Christine Cleal



The island where my father was born lay low and green in the gentle Hebridean spring. Gannets plunged, white oystercatchers ran along the shore. On the pier I’d run the gauntlet of family and old friends, laughing quietly, and joking. Annie had cried, standing beside the car, Mairi had taken a photograph. Then granddaughter Jo had dragged me on board.   Come on Gran. Aunt Rachel, her shining black hair turned white, her square   jaw more prominent, just like her brother’s, smiled and waved at me. My heart wrenched. The ferry slipped away, churning aquamarine waters to white. I had left my island too often. I had never wanted to go.

Dad’s side of the family. Lovely people, even with their heritage  of ultra Calvinism placing Catholics one rung up from Satan. There had   always been a veil between us. Things I couldn’t tell. But on this visit there   had been such a welcome – laughter and stories, Uncle Calum teasing Jo, but   gently, making her laugh. Wild salmon in the fridge, mackerel for   breakfast, Jo tackling haggis. I had walked alone round the loch, seeing again the heather and rowans bending in the evening breeze, the wild geese   honking in a skein across the sky. Some say they are the souls of the   emigrants coming back to see their homes. I wonder if he’s flying up there, my Dad.

Dad the villain. Hair-trigger temper, always ready with a spanking, permanently angry with his brood, endlessly fighting with Mum. St.   Mum, of the black hair and beautiful voice. We adored her. Never were   children more devoted to a mother…or more angry with a father.

Now I was visiting his sister, tiptoeing round the trauma.

“Why did the marriage end? Why did you go?” Aunt Rachel’s soft  Hebridean voice.  I looked at her in horror. Now what. Not in the script.   “They had such a good life here.  They should never have left. This was his   home, hers too.”

“Your mother didn’t want to lose her children. You’d gone to university; the rest would follow. You were all she wanted.” My Dad, just after she died. I’d been married long enough to know I was hearing why a   troubled marriage had ended.  Children first, husband a long way behind, getting the leavings.

Long widowerhood, death from Alzheimer’s. I’d made my peace with   him long since. He’d given me so much, and most of all he’d given me his island, sanctuary of my soul. Now my aunt wanted answers. I struggled for the words.

“He wasn’t perfect, but neither was she. If his children hadn’t   laid all the blame on him for everything, things might have been better. There never was a divorce.”

“And why were his ashes not brought home as he wished?” I looked at   her. What was it to lose a brother at the other end of the world?

“My sister got drunk and threw them into the sea. He’s probably swum back here by now.”
The silly joke brought an unexpected smile. Aunt Rachel got up and brought out a bottle of gin.
“Aunt, I never knew you drank!”

She grinned, a flash of the young woman she had been. “I like a wee drop of gin.” She poured three stunning triples, added orange. We drank.

If this was honesty night, I’d better get it over. “Aunt, I must tell you… he died a Catholic. The nuns looked after him to the end. They were so kind…spoiled him. I promised I wouldn’t tell you. I couldn’t   get to see him from Africa, and he wouldn’t have known me. I shouldn’t have told you. I didn’t want to hurt you.” I knuckled my eyes. “I shouldn’t have drunk that gin. Grandad must be turning in his grave.”

“Och, last time we looked, he was very peaceful there.” A chuckle?

Through gin-soaked tears, I saw my aunt smiling. “Things are different now,” she said, and poured another massive potion. “Now then, you won’t be back soon, so we’ll just have a wee party.”
Uncle Calum touched my arm gently, put a photograph into my hand. An old man, tanned, white haired, smiling into the camera. “When our nephew Donald went to Australia, he saw your father. Yes, he was very happy, well looked after. It was a great comfort to us, that.”

“You knew about the Catholic bit?”

“Aye, but we didn’t like to talk about it because you all seemed so against him. I knew your father and liked him,” said Uncle Calum. “This photograph is for you. Now you can be at peace.”

So we toasted my father in yet more gin, and my granddaughter scolded me for staying up all night.