“Lachlan, are you listening?” Eileen’s sharp voice cut through his usual morning fog quicker than the smell of the bacon he had in the pan.
Of course, he wasn’t bloody listening. He never did when his sister droned on about this or that thing that needed to be done. He knew very well how to manage things without her nattering on about it. “Aye, I’m listening…new guest.”
“Right, and she’s American, so she’ll be completely lost,” Brilliant. He definitely had time to look after a Yank tourist. “And it’s getting cold so I’m sure she’ll need more peat.”
“Alright. I’ll take it over this afternoon,” He muttered sliding the bacon onto a plate and hoping Eileen would finish talking soon so he could eat his meal in peace. “How long is she here?”
“She’s paid three months, though I can’t think what a woman alone means to do on the island for that long,” His sister never did think much of the island. He supposed that’s why she’d taken off to Ullapool as soon as she got married. Inheriting their gran’s cottage hadn’t even brought her back. Instead it had left him acting as caretaker to the tourists she rented it to. “And try to be nice, Lachlan. I know you’ll be busy culling and weaning, but it won’t take much to check on her once in a while.”
Lachlan rolled his eyes and ran a work roughened hand over his head. His hair, at least where it was still growing was getting long. He’d have to get it cut soon. Of course he’d been saying that for months. He’d only had a handful of trims since Yvonne died. She’d always done it for him, and it’s not like he had anyone to impress. He sighed and made some other noise that his sister took for agreement.
“Alright, then. I’ll let you get back to it, but don’t forget the peat.”
“Right, Eileen. Take care,” Relieved, he put the phone back in its cradle, sandwiched the bacon between two pieces of toast and grabbed his coffee.
He stepped out the back door and settled onto the bench that was his favorite place to enjoy breakfast. He set the coffee beside him and closed his eyes for a minute to just listen. The wind wasn’t so harsh today, not but a stiff breeze and he could feel the sun on his face. He loved to hear the ever present shushing of the tide sliding out from the shore punctuated by the occasional baying of the sheep.
This was his favorite part of the day. The only sounds were those of the island stirring awake. Everything was fresh. He could sit here eating his breakfast and planning his day comfortable in the illusion that he had control over his little corner of the world. Nothing would get in the way. He could pretend that there were no surprises, no unexpected complications. People went on about their lives without end and everyone stayed in their place. Then he’d come home to his empty house to be reminded that it was just that, an illusion.
Because no matter how much he planned, or how much he kept to himself, the unexpected always interfered. On good days, these were little annoyances; sudden weather, sheep getting lost or stuck places they shouldn’t be, well-meaning neighbors stopping by with invitations he never accepted. On bad days…on bad days, it was a diagnosis, a recurrence, a death.
Today, was not going to be a bad day. He was determined. He would go about his business and even take care of Eileen’s American. Then he’d come home, and pretend that he liked being alone there. He enjoyed the quiet. He didn’t really miss Yvonne as much as everyone thought.
Hours later Lachlan pulled up to the small stone cottage. He got out of his pickup truck and went to knock on the door. He should let the woman know that he was there before driving around back to unload. He’d made that mistake only once last year and had surprised a visiting couple in the midst of doing something that he hadn’t done himself in far too long. He rapped his knuckles on the wood, bypassing the silly little brass knocker Eileen had put on the door and waited.
After a couple of minutes he knocked again, this time with a bit more force. Maybe she’d gone for a walk down the beach. He turned that way and shielded his eyes to see if he could spot anyone. He was just about to give up and start unloading when the door opened.
When your main exposure to Americans comes from summer tourists and television, it’s easy to stereotype them. Anyone might think that they were all large, loud and well made-up with an over-weaning arrogance and sense of entitlement.
He wasn’t sure exactly what he’d been expecting, but the woman who opened the door was definitely not it. For one thing she was tiny, fine boned like a bird. Her hair was cut into one of those business like shoulder dusting bobs. She wore no makeup, but was even lovelier for the lack of it. Her eyes were grey, but not a soft grey. They were sharp, alert and wary.
He looked down at her suddenly feeling huge and awkward. “Uh…Hi.”
She nodded up at him with an expectant look. “Hi.”
“I…umm…” To his embarrassment, Lachlan found the connection from his brain to his mouth had stopped working.
“You must be Mr. Shaw. The agent said you’d be coming by. Sorry, I’m a little jet lagged,” Her voice was throaty with a sexy rasp to it and her accent made the words sound like slow flowing honey. She extended a hand to him. “I’m Ashleigh Sampson.”
He shook her hand hoping that his didn’t seem too rough. “Lachlan Shaw.”
She gave him a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes, and he felt sure it was because of his awkwardness. “Well, it’s good to meet you, Lachlan.”
“Right. I’ve brought the peat.” He knew he must sound like an idiot, but he couldn’t seem to string more than four words together at a time. He spent the better part of most days talking to his dogs. He avoided people and certainly hadn’t talked to a woman like her in ages.
She didn’t seem to think him slow though, or she was too kind to show it. She just smiled and said, “Great. Do you need a hand unloading it?”
“Och, no. No, I’ll manage.” He needed to get away from her before he turned into a complete numpty. “I’ll just put it under the awning out back.”
“Okay. Thanks,” And with that she closed the door.
Lachlan drove the truck around to the back of the house and began stacking the peat bricks against the house in a herringbone pattern. He tried not look inside, wanting to give her privacy and not wanting to appear like some madman skulking about the back of her house. Still, he couldn’t help glancing in the sliding glass doors. She wasn’t there though. She must have been in the kitchen. The window was just on the other side of the shelter where he was stacking bricks and he noticed it was open a crack.
He heard the water running as he worked. Then it stopped and he could hear splashing and the clanking of the dishes she must have been washing. After another minute she started humming, then singing.
Cold blows the wind upon my true love
Soft falls the gentle rain.
Her voice wasn’t smooth, or high like he might have expected from someone so small. It was rich, breathy and mournful. He knew the song. It was an old lament about a lost love it had been one of Yvonne’s favorites. Lachlan found himself stacking slower, placing the bricks in time with the tune.
I’ll sit and I’ll mourn upon your grave
For twelve months and a day.
It had been far more than twelve months since he’d lost Yvonne. And what had he been doing? Sitting there on their farm avoiding the world. How many times had Eileen invited them to Ullapool for Christmas, or Derek invited him to Glasgow for a visit? He hadn’t even been to the pub in Barvas in months.
The ghost began to speak
Who is it that sits all on my grave
And will not let me sleep.
He didn’t realize that he was crying until he went back to the truck for another armload of bricks and heard the tears plop on the metal truck bed. He didn’t think he’d cried since he was a lad, or maybe right after Derek was born. Yvonne had put their baby boy in his hands, her face glowing with love for them both.
Dear God! He’d not cried for her. He’d shut himself away from the world and from his loss. He’d just carried on. Farms didn’t run themselves, and as long as there was work to be done there was no time for grieving.
I ask for one kiss from your sweet lips
That is all I crave.
And there was still work to be done. He couldn’t stop now. Couldn’t run away. He went on stacking peat bricks, not even bothering to wipe his eyes. And the American’s voice kept right on drifting through the window, stirring up the emotions he’d fought so hard to keep locked away.
If you would kiss my clay cold lips,
Your toils would not be long.
Thunk…thunk…thunk…The bricks went into place one by one as she sang on. Lachlan tried to maintain control, breathing in and out slowly, deliberately. He could not let himself break into sobs. He felt sure she didn’t know he could hear. Like he was invading her privacy somehow by listening.
The fairest flower that ever grew
Has withered unto the stalk.
She was coming to the end of the song and he knew he should get out of there. He could feel a burning in back of his throat, like something bubbling up. There was more peat to stack, but Lachlan doubted he could keep quiet. He’d come back another time, maybe when she wasn’t there and leave the rest.
So will our hearts decay.
So make yourself content, my love
‘Til death calls you away.
With the last line, Lachlan shut the door of the truck. He fumbled with his keys cursing himself as his chest tightened filling up with six years of pent up heartbreak. He managed through a sheen of tears to drive around the nearby hill before he couldn’t hold it in any longer. It burst out in the form of wracking sobs that shook him from his scalp to his toes.
Six years of denying it, pushing aside the memories and the pain. Six years of withdrawing from the world because everything but work reminded him of what he’d lost. And in under six minutes, this wee American with her heart-wrenching voice had flayed him. With a few lines from an old song she’d brought it all spilling out leaving him sitting in his truck by the side of the road greeting like a baby.