top of page
Unbaked Pie

A Child's Solstice on the Island

It was my own stupid fault.

No one made me do it. No one had hinted, or suggested, or encouraged, or done anything at all to result in me, sitting there, all alone at rising-fifteen, seeing in the Solstice in the bleakest, coldest, most nerve-wrackingly isolated place on the whole ruddy Island. In the dark.

But there I was. And I had only myself to blame.

I hadn’t planned to go there.

When my Gammer had slipped creakily into sleep, it had been in the comfortable belief that her darling granddaughter, her precious feathered chick, yours truly, was safe, snug and sound in the cottage alongside her, and with no plans to be anywhere else in the world.

And for once in her protractedly misguided life, she had been right.

I was safe, I was — thanks to an extra stick or two in the grate, and the warm but lumpy woollen shawl slipping from my arms — snug, and I was as sound in mind and body as a body could reasonably wish to be. As far as anyone was concerned I had not a care in the world. Beyond the usual cares of scraping a life from the Island muck, anyway.

It was just that the walls seemed to be closing in on me.

Not literally. The stones weren’t groaning along the ground as they slowly shuffled towards me, or propelled inexorably inward by some fiendish, rattling mechanism. The cottage wasn’t shrinking away to nothing with Gammer and me still trapped, human-sized, within. There wasn’t even a gigantic, armoured figure of a man wrapping his gauntleted fingers about our moss grown walls to crush the little dwelling in one steel-clad palm.

That would have been interesting, at least.

It was just that the place felt smaller, in those days, and I couldn’t quite see why.

I hadn’t expected to feel this way.

I’d had no real expectations for the night at all, Solstice or not, beyond getting a few hours uninterrupted peace while Gammer slept, ostensibly to watch for the sunrise, and in reality to finish work on the long, yellow tangle of wool that would hopefully turn into a pair of new woollen stockings in time for me to give them to Gammer in the morning.

I was very bad at knitting.

Still am for that matter.

Fortunately Gammer’s eyesight was so bad by that point that as long as they were the right size and roughly the right shape, she wouldn’t notice that they were less stockings and more a series of dropped stitches held together with hope, stubbornness, and some frankly Gordian knots.

They would be warm, at least, and the colour was bright enough that she’d be able to see them. Especially the spots where they’d started to come unravelled and I’d darned the holes in violet.

I took up my needles and settled in for the night.

I’d worked on these stockings for months, snatching odd half hours to work or, more often unwork a row or two away from Gammer’s kindly eye. It had been tough going, knitting after dark more often than not, and I still had almost half the pair to do.

Still, with the whole Solstice night ahead of me, I was sure I could be finished before the sun rose and Gammer stirred her chilly bones from the narrow bed.

Now, finally, I had peace, quiet, a good lamp to work by, and nothing else to do for the long, deep, velvet night.

Naturally, then, I got them finished in no time.

In a different story I wouldn’t have.

In another kind of story the whole thing would have unravelled in a heap, or I’d have run out of yarn, or the needles would have broken, or some other useful disaster would have occurred.

Then this could have been the story of how I went door to door through the long cold night, doing a favour here, finding kindness there, borrowing wool and needles, and probably lace and ribbons too, until, in the end, Gammer got her stockings after all.

Probably much nicer ones than the lumpen monstrosities sitting, neatly folded on the stool in front of me.

It would have been a heartwarming story. The sort of story mainlanders tell to little children to remind them of the importance of kindness, or providence, or community, or some other such drivel. The kind that you see illustrated with some cosy winter scene, the whole thing framed in evergreens and topped off with a couple of robins looking sweet and festive and not at all as if they’d try to peck each other’s eyes out as soon as the artist’s back was turned.

They’re very territorial birds, robins. Vicious little buggers too.

But this wasn’t that kind of story.

This was the story of a girl, teetering on the brink of womanhood; feeling lost and crowded and lonely all at once; in a cottage that felt too small.

The stockings sat smugly on their stool.

They were not the heartwarming stockings of a children’s story. They had no hidden meaning, no charming moral. They were snarled, and wonky, and utterly devoid of lace.

Unless you counted those awkward bits down by the heels that were more hole than yarn.

I resisted the urge to unpick them.

It would be easily done, I reasoned: just find an end and pull and the whole thing would come undone. They were practically falling apart anyway. And then I could start over and, as quickly as I’d finished them the first time round, surely I could have them knitted again before the sunrise.

Knitted properly this time, too, with the lamp to see by. Then Gammer could have a nice pair of stockings, without any holes or lumpy bits.

Or she could have a shapeless pile of strands, a granddaughter in tears, and no stockings at all for the Solstice.

I knew how those kinds of stories went too, thank you very much.

I pushed the stockings and their stool into the corner, and turned my back on them. There had to be something else I could do.

There wasn’t.

I couldn’t even scan the room in vain for something to do. The place was too small, too sparse, and —most frustratingly of all — too tidy to hide any unexpected diversions.

I had read every book, swept every crevice, stoked the fire and raked out the ashes. 

The result was a clean, cosy, low-eaved box of a place, charming only if you didn’t have to live in it.

And absolutely nothing to do.

We might have a visitor, of course. That was the sort of thing people did on the Solstice. Gammer’d even baked a pie, out of her hoarded store of dried fruit and nuts, in preparation for any guests. I doubted we would have any, though, with the candle burning low, and her soft snores drifting through the window to the gloomy road outside.

There was no reason I shouldn’t go visiting myself, perhaps, but I was self-aware enough, at fourteen, to realise that no one should have to put up with my company right then. Least of all myself.

Despite myself I scanned the room. It remained depressingly neat.

There was, no doubt, a gift of some sort, stowed beneath the low, narrow bed. Some unguent of Gammer’s own making; or the God carved in driftwood, to add to the endless gory carvings already covering every wall; or, if I was very lucky, a book, second or third hand at best, and five years too young for me. I could, if I was very careful, pull it out and give myself something to do for a while. At worst this might give me a chance to rehearse my exclamations of pleased surprise in readiness for the morning.

I rejected this plan: I could manage pleased surprise very well without rehearsal, and even if the waiting gift was a good book, reading it now would take a couple of hours at best, and would leave me with nothing to do in the morning. Which would be even worse, in a way, because what excuse would I have to complain when, in Gammer’s eyes at least, I’d have a brand new book?

Four, or even two years ago I might have done it anyway. Now I was all too aware of the consequences. Could imagine the sigh and slump of Gammer’s disappointment, that prickle of awareness that her precious child was not as charmed as she out to be. I felt the weight of the responsibility to be her precious child. At least for a little while more.

There was a stifling kind of helplessness in being almost-fifteen. Of being “too young to understand,” but always “old enough to know better.” A child when it suited them, grown-up whenever they needed; hemmed about at every turn. All the responsibilities of adulthood, with none of the independence.

Perhaps it was no wonder that the walls were closing in.

I scanned the room again. It remained small, tidy, and stifling.

The stockings gloated at me from their stool.


That did it.

I jumped to my feet, threw the shawl higgledy piggledy about my head and shoulders, and crashed out into the black, icy night.

Then I went back in to get the lantern.

And to put on my boots, cut a wedge of Gammer’s pie, wrap it securely in a cloth to stop the filling falling out, and, just in case, write a note for Gammer.

Gone out.

Back soon.

Love, Dora.

There. Nice and straightforward. She wouldn’t be able to read it, of course, but I’d left enough notes over the years that just the sight of it would set her mind at ease.

I folded the note, set it on top of the stockings, with a sprig of withered oak leaves, by way of a festive touch, and was just looking around the cottage, wondering if there was anything else I had forgotten, when I realised that I was now putting off my spontaneous bid for freedom.

I was, it was true, the least spontaneous person I knew, and since most of the people I knew back then were fishermen, or shepherds, or other quiet, patient types, that was saying something.

At this moment, though, trapped between the tedium of the long night and an  ever-shrinking cottage, I felt I had to do get away or I would explode. In the circumstances, standing about wondering if I’d banked the coals properly seemed a little beside the point.

I checked anyway.

Then, before I could think of anything else. Before fear, or duty, or the inexpressible weight of being a small, quiet girl in a small, quiet life, on a small, quiet, occasionally murderous, muddy island could pull me back any more, I stepped out and closed the door.

I shivered. Only mostly from the cold.

In the dark of the night the street felt strange and silent.

The sky above was infinitely black, scattered with stars so bright and so clear that I felt I should be able to reach out my hand and touch one, yet at the same time unimaginably, impossibly far away. In every corner the shadows seemed darker, deeper; trees in the distance denser and more impenetrable; before me the road reflected back blackness and starlight in equal measure, winding into invisibility to end who knew where.

Well, I knew. And so did every other daft sod on the Island. On account of walking it every day of our ruddy lives. Still, on a night like this, I wasn’t so sure.

 It was as though the whole world had opened up, the narrow street of little cottages spreading, like the pages of a book, to let in the great, vast, emptiness of shadow, land, and sky.

On a night like this a road might go anywhere.

I turned my steps, half eager and half afraid, toward that black and silver road. The night’s silence reached out to embrace me, cool, and deep, and absolute, hushing even the thudding of my heart, and the unmeasured tides of my breathing. An impenetrable silence, strange, magical and enticing.

And promptly broken by a great belch of laughter rolling out of the cottage two doors down.

I hurried away up the road, quieted breath catching in my throat.

It wasn’t that I was afraid of breaking the enchantment of that cold, quiet moment. I’ve never more than half believed in magic at the best of times, and besides, the shadowed road might have been beautiful, but its charm was eerie enough that it could have done with a little cracking, if you asked me.

The thing was, I didn’t want anybody to ask me. Particularly not the people laughing in the cottage down the road.

It’s not that the Hegglers weren’t perfectly nice people. They were, not just in the slightly disapproving, distasteful way that people say: “It’s not that they’re not perfectly nice people,” but in the much more literal sense that they really were perfectly nice people. They were kind to children and animals; had a friendly word for even the worst tempered, most unfriendly passersby; and could be counted on, when things grew more than usually lean, to be miraculously short of time to feed their chickens but: “If you could find your way to doing it, Dora love, we can only pay you in eggs, but it’s something, isn’t it?”

They were truly, genuinely nice.

And they always made sure to have a seat set by for Gammer, and to leave space for any small children, so they could get a good view at the sacrificial bonfire.

Niceness can be complicated, on the Island, sometimes.

The thing was that niceness, right then, was the one thing I didn’t think I could stand.

There are times, I find, when life, or troubles, or just the worrisome burden of doing everything that needs to be done, day after day after day unending becomes too oppressive to bear, when the only thing that lets you hold yourself together and keep going is that nobody has the bad manners to be nice to you about it.

It’s probably not very healthy, but there it is.

If anyone had tried to be kind to me in that moment, my self possession would have popped like an over-extended balloon.

No matter that all that was bothering me was the vague, indescribable awfulness of being not-yet-an-adult, with no particular responsibilities to my name, a grandmother who loved me, and a good or at least adequate roof over my head.

It’s all very well to say that that sort of thing will seem ridiculous when you look back on it. It looked pretty damn stupid to me there and then, too. But it hurt all the same.

It was stupid enough, and hurt enough, that the thought of telling anyone that it hurt was like an impassable obstacle in my path: I couldn’t do it, couldn’t attempt it, couldn’t see any way past or around it. The only thing to do was to avoid it at all costs.

Niceness, right then, was the one thing I could not bear.

If I stayed there on the road, then a Heggler would come out and be nice to me. They would be warm, and cheerful, and friendly. They might even use the word “jolly.’

Faced with this indescribable, almost blasphemous-seeming horror, I fled.

Scurrying away, I couldn’t get the thought of the Hegglers out of my mind.

They’d be in and out of each other’s homes all night, that night, the whole, sprawling, extended family of them; crowding round this fireplace and that, throwing open doorways and squeezing up to make room for the stragglers, full of cheer and goodwill, and swearing that “A bit of a squash just makes it more fun.” I wished them well of it, for all I wouldn’t want to join them.

Then again, they had three or four cottages between the lot of them, and nobody needed to be squashed who didn’t want to.

Molly’s family, almost as big as the Hegglers’, were all squashed into one small cottage, just a little further down, with no escape for anyone, this night of all nights.

Of course, either one of Molly’s parents might have gone out to the Inn, “Just for a half: I’ll be back before you know it,” and then stayed there the whole night; but they’d have to face the full fire of  a spouse’s rage when they finally rolled home. Molly herself could, on a normal night, have snuck off to see whoever it was she was seeing these days, but tonight — well, whoever it was would be with their own family, celebrating, or sleeping, or quarrelling, or whatever it was they did, and they wouldn’t want Molly to come and join them.

They never did want Molly to come and join them, somehow.

I could have asked her over myself, if I’d thought of it before I’d begun this stupid trek into the night.

We could have sat, wrapped in shawls by the fire; whispering over Molly’s latest conquest or consoling over her latest disaster; giggling as I dropped stitches, and frantically shushing each other at the sound of Gammer stirring on the bed. We could have mulled small beer, and roasted the last hoarded chestnuts, fingers already sticky from picking at Gammer’s pie.

It would have been a cozy night: one of warmth and confidences, of secrets shared by the fire. It would have been pleasant.

It might even have eased the stupid aching in my chest. If only by reminding me that things could be worse than a quiet home, and one kind old grandmother to share it with.

There could be no grandmother at all, for one thing.

I bit down on that thought, hard, and threw it away.

It was too late now, anyway, I told myself, as the path turned up the hill and away. I was out of the cottage now, and there was no turning back.

Which was nonsense, of course. I could turn back any time I wanted to. I had nowhere to be and no one depending on me. This was just a walk to clear my head, not a tragic quest to the unknown. The cottage would be there, if I turned back, just as it always had been, with Molly’s place just a little further on, down the road.

But I’d come this far already, and brought the pie and the lantern along with me, just as if I was going on some grand adventure. It would have felt weak, would have seemed limp and pathetic to go walking home again after all.

I was stupid at fourteen.

It did occur to me, as I squared my shoulders and started to climb, that, for all she did her best to be feckless and unreliable, it was quite possible that both of Molly’s parents had gone to the Inn, leaving her in charge of her brawling, bawling brothers and sisters, but I put it out of my mind. It was too late now.

As I said, I was stupid at fourteen.

The Inn wouldn’t have been any better, mind, so far as crowding went. It might even have been worse. The difference, I supposed, was in the company. Or maybe it was in choosing to be there: making, by your own free will, the conscious decision to go into that crowd, to be part of the press and the roar, of the sheer inexplicable joy of a great mass of people, all likewise choosing to take part. And then, when you were ready, to go creeping home again, in the soft hush of a new morning, to a house no longer rattled with shrieks and small, petty gripings, but quiet and still; squabbling children now angelic in their sleep. Sweet, peaceful, and oh — so beloved.

If Molly hadn’t throttled the lot of them, that was.

Molly’s parents wouldn’t be the only ones seeking escape from the noise of home in the louder racket of the Inn.

The place would be packed from wall to wall, like salt fish in a barrel, everyone shouting to be heard in the cheerful uproar and so increasing the din until the noise was as thick and impenetrable as barley soup; mugs waving along to impromptu choruses, jostling on tables and ledges till no one knew their own drink from their neighbours, and no one cared. It would be a raucous, ecstatic revelry, as half the Island crowded together in cheering, shoulder-slamming, single-minded joy.

Single minded apart from Tom, the Innkeeper, anyway, who looked, whenever I saw him, even on the quietest of days, as though he’d rather be almost anywhere than behind the bar of an inn.

I wondered where innkeepers went to escape from the fuss and bother of home. They couldn’t go to their inn: they were already there, and besides that inn was home, to them, so its fuss and bother would be the exact sort they wanted to get away from, and not helpful at all.

Maybe, to be an innkeeper, you had to like fuss and bother, or at least to be the sort who could ignore them; for whom both fuss and bother were problems for other people.

Tom, I suspected, could neither enjoy fuss and bother, nor ignore them.

No more could I, really, mind, but I could pretend at least. Tom always had a hunted sort of look, which seemed out of place on the most prosperous man on the Island. Which — people being people, and Tom’s ale being, it seemed, Tom’s ale — he was.

Unless you counted them at the Hall, of course.

I couldn’t see the Inn or the Hall right now.

Which, looking back, should have been a clue of sorts. If I hadn’t been so lost in my own thoughts, it probably would have been. As it was, caught between the magic of the moment and my own roving conjecture, I had no hope.

Roads look different at night. Daylight landmarks disappear and others take their place. A spindly stand of trees can seem the start of unending woodland, a narrow beck an impassable river. Slopes become steeper, paths more perilous, thickets…well, thicker. All of which was to say that I had no earthly idea where I was or where I was headed. I would have turned back if I’d known. I think. Almost certainly.

At the very least I would have minded the lamp.

I should be able to see the Hall, I thought.

I’d been headed upward for some time now, and pretty much any high point on the Island would give you a sight of the Hall — The Pride to give it its proper name, which no one ever did — standing high amongst the wilting orchards like a stork on a nest of weeds.

I turned, then turned again, wondering if I was looking the wrong way, squinting for a glimmer of lights in the black, but I could see nothing.

I should have felt a thrill down my spine at finding no sign of life at all. You’d think, after dwelling on the magic of the moment for so long it barely counted as a moment, that I would have felt something on being presented with a genuinely eerie sight. Or rather, and much more uncanny, a lack of sight. Instead, my practical mind asserted itself: You can’t see the light, it pointed out, because there is no light. It’s so late by now that they’ve all gone to bed.

I did feel a little tremble of excitement, at that. Here I was, out in the dark and the wild, or as wild as you could get on a populated island not so very much bigger than the average sandbar, away from the humdrum coil of daily life, with every living thing but me asleep, even the rabbits and the sly-eyed foxes who crept through the evening brush. Not a moth stirring, not a bat flittering above. Only myself and the night.

Of course, having spoken up once my practical mind didn’t want to keep quiet. There might be plenty of bats, it pointed out, but it was too dark to see them. The same went for foxes and rabbits, too. And as for moths, not all or even most of them would be attracted to a lamp. Besides, I knew I wasn’t the only one awake tonight: it was the Solstice, after all, and hadn’t I been musing, not ten minutes ago on what a great crowd there would be in the Inn, and families running in and out of one another’s doors, and all manner of things like that?

My practical mind could be a real pain in the backside sometimes.

And, it added, warming to its  theme, you don’t know that they even keep the Solstice up at the Hall. They’ve got their own traditions there, you know that. You’ve read about them.

Which was true.

Perhaps, if I’d been a nicer person, at fourteen, I would have wondered about that boy I saw, sometimes, when I went by the Hall gates. Would have asked myself what it must be like, for someone, at around about my own age, adrift in a sea of strangers. Would ask how it must feel when the whole Island was caught up in something to which he, with silent finality, was not invited.

I might have asked how he must feel, to see the wreaths of brown leaves and green hanging over the doorways, to hear cries of riotous merriment caught on the wind, to know that there was life, and happiness, and fellowship, down there, and none of it was for him.

To be so totally alone.

Alone except for his parents, that was. And the frankly excessive amounts of Mainlander staff that seemed to throng the Hall and its grounds alike.

Maybe the staff adored him. I know his parents didn’t.

That seems to be the rule, from what I’ve seen of such families: they pass their offspring off to one hand or another, to keep them clean, and fed, and out of the way, until they can make themselves useful.

Which isn’t so different from most parents on the Island, really, although they tend to skip the servant part.

And the clean, more often than not.

And sometimes the fed.

Still, Island homes being, as I’ve mentioned, small and crowded by nature, most parents can’t simply avoid their children altogether. They have to see them in the mornings, at the very least, before everyone sets out, and again at night, and for whatever mealtimes they can manage. It’s hard to leave someone entirely alone, when you’re stuck hearing them fart in their sleep all night, and fighting them for the last spoon of porridge every morning.

I suspect it’s a lot easier in a place like the Hall.

Did, the servants fuss over him? His old housekeeper seemed pretty doting from what I recollect, but that was years later, already with the mist of memory on her eyes, and a childhood can look very different from the outside, to an adult with her own life and her own trials to contend with. Had she doted on him then? Had anyone? I’ve no idea.

Perhaps he spent the winter indulged and cosseted, everyone’s pet, from the stately butler to the smirking boot-boy three years younger than he but already, by his own lights, older and wiser by far. Perhaps he spent the long nights surrounded by warmth and kindness, with not a second’s regret, until the tide came to take him back to his mainland school.

Or perhaps the servants kept their own festivities below stairs, and his parents theirs above, and he was left to the bread-and-butter of the nursery, declared too good for one, too intrusive for the other, until he could escape at last, to be miserable in the company of other miserable boys who would all, once time had blurred their recollection and habit or sheer bloody-mindedness saw them sending their own poor progeny off in just such a state, declare that it had been the very best of good times, or at the least had Never Done Them Any Harm.

Perhaps if I’d thought about it I could have gone, dressed in my best, with a bunch of holly or some other excuse, and befriended a lonely boy with no other friend in the world.

Perhaps if I’d done that then Himself With All The Apple Trees wouldn’t have grown up to be such a complete and utter overblown, pretentious, hyperbolic, self-important ass.

Perhaps. If I’d realised that here was someone else, all alone in a crowd of people, hemmed in with expectations and with no idea what to do. Someone else trapped.

If I hadn’t been so selfish.

But I was.

Stupid, and selfish, and not very nice.

And I knew it, too. Which didn’t help matters.

What I mostly knew, at that particular point in time, though, was that I was lost.

It was all that turning round that had done it, searching for a light.

And that’s what getting lost in your head gets you, smirked my practical mind, triumphantly.

I ignored me.

Alright, so the path was more or less non-existent by now, and all the shrubs and bushes seemed to have moved round while I wasn’t looking, but still: I’d been heading upward, more or less, before I got distracted, so if I headed upward again I’d be going in more or less the right direction.

The right direction for what?

For pretending I wasn’t lost.

Perhaps a wiser head would have considered that, since I’d been headed up before, the best plan might be to head down, in the hopes of finding something familiar, in which case I would be not only not even a little bit lost, but also a lot nearer to home. Frankly I had had it with being wise. Or practical. Or sensible, or dependable or any of the other things that everybody told me I was, day after day. 

Well, all right, they never actually told me I was wise.

I thought it sometimes, though, when I saw people making absolute bloody fools of themselves over this argument, or that ideal, or quite often other people.

If this is the wisdom that comes with age, I’d thought, then I must be a ruddy genius.

Well right then I didn’t care about making a fool of myself. I’d been good, and practical and sensible and — in my own head at least — wise, for so long that it made me want to scream. I didn’t want to sit in the cottage, doing whatever I was expected to do until the next set of expectations came along. I wanted something more than that. Something better.

Failing that, something else.

I had no idea what I wanted, mind you, or how to get it, or what I’d do once I’d got it.

I just knew that it didn’t involve lumpy knitting in a too-small, too-crowded, too-empty cottage until someone else decided what I was going to be.

Almost anything seemed better than that.

And right then, anything meant climbing a hill.

On the bright side, I’d almost finished the climb now.

I stopped for a breath. Then another as the cold night air seemed to tighten round my chest as though I’d been encased in granite. Then a third, caught unbidden in my throat as the thought of cold, unmoving stone brought reality leaping into sight.

I knew where I was now.

Somehow, in the strange, silvered, grey-and-black, unreality of the night; lost in my rambling thoughts; with my feet equally rambling, equally lost beneath me, I had found my way to the Sentinel Stone.

I don’t know how to describe the Sentinel Stone.

Or I do, rather, but I’ve already done that, in another story, and beyond “Tall. Black. Stone.” there isn’t all that much to say.

The main thing about the Stone, though, isn’t its height, which is significant; or how black it is, which is very; or even that it’s a stone. Although it is. It’s that nobody on the Island ever goes near it.

Except when they have to, obviously, and children will dare each other to get close, and sometimes someone might wander up there without really thinking about what they’re doing. But apart from that, we leave the Stone, and the glade beyond it, very firmly alone.

You get that sort of thing all over, as I understand it. Maybe there’s a tree whose leaves are just a little redder than all the other trees; or a little pond, perfectly pleasant, but it’s just a mite too quiet when you get down close to the water; or some old statue whose face, over years of moss and weathering, has grown a little too sinister a leer.

And you don’t go anywhere near them. Or if you have to you go quickly and don’t look too closely, and you catch yourself and laugh when you’re safely out of the way, but you don’t go back, and most of all you never, ever touch.

Eerie places.

The Sentinel Stone was one of those.

Except that it was one of those to the Island.

And the Island wasn’t so much full of eerie places as it was one big eerie place all by itself. A place of strange storms and stranger becalmings. Of cruel stones, twisted trees, and sudden, fleeting softnesses. An island where, and I cannot stress this too firmly, once a year the inhabitants got together and had a big, friendly celebration with music, and laughter, and a big bonfire on which they burned someone alive.

So you should understand what I mean when I tell you that even we gave the Sentinel Stone a wide berth.

I’ve only ever known one person dare to walk past the Stone to the glade beyond, and he was such a blessed idiot he hardly counts. And even he was pretty unnerved by the thing.

Alright, two people, but the other one was me.

Anyway none of that had happened yet. I hadn’t made that walk, or its discoveries, hadn’t met Norman Poltwhistle, hadn’t yet taken the first step into adulthood and all that would come with it. Not quite.

I was just me, Dora Makepeace, not yet fifteen, staring, for the first time in my life, at the plain, blank, infinitely disturbing Stone.

For about two seconds.

At which point, the little flame of my lantern, which had burned steadily all the way there, and, as it now occurred to me, for a good part of the evening before, began to flicker wildly, casting the stone alternately in and out of sight.

Fortunately, Islanders are used to such decorative histrionics. More fortunately yet, my practical mind chose that moment to reassert herself and pointed out that The candle’s almost burned out, look at it — it’s just a scrap of wick in a puddle of tallow. It’ll go out altogether if you don’t steady it. Which rather took the drama out of the thing.

But just then practicality seemed suddenly very appealing indeed, much more so than the sort of theatrical, flibbertigibbet behaviour that could lead a girl to find herself all alone, at night, in the one place that absolutely no one ever wanted to be.

I put the lantern down to steady it.

It immediately went out.

Within its lightless depths a thin blue plume of smoke drifted up, twisting helplessly against the panels of yellow horn like a metaphor for my own helpless, pent up life.

Well, probably it did. I couldn’t see either way because, as I’ve mentioned, there wasn’t any light.

You flooded it. Said my practical mind.

“Yes, I know, shut up” I said out loud, which was possibly the stupidest thing I could have done, even beyond letting the candle go out, not only because my words resounded in the terrible, silent night like the ringing of some awful, final bell, tolling the peal of a doom inescapable, but because opening my mouth also meant letting the cold air in, so my ribs hurt even more and I began to cough and splutter.

Which at least helped to dispel the sense of impending doom.

The coughing fit went on for some time, so that I was reminded, in a vague, disconnected way, of various heroines who, for reasons generally not much better than mine, had wandered out onto this moor, or that desolate shore, the better to commune with the wailing wind that echoed the agony of their aching hearts, and subsequently, and with significantly less hacking and spluttering than in my case, had caught cold and died.

When I had read those stories, safe indoors with at least a small fire, it had struck me as a particularly stupid way to die.

Now, the victim of my own, idiotic, adolescent heart; coughing my lungs up in the bleak and lightless wild, I wasn’t so sure.

Fortunately I stopped coughing after a while, and promptly felt like a fool for worrying.

I wasn’t going to die of a cold.


The word “Hypothermia” drifted across my mind and was ruthlessly quashed.

It wasn’t that cold yet.

I didn’t think it was.

Anyway, I had more pressing things to worry about.

The first of which was that, between the light going out and the coughing fit, and being on the flat again, I no longer had any idea which way was which.

Which was something of a problem.

In one direction, presumably, was the slope I’d just climbed which would, if I reversed my steps and headed down, lead me back home, chastened, perhaps, and chilled, but alive and well. 

In another, as best I could recall, was a reasonably easy, then suddenly much steeper slope, handily supplied with rocks in various sizes and shapes perfect for a stumbling girl to hit her head on. In the third, fourth, and fifth directions respectively, lay a waterfall, the rushing, stony-bedded stream that fed into the waterfall, and the Unholy Well.

Remember what I said about eerie places?

All but one of these directions could lead to my horrible, ignominious, highly embarrassing death.

And I didn’t even have my best drawers on.

The remaining possibility was that I would walk right smack into the Sentinel Stone itself, or if I was particularly unlucky, straight past the Stone and into the glade behind it.

It wasn’t that I honestly believed walking that into that glade would be a fate worse than death, it was just that I didn’t particularly want to find out.

As I saw it the odds stood at four to two in favour of sudden, stupid death, with the chance of safety no better than that of sudden unknown creepiness.

With this in mind, I froze. But in a sensible, not at all petrified by foolish superstitions, sort of way.

Of course I knew, logically speaking, that there must be a reasonable amount of space around me, but I wasn’t in a very logical place just then, emotionally or literally. Besides, it’s best to be careful, in the dark.

I fumbled for the lantern and found it on the fourth try.

In the few moments since it had been extinguished, the iron loop at the top had gone from blistering heat to stinging cold, and not so much as a burned ember glimmered from within.

I pulled it close anyway. I’d only trip on it in the dark if I didn’t.

The pie, which I had set down on the ground the better to look for the lantern, was now nowhere to be found. In theory it should be next to my foot, or at least within shuffling range. In practice, it was not.

If I went walking around trying to find it, I would either end up with my boot encased in pastry and mixed fruit, or, as I drifted aimlessly in the dark, I’d lose track of my location entirely and go toppling into one or the other aforementioned horrible deaths.

Carefully, very gingerly, I sat down.

No, dear reader, I did not sit on the pie.

What I sat on was grass. Long, lush, thick, and, as not even sheep were daft enough to come here, untouched by hand or tooth. And while we’re applying adjectives, it was also cold, muddy, and soak-your-stockings damp.

My own stockings, which were on the small side and threadbare besides, remained thankfully unsoaked, due the protective qualities of my best winter petticoat, with two lesser petticoats beneath it. Which was bad news for the laundry — which was to say me — some time in the future, but very good news right then as it meant I was somewhat insulated from the cold.

And it was cold.

At least, down on the ground and sheltered somewhat by the massive Stone, I was out of the wind, but the air was bitter enough without it, and the chill struck up through the ground like knives.

I huddled my knees up to my chin and wrapped my petticoat more tightly around my ankles.

Like that, and with the shawl pulled over my head and shoulders, it was almost bearable.

I began to regret the pie immensely.

If you were stranded in the cold, you were supposed to eat something. I was sure I’d read that somewhere. It kept you alert, or replaced the energy used up in shivering. Something like that. The old fishermen said so too, when they were in a yarn-telling mood, going on about shipwrecks, and the Custom Of The Sea, and shooting sly glances at the green-faced young ones, to see how they were taking it.

We’ve only known two cases of cannibalism on the Island, not counting the God.

And one of those was a mistake.

Still, leg of cabin boy aside, I could really do with a nibble.

It was a good pie, too.

Gammer didn’t have many talents, and between losing her eyesight and having what were best referred to as Ideas, what talents she did have had tended to drift, a little, over the years. Her pie, however, remained impeccable.

She didn’t make it often because it was, without an oven, a long days work and often a nights as well, but for the Solstice, and on special occasions now and then, she’d scour the table, roll up her sleeves, and, by means of a series of pans and dishes, with hot coals heaped over the top, achieve what might be the very paragon of pies; light, crisp pastry, rich fruit, nuts at the perfect point between thick, unctuous richness and crisp fragility.

She even managed to resist adding any…let’s say less usual ingredients.

Apart from the stones she used as pie weights, anyway, which were gathered from the shore every year, and thrown back after use. And even those never did worse than add the odd touch of gravel to the bottom crust, or, on rare occasions, enliven the baking process by exploding.

“Recycling nature’s bounty” she called it, which almost made sense. By Gammer’s standards at least.

Gammer considered herself the Island’s Wise Woman, and I’m not saying she was wrong, but by the God, if it was true I worried about the rest of us.

Just then I felt that she, being snug in bed under her own roof with almost an entire pie at her disposal, was at the very least wiser than me.

The odd thing was that I didn’t entirely regret it.

Yes, I was stranded on a hilltop, in the cold, at night, in a place where men and sheep feared to tread. And yes, my skirts were developing new and exciting stains that would likely escape even my firmest ministrations with Gammer’s best ivy soap (now causes twenty percent more blisters than last year’s). And yes, it was entirely possible that by the time the sun rose I would be frozen solid like the girl in that nasty, self-congratulatory little story I got from the mainland the year before.

If I wasn’t devoured by strange beasts, or turned into a stone, or stolen away to a shadow land beyond the ken of mortal mind.

But at least I wasn’t clawing the walls wanting to get out.

If nothing else, in the face of a little actual peril, my earlier woes seemed pointless and maudlin beyond belief.

Yes, I would now give a fair bit to be back home, but self knowledge was its own reward, or some such thing, and at least the walk had cleared my head a little.

And, as a would-be-bracing breath triggered another coughing fit, my lungs.

So I didn’t truly regret the walk. Still I had to admit, it currently presented more problems than it had solved.

What problems did I really have, anyway? I wondered.

It would be easy to put my woes down to some temperamental adolescent malaise.

I’m sure if this were a novel that’s all it would be. “Growing pains” they’d say or “going through that awkward stage” but that wasn’t it.

Gammer would tell me I was trying to find myself, but that would be wrong too.

I didn’t need to find myself.

I had known since I was very young, known with blistering, bone searing certainty, who I was and who I wasn’t.

What I didn’t know was what to do about it.

What I was, was someone who didn’t fit.

Everyone else, everyone my age that was, or thereabouts, knew what they were going to make of their lives. They had plans, they had expectations, they had trades and apprenticeships. Their futures lay before them, perfectly mapped, with their feet set square upon the road ahead.

I hadn’t, and mine didn’t, and mine weren’t.

It’s not that I felt better or worse than everyone around me. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do what they could, or that I looked down on the toil that was, for everyone else, a mere fact of life.

It was just that nothing ever felt right somehow.

I could pretend. I did pretend. I went along as I was supposed to do, and, besides some whispered giggling with Molly when no one else was about never, let on that I wasn’t as settled and satisfied with my life as everyone around me. But still I felt out of kilter, one step back from the crowd, not above but apart and with no real wish to be anything else.

I just wanted it all to make sense.

I reminded myself firmly that I had a good home, a good friend, a Gammer who loved me, and no urgent need to do anything other than I’d been doing all these years.

Which was true, for what it was worth, but it didn’t make anything better.

What’s more, I admitted at last, just to myself and the silent, unseen Stone, I wasn’t sure how long any of it would last.

One day Molly would finally have enough of her ever-growing family and a cottage bulging at the seams and she’d be off, to wherever a hopeful heart and a beautiful face would carry her. Or she’d settle down, with some true love or other, to make a family of her own, with cares and wishes that didn’t have room for an awkward, uninspired friend who could never want the things she so clearly did.

The little cottage wasn’t going anywhere, perhaps, but that was Gammer’s roof, not mine, and one day — no. Even there, with no one to hear it, I couldn’t face that thought.

Most of all I was growing up.

There was no way to avoid it, and not only because I’d had to trade with the neighbours twice in the last year for a set of stays willing to support my changing shape.

I couldn’t stay at home forever, helping with the housework, listening to Gammer, and picking up odd jobs when the need or my fancy struck. I had to find something I could do.

What did I want to do? That was the question.

The options, on our little Island, were decidedly limited.

I could leave, of course.

I could pack up and go, in search of a different life, of a place where I could fit, and people who would understand me.

That’s all I really wanted, in the end, to be understood, in a place that I understood.

I wanted it more than I could say, even to the unblinking, unanswering, frankly terrifying stone that was beginning, now to resolve out of the greying black in front of me.

I wanted it. But I could never make it happen.

Yes, I could leave. 

I could pack my few belongings, hitch a lift on a fishing boat, and be off into the unknown.

But with no money, nowhere to head to, and nothing to work from with my wits. And leaving Gammer behind me, all alone.

It was the last one that did it. That and the utter impossibility of wanting and end to that problem.

Besides, I might and did long for adventure, but all I’d be likely to get from seeking it would be holes in my shoes, and a world that, however different, was no more understanding than the one I left behind.

Probably less.

“Still,” I whispered into the fading dark; “a little excitement might be nice. Just a little.”

I couldn’t leave. So what could I do?

The Hegglers would give me a job, most likely, if I asked. There’d been odd comments before about exchanging our sporadic arrangements for something more regular.

But that would come with its own set of problems. Not least of which were the hints they’d dropped, now and then, that I might like to marry one of their hopeful offspring — several of whom were, by the optimistic mathematics of the Island “just about your age” — and thus “keep the thing in the family like.”

Some things are just too much to ask, eggs or no eggs.

Besides, I quite liked the Hegglers’ chickens, but I couldn’t see myself making a life out of them. Which wasn’t to say I wouldn’t like some chickens, perhaps. Just the one coop, maybe. Enough for eggs and company, not so many that I’d have to spend my life wading through…well.

“Or maybe just one. As a pet. Even without the eggs.” I said out loud, as though anyone on the Island could afford to hold onto an animal that didn’t earn its keep.

There was, unsurprisingly, no answer, so, with nothing better to do, and in the hope that if I stayed exactly where I was and didn’t make any sudden movements there might actually be a future to plan for, I kept making plans.

Marriage was out, that much was clear. A life as a housewife was not on the cards, not even Gammer’s fancy cards with the pictures of towers and skeletons, and the little flecks of glitter round the edges, where the gold hadn’t rubbed all the way off. Gammer could and would read you any fortune she liked from those cards, but she’d given up prophesying matrimony for me years back, after even the handsomest and wealthiest of tall dark strangers failed to raise even a flicker of interest. No. Heggler or otherwise, a husband was one thing I knew I did not want.

Or a wife. Or anything else on those lines.

So no marriage. A career then, or at very least a job.

The fishing boats would take me out with them if I asked. I’d been out before as a child, after all. My dad had been a fisherman, and there were ties enough there still that no one would want to turn me down if I cared to press the matter. His old boat was still around somewhere, too, falling to bits behind the fishing sheds, if it hadn’t been quietly taken care of by some handy soul.

If it had been, good luck to them. I wouldn’t be taking that boat out.

I had the hands for the job, sure enough, or would have, once I got them used to the salt and cold; and I could stand the early mornings and the late nights, for all I might grumble about them. But what you really needed, for a life hauling nets, was not just muscle but concentration and, above all, patience.

I had enough self knowledge to know that my supply of patience was somewhat lower than average. Lower than the lowest of low tides, when the sand ran broad and wide along the shore, with the sea barely a flicker at the edge of its grey-brown vastness. Lower even than the neck of Molly’s new shift, that she’d sewn in a fit of bravado and didn’t dare show her mother. Lower, in short, than it reasonably could be without driving me, and anyone stuck in a boat beside me  to distraction and back within half an hour of pushing off.

Concentration, if I wasn’t truly interested in my work, was similarly limited.

Which took out farm work and sheep herding as well.

If a moment’s inattention in a boat could see me pitching headfirst into the brine, so too would it see me running a harrow over a foot out in the fields. And as for sheep, I daren’t risk it. Leave me to my own devices, with a flock of sheep and room for contemplation or, worse, with the novel in my pocket whispering my name, and the only way you’d see all those sheep home again would be if they paid a damn sight more attention to the way than I would.

No, those sheep and farming were, similarly, out.

Which left me with something of a problem, since those were very nearly all the jobs there were on the Island.

Oh, there were a few shops, of course, and traders in this and that, but they, like the Hegglers tended to keep everything in the family. There were servants, up at the Hall, but they all came from the Mainland and were such an ironically insular lot that I knew I’d never get a look in.

Wealthy Landowner could be considered a job of sorts, I supposed, but I wasn’t at all sure how you applied.

I suspected matrimony might be involved again.

There were smugglers, of course, now and then. They might be willing to take me on, but I doubted it. Besides, while smuggling might be a thrilling occupation in theory, I suspected that it, like fishing and shepherding, was largely a matter of patience and concentration.

I wasn’t sure what would happen if I got distracted in a small boat, on a hidden current, with a cask of brandy in each pocket and a packet of vital correspondence down my stays, but I doubted it would be anything good.

Interesting, maybe, but not good.

Which meant that this last possible potential occupation was, once again, out.

Impossibly, for my cold, gloomy, probably haunted location, my spirits slumped further.

My prospects looked every bit as hopeless as I’d imagined them to be.

I felt lost, adrift on the current without a solid shore in sight. As trapped as Tom; stuck in what was, by any reasonable measure, a good, comfortable, successful livelihood, but that was, nonetheless, eating him alive.

Anyone else on the Island would have been happy to be in Tom’s place. I would have been myself, for that matter, safely behind the bar or even weaving through the crowd; with people coming and going all day, bringing their hopes and stories with them, maybe pausing for a word here or there, but never pinning me down for too long, save to bring them a new mug, or to laugh at one old joke or another. People I could handle perfectly well. It was their expectations that bothered me.

I wouldn’t need to get married, either, in a place like that.

Barmaids didn’t as a rule. It was practically part of the job description.



Mind you, it wouldn’t do to put too much emphasis on the maid part. A girl could get into a lot of trouble round here, doing that. Especially around bonfire time.

I was going to have to do something about that, one of these days.

The darkness around me was lightening more quickly. Not enough to see by, yet, by any means, but what had been first boundless, star spattered black, then mere impenetrable murk, was shifting to an uncertain grey, like an unmoving fog, with, here and there, the outlines of shapes or shadows, floating strangely at the border of my vision.

I almost thought I could hear voices.

Oddly enough, this didn’t make my present situation any less disturbing.

Confronted with a wavering, uncertain reality, I returned to my solid, cosy fantasy.

I would make a good barmaid. I was good at housework, at least if you didn’t count knitting; I could handle accounts and write out tabs; and after listening to Gammer tell the same five stories week in and week out since I was old enough to sit up and take notice, surely I could manage a convincing smile for any number of people who I’d only have to see for the time it took to dish out another round or so of ale. And pulling pints couldn’t be that difficult. Not compared to pulling nets.

I sank further into the golden dream. A life I could have had.

It would have been better for Tom, too, with someone else in the Inn: he’d be free to escape from the noise and the crowd, free to spend his time as he pleased without a thousand friendly calls on his attention.

Of course it would mean leaving Gammer alone, and I could never do that.

Except, of course, that if I had to, then maybe Molly would want to step round, now and again, to see how she did, just to keep an eye on her, you understand, and not at all to escape the endless demands of her own obstreperous family. Gammer would like having someone new to fuss over, too and, I suspected, after a lifetime of oldest-daughterhood, Molly could do with a little bit of fussing.

I sighed. A life like that would have been wonderful.

It was a shame that I was stuck in this one instead.

I know.

I mentioned that I was stupid, didn’t I?

I sighed some more, just to underline my point.

Somewhere, on the edge of my hearing, a bird piped the start of the new day.

It would be nice to say that just then, as the first touch of gold brushed the edge of the horizon, as fog brown gave way to misty grey and the icy light of dawn, as the shifting dancing shadows became no more than clouds and hollows and withered tasseled grasses, as the world resolved into focus again, and the chilly magic of the night was whisked away, that in that perfect enchanted flicker between the last dusk of the night and the first breath of morning I heard a voice call my name.

A whisper perhaps, from the dwindling depths of shadow, or a sweet, bell-like chime. Even a raucous, barking laugh, resounding in the bitter air.

A voice saying: “You want that future, Dora? Then reach out and take it.”

It would be nice to imagine it, but of course it didn’t happen.

And it’s a good thing it didn’t happen, because, while I could by that point quite easily see my own hand in front of my face, what I could see even more distinctly, if still some little way off, was the great, tall, absolutely terrifying bulk of the Sentinel Stone.

If I’d heard a mysterious semi-prophetic voice just then I’d have jumped out of my skin.

And if I had done that, I would have pitched right over the narrow edge of grasses that, as the last glimmers of darkness burned away into morning, I could now very clearly see that I was sitting on.

Below me, the waterfall tumbled in its furious cascade.

I had no desire to tumble with it.

I got up. Slowly, and extremely carefully.

The waters beneath absolutely did not sound like a cacophony of voices calling “Dora.”

They didn’t offer me any startling insights into my future either. Just the possibility of a much shorter one. I moved gingerly away.

The lantern bumped over the grass as I brushed it with my feet, so I picked it up, rubbed ineffectively where its horn walls were muddied with solidified tallow, and started for the path.

The Stone didn’t look any less daunting in the daylight, either.

And it also didn’t grant me any sudden realisations.

In fact nothing did.

I don’t know what happened at all, to be honest.

All I can say for certain is that somehow, somewhere between discovering that my shawl was now downright sodden with the dew, and realising that I still couldn’t find that piece of pie, my mind seemed to shift just a few steps to one side, so that what had been marked firmly “Impractical reverie, never going to happen,” was now just as definitely “Perfectly reasonable, shall make enquiries on my way home,” with no apparent thought or reasoning on my part.

Not even a “Well why not.”

In the normal way of things I could have spent a good hour considering the whys and wherefores of my apparent decision, picking over every point and possibility like a gull going through old bones, or dreaming myself into a swell of ridiculous fantasy. I did neither, partly out of a fear that my new resolve, if stared at too hard, might melt away into the stark reality of morning, and partly because I was still standing in the eeriest place on the whole eerie Island, and if there was ever ever a place for dreaming or for scratching over old bones, this emphatically was not it.

Besides, I was slightly distracted by the sight of the pie, sitting neatly at the foot of the Sentinel Stone, now a few meagre steps away.

 Authors Note


 Readers of this story may be interested to know that between the seventeenth and nineteenth there were a surprisingly high number of volcanic eruptions worldwide, including near constant eruptions of Vesuvius, several of which — most notably the eruption of sixteen thirty one — were very severe, and any of which might have caused the phenomena experienced by the people of the Island.


 The Northern Lights, of course, may be seen from any part of the British Isles, although they are most often visible in the far north.


 It probably wasn’t that though.

 It was probably something eldritch.

 You know how these things go.

bottom of page