Wee-lad launches Nanny’s boot off the zipline platform. Her second-hand Clarks carves a small rainbow, bark chippings tumbling from it as it flies. No often he does as he’s telt these days, Alistair thinks. Or so’s he keeps hearing.
They’ve been playing ‘Chuck Nanny’s Shoe’ since they got to Duthie Park and realised the zipline was gone. There was no sign left to say if it had been vandalised or removed to avoid vandalism. Unless the sign itself has been nicked. Just three wooden cabers remain, adjoined by a platform at the bottom and tied with rope at the top, like an ancient disused catapult. Daft to come here on a typically Baltic October day in Scotland, but Ma had insisted.
‘The line’s his favourite,’ she’d whined, as though she might stomp her wee trotters for good measure.
But the game’s diverted Joshy from moaning, which is all you can ask of a game for a three-year-old, really. And Alistair’s enjoying egging him on. Ma’s no enjoying it so much: hopping towards the boot each time it lands, the hood of her puffer jacket bouncing, cheeks aflame. She’s shooting Alistair daggers: ‘Take over – now.’ He’s ignoring them. Good exercise for the diabetes, Ma.
Crunchcrunchcrunch – Joshy streaks past Nanny, scoops up the shoe and a fresh handful of chippings, retreats to the platform.
‘Now, Joshy!’ Alistair shouts, taking out his phone. A ‘poke’ from Emma, an email from Jim – Avo sign arrived… fucked – more Junk Mail from ‘HRMC’: swipe, delete. He replies to Jim – Classic min. Be in soon – then snaps a photo of Joshy, sends it to Emma with a sad face emoji and caption: No long now…
‘Ow-aa!’ Joshy hits the floor, his heels clipped by a wifie soon-to-be forty-seven launching herself at him rugby-style. They lay prone on the bark, the battered grey boot restored to her right hand. Joshy starts banshee howling. Game over, then.
‘Now then,’ Ma says.
In one fluid movement she hoiks the bairn up, wipes the knees of his T-rex-embossed jeans, produces a half-used tissue for his nose, and plops him back down. Joshy, stunned to find himself sat crossed-legged in front of her, stops fitting.
‘Let’s count the chips, eh?’ she says.
They pick wood pieces out of her boot like robbers distributing swag.
‘One. Two. Fwee. Seven. Ay-ten.’
‘C’mon love, ye ken this: eight, nine, ten.’
Alistair gets another look, pick-a-stick sharp. ‘Regressed speech’ she called it, last week on the phone. Saw it on a Supernanny repeat. His fault too, no doubt.
‘Cup o’ tea, Ma?’
‘Thought you’d never ask,’ she growls.
His phone pings: Emma. Poor Al xxxx
Nae fuss getting a seat by the window, Yvonne notes. The café’s empty, the weather dreich enough to drive most parents to Science Sphere or Rainbowland with their weans. But Joshy loves the zip-line. That prickling behind her eyes again: it had tae be down this one afternoon.
The girl at the counter’s fit for closing early, shearing burnt onions from griddle to grease pit with a spatula. But she serves Yvonne, handing her two polystyrene cups, Wagon Wheels and a Ribena carton. At the steel-topped stand she makes a pit-stop for UHT punnets, swizzle sticks and two sachets of sugar that she tipper-trucks into her tea.
They arrive back from the toilet as she sets the tray down on the round Formica table. Alistair pops Joshy up on an orange plastic seat, then sits in the one Yvonne had her eye on. She scoots another over.
‘You wash your hands?’ she asks Joshy.
Alistair rolls his eyes. ‘No Ma, we thought we’d eat piss biscuits today.’
‘Pish bukets,’ Joshy repeats, blue eyes wide, face serious as his father’s.
Yvonne decides not to rise to it, not that Alistair will register the effort. She passes her son his tea and piece before sitting, the chair-legs resettling under her. Joshy’s pawing at the other Wagon Wheel.
She holds it out of reach. ‘Can I hae it please?’
‘Maaay – mine!’
‘Just gie it to him, Ma,’ Alistair gripes.
Sighing, she unwraps it, breaking off a morsel for herself before handing it over. Alistair’s leg is jigging, wound up like a tin toy ticking down. Her fault, nae doubt.
He slurps his tea, scowls. ‘Bit sweet.’
Shite. ‘Sorry, thought you took sugar?’
He raises an eyebrow, then gets into his phone again. Barely a word to the loon all afternoon – little wonder Lina didn’t want him sitting Joshy solo while she’s at their flat. Yvonne sips her milk-with-none tea, stares out at weighty grey clouds, pressing down on the granite buildings that ring Duthie Park. Perhaps the ferry won’t go, she thinks, wildly. But ferocious as the wind is, that boat will’ve been through worse.
‘So this is the image we’re usin’ for the homepage,’ Alistair says, as though responding to something she’s asked.
He holds his phone towards her. Yvonne peers at the image: half a hard-boiled egg, circumference stained pink.
‘Beetroot dye,’ he proclaims.
The egg sits astride a mushy green pyre, propped up on posh toast, pansies strewn funereally around the base. Fancy shrine for a deid chicken.
‘This’ll be our core menu,’ he continues, flicking to another picture. ‘Avocado on sourdough, different toppings: salmon, chicken, the egg thing for veggies. Then our signatures.’
‘Signatures?’ She’s only one ear on him – Joshy’s fussing, rocking back in his seat.
‘Aye, the stuff we’ll be known for: avo mac cheese, avo cheesecake.’
He’s going – Yvonne scoots her bum forward on the chair, foot fishing under the Formica. She hooks it round her grandson’s chair-leg, pulls him flush against the table. No reaction from Alistair.
‘D’ye think Aberdeen’s ready for an avocado café?’ she says, chin to counter-top.
The eyebrow again. ‘It’s no the ’90s anymore, Ma. People like nice food.’
‘Besides, it’s a USP. A Unique—’
‘I ken what it is, I watch The Apprentice.’ He’s chiding her now, blethering while she hangs onto his son, half-prone. ‘So you’ve paid off the debt on the other ‘een then – the baked tattie place?’
‘Aye, just about,’ he mutters.
That’s got him. He sets his mouth firm, like Mark used to: shop closed. Joshy tries to rock back out again.
Yvonne uses both feet this time. ‘Wheesht, love! Eat your biscuit.’
Joshy loves the witch (wutch) hanging from the ceiling of the café. She’s like the one in his storybook, the one who looks like Nanny. She’s riding a broom (bwoom) and has a black cat, but not the frog (fwog) that jumps up people’s bums (OOO!). But it only jumps up bums when Da tells the story; when Ma reads, it hops into a cauldron (caw-drum). Maybe Da can tell Joshy the story!
‘Wutch, Da!’ He pushes back with his legs, pointing up.
The chair slides back in, the table hits his belly – oof! Joshy’s confused: Nanny’s got short and Da’s still on his iPhone (i-fo).
‘OOO!’ He pushes again, but – oof!
‘Wheesht, love!’ Nanny says. ‘Eat your biscuit.’
Ma insists on driving him back to work on her way to the ferry terminal. Alistair concedes, even though he’s still smarting. She couldn’t have been less interested in Avo. And as if it’s his fault the council shut down Hot Potato before he realised hygiene certs were a thing. Not that she made the accusation outright, of course. Instead, wee dabs and jabs but not the big upper cut that would’ve let him swing back without looking like a prick. Standard.
He guides her down the cobbled street to the lower entrance of Aberdeen Indoor Market, her rust-tin Fiesta groaning at the effort.
‘So there’s a way in here? Always came offae Union Street back in the day.’
‘Aye, cos that’s where the donut stall wis,’ he wants to say, the heat fresh in him. But he keeps himself in check. The car lurches to a stop on the kerb as she ratchets the handbrake.
‘Didn’t realise the market was still going.’
Dabs and jabs.
Alistair watches her eye the round Brutalist building, wondering what she’s remembering from days past: the plywood stalls (still resident)? The faux polystyrene ceiling slabs (ditto)? He wishes the fire exit door wasn’t hanging off its hinges, that Jess and Wull weren’t sharing Special Brew on the disabled ramp.
‘It’s had a paint job,’ she says, nodding at the mural dominating the upper portion of the building.
His heart ticks a wee lift. ‘Part of the regeneration project the council’s doing. Street art.’
She studies the image: a cartoon lass with over-sized eyes, pasty, mawkish face, tentacles of ginger hair wrapping around the concrete cylinder. Her hand’s held up in front of one eye, as though fitting a monocle.
Ma leans forward. ‘An fit’s that between her fingers – chess piece?’
Alistair pauses. ‘Lighthouse. For Aberdeen – the fishing an’ that.’
This time her smirk makes his lip twitch. She catches it, snorts and he laughs. Fair play: the picture’s gash. For the first time in forever, Alistair feels himself and his Ma slide together like tectonic plates.
‘Why here?’ she asks.
He’s known the question’s coming, the answer’s ready: ‘It’s no like it was back in the day. I mean, the market’s still a state, but that’s ‘in’ for 2019. Lots of start-ups renting stalls now, gettin’ buzz off social media.’
‘Oh aye, people value discoverability. Come in if you like – can gie you the tour?’
‘Best not.’ She gestures at Joshy, curled up like a dormouse in his car-seat. ‘Mustn’t be late.’
Right: Wee-lad. Alistair’s gut twists. Words rise but he squeezes his throat shut, unsure what they may be.
‘You could come for the drive?’ Ma says. ‘We can wake him, sing songs. I’ll deal wi’ the handover.’
Joshy gave Alistair a huge hug as they got him in the car, back at Duthie Park. Right enough, it was inadvertent: arms flung around his Da’s legs, screaming ‘Hate caa-see!’ It took Ma to unhook him, stick him in the seat no-nonsense, the way only she or Lina can. The feeling was right though, his son clasping him tight as a barnacle. Better than if Alistair goes to the harbour: Joshy dismissing him with a quick ‘Buh-bye!’ and snotty kiss before disappearing into the har.
He keeps his face neutral. ‘Ach, we’re no made for am-dram.’
The tone is brisk, familiar – wheeled out anytime he messes up in some unconscious, mortal way. Alistair wants to pull her back towards him: ‘That’s no what I meant, Ma. I want to stop it too.’ But she’s done her work. There’s a forcefield around the car now; this is Nanny and Joshy’s space.
He opens the door, levers his legs out. ‘Bye then.’
‘Enjoy work,’ she retorts, fingernails dug into the steering wheel.
Joshy doesn’t stir as the front door clicks shut. Alistair reaches for the back but Ma’s reversing. She drives up the hill, giving way to a Stagecoach bus at the top. As the Fiesta turns the corner, Alistair finds he’s taken a couple of steps after it.
Yvonne parks at the ferry terminal, checks the trusty Alcatel her son’s mortified she’s still got. No texts since: Van packed, on way. Fifteen minutes. Time enough for Lina to get here. Are those big vans slower driving, though? Hard to remember, twenty-seven years since she and Mark moved to that council hoose in Peterculter. The fiasco that wis: Mark seething out the window, as he had been the whole nine months; her new father-in-law gabbing, the hand not on the wheel patting her thigh a mite too high; and she, melon belly perched between them, legs sprouting either side of the gearstick, praying to all things holy her waters wouldnae break and soil the hire.
She places the phone on the passenger seat. The great white whale has docked. It’s unloading the Orkney lot, so there’s time yet. But glancing in the rear-view mirror, at the bairn grunting softly, it doesn’t feel like there’s time. And Alistair, heading into work like it’s any day, nae even a goodbye kiss for his son. ‘It’s nae a holiday!’ she’d wanted to scream. ‘They’re goin’ for good!’ She opens the glovebox, plumps for a wet wipe rather than the Choco Buttons, swipes at her nose.
Black-headed seagulls circle the offloading ramp, hunting foot-passengers foolish enough to exit with sausages rolls or yum-yums. Yvonne watches the wee scavengers recoil on the fierce sea wind. Only tourists leave the boat with cagoule hoods down. They quickly recant, yanking at the drawstrings until their faces pucker into arseholes. Their only protection from the elements a long finger of harbour wall, the lighthouse a popped nail at the end.
And here it is, a memory she didn’t even know she still had. Aberdeen Indoor Market; how dated it looks, even two decades past. Red-and-white-striped, metal-framed stalls, yellow plastic signs: D&B Discounts, Pennies not Pounds. Lines of coloured tape on the floor beckoning customers to rails puffed with factory lace, nearly-new veg.
And here’s Young Yvie, not more than 24. It must be summer because she’s wearing her Fruit of the Loom t-shirt, denim mini-skirt – jumble sale finds she’s proud of. And Alistair, sulking already, moonwalking behind her thanks to the kiddie-reins strapped round his chest. Mark isn’t with them, though he’ll be somewhere at this time. Plunked in his armchair, silently protesting life instead of scouting for rig work like he was supposed tae.
Bold as a tack, Young Yvie strides up to Auld Bastard’s stall. ‘These were fifty pence less last week, min,’ she announces, brandishing a multi-pack of boy’s pants.
That teuchter accent – Yvonne cringes.
‘Didnae hae them last week,’ Auld Bastard retorts.
‘Ye did—’ Yvie starts, but Alistair’s straining against the reins. She spots the culprit: a box of Broken Biscuits on the stall opposite. The wee feet peddle, a wail ignites. All day she’s had this. ‘Wheesht!’ she scolds. ‘Nae mair!’
The pitch rises, hits pure murder.
‘Ye did,’ she shouts over him, to Auld Bastard. ‘I was lookin’ at ’em Wednesday.’
‘Shouldae bought them then.’
She was waiting on the Thursday tick. He kens that – it’s why the best prices are always Wednesday. Alistair’s screams are cheese-wire through her skull. She yanks the reins, grabs the bridle and shakes.
‘Stop or I’ll belt ye!’
The boy stops, face plum. He’s not the only one. Eyes all over: stall-holders, junkies, and the wifies in Macks and headscarves, like standing stones. Clucks of disapproval, formed right at the back of the throat.
Young Yvie isn’t aware a five-year-old can smirk until this moment. But that’s what Alistair does, right before he starts kicking Auld Bastard’s stall. Kick. Not frantic, but metronome measured. Kick. I’ll no be pulled away, his calm says. Kick. Not without a fight, ye want that, Ma? Kick. And so she waits: mute, frightened, helpless. Kick. Kick. Kick. Until the plywood gives way.
The speed with which the memory recovers frightens Yvonne; her heart’s agitating through her jacket. She rolls down the car window, lets a blast of air in. Auld Bastard’s snarl is still live in her ear: ‘Get control of that wee fucker.’
The first person to say it, but far from the last. It echoes throughout the lad’s childhood: hairdressers, schoolteachers, polis. ‘He’s stolen the comb’, ‘Stabbed a kid wi’ a pencil’, ‘Set fire tae the golf course.’ The chorus: ‘Get control’. And Young Yvie always the target. Mark never present, never reacting when telt later. On it goes, into adolescence, even after Mark splits the scene. Ex-friends, ex-bosses, ex-landlords turning up at her door and leaving frustrated: ‘Ach, the mither’s useless’.
And now Lina.
Evening’s threatening, the lighthouse winking. Yvonne lifts her hand to shield her eyes, finds her thumb and forefinger pincering the beacon.
‘People value discoverability.’ That’s what Alistair said.
Well, Yvonne doesn’t value discoverability. And Joshy, at her door gone midnight not three weeks ago, fists rubbing his wee cheeks – not him either. Or Lina, peely-wally and wavering there.
‘I’m sorry. But on his phone. There’s pictures – girls.’
She, too, would have a few thoughts about the merits of discoverability.
Yvonne squishes the lighthouse; it feels churlish and good. The Alcatel’s flashing on the seat beside her. She never heard it beep.
In ferry queue. Bring Joshy?
‘Bowt!’ the back seat says.
Joshy is going on a boat (bowt!). Ma telt him this morning and it made him happy. It’s a great big boat (bowt!) just like she said, with windows and doors and a wide ramp. The cars and vans are trundling inside like he could chase them (duck-duck-GOOSE!).
‘Bowt!’ he shouts again.
Nanny doesn’t answer. She’s staring at her phone (i-fo). Now she’s shaking, and sniffing like her nose is full (achoo!). Joshy didn’t mean to make Nanny shake-sniff. Bad Joshy; he knows grown-ups hate shouting. He sucks on his fist, digging his teeth in so he won’t shout again. He hopes Nanny can stop shaking.
They’ve been fair fleeing on with the stall, proper Shoreditch pop-up vibe now. Pallet swing-gates that open outwards with menu chalkboards on the inside, rectangular white tiles covering the back wall, fake ivy strung through rabbit wire, hiding the stipple-lined ceiling. Jamie’s partway through sanding the second-hand counter, gunmetal-grey barstools stacked up at one end.
Alistair wishes Ma had come in to see it. He snaps a photo and sends it to Katie – Emma will be at work now. Comin on well, he writes. A thumbs-up and a heart appear instantly; he knew they would. The knot in his gut loosens.
‘Alright,’ Jim greets him, over whatever garage shite’s playing on his Spotify. ‘Rough day, eh?’
‘S’fine, mate. Lookin’ good in here.’
Alistair takes the sanding block from him, starts scratching at the bar. Jim shrugs, heads into the kitchen to tinker. It’ll no be long – an hour tops – before the market manager appears, rattling his keys.
Alistair sands furiously, charged like a split atom. The last three weeks it’s been like time’s come unlatched. Instead of a hundred things to do, forget and fail at, there’s been just one: Avo. That’s what he’s been after: stripped back approach.
Recently, he’s been thinking he might know something of his father, that way. At first, the thought left him stricken, like hot tarmac setting: man leaves wife and son; son leaves partner and bairn. But Alistair tried, while Mark was never interested – not in any crunching fitba tackle, failed school report, or any of the japes guaranteed to get Ma squawking. Spectre more than father, no matter how hard Alistair kicked.
He keeps working, enjoying the sand biting his skin. It’ll blister; he wants it to. The grain’s breaking through the surface of the counter. It’ll look fine once it’s varnished. Then there’ll be the fridges to install, the oven, the stainless-steel splashback – Alistair ticks them off in his head. The hygiene certs, still needing signed, are tucked in the breast pocket of his jacket. They generate static against his jumper as he scrubs back and forth: and no – mistakes – this time.
And that’s the bit he might be starting to understand. Because Mark just sat there, hazy lump in a tapestry-effect armchair. Eating there, sleeping there – pissing and shitting himself to death there, if he’d lasted that long. Alistair doesn’t even remember the man leaving. No shouting, no door slamming. Just Ma throwing out the chair one day when he was – what? – thirteen or fourteen years old. Cushion splitting on the doorframe as she dragged it onto the pavement, bleeding synthetic wool. Alistair never asked after him: nothing to miss. And perhaps that’s the way to do it. No mistakes if you don’t even try for the stuff you’re shite at.
Alistair knows his outline will be more distinct to Joshy. After all, can’t miss a man who stomps around the house, shouting and swearing as though that’ll spirit his keys, his phone, whatever-else-he’s-lost into his hands. Can’t miss a man who gets fired from every nine-to-five, who can’t keep the credit cards paid up. Can’t miss a man who smashes in a high-chair if he trips over the leg, roars in your face when you’re greetin’ – in her face too if she objects. You’ll remember him, won’t you, Joshy? In your wee bones if nothing else. Maybe you’ll flinch at loud noises: Deliveroo scooters, fireworks, matchday cheers. And there I’ll be: your Da, in fucking technicolour. Better tae be no man at all if you cannae be a good one.
‘Ready for the best bit?’
The voice releases Alistair like an electric shock. Jim’s standing by the kitchen, a mass of tubes in his meaty mitts. Alistair follows him outside, watches as he climbs the ladder and suspends the sign. It bobs on Jim’s shoulders like a robot head as he roots behind it. A switch flicks and the neon blinks three times before catching: ‘Avo’ in green cursive script, the ‘o’ the outline of an avocado.
‘It workin’?’ Jim calls.
Alistair’s legs – trembling on and off all day – feel like they might give way. He eases himself onto a stack of pallets, swipes at his nose with his sleeve. He isn’t sure why he’s having such a strong reaction but it feels good.
‘Working,’ he confirms. And no mistakes this time.
Yvonne snakes the North Deeside Road home. The Fiesta brings night with it, dulling the River Dee, smudging the land purple. Every turn is so familiar she could draw it on tracing paper, lay it over the countryside and it would look just the same. She leaves the radio off, peers out at dimming hedgerows and prays for a dog to jump out, make her crash. Every so often she thumps the steering wheel.
‘Why did ye nae say anything, Yvie?’
Joshy looked so tiny in the cab of that van, back at the harbour. He went into his car-seat quiet for once, awed by the sight of it up so high. Didnae even notice his Nanny as she strapped him in, captivated by the removal man’s grubby hands on the steering wheel.
‘He’s not with you?’ Lina asked, peering down at Yvonne over the seat.
And what could Yvonne say? ‘Sorry my son is useless’? ‘Sorry for fitever I did that made him useless’? Neither got beyond her gullet. She shook her head, held out her hand for Alistair’s flat keys. Lina’s face crumpled, withdrew into the cab.
And that was goodbye.
The handbrake gripes as the car bobs to a stop outside Yvonne’s home. 17.52, the dashboard clock flashes as she switches off the ignition. She unclips the glove compartment, removes the emergency pack of Choco Buttons. The soft pop as it splits open soothes her. She’s won’t go inside yet.
Yvonne doesn’t want to see what leaving has made of her home this time: the bin bags she’s told Lina to leave by the front door, labelled ‘Rubbish’ and ‘Home Start Shop’; the bathroom windowsill robbed of lotions named after plants she’s never heard of and the kiddy-toothbrush; Alistair’s old bedroom emptied of Lina’s peacock-feather eyeshadows, the loon’s odd socks cast off in temper.
But it’s what she’ll hear that’s got her most feart. Because Mark’s back – she can feel the chill of him already. When she exits the car, he’ll trail her up the drive, seeping in as the door latch lifts. She can see it now: her moving about the place, chattering to walls that never respond, silence sitting thick in the carpets, slowing her step. She’ll find herself making cups of tea for two, moving round a patch of carpet inhabited by an armchair’s ghost.
Alistair will still come, of course. Knocking at her door when his ain hoose gets too loud with quiet. Gabbing nonsense about tatties, avocados, or the next ‘big thing’. She’ll wedge in talk of the bairn – scraps Lina’s shunted into the odd text. Until the crossfire becomes too much for both of them, and they’ll resort to parting shots. Same as always.
What Yvonne wanted to say to Lina at the harbour wasn’t ‘Sorry’, it was ‘Thank you’. Thank you for the noise you brought three weeks ago. For the loon, careening about at a thousand miles an hour: ‘Nanny!’ this and ‘Nanny!’ that and ‘Nanny, come on – dancing!’ For everyday conversation: ‘Will Joshy want milk warmed up for his cereal?’, ‘Shall we head tae the park today?’ For the sobbing that wracked the walls at night, shivering her house into life. But how do you thank someone for the volume of their sadness, the pitch of their pain?
‘Safe travels’ was all she’d managed, reaching up to tuck Squishy Coo under Joshy’s arm. Ach, the mither’s useless.
Yvonne scrunches the empty sweet packet into her pocket, clicks open the car door. No point not facing reality: it’ll come tomorrow if not today. The Alcatel pings as she grabs it from the passenger seat; she’ll check it inside.
Will it feel this way to Alistair? she wonders as she climbs the doorstep, Mark’s feet scritching the frost behind her. When he gets back to his flat tonight and finds it gutted of the past three years: dinosaur playmat; high-chair smeared in bean sauce; ratty Highland coo, fur chewed grey. Or is her son oblivious to absence? Even his father’s disappearance barely registered. Yvonne feels she’ll never really know the child she gave birth to. Even now she’s just clinging to his reins as he screams pure murder and kicks at plywood boards.
Joshy is on a boat (bowt), but it’s not as fun as he thought. He’s sad that Nanny’s gone, sad they had to get out of Greig’s van (Geg-van) to come up to the boat-café. But most of all he’s sad that Da’s not here to tell him about the frogs (fwogs) that hop up people’s bums (ooo). Ma pulled the story out of Joshy’s rucksack after they sat down at the table. She’s trying to read it but doing it all wrong.
She tries again: ‘They hopped into the—’
Her face goes red, like she’s about to shake-sniff. Bad Joshy did it again. ‘Wheesht love,’ he hears Nanny say, even though she’s not here (wutch).
Ma lifts him out of the highchair, squeezes him (oof!) and sets him down. ‘Ok Joshy, go play.’
She pushes him in the direction of the canteen hatch, where the lady with the big pot sits. But Joshy doesn’t want to play; he wants to stay with Ma. He wants to wheesht instead of shouting. He’ll wheesht forever if it helps.
‘Go on, love.’
Through the window, Lina watches for the blink of a lighthouse. They’ve been out on the water an hour now; the shoreline’s slipped into an ink of sea and sky. Only the flash remains, so feeble she’s not sure she’s still really seeing it. Her fingernails have picked a hole in the fabric of the diner-style booth. The upholstery’s the kind made for itching: blue-and-orange diamond pattern, like the Stagecoach buses back home.
She checks her phone again. No reply to the message she sent as the ferry detached from the mainland: You didn’t even say goodbye.
Joshy’s by the canteen hatch, staring at the silver tea urn. He spotted it the moment they entered: ‘Ma – caw-drum!’ She’d thought it was why he was acting up while she was reading him his story. But now he’s standing there, sippy-cup in hand, just watching. No holding it up to the wifie in the hatch, no chattering away, no giving her eyes ‘til she lets him at the tap. Lina’s never seen him so quiet.
She checks her phone again: 17.49. No reply.
Five more hours to Orkney. There, Mhairi will be waiting with hugs, gin, soothing words. And their mother’s frigid outline, skulking in the background. ‘Telt you it’d come to this,’ she’ll snip, or similar. Saying nothing nice but saying something. Lina’s ready for noise again: the North Sea is too vast; there’s too much absence here.
Three weeks ago, she didn’t feel able to speak, to trust the sounds that might expel from her body. It was Yvonne who steadied the ship. No talking. Unfussy dinners in front of the soaps, fresh bedsheets on Saturdays, washing done Thursdays. And – slowly – frugal questions that never asked too much: ‘Will Joshy want milk warmed up for his cereal?’ Questions it would take more energy to ignore than to answer: ‘Aye, fine.’
Somehow, word by word, Lina had felt herself gather. Enough to place the thinnest layer of film over her life, upon which she could trace a line back home.
‘No point not facing reality; it’ll come tomorrow if not today,’ Yvonne told her this morning, popping a cup of tea on Alistair’s old bedside table. It was all that was needed; Lina doesn’t know how she knew.
Neither does Lina know how Yvonne knew she still needs her on the shoreline. She didn’t say much during the handover – stoic as ever, she’d tucked the boy into his car-seat, made as if to head back to her car. But from the canteen window, Lina spied her purple puffer jacket, bobbing along the harbour wall. Yvonne settled herself on a breezeblock at the end, stayed as the ferry pulled away. Tucked beneath the lighthouse, not smiling, not waving, and not – for all she knew – seen.
And that’s where’s Lina will keep her. Until she reaches Orkney, she’ll keep watching for that light. She swipes her phone screen, scrolls past Alistair’s name in her text threads, taps out a new message:
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