The Twin Otter was only half full as they took off from Glasgow: a few islanders returning from the mainland, plus some early-season weekenders with hiking boots and rucksacks. For almost an hour they flew just above the shifting brainscape of the clouds. Then they descended, and the jigsaw edges of the island appeared below them.
He had always loved this moment. The neck of headland, the long Atlantic beach of Traigh Eais, the large white bungalow they ritually buzzed, then a slow turn over the little humpy island of Orosay, and a final approach to the flat, sheeny expanse of Traigh Mhor. In summer months, you could usually count on some boisterous mainland voice, keen perhaps to impress a girlfriend, shouting over the propeller noise, ‘Only commercial beach landing in the world!’ But with the years he had grown indulgent even about that. It was part of the folklore of coming here.
They landed hard on the cockle beach, and spray flew up between the wing struts as they raced through shallow puddles. Then the plane slewed side on to the little terminal building, and a minute later they were climbing down the rickety metal steps to the beach. A tractor with a flatbed trailer was standing by to trundle their luggage the dozen yards to a damp concrete slab which served as the carousel. They, their: he knew he must start getting used to the singular pronoun instead. This was going to be the grammar of his life from now on.
Calum was waiting for him, looking past his shoulder, scanning the other passengers. The same slight, grey-haired figure in a green windcheater who met them every year. Being Calum, he didn’t ask; he waited. They had known one another, with a kind of intimate formality, for twenty years or so. Now that regularity, that repetition, and all that it contained, was broken.
As the van dawdled along the single-track road, and waited politely in the passing bays, he told Calum the story he was already weary with repeating. The sudden tiredness, the dizzy spells, the blood tests, the scans, hospital, more hospital, the hospice. The speed of it all, the process, the merciless tramp of events. He told it without tears, in a neutral voice, as if it might have happened to someone else. It was the only way, so far, that he knew how.
Outside the dark stone cottage, Calum yanked on the handbrake. ‘Rest her soul,’ he said quietly, and took charge of the holdall.
The first time they had come to the island, they weren’t yet married. She had worn a wedding ring as a concession to…what? — to how they imagined the island morality to be. It made them feel both superior and hypocritical at the same time. Their room at Calum and Flora’s B&B had whitewashed walls, rain drying on the window, and a view across the machair to the sharp rise of Beinn Mhartainn. On their first night, they had discovered a bed whose joints wailed against any activity grosser than the minimum required for the sober conception of children. They found themselves comically restricted. Island sex, they had called it, giggling quietly into one another’s bodies.
He had bought new binoculars especially for that trip. Inland, there were larks and twites, wheatears and wagtails. On the shoreline, ringed plovers and pipits. But it was the seabirds he loved best, the cormorants and gannets, the shags and fulmars. He spent many a docile, wet-bottomed hour on the clifftops, thumb and middle finger bringing into focus their whirling dives, and their soaring independence. The fulmars were his favourites. Birds which spent their whole lives at sea, coming to land only to nest. Then they laid a single egg, raised the chick, and took to the sea again, skimming the waves, rising on the air currents, being themselves.
She had preferred flowers to birds. Sea pinks, yellow rattle, purple vetch, flag iris. There was something, he remembered, called self-heal. That was as far as his knowledge, and memory, went. She had never picked a single flower here, or anywhere else. To cut a flower was to speed its death, she used to say. She hated the sight of a vase. In the hospital, other patients, seeing the empty metal trolley at the foot of her bed, had thought her friends neglectful, and tried to pass on their excess bouquets. This went on until she was moved to her own room, and then the problem ceased.
That first year, Calum had shown them the island. One afternoon, on a beach where he liked to dig for razor clams, he had looked away from them, and said, almost as if he was addressing the sea, ‘My grandparents were married by declaration, you know. That was all you needed in the old days. Approval and declaration. You were married when the moon was waxing and the tide running — to bring you luck. And after the wedding there’d be a rough mattress on the floor of an outbuilding. For the first night. The idea was that you begin marriage in a state of humility.’
‘Oh, that’s wonderful, Calum,’ she had said. But he felt it was a rebuke — to their English manners, their presumption, their silent lie.
The second year, they had returned a few weeks after getting married. They wanted to tell everyone they met; but here was one place they couldn’t. Perhaps this had been good for them — to be silly with happiness and obliged into silence. Perhaps it had been their own way of beginning marriage in a state of humility.
He sensed, nevertheless, that Calum and Flora had guessed. No doubt it wasn’t difficult, given their new clothes and their daft smiles. On the first night Calum gave them whisky from a bottle without a label. He had many such bottles. There was a lot more whisky drunk than sold on this island, that was for sure.
Flora had taken out of a drawer an old sweater which had belonged to her grandfather. She laid it on the kitchen table, ironing it with her palms. In the old days, she explained, the women of these islands used to tell stories with their knitting. The pattern of this jersey showed that her grandfather had come from Eriksay, while its details, its decorations, told of fishing and faith, of the sea and the sand. And this series of zigzags across one shoulder — these here, look — represented the ups and downs of marriage. They were, quite literally, marriage lines.
Zigzags. Like any newly married couple, they had exchanged a glance of sly confidence, sure that for them there would be no downs — or at least, not downs like those of their parents, or those of friends who were already making the usual stupid, predictable mistakes. They would be different, they would be different from everyone who had ever got married before.
‘Tell them about the buttons, Flora,’ said Calum.
The pattern of the jersey told you which island its owner came from; the buttons at the neck told you precisely which family they belonged to. It must have been like walking around dressed in your own postcode, he thought.
A day or two later, he had said to Calum, ‘I wish everyone was still wearing those sweaters.’ Having no sense of tradition himself, he liked other people to display one.
‘They had great use,’ replied Calum. ‘There was many a drowning you could only recognize by the jersey. And then by the buttons. Who the man was.’
‘I hadn’t thought of that.’
‘Well, no reason for it. For you to know. For you to think.’
There were moments when he felt that this was the most distant place he had ever come to. The islanders happened to speak the same language as him, but that was just some strange, geographical coincidence.
This time, Calum and Flora treated him as he knew they would: with a tact and modesty he had once, stupidly, Englishly, mistaken for deference. They didn’t press themselves upon him, or make a show of their sympathy. There was a touch on the shoulder, a plate laid before him, a remark about the weather.
Each morning, Flora would give him a sandwich wrapped in greaseproof paper, a piece of cheese and an apple. He would set off across the machair and up Beinn Mhartainn. He made himself climb to the top, from where he could see the island and its jigsaw edges, where he could feel himself alone. Then, binoculars in hand, he would head for the cliffs and the seabirds. Calum had once told him that on some of the islands, generations back, they used to make oil for their lamps from the fulmars. Odd how he had always kept this detail from her, for twenty years and more. The rest of the year round, he never thought of it. Then they would come to the island, and he would say to himself, I mustn’t tell her what they did with the fulmars.
That summer she had nearly left him — or had he nearly left her? — at this distance, it was hard to tell — he had gone clam-digging with Calum. She had left them to pursue their sport, preferring to walk the damp, wavy line of the beach from which the sea had just retreated. Here, where the pebbles were barely bigger than sand grains, she liked to search for pieces of coloured glass — tiny shards of broken bottle, worn soft and smooth by water and time. For years he had watched the stooped walk, the inquisitive crouch, the picking, the discarding, the hoarding in the cupped left palm.
Calum explained how you looked for a small declivity in the sand, poured a little salt into it, then waited for the razor clam to shoot up a few inches out of its sandy lair. He wore an oven glove on his left hand, against the sharpness of the rising shell. You had to pull quickly, he said, seizing the clam before it disappeared again.
Mostly, despite Calum’s expertise, nothing stirred, and they moved on to the next hollow in the sand. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her wandering further along the beach, her back turned to him, self-sufficient, content with what she was doing, not giving him a thought.
As he handed Calum more salt, and saw the oven glove poised in anticipation, he found himself saying, man to man, ‘Bit like marriage, isn’t it?’
Calum frowned slightly. ‘What’s your meaning?’
‘Oh, waiting for something to pop out of the sand. Then it turns out either there’s nothing there, or something that cuts your hand open if you aren’t bloody careful.’
It had been a stupid thing to say. Stupid because he hadn’t really meant it, more stupid because it was presumptuous. Silence told him that Calum found such talk offensive, to himself, to Flora, to the islanders generally.
Each day he walked, and each day soft rain soaked into him. He ate a sodden sandwich, and watched the fulmars skimming the sea. He walked to Greian Head and looked down over the flat rocks where the seals liked to congregate. One year, they had watched a dog swim all the way out from the beach, chase the seals off, and then parade up and down the rock like a new landowner. This year there was no dog.
On the vertiginous side of Greian was part of an unlikely golf course where, year after year, they had never seen a single golfer. There was a small circular green surrounded by a picket fence to keep the cows off. Once, close by, a herd of bullocks had rushed at them, frightening her silly. He had stood his ground, waved his arms wildly, and instinctively shouted the names of the political leaders he most despised. He had somehow not been surprised that it had calmed them down. This year, there were no bullocks to be seen, and he missed them. He supposed they must have long gone to slaughter.
He remembered a crofter on Vatersay telling them about lazy beds. You cut a slice of turf, placed your potatoes on the open soil, relaid the turf upside down on top of them — and that was it. Time and rain and the warmth of the sun did the rest. Lazy beds — he saw her laughing at him, reading his mind, saying afterwards that this would be his idea of gardening, wouldn’t it? He remembered her eyes shining like the damp glass jewellery she used to fill her palm with.
On the last morning, Calum drove him back to Traigh Mhor in the van. Politicians had been promising a new airstrip so that modern planes could land. There was talk of tourist development and island regeneration, mixed with warnings about the current cost of subsidy. Calum wanted none of it, and nor did he. He knew that he would need the island to stay as still and unchanging as possible in his memory. He wouldn’t come back if jets started landing on tarmac.
He checked in his holdall at the counter, and they went outside. Hanging over a low wall, Calum lit a cigarette. They looked out over the damp and bumpy sand of the cockle beach. The cloud was low, the windsock inert.
‘These are for you,’ said Calum, handing him half a dozen postcards. He must have bought them at the cafe just now. Views of the island, the beach, the machair; one of the very plane waiting to take him away.
‘You will be needing the memory.’
A few minutes later, the Twin Otter took off straight out across Orosay and the open sea. There was no last view of the island before that world below was shut out. In the enveloping cloud, he thought about marriage lines and buttons; about razor clams and island sex; about missing bullocks and fulmars being turned into oil; and then, finally, the tears came. Calum had known he would not be coming back. But the tears were not for that, or for himself, or even for her, for their memories. They were tears for his own stupidity. His presumption too.
He had thought he could recapture, and begin to say farewell. He had thought that grief might be assuaged, or if not assuaged, at least speeded up, hurried on its way a little, by going back to a place where they had been happy. But he was not in charge of grief. Grief was in charge of him. And in the months and years ahead, he expected grief to teach him many other things as well. This was just the first of them.
Photograph by compdude 787