THE PEOPLE at the farmhouse on the top of the hill in Ballantrae have invited Ina McEwen and her family for dinner. They walk from the Hut, a wooden holiday hut lent to them by good comrades, the Haldanes. It is one of those huts with the old gas lights, tiny nets fluttering over the light. Tell Ina what it is about those small lights that makes her feel safe and loved.
The family at the top of the hill are not short of a bob or two. Well, farmers are not poor though they are always complaining. The McEwens invitation is thanks to young Megan, who makes up for a whole family’s strange ways, chattering and giggling enough to hide her mother’s odd stops and starts, her father’s sullen shyness, her brother’s stuttering stammer. At the age of ten, Megan McEwen makes friends with whole families to try and get away from her own, as if asking for help. Megan’s father prefers smoking to talking. Her mother does talk sometimes but doesn’t listen so her conversation is mad-sounding, because she always speaks as if already in the middle of something. There are never any beginnings. There are never any endings.
The McEwens put on their holiday best, and as a family walk up the hill, turning one bend and then another and then another. Dogs bark at them from the cobbled farmyards. They can see the sea in the distance and the huge rock of Ailsa Craig, like a relative of theirs who hasn’t spoken to them for years, in the huff in the distance. The air smells of hay and cow dung and clover, and this slow walk up the hill is the closest the McEwens ever get to happiness. Near the top of the hill Megan, excitedly says look Mum look, and there in front of them are a whole family of quails, dumpy, short tailed, walking across the road, heading for the farmland fields with the cereals and the clover. Ina stares at them, astonished. Quite the thing, the quails. Purposeful and loyal looking, something about them. Dignified even, yes, dignified is not too strong a word for the quails. Tell Ina why she has never forgotten them or the way her daughter charmed the farmer on the hill that night and covered up every hole with a lovely, beautiful smile, why Ina remembers putting a napkin on her lap and looking round at the chaotic farmhouse kitchen, sipping at a sherry the colour of the hay outside.
When dinner was over, Megan went off to play in the girl’s room, was her name Martha? And Ina felt suddenly unmoored like a little fishing boat she’d noticed earlier that day, bobbing out to sea. Megan was in her element – new friend, new toys, new bedroom. Ina still didn’t know where she came from, this daughter of hers or why, when she left a room, she felt uneasy, uncertain of herself. She could feel her mouth opening and closing. She could feel the wail inside herself like a huge wave swelling, about to hit the rocks.
Along the shingle beach, with the sky vulnerable looking, slightly flushed and pale, Ina walked and walked and walked for miles. Not a soul with her. Not her son, not her daughter, not her man. Along the shingle beach with no company except the sea in all its for gotten rages, battering at the rocks. Ina’s face wet with the salt of her tears. She walked on and on as though if she walked far enough she might walk this thing out of her. As if by walking long enough, hard enough, she might forget.
Just ahead of her, a little tern landed on the shingle beach, crying Kirri Kirri.
If Ina hadn’t been so on the ball, so quick to notice things, then it would have been a different story.
The Little Tern’s beak is bright yellow. What is it that gets her most, she wonders, walking, walking, by the sea – a constant, treacherous liar. It is not the thought of the physical thing. It’s not even about Stewart. It’s about herself. Now she is all questions, circling in her head like birds. Not questions she wants to ask of him; questions she has to ask of herself. Am I loveable enough? Have I been a good mother? Am I too strict? Do I know how to let my hair down? Little Tern. The bird flies off and Ina watches it dive into the sea to hunt for food.
It is possible for Ina to forgive. It is not possible for her to forget. And for years and years after it happened, Ina could still picture herself on the shingle beach, close, quite uncannily close, to that Little Tern. These days the Little Tern is a rare bird, having to be preserved, protected from kestrels. It was the place she returned to in her head, the bright yellow beak on the white beach, the sky, bruised and darkening as she walked, to a plum colour. How low the dark, how it gathered around the rocks. That night all those years ago, Ina remembers hanging her coat up on the hook, and Stewart looking at her, but not asking where she had been all those hours. Stewart putting the kettle on and making her a hot cup of tea and handing it to her in silence. That night, Ina remembers, she lay in bed as still as anything, listening out for herself. Ina talked to herself, going over things. One slip, she said to herself, lying there with her nightdress buttoned up to her neck. One slip. You cannot penalise a man for one slip. Then she lay wondering about the word slip. When you slip, you fall, but maybe it is not such a sore fall because you have slipped.
Stewart came to bed eventually and placed his hand on her waist and kept it there all night. Earlier, when he brought the mug of steaming hot tea, he had had a look on his face of a man disappointed in himself, so disappointed that he could hardly look up to hand her the tea. But that didn’t stop Ina from thinking what he had had with Her was probably better, maybe he’d found something with Her that he had never found with Ina. It didn’t stop Ina from thinking that maybe he never loved her at all, not like she loved him, goodness, Ina could love even Stewart’s smouldering silences.
And would you believe it, but thirty years later, and still together, Ina found herself asking that question whenever she was a little low. It was the site she returned to, what ever. The Little tern swooping down for food, the light draining from the sky. Ina determinedly walking the coast line, her feet on the sore shingle beach. How bright that yellow bill on the bird’s mouth, though. No matter how long the love, how deep, Ina still wanted Stewart to say something to her that sounded as nice as the words Little Tern, as protective, loving. Because the worst of it all was that she had heard a word he had used for Her, a word that still hurt like a sharp flat stone. He had never used that word for her. Whenever she was low, Ina said Little Tern to herself, quietly. Just the words, little tern. Then she saw again the warm glow of late light on the shingle beach.
When someone dies, everyone gets shifty. If you open your mooth to say something small aboot something small, everyone is affie keen to shut you up. I ken it’s because they dinny want you going and upsetting yoursell. But dinny they realise talking’s no whit upsets you. It’s the fact that the deid don’t talk that upsets you.
Yesterday I said, Stewart liked a banana on his toast and that wis me away. You canny tell how it’s going to hit you. It comes thundering doon the motorway at a terrific speed in wan o’ they long haul lorries. I says to Janet who was telling me not tae upset masell, I says, Janet it’s no something I’m doing tae masell. And Janet says, but you’re no helping yoursell. And I says, How am I supposed to help mysell? Stewart’s deid. Janet says, don’t dwell on it. Try and think of a nice wee warm scone with homemade rhubarb and ginger jam. You can get through anything wey the help o’ a scone. I just looked at her. Janet is nigh near eighteen stone. She’s got wan o’ they sweet fat faces – you can see how pretty she wance was. I says Janet, a scone is not going to solve everything. We’ve cholesterrol to think about and I says and another thing hardly anybody bakes a decent scone anymore and I says me eating a scone doesn’t alter the fact that I’ve a wardrobe full of claes I canny throw oot and I says it comes and gets you in the night. You are that alone your ain body feels different and you try and snuggle into the bed in a position tae comfort yoursell. It might be foetal. And Janet says Ina have you gone a bit religious. Janet is wan o’ they yins that says things and you dinny understand how her mind has got tae something. I says how do you mean. Janet says would you try and contact him. I says you mean wey a oudiji board? Janet just nods, serious. She pours us both a sherry, as if a wee drink might encourage me to dae something I’d never dae. I sips at it. I like a sherry noo and again. I says Janet, first it is a scone and noo it’s a séance! Have you no ony better advice to give me? Well Janet says – she’s no one to ever be stumped for an answer – another fella? I’m eighty five I says. What wuid I be wanting wey another fella? What wuid I do with him? You’d spread a banana on his t oast, Janet says and laughs. You know Janet, she’s got that loud and daft a laugh. I says I’m no interested in spreading a banana on another man’s toast. Well Janet says, I give up. Anyway, see when she left, I was that exhausted. I slept the hale night weyoot dreaming thon busy dreams that leave you shattered in the morning. That morning I wis making my pot of tea and I looked oot oor back window and it was snowing, and there wis oor wee robin redbreast that visits us every winter and I went tae say, Stewart the wee robin redbreast is back and that wis me away again, efter a guid night’s sleep tae. Does anybody ken how lang ye go on fir like this because I dinny. I dinny ken. I dabbed at my een and thought wait a minute is that bird no awfie early this year?
I watched it flit aboot the garden and I says to mysell Stewart is doing okay. And I says to mysell, right Ina McEwen you are going to tackle those claes the day. When I wis finished, I was greeting, but I sat doon at the kitchen and I didnae huv a scone but I had a ginger snap tae my cup o tea and I dooked it in.
Ina MacEwen took pride in the fact that she could still collect her pension. She got up on pension day, got dressed in her slow, measured way, rolling her tights across her bumpy legs. She fitted her skirt to the side of herself. Put her blouse on, her arms through her cardigan and out at the other end. She put her scarf round the folds of her neck which made her think of her sisters in New Zealand, the ones she had survived. She smeared a bit of rose lipstick on her chapped lips and dabbed a bit of powder on her translucent cheeks. She put her pension book in her handbag and got her keys from the key hook. The buttons on her coat were tough as meat. She double locked her door, shaking it to make sure. Ina was walking down her street quite the thing, thinking to herself that the older you get, the more you don’t take a single thing for granted when the gull swooped down and savagely attacked her head. She stumbled to a neighbour’s house, bleeding, trying to think, trying to think, you never know the minute Ina MacEwen, trying to think if her sisters had still been alive in New Zealand they would have sent her a special card for this.