The House Between Tides - Sarah Maine

Prologue

1945

The woman stood a moment on the old drive and stared up at the boarded windows, a dark silhouette against the grey walls, then she turned her back on the house and went down to the blaze on the foreshore.

Figures moved in the smoky shadows, small awed groups, lingering after the drama of the auction. They drew back as she approached, a gaunt stranger in a black coat, and a whisper rustled amongst them. Piuthar Blake! She drew nearer to the flames. Bho Lunnainn . . . Gusts of wind formed small tornadoes of sparks, and the woman’s eyes followed them until they faded over the drained stretches of sand. Blake’s sister. From London. An outsider now. More of the house’s contents crashed onto the pyre—a broken display cabinet from the study, an easel riddled with woodworm. The flames were suppressed for a moment, then leapt to consume the offering—and a way of life.

Earlier in the day there had been a macabre episode when the moth-eaten birds and animals had been brought out, their glassy eyes catching the flames, flashing a sharp reproach. A hotel owner had bought the stag’s head from the landing and the rarities had been sent to Edinburgh, while anyone who fancied a tatty guillemot as a souvenir had bid a few pennies. The rest, dusty and faded, had gone onto the bonfire, and she had watched them burn. But she had turned away when the once prized black-and-white diver from the dining room was brought out. It had been found in the back of an old boot cupboard, ravaged by mice, together with more paintings, wrapped in old hessian, too late for the auctioneer’s hammer. The paintings had shocked her: the tormented scenes and heavy brush-strokes exposed too painfully the anguish of her brother’s broken mind, and she had ordered that they too be destroyed. All except one, a watercolour which she remembered well, painted when his talent had been at its outstanding best, and she lingered over it while the others burned, then put it carefully to one side.

A figure approached her. “That’s the last of it, Mrs. Armstrong.” It was Donald. She turned and nodded, smiling slightly, and they stood together, the flames casting flickering shadows across their faces.

“Do you remember the last fire you and I sat beside?” she said, wistful now for other times, and watched his face until the memory found him.

“The day we all went to see the seal pups? Cooked fish on the beach?”

She gave an echo of her puckish smile, grateful that he remembered. “A perfect day.” And she turned back to the fire. “I often think of it.” A smile brightened her face and was gone, and a gull circled them, gave a cry, and flew off across the machair. “And now there’s only you and me.” The flaming easel fell noisily into a void beneath it, sending up a spray of sparks. “I thought that day marked the beginning of everything, but the world tore itself apart instead—” And hell came to earth on Flanders fields.

She looked towards the foreshore, where they had pulled up the boats that day, empty now, then she glanced back at Donald, seeing in the middle-aged man the child who had once run shouting beside her as they splashed barefoot through sparkling pools left by the retreating tide, drenched in sunshine, the divisions of class overruled by the compact of childhood. But there had been other children too. Her brother, and his.

She strained her eyes across the strand, shedding the pain as she had taught herself to do, and looked instead at the vibrant Hebridean sky. Midsummer half-light. But when the last colour had drained from the west, she knew there would be a pale light in the east, and she clung to that thought, keeping her back turned resolutely on the house.

All day the men had worked to fix boarding across the windows, entombing the house, blinding it. The thud of their hammers still pounded in her head, but at least the job was done, and in the morning she would leave. “What will become of it, Donald?” The man beside her stayed silent. “At least the land is in good hands, and the farmhouse is now your own.” She brushed aside his renewed thanks. “A few papers to sign and then the matter is completed.”

The fire was almost sated now; it had burned quickly, fanned by gusts which blew unhindered across the two miles of open land. “I don’t