School finished early at lunchtime on the last day of term, but no one had told Mrs Wilson the peripatetic music tutor, and since she had struggled all the way over on the ferry Isobel felt she really ought to go to her flute lesson as usual. “I do feel terrible, keeping you from your holidays,” her teacher fretted while she split her instrument and tucked the pieces away neatly into their case. “But I never know how many times I’ll be able to make the crossing in January and February with the winter storms, and I’d hate you to fall behind.”
It meant that by the time Isobel got to the school hall there was only one parcel for the old folks left, with the headmistress standing next to it seeming more than a little put out.
“Ah, there you are,” she said distractedly as she stuffed the marking she had been getting on with into her tapestry bag. “I was worried you weren’t coming.”
“No, I had a flute lesson,” Isobel said apologetically, adding as a sweetener: “I’m trying to keep up as many activities as I can for my UCAS form.”
“Mmm, well, yes,” muttered the headmistress, not meeting her eye. She was searching through her bag for her car keys. Isobel crossed to the table that had been set up in the middle of the room to look at the address scrawled on the outside of the cardboard box. Her heart sank. It was for the lone cottage far off at the end of the Black Loch, one of the most remote on the island. She should have skipped her lesson after all.
“You’d better get moving, or you won’t make it while the light lasts,” the headmistress ordered as she shouldered her bag. She obviously couldn’t wait to get away from the school herself.
“It’s alright, I’ve lights on my bike,” said Isobel, lifting the box and shifting it to rest on her outstretched forearms. It wasn’t too heavy.
“Oh, you’re going on your bike?” The headmistress paused, biting her lip. “Will you be able to manage that box?” She discreetly tucked away her own car keys as she spoke.
“It’ll be fine. I’ve got a basket.”
“You won’t be able to manage your instrument as well, though,” said the headmistress briskly, slipping the flute case from Isobel’s shoulder and setting it down on the now-empty table. “Better to leave it here. It’ll come to no harm. I’m locking up as I go.”
“What about practice?” asked Isobel, but she was being bustled to the door and waved on as the headmistress wrestled with her key ring. Never mind. The caretaker would probably be around tomorrow, and Imogen reckoned she could charm him into letting her in to collect it. And if not, it wasn’t as if she was going to get much practice done over the holidays anyway. Not with what she had planned.
The air that hit her as she walked out of the school was crisp and sharp, but not overwhelming. She was going to have to do that irritating compromise with her scarf as she cycled, ensuring her throat wasn’t numbed as she panted up the hills but enduring a steamy neck and sweat trickling down her back and chest. And her winter coat was far too warm to wear for cycling at all, but too warm not to when she was doing anything else. First world problems, she reminded herself as she dumped the charity box on top of her bike’s wicker basket. But she was already looking forward to a long hot soak in the tub when she got home after this: it was her traditional start to the Christmas holidays. The rest of her family, who had just the one loo in the house, weren’t quite as keen on the custom.
The box, annoyingly, was too corner-y to sit tight in the cut off oval of the bike’s basket, and she realised she was going to have to cycle with a balancing hand on it whenever she was going round corners or up hills. She briefly tugged it open – the flaps had just been tucked into one another – to see if she could get away with rearranging its contents in the basket itself, but the thought of handing them over one by one seemed measly. These few cans and packets might be the only thing the poor old lady got to unwrap this year.
Instead, she shoved the box as firmly down into the basket as it would go – one of the sides crumpled a bit, but she could push that back out again before handing it over – and pedalled out through the school gates, pleased to find it balanced fine as long as she remembered what she was doing. The headmistress’s car was the only one left in the car park. Isobel had a feeling she was watching from inside to make sure she had left before she drove away herself, and wondered if she would have to take the long way home to avoid overtaking her and having to pretend not to see her.
She followed the north road out of the town. The school, a 1960s replacement for the Academy that still stood on the High Street but had long since turned into the tourist office and library, was on the outskirts, so the few straggling bungalows were soon behind her and she was out in open countryside, rolling moorland on either side of the one-track road and no one to be seen but the odd sheep hunkered down on the verges or in the meagre shelter offered by the few rocks that broke the surface of the grass. She could hear nothing but the sound of the wind, which had already turned the right side of her face to ice, and the calls of the hooded crows she occasionally saw hopping about in the heather and squabbling over the few scraps they could salvage in these depths of the year.
The sky was still bright, or at least white. She’d started off full of confidence that she could make her delivery and be back before dark, but as her thighs started to burn as she struggled up the first hill on the route she realised she’d been overambitious. With a start she remembered that this must be the shortest day.
Still, as she’d told the headmistress, she had her lights, and there was very little traffic on the north road, with only a few farms – and of course, Black Loch Cottage – to go to. Her mother worried about drunk drivers at this time of year, but she could see for miles on most of the route, and would easily be able to pull over to the verge if she saw headlights coming.
It was satisfying to reach the peak and pause at a spot she still couldn’t help thinking of as the top of the world. The moors stretched off to the east, rolling down to the jagged coastline where she could just make out white rollers breaking and fizzing onto the barely paler beach. To the west the land stopped even more abruptly, ragged barbed wire marking the point beyond which only sheep and suicides should venture, and then there was just a great nothingness all the way down to where the vastness of the Atlantic filled the distance. The shapes the teeming currents drew on its surface never ceased to amaze her; it was as if half a dozen oceans met were tangling in an endless battle around the island’s shores. Her grandmother used to say that on a clear summer’s day you could stand here and gaze on four kingdoms, but that only worked if you let the Kingdom of Heaven be one of them, which Isobel always felt was cheating. Today the haze of winter dampness meant nowhere at all was visible beyond the island’s shores. They stood alone.
She shook off such gloomy thoughts – she missed her granny at Christmas most of all – in favour of a more thrilling form of nostalgia as, steadying the box in the basket, she began to freewheel down the other side of the hill. She and her sisters had done this a million times when they were little, hurtling down at what felt like light speed, screeches of part-terror, part joy trailing out behind them all the way. Sometimes they dared any tourist children who were staying on the island to join in, jeering and cajoling until they either gave in or sloped off, sobbing, back to their families. Only once had it ended in disaster, when a boy – she didn’t think she had ever known his name, but he had an English accent – came off at the turn at the bottom where the road twisted to skirt the dark plantation tucked into the foot of the valley. He had ripped an impressive amount of skin from his legs when they got down to him, but insisted he was ok to walk back up even though he quite obviously wasn’t. “You can cry if you want,” Isobel remembered assuring him helpfully. He turned out – when one of his friends had been sent to fetch his dad from the caravan site – to have broken his kneecap. Isobel and her sisters felt a bit guilty, but mostly disappointed that he didn’t need the helicopter ambulance but just got taken off on the ferry instead.
Afterwards she wasn’t sure which came first: this memory surfacing in her mind or registering the icy patch where the trees began to throw such shadows on the road that daylight never touched it at this time of year. All was confusion for a moment – she squeezed instinctively at her brakes, but she was using one hand to steady the box so only one, thankfully the back one, locked on. The bike skidded, the box began to topple, she stretched out a leg to try to stop herself from tumbling and felt her ankle twist and the cold black surface of the road coming up to meet her.
She took the worst of the blow on her right leg and shoulder. It was lucky she had abandoned her flute: its box was flimsy and the instrument, which belonged to the school, might have been badly damaged. Instead only she was, she thought grumpily as she pushed herself up into a sitting position. Her shoulder and the top of her arm hurt, although her winter coat had cushioned the worst of the blow. Her thick woollen stockings – uniform ones, that she wasn’t obliged to wear in the sixth form, but by god they kept the cold out – hadn’t done quite as effective a job. The right one was torn and laddered from ankle to knee, revealing a leg that was bleeding quite badly and pitted with black grit and dirt. It hurt like fury.
“Bollocks.” The road felt cold and damp on her bottom despite the thickness of her coat, but she didn’t feel quite up to standing yet. Instead she satisfied herself with a few more yelled expletives. What was the point of being in the middle of nowhere if you couldn’t swear at the top of your lungs?
She disturbed something in the plantation, and peered round to squint into the darkness between its neatly-serried rows of trees and try to see what it was. The spruces, so pillared and separate at their bases, netted their higher branches together so thoroughly that neither light nor rain could penetrate, and she could see only a few dozen yards into the interior. As kids they had always been intrigued by the dry softness of the forest floor, creeping in just as far as its perimeters to run their fingers through the carpet of soft orange needles and point out to each other the alarming fungi that spurted amongst the roots or jutted from the trunks like ladder rungs. She had heard her father say the plantation was filled with alien species, and though she knew now he meant the Scandinavian spruces that the Forestry Commission had imported as the only species capable of withstanding conditions on the island, as a kid she was convinced it was these freakish growths that had somehow descended from outer space to take up residence there.
She couldn’t see what it was that was moving. She thought she could still hear a muted rustling and cracking somewhere in there, but it was probably just a deer, or even a bird. It had given her quite a start, but no doubt it was more frightened of her than she should be of it.
Although… another memory came swimming to the front of her mind, of another summer bike outing, when she and her screaming sisters had had to pedal for dear life to get away from a great black dog that erupted from nowhere and chased them down this road, its hot breath, it felt, right on their heels. That was years ago though. The dog was probably dead by now, and it had almost certainly been a visitor anyway. No islander would be stupid enough to leave a dog roaming loose with sheep grazing. Anyway, that hadn’t been here. Come to think of it, it had been further down the road, by the Black Loch, where she was headed now. They had actually dared each other to cycle as far as what someone had told them, or they might have just told each other, she couldn’t remember, was a witch’s cottage. She suspected they might even have been planning to go up and knock on the door and run away. Nasty. Anyway, they never made it – the dog intervened, and scared them so badly they had never cycled so far down the road again – and hopefully her charitable mission today would make up for their cruel intentions then.
Although it wasn’t going to be quite as nice a gesture as she had intended, given that her crash had burst the box open and scattered its contents all over the road. She hauled herself to her feet, giving her leg a perfunctory brush down and looking forward to her hot bath even more, and began to gather the stuff together. A packet of Angel Delight had flopped into a puddle and was probably beyond rescuing, and a couple of the tins – one beans, one soup – had been dented out of shape. She pocketed the pudding and packed the tins back in at the back of the box hemmed in by things that had survived better. They would still taste the same, she assured herself. Only as she revolved the bean tin round so the kink in its side was less obvious she suddenly noticed that the best-before date stamped on its top was the previous year. Her heart sank. How horrible. Everyone at the school had been asked to donate for the Old Folk’s collection, and she and her mum had gone out and bought stuff specially. Someone had obviously just emptied out their cupboards of everything that was stale and out of date, figuring that that poor pensioners should be grateful for it. How out of order was that?
She thought she had better check the rest of the contents, too. To her horror, the diabetic jam and the pasta sauce had gone off the previous year as well. One of the tins of tomatoes had a best before nearly three years ago. It was awful!
For a moment she thought about calling her mum, and asking her to take the car out the Co-op and pick up a whole new selection – she would pay for it herself out of her Christmas money – but you couldn’t get a phone signal at this end of the island, and besides, her mum had sounded quite crotchety that morning when she had tentatively raised the prospect of a lift, telling Isobel that she had all manner of Christmas preparations to be getting on with and she was 16 now and shouldn’t take things on if she wasn’t prepared to see them through. She had been in a foul mood that morning, although she obviously felt guilty about it because when Isobel called from the door to say she was leaving for school her mother came rushing through from the kitchen and wrapped her into a bear hug, kissing her hair and muttering “goodbye love, I’m sorry,” over and over again. And when she pulled away, she actually had tears in her eyes. She’d been funny like this a lot lately. Isobel wondered if it was the menopause.
She supposed she could head back into town herself and buy new stuff, but that would probably take an hour or more, and the old woman had presumably been told to expect her that afternoon. She might not like opening her door to strangers after dark. Isobel’s granny never had, putting the chain on at dusk and telling anyone who would listen that “nothing good ever crossed a threshold after sundown.” No, there was nothing for it but to press on, and make her apologies when she got there. Does stuff in tins really go off anyway? She couldn’t really see how. It would probably be ok.
She set off again, wobbling slightly unsteadily on a bike she no longer totally trusted. She couldn’t help casting sidelong glances into the plantation as she pedalled along. She had always enjoyed the optical illusion where the long avenues between the trees rearranged themselves into different formations as you passed, flipping from organic chaos to regimented straightness and back again. Now, though, all she had eyes for was brief glimpses of what might or might not be movement deep in their shadows.
Her right leg smarted every time she pushed down on the pedal. She looked down, and saw that the blood was still flowing and had started to blot across her stockings. That was all she needed. She had shaved and plucked and taken every other possible precaution to look good for Billy on their first time together, and now she was going to have to ruin the moment when she stripped off by revealing a great gash in her leg. She supposed for a moment she could just keep her tights rolled down, but dismissed the thought. That wasn’t the sort of scene she had in mind at all. She wanted everything to be perfect.
They planned to head over to the mainland on the day after Boxing Day under the excuse of sales shopping. Billy had booked them a hotel. It was only one of the budget ones, but he’d been able to do it online, and they were both prepared to face down any funny looks they got on reception. They couldn’t say anything anyway. Billy was 17, and he looked even older now he had stopped trying to grow a beard. And what they were doing was perfectly legal. (Actually, Billy’s friend Jamie said that some of those hotels had automated check-in, which is what they were secretly hoping for). They had decided to buy the condoms on the mainland too. You could supposedly get them from the nurse in school if you made an appointment, and there was Boots too obviously, but both of those carried too much chance of embarrassment and gossip. It was a very small island they lived on.
She lost herself in thoughts of Billy as the trees receded behind her and she struggled up the second, thankfully not quite as steep hill. Of how he had looked in his board shorts that summer, when they had spent day after day on the beach. Of the way that his nipples hardened and stood out like little pink cake decorations when he came out of the water, and when she had pointed it out he had laughed and demanded, half-jokingly, to know if hers did the same, and she had shown him. Of the 18th birthday party on one of the farms where they had slipped off into one of the barns for more than an hour and it had felt like they might actually – but then they had been interrupted by some idiot coming in and throwing up everywhere.
She’d been going to keep their plan a secret, but in the end she couldn’t help confiding in her mum. They’d always been close, and it felt right to (although obviously she spared her the gory details). Mum had gone quiet for a bit, and dabbed at her eyes, and then given her a hug and said she was just being silly and she always knew this day would come but she could hardly believe her little girl had grown up so fast. That night when dad came home mum shut herself up in the lounge with him, which was a bit alarming, but when Isobel came down from doing her homework he just grunted at her over the top of his mug of tea and didn’t say anything, although she thought she had caught him looking at her in a funny way a few times in the days that followed. Still, she translated this as her parents having given if not quite their approval, their acceptance of what was going to happen, although she thought it might be pushing it to put some sexy new underwear on her Christmas list. She might have to actually go to the sales on the mainland for that. And if it was too expensive, she had spent plenty of time working out which matching bits she already had which would do.
She reached the summit and caught her first glimpse of her destination, the tiny cottage a grey mark on the far bank of the loch that filled the bowl of the valley beneath her. The hills to the west rose high, their long shadows falling right across the water’s surface. It was thick peat that darkened the loch and gave it its name, but the low winter sun rendered it literal. Not a reed broke the water’s surface, barely a ripple disturbed it; it lay like a dark mirror reflecting an impassive sky. Isobel shivered, and not just from the cold wind that had sought her out again as she crested the peak. She had remembered something else her granny had liked to say: that the reason no fish swam in the Black Loch, and no child ever should either, was that it had no bottom and went “all the way down to hell and the de’il.”
She knew really it was just a clever old woman’s way of keeping them safely away from deep water – if she’d issued a flat out ban, they’d have been in their costumes on the bank within minutes – but right now, with the sun sinking colourlessly behind the hills and the darkness seeming to ooze out beyond the loch’s banks and spread inkily over the landscape around it, it felt all too easy to believe.
She shook the thought from her head and, more cautious on this descent, rode on down to the water’s edge, keeping her gaze focussed on the cottage which was already beginning to fade into the encroaching gloom. It stopped her from turning to look at the road behind her and check it was empty, an impulse she had been fighting for several miles now.
The wind had vanished now that she was down in the valley. There were no birds any more either. All she could hear was the lapping of the water at the edge of the loch, tiny waves throwing themselves out at the narrow shore only to be endlessly sucked back into the black depths.
She paused for a moment to switch her bike lights on, for comfort as much for safety. Maybe the old lady would be looking out of her window and see them as she wobbled towards her, and know she had not been forgotten. Isobel began to picture her throwing open the door delightedly with open arms and inviting her in to her fireside to for a warming drink to fortify her against her journey home; in her fantasy she had her own grandmother’s face. She knew it was hardly likely. The whole point of this exercise was to help those who had barely enough food for themselves; if she was offered as much as a cup of tea, she was probably ethically obliged to turn it down. And besides, she had seen enough of the cottage before it was swallowed up by the darkness to make out that there were no lights on, or smoke coming from the chimney. The poor woman might not even be able to afford to switch her heating on.
Imagine living out here, beyond the edge of everything. Doubly removed, as if the island was not isolation enough itself. An exile within an exile. Isobel loved the island in the fierce way that all those born there had to, loved it at least by daylight and summer when a constant stream of visitors arrived to remind you of its beauties anew and bring reassurance too that there was a real world out there beyond its shores. But she felt just as strongly within herself that her future lay on the mainland. For as long as she could remember every picture she had of her grown-up self – an Isobel with longer and mysteriously straighter hair, who wore less-is-more make-up and clothes that weren’t compromise buys from the few online places that offered off-shore delivery – was of a resident of the mainland, with all the comforts and opportunities those born there took for granted. But it was a truth she had only finally spoken out loud at the parents’ evening that term, when the headmistress sat her mum and dad down to talk through her higher education options and started pulling out leaflets for remote learning modules, and Isobel had interrupted the adults’ cosy exchange about the things technology had made possible these days to say no, she wanted to apply to universities on the mainland and she had even researched which course. She would never forget the dismay on her dad’s face, though she was surprised to see the headmistress giving her the same look.
Of course Isobel knew why, she had heard all the worried talk over the years about how the island would die if its young folk kept moving away. But she had watched it happen, too – Suzie McAllister, in the year above her, so glamorous with her hockey-player’s legs, and Bridie McAllan the year before, head girl but gone before the school year was even out, never to return for as much as a visit – and if anything, the island was thriving. Life went on in the same old ways. There were still fish in the sea, and sheep on the moors, and kids being born and filing their way through the gates of the primary school year after year as sure as spring came round and the flowers bloomed on the machair again and again. In fact, life was so much better than in her grandmother’s day, when the winter storms used to cut the island off for months at a time, the boats hauled up uselessly on the beach and rats in the stores and children taking sick and just wasting away in the cold and the darkness. But with her grandmother gone, no one seemed to speak of those days any more. Just as, for all their fears for the future, no one ever seemed to mention the girls that had gone ever again.
She had arrived at the end of the water. The cottage was ahead of her, barely there in the gloom. A rorschach blot of once-white wall was all that showed through a mess of dark ivy clutching both garden and house in a choking grasp. No lights burned in the windows. It looked as if no one was living there. It looked as if no one living had been there for a very long time.
Isobel dismounted onto legs that were trembling not just from the exertion of the ride. She leant her bike against a mass of greenery from which a few rusty spikes of railing protruded like ribs, twisting its handlebars so that her front lamp would light her way up the mossy path to the front door. All she could hear was the lapping of the water at the edge of the loch. She slid the Christmas offering from its basket.
It was only as she reached the door and stretched out a gloved hand to rap on its peeling surface that she glanced down at the box and realised the address had no name with it. She didn’t know who she was meant to be delivering to. She had no idea who might be waiting inside.
The morning after the winter solstice was clear and bright, but the headmistress had lived on the island all her life and knew that blue skies could be fleeting and you must grab a chance to use the sunlight when you had it. She roused her husband and the two of them were out of the house before any of their grandchildren had even awoken.
They drove in silence, seeing few people, and fewer people chose to see them. The town’s two constables, parked up in their panda car near the school on an early patrol, gave them a nod of acknowledgement as they passed. Part way up the north road, just before the plantation, they had to pull over to allow a tractor to pass, and while the driver, whose family had been farming on the island for ten generations, raised a hand in thanks he was careful not to meet either of their eyes.
Outside the cottage they realised they should have put down the seats of the Volvo ready for Isobel’s bike, and there was a brief row, in hushed voices, about this. The headmistress left her husband hurriedly sorting it out while she scurried up the path, her eyes sweeping from side to side, carefully not glancing up at the door of the building. She spotted the box half-buried in the greenery to the right of the step. The ivy looked as if it had already made a start on smothering it.
Once they were safely back on the other side of the loch and speeding back towards the town, the bike rattling in the back as the front light spilled the last of its battery power uselessly up at the car’s roof, the headmistress prised the soggy cardboard open and did a quick inventory of its contents. A couple of the tins had somehow got battered out of shape and would have to be replaced. And the box itself was clearly beyond further use. But everything else would do for at least another year.