The day was so calm and clear that you could see all the way to the Devil’s Tail – the twin-forked mountain that marked the very tip of the mainland. The small jagged lump of Eilean Beag passed by far over to the right as the Malin Princess sailed along the Sound of Sighs. She was headed toward Port Malin on one of her twice daily crossings from the mainland town of Dunebay. Roddy leaned on the bar, paying no attention to the beautiful misty view slipping past the window. He sipped at his pint and checked for the umpteenth time that the bag at his feet was firmly closed. He had done this a fair few times before, but today he was feeling uneasy. The toilet door opened and the sound of retching drifted out. Roddy snorted disparagingly. Bloody tourists, he thought. How could anybody be seasick on a day like this? He had practically grown up on boats and was probably more at home on water than land. Except for the pub of course. But anyone who felt unwell in a pub at sea on a calm day should be kept at a distance from normal people.
He looked down again at the bag and carefully positioned his foot on it. The reason for his concern was that the bag contained fifty thousand pounds of someone else’s money. Not that it was stolen of course. Well not by me at any rate, he thought. For the past four years, Roddy, his little brother Kendo and a friend, Kenny, had been doing a little business for one of the mainland dealers. The islands were quite heavy on consumption of cannabis and so the territory was a nice, lucrative sideline. Roddy had been approached because of his position as skipper of the Elaine, which worked out of Port Malin harbour. The deal was that he would collect money from the mainland and take it out to an agreed meeting place at sea. Then he would wait for the Spanish trawler that made its way up to the islands filled to the brim with top-quality Moroccan. He would hand over the money, they’d give him his share of the dope and he’d shoot off back to the Port. His friend Kenny would be waiting on the quay and the dope would be loaded into the back of his fish van, disguised in packing crates. The gossip would let everyone know and by the next day Kenny would be on the road making his usual deliveries of cod and haddock. The right people would also be stocking up on “stabilizer” as the locals termed it. Business was very good, especially in the winter when people wanted to take their minds off the island gales and depression.
All in all it had worked out very well. A representative would come up for most of the profits, but they made a bit too. Most importantly they got a generous amount of free dope to see them through till the next deal. There had been a bit of a problem, mind you. When Charlie sold the Gwendoline and came back to skipper the Elaine, they’d been hit for six. Roddy liked his job and did it very well, so he was a bit resentful when he was pushed out from behind the wheel. It had turned out that Charlie basically just wanted to stay in the inner cabin. It took just a wee bit of extra planning to make sure that he was off-ship on the day the deal went through. Lately though he’d been feeling uneasy.
It was daft, he kept telling himself. Nothing was different. Not much anyway. On this particular money collection trip, he had for the first time met the man in charge of the operation. It turned out that he actually had island blood, though Roddy personally figured he had a fair bit of animal blood too. Possibly hyena. Maybe some hippo too. He’d heard they could be particularly vicious. He went by the entirely inappropriate name of Smiler, though to be fair he did grin a fair bit when contemplating violence. Roddy himself was no stranger to the odd pub brawl, but his style was to knock an opponent to the ground and then go back to his drinking. From what he had heard this would just be the start of Smiler’s fun. In fact the reason he was lurking around so far from the city was due to an attack on a drunken couple. Smiler had given Roddy all the details, winking throughout the story. Of course, he’d never come right out and said he’d done it but he’d given enough hints. He appeared to have decided on a small break out in the country while the police finished their enquiries. All in all, Roddy would be far happier when he had a good stretch of water between Smiler and himself.
He felt from the change in the Princess’s movement that they were not far from the harbour. Downing his pint in one go, he picked up his bag and headed out on deck. He leaned over the railing and watched the lighthouse go past as the ferry slowed and readied for docking. Men appeared on deck and the bow began to raise. After a few minutes they were alongside the ferry quay and the bow-thrusters came on, nudging the ship sideways. One of the older crew, who was waiting to toss down a mooring line, looked over at Roddy for a minute and then scowled. Roddy gave him a big friendly grin and started towards the gangplank entrance.
Betty shut the door of her small and practical car and walked smartly up the drive of Avalon. Ignoring the doorbell set in a curlicued frame of brass, she rapped sharply on the frosted glass pane of the front door. Her neck wobbled in indignation at the thought of the money that must have been spent on the fancies that quite overwhelmed the modest bungalow. As a regular attender of church and a believer in good and charitable works, she felt that Margaret Morrison’s home decor was completely out of place, in terms of both her situation and religion. If they had that kind of money to spare they should be donating it to the church or respectable charities. They probably couldn’t afford it though, she thought. In fact she wouldn’t be surprised if some of the little fripperies started to disappear back to the shops they had come from. Rumour had it that they were hard up. Charlie had to sell one of the boats – the Gwendoline – which had been the biggest and most profitable of the two. He also spent a lot of time away from home and everyone knew what that led to. If he didn’t have another woman yet, then it wouldn’t be long in coming. You had to keep a good eye on men. Let them wander about away from home too much you’d be bound to have trouble of one sort or another. A smile of satisfaction crossed her face as she thought of how well she managed her own husband. He commuted daily from work, never touched so much as a drop of drink and accompanied her to both services on a Sunday. Her friends at her weekly coffee and prayer evening often expressed their envy at his good behaviour and demanded to know how she had trained him quite so well.
The door opened and Elaine peered out.
“Hello dear,” said Betty. “Your mother asked me to come and see her. Is she in?”
Opening the door and standing aside Elaine motioned towards the kitchen, “She’s through there,” she replied. “Just go in.”
Flattening Elaine against the wall she sailed toward the kitchen, purpose and the thought of fuel for gossip driving her forward. The whole village was on tenterhooks to find out what the fracas last night had been about. Joan had phoned and told her that there had been some very strange goings on in and around the house. There had been quite a lot of noise, but unfortunately she had been unable to make out any exact words. Though she did say that Malcolm Macfarlane had run from the house as if the Devil himself was at his heels. She entered the kitchen, eyes gleaming at the thought of being the first to uncover the mystery. Margaret looked up from the large chocolate cake she was making and smiled.
“Hello Betty. I wasn’t expecting you so soon.”
“Hello Margaret. I thought I’d come early as you seemed quite concerned about Gwendoline yesterday. “I had heard that she was having trouble getting out of bed, so if there’s something the matter don’t hesitate to tell me all about it. It is part of my job to listen after all.” She sat down at the kitchen table and prepared her razor sharp memory for the task at hand.
Elaine pulled her boots on and grabbed her jumper, stereo and purse from the heap on her desk. There was absolutely no way she was staying in all day to keep her sister company as her mother had instructed her. It would have been a bit difficult anyway as Gwen had not said a work to her since the picture frame incident of yesterday. She left the house, resisting the urge to scratch the unfeasibly shiny paintwork of Betty’s blue Metro as she walked down the drive. She briefly wondered what the nosey bat was doing at Avalon at this time in the morning, but then her mind turned to the more important matter of food. Watching her sister steadily munch her way through enough chocolate to feed a large party of starving schoolchildren had made her never want to look at, let alone eat, anything sugary ever again. She was hungry though, and trying to find something edible in the house that didn’t contain half a sugar plantation was not an easy task. She walked in the direction of the village shop intending to buy enough food to keep her going till Monday morning.
The shop building was a converted old blackhouse on the roadside. The thickly painted white walls were starting to show signs of the damp green mold which seemed to prey upon every building above forty years of age. The red telephone box which stood beside it had cobwebs hanging from the interior of each small pane of glass. She leaned against the wooden door and turned the metal doorknob, the jingle of bells heralding her arrival as she stepped inside. There was not a soul in the small dark shop, though this did not surprise Elaine in the least. She knew that Malcolm’s mother had a connecting bell in her house which told her when there was a customer. She had probably seen her walking up the road anyway, and would take her time coming over just to keep her waiting. The deep-set windows with their dusty ledges let in so little light that Elaine found herself having to squint to properly make out the odd assortment of goods that were on display. She knew that they only kept the place in this state because there was no other competition in the village, and also because the tourists who observed the island from their comfortable coaches each summer found it quaint and charming. She must make a fair bit from them with all the stupid little souvenirs and knick-knacks they buy, she thought. In fact, that was probably where most of the profit came from. She sidled along the shelves, holding a tin of peaches up to the light to check the sell-by date. Chriselle – who only deigned to take direct care of the shop when her son was away – came in the back door of the shop and sniffed loudly.
“Can I help you?” she enquired in an imperious tone.
“No, I’m just looking round,” replied Elaine, finally finding a tin of tangerines that could be eaten without fear of food poisoning. Chriselle sat down on a stool behind the counter and began to read a copy of Hello magazine. What a snooty cow, thought Elaine. She acts as if she’s so much better than everyone else. A bit daft really, considering the whole island knows she’s having an affair with Betty’s husband Donald. Apart from Betty of course. Elaine hoped she was within earshot if Betty did ever find out. If weak and feeble Gwendoline could manage to draw blood, she could only imagine what Betty might be capable of in a rage.
The Macfarlanes lived behind the shop in a low, sprawling ranch-style house which was totally unsuited to both the climate and the surrounding scenery. Elaine had been inside the house once or twice for Gwendoline-related reasons, and she had found it hard to keep a straight face. The living room – which conjured up the set of a bad American soap opera – was all leather couches and white shag rugs. But the thing that had cracked her up the most was the photographs. There was not a single picture of Malcolm, or his forgotten father for that matter, but the mantelpiece and walls were full of carefully positioned portraits of Chriselle in a number of ridiculous, pouting poses. Elaine had only seen the husband on a couple of occasions, but she had no problem in understanding why he spent so much time away at sea with the Merchant Navy instead of getting an administrative post closer to home. That was no doubt why his wife had started her long running affair with Donald, who despite being a nice, very quiet man, seemed to attract women of the most repellant character. She finished choosing her fruit and dairy produce and turned her attention to bread. This was the shop’s one saving grace as all the baking was done locally by an expert woman from one of the outlying houses. She chose a loaf of bread and some rolls. There was no need to buy anything sweeter as Gwen had a large and sticky consignment of confectionery delivered to the house earlier that morning. After paying Chriselle – who took the money from her hand as if she believed her to be contaminated with radiation – Elaine left the shop and returned home determined to follow her sister’s example in only letting bodily needs move her from her room.
Betty left Avalon with a tight smile of satisfaction on her face. She had known there was something strange going on there. As she told her cousin Joan later that evening, “She doesn’t leave her room. At the age of twenty! Now that is very odd in my book. I have to go up and check on her twice a week, but the doctor told them there’s nothing physical. Madness, that’s what it is. Runs in Margaret’s family I’d say. The other one is sane enough mind you, but she’s as like Charlie’s mother as can be.”
Joan reflected for a moment, then nodded. Betty continued. “Of course her parents don’t have a clue. I always said Margaret was a bit pea-brained and now I know it for sure. And you should see the girl’s bedroom!” She lowered her voice and leaned forward. “It looks just what you would imagine the inside of a house of ill repute to be like.”