Authors: Simon Sylvester
Praise for Simon Sylvester’s
’s Not the Booker Prize
’s Best Debut Novels of the year
Nominated for the Edinburgh First Novel Prize
“Besides being an edgy supernatural ‘whatdunnit’ …
is also a meditation on myth, storytelling, growing up, the misery of love, and the act of writing itself—weaving folklore tales about the siren-like ‘selkies’ (seal-people) that ensnare human souls with a nuanced Bildungsroman.”
“A contemporary twist on an old fisherman’s myth complete with an immensely atmospheric setting, a strong yet sympathetic central character and a missing persons mystery that’ll keep you guessing till all is said and done—and then some—
has everything including the girl going for it … An astonishingly assured debut.”
“Prose that shimmers like the open water and a story that pulls you along like the tide.”
—ALI SHAW, AUTHOR OF
THE GIRL WITH GLASS FEET
“Anything but a standard thriller … Intoxicating … As dark, sad and enchanting as any fireside tale.”
“Myth and murder combine in Sylvester’s lyrical yet gripping debut novel.”
—WE LOVE THIS BOOK
“Simon Sylvester will be a name to watch in years to come.”
DO YOU WRITE UNDER YOUR OWN NAME?
“Atmospheric … Well drawn and realistic.”
“Weaves Scottish folklore throughout … Will keep you guessing till the end.”
“A surprisingly excellent and dreamy debut—a perfect book to get lost in.”
“Original, breathtaking, and atmospheric … Addicting reading.”
BOOK ADDICT SHAUN
“A book that will hold you in its thrall well after the final page has been turned … A heady mix of myth and modern life.”
—CRIME FICTION LOVER
“A delicate and compelling tale.”
—THE BIG ISSUE
“One of the strongest genre-fiction debuts. A wholly successful debut novel, packed with interesting characters … Should not be missed.”
Copyright © 2015 by Simon Sylvester
Originally published by Quercus in the United Kingdom, June 2014
First Melville House printing: December 2015
Melville House Publishing
46 John Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
8 Blackstock Mews
London N4 2BT
Library of Congress Control Number: 2015955612
For my family
In the bay, a seal bobbed once, dipped and vanished. A light tide sluiced through the ripples and washed the surface clear, leaving no sign. From the headland, the ocean was a lung. Inhale, exhale. Breathe. Focus.
It was the day before Richard left the island, and he was learning how to smoke. The various components were laid out on the grass before him. He broke a pinch of tobacco from the plastic pouch, shaped it into a rough cylinder and tucked it into the fluttering crease of paper. Frowning in concentration, he tried rolling this clumsy package between his fingers, but it kept slipping, and eventually he simply folded it into something like an envelope. He gummed it closed, tongue kitten pink as it slid along the white paper, saliva turning the fibres translucent.
He held it up, proud of his work, crooked and creased, and stuck it in one corner of his lovely, lovely mouth. It was an obvious pose, but it suited him. Hair combed back and ruffled by the breeze, staring out to sea. Sitting down, one knee folded up and close into his body, the other leg sprawled loose in the grass, cigarette in mouth, match in hand. Ready to go. Ready when you are. Ready to light the fuse, blow the keg. Ready for anything. It was the author picture on the jacket of a poetry book. He was practising for the years to come. His own author photos, maybe. The wind puffed out the first
match, and it took him a couple of attempts to light the cigarette. He took a deep, dramatic inhalation, then exhaled carefully, a thin white curtain tugged out between his teeth. The smoke was whipped away on the breeze, out to sea, away from here, away from the island, away from me.
‘Aye,’ said Richard, ‘I could get used to this.’
He tried hard to savour the smoke. He held his cigarette like a film star, cupped inside his hand. Looking thoughtful, trying not to cough. Through his cheek, I could see the movement of his tongue inside his mouth, tasting the corners.
He offered me a drag. I shook my head, no, and hugged my knees, slouchy jumper wrapped around my bare shins. He shrugged. He smoked in careful puffs. Exhalation revealed the space inside him, the smoke giving body to the air he breathed. This was the volume of his lungs.
The cigarette was barely halfway smoked when he ground it underfoot. He pocketed the stub, leaving a blackened smudge on the beach grass. My favourite place, charred with ash and tar. I scowled at him. He sat back, wind licking through his hair, and didn’t notice.
We sat together on a little headland on the west coast of Bancree, dangling our feet above a narrow inlet and looking out to sea. The cove below the headland was called Still Bay, named after generations of whisky moonshiners. It was a dream landing for smugglers, back when the island creaked with illicit stills and there was money to be made in bootleg whisky. The island was a haven until the customs men started to take it seriously. Faced with jail, the old moonshiners packed it in. They were dead, now, and their grandsons and great-grandsons worked in the fish farm or the big distillery up in Tighna.
Still Bay was sandy but studded with rocks and pebbles. It mapped a long curve of four or five hundred metres, and
ended at another headland on the far side. Weeks of receding high tides had left shells and wood and weed in long dark bands, their contours evenly spaced as they spanned the bay. Running parallel to the beach, separated by curtains of dune grass and reeds, a crumbling, potholed single-track road wound along the coast. The road passed through the dozen cottages clustered at the far end of the bay. That was the village of Grogport. A dozen houses and a bus stop. My home.
Beyond the bay, maybe two hundred metres into the water, lay Dog Rock. This tiny islet, barely a hundred metres long, was a curling extension of the southernmost headland, shaped somewhere between a comma and an inkblot. It projected from the sea like an accident, an afterthought in the geography of Bancree. A cottage sat on top of the islet, though I’d never known anyone to live there. It seemed so pointless, its whitewash chipped and faded to nothing, its roof bowed in the middle. Waves licked white against its crooked pontoon. On the far side of Dog Rock lay the full weight of the Atlantic. The coastal currents jumbled blue, reflecting pinpricks of September sun. It was the end of summer, the last weekend before school returned. School, school again. The clouds lay teased in threads like wool on barbed-wire fences.
Richard attempted to light matches on the zip of his jacket. No matter how often he struck the match, it never caught, only chipped the sulphur until the wood was bare. He harrumphed and tried it on his thumb instead, wincing as pieces of the match lodged beneath the nail. He wasted a dozen before I put him out of his misery.
‘They’re safety matches,’ I said. ‘You shouldn’t play with fire.’
He huffed and tossed them down beside the tobacco. Tomorrow he’d be leaving for university in Bristol, and I wouldn’t see him for weeks. Months, maybe. Half-term, perhaps,
depending on how it went. But it would be fine. It would be fine, babe. These were his words, not mine. I didn’t say much. I ached deep and vague, caught somewhere between melancholy and spite.
‘We can always speak on the phone,’ he said.
We both thought of the mobile reception on the island. We couldn’t always speak on the phone.
‘We’ll see each other soon, anyway. Of course we will.’
I wasn’t sure I’d ever see Richard again. We’d meet, of course. He’d be back for the summer holidays, no doubt, and he’d come home for Christmas. But it wouldn’t be him, and I wouldn’t be his girlfriend any more. He’d have another girl. She’d be sophisticated and funny and smart and she’d be taller than me and older than me and louder than me and not Scottish. She’d be French, or Spanish, and she’d smoke too. They’d light their cigarettes from the same flame. He’d probably get a Zippo. When he came back to the island, smoking might suit him. With his miniskirted girlfriend in tow, he’d sneer at everything he used to know and how small it seemed, how quaint. The harbour – the mountains – me.
‘We’ll be fine, you know,’ he said. ‘You and me.’
The wind whipped my hair into my face, and I let it. Strands caught in my mouth. Inland, clouds rolled across the ragged top of Ben Sèimh in stupendous white waves. They collided above the little mountain and trailed down the other side, dissolving into blue. The wind farm beat against the breeze. My heart was cumulus, rolling and beaten, tugged into pieces by the turbines.
We’d sat on this little headland hundreds of times in the last few years, looking out onto Still Bay and the sea. We were sitting here when Richard first held my hand. Fingers reaching, creeping across the grass to mine. I’d pretended not to look as he inched nearer, though we both knew what would
happen. This was where we came to kiss. And now he needed to shave once or sometimes twice a week, and he was leaving for university, leaving for the mainland.