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Solace
Karen Campbell

 

A patch of light, square on the deck where sun slants through slit glass. Three lines of bright; latticing wooden planks. His daughter dancing over it, hopscotching with plastic sandals, pink cloth flowers wobbling above her toes. She missed her footing as the boat slewed, its side thumping against rubber quay tyres. He steadied her, pointed over the railings to distract the sniffs that were bound to come. They watched the man chuck the rope on the jetty, then jump across, catching up what he'd thrown. Tying it two times, three times, in magic knots that only men with sea-blood and Boy Scouts knew. Down clanged the gang plank, and they followed the herd, shuffling over metal over oil-scummed sea. Diesel drowned out salt, though whiffs like seaweed nipped his nose when he turned his head to check. Check they'd got everything – buckets, bags, hands. He turned again, trying to recognise the smell. Maybe it was sewage.


His son refused to hold him. Stocky legs in baggy shorts, he stomped ahead. Bursting anger like plooks again. His daughter's warm flesh in his. Flesh he'd made, now separate. The sun burned at his neck, his thinning hair and he wished he'd brought the sun cream.


"Daddy?"

"Uh huh?" He had to keep an eye on Michael. The boy had wormed himself between the moving crowd and was halfway up the harbour.


"What country's this?"

He looked down at her, confused."What d'you mean? It's Scotland."

She screwed her eyes against the sun. "But we live in Scotland."

"That's right. This is just another bit of it." Michael was disappearing now, towards the road where the caravans and lorries and vans were chugging.

Louise stopped walking, pulled at his fingers. "But we were on a boat. And it's all sunny - like when we went to Yorka."

"MA- jorca," he corrected. "C'mon Mrs Slow-coach. Hurry up and we'll get an ice cream."

"Do we not live in Scotland?"

"Yes, yes we do. Scotland is the country, then there are big cities and towns and wee villages all in it. And islands too – this is an island. Quick now, quick, we need to find Michael."

"He says I smell."

"No he doesn't."


The passengers were dispersing, no longer an amorphous mass of pale legs and rounded shoulders. Some were climbing on a bus, others drifting into a small brown cabin that said Tourist Office in sticky letters across the glass door. At the same time, queuing cars and embarking people were snaking forwards, more purposeful and edgy. They'd had their visit and they didn't want to miss the boat. A small van jooked in front of a motorhome with foreign plates. The ferry guy stopped him, tapped the bonnet and waved him back, like a pupil being sent from the room.

"Does. He said 'I think I think I smell a stink…'"

"Well, he didn't mean it."

"Does so. I hate him. He's a big jobbie."

"Louise! That's enough, d'you hear?"


Shit. The blubbing had started, her pretty face puckered in a weeping sore. Sarah would have said the right thing – hearty, cheery with just a hint of threat, and it would have dried in an instant. He didn't know what to say. He squeezed her hand. "Look, I'll get you an ice cream, okay?"


Michael was waiting by the roadside, back pressed into a lamppost, hands in pockets, cap pulled down. "What kept you?" he scowled at his father.

"I'm getting an ice cream." Louise's tongue was out, sing-song whiny for maximum effect.

Instantly, the brittle cracked, like toffee apple crazing. "That's not fair. She always gets everything…"

He let go of his daughter's hand, shifted the bag to let the blood untingle. "Michael, I am getting you both an ice cream."


The ferry's hooter signalled its intent. The men let the white van on – just, and the engines roared in reverse as the boat churned and cleaved its way from port. People waved from quay and decks.


Michael shrugged. "Don't want one anyway."


They crossed the road, which had calmed now the boat was away. A long row of painted houses lay on the other side. Scarlets and turquoise, lemon and mauve, they were famous just for their colour. For daring to not be white or grey, and be in Scotland. There were pubs and wee restaurants, two petrol pumps and a hotel. Above the first row, higher up the cliff, was the 'top village'. That was what his dad had called it. The houses there were screened by trees and distance, but they looked more muted. Sarah never bothered what colour their bedroom was painted, preferring to focus on the living room. Stencilling and washing, distressing and gilding, because that's what people saw. It was the top village his dad had been born, in a flat above an ironmonger's. He looked upwards, one hand shielding his eyes, forcing his neck against gravity and bone until he felt dizzy. It looked too far to climb.


There was a shop in the main street, with children's fishing nets flapping outside. Blow- up balls and shuddering windmills bounced and whirred round the door, and the window held pipe tobacco and penknives and boxes made of shells. A board outside showed three skipping children sucking on ice-lollies. "Here we go," he said. "We'll get something in here."


He bought Louise a Rocket, as zinging fresh and lurid as the houses in the bay. Michael refused again, waited until his father had pocketed his wallet and was licking at his cone.


Then he said, "I'll have a Magnum."


They walked along the front, dribbling melting iciness in their teeth and on their chins, hot sun on their arms and faces. Sharp tangs of salt and vinegar stung from an open window and he could hear the sound of a television inside. Michael kicked a can along the pavement.


"Don't do that, Michael, eh?"

One last kick, shot across the gutter. "This place is crap."


A little away from the village was a shingle beach. Michael wanted to see the rockpools. Well, he suggested they go and look, and Michael shrugged. They crossed back over the road, towards the sea. A frill of spiky grass trimmed the edge between hard tar and shore, and he held the whipping stalks apart so they wouldn't hurt his daughter's legs. A small slope down, then their feet crunching tiny shells and Louise squealing as her sandals sank in the jaggies. He picked her up, gave her a coalie back because it was quicker and he thought Michael wanted to get to the rocks. He still carried the bag, crooked in one arm. Put the buckets in his teeth. Michael was too far away, and his legs flailed in the yielding carapaces that crumbled beneath his feet. His teeth hurt, and he had to drop the buckets.

"Michael," he called. "Michael. Gie's a hand, eh?"


He left the buckets on the ground. His son was at the rocks, pushing one leg, then the other, scaling like a pallid spider.


"Now you be careful, son."


Louise wanted down, took her shoes off and ran to meet the sea. He watched her splashing in and out of clear-sparked fire. She would chase the liquid, taunting as it ebbed away. Getting closer, braver, till it turned and lashed her, then she'd flee up the beach with her skirt under her oxters and her pants on show. He remembered her as a baby, naked in a white cloth sunhat, taking unsure steps on unsure sand, he on one side, Sarah on the other. Sarah with her arms wide, welcoming them both and Michael running over, offering the baby a shell as her reward.


There was a smooth, flat boulder near his feet. He brushed away the grit, sat down and was surprised by its warmth. He didn't know that stones absorbed heat, then he realised that he did, because once, they'd gone to a restaurant where the chef cooked on hot rocks at your table, sizzling slabs of muscle and skin until it shrivelled and toughened into chewable lumps, and you got to choose your sauce to differentiate between your dish and what your partner was having. A meal wouldn't be a meal if you couldn't taste the other's food, share it and comment on it and it was better than talking about the weather and if she would leave him.


He rested his shoulders against the rock that rose behind him. Sharp like barbs, not warm like his boulder, the splintered stone nagged through his shirt, and he shifted, trying to get comfy. It was so hot, you could have been abroad. The sky, several blues, dark bleeding into light, glowing, moving at the rim of the sun. Curved round everything like the inside of a shell, with its shimmering lustres and he imagined it would be cool to the touch, smooth and tinny – not vapours at all. He took off his shoes and socks, little pieces of greyish fluff remaining on his toes. Shingle tickled beneath tough skin. His feet were large and hairy, with yellow nails and he buried them down till he found cold damp. When Michael was small, he loved to bury his father in the sand when they were at the beach. And he would lie there, let him, even when the weight of sand on chest began to make him breathless. Michael would gather feathers, stones and decorate his captive, poking them into the ochre mound. He'd always build a little pillow too, so daddy's head didn't get sore. Pat him gently with his spade, pat his cheek. Ask why his face felt like the sand.


Louise was coming up the beach. Her skirt was wet and she was crying.

"What's wrong?"

"I fell."

He held out his arm, turned her round. "Where did you fall? Where's sore?"

"In the water, on ma bum. I was shouting for you, daddy."

"Och baby, I'm sorry." He hugged her.

She was shivering. "I want to go home."

"Why don't we get some chips, eh? That'll warm you up. Michael," he shouted, "Michael."


And again. Three times was the norm, but Michael was going for the record. People were looking at him.

"Right Lulu, you sit here, on Daddy's rock, and I'll go and find your brother."

"What if a badman comes?"

"Look, I'll only be a minute."

Her wee legs would never make it. He thought of carrying her. Slithered in green, the rocks looked treacherous. If he just got to the top of the first lot, he'd see Michael, call him over.

"Just you wait here and don't talk to anyone."

Her eyes were brimming. He knelt down beside her. "Tell you what – why don't you see how many of those wee pink shells you can find before I get back?"

"Okay," she sniffed, scuffing through the shingle with her toes.


He climbed onto the first layer of rock. Hoisted flaccid legs with stronger arms. Found a foothold, felt upwards with his hand into a crack. Something soft moved under his fingertips and he lurched back, slipping to the ground.

"Daddy!" screamed Louise.

Michael loomed above him. "Dad," he yelled, scrambling in a headlong abseil.

He lay winded, smarting. Saw his boy tumble through half-shut eyes. "Take your time Mikey. It's okay, I'm okay." He jumped to his feet, wincing as the pain shot up his leg. Tight skin on shin sliced open, grinning pink and red. Slow descent of thick blue blood. He wiped it with his hand, rubbing grit beneath the skin.

"I want ma mummy!" Louise was sobbing, pushing him away. Michael on the ground now, taking his sister's hand.


"C'mon Lulu. Remember Nurse Nancy?"

Louise nodded, sniffing.

"What would she do?"

"Make it better."

He opened the bag his father had been carting all day. Inside were tissues, Savlon, babywipes. Sun cream. "Mum packed it," he muttered. He handed Louise some babywipes. "Now you clean that up for dad, right?" Michael sat his father back on the boulder, scooped some sand to make a ridge. "Put your foot on that dad. You need to keep your leg up."

"Do you?" He could only see the shadow of his son against the sky.

"They told us at school."

Louise wiped his leg, dried it with a tissue, dabbing carefully until the paper began to stick. His mouth was dry, lips too thick. Inside his head was thumping, beating time with his pulse. He needed a drink.

Michael took his father's arm. "Try standing on it now."

He swayed a little, steadied himself. Stomped it on the sand. "That's grand. Brand new."


They walked back to the village, Michael with the bag, Louise with the buckets. At the far side, before the houses started, there was a shop with two plateglass windows. In place of goods were pictures, photos, maps. A model of a Spanish galleon. A tartan swathe, a drum. Historical was painted on the first window, Society on the second. His eye swept over the tat. Even as he was moving on, his brain was latching back like fishhooks under the skin. A faint skip of recognition somewhere, a something he had seen before, on a walnut sideboard in a faded room. He stopped to read the caption.


Men of the 'Treasure Deep' before she set sail on her final voyage.


A long brown photograph, curling from its mount. Half a dozen men, arms folded, sideburns bristling. You couldn't see it, but the second from the left had deep grey eyes and his name was John.


"Michael, look." He pointed at the photo, finger tapping urgently on glass that kept them apart. "That's your grandpa there."

"Where?" The boy wheeled round, searching for his Granda.

"No, not Granda Jo. I mean my grandpa. Your great grandpa. There, in the photo."

"Which one?"

"That one, there."

Michael stared through the glass. Cupped his hands like goggles to block the light. His face was thirsty and his eyes deep grey.

"Let me see, let me see." Louise pushed her brother aside, tugged on her father's belt.

He lifted her up to the window, so her nose pressed against the glass.

"I didn't know you had a grandpa."

Michael wedged back in. "Everyone has a grandpa stupid."

"That's enough Michael. You don't need to be nasty to your sister."


"What's he doing there?" his daughter asked.

"Well, this is where my grandpa lived."

"In that house?"

She was getting heavy; he put her back down. "No. On this island. And my dad – he was born here."

Michael looked at his father. "Why didn't you tell us?"

Before he responded, Louise spoke. "Who's your dad?

"You didn't know him pet. He died when I was a wee boy."

"So he's not Granda Jo?"

"No, that's your mummy's daddy."

She thought for a minute. "So if Peter has a daddy, will he be my other grandpa?"

Michael shoved his sister. "Shut up. He's not your daddy. His stupid dad doesn't count. Why didn't you tell us?" he demanded.

His father shrugged. "I didn't think you'd be interested."

"Can we go in the photie place Daddy?" asked Louise.

"If you like. Do you want to Michael?"

"Yes." He said it fiercely, wavering volumes like his voice had broken. But he was too young for all that. Not yet.


They opened the door and went inside. Transparent dark after the sunlight, and it took a moment for motes to settle, focus to be made. An elderly lady sat in a Bergere chair, stuffing coming loose from the plum brocade cushion, canework on the arms frayed. Her skin like fine paper hung on brittle bones. She raised her eyes from her desk.

"Three is it?"

He hadn't realised there would be a charge. "Oh, yes – em – how much is it?"


He paid the coins asked and they began to browse. The museum was tiny and haphazard, more like a junk shop than a cohesive exhibition. He looked for pictures, clippings about the Treasure Deep, but could find nothing. Ancient sheep bones sat beside pre-war postcards from Oban. The children were getting bored. Twice, he'd had to rescue a pile of artefacts from Louise's grasping hands. Michael was scouring the walls, flapping through charts and maps in an increasingly desultory way. There was nothing there.


"Okay troops, lets go and get some munchies, eh?" He smiled at the old lady. "Always thinking of their stomachs, these two."

Michael came up beside him. "Ask her," he hissed.

"The lady's very busy Michael. Let's go."

Michael brushed past him, up to the desk. "Excuse me," he said.

"Yes, young man? How can I help?"

"Did you know my great grandpa? He was on the 'Treasure Deep'?"

Her brow wrinkled. "The what, dear?"

He interjected, apologetic. "The 'Treasure Deep' – it was a fishing boat – there's a picture of it in your window, that's all. It's not important – we were just here on a day trip… C'mon Michael, it's time we were off."

Michael stood his ground. "What was his name dad?"


"John. His name was John."

"John Cameron. Cameron – that's right dad, isn't it? Like us?"

"Yes son, Cameron."

The old lady shook her head. "Cameron. Cameron. That's not a local name. Hmm no, doesn't ring a bell I'm afraid." She turned her eyes from his son, smiled instead at him. Just like his infant teacher Miss Biggins. That enquiring, silent arch, beckoning him to speak. Insisting on it.

"He lived above an ironmongers - in the top village. Would you know where that might be?"

She pushed her specs back up her nose. "Och, there's no been any shops up there for years."

"Ach well, thanks anyway." He opened the door, ushering the children in front of him.

Birled back as a thought came. "He married a local girl. Alice. Alice Tregear?"

"Och, the Tregears!" The woman got up from her seat and came slowly to the door. She leaned out, one sparrow hand on the door jamb. "You should have said, son. Now, see if you look to your left – just along there. See that bed and breakfast called 'Solas' – that's Margaret Tregear's place. She's an Andrews now, mind, but her faither's still about – Alex. Ask for him."


He thanked the woman, and they made towards the wooden sign. Carved in the shape of a sun, the letters S O L A S pricked in burnt-out black. It sounded like an ice cream, but he thought it meant sun, or light or clear. The door was glossy black, two bay trees in pots by the steps. Three stars on the window and no vacancies. He felt stupid. What would he say? Suddenly, the world seemed very immense. This place, a few hours from his city, and he knew he would never be here again. He wondered at the door. Why black amongst all these colours?

"Are you going to knock dad?"

What would he say? Hello – I'm not mental or anything, but I think I'm your long lost cousin. He wondered at the inside of the door, what colour it would be. He wondered at separate lives that might have twined. That might have shared Christmas feasts and childhood games. That shared some genes, some history.

"Are you going to knock, Dad?" Michael persisted.


He stood, one foot on the doorstep, the other on the pavement. His shoes were brown, too heavy for a day like this. Thick brown leather brogues, not cheap, but they looked it in their stiffness. The cloth of his trousers rubbed at the gouge on his leg, as his foot rested on the step, salt air seeping through the weave.


His hand was there, fist clenched. He could have knocked.


The clenching was hurting now. Skin swelling in summer heat, ready to burst like fat sausages needing pricked. He opened his fingers. In the distance, the ferry hooted for home.