In scenes of sadness and in joy, I have watched the Hebrides come and go on many occasion. I have left and arrived under such a myriad of circumstances now, that living on the islands has sometimes represented the scenes of a stuffy church fair tombola; my hands anxiously fanning all the tickets out to make sure the possibility of having the winning number is not missed. Then of course you need the winning colour, but this is another set of thoughts entirely. I have left as the rising sun has split open the sky with light, like a freshly cracked egg broken for the Lord’s breakfast and I have arrived on a winter’s night drowning me in the ink from a writer’s nib. There have been tickets for relocation, tickets for adventure and tickets won in urgency and desperation. Once I even left via coastguard, another air ambulance, alone, but for the clutching hands of a well loved midwife. So many times I have watched as only a few slithers of black rock have been left to blot the surrounding waters, the ocean simply too deep, leaving nothing but water meeting sky, blue meeting blue.
With my hands now clutching the smoothly painted iron railings made cold by the wind, I observed those around me. Granted we were on the early boat but even so with the current climate it was empty in comparison to summers I knew. Still, there were one or two unknown faces to view. I have always loved watching tourists. I love watching them take pictures, I love watching them drink it all in. Perhaps, I enjoy it so because I have never lost that appreciation myself and so having that in common I can understand the emotions going on inside of them. Which, I have come to understand is a rarity for me. Peering over, the water beneath gushed out from under the boat like hot frothy milk as the engines roared into motion. The loud automated announcement delivered various safety messages in various languages whilst below the crew pulled up the large snack-like rope holding the boat to shore. As the tongue of the ferry rose to the rhyme of a beeping alarm. Port Ellen slowly grew smaller, its fishermen’s cottages turning into matchboxes creating a make-believe village as if from a child’s crafting hand.
To my left the lighthouse uniquely shaped like a telephone box protruded out into the water. After this I saw the slither of gold named the Singing Sands; a beach which when the wind blows through it, which is often, sings due to its high level of quartz. Soon I, growing larger, made the land grow smaller. The island now but an insignificant smudge in a large bowl of aqua. As the mountains faded into shadows I remembered an occasion on which I’d left before. A different ferry, a different island, packed in the height of season as holiday makers headed home. I distinctly remember wondering if they could tell I wasn’t headed home but leaving it. As I anxiously fanned a one way ticket in my hand, my number and colour, the unexpected parish win.
Hitting the motorway, the pace of island life disintegrated to a laughing figment of the imagination. The inside of the car hummed from the sound of the traffic around it, as vehicles weaved in and out creating an angry swarm of mechanical wasps. Everyone seemingly placed upon a child’s electric race track where upon pulling the car back the wheels build up energy until – PING – the mechanical matchbox is lost in a mechanical chaos. That’s how driving on the mainland feels when you’ve been on island time. Suddenly there’s roundabouts and traffic lights, all telling you to wait, go, stop. The only traffic system we have on Islay are the sheep, they are very efficient though, in their own way, if not a little aloof. Squeezed in between two car seats so that Bea could sit in the front I looked out of either window into the vast tangled jungle of concrete and colour. My brain felt like it was rattling around in a tin can; squeezing my eyes shut with ultra force I willed for the pressure applied to keep it still. To my left huge cruise ships sat docked, unused due to the pandemic, as a large plane landed in the distance. To my right huge buildings grew upwards, breaking up the skyline with harsh right angles as glaring planes of glass trapped the sun within them. I saw hundreds of shiny new cars glinting in the sun, all waiting with a smile to be picked by the next desiring consumer. Advertisements and signs sat at all heights but I struggled to read them. Everywhere I spotted the numbers twenty four, the one that made me gasp was the twenty four hour gym.
‘Chris! There’s a twenty four hour gym! A gym you can go to at 2am!’.
‘Yeah I know’, his voice, holding a lot less astonishment replied.
‘Does that not blow your mind?’ I asked, ‘It does mine, I forget this all exists! Can you imagine having that on Islay, who would use it?’.
‘The deer?’ he replied ‘Their nocturnal’.
Often, I am asked ‘What’s the biggest culture shock when moving to the islands?’. ‘Oh, leaving’ I say, ‘Going back’. Going back to the mainland is hard, like being in a nightclub from which you’ve decided you want to depart but you can’t find the exit. Suddenly you’ve had enough, the partys over – at least for you and the flashing lights which once seemed so alluring are now just offensive and the heat of other people’s dancing bodies close to yours which at first had seemed such fun makes you want to run. I have gone through a lot of running shoes, nightclubs I learnt were not for me.
The air B&B in which we stayed had a large set of glass sliding doors and situated just outside the city, I could see the lights burning amber as the sky swam the world in a thick black treacle all around. I could see no heaven crafted stars, only man made light. I watched a heavy stream of car headlamps steadily dripping off a distant corner, whilst high rise flats gave an illuminated stairway to the stars. I couldn’t sleep, it was 2am and so I turned my reflection from the window to the modern glossed cabinets of the kitchen. Flicking the switch of the kettle until ending it’s comforting rumble it switched back at me in a teenage like defiance, I wondered how many people were at the gym. Grabbing a pen and paper I did what I knew to be my own middle of the night workout and wrote a list of all the tasks we needed to complete as the day wore on. Hospital appointments needed to be attended, followed by taking the results to the opticians to view. A little practicality of island life that people often overlook – it isn’t always practical. This would take up the morning and so we could stop at Mcdonalds for lunch. Then we could stock up on the cheaper nappies and wipes at Aldi, before going to Tesco to buy new wellington’s for school. The list went on, until with the last of the tea I padded back to stand at the full length window, and watched as the city joined in on my insomnia, or maybe I was joining it? Until, having exhausted all paths of debate we watched the sunrise together, before making a date to meet again. Same time, same place; she was always up for a dance.
‘Don’t forget the sweet and sour sauce!’ I directed for my second Mcdonalds of the trip. Getting a McDonalds drive-through is a real treat when visiting the mainland, with the sweet and sour sauce served in the small rectangular containers being an integral component in the mainland experience of it. Bea, Noah and Elizabeth had Happy Meals, Chris had a Big Mac meal and I ordered a McChicken meal with extra sweet and sauce sauce, plus anything else anybody was prepared to offer me. Ordinary experiences such as these have become a real novelty. We don’t have drive-through fast food such as McDonalds on Islay because, well, nothing about island life is particularly fast. There is not an endless disposal of convenient choice and I prefer it that way. Choice, I have come to believe, is overrated.
‘This is all shampoo Chris’, I proclaimed, standing mid way on an aisle in the enormous Tesco ‘Extra’. ‘Tesco Extra’ was an understatement, ‘Tesco Everything’, I felt would have been a little more apt.
‘Who needs this much choice of shampoo Chris?’.
Scanning the copious bottles up and down and back again, I was unable to pick. Too much choice had rendered me choice-less. In the small cooperative available to me 20 minutes from the house, I simply picked the brand they had in stock, or not, if the ferry had not sailed. Of course I have been in supermarkets before. I have, of course, experienced the mainland countless times before – daily. This however is of little help, to me anyway, as the reality of mainland and its twenty four hour existence fades to nothingness when you go back to looking at the watch ticking island time.
As Bea scanned the horizon, every so often her face would catch the sun’s glittering presence on the water’s surface, so that for a moment her eyes were filled with a bank of silver sun pennies. The deck of the returning ferry was quiet but for the two of us. Although calm sailing the wind still blew a fresh minty breeze, making itself known by teasing each strand of hair on Beas head, so that they danced around the frame of her face in excitement. Sitting down, she pushed her wellington clad feat into a cross legged position, mesmerized by the sparkles of water running along the side of the boat.
‘Mum! They’re chasing us!’ Bea shouted. As the water trapping the sun bounced small pebbles of light along the surface. ‘Wait!’, they seemed to say, ‘Don’t go! We want to get on, we need to come too!’.
‘Don’t worry Bea’ I replied, ‘We’ll meet them when we get there’.
Sailing up the Sound of Jura, the two islands created a clear passage of homecoming. The mainland back to being a hazy set of ideas, as if just in time, I had travelled back down Enid Blyton’s faraway tree. The land of noise and colour moving on, leaving me to question if it had ever existed at all. With Islay on the left and Jura holding the right, mountains loomed all around. Small strips of untouched beaches dipped in and out of the lands edge like scalloped lace on a brides veil. Every so often a remote bothy nestled into the barren landscape would appear, whilst small flocks of sheep stood out like little flecks of bog cotton. Looking out the sea was filled with silver specs of light as if the whole ocean had become the scaled iridescent body of a mackerel. It was beautiful and I drank it all in, content in the knowledge that the mainland and its twenty four hour time frame was for someone else’s picture. I thought of what a privilege it was to do so, in adding another arrival home to my hebridean memory bank.
As the pebbled light danced by the side of the boat, I thought of what a privilege it has been to trace the ferry with my fingertips from the sky and raise my face to the heavens above with the wind burning my cheeks pink. I have watched the motorways of Glasgow’s city blister in the night; a burning river of sulphur, as I alone clutched a newborn baby and I have watched as the pale morning light has opened up the horizon until only a change in hue separated earth from heaven. I have pushed my face in defiance against the wind and have watched as the sea became a bank of a thousand pennies with a single deposit from the sun. I have laughed, I have smiled, I have cried; always grasping the called ticket from the church tombola, even if I was praying not to win. Reader, I have always returned. Home, where the ocean becomes deep; leaving nothing but water meeting sky, blue meeting blue. Home, to the Hebrides.
To those who return home. With love from the Hebrides, Lucy.