Ann Cleeves

Red Bones

The third book in the Shetland Island Quartet series, 2009

Chapter One

Anna opened her eyes and saw a pair of hands, streaked and shiny with blood. No face. In her ears a piercing squeal. At first she thought she was at Utra and Ronald was helping Joseph to kill another pig. That would explain the blood, the red hands and the terrible high-pitched sound. Then she realized the noise was her own voice screaming.

Someone rested a dry hand on her forehead and murmured words she didn’t understand. She spat out an obscenity at him.

More pain.

This is what it is to die.

The drug must be wearing off because she had a sudden burst of clarity as she opened her eyes again to bright, artificial light.

No, this is what it is to give birth.

‘Where’s my baby?’ She could hear the words slightly blurred by the pethidine.

‘He was having problems breathing on his own. We’ve just given him some oxygen. He’s fine.’ A woman’s voice. A Shetlander, slightly patronizing, but convincing, and that mattered most.

Further away a man with blood to his elbow grinned awkwardly.

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Retained placenta. Better to get it out here than take you to theatre. I thought you wouldn’t want that after a forceps delivery, but it can’t have been very comfortable.’

She thought of Joseph again, the hill ewes lambing, the ravens flying off with placenta in their beaks and on their claws. This hadn’t been what she’d been expecting. She hadn’t thought childbirth would be so violent or so raw. She turned and saw Ronald; he was still holding her hand.

‘I’m sorry I swore at you,’ Anna said.

She saw he’d been weeping. ‘I was so scared,’ he said. ‘I thought you were dying.’

Chapter Two

‘Anna Clouston had her baby last night,’ Mima said. ‘A difficult birth apparently. She was in labour for twenty hours. They’re going to keep her in for a few days to keep an eye on her. It was a boy. Another man to take on the Cassandra.’ She shot a conspiratorial look at Hattie. It seemed to amuse Mima that Anna had had a difficult labour. Mima liked chaos, disorder, other people’s misfortune. It gave her something to gossip about and kept her alive. That was what she said, at least, when she sat in her kitchen cackling into her tea or whisky, filling Hattie in on island events.

Hattie didn’t know what to say about Anna Clouston’s child – she’d never seen the appeal of babies and didn’t understand them. A baby would just be another complication. They were standing at Setter, in the field at the back of the house. A wash of spring sunshine lit the makeshift windbreak of blue plastic, the wheelbarrows, the trenches marked with tape. Seeing it as if for the first time, Hattie thought what a mess they’d made of this end of the croft. Before her team from the university had turned up, Mima had looked out over sloping low meadow to the loch. Now, even at the beginning of the season the place was muddy as a building site and Mima’s view was interrupted by the spoil heap. The wheelbarrow run had scored ruts in the grass.

Hattie looked beyond the disturbance to the horizon. It was the most exposed archaeological site she’d ever worked. Shetland was all sky and wind. There were no trees here to provide shelter.

I love this place, she thought suddenly. I love it more than anywhere else in the world. I want to spend the rest of my life here.

Mima had been pinning towels on to the washing line, surprisingly supple despite her age. She was so small that she had to stretch to reach the line. Hattie thought she looked like a child, prancing on tiptoes. The laundry basket was empty. ‘Come away in and have some breakfast,’ Mima said. ‘If you don’t put on a bit of weight you’ll blow away.’

‘Pots and kettles,’ Hattie said as she followed Mima across the grass to the house. And she thought Mima, trotting ahead of her, did look so frail and insubstantial that she might be swept up in a storm and carried out to sea. She’d still be talking and laughing as she went, as the wind twisted her body like a kite-tail until it disappeared.

In the kitchen a bowl of hyacinths was in bloom on the windowsill and the smell of them filled the room. They were pale blue, streaked with white.

‘They’re pretty.’ Hattie sat at the table, pushing the cat off the chair so she could sit down. ‘Spring-like.’

‘I can’t really see the point of them.’ Mima reached up to lift a pan from the shelf. ‘They’re an ugly kind of flower and they stink. Evelyn gave them to me and expected me to be grateful. But I’ll kill them soon. I’ve never kept a houseplant alive yet.’

Evelyn was Mima’s daughter-in-law and the subject of much complaint.

All the crockery and cutlery in Mima’s house was slightly dirty, yet Hattie, usually so fastidious, so fickle in her appetite, always ate whatever Mima cooked for her. To day Mima was scrambling eggs. ‘The hens are laying well again,’ she said. ‘You’ll have to take some with you back to the Bod.’ The eggs were covered in muck and straw, but Mima cracked them straight into a bowl and began whisking them with a fork. Translucent white and deep yellow yolk splashed on to the oilskin tablecloth. Using the same fork she scooped a lump of butter from a wrapped packet and shook it into the pan on the Rayburn. The butter sizzled and she tipped in the eggs. She threw a couple of slices of bread directly on to the hotplate and there was a smell of burning.

‘Where’s Sophie this morning?’ Mima asked when they’d both started eating. Her mouth was full and her false teeth didn’t quite fit, so it took Hattie a moment to understand what she was saying.

Sophie was Hattie’s assistant on the dig. Usually Hattie did the planning and the preparation. It was her PhD after all, her project. She was obsessive about getting things right. But this morning she’d been eager to get on to the site as soon as possible. It was good to get away from Sophie sometimes, and as much as anything she was glad of a chance to chat to Mima on her own.

Mima liked Sophie. The season before the girls had been invited to a dance at the community hall and Sophie had been the life and soul of the party, so the men had been queuing up to swing her around in the eightsome reel. She’d flirted with them all, even the married ones. Hattie had watched, disapproving and anxious, but jealous too. Mima had come up behind Hattie and yelled in her ear above the noise of the music: ‘That lass reminds me of myself at that age. I had the men flocking around me too. It’s all just a bit of fun to her. It means nothing. You should lighten up a bit yourself.’

How I’ve missed Whalsay over the winter! Hattie thought. How I’ve missed Mima!

‘Sophie’s working in the Bod for a while,’ she said. ‘Paperwork. You know. She’ll be along soon.’

‘Well?’ Mima demanded, bird-like eyes bright over the rim of the mug. ‘Did you find yourself a man while you were out? A good-looking academic maybe? Someone to keep you warm in bed in those long winter nights?’

‘Don’t tease, Mima.’ Hattie cut a corner from the toast, but left it uneaten. She no longer felt hungry.

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