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A Breath of Autumn
by Lillian Beckwith


A Breath of Autumn, Chapter 1
You can purchase A Breath of Autumn from Amazon.co.uk
You can purchase Breath of Autumn from Amazon.com

A Breath of Autumn

Kirsty MacDonald is a crofter on the idyllic Westile in the Hebrides, an island she now owns. Her son, Ruari, has started school on the mainland, travelling by boat across the Sound to Clachan, and being separated from her son during the week is a wrench for Kirsty. Twice widowed, she misses the boy's father, who was tragically drowned and also her husband's brother, who became her second husband - and secretly loved her.

Kirsty is not left entirely alone though. As autumn arrives she is kept busy preparing for the winter and find herself fully involved in the lives of her fellow islanders: fisherman Jamie, who is like her own son, his friend Euan and new arrival Enac. However, it is the appearance of a Canadian and his daughter that causes the biggest waves in the small community. Kirsty is opposed to change but soon comes to learn that not all change is to be resisted.

Chapter 1

Kirsty MacDonald settled herself on the rock that protruded like a sill from the heathery bank of moorland beside the sheep track. Raising her binoculars, she scanned the rugged outline of the island that lay a mile or so across the Sound, focusing on the wide-mouthed bay whose shingle shore gave the appearance of being the threshold of the irregular line of croft houses that comprised the village of Clachan. After a few moments, she swung her gaze to the schoolhouse which, even at that distance, was easily identifiable. Set against the starkly rising cliffs at one end of the bay, it had a high-pitched roof, narrow institutionalised windows, and a tiny uncluttered playground enclosed by a sturdy stone wall which defended it from the sea. The school had a distinct air of aloofness, as if it had been designed to create the Impression that it was drawing away the hem of its garments from the squat thatched croft houses with their adjoining unkempt byres and barns, their decrepit hen-houses and incongruously neat peat stacks and haystacks. For some minutes her gaze rested on the schoolhouse as if she might be seeking to detect some sign of activity, yet she well knew that her binoculars were not sufficiently powerful to discern movement at such a distance. Her eyes began to water and, with a sigh, she lowered the glasses, blinked rapidly, and continued to stare across the Sound, her mind preoccupied by how her son, the Wee Ruari as he’d always been known, was reacting to his first day of formal education.

She herself had taken him across the Sound to Clachan earlier that morning in Katy, the dinghy with the outboard motor and, sensitive to his husky entreaty that there should be no motherly embrace or fond farewell, they’d parted from each other with no more than a muttered whisper of ‘Beannachd leat’, a nod, and a tightly controlled smile. Again at his insistence, she’d stayed beside the Katy, pretending to be adjusting the floorboards while she covertly watched him make his way over the shingle and up to the entrance of the school playground, where already several scholars of varying ages and sizes were clustered, eyeing the newcomer’s approach with evident interest. It was the first time that mother and son had been parted for more than an hour or so and now, from today, they would be unlikely to see each other until the following Friday evening, and only then if the sea were calm enough for someone to take the Katy across to get him.

The realisation that her son was approaching the age when he would need to go to school, and that when that time came he would have to live much of the time away from her, had been a lurking disquiet in her mind for many months. It was not that she hadn’t been keen for him to be educated in a school with other children, yet when Jamie, her stepson had said bluntly one day, ‘Isn’t it time Wee Ruari was starting school and being more with children of his own age?’ the question had stunned her momentarily: It had sounded so brusque.

‘Time enough,’ she’d said, trying to make her voice sound bland, so Jamie would not suspect her uneasiness, but Wee Ruari, having heard Jamie put the question, had since given her little respite from his demands to know how long he must wait before he could go to school. He was ready for school, he’d declared positively, and she had to acknowledge to herself he was certainly that. He might not have reached the required age to start, but his keenness to learn had been evident from his earliest years. As soon as his small fingers had become nimble enough to manage a pencil she had taught him firstly how to copy a few simple letters and then how to link them so that they spelled simple three-letter words. On winter afternoons, in the quiet time after she’d fed the hens and before ‘the boys’, as she referred to Jamie and his crewman Euan Ally, had returned from their fishing, it had become the custom for her to read to him from one of the children’s story-books which she’d requested from the mainland library and which Jamie regularly collected from the post office every couple of months. The books were far too advanced for Wee Ruari to read himself, but once the lamp was lit he loved to sit at the table, as close as possible to her, seemingly fascinated by the lines of black printing, which her voice could turn magically into stories of other children, other animals, other lands far beyond the hills, beyond the sea and sometimes, as she would try to explain, beyond the sunset.

His learning had been further advanced by a gift of more suitable books from a young couple who, while holidaying In Clachan the previous summer, had managed to persuade a boat-owner to ferry them over to Westisle. They had become so enchanted with its secluded glens and hidden conies, its undisturbed moorland, the variety of plant life and wildlife, that they had asked if they might bring over their tent and spend the remainder of their holiday encamped in the shelter of one of the derelict cottages. It was a cottage which at one time had been the home of crofters. She’d agreed, a little reluctantly at first because they were English, and the English were regarded by the islanders as being proud and unfriendly. She’d feared they might prove to be a nuisance but, to her surprise, she’d found she much enjoyed their presence and when, at the end of their stay, they had asked if they could make a similar arrangement for the following year and stay for the whole of their holiday she’d acquiesced unhesitatingly. It had turned out that the young woman was a primary-school teacher and her husband a university lecturer. When they’d arrived the following spring they’d brought with them a parcel of beautifully illustrated books of rhymes and stories for Wee Ruari, who was so taken with the gift he seemed to think that in return he should escort them to wherever they wished to go on the island and show them some of his favourite places. Kirsty, anxious that he should not be a nuisance to them, had tried to dissuade him from seeking their company too frequently, explaining to him that they wanted to be left alone to quietly explore the island and seek specimens of plants and pebbles to take back to England with them. Somewhat reluctantly, he’d agreed.

It was inevitable that, after the couple had been encamped for a few days, a fierce gale accompanied by lashing rain had wreaked havoc on their camp and Kirsty, who, from the moment of their arrival had been prepared for such an eventuality, had offered them Instead the shelter of her unused loft room. It was likely they would be cosy enough in their sleeping bags in her house. Wee Ruari had been overjoyed that they should all be together in the same house and the young woman, whose name was Polly, had been so much taken with his eagerness to learn that, when she had not been helping her husband classify specimens, she’d been happy to read to the boy, frequently encouraging him by moving her finger below the words as she read. She’d also taught him some English nursery rhymes and had been delighted when he repeated them to her almost without hesitation. Though he’d given every impression of enjoying them, he’d confided to Kirsty that English children must be ‘pretty daft’ to believe that such silly rhymes ‘schooled’ them as he put it, but both she and Jamie had subsequently suffered many days, weeks, and months of hearing the singsong repetition of ‘Bo-Peep’, ‘Simple Simon’, and ‘Little Boy Blue’ which had never impinged upon their own early education.

Yes, Wee Ruarl was certainly ready for school, Kirsty assured herself and, since he was ‘no bauthalain’ as her late husband used to declare, she was certain he would prove to be a scholar of whom she and the dominie would be proud. Waving away a hovering bumble bee, she directed her glasses on the ‘Widow Fraser’s’ reed-thatched collage which crouched snugly at the opposite end of the bay from the school. The ‘Widow Fraser’ was, in Kirsty’s opinion, a worthy kind of woman: clean, hard-working and a good enough cook. When Kirsty had first spoken to her about having Wee Ruari to stay with her during the week when he would be attending school she had greeted the suggestion warmly. Having been a widow for nearly fifteen years and with her only child, a daughter, married and living in New Zealand, she’d welcomed the prospect of anyone, even a youngster, to keep her company and had appeared to be well satisfied with the small recompense Kirsty had been able to offer in return for his lodging.

So Kirsty had no reason for any misgivings about being parted from her son. She had spoken to the dominie some weeks previously and had been assured that ‘the boy would be suitably supervised’. He would already be familiar with those of the scholars who had managed to coax their way onto a summer beachcombing expedition on Westisle, or perhaps had been counted useful enough to accompany a rabbit-shooting trip during the winter. The rest of the scholars would no doubt have been informed by the dominie that the new boy from Westisle would be joining the class when the new term started. There would, Kirsty imagined, be the initial wary reserve which was natural to all island children but it would speedily disperse and he would make good friends. He was that kind of boy just. She had no apprehensions as to his safety. She had taught him to swim, and the terrain of Westisle had conditioned him to cope with any hazards he might encounter in the not-too-dissimilar surroundings of Clachan, and yet she was still tense. ‘I’m only deluding myself thinking it’s just the separation from my son that is affecting me like this,’ she reasoned. ‘I’m just loath to allow myself to admit that the wrench of separation from him is aggravating the still raw wound that has ravaged me since the loss of my husband.’ It was not, she had to admit, the loss of the kind and gentle man who had been Wee Ruari’s father and who had tragically drowned before he had even known of the child that was in her womb, but the loss of his dour brother, the man who had subsequently offered her marriage without any semblance of affection but simply to ensure that she and her child could be sure of a permanent home. The man who, not until the final hours of his last illness, had confessed his secret and abiding love for her, and had, by doing so, unmasked her own love for him; a love which hitherto she had either smothered or had shrunk from recognising. But that love had been a secret between the two of them and because she thought of it as being in some way illicit she had, since his death, striven to maintain a stoical composure. Her shoulders sagged at the memory of that last farewell; her stoicism seemed to be deserting her and when she again tried to raise the glasses and focus them her hands were too unsteady. Her breath started to catch in her dry throat; her breast began to heave uncontrollably. ‘Dear Lord, I’m too old to cry;’ she chided herself; but grief was threatening to overwhelm her and, before she could get a grip on herself, even before she could grab a hasty handful of the overall beneath her jacket to staunch them, the tears were gushing from her eyes and running down her cheeks, blinding her. Shuddering, she turned away from the loch and from the hills, as if fearing that they were secretly spying on her.

Rolling onto her stomach, she pressed her yielding body into the conformity of the heather; sobs shook her as she tried to deceive herself into imagining it to be the close embrace she had yearned so much to receive.

Thus, completely alone, the twice-widowed Kirsty MacDonald at last abandoned herself to the grief she had for too long suppressed.

You can purchase A Breath of Autumn from Amazon.co.uk
You can purchase Breath of Autumn from Amazon.com


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