Copyright © 2019 Jo Thomas The right of Jo Thomas to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Apart from any use permitted under UK copyright law, this publication may only be reproduced, stored, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, with prior permission in writing of the publishers or, in the case of reprographic production, in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency.
First published as an Ebook in Great Britain
by Headline Publishing Group in 2019
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cataloguing in Publication Data is available from the British Library
Ebook conversion by Avon DataSet Ltd, Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire
Cover artwork by Maike Plenzke, based on concept illustration by Adrian Valencia eISBN: 978 1 4722 4604 2
HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP
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About the Author
Also by Jo Thomas
About the Book
Chapter Forty-; two
About the Author
Hello all, My name is Jo Thomas. First, a little bit about me. I worked for many years as a reporter and producer, for BBC Wales Radio 5, before moving on to Radio 2’s The Steve Wright Show. I wrote my debut novel, The Oyster Catcher, in 2014 and it was a runaway bestseller in ebook, winning the 2014 RNA Joan Hessayon Award and the 2014 Festival of Romance Best Ebook Award. My novels since then include The Olive Branch, Late Summer in the Vineyard, The Honey Farm on the Hill, Sunset over the Cherry Orchard and A Winter Beneath the Stars.
If you’ve read my other books, you know you’re in for a story about food and love, with a splash of sun, a dollop of fun stirred in and a cast of characters I hope you’ll fall in love with. If you’re new to my world, you’re very welcome. I hope you’re here to stay!
I was once at one of my favourite restaurants in Puglia, Southern Italy, where I wrote my second book The Olive Branch. The owner brought around a bottle of limoncello, a wonderful Italian lemon liqueur, at the end of the meal with glasses for us all. As he pulled up a chair, he asked what kind of books I wrote. He didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak much Italian, but I explained that my books were about food and love, because I have always felt that the two are intertwined. He told me that for him, life was all about the food that he and his family grew on the land, cooked in the kitchen and served on the table. He held out his arm to the olive grove surrounding us, gestured to the forno in the kitchen, where the burning wood was glowing orange and merrily pumping smoke out of the chimney, and slapped his hand down on the scrubbed wooden table, la tavola. ‘For the ones we love,’ he told me as he held his hand to his chest over his heart. And this is exactly the kind of book I like to write: about the food we grow to cook and put on the table for the ones we love. So, pull up a chair at my table.
You can find out more about me and my books and follow my latest adventures at my website www.jothomasauthor.com, on Facebook www.facebook.com/JoThomasAuthor or on Twitter @jo_thomas01. Do get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.
Love Jo x
Readers love Jo Thomas’s feel-good fiction:
‘Irresistibly romantic and utterly gorgeous’ Miranda Dickinson
‘Magically romantic . . . a book that wraps its arms around you and pulls you in’ Milly Johnson ‘Warm, funny, romantic with a terrific sense of place. I loved it!’ Katie Fforde ‘Perfect escapism’ Marie Claire
‘All the joy of a hot summer holiday without the hassle of having to wear sun cream!’ Jill Mansell ‘Romantic and funny, this is a great addition to any bookshelf’ Sun ‘A sunny, romantic, escapist read’ Woman & Home ‘What a gorgeous book! Reading it felt like the best kind of holiday!’ Lucy Diamond ‘Romantic, fun and full of heart, reading a Jo Thomas novel feels like being on holiday without even leaving the house’ A J Pearce ‘Warm and witty . . . Well worth a read’ Carole Matthews
‘An utterly charming read full of rustic romance and adventure’ Woman ‘Jo’s trademark warmth and wit sing from the page’ Cathy Bramley
‘Perfect for those who dream of a new life in the sun’ My Weekly ‘Sun, good food and romance, what more could you want?’ Heat ‘A warm summer breeze of a story that’s full of atmosphere and romance’ S Magazine ‘Perfect summer read’ Liz Fenwick
By Jo Thomas
The Oyster Catcher
The Olive Branch
Late Summer in the Vineyard
The Honey Farm on the Hill
Sunset over the Cherry Orchard
A Winter Beneath the Stars
My Lemon Grove Summer
The Chestnut Tree
The Red Sky at Night
Notes from the Northern Lights
About the Book
Do you need to find out where you’ve come from before you can know what the future holds?
Ruby’s singing career is on the verge of hitting the big time when her voice breaks. Fearing her career is over, she signs up for a retreat in Tenerife to recover.
But an unexpected call from a stranger on a remote Scottish island takes her on a short trip to sort out some family business. It’s time to go and see the grandfather she’s never met.
City girl Ruby knows she will be happy to leave the windswept beaches behind as quickly as she can, especially as a years-old family rift means she knows she won’t be welcome at Teach Mhor.
But as she arrives at the big house overlooking the bay, she finds things are not as straightforward as she might have thought.
There’s an unexpected guest in the house and he’s not planning on going anywhere any time soon . . .
To Ali Shone, a music teacher like no other.
For inspiring me with your work with the stroke choir and dementia suffers and for being so much more than a music teacher. For all the help and support you gave by being there, helping and healing with song.
And to Anita Burgh, for telling me I could write in the first place and for her love of gin! Thank Annie for setting me on this path.
Welcome back, or if you’re new to my books, welcome!
Now then, who doesn’t love a gin and tonic? Come six o’clock I love the sound of the ice as it hits the glass and swirls in the bowl; the fresh smell of lemon as it’s sliced and dropped in; the gin measured out and the fizz of the tonic topping up the glass. And then, that first sip at the end of a long day, as dinner cooks on the stove, bringing relaxing joy.
I’ve always loved a gin and tonic, as did my Mum before me, but it hasn’t always been as fashionable as it is now. But wow, hasn’t gin had a rise in popularity over the past few years? And the explosion of small batch gin distilleries has been incredible, as has the rise in gin bars and extensive gin menus in pubs and restaurants. Gin is most definitely on the menu all over the country at the moment and if you’re anything like me, I’ve often been overwhelmed by the choice.
But I have taken my research for this book very seriously! I had a fabulous time visiting Sibling Gin in Cheltenham with Katie Fforde. The story of these four sibling’s entrepreneurial spirit is inspiring in itself. But I also learnt about the process of gin making, the dried spices and botanicals added to make their delicious gin. What I have come to understand is how the taste of gin can tell the story of its origins. It has a story to tell. It’s fascinating. So when you’re next trying to decide which gin to drink, think about where you want to be – by the sea, in the mountains, or in the sun on a Mediterranean island – and let the gin take you there!
I have been so inspired by the distilleries creating their own spirits, telling the story of their terroir, particularly those from the islands, and telling their story of island life through it.
I have also been inspired by how memories can be unlocked by music and stored in our hearts. I hope you enjoy the story of Winter Island and the island’s song. Life is for living in the here and now, creating memories along the way. Enjoy it, with a gin in your hand at the end of a long day, and take time to count your blessings. I know I will be!
Love Jo x
Thank you to Ali Shone, who inspired this book. Ali works with the Strike a Chord stroke choir in Cwmbran and also with dementia patients, working on musical memories. Ali has music running through her veins and her ability is not just in being able to help people sing or play an instrument, it is about a much bigger picture: helping people to live the best life they can with music in their hearts. She has helped young people dealing with anxiety and pressure to face the world learn to breathe and to believe in themselves. Thank you Ali.
With musical memories at the heart of this book, I was also inspired by the settings, dedication and spirit of some of our Scottish Island gins; a particular thank you to Robert Mceachern at The Botanist Gin, made at Bruichladdich distillery on Islay. And James Donaldson, their official forager, for answering my questions about botanicals. Also thank you to the Isle of Harris for your inspiring daily photographs and tempting foodie posts. And to the creators of Lussa Gin on the Isle of Jura for the inspiring story of your island and island life. All of these gins have fabulous websites and tell the stories of the spirit of their island. Please do take a look and order their gin. It’s delicious!! And yes, I did have to try them all!
Thanks go as well to Sibling Gin in Cheltenham, for sharing their entrepreneurial spirit and for guiding me through the gin making process and introducing me to the fabulous flavours in their own gins. And of course to Katie Fforde for joining me on this research trip as well as our Scottish island trip, which sparked the idea for Winter Island and The Big Hoose!
And finally, thank you to Jennifer Doyle for her support and faith in my stories and for letting me write the story of Ruby Mac and Winter Island. And to my agent David Headley for always being there!
He who sings frightens away his ills.
Miguel de Cervantes
‘Breathe,’ I tell myself firmly. ‘Breathe from your butt!’ I clench my buttocks and drag the air in through my nose, then let it out long and slow from my mouth, not allowing even a flicker of nerves in. ‘Just breathe!’ In. And out. In. And out. Phuuuffffffffff! My buttocks lift, followed by my hips and then my diaphragm. ‘Breathe from your butt!’ I repeat, and count, pressing each finger into my thumb, chasing off doubt and jitters, taking control. I focus my mind on the counting and not on any last-minute nerves that might be trying to creep in. This is what I’ve learnt to do. I begin to smile: this is it! Finally! I’ve waited for today for a long time and I want to drink in every bit of this performance and remember it.
I can still taste the honey and lemon from the hot drink on my tongue. I look over at Jess, my best friend and band manager. She’s way more nervous than me. Jess writes new songs, which we mix into the set with covers in my country/blues/jazzy singing style. I turn to look briefly at the rest of the band and flash them a reassuring smile. There’s Moira on drums, looking relaxed as ever, dragging her hands through her short spiky hair. Gwilym on keyboards, nervously running his fingers over the keys and then staring up lovingly at the oblivious Moira, waiting to take his lead from her. Ali on double bass, as tall and impressive as her instrument, with a really high quiff, making her look even more imposing, which is why men are always terrified of her and she can’t understand why no one ever wants to ask her out. She plays bass guitar too.
Our two backing singers are Lulu and Pixie Rose, who doubles up on trumpet and saxophone. We don’t hang out with them so much. They turn up when they’re needed and do their job. And they do it really well. Both want their own careers, of course, but this goes some way to getting a foot in the door. And then of course there’s Jess herself, in a smart black trouser suit, on lead guitar and sometimes the mandolin, holding us all together like a shepherd with her flock. She’s incredible. She gives me a nod, and the briefest of winks.
We all know how important this gig is. It could change everything, for all of us. I know how much they’re depending on me to do the very best I can. I look up. Today I need to knock this performance right out of the park. We’ve been preparing for this day since we first came together as a band and talked about our dreams of going all the way. For Jess and me, that was right back when we met at an open mic night nearly twenty years ago. We hit it off straight away and started writing songs and performing, adding to the band since then. Obviously we’ve all done our own stuff too, to make money. I do solo singing in a piano bar, and Jess creates samples for an online music company; but we’ve kept the band going, adding to the family, growing all the time. It’s been a long journey, but hopefully tonight is when we’ll all get there together.
And then of course there’s Joe, sitting out in the audience, probably as nervous as the rest of us, maybe more so. There’s a lot resting on this for him too. Gorgeous, smart, funny Joe, who has been my biggest supporter from the day I met him at a televised battle of the bands competition. His band crashed out in the early rounds and Jess and I went on to win that day, before getting knocked out prior to the show going on air. Joe gave up playing guitar after that; it was just a hobby, he said. Him and some mates from work had entered for a laugh, hoping to be the latest Take That, ‘one for the mums’. None of them could actually sing or dance, but they looked gorgeous. He abandoned the idea of instant fame and instead told me exactly how he could help take my career to the top with his marketing ideas. It took years for me to finally give in to his requests for a date. But his persistence paid off and we’ve been together for coming up to four years now.
I breathe deeply and count on my fingers again. I feel excited, like it’s Christmas morning and there’s a stack of presents under the tree to be unwrapped, waiting to see people’s faces when they see what you’ve bought them. In Joe’s case, one present in particular. The ring that has been sitting in its box for nearly a year now. The one I’ve promised to put on when everything is sorted. When the deal here is done. When I’ve got my recording contract. As soon as I can move on to the next chapter in my life, I’ll be ready to set a date.
After nearly four years together, life was finally starting to come together for me and Joe. After tonight, life will be sorted. It’s our time. And he wants it for me as much as I do. He’s supported me through all the times when I’ve sung to a handful of people, when shows have been cancelled, and when they’ve been packed out and we’ve floated home on a high. He’s always had faith in me, even when I’ve been tempted to give up. He has kept me going, believing in myself and that this day would come. He’s been happy standing in the wings, so to speak, and I want him to enjoy this as much as me. I know he will. He’s out there now, in the audience. He’ll have the champagne ready and on ice. He’s even invited his family along.
Joe loves to make a big deal of things. He’ll be telling everyone how great I am, and organising photo opportunities for any groupies. He thinks I’m going to be the next big female voice. I hate thinking about things like that. I like to just do the best I can. Joe takes control of all the publicity, and I’m happy to let him, even if I do find his enthusiasm for me a little embarrassing at times. I’m not the big name he tells people I am, not yet. But as he works in PR, he knows how to put on a splash, and if it makes a great marketing opportunity too, well why not? He tells me we have to create the buzz and the crowds will follow. Which is why tonight is so important to us both. This gig – a night of singers and bands performing their favourite Christmas songs the week before Christmas, with an A&R manager here to see us, here in this theatre in our home city – feels just perfect. Perfect for finally putting down some roots. And I know Joe feels it too. He wants me to succeed, he tells me all the time.
The smell of the dry ice sets my adrenalin racing as I breathe in . . . and out, focusing on the finish line, like a long-distance runner. I’ve spent years putting in the hours, the training and the small events. This is my race today, and I’m going to do it with everything I’ve trained for. I’m going to sing my heart out. My buttocks clench and release in time with my breathing as the smoke curls around my ankles. I’m totally focused on the job I’ve got to do here. There’s an A&R person in that audience with a contract ready for signing, and a producer at a record company already interested in us. This is it. Our time: the band’s; mine and Jess’s, mine and Joe’s. Finally. And I’m ready.
I look at Jess on lead guitar. She holds my gaze, steady and reassuring, telling me she won’t let me fall, and I return it. We’re there for each other. We know each other so well; we understand exactly how the other works and how to support them. Then she nods and turns to Moira, who stops fiddling with her spiky hair and lifts her sticks, suddenly very focused as she waits for Jess to give the signal. Jess does one last check around the band. All eyes are on her. I clench my buttocks as tightly as I can beneath my Spandex pants. She nods to Moira, and the band fall into step behind her as she clicks her sticks together. One, two, three . . .
The music starts; the curtain rises. I follow it with my eyes, and the bright lights suddenly shut out all other sights and sounds. I focus really hard on the finish line, right at the back of the auditorium. Somewhere out in that audience is the person who is going to change our lives forever, finally giving us the break we’ve been working towards all these years: slaving away in cafés and bars, scraping together the money for rent and singing lessons whilst holding on to the dream of finally signing a recording contract. Rushing from shifts to rehearsals with the band and sacrificing everything else for paid gigs. It’s Joe who’s helped me hang on to that dream. Finally the record industry are interested in us. All those years of working and promoting the band has paid off. This is it.
The intro builds to a crescendo. I lift my head, drop my shoulders and relax my buttocks, ready to let my voice do the work. I smile as I slip into my comfort zone. This is what I do. This is what I’ve always been able to do. And now it’s time to make it my everything. Briefly, a light flashes, from a camera or phone, and suddenly, without warning, my brain flicks up an image of my dad, the blue lights, the hospital sign. Not now! I can’t think about that now! I shove it as hard as I can from my mind and clench my buttocks really tight, blowing out a big breath, letting the bluesy, jazzy sound wash over me.
Fully focused again, I go to slip into the first note. But though my mouth widens, nothing comes out. No sound. I falter. I dig deeper, and then recoil when something in my throat pops and all that comes out is a croak. I’m suddenly gripped with fear, tight fingers around my throat strangling me. I turn to Jess, who looks at me wide-eyed. She doesn’t need to say what she’s thinking. I’m thinking it too! What the hell is going on? Where’s my voice gone?!
As the band plays on, I slowly step back into the smoke, into the shadows of backstage, silent, hot tears rolling down my cheeks, my moment in the spotlight gone, disappointment hanging heavy in the air.
‘Rest!’ the doctor orders the next morning in her surgery. ‘Your voice needs rest.’
And then what? I scribble furiously on the pad in front of me, making an indentation on the page with my question mark. I look frantically between Joe and the doctor. The smell of cleaning fluids in the shiny consulting room turns my stomach. I hate doctors’ surgeries, just like I hate hospitals. Too many bad memories. The smell brings it all back.
‘Like I say, try not to talk too much. No singing.’
‘No s—’ My voice cracks again and cuts me off mid word. No singing? I scribble.
‘None. Not for a couple of weeks. And then we’ll see,’ says the doctor, her Christmas earrings swinging cheerfully.
See what? I write. She doesn’t reply, but looks up from the page straight at me.
When will I sing again? I write quickly. Is it nodules?
‘When will her voice come back? How long?’ Joe says rather more abruptly than I would have liked, but I know he’s as anxious as me. He reaches over and places his hand on mine, squeezing it tightly, reassuring. Taking control of the situation as my whole life feels like it’s about to spiral out of control.
‘Vocal lesions – nodules – are fairly common,’ the doctor says, looking between us. ‘But it doesn’t appear to be that. There are no obvious signs.’
‘Then what?’ Joe demands.
She takes a deep breath. ‘Vocal cord stress can come about if you’ve overused your voice or been under stress yourself.’
I frown and go to answer; she holds up a hand to stop me and points to the pencil and paper.
‘Try not to speak too much. Drink plenty of water, get lots of sleep; relax, maybe do some yoga and then some voice therapy. Don’t strain your voice by trying to cough to clear it. Your speaking voice should be fine after some rest.’
‘And her singing voice?’ Joe frowns deeply. ‘This is her livelihood. She’s on the verge of making it big, y’know.’
The doctor smiles and nods patiently. ‘Your singing voice?’ She looks at me and then shakes her head slightly. ‘I can’t say, sorry. It may come back, or . . .’ She lifts her shoulders, knowing how painful her words are. ‘Only time will tell.’
‘You don’t know?!’ Joe lets go of my hand and runs his fingers through his hair, showing his widow’s peak. ‘But this is everything! This could be disastrous!’
I feel myself sliding deeper and deeper into a dark hole.
‘Like I say, only time will tell,’ she repeats.
Time is the one thing I don’t have. We have gigs booked all over Christmas and New Year. And an A&R person who needs to see what we can do!
‘Get some rest,’ she tells me, letting me know our ten-minute slot is up. ‘Enjoy your Christmas and try to relax.’
Easy enough for her to say, I think, standing and feeling dazed. Joe doesn’t thank the doctor, but marches out. I’d like to apologise for him. He’s not usually rude; in fact he’s the opposite, quite the charmer usually. All the band love Joe. He’s funny, and even flirtatious. But I can’t explain all that on this little notepad he’s bought me from the newsagent’s, and so instead I nod my thanks and she smiles a tired smile, like she’s seen it all before.
‘Try not to worry,’ she says as I leave the room. But worrying is exactly what I’m doing. My whole life is in the balance here. Mine and the band’s, mine and Joe’s. We had it all planned. A quiet Christmas Day to celebrate our engagement, fitted in around gigs, and then a party once the busy Christmas and New Year party season is out of the way, when there’s nothing else going on. Make a big splash and tell the world.
I walk out of the surgery, tinsel and cheap baubles hanging from every available space and on a tree outside, blowing in the damp, grey December day. I look down at my phone, thoughts crashing through my mind. Get some rest, she said. Enjoy your Christmas.
‘I’ll message Jess,’ says Joe, who’s standing in the entrance with his coat collar turned up. He pulls out his phone, once again taking control, while I stand there numbly listening to the Christmas tunes on the radio in the waiting room and staring at the soggy tinsel on the tree. There is a draught every time someone comes in or leaves and the double doors whoosh open and close. Despite the heater blowing warm air from above, it’s freezing and I’m shivering. I’m not sure if it’s shock or cold.
We had a stack of gigs lined up over Christmas that Jess is now going to have to cancel – unless she can find a standin singer. And I can’t even bring myself to ask about the A&R woman.
I look down at my phone, but can’t think who I should text apart from Jess, and Joe is already doing that. She’ll tell the band. I just feel I’ve let them all down.
‘It’ll be fine.’ Joe turns to me and takes hold of my shoulders. I look up at him and just wish I felt as convinced as he sounds. ‘Look, the doctor’s right,’ he says firmly. ‘You need to rest your voice. Do exactly as she says. Jess’ll keep things going with the band.’ He looks back down at his phone. ‘I’ll talk to Lulu about taking your place while you’re away. Here, let me grab her number.’
He takes my phone and scrolls through my contacts. I feel a bubble of panic rise up in me, like I’m trying to hold on to everything I’ve worked for. I don’t want someone else stepping into my shoes.
He looks up. ‘She’s just keeping your seat warm,’ he says, as if reading my mind. He knows me so well. ‘We’ll keep it low profile,’ he adds, ever the PR consultant.
A message pings through on his phone. ‘Jess thinks the band can still hold on to the gigs,’ he says. He attempts a smile. ‘I think she’s right to carry on. The band can’t let people down this close to Christmas by cancelling gigs at the last minute.’
I go to argue that I might be fine in a couple of days. ‘I could . . .’ I croak.
‘Shh . . .’ He pulls me close and silences me. ‘Remember what the doctor said.’ He nods down to the notepad in my hand. I’m already beginning to resent it. It stands between me and everything I have known nearly all my life: singing. I pull back.
I could mime, with backing tracks, I write.
‘It’s a thought,’ Joe says. ‘But if the A&R woman comes back, she’d know.’ He shakes his head. ‘We need your voice to come back. The doctor said to rest. Take Christmas off. The band will be fine. I’ll make sure of it.’ He smiles and kisses me. ‘I’ll keep an eye on everything until your voice is back,’ he adds, with only the merest glimmer of panic on his face.
I look at him. Handsome Joe. I love that he’s as invested in my career as I am.
‘And then, when you’re well . . . let’s hope there’s still a shot at that recording contract.’ His disappointment is creeping in. He lifts my chin with his finger. ‘Then maybe we can start celebrating being us. We could still get engaged y’know, if you want. We don’t have to wait.’
But I want to wait. I want us to have a contract, to feel we have some sort of solid foundation to build the rest of our lives on. I shake my head and I know he understands.
‘I agree. It will be wonderful to get the recording contract and then really celebrate. So, okay, get yourself booked somewhere nice. Maybe go and stay with your mother . . . or perhaps that’s not such a good idea.’ He smiles. ‘You need to get away, somewhere you can rest. Away from the band so you’re not feeling you’ve got to go back before you’re ready. I’ve told you I’ll keep an eye on things here.’ He kisses me again. ‘It’ll be fine, Rubes. You’re destined for great things. This is just a little hiccup. We’ll get engaged next year. You’ll be right back on form.’
But will it really be fine? I slowly let go of his hands and we walk in separate directions to our parked vehicles. Joe’s right. I can’t just sit in the flat doing nothing; it would drive me mad. I could go and stay with my mother in Spain like he suggested. At least I think that’s where she still is. My mother likes to live in the moment and goes to visit friends old and new with amazing frequency. It’s always been the same. She’s never liked staying put for long.
I push the key into the lock of the van door – yes, I still have a vehicle that needs you to actually put the key in to unlock it – then climb up and sit in the driver’s seat. The damp drizzle gathers on the windscreen, almost obliterating the view. I look down at my phone. At least it would be hot and sunny if I went to visit my mum. But on the other hand, it wouldn’t really be a rest. Mum doesn’t do resting. She loves to socialise. It would be back-to-back drinks parties and introducing me to new friends. Really not restful at all.
My fingers hover over the keyboard, but instead of texting my mum, I find myself googling warm and relaxing getaways . . . and avoid the word Christmas! In no time at all, I’ve found it. A three-week winter special, a vocal retreat with yoga in Tenerife. Sun, silence, relaxation. Just what the doctor ordered, I think. When I see the price, though, I gasp. It would use up all the savings I’ve put aside for the engagement party. But if I don’t get my voice back to where it was, then none of the rest of the stuff will happen anyway.
I chew my lip. I need this, I think, then quickly, before I have a chance to change my mind, I enter my personal information and card details and press send. I watch as the circle whizzes round, processing my credit card, and then, finally, the screen tells me that my transaction is complete. Phew! I breathe a sigh of relief. Thankfully I don’t have many Christmas presents to buy: just Joe, something to send to my mum, usually a bottle of something, and then Jess and the rest of the band. I’ll get them all something really lovely from Tenerife, I decide, and text Jess to tell her my plans.
When an email confirmation comes in from the vocal retreat, I can actually feel my spirits lifting. I imagine the warmth of the sun on my face, the sea air opening my chest as I join in the early-morning stretches. This is exactly what I need to escape a Christmas at home, where I’d be trapped with a pile of selection boxes and the whole of The Bodyguard and Killing Eve to catch up on, stressing about not being able to perform.
I turn the key in the ignition and the radio comes on. It’s the soon-to-be Christmas number one, this year’s X Factor winner. I quickly switch the radio off. It’s not that I don’t wish them all the luck in the world. I do. And they’ll need a lot of luck. But it’s about hard work too. And somehow that song reminds me of everything I’ve just missed out on, how my luck has run out on me. I open my mouth and try and let out a note, just to see if my voice really has gone and isn’t simply playing tricks on me . . . Nothing. Yup, it’s gone. Let’s hope it’s just on a little winter break and the Tenerife retreat is all it needs to bring it back to life.
I text Joe and Jess and tell them my plan.
Go! Jess replies. Go and relax. You never relax any more!
She could be right. I don’t have time to relax, what with juggling two part-time jobs, my evening gigs with the band and my solo night at the piano bar. I text both my bosses and tell them I’m away. Neither is happy, to say the least.
Do it! Joe insists. Doctor’s orders!
You have to, types Jess. For the band’s sake as well as yours!
She’s right. This isn’t just about me. I blew last night for all of us. I need to put this right. Tenerife, here I come!
I send a sad-face emoji to the band group chat and tell them I’ll be back soon, then scroll through all their messages hoping I’m okay and sending their love. Even Moira tells me that they’re missing me already, and to get well soon and get back to where I belong on the stage with them, part of the family, which is way too mushy for her and makes me smile in a teary way.
As I go to put my phone on the seat next to me and start the van, the screen comes to life with another message. It’s going to be either Joe or Jess, I think. I could leave it until I get home. On the other hand, it could be the voice retreat, wanting to confirm my arrival times. I feel a little spring of excitement in my tummy. Maybe this could all be fine after all.
I pick the phone up and read the message, then reread it just to check I’ve got it right. What on earth . . . ?!
Forty-eight hours later, I’m about as far away from an expensive vocal retreat in sunny Tenerife as I could get. The wind is throwing itself at the sides of the boat and I’m swaying around as though I’m in a tub on the ocean . . . Oh, wait! I am in a tub on the ocean and have been for an hour and forty minutes, having flown in to Glasgow airport from Bristol first thing this morning. I came as soon as I could. The sooner I get this sorted out, the better. According to the skipper, Gordan, we still have another half an hour to go, although it could be longer with the weather like this. We’ve already been delayed leaving, and at this rate, it’ll be dark by the time I arrive. A wave slaps itself against the side of the boat and I clutch my sick bag even tighter, hoping, really hoping, I won’t have to use it.
‘Would you like some tea or cake? There’s some shortbread, made on the island,’ says the red-haired, pale-faced young woman clutching the back of the seat where I’m sitting, on my own. No one else is making this trip today, and looking out of the window at the dark sky and sea, I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t be if I didn’t have to. I try to shake my head, but any movement is tricky at the moment. She smiles, almost gratefully, I think. ‘Give me a shout if you do,’ she says, and moves slowly away, bending her knees, moving with the sway of the boat and back to the galley behind the serving hatch.
I look back out of the window as we dip and roll and wonder what on earth I’m doing here. I try and text Joe to let him know I’m on the ferry, but my message won’t send. I know he’ll be worried. He’s been texting me since I left this morning. He’s as baffled as I am about why I’m here.
I think back to the telephone conversation I had as I was about to leave the doctor’s surgery yesterday. I’d had a message through my Facebook page asking me to ring a number. At first I thought it was a scam, but there was something in the message that rang true. They’d used my full surname for starters, and said they needed to speak to me urgently about Hector Macquarrie. That’s my father’s father’s name. I dialled the number carefully, wondering what it was all about. I don’t use my full surname, and I’ve certainly never had any contact with any of the Macquarries. I don’t know anything about them, other than that my father came from an island in Scotland.
The phone was answered by a man with a strong yet soft Scottish accent. ‘Gillies Solicitors. Fraser Gillies speaking.’
‘Um, my name is Ruby Mac,’ I croaked. So much for saving my voice! ‘I’m not sure if it’s you who sent the message, but I don’t think you’ve got the right person.’
‘Ah,’ he said, and paused. ‘Ruby Macquarrie?’
‘Well, I don’t use—’
‘Your father was Campbell Macquarrie?’
‘Yes,’ I said cautiously.
‘And your grandfather is Hector Macquarrie?’
‘Well, I . . .’ I hesitated. ‘Um, I suppose.’
‘Is that a yes?’ he said, sounding out every letter in the yes, making it a much longer word than it actually was, the S sitting on the end of his tongue.
‘Um, yes,’ I said. It’s true, I suppose, even if I’ve never met him.
‘Good. I need you to visit your grandfather’s home on the Isle of Geamhradh – Winter Island. Your grandfather is in hospital. He’s been unwell for some time and this recent fall is a worry.’
I felt like I was in a parallel universe. I don’t have a grandfather. Never have. It was always just me, Dad and Mum, even though they were separated.
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ I said as politely as I could, ‘but I’ve never met—’
‘As I say, your grandfather is unwell; dementia is a cruel thing. And as his next of kin and only relative,’ he said slowly and deliberately, ‘you’ll want to be involved in any plans we make now to get him the care he needs, which may not necessarily be in his own home.’
‘I see,’ I said, letting the information sink in. How bizarre, I thought, that someone you’ve never met can be in charge of your future care, just because they’re your next of kin. I hoped he wasn’t going to ask me to pay for it. I don’t have any money! ‘I’m sure whatever you plan will be fine.’
‘There is a nursing home,’ he continued in a slow, almost rhythmic voice, ‘where there’s a room with a view. Recently vacated, sadly. But of course the house would have to be sold to finance it.’
So he wasn’t asking me for money. I heaved a sigh of relief and then felt bad. But really, I don’t have any. ‘Well, that sounds perfect,’ I said, and then, ‘Thank you,’ because I felt I should.
‘So if you could come to the island and meet with me . . .’
‘Well I’m just on my way to Tenerife, as it happens. Could we—’
‘Excellent. Then you’ll be able to fly here first and discuss the matter, and go on from here.’
‘Oh, well . . .’ My voice had started to thin out, and was barely audible now.
‘I’ll make all the arrangements this end. I’ll let Teach Mhor, the big house, know you’re coming. There’ll be a room for you there. And you have my number. Ring me when you arrive and we’ll arrange to meet at my office.’
‘No . . . er . . . wait . . .’ but my voice was a whisper, having clearly used up any energy built up overnight in the reserve tanks. Rest was what the doctor had ordered, and it seemed she was right.
‘Let me know the moment you arrive,’ he said again, then he bid me a cheery goodbye and hung up. And that was it. Somehow, I had agreed to go to a remote island off the west coast of Scotland on my way to Tenerife! Had I not been so shocked by the loss of my voice and the sudden change to my immediate life plans, I might have been able to take control of the situation. I’m not used to not being in control. I like to have a plan and stick to it. But he’d caught me at a low moment, off guard. So now I have to visit this solicitor and sign whatever paperwork needs signing to agree to this care plan before I can be on my way.
Needless to say, Joe was not happy about it.
‘What? You don’t even know this man! I’ll ring the solicitor and get him to send over any paperwork,’ he said when I saw him that night.
I shook my head. I’d booked the flight for the next morning. And the ferry. It was just something I had to do, and then I could move on.
‘Well just make sure you don’t do any talking or singing. Definitely no singing!’ Joe instructed, then kissed me and got ready to leave.
‘Not staying?’ I croaked.
‘I said I’d meet Lulu, check she was happy with the song list.’ He stopped as he put on his coat. ‘You don’t mind, do you? I mean, if you do, it’s no problem, I won’t go. I’ll stay here with you.’
I shook my head. Of course he should go. This was my career he was saving here.
He leant in and kissed me. ‘Text me as soon as you’re on your way to Tenerife. Then we’ll have an idea of how long it will be until you’re back in the band. And in the meantime, don’t worry. We’ll keep things ticking over here.’
‘Thank you,’ I croaked.
‘Now get to bed, rest,’ he said, and kissed me again, and I couldn’t help but feel very sorry for myself, standing in my soft cotton pyjamas covered in musical notes and symbols that matched the little tattoo on the outside edge of my hand of a treble clef, reminding me of the thing I live for: music. Joe gets that. He knows that I live and breathe music. He guided me to bed, tucked me in, and even made me a hot lemon and honey drink before leaving, insisting I text him often and didn’t use my voice! I sent the band a picture of my steaming cup of hot lemon and promised I’d be back very soon.
And now I’m here, dipping and swaying as the ferry smacks into the waves, replaying the telephone conversation with Fraser Gillies in my head and wondering how Joe’s meet-up with Lulu went. Finally the ferry bobs into the harbour. The young woman reappears from behind the serving hatch, pulls on a woolly hat and a big coat and goes out on deck, presumably to help the passengers – i.e. me – disembark.
I stand slowly and look out of the window. We’re here. But where is here? The middle of nowhere out at sea, by the looks of it. And why am I here? What exactly does Fraser Gillies want from me? I just need to find out and then get out. I have a vocal retreat in Tenerife to get to!
‘It was a rough one, wasn’t it? You okay there, missus?’ asks a young crew member as I grip the handles by the exit, keen to be off the boat. I don’t bother to correct the ‘missus’.
‘You’ll get your land legs back in no time,’ says the red-haired woman, standing in the doorway, holding her face to the wind. She looks out at the little harbour and the hills in the distance and starts to smile. ‘You here for a holiday?’ she asks.
‘A holiday? No,’ I croak, then shake my head. Why would anyone put themselves through that and call it a holiday? I think to myself, my stomach churning like a washing machine. ‘I’m just here . . .’ I trail off, because really I have no idea why I’m here, other than a message from a solicitor asking me to come as a matter of urgency. ‘Just a bit of business,’ I whisper with a smile, hoping that makes sense. The young woman’s head tilts as if I’ve just said a buzz word, sparking her interest. But fortunately the boat bounces and lurches and it’s all hands to the deck and my bit of business is forgotten.
I thank the young crew member, Gordan the skipper and the red-haired woman as they finish docking and come to tell me it’s fine to go ashore now. I stand looking out at the relentless rain.
‘You’re lucky we ran it.’ Gordan grins and slings his arm around the young woman. ‘Even Isla here found the going tough, and she’s never without her sea legs.’
‘It’ll be better next time.’ She attempts a smile. ‘One thing about this island, you can have four different seasons in a day!’ Her freckled face lights up.
‘Oh, there won’t be a next time,’ I croak, ignoring the notepad and pencil I’m supposed to be using; there is no way I’m letting go of the handrail to fish them out of my bag as I’m about to cross from sea to dry land. I say dry land; the puddles forming there are as wet as the sea. ‘The only time I’ll be travelling back this way is off the island. Do they do a flight, by any chance?’ I ask hopefully in my scratchy voice, putting my hand to the scarf around my throat, the rain already soaking through it.
Gordan shakes his head, his arm still slung around his red-headed partner, who is getting a little colour back in her cheeks now.
‘Sorry, this is the only way in and out, unless you have access to a helicopter, that is. Like I say, you’re lucky we ran. It’s pretty bad out there. This time of year, you never know. It could be a couple of days before we run again if the weather stays bad.’
‘What?!’ I rasp. ‘But I have to leave again really soon!’ My voice sounds like it belongs to a stranger, like I’ve been in some kind of Freaky Friday body swap, making me feel as though I don’t even recognise myself.
‘We’ll run again as soon as the weather allows,’ he smiles. ‘In the meantime, enjoy yourself.’
I pull my phone out and go to ring Fraser Gillies, but I can’t get a signal.
‘Mast has probably been damaged in the wind,’ says Gordan. ‘It can happen.’
No phone signal! Not only can I not get hold of Fraser Gillies, but how on earth am I going to tell Joe I’m safe and sound . . . well, that I’m on the island at least? It’s dark now. I think I’ll go straight to the house where I’m staying and message them both first thing in the morning. With any luck, the mast will have been fixed.
‘Could you point me in the direction of a taxi?’ I ask the woman, Isla, as she stands by the door at the top of the gangplank.
The corners of her mouth turn down. ‘No real taxis, so to speak. You could try at the pub. Someone there might be happy to give you a lift. Where are you heading?’
‘Um . . . not sure. Teach something?’ I think about the note on my phone.
She laughs and raises an eyebrow. ‘Could it be Teach Mhor?’
Ah, I realise, so that’s how you say the name of the house: Tack More. Not Teach as in teacher and Hoor.
‘Yes, that’s it,’ I say.
‘Stop at the pub. They’ll point you in the right direction. It’s not far. You can’t really get lost around here. ’ She puts out a hand to steady me as I step shakily out of the door, desperate for dry land and fresh air. The young crew member puts out another helping hand.
‘Just watch out for the—’
As I step out, dragging my case on wheels behind me, I am immediately hit by a blast of wind, rain and salty seawater. It feels like a slap in the face from a cold, wet fish.
‘The weather!’ Isla shouts over the howling gale.
‘Okay!’ I try and smile and give her a thumbs-up, pulling up the collar of my coat as I make my way down the gangplank onto dry land. I step straight into a dirty great puddle of water and wish I’d worn something more practical than smart, sensible court shoes. They’re my only pair. But I’m here for a formal meeting, after all. I thought smart would be appropriate. I didn’t expect to be helping Noah build his ark.
I head towards the Portakabin that must be the way out, and the lights in the distance that hopefully mark the pub. The water from both the sky and the waves that intermittently hit the harbour wall and splash over it leaks and seeps into my shoes, slowly filling them. I’m wet and very, very miserable. The sooner I’m out of this place, the better. I can feel Isla’s inquisitive eyes following me as I squelch my way miserably down the harbour towards the pub. I put my head down as I walk, and water pours from the top of it like an overflowing gutter.
Eventually I arrive at the front door of the pub, and my spirits lift ever so slightly from their position lying prostrate on the floor. I just need to get to the house, introduce myself to the carer or whoever, get the paperwork signed and pray that the ferry is running tomorrow so I can get on my way to Tenerife. There is no way I want to be here any longer than I need to be, no matter how friendly Gordan and Isla were. I’m not here to enjoy myself. It’s not like this place, Winter Island, has ever been part of my life, and thankfully, it never will be. I shiver as I look around at the dark, bleak island – or maybe it’s a shudder.
I push the pub door open, letting in the cold, damp air. There are a few drinkers at the bar. They all turn to look at me.
I go to pull out my notepad from my handbag and it dissolves in my hand, soaked through. Oh sod it! I’ll be resting my voice as soon as I get to Tenerife, I think.
‘Excuse me, I’m looking for a taxi,’ I say huskily.
‘Where do ya need taking?’ asks the man behind the bar.
I rack my brains to try and remember what Isla said. ‘Tack Hoor?’ I say tentatively and thinking I’ve got it wrong. They all look at me, and then the short woman behind the bar laughs.
‘You’re looking for the big hoose, are ya?’ she says.
‘Um, yes. Hector Macquarrie’s house,’ I look down at my phone, which is now dimming and threatening to run out of battery.
‘It’s no’ far,’ she says. ‘You visiting?’ Clearly she’s hoping that I’ll tell her exactly who I am and what I’m doing here. But frankly, I have barely an idea myself. ‘Not seen you here before,’ she presses.
‘No,’ I reply, and don’t elaborate. ‘Um, a taxi?’
‘Sorry. But it’s no’ far. Just out of the pub, past the shop and café and then the school. After that, it’s just a wee way and you’ll come to a track on the right. Take that towards the bay and you’ll find it. You can’t get lost. You’ll always end up where you started. A bit like life!’ She smiles. ‘Let us know if you need anything else. They are expecting you, are they?’
‘Oh yes, they’re expecting me.’ I try and smile.
‘Well, there’s plenty of room there,’ she says with a twinkle in her eye.
They’re definitely expecting me, I tell myself; I was asked to come as soon as possible. But if that’s the case, why did no one bother to meet me off the ferry? I’m starting to feel a bit put out, though that could just be because I’m cold, tired and very wet . . . and hungry too, now that the seasickness has passed.
Let’s hope the woman here is right and there’s a warm bedroom and a meal waiting for me when I arrive. Fraser Gillies obviously knows I’ve come a long way. Yes, they’ll definitely be expecting me.
I stand looking up at the old wooden door. It’s dark, and it’s still pouring with rain. I can barely make out the outline of the house, other than the fact that it is indeed big.
I look at the worn door handle and wonder whether I should feel some sense of connection with the place. This is where my father was born and grew up, after all. But I don’t feel anything. This island was never part of my history. It wasn’t somewhere my dad talked about either. I realise that I do feel nervous, however. I take a big breath, from the buttocks, and look for a door knocker. I can’t see one. I spot a long metal pole and take hold of it with my wet, cold hands, pulling it hard, twice. A bell rings out in the depths of the house.
I am chilled to the bone now. Rain like razor blades is pounding down on me as I wait and wait. There’s no reply. I stamp my freezing, painful feet and then pull on the handle again. Still no reply. I have no idea what to do. I have nowhere else to go right now. No other option. I press down on the big metal latch and it clicks, letting me know that the door is unlocked. Well, at least this way I’m going to be out of the pouring rain and the cold, I think. I give the door a little push, then a harder shove, and it opens.
‘Hello?’ I call out huskily. ‘Hello?’ My throat feels tight and dry. They’re expecting me, I remind myself. I’ve been asked to come. I push the heavy door wide and step inside.
I can’t see a thing in the pitch dark. I pat my hand around and eventually find a light switch and turn it on with a clunk. A dim overhead light comes on in the big hallway. My eyes are immediately drawn up the sweeping dark-wood staircase in front of me. The front door shuts behind me with a bang, making me jump. No wonder no one could hear me. This place is huge! There are spaces on the faded wallpaper above the wood panelling in the wide hall suggesting that pictures might have hung there once. On the floor are threadbare rugs with the remnants of patterns that were probably once bright and vibrant. The blackened fireplace is empty and cold – it might even be colder in here than outside. A single bauble hangs from a stag’s antler, suggesting Christmas was once celebrated here, but clearly not now.
‘Hello?’ I walk down the hall, pushing open doors, hoping to find a light on, a fire lit, the smell of something cooking, waiting for my arrival. There’s a big living room with two huge windows overlooking what I assume is the garden, but there’s no one in there. I finally arrive at the back of the house, in the big kitchen. But there’s no light, no sign of anything cooking. Everywhere just smells musty and damp. The chill in the air tells me that if they are expecting me, there’s no warm welcome awaiting me.
Having checked all the rooms off the long hallway, only to be met by cold, empty darkness, smelling of neglect, I walk back to the foot of the wooden staircase. I look around at the mottled, dusty panelling on the walls. The musty smell of the place is just as strong here, and it tickles the inside of my freezing nose, making me want to sneeze. I take hold of the wobbly newel post and start to walk slowly and hesitantly upstairs. My feet squelch inside my soggy shoes and the stairs creak with every step I take. The wind whistles under the front door and rises up the stairwell to meet the draught coming down it, creating a sort of wind tunnel. The bedroom door handles rattle in the breeze and I shiver with cold. I just want a hot bath and a warm bed. Hopefully a bed has been made up for me. They’re expecting me, after all. I just need to find it.
I reach the top of the stairs and feel around for a light switch again. It clunks and fizzles like the one in the hall, and again a dim light comes on. I’m standing on a faded, threadbare rug, and in front of me is a long corridor with doors off it. If downstairs was like a rabbit warren, upstairs is no different. But which door to try first? I sigh.
‘Hello?’ I call, but my voice is hoarse and shaking. I don’t want to scare anyone; I am, after all, wandering around someone’s house, even if it does appear totally unlived in; untouched for what looks like years. I’m expecting to see Miss Havisham at any minute, sitting in her wedding dress. I tell myself off for giving myself the heebie-jeebies. I’m cold and tired. There’s nothing to be frightened of. I just need to find my room, have that hot bath and get into bed. Tomorrow will be here in no time. At least I’m resting my voice. Feeling a little easier about things, I gently turn the cold brass handles, open the doors and peer into each bedroom in turn.
After finding a few sparsely furnished rooms with barren beds, I push open a door to see a made-up bed and a dim bedside light on. It’s a big four-poster with tired, worn curtains. Finally! I step into the room, dragging my case behind me, park it up and start peeling off my sodden gloves. Suddenly I jump back, feeling like blooming Goldilocks, when I realise there’s someone in the bed. A curled-up figure under a pile of eiderdowns.
‘Mairead, that you?’
Two big black dogs jump to their feet and bark and I back out of the room, shutting the door quickly before they can get me.
‘Sorry,’ I say through the wood, ‘wrong room.’
My heart is thumping with shock. That must be . . . I roll the word around my head . . . my grandfather. Mairead was my grandmother. I never met her, but I do have her name as my middle name. But what’s he doing here? I thought he was still in hospital. I think back over my conversation with Fraser Gillies. I still have no idea why he phoned me. He knows I’ve never met my grandfather. Hector and my father fell out years ago apparently, and he wanted nothing to do with us. That feeling is pretty mutual. I’m not here to try to get to know him and find out why he never wanted to meet me. I just need to sign whatever paperwork needs signing to allow the sale of this house to go ahead, so he can move to the care home. Although looking around at my draughty, damp surroundings, I’m not sure it’s worth a huge amount.
I push open the next door and see an empty bed. Another huge dark-wood four-poster. My bones ache with cold. I decide just to take it. Clearly no one has made provision for me. I pull my case in and park it up. This will have to do. It’s just for the night, I tell myself.
I look in a cupboard and see an untouched pile of sheets and thin blankets. No warm duvets or eiderdowns! Well, the faster I get it made, the faster I can get into bed and sleep. I wrestle the flat sheets onto the bed, trying to fold the corners under. Then I add all the blankets I can find and spread my beach towel across the top as an extra one.
Once the bed is made up, I look for the bathroom. It’s across the hall. There’s a huge yellowing metal bath. It would take forever to fill, and that’s if there’s any hot water in the first place. I use the loo and pull on the long chain. The flush whooshes and then makes a gurgling sound, and I hold my breath, hoping it hasn’t disturbed the old man. When I hear no sound other than the ancient plumbing, I have a quick wash, exit the bathroom and dash back across the corridor, shutting the door and hoping I don’t have to go to the loo in the night. I put my case in front of the door just for good measure.
I look round at the sparse room, the bare floorboards and worn rug, the peeling wallpaper and lumpy mattress. I’ve slept in worse conditions, I tell myself, thinking of nights after gigs when we’ve bedded down in the back of the van to save on hotel bills and woken up early to get on the road before we’re moved on from wherever we’ve parked. But somehow those nights were all part of the adventure of being an apprentice in the music industry. Right now, I think I could sleep standing up.
I glance up at the high ceiling’s peeling paintwork and the huge cobweb draped across the seventies light shade. I walk over to the big Georgian window and feel the cold through the panes. No double glazing here! The wind is whistling around the frame like it’s playing a tune on a set of old bagpipes. I hold my phone to the window to check for a signal so I can text Joe. But there isn’t any. We always text just before bedtime if we’re apart, but with no signal, that isn’t going to happen tonight. I just hope he realises it’s like I’ve stepped into a different world. The last thing I want is for him to worry about me. As I go to pull the curtains, a rip appears in the thin fabric, disintegrating with age. I don’t pull any more, in case they come down altogether.
I hope they manage to find a buyer for this place. It’s clearly not got any modern comforts. It will probably cost a fortune to do up. I can’t imagine there’s much demand for houses this big on a tiny island. But thank goodness that’s not something I have to worry about.
I brace myself against the cold I’m about to feel, and then swiftly peel off my wet things, bouncing around on one leg trying to get my woolly tights off. I pull all my clothes from my case and start putting on as many layers as I can, including socks as gloves, seeing as mine are soaking, and three pairs of Lycra yoga leggings. I add my swimsuit over them for extra warmth, then, remembering that you lose most of your body heat through your head, pull on a pair of knee-length Lycra shorts as a hat. I feel ridiculous! But no one is going to see me, I tell myself firmly. And it is freezing. I snap a picture for Joe, just to make him laugh, but still it doesn’t send.
I take my wet clothes to the bathroom and hang them over the edge of the bath. Just as I’m coming back into the bedroom, the lights fizzle and go out. I check the switch. Looks like a power cut. I feel my way into bed, clutching my phone, waiting and hoping that signal will return at some point. The bed is hard, lumpy and freezing cold. The wind is still wailing its way through the window frame. I pull the socks up my wrists and the shorts further down onto my head, glad now that I left them on.
I try to text Joe again, hoping it will send as soon as the wind dies down. Not easy with socks on your hands, so I keep it short and sweet: All fine, with a kiss, but it ends up not looking anything like that, so I pull off the sock and type quickly, then put the sock back on.
‘All fine,’ I tell myself firmly. I pull my knees up to my chest, wrap my arms around myself and glance fearfully at the shadows in the corners. The rain is still slamming against the window, the wind still whistling and occasionally howling. I try and edge down in the bed, still holding the phone to me, and hope sleep will come. But as exhausted as I am, it doesn’t. I feel totally wired. At home I’d get up and make a hot drink, but here all I can do is lie waiting for morning to come.
It feels like the longest night. Maybe it’s because I went to bed really quite early, lulled into a sense of bedtime by the dark and the cold. I’ve been here for hours now and it’s still only eleven. Joe and the band will probably still be out at tonight’s gig. I think about Lulu, stepping out from the shadows and into the limelight, and wonder how she got on. I wonder if she was better than me, and shiver. I toss and turn and wrap myself in the bedding like a cocoon, hoping for warmth. It doesn’t come.
I close my eyes tightly, and am running songs from our set through my head when suddenly I hear a bang, like a door slamming, making me jump. Must be the wind, I think. It’s wild out there. I pull the thin, musty blankets up to meet my ears and screw my eyes tight shut. But then I hear more noises, like a thumping . . . like footsteps. My blood, already cold, suddenly freezes. My eyes ping open. Steady footsteps. And I can’t help but think, even though I’ve never believed in ghosts . . . what if this place is haunted?
I see a light under my bedroom door and I want to scream, but it catches in my throat and no noise comes out. I check my phone again for signal. None! And I’m nearly out of charge, too! I feel a cold draught whistle around the room, and then there are more noises, like chairs being dragged around the floor above my head. Oh God! It is! This place is haunted! I sit bolt upright and bite down on the covers, knowing I’m not going to get a wink of sleep and praying for dawn to come.
I must have fallen asleep at some point, because I wake with a jolt, my head on one side, neck stiff as anything. It’s getting light outside. I try to straighten my neck, making me wince with pain. My eyes are sore and scratchy. I look around, remembering the noises and light from last night, and reach for my phone. Dead! Quickly I push back the covers and, shivering, yank my case onto the bed. I don’t want to be here a moment longer than I have to be. I plan to just throw everything in and get the heck out of here. Pretend I was never here in the first place. I’m going to find the solicitor I’m supposed to be meeting, get the papers signed and get out of here. With any luck, the wind will have dropped and the ferry back to the mainland will be running.
I go to the bathroom to get my clothes, knowing there is no way they’re going to be dry, and try to work out what to do with them. If I put them in my case, they’ll make everything else in there damp. As I step back out into the corridor, I glance around to check the old man isn’t about, and my heart suddenly leaps out of my chest.
‘Argh!’ comes out of my mouth like a scratchy growl, my heart racing at the memory of last night’s ghostly footsteps, and I drop the wet clothes at the feet of the dishevelled man who has appeared from nowhere and is standing in front of me.
‘Argh!’ shouts the ghost, jumping backwards and dropping a big canvas bag he’s carrying. He’s standing in front of a doorway that seems to lead to more stairs.
‘Argh!’ I shout again but hardly any sound comes out.
And another shout comes from the bedroom opposite where we’re standing, where the old man was sleeping. Clearly he’s now awake.
We stand staring at each other wide-eyed. The ghost has wild light brown curly hair that touches his shoulders, blue-flecked green eyes, a long, straight nose, faint freckles on his cheeks and stubble around his mouth and chin.
‘What the . . . ?!’ he splutters in a thick Scottish accent. And suddenly he doesn’t seem quite so ghost-like any more. He must be a burglar, robbing the place, maybe thinking the old man was still in hospital like I did. He certainly wasn’t expecting to see me! And I’m not sure what’s shocked him more: my husky, strained shriek or the sight of a woman with socks on her hands and shorts on her head.
‘What the . . . ?!’ he repeats.
‘Who are you?’ I blurt out before he can finish his sentence. ‘And what are you doing here?’ My heart is thumping. I mean, you expect to hear about burglars in the city, but out here . . . ? My fear turns quickly to outrage. ‘You should be ashamed of yourself! Taking advantage of an old man!’
‘Taking advantage?’ he repeats with disbelief all over his face. ‘And who are you and what are you doing here?’
‘I beg . . .’ I stop myself. I have no idea who this man is. There’s another sound from the old man’s room. I go to step forward, to try and explain that I’ve found an intruder but that everything’s okay, when the intruder cuts in front of me and opens the door to where the old man was sleeping.
I open my mouth to speak, but have no idea what I’m going to say. An indignant ‘Hey!’ is all that comes out.
‘It’s okay, Hector,’ he says into the room. ‘Nothing to worry about. Just the wind. Did you sleep okay?’
There’s a muffled reply from inside.
‘It’s Tuesday,’ says the wild-haired man. ‘How do you fancy kippers for breakfast? I have some in the smokery.’ The muffled voice speaks again, and the man smiles. ‘Don’t forget to put some clothes on. You’ll catch your death otherwise. The nurses at the hospital said you’re to get dressed; you’re too fanciable otherwise! I’ll give you a hand downstairs when you’re ready. You’ll need to use that crutch. You’ve hurt your ankle.’
The muffled voice asks a question.
‘Aye,’ replies the wild-haired man. ‘You’ve been in hospital. You fell. You were outside, wandering at dusk again. Looking for something, you said. Bet I know what too. But you’re home now. Back at Teach Mhor.’
That was it! That’s how it’s said. I remember Isla on the ferry saying it now! Tack More. Not Tack Hore, which probably sounded incredibly rude when I said it in the pub. No wonder they laughed!
The wild-haired man looks round at me, and I feel a wave of stupidity washing over me. So not an intruder then, and certainly not a ghost. Suddenly he narrows his eyes at me, raises an eyebrow and tilts his head, a teasing smile twinkling in his eyes and tugging at the corners of mouth.
‘You have a visitor too, it seems,’ he tells the old man as if he’s actually teasing me. ‘A young lady to see you.’
‘Oh no.’ I hold up a hand. ‘I’m not staying. I’m just . . . I’m just here to sign some paperwork. We don’t know each other, you see . . .’
‘Yes, Tuesday,’ repeats the long-haired man, not listening to me. ‘And don’t forget to get dressed!’
‘Hurt my ankle, y’say?’ I hear the voice more clearly this time. A gruff voice from behind the door; my grandfather’s voice. Not that I think of him as my grandfather. Grandfathers are there at Christmas, handing out presents and falling asleep after dinner, saving toffees for the grandchildren. I’ve seen the adverts. Judging from that gruff voice, my father’s father isn’t like that. He’s just as Dad described him. A man he never got on with.
They didn’t have anything to do with each other once they went their separate ways. Not that I minded not having any grandparents; I mean, you don’t miss what you don’t know, do you? It was just me and Dad and Mum, and then me and Mum and her constant stream of new friends, many of them boyfriends. Well, I say that, but I actually lived with my dad until I was twelve. They decided it was for the best when they split, not long after I was born. Mum’s life wasn’t what you might call stable. She was pursuing her music career and moving around, and so they decided it was better for me to stay with Dad. And I loved it. We were happy. Mum visited when she could. Life was settled.
Things were never the same after I went to live with my mum. I never stopped missing my dad. He was just . . . well, he made everything happen. My mum, on the other hand, couldn’t organise her own life, let alone a child’s, which was why me living with Dad had been for the best. But everything changed when he died. Although she never said it, I could tell Mum couldn’t wait for me to finish school and leave home so that she was free to move again. Don’t get me wrong, she was proud of everything I did; she just didn’t always remember to turn up – concerts, parents’ evenings. She was too busy living her own life, still singing, still hoping the big break would come, wherever that might be. Once I left home, cruise ships were her biggest earner. She stays in touch through Facebook and messages all the time, sending pictures of her with friends I’ve never met but who she speaks of as if I’ve known them all my life, and expecting me to keep up. She’s staying with friends in Spain at the moment, in between cruises.
The two big black dogs bark when they see me, and run towards me. I reel back, much like I did last night. They stop and sniff around me.
‘I’ll take the dogs and feed them,’ says the wild-haired man. ‘They’re not used to guests,’ he says pointedly. ‘Looks like you’re not used to dogs either.’
I take a deep breath. ‘Actually, I grew up with one!’ I retort croakily, then bend to pat the dogs.
‘He doesn’t like being far from them. Or they from him.’ The man looks down at the two dogs, one clearly older than the other, as they give me a thorough sniffing. Then he shuts the bedroom door, telling the old man again not to forget to get dressed.
‘Really, I’m just going to find out where I need to sign these papers and then I’ll get off. I—’
‘So it’s true, then.’ He looks me up and down. ‘Fraser said the hospital had suggested contacting you. You came then? . . . Finally.’
I bristle, then suddenly remember that I’m wearing a pair of shorts on my head. I take them off, then remove the socks from my hands. I swear I see him smirk, laugh even, making me bristle even more.
‘Like I say, I’m just here to sign some papers,’ I say.
‘What? You’d run off without introducing yerself to your grandfather?’ His eyebrows are raised, suggesting that the very idea of it is unbelievable.
‘No.’ I feel a rush of shame and my cheeks burn with embarrassment. He’s right. That does sound terrible. I take another deep breath and try and explain. ‘But we don’t know each other. He’s not my grandfather in that sense. Just . . . my father’s father. They didn’t have any contact. I’m not sure why I’m here really. From what my father said, he . . . well, I don’t think I’d be very welcome.’
‘So . . . not back for a piece of the ol’ pile then?’ He raises an eyebrow again, seemingly having made his mind up about me already.
‘The what?’ I look at the doorway he appeared from earlier. ‘Um, sorry, those stairs. So there’s another floor?’
‘Uh huh. The attic rooms. Servants’ quarters,’ he says drily and starts to make his way downstairs.
‘So does that make you . . . ?’ I follow him down. I have to take the steps at speed to keep up with him, trying to make sure I don’t trip on the threadbare carpet. At the bottom, he disappears into a huge pantry and the dogs wag their tails excitedly as he opens cupboards and puts down bowls. Once they are happily eating, he pulls a big cream kettle onto the stove.
‘He’ll be wanting tea now he’s awake.’
‘Sorry, excuse me.’ I need to work out what’s going on. ‘Are you, um, family?’ It feels weird saying it. He stops what he’s doing and stares at me, clearly disliking me on sight.
‘I’m a friend,’ he says steadily, and I feel he’s being deliberately evasive. ‘Just helping out,’ he adds, as if he’s enjoying making me feel uncomfortable. ‘Someone had to.’
My eyes widen and I stare at him, as if he’s just slapped me in the face.
‘Look, um, I don’t know who you are—’ I say quietly, but he cuts me off.
‘Like I said, a friend of the family. Lachlan,’ he adds by way of introduction.
‘And like I said,’ I repeat firmly, determined not to be toyed with, ‘I’ve never met Hector Macquarrie before. The only thing we have in common is a surname.’ And even then I usually shorten mine to just Mac. Ruby Mac is how I’m known.
‘And a bloodline!’ he says bluntly.
‘The only thing you share is a surname and a bloodline. You are his son’s daughter, yes? His granddaughter?’
I’m flustered. I didn’t expect any of this. ‘Look, I’m sorry but you know nothing about me or my family.’
‘No. But neither do you, it seems, and you weren’t here to find out,’ he says, and turns to the range, opening the door to check if it’s on. I stand and shiver. It’s clearly not.
‘I just got a message from a solicitor. The hospital contacted him, said Hector was no longer able to look after himself. They’ve recommended his house be sold so that he can go and live in a care home. I’m presuming they need my signature as next of kin. I mean, even though we’re not actually . . .’ I trail off. ‘So can you please tell me where I need to go to do that?’
‘Tell you where to go?’ He raises an eyebrow, his eyes dancing with laughter again whilst the rest of his face remains deadpan. ‘I can.’ And I don’t know if he’s being very polite or very rude, but I think it’s the second. Everything about this man is making my hackles rise.
‘I have to sign the papers and then . . . I have somewhere to be.’ I swallow, rubbing my thumb and forefinger up and down my neck.
‘Bad throat?’ he asks.
‘Something like that.’ I’m not going to explain. Two can play at that game.
He holds my gaze. ‘And then you’ll be on your way? Once you’ve been to the solicitor?’
‘I will,’ I say with a firm nod. I don’t want to be here any longer than I have to, or any longer than he wants me here.
‘Fraser Gillies, solicitor for Geamhradh,’ he looks at me and possibly my blank expression and then translates with a roll of his eyes, ‘Winter Island,’ he says flatly. ‘Just go to the pub, and it’s the big house next door.’
‘Thank you,’ I say as politely as I can. I take a deep breath and turn to go. Then I stop and turn back. ‘Just one thing I’m confused about. I thought Hector was still at the hospital, going straight to the care home?’
He looks at me steadily. ‘Well, some of us think he would be better off at home. He loves this place.’
‘Well . . .’ I let out a slow breath, ‘I think that’s probably for the professionals to decide, don’t you?’
‘Like I say, someone needed to do what was best for him. He wanted to come home. You weren’t here. I was. Someone has to look out for him.’
Suddenly I can’t hold my tongue any longer. I’m not going to be made to feel guilty about a man I’ve never met, and who has never made any effort to contact me.
‘Well, clearly you’re not doing a very good job, otherwise he wouldn’t have been wandering around in his dressing gown and fallen!’ I say, then bite my lip. This isn’t my business. I’m not involved. ‘Sorry, ignore me. Very tired. Not much sleep. Bad throat. Thought there were . . .’ I stop short of mentioning the ghosts. ‘I should just go. I’ll get my bag.’ I turn to leave.
‘Ah, there you are, Hector! You made it down the stairs. I’d’ve helped!’
I turn to see an old man in worn but clean pyjamas, a nightcap, and a threadbare brocade dressing gown with a cord tie barely done up around his middle. He’s standing in the doorway, waving a crutch in our direction.
‘I’ve buggered my bloody foot. Cannae quite remember how. But must have been a bloody good ceilidh! Ha!’
I stand and stare. I have no idea what to say or do. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this man does have a look of my father about him, and yet he is a complete stranger. I want to leave. This is just too strange and I’m feeling all stirred up inside. I look at my dad’s father. He clearly has no idea who I am.
‘I . . . Nice to meet you.’ My words tumble over each other and my voice is huskier than ever. I can feel Lachlan watching me, and my cheeks flush. I look at the old man, taking in one last snapshot of what my dad might have looked like if he’d got to grow old. Then I remind myself that just because this man looks like my dad, it doesn’t mean he is my dad. He’s nothing like my dad from what I know. I look back at Lachlan.
‘I’ll see myself out,’ I say, and head for the door as the old man starts opening cupboards and pulling out papers and small pots of dried herbs and spices as if he’s looking for something very specific.
‘I’ll get us some breakfast in a minute, Hector. There’s some bread from yesterday. I’ll toast it once I can get the Rayburn lit again. If your foot hurts, there’s a wheelchair in the front room.’
‘A wheelchair?’ Hector carries on taking pots out of the cupboards.
‘He does this every day,’ says Lachlan with a gentle sigh. ‘Yes, a wheelchair. For your foot.’
‘Who’s hurt their foot?’
Lachlan smiles and shakes his head.
‘I’d go if you’re going; this could take a while,’ he says to me, and I turn and hurry up the stairs.
I gather my things together, then come back down the wooden staircase and stand in the hall. I could just leave, but somehow it feels wrong. I can hear voices from the kitchen. I should go back and say goodbye, wish them both well. We won’t be meeting again, so it seems the least I can do.
Lachlan is putting a big cast-iron pan on top of the range.
‘Bloomin’ thing,’ he says, looking to see if the Rayburn is still alight. ‘More fickle than—’
‘I just came to say goodbye,’ I croak.
He stands and turns to look at me.
‘Ah, Mairead, there you are!’ The old man is waving his crutch in my direction. ‘Hurt m’foot! Cannae remember how! Must have been a great do. What happened?’
‘Oh, I’m not Mairead.’ My throat is so tight I can barely hear myself.
‘Wassat? Speak up, woman. I can hardly hear you!’ he barks, then limps to the big carver chair at the end of the long kitchen table and collapses on to its flattened cushions with an ‘Oomph!’ The cupboards have clearly been turned out, and there are papers and clear glass jars everywhere.
I clear my throat. Just what the doctor told me not to do!
‘I said, I’m not Mairead.’
‘What?’ He looks bemused. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, woman!’
‘It’s best just to go with it,’ says Lachlan, over the sizzle from his pan, as he starts to stir what smells like melting butter. My stomach rumbles and I hope no one hears it. ‘Tea, Mairead?’ He holds up the teapot, smiling broadly, his eyes crinkling at the corners. The old man visibly relaxes and closes his eyes.
Lachlan pours the dark brown liquid from the big pot into a waiting mug. ‘There’s milk in the jug.’ He points.
‘Thank you,’ I say, grateful that he’s helped me out and briefly wondering if I look like my grandmother. I push the thought out of my mind. Hector’s just a confused old man, I remind myself.
I haven’t thought about my grandparents in a long time. There was a time when I wanted to know all about my past and where I came from, but my mum always told me that it wasn’t where you’d come from that mattered, but where you were going. I seem to have lived my life by that maxim ever since. And right now, I’m going to Tenerife, to get things back on track!
I walk over to Lachlan standing by the range. The sight of the kippers sizzling in the pan is making my mouth water. I watch as he puts crusty bread into a wire rack to toast on another hot plate. The smell takes me right back to school mornings, when my dad always insisted on tea and toast to set me up for the day. He’d put a pot on the table, just like now, and a jug of milk, even though it was only the two of us. Once I went to live with my mum, there was never any milk and the bread had mould growing on it. I made do with a Mars bar from the corner shop, not the happiest of starts to the day.
I suddenly feel I need to get things straight with Lachlan.
‘Look, let me just clear this up,’ I say. ‘I’m not here to suddenly lay claim to this place. I’m here because the solicitor called me. Once the paperwork is all sorted out, Hector can move into the retirement home. Probably be a lot more comfortable there, with heating and hot water and all the mod cons.’ I try to be as friendly as I can.
Lachlan puts down a plate of gorgeous-smelling kippers, and a basket of golden toast with yellow butter melting over the top. Then he raises an eyebrow at me, though this time his eyes aren’t dancing. This time he’s deadly serious.
‘Away from the island he loves? A two-hour ferry ride away, on the mainland? Maybe round here we just have a better sense of belonging and loyalty.’
My stomach suddenly roars loudly. I swallow. Clearly Hector is well looked after here. I bite my tongue. I’m going to be gone very soon. I don’t need to argue with this man. This place is nothing to me. I’m not part of it.
‘Just so you know . . . I’m really not here to claim any of this,’ I repeat, and sip at my tea.
‘If you say so,’ says Lachlan with a nod that tells me he’s not convinced, and I’m infuriated all over again. ‘Now eat up.’ He puts a plate down in front of me. ‘My own smoked kippers,’ he says, wiping his hands on a tea towel. ‘You should never travel on an empty stomach.’
I look from the plate to him. I want to convince him, to tell him that I’m here to do the best for Hector, but my throat feels like there is a vice tightening around it, and my treacherous stomach roars in appreciation as he pushes the plate of food towards me.
‘Eat up, Mairead,’ says Hector. ‘Mrs Broidy will be here any time.’ He picks up his knife and fork. ‘There’s a lot to do before our guests arrive,’ he adds, and Lachlan smiles and shakes his head, letting me know there are no guests arriving, and I feel a prickle run over my skin, like I’ve just had a visit from the ghost of Christmas past, a glimpse of how life used to be here.
‘So you’re Hector Macquarrie’s granddaughter,’ says Fraser Gillies.
He’s sitting in a high-backed chair in front of a cheerful fire in his front room. I saw Isla from the ferry coming out of the little shop clutching packets of ginger nuts and bottles of Irn-Bru and asked her where Fraser lived. I could tell she was dying to find out why I wanted to see him, but luckily Gordan, smiling good morning to me, tugged her away before she could ask. The two women behind the counter of the shop were straining their necks to get a good look at me too, but the less I have to tell people who I am and try and explain things, the better. Because I can’t really explain what I don’t know.
‘I . . . I suppose I am,’ I say nervously, perching on the edge of my chair. I should be conducting this conversation via my notebook, I know, but I’m not expecting to have to say very much. What is there to say? ‘I’m sorry this couldn’t be done yesterday. I was delayed by the weather, and when I did get here, the phones were down.’
‘Ah yes, they’re working on the mast now. Hopefully we’ll be back in touch with the outside world shortly.’
I think of Joe, worrying about where I am and wondering why I haven’t been in touch. But I’ll be leaving shortly, and I’ll message him once I’m back on the mainland.
‘So . . .’ Fraser puts his fingers together and pauses, clearly not in any rush to get this meeting over and done with. ‘I gather you are Hector’s only remaining relative.’ His soft, rolling accent is like the gentle hills around the island that I can see now it’s stopped raining. He smiles, looking down at the paperwork on his lap.
‘So I believe.’ I give a little cough as I suddenly realise I have no idea if I have any other relatives. This morning, for one brief moment, I thought Lachlan and I might have been related. Thankfully, we’re not, as I’m pretty sure we have nothing in common.
Fraser looks at me. His moustache twitches and his cheerful waistcoat strains as he leans in to offer me a shortbread biscuit, and although they look delicious, I put up my hand. I’m still full from the toast and kippers, the smokiest, tastiest kippers I have ever eaten.
‘A shame we haven’t seen you here before,’ he says taking a biscuit for himself and brushing away the crumbs as he bites into it.
I squirm, not knowing how to respond. How do I say I didn’t even know until yesterday that my grandfather was still alive? We’d never met, and now it seems it’s too late anyway.
‘No,’ I say. ‘I’ve never been to Winter Island. This is my first visit.’ And my last, I think, contemplating the ferry journey back and not looking forward to it one bit.
‘Well.’ He looks at me. ‘I hope you enjoy your stay with us. Take in the island. Enjoy Christmas. If you and your grandfather have nothing else planned, you’d be very welcome to join us here. There’s always the full works on.’
‘Thank you. But I’m afraid I won’t be staying. I have a flight to catch.’
‘Not staying for Christmas? But it’s only three days away.’
Fraser’s house is indeed very welcoming and warm. The plate of shortbread on the table in front of us was put there by Mrs Gillies with a welcoming smile. If I was a Christmas person, this is the sort of Christmas I would love.
‘Our children and their families will be coming home, so you won’t be alone in being the only visiting relative. Lots of families come back for the festive period. This island has a way of drawing you back.’ He smiles. ‘Once it’s in the blood, it never leaves.’
I smile politely and try and push on. I won’t be here long enough for the island to have any kind of lasting effect on me. And looking at the lashing rain starting up again against the window, I’m still struggling to see the appeal. I cough, and Mrs Gillies brings me a glass of water, which I take gratefully, my throat as dry as the desert.
‘Of course,’ Fraser continues, ‘when the distillery was still up and running, we’d all go to the big house at Christmas. There’d be whisky and mince pies and gifts for everyone!’
‘Oh yes, those were the days!’ says Mrs Gillies fondly.
‘Then when the distillery was in trouble and your grandfather brought in the gin and saved the place, it was a double celebration for all the workers there who owed him their livelihoods.’
I swallow. This is all news to me. It sounds fascinating, and part of me wants to ask more, but I know I can’t. This isn’t my world. Whilst they were celebrating Christmas with whisky and mince pies . . . well, I had no idea any of this was going on. I was on the naughty list, clearly. Uninvited. There wasn’t a place for me at the big Christmas table.
I look down. ‘I’m sorry, but I really do have to get going,’ I say, putting the glass down on the table, my voice getting huskier.
‘Of course,’ says Fraser. ‘So, let me get to the point. I don’t want to hold you up.’
I feel bad, but I really do want to get back to the mainland and start Christmas my way, without baubles and tinsel and shortbread. They weren’t part of my growing up, not after Dad died. Mum always worked at Christmas, taking singing jobs where she could. Lunch was whatever she could buy from whichever local shop was open when she finally woke up on Christmas morning. It wasn’t how it used to be when Dad was alive, when he would cook a turkey and Mum would join us for lunch and board games afterwards. I loved those Christmases. But they’re in the past, and right now, sunshine and yoga and getting my voice back is what I need.
‘You are Hector’s sole remaining relative. However, as he hasn’t made a lasting power of attorney, it is up to the courts to rule on who should decide his fate. Stubborn old bugger. I suggested it many times, but he never thought this would happen to him, and what Hector didn’t want to think about, he put right out of his mind, trying to ignore the reality of it. So I am acting as deputy power of attorney, so to speak. The court has put me in charge of deciding his welfare. The hospital has suggested that he move into a home, as he is no longer able to care for himself. However, his house will need to be sold to finance that.’
‘Yes.’ I nod. ‘You said on the phone. He did seem rather confused when I met him. I think he’d be better off being cared for.’
‘On the mainland,’ says the solicitor slowly, looking at me.
‘Yes, you said there was a home with a place available if we can act quickly. Are there papers you need me to sign?’
‘No, no papers, my dear. I just wanted to check with you that this is what you want for Hector. That this is what we all agree.’
‘I’m sure it’s for the best,’ I say. ‘As soon as there’s a buyer for the house, he can move into the care home. No more worries about him wandering and hurting himself.’ I nod my head at this very practical solution to solving the problem. Although I never knew Hector, and I’m not likely to now, I still want what’s best for him. If that’s what the hospital recommend, then I agree. I think briefly about the big draughty house. He’ll be much better off in a warm home, being looked after properly. I have no idea why Lachlan was at the house, or what he’s up to, but he’s not responsible for Hector. The old man is on his own. He needs to be safe.
‘It’s been tough since your grandmother died and the distillery closed down. The farm animals are gone too and the house is falling into disrepair. And clearly his . . . forgetfulness is getting worse.’
I nod again. ‘So, everyone is agreed: get the house on the market as soon as you can.’
He sucks air through his teeth and tugs at the bottom of his waistcoat.
‘Of course, these days there’s no’ much market for a falling-down house two hours’ ferry ride from the mainland. No one’s staying on the island and no one’s buying here either.’
‘But we can put it on the market and get whatever we can for it?’
‘Yes. But it won’t be much. No’ much change for an inheritance after the home fees have been paid.’
‘Oh, but I’m not looking for anything out of this. I have my own life. I’m just happy I can help get things sorted.’
‘Are you sure you haven’t, well, considered a life for yourself here on Geamhradh?’ he says with a kind smile, holding out a hand as if to introduce me to everything the place has to offer. But of course he’s joking, and I shake my head good-naturedly, smile and even let out a polite laugh at his little joke.
‘I’m a city girl through and through,’ I say. I look out of the window at the road leading up from the harbour and continuing on around the island. ‘And I have somewhere I need to be,’ I add. It’ll be good to get back to the outside world.
He nods thoughtfully. ‘Of course. So, just to be clear: you agree with the hospital’s recommendation? He should go to the care home?’
‘Yes, yes, of course, whatever they think is best for him.’
‘Okay. And you’re happy for the house to be sold.’
‘Of course. Like I say, I don’t really know my father’s side of the family. There’s no . . . emotional attachment for me here. I’m just pleased everything will be sorted out.’
He looks at me steadily through his round gold-rimmed glasses. ‘I’ve known Hector for a very long time,’ he says slowly. ‘All our lives, in fact. I just want to be sure this is right for everyone.’ He emphasises the ‘everyone’ and I don’t really know why. Surely it’s just Hector that it needs to be right for. That’s why we’re here, doing the right thing for him.
‘It sounds like you have everything in hand brilliantly,’ I say, feeling I should thank him. ‘Hector is lucky to have someone here looking after his interests.’ I think briefly of Lachlan and wonder what he’s doing in Hector’s house. Is he taking advantage of an old man who doesn’t know what day of the week it is? I feel my hackles rise just a little. I may not know Hector, he may not know me or have ever wanted anything to do with me, but I hate to think that that might be the case.
Fraser slides his glasses off. ‘As I said, the care home have a place for him. I pulled a few strings; I knew the manager’s mother many years ago, when the mainland was still a tempting place to visit. But we need to confirm he’s going to take it soon. If not, he’ll go back on the waiting list, and it is quite long.’
‘Yes, best to get things moving quickly then.’ I smile. ‘Right, well, if that’s everything . . .’ I go to stand. ‘Hopefully the ferry will be running and I’ll make my flight.’ I’m relieved everything is sorted, although I’m not really sure why we couldn’t have done it over the phone. ‘It’s been good to meet you, Mr Gillies.’ I hold out my hand to him. ‘Hope you have a lovely Christmas with the family.’
‘And you, Ruby,’ he says. ‘However, just before you go . . . As you said, best to get the house sold, and then you and Hector can both move on as quickly as possible.’
‘Absolutely. I’m sure the sooner he’s there, the better.’
‘Well.’ Fraser looks up at me. ‘There is just one problem.’
‘You knew, didn’t you?’ I croak as loudly as I can. My throat strains as I stand in the kitchen staring at Lachlan, my eyes flashing. The fire in the living room opposite is blazing to match the feeling in my stomach. ‘You knew what he was going to say!’
‘Well, maybe you should have hung around a bit longer to find out!’ he retorts, leaning against the old stove. The kitchen is full of the smell of baking bread. ‘You were in quite a rush to get away from here before finding out anything about this place . . . or Hector.’
‘Look, I told you, Hector and me . . . He never wanted to meet me. Has never been part of my life.’ Suddenly there’s a catch in my throat. Dad and his father were estranged, that was the word he used whenever he spoke about it. But that just meant we made our little family the best it could be. Small but mighty, he used to say. He wasn’t that demonstrative, but I did know he was always there for me, and when he died . . . well, it left me feeling totally adrift. Abandoned. Alone. There isn’t a day goes by when I don’t wish he was still here.
‘You knew full well why the house can’t be put on the market,’ I repeat. ‘Why this was all a waste of time for me.’
He shrugs. ‘Like I say, you should’ve asked.’
‘Well I’m asking now. What exactly are you doing here? How do you know Hector?’
‘I told you. I’m a friend of the family. I’m just helping out.’
‘Well if you want to help out, move out! The house can’t be sold with a sitting tenant, apparently. That’s you! You’re living in the attic! The servants’ quarters! That’s why you were here last night. And every night, by the looks of it. I have no idea what you’re up to, or why you won’t tell me, but I’m asking now. Will you please move out so the house can be put on the market and . . . Hector . . .’ I attempt to say ‘my grandfather’ for dramatic effect, but it sounds too weird, ‘can go into the home he needs.’
‘His home is here. Everything he needs is here.’ He tosses a piece of bread nonchalantly into his mouth, and I wish he’d missed.
‘He needs to be looked after properly.’ I glare. This man is just getting in my way now, and it feels like he’s doing it on purpose. ‘The solicitor needs to go ahead with putting the house on the market and I have to—’
‘Yes, yes, I know. You’ve got a plane to catch!’ He waves a hand in my direction.
I sigh, deeply and with relief. He realises, thank goodness. Hopefully this can be sorted out quickly then.
‘So in order to sell the house at a “reasonable price” . . .’ I quote the solicitor and raise my eyebrows. The figure he mentioned was hardly anything for such a big property. But looking at it now in the clear light of day and in a brief let-up in the rain, I can see just what a neglected state it’s in. Apart from the fact that it’s a very limited market. Who wants a big, run-down house on an island a two-hour ferry ride from the mainland? How would anyone make a living over here? I certainly couldn’t. But it’s not going to sell at all with someone living in the attic! ‘. . . I need you to find somewhere else to live and move out.’
My voice is barely audible, but I have got a pad and pen with me. You need to move out! I write and show it to him. He reads it, then goes to the big old fridge and starts pulling out what look like boxes of ready meals and putting them on the side.
‘Someone needs to be here with Hector, to keep an eye on him. And clearly it’s not going to be you.’ He looks at me and raises an eyebrow. ‘You’ve got a plane to catch.’
‘Well, clearly someone is looking out for him. Look at all those ready meals. Who brings him those?’
‘Mrs Broidy, the old housekeeper. She gets them sent over from the mainland.’
‘Well, that’s great. If Mrs Broidy is making sure he’s fed and checking in on him, then you don’t need to be here.’
He turns and dumps all the ready meals in the bin. Followed by several packets of biscuits.
‘What on earth are you doing? Are you mad?’ I exclaim. ‘You can’t just throw away all his meals! That’s abuse. I could report you!’
I rush over to the bin and start fishing out the boxes and putting them on the scrubbed pine work surface. I’m outraged.
‘You need to leave! I don’t know why you’re here, or what you’re hoping to get from this, but you need to go. I can’t believe you would sabotage an old man like this!’
He watches me as I stack the boxes into piles. Then he steps forward, picks them all up and drops them back in the bin. He dusts off his hands and stares at me.
‘All out of date,’ he says with a frustrated sigh. ‘He forgets to look at the dates on them, and if he eats them, he’s sick. And,’ he adds, ‘he’s diabetic. Cakes, biscuits . . . he’s mad for them but can’t control his sugar levels. I keep telling Mrs Broidy, but she takes no notice. Or maybe she can’t remember either.’
I find myself blushing and floundering slightly. ‘Right, well, I’m sure the nursing home will be able to look after his diet. So,’ I breathe from my buttocks, lift my chin and take control of the situation, ‘could you please organise somewhere to live so the house can be sold?’
He stares at me and drops a final ready meal into the bin with a clatter. I look at it and wonder where to get some more, and whether I should contact this Mrs Broidy. I know it’s not really my problem, but I do need to make sure the old man is being looked after until he can go into the home. Perhaps we could write the use-by dates on in big marker pen.
‘So . . .’ I draw in breath again, ‘are you going to tell me what you’re doing here?’ I’m suddenly desperate to find out. Is he just freeloading off a vulnerable old man? In which case, the sooner he’s gone the better. But then I think about the kippers that morning at breakfast, caught and smoked by Lachlan, and cooked to perfection. Is he genuinely just here out of the goodness of his heart? He couldn’t really be putting his life on hold to help out an old man when there’s nothing in it for him, could he? He has to be up to something.
He doesn’t reply, and I plough on. ‘So, you’ll move out and then the house can be sold? It’s the right thing for Hector.’ I look at him. If he really is doing this out of the goodness of his heart, then he’ll want what’s best for Hector too.
He stares back at me with his flecked eyes, and I swear there’s a tiny smile at the corner of his mouth. ‘Yes, I’ll do what’s right for Hector,’ he says. ‘And no, I’m not moving out.’ He moves away from the kitchen work surface he’s been leaning against and picks up his big canvas bag. ‘Now if you’ll excuse me, I have things to do.’
He walks out, whistling, leaving me standing in the huge high-ceilinged kitchen. What the . . . ? Who is this man, and what is he doing here? And what’s in that bag he carries around with him?
I follow him into the living room, where he’s stoking the fire. The two black Labs look up at him from their place in front of the hearth. ‘I’ll just be outside,’ he tells Hector, then he walks right past me, raising his eyebrows and nodding his head, and, still whistling, opens the back door and swaggers towards a single-storey red-brick building behind the house.
Of all the arrogant, jumped-up, ignorant freeloaders! I think, fury bubbling up inside me. I have a ferry to catch this afternoon. But there is no way I can leave with this man ensconced here. What on earth am I supposed to do now?
‘No, wait!’ I go to run outside after him, then look down at my feet. I flick off my still soggy shoes and survey the line of wellington boots by the back door. I’m sure no one will mind if I borrow a pair. Who is there to mind? Not Hector, that’s for sure, who’s emptying the cupboards either side of the fireplace, clearly still looking for something, as he has been since I arrived. The dogs are sitting upright now, as if on guard duty. And I suddenly wonder what’s going to happen to them once Hector leaves here and goes to the care home. Will he still get to see them? Maybe I’ll ask the solicitor, just so I know they’re going to be well cared for, like their master.
I open the back door, which is marked with scratches from dogs’ paws over the years. I wonder if Dad’s dog – the one he had when I was little, that moved with him when he left the island – made some of them. Outside, it’s stopped raining. It’s cold, but the air fills my lungs and the breeze gently strokes my face. A big difference from last night. In fact, a lot of things look different from last night, including there not being any ghosts, simply a lodger in the attic.
‘Wait!’ I call again, but Lachlan holds up a hand and carries on walking towards the red-brick building and the barns beyond it. And beyond that is water. Long green grasses edge the sandy shore, where waves are gently lapping, and there are small clusters of rocks at the far reaches of the cove where it opens out into the sea. In the distance I can now see the outlines of the neighbouring islands, silhouetted by the silvery winter sun. I’m suddenly blown away by the spectacular view. It’s breathtaking.
As I stand and stare, there’s a sudden vibration in my coat pocket. My phone! We must have signal again! I try to pull it out, tying myself in knots in my eagerness to answer it. Finally I release it and sigh with relief. It’s Joe.
‘Hello? Joe?’ I say as I press answer.
‘Ruby? Is that you? Where are you? I’ve been worried sick. No one’s heard from you, not Jess, or the band group chat, and the voice retreat say you haven’t arrived. What’s going on? Are you okay?’
‘I’m okay,’ I croak, and tears suddenly spring to my eyes.
‘Rubes? What’s happened? Are you on your way to the airport?’
Just hearing his voice makes me realise quite how far I am from my life and everything I know. Away from Joe, the band, even from performing. Out here I’m not Ruby Mac, the singer. I’m not even Ruby Macquarrie, Hector’s