‘IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO BE BRAVE’
Reconnecting with a childhood home
Every time I look out across the bay from the bench that’s in my father’s name, I am caught off guard again by the beauty that surrounds me and the amazing good fortune that carrying out one simple act of remembrance has brought me. There are seals in the bay popping up their heads every so often, and although it’s frequently damp and windy, the islands hold an ethereal beauty that never palls.
It’s not something that struck me when I first moved to Orkney just as I was starting secondary school. My parents had moved us there from Essex after falling in love with the Scottish islands on holiday. It was a wonderful place to grow up, but there are only so many pony club excursions and nature rambles a rebellious teenager can take. After my O levels, I decided to leave school and head south. I got a job in an insurance office and threw myself into all the excitement that life in London in the late Seventies had to offer.
I returned a couple of times a year to begin with and then, after I married and had my own children, the visits got less frequent as the expense of travelling to Orkney with the family rivalled the cost of Summer holidays in the sun. My parents came to visit us often in London to see their granddaughters and to bring us
Orkney fudge. But gradually Orkney faded into the background of my life.
When I went back after my dad died in 2014, I thought it would be my last visit. Dad had been a GP for 40 years. A quiet, modest man, he wanted his ashes scattered without fuss on his favourite beach. But neighbours mentioned to us they thought it was a shame there was nowhere for them to pay their respects and ‘have a chat with the doctor’. My siblings and I thought a bench would be a fitting memorial.
As I still had some connections on the island, it fell to me to organise it. The local parish council arranged for the land to be made available and I ordered the bench and the engraving. We agreed it should be simple and include some lines from a poem he’d written a few years previously about the islands he loved so much:
I leave few footprints on the sand for stormy seas to wash away. I take with me the breadth of sky and seas of unimaginable blue.
I don’t know if it was those lines or the truth of them, but when I returned, Orkney seemed to have become more beautiful and unique in my absence. Perhaps it was that I was older and able to look out rather than inwards now. Perhaps it was simply that I’d grown up. But it was as if I’d never left and I felt a pull to the place that was as unexpected as it was powerful. I only knew that I was sad to think this was goodbye.
I had a life in England. I’d moved to Winchester after my divorce and my two grown-up daughters had left home. I had a lovely small house, a cat and a good job as a lecturer in Southampton. If I was a bit lonely sometimes and disappointed I’d never quite achieved my dream of being a writer, well, that was fine – I was better off than most.
In August 2014, I went up for the weekend to see the bench. I’d messaged a couple of old friends still living in Orkney who’d been in touch when Dad died, and we arranged to meet up for dinner. I asked them if there was anyone else who might remember me still and they suggested I contact Leslie; they were sure he’d remember me. I wasn’t quite so certain. Even if he did, would he want to see me? Leslie and I had been going out when I left and I wasn’t sure if I’d even said goodbye. However, I got in touch via Facebook and we arranged to meet up for a coffee. I was so nervous I could hardly hold the book I was pretending to read when he walked in. Had I aged too much? Would he think me changed?
None of that mattered. From the moment he sat down opposite me it was as if we’d only seen each other days before rather
‘I knew if I didn’t take this opportunity to be happy, I’d regret it for ever’
than more than three decades ago. He had the same sense of humour, the same smile, the same twinkle in his eye. I knew immediately that this wasn’t over. That evening we met up again with friends and as we reminisced and laughed and chatted, all the tension I’d been carrying for years – my divorce, work, Dad being ill, having to go into a home, then dying – just fell away. Here were true friends; there was no judgement, no expectations, no competing for attention, just friendship. I was home.
The following Monday I flew back south and Leslie came to see me off. When he kissed me goodbye, it was a peck on the cheek and I had to remind myself that Orkney men just don’t do public displays of affection. The fact he’d come to the airport said enough. We didn’t make any promises – he’s a practical man and he knew I had a life elsewhere – but we agreed to stay in touch and I said I’d visit again soon.
I went back just before Christmas, this time to stay a bit longer. I wanted some more time with Leslie and to see if there really was something there. I knew he’d been divorced for a few years and his children were younger than mine, so I was cautious – there was no use starting something unless we both wanted it. We talked a lot about how we could make things work across the distance and I met his children, who were shy at first but quickly relaxed over hot chocolate and buns in a local café.
When Leslie came down to visit me a few weeks later, I took him around Winchester. It was dark when we arrived at the cathedral, and empty apart from the choir rehearsing. The inside was lit with hundreds of candles. We stood listening and enjoying the music for a while, then he asked me which part of the cathedral was my favourite. I took him to Jane Austen’s grave, where we stood for a moment before he took a small box out of his pocket and hesitantly asked me if I would consider, at some point, when I was ready, to marry him and come home to Orkney for good. The answer was out of my mouth before I even thought about it. ‘Yes!’ I knew instinctively that if I didn’t take this opportunity to be happy, I’d regret it for ever. I like to think Jane Austen would have approved.
We married in August 2015 at the Italian Chapel in the Orkneys – two Nissen huts converted into a beautiful chapel by Italian prisoners during the Second World War. We both wanted something different, but spiritual.
When we were young, Leslie and I were like most teenagers: self-absorbed, a bit wild sometimes and quick to argue or take offence. We were very similar in temperament, but we’ve both mellowed over the years. We are easy with each other, more patient – especially so now because we treasure what we have. My daughters think he’s wonderful and they get on well with their new step siblings. Leslie’s family have been more than welcoming – they can see we make each other happy. My friends have been a bit more circumspect – some of them thought I was mad to move so far away, let alone give up a secure job. But I’d had enough of playing safe and not taking any chances. It was time to rediscover my braver self, the one who’d left Orkney in the first place.
The first thing Leslie did when I moved in was to create a study for me in his house and build bookcases for all my books. If it hadn’t been for him I’d never have finished the PHD I’d started but put away when Dad died. I’ve finally written my novel, Dark Water, set here in Orkney, which has now been published. It’s about a woman returning to the island but with a dark twist. Leslie has encouraged, cajoled and been right there with me all the way, always believing. He came to my graduation last year and having him cheer me on made up for Dad not being there.
Our new house has the most incredible views over a wide sandy bay where a family of seals have just had pups. I’m working on my next book – finally living the writer’s life I always dreamed of. My sister is convinced that Dad has brought Leslie and me together from beyond the grave. I’m not so sure, but fate or luck, I’m not questioning it. I’m happy and I’m finally back home. I’ve learnt that it’s never too late if you’re prepared to take a chance and choose happiness.
Coming home: Sara with the bench dedicated to her father
Sara and Leslie married in Orkney’s Italian Chapel more than 30 years after they dated as teenagers
‘As teenagers, we were wild and quick to argue,’ says Sara