The Big Coffin Road Blog Read Part Three: The Flannan Isles

My attention is drawn by the books that line the shelves in the bookcase below the map. I stand stiffly and go to take a look. There are reference books. An Oxford English dictionary, a thesaurus, a large encyclopaedia. A dictionary of quotations. Then rows of cheap paperbacks, crime and romance, vegetarian cooking, recipes from northern China. Well-thumbed, yellowing pages. But some instinct tells me they are not mine. On top of the bookcase, a pile of hardback books seem newer. A history of the Hebrides. A photo book titled simply Hebrides. There are some tourist maps and leaflets, and a well-thumbed booklet with the intriguing title The Flannan Isles Mystery. I lift my eyes to the map on the wall and run them around the ragged coastline of the Outer Hebrides. It takes a moment to find them, but there they are. The Flannan Isles. Eighteen, maybe twenty miles to the west of Lewis and Harris, well north of St Kilda. A tiny group of islands in a vast ocean.

I drop my eyes again to the booklet in my hands and open it to find the introduction.

The Flannan Isles, sometimes known as The Seven Hunters, are a small group of islands approximately thirty-two kilometres west of the Isle of Lewis. Taking their name from the 7th-century Irish preacher St Flannan, they have been uninhabited since the automation of the lighthouse on Eilean Mòr, the largest of the islands, in 1971 – and are the setting for an enduring mystery that occurred in December 1900, when all three lighthouse keepers vanished without trace.

I look at the map once more. The islands seem tiny, so lost and lonely in that vast ocean, and I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like to live out there, spending weeks or months on end with only your fellow lighthouse keepers for company. I reach out to touch them with trembling fingertips, as if paper might communicate with skin. But there are no revelations. I let my hand drop again, and my eyes wander down the south-west coast of Harris to find Luskentyre, and the yellow of the beach they call Tràigh Losgaintir. Beyond it the Sound of Taransay, and the island of Taransay itself, whose mountains I had seen rising out of the ocean behind me when I first staggered to my feet on the beach.

How had I come to be washed up there? That I had been wearing a life jacket suggested I had been on a boat. Where had I been? What happened to the boat? Had I been alone? So many questions crowd my confusion that I turn away, pain filling my head.

Bran sits in the arch, watching me, and when I catch his eye he lifts a hopeful head. But I am distracted by the bottle of whisky that I see on the worktop, several inches of gold trapping light from the window to give it an inner glow. In the cabinet above, I find a glass and pour in three good fingers. Without thought or hesitation I splash in a little water from the tap. So this is how I like my uisge beatha. Quite unconsciously I am discovering little things about myself. Even that I know the Gaelic for whisky.

It tastes marvellous, warm and smoky with an underlying sweetness. I look at the label. Caol Ila. An island whisky. Pale and peaty. I carry my glass and the bottle through to the sitting room, set the bottle on the coffee table and cross to stand at the French window, staring out at the sands and the light that sweeps across them between the shadows of fast-moving clouds. A flash on the opposite shore catches my attention. A fleeting reflection of light on glass. I look around the room behind me. Somehow, earlier, I had registered the binoculars sitting on the mantel. I fetch them, set my glass beside the bottle, and raise the twin lenses to my eyes. It takes me a moment, but then there he is. The watcher on the far shore, whom I had seen from the beach. A man, my own binoculars reveal to me now. I can see him quite clearly. He has long hair blowing back in the wind, and a patchy, straggling beard on a thin, mean face. And he is watching me watching him.

I am still shaking a little, and so it is difficult to keep the glasses steady and the man in focus. But I see him lower his binoculars and turn to climb up into the caravan behind him. I can see a satellite dish fixed to the end of the vehicle and what looks like a small radio mast. And, panning left, I find a battered-looking Land Rover with a canvas roof. Both sit elevated and exposed on what I know is called the machair, that area of fertile grassland around the coastal fringes of the islands, where wild flowers bloom in spring abundance and the lambs feed to bring almost sweet, ready-salted meat to the plate.

I return my binoculars to their place above the stove, lift my glass and sink into the settee that faces the view to the beach. I wonder what time it is. Hard to tell whether it is morning or afternoon, and I realise for the first time that I am not wearing a watch. And yet from the band of pale skin around my left wrist, on an arm that has been tanned by sun or wind, it is clear that it is my habit to do so.

Sun streams now through the window and I feel the heat of it on my feet and my legs. I sip slowly on my glass as Bran clambers on to the settee beside me, settling himself to lay his head in my lap. I run absent fingers across his head, idly stroking his neck to bring comfort to us both, and I have no recollection of even finishing my whisky.

The Big Coffin Road Blog Read continues on Crime Warp on Sunday 17th January with Part Four: Sally & Jon

Coffin Road by Peter May is published in hardback today (Quercus). You can buy your copy here.

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