Billie's Kissby Elizabeth Knox
"In the spring of 1903, a ship explodes as it docks on a remote Scottish island, drowning many of the passengers and crew in the icy waters of the harbor. Young, pink-haired Billie Paxton is among the only survivors. Clumsy, illiterate, and suddenly alone, she will not say why, moments before the explosion, she leapt from ship to shore - and so she falls under the… See more details below
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"In the spring of 1903, a ship explodes as it docks on a remote Scottish island, drowning many of the passengers and crew in the icy waters of the harbor. Young, pink-haired Billie Paxton is among the only survivors. Clumsy, illiterate, and suddenly alone, she will not say why, moments before the explosion, she leapt from ship to shore - and so she falls under the immediate suspicion of her fellow passenger, Murdo Hesketh, who is determined to discover the truth behind the ship's fate." As she attempts to come to terms with an uncertain future, Billie acquaints herself with the eccentric inhabitants of Kiss Castle: the enigmatic Lord Hallowhulme, who owns the island; his beautiful wife and worldly children; Geordie Betler, a spinsterish gentleman's gentleman; and the fierce, fair-haired Murdo Hesketh, who inspires in Billie equal amounts of rage and passion.
- Victoria University Press
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Read an Excerpt
The Gustav Edda
The crossing was rough, and Edith unwell. Billie couldn’t read, so she sang to her sister. Edith kept her eyes closed and her face turned into the pillow. Billie saw sweat beaded beneath the reddish down on her sister’s cheek, the down that had grown gradually darker, from cheekbone to jawline, as Edith came nearer her time. It seemed to Billie that her sister was turning into another kind of creature, with furred skin and an extra layer of soft fat on her arms, her midriff firmly tight, not laced and nipped, as it had been, but convex. Even Edith’s hair had changed, now so luxuriant that her unpinned plaits were as thick as Billie’s forearms. But these changes weren’t Edith’s whole alteration, and as Billie sang to her sister she kept her right hand against Edith’s belly, between belly and supporting pillow, to feel the other thing, the motion, strong and irregular, and as invisible as the ocean.
The flame was fairly steady in the binnacle lamp on the ceiling of the cabin, for the lamp itself rocked on its gimbals, moved in counterpoint to the heaving ship. All the room’s shadows tilted this way and that, as, no doubt, any person on deck at that time would have done.
Beneath Billie’s hand and her sister’s skin the baby seethed. Billie paused between verses to whisper to herself: “Let the cat out of the bag.” It was an expression she’d always liked. Of course they weren’t fully ready for the baby—they: Edith, Henry, Billie—and cats out of bags meant trouble. But, as a child, whenever her father had turned to her, his index finger barring his mouthbefore he whispered, “Don’t let the cat out of the bag,” Billie would imagine the cat—the abducted feline—on the sill of an open window, fur upstanding, haloed in darkness, framed against a garden, and looking back with eyes like embers.
Edith squeezed Billie’s arm and gasped. “Why did we have to go on today?”
Edith had been content to travel by train, but balked at the idea of a sea voyage. So her husband, Henry Maslen, planned a journey that used the Inner Isles as stepping-stones, and ferries that crossed at all the narrowest places. In Henry’s plan they were to cross from Dorve, in the Inner Isles, on a steamer small enough to navigate the crooked way among the reefs that lay between Dorve and Southport, on the southeast coast of an island called Kissack and Skilling. Dorve to Southport was a short, fair-weather journey. From Southport it was only a day’s travel north to their ultimate destination, Stolnsay, Kissack and Skilling’s only sizable town. But when Edith and Henry Maslen, and Edith’s sister Billie, arrived in Dorve, it was to a harbor whipped up by wind and a reef not to be chanced. Not for several days, they were told. It was suggested that, if Mr. Maslen liked, he could take his family overland to the port of Luag, where they would coincide with the arrival of the Gustav Edda. The Gustav Edda was a big, Swedish-owned steamer that passed through the islands every month on a circuit that began and ended in Stockholm. Henry Maslen had hesitated before rushing off to catch the bigger ship. He hesitated and his sister-in-law watched him hide his worry and his calculations, watched his lips move against the heel of the hand with which he screened his mouth. Then Henry dropped his hand. He looked at his sister-in-law. “Billie, you and Edith could keep our room here and follow me when the weather’s calmer. But . . .”
But they were short of funds, and he wanted to have his wife settled before the baby came. Its arrival was imminent. Henry’s new employment had come at exactly the right time, but the journey hadn’t. Mr. Johan Gutthorm, who, in his own words, handled Lord Hallowhulme’s “indoor business affairs,” advised Henry to come before summer. Since Mr. Maslen meant to bring his wife and her sister it was, Gutthorm wrote, “better by far to make the most of the best of our weather.” Henry had read Johan Gutthorm’s letter to Billie and Edith as they sat in the tiny parlor of their cottage in Crickhowell. Edith said, “We should all go at once. We’re very crowded here.”
They were—spring damp breaking in on them, making black stars of mildew on the paintwork around the windows—crowded out by Edith’s belly, Henry’s books, and Billie’s upright piano, and by a tortuous cyclonic current of feeling that could neither be borne nor gone with. That afternoon in Crickhowell, Henry had agreed with his wife. He repeated his salary offer, pounds and shillings, but warned that there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t find themselves again crowded at Kiss Castle in Stolnsay. Henry looked at her then—Billie—but his eyes said: “Edith.” He could say her sister’s name without moving his lips. Henry appeared sad. The flaring ends of his fair muttonchop whiskers—minus moustache—were shaved to terminate exactly parallel to the lines beside his mouth: two defined lines that always made his face seem sober, his mouth bracketed, braced, and disciplined. What had he been looking for in looking at her, Billie wondered, encouragement or warning?
The ship pitched and tossed, and Billie sang to her sister: hymns, love ballads, a comic song from the music hall. The ship yawed and the swinging light chased the shadows into a corner of Edith’s bunk, where they concentrated into such thickness Billie expected to see them coalesce, leaving something solid sitting there.
Edith rolled over, showed a whole perspiring face, and asked, “Why do you say that? ‘Cat out of the bag’?”
“I was thinking of the baby.” Billie stroked her sister’s abdomen.
“Honestly, Billie. Why would a baby bring to mind a cat in a bag? People put cats in bags only to drown them.” Edith’s lower lip trembled, then she said she was sorry, she hadn’t meant to be sharp. Could Billie go up on deck and see how near they were to that headland the captain had explained would afford some shelter from the north? The ship surely couldn’t still be out on the open water. “And send Henry down,” Edith said. “And take the bucket out and empty it. Please, dear.”
Billie got up. She said that she’d heard that the saying was nautical, or naval anyway, the “cat” was a lash. Then she had to swing the zinc pail back at her sister’s urgent signal. Edith’s mouth filled, and she leaned over and spat out another gob of ropey bile. The wet rag with which Billie had been wiping her sister’s face was already in the bucket, so Billie turned up her dress hem and found the scalloped cotton edge of her petticoat. She wiped Edith’s mouth. “I don’t like to leave you.”
Edith said, weakly, that Billie could give her some hope. “See where we are,” she said again. “But leave Henry up in the fresh air if he’s ill.”
Billie wrapped her shawl around her head and carried the pail from the cabin. She crept along the passage, her free hand braced against the wall. By the hatch an oblong light skated about, probing the darkness, sliced by the rungs of the ladder, whose own shadow surged so wildly that it seemed dangerous to climb. Billie went up, one rung at a time. She didn’t dare put the pail down above her.
The sea was higher than it had been, and its waves were streaky, but the wind was now only stiff. Last night’s gale had passed. Billie steadied herself, took hold of a shroud. The hemp thrummed in her palm as the wind drew its long, smooth bow across the few ropes and cables on the steamer. It made a mournful sound, and seemed to be missing something. The wind shoved the stack smoke down, so that several hot smuts hit Billie’s cheeks—like snow in Hell. Billie thought of another phrase and imagined the coalesced shadow from the corner of Edith’s bunk, a black cat, step out of its jute bag and onto the black ice of a Hell frozen over. Billie shook her head.
Henry was at the rail, his back to a group of well-dressed gentlemen—two youths and two men. One of the men was just putting his pipe back in his pocket with the air of one who has tried and failed at something—igniting it, probably. The boys were in the uniform of a military academy, their greatcoats gray and piped with black, the facings of their collars crimson. They wore their scarves high, halving their faces, and their caps pulled low. The second man wore a long astrakhan coat, its blurrily black sable collar turned up around his ears. He held the collar in place with one black-gloved hand. His head was bare, and his thick, phosphorescently pale hair blew forward.
Billie passed the huddled group, nodded to them, cordial. She didn’t catch any eyes. She felt a little self-conscious seeing them so uncomfortable, for this party had formerly occupied the cabin in which Edith was now lying.
It was the first of June, and in summer the journey from Luag to Stolnsay took around ten hours and was undertaken from midnight till morning. The Gustav Edda had come on from bigger mainland ports, and there were no cabins empty for its outermost journey. When Henry and his hugely pregnant wife had presented themselves unexpectedly at the quay at Luag the captain of the steamer had Henry write several letters petitioning “the gentlemen” who had the ship’s four cabins. Three were friends, with a cabin each, and the captain imagined they might be content to bunk together.
Yet it was the letter carried to a hotel adjacent the harbor that was the only one answered. “Dear Sir,” Henry read. “My party is happy to oblige yours. I wish you, and your wife, as comfortable a crossing as can be hoped for in a northerly gale in the bight. Yours etc. MH.” “Mr. Hesketh,” the captain said. “A cousin of Lord Hallowhulme. Hesketh was an officer in King Oskar’s household cavalry. Now he sees things done for Lord Hallowhulme. There’s no love lost between Hesketh and the islanders. Lord Hallowhulme is full of plans, and they say he’s a good-natured fellow, that his heart’s in the right place, but his cousin is the one who keeps the plans in motion whenever they stick.”
Now, although they were on deck together, Henry had his back to the obliging Mr. Hesketh and party. Henry was stooped over the rail, but when Billie stopped beside him she saw he wasn’t unwell, but was hiding, shy.
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