January 4, 2016
Spring Books Preview: The Visitors
by Melville House
Over the next few days, we’ll be offering a peek at the titles we have lined up for Spring. Simon Sylvester’s novel The Visitors is on sale now.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing what a Selkie is, though once you do, there isn’t really any turning back: they’re the invention of ancient Scottish mythology—shapeshifting creatures who inhabit the ocean as seals and take human form on land, where they tend to leave a trail of spurned and ruined lovers behind them before they finally return to sea. They’re also at least partly responsible for the sinister enchantment that makes it so difficult to stop turning the pages of The Visitors, Simon Sylvester’s very moody and suspenseful novel set on the Scottish island of Bancree, where men have begun disappearing without a trace. The following passage comes early on in the novel, but it’s crucial for the way it sets in motion the young protagonist Flo’s interest in Selkies—a discovery that just so happens to coincide with news of a fresh disappearance, and the simultaneous arrival of a bachelor and his strange daughter, Ailsa, to the island: the book’s titular “visitors.”
Down the hill and back to the postcard harbour front. The Island Queen wouldn’t leave for another hour, so I had a quick rummage in the town’s two charity shops. I found a bright-blue Sesame Street T-shirt in the first, and a Led Zep CD hiding between boy-band albums in the second. Two good finds. I had a toastie and a cup of tea in Dora’s Diner, then decided to pop in and see Mum in the Co-op. As I wandered along the harbourfront, I noticed the parish hall was hosting a jumble sale. With time to kill, I went to have a look.
The hall smelled of badminton and old ladies. Half a dozen biddies guarded half a dozen wallpaper tables, loaded down with books, cakes and battered plastic toys. There was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle annual from before I was born, a shoebox of Nintendo games and a set of lawn bowls. Coffee mugs and walking sticks, ornamental spaniels. Junk, all junk. I did a quick round and was on the way out when something caught my eye. I returned to the stall with the books. One corner of a slim hardback peeked from a box crammed with Beanos and National Geographics. I teased it free.
It was called The Truth About The Legend Of The Scottish Selkie. It was written and illustrated by someone called M.I. Mutch. The cover was a grotesque ink drawing of a fat sleek seal, though there was also something queer about its shape, something at odds with its anatomy. I peered closer. Halfway down its body, emerging at an ungainly, impossible angle, a hand crept out of the skin. The selkie looked so sad, with this obscene hand sprouting from inside it. The hand was beckoning. It gave me the shivers. I flicked through a few pages.
It was most peculiar. Flicking through at random, it seemed Mutch had described the selkies as genuine creatures, rather than fairy tales. They were discussed as though they were native animals, like red deer or rabbits, and the book was a work of zoology, or maybe anthropology, brought to life with lurid illustrations of personal encounters. I flicked to the front of the book, looking for the author’s note. There was nothing. It had been published in 1992 by a company called Broch Books. This appeared to be the first edition.
A walking stick waggled in my peripheral vision. I looked up.
‘If you want to read that for free, hen,’ scowled an old lady, ‘piss off and find it in the library.’
I paid my fifty pence, stashed the book in my bag, and left.
Crossing to the Co-op, I strolled the harbour edge, weaving between the mooring posts, looking down into the water. It was tinged turquoise and astoundingly clear. Clusters of weed hung russet in the wash. Tiny fish flickered around a hanging hawser, long-forgotten and now without a purpose, thick with barnacles and slime. For those little fish, that hawser was a universe. I knew how they felt. My shoes scuffed on the old stone blocks that edged the harbour.
Mum was talking on the phone, but smiled and waved me in, gesturing five minutes with her free hand. The shop was empty of customers, the strip lights low on the ceiling and too bright. On a pinboard, classified adverts offered window cleaning or babysitting, drum lessons or chess club, ashtanga or bikram yoga. The magazine racks were pretty much empty, ready for the new editions. I browsed the headlines on the various island papers while Mum chatted with head office, ordering next week’s charcoal, wine, flour, sweeties.
The Co-op stocked a host of papers and newsheets from the local islands. Several of them ran small pieces about Doug MacLeod, and a couple of them featured his disappearance as a sidebar on the front page. They didn’t have much to say about it. Dougie had last been seen at closing time at the Ship Inn in Tanno on a Friday night, and hadn’t showed for work in Clachnabhan on Monday morning. He was a much-loved friend and neighbour. Friends and family were concerned for his safety. Anyone with information was urged to contact DC Duncan of the Northern Constabulary at Tanno police station.
I knew Tom Duncan. He used to live on Bancree. He was seven or eight years older than me, but Ronny knew his parents pretty well. He’d gone to college, joined the police force and come back a detective. He was a nice enough lad. He had an earnest face which was always pink from shaving.
‘Such a shame about Dougie,’ said Mum. She hung up the phone, walked out from behind the counter and stood beside me.
‘Do you think they’ll find him?’ I said. ‘I mean – alive.’
‘I don’t know, love. Honestly, I don’t think it looks good. You don’t always know what you’re doing when you’re drunk, and Dougie was drunk most of the time. He wasn’t in great shape.’
‘I hope they find him.’
‘Hang on,’ she said, mildly, ‘shouldn’t you be in school?’
I grinned. ‘Sixth year now, Mum. Study periods. Popped in to see you before the ferry leaves.’
‘Studying the charity shops, more like.’
‘I bought a Sesame Street T-shirt.’
‘Of course you did. How was the first day back?’
‘Bits were good. History was good.’
‘So what wasn’t?’
‘Who’s that?’ frowned Mum.
‘She’s a fifth year,’ I said. ‘Johnny Robson’s eldest girl. The hardware guy. She had a crush on Richard, and she’s pissed off because he hung out with me instead of her. Now he’s gone, she’s decided to give me a hard time of it.’
‘She might have a point.’
‘Oh, not because of Richard. That’s just daft. But you two have done everything together for so long. Ronny and I worry about you. We worry you’re not very, well – social. And it’s not easy living on the island, I know, but I wish you’d make the effort to get on with a few more people.’
‘Well, I met a new person today, if that puts your mind at rest.’
‘It does, yes,’ she said, surprised. ‘Who’s that?’
‘The girl from Dog Rock. She’s called Ailsa.’
THE VISITORS BY SIMON SYLVESTER
On Sale Now!