I cannae believe it. It was only a wee accident, nobody’s fault. But here I am, back on the isle of Tiree, my home, where I'd always hoped to come back to, but this wasn't what I wanted to bring me here. And I feel a wee bit stupid, sitting, talking to a bird, but I can't talk to anybody else. And you're probably from a long way away, in all those hot countries, so I'll tell you a wee bit about here. Tiree is heaven, a living heaven. I'd probably get skelped for sayin' that, blasphemy an' all, but it's true. Where else would you get a beach, right outside your front door? And the sea at night, trickling over the sand or slamming against the rocks. You've got to respect it. The sea'll treat you how you treat it, that's the rule.
I cannae help but think back to the last time I was sittin’ here, when I was only a wee lass, when I didn’t understand.
I was hiding in this here machair, so I was, ‘cause Father was shouting. Beating with the metal an’ everything. It was Hugh he were shouting at. Pure terrifying, it was. Hugh was just going around, mindin’ nothin’ but his own wee business, as usual. Mumbling his wee tunes and walking all funny like he’s got a bent leg (my father said that’s not the only thing about him that’s bent, but I didn’t know what that meant then). He was a strange wee boy, Hugh, and he never stopped being strange as he got older.
But anyway, he was away off in the corner while Father did his metalworks. He was meant to be in the house, ‘cause Father said he was no to come out ‘under any circumstance’. He was always telling us no to do stuff ‘under any circumstances’. You knew it was serious when he said that. Like when he told me I was never to tell anybody about Hugh. Not even 'my wee pals', as he said. So I didn't.
So Father’s working away, and he didn’t see Hugh in the corner; it was quite dark. And I was there too, messing around in the sand. And along comes the lads from Vaul, shoutin' and screamin' as usual. They never wheesht, those boys. Anyway, they're comin' up the road, and they come to the door. My father's busy with his horseshoes, and he disnae see them. But they see me, an' they see Hugh. They're all standing over him, crowing, laughing like he's an animal behind a sheet of glass. I'm screamin' at them to stop, but they're no listening. And Hugh's scared, He's scared, I can see it in his eyes. He didn't mean to, he was frightened. But he wis tryin' to defend himself, and his arms were flying and his legs were kicking, and suddenly there was blood on the floor. One of the boys backed away, his hand dripping in blood, the other holding his nose. They all stopped laughing, and looked like they were about to kill him. I swear, they probably would've went for him then and there. But all this noise had caught the attention of my Father, and he was ragin'. Like a bull runnin' at a fence, he ran at those boys. They scattered, of course. Soft wee cowards. Running back down the road, too scared to look back. And once my father had seen them off, he turned to me an' Hugh. I scarpered, but Hugh wasn't quick enough. He grabbed him, and started shouting, dragging him over to the table. I didn't see what happened next, but I could certainly hear it. I didn't understand all the words, but I do remember some of them.
'Cast off from Hell.'
From what I remember, it all blew over in a few days. But I think that was the first time I realised that something about my brother wasn't quite as it should be. But, as my father told me, I kept the secret, through all my years, after going away into service on the mainland, among the gossip of the other lassies.
But now I’m here. I’m much more grown up now, a proper lady. That’s what the lads over at Vaul call me now, not running any more. And I’ll see them soon. Carryin' the coffin.
They say it was a mistake. Hugh knew the beaches like the back of his hand, every rock and every form, but in the mist at night everyone’s as blind as an old woman. Especially wee Hugh. He probably just wanted to get home. It was strange, the night he was lost. I remember my uncle, tellin' my father that we should get a party of men out, to start searching. I remember his exact words in response.
“Leave it. He’s not worth the trouble.”
My own brother, flesh and blood, not worth the trouble.
I remember my mother clutching at the box of shells. Oh, the trouble he’d go to for those silly old shells. He’d be out all day, come back starving and soaked, and my mother would be off in a flap at him for catching a chill. But now she sits in the rocking chair, back and forth, back and forth, holding that box like it’s the only thing keeping her alive.
Dr Buchannan says he probably fell, and everyone knows that the cold and all that, it’ll kill you quicker than you can count. So I hope he didn’t suffer. I hope it was quick. I hope he floated away off to Heaven like the spray off the waves, like sand in a storm. Father says that he would have gone to Hell, for being the way he was, but I never really understood that. You go to Hell for doing bad things, and the only thing Hugh had ever done was to be, well, Hugh.
Poor Hugh. Poor, wee Hugh.
Tiree - an island on the west coast of Scotland
Vaul - a place on Tiree
Machair - long grass that grows beside beaches
Wheesht - Scots word for shut up