Excerpt: Scarlet Shores

Leaving had been hard enough. Without a funeral to attend, I never would have come back to Carnhaven.

“You’ll want the hotel, I expect,” the captain said gruffly.

I turned from the display of jagged cliffs and circling gulls to find him nodding toward the strip of silver pier that hemmed the harbour.

“S’on the main road. Can’t miss it.”

“There’s only the one?” Still, I might have added if I wanted Old Thomas to recognize me.

Thirteen years ago, tourism to the island had relied heavily on the daily ferry. The local bed and breakfast could maybe sleep twenty but did so rarely and, according to the handful of reviews written about the establishment, badly. The sensible traveller knew not to end up stranded on Carnhaven after dark—unless it was the night before the Breaker’s Climb. But everything was different then.

“Can’t miss it,” Old Thomas informed me as the motorboat chugged into harbour.

My flight had come in late, so I’d missed the morning ferry. Captain Thomas’s willingness to take me to the island had set me back thirty quid more than I’d planned to spend but was better than paying for lodgings on the mainland.

Thirteen years and still I had an aversion for the stretch of asphalt that encrusted the nearest shore. Fishing was the lifeblood of most towns on the coast, but Carnhaven was too far from any to trigger dispute. We were suspicious of our neighbours for no better reason than habit.

Under the captain’s expert handling, the motorboat weaved between fishing boats and barnacled dinghies, drawing close enough to the pontoon that I could make the climb in a single step. I shouldered my backpack. “Thanks for the ride.”

Old Thomas grunted.

My sea legs resented firm ground once I touched down onto the cobbles of the harbour, but the smell of salt and brine clung fast. Painted storefronts along the promenade bounced back the whoosh and hum of the water. High tide had come and gone. I could see the mark etched in kelp on the cliffs to the east. That way lay Main Street, with its hotel and tourist-trap tearooms, souvenir shops and quaint greengrocers.

Tesco had yet to land on Carnhaven before I left, but I knew from letters that a supermarket had opened at some point. I had no idea if the locals had taken to six different kinds of cereal and aisles filled with dairy-free milk. News from the island had dwindled over the years.

I followed the lane westward. The terrain sloped gently for a few yards, lulling me into a false sense of security before sharply angling upwards. The road was not to blame. Carnhaven was a wavy tangle. What on the map might have appeared as a five-minute walk in truth could take three or four times that, depending on the gradient of the hills one had to climb.

Tired from my flight and the boat ride from the mainland, I greeted the walk with mutinous huffs of breath.

Memory had convinced me that this part of the island was somehow uglier than the rest. For one thing, it arced over Breaker’s Bay, the tiny cove where in less than a month’s time speedboats and yachts would cram in alongside fishing dories, and daredevils would attempt to scale the craggy rock known as the Breaker’s Wall. For another, once past the handful of stone hovels up the road, civilization bled away completely.

Memory was wrong. After thirteen years in New York, I welcomed the sight of sleepy cottages and found them quaint despite their sunken roofs. The curious faces peering out at me from behind salt-crusted windows were less so, but I walked past them in haste, hoping to pass myself off as a lost tourist. Once they vanished from sight, the unbridled wilderness of Carnhaven Island was all I could see. Scrub grass shuddered in the late-afternoon wind as crows and seagulls swooped and fought in the sky above me.

I filled my lungs with the salty wind that whooshed over the hills. I was home.

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