Read an Excerpt
By Ann Cleeves
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Ann Cleeves
All rights reserved.
Jimmy Perez glimpsed the back of the street performer as he drove through the town, but it didn't register. He had other things on his mind.
He'd just landed at the airstrip in Tingwall after a short break in Fair Isle, staying on his parents' croft. Three days of being spoiled by his mother and listening to his father complain about the price of sheep. As always after a trip home, he wondered why he found it so difficult to get on with his father. There were never arguments, no real antagonism, but he always left feeling an edgy mixture of guilt and inadequacy.
Then there was work. The pile of paper he knew would be waiting on his desk. Sandy Wilson's expense forms, a day's labour in themselves. A report to complete for the Procurator Fiscal about a serious assault in a bar in Lerwick.
And Fran. He'd arranged to pick her up at Ravenswick at seven-thirty. He'd need to get back to his house to grab a shower before then. This was a date, wasn't it? The first real date. They'd been knocking around together for six months, friends, but now he felt giddy as a teenager.
He arrived at her house dead on time, his hair still wet, uncomfortable in a new shirt which had a starchy, stiff feel to it, faint creases down the front where it had been folded in the packet. He was always nervous around clothes. What did you wear to a party to celebrate the opening of an art exhibition? When the woman who haunted your dreams and distracted your days was one of the artists? When you hoped, that night, to take her to bed?
She was nervous too. He could tell that as soon as she climbed into the car. She was dressed up in something slinky and black, looking so sophisticated that he couldn't believe he'd have a chance with her. Then she gave that quirky grin that always flipped his stomach, made him feel he'd just spent three hours in The Good Shepherd in a westerly gale. He squeezed her hand. He wanted to tell her how stunning she looked, but because he couldn't think how without seeming crass or patronizing, they drove all the way to Biddista in silence.
The gallery was called the Herring House: once they had dried fish here. It was at the end of a low valley, right on the water, on the west coast. Further along the beach there was a small stone pier where the fishing boats had pulled up to unload their catch; a couple of men still kept boats on the beach. Walk out of the door and there'd be the smell of seaweed and salt. Bella Sinclair said that when she'd first taken over the place there was still a whiff of the herring in the walls.
Bella was the other artist exhibiting. Perez knew her, as almost everyone in Shetland knew her. To chat to at parties, but mostly secondhand, through the stories that were passed around about her. She was a Shetlander, Biddista-born and -bred. Wild in her youth, they said, but now rather unapproachable, intimidating. And rich.
He still felt flustered after the rush from the plane and by the sense that this was his one chance with Fran. He was so clumsy with people's feelings. What if he got it wrong? When he held out his hand to shake Bella's he saw that it was trembling. Perhaps too he'd picked up Fran's anxiety about how her paintings would be received. When they began to circulate among the guests, to look at the work displayed on the bare walls, he felt the tension building even more. He could hardly take in what was happening around him. He talked to Fran, nodded to acquaintances, but there was no real engagement. He felt the pressure build against his forehead. It was like waiting for a thunderstorm on a warm, heavy day. It was only when Roddy Sinclair was brought on to play for them that he could begin to relax for the first time. As if the rain had finally come.
Roddy stood framed by light in the middle of the space. It was nine in the evening, but still sunshine came through the windows cut into the tall, sloping roof. It was reflected from the polished wooden floor and the whitewashed walls and lit his face. He stood still for a moment, grinning, waiting until the guests started to look at him, absolutely sure he would get their attention. Conversation faltered and the room grew quiet. He looked at his aunt, who gave him a smile which was at once indulgent and grateful. He lifted his fiddle, gripped it under his chin and waited again. There was a moment of silence and he began to play.
They had known what to expect and he didn't disappoint them. He played like a madman. It was what he was known for. The show. That, and the music. Shetland fiddle music, which had somehow caught the popular imagination, was played on national radio, raved about by television chatshow hosts. Impossible to believe – a Shetland boy in the tabloids for drinking champagne and dating teenage actresses. He'd hit the big time suddenly. A rock star had named him as his favourite performer and then he was everywhere, in newspapers and on the television and in glossy celebrity magazines.
He hopped and jigged, and the respectable middle-aged people, the art critic from the south, the few great and good who'd driven north from Lerwick, set down their glasses and began to clap to the rhythm. He fell to his knees, lay back slowly so that he was flat on the floor and continued playing without missing a beat, then sprang to his feet and still the music continued. In one corner of the gallery an elderly couple were dancing, surprisingly light-footed, arms linked.
The playing was so furious that the watchers' eyes couldn't follow his fingers. Then suddenly the music stopped. The boy bowed. The people cheered. Perez had seen him play many times before, but was still moved by the performance, felt a jingoistic pride in it, which made him uncomfortable. He looked at Fran. Perhaps this was too sentimental for her. But she was cheering along with the rest.
Bella walked from the shadow into the light to join Roddy. She held out an arm, a self-consciously dramatic gesture to acknowledge the performance.
'Roddy Sinclair,' she said. 'My nephew.' She looked around her. 'I'm just sorry that there weren't more people here to see him.' And in fact the room only contained a scattering of people. Her comment made it suddenly obvious. She must have realized that because she frowned again. Clearly she wished she hadn't mentioned it.
The boy bowed again, grinned, raised his fiddle in one hand and his bow in another.
'Just buy the paintings,' he said. 'That's why you're here. I'm only the warm-up act. The pictures are the main attraction.'
He turned away from them and took a glass of wine from a long trestle laid out against the one bare wall in the room.CHAPTER 2
Fran had already drunk several glasses of wine. She was more nervous than she'd expected to be. When she'd worked on a London magazine she'd attended dozens of these events: first nights, openings, exhibitions. She'd circulated, chatted, remembered names and faces, hidden her boredom. But this was different. Some of the paintings on these walls were hers. She felt raw and exposed. If people rejected or dismissed her work, it would be as if they were dismissing her. She wanted to shout to the people who were catching up on island gossip, who stood with their back to the art: Look properly at the images on the walls. Take them seriously. I don't care if you hate them, but please take them seriously.
And there were fewer people here than she'd expected there to be. Bella's openings were always well attended, but even some of the people Fran had invited – people she'd considered friends – had failed to show. Perhaps they had only been polite when she'd mentioned the exhibition. They'd seen her art and didn't care for it. At least not enough to turn out on a beautiful evening, when there were other things to do. This was the time of year for barbecues and being on the water. Fran took the poor turnout personally.
Perez came up behind her. She sensed the movement and turned. The first thought, as it always was when he caught her in an unguarded moment, was that she wanted to sketch him. Her fingers itched to be holding charcoal. It would be a fluid drawing, no hard edges. Very dark. Perez was a Shetlander. His family had lived in the islands since the sixteenth century, but there was no Viking blood in him. An ancestor had been washed ashore after the wreck of a ship from the Armada. At least that was the story he told. She wondered if he'd just bought into the myth because it was a way of explaining his difference. The strange name. There were a few people in the islands with his dark hair and olive skin – black Shetlanders, the locals called them – but in this gathering he stuck out, looked exotic and foreign.
'It seems to be going well,' he said. Tentative. He seemed in a strange mood tonight. Nerves, perhaps. He knew how much this meant to her. Her first exhibition. And anyway, they were feeling their way in the relationship. She was keeping her distance, her independence. If she got tied up with Perez, she wouldn't only be taking him on. It would be his family, the whole Fair Isle thing. And he'd be taking on a single mother. A five-year-old child. Too much to contemplate, she thought. Only she was contemplating it. In these long summer nights, when it never seemed to get dark, she thought of him. Pictures of him rattled around in her head, like old-fashioned slides dropping into a projector. Occasionally she got up and sat outside her house, watching the sun which never quite set over the grey water, and thought about how she would draw him. His long body turned away from her. The bones under his skin. The hard spine and the curve of buttock. And it was all in her imagination. He had kissed her cheek, touched her arm, but there had been no other physical contact. Perhaps there was some other woman in his life. Someone he dreamed of when he too was kept awake by the light. Perhaps he was waiting for a decision from her.
Soon after they'd first met she'd gone south for a month. She'd told herself it was for her daughter's sake. Cassie had been through the sort of drama that would traumatize an adult and Fran had thought time away from Shetland would help her recover. When Fran had returned Perez had contacted her, asking how things were with her and the girl. Professional interest, Fran had thought, hoping however that perhaps there'd been more to it. An easy friendship had developed. She hadn't pushed it; she was still an outsider here and she wasn't sure exactly what was expected. The failure of her marriage had shattered her confidence. She couldn't face another rejection.
'It's not going well at all,' she said now. 'There's hardly anyone here.' She knew she sounded ungracious, but couldn't help herself. 'You'd think people would come, if only for the free wine and the chance to see Roddy Sinclair.'
'But the people who are here are interested,' he said. 'Look.'
She turned away from him and back into the room. Perez was right. People had turned their attention from the wine and the music and had begun to promenade around the gallery, looking at the paintings, stopping occasionally to concentrate on something specific. The space was evenly divided between her work and Bella's. The exhibition had been designed as a Bella Sinclair retrospective. She was showing thirty years' worth of art; pictures and drawings had been pulled in from collections all over the country. The invitation for Fran to show with her had come out of the blue.
'You should be proud,' Perez said. She wasn't quite sure how to react. She hoped that he would say something flattering about her work. Tonight, jittery and exposed, she could use the flattery.
But his attention was turned to the visitors. 'There's someone who seems very keen.' She followed his gaze to a middle-aged man, who was smart in an arty, unbuttoned sort of way. Slim, almost girlish figure. Black linen jacket over a black T-shirt, loose black trousers. He'd been standing in front of an early self-portrait of Bella. It was Bella at her most outrageous. She was dressed in red with a scarlet gash of lipstick as a mouth, her hair blown away from her face, at once disturbing and erotic. It was an oil, the paint thick and textured, the strokes very free.
Then he moved on to stand next to Roddy Sinclair and to stare at a work of Fran's, a drawing of Cassie on the beach at Ravenswick. Something about the intensity of his looking made her uncomfortable, though it wasn't the sort of picture that would allow him to recognize Cassie in the street. He looked horrified, she thought, not keen. As if he'd just witnessed an atrocity. Or seen a ghost.
'He's not local,' Perez said. Fran agreed. It wasn't just that she didn't recognize him. It was the man's style, which marked him out as a soothmoother. The clothes; the way he held himself and looked at the picture.
'Who do you think he is?' She looked over her glass, tried not to seem too obvious, but still he was staring at the drawing, lost, so she didn't think he'd notice even if he turned round.
'Some rich collector,' Perez said, smiling at her. 'He's going to buy everything here and make you famous.'
She giggled. A brief release of tension. 'Or the arts reporter for one of the Sundays. I'll feature in an article about the next new talent.'
'Seriously,' he said. 'Why not?'
She turned to look at him, assumed that he was joking again, but he was frowning slightly.
'Really,' he smiled again. 'You are very good.'
She wasn't sure what to say, was groping for something witty and self-deprecating, when she saw the man turn round. He fell to his knees, much as Roddy had done when he was playing the violin. Then he put his hands over his face and began to weep.CHAPTER 3
Perez thought that at this time of year everyone went a bit crazy. It was the light, intense during the day and still there at night. The sun never quite slipping behind the horizon, so you could read outside at midnight. The winters were so bleak and black that in the summer folk were overtaken with a kind of frenzy, constant activity. There was the feeling that you had to make the most of it, be outside, enjoy it before the dark days came again. Here in Shetland they called it the 'simmer dim'. And this year was even worse. Usually the weather was unpredictable, changing by the hour, rain and wind and brief spells of bright sunshine, but this year it had been fine for nearly a fortnight. The lack of darkness hit people from the south too. Occasionally their reaction was even more extreme than the locals'. They weren't used to it: the birds still singing late into the evening, the dusk which lasted all night, nature slipping from its accustomed pattern, all that disturbed them.
Watching as the man dressed in black knelt in the pool of sunshine and burst into tears, Perez thought it was a case of midsummer madness and hoped someone else would deal with it. It was a theatrical gesture. The man wouldn't have come here on his own initiative. He would have been invited by Bella Sinclair, or been brought by a regular visitor. The Herring House wasn't easy to get to from the south, even once you reached Lerwick. So it would be about a woman, Perez thought. Or he would be another artist, wanting to draw attention to himself. In his experience, people who were really depressed, who felt like crying all the time, those people didn't seek out the limelight. They hid away in corners and made themselves invisible.
But nobody went to the man's assistance. The people stopped talking and watched in a fascinated, embarrassed way as he continued to sob, his face turned up now to the light, his hands at his sides.
Perez could sense Fran's disapproval beside him. She would expect him to do something. The fact that he wasn't on duty meant nothing. He should know what to do. And it wasn't only that. She took advantage of the fact that he was devoted to her. Everything had to be at her pace. How long had he waited for this date? He was so desperate to please her that he would fit in with her plans. Always. He hadn't realized before how subject he was to her will and the knowledge hit him suddenly. Then, immediately after the rush of frustration, he thought how churlish he was being.
Excerpted from White Nights by Ann Cleeves. Copyright © 2008 Ann Cleeves. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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