Grey light through my tiny window. Still uneasy and excited, I went early up on deck and so witnessed a flat-ended boat move away through the dawn, its course steady on St Serf’s tower. Two men in unfamiliar livery rowed, and at the stern, back turned, was the red-haired boy.
I cursed. To have given away my father’s dirk! It seemed a wretched start to this adventure. And yet the course of my life was set by that moment’s impulse.
Fair winds took us up the coast of Fife. The sun had some autumnal warmth in it, enough for me to sit for hours against a hatch-cover. I day-dreamed great deeds and achievements, sketched out a future, a degree, a lassie’s face turned my way.
And I thought about the boy, my comrade in vomiting, how deftly he had hidden away my father’s blade, and those noises in the night I might have dreamed but suspected I had not.
‘So we are sailing into Anster?’ I said to the mate as he passed.
Our ship was heading straight on a squat church spire. ‘Not going on to St Andrews?’
He hunkered down. ‘First rule of sailing, laddie,’ he said. ‘Where yer pointing is seldom whaur yer bound.’ He furled the lead-line round his gnarled fist. ‘Five-knot ebb tide. Tonight I’ll be in a Kilrymont alehouse and ye’ll be in yer cosy college bed.’
Right enough, we passed a roofless priory at Crail, then rounded Fifeness well into the afternoon, standing off from the foaming skerries, then rode a backing wind by a high sandstone cliff, then for the first time I saw the spearing spires of the ruinous Cathedral of St Andrews, red-tipped in the late sun.
My trunk was carried off the ship. I waited for the red-haired boy’s escort but they never appeared. I asked Captain Wandhaver, ‘Are those two men not still on board?’
He turned his big, round turnip head, gazed impassively on me.
‘They left the ship.’
‘Not with the boy. I saw him being rowed towards Dysart.’
‘They had left afore that.’
‘Oh,’ I said. I shook hands with the captain, said he had taken good care of my mother’s investment.
‘Gut. Keep your head down and mind the boom, lad. The wind in these parts changes with little warning. No doubt we’ll see you on the Sonsie Quine again.’
He slapped the mainmast as if it were an old friend. ‘She is well named, for she is both a queen and a lucky ship!’
I followed the cart carrying my trunk up the brae, through a corbelled eastern port and into the town. Soon enough, in a daze of novelty and fatigue, I sat on the sole chair in the monastic bareness of the chilly room – my bunk, as the porter cried it – under the eaves of the house off Merkitgait that was to be my home. The college was not in a fit state of repair to house me.
I got out my key but the padlock on my trunk opened of itself. I lifted the lid. On top of my clothes, next to my father’s Bible and my crossbow, lay the dirk. Faint with relief, by the yellow light of a creusie lamp I inspected the note.
‘I thank you for the loan. In time I shall make good. B.’
The paper was quality French. The writing was young and forceful, a cursive italic script, blot-free, its line level as a blue-black horizon. The magnificent initial was a ship in full sail, a veritable galleon of pennants, flourishes and trailing lines. My hand itched to copy.
The dagger’s blade seemed shinier and sharper than before. Not a spot of blood or gristle on it.
I sprawled on my hard pallet and stared at the ceiling. My father’s blade lay on my work table. The oil lamp flickered. The floor still rocked me from the voyage. I blush to write it now, but I was awe-struck at my own life as it sailed into the unknown.
To continue reading Rose Nicolson by Andrew Greig, the novel is released on August 5 in hardback and on kindle, priced £18.99 (RRP), and will be available from all good online and High Street outlets