Thin Air

Ann Cleeves

Thin Air

The sixth book in the Shetland series, 2014

For Joseph Clarke.

And his beautiful mother.


Thanks to everyone who has helped make this book better: my agents Sara Menguc and Moses Cardona and my editor Catherine Richards. I’m grateful to the Pan Macmillan team of Jeremy, Becky, Emma, Sam and all Andy Belshaw’s group. Thanks to my friends in Shetland, specially Ingirid Eunson and Jim Dickson for great food and company, Mary Blance for advice in all things Shetland, Steven and Charlotte for giving me the idea and everyone else who’s provided tea, beer and stories. Any mistakes are my own – I do know that it’s impossible to send an email by iPhone from Unst, but this is a story. Finally, let’s raise a glass (of champagne) to my fairy godmother Elaine.

Chapter One

The music started. A single chord played on fiddle and accordion, a breathless moment of silence when the scene was fixed in Polly’s head like a photograph, and then the Meoness community hall was jumping. Polly had spent thirteen hours on the overnight boat from Aberdeen to Lerwick and when she’d first come ashore the ground had seemed to shift under her feet, and this was another kind of illusion. The music appeared to bounce from the walls and the floor and to push people towards the centre of the room, to lift them onto their feet. Even the home-made bunting and the balloons strung from the rafters seemed to dance. The band’s rhythm set toes tapping and heads nodding. Children in party clothes clapped and elderly relatives clambered from their chairs to join in. A young mother jiggled a baby on her knee. Lowrie took the hand of his new bride, Caroline, and led her onto the dance floor to show her off to his family once more.

This was the hamefarin’. Lowrie was a Shetlander, and after years of courtship Caroline had finally persuaded him, or bullied him, to marry her. The real wedding had taken place close to Caroline’s home in Kent and her two closest friends had followed her to Unst, Shetland’s most northerly island, to complete the celebration. And they’d brought their men with them.

‘Doesn’t she look gorgeous?’ It was Eleanor, crouching beside Polly’s chair.

The two women had known Caroline since they were students; she was their voice of reason and their sister-in-arms. They’d been her bridesmaids in Kent and now they were dressed up again in the cream silk dresses they’d chosen together in London. They’d made the trek north to be part of the hamefarin’. They’d followed Caroline round the room for the bridal march and now they admired again her elegance, her poise, and her very expensive frock.

‘It’s what she’s wanted since she first laid eyes on Lowrie during Freshers’ Week,’ Eleanor went on. ‘It was obvious even then that she’d get her way. She’s a determined lady, our Caroline.’

‘Lowrie doesn’t seem to mind too much. He hasn’t stopped beaming since they got married.’

Eleanor laughed. ‘Isn’t this all such fun?’

Polly thought she hadn’t seen Eleanor so happy for months. ‘Great fun,’ she said. Polly seldom relaxed in social situations, but decided she was actually rather enjoying herself tonight. She smiled back at her friend and felt a moment of connection, of tenderness. Since her parents had died, these people were the only family she had. Then she decided that the drink must be making her maudlin.

‘They’ll be setting out supper soon.’ Eleanor had to shout to make herself heard over the band. Her face was flushed and her eyes were bright as if she had a fever. ‘The friends of the bride and groom have to help serve. It’s the tradition.’

The music stopped and the guests clapped and laughed. Polly’s partner, Marcus, had been dancing with Lowrie’s mother. His dancing had been lively, even if he couldn’t quite follow the steps. He came over to them, still following the beat of the music, almost skipping.

‘It’s supper time,’ Eleanor said to him. ‘You have to help put out the trestles. Ian’s weighing in already. We’ll come through in a moment to act as waitresses.’

Marcus dropped a kiss onto Polly’s head and disappeared. Polly was proud that she hadn’t asked him if he was having a good time. She was always anxious about their relationship and could tell that her need for reassurance was beginning to irritate him.

The men had set out tables and benches in a smaller room, and Lowrie’s friends were handing out mugs of soup to the waiting guests. Eleanor and Polly took a tray each. Eleanor was enjoying herself immensely. She was showing off, flirting with the old men and revelling in the attention. Then there were bannocks and platters of mutton and salt beef. Bannocks and flesh, Lowrie had called it. Polly was vegetarian and the mounds of meat at the end of her fingertips as she carried the plates from the kitchen made her feel a little queasy. There was a sense of dislocation about the whole event. It was being on the ship for thirteen hours the night before and spending all day in the open air. The strangeness of the evening light. Eleanor being so manic. Polly sipped tea and nibbled on a piece of wedding cake and thought she could still feel the rolling of the ship under her feet.

When the meal was over she and Marcus helped to clear the tables, then the band began to play again and, despite her protests, she was swung into an eightsome reel. She found herself in the centre of the circle, being passed from man to man and then spinning. Lowrie’s father was her partner. He had his arms crossed and braced and the force of the movement almost lifted her from her feet. She’d thought of him as an elderly man and hadn’t expected him to be so strong. There was a fleeting and astonishing moment of sexual desire. When the music stopped she saw that she was trembling. It was the physical effort and an odd excitement. There was no sign of Eleanor or Marcus and she went outside for air.

It must have been nearly eleven o’clock, but it was still light. Lowrie said that in Shetland this was called the ‘simmer dim’, the summer dusk. So far north it never really got dark in June and now the shore was all grey and silver. Polly spent her working life analysing folk tales and she could understand how Shetlanders had come to create the trowes, the little people with magical powers. It must be a result of the dramatic seasons and the strange light. It occurred to her that she might write a paper on it. There might be interest from Scandinavian academics.

From the hall behind her came the sound of the band finishing another tune, laughter and the clink of crockery being washed up in the kitchen. On the beach below a couple sat, smoking. Polly could see them only as silhouettes. Then a little girl appeared on the shore, apparently from nowhere. She was dressed in white and the low light caught her and she seemed to shine. The dress was high-waisted and trimmed with lace and she wore white ribbons in her hair. She stretched out her arms to hold the skirt wide and skipped across the sand, dancing to the music in her head. As Polly watched, the girl turned to her and, very serious, curtsied. Polly stood and clapped her hands.

She looked around her to see if there were any other adults watching. She hadn’t noticed the girl in the party earlier, but she must be there with her parents. Perhaps she belonged to the couple sitting below her. But when she turned back to the tideline the girl had vanished and all that was left was a shimmering reflection of the rising moon in the water.

Chapter Two

When the party ended they couldn’t sleep. Caroline and Lowrie had disappeared back to Lowrie’s parents’ house. Polly, Eleanor and their men had booked a holiday cottage called Sletts within walking distance of the Meoness community hall, and now the four of them sat outside it on white wooden chairs and watched the tide ebb. No background noise except the water and their own murmured conversation. The occasional echoing splash of wine being poured into large glasses. Polly felt the dizziness return and thought again that she’d had far too much to drink. She turned back to face her friends and realized they were in the middle of a conversation.

‘Did you see Lowrie’s cousin’s kiddie?’ The envy in Eleanor’s voice was palpable. ‘Little Vaila. Only four weeks old.’

Eleanor was thirty-six and desperate for a baby. There’d been a late miscarriage, and the child would have been a girl. None of them knew what to say. There was a long silence.

‘I saw something really weird when you were all out for a walk this afternoon,’ Eleanor went on, obviously deciding to change the subject. Perhaps she understood that talk of babies embarrassed them. ‘There was a young girl dancing on the beach. She was all in white. A kind of old-fashioned party dress. She seemed a bit young to be on her own, but when I went out to talk to her she’d disappeared. Into thin air.’

‘What are you saying?’ Her husband Ian’s voice was teasing, but not unkind. ‘You don’t think you saw a ghost?’

Polly didn’t speak. She was remembering the girl she’d seen dancing on the sand.

‘I’m not sure,’ Eleanor said. ‘I could easily believe in ghosts in a place like this. All this history so cl ...

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