The Solace of Winter.

                The wind from the north soughed softly along the shore but froze any man it gripped. Snow lay in drifts, piled deep to the spine of Mount Doracher. A mire of ice covered the window panes. The cold stole into every door and numbed the hands and minds of those unprepared for it. No winter had been like this. Donald stood by his window and breathed on the window pane to melt the frost. He saw a fringe of ice skirting the bay below his house. There was a stoop to his shoulders and his clothes were unkempt. He lifted his coat and scarf from a chair and put them on. He pushed his bed away from the fire that was now cold. The room was untidy and dirty with newspapers and dishes strewn about the place. Breathing heavily from the cold he lit the fire, humming tonelessly to himself, indifferent to the squalor around him. In this, his sixty-eighth year, he simply did not care. No one came there anymore and he chose not to go anywhere. His face was heavily lined, older than its years. His mouth pursed as he sucked at his teeth waiting for the fire to catch. He grunted in pleasure as the flames grew. He spread his large, weathered hands before him to catch their warmth. He shuffled into the kitchen and coaxed a paraffin burner to life and placed a kettle of water on it to boil. He waited, not even thinking of the day and what he had to do. His responses to the seasons and their demands were automatic and often without thought.

He waited in his freezing kitchen for the boiling kettle, then took his cup and made tea. He collected a large spoon and took a pot of cold stew from the pantry and shuffled back to the fire. He sat on his bed and breakfasted on the cold, greasy lamb stew and left the pot by the fire. He drank slowly from his large cup then prepared for the cold. He lined his boots and socks with newspapers and put a layer between his shirt and jacket, and stepped outside. He gasped as the cold hit him and he made hurriedly to the byre. The animals there shuddered at the raw blast as the door opened but quickly recognized him. His hens boldly gathered about him. He talked to them, reaching to the loft for their feed and water.

He set their feed before them and searched their nesting places in the crannies of the byre for their eggs. They offered large brown eggs to this man with the soft voice and gentle hands. He collected a basketful of eggs before taking hay into his cow. He put the hay in the manger and ran his hand over her back and flanks. She lowed softly and turned to rub her head on his leg before picking at the hay. He cleaned the manure from her stall and put fresh water in the trough. The byre was cleaner than his house and some nights he would sleep there next to the sound and warm smell of his animals. He milked the cow, pressing his face to her flank while his strong fingers drew milk from her swollen udders. He hummed a tune that once he danced to, drawing life and vigour from the company of beasts. He left the cow munching at her hay and placed the two buckets, one with eggs, the other overflowing with milk, on a shelf by the door. Taking a half filled sack of cob nuts he braced himself again for the cold.

He trudged away from the byre, feeling the cold’s bite. He searched for the dozen sheep he still kept, thinking of where they would be sheltering from the snow and cold. He climbed the ridge that separated his house from the rest of the village, noticing clumps of moss underfoot and icicles hanging from fences. He looked down on desolation. No smoke rose from any chimney. Nobody lived there any longer. They had left or died. Fences hung in disrepair and empty houses gave themselves to the ravages of time. He shielded his eyes from the snow’s glare and looked for his sheep. In the distance some four miles away he could make out the thin ribbon of the new road, built to take tourists more rapidly from one end of the island to the other, cutting off his village. But it mattered not. Donald was the only one left in the village. He shunned the company of men, preferring his solitude and isolation. He was warmed only by nature and his animals and had long ceased to think about the world he had turned his back on.

He saw his sheep huddled for warmth in the lee of a deserted croft house and he picked his way through the snow drifts towards them. The wind had dropped and the sweat from his body had turned his layers of newspaper to a spongy mass. He shivered as he threw them away. The sheep had seen him and galloped towards him, some floundering in drifts in their eagerness to reach him. He patiently dug them out and fed them by hand from the sack he carried. He led them to a deserted house and opened the door so that they could shelter there. He counted them. They were all there. He shivered as he sat there pressed against them for warmth. His sack was empty but still his creatures ferreted for more. He laughingly pushed them away and stood up to go. He noticed a change in the sky that heralded more snow and pulled his coat about him a little tighter.

He wondered if the post van would have left his supplies by the road. It came with groceries once a week and the driver would leave a box of bare essentials for the man he rarely saw, taking his dues from the weekly cheque from the district office that he cashed for Donald. The two men would hardly talk on the rare occasions they met but there was a subliminal trust between them. If he did not have money then he would leave a basket of eggs, a shoulder of mutton or a box of filleted fish and the van driver would arrive at an adequate recompense. This primitive form of barter suited both parties. He walked the few remaining miles to the road leaving the sheep in the deserted house. Broken fence frames stuck out from the grip of the snow, wooden sheep pens, broken and derelict, groaned with the ice expanding in their seams. Donald had long ago accepted this neglect and desolation.

He arrived at the road and saw that a cardboard box had been left for him. He opened it and examined every article before putting them in his sack. Flour, butter, sugar, tea, nails and cartridges. And a large pot of home-made jam. He smiled at this and muttered to himself, “Nice man that driver, must leave a lobster for him one of these days.” He transferred the sack to his back and walked hurriedly to his croft. Already the day’s light was disappearing. It began to snow as he walked half frozen the five miles to where he remained the sole human survivor. His hands and feet were numb and his eyes staring as he gulped great breaths of air into his lungs on his steady trudge home. He reached his door and fumbled with useless fingers at the latch until it yielded to admit him.

His fire was all but out though he had banked it with slow-burning peats. It had taken him longer to struggle to the road and back than he had anticipated. He took paper and thrust it under a still smouldering peat. His hands could not grip his box of matches and while he tried again and again to take a match between his fingers the paper took flame from the peat. Gratefully he bent to it, placing small sticks round the flame, building it up to take peats that were stacked by the fire. The warmth shot through his hands like a pain as the cold thawed from him. He shuddered at the sensations in his body but did not move away until the flames cast their warmth to the room. He hung the pot of cold stew on a hook above the fire and added flour and salt to his greasy mixture.

While it cooked he went outside again, to the byre, to feed his animals and bring back the eggs and milk. He was tired. The cold had drained and sapped him. It was with relief that he finally closed his door for the night, stuffing paper and rags into the gaps through which winter’s fingers would poke. An involuntary shiver passed through him as he sat on his bed before the fire. His stew boiled and he ate ravenously, spooning it straight from the pot to his mouth, soaking lumps of bread into the gravy and eating them with his fingers. He carried the empty pot to the kitchen and took a long drink from the bucket of milk. It left a white stain around his lips which he wiped with his sleeve. He belched in satisfaction and wearily returned to the warmth. As the fire continued to burn he lay fully clothed on the bed and pulled the heavy blankets over him. He slept the dreamless sleep of the weary.

The winter seemed to never end. Donald was desperate for the spring to come. He needed the signs of continuity and life to guide him on his own peculiar struggle for survival. He had forgotten why he had become so separate from friends and family, if indeed any decision had consciously been made. He had clung to his father’s barren farm, to the hills and his animals and they had nurtured him in a way that human company could not. He was not unhappy, neither was he happy — he was simply content to survive.

“Letter for you.”

Donald was standing by the road basking in the first signs of spring as the van driver pulled up. The driver climbed out of the van with a sack of provisions under one arm and a letter clutched in his other hand. The deep cold of winter had thawed, allowing the first daffodils to poke their heads above ground with their dormant yellow splendour. The thaw had not penetrated Donald. He stood uneasily in the spring sunshine, staring at the letter held out to him. He slowly took the envelope and a faint uneasy memory stirred in him as he recognized the writing.

“I believe it’s from your sister,” said the van driver.

He nodded in agreement and stood still for a moment as he wondered why she would write to him. He stuffed it into his pocket and collected his sack of provisions, then without a word walked away from the van. The driver shook his head slowly at Donald’s retreating back and got out to collect the bucket of eggs left there for him. Behind the bucket was a large lobster. Its claws were bound and the antennae on its head moved slowly when he picked it up. The driver again shook his head at the strangeness of the man he would have liked to know better.

There was turmoil in Donald’s mind as he walked to his desolate home. Moira, his sister, thirty years or more since he had seen her. The letter remained unread for several days, sitting underneath a cup on the mantelpiece with other letters he had received through the years and had never opened. He went about his daily round with his animals and his lobster traps, taking care of the creatures that sustained him. He caught the changing tide in a small rowing boat he had salvaged. He carefully placed several traps by a rock skerrie where he knew the first lobsters of spring would be hiding. But the letter from Moira kept drifting into his mind. It lay neglected on the mantle until he could stand it no longer and hurried home from the oar he was mending and he took the letter down. He opened it and read what Moira had to say, admiring the roundness of her script. She had been to the island several times but could never bring herself to cross the gulf that now separated them. She had seen him from the road last summer.

“So that was the well-dressed body who stared at me so long,” mused Donald.

She wanted to see him. She was widowed. She would come in the late Autumn. She did not expect that he would meet her at the ferry.

“No I wouldn’t do that, right enough,” he muttered to himself. She would make her own way.

He read the letter several times before placing it back underneath the cup. He rubbed his hand over the stubble on his chin.

“I must shave for when she comes, aye and clean this place up.”

He glanced round at the midden he inhabited and smiled ruefully to himself. He liked his walls and took comfort from the simple homeliness of the clutter. He talked and chuckled to himself as he imposed a certain tidiness and cleanliness to his home. All for his sister’s visit, late in Autumn. He was harvesting his main crop of potatoes when he saw her walk from a car that stopped at the road. He went to meet her and greeted her shyly, unsure of what to say to his sister. He admired the cut of her expensive suit and sensible walking shoes and guided her along the path to the house where they had both been children. They talked easily about their lives and different fortunes, letting the other only glimpse the surface and not the depths. Donald had not talked for such length in a decade and was mildly exhilarated at using vocabulary long neglected. He noted that time had not been kind to Moira. Her face was drawn and he saw bitterness in her gaunt eyes that did not reflect the dignity and grace of her expensive clothes.

He led her through the door of the house. There was a large bucket of marsh flowers by the fireplace. He had picked them that morning from the marsh, remembering her love for them. He had rearranged the house so that its comfort would welcome a visitor. Moira looked around and wrinkled her nose in distaste.

“The same old sticks and ugly furniture. How can you live with it still Donald?”

His heart sank with disappointment.

“It suits me well enough for what I want.”

“That is quite evident.” She answered waspishly. Her own house in a fashionable area of Glasgow was polished and gleaming, expensive and cold. Correct for mid-day bridge with her ladies’ committees. A burnished reflection of the constant show to paper over the void of life that she had never lived. Her escape from the poverty of her island life had not provided freedom from her bitterness.

She couldn’t help but to walk round the room and into the kitchen, inspecting the carpets, chairs and ragged curtains.

“You should get rid of all this. I’ll send you what you need from Glasgow. Don’t worry, I’ll pay. The least I can do for my neglect of you.”

Donald was stunned and stood in helpless silence at his sister’s verbal destruction of things that satisfied him.

“Is that all you can see, Moira?” he said gently. “These sticks you despise are just simple parts of what I have here. I’m content with them. If they offend you, look not at them. Did you see the irises I picked for you this morning? In the bucket there. You used to like them.”

She turned and looked at his gesture and felt the mildness of his soft rebuke. She bit her lips and tried to control the mounting venom that came to her tongue. How dare he live in this simplicity? Who was he to turn his back on the world and live just as he pleased?

“Why do you stay here, cut off from everything?” She blurted out.

He shrugged and took his time to answer. “I don’t really know why, it just seemed to happen that way.” He answered simply. His mildness and gentleness were a spur to Moira’s deep well of bitterness.

“I’ll tell you why,” she snapped ” You’re hiding here in this hovel. You could never leave this island because deep down you’re a total failure.” She paused for breath unable to stop the bitterness she felt. “Out there is a world that takes guts and backbone. You-you’re spineless.” She stopped for a moment at the look of amazement on her brother’s face. “You could have been the best fisherman in the Minch, yes and a writer too. But look at you. Secluded here with your sheep subsidies and quiet. You would be exposed anywhere else for what you are. A failure. That’s what keeps you and everybody else here on this island.” She finished with a sharp edge to her words, intended to cut her brother.

Slowly Donald understood the well of bitterness that his sister drew from. With quiet composure he spoke. “If that is so, then why must you come back to reveal this truth to me, Moira? Why do you think you have to make sure I understand why I am here?” At her silence he continued. “I’ll tell you why. There’s a simplicity here that offends you, that reminds you of where you came from, an honesty before God that you fear to recognize. This is a rebuke to the empty round of shallow stagings you fill your life with. That’s why you come back to this island. To fill your emptiness, to scoff at simplicity, while you snatch at it for yourself.”

The colour mounted on Moira’s cheeks as his voice grew more insistent.

“There’s a reminder here, of what you once were and could have been and that’s too much for a creature like you to accept. You chose your life, ashamed of us here but you know full well where the balance of truth lies.”

There was a hushed silence filled only with their emotion and strain. They were both right. They faced one another across the kitchen table, the same one they had cracked crab claws on when they were children. The fury and shock of their words made them tremble. Moira’s lips quivered as she choked off a retort and hurriedly she turned away from Donald’s piercing eyes and words. He let out a long breath and stepped to Moira’s side and put his hand on her arm. “What are we saying to one another Moira? Thirty years and all we do is hurt? We’ve learned very little then. Come and walk to the shore with me and let the autumn breeze take the evil from our tongues.”

Moira nodded through her trembling and reluctantly followed her brother. They walked slowly and Moira slipped her hand through his arm. He pointed out things to her – gently reminding her of what she had come from. Easing her mind with stories of the sheep running away with the washing and rabbiting with their brother Angus. They stood by the shore. Two figures in middle age briefly united in a semblance of peace.

“Well Moira, I may be a bit of a failure in some eyes.”

“No, no Donald please let me take back my words I didn’t mean to……”

“You can have back the pain, my sister, but not the words. There’s some truth in them. But realize that here in a terrible fashion to you and others I at least survive in the shadow of truth and eternity. Derelict and simpleton that I appear, I might just understand a little of the way of things.”

They stood in silence for a long time, tired and spent from their emotion. He walked with her to the road where her car was parked. They were at last strangely comfortable with one another.

“I’ve a favour to ask of you.”

He stopped and listened.

“My youngest son is with me on the island.” There was a note of distaste in her voice that puzzled him. “He’s a businessman and has bought the schoolhouse at the head of the next bay to you. He wants to set up a shellfish factory and needs a site and a deep water landing stage for fishing boats. It would bring business and employment to the island.”

She finished feebly.

Donald looked at her sharply. The only location for such an access was on his farm, the north side of the bay below his house. There the rock plunged vertically into the sea, a natural anchorage for fishing vessels, a haven yet for cormorants and guillemots.

“No, that’s not why I came to see you,” she said hastily at his continued silence. “I came to see you for myself, but will you meet with him?’

Donald nodded and she quickly got into her car, relieved that she had accomplished her purpose. She drove away from everything she feared to be reminded of.

The smells and sounds of morning pleased Donald as he sat in the sun by his house the next day. He was cleaning his shotgun. He cocked his head to listen to the different songs of birds long awake, resting the gun across his knees. He saw lapwings soaring almost vertically to catch flying insects and high above a majestic eagle circling slowly in a sky so clear and blue. He drew breath at the scent of marsh and pasture that drifted towards him. He never ceased to wonder at the regeneration the seasons were capable of. He smiled to himself as he continued to clean his gun, thinking of the mountain hares he must outwit that day. A man, about thirty years of age, approached the house. Donald had seen him for the last mile of his long walk from the new road. As the man came nearer he noticed the smart blue city suit and the small green yachting boots that kept the trouser cuffs from the grass and mud. The man was sweating heavily in the morning sun, his collar tight about his throat. He was heavily set and his breath wheezed harshly as he came to a halt in front of him. Donald inspected him more closely, noting the sleeked back hair, the carefully clipped moustache, and the shrewd, sharp eyes that lurked behind hooded lids.

“I’m your sister’s son, John Menzie is my name.” The voice was soft, melodious and manipulative. It took Donald by surprise. No, this could not be Moira’s son.

“Well, I’m her stepson, Moira never had children of her own.”

So that’s it, I was right not to recognize him as spawned from Moira. Donald pondered in silence at the soft and charming voice that he was not in the least taken in by. He shook John Menzie’s hand and exchanged easy pleasantries about the weather and crops and his sister Moira. He recoiled a little at the smoothness of the man, but nothing showed in his soft blue eyes or mild expression. He listened as his sister’s stepson carefully led up to his business.

It was explained to him why the access through his croft was so important to John Menzie’s business venture. He allowed the music of the man’s voice to continue without his full attention. He patiently listened to the economics of shell fishing, the employment it would bring and the new life and prosperity it would promise. Menzie had already established small ventures on the island that tied in to his mainland business.

“Will it be your money that will pay for all this?” Donald asked.

“Not exactly,” a quick frown wrinkled Menzie’s forehead. “There’s government grants and employment grants for starting something new in an area like this. It just needs someone like me to start it. With present prices for shellfish, a factory here couldn’t fail. There’ll be quite a bit of my own money as well, but most of it will be from the government.” He grinned in an assumed compliance.

“It’s time something was put back into these islands. Well, shall we walk over to where the site would be and I’ll show you what I have in mind?” Donald reluctantly complied. Menzies seemed not to notice his reticence as he talked of book keeping procedures that would bring in the most profit, the money in it for Donald and the good it would do for the island community.

At the other side of the bay John Menzie paced out the factory’s location, how simple and quick then to transfer the fish from a jetty that would abutt the natural landing stage. He was thorough and persuasive and Callum Mor admired his skill. But it was only with half an ear that he listened. He heard the wash of the sea on the rocks and looked at the welter of flowers about him, whose regimes changed with every month. He was no longer attentive to the words of the young man. His mind was open to a different reality. They walked back from the bay. Menzie felt pleased, mistaking reticence for acceptance.

“You’ll think it over? There’ll be quite a pocket full of money for you if this goes through.”

“Oh, I don’t think that’s at all necessary.”

“This is business, you know,” Menzie smiled expansively.

“You do not understand me Mr. Menzie, I do not wish my pockets to be full.” They were back by the house.

“There will not be any jetty on my land for your factory.”

John Menzie stood in silence, but only for a moment.

“Why not?” There was no melody in the voice now, just a controlled harshness. Donald took his time, picking up his shotgun to resume its cleaning.

“There may be a lot you think I don’t understand but this much I do know. You will no doubt be here to receive the government’s bounty in the name of helping this island. But I will not expect you to be here the moment there is a draw on your own finances.” He looked shrewdly at the young man whose face was reddening with anger. “Dreams will be raised, there’ll be a brief life for a few families but you will leave richer and it will be this island that will remain poor. It is better that the flowers and gulls maintain their ascendancy on that bit of my land. They have more respect for it than you.”

A mixture of emotion struggled for expression in John Menzie’s face. He burst out angrily “You bloody old fool. Do you think you can hold back progress?”

Donald smiled at him and said slowly “I think I may be just doing that very thing.” “You’ll not stop me, there are other places and other people who can use money,” Menzie snarled.

Donald calmly indicated with the gun barrel that the conversation was over. Menzie stood for only a moment before striding swiftly away, his green yachting boots brought a smile of amusement as Donald lifted the gun. A blast from the shotgun roared over the morning’s stillness. Menzie threw himself to the ground and rolled into a ditch, and frantically searched himself for pellet wounds. There were none. Slowly he drew himself erect and looked back to where the old man stood with the shotgun in his hands. Donald pointed to the hare that lay twitching in its death throes not thirty yards from the ditch that harboured Menzie.

“It’s a terrible mess you’re making of your fine suit, Mr. Menzie,” he called.

Menzie noticed the green slime on his shoulder and mud on his knees and in fury strode to the already dead hare and was due to kick it until he noticed the shotgun aimed casually in his direction. He spun on his heel and quickened his step. Every time he turned to look over his shoulder he would see the old man stalking him, keeping an easy pace with him. Twice more the shotgun roared, and twice more did John Menzie throw himself to the ground only to have yet another dead hare pointed out to him.

He reached the road and panting in fury and hysteria. Moira was there with the car. She had watched her stepson set the hares coursing for her brother’s gun and relished that her arrogant stepson should be reduced to a frustrated sobbing. He climbed into the seat beside her, struggling for control. She sat silent, coolly smoking a cigarette. She did not offer him one but waited for her brother to walk to the car. He came slowly with the shotgun in the crook of his arm and stood by her window.

“It’s a fine day Moira.”

“Not if you are a hare or a businessman, surely.”

He chuckled softly at her humour.

“Here’s something for your dinner.”

“It’s a good day for shooting, Donald.”

“It is at that.”

They enjoyed an almost private amusement, ignoring the man staring fixedly through the windscreen. Moira exulted in her brother’s surprising invincibility and accepted the hares he held out to her. She smiled openly at him, her brother, without guile or bitterness tracing her features. “Thank you Donald and God’s blessings with you.”

“And with you Moira.”

She drove away. He knew he would not see her again but rejoiced that they could give God’s blessing to one another. Donald glanced at the darkening autumn sky and knew there would soon be a first snow on Mount Doracher. He smiled to himself and returned to his solitude and isolation, relieved once more to shun the company of his fellow men.

 

 

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