The morning sea-mist curled protectively around the houses of Eilean Beag, giving the valley a strange and dreamlike appearance. Elaine shivered and pulled her thin denim jacket more closely around her. Apart from the cold she liked the mist. It made even the most solid and boring houses seem shrouded in secrets and mystery. She got into the car, threw her bag in the back seat and grabbed the scratchy tweed blanket from the back ledge. Shifting in her seat she turned to the window, pulled it around her and tried to return to the warm and comfortable dreams she had been having before she was rudely awoken by the shrill beeping of her alarm clock.
Charlie got into the car and started the engine, letting it shake off the damp air for a minute before pulling out of the drive and heading up the road. He was amazed that Elaine had managed to get herself out of bed at this time in the morning, especially since she didn’t need to be back in the Port until Wednesday due to an in-service holiday at the school. She had said she wanted to be back in town for her afternoon job delivering for the deli, but he suspected that was a lot of nonsense. Usually he would have insisted that she stay with her mother and sister, but in his present mood he quite understood her need to get out of the valley – or more particularly, out of Avalon. He was, after all, feeling much the same himself. He’d told the boys on the boat that he was taking a wee break and wouldn’t be back on board until Wednesday, but the weekend at home had been all he could stomach. Some break! It was more like purgatory, and all he wanted was the heave of the boat at sea. He realised that his crew would probably be away without him this morning, but hang it! If he missed them then he’d have a yarn around the harbour and maybe go for a long pub lunch with his cronies from the Fisherman’s Co-op. Now that would be a break. His spirits were lifting even as they went over the hill and the village disappeared from sight.
He realised he had known for some time that things were not as they should be at home and cursed himself for not doing something about it earlier. What though? he thought. What can I possibly do in this situation? I did everything right: treated them well but not spoiled. A bit of discipline but not too heavy-handed. The more he considered it the more he came to the conclusion that he had done everything that could be expected of an honest family man, but somehow it had all gone terribly wrong. Quite how wrong he had not realised until yesterday, when the whole sorry situation was made horribly clear to him.
Margaret and Elaine had gone to church as was usual for a Sunday, Elaine moaning and complaining about her tight shoes and constricting long skirt. She had eventually been forced into her hat and prodded out of the door by Margaret, leaving him to keep an eye on Gwen as she was a bit down after that trouble with Malcolm. He had settled down with the newspaper he had not had time to read the day before and had promptly fallen asleep. He was woken with a start by a noise from the bathroom, the cause of which he couldn’t quite place. He stood up, shifting the waistband of his trousers into a more comfortable position and went into the hall. The bathroom door was locked so Gwen was obviously inside. He turned around, noticing that both his daughters’ bedroom doors were open. He realised with surprise that, although he found Elaine’s mess annoying, her room seemed much more normal to him than Gwendoline’s, which reminded him of the room that belonged to a glassy-eyed doll that his sister had treasured when she was little. Though he was a grown man now and beyond such playground fears, he did admit to himself that as a small boy he had found that doll more than a bit unnerving. In fact if he remembered rightly, he had been responsible for accidentally knocking it into the fire during a disorderly wedding ceilidh. He laughed and put the ridiculous thoughts to the back of his mind.
Stepping into the bedroom he looked around. Of course it was a perfectly normal room, full of all the things young women were interested in. Then he noticed the bedside table. Neatly regimented bags of crisps covered a long thin plate: the sort that would normally hold bread and cheese or something of that nature. Beside them in a large, flat-bottomed bowl was a neatly stacked pile of different chocolate biscuits and cakes. He took a step forward. A long tub of Pringles crisps sat by the small pink lamp; a jumbo-size bag of marshmallows nearby was propped up by a large bowl of individually wrapped chocolates. Charlie opened the top drawer of the bedside table and a sea of neatly arranged sweets and confectionery met his uncomprehending gaze. He shut the drawer and as he did so the waste paper basket caught his eye. It was filled to the brim with wrappers: bags and tubs of every kind of sugary food in existence. He walked out of the room and stopped outside the bathroom door, his hand against the wall to steady him while his brain tried to put his rushing thoughts in order.
He thought that she wasn’t eating – that Margaret was having to tempt her with nice, tasty delicacies – so why was she surrounded by almost every species of junk food in creation? He knew that kind of food. He knew exactly how bad it was for even an active and healthy person. The doctor at his latest medical had told him in great detail about the dangers of flooding your body with calories. It wasn’t even as if he had ever indulged in a fraction of what Gwendoline had just polished off. Margaret had emptied her bin that morning; he had been in the kitchen when she had done it. So Gwendoline must have eaten the contents of those wrappers in just a couple of hours. But how was she so thin? That was one of the things he had been most worried about when this had started, and his wife had told him she wasn’t eating. Well, she most manifestly was eating and the only explanation was that his wife had been lying to him. But that still didn’t explain the fact that Gwendoline was thin as a stick while eating enough sweets to floor an elephant.
Charlie felt a sudden chill slide down his spine and into his stomach as the sounds of retching penetrated through the bathroom door. He could understand and sympathize with physical illness in all its many unpleasant forms. He had watched his own father, who had led the healthiest life possible, die a slow and agonising death from cancer. His mother had succumbed to heart problems not long afterwards. He could not begin to understand how a person could deliberately make themselves sick when they didn’t have to be. What Gwendoline was doing to herself was, in his book, a terrible sin. To reject the food that you ate in order to be gluttonous was against God. He stood aside as Gwendoline stepped out of the bathroom, leaning heavily on the walker.
“Why, love?” he asked plaintively. “You’ll destroy yourself. It’s all wrong.” He shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
Gwendoline stared icily at her father. “I have no idea what you mean. I am making the most of myself. My physique must be perfect at all times. But I wouldn’t expect you to understand that,” she replied scathingly before continuing her slow progress to her bed. Charlie, in a state of shock, returned to his chair in the living room, unable to reconcile the happy, laughing girl he had once know with the skeletal and strange creature that was currently lurking in the house.
Later that night while Elaine was out for yet another walk and Gwendoline was having a replenishing nap, he had attempted to talk to his wife about the problem.
“We’re going to get a new doctor Margaret. Maybe we’ll even arrange for Gwen to have a spell in hospital. I don’t know what’s wrong but it’s not something we can fix. She needs a lot of help and it’s time we all realised it.”
“Why Charlie, I don’t know what you can be thinking of. I have absolute faith in Doctor Burns. Gwendoline is simply a little under the weather. It’s hardly suprising! You know how delicate she has always been. The world can be so rough for a young woman these days, Elaine can cope with it perfectly. She’s just like you really – I always thought she should have been a boy. But Gwendoline! Well, she’s just like a little princess. She always has been. So refined, so well-mannered and beautiful. And it’s so good that she has come home, I have missed her so much and now we have her all the time, but all you can do is to try and get rid of her! How can you begin to think of such a thing? She is my perfect daughter and she needs her mother! You don’t understand these things Charlie. It’s not your business!”
Margaret turned her back on her husband as if she could blot him from the room. Charlie took his wife’s elbow. “She is our daughter. Of course it’s my business. I care about her. I might not understand what’s going on but I do care! She makes herself sick. She eats a ton of sweets and junk and then she goes into that bathroom and puts her fingers down her own throat! She is ill,” he shouted.
“That is nonsense! Absolute nonsense. She needs her rest, she needs her food, and she needs her mother! You should not concern yourself. If you want to take an interest then why don’t you try and make that other one behave in a lady-like manner! She reminds me of nobody more than your own mother, who had no idea of decorum and proper behaviour whatsoever.”
The argument had continued in a fruitless manner for the rest of the evening. Old and new grievances were thoroughly aired and the faults of Charlie’s family had been picked over in great detail. Finally, as his headache reached a blazing crescendo, he decided to go to bed. It was pointless to continue. He wondered how he could have thought himself so steadily married for so long without realising the venom his wife harboured towards him and especially his mother. He thought about the amount of time he had spent away from home over the past twenty years. But that was normal for the island. You didn’t marry a fisherman and then expect him to be there every dinner time. It was a way of life. His parents had managed – more than managed – and they’d loved each other in their own quiet way. His mother had said once before he married Margaret – and just once mind, never anything after – that he was making a mistake. She said there was something a bit weak and a bit strange in that family, but he’d ignored her. He’d been so attracted to Margaret’s daintiness: the fact that she screamed when she saw a spider and he got to feel like a real hero just for getting rid of it. And there was Elaine. He’d never really thought of it before but she was indeed like his own mother. From a different generation of course, but possessed of the same stubborn and practical streak that could get you through hell or high water, and with that same hardness deep inside, like the very granite beneath their feet. And like his own mother Elaine could be a bit too hard sometimes, right enough, but you had to be here. But Gwendoline. Poor Gwendoline. What could he possibly do? He shifted his hands on the steering wheel and quietly asked God exactly what it was that he had done to deserve all this.
Roddy drew hard on his fag and idly kicked at the loose chippings of gravel beneath his feet. “Where the hell is he?” he said to himself out loud. They were going to be one of the last boats out of the Port that day, and if they didn’t watch out they would be late for their rendezvous. The “he” in question was Roddy’s little brother Kendo, who had gone to buy something from the deli to replace the lunch that he had spent half an hour making and then left on the kitchen table. Kendo was a poor soul – he quite literally didn’t have the brains he was born with. They were not gone exactly, but to say the least, they were seriously dented when he cycled at high speed into a tree at the age of twelve. Ever since then, his face had displayed a blank but sunny expression which seemed to attract violence of all sorts. Roddy had always attempted to shield him from this, and because of his large and powerful build and a reputation for being able to take care of himself, he had been for the most part successful. “If he doesn’t shift his arse though,” he said, “I’ll wring his neck myself.”
He was particularly anxious to be on the move today. He wanted this deal to be over and done with. More than anything else he wanted Smiler to be as far away as possible. He hoped that by the time the next venture came around he would have returned to the city. He sighed and looked towards Harbour Street. A flash of blond hair and a familiar curvy figure suddenly caught his eye at the end of the pier. He squinted and shook his head, but there was nothing to see. He must have been mistaken. For a moment he’d been positive that his girlfriend had been standing there. She hardly ever came on to the quay though, so what would she be doing there? His hand absently went to a wooden motif that was on a leather string round his neck. He found it quite ugly, truth be told, but his girlfriend had given it to him so he wore it to please her. Well partly, he thought with a grin. He liked to share a warm bed on a cold night and he didn’t mind wearing a bit of silly jewelry under his clothes to guarantee this. He held it up and looked more closely at it. He thought it was made out of driftwood. It had strange faces and creatures carved in it. She’d given Kendo one too. Roddy had been a bit pissed-off about that. He tucked the necklace back under his shirt and turned his mind to the plan for that night. They’d be sure to unload all the gear in a oner, with no hanging about. The island was reaching the end of its supply and cabin fever was setting in. Everyone was anxious to score. Yes, thought Roddy. A bit of money and dope will do just sound. He’d get a few new CDs and a take-away from the chinky. A good few joints and he’d be well happy. Roddy looked down the pier and saw Kendo coming towards him.
“About bloody time man,” he shouted. “Where you baking the bread yourself?”
Kendo climbed over onto the boat, a large bag in his hand. Roddy kept a close eye on him in case he dropped lunch over the side. “What the hell’s the matter with you then?” he asked as he saw the crestfallen expression slowly creeping across his brother’s face. He looked up. Charlie was making his way across pier towards the boat.
“I thought I’d have missed you,” he shouted.
Roddy put his hands on the side of the boat, mentally cursing the doctor who had, against all odds, managed to sew Kendo’s head back together again.