Monday, July 10, 2017

The Island by Martyn Clayton

After a family tragedy, Murray brings his daughter Isla to visit his childhood home, a bleak and windswept rock lost in the harsh Atlantic; by Martyn Clayton.

"Was granddad sad to leave?" Isla asks as the boat pulls away from the harbour out into the blue ocean. It's a precious sunny May day. A large herring gull, feathers pristine white, fixes the departing craft with a prehistoric eye.

"I don't think so. I think he knew he was the last of the line. He got the better deal I think. His father though, your great grandfather - now that's another story."

"What about my great grandmother? You never mention her."

"I don't know too much about her. I know she only had a smattering of English. Hardly left the house when they got her to the mainland. Terrified I think. Completely lost. Most of the older ones were. It was cruel to uproot them like they did but there was probably no choice. You couldn't leave a handful of ageing folk with no one to help feed them and keep them okay."

Isla is thoughtful. She's a precious girl he thinks. So serious and considered. Completely different to himself at that age. He wonders if it's particular or generational. He wonders how she'll change over the coming years.

The boat is filled with tourists, most of whom appeared to be from overseas. Murray and his daughter feel a little self-conscious. They huddle themselves away at the back of the boat and try to not to look approachable. It isn't difficult. Grief is still written large across their faces. He's trying to stay strong and together but knows that beneath the shell he is fractured. He looks at his daughter. She looks so much like her mother but with his own father's blue eyes. Any crowd was filled with endless reflections of those already gone.

The day his wife chose to tell their daughter that she wouldn't recover, it had been raining. He'd left them together in the side room of the hospital ward. Lynette had known herself for three days, Murray for two. They'd held each other and cried for the years they were to miss. It was hard to take in. The whole thing had played like a mawkish movie, the pathos being piled on with a shovel. It was only when they'd got home that night to an empty house and he'd looked at his face in the mirror that the finality of it really started to sink in. He was shortly to lose his wife. They'd been together for twenty two years. She was younger than him by a decade. He was ten years younger than his own father had been when he died. He can't remember his father's deathbed words or even if there were any. About three days before he died he told Murray not to let the grass grow too high around his ankles. Being a literally minded teenage boy he'd taken it as an injunction to cut the grass. He got the mower out of the garage and ran it in neat stripes backwards and forwards across the back lawn without a single word of complaint. His father had been too sick to notice and the following day they moved him to the hospice. There was another Gaelic speaker in the place. His mother said she found comfort in that even if her husband had been too long gone from sense and words to speak any language any longer. The melody and texture of the words must still be there though. Sometimes Murray thought he could hear his father's voice on the Gaelic radio station. He'd listen in despite not knowing more than a smattering of the language himself. Like every other idiot he'd say slainte as he raised his whisky glass to toast some fleeting moment.

His father's lifespan was probably longer than it would have been had someone at some ministry not made the decision to evacuate the island. Life expectancy struggled to get much past forty on that harsh rock. That was probably as long as anyone would want to hang on anyway. He'd made this sea crossing twice before but this was the first time he'd been with Isla. Lynette had been similarly thoughtful on their trip eighteen years earlier. She stared out from the boat across the blue ocean as if it was filled with meaning. She said she envied him his story, having something so interesting and profound in his family tree.

"Profound?" He'd laughed. "How was it profound? Just a bunch of people on hard cold basalt in the middle of the north Atlantic. Just roll of the dice stuff. I'd prefer to have your story to be fair. You know what you're about." Lynette had flinched a little at his mockery. Perhaps he'd been a little harsh, but profound was such an odd choice of word. It sounded strange coming from her lips. Now she's gone he sometimes wishes he could snatch back moments and re-run them. The times when he was unkind. The times when he lost his temper. The times when he was disinterested.

Lynette was a Borders girl, her father a doctor, her mother a housewife. Security, prosperity, something in the community. It was safe and somehow enviable. So different from his own heritage. They'd taken a look inside the little restored cottage on the row of houses that made up the tiny island village. It was eerie.

"It's as if they've just left," said Lynette. "Just think. Your father grew up in one of these."

He wasn't sure which one. His father had once vaguely told him but he'd not really listened. He looked at the high sea cliffs, the steep face of the hills that rose towards the sky. The other trippers wandered around in the anoraks taking photos. They climbed one of the hills and sat at the top looking out across the Atlantic. It was a calm clear day but the enormity of it was shocking. Imagine having the audacity to try to live here in a place where next to nothing can grow and your entire existence is predicated on your ability to catch seabirds.

His father had been one of the last to hunt for fulmar from the high sea cliffs. He'd be attached to one end of a rope, another man holding the other end and he'd be lowered down to the ledges where they nested. You'd try to thwack them hard around the back of the head with a plank before they had chance to notice you, grabbing them while they were still dizzy. A sharp wringing of the neck and a tug on the rope and you were back where you started with a handful of meat and feathers. In season you'd go back for the eggs.

Surprise was essential. If they caught wind of your frame as you appeared from above like a bleak cumbersome god they'd wind up their necks and spit a belly full of bile into your face. That kind of treatment soon did for your day. You'd scrub your face with stream water, wash the acid sting out of your eyes but for days to come you'd be haunted by the smell and texture of all that regurgitated sea life. It was shameful for an experienced man with many seasons working these cliffs to be so caught out and the old hands rarely were. For the boys it was a necessary rite of passage. His father had been twelve when they'd first lowered him down to a low ledge to chance his white slender arm. Until then he'd only gone for puffins, growing adept at swinging his hand knotted noose around their feather fat clown necks, then tightening swiftly and bringing home the kill. The boys delighted in death. Which was why the men felt no compunction about letting them suffer the gut stench of an angry sea bird. You needed caution. Modesty too, respect in the face of nature. Let them feel the full force of a fulmar's stomach and knock all that boastful bravado out of them while they were still young enough to learn.

Murray has a photo of his father from those days. He's seventeen. A few months before they evacuated the island. Some entitled photographer from down south had taken a boat out to record the last days of these windswept noble savages. His father is on the end of a rope, looking up towards the top of the cliff where the photographer stands, a hand stretching out towards an empty nest, a huge smile on his face. He's smiling because he knows he'll never have to do this again. He moved with his parents to the mainland. A government scheme that found them work and homes in the middle of a great state planted forest of Sitka spruce. Few of them had ever seen trees before. They tried to teach Murray's grandfather how to cut and clear the wood but his heart grew heavy and he spent the years leading to his retirement eking out a living on government assistance. Murray's father was young enough to learn and soon a rock born boy had grown into a woodsman. A good one too. By the time he latterly found love and Murray came along he had his own wood yard on the edge of the town that now made up the edge of the city where civilisation met the black moors and the mountains beyond. His speech still made folks laugh though, the way he'd struggle with his words or reorder his sentences. He watched how other people lived. He was young enough to shift shape again and again until he was just like them. The names they called him stopped as soon as he had the keys to his own yard in his hand. Murray was seventeen when they buried his father in the little kirkyard by the park. The town's great and good were in attendance and Murray had stood there cold and embarrassed. He'd grown tired of the tales that had delighted him when he was small. He no longer wanted to hear about the rocks, the seabirds, the old tongue and the way of life of his forefathers.

At the top of the hill Lynette had grown silent. She'd taken hold of his hand and looked him in the eye. It was men who were still mostly charged with the enormity of a proposal, but the life changing announcement of pregnancy would always be a woman's joy and burden. Lynette looked joyful and burdened in equal measure as the words stuttered from her mouth. Murray had been shell-shocked. Sure they'd been together a couple of years, sure things were going well, but this changed the dynamic. He'd shown less than total joy. She'd read his face. Sensed his reticence. The rest of the day on the island passed in a laboured silence punctured by the occasional dumbstruck nicety. He wanted to get home. He needed to get back to his own little flat to digest the news he'd just heard. He'd all but given up on becoming a father and it wasn't as if it had ever been any kind of great hope. A child changed everything. He'd have to start thinking about permanent contracts at the university if such things still existed and what about buying a place? A child would need somewhere to call home. They'd mooched around the island, both of them distant from their surroundings. As they were waiting to climb back on the boat Lynette had looked at him:

"You don't have to hang around. Not if you don't want to."

"I do" he'd said. "I really do."

They'd not spoken much on the boat ride back. In their hotel room they talked a little more. She told him not to rush. He didn't need to make any dramatic changes to his life. It really wasn't as big a deal as all that. People had babies all the time. They fit into your life. You had to believe that. Despite their relative maturity for starting a family they'd both been naive. He never thought he'd have to care about anyone but himself and he was certain that was the way it should be. He loved Lynette just as he'd loved other women but he never wanted to look after them or be smothered by coupledom. All that seemed so yesterday. Like something from the island. All black and white photos and ancient rituals. He felt guilty that she was clearly trying to find an accommodation with his often stated independence, as if he was the one that mattered.

He looked at Isla deep in thought gazing out into the ocean and he wondered how he ever considered her a mistake. She was perfect. She had made sense of his life in a way nothing else ever had, even Lynette. She'd done so much for both of them. He took hold of her hand and gave it a rub.

"You ok?"

She smiled and nodded. He leaned back against the side of the boat and put his arm around her.

"This is an adventure isn't it? The ancestral homeland and all that," he said.

"It's pretty amazing. Why did mum love it so much?"

"I think she liked the romance of it. It is romantic, if you never had to live there. We're lucky really. We can get a boat and enjoy it for a while, those who had to live here didn't have it quite so easy."

"But she only visited once."

"Don't you believe in love at first sight then?"

Isla grinned. "Is that what happened with you and mum?"

"Of course. I was like the island. Windswept. Rugged. Impossible to live with but impossible to resist."

Isla laughed and jabbed him in the ribs. "Definitely impossible."

He wondered when his heart would stop shattering. Just as it felt that it was being restitched some little gesture or word or inconsequential event would pierce it anew. He felt as fragile as this little boat venturing out further into the sea. He knew from previous visits there was a period of maybe ninety minutes when the land you left could no longer be seen, the rocks of the island not even a distant dark speck. It was during those times you felt most vulnerable. You put your faith in the skipper. He was a sea worn man maybe a year or two younger than himself, but salt strengthened and filled with the quiet surety that working something so elemental for so long gave you. He'd been a fisherman for a couple of decades but gave it up for the tourist trade. He earned enough during the long season to hibernate in the winter.

"I put my feet up. Read some books. Drink some whisky. Fly out to Oz to see the ex and the kids. Christmas on the beach. All that kind of thing. "

By the time the boat arrives in the deserted little harbour of the deserted little island the passengers are restless. A large Canadian with a beard steps from foot to foot with a clear and visible need to urinate. A German who clearly doesn't share his wife's enthusiasm for rocky outcrops looks up at the foreboding cliff and the black cloud that has begun to roll in from the sea and lets out a long, large, deliberate sigh. Murray shapes to step off the boat and to assist his daughter but before he has chance Isla is on dry ground with a hand outstretched to his.

"Come on old man."

She always calls him old man. He smiles. He will be sixty next month.

The freshly delivered crowd starts to disperse. There are other people here, from other boats, maybe three or four dozen in total. A guide in a navy blue fleece and Saltire badge stands by the row of single-roomed houses and tells anyone who will listen about life here. He talks about the winters, about being cut off by the tumultuous seas, about life never really meaning to take here, how the people had seen the Vikings sail up the coast, gathered bounty from the shipwrecked Armada, watched U-boats surface just beyond the harbour. He produces shiny black sea beans from his pocket, found on the shingle beach below. We may call this way of life isolated, but these people had the sea and for much of our history, the sea was our highway. Before the new arrivals have chance to move off and begin their explorations the guide reminds them of a few ground rules.

"This is a national nature reserve and a place of special scientific interest. Please tread carefully, stick to the paths and leave nothing behind but your footprints."

Murray kept wondering if he should say something. Not just about the weight in his rucksack and what they intended to do with it but about their own right to be here. See these faces, he'd say, pointing at his own and that of his daughter. These faces belong here. We look a lot like those people standing awkwardly in worn out clothes staring at the camera for the final photographs before evacuation. In the little exhibition room in a restored cottage Murray finds the photo of his father.

"Hello dad," he says, "fancy meeting you here."

This isn't what they came for. They escape the cottage, and look for the steep path up the hill from the harbour. Isla powers ahead again. The complaining adolescent who he dragged up her first Munro is long gone. Now she's filled with energy and promise, excited to see the view from up there. He stops with his hands on his hips halfway up and looks around. This was so much easier eighteen years earlier. There's birds circling high above them then swooping lower into what must be their nests out of sight. Fulmars bob around in the thermal updrafts. Murray knows he'd never be able to noose a single one of them.

They finally reach the top. Now Isla stands hands on hips, lifting her face to the wind and the sky, eyes shut. She takes a deep in breath.

"This is incredible."

Murray puffing and wheezing stands next to her. "It's not bad is it?" He gathers his breath. She rubs his back and looks at him indulgently. He knows he has to be strong for her, but it is her that is being strong for him.

"Are you ready?" he asks. She nods. He takes his rucksack of his back and places it down on the grass. He crouches down and from it he lifts polished wooden casket. Isla takes it from him and holds it against herself. "Did you even try asking for permission dad?"

"Nope. I knew what the answer would be. I know others have tried. None of them had the links here that we had though. I wasn't going to let some well-meaning jobsworth stand in the way of your mother's final wishes."

"Why do you think she wanted to come here though?"

Murray looks around at the vast expanse of sea and rock, the great steadfast wild enormity of it all and smiles at his daughter. "Wouldn't you?"

"Do you want me to bring you back here then?"

"You'd better. Not for a while yet mind."

She smiled and lifted the lid on the casket. "Hey there ma," she said to the dust that was already beginning to swirl into life. She grasped a handful of the burnt remains, lifted her arm straight up into the air and released it. It fell for a second before being taken up into the breeze that was gathering. Murray followed suit.

"Goodbye sweetheart. Be happy."

He took the casket from his daughter and shook out its contents, which blew around in the breeze, dispersing this way and that, some coming to settle on the grass. Isla had closed her eyes. She was mouthing a prayer. The girl had some sort of belief. One that he didn't have. She opened her eyes and took hold of his hand. With his other hand he wiped away a tear.

He took the casket and placed it back in his bag, the two of them walking down a path that continued on down the other side of the hill. Murray remembered from previous visits that there was the ruins of the little church and next to it a cemetery with a few weather beaten stones alongside humps in the ground whose wooden grave markers had long since crumbled to earth. Murray felt renewed now. His legs were remembering something of their youth and he was able to keep up with his daughter. As they approached the graveyard from the steep descent they saw one of their fellow passengers closing the gate behind him and heading back towards the village. They had it all to themselves.

Some of the stones had flowers by them. The words on them were Gaelic and his own smattering of the language didn't tell him much. It was Isla that discovered the stone he knew was there somewhere.

"This is them isn't it? That's the Gaelic for our name?"

He rubbed at the lichen, traced a finger into the carving. "It is."

His great grandfather, mother and great uncle. There would be other relatives here in unmarked graves, humps in the ground where wooden crosses had rotted to nothing. Dozens of them perhaps. All long forgotten with names lost to time and illiteracy. Isla took photographs of the graves and the ruins of the church. They paused for a second before heading back towards the village. On the boat home Murray spots fragments of dust on his daughter's coat. The other passengers have grown quiet, tired from their exertions. A white haired American woman rests her head on the shoulder of her husband who is dozing. Isla is staring at the water as the sun starts to sink lower in the sky, giving the sea a warm orange glow. By the time they reach the harbour it will almost be dark.

The skipper asks Murray what he made of the day. Did he think he'll come back?

"Oh I'm sure of it," he said. "Really sure."

2 comments:

  1. A beautiful story, sensitively told - well crafted and anchored in the physical world. A joy to read, thank you,
    Ceinwen

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  2. I'd seen pictures of blokes on ropes fulmar-hunting on St Kilda, but reading that passage really brought it to life for me. I also liked the little switches from past tense to present.
    B r o o k e

    ReplyDelete