On the 3rd of April, 1973, my mother wrapped me in her skirts, wrote a note for my father, and left our life as we knew it. She moved us, and a bagful of belongings, to a remote island off the coast of Scotland, not knowing what lay ahead, but feeling sure it would be more promising that what had come before.
“Are you sure you’re going to manage?” asked the woman as she handed her the keys, “This life isn’t for everyone”
“It’s enough for me”, my mother replied, looking up at the old, wind weathered building she and I had rented for the season. She took the keys, thanked her, and walked up the path towards the door, splitting through a rough patch of exposed neglected garden as she passed.
And so our life began, my mother and I. In that place, we made a home. In that rough and weeded patch, she made a garden. While she planted out potatoes in full view of the sea, I lay underneath that huge open sky in blissful unawareness, chewing my toes and rolling in the grass. I was now Anya, and all was new, though I did not know it.
Soon my little legs grew strong as we wandered the island together. I struggled to keep up with her stride, my hand reaching up to grab hers, either to hold and steady myself, or to take berries from her fingers and press them into my mouth, exploding with juice and small, hard pips. We walked up stone pathways and along the edges of clifftops. We explored the woodland and the fields. Sometimes we walked, and sometimes I lay in my pushchair bumping along, aware of a sense of urgency but not knowing how to name it. At home, I lay outside for hours watching woodlice at the back of the house, creating families from them, marvelling in their tiny thread legs, and prehistoric shells, thin and crunching, feeling their light feet on my hands as they crawled, tip tip tip against my skin. Other creatures appeared from time to time also, not so welcome. Small, inquisitive mice joined us for supper on occasion, to be met with my mother’s scream and the whisk of her clothes as she ran to grab “The Brick”..I could never watch this, only hide and hear the thud, thud, thud of brick against flesh and floor, the swish of a brush, the slam of a door, the clapping of hands under water.
Always there was this heart of my mother for which I yearned. I could sense its tone, but never quite learned how to speak to it. I could rock along as she read me a story, as she mopped and cleaned and I lay wrapped on her back. I knew all her rhythms, but never her song. And I have never yet lost that sense of longing for something, even now, so learned as it was, back then.
. . .
He was small, shaggy blonde, about ten, and gristled by the sun and salty air. He appeared to be scowling at me as he approached, leaning his bike up against our wall. “No point sowing them there,” he said, watching me sow bean seeds into the soil in the shade of the house.
“That’ll never get enough sun, they won’t grow right”.
His sure-ness startled me. I fell silent in awe.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Anya…well.. Annie really” I muttered, hoping to sound a bit more…something..
He looked firmly at me again. “Want to come down the coast and do some fishing?”
“If she’ll let me,” I said, glancing behind me to the window where I heard my mother, deep within the house, washing dishes. “Mum! Can I go down to the sea?”
My mother appeared at the door, washing her hands with a towel. “To the sea?” She asked distractedly, looking down at the Boy and up at the sky all at once, “Yes, ok, but keep an eye out on the weather, it feels stormy today..”
“I will!” I called, already on my bike and away.
We cycled fast up to the cliffs, wind whistling past our ears, legs churning up and around, knees up and down, fishing nets scratching at our backs. Grasses swayed about us and with the wind, removing all other sound from our ears. I wanted to breath it all in, all of it. I took in great gulps, trying to taste the sea in the air.
“Just here!” said the Boy, “There’s a path all the way down!”
We leaned our bikes against a granite wall and took the small, narrow path. Shaded by trees, there was not any evidence of the sea at first, except for the sound of waves deep down below. After a while, the view opened. Wide, reaching blue-green, white waves, wind, grass and birds, and the small path winding through and down. “Come on!” called the Boy, and we ran together along this path, small feet slipping on the stones, slightly sliding down towards the sea. His legs were strong and muscular, and knew the way, hopping over cracks in the soil and tuffets of grass. I lagged a little behind him, my feet not as familiar with the terrain.
“Down here!” he called again, as I followed, stumbling. Our feet hit the sand and we slowed,
“There he is!” said the Boy
“Fred! Fred the Fish!” he giggled
“Fred the fish?!”
“Yeah.” He said, and pointed along towards a figure far along the beach. He started to walk towards him. I looked back a little nervously up to the top of the cliff, knowing our bikes were quite far away now, and rain was in the air.
“Come on!” he called to me, and we moved closer towards the figure, who I now saw was an elderly man, standing heavily behind two fishing rods, staring out to sea.
Just as we were a few feet away, the Boy dragged me behind two large rocks, and we crouched low behind them, peeping through the small space. “Watch this” he said, as he took up a handful of pebbles, a glint of mean-ness in his eye, “Fred the FISH!!” he squeaked in a high, long voice, and threw a stone to the old man’s back before backing down again behind the rocks. “Fred the FEESH!!!” he called and threw again. I peeped through the space in the rocks. The man looked up from his reel and turned around slowly, the heavy turning of a whale. His face was of all the old men of the sea that I had read about in books. He looked as if the land disturbed him. I instantly regretted being a part of this tease. I said nothing though, my awe of the Boy having not yet diminished. “Feeeshhhh, Feeeessshhy fishhhhhh” He kept taunting, throwing out stones, until eventually the old man parked his reel up on a stand and began to move slowly towards our rock.
“Now you’ve done it” I said breathlessly, frozen. He looked steadily bigger as he came towards us, his large wax jacket over his thick jumper, stained with blood.
“Crap,” said the Boy.
The old man drew closer and closer as we grew more afraid. The Boy grabbed the collar of my coat, dragging me out – “RUN!!” he squealed, and made off across the sand. “Don’t look back! Don’t look back!!” I could see the face of the old man, there in my mind, looking at us with those sea-blue eyes. I kept running, slipping. We got to our bikes and pedalled, not once looking over our shoulder. The Boy left me at my house and sped away, seeing my mother waiting there, looking nervous at the door.
“Alright?” she said, seeing me so out of breath,
“Yes, fine” I said, dropping my bike and pushing past her “When’s tea?”
“Soon, soon” she said, and I went up the stairs to my room.
Lying in bed that night, hearing the waves far away from me, the face of the old man haunted me. I wondered was he still there, standing under the moon, the waves slowly coming in to him and rolling away? The thought troubled me a little and I drew up my quilt to my chin, lying on my side, listening to the night and hoping for morning.
. . .