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An Island Apart
by Lillian Beckwith


An Island Apart, Chapter 1
You can purchase An Island Apart from Amazon.co.uk
You can purchase An Island Apart from Amazon.com

An Island Apart

Island-born Kirsty MacLennan marries Ruari MacDonald in order to escape city life and a menial job in a guest-house and return to her beloved homeland. As she rediscovers her roots and adapts to married life on the idyllic Westisle, there is only one thing standing in the way of her future happiness — the brooding presence of her brother-in-law who shares her and her husband's home.

Chapter 1

The light from the Street lamps was veiled by a heavy, wind-harried drizzle intermixed with sleety warnings of impending snow. The city pavements were slushy beneath the feet of jaded shoppers and homegoing workers who, with faces crumpled into scowls of resentment against the weather, scurried to catch transport to their destinations before the increasing wind should urge the snow to launch a full attack.

Amidst the crowds two figures, a man and a woman, could be singled out in sharp relief. They neither hurried nor jostled but paced composedly side by side; their shoulders were not hunched; their faces were not crumpled into scowls but rather lifted unconcernedly to face the drizzle. They neither conversed nor exchanged a perceptible glance and though they were plainly together their attitude was one of separateness, as if it were obligatory they should keep a prearranged distance between them so creating the impression that they were as indifferent to each other as they appeared to be to the harshness of the weather.

The stocky figure of the man looked cosily enough dad in a thick homespun jacket which gave the appearance of being only bedewed by the drizzle as did his deerstalker hat pulled well down over his forehead. His ungloved hands seemed to hover tentatively in the region of his jacket pockets as if resisting their offered protection; his sturdy lace boots trod the pavement with the confident gait of the born countryman.

The woman, slightly shorter and only a little less stocky than the man, carried a tightly furled umbrella under her arm despite the fact that her macintosh had draped itself in a browbeaten way around her figure as if signalling that it was no longer able to repel the unremitting drizzle. Her black cloche hat had tightened and shrunk away from the auburn hair which patently it had been designed to confine; her lisle stockings, liberally splashed with pavement slush clung wetly to the calves of her legs while the limpness of her worn brogues betrayed the fact that they had not adequately protected her feet.

Evidently not seeking any kind of transport the couple walked on, leaving the clang and bustle of the city streets for the less hurried and more muted noise of the suburbs. Skirting the entrance to a gloomy park with its attendant stone clod statues they crossed a short thoroughfare where a cinema, a fish and chip shop and a public house were showing signs of stirring themselves to welcome the evening’s patrons while at the same time most of the daytime traders were douting their lights and closing their shop doors to discourage further custom.

Beyond the thoroughfare the road ended almost abruptly in a quiet avenue lined on either side by tall trees whose winter-bare branches only partly screened long terraces of substantial houses, once the homes of well-to-do citizens but long since converted into boarding houses and flats, small private schools and offices. As the couple were about to turn into the avenue the man slowed his pace and touching the woman’s sleeve, murmured interrogatively.

She paused only to give a nod of assent and immediately he retraced his steps in the direction from which they had come. The woman carried on but as if the small diversion had brought to her attention the fact that the rain had eased off and the houses gave more shelter from the wind she carefully unfurled her umbrella, raised it above her head and continued along the avenue.

When she reached the entrance to a house which bore the name ISLAY in gold lettering on the dimly-lit fanlight she mounted the six stone steps and producing a key from her pocket, inserted it into the door lock and entered the vestibule where she took off her soaked macintosh and her hat and hung them on one of the stout wooden hooks. She did not take off her gloves. Shaking her umbrella gently —it was not very wet — she looked dubiously at the umbrella stand as if debating with herself whether or not she should leave it there. The umbrella was recently acquired and was a very special gift and she intended to take good care of it. She was not going to let Isabel even set eyes on it if she could help it, she told herself. Isabel had no compunction about borrowing anything she fancied nor about the state of the thing when she returned it.

Deciding to take the umbrella up to her room she opened the door into the hallway to be assailed, as she had expected to be by the appetising smell of steak and kidney pudding. She experienced a surge of relief. Everything appeared to be in order. Not, she reminded herself, that there was much that could go wrong with a well-prepared steak and kidney pudding. Though rightly her half day off-duty should have started at two o’clock she had stayed on not only to prepare the pudding but also to bake a plum tart in readiness for the evening meal and because she reckoned that the best steak and kidney puddings needed slow gentle cooking she had set the pan to simmer before she had gone out, reassuring herself that short of an unlikely gas failure there was virtually nothing anyone could do to ruin it. Not even Isabel, she reflected, her mouth tightening grimly at the thought.

She was about to climb the stairs up to her room when she was hailed by a shout from the kitchen. ‘Is that you, Kirsty?’

‘It is myself,’ she responded.

A door at the far end of the passage was flung open to reveal a glimpse of a clean but dowdy kitchen from which the tempting smell was wafting more deliciously into the hallway. A tall angular woman stood in the doorway wiping her hands on a towel. ‘Thank the Lord you’re back. I was praying the rain would drive you back early so you’d be in time to help me,’ the woman greeted Kirsty fretfully before turning to re-enter the kitchen.

Kirsty rested her umbrella against the banister hoping Isable was too distraught to have noticed it and followed her into the kitchen where Mac, Isabel’s husband was slouched in an armchair, his face covered by a newspaper, his stockinged feet splayed out as if to deliberately trip the unwary.

‘Is anything wrong, Isabel?’ Kirsty asked with only a pretence of surprise. In her experience nothing ever seemed to go right for Isabel.

‘Wrong? Just about everything’s gone wrong,’ wailed Isabel. ‘For a start I booked in three extra guests only an hour or two ago. A couple and their son and now that wretched Meggy hasn’t turned up. I tell you I’m in such a bourac I don’t know which way to turn next.’

‘Why would you be in a bourac? The meal must be almost ready and after that’s cleared away you have only to pop the hot water bottles into the beds and take the guests their evening tea and biscuits and then the evening will be free,’ Kirsty reproved her mildly. She was accustomed to Isabel’s imagined bouracs.

‘Didn’t I tell you there’ll be three extra mouths to feed?’ Isabel demanded

‘I don’t see that as being a worry,’ retorted Kirsty. ‘There’s plenty of steak and kidney pudding and also plenty of plum tart to fill three extra mouths without anyone having to go short. You know I always err on the generous side.’

‘Too much,’ sniffed Isabel. ‘But the point I’m making is that there are no potatoes peeled nor carrots either.’

‘That’s only to be expected. It is Meggy’s job to see to the vegetables when she comes,’ Kirsty told her calmly.

‘But she hasn’t come in,’ Isabel snapped.

Kirsty dated a quick glance at the kitchen clock. ‘She’s certainly late,’ she allowed. ‘But supposing she doesn’t turn up at all there is still plenty of time for you to peel the potatoes and prepare the carrots ready for the evening meal,’ she soothed.

Isabel confronted her, hands on hips and eyes lit with anger. ‘Me? Peel potatoes when you’re here to do it. If Meggy’s not here then it’s your job.’

‘No, not on my half day off,’ Kirsty corrected. ‘And really, Isabel, you can’t pretend you have all that much to do even without Meggy,’ she reasoned.

‘You can just forget about your half day off and see to those vegetables,’ Isabel ordered irascibly. Turning quickly she tripped over her husband’s feet and stumbled against the corner of the dresser. Kirsty did not move. ‘Don’t just stand there like a log of wood,’ Isabel berated as she rubbed at her arm. ‘Just go and get changed and put on an overall. You’re not paid to watch me work.’

Kirsty’s chin rose fractionally. ‘And you can mend your manners,’ she told Isabel in a tight voice. ‘I am not used to being spoken to in such a way and you will please not speak to me ever again like that.’

‘Really?’ taunted Isabel. ‘I’ll decide how you’ll be spoken to, not you. D’you hear that, Mac?’ she mocked, snatching away the newspaper that covered her husband’s face. ‘Milady here is telling me I mustn’t speak to her as if she’s just a servant. She really does believe she owns the place now.’ Mac grunted a startled expletive.

Kirsty took a few seconds to compose herself before she countered, ‘I will give up my time off to help you but only because I care about the comfort of the guests. I will not be ordered by you to do so. I may only be a paid servant as you choose to call me but if you ever speak to me in such a way again I will pack my belongings and walk out of that front door and, guests or no guests, you will not see me again.’ She paused, aghast at her own recklessness while Isabel, startled by the sudden outburst, could only retaliate with an incredulous glare.

‘I will go now and change into dry clothes and then, by my own choice, I will come down to the kitchen,’ Kirsty continued resolutely. ‘There need be no panic about the evening meal being ready on time. I will see to that because I care about the comfort of the guest and I will help clear away afterwards but then I shall take the rest of the evening off as is my due.’

‘Oh, thank you for nothing,’ Isabel attempted to sneer, and as Kirsty was closing the kitchen door behind her she heard Mac’s voice asking scornfully, ‘Where in hell does the old boiler think she could go if she walked out of here, I’d like to know?’

Lazy, good for nothing lout, Kirsty reflected angrily as she climbed the stairs. Since he’s at home why doesn’t she get him to prepare the vegetables?

Once in her dry room she hastily took off her damp clothes, changed into dry stockings and slipped on a pair of house shoes. Finally she put on a plain black dress. The dress was by no means a stipulated uniform, ISLAY not meriting such a degree of formality but apart from the suitability and economy of plain black she liked to wear it in the evenings considering it complemented her smooth pale skin and enhanced the rich auburn of her hair. She was not, nor ever had been, vain about her appearance and now at nearly forty years of age and with a sturdy rather than shapely figure, she had accepted that she could aspire only to be neat and clean in her person and dress.

Shaking out her abundant hair which, she knew was the only feather that preserved her from plainness, she towelled it dry before pinning it into a loose bun. That done, she surveyed herself in the wardrobe mirror, glanced at her bare hands, and satisfied with her appearance was tempted momentarily to further aggravate Isabel by dawdling before she went down to the kitchen. But pride in her own standards and in upholding ISLAY’s reputation quickly banished the temptation and since there now seemed only a slender chance of Mew turning up in time to serve the evening meal she decided it would be wiser to do it herself rather than risk the sulky Isabel upsetting the guests by her inattention.

She was halfway down the stairs when the doorbell rang. ‘I’ll answer it,’ she called in the direction of the kitchen, being sure she knew who would be waiting to enter.

‘Ah, ‘tis yourself, Mr MacDonald!’ she greeted the man as she opened the door. ‘Come away in now out of the rain.’ Though hardly more than half an hour had elapsed since they had parted company her tone had the same easy cordiality with which she greeted all ISLAY guests.

Mr MacDonald seemed a little nonplussed by the impersonality of her manner. He swallowed nervously before he spoke.

‘Indeed I will be well pleased to do that,’ he acknowledged in an undertone as he stamped his boots on the thick doormat.

Once inside the vestibule he produced from his jacket pocket a half bottle of whisky which, a little diffidently he offered to her. With a gesture of dismissal she pushed his hand back towards his pocket and ushered him into the hallway. ‘Go you now and get into a dry jacket and I will hang this one in the kitchen where it will dry overnight,’ she instructed. He looked a little dashed and a tiny patch of redness appeared high on his cheekbones. Kirsty treated him to an explanatory nod of her head in the direction of the kitchen. Instantly nodding his comprehension he slipped the half bottle back into the jacket pocket.

‘Just you get yourself into some dry clothes,’ Kirsty repeated, her voice taking on a louder note as they entered the hallway. ‘You could easily catch your death.’ Acknowledging her advice with a hesitant smile and more vigorous nodding he began to climb the stairs. She watched him covertly, disguising her interest by a show of rearranging a vase of artificial flowers on the chiffonier. Not until she heard the door of his room close did she go into the kitchen.

‘You’ve taken your time,’ Isabel grumbled. Kirsty ignored the allegation. Moving away from the sink Isabel dried her hands on the roller towel and took a packet of cigarettes from her apron pocket. ‘My God! What an afternoon!’ she complained, collapsing into a chair and immediately lighting a cigarette. ‘Talk about rush. I’ve never had to rush so much in all my life.’

‘Meggy hasn’t come then?’ Kirsty asked, starting to peel the potatoes.

‘No!’

‘Has there been any word from her to say why?’

‘Nothing. Not a squeak from the little bitch,’ Isabel snapped.

‘I hope she’s not ill or that she’s not met with an accident,’ Kirsty observed anxiously. ‘It’s not like Meggy to let folks down without a word.’

‘She’s very likely been put off by the weather,’ Isabel said tartly.

‘I’d say that was most unlikely,’ Kirsty contradicted. ‘She’s always been very punctual and weather has never put her off before.’

‘Maybe she’s found herself a boyfriend at last,’ Isabel sneered. ‘With a squint like hers she’d be that glad to get a fellow to take some notice of her she’d very likely forget all about having a job to go to. She’ll get her notice when she does turn up unless she’s got a good excuse, I’m telling you.’

‘She’s always been a jolly good little worker and I’m sure there’s an excellent reason for her not coming,’ Kirsty insisted.

‘Anyway, with no Meggy to serve the meal, you’ll have to attend on the guests or else tell them to help themselves or go hungry. I’ve set the tables but I’ll not wait on.’ She tossed her head, plainly confident of Kirsty’s compliance.

‘I will do all that is necessary for the comfort of the guests,’ Kirsty stressed. Isabel flicked her a smug glance and left the kitchen.

The meal was served at the regular time and when the tables had been cleared and the guests had gone about their various evening activities Kirsty washed and dried and stacked away the dishes. She was standing by the stove filling a thermos flask with hot tea ready to take up to her room when the door opened and Isabel and Mac entered the kitchen bringing with them the mingled smell of scent and cigarette smoke. Seeing that they were both dressed in their outdoor clothes she glanced at them with raised eyebrows and waited for them to speak.

‘We’re away to the flicks,’ Mac announced in a slurred voice which betrayed he had already taken a substantial evening dram.

Kirsty made no comment.

‘You’ll have to see to the ten o’clock tea and biscuits for guests and pop the hot water bottles into their beds,’ instructed Isabel, pulling on her gloves and looping a scarf around her neck.

Kirsty fought to control her rising indignation. Putting down the flask she turned to face them. ‘Indeed I shall do nothing of the kind,’ she asserted. ‘Must I remind you that it is still my half day off and tonight as I have already told you I particularly wish to have the time to myself.’

For a second or two she was able to rejoice at their flabbergasted expressions before she went on, ‘When your aunt was in charge here I was never called upon to work during my time off unless there was a special reason for me to do so and then, more than willingly, I gave up my time.’

‘She was a damn sight too soft with you!’ Mac interjected testily.

Ignoring him Kirsty looked straight at Isabel. ‘You will not be trying to tell me that going to the cinema is in any way a special kind of reason?’ She screwed the cup firmly onto the flask.

‘But you’ll be here in the house, won’t you? It’s surely not much to ask you to do us the favour of taking in tea and biscuits and seeing to the hot water bottles. It won’t take you more than a few minutes,’ expostulated Isabel.

‘No, it is maybe not much to ask,’ Kirsty agreed. ‘But you did not ask me, did you? You told me I would have to do it.’ She reached for a cup and saucer, took a couple of her own baked scones from a tin and set them on the tray with the flask.

‘Just you stop this hoity toity,’ Mac interposed more as if he felt it was time he contributed to the disagreement rather than in the hope of ending it.

With a gesture Isabel silenced him. ‘It’s the last night of a film we particularly want to see and if we stay to the end it’ll be too late to see to the guests. They’ll have gone to their beds.’ Her manner was only a little less unpleasant.

‘What d’you do on your nights off anyway? Just sit in your room knitting or reading stuffy old books or listening to the wireless?’ jeered Mac.

‘Just that,’ affirmed Kirsty equably. ‘And that is exactly what I am planning to do this evening.’

‘You’d still have time to do all that,’ Isabel quibbled. ‘You wouldn’t have to forsake your pleasure for more than a few minutes to oblige us.’

‘That’s true,’ Kirsty acknowledged. ‘But tonight I am not intending to oblige you. As you can see I have my own supper here on the tray which in a moment or two I shall be taking up to my room and then I shall not be coming down to the kitchen again until the morning.’ She surveyed them coolly. ‘You must learn that I am not a slave to be hectored and bullied as you two have tried to hector and bully me. You must get back from your cinema in time to attend the guests or,’ she continued, ‘you can tell them they must get their own tea and biscuits and see to their own hot water bottles tonight.’ Again Kirsty was surprised at her own audacity.

For a full moment the couple glared at her without speaking as if convinced that their glares were menacing enough to weaken her resolve. Disregarding them she picked up her tray and with a curt ‘goodnight’ started towards the door. Seemingly dumbfounded by her unexpected outburst the couple moved sullenly to let her past.

‘See that!’ Isabel remarked spitefully as Kirsty opened the door. ‘Wouldn’t think of doing anything for anyone but herself.’ Mac opened his mouth ready to speak but Isabel went on, ‘You’ll just have to stay here or go to the cinema on you own.’

‘What the...?’ Mac began to protest but before he could continue Isabel cut in. ‘Go on, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy going out now, not after all this nastiness.’

Seemingly unperturbed Kirsty carried her tray to the stairway. She could still hear the couple wrangling in the kitchen. ‘Well, haven’t I told you often enough. It’s your own fault. Never mind what you promised your aunt. Give the bloody woman her notice. You can manage without her,’ Mac rebuked his wife.

‘Oh, shut your mouth and go,’ Isabel snarled at him. With a muttered oath he came shambling past Kirsty and jerking open the vestibule door let it slam behind him.

You can purchase An Island Apart from Amazon.co.uk
You can purchase An Island Apart from Amazon.com


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