Last night we’d sat amongst the gorse and thistles, high above our honeymoon cottage, and stared at a sky as black as felt and dotted with shimmering stars. Far below, when the wind carried, we heard the sea lapping at the shore and sucking pebbles rattling into the depths.
Our cottage was a mile from the southwestern tip of Mull. We’d married in Fife, driven across Scotland and taken the Cal Mac ferry. Up on deck we’d sipped sweet, steaming tea and sucked in the sea air. Maclean’s castle reflected on the smooth, mercury-like waters of the Sound of Mull. An eagle soared over gorse and rusty bracken.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Tracey said.
‘Enjoy it while you can.’
The man was wearing a sage trilby hat, with fishing flies speared in the band. He shook his head.
‘A storm’s coming in tomorrow,’ he said.
I stood on tiptoes to stare out to Iona. A golden sun shone on the water. Gnarled hawthorn trees, bent and withered in by the west wind, were still in the gentle breeze.
‘So much for the storm,’ I said.
A sheep stared at me, then carried on chewing. A waft of grilling bacon drifted from the cottage. I stepped inside, kicking my boots off.
‘Your tea’s on the table,’ Tracey said.
She cracked two eggs into the pan. They hissed and spat in the boiling oil. An S of steam rose from my mug.
‘What do you want to do then?’ I said.
‘Get out and stretch our legs.’ She spooned the eggs onto plates. ‘We should make the best of it.’
After breakfast we walked west towards the Iona ferry, past the postbox at the dip in the road and a pebble-dash house with chicken coops. We passed derelict crofts with tumbledown walls. Stones were scattered across empty fields. It was a beautiful, but lonely place. After half a mile or so we reached a church, with tilting graves and thick tufts of headland grass. The road became mud and puddle. Marsh, fenced in by wire and stone, sluiced free forcing us to walk on tiptoes in the shallows.
‘It’s not looking good,’ Tracey said.
Graphite clouds hovered. A wind was getting up.
‘Better keep an eye out.’
‘The guy on the boat’s got you worried, hasn’t he? He’s probably from somewhere like Croydon and doesn’t know the first thing about Scotch weather.’
‘Americans say Scotch. We’re a nation not a drink. Anyway, the weather’s different out here. Things change pretty quick and if you’re out here alone-‘
I rolled my eyes.
‘Aye, we’re doomed, marooned…..you’re starting to sound like Fraser from Dad’s Army.’
Just as I’d uttered the words rain spattered like needles into my face. I turned and pulled up my hood, tugging tight on the drawstring. A heavy sheet of rain – the stair-rods my grandmother always spoke of – slanted in. I sheltered my eyes and saw Tracey was blinking in the onslaught, but smiling.
‘Yeah, yeah, I know. You told me so.’
‘What,’ she shouted.
I cupped my mouth, but the words were blown back at me. I pointed at an outcrop of rock and Tracey squinted, then nodded. We ran, splashing knee-deep through puddles and thick, squelching peat until we dropped into a rock hollow sheltered from the rain.
‘Got that coffee?’ I said, ‘unless you can think of a better way of warming me up.’
Tracey handed me the flask. She smiled.
‘What were you saying about the weather, Michael Fish?’
Rivers of water ran down the slope into Waverley station. Edinburgh Castle was shrouded in thick mist. The top of the Scott Monument was barely visible. I’d wanted to see Fife, but I’d be lucky to see Jenners. My feet were cold and damp. Rain bounced off my coat and soaked my trousers at the thighs. I put my head down and ran for the National Gallery. Once inside, and shaking myself out like a sheepdog, I went downstairs in search of Scottish art. I’d seen plenty of postcards of the reverend skating, but wanted to see the painting for myself. There were vases and docks and peasant children and chubby aristocrats, but I couldn’t find the Raeburn. I was becoming frustrated when I saw William McTaggart’s The Storm.
‘That’s some storm, William,’ I said.
I checked the date on my watch and smiled. It was ten years to the day since I’d hidden among the rocks on Mull. I stared at the swirls and dabs of paint. The figures that were almost lost in the waves. The pregnant, black and bruising, threatening clouds. The titanium white dashes and flecks of paint. The white horses and the surge of energy. I closed my eyes and gripped the rock. It was damp, mossy. The lichen had the texture of a dried bath sponge. A trickle of rainwater spilled along a crack. It ran, ice cold, along my thumb and into my sleeve. I shivered. I ducked my head into my collar, turtle-like, and peered around the ledge. The wind caught me full in the face. The sea was a rage of crashing breakers and drifting foam. Lashing rain bit into the rocks and shoreline. Gale-force winds set the thick headland grass as smooth as the pile of a hearthrug. I ducked back into our refuge.
‘We could be some time,’ I said.
Tracey squeezed my hand, then drew her fingers up into her sleeves.
‘Good job I brought the Travel Scrabble then,’ she said.
Great blobs of foam floated awkwardly like giant bumble bees. When the wind dropped or changed direction they fell, speared by the dune grass.
A man coughed. I started.
‘Sorry, didn’t mean to make you jump.’
He pointed a folded coach tours brochure at the painting.
‘You could almost be there, eh?’
‘I was,’ I said.