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.