The sky hung low and grey over the valley, promising to fill the dips and hollows of the land with chilled water before the evening was out. Margaret bowed her head against the wind and turned up a narrow gap between two crofts, her sensible shoes carefully picking the way over stones and sheep dirt. The house of Seaview was the highest building in the village after the church. It was also the oldest, having cast its expressionless eyes toward the sea for nearly a century. It had changed a good deal since the Campbells had decided many moons ago that the world had moved on sufficiently for them to leave the blackhouse that had been home to them since time immemorial. They had built their new white house, which had four rooms and – much to the amazement of the rest of the villagers – separate accommodation for their small host of animals. After initial suspicion and muttering of unholy goings-on, the villagers realised the advantages of not having to live with their cows and quickly followed suit. The old stone blackhouses were soon turned into uneven garden walls and sheds. The walls of Seaview expanded to meet the needs of its growing brood until it became a tightly twisting maze of dark corridors and small, many-cornered rooms. The stubborn and tenacious family who occupied it had now spread and scattered to many varied lands, returning sporadically for weddings, christenings and funerals. The rambling warren was now home to two maiden sisters who were older even than the house itself. They could still talk of a time when the women and animals gave birth side by side and the offspring of each were considered to be of equal value. To the rest of the islanders they were as much a part of the landscape as the rocks and heather themselves.
Margaret reached the low garden wall and leaned against the gate to catch her breath. The house had also been built before the idea of roads had permeated the island consciousness, so it could only be approached on foot and in full view of the house’s inhabitants. She lifted the latch of the gate and walked through the small, carefully-walled garden which had at one time produced a variety of tasty vegetables and a whole range of not-so-palatable medicinal herbs. Age and infirmity had led to the abandonment of the vegetables. Tangled pink and white Jacobite roses now filled the beds and peered over the walls. She walked round to the side of the house and squeezed through the old-fashioned split door, one side of which was always closed. She idly wondered how on earth the very amply built Betty managed to fit herself into the kitchen on a daily basis without causing herself grievous injury. A warm, damp smell wafted gently out from the squat Rayburn stove which dominated the small and practical kitchen. Ninety years of constant peat fires had tinged the furniture, walls and tiles with a pale brown cast that no amount of scrubbing could remove. She crossed the kitchen and knocked sharply on the kitchen door.
“Was that the door?” a cracked voice loudly demanded. She stepped into the living room, taking care not to trip over the small painted step which seemed designed to sprain the ankle of the unwary visitor. In a room dominated by weathered old furniture and a myriad of photographs of people both long dead and just born, sat the two sisters.
“Hello there Agnes, it’s me, Margaret. From down the road. Charlie’s wife.”
“Oh yes, yes of course. IT’S CHARLIE’S WIFE COME TO VISIT US MARY!”shouted Agnes to her sister, who was sitting all of three feet to her left. Margaret sat down in the only seat available, which was a cushionless wooden chair positioned in such close proximity to the fire that it was a wonder it was not scorched.
“How are you both? Are you keeping well?” asked Margaret removing her coat.
“Oh well, I’m still having my usual problems,” began Agnes, embracing the opportunity to detail her many physical ailments. The fact that she still had the use of all her senses whilst most of her contemporaries were deep under the soil had not disabused her of the lifelong certainty that her internal organs were under strain. While Agnes continued to give details on the dreadful state of her liver and the terrible stomachs she had been suffering with, Margaret attempted not to let the slow and hypnotizing beat of the mantelpiece clock lull her to sleep. Not, she thought, that Agnes would notice, but she would be putting herself in danger of falling into the fire and being instantly incinerated by the blazing heat.
On the other side of the fire Mary leaned back in her armchair. She privately thanked God above that He had seen fit to partially deprive her of her hearing and give her the gift of inner contemplation and prayer. She smiled at Margaret and sifted through the many names and families so as to position her correctly. Of course, she was the daughter of Isabel Macarthur: a nice woman if a little simple at times. She had come from Port Malin, so she was not a native. Her father though; his family had been among the original settlers, like the Campbells themselves. They had always been a steady enough family – hard working and decent for the most part – but there was a thread of wild temper that ran through the generations, cropping up particularly strongly in some memorable individuals. There was one she had known well – Angus Macdonald was his name – a couple of years older than herself. He would be this woman’s great uncle and he was wild and sinful to a degree that had yet to be surpassed. Good looks and a quick tongue had made him cocky and sure of himself, and from the day he was born he was always looking for a way to thwart his elders and betters. After an uncontrollable childhood, during which his parents were far too busy with their many other offspring, he had decided that the island was not the place for him. One night at the tender age of seventeen he had upped and left, borrowing a friend’s fishing boat to get to the Port. Good riddance, people had said. That was until they discovered that the box of wine that was to be consumed at the next few Communions had gone to keep him company on his journey. His family had been devastated by the shame of it all. She remembered how on the following Sunday they had crept into church and sat at the back, shoulders hunched against the minister’s damning sermon on the subject of thievery. Eventually it had all faded into memory and in memory it stayed, called up only when bad feeling arose.
No one heard of Angus for many years after that, and his family had given him up for dead, which everyone thought was only what he deserved. Then he suddenly reappeared, and by chance it was Mary who first found out what had happened to him after that reckless night many years before. She had been nursing in the city, a job she had enjoyed well enough to remain in for twenty-five years, when amongst all the harsh accents of the town folk she had heard an island voice call her name.
“Mary, Mary my darling! Are you not going to speak to a sick old friend?” She had turned around and there he was. It amazed her that she recognized him after what the years and – to say the least – an eventful life had done to him. Aged far beyond his forty years, his skin yellowed with sun and strange diseases, he was certainly facially striking. What caught the attention most was the thick rope-like scar which stretched from ear to ear. She quickly recovered her composure and reminded him that she was not and never had been his darling, and berated him for shouting in a ward full of sick people. She told him she had to be about her duties and left the ward. The rest of her shift had passed immeasurably slowly as deep curiosity burned inside her. By the time she had finished work, her conscience was assured that it was her Christian duty to discover if he had repented and seen the error of his ways.
She spent two hours by his bedside listening to his tales. He told her that after he had gone that night he made for Glasgow. The wine had not travelled far. He had then signed up for the Merchant Navy, thinking that a life of adventure would suit him well. As it turned out, the adventure suited him well but the discipline certainly did not, and he felt unable to stay. He had jumped ship under cover of darkness in far-away Rio and had spent the next twenty-one years making his way homeward, for what purpose he knew not. The things he had seen and the people he met made Mary decide never to venture outside her native country. She had popped in to see him daily until he was well enough to leave. She found out from the hospital records that he was in hospital for a variety of irritating diseases, the causes of which were best not mentioned. He stupefied the islanders by returning to his native land and settling down in his family home, much to the distress of his good-living relatives. She had seen him once again on a visit home to her own family. He was drunk and foul-mouthed so she had not lingered to speak to him. A couple of months later her younger sister Dolina – now long dead – came to visit her brimming with gossip. She told her that Angus had been drunk one night, which was not an unusual occurance, and had an argument with his brother. He stormed from the house, wandered drunkenly into the moor and disappeared. A few days later his body had been spotted beside an old outlying blackhouse, on the north side of the island where most people knew better than to wander. They had difficulty in reaching the body due to the threatening dives of the great skuas who were protecting their nests, but they had managed in the end. They quickly realised that he had not died of exposure when they saw his pierced eye and the many small wounds on his head and shoulders. As they carried him back to the village the skuas had wheeled above them, swooping and diving triumphantly.
“Just think,” Dolina had said. “All those years in far-off places didn’t harm him but as soon as he came back … ! God’s will be done. He couldn’t escape that.”
Mary gave a sad smile and slowly let the present creep back into place. Agnes’s words continuing to wash over her, as endless and persistent as the tide. She looked over again at the middle-aged woman perched on the wooden chair. There certainly didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary about her, but the wild thread would come back through again somewhere. These things always did.
Margaret shifted in her seat and attempted to move as far away from the fire as the chair would allow. How on earth did they manage to survive this incredible heat? She looked over at Mary who was smiling to herself. She seemed to spend most of her time in her own thoughts. Betty often voiced the opinion that she had gone a bit simple in her later years and that she didn’t really know anyone anymore. It was such a shame but she was over a hundred after all. She turned her attention back to Agnes who was still spouting out ill health and misfortune. The kitchen door slammed loudly, calling even Mary to attention. Betty appeared at the door, brisk and matronly in her nurse’s uniform.
“Ah, hello Margaret! I haven’t seen you in a while. I trust your family is well. I see Charlie is away all week now. Is he working the boat himself now?”
“Yes he is. He can’t come back so often during the week because of the odd hours. You know how it is.”
“Indeed I do. Still, it must be hard for you, on your own all week.” She turned and addressed the two sisters. “AND HOW ARE WE BOTH TODAY? DID YOU REMEMBER TO TAKE YOUR PILLS THIS MORNING?”
“Oh I did” Agnes piped up. “But I’m still having a...”
“Now Joan was telling me that your Gwendoline is still at home. Is that right?” interrupted Betty.
“She is. In fact I came up hoping to catch you. I was wondering if you could come in tomorrow for a quick word about her – I tried phoning but I kept getting a busy signal.”
“Well I’m sure I can find the time. I’ll pop in during the morning.”
Margaret stood up and put on her coat. “I really must be going. It was nice to see you both.” She nodded to the two sisters, “I brought up some biscuits I made for you. I’ll just leave them on the table on my way out.”
“Oh you didn’t have to bother doing that,” said Agnes, eyeing the tin with interest. “Come and see us anytime.”
“Surely I will. And I’ll see you tomorrow Betty. Bye now.” Depositing the tin on the table, Margaret left the house, shivering as the cold damp air wrapped around her. She hurried homewards hoping that the steak pie was not burnt. Charlie hated it when the crust was black.