by Moira Brown

Email: Shellwing40@aol.com

They trudged across the wet grass of the machair, Alison deep in sombre thought, her head held down against the steady drizzle that hung in the air like a dismal, all-enveloping shroud. The children, in scarlet anoraks and yellow wellingtons, cut a colourful gash through the greyness, but their cheerful chatter and shrieks of delight as they approached the bay did nothing to lighten Alison’s mood.

It hadn’t been her idea to come back to the island, and if she’d had any say in the matter, she’d have put her foot down. But Ian had arranged this surprise holiday, and she couldn’t disappoint Ben and Kirstie

How long ago had it been? About twenty-five years – and as she heard the mournful soughing of the waves, and smelt the salty tang of the sea, all the old childhood feelings came flooding back – sadness, anger, regret, and a gnawing sense of loss. Ian had insisted it was time to lay old ghosts to rest, but still they haunted her, their voices a seductive and insistent echo in her head.

 ‘There’s the sea,’ Ben shouted excitedly. ‘Come on, Kirstie, I’ll race you.’

As the children scrunched through the wet pebbles towards a leaden ocean, Ian moved closer and put an encouraging arm around her shoulders.

‘Come on, Alison, you’d think you were going to the scaffold. It’s only a beach.’

‘You don’t understand how I feel.’

 Her tears mingled with the soft rain in a warm trickle down her cheeks. A familiar feeling of panic surged up, making her feel as if the grey waves of the Atlantic were closing over her head... pouring into her lungs and cutting off her breath.

‘Are you all right?’ Ian’s voice was anxious.

‘Just let me stay here for a moment,’ she gasped.

He led her to a large flat rock and she sat down. Gradually, her breathing relaxed. She raised her head and took a mistrustful look at the scene, as though expecting the past to come rolling in towards her on the crest of the next wave. To the left of the bay, the small headland was a brooding shadow behind a misty curtain. The nearer rocks seemed to waver in and out with the rise and fall of the waves, their dim shapes ghostly sentinels. Somewhere in the gloom of the sky, a curlew wailed, its plaintive, lost call a sharp contrast to the laughter of the children. Oblivious to the rain and wind, they were splashing about in the shallows – exactly as she had done on a day like this all those years ago...

* *

 ‘Ali – don’t wade out too far. The tide’s coming in.’

Ten-year old Alison waved happily to her father as she continued splashing over the small waves creeping past the tide line. He had taken her to the bay for a last picnic, but the sunny morning weather, with its customary Scottish fickleness, had given way to a bleak, drizzly afternoon. Alison didn’t care. They were at the end of their two weeks’ holiday and she wasn’t going to miss a trip to her favourite spot, whatever the weather.

She’d already found three more green pebbles to add to her growing collection. This bay was the only place where the marble stones could be found and they were supposed to be lucky. Maybe they’d bring her luck today. Perhaps Mum would decide to join them after all. Dad had said she was feeling ‘sad’ and needed to be on her own for a few days, but ‘sad’ was a strange choice of word and made Alison feel uneasy. Had she done something to make her mother feel sad?

‘Come on, Ali – we’re going to pack up now. The rain’s settled in for the afternoon.’ Her father came down to the water’s edge and took hold of her hand. ‘There’s something I need to tell you before we leave here.’

His face was serious. Alison began to get that uneasy feeling again in the pit of her stomach.

‘There’s no easy way to tell you this, so I’ll simply say it straight off. Mum’s decided to go. She’s not coming back... ever.’

‘Go? Why? What do you mean, Dad? What have we done?’ A suffocating panic knifed through her, cutting off her breath. Her voice struggled out in a strangled gasp. ‘Have I done something wrong?’

He smiled sadly, but couldn’t keep the anger from his voice. ‘No, Ali, neither of us has done anything wrong. Your mum has decided she loves someone else better than she loves us. She’s gone to live in America with him.’

‘Can’t I go and visit her?’ she whispered hoarsely, unable to take in the enormity of the news.


The vehemence of his tone startled her.

‘You’ll never see her again and you’re never to mention her name again, either. Do you understand that, Ali?’

Bewildered and scared, she nodded. As her father led her away, she pulled the smooth green pebbles out of her anorak pocket and flung them angrily into the sea. The waves opened greedy mouths and gobbled them up.

‘Why did you do that, Ali? I thought you were collecting them.’

‘Not now,’ she screamed. ‘I hate them. I hate this place. I don’t ever want to come here again.’

And she never had. Not until now...

* *

Alison stood up, remembering the intervening years. They had been difficult. Her father, turned in on his own bitterness, had been blind to her confusion and sorrow. She’d scoured the house for letters, scribbled phone messages, scraps of paper - anything that could give her a clue to her mother’s whereabouts, but found nothing. He had eliminated all trace of her – clothes, jewellery, knick-knacks – even a cheap little watch Alison had given her mother as a birthday present – every last vestige of her was gone. Her mother was a wraith, a treacherous ghost, consigned to a dim region of dangerous thoughts and dark memories.  

Once, in her search, Alison found, stuck down the back of a drawer, a flowered blouse her mother had often worn. She’d taken it to bed with her for several nights, burying her face in it in a desperate effort to evoke her mother’s scent, but her father, tight-lipped, had found and burnt it. In the end, the longing for her mother had turned first to anger, and then to a complete denial of her existence.

Marriage, and the birth of her own two children, had brought some much needed love and stability into her life, but, every now and then, something would happen to cause a crack in her walled-up emotions. Her father’s death five years ago had been one such occasion. Her marriage had caused a rift between them, for he’d accused her of abandoning him, the same as his wife had done.

 And then, three years ago, the Christmas cards from her mother had begun to arrive, the first one re-directed from her old home; the others sent directly to her, begging forgiveness and asking her to make contact. She’d ignored them, but, for some inexplicable reason, had kept them safely in a drawer.

* *

‘Feeling better?’ Ian put an arm around her and kissed her cheek.

Alison, lost in memories, started at his touch. ‘A little. But I really don’t see the point of coming back here. It’s not going to change anything, Ian.’

‘I don’t know about that, love. Look – the rain’s stopped, and I think that’s a blink of blue sky over there.’

She smiled weakly. Dear Ian. He tried so hard, so very hard – and sometimes she was terrified he’d lose patience with her and leave. She walked to the water’s edge, suddenly making up her mind to try and share the children’s happiness and excitement for their and Ian’s sake. It was the least she could do.

Gradually the weather cleared up enough for them to have their picnic on the sand, now sparkling white in the midday sun. The sea, brushed by a magic wand, had cast off its grey cloak, and was now clad in brilliant turquoise and sapphire blue. Below the water, transparent as glass, swaying fronds of seaweed cast purple shadows on the sand beneath.

 Gradually, a sense of calm crept over Alison. She had forgotten how beautiful this mystic island could be. It was beginning to weave its old magic spell over her. A ripple of memories flowed through her mind, bright as the sea – images of happy days she’d spent here with both her parents. Suddenly she knew – without any doubt – that her mother had never stopped loving her. She might not understand why she had abandoned her, but Alison now felt ready to give her a chance to explain.

She picked up her anorak to shake the sand from it. An envelope fell from the pocket and she realised instantly what it was - her mother’s last Christmas card. Ian must have put it there. She ought to be angry, but, taking one look at his anxious face, smiled at him reassuringly.

‘You don’t give up easily, do you? I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve got writing paper and a stamped envelope with you as well.’

He laughed, relieved. ‘Not quite, but I do have those back at the hotel if you need them.’

‘Come here, you. I want to show you something.’ She hauled him to his feet and, arm round his waist, pointed towards the ocean. ‘Tell me what you see, Ian.’

He looked puzzled. ‘See? Nothing but sky and the Atlantic, stretching right from here ... to America, I suppose. What do you mean?’

‘The story goes that when St Columba was exiled from Ireland, he decided to land here on Iona, because, when he looked back, he could no longer see his homeland.

 ‘What are you trying to tell me?’

She smiled at his puzzled face.

‘He was starting a new life... leaving old problems behind him... going on to new challenges. Perhaps it’s about time I did the same. Please forgive me for giving you such a hard time for so many years.’

He swept her into his arms and kissed her hard. ‘Nothing to forgive, love.’

‘Mum – ‘Ben was tugging at Alison’s trousers. ‘Look what Kirstie’s found.’

Kirstie opened her clenched palm carefully. In it lay a round, shiny green pebble of Iona marble.

‘I found this in the sea, Mum. Isn’t it pretty? Do you think it’s magic?’

‘I think it probably is, Kirstie, and I know it brings good luck.’

 The pebbles were very rare nowadays, and found only higher up the shore, never in the sea. Alison’s imagination took flight. Perhaps it was one of the same stones she’d thrown in the ocean all those years ago. On a day like this, anything was possible.

‘Come on, kids – race you to the water.’

 Laughing, and hand in hand with Ian, she ran down through the white sand towards the sea.

©2002 Moira Brown

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