Claire Beauchamp clutched her husband’s hand as the pretty little fishing village came into view. It was beyond adorable - which was probably entirely the wrong reaction to have to the sight of somewhere that represented years and years of hard outdoor work in the harsh Scottish climate.
And yet for their long weekend away from their jobs, it was absolutely perfect.
The distinctive white ferry with its red funnels swung around out of The Sound and into the shelter of the bay as the row of painted terraced houses on the shore greeted them cheerfully. On the pier locals began to prepare to meet the ferry and offloads the welcome deliveries of food, post and other supplies.
‘Do you like it?’ John asked, his eyes dancing at the sight of Claire so animated.
‘John, its perfect!’
‘I was hoping you’d say that.’
‘Where are we staying?’
‘At the hotel in the middle there,’ John pointed. ‘With a sea view. The food is supposed to be rather excellent.’
‘You think I came here for the food?’ Claire laughed, giving her husband eyes.
John paused a moment to compose himself. ‘Why is it everyone assumes you’re the well behaved one and I’m the outrageous one when all the time it is actually the other way around?’
Claire leaned in and kissed him sweetly, letting a hand linger on his chest. John was the sweetest husband a woman could ask for. She couldn’t believe that she had flirted with making an immature crush serious at one point, one of her Uncle’s friends who had indulged her as she was growing up. Claire sighed with relief at the near escape of what would have undoubtedly been a horribly unhappy marriage. At first, John had simply been a convenient diversion. By his own admission he tended to prefer men but he had agreed to give the appearance of dating Claire to put Frank off a little after she had turned him down only to discover that they genuinely liked each other.
John had been keen that it should not be a marriage of convenience. If they were marrying because they genuinely wanted to spend a life together, he insisted he would be faithful to her. But so long as Claire had known John he had always spent a huge amount of time in the company of other men. It was part of who he was. And after she had gotten used to that fact, she didn’t like the idea of John cutting off a huge part of himself to be with her. No, she insisted, John could dip his toe in the water from time to time if he was open and transparent about it and he got her approval.
John had absolutely vetoed this idea.
Not one to be put off, Claire had begun to enquire about his taste in men. And before long Claire was all but picking out boyfriends for him when they were out, much to John’s chagrin.
It had taken a sit down discussion to get Claire to behave and comply with his wishes. He was grateful for her indulgence, but he was committed to his marriage. However, he agreed, if he felt particularly drawn to someone, or a genuine connection that he could not stop thinking about John would consider using her liberty if she was agreeable.
There had only been once such occasion in the two short years they had been married. His name was Stephen and Claire loved to tease John about it because every time the man’s name came up John blushed deeply and started stuttering over his words and John did not stutter easily. For some reason John could never understand it seemed to get Claire’s blood up and no sooner was John on the back foot in such discussions than invariably his wife was trying to have her way with him in the middle of the afternoon.
John stood on the blustery viewing deck thinking of afternoon sex when his eyes caught sight of a particularly tall and wind-swept figure in a cream aran sweater standing on the pier. The cables of the knitting clung to his chest and shoulders and John gasped as his handsome face and strong jaw came into view. He radiated strength and competence and John wanted him immediately - felt a pulse pierce his heart and his stomach clench.
Claire wound her hand a little tighter around John’s arm and rested her head on his shoulder, watching the seagulls hang over the bay as the ferry slid gracefully through kelpy water towards the pier. She was away in her own world, blind to the eyes that caught her from the shore.
Jamie heard his name called and forced himself to pull away from the ridiculously handsome couple standing up there on the viewing deck of the ferry. Now was not the time to indulge in the random flirtations he sometimes allowed himself. Window shopping only, he reminded himself. He had responsibilities. There was wood and fuel to be unloaded for the distillery and Jamie had to get it all done before three o’clock when the school came out. It was wee Faith’s first year and Jamie was determined to be there for her every day at the school gates.
The delivery last week had been missed on account of the weather, and so most of the village was out this week to meet the boat, eager for their post and the provisions they couldn’t source themselves on the island.
The lorry for the local metro supermarket rolled off first to a few cheers from the standing crowd. Then came some locals and some tourists in their cars about half of whom would drive out across the island and never be seen again. And then there was the post and other provisions. Wood, fuel, livestock. Locals who assisted with the ferry fell into conversation with the crew as everyone worked together to get the offloading and sorting done, chatting with neighbours as they worked together.
Jamie’s eyes fell onto the lass he had spotted before, now seated beside her husband with his warm, lingering eyes. They had one of those fancy German cars that folks had in the city.
Jamie took in a deep breath and watched her. Her bonnie brown curls whipping around in the wind. Beside her stood her husband, a man a little shorter than himself, impeccably well dressed with fastidiously neat hair and indulgently kind brown eyes that met Jamie’s for a moment. Jamie tried to ignore the way his body reacted. Window shopping only, he reminded himself. A wee bit of fun with a lady was one thing. Jamie didn’t need his cock jumping around in his underpants just cause of one bloke with nice eyes.
‘Eist rium, a Sheumais!’
Jamie looked up to find one of his fellow villagers waiting for him to grab the other end of a heavy transport box. ‘Tha mi duilich, a’ charaid.’
‘Away wi’ the faeries,’ The man teased him, shaking his head.
Jamie took the teasing on the chin and buckled down to the work. All the same, he watched from the corner of his eye as the couple’s car made its way the short distance down the street to the main hotel and parked outside.
The fresh sea air of the coast filled Jamie’s lungs as he made the walk back around the bay to the whisky distillery he had built out beyond the village. A lot of the provisions he required, the barley and such that he couldn’t source on the island came in by boat as well as the materials for making barrels. It was winter now and there was a lot less in the way of tourism in the darker, wetter months. Jamie liked this time of year. The ocean currents that wound their way up this coast kept it mild through the colder months although the wind could be bitter at times. A local pal who was a fisherman had came by with a crate of langoustine and popped it in Jamie’s chest freezer while Jamie was out and taken a bottle of whisky in payment.
Jamie picked up the note and shook his head. That langoustine was worth a hell of lot more than one bottle, but Jamie knew he would be insulting his pal to try and coax him into taking anything further. He carried the things he had brought from the ferry into the kitchen and put them away.
Ten to three.
Jamie left the house, not bothering to lock the door, and made his way back into town to meet his lass. The distillery had been all of Jamie’s life savings. When Faith was born and he had been living in the city, a high-flying job in the city trading commodities. But Geneva his ex had tried to give the lass up and her parents had agreed to Jamie having her instead. Jamie knew that any kid of his he would want to raise in his homeland and the move had been one of those things that fell into place. He had had it in mind to find a place on the mainland, his own folks being from Inverness-shire. But looking around for business premises this one had fallen into his lap and Jamie had fallen in love. The scenery, the rough rocky water, the seals and otters and kelp. The fresh sea air, the seafood, the warmth and the charm of the locals who were over the moon to discover someone settling in instead of buying a holiday home.
Jamie stood at the gate, blushing slightly as he got a few familiar looks from the crowd of Mums and passed the time of the day with a few of them talking about events in the town.
Soon the bell rang and the kids came running out. His wee lass was there, her tangled red hair streaming as she clutched her lunch box and ran towards him with a huge grin on her face.
Jamie swept her up in his arms for a hug and a kiss before settling her back down and having a good look at her.
‘Hàlo, Faith. Ciamar a tha thu? Ciamar a’ bha an sgoil an-diugh?’
‘Bha i sgoinneil!’
Jamie laughed out loud at her enthusiasm. Maybe one day it would wear off but for now she was as happy as a mouse in a loaf, as the Gaelic saying went. ‘Cho toilichte ri luch ann an lofa.’
‘Tha an t-acras orm, a Dhadaigh.’
‘Ye’re always hungry, lass,’ Jamie grinned as she slid her wee hand into his and began tugging him home.
He supposed maybe there would be a day where he would get fed up of being a father. Where the novelty would wear off. Just like Faith going to school. But that day was not today. And Jamie quietly hoped it wouldn’t happen for a long time yet.
Eist rium, a Sheumais! - Listen to me James
Tha mi duilich, a’ charaid. - I am sorry, friend
Ciamar a tha thu? Ciamar a’ bha an sgoil an-diugh? - How are you? How was school today?
Bha i sgoinneil! - It was brilliant!
Cho toilichte ri luch ann an lofa - As happy as a mouse in a loaf
Tha an t-acras orm, a Dhadaigh. - I am hungry, Daddy
The Scots Gaelic that I use in this story is all Gaelic I have learnt myself. Most of it is on Duolingo.
Thank you for the wonderful response to Chapter 1. Maybe I’m not the only one in need of a bit of escapism!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Claire and John spent the afternoon in their room trying out the bed and every other available surface. It was good to be together, to have sex together, to laugh together. Claire liked to push John’s buttons when he got too proper and and buttoned up and within half an hour he was on his front biting the pillow as his wife as his wife tortured him with pleasure using their latest sex toy.
Better not leave that one lying around for the staff to find.
After a long indulgent bath for two, and mopping up the bathroom floor after, they dressed each other, smiling warmly and hardly able to let go of each other. And then in the hour that was too late to call afternoon and too early to call evening they gently meandered along the front arm in arm watching the sun set.
Claire found her eyes drawn to the buildings at the far end, beyond the town where the man they had seen earlier was urging a lively little girl with red hair that it was time to go in and have her tea. Not that she could hear the conversation from such a distance, but Claire watched the man sigh and smile and lean against the wall of house to watch the light, allowing the lass five more minutes.
Claire nudged John and pointed with her eyes.
John sighed softly and took in a breath of the air. Cool, fresh, maritime air. You could taste the ocean on your lungs as the seagulls hung in the air, flying out to sea for the night.
Their eye settled on the little girl dressed in a fair isle jumper. She looked like a child of old, that had the run of the place. Who had adventures, climbing on rocks and building secret hide-outs and playing make believe. When her time was up the man called her and the lass ran straight to him, sliding her hand into his.
Neither Claire nor John voiced their thoughts, though both were thinking of the same thing.
It was John who pulled himself out of it and took a deep breath as the last of the daylight faded. ‘Its getting cold,’ John pointed out. ‘Why don’t we head back and sit in the lounge for a while by the fire and have a drink and see what the specials are for dinner tonight?’
Claire liked the sound of sitting by the fire. ‘They said lower virility, John. They didn’t say infertile.’
‘Do we have to talk about this now?’
‘You never want to talk about it.’
John stopped and clasped her face between his hands, looking deeply into his wife’s entrancing whisky-coloured eyes. ‘It will happen if it is meant to happen,’ John stated with the utmost conviction. ‘Now, with a bit of luck there’s a lobster back in the hotel with my name on it.’
Jamie’s eyes lingered on the couple, promenading together along the waterfront. It was at moments like this that Jamie yearned for he didn’t know what. Something that had never come to pass in his life. There had been girlfriends. There had been offers from men that Jamie had turned down. Did people really have great loves? Or did they simply give up at some point and settle down with someone they could stand and make do regardless?
Dinner was just him and Faith, served at the kitchen table as always. There were none of the neigbourhood kids to chase out to their own homes tonight, although that was not an uncommon occurrence. Most of the local families left their doors open and the kids ran in and out of each others homes as they pleased.
It was a simple dinner tonight, haddock chips and peas.
Faith liked hers with ketchup.
Jamie preferred his with tartar sauce. He indulged Faith, letting her play with her food for a while before he took a firmer line about making sure she ate some of it. Not that she was a fussy eater. Faith ate anything in front of her most days. They had ice cream for dessert and then washed up and went to sit in front of the telly. Jamie got his knitting out and helped Faith with hers. Her current project was a ‘blanket’ for one of her toys, a plain square knitted all in knit stitch but it was coming along just fine and Jamie didn’t think it would be too long before she knew how to purl.
Then it was bathtime, pyjamas and Jamie read her a Katie Morag story before lights out.
It wasn’t until Faith was in bed and Jamie had the evening to himself that he had time to think about being on his own. There wasn’t much of a dating scene, and for all the teasing about his looks from the old ladies in the co-op, Jamie wasn’t one to be working his way around the singles of the town either. But it was the life he had chosen, a quiet life. A good place to raise a child. There were more things in life, Jamie told himself. Besides, stability for Faith was more important. She was his wee lass and he was devoted to her. He poured a dram and turned on some tunes on the radio and settled in with a book by the fire.
Dinner at the hotel was almost as good as the sex. John was struggling to hold in his laughter at the noises Claire was making.
‘And all this time you insisted you didn’t come here to eat the food, my Darling.’ John teased with a smile.
‘You didn’t tell me it was this good. My god, I could eat seafood like this for days.’
‘It is rather delectable, isn’t it?’
They had ordered a seafood platter to share, most of it locally caught and landed right there in the harbour in front of them. Even the salad and sides were mostly local and organic and had a flavour that was chalk and cheese to the ones you could buy in a supermarket.
They filled themselves up with fresh seafood and butter sauce with sides of golden hand-cut chips and local seasonal vegetables. Claire and John retired, full and sated and fell asleep curled together as John grumbled good-naturedly about the wet patch and Claire laughed at him with fondness.
Sleep came easily and though it was not yet dawn when Claire awoke she could tell that it was morning. There was a chill calm that only came with the hour before dawn and she slid out of bed and walked to the window, opening the curtains to find the fisher folk at the harbour already up and about to set out on the morning tide. Claire pulled on a dressing gown and wrapped it around her as the men went about their work in their distinctive yellow oilskins. There were nets on the shore being repaired, men climbing in and out of boats. There were stacks of large plastic boxes and empty lobster pots.
The harbour was quiet, the dark surface of the water just beginning to reflect the growing light on the eastern horizon. The rugged hills of the mainland sat in silhouette against the twilight sky. Seagulls hung in the air, calling loudly in the halflight. The sea was high, soft waves lapping against the wall that lined the shore. A small boat departed with two men on board moving slowly out of the harbour on a quiet engine. Claire watched a man tend to a net stretched out along the quayside, mending them by hand.
The smell of salt was in the air, the smell of the sea. It made Claire feel at peace.
In the bed John moaned and stretched and looked up at her with a smile. ‘Morning, Darling.’
Claire turned around and smiled. ‘Good morning, John’.
The modest success of the distillery had started with gin in the first couple of years as Jamie got his head wrapped around the more complex and artful skill of making whisky. Then it had to be laid down for at least three years. The first whisky cask out of the still he had gifted to Faith - Jamie was laying it down for her eighteenth birthday. But importantly he had been able to scrape together some expert advice from some of the other independent distilleries and was quite pleased with his current offer. It was still a bit young, but it was whisky and Jamie hoped his limited batch offers would continue to improve. Certainly the locals weren’t complaining and now he could sell it, Jamie had begun taking on more staff and the rather basic visitor centre was getting an upgrade in the new year. For now, Jamie was happy to enjoy the relative quiet at the end of the tourist season. Especially now he had help from Fergus.
Jamie had met him a couple of years ago on a business trip to Paris to look for a distribution partner when the young man had picked Jamie’s pocket and Jamie had caught him. But Jamie had a use for someone someone who knew the back streets of Paris like the back of his hand and the two of them had hit it off. Notwithstanding the lad’s tricksy fingers. The lad had spirit and something about him reminded Jamie of himself at that age. He had a cheeky sense of humour that made Jamie laugh.
It was only when it was time for Jamie to go home two days later that Jamie saw the sadness in the young man’s warm brown eyes and learned his story. He had been born Claudel had been raised by a penniless single mother in Senegal. His mother had done what she could but he had been half fending for himself as long as he could remember. It was a risky life and more than once Claudel had narrowly avoided being kidnapped, or trafficked. Finally Claudel had run away, heading for the migration routes towards Europe in the hope of safety and a better life.
Jamie had looked around him at the busy, bustling city of Paris and wondered if it was much safer here. Jamie had asked after the lad’s mother and had received only a shake of the head. Claudel had asked about Scotland and Jamie’s own home and Jamie watched the lad’s eyes light up at the tales of island adventures, alcohol and bountiful seas. Claudel didn’t hide his desire to travel with Jamie back to Scotland. If only it were so simple. The system for migrants was slow and tricky and bureaucratic. There were endless rules about who could stay where and Claudel’s status as a child and lack of paperwork made everything more difficult still. Yet Jamie couldn’t stop thinking about the lad once he was back home watching Faith sleep in her wee toddler bed and reading her bed time stories. Before Jamie knew what he was doing he was trying to navigate the nightmare immigration system to get permission for Claudel to come over from France.
It had been an uphill struggle. By the time it was all sorted out Claudel was practically an adult in the eyes of Scots Law. Jamie had spent weeks giving Faith photographs and explaining to her what was happening and then they had gone to Glasgow to meet him off the flight. It was Claudel himself who insisted on a new name for a new start - a Scottish name. The newly baptised Fergus had spent his first night on the island on Jamie’s sofa while Jamie worried about how Fergus would fit in.
It quickly became clear that any effort to get Fergus into school was going to be tricky but he settled for signing up to some online courses and Jamie tutored him when needed. The truth was that Fergus was already independent, used to being on his own and earning his own money and making his own way. At the same time, he loved to please and did everything he could to help around the distillery until he became indispensable. Before long Fergus was Jamie’s right hand man. Jamie helped Fergus find a flat nearby and helped Fergus settle in, and in spite of all of Jamie’s worries about how Faith would get along with him, Fergus doted on the lass like a fond older brother and called her ‘Mi’lady’. He had a head for business, a charm about him and a cheeky sense of humour that helped him fit right in with the locals.
Sitting at the breakfast table, Jamie sent Fergus a text to see if he wanted to come to beach later while Faith ate her porridge eagerly. She loved the stuff, but was quite particular about how it had to be prepared. Milk, not water and very runny with honey drizzled on top. Jamie sipped his own coffee and they conversed in softspoken Gaelic. It was Saturday, so no school today. Even the distillery would be quiet. Now that the tourist season was drawing to a close most of the seasonal workers had gone home and the visitor centre had shut for the winter. There was still the distilling to be done, but Jamie had a bit more time on his hands to spend with his lassie and that was just fine by him - Autumn was Jamie’s favourite time of year in Scotland.
First, a note on Fergus. I wanted to adapt Fergus’s character to reflect the modern era while still reflecting canon characterisation. At the same time, I am white and I do not have a sensitivity reader at present. So I want to reach out especially to non-white readers that I am happy to receive constructive feedback. My headcanon casting for Fergus in this story is Ncuti Gatwa.
Second, the system for child migrants is bureaucratic and frustrating. In reality many children in France are not allowed to come to the UK even when they have family here. Anyone with a knowledge of the current system may have to allow me some use of artistic license for the purposes of the story.
The Scots Gaelic I use in this is Gaelic I have learned myself through my own studies. Much of it can be found on duolingo and on the language learning programme, Speaking Our Language. I have done my best to get the grammar right but apologies for any errors.
In this story Fergus is black and I am not and I do not have a sensitivity reader at present with regard to this aspect of the story. As a result I wanted to communicate that I am open to discussion and constructive criticism about this.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jamie made a list in his head. He had to check on things at the distillery where Angus would be in charge of monitoring the stills today. He had to open the shop but it was only open ten til four in the winter and Marsali would be in all day. He had to go and get groceries at some point. But mostly he wanted to take Faith to their favourite beach and look for seals and otters. The sea was endlessly fascinating to Faith, which was unfortunate since simply thinking about boats gave Jamie seasickness never mind actually being on one.
The weather looked changeable but Jamie was hopeful it would hold for long enough for them to have some fun. First though, there was work and being a single father, where he went Faith went. Faith always wore a bright florescent vest in the distillery and Jamie had made her up an official lanyard. They made their rounds, Jamie checking everything was in good order and passing the time of day with Angus as he started his shift. With the checks completed Jamie took Faith with him to go and open up the shop where a local lass, Marsali had turned up for her Saturday shift. Also outside was Fergus alongside his wee cairn terrier, Solo. Jamie smirked as he saw Fergus attempting to chat Marsali up and using all his charm to do so.
‘You behave yourself, Fergus,’ Marsali chided him but there was a wee smile hiding in the corner of her mouth.
Jamie cleared his throat and Fergus sprung back, making Jamie laugh. Marsali bent down to make a fuss of Solo who yipped happily and ran in an excited circle.
‘Fergus,’ Jamie nodded in greeting. ‘A bit early for you, isn’t it?’
‘Jamie! I was just,’ Fergus glanced at Marsali, ‘looking for you.’
Jamie smirked and shook his head. ‘Aye. Sure ye were. Good morning, Marsali.’
‘Good morning, Mister Fraser,’ Marsali smiled at Jamie as he too bent down to pet Solo and say hello. Faith rushed in to play with the dog which suited Jamie fine.
‘Mind her a minute, aye?’ Jamie said to Fergus, nodding at Faith.
Fergus looked torn, clearly wanting to go inside with Marsali but he agreed. Jamie went about the opening procedures with Marsali, checking the stock and retrieving the cash float from the safe and setting everything up.
‘Quiet day, I expect,’ Jamie said at last.
‘Aye, well...it is the off season,’ Marsali agreed. ‘Makes a nice change though.’
Jamie was silent for a long moment. He watched Faith and Solo playing outside while Fergus wound them both up. ‘So, you and Fergus?’
‘There is no me and Fergus, Mister Fraser.’
‘Marsali yer no at church. Its Jamie, aye?’
‘My mother would have my hide for calling my boss by his first name.’
‘Well yer mother’s not here. Marsali, you’ve got a sensible head on your shoulders-’
Marsali smiled in a disarming way as if brushing away all his troubles and looked at him in a kindly way that instantly had him on the back foot. How did people do that, Jamie wondered? ‘Jamie,’ Marsali said with great emphasis, ‘We were just flirting. You needn’t worry about your beloved little Fergus.’
‘It wasn’t really him I was worried about,’ Jamie confessed. At least, that was, until Marsali turned in a woman wise beyond her years.
‘I know how to handle myself.’
‘He can be quite a charmer, if he wants to be,’ Jamie warned.
Marsali’s laughter rang out, warm and glorious and suddenly Jamie felt terribly foolish. ‘I’ve worked here all these months and you think I hadn’t noticed your Fergus was a charmer?’ Marsali giggled. And then she took a deep breath and got control of herself. ‘Thank you for caring, Jamie. Now stop dithering and go and take that lass o’ yours out on the town.’
‘Am I not meant to be your boss?’ Jamie wondered as he picked up his coat to leave. ‘Fine. I’ll take that delivery to the hotel on the way.’
‘Chi mi a-rithist sibh, a’ Sheumas!’
‘Chi mi a-rithist thu,’ Jamie corrected her, walking backwards towards the door. Marsali was using the formal deliberately. Probably just to wind him up.
Marsali opened the door and predictably Faith came running with Solo at her heels and grabbed his hand eagerly. She loved helping out at his work but she loved time together doing other things even more and today promised lots of excitement. Shopping! Beaches!
‘Dad! Fergus is coming to the beach later!’ Faith grinned and giggled as Solo ran eagerly back and forth, over the moon at Faith’s excitement.
‘Ye’re coming this afternoon?’
‘Mi’Lady and I have grand plans to build sandcastles, don’t we Faith?’
‘Aye!’ Faith grinned, ‘And Solo can help.’
‘He does love digging,’ Fergus agreed. ‘Jamie, do you want me to take the delivery to the hotel this morning?’
‘Nah, its your day off. I’ll do it. I have to go and get some groceries anyway.’
‘I could tag along?’
Jamie smiled and snorted. ‘Aye, fine then. I suppose the wee mutt’s coming too?’ In truth it made a world of difference to be able to have him around to keep an eye on Faith from time to time and it still moved Jamie that Fergus wanted his company. Faith’s latest thing was wanting a pet, and as much as Jamie loved the idea he didn’t see how another responsibility would fit into his life right now. Fortunately he had been able to talk Fergus into getting a pet instead.
‘Wee mutt? Don’t listen to him Solo!’ Fergus told his dog.
Jamie looked at the dog fondly, leaning down to ruffle the terrier’s ears. ‘Are ye no glad I talked ye into getting him?’
It was a rhetorical question that Fergus let hang. Although, he could allow that Solo was an endlessly cheerful companion and besides, he helped keep the vermin out of the grain stores. There were reasons Jamie wanted him to get a dog. Jamie worried about Fergus. Not that Fergus couldn’t handle himself. And most of the locals were friendly, although there had been one or two unfortunate comments at the start. For the most part however, Fergus had become a weel-kent face in the town and that suited him just fine. It was the visitors Jamie worried about, but so many young people left a place like this for jobs in the city and had done for generations the community relied on incomers to keep things going.
‘I admit it is nice to have the company,’ Fergus allowed. Keeping dogs as pets wasn’t something he had grown up with. Officially Solo was short for Solomaney, a traditional Senegalese name. Unofficially Fergus was a bit of a closet Star Wars fan which Jamie liked to tease him about. ‘Any news on the Visitor Centre?’
‘No word, yet. The council’s looking into the objections from those retired English couples with the holiday homes. God knows why they get to have a say, they’re only here half the time.’
‘The council have to allow it!’ Fergus insisted, ‘All the locals want it. They know the jobs it’ll provide.’
‘From your mouth to God’s ears, Fergus.’ Jamie patted the young man’s shoulder.
Visitors came from all over the world but there were always a few tourists taken aback to find the Pakistani-Scots running the Indian restaurant and the Chinese-Scots running the takeaway and the Scots-Italian family who ran a popular ice-cream parlour and still spoke fluent Italian four generations down the line. There was Fergus doing his errands for Jamie and the Syrian families who had been resettled recently and used the local church for Friday prayers. There were the migrant workers who came over from Europe to help with the harvest and the fishing and the hotels and restaurants in summer...it was a small community, and people here were pragmatists. You had to be to live on an island like this with boatloads of tourists in the summer and wild atlantic storms in the winter.
‘Right then,’ Jamie picked himself out of his thoughts. ‘Trobhad, a’ nigheann! Bidh sinn a’ dol air a bùth.’
‘Agus an taigh-òsta, a’ Dhadaigh?’
‘Tha sin ceart. Agus an taigh-òsta.’
‘Bha mi a’ cluich còmhla ri Solo.’ Faith grasped her father’s hand in one small palm and Fergus’s hand in the other.
‘Well Fergus and Solo are coming too so ye can play more later.’ Jamie glanced at Fergus to check that was alright. Fergus was picking up a good enough understanding of Gaelic now, although he didn’t tend to use it himself.
Faith gave out a wee cheer and tugged on their hands hopefully. ‘Swing me!’
Fergus laughed. ‘Sorry, Mi’Lady. Your Dad needs to carry the whisky. But I tell you what, if you’re good I’ll give you a piggy back ride, how does that sound?’
‘How about we give ye a couple o’ swings now before we set off then, how does that sound?’ Jamie compromised.
Faith agreed and happily found herself thrown up in the air clutched tightly to the arms of her father and big brother.
Claire and John sat together in the restaurant-bar of the hotel eating breakfast and discussing what to do for the day. John would have been happy to lie in bed all morning, but Claire wanted to get out and see the island and explore.
Their kindly landlady brought over their plates heaped high with food. Claire had opted for the scrambled eggs and smoked salmon with a small rocket salad. Local free range eggs, the landlady insisted and organic smoked salmon from the fish farm on the other side of the island served on home baked brown malted bread. John had opted for the fry-up. Bacon, eggs, square sausage, link sausage, black pudding, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms.
‘And a tattie scone,’ The landlady smiled.
‘Indeed?’ John looked at it curiously.
‘Well a fry-up’s just no a fry-up wi’ out a tattie scone now, is it?’
‘No,’ John agreed urgently. ‘Quite.’
Claire bit back a laugh at John’s bemused face. He made his politest effort at digging in and then moaned sinfully as he tasted the dry cured oak smoked bacon from the local butchers. ‘God that’s not real!’ John insisted.
The landlady smirked and gave Claire a wink as she left them to it.
‘I didn’t know how much I just need a couple of really good meals until we came north.’ Claire said.
John laughed with a mouth full of food. ‘This is not the Scottish food I remember from my childhood holidays!’ John shared.
‘Better?’ Claire asked curiously. Her own wandering childhood years had taken her almost everywhere in the world except Scotland.
‘Oh yes,’ John agreed.
Their coffee came next, intensely strong espresso served with those delectable wee squares of tablet that more than did the job of waking them up and then filter coffee to sip after their meal. John had been struggling to finish his huge fry up so Claire had begun stealing food from his plate as John frowned and swatted at her mischievous hands.
Few other visitors had come down to have their own breakfast, it was clearly getting quieter now they were getting to the end of the season. They were just discussing what to do that day when the door was opened by a young black man and in walked the red-head they had been watching the day before followed by his daughter, the young man and the cutest little dog Claire had ever set eyes on.
John swallowed and put down his coffee and couldn’t take his eyes off the same man he had found himself watching multiple times yesterday.
Claire elbowed him for staring and shook her head. ‘You’re drooling!’
‘Madainn mhath ribh, a’ Seonag.’
‘Madainn mhath, a’ Sheumais.’
The red haired man lifted up a box and laid it on the bar, tapping the top of it with his hand.
‘Tha e an t-uisge beatha ann.’
‘Tapadh leat, mo gràidh.’ The landlady greeted Jamie warmly. ‘I’ll get this put away as soon as I’ve finished with breakfast.’
The man looked around and spotted John and Claire sitting not far off. He startled slightly. ‘Oh I didn’t see ye there...sorry, folks. Didnae mean tae be rude.’ Jamie tailed off as his eyes met theirs and he found himself staring at them. The husband and wife from the boat yesterday. Handsome, attractive, kind and inviting eyes. He should stop staring. Any second now.
‘You’re not interrupting, if that’s what you’re worried about,’ John assured him.
‘We were just discussing what to do today,’ Claire added. ‘Actually we rather like it that no one stands on ceremony here.’
And then she smiled and Jamie’s heart stopped and his stomach clenched. Oh dear that wasn’t good. And her being married as well. Not that having the husband watching him was helping the situation any. Jamie opened his mouth but no words came out, his eyes caught in their warm, inviting gaze. Dear God, it wasnae done to have yer heart hammering out of yer chest at the sight of a couple, was it? Yer stomach doing somersaults and yer palms all sweaty. Finally Jamie managed to shift his gaze away to look appealingly at the landlady.
‘I think what Jamie means is that it is considered impolite to speak Gaelic around those as don’t have the gaelic themselves.’ Shona explained leaving Claire and John floundering for a response but the lady had already moved on. ‘Oh, I see ye’ve brought the bairns!’
‘Aye,’ Jamie nodded. ‘Faith, Fergus, say hello.’
Faith and Fergus dutifully said hello and then Solo pottered up in front and cheerfully yipped as well.
‘Sorry,’ Fergus spoke up, ‘He usually waits outside.’
‘Nonsense!’ The land lady’s face lit up and she came around from the back of the bar to fuss over the wee dog. ‘Solo is always welcome in here, aren’t you my lovely?’
‘Dad! We need to go to the shop so we can go to the beach later!’ Faith reminded him.
Jamie ducked his chin and grinned at the floor. Whatever else was going on, there was always Faith around to remind him of his priorities. ‘Well, the boss is calling. See ye later, Shona.’
‘Mar sin leibh an-dràsta,’ Shona waved goodbye. When Jamie gave her a look for speaking Gaelic again, Shona waved it off. ‘Ocht don’t be daft, lad. They don’t mind.’
Jamie glanced at the couple once more and then with a curt nod he and his family piled back out the door into the street.
Claire and John both took in deep breaths and looked at each other.
‘How do you feel about going to the beach later?’
Due to differences in the way that Gaelic and English are structured the following translations are appoximate and not literal.
Chi mi a-rithist sibh, a’ Sheumas! - I’ll see you later/I’ll see you again (formal, plural)
Chi mi a-rithist thu, - I’ll see you later/I’ll see you again (informal)
Trobhadh, a’ nigheann! Bidh sinn a’ dol air a bùth. - Come lass. We are going to the shop.
Agus an taigh-òsta, a’ Dhadaigh? - And the hotel Daddy?
Tha sin ceart. Agus an taigh-òsta. - That’s right. And the hotel.
Bha mi a’ cluich còmhla ri Solo. - I was playing with Solo
Madainn mhath ribh, a’ Seonag. - Good morning to you, Shona
Madainn mhath, a’ Sheaumus. - Good morning James
Tha e an t-uisge beatha ann. - That’s the whisky
Tapadh leat, mo gràidh. - Thank you, dear. (Informal)
Mar sin leibh an-dràsta, - Bye just now (formal, plural)
Thank you so much for all the wonderful love and support this story has been getting.
Claire and John passed a bit more time in the restaurant sipping filter coffee and chatting with the landlady.
‘That’s Jamie,’ Shona explained, ‘Started up the distillery a few years ago. Its still quite small scale while he got things going but now the place has found its feet he’s looking to expand a bit.’
John expressed an appropriate amount of polite interest while under the table Claire’s hand slid into his and squeezed.
‘Are they open for tours?’ Claire asked.
‘Oh, I’m not sure. They dial things right down for the winter. If I was you I would just swing by at some point and ask in the shop.’
‘We thought we might take a walk along the coast,’ Claire said.
‘That’s an excellent idea!’ Shona said with great encouragement. ‘And have a walk along the front. There’s the church, and an art gallery, and a museum as well. Although if you want to go a bit further afield the local taxi lads are always happy to give you a tour of the island.’
Claire and John looked outside at the bright sky with light autumnal clouds sitting high. The air was cool but fresh and they were both eager to wrap up warm and go for a wander.
They perused the waterfront first, and then the town. The admired the tiny local museum, they bought tiffin at the bakers, they window-shopped at the places selling trinkets, wondered at a traditional leathercraft store, poked their heads into the church to admire the stained glass windows and had a walk round the art gallery with creations made of shells and driftwood and a particularly nice oil painting of the harbour with its pretty terraced houses. They wandered further, up the hill to the back of the town. They visited a local holy well, past tiny wee black Hebridean sheep and sturdy highland cows and even a small herd of llamas.
Claire and John headed back down the hill and hired a driver for a whistlestop tour of the island. There were knolls and cairns and castles, dramatic cliffs and pretty forests and hillsides with every shade of russet and green under the sun. They heard local stories about who owned what and where the ghosts were, where one clan had murdered another in centuries gone by. It was nearly lunch time when they were done and they asked to be dropped off a short walk from the town. The drive had been fascinating but they wanted some time alone together. Preferably somewhere more secluded and out of the way than the hotel bar.
A local community woodland was signposted and they went that way, finding composting toilets and nearby a selection of snacks for walkers with an honesty box beside it. Claire and John continued on through the woodland, holding hands and kissing and John dropping naughty hints while Claire told him to behave but giggled like a schoolgirl. They wandered past intricately carved wood structures, woven willow furniture and an empty selection of small structures clearly built from the woods themselves which appeared to be workshops used for woodwork.
A couple of folks were clearly camping out here, surrounded by the birdsong and the lichen and the smell of damp earth. A man with a large beard and a warm fleece-lined plaid shirt walked by and looked at them curiously but nodded and said hello all the same.
‘Just passing through,’ John smiled.
The man nodded and muttered something that might have been a greeting.
Claire cleared her throat. ‘I don’t suppose you know the way back to the town from here?’
The man with the beard looked at her then, and held her gaze for a long moment as if weighing her soul. Finally he lifted an arm and pointed.
‘Take a left at the next fork.’
‘Thank you,’ Claire smiled.
The man grunted again and waved at them as he turned around and wandered off muttering something about, ‘Bloody tourists.’
‘Well he seems like a charming fellow,’ John commented.
Claire however found herself chuckling. ‘Oh, I’ve had more than a few like that at work. They tend to be big softies under the gruff exterior. Besides, it can’t be easy coming from a small place like this and getting swamped like they do in the summer.’
‘No that’s true,’ John agreed. He slid his hand into Claire’s and pulled her in for a kiss which descended into a rather immature make-out session against a tree. John was in favour of just having sex right there.
Claire’s body was willing but her mind was in favour of something more sensible - and more comfortable. She put her hand against John’s chest, rubbing affectionately. ‘What do you say we head back to our hotel and have some lunch and an afternoon nap?’
‘Oh there’s only one thing I want to eat right now,’ John’s eyes were wide and dark and Claire felt herself getting wet.
At a brisk walk it was another forty minutes back to their hotel. Within the hour Claire was lying flat on her back clutching the bedclothes with John’s face buried between her legs. Later Claire returned the favour and they lay in bed for a while after, John’s idle hands wandering her breasts. ‘I never thought I’d be this much in love with a woman in my life,’ John confessed quietly.
Claire’s stomach rumbled loudly, causing John to laugh. ‘Sex, lunch, romantic confessions.’ Claire listed. ‘In that order.’
John patted her belly affectionately and swung his legs to sit up. ‘Yes, Ma’am.’
Claire snagged him and dragged him back down for a kiss. ‘I love you too.’
Downstairs, Claire and John gorged themselves on Cullen Skink and hot sticky toffee pudding with fudge sauce and vanilla ice cream and sat like whales after sipping whisky by the fire. Outside in the harbour a seal was bobbing, watching the town patiently from the water.
‘Shall we go the beach?’ John asked quietly. Although he was actually rather comfortable where he was. His fingers played in Claire’s hair. Endless rivults of brunette curls that were soft as silk on the backs of his fingers.
Beside him, Claire settled back against the sofa and placed a hand high on her husband’s thigh. ‘In a minute,’ She said and then laid her head on his shoulder, watching the flames.
Shopping on a Saturday always took longer than Jamie expected it to. The small metro supermarket might not look like much compared with what they hd on the mainland but here on the island it was a social hub and inevitably you met one person after another who society dictated you had to stop and pass the time of day with. By the time they were done Faith was starting to moan and Jamie couldn’t blame her. Finally they said their goodbyes and left, Jamie and Fergus carrying the bulk of their shop. The town was starting to get busy now and as they passed, Jamie noted a few people passing in and out of the distillery shop.
The day had turned out dry and bright with a few clouds high up in the sky in shades of blue and grey and purple. The light had a different quality at this time of year, no longer the bright harsh light of summer it was somehow softer and fell on the world at a lower angle that seemed to highlight every tone of the distant hillsides and every branch on each tree. Jamie was eager to get out now that they could enjoy the local haunts without too many tourists around. They were quick to put the shopping away in Jamie’s fridge and Jamie put on a tin of soup to heat for lunch.
They ate Campbell’s chicken soup watching the view out the window as Faith shared all the exciting things she had planned for the beach that afternoon. Fergus indulged his little sister and did his best to stop Jamie reverting to worry over the distillery at every turn. In the end however, Jamie insisted on popping next door for a quick visit to check on the distillery and the shop while Fergus distracted Faith with a dramatic rendition of Hairy Maclary From Donaldson’s Dairy with extra help from Solo.
In spite of Faith’s enthusiasm for the beach it still took longer to get out for any trip than without a young child. There were jackets and mittens to remember and trips to the toilet and Faith’s spade and bucket and snacks and hand sanitiser and a blanket to sit on. Solo had trotted patiently beside them all day but was now beginning to pace back and forth at the door with impatience, instinctively knowing that a walk was imminent.
Fortunately one of the island’s best beaches was only a short walk along the coast from town. The sort of white sand beach surrounded by machair that only existed in a few places in Scotland and Ireland. An Eriskay pony grazed amongst the last of the summer flowers and Jamie had to chuckle as Faith ooohed and aaahed over the equine. With Fergus’s help she fed it a handful of grass she had plucked and giggled as the pony’s big lips whispered over her hand.
The beach was rather quiet for the time of year. A lot of the local families with crofts worked their land on a Saturday, but there were some older kids from town who had come out to sit around on the driftwood and moan about school and their parents while they were home for the weekend, spending the week days boarding at the High School on a neighbouring island. One of them said hello to Jamie as he passed and Jamie said hello back and teased the lad about needing a haircut while his pal sipped a bottle of the world’s worst vodka. It was almost worth risking his license to supply them himself if that was what they were subjecting themselves to, but he shook his head and moved on. Faith was here and there were other things to do than rat out kids for doing what he had only done himself back in the day.
Fergus, a few years older than the lads were was looked up to with respect and said hello. In truth he looked like a grown man, but inside he had that grown puppy manner. The world still excited him and Fergus was eager to please and eager to see it. Jamie wondered sometimes where the lad found the energy. Still, he was a good soul and attentive to Jamie and Faith. His found family. Faith went off to paddle in the surf while Fergus and Jamie got the blanket sorted. Jamie had brought a book to read while Fergus and Faith and Solo splashed around in the water. Neither of them could swim, but they stayed where it was safe and played in the tide, wading out until their wellies were nearly overcome and then screaming with laughter back up the beach as the incoming tide chased them. They threw sticks for Solo into the sea, built a sandcastle as best they could until Jamie’s expertise was called upon, only for the tide to wash it all away an hour later. Fergus hung out with the lads for a while but skipped the paintstripper vodka as he told them tall tales of his errands to Glasgow and the mainland. Jamie took Faith for a walk along to the rock pools, identifying different types of seaweed and which ones were good to eat as well as limpets and barnacles and star fish. They brought Faith’s bucket and filled it with seawater and went rockpooling looking for crabs and sea urchins, the food of the otter. Curlew called across the shoreline, and snipe and all manner of waders - lapwings and redshanks and a heron, standing a little way off watching for lunch.
A carrion crow went for their bag and got a sandwich before anyone noticed. It was Fergus who went running to chase it off, probably because he had tucked some tuna sandwiches in there, only for the big crow to take off with an entire tuna sandwich in its beak. Fergus looked to Jamie but Jamie could only laugh at Fergus’s look of outrage.
‘Merde!’ Fergus exclaimed.
‘Merde,’ Faith repeated.
Jamie laughed out loud as Solo joined in by yipping and chasing the remaining crows and jackdaws who seemed to laugh at him as they threw out their wings, lifted and buffeted by the breeze.
‘Sorry,’ Fergus mouthed to Jamie.
Jamie tilted his head. ‘I’ll let ye explain that one to her teacher on Monday.’
‘The little thief! Did you see? They took it right out of the bag!’
‘Aye, clever wee buggers.’
Fergus stared at the birds in disbelief and Jamie laid a hand on his shoulder.
Ocht its only one sandwich, aye?’
‘I blame the tourists!’
‘How do you figure?’
‘That crow has been studying on them all summer!’
Jamie threw his head back and laughed. He supposed that Fergus was probably right. Faith decided that they should eat all the rest of the sandwiches, just in case. Jamie indulged her, letting her sit on her lap as Solo was given a bowl of water and a biscuit and the humans sanitised their hands and ate the remaining squashed tuna sandwiches and lukewarm tea from Jamie’s thermos.
As the shortening day began to move around towards sunset, Jamie heaved them all up - even Solo had deigned to lie down for a short while - and they practiced skimming stones in the last hour of light.
This was how Claire and John found them on their own gentle afternoon amble along the shore, strolling hand in hand and marvelling at the mild southern breeze. A splash and the small dog-like face of an otter appeared far off amongst the seaweed for a moment only to dive below again, swimming briskly through the azure-blue waters some distance off.
There was only calm here. The wind and the tide, the peat and the sand and the machair, the salty air and echoing calls of gulls and curlews and oystercatchers.
John and Claire watched the family and watched the sunset. They had passed a group of half-drunk local teens winding their way back to town with much teasing and banter and laughter. John slid his hand into Claire’s. There was no work here. No stress. No real life worries. It was a place apart, a place that transported you. There was only the sharpness of the here and now that brought a peace to the heart.
John turned to Claire and kissed her cheek and then her hand.
‘Do you know I’ve never been to a place I didn’t know that felt so much like home,’ Claire spoke out loud.
John looked at her then. Claire had led such an itinerant life, first with her uncle and then as a junior doctor that John knew she didn’t really think of anywhere as home. He sat down on the sand and pulled Claire down to sit between his legs and they watched the family skimming stones into the sunset. ‘That dog has got to be the cutest damn dog I have ever seen.’
‘Cuter than Stephen’s dachshund?’ Claire pressed.
John chuckled warmly and embraced her and kissed he hair. ‘I’m not answering that.’ His hand found the wedding band on her hand and toyed with it as the sun sank and Claire sighed in his arms.
The tall red-haired man - Jamie, they remembered - waited until the chill began to fall and then rounded up his family and urged them to gather their stuff and head back home for dinner.
‘Faith, stay with yer brother. I won’t be a minute.’
Faith looked at Fergus who shrugged at her as Jamie walked off towards the couple who had arrived to watch the sunset.
‘Sorry to bother ye, folks.’
Claire and John looked up Jamie who blushed slightly at the sight of the lovers so closely entwined, wrapped in each others arms.
‘Jamie, wasn’t it?’ John looked at him and Claire followed and Jamie stopped, his heart leaping out of his chest at the twin pairs of eyes staring up at him with equal parts amusement and interest.
‘Aye. I only wanted to say that the footpath back to town, well its rather rough as you know and it doesn’t have lighting at night and in the summer its not an issue since it hardly gets dark at all. But once the nights draw in...’ Jamie tailed off. ‘I was only going to say that’s us leaving if ye want tae tag along wi’ us locals. I wouldn’t want ye to break an ankle or something. We don’t exactly have a hospital ‘round here.’
The footpath was indeed a rough dirt track that ambled up and down and around every boulder and blade of grass between here and the town, worn down into a gouge from many generations of feet treading back and forth from the harbour to the beach.
Claire and John looked at each other for a moment and then in one psychic decision both agreed to get up and follow their quarry home.
I am posting this a bit early due to work stuff tomorrow. Hang in there.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Claire got up first and was about to offer a hand when Jamie reached out and offered a hand to John first, pulling him up up to standing. Their hands stayed joined, eyes locked as Claire watched them watch each other.
‘That’s very kind of you,’ John said.
Jamie dropped the hand, glanced at Claire and then blushed scarlet. Claire would have given her right arm to know what was going through the man’s head to elicit that reaction. ‘Nothing kind about it,’ Jamie dismissed. ‘All the local services are volunteer. Saturday night’s not the most popular time for a call out. Besides, there’s no Doctor on the island.’
‘What, none?’ Claire spoke up.
‘Not now. Used to be. We’re meant to have a GP but the old boy retired last year and the NHS can’t persuade anyone to take up the post.’
‘Really?’ Claire glanced sideways at John who looked back pointedly. ‘Why’s that?’
‘Too far out of the way. There’s two ways off this island for medical emergencies - boat or helicopter and they both depend on the weather. Its a lot of responsibility. Its not for everyone.’
Claire’s mind spun. She looked at John who seemed to be on a similar wavelength and then turned back to Jamie with all her charm. ‘Sorry, I realise we forgot to introduce ourselves. I’m Claire Beauchamp and this is my husband, John Grey.’
Jamie’s eyes softened as they settled on her. Soft waves of brown hair, amber eyes and lightly freckled cheeks. There was an attitude to her, a daring, a boldness well hidden.
‘Jamie Fraser,’ Jamie said and he was about to offer a hand to shake when the wee boss began shouting for him .
Jamie grinned at them. ‘The joys of being a single Dad.’
‘Single, you say?’ John asked innocently.
Claire swatted her husband on the arm and gave him a look to behave. She watched him mouth the words ‘pot’ and ‘kettle’ and tried to keep from laughing.
John had absolutely no intention of behaving. But Claire probably knew that already. They were married after all.
Jamie didn’t seem to notice, already turning towards his small family to indicate that he was coming. ‘Best come if you’re coming.’
‘Well,’ Claire told John with torrents of innuendo, ‘You heard the man.’
It was indeed getting dark fast and Claire shivered as the heat began to escape into the clear night sky. They followed Jamie down the beach and taking one look at her, Jamie swiped the blanket from his things and shook it out to give it to Claire. He felt himself getting shy for a moment as he wrapped it around her shoulders and then tried to tell himself he was being ridiculous for acting like a tongue-tied teenager in front of her. Then their skin touched and for a moment Jamie was blindsided by the raw want in his body. He jerked away, his hand on fire as if he had been burnt. Having Claire’s husband standing right there watching him with open, hungry eyes wasn’t doing anything to help the situation.
Was he going mad?
Fergus, who seemed to have a sixth sense about all thing involving people, attraction and dating was giving Jamie a look and then very loudly hurried Faith and Solo to take the lead ahead leaving Jamie stranded with the couple at the back. Jamie called after him but Fergus only laughed.
The machair was beautiful at this time of night. Flowers like stars. As soon as the sun set the clear sky allowed the Milky Way to come out and there was almost no light pollution here which meant the stars came out early and in huge numbers. Jamie shared some advice about negotiating the path without breaking your ankle. Claire came around to skip ahead, seeming to enjoy the sense of the outdoors and nature. Jamie watched her eyes brighten as they took in the view.
A hand brushed his. Jamie looked up to see John standing behind him, a little too close. John, let the back of his fingers brush against Jamie’s almost casually - playing the game. When Jamie looked at John, John’s eyes rested on him for a moment with an enquiry and then before Jamie could respond, John turned to watch his wife with a warmth on his face. ‘She’s quite something, isn’t she?’ John shared quietly.
‘Aye.’ Jamie agreed without thinking and then realising what he had said immediately attempted to take it back. ‘That is, I mean...’
John chuckled. ‘Its quite alright.’ When Jamie’s eyes met his again, John stared right back. The gaze was at once unmistakable and deeply confusing. ‘Are you married yourself?’
‘No,’ Jamie took in a deep breath. ‘Its just me and the kids,’ Jamie explained and looked at John, searching his eyes wondering if he was reading this right.
Window shopping only, a voice whispered in his mind.
Jamie could feel Claire’s presence just a few feet away, looking elsewhere but listening intently. Jamie could barely look at her, the way you couldn’t look at the sun. And when he did he couldn’t look away. Jamie glanced at Faith and Fergus and Solo well ahead and then looked from Claire to John and back again. Was he going mad?
‘Oh sod subtle,’ Claire exclaimed.
‘I think I’m managing just fine!’ John told his wife.
‘You’re scaring the poor man,’ Claire glanced at Jamie and found herself caught in gaze for a moment - again - and then shook it off. She glanced over her shoulder at Jamie’s children a little further off and then dropped her voice.
‘My husband’s trying to chat you up,’ Claire told Jamie.
‘Well I had sort of figured that part,’ Jamie’s brows drew together. The question on the tip of his tongue was, ‘Why?’
‘Why?’ Claire laughed out loud. ‘Because we like you, you dolt.’
‘We have the same taste in men,’ John added which Claire immediately objected to.
‘Excuse me?!’ Claire objected.
Jamie pinched the bridge of his nose and glanced with concern towards his daughter. He needn’t have worried. Fergus and Solo had her well distracted.
‘Right,’ Jamie cleared his throat. ‘If yer quite done arguin’ maybe ye could tell me — this is what, exactly?’
John looked at him with those safe, warm eyes that Jamie wanted to melt into. ‘This,’ John paused for effect, ‘Is a proposition.’
‘We’d like to have sex with you,’ Claire told him plainly.
John looked skywards. ‘Oh dear God above!’
‘Well there’s just no point beating around the bush, is there? I think we’re all grown adults.’
Jamie looked from one to the other. He lifted a hand and scrubbed it down his face and then raked it through hair that was growing out on top. There were certain parts of his body that liked the idea - a lot. It wasn’t like Jamie got out all that much. The last few years had been devoted to fatherhood and while there had been offers, Jamie wasn’t usually a one night stand sort of bloke. But this pair - Jamie wanted her. And he couldn’t take his eyes off him. But this was...a lot. And this was a small town.
The silence drew on and then Jamie turned and headed on towards the town without saying a word. He couldn’t deal with this right now.
He caught up with Faith and Fergus as John and Claire lingered behind, giving them a moment.
‘He really has no right to look that handsome with his russet curls all mussed up like that,’ John thought out loud.
Claire slid her hand into John’s. ‘We came on too strong, didn’t we?’
‘Perhaps a little,’ John squeezed her hand but his eyes danced merrily and then he descended into barely concealed chortles as he glanced at his wife. Claire looked at Jamie with sympathy. There was something about that man...
Jamie glanced at them over his shoulder. His eyes met Claire’s for a moment and she looked back at him with a newfound softness. Jamie quickly snapped his eyes front. Christ, did they know every one of his weak spots?
Up ahead, Faith fell in at her Father’s side. Her feet were beginning to drag a little in her wellies now after a long day and she wondered what was for dinner.
‘Chan eil fhios agam, a’ nigheann.’ Jamie replied. Dinner. Bedtime stories. Family routine. Jamie tried to refocus his mind.
By his side, Faith was twirling a blade of grass around and around her finger. She tilted her head, knowing it made her look cute. Any minute now, Jamie guess, a heel would come off the ground and her wee foot would start rocking back and forth.
Faith wanted something.
‘Dè b’ fheàrr leat, mo ghràidh?’
Faith looked at her big brother, who nodded at her, and then back at her Father.
‘Fergus said I could go to play at his house, and have pizza, and watch disney, and play with Solo, and I could take my sleeping bag, and-’ Faith took in big gasping excited breaths.
Jamie looked straight at Fergus with a heavy, steady gaze. Jamie’s hand went to his daughter’s shoulder, a silent request that she calm down. ‘Ye dinnae need to do that.’
Fergus glanced over at the couple behind them. ‘And when was the last time you had a night off?’
If Fergus had been a different type of person, Jamie could have thrown the question back in his face. As it was, he was a little too well acquainted with his son’s personal life. And while it was true that Fergus looked after Faith from time to time, and Jamie trusted him, anxiety filled him at the thought of Faith being away for a whole night.
‘Its a ten minute walk.’ Fergus said reasonably. ‘I’ll leave my phone on. I’d offer her my bed but I have a feeling sleeping bags on the living room floor are way more exciting. Am I right, little sister?’
Faith jumped up and down excitedly. ‘Please Dad!’
Jamie took in a deep breath and scrubbed a hand down his face. He looked down at his daughter. ‘Will ye promise to be in bed by eight?’ Jamie asked Faith.
Faith nodded urgently.
‘And ye’ll eat yer dinner before any sweeties.’
Faith nodded again.
‘And ye’ll brush yer teeth?’
Faith nodded and began jumping up and down.
‘And ye’ll...’ Jamie tailed off. Faith was on an other planet. Not listening any more. ‘...call me if ye need anything.’
Jamie’s offer of assistance was lost to Faith who was squealing excitedly at Fergus and Fergus the wee gommeral was winding her up.
There went the eight o’clock bedtime. His heart sighed. Why did he feel like he’d been had? This pair ran rings around him without even trying.
‘Bed by eight,’ Jamie told Fergus firmly.
Fergus wiggled his eyebrows back at Jamie in a clear attempt to wind Jamie up with innuendo.
Jamie blushed scarlett. ‘Jesus! Fergus! No for me.’
Fergus grinned, ‘I’m not judging.’
Jamie swatted at Fergus who danced playfully out of Jamie’s way. ‘She’ll need some jammies.’
‘We’ll swing by yours first,’ Fergus shrugged. ‘What are their names?’
‘Their names,’ Fergus pointed a thumb over his shoulder.
‘What do you care?’
‘Hey!’ Fergus hissed. ‘You always get their names! Anything could happen!’
Jamie pleaded for help from God. ‘Claire and John. But I’m not—’ Jamie cut himself off. He wasn’t having this discussion with Faith nearby.
‘Fear is the path to the dark side,’ Fergus told him seriously and patted Jamie on his shoulder. And then they were back in town. Fergus decided to go on ahead with Faith and abandoned Jamie with Claire and John in front of their hotel. He got one quick hug from Faith and then they decided to have races back to Jamie’s house.
‘Don’t run by the water!’ Jamie yelled at them down the street. Much good it did. True there was a road and a barrier in the way but still. He shook his head and sighed and then remembered he still had company.
Claire looked from one to the other, then approached Jamie and softly put one arm on his forearm and then leaned up and kissed his cheek. It was something sweet out of a fifties romcom. Her perfume caught in his lungs and Jamie inhaled and leaned in but she was gone, her fingers trailing through his before she went inside.
Jamie was lost, feeling the supernatural draw to her and abandoned here with the most attractive man he’d ever met. Floundering, Jamie cleared his throat awkwardly. Looking at the pavement while he gathered his thoughts and then hooked his fingers into the belt loops of his jeans so that his fingers framed his crotch.
John wondered if he knew what he was doing.
Jamie’s first reaction was to clam up, to play his cards close to his chest but that wouldn’t get him very far. There were a thousand reasons why he shouldn’t.
‘I’m sorry, before, if we came on a little strong.’
Jamie brushed it off and then cleared his throat. ‘John, this is a genteel place. People know each other. Its not the sort of place people want to start a sex trade wi’ tourists. Or dealing wi’ folks coming onto them all the time, looking for a fling. Locals mind their own business and tourists mind their own business and maybe that’s all for the best.’
John nodded. ‘Of course. I understand.’ He waited for a long moment and then turned to go.
‘I wasn’t done.’
‘I think you said everything you need to.’
No, Jamie thought. There was no way to say everything he needed to. Especially not here where God-knows-who might be listening. No way to explain. I want your wife. I haven’t done this in a long time. I can’t stop looking at you. I’m losing my mind.
John turned around to go again, his hand on the door.
‘Dinner,’ Jamie’s voice rumbled low. ‘Seven o’clock. My place.’ That would give him time to get his head sorted.
‘Seven o’clock,’ John nodded.
Jamie stared at the lights rippling on the surface of the water in the harbour. Jamie wondered what it would be like to kiss him. And then with a curt nod Jamie turned away and carried on down the street, refusing to look back.
Chan eil fhios agam, a’ nigheann. - I don’t know, daughter.
Dè b’ fheàrr leat, mo ghràidh? - What would you prefer, dear?
Jamie might have wondered why he had done it if he had given himself more time to mull over the question. As Jamie tried to peel Faith off the ceiling and help her pack, Fergus insisted on nipping home only for Jamie to find him sneaking fresh condoms and lube into Jamie’s bedside cabinet upon his return.
‘Fergus! What the hell are you doing?’
‘All of yours were out of date,’ Fergus shrugged.
‘Why were you checking that my condoms were in date?’
‘No reason,’ Fergus insisted with slightly too much enthusiasm.
‘Its just dinner.’
‘Oh, just dinner. Like all the dozens of other just dinners you’ve been having these last few years?’ Fergus pushed.
‘Fergus,’ Jamie sighed softly.
Fergus only grinned and patted Jamie’s arm. Jamie tried glaring daggers at him but Fergus seemed to delight in teasing Jamie.
No moment ever lasted long with a young child around. Jamie would have continued to protest had not Faith chosen that minute to emerge from her room having decided to take most of her soft plushie toys with her to Fergus’s and Jamie had to turn her around and patiently direct her into putting most of them back and taking only two. His wee lassie was still bouncing off the walls. Jamie hugged her and gave her bag to Fergus and watched as they left until they were out of sight as Faith waxed lyrical about plans for movie night.
As soon as they were gone Jamie looked around and raked a hand through his hair at the sight of the place. And he had to cook dinner. First he hurried round gathering Faith’s toys, tidying away work paperwork and hiding it all away in cupboards and Faith’s room. Then he pulled out the hoover to hopefully remove all the crumbs from the carpet and the sofa and stray hairs from Solo and then quickly cleaned the bathroom.
With the worst of the cleaning and tidying dealt with, Jamie opened his fridge and wondered what on earth he was supposed to put together for dinner at such short notice. He didn’t even know what they liked? Would they be fussy eaters?
He’d been planning fish pie for dinner if Faith had been there and Jamie decided he would just go ahead and make it. Jamie put on the potatoes to boil. He cooked up the fish fillets and kept the milk. By the time he had flaked the fish and made the sauce the potatoes were ready to be mashed and the pie made up with grated local cheddar cheese ready to go into the oven. He was serving it with samphire which was right at the end of the season but Jamie loved the salty sharpness. It would only need boiled for a couple of minutes.
Jamie checked his watch. He stripped the bed and changed the sheets and made the bed up with fresh sheets and told himself not to think too much about what he was doing. He opened the drawer with the supplies Fergus had left, paused on them for a moment and then closed it.
It was a long time since he’d dated. And never like this.
His stomach fluttered and Jamie pulled on a clean t-shirt and put on a smarter pair of jeans. He was still wandering around in his bare feet wondering if he needed shoes when the doorbell rang and Jamie rushed down feeling half-dressed to answer it and invite them in.
They had brought wine. A bottle of red and a bottle of white. Jamie greeted them both with pecks on the cheek, smiling self-consciously when John pecked him back.
‘Come in,’ Jamie spotted a stray artwork of Faith’s that he had missed in his earlier attempts to tidy up and moved it out of the way. ‘I’m afraid ye’ll have to take us as ye find us.’
Jamie turned around, leading the way into the kitchen and the heart of the house.
‘Something smells wonderful!’ Claire exclaimed.
‘I had fish pie scheduled for tonight. I forgot to ask about allergies and suchlike,’ Jamie shoved his hands into his pockets nervously.
‘No allergies,’ Claire assured him.
Jamie noticed John still with the wine and rushed to take them off his hands and immediately started at the label. ‘Jesus Christ they don’t sell that at the co-op!’
‘I asked our landlady for something a little special,’ John confessed.
Well, so much for keeping a low profile, Jamie mused.
‘I did say it might not be the right thing to bring wine to a man who makes whisky for a living,’ Claire hedged but Jamie shook it off and assured her he liked it just fine. ‘I’ve got a cousin who works as wine merchant, actually. Here, let me take your coat.’ This time it was Claire’s turn to blush as Jamie stood close and helped Claire take off her jacket. He could smell her perfume, and John’s cologne. Earlier he’d been wondering how this would all work. Right now Jamie just wanted them all to go upstairs and take all their clothes off.
The wine was poured, John and Claire delighted in all the signs of family life. Faith’s artwork, a photo of the four of them under a magnet on the fridge. Claire offered to help in the kitchen and John quickly intercepted and redirected her to pour wine.
Jamie’s rusty mind tried to recall the social cues of adult socialising. Jamie served creamy fish pie with steamed samphire in garlic butter.
‘Samphire!’ Claire’s eyes lit up and Jamie found his heart doing weird things in his chest.
It was right at the end of the marsh samphire season now, a uniquely salty plant that grew along brine-y estuaries and marshes in the summer months when the shoots were green and fresh and before they got tough and woody and turned a dark dogwood-red.
They talked about life, and work and how they had come to be where they were in life. Jamie talked about Faith’s mother not being able to raise her and coming back to Scotland to open the distillery. Claire talked about studying medicine, about medical school and nearly going into surgery instead of General Practice. John insisted no one was interested in his boring civil service work and instead regaled them with ridiculous stories from his time in the Army.
‘So,’ Jamie asked, ‘How did you two meet?’
‘We fake dated,’ Claire told Jamie.
Well, that got his attention and John burst out with a warm laugh in response to the expression on Jamie’s face.
‘Claire had an admirer she wanted some help putting off. I mostly dated men before I started seeing Claire. The more we saw of each other the more fond I grew of her.’ John turned to his wife and looked at her with a particular softness that Jamie suspected he reserved just for her. And then he looked at Jamie, and held his gaze, and then a sort of shyness struck him and John looked back down at his plate and began eating again while Claire took up the conversation.
‘You have a wonderful family,’ Claire complimented him.
‘Thank you,’ Jamie accepted the compliment but was never quite sure how to respond to that sort of comment.
‘Faith and Fergus are wonderful. You must be very proud of them.’
‘Aye.’ Jamie was proud of them but he didn’t intend to spend the night talking about Faith and Fergus.
They ate their way to empty plates and moved to the living room and the low fire and whisky. John led the way. Jamie found himself caught in the doorway with Claire. Shy, he cleared his throat and waved for her to go past.
There was the gentle crackling of the logs in the fireplace, and soft music, and when Jamie told John to sit anywhere John sat down beside him while Claire sat opposite where their feet just touched. There was no pretence now.
‘Do ye do this a lot, then?’ Jamie asked, looking from one to the other. Turning his glass in his hand, mulling a whisky.
‘No,’ Claire responded with honesty. ‘Its something we’ve both been open to though. With the right person.’
John reached out for Jamie’s hand only for Jamie to pull his hand back. John backed off a little.
‘You have nothing to apologise for. Do you want us to leave?’
‘No!’ Jamie sighed. ‘I call it ‘window shopping’.’
‘Window shopping?’ Claire asked.
Jamie glanced at Claire and then at John and then back at his glass. ‘I always dated women. Men I would just admire from a distance. Look don’t touch.’
Jamie stared into the fire and mulled on that. ‘I suppose I worried what people would think. I suppose when I was young I was old enough to read the headlines and too young to understand them.’
John watched Jamie carefully in the light of the flickering flames and reached out again. This time Jamie didn’t pull away. Instead his fingers unfurled and his palm turned upwards and his eyes fell shut. When Jamie opened his eyes, Claire was standing before him and gently laid a hand on his shoulder.
‘What are you thinking?’ Claire said softly.
Jamie looked up into her beautiful amber eyes, the colour of the whisky in his glass. ‘I’m thinking I’ve been wanting to kiss ye since I first saw ye.’
‘You don’t want to kiss John?’
Jamie reached out and pulled Claire into his lap. She was bonnie, with her curls coming loose and her beautiful round arse. John was different. Handsome, lithe. His strong arms and back visible in the way his sweater clung. ‘Aye well I’m not saying no, but between you and me my thoughts about John were a bit more impure than kissing.’
‘I think,’ Claire leaned in, ‘You should tell me more about these impure thoughts.’
She hovered, waiting, until Jamie slowly leaned forwards and pressed his lips to her with a great sigh that was like all of the worries of the world lifting from his body. Jamie’s hands went to her waist and he opened his mouth and kissed her deeper and felt the way her body responded to his. Pressing into his hands, her fingers going to his pecs and her tongue doing wicked things to his own.
‘Christ, I want ye,’ Jamie panted. They kissed deeper, hands wondering under hemlines. He wanted to finger her, wanted to make her come but she was wearing jeans and the position was wrong. Jamie took a breather, resting his head against hers.
It was John who got up and politely asked about condoms. That made Jamie think about what was happening here, and then decided that just for this night perhaps he could let his over-active mind take a back seat just this once. Gently he extracted himself from Claire.
He accepted an arm from John to pull him off the sofa. They froze there, locked in each others pull.
‘About that kiss,’ John queried.
So Jamie leaned down and kissed him too and felt the softness of his lips and the slight hint of six o’clock shadow. And suddenly he was addicted. Grabbing John’s sweater and kissing him roughly, John’s hands went straight to Jamie’s belt and slid inside his jeans, working Jamie roughly in his hand. Jamie kissed John with hungry hands, grasping at his body until Jamie was half going mad with lust.
John pulled his sweater over his head, his t-shirt riding up tantilisingly and Jamie wanted kiss his way down that trail of hair to the neat belt of expensive leather that framed John’s half-hard erection and tight, muscular buttocks.
Jamie swallowed hard and took a step back, glancing at Claire. ‘Lets go upstairs.’
They stumbled into the bedroom leaving a trail of clothes up the stairs. Jamie couldn’t stop looking at them both, wondering if this was really happening. If this was really real. They had a synergy, Claire and John. John fascinated Jamie, but it was Claire he hungered for. He pulled back to let her pull her top off and paused, panting heavily. Jamie glanced at John who was standing back, letting Jamie have his moment.
Claire snagged a finger through Jamie’s belt loop. ‘He’s ok with it. Trust me.’
‘Christ!’ Jamie exhaled heavily. He waited for her to take the lead and when she didn’t found himself staring into her eyes, searching them.
‘Don’t be nervous.’
Jamie tucked his chin in and smiled self-consciously at the floor. ‘Am I that obvious?’
A little,’ Claire smiled. ‘You’re also wearing too many clothes.’
Jamie chuckled nervously but shoved his jeans off all the same. He glanced at John who was watching him like he’d hung the moon and Jamie shivered slightly and looked back at Claire who tugged playfully at his t-shirt so Jamie pulled that off too.
Jamie heard the moment John saw. There was no mistaking that cry. A large, warm, masculine hand settled gently on his back making his scar tissue tingle and Jamie closed his eyes, leaning into the sensation.
‘Car crash. I was nineteen.’ Jamie didn’t want to say more.
‘Does it hurt?’
‘Only when the weather changes,’ Jamie joked. At least John didn’t seem the type to be disgusted by scars and Jamie figured that with Claire being a doctor she had seen more than a few. But now that John’s hands were on him they couldn’t seem to leave. Slow, warm hands mapping his body. Magnetic eyes drawing him in. Then abruptly John’s hands left his body to continue undressing.
Jamie turned around to help.
John’s skin was soft and warm and when his t-shirt came off Jamie could see that he had plenty of scars of his own that Jamie wanted to spend hours learning about. There were stories there, he was sure.
John turned to Claire kissing her deeply and helped her off with her jeans while apparently some sort of intense negotiation went on between them.
‘First dibs,’ Claire insisted. ‘You can have him after.’
‘But I get to put the condom on.’ John insisted. ‘In fact, blow job then condom.’
‘Do you think he’s any good at oral sex?’ Claire queried.
‘We could ask him,’ John replied back.
Jamie cleared his throat and the two of then at least had the sense to look a little ashamed. ‘Standing right here, folks.’
Later, Jamie would replay it all in his head. The heady sensuousness of it all. Standing in his bedroom with John on his knees worshipping his body while Claire looked on and touched herself.
John putting the condom on.
Sinking into the heat of Claire’s body with a groan, the perfect shape of a warm breast in one hand, her fingers digging to Jamie’s back as he clutched her buttock and thrust hard.
Moaning loud enough for half the town to hear as John introduced him to rimming.
The sweetest fuck he’d ever have from a man who worshipped his body and taught him anew how pleasure felt.
Dozing in a satiated tangle of limbs to wake in the early hours and attempt something that fell apart in tired laughter and failed erections and mutters of, ‘Maybe in the morning.’
In the early dawn as the seagulls began shouting Claire straddled his face and he played her beautifully, her cries of pleasure lost in John’s kisses.
Watching John take her from behind and giving into her wish to feel them both. Laying still as he sat deep in her body, letting her take what she needed in slow needy gasps and heartfelt tired groans of soreness and want.
Wanting to know how that felt.
Wanting to know if there would be another night like this of. Of sleepless satiation and jealously wanting to try all the permutations.
A few snatched hours of sleep with John curled close and watching Claire’s body breathe with slow, elegant breaths. Her long back stretching out beneath the covers.
John tucked his arm around Jamie’s middle and they both lay in the silence, listening to the wind outside. There was nothing to say, and no one to say it to. There was only a moment that hung here in the darkness. A moment of pleasure and warm skin and new things and bodies.
A feeling of newness. A feeling of rightness.
They dozed in the early hours of darkness and then rose at first light.
Claire was sleepy and sore and they left her there. John had a shower, Jamie made coffee.
Later they stood in the kitchen dressed once more in jeans and sweaters trying not to spill the coffee as they stood pressed against the counter making out and Jamie’s mind ran over all the lingering sensations from last night. All the places his body felt things it hadn’t felt before.
John paused, his hands on Jamie’s torso and then pulled back and vowed to refocus on eating breakfast while Jamie gave him bed eyes across the kitchen with mischief in his eyes.
Any more plans for another day were put on hold when a key jangled in the lock and one fiesty wee redheaded lass burst in in her jammies and wellies with an apologetic looking Fergus tagging along behind.
‘Sorry,’ Fergus looked around the kitchen, quickly surmising the situation.
Jamie waved it off. Faith was full of stories and full of fatigue. Fergus reported she ate all her vegetables and they’d enjoyed a film but Faith didn’t sleep well and wanted her Dad. Fergus had done his best and kept her safe and fed and entertained but his lassie just needed her bed.
Jamie could relate.
He carried her up, hushing her with quiet Gaelic and laid her down and tucked her in with her favourite teddy. Faith was asleep within minutes, only happy now she was in her own bed.
Fergus was on shift today and headed next door to the distillery for an appointment with a mash tun. Back at Jamie’s house the morning was a lazy Sunday of snoozes and haphazard brunch drawn out over the morning. Claire slept until ten and then didn’t get up until Jamie brought her coffee and they sat for a while, feeling awkward until Jamie pulled her into his body and suddenly all felt right with the world again.
Now that he knew what it felt like to touch them, to be with them, to share his body with them nothing else felt right anymore. That awkward distance of mornings and clothes and hot drinks on the sofa. Jamie didn’t chase them. Didn’t want them to go. Wanted to ask for a promise, for more, for seeing them again but they were on the first ferry in the morning and their lives were tied up down south.
The day was spent resting, curled up in front of the fire drinking tea and listening to the radio and Jamie and John cooking while Claire played with Faith who simply took it as read that her Dad had had friends over and thought they were fun. It was a day of slow, home cooked food. A day of soft seats by the fire. A day of sweaters and tea and listening to the sound of the sea and the seagulls outside the door. A day of comfort and goodness and warmth before the outside world intruded again. By some time after lunch there was a rumble of talk of a walk and some fresh air before the early darkness fell and Jamie found himself walking out The Other Way along the coast past the headland to the cliffs beyond the town where seaeagles hung in the spindrift. A walk of wellies and thick socks, and sheltering in the spray of trees by the shore. A walk of padded waxed jackets and comfy sweaters to guard against the maritime wind. A stretching of the legs to blow the cobwebs out and watch rich folks yachts passing up The Sound between here and the mainland.
Faith was away with herself, playing in her own wee world of imagined stories and playmates and games. Jamie watched her fondly, and thought of the way that John and Claire were so good with her.
There was so much to say and yet nothing to say. Only the sadness of a looming deadline. A ferry. A what-might-be if they were closer together and a disconcerting sense of rightness to it all.
‘Can I see you again?’ Jamie asked them at length.
There were good intentions, and exchanged details, but Jamie’s life was here and theirs was there.
He walked them back to the pub and agreed to come in for a drink and sat in the corner with them sipping a pint while some teenaged musicians practiced doing gigs on what passed for a stage. Jamie watched Claire lay a hand on his knee and shivered when she didn’t move it as Faith went away to watch the telly in the lounge and its blow-by-blow of third division football scores.
The adults listened to a set of jigs and a slow air and a Gaelic song and then Jamie knew he had to go and get Faith sorted for school the next day and they parted with pecks on the cheek and long lingering glances that didn’t go unnoticed by the proprietor.
‘I’ll see ye both before ye go,’ Jamie promised. ‘I’ll need to help with the ferry at any rate.’
At home Fergus came around after his shift innocently pilfering Jamie’s fridge.
‘Good night?’ Fergus asked with a tease in his voice. Fergus offered Jamie a slice of the lunch meat he was eating and Jamie gave him a look before giving in and having a slice himself.
‘No comment,’ Jamie replied.
‘That’s why you can’t stop grinning, is it? Faith said you spent the whole day together.’
Jamie avoided answering.
That told Fergus enough.
Faith was getting grouchy and tired. Another day he would have popped next door to check on the distillery but Fergus had been there today and Jamie trusted the lad. They made an early dinner and got on with the night time routine. It was an early bed for a tired lass and after she went down Jamie got her clothes and school things laid out for the morning. He sat by the fire and had a dram with Fergus and they talked about everything and nothing until they were both starting to yawn and Solo was threatening to settle in for the night.
Fergus picked himself up and headed on down the road and Jamie watched them go, Fergus chatting away to Solo who trotted along at his heel. Jamie wondered when Fergus would finally pluck up the courage to invite Marsali around for dinner.
Inside, Jamie stripped the bed and put on clean sheets and put on his child-appropriate pyjamas and crawled into bed. His mind went to sinking into Claire’s body and John’s arm around his waist and the long hours of talking and warm hands and walks and food. The rarity of good sex and good conversation and good company all bound up together. Of open minds and soft hearts and the way Claire demanded what she wanted with her words while John’s warm eyes melted with desire. John spoke more with slow hands and whispered words.
Jamie liked both of these things and he found himself smiling as he drifted off into a contented sleep.
Dinner for Claire and John was a low key affair at one of the restaurants down the street. They returned, waving off the nosy questions of their landlady, Shona, and instead headed straight up to pack in anticipation of being on the morning ferry.
They pottered about their room, getting ready for the night and talking about the weekend and Jamie and things to be done when they got back home.
‘I suppose I’ll need to catch a news bulletin at some point.’ John thought out loud.
‘The government will still be there in the morning,’ Claire advised. ‘Come to bed.’
‘And now the shipping forecast issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at oh five oh five on Monday the Twenty-Sixth of October Twenty-Nineteen.’
Over breakfast the mood was somewhat subdued. The things which only a few days ago had seemed so alien and novel now seemed like familiar old friends. The sights and sounds of the fisher folk in the harbour in the early morning twilight, the seagulls hanging in the air. The distinctive sight on the horizon of a large white ship with a navy belly and red funnels slowly drawing closer.
Claire and John had a small breakfast and settled up with Shona and put up with no small amount of good natured teasing to try and pry some details of their curious night at Jamie Fraser’s place but to no avail. Still, it was all smiles and kindness as they settled up with enquiries about how they had enjoyed their stay and Claire gushing about how much she wanted to come back.
Outside they moved their car down to the waiting area where the ferry would dock at the end of the pier. On the opposite side of the large natural harbour was Jamie Fraser’s distillery and looking across they saw a tall man with a riot of russet-copper hair walking side by side with a small lass along the front and then disappearing into the back streets. They watched from too far away for Jamie to see them.
‘Do you think I should apply for the job?’ Claire asked John.
‘Do you want to?’
‘I would miss Joe. And lots of things about London. The art scene, the restaurants, the theatres. But I wouldn’t miss the noise, the hustle and bustle. The cloying heat in summer.’ Claire took in a deep breath and then sighed and slid her hand into John’s, ‘You seem distracted.’
‘I can’t stop thinking about him,’ John confessed. ‘I know its not normal. Normally once you’ve had your fun you both go on your way. Instead of scratching the itch our time together seems to have opened up a world of possibility. A world I find I very much want,’ he looked up at his wife and squeezed her hand at the sympathetic look in her eye. John’s heart swelled with love for her.
‘He is rather nice to look at,’ Claire gave him that much. ‘I could stand to see him again.’
‘Well how very gracious of you,’ John had a twinkle in his eyes. He suspected Claire wasn’t quite at the same place he was regarding any feelings towards Jamie Fraser, but having seen the two of them together John could not deny that there was a certain chemistry and animal attraction there. Given time he was quite sure it would grow into more. If they were both inclined that way. ‘I rather confess I thought I would hate Scotland after my memories of Aberdeen. I was quite unprepared for this.’
Claire watched John look around, taking in the clear turquoise water, the browns and yellows of the kelp, the dark rugged rocks that lined the shore scattered with barnacles and whelks and a smattering of cormorants standing on a promontory drying their wings. There was the tang of sea salt in the fresh maritime air and to John it was like breathing in pure oxygen compared with the air in the city. ‘I think we both know I’ve moved around so much I can find a way to be happy almost anywhere. Although this place does have a certain charm, I admit,’ Claire smiled.
‘I agree. And there is a part of me that rather likes the idea of somewhere smaller. Quieter. Where people are less obsessed with work.’
‘People like your older brother?’ Claire looked John in the eye across the gearstick and the hand break. ‘All I really want, John, is to be with the man I love. And for my husband to be happy. I like Jamie, and if we keep seeing him it would be nice to be a little closer but that isn’t the only consideration. As much as you love your brother I think we both know having a family with Hal so close would be completely overbearing.’
‘Dear God, yes,’ John sighed as if a huge weight he had been carrying had come off. ‘I’ve never been able to bring myself to say it but you are of course right. As always.’
Around them some of the local men began to greet each other and fell into conversation in a mixture of English and Gaelic as the boat came in and began to be offloaded.
‘However, there is the issue of where you would work if we left London.’
‘I could move jobs.’
‘And give up your Civil Service pension?’ Claire probed.
John deflated slightly. ‘Secondment?’ It was a last-ditch expression of hope over expectation. John knew his brother too well.
There was a knock on the window and John looked up to find Jamie Fraser standing next to their car trying to keep a smirk off his face.
Beside John, Claire pressed the button to wind down the window.
‘Jamie! Its good to see you.’ John exclaimed.
‘Hello,’ Claire smiled fondly. ‘How was the school run?’
‘Aye, fine.’ Jamie cleared his throat awkwardly. ‘Faith said to say goodbye. Well, ‘Chi mi a-rithist sibh.’ She’s optimistic, clearly.’ Jamie continued but didn’t explain what the Gaelic meant.
A reddish colour rose to John’s cheeks and he couldn’t stop staring at Jamie. Dear God, Claire would be teasing him all the way down the M6.
Silence stretched out.
‘I hope yer parking’s good ye’ll be stowed out this morning with all the commuters going down.’
‘Commuters?’ Claire enquired.
‘Aye. Some of the locals go to the mainland for work through the week and come home at weekends. It isn’t perfect of course but its worth it for some. Especially if your family’s here.’ Jamie took in a deep breath. ‘I just wanted to come and see ye off. And to say that,’ Jamie looked embarrassed for a moment and turned to gaze out at the horizon. He took in a gasp of air for strength. ‘If ye want to stay in touch I’d be open to that. I ken there’s a bit o’ distance between us and I cannae leave the island that much at such a crucial time for the business but when things die down a bit, once the new visitor centre’s up and we get the expanded capacity sorted and some new staff fully trained up...’ Jamie stopped himself rambling. ‘Only if ye want, that is.’
‘You would be very welcome to visit,’ Claire insisted, ‘With or without the children.’
‘Its not the easiest distance,’ Jamie pointed out.
‘Tell me about it.’ John muttered. ‘Claire’s been eyeing up your GP job but I can’t leave London, alas.’
Jamie looked at Claire sharply.
‘I wouldn’t get too excited just yet,’ Claire cautioned. ‘When you live in London, a place like this will always hold an appeal. I think a lot of us stuck in the city would like a different life, in our heart of hearts. I’m impressed you’ve been able to do it. A smaller town, closer to nature, a better work-life balance. But it isn’t easy. We all have to work and the world is the way it is.’
‘Aye,’ Jamie agreed.
‘Well you never know,’ John tried to smile but there was a hint of sadness and longing in his eyes. ‘In the unlikely event that the world stops turning in the next six months and my brother has a personality transplant you will of course be first to know,’ John’s expression held a twist of self-deprecation. He was operating under no illusions about the possibility of Hal allowing him to transfer to Scotland because of a holiday fling.
There was a shout further down the dock. One of Jamie’s fellow townsmen was waving him over.
‘Seems like I’m needed.’ He shook hands one last time with John and then Claire, their hands and eyes lingering a little too long until Jamie took a step back. Looking magnificent and wind-swept in another cableknit sweater that showed off his torso and made Jamie look ridiculously handsome against the autumn sky.
‘Slàn leibh, a chairdean.’
Cars and deliveries from the mainland began rolling off. The waiting travellers on the island began rolling on, being forced to park as eye-wateringly tight as Jamie had suggested with barely a few inches between the cars. They parked and went onto the small modestly sized deck up top, watching Jamie and the other men on the shore and when all the work was done Jamie stood back and watched them go with steadfast, solitary eyes and a hardened jaw until the sturdy wee white ferry disappeared on the horizon.
They tried to stay in touch though it was harder than it looked with three different work schedules. There was Jamie’s busy island life with the distillery and Faith and Fergus to think of too, not to mention Claire’s irregular shifts and odd hours. It was less than easy. John and Claire would spend Christmas with John’s brother Hal and his family, but there were pencilled in plans for a return visit at Easter. They received an exclusive bottle of a new limited batch island whisky in the post a few days before Christmas and a phonecall on the day to thank them for the pristine Aeneas MacDonald first edition they had sent Jamie in return, and the gift vouchers for Faith and Fergus.
In January the cold, damp days were broken up with news announcements about Brexit and some repetitive story about a virus on the other side of the world. Claire and John sat curled up in bed watching the grey London rain and playing slideshows of their holiday snaps on a tablet while they dreamed of the island. A constant din of road traffic noise was pierced by the late night wailing of a siren and the night time barking of dogs. Claire talked of Jamie more than John would have thought. John didn’t talk, he didn’t know how, but Jamie walked with him every day. He was there lying at his side when John made love to his wife, when he kissed Claire goodbye, when he met her at the hospital after a long shift. When John was in important meetings Jamie was sitting on his shoulder giving his salty opinion about distant bigwigs in suits.
John saw the way that Claire looked at him with concern as the weariness of work returned and each day became a battle to get through. John would kiss her temple and tell her he loved her and let Claire take him to bed. Claire likewise was finding work harder and harder. The staffing was thin and life became a constant battle to surf a constant wave of near-burnout and there was a strange tension in the air. Like the whole world was bracing for something.
At weekends Jamie would video call and give them updates on the distillery and Faith would come and say hello and sometimes Fergus too, dropping innuendo and muttered teasing in French that left Jamie and Claire and John all blushing red.
‘My work here is done,’ Fergus would smile that beautiful, wonderful smile as Jamie chased him away.
It all seemed so simple when they were away. Now they were back home and back on the treadmill Claire thought about their hopes to get pregnant and felt like collapsing. They couldn’t keep going like this and have a child and Claire knew very well the stress would be making things harder in that department.
John came home one day worn out, looking like he’d been battling half of Whitehall for most of the day. The were concerns about Italy now and the news wasn’t good. ‘They’re trying to play it down.’
‘But the public health experts are all unanimous,’ Claire exclaimed. ‘Unless we close the borders its simply a matter of time and the NHS is underfunded as it is.’
‘They say that SARS came to nothing and swine flu petered away and its all a storm in a tea cup talking about a pandemic,’ John paused. When he spoke again his voice was quieter. A whisper of frightened steel and John rarely got frightened. ‘Claire, they’re letting music festivals go ahead. And Cheltenham. How bad could it really get?’
‘Do you want me to lie to you?’
‘No, I don’t want you to lie to me.’
Claire pulled John down into a seat and told him what she knew.
‘Chi mi a-rithist sibh.’ - See you(pl) later/see you again
Slàn leibh, a chairdean.’ - Safe travels, friends (formal/plural)
The Gaelic that I use in this story is Gaelic that I have learned myself through duolingo.
This story has started to touch on issues relating to the current pandemic. If that’s not your thing read ahead at your own risk.
This story has not been sensitivity read.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Claire disembarked from the ferry onto the familiar waterfront into the cool, crisp sunshine of an early March morning. The sun was just high enough in the sky that it was starting to feel more like Spring and less like Winter and if you could find a spot out of the wind it even sometimes felt a little bit warm.
It wasn’t much solace.
Not in the circumstances.
Two weeks ago Hal had announced John was being seconded to a grim and ageing civil service outpost in a working class mining town in Scotland’s Central Belt. At John’s encouragement, Claire submitted her application for the Doctor’s job on the island and was promptly invited for an online interview which she passed the interview with flying colours. They would still be working several hours apart and John would have to commute to see Claire at the weekends, if he could. For now most of their stuff was in storage and John was staying in a hotel.
Which was how Claire found herself disembarking as a foot passenger all by herself. Still, at least Jamie was there to greet her with his warm practicality and a hand to take her suitcase.
They exchanged greetings and then Jamie pecked her on the cheek and blushed slightly. ‘It is good tae see ye, Claire. Even if we both wish it were in better circumstances.’
‘Thank you for putting me up. Its just until we find somewhere and get ourselves sorted.’
‘Not a problem. How is John?’ Jamie asked.
‘He’s hanging in there. Worried though, mostly. It sounds like most experts agree its only a matter of time until the virus is here and all the important decisions will be happening in London — John thinks that Hal is punishing him.’
‘I think it is just possible that Hal is trying to protect him although he has a funny way of showing it. Its not a place most people would thank their superiors for being seconded.’
Jamie thought it best in the circumstances to reserve his opinion on the small dive of a town outside Glasgow with its bizarre civil service outpost. He made a neutral sound in his throat.
‘I notice you’re not disagreeing,’ Claire pressed.
‘No comment,’ Jamie’s twisted into a wry smile but he met Claire’s eyes for a moment and Claire read everything she needed to see in them. ‘I take it he’ll be up at some point?’
‘The weekend, hopefully. If the ferry runs.’
‘There’s lots of rumours flying about copying what Italy has done,’ Jamie observed. ‘Restrictions, and suchlike. Although nobody seems to be able to pin down where they heard them from.’
Claire couldn’t find any response to that. As a doctor she had some idea of what was coming and she was torn enough about not being in London when it hit. The public health experts were already in the media talking about what needed to be done. Claire didn’t have a lot of faith in political will following through with what was necessary though.
All she really wanted was a bit of comfort and as if sensing it, Jamie switched the suitcase to his other hand and slid his hand into hers. Claire squeezed his hand; Jamie squeezed back and took in a deep breath.
They walked in mostly silence along the waterfront, Jamie exchanging occasional greetings with local people who gave Claire and their joined hands a variety of curious looks. Since Claire had been here last Jamie had been busy. She could already see as they wound their way around the natural harbour that a new building had begun to spring up behind Jamie’s house. It was such a rocky and barren patch of land it was hard to think that any thing could be constructed there, but Jamie had found ways to make it work.
But there would be plenty of time to catch up later. Right now Claire was exhausted and pale from worry and from the journey in the cold spring air.
The door wasn’t locked and Jamie waved for Claire to go in first and followed, putting their things down inside and closing the door.
‘Faith’s at school. We’ve got a few hours to get you settled. I spoke to Fergus and he’s happy to let ye use his old room. I don’t mind ye being in with me but I figured ye’d like yer own space,’ Jamie explained. ‘I had keys cut for ye, not that it gets locked that often but if ye feel safer ye can. Just mind and let Faith know. I’ve cleared out a shelf in the fridge and a cupboard in the kitchen, if ye want. There’s a chest freezer in an outbuilding in the back, good for stocking up in case the ferry get cancelled. Most folks have a week or so of food in theirs but...well. I doubt we’ll starve at any rate although if Hamish tries to offer ye guga I’d take starvation, I’m just saying.’
‘New lad from Lewis,’ Jamie waved in the direction of the distillery. ‘In English he’s Hamish and I’m Jamie but in Gaelic they call me Sheumais Ruaidh these days to avoid the confusion.’
Claire made a mental note to ask later what that meant.
‘Its the red hair,’ Jamie pointed, by way of explanation.
‘Sorry. Here I am prattling away. Let me show you yer room. I figured I’d put a tin of soup on to heat?’
‘That sounds lovely.’
Jamie carried her case to her room, the double bed made up with fresh sheets in shades of blue and cream that reminded her of beach huts and driftwood in the summer. Claire turned around, taking it in. In the doorway, Jamie hesitated. ‘Claire, are ye alright?’
Tears welled in Claire’s throats, but she fought them back. ‘Its hard leaving London, knowing what’s coming. I feel like I’ve betrayed them. No one has any idea, the experts are talking but no one’s listening. This could be like nothing we’ve seen in a hundred years or more. And it will hit the poorest and most vulnerable hardest, Jamie. Thousands of people could die.’
‘Claire...ye cannae single handedly solve all the problems in the world.’
A single tear leaked out and Claire wiped it away. Crying wouldn’t help anyone right now. ‘I should be there.’
‘What did Joe say?’
‘He said to go.’
‘Well there ye go.’
‘He might have also said something about free holidays for life,’ Claire added.
Jamie snorted in wry amusement and reached out to brush their fingers together. ‘I’ll put that soup on. Ye can tell me all about the apocalypse later.’
Jamie served tinned cream of tomato soup with home made bread that was warm and comforting and soothing. Claire felt a thousand times better by the time they were finished and sat nursing tea while Claire explained what could be expected of a pandemic sweeping a city like London.
‘Claire,’ Jamie reasoned, ‘Ye cannae solve racism and poverty and a thousand years of infrastructure problems with your own two hands. There’s folks in government a lot more responsible for the outcome here than either of us ever will be. Ye’re a doctor. And a damned good one by all accounts.’
‘Somewhere in my head I know that. And yet when you’re leaving your friends and colleagues at the coal face...’ Claire tailed off into a shrug. ‘I suppose it feels selfish. To come here. Where I know I’ll be so much happier and yet in the circumstances its hard to reconcile.’
‘Ye’re not retiring, Claire. Ye just moved practices is all. But if ye feel strongly enough about it I’m sure folks here would understand, Claire. They’d be disappointed but its not the first time that’s happened. They’ll get over it.’
‘Oh Gail already gave me a bit of a talking to when I tried that,’ Claire’s lips widened with warmth. ‘Something about hope and living my best life and other people needing Doctors too.’
Jamie squeezed her hands. ‘They sound like good friends, Joe and Gail.’
‘Right then,’ Jamie stood up and tidied their dirty dishes away. ‘I need to actually go and do some work for a bit before I pick Faith up from school. Are ye alright with venison sausages tonight?’ I got a carcass as pay-in-kind for a bulk order of whisky a while back and we’re still working our way through it.’
Claire blinked. ‘I...yes. That sounds lovely.’
While Jamie was over at the distillery, Claire got herself settled in and unpacked and had a look around the house. It was tempting to go and look at the practice which would doubtless need a bit of sprucing up after sitting under dust sheets for so long but Claire decided the rest of the day would be better spent resting and reading. She read the latest edition of a medical journal she had brought with her and caught up with the news from Italy. Claire called John, and assured him that she had arrived safely and that she couldn’t wait to see him.
‘I’m afraid I think I might need to bring some work up with me at the weekend. Things are a little mad here, everything is moving so quickly and it all needs co-ordinated between the four nations but as long as there’s internet I can still make it up. Do you think Jamie would mind me using his study?’
‘I’m sure you two can work something out,’ Claire assured him. ‘Are we still going house hunting?’
‘Of course,’ John insisted. ‘I can’t wait to see you.’
A silent pause stretched between them. Claire spotted one of Jamie’s coats at the back door and thought of his words about ferries being cancelled. ‘Pack for an extra day or two, just in case.’
‘You say that as if I haven’t been obsessively listening to the gale warnings on the shipping news all week. Yes, I’ll pack some extra clothes. Not that it matters, if the ferry is cancelled on Monday I’ll only be delayed a day or so and I’ve got nothing in my diary that I can’t do remotely if I have to.’ John paused. ‘I love you, you know.’
‘I love you too.’
‘How is Jamie?’
‘Like a warm hug in human form.’
John groaned deeply with a sort of yearning. ‘I’m going to shag that man stupid the next time I see him.’
Claire threw her head back and laughed out loud.
‘Don’t tell him I said that.’
‘Well, that’s going to cost you,’ Claire threw back.
Claire could practically hear John looking up to the sky. ‘Of course it is.’
Faith arrived home a bundle of exhausted energy, chattering away in gàidhlig as Jamie got her a snack and then checked her bag for homework and letters.
There was only a single sheet of homework.
‘Càit a bheil Iain, a Dhadaigh?’
‘Tha e ag obair.’ Jamie petted her hair and kissed her curls fondly. ‘Now eat up and get yer homework done before dinner.’
‘Can Claire help me?’
‘If ye ask her.’ Jamie responded to Faith while looking at Claire. He attempted that awful wink that screwed his whole face up and laid a page of gàidhlig in front of her.
‘But I don’t speak Gaelic!’
Faith crunched an apple, ‘They put the English on the back,’ She said simply as if that settled the matter.
Jamie managed to hide his chuckles until he escaped to the kitchen, having committed the expression on Claire’s face to memory. Well Jamie had every intention of passing his Gaelic onto the lass and he didn’t intend on changing that just cause of Claire and John. Speaking of, Jamie’s phone rang and a grin broke out when he saw the caller ID. With Claire and Faith engaged in conversation, Jamie took it through to the next room.
‘John!’ Jamie greeted him warmly. ‘Its good to hear your voice.’ Jamie paused, ‘How are you?’
Dinner was the best rendition of bangers and mash Claire had ever tasted. Then it was bed time for Faith and a glass of wine for Claire and Jamie. Earlier John had explained to Jamie about trying to get through as much work as possible before the weekend and wished he could stay on longer. John hand wrangled a promise for a chess game out of Jamie and further promise to take care of Claire. There was little need to ask - Jamie was well smitten with his new girlfriend - was that what she was? He kept catching himself staring at her.
Claire decided to sleep in her own room that night but they shared a long hug in the hall before she went her own way, parting with a kiss that promised more. The morning came far too soon and far too dark. Over coffee Claire watched Jamie and Faith go at it in Gaelic and didn’t need to understand a word to understand Faith was not a morning person, or Jamie’s gentle prompting for her to eat her porridge, or yet another reminder to fetch her shoes and her school bag.
Jamie looked at Claire when Faith went upstairs.
‘Ye don’t mind me speaking Gaelic with the lass?’
‘No, in fact I rather like it actually. There’s something oddly comforting about it.’ Claire paused. ‘I was thinking I’ll go to the store today so we have some of our own food.’
‘Aye, if ye like.’
‘Are we going to have a cleaning rota?’
‘Christ, John wasnae kidding.’ Jamie retorted.
Claire smiled and patted his chest. ‘We can talk about it later.’
‘Tha mi deiseil!’ Faith called as she thundered down the stairs.
Jamie had a look at her and then sat her down while he swapped her shoes onto the correct feet and made sure she had her homework, her snack and her lunch.
Claire’s heart melted at the sight of Jamie swiftly trying to fight Faith’s wild curls into a braid while Faith prattled away in a beautiful lilting language that Claire didn’t understand but increasingly wanted to. At one point Jamie caught a tug and Faith yelped.
‘Tha mi duilich,’ Jamie apologised and rubbed the sore spot on her scalp.
And then when they were ready Faith flashed her a brilliant smile and waved at Claire. ‘Tìoraidh!’
Claire waved back, her heart in a puddle and sat wallowing in the feeling for a few minutes at which point she picked herself, up and went to have a shower.
There were things to be doing today.
Sheumais Ruaith - Red James. Hamish and Jamie are actually just different English versions of the same Gaelic name.
Guga - full grown chicks of a wild seabird called ‘atlantic gannet’ that are caught from sea cliffs before they leave the nest and pickled. Opinions on the culinary merits of guga vary, but it was once a traditional food all around Scotland’s coasts. There is now only one remaining guga hunt from Lewis which is permitted to take a quota every year. Like any traditional hunts it is only possible while it is sustainable. Fortunately breeding numbers of gannets are increasing in Scotland, allowing the tradition to continue.
‘Càit a bheil Iain, a Dhadaigh?’ - Where is John, Daddy?
‘Tha e ag obair.’ - He is at work
‘Tha mi deiseil!’ - I am ready!
‘Tha mi duilich,’ - I am sorry
‘Tìoraidh!’ - An informal way of saying goodbye
By the time Jamie had returned from school Claire had dragged herself into some semblance of order. She took the time while Jamie was gone to do some yoga and then showered and dressed in smart jeans and a sweater. Today she would have to start getting things going, find the location of the surgery and have a proper look around. Claire needed to find out where things were at with finding a nurse and a receptionist. Meanwhile she had some shopping to do, needing to get down to the high street to get a few essential and then there was the search for a property to start. Ideally somewhere to buy, but if they could find somewhere to rent at short notice that would have to do for now.
By the time Jamie returned Claire was sitting at the dining table with her laptop out sending emails. Jamie wasn’t long, checking she was alright and then excusing himself to head next door to the distillery. The builders could already be heard hard at work on the new visitor centre. Fortunately after a few phone calls Claire appeared to be getting somewhere. A local property agent had been looking after the surgery premises and had permission to hand over the keys to Claire upon her arrival. It was mid-morning when Claire put on her jacket and took a stroll into town to meet with the property agent who was a lovely kindly older woman called Mrs Baird.
It had been an odd thing to leave the house and not lock the door, but for obvious reasons the surgery was locked securely. Mrs Baird met Claire at the Mercat Cross and they walked through the back streets to the surgery at the top of the hill at the back of the town. It was a single-storey standalone building with a small car park in the front and a tidy garden in the back filled with small birds that flitted between the bushes and a selection of bird feeders attached to the windows. Claire was quite impressed with how ordered everything was. Mrs Baird explained her husband had helped keep the grounds and they had a cleaner in once a week to air the building and keep up appearances. Last week under Claire’s authority they had turned the water and electricity back on and made a start to getting the utilities back online.
There were still all manner of things to sort. A practice manager would probably be needed in the long run but for now Claire would have to put herself in charge of ensuring they had everything they needed, ordering supplies, checking the equipment and setting up all the administrative systems. Even most of the files were still here.
‘Another month and they would have started to close it down, I think,’ Mrs Baird explained. ‘You got here just in time.’
‘Thank you, Mrs Baird. I can see you have done a wonderful job.’
There were several consulting rooms, enough for another doctor and nurse at least but Claire supposed she would have to start with what she had. Being first in she took her pick and took the one with the best view over the garden. It was a moment to pause and remember when she took her coat off and slid it onto the back of a plastic chair. There was a desk, a bed with a curtain that could be pulled around it. There was a computer which didn’t look like it had been switched on in months in spite of being perfectly clean.
The staff room, or what passed for it was sparse but it had a radio, a kettle and a toaster that Claire suspected the cleaning crews had been using for they were still plugged in, if switched off at the wall. After seeing Mrs Baird out Claire took another walk around and began to make plans.
Basic supplies would be first. Rubber gloves, paper for the consulting bed, and all the usual necessities for General Practice.
An electronic engineer to double check and certify all the equipment.
A competent medical receptionist who could deal with the computer system and what remained of the old paper files. By the sounds of things the NHS was hoping that the old receptionist would be willing to come back and Claire made a mental note to chase that up and see how things were going.
She would need to decide on opening hours, and a deadline to work to. Staff and supplies would be the biggest problem. Then there would be the finances and budget to take a look at. Claire decided to fire up her computer and after a quick appraisal of the budget situation decided to get a start on ordering all the necessities they would need for the day to day running of the practice.
By one o’clock Claire’s stomach was rumbling and so she took herself down the hill to a local café for a bowl of soup and a coffee. Afterwards with another twenty minutes until her self-appointed lunch hour was up, Claire popped into a corner shop on the way back to grab some tea and coffee supplies as well as biscuits for the staff room and a couple of mugs clearly designed as tourist souvenirs. On a whim when she got back Claire wandered out to the back garden and gathered some early flowers, arranging them in one of the mugs and popping them onto the reception desk.
At three o’clock Claire had her first patient and very gently explained to the older gentleman that no, the surgery was not yet open. A phone call with John had him laughing down the phone with not a hint of sympathy. She did, however, take up his suggestion to print off an information notice to stick on the front door.
Things were progressing. By the end of her first day Claire was starting to feel that she was getting somewhere. An email from the mainland told her to expect an IT specialist later in the week to update the software system and Claire had sent a query to HR about the additional staffing.
At four o’clock Claire locked up and wandered back to the centre of town, stopping at the metro supermarket by the harbour for a few things for herself and John. Claire realised she hadn’t started on looking for a property yet, but she had gotten much more done today than she had anticipated. Tomorrow, perhaps.
Dinner was delightful. Fergus and Solo turned up and Faith chattered away with Jamie in Gaelic while Fergus listened in and responded in English. Claire suspected he knew more of the language than he let on, even if he didn’t speak it.
Claire was tired after a busy day and begged an early night, leaving Jamie to spend some time with his children while she went up to her room and phoned John.
By the end of the week, Claire had made excellent progress on the surgery. Everything she needed was ordered, the receptionist was an older lady who had agreed to come back full time and the previous practice nurse it turned out had gone into a community nursing role for people who struggled to travel off the island to reach medical care. Much of that work could be brought back into the practice now it was re-opening but there was still some discussion about whether they ought not to persuade the NHS they needed a second nurse.
Still, it was a start and they had a deadline to start in two weeks time. Next week would be staff training and getting all the systems up to speed and making sure all the correct procedures were in place. The week after that, supplies permitting, they intended to open their doors to the public.
Even being on an island however there was no avoiding the news. No avoiding the memos that came around with lists of symptoms, or the speculation over how it was spread. Claire tried to distract herself with attempts at looking for a property but she wasn’t getting very far. The market was mostly saturated with holiday rentals and the number of properties for sale was extremely limited, but with cancellations coming in thick and fast to holiday rentals the market was changing at pace.
It was three nights before Claire crept into Jamie’s room. They had passionate late night sex and lay in the moonlight, touching skin to skin and barely talking.
‘Do ye miss him?’ Jamie asked.
‘Every day. Do you?’
Jamie took in a deep breath and the sigh heaved through his body. ‘I usually try not to think about that.’
Claire had rarely been so relieved at John’s arrival that Friday on the last ferry. He had worked overtime through the week to finish up a few hours early and get a head start up the road for the evening ferry. The light was fading as it came in and Claire met him with a warm hug and hearty snog.
John took in a deep breath and sank into her embrace. After a long moment they reluctantly slid apart, but John found Claire’s palm and clasped her hand in his. He tucked his arm around Claire’s body in an uncharacteristic show of affection and they walked cuddled up together along the front and over to Jamie’s house.
‘How has it been?’
‘An adjustment,’ Claire acknowledged. ‘Jamie has been very kind of course. He’s given us Fergus’s old room until we find a place. I think that might be more of a challenge than we had anticipated if this week is anything to go by. But the surgery is coming along nicely. The first of the supplies have started to arrive with more due next week. The receptionist starts back on monday and we have a meeting to co-ordinate with the local community nurses on Tuesday afternoon.’ Claire paused, ‘We’ll get there. And maybe over the weekend we could go over a few of the houses I looked at?’
‘Of course,’ John agreed amiably. He was just happy to be back, happy to be back in Claire’s embrace and eager to see Jamie again. He wanted to ask Claire a few more personal questions about her time with Jamie but they were in public and they were moving in to the neighbourhood and their odd situation had probably been noticed as it was.
The town looked as pretty as John had ever seen it. The last of the twilight was fading into darkness now and lights were on in most of the properties along the waterfront. The porch light at Jaime’s place had never looked more welcoming and inside was the warm hubub of noise and people. The door was open and when they entered John heard the patter of small feet.
‘Cha bhi thu a’ ruith anns an taigh!’ Jamie’s voice shouted from the back of the house and the rapid pitter patter of small feet came to an abrupt stop in the hallway.
‘Somehow in spite of not understanding Gaelic I know exactly what that meant,’ John observed, making her smile for the way his thoughts exactly mirrored her own. Feet pattered more slowly and Faith came into view just as Jamie appeared from the kitchen. ‘Tapadh leat, a’ ghràidh.’
Faith stopped and looked up at her father, who nodded his head at her encouragingly. Faith stepped forwards with a child’s drawing in her hand. Fergus too had appeared by this point and everyone waited.
‘Hello Faith.’ John put his bags down and kneeled down. ‘Its good to see you.’
Faith lifted one foot so it was resting on her big toe and wiggled it back and forth nervously. ‘This is for you,’ Faith presented John with the drawing. ‘For you and Claire.’
It was very much a child’s drawing but as someone who lived without children John thought it was perhaps the most precious gift he had ever received. It didn’t make much sense to his eyes but it was clear that Faith had spent a lot of time on it.
‘That’s Daddy and that’s me and that’s Fergus and that’s Solo and that’s you and Claire coming to visit and that’s the sea.’
John blinked back tears and smiled his biggest smile. ‘Thank you, Faith Fraser. I love it very much.’
‘We’ll put it in our room,’ Claire suggested and John nodded in agreement.
‘Are you staying for dinner?’
John could only chuckle at the hopeful tone of voice. Evidently visitors were still something enough of a novelty in this house for Faith to take pleasure in the excitement of it. ‘It would be my pleasure.’
Faith skipped happily off to the kitchen again, dragging Fergus with her as he was trying to say hello causing John to chuckle and call after the put-upon elder sibling. John looked up at Jamie then, and drank him in from head to toe.
Jamie’s face was impassive, but somehow there always seemed to be undercurrents in the man’s eyes that John could read like a book.
‘Jamie,’ John said simply.
Jamie nodded curtly and shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans.
He didn’t know what to do, John realised. Claire and Jamie had been intimate in his absence, John surmised, and Jamie was feeling self-conscious about it coupled with the fact that Jamie was still not used to dating a man.
‘What’s your position on hugs?’ John asked carefully.
Jamie fell apart in self-conscious half-silent laughter that guffawed from his chest. ‘Sorry, John. I guess I’ve been feeling a little tense. Thank ye, for being so good with Faith.’
‘Its my pleasure,’ John stepped closer and when it looked like Jamie wasn’t going to deck him for it, he leaned in hopefully and Jamie met him for a kiss that was slower, deeper and more languid than either of them had probably intended. When they parted Claire’s eyebrows were raised at the closeness of their embrace.
‘Mmm,’ John hummed, ‘That’s better.’
Jamie hooked a finger through the belt loop of John’s suit trousers very briefly and then let it trail away.
Claire shook her had and gently laid a hand on her husband’s shoulder. ‘Well apparently I need to give you two a moment.’
John looked at her briefly and with a hint of an apology but what was worse was that he absolutely knew Claire was going to rib him ruthlessly for it later. That woman was going to shorten his lifespan by ten years. They watched her as she went into the kitchen and started engaging loudly with Faith and Fergus.
Jamie glanced around to check they had a moment to themselves and then laid his hands on John’s waist. ‘Its good tae see ye, John.’
‘Likewise,’ John croaked. He felt like Jamie was water and air and life. John’s veins sang.
Jamie cleared his throat. ‘John ye need to not come to my room tonight.’
Jamie only gave him a look that told John everything he needed to know. John’s heart sank. Sympathy. Jamie knew.
‘John,’ Jamie clasped John’s waist firmly. ‘I don’t mind. I’m not in the same place but I like being wi’ ye both but tonight - tonight’s for you and Claire. She’s still yer wife and she missed ye. Attend to your wife.’
‘Claire would understand,’ John insisted.
‘Aye. Aye she would. That’s why I’m saying it.’ Jamie looked firmly at John until he received a curt, heartbroken nod. ‘Right then. I’m afraid its fish again.’ Jamie turned around and headed for the kitchen, with John following in his wake.
‘How terrible,’ John’s throat cracked as he tried to joke. ‘Fresh Scottish seafood straight off the boat. I suppose we shall just have to suffer through it.’
‘You’re making fun of me aren’t you?’
‘I wouldn’t dream of it,’ John bit his lip as they entered the heart of the house. Laughter bubbled. Fergus and Faith wound each other up. Claire tried to ensure none of the cooking would burn and flashed John a spectactular smile as he came into view. John’s heart chimed. Jamie was right. Of course he was. And it was only one night. But it was hard to carry so heavy a heart in a room so full of love.