‘IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO BE BRAVE’

Re­con­nect­ing with a child­hood home

Good Housekeeping (UK) - - Good Housekeepi­ng -

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

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