The first person I saw when I went back to Inverbeag was Jamie Sutherland, and for one terrifying moment it was as though I’d never been away.
I’d left Glasgow refreshed by its vigour, its brashness and its restless energy. My farewell, following three days of rekindled acquaintances and enjoyable gossip, had been reluctant; that morning I’d picked at the hotel’s over-generous breakfast with the enthusiasm of a disobedient schoolgirl who knows the day of reckoning has arrived. My apprehension grew as the long road north unwound ahead of me, each mile taking me deeper into the past.
By mid-afternoon I’d reached the southern edge of Inverbeag. The garage I remembered was gone, the simple stone building replaced by a garish glass and plastic structure that could have been anywhere in the country. Opposite the entrance I slowed to turn right, glanced casually at a mechanic working on the forecourt and without warning was hurled back almost thirty years. Jamie’s face, creased by a shy yet triumphant smile, begrimed with oil and damp with sweat, was peering over the bonnet of a silver 5-series BMW. He spoke a few words to its owner who relaxed visibly as she realised that he recognised both the problem and its solution.
They were an unlikely pairing. She, coolly confident despite the heat of the day, appeared to be in her thirties: blonde, willowy as a model, dressed in the executive uniform of charcoal suit, white blouse, dark tights and elegant black shoes. Her heels were high enough to emphasise shapely calf muscles, yet not so high that they would upset the boss. The hem of her skirt was high enough to give a tantalising glimpse of lower thigh, yet not so high that it would upset the boss’s wife. Overall, the whole ensemble was beautifully judged. I both admired and envied her style, which I guessed came more from a natural assurance than from money. She was in sales, probably, and doing well at it. Jamie was altogether different: at least six inches shorter than his client and a couple of stones heavier. What remained of his hair was unkempt; his overalls were as dirty as his face. I knew that he was in his fifties, yet in his own way he looked no older than the woman with whom he now chatted and shared a joke. His gift, I remembered, was an ability to like everyone, treat them all equally and be treated the same in return.
Inverbeag’s tourist population seemed to have chosen that Friday afternoon to leave behind the summer beauty of Wester Ross. The road south was filled with an exodus of caravans, campervans and heavily laden cars in which children were already beginning to squabble and couples to bicker in the unexpected heat of a Scottish August. I waited to turn and watched, feeling uncomfortably furtive, as Jamie emerged once more from beneath the bonnet, grinned confidently at his customer, and throwing forward a stiff left leg walked with a rolling, almost nautical gait towards the workshop. With each step a calliper appeared fleetingly from beneath the leg of his overalls supporting a slightly twisted foot in a heavy raised boot. He returned moments later carrying a piece of electrical equipment which he waved reassuringly at her, then busied himself once more beneath the car’s bonnet.
For reasons none of us understood at the time, but seem so obvious now, girls were Jamie’s biggest tormentors when he became the janitor’s assistant at the high school, two years after we’d moved up from the primary. He’d neither the authority nor the power of a teacher, so was no threat, and was barely ten years older than the senior boys. Despite his disability they treated him as an equal, especially as he was able to talk knowledgeably about football and shinty: a talent which also endeared him to the younger boys. To most of the girls he was an older brother or an amiable uncle. To others, slowly discovering their sexuality and not knowing what to do with it, his mildness was both security and provocation. Three of the girls made his life a misery with ever-increasing ridicule and innuendo. To them it was little more than a joke – twisting a puppy’s tail – but I’d seen what was happening, and that poor, guileless Jamie was gradually losing the sparkle that was so much a part of him. When he attempted to avoid them they sought him out; when the outraged puppy finally bit back, and Jamie slapped Fiona Cameron, the trio’s hulking leader, he was dismissed the same day. I’d known and said nothing, too scared of Fiona’s gang. Two days later, when Jamie was beaten up in the street, everyone knew the attacker was Fiona’s father but no-one could prove it.
The terrible shame and frustration I’d suffered, then forced myself to forget, returned with an intensity sharpened by its unexpectedness. I’d been back in Inverbeag for less than two minutes; already I was feeling more like a frightened girl than a successful woman. What else was lurking in ambush?
I was jolted back to the present by the hooting of restive traffic held up behind me, informing me impatiently that the road was clear and I should turn. Instead, I accelerated toward the town, tyres squealing in my hurry to get away, causing both Jamie and the BMW driver to look up in surprise at the source of the commotion. By chance he looked straight into my eyes, and although he could not possibly have recognised me I felt the heat of a blush spread across my cheeks and neck. For the hundredth time I wondered why I was doing this to myself. There was still no answer.
My refuge was the Inverbeag Hotel, whose solid nineteenth century grandeur still dominated the esplanade. In its glory days well-heeled Victorians had arrived there by boat, looking forward to country walks, fishing, shooting, and – the more daring – a little bathing. I recalled a pin-sharp sepia photograph in a book of local history showing a line of bathing-machines in the background while ladies and gents promenaded their finery along the sea-front. The same book had contained pictures of grimy, barefoot children and ragged parents outside their crofts; another page showed weary fishermen smoking pipes while they mended nets, their boats, incredibly tiny, beached behind them. Perhaps our teacher – what was her name? – had a social conscience, or perhaps the book was mere chance. Whatever, those pictures and the disparity of the people they portrayed were to stay with me for a long time.
The Edwardians brought the railway to Inverbeag and Dr Beeching took it away in the Sixties. By then the town’s heyday was long gone, killed by the First World War and buried by depression, more war and package holidays. Now most visitors are foreigners, exploring our country while we do the same in theirs, searching for something that can’t be found; others are impecunious youth hostellers, weighed down by rucksacks or pedalling impossibly laden bicycles; and there are coach-loads of elderly tourists looking for peace, the past, and maybe a final adventure.
The hotel lobby was filled with the occupants of two coaches that had just pulled away from the entrance. Some relaxed in high-backed, solidly upholstered mahogany chairs and watched with amusement while less confident travellers fussed over their luggage or their handbags; others had already gone in search of the bar or the tea room, dragging wheeled suitcases with them across the faded carpet. While two couriers checked arrangements with the manager I eased my way through the chaos to the reception desk. Its custodian was about nineteen, discreetly made-up, well presented and wearing a badge which identified her as Sally. She gave me a sympathetic smile.
“We’ll have everything sorted out in a minute, if you’d like to take a seat,” she said, a professional smile taking the place of the earlier one.
“I’m not with the group,” I told her, amused. My fortieth birthday had passed while I’d been in Glasgow but I didn’t feel the need of a zimmer frame just yet. Her smile broadened. “I’d like a single room with a shower for two nights.”
“I’m sure we can manage that,” she replied, tapping at a computer keyboard hidden beneath the counter.
“So would I fit in well with the coach tour?” Teasing her was unmerciful, for she was so young, but I couldn’t resist. My victim stammered.
“I... I didn’t mean it like that. We sometimes get a few daughters in with the groups and I thought that’s what you were.” She paused, as though assessing the risk, then added: “I feel sorry for them. It can’t be much fun on holiday with a bunch of pensioners, can it?”
I chuckled inwardly. “Depends on the pensioners,” I told her. Some of the oldest men I’d known were in their mid-twenties. She smiled again, this time uncertainly.
I declined her offer of a porter and, out of long habit, carried my bags upstairs myself. I’d only two, both light: another old habit. Room 313 could have been any of hundreds I’d seen in the past twenty years. The few attempts at personality – a linen doily beneath the ashtray, a bright box of tissues, mass-produced prints of Highland scenes on the walls – served only to emphasise the drab functionality of the rest of the room. I didn’t care. There was a reasonably comfortable bed and a shower that not only worked but also produced hot water. Both were luxuries I’d learned to never take for granted.
A full-length mirror hung on the wall outside the bathroom. In it I examined the reflection. Margaret MacAskill stared back at me: a woman who looked her age and made no attempt to conceal it with cosmetics. Lines, as yet merely faint, clustered around brown eyes but cut more deeply around the mouth and through skin that would never tan. The flaming red hair I’d hated all my youth was bleached by sun into a softer, grey-flecked auburn I secretly admired. Its length, usually severely short for practicality, was growing. The clothes were also practical: jeans, comfortable shoes and a synthetic silk shirt chosen not for style, but because it was easy to wash and required no ironing. Everything else in my bags was the same, with little displaying delicacy or femininity. Even as a child I’d almost invariably worn trousers, for in a skirt how could I keep pace with my brothers? I recalled the grace of the BMW driver, so effortlessly elegant, and Sally, who didn’t need youth to make an unflattering corporate two-piece so becoming.
I pulled off my clothes impatiently and examined myself once more, searching for clues. I was tall for a women, though not excessively. My body, I’d been told, was beautiful. I concurred without false modesty, for it was kept lean and fit by exercise and the demands of the work which also kept it concealed so unflatteringly. My breasts, being small, had never sagged; my hips and belly, spared the trauma of childbirth, remained smooth and taut; my skin, invariably covered to protect it from instant sunburn, was as soft and pale as a child’s. I remembered the sensation of hands touching that skin.
In the shower I allowed myself the rare luxury of tears, letting them mingle with the powerful jet of water which cooled my face and swept them away.
When I stepped out, ten minutes later, I’d recovered, although I still viewed my meagre choice of clothes with distaste. I dressed quickly and checked my watch – thirty minutes before the shops closed – then hurried downstairs before I changed my mind. The lobby was quiet now. Sally grinned when I approached, as though we were already conspirators.
“Where can a woman get a decent dress in this town?” I asked.
She laughed. “There are two shops in Inverbeag but your best bet’s Inverness. Of course, if money’s no problem you might be OK.” She eyed me speculatively. “But there’s not much choice, either.” She paused again. “My mum sometimes goes to McDougall’s on the High Street.” Her pause this time was much more brief. Perhaps my expression mirrored my feelings. “Or there’s Julia’s, just before you get there. They’ve got some lovely stuff but it really costs a fortune. You really would do better in Inverness,” she concluded, her face apologetic.
“You’re probably right,” I told her. Inverness was only an hour away. I could go there tomorrow. But suddenly I was a child with money that must be spent right now. I could feel Sally’s eyes on my back as I left the hotel.
In some ways the town had changed hugely – the shops’ signs were brighter, their windows bigger, more inviting; the roads and pavements busier – but in the essentials it hadn’t changed at all. There’d been little of the demolition and building that had transformed other towns for better and worse. Inverbeag remained what it had always been: an uneasy mixture of fishing port and market town lost in the remoteness of the west coast. Julia’s, I was almost certain, had been an electrical store when I last saw it, although there was no evidence to support my memory. The name painted on the glass door was of a modest size, as though hinting at discreet good taste. A few emaciated mannequins stood in an enormous display window, staring contemptuously at the passers-by. Most eye-catching was the haughty dummy in a deceptively simple little black dress. No price was displayed, but it was beautifully cut and not unlike one I’d seen on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills at a cost of five thousand dollars. I laughed to myself and strode further up the street, where I found McDougall’s.
This was the Inverbeag I remembered, even if I had no memory of the shop. The exterior was pre-war, the cramped window displaying sensible tweeds, twin-sets and woollens. Surely I wasn’t that old yet? I turned around without entering and walked back down the street, deflated, and stopped again outside Julia’s, my curiosity aroused by a business so out of place.
The interior was as discreet as the shop sign and devoid of customers. The assistant who appeared at my side would have looked at home in Milan or New York, but when she spoke her accent was as local as mine had once been. Her words were equally unexpected.
“It’s Maggie, isn’t it?” Her hesitance was at odds with the assurance of her clothing and the sophistication of the shop. “Maggie MacAskill?”
I looked at her more closely. She was perhaps six inches shorter than me, and about the same age. Her hair was dyed honey blonde but her tan was natural.
“Yes, that’s me.” I racked my memory, searching in vain for a name. The woman beamed, relieved. “But I...”
“Oh, you won’t remember me, Maggie. I was two years behind you at IHS so you wouldn’t know me at all.” She grinned, full of humility, and held out a hand: “Julia Forbes.” I shook the hand, lost. “It’s so exciting to meet you after all this time. Apart from your brother you’re probably the only famous person to come out of Inverbeag.”
“Famous? Oh, no...”
“Don’t be modest. I see your name in the papers all the time, and you were on TV only a few weeks ago.” I remembered a galling Newsnight discussion in which the facts I presented were ignored by politicians intent on preserving their own version of the truth. “And now you’re back here. A holiday is it?”
“Visiting family,” I told her, still faintly embarrassed by my unexpected celebrity.
“Family? Oh, wonderful. And now you’re in my shop.” She glanced at her watch then walked to the door where she turned around the open sign and pulled down a blind.
“Would you like me to leave?” I asked.
“Oh no, no! There’ll be no-one else in today, so you can have some privacy while you look round.” She stopped abruptly and eyed me up and down in a professional manner. “What are you looking for?” My embarrassment returned.
“I don’t really know.” I gestured vaguely at my jeans and old shirt. “I never seem to get to dress like a woman. I’m tired of sensible. I want something... nice,” I finished, lamely. The word was inadequate but I couldn’t think of a better one.
“Casual or dressy?”
“Um, dressy. Yes, dressy.”
“Daytime or evening?
“For a man or for you.”
“For me. Definitely for me.”
“Something that says ‘Woman’ with a capital W.”
“Something that tells the guys ‘You’d never be so lucky’.” She looked at me, her face filled with a contagious excitement, and we both broke into giggles.
“Absolutely. We’ll give them fair warning.” I was getting carried away, now. I’d not felt this reckless for a long time.
“Size 10?” she hazarded. I nodded. “Wait till you see this.” She disappeared into a back room from where she emerged a moment later flourishing the sister of the little black dress in the shop window.
“You must be joking! Twenty years ago, maybe. Not now.” But I still felt the tingle of excitement fluttering inside my stomach.
“You must!” Julia looked at me anxiously, as though I were in danger of making a terrible mistake. “You simply must! I couldn’t get away with it, but you’ve the height and the shape. It would look spectacular on you. Try it on and then tell me you don’t like it.”
I took the dress from her, marvelling at its lightness, and stepped into a changing room. Outside, Julia chattered as though we were old friends on a shopping expedition.
“Of course, you’ll need some shoes, and I’ve tights that are just perfect.” She broke off and stifled a surprisingly loud snort of laughter. “And best of all, Mrs Sinclair would hate it.” She giggled again. I joined in, helpless, as the image of my old maths teacher took shape inside my head after nearly twenty-five years: small, dowdy, kindness personified and forever fighting a hopeless battle against teenage hormones. “You must remember,” cried Julia. “You must: ‘Girls, girls, modesty at all times’. She was so Miss Jean Brodie.” Her laughter echoed around the empty shop, finally subsiding. “Good old Sinner. She was the best.”
“Mrs Sinclair,” I thought, only half-believingly. The memory was vivid. There’d been steel, too, in that unimpressive frame. She was the one who’d confronted Fiona Cameron after the attack on Jamie and wrung the truth out of her. She’d interrogated her in front of the whole class, staring up fiercely at the girl who towered above her, and produced both confession and tears: the only ones we’d ever seen from Fiona. “Mrs Sinclair. Whatever happened to her?”
“She’s still there!” exclaimed Julia. “She’s head teacher now.”
“But she must be ninety!”
Julia’s laugh was not quite so confident. “She’s fifty-nine, and fighting hard to stay there instead of retiring.” Her voice dropped. The tone was awestruck. “When you left IHS she was younger than either of us are now.” That silenced us both. I zipped up the dress and stepped out of the changing room. Julia’s jaw dropped.
“Wow!” She gripped me by the shoulders and swung me around to face a bank of mirrors that covered one of the walls. “Wow!” she repeated. The dress had felt good, but for a moment I couldn’t believe it was my reflection I was seeing. I raised an arm slightly and the open-mouthed stranger in the mirror gestured too. Julia recovered first. “That’s a dangerous dress,” she said, her voice filled with I-told-you-so satisfaction. “I hope you know how to use it.”
“I can’t wear that!”
“Course you can. Just look at it.”
“But that’s not me. I don’t know who she is, but that’s not me.”
“She could be. You wanted to look like a woman.”
“Julia, I don’t even know if I can afford it.”
“It could have been made for you.” She spoke as if reasoning with an argumentative child. “The dress is yours.”
“No. I mean it.”
“And so do I. The dress is yours. It’s a gift.”
I was shocked. “But why?”
She smiled, then waved an arm around the room. “Because without you this wouldn’t be here.” She indicated a couple of comfortable chairs in a corner. When we sat I had to resist the urge to tug down the hem of the dress. “You left town about the same time I left school. You went to Edinburgh – I watched for your name in the paper – and I married Tam White.”
I spoke without thinking. “Tinky Tam? You married Tinky Tam?” The ghost of a scruffy, shifty, seventeen-year-old flitted past my eyes. When I realised what I’d said I clapped a hand over my mouth and blushed.
“No, you’re right. It lasted two years before he disappeared down south. The only blessing is that the baby we thought was coming was a false alarm.” She glanced at me then lowered her eyes, as though ashamed. “I thought that was the end. Eighteen, abandoned, no job and not much hope of one in Inverbeag. Then I read that you’d moved to London. I saw you on the TV.” That must have been my first appearance: spouting inane rubbish on a daytime chat show about the Scottish brain drain. “I thought if you could make it out of Inverbeag, so could I. After that, everything just clicked. I got to do a design course at college in Glasgow, made a bit of a name for myself with a few lucky sales and opened a store. Now most of my sales are mail order and internet; the shop’s just a bit of fun to catch the tourists, annoy the tax man and see a few customers face to face.” She dismissed talent and years of hard work as no more than luck.
“That was nothing to do with me. You did it. No-one else.”
“But you’d shown me there was a way out.”
“And then you came back.”
“Yes. I could have been based anywhere but this is where I’m from, where my family and friends are. I could even bring a few jobs with me, do something for the town, but the real draw was family. What else is there? You must feel that. You’re here.”
If only it were that simple. I’d always thought of family as a liability, not an asset. Yet here I was. Perhaps she was right.
I left her shop half an hour later after coffee and chat and promises to stay in touch. I meant them, too. With me I took a carrier bag containing the dress, shoes, a handbag, two pairs of tights, a black Wonderbra and a pair of knickers made of less material than a couple of small lace handkerchiefs. I also carried the thought that, now I’d been recognised, the small town grapevine would soon be at work. I’d have to see my mother next day before news of my reappearance reached her.
Suddenly I was ravenous. I’d eaten nothing since breakfast and the excitement had drained me of energy. Awareness of the carrier bag I carried so self-consciously deterred me from returning to my room, so I played for time by eating at a small café. While I wondered what was happening to me I watched a bewildered Japanese family, who’d made the mistake of asking for real Scottish food, poke suspiciously at pie, chips and watery gravy. Food restored my spirits. Back in the hotel I changed quickly, applied a soft shade of lipstick and a touch of eyeliner then stood back from the mirror to observe the effect. It looked as good as it felt. Not even in Paris with Claude...
I forced him from my mind and walked downstairs, through the lobby where Sally gawked in wide-eyed amazement, and into the lounge bar. I had no intention of playing the bar stool vamp, despite the surreptitious glances my entry provoked. Instead I took my whisky to an alcove from where I could watch the faces around me – an entertainment of which I never tired – and wait to see what happened next. I was used to being around men and used to being alone; neither worried me.
Across the room I watched a well-dressed, middle-aged couple argue furiously without saying a word. Their body language shouted louder than either could have done. With one hand he tinkered with his empty glass, swilling the dregs around, watching them intently; with the fingers of the other he rubbed fleshy lips compulsively, unaware he was doing so. She gripped her glass hard with both hands and stared at him, her face as pale as his was florid. I was so engrossed in the drama that I didn’t notice the man who now stood by my table.
“Not a happy sight,” he said. I looked up, filled with a mixture of amusement, disappointment and relief. He was tall, well proportioned, immaculately dressed, and seventy if he was a day.
“No. Especially on holiday.”
“But that’s often the way, wouldn’t you say?” I gestured toward the empty seat which he occupied smoothly. “Imagine two people. They have work; they have children, weekend activities. How much time do these people really have with each other? They take a holiday alone. What a test that must be of a relationship.” He gazed at me for a moment, fingered his moustache absently and looked back to the unmoving, stone-faced couple.
“A test you’ve never taken?”
“Alas, no,” he replied, holding his hand over his heart. “For before you is one of life’s bachelors, still searching for love.” He smiled bravely before we both burst out laughing, attracting curious looks from the tables around us.
His name, he claimed, was Alexander Grieve Beaumont (“without a hyphen, my dear”), late major of the Coldstream Guards. He was seventy-five (“you’d never believe it, would you, my dear”), and had served in Korea, Kenya and Aden before retirement. He’d then run a garage business for a while and now lived a life of leisure on a private income. I’d had plenty of opportunity to observe the real thing, and suspected he’d never been more than a corporal in the Catering Corps and never been further than Aldershot. In response to a gentle probe I explained away my presence by claiming to be on holiday with a friend who was otherwise engaged for the evening. “Would that be a lady friend or a gentleman friend?” he asked with a raised eyebrow, provoking more laughter. We were both playing a part.
Whatever the truth, he was good company and a plausible old rogue who’d told his stories so often he probably believed them himself. It wasn’t difficult to picture him charming the widows and elderly spinsters on the coach tours he enjoyed.
“It is rather fun,” he confided. “They do love the attention. However, it’s pleasant to converse with someone younger now and again, especially when they’re so pretty.” I shushed him self-deprecatingly, but every compliment, however casually given, further restored a confidence that had wavered wildly during the day. When we parted at the end of the evening he kissed my hand, eyes twinkling, and I blushed for the second time in a few hours.
Later, as I lay in bed, I began to think that maybe tomorrow would not be so bad. I would see my mother and things would be all right. I drifted into sleep still full of hope.
End of Chapter One