By Arthur Allan
On deck, they pushed through the wind to reach the rail. The island was bigger now: high and rugged on the right, gently rolling on the left.
Fraser pointed into the dusk. “The Sleeping Soldier. See him? That peak, that’s his face. And the hands over his chest.”
Ruth nodded, unsure she was visualising it properly. Still, she was mesmerised by the drama of the island’s dark shape. It sent little jets of awe down her back. Or possibly that was the soft grating of Fraser’s stubble against her cheek.
She thought of what waited across the water, slightly daunted. “Will we see your dad tonight?” she asked.
He shrugged. “The walking golf jumper.”
Which guaranteed that later, when they pulled up and a tall man appeared at the lighted door of the house, her eyes fastened immediately on his diamond-patterned chest.
Fraser was wrestling the bags from the boot, so she stepped up and said hello.
“Ah.” The old man glanced warily in Fraser’s direction, then offered his hand. “And you’ll be…”
“Ruth.” Fraser dropped it like a cough, slammed the boot shut.
“Never knew you were coming.” The old man was still looking at Ruth, but the words were aimed at his son.
Fraser joined her with the bags. Football chants and commentary surged out of the lounge. “I feel like a dwarf,” Ruth giggled, glancing between them.
The men avoided each other’s eyes, embarrassed by their shared genes. “I’ll put on some tea,” the old man said.
“We don’t want to crash your football.”
Ruth had meant it as a token protest, but Fraser’s free hand met her own. “You’ve had a long day, eh? We’ll just get in.”
As she was steered towards the other side of the building, Ruth twisted to meet the shadowed eyes above the diamonds. “See you later,” she called.
But they didn’t. Fraser led her into a glass-fronted extension. That was where they spent the evening, their peace brushed occasionally by the smothered roar of a stadium crowd.
Ruth woke to darkness. An absence of traffic. She tried to reconstruct the room she was in.
He was breathing next to her. She stared at his face, but the features failed to resolve. Suddenly alarmed, she slithered out, finding the wall with her fingertips, and escaped.
Weak grey light helped restore her memory. Here was the room with its woodburner, where they’d sat on the floor sipping whisky. She peeled up the hem of the blind, hugging herself.
Fraser came in, bearing the duvet to coil at her shoulders. It was still warm.
“Broody kinda day,” she murmured.
“Broody kinda place. Anyway, sun’s not up.” His temple was etched with contours of sleep; what did she look like? “Come back for a bit.”
“Let’s go out,” she said. “See the sunrise.”
Just a tiny hesitation. She guessed he liked to spend his free mornings in bed. So that was a minus point. But no, she would resist the compulsion to spend the weekend tallying traits, as though this were a mere sum they were trying to solve.
It had been less than a month. They’d met during the interval of a theatre production in Newcastle, where she’d spent all her life, and where he was training as a lawyer. “This’ll be the dipstick test,” her friend Wendy had leered. Ruth saw it more as an expedition. She could explore further and deeper, plot the map of Fraser.
They walked a mile, past a loose string of houses. “I suppose you’d call it a township, rather than a village,” she said.
“We do. And instead of money we trade in sheep, or the pots we make on little wheels. Such is the simple life of the islanders.”
“Monster.” She punched him, slightly wounded.
“You’re easy to wind up.”
They reached the beach. Ruth held up the view briefly, comparing it with home. She thought of the route she liked to walk Bert, across the Tyne to the hilltop, with its vista of bloated quayside hotels. She liked it there. The dismal lines of traffic around the MetroCentre, even the clumps of dogshit that diverted Bert, were comforting evidence of lives like her own.
The beach cast its own spell, but she distrusted that: she found it hard to dissociate the place from the man.
“How do you feel about this place?” She kept her tone airy, having noticed nervousness when he sensed a potentially heavy topic. “Do you see it as home?”
He made a so-so sign. “I like it more when I’m away. It could be claustrophobic, as a kid.” He laughed mirthlessly. “Still is.”
“Because of your dad?”
Fraser sat abruptly on a flat rock, glowering at the sea. He looked absurdly handsome, like a man in a commercial.
“Set in his ways,” he muttered eventually.
A stag’s head supervised the village pub with disinterest. It was a room of nooks. A group in the corner was spinning fiddles and tuning guitars.
“Will we get a tune?” Ruth asked Colin and Catherine, a couple Fraser knew.
“Not if there’s a merciful God,” Colin said.
“They’ll get round to it about ten,” Catherine added couthily. “Takes them ages to agree what to play.”
“Then they pick Wild Mountain Thyme.” Colin hadn’t yet met Ruth’s eye, even when shaking hands. He looked aside while delivering his sardonic statements.
When he joined Fraser at the bar, Catherine offered Ruth an intimate smile. “So what do you reckon?”
“The island’s beautiful,” she said, then checked herself. “I have to mind what I say to Fraser. He thinks I see it as Brigadoon.”
“I’m not a native either. Been here four years, and I really feel at home.” Catherine had a profoundly penetrating look, as though what she was saying were loaded with meaning for Ruth.
“Colin’s from here, though?”
“Oh yeah. Those two were inseparable at school.” They looked towards the bar, where the dark barmaid had sprung into animated conversation with Fraser, Colin looking on. “I know he’s really keen on you,” Catherine added softly.
It was hard to imagine chiselled, confident Fraser and shy, chubby Colin as buddies; but then, in a place like this, your friends were pre-selected by geography. And maybe her own perception of Fraser skewed her view.
He waved away a cloud as he sat. “Cigar reek,” he muttered. She admired his teeth afresh. “That’s Ailsa.” He glanced in the barmaid’s direction. “We had a thing.”
Ruth sensed he’d felt under surveillance at the bar. “Am I meant to be jealous now?”
“Catfight at closing time,” Colin announced.
Catherine leaned in. “Come off it Fraser, you were both six.”
Ruth laughed, and her hand met Fraser’s under the table. She gave herself up to the pressure of his leg against hers, to the wooing of folk music. She felt she was in the right place.
At the close of a song she got up to go to the loo. A tall figure had emerged from a nook to place his glass on the bar, and she recognised him as he turned to walk out. At the table he’d left, a single chair was pushed back, a cigar butt smouldered in the ashtray. In the two hours they’d spent in the pub, she hadn’t seen Fraser acknowledge his father’s presence.
Fraser drove her north. It was a white day, cloud bellies snagging on the hilltops. He stopped the car and led her, without explanation, over wind-torn moor. At last she saw a family of standing stones, ragged and tall.
While she entered the circle, Fraser waited like a tour guide.
“How old are they?” she asked, slotting her hands into the stones’ wounds.
“Nineteen-seventy-five. Tourist board put them up.” She must have looked hurt, because his tone became tender: “Och, I don’t know, darlin’. You never look twice at stuff on your own doorstep.”
Sizing that against her own experience, she was doused in a rush of homesickness – the force deleting even the thrill of that unexpected “darlin’”. She fumbled for her phone. “I need to check on Bert.”
“There’s not always a signal.”
But there was, so Fraser edged discreetly ahead while Ruth dialled. She chatted, meeting Wendy’s ribald questions with a bland tone. She could hear Bert’s collar clinking in the background.
She hung up as they got into the car. Her palm landed naturally on Fraser’s knee.
“He’s got a lot to say for himself,” Fraser observed. “For a German Shepherd.”
Ruth smiled. She hadn’t been yearning for Newcastle; just longing to link her arms around Bert’s broad neck. He would relish the gift of this endless moor.
By now the bedroom was no longer alien when she woke. On her last morning, a kink in the curtains spotlighted Fraser’s sleeping face in a soft glow. She studied the childlike crush of his lip.
She got up and walked to the village. There was a hopeful early stillness. Shadowy hills thrust into raw pink sky. The only people in sight waited at the uncovered bus stop: an old woman and a child swaddled squarely into layers. They wished her good morning with friendly curiosity.
She got eggs and bacon from the tiny store. Vegetables, it seemed, were strangers here.
Outside, she saw a battered Renault pause by the bus stop. The old lady and the cubed child climbed in. As she passed, Ruth found herself beckoned too.
Catherine smiled out at her. “You want a lift, Ruth?”
“Thanks, I’m fine walking.”
“How’s it going?” Catherine asked significantly.
“Great. But heading back today, unfortunately.”
Catherine was gazing into her again, as though they were lifelong friends. “You’ll be back?”
“Good.” Catherine abandoned her code. “Fraser’s a stubborn git, but he’s a lovely guy. We think you’d be really good for him. Take care,” Catherine called. As the car pulled away, three hands waved goodbye.
Ruth grinned. The old lady and the child had listened with such naked interest that she had first taken Catherine’s ‘we’ to mean the occupants of the car. Obviously, she’d meant herself and Colin. But it seemed almost plausible that she was referring to the entire village; that they’d held a meeting in the pub, passed a resolution.
Buoyed by that whimsy, she brought a new confidence to the act she realised she’d intended from the outset: rapping on Fraser’s father’s door.
He looked disoriented. She said, “It’s Ruth.”
“I know that,” he said irritably. “Come away in.”
“I wondered if you wanted to have breakfast with us.” Ruth nodded at the bags.
“I had my breakfast hours back.”
He wore another golf sweater; she imagined he was anxious to get onto the course. “Oh well.” She edged away.
“I’ll put the kettle on.” He ducked inside, leaving the door open.
His kitchen was scrupulously clean, a sequence of teatowels draped symmetrically. Parked by the breakfast bar, Ruth talked while the old man moved between fridge and worktop.
“I manage the drivers,” she was saying, “and sometimes check the produce, though I’d rather be growing it. I always loved horticulture. And you…were in forestry,” she tried.
His clipped head nodded, either of his own volition or as a side-effect of the swirl he was giving to the teapot. His back was to her, slim and erect, and Ruth had an unwanted premonition: here was Fraser, thirty years on, and this was her older self, piping the thin oxygen of prattle into their comatose marriage.
“Milk and sugar?”
“Yes please!” she breathed, though she always took her tea black. Then, as silence opened again, she clutched for a question that couldn’t be settled with a gesture. “Where did you get this china?”
He set both cups – fussy, rose-patterned affairs – onto the bar. “My wife,” he said gruffly.
Fraser’s mother had died four years before. Ruth took her tea and blew on it, to occupy her hands and mouth.
“It’s all,” he said with obvious effort, “everything here – my wife chose it.” She’d been wondering about dementia, but now that his light blue eyes finally met hers, they were bright and challenging. “Won’t be able to take it all with me, I suppose.”
Again the steady assessment. “We can hardly sell half the place.” He jabbed a thumb towards the extension. “And Fraser’s going to need some equity, if you’re to get a place there. Newcastle.”
After a moment she gulped at her tea. It was sweet and comforting.
She meant to march past Fraser with the shopping, but she was distracted by the play of light on his shirtless form. Tiny muscles in his arm twitched as he lifted a coffee mug to his lips. She set the bags down.
“I’ll get those.” But as he advanced, it was clear he was reaching for her, not the groceries.
“What is it,” she let out, “with you and your dad?”
It wasn’t the question she’d planned. He paused, his arms hanging awkwardly.
“What are you fighting about?”
He shook his head. “We’ve never had a fight.”
“Well, that’s worse!” She could see how it would be: unvoiced injuries, the silences layering and hardening over years.
“He cornered you, then?”
“It was me that spoke to him. Thought one of us should.”
“Ruth. It’s just families.”
His voice was authoritative, as though he were clarifying a point of law for a dim client. She stepped out of his orbit. “He’s having to move out.”
“He’s got the money, if he wanted to stay.”
“But you’re not staying.”
She watched a chill steal over his face. “I’ve not really lived here for years,” he said. “And if you’re worried I’m jumping the gun, Ruth, that’s not it. I was planning to move down permanently anyway. No pressure on you. It just makes sense.”
It did. “But when were you going to tell me?”
With distaste, she heard her own voice reach a shrill squawk. She caught irritation in Fraser’s eyes.
“I’m not like you,” he said. “That stuff should come out naturally.”
“So you tell me nothing.” Ruth saw a spark of spit arc from her mouth and hit his cheek.
“What did you think? You’d bring us all together over a nice cosy meal?”
“Well, why the hell not!” She threw up her hands. “I’m going for a walk.”
At the door, she stole a look at his face, furrowed now with uncertainty. “Right,” he said.
“Just a walk,” she said more quietly, and left.
She hurried to the beach. She leapt recklessly between boulders. She couldn’t stay long: there were so few hours left, and she had a foretaste of the regret that awaited if she spent them alone.
Still, an obscure anger clung as she teetered over the rocks. A sense of having been cheated. When she’d imagined them spending their lives together – as she had, privately, shamefully – it had always been against a backdrop of the island.
Gradually she slowed. The sea was a warm blue. On the shore it broke repeatedly into brilliant froth, a smile offered and withdrawn, offered again.
The rocky beach petered out ahead, with a slope leading up to cliffs. As she advanced it became steeper than she’d thought, but she had already determined to scale it.
The first few steps offered easy footholds. Then she had to flatten herself against the ground to climb higher. The grass was moist, slightly warmed by the sun. She pressed her cheek into it; her ear caught the beat of the tide.
She was muddy and humid by the time she edged over the summit, and the face that met hers almost caused her to slither back.
Beyond it she heard a panicked scramble, glimpsed the ungainly bucking of bony arses.
But the first goat stayed. His black head was crowned with fat curved horns, each eye ringed in white. He nodded once, regally. Then, unhurried, he clipped away.
She started to breathe again. They dived into woodland, a dozen of them, unchecked by fences. She felt she was the recipient of a rare honour.
Wandering directionless over the exposed clifftop, she found herself teased by bursts of wind. It ruffled her hair, goosed her suddenly from behind. It fired a sudden hail of icy darts in her face. She gasped, then giggled. “Monster!” she cried aloud.
Hunched for shelter by an ancient tree, watching the gulls veer and plunge, she realised she didn’t want to leave. Then she remembered that she had to, and only then did she think to look at her watch.
They made the ferry, forcing a crewman to replace the gangway he’d just detached. Ruth and Fraser hugged, quick and tense. Drawing away, she noticed the dried earth streaks across her hand, caught him staring jealously at them.
She stood by the rail while the boat slipped out. Fraser had gone, but she could make out his car in the car park. She waved for a long time, feeling she owed him that.
By the time she’d got back, there hadn’t been time to do anything but leap into the car. No goodbye sex. That was her most pressing regret, so far. But it wasn’t all about the physical, she reminded herself. You had to build on that.
She stayed on deck while the island shrank. The same tingle crept down her back as she identified the features of the sleeping soldier.
She would be honourable. Friends of friends would let her know when Fraser was settled in the North-east. Months would pass. There would be a decent interval before she came back. It would surely cause him little more than a pang of curiosity by the time he learned, through those same friends, of her return to the island.
In the meantime, she would quietly research the practicalities, her vague plan to set up an organic produce scheme. She would keep her counsel, harbour her feelings.
It might come to nothing, in the end. But she would be prepared for that.
Arthur Allan is an Edinburgh-based freelance writer. His short stories have been published in various anthologies, and he has just completed a novel with the Scottish independence referendum campaign as a backdrop.