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?'
'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.