Anne Pack’s poignant complete story takes place on a remote Hebridean isle.
An emotional story by Anne Pack
THE midday sun warmed my face as I sat in the corner of the upper deck, looking towards the Atlantic. My sunglasses offered little protection against the glare both from the water and the metal parts of the ship, and I was glad I had packed my Tilley hat.
The deceiving cool breeze could easily trick unsuspecting holidaymakers, but I had remembered to apply sun cream as I sat in the queue waiting to move into the jaws of the ship.
Excited children ran between the wooden benches bolted to the floor, racing to catch each other, call “Tig!” and then run off. Their parents, keeping a watchful eye, drank coffee from paper cups with lids reminiscent of baby beakers.
I settled down for the long sail. In front of me a young couple leaned against the rail, intertwined and occasionally kissing. Then he would whisper something into her neck and she’d giggle.
The two backpacks on the deck beside them, as well as their waterproofs and padded clothing, suggested that they were going on a walking holiday. I had seen them stride up the ramp and on to the ferry so I knew that they didn’t have a vehicle with them.
I could picture the pair running off the ship at the other end and heading for their hotel or B&B, eager to make plans for their stay.
Even though I had never set foot on the island before, I was aware that it was full of interesting features, with myriad paths and roads to be explored. It was a place rich in history, folklore and myths, and right at this moment I felt very much a part of it.
Seagulls circled overhead, no doubt hoping for discarded food from the lunchtime rush in the restaurant. Swooping and diving in circular motion, their cries just audible above the noise of the engine behind me, they rose again with treasure between their beaks.
I heard a little boy yelling that he’d seen land and so, steadying myself on my stick, I ventured slowly across to the port side of the ship.
Peering through binoculars, I could make out a few crumbling cottages and the distinctive patchwork pattern of drystane dykes on the nearest of two uninhabited islands.
I reached inside my jacket and pulled out an old map to confirm what I guessed their names were. Dog-eared and in imperial measurements, the map was folded open at the right page.
My finger followed the ferry’s route, running over handwritten notes put there by Isobel. I felt my heart lurch. Memories of Isobel were everywhere at home – food stains on the pages of cookery books; the big wooden spoon worn away at one side from the gallons of home-made jam she’d made. The crocheted doily on my bedside table and the watercolour of Sandwood Bay above the sideboard in the dining-room.
All bittersweet reminders of 60 years of love and companionship.
My eyes scanned the sparkling sea, picking out the dot in the distance which marked Isobel’s birthplace. I knew every inch of it from her childhood diaries, which she had let me read, from the albums of black and white photographs she brought with her into our marriage, and from the stories she told to our children and grandchildren.
Stories full to bursting with colourful detail of a carefree childhood in the safety of a close-knit community and extended family.
We met at a dance in Glasgow when we were both eighteen. I was a shipyard worker, a bit rough round the edges, granted, who enjoyed a pint with the lads and walked a different girl home every Saturday night.
That all changed the night Isobel came to the dancing for the first time.
I can still picture her, like a perfect diamond in a treasure chest full of flawed gems. She peeked shyly towards me across from the girls’ side of the hall, where she stood with her friends, sipping cola through a straw from a shapely glass bottle.
I felt my cockiness dissolve as I tried to devise a new approach to impress this young lady with mousy brown hair and cornflower-blue eyes.
It was a defining moment in my life and I felt sure I would never get another chance like it, so I did not intend to blow it, even though my friends believed that this would end the same way as all the others.
I couldn’t believe my luck when, after dancing with me several times that evening, Isobel let me walk her home, or at least to the nurses’ home from where she had a late pass.
As we walked through the streets towards the infirmary, with the dance music growing fainter, I heard clearly for the f irst time Isobel’s lilting voice.
Used as I was to the heavy Glasgow twang that had always surrounded me, my ears tuned into her mesmerising intonation, making each sentence sound like the line of a song.
She chatted freely about her life in the Hebrides, of her vast family of uncles, aunts and cousins. She talked vividly about the changing colours of the sea, the smell of burning peat and the comfort of the heather against her back as she gazed up at the stars.
To a boy like me who had never been outside the city, listening to Isobel was like watching a film.
“I’ll take you there one day,” she said after I told her I loved her for the f irst time.
NOW, I looked around the deck. After the six-hour journey the sun was lower in the sky and people were gathering up their bags and making their way towards the car deck. The children, now tired, had long given up running around, instead asking if we were nearly there yet.
The young couple were the only ones left apart from myself when the announcement was made asking drivers to return to their vehicles. The boy helped her hitch her pack on her back, and she playfully pulled his hat further down his forehead. They were locked in a kiss when I went inside.
Over the next few days I explored Isobel’s island, which was more beautiful than I’d imagined. Her descriptions had been accurate, but they could never have prepared me for the assault on my senses.
I could feel the smell of the sea invade my lungs and cling to my clothes. I padded through the blaze of machair that stretched from each village to the sea. Like an embroidered carpet of primary colours, it was home to grazing cows that roamed freely without fences to keep them in or out.
It felt a bit like a treasure hunt as I followed the clues I had read about over the years . . .
Like the old school house, now an information centre, which still bore the effects of the day a car crashed right into it.
Isobel had written in her diary of the loud bang and of how the top of one gate pillar had been knocked off. Her class photograph, taken later that year on the steps, showed that the top was still missing. This was because of some ancient superstition that it should not be replaced. The moss-covered stone still lay where it fell, beside the post.
Inside the school house I crossed the dimly lit entrance hall with its wooden panelling and metal coat pegs. There, exactly where I expected it to be, was the dux board on the wall.
And sure enough, in the right-hand column, third name down, painted in gold lettering was her name.
I had dreamed of the day Isobel and I would stand hand in hand and read it together. But I stood here today alone, and could not have been more proud.
Leafing through folders of local photographs, my heart leaped every time I saw Isobel at various stages in her life. In most she was surrounded by family members, some of whom I had met when they visited us. She had been part of the fabric of island life, and she was now part of its history.
“Are you looking for anything in particular?” the smiling lady on the desk asked me.
Hearing the soft island tones of the woman pierced my heart, for Isobel had never lost her beautiful accent, even though she had lived most of her life on the mainland.
“No, thank you. I’m just on holiday here. Having a bit of a break,” I told the assistant.
Everyone here was friendly, and not just in a tourist-hungry way. Visitors were important for the local economy, that much was true, but islanders were always eager to know if there was a family connection. She nodded. “The weather is due to be good all week. How long are you here for?” “I go home on Saturday.” Since my arrival I had managed to avoid engaging in conversation by exchanging pleasantries only, and then moving away quickly. Somehow, it would have been too painful to speak about Isobel to people who either knew of the family, or who had heard of her.
But the information centre was quiet and I knew the lady only wanted to make my time here as memorable as possible.
I smiled at her, then wandered into the next room, which I knew to be the senior classroom.
It had been recreated to look as it would have been during Isobel’s time.
Please leave a message, someone had written on the blackboard, and alongside were several names with hearts and funny faces, as well as a message in what I guessed to be Chinese.
There were no signs prohibiting people touching the exhibits, and I sat at the teacher’s seat – any padding long since gone – and studied the items on the desk. The brown leather tawse, curled up at the edges, was cracked and dry, but quite clearly well used.
Not on my Isobel, though. Not once. She had been a clever pupil who had received glowing reports saying she had a bright future in front of her.
Alongside the tawse, a jotter lay open at a sums page. Familiar red crosses reminded me of my own shortcomings at school.
A row of desks with lifting lids, long abandoned and replaced by modern classroom furniture, were etched with names and dates. A gaping hole where the inkwell used to be was stained with blue which ran into the pencil groove.
In the bookcase against the wall, amongst old dusty textbooks, were several copies of the bible, and books printed in Gaelic, Isobel’s mother tongue.
I tried to picture Isobel sitting in this room, studying, equipping herself with knowledge for her life ahead.
The voice behind me pulled me out of my musty, chalky daydream.
I had heard so much about this place, I knew it already. And at last I could fulfil my promise . . .
“It’s amazing to think that school was once like this.”
The lady from behind the desk, who was probably ages with my youngest daughter, clearly wasn’t giving up on getting more information out of me. I laughed. “I remember it well!” “Where did you go to school? Glasgow?”
“The accent is a bit of a giveaway, isn’t it?” I laughed. “My school wasn’t unlike this one, in fact. Just much, much bigger.” I waved an arm around me. “Where did you get all of these items? It’s quite a collection!”
She perched herself on the edge of the desk.
“Mostly from islanders themselves. There’s nowhere to throw anything away here, so people keep things in lofts and outhouses!” She smiled. “Have you been to the museum yet? It’s full of interesting objects, including an impressive dresser with intricate carving made out of driftwood. It’s too windy here to grow trees, you see, so people used to salvage things after high tide. Of course, nowadays we can order furniture online and have it delivered. But it was different back then.” I nodded. “No, I’m saving the museum for Friday, my last day. Several people have told me that it’s well worth a visit. Well, thank you again.” I rose to leave. “I’ve enjoyed my visit very much.”
As the lady urged me to call again, and held the door open for me, I put a donation in the box and noticed the first spots of rain.
SHOWERS were not even included in local weather reports since they happened so often! This one was particularly heavy, and as I drove slowly with the windscreen wipers at full speed I almost missed the two dark figures walking along the edge of the road.
I pulled alongside and lowered the window.
“Would you like a lift?” I shouted above the hammering sound on the roof.
They jumped in the back of the car, water dripping down their smiling faces. I recognised them as the young couple from the ferry.
“This is very kind of you,” the boy said. “Mind you, we had the feeling we wouldn’t have long to wait until someone stopped. Everyone’s so helpful here!”
“The weather changes so quickly, too,” I said. “Have you been for a long walk?”
In the rear-view mirror I saw them look into each other’s eyes. Then the girl spoke. “Actually, we’ve just become engaged, right at the top of that hill!”
She pointed, and I knew the hill she meant. It was the highest point, from where you could see the whole island. Isobel used to go up there with her friends, I knew.
“We’ve been planning this for months,” the girl went on, smiling. “My dad has been researching the family tree, you see, and we discovered that my great-great-grandparents came from here. They emigrated to Canada, and at some point someone came back to Scotland.” She beamed. “We couldn’t afford to go to Canada, so we thought we would come here,” the boy explained.
“Then may I be the first person to offer my congratulations to you both? I hope you have a long and happy life together,” I told them warmly.
A few minutes later we reached the main town and they asked to be dropped off at the war memorial.
I accepted their thanks and watched them sprint, arm in arm, towards a little café, to make memories.
The following day I drove to the top of the island, to Isobel’s home.
I knew that it had been deserted many years before, and in a way this made it easier, knowing I would not have to knock on a door and explain who I was.
The roof was still on the building, but the door hung askew, held only by one hinge. It was no deterrent to sheep, which clearly used it as a shelter.
I found the scene ironic, considering how Isobel was ostracised by her parents for daring to marry a non-islander and make a career for herself on the mainland.
A good career at that, as had been predicted by her school teachers. Isobel became a district nurse and was held in high esteem by all who knew her.
The trouble was, as the youngest child in the family, she had been expected by her parents to forgo a life for herself and return to the homestead to care for them into their old age.
When she didn’t do this, her mother and father cut her out of their life. After that, visits from siblings and cousins over the years became a great joy for Isobel.
Once her parents had both passed away, Isobel and I talked often about going back to the island some day, but there always seemed to be another call on our time and money, so we never did.
S I packed my case that evening I laid aside the large brown envelope I had brought with me. I checked the contents of it one more time. The following day I handed it to the museum’s curator, just before I left.
I had spent just over an hour in the building, looking at the exhibits. The wooden dresser interested me especially. Behind a willow pattern plate on the back board I could make out the initials, I.M., exactly where Isobel had told me they would be.
“This is very kind of you.” The curator leafed through the contents of the envelope. “You say these belonged to your late wife’s family who came from the island?”
“That’s right. They were the MacKinnons. Everything in there is dated, and all the names in the photographs are correct. My wife was a stickler for detail.”
“We will scan the photographs and put them on the loop.”
He pointed to a big screen on the wall behind me, where a new photograph appeared every few seconds. Weather-beaten faces, unsmiling, stared at the lens.
There were women bowed under the weight of a basket of peat on their backs, and men mending fishing nets.
I left quickly, before I could see a face that resembled Isobel.
Next morning, the sun was streaming in my bedroom window. I had never been very good on boats, so I was relieved that today promised to be a calm sailing.
As the rope was thrown from the jetty, severing the boat’s connection with the island, I stood on the deck and felt a lightness of heart.
I had carried out my darling Isobel’s wishes and had returned some personal items to where she felt they belonged.
She, too, had fulfilled her promise to me, by taking me there.
This would have been Isobel’s last view of everything she had ever known and held dear. A heart-achingly beautiful scene of rolling hills and white cottages dotted randomly across the green landscape, with spirals of smoke rising from the chimneys.
Only now did I realise the sacrifice Isobel had made out of love for me.
I tore my blurred gaze away as I heard someone shout. “Isobel!” I turned quickly, just in time to see the smiling young man at the rail beckoning his new f iancée.
She married a non-islander, so they cut her out of their life