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.
My novel The Last of us was published by The Borough Press in April 2016.