by Rachael Blyth
Aboard the MV Hjaltland. Fish and chips as cloying as ever and there's a fair din of tinny fiddles cascading from the speakers hung about the canteen. No cabin, so I'll be sleeping on a sofa in the bar tonight, if the stewards allow it. It feels strange to leave Cambridge. I'm excited about Italy but looking forward to this month on da auld rock.
It's odd for me to traverse this stretch of the North Sea in high spirits. Perhaps it's the gin but I'm feeling very positive about the whole endeavour. I've bawled my eyes out so many times on this crossing. As a bairn, careering round the corridors of the old St Clair on a choppy night, bouncing out of sync with the legless slur of the waves, all six of us crammed into a family cabin the size of a strip light on G deck. Terrified that the dogs caged in the ship's innards might yap me in the night. Or that time on a school jaunt south when I realised that N fancied L instead of me and I passed the whole twelve hour overnight trip stuck between the pair of them.
I've sailed on both the fourth and fifth vessels named the St Clair. The fifth and final St Clair was built in 1971, originally known as the Travemünde, for use on the Danish Gedser-Travemünde route. The vessel worked many routes in the intervening years, under the names Njegos, Tregastel and Treg, including a stint between Italy and Yugoslavia. A bevy of ship spotters catalogue photographs of these incarnations online; bedtime viewing for island-dreaming pilgrims. The boat was sold to P&O for use on their Shetland line in 1991, though it moonlighted on services from Lerwick to Bergen for a time. This is the St Clair as I remember it. A warren of decks and hallways, kids tripping over blootered musicians as they swiped the necks of their fiddles to cut through smoke in the lounge, as they might do searching for lost pals on a foggy dawn after Up Helly Aa. When I was sixteen, the contract for the northern isles routes was snatched up by Northlink Ferries, whose Hjaltland and Hrossey work the stretch today. These are the boats of my grown up tears. Fewer cabins, straighter lines. Smaller, tamer, even if the weather never abated. Our good ship St Clair became the Saudi Arabian Barakat, meaning 'blessings'. She was last spotted in Jeddah, as Noor, which happens to be the pet name of my first and most formative penpal.
p.s. It's 3.56am. If only I still smoked, I'd be out there on deck, peering into the black, grasping. I haven't seen anyone I recognise. I wonder if I look like a tourist. Perhaps I am fraudulent, with my spectres of home, adopted fiddles and hand-me-down fair isles. An Instagram of an islander, posing.
Hostile seas. I miss you.
Apologies for sending you another letter before I've even given you a chance to reply. Well, I'm here. Half awake in my sister's old bedroom, a cool silence beneath the tickle of wind on wood. It's 11pm and the room glints with the dusk that will last for hours – simmer dim. In old times the sky would have been lit up with bonfires too, exalting the sun at the peak of its Johnsmas glare and warding off the witches said to be rife upon the isles at summer's height.
Dad drove me from the terminal as traffic hazed in the opposite direction. Through the kames, past the Tingwall junction and the halfway hoose, to Voe. The house is tidier since Mum died, aside from the kitchen table which is covered in tray upon tray of seedlings. Exotic ones – Dad has a strong track record with his Crystal Maze dome. We watched The Big Bang Theory, ate toast. I picked out some books – Mann's The Magic Mountain, Lampedusa's The Leopard (the latter in preparation for Italian cultural integration). It's so quiet I can hear the blood in my eardrums. I'm glad we stopped off at the Coop on the way home - I'm not really sure what Dad lives off. The fridge is well stocked now, Christmas-like in its cheeses. Salmon too, butteries and bannocks in the cupboard. I'm all wrapped up. I'll leave it there.
Sorry to hear things have been tough. These anniversaries have a way of making themselves felt in such gruesome ways.
Five years since Mum died and today I visited her grave. Is it weird I haven't been there since the funeral? The plot number is almost the same as the phone number we've had forever. Standing over her, I can see the house, the pier, the peerie hoose where my sister lives, the spot where we used to camp as bairns, chucking deodorant cans on the fire for effect. One dry day we set a whole field on fire doing the same up at Muckle Roe.
I gathered weeds along the way – yellow things and purple things and a sprig of beige. I poked the stems into the little metal holder and sat back on my heels. Is your mum buried in Scotland too? We don't talk of these things enough.
I recall reading about an old funerary practice, the burning and examination of da leek strae; the straw of the deceased's death bed. Ashes cannily revealing the footprints of whoever in the village was next to die. To think that everyone knew one another's boot! Neighbours' feet upon the common land trailing as threads, warping and wefting between worlds, through time.
There's a twinge of wanting, that she should be churned in this soil when I have no idea where my own body will end up. I've a sense that I'd like to be buried on top of her. The whole family stacked up, rotting into one another, dripping back down into her limbs. A girl from the Highlands who wore this island's jumpers, taught its children, organised their Yule parties. Buried by its men with their grim handshakes. The whole village shook my hand that day, lined up for a clutch, cried in my face. The headstone glowered at me then, as it does now. Infuriated and sympathetic. But it doesn’t have any arms.
A quick postcard while I'm in the Post Office waiting for Dad to get fuel. If you put on your glasses you can see the second house from the top of the hill, which is ours. Norwegian looking, right? We've fallen into a fine rhythm here. Breakfast and TV, reading, a loop to Tagon Stores and the graveyard for flower freshening, a cup of tea then lunch. My sister and nephew come round after school (they bring the best biscuits), then I make dinner for me and Dad, we drink gin and watch more TV, play the piano, go to bed. This loops and loops every day and it's very pleasant. Yesterday we threw the whole thing out the window and went to Lerwick. The Street is quieter than before. The record shop I worked in as a teenager is a Specsavers. I had my eyes tested and am thinking about learning to swim. Dad says he'll take me to the Brae pool tomorrow.
So good to hear that you've been getting into wild swimming – I'm jealous given my tender trials in the local pool this week. It's absurd that I made it through school swimming – thirteen years of lessons – without actually learning how to swim. I'm a wreck in the water, petrified by the three lane, 16.7 metre rectangle of doom. Little wonder so many fishermen drown, thwarted by inadequate aqueous educations or trotted to an early grave by demonic water horses known as shoopiltees. According to my mother's telling, should one dare to mount such an alluring shelty, it’ll surely bolt into the sea to drown you.
I'm unsure whether this pretty tale, or a premature viewing of Jaws, is to blame for my timidity in the face of the Brae Leisure Centre's deep end. I've been working with a float and kicking like crazy. Lifeguard amused but encouraging. At the pool they play SIBC, the local radio I remember from the school bus. Would you believe the same guy still reads the news? If I'm not that old yet then he must be, at least.
How are you? I would love to say that I'm missing the clatter of flat whites in Espresso Station, work and friends, dinners and plans (did you go to H's birthday thing?) but I'm so perfectly melancholy in this nostalgic bubble that I really don't have a sense of where I could be. Stripping off in the cubicle to SIBC's pop tosh, I felt both completely inside myself and hardly anywhere at all. A little life in a swimming pool cubicle, somewhere in the North Sea, undressing. I've always known Shetland to be a sad place, but never with so little dread. Is it possible to be wholly delighted and bereft at the same time? I guess that's why everyone's so into The Killing, right? Wallander? The cosiness of hard spirits, wool and fire that is only known in severely blood chilling climates, slaughter and so on aside. Well, I've got the dragon tattoo, as you know.
Today, after seven (!) lengths of breaststroke, Dad drove me north to visit T's mum. Their croft is little changed - a low-ceilinged but and ben of stone, copper pots and hefty floorboards. They’ve eaten most of their animals since the kids left, so no more mornings of udder-warm milk on cornflakes, spiked with snot clumps of cream. I first read The Ecologist shivering on their pull-chain toilet one winter, new to the idea that capitalism might be bad and Coca Cola even worse. I signed up for a subscription and sent off for a pair of vegan boots from America with my Christmas bonus from the record shop. They didn't last long in the gritty slush of winter roads.
We had two cups of tea and talked little of T, though I felt a strong sense of him there, or close by. I'm not ready for his grave yet. We did, however, talk of Italy, our plans and ideas. T's mum is thrilled at the prospect and I came away with an armful of books and cried all the way home in the car, quietly, as if Dad might not notice.
Yesterday L called. She'd heard I'm here (even our family keep binoculars on the windowsill, “for the birds”). We've arranged dinner with F, who is home too, from London. Who knew Shetlanders go to London? Okay, I knew, I just liked to pretend I was the only one.
This morning L came along to the pool too. She introduced me to the fabulous notion of sauna and swim! A sweaty bolt of a birthing ritual. The Scandi-ness of it feels appropriate to being in Brae, which always feels a few degrees colder than Voe. There's something of the Alaskan shanty town about this hodge podge of a settlement, oil workers' hotels flung up about the place. Perhaps that's where the coldness comes from. Or maybe it's a chill from my teen ghosts – the pool is next door to my old high school.
I've a strange sense, chatting with L, of not really knowing who it is that she's talking to. We both know the outline of the in between, but how to account for it? No way to account for it. No way to account for T, up north beneath the sheep, turning to peat. Bake and plunge, bake and plunge, dry off in the cubicle, have a cup of tea. It's aye a fine day in Voe.
I've never known that feeling you describe, of a real bodily ache for Scotland. But I worry I’ve caught it now. On weather maps Shetland is often shoved into a little box at the top right hand corner of the screen. A diagram of contention to the locals, who like to point out that we're much further away than it seems. That box keeps things safe for me though. Much of myself is neatly parcelled up here, kept in its place. Somewhere that takes an effort to get to, an air trip of extortionate expense, a sea voyage halfway to Bergen.
After swimming I walked to Tagon for butteries, forgetting they don't stock them anymore and that you have to go all the way to Brae Garage. Anyway, I walked the loop to Tagon – down to the shore, tide midway out beyond the sea wall, over the little bridge and round the side of the firth, crunching and slithering over the bruck-tangled seaweed aside the path. Then up the calf-wringing sparrel steep (as a child I though we were calling it 'the spiral steep', which is apt, but according to my Shetland Dictionary, sparrel is dialect for the long intestine between stomach and anus, which is also apt). The shop is at the top of the hill, on the main road which heads northwards to Brae. Our old house is set a few fields back from Tagon, the school house of a now defunct primary school which shut down amidst a recent throng of cuts.
The loop continues past Tagon, then cuts across the road and down past the little white church, starkly protestant, very Winter Light, and much smaller than the ruins of Olnafirth Kirk, further down towards the shore, which it replaced in the 1800s. Mum lies to my right, beside the water, and Olnafirth Kirk's much older graveyard is to my left. The Adies are buried here in the old yard: Voe's family of merchants who made the jumper Edmund Hilary wore up Everest in 1953. I remember the big sale in the Adies' barns by the pier when the business wound up in the early nineties. Dad bought a tremendous quantity of Voe Blue and my big sister used some of it to knit a delicate, lacy little cardi with tiny plastic buttons for our little sister. Flag irises and sheep fill the gap over the stile, between the graveyards and the bottom of the sparrel steep. The loop is complete.
I'm writing outdoors today, on the bench outside the pub. Noontide, da heicht o da day. I’ve booked my flights and this time next week I'll be in Naples with S. We talked on the phone last night about what it might be like to live in Shetland one day. I see us in particular houses – B's old place behind the overgrown hedge next to Tagon, empty now, horrifically damp, probably. Or somewhere out past Vidlin, a croft in the loch-pitted wildernesses of deepest Lunna. A warm thought. Madness, perhaps.
It's impossible to untangle my longing for Shetland from a craving for home and comforts now dissolved. How to know whether my current desire, to never leave again, is a form of madness - the melancholy of thwarted grief - or something much more rational, more actionable?
I can see the pier where I broke my leg, aged eleven, running from a boy with a giant crab. His brother ran me over on a push bike. A big boy, the hill too steep for his brakes. Compound fracture, tib and fib. Dad ran me to the Gilbert Bain where I lay for a long time awaiting an empty stomach so that I could be anaesthetised. One bone came through my skin and they hacked off my purple jeans. It was the summer holidays and we'd been scoffing chips round the back of the pub a few hours earlier. I almost went home early to watch Friends but I didn't.
After T died I sat on this bench because it became very tiring to cry in the house. The sea was a ruthless foil without eyes, getting on with its own thing at a time when nobody else was getting on with their own thing. In that house it was my tragedy in particular but I couldn't own it, suspicious that I might be over-egging the pudding, a fuss out of nothing. This island is not a fussy place. I had to go south for that.
S and I were at Gladstone's Library in Wales, whiskies in hand, crispy with mud, when I first had the thought, “wouldn't it be nice not to go back to Cambridge?” Less fuss. After settling on the Italian countryside as a romantic site for our future selves, it felt imperative to stop off here. In Michael Powell's 1945 film I Know Where I'm Going, Joan Webster, a stuck up Englishwoman, is stranded on the Isle of Mull when dire weather diverts her from the destiny she's been craving. The stasis induced by her confinement upon the island is transformative; the uncovering of values over value, that sort of thing. If latent hopes for a similar catharsis have drawn me back to Shetland then I can only be ambivalent towards my findings.
My catharsis – yours too? - could never be as clean as Joan's. I've a history here that stymies any understanding of my own motivations or sense of destiny. Boxed up between where I am now and where I'm going, there's a coaster Mum once gave me for Christmas. “I'd rather be in Shetland”, it says. Sarcastic, then. A little hysterical, now.
I'm unsure whether grieving is a process of escaping or finding. The same might be said of visiting islands in boxes on maps, especially ones that you ran from at seventeen, knowing that a landmass had become a lesion. Like Joan, I've no idea where I'm going. But it seems that I've long been in two places at once.
Rachael Blyth is from Shetland, and now lives in Somerset. Her writing has appeared in the award-winning food journal Fire & Knives, the Guardian online and Reframing Immersive Theatre and Performance (Palgrave, 2016). She has worked extensively with ritual theatre company FoolishPeople and performed in films, music videos, theatre and live art.
Photograph by calflier001 CC 2.0