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The Last Summer
Author: Karen Swan

 

Prologue


21 June 1930


Glen Bay, St Kilda

 

The three young women sat cross-legged in the grass, their shadows long behind them as the sun softly dropped from its high arch. Sheep dozed on the slopes, tails flicking at the flies as they sought pale shelter against the stone dykes, waiting for the fluttering kiss of a breeze. It was summer’s longest day and the sky was holding its breath, the dry heat suspended above their heads like a tethered veil. Their fingers worked in unison as they pulled feathers from the bird carcasses, plumes of white down speckling the meadow like daisies.

Flora pressed the back of her hand to her brow. ‘I’ll not miss this.’

‘Of course you won’t. You won’t even remember it,’ Effie said with a wry glance. ‘You’ll be a grand lady in your house with stairs and you’ll have lipstick and a wireless and you simply won’t believe that you ever had to pluck the fulmars.’

Flora preened, delighted by the image. ‘You must come to visit. James says there’ll be a bedroom for each of you and we’ll get you a new dress every time you come to stay, and we’ll go to shows and we’ll dine in restaurants . . .’

Mhairi frowned. ‘Real-life restaurants?’

Effie laughed. ‘Yes! Actual places where they pluck and cook the birds for you.’

‘Oh . . . That must be nice.’

‘James says in Glasgow you could go out every night for a month and not eat in the same place twice.’ Flora tossed her long dark hair back from her face.

‘So long as m’ belly’s full, I’ll not much care what’s in it,’ Effie shrugged.

Mhairi’s hands had fallen still and the sudden absence of activity was jarring to the others. They looked up to find her biting her lip, trying to hold back tears.

‘Hush now, Mhairi,’ Flora said quickly. ‘You’ll be fine.’

‘How can you say that? It’s not the same for me as it is for you. When we cross over, you’ll get everything you ever wanted. But I’m going to lose everything. And nothing can stop it.’

‘A wave will rise on quiet water, Mhairi,’ Flora said, smoothing back Mhairi’s flame-coloured hair and reaching for her hand. ‘You have to just trust your happiness lies in another place.’

Mhairi snatched her hand away. ‘You keep saying that, but what’s being asked of me . . . it’s too much!’ Her grey eyes burned. She was rarely given to anger. She had a gentle nature and an open heart, but neither had served her well in bringing her to this point.

‘I know. And I’d be raging too. I’d be mad with grief if it was me who had to do it,’ Flora agreed warmly. ‘But you’re a better person than me. You’re good all the way through. I’m not even good skin deep.’

‘You’re not that bad,’ Effie protested, rolling her eyes.

‘Aren’t I? I lose my temper if the wind messes my hair. I curse if I bang my knee in kirk. If it wasn’t for this . . .’ She framed her beautiful face with cupped hands. ‘They’d have thrown me over the top years ago.’

There was a short silence. Slowly, Flora gave an impish smile.

Mhairi chuckled softly, in spite of herself. ‘They would not,’ she chided, fondly slapping Flora’s knee. ‘You have lots of good qualities.’

‘I’m a beautiful monster,’ Flora argued, looking not in the least concerned by it. ‘And Effie’s a tow-haired wildling . . .’

‘Oi!’ Effie protested, her long trousers covering the multitude of scabs on her knees and shins from scrambling over the rocks.

‘You’re the best of us, Mhairi. There’s no way you’re not going to get your reward. It is coming,’ Flora said with her usual determination. ‘Even if you can’t see it yet. You have to believe it’s coming.’

Mhairi shook her head sadly, but she gave no more reply. Flora’s passion could normally convince them all that the sky was green and the sea was black, but Mhairi had no wish to imagine an unseeable future when all that she wanted, she already had. If they could only stay here . . . But their paths had been set and the outcome couldn’t be altered now. Not for any of them.

‘The same goes for you.’

Effie flinched, her breath catching high in her throat, as Flora’s keen gaze fell upon her too. She closed her eyes, willing it to be true, but knowing that to get any sort of happy ending, she had to do more than step onto a boat. It wasn’t a distant time or another place that blocked her future from view but the threat of something unspeakable. Unthinkable. It hung over her at all times, a swinging scythe above her head as she cut the peats or hoed the beds, a shadow that crept through her dreams.

‘You’ll be free there,’ Flora said fervently.

Effie swallowed and nodded, wishing she could believe it. No one spoke for several moments. It still didn’t seem possible that horror could touch them here on their secluded isle, but this summer everything had changed.

‘There’s only a few weeks to go now, but you must be ready just in case,’ Flora said. ‘You must dig your bait while the tide is out.’

‘I know.’ Effie had been slowly gathering what she needed, taking care to spread apart the petty thefts so that no one noticed the missing length of rope or the rusted knife that used to lie in the bottom of the skiff. There was one more thing she needed but she knew it couldn’t be found anywhere on the isle. ‘And I’m almost there, if Captain McGregor will help me.’

‘When is he hauling anchor?’ Mhairi asked anxiously.

Effie glanced towards the setting sun, gauging the time. It had dropped below the Mullach Bi cliffs; there was maybe another three hours of light. But with a two-hour walk back to the other side of the isle . . . ‘Soon. I should be heading back.’ She tucked her legs in to stand but Flora reached for her hand first.

‘Before you go.’

They sat joined together in their small circle, the crash of the sea and the chatter of wrens a symphony around them.

‘I know it’s hard. Hardest of all on the two of you. In a couple of months, our lives are going to change forever. We’ll leave here and everything we know will be different. Every single thing. Some will be better, some will be worse. But I also know a day will come when we’ll look back on this moment – on the three of us sitting on the grass, with feathers in our hair and dead birds by our feet – and there’ll be something of it that still remains.’

‘What?’ Mhairi blinked.

‘Us. This.’ Flora squeezed their hands tighter. ‘We’ll always be Kilda girls, no matter where we end up. Ma’s forever saying there’s no secret if three know it, but she’s wrong in our case. What we three do, only we three will ever know.’ She pressed her finger to her lips. ‘We’re sisters. Yes?’

Mhairi nodded, Effie too; she felt an unfamiliar lump in her throat. She wasn’t one for sentimentality but emotions were trying to press through her thick skin. She got up, her shoulders held high, her lithe body as brittle as a stick. ‘I’ll be back over when I can.’

She could feel their apprehension at her back as she turned away and began striding for the ridge. She wanted to stay with her friends. She wanted to pretend they were still just girls and life was, if not easy, then at least fair. But those days had sunk with other suns and she knew the moment was upon her to face her future. Flora was right; she was always right: the tide was out. It was time to dig the bait.

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