Chapter One – MEGAN
Friday, 6 May 2005, 10.30pm
Megan was drinking beer in the kitchen with a few friends when her collie, Glen, ran through the open back door with a muddy stick in his mouth. When he dropped it at her feet, she stared in disgust. It wasn’t a stick; it was a bone, with dried-out flesh faintly discernible beneath the dirt that clung to it.
Revolted, she steeled herself to lift it, grimacing at its cold dampness. She went to the door to hurl it back outside but paused, puzzled. It was a pretty big bone.
With a mix of curiosity and dread, Megan followed the dog across the overgrown garden to the hole where the septic tank had been removed earlier that day. In the meagre light from the kitchen window, she spotted more bones in the dark pit. It looked like a skeleton.
Pushing her dog out of the way when he tried to pull the bone from her, Megan leant into the hole and prodded the earth with it. A glint of gold caught her eye and she bent to pick up the object. It was a man’s ring… a familiar ring. Her heart started to thump.
The shock of who this might be and how his remains had come to be there was immense. She must be mistaken. She’d have to take a closer look. First, her visitors would have to be sent home.
She hurried back into the house. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said to her small gathering of friends. ‘I’m knackered and the boys will be up early. I better get to bed.’The handful of folk from the Glasdrum Hill Runners Club made a few token grumbles but were mainly relieved. They were people who rose at five in the morning to run up mountains and they’d already had a few drinks at the Taj Mahal on the High Street, celebrating their success in the cross-country district championships. They were out the door in no time.
Megan stared out of the kitchen window towards the back garden. Jim must have unearthed the bones when he’d removed the old tank earlier that day, no doubt too pissed to notice he’d dug up a dead body.
Megan’s friend, Vicky, who had been babysitting Megan’s three boys while she had been out with the hill runners, came up behind her. ‘Are you wondering what Glen found out there?’
‘Did you see the bone he had?’ Megan asked.
Vicky nodded. ‘Deer?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘What, then?’ asked Vicky, putting a hand on Megan’s shoulder, giving her a fleeting sense of comfort. Megan sensed Vicky felt protective toward her; people often did. Her diminutive frame and cropped hair made her seem like her sons’ older sister rather than their mother. Perhaps it was because Vicky knew how hard it was to raise kids on your own; her own daughter, Louise, was asleep upstairs. Or maybe she sensed Megan’s anxiety. When Megan had returned ashen-faced and asked people to leave because she was tired, Vicky had raised her eyebrows in surprise.
‘I’m going to take another look,’ said Megan.
‘Want me to come with you?’
Megan nodded in gratitude. It was stupid to involve Vicky but she couldn’t face it on her own. She put on her rain jacket and handed a spare that hung by the back door to Vicky. ‘Better put that on. It’s still pissing down out there.’
It was close to eleven, and despite low clouds the sky held a faint glow as they picked their way across the sodden garden, hemmed in by trees that hung heavy and damp. Beyond the decrepit fence, a mini digger stood guard over the earthy pit. The new tank, still enveloped in heavy-duty polythene, stood beside it. The upheaval had meant the toilet had been out of use since the old tank had been removed earlier that day, but the boys had found peeing in the garden a hoot and Megan’s runner friends were well used to crouching behind bushes halfway up hills.
Vicky grabbed Megan’s arm as they approached the grave-like opening. ‘I’ve never seen you looking so scared. What are you expecting to find?’
‘It might be better if you don’t get involved. I think it’s… it’s…’ Megan tailed off, not able to put into words what she was dreading.
She noticed Vicky hesitate and didn’t blame her. Vicky had witnessed the chaos of Megan’s life many times. ‘You should go back inside. Leave this to me,’ Megan said to her.
But Vicky took her hand. ‘It’s okay, I’ll stay.’
Megan felt relieved. Vicky could be trusted with a secret; she reckoned Vicky had a few of her own.
‘I should’ve brought a torch,’ said Megan as they peered over the edge. ‘Can you see anything down there?’ Vicky was leaning over the hole, still holding Megan’s hand, when Glen hurtled past their legs, chasing an imagined rabbit. Vicky’s foot slipped, loose earth gave way and they both slid forwards. Frantically overcorrecting, they fell onto their backsides in the musty-smelling mud beside the sealed-off septic tank pipe.
‘Oh my God,’ cried Vicky, scrambling to her feet. Something cracked and she looked down to see a broken bone under her trainer. ‘What’s that?’
‘I think it might be my dad,’ said Megan.
Chapter Two – SARAH
Friday, 6 May 2005, 10.30pm
On the road that stretched between the shadowy mountains, the car slammed into the deer at sixty miles an hour. Sarah’s body was gripped by the seat belt but her head was jerked forward by the impact. Her skull crashed against the door frame as the car spun sideways then juddered to an abrupt halt in a ditch. She felt dazed, shaken and sore.
‘Fuck sake, man, not another one.’ Gregor banged his hand on the steering wheel before climbing out of the car. Wind howled through the vehicle as Lewis followed him, and they both made their way onto the road to survey what was left of the beautiful creature.
Sarah’s head hurt and her hand shook as she unclipped her belt, pushed her door open and stepped out. The cold, damp air hit her face as her foot plunged into slippery mud which closed around her ankle, causing her to stumble and fall to her knees. Lewis appeared and helped her to her feet.
‘Are you all right?’ he asked and she nodded as they made their way around the car. Gregor was staring at the animal that lay across the white line in the middle of the road. Its back legs jerked but the beast was in trouble. Sarah caught a glimpse of brown Bambi eyes as it tried to lift its head.
‘I’m gonna have tae deal with it,’ said Gregor as he returned to the car and lifted the boot. Sarah’s thoughts of phoning a vet were interrupted when he reappeared with a rifle. She stifled a scream as Gregor lifted the gun to his shoulder and fired a shot straight through the animal’s head. A pool of blood appeared on the road, dissipating in the misty rain. Gregor returned the gun to the car then spoke to Lewis. ‘Gie us a hand, like,’ he muttered, prompting Lewis to take hold of one of the deer’s rear legs and help his friend drag the animal onto the verge. Gregor then crossed the road to survey his car in silence. Sarah jumped out of her skin when he kicked the car and screamed, ‘Fuck sake, man, will ya look at the state of ma motor!’
Lewis sensed Sarah’s alarm and put his arm round her shoulders as they watched Gregor kick and rant at his car. ‘He has moments like this.’ Lewis looked apologetically at Sarah. ‘He’ll calm down in a bit.’
Sarah shivered and leant against Lewis, trying to shield her face from the weather. It was May but the night air was fresh and the chill from the mud soaking her lower legs had seeped upwards until her whole body felt cold. She wished she was back in her flat in London, but she had returned the keys that morning before carting two large suitcases to Euston station and setting off on an adventure to Scotland to start a new life with Lewis; rough-around-the-edges Lewis, who had bowled her over with his intense stare and Scottish accent. It had happened at a fortuitous time; she had just turned thirty, she hated her job, and several of her girlfriends had become mothers and disappeared into their houses, never to be seen again. Sarah had taken Lewis to meet her family and noticed that her stepmother, Cecilia, had taken an instant dislike to Lewis’s forthright and sometimes coarse manner of speaking. It had given Sarah great delight to announce she was leaving with Lewis to start a new life in Scotland.
‘Oh, darling, really? Must you?’ Cecilia had asked. ‘I’ve enjoyed spending time with you now that Robbie’s away at uni.’
That’s one of the reasons I want to go, Sarah had thought. Cecilia had been visiting her more often since her half-brother Robbie had left home the previous year. Too bloody late. You can’t make up for ignoring me and wishing I wasn’t there when he was a baby.
Sarah’s father had wished her well but, as usual, seemed only vaguely interested in her plans.
However, this was not the start she had envisaged for her new life.
‘You’ll have to take the wheel, Sarah. We’ll try to push the car back onto the road,’ said Lewis, after an earnest discussion with Gregor.
With misgivings, she climbed into the car and tried to follow their shouted instructions: Accelerate! No, not that hard! Take it easy for God’s sake. The tyre’s spinning, stop, STOP! Sarah found it stressful. She had driven occasionally since passing her test ten years previously but, having lived in London all her life, had found little need for a car. Her confidence was low driving on a road, never mind out of a ditch. To her relief, with a last push from the boys, the car leapt forward onto the tarmac. Sarah retreated to the back seat of the ancient Fiesta to let the two men in. Relief and misery, in equal measure, enveloped her as they set off again, the dead animal abandoned by the roadside, the two men straight back to their intense and incessant conversation.
‘I’ll get a good blether with Gregor on the way up the road,’ Lewis had said as the train had arrived in Fort William. Sure enough, they had not stopped talking since they’d got into Gregor’s car, and Sarah had barely understood a word. They might have been speaking a different language for all she could comprehend. Perhaps it was Gaelic. She had spotted several road signs with long, unpronounceable words written above the English. It was like entering a foreign country. She had become used to Lewis’s Scottish accent but the speed of his speech had increased tenfold since crossing the border.
The babble from the front of the car had almost lulled Sarah to sleep before the accident, but now she felt alert and on edge as the road twisted between mountains that disappeared into the mist and around rocky outcrops, eventually reaching the sea, a black expanse beneath the gloomy sky. It was almost eleven by then but the darkness was incomplete despite the low clouds. After the day’s surreal and nightmarish events, Sarah’s sense of being transported into another world was complete.
As they sped along the coastal road Sarah stared out at the water, dotted with distant hulks she guessed must be islands. They had left London at seven that morning, changing trains in Glasgow, and she felt a long way from home. How much longer was this journey going to take? Why did Gregor have a gun in the boot of his car? He was apparently a school friend of Lewis, but Sarah knew little more than that. None of her school friends owned guns. She also wanted to know more about Lewis’s sister and her kids, who they were going to be staying with, something Sarah had only found out about that morning.
‘You know I said my mum was staying in the old folks’ home for a bit? I forgot to mention that Megan is staying at her house while she’s not there.’
‘It’ll be nice to meet her.’
He had paused for a moment. ‘Her three boys will be there too, unfortunately.’
‘Oh well, I suppose they’ll be glad to see us so they can get back to their own house.’
Lewis sighed. ‘Yeah, let’s hope so.’
A short while later, before reaching the town, they turned off the main road and bumped along a stretch of potholed single track before stopping outside a large house with peeling, once-white paint, crowded by tall trees. Gregor and Lewis jumped out and pulled Sarah’s two heavy suitcases from the boot. ‘See ya,’ shouted Gregor before he drove off.
Lewis stared at the building for a while. ‘This place has gone downhill a bit since I was last here.’
‘Five years?’ said Sarah.
‘Yeah, I cannae believe it.’ He glanced at her. ‘I hope you’re going to find it okay here. It’s a bit different to London, like.’
‘I was sick of London. We both needed a change.’
‘Yeah, I guess. That shift work in the factory was doing my head in.’
‘And you wanted to come home,’ Sarah reminded him.
‘Aye, so I did.’
Lewis picked up one of Sarah’s cases and opened one side of the ancient red door before disappearing inside. Sarah heaved the other suitcase over the threadbare gravel towards the door but struggled to get herself and the case through the narrow opening. She battled with it for a few moments, but wasn’t strong enough to turn the suitcase and pull it through the door behind her, so she left it wedged in the doorway and followed Lewis, her heart fluttering in anticipation. She crossed a large, unlit hall and stumbled down an unexpected step in the middle of it, twisting her ankle. Suppressing a yelp of pain, she walked toward the room with the light on. Inside the kitchen, Lewis was embracing a young boy, while a woman with dark blonde hair watched them. The three of them looked at her.
‘Come and meet my sister,’ said Lewis and Sarah smiled at the blonde woman, wondering what she should do. Shake her hand? Hug her? Just keep smiling? But Lewis laughed and put his hand on the blonde woman’s shoulder. ‘Nah, this is Vicky. She’s Megan’s pal.’ He playfully punched the young boy who, on closer inspection, was, indeed, female, and not as young as she had at first seemed. ‘This is my sister. Who managed to forget we were coming today.’
Megan punched him back, harder. ‘I didn’t forget. You told me you were coming tomorrow.’
‘Aye well, we’re here now,’ said Lewis. ‘You gonna make us a cup of tea or something?’
‘You know where the kettle is, don’t you?’ Megan looked over at Sarah apologetically. ‘Come in, take a seat. Sorry about the mess.’ Megan indicated the floor, which Sarah noticed was covered in mud, not just from the collie that was padding about with earth all over its underside, but from Megan’s and Vicky’s shoes, too. Sarah pulled a chair out but saw that it, too, was covered in mud.
‘Sorry, that was me,’ said Megan. She turned around and showed Sarah her soaked backside. ‘Vicky and I went out to… em… check something in the garden, and we both fell over. It’s a quagmire out there. New septic tank getting put in.’
‘A new tank?’ asked Lewis. ‘Why?’
‘Why do you think, you big eejit? The old one was falling apart. Leaking all over the place.’
‘So, who’s doing the work?’
Megan ignored him. ‘Take a seat, Sarah. Do you want some tea?’
‘Yeah, thanks,’ said Sarah, looking at the other chairs to see if there was a clean one. A deep fatigue came over her, her ankle throbbed from her stumble in the hall and her head pounded from the bang in the car. All she wanted to do was sit down. But first, ‘Can I use your loo? It’s been a long journey.’
‘Sure,’ said Lewis. ‘It’s on the first floor, on the right.’
‘Actually, you can’t,’ said Megan as Sarah set off out of the kitchen. ‘It’s out of action just now. The septic tank, you see. We’re waiting for them to install the new one. Sorry.’
‘So, there’s no toilet?’
‘Nope. We’ve just been peeing in the bushes at the side of the garden. And if it’s, you know… well, there’s these.’ Megan pointed to a packet of black dog poo bags on the counter.
‘But it’s raining,’ said Sarah in a quiet, exhausted voice. Megan went to the hall to get a brolly for Sarah.
‘So, em, I just go out the back, in the garden?’
‘Yeah, but… well… keep away from the septic tank or you’ll fall into the hole.’ Megan pushed the packet of dog poo bags along the counter. ‘Do you need one of these?’
Sarah stared at the little black bags for a moment. She shook her head then went out the back door into the rain.
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