It was temporary. That’s what she told herself, leaning her head against the window of the plane. The tarmac below gave off little breaths of steam as the sun emerged from behind bruised clouds. She was 5,000 km from home, yet mere hours away from the dissolution of that summer. As the plane sped along the runway and then lifted off the ground, wobbling, climbing, the rich red earth and the purple hills and finally the golden coastline receded into the vastness of the Atlantic. She closed her eyes, and this is what she tried to forget.
The mist. A windswept beach. Tufts of marram grass, the pulsation of damselfly wings, herself reclining against his chest pretending to read Nietzsche.
All twenty-two members of the band unwind after the day’s competition, teasing their drum major, crying out they are unworthy, so very undeserving of such a talented leader. The champion drum major holds her trophy high above her head, presenting it to the roaring surf.
“Give us a flourish,” the bare-footed pipe major shouts, his brogues lodged in the sand, staggered, one in front of the other as if an invisible man were scaling the dune.
The teenaged drum major lowers her prize, cradles it like her mace, balancing the finial against her shoulder. “Right, lads. Fall into formation,” she says with a powerful tone no one ever expects from such a tiny thing. Without anyone pacing behind her she marches forward, setting the rhythm, timing the swing of her arm with practiced perfection until she splashes into the North Sea.
“Keep going!” her cousin Margot hollers. “Do us all a bloody favor.”
The pipers let out a spirited cackle while the drummers give a rousing, “Ba-dum-bum!”
They’re half-cut, swigging from a communal bottle of Grouse, discussing the day’s events while the whisky warms her, his steady breathing more calming than the ebb and flow of the waves. But it’s their accent, the timbre of her parents and their parents before them, which resonates a comfort she rarely feels back home. Margot plops down, not seemingly worried about getting sand in her kilt. Her violet mohawk clashes with her strawberry freckles. Snatching the book, she asks, “Say, Cuz, how was your first Highland games?”
She can still hear the long continuous droning over the breaking waves. “Noisy.”
He laughs, and she lifts her head away from his chest, tasting the salty spray off the sea. The drum major returns, soaking wet; the pipe major tips the sand from his shoes; Margot swallows the last drop of whisky; and they all pile in the coach, just before the gloaming. Margot whispers, “He’s mad about you.”
The following weekend is the Live Aid concert and since they can’t afford to go to Wembley Stadium, Margot’s friend Sheena suggests partying in the city, so six of them take the train to Edinburgh. He reaches out, taking her hand in front of everyone. She’s surprised not by his boldness, but by the charge that rushes through her body. Margot grins then stares out the grimy window.
They stay with Sheena’s sister, a nursing student with a summer sublet in New Town. The building is eighteenth century lacking an elevator. An old-fashioned pram rests at the bottom of the stairwell. He grasps the handle and wheels the baby carriage around the vestibule, the chrome chassis bouncing and the rusty spring suspension squeaking until he parks it back where he found it. Running his hand through his red locks, he says, “How does it suit me?”
Her throat becomes dry and when she swallows something heavy lands in the pit of her stomach.
Sheena’s boyfriend, a snare drummer from the band, laughs. “My worst nightmare, pal.”
There’s a collective grumble as they start to climb the steep steps, each one carrying a plastic Co-op bag, the provisions within clinking and clanking as they ascend to the fourth floor. Margot elbows her and says, “The color of your face when he grabbed that pram.”
Sheena’s sister is supposed to be on shift at the hospital all weekend, but she has scabies and can’t work until they clear. Everyone examines the pimple-like rash between two of the nurse’s fingers.
The sight of the infestation makes her both itchy and homesick, and she begins to count the days until she returns to Canada where no one she knows has ever had scabies.
“You can all crash on the front room floor,” says the nurse, bundling her dark permed hair into a scrunchie. “But my bedroom is off limits.”
Sheena’s boyfriend chuckles, “Wee beasties aren’t my thing.” He’s wearing Adidas joggers and a faded AC/DC T-shirt, both of which are too tight.
Sheena gives him an icy glare.
“Let’s get this party going.” The boyfriend signals the bloke he invited with a chin-jut towards the fire escape. As the snare drummer and the raven-haired, putty-faced stranger light up outside, the sisters rearrange the small flat.
“We need room to dance.” Sheena’s stacked bangles jingle as she moves. “Let’s shove this settee against the window.” She gives it a push, scraping its feet over the oak planks.
“Christ, you’ll score the floor!” her sister screams. “That’ll be my deposit up the spout.”
He brushes past. “Step aside, ladies.” A soft breeze touches her face.
She watches him lift the vintage piece off its legs and place it gently under the window. When he turns, he catches her staring. For a fleeting moment she’s lost in his muddy eyes.
Margot pulls at her arm. “Kitchen. You and me on drinks.” As they line the liquor on the counter her cousin asks, “What do you make of the roughneck?”
“The new lad.” Margot gives a nod to the fire escape. “He’ll have a bit of coin, working on the oil rigs.”
“He’s very pale.”
Margot shrugs. “He might be worth snogging.”
“He hasn’t said a word the whole journey.” She wrinkles her nose. “He smells briny.”
“I’ll need a few drinks first.” Margot slices through an orange then adds, “OK, more than a few.”
But it’s the weekend of her eighteenth birthday, and once they turn on the telly and blast the radio simulcast, she forgets about the mites and ignores the bitter scent as Margot canoodles with the roughneck.
Because of the unusually warm evening, every window in the Capital has been thrown wide open. “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” sweeps through the air, ringing off the sandstone blocks, rolling over the extinct volcano of Castle Rock.
Sheena jumps up, pulls Margot to her feet and everyone dances while singing along with Queen. He twirls her while she belts out the chorus. She stumbles, landing into his arms. “One too many Bucks Fizzessss,” she slurs.
“Only you and your cousin drink that shite.” His arms steady her as Freddie gets all of Wembley stomping.
Later they climb out the fire escape, just the two of them, ascend to the roof where they discover stacked wooden pallets shaped into a U; a large tarpaulin sags over the top. Within the makeshift shelter sits a tattered sofa, an old milk crate, and a standing ashtray overflowing with butts and bottle caps.
“How do you think all this got here?”
“Scottish ingenuity.” He cracks open the Johnnie Walker Red, sits it on the crate.
“I can see the skids making it up the steps, but the couch?”
He lifts the ashtray and moves that to the far corner of the roof. “You bog yourself down with too many questions.” He shakes the tarp free of dirty rain water, draping it back over and around the structure. “I see this as a gift,” he says taking her hand. “So, I don’t ask where it came from or what’s the cost.” He draws her in to the nook, and they sink into the foam pillows.
His skin smells both smoky and sweet, an addictive blend of peat and freshly baked bread. She doesn’t tell him that it’s her first time. Afterwards they remove the tarp, curl up together, drinking straight from the bottle, and watch the waning crescent moon rise over the Castle.
The next day they roam around inside the glasshouse at the Botanics, hungover. Everyone else is still sleeping it off. The roughneck ended up in the nurse’s bedroom. I hope he gets scabies, Margot said.
It’s humid and she feels dizzy gazing up the trunks of the tall palm trees. Outside, she throws up into a rhododendron bush. Two old ladies, walking past on the pathway, shake their heads, but one snaps open her handbag and pulls out a tissue. “I was a young lassie once as well.”
She sits down on a park bench and he emerges from the gift shop with one hand behind his back.
“Happy Birthday,” he says and produces a half-liter bottle of Irn-Bru.
She reaches out with a shaking hand. “Best present ever.”
They spend the next few weeks exploring the countryside around his hometown, hopping fences, running across sheep-cropped grass, accidentally stepping in cow patties, swimming in shivery burns. He spreads out a plaid and they spend secluded hours inside the walls of a local fortress ruin. Sometimes he pretends it’s their very own home. She diverts him from these fantasies, easily. He says her name so softly she can barely hear him, her hair twisting up in his hands. Every time he kisses her, she tastes milky tea and the tang of the brambles they scavenged along the wayside.
At the end of July, they hike to the top of Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall. While standing on the crag, looking down at the tumbling water, he says, “We could get married.”
Her knees loosen.
He turns, slides his arms around her waist.
“You’re crazy,’ she says and as it leaves her lips, she sees the hurt wash over his face.
He drops his grip and stares back into the gorge.
Listening to the cascade, she realizes how easily she could slip into his life. But she lets the seconds lapse, lets the sentiment fade. The rush of water is just white noise.
Finally, feeling compelled to give him something, she runs her fingers down the slope of his shoulder, over the curve of his forearm until they furl around his wrist. “Let’s just enjoy this … today.”
When he pulls her close, she worries. Because hope is the worst of all evils.
“We have 33 todays left,” he sighs.
For the month of August, he plays tour guide. “You’ll never catch me,” he yells back to her as they cycle through semi-ancient oak forests, while starlings spray from the treetops like uncorked champagne.
Despite the drizzle, they meander along the shores of Arran, hand in hand. He points out the Highland Boundary Fault where the soft lush landscape yields to the sheer grandeur of the blue granite ridge. He tells her, “The locals call it the Great Tear.”
Approaching Ailsa Craig by ferry, the buff cliffs seem to throb. “Gannets,” he explains. Their throaty vibrato escalates as the boat draws closer. The vast colony clings to the rock face emitting a raucous clamor while overhead the sky is teeming with grand seabirds who circle, glide, and then plunge into the white-capped swells.
When the month is over, he takes her to a glaciated valley, carved out during the last ice age. They ramble, shoulder to shoulder, jostling against each other, down a remote trail lined with beech trees, past hedges of wild honeysuckle, and along a spring-fed loch to the bottom of the glen where he says the echo is magical. And far from anyone, he plays the pipes exclusively for her. At the end, rather than sudden silence, the trailing drones die slowly. She leans against a limestone outcrop, in the center of the sunlit hollow, the surrounding bracken waving in the breeze, reminding herself that it’s all temporary.
Marjory Faion recently won the Writer Magazine's short story contest. She has earned certificates in creative writing from the University of Toronto and Humber College. She is currently working on a memoir about loss.