"I could never believe what happened. No, really. A chance in a million. Life is so quirky at times." Katie looked out over the flat expanse of moorland outside her window. She slowly made her way through the sitting room to the kitchen, where the sun was streaming in. The jaggedy teeth of the mainland mountains rose up from the horizon, with the blue expanse of the Minch stretching in between. I followed her into the kitchen, where she flicked on the kettle for a cuppa. Like brown waves, the moorland fell towards the sea, but a small white edifice stood out in the near distance. An old chapel, long since out of use. "If it had not been for the chapel", Katie presently continued, "we would never have met." I sat down at the kitchen table, and sipped at the tea, still boiling hot. With quick movements, she laid out plates, a platter of scones, butter and jam. "I'm glad you came this week", the old lady smiled at me. "I'm moving out next week. I mean, we could have talked in my place in town, but that's not the same, is it?" I had seen Katie's flat on the outskirts of Stornoway before I headed north. Although functional towards the needs of her advancing years, it was singularly lacking in atmosphere. "It wouldn't have been, no, Katie", I said. After making a scone, I proceeded to enjoy it, washing it down with some tea. The clock presently chimed eleven. A silence fell, and the noise of the sea could be heard in the distance. Sheep bleated in the distance, in the folds of the heather. Other homesteads stood nearby, most of them deserted. For this was Cuidhsiadar, the Homestead of the Cows.
The Atlantic surf thundered continuously against the ancient rocks of northern Lewis. The galeforce winds blew in from the ocean, up the slopes of the machair and past the humble abodes along the main road from Stornoway. The anvil topped clouds that barrelled in from the northwest presently unleashed their cargo of rain and hail, before being whisked onwards, away towards the Scottish mainland. The smooth slopes fronting the ocean held one exception, an walled enclosure full of stones. The last mourners had left the graveyard a while ago, but John remained behind. When the minister left, he had stopped briefly by the huddled figure and spoken words of comfort. It was clear, however, that he wanted to be left alone, so the minister briefly gripped John's arm, and went on his way. At length, the curtain of clouds tore and the sun burst through, now low above the horizon. It reminded John that life went on, and that he still had a long walk ahead of him to get home. With considerable difficulty, he turned round, and away from the sight of the last resting place of his beloved. Another one gone with the consumption. If anyone had to go with it, why her? Tears streamed down his face as John was pushed down the road by the strong winds.
"Dad went to pieces", Katie said softly. "He had only been married for, one or two years, and she got the T B off someone on the ferry". She sighed. The sun continued to stream into the kitchen, but the blue of the sky was beginning to get pencilled in with wisps of white, high cloud. Out in the Minch, a ship was ploughing through the swell, on its way into the open Atlantic to the north. I turned away from the window and looked at John's portrait above the fire place. A dark, handsome young man, smiling beside the portrait photograph of his new wife, who was to be with him for such a cruelly short time. "TB was rife at the time", Katie explained. "Christine was taken to the County Hospital in Stornoway in the end, but she never recovered. They did not have the treatments then that we have now." Rising from the kitchen table, Katie busied herself clearing away the tea things, washing up in the quick movements of decades of experience. I resumed my chair, waiting for her to finish. It did not take long. "Going to pieces doesn't cover it", she presently resumed. "After the funeral, there usually was some sort of communal meal, with tea and sandwiches and cakes provided by people. "He never turned up."
Steadily, the lighthouse's beam swept across the dark waves of the Atlantic, where it merged with the waters of the Minch. Inland, it caught the houses of the village, half a mile away. The chickens clucked in their coop, safe against the vagaries of the wind and rain. The cow in her shed shifted and lowed softly. The oil lamp swayed in the draught as the door opened, letting the young girl in. Her hair was a bit dishevelled on account of the wind, but she swept her long, dark hair out of her face. "All quiet out there" Catherine smiled at her father. He rose out of his chair and knocked the contents of his pipe into the dish on the table. "Time we turned in," he said quietly. Not long after, darkness reigned in the village, as all its people had retired for the night. The beams of the lighthouse swept the waves as the clock ticked in another day.
The animals ambled down the track at a gentle pace, their backs stretching like an undulating wave of brown ahead of Catherine. The morning sun had risen out to her left, over the mainland hills, not visible now due to the glare. A crispness in the air and a crispness underfoot were a reminder of the sharp overnight frost, which was lifting. Down below, a fog bank had settled over an area of marshland, but even that showed signs of dispersing. At the next village, another group of cattle joined in the trek, herded by a contemporary of Catherine. Soon, a large group of cows were mooing their way south, tails swishing, some stopping for a nibble at the grass, others jostling for position in a mute power struggle. But the girls were always in the right place to keep them in check. Finally, the herd reached the end of the last village and an expanse of empty moorland stretched out for miles ahead and to their right. The sea lay some distance away to the east. Going at a steady if slow pace, the young women had plenty of time to catch up with their gossip, who was going out with who, what had happened at the caithris na h-oidche the other day (a subject that tended to elicit a lot of giggles and sniggers). But when Catherine broached the subject of the funeral, all merriment fell away.
“Everybody had been out searching”, Katie sighed. “The funeral finished at three, and when he had still not turned up at half past four, people started to get worried. They scoured the machair, and even got a boat down from Port to have a look round the coastline.” She fell silent with the memory. The sun was starting to fade and now seemed to shine as through frosted glass. “All the villages were out until darkness fell.” A whimsical smile crossed her face. “My dad was also involved in the search. But they all looked in the wrong place”.
The darkness was palpable. Only the blink of the lighthouse was visible, and that was too far away to illuminate anything at this distance. The wind had been dropping and the showers had all but faded when the sun set. It was now two hours later, and the storm had subsided. Not just the windstorm, but also the turmoil in John’s head. He had followed his feet away from the machair, across the main road and into the moor. Away from that place. Away from that memory. But although he could put physical distance between the cemetery and himself, the stark reality of death remained with him. He breathed in deeply as the emotion resurfaced. No time for that now. John looked around at the clear firmament and got his bearings through the constellations that swung up in the sky. He established that he was facing south. Fragments of his frantic trek returned to him, and John knew that the faint trail his feet had been following would lead him to a collection of sheiling huts. He knew them as Cuidhsiadar.
"Don't give up". Was it a dream? It probably was. John awoke and immediately froze in terror. He was sitting crouched - at the edge of a very tall cliff. The voice repeated, a little more urgently: "Don't give up". Slowly, John moved backwards. A shadow cast over him, but when he glanced up, he could only make out the shape of another person standing over him. A hand was extended down to him, and John turned to face the other. "Take my hand", the girl said. He took her hand, and slowly, she helped him to his feet. "Who are you?" John asked. "I'm Catherine", the girl responded. She was not much younger than his wife. "You are John", she continued. "The whole district is out looking for you." He began to explain what had gone through his mind, but she moved a little closer to him. "Come with me. Were you out all night?" And with that, Catherine took John past the ruin of a house to the roofless chapel nearby. "I was going to find shelter at Cuidhsiadar", John said, his voice croaky. "I don't know how I ended up here..."
“I found you”, said Catherine. “Isn’t that all that matters? People thought...” She stopped herself. “You are safe now”. The young man looked the girl in the eye. Her dark hair fringed her face and was strung out over her back by the wind, blowing in from the sea. His nightmare inexplicably receded as she returned the look. A minute or two later, she led him out of the old chapel, into the sunshine of the April day.
“He never looked back,” Katie said. “John was still deeply affected by the death of Mary, but he never plunged to the depths of despair that drove him into the moor that day”. Her now white hair fringed her face, as it had done several decades ago. I could only imagine what she had looked like as a young woman; I didn’t want to start asking for photographs now. The sun had disappeared behind the clouds and the wind was ruffling the grasses outside the window. “I am still missing him”, Katie resumed. “On what was to be his last day, I took him over to the chapel, and we had a wee picnic. The next morning... well, he was no longer with us”. A tear welled up and ran down her cheek. I gently hugged Katie and kissed away the tear. I held her and waited for her to regain her composure. “I have to go now”, I said softly. “The weather is closing in, and the moorland road could become very boggy if it starts to rain really hard”. She nodded. “Off you go, lad. Give my love to your folks.” I went outside, gave Katie a final kiss and stepped into the four-wheel drive. I could see her white hair blowing in the wind as I slowly made my way up the track.