by David McVey
Sarah wrapped her scarf more tightly as the winds freshened and the sea-chill sought her out. Diane strode on ahead, silent as she’d been all morning. Then they crested a low rise and before them lay a dank beach smelling of rotten seaweed. The salt-songs of the seabirds rose and fell and died on the wind, becoming just a querulous murmur as they settled on the shoreline.
Diane stopped and pointed. ‘There it is,’ she said, and then resumed walking. Sarah saw the square intrusion on the organic sweep of shoreline, human geometry imposed on nature; a house, of two storeys, all the windows blank and dead like blinded eyes.
‘Wait for me!’ shouted Sarah, and scampered after Diane.
She caught up as Diane reached the front of the house. The front door hung awkwardly, like a drunken man outside a pub, Sarah thought.
‘How sad,’ Sarah said. ‘I expected Orkney to have a magic. I expect it’s all those George Mackay Brown stories and poems we did at school.’
Diane pushed the door open.
‘I mean, where are the religious fishermen, the monks saying mass, the stern female innkeepers? Where are the selkies and the angels and the ghosts? Just a plain old ruined house.’
But Diane had gone inside.
Sarah followed her. Once inside the house, the salt savour was gone, swallowed up in the mustiness of long-forgotten dinners and age and damp and sea-eaten furniture. There were the remains of a sofa, a kind of settle like you got in old pubs, the stuffing spilling out like soap suds. Nearby there was a stained, mouldy wooden chair standing in front of – and this surprised Sarah – a piano.
‘I mean, couldn’t we have stopped at Skara Brae or the Broch of Gurness? Don’t get me wrong, the walk here was nice, but this…’
The piano keys were warped and grimed. Diane pressed a couple and produced an asthmatic rasping somewhere inside the instrument.
‘It must have been loved, once,’ said Sarah.
Diane didn’t respond for a while, and then said, ‘Oh, it was.’
Sarah waited, silent at last, for Diane to speak again.
‘My grandparents lived here, said Diane at length, ‘and my Dad was born in this house.’
Sarah sighed deeply. ‘Of course. I knew you had connections on Orkney. Why didn’t you say that’s why you wanted to come here?’
‘Grandad was the local roadman for the council, but his biggest pleasure was music. There used to be a public road here – it’s just the path we took, now – but radio reception was poor. They couldn’t even get Radio 3.’ Diane now talked to no one in particular, or perhaps to herself. ‘He’d played a little piano at school and told people how he’d dreamed of owning one. It reached some of his pals in Stromness who worked on the pier. One day they arrived with the piano; said it was being thrown out. Actually, they’d taken it from a small liner just before it sailed.’
Sarah pressed a piano key; the same death-rattle gasped within the piano.
‘They were the last of our family to live here,’ Diane continued. ‘After Dad moved south to uni they retired to Stromness. The road wasn’t maintained any more. A family did move in after them but they didn’t last long.’
There was muted piping outside again, as the birds crept in from the shore like the voices of the past returning to the unoccupied house.
They walked about the ground floor of the house, their footsteps resounding on the firm boards that, alone in the house, seemed to have stood up against the years and the damp and the salt. Even so, they decided not to risk the wooden stairs, which looked spongy and insecure. To Sarah’s relief, Diane made for the door.
They stepped back outside, into the light and the wind and the salt. The birds cried complaint again and whirred back to the shoreline. A few soared higher and dipped and hung above the waves.
‘D’you think Jim and Duncan will be out and about yet?’ asked Sarah. ‘Really, men! They think holidays are for sleeping. Where do you fancy for tea tonight? Just in the hotel, or how about that Chinese we spotted in Kirkwall? I could go a good chicken fried rice.’
Diane said nothing, just kept on walking, silent and remote. Then she stopped, where the path broke through the low mound on the edge of the shore, and turned to look back at the house.
There were dreams there, and memories, but the life had gone.
Sarah waited for her. Here, the smell of rotting seaweed was worst. Why couldn’t Diane just keep walking? She was a deep one, and getting a bit more tedious by the day, Sarah thought.
Next year, she’d insist that Jim took her somewhere like Tenerife instead, somewhere anyway with sun and warmth and crowds and clubs and atmosphere. All right, there was the family connection, but she still couldn’t fathom what Diane saw in this place.
Diane turned and continued along the path. She went straight past Sarah without a word, without a look.
David McVey lectures in Communication at New College Lanarkshire. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly, and supporting his home-town football team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.