Winner of Amazon’s Best Book of the Year for Into the Darkest Corner, bestselling author Elizabeth Haynes deviates from her standard fare of twisty plots and murderous thrillers for a contemporary love story set on a wild island off the east coast of Scotland.
Discover her unlikely inspiration for the book below, and read an extract from the first chapter.
I’m often asked where my inspiration comes from, and the answer changes with every book. My new novel, You, Me and The Sea, was born out of my twin obsessions with fanfiction, and islands with lighthouses. Everyone loves a lighthouse, don’t they? There’s something so dramatic about them, the solid, life-saving nature of a beacon at the edge of dangerous cliffs and rough seas – a perfect place to set a novel about tempestuous lives and overwhelming passion.
But the story of Rachel, who’s running from her past mistakes, and Fraser, hiding his past hurts under a thick layer of anger and silence, had its origins in a series of fanfics I had read and loved on the website Archive of Our Own. I guess you could say You, Me and The Sea is a fanfic of fanfics – very meta.
I’ve written fanfic myself since my first days of writing – alternative endings to the bodice-rippers I’d borrow from the library, or expanding into side-plots of mysteries, bringing the quieter characters who’d been in the background of my favourite books into the light, letting them tell the story their way, or giving them a fresh drama of their own so I could see how they would react. This is how I cut my creative teeth. This is how I learned to make characters real.
Fanfiction generates mixed responses if you ask people about it. Isn’t it stealing, some people might ask, to take someone else’s characters, or plot? It’s never felt like that to me; by the time I’ve finished tinkering, the characters have developed so far away from the original I would challenge anyone to spot what inspired me. To me it’s felt more like homage, to have fallen so deeply in love with a character that you want them to live even longer, that you can’t bear to leave them behind.
In You, Me and The Sea, very little of the inspiring characters remains – perhaps Rachel’s hair colour and Fraser’s physique, if you want to know – and I’ve put them on an invented island in the North Sea, a long way from where they were when I first encountered them.
The Isle of Must is fictional, bearing passing resemblance to the Isle of May, which is real. In my novel Must is a bit further out than May; it’s smaller, rockier, muddier and less appealing. Nevertheless, Must is also teeming with wildlife, battered by the North Sea, blasted by winds; the perfect place to run away to, the perfect place to lose yourself and find yourself again. And indeed, the perfect location to put two damaged souls to see how they go about healing each other, and themselves.
It’s nearly eleven. Rachel is on the boat, the Island Princess, it’s called, churning through choppy grey seas. It’s supposed to take tourists on day trips, so it has seats and a little bar area inside the cabin, and a tiny toilet that smells of diesel and sick. Craig Dunwoody brought her a cup of tea earlier and then went back to the upper deck again, leaving her clutching a steaming polystyrene cup and trying not to spill it. Craig is technically going to be her boss, she supposes, although really she’s employed by the Forth Islands Trust and Craig is just her day-to-day contact, the one who’s going to tell her what to do.
Besides Craig, Rachel and the boat’s captain, whose name is Robert, there were five other people on the boat when they set off, all of them tourists: a mother and father with a teenage son, and an older couple in full hiking gear. People make day trips to the Isle of May, which is closer to the coast, and has seal colonies and a visitor centre. The Island Princess does a circuit, dropping off the trippers at May, then on to the Isle of Must, and back via May to pick them up again. May has two full-time reserve managers and several volunteers doing various things over the summer months. Craig has told her all this.
Robert doesn’t talk much. He said hello and helped her aboard and that was about it.
The boat had stopped at May after about an hour. It was grey and rocky, with a steep, winding path leading up from the concrete jetty against which they moored. The tourists disembarked. On the jetty a young man in a green knitted pullover, with something monogrammed on his right chest, had greeted them. Rachel had been expecting him to lead the tourists up the path, but he’d waited for them all to get off and then Craig had handed across three of the plastic storage boxes, the sort you use for moving offices, which were then stacked neatly on the jetty. Once the boat began to chug out of the harbour again, the young man had stood on a wooden box and begun to give a talk.
Rachel had watched all of this without comment, dazed with tiredness and the effort of fighting the constant low-level anxiety. She had slept a little better last night, shattered from a day spent on trains and buses, but still she had been awake this morning from about four, worried about oversleeping and waking to find her new employer knocking at the door. As it turned out, he’d had to join her for breakfast, because the bed-and-breakfast (and Dawn, the owner) only started serving at eight. Rachel hadn’t been particularly hungry but she could smell bacon cooking when she sat down in the dining room, and, being the only guest, didn’t want Dawn to have wasted her efforts. So, a full Scottish breakfast, complete with square sausage – a new one on her – and black pudding and bacon ‘from the farm’. She’d left the black pudding, ate as much as she could of everything else. Craig had arrived before the food, and Dawn had made him a coffee. They seemed to know each other well. Maybe he put business her way. The birdwatchers, perhaps.
Craig was okay. Hair that would be called strawberry blond on a woman, wispy-fine and receding; pale blue eyes, freckles, quietly spoken. Very grateful to her for taking on the job, flushed and a little sweaty – he had been up for hours, he said, getting everything she needed – and jumping from one topic to the next so that it was hard to take everything in.
‘Don’t worry,’ he’d said. ‘I’ve written all down. You don’t have to remember a thing. And you can phone me if you get confused.’
He’d pulled out a crumpled sheaf of A4, folded in the middle, which had dense typescript on most of it, and notes scrawled over the top in red pen. When he’d spewed forth everything he thought she needed to know, only about a tenth of which she could possibly have repeated had anyone wanted to test her on it, he had taken a deep breath and sat back on the raffia chair in the bright little dining room.
‘So,’ he said, ‘you’re from Norwich?’
‘I’ve never been.’
And that was that. A moment later she was sent to grab her backpack from the room while he settled up with Dawn, then he was outside in a battered old Land Rover, the engine ticking over.
At the harbour, which was not very far away, Rachel had helped him stack plastic storage boxes on to the boat, and, once the tourists had piled on, they were away.
Must is another forty minutes beyond May, beyond the Firth of Forth and out into the North Sea. All Rachel can think of is the square sausage and the tea, swilling around inside her. By far the biggest meal she’s eaten in months – what was she thinking? To counter the movement of the boat she keeps a fixed eye on the island as it gets larger, making out details. There are not many pictures of Must online, she’d found when she first searched. There were plenty of pictures of the Isle of May, and so she’s been imagining it as May’s younger sister: more compact, prettier, greener. Instead the island before her is a squat, ugly little thing, a black and green troll crouched in a slate-coloured sea, waves striking it firmly up the arse.
The closer they get to it, however, the more it grows. The back end rises into black granite cliffs, white with foam at the lower levels and pale with the guano of a hundred thousand seabirds higher up. She has seen bigger islands. She has seen bigger cliffs. But this one is going to be her home for the next six months or so, and she needs to like it. She needs it to want her as much as she wants it.
Craig leans over the railing above her. ‘Ten minutes,’ he says. ‘How you doing down there?’
‘Fine,’ she calls, knowing she’s probably green, wishing her make-up bag weren’t buried in her rucksack.
She can see more of the island now. The lighthouse is on the nearest side. Further along and about half a mile back is the small bird observatory that houses birdwatchers, and occasionally other people: ecology students and scientists. Her job will be to take care of the observatory, to clean it, and change the beds once a week ready for the next lot. She has to cater for them, too, which is why the Island Princess is loaded with food for the birdwatchers who will be arriving on this same boat tomorrow, not to mention bedding and duvets and other fancy shit that apparently they’re not used to. It’s been sleeping bags and tins of beans they brought themselves, up to now.
Today is Friday. She has just over twenty-four hours to get ready for them.
Rachel looks at the island and tries to imagine living somewhere so very different from the place she has left, her sister’s Victorian house just outside Norwich city centre. She has lived in various student digs, house-shares and flats. She has been in towns but mostly cities since she was a child; while the countryside has never been far away, she has never lived in it.
And this is properly rural, seven and a half miles off the coast of Scotland, and even the other side of those seven and a half miles of grey choppy sea there’s barely a town with nothing but fields behind it. She tries to think how far away she is from her nearest Starbucks. Three and a half hours? It’s nearly two hours’ boat crossing. What if something happens? What if she panics?
She gets unsteadily to her feet. Craig moves to the front of the boat, picking up a rope and looping it between his hands.
There is a funny smell that gets more pungent as they get closer. It smells alarmingly like shit. Like blocked drains.
The boat rounds the south end of the island and chugs through a narrow channel between the rocks. The swell calms and it feels almost peaceful here, the wash of the boat causing huge pads of seaweed to rise and fall without breaking a wave. Out of the breeze the smell of sewage is even more pronounced and she wrinkles her nose.
Through the thickly salt-encrusted window at the front of the cabin she can see a concrete jetty, and a man and a dog standing on it. Even from this distance she can see he’s huge, a real beast of a man, broad-shouldered, beard, short dark curls moving in the breeze. If you were going to picture a lighthouse keeper – even though that isn’t what he is – then you’d probably picture him. He’s even taller than she first estimated, she realises as Craig jumps across the gap to the jetty and shakes his hand. Craig is over six foot, and this guy is taller still, by quite a whack. He reminds her of someone she can’t quite place
She smiles at him and waves, but, if he’s seen her, he is pretending he hasn’t. The dog, however, is staring right at her. It’s a big dog, black and shaggy, with the long snout and upright ears of a German shepherd. Maybe it’s mixed with collie. She likes dogs. This is good news. There will be at least one other sentient being on the island, even if it can’t talk and is already affiliated to someone else. For some reason its presence here is comforting.
Fraser. The man is called Fraser. She doesn’t know what the dog is called.
You, Me & The Sea by Elizabeth Haynes is out now from Myriad Editions
(9781912408757, p/b, £8.99)
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