On an Island in a Scottish Loch
Every day, I awaken around eight in the morning. After a breakfast of tea and toast with jam, I set up the restaurant for lunch. Fold napkins, polish cutlery and glasses, vacuum the faded carpet. Around eleven, the mail boat putters up to the restaurant dock. Day trippers, mainly elderly ladies, alight. I deliver their food and rounds of drinks. At exactly noon, the captain of the mail boat whistles. The ladies make their way back to the boat, giggling and slightly swaying as they are helped aboard. At two, I go on break. I have three hours off before I must set up for dinner. Every morning, I tell myself that I'll try to find the castle ruins on the island, but I end up lying down instead. Some days I sleep, other days I stare at the white wooden planks of the ceiling and contemplate my self-imposed situation.
When the computer in the restaurant office is free, I send my husband an email to let him know that I'm still alive. The South Pacific already seems like another life ago. I'm here, on this distant, gloomy island, because I needed to prove that I am able to be employed. That someone, somewhere would want to hire me. I tried, down there in that place of relentless sunshine. I am now fluent in French. I have lots of varied experience. My efforts were met with sneers. You've got a lot of nerve thinking you can work for us. Snotty little bitches. I walked away with my head held up. And yet, my self-confidence ebbed away with each petty humiliation. I've written a novel and revised it twice. But writing doesn't count unless someone else will acknowledge that it exists. That I exist.
“Why do you need to do something to be? If you want to go on a trip, I will pay for it.” My husband sighed and put his arms around me. “Okay. Whatever you need to do.”
I came across an ad for this job on the internet. A pub and restaurant on an island in a Scottish loch. Room, board, and a little money. Enough to pay for some trips around Scotland afterwards. Then I will go home. Head cleared and ready to tackle a new draft of my novel. To be a housewife again.
The staff cottage is just behind the restaurant. The carpet in the living room is so grimy that I don't dare walk on it without shoes. The dishwasher, a young man from a nearby town, has invited me to watch television with him there. I think. I can hardly understand a word he says. Even if I watched television, which I don't, I could never relax in there. The bathroom consists of a bathtub and a hose. There are three bedrooms – one for the chef, another for the dishwasher. The very back room is called the “girl's room”. It has two single beds with matching white ruffled bedding. Flowered sheets and crocheted comforters. Vintage garden prints hang on the walls. I can walk without shoes on the white shag carpet. A dingy haze hangs in the air. It is not a dirty room, just saturated with the essence of wandering souls past. If only I had some sage to burn. I ponder the things these other women left behind: half-empty bottles of nail polish, ponytail holders, single socks. Some travel brochures on Scotland. Books, none that I feel inspired to read. Bad romances, mostly. I will surely add to the detritus when I leave. The apple-scented lotion that gives me a headache. Random words scrawled in the margins of those books, maybe. The haze will thicken with the cast-off vapors of my spirit.
After my break, I serve three or four tables, hang around until ten, and then the day is over. The family who owns the island walks home together. Their houses are on the other side of the island, a half mile away.
I found out from a regular pub patron that the old man owns the island. He is tall, gaunt, stooped over like an old tree. Disheveled gray hair. He wears rumpled navy blue overalls. He avoids the bright conviviality of the pub, only entering when it's time to change the kegs. Instead, he does outside chores and pilots the ferry that brings visitors from the far shore. When there's nothing to do, he sits on a beer crate in the murky, dirt-floored entryway and looks down at the ground. Everyone once in a while, he lets out a shriek, “Midges!”
A fleeting spasm passes over his wife's face when she looks at him. Shame and fear. She dresses in immaculate white blouses and colorful pants. Hair like snow-dusted cobwebs. Not a strand out of place. Determined to keep up appearances. She shows me the old man's photos, which hang in the pub. The strapping, robust man of yesteryear. A regular winner in the Highland Games. “He is getting worse,” she whispers. “He refuses to make an effort.”
Every morning, when the old man sees me, he looks me in the eye and says, “Good morning, young lady!”
“Good morning, sir,” I reply. I meet his gaze and nod in solidarity. I understand. He's just over it.
Their two sons live on the island with their families. The elder son is soft-spoken and kind. His wife is the restaurant manager. They have two children. Curious, delightful little blonde beings. They show me their art, tell me their stories. “We all like you, Julie,” their mother says. A musical resonance in her voice. Scottish must be the loveliest accent ever. “We're happy to have you with us.”
The other son works in the city. He wears argyle sweaters and perfectly pressed trousers. A thick head of blonde hair. Entitled frat boy demeanor. He saunters into the pub, face tightened in a perpetual look of contempt. His wife is big-boned, rosy-cheeked. A hardy, capable woman. Her eyes are the clearest blue I've ever seen. The color of the sun shining through an arctic sky. Warmth shimmers behind the cold.
Shards of rainbow often appear in the sky. Sometimes they meld together into one divine arc that embraces the loch. Sometimes they sink into the pillows of gray.
On Wednesdays, the restaurant is closed. The cook and dishwasher go into the city. The family stays on their side of the island. I am allowed to eat whatever I want in the restaurant. The door is never locked. The first week, I walk ten kilometers to a small village. I check out the Viking graves in the cemetery. Afterwards, I have a cup of tea and some scones in a small, bustling cafe. I'm beginning to think that the only people who travel in Scotland are teetotalling old ladies. I catch the afternoon bus and ask to be dropped off at the small parking lot near the ferry dock. It is nearly Midsummer. Night falls at around eleven and dissipates into dawn around three. I lie in bed, my ears ringing in the profound, unnerving silence.
The second Wednesday, I explore the island on foot. The slight, but constant sore throat I've had since I arrived has turned into a cold. The damp has seeped deep into my bones. There are a couple of wide dirt paths that crisscross the island. Cows laze in small pastures. Not so much as a moo or a look of languid curiosity when I pass by. When I asked about the location of the castle ruins, I got only vague directions. If I walk around long enough, I should stumble upon it eventually. I leave the path, tramping through high grass until I emerge at a shore. Soft waves rasp over stones. Phosphorescent moss carpets the surrounding rocks. It contrasts against the different grays of sky and waves. The wind rips my hair out of its braid. I pull my hood over my head. They told me that the previous waitress, a Swedish girl, came here to swim between shifts. I dip my fingers into the water, then pull them back with a shiver. Living in the tropics has made me a sissy.
After my walk, I eat dinner and then settle in for the night. In a small notebook, I scrawl the mysterious offerings that emanate from my subconscious at this time of day. The wind intensifies, knocking out the power. My hands shake as I light the candle on the bedside table. The flimsy walls shudder. I huddle under the covers. Voices creep into the gale. The spirits of the island have been conjured. A strident female wail, a forlorn male moan. A background choir of inhuman anguish. This must be what a banshee sounds like. Not that I ever wanted to know. I think of my husband on the other side of the world. My goofy white rabbits who follow me around all day. All of them so patiently waiting for me to come home. The point I so desperately needed to prove suddenly seems petty. I am punishing myself. What a funny little thing the ego is. A massive gust of wind seizes the cottage. The front door slams open. I gasp. A shrill giggle escapes. The door bangs open and shut. The shrieking wind barges into the hovel. The next wail to join the choir will surely be mine.
And then it all just seems ridiculous. What's next: the Grim Reaper? I throw back the covers, grab a candle, take a deep breath, and whip open the bedroom door. The candlelight does not illuminate a black-robed entity with a scythe. I exhale, walk to the front door, slam it shut, and barricade it with a chair. I sweep the candlelight across the corners and in the bathroom just to be sure, and then go back to my room. Soon, the black sky softens to gray dawn, driving the phantoms back to their abyss.
In the morning, the sun pierces through the gray. Yet another rainbow appears over the loch. I don't want to stay here anymore, but I hate to let them down. I go through the motions of work, speaking as little as possible. Turning possibilities over in my mind.
I head into the cellar to summon the old man to change the keg in the pub. I peer around the corner. He is bending over to pick up a crate of beer. A slow, laborious process. The shaft of light from the doorway illuminates a long tendril of mucous oozing from one nostril. Six inches at least. I pause and gape, transfixed. Will it reach all the way to the floor? Then I shake myself and retreat into the pub. The keg can be dealt with later.
A migraine materializes. I don't have any medicine, so the older son offers to drive me into the nearby town. His car is a brand new Jaguar. He asks me how I like working on the island. A glib apology for the state of the staff cottage. He looks at me out of the corner of his eye. Calculating, sly. He drops me off at the chemist's and then picks me up a few minutes later. He does not sit and wait for anyone.
Insolent now. “Aren't you bored staying on the island on your day off?”
I shrug. “It's fine.”
“I'll give you a lift into the city next Wednesday,” he says. An all-too-familiar heaviness thickens the air.
I tense up. “No, thanks. I like to stay on the island.”
His face tightens. He shifts the gears. His movements are curt. Bratty. “You're coming into the city with me next week.”
I look out the window and say nothing. A new dread takes hold. The threat this Wednesday night won't be of supernatural origin. If I say anything, it will all be my fault, of course. Time to break out the well-worn “my grandmother died” excuse. A sigh of relief. It has been decided for me. Tomorrow, the old man will ferry me to the shore one last time. Transporting me back to the world.