Luda, a photographer, and her two teenagers arrive in the Scottish Northern Isles to make a new life. Everywhere the past shimmers to the surface; the shifting landscapes and wild weather dominates; the line between reality and the uncanny seems thin here. The teenagers forge connections, making friends of neighbours, discovering both longing and dangerous compulsions. But their mother – fallible, obsessive, distracted – comes up hard against suspicion. The persecution and violence that drove the island’s historic witch trials still simmers today, in isolated homes and church buildings, and where folklore and fact intertwine.
READ AN EXTRACT FROM SALT & SKIN
February (Their First Year)
The boat had seemed large at the dock, but now that they’re rumbling away from Big Island, it seems flimsy and ludicrously small.
Luda tries to think of the last time she’d been on a boat before coming to the islands. Years ago. Someone’s thirtieth birthday on the thick, marshy water of the Hopeturn River back home in Australia. Even back then, the river’s level had been low and the unpleasant smell of wet things made dry had permeated the boat, making people drink more than they should have.
Ewan whistles under his breath, doing whatever a seafarer does in the cabin of their boat. Luda’s two children, Darcy and Min, are out on the deck with her. Darcy, the eldest, is slouched against the gunwale, looking as though he’s waiting for a late bus that’s going to take him from one bland place to another. Min, two years younger, clutches at a pile of rope (Luda notices, but does not point out, that it’s not fastened to anything). Min is pale and looks almost bewildered by the world viewed from the small and rumbling fishing boat. When she notices Luda’s gaze, she scowls. Fierce, fractious little Min who is not so little anymore. Fourteen, Luda thinks, with the usual jolt of shock. She’s fourteen.
Ewan cuts the engine and the boat immediately begins a slow spin in the currents. The strangely intimate sound of water against the side of the boat. Ewan comes out of the cabin, his beanie low over his eyes. ‘You can really see the erosion of the cliffs from here,’ he says, and points.
Of course. Luda has almost forgotten why she’s here. Almost. They have been here a week. Ewan is trying to help her find her feet as quickly as possible, so that she can get to work documenting the damage climate change is doing to these islands: taking photos, writing funding applications. It is, she knows, not a particularly popular topic in the local fishing circles. Through his subcontracting to the council for these sorts of climate change adjacent projects, Ewan has made himself something of a pariah. Still, he smiles at them now, smelling of coffee and brine. He looks far older than twenty-seven.
Luda studies the shoreline Ewan’s pointing to. It’s low tide now, the sea pulled back to reveal a short, sloped skirt of rippling sand up to the base of an overhanging, rocky cliff. Figures walk along the sand, leaving silvery footprints, their pants rolled up. Shoes in hand. Now cavorting, chasing each other. A mother and child, Luda thinks, but the shore’s a bit too far away to be sure.
She cocks her digital SLR camera, focuses on the cliff face, the beach, the figures which (with her camera’s zoom) she can now make out more clearly. Yes, a little girl with curling bronze-red hair. She looks six or seven or eight. She is with a muscular woman who is perhaps in her mid-thirties. Luda follows them for a moment with her lens. What she sees is the easy intimacy of a parent and child at this age – the way the child’s body still touches the parent’s without thought. The mindless, automatic easiness of it. Had Luda ever appreciated it the way she should have? She misses it now.
She feels like a voyeur. They’d have no reason to imagine a camera trained on them from the fishing boat. The idea gives her a little thrill, shivery and darting.
‘Sandstone,’ Ewan says. ‘You can make out the bands of it, see?’
Luda has noticed that Ewan engages in quick, heavy bursts of interaction and then retreats back into himself. He continues to talk about erosion and deposition behind her, further along on the deck. He will be talking to Min, but it is Darcy who will be listening closely, storing the information up in that terrifying vault of a brain he has. Min tends to let information trickle over her, off her, like water. She remembers the broad strokes and how they fit together. Darcy has always been preoccupied with the finest details of a thing. Luda snaps a few frames. She inspects them and is impressed by the mood of the midwinter light, which she had expected to be glaring or dull. She lifts the camera back to her eye, trains it back on the cliffs. And then the world collapses.
Salt & Skin is published by September Publishing on 6 July 2023