Read An Island Apart Online

Authors: Lillian Beckwith

An Island Apart

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Contents

Lillian Beckwith

An Island Apart

Lillian Beckwith

Lillian Comber wrote fiction and non-fiction for both adults and children under the pseudonym Lillian Beckwith. She is best known for her series of comic novels based on her time living on a croft in the Scottish Hebrides.

Beckwith was born in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, in 1916, where her father ran a grocery shop. The shop provided the background for her memoir
About My Father's Business
, a child's eye view of a 1920s family. She moved to the Isle of Skye with her husband in 1942, and began writing fiction after moving to the Isle of Man with her family twenty years later. She also completed a cookery book,
Secrets from a Crofter's Kitchen
(Arrow, 1976).

Since her death, Beckwith's novel
A Shine of Rainbows
has been made into a film starring Aidan Quinn and Connie Nielsen, which in 2009 won ‘Best Feature' awards at the Heartland and Chicago Children's Film Festivals.

Dedication

For Geoff and Grace, with love

Vocabulary

A chiali mo chridhe
Beag (Bek)
Bheinn
Cailleach (Kalyak)
Ceilidh (Kayley)
Ciamar a tha? (Camera how?)
He fooar (Hay-foo-ar)
Mho ghaoil (Moh gool)
Mhor (More)
Oidhche mhath (Oykee va)
Prapach (Prapak)
Slainthe mhath! (Slanjy va!)
Strupach (Stroopak)

my dearest dear
small
wife
old woman (the wife)
a meeting for gossip and song
how are you?
it is cold
my dear
big
good night
a small pile of hay
good health!
a cup of tea and a bite to eat

Chapter One

The light from the street lamps was veiled by a heavy, wind-harried drizzle intermixed with sleety warnings of impending snow. The city pavements were slushy beneath the feet of jaded shoppers and homegoing workers who, with faces crumpled into scowls of resentment against the weather, scurried to catch transport to their destinations before the increasing wind should urge the snow to launch a full attack.

Amidst the crowds two figures, a man and a woman, could be singled out in sharp relief. They neither hurried nor jostled but paced composedly side by side; their shoulders were not hunched; their faces were not crumpled into scowls but rather lifted unconcernedly to face the drizzle. They neither conversed nor exchanged a perceptible glance and though they were plainly together their attitude was one of separateness, as if it were obligatory they should keep a prearranged distance between them so creating the impression that they were as indifferent to each other as they appeared to be to the harshness of the weather.

The stocky figure of the man looked cosily enough clad in a thick homespun jacket which gave the appearance of being only bedewed by the drizzle as did his deerstalker hat pulled well down over his forehead. His ungloved hands seemed to hover tentatively in the region of his jacket pockets as if resisting their offered protection; his sturdy lace boots trod the pavement with the confident gait of the born countryman.

The woman, slightly shorter and only a little less stocky than the man, carried a tightly furled umbrella under her arm despite the fact that her macintosh had draped itself in a browbeaten way around her figure as if signalling that it was no longer able to repel the unremitting drizzle. Her black cloche hat had tightened and shrunk away from the auburn hair which patently it had been designed to confine; her lisle stockings, liberally splashed with pavement slush clung wetly to the calves of her legs while the limpness of her worn brogues betrayed the fact that they had not adequately protected her feet.

Evidently not seeking any kind of transport the couple walked on, leaving the clang and bustle of the city streets for the less hurried and more muted noise of the suburbs. Skirting the entrance to a gloomy park with its attendant stone clad statues they crossed a short thoroughfare where a cinema, a fish and chip shop and a public house were showing signs of stirring themselves to welcome the evening's patrons while at the same time most of the daytime traders were dousing their lights and closing their shop doors to discourage further custom.

Beyond the thoroughfare the road ended almost abruptly in a quiet avenue lined on either side by tall trees whose winter-bare branches only partly screened long terraces of substantial houses, once the homes of well-to-do citizens but long since converted into boarding houses and flats, small private schools and offices. As the couple were about to turn into the avenue the man slowed his pace and touching the woman's sleeve, murmured interrogatively.

She paused only to give a nod of assent and immediately he retraced his steps in the direction from which they had come. The woman carried on but as if the small diversion had brought to her attention the fact that the rain had eased off and the houses gave more shelter from the wind she carefully unfurled her umbrella, raised it above her head and continued along the avenue.

When she reached the entrance to a house which bore the name
ISLAY
in gold lettering on the dimly-lit fanlight she mounted the six stone steps and producing a key from her pocket, inserted it into the door lock and entered the vestibule where she took off her soaked macintosh and her hat and hung them on one of the stout wooden hooks. She did not take off her gloves. Shaking her umbrella gently – it was not very wet – she looked dubiously at the umbrella stand as if debating with herself whether or not she should leave it there. The umbrella was recently acquired and was a very special gift and she intended to take good care of it. She was not going to let Isabel even set eyes on it if she could help it, she told herself. Isabel had no compunction about borrowing anything she fancied nor about the state of the thing when she returned it.

Deciding to take the umbrella up to her room she opened the door into the hallway to be assailed, as she had expected to be by the appetising smell of steak and kidney pudding. She experienced a surge of relief. Everything appeared to be in order. Not, she reminded herself, that there was much that could go wrong with a well-prepared steak and kidney pudding. Though rightly her half day off-duty should have started at two o'clock she had stayed on not only to prepare the pudding but also to bake a plum tart in readiness for the evening meal and because she reckoned that the best steak and kidney puddings needed slow gentle cooking she had set the pan to simmer before she had gone out, reassuring herself that short of an unlikely gas failure there was virtually nothing anyone could do to ruin it. Not even Isabel, she reflected, her mouth tightening grimly at the thought.

She was about to climb the stairs up to her room when she was hailed by a shout from the kitchen. ‘Is that you, Kirsty?'

‘It is myself,' she responded.

A door at the far end of the passage was flung open to reveal a glimpse of a clean but dowdy kitchen from which the tempting smell was wafting more deliciously into the hallway. A tall angular woman stood in the doorway wiping her hands on a towel. ‘Thank the Lord you're back. I was praying the rain would drive you back early so you'd be in time to help me,' the woman greeted Kirsty fretfully before turning to re-enter the kitchen.

Kirsty rested her umbrella against the banister hoping Isabel was too distraught to have noticed it and followed her into the kitchen where Mac, Isabel's husband was slouched in an armchair, his face covered by a newspaper, his stockinged feet splayed out as if to deliberately trip the unwary.

‘Is anything wrong, Isabel?' Kirsty asked with only a pretence of surprise. In her experience nothing ever seemed to go right for Isabel.

‘Wrong? Just about everything's gone wrong,' wailed Isabel. ‘For a start I booked in three extra guests only an hour or two ago. A couple and their son and now that wretched Meggy hasn't turned up. I tell you I'm in such a bourac I don't know which way to turn next.'

‘Why would you be in a bourac? The meal must be almost ready and after that's cleared away you have only to pop the hot water bottles into the beds and take the guests their evening tea and biscuits and then the evening will be free,' Kirsty reproved her mildly. She was accustomed to Isabel's imagined bouracs.

‘Didn't I tell you there'll be three extra mouths to feed?' Isabel demanded.

‘I don't see that as being a worry,' retorted Kirsty. ‘There's plenty of steak and kidney pudding and also plenty of plum tart to fill three extra mouths without anyone having to go short. You know I always err on the generous side.'

‘Too much,' sniffed Isabel. ‘But the point I'm making is that there are no potatoes peeled nor carrots either.'

‘That's only to be expected. It is Meggy's job to see to the vegetables when she comes,' Kirsty told her calmly.

‘But she hasn't come in,' Isabel snapped.

Kirsty dated a quick glance at the kitchen clock. ‘She's certainly late,' she allowed. ‘But supposing she doesn't turn up at all there is still plenty of time for you to peel the potatoes and prepare the carrots ready for the evening meal,' she soothed.

Isabel confronted her, hands on hips and eyes lit with anger. ‘Me? Peel potatoes when you're here to do it. If Meggy's not here then it's your job.'

‘No, not on my half day off,' Kirsty corrected. ‘And really, Isabel, you can't pretend you have all that much to do even without Meggy,' she reasoned.

‘You can just forget about your half day off and see to those vegetables,' Isabel ordered irascibly. Turning quickly she tripped over her husband's feet and stumbled against the corner of the dresser. Kirsty did not move. ‘Don't just stand there like a log of wood,' Isabel berated as she rubbed at her arm. ‘Just go and get changed and put on an overall. You're not paid to watch me work.'

Kirsty's chin rose fractionally. ‘And you can mend your manners,' she told Isabel in a tight voice. ‘I am not used to being spoken to in such a way and you will please not speak to me ever again like that.'