The congregation took up the Gaelic psalmody in waves, following the precentor’s lead. The voices filled the church with a twisting rope of harmonies that sounded discordant and beautiful at the same time. This should be sampled, thought Elaine. It would sound great with a rock backing track. Or maybe Nirvana. She sat back and tried to get comfy on the hard wooden pew. It seemed to have been designed to dig into every available part of your body, and there was even a bit that jutted out to hit you in the shoulder blades. She’d worn her long padded skirt, hoping that it would provide some cushioning, but it made no difference. The bare boards creaked beneath her feet as Betty elbowed her in the guts. The minister began his sermon. Luckily, many years of church experience had hardened Elaine to the Sunday service. She had learned always to buy hats with as wide a brim as possible. They cast a nice deep shadow over your face that hid any signs of inattention and left you free to scrutinise the congregation in front of you. She also always sat as far back as possible. Betty was a front pewer, but Elaine had made sure she got in the door first this Sunday and Betty had to follow her lead.
One of the innumerable rambling prayers started. Elaine turned her head slightly to get a good look at Malcolm who was sitting toward the front. Following yesterdays debacle, he was doing the full repentant sinner act. He was probably even considering a cùram given the depth of shame he was in. Betty hadn’t helped matters by relaying the news to a few key households. It had spread like wildfire from there on. Even Gwendoline seemed pleased that their connection was severed in the light of events. Apparently the police were charging him with a number of criminal offences. Driving under the influence was one. He’d had so much booze on Friday night he was still tanked-up when coming off the ferry. He was also – along with half the island – facing various charges of breach of the peace, but this was unlikely to come to anything, unless the Port Malin Sheriff Court sat in session until doomsday. Then there was his decision to urinate in the Port Malin square fountain in full view of the CCTV cameras. The incident with the floral boats had been similarly noted, so he was also having to face up to the sin of criminal damage as well. The residents of the Seaview Retirement Home had been shocked and disturbed to find their beautiful croquet lawn sadly defaced on Saturday morning. When they had gone out for their customary Saturday morning game they had found the grass in such a condition that they could not play. Assorted large plastic shop-sign letters had been stomped into the lawn badly damaging the grass. The words ‘Malky woz ere’ were visible from the plane on the approach to the airport. Elaine giggled. What a pillock, she thought, as Betty’s elbow collided with her stomach once again. It’s probably the most work he’s done in his life, mind you.
Elaine stood outside the church waiting for Betty to finish fawning over the minister. If the holy women didn’t watch they were going to give him repetitive strain injury from all the handshaking. It had been a particularly long service today. She had been targeted herself she knew. There had been a particularly long ‘we need the Lord in times of trouble’ bit that had nearly sent her to sleep. It had been quite good fun watching Malcolm’s ears burn red during the ‘wages of sin’ part. She cheered herself up with the thought that this was the last Sunday service she’d be going to. Her mother had been informed last night of her decision to move in with Bella and Jim. Elaine had suggested that an allowance of some kind should be paid to them. Margaret had responded to this by nodding vaguely and beginning work on a cake of immense proportions. She wasn’t even going to bother telling Gwendoline.
Back at the house she started to shift her bags into Betty’s car. She had all the stuff she wanted, the rest was stuffed into bin bags for the charity shop. That could go later. Betty was hovering in the kitchen committing the deadly sin of eating part of Gwen’s daily portion.
“Well,” she was saying. “These are lovely Margaret, really lovely. But do you not think you should maybe put just a little less sugar in them. I don’t mean to criticise but they are just a touch cloying.”
Margaret humphed and deliberately turned her face to the window. Betty decided it was time to find someone with a more friendly aspect to chew over yesterday’s gossip. She stood up. “I’ll take my leave then. I must pop in and see my cousin Joan. Have you finished loading the car Elaine?”
“Aye, it’s all ready to go,” she replied with an uncharacteristic grin. She had tried to maintain her customary cool frown throughout the morning but she had given up the attempt. She hoped she would be able to conjure up a black mood for school on Monday. There was no way she could go in smiling – she’d be ostracized for the rest of the year.
“I’ll pick you up bright and early for the first ferry tomorrow then. See you later Margaret,” she called over her shoulder as she made for the front door.
“When’s dinner?” Elaine asked her mother once the front door had closed.
“I’m making a cake,” Margaret replied shortly, a slightly unfocused look on her face.
“But we can’t have cake for dinner,” persisted Elaine. “And you’ve already done two tiers. I mean, how much bigger does it have to be?” She walked around the cake and examined it from various angles.
“Don’t be so selfish Elaine! This is for Gwendoline. It must be perfect. Four beautiful tiers. Now get out of my kitchen!” She pushed her daughter out of the way and began selecting mixing bowls. Elaine made for the fridge. When she reached the safety of her transformed and tidy room she set down her scavengings on the bed. It’s like living in the ‘Invasion of the Bodysnatchers’ around here, she thought. Placing the bread board on the dresser, she began construction on the sandwich to end all sandwiches.
Inside Joan’s butt-n-ben, Joan and Betty gossiped furiously. The little front room was full of neat piles of newspaper cuttings relating to various islanders who had succeeded in entering the public eye over the last century. There were enough cuttings from the local paper to cover the walls of the room many times over. Although it would seem to an outsider that the papers were rather random, they were in fact carefully ordered and filed. All the Eilean Beag families had their own different places in the front room. Certain families from Port Malin were neatly ordered in various kitchen drawers, while those who had moved abroad – and for Joan ‘abroad’ meant anywhere over the water – found places in the spare bedroom. Children winning local prizes, new babies having their first photo, tragic deaths: all these were cut out and stored in Joan’s house. The women paused for a moment as Betty went to the kitchen to replenish the biscuit plate and make another cup of tea. She stared out the window as she waited for the kettle to boil. She had been coming in here almost every day since she was a child. Back then she had loved the way the old papers felt as she leafed through them. She had been fascinated by all the glimpses of young faces and happy wedding days. She had been frightened by the way you would sometimes find a death notice for someone whose only other record was a baby picture. But then Joan would always be able to tell her some small tale: a little thing that was just about the dead one, no matter how young they were.
“This baby died of measles, but before, he was such a happy thing and hardly ever cried. This little girl – she died in childbirth later. She was always good with her hands, and could sew so well you’d think the fairies had done it.”
Betty tried her best to remember it all. She felt that she was keeping the people alive in some small way. She knew it was a vain and sinful thought but she would like to be remembered like that one day. She sighed. “But that’s not how it is now,” she said to herself. “The young ones don’t understand.” She sighed and went back to the front room laden with a full tea tray. She sat down and resumed her discourse on yesterdays shocking incident.
Elaine was dozing on her bed when the screams started. Marvellous, she thought. There she goes again. She put her hands over her ears as shrieks that were in danger of bursting the eardrums of the island’s dogs came needling through the walls.
“YOU DON’T LOVE ME! YOU JUST DON’T CARE! HOW COULD YOU DO THIS?”, howled Gwendoline. “IT’S NOT PERFECT. CAN’T YOU SEE IT’S NOT PERFECT?”
The outburst was punctuated by a series of loud thuds and a tinkling sound. Elaine could hear her mother trying to pacify the screaming harpy, but she was soon drowned out by another wave of yelping anger and self-pity. When the storm had subsided she gathered her personal stereo and a couple of CDs and gingerly stepped out into the hall. There were large chunks of cake dripping from the walls and the floor was a mass of broken shards of ceramics. Elaine could make out a plate and Gwendoline’s bedside lamp amongst the shrapnel. The door to the bedroom was shut and no light came from underneath, although the odd moan and wail came filtering out. It’s like living with a bloody poltergeist, thought Elaine.
Through in the kitchen Margaret was weeping with her head in the kitchen cupboard.
“Er, what’s going on mum?” asked Elaine, unable to contain her morbid curiosity.
“I should have seen …” Margaret was muttering to herself. “How could I be so careless. It must be perfect. I must start again. Oh, where is the white flour?” She continued scrabbling around in the cupboard until eventually she emerged with an armful of ingredients.
“I take it the cake didn’t go down well then?” said Elaine.
Margaret looked up at her daughter in surprise. “What are you doing here?” she asked fiercely. “I thought you were gone. Get out of the kitchen – I must make the perfect cake. I can’t have you under my feet. Out now!” She shooed Elaine out of the back door. As she stumbled backwards over the threshold, Elaine just had time to notice small pieces of broken china wobbling in her mother’s hair.
Elaine walked down to the beach and sat on the shingle watching the waves sweep in and out. She smiled as she thought about her father, alive and well away from this, and of her money locked safely in the bank. Before long she had decided on the whole decoration plan for her room at Bella’s. Jim had said he would get her some paint and stencils and she could brighten the place up in any way she wanted. Eventually she looked at her watch and found it was just past midnight. All the lights in the village were off and a stillness had settled over the houses. Up above the ridge an aurora borealis pulsed and spun. She stood for a while looking at the beautiful, ethereal streaks of light that kept shooting high into the sky. Walking down the road with her head skywards she crunched slowly in the drive of Avalon.
All was quiet from Gwendoline’s bedroom window. She went round to the back of the house. A scorched and burnt smell emanated from the kitchen. Opening the door she saw her mother asleep at the kitchen table, her head on her arms. She opened the door wider and gasped as she saw the flames licking out of the red hot stove and up the kitchen wall. She hesitated for a moment taking in the scene through eyes as impassive as the granite heart of the island.
“I shouldn’t be here,” she said dreamily. “I’m supposed to stay away.”
Breathing shallowly she walked up to her mother and touched her on the arm.
“It’s Elaine,” she said. Margaret didn’t stir. Meanwhile the smoke from the fire spread out black tendrils, reaching towards her. Holding her sleeve over her mouth she went out through the back door, shutting it behind her. She paused and looked back as the frilly curtains caught fire. They were gone in a crackle.
She moved softly up the road. There were no other lights on, and as yet, the flaming kitchen of Avalon could not be seen from the road. She didn’t stop walking or look back until she reached the church. When she did the entire house was blazing, with smoke pouring out of it. Lights began to flick on in the nearby houses as the sizzle of the fire awakened the neighbours. Shouts and screams followed and more houses lit up as the men began to rush to the fire shed where the island’s mini-engine was kept.
Elaine summoned tears up from some dark recess and began to run down the road. “We had an argument,” she whispered to herself. “I went for a walk. I fell asleep. The engine woke me.”
She awoke early the next morning and got herself bathed and ready. She rubbed her eyes red and went downstairs. Betty was in the kitchen blowing her nose vigorously into a flowery hanky. Her husband sat nervously at the table, unable to meet Elaine’s eye.
“Are you sure you want to go now dear?” said Betty laying, a comforting hand on her shoulder. “It’s such a terrible tragedy. Oh dear …” She stopped – for once in her life, completely lost for words – and blew her nose yet again. Elaine also summoned up a deep sniff and hid her face.
“I just can’t stay here and look at that,” she said quietly, and gestured toward the window. The still-smoking wreck of Avalon was in plain view.
She took one of Betty’s hankies and dabbed at her eyes. “I just want to get away,” she continued. “I … I couldn’t bear to spend another night here. Will you help take care of things for me Betty. I don’t know what to do. I mean the … the funerals. I just don’t know how.”
“Of course I will dear. Yes I think maybe it’s best to be away for a while. It is so hard to face. Sometimes, I do have to admit, God’s purpose is so very hard to see.”
A sharp, chill wind rocked the small ferry as it left Eilean Beag and set out into the narrow strait known as the Mara Geal. The passengers on the school bus were far from bored as their intent chatter rose and fell, as if with the wind. They had silenced briefly as Betty’s car drew onto the ferry beside them, and they gazed down at Elaine through the salt encrusted windows of the bus. The ferry rocked and dipped with a motion as old as the sea itself. Elaine sat snugly in the front passenger seat of the car, her hanky held across her face to hide her smile.