After the feast (more or less) came the Speech. Most of the company were, however, now in a tolerant mood, at that delightful stage which they called “filling up the corners”. They were sipping their favourite drinks, and nibbling at their favorite dainties, and their fears were forgotten. They were prepared to listen to anything, and to cheer at every full stop.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Foggy Dew

essay photo
Aberdeen Fog Bank

A musical theme running through The Avalon Chanter is the Irish ballad “The Foggy Dew.” It’s not only appropriate to the plot, but to the physical environment of the novel.

The story begins when journalist Jean Fairbairn and her husband, Scottish ex-cop Alasdair Cameron, travel one April day to tiny Farnaby Island off the coast of Northumberland. Jean is planning to attend a news conference staged by archaeologist Maggie Lauder, who promises amazing revelations when she opens a tomb in a medieval chantry chapel.

But Maggie abruptly cancels the conference. She hasn’t found the corpse she’s expecting, one that will prove her theories about the truth behind the legends of King Arthur and the Isle of Avalon. She’s found a very recent corpse with ties to her own family.

And the plot duly thickens not only with the fog of murder and mystery, but also with literal, physical, fog.

Mud blotted several of the sun-rays on the front of [Hector’s] sweatshirt like storm clouds blotting the sun—not, Jean thought, following Alasdair’s gaze, that the issue was a gathering storm but gathering murk. Low visibility. Blundering about in a fog. What else was new?

Farnaby Island is imaginary, based loosely on and sited next door to Lindisfarne, the Holy Island.  But the coast of Northumberland is not imaginary. Neither is the English climate. As the author-deity, I can decree whatever extremes of that climate will suit the needs of the story.

I didn’t need mountaintop fog, although I’ve certainly been there and seen that. Twice I’ve taken a long, cold, hairpin-turned trek on an overcast day, emerging at a high-altitude viewpoint—only to see nothing except rocky scree plunging downward into soft, cottony billows of the same cloud clotting the sky. Twice I’ve held up a postcard and said to my companions, “Oh. That’s what’s out there. Okaaay.”

No, I’m talking FOG.

“We’re in for a proper sea fret.” James walked into the room and plunked a tray onto the table.

“A haar,” explained Alasdair.

Hugh added, “Thick fog.”

I once encountered a couple at a Scottish B&B who’d just come in from the Hebrides. Instead of lovely views of heather-clad moorland and sea, they saw fog so thick they’d been tempted to get out of the car and pull it aside like a theater curtain.

I’ve seen that sort of fog withdrawing from Scrabster Harbor (or Harbour) on the northern coast of Scotland. As it rolled back, the dock, the lifeboat station, the lighthouse leaped in turn from the opaque gray edge into the sunlight pouring down from a clear sky.

A friend who lives there told me he once saw the Orkney ferry magically emerge from such a fog bank, like a needle from sullen folds of felt. He waited with his camera for over an hour, in order to catch the ship diving back into the fogbank, but with the perversity of weather systems the world over, the haar dissipated before he got his shot.

Call it a sea fret, a haar, or a fog, it all means the same thing: a coastal or advection fog. It’s typically formed over the sea. Warm air moves over the coolness of the ocean, causing the moisture in the air to condense. The fog can then be pushed to the land when heating of that land creates a sea breeze.
This type of fog isn’t unusual on the eastern and northeastern coasts of Scotland and England (Northumberland and Yorkshire) and can bring quite a chill with it. Since it can keep on flowing for several miles inland, an island like my Farnaby would be completely consumed.

You can imagine me rubbing my authorial hands together with glee—the fog made a great ticking clock for my mystery.

Jean looked past the roofs of the village, past the island itself, to see the ash-gray billows of fog inching closer.

Farnaby is accessible only by boat. The police investigating Maggie’s discovery know they’ll need to get back to the mainland before the fog comes in, or else they’ll be trapped. But of course the investigation hits a major snag and the fog arrives, not on Sandburg’s little cat feet but with great clomping boots.

Across the bay, Bamburgh Castle’s towers and battlements rose into the tentative sunlight—and a second later were swallowed whole by the rolling fog bank, leaving not a wrack behind.

The thick mist, the sea fret, the haar seeped inexorably across the bay. Two small boats moored in the harbor winked out. The far end of the street and the hairpin turn went under. The breakwater disappeared. And then the murk smothered the corner of Cuddy’s Close, so that Jean and the two men stood in a chill pocket hemmed in by blurry gray walls.

She told herself it was only water vapor, a cloud on the ground, not a suffocating nightmare. Still, she shivered.

They were marooned on Farnaby Island with a very contemporary murderer.

Now the ticking clock becomes the grandfather clock in the haunted house, its deep tick-tocks oddly loud in the ominous silence.

Alasdair, Jean, and Rebecca started slowly across the parking lot toward a looming density, the row of houses that made up Farnaby St. Mary. Somewhere a door slammed. Somewhere else a dog barked, short and sharp. A set of footsteps crunched across the blacktop, seemingly unattached to a human form.

Who’s there? The murderer, or an innocent passer-by in peril from unseen forces in the fog? The investigation must go on.

The palisades of fog only seemed impenetrable, Jean discovered. If she and Rebecca kept moving, the pocket of visibility would move along with them. Sort of like navigating through life, now that she thought about it.

The day wanes even as the investigation waxes, uncovering clues to the ancient mystery as well as to the modern one. But the fog remains, and night falls over Farnaby.

Earlier the sinking sun might have polished the fog into a silver sheen, but now it was simply opaque, dull, dark, scented with sea-salt and engine exhaust. The light from Crawford’s torch cast a glare on the vapor and illuminated nothing but the ground at their feet.

And yet all good mysteries must work themselves out. Even the worst fog must eventually be pushed back out to sea, revealing, if not a clear day, then at least a clear night.

The cold wind freshened, rolling up the fog and pushing it away. For another fraction of a second the ghost stood there, a lost soul if ever there was one. And then it was gone.

The broken walls and arches of the priory seemed to move forward rather than the fog retreating, each stone, each column base emerging in sequence. The glow of the moon draped some in light like thin Lindisfarne mead, others in velvet shadow.

Is it over now? Heck no. The bright light of the moon creates dark shadows that hide still more clues and revelations—until at last the denouement answers questions, and, at the same time, provides fodder for future speculation. And the sun rises on a new day.

“Our work here is done,” Jean replied.

As one, the couple emerged from the shade of the chantry chapel into the sunshine of an Avalon that was more than myth, if less than real, and took the first steps of the journey back to the mainland of their lives.

The mainland of my own life has a hot, dry climate, not a moist, foggy one. In real life weather causes angst rather than reflects it. But that’s what imagination is for, to call the fog or summon the moon or even stop the tide from rising, whatever serves the mystery.


Lillian in two of her Scottish happy places


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