by Shane Strachan
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It had been nearly six years since Diane had last seen the Lerwick postmark on a letter addressed to her. When she picked the letter up off her welcome mat she felt her body stiffen and her hand grip tight on the cream envelope. In a daze, she walked through her lobby to the kitchen and put her mail down on the table next to the other envelopes she’d been given throughout the week: her birthday cards. She started opening them. Most so far had ‘40’ on the front but some gave her other names like ‘Cousin’ and ‘Friend’. She knew fine well what the one in the cream envelope would name her.
For her twenty-first birthday she’d received a fancy camera with a lens you could twist to focus and a flash on the top. Its strap pulled at her neck as she walked from the car park at Cruden Bay beach along the cliffs towards Slain’s Castle, her tripod tucked under her arm.
The ruin was built right on the cliff edge, eighty feet above the coarse sea that whipped and frothed against the cliff face. In the low morning sun, the castle’s brick glowed orange – just the amount of light Diane had hoped for. She wanted to capture the ruin in the best way possible for a fundraising calendar she was making for her kirk called, ‘The Beauty of God’s Earth’. She would put a caption below the picture, maybe that bit from the hymn she liked that went, On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.
Some of the kirk folk didn’t like it out here – the mention of Slain’s made you think of Dracula and Stoker, orra stories by an orra man that were surely ungodly. And folk had fallen off the cliff edge, plummeted down towards their deaths on the jagged rocks below. When it wasn’t a bairn, they’d say it was probably some fool taking their own life – a mortifying sin if ever there was one.
After taking a few pictures of the castle at a distance, Diane decided to head inside the ruin. She was glad it wasn’t raining considering the roof had been stripped decades before, leaving just a hollow shell. The grass was thinner inside and the dubby ground sucked at her trainers. Voices rose up from the darkness of one of the cellar stairwells nearby and a wand of torchlight beamed up the steps. She scurried away before whoever was down there had the chance to emerge.
She set up the tripod so that it faced a rectangular opening in the wall where a window had once looked out onto the North Sea. Through the viewfinder, she could see that the sea’s horizon split across the opening at exactly halfway. Once the spool was wound, she pushed hard on the shutter button.
Dat in feth! someone shouted beside her. She turned away from the camera and saw an aul mannie scuttling towards her with his arms outstretched. Kat! Fancy seeing du here da day.
She backed away from him and he dropped his arms to his sides.
Sorry, I think you’ve got the wrang person. She tried to smile.
Du canna drah a strae afore my nose and tell me it’s a docken, Kat dear, he said, his white hair fluttering in the sea breeze.
I dinna understand fit ye’r saying, sorry. Ma name’s nae Kat.
Oh, whaar du fae? he asked with a flushed face.
Peterheid, she said.
Oh, sorry ma dear. Just a mix up, ken. You’ve bonnie auburn hair like a girl I ken up in Shetland. He walked away, but was quick to glance back at her as though he still didn’t quite believe her.
Aye, she forced a laugh. Nae bother.
She shrugged off the encounter and returned to taking pictures of the castle. The sky gradually clouded over and darkened. Fearing it might rain, she rushed outside the ruin and got some photos in the colder light before hurrying back to her car.
On her twenty-third birthday a green envelope fell through her door with the address of her flat written in a well-rounded hand she didn’t recognise. She left it until last, opening the cards from her mam and dad, her church friends and her co-workers at the bridal shop. The Lerwick postmark on the pale-green envelope confused her. Who did she know in Shetland? She tore open the seal and pulled out the glittery, floral-print card. It read, On your birthday, Sister. Somebody was pulling her leg. She opened the card and a letter fell out onto the floor. The inlay of the card read,
I hope this finds you well.
She picked the letter up and unfolded it; flecks of glitter flew into the air. The sentences seemed to melt into one another on the page and spoke to her in a havering tangle. None of it made sense – something about Diane’s dad meeting Kathryn’s mother when he was the skipper of the Asphodel, about a romance between them, and then him never landing in Lerwick again after she fell pregnant with their daughter. Kathryn had managed to get a hold of a phone book when she’d last visited the northeast and found the flat address for a Diane Milne. She couldn’t help but write to her. Would you write back to the address at the top? It would be good to meet some time to get to know you.
There must have been a mistake. Diane’s father would never have gone nearhand another woman. He was a kind man who adored her mother, who barely drank and was gweed living – never out the kirk. Kathryn’s mother had misinformed her daughter, surely. Or she was probably sending these letters for some scam to get money. There maybe wasn’t any Kathryn at all.
Diane put the card and letter back in the envelope and crushed it deep into the bin. Her hands felt unclean after touching against the seal that had been licked by a lying tongue. She scrubbed them in the kitchen basin and drained the dirty water down the sink.
There wasn’t another letter until Diane’s twenty-seventh birthday. She was engaged to be married in a few weeks to a man called Paul who she’d met at church. He was from Aberdeen and had started working as a G.P. at the clinic in Peterhead a couple of years before. He looked a bit of a swot with his thick glasses and small jaw, but Diane found him handsome all the same. He was kind, like her father, and she felt at peace around him. She liked how they could talk through their excitement and fears over marriage, over having bairns, and even having sex for the first time once they were married. Paul had never tried to force anything earlier like she feared a man might. He’d always respected the firmness of her beliefs and had taken to reading more of the Bible for his own sake. He’d even found a fitting reading for their wedding which she swapped with one of her original choices. It fair pleased her mam when Diane read it to her. Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm for love is as strong as death, … its flames are flames of fire, a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, nor can the floods drown it.
Paul came round to her flat early on her birthday and was anxious for her to open his card. She felt a lump inside the envelope as she tore the seal open. The lump fell out onto her lap – a key to their first home together. She rushed around the kitchen table and bosied into her fiancé.
When she finally let go, he told her to head back to bed – he’d make her breakfast. He handed her the birthday cards he’d accidentally stood on when he’d let himself into the flat that morning.
Snug under the blankets, she opened and read through her cards in a sleepy daze. When she opened one that read ‘Sister’ on the front she sat up. She checked the envelope and saw that it had the Lerwick postmark. After hastily unfolding the letter that was tucked away inside, she started reading through it as quickly as she could.
Who’s it from? Paul asked in her doorway. He was holding a tray with her breakfast and a pot of tea. She slotted the Sister card under the pile of opened envelopes.
Just a chum fae school. Nae heard fae her in a filie. It was good o her to write to ma though.
Oh right. Cool, he smiled. He put the tray down on her bed and left the room to go clear up the kitchen.
She went back to reading the letter. Kathryn asked to meet her in Aberdeen the following week. She said that they could maybe talk through the past and take it from there if Diane was comfortable with it – whatever she wanted. At the end of the letter she’d written a postscript saying she knew it was Diane’s birthday because it was the same date as when her mother had last spoken to their dad twenty-three years before. He’d bought a knitted toy of a Shetland pony to take home to his daughter for her third birthday.
Diane crumpled up the letter and threw it into her wicker-basket bin in the corner of the room.
The following week, she didn’t set foot outside of Peterhead. She spent her time packing up her flat and prepared to move on.
There was another card on Diane’s thirtieth. She put it in a drawer unopened and ignored it for most of the rest of that year. She and Paul were trying for a baby and she needed to focus all her attention on making it happen. Paul was always busy or tired after work, and most of Diane’s efforts involved coming up with ways to persuade him they should have sex without coming across lascivious. Whenever it worked, they became an awkward, fumbling mess in their bed, never quite in sync with one another. Sometimes Paul would complain she was squashing him with her weight or girn about cramp in his leg before abandoning the whole thing altogether. Since their wedding night, they could only have tried it twenty times at most – she felt fortunate if he even went so far as to kiss her goodnight.
When her period was late by a couple of days one month she rushed to the pharmacist to buy a pregnancy test and hunted out the nearest public toilet. She squatted over the toilet bowl, making sure not to touch the seat as she peed on the stick. After a few minutes of pacing back and fore beside the sinks, she finally caved and looked at the test. Negative. She went back to the shop and bought two more for the future. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, continue steadfast in prayer.
She couldn’t sleep that night and decided to have a clear-out of their study. She went through all the files, binning documents that didn’t matter any more, and ripping up useless bits of paper to use as scrap for writing her to-do lists on. In one drawer, she came across the card with the Lerwick postmark in between a pile of folders. She opened it. This time there was no letter hidden away inside. It was just a card wishing her a happy thirtieth from someone who called her sister.
In her thirty-second year, her dad had an affair with a waitress at the teahouse her parents owned in town. Her mam had caught him in the kitchen afterhours buckled over the young quine as she lay on her back moaning. Helpless at the sight, she threw a steel pan at him. It split the back of his head open and caused him to head-butt the waitress in the eye. That night, she left the house they’d brought Diane up in and stayed in Paul and Diane’s spare room.
Diane sat on a cold leather computer chair as her mam lay in bed.
That snake, her mam kept repeating as her veiny hands trembled. Nithing but a snake.
Diane was too scared to ask whether she was referring to her dad or the waitress.
The next morning, her mam returned home to her dad and no more was said. The quine never came back to the café and soon left Peterhead altogether.
For a couple of weeks after the incident, Diane would return from her dinner hour to the bridal shop and the other staff would halt their claiking and fall silent. She’d rearrange dresses on a rail until some new conversation started up. Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth. Soon enough, things returned to some kind of normal.
Not long after her thirty-third birthday, Diane bought over the bridal shop and re-launched it to a packed crowd. It was a good distraction from her failed attempts to get pregnant – they’d drained her of all energy and hope over the past three years.
A few weeks after the re-launch, while she was sitting in her office trying to set the shop up online, the phone rang. It was Paul calling from his work. After a long pause where she could only hear his strained breaths down the phone line, he finally explained what was wrong: they’d found cancer in her mam’s gallbladder. Advanced. She didn’t have much time.
He was right – two weeks later, with Diane sat at her bedside, her mam died.
In the following months, Diane’s dad was completely lost. He davered around the house, unsure of what to do with himself. Diane visited him more than she ever had before and no matter how many times she cleaned his house, there seemed to be a persistent film of stew. One night his chip pan went up in flames and the fire brigade had to come put it out, and a few weeks later, he gave himself food poisoning from uncooked meat. Letters heaped up in his front porch – he hadn’t dealt with a bill for the house or the tearoom in his life. He didn’t understand the workings of the business, either on paper or in action, and lost his temper with the staff whenever he set foot in the place. The only time he’d ever properly worked was aboard his boat before he’d had to sell it at the start of the nineties. With the money from the sale of the trawler he’d bought the tearoom, but it was his wife’s dream, not his. Unable to keep either the house or the tearoom under control, he decided to put both up for sale.
One still summer’s night, Diane sat with her dad at his bay window watching small waves furl on the bay across from his house. Breaking the silence, Diane explained she had some news for him and made him wait until she’d made a pot of tea before saying any more.
So fit is’t? he asked once she’d filled their cups.
Well, I can finally let ye ken a secret, she laughed. I’m expecting – ye’r gan to be a granda the start o next year.
Oh, that’s the best news I’ve heen in ages ma quine, he murmured. He fell into a silence and looked back out at the sea for some time. Choked up, he turned to her and said, Yer mither’ll be fair chuffed so she will.
Diane nodded. After a while of talking about his golf and the football, she worked her way towards telling him that she would like to buy his house – she couldn’t imagine any bairns running around in the rooms she grew up in other than her own. Without much discussion, he agreed to the sale.
She celebrated her thirty-fourth birthday in this new and former home. Her dad gave her a cheque for her present that had a large share of the money from the sale of the tearoom written across it, and Paul gave her an ornament of a couple embracing a child. The best gift she received was the first kick from her unborn daughter. Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward.
A few months after she’d moved house, a loon she half-recognised came to her door.
Diane? Sorry to bother ye but there’s some mail here that’s came through oor door since ye moved oot. Sorry I didna get it to ye ony sooner. He handed her a pile of six letters and she thanked him.
Sitting down at the kitchen table, she opened the letters one at a time. The first four were junk mail: cleaning products and clothing companies. The fifth was a statement for a credit card she’d already paid off but had forgotten to change the address for. The last was from Kathryn.
This time there was no card. Just a letter. The handwriting was more scrappy than it had ever been before – Kathryn was angry at being neglected by Diane. If she didn’t respond this time, Kathryn would track down her and her dad. Maybe Kathryn’s mother hadn’t bothered to seek him out for maintenance when she was growing up, but that didn’t mean she should sit back from now on and watch as Diane got everything handed to her. She’d seen the tearoom up for sale online – that had surely made you all a pretty penny. Her mother had told her to forget about you, told her she was letting it rule and ruin her life, but she wouldn’t give up on you. Please just write back.
Along with the credit card statement, Diane put Kathryn’s letter through the shredder and stuffed the strips of paper down the bottom of her recycling box.
Forty was a funny age. It had crept up on her, almost unnoticed. Compared to when she turned thirty, the sense of time passing her by was less intense, or maybe less scary – there were more important things to worry about than age.
There was the constant threat of her kirk closing. She was always fundraising to help keep it afloat: she sold fine pieces at galas, set up donation sites online and contacted churches further north for help. She couldn’t bear to think that it might become a nightclub like the ones in Aberdeen. The fear drove her to keep fighting the Lord’s cause.
Her dad had been one of the first to stop coming along to the meeting a couple of years before. Soon after, he left Peterhead and moved into a house in Inverurie with the besom he’d had an affair with in the tearoom. Diane hadn’t been in touch with him since but, last she’d heard, his bidie-in had fallen pregnant. It angered her to think of him fathering a bairn in his sixties when she herself would soon be unable to bear any more.
On top of this, Paul rarely went to church now. She felt numb whenever she had to attend a service alone, but she couldn’t do much about it – over the past few years, he’d fallen into black moods that would last for weeks at a time. When they first started, she’d tried to cheer him up by cooking fine meals for him and taking him out on runs in the car, but now she found it easier to bide out of his road and wait for it to pass. He’d taken to sleeping in the spare room – she snored too loudly through the night, he said. She recorded herself sleeping a couple of times and heard nothing but the ghosts of her faint breaths.
She thought that his moods were maybe caused by his fears for Demi, their wee quinie. She’d been born with a rare condition they hadn’t spotted at first. As well as always smiling up at them, when she still hadn’t uttered a word at two-and-a-half-years old, Paul had come to the realisation that she had Angelman Syndrome. He’d explained to Diane that it was a neuro-genetic disorder that meant Demi would develop slowly, that she might never learn to say anything, that she’d probably suffer seizures, that her constant smiling was part of the syndrome. Initially Diane had tried to excuse it: the baby was just a happy bairn and it didn’t matter that she was slow at learning to speak – lots of infants were. But then the seizures started and she had to come to terms with the truth.
Demi rarely slept for more than four hours each night and so neither did Diane unless Paul was off work and willing to take a turn. And throughout the day, as well as cooking three meals and cleaning the house from one end to the other, Diane spent hours helping Demi learn. Demi could say one word – bosie. Whenever she uttered it, Diane swiftly picked her up and held her tight. The rest of her communication was restricted to the small amount of sign language she’d learned so far. She was only five, and would hopefully learn plenty more yet.
Diane opened her fortieth-birthday card from her daughter. It said she was the best mam in the world and it had two kisses below Demi’s name. Paul had written it in a childish, jagged hand.
The card from him was attached to a wrapped box that he’d left lying out before he headed to work that morning. She opened the present – a pair of shoes she’d picked out herself online. The card read, ‘To my dearest Wife’ on the front and had a poem printed inside about memories shared throughout the years. He hadn’t written her name, but had written, Love Paul, at the bottom with two kisses.
There was a card from the minister and his wife that read, In Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them. There was also a card from Lorraine, the assistant manager at her shop. She’d written, From Lorraine and all the shop quines. They’d given her a bracelet with two charms attached to it: one a cross and the other a dove.
She picked up the last envelope and read the date in the middle of the circular postmark. It had been posted three days before. This time, the seal was sellotaped shut. She took her time peeling the tape so that no paper tore off with it. The card inside was cream like the envelope. There was a photograph on the front of it, a portrait of some quine that looked like Diane might have a few years ago; she had the same long auburn hair and thin-lipped smile. Above the picture it read, In Loving Memory of Kathryn Galdie, and then the dates, 14th April 1975 – 19th October 2011. Beneath the picture was the date of the funeral service, just two weeks before, and the name of the chapel where it had taken place. There were two hymns printed inside. Diane read a verse from the one she recognised:
Grant to little children
Visions bright of thee,
Guard the sailors tossing
On the deep blue sea.
She closed the card flat. Printed on the back in slanting script it read, Kathryn’s family thank you for attending today.
She wondered who had posted this all the way from that island. She pictured a woman a fair bit older than her heading down a brae – wind blasted at her face and swept up her hair as she marched towards a post office with this card gripped tight in her hand and a fire within her so strong it could set the envelope alight.
Diane got up from the kitchen table and headed through to Demi’s bedroom – her daughter lay in bed watching a film. Taking deep breaths, she crouched down to put a rain jacket on over Demi’s pyjamas and stretched a woollen hat over her wee red curls. She stood up and spotted a stuffed toy of a pony on a shelf facing her. Its wool had once been white all over but had faded to a dull grey across the decades of Diane’s life. She picked the pony up and carried it out of the room.
Back in the kitchen she binned the toy, making sure it was buried under the opened envelopes. She sifted her phone book out of a drawer and looked up an address under Milne. On a fresh envelope, she wrote it down before placing the card from Kathryn’s memorial service inside.
With Demi in her arms and the sealed and stamped envelope in her jacket pocket, she stepped outside into the early November drizzle. There were no cars out on the road. The only sounds were the patter of rain on her hood and the babble of the drains as rainwater poured in.
She came to the small red postbox on the corner of the street. The next collection would be in three hours. She took the envelope out her pocket and quickly slipped it through the postbox before the rain could smudge the address written across it. Tomorrow in Inverurie, a man she barely knew would receive her gift.
She started walking back towards her home, still holding on tight to Demi with her tiring arms. In her head, she prayed to God to never have to let Demi go before she herself was with Him. At the end she uttered out loud, In the name of Jesus, amen, and her daughter turned and smiled.
Shane Strachan’s work has appeared in Stand, Gutter, New Writing Scotland, Northwords Now, Causeway/Cabhsair, Freight’s LGBT anthology Out There, and many more publications. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Aberdeen after creating a short story collection related to the decline of the fishing industry in the Northeast of Scotland. He has also had theatre worked staged in Aberdeen and has led writing projects in Germany and Zimbabwe. Find out more at www.shanestrachan.com
*‘Gyurd’ is a Shetlandic Scots word meaning ‘gift’ or ‘present’. It is thought to be of Old Norse origins.
Alina Hartwig, is a freelance photographer from Germany. Since finishing secondary school two years ago, she has been making her way in the movie business and works additionally as a photographer and artist. View more of her work on Facebook and at Flickr.