A short story by Cathy Feeny
Nor count me all to blame if I
Conjecture of a stiller guest,
Perchance, perchance, among the rest,
And, tho’ in silence, wishing joy.
Kim had known Levenwick graveyard all her life, but its swollen belly looked unfamiliar under a powdering of snow. There was more up there too; the expiring sky was heavy with it and the wind was icy cold. When the bus arrived Kim’s fingers were numb and she fumbled with her change. The usual suspects lolled in the back seats. Off to an Xmas party by the look of it: glitter and pressies and half-hidden bottles; over-loud banter and the occasional blast of music from a mobile. Kim didn’t join them; all that belonged to another era.
It wasn’t far off chucking out time when she reached the museum, but the American never departed until the absolute second it closed. Mainly he hung out in the archive, where he’d reluctantly leave behind microfiches of old copies of The Shetland Times and black-and-white photos of dead Shetlanders. He was about 18, the same age as Kim. Soft, thoughtful voice. Tallish. Today, when she entered, he was surveying the postcards.
“Hey”, he said, smiling. Kim responded with her specially-patented, mega-malignant look, 100 per cent guaranteed to turn flesh into stone. “It must be so cool to work here”, he added.
“Meaning that constant association with defunct artefacts elevates one to a rarefied intellectual sphere? Or are you of the opinion that it’s intrinsically pleasurable to clean up after other people?”
The American didn’t reply. Instead, “It’s the festive season,” he observed mildly, like she might conceivably have forgotten.
“So what are you, the Ghost of Christmas Past?”
“You like to read?”
“No, I just look at the pictures.”
Kim turned her back on the American and headed for the loos. By the time she’d finished doing them, everyone was gone, including him. She polished the big ground-floor windows, and the glass covering the restaurant’s Christmas menus, then started on the cases of exhibits, at the same time putting away the touchy-feelies that punters had left lying around. Bits of rock; peat; sealskin slippers, etc: some academic-type’s idea of making history spring into life. Her elbow accidentally knocked against one of the interactive screens, and she jumped when a disembodied voice started rattling on about tatties.
It wasn’t until Kim had completed both levels, and was ready to dust the sixareen, that it suddenly hit her that two of the exhibits had gone walkabout. Her brain must have registered that something was amiss, while her stupid eyes saw only what they expected. Hastily, she retraced her steps, hurrying under the gigantic stuffed turtle that floated, motionless, above her head, past the pig and the buried treasure, through the petrified millennia before Homo sapiens came along to make a mess of things, and up the stairs to the first floor. In the early twentieth century, she found what she was looking for. A white christening gown, 1900, decorated like a doyley, with little holes – lace at its tiny throat and ribbons around the puffy wee sleeves. A woman’s jumper, 1920s: rust-red, chestnut-brown and cornflower-blue, knitted into a pattern of squares, stripes, diamonds, daisies and stars. Both gone!
Kim stared at the gaping spaces the garments usually occupied, as if she could will them into being there after all. Then it dawned. What a paranoid idiot! The simple explanation was they were out on loan. Which meant, of course, that they would be returned.
* * *
The threatened snow was falling like nothing on earth when the last bus dropped Kim off at her stop. And once the vehicle’s lights were gone she was in utter darkness. She struck out for home, but her feet sank deeper than she’d expected. She kept losing her balance and righting herself, but in doing so lost track as to which direction she was facing. Either way, though, she should be able to get her bearings from the houses.
Kim scanned the night, but what should have been a peopled landscape appeared completely deserted. Nothing but the giddy snowflakes and the roaring wind.
Then, close behind her, Kim heard a laugh. It was the aural equivalent of reaching for a light switch in an empty room and touching a human hand. A twist of naked fear quickened in her stomach. She began to walk swiftly straight ahead. The laugh laughed again, in front of her this time. Gathering pace, Kim turned to the right. The laugh laughed at her shoulder. She started running flat out, plunging into the blackness, with no notion as to what her next footstep would encounter, or even if it would encounter anything other than air. The laugh laughed in her right ear. She careered to the left, glimpsed a glow in the distance and hurtled towards it.
As she neared the buildings, Kim’s fraught emotions gave a dismayed lurch. Not a sign of life. Just stones, long abandoned. But no. Slowing, she could faintly make out, against a barn wall, the blurry forms of huddled sheep. From a stable came the faint whinny of a horse, muted clucks, a few indignant hisses. A cow mooed. A pig snorted and shifted. A dreaming collie yelped. A laugh issued from the interior of the house – the laugh that had bounced off the side of the hill, ping-ponged on snowflakes and driven Kim in her stupid panic to this unthreatening door.
At Kim’s knock a young man and woman appeared. All she could see of them at first was their silhouettes against the soft yellow light of a paraffin lamp, then a peat fire flickered into being, animating their features. He was stocky, with a moustache. He wore trousers, a coarse woollen sweater and thick socks. Her hair was tied in a loose bun. Her cheeks were weathered pink. She wore a floral frock, a cardigan and moccasins. Hippies, Kim realised. Doubtless, the ground she had trampled over was bursting with organic neeps, and they made their furniture out of driftwood.
Gradually, as her eyes adapted, the room came into being. From a rack attached to the chimney breast hung joints of reestit mutton. A blackened kettle, suspended from a chain, steamed and whistled above the flames. The wallpaper was printed with posies. There were vintage photos on the mantlepiece.
“Is the power down?” Kim asked, irritably. “Or don’t you approve of a carbon-based economy?”
“Power?” said the man.
“You’re lost” said the woman.
“Such a lot of snow! There always is tonight. Come in. Come in. We’ll make you tea. We have tea. And sugar.” The woman drew Kim inside and ushered her to a chair. The man closed the door.
“I’m Tilly – Tilly Sinclair,” the woman continued. “This is my husband, Daniel. Will your family be worried?”
“I don’t have any family,” said Kim, curtly.
“No family?” To Kim’s surprise, Tilly’s eyes watered.
Daniel gently clasped her small, roughened hand with his large one. “Do you remember we bought fancies to have with the tea, Tilly?”
Kim felt guilty. It was ages since her situation had affected anybody other than herself. “I lodge with some people,” she added. “It’s not so bad really.”
A fat, tabby cat materialised and curled in a ball in front of the fire. Daniel picked up a hammer and tacked a reproduction 1930 Shetland Times calendar onto the wall.
“Fancies!” Tilly wiped her eyes hastily, and in doing so seemed to banish sorrow. She grabbed a cloth, unhooked the kettle from its chain and scalded a brown teapot, chattering cheerfully. “We bought them from Malcomson’s in Lerwick. We went to Ridland & Smith’s too, for Daniel’s Gold Flake, and we got boxes of Milk Tray and Princess Elizabeth for the nephews and nieces. There were dates, currants and sultanas to go in the clootie dumpling, and a bottle of Highland Queen against the chill. We visit Lerwick every Christmas, then come back here until it’s over. Do you go to Lerwick at Christmas?”
“I go to Lerwick all the time,” said Kim. They must be those endlessly recycling, self-sufficiency types.
“All the time? Oh Lord! I never could be doing with the bother. We are there at the festive season, though. Daniel earned well on the ship, you see, during the summer.” Tilly poured the tea and put the fancies on a plate painted with sprigs of lavender. “Look, Daniel,” she said. “The best china.”
As they ate and drank, husband and wife fell silent. Kim had the strange sense they were waiting for something. Outside, the wind buffeted the house. Within, the peat sparked and spluttered. A clock ticked. The cat purred. A baby started crying.
Tilly leapt to her feet, sending a silver spoon tumbling to the floor. “The baby! It’s the baby! I’ll go and get her.” And she vanished into another room.
Kim tried to keep her voice from shaking. “You have a baby?”
Daniel’s gaze fixed on her. “Never let anybody dare to tell you when love begins or ends,” he said sternly. Kim turned away, towards the fire. When she had composed herself and was able to face him again, he was holding a knitted jumper. “A present for Tilly.” He opened it out for Kim to admire. “Store-bought. Cornflower-blue to match her eyes. Chestnut-brown, for her thick, young hair. Rust-red, like all those winter sunsets.”
Kim sprang up, unable to believe what she was seeing. “Where did you get that? What’s going on? Who on earth are you?”
“Here she is!” exclaimed Tilly, reappearing. “Our lovely Rose! Our precious joy!”
The baby was wearing a long, white gown, decorated, like a doyley, with little holes. Lace encircled her tiny neck, and ribbons were tied around the puffy sleeves, from which emerged two chubby arms.
Rose’s parents stared at their child in silent adoration. Kim couldn’t tell whether it was her heart that was pounding so loudly, or whether the ticking of the clock had increased in volume. She wasn’t sure that Tilly and Daniel were aware that she was there. Eventually, however, Daniel addressed her, nodding at the window and breaking the spell.
“The snow will stop soon.” He fastened his bootlaces and reached for a lantern. “There’ll be an hour of calm and then it’ll start falling again, so you must leave now. I’ll stand on the threshold and light you on your way. You’ll figure for yourself where you’re going thereafter.”
The next moment Kim was outside, trudging through the snow, much further from the buildings than the few paces she felt she’d taken could possibly have brought her. Already, when she looked back, the croft had receded into the far distance, and the lantern’s illumination was quite extinguished. She thought she heard, however, Tilly’s voice, calling across the ever-increasing space between them.
“Happy Christmas! Happy Christmas!”
* * *
A line of tourists was queuing at reception, so it would be an age before Kim could ask anyone on the desk about the gown and the sweater. She went up to the archive, to see if she could get any joy there, but the archivist was helping two middle-aged ladies doggedly wade through several billion years worth of census records. Discouraged, she was making for the door when, all of a sudden, she saw Daniel and Tilly standing staring at her.
Kim approached them, trembling. Tilly was holding Rose in her arms. In the background was wallpaper printed with posies; a peat fire; a kettle.
“Those people. What are their names?” Kim whispered hoarsely, pointing at the computer screen.
At the sound of her voice the American turned and smiled. “Them? You must have seen them before.”
“Seen them before?”
“I’ve been looking at this photo on and off since I discovered it in the archive. I’ve studied newspapers from the same year, too – they’re full of fascinating period detail. Their names are Daniel and Matilda Sinclair. It was taken near the end of 1929, when their baby was christened. She was called Rose. She’s buried in Levenwick graveyard, I found out. She died the following spring, during a scarlet fever outbreak.”
“God! Are you all right? Look, here’s a chair. Sit down.”
The American lowered Kim into a seated position. Helpless, she slumped forwards. Her grief wasn’t an emotion. It was an agonised animal. It doubled her up, turned her in on herself, clutched at her with desperate fingers, blurted out the whole story.
“I got pregnant. It was stupid. He didn’t care about me. It’s ridiculous to feel like I do. Probably if I’d realised sooner I’d have . . . But I dropped out of school. I planned a new future. And when I had a miscarriage I couldn’t go back to how things had been before. Nobody said anything, of course, but I could hear their thoughts. It is possible to hear other people’s thoughts, you know. They believed it was for the best, considering the circumstances. They were sure it wouldn’t be long until I returned to normal. But I didn’t. I got this job and left home. In a way I’m here. But really my life has ended. Like Daniel and Tilly’s lives will have ended when Rose died.”
When she stopped, the American was silent for so long that Kim presumed he’d deserted her. But he was there still, and the expression on his face indicated that he was thinking deeply about what she had told him.
At length, “My name is Jay Sinclair,” he said. “Daniel and Matilda were my great-grandparents.”
Kim shook her head. It made no sense. “But you’re an American.”
Jay didn’t respond directly. Instead, “I’ve been researching them,” he continued. “There’s no denying they were devastated when Rose died. They emigrated from Shetland to the States soon after her death. I guess they just abandoned the crofthouse you can see in the photo, and it gradually fell down, like so many others. I haven’t been able to locate its whereabouts, though it was probably in or around Levenwick.”
Kim was still confused. “But how can you be their great-grandson if Rose died?”
“They moved to Newport News, Virginia. Daniel found employment in the shipyard there. He knew a lot about ships. He’d gone to sea every summer, in order to supplement the household income. Their lives didn’t end – at least not then. Matilda passed away in 1970, and Daniel died in 1988, the year I was born. There’s a picture of him holding me. My grandmother was born three years after they arrived in the U.S., and I also have two great-uncles. Grandma told me that Matilda used to say to her that her sister Rose lived in a joyful place, which Matilda no longer dwelled upon, but visited sometimes. I don’t think that meant an abstract home in the sky. I think it meant a place in her heart. And Shetland.”
There was a pause.
“Listen,” said Jay. “Could you do me a favour? My folks sent me some cash for Christmas. You’ve seen the restaurant’s Christmas menu?”
Kim wiped her eyes hastily. “Sort of.” Though she polished it daily, she couldn’t recall having actually read it.
“Well it’s got clootie dumpling on, and I’ve never eaten a clootie dumpling. Grandma said Matilda used to make them, but after she was gone nobody knew the recipe. Anyways, I’ve always wanted to try one, but it’s no fun eating alone, so if you’d be willing to have dinner with me I’d be real grateful. I mean, I think I know a bit about you, and you wouldn’t have to feel obligated or anything. Like I say, you’d be doing me a favour.”
* * *
The last bus dropped Kim off at her stop, leaving her in a sepia landscape. Jay had returned home after Hogmanay, but he emailed constantly, and she was saving up to visit him in the summer.
On impulse, she struck out along a track she could not remember having travelled before, and came upon a ruined croft. A piece of rusted metal lay in the abandoned fireplace. The ground was scattered with broken glass and fragments of china. Painted on one of them was a sprig of lavender. Kim stood for a while, running a hand along the lichen before continuing on her way.
When she turned to look back, she glimpsed a soft, yellow light among the cold stones. It was only the moon.