A Superior Spectre by Angela Meyer
Jeff is dying. Haunted by memories and grappling with the shame of his desires, he runs away to remote Scotland with a piece of experimental tech that allows him to enter the mind of someone in the past. Instructed to only use it three times, Jeff – self-indulgent, isolated and deteriorating – ignores this advice.
In the late 1860s, Leonora lives a contented life in the Scottish Highlands, surrounded by nature, her hands and mind kept busy. Contemplating her future and the social conventions that bind her, a secret romantic friendship with the local laird is interrupted when her father sends her to stay with her aunt in Edinburgh – an intimidating, sooty city; the place where her mother perished.
But Leonora’s ability to embrace her new life is shadowed by a dark presence that begins to lurk behind her eyes, and strange visions that bear no resemblance to anything she has ever seen or known…
A Superior Spectre is a highly accomplished debut novel about our capacity for curiosity, and our dangerous entitlement to it, and reminds us the scariest ghosts aren’t those that go bump in the night, but those that are born and create a place for themselves in the human soul.
Angela Meyer’s Joan Smokes won the inaugural Mslexia Novella Competition in 2019. Her short fiction has been widely published, including in Best Australian Stories, Island, The Big Issue, The Australian, The Lifted Brow and Killings. By day she works as a publisher for Echo Publishing, an Australian imprint of Bonnier Books UK, and in this role has discovered and developed a range of award-winning, globally published and bestselling talent, including global number one bestselling author Heather Morris. A Superior Spectre, Angela’s debut novel, is already shortlisted for a number of prestigious awards.
From Chapter One of A Superior Spectre by Angela Meyer
At the back of the cottage she sat, skirts tucked up between her knees, swapping the limp animal from hand to hand to push her sleeves back. Smell of peat smoke and sweat. She pulled off her bonnet, one-handed, and placed it on a squared-off stone. She slicked back a stray hair, getting a little blood on it.
The young woman worked quickly and calmly, jutting her jaw in concentration, taking short breaths to not draw in too much of the sweet, permusted smell. Once she had removed the hide from both legs it hung down like a pair of dirty socks.
She reached her juice-slicked hand beneath the rabbit’s genitals and in under the warm skin of the belly, loosening it gently to pull it off. She then worked her hand in above the tail – the moment that always caused a brief sad stirring in her breast, that small puff of fur – and drew across the back, lifting, separating, and then moving up to the arms.
She busted the thin skin between the arms and neck with a pinch, and as she pulled the fluffy suit up, catching the sleeves, a hollow cramp moved across her lower abdomen. She stopped for a beat, two, and sighed. And then cracked the rabbit’s spine beneath its head.
Her old cairn terrier, Duff, came out the back door behind her, followed by her father, in his work clothes. He’d had a job up at Knockallan, Mrs Grant’s place, fixing the wooden frames of the windows.
‘Did you no hear me talkin tae Moggach just noo, Leonora?’ he asked.
‘No, Father, I was at ma task, I’m sorry.’
‘It’s all right, Lae, just thought ye might huv said hullo.’
‘I’m feeling a wee bit ill.’
‘Ye did hear him then.’
Leonora stood, and Duff yipped and leapt at the rabbit carcass.
‘Go catch yersel one,’ she said to the hairy mutt, and Duff turned her eyes on Leonora for a moment before padding off down toward the woods.
‘I’ll make supper,’ she said, and smiled warmly at her father.
He returned the smile, his red beard fanning out. ‘Oh, Lass, I forgot tae tell ye, Miss Cruikshank will be coming by at e’en. I bought some o the tea she likes frae Tomnavoulin yesterday.’
Leonora nodded at her father. Miss Cruikshank had been visiting more regularly this past month. And her father always washed with the good soap, humming ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ before she arrived. He always offered her a dram of the better malt, which sat on a higher shelf as though Duff might think it were a piece of meat. He’d not yet offered Leonora a taste.
As Leonora cooked the rabbit in the pot hooked above the fire, heating some bannocks alongside it, she thought of her mother. She often did when she was cooking, or cleaning – wondering if she was doing it right, wondering how her mother would have done it. And had Isabella felt this way at this time every month, too? The moon high but her heart sunk, fluttering, like a bird fallen from its perch. And her lower belly swollen, with something inside it pinching and then pulling and then clawing. Soon the bleeding would come. So much of it, and by the end her head would feel full of heather, her temper would be quick and she would want to sleep well past dawn for almost a week, with not many good days before it began all over again.
Had it been the same for her mother? And was it the reason Leonora was feeling unreasonably angry all of a sudden towards her father?
Luckily, her friend Abby had gone through it first, and had passed on her own mother’s advice about coverage and washing, and lady-of-the-meadow tea to relieve pain and ease stomach upsets.
Miss Penuel Cruikshank arrived in a pretty, soft yellow dress. Leonora was not good at guessing ages but she figured Miss Cruikshank to be five and thirty or perhaps forty at the oldest, but a young forty. It was the lines at the neck when she turned her head that gave her to be older. The ‘Miss’ indicated that she’d never married, and Leonora didn’t know the exact circumstances. Leonora had spent the first years of her childhood, to almost the age of four, away from Chapeltown. And she knew her grasp of social mores was rudimentary: she’d read some of the novels of Jane Austen and George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens. And there were the poets, such as Lord Byron: ‘Vice cannot fix, and virtue cannot change / The once fall’n woman must forever fall.’ But the lives described in these books seemed grander, more complex and, quite thankfully, far removed from her own.
‘Leonora, this is a fancy spread, is it no?’ said Miss Cruik- shank, as Leonora added the butter and salt to the table.
‘It’s no much,’ she said.
‘But it’s always enough,’ said her father.
‘How are the berries doin, John?’ Miss Cruikshank asked.
Leonora noted the switch from ‘Mr Duncan’ that had recently occurred.
‘Too delicious tae last afore the other critters get at them.’ He grinned. But Leonora knew he’d picked and put some aside for tonight. His garden was a source of pride to both of them, as old as their residence here when he’d carried a wee lass and three small sacks of seeds back from Edinburgh after Leonora’s mother’s death. He didn’t often speak of it but Leonora knew of the threads to his regret: that he’d left the Highlands in the first place; that he’d lost his wife in Edinburgh; that despite learning a trade that may have saved his own father’s life, he hadn’t come back sooner. His mother – Leonora’s gram – was left alone at Aignish but still he did not return until Leonora’s mother had passed away. He’d once told Leonora that her mother couldn’t get the kind of treatment she needed in Chapeltown.
Her father had been able to put his trade to use and soon became a known joiner and carpenter in the village, and further afield, as well as contributing to the food production. He worked well in the harvest, as did Leonora, once she was old enough and allowed. And they had a fine garden from which they could swap: perfect cream tatties, big juicy strawberries in summer, and a selection of herbs for taste and medicinal purposes.
It was strawberries they ate after supper. Outside it was moony and dark. Inside, candles burned sedately. Miss Cruikshank’s face pinkened in the soft light when she bit into one of the berries. She smiled at Leonora’s father, and it made Leonora feel strange, as though she’d lost her appetite.
Her father cleared his throat. ‘Now, Leonora, ye’ve finished at the schoolhouse two years ago. Penuel has discussed with an opportunity with me.’
Oh dear, Leonora thought. Miss Cruikshank will have a long- lost cousin come to Tomintoul, someone about my age.
‘Aye, Leonora, ma brother, he’s keeper o an inn up in Tomintoul,’ said Miss Cruikshank, lips wet with strawberry juice. ‘Yer father agreed with me that ye might think aboot workin there a few days in the week. It’s good experience if . . .’ She looked at Leonora’s father.
‘It would be good for yer prospects, Lae.’
This was not exactly what Leonora had expected. She felt hot. She tugged at the ruched fabric at her wrist, wanting to draw up her sleeves. ‘Would I stay there, in the hotel?’
‘For half the week, aye,’ said Miss Cruikshank. ‘A coach be doublin weekly from here tae there, and in good weather it’s really no sae far tae walk.’
‘I ken’ said Leonora, too quickly, ‘I’ve done it afore. But Father, I’ve work tae dae for you. And the harvest is soon.’
‘There are hands enough for the harvest. We need tae think aboot your life ahead o ye.’
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