Safe, within the stones
Hazel Taylor c 2021
Far away, and much older than the Henge in Wiltshire, there’s another stone circle on a lonely cliff, the North Atlantic pounding the rocks below. This henge, granite-hard and majestic, has withstood the winter westerlies for 5000 years.
I remember the first time I saw it. I was just a child, eight or nine, perhaps. It took so long to get there. Train then coach then the steamer and at last a tiny bus, crammed with old people and shopping and chickens in a cage. My cousin Amy was with me. She was almost grown up with her long skirt and dark plaits pinned tightly to her head. Grandma met us off the bus. I’d fallen asleep and my hat had dropped on the floor and got trodden on. But Grandma didn’t mind. She didn’t shout at me. So perhaps things would be all right in this strange new world.
The cottage was round and had a grassy roof held on with ropes and huge stones. Amy had to duck to get in the door but Grandma and I could just walk in. I remember the smoky smell. Not like the fire at home or the big black boiler in the classroom at school. The fire was in an iron basket in the middle of the room and a kettle hung over it, and later, a big pot full of bubbling stew.
I only knew Grandma from her letters. Mum would read them out to me, if she was feeling good. If not she’d tut over them and throw them on the fire. Sometimes I would be able to rescue one and try to make sense of the part that was left. I’d smooth it out on the flags in the yard, the jagged black edges colouring my fingers. I’d imagine this place across the sea, a strange cold land, with the sound of an ocean, and milk straight from a cow.
Amy and I stood still in the semi-dark until our eyes got used to the smoky light shafting through slits in the roof. I hung onto her hand, I remember, afraid that someone would suddenly hit me. It wasn’t being struck that bothered me. It was the waiting, not knowing when it would happen.
After Grandma had given us each a bowl of stew with a huge hunk of dark, chewy bread to dunk, she pulled back a curtain and there was a cupboard with a bed in it. She showed us another one next to it, then said, ‘This one’s mine. If you want me in the night, just call.’ She showed us where a small step was, under our bed, and a box to put our few clothes and belongings in. Amy and I snuggled up together. The mattress seemed to hug us as we sank into its warmth.
I saw the stones for the first time the next day. There were so many ‘firsts’ that week. Porridge with salt, and milk so creamy it was almost yellow. We had to go down to the pump to draw the water and take our turn milking the village cow. Amy was more patient than I, so managed to learn quickly. All the people around talked in the strange way Grandma did. They laughed at the way we spoke so we quickly tried to learn their way.
Grandma’s village, Callanish, was named after the stones. They towered above us on a high grassy mound. I remember telling Amy that if they fell down they’d squash the whole place flat. Grandma laughed and said, ‘They’ve been there for ever, through terrible storms and hurricane winds and they’ve never moved an inch.
* * *
48 Sandal Street,
London. 15 June 1900
It’s been two weeks since I put my Mary and Amy on the train. I thank you for taking them in. I write for our Gracie as well, as you know she can’t write and she is too poorly to do anything. She’s as thin as a rake and can’t keep even gruel down. The twins have gone to Jack’s mother in Welling.
My Bill is back in jail. He’s not a bad man really. He was caught taking a bottle of gin from the big house. The French window was open. He was cleaning windows there and couldn’t resist, he said. T’t was like the good Lord put it there for him. Well, for me really. Since the last babby I lost at six months, me insides have been gruesome, and a bit of gin helps with the pain.
Now our Mary is one to imagine things and make up fancy stories so don’t you go believing her. And she can be lazy. A good thrashing will put her to rights.
When Bill’s back on his round, in a few months, I’ll try to send a money order. It won’t be much as some of the big places will drop him, no doubt.
I hope you are keeping well,
from your loving daughter
* * *
Isle of Lewis 15th June 1900.
My Dear Ellen,
I hope this finds you well. The Good Book tells us that the Lord will multiply our pain in childbirth, so swilling gin is not the answer. I hope Bill’s incarceration will be a timely warning to you both. Try a poultice of comfrey and lavender and drink a peppermint tincture. And grit your teeth.
Mary and Amy are well and are good girls most of the time. High spirits get the better of them occasionally, but I give them a verse of scripture to learn and some onions to peel and it occupies their minds and hands and makes their eyes run so they’ve no time to think up mischief.
And If a child is troubled in her soul by evil or outlandish thoughts I will sit her down and listen rather than thrash her. I find there is usually a grain of truth in the story, and it begins with the actions of an adult, who should know better.
I’m distressed to hear how ill our Gracie is. I heard that Jack paid for a doctor to visit. Did he say what ailed her?
At present I can manage to keep the girls. I have enough for the school fees until the years’ end and we don’t need much lamp-oil, and fish is plentiful in the summer so I can feed them for now. But tell that Bill of yours that I’ll need the school fees at Christmastide if Mary is to return to her lessons in the new year. Amy will have turned fourteen so will finish her schooling at the end of Advent. There’s little work around here for a young girl, bar casual farm work in summer and they pay very little. If I can get her a position in the Laird’s House as a scullery maid I will. But it could be years before a place comes about. I may have to send her away to work if I can’t feed her.
Now remember my girl, gin is never the answer.
From your loving
Amy and I had been living with Grandma for about a month and had got used to walking to the school each day. When the sun shone it was pleasant. We could see the Stones when we left the cottage and then the sea was visible as we climbed the hilly bit. It took over half an hour, even if we hurried and when the rain lashed us, driven horizontally by the wind from the ocean, we arrived soaked through and shivering. Breasclete School was much smaller than the one I’d left in Bow and children came from many villages around. My teacher was strict but kind, never lashing out with the cane she used to point at the board.
One hot Saturday Amy and I were playing near the Stones when Milly, the village cow, wandered near. She seemed to remember us as we always stroked and patted her when we did the milking.
‘Let’s take her bell off and see how long Gwendolyn takes to find her,’ Amy said. Gwendolyn was the only girl who made fun of us at school and it was her turn to do the milking today. I laughed and untied the bell. We hid it by the tallest Stone and watched Milly munch her way up the grassy bank.
Grandma called us to come and weed the vegetable plot and after a while, I forgot about the bell.
‘Please to go and get a jug of milk, children. Be sure to wash your hands and rinse the jug before you touch the churn.’
Amy and I looked at each other, both remembering the bell. When we got down to the tether-post there was a crowd of the village women, all holding their empty jugs and asking where Gwendolyn and Milly were. We washed our hands and the jug then slipped away to the Stones. The bell was where we left it but there was no sign of the cow.
‘Let’s try ringing it. Maybe Milly will come to us,’ I said. Amy thought it unlikely but said it was worth a try so I ran around the Stones, ringing the bell. And to our relief we saw the cow trotting down the lane towards us. We fixed her bell on and led her to the village centre.
Perhaps we should have owned up, but no one asked how we’d found her, they were so thankful she was back. Gwendolyn appeared at last, hot and bothered. She was very cross, saying that she’d looked everywhere for the stupid cow.
We were much more careful after that as we realised that if Milly hadn’t come back, the whole village would have suffered.
A few days later Grandma told us that Amy’s mother was very ill and that we would go to the kirk the next day to ask the pastor to pray for her. I’d been to Sunday School in Bow where we sang cheerful choruses, had a story and were shown pictures of angels and children, or lions and baby sheep with halos. And at Christmas there was Baby Jesus and shepherds and posh kings with presents.
But this place was dark and smelt dead. A woman frowned at us then said to Grandma, ‘So what has brought you to the Lord’s House this time?’
Grandma whispered something we couldn’t hear, and after the woman had giving Amy a long stare, she marched to the front row. The piano-thing sounded out of breath, wheezing like the coalman did at home. Then the pastor started shouting at us, telling us we were evil. Amy poked me and made a face so I crossed my eyes and pulled my ears down. She tried to stifle a giggle but Grandma heard it. She could do a sterner face than my mum, and that was saying something. We didn’t dare move a muscle after that.
The prayers went on for ever but he never mentioned Amy’s mum, which I thought was a cheek, as we’d sat through his long service. On the way home Amy asked why he hadn’t prayed for her mum. ‘Oh but I only asked him at the end,’ Grandma said. ‘He will next week.’
‘Do we have to go again? I asked, dreading the thought of another visit.
‘We’ll see!’ was all she said.
But a letter came a few days later to say that Amy’s mum had passed away. ‘She’s in heaven and out of pain now,’ Grandma said, as she cuddled the sobbing Amy.
‘What will happen to me,’ Amy whispered.
‘You’ll stay here until Christmas at least. You’ll be fourteen then, and old enough to leave school. Rather than go into service, maybe you’ll go home and care for the twins. It’s up to your father. Don’t worry,’ she said, stroking Amy’s hair, until she stopped crying.
* * *
The next day when we got back from school Grandma said it was the day to pick the gooseberries. She warned us to beware the prickles on the stems, gave us a colander each and showed us the bush at the end of the kitchen garden. Then we sat on the grass topping and tailing them. We did try eating a few but they were so sour they dried our mouths and we had to spit them out.
‘Take them to the pump and rinse them well while I roll the pastry for a pie, then you can help me boil and bottle the rest for the winter.’ Grandma made the lightest pastry, and sprinkled sugar on top before it went in the village bread oven. The baker would heat the oven again in the afternoon and bake any of the housewives cakes or pies for a penny, then use the cooling stones to prove the dough for the next day’s bread. When Amy and I collected the pie, the smell was heavenly, we could have sniffed it all day. But it was even nicer eating it with the cream that grandma skimmed off the top of the milk.
One day, later in the week, Grandma told us to put our best dresses on. She’d got her nicest shawl out and her shiny black boots. We picked some flowers from the garden then we went up to the Stones.
‘There’s a very old grave here,’ she said, stopping beside a shallow ditch at the foot of one of the smaller stones. She laid her flowers in the ditch and told us to do the same.
‘We are saying goodbye to your mother, Amy. We can’t go to the funeral and we’re all sad.’ And as I looked at my grandma, because her voice had gone all husky, I saw that she was crying.
‘Did you know my Auntie Gracie?’ I said.
‘Oh yes, dear, I knew her very well. She was my first baby, my oldest child, and I loved her very much.’
Amy started sobbing then and Grandma cuddled her and said a prayer, then took our hands and said we’d go and get two-penn’orth of soft roes, and we wouldn’t go back to the kirk on Sunday. So we all cheered up in spite of Amy’s mum. And that night I wondered what would happen to me if Amy went back to look after the twins after Christmas.
It was a hot night and Amy and I only had a sheet covering us, with the blankets and fat eiderdown folded at the bottom of our cupboard bed. The cottage door was closed and the window was shielded with the muslin midge screen. I hated midges because they seemed to love me. Everywhere itched, especially in school when we had to sit still. Grandma had made an oil to rub on from mint and dock leaves. But it turned our skin pale green and the relief didn’t last long.
‘We didn’t have midges in Bow,’ I told Grandma, ‘don’t they annoy you?’
‘Bow is a long way from here,’ she replied. ‘You don’t have the lochs and peat-bogs, or the clear skies and sound of the ocean. We have to pay for our bit of heaven.’
‘Thursday is the Summer Solstice,’ Grandma continued, before she said prayers with us. ‘We’ll go to the Stones at dusk and I’ll tell you a story of why they are here.’ Then she kissed us on our foreheads and told us our guardian angels would keep us safe.
As we walked home from school the next day, I told our friends about going to the Stones tomorrow night.
‘But you’ll meet the devil and he’ll get your souls,’ Andrew said. ‘The Pastor told us last year. Our parents won’t let us near the Stones at the Solstice, even in the day. But your Gran ignores the Pastor, so my mother says.’
‘We went to your the kirk,’ Amy said, ‘and I didn’t like your pastor one little bit. In fact I feel sorry for you having to go every week.’ So Andrew chased us all the way to our cottage and we rushed in out of breath.
‘Whatever’s got into you, racing around in this heat,’ Grandma said, as we flopped on the rag mat. Amy explained what the children had said about the Solstice and the devil.
‘Some people try to keep God in a building or hem him in with their own minds. But he’s bigger than the wildest storms and older than the ancient rocks and closer than your heartbeat. And the devil will sneak a way in to anyone who is cruel or hateful and will lead them up the garden path. But it’s best not to discuss God or the devil with those who attend the kirk, or mention the Solstice.’
When we’d got our breath back Grandma said, ‘Go and get a cold drink from the pump then go to the burn and pick some water-cress. Now mind that it’s up the hill where the water flows fast. Remember, cress in still water can hold the dirt and dung and will give you a cùram bian.’
‘What’s that, Grandma?’ Amy said.
‘It’s a belly ache that doubles you over, so mind my words!’
* * *
The next evening we protected ourselves from the midges with Grandma’s green mixture, removed our aprons and went up to the Stones together.
The moon was a waning crescent, very low in the sky, as we settled near the tallest Stone. The fishing boats were just leaving the harbour for a night’s work. We watched them until they were just shadows with a pinpoint of light bobbing on the waves. Occasionally Grandma would take us down in the early morning as they returned, and she would buy some herring for dinner. But they had so many bones, it took for ever to eat them.
We picked some wild flowers and laid them in the grave, and Amy bit her lip to stop herself crying, then said, ‘Please tell us your special story, Grandma.’
‘About every twenty years on the Summer Solstice,’ Grandma began, ‘the moon is so low it seems to dance along the southern hills and ends up within our Stones, and long, long ago people thought it was a god visiting the earth. The story goes that that’s the reason the Stones were erected five thousand years ago. The wise men who used them to count the years could predict when the moon would dance and visit at the Solstice and they gained authority in the clan. These stones were the first calendar on Lewis!’
‘But we know God made the moon and sun,’ Amy said ‘and there aren’t any little gods.’
‘You’re right Amy. But some neighbours think I believe the old legends. Those ancient people must have been skilled and determined to put these huge lumps of granite in this special formation. In fact, there are many other standing stones around, and tombs.’
‘Is it the special dancing year tonight?’ I asked.
‘Not this year, I’m afraid. As you can see the moon is touching one hill and will appear to slide behind it very soon. And when it’s gone, so will we. It’s back home to bed for you two. And tomorrow I’ll tell you another of the stories connected to the Stones.’
Since Andrew chased us home I’ve been afraid,’ I told Grandma, as we walked back to the cottage. ‘Will the villagers come and hit me, because we came to the Stones at Solstice?’
‘No one will hit you! They wouldn’t dare. They might not agree with me but they won’t take it out on you. And if any of the children hit you, you must tell me. So no more fear of anything. I know in Bow things happened that shouldn’t, and one day you might want to tell me about it.’
But I couldn’t tell anyone because I would have to think about it and it would be real again, and here in this new place I could pretend it was just a story.
My dear daughter Amy,
At last I’ve got around to writing to you. I hope you have settled and are behaving well for your Grandmother, as your dear mother would want you to.
I know it must have been difficult for you being sent so far away with hardly time to say goodbye to your family.
Charlie and Ronald have settled down with Grandma Edith and Grandpa John and don’t cry as much now. I had two weeks off from the factory from the day your dear mother died. Thank the Lord they took me back but I had to clear the house and move in with the boys too. What with funeral expenses and I’ll have to give money for the boys upkeep when I’ve paid my debts. The church was full for her send-off and I put a white lily on her coffin from you and one each from the boys.
I have saved a few of your clothes, that you couldn’t carry, your mother’s sewing box and your favourite doll. I’ll keep them here for when you come home, which won’t be at least until later next year. Tell your Grandma to put you out to work as soon as allowed so that you can give her some money for looking after you as I won’t have any to spare.
Now mind you behave and do all you can to make life easy for your Gran.
Love from your
* * *
I’m glad Ronald and Charlie are all right. I miss you all so much, especially Mum. Grandma is so kind and loving and it’s nice living with Mary but I miss Bow. I am getting used to the way of living here, the sound of the sea, the wind that blows all the time, the long, long walk to school, and milking Milly the cow for the whole village.
Grandma thought I might come home after Christmas to look after the twins but I suppose they’ll stay where they are if we haven’t got a house any more.
The clothes won’t fit me next year as I’ve shot up a couple of inches already. Grandma says it’s the sea air. But please look after Mum’s sewing box for me as I don’t have even one thing of hers to remember her by. Please send my doll, if you can, and something of Mum’s, perhaps a handkerchief or her thimble?
Life here is very different, the worst things are the midges. They like to bite behind your ears and in your scalp especially. It’s been very hot but we have to keep the door shut and the screens over the window or Grandma says there would be so many midges in the morning that we would fill a bucket sweeping them up!
Mary and I do most things together so although I want to come home, I would miss her terribly. We put flowers for Mum in the old grave within the Stones and Grandma told us the story about why they were built. From up there we can see the sea. The ferry-boat is rowed across from the pier at Callanish to Uig and to an island, and the fishing boats go out at night. They have sails as well as oars, and a tiny light at the front and back.
Tell the boys that I miss them and Grandma Edith and Grandpa John. Gran read your letter and she says she will do her best to find a position for me in the New Year. She says there are wild orchids up here next month so Mary and I will go hunting, and put them in the grave we call Mum’s.
I feel bad that you aren’t giving Gran any money for my keep and yet you’ll pay for the boys. I can’t earn any for ages. Please try to send a little in the Autumn as it’s so hard for her. Mary’s father is still in jail so he can’t send any.
Amy and I were looking forward to a week off school. Every July each village went to their bit of the moor for peat-cutting. The school was shut, the ox carts harnessed, and everyone who had a hand-cart or wheelbarrow would clean and oil it and check that the axle would survive the rough paths and weight of the slabs.
‘We don’t have a barrow,’ Grandma said, ‘so we have to pay a shilling to the carter. But I could never push a full barrow so it’s worth it. As long as we work with the other villages, we can take the peat from the village blak all year.’
‘But a whole shilling!’ I said.
‘You’ll think it well worth it when the winds are howling and the snow banking up to the windows in mid-winter. But it does mean we won’t have much money left to buy food for a few weeks. But it’s summer. We have potatoes in the garden and we’ll go to the river at dusk and see if we can catch a salmon or snare a rabbit. I’m a dab-hand at fishing, always have been, though I say it myself.’
‘Can we learn?’ Amy asked.
‘You can watch me carefully and maybe another time you can try.’
We didn’t want to stir the fire as it was too hot in the cottage already. So we had cold potatoes tossed in salt, chopped mint and chive stems, and left the turf in place until Grandma just had to have a cup of tea.
‘I’m sick of potatoes,’ I said. ‘Every meal we eat potatoes. Mummy never gave me potatoes this often.’ But I couldn’t go on. My voice got stuck in my throat when I thought of Mummy and home. So I tried not to remember her. Sometimes I’m worried that if I stop thinking of her, she’ll die like Amy’s mum did.
‘There’ll be wild raspberries up near the river and the winberries may be ripe enough to eat,’ Grandma said. And she didn’t even tell me off for moaning about good food or that I wasn’t starving like in the potato famine.
‘What are winberries, Grandma?’ Amy said.
‘They grow amongst the heather, up on the moors. Tiny globes of deepest purple with a taste slightly bitter, slightly sweet. I used to go up there with my brothers, when I was your age, Mary. And we would pick arms-full of heather to bring back for the fire, to scent the cottage in autumn.’
And that evening, by the river, Grandma cast her line with a hook and weight, letting it drift and bounce downstream on the gravelly bottom.
‘Now keep away from the bank,’ she whispered, ‘or you’ll frighten any fish for miles around!’
So we picked daisies and made a necklace each and hunted for berries, and in and out that little hook went and Grandma never seemed to tire. At last we heard her gasp then shush us. She seemed to be fighting the line, pulling in then letting it slip through her fingers, then pulling again. We crawled silently towards the bank to see what was happening in the water. A long fish was thrashing about in the shallows.
At last it gave up and Grandma pulled it onto the bank, took the hook gently from it’s mouth and hit it’s head with a little wooden hammer she took from her apron pocket. The salmon shimmered as it lay still and dead on the grass.
‘Thank the Lord for our Sunday dinner and enough for smoking above the fire for many days to come,’ she said.
On Sunday, after we’d eaten the strange-tasting fish, Grandma hooked the rest on the beam above the fire, then oiled her wooden peat spade. We were up early on Monday and ate extra potato cakes to give us energy for the long walk and exhausting work. Grandma cooked them on the iron griddle over the red embers of the fire. She even let Amy and I put a spot of jam on each as a special treat. I loved the saltiness mixed with the sweetness of the raspberries.
We took a bottle of cold tea each and some oatcakes, and joined the throng of Callanish folk making for the moors.
Up on the moor Grandma joined the line of other villagers. The men cut the turfs off the peat with sharp metal spades, starting at the edge of the ditch which was dug last time. The peat spades cut neat slices straight down, widening the ditch. Amy stood below and lifted the blocks up to me and I followed the other children, laying them well back from the cutting edge.
‘Why didn’t we bring the carts and put them straight on?’ I said.
‘They have to dry out for a few days like this,’ my friend Bella said. ‘Then we mound them until they’re dry enough to bring down to store or burn.’
The men joshed with each other then one started a song. They sang in a language I’d never heard before, but all the adults knew it. The men would sing a line then the women would echo it.
It was hot work, especially in our long dresses and thick aprons but Grandma kept up a slow rhythm of cutting and Amy and I did our bit. I was glad when at last the village elder called a halt. There are no trees up on the moors, in fact none around Callanish at all. So we collected our lunch and all sat along the ditch with our backs to the cut edge.
The sea birds wheeled and cried and rabbits played in the distance, and I never thought cold tea could taste so good.
 A blak is a building made of drystone and earth.
We all went back to school the next week. And life there was better for me now. I’d got to know Bella while we shifted the peat blocks, and some of the other children played with me, even letting me have a turn with their five-stones.
The next Saturday, when we’d done our chores in the cottage and weeded between the vegetables, Grandma said, ‘After dinner we’ll go up on the cliff beyond the Stones and collect wool off the bushes.’
‘Does it grow then, like berries?’ I asked, ‘I thought it came from sheep.’
‘It does, silly,’ Amy said. ‘You’re such a baby!’
‘No I’m not, I knew it came from sheep. Why did you say it’s on bushes, Grandma? Amy’s picking on me!’
‘Well I didn’t say it grew on the bushes. The sheep brush against them and it sticks to the bush. I have to start spinning again so that we can knit scarves, socks and mittens to sell or to exchange when the peddler comes in the autumn. Can you knit, Amy?’
‘A little, but I drop stitches and get fed up.’
‘Well you’ll have to learn to do it properly. And keep at it for hours at a time. Whether we have enough to eat this winter will depend on it. And Mary, you’ll be taking on most of Amy’s chores so that she can keep knitting.’
Amy and I looked at each other in surprise. Grandma never mentioned money and always gave us enough to eat, even if it was lots of potatoes.
‘Is that why you don’t eat much now Grandma?’ Amy said.
‘I don’t need as much as you growing girls. But unless we make some money, things will get really difficult, and we don’t want that. I can remember going to bed hungry all through the winter when I was a girl. And my mother would faint clean away, sometimes. She made light of it then but I know now that she was half-starving herself so we could eat.’
There was lots of wool on the bushes. But when we got back to the cottage we had to clean each ball. There were leaves and twigs and rabbit droppings and sheep poo. But Grandma said it all had to come off. We did it by feel once it got dark, as the lamp doesn’t give much light really. And while we did it Grandma told us the story of the fairy cow.
‘Long, long ago, soon after the Stones were raised, the people of Callanish were all starving. One of the desperate women waded into the sea to drown herself. But as she did so, a beast with red ears emerged from the waves and spoke to her in a soft voice. It told her to return home, get her milk pail and tell her neighbours to do the same. They were to go to the Callanish Stones. A pailful of milk was provided every night to all the women of the village.’
‘Does the magic cow still come for starving people?’ I asked.
‘I’m afraid not. You see one of the villagers was greedy and brought two pails and milked the cow dry and it was never seen again.’
* * *
All the potatoes were dug now and stored in a sack, hung up in the shed to keep them away from the mice. But when I weeded round the beets and neeps I was extra careful, encouraging them to grow by singing to them. Grandma had even shown me how to thin them, taking the biggest out carefully and pressing the earth around the small ones that were left.
After the next storm, we are going to the beach to collect seaweed to put round them. Grandma says this saves the earth drying in the sun and feeds them to make them grow big.
I thought we would eat the thinnings but Amy and I are taking them to the ‘chicken man’, Farmer McCloud, and he will exchange them for two growing hens. In a few weeks they should start laying.
The next day, before we left for school, Grandma got her spinning wheel out of the cottage into the sunlight and asked Amy to bring her stool and I got the basket of wool. She took one piece of the wool and pulled it gently into a long thin sausage. She fed it into the wheel and started pumping the pedal and running the wool between her fingers, making it longer and thinner, then she gradually wound it onto the wheel.
‘What is the wheel actually doing?’ I said, as Grandma seemed to do most of the work with her fingers.
‘It twists the yarn to make it strong,’ she said, as she picked up another loose ball of wool and joined it to the one that had almost gone now. Her fingers seemed to work magic with the wool.
‘Grandma’s so clever,’ I said to Amy as we skipped up the road past the Stones. ‘My mum can’t do anything. I expect that’s why she sent me here. To learn from Grandma.’
‘My mum taught me to knit and sew,’ Amy said. ‘I gave her the sampler I made at school, practising all the stitches I knew. I wonder
what’s happened to it? She said it was lovely and she’d treasure it always. But then she got ill and, and … you know.’
And her voice sounded funny and I remembered that her mum was dead. I tried to imagine my mum dead, to see what it felt like. But it didn’t work.
 Beetroots and turnips
Amy has become really good at knitting. She’s doing a scarf at the moment in green and yellow. Dyeing the wool after it was spun and skeined was interesting. We had to peel off the skin of brown onions for the yellow and pick nettles and strip off the leaves for green. I used a pair of Grandma’s old gloves that had shrunk and felted, but I still managed to sting my wrist on some nettles. I found some dock leaves and rubbed them on until my skin went green. Grandma knows exactly how long to boil the stuff and how hot it should be for the wool to be dunked in and how long to leave it soaking.
I had to peg the skeins out and when they were dry Amy looped one over my outstretched arms and she wound it into balls. Then we swapped places and I wound the other colour because my arms were really aching from holding them out in front of me for ages.
When we got into bed that evening thunder rumbled and lightning was sweeping across the Stones. We lay awake for hours, listening to the storm and the next day, as it was Saturday, Grandma said we would go to the beach to collect seaweed.
We each took a sack and made our way down to the sea. A few families were collecting already but there were big piles of seaweed left by the receding tide. For the first time we saw the ferry close up, as it came into the jetty. The oars looked huge now and the man who was rowing jumped out onto the jetty and had it tied up while it was still moving, or so it seemed. Then he helped each of his passengers off. One had a sheep with it’s front legs tied together so he could carry it and one had a box of fish, which he opened at the side of the road.
‘Will you buy something?’ I asked Grandma. But she shook her head then laughed as she turned her pocket inside out to show she had no money.
‘Hello Aunt Rose!’ A woman’s voice reached us from the jetty.
Grandma looked up then waved to someone carrying a baby.
‘Shula! Whatever are you doing here, and with the bairn?’
Grandma beckoned us to follow her. By the time we got there the lady with the baby had reached the bus stop and put her large bag on the ground.
‘I’ve got to catch the bus to Stornoway. The bairn is sickly and our doctor on Uig can’t help. I’ve got a letter from him to take to the hospital. It’s so lovely to see you, Auntie. And who are the two girls?’
‘This is Amy and that’s Mary, my grandchildren from London. They’re staying with me at present.’ We both bobbed a small curtsy, as Grandma had taught us. ‘I’m so sorry the baby is ill. The bus will be along shortly. I suppose Danny had to stay working on the farm. It’s a long way for you to travel with the baby. If you have time, come to the cottage on your way home. You can stay overnight, if you want to break the journey.’
‘The bus is coming,’ Amy said, pointing down the road.
‘God bless you both,’ Grandma said, ‘and we’ll pray that the doctor can help the babe. What have you called her?’
Grandma picked up Shula’s bag and handed it to her, kissed the baby and gave her a hug.
‘We named her Rose, after you,’ Shula said over her shoulder, as she got on the bus.
We waved until they disappeared up the hill then we went back to the beach.
We soon filled our sacks but they were so heavy with the wet seaweed that we had to drag them up the hill. Grandma really struggled and had to keep stopping.
When we got back, Amy and I spread the long, slippery weed around the vegetables and herbs. The ground was soaked from the storm so the seaweed would help protect the earth from the sun and drying wind so it would save us carrying so much water from the pump.
Grandma sat on the stool with her back against the cottage wall. Her face had gone a really funny colour so Amy got her a cup of water. It took her ages to get up and stir the fire and put the pot on to boil for dinner.
Amy and I go to Farmer McCloud to collect the two hens. They are a lovely dark gold colour and flap alarmingly when he tries to corner them, one at a time. He stuffs them in a sack and they calm down at once.
‘Are they dead or asleep?’ I ask.
‘Neither. They go quiet in the dark Don’t you worry your pretty head, my girl.’ He ties the top loosely and hands the sack to Amy and says, ‘Mind you don’t open it until you’re safely in their new pen.’
After a bit Amy’s arms get tired. I try carrying the sack but I’m not tall enough to keep it off the ground. So we put it down and have a rest. We helped Grandma fence off the bit of scrubby land beyond the vegetables, a few days ago. She’d kept chickens before so the posts were still there and she’s got a coop for them. There aren’t many foxes around but they’ll smell out chickens from miles away, so Grandma says!
Grandma comes in the pen with us and hooks the gate shut. Amy lays the sack on the ground and unties the string, but nothing happens. I’m afraid they’re dead after all. But Grandma lifts the mouth of the sack and clucks encouragingly. And out they come, strutting on their four-toed spindly legs. They ignore us and start pecking at the grass and bare soil.
‘When they’ve eaten all the weeds and grass in here,’ Grandma tells us, ‘you’ll have to pick some on the way home from school each day. They eat insects and slugs as well, and we’ll feed them potato peelings. None of our near neighbours have chickens so they may give us their vegetable waste, but you’ll have to collect it.’
I can see these birds are going to give us lots of extra work. I hope the eggs will be worth it!
The next day when we get home from school we can hear Grandma talking to someone in the cottage. I can’t remember anyone ever coming in before, which I realise is a bit strange. Other neighbours pop in and out of each others’ cottages most days.
‘Who do you think it is,’ I whispered. Amy shrugged then marched inside. It was the lady with the baby who we’d seen when we were at the beach.
‘You remember Shula, don’t you?’ Grandma said.
‘Hello,’ we said together and automatically dropped a curtsy. The baby was asleep on Shula’s lap, making funny grunting noises as it breathed.
‘Amy, please to fill the kettle and make us all a brew. We’ve been talking that long our throats are parched. And Mary, you can get some peat off the stack and stir the fire for me. I’ll make some oaty-cakes on the griddle when it’s hot enough. Shula is staying over and will catch the ferry home tomorrow.’
I’d always liked babies when I was in London but hadn’t been near one since coming to Grandma’s, so when I’d done the fire and rubbed the dirt off my hands I went to look at it. It was still grunting occasionally but seemed to be half-awake.
‘Here, you take her,’ Shula said, ‘I’m going to the privy. Her name is Rose.’ And with that she plonked the baby in my arms. I remembered Shula was on her way to the hospital when we saw her before.
‘Grandma,’ I said, ‘what’s wrong with Rose? I don’t want to hurt her.’
‘Sit on the chair so you can hold her more easily. They think there’s something wrong with her blood. Shula’s got some tonic for her. They say she’ll grow out of it as she gets older. If Shula could eat more meat and eggs her milk would help the bairn. So if the chickens lay an egg by the morning, I’ll boil it for her. I know I said you two girls would have the first one between you, but this is more important.’
I bit my lip and nodded. I’d been so looking forward to half an egg. I loved them hard-boiled and wrapped in lettuce, with bread and scrape. And that made me think of my mum.
‘You’re lucky,’ I whispered to the baby. ‘You’ve got a mum who’s going to feed you and cuddle you.’
And Rose opened her eyes and blinked at me, squirming so much that I had to hold her really tight so she didn’t slip off my lap.
Grandma put some of the dried salmon from the hook on the ceiling into the stew-pot. Next she put oats in a bowl with milk and a pinch of salt. She mixed it quickly with her fingers then flattened a small amount and put it on the hot, greased griddle. She added more cakes until the mixture was gone.
The lovely smell drifted around the cottage and I forgot about my mum and remembered that Grandma loved me and gave me lots of hugs and made the best oaty-cakes in the world.
A week goes by before I collect our first two eggs. When I unlock the coop one autumn morning I’m sure the hens look pleased with themselves. As usual I look in the nest-box. And they are still warm, two lovely brown eggs nestling in the straw. Grandma says she’ll cook them for our tea.
We need some more vegetable peelings for the chickens now, to encourage them to lay. Amy and I go to our three nearest neighbours. Mistress Jackson mutters something about it not being our fault, and yes, she’ll save them for us each day and Old Lottie Lofthouse says yes, she’ll be glad not to have to damp the fire down with them. But when we ask Mistress Dean she glares at us and says on no account could she give anything to someone who associated with a man who broke God’s commandment, and banged the door in our faces.
I burst into tears so Amy put her arm round me then hissed a word at the door which I hadn’t heard since I’d left London, and then it was only my dad who said it, when he was drunk.
‘Please don’t tell Grandma I said that bad word. That horrid woman made you cry so it just popped out. I didn’t even know it was inside my head still.’
When we told Grandma what had happened she looked worried and sad at the same time. ‘We’ll sit down and I’ll tell you the story. I thought after ten years they would have let it go. But imagined sin has a long tail!’
‘Your Grandfather, my dear husband, died nearly twenty years ago. After many years, when I was going to see sick relatives on Uig every few weeks, I got to know Angus, the ferryman. He lives on Uig but would sometimes row over on a Sunday, the only day the ferry never runs, and I would cook dinner for us both and we would collect eggs on the cliffs or walk on the moors or fish for salmon. Then he would row back before sunset. But tongues wagged in Callanish. Especially those who thought I should be in church on a Sunday and not enjoying God’s beautiful world. One day, he brought a poor family over for the day so they could visit relatives on the mainland. He didn’t charge, of course but someone spread the rumour that he was working for money on the Lord’s Day. And within hours my neighbours stopped talking to me.’
‘So you didn’t break God’s law, Grandma?’
‘No, Mary. We didn’t break any of God’s laws but that didn’t stop the rumours or nasty words or silence. Angus didn’t come over on a Sunday any more. I missed his friendship and company. In fact I hadn’t seen him for a few years, even in the distance, until he helped Shula off the ferry the other week.’
‘Well it looks as though two of your neighbours have forgiven you,’ Amy said, ‘and we’ll never go near that awful Dean woman again.’
‘Don’t be disrespectful, Amy. If her views are that narrow and she holds onto a perceived wrong for ten years, I pity her. Her life must be so sad. Certainly don’t go there again.’
‘But didn’t you tell them Angus didn’t charge the family - after all he was helping them?’ I asked.
‘I didn’t get a chance but the family they’d come to see tried to tell them. They talked about how kind and thoughtful Angus had been. They told everyone when they were in the shop or getting milk. But once neighbours had shunned me they couldn’t back down. It would have shown that they were wrong. Adults find it as hard to admit they are wrong as children do, perhaps even more so.’
I gave Grandma a hug then went out to shut the chickens in. I’d called them Shula and Rose, after my new-found relations. I told them all about the neighbours and what they’d been doing to Grandma. ‘I’ll tell God about it tonight, when we say our prayers. Perhaps he can send down fire and burn their cottages to teach them a lesson.’ Then I remembered that two of them were going to give us peelings for Shula and Rose, so I’d only ask for Mistress Dean’s cottage to go. But when I told Grandma what I was going to pray for she said we have to turn the other cheek and forgive people or we’ll get bitter and twisted inside.
* * *
A few weeks later when Amy, Bella and I were playing hide-and-seek among the Stones, something happened that brought back the memory of being hurt. I was hiding, crouching very still behind the tallest stone. I could see Bella hunting for us and Amy was lying behind the few bushes just outside the circle when someone poked me hard in the back then covered my eyes with their huge hands and said, ‘I’ve got you now!’ I started screaming and couldn’t stop. I tried, when I saw it was simple Jack, the huge lad with a baby brain. Grandma had told us he was harmless and that we mustn’t make fun of him. Amy and Bella raced over and Jack ran away, probably afraid he would be told off.
‘It’s all right,’ Amy said. ‘He just gave you a fright. Do stop that noise or you’ll bring half the village out.’ I did try but the screams seemed to be tumbling out of my mouth without me even wanting them to. Amy shook me, then shouted at me, then picked me up and marched home. I could hear other voices around but the pictures in my head were of a dirty house in Bow, and the man who crept up and hit me.
Amy dropped me onto Grandma’s lap. The picture of what the man had done after he hit me came back to me at last. Grandma just held and rocked me, singing a song in her other language. She didn’t tell me to stop screaming but between the verses she said that Amy had gone out now, so I could say anything I liked to her.
So I told her, once all the screams were out.
‘Now you know what he did and have faced it,’ she said, ‘the worst is over. He was a wicked man but most men aren’t like that. The next time someone hits you, you must try to remember that you’ve been brave enough to face this. If a scream comes out, you know you can stop it by remembering that he’s not here and it’s not him who hit you this time.’
I felt much better suddenly, as though a little sack of coal had been taken off my chest. Grandma gave me her handkerchief to wipe my face, hugged me again and helped me off her lap.
‘You can feed Shula and Rose now and collect any eggs, while I add the last bit of dried salmon to the pot, as a special treat. And we’ll all have a scrape of honey on our bread.’
That night I dreamt about the man who hurt me. And I saw his face this time. At last I knew who he was. I woke up shaking and sweating but I wasn’t screaming. I kept saying to myself, he’s not here; he can’t hurt me again; Amy’s near; Grandma’s near. Then I snuggled up to Amy and soon went back to sleep.
When we went to our two neighbours for the vegetable peelings after school, we took them an egg each. They both thanked us and Mistress Lottie said she would make a cake using it and we could have a slice each tomorrow when we called. I’d told Grandma we should keep the eggs as we never had enough to eat, but seeing their smiles and the thought of cake made me realise that Grandma was right.
‘I got rapped over the knuckles in school today,’ I told Amy as we walked home past the Stones. There was mizzle in the cold air which seemed to go straight through my thin coat and blouse. Grandma had said I had to mend the holes in my jumper before I could wear it, so I was shivering.
‘Why? What had you done?’
‘I couldn’t remember the seven times table. I always get stuck after seven sevens. I knew I would and could feel the numbers starting to freeze in my head.’
‘But you knew it perfectly when I tested you this morning.’
‘Erm, I know, but it had all gone again.’
‘We’ll do it together all the way to school tomorrow, starting at seven sevens up to twelve sevens then back again.’
‘Look! My fingers are still smarting.’
‘Well they’re always red from the cold water and weeding and wool-winding so the ruler hurts more.’
The sun was shining on Saturday morning so after the chamber pots were emptied, the milk collected and the hens uncooped and fed, we packed a picnic while Grandma got her fishing rod and basket ready.
‘We can only fish for salmon for a few more weeks,’ Grandma said, as we set off. ‘We’ll go to the loch, way up on the moor where I can usually get salmon this late in the year. It’s a long walk there, and will seem longer coming home but we may snare a rabbit as well as they come out as dusk falls.’
It was a really long walk so Grandma taught us a song in her language with a tune that helped us to bounce along the track. Although she got out of breath and we had to keep stopping.
Amy and I both tried casting but Grandma caught the fish. We found some late berries then watched how Grandma sets the snare on a tiny path with droppings on it. We had to sit down-wind and be very still and quiet, which was so hard for me. I felt sorry for the rabbit as it tried to get away but Grandma hit its head quickly with a stone, and it was dead. She told us to think about rabbit stew and even a bit of roast rabbit for Sunday dinner. Then she reset the snare and caught another one. She tied the back legs together and Amy put them over her shoulder to carry them home.
After Grandma had skinned and cleaned the rabbits, she cut the back from one and put it in the meat safe. She taught Amy to gut the fish and showed us both where to put the ceiling hooks into the flesh so they could hang over the fire to smoke, so they’d keep.
Roast rabbit was lovely. Grandma had saved a bit of dripping so she spread it over the meat, wrapped it in cabbage leaves and put it in the roasting tin which she pushed into the red ash in the middle of the fire. And we had dumplings as well. As we didn’t have any suet or butter, Grandma used an egg with the flour and I chopped some mint and rosemary and added them with a pinch of salt. She let me mix it, with just a tiny bit of water. Then I rolled the mixture into six balls in my hands and dropped them into the vegetable pot. They puffed up after a while. It was such a lovely dinner. And I wasn’t hungry when we’d finished.
‘We had that special dinner today because it’s my birthday,’ Grandma said. ‘And it’s been so lovely having someone to share it with, for the first time in ten years.’
She looked a bit sad for a moment then smiled again.
It’s a shame she didn’t have a present or anything, but at least she liked having us.
‘I did the seven times table perfectly today!’ I sang as I danced out of school with Amy. ‘And the eights and nines.’
‘Thank goodness for that! I couldn’t bear to go through them all the way to school tomorrow,’ Amy told me.
When we got home, we couldn’t find Grandma. She was always either knitting or stirring the fire-pot. But the fire was almost out. I went outside to see if she was in the chicken run. Then Amy called me.
‘Grandma’s ill,’ she said. ‘She’s in bed.’
‘In bed, in the day! She must be ever so bad,’ I said, as we went inside. The curtain was across her cupboard-bed, so that’s why we hadn’t seen her. Amy pulled it back.
‘I got a nasty pain across my chest and couldn’t breathe. It’s nearly gone now but I feel that weak, I don’t think I can stand up.’
‘You stay there,’ Amy said. ‘I’ll get the fire going then we’ll do our usual chores. I’ll make you a cup of tea as soon as the water heats up.’
‘I’ve done no knitting since lunch time. That’s three hours missed. The order has to be finished by Friday or they may not take them.’
‘Amy can knit once she’s done the fire. I can do everything else,’ I said, hoping I would remember how to do things I’d seen Grandma do so easily.
Grandma managed to sit up and drink some tea but she hardly ate anything later, and her hair was still in it’s loose plait that I’d only seen once before, because she always went to bed after me and was up and dressed with the fire stirred and banked before I got up. She tried to knit for a while but we could see she was struggling so gave her another cup of tea and she went to bed. Amy managed to knit under the oil lamp until really late. She almost fell asleep in the end so we both went to bed and prayed that Grandma wouldn’t die and leave us to manage on our own. Amy said we’d be all right but I wasn’t so sure.
God must have heard us because Grandma was dressed and her hair was up when she woke us for school. In the daylight she looked a bit grey and there were dark lines under her eyes.
‘You were little treasures yesterday,’ she said. ‘And so much knitting done, Amy! How would I manage without you both?’
‘We’re so glad you’re better,’ Amy said.
‘God helped,’ I added, ‘we told him how important it was that you got well, just in case he hadn’t noticed your problem.’
‘I’ll say a special thank you to him,’ Grandma replied.
‘Are you going to be able to knit or shall I stay home today?’ Amy said.
‘No, I’m fine today. You’ve only got a couple of months more at school. You learn all you can. We’re going to have to start looking for a position for you in a few weeks.’
‘Don’t remind me!’ Amy said. ‘I want to be near enough to come home on my half-day off each week.’
‘We’ll try Amy, but I can’t promise.’
Grandma had done loads of knitting by the time we got home from school but when she got up to poke the fire into life, she swayed then sat down again.
‘You’re not well,’ Amy said, taking the poker from her. ‘Have you eaten since breakfast?’
‘I didn’t fancy anything, dear and my tongue’s that sore it’s difficult to eat, but I had a cup of tea.’
‘You must eat something. What can we make for dinner?’
‘Mary can pick some cabbage leaves and there’s those two stumps of carrot you found in the chicken food from Lottie. I think she puts them in there for us, knowing how poor we are. And you can put a rabbit leg in the pot as well, and a handful of pearl barley’
‘Only one leg!’ I said, ‘it’s so tiny, Grandma.’
‘We have to make the meat last. After an hour or so cooking, it will fall off the bone and give the stew a bit of flavour and nourishment. Oh, and pick some herbs when you get the vegetables. A few stems of the chives, chopped up, will be nice.’
Grandma managed to eat a bit of stew. She was still very wobbly when she got up so decided to go back to bed. I shut the hens in then washed up but Amy started knitting directly she’d finished eating. Her fingers were raw by the time we crawled into bed.
When Mr Dykes came for the knitting on Friday, we were two pairs of mittens short. Amy explained that Grandma had been ill and said how sorry we were. He tut-tutted and said if it happened again he would have to give the work to someone reliable. We were relieved he only knocked a shilling off the payment but what if we lost the order? When he’d gone we looked at each other in despair.
‘Grandma needs a doctor,’ Amy said ‘but we can’t afford it.’
‘Well we’ve got to do something, and I’ve got an idea!’ I replied.
When we at last got in bed, dog-tired once again, Amy asked what I meant about having an idea to help Grandma.
‘Her friend Angus!’ I said triumphantly.
‘What about him? She hasn’t spoken to him for ten years.’
‘Yes but he loved her, I’m sure. And if we tell him she might die without a doctor, he might pay for one.’
‘Wishful thinking!’ Amy replied. ‘I know he’s still working the ferry so he may have money. But Grandma would never ask him.’
‘She won’t know. You go to school on Monday and tell them Grandma’s been ill and I’m helping her and will come along later. Then I’ll go down and wait for the ferry and tell him. If he doesn’t help, she’ll never know and if he does, then I’ll put up with any telling-off if it saves her life.’
‘Erm, I suppose it’s the truth, sort-of – you helping Grandma. And I agree we have to do something but we’ll both go to see Angus and then go to school and tell them we were both helping Grandma because she’s ill. You’re only eight, so he might not take it from you.’
‘All right, we’ll do it!’
‘And no dropping hints to Grandma,’ Amy said. ‘I know what you’re like.’
It seemed a long weekend, with Grandma wrapped up in a shawl knitting. We did everything else as she swayed each time she got up. And her mouth was so sore she could only drink tea and have cooled juice from the stew-pot. Amy poached and mashed an egg for her but she couldn’t even finish that. I did the chickens and vegetables and collected peelings from the neighbours and kept making pots of tea while Grandma and Amy knitted.
There was a bitter north wind on Monday as we walked down to the harbour and waited on the jetty for Angus.
He was surprised to see us but remembered who we were. Amy explained why we were there in her best grown-up voice.
‘Don’t worry any more. I’ll help you. It’s good you came to me, even if your grandma would probably be horrified. Let me check her symptoms with you again – she’s breathless and dizzy and her mouth is too sore to eat much and she sometimes gets a pain in her chest. She’s got forgetful and falls asleep while knitting – is that it.’
‘Yes, isn’t that enough?’ I said. ‘Will the doctor be able to help her?’
‘I’ll get a doctor to her if that’s what she needs, but I think I know what’s wrong with her. I must take the ferry back to Uig now. There’s a queue behind you waiting to get on.’
Amy blushed scarlet when she turned round and saw six adults waiting. ‘Sorry,’ she gasped, and we jumped down onto the beach.
‘Can you come back at four,’ Angus said, ‘and I’ll have some news for you.’
‘I will,’ I said, ‘Amy will have to let Grandma know why I’m late and she must get on with the knitting. If we’re short of mittens on Friday we may lose the order. Then we’ll have no money coming in at all.’
‘See you then, Mary, and don’t worry,’ he said as he pushed off from the jetty with an oar. ‘You’re good girls to care for your grandma so much.’
Our teachers were cross with us but accepted the explanation. At lunch time Amy said she would have to tell Grandma what we’d done when she got home.
‘Be ready for a telling-off. She’ll be livid at first but if she gets better then I think she’ll be pleased.’
I raced out of school, waving to Amy who was still struggling into her coat. It was miles too small for her now as she’d shot up during the summer. I was out of breath when I got to the jetty as it was even farther than going home. I sat on the cold stones, building a turret while I waited. At last Angus arrived with just one passenger.
‘Come up to my shed, Mary, I’ve got some things for your grandma.’
‘Oh! Can’t you afford to pay for a doctor?’ I asked.
‘Let me explain. I’ve only got fifteen minutes before I have to row back but I had two hours at noon so I got what she needs. You see my mother had exactly the same symptoms as your gran and all the doctor said was to eat lots of offal, meat and vegetables. It was weak blood, and good food strengthened it. And my mother got better. It took a long while but a few months later she was really getting back to her old self.’
‘But we can’t afford that sort of food.’ I replied. ‘She’s been giving most of the little we have to us all summer and autumn, saying she’s not hungry. It’s our fault. If we hadn’t come to stay she would have had enough to eat.’ And I sank down on the step of the shed and started to cry.
‘Now stop that! We haven’t got time for tears. Here is a bag of the food she needs. You’ll have to be grown-up and explain what I’ve told you. Tell her the food is for all of you. I have only given you a half-pound of liver, because if you eat too much food when you’re not used to it, you’ll get belly-ache. And she’ll have to force it down even if her mouth bleeds a bit. Cut the liver in thin slices and don’t over-cook it. It should be a bit red still. Tell her I’ll bring some more meat tomorrow lunch time, when I have enough time to walk up to the cottage before my next ferry back to Uig.’
‘Thank you Mr Angus,’ I said, as he locked the shed and hurried back to the jetty where a queue had formed.
Grandma had calmed down by the time I got home. I told them both what Angus had said and opened the bag. There was a cauliflower, some winter greens, a few carrots and some bloody, flabby stuff wrapped in newspaper.
‘Is that liver?’ Amy said.
‘Best lambs liver, by the looks of it,’ Grandma replied. ‘And a whole cauliflower! We’ll eat like royalty tonight. And thank you girls for helping me. I’m a proud old biddy. I’d never have asked Angus, but I’m glad you did. It will be lovely to see him again and if the neighbours talk about us – let them!’
True to his word, Angus arrived at the cottage on Tuesday with some bacon rashers for lunch and left lamb chops for dinner. On Wednesday his bag contained a fresh loaf for lunch and more vegetables and three lambs kidneys. He also brought some butter and jam and the next day more meat and a big bag of oats and sugar and salt. On Friday there was enough stewing steak for two days, as he said he wouldn’t be over until Sunday. We didn’t go to bed with empty, rumbling tummies any more and, oh, the flavours! Each day I thought they couldn’t get any better, and then there was something else wonderful.
‘I’ll bring everything we need for dinner and tea on Sunday, and come early and stay all day so I can see the bairns again,’ he told Grandma.
And when he arrived he had a leg of lamb and dripping and more vegetables, and some chocolate for us.
When he handed me the little white paper bag with the top corners screwed up so I couldn’t see what was in it, it reminded me of Christmas morning when I was tiny, and my dad would come in to see me and bring a surprise present. Sometimes it was treacle toffee and sometimes boiled sweets. That was before he started going to prison and was horrid to us when he came out.
‘Oh thank you, Mr Angus!’ I said, opening the top carefully. The smell of the broken pieces of chocolate was amazing.
‘You’re welcome, little one. Now keep it away from the fire, or it will melt.’
‘Mr Angus,’ I continued, ‘Why are you rich and Grandma isn’t?’
‘Mary! Don’t be so impertinent. You should know better than to ask such a question.’
‘Don’t worry Rose. The bairns must wonder and I’m happy to tell them.’
‘I didn’t mean to be rude,’ I said.
‘I know, Mary,’ he replied. ‘Well you see, my wife and I couldn’t have any children and her parents left her their cottage when they passed away, which we sold. And I inherited the ferry route from my father and have rowed it for, oh, about fifty years now. So although I would much rather have had children and grandchildren and not had enough money for extras, that didn’t happen. And now your Grandma has let me share in the joy of helping her and you.’
‘You two girls go and play now you’ve fed the chickens,’ Grandma said, smiling across at Angus. ‘I’m much better already and we can do the dinner together.’
I didn’t know what Angus said to Grandma to make her accept the food and help, but I was so glad she had. They were both happy and Grandma wouldn’t die now. In fact, she wasn’t wobbly any more when she got up from her chair. So all in all it was a wonderful day.
Amy’s and Grandma’s raw fingers started to heal up and they even managed to finish the knitting order early some weeks.
‘I saw Shula the other day,’ Angus said as we tucked into roast beef one Sunday. ‘She sent her love and said baby Rose was much better now. She’s glad you’re getting stronger.’
And so the month of November passed, with Angus coming at lunch time every other day and all day Sunday. Grandma got better slowly, first her mouth healed then her breathing improved. And Amy and I shot up and filled out suddenly. And nothing fitted any more. Amy passed her clothes on to me, although Grandma had to take them up a bit. But she had to wear a skirt made from old curtaining that Grandma found, with an old jumper that Mistress Lottie gave her. She must have noticed that Amy was bursting out of her blouse in a most unseemly way.
One day when Angus arrived he had a parcel for Amy from Shula. There was a little note in it to say she had a cousin by marriage who had grown out of her clothes and she thought they might do Amy.
‘Look!’ Amy said, twirling round to show us the dress. ‘It’s such soft wool and I love the colour.’ It had a Peter Pan collar and lace cuffs and was heavenly. There was a coat and skirt and two blouses as well. If only just one of the things had fitted me.
On a Saturday afternoon in December when we’d finished our chores and Amy had done an hour’s knitting, Grandma told us to go out and get some fresh air. She often had a nap during the day as Angus said it would do her good, and we would disturb her if we stayed in the cottage. We went up to the Stones, hoping some friends from the village might be there. Bella and her brother Anthony, who were both in the same class as me at school, had a ball so we joined them in a game of catch. The rough grass was uneven around the Stones so we did more dropping than catching as we couldn’t move without checking where to put our feet. But it kept us warm. Suddenly Amy pointed out to sea. The sky was darkening, and racing towards us was what looked like a tower of cloud. In a few moments rain was pelting down then a fierce wind whipped up, almost lifting me off my feet then slamming me back down.
Amy had gone white and said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this. We must find shelter or the wind will take us all.’ She grabbed my hand and dragged me towards the tallest Stone. We jumped down into the shallow ditch near its base. Bella was pulling Anthony towards us but he tripped and fell. Amy jumped up and helped Bella and they all collapsed in a heap.
‘Ouch! Get your foot off my neck,’ I yelled. But then a noise like the loudest train battered my head and I had to hold onto the long grass tussocks so I didn’t lift off the ground. I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed. Perhaps it was Judgement Day and God had come for us all. It seemed to go on for ages then suddenly there was almost silence. Just the sound of rain hitting the stones.
‘Are you all right, Mary?’ Amy said.
‘I think so. At least we didn’t get blown away. What was that? We never had anything like it in Bow. Perhaps it’s a Scottish winter thing. I want to be in the cottage with Grandma next time.’
Suddenly Anthony started screaming, right in my ear. ‘Stop that!’ I said. ‘What on earth’s the matter?’
‘Bella’s gone! She’s gone!’ he said through choking sobs.
‘Where?’ Amy said
‘She was holding me down, shouting for me to grab the grass. Then just before the wind died down, she just went.’
We all sat up carefully and looked around. The rain had almost stopped and although there was a steady breeze still, the sky was brighter and the tower of cloud had gone. And so had Bella. Amy stood up, hanging onto the Stone, fearful that she might be taken too. Anthony was still sobbing.
‘I don’t think that awful wind will come back again,’ Amy said. ‘You two stay together and walk down towards the road, calling her and checking round all the stones. I’ll go towards the cliff and do the same. She must be somewhere.’
There was no sign of her and as we got to the road we saw Grandma almost running towards us. ‘Where’s Amy? Is she hurt?’
‘No! We’re all looking for Bella. She disappeared just before the end of the terrible storm.’
Grandma grabbed me roughly to her chest and almost crushed me in a hug, smothering me in kisses. ‘I wouldn’t have sent you out to play if I’d known. Do you know, I’ve never seen anything like that in my whole life,’ and as she held me even closer, Amy’s cry echoed round the Stones, ‘Bella! Where are you?’
Amy came back from the cliff-edge sobbing, ‘I can’t find her. She’s gone. That terrible storm took her.’
‘Anthony!’ a voice rang out, and his mum rushed up and grabbed him.
Grandma explained that Bella was missing and Amy described through sobs how we were all together in the ditch, with Bella on top of us, and that she only flew away at the end, when that huge gust came.
Then the men of the village started to arrive. Bella’s dad organized them to make a thorough search, and told us to go home.
We wanted to help them but Grandma took our hands, one each side of her and said we’d done all we could and must go home and get dry and warm or we’d catch our death of cold.
We stripped off our wet clothes and wrapped up in blankets and drank hot honey with an onion slice in it, while Grandma heated enough water for a few inches in the hip-bath.
When we woke next morning, Grandma told us that Bella still hadn’t been found, our chicken coop was gone and so was Mistress Lottie’s roof. I didn’t know which to cry for so I howled anyway.
‘Now stop that noise!’ Grandma said. ‘Get yourselves up and dressed in your best. We’re going to the Kirk.’
‘To church?’ Amy and I said together in disbelief. ‘We never go to church!’
‘Everyone will be there today. Even old Evered, and he doesn’t believe there’s a God!’
‘But why?’ I asked as we scrambled out of bed.
‘Tragedies and death – we all go to the Kirk.’
‘And what if Mr Angus comes as usual?’ I said, ‘he won‘t know where we are.’
Grandma made a funny noise in her throat and then spoke as though she had a tight band round it. ‘If he’s all right and comes – he’ll know. Everyone round here knows. It’s the way of the islands.’
The church was full, with some men standing at the back. The group who’d been out half the night and only had a few hours rest were in their working clothes, ready to carry on looking for Bella as soon as the prayers for her had been said. And the rest of us were in our best clothes. Even Bella’s mum, sitting at the front and holding on to Anthony as though she was afraid he would disappear too, had her feather hat on.
Angus didn’t join us and Grandma looked grim when we got back to the cottage and he wasn’t there either.
We had some meat stock from the Saturday stew so Amy chopped some vegetables while I made some dumplings. We’d saved some suet from the lambs’ kidneys we had in the week, so I grated that up and mixed it with the flour and salt. But we couldn’t really enjoy dinner. The thought of Bella, out there somewhere, injured or dead, haunted us.
It was mid afternoon when there was a knock on the door. And standing there was Angus with one of our hens under his arm. Amy and I dragged him in and I took Shula from him.
‘Well Angus, you’re a bit late with the dinner!’ Grandma said, beaming at him. ‘You look all in. Come away and sit down by the fire. Would you like some stew or a cup of tea or …’
‘Now lass, don’t fuss. It was a bit rough rowing over but I had to make sure you and the bairns were all right. I heard about Bella down on the jetty. The men are still out looking for her.’
‘We were with her. She flew off in the last terrible gust ’cos she was on top,’ I said and had to swallow the sob that bubbled up. I cuddled Shula closer and stroked her feathers. She seemed to have survived her ordeal.
‘How did Uig fair and do you know how Shula is?’ Grandma said.
‘We didn’t get it so bad over there so I guess Shula is all right. Now I’ll have that bowl of stew you offered. I’ll have to leave in an hour to row back before dark.’
‘Where did you find our chicken?’ Amy asked as she cut a generous slice off the loaf to go with the stew. We’d eaten all the dumplings earlier because they go hard if left once they’re ready.
‘She was strutting around on the edge of the road, for all the world as though she was making her way home. I couldn’t even be certain she was yours, but I knew you’d recognise her if she was, Mary.’
‘The coop blew away,’ I told him. ‘I hope Rose is all right. Can I take Shula to bed with me tonight, Grandma?’
‘Definitely not!’ Amy and Grandma said together.
‘Well where can we keep her without a coop?’
‘You can bring the peat in from the outside shelter and she can go in there. I’ve never had chickens inside and I’m not going to start now.’
The hour passed quickly and Angus had to go.
‘Be careful,’ Grandma said, patting his arm. Then she went outside with him and they talked for ages and she was all misty-eyed when she came back.
‘Angus says he’s got a box at home he could turn into a coop. He’ll bring it over as soon as he’s done it. Now Amy, you and I must get on with the knitting because we didn’t do any last night. We’ll have to knit on a Sunday again, even though I try to avoid it.’
Amy was just plaiting my hair for school the next morning, when we heard shouting outside. One of the search-party was running up the road.
‘We found her! We found her! And she’s alive!’ he yelled.
We raced up to him, ‘Where was she? Is she hurt? Will she be all right?’
‘She was in a ditch beyond Farmer Judd’s meadow, you know, past the rocky outcrop where the brambles have turned into a thicket. Her leg’s broken and she’s in a bad way from being out there for more than a day and a night. It was about midnight. We knew if she was out another night she probably wouldn’t survive so we just took lighted rushes and carried on. There was a good moon, which helped. The doctor’s set her leg and her mother is feeding her warm milk and honey to soothe her throat and give her strength. She shouted that much, she’s hoarse’
‘Can we go and see her instead of going to school?’ I said.
‘Not now,’ Grandma replied. ‘She’ll need peace and quiet and lots of sleep. And you need to go to school. In a few days, perhaps. I’ll make sure her parents know you want to see her soon, and offer for Anthony to walk to school with you, if he wants to. I’m sure he’ll stay at home today at least. He won’t want to leave Bella. Oh it’s such wonderful news. An answer to all our prayers,’ Grandma said and gave us both a hug.
We could see a lot of damage in the area around the Stones and a narrow corridor down past Mistress Lotties’ cottage as we walked to school. The barn beyond our garden had collapsed in a heap but just a few yards away either side there was no damage at all. It was weird. The Stones, of course, hadn’t moved. They were rock-solid and Grandma said they’d been there since Noah’s Ark and withstood the flood so they’d stand anything.
Grandma wrote letters asking if there was a position for Amy to work as maid from the New Year. It took her ages, she told us, because the light was bad in the cottage. On Saturday morning Amy and I took them to the three big houses nearest our cottage. It was a long trudge round and Amy got slower and slower.
‘ I don’t want to work away from home,’ she said, ‘I’ll miss you and Grandma.’
‘Well if you get somewhere this near, you could even come home to sleep in the week sometimes. Imagine if you had to go to Stornoway! We’d hardly ever see you.’
Bella was well enough for us to visit her the next weekend but we were both shocked when we saw her face. It had bluey-yellow bruises, and lots of scratches that were healing. Both hands had bandages and we couldn’t even see her legs as she was in bed still. She talked quietly and said her throat still hurt a lot of the time.
‘What about your leg, does that hurt as well?’ I asked.
She just nodded and tears came into her eyes.
‘It’s broken, silly,’ Amy said. ‘Of course it hurts.’
When we got back we could hear Grandma talking to someone in the cottage so we stayed outside.
‘I only accepted the food for the sake of the bairns. But we can’t go on like this, Angus, relying on you for everything. I’m a bit stronger now and Amy will be going off to service after Hogmanay.’
‘I know, Rose,’ Angus replied. ‘You’d have died rather than take food from a friend. So it’s fortunate that you had the girls to think about. I’m not going out of your life again, unless you tell me you hate my company. These past few weeks have been the happiest I can remember for many a-year.’
I couldn’t hold back any longer so I rushed in shouting, ‘You can’t send Mr Angus away. You know you like having him here and his food is making you better.’
‘Calm down, child! I’ve never heard such nonsense. You shouldn’t be listening at the door, anyway. Now out you go and feed Shula and don’t interrupt me again.’
When we got round the back of the cottage, there was a new coop in the chicken enclosure. It was painted bright blue and had a nest-box with a little door on the outside, to collect the eggs from, without reaching inside the main door.
‘If only Rose would come back,’ I said. ‘I’m sure Shula’s lonely.’
‘If only Grandma and Angus would get married, it would solve all our problems,’ Amy said.
‘Perhaps they haven’t thought of that. Are you going to suggest it?
‘No. I think it will have to come from them,’ she said.
‘Thank you, Mr Angus, for the lovely blue coop,’ I said, hurling myself into his arms. ‘Shula likes it I’m sure, although she’s lonely.’
‘You’d think that bird could talk to you!’ Grandma said. ‘Now stop your imagining and come and help with the vegetables. And you’d better get on with some knitting, Amy.’
‘Do you mind if I light my pipe indoors?’ Angus said, pulling it from his jerkin pocket.
‘Not at all,’ Grandma said, smiling. ‘I love the smell of a good tobacco. You sit in my rocker and make yourself at home.’
‘Does Mr Angus come to see you every day now?’ I asked Grandma later in the week. She seemed so much stronger, and the mittens and a couple of scarves were ready for collection early.
‘Except Saturday, yes. There’s two hours between ferries so it’s somewhere warm for him to eat his lunch, rather than his chilly hut.’
‘And would you miss him if he stopped coming?’
‘Now stop your questions, Mary. I don’t know what’s got into you.’
‘Well done, Shula, another egg!’ I said as I lifted the lid on the nest-box. I think it helped that Mr Angus had bought me a sack of straw so she had her lovely new coop full of warm straw.
‘When can I collect the beetroot seeds?’ I asked Grandma after checking the plant I’d left in the ground. Amy and I had dug all the rest of the crop, and some were in a sack in the shed to last into the new year.
‘When all the leaves have died down and the seeds are brown, Miss Impatient!’
‘They’re still a bit greeny-brown, so I’ll wait a bit longer.’
We hadn’t heard anything from the big houses Grandma had written to for a position for Amy so she’d written two more letters and Amy and I had another long walk to deliver them.
‘What will happen if these don’t reply?’ I asked Grandma.
‘Then I’ll have to get a Stornoway paper with the live-in-maid adverts in.’
Amy sighed and said, ‘Could we ask Mr Angus? Maybe he knows of someone on Uig who wants a maid. And I could go over and back with him on my day off.’
‘He’s done so much for us already, but yes, if nothing comes from this, we’ll ask him before we think about Stornoway. I don’t want you a day’s journey away on the other side of the Island any more than you want to go.’
Amy and I went to see Bella again and took her two eggs, as they don’t have chickens. I’d drawn her a picture of our new blue coop with Shula in front. I’d written –
GET WELL SOON BELLA. LOVE MARY.
Bella was up and looked so much better. Her leg was propped on a stool but she said it only hurt when she moved now. She wanted to know all about school even though Anthony had been walking with us each day. He didn’t remember who’d won tests, who’d had the dunces cap or know about which girls had rowed or fallen out with friends.
‘Your voice is back to normal,’ I said. ‘When will you come back to school?’
‘Another month at least. My leg has to heal completely. I don’t want to get too behind with learning so please tell me what you’ve done this week.’
A letter arrived from Down House to say that they would like Amy to go for an interview as general house-maid. As this was in Breasclete, only a short distance from our school, we danced around the cottage in glee.
‘Now calm down, girls, before you knock something over!’ Grandma said, but she was smiling, so we knew she was pleased. And when we got home from school the next day we could hear her singing as we opened the door. She was near the window in her rocker, knitting.
‘It’s lovely to hear you singing again. You haven’t done it for months, probably because you’ve been ill,’ Amy said.
‘I feel so much better now. I think we’ll start back at the kirk as I miss singing the hymns and I don’t want you growing up heathen.’
‘But we say our prayers every night and you show us the Jesus Picture Book and tell us a story from it most Sundays,’ I said, remembering the dark church and frowning pastor when we went for prayers when Amy’s mum was dying. Although he did seem to care about Bella when we went the other week.
‘I got the position!’ Amy shouted, ‘I’m a maid in a lovely house. Oh it’s huge and light, Mary, and they’ve fireplaces in five rooms. They’re not in the middle like ours, they’re on a wall and have chimneys for the smoke.’
‘Well you won’t be so pleased when you have to clean five grates,’ Grandma said, ‘and carry the peat upstairs, but I’m relieved you’re nearby and will get home each week.’
‘So am I!’ I added.
‘And when do you start?’ Grandma said,
‘On the second day of January, so I have Hogmanay with you. I can come home lunch-time on a Saturday and have to be back for nine on Sunday morning. And they have a scullery maid, Becky, so I won’t be doing all the worst of the scouring work. She took me up to see the room I’ll share with her. We’ve got our own staircase for getting to the big rooms on the first floor, and then it goes up again to our little room at the top.’
‘It sounds like a palace but I’m so glad you’ll come home each week. I’ll miss you so much and especially in our big bed,’ I said. ‘How will I keep warm without you?’
When we came home from school the next day we could hear Mr Angus and Grandma talking. Amy put a finger to her lips then we listened at the door. I was hoping he’d got round to proposing.
‘… I know the bairns are yours, and I daresay they’ll always be more important than me. But I don’t want to waste any more of our lives. I want to look after the three of you.’
‘Oh Angus, aren’t we too old for this? Can’t we stay as we are? You know I’m really fond of you and so grateful for what you’ve done. But …’
‘Stop that, Rose. I want us to be together, live together, help each other into our old age. In a couple of years I’ll be handing over the ferry to my nephew. By then I might struggle to walk up the hill sometimes. And the day will come when I’m too old to come over, then we’d never see each other again.’
‘I’d not thought of it like that. You’re right, my dear, I couldn’t bear not to see you, to go back to not sharing my life with you. So yes, I’ll marry you!’
Amy held onto me so I didn’t burst through the door, then dragged me down to Shula’s coop. We danced around the garden whispering, ‘Grandma’s getting married, Grandma’s getting wed.’
‘Now when we go in you mustn’t mention that we know,’ Amy said. ‘Let them tell us in their own way. After all we were eavesdropping at the door, which we shouldn’t have done.’
‘You mean I’ve got to stop smiling and pretend I don’t know?’
‘Yes, you must.’
I tried really hard, and I think I managed it.
‘Can I call you Grandpa Angus? And can I be a Flower Girl, Grandma? And where will we live?’
‘One at a time, little one,’ Angus said. ‘I’d love to be called Grandpa. I’ve no grandchildren of my own so I’d love to have you. Grandpa Angus sounds good!’
‘And you can both be Flower Girls, with new dresses,’ Grandma said. She turned to Angus and said, ‘Where will we live once we’re wed. I’d never thought of leaving Callanish but I’ll come to Uig if you wish.’
‘No Rose. With Amy in service and Mary in school over here, I’ll come and join you in your cosy round cottage. I’ve got to like it over the past months. Callanish will suit me just fine.’ And he put his arm around Grandma and she smiled up at him, safe within his arms.