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Craig Bayne
The Island

 

As the plane descended through clouds and geometric wisps of coastline opened up before us, I looked down, taking in the enormity of the bible black sea. We lowered, and the sharp colourless rocks of the cliff edge swung into view, stabbing up from the breaking waves. When I was a child, my father told me stories of brave seamen who, having disrespected the water with boasts of their own brilliance, had been wrecked upon these very rocks and drowned only meters from the island’s shore. I believed him, in the way a child always believes his father, and even today the fear lingered in me. Looking down from the sky, I still felt my own inferiority to the waves.
The plane clunked onto the tarmac, a field of kyloe cattle on one side, the ocean on the other, and all seven passengers aboard the light jet unbuckled themselves. The engine choked into silence, and then there was a slow, pregnant moment with only the sound of waves in it. Behind me were an old couple, locals coming back from a trip to the mainland. They put on their hats and buttoned their heavy overcoats with a certain stern showlessness. We climbed down the stairs and entered the terminal building, really just a vast corrugated barn, and as we stood waiting for our bags in a wordless line, I couldn’t help wondering why so few places are as utterly unchanging as the island. There was the faint hum of an electrical generator, and then the rain began, hammering the tin roof as if ball bearings were being thrown from the clouds. A sodden man creaked in with a wheelbarrow full of suitcases; ours was crumpled at the bottom. Ours? Well, mine. The transition from ‘us’ to ‘I’ may happen quite quickly, but it takes a while to seep in as far as word choice.
Until today I had only come home twice since leaving, and both times I had been brought back grudgingly by my wife. You see, I had left the island on poor terms with my family, and despite my utter determination never to come back, now, so many years later, I would struggle to explain how the disagreement had actually come about. In short, it followed the blueprint of countless similar arguments repeated down through the ages: ambitious youth against the perceived straight jacket of tradition, the child’s solution being exile. I had left intending never to see the island again, intending never even to set foot on the U.K. mainland again, but really, in certain ways, never being able to pin down why I was so angry. But the feeling had always lingered in me, and I carried it around from city to city and continent to continent, growing older and never understanding it, but never giving it up.
The first of my returns was to introduce my wife. I had been living in India for some time, working as an engineer, and had married a local girl from the suburbs of Delhi. Beautiful and elegant, she moved like a silken enchantress, and her face danced through subtle emotions I had never even seen on western women before. In western classical music there are only twelve possible notes and all music is made from combinations of these twelve regimented sounds; in Indian classical music there are thousands of notes, infinitely delicate micro-notes hiding in the cracks between C and C sharp. Just so, her face would glissade through such infinitely subtle expressions that, coming from a basic British background, and even worse from an island, I had to learn to decode and translate them one by one.
I didn’t tell my parents I was getting married, no, I just showed up one day with Aashiyana and introduced her as my wife. This, in itself, had been a lie. We weren’t yet married, but tradition being as it was on the island, it was best to pretend and avoid the gossip of the locals. But of course, the introduction of an Indian seductress was bound to set knitting circles ablaze with rumour, in or out of wedlock.
I will never forget her standing there in the front room, majestic, with a golden sari draped across her slender body – and my family disapproving wordlessly, in dour Calvinist fashion, from the four corners of their whitewashed stone walls. We ate onionless mince and tatties from grey chipped bowls and Aashiyana sent me amazed glances, nudging me under the table and poking the brown and white paste with her fork. We went to bed early and, in our excitement as a young couple, made the old oak bed howl and creak at anything more adventurous than a slow missionary position. We tried our best to restrain ourselves but ended up in fits of laughter, shushing each other through giggles and trying, although in hysterics, to keep going – ‘mince and tattie sex’ we called it, then we gave up completely to the comedy of it all.
*
When I left the airport my father was waiting for me, his old Landrover parked beside the dry stone dyke at the village post office. I got in and explained it all to him: the speed of it had been astounding. There had been no more than three weeks between her complaining of a headache and being moved into the hospice. Even at the end, I mean, at the very end, there had been an unfathomable spark about her, an unworldly life in her eyes – but, in time, her body gave up and even those eyes had closed. I hadn’t cried, I had never cried.
“Well... that’s that,” my father said, lowering his gaze and adjusting his tweed bunnet. He started the Landrover and I buckled my seatbelt in silence.
When we arrived home all the family were there, standing in the kitchen waiting for us. My mother stepped forward and laid a hand upon my shoulder, set a plate of sliced apple and cheese on the table and remarked in a far away tone, ‘Looks like the rain’s on to stay, I’ll bring the dog in’. As if this was some secret code, my brother and sister and aunt and uncle all left the room, and I stood staring at the food. My father hung his oilskin coat up on a peg and sat down to the newspaper. He read the farming section and rolled a cigarette on the kitchen table. The dog burst through the door, jumped up on me, slabbering, then did a lap of the kitchen. My mother came in a moment later, and with the strong arms of an island woman, ushered the collie dog through to the front room. Exploding with energy and affection, it ran from person to person, sniffing legs and lightening the mood.
On my second visit to the Island with Aashiyana, the same dog had taken a bit of a shine to her, and somewhat embarrassingly, had to be dragged outside by the collar. We had come back for my brother’s wedding; I had decided against going but Aashiyana had insisted that we come. I complained throughout the flight, and when we arrived, managed to start an argument by refusing to unpack the suitcase – it was a stupid row but it hung over us all weekend. I had refused to unpack it on the first trip, but then she had said nothing about it; she simply noticed the unpacked case and made it clear that she disapproved. This time, she demanded that it was unpacked – she even tried to unpack it for me: I had shouted and she had cried.
I didn’t resist unpacking because I feared being trapped there; it wasn’t even that I needed to know I could leave at any minute. It was because I refused to admit that I had even come home, refused to submit to the place by settling in, and more than that, I wanted to treat this building with no more significance than a train, or a bus, where your things are locked away from you and your mind is focussed on the end goal – arriving somewhere else. Home was something to be endured, not enjoyed. But none of this could be explained to Aashiyana. She would ask me why I disliked the island so much, and seeing that I struggled to put it into words, she would claim that there was no reason, that I was being a child or ungrateful. I would protest, and she would roll her beautiful eyes and I would feel horrible.
After my brother’s wedding: after the speeches where my father had spoken of the ups and downs of marriage, of the need for compromise and the importance of consideration – I had listened vacantly, drumming my fork – and after the first dance where my mother had cried and squeezed my hand blue, Aashiyana and I had gone for a walk in the potato fields behind the church; both of us stone faced and thinking about the unpacked suitcase.
She kicked rocks across the field with an absent idle sigh – and maybe it was because we were both so determined to stare dogmatically ahead, or maybe it was because we were genuinely so introverted that we had forgotten the outside world, either way, we didn’t notice the young bullock running up behind us until it was meters away and charging at full speed. She had panicked. Frozen to the spot with her arms raised, she had closed her eyes and braced herself.
I too had panicked and frozen, but remembering my Grandfather shouting down a bull when I was a child, I began waving my jacket like a madman; I cursed and roared the names of people I despised. And it worked. Much to my surprise the bull slowed down and just ambled off – the threat of summoning Thatcher, which I believe can be done only by saying her name three times in a mirror, is evidently enough to cripple both beast and man.
We made up afterwards, and although knowing that I was a city boy and that this had been little more than luck, I couldn’t help feeling like a man, like her Neolithic protector from some ridiculous film. And as if to further prove this, we made love beneath a silver birch, freely and openly among the ferns in a way that was impossible on the old creaky bed. But none of this sticks in my mind as much as lying there afterwards, breathless and sweating, our bodies folded around each other. We spoke honestly about many things: I told her about my upbringing on the island and all the reasons why I had left. She told me about rural India, about her family’s past and her hopes for their future, and she had said, not completely without reprimand, “You know, my name... it means ‘beautiful home or nest’... I think that...well...” she trailed off and laid her head on my chest.
*
Back in my parent’s house, the conversation slowly turned to her death. It was my sister who first brought it up. Tentatively, she had asked if I was alright, and if there was anything that I needed. I answered as briefly as I could, without being rude, and then offered to take the dog for a walk. The islanders are of a hardy, short worded disposition, and nobody mentioned that it was raining or that the dog clearly didn’t want to go.
I dragged the poor animal down the path, me in front, pulling, and both our heads lowered to the thistly wind. In the open fields I let him off the leash, and after glancing back towards the house, he ran off headlong into a peat bog – I had neither the energy nor the authority to stop him. I walked on, knowing he would follow behind at a fair distance, and consciously or unconsciously, I wandered in the direction of the potato field by the old church.
It was late autumn and the silver birch had no leaves, the ferns had turned a mushy brown, and despite the rain, I sat down on the spot where we had made love that day. I watched the slow fade of rain clouds on the horizon, all the while thinking about vain fishermen drowned at sea, about Indian classical music, about the unpacked case, about ‘mince and tattie’ sex – and gradually, without any drama, the first tears had come.
But they were not tears for Aashiyana, nor were they for our memories – no, they were tears for my stupid decision to return to the island, tears, even, for coming back to this spot. I realised that my return had been an attempt to fast forward my grief. I had tried to force it out and get it over with, tried to compartmentalise my grieving and tick it off as complete – but far from being in control, it was in control of me.
It’s strange: you can shoulder sorrow through the hardest hours, alone if need be, and without a tear – but something as tiny as a drop of rain, or just a piece of paper falling from a table, can make the whole world collapse. But this is the double edge to sorrow; there is always this strange type of guilt, a twinge of self-reproach, because you know that the thing you are weeping for is the same thing that brought you such delight. Whistling to the dog, I set off home.
The rain faded away as I opened the back door and stepped into the kitchen. I took my jacket off and hung it on the peg beside my father’s oilskin coat - funny how his clothes still dwarfed mine. The dog scurried off into the cupboard, wrapped himself around the water boiler, and I, wet to the bone, went off to my old bedroom. Under the soft light of a table lamp, casting shadows across the floor, I undressed in the whitewashed stone room and climbed into bed.
I was to stay, stay until who knows when. And sensing this fact, understanding it intuitively in the way that only a mother can, she entered the room with a glass of hot chocolate and two biscuits on a tray. A skin had begun to settle on top of the milk, and I looked up at her through childish eyes for the first time in so long. She wore an apron – her ‘pinny’ she would have called it – the same one she had worn when she brought me the same night time treat, on the same tray, so many years ago. All were now aged and worn and slowly fading, including my mother. I took the tray from her, silently, now adopting the strong sensibility of the islanders, and placed it down thankfully on the little bedside table. Then, with a certain unnameable emotion, I took the first of my clothes from the suitcase and began to unpack.

 

 

 

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