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Thanks Be to the World
Healing signifies new life. For Larry, a film actor from Scotland, a process of redemption unfolds on a yearlong trip during which he revisits certain of the locations of the films he has made.
Larry Corbett, a film actor from Scotland, sets off on a trip. He aims to resolve the question of whether acting is something he wants to continue doing. Also in the back of his mind is a wish to find somewhere to settle down. He begins by travelling from Scotland’s Orkney Isles, his nominal base, to Glasgow, where he visits an uncle. While there he receives a letter from a friend and former colleague, Serenity Yunus. They have been out of touch since Serenity was caught up in civil conflict in her native Turkey. She now resides in England with her husband and children.
Larry writes her from Edinburgh. His time there and, afterwards, in London spur recollections of his years in fringe theatre and the breakthrough that led him into the film world. He also recalls his initial encounter with the films of the Turkish director Enis Mert. In Spain he completes a minor film role and recalls the part he played in a Mert-written project. Further travels there and in the Americas bring back memories of the three films he went on to make with Mert. In between times he goes on with the writing of a book. He proceeds to Turkey via Asia only to discover that his beloved mentor has died. Larry concludes his trip with a visit to Serenity, now separated from her husband. She praises his writing. Aware he has no home as such, she invites him to stay with her and the children.
Larry did not know how long he had been stationed by the window when the knock came, bringing him out of his reverie. An hour? Two? More? Impossible to tell. He pulled into the driveway of the house at midday but then allowed time to do as it wished. Out front he perceived the muted sound of traffic on the main road, but within he stood at a dividing line separating the world out there from the one at whose threshold he now presented himself.
Removed from his sanctum, on one side of the divide, everything operated according to man-made time. Buses, ferries, stores, pubs, clubs, museums. The world could not function otherwise. People wanted the hour to fix their lives and destinies. Larry would have loved to play a role in a scenario depicting a world in which the inhabitants break the bond of their time dependence. Alas, he never encountered such a renegade script.
Within the house, the moving hands of a clock or wristwatch held no sway. Years ago, the property drew him first and foremost because of this quality. On the eve of his departure, he closed the door behind him and, as on numerous occasions past, measured the silence in the three bedrooms, the large living room, and the kitchen and dining area – a space he enlarged after taking ownership.
Many people inquired why he maintained a house of such proportions when he, a single man to boot, passed little time there. In fact, the space proved useful whenever guests came to stay, often with the host himself absent, and without doubt Federico and Patricia Tintoré appreciated the room when Larry called on them to live-in for a spell.
Everything looked different now. The unsold furniture and fixtures hid their contours behind dust covers. Thus their life would be stymied until the new owner came to the rescue in two weeks time. He operated a light switch here and there and ran the tap in the bathroom, adjacent to the bedroom he preferred to stay in, until the water flowed warm. They had heeded his request not to turn off the supply until the following day.
He concluded his reconnoitre in the kitchen / dining area and stopped in front of the northward facing window. He broadened this section of the house with the view of the bay in mind. As a result, the window area more than doubled in size. Larry stood still and listened, unable to hear so much as a whoosh from the direction of the Kirkwall–Stromness road. Outside, the mist and damp of earlier in the day had dissipated, leaving in its wake mildness the equal of that reached on occasions in the fickle summer season.
He ruminated on those factors, or events, in his life that taught him to see in the way a blind man must learn to cognise the physical world, the world the seeing take for granted, and within whose boundaries he will otherwise be adrift. His acquisition of this house in the Orkney Isles, and the resultant opportunities to withdraw from the world and the demands incumbent on the life of a bankable film actor, figured among them.
Here, one who underwent more than enough of the dubious pleasure of being seen could reverse the angle, so to speak, and look without let-up. Whenever he lingered, whether standing or seated, by the window, it took but little time for nature, sometimes in collusion with man, to enthral with its presentations.
Across the water, he pinpointed houses and herds of cattle and sheep grazing upon the slopes, a series of gradients whose shades of green or brown varied according to the season. At a certain time of the year, a yellow crop or flower flourished. He could never recall the name, though someone told him it once.
Looking harder, he sighted the white stanchions marking the goals at either end of a football field, to the right of a building that in former times functioned as an assisted living facility for the ageing if resilient local populace. He harboured fond memories of long summer evenings spent watching figures zigzag the length of the pitch until fading light, hunger, and the desire for liquid refreshment reduced them to a walk. On evenings with amenable breezes, he would open the window a crack and pick up the participants’ repartee.
He became familiar with the view of small craft tethered in the innermost reaches of the bay, near the road that wound through the township before veering north, as well as that of cars, trucks, and buses bound for or returning from Tingwall or Evie, along one of the straighter stretches on the West Mainland.
The ever-changing light and tides captivated him, at times for hours on end. When the tide drew in, he could not stroll more than a few paces round back of the house before sinking ankle deep in water and seaweed, or banging a foot or shin against concealed rocks. Exposed to view at low tide, they resembled enormous clumps of peat stretching for yards in the same direction.
The winds blew strongest in an arc from the northwest to the northeast, Larry discovered early in the days of his tenure. Most often, the clouds, mist, and rain appeared out of the northwestern corner, vanquishing for a passage the aspect he prized. But the rippled water and the inclement, chill weather this presaged excited him too.
An hour of little or no wind ranked as an unusual phenomenon, but one no less revered for its inconstancy. Larry gaped in amazement the first time it came to pass. The islanders recognised wind to be as integral a part of a changeable weather pattern as drizzle and rain. They shared Larry’s astonishment when flags and weather vanes abandoned their habitual dance.
Even on otherwise typical days, all might grow still for an interval, especially around sunset. But he first gazed upon a panorama of virtual immobility at an hour much earlier than the one separating day and night. He remembered feeling as though he stood before a painting. Furthermore, he comprised an integral detail in the scene. He opened the window, closed his eyes to the luminescence shrouding the southwest extension of the island of Shapinsay, and delighted in the sounds, more resonant than usual amid the motionlessness.
When they appeared, the two young daughters of his neighbour three doors to the left vented their exuberance. Larry heard their cries and shouts as clear as if they gallivanted mere feet away. The wind could distort and render uncannily human-like the screeches of gulls and he sometimes mistook the emissions of the neighbour’s girls for them.
With eyes shut, Larry heard as if to the nub of the known universe. From this time dated his practice of listening to the birds – gulls, skuas, hawks, red shanks, herons, geese, ducks, and, his favourites, arctic terns. He learnt their distinctive chatter.
He marvelled too at their flights, their pirouettes, above the water. Thinking of the miscellaneous members of the animal kingdom, Larry felt a strong affinity with birds. Of the many nicknames he garnered at school, Bird came nearest to the mark. Fittingly enough, perhaps, he went on to live life like one of those creatures of the air that migrates with the seasons.
A frequent visitor, a red shank, appeared again on the afternoon destined to be his penultimate one as owner. When the tide ebbed, exposing the rocks, mud, and seaweed, in lit the bird. For seconds at a time, the subtlety of its foraging efforts on the slimy surface caused Larry to lose sight of it against the brown-grey background, the patches where it sought sustenance.
The red shank went about its business with flagrant devotion. Larry marvelled at the way in which it held itself more or less stationary for long stretches. Other species – the famous waders above all – remained grounded for minutes on end too, but the red shank bested them.
Larry wondered if he had imagined the knock. A renewed flurry, however, put paid to his doubt. Typical of the time of year, the more moderate wind around the middle of the afternoon signalled the imminent closing in of the day. The islanders would scarce heed a difference in the length of the days until the hour went on for the warmer season in a matter of weeks.
Larry glanced at the clock above the kitchen sink. Yes, of course, Federico promised to drop in at three. He went to the front door and gave the compact Spaniard a sheepish look. ‘I suppose you’ve been banging away a quarter of an hour, have you?’
‘No bother at all,’ responded Federico.
‘Come in.’ Larry closed the door behind the other man and led him into the kitchen, explaining as he went. ‘I’ll have you know I wasn’t asleep.’
‘What would you call it then?’
‘Reminiscing.’ Larry returned to the place he’d occupied for the greater part of the afternoon while Federico settled in the straight-backed chair opposite. He removed his woollen cap, held it in both hands, and watched the mantle of darkness little by little gain ascendancy. Finally, he turned his eyes on Larry.
‘Why the funereal look?’
‘It does my heart no good, sir, to see the place bare like this.’
‘Oh, Federico. It’ll have life again soon. Two weeks to the day.’
‘But it won’t be you bringing it.’
‘That’s not important. I was only the custodian. We were only the custodians. It’s time to hand over the baton.’ Larry brought two wine glasses from a shelf, uncorked a bottle of Orkney white, and poured full measures for his visitor and himself.
‘Anyway, I invited you for a farewell dram to show my appreciation. So, no long faces, please.’ He sat long enough to savour a mouthful of the inimitable white but then excused himself. Reappearing, he handed an envelope to the Spaniard.
‘Open it and see.’
Federico opened the unsealed flap and withdrew a cheque. Slipping on his glasses, he deciphered the amount. Larry raised a hand the moment Federico looked like objecting to his magnanimity. ‘I know what you’re about to say and you needn’t waste your breath. You can tell that to Patty too. It’s a wee bonus. For services rendered – and that includes your wonderful paella!’ The eyes of the older man moistened at the edges. ‘You’re becoming more like a sentimental Scot every day.’
Federico acknowledged the veracity of this before indicating that he also wished to present something to his erstwhile employer. ‘I’ve never mastered the writing side of the language, but Patty picked this up and we’ve both penned a few lines.’ He handed a card to Larry. ‘You said you’d be transiting Barcelona?’
‘I haven’t been home in years, but you know I’ve lots of relatives in the city. I’ve made a note of several addresses and phone numbers. They all know about you so I’m sure it wouldn’t be a bother.’
Larry expressed his thanks. A momentary silence followed. Lights appeared on the shore opposite, above the main road and in the corner of the village visible from where they sat. ‘As much as I’ve loved looking out over the water in the daytime, I find the spectre at night as enchanting. When it’s pitch-black and clear, you can follow the course of the traffic on the Evie road.’
Federico turned his square head toward the window and watched the headlights of a vehicle pierce the gloom. He drank another mouthful of wine but parried Larry’s offer of a top up. ‘If you don’t mind my saying so, sir, you don’t think selling up was a bit premature?’
‘On the contrary. It was overdue.’
‘Patty and I could’ve – ‘
‘I know you would’ve been happy to move in again,’ said Larry, extending his hand and touching the other’s right wrist. ‘But I don’t think that would’ve been fair.’
‘Have you made any provision for when the year’s up?’
‘No,’ said Larry, looking for a moment as if he had not reflected on the fact for a considerable time. ‘But I like the idea. It forces me, in a way. I’m no longer in the prime of youth, but I can still take a chance.’
Federico went on his way five minutes later, giving the younger man a bear hug in parting. Larry then prepared a meal notable for its frugality. After taking the initial portion, he switched off the main light in the kitchen area, leaving on the one above the stove. It glowed through a length of cloudy plastic. Providing enough illumination for him to eat by, it yet interfered little with his perception of nightfall.
A third glass of the local white, followed by another half to drain the dregs, intensified his sense of relaxation. He let the meal digest for a short time before calling it a night. The overcast evening sky commenced clearing out of the southwest. Larry leaned close to the windowpane and bid the stars winking in the firmament a silent goodnight before taking to his bed, the only one in the house not stripped of pillows and linen.
But the incontestable weight of the moment conspired to imprison sleep. When the desired state still eluded him after an hour, he turned back the sheets and blankets and tiptoed into the living room. With furniture in place, it exuded a sense of generous scope, an impression the partial lack now evident exaggerated.
The new owner agreed to buy the settee, bedecked with flowery patterns, and several armless chairs boasting ribbed backs. He also indicated he could use the television set. Over the years, because it struck him as incongruous in the environs, Larry used it little. Tonight, however, he switched to a station specialising in British productions, both monochrome and colour, dating from post the Second World War.
Later in his career Larry shuddered to think he cut his teeth as a film actor while a contract studio player in England in the mid to late seventies. By coincidence, he stumbled across one of his earliest black and white efforts, a film in which he appeared as a young gun businessman alternately fawning and cunning in his dealings with an associate too naive to realise the advantage being taken of him.
The critics, he recalled, praised his performance in a production otherwise given a lukewarm reception and hastened to underline his ability to convey much in a glance. They heralded him as potentially a fine reactive actor. But seated in an otherwise dark room, with the sound turned down, Larry observed his younger self with a pained look of bemusement.
The comments of those who applauded his effort in the role notwithstanding, Larry detected a mannered quality in his portrayal. Something about his up-and-coming businessman appeared forced and unnatural. He watched a moment longer before switching off, plunging the room in a darkness alleviated only by the afterglow from the set.
On top of a desk in the bedroom sat a handwritten manuscript. Larry drew up a chair and turned on the nearest lamp. In a lilting tenor that sometimes flowed into bass, he began reading the page he wrote when he last worked on the piece.
The weather early the next day bode well for the excursions Larry wished to make in leave-taking. Following a breakfast of bere bannock and jam, he set off in jacket and sweater, at the last moment winding a rune scarf about his neck. He stopped at the general store on his way through town. Monty, the owner, informed him the bere bannock he requested would arrive later that day.
He waved down the first bus he heard approaching from the east. Though not a conventional stop, the driver, a lean young man with close-cropped hair and sporting an earring in his left lobe, applied the brakes and took Larry aboard.
Ten minutes later the bus pulled to a stop in the village of Stenness. Larry made out six-metre high stones in the near distance and ambled toward the road running north-south. Signs indicated the distance to the Standing Stones and, a way beyond the stones, the Ring of Brodgar.
The wind cut across him, but proved no impediment on his walk. He adjusted the scarf round his neck as his feet touched the loose earth and gravel at the shoulder of the road. He did a rapid mental calculation and concluded that he must have come this way at least fifteen times before.
In the past, with a vehicle at his disposal, he made repeated trips in the middle of the night and delighted in the appearance of the stones beneath the stars. How close he felt then to the ancient culture, to the time of the runic alphabet, and to other eras farther removed when the inhabitants communicated in ogham.
Though mute, Larry felt the stones explained everything. And now he approached them once more, their enormity silhouetted against a backdrop of green and blue. Of the original twelve that made up the Neolithic stone circle, only four remained.
He moved around and in between them, strolled close enough to the four survivors to extend a hand and touch their weather-beaten surfaces. Each time he did he felt as if the contact bestowed a blessing on his soul, exactly the benediction he needed at this juncture of his life.
After twenty minutes, he continued to the Ring of Brodgar, a site first visited many years before on a drizzly afternoon one early August. Despite the misty rain and greyness enveloping the stones, he donned a plastic blue poncho and encircled them several times. Then, as now, Larry sensed something intangible.
Where once stood sixty monoliths, only twenty-seven endured natural and human depredation. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the site bore the appellation Temple of the Sun. In that it stood juxtaposed against hills, water, and sky, he felt it an apt designation. The Temple of the Moon, on the other hand, referred to the group a mile to the east. He strode the path six times and then made his way to a mound of earth. There, he dropped to his haunches and ran his hands through the soil in a scooping motion.
On his way back to the main road, while sheep eyed him from behind fences, he thought of his favourite places on the islands: the tract of beach on the Bay of Skaill, beside the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, where he took many a stroll; Walkmill Bay on Scapa Flow, as quiet a place as any he discovered in the archipelago; Rackwick Bay on the island of Hoy, with its vistas of hills and cliffs; the Italian Chapel on the uninhabited isle of Lamb Holm; Binscarth Woods, a short meander from the village; the Midhowe Broch and Cairn and Westness Walk on Rousay, another island replete with heather on its slopes and boasting immense beauty.
One afternoon, undertaking the walk, which in the space of a mile and a half spanned settlements from the Stone Age, the Pictish, and Viking times through to the era of the earls and crofts, he entered the ruins of St. Mary’s Church and Graveyard. Above the mainland, visible across from Eynhallow Sound, the light streaming through tufts of white-grey cloud illuminated giant aerogenerators on the horizon. The movement of their tentacles never failed to remind him of leggy gymnasts turning cartwheels.
On another visit to Rousay – an island featuring hills of note, though it could not lay claim to the great glacial valleys and sandstone cliffs of northern Hoy – he paused on his circumnavigation, near the apex of 750-foot high Blotchniefiold, and beheld the cluster of islands to the north, among them Eday, Sanday, Westray, and Papa Westray. The view surpassed any granted him to that point in time. Elsewhere, he beheld Egilsay and the ruins of St. Magnus Kirk.
Once, at nearby Saviskaill Beach, he ignored the cold and sat for half an hour watching the seals cavorting at the skerry’s edge. Despite their bulk and far from gainly positions on the greasy surface, they moved with alacrity when the need arose. In the water, their natural element, no mermaid could have glided with more grace.
On a Sunday long ago, he journeyed to Shapinsay and visited Balfour Castle, the towers and turrets of which stood out from a distance. On the return journey, the ferry drifted close to a large seal colony, most of the members of which deserted their perches on shore and took to the water in gleeful expectation of the visitors.
Stenness lay halfway to the town of Stromness. Though he never warmed to its slate roofs, alleys, and sea vistas, which reminded him of coastal Scandinavia, Larry decided on a whim to proceed to the coast. For him, it possessed the air of a wayside stop. Indeed, many did little but pass through, fresh off the ferry from Scrabster or bound for the Scottish mainland, ninety minutes away across the Pentland Firth.
He spent an hour scouting Stromness’ alleyways, passing creel houses, doorways, and window frames coated with colourful paint – often tones of pink or blue-grey. He navigated the flagstone paved winding path overlooking the water and then sought respite on a bench.
Another of his favourite walks centred on Binscarth Woods, place of a multitude of ferns. Binscarth House, located near the top of the rise that dissected the woods and led to an expanse of moor and Wasdale Loch, dated from 1850. It impressed in its own right, though it held nothing like the grandeur of the castle on Shapinsay. Larry liked to imagine the chapel that at one time stood on an island in the middle of the loch.
Flowers such as the pink foxglove added touches of brighter colour to a green-grey-blue landscape. The simplicity of the house and its commanding aspect nestled against the woods appealed to his eye. Whenever he walked in the vicinity, he took time to appraise the house’s particular lack of adornment, evident in its uncomplicated lines and windows and chimneys lacking even a whiff of ostentation.
Returning to his village, Larry doubled back to the western edge until he reached the kissing gate that provided access to Binscarth Walk. He passed through and strolled far enough on the springy, dung-laden surface to view the canopy that marked the entrance to the woods.
The air carried an earthy mixture of dung and mud. He sighted two Shetland ponies several yards away. Their dark eyes peeped out from behind long, black fringes while they rollicked in feisty sport. Larry laughed at the gaiety of their play before turning on his heels.
He guessed the bere bannock would be ready by now. From the outside, the general store looked as shuttered as ever. He knew, however, that half a dozen or more people might be within, browsing the shelves. Notices affixed to the inside of the windows, pertaining to everything occurring in the local community, from ceili dances to football games, hampered the view of anyone peering in from outside. Larry passed the solitary petrol pump out front and pushed open the door.
He encountered not a soul. However, he soon detected movement from the direction of a storage area Monty fell back on for the first time when he began retailing more goods than could be stocked on the shelves behind and in front of the counter where he tallied the prices of his customers’ purchases. The proprietor’s balding head appeared.
‘Ehm, I have your bannock. I’ll be with you in a jiffy.’
‘No hurry.’ Monty stacked crates of vegetables in the storage area while Larry browsed left and right. He located another item he wanted amongst a variety of spreads and toppings, none other than a jar of rhubarb jam.
‘One thing I got a taste for living here was this,’ he said, placing the jar on the countertop before Monty, now back at his post.
‘Aye, it’s wonderful stuff,’ agreed Monty, reaching for Larry’s bread.
‘The first time I sampled the Orkney variety was at Balfour years ago. When the lass who led the tour announced we’d be having high tea, rhubarb jam included, I thought to myself, well, you might be, but I certainly won’t! My mother, bless her soul, used to feed us rhubarb, but I never liked the taste. Yet as soon as I tried it that afternoon, I got over my prejudice.’
Monty good-naturedly acknowledged the tale. ‘I hope you find the bannock up to scratch.’
‘Ah yes. Orkney’s own,’ said Larry, unravelling the knot in the plastic wrapping and removing the bread, circular in shape like flat bread, but possessing three times the girth, density, and weight of even a thick pita. Larry held it up and examined it with the meticulousness of a connoisseur. He inhaled its aroma as if to erase any doubt as to its authenticity. ‘It’s the genuine article all right. Seaweed, kelp, algae, peat. Scotland all over!’ Larry concluded, replacing the bere bannock in its plastic.
‘There speaks a man with Orcadia in him.’
‘That’s a compliment. It makes a nice change from being thought of as from down there.’ Larry noticed Monty’s fair complexion flush for an instant. ‘Oh, you’re not the only one to have accused me of that. But once I utter a bit of the ol’ Glaswegian slang, I set them to rights.’ Larry paid for his purchases and waited for Monty to fish his change from the antiquated till.
‘It’s hard to believe we’re no’ goin’ to see you again.’
‘There comes a time, Monty,’ responded Larry. ‘Anyway, you never know your luck. I might be back this way and if so I’ll be sure to pop in.’
‘The old town won’t be able to claim a connection with the film world any longer.’
‘You’ll probably be better off for it and anyway that’s what I liked about you,’ said Larry. ‘You never made a big fuss of me.’ He turned toward the door. ‘Give my best to the wife and bairn.’
‘I will. God bless.’
Continuing to the Evie turnoff, Larry halted at the kerb and glanced skyward. He estimated that at most two hours daylight remained. Reckoning this would be plenty for the walk he aimed to complete, he beared left. He came to the bridge separating the ouse on his left and the bay to the right. Near the far end of the bridge, on the left-hand side of the road, a young boy and girl sat near their discarded bicycles.
They eyed the one destined for other shores in a matter of hours, but did not heed the greeting he uttered from across the way. Larry sensed he carried his air of a wayfarer like a mark upon his forehead. I’ll be here just a while, it seemed to tell everyone who crossed his path and held many back from opening up.
He turned toward the lagoon and regarded the ebb there and on the other side of the bridge. The old mill sat behind the lagoon, nestled in a field of unruly grass. Nature first ascended its walls and pierced the cracks in the roof tiles years ago. Emphatic in her march, she would soon claim victory.
Larry heard the boy and girl gather their bicycles and ride off. They paced one another into the crosswind, the same direction he took a moment later. Making his way up a road leading to a quarry, his attention dwelt on the mansion-like houses to either side of the stretch below the principal ascent and the stateliness of the gardens fronting them. Such a profusion of flowers and what dedication went into their upkeep!
A dream of a walled garden pursued Larry all his life. His only regret about Fjord Havn lay in the fact that his stays never lasted long enough for him to fully sink his fingers in the bounty surrounding the house and cultivate a garden worthy of the name. Coming to the islands, he felt too much in need of another form of repose. But his dream intensified on his trips around the world, especially after he visited Granada.
Walking through town, admiring the fruits of other people’s diligence, helped ameliorate his yearning. But the comeliest of the gardens lining the road leading to the upgrade remained hidden from view until he made his fifth or sixth hike in that direction. He never imagined visual riches of the kind lurked in back of a massive green hedge, trimmed to perfection at the front and rear, above and to either side. Without doubt, the labour of a master craftsman.
One day, Larry passed through the opening behind the hedge. He entered a maze-like enclosure. An array of flowers bordered it along the sides, among them lupines, roses, crocuses, daffodils, gooseberry, daisies, dandelions, and lavender.
After this visit he never forsook an opportunity to step into the enclosure and stand a while in admiration. He never encountered anyone there. Nor did he on his farewell stop. In silence he took leave of every petal and stem. Halfway up the rise, passing a huddle of houses on the left, he became aware of a group of youngsters taking turns bouncing up and down on a trampoline.
‘Are you enjoyin’ your walk?’ the one on the rubber called out in mid-flight.
Larry gestured in the affirmative and proceeded. Minutes later, he stopped by the quarry, beside a heap of stones intended, he thought, to remind the passer-by of Stenness’ stones to the west. He contemplated all that lay spread out before him, the play of light on township, bay, fields, and hills. Nearby, the terrain dipped and then climbed toward a cairn. He set off in the direction of the nearest downgrade, over terrain grazed into infertility in places and rutted to depths of several inches elsewhere.
Nearing a fence, he roused the attention of a herd of cows chewing their cuds on the other side of the wire. They glanced round on his approach, but held their positions until he came closer. Larry made so bold as to seize a clump of grass and hold it aloft for whichever of the young cows might accept the endowment. Several sniffed at it. The solitary black member of the herd appeared as if she might go one step further only to shy away at the last.
Larry mounted another fence and shortly thereafter crested the rise behind the cairn. As a schoolboy in Paisley, he ingested sporadic facts about the islands scattered in the sea to the north of the mainland, their Neolithic remnants, the Pictish and Viking cultures that flourished there, and the abundance of cairns, brochs, and burial mounds.
Prior to coming north to live on a part-time basis, he never imagined he would discover so many cairns and mounds. The skeletal remains of dogs lay in the cairn above which he now stood. Every time he paused there, Larry crouched at the entrance to examine the rear of the space.
Directly in front of him stood a number of stone structures. He often marvelled at these oddities – apparently comprised of hundreds of pieces of slate placed one atop the other – and how their construction and appearance set them apart from the other standing stones on the mainland.
He made his way over to one and ran the fingers of his hand across a lichen-encrusted area halfway down. He loved the sight and feel of lichen for what it told him about the unspoiled quality of the air. His fingers ceased their motion when he noticed the thin edge of something poking out between two of the slates, beneath the level of his gaze. With the thumb and finger of his right hand, he pulled on the extremity and extricated a colour print.
A young couple immortalised in a happy pose looked at him. Blonde-haired, she wore glasses. The moustachioed man by her side sported his long, dark, spongy hair away from his forehead and the sides of his face in a style more fashionable in years gone by.
Larry imagined a story conceivably theirs in the context of the mountain landscape pictured at their backs. He did not recognise the islands of Orkney in that background. Rather, the locale reminded him of the Hebrides group to the west of the mainland.
The couple travel to Scotland – a place she reveres on account of its natural beauty – at the time of their engagement, when the shadow hanging over them since they met no longer causes such disquiet. Hence her carefree laughter and doubled up stance, as if she cannot control her breath in her paroxysm of exultation.
So it goes with her when she laughs. Breath runs out of her lungs and she gasps in its absence like an asthmatic. His hand rests on her back, between her shoulders, and he too laughs to think the woman he adores near asphyxiates when overjoyed.
In less than a year she will stand with him before the altar in their landlocked European country, without the approval of many of the people she loves most in the world, above all her father. Months after the marriage, he continues haranguing his beloved eldest daughter, reminding her of her betrothed’s background – the broken home, the years in an orphanage, the outbreaks of violence, the arrests and incarceration.
Yet the old man’s bluster loses force during the first three years of the marriage. They usher two children into the world. Content at the thought of love’s victory, she fashions interests outside the home, works several hours a day, writes strangers in far-off lands and by chance discovers the one she intuits to be the best friend she ever had.
She will never know what brings her husband to the precipice. Did she, without realising, take a liberty that sent his demons spiralling to the surface? For a time she puts as good a face on the situation as she can, till the day arrives when she can endure no more.
But enforced distance and separation only delay the inevitable. He discovers her whereabouts. Then comes the evening when he drives to her hideaway, a loaded hunting rifle on the seat beside him. He breaks open the front door with one thrust of the heel of his boot, corners her in the kitchen, and shoots at point-blank range. He charges into every room in the apartment but cannot locate the children – sheltered miles away. The agony skewering his head runs riot until he brings the rifle to the middle of his forehead and pulls the trigger.
Within weeks of the tragedy, the dead woman’s best friend receives the news from the deceased’s sister, together with a diary she kept during the final months of her life, every entry of which begins Dear …… The friend, though gifted in languages, knows nothing of the other’s tongue. But she leafs through the entries addressed to her, moved beyond words.
She resolves to make a trip to Scotland – a land she esteems too. The opportunity arises sooner than she expects and when she arrives she brings the photo of the couple laughing, which the deceased forwarded years ago, in the early days of their correspondence.
On an afternoon much like Larry’s last in the Orkneys, she sets off from the village and takes the old road to Kirkwall as far as the path leading to the cairn. The stones behind the tomb come into view. She thinks there can be no better locale. After making two failed attempts, she realises a lighter flame will never absorb the glossy print, not in such a wind, in or out of the partial shelter afforded by the stones. Instead, she invokes a prayer and inserts the print between two pieces of slate, thus setting free the soul of a cherished friend in a country where she knew joy.