pete shut off the engine and they paddle-steered the dinghy into the shallow landing place under the willows. They beached the boat, then began to unload. From further inland came a sudden swell of drums; like a rupturing heart it sounded to Rainey, and she stopped to listen for a moment, breathing in a stray drift of smoke. “They’re already here,” she said, a little disappointed. She had wanted to arrive first, surprise everyone. Set out the stove with the wok and provisions. Display the cocktail glasses she had bought specially. Pete just nodded. He had never been one for competing with or impressing people. He was kind and obliging – too obliging for his own good sometimes.
They hoisted their rucksacks, picked up the coolers and set off slowly. “Like a couple of mules,” Pete said, grinning at her from under his cap. Rainey grinned back, but she felt uneasy, felt a presence barely concealed behind the warble and flit of shadows and the trickery of the light – the still-bright sunlight that played over the leaves and branches overhead, dappling them neon-green, yellow, and so white in places they seemed to be missing parts of themselves.
The others must have anchored on the north side where the water was deep enough for the boats. As Rainey followed Pete through the trees and undergrowth, first up the incline, then down into the hollow near the centre of the island, the music grew louder, the vibrations of the drums and bass guitar chasing each other round the shallow bowl of the landscape, making the aspen and rowan leaves quiver.
So Trix and Vince had brought their boom box again… A fortnight ago Trix had said she needed more than Rainey’s “piddly Bluetooth gadget” to keep her awake after her third bottle of rosé. Still, she had managed to drink her way through a whole case of Pinot Grigio and several cans of Bud over the weekend. Perhaps her work at the whisky distillery had made her alcohol-proof. That was how humans and animals survived, wasn’t it, by adapting? Rainey dimly recalled a lesson in biology. Darwin? Her daughter, a recent graduate in nursing, would know. She herself was content with fixing people’s outsides – a little waxing and Botox, star-shadow lashes, sculpted eyebrows – leaving their insides well alone, riddled with guilt or fear or anxiety, with lust, violence or whatever. Though of course clients often opened up once she began slathering on the serums and creams, told her things they had never shared with anyone, as if the “therapy” in “beauty therapy” was for real. Trix, too, had been a client. Not that she had wished to be improved. She claimed to be happy with her crow’s feet, enlarged pores and blackheads, happy with her complexion, which was on the pasty side – happy even with her weight. The facial had been a fortieth birthday present from her friends Bridget and Karen, the other “island girls”.
The smell of burning wood was much stronger now, and the music thudded. Through the thinning trees Rainey could make out the fire, pale and insubstantial, a ghost of a fire. On blankets and folding chairs, drinks in hand, chorusing “Smo-o-oke on the Water”, were Bridget and Bob, Karen and Matt, Trix and Vince.
Just before Pete entered the clearing, he swung round to blow her a kiss.
After the hugs and cheers of welcome (and after discreetly sliding down the volume lever on the boom box), Rainey put on her new white cowboy hat with the snakeskin trim she had sourced from Las Vegas, courtesy of eBay. The men had returned to Vince’s boat to fetch more wood; they always brought their own, rotating the duty, so the forestry commission or national park authority or whoever else had charge of the island would have nothing to complain about.
“Don’t get too close to the fire or the smoke’ll ruin your lovely hat,” warned Bridget, who suffered from a mild case of OCD – though today maybe not so mild, Rainey considered, noticing Bridget’s flesh-coloured cotton gloves.
Trix was brandishing a new bottle of rosé. “Ahoy girls!” She brushed off the condensation with her “Boob Friends” T-shirt, then unscrewed the cap with a flourish that meant nothing, because she never shared her wine. “Here’s to another boozy weekend.”
Bridget had wandered off to the Pee Tree, a large oak with a trunk wide enough to comfortably accommodate two of them squatting side by side. They had tried it one night for laughs. Wonder if she takes her gloves off, Rainey was thinking just as Karen said, “Longest day in the year, Trix. Better pace yourself.” Karen was lying on her stomach, lazily smiling at her latest nail extensions, inset with diamanté glitter. Her face was done up to perfection as usual, and she was wearing a sixties-style turban decorated with almost-fresh flowers.
“And you’d better pace yourself with the makeup,” Trix shot back. “Why bother getting tarted up for here, anyway? Even Rainey doesn’t. It’s stupid. A waste of—”
“Cut it out, Trix,” said Rainey, “and give me a hand with the camp stove.” When she glanced up, Karen was gone.
Birds sang and bumblebees hummed as Rainey crossed a patch of scrub purpled with foxgloves, looking for Karen. She watched the bees scrabble in and out of the flower bells, in and out, up one spike then on to the next one – tiny, insatiable wind-up toys. A butterfly hovered around her fuchsia jacket and briefly settled on her outstretched palm. Then a woodpecker started up its drumming. Like a rattle it sounded, making her feel uneasy all over again. She spotted a flash of crimson high up a tree whose branches were grey and fuzzy with lichen. Passing the ruined cottage, she stopped to peer through the broken window. Not that Karen would have ventured inside. No one would. They had all heard the stories of long ago, about the drunk and the mad who had been sent out here. But there was only a heap of leaves in one corner, windblown surely. A fox’s lair? Rainey took off her hat to wipe her clammy forehead, then moved on. Even the birdsong seemed clotted as it reached her through the thick air. Near the ridge of the island she gave up her search. The shadows had begun to lengthen. To her right, just visible through the Scots pines and yew trees, the loch spread in a shimmer of blues and greens hemmed in by the mountains. Karen must have detoured past the boats to help the men with the firewood. She had a forgiving nature, wouldn’t hold a grudge against Trix who by now had doubtless blotted out her earlier rudeness or marked it as another win on her private score sheet…
Something rustled and the tail of a lizard flicked away under a rock. And that was when Rainey saw them, half-hidden in the grass, sprouting way out of season perhaps due to the recent maverick weather: mushrooms. Slender-stemmed, creamy-skinned and primly capped with pinhead tips, they reminded her of a choir of young maidens. Reminded her of herself too, with her brand-new hat that seemed to encase her face within its silky-sleek shape. Then her feet sent the mushrooms flying. Her hands ripped out the few that remained. They made a pop, like a bottle being unstoppered, and there was a smell, musty, foul – not so maidenly, after all. She strode on. Abruptly came to a halt as, eyes tight-shut, she sensed it again, closer now, that crawling, lurking something. She trembled, retraced her steps, gathered up some of the fallen maidens and stuffed them into her jacket pocket. Why? For protection? As mascots? She had no idea. Not then, at any rate. It was high time for cocktails.
Having placed the cocktail glasses and the Tupperware box with the orange slices and the maraschino cherries on a blanket, Rainey produced the bottles of Smirnoff and Galliano, then doffed her hat for the applause.
“What a treat!” Karen put away her e-cigarette. On returning, Rainey had found her with the others, giggling and glamorous-looking, her mascara intact, not a smudge. Thank God she hadn’t been crying like last time.
“Hope there’s ice,” said Trix. When Vince elbowed her, she elbowed him back, raising her voice, “Any chance of ice, Rainey?” She leaned across, pincer-dipped her fingers into the Tupperware box and tossed a couple of cherries into the air, catching them in her mouth and chewing noisily. “Can’t have a Harvey Wallbanger without ice.” A dribble of red stained her chin.
“So stick to your rosé then!” Bridget got up from her chair with a disgusted look.
Bob shrugged and started busying himself with the fire while Vince just sat and sipped his Bud. Pete and Matt had slipped away, probably to the peace and shelter of the Pee Tree. Their group was run by the women, it occurred to Rainey. The men were mere hangers-on; they tinkered with the boats and fishing rods, fed the fire and supplied the sex, if and when required. It was the women who ruled.
A line of geese honked past and she lifted her head for a moment to watch them, the corners of her eyes wet again for no reason. She unzipped the cooler and pulled out two bags of more or less unmelted ice, dangling them in front of Trix, where they dripped over her sandals.
“Aw, shit, Rainey, that ice is fucking freezing!”
Rainey had just finished dishing out the last wok-load of samosas – this time with no secretly added mushroom magic – when someone reached over to switch off the boom box. Trix swayed as if the music were still playing, hair in her face, rosé bottle number three, empty now, between her legs. Again Rainey had that out-of-kilter sensation. She hadn’t eaten any of those mushrooms herself, had she? She snuggled up to Pete, who slid his arm round her, solid and warm. Dependable. But the tree shadows had become all crooked, and they jumped and sighed, sighed and jumped in a sly, spiteful way. Everyone had heard the fire’s song, a fierce sparkle sung by snake-tongues split white-blue-green-yellow-orange-red, by smoke tongues breathing out ash and a skin-searing wind that might leave a glow inside if you were lucky. From further afield came the screeches of animals – predators or prey, what did it matter in the end? The sun, at least, was safe behind the hills, the seven hills beyond the seven seas. Above, the streaks of saffron and lavender pink had turned a savage violet. The changing colours of a bruise, but in reverse. Rainey shivered. Because a bruise always meant a cause, didn’t it? A fall or a knock, an initial violence. She listened into the trees. Listened into the distance where the boat was anchored, into the direction of the other boats. Listened into the wind that had risen out of nowhere. Was that a dog barking? Or a fox? A sea lion? The fire was suddenly too bright. The flames leapt, formed a shape for a moment. Now here, now gone. Again Rainey shivered.
Bridget gave a scream and began flapping her hands at something. “Off! Off!” she shrieked.
Rainey blinked. She couldn’t see anything. For an instant, though, Bridget’s shout seemed to echo back from the hills, distorted into a “Woof! Woof!”
“Bloody dog!” Bridget was on her feet now. Her beer can went flying, skooshing froth across the blanket and her empty plate. Empty already? Rainey was surprised. Bridget usually only picked at her food. No samosas on the ground. Maybe in the fire?
“Let’s go, Bob, I’ve had enough.” Bridget thrust on the gloves she had removed for eating, but the fabric ripped and her fingers poked through. She didn’t seem to care. Tugged at him. “Bob! Let’s go!”
Bob remained seated, stared into the fire whose flames sang of all things wasted and destroyed, sang, perhaps, of comfort too and of renewal.
All at once, as if a wire had snapped inside her, Bridget stopped. Her shoulders slumped.
“Okay, love? Another of your nightmares?” Bob held out his plate. “Here. Have one of mine.” So he too had noticed that Bridget’s samosas had disappeared.
Bridget turned to Karen, who was whispering something into her ear. Then they both withdrew to the pile of firewood, armed themselves with sticks and hunkered down.
Why sticks? Rainey felt suddenly apprehensive.
Matt chuckled. “Those guys behind the bushes over there… Reeling like a couple of drunks… They’ve asked me to go camping with them.” And he pushed himself up out of his chair, took a few tottering steps, fell to his knees and began to vomit.
“Probably want to s-s-s-screw in their tent poles,” Trix slurred and made an obscene gesture. When no one laughed, she looked at each of them in turn, her head ratcheting round slowly, more and more angrily. Then she froze. “Why’s that kid sitting in Matt’s place? Where the fuck did she spring from? Vince, get rid of her.”
Rainey had never seen Trix fearful before, and she felt guilty at the thrill it gave her.
“Don’t fret, love.” Vince patted Trix on the shoulder, winked at everyone. “Let the lass be. She’ll leave by herself when she’s ready.” Again he winked. “Fetch you another bottle, shall I?”
Karen and Bridget had started to throw sticks from the woodpile like harpoons, pelting the bushes. “Fuck off,” they kept yelling. Rainey peered into the semi-darkness. There was nothing there. No one. Just a tangle of greenery and an owl hooting. Something squealed and a bushy-tailed shadow vanished up a tree. Only a squirrel.
Next thing, Bob had lumbered over to Bridget. “What in God’s—?” he managed to say before crashing to the ground, perhaps tripped up by a root or a rock.
“You won’t catch me, won’t catch me!” Bridget screeched as she ran off.
Rainey felt Pete’s body tense and then his solid, dependable warmth was gone from her – he was gone. Trying to save Bridget, no doubt. Vince was lagging behind, too unsteady after all those Buds. Rainey glanced over at Trix. There was drool on the front of her “Boob Friends” T-shirt.
Karen had crept back from the woodpile and nestled down beside Matt, who was curled up on a blanket. The hippie turban with its wilting flowers had slipped halfway down her face.
Useless idiots, all of them. Rainey reached for her mobile and the Bluetooth speaker. Drunk as skunks. Strung out on a few puny mushrooms, a small taste of nature’s magic.
And that was what she would remember for as long as she lived and may God have mercy on her soul – not that she had any illusions: there was no mercy, not when it mattered and never for those who needed it most – would remember the magic taking over and blending with the island’s secret history. Maybe it had all begun with Pete pulling the dinghy’s starter cord. Like activating a switch between this world and another, creating a fissure that allowed the two to leak into each other.
When the Bluetooth speaker was connected and pumping out heavy metal – surely louder than Trix’s boom box – Rainey felt relieved. It was her signal to Pete to come rushing back. He loathed this sort of music. “Noise pollution,” he called it.
Bob sat up, clutching his head. “Bleeding’s stopped, but the swelling’s the size of an ostrich egg,” he told her as she helped him back to the fire. She sloshed the rest of the vodka over his scalp, just in case, and he winced a little, then stretched out full length in the dirt. “That’s me truly sozzled now,” he said with a grin and shut his eyes.
Which left her, Rainey. Still awake and kicking. A couple of times during the next quarter-hour she thought she saw three figures approach through the trees. Thought it was Pete and Vince escorting Bridget back. But the figures were the wrong size, two of them too tall, the other too small. The tall ones carried bottles and between them led a ragged child-creature who wore a baseball cap like some kind of trophy. There was a dog with them, Rainey knew instinctively, somewhere just out of sight. It tore through the undergrowth, always at the edge of her vision, its coat burred with grass seeds and twigs, its tongue bloodied. Both times a wail shredded the music and meteors fell out of the sky, so close she could almost grasp them. And that should have been that. Yet she sensed a lingering presence which seemed to prowl around the fire, inspecting the Smirnoff and the Galliano, sliding grimy fingers – a bloodied tongue? – through the grease in the wok, trying out chairs, rucking up blankets…
“Stop poking me!” Karen jerked bolt-upright. Gave Matt a slap.
He rolled over, grumbling sleepily.
Karen’s eyes had opened straight into Rainey’s and, for a moment, her pupils flared with reflected firelight. Then she abruptly turned her head away.
Now Rainey heard it too, in the lull before the next punk piece: the sound of footsteps. And there was Vince, out of breath and collapsing into the nearest chair. She looked past him towards the trees. Any second now Pete would appear with Bridget in tow, silly Bridget, who had started it all by haring off like that. Rainey switched off the music, padded over to shake Bob awake.
“Vince, where’s my bottle?” Trix mumbled. “Damn music isn’t loud enough… Hey, Vince?”
“Really sorry, guys,” Vince said after a pause. “I was too slow. Not enough exercise…”
Rainey was already phoning Pete. His mobile began to ring inside the rucksack behind her, and she suddenly remembered the kiss he had blown her before they joined the circle around the fire, transient as a breath, now here, now gone. When she tried Bridget, she only got voicemail.
Matt and Karen suggested giving it another five minutes before sending out a search party.
“Need to go to the Pee Tree.” Trix wobbled to her feet. “Girls…?”
So Rainey and Karen ended up playing good Samaritans, hoisting her along.
“Undies down and squat.”
They held her by the arms, well out of splash range.
“Now pull them up.”
Trix flopped to the ground.
And there she still was two hours later, panties round her ankles, snoring, when the others returned from their search. They brought back Bridget, who had safely made it to the boats, unlike Pete. The fire had almost burned itself out, but they huddled round the ashes anyway. In silence they watched as Karen tore fistfuls of leaves off the oak tree to replace the flowers in her turban, her beautiful nails ruined, the leaves like the pieces of a jigsaw that would never now be completed.
Rainey had stayed behind alone to mourn over Pete’s body until the police arrived. She had tried to look for his baseball cap. Had tried desperately in the end – because if she couldn’t recover it, who could? But her eyes were washed raw by tears and she couldn’t see beyond the treacherous outlines of the trees and bushes where birds had begun to stir, cheeping in the false dawn. The wind must have taken it, she told herself afterwards, must have tossed it into the loch with its glassy surface and bottomless depths.
It was Karen who had found Pete. Stumbled over him in the blue half-light and, more and more frenziedly, attempted to shift him, help him up. Too late, of course. A trap like this you didn’t survive. Not for long, at any rate. The metal teeth were rust-eaten, corroded by rain and wind, by blood and pain. A scatter of bones lay nearby and the skull of an animal – a dog? – dead for decades. Poachers, the others suspected. But Rainey would keep wondering. That trap had been lying in wait, its jaws spread wide. Waiting. Rejecting smaller prey. Waiting for the right man.