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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.

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