On this page you can read the first few chapters of both my novels, beginning with my latest book, Displacement. Both are available as paperbacks and e-books on all the Amazon national websites. Click on the book cover image to purchase the book on Amazon.co.uk
The search for resolution after the upheaval of loss. A journey full of insight, forgiveness and love.
From the Scottish Hebrides to the Middle-East, Displacement is a soul-searching journey from grief to reclamation of self, and a love-story where romance and realism meet head-on.
Divorce, the death of her soldier son and estrangement from her daughter, leave Hebridean crofter, Rachel Campbell, grief-stricken, lonely and lost.
Forced retirement leaves former Edinburgh policeman Jack Baxter needing to find a new direction for his life.
When Rachel meets Jack in dramatic circumstances on a wild winter’s night on the island of Skye, a friendship develops, despite very different personalities. Gradually their feelings for each other go beyond friendship. Something neither of them feels able to admit. And it seems unlikely they’ll get the chance to because Rachel is due to leave for several months to visit family in Israel – where she aims to re-root and reroute her life.
Set against the contrasting and dramatic backdrops of the Scottish island of Skye and the contested country of Israel-Palestine, Displacement is a story of life-affirming courage and love.
Snowmelt and recent heavy rainfall meant the normally tame burn was now a forceful and rapid river. The water was up to my waist. I was stuck, held fast by the mud, trapped in darkness. The flow pushed hard against me. I no longer had the strength to free myself.
It was January on the island of Skye and the wind-chill meant the temperature was probably below zero. I no longer shivered. I didn’t feel cold. I didn’t feel anything. The ewe had stopped struggling a while ago but I kept my arms around her neck.
I’d gone out at around seven that evening to check the sheep. Bonnie, my sheepdog, was with me. It had already been dark for hours. I’d normally have been out much earlier than this, but the last of the mourners hadn’t left until around six so I’d been delayed. There’d been a wake in the hotel immediately after the burial, but a few friends and neighbours had accepted the invitation to come back to the house afterwards.
When everyone had gone, Morag helped me clear up. She offered the services of her husband Alasdair to check the animals. But I declined the offer.
Morag shook her head as she wiped down the kitchen worktop. “It’s a pity your brother isn’t staying here tonight. You shouldn’t be on your own.”
“Jonathan offered to stay. But he’s been here every night since Mum died and this was the only chance for him and Alec to have a few beers and a catch-up before he goes back. Besides I just want a hot bath and an early night. I was happy for him to go.”
There was more head shaking from Morag. “And I suppose you’ll say no to having dinner with us as well.”
“Thanks, really.” I tried a placating smile. “But I’m not hungry, not after all that tea and sandwiches. No, you’ve been a good friend, as always, but …”
“But now you want your precious privacy back, I know.” Morag spoke kindly, but I could tell she found my need to be on my own difficult to understand. “In that case,” she continued, “I think I’ll take Alasdair up on his offer to take me to see the new Bond film. It’s on in Portree. And don’t be too long outside. You look shattered. After all it’s not just been today, you’ve been looking after your mother for a long time.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what I’ll do with myself now.”
“You could try starting to live for yourself a bit more.” Morag patted my arm. I flinched at her touch. I couldn’t help it.
She appeared not to notice my discomfort. “You’ve spent your life looking after other people and, with everything that’s happened in the last few years, you deserve a bit of happiness.” She stretched her arms out towards me. “Oh, come here. You need a damn good hug.”
I let her embrace me.
As she let me go she looked at me sadly. “The old Rachel hugged people back.”
“The old Rachel!” The force and agony of my raised voice surprised us both.
I closed my eyes, put my head in my hands, pulled at my hair and took a moment to get a grip on my temper. When I could speak again, my voice was strained but quieter. “You’ve no idea what it’s like. Nobody does. Any chance of happiness died two years ago, along with the old Rachel. She’s dead and gone to Hell.”
Morag looked distraught. I knew she hadn’t meant to hurt me. I was angry because I knew she was right.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just meant it’s time you did stuff for you, got on with your life.”
“Right, that’s it,” I said. “I’m not listening to this. I’m going to check the sheep. Thanks for your help today. You can see yourself out.” I hurried out through the doorway that led from the kitchen into the side porch. I shoved my feet into my wellingtons and whistled for Bonnie. My faithful old collie looked at me reproachfully, whether it was for rousing her, or for shouting at my best friend, I don’t know. She hauled herself out of her basket by the stove and came to me.
The dark was deep, and sleety rain swirled around us. A screaming northerly blew hard and the rain felt needle-sharp on my face. I didn’t hear the sheep’s distressed bleating until I approached the bottom of the croft. I swung the torch in the direction of the sound and had to grab the fence to steady myself. The bleating was coming from the burn.
It was one of the Jacob’s shearlings, a pregnant ewe. She was submerged to her shoulders in the swirling water and not even trying to climb out. At first I tried grabbing hold of the horns and pulling hard, but to no avail.
It didn’t occur to me to get help. I told Bonnie to stay and placed the torch on the ground pointing towards the ewe. Then I slid off the bank into the shockingly cold water. It felt like minutes before the shock passed and I could breathe again. Too late, I realised my mistake. Like the ewe, I was stuck in the mud.
All I could do was try to keep both our heads above the rising water. I knew it was pointless to shout. The wind would swallow the sound and, even if it had been a quiet night, I was too far away from any of my neighbours’ houses to be heard. Bonnie barked and darted in and out of the torch’s beam. For a while she alternated barking with whimpering. Then she went quiet and the light from the torch disappeared. I could only assume she’d run off, moving the torch as she did so.
In the complete darkness, as the last of the feeling left my body, I felt sleepy. My grip on the ewe loosened. The animal must have felt my hold slacken, and with one huge kick she leapt up the banking and scrabbled to safety.
The force of the kick toppled me over and freed my feet from the mud. I fell backwards and went under. I grabbed at a boulder to prevent myself from being swept away and then I heard a voice. Was it my own? ‘Let go. Stop fighting and just let go,’ it said. And I wasn’t afraid any more. It would all be over soon and I would find some peace. I loosened my grip and let myself sink. I saw a bright light coming towards me.
I almost fell over the stupid sheep. It appeared out of nowhere as I followed the barking collie to the water’s edge. The beam of my torch picked out the woman’s face and her outstretched arm. She let go of the rock and started to slip downstream. I slid down the bank and managed to grab the hood of her jacket. I was surprised by how light she was, even in her sodden clothes. She fought against me as I dragged her from the water.
I put her over my shoulder and half jogged, half stumbled back to the holiday cottage I was renting from Morag. The dog ran by my side and followed us indoors. I set the woman down in a chair at the fireside and threw some more coal into the grate. Then I went to the bathroom and grabbed a towel. I took off my sweater and put it and the towel on the floor in front of her. I told her to get out of her wet things while I made a hot drink.
When I returned with two mugs of tea and a blanket, she was standing, looking into the fire. She rubbed half-heartedly at her hair with the towel. Her wet clothes lay in a pile on the floor. My sweater came down almost to her knees. She turned to look at me. She was slightly built and could only have been about five-foot-three. Her face was pale, her eyes large. She was obviously in shock and she looked exhausted.
I laid down what I was carrying. “Here, let me.” I took the towel from her. At first she tensed up, but she allowed me to rub her hair. As it dried I saw that she was a redhead, just a bit of grey here and there. “That’ll do,” I said, putting down the towel. “Now, get this down you. It’s hot and sweet.” I handed her a mug. I also gave her the blanket. “And wrap yourself in this.”
She took the tea and sat on the sofa. The dog followed her and sat on the floor at her feet.
I remained standing by the fire. I glanced at the woman as I sipped my tea and wondered how she’d come to be in need of rescuing. I guessed she was in her late forties or early fifties, not bad looking, even in her exhausted state. As she drank her tea, she stared into the fire. She’d tucked her legs up under her and covered herself with the blanket. From time to time she ran a hand through her hair, and the more it dried the curlier it became.
She caught me looking at her. “Thanks for the tea,” she said. “But now Bonnie and me had better leave you in peace.”
I was slightly surprised to hear her voice. She hadn’t spoken a word so far.
“No, take your time, there’s no rush. Is there someone you’d like me to call? Someone who will be wondering where you are?”
She didn’t reply. I saw her jaw tense as she looked at me.
“Maybe I should take you to the hospital, get you checked over.”
“That won’t be necessary, really, I’m fine.” She pushed the blanket aside and laid the mug on the side table. As she stood up, she staggered and grabbed the sofa arm to steady herself.
I went over to her, put my hands on her shoulders, gently sat her back down. “Oh, yes, you’re clearly fine. Half drowned, exhausted and probably hypothermic, but apart from that right as rain.” I also wondered where she thought she was going, dressed only in my sweater. I sat beside her and, taking her wrist in my hand, felt for her pulse.
She pulled her hand away. “Are you a doctor?”
“No, I’m a policeman, was a policeman, retired Detective Inspector, Lothian and Borders. I was trained in first aid in the force. I’m Jack by the way, Jack Baxter.”
“Rachel Campbell.” She met my gaze, but only briefly, her smile a mere flicker.
The dog stood up, looked from Rachel to me, gave a little bark.
“That’s a good dog you’ve got there, protective and very persistent,” I said.
Rachel just nodded.
“It was lucky I’d gone out to get some coal,” I went on. “I heard her barking. She was down at Morag and Alasdair’s place. I thought she maybe belonged to them, but there was nobody home. I tried to get her to come in here, but she kept running up the track every time I got close, until I got the message and followed her. So I just grabbed my coat and a torch and she led me straight to you.”
“Yes, Bonnie’s a good dog. I owe her, and you, of course. I owe you both. I’d no strength left.” Her voice trembled and she looked away as she finished speaking.
“Look, why don’t I get us some more tea and you can tell me how you ended up in the water. And then I’ll take you home. I take it you live close by.”
“Yes, yes I do, Burnside Cottage. And thanks, more tea would be nice.”
“Good, might even throw in some toast.” As I stood to go, I took the box of tissues from the coffee table and handed it to her. “Use as many as you like,” I said.
Next morning, I was sitting at the kitchen table having breakfast when there was a knock on the porch door and Morag walked in.
“You’re up! Mind you, I don’t know why I’m surprised. But shouldn’t you be resting after last night’s ordeal?”
“So, you’ve heard?” I picked up the teapot. “Tea?”
Morag nodded, took a mug from the dresser and sat down at the table. “Yes, I’ve heard. We were just getting back last night when we bumped into Jack on his way home from here. He told us what happened. Are you sure you’re all right? He said you refused to go to the hospital.”
“Yes, yes I’m fine. It was such a stupid thing to do. I don’t know what I was thinking of.”
“I’m glad you said it. Jack said the ewe saved herself in the end. He was very concerned for you, asked if you made a habit of being reckless.”
“I can imagine what you said about that. Who is this Jack anyway?”
“My new tenant, in the holiday let till the end of March. He contacted me a couple of weeks back and moved in a few days ago. I think I mentioned it at the time but with your mum being so ill you probably didn’t take it in.”
I shook my head.
“Anyway, I simply told him you weren’t so much reckless as stubborn. I told him how fierce you are about your independence, but not to let that put him off.”
“What? Morag, you didn’t!”
“No I didn’t, but I should have… or maybe not.” Morag looked uncomfortable.
“What? What is it?” But I knew perfectly well. “Look, I’m sorry about yesterday evening, getting all ratty with you. I know you were just trying to help. You’re a true friend. I may be independent but I couldn’t have got through all this without you.”
Morag leant across the table and squeezed my hand. “I’m sorry too. I do try to let you be. But it just seemed to me it was high time you had some happiness back in your life.”
“Yes, well, I don’t really know where to start with that one. But I do know I don’t need a man.”
Morag sat back and shook her head. “You needed someone last night, man or woman. You and your bloody independence. You could have drowned. Thank God Jack was there.”
“I’m grateful he was, too. And I know I was stupid.”
Morag smiled. “Yes you were.”
“So, what’s Jack doing here?”
“He’s bought Dun Halla Cottage, wants to do it up and use it as a holiday place for himself and his family.”
“Dun Halla? That’ll need a lot of work, it’s been empty for years.”
“Yeah, so he’s renting the holiday cottage from us for the next wee while. He only has to walk to the end of the track to keep an eye on the renovations. And he’ll be doing quite a bit himself as well, apparently.”
“Why Skye? Does he have family connections here?”
“Not that I’m aware of. But he hasn’t told me that much about himself.”
“Wise man,” I said, my turn to smile.
“All I really know is he’s fifty-six, single, as far as I can tell, newly retired from the police, seems to like Skye. He’s a good-looking guy, don’t you think?”
“Enough!” I wasn’t really annoyed. I knew she couldn’t help herself. It was habitual. Ever since I’d come back to Skye five years earlier, Morag had been trying to match-make for me. I began clearing away the breakfast things. “I need to get on. Jonathan will be here for lunch and there are the animals to feed and soup to make before he arrives.”
Morag got up too. “Yes, I better get a move on myself. You’re sure you’re okay?”
“Yes! I’m absolutely fine. I just got very stuck and very cold. I’m sorry I worried you and I’m sorry I’m such a cow sometimes. I don’t deserve you.” I decided against telling Morag how I’d almost given myself up to the dark, icy water.
“Don’t be daft. Come here.” Morag hugged me again. And for once I didn’t shrug her off. I hugged her back, quite hard.
“Hey, steady!” Morag laughed. “I wasn’t expecting that. You’re not the real Rachel Campbell, are you?”
“Ha, ha, very funny. I just wanted you to know I do appreciate you, you daft old bag. You’re the only person who gives a damn.”
“Thanks for the appreciation, but there are plenty of others who care about you. The people here in Halladale, your other friends, Jonathan, Sophie—”
“Yes, I know. Everyone’s been very kind. But with everything that’s happened, I’ve become disconnected. As for my brother, he lives halfway across the world. I’ve seen him—what?—four times in the last ten years. And my daughter didn’t even bother to attend her grandmother’s funeral. Anyway, I’m fine as I am and I’ve got you looking out for me. Now go away and let me get on.”
The rest of the morning passed quickly as I carried out all the usual crofting tasks and then got on with preparing lunch for my brother and me.
When he’d finished eating, Jonathan pushed his empty soup bowl into the middle of the table and helped himself to more bread. “Great soup, Rache, and this bread is gorgeous. I’d forgotten how tasty homemade lentil soup is.”
“I’m glad you liked it,” I replied. “The bread’s cheese and chilli, my own recipe. And the soup’s one of Mum’s, her lentil broth…” I paused, recalling all the times I’d seen my mother standing at the stove, cooking.
Jonathan gave a little laugh. “I remember what a tussle she used to have with herself about using ham stock for the soup, but that’s what Granny insisted on. No matter how much she may have denied it, her Jewish upbringing never quite left her.”
“I just hope she’s at peace wherever she is now. She certainly didn’t find it here.”
“Oh, I think she found a good measure of peace while she was here,” said Jonathan. “She made a life for herself, a good life. She and Dad, they were happy. And just look at the number of people who turned out for her funeral. She had lots of friends.”
“Yes, but there was a whole part of her, of her past and her heritage, that she just buried.”
Jonathan smiled. “Look who’s talking.” He spoke gently.
“Yeah, yeah,” I smiled back. “Look, I’ve said I’ll think about it, about coming to Israel, about exploring my Jewish roots.”
“I didn’t just mean the Jewish thing. You’ve buried all of yourself, Rachel, since Peter and the divorce. Then Finlay dying and now Mum. You should be living life to the max, not hiding away here on the croft.”
“I’m not hiding away. My marriage ended, my son died. These are facts. I can’t hide from them even if I want to. I do have a life here, my work, running the croft—”
“You don’t have the most sociable of jobs. Writing and crofting, they’re both pretty solitary. How can you be inspired if you’re shut away at home all the time? Come to Israel, reconnect, you might get some fresh ideas. Travel broadens the mind and all that.”
I shook my head. “I write kids’ books and draw the pictures. It’s not literature. I don’t really think my mind needs broadening to come up with my next animal adventure book.”
Jonathan grinned. “So, maybe your next book could be about Camilla the Camel and Gertie the Goat. Come and do some research. I dare you, live a little, get your life back.”
I gave a little gasp. “Have you been talking to Morag?” Jonathan looked embarrassed. “You have, haven’t you? You two have been talking about me.”
“Might have been,” Jonathan smiled an uneasy smile. “I met her this morning on my way here. She was walking along the track when I was driving up. I stopped to say hello. Well, actually, she flagged me down.”
“She told me about last night, Rache, you in the burn. She thought you probably wouldn’t tell me. She was right wasn’t she?”
“I’d have got round to it.” I glanced at my brother, caught his sceptical look. “Okay, probably not. But there was no harm done. There was no point in telling you.”
“Rachel, you could have died. You could have drowned or frozen. If that guy, Morag’s tenant hadn’t been at home, well…”
Again I suppressed the memory of how I’d been prepared to give in, to let fate take me. “But he was at home and I’m fine. It was a stupid thing to do. I should never have gone into the water. I know that. Now can we change the subject?”
But Jonathan wasn’t finished.
“Morag’s worried about you, and not just after yesterday. She wanted to make sure I’d be here tonight. She says you’ve been getting more and more distant in the last year, thinks you’re a bit depressed and that Mum dying might be the last straw for you.”
“Last straw!” I thumped both hands down on the table as I got to my feet. I turned away from Jonathan, went to the sink, gripped its edge, rocking slightly as I looked, unseeing out of the window. I spun round to face my brother. “My son, my Finlay,” I stopped, letting the pain come. I stared up at the ceiling, breathing, keeping the anger and emotion under control. “My son being blown to bits, thousands of miles from home, that was the last straw. My life was over that day. Mum dying, that was a release for us both. She was tired out, in pain. I—we wanted it to end. And now it has and I’m glad. I’m glad. All right? I’m glad.” I sank to the floor, my head in my hands, determined not to cry.
Jonathan was instantly beside me, cradling me, soothing me. Sometime later we sat side by side on the sofa, Jonathan with his arm round me and me with my head on his shoulder.
“Rache, I’m so sorry, not just for not being here last night, but not being there for you through it all.” He kissed the top of my head.
I took his hand. “Don’t be sorry. You’ve come when it mattered. Scotland isn’t your home anymore. And I wanted to be on my own last night. Although I didn’t plan the dip in the burn. It was good that you had some time with Alec. He was your best friend once. And as for the divorce, I’m over Peter, the lying, cheating bastard.”
Jonathan laughed. “That’s my girl.”
“And with Mum, like I said, it was time. Her heart was failing. It made her so tired. The doctors thought she’d have longer, that’s why I didn’t call you. But in the end I think she just decided to go, here at home in her own bed.” I blew my nose and then nestled into my brother’s side again. “She actually spoke some German that last day, the first time in seventy years. She was very dopey with all the medication. She seemed to be talking to her parents and her sister. Not about them, to them. She looked happy.”
“That’s good, we can be grateful for that at least.” Jonathan squeezed my hand.
I sighed. “And, as for losing Finlay, no one could help me with that. There is no help, no peace. It’s there all the time, eating away, no matter what I’m doing or who I’m with. People expect me to have moved on. They’ve stopped talking about him—even Morag. It’s like he never existed.” I shuddered and Jonathan stroked my hair.
“I’m sure people think they’re being kind. They’re probably all too aware of your loss, of the fact Finlay existed. He was a great lad, Rachel. He died doing a job he loved. But you’re right, how can a parent ever get over losing a child? I can’t imagine it’s possible. But you’re allowed to live. Finlay would want you to enjoy your life.”
I looked up at him. “I’m glad you’re here now. I wish you didn’t have to leave tomorrow. It’s so nice having you to talk to, face to face, to be with family.”
“So come to Israel. Spend time with me, with your niece and nephew, get to know Deb. Get to know that other part of yourself.”
The next day, as I stood at the sink, peeling too many potatoes for my evening meal, I felt very alone. It was just after six and it had already been dark for an hour or so. Jonathan was gone. He left first thing for Glasgow airport. I glanced at my watch. He’d be a couple of hours into his flight. The only sounds in the kitchen were the ticking of the clock and Bonnie snoring in her basket by the Aga.
The previous afternoon Jonathan had suggested he help me begin the task of going through some of our mother’s belongings, so we’d brought various boxes and bags downstairs to the living-room and set to work. Each object was a marker of our mother’s life and each brought a smile, a gasp, or a memory.
There were all the photos documenting her life from primary school in Glasgow to old age in Skye. There were a few pieces of jewellery, her nursing diploma and a bundle of letters. Judging by the addresses on the envelopes, the letters had been exchanged between our parents when Dad was away at sea.
“I don’t know what to do with these,” I said, cradling the bundle. “It wouldn’t be right to throw them away. I so want to read them, but don’t know if I should.”
Jonathan laid down the pile of photos he was looking through. “We’ll read them,” he said. “We’ll read them right now.”
“How can we be brother and sister? You’re so decisive, and me, I’m such a ditherer.” I untied the faded blue, satin ribbon that had bound the letters together for decades.
And as the already failing afternoon light turned to darkness and the coal burned low and fell through the grate, my brother and I sat side by side on our parents’ old sofa and read the letters they’d exchanged before either of us was born. The thin white paper and faded ink added to the feeling of preciousness as I held each one. I ran my fingers along the lines of their writing. I tried to imagine them, my parents, as they would have been. My mother, small and neat, her black hair pinned up, her pretty face smooth and unlined, her expression intense. My dad, his red hair curly and unruly, just like mine, his prickly beard and gentle eyes. The smell of his Old Spice aftershave, his big, capable hands, his quiet voice.
Dad’s letters came from all over the world. He described ports from the Arctic to the Mediterranean and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He described spectacular storms that pulled the bow of the ship so far down that he and his crewmates feared it would never resurface. And he described days of wide, flat blue in the sky and the sea. He told stories of fellow sailors, of being on watch and he asked for news of home and the croft. He finished every letter by telling my mother he missed her and signed off with the words ‘your loving husband’.
Mum’s letters were quite matter-of-fact. She told Dad about the sheep and about prices at the mart. She told him news of neighbours, friends and relations. There were accounts of her days working at the hospital. The endings to her letters mirrored Dad’s exactly.
And when Dad wrote home during his time in Korean waters, when war was raging there, the letters between them were calm and reassuring.
It was that very calmness and understatement that made the letters so special. Their words reflected our parents’ personalities. They were quietly loving and underpinned by formidable strength.
“Wow,” Jonathan said when we’d finished reading. “These letters, they bring Mum and Dad back to life somehow.”
I tied the ribbon around them and stroked the top of the bundle with my thumb. “I miss their grounded, sensible way of looking at things. I could do with some of their strength. They were always so reassuring.”
Jonathan put his hand on mine. “I think you have their strength inside you, Rachel. You’re one of the most grounded people I know.”
“I’m not so sure,” I said.
“It’s funny to think of them like they were back then, that they had a life, before we came along.”
“Yeah, they were only ever Mum and Dad to us.”
We sat in silence for a moment, each of us thinking, remembering.
As I put the letters and other things back in their boxes, Jonathan resumed looking through the photos. A little later he sighed, a long low sigh. “It brings it home to you, what she went through, when you look at these pictures.”
“How do you mean?”
“No photos from before the war. No photos of Mum up to the age of eight—not a baby photo, nothing of her parents or sister. She was lucky to escape, I know. But to be the sole survivor…”
Again for a moment or two, we were silenced, contemplating the ghastliness of this miraculous truth.
It was me who spoke first. “I miss her, Jonny. She wasn’t easy to live with sometimes, but I miss her already. She was so brave, so resilient. She helped me to stay strong.”
“Yes, she was certainly brave, but it could be a bit hard to live up to, all that stoicism. And she was so resolute about having nothing to do with Judaism and Israel. I know she felt I let her down by leaving.”
“No, she didn’t think that, really she didn’t. I think she was very proud of your decision to emigrate, proud of your reasons. She wouldn’t—couldn’t—go herself, but you only had to hear her telling her friends about you to know how proud she was. She was just too stubborn to admit it to you.”
“Really? I wish she’d told me. I know Dad understood, but Mum… she just wouldn’t talk about it and now it’s too late.” Jonathan wiped away a single tear with the back of his hand.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to set you off.”
“Don’t be daft.” He squeezed my hand. “Right,” he said, clearing his throat. “Where were we?” He picked up the photos he’d been looking through. “I’ve sorted out some pictures I’d like to keep, if that’s okay. And if you’re sure about Mum’s silver bracelet, I know Mari will love it.”
“Of course I’m sure. Mari should have something of her grandmother’s. I thought I might get her some earrings to go with it, you know, for her bat-mitzvah.”
“That’s a lovely idea. It would be even lovelier if you delivered them in person.” Jonathan pretended to cringe in fear as he spoke.
I swiped him on the arm, but I couldn’t help smiling at his persistence. “Stop it, please! Enough pressure.”
“Okay, okay!” Jonathan raised his hands in submission. He turned his attention back to Mum’s stuff. “Just this left to look at,” he said, as he leant over to pick up a small, brown leather case. “Are you up to it? Do it now and then I think we’ll both have earned a drink.”
“Yes, let’s do it. And then mine’s a double.”
The leather was scratched and tattered. Jonathan ran his fingers over the lid before snapping the catches and opening it. I realised I was holding my breath. We’d always known the case existed—we’d been fascinated by it. Our mother kept it on the top shelf of the cupboard in her bedroom, but we’d never been allowed to see inside it.
And now, we were looking at our mother’s seventy-five year old secret hoard. On the top of the pile was a doll. Jonathan handed it to me. I held it as if it was a newborn. It had a china head and a soft body. I stroked its thin and matted blond hair, traced the painted features of its pretty rosy-cheeked, blue-eyed face, examined its beautifully sewn red velvet coat and bonnet, felt the tiny, chipped black shoes. I nestled the doll in one arm while we looked at the other contents of the case.
Jonathan gave a little gasp as he turned over a six inch square piece of card. It bore the number 338. “This must have been her transport number.” He stroked it with his thumb and then passed it to me.
“And what’s this?” He took an envelope from the case.
I put the card on the coffee table and watched as Jonathan turned the envelope over. He held it up for me to see. It had been opened before—the flap was tucked in. Handwritten on the front of it, in faded ink, was one word—Miriam—our mother’s name.
“Open it,” I said.
The envelope contained a letter and a black and white photo. We looked at it together—silently, reverently.
It showed a man, a woman and two girls. The adults looked solemn and were formally dressed, the man in a suit, the woman in a mid-calf length skirt and high-necked, long-sleeved blouse, her hair pinned up. The older girl wore a flowery, summer dress. She was about fifteen or sixteen and looked shyly to one side. The younger girl, who appeared to be about seven or eight looked directly at the camera and seemed to be giggling. She too wore a summer dress and had a large bow in her hair. I studied it, studied my mother’s happy and innocent little girl face. I took the photo from Jonathan and turned it over. On the back someone had written Die Familie Weitzman 1938.
“Mum with her parents and Lottie,” I said. “Taken the year they sent her away. She had this, only this, to remember them by.”
“I wonder if her parents knew by then, when the photo was taken, if they knew what was coming.” Jonathan looked grim.
“I hope not. What does the letter say?”
“It seems to be in a mixture of German and Yiddish. It’s to Mum from her parents. They tell her how much they love her and that…” Jonathan swallowed. “And that they’ll see her soon. There’s more, but that’s about all I can translate. Here.” He gave me the letter.
And now as I recalled the previous afternoon, I sighed. My brother was already hundreds of miles away and I was alone. I looked at my sad and tired face in the dark glass of the kitchen window. I dropped the potato peeler and gave a cry of despair startling Bonnie who hauled herself up and came to my side. I wondered why I was even bothering. It wasn’t as if I was hungry.
“How did you keep going, Mum? How did you do it? Your parents and sister dead, murdered in that awful place, and you so young and alone in a foreign country.” I spoke to the empty kitchen and tried to stifle yet more tears. I crouched down and put my arms around the dog’s neck. “Oh, Bonnie, what am I going to do?”
I considered phoning Morag. But I couldn’t face the inevitable tea and sympathy and all that relentless positivity. What I really wanted was to crawl into bed and sleep for a very long time. I’d forgotten what it was like to sleep through the night—to sleep a natural, untroubled sleep. I hadn’t done that since Finlay…
I glanced again at my reflection in the window and decided that what I needed was a long, hot soak in the bath, a glass of wine and an early night with the new Kate Atkinson novel, followed by the insomniac’s friend—late night radio.
I reached up to close the blind and noticed a dot of light piercing the darkness outside. It was coming steadily closer. Someone was coming up the driveway. The sensor light switched on and I saw Jack Baxter flick off his torch and stride towards the porch door.
END OF EXTRACT
A tale of life. A poignant mix of sadness, hope and love.
Be careful what you wish for…
Wife to heart surgeon and control freak, Tom, and mother to four adolescent children, Rosie feels taken for granted as she juggles family life and her work as a teacher. She longs for a change of life.
When she hits a teenage boy with her car, her life explodes into uncharted territory. The boy is Robbie – and Rosie discovers he is part of a terrible secret that Tom has kept for seventeen years. Then Rosie is diagnosed with breast cancer.
Rosie leaves home and begins the fight for her life. Meanwhile Tom, is forced to learn what it means to be a husband and father. He struggles to keep his family together and strives to get his wife back.
I didn’t see the boy until the moment of impact. He slammed into the side of the car as I reversed out of the driveway. I got a fright – thought I’d hurt someone – but I couldn’t have guessed that this was merely a foreshock to a much greater upheaval. Ten past one, lunch time, Tuesday 17th May – it was the moment when the past caught up and collided with the present.
I got out to check he wasn’t hurt. He glanced at me and turned to run.
He was about Adam’s age, seventeen or so. There was something familiar about him. But I didn’t think I knew him. Ours was a small community and with four children of my own, I thought I knew most of the local young people – at least by sight.
“Wait, are you all right?” I caught his arm. “I’m sorry. I didn’t see you.”
He didn’t appear to be injured. He was taller than me, with untidy, dark hair and very deep brown eyes. In one ear he wore a little silver skull. I recognised his tee shirt. Adam had one just like it. It had the words ‘Subliminal Messages’ written across it – the name of a Slipknot album. As the boy pulled his arm back he seemed to hesitate.
“Do I know you?” I said. “Are you a friend of Adam’s?”
He looked me in the eyes for a moment. I stared back. Something passed between us; was it recognition? Then he bolted – obviously uninjured.
I didn’t have time to speculate about the boy. I’d only nipped home for lunch and a catch up with Ruby. I needed to get back.
I got the last space in the school car park. I was hurrying towards the main entrance when my mobile rang. I answered it as I went inside. It was the hospital. My stomach tightened.
“Hello, Mrs McAllister. This is Mr Campbell’s secretary. He’s asked me to set up an appointment for you to come and discuss your test results.”
The voice was warm, friendly even. But I still had an awful feeling of dread.
“He could see you on Thursday at three.”
“Oh, yes, right, Thursday…” My mind whirred through Thursday’s schedule. I’d need to get off early. Kirsty, my head teacher and one of my closest friends, would have to cover my class. What would I tell her? I wondered if the doctor needed to see you if it was good news. He could tell you over the phone, surely. It must mean bad news…
“So is that all right then, Thursday at three, with Mr Campbell?”
“Sorry, yes. Is it bad news do you know? I mean, why else would he be bothering?”
“You mustn’t jump to conclusions, Mrs McAllister. He’d want to see you either way. Try not to worry and we’ll see you in a couple of days.”
As the call ended, the bell rang for the start of afternoon lessons. My life went on, even as its bedrock heaved and shifted beneath me.
It’s Sunday morning. Rosie only met him on Tuesday. Is it really only a few days ago? In less than a week my life has fallen apart – no that’s wrong – it fell apart in a moment – in the time it took a boy to speak a sentence. And now my wife is leaving and my heart is broken.
It’s the 22nd of May, but it feels more like November. I’m standing at the living-room window. It’s raining and the sea and sky are slate grey, the horizon obliterated. I feel leaden, unable to move or speak; it’s the paralysis of a nightmare. I want to beg her to stay, to admit she’s being silly and overreacting.
Rosie and our nineteen year old daughter, Sam, load bags and boxes into Rosie’s car. Toby is watching them, barking occasionally. I know I should go out to her and fight to make her change her mind but I’m exhausted, I’m drowning. I’m engulfed in the aftermath of more anger than I’ve ever felt towards her.
I hear the dull thud of the boot closing. It’s done. She’s ready to go. Our younger daughter, Jenny, sprints down the driveway, jacket held above her head, and says something to Rosie. Then Max dashes from the house and hands his mother a piece of paper. She looks at it and smiles and they hug each other. She puts the paper down on the driver’s seat and closes the door. They all come back in and head for the kitchen.
Jenny calls out, “Dad, Adam, coffee.”
A few moments later I hear Adam coming downstairs and going along to the kitchen. I know he’s not happy about his mother leaving, but at least he’s able to join the others for a coffee before she goes.
I make it to the sofa. I find that I want to cry. This terrifies me. I struggle not to lose my grip, not to howl and kick and scream. I’m Tom McAllister, consultant heart surgeon – professional, practical, in control. Or so I thought. I didn’t intend any of this to happen. I’m helpless, lost. I haven’t felt this vulnerable or alone since I was a child. I find I’m rocking, curled up, my head wrapped in my arms. I force myself to sit up, to keep breathing.
When I fail to appear in the kitchen, Jenny comes to get me.
“Come on Dad, come and have a coffee. I’ve made a carrot cake and it looks scrummy, even if I say so myself. Come and say cheerio to Mum.”
“I can’t. How can you be so cheerful?”
Jenny puts her hand on my arm, “Och, Dad, she just needs a bit of a break.” She hesitates and gives my arm a squeeze. “And she needs to get over how cross she is with you.”
“So she says, Jenny. So she says – but I can’t come and say goodbye as if she was simply going away for a few days holiday. I don’t understand how she can go.”
“If we all understand, why can’t you? Even Adam’s there to say goodbye. Come and wish her well, Dad, and tell her you’ll be here waiting for her. She needs you to say that.”
I stand up and hug Jenny. Seventeen and so grown up. The children are behaving better than me. I feel even more ashamed and desperate. “I can’t do it. I can’t give any of this my blessing.”
Jenny walks away. With her long blonde hair and slight frame, she looks and moves like her mother. At the door she turns and says, “It’s not your blessing she wants.”
It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Yet it feels like the right thing. This is about my survival and I know I can’t stay. It’s a wet Sunday morning in May. The weather gives the day a heavy, washed-out feeling and it mirrors my mood perfectly. I’m sitting at the kitchen table. My children are with me.
“So, I can come and see you in two weeks?” Max asks.
“Yes, like I said, I’ll have had a good rest by then and Grandma will bring you to Edinburgh for a visit.”
“I’ll miss you, Mum.” Max puts down his glass of milk and comes to hug me. I cling to him, glad that, at twelve years old, he doesn’t yet feel too old for such displays.
“I’ll miss you too. But two weeks will pass quickly and then, in the summer holidays, you can come and stay as much as you want.”
“That’s a great picture you did for Mum, Maxy.” Jenny rubs her wee brother’s back. “You could do more for her while she’s away – like a sort of picture diary of what you’re up to – use the sketch book Uncle Dan gave you for your birthday.”
“Mm yeh, I suppose.”
“You could start now – draw us all here at the table.”
Max considers then nods. “I’ll go and get my stuff.”
I smile my gratitude at Jenny.
Sam gets up from the table. “I need to go. My shift starts at twelve.”
I get up too. “Sam,” I say, holding my arms out towards her.
She shakes her head. “I still don’t get it, Mum. I’m trying to, but I don’t. I think if you just talked to Dad, you could sort it.”
I drop my arms. I can’t look at her. Then she’s over and holding me in a tight embrace. “Go if you have to, but come back soon,” she whispers. Then she’s gone.
I know I should go too. There’s no point prolonging this. I glance at Adam. He’s staring into his coffee mug. Max comes back with his sketch book and pencils.
“How can I do my picture if Sam’s gone?”
“I better get on my way.” I smile apologetically at him.
“You can still put Mum and Sam in the picture, Max,” says Jenny. “Even if they’re not here – you’re a good enough artist.”
Max nods and lays his things on the table.
I hug Jenny. “Thanks for the making the cake, it was a lovely thought.”
She smiles. “Come on, Adam, let’s see Mum off.” Jenny places a hand on her twin brother’s shoulder. He shrugs it off.
Max takes my hand. At first Adam doesn’t move. Then he gets up and stands, hands deep in the pockets of his jeans, shoulders hunched. He’s facing me, eyes downcast.
“Bye then, Adam. I meant what I said. I’m really sorry.” I will him to look at me. He shrugs and walks past me, head down. I hear him stomping up the stairs.
As I walk down the hall with Jenny and Max, I glance at the closed living room door. I wonder if Tom will say goodbye. I wonder if I should go in. I can’t face it. The shock and anger that I’ve felt for the last few days have hardly abated. Tom has betrayed me. His secret’s out.
As I get into the car I glance back at the house. The Victorian villa’s sandstone walls are darkened by the rain. It’s been my home for nearly twenty years. I love everything about it – its seaside situation in Gullane, one of East Lothian’s prettiest villages, its large, light rooms, its period quirks and the memories we’ve made there. I shall miss it almost as much as the people inside it. I see Tom at the living room window, watching. I think he’s about to wave or beckon me back. He turns away.
The appearance of Robbie in our lives has changed everything. And on top of that I now have a dreadful secret of my own.
END OF EXTRACT
All of the above is Copyright © Anne Stormont
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