So I would choose to be with you.
That’s if the choice were mine to make.
But you can make decisions too,
and you can have this heart to break
Eight years ago
“Claire, love, please remember, I am no’ walking away from ye.”
“Well, that's what it feels like.”
“I have tae go, ye ken that. It’s ma family’s survival, it’s the future of Lallybroch. This contract we have wi’ the breeding stables in Kentucky, I have tae do it… I have tae go. But I'm askin’ ye tae come with me.”
“You’re asking me to give up the dream I’ve had since I was a little girl, to be a doctor, a surgeon.”
“There must be hospitals in Kentucky where ye can continue that dream, wi’ me.”
“But none with the reputation that Glasgow has. It’s pioneering work here, and Dr. Hildegard says…”
“So it’s Dr. Hildegard as has persuaded ye on this then. She should keep her mouth shut and let ye decide for yourself.”
“I am deciding for myself. Can’t I stay here and we try to make it work long distance?”
“That’s no’ goin’ tae work and ye ken that. Ye work all the hours ye can. How often would ye be able tae visit me? If I visited ye, how much time would ye spend away from the hospital? Nah, Claire, I want ye tae come wi’ me… us together.”
“Jamie, I want us together too, but I want my dream as well, Dr. Hildegard says it’s my calling. Don’t make me choose, please.”
“Aye, weel, I reckon ye’ve already chosen. It’s funny ye want tae be a cardiologist, fixin’ people’s hearts, because Claire, I tell ye, ye’ve just broken mine.”
“Uncle Lamb, Uncle Lamb?” Claire dropped her car keys in the bowl on the hall table and shrugged off her coat. “Are you in?”
She walked down the hallway, the sound of her heels on the chequered floor tiles echoing in the silence. Quickly scanning each room as she passed by, she continued a one-sided conversation with her unusually silent uncle. “Has the post been today? Where is it? Did my copy of The Lancet arrive?”
Finally arriving at the door to her Uncle’s study, she knocked gently before entering. The scene that greeted her was familiar, unchanged since she was a child. The large, dark, wooden desk was strewn with a forest’s worth of paper, fixed in place by a haphazard assortment of stones, belt buckles and ancient bowls, and lit by a single desk light. The old leather chair turned away from the desk to face the window overlooking the back garden.
A garden of this size was a rarity in the suburbs of Glasgow, and Claire had to admit, was sorely in need of some tender, loving care -- Claire being short on time and Lamb short on inclination. But she had always loved the view from this window, as had her uncle.
One of her first memories, following the deaths of her parents, was quietly creeping into this study, desperately looking for assurance that her uncle was there, yet trying not to disturb him. Her ninja skills being unrefined at age five, Lamb had heard her and immediately swept her into his arms, settling her in his lap as he sat and turned the chair to face the window.
“See there, Claire,” he had whispered to her. “Over there, that’s where we’ll put a swing, if you’d like. I want you to be happy here. This is your home, too.”
The swing, much used, was still there, now rusted and wobbly with weeds breaking through the wood-chip ground cover beneath.
The desk seemed more untidy than usual, a layer of envelopes and official looking letters covering its surface. Uncle Lamb was sitting facing the window. He swung back to face Claire.
“Hello, Uncle. Have you got my copy of The Lancet? There’s an interesting article on a non-surgical approach to mesenteric vascular disease…”
Claire looked at him and stopped. His eyes were red rimmed and watery. “Lamb, what is it?”
She rushed round the desk and crouched beside him. “Are you ok?”
He pointed at the papers on his desk and sighed. “The bank, the credit card companies…”
Claire focused on the collection of letters in front of her, statements and demands from an assortment of financial institutions, some of them dated months ago.
“Uncle, what are these? I don’t understand. Why haven’t you talked to me about these before?”
Lamb cast his eyes down to his hands, fingers nervously worrying his cuticles. “I don’t know… I thought I could sort it out… that you’d never need to know. But the bills just kept coming, and the amounts kept getting bigger. I didn’t want to burden you with it. I should have been able to cope. But now, I’m worried… I don’t know how to get out of this.”
Claire was silent for a moment, doing some rough mental calculations. It seemed to add up to quite a sizeable amount, certainly more than was evidenced by her uncle’s usual lifestyle. She didn’t want to embarrass him more than he obviously was, but she needed to understand.
“Uncle, how did this happen? I’m sorry, but that’s a fair amount of money to have spent so quickly.”
“The field trip last summer, that six week dig in Turkey. That’s where it started.”
“But I thought those expenses were covered by the university. Not funded out of your own pocket?”
“Well, you know the universities at the moment, cutting back on everything nonessential. Apparently research into cairn burials around the Black Sea is not relevant enough for today’s modern universities. The funding they gave me was a pittance… practically an insult.” Lamb spoke bitterly. “How can learning about what has made us who we are not be relevant? What did I always tell you, Claire?”
“A people who do not know their history are fated to repeat it.” Claire answered automatically, years of visiting historical sites with her uncle had drilled this into her brain.
“Exactly! You understand, Claire. And there is more to be done over there, that trip just set the groundwork. I’m sure that…” Lamb’s eyes brightened at the thought of future archaeological digs.
One of her Uncle’s many endearing qualities had always been an otherworldliness that focussed his mind on the significance of the past at the expense of the trivia of his present. Claire had never minded having to shoulder the responsibilities for their ‘trivial present’, leaving Lamb free to explore the ‘significant past’. Even now, part of her longed to be able to take this financial predicament away from him, leaving him to dream and plan for his next expedition.
But, she had to be practical. Lamb had to set aside any thoughts of future trips until this financial problem in his trivial present had been dealt with. And Claire thought she had just the solution.
“Uncle, no, please.” Claire interrupted. “I’m sorry but you can’t be thinking about that at the moment. We have to sort this out. You are going to have to sell this house.”
Lamb was immediately jolted from dreams of the past back to the present. He stared at Claire, aghast at this suggestion. “Sell the house? I couldn’t do that! This is our home.”
Claire cleared her throat and paused for a second before she spoke again. Her medical training had taught her to view objectively, taking all emotion out of her surgical procedures. And surely that’s what this is, she told herself, another surgical intervention -- quick, clean strokes to sever the bonds and leave everything repaired good as new.
“Lamb, you know as well as I do, this house is too big for us. We’re rattling around in here, and half the rooms we never even go in. How many people still live in great big Edwardian villas like this? You only have to look down this road, most of these houses are converted into flats. I’m sure a property developer would give us a good price and you could get something smaller. And it’s high time I got my own place. A flat close to work would be great.”
“Claire, I can’t sell this place. It’s where you grew up. It’s what I want to pass on to you, your inheritance. No, I won’t do it. There must be another way.”
Claire settled herself in the battered chair reserved for visitors to the office and waited for Mrs. Fitzgibbons to return with the promised cup of tea. Glenna Fitzgibbons (widely known as ‘Mrs. Fitz’), had been her Uncle’s secretary at the university for many years and knew him better than anyone apart from Claire herself. Claire hoped that she might be able to use her considerable influence to persuade Lamb to sell the house.
Mrs. Fitz bustled into the office with a tray filled with what seemed to be a full afternoon tea. Settling behind her desk, she poured two cups of tea from her favourite novelty thatched cottage teapot, added milk from the matching jug and passed a cup to Claire, along with a scone liberally spread with butter and jam.
“I canna bide the notion of jes’ dippin’ a teabag in a mug of hot water, ye ken. A cup of tea, properly brewed, mind, can fix anything. So, pet, tell me, how are ye? And what’s mitherin’ ye? I ken there’s something goin’ on.”
Claire sipped her tea. “Oh, Mrs. Fitz, I’m so worried. Has my uncle spoken to you about his current financial situation?”
“No, that he hasna, but from the look on yer face, I’m guessin’ that’s what’s on yer mind. Talk tae me, how can I help?”
“Well, he’s been hiding it from me, but that last trip he did to Turkey, he practically had to fund it himself and it’s wiped him out financially. He owes so much now, the only way I can see out of it is to sell the house, but he refuses. I was hoping maybe you could talk to him, change his mind?”
Just the act of talking to Mrs. Fitz made Claire feel a bit better. She couldn’t remember how many times growing up she had sat in this office while Mrs. Fitz had shared pots of tea, advice and great big all-enveloping hugs. There was a time, in her teens, when Claire had asked her advice on everything, looking for a female, almost motherly view that Lamb, much as he loved her, was unable to provide.
Once into her twenties, although their bond remained strong, the need for this advice waned. Although, Claire sometimes wondered how different her life would be had she sought out Mrs. Fitz eight years ago rather than relying on another’s counsel.
Claire passed over a piece of paper with her rough calculations on it. Mrs. Fitz studied it intently.
“I’m thinkin’ there may be a way round this. How about if we could convince Lamb he didna have tae sell, but could rent the house out for a couple ofyears and then use that money tae pay off what he owes. The university has some accommodation for faculty members at a peppercorn rent but what about ye? Where would that leave ye?”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ve been thinking for a while, it’s time I got a place on my own. This is just forcing me to make the move.”
Claire took the paper back and folded it before placing it carefully in her handbag. “I know the funding from the university wasn’t great, but this amount looks really high… I don’t know, has anything changed?”
Mrs. Fitz pursed her lips and remained silent for a moment before responding. “Aye… Malva… his latest grad student. She went on that trip with him.”
Claire was taken aback. “No… surely not… you don’t think…”
“Och, nay, I dinna mean that. But she was determined tae go on that trip wi’ him, and somehow convinced him. And the equipment… for years yer uncle hasna changed his equipment, now, suddenly nothing but the best state of the art imagin’ equipment will do. And a drone, he’s bought a drone. Now I’m no’ one tae point the finger, but all this started when she began tae work wi’ him. Mark ma words, she’s tryin’ tae make a name fer herself here at the university… and at yer Uncle’s expense”
And with that, Mrs. Fitz sat back and furiously began to munch her scone.