Wild Fire

Ann Cleeves | 7 mins

Chapter One

EMMA SAT ON THE SHINGLE BANK and watched the kids on the beach below build a bonfire. They’d dragged pieces of driftwood into a pile; it was something to do to relieve their boredom. Nothing much happened in Deltaness. It was too far from Lerwick for an easy night out, and the buses stopped long before the bars closed. The night was clear and still and the light drained slowly away. In another month it would be midsummer. Emma was there because she was bored too. When she was a child she’d longed for boredom, for quiet, normal days free from tension. School and homework, and meals with the family that didn’t end in anger, shouting or worse. Now, she thought, she’d inherited a need for excitement, a longing to fill her days with action and challenge, to provoke a response from the people in her life. A need to make things happen.

She stared out towards the horizon, where the sea and the sky had blurred into one, and wondered why was she still here in Deltaness then, working as nanny? A voice in her head told her that she was still in Shetland because she was scared of the world away from the islands. Here she was safe, in a tight community where she knew her place. If she hadn’t been so scared, she’d have stuck with Daniel Fleming, run away south with him, become an artist or a model or a designer. Emma closed her ears to the voice. She didn’t like to think of herself as scared. Life here wasn’t so bad. It had its own compensations. She took a bottle out of her bag. This wasn’t her wonderful new bag that stood on her bed, reminding her of those compensations, but the one she’d made herself out of a scrap of leftover fabric. She took a swig of vodka and passed the bottle to the man beside her.

Magnie Riddell handed it back and slid his arm around her back. Soon he would try to stick his tongue in her mouth. That made Emma feel a little bit sick. She liked men, but on her own terms, and sometimes she thought sex was seriously overrated. Magnie was kind, and as different from her father as it was possible to be, but she still found it hard to be physically close to him.

The fire was lit now. She could feel the heat from the flames even from here, and sparks spiralled into the sky. Below them the kids were passing round cans of lager and cider. They were singing some chant she couldn’t recognize, something about sport, or a verse stolen from the Up Helly Aa fire festival. Then she heard a sound behind her of pebbles shifting and rattling, and a small child appeared on the bank above them. He stared into the fire, apparently mesmerized. She recognized him at once. This was Christopher, Daniel Fleming’s strange boy.

The group below caught sight of him and stared back. They began to laugh and shout. Magnie pulled away his arm and turned towards her. Obviously he expected Emma to intervene, to take care of the child. But she was off-duty and she was bored. She watched the scene play out below her and she smiled.

Chapter Two

MAGNIE RIDDELL WAS FEELING OLD. HE shouldn’t be here with these kids; his mother would get to hear of it, because gossip spread through Deltaness even more quickly than it had when he was a bairn. Then, there might have been a chance of getting away with the occasional piece of mischief. Now even his mother was on Facebook, and it would just take one photo of him sitting next to Emma on the beach, his face lit by the flames and a bottle in her hand, for her to begin the old lecture. About how Magnie was all she had, now his father had left them for that foreign tart in Lerwick; about how he’d already caused her family disgrace: No one has ever been in trouble with the police before. I couldn’t show my face in the shop for a month. You need to grow up, Magnie. Settle down with a nice local girl and make me a grandmother.

Magnie turned to Emma, who sat prim and neat as his mother’s Siamese cat, although she’d drunk as much as he had. That was what made her different from the local lasses who yelled and swore as much as the boys. She never lost control. She and Magnie were on the shingle bank, leaning back on their elbows, a little way from the fire and looking down on it. That was Emma too, always a little apart.

‘Should we get back?’ He thought perhaps she would allow him into the bedsit she had in the doctor’s big house. She’d let him in once before and they’d lain on the narrow bed, and she’d let him touch her and kiss her, and he’d been wild with desire for her. Later, he’d slipped down the back stairs and out into the night without anyone seeing him. Scared and frustrated and excited, all at the same time. He’d hoped that might be the start of something, that it would make him her boyfriend and not just her friend. But the thing about Emma was that you could never be sure of anything. Even when they were kissing, when he’d unbuttoned her blouse and felt her skin against his, he’d felt that she was distant. An outsider looking in on what they were doing. Not exactly judging his performance, but not really engaged. He still didn’t know quite where he stood with her and, for some reason that he couldn’t work out, he was too frightened to ask her. Sometimes he wanted to lash out at her, to force Emma to take him seriously.

‘I can’t,’ she said. ‘Martha and Charlie are here and I need to keep an eye on them and walk them back.’ Her voice was calm; there was something about her slow Orcadian voice that turned him on, drove him crazy. Just at that moment he would have done anything to possess her.

‘I see. Of course.’ Because what else could he say? She’d worked as a nanny for the doctor’s family for years and though the two oldest were teenagers, she still felt responsible for them, in a way that he considered admirable. Even if it was frustrating tonight. Emma was more responsible, he thought, than the doctor and his wife, who never seemed to know or to care what their four children were up to. Without Emma, they would be allowed to run wild.

He looked down at the group by the fire to search for the Moncrieff kids. The only light came from the flames and so at first it was hard to make them out. He saw Martha first. She was sixteen, dark-haired. Since she’d started at the Anderson High, he’d never seen her wearing anything other than black. She was sitting cross-legged on the sand, brooding. The Deltaness gossip had her down as weird, attention-seeking. His mother tutted whenever she spoke of her: That girl will come to no good. And why those piercings and the haircut that looks as if someone’s been at it with a scythe? She’d be attractive enough, if she made something of herself. He wondered, slightly drunk now, why his mother’s words always seemed to appear in his head when he was least expecting them. He wished he could get rid of them, of her.

Charlie was fifteen, a year younger than his sister, blond, athletic. Magnie couldn’t imagine him brooding about anything. Now he had his arm around a friend and they were singing. Maybe a football chant. Nothing musical, at least. From where he sat, Magnie couldn’t hear anything like a tune. Just a beat. Charlie was waving a can of strong lager in the air. Soon he’d be sick. Magnie recognized the signs. He’d started drinking when he was a youngster too.

Behind Emma and Magnie, the shingle shifted. Magnie heard the clacking of smaller pebbles and felt them stinging his bare arms. He turned round. He hoped it wasn’t one of the community elders, demanding that they keep the noise down or that they put out the fire. Then his mother would certainly get to hear he’d been on the beach with Emma. Recently, Magnie hadn’t been entirely truthful when his mother quizzed him about the nanny. What business was it of hers, after all?

But a boy stood there. A young boy. He was dressed in a white T-shirt and white shorts, so it looked as if he was in his underwear, that he’d sleepwalked out of a dream. Magnie recognized him. His mother had pointed him out when he’d walked with her to the shop one morning: ‘That’s the daft child that lives in Dennis Gear’s old place. They say he set fire to the school and he’ll set fire to us all one day.’ Magnie hadn’t said anything. He knew his mother had had a soft spot for Dennis Gear – there’d been rumours about him and her having a fling at one time – and she hated the fact that the house had been changed so much. And maybe there was a touch of guilt about the way the old man died.

Now he felt sorry for the child, who looked so confused. The chanting around the fire, which had started as something to do with mocking a rival sports team, changed, became nastier. He made out the word and couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. ‘Retard, retard, retard.’ Magnie looked at Emma. She worked with children. Surely she would do something, take the boy into her arms and comfort him. They had to get him back to his family. But Emma made no move. She was still observing the scene below her. Magnie thought perhaps she was checking on Charlie and Martha. She wasn’t looking at the boy standing above them. Magnie stood up and yelled at the group to stop their taunting, but his words were swallowed up by the noise. The chant changed. Now they were calling: ‘Hangman, hangman, hangman.’

The boy had his eyes shut, his hands over his ears to block out the sound and the sight. Magnie couldn’t believe that folk could be so cruel. He knew they weren’t all cruel people. It was the drink and the fact that they were anonymous, part of the gang, changed by the flickering light into one monstrous, shouting whole.

Magnie scrambled up the bank to the child and picked him up in his arms. The boy didn’t struggle. He felt very light, like a bird. There was no flesh on him. At the other side of the bank, out of sight of the fire and the teenagers, he set the boy on his feet. The chanting had stopped, as if the hidden kids were suddenly ashamed of what they’d done. Magnie took the child’s hand. ‘It’s Christopher, isn’t it? Come on then, Christopher, your mother and father will wonder where you are. Let’s get you home to them.’

It was only when he turned back that he saw the shadow. A shape that he recognized, staring after him.