Short story XIX

The fair town, they called it. Translations never work properly, do they. Strung out from high to low, tapering out to sealevel at the end of the loch. Beyond the junction, the one lone house, under the dark hill. Yes, I remember it well. It's all been changed now. The house is, I mean. The landscape never changes, that'll outlive us all. But when I first caught a glimpse of her, when she first joined me walking back along the old road. Ach, that's past history. She's long left. The hills still remember, though. The loch still remembers.

The river lazily meandered towards the sea. It was in no hurry, going in big sweeping bends. Even when salt water was reached, the sea was still miles away. Nobody was paying attention. Their eyes were turned inward, the group in mournful black, high on the hill above the river. A chapter closed, a marker placed, slowly to weather away. Only memories remained. The kindness of the people had helped to soften the loss somewhat. But after the cakes were eaten, the tea poured and tributes paid - that's where the pain resurfaced. It won't do to look back too long. It's not what she would have wanted me to do, and in a while, I shall obey her wishes. But at this closing of a chapter, I will take you back down memory lane. Up the river, the river of the salmon valley, to its source. If source there be, in this country of endless water.

Widening into an expanse of water, lazily reflecting the blue sky up above. The river lost itself into the loch, only to reemerge from the other side. An uncustomary heatwave blanketed the land, leaving the water as an irresistible lure for those perspiring in the heat. Well, by local standards it was hot. It's not often that the eighties are crested on our thermometers, and the school had sent its children home early that afternoon. A group of them had taken off into the moor, and the hills, near and far, shimmered in the heat haze. Innocently, they had shed nearly all garments and lowered themselves into the water. A perfect summer beckoned, school was nearly finished at any rate. Looming on the distant horizon was the prospect of the big school in town, fifteen miles away. I was one of them that gallivanted, splashed and cavorted in the peaty waters. She was another of the half dozen. Her smile was perennial, and although a girl, I did rate her as a close friend. As the sun moved across the skies and started to angle to the southwest, we headed home. Dark clouds had started to billow up over the hills across the loch, and we only just made it to our doors before the downpour started.

Frost glistened on the blades of grass. Brown and yellow, they gently bent in the cold easterly breeze. The sun rode low in the morning sky, mid-winter wasn't far away. The community gathered for the Sabbath service, well wrapped up against the December chill as they filed towards the church. Us youngsters were also expected to attend. Until recently, we just accepted that as part of life. But now, distractions had inexplicably reared their heads, and they were far more alluring than a service in church. We hung back, allowing our elders to enter the church first, and they nodded as they acknowledged the polite gesture. The church building allowed us to disappear beside it, and when the elders at the doors checked that there were no more comers - they couldn't see anybody. When the door slammed shut, a muffled giggling and laughing emerged from the bushes on the other side of the building. We had foxed them - or so we thought. I soon found myself in conversation with her, engrossed to the exclusion of all else. And thus it was that I failed to spot her father, attracted by the rather unexpected sounds of mirth, marching in on our little group. And thus it was that on the Third Sunday of Advent I was unceremoniously frog-marched into our village church, for everybody to behold. Held by one ear by her father, who was holding on to his daughter by her arm. Everybody turned round - and I've never experienced such a red face. No further retribution was necessary. Humiliation was complete. For a second the little three-some stood. I briefly caught a glimpse of her eye, which twinkled with a hint of a smile. The humiliation slid off me like water off a duck's back.

The final semester at university was over. The mortar board had balanced on my head, the robes slung over my shoulders and the scroll placed in my hand. She had passed with even more flying colours than I had, and we were on cloud nine, on the train north. Apart from graduating successfully, there was also the prospect of employment, completely unexpectedly, at home. Usually, people would anticipate a career elsewhere in Scotland, the UK or abroad. Not in their native Hebridean island. But ours had been an exception. Perhaps we had not noticed the smiles of people around us. Perhaps the glow we emanated shielded us from others' comprehension. It was no consequence. A new life beckoned. An idea formed in my head, and I acted on it by impulse. In Inverness, I made the excuse of getting some supplies for the rest of the journey and scooted off into the Eastgate Centre, right beside the railway station. We met up again on the Ullapool bus, and I showed her the foodstuffs I had quickly bought as well. A couple of hours later, we were sailing down Loch Broom, past Achiltibuie, with Scoraig on the port bow. As the boat emerged into the Minch, a gentle swell bore us across the water. We stood out on deck, watching the mainland hills recede behind us, with Skye cloudlike on the southern horizon. As dusk encroached from the east, I scanned for the first sight of the double blink of Tiumpan Head. When I did, by a quarter to eight, I tapped her on the elbow. When she glanced round, I took a deep intake of breath and asked her THAT question. Her answer was in the affirmative.

Three came along, in the end, in the space of six years. All born in the fair town, where the long water stretches east and the hills frown darkly to the south. It was like a rerun of our own youth, as they grew older. Fishing and swimming expeditions to the lochs in the interior, having to be dragged to the village school, where they made their many friends, and forged the bond to the island, a bond for life. Her smile never changed, although the years slowly took a hold. Our bond for life grew stronger, and that was needed that one dark day, twenty years after we came off the ferry, promised to each other. That day, when our number went down by one. When the policeman came into the kitchen with that furtive, lost look in his eye, telling us about a crash on the Soval bends, on the road into town. And we had to support each other, when we looked on the face of the one whose dreams and promises would never come true.

The unblinking eye stared into the endless sky above. The breeze ruffled its surface into wavelets, deepening the reflected blue. We had this last afternoon to ourselves, before the family would come across for that anniversary party in the evening. It would be a busy one. Both of our two offspring still alive would bring their own children along, and then there would be the cousins, nieces and nephews. No, it wasn't the time of year to cavort about in the loch. We had our woolly hats on, as there was still an early spring keenness in the air. But the first lambs had already started to appear in the fair town, and there was a distant promise of summer. Not speaking, we slowly ambled through the dark, seemingly lifeless heather, and rustled through the dead grass. Yellows, browns and blacks still dominated. Slowly, our path veered away from the watery interior and led us towards a small gorge. The river cascaded through this, until we returned to the main road, leading us back to the fair town. By coincidence the service bus came down the hill, and very considerately stopped to give us a lift.

The sun rose in a sea of red over the loch. The hills in front turned from black to dull green. Angry clouds billowed up from the west, soon obscuring what sun there was. The house stood empty beside the road. A lorry, full of possessions and memories, pulled away, heading for the main town to the north. The day had finally come. Oh, they had told me time and time again. After she was gone, I just couldn't cope anymore. My daughter took me in the car, and stopped outside the cemetery in the next village. She opened the gate and drove up the access track, in order that I didn't need to climb the hill. Her grave was not far from the cemetery gate. My sight blurred as I read the inscription, but my emotions were otherwise in check. I straightened up as best I could, glancing round, probably for the last time. Oh, I'd be back here one day, probably not too far in the future. To join her. Memories flooded back as I glanced where the river was meandering into the interior. Memories. I bit back my sorrow, turned around and went to sit in the car. My daughter drove back down to the main road, and turned right. We had left Balallan earlier. We now took only a few moments to turn the corner by the war memorial, to leave Laxay behind. The turn-off at Keose, then the fateful bends at Soval, that had claimed one of my three children. I closed my eyes as my driver skilfully and carefully negotiated the treacherous curves. The sign welcoming folks to Kinloch was left behind. I had left my life behind.

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