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Louise Welsh

genre crossing, novelist, librettist, enquiring, political, feminist, sociable-loner, bookworm  

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English

About

Louise Welsh is the author of seven novels, most recently Death is a Welcome Guest (2015).

She has written many short stories and articles and is a regular radio broadcaster. Louise has also written libretti for opera, most recently The Devil Inside (2016) (music by Stuart MacRae).

She was co-director (with Jude Barber) of The Empire Café, exploring Scotland and slavery.

Louise has received several awards and international fellowships, including an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh Napier University and an honorary fellowship on University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (2011). She is Professor of Creative Writing at University of Glasgow. 

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Bibliography

Death is a Welcome Guest, 2015, John Murray Publishing

(Editor) Ghost: One Hundred Stories to Read With the Lights On, 2015, Head of Zeus

A Lovely Way to Burn, 2014, John Murray Publishing

(Editor) Yonder Awa: Poetry from the Empire Café, 2014

The Girl on the Stairs, 2012, John Murray Publishing

Naming the Bones, 2010, Canongate

The Bullet Trick, 2006, Canongate

Tamburlaine Must Die, 2004, Canongate

The Cutting Room, 2002, Canongate

Extract: No Dominion

Chapter 12

It is seven years since a plague called the Sweats wiped out eighty percent of the world’s population. Magnus McFall is part of a small community living on the Orkney Islands. Magnus’s foster-son Shug has been badly beaten by trader called Bjarne. Magnus is on his way to confront Bjarne and offer refuge to Willow, the trader’s foster-daughter.

Magnus liked nothing about his journey. He did not like leaving Shug alone with his injuries. Nor did he like his stolen mount. Rebel was a well-named chestnut, prized possession of Magnus’s nearest neighbour Les. He had tempted the horse from its field with a bag of pony nuts and slyly saddled and ridden it away without permission. Magnus did not like the darkening night, the scent of rain on the air, or the thought of the steep hill down to the valley where Candi and Bjarne’s croft lay. Top of the list of things Magnus did not like about his mission was its destination. The Glock sat heavy in the pocket of his jacket but, now that he was on his way, Magnus knew he did not want to kill Bjarne. Another death would sit too heavy on him. He simply wanted the violent bastard gone.

He met no one on the road. Rebel’s hooves rang quick and skittish against the fractured tarmac. The moon was full-faced and low in the sky, shining silver on their progress. Magnus cursed it and held tight to the reins as they flew down the hill at a sickening canter. He glanced at the spot where he had found Shug and the memory strengthened his resolve. Bjarne was not the kind of man who responded to reason. Magnus would point the gun at the big man’s head and tell him that if he so much as glanced at Shug again, he would blow his brains from his skull. Then, much as it pained him, he would invite Willow to come and stay at their place.

It was a poor plan. Bjarne would simply bide his time, order the girl home and take some violent revenge. Magnus wondered what his father would have done. Despite his modest croft, Big Magnus had been a kingpin in the local farming hierarchy. His word carried the heft of a district and to oppose him was to oppose dozens of other men. Magnus had friends he could call on, but they were musicians like Brendan Banks. He imagined the stocky Yorkshireman fending off Bjarne with his banjo and groaned. There was nothing for it but to threaten to kill him and follow through when he did not comply.

He could see the vague outline of Bjarne and Candi’s croft further down the valley. The lower floor of the house was in darkness, but there was a faint light shining in one of the upper windows. They were home and not yet in bed. Killing the big man would mean the end of the life Magnus had tried to build. The New Orcadian Council would exile him from the islands.

Magnus pulled on Rebel’s reins, drawing the horse to a sudden halt. He had been stupid. He had got used to thinking of the world as a lawless place where people were forced to make their own justice, but things were changing, order being reasserted. Bjarne had beaten Shug so badly that only Willow’s intervention had saved him. Magnus would take his case to the council, harness the support of the community and have Bjarne thrown off the Orkneys.

Somewhere a dog barked. Rebel whinnied and pawed the ground, eager to be on their way. Magnus shucked the reins and the horse resumed its progress. He would avoid violence, take his case to law and win retribution, but that did not mean he would break his promise to Shug. He had told the boy that he would collect the girl and he was not going to let him down.

The farmyard was almost in darkness by the time Magnus reached it. He had expected his arrival to be announced by the farm dogs and had unsheathed his gun, in case any of them attacked the horse, but the place was silent. He was surprised to see hens pecking in the yard. For all the big man’s faults, Magnus had always thought of Bjarne as a good crofter, but it seemed that here too chores occasionally went neglected, chickens left to the mercy of stoats and wild dogs. Rebel flattened his ears, as if the yard made him nervous. Magnus patted the horse’s neck and dismounted.

‘Shhh, they’re just wee chicks, they won’t do you any harm.’

He looped the horse’s reins around the post Bjarne had made for that purpose and scanned the empty yard. Now that he had decided to go to law, Magnus was especially keen to avoid confrontation. He wondered belatedly if he should have snuck in the back way, sought out the girl’s room and stolen her off like an aged Romeo.

Rebel whinnied and pawed the ground. The chestnut was a beauty, but too highly strung. ‘Shhhh.’ Magnus wished again that his own horse, steady Straven, had been fit to ride. He looked up at the lit window. The candlelight was pale and flickering. He edged round the side of the house, saw the shape of the peat stack and realised that there was no scent of smoke. Its absence and the missing dogs gave him a strange feeling. He wiped his palms against his jeans and crept on. Something lay slumped on the ground at the corner of the house.

‘Christ.’ The word was half-curse, half-prayer. Magnus edged forward. ‘Willow?’

He drew closer and saw that the shape was too small to be the girl. Magnus touched it with his toe, recoiling at its softness. It was one of Bjarne’s dogs, a sleek Doberman, lying shot through the head. Fuck. Magnus reached out a hand and felt the dead beast’s neck. The flesh beneath the black fur was cold and stiff. It had been dead for some time. Shit. Magnus sunk to his haunches beside the dog. His breath came in short, panicked stabs.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

What was he doing here? Magnus got to his feet and turned the corner, keeping close to the wall. His body tensed expecting to feel the impact of a bullet at any moment.

A second dog lay dead beside the back door, a big Alsatian. Magnus knew what had happened. Bjarne had gone mad. It had happened to men on the island before. The traumas the Sweats had inflicted could lie dormant for years and then break out in violence and suicide. If Magnus had been a praying man, he would have prayed that Bjarne had not decided to take Candice and Willow with him.

The farmhouse door creaked as he opened it. Magnus slipped into the kitchen. It was darker inside than it had been in the yard and he stood still for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom. The room was neat. The counters clean, floor swept, chairs tucked beneath the table. It looked like no one had started to prepare dinner yet. Magnus crept into the hallway. Candice liked to paint and some of her canvases were hung on the wall. The pastel shades Candi favoured were not to Magnus’s taste and he had not paid much attention to her pictures at the exhibitions of survivors’ art the New Orcadian Council had organised. Now, in the shadows that drained the colour from the canvases, he realised they were strangely proportioned cityscapes. Buildings loomed over tiny people, rendered insignificant by towering skyscrapers. 

Bjarne was in the sitting room, a broad shape slumped in an armchair by the window. Magnus pointed his gun at the big man, before he realised that Bjarne was no longer a threat. He lowered his weapon and stepped in to the room, looking for the gun Bjarne had shot himself with. A book lay splayed on the ground by his feet, its pages spattered with gore. Magnus had never imagined the big man reading. He crouched over it and read the title, Killing Your Rage, a Man’s Guide to Anger Management. The self-help book sent a shudder through him, as if the corpse had reached out and touched his hand.

Magnus scanned the floor. He was so sure that Bjarne had shot himself it took him a moment to realise that there was no gun. He looked again at the corpse; saw the way the blood and brains had splattered in front of the body, the forward slump of the man’s ruined head. Bjarne had been shot from behind.

Shit.

Bjarne’s hard fists and quick temper had gained him enemies across the Orkney Islands, but it was Willow who had aimed a shotgun at him that afternoon. Magnus took a white throw from the couch and draped it over the mess that had once been Bjarne’s fierce brain. There were no forensics anymore and he thought covering the corpse might save someone else from the horror, but it looked worse than before. The throw was not big enough to cover Bjarne’s arms and legs. The fabric clung in folds around the corpse, dipping into the space where the man’s skull should be, sucking up the blood-claret. Bjarne’s hands poked out from beneath the drapes, giving the impression that he might snatch the cover away at any moment and show off the chaos beneath. 

Magnus found it hard to take his eyes from the Halloween joke, but he closed the sitting room door softly behind him. He felt the pull of the road beyond the farmhouse, strong as a lighthouse beam, but the girl might be hiding somewhere, scared or even wounded and so he turned his back on escape and tiptoed upstairs. Willow’s name was spelt out on the door to her room in little girl glitter that belied her shaven head, her efficiency with a shotgun.

‘Willow?’ he whispered her name, his finger on the trigger of the Glock. ‘It’s Magnus, Shug sent me.’

            There was no reply. He pushed the door open. The bedroom was a jumble of clothes, books and makeup. Magnus had not lived with a teenage girl since his sister Rhona left home and the bright colours, cut through the darkening shadows, assaulting his eyes; making it hard to distinguish the contents of the room. The bed was small. It was pressed against the wall and sheltered by gauzy fabric, spangled with sequins. The covers were humped in a pile beneath the sparkly netting.

‘Willow?’ Magnus’s voice was hushed. He took a deep breath, sank his hand through the net and tugged at the duvet. A threadbare teddy stared vacantly at him from the empty bed. ‘Thank Christ.’ He checked beneath the bed and took a quick look in the wardrobe, but the room was empty.

A faint glow of candlelight leaked from the half open door at the end of the hallway. Magnus took a deep breath, slipped through the door and into the room. He smelt fresh blood a moment before he saw Candice’s curls, a riot of red against the pillows.

‘Candi?’ He did not want to get any closer to the bed, but he forced himself to tiptoe closer. ‘Candice?’

He knew before he touched her, but his hand reached out and tugged the bedclothes away. Candice had been in bed, curled on her right side, her back towards the door, when she was shot. The bullet had hit her between the shoulder blades, making a bloody well in her back, severing her spine and stopping her heart.

The candle flickered on the windowsill, throwing his shadow, large and trembling, against the wall. Magnus struggled for breath. He was muttering something, a prayer of fucks and nos. He pulled the bedclothes over Candice’s head, as if the murder was her shame, something to be hidden from the world.

‘Willow?’ Magnus’s voice wavered. ‘Don’t be frightened. You’re safe.’ Every hair on his body was erect, every atom primed. He opened the doors of the fitted wardrobe, but there was no space for anyone to lurk amongst the jumble of clothes. Remembering how Willow had first been discovered, lying beneath her dead parents’ bed, he dropped to his knees and lifted the valence, but there was only dust.

The house was old and full of places to hide. Even if he searched them all, the farmyard was ringed by a complex of outhouses, milking parlours and stables. Beyond them lay fields and ditches. Willow had grown up on the farm. She would know where to seek cover. The thought made Magnus uneasy. He took the candle from the windowsill and slid from the room keeping close to the wall.

Downstairs a door opened.