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Authors: Sharon Bolton

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BOOK: Little Black Lies
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She sat on her haunches, looking at me with a new-found respect. I was suddenly and painfully jealous of those shiny blue eyes. It didn’t seem fair, that one person (me) should have eyes as dull as storm clouds and that the other’s (Rachel’s) should be the dreamy, azure blue of the ocean on a sunlit morning.

‘We’ll come together,’ she announced. ‘Now that we’re best friends.’

I wasn’t sure how that was going to happen, I didn’t even know what she was doing there – my aunt and uncle owned the island we were on – but I was fine with the idea of having a best friend. ‘OK,’ I said.

‘Is that your house?’ She’d jumped to her feet and was pointing towards the green tin roof of Aunt Janey’s farmhouse. I nodded, because to all intents and purposes it was. I was staying there for the summer while my parents worked.

‘Do you have ice cream?’

I nodded again. Aunt Janey always made sure she was well stocked up before I arrived.

‘Come on then.’ She grabbed my hand and we raced – she was incredibly fast on her feet – through the grass, across the paddock and into the farmyard.

And that was it. From that day on Rachel and I were best friends, needing each other with a passionate intensity I don’t think I’ve ever found in a relationship since. We couldn’t have been more different. She saw world within world, linked by rainbows of endless possibilities. I saw penguin eggs. And yet we were closer than sisters, because this bond of ours was one we had chosen; closer than lovers, because lovers come and go and what we had was for ever. She was the other half of me. The sunshine on the rocks to my shady nook under a tree. The positive keys to my minor chords. She was everything I was not and all the things I longed to be, except those qualities were so much better in her and I knew it. She and I were inseparable, regardless of the distance between us. We were the past, the now and the ever more.

Until the day she killed my sons.

*   *   *

It’s nearly four o’clock in the morning. I’ve been writing, and thinking, and doing neither, for a long time. I switch off the computer and am crossing the room to join Queenie when I hear the noise outside.

This one, I can’t ignore, can’t pretend is the weather.

I couldn’t pin down when it started. It could have been going on for years, maybe only during the last couple of months, but more than once, if the wind’s been in the right direction, I’ve heard something in the late evening that has made me wonder if someone is outside my house. I’ve heard movement that seems at odds with nature, shufflings that might have been footsteps. Several times, Queenie has been agitated, keen to get outdoors, and yet hanging around nervously in the doorway when I open it. Earlier in the year, when the evenings were darker and before I’d drawn the curtains, I had a sense of eyes outside in the darkness, looking in at me.

Nobody on the islands locks their doors, but I’ve started to and I’m glad of it now, because what I heard left little room for doubt. Someone is out there. I leave the bedroom. Queenie snores on. She plays numerous roles in my life, but guard dog isn’t one of them.

Downstairs, without switching on lights, I step to the window.

The land around my house is unusual even by Falkland standards. It is a monument, an outdoor museum if you like, to whaling. Pride of place is given to the skull of a blue whale. It stands on the front lawn, reaching nearly nine feet high, jaws gaping as though frozen in the act of gobbling up food. A near perfect skeleton of an orca lies nearby. Over by the fence is the spine of a sperm whale, caught by Grandpa off the coast of South Georgia. Between that and the house is a shoal of dolphin skeletons. Most of the collection was acquired by my grandfather. The weapons, too, were Grandpa’s: the harpoons and lines, the massive cannon-like gun. The prevailing message of the museum, though, is entirely down to my father. He brought it all together, not to glorify whaling, but to condemn it.
Between 1886 and 1902, over 20,000 whales were killed with this gun,
reads the sign below the cannon. Dad was deeply ashamed of the havoc wreaked by his ancestors on the seas. He spent his life trying to redress the balance.

The sound I heard, seconds ago, was a clattering, as several pieces of metal fell together. Something has dislodged the collection of whaling spears that stands over by the gorse hedge.

A shadow crosses the outline of the orca skeleton and I edge closer to the door until I can see the big, dark shape. As I recognize the outline, my heartbeat starts to settle. And then pick up again, for a different reason entirely. I watch the man in my garden straighten first one spear and then another, before I unlock and open the door.

‘Bit late for trick-or-treat.’ It comes out before I have time to question its wisdom.

Callum Murray puts the last spear in place and turns round. ‘I saw your light on. And I thought I saw you in the garden. I wanted to make sure you’re OK.’

I don’t respond to that. What is the point? I’ll never be OK. Then we hear the sound of a horse whinnying. Which we shouldn’t, really, given that there are no horses kept anywhere nearby.

‘Sounds like someone’s stealing your horse.’ I’m joking, I suppose. I’ve never seen Callum on horseback. I doubt the islands have a horse big enough to carry him.

‘I walked over.’ He strides to the edge of the garden and looks down the road. The horse must be out of sight because he quickly loses interest and comes back. ‘Are you OK?’ he persists.

Callum Murray is not a kelper. He is a Scotsman who fought in the conflict, a former Second Lieutenant with the Parachute Regiment. When he left the regiment, not long after the British victory, he bought a cottage a couple of miles outside Stanley. If people ask him whether he’s here for good, he says he’s keeping his options open.

‘Did you find the child?’ I ask, more because I feel the need to say something than because I can’t guess.

His eyes catch the light from the upstairs window. In the daytime, they are unusual, the result of a genetic condition known as heterochromia iridum, making his right eye blue, his left green. In the moonlight, though, those odd, quirky eyes are nothing more than a gleam of light. ‘We’re starting again in four hours,’ he tells me.

There is a sound in the distance, coming towards us on the wind. A helicopter is approaching.

‘Chances are he’s fine.’ I try to sound as though I care. ‘He’ll have wandered around till he was exhausted, then curled up somewhere and slept. You’ll find him in the morning.’

‘I bloody well hope so. It was all getting ugly earlier. That’s mainly why we went out again, to calm things down.’

Why is he doing this? Why is he here, in the small hours, pretending I have any interest in what’s going on around me? I should go inside, close the door. Lock it. ‘Skye said something about the people from the cruise ship being difficult.’

Callum’s eyes flick up to the sky, back down to me. ‘They were the least of it. Fred Harper’s family flew over this afternoon. They’ve been playing merry hell with Stopford for giving up too easily two years ago.’

‘It happens, though,’ I say. ‘Farmers lose sheep all the time. They get stuck in the peat and sink. Or they go over a cliff and the tide takes them. Ponies and calves fall into the rivers. If they’re small enough, they get washed away. Every now and again we lose people too. It’s terribly sad, but it happens. This isn’t a national park.’ I don’t mean to sound patronizing but Callum isn’t making this easy.

The helicopter, a Sea King, is overhead, hanging in the sky the way dragonflies hover above ponds. The dry, peaty smell of the hills, so different to the scents of the sea, seems to be clinging to Callum’s jacket. I am reminded, as I always am when he is close, of how very tall he is.

‘Is this thing directly above us part of the search?’ I say. ‘Because if something falls out of it, this isn’t a good place to be standing.’

This close to Callum cannot be a good place to be standing.

‘They were waiting for us to finish,’ he says. ‘So we wouldn’t confuse the equipment.’

The Sea King moves on, having ascertained that neither of us is a three-year-old boy. Callum and I are alone again.

‘I’m going to get some sleep.’ I turn and walk inside, locking the door. Only when I know I’m out of sight do I let myself relax, lean heavily against the nearest wall. He walked over? Why would he do that? Callum’s house is at least four miles from mine.

Upstairs, Queenie snores on, as I switch out the lights and creep to the window. Callum is turning away, as though he’d been waiting for my light to go out. I watch him walk across the garden and stride over the low picket fence.

Four miles from my house to his, if he’s taking the conventional route. Given the way he’s heading, I’m guessing that he isn’t.

About a year ago, I was awake late, and happened to see him walk past the house. On an impulse I couldn’t begin to explain, I followed. I watched as he left the road, approached the high barbed-wire fence, loosened three of the strands, and then slipped through into the minefield.

The minefield?

There are several around the islands, mainly along the coast, planted by the Argentinian army during the invasion. Conservative estimates suggest there could be around thirteen thousand potential explosions lurking in the peat and sand. One day, we’re told, they’ll be made safe. In the meantime, given that they only account for around 16 per cent of our unused land mass, they are simply fenced off.

I let him vanish into the darkness before approaching the fence myself. The three strands of wire that he’d moved had been clipped through, and he’d attached small hooks to put them back in place. He’d made his own secret entrance into a field that, over a decade after the conflict, was still riddled with deadly traps. Every step he took through that field could be his last.

Tonight, as I stare out at the now empty road outside, I wonder if he’s heading there again, if he’s going to walk the minefield, to find out if this night, right now, is when it’s all destined to come to an end.

And I thought I had problems.

I climb into a bed that feels unusually large and empty, even with my snoring, wind-expelling dog hogging the best place. This is normally the hardest time of the day, when there is nothing left to do but dwell on what I’ve lost. Sleep never comes quickly.

Sometimes, at night, in that half-dreaming, half-awake state we occasionally find ourselves in, I feel the boys creep into bed beside me. When it happens, I lie still, swimming in their presence, revelling in the smooth silk of their skin against mine; smelling their hair, feeling their tiny limbs wrap around me. On mornings after I dream this way, I wake in a cloud of pure happiness, both unexpected and bewildering, and so distinct from the misery that follows as to be close to unbearable.

Don’t come tonight, boys. I’m not sure I can take much more. Just this once, leave me be.

4

‘Anyone hear the Governor on the radio first thing?’ Brian is saying, as I arrive at what I always think of as the family business.

Grandpa Coffin had several daughters, each in their way as determined and blood-thirsty as he, and one son, who proved a massive disappointment. My father established Falkland Conservation, the charitable trust that protects wildlife in the islands for future generations. I honestly don’t think he meant it as a personal affront to Grandpa, but Mr Coffin senior always took it that way.

Brian is an ornithologist in his late fifties whom my father employed twenty years ago. He still clambers up and down cliffs, checking on nesting sites and tagging chicks, despite being around ten years too old and three stone too fat. He’ll be found one day, cold and battered, at the foot of a cliff. If anyone were destined to die on the job, it’s Brian.

As usual, his ample buttocks are spreading over my desk. For years I’ve been telling myself that, one day, I’ll come in early and cover it with superglue.

‘Can’t imagine he had anything valuable to add.’ Susan is in the kitchen area clattering around with coffee mugs.

‘Corporate propaganda,’ says Pete, our gap-year student. ‘Can’t have anyone thinking the kid did anything other than wander off by himself.’

‘Well, he couldn’t.’ Brian wriggles on the desk. ‘It’s obviously what happened.’

The boss clears his throat. John Wilcock is a small wiry man with dark hair and sallow skin, who has sported the same sleek, dark moustache for the last two decades. We believe that we are cousins of sorts, possibly through marriage a couple of generations ago, but neither of us can be bothered to work out the exact relationship.

‘Cat, there’s been a change of plan.’ John rarely bothers to wish me good morning, which suits me fine. I have no interest in small talk. ‘Your group wants to join the search. I said you’d drive them out there. Act as team leader.’

The original plan was that I take a party of visitors round to George and Barren, two small, wildlife-rich islands off the south coast of East Falkland. The two human inhabitants, my Aunt Janey and her husband Mitchell, are something of a tourist attraction too. Janey is the only person I know to have successfully hand-reared a penguin chick. She found ‘Ashley’ trying to keep warm in campfire ashes and has spent the last fifteen years teaching her to sit up and beg, belly-slide along the roof of the shearing hut and prise snippets of fish from pockets.

‘People need to do something.’ Susan can tell from my face I’m not too keen on the idea. ‘Nobody feels good about enjoying themselves when there’s a kiddy out there on his own.’

‘We hope he’s on his own,’ Pete pipes up.

‘Yeah, not helpful, Pete.’ At barely eight thirty a.m., John is already stressed. ‘Don’t rise, Brian, we really don’t have the time.’

‘If these people are willing to give up their outing, we should be willing to guide them,’ says Susan.

I pick up the phone and let Aunt Janey know she doesn’t need to bother baking this morning. I count four expletives in her response, which is mild by her standards. ‘I got my frigging witch costume out of the loft as well.’

‘Like anyone would notice the difference. And Halloween was yesterday.’ I put the phone down on her grumbling.

BOOK: Little Black Lies
12.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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