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The Broch Chapter One

The Broch Chapter One

Archaeologist Dom finds modern bones at a pre-historic broch (round tower) he is excavating on Scotland’s western shores. And he thinks of old-flame Finn. Finn has been becoming increasingly isolated while she cared for her husband who has Alzheimer’s. She’s now trying to get herself back into painting. Into life. Her police sergeant daughter and Dom manage to involve her in the investigation of the broch bones. And Finn begins to face up to the reality of her situation and her past and present relationships.

2

Literary fiction


author-small

Rowan (United Kingdom)


Prologue
Dom straightened, wincing at the pain in his hip, and looked for the source of the alarm call. It echoed around the lichen-spotted granite of the tower enclosing him, and he couldn’t tell where it had begun. A raven flapped from the spoil-heap slumped against the tallest shard of wall, its claws scrabbling an avalanche of soil. It stretched its long-fingered wings, still calling, and soared overhead, till it was just a black silhouette against the pale opalescence of the morning sky.
His hair blew from where he’d tucked it inside his parka and whipped across his face. He dropped his pointing trowel, and rummaged in the pockets of his cords for something to tie it back.
He frowned at the spoil-heap. It was still the same shape, though maybe shorter. As if, somehow, the slippage hadn’t been a part of it. The raven settled on the variegated greys of the dry-stone wall beyond, quiet now, black eyes round and glinting. Watching him.
Amber was the first to move. She levered herself up from the well excavation, and strode past him, mattock in fist, ginger dreadlocks bouncing. ‘That shouldn’t be loose,’ she said, her breath puffing out to hang as a white vapour cloud in front of her, dispersing in the wind.
But he was looking at the edge of the top of the mound. ‘Amber,’ he said, ‘there’s something up there.’
She came back to stand by him, squinting up to where he was pointing. She went and got the stepladders from the site caravan.
The ground was uneven, so Dom insisted on going up himself. He couldn’t get high enough, and the angle was wrong. They pulled the steps back a little, and he tried again, twisted round teetering on the topmost rung.
And looked straight into the soil-filled eye-sockets of a human skull.
There was a blanket of dark crumby compost. Covering most of what lay underneath. Dom took a deep breath. ‘Amber,’ he said, ‘these are modern bones. Human.’
He looked again, just to be sure. It was modern. Thick strong skull, with only a faint tinge of orange from the peat. He climbed down and they retreated to the caravan.
*****
Dom peered through the smeary window, listening to the sounds of Amber behind him making them both a hot drink. He could feel the circulation returning to his fingers, his toes.
‘Right,’ he said, glancing over his shoulder to her. ‘I have to halt the dig. No choice.’
She grimaced, her jaw tightening.
‘I have to contact the police,’ he said, ‘and the procurator fiscal.’
‘It’s hardly an uncompromised crime scene, if it’s one at all. Nothing we do now can help the poor soul. Or harm her more.’ She perched on the edge of the table, seeking eye contact with him, her cheeks ruddy with the cold. ‘I’ll be careful, stay well away from the mound. We haven’t much time.’
‘We can’t risk compromising it further.’ He shook his head, not looking at her. ‘There’s maybe a family somewhere, waiting, desperate for news.’ He gazed over the rippling orange and brown dapple of treetops, to the Atlantic far below. And closed his eyes. It was the last thing they needed.
When he opened them again, a ray of the sun was glittering a pathway of molten gold across the sea towards the shore. There was the ghost of a rainbow. Mist obscured the islands, merging with the sky. Like an Impressionist painting.
‘Finn,’ he said. ‘She’d at least help them to speed up the investigation.’
‘Fionnuala?’ She raised her eyebrows. ‘You’re still in touch?’
‘Not so you’d notice.’ Not at all. She probably wouldn’t want to. He fancied he saw her reflected in the window, gently smiling. And beyond her, through her, the sea, the sky.

One
Finn leant back and looked at her painting. It was different. The long deprivation had changed something in her. But the feeling was the same. The feeling that she’d somehow depicted something she hadn’t known was there.
She picked up her thinnest brush, just a few hog’s hairs, and dipped it in the slick of indigo. The oils were still too wet, but she carefully signed her name in the bottom right-hand corner. Fionnuala O’Neill. It didn’t smudge, and sat there darkly gleaming against the silver-grey sheen of the sea.
Finn sat for a moment, breathing in the forgotten familiarity of the smells of linseed oil, paint, and… The long ago. Indigo. The same pigment as woad. Difficult to think she was still that woman. Somewhere inside.
Beyond her easel, the sky’s lightening was already reflected in the water, and fishing boats were setting out with the tide towards the islands. Reluctant to break the mood, the rare moment of peace before Andrew woke, she just wiped her brushes, and left them soaking in the jar of white spirit. Time enough to clean them later.
She wandered into the kitchen to make some tea, then took her mug out into the back garden. It was deeply shadowed by the sun just beginning to rise over the hills beyond. Clouds were gathering, but for now the air was still and suffused with an early-morning freshness. Finn surveyed the wilderness the garden had become. The knee-high grass and the straggling suckers of the bushes reverting to dog-rose. The white-trumpeted bind-weed rampant, smothering. Andrew used to keep it so well. One of the few things he could almost control.
She flinched when she heard the crash, uncertain what had happened. By the time she got to her studio, it was too late. Her palette was upside down and oil paint was splattered over the floor, the walls. Her painting was gone.
Finn ran into the hall. The front door was open. No sign of him in the road. Back inside she checked the bedroom. The duvet lay flung on the floor. The sheet was crumpled and trailing.
She looked at the clock. Ella would be coming off shift; she’d probably be back at the police station. She lifted the phone and rang her daughter.
She ran outside, turned towards the village … the way he’d taken the last couple of times. The wind was cold, fine droplets of rain stung her face. She went too fast, and her feet ran away with her down the slope. The hedges at the side of the road seemed to be rushing uphill. She stumbled into a puddle, splashing icy water up her bare legs. Fearing she would fall, she turned sideways, and her feet had to slow.
The headlights of a car slowly rounding the upward bend shone into her eyes, and she paused, raising her arm to protect them.
The car braked to a stop, and the door opened. A hand grabbed her arm. ‘Mother, for God’s sake.’
She looked up at Ella.
‘Get in the car.’
Finn got in, turning to look behind. Andrew was strapped into the central seat, the picture under his arm, oil paint streaked over his pyjamas, rubbed into the stubble of his chin.
Ella slammed the driver’s door and put the car into gear. Her face was tight, weary.
*****
‘Look at it, just look at it.’ Finn held up her smudged and smeared painting, steadying it against the kitchen wall, beyond tears. Her painting. So much it had taken to begin again. ‘Mum.’ Ella folded her arms across her chest. ‘Mum, I picked up both of you. Both of you were running sideways like crabs down the middle of the road. In your nightclothes.’ Finn wrenched her gaze from the dark stain where her name had been dragged down into the sea, and looked at herself. At the paint-stained dressing gown wrapped loosely over not very much.
‘Someone might have seen you,’ Ella said.
Finn put her hands in her pockets, clenching them into fists.
‘Only one of you is supposed to be sick,’ said Ella.
They sat for a while in a tense silence. From the lounge, they could hear him softly singing along to the television.
‘He kept saying “gallery.”’
Finn looked at her.
‘When I picked him up,’ said Ella, ‘he kept saying “gallery.” It must have registered, somehow, somewhere in there. He wants you painting again. So do I.’
Finn pulled her dressing gown tighter around herself, re-knotted the belt. Straightened her aching fingers. ‘Something’s changed … all this time … all there’s been. But it was good. Parts of it.’
‘So now you know you can do it again.’ Ella touched her mother’s hand. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘I need to eat before bed. It might as well be here as anywhere. I’ll shower Dad; make breakfast for him, and for myself.’
Looking at her daughter Finn saw her weariness, and felt her own.
‘Get dressed, go and get something in the village,’ said Ella. ‘You need a break.’
Finn started to protest, then nodded.
*****
In Portmonay, the streets were empty and her footfalls echoed in the silence, but the Rendezvous Café was heaving. The espresso machine roared, panting out clouds of steam. There was the chink of spoons against cups, voices murmuring subdued and good-natured.
The drying people smelt of wet dog.


Competition: The Pen Factor 2016, Round 1

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