'You can't get married to the minister.' A horrified Annie Reid faced her mother.
Isa wiped rough, red hands on her apron. 'Why not?’ Her brown eyes, so like Annie’s own, grew darker as she stared at her daughter.
Annie knew that look, the look that said no amount of argument would change Isa’s mind. That knowledge, however, did nothing to deter Annie. ‘How could you put another man in Dad’s place?’
‘I’ll never forget your father, but he’s gone. I’ve been lonely. In any case it’s hard enough for Bel to feed herself let alone us as well.’
'So we’re leaving Scartongarth? Dad might have been heir to the farm. Why should Bel have it?' Annie set her hand against the lime-washed wall which held the faded framed photograph of her grandparents on their wedding day.
Isa gave a pained sigh. ‘Look, Annie, there was no will. I imagine it should have been your cousin Jimmy’s, but he doesn’t want it. His sister does.’
‘But you said we might have a claim…’
Isa held up her hand. ‘I said it was a possibility only. I didn’t know then how Bel felt about the place and I won’t fight her for it. She's worked hard to keep it going with the war and all.'
‘Then why did we come back? Was it for him, the Reverend Charleston?’
‘Of course not. There was nothing left for us in Canada. You know that.’
The arguments died on Annie’s lips. She, too, had been captivated by Bel’s gentle charm and had no real desire to take the croft from her. However, as far as her mother’s plans were concerned, she had to use all the ammunition she could think of. 'So we'll be moving into the manse? You who never had time for religion.’
Isa sighed. ‘It’s a fine big house and Donald has his stipend. We’ll be comfortable.’
‘Is that why you’re getting wed, so we won’t starve?’
‘No. I like Donald a lot and he’s a good man. You’ll be welcome until you decide your future. You’re clever, Annie, you could go back to school, maybe get a job in an office.'
Annie considered this for a minute. Perhaps her mother marrying the minister wasn’t such a bad idea after all. ‘Would he pay for me to go to college?'
‘You’re my daughter. I wouldn’t expect him to even if he could afford it.’ Two pink dots appeared on Isa’s cheeks, a sign that her patience was wearing thin.
Annie cocked her head. ‘Then how will I ever get a better education?’
Isa took an inward rush of breath. ‘It’ll not be with Donald’s money, I’ll tell you that now.’ She turned her back and, grabbing a duster from the rod across the mantelpiece, began to rub at the range with small, quick movements.
Annie pursed her mouth and stared at the floor where the flagstones shone with Isa's regular polishing.
'Maybe, maybe if I had a word with Mr Dick...' Isa twisted around to face her daughter.
‘Mr Dick – the schoolteacher?'
‘He could give you some learning at nights. I could do a bit of washing, a bit of cleaning for him. If you want an education we'll find a way to make it happen.' Isa spoke with the grim determination that had taken them through all the hardships of their lives.
Annie’s mood lifted. Perhaps, after all, there was a chance of her doing better than ending up a herring gutter or a servant or worse still, having to marry to keep food on the table and become like the island women she saw around her, producing bairns and slaving from dawn to dusk in order to live another week.
‘I still won’t live with you and the minister,’ she muttered.
‘Bel would never turn you out, but see how you get on with Mr Dick. Right now I want you to go to Lottie’s shop. I need to make some bere scones for tea.’
Annie snorted. ‘I’d best go get my coat then.’ She moved sideways around the table in the middle of the floor. To go anywhere in this room she had to move sideways. Against one wall sat a pinewood dresser which held the crockery, on another was a bed in a recess with a door on either side, one leading to the passageway, the other to a steep staircase. On the third wall was the window with a sideboard in front, on the fourth was an iron stove and a mantelpiece with a rod for drying clothes. It was all so different from the roomy space where they had lived in Canada until a few weeks ago.
Annie climbed up to her room beneath the rafters, sat down on her makeshift bed with the large sack of chaff for a mattress that Bel called a caff seck and put her head in her hands. In spite of her words, she liked Donald Charleston and he would be good to her mother. She had seen how quickly the rounded curves of Isa’s body had turned to angles and the strands of white had streaked her coal-black hair after the Great War took her husband. Then the drought had devastated the land. Over the years, Annie watched her mother’s beauty fade as they struggled against poverty. Annie Reid hungered for more. She had thought something better would be waiting for them in the place her parents referred to as ‘home,’ but the war had devastated Britain, nowhere more than the islands. Without an education, a woman had few options.
From beneath her pillow she pulled out the magazines she had bought to pass the long hours on the journey to Scotland. In the meagre slice of day entering through the skylight, she studied the photos of grand ladies, fine carriages and city streets. ‘One day,’ she said, and slapped the magazine closed.
Annie knew she was beautiful. Even if the pock-marked mirror on the passage wall hadn't told her, the way men's eyes followed her did. No, she was not going to settle for becoming a mere crofter-fisherman's wife or a skivvy for some rich family.
She didn't want lessons from Mr Dick with his big belly and bulbous nose and the veins that stood out on the backs of his hands like fat worms. The young teacher, the one who taught the first year pupils, he was a different matter. Even his name had an exotic ring to it. Alexander Garcia’s black hair was short and he shaved most days, not like the young men of the island who, it appeared, only shaved once a week. But it was his eyes that really got her: dark, intense, burning with a fire that matched her own. From the first time she’d seen him, she’d been wondering how to get his attention. Unwittingly, her mother had given her the excuse.
‘Where are you, lass?’ Isa’s voice came from below.
‘Coming, Ma.’ Annie stood up and lifted the coat which doubled as a blanket. She was taller than the average woman and could only stand upright where the beams met in the middle to form the roof.
Downstairs her eyes fell on the big pot on the range. Her stomach clawed for a good feed. She lifted the lid. ‘Is there anything to eat other than porridge?’ She had never been fond of the grey, gooey sludge and since it had become their staple diet she detested it.
‘There’s a crust of bread in the larder and some cheese.’ Isa went to the jar on the mantel and took out some copper coins. ‘See if Lottie’s got any flour, then go and collect the eggs.’
Outside, a sharp breeze blew in from the Pentland Firth lifting the strands of hair that flew round her face. She never tied her hair in a knot or plaited it the way the local women did.
Sucking in the sea-salt air, she looked around. After the big, bright skies and miles of prairie she had grown up with, it would take time to get used to the flat expanse of Raumsey with its one-storied stone-built cottages, miles of ocean beyond, and a sky that was seldom free of clouds.
Sloping down from the shingle path, behind the hummocks of waving grass, the pebbles on the beach rattled as angry breakers smashed over them. For seventeen years she had grown up in Alberta and had never seen the ocean. Now she embraced its wildness; it was the one thing that fascinated her about this island. If only her dad were with them now, he would have built a boat for the fishing and turned Scartongarth back into the success it once was. Her brother Dan, who had remained in Canada, would come to help them run it, she would go to university, and her mam would not be marrying the minister.