Real life survival stories are hard to beat. Surely fiction can't hope to be as compelling? Fiction can't rely on suspension of disbelief, for starters. But it can go where the eyewitness or reality can’t: into the realms of fantasy, up to the point of death and beyond; into the far future or back to the distant unrecorded past. And it can give voice to those too young or traumatized to bear witness.
When I was writing The Last of Us I was aware I had to get the balance right: it had to feel real life (so lots of weirdly particular details – discarded gloves, masks, pills; child's eye descriptions of people's houses) while at the same time function as a work of fiction. There had to be an arc, a build of tension, while retaining something of the outlandish, dreamlike and downright queer verve that true stories have.
Here then are five novels (in no particular order) which I really admire, and where survival is a key theme, or key to the plot. I'll blog another five in the next few days.
1. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy did appear to be in a bit of a hurry to dispense with the mother figure, who simply gave up (there are some brilliant feminist readings of The Road online which you should look up) but after that it’s all lads on tour!, though with not much in the way of road trip comedy. The few hours of respite that Man and Boy gain as they discover the hidden cell haunt me still: as do McCarthy’s odd stylistic twists of cranky, sometimes fussily precise language, so perfect for describing the fractured remnants of our world. Not a lot of romance in this one.
2. Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones
Love the way this starts. Like Lloyd Jones was setting himself a challenge: let's have a character called Pop Eye, who wears a clown's nose and pulls Mrs Pop Eye with a bit of string attached to the trolley she's standing in. Go on Lloyd: write the rest of that! This marvellous book uses a child's words to describe adult horror: the worst of all in half a sentence which breaks the heart. Now I can't think of Great Expectations without also thinking of young Matilda, and what Pip finally meant to her.
3. Jamrach’s Menagerie – Carol Birch
You know those books that start in one place – but then take you down an entirely different path you never saw coming? When the penny dropped and I began to realise where Carol Birch was taking this story it blew me away. It also contains one of those instants where you sense a writer in full flight and seeing crazy stuff… I'm thinking of the komodo dragon overboard, gazing around the sea until it begins swimming purposefully for land. (There's a wee nod to this in The Last of Us.)
4. William Golding – Pincher Martin
Pure story. Pure adventure. Surviving on the smallest of things – rainwater, weeds, sea anemones – and on the smallest of places, a rock in the north Atlantic. An amazing evocation of someone's last hours, or maybe last few seconds…
5. Life of Pi – Yann Martell
Why did five publishers turn down the chance to publish Life of Pi? Ok, it was his third book (death to the midlist author! cries the publishing industry) but also I reckon because it starts with a description of the habits of the… eh, three-toed sloth. But this is exactly right for setting up Piscine Patel's voice, which Yann Martell sustains brilliantly for the rest of the book. And what a book. Didn’t make me believe in God, but did make me want to be vegetarian.
This short story is set on Shetland, and was the first I ever got published. There are early hints of The Last of Us: the unnamed boy and girl's walk reminds me of Rona and Elizabeth and Alex on their coastline scramble to Message Rock.
Northern dialect words to look out for: Tirl (wheel of a Shetland mill); Tammie Norrie (Puffin); Bonxie (Great Skua); Voe (narrow sea inlet) and Böd (bothy, fisherman's shelter.)
The children take a grass path skirting the edge of the voe, kicking through summer flowers as they approach the turning click mill.
The boy, following behind, watches the girl's bare feet: admires their shape, their sure grip on the stones. She has a basket on her shoulder and a headscarf tied at her chin. At the underhus of the mill they stop – to watch the tirl turning, gasping as the sharp cold burn water runs over their feet. The boy puts an arm in - letting the feathers of the water wheel rap on his hand.
The girl puts a finger to her mouth, gestures for him to be quiet. In a huddle they listen over the water's noise for the mill-wife inside - throwing in her barleycorn handfuls and singing or whistling, but there is no sign of her.
They climb over a low wall, sun in their faces. Further on the grasses and wild flowers are bright around them: cream-pink of meadow fescue, deeper pink of ragged robin. Purples of standing thistle and clover, red of common sorrel. Yellows of ragwort and bird's foot trefoil, and blues of thyme and milkwort and sheepsbit.
The boy collects a posy of flowers for the girl. He presents it to her with an uncertain, bashful smile.
Here ye are, he says.
Fur what? she demands.
The girl takes the flowers. She makes a contemptuous noise.
The boy explains in a hurry, Ah like flooers, when ye see am da gither.
The girl turns and goes on ahead, carrying herself like the lady of the house on Vaila. She cannot think of how to reply. She's not used to the idea of thanking other children. Thank you, she understands, is for the elders of her family, or the laird, or the minister.
The boy follows the girl for a while - until she turns on him and presses the flowers back to his chest.
But don't ye like them? he asks.
She sighs. Ah like them scaittert, grawin wild.
Aye. All about the place.
A pair of Arctic terns chase by, turning around each other with paper wings, calling in thin rasps.
The girl goes on again, sending up clouds of white moths as she strides over the flower field.
They sit together by a small rocky bay.
The day goes. The sun turns high over them. They listen to the sucking and draining sound of the ebb tide on the nearby pebble beach, and the crackling sound of drying seaweed. Strewn around, the empty shells and blue arms of crabs.
The boy sniffs, and throws his posy down to the water.
He says, Tell ye what. Ah'd be a Tammie Norrie.
Ach! Why a daft birdie like dat?
He answers, Dey look grand, so they do! Dar wings are funny, and dar beaks as weel.
The girl looks away, shaking her head. Ah'd be a bonxie dan, she says, And steal awa me da Tammie's fish, ah wad.
They sit in silence.
The girl asks, Whit else dan?
A selkie, the boy ventures.
A selkie! Whit far?
The boy shrugs. Dan ah could swim in the sea.
Oh, right well.
The answer seems reasonable enough.
The girl feels a tickle at her elbow. She finds an earwig squirming there. Jumping up, she throws the insect at the boy and says,
Du is mair like a forkietail!
And then she runs off, laughing.
The boy hesitates. He wants to follow her, but fears that he will seem too eager or stupid. He swats at the earwig instead.
The voe: flat, deep indigo, only breeze rippled. A red throated diver on the water calls mournfully to a pair in flight, turning in circles at the head of the voe. Oystercatchers, piping from the dark intertidal belt of a small island.
The boy counts to twenty, then follows, as the girl walks around the headland to the Voe's Atlantic mouth.
He finds her sitting on a point of shattered rock. She's taken off her basket and her headscarf. Her face on the sea horizon, eyes bright with the sun. Foula in the distance, wearing a cap of cloud.
The boy sits beside her again. Her smell: earth, peat smoke, carbolic, sun warmed skin.
Ah love thee, he says in a hurry.
The girl laughs, delighted. She turns and smiles at the boy: then throws back her head and laughs more harshly, surprising herself, roaring at the idea of romantic fancy like one of the fisherwomen on the wharf.
She doesn’t want to laughter, but finds it hard to stop now that she has started.
The boy's eyes shine. He runs back the way he has come, past the wall and the flower field and the turning click mill.
The girl knows that he will not come back to her.
A tin box.
A tin box in his hands.
Picking through the objects inside. Hands: clumsy.
Unwrapping the cloth lining, taking them out one by one.
Christmas cigarettes. Not smoked. A keepsake. Cigarettes made for the whole battalion. Bright red box, and a drawing of a smiling officer. Wishing them all a Happy Christmas. For what that was worth over any of the Christmases gone.
He reads the lettering on the front of the packet. The words: bright, hopeful, meaningless. Reading them over.
He looks up from the recess, the narrow space that he's backed into. Dirt walls. That cloying smell of mud and rotten sandbags. Sweat running on his face. A pain in his foot. His hearing starting to return. Someone running past - someone falling past – the last man's kit and gun spilling on the duckboards.
He begins to hear all of the noise again. Swelling to drown out the dull earthquake sounds: all of the other noise. The boom of artillery. The crack of machine gun fire, distant, then louder replies on his side. Shouts heard in between the volleys of gunfire. Machine noise, strangely unrecognised. Air pressure shifts of explosions, with that twin feeling in the pit of his stomach, and the usual encore of dust falling from the wet planks over his head.
It occurs to him, dumbly, in this moment, how little of it he generally hears.
His hands, disconnected. They fumble through the items in the box. A rat streaks past. An old rotten glove across the way, not salvageable. He can see in his mind's eye the corpses outside the recess: fallen into the ditch, pink and torn like the whales turned up on the wharf back home… How fascinating these large creatures were to him as a boy: how improbably large and hopeless they appeared. He would look into their foul-smelling mouths, to the yellow bristles there, and worry that the animal would reawaken, and he would be sucked in like Jonah, swallowed and gone.
This act of remembering, of being elsewhere, is a customary relief.
His hearing starts to come back. A ringing sound remaining. He's had this ringing in his ears before. He knows that it's usually temporary, and sure enough: everything is there and too loud again, and he retreats, falls back to the box in his shaking hands.
His fingers turn over the objects inside. The cigarettes. A sheaf of letters. Woodcarving of a small bird with wings outstretched in flight. A penknife, with ivory handle. Pen and ink. Cards.
And a slim soldier's bible. The pages marked by his hands, his dirty fingerprints. Pressed flowers spread through the pages of the bible. All of them turned to dry, flattened husks, ghosts only of the long summer light. Now as brittle and sun-starved as he was.
She'd given him the flowers before he left her.
Sees her still: standing on the pier.
Her expression, warm and defiant.
Dese flooers are for you, she'd said.
They'd looked at each other for a long time.
Then she'd said, nearly smiling: Ah like them less weel scaittert, now.
His ship drifting away. Looking back on the pier, with the elbows of his friends jagging into his ribs.
The home folk waving until they rounded the voe, and then the sea-swells beyond Papa Stour.
The flowers had kept their colour on the journey; but were dry and flat by the time they reached France.
Turning over the tin box. His reflection underneath.
A hand waving at his face.
An officer - standing over him. His mouth opening.
The sense of the man's words lost. The officer putting a rifle in his hands. Get up, Jock. Then grabbing him by his lapels, pulling him to his feet. Your ear's bleeding.
Answering, Is it?
Consternation on the face of the officer. Who's line are you on?
Answering: Twelfth, Highland. Heavy artillery.
Get in back with the others, then.
The officer's hands shaking. His smile a thin grimace; the very same drawn out fear there on his face.
Three summers later.
Drinking at the Böd, long hours in the company of the friends that had returned. The voe under cloud: flat and grey as if filled by oil, the wind sharpening its surface as the evening goes.
They drink and sing to the roof and shout for the fiddler at the window to play for them, which he does until he falls drunk.
His uniform beer-stained and trampled by the time he sets back for home, and then with the light coming again in the northeast.
On the next day: all of the islands are there, under a blue sky. High streaks of clouds and a cooling wind.
He walks along a winding road, following the sun. Solitary bees patrolling the hedgerows, nettle-fed butterflies swimming around.
He visits the girl in her resting place, by the edge of a white sand beach. Sweet high stands of cow parsley in the fields surrounding. He has a warm coal still in his chest for the girl with the harsh laughter. The girl who was gone with Spanish Flu before he could come back to Shetland to claim her.
Clouds, dropping on the western slopes of Ronas Hill.
He gathers a posy of flowers, again, and stands before her bright stone.
Sees a collection of flowers nearby, wilting in a small glass jar.
Then lifts up his hands, scatters his gathered flowers to the wind.
Barra and its sister island Vatersay are five hours by ferry from Oban, or forty minutes by ferry from the nearest inhabited island, Eriskay. Take a plane there and you land on a beach: allowing for tide and weather, strand-walkers, cockle-pickers. Climb Heaval (Barra’s highest hill) on a clear evening and you can see the faraway isles of St Kilda; also the nearer uninhabited islands south of Barra itself: Maldoanich, Sandray, Pabbay, Mingulay, Berneray. There are ruins of houses on some of these islands: the people long gone, the townships that once were just shells of stone infilled with nettles and brambles and docken.
In cities we feel the push of thousands, millions, even tens of millions. But with Scottish islands, it’s the opposite. The land and the emptiness crowd in, and you notice the elements: sea, sky, wind, rain, the summer sun. Drive home through fierce weather in the middle of the night and you're on your own: seeing just a few metres ahead, wipers tugged by gusts of wind, tinny-sounding longwave sometimes the only station available on the car radio, the only sign of life beyond yourself.
You can begin to understand, perhaps even ask the questions that the people of St Kilda and Mingulay once asked. How many are we? Are there enough of us? If someone becomes unwell, can we get them to the mainland on time?
My wife and I worked as GPs on the Hebridean islands of Barra and Vatersay for two years, between 2008 and 2010. When we arrived in early January the weather was benign - but just days later there were hurricane force winds. The ferries and flights were cancelled, and so supplies began to dwindle: no milk, no newspapers, no fresh produce. It felt like the end of the world to us, but everyone else just laughed at our lack of know-how. Canny islanders are used to stockpiling beforehand, shrugging and weathering out. Generators run on oil to power fridges, chest freezers. The shelves empty in the supermarket, but stockpiles are good for a while after that. Still, you wonder: what if the weather doesn’t break? What about next week? Ten weeks? Six months, a year?
When islanders became unwell they occasionally had to be sent to hospital on the mainland: to Glasgow, or to Inverness. The scheduled flights or ambulance helicopter wouldn’t fly if there was a bad storm, but the RAF Sea King helicopter might… unless there were hurricane force winds, that is, which could mean they were stuck until it blew over.
A year after our arrival on the island there were reports of a new strain of influenza in Mexico. Swine Flu reached the UK in April 2009, with the first two cases arriving, as it happens, on a flight to Scotland. It turned out to be a mild illness for the vast majority, with the chief medical officer describing it as ‘considerably less lethal’ than feared. We had many meetings with the local health board – videolink, face-to-face – first relating to the policy of containment, then to the treatment phase. We had antivirals, though it was unclear how much they would help; facemasks, the same.
Spent a lot of time beachcombing with my children. One Spring morning we were walking the shore beside our home in Eoligarry – looking for crab-moults, cowrie shells, that one stone more perfectly-shaped than all the rest – and they got ahead of me, and out of sight. I ran after them, but they were gone, too quick. But then I saw them: down in a huddle at the edge of a rockpool, looking at a single piece of green glass smoothed into roundedness.
All the way back home I wondered what would happen if they were left on their own. Would they go on with life: forage, find food, make a new home in someone's house, try to learn, teach each other, hope to make everything normal by going to school even though there was no-one left to teach? Would they cope? Survive? Thrive?
The weather presses in: and the land begins to as well. Bones of sheep in the dunes, wishbones of gulls. Bones of whales. Bones of houses.
Islands force you to think of abandonment: of how the tides will still come twice a day to rub smooth those stones when we are gone.
At the launch for The Last of Us I saved up thanks for my kids to the end, for helping to provided the voices of Rona, Elizabeth, Calum Ian and Duncan. In fact one of the lines running through the book - 'What's going to work? Teamwork!' was taken from something my eldest had a brief fad for saying a few years ago. In the book it became Elizabeth's catchword - where it was often met by silence, or grumbled at, or even finally used by the other kids as a sulky or sarcastic retort.
Which brings me on to something I've found useful in writing - making lists of things your characters might say. It's especially useful for first person narrators, but also helps I think with third - helps you 'get in role,' so to speak, and inhabit the character that wee bit better. You might only use about ten per cent of the list in the end, but that ten per cent will have gold in it somewhere - and if it's there ready to use, there's more chance you'll think about and use it - it may even help to suggest plot.
I've used lists to get the voice of a Victorian cut-purse and cut-throat (there's some brilliantly salty Victorian slang on the web); used it for the late 17th century diary of a Scottish colonist involved in the disastrous Darien scheme; used it when writing a short story set in Shetland, and then for another set in Yemen. And it doesn't just help with historical fiction, or child narrators - it's been useful in my next novel for creating the contemporary voices of a young IT graduate, and a detective.
And it can help with crafting realistic new lines, too - if I have the rough bounds of what a character might say, it feels easier to imagine new stuff.
I kept a notebook with things my kids said, mostly for fun, also to show them later; and some of these lines then made it into the book. But I had to be careful, though: too cute, too clever and it would sound like something an adult had made up.
Here are some things the kids said which I kept out (but still like) and which I mentioned at the launch:
‘He’s the kicky-scrumpler. He kicked me and scrumpled up my drawing.’
‘I managed to do it because I have very wise fingers.’ (cutting own hair.)
‘I am up to my head in it.’ (when neck, ears, or eyes are not high enough.)
‘This caravan has gypsy bedsheets.’
‘Why do they make the bathwater so dangerous?’
Me: ‘Use a fork. You’re not an animal.’ Reply: ‘I’m a dog in Chinese years.’
‘When I grow up I’m not getting married, so I can make as much noise as I want.’
‘Flies deserve to live. They’re like spiders, only innocenter.’ (Because some creatures are just born bad.)
‘This place is shark-infested with P1s and P2s.’
‘How do plants feel when bees get the honey from plants? Bees get nectar. I don’t think they mind.’ (concerned realisation.) ‘I don’t think they feel anything.’
‘I was in a blinking contest with a snake and I won. It was for 20 or 8 minutes.’
‘I had a sore throat. I can only scream when I turn to this side. Not the other side.’
‘Little things – like having an undone shoelace – turn into big things – like falling over and getting serious damage.’
‘If I kicked you in my dream you wouldn’t say OW.’
‘What do you do after you go to the toilet?' 'Erm… Wipe?' 'Yes. Then what?' 'Flush.' 'Then what?' 'Erm… put the lids back on the pens?’
‘Double-jointed is where you can stretch your body so it looks broken. My eyes are double-jointed.’
‘I want a day off school cos I got shingles, verrucas, two hurt knees and a hand that’s got skin off.’
Finally let me mention Cyril Connolly, and that infamous quote from his book Enemies of Promise:
“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway.”
I'd have to say I disagree. And maybe Cyril was looking in the wrong place? Anyway - thanks kids.
With a week to go until the publication of The Last of Us, I thought I'd blog a short story which is set on another Scottish island, and which I wrote a number of years ago.
It's set on Oronsay (just south of the island of Colonsay). I'd been reading about sky burials, and about the Neolithic tribes who left the shell middens on Oronsay, and wanted to try and write from the point of view of a young tribeswoman.
The island she calls forest island is supposed to be Jura; and Alba is the west coast of Scotland.
Between the tides
We colour our faces in black, using charcoal from a fire gone cold. The rain comes down and we stand and wait for the lead of the holy men, the men who will bear my brother to his final resting place.
My mother is crying. She has her eyes hidden, under her cowl, but still I can see her cheeks. Her tears cut lines through the black, and I put an arm over her shoulder. The sea beside us is calm, just a small cresting wave here and there. The tide tugs at the shingle and the rain spikes the surface of the water, making a sound like the rain on the skin walls of out tents.
I look up, close my eyes. The rain runs on my face, and I let it drop down into my mouth. I cannot listen to the eulogies. If I listen I will be broken by grief, broken as my mother is there.
I cannot listen.
Instead I look away from this sadness: to the ocean, to the sky, where the griefmakers, the childbringers, the moon and the gods lie.
We stand around a wooden platform, crossbeams supporting a raft at head height. My brother is up there, lying on a bed of grass and fireflowers pulled up from the machair. His eyes are open on the sky. Rain runs on his cheeks like the tears and rain on ours. We have him dressed in his fine clothes, his new leather cape, his feather-cap, and his tunic with its double brocade lines of cowrie shells. His hair has been plaited and tied, by my aunt and cousins, in the ceremonial way. But only half of his face is tattooed. My uncle cannot bring himself to complete the work, begun before my brother's death, on the eve of his first hunt year. Unfinished, his forehead and cheeks on one side are that of a youth.
He will appear before the gods in this way, unready. His eyes sunken, skin grey. There is no hair on his face. He is too young to fall into the pantheon of local gods, and must live out his next life as an animal instead.
This poignancy makes me cry.
We hang garlands of flowers on the uprights of the platform, with small offerings, new shell necklaces.
Later, I watch from a viewpoint on the high dunes as the old women sing the song of the redshank. Their lean voices mimic the keening sound of the bird.
The wind ghosts up fragments of their lament to me.
Further along the beach are the real redshanks, picking around with the oystercatchers, blown along by wind-whips, feeding on the wet sand between the tides. They call back to the old women.
On the following days scavenging birds come to circle: gulls, bonxies, then the crows and buzzards. A sea eagle scans from high up, but is harried and chased off by the gulls. Their high turning calls wake us early.
We avoid the far end of the beach, staying in camp. I tend to my mother. She has taken to bed, refusing to eat her meals. I lie beside her on our mat, running my fingers through her hair, giving her hot drinks and whispering songs in her ear to help her forget, songs of the summer forage.
The birds carry my brother to the heavens. His flesh takes one cycle of the moon to disappear; then it is safe to go and see the shell of him.
Each day I collect a posy of blue and yellow flowers to leave by his head. There is a growing petal-heap there, a garland of fading colours.
With the next moon and with the first cold rains of winter, the platform collapses. In two more days it is taken by the wind and high tides. My brothers bones and clothing and his gifts are washed along our shore, then scattered by the tide and pulled out to sea.
That which is left, stranded high on the beach, we take out in our boats to be thrown into the deep.
In the autumn we move our camp to the main midden on other side of the island. My mother has a little more of her appetite. I take her for walks, take her fishing in the west of the island, try to bring her back to the way she was. We walk on the dunes and I talk at her without stopping, telling her who is in hand with who, which man is in command on the hunt, who is with child. All of my gossip is a surprise to her. She follows behind me, nodding but saying nothing, her steps short, eyes down on the sand or machair.
The men go out in their canoes fishing. The old women and children collect shellfish and crabs in the tide pools by the headland. And on fine days we women take our skin boats out to forest island to forage for hazelnuts, which we bring back and roast in large fire-pits dug into the earth. This roasting keeps the hazels from tainting over the winter.
Last night the moon was long in the sky; each new day colder and shorter than the last. I take my skin boat out, alone, to forest island.
I pass seadogs upturned on rocks. They see me and crash into the water, reappearing around me at their own safe distance. In the sand-shallows there are fish which I could easily catch with my gaff—the waters here are easy to spike from—but I stay my hand. There is enough to eat on the island.
I have spent many nights alone on forest island. Alone, I can think and wonder at things, without the arms-jabs and keen looks of the young men.
The sun has already dropped below the horizon by the time I pull my boat onto the shore. I land it high above the tide line.
Under a cloudless sky I roll out my blankets, then wait for the stars.
My grandfather taught me what he knew about the sky. He said that the stars follow the sun around, rising over the mountains of the white land to the east, settling down again in the ocean, west. Higher up the stars shine with a steady light, but nearer the horizon they flicker like hilltop fires. The stars are in groups, and the patterns they form in the sky are unchanging. Around the dark wheel of the sky, circling in its whirlpool and visible all year, are the creatures of the sea: the salmon, the seadog, the whale and dolphin. Further out are lesser creatures: gulls, shags, puffins, smaller fish. Some of these creatures are visible all year, but others, to the south, appear only in certain seasons. Spring: the dog and oystercatcher. The swallow and eagle in summer. In autumn, the otter. And in winter the god of night appears with his bow and arrow, turning high.
The night-god is a shaman. Sometimes, on very dark nights in winter, his breath-trails and the smoke of his fire appear in the sky. The smoke is very beautiful: it can turn the sky completely to colour: to red, green, blue, so bright that it seems day will flare up like a dry-grass fire.
I wonder about the stars. Why should some wander the heavens while others remain fixed? My grandfather said that the free stars are the torches of great travelling sky-peoples, who move unhindered among the steady fires of the ordinary folk. These travelling people are eternal, he said. They can never die, and so they move on forever. The steady stars are mortals, like us. And when one of these mortals die they fly with a torch in their hand across the black. On any clear night, if you watch, you can see a hand or two of these people dying.
I see one such star and think of my brother.
Later, when the moon comes up, I overturn my skin boat, burying one side of it in the sand then propping up the other with forked sticks.
I lie on my blankets under the boat.
The sound of wolves, their noise carrying far on the sea-calm, from the white land in the east. They call to waken the dead, pleading with the newly-gone to reawaken while the moon is high.
I watch for my brother; when I watch for a long time I think I can see him standing at the far end of the beach, looking in my direction. He doesn’t move. I think he's smiling, but I'm not sure. His face is half in shadow.
He might have smiled once.
I waken, cold. Morning kindling in the east.
The wind whines around the trees. My blanket is damp, my clothes are sodden. The clouds scud low in the sky. Sheets of rain fall like grey nets cast on the sea. I crawl out from under the boat and stand on the beach.
The turn of weather has taken me by surprise. The sea is white-capped, my home island lost behind roiling mist.
I will not be able to push out my boat.
I huddle under my blanket, feeling dejected, cold. I had hoped to return to the island early, to share in the spoils of the hunt moon.
Hunger sharpens my wits. I make a fire in a shelter of stones, then collect shellfish, which I cook wrapped in docken leaves. I find hazelnuts, which I roast in the fire, and feel better after this.
In the afternoon I make a stronger shelter of leaning sticks, woven together and covered with ferns and hazel suckers. It is dry and warm inside this shelter. Lying on a bed of tindered autumn bracken I enjoy the woodburn smell of the fire. I think of my mother, my brother, my tribe. I think of the food they'll be eating and their warm tents. I think of the stories they'll be telling and the children's games of stone-and-beaker. Watching my brother receive the first of his tattoos last summer, I remember how relaxed he looked during the ceremony: my uncle much more the concerned one, sitting astride him with his adze, tap hammer and charcoal pot. I remember the Spring festival last: the men leaping over the fire-pit to the drums, then kicking at the embers with their bare feet, sparks twisting up. All of us wearing our deerskins and god masks, the faces of the wild boar, the seadog, the wolf.
The wind grows through the afternoon, raking at the sea and scattering leaves from the hazel forest.
During a storm there are no birds or animals for me to take with my bow; nor are fish eager to stray from their crannies. I forage instead, but there is little for me to take, besides more shell meat and mushrooms.
I nest down under my blankets and skins, knees against my chest for warmth, and wait for morning. I keep the fire going for as long as I can, mesmerised by the flames and by the simple task of drying out kindling.
In the night I hear my brother calling me. His words come with the wind. I look up from my shelter and he's there at the far end of the beach. He sits, not waving. He shimmers like a fish, then stands, falls, rolls forward.
He takes on the mantle of an old woman, back bowed, cowl up.
Then he disappears.
The dawn sky is scoured-shell blue.
I eat mussels cooked in the cinders of last night's fire. The sea-fog has gone, and I can see my home island home. I am eager to be off early, to return to my mother and tribe. I forage briefly before leaving and find a giant mushroom in a mossy dell in the wood, which I pull up gently to take back home to my mother. Also, I collect smaller mushrooms and fallen hazels missed after our last forage, and a garland of white heather for our tent.
I rush my boat away from the shore, plaids gathered up under my arm as I climb inside the wobbling frame.
I have to paddle hard to get past the first breaking waves.
There is a sharp breeze on the sea, and it chills my face, my bare arms. The sun crackles like firelight on the water; I keep a steady rhythm going, concentrating on my movements, trying to plunge in the paddle with as little splash as possible. The wind turns as I leave the shore, blowing more or less at my back.
Forest island falls away behind me.
Slowly, towards noon, I pull closer to my home. I see many rising palls of smoke pushed south by the wind. Gulls skim over the water ahead, then dive close, close enough for me to see the red spots on their bills and their poisonous eyes. A sea-dog ducks close, then disappears.
From a distance I see two people standing on the Spring beach. I wave to them but they don't wave back, not even when I whistle and call.
I pull eagerly with my paddle.
The people are standing in the direction of the crackling sun, and it is hard for me to see them. The beach ahead is brilliant white, and I feel my boat begin to rise and fall, see a line of surf folding just ahead.
I call again, but they don’t reply. Nor do they come into the surf to greet me.
This is odd.
Then I see their faces.
Their faces are untattooed. Their bodies, dark with dirt. Their beards are brown, and they wear unusual leathers, tied as tunics at their waists.
They wear the silver hides of wolves on their heads.
Not my people.
My heart beats fast. I look up and down the beach for my tribe, but nothing. The surf begins to push me to the shore, and the two men laugh and beckon for me to keep coming, shouting words I cannot understand. I am close enough to see their eyes, which are coloured black around.
Their faces look like skulls.
I call for my people, my mother. No-one answers. The men hold up their spears. They taunt me, gesturing that I should come to them.
Confused, frightened, I paddle frantically back for the sea. The men whoop and whistle and run into the water up to their waists, coming so close that I fear they might pull me from my boat, but then they stop.
It is too deep for them.
They hold on to their spears, not wanting to lose them over the water.
I pull hard with my paddle, ignoring the burning of my arms and back, until I'm lost from the island's tide rolls and back out into the windcrests of sea.
Looking back, I see other men standing beside them on the beach. They huddle together in conference. One points in my direction.
Their voices come with the wind, then nothing.
The sun drops. I lie under my skins, bone cold. The sea laps at the side of my boat. The boat is made for short journeys between the islands, not for long stays on the water, and the bottom of it is slowly filling up. I have to empty it frequently; my feet are numbed by the cold water.
Feeling hungry, I eat the wet flesh of the giant mushroom, but it tastes of little more than earth. I lapse into a broken sleep, wakening often, the pitching movement of the boat bringing dreams of falling.
I think of my mother, my brother, and feel a terrible emptiness.
I waken, look out from under my skins. The chill of early morning on my face.
I have drifted overnight, the sea currents taking me east. My island has dropped to the horizon, but the white land, Alba, is closer than I have ever seen it before. It looms amazingly large ahead of me. There are mountains, vast in the sky, with white tops leading down to valleys of rubble, gorges, forests.
The boat is heavy with water. I waken to the danger of this and begin to bail. My hands are bloodless, clumsy at first, but as I bowl their strength returns.
I eat the scraps of mushroom meat remaining. The sun comes out and I lie in its warmth. Birds circle, way up, nearly too high for me to see.
I sit inert, hands rubbed raw by the salt-water.
The day warms. The ice-mountains of Alba gathers shawls of cloud as the day goes, reminding me of the old women of our tribe.
I lie down in the boat, no strength to take up my oar again.
The currents push me on.
I cry and wish that I were dead with my brother, curse the gods for their spite: then think again and send up solemn prayers instead.
I pray for my mother, finally submit to sleep.
I drift toward a narrow tree-lined beach.
No sign of any other tribe; no rising smoke. My boat lurches forward, then stalls. Looking over the edge I see water and sand. The feeling of stillness is very unusual and it makes me retch. Frightened, I huddle down inside the boat until the strangeness passes.
In a while I jump out into the shallow water and stand, for the first time in my life, on the shore of Alba. A beach of shell, sand, kelp, just like the beaches of my island home. I pull the boat up beyond the strand line and sit inside, wrapped up in my blankets for comfort, looking back on the islands I have passed.
I sleep and regain my warmth. Then hunger wakens me and I climb out of the boat, pulling it under dense prickling bushes.
With my knife, bow and sling primed, I set off.
My novel The Last of us was published by The Borough Press in April 2016.