Death on a Longship

Marsali Taylor

In this extract from near the start of Death on a Longship, the first of the Cass Lynch crime novels by Marsali Taylor, her sailing heroine Cass, who grew up in Shetland, is returning here for the first time in fifteen years. She’s going to take command of a replica Viking longship for a film company. With her are her friend Anders and his pet, Rat.

We motored out of the Bergen channel on the first of the ebb tide, then set our course almost due west, aiming for the centre of Shetland. Khalida could do five knots, making it a thirty-hour journey. For the daylight hours we kept two-hour watches, one of us above in the cold, the other below keeping warm and passing up hot cups of tea or coffee. The last grey slush of snow in the streets of Bergen was left behind, and the neon-lit clatter of the restaurant. I had Khalida’s tiller under my hand once more, the wind against my face, the smell of salt filling my nostrils, and the great saucer of pale-blue sea around me under the winter-fretted sky. My heart sang to the murmur of the water.

We passed our first oil rig just after six, as the sun sank down below the horizon in a glow of peach and pale rose. Anders took midnight till four while I slept, then I took over. Rat stayed to keep me company for a bit, like a plush neck-warmer, then whiffled his way back to his sawdust nest in the forepeak. The stars dazzled around the ribbon of the Milky Way, the sails were ghostly above me, and the waves surged below Khalida’s forefoot and broke gleaming-white at her beam. We sailed into the darkness until at last the first pale glow appeared on the bowl of sea behind us, and as it grew lighter I began to see a faint mistiness on the horizon, which thickened to a shape like the longship we were going to sail. From here Shetland seemed one island, over a hundred miles long, curving up at the south to the high cliffs of Sumburgh Head, and rising again to Hermaness at the north, with the snow-cone of Ronas Hill in the middle. When Anders came up with a breakfast cup of tea I set him to identifying lighthouses and checking our heading on my rather primitive GPS, while I double-checked the tides. Yell Sound at mid-tide was no place for a small yacht, but it was our quickest way through to the west side.

‘We’re just about right,’ Anders reported. ‘This course will take us exactly in, and we’re thirty miles off. Six hours.’

‘Slack tide three o’clock,’ I said. ‘Bang on.’

Anders took over the steering. I made us a bacon roll each, with an extra rasher for Rat, then went back down for another snatch of sleep. The water flowed at my ear like a lullaby, but for once I wasn’t soothed. My dead lover, Alain, had been a Shetlander too, half-French, just like me. His father taught French in Mid Yell Junior High, and his mother was a born-and-bred Shetlander with a croft in the south of Yell. I’d written to them, and I should have visited, but I hadn’t known what I could say. I still didn’t know. Perhaps I could just stay around Brae, not go near the isles, and slide off before they even knew I was there.

Yeah, right.

When I woke, we were in Shetland waters. I made us a cup of soup and a sandwich each, then came up to look. We’d passed the Out Skerries now and the point of Henga Ness was off our starboard bow. The low heather hills were weathered chocolate brown, with camouflage patches of fawn grass. Lower still, the line of cottages followed the shore, each one set facing the sea in a vertical strip of field. The more recent road ran above the houses, down to the shop, and ended in a forecourt and petrol pump for the changed way of getting around. The shore glistened olive-brown with kelp thrown up in the March gales.

We motored through Yell Sound at still water, dodged the high-speed ferries, and began the long run up the length of North Roe towards the top of Mainland. Now we were giving a cautious distance to spray-black cliffs, topped with fields of stones thrown up by the winter storms, and with pairs of kittiwakes white against grassy ledges slicing along the knobbled volcanic rock. Once we’d rounded the last cliff, topped by the Eshaness Light, we were nearly home; only eight miles to go, diagonally across St Magnus Bay.

Below, Anders was twiddling the radio. A hiss of static resolved itself into a solo fiddle tune, one of the traditional airs with an aching melancholy that pulled me straight back into the world I’d been torn away from when Dad had accepted that job in the Gulf and I’d been sent to Maman. Oh, I could talk to my new French classmates, because Maman had always insisted I spoke French to her, but I didn’t have anything to say to them. They were land people, and I was plunged in among them like the selkie wife who’d lived as a seal among currents, suddenly married to an earthling and having to talk of supermarket prices and new sofas with the other wives. I’d made an effort at first; there’d been several nice-looking boys in the school that I’d pretended to fancy, and I’d gone shopping with the girls for short skirts and vest tops, but they’d known I was just pretending. They couldn’t understand that I was heartsick for the tide flowing past in jagged waves, the sucking noise of the breakers on the shore, the tell-tales fluttering white on Osprey’s red jib.

When the fiddle tune ended and the announcer’s voice began – Mary Blance of Radio Shetland – a great wave of homesickness swept over me and the shore that curved away from us blurred. I blinked the tears away before Anders could see them, and flicked on my mobile phone.

‘Does the marina guide give a number for Brae?’

I punched it in as Anders read it out. A Shetland voice answered, Magnie, who’d been one of my instructors when I’d been learning to sail. I found myself smiling and going automatically into my native tongue.

‘Magnie, is dis dee? It’s Cass, Cass Lynch, you mind me? I’m on my way home. Can you find a corner o’ dis new marina for a peerie yacht that’s come ower fae Norroway?’

He gave a great roar of laughter. ‘Cass, well, for the love of mercy. Norroway, at this season? Yea, yea, we’ll find you a berth. Where are you?’

‘Comin’ round towards Muckle Roe. We’ll be wi’ you in twa hours.’

‘I’ll be waitin’ wi’ the lines,’ he promised.

I laid down the phone to find Anders staring. ‘Is this Shetland dialect? You sounded as if you were speaking English with a Norwegian accent.’

‘Just about what it is,’ I agreed.

‘And what is “peerie”? I do not know this one.’

‘Small. A little boat.’ I unhooked the autopilot and set Khalida’s nose for the channel past Vementry Isle. Now I was in home waters, but I didn’t look up at the house I’d grown up in. That was enough memories raised. Khalida slid on past the island, and into the inlet that led to Brae, a two-mile-long inverted ‘U’ with a cluster of grey roofs at its end. I could have sailed up to the Boating Club blindfolded. Magnie was standing there on the end of the dinghy pontoon, resplendent in an eye-catching Shetland gansey of the old-fashioned seaman’s type, a dull blue background with alternate vertical stripes of cable pattern and anchors in white. We paused to drop the mainsail and roll the jib away, then turned into the marina entrance and slipped into the berth he indicated.

‘Welcome home, lass,’ Magnie said, once we’d tied the last rope. ‘How are you doing? Here’s a swack young man you’ve brought wi’ you.’

I introduced Anders, pointedly saying he was a friend who was crewing for me, and tried to put the kettle on, but Magnie was having none of it. He had a half bottle of Grouse in his pocket. ‘We need to toast you comin’ home at last.’

The three of us squeezed into Khalida’s cabin. Magnie looked more tired, drawn about the face. I’d never thought much about ages when he’d been teaching us to sail; he was one of the adults, which simply put him in the ancient bracket. Now I guessed early sixties. His eyes were set in pouched eyelids, his cheeks as rosy as ever, but less round, his curly fair hair more tousled, but he still had his own air of cheery good humour, a man who was never too hurried to stop and have a yarn.

‘Here’s your good health.’

He drained his half-glass of whisky straight off and poured himself another. My whisky burned as it went down. I leaned back against Khalida’s wooden shelf and let my breath out in a long sigh.

‘So, you’re come across to take over the Viking boat,’ Magnie said.

I should have known better than to be surprised. Magnie showed rather yellow teeth in a broad grin. ‘You’re no’ forgotten me brother David works to the salmon farms at West Burrafirth, where the boat’s stored?’

‘Ah,’ I said.

‘I’m been expecting you this three days. I didna ken you were coming by boat, but I shoulda thought o’ it.’ He nudged Anders in the ribs. ‘Never went on the land when she could go by sea, our Cass. Now, you’ll be wanting a key to the clubhouse.’ He fished in his pocket and handed me a key with a wooden label marked “MARINA 1”. ‘You’ll see a few changes there. We had this inter-island games, oh, twa-three year ago, with money flowing like water to upgrade our facilities. You could hold a dance in the changing rooms now.’

‘Hot showers?’ I said.

‘Yea, yea. Underfloor heating, even. Now, I’ll leave you to settle in. You’ll maybe come along me later and tell me all the news wi’ you.’

‘I’ll do that,’ I promised.

He swung himself over the guard rail and paused on the pontoon arm, his face reddening. He spoke with self-conscious formality. ‘I was sorry to read about your man’s death. That was a bad thing, a bad thing.’

There was no condemnation in his face or his voice; these things happened at sea. Suddenly I realised I needn’t worry here about someone putting my name together with that old report in Yachting Monthly or the screaming headlines in the tabloids. The Shetland Times would have written a simple report, and everyone in Shetland would have read it. I couldn’t evade or pretend it had been someone else. For a moment the thought was terrifying, then liberating, as though I’d pulled clear of a tide race and was sailing free.

Magnie nodded at me, raised a hand to Anders, and headed back along the pontoon to his car.

‘You don’t have drink-driving laws here in Shetland, no?’ Anders said, watching it pull slowly up the gravel slope by the clubhouse.

‘Oh, yes,’ I said. ‘We just don’t have many policemen.’

Death on a Longship is published by Accent Press. Please join Marsali on her Facebook page and do look at the photographs of the places featured in Cass’s adventures on her website, www.marsalitaylor.co.uk.

Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland in 1981 as a newly-qualified teacher of English, French and Drama. Soon she aquired cats and ponies, and became part of the Quiet Country Life. Her historical publications include Women’s Suffrage in Shetland, Forgotten Heroines (diaries of a WWI woman ambulance driver in Russia), The Story of Busta House and Footsteps in the Dew, a Viking crime novel.  She’s published a number of plays in Shetland’s distinctive dialect. She’s a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group. 

Photo credit: Angie Spoto 

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