Iso­bel’s Is­land

Anne Pack’s poignant com­plete story takes place on a re­mote He­bridean isle.

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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.

Iso­bel MacKin­non.

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.

A****

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

The End.

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