by Ruth Maclean-Jones
Nadine had come out here because she did not want to end up wishing she had done more.
The rain swept over the loch in a curtain, like the flood a watercolorist makes on their painting. The water was grey and iron and rust and blue: every possible colour. It collapsed to refract the world on its surface.
The boat was now a proper ‘Knoydart ferry’: not the single launch of memory. They lurched between the Virgin and the granite cross in the sea. Mary must have had a fresh coat of paint: bright and cream she was, shining. Out here, you would have more need of faith: a barnacle crusted against the waves.
She had come out here because she wanted to feel something. Chris had said ‘do you want to get married’ and she had always thought she did until that moment, when she had said, ‘no’. It had surprised her: coming out of her mouth like a goldfish or a smoke ring. She had watched his face droop like the basil plant in the kitchen. The same sadness as when no one turns up to a birthday, turning the uneaten cake into the bin.
He would have let her stay, ‘think about it.’ She had wanted him, instead, to rage. He went quietly to the stove, started meekly frying onions. She did not think this possible until she had seen it done. The orange-peel skin on the back of his neck puckered.
So she had said, ‘I should leave.’ She had packed some things without thinking. At the station, crowds craned up at departure boards like mariners at constellations. Fort William, she thought. The trains that had taken to Mallaig as a child, where her brother had pocketed a langoustine only for their mother to smell it out of his coat after several weeks. They had criss-crossed the country at random: to the ends of the earth, it had seemed. She bought her ticket.
In the carriage, people were already reclining in their seats, shifting about for a comfortable posture, eye patches screening out the fluorescent glare. ‘Sorry,’ she said, to an old lady with a purple carpet bag, who had angled her knees to let her pass. To be once again travelling alone: just one of many clutching their blow-up travel pillows and Pret sandwiches filled with avocado. She had been a teenager when she had last gone like this; across Europe to meet friends in Prague or Cologne, with a paperback and travel-size whisky. Back when she had that kind of freedom.
She did not sleep a wink. Recently, her nights had fractured into awareness, like the crack in their bedroom ceiling: would she be around to see the plaster collapse where it was peeling? The end of their two-year lease was approaching. It should have been fun, wondering whether they would move, where they would live, choosing a new neighbourhood. Weekends spent on Instagram and Rightmove. But she had a blank where a picture of them elsewhere should be.
“She had been a teenager when she had last gone like this; across Europe to meet friends in Prague or Cologne, with a paperback and travel-size whisky. Back when she had that kind of freedom.”
She listened to the train, folding over its wheels again and again. Occasionally, side to side it pitched. The woman next to her snored gently. She heard the station announcements at 4:50am as they stood in Edinburgh, the workmen arguing as they prepared to split the train. She unhooked the blind and flinched as it flew up with a loud crack. A few people stirred, frowning around for the source of the indignation. The carpet-bag lady shifted and grunted. Her own eyes were gooseberries, peeled and cold. She stared drily at clumps of heather and shining pools, giant stones scattered through gorse. Mountains of rock or cloud, rising beyond.
Her fingers were tired. It was too much effort to lift them, for her eyes to read a book, to reach for her phone to select some music. She thought about texting her mother. Who else would need to know? What did they need to know?
In Fort William the air was bracing. She went to the ticket office. ‘I’d like to go to Mallaig, please.’
‘And what do yer want that for?’ The lady laughed as she pressed computer keys. She printed the ticket and handed it over.
She sat on the train as it puffed across the Glenfinnan viaduct. ‘This is where they made Harry Potter,’ her mother had said. The statue of Bonnie Prince Billy to the west. She remembered how her breath had fogged the pane in her impatience to get to that fictional beyond. People who run away, across the sea. In those days you couldn’t even write a letter. You’d be more or less gone forever.
She walked to the dock where she remembered the boat had been. She was surprised to find a kiosk with promotional shirts and three people behind the counter. ‘The next boat leaves in fifteen minutes.’
She watched the men help the passengers unload. One of them held out an arm to help an elderly lady on shore. She thought of carpet-bag lady, who had got off at Crianlarich. To another life, which was beyond imagining.
The boat emptied and a man in a black fleece gestured for her to come down. ‘Alreet, lovely,’ he said, taking her elbow and practically hauling her aboard. In the cabin, an elderly couple ate cherry flavour yoghurts. Another lady was reading the Scottish Mail. After two seconds she felt restless and went on deck, leaned over the bow to look into the water. The head of a seal popped up: its intelligent lashes, its baby eyes. She stuck out her tongue. It bobbed back, darting under the other side of the pier.
The boat engine coughed into life. Yes, this was what she had wanted: this breath, this escape. Skye to the left, covered in a blanket of rain. The big passenger ferry heading for the rocks, covered in seaweed the colour of old blood. Pebbly beaches, a day’s hike. A place you could canoe: light a fire, sleep over the shingles on something soft.
There were a 4×4 and a Royal Mail van parked on the concrete dock. She watched the ferryman unload three sacks of post: Amazon parcels, a crate from Fortnum’s, someone’s shopping from the Co-op. There was a man who looked like a fisherman from a book: straggling beard, knitted cap, waders and a checked shirt. The concrete bucked and swayed where she set foot.
What she would do when she got here, she had not really thought. She had expected Chris, at least, to text. But she hadn’t heard from anyone and now her phone had gone dead.
She told herself she had come to be here, among the pine trees and the thin grey air. She felt a small whip of rain along her face. She followed the people walking along the dock to dry land: turned towards the ‘village’ on a shaley path. It was really just one long whitewashed building, divided into parts: the pub, the shop, the bunkhouse, the ‘museum’ – a dusty room covered in old maps. She went in and learned how the ancestors had been cleared off the land. Probably they had all gone to America. In the sixties a bunch of hippies had returned. The shop was full of micro-brewed beer, homemade candles and knitted bags. People here were well-off, she deduced; they enjoyed super-fast broadband and the feeling that they were living lives with meaning.
She bought the village paper and some homemade tablet. ‘What brings ye here?’ the lady at the till asked.
‘Nothing. I’m just visiting.’
She took the paper to the picnic table and sat down. The pages blew about. There was a massive ‘H’ sketched in the grass. She felt just a little let down. Outside the pub was a sign: a cross, or a ship’s mast, draped with fisherman’s floats; oddly hair-like scraps of rope.
The fisherman she had seen from the dock was passing. She caught his eye.
‘Can I help ye?’ he asked.
She squinted up at him, framed darkly beneath clouds. She opened her mouth, then – like a goldfish or a smoke ring – the word came out.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I want to know—’ she paused. ‘How to get to the wilderness.’
He looked at her a second, then started laughing: great billows that got blown away on the wind. She let him tire himself out. He was shaking his head, glancing up towards the mountain. He looked her up and down. ‘You got supplies?’
She looked down at herself, leather ankle boots and jeans.
‘Why don’t ye come round,’ he said, ‘I can lend you a few things.’ He saw the look on her face. ‘I ain’t going to ask why you’re running.’
Ruth Maclean-Jones | @ruthm_j | englandsendangeredchurches.com
I am a writer living in London. Six months ago I quit my job in technology to write full time. I also have a blog and Instagram, where I document historic churches.