the first weekend
A sharp, chill wind rocked the small ferry as it left Eilean Mor and set out into the narrow strait known as the Mara Geal. The bored passengers on the school bus looked disinterestedly out of salt encrusted windows and across the open deck. Careful scrutiny of the three cars crossing with them had destroyed the vain hope that a new face might appear on the island. Sweet papers rustled in preparation for the last leg of the long journey as the ferry docked at the stone pier. The small convoy disembarked from the ferry onto the island of Eilean Beag and began to ascend the steep single-track road that led upwards from the pier.
Charlie sighed as he followed the bus, for the fumes from its exhaust were already beginning to creep through the closed air vents of his comfortable Mondeo. Like the children on the bus, the twice weekly journey was too familiar for him to appreciate the spectacular view of bleached, undulating machair and pale gold sand. As the sour grass changed to moorland and the island’s native and unhealthy looking sheep slowed his progress, he reflected that it had been a long time since he had made the journey homewards with anything other than a cold sense of foreboding. His life – which had gone exactly as he had planned and expected in the past – had taken strange turns in directions he was not at all happy with. His health and finances of course played a large part in that. He had to give up the larger of his two fishing boats – the Gwendoline – and her crew six months previously due to a serious fall in profits. He now ran the smaller boat – the Elaine – from Port Malin, which was the biggest harbour on Eilean Mor. He could now only afford two employees, and the extra work and the long stretches away had put no small strain on his chubby, fifty-year-old physique.
Then there was the matter of his home life. His wife seemed the same, a bit more worried than usual perhaps, but his two daughters were behaving in a way that he could not begin to fathom. The younger, who had just had her sixteenth birthday, had turned from being a cheerful and helpful girl into a sullen teenager who refused to acknowledge her parents unless there was something she wanted. In fact, she had chosen to take the bumpy and uncomfortable bus for the whole journey instead of getting in the car with him. He was told however that this was a common enough trait in teenage girls and the majority of parents suffered these problems. It was the elder he was more concerned about. Gwen had been a wonderful teenager and had never given them a moment’s worry throughout her entire childhood. Her blonde hair and blue eyes had charmed everyone, and she had always been polite and tidy and had done well in school. Well enough to get a place at university, where they had thought she was happy until she suddenly arrived home – for a break she had said. Time out due to stress. It was now four months since she arrived and she was showing no signs of going back to her course at all. Not that he objected to her presence in any way, but in his mind a break meant one or perhaps two weeks of general relaxation and then back to work, not months of listlessly moping around and lying in bed.
The sudden opening up of the landscape broke his train of thought and he looked down upon the horseshoe-shaped valley which had been home to him since birth. About a hundred houses were huddled in the different nooks and crannies of the island, most of them in this particular spot. The brown and rush-filled crofts which had once provided the islanders with meagre food and nourishment were now mostly disused since the crofting way of life had become impractical. Their fences did not come down though: land was land whether it was used or not. You would be more likely to get an island man to part with his arm than so much as half an inch of a poor croft. Instead, each fenced holding held at least two houses, one older and of the more traditional style, and then one or two of the new mainland-style kits which belonged to the sons and daughters of the original house. These dwellings stretched across the whole valley, the road binding them together until it finally reached the graveyard that sat on the edge of the narrow shingle beach that offered a small opening to the outside world. The valley sides rose brown and rugged above the village, populated with small purple wildflowers which even the persistent, half-starved sheep were not stupid enough to try and reach. Above it all, along a separate road to his left, stood the austere grey church which cast baleful looks down upon any villager who for any reason failed to attend at least one of the long and uncomfortable Sunday services.
Charlie continued down the road and entered the village, speeding up slightly as the bus turned precariously down the first twisting street of houses, its sides dangerously overhanging the deep ditches on either side of the crumbling and gritty road. As he passed the village shop he waved to Joan, who single-handedly negated the need for any kind of village newsletter with the constant flow of gossip that spouted forth throughout any conversation she held. Eighty years of poking her nose into other people’s business had neither dimmed her interest nor damaged her vocal cords, and she could still do a fair turn of speed up the road if she felt she was missing a first hand view of an important event. He took a left turn and about midway down the street he pulled into the driveway of a modern bungalow with a false stonework front which bore the optimistic name of Avalon. He heaved himself from the car and walked through the neat, symmetrical garden, and entered the house just as the school bus deposited his youngest daughter by the gate.
Elaine paused to pull her bag onto her shoulder before squeezing past the car in the driveway. She noticed the pale and birdlike hand that was delicately waving a small tin of Sheba kitty-bits out of one of the bedroom windows. An impractically fluffy white cat haughtily crossed the garden, and in one deft leap disappeared into the house. The hand disappeared and the window shut with a sharp click, causing swathes of lacy net curtain to wobble and shiver. She trudged up to the house – taking care to stomp particularly loudly while passing under her sister’s bedroom – and clattered through the front door scattering gravel and a small pot plant in her wake. Her mother fluttered out of the living room, wringing a small frilly apron in her hands.
“For heaven’s sake, the noise! You know how sensitive your sister is – it hardly takes anything to give her a migraine. And my poor amaryllis! Why don’t you pick things up when you knock them over?”
Elaine rolled her eyes. “Is she still in bed then? Why doesn’t she just get up and shift her arse back to uni? She’s been lying in there moaning and complaining for months.”
“You have such a filthy mouth; I don’t know what’s got into you lately. And don’t speak about Gwen like that. She’s very ill and we all have to be sensitive to her needs. Go and see if there’s anything she wants while I’m talking to your father. And just you be nice to her.”
Charlie was standing in front of the fake coal fire, one hand against the wall, the other pinching the bridge of his nose in an attempt to stave off the violent headache he could feel building at the back of his skull. He turned and straightened as his wife came in, shutting the door behind her.
“What do you mean there’s nothing physical wrong with her? She can’t get out of bed. We have to get another doctor Margaret. That one obviously hasn’t got a clue. You don’t end up in bed all day and night unless you have a serious physical problem”
“Don’t shout or she’ll hear you,” Margaret hissed. She continued in a low tone. “Doctor Burns is very highly thought of on the mainland. He says she’s had a stressful time recently and what she needs most is sympathy and understanding. All the worry of university has given her a slight breakdown and she needs our help to recover.”
“Slight breakdown! How in god’s name does not being able to get out of bed qualify as slight! What are we going to do? How much more rest does she need? I don’t always feel like getting out of bed but it’s just what you have to do. We should just bloody well get her up and out if that’s all that’s wrong with her, instead of all this tiptoeing around.”
“Charlie please – we can’t do that. It would just make her worse. We can’t force her to do anything – you know how fragile her emotions are. She’s always been a sensitive and delicate child and she has to be treated with extreme tenderness. I know that we can nurse her back to her full health in time, and I’m not going to let you go upsetting her with all your talk of idleness. You’re not being in any way helpful. From now on we get her everything she needs and asks for. I’ve already arranged for fresh baking to be sent over from the tea shop every morning for her breakfast, and I’m going to get new curtains and a matching rug for her floor to cheer her up. I also ordered a lovely hand-painted hat box and flower pots to brighten up the room.”
“What does she need a hat box for? She’s obviously not going anywhere! And who’s going to pay for all this?”
“Nasty and negative again! Is it not worth the money to make our little girl happy? Oh Heavens, I must put her dinner on. I’m going to try and tempt her with a nice potato salad.” She bustled out of the room, nearly knocking over Elaine who had only stood up from her position against the door just in time. She scowled at her mother and father and stomped into her bedroom, slamming the door behind her.
“Well really! That girl gets ruder by the minute. You need to have a word with her,” Margaret decreed before disappearing into the kitchen.
Charlie sat down heavily and rubbed his forehead. His headache was now in fully in place, and not for the first time he wished he could swap his comfortable floral recliner and neatly frilled front room for the gently swaying cabin of his boat.
Enclosed in the privacy of her excessively untidy bedroom Elaine examined herself in the mirror. The pale skin and anorexic thinness that was considered so trendy by the more rebellious elements at school remained elusive to her. Despite all attempts she looked tanned and healthy, and even her short dyed-black hair had not given her the slightest impression of pallor. This annoyed her even more, as her sister had managed to effortlessly acquire a fashionable unhealthy exterior just by going a bit mad. She flopped down on the bed and reached for the personal CD player that was permanently clipped to her waist. Lying back she pressed play and put the volume up as far as the dial would go. She reached into her bedside drawer and rummaged until she found a half-empty packet of chewing-gum. Placing the remainder of the pack in mouth she closed her eyes and settled back with the full intention of not speaking to the rest of her family at least until church on Sunday.
On the other side of the wall Gwendoline rested against her pillows and stroked Pandora’s soft white fur. The cat stretched its paws and purred. Gwendoline allowed herself a slight smile. There was no chance that the cat would damage her favourite quilt cover because those sharp and potentially damaging claws had been removed by the vet last Monday. Constant worry about both the quilt and the wallpaper had led to her actually making the appointment over the phone herself, it was a rare occurrence these days when she went anywhere near that dirty instrument. Of course, her mother had taken the cat over to Eilean Mor as there was no question that she herself could have made such a long and arduous journey. Even the thought of going outside – baring herself to the harsh and dangerous light and withering, dry winds – was best not contemplated. No, it was best to stay here in her safe, warm room. She gazed around at the decor which she and her mother had chosen together. The wallpaper was cream and patterned with delicate pink rosebuds and small silver hearts; the inner curtains were also cream with a most beautiful lace edging which matched her quilt perfectly. Her brass bedstead was carefully polished and stainless, while the dark wooden wardrobe and chest of drawers gleamed richly, the small drawers hinting of neat and pretty secrets carefully folded within. There was not an object out of place and she knew with exact detail where each and every one of her possessions lay. It was a perfect room, feminine and scented, with not a hint of the rough untidiness that her sister seemed to enjoy residing in. She shuddered as she thought of the diabolical pit next door in the midst of which she knew Elaine would be lolling, listening to her depraved and unclean music. A glance in the full-length mirror that reflected her bed calmed her thoughts. She was perfect and beautiful; blonde and pale and clean. People who visited her in this room would be unable to think otherwise. But now she had to rest, to give herself the energy she needed for her evening shower. She lay down carefully so as not to disturb the smoothness of the bedcovers, and arranging her limbs in a suitably graceful position she closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Margaret carefully opened the door of Gwen’s bedroom with her hip, her hands filled with a selection of dainty foods of both a savoury and sweet nature. Realising that her daughter was asleep she arranged the food carefully on a small foldaway table at the bottom of the bed. She looked down at Gwen. “Never given us a moment’s worry,” she thought. “Always so pretty and charming.” Margaret had been slightly worried that the long stretches in bed, during which her appetite had not changed, would cause her daughter to gain weight, but apart from her skin having a spot or two of trouble she was still as lovely as ever. They would soon have her on her feet and back at university doing as well as ever, but until then she couldn’t deny that she enjoyed having her around to talk to. They seemed to understand each other so well and to have so much in common, unlike her sister, who didn’t want to behave like a young woman at all. She gently shut Gwen’s door and checked on Elaine who was also asleep, sprawled across her bed with her boots still on. Magazines, dirty clothes and make-up were among the items that managed to cover every inch of carpet in the room. The remnants of a huge sandwich purchased at a deli in Port Malin that morning were crumbled across the bedside table. Margaret resisted an urge to get the hoover – it was Elaine’s responsibility to clean her own surroundings. Unfortunately it was also her responsibility to choose her own haircut. She would never forget the feeling of horror and disappointment when her daughter had come off the bus minus her shimmering waist-length hair. What was left of it was not even coloured as it should be. It was also only then that she had noticed quite how many ear piercings she had acquired over the years. She had so much potential but she seemed determined to completely destroy her looks. Still, she was sure that this was just a phase – hair grew back after all. Margaret shut the door and returned to the kitchen to check on the steak pie for Charlie’s dinner. All cooking nicely: it would be about another three quarters of an hour. She would have time to nip up the road and talk to Betty, the village nurse, who would be attending to the needs of the ladies of Creagan House at about this time. Ascertaining that Charlie was also asleep by the loud snoring emanating from the front room, she put on her coat, picked up a tin from the table and slipped out of the back door.