Thursday, February 14, 2019
Maybe it will be all right. Maybe I’ve just become too used to it never being all right. It’s possible. That the angry, fearful dread living inside my stomach for the last three months is less an ill omen than old ballast that’s just become too familiar. Maybe.
The pub is busy. Absolutely packed. And loud. Way busier and louder than I’d been expecting; it makes me feel more anxious. More off-balance.
“You’ve missed the riveting monthly meeting, at least,” Jaz says, with a smile.
Ever since he greeted me at Stornoway Ferry Terminal—You must be Maggie, I’m Ejaz Mahmood—Jaz—welcome to the Isle of Lewis and Harris!—tall and slim, with a round face, neat goatee, soft Scottish accent, and a wide grin, he’s treated me like a lifelong friend instead of a complete stranger. Throughout the following forty-mile car ride, he kept up an endless scattergun commentary that was at first unnerving and then a welcome distraction. There’s actually a pretty big Pakistani community around here—always surprises folk. Kelly says you’re from down south? I’m English too, Berwick, but keep that to yourself— think I’ve got away with it so far. Word is you don’t know how long you’ll be staying? Best thing about this place is it’s home to anyone just as long as they want it to be.
We traveled south along a coastal road of occasional hamlets—white houses with twin dormers and slate roofs—and then west across flat empty lowland that made me shiver in the gold dusk, the Range Rover buffeted by whistling winds. On into claustrophobic corridors of flanking rock walls, and then a landscape of green hills and glassy lochans; moorlands of fiery heather and moss framed by high craggy mountains.
And every change, from main road to side road to single-track with the occasional passing place and few if any houses, made me feel farther and farther away from the bustle of Stornoway, never mind London. That was when the weight inside my stomach began to get heavier. Even before we reached the west coast and I heard the roar of the Atlantic. Before we crossed the last loch and were rattling over the cattle grid and then the causeway across the sound. Before the last fans of sunlight lit up the sign on the other side:
Fàilte gu Eilean Cill Maraigh
Welcome to the Isle of Kilmeray
My teeth started to chatter as Jaz drove us west along the only road. Away from the lights of Urbost on the southeast coast, population sixty-six, and towards the only other village on this island of two and a half by one and a half-miles. Older and smaller, and on a windy headland called Longness, population fewer than twenty: Blairmore. Goose bumps broke out on my skin as we turned into its only street, Jaz finally stopping outside this pub—long and white with black-painted eaves strung with fairy lights. Too many people moving around inside its bright windows. Its white sign gray in the rapidly fading light: Am Blàr Mòr.
“Blàr means ‘battle’ and mòr means ‘big.’ No one knows much more than that, but that’s the islands for you. Mystery is the mother of exaggeration.” His grin was as oblivious to my chattering teeth and the weight in my stomach as my sudden and desperate urge to say, I know. Because I haven’t just been here before, I’ve been having nightmares about this place my whole life.
And that was when I stopped trying to distract myself with what little I actually knew about the island—its geography and demography—and started trying to tell myself instead that maybe it’d be all right. Maybe no one would remember me. Maybe I could somehow do what I was here to do without them finding out. I didn’t believe it for a second then, either.
The crowded bar lounge is a cozy space with a vast open fire, red walls, dark wood tables, and cushioned stools. I feel both weary and uneasy as I look around, trying to avoid catching anyone’s gaze. Jaz nudges my elbow, making me jump. He nods towards a large group of people on the other side of the room. Most are young, the tables around them crowded with half-empty glasses and crisp packets.
“Archaeologists from Glasgow Uni,” he says. “That was me many moons ago. Came over as a student to work on the Cladh Dubh burial site out near West Point. Was only supposed to be there six months, and here I still am.” He laughs, shakes his head. “They’re reopening the dig. So you’re not the only newbie.” Another grin. “Why don’t you have a drink while I go get Kelly? She’ll be upstairs in her flat.”
I don’t want a drink. After three train journeys, a delayed flight from Stansted, an eleven-hour bus ride from Glasgow, and a ferry from Ullapool, I’m so knackered I feel like I could sleep standing up. Drinking, never mind socializing, feels completely beyond me.
“Thanks for picking me up, it was really kind of you.”
“No worries. A taxi would’ve skinned you alive.”
He gives me one last smile before he heads towards a door marked staff only. I turn around reluctantly. The bar itself is relatively empty. Two men in fishing gear—yellow bib-and-brace trousers over thermal vests and safety boots—sit hunched on stools at its other end.
“Hello. I’m Gillian MacKenzie,” the woman behind the bar says. Her face is tanned and freckled, her smile warm, her accent local but with the faint traces, perhaps, of something else. She tucks long dark-blond hair streaked with silver behind her ears before reaching out a hand to shake mine. “And you must be Maggie.”
“Oh, everyone knows about you.” A barman turns from the bottles at the other end of the bar. Until I see his easy smile, I take him literally, and my heart briefly gallops. Just like it did when Jaz asked me if I’d ever been to the islands before and I left too long a pause before shaking my head.
The barman sets two whiskies down in front of the fishermen before turning back to me. He’s short and lean, his eyes a startling dark brown. “You’re Kelly’s first booking. She danced about this place like the Road Runner on speed when she got your email.”
“My husband, Bruce,” Gillian says. “Ignore him. Anyway, what can I get you? First one’s on the house. We’re doing strawberry daiquiris and pink G and Ts in honor of Valentine’s Day.” She pauses for a moment, and then leans towards me. “Are you okay?”
No, I abruptly want to say. My mum just died. It’s like a very specific and sudden form of Tourette’s. I lasted less than ten minutes on that Stansted plane before saying it to the poor woman sitting next to me, soaking up her sympathy for the whole journey to Glasgow. Where presumably she imagined my mum had just died. Three months ago isn’t just, even if it feels like it is. And no matter how much I’d like it to be true, Mum not being here anymore isn’t the cause for that ballast in my stomach, the nightmares I can’t stop having, all those maybe-it’ll-be-all-rights. It’s not the reason, less than two weeks after being discharged from the Maudsley, I’ve traveled seven hundred miles to this place—this village—in the middle of nowhere. Even if it’s easier to pretend that it is.
“Sorry. I’m just tired,” I say. And try to smile. “Could I have a white wine, please? Whatever you have. And thank you.”
I pretend to be interested in the photos crowding the red wall next to the bar as Gillian takes a bottle of pinot grigio out of a fridge and starts pouring. Some photos are framed, some laminated; color, sepia, and black-and-white landscapes of sea and cliff and beach; portraits of men and women and children. Above them is a mounted piece of varnished driftwood carved with black-painted words, The sheep will spend its life in fear of the wolf, and then be eaten by the shepherd.
“A cheery sentiment.” Gillian smiles, handing me the wine. “But it’s been here longer than I have; bit like most of those pictures. Lot of the folk in them are here tonight.”
I recognize Kelly’s gap-toothed smile and sleek brown bob from her online photo. She rounds the bar, throws her arms around my shoulders, and squeezes hard.
“I’m so glad you’re here.” She lets me go just long enough to flash another big grin before hugging me again. “I was beginning to think I’d imagined you. How was your journey? Awful, I’ll bet. It’s probably easier to get to the North Pole. Gillian, can I have my usual?”
Kelly climbs onto a stool next to me and turns to face the lounge. “Ah, I missed the monthly mass moan,” she says. “What a shame. Complaining is a full-time job to some folk around here.” She hands over a fiver as Gillian sets another large glass of wine down on the bar. “Thanks.” She looks at me and winks. “So. Would you like a quick rundown of the great and the good since you’re going to be living amongst them for the foreseeable?”
“Okay.” Kelly leans her elbows back against the bar, crosses her legs, and then points to four men squeezed around a small table. “Wank, Wank, Good Guy, Wank.”
When I start to laugh, she squeezes my arm. “Oh, thank God. Someone who finally gets my jokes. Please tell me you’re under thirty. That’s probably really rude. I mean, you look under thirty, obviously. It’s just that people around here have a habit of buggering off as soon as they leave school, and they don’t come back until they’re about ready to draw their pensions. Personally, I’m all for an invasion of archaeology students.”
I laugh again. She’s pretty much exactly how I imagined her. “I’m almost twenty-five,” I say. “You didn’t leave?”
“Mum and Dad moved to North Uist when I was like three, so I never really lived here at all until now. Most folk here tonight are from Urbost for the meeting, and in the summer, there’s always tourists. But the population of Blairmore is, like, seventeen. A grand total of seven are under thirty—and three of those are under ten. Including my five-year-old son.”
“You have a son?”
“Fraser.” Her smile returns. “He’s partly why I came here. I left the islands when I was eighteen, met his dad in Glasgow. We had a pretty ugly breakup just over three years ago.” The shadow that crosses her face is so brief I almost miss it. “A very long, very depressing story that would require more than one glass of vino to tell. But I’m going to go back. To Glasgow, I mean. Just as soon as I’ve got enough money to rent a flat, restart my training. I want to be a pediatric nurse. Oh my God, that’s such a fab necklace. Where did you get it?”
I look down, realize that I’ve pulled the long silver chain out of my jumper to rub the cool quartz of its pendant between finger and thumb. A nervous tic that I’ve never managed to shake. I think of Mum’s big open smile, the light in her eyes that always scared me. And how much I missed both the minute they were gone; the day she found me in the garden to tell me it was time to take her to the hospital. She’d have told me not to come here. That light in her eyes would have told me too. I know you can see the darkness. I know you can.
No. My mum just died. “Yes. Sorry.” I look away, back towards the lounge. “So . . . the great and the good?”
“Right.” She looks over at a couple sitting alone at a nearby table. “The old guy is Charlie MacLeod.” His gray hair is wild, his stubble patched silver, his skin the color and texture of someone who has spent a lifetime outdoors. “He’s like a hundred and fifty years old. Has an opinion about everything and everyone.”
The woman next to him is small and smiling. Her silver hair sits over her shoulder in a long heavy plait; her hands are big-knuckled with arthritis.
“That’s Isla Campbell. Lives outside the village at Sheltered Bay. She’s a cool dude, tough as old boots. Basically, I want to be her when I grow up.” Kelly nudges me. “Her son, David, lives in Glasgow. Single and hot as fuck. I chickened out last year, but I’m going to make my move when he comes back over for the peat harvesting.”
She points to a younger man playing pool on the table behind, sandy-blond and stocky. “And that’s Donnie MacKenzie. Gillian and Bruce’s son.” She snorts. “Donnie’s Gillian with a Y chromosome. Don’t think there’s any actual MacKenzie in him at all.” She ducks her head as Bruce turns towards our end of the bar. “Long-running island joke. Not everyone finds it funny, obviously. When they first took the pub over from my parents—”
“Your parents used to own this place?”
“Leased it. I mean, everyone in the village has always helped out here or at the shop—I work at least a couple of shifts a week behind the bar—but there’s always been someone in charge, you know, on the paperwork. And it used to be my parents. Dad had this crazy idea of becoming a farmer once, but thankfully that didn’t last long.” She rolls her eyes. “Can you imagine? I’d have had to buy wellies.”
She glances along the bar. “Donnie was just a wee kid like me when his parents took over running this place. They own the next-door farm and croft. You’ll have seen it when you arrived: two cottages, huge stone barn, outbuildings, acres of land. Another long-running joke is that the MacKenzies own the ‘right’ half of the village. Donnie manages the farm full-time now.” She shrugs. “He’s all right. In the under-thirty club, at least. Divorced. Two part-time kids. You know, if you’re in the market for being a farmer’s wife.”
She talks so quickly, it’s hard to keep up, but I don’t mind. Even if that weight in my stomach is unchanged, the anxiety that’s been sitting inside my chest since London has begun to unspool.
“If there’s going to be some kind of test after this, I’m not going to remember names, never mind anything else.”
Kelly arches a brow. “Listen, after a couple of days you’ll know how many bowel movements they all do in an average week.”
My laugh is loud enough to attract the attention of one of the fishermen on the other side of the bar. Tall and broad-shouldered, with jet-black hair and a Roman nose, he shoots me a strange long look through narrowed eyes.
“Jimmy Struthers,” Kelly says. “He gives good angry Scotsman, but he’s all right. Likes his whisky a bit too much, I guess, but who doesn’t? Actually, me. It’s fucking gross. He lives next to Isla. Runs a prawn boat out of Sheltered Bay.”
While he goes on looking, I turn around in my stool to face the lounge.
“Last ones, I promise,” Kelly says. “See the sulky-looking guy in the plaid shirt over by the piano?”
I follow her gaze. Tall and dark-haired, he looks a little older than Jaz, maybe mid-forties, but his expression is that of a teenager: belligerent and persecuted.
“That’s Alec MacDonald. He and my dad go way back. Don’t ask me why. Look up crabbit bastard in the dictionary, you’ll get Alec’s mugshot. The woman next to him with the big hair is his wife, Fiona. I’ve come to the conclusion she must be one of those women who gets off on being miserable—can’t be any other reason she’d choose to stick it out here with him.” Kelly’s tone is almost cruel, but her cheeks are pink, and I remember the shadow that crossed her face when she mentioned Fraser’s dad.
“Their daughter, Sheena, lives in the flat above the community shop and post office. She’s crabbit and miserable. And—uh-oh.”
She turns abruptly back to the bar as a man in his late sixties, bald-headed and dressed in a gray tweed suit that’s at least a size too small for him, crosses the lounge towards us.
“Euan Morrison,” she hisses in my ear. “His family used to own the whole island. Just shake his hand and smile, don’t speak. Otherwise we’ll be stuck here until we’re drawing our pensions.”
“You must be Maggie Anderson,” Euan says, smiling broadly with very white dentures.
“Yes.” I glance at Kelly and shut my mouth. Shake his hand. “Welcome to our wee island,” he says. “Hope you don’t find it too boring after the glitz and glamour of the Big Smoke.” “I’m sure I won’t.”
“Can I buy you two girls a drink?”
“Sure.” Kelly beams. “We’ll have two more—”
“Get me a Ballantruan,” a man says, pushing his way between Euan and my stool to get to the bar. It’s Alec, the angry-looking guy in the plaid shirt. “A double. Now that it looks like we’re going to have nonstop noise and hassle for the next Christ-knows-how-long.” “Ach, don’t worry, it’ll be fine,” Bruce says, pushing a glass against the whisky bottle’s dispenser.
“This place’ll do good business anyway,” Alec scowls. He rounds on Euan. “And you’ll clean up renting out all the bunkhouses at Long Stride, I don’t bloody doubt. While the rest of us have to put up with bulldozers, diggers, and university twats traipsing about the place day and night.” He pokes a finger hard into Euan’s chest. “You said you’d do something about it.”
“And I’ve already told you there’s nothing I can do about it,” Euan says, as Bruce puts the whisky down on the bar. “Anyway. We have another visitor here. Maggie Anderson, a journalist from London.”
“I’m just a writer for a mag—”
“And we don’t need you bellowing the place down, Alec,” Euan booms. “Showing us up.”
“A journalist?” Alec ignores Euan and swipes up the whisky, sloshing it over his fingers as he looks me up and down through narrowed eyes. “And what the hell is it you’re here to journalist about? The dig?” “No.” I can feel my face heating up. “Just a story about something that happened a long time ago.”
“Oh, really?” Euan says. “Sounds very intriguing. And what—”
Alec lurches towards me, shoving Euan aside again. His eyes are wet-bright and heavy-lidded. There are sweat rings around his armpits. He’s quite a bit drunker than I thought. “Wait a minute. Wait a wee fuckin’ minute.”
I can feel Kelly bristling beside me, but for the moment, I’m frozen motionless, staring at Alec staring at me.
“Jesus Christ. Ah, Jesus Christ. I’d recognize those eyes anywhere.” His laugh is like a bark. “It’s you.”
It’s just my left eye. Permanently dilated after a car accident when I was four, and perhaps not noticeable at all if my eyes were browner, darker. Fitting, I suppose, that’s what finally obliterates all those maybe-it’ll-be-all-rights. Because I know exactly what’s about to happen. What he’s about to say. That ballast in my belly knows too. I’m almost relieved.
“Alec,” his wife says, tugging on his arm. Up close, Fiona MacDonald’s face, tight with anxiety, is liberally covered in tiny freckles. She shoots me a nervous glance, and then another. I can’t tell if she knows who I am or not.
“Don’t mither me, woman.” He shakes her off, downs his whisky, thrusts the glass back at Bruce. “Another.” And when he looks back at me again, the disgust is still there, the hostility, the recognition, but there’s something else too. Something that makes me feel worse. I think it’s fear. He turns around to the rest of the pub, throwing his arms wide. People are already looking over. “You don’t recognize her? None of you? You don’t recognize little Maggie?”
“What the hell are you talking about, man?” Euan asks, now more confused than angry, one hand held up between us like a boxing referee.
Alec’s smile is icy cold. “Andrew MacNeil.” He lunges close enough that I can smell the sour whisky on his breath. “You’re Andrew fucking MacNeil. I’m right, right? Right?”
I can hear mutters and exclamations from the lounge behind us. Loud and getting louder. Absolutely everyone is now looking at me. “D’you want to get out of here?” Kelly mutters in my ear, just as I realize I’m squeezing her hand, digging my nails deep into her skin. When I manage to nod, she jumps off her stool, drags me off mine, and marches us both towards the door. The squeal of its hinges makes me flinch, and Alec’s still furious shouts chase me outside, where the deserted darkness is as welcome as the headland winds blowing wild against my face and my too-hot skin. I should never have come here. And now it’s too late to go back.
Excerpted from The Blackhouse by Carole Johnstone. Excerpted with the permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2023 by Carole Johnstone.