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Chapter 1 - The Children Who Couldn't


“I’M GLAD I’M ALIVE, AND looking at Skye, and eating marmalade tart,” said the boy sitting on the hillside. “I might easily not be.”

His sister, lying on the grass beside him, opened one eye and looked at him, then shut it quickly against the brightness of the sky.

“If I hadn’t shoved you out of the way of that car, you wouldn’t be any of them,” she said. “You can’t go dreaming along the middle of the road now the holiday season’s begun, not even in the West Highlands. You ought to know that.”

“Och, there wasn’t any danger. And anyway, it’s not August yet. That’s when you get the real crowd of trippers.”

“Do hurry with that tart,” said the girl. “I’ve finished mine and it makes me hungry to hear you eating.”

“Och, shut up. Look at the view or something.”

“I know the view by heart,” she retorted, but she opened her eyes and rolled over to look out across the sound to where the islands lay hazy and blue along the horizon. The sea shimmered quietly in the afternoon sunshine, and even the waves on the shore just below had lost their noise and fury, and stumbled sleepily up the banks of orange shells and seaweed to the tide-mark of foam.

“I do hope this weather lasts,” said the boy. “It’s just perfect for rowing round the loch.”

“If we get the boat there’ll probably be a hurricane or a tidal wave straight away.”

“And we may not get it, you know. I wish Daddy would hurry up in there.”

They looked down at the small house on the coast road just below. Their father, Dr. Kennedy, was in there attending to a bad leg, and the man who owned the bad leg also owned a boat, which the doctor had promised he would try to hire for his family.

“If we do get it,” said the girl, “let’s try and get to Castle Island. It would take ages, but we could do it if we had the whole day.”

“It’s funny that we’ve never managed to reach it, when it’s been sitting out there looking at us all our lives. I don’t think we ever will get there,” said the boy. “Talking of boats, did you know there was a saint who sailed about in a coracle made out of stone?”

“No,” said his sister. “He would. There’s Daddy, look!”

She leapt to her feet and ran down the steep grassy slope towards the road, as the doctor appeared at the door of the cottage. He had to stoop to get through the doorway, for he was a very tall man.

“Daddy! Did you ask him?” cried his daughter, racing towards him with her black hair flying out behind her. The boy was close at her heels, and together they flung themselves breathlessly at Dr. Kennedy.

“Of course I asked him about the boat,” said the doctor patiently. “Haven’t you been pestering me about it regularly every ten minutes since breakfast? Would my life be worth living if I hadn’t asked Donald about his boat? Do you suppose I’ve been allowed to forget about Donald and his boat for one moment of the day?”

“Oh, stop it,” exclaimed the girl. “Did you get it?”

“Was he willing to hire it out?” asked the boy.

"Yes he was, but I haven’t hired it.”


“I’ve bought it. I thought it would be cheaper in the end, instead of having to buy him a new boat when you’ve sunk this one or run it on the rocks.”

“Oh, we wouldn’t!”

“I bet you would if you got the chance. I wouldn’t let you near a boat if I didn’t know you could both swim quite well.”

“You’ve bought it for us?” repeated the boy, a little dazed by the thought of suddenly owning a boat.

“Yes. Donald owed me more than it’s worth, but I took it in return for all the liniment and good advice I’ve bestowed on him. Go along and look at it. I’ve got to get on my way; there are some flourishing measles waiting for me in Melvick.”

“Poor Daddy,” said his daughter. “You don’t get much of a holiday season.”

“Oh, it makes a change. Frostbite and pneumonia all winter, and digging fish-hooks out of visitors’ arms all summer. Well, go and find your boat. Can you row it home by yourselves?”

“Och, yes. We’ll have the tide with us, and there’s no wind,” said the girl confidently.

“And it doesn’t get dark till eleven,” said the boy. “All right,” said their father. “Be careful, now. Ian, you’re the eldest. See that Sovra doesn’t get drowned. Sovra, you’ve got more sense than Ian. See he doesn’t do anything stupid. Good-bye.”

He strode off towards his car, which he had left on the side of the road.

They stood and looked at each other excitedly. They were both brown and thin and black-haired and plain. They both wore cotton shirts and old khaki shorts and sandshoes; Ian had a hole where his right big toe poked through, Sovra had a hole for her left one. These were their holiday clothes. School had ended for both of them the day before, and was already forgotten, drowned in the blaze of the sun and shimmer of the water.

“Come on,” said Sovra, and started running down towards the shore. Ian followed more slowly, thinking about the boat made of stone. After all, you can get thousands of tons of iron to float quite easily; why not stone?

The boat was lying on one side, pulled up on the pebble beach below the cottage, in a little bay sheltered by rocks. It was not a large boat, but it looked wide and shallow-built and difficult to overturn. Old Donald had used it for fishing before his bad leg got too much for him, and they had often seen him setting out in the evening with two rods propped against the thwarts and the two lines running out behind the boat. When a rod jerked, Donald let his oars rest in the rowlocks, leaned forward and reeled in the fish, then paid out the line as the boat drifted and started rowing again, all without getting up from his seat. Ian and Sovra had lunged to try it, it looked so easy.

“We must go fishing soon by ourselves,” said Sovra, as Ian joined her by the boat. They had been out after mackerel and saith, but always in somebody else’s boat.

“Perhaps we’d better get it into the water first,” suggested Ian.

“Silly! We’ll have to do some baling first. The floorboards would be awash if it wasn’t so much on its side.”

There were two empty tins in the boat, which had been used to bale it out before, and they set to work with these.

“I suppose this is the last lot of rain,” said Sovra. “I’d have thought it’d dry up in this weather.”

“It’s had the whole year’s rain in it,” Ian pointed out. “It’s a good thing, too.”


“If it was quite dry, the boards would shrink, and it might leak badly until they were wet enough to swell again. As it is, that upper side looks rather dry.”

“I hope we don’t sink it. Daddy thinks we always make a mess of things.”

“Well, so we do, usually. But we don’t when we are in a boat.”

“At any rate,” said Sovra severely, “we won’t be getting run over by cars.”

“We’ll probably get rammed by motor-boats instead. I think that’s good enough,” said Ian, putting the tin under the stern seat. There was still a little water there but not enough to cover the floor-boards when they pulled the boat upright on its keel.

“Oh, isn’t this thrilling!” Sovra exclaimed. “Come on, let’s push it down.”

The tide was nearly high, and with the help of two round pieces of wood that Donald had left for rollers they managed to trundle the boat down and into the water. As soon as it was afloat Ian pushed off, and they both scrambled in over the stern.

Ian looked out at the shining waters of the loch, and westwards to the open sea, where perhaps they could venture now by themselves. He was feeling much too adventurous and excited to notice a bubbling rush of water spurting up by his feet, even when it surged over his shoes. Sovra looked down and found the sea coming in through a large round hole, and the boat sinking lower and lower in the water.

“Look out!” she cried. “Ian, we’re sinking!”

“My sorrow,” said Ian, looking calmly at the water washing round his ankles. “We never put the bung in the bung-hole.”

“Oh, stop talking and get out!” Sovra was already over the side and knee-deep beside the boat, trying to pull it back to the shore. Ian clambered out and helped her, and after a struggle they beached the boat again and looked at each other across half a boatful of water.

“I’m glad Daddy didn’t see that,” said Sovra. “Come on, we’ll have to bale again. My baling muscles are stiff already.”

“We’ll have to find the bung,” said Ian. “I bet old Donald’s got it all the time.”

“Go and ask him. I’ll bale.”

“Why don’t you go and ask him? He thinks I’m daft enough as it is, but he treats you as if you had sense, I can’t think why.”

“No, you go,” said Sovra, baling hard. “Men always do the asking people for things. Women just do the work.”

“Oh, all right,” said her brother. He always found it easier to give in than to argue.

Sovra thought about the boat as she went on baling. They would have to find a name for it. They might even give it another coat of paint if they ever had any money to spare. The white paint on it now was cracked and flaking off. There was a big stone in the bows, with a rope tied round it and coiled neatly in a pile, its other end attached to a ring.

“That’s for an anchor,” said Sovra to herself. She liked being able to look at things in a leisurely way and note the details.

There were footsteps on the sliding pebbles behind her, and she turned to see Ian approaching, carrying two oars over his shoulder, and red to his collar-bones.

“That old man,” he said resentfully, putting the oars in the boat. “He knew we’d forget about the bung, and when he saw my wet feet he just roared with laughter. And then he said if we wanted to get home to-night we’d best take the oars. Did you think about oars? I didn’t.”

“We would have, if the boat hadn’t started sinking. But I’m glad he can’t come out and watch us. We’d probably find we were going backwards or something. Have you got the bung?”

Ian took a round wooden plug from his pocket, and fitted it into the hole in the bottom of the boat, hammering it tight with a stone.

“Now, is there anything else we’ve forgotten?” he asked.

“Rowlocks? No, they’re in already. And we’ve got an anchor, look. I think we’re all right now.” They pushed the boat into the water again, and embarked rather cautiously, but it floated out like a bird, heaving a little as the subdued waves swelled beneath it. Ian disentangled the oars, which had somehow got mixed up with the anchor rope and the baling tins and his own feet, and set them in the rowlocks.

“I hope we’re going to manage all right,” said Sovra, watching him rather doubtfully.

“I’m all right once I get going,” said Ian. “You’d better be careful, though.”

“Of course. I always am,” said Sovra, and immediately knocked an oar overboard. By the time she had rescued it and put it back in the rowlock she felt hot and flustered.

“I’ll row,” said Ian, “I’ve done it oftener than you. Will you guide me?”

She nodded, and clambered forward into the bows. The mooring rope coiled there made a knobbly sort of seat, and by leaning forward she could look down through the clear water and see the pebbles and boulders and waving weed fathoms below.

Ian took the oars and felt competent again. He had often rowed in other people’s boats, and in a few minutes he had remembered the slow sweep and pull that his father had taught him years ago. The boat responded to his strokes, and began to move diagonally away from the shore. Donald’s house stood just where the sea-loch broadened into the Hebridean sound, and the Kennedy’s house lay on the shore of the loch some miles further inland. The children had to row along the coast until they reached Camas Ban, the white bay, where a burn ran down past their house into the loch. As the boat moved away from the shore, the islands sailed into sight; blue crags and precipice peaks, shining rock and dusky shadow, stretching far and dim. In this fine weather they were faint as clouds. When rain was threatening they would stand out bold and black, but as the rain blew over them they gradually vanished in the mist, so that it was difficult to believe they were real islands at all.

To order your copy of The House in Hiding see our online shop, visit our Edinburgh bookshop or one of our Stockists.