Isle of Canna

Eventually I go downstairs to make breakfast, and in the cutlery drawer of all places I find the ring I got you after we came back from the island that first time. I put it on the table in the hall, hidden under leaflets and bills. That way I know where it is, but don’t have to look at it too often. 

When I woke up, I had forgotten, and thought you were still here. Our agreement of love and time and a future should sit on my shoulders like a parrot. Instead, I cry for lack of contours, no strands lying on my pillow.

In the weeks since, silence has taken over me. I’m putting up with my projects, walking, holding the remote and eating frozen, defrosted, heated food. My breakfast porridge is the only thing I cook. Salt from the pig, just a pinch, half a spoon of sloe jelly if I remember. It’s supposed to be good for me. 

With my bowl in the depths of suds in the sink, I look outside over the back garden with its pines, and further away the hills, silent and eternal. The seasons turn five times in as many minutes. On the ground snowflakes now linger where before the sun was playing like a kitten. Jacket on, keep busy.

Outside, I soon cut my finger on the saw. The sight of the little bubble of blood causes my throat to seize up and noisily I throw up on the frozen ground, the mound still steaming as I go inside for a plaster. The kettle boils, I bring my thermos mug outside. Tea helps.

The flakes keep sailing down, and soon white again covers the braver of the bulbs which poked out only a week ago. Once my tea is done, snow muffles every sound, building up around the house, under some eaves more than others. No buses or cars pass, and as no one else speaks here these days, I can hear the sound of my heart in my ears. The silence is one of the reasons we stayed in this house so long, despite the draft. We have had our time, I realise, guarded by Ben Macdui and the Spey, just outside Boat of Garten, but now the same silence is getting too silent and for the first time I am thinking about a flat in town. 

I keep busy, measure and join, cut and brush on wood glue. Eventually I sit down on the finished bench and exhale a white cloud. Time and light travel by. I remain still. 

After my upcoming trip I decide to make no more inquiries; the man will get what is coming to him. I’ll stop phoning the hospital, as it makes no difference. I’ll stop phoning the papers and I’ll stop phoning the man’s boss. I will retract into myself, a garden snail. I will make no fuss over anything. I will wait for the microwave to announce with a ‘pling’ that my dinner is ready, for the sloe jelly to colour my oats purple. I will build benches and put them up for sale at the local church, all proceeds to go to, that sort of thing. 

Later in the afternoon I go to church, just to see people. In a stranger’s face I find a friend for the rest of the Sunday. My almost non-existing plans are rearranged; I sit at one side of the table, the minister at the other. He can’t explain away my feelings, and in all fairness, he doesn’t try too hard either, which I appreciate. I gather he is also alone in the big manse he’s been assigned, and either way it’s a nice change to eat someone else’s frozen, defrosted, heated food. 

During lunch he is generous with the wine and once I’m back in my house, I fall asleep on the sofa, having tipped the taxi driver more than I planned. 

I wake up in the middle of the night, disorientated. I have dreamt for the first time since February. Tomorrow it’s Monday, and I’m going into town, an undertaking at the best of times, and a series of errands I’ve tried not to think about. There’s no point going upstairs to the bedroom now so I spend the rest of the night on the sofa. 

In the morning: a taxi to Aviemore, then a long bus ride from the post office to Inverness. The mathematics of a day. Coffee here, lonely there. It’s cold outside, and the bus cuts through flurries of snow like an intergalactic ship would navigate between stars. My hands, big and warm, wipe at the condensation of the window to allow me to see the hills and sea.

The papers are neatly stowed away in a briefcase, in folders and fool’s caps and rows, for the lawyer to have a look at, at ten on the dot. In my mind, this meeting settles it, and I will now focus on the next, more personal one I have been thinking about. I leave my pile of papers with the competent man, and wheel my overnight suitcase, mostly empty, out of his office at ten thirty, also this on the dot.

I wander the streets of Inverness looking at the Clann Na Cloiche, feeling alien as if I was on Mimas, despite us living in the area for the last twenty-four years. I’m trying to be as small a burden on society as possible. I’m trying to be invisible, but it’s not working. I’m too tall and too angry. Instead, I go to the Garden Centre. They’ve done it up since we were last here, and you would love it, but I’m not here for petunias or a new set of pruning scissors. My cargo is grey as my mind.

Afterwards I have lunch in a greasy spoon, a wonderful, unhealthy change, the suitcase waiting off to one side. I push my plate away from me, sit back and allow myself to remember, a rare thing. 

The lorry pushed us off the A830 just past Glenfinnan and as I struggled with our seatbelts Marie gave up her last breath. Like sardines we then sat there while the articulated driver made phone calls, cried, and was taken away by the police. I had to wait till a fireman cut away the roof of our car before I got out and before it was my turn to cry. Plenty of time to memorise the cargo company’s name. 

On my neck still the chafe mark from the seatbelt, my left foot which was staved is now just stiff and I move it back and forward under the table. Other than that: a dash of nosebleed on my jacket. A jacket that I had dry cleaned and then gave to Oxfam. That’s what I came away with.

Our friends have been nice to me. The women cook, the men ask me to come out for a drink. I’m not easy company, but I will send them postcards from the island. For the longest time I couldn’t decide where to stay on Canna despite the lack of options. Whether to go to our old place or to somewhere swanky since I have the bank balance bulging with numbers from the insurance. In the end, I wanted to carry as little as possible and to eat well, so I settled for the place up on the hill. 

Once the waitress clears away my plate and cutlery, once I’ve had a proper cup of tea, a pudding full of sugar and milk, I’m travelling west from here, on a train and then a boat. It might fix some things, or at least fixate them. Out on the wide blue field I hope to feel better. A cup of tea in the CalMac cafeteria, an ingot of shortbread – small, achievable goals. The wind and being away from solid ground, seeing oystercatchers dart, a small reward. 

I phone for the taxi and go outside to wait for it. The driver grimaces when he lifts the suitcase into the boot, but I can’t tell him that it is full of perfectly formed, anonymous garden centre rocks, and on top of them a solemn box from the undertakers. 

I will ask the driver to wait, metre running, while I go inside a ScrewFix for a fake errand. The shop has two exits, and I will just walk straight through it, to get to where I really want to go.

Once all the windows of the head office of Anderson Haulage are broken, I’ll walk back through the ScrewFix and ask the taxi to take me to the station. From there I’m taking the train to Mallaig where I’ll board the ferry to Canna, the hard nugget on the western edge of the Small Isles. This is where we got engaged and where we were heading for our own little anniversary that day driving up the A830, the lorry driver maybe blinded by the sun reflecting on the choppy waters of Loch Shiel.

Marie will stay there this time, looking out over the sea from the base of Coroghon Castle where we first kissed so many years ago as archaeology students on a university trip. She, like the matrilinear chieftains of that time, will be guarding the island and looking out for me coming over on the ferry as often as I can. Next time I will even bring the materials to build a bench that I can put up beside her on the lee side of the old fortress. And plasters.

Lead image by Andrew Teoh via Unsplash

Creator’s biography

Martin’s first novel, Devil Take the Hindmost, was published in 2016, winning the Dundee International Book Prize. His first poetry collection, Light and Other Observations, was published by the National Trust for Scotland while he was their Poet in Residence in 2018. His most recent book, A Circular Argument, was published in 2021 and is a hybrid form of novel and creative nonfiction work reflecting on prison architecture. His short fiction has won various awards including BBC Radio 4’s Opening Lines, and he is represented by Underline Literary Agency.

Martin holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow and is currently a senior lecturer at Malmö University, Sweden, where he lives with his wife and three kiddos. When he is not writing he loves kayaking, cycling and carbs.