Short story XX

Slowly, the lady strolled through the tall grasses. To the west, the sun was setting in a dazzling display of colours. The wind howled in from the sea nearby, occasionally carrying a speck of foam. Finally, just as the last rim of the sun disappeared behind the horizon, she reached the top of the dunes. A crescent-shaped beach lay below, pounded by ocean waves. Her hair streamed behind her on the gale. To her, the wind carried more than just the icy cold of a winter storm. It carried solace. Forgetfulness.

The lady slowly walked down the narrow road to her house, the drains on either side nearly flooding after the heavy rain. The crescent beach could be seen some distance away to the north, fringed by the frenzied surf of a winter storm. She stopped by the gate to her cottage. The memories blown away by the wind were awakened again in the relative calm of the valley. The lady lifted her head, and for a moment she was transported back in time. A car pulled up in the turning point, and a friend hopped out. "Hey, how are you today?" The memories fled back into the shadows.

At the time of the previous solstice, the lady had been the happiest person on the planet. It was the zenith of her life, as it had been the zenith of the year. Light never went away, always lingering on the northern horizon at night, quickly returning after a few hours of near darkness. But this was now the winter solstice, and darkness was never far away, even in the middle of the day. Particularly on a stormy day like today, with low cloud scudding overhead, with frequent harsh showers. Hail clattering down as it did, where elsewhere snow would have whirled. It was the nadir of the year; and the nadir of her life. In the summer, things could only get better, she thought. "Come with me, " the friend said, after being offered a cup of tea. "You'll be on your own, and mulling things over." The lady did not take much persuading, and a few minutes later, the two were motoring down the single-track road into town. "When did the stonemasons say the tombstone would be installed?" the friend asked.

Rain streamed down the window, with the wind howling outside. No ferry today - the boat was tied up alongside on the far end of the street. Nobody stirred abroad in that first gale of the autumn. He had just made it on the ferry the night before. As promised. Neither of them paid much attention to the conditions outside. Many, many weeks had to pass before they could meet again. He worked abroad, on the far side of the world, and could only come home once or twice in the year. Today was one of those days. Although as yet unaware, the lady received a present from him. Not one you unwrap in a few seconds. But it was one she had been hoping for, each time he came to visit. And now it was going to happen. In nine months' time.

As autumn deepened and darkened, the nature of the present became known to the lady. Not always pleasant, but some times, the harder roads lead to greater rewards in the end. By the time Christmas lights started to twinkle in the almost day-long twilight, the immediate effects had begun to wear off, and she began to prepare to receive the rewards. Still quite some way off, though, even when the calendars changed onto a new year. Those around her began to perceive the change in demeanour, even though nothing was readily apparent. Yet. Even when a severe storm blew tiles off the roof, ripped overhead cables from their insulators and spat spume and seaweed from the sea onto the village streets, her glow never ceased.

The lady looked at the little face, which had just come into the world. The pains of labour but a distant memory, she smiled at her new son. The midwife and doctor had both left the cottage but minutes earlier, that warm June afternoon. What a present to receive, indeed. And to top the surprise, its giver unexpectedly walked in the door. What a timing, through sheer coincidence. "I've got a new job", he said. "But this is so precious", and for a few moments he got acquainted with his new son. "Next week, I'm starting in the North Sea. I'll be able to come home every fortnight". Emotions gripped the couple as the prospect of a better family life shone brightly before them. Overhead came the sound of the Coastguard helicopter, clattering its way across the islands.

Another helicopter down in the North Sea. The news sent chills up and down the north of Scotland. Who would want to fly in one those things anymore? Who would trust the operators to put safety before profits? So many accidents, and nothing seeming to be done about it. Change the operator, change the choppers, use boats. But all that it did nothing to bring back those lost in the chilly waters of the German Ocean.

A heartrending wail emanated from the cottage near the ferry. The giver of presents was also lost in that crash.

Sobbing disconsolately, the lady wandered through the house, and finally found the cot with her baby son in it. Seeing his precious face appeared to calm her down, or at least help to focus her mind on something else for a few moments. Enough to compose herself to pick up the phone and share the dreadful news. Preparations were set in motion, and after a couple of days, the mournful procession wound its way down to the cemetery by the sands. Shivering from barely contained emotion, the lady stood through the ritual, not being able to look on as the coffin was lowered down. Her friend helped her away from the sad place. The lady staggered in the direction of the crescent shaped beach nearby, her friend in close attendance. "Come", the friend said calmly, with feigned control. "There is one who needs your attention more now. He would have wanted you to do that. Not stay here, you can't do anything here anymore." The gulls wheeled overhead on the summer breeze. "Come" and the lady allowed herself to be accompanied to the car.

The seasons wheeled past, almost unnoticed. From the dusky greys, dark greens and black browns of winter, to the bright blues and yellows of summer. The lambs heralding spring, from the vestiges of snow. The leaves fluttering from sparse trees, blown off on autumnal gales. The lady’s years grew, as did her young son. Soon the time came for him to join others of his age, down at the village school. Some came from far, off the little island buses. Others from the village itself. That first morning, all children sat in a circle, telling about themselves and their home. “My mother is Mary”, finally came Thomas’s turn. “My dad was called Jim. I never met him.” After a few seconds of gasps, the teacher signalled for silence. Thomas continued, unabashed. “He died in a helicopter accident”. The youngster manfully made his way through the big words, looking the teacher straight in the eye.

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