The fifth book in the Shetland series, 2013
Jimmy Perez stopped for breath and looked out to sea. A still, calm day, the light filtered through high cloud so that the water was shiny grey, like metal. On the horizon a bank of fog. In the deep pockets of the long oilskin coat that had once belonged to his grandfather were pebbles the size of eggs. They were round and smooth, and so heavy that he could feel the weight of them pulling on his shoulders. He’d collected the rocks from the beach at Ravenswick, selecting them carefully: only the roundest, the ones that were white as bone. In the distance, a little way out from the shore, there was a stack of rock shaped like a rough cross, tilted on its side. The calm water hardly broke around it.
Perez started walking again, counting out the paces in his head. Most days since Fran’s death he performed the same ritual: collecting the pebbles from the shore close to her house and bringing them here, to her favourite place in the islands. Part penance and part pilgrimage. Part mad obsession. He rubbed the pebbles with his thumb and found a strange comfort in the touch.
On the hill there were ewes with young lambs, still unsteady on their feet. This far north lambing came late and they didn’t arrive until April. New life. The bank of fog was rolling closer, but in the distance, on the highest point of the headland, he could see the cairn he’d built with his collection of Ravenswick stone. A memorial to the woman whom he’d loved and whose death still weighed on his conscience, pulling him down.
As he walked he recalled the stages of their relationship, the seasons of their passion. This too was a ritual performed on every visit. He’d met her in winter, with snow on the ground and hungry ravens tumbling in a frozen sky. He’d made love to her in midsummer, when the cliffs were raucous with seabirds and there was a carpet of wildflowers in the meadow below her house. In early spring she’d proposed marriage to him. He stopped for a moment, dizzy with the memory of it, and the sky seemed to tip and wheel around his head, and he couldn’t tell where the sea ended and the sky began. Her challenging smile. ‘Well, Jimmy? What do you think?’ And she’d died in the autumn, in a storm that battered his Fair Isle home, sending spindrift high into the air and cutting them off from the outside world.
From the cairn he could see the sweep of the North Mainland. Fran had loved it because she said this summed up Shetland in one view, the bleakness and the beauty, the wealth that came from the sea and the hard, barren land. The past and the future. In the distance, in a fold in the land, the oil terminal at Sullom Voe, in this strange silver light looking almost magic, a lost city. Everywhere land and water, and land reflected in water. To the south the line of giant wind turbines, still now. Below him the settlement of Hvidahus, three toy houses and a pier, and almost hidden by trees the crofting museum at Vatnagarth where he’d left his car.
It was six months to the day since Fran had died. He thought he wouldn’t come back here until Fran’s daughter Cassie was old enough to understand. Or he felt up to bringing her. He hoped the cairn would still be there then.
He walked down the hill into the fog. It lay like a pool over the lower ground, swallowing him up, so that he felt as if he were drowning. The museum car park, which had been empty when he arrived, was full now and there was music coming from one of the barns, and the windows were lit – square moons penetrating the gloom. The music drew him towards them and he was reminded of the folk tales of his youth, the trowes who seduced mortals with their fiddle-playing and stole a century of their lives. And he must look like something from a story himself, he thought, with his long black hair and his unshaven face, the long black coat. He peered through a window and saw a group of elderly people dancing. He recognized the tune and for a moment was tempted in himself, to take the hand of one of the old women sitting against the wall and spin her round the room, making her feel young again.
But he turned away. The old Jimmy Perez might have done that, especially if Fran was with him. But he was a changed man.
Jerry Markham looked across at the voe that wound inland from the open sea. Behind him was the open hill, peat and heather, brown after a long winter. Ahead of him the oil terminal. Four tugs, big as trawlers, two alongside, one forward and one aft, nudged the
Jerry took a photograph.
Overhead an Eastern Airways plane came in to land at Scatsta Airport. During the war the airstrip had been an RAF station. Now it carried more traffic than Sumburgh, but no scheduled flights landed here; no tourists or kids home from college would climb from the plane. These flights were all oil-related. Markham watched as a group of men climbed onto the runway. Fit men, they could have been members of a rugby team or an army platoon: there was the same sense of camaraderie. The male bonding thing that had somehow passed him by. Markham couldn’t hear their voices from where he stood, but he could sense the banter. Soon helicopters would take them to start a new shift on the platforms or the rigs.
Once, more than 800 tankers a year had carried crude oil south from Sullom Voe; now just 200 arrived at the jetty, and the
Markham shifted position so that he had a slightly different perspective and took another photograph. Beyond the perimeter fence a road was being built. Accommodation modules like steel cans were being set on concrete blocks. A new terminal was being constructed next to the old one, and a huge rectangular wall held the blocks of peat that had been dug from the hill to clear the site. As the oil was running out, gas had been discovered, and Shetland had welcomed the new energy source with enthusiasm. Gas meant jobs. Local trucks were already carrying rocks from Sullom quarry to form the foundations of the plant. Hotels, guest houses and B &Bs were packed with workers from the south. House prices were rising again. Gas meant money.
Markham walked down the hill, jumping over peat banks, to reach his car. He’d left it at the end of the track that led past the airstrip. There was construction here too: the metal ribs of a new control tower. The plane, having spilled its passengers, was already loading up with more. He was aware as he drove past that the men, queuing to climb the steps, were staring. There weren’t many cars like his Alfa in Shetland. He sensed and enjoyed their surprise and their envy, and wondered what Annabel would make of that.
He took the road south along the voe towards Brae. Half a mile away from the terminal the only indication that oil came ashore here was a yellow buoy in the middle of the water. If there was a spill, a boom would be attached to the buoy to prevent oil contaminating the sensitive saltmarsh at the head of the narrow inlet. But already the tanks and the jetties, the harbour master’s offices and the airport and the new gas terminal were hidden by a fold in the hill. Now there were only sheep and gulls, ravens and the sound of curlews.
At the end of Sullom Voe he came to the community of Brae and slowed slightly to join the main road. Brae showed more signs of the oil industry: a few streets of houses built by the council as homes for workers. Grey, utilitarian, hated by the tourists who came expecting picture-book pretty. Shetland didn’t do pretty. It did wild and bleak and dramatic, but pretty would have been out of place.
Out of Brae he hit a bank of ...