Once back home, Beth dumped the shopping bags on the draining board and lit the stove. By now the water should be hot enough for a bath. She prepared herself a meal of ready-cooked chicken and salad and put some frozen chips in the oven to cook. While she waited, she wandered through to her father's bedroom and stripped off his bedding. After making up the bed, she sat in front of the dressing-table for a few minutes rest.
Lifting her head, she caught her reflection in the mirror and imagined her child-face staring back at her. She had loved sitting here surrounded by her mother's things. Her perfume, her lipstick and rouge, her soft-smelling face powder in the box with the pretty lid.
'Mother of pearl,' Veronica told her, allowing the child to run her fingers over it. 'It'll be yours one day.' And she picked up her hairbrush. 'Let's brush each other's hair.'
The pleasant memory faded. Beth rubbed her eyes and rose to her feet.
Downstairs, she ate her meal, took a bath and dressed in her nightclothes. A glass of wine and the heat from the stove made her drowsy, the wind outside brought back fluttering wings of memory. In an effort to keep them at bay, she rubbed her hands together, lifted her guitar and began to strum. Her fingers were no longer as supple as they needed to be for professional playing. Andy was right to persuade her to buy the club. She began to sing, something she only did when she was alone. She chose a song she wrote years ago, the song which took her into the charts.
I wish I could go back to what I used to be
A simple little girl, so innocent and free
Somewhere along life's path, much has been lost and little gained
Somewhere along life's path, it has rained.
Frustrated by a voice that could no longer hit the high notes, she set her guitar aside, wiped her cheeks and poured another drink, emptying the bottle. Why did she keep trying to sing? Did she really think one day a miracle would happen?
Back in her other existence, singing was her world, filling up the empty places. And it wasn't just the songs; she revelled in the adoration of her fans and the applause that electrified her. She loved the life, the money, the parties, aah, the parties. And Lewis. Rat that he turned out to be. He swept her off her feet with his promises, his suave good looks, his flashy cars, his elaborate lifestyle, his guarantees of fame and fortune. He made her over and turned her into a star and she forgot her promise to Andy and Desmond to find them a job in the industry once she had her foot on the ladder. When she overtook Leo Sayer in the charts, it filled her with a false sense of her own importance. And then, one morning it hurt to swallow. The doctor warned her of the dangers of straining her vocal cords. He told her to cancel her next concert, her next tour, to stop smoking, and she ignored him, forcing the songs from her heart even when the very notes which gave her life caused shooting pains from ear to ear. Eventually she was diagnosed with polyps on her vocal chords. They coarsened her voice making it less than perfect. Encouraged by pressure from Lewis, she agreed to have the offending growths removed.
Hammond had a friend, a surgeon who, he said, once owned a practice in Harley Street, and she trusted his choice. But the knife did more harm than good. The damage was irreversible. She soon realised it had all been smoke and mirrors, none of it was real. She was a voice, not a person at all. As her fickle fans found another idol, Hammond dropped her for a new protégé, and Beth the pop star disappeared. When she caught him in bed with his latest conquest and he laughed at her hurt, she took solace in alcohol and drugs that filled the void as her dream faded.
One night, alone and drunk, nursing the feeling she had nothing left to live for, she called Andy.
'It's Beth,' she slurred, when he answered. There was a long silence.
'I understand you won't want to talk to me.' She hung up and started to cry in earnest. She lost everything, everyone. For a long time she stared at the bottle of sleeping tablets on her bedside cabinet. Then her thoughts turned to Berriedale and her father. If he'd only installed a telephone. But she could call the local hotel, they would get a message to him. She reached out her hand and as she did so, the telephone rang.
'Hello.' She pressed the receiver to her ear.
'Beth, where are you?'
'Andy... Andy I'm so sorry... you were right... I shouldn't have gone...' Her voice failed her and she dissolved into a new fit of weeping.
'Tell me where you are and I'll come and get you,' he said.
Gratitude overwhelmed her. Gratitude which still bound her to him after all this time.
The first night he took her home to his one-bedroom flat in Haymarket, he treated her as if she was made of glass. He gave her his bed and made up the sofa for himself. At the time he was working as a manager for a hardware store and singing in a dingy bar room at the weekends. He had had a lady friend, he told her, but that had recently ended.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I’ll soon have you back to normal. Lots of sleep and good food. I eat most nights at the café on the corner. Mario makes the best pasta dishes outside Italy! Your voice’ll soon come back, you’ll see.’
‘It won’t,’ she said. But he ignored her, and gradually lost patience with her despondency.
A few weeks later, when he came home to find her still in her dressing gown, he heaved open the curtains and uttered a snort of disgust. ‘It’s about time you got yourself out of this state,’ he said. ‘I can’t go on keeping you for nothing. I promised the lads you’d come with us on Saturday night. And no more of this.’ He snatched the cigarette out of her hand and threw it into the bin. ‘They don’t do your voice any good.’
‘I told you, I can’t sing.’ Wounded by his harsh words, she rose and pushed her fingers through her tangle of hair.
‘Won’t sing, you mean. It’s all in the mind, Beth.’
‘If that’s the only reason you took me back, I wish I’d stayed away.’
‘I’m beginning to wish that too.’ He stormed out of the flat slamming the door, and she didn’t see him for several days. When he did come back he was sheepish. ‘Look Beth, I told one of my friends about you. She thinks you should talk to someone, a professional.’
‘You spoke about me to a stranger?’ She couldn’t believe this.
He ran his hand over his head. ‘There’s the drinking too. And the nightmares.’
‘What drinking? I’ve never touched a drop since I’ve been here. And I’ve always had nightmares when I’m stressed, and you telling me I can sing if I try is stressing me no end.’
‘Come off it. It’s only a matter of time before you fall off the wagon and you haven’t had a decent fucking night’s sleep since you came back. And neither have I. Look, I’ve managed to get an appointment with a therapist. Not cheap, but it’ll be worth it to see you back to what you were.’
‘For God’s sake, will you listen. My vocal chords are damaged. My voice is weak. It’s not going to happen.’ She stormed into the bedroom, pulled her holdall from under the bed and started throwing her clothes into it.
‘What are you doing?’ shouted Andy, grabbing her arm.
‘You’re like all the rest. You just want me to make money for you. Well, get this through your thick skull, the golden goose is laying no more eggs!’ She jerked away from him.
His voice lowered. ‘Aw, come on. I didn’t mean it like that. Where are you going to go? Look, I won’t pressure you anymore, honest. Just see this doctor, what harm can it do?’
She suddenly felt the strength drain from her legs and she sank down onto the bed. It was true she had nowhere to go, and she did need help. Her life had become a mess. ‘And you’ll stop going on about me singing?’
His hand made a crossing motion on his chest, but his eyes remained unconvinced.
Doctor Madelaine, as she called herself, did help her. She even helped to convince Andy that Beth’s loss of voice was physical. But, as the layers of her past began to peel away, the nightmares became worse. It was then he decided the therapy was a waste of money.
She had been happy enough to leave, although it was against the advice of Doctor Madelaine. There was a door in her mind that she was scared to open, and without Andy’s support, she could not go there.
Finally accepting that her voice loss was permanent, Andy came up with the idea of the club and she welcomed it. It gave her the opportunity to surround herself with the life she was no longer part of.
She continued to write songs for a while, but unable to find a market for her stuff, she turned to poetry, deep meaningful lines into which she poured her heart and soul.
Lost in the past, she closed her eyes and allowed herself to be comforted by the settling of the fire, the whistle of the wind outside and the faded music in her head.
Suddenly the eagle sat before her, his great wings folded against his sides, his eyes yellow. He did not speak, at least in the way Beth knew, with voices that splintered the air. His voice was the voice of the wind, the voice of the river running through the glen fast and furious with the swell of spring and melting snow.
'I am your friend,' he said. But she knew he lied. She knew he had come to seek revenge. He moved closer and the face filled her vision, the scent of the mountains filled her nostrils, and she heard the beat of his heart matching her own. The hooked beak brushed her shoulder. She closed her eyes waiting for the slash to her throat. It never came.
And then he had gone. She watched him spread his wings and rise into the sky, higher and higher, and the terror filling her heart slipped away. The wind was cold on her cheeks and she shivered, the loneliness of her early life closing in on her. 'Mammy,' she cried.
She woke with a start. The curtains, flapping like the wings of a bird, reached towards her. The rising wind filled the room. The window was swinging open. She rose and pressed it closed against the determined gale. Immediately behind her something crashed. She spun around, eyes flying first to the floor where a ceramic lady that had once belonged to her father's grandmother, lay shattered on the lino. Then her eyes swept up to the sideboard. A large, grey cat stood there its back arched, its ears flattened, its slitted eyes hard and yellow. Her body went soft as relief soaked through her.
'Puss,' she cried, holding out her hand. The cat lifted its round head, lowered its back, yet still eyed her suspiciously. Finally, as if deciding she could be trusted, it purred and meowed. She walked forward and he butted the offered hand.
'Sorry, puss,' she said. 'I've no cat food. But I think I've some chicken left over.'
The cat fell on the chicken as if it hadn't eaten for days. When she finally lowered herself onto the settee there was a sense of comfort at the warm body pressing itself against her leg, paws kneading her thigh, a contented rumble in the animal's throat. They had always owned cats when she was a child, and dogs. She had wanted a pet, but Andy was allergic to cats, and, living in a flat with busy working lives, it would have been unfair on a dog.
The window swung open again. The curtains streamed towards her. The cat arched its back and growled. Beth rose quickly, checked the latch, closed the window and checked the latch again. It seemed secure enough. A chill ran the length of her spine. She thought of James. She would go and see him tomorrow, see if he knew any joiners in the area; if she got locks fitted, that would do it, she thought.
As if compelled, she reached for her pad and pencil and started a new poem. 'To an Eagle.'
Feathers unruffled against the wind,
Below, where grass shivers,
Is marked for extinction.
Caught in the evil of your eye.
She reread it, drew a single line through it and started again. Once she was as happy with her words as she could be, she felt calm enough to search for sleep.
She woke early after a restless night and padded into the kitchen, checking the windows as she went. All were secure. Taking her coffee cup with her, she walked out into the early morning. The sun was soft, bright and low. The river dashed in ropes of white and pewter through the glen, between trees splendid in their autumnal colours. In the months of spring these hills would become a riot of yellow where the broom spread over the mountain. On a morning like this, it was hard to imagine the lashing storms of winter.
'I'll be away this afternoon,' she told the cat. ‘But I'll be back in time for tea.' She bent down and scratched behind one battle-scarred ear and tried not to think of windows that opened of their own accord in the night.
She found James standing at his front door looking down the glen. He was unshaven, slightly heavy eyes, and wore a cable jumper the colour of sheep’s wool. In the glen, the haar, a soft white blanket of mist that had crept landward during the hours of darkness, had not yet fully cleared. He glanced up as she approached. 'I never tire of the scenery round here,' he said. 'Every season a different picture. Come in, come in.' He led her into a large, littered kitchen with an iron range against the far wall, the furniture stately and old, reminiscent of another era.
James cleared away a pile of books from a chair. 'Sit down. Coffee? I was just going to make my first cup of the day.' Lifting a cafetière from the draining board, he rinsed it under the tap.
'Yes please,' she said.
'So what brings you here? Not that you're not welcome at any time.' He was looking at her over his shoulder as he spoke.
'I need to buy a car. Something reasonable. I wondered if you knew of anything?'
He set the cafetière down and crossed to his laptop on the table. There was a ping of Microsoft Windows loading. 'I'll have a look on Caithness.org. We might pick up something. Here,' he turned the screen to face her. 'Browse that lot while I get the coffee.'
She chose a couple of private sales that sounded promising.
'I'll take you there this afternoon. Milk and sugar?'
'Just milk. No need to take me. I can bus it,' she said.
'And the catch on the living room window needs fixing. I wondered ...'
'I can look at that for you too.'
'I didn't mean... I wondered if you knew a handyman.' She shrugged.
'Right here.' He pointed to his chest.
'That's good of you. I'll pay of course.'
'Not at all. Just have dinner with me, okay?' He lifted his eyebrows.
'Sure. I'll even make it. I'm a fair cook if I need to be.' Why did she say that? With her cooking skills, he'd be lucky to get beans on toast.
'I'll look forward to it.' James' smile was wide and lit up his face. A smile she could trust. And she realised she was smiling too.
She turned her coffee cup around, serious now. 'James,' she began, 'when we were children, what do you remember about my family?'
'Not a lot. I remember you in school, that's about it.'
'There are things I need to know, things no one told me.'
'I don't remember much before my mother left. But there were photos in the house, photos I'd never seen before. A boy I don't know. I think I may have had a brother, maybe he died when I was young, but I've no memory of him.'
James shrugged. 'I don't remember you having a brother. We could ask my mother about your family. She lives in Lybster. We'll drop in when I take you to see the cars. Mind you, she's a bit forgetful now, tends to ramble on sometimes.'
Beth finished her coffee, rose and walked to the window. A roe deer stood in the garden outside and, without fear, he continued chewing and studied the face behind the glass. 'Bambi,' she said beneath her breath. She had forgotten the deer.
James came up behind her. 'He comes most days. I sometimes get red deer, and rabbits, lots of rabbits and hares. They seem almost tame, as if they know I wouldn't hurt them.'
For a long moment they stood like that, in silence, until, as if alerted by an invisible predator, the deer started and sprung away, leaving the garden empty. Beth's eyes flicked to her father's cottage nestled in the folds of the opposite hill.
'I'd love to meet your mother,' she said, turning back towards the room.
Nettie Anderson lived in a small bungalow, just off the main street in Lybster village. She was a round, warm woman who gave Beth a welcome that made her wish she could stay there forever. Shuffling rather than walking, she led them into a bright chintzy living room and served them tea poured from a china teapot into china cups with saucers. She brought out a matching plate of shortbread and chocolate biscuits. 'If James had told me sooner that you were coming, I'd have done a baking,' she said, eyeing Beth and frowning. 'You're awful pale and thin. Eat up now.'
'Mother, don't get personal,' said James.
Beth's slimness was a source of pride to her when so many women her age found it difficult to shift the extra pounds. 'It's fine,' she said to James, then looked at Nettie. 'This is lovely, thank you.' She couldn't remember when she'd last drunk tea from a china cup and she thought it tasted better somehow.
'James said you wanted to ask me some things. You'll have to speak clear though. Folk nowadays either shout or mumble.' She adjusted her hearing aid and it made a screeching noise. She grimaced and pulled it out. 'Just talk clear, I'm no deaf.'
Beth caught James' eye and he smiled indulgently.
She leaned forward and cleared her throat. 'Do you remember my family?'
'I mind Robbie MacLean. Quiet lad. He was called up when the war started. I mind seeing him in his uniform before he left. I was just a bairn at the time, no more than nine or ten. What a bonnie looking young man he was. His hair was red, like yours. All gone now I expect.'
'And later, after the war, do you remember my mother?'
'He didn't come back here after the war. They settled somewhere else for a while. They came back'... She stared at the far wall, 'about '53 or '54. Ach, My memory's no what it was.' She smiled, her eyes distant, lost in the past. 'I was aye good at figures. Top o' my class at school. But we never had the chances then they have nowadays. Could have gone further, you ken. Gone to university, my teacher said. But I had to leave school, gut the herring for very little pay. There were twelve of us. I was the youngest, the only one alive now. It was a hard life back then, but good, can't say it wasn't good.' She stopped, a smile tugged her lips. 'I married well.' She looked at James. 'He came here as a young man. All the lassies were after the new doctor, I swear, there was more illness all of a sudden than there ever was before! You look so like him, son. Many a time...'
'What about Beth's mother?' said James, bringing her back.
'Oh, aye, well, like I was saying, she was a right bonny lassie, your mam. You've a good look of her, except for your hair. I saw her in the shop sometimes. She kept you lovely, like a wee doll with your golden curls. Never saw you again once she left. Gladys Mitchell, that was your schoolteacher, she tried to take an interest, spoke to your dad, but he told her to mind her own business. They said he went clean to pieces after your ma left, let himself go right downhill. There was many that would have helped him, especially with the bairn, but he didn't want it. But he doted on you, though, I'm sure he did.'
Beth never felt doted on. She wet her lips. 'Do you ever remember a boy living in my house?'
Nettie shook her head. 'When your mam and dad moved here they only had the one bairn. That would be you.'
'So I was born somewhere else?' She stopped for a moment while she digested this. 'Have you any idea where we lived before?'
'I don't know, love. I'm sorry I can't help you more, but I hardly knew your family. Your granddad died and your dad came back to run the croft, I heard. We lived in Dunbeath by then. Your mam was from the city and I heard them say that she'd never really settled in the country.'
'Who would know? Is there anyone who was a friend or neighbour?'
'They were a quiet couple, kept themselves to themselves. No one knew much about them. Didn't want anyone to know.' She lifted her hand. 'Wait, she sang in a band. A Scottish dance band, just for a couple of months before she left. They said she left with the drummer. Oh, I'm sorry...' She put her hand over her mouth.
'No, no, go on. She... she sang? Are any members of the band still around?'
Nettie shook her head and gave a little laugh. 'Och no, for they were all a good bit older than her. The drummer, he was a younger man, came from the south. Never heard her myself, but they say she was very good.'
'What about the teacher, Gladys Mitchell?'
'Ach, sorry, lass, Gladys passed on last summer.' She set her hand on Beth's. 'I wish I could help you more. But come back and see me, I'll bake next time.'
'Aye, I'll do that,' said Beth, her face relaxing into a smile.
'Thanks, Mother,' said James. 'But we'll have to go. We're going to John O' Groats to look at a couple of cars. Don't get up, we'll see ourselves out.'
'I hope your dad gets better.' Nettie looked up at Beth. 'And do come back.'
Beth thanked the old woman again as they headed for the door, her mind already racing. All her life she ignored the need to find out about her past, never had the time anyway, why should she let it bother her now? Andy's voice came back to her.
'You don't need your family. What have they ever done for you? I'm here now, I love you and I'll never leave you.'
Maybe he was right. She managed to deny any curiosity she might have had for most of her life, even gave up on therapy when the questions hit a nerve, and threatened to remove the ability to banish all thoughts from her mind. Some places were too painful to visit.
Andy never gave up on her, did he? Even after she fell hopelessly, madly in love with Lewis Hammond, so much so she would have done anything he asked of her and almost did. She believed he felt the same way about her until she caught him in bed with another up and coming starlet. That was the night she tottered on stage the worse of alcohol. Her voice was not only weak and hoarse from the operation, but slurred, the audience weaving before her eyes. She shuddered at the memory. There was no clapping that night, only jeers and boos. She had gone to her dressing room and trashed it.
'You okay?' James brought her back to the present. 'You were miles away.' He opened the passenger door for her.
'Yes, I'm fine. Someone walked over my grave.' She forced a little laugh, and wiped an unexpected tear from her eye.
John O'Groats had changed since she'd last been here. Chalets filled the field behind a shopping precinct, which appeared to have sprung up, flourished and died during her absence. The hotel where her father had once taken her for high tea was under renovation.
'Everything changes,' she said, as she stood on the shore looking over the firth towards the islands to the north, shivering under the onslaught of a northerly breeze. 'Come on,' she said, 'I'll treat you to a coffee, then we'll go buy a car.'
The car she chose, a small Punto, was in good condition and within her price range. She shook the seller's hand and wrote out a cheque, surprised that he let her take the Punto then and there, not waiting for the cheque to clear as would have happened in the city.
'I need to get some shopping on the way home,' she told James. 'I'll see you at seven for dinner.'
He saluted. 'I'll look forward to it.'
She stopped by the supermarket on the outskirts of Wick and picked up place mats, napkins, a set of plain wine glasses and a meal for two, easy to cook. With extra vegetables and another bottle of wine, who would tell the difference, she reasoned.
By the time she reached home, the sun was beginning its downward arc towards the west. Rays hit the windscreens of cars, a chain of sparkling diamonds tumbling down the opposite hillside.
Indoors she shivered. The old stone walls seemed to retain the cold in spite of the mild day. The feeling that the hand of fate was winding her in, bringing her back full circle persisted, and the promise she made to her father cemented the trap. Her main fear was that after life in the city, Berriedale would be unbearably lonely and bleak in the winter. Perhaps they could sell this place, get somewhere nearer town, but given the number of for-sale signs she had seen on the way north, she doubted if that would be possible any time soon. Then there was Andy. She knew what his reaction to her decision would be.
Forget your father. He never cared for you. I'm the one who has always been here.
A finger of guilt stabbed her, yet strangely enough, she felt a sense of relief to have a valid reason not to stay in Edinburgh. What was the matter with her? They'd made a good living over the years, and she was good at her job. The club had been her dream too, hadn't it? Suddenly she wasn't sure. It had been all too easy to let Andy make the decisions, to convince her that he knew what was best for her, to somehow repay him for the wrongs of the past. Yet being here, in this place, the place she once saw as a prison, she felt a sense of freedom that she had not experienced in a long time.
She pulled the Formica-topped table from the kitchen and set it up in the living room. Covered by a tablecloth and the place-mats, with a candle in the middle, it looked pretty good. After following the instructions on the packaging of the meal for two and putting it in the oven, she had time to tie her hair up and change her jeans and loose jumper for a slim-line skirt and pale green blouse. She used the straighteners on her springing hair and with a trembling hand, she applied some foundation and a slight touch of blusher. She never went in for heavy make-up.
James arrived promptly at seven carrying a bottle of wine and a bunch of flowers. He was dressed in a tweed jacket, grey flannels and an open-necked shirt, and her heart gave a slight jump when she saw him. Smiling a welcome, she led him indoors. She went to the kitchen to get a bottle of wine and when she returned he was reading the poem she had inadvertently left on the sideboard. He looked up as she entered. 'This is damn good,' he said.
'I have more editing to do,' she reached forward and snatched it from his hand.
'You wrote it? Have you any more?'
She swallowed. 'Yes. I love poetry. I used to write songs, but they fell from favour. The first couple of recordings I made were my own. After that they made me sing stuff I didn't even like because it was 'a popular style'. Anyway, I find I can say much more with free verse.' She stopped, afraid of getting carried away by her own enthusiasm.
'Is that why you gave up singing?'
'No!' Her reply was sharp.
A look of concern crossed his face. Then as if he realised he'd hit a nerve, he changed the subject. 'I read a lot of poets, old and contemporary. And, believe me, this is good.' He indicated the page now lying beside her plate. 'Have you ever thought of having them published?'
'They're very personal, but,' she lowered her eyes, debating whether to confide, then, coming to a decision, said, 'I do have them published, but not under my own name. Now come on, the food's near ready.' Andy merely tolerated her passion for poetry, seeing it as a harmless pastime. She never told him about the publishing. He would not have understood. The payments were poor.
'What name? Maybe I've heard of you.'
She hesitated, then thought, what the hell. 'Clara Spears.' She cleared her throat.
'No! Really? God, you've only been hailed as the UK's answer to Sylvia Plath.'
Beth felt the heat climb into her face. ‘I wanted to be published because of my talent, not because I was well-known. That’s why I originally used an pseudonym. Now I like it this way. I don't want people to know who I am.' She grinned. 'You may feel honoured.'
James drew a finger across his lips in a gesture of silence. 'But one thing I've been wondering...'
She looked at him.
'Why don't you sing any more?'
'It's no secret. I had polyps on my vocal chords. I opted for an operation, which the surgeon botched. It was in all the papers at the time.'
'I would have been overseas then. But medicine has moved on, maybe nowadays...'
'No! I've learned to live with it.'
She lifted her fork and began to eat. No, she would not risk further operations, further disappointments. 'Which poets do you read?' She changed the direction of the conversation.
He smiled, leaned towards her and said,
'Tis time the heart should be unmoved,
Since others it hath ceased to move:
Yet, though I cannot be beloved,
Still let me love!
She laughed and replied,
'My days are in the yellow leaf;
The flowers and fruits of love are gone;
The worm, the canker, and the grief
Are mine alone!'
'You like Byron?' he asked.
'Very much. Contemporary poems are fine, but they can't compare. Actually, my favourite will always be Robert Burns. Mind you, I hardly understand a lot of the words in the old Scots now. It's a pity our language is dying.'
Throughout the meal, they discussed poetry and the poets they liked, finding that their tastes in literature were remarkably similar.
Setting his fork and knife to one side, James complimented her on the meal. She smiled, neither confirming nor denying the fact that she had not cooked it herself. 'It's only a steak pie,' she murmured, lowering her gaze.
A brief memory crossed her mind. A memory of a time when a neighbour brought herself and her father a casserole dish of stewed beef and it had been so good that she'd eaten most of it herself. Knowing that the neighbour would ask Robbie later how he enjoyed the stew, Beth opened a tin of dog food and mixed it in with the remaining gravy. She watched, as he tasted it, watched his face screw up slightly, watched him nod, watched him finish the plateful.
'Maybe not her best effort,' he said, pushing the empty dish aside.
Beth was still grinning at the memory as she returned from taking the plates to the kitchen.
'I'm sorry my mother wasn't much help.' James refilled her glass.
'At least I found out I wasn't born around here.' She sipped her wine slowly. The first glass had made her mellow and she suddenly wished she had the means to play some background music.
'Did your parents never speak about themselves?' James said.
She shook her head. 'I asked my father once how they met.' She paused, remembering the flush of pleasure to have his attention. 'He'd had a good day at the lamb sales and a few drams before he came home, just enough to relax him.' She laughed at the memory. 'He came in, tripped over the dog, and ended up in the corner. He was all hunched up, looking at me, all guilty, as if he was a little boy and I was the mother.' She giggled. 'It was funny and we both ended up laughing. He didn't drink much.' Her voice trailed away and she became solemn. 'Now and again, when he was in the mood, I managed to get some information from him, but talking about my mother always seemed painful, even after all that time.' She fingered the stem of her glass and stared at the wall, as if she could see her life being played out there.
'They met in Bradford. They were both in the forces. He was demobbed, shrapnel in the hip. He walked with a limp after that. He never spoke about the war, but he had times when he would go into a mood for days.' Beth stopped and stared into the remains of the wine in her glass. 'I never wanted children. Was afraid. Afraid I wouldn't be able to cope and leave like my mother, or maybe... become disinterested like my father.'
'And you never married?'
She shook her head. 'Andy wanted to marry me and I even thought I loved him once, well, as much as I could love anyone, I guess. Maybe it was just gratitude. He took charge of the club, so I didn’t have to worry, he said. What about you?'
'Been married twice. Didn't work out either time.'
‘Two by my second wife. Boy and a girl. She took them away. They're grown up now. They keep in touch, but we're not close.'
'She met a guy from the States when the U.S. naval base was in Forss, up Thurso end, early warning systems in case someone in the Soviet Union got itchy fingers. I was doing my first stint in Africa. When the Russian threat was removed and the Americans went home, she left with him. Took the kids. I couldn't really blame her, me leaving her alone for so long, must have been hard. I went to Colorado to see the children once, but it was awkward. They look on their stepfather as their real dad.’
‘I vaguely remember the base. Do you keep in touch with your kids?’
‘Yes, but only via Facebook. Beth, why have you left it till now to find out about your past?'
'I always meant to try one day, but life was pretty hectic. There just wasn't the time.' She could not admit she was scared she'd be rejected again. She didn't want to face the fact that Andy's words fuelled her fear. 'My father's illness has forced me to realise that if I don't do it soon, I'll die without ever knowing the truth.' She turned to face James. 'Seeing him lying there. I thought... what if the same thing happens to me... and I'm lying trapped inside my mind never knowing. I'm so glad you traced me.' She laughed, embarrassed at her uncharacteristic openness. 'I don't know why I'm telling you all this. I hardly know you.'
'That's the best way, isn't it?'
'No, I should stop. Andy's always said it's best to let sleeping dogs lie.'
'I don't think you should. God willing, we'll have another twenty, thirty years of active life ahead of us. After all, sixty's the new forty.' He was watching her, his eyes kind. 'But you've got to lay the ghosts.'
Beth stared into the ruby depths of her wine. 'There was one time that sticks in my mind.'
'It was summer, but Dad made me wear wellington boots. I hadn't wanted to put them on at first. I can still hear my father's words. "We're going through deep heather and you might disturb an adder," I remember him standing there, all brown and healthy looking. He was lean, he was always very lean. He was a handsome man. After that I didn't complain. I didn't relish being bitten by a snake.' A little smile played around her mouth. She cleared her throat. 'And then I saw an eagle in the distance. I remember clinging to Dad’s leg. I was afraid even then.
''Damn birds,'' Dad swore. ''Vermin, that's what they are. Killing all the game. How is the estate going to make money if there's no game left for the hunters?''
I started to cry and he picked me up. ''He might think you're a wee lamb and steal you away. I couldn't stand it if I lost you too.'' And he hugged me. I remember it especially because right then, I felt he would keep me safe.'
James reached over and covered her hand with his.
She enjoyed the feel of his skin next to hers. 'Maybe that's why I've always been afraid of eagles,' she said.
'You're afraid of eagles? How afraid?'
'Very. A phobia. All big birds in fact.'
'In that case, I think it would be something much more dramatic.'
James squeezed her hand, his eyes never leaving her face.
For a brief moment she wondered how he would react if she asked him to stay the night. Twenty years ago, he would have asked her already, she reflected, amused at her own thoughts. How long had it been since a man affected her like this? A brief memory of Lewis Hammond and how their affair almost destroyed her, rose unbidden. Just as quickly, she banished it back into the folder in her head filed under "mistakes best forgotten." Suddenly uneasy, she withdrew her hand from his and glanced at the clock. 'I'll need to get to bed soon. I'm going to drive to Inverness tomorrow and I want an early start.'
'You're not sending me away already? I haven't unburdened my soul yet.' He lifted his brows as if in a question.
'Okay, another...,' she checked the last bottle of wine. It was half-full. 'Another drink, then you really have to go.'
His long fingers played with the stem of his glass. 'Didn't you ever want to find your mother?'
'For years I dreamed I'd bump into her in the street and we’d immediately recognise each other. But all my childhood, she could've come back if she'd wanted me.' Her voice took on a raw edge. 'I tried to blot it out, tried to pretend I had no family. That I needed no one.'
‘Maybe she tried to get in touch when she sorted her life. How would she know where you lived after you left? You told me your father didn't even know.'
'I suppose you're right.' She stared at his hand, at the fingers on the stem of his glass, the short clean nails, imagined them on her skin, and immediately lifted her eyes. 'But he knew later, when I sent him my address. He didn’t reply, not once!’ She gave a deep sigh. ‘It's too late for regrets. It's doubtful if she's still alive.' But his words had the effect of cracking a shell, allowing some of the raw emotion to leak out. With all the effort she possessed, she closed that shell and sealed the edges. What was the matter with her? She was talking too much. Wanting too much. She drained her glass and looked at the clock.
'I've enjoyed myself tonight,' James said, standing up. 'Look, if the weather stays fine, how about you and I taking a hike up to Eagle Rock some day?'
'No!' the word exploded before she could stop it. 'No, I can't.'
He looked confused. 'I'm sorry, did I say something wrong?'
'No, it's just, well, I told you about me and birds.'
'I doubt if they'll come near us. It's just the name of a place. It's where the Duke of Kent’s plane crashed in WW2.'
'I know.' How could she tell him even the word 'eagle' filled her with an irrational fear? 'But you're right. I'm being silly.' She suddenly couldn't wait to get him out of the door, get it shut and bolted.
'Then we'll go?' He looked concerned.
'Yes, we'll do that.' She spoke without any intentions of going up a mountain and definitely not to a place called Eagle Rock. Tomorrow would be another day. Another excuse.
'And you'll come to my place next time? I make a mean curry.' He bent down and kissed her cheek and the warmth of his lips lingered. 'And I want to read more of your poems.'
'Yes, I'll do that.' She moved away, trying not to meet his eyes. 'Goodnight.'
She closed the door and hugged herself, simultaneously missing his presence and glad to be alone. She had almost opened up to him tonight. Draining what was left of the wine she leaned back in the chair. She would never find sleep now. Once more her thoughts moved to her father.
Looking back from her adult eyes, she realised how difficult it must have been for him. She, as a moody, sulky child, hadn't been easy. Then she hit her teens and was filled with angst and anger. If only he had spoken to her more, they might have been close. How could she have understood his reasons, his rage? How could she have made things different?
Her mind carried her back to the day she discovered both the seed of rebellion which had been germinating in her soul, and her love of singing.