Let yourself be transported back in time to St Andrews in 1583, the setting for Fife-based author Shirley McKay’s latest historical crime novel in her highly engaging Huw Cullen series
TO THOSE who watched, the house appeared asleep. But though the doctor and his wife had long since gone to bed, both were wide awake. Giles Locke lay still and thoughtful, muffled in his quilt. He heard Meg’s footsteps cross the floor, through curtains she had closed on him against the cold night air, and felt his wife’s departure with a sense of dread. The doctor sighed and shifted, finding out the place that held the scent and shape of her, willing her return. Matthew Locke slept on, his soft lips pale and puckered, plump and moist with milk. Meg blew out the candle flame, and let the darkness close.
In a loft upstairs, the doctor’s servant Paul closed up his folding bed and dressed in bilious green. He listened to his mistress moving through the house, coming to the kitchen, past the sleepy maid. Canny Bett slept upon a sheepskin bolstering the hearth, wrapped up in a blanket blackened by its coals. Canny’s limbs were slack, her mouth half-open still, a quarrel in full flight when sleep had overtaken her, her red cheeks pinched and scorched. She had left an egg to roast in the embers of the fire. Canny did not stir as Meg explored the shelves, collecting things to fill a basket, small glass bottles, cloths and cups.
The house looked out upon the castle on the cliff. In daylight, it looked out upon the grey washed sky, on cliff tops bright with thistle heads and clumps of summer moss and white-flecked seabirds circling, on mellow stone and high arched windows, glancing on the street. The ringing out of hammermen, the hoarse cries of the fisherwives, the grumbling of the baxters and the brewers with their loads, forged a solid thoroughfare between the house and cliff, the castle falling back to bask upon its rock. At night, the forecourt stilled. The castle overlooked, its black hulk rising blankly from the darkened precipice, seabirds curling mute, invisible in crevices. Pinpoint pricks of firelight moved across its walls.
On the corner by the Swallow Port, a yellow lantern burned. Meg ducked beneath its light to turn into the Fisher Gait, and hurried out of sight. There were lanterns, too, outside the cookshops and the taverns on the far side of the Mercat Gait, and in the wynds and closes leading to the South Street, across the southern boundaries of the town. Here the yellow smoke gave way to natural light, the watered-grey, soft glancing of a quarter moon. Meg continued landward, keeping to the narrow path towards her brother’s house. From time to time, she strayed closer to the shore, or through a copse of trees, conscious of a shadow at her back. She came into a barley field, and shook the drops of water from the morning rose, wiping with a cloth each sharp green stalk and leaf, milking the wet linen out into a cup. When the cup was full, Meg passed the water through a funnel drop by drop into a coloured glass – amber for barley, olive for the rose – sealing it with parchment and a plug of wax. She let a drop of barley water settle on her tongue, knowing she was watched. She had felt it at the sea-port to the harbour, and on the landward path that led out to the barley field. The gulls had woken up, and swept towards them, shrieking, through the pink-shot clouds. Meg took pity on the watcher: ‘You may go now, Paul.’
‘On my life, I cannot,’ answered Paul. Paul had spent the last hour hiding in a sheep trough, the evidence of which was plain upon his hat. He gave up all pretence of coming there by chance, to shake the matter off. ‘Doctor Locke insists on it. And he will have my carcass cut up on a slab, he will carve my corpse up as one of his experiments, if I neglect his charge.’
‘He will do no such thing. And when were you inclined to do as you were told? ’ Meg brushed aside this argument, as Paul brushed down his hat.
THE servant stood his ground. ‘Twould ding his heart to shards, if harm should come to you.’
‘What kind of harm,’ protested Meg, ‘can come to me, upon my brother’s land? Where I have lived and wandered, since I was a child?’
‘I ken that, mistress, yet he fears—’
They both knew what the doctor feared. Paul bit back the words. ‘He telt me to lie low.’
Meg accepted with a sigh. ‘Aye, and so you did. No matter, you shall stay, and help collect the dew. For that may serve you better than to lour among the sheep. Then, when we are done, you shall take some to your lass.’
‘I have no lass,’ he lied.
Together, they filled bottles, kneeling in the grass, until the sun broke tentatively through the clearing sky. The light brought lads and lasses laughing through the trees. Children gathered blossoms, trailing chains of buttercups and armfuls of white flowers. A girl ran through the barley field with petals in her hair, followed by a young man fumbling with his breeks. Paul’s gaze fixed on the couple longer than was decent, and the lass stood still to flounce at him, poking out her tongue. The young man snatched his quarry from behind. He pulled her out of sight, into a clump of trees.
‘There are violets in the wood. She will like those too,’ Meg broke upon Paul’s thoughts.
He spluttered, ‘As I swear to you—’
‘For certain, you must not,’ said Meg. ‘There can be no shame in it, that you should have a lass. Or is there some impediment, prohibiting the match?’
His mistress was a soothsayer, who saw into the heart of things. Paul had no idea how she could read his mind. He blurted out, ‘It is the widow Bannerman, an honest, proper wife. But I must prove my worth to her, and she is brave and delicate, and till I am assured of her, I would not have my love laid bare for a’ the gaping world. I cannot, for the life of me, think how you came to ken of it.
‘It was not hard to guess. You have trimmed your beard, and cut and combed your hair. And you are wearing your best clothes, my brother’s gooseturd riding coat, and Kendal breeks and hat. And here we are in May, the merry lovers’ month.
Paul turned a livid purple, clashing with the green. ‘Master Hew was good enough to give me his old coat. But do you think the colour is too keen? I must be bold, yet circumspect, if I would prove my worth to her. In truth, the case is intricate.’
Meg suppressed her smile at the language he had borrowed, like his bright green coat, from her brother Hew. ‘True love often is. But I know Jonet Bannerman, and she will like you better, in your own, true, proper self. And if you wish to please her, take to her this water from the morning rose.’ She offered up the dew, in a phial of coloured glass.
The morning light, it seemed, had worked to calm Paul’s fears. He accepted eagerly. ‘This water shall speak worlds to her. I thank you, with my heart. You will not tell the doctor, though?’
‘Will not tell him what?’ Meg teased. ‘That I caught you spying? That you left my side? That you go a-Maying?’ That you have a lass?’
‘All of those,’ admitted Paul. ‘Especially that one last.’
‘I will not say a word.’
Meg’s smiles gave way to thoughtfulness. She watched Paul set off down the track, the bottle of elixir warming in his hand. Daylight burned the vapour from the early dew. The lusty lads and lasses went about their day, the children brought their blossom homewards from the fields. The world became quite still. Meg took off her shoes. She felt the blades of barley sharp against her feet, and found her cheeks were wet, despite the morning sun.
About the author:
Shirley McKay was born in Tynemouth but now lives with her family in Fife. At the age of fifteen she won the Young Observer playwriting competition, her play being performed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. She went on to study English and Linguistics at the University of St Andrews before attending Durham University for postgraduate studies. ‘Friend & Foe: A Huw Cullan Mystery’ is her fourth novel.