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Cairistiona – A Love Story

by Mary McGannon


    Chrissy MacNeil became aware of the sun on her face long before she opened her eyes. It streamed in through the chink in the curtains warming everything it encompassed. She reached across the bed to wake her husband, before the memory flooded back, and tears welled up and spilled over her lashes, and trickled down her cheeks. It had been three weeks since the accident, and time was not healing her grief. Her existence had become a long grey tunnel, with no glimmer of light to help her to carry on. She turned over and buried her face in the pillow and sobbed.
   
Frazer had lived on the island all his life, except for the three years he was away at Glasgow University, and there he had met Chrissy. They had been introduced at a mutual friend’s party, and before the evening was over they had fallen in love. They were married as soon as Frazer had finished his degree in Marine Engineering, and he had tried unsuccessfully to obtain work on the west coast. After three months they decide to return to Frazer’s home in the Hebrides, where he owned the croft left to him by his parents, and he could resume his life as a fisherman. Chrissy had never lived outside of the grey granite city, and was at first apprehensive at living in so remote a place, but the barren beauty of the island, its peace and tranquillity, and the warm friendliness of the islanders soon won her over, and her life in Glasgow became a dim memory. She was happy on the croft, and found plenty to occupy her days when her husband was out in the trawlers. Her hard work in creating a decent-sized vegetable garden was already beginning to show results, with the small green shoots pushing their way through the windswept soil, and Frazer no longer teased her about her bread being hard enough to build the peat shed.
   
The day he left had been sunny, with blue skies and very little wind. Ideal weather. It was to be a short trip, as the herring were not far away, and the weather report was good. They had woken early and made love, and lain in each others’ arms until it was time to get up, and when it was time to go they walked down to the harbour hand in hand. No need to be anxious. He would be home before dark, and they would have herring for supper. She purchased some groceries in the little general store and exchanged a few pleasantries with the post mistress before walking home along the shore, pausing now and then to pick up a shell, or a piece of driftwood. The day passed all too quickly, and at six o’clock she was pulling on her jacket and hurrying down to the harbour to meet the boats with the other wives and mothers. The little island in the mouth of the bay was alive with the sound of seals diving and calling to each other, and their playful cries echoed across the water. Other women were already waiting, wrapped against the wind in warm jacket or shawls. Her neighbour, Morag McKenzie, came over to Chrissy and greeted her with a warm smile;
   
“I’ve no’ seen ye for a while. Why don’t ye come and have a cup o’ tea tomorrow, if the men are awa’. We’ll have a wee blether”.
    “Thank you, Morag, I’d like that. It gets a bit quiet when Frazer’s away”.
    The two women chatted for a while, and Chrissy wondered how the older woman could come down to the quay, day after day, and be so cheerful, waiting for her son to return, when ten years before, she had waited for her husband, who did not come back. She had great admiration for this woman, and felt a bond with her that she had not felt for her own mother.
   
Two hours dragged by. The women were getting worried. They shouldn’t be this late, but then the fishing smacks appeared over the horizon, black shapes in the growing darkness. There were three in all and they took an age to reach the safety of the harbour. Seagulls swooped screaming overhead, attracted by the heaps of silvery fish lying on the decks, and the more daring ones were lucky, swooping down in audacity to claim their share of the catch.
   
As each man walked down the gangplank no word of greeting was exchanged with those waiting on the quay. The captain of the ‘Rosie’ walked towards Chrissy. His face looked tired and drawn, and his shoulders drooped from weariness. He looked at Chrissy and before he spoke she knew that something was dreadfully wrong.
   
“Chrissy lass,” he began, then fumbled for the words that would not come.
    “Donal, what is it? Where’s Frazer?”
    Her heart missed a beat and her mouth dried up. She scanned the tiny quayside, expecting to see him walking down the gangway.
    “Where’s Frazer?” she repeated urgently.
   
The captain laid a hand on her shoulder.
   
“I’ve some bad news. There was an accident; he slipped overboard just as we were headin’ back. He wasn’t missed for a minute or two, and when we turned back he was gone. I’m sorry, lass. We searched for an hour, and the Air-Sea Rescue are looking now. I’ve tae phone tae see if there’s any news.”   
   
He walked towards the wooden shed which served as the office, and she numbly followed. Morag put her arm around Chrissy’s shoulder as they stood outside the hut waiting for Donal to come out. At last he did, but there had been no news. Someone suggested that they go to the church and pray. The entire community knelt in the pews, each man and woman sharing in the grief. It had happened many times before, and each time was worse than the last. Chrissy sat very still, feeling numb. She thought of everything except what was happening; the cabbages growing in her garden, the fire dying in the grate, and the peat that she must fetch in. Her mind could not grasp what was happening to her, what had happened to Frazer.
   
The door squeaked as Donal came into the church. All heads turned to him except Chrissy’s. He shook his head.
   
“They’ve called off the search for tonight.”
    He wearily sat in the nearest seat and covered his face with his hands. Chrissy stood up, and walked woodenly out of the kirk. Morag and her son, Neil, followed, but she was unaware of anybody, and reached her front door before she remembered. It was only when she was alone that she gave way to her grief.
   
Frazer’s body was washed up on the mainland two days later, and he was buried beside his mother and father in the tiny churchyard overlooking the sea and the seal island.   
   
The islanders had all been so caring to Chrissy, sitting with her and taking over the everyday jobs she was unable to do, but at night, when she was alone, she sat by the dying embers of the fire leaving her food untouched, thinking that she would never feel normal again. Eventually, for sheer exhaustion, she slept, and dreamed of a sea with white foamy fingers pulling her down, down through the weeds into the black depths. She woke gasping for air, and cried out for her husband, but he was not there to comfort her.
   
Three weeks passed, and she became aware of the layer of dust on the once polished furniture, and the cold ashes in the fireplace, and making a tremendous effort she cleaned and polished with a fierce energy. She took the rugs into the sunlight and beat away the dirt and the grief. She lit the fire and made a large pot of soup, and baked enough bread for a fortnight. She worked herself into exhaustion and had no appetite for the meal she had prepared. The heat of the fire made her drowsy, and soon her eyes closed and the oblivion of sleep overtook her.
   
Chrissy woke in bed, but could not recall how she had got there. She’d had such a strange dream. Somebody was knocking at her door, and when she opened it a man stood there, wet through. He needed shelter from the rain, and she had brought him in, sat him by the fire, and made him take off his wet clothing so that she could dry it on the rail over the mantel. She’d given him some of Frazer’s clothes, and whilst the soup was heating she cut bread and made tea, and chatted to him, feeling totally at ease. Somehow this stranger made her feel at peace with herself. He ate ravenously, and she sat opposite him and watched as he ate. It was as if Frazer had come back to her, except that he was totally different. Tall and broad, and his eyes were dark deep pools which pierced her very soul. His voice was melodic and low, but she was unable to recall any of the conversation they had. The dream puzzled her for the rest of the day. In fact, it dominated her thoughts. A psychiatrist would have a simple explanation, she thought.   
   
The bread bin was almost empty, and most of the soup had gone. No wonder she was having strange dreams, eating that much food in the middle of the night. It’s a wonder she didn’t have chronic indigestion.
   
The next night her dream returned. She opened the door before he had even knocked, and was glad for him to be there. They talked, and he ate, but this time she sat on a rug by his feet, and rested her head on his knee, and he stroked her hair. Where he came from he did not say, and she did not ask. It was as if he belonged with her, was part of her very existence, and she felt a joyous happiness. He lifted her and carried her to the bed.
   
The sense of disappointment she felt when she woke the next morning stayed with her all day, and she decided to visit Morag, and the older woman welcomed her warmly, remarking that she was beginning to look more like her old self.
   
The conversation turned to the subject of visitors to the island.
   
“Have there been any strangers this year?” she asked.
    “It’s a wee bit early yet for visitors”, Morag replied, “though I should think it’ll be quite soon, if this guid weather keeps up. What are ye plannin’ on doing? Will ye stay wi’ us, or gang awa’ back tae the city?”
   
It was something she had not given much thought to, until now. She was not in need of money, as Frazer’s life insurance would keep her in relative comfort for a good while, but she had to do something to occupy her days. When she had met her husband she had just become established as a tapestry weaver, and was beginning to obtain some fairly lucrative commissions. Why not start again, and sell to the tourists. She had her frames, warping thread and several boxes of yarn, and the island was full of subject matter for her to draw on. She might even have enough work for an exhibition in Glasgow at the end of the year.
   
“I could never go back now,” she told her friend.
    “I belong here, though my family will try and pursuade me to return. I should really visit them sometime soon.”
    Her parents had not been able to get to the funeral as her father had a weak heart, though they had sent a large wreath, and a long letter to her, hinting that now she would be able to go home to live with them.
   
It was time for her to go. She was fired with enthusiasm and as soon as she got back to the house she started to unpack the brightly-coloured yarns and warp up one of the frames. She had almost forgotten the dreams as the skies grew dark and the light from the oil-lamp cast shadowy fingers over the white-painted walls.
   
She could not remember going to sleep, but she must have done. He stood in the doorway, and she ran into his arms, joyful at his return. There was no guilt in her feelings. He was Frazer, even though everything about this man was different. It was like sleeping in her Granny’s feather bed. She felt safe and warm, and longed for her dream to stay for ever, knowing that when she woke in the morning she would be alone.
   
She slept late, and woke feeling utterly exhausted. There were dark circles around her grey eyes, and she looked pale and drawn. She made toast and coffee, but before she’d even taken a sip from the cup her stomach heaved, and she was violently sick. It was three weeks since the dreams had started, and she was no longer in control of reality.
   
“I’m going mad” she thought, as she dragged the brush through her red curls. The tugging hurt her scalp, and she threw the hairbrush on the floor and burst into a flood of tears. The crying helped, and she felt calmer.
   
Footsteps crunched up the path, and she jumped up and rubbed her face with a towel, before opening the door. It was Neil McKenzie, and he greeted her with a smile.
   
“Good morning, Chrissy. I hope I’m no’ disturbing you”.
    He was shocked to see how tired she looked.
    “Hello, Neil. Come in out of the cold. I’m sorry about the state of the place,” she indicated a chair, and he sat down.
    “Would you like a cup of tea?”
    “No thank you. I came to see if you wanted anything in Mallaig. I’m going across this morning to get some things for my mother, and I thought there might be something ye’d be wanting.”
    “Neil, would you mind if I came with you? I would like to see Doctor Ross, and there are a few things I need.”
   
He was delighted that she was coming with him. They could make a day of it, and have some lunch. He had always liked Chrissy, and perhaps in time she would grow to be more than a friend.
   
It took her ten minutes to get ready, and she felt a pang of excitement as the boat sped towards the coast. After arranging a meeting-place with Neil, she walked to the surgery. There was not long to wait, and soon she was telling the doctor about her dreams, and the effect they were having on her life.
   
“Mrs MacNeil, you have had a terrible shock, losing your husband, and the mind can react in strange ways after such a loss. But I doubt if it will be a long-term situation. You are a bit run down, and by the look of you you’re not eating properly. Have you lost weight since the accident?”
    “I think so. My clothes are getting too big for me, and I don’t seem to have much appetite during the day.”
   
Dr. Ross placed his bi-focals firmly on his nose and took a prescription pad from a drawer.
   
“I just want to check you over. Lie down on the couch, please.”
    The examination did not take long, and he handed her a prescription for a tonic.
    “I don’t want to give you sleeping tablets; that’s a last resort, and I think that once you are eating normally again a good night’s sleep will follow. By the way, have you been sick at all?”
    She nodded.
    “Why, yes. As a matter of fact I was this morning when I got up. It was the smell of the coffee.”
   
The doctor motioned her to sit down again.
    “Have you any tenderness in your breasts”.
    She had, just a little, and thought it was premenstrual tension.
    “I will be coming to the island for a surgery on Thursday. I want you to bring in a sample of your urine, the first of the day.”
    Chrissy felt alarmed.
    “What do you think is wrong with me?” she asked.
    “Nothing’s wrong, so don’t worry. I just need to do a few tests. Goodbye for now. We’ll see you on Thursday.”
    He opened the door for her, and she walked past the wool shop, totally forgetting the other reason for coming here. Neil was waiting for her, and they had a very enjoyable lunch. She was surprised how hungry she was. It must be the sea air, but when the waiter asked if she would like coffee she declined and was relieved that Neil ordered tea. They left the hotel and spent some time looking in the shops. It was only when they began walking towards the harbour that she remembered the yarn, and they turned back towards town. She spent almost an hour choosing different colours and textures, and left the shop with three large bags full of materials for her tapestries. Neil had been so patient, and she apologised for delaying him. He shook his head and grinned at her.
   
“I’m enjoying myself. It makes a pleasant change from the island; we should come again soon,” he told her.
   
The sea was smooth, and the boat was soon heading towards home. In no time they were passing the seal colony, and one large bull seal swam alongside until they had reached the quay, then it turned and dived. Chrissy watched it return to its companions. This was the first time she had actually been within touching distance of a seal.
   
It had been a good day, she reflected, as she and Neil walked towards her croft with arms full of carrier bags. She put the kettle to boil, but he refused her offer of tea, as his mother would be waiting for her parcels, and supper would be ready.
   
“Since my father was drowned she worries when I go to sea,” he told her, then stopped, feeling embarrassed.
    “Thank you for coming with me. I usually just get what I need and come back straight away.”
    He stood up and collected his mother’s purchases, then put them down again, and took a small package from his pocket.
    “I bought this for you, as a thank you for a lovely day,” he said handing it to her.
   
Chrissy unwrapped a small blue box. Inside it lay a silver brooch in the form of a stylised horse, with filigree waves undulating around its body.
   
“It’s beautiful, Neil. Thank you. She reached up and kissed his cheek, and he flushed with embarrassment.
    “It’s from Shetland; they were found during an excavation and this is a copy of one of them. I thought you might like it.”
   
“I do Neil, very much, and I shall always treasure it. You are so kind, and thank you again, for this and for the day. I had a wonderful time.”
   
It is amazing just how tired a change of environment can make one feel. She lit the fire and lay for a while on the settee.
   
“Cairistiona.”
    The name came softly through her subconscious. He was here, she must wake up, open her eyes. He was kneeling by the settee, and brushed away a wisp of hair from her sleep-tousled face.
   
“You are real.”
    The words came as a whisper, and she buried her face in his chest. He smelled of the sea, his shirt rough and homespun. They sat without speaking, content just to be together, until Chrissy broke the silence.
   
“I know nothing, except that I love you. I don’t know your name, or what you do, or where you live.”
   
“Do you really need to know these things?”
    She nodded.
    “I am a fisherman, and I live where there are good fish to be caught. I’m called Tang, but I am who you wish me to be.
    “Today you looked so happy with the young neighbour. Will you wed him?”
   
“You saw me today?”
    Had he been in Mallaig?
    “Neil is a friend, and I won’t marry him, she replied.
   
“He wishes to wed you, I have seen it in his eyes”.
    Chrissy shook her head.
    “No, I love only you”.
   
Several hours passed, and dawn was breaking on the horizon when he stood up.
   
“Cairistiona, it is time for me to go. I shall not return for many months”.
    His eyes held a great sorrow, and she jumped up in alarm.
   
“Where are you going? Oh please let me go with you”.
    She clung to him, willing him to stay, but he sadly shook his head, and held her tightly in his arms.
   
“I cannot take you with me. The journey will be long and dangerous, and you have another task before I return, and must become strong for what is ahead”
   
“What do you mean? I cannot be strong if you are not here. You might not come, back, and without you I cannot exist”.
    Large tears rolled down her cheeks, and he kissed them away.
   
“I promise you that I shall come back, and then you will come with me, both of you,” he said, and carried her to the bed.
    “Now sleep, my love, and when you wake I shall be a dim memory until I return. You will wait for me?”
   
“For ever” she replied, already slipping into sleep. He silently left her there, wanting to stay, but knowing that this was not possible.
   
Thursday appeared, wet and angry, and she doubted whether Doctor Ross would be at the surgery, but a wee storm would not keep him from his patients. He tested the sample she had brought, and with a beaming smile informed her that she was pregnant. From the dates she gave him the baby would be born around December 25th. The initial shock was soon overtaken by a feeling of intense happiness and she left the surgery eager to share the news with her friends. Morag was delighted for her, and like an expectant grandmother she began making plans with Chrissy for converting the spare room into a nursery, and rummaged about in her wool bag for yarn suitable for baby garments.
   
Neil was out bringing some day visitors from the mainland, and she could not wait for him to come home and hear the good news. He received it with a frown.
   
“The bairn will need a father. Perhaps now she will leave us and go home tae Glasgow.”
   
“I do not think she will,” said Morag.
    “She is planning to turn her wee back room intae a nursery for the bairn, and maybe you would give her a bit of a hand, when ye’ve the time.”
   
“Of course” agreed her son. He had plans of his own.
   
The summer was warm and cloudless, and the fine weather brought the tourists in their hundreds. Chrissy was asked if she could spare the time to work in the little craft and gift shop down by the harbour two days a week, she was pleased to be working and meeting people. She felt extremely fit and slept well. The morning sickness had passed, but she still was unable to drink coffee. Neil was being most attentive, taking her to the ceilidhs which were held every two weeks, and showing her where the pale pink sea convolvulus grew. He told her that Bonnie Prince Charlie had planted them there when he first set foot on Scottish soil. It was a legend in which the islanders truly believed, and each morning she picked a fresh bunch to place in the little blue vase beside a photograph of Frazer.
   
In early September she sat in the shop with her tapestry frame, when the postmistress came puffing in, with a face beetroot red.
   
“Chrissy, your mother is on the telephone, and wishes to talk tae ye. It sounds urgent.”
   
“Thank you, Anne. I’ll have to shut the shop for a while” she replied, and the two women hurried down to the post office and general store.
   
It was bad news. Her father had had a massive heart attack, and was in intensive care at the Infirmary. He was not expected to last and could Chrissy get down before it was too late.
   
“I’ll be there as soon as I am able,” she promised.
   
Neil had just come in with some tourists, and when he heard her news he told her to go home and pack, and he would find a replacement in the shop. If they hurried she could catch the two o’clock bus from Mallaig, and with luck, she could get connections without waiting too long.
   
The boat arrived long before the bus was due, and neither spoke until they waited at the stop. Neil wanted to take her in his arms and hold her, but she looked so strained and pale that he was frightened of hurting her.
   
“It’s been a terrible shock for you.”
    She nodded dumbly.
    “I should be coming with you; it’s a long journey.”
   
“I’ll be alright. I just hope I’m not too late” she said, and reached out to take his hand.
    “You are very good to me, Neil. You give so much, and ask nothing in return.”
   
“Chrissy, you will come back?”
    It was more of a statement than a question.
   
“Of course I will,” she replied, and for the first time since the phone-call she managed to smile.
    “If I’m there for more than a week I’ll write to you, though my mother doesn’t hold out much hope.”
   
At that point the bus arrived, and Neil kissed her and held her tightly for a moment before letting her go, and she was soon seated by the window, waving to the rapidly retreating figure standing alone at the bus-stop.
   
She was lucky with connections, and by 7 o’clock was standing with her mother outside her father’s room. His condition had not altered, and she was allowed in to sit with him for a few minutes.
   
His appearance shocked her. Tubes and wires were protruding from his body, and his skin had a blue-grey pallor. When she held his hand he stirred, and opened his eyes. Her name formed on his lips, although no sound came. She tried hard to fight back the tears. It was only when the nurse came to tell her it was time to go that she cried.
   
They travelled back to the tenement flat in silence, and it was only when they were drinking tea that her mother spoke.
   
“You never told me of your condition.”
   
“I meant to, but somehow I never got round to it. I’m sorry,” Chrissy replied, looking at her mother, who sat with an expression of slight disapproval on her face.
   
“Of course” her mother continued, “you’ll be staying here with me now. You can’t go gallivanting off to some remote island to bring up a child without a father. When it’s born,” she indicated the bulge beneath Chrissy’s dress, “you can get a job, and I will look after it during the day. The shame of it, a baby without a father.”
   
Chrissy tried hard to suppress her mounting anger.
   
“Mother, I’d like to get a few thing straight. Firstly, my baby is not an ‘it’, and secondly, I have every intention of going home as soon as possible. My child had a father, who, had he still been alive, would have been overjoyed with ‘it’. If you don’t mind, I am tired, and would like to go to bed.”
    She stood up, and walked quickly from the room.
   
Her father rallied round for a while, and was able to speak and even sit up once or twice. When she told him of the baby he was delighted. The doctors told her that it was only a temporary respite and so she stayed on, writing to Neil occasionally, and looking forward to his letters, which arrived regularly each week. They were all missing her, and the tourist season had just about finished for the year. When was she coming home?
   
By the beginning of the Christmas season her abdomen had increased in size considerably, and she felt uncomfortable, but still managed to visit her father every day. On Christmas Eve she was sitting holding his hand, when he had a relapse, and she was ushered out of the room. Ten minutes later the surgeon came out, and in answer to the question shook his head.
   
“I’m afraid this one was too much for him. I am sorry” he said.
    She walked slowly out of the hospital, feeling totally alone in the world. Strange, she thought, when Frazer died I had so many friends around me, and here, in this vast city I am alone. She broke the news to her mother, who immediately phoned her sister in Brighton.
   
She eventually replaced the receiver.
    “Aunt Jean has asked me to move in with her, once this is all over. We will have to wait until the baby is born, as I can’t leave you here by yourself.”
   
“How long will you be away?” Chrissy asked, amazed that her mother hadn’t even mentioned her father during the entire conversation.
   
“For good, of course. Aunt Jean has just bought a guest house and now that we are both alone, I’ll be able to help run it. There’s too much work for one person, and it will save the expense of hiring outside help.”
   
They went to bed early, as there were many arrangements to be made for the funeral, and her father’s friends to be told. She lay awake for a long time, and heard her mother crying softly in the next room.
   
It was not a long funeral service, and after everyone had gone, she began to collect plates and glasses. The first spasm of pain came with a violence she could not believe possible. Her mother came hurrying into her room, and made her lie still while she phoned for an ambulance, and her waters broke before it arrived. Her labour lasted for three days, and in the end the baby had to be induced. During that time she went through periods of delirium calling out for him to help her.
   
Joseph Frazer MacNeil was born at 6 a.m. on New Years’ Day, and weighed nine pounds two ounces. He was the first baby to be born in the hospital that year and a great fuss was made of him and his mother, with photographers and reporters from the papers treating them both as celebrities. She thought him the most beautiful baby she had ever seen, with his thatch of jet-black hair and large dark eyes.
   
“You had a pretty bad time of it” one of the nurses remarked as Chrissy sat feeding the baby one day.
    “It’s a great pity your husband could not be here with you.”
   
“He’s dead” replied Chrissy.
    “He was a fisherman and was drowned before I knew that we were to have a baby.”
   
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t meaning to pry. Are you staying here now?”
   
“No.”
    She told the nurse about her father, and her intent to return to the island as soon as possible.
    “I live on Eriskay.” she added.
   
All too soon it was time to return to her mother’s flat, and she was sorry in a way to leave, as she had made some friendships among the nurses, and promised that if ever she was in Glasgow she would visit. Soon all her ties with the city would be severed, when her mother had gone. She doubted that there would be any opportunity to come down, unless she had an exhibition here.
   
The packing was well underway, and whilst the baby slept she sorted the few possessions that she wanted to take back and the rest was packed into various bags and boxes for jumble sales and charity shops, and apart from a few items, her mother’s furniture would go to auction. She had never lived in this flat, so it held no lasting memories for her. That evening she sat down after Joseph was settled in bed, and wrote a long letter to Neil, enclosing one of the cuttings from the Evening Herald, and telling him of her intention to return the following week.
   
The auctioneers men arrived early, and emptied the flat quickly, and soon afterwards the taxi arrived to take them to Glasgow Central station. Her mother’s train arrived first, and they promised to keep in touch, and Chrissy found a porter to take the accumulated possessions to her platform. The baby slept soundly until they were on the last stage of the journey, when he woke for a feed. At this time of year not many people went that far North, and she had the bus pretty well to herself, and was able to feed and change him in comfort. The hills were covered with snow, and it was much colder than in Glasgow, but she was too excited to notice. She hoped that there was somebody to take her across to the island, otherwise she would have to stay in Mallaig for the night. The bus sped through the deserted countryside. She had been away for four months, and so much had happened in that time. It would be good to be back. She dozed for a while, and woke up suddenly as the bus jerked to a halt. There was Neil grinning at her through the window. She might have guessed that he’d be there to meet her!
   
There were at least thirty people to meet her on the quay, including Morag, and by the time they reached home the carry-cot was covered with gifts for the baby. The kitchen looked different, brighter, and so did the rest of the house. Neil had used all his spare time in painting the house, and a warm fire was burning and from the range came delicious smells. She was moved to tears by the kindness of her neighbours. This was the best place in the world in which to bring up her baby. Life was going to be good for them.
   
Winter passed into spring, and spring into summer. Baby Joe grew very quickly, and was strong and healthy. Each day she carried him down to the beach. Sometimes Neil would go with them, and they would take it in turns to watch the baby whilst the other went for a swim. He visited her most days now, and she knew that it was only a matter of time before he plucked up the courage to ask her to marry him, and when he did she was not sure what her answer would be. She cared for him far too much to hurt his feelings. He did propose to her, one evening when they had returned from a walk, and although she was expecting it, it still came as a shock. She thought carefully before she replied.
   
“Dear Neil, I care for you more than you’ll ever know. I miss you when you’re not around, and worry when you are out fishing, and have come to rely on you totally, but I don’t feel ready to marry just yet. I still have too many memories which hurt. I guess I’m a bit scared of losing you. We are trapped by the sea, and it is your living. I’m not refusing you; it’s just too soon. Please give me some time.”
   
He walked home deep in thought. Supposing he were to stop fishing. What would he do to earn a living on the island? There was little else that would earn him enough to keep a family, and he could see her point of view. He’d just have to wait until she was ready.
   
Chrissy was waiting, too, but for what she did not know. Somewhere in the back of her memory was a thought trying to escape. It had prevented her from sayin ‘yes’ to Neil. She concentrated on what it might be, but could only remember a vague dream. She shook her head and began preparing the bath water for Joe.
   
There had been good summers and bad summers, and this was a particularly splendid one. Joe was now four years old, and had grown into an exceptionally beautiful child, with an eagerness to learn well beyond his years. Chrissy had read to him from an early age, and now he was able to read and write simple sentences. He was due to start school in September, and although it would be good for him, she was not looking forward to five days a week without him, a feeling shared by almost every mother when her child starts school, she reflected. Perhaps she should marry Neil. He has asked her every year, and each time she had made an excuse, and she didn’t know why. He loved Joe, and treated him as if he were his own son, and would be the best of fathers, and a good husband.
   
It was great to lie on the soft white sand, though she must be careful not to overdo it. She sat watching her son, who was calling to the seals, and making a pretty good imitation of their cry. There were some pink convolvulus on the rocks nearby, and she went over to pick some. Suddenly she heard Joe calling to someone, and she turned to the sound. A man was coming from the sea, and Joe was running to meet him. Now she remembered, and understood why she could not go with him. She began running and soon she was in his arms, Joe clinging to his father’s neck.
   
“You have done well.” he said, looking with pride at his son.
    “I couldn’t remember; you have been gone for such a long time. You said that you would take us with you. Is it far?”
    He shook his head, and smiled.
    “Are you ready?”
    They both nodded, and three bodies dived into the sea.
   
On the seal island two grey seals lay apart from the rest of the colony, sunning themselves on a rock. They watched indulgently the young pup which dived in and out of the sea spray, enjoying the day that was in it.

‘I am a man upon the land
I am a selchie in the sea
And when I’m far frae every strand
My dwelling is in Sule Skerrie.

It shall come to pass on a summer’s day
When the sun shines hot on every stone
That I shall tak’ my little young son
And teach him for tae swim the foam’


________

Taken from ‘Inside Outside’ (1990), pages 61-71.



Mary McGannon
 

Donough MacNamara