Lexie Conyngham's Blog: writing, history and gardening.

Tuesday 23 December 2014

Merry Christmas and a new Short Story

Happy Christmas to all! Here's a new short story featuring Murray of Letho:

High Tide in Tyskebryggen

‘You must not think of going home yet.’

‘That’s extremely kind of you, but my business here is done,’ said Murray, then looked up at his host. Odgar Hansen, flour merchant, was prosperously plump and well-padded with wool which exuded, like everything else here, an odour of damp. He also had an expression of fearful anxiety on his shiny face.

‘No, I mean, for your own safety. Though of course as my guest … I did not mean … oh, dear. It is very worrying.’

He stared perplexedly at the breakfast table, where a square German table clock, left, who knows, by some member of the Hanseatic League two centuries before, showed eight o’clock. Hansen had already been up and out for two hours, attending to his concerns at the harbour across the cobbled way outside. Murray helped himself to more bread.

‘What’s the matter? Is it the Swedish king?’

‘Oh! Well, and that’s another thing. They say Karl Johan is coming to make his headquarters at the Rosencrantz Tower. As far as that goes, I’d say take ship as soon as you can and leave this mess behind you.’ His brow was so furrowed that Murray expected it to fold up altogether. ‘But no, but no. Not yet.’

‘Bad weather? Storms coming?’ Murray was becoming anxious by infection: he was not a happy seafarer.

‘Oh, it is a draugen!’ exclaimed Hansen at last, as if it explained everything. He collapsed with a sigh on to the chair opposite, a black pool of anxiety against the cheerful painted patterns on the wooden walls.

‘And what’s a draugen?’ The question was cautious. Hansen wiped his hand over his face and pulled his ear. Murray could have sworn that, along with anxiety, his host was suffering acute embarrassment. His mouth opened and closed a few times, as though he were trying to find the best words. Then he gave a shamefaced little shrug, out of proportion to his considerable size.

‘It is a kind of ghost. An evil spirit. Well, a spirit that warns of disaster.’ He stopped, muddled: he had clearly never before considered the morals and motivations of things otherworldly. He was a straightforward man.

‘A specific kind of disaster?’ Murray prompted.

‘Death at sea,’ said Hansen lugubriously. ‘You must understand, Mr. Murray – I am a church-going man myself. I believe all the pastor tells me, I read my Bible, all of this. But I am also a man of the sea, and there are strange things at sea. Besides, six or seven of the merchants clearly saw it: it was the talk of the harbour this morning, and while you and I both know that matters grow mightier with talking, I know these men, and I spoke to them myself: they are sure they saw what they saw.’

He sagged in his chair like one of his own sacks of flour. Murray took a thoughtful draught of ale. Hansen was a worrier – Murray had known him only a month, but in that time Hansen had worried about the weather (mostly wet: it was Bergen, after all), the shipping, the price of timber, the price of flour, the quality of flour, the shortage of flour, the superabundance of flour, woodworm (a serious threat in the entirely wooden buildings of Tyskebryggen where he lived), his apprentice’s timekeeping, his apprentice’s morals, his pastor’s opinions, and the ongoing political situation, which was certainly fluid, to put it at its best. Hansen’s forehead was perpetually creased: if he could have found nothing to worry about, that would have worried him, too. Murray was torn: now that he was back from India, he felt guilty at a prolonged absence from his estate in Fife. On the other hand, a few more days might settle his host’s anxieties about this draugen, and he could leave in peace. He had to admit that he was not so confident a sailor himself as to wish to tempt fate.

‘We’ve been called to a meeting at the Rosencrantz Tower this morning,’ said Hansen at last, ‘all the Tyskebryggen merchants. The captain there wants to explain about the Swedish king coming, I think. Perhaps it will be good for trade. I thought it might be, when Napoleon was taken to Elba and we were part of Denmark’s punishment for siding with him; but then we were handed to Sweden as a reward for being good. I can’t see how sending everything through Stockholm will be any better than sending everything through Copenhagen …’

‘Maybe you won’t have to, if Prince Christian Frederik wins.’

‘Ho, Prince Christian Frederik and his new constitution! A wonderful idea – free Norway! Trading for ourselves! But is he fighting for it? I don’t see it. No, Norway will always be Norway, handed back and forth between Denmark and Sweden like a bag of stale flour!’ He propped his plump elbows amongst the breakfast dishes. ‘And have you seen Viktor this morning, Mr. Murray? Is he in?’

‘I haven’t seen him, but he may have gone through to the back without coming in,’ said Murray. Hansen’s cheerful apprentice usually popped his head round the door to say hello - and postpone the moment when he would have to start work – but Murray did not want to add another worry to Hansen’s wrinkled head.

‘Ah, I must go and see. He’s probably sitting amongst the flour sacks, catching up on last night’s missed sleep.’ He pushed himself up, rubbing his face. ‘Would you like to come to the meeting, Mr. Murray? Then you can see for yourself how matters stand.’

‘That would be fascinating. Thank you.’

Rosencrantz Tower was only a few hundred yards along the harbour from the wooden warrens of Tyskebryggen, and reminded Murray of a miniature version of Edinburgh Castle. It was a mixture of old ceremonial buildings and new military ones: the building work was going on even as they arrived, with the workmen enjoying a rare dry morning. Murray had been in Bergen a month negotiating the ordering of new timber for the manse in Letho village, but he had concentrated on trade and not on sightseeing, and his exercise had taken him up the hills above the town. He looked about the little castle with interest.

‘It seems rather casually fortified for wartime,’ Murray remarked, and Hansen gave a little shudder.

‘Anyone with a keg of gunpowder and the right attitude could blow it to pieces, I’m sure,’ he agreed. ‘It’s a good thing that around here we prefer to fill our kegs with salted fish.’

It was Murray’s turn to shudder: in the last month he had tasted enough salted fish to blow his throat to pieces, never mind a castle.

He was able to spot a few familiar faces amongst the merchants gathering for their meeting: Nils Fjeld, brisk and clean and sharp as a blade, who owned the shop next door; his two brothers, Jakob, large and scrubbed and shiny, and little Almar with the face like an intelligent weasel, who worked with him; Arne Bergo, tall and broad with a look of benevolent satisfaction about him.

‘Supports the Swedish cause,’ muttered Hansen in the direction of Murray’s ear. ‘Bergo’ll be a happy man if Karl Johan appears in Bergen.’

‘He looks a happy man now,’ Murray agreed. ‘Unlike your friend – ah! Mr. Fjeld!’ He finished with a bow as the very friend in question appeared at their elbow. Nils Fjeld, with his brothers, had brought wine for both of them.

‘I need some kind of fortification for this,’ he explained as he swallowed half the contents of his own glass. ‘Karl Johan coming here! The man has a nerve.’

‘Well, we need someone to take control,’ said Hansen anxiously. ‘All this instability is no good for trade.’

‘Being the butt end of Sweden will be no good for trade,’ snapped Nils. ‘It’s no better than Denmark.’ Almar nodded agreement.

‘But at least Karl Johan is taking an interest …’

‘Taking an interest? Building up his empire, more likely. You know Karl Johan is not his real name, don’t you? Previously he was Count Jean Bernadotte, one of Napoleon’s most enthusiastic followers. Once a Bonapartist, always a Bonapartist. Not that that matters: but we’ve had free trade for fifty years now and we’re not going back. Norway for Norway, that’s what I say. We have a brand new constitution, a parliament of our own and a leader we can trust. Kick out the Swedes and the Danes, and Norway for Norway!’

‘I thought Prince Christian Frederik was Danish?’ queried Murray, confused.

‘Hush, hush, Nils: you’ll get yourself into terrible trouble!’ said Hansen, flapping his pale hands agitatedly. Arne Bergo was approaching.

‘So tell me, Mr. Fjeld,’ said Murray hurriedly. ‘Did you see the draugen last night?’

A little of his scepticism must have threaded itself into his voice, for Nils regarded him with suspicion.

‘Yes, I did, Mr. Murray. And I was far from the only one.’

‘We saw it too,’ said Jakob after some thought.

‘The draugen?’ said Bergo, his gingerish eyebrows bland above little glasses. His voice boomed as though he were speaking through an empty barrel. ‘No, it is true. Several people saw it. I myself did.’

‘So I hear. I’ll be following Mr. Hansen’s advice not to take to the water for a while. But what does it look like, this evil spirit?’

‘Like a man,’ said Hansen simply. ‘Only entirely white. Ghost-white.’

‘That’s right,’ said Nils, still edgy, ‘but with his head covered in seaweed.’ Bergo nodded pontifically.

‘I never heard that!’ said Hansen. ‘Is that a fact?’

‘It certainly was last night,’ said Nils firmly. ‘And the key thing is, of course, that he sails in half a boat.’

Half a boat?’ Murray pressed his lips together. ‘That must be awkward. Which half?’

‘Don’t mock, Mr. Murray,’ said Nils.

‘No, not at all,’ said Murray. ‘I just can’t picture it.’

‘The front half, I believe,’ put in Hansen.

‘Did you not see it yourself last night, Odga?’ Bergo asked him. Hansen’s eyes widened in concern.

‘No! No! I did not. I believed I had a cold coming on, and I went to bed early. Remember, Mr. Murray?’

‘That’s right. But you yourselves both saw it? What happened? What did it do?’

‘Well, from where I saw it, it sailed up through the harbour and headed for this Tower,’ said Bergo, as Nils hesitated.

‘Not towards the Tower, no,’ Nils argued. ‘It was my impression it was heading past the Tower, out to sea.’

‘Definitely not to the Tower,’ said Jakob slowly, and Almar agreed.

‘And it just appeared, and then vanished?’ It would have been a grand tale for a winter’s night, but this was August, and the evenings were lightish still.

‘It was just past dusk,’ said Bergo, ‘and hard enough to see. But there was a light on the mast: the sail was reefed, and the whole thing was grey-white. Just the front half of the boat, with the draugen standing there just staring forwards. And nothing to show how the boat was moving at all, but move it did. It was  - not a good thing to see.’ From a normally serene man, this last was oddly disconcerting.

They were left with this sense of discomfort as the Captain of the Tower called them to attention with polite efficiency. The meeting, such as it was, was brief: the captain, who was a smooth man in every sense of the word, wanted only to keep them up to date with the orders he had received so far in connexion with the proposed visit by the Swedish king. Karl Johan was not to be there at the head of an invading force, the captain said, in tones that would have better suited a politician: it was well known that Prince Christian Frederik of Denmark had rebelliously convened a council and invented a spurious Norwegian constitution and it was only the duty of Karl Johan to inspect this corner of his kingdom to offer reassurance to the respectable merchants who must have been disturbed and dismayed by Prince Christian Frederik’s actions. Prince Christian Frederik was offering little resistance and Karl Johan had every hope that the situation would soon be resolved. There was no opportunity for questions: the Captain slipped through a door at the back of the room and left the merchants to the rest of the wine and their own conversation, which after a moment’s silence came like a wave.

‘Is that it?’ snapped Nils. ‘We’ve had rumours for weeks and now that’s all we’re getting? Resolving the situation – we’ll see!’

‘I believe it will be an excellent thing for the people of Bergen,’ Bergo sounded solemnly.

‘And that can only be good for trade – as long as it brings some stability!’ Hansen added. ‘But now I must go and see what my apprentice is up to, if he has appeared at all.’

‘Ah, well, yes, apprentices. Now, that is a class of person that is a deal more dangerous to business than the Swedish king and all his army!’ said Bergo with heavy humour.

‘I want to ask that Captain when he thinks Karl Johan is arriving,’ said Nils with decision. ‘Wouldn’t you like to find out?’ He cut a path swiftly through the crowd and they followed irresistibly, Murray and Bergo heads above the crowd with Nils’ brother Jakob, his brother Almar and Hansen burrowing lower down. Nils vanished through the door where the Captain had gone, and they went after him.

In the passage outside, there was only one door open, and when they went to it they discovered the Captain at a desk in a little office, feet on a mat to protect him from the cold stone floor.

‘Ah, gentlemen!’ he said. He rose quickly, rapidly rearranging the surprised look on his indoor face. His hands looked unused to any weapons, though surely in the current climate that would have been impossible.

‘We want more information,’ said Nils without preamble.

‘Of course, naturally,’ said the Captain, coming round the desk with a slick movement. ‘Let me show you how we have arranged things for King Karl Johan’s arrival. Follow me, gentlemen.’

‘But when is he arriving?’ Nils demanded, as the Captain led them at surprising speed towards a staircase wound into the stone walls.

‘Well, that would be something you’d want to know, of course,’ said the Captain fluidly. ‘Look, gentlemen: if we start at the top – oh, do be careful on these stairs! I do hope the King is not too tall!’
Bergo rubbed his fair head and exchanged rueful glances with Murray as they stooped up the rest of the flight.

‘Here, this will be his own bedchamber – see, we have new hangings and I think you’ll admire the colour of the cloth.’

‘A fine weave,’ muttered Almar, fingering the bedcurtains. They were cloth traders. ‘Too good for the likes of him.’

‘We have re-boarded the floor – these polished boards are just what a man used to the life of French courts would expect, I think. And the rugs set them off simply beautifully.’

‘As long as he doesn’t slip on them,’ said Hansen, anxious as always.

‘In the next room we have his dressing place, with a good fireplace for bathing. I adore these pastille burners! The little shepherds are charming, I think.’

‘But when is he due to arrive?’ asked Nils again, casting a destructive glance at the pastille burners. Murray found them repulsive, but still gasped when Jakob picked one up to stare at dimly.

‘Oh! All too soon, no doubt! Shall we ever be ready?’ The Captain waved a graceful arm at another doorway. ‘And see here? This is a little study for him: I can just picture him here, the great man, no doubt signing dispatches and perhaps indulging in a little private reading? The view from the window is enchanting: see, the harbour and the hills beyond? Delightful.’

He drew a deep appreciative breath at the window, closed it, and ushered them back into the bedchamber.

‘Now, on the floor below we have the accommodation for his body servants and guards. Come! I think you’ll find we have arranged everything as neatly as can be. Oh! Careful! Remember the low ceiling!’

This time it was Jakob who had bruised his forehead. He rubbed it hard, scowling as if it had knocked the sense out of him.

‘But surely you must know when you are expecting Karl Johan’s arrival?’ said Nils, sounding very slightly less sure of himself. The Captain swept them into the servants’ quarters.

‘See? I think we can accommodate all his staff here in comfort. Plenty of windows and they all open. Room for weapons and all kinds of luggage.’ He ran a delicate finger along a shelf and checked the invisible dust. 
‘Oh, it will be all kinds of madness when they arrive! Such excitement!’

‘But when is that to be?’ asked Nils again.

‘Now, there’s a cellar, too: you simply must see that. There are provisions there already but of course they will be bringing some of their own, so we have to find room for that, too. It’s as dry as can be – absolutely perfect storage conditions. Let me show you.’

‘Oh, please, no!’ cried Arne Bergo, and made them all jump. ‘Forgive me, Captain, but we have taken up far too much of your valuable time. I can see you are very busy.’

‘But –’ said Nils.

‘Well, as a matter of fact, I do just have to rush off very shortly and oversee some terribly important deliveries …’

‘Then we shall go. Thank you very much,’ said Arne Bergo firmly, and broke away down the passage back to the meeting room. The other merchants and Murray followed.

‘I’m sorry,’ Bergo explained with a sweep of his large hands when they were back outside. ‘He was driving me mad.’

‘Is he a soldier or a hairdresser?’ asked Almar acidly. Jakob was still rubbing his forehead, apparently bewildered.

‘I still want to know when the Frenchman is arriving,’ said Nils.

‘You’re not going to find out from him, I fear,’ said Hansen. ‘Now, I must find out about my apprentice. He must have turned up by now.’

‘If he’s not in an alehouse,’ said Almar.

Hansen flashed him an anxious smile and a bow, and Murray followed him out.

Outside it was raining again, quite heavily. Back in the narrow alleys of Tyskebryggen, the water saturated everything, the wooden walls and floors shiny and oozing wet. The boards creaked underfoot as if they were on a ship. Murray had acquired the habit of ducking his head almost permanently as he walked about the place. At the end of Hansen’s passage, under the shelter of the first floor gallery, twenty-odd flour sacks slumped cosily together. In the damp air, Murray could imagine each one now lined with thick grey glue.

‘Oh, where is that boy?’ grumbled Hansen. ‘Even if he was late arriving this morning, you would think he would have had the wit to shift those upstairs!’

‘Shall I ask the kitchen boy to see if he’s at his home?’ asked Murray, by now used to the procedure of locating the apprentice.

‘No, better not,’ said Hansen with a frown. ‘Bergo is coming to dinner and he likes his food: the cook will be busy enough without losing the kitchen boy.’

‘Then can I go? Or can I help you?’

Hansen pursed his lips for a moment.

‘Let’s both go.’ Hansen was never that happy to let Murray out alone, even now. Murray was his responsibility. One of Murray’s late father’s old advocate friends had defended him, successfully, in a trade dispute brought to an Edinburgh court, and he took returning the favour very seriously.

Still in their outdoor clothes, they clomped with heavy, hollow steps back down the passage to the street, then along a few dozen yards to another timbered tunnel. They were remarkably alike, these wooden pends: the Hanseatic League merchants who had built them, or their predecessors, had stipulated widths and heights and tight rules: a Hanseatic apprentice would have known his place, clearly delineated between the journeymen and the errand boys, on the top floor of his master’s narrow wooden property, in a solemn, financially-focussed, men-only world – and no consorting with the native Norwegians. But the League was long gone, the merchants were all Norwegian and so were their wives, daughters, mothers and cooks, with many of whom Viktor had indeed consorted. Apprentices like Viktor could no longer be relied upon to enjoy the strictures of an earlier age.

At the back of this particular alley, across a busy courtyard, Viktor inhabited a two-room stone dwelling with his mother and brother. His mother, swathed in widow’s black, was sitting in the doorway, just out of the rain, as they approached, making the best of the light to knit a stocking. She had a face like a quince left too long on the tree: Murray could only imagine that Viktor was so cheerful through sheer youthful rebellion.

‘Well, Mr. Hansen, I suppose you are here to give me all those extra kroner for keeping my poor Viktor out working all night!’ she remarked sourly.

‘I’m not going to keep him working all night,’ said Hansen in bewilderment. ‘It’s as much as I can do to get him to work in the daytime.’

‘Well, where is he now, but working for you?’

‘I don’t know: I was hoping he might be here.’

‘Here? He hasn’t been here since yesterday morning, when he took his bread and his salt fish and kissed his poor old mother farewell, and went off to your place.’

‘But he went home as usually yesterday evening – didn’t he?’ Hansen turned to Murray.

‘I’m sorry, I have no idea,’ said Murray. ‘You retired for the night with your cold, and I began to read a book. I heard nothing else.’

‘My boy!’ breathed the old woman. ‘Where is he? And with a draugen about!’

‘I’m sure he’s perfectly well,’ said Hansen, sounding more reassuring than he looked. ‘He may have met a friend and, ah, stayed the night.’

The old woman looked unconvinced, though she could not have been ignorant of Viktor’s various nocturnal assignations.

‘If he’s been put in danger we need to talk about his wages,’ insisted the old woman darkly, with a shrewd eye on Hansen.

‘I doubt he’s in any danger from anything but a lack of fresh air and exercise,’ muttered Hansen, though not quite loudly enough for her to hear. ‘But where is he? Oh, dear, oh, dear.’

There was still no sign of the apprentice by the time Bergo came for dinner. In the increasingly heavy rain, they had tramped about the wooden lanes and even some of the neighbouring houses, but none of the friends they knew of had seen him, and none of the beerhouses admitted to having served him for at least a week, which seemed frankly unlikely. Weary and despondent they returned to the house, where a few moments later Bergo arrived full of cheerful energy.

‘But we must get that flour up out of the damp!’ he boomed at once, snatching up his soaking hat again. 

‘Come along: Hansen, you go upstairs and direct where you want them; Murray, go with him and help swing the sacks in, and I shall hook the sacks on below. We shall have them stacked away in no time!’

Hansen and Murray lacked the energy to protest, and instead Murray followed Hansen up the narrow, dark stairs, occasionally so hunched that he had to support himself with hands and knees on the steps. On the top floor of the house was a gallery overlooking the alley below where the sacks had been stacked, two floors down. At the end of the gallery a little gable extended overhead and beneath it the gallery rail was replaced by a very solid wooden gate, latched with a weighty bar. Frowning but businesslike, Hansen lifted the bar and swung the gate open outwards, then untied a rope from the gable above, one with a sturdy hook on the end.

Murray looked down into the alley, where Bergo stood with his broad, pale face upturned into the rain. Level with the roof of the next house opposite, Murray could almost reach the wooden shingles and feel the water washing down them to fall into the alley below. The sky above was pewter.

‘Come along, then!’ called Bergo, his great voice buffered by all that soaking wood. ‘Ready when you are!’

Hansen seemed half-asleep.

‘Let me,’ said Murray, and took the rope from him. He checked the top end was secured, then played the hook end out over the pulley until a shout from below told them it was low enough. A moment later, and a tug on the rope said it was ready to be raised again. The sacks were large: it was satisfying to be able to haul them smoothly up, hand over hand on the wet rope, feeling arm muscles straining and legs braced against the weight.

After four or five sacks had been safely hoisted and stowed in the top floor store rooms, the hook was sent down again. They heard Bergo call something from below. Hansen leaned over the rail.


‘Looks like one of your sacks has split,’ Bergo called again. ‘There’s flour on the floor.’

‘I don’t know how you can tell,’ said Hansen. ‘It looks pitch dark down there to me.’

‘Well, you can bring a lantern down later, and look.’

‘I don’t like bringing lanterns in down there,’ Hansen hunched his shoulders at Murray. ‘I’m always afraid that on a dry day it’ll start a fire.’

‘There are dry days here?’ Murray queried mildly.

But a couple of sacks later they were back in the rhythm again: the rope rattled over the pulley and the hook descended; there was a moment while Bergo, out of sight, slipped the sharp hook into the corner of the next sack where it was strongest, then a light tug on the rope and Murray hauled, one, two three ... twenty times and the sack dangled before the gateway; Hansen swung the sack in with a crooked stick, and used the momentum to lift the sack on to the growing stack on the gallery; the hook was freed, and the rope went spinning back down over the pulley. With the third sack, there was some indistinct comment from Bergo below, but a tug came on the rope and Murray pulled away. There was a cry of surprise, and Hansen looked over the railing.

‘…wrong with that sack!’ they heard vaguely, but by then it was already up at their level. Taken aback, they stared at it for a moment as it swung gently in the gateway. There was a rip, a fresh one, in the corner next to the hook, and as they watched, the rip slowly widened, the fibres of the sack giving way under the pressure of the contents which, it seemed, were not flour, but Hansen’s apprentice, Viktor.

It was an image that Murray knew was going to stay with him for a while, though he nearly let go of the rope. Hansen slumped against the railing and almost fell through the gate. Bergo, who must have scrabbled up the stairs at a dreadful speed for a big man, joined them in silence.

The hook had by chance caught in Viktor’s collar, hauling his buttoned coat up under his chin. It forces his blackened face into a parody of his usual cheerful grin.

‘Is he dead?’ asked Bergo, as if there could be any doubt.

‘Have we killed him?’ asked Hansen, even more quietly.

‘Not just now, anyway,’ said Murray practically. ‘Look: he’s completely stiff.’

It was true: to fit in the flour sack, Viktor had had to be curled up like a child asleep: even though the sack was now ripped away, he remained huddled up. He was powdered with flour, a monochrome goblin crouched magically in mid-air, grinning. For some reason, Murray was reminded of the description of the draugen.

‘We must take him down, of course.’ Hansen found his crooked stick and while Murray manipulated the rope, the two merchants brought Viktor more decently to the floor of the gallery.

‘Was he hiding for a joke?’ Bergo asked. Hansen was silently crying.

‘I don’t think so,’ said Murray. ‘Look at his nose and mouth.'

They did, and shivered. There was more flour there, in Viktor’s mouth and nostrils, flecked black with dried blood. It was clear from the marks that someone had held a handful of flour clamped tight over his nose and mouth and suffocated him.

‘Poor lad, poor lad,’ said Hansen, tears now streaming down his cheeks like the rain on the roofs.

‘Who would do such a thing?’ demanded Bergo, his voice beginning to boom again.

But Murray had an idea.

Over the next couple of days it was relatively easy to avoid Hansen and go out on his own. Whatever his doubts about his timekeeping and morals, Hansen had at least trusted his apprentice with a great deal of his work: now he had to do all of it himself, or closely supervise a lad employed in a hurry. A good lad, he said, but not bright. Since the draugen had been seen no one had had the decency to die at sea and end the spell, so Hansen was still reluctant to let Murray go home. Instead, Murray passed his time meandering about the wharves and boatsheds of Bergen, looking as innocent as he could.

It was a complicated business. Bergen was mostly water, it seemed to Murray, with or without the rain. There were endless jetties, sheds, piers, yellow and red waterside warehouses and ships, and he knew, although he could no longer sense it himself, that the whole place smelled of fish. He wondered how long it would take him to stop smelling of fish himself when he returned home.

His search for timber for Letho manse had given him some knowledge of this watery world, fortunately, and with a bit of concentration and his growing confidence in the local languages he could be fairly systematic. He was careful what he asked and of whom he asked it, but eventually, under a tarpaulin in a dilapidated shed masquerading as a boathouse, he found a boat. It would have been easy enough for a couple of men to row, but also had a small mast amidships, not an uncommon type locally. More unusually, the rowlocks were bundled cosily in strips of old rag. He examined the boat closely, ears alert for anyone taking an interest in him, and noted that the front half of the boat seemed to have been swept recently, while the back half was dusty and gritty with use.

He stepped back from the boat as it slapped the dark water in the shed. There was not much else there, as far as he could see in the gloom. He took his gloves off and felt gently about in some crates by the wall: the contents, such as they were, were damp and unwelcoming. At last he found what he was looking for, a length of dark cloth, quite fine, and folded flat under some net in the bottom of a crate. He lifted it out and flapped it free: it was certainly large enough to cover the back half of the boat, a fine muslin, not the kind of thing one normally expected to find in a boathouse, and the short edges were very wet indeed, wetter than the crate they had been stored in. A cautious inspection by the doorway in slightly more daylight showed him that it was very dark grey, and comparatively new. He sniffed it. Beyond the smell of damp was a spicier, more tantalising smell which made his nose twitch. He folded the cloth again thoughtfully, and put it back.

That evening, Hansen slumped before the fire after supper, exhausted by another day without his apprentice. It had not helped that the local magistrate had wanted to question him again, and Viktor’s mother had pestered him about compensation to pay for the funeral: Hansen seemed to be happy to pay, but annoyed about being pestered, which was only reasonable. There seemed to be no idea who had killed the poor apprentice. The magistrate and his men had unearthed some girl that Viktor had spent a night with, whose father had found out and was discontent: the fact that the father had been travelling to Christiania at the time was an obstruction to their theory, but they were working on that. Hansen was dubious.

‘What if his old mother is right, and he was killed because of something he was doing here? Something someone wanted to find out about my business, perhaps, and he refused to say?’

‘Are you engaged in anything that secret?’ asked Murray, surprised. Hansen looked doubtful.

‘I don’t think so.’

‘And anyway,’ Murray went on, trying to comfort him, ‘who are your business rivals? People you know, presumably: you must have a good idea of whether or not they would go to that length to find out something that isn’t very secret.’

‘Well, my main rival is Bergo, of course,’ said Hansen, his eyes shut.

‘Arne Bergo?’

‘That’s right. He’s the other principal flour merchant. But then, we’re friends …’ He opened his eyes, suddenly alarmed. ‘Aren’t we? But why did he insist on putting the flour away? Why would he be concerned about my stock? Was he just eager that poor Viktor should be discovered?’ He shivered, remembering the body.

‘I should imagine he did it because, as you say, you are friends, and he didn’t want your stock getting any wetter than it already was.’

‘But then, if it wasn’t Bergo, who was it? Was he killed because of something he had done, or because he was working for me?’

Hansen had a whole new range of worries now. Murray sighed silently. It was going to be a long evening.

Murray did not yet want to say anything to Hansen, but he was fairly sure why Viktor had died: he just did not know quite who had killed him. The next day, before Viktor’s funeral, Murray revisited Rosencrantz Tower and secured an interview with the egregious Captain, whom he allowed, once more, to show him the charming apartments set aside for Karl Johan’s imminent but indefinite visit. He even continued, beyond Arne Bergo’s previous limits, to the cellar, where the Captain was delighted to show him the goods and provisions in store for the Swedish king, as well as the generous capacity for the supplies he was expected to bring for himself. One side of the cellar was only half-full, and beyond that there were only three little barrels neatly stacked beside two boxes of candles and a keg of aquavit.

‘So I am sure you know every little detail of the provisions, Captain?’ Murray said, eyeing the barrels before sweeping his gaze around the rest of the cellar. ‘Of course, an officer like you would let nothing slip by him.’

‘Well, I like to think not,’ agreed the Captain, pleased that a foreigner would be impressed. ‘Salt fish there, salt meat there, butter over there, ale – so much ale, you would never believe! – ale down that side.’

‘And those three little barrels there? They must be something special, set aside like that.’

‘Oh! Oh, now there you have me, Mr. Murray. What on earth is in those? Gin? No, surely not. Brandy?’ He took a couple of dance-steps towards the barrels, head on one side, finger to his chin. ‘Do you know, I have to admit I have no idea what is in those. You must excuse me: I shall have to open one.’

‘Careful now – it could be anything,’ said Murray quickly, actually harbouring a strong suspicion that he knew what was in them already. The Captain glanced at him, puzzled, but used a wooden lever to slip the lid off the nearest barrel.

‘Good heavens! Whatever is that?’ asked the Captain, who really should have known. Even Murray could recognise the spicy, tickly smell of gunpowder – the same smell he had discovered in the hidden boat.

After the funeral, Murray found himself wandering about, wondering. Ahead was the thronged fish market at Torget, which he had found fascinating when he had first arrived, but the sight of fish had palled. He took one of the wooden paths to his right instead, and found himself, only half by accident, at the tiny cottage of Viktor’s mother. The stocking she was knitting was lying across her usual stool at the door, but there was no sign of her at first: before he had even begun to look about, however, she appeared, carrying a barrel of salt fish over her shoulder with apparent insouciance. She nodded to him, pushed the barrel into the house, and turned to see what he wanted.

‘May I ask you something?’ said Murray humbly. He hoped she would speak slowly: he found her accent quite difficult.

‘Depends what it is.’ She picked up the almost-complete stocking and settled herself on the stool, fingers automatically finding the way to start knitting again.

‘What were Viktor’s politics?’

‘Politics? He had no reason to have politics at his age!’ She made it sound like measles. ‘Politics don’t make your fortune, not if you’re people like us. If anything,’ she conceded, pursing her lips, ‘he was for Sweden. But he had no business being for anyone. Politics get you killed – is that what you’re saying happened to my boy?’

‘Mm. I don’t think Viktor was necessarily killed because of his politics, no. But it might just have helped if he had favoured Prince Christian Frederik, I suppose. Another question, if I may:’

‘I didn’t fancy the last one that much,’ she said with a snort. The stocking snaked pale over her dusty black apron.

‘What do you think about the draugen? Do you believe in him?’

‘The draugen had nothing to do with my boy’s death. Viktor did not die at sea.’

‘But you believe the draugen was seen the other night? Did you see it yourself?’

‘I did not see it the other night, no. But I most certainly believe in it. I saw it myself, long ago, when I was a girl. Terrible, it was. I shall never forget it.’

‘A white figure, in half a boat?’

‘That’s right. It appeared three nights in a row. On the last night, it howled terribly. That night six men drowned when a fishing boat capsized. My father was one of them,’ she finished darkly.

‘I am truly sorry to hear that,’ said Murray. ‘But I do not believe in the draugen that appeared the other night.’

‘Why not?’ She was more taken aback than angry, he was pleased to see.

‘I’ll tell you why not,’ said Murray, and he told her about the boat that had been half-cleaned, and about its muffled oars, and about the smell of gunpowder, and about the kegs of gunpowder in the cellar at Rosencrantz Tower. He told her how he thought the draugen had been made white with flour, and how flour had been split at Hansen’s, and how he thought her son Viktor had disturbed the man who had come to steal the flour.

‘So the draugen was a man in disguise, hoping to blow Karl Johan sky high?’ said the old woman thoughtfully. Murray reflected that she was not slow. ‘But he sailed in half a boat – how was that managed without the Devil’s help?’

‘By covering the stern of the boat, and the oarsmen, in fine black cloth. I found it with the boat. With the light on the mast, the white figure of the draugen himself would be lit and no one would notice the rest.’

She pursed her lips again, staring past him, running the images through her mind.

‘This cloth: what was it like, then?’

‘Well, it was black … a sort of muslin, I think. Dull, not shiny. A little like – if I may - like this.’ He touched the dusty black cloth of her apron. ‘In fact, may I ask where this came from? It really is very like.’

‘This cloth? Oh, I bought this locally. In fact, I can tell you exactly where I bought it.’

Scowling, Murray strode off, wondering what was to be done. Aside from meeting the magistrate who was looking into Viktor’s death, he had had no insight into the abilities of the local investigators into sudden deaths. It seemed best to talk to Hansen. Luckily, he found him at home, still in his funeral black though now lightly dusted with flour. Once again, Murray told the story as his discoveries seemed to show it. Hansen’s furrowed brow reached new depths, and when Murray finally told him the name that Viktor’s mother had given him, Hansen buried his head in his hands. Not for long, though, to do him credit: in a moment he rubbed his face and seized his hat.

‘Then we must go to see him.’

Murray thought Hansen would take a short cut to the house; it was possible to go from one wooden lane to another round the backs of the properties as well as by the front. But the occasion seemed to call for some formality: Hansen made for the street, and entered his neighbour’s property through the shop door. Inside, amidst bales of all kinds of cloth, he led Murray to the counter and set his pale hands firmly on the painted wood. Almar and Jakob Fjeld turned to greet him, then saw his face and stopped in mid-movement. Murray, unsure of himself, looked about for Nils.

‘Where is your brother?’ demanded Hansen.

‘What’s the matter, Odgar?’ asked Almar. ‘I’ve never seen you look so angry!’

‘I have business with your brother,’ said Hansen heavily. ‘I believe he has taken something which belonged to me – something I valued.’

‘Well, he’s at the back,’ said Almar, shrugging and turning away, but Murray noticed that Jakob had gone rather pale. Almar looked the same direction. ‘Jakob,’ he said quickly, ‘away upstairs and see if the blue linen is there.’

‘But why would it be upstairs?’ asked Jakob slowly.

‘I don’t know: go and look. Odgar, you know your way, don’t you? Let me show you.’ Almar chivvied Jakob towards the stairs, shushing his objections, and ushered Hansen and Murray to the timbered lane to the back, just like Hansen’s own house next door.

‘Nils!’ he called, over the dull thuds of their footsteps. ‘Nils, Odgar’s here to see you!’

‘He must be upstairs,’ said Hansen, ‘there’s a bundle on the rope there.’

‘That’s not all cloth,’ cried Murray, and ran forward.

Nils was hanging just a little off the ground, but it was enough. They cut him down fast but he was black, eyes bulging in the tense face, all breath gone. The hook at the end of the rope was not through his collar, as with poor Viktor: it was wound about with the strip of cloth that had choked and broken his neck. When they pulled it away, they found it was a long, pale, hand-knitted stocking.

Friday 5 December 2014

A view of Letho

Here's Letho village, looking up the hill to the church from the bottom of the green, with the inn on the left and the Fairlies' houses over on the right ... well, not quite, but it's as much as my desk can afford. Letho surrounded by the clutter of reading and knitting, rather than fine Fife countryside!

Monday 1 December 2014

Toadstools and Talks

Another damp autumn, the weeds still growing when really I want my garden and allotment to rest (never mind me!). We had a good day yesterday, though, a small work party taking down a willow hedge to allow it to grow back. The cuttings have been stored and in January we'll be making hurdles from them to reinforce our boundaries. It was a beautiful day and we were well attended by robins throughout, and the end was marked by a glorious Aberdeen sunset. Never mind that it took longer to get home through the Christmas shopping traffic than it had travelling from St. Andrews to Aberdeen on Saturday!

Saturday was good: I attended a talk by Margaret Skea, 'History in Historical Fiction: The Icing on the Cake or the Main Ingredient?' at the Byre Theatre. There might not have been many of us there but that meant we all had a chance to contribute and the discussion continued over lunch till 4p.m.!  Margaret was inspirational and the talk has made me want to join groups, attend conferences and review my writing in a way I haven't yet  done (www.margaretskea.com).

I also managed to pop into the Citizen Bookshop (www.jg-innes.co.uk), which I remember from my childhood as well as my student days. The books have moved downstairs now but at least they're still there! They've kindly agreed to take some copies of my free short story, 'Dead Dogs and Apple Trees', for those who have not already read it on this blog.

Meanwhile I'm working on Chapter Twelve of Death of an Officer's Lady: I'm theoretically a week behind, but there's a degree of flexibility built in and I'm assuming I'll lose a week or two over Christmas (I had  a tutor once who deeply regretted that the Bodleian Library was not open for him to carry on his research on Christmas Day, but I'm not quite that free!).

All being well there'll be another short story coming out at Christmas, anyway: it's called 'High Tide in Tyskebryggen', and is set in Bergen, Norway. Just have to find time to do the cover! (though perhaps my Christmas cards are more urgent just now!).

Monday 10 November 2014

Book review: The Club, by Beth Green

The Club

The Club is a book with a sharp start that grabs you and hauls you in fast. At first you think it’s a plot you’ve come across before, the idea of switching murder victims, but this is much more complex, with a narrative which jumps back and forth in time. It is full of digressions and switches in points-of-view, but it’s worth keeping track of it, and I found it more intriguing the further I read. The characters are interesting and well-portrayed, many of them deliberately repulsive or irritating, many sympathetic. Though it seems to set up for a sequel, the ending is satisfying in itself with all the loose ends wound up.


I'm on Chapter 10 of 25 of Death of an Officer's Lady: working hard but lots of other things to fit into life, too! I've just booked to go to a talk in St. Andrews on 29th. November: Margaret Skea, author of The Turn of the Tide, is speaking on the place of history in historical fiction - she's doing the same thing in Edinburgh on 21st., too. I've chatted with Margaret on various forums for a while now so I'm looking forward to seeing her in person!


Tuesday 7 October 2014

Interview with Daniel Hossack

Some of this year's rainbow potatoes (well, rainbow-ish). Just an aside! Autumn's really here!


Interview with Daniel Hossack.
So you’re Daniel, then?

That’s right. Daniel Hossack, trusted manservant to Mr. Charles Murray of Letho. In charge of his household in Naples. I’ve a new coat and all.

Aye, because he took you with him to Italy, didn’t he?

Aye, he did. He didna take Mr. Robbins – well, he’d be set in his ways, being an old ... er man.

He’s, ah, 28 or so, isn’t he? The same age as your master?

Like I say, an older man. Not the kind to make the most of foreign travel.

But he’s off to India, now, with the master. I believe they’re off to help Mary, who used to be Mr. Murray’s maid?

Ho, Scary Mary? That’s what William and I – what William used to call her. She’s an uncanny way of always knowing when you’re doing something you shouldn’t – that is, when William’s doing something he shouldn’t. I tell you, though, if Mary needs help it’s something serious. There’s nothing Mary canna do.

How do you feel about Robbins going to India instead of you?

I’d like fine to see him when he gets back! He’ll never last the voyage, Mr. Robbins. He’s that pernickety they’ll never keep the ship neat enough for him, and he’s not accepting of the ways of foreigners, not like me. Oh, I’ve met some people, ken?

So you made the most of the foreign travel, then? How did you find the journey?

Well, I’ll tell you this: sea voyages aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. I don’t think they make ships properly. They make a gey awful noise in the least wee wind, and there’s no stability to them at all. I ken buildings can be mischancy things – I was there when the servants’ wing fell down, and that was no joke, I’m telling you. But the whole time I was on that boat, that’s what it felt like, as if the whole thing was cowping. You’d think they’d have that sorted out by now. Boats have been around a whiley.

I can see you feel quite strongly about that. But what about when you arrived in Naples? How did you manage with the language? You spoke no Italian dialects before, did you?

Naw. What for would you do that in Edinburgh or Letho? But it was easy enough to pick up. And the master gave me a few hints here and there: he’s no so bad at languages himself. The Frenchies seemed to understand him all right, I suppose. Not that he was in much of a mood to talk to them.

Of course, Mr. Murray had left Edinburgh under something of a cloud, hadn’t he?

Aye, that’s a fact. Oh, he hadna done nothing wrong! He’s all right, Mr. Murray, even if he’s gey hard on a body that might have made a wee mistake …

Hmm. Did Mr. Murray’s mood improve at all during his stay?

Not much. He’d gone to get away frae all that fancy society stuff, but it was like he didn’t know any other way to live, and anyway as soon as the high heidyins found out he had a bit of land he was in there. He didn’t much like the crowd, I’d say: he never said, but there was never much of a look of happiness about him when he was off to one of them things, the balls and the sorrys and the dinners. He didn’t get to see much of the place itself, just they big miserable villas. Now me, I got out and about and saw the world around me. I saw some remarkable things, I can tell you: sailors all covered in pictures, men the colour of Mr. Murray’s dining table, sea monsters laid out on a stall for food … and the vegetables! My, there are things in that country you’d never have thought you should eat at all, never mind raw as they came out of the ground or off the plant.  That garlic stuff: eat enough of that and you’ll never need a tinder box again!

But you like it, eh?

Aye! Aye, well, I ken a good cook, see?

Ah, yes, this would be Artemesia Fiorello?

That’s Mrs. Hossack to you! Aye, my bonny wee Artemesia …

And now you’re heading back to Fife with her? How do you think she’ll manage?

Well, she has me to protect her, of course. Oh, no doubt she’ll find it a wee thing confusing, poor lass, but well, she’ll have the bairn to look after, all being well, and that’ll give her something to think about while I do the serious stuff. I have to look after Mr. Murray’s luggage that he’s no taking to India, of course. It’s a great responsibility. There’s a table with the top made out of tiny wee stones all different colours, you’d never ken unless you look dead close …

But you’re looking forward to going home?

Aye, heading back to Letho with my bonny wife on my arm. That’ll put William’s eye out! Not that he’s ever shown much talent in that line, poor old William – the other, er, the junior manservant. He was always sat there with his eyes on stalks when I told him of my latest conquest. Aye, the girls around Letho had little to fear frae my pal William!

And from you?

Oh, aye, I kenned them well. And the Edinburgh lassies, aye. Oh, I’ve had some times, I can tell you!

But now you have bonny Artemesia. You’re a respectable married man, eh?

Eh? Oh, aye, all that. Respectable, aye. Aye, well, I suppose …

Thank you for your time, Daniel.