Scientifically Mapping a Missed Attraction
Professor Jones, geography lecturer, analysed the pleasant face before her and identified
• The deciduous forest of his remaining hair
• The twin ox-bow lakes of his blue eyes
• The well travelled main highways across the plateau of his forehead
• The granite outcrop of his proud nose
• The limestone pavements of his teeth
• The unexplored territory of his greying beard.
Recognising a colleague she had met at a conference some years ago, she contemplated
• The seam of gold on his left hand
• The cascading waterfall of her regrets
• The glacial valley of her arid life
• The erosion of her own aging profile
• The unidentified opportunity of a joint expedition.
Professor Jones turned ruefully away from the subject of her scrutiny.
I wasn’t with her when it happened. She emerged. She crawled from the darkness, fighting her way out of the rapidly cooling, stiff, freckled case. She shook her crumpled wings, waiting for them to unfurl completely, spreading out their deep black silkiness, patterned with a rich mosaic of gold and rainbow jewelled colours.
By the dim light in the room, she could see another case, not yet stiffened, still moving grub-like, but not far from its time to harden and then split to release the gorgeous creature within. There was an upward movement in her wings and she headed through the open window, aiming for the bright light above. She knew this was where she should go yet there was something tugging her northwards. She didn’t understand, this was against the imperative built into her, but the pulling was relentless. There was something she must do first before she could be truly free.
In the morning, I’d been for a long stroll with the others around the harbour to see the brightly coloured fishing boats tied up for the Sabbath. Sunday observance was at that time very strict among the people of Scalpay. The ferry across to Harris didn’t run, the tiny shop didn’t open and our landlady had asked us on no account to hang any washing out on the line.
We walked past the tiny church, listening to the almost eerie, wailing sound of the Gaelic hymn, carrying with it echoes of the waves, the wind and the seabird calls. The islanders were friendly people, everyone we passed greeted us with a smile. I was struck by the healthy shining complexions and rosy cheeks of the young ones, many of whom had the typical Scottish marmalade to ginger cake coloured hair.
The wind that made walking on this Hebridean island feel like being on the deck of a ship out at sea had dropped, leaving the air mild and sweet. The quiet atmosphere and slow island pace of life overwhelmed us. We sat in the sunshine on the glittering volcanic rocks outside the house all afternoon, listening to the cuckoos and feeling no inclination to go any further. All was perfect peace, except that from time to time we heard the faint ringing of the telephone in our landlady’s apartment. This struck a jarring note but we were too sleepy and lazy to wonder very much.
Her wings soared over hills, moorland, steep Scottish mountains. There was sea below her, littered with rocks and islands. She flew low over a group of grubs sunning themselves on one of these islands. They were unaware of her passing but she recognised one of them as exerting the pull on her, so she settled on a hillside not far away. Below her the kingfisher blue waves flirted along the shore, a froth of white lace like the border of an old-fashioned petticoat. The rocks on the hillside were striped with black and pink crystals and tiny flowers played hide and seek in the short turf amongst them.
She crawled gently across the rocks for a short while then, satisfied that her work was complete, she flew away, up towards the blue towers of her eternal home.
As I stared at the beautiful blue distance where the hills of Harris rose gently above the white rimmed sea, a strange vision came into my mind. I could see my mother climbing up those hills, laughing and smiling at me. Her legs were restored to full strength, her shining curls had recovered the bright copper colour of her younger days. The sight brought tears to my eyes because I’d left her unwell; the multiple sclerosis that was gradually paralysing her body had recently erupted again. It was twenty years since she’d last been able to walk.
I recalled the postcard I’d hastily scribbled to my parents the minute I could find one when we arrived on Scalpay. “I think we may have found Paradise.”
The landlady called out. Would I come to the phone? My father’s voice, tinny with despair.
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