The Evening Herald
A year ago, almost to the day, a woman called Moira Birnie and her two sons, Malcolm, aged four, and Jimmie, three, were found dead in a burned–out car seven miles from Coldhaven. Moira was thirty–two and was married to a man called Tom Birnie, a local tough, with whom she shared a ground–floor flat at the dank, lower end of Marshall’s Wynd. A flat that I happen to know she rented from Henry Hunter, now also deceased but, in his day, a notoriously mean landlord and entrepreneur whose reputation for shady dealing went back thirty years or more to when he bought his first house, next to the chip shop on Sandhaven Road, and rented it out—faulty wiring, bad ventilation and all—to a bunch of students from the fisheries college. I don’t imagine Tom and Moira Birnie were paying a high rent for their accommodation, but whatever it was, it was too much. Henry Hunter was better known for his greed than his conscientiousness.
The local press reported the fire, treating it as a freak accident to begin with, but as more details emerged, and the full story of what Moira had done became clear, the national papers got involved. As it happened, I didn’t read about the events leading up to the tragedy, and the gruesome details of the fire itself, until the Saturday after it happened, when Amanda was over at her Mum’s. I like to get all the Saturday papers and scatter them about the kitchen table, doing the crosswords, reading the odd story at random, catching up on the week’s news, clipping puzzles and reviews and human interest pieces that I want to keep for later. I might have missed this particular item, had it not been for the fact that, two days before, the police had released a statement to the effect that the fire in the car had been started deliberately and they were treating the case as suspicious. By the time the nationals got hold of it, the story had become a major event, a tale of tragic, or vicious, proportions: Moira Birnie had drugged her young sons, driven them to a quiet, sandy road near a local tourist spot, and torched her car, with herself and the boys inside. Nobody seemed to know why she had done this, but the powers–that–be had no doubts about where the guilt lay. The only question in anybody’s mind was: How could a woman, a mother
, do this terrible thing? And why had she killed only the boys and not her fourteen–year–old daughter, who had been abandoned in remote farmland, alone and terrified?
I read the story between the Scotsma
n crossword and the Guardian
review pages. Naturally I thought it ghastly, and I was intrigued by the fact that it had happened so close to home, but it took me a minute or two to realize that I knew the main protagonist, Moira Birnie; or rather, I had known her once, when she was Moira Kennedy, eighteen years old and almost pretty, with a bright, slightly nervy smile and—it seems irreverent to say it now, but it was the first thing I noticed when I met her, and it was the first thing I remembered, reading about her tragic death—legs of a kind you usually only ever see in advertisements for silk stockings. When I say I had known her, I mean I went out with her for a while, thinking, partly because of her legs, but also because she was intriguing in any number of ways, that I might even be in love with her. I was at college then, and she wasn’t, which may have been why it ended fairly soon, but I imagine the real reason for the brevity of the affair was Tom Birnie, whom I never really knew but remembered as a forceful and crudely handsome boy, manufactured, as our house cleaner, Mrs. K., would say, on one of God's off–days.
As it happens, Moira Kennedy was my first real girlfriend. My first lover, in other words and, for a few months, it was a fairly intense affair. Even then, I think I half–knew that it was going to end, so it didn’t surprise me when she wrote, halfway through the summer term of my first year, to say it was over. I think I might even have been relieved because, though I loved Moira’s legs, and her pretty smile and the excitement of the sex, I could see that we had little in common and, when the sex was over, nothing much to talk about. We had begun the affair by accident, more or less, and it had always been tainted by a secret I had kept from her, a secret that—had I been in my right mind—should have prevented me from forming any association with Moira in the first place. For the fact was that I felt guilty, and drawn in, transfixed by a kind of morbid fascination, if that’s the right word for it, because, even though Moira didn’t know it, even if nobody knew it but me, I was the one who had killed her brother, when I was thirteen and he was fifteen, killed him and left him to rot in the old limeroom on a weekday afternoon, when we should have been in school doing math or P.E., out of the cold and the rain, thinking about Christmas, or birds’ eggs, or the pretty girl with black eyes and shoulder–length pigtails in 4C. That was what really drew my attention, that Saturday afternoon: not Moira’s unspeakable act, or the image of her dead children. It was the memory of something I had never told, something I had managed to shift to the back of my mind and leave there, but still relived in my dreams from time to time: the story of a simple lie; the compelling logic of a child’s fear and a surprised boy falling away into the blackness of shadows and water.
When she got home that day, Amanda was annoyed about something. She often was when she came back from her Mum’s, and usually it was with me—or rather, with the idea of me, the man she had intended to do a better job on, the man who so mystified her mother, a kindly woman, who had so wanted to like her only daughter’s husband. Amanda was, and no doubt still is, pretty, alert, sensible, hardworking and fun to be with
. If she were placing an ad in the lonely hearts columns, she would get plenty of offers. She liked spending time with friends, enjoyed good food and fine wines and, though she didn’t read much, she kept up with current affairs and the arts. She deserved better than me. “Do you have to make such a mess?” she said as she came into the room. She said it so quickly, before she even had time to register the mess, that I wondered if she prepared these entrances in advance, knowing exactly what she would find and tailoring her opening gambit accordingly.
I looked up and smiled. “Nope.” I tore a page out of the Telegraph
that I thought I might want to read again later. “It’s entirely voluntary.”
“It’s chaos in here,” she muttered, heading for the kettle. “God, I need a coffee!” Amanda always said she needed a coffee when she’d had a hard day at work, or some kind of run–in with her mother. It was a formula; she always used the exact same phrase; it was intended to evoke sympathy, concern, interest.
I ignored it. “I like chaos,” I said. “Anyway, Mrs. K. will be here on Monday.”
“I swear to God,” Amanda said. “You make all this mess on purpose, to give the poor cow more to do.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“What do you mean, what’s wrong with that?
It’s obvious what’s wrong with it.” I enjoyed it when Amanda mimicked me. It was one of the few things that I still found charming about her.
“Mrs. K. cleans,” I said. “That’s what she does. She cleans.”
“She probably gets enough of that at home, don’t you think? Without you giving her more to do here.”
I shook my head. Sighed. “You don’t understand her at all, do you?” I waited for a response, though I didn’t expect one. Amanda was far too dignified for that level of banter. In fact, Amanda was far too dignified to be married to me, full stop. She tolerated Mrs. K.—just—but she didn’t care about the workings of her heart, or of her mind. “She can
clean at home,” I said. “There’s no point cleaning at home. If she cleaned at home, it would just be a mess again five minutes later. Here, she gets to see a result.” I considered this for a moment. I hadn’t thought about it before—though it was obvious—but now that I was thinking about it, I realized that I did
give her more to do, I did
go about the place making little islands of chaos for her to attend to, and I rather suspected the reason for it all really was so she could see the result of her labors. Or was it so I could see it? “Come to think of it,” I said.
Amanda wasn’t listening. Her coffee was made, and she was on the way out again, heading for the sitting room to keep up with current affairs and the arts on the telly. Work, Mum, telly. Mum, coffee, work. Telly, telly, telly.
Not that I cared. I was thinking about Mrs. K. I had hired her, originally, because she had married into one of the Coldhaven family clans who had made my parents’ time on Cockburn Street so miserable. Now she was miserable herself, as anybody could have predicted the day she married Alec King. I suppose, back then, it gave me some kind of perverse satisfaction, having her as a cleaner—not that I had anything against her personally. She was a decent woman who had made a fatal mistake in life and was determined, according to the custom of the place, to spend the next several decades paying for it. Amanda only tolerated Mrs. K., but I enjoyed seeing her about the place, making things neat and tidy, restoring order. She enjoyed her work, and I enjoyed letting her do it. Sometimes I even suspected that I enjoyed having her around, not just because she had been as ill–treated by the Kings and the Gillespies and their ilk as my parents were, but because she had the added disadvantage of being a local. Not just any old local, in fact, but part of the very fabric of the place. To my mind, she was more than a local: She was one of the keepers of its myths, because she, Mrs. K. my cleaner, was born and raised on the exact spot at the western end of Coldhaven where the Devil is supposed to have emerged from the sea one winter’s morning, long ago, and her old house is still there, right next to the origin, at the point where Old Nick started his famous walk, in a story that everybody knows to this day, even if they hardly ever talk about it.
It was a story Mrs. K. revered, I know; one that her ancestors—a whole line of equally gifted storytellers and gossips—must have preserved with profound love and an almost religious attention to detail. Yet there’s almost nothing to it: According to the account handed down from generation to generation, the people of Coldhaven wake in the darkness of a mid–December morning to find not only that their homes are buried in one of those deep, dreamlike snowfalls that happen only once or twice in a generation, but also that something strange has happened while they slept, something they can only account for in rumors and stories that, being good, churchgoing folk, they are ashamed to repeat, stories that grudgingly allow for some unseen force in the world that, most of the time, they prefer to ignore. In those days Coldhaven was much as it is now, a confused jumble of houses and gardens and cramped boatyards running down to the sea on tight, rain–colored streets and narrow cobbled wynds, and the people of that time were ancestors of the neighbors I have lived with these past thirty–odd years: obdurate, seagoing folk with their own superstitions and terrors, their own logic, their own memories of sandbanks and tides and the treachery of water—and though their children’s children have all but lost that kinship with the sea, a kinship part–love, part–dread, I allow myself to imagine that I know them, if only a little and from a considerable distance. It may well be pure fantasy, as rare as that is, but I imagine I can see, in their slow–witted, clannish descendants, the ghosts of those old seafarers, men who were obliged, on too many occasions, to find their way home in thick fog or pitiless storms, women whose gaze did not stop at the horizon but worked its way out into the beyond, to the banks and troughs they knew only from maps and shipping forecasts, transforming them into seers, oracles, harpies. It must have been a terrible burden to them, a terrible and commonplace affliction, this way of looking they had evolved for a handful of critical moments, extended into a lifetime, twisting and gnarling into a rictus of foresight and premonition. I have seen that gaze in the eyes of the postmistress, a gift she cannot use but cannot set aside. I have seen its last, fleeting traces in the eyes of schoolgirls and young wives as they go about their business, waiting for a disaster.
On that long–ago winter’s morning, those who were first out of their beds, the bakers and chandlers, the women stepping out to fetch coal, the men who were not fishing that day, but were up out of habit or restlessness, were the first to witness the phenomenon that, later, the whole town decided to call the Devil’s Footprints, a name that not only stuck but was also, for reasons they never acknowledged, even to themselves, a fanciful–sounding description that, for outsiders, and for posterity, would always be shrouded in disbelief or irony. The Devil’s Footprints
: a title, like the title of a hymn, or a book borrowed from the library on a wet afternoon and dismissed later as a queer old lot of nonsense
; a phrase only ever spoken as a quote, when it was spoken at all, as if the name they had chosen for what they had seen had been delivered to them from the wrong side of beyond, just as those marks in the snow had been: neat, inky marks laid down by some cloven–footed thing, some creature that had not only walked on two legs through the streets and wynds from one end of the town to the other, but had also ascended their walls and crossed their high, crow–stepped roofs in the pursuit of an undeviating straight path through the sleeping village. Later, they would examine the phenomenon, looking for an explanation that might allow them to return, untroubled and blessed, to their ovens and nets and kitchen sinks, and they would find that the marks began on the foreshore, a few yards from what would later be Mrs. K.’s front gate, as if the creature had walked up out of the sea, crossed the narrow, tide–washed beach where the snow had not settled, then strode silently and purposefully up James Street, along Shore Street, across the roof of the church and then down again, hopping over the trickle of a burn that ran between Coldhaven Wester and Coldhaven Easter, along Cockburn Street and up and down the houses on Toll Wynd, before it stole away, into the fields beyond, into the interior, where nobody cared to follow. They would never know how far that line of neat black prints continued, but they could all be sure, or they could all agree later, when the snow had melted and there was no evidence to the contrary, as to the nature of the beast that had made them. Those were not human footprints, they said, neither were they the marks of any animal, of land or sea, that had ever been observed in these parts. They were sharp and cloven and dark, the prints of some sure-footed thing that had moved quickly—the impression they had of swift movement was undeniable, if entirely unproven—through this narrow coastal settlement as if in flight from, or in pursuit of, some terrible, unearthly resolution. There were those who insisted that there must be some rational explanation for this phenomenon, those who declared that everything under the sky could be explained, because only God was beyond understanding, but most of the townsfolk were content to say it was the Devil who had passed by, a being they had never quite accepted as real, but had set aside, for just such an occasion, like the bogeyman, or elves or, for that matter, God.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Devil's Footprints by John Burnside. Copyright © 2008 by John Burnside. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.