The Blow In
Helen turns over in her sleeping bag and tries to get comfortable again, but the fur hat she bought in some flea market drops from her head and rolls under the front seat of the estate car. Shafts of sunlight creep around the cardboard she has taped to the windows. It’s cold for a June morning and she shivers.
The seagulls begin their hoarse chorus, and one or two thump onto the roof of the car. She cannot hear the ocean’s surge, so the tide must be out. Better be quick, she thinks, before the tinker families arrive with their whelk sacks, their children silently fanning out across the beach. Today is her last chance to get her sacks full of the small whorl-like shells before the lorry comes to the passing place above the bay, to pay cash by the roadside.
She recalls a day almost a quarter of a century ago, watching her own child running into the sea with wild cries. A smile had arisen and she turned to share the moment with her husband who, book in hand, impassively read on without looking up.
It’s been six months since she sat outside her office in her company car, unable to open the door. She howled out her pain and sorrow in snot-flown tears for an hour, before leaving the keys on the driver’s seat to stumble away. It seemed fatuous to attempt a continued existence, but she was drawn to the North. She had last visited the highland village of Achnasnoc when she was twenty, staying in a canvas ridge tent which was old even then. She needed to say goodbye to that girl and that time of hope. Since then she’d never camped again, but through all the relocations in her life she had hung onto that tent. Sitting beside it in a taxi on her way to the bus station, she imagined a couple of days camping by the shore and then a lonely climb to somewhere remote and high, where in time the cold would do its bitter work.
After a bus to Ullapool, she hoped to get a lift to Achnasnoc in the Post Office Land Rover, but it was in the garage for repairs. She looked at her map, then lifted her rucksack onto her back and dragged the heavy old tent to an ironmonger on the main street. There she bought a wheelbarrow. The only one left was red but colour was of no account in a world reduced to sepia tones. As an afterthought she bought a pair of climbing boots. Cinching the rucksack straps more firmly round her chest and waist, she dumped the tent in the wheelbarrow and pointed it towards the track which twisted along the coast to Achnasnoc.
Six hours later, the first houses came in sight as she trundled the wheelbarrow round the western buttress of Beinn Alasdair. She paused, set the wheelbarrow down and sat on it watching the Atlantic rollers sweep into the bay from the red skies to the west.
Beyond the harbour there was some rough ground where a camp could be set up, so she took the wheelbarrow’s handles once more. She was tired and stumbled each time her feet seemed to seek out rocks or potholes in her path. The wind strengthened and a light rain began to fall. She pictured herself soaking wet, erecting the tent in the dark. At the landward entrance to the harbour someone had left an old estate car; the back axle was propped up on concrete blocks and the remaining tyres were deflated. She trudged past it then stopped. Looking around, there was no one to be seen, so without much hope she tried the handle of its rear door. It swung up and she looked inside. The rear seats had gone, and in their place were piled-up fishing nets of different colours, green, blue and orange. She pushed them to one side, pulled her sleeping bag from her rucksack and threw it in, stowing the tent and rucksack under the car. The door closed behind her with a thump and she passed out.
The following morning there was a gentle knock on the car window. A chipped mug of hot tea was passed in and as she drank she viewed the burly rear of the fisherman who had returned to load his boat with creels. That was Calum Ban, good with animals; kind and incurious with human flotsam. In its better days, the car had been his.
‘I’ll be needing a hand with these creels. Would ten pounds be acceptable to you?’ Calum had returned for his mug and barely paused to receive her answer. It seemed the fisherman was relying on her, so Helen passed the afternoon exploring the area while she waited for the boat’s return. Then she helped transfer the prawns into their lonely test-tube beds, ready for the refrigerated lorry. When the work was finished, Calum Ban removed his nets from the car, and waved off her protests. Some days later he showed up with a pair of wheels which allowed them to push the car along the strand, away from the bustle of the harbour.
Since then, Helen felt that she’d slipped into the slow rhythm of Achnasnoc life without it missing a beat. There was the small matter of Peadar the Fiddle, who from his caravan window had watched her progress with her red wheelbarrow from the minute she came round Beinn Alasdair. He’d sat down that night to compose a tune to the mystery woman. Later on, he called it “Helen MacFarlane’s March to Achnasnoc”, but if Peadar, immortalising her in such a fashion, had hopes of trespassing beyond the troubled gaze of Helen MacFarlane’s green eyes, his hopes were doomed.
She helps Calum and the other fishermen with odd jobs, and she ranges along the coast for the rock pools where whelks like to gather. Sometimes she packs a lunch into the air-raid warden bag she found in a shed in the harbour and goes for long walks up each of the three glens radiating from the village.
She is content with solitude, and the rest of Achnasnoc respect that, except for the local kids, who on most evenings swarm around the estate car. They tease out her past with the deftness of prosecution lawyers. They take it in turns to throw questions at her, cross-examining where it is obvious she is leading them up a blind alley.
‘OK, you’ve got me. I wasn’t really sacked from NASA because of my fear of flying. So no, I wasn’t the first woman astronaut.’
This is met with groans, some of satisfaction, others lamenting.
‘But I WAS the only female bullfighter in Spain.’
A chorus of supplementary questions.
‘Yes, yes, it’s true. I loved that job.’ She opens her hands wide as if flourishing a cape. ‘But I loved my boyfriend more. He turned vegetarian.’
In the end they all agree she is doing secret work for the Navy base in Kyle and Helen is satisfied with the mists of rumour which drift around her. But one evening while Helen was distracted by a sea-eagle wheeling around the peak of Beinn Alasdair, a dark-haired, weather-beaten tinker girl called Meg caught her out.
‘How many kids d’ye have?’ she murmured, her dark brown eyes shifting away from Helen as she spoke.
Helen replied without thinking. ‘Only one, but she died’. ~
Now Helen releases the catch on the rear door, allowing it to swing up to reveal the morning. She gets out and moves around the car to inspect herself in the wing mirror. Calum Ban allowed her to use his shower yesterday. She pushes her fair hair back from her face and frowns at the crows feet at the corners of her eyes and the faint wrinkles at the sides of her mouth. A smile usually gets rid of them and she tries one now, revealing teeth not quite as white as she would like, but for god's sake she’s forty-five.
She busies herself with the camp stove and soon has the blackened kettle singing its old song. Perched on the rear of the estate, the sleeping bag wrapped around her shoulders and hugging her coffee cup to her chest, she watches the sea heaving against the rocks in the bay. The tide has turned and it’s time to go whelk picking.
D.B. MacInnes is a crofter who lives on the Isle of Skye, where he plants trees, plays the uilleann pipes and writes. He's inspired by writers such as William Trevor, Alice Munro and Claire Keegan. His short stories have been published in ‘Northwords Now’, ‘Product’ and ‘Gutter’ magazines and he was long-listed for the Fish Short Story prize in 2019.