Night. My mother stood on the deck of the ferry, gripping the wet rail. The ship’s endless rolling had made her feel sick and she’d told her husband to hold the baby, she needed some air. She was so tired that she didn’t feel solid; her body seemed porous, fuzzy round the edges, the night and the wind seeming to whistle through her.
The ferry was two hours into its journey. It had curved round the bulge on the eastern coast of Scotland, up past Peterhead and Fraserburgh, and now was breaking free, into the North Sea, gathering speed and momentum like an avalanche, the ocean tumbling over and over itself, bearing her ceaselessly towards her strange new life. My mother, watching the lights of land recede into the blackness, thought briefly, wildly, of climbing over the railings, flinging herself into the churning water.
When I was six years old, we saw a dead Orca on the beach. We’d been driving down there for a picnic - it was as warm as Unst ever got, which still meant jeans and a cardigan - and my Dad had slowed down, pointing at the slick black shape on the sand. My mother said “don’t, Joshua, why are we stopping,” but he stopped, and got out of the car, and I got out too. We went down to look at it. It was bloated and stinking; some of its ribs were poking out, yellowish-white like old teeth, its blubber spilling out like mattress stuffing. We looked at it, until I didn’t want to look any more, and then we walked back to the car, my mother’s face pale behind the windscreen. We’d driven to a different beach to have our picnic - crisps, pickled onions, cheese sandwiches sweating in their tinfoil - but I couldn’t eat a thing. I still can’t stomach cheese sandwiches to this day.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My mother didn’t throw herself off the ferry, of course. She came back below deck, to her husband and sleeping daughter, and we made it to Lerwick at sunrise. Then there was a drive, in the very same pea-green Ford Escort I’d been conceived in, and then there was another ferry, and some more driving, and another ferry, and yet another drive, and by that time my mother was so drained and exhausted that she wasn’t sure if she was dreaming or not when we pulled up at the croft and my Dad shook her shoulder gently and said “here we are. Welcome home, darling.”
My mother blinked, looked at him, then out of the windscreen. Ahead of her was a white, low-slung building, stuck into a little hillside, with a slate roof and a single bare tree in front of it, its branches swept permanently horizontal by the wind. All around it, the land was empty and scrubby and brownish-green. Gulls wheeled in the sky like scraps of torn paper. And not fifty yards away, over her left shoulder, was the sea, iron-grey, biting savagely into the shore.
“Welcome home,” said my Dad again.
He wanted to carry her across the threshold, but already she felt unbalanced from the ferry; she couldn’t stomach the thought of being flipped horizontal as well. So he walked in ahead of her, and after a second or two of hesitation, she followed.
“Sit down,” Dad said, guiding Sylvia to a sagging armchair in the middle of the room. “I’ll make us some tea.” He kissed her on the head.
My mother sat down, with me in her lap. It was a very low armchair, soft and sagging, and her knees poked up in front of her chest.
She looked around her. They were in a kitchen, which also seemed to be the living room. One wall was taken up by a huge black cast-iron stove, looming darkly like some sort of animal, the words MODERN MISTRESS embossed along the front. Dad busied himself with it, squatting down, opening a little door in the front, and stuffing in scrunched-up newspaper and bits of wood from a wicker basket on the floor. Across the ceiling above the stove were strung lengths of taut rope, from which hung a couple of vests and a stained tea-towel. The walls were papered with a pattern of cabbagey roses, the floor with scuffed pink linoleum. On the mantelpiece above the stove was propped the photograph of my mother and I.
My mother looked at the photograph. She didn’t remember it being taken. She felt odd, sitting in an armchair with a baby, looking at a photograph of herself sitting in an armchair with a baby. This armchair, the one she was sitting in now, didn’t feel quite steady; her body still felt as though it was rocking with the motion of a ferry. She sat very still.
My Dad lit the fire with a long match. The flames glowed brightly, and he shut the little door, and turned a knob on the front of the stove with a squeaking sound.
“It takes a wee bit of getting used to,” he said, standing up, “but it’s great once it gets going. Cosy. Heats the whole room. And it does hot water, too - out of this.” He pointed to a little brass tap on the side. “Woodpile’s out the back,” he said. “I’ll show you later.” He looked at my mother. “Or tomorrow. You’re probably too tired now. Tomorrow.”
There were a few seconds of silence. Dad cleared his throat. He looked around the room.
“What d’you think of the wallpaper?”
My mother looked at the wallpaper.
“I put it up before I left,” he said. “Thought you might like it.”
My mother didn’t say anything.
“I mean, it might no be any good," he said. "The pattern, I mean. I’ve got no eye for things like that. But I thought, you know. You might like it.” He paused. “And the floor was cement, just bare cement,” he said, tapping the linoleum with his foot. “But I got this stuff from a shop in town. They were chucking it out. Aye, it’s a wee bit worn, but it’s better than cement.”
He waited for a second, but my mother made no sound.
He went on. “Maybe once I start this job we can save up for a proper carpet, eh? What do you think?” He paused. "Sylvia?"
My mother shut her eyes, and in a very small voice said “I’m tired.”
My Dad said "of course you are, darlin. Of course. I’m sorry." He knelt down in front of her, tried to look into her face.
“Sylvia", he said. She looked at him. “I love you."
Quietly, she said, "I love you too."
He smiled. “And I love Hannah.”
For a brief, bewildering second, my mother thought, who’s Hannah? And then he smiled down at the baby in her arms and she thought oh. Her.