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Saturday, 1 September 2018

Chapter Four

It had been early spring, 1973 and Andy McRae was trying to earn enough money to stay another year at university. His father died the year before and his mother was finding life hard. True he had the grant, but Edinburgh was expensive, especially so for students from the Western Isles who couldn't pop home easily at the weekends. He had been busking at the entrance to Waverley Station and doing fairly well, but tonight there was a young girl sitting in his spot strumming a cheap acoustic guitar which was slightly out of tune.

His first reaction was anger. This was a good spot and it was his. He was about to ask her to move on when she began to sing. Her voice was soft and slightly husky and unbelievably beautiful. She didn't see him. Her head was lowered. Her straggly reddish hair hung around her face, a woollen hat pulled down covering her ears and eyebrows. She wore jeans, wide round the bottoms and a parka over a loose shirt, a string of coloured beads around her neck. He stood there until the song finished, totally captivated. Later he would tell her he fell in love with her the moment she lifted her head and he became aware of a pair of grey-green eyes which held a wealth of sadness.

He wanted to say, 'Excuse me, you're in my pitch,' instead, the words, 'Your guitar needs tuning,' fell from his mouth.

'I know that. But I don't have a tuning fork with me,' she replied.

He sat beside her, opened his guitar-case and withdrew the fork, holding out his hand for her instrument. Wordlessly she handed it to him. Once he finished, she nodded a thank you and listened as he began to strum out a tune of his own.

Together they played, with him singing the harmony to her songs. After a while a crowd gathered and after each song there was applause. A couple of hours later, Andy set his guitar down. 'I'm going for something to eat,' he said, gathering up the tin with the money, meaning to share it.

She snatched at it. 'That's mine,' she shouted. 'I didn't ask you to join me.'

He immediately let go and held up his hands. 'Okay, okay, actually this is my spot.'

Her face reddened. 'You don't own a piece of pavement,' she snapped. 'And I was here first.'

'Fine, you keep it.'

Her lip wobbled. She trapped it between her teeth and lowered her eyes but not before he saw the tears shimmering there.

He melted. 'You're good. How do you fancy joining my group?' The words tumbled out without thought.

Her head rose, she sniffed and wiped her cheeks. Her smile was like the sun breaking through a cloud. 'You've got a group?'

'A duo actually. We're playing in a bar tonight. You could come with us.' It occurred to him Desmond would object, he should have run it by him first, but something vulnerable about the girl pulled at his heartstrings and he knew right then he wanted to keep her near. Furthermore, Andrew McRae was used to getting his own way. Desmond always gave in in the end. 'Where do you live?' he asked.

She shrugged. 'I just got here yesterday. I've no had time to sort something out.'

'Where did you sleep last night?'

'In the station.'

He bent down and picked up her rucksack. 'Come back with me. You'll sleep in my flat for now.'

Snatching at her rucksack, she faced him with narrowed eyes. 'I'll be fine,' she said. 'I don't need no boy to do me favours!'

'No strings attached.' He released the bag. 'You'd be helping me out by singing with us, really. We're musicians, my buddy and me, but we need a strong vocalist.'

She still looked wary. 'I'll no be able to pay rent.'

He laughed. 'With a voice like you've got, you will be, I promise.'

Desmond did object. Loudly. 'For God's sake, man. There's no enough room here for the two of us. And the group's just us, you and me.'

'I didn't want to come anyway.' Beth wiped her nose on the back of her fingerless glove, slung her rucksack over her shoulder and headed for the door. Andy got there before her, slamming his hand against it, holding it shut.

'You're staying, no argument.' He turned to face his friend. 'She can stay in my room, share my food.' His voice rose. 'But for fuck’s sake listen to her sing, man, just listen to her sing.'

Desmond turned away. 'I don't care how good she is. She'll be trouble. How old is she? She looks like jailbait. She's probably a runaway. I don't need any grief. My old man would stop my allowance, ' he clapped his hands together, 'Just like that.'

'Please, mate,' said Andy, ‘She's every damn bit as good as Marianne Faithfull, if not better.'

Desmond lifted and lowered his hands in a gesture of defeat. 'I'll listen. But then she goes.'

Beth swung her guitar from her back and strummed a tune they had not heard before. She began to sing.

You've come a long way from the mountains
Where the cold wind blows
And the sun don't shine
But somewhere in the future you'll find her
In a cold dark place,
Will she still chase
The dream she left behind her

By the time she finished, tears were streaming down her face. Andy would never have admitted it, but he swallowed a lump in his own throat.

Desmond opened his eyes wide. 'Wow,' he said. 'Where did you hear that song?

'I wrote it,' said Beth dabbing at the dampness on her cheeks. 'Did...did you like it?'

'Like it, I love it. Wow, girl, you are good.'

'Then she can stay?' asked Andy.

'Hold on there, I didn't say that. We're hardly making enough to keep ourselves, less if we've got to split it three ways.'

'I don't need paying,' said Beth. 'A place to stay and I'll busk for food. And... and I'll cook for you.' 
She didn't say then her speciality was toast. Toast with baked beans, toast with sardines, toast with sloppy scrambled eggs. She turned and glared at Andy. 'And I won't be sharing your bed!' she added.

Andy held out his hands, palms facing her. 'Bloody hell, I said my room, not my bed. No strings, remember?'

Desmond still looked undecided.

‘I’ll do the washing too.’

'Come on, man. Give it a try, what can we lose?' said Andy.

Desmond sighed. ‘The cooking bit sounds good.’

How were they to know then the limits of her cooking skills?

He turned to Beth. 'Welcome to the Andy and Des Duo. At least for tonight, it'll be Des, Andy and friend. We'll see how it goes.'

'Bloody terrible name,' said Andy. 'How about Andy, Beth and Desmond?'

'How about Beth and friends?' Beth immediately chipped in.

'I told you a girl would be trouble,' said Desmond, but he was smiling. 'Look, I'm agreeing to nothing. If we're booed tonight, she's out.'

That night they totally won over the audience at the World's End bar. A week later the bookings were flooding in. A month later, the boys gave up their studies to go into music full time. It was the days of rock n' roll, yet Beth refused to sing anything other than folk songs. 'My voice is wrong for rock and roll,' she said, and although they never hit the big time, they became well-known in their own field.

Andy poured himself a whisky, walked to the office window and looked down into the busy street below. Beth. He could still see her now as she had been then. She was never classically beautiful, but she had a spark which dulled any other woman in her company. Yet for all her bravado, he grew to see, beneath the fa├žade, the vulnerable, frightened little girl who sang with tears pouring down her cheeks.

Over the years, her confidence in her own musical ability grew, but he would never forget that first night in the World's End bar.

'I can't go on,' she said.

'What?' Andy couldn't believe his ears.

She wiped her brow. 'All those people, I can't face them.' Her freckles stood out against her pale skin. Her lip trembled. 'I'm sorry. I can't.'

'What the hell now?' Desmond rolled his eyes and shrugged.

'You sang all afternoon, in the street for fuck’s sake! I persuaded Desmond...'

'That was different. Now there's... there's an... audience, and no one will listen. I need a drink.'

It was true, the audience had chatted all the way through the last act.

'Just leave her, man. Put her back where you found her,' said Desmond.

'I'll get you something. What do you want?' Andy felt his anger grow, bubbling under the surface. She couldn't humiliate him now.

'Vodka. And coke. A double.'

She took the drink with a trembling hand and swallowed it in three gulps.

'We're on,' he said. 'Now get out there or I’ll boot your arse.'

She looked at him with fear in her eyes and for a moment he thought she was going to refuse. She wobbled slightly as he shepherded her before him onto the stage. Another awkward moment as he started to strum. Beth stared at the floor, the microphone held unsteadily in her hand. Her voice started weakly, and as he glowered at her he saw a transformation take place. She lifted her head, her voice grew strong. Suddenly it was as if no one else existed. She sang for herself, wrapped in her own island, eyes and cheeks glistening. The crowd fell silent, and when the song ended, the applause could have lifted the roof.

As time went on, they grew restless. They found the confines of local gigs no longer satisfied them. They dreamed of cutting a record which would shoot them to fame. And then Lewis Hammond came into their lives. The man who was to rip their world apart.

Andy stomped to his desk and refilled his glass. He could well remember that time, the first time she left him. And he would not suffer a repeat performance now.

He had let her go then. He even forgave her, took her back afterwards. He gave a wry laugh. Lewis Hammond. He promised to make her into a star, but demolished her in the process. She promised to take Andy with her on the ladder to success, promised him he could be her manager, like Cilla Black and Bobby. How mistaken he’d been to trust her.

Lewis Hammond. Even now, the name made Andy's body tighten. And the pain of her betrayal still stung.

He had steadfastly followed her career. Her records reached the top ten, she sang on Top of the Pops. She was on her way up. Then came the botched operation that stole her voice. Lewis Hammond was reported as saying she was a liability and he’d washed his hands of her, and as quickly as she rose to fame, she faded like yesterday's news. Andy swallowed his pride and forgave her, at least with words. How was he to know her voice had gone for good?

When she returned to him, she was a shadow of the feisty girl she had been. Alcohol and drugs had dulled the pain of her loss and diminished her bank account. He brought her home and nursed her back to health. He asked her to marry him once, but she'd turned him down, swearing she'd never marry anyone. Nevertheless, he held her when she cried about things best forgotten, and finally convinced her that she needed looking after, looking after by him. Even then he believed her voice would return, that this was just a temporary setback, and this time he would manage her career. But he’d been wrong. She refused to even try to sing again in public. Accepting defeat, his ambitions changed direction. The royalties from her songs still arrived and she owed him.

That had been years ago. Since then they bought the club and became lovers, but he hated it that when he held her he sensed her distance, as if he possessed her body but never her heart. He often caught her with a faraway look on her face, a tear in her eye and he suspected she stayed with him only because he supplied the stability she craved.

They enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. Beth still had contacts. She booked many big-name bands which drew in the crowds. Andy McRae's club made him a name in the city.
His hand closed into a slow fist as his mind whirled, consumed with a new fear of losing her, hating that she had never really been his.

Glenda, an employee, a bit of an all-rounder, who helped him in the bar, Beth with the administration, and who ran the kitchen, moved past him, brushing him with her thigh as she did so, startling him from his daydreaming. She turned, met his eye and smiled.

'Penny for them,' she said, her voice low, seductive.

Andy rose from the office chair. He walked to the window and looked out onto the grey street. 'Have we got a group lined up for tonight?'

'I've tried a few, but they're all booked up. Look, I meant to ask you, my sister's boy is good on the guitar. It would be great if you would give him and his friends a chance.'

Andy sighed. 'We need a known name to pull in the crowds.'

'Darren's really good. It's the best I could do at such short notice.' She trailed a suggestive finger across his shoulder. Andy swallowed, felt his Adam's apple bob. He groaned and grabbed her hand. ‘Don’t do this. Business and pleasure, remember?’

She pulled her hand away from his, walked slowly to the door swinging her hips, and turned the key. 
‘The door’s locked,' she whispered. ‘Beth doesn’t deserve you. I could make you happy.’

He groaned. ‘No, Glenda.’

Bristling, she drew back. ‘What’s wrong with me? It’s not as if you’ve not cheated on Beth before.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with you, but I don’t shit on my own doorstep.’ His voice was gruff. He closed his eyes against the temptation. She was lovely, sexy, seductive, but he knew the dangers of playing with fire.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Chapter Three - Song for an Eagle

On the way to the ward, the sister told her that her father was awake and responding, but not to expect too much. 

In a side room, he lay as if he hadn't moved from the position he'd been in the day before. His face was as white as the pillow beneath his head, his mouth slightly open, a line of dribble on his cheek. He had a thin yellow tube attached to an arm and stuck down by a strip of clear, whitish tape, which puckered the papery skin. The tube threaded up to where a clear bag of fluid hung on a stand. 

The strong silent man who often carried her on his shoulders across the moors, who could shear more sheep in an hour than any crofter in the district, had gone and left this shell in his place. 

'Dad,' she said, touching his arm. The arm was cold and still as if he were already dead. 'It's me, Beth.' She lowered herself onto the chair and shook his shoulder gently. 

His eyes opened and for a moment remained unfocused, then flickered across her face. She took his hand. He became tense; the hand in hers began to shake.

'Nurse, nurse,' Beth shouted.

A nurse hurried over. 'It's all right, Robbie,' she said in a soothing voice as she checked his vital signs. 

'This is your daughter, Beth.'

He seemed to sink into the bed.

'Speak to him.' The nurse turned to Beth. 'He is responding. I'm sure he understands, knows you’re here.'

Beth wet her lips. 'Dad, do you know me?'

Cool fingers fluttered against hers.

'Is there something you want to say?'

His eyes scanned her face, but there was no hope in them.

'It's all right. I'm not going away again. There's so much I want to tell you.'

The fingers fluttered.

'You'll be able to do more tomorrow,' whispered Beth. 'I'm sorry I left you.' And she was, sorry they never talked, she'd never tried to understand. She stayed away because of anger; blaming him for all that was wrong in her life; blaming him for her mother leaving; blaming him for not caring enough to come looking for her. In any case her life had become so hectic, and somewhere at the back of her mind, she believed there would be time. A few days ago she received the phone call, and there was no more time.

'I was so busy,' she whispered, 'And angry, and I shouldn’t have been. When you're well enough, I'll take you home, look after you.' As she spoke she knew she would, for however long he had left.

She sat with him, telling him the parts of her life she was not reluctant to share, until she saw he was sleeping. 'I'll be back tomorrow, Dad,' she whispered. She kissed his brow. It was dry and cool.

Leaving the hospital, she turned on her phone. Andy. Three missed calls. She dialled her answering service.

Beth, where are you? Are you alright? Call me back as soon as you get this.

With a deep sigh, she punched in his number.

'It’s me,' she said, when she heard his voice.

'Beth. I've been worried sick.'

She quickly explained why he hadn't got through. 'And there's no service in the mountains, or patchy, so don't worry. I'm fine.'

'I won't manage up till the weekend. I'll come then, but if you need me, I'll just leave everything and I'll be right there.'

'No, no don't come up. I'm coping fine, honest. I'm just going to do some shopping and head back to the cottage.' She swallowed her irritation without knowing what irritated her. Andy was good to her, wasn't he? Had always known what was best for her, so why did she feel this way? Although she knew in her low moments the temptation to call him, have him hold her and tell her he would take care of everything, would be strong, she had no real desire for his cloying presence. Being on her own these last couple of days gave her a barely remembered sense of freedom.

'Beth, are you still there? I said, how's your father?'

She started.

'No real change. Look, Andy, I'm staying here as long as he needs me. And you don't have to be here, honest. We can't both neglect the club.'

'You're really fine aren't you? I mean you'd tell me if anything was wrong, wouldn't you?'

She snorted. 'I'm not crazy, Andy. And I don't have a problem with alcohol, whatever you say. In fact, I'm going to confront my ornithophobia. See, I can even pronounce that word now.' She laughed, a little too shrilly. 'I'm going to the Wild Life Park in the Black Isle and I'm going to get close up to some big birds, how's that?' The words fell into her mind as if from the air around her.

He gave a snort of derisive laughter. 'You?' And then he seemed to catch himself. 'Are you sure?'

'Certain, Andy, I'm fine.' Why did he always do it? Make her feel inadequate, doubt her own judgement?

'Call me the minute you need me, hear?'

'I will. Talk to you soon.' She rang off. No, she decided, she did not want him here. This was one journey she had to make alone.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Chapter two of Song for an Eagle

A man sat in the bus shelter studying a newspaper. He was slim, with the rugged face of the outdoors and his white hair cut close to his head. Looking up as she approached, he smiled. 
'Nice morning.' His voice was deep and soft and cultured.

She agreed as she sat down.

'I haven't seen you around before. Up on holiday?' He folded his newspaper and tucked it under his arm.

'I was brought up here,' said Beth, gazing into the distance, 'but I've been away a long time.' 

Why did she feel nostalgic? It had been her choice not to return until now. Realising she might appear rude, she turned her attention back to the man. 'I only returned yesterday,' she added. 'The road's much improved since I was a child.'

His smile was easy, fluid, his eyes bright, perhaps too bright for a man who was no longer young.

'Still a tricky bend.' He held out his hand. 'I should know you, then. I'm James Anderson. My father used to be the local doctor for Berriedale and district.'

'Elizabeth MacLean, Beth to my friends. Are you a doctor too? Doctor Anderson?' The name was familiar, and the voice, she’d heard it before.

A wider smile stretched his lips. 'I believe we've already spoken on the telephone. I was dragged out of retirement to act as locum for the local GP until a few days ago. I thought you should know about the old man.’

'Of course, Doctor Anderson. You contacted me to tell me about my father.' She immediately felt more relaxed. Even speaking to him over the phone had given her the sense that here was someone she could trust.

‘You weren't hard to track down.'

'Did you know him well, my father?' She hoped he had. There was so much she needed to know.

James shook his head. 'Only met him a couple of weeks ago when I took over from Dr Montgomery, but he spoke about you a lot.'

'That surprises me.' Beth fell silent for a second. If the doctor found her so easily, her father could have as well, had he wanted to. The bitter sting of his rejection still rackled.

'You grew up here, then?' she said at last.

'Until I was eight. Then I was shipped off to boarding school. I vaguely remember Robbie MacLean's wee girl.'

'I don't recall much about school.' She studied his face, searching for something to recognise. Her school years hadn't been a happy time for her. The names, Carrot-top, Jug-ears, Dumbo, still stung. 
'I think I do know you,' she said. ‘The doctor's son, a big quiet lad who came home for the holidays.’ 

She'd hardly noticed him. Thought of him as one of the 'posh' crowd, the crowd who wouldn't lower themselves to bother with the likes of her. And she didn't want him to remember her. The girl whose mother went off with another man, or so she’d heard it whispered, the girl no one wanted to be friends with.

'You were a bonny wee lassie, but awful feisty.' He gave a short laugh. 'I used to be afraid of you.' His gaze trapped hers.

'Afraid? Of me?' Surprised, she forced a smile, realising he could never understand how much she longed for friendship, how her anger had been her only defence. Thinking about the pain of her large ears, her frizzy hair, her freckled skin, she guessed he was being kind, that or confusing her with someone else. Self-consciously she tugged a strand of her hair, straightened this morning and already beginning to curl in the damp air. 'So you followed in your father's footsteps?'

'Sort of. I was a surgeon. Worked in Africa up until a few years ago. And you, you went on to be a pop star.'

She gave a short laugh, amazed he'd even heard of her. 'I had my fifteen minutes of fame, yes. I did okay for a while.'

‘I remember seeing you on the Old Grey Whistle Test on one of my trips home. I’d switched on to see Led Zeppelin, a favourite of mine, and there you were, appearing on the same show. You’d changed a lot, but I still recognised you right away.’

She smiled at the memory of that night. There had been a last minute cancellation, and Lewis, her agent, called her. ‘This is a good opportunity, girl,’ he said. Her throat was sore and it hurt to talk, but she went anyway.

 'My wife bought all your records. Do you still sing?' James was still talking.

So he had a wife? Had there been a glimmer of hope that he was single? What good would that have done her? Beth almost laughed at her own foolishness. She paused and looked away from him and down into the strath. 'To be honest I grew tired of the life. I'm quite happy to keep it low key. Plus, well, I'm no longer young, as you can see.'
'You're still a good looking woman.'

Feeling her cheeks grow hot, she tugged at her hair. Although she'd had them surgically pinned back many years ago, she still tried to hide her ears in moments of self-consciousness.

'We own a club, in the centre of Edinburgh. It does very well.' She spoke quickly to cover her unexpected embarrassment.

'We?' His eyes fell to her left hand where she wore no wedding ring.

I manage the musical side, hiring bands and acts. Andy, my partner, still plays guitar and sings during quiet periods and he takes care of the bar.' She didn't mention Glenda, the woman who helped with the day to day running of things. That name would have soured her tongue. 'We're not married, never saw the need.' She tried to keep her voice light, without a hint of bitterness.

The chill of winter already tainted the air and she was glad to see the bus appear at the top of the brae.

'You're going to Inverness?' he said as he followed her onto the bus and took a seat beside her.

'To visit my father,' she replied.

'Of course. How is he?'

To her horror her eyes blurred. 'I can't get over the fact he lay all night before the health visitor found him. If she hadn't come in...' She shook her head, unable to talk as emotion welled up, blocking her throat.

He set his hand on her arm. 'You're here now, that means a lot. He was a very private person.' James Anderson handed her a folded cotton handkerchief.

She nodded her thanks as she took it. ‘A real hanky. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything other than tissues.’

'Call me a sentimental old fool,' he said with a slight laugh. 'My father always insisted he had a newly pressed handkerchief every morning. It was a joke between my parents. Guess I've inherited the same streak. I never did come to terms with the paper kind − unless I've got a streaming cold of course.'

She stared through the window, not thinking of handkerchiefs. How could she tell him about the regrets, the lost years. She wondered how much he knew.

'It would be so much easier if he was in a local hospital,' she said, facing James again. 'Why was he sent to Inverness anyway?'

'They have more sophisticated equipment there.' James took a breath. 'Caithness is a great place to live, but it has its drawbacks. If the powers that be had their way, everything would be in Inverness.' His voice rose, tense, angry. He rubbed his hands together and turned away from her. 'Don't get me on my soapbox about that one.'

'Do you live here now?' She changed the subject.

He cleared his throat and drew in some air. 'I came back when I retired. I bought the big house up on the hill.'

'The big white house?' she asked, imagining all those rooms.

'Aye, I always admired it. Luckily it was for sale at the time I returned. Do you intend to stay?'

'I doubt it. Is your wife local?' Tucking a stray lock of hair beneath her ear, she met his eyes. They were deep blue. 'Would I know her?'

'My wife? No, and I'm afraid the marriage ended many years ago.'

'I'm sorry,' she muttered, not sorry at all, and she couldn't understand why.

'Don't be. I'm not.'

'Caithness must be quite a change from Africa.' This was safer ground.

'I always meant to come home one day. Buy a boat, a few sheep. This place pulls you back.'

Beth knew what he meant. She'd never intended to return, yet these last few years, she'd begun to feel the same pull. Was that what happened when you grew older? She thought of an elderly couple she knew, always reminiscing, lost in the past, but couldn't remember what day it was. She suddenly realised James was still speaking.

'I'm picking up my car from the garage.' He rose to leave the bus as it drew to a stop in Helmsdale. 
'You know where I live. Give me a shout if you need anything.'

She watched him walk away, turning up the collar of his jacket. He was slim, broad shouldered with a sprint in his step that belied his years. He’d been friendly and his chatter had taken her mind off her immediate worries for a while. She found herself hoping to meet up with James Anderson again. Anyway, she convinced herself, it was only because she wanted to know more about her father, but guessed, as a doctor, he would be gagged by some confidentiality clause or other.

Settling back, she closed her eyes, and her mind took her across the years to the last time she'd ridden the bus south. The road had been longer then, more twists and turns, fewer bridges.

That day the bus did not appear to have any form of heating and she couldn't feel her feet. Her guitar was clutched on her lap, her woollen hat pulled down to her eyes and covering her ears, her long hair loose. She took out a packet of crisps, removed the little blue sachet of salt, emptied it onto the crisps and shook the bag vigorously. As she munched, she watched the passing countryside. It was raining, dull, slow drizzle, and the hills lay shrouded in grey. She tried not to think of her father's reaction when he read her note. He wouldn't be home until after seven and by then she would be in Edinburgh, probably sleep in the bus station, or get an overnight bus to London. Was there such a thing?

She heard his words in her head. 'Just like her mother. Just like her bloody mother. Well, good riddance, good riddance to both of them.' He would thump his fist on the table and pace the floor.

That day, she'd no real plan, but was carried away by the dream, the desire to leave the nothingness of her life and maybe, somewhere at the back of her consciousness, she hoped she would chance upon her mother. They would pass in the street, their eyes would meet and somehow, mother and daughter would instantly recognise each other. She banished the thought as quickly as it came. For years she'd tried to convince herself she hated the woman who abandoned her.

Raindrops sloped across the windowpane, tears ran slowly down her cheeks, she was aware of her heartbeat and of a churning in her gut, and her overall memory was that of fear.

The bus pulled into the station in Inverness jolting her from her reverie. To her surprise, her cheeks were wet.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

A Serialised Novella

Hi folks.

I have decided, as a gift to my followers, to serialise my novella,
Song for an Eagle. I will post one chapter at a time, weekly.

Song for an Eagle


When Beth was five years old, her mother walked out and never returned. The child had a memory of terror, terror of being left alone. She stood and watched as her mother dragged a suitcase from under the bed and opened it. She yanked at the drawers in her dresser and began to throw her clothes, make-up, a bundle of papers and her jewellery into the case.

'Mammy, please don't go,' said Beth, her voice so small it hardly made any sound at all.

Her mother bent down and kissed her cheek. 'As soon as I find a place to stay, I'll come back for you.' A horn sounded outside. Her mother stood up and looked around the room. 'This place is sucking the life from me.' She paused and gazed at her child. A single tear trickled down her pale cheek and then she turned and was gone. The door slammed behind her, caught in the wind that howled up the strath like a living thing.

It was already dark and rain ran sideways across the window glass. A skeletal tree dipped and swayed outside, its branches clattering against the panes, a monster's arms reaching out, trying to break in, trying to reach the child.

Her father had not come home for hours and, when he did, she was huddled in a corner with her arms wrapped around her knees, her body racked from crying. He started to go to her, then saw the note his wife left. He read it, cursed and without speaking to his daughter, opened a bottle of whisky. Beth's memory of that evening was indelible, locked inside, echoing down the years.

She waited for her mother, night after night, week after week, year after year and, somewhere deep in her heart, she was still waiting.

Chapter One


Beth stepped off the bus at the top of Berriedale Braes under a sky piled grey upon grey. The first thing she noticed was the word, YES, painted in white on a towering rock on the hillside, a distance away yet plainly visible from the road. Someone else with their dreams in tatters, she thought. How long would it take for the letters to fade and be washed away by the force of time and elements? 
Longer, she though, than the dream of independence would fade from many Scottish minds. Personally she didn't care, hadn't even voted in the referendum. Andy had told her she had to vote an emphatic no, so abstaning had been a minor act of rebellion. She had little time for politics.

The bus driver set Beth’s case beside her, closed the door to the compartment and nodded at her feet. 'You won't get far up that road in those shoes, me girl.'

His accent was central London, startling her for a second, briefly reminding her of a time best forgotten. With a smile at being called 'me girl' by a man who was at least a decade younger than she was, she considered the rutted track before her and murmured, 'You're right. I should have remembered.' She opened her suitcase, removed a pair of flats and exchanged them for her high heels.

When she was five years old she would climb down from the school bus at this same spot and set out alone under an immense sky. The only sounds were the birds and the sea and the distant bleat of sheep. The same sounds that filled the air around her today.

Now, all those years later, a memory slammed into her mind with remarkable clarity. With the memory came a rush of fear. She swallowed and took several deep breaths. At fifty-nine years old, a successful businesswoman with a career behind her, or so she appeared to the world, she thought herself finally past the terrors of her youth.

Strands of hair blew around her face, the hair she hated once, but now the hair for which she struggled to find the same shade of red in a bottle. She lifted her guitar case, eased the strap over her shoulder and thanked the driver.

While he removed the rest of her luggage from the baggage section, she looked around. Wind turbines dotted the hills and the bay, where, further out, the faded shapes of oil rigs were hardly discernible in a gathering sea mist. Modern bungalows replaced many of the small, sturdy cottages which once clung to the hillside like limpets to a rock. More than one had a 'For Sale' sign in the front garden.

As the bus drove off, she stood for a moment, staring at the mountains to the south.

'Okay. Here goes,' she said to no one and, avoiding the branches of gorse that reached towards her stockinged legs, she set off along the side road to her father's cottage. Her case, balanced on its two wheels, jolted behind her, her steps in time with the beat of her heart. After so many years in the city, the mountains to the south, the burn coursing through the glen dashing its spray upwards as it met the resistance of stone, the snaking road winding up the opposite hill, were almost foreign to her, yet startlingly familiar. Memories leaked from the cupboard at the back of her mind, drifting in like the ribbons of haar that twisted up the strath in the world of her childhood.

The cottage where she grew up sat about one and a half miles from the bus route, along a neglected track which led through heather and bracken. By the time she reached it, she was out of breath and the sky began to miserably spit rain.

The key lay heavy in her hand and chattered against the lock like cold teeth. Only then did she realise how badly she was shaking. At last the door creaked open, filling the silence with a scream of dry hinges. The odour of decay came out to meet her. Nothing appeared to have changed since the day she left. The old range with a one-bar electric fire set in front; the gas cooker, splatterings of grease on top and down the sides; lino on the floor, the pattern missing in places, but still bright in the corners where no feet had trod; a moquette suite, one chair grimier than the others, the arms worn bare.

Now a layer of dust and evidence of mice coated everything, and the chill in the air, colder than outside, made her shiver. She wondered about her father living out his life in this cold box.
She should have come back sooner, should have come to see him when he was still well, not the emaciated figure she sat beside this morning in Raigmore Hospital in Inverness. The man she'd not seen for forty-two years before that.

Soon the house would be hers, the house, the ground, the memories she could no longer contain. She flicked a switch and the bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling threw its low wattage into the gloom. She went into the kitchen and gagged. Something had been left to rot. A half-empty tin of cat food sat on the draining board, mould growing on the surface. Opening the window to dispel the fetid air, she looked outside. The cat had probably found a home elsewhere by now, that or been eaten by foxes. Under the sink, she found half a bottle of bleach and set to work.

Some time later, satisfied the kitchen was now as fresh as it could be, given the state and age of the building, she closed the window. The whole house could do with a good seeing to, but her muscles were already beginning to ache and she’d broken two nails.

Her energy depleted, she ate the pot noodle she brought with her and drank a cup of instant coffee with powdered milk and no sugar. To someone used to eating meals cooked by a chef, it tasted vile. Then she went to the bedroom which was once hers. Inside, an onslaught of memories drifted within the shadows. Her single iron bed with the pink candlewick cover, her soft rabbit with the chewed ear sitting on top; the rose-flecked wallpaper, now yellowed at the corners and curling away from the plastered walls; the square of pink and grey carpet; her pine dressing table with the drawers that were difficult to open; the posters of Elvis, the Beatles, the Jackson Five, still tacked to the wall. Everything as she left it. But now, the room reeked of damp.

She stared at the bed. Probably a thousand crawling creatures had made their home there over the years. Beth crossed the landing to her father's bedroom and stopped, knuckling her eyes and filling her lungs with the sour air. Her father's bed was unmade, the indent of his head and a few stray hairs still on the pillow. She crossed to the cupboard and found clean sheets and blankets on the shelf where they always were. Somewhere in this house, she would find a hot water bottle, something to take the chill off.

On the second shelf sat a couple of tin biscuit boxes, slightly rusty at the edges. She lifted the first one and, taking it with her, sat on the bed and eased the lid off.

Surprised, she lifted a newspaper clipping, a grainy photo of herself at twenty-four, with the caption, Hammond Signs New Hopeful. Beneath that, she found every report of her life, her rise to dubious fame, her fall. She quickly set them to one side and picked up a note, the note she’d penned on a page torn from her jotter on the day she left.

Dear Dad,
I'm going to London. I want to be a singer, and I know I'm just a nuisance to you anyway. I'll write when I get settled.

She smoothed the paper. Why had he kept this? He hadn't come after her as far as she knew. She hadn't expected him to.

Underneath was the first letter she sent him, Edinburgh postmark, telling him she was well and she would never come home again. She had not added an address. Twenty years later she wrote another, one her therapist encouraged her to send.

'Build bridges with your father,' the therapist said. 'He can give you the answers you need to know.'
That time she had added an address.

He hadn't replied, but kept the letter. It was here, still in the envelope, the top edge jagged where it was torn open. She tried not to think of her disappointment as she’d checked the mail day after day. Perhaps she should have returned then, tried to put right the wrongs of the past, but she'd been vulnerable, scarred. Her career as a singer was over and nothing else mattered.

Then there were her school reports, the father's day cards she made, the drawings she did at school, black and heavy. He'd kept them all.

At the bottom of the box was a photograph of her mother sitting on the dyke outside, head thrown back, mouth open in a laugh, her dark hair loose and tumbling down her back. And another, herself as a baby in her mother's arms. Her mother was gazing down at her with an expression of adoration. She studied the image, trying to recall the face, the dark hair, the red lips. 

'Why did you leave me?' she asked. 'I needed you so much.' She thought her parents didn't love her, yet there was no mistaking the love in that photo. And her father, if she really was the burden she'd imagined herself to be, would he have followed her career so resolutely, kept every little memoir of her existence?

She removed the lid of the second box. The first thing she saw was a wedding photo of her parents, both in army uniform. Beneath that lay several snapshots, and a vision of a Box Brownie camera in her mother's hands flew through her mind. She picked up the picture of a baby in a gown assuming it was herself and turned it over. The name Michael was printed on the back. Michael? An unexplained frisson of fear worked its way up her spine. She shrugged it off. Who the hell was Michael?

Then another snapshot. This time of a boy of around five at her mother's side holding her hand. Quickly she leafed through the photos, photos she'd never seen before, and the boy featured in a lot. Michael aged one, Michael first day at school, Michael aged ten and Beth aged one. Michael sitting on an old-fashioned basket chair, a fat baby on his knee. Did she once have a brother? If so, why did she have no memory of him? Why had her parents never spoken of him? Why had her father kept these photos from her?

After that, the only images she found were a couple of her school portraits. Michael was gone. And her mother was gone, and there were no more Box Brownie snapshots.

She found her parents' marriage certificate, her grandparents' death certificates. Nothing for Michael or herself.

'Who are you, Michael?' she said, but the silent face with the frozen smile mocked her from the photograph. A stranger, telling her nothing. A creak came from somewhere. Her fingers tightened on the image, her spine tingled. She imagined another's eyes upon her. She spun around. The room was empty as she knew it would be. An old house, settling and creaking. She forced a laugh at her own nervousness. Nevertheless, she thrust Michael's photos to the bottom of the pile, rose and left the room, gently closing the bedroom door, trapping the past and her memories behind it.

Later, sitting beside a blazing stove, glass of wine in hand, she tried to relax. The gale was a lost soul crying in the chimney. The house itself seemed to take a breath and release it with a tremble. The wind sighed and whistled. A cloud of smoke billowed into the room. Loose branches slapped against the windowpanes making her jump. It was just like that other night, that long-ago night. The night her mother left. And once again, she was in this house, alone.

For a moment she imagined the face of an eagle through the glass. She blinked, shook her head, rose and pulled the curtains blotting out whatever was out there.

For years she'd clung to the therapist's words explaining her nightmares.

You have come to see the eagle as a symbol of bad luck. You saw one that day, and that night your mother left.

There was no eagle, she told herself. There never had been. It was no more than an imaginary entity conjured up by a lonely and unhappy little girl, an imaginary entity which grew and became something more, a vehicle for all the hurts of her young life. She set him free many years ago, released him, watched the imaginary eagle fly into an imaginary sky and take with him all her feelings of worthlessness. Why then, the constant sense there was more?

Leaning against the wall she counted each breath until her heart stopped racing. Perhaps she should not have come back, should have left the past where it was. Done what Andy told her to do. There was reasonable accommodation in Inverness for the family of patients, yet she'd been drawn here by the same invisible bonds from which she once fought to escape. That, and the need to face the demons of the past, to finally convince herself that she stayed with Andy out of choice, not because of the deep-rooted fear of being alone.
She poured herself another glass of wine and drank it quickly, waiting as the welcome warmth spread through her body. From the corner came a scratching sound. Mice, she told herself, or worse still, rats, and she wondered again where the cat had gone. Apart from keeping the vermin down, she would have welcomed its company. Folded on the sofa was a tartan rug. She pulled it across her knees.
After the sounds of the city, the cottage felt dreadfully isolated. She had grown used to passing traffic, human voices in the street outside; music from the bar room; shouts of drunken merriment. All at once she wanted to hear Andy's voice, wished she had, after all, asked him to come with her. She picked up her phone and, realising there was no signal, set it down again. Her father was ninety-three years old and lived all his life without a landline. The rug was thick and soft, and she guessed fairly new, and she snuggled within its folds and allowed herself to be lulled by the song of the wind.

She awoke, still on the couch, her head at a painful angle. The light outside was bright amber, the sounds were of the early morning; a seagull's cry, a bleating sheep, distant intermittent traffic. The empty wine bottle lay on the linoleum. She stretched, easing the cricks in her back, almost laughing at her fears of the night before. She glanced at her watch. Seven thirty. The cinders in the range still glowed, filling the room with a meagre warmth. Longing for a shower she went through to the bathroom to clean the bath. Brown water gushed from the hot tap, took minutes to clear, but remained cold. She had not thought to turn on the immersion heater. A wash-down was the best she could expect. In the kitchen, she switched on the kettle, mentally berating her father for not having the foresight to connect the water supply to the stove.

It occurred to her that if she was going to stay here for any length of time she would need a car. She'd left the Audi in Edinburgh with Andy. Two cars were a waste of money, he said, since he was on hand to drive her wherever she needed to be. For now, she would catch the early bus and spend some time by her father's bedside in the hope he would recognise her, if for only a minute. She wanted him to see her, know she was there, forgive her.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

My Latest News

Soon July will have ended. How fast this wonderful summer is going! Too hot, too dry is not how you often hear the weather described in Scotland, but this year it certainly has been on everyone's lips.

My garden has flourished. Today we are enjoying some rain, (that is if rain can ever be termed as enjoyable) so here is the latest photo.

So much has happened this summer. I formed my own wee publishing company, Overtheord Publishing, finished my seventh book, Mary Rosie's War, and found an excellent printing company. I've already ordered a second print run, and have had several great reviews.

Read some of the reviews for yourself.

I have also decided to serialise my contemporary Novella, Song for an Eagle. I will post another chapter every week for you enjoyment.