Authors: Tanya Landman
But then we got on the boat, and pretty soon I couldn’t think about anything except how much I wanted to die.
It started well enough. We had to leave the minibus on the mainland because the ferry was too small to take vehicles. When it left the harbour, it chugged along the coastline without too much trouble. It rolled about fairly gently – enough to make your stomach feel a bit odd but nothing too serious. I suppose we were sheltered from the full force of the wind by the hills. They were purple – covered in heather, I guess – and hunched together like a group of grumpy old ladies complaining about the price of butter.
But when we rounded the headland and hit the open sea I knew I was in trouble. Suddenly it was like being on a rollercoaster. We shot down sheer wave-walls into deep valleys and then got thrown up over the next peak. We tipped to one side, the ship’s railings grazing the white crests of the waves, before we were heaved over onto the other side and scraped through the frothing foam.
I had never felt so ill in my entire life. I was going to die. If the boat didn’t sink, I’d expire from pure misery. I didn’t much care how it happened. I just hoped it would be over quickly.
The captain was really helpful – not. “It’s only a wee bit of wind you great jessies! You’ll never be sailors! I don’t know what they make you kids from nowadays. No stamina! Do you never eat your porridge?”
Ha ha. Very funny.
I was soaked to the skin, doused with rain and drenched with seawater, clinging to the ship’s railing, which had become my very best friend in all the world. I’d ejected my breakfast ages ago, followed by last night’s tea and yesterday’s lunch. In fact, I was pretty sure that everything I’d eaten in the past few years had been forced out of me bit by bit, and I felt as withered and shrunken as a sun-dried tomato.
But then I saw something that sent such a chill through me that for a second I forgot how ill I was feeling.
As we got closer to Murrag, Bruce squeezed past me and went to stand at the prow of the ship. He was facing into the wind, being lashed by the rain, but he didn’t seem to care. His hands were gripping the railing so tightly that his knuckles were white, and he was gazing at the shifting horizon. He looked intense – savage – like a whaler scanning the sea in search of prey. At any moment he’d reach for his harpoon.
When he turned and went back to his seat, I felt my stomach lurch with something that wasn’t seasickness. His scarred mouth was wrenched into something close to a smile. But I could have sworn that, mingling with the rain and the sea spray, tears were streaming from his eyes.
“adventure” part of our adventure holiday began sooner than any of us had expected. When we reached Murrag, we had to climb down a skinny little rope ladder to get to the teeny-tiny jetty. It wasn’t much fun, believe me. Even though the captain’s mate had tied the boat to a couple of bollards, there was a menacing gap between the side of the boat and the jetty wall that widened and narrowed with each crashing wave. If you slipped, you’d either be squished flat or end up in the water. I thought Graham was going to pass out when he saw the ladder. He was so scared he refused to move and Bruce had to carry him down in a fireman’s lift. Not very dignified. He deposited Graham on the quay like a sack of potatoes.
I went next. I was terrified too, but I was so desperate to get off that evil boat and on to solid land that I’d have jumped if I’d had to.
But seasickness is weird. Once I’d scrambled down the ladder, the land didn’t feel solid at all. It went up and down and from side to side just like the ferry had. My knees gave way and I collapsed on to the stones beside Graham.
“Still think it’s going to be fun?” he asked me.
“Yeah,” I answered. “I’m sure it will be absolutely fabulous: the most memorable week of our entire lives.”
Which turned out to be true in all sorts of ways I could never have imagined.
As soon as we’d all made the perilous journey down the ladder, the ferry steamed away, and we were abandoned in the most desolate place I’d ever seen. The wind was cutting right through me, and the rain was hurtling down. When my knees had stopped wobbling, I stood up and looked around. I was hoping to spot somewhere warm and dry in the distance but there was nothing there. No houses, no shops, no cottages, no cafes, no hotel, no church, no toilets, no bus shelter.
Which was a bit of a problem as far as I was concerned. “Erm… Where are we staying?” I asked, trying to keep the nervous little wobble out of my voice. I was beginning to think we’d been dumped on the wrong island. Or that part of this whole outdoor adventure thing meant we’d be living literally outdoors. Camping? In a howling gale? For a whole week? I was pretty sure it would kill me.
“The activity centre’s at the other end of the island,” Bruce said.
“How do we get there?” asked Meera in a high-pitched squeak.
“You’re not scared of a little walk are you?” said Bruce. “It’s only six miles.” I thought he
be joking but I wasn’t sure. Then he winked. “Someone will be along to pick us up in a minute, no worries.”
And then a warm, wonderful sound came chugging through the wind and rain. I was so glad to hear it that my heart skipped a beat. I looked around and saw everyone else must be feeling the same way because suddenly they were all grinning like maniacs. In that lonely windswept place the sound of a car engine was bliss. Seconds later an old Land Rover came over the nearest hill and wound down the road. When it stopped in front of us I practically kissed the bonnet and Graham looked like he would weep with joy.
Out jumped a man who was handsome in a craggy sort of way. “I’m Mike,” he said. “Mike Rackenford. I run the centre. Welcome to Murrag everyone. Thank you all so much for agreeing to be our guinea pigs. You’re going to have a great week.”
Graham gave a very unconvinced sigh but I suddenly felt quite excited. Mike was so enthusiastic he passed it on like a flu bug.
“Hop in everyone,” he said, unzipping the canvas cover on the back of the Land Rover. “It’s a bit rough, I’m afraid, but it’s the only thing that will cope on this road.”
Alice was the first to climb in, using her sharp little elbows to keep the rest of us back. Then Jake pushed ahead of Meera.
“What a lovely couple,” I muttered.
Graham threw me one of his blink-and-you-miss-it grins. “A match made in heaven,” he whispered as he climbed in next.
I hung back for a minute because the laces on my walking boots had come undone. I was re-tying them while Mike greeted Bruce with a Very Firm and Manly handshake.
“It’s nice to meet you, Bruce. Thanks for coming. It’s good of you to step in at such short notice,” Mike said.
“Hey, no worries, mate.” Bruce’s Australian accent sounded much stronger all of a sudden. He dropped his voice. “Glad I could help a friend of Steve’s.”
“Such a weird accident! I heard it was the thermostat. Is that true?” Mike asked.
“Yeah. They reckon the wiring in that shower unit was faulty. Real nasty.”
My head was down and my fringe was flopping in my eyes. Through it I could just about see Mike Rackenford’s expression. He was upset. But there was something else in his face too. Anxiety perhaps. Or fear.
“I’d be grateful if you didn’t mention it to Isabella,” he said quietly. “I mean, she knows about the accident, obviously. But I’d rather she wasn’t reminded of it just now. She’s been …
Mike glanced around as if he was checking that none of the kids were listening. I climbed quickly into the back of the Land Rover, making sure I didn’t look at him – that would be a dead giveaway. But I was fascinated. Who was Steve? And what on earth had happened to him?
The two men shut themselves in the front cab together and I couldn’t hear any more of their conversation. Mike accelerated and the Land Rover shot forward, bumping along the potholed road and throwing us all over the place. We had to cling like limpets to the side so we wouldn’t end up in each other’s laps. It was like being on the ferry again and I soon felt too ill to wonder about the mysterious Steve.
It was a slow drive along the twiddly-twisty lane and it was made even slower by the number of suicidal sheep that lived wild on the island. When they saw the Land Rover coming they scampered happily down the hills into its path and stood there, stock still in the middle of the road, eyes blinking in their black faces. Mike edged up slowly to each and every one until we were nose-to-bumper with them. Then he hooted the horn and they leapt back, startled, as if we’d appeared miraculously out of thin air, before running away in a mad panic.
Graham couldn’t stand it. When Mike hooted at an entire flock and they barged past the Land Rover, sending it rocking on its axles, he cried out.
“They’re not dangerous, Graham,” sneered Alice, flicking a rat’s tail of wet hair across her shoulder. “They’re only sheep!”
“It’s a well-known fact that every year more walkers get killed by rams than by bulls,” Graham told her. He knows stuff like that, you see.
“That can’t be true!” scoffed Jake.
“It is,” Graham said. “And it’s extremely unwise to get between a ewe and her lamb. They’ve been known to kill sheepdogs that have done that.”
I looked at their curly horns and heavy foreheads. I wouldn’t fancy getting attacked by one of those. Personally, I was on Graham’s side: I was going to avoid them at all costs. Little did I know that killer sheep would be the least of our problems.
Half an hour later we arrived at the activity centre. Cold. Wet. Hungry.
I was sitting nearest the door flap so I was the first to climb out and get a good look at the building. It was a massive house, all towers, turrets and slitty windows. It looked spooky sitting there on its own in the middle of nowhere – like something out of a horror film. Dracula would come swooping down off the roof at any second.
“Here we are,” announced Mike. “The only house left on the entire island. It was a rural retreat originally, belonging to a rich guy who spent most of his time in the city. Impressive, isn’t it?”
Impressive? I thought. Yes. Cosy? Comfy? Appealing? No. No. NO.
Heaving my rucksack over my shoulder, I walked up the steps. A young woman with jet-black hair and pale skin was standing in the doorway waiting to greet us. When she smiled I checked to see if there was blood dripping from her fangs.
“I’m Isabella,” she said. “Come in, you must be freezing. There’s hot chocolate and shortbread waiting in the kitchen, and I’ve fired up the boiler. As soon as you’ve had a snack you’ll be able to get out of your wet things and have hot showers. And when you’re ready we’ll do you a proper supper. How does that sound?”
Good, I thought. Very good. I was going to tell her so but then I noticed that she was looking over my head and her lips were turning a funny colour, fading from healthy pink to a sickly pale violet.
I spun around to see what she was looking at. Bruce was just climbing out of the Land Rover and for a moment all you could see was his outline silhouetted against the darkening sky.
Mike was approaching, steering the other kids ahead of him and saying, “The kitchen’s on the right. Let’s have something to eat. I’m sure you all need it.”
When he reached Isabella he stopped and then hesitated – as if he didn’t quite know how she might react – before putting his arm stiffly around her, and giving her a quick peck on the cheek.
Isabella didn’t say anything. She didn’t even move: just stood there like she’d been turned to stone. Mike looked at her closely, and then said, “Are you all right?”
Just then Bruce turned and, as he approached, the light from the doorway lit up every gruesome detail of his scarred face. Isabella shuddered. It went right through her, from the roots of her hair to her toenails.
“What is it, darling?” Mike frowned anxiously. “Someone walk over your grave?”
Isabella gave a tight, high gasp. “I thought…” She shook her head and then cupped her ears with both hands as if she had water in them. “But that’s impossible. How silly of me!” Dropping her arms down by her sides she gave a forced, bright smile. “Come on, let’s feed these starving kids.”
I felt pretty freaked, to be honest. Because when Isabella turned to go in I got a good look at her eyes. They were wide and staring, and as far as I could see there were only two reasons she’d have an expression like that on her face. She was either desperately upset or totally insane. Neither of which was a very comforting thought when we were going to be stuck with her on a deserted island for an entire week.
got weirder as the evening progressed. Isabella’s hands shook so much as she passed round the shortbread that the sugar on top came off in little clouds. No one else seemed to notice but then they hadn’t been standing next to her when she saw Bruce like I had. Or maybe they just thought she was cold. We all were, despite what she’d said about the boiler.
We drank the hot chocolate then Isabella showed us to our rooms. There were eight of them, each containing two sets of bunk beds and a bathroom.
“When we open in September all these will be full,” she said, smoothing one of the pillows. “But for now you can choose whichever one you like.”
Being naturally greedy, Alice nabbed the biggest.Meera grabbed the pinkest and I chose the one nearest the stairs where I could see and hear everything that was going on. Across the corridor Jake and Graham picked rooms at the back that had a distant view of the sea.
When we’d all showered and changed into dry clothes it was supper time. I’d got over my travel sickness by then and I was starving. Mike shouted up the stairs and we thundered down to the kitchen like a herd of small elephants.
Bowls of mashed potatoes, peas, sausages and a jug of thick onion gravy were standing in the middle of a very long table. There were two benches on either side that looked like they had room for at least twenty bottoms. We sat down, but it was slightly spooky being such a small group in such a big space – we sort of rattled around and everything we said echoed back at us. It made everyone feel a bit awkward and self-conscious.