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A Shine of Rainbows
by Lillian Beckwith


A Shine of Rainbows, Chapter 1
You can purchase A Shine of Rainbows from Amazon.co.uk
You can purchase A Shine of Rainbows from Amazon.com

A Shine of Rainbows Mairi and Sandy live on a lonely Hebridean island, content with each other — despite their lack of children. When Mairi brings home Thomas, a child from the orphanage, Sandy is jealous of Mairi’s affection for him and disappointed in the boy’s stammer and fragility. With time, Thomas grows in confidence and draws nearer to his foster mother, but still Sandy keeps an emotional distance— until tragedy results in a new understanding.

Chapter 1

Big Sandy plunged his spade deep into the moist, black earth of his potato plot, holding it there lightly with one hand as he flexed his broad shoulders. Looking up, he scanned with narrowed eyes the distant outline of the road, so faintly etched against the rumpled hillside as to be barely identifiable save to the practised observer and then only by virtue of the telegraph poles which, like marker stakes against the vast background, irregularly picked out its route. After a few seconds he bent again to his task.

Several times during the past hour he had paused thus in a manner which, to an onlooker, would have suggested anticipation or even a degree of impatience. Yet, despite the seclusion of the croft and despite being unobserved except by Ben, his sheepdog, Sandy’s habitually sphinx-like expression remained unchanged, revealing no trace of what thoughts might be passing through his mind.

Ben, nevertheless, had caught a suspicion of excitement. Lying at one end of the plot near Sandy’s discarded jacket, he waited and watched, his body taut, ready for instant command; his vigilant eyes straying from his master’s face only to flick a baleful glance at a lone gull which, gliding low overhead, broke the afternoon quiet with a few chattered comments before turning to swoop towards the shingle shore where the boundary of the croft met the restless jostlings of the sea.

Sandy had chosen this particular time of day to begin digging the ground ready for his potatoes because of the situation of the plot. From here, where he worked, he would be able to catch the first glimpse of the mail bus as it emerged from a narrow cleft in the hills to begin its meandering descent into the glen and round the shores of the loch. The moment the bus should come into view, Sandy had judged, would be the moment for him to abandon his digging for the day and return to the cottage. There he would blow up the smouldering peat fire into a cosy glow before hooking the kettle on its chain, all ready to welcome Mairi, his wife, who had been for two weeks in the city staying with her friend Buddy and was now coming home on the bus.

His watching was necessary since the bus ran to only a rough schedule, its primary function being not the carrying of passengers but the collection and transportation of mails to and from the mainland. There being much scope for contingencies at every stage of the journey, first by train, then by ferry and finally by bus, it was rarely possible to guess within an hour or so when it and its cargo of mails and passengers would eventually reach the village.

Sandy continued digging, steadily turning over the ground where, if the weather held, he and Mairi would soon be dibbling in their potatoes. The day was by no means warm; his movements were the easy practised ones of a man who has worked the land all his life but the weathered skin of his face glistened with sweat and there was a recurring dryness in his throat which had the effect of making him frequently want to swallow. With his foot poised on the spade, he turned and tried unsuccessfully to clear the dryness, at the same lime taking the opportunity to make a more intense scrutiny of the road. Pushing back his cloth cap as if it interfered with his vision, he flung it so it landed on his jacket. Ben stood up, sniffed at the cap and then lay down again. Sandy wiped his sleeve over his brow and, rubbing his knuckles hard into the thatch of his black hair, allowed the cool breeze to freshen his scalp. Reflectively he assessed the area of turned earth before grasping his spade and resuming his digging.

He had completed the digging of two more furrows the full length of the plot before the bus came into view, crawling like a tiny explorative beetle along the intricacies of the road. As If reluctant to keep to his self-imposed plan, Sandy did not cease work immediately but turned over several more spadefuls of earth before finally wiping his spade on a tussock of sedge. Puffing on his jacket, he made with purposeful strides towards the cottage.

The hens, clustered importunately around the door, scattered with wild shrieks and stray feathers as Ben, unbidden, chased them away. It was time for their evening feed but Sandy was indifferent to theft pestering. Before she had gone away Mairi had pleaded, ‘Unless the bus is fearfully late will you leave feeding the hens the evening I get back? He’ll maybe like to help me to do that.. .and Sandy,’ she had coaxed with a diffident smile, ‘see there are a few eggs in the nestboxes for him to collect. Perhaps put some there if the hens haven’t laid. Town children love to gather eggs.’ Her lovely eyes had searched his face, anxious for his cooperation. Looking down at her, his grim expression had relaxed as his own eyes had humoured her with the tenderly indulgent smile only she ever saw.

When the peats were ablaze under the kettle he went over to the henhouse and with a slight sense of discomfiture checked that there were eggs in the nestboxes. Six altogether. That would be plenty, he told himself. Back at the cottage he poured rainwater into a bowl and washed his hands and face, afterwards tipping the water into a pail in which he dipped the stiff yardbrush and cleaned the worst of the mud from his boots. Finally he swept the kitchen floor. He was not a domesticated man. Indeed, Mairi would not have wished her man to be so, but he wanted to ensure that he had left no avoidable untidiness that might, even fractionally, mar the pleasure of her homecoming. For a few moments he surveyed the room and then, almost as if he had been denying the urge to do so, he went through into the narrow passageway which led to the back bedroom. Opening the door, he stood, letting his glance travel from the bed with its patchwork quilt made from knitted squares of wool that had come from their own sheep, to the curtains of homespun tweed which draped but did not screen the small window; from the shiny new linoleum which covered the floor to the low shelves beside the bed which Mairi had cajoled him into making and fixing. It was the first time he had seen the room all prepared and ready for occupancy and he found himself needing to take a deep slow breath as if to reassure himself. As he closed the door and the dryness again returned to his throat, he recognized and acknowledged the apprehension that had been dogging him for the past few months.

Going back into the kitchen and seeing the kettle already steaming, he swung it to one side and topped the glowing peats with still more peats to temporarily dampen down the flames. After a slight hesitation, as if secretly abashed at what he was about to do, he opened a drawer in the dresser and, taking out a blue and yellow patterned tablecloth, spread it over the shiny waxcloth which covered the bare wood of the table.

When they had first married Sandy had regarded with wry amusement Mairi’s insistence on regularly covering the table with a cloth at mealtimes. In his own home even a covering of waxcloth had been regarded as a luxury. Admittedly his mother had possessed a tablecloth, but that had been of a sad brown colour which had been used only on Sabbath evenings when, with an air of reverence, it had been spread over the table, masking its workaday purpose and providing a more fitting resting place for the big Bible from which his father, until his death, and then his mother had read long passages aloud to the family. The ritual over, both cloth and Bible had been put away.

Such cloths as Mairi used would have been regarded as sinful frivolities by his parents’ generation. Sandy himself recalled feeling slightly uneasy when Mairi had first produced one of her bright-coloured cloths, but he had understood that, having been used to being in service in big houses, Mairi naturally accepted the laying of a cloth as a prerequisite to any meal. He had doubted then that the habit would continue for long after she came to live on a croft that was without piped water and electricity and where ironing meant heating an old-fashioned box iron. The extra labour involved In laundering unnecessary tablecloths would, he reckoned, soon make her dispense with them. But he had been wrong. In the ten years they had been married not once had she set food before him without first covering the table with a prettily coloured cloth. She possessed a dozen or more of them, proudly bringing them back like trophies whenever she visited the mainland; even buying them from the heterogeneous bundles displayed by visiting tinkers. While she had been away Sandy had not thought to use a tablecloth, but now she was coming home he wanted the place to look as much like her home as he could and, as he smoothed down the cloth, he had to admit to himself that the kitchen was a livelier place for it, making the room look as if it too was eagerly awaiting the return of its mistress.

Had he not been a man, Sandy thought, he would have contemplated having ready for his wife the kind of repast she would have prepared for him had it been himself returning home after two weeks in the city. There would likely have been a chicken and vegetables in the pot, fresh bannocks and oatcakes kept warm by the hob, crowdie and butter, all of her own making; for though Mairi had come from the city she had soon adapted to being a crofter’s wife and had become proud of her skills. She had filled the girnel before going to stay with her friend in the city but there was nothing home-baked in it now. Sandy did not reproach himself. In the Islands the demarcation line was strict. It was still ‘man for the land and woman for the hearth’. The man of the house provided the food but it was the woman’s task to prepare it and no one would have been more ashamed than Mairi had she allowed her man to turn his hand to the chores that were considered hers. Sandy had done as much as he could. The fish he had caught that day now lay filleted and sprinkled with salt on the slab in the larder. The potatoes were washed and ready for the pot. There were jugs of good fresh milk; there were eggs and there was still butter in the keg Maid had salted down when there was a more than plenteous supply of cream. They would fare handsomely enough, thought Sandy, even without taking into account the extras Mairi would surely be bringing home from the mainland.

Pulling the door tight shut so as to prevent the hens from invading the kitchen while Ben was not there to harass them, Sandy strode easily, hands in pockets, along the narrow sheeptrack that wound between the rocky outcrops of the croft and led to the steps in the drystone wall near which the bus would deposit his wife. Just a few yards the croft side of the steps there was a high jutting slab of rock which in wild weather provided shelter for anyone, even a man of Sandy’s height, while waiting for the bus. As the sound of the approaching bus grew louder a sudden impulse made Sandy seek the concealment of the rock and call Ben peremptorily to heel. He discovered he was sweating and was tempted to remove his jacket, but the cursed dryness was there again in his throat reminding him that it would very likely be futile to do so. His perspiration was not caused by the weather. Peering round the edge of the rock, Sandy watched the bus slow to a halt and as the door slid noisily back and his wife alighted he experienced the familiar leap of delight which the sight of her always brought him.

Ben rushed forward excitedly to greet Mairi, his barked welcome mixing with the called farewells of the passengers remaining on the bus. Sandy, on the point of emerging from his concealment as if he had in fact only that moment reached the spot, stood stock still. Dear God! No! No! The silent protest lodged in his chest and a gout of dismay rushed through him. As if stunned by a sudden blow, his eyes stayed fixed on the thin, frail-looking, bespectacled young boy who, as soon as all Mairi’s bags and parcels had been unloaded, had come half stumbling down the steps of the bus to stand, head hanging dejectedly, beside her. Surely not! Sandy’s mind resisted the evidence of his eyes. There must have been some mistake, surely? Mairi would never have deceived him in this way; never have intended to lumber him with a burden such as this? The door of the bus slammed shut; the driver put the engine into gear. Sandy was swept by an overwhelming sense of betrayal. He felt a desire to stay hidden a little longer but already Mairi was looking around with puzzled expectancy, obviously wondering why he was not close behind Ben. With an air of complete composure he strode forward, remembering to salute the passengers on the departing bus as he did so, deliberately keeping his eyes averted from the unattractive child who stood beside his wife.

‘Sandy!’ She spoke his name joyously but the moment their eyes met he knew she had been expecting his disappointment and was now pleading mutely for his understanding. ‘Dear,’ she said, and as she drew the boy forward with a gentle hand on his arm, Sandy got the impression that she had rehearsed this meeting many times. ‘Dear, this is Thomas. Thomas this is himself, my husband. I think you’ve been told a lot more about him than he’s been told about you.’

‘How do you do, Thomas.’ Sandy did his best to infuse some warmth into his voice as he held out a steady hand. ‘Welcome to Corrie.’

Mairi smiled at him gratefully but Thomas seemed uncertain for a moment whether or not he should make a reciprocal gesture. When his small pale hand did touch Sandy’s he withdrew it instantly as if pricked by a thistle. Furtively he glanced up and immediately looked down again, either too shy on too miserable to venture a smile or a word. Mairi, aware of the bleakness of Sandy’s expression, said hurriedly, ‘Oh, but we’ve had such a journey with one thing and then another. We’ll both be glad to get a nice cup of tea inside us, is that not so, Thomas?’

Sandy thought he detected the boy’s head move slightly in response to her words. ‘Right then,’ he said. ‘Let’s get you back to the cottage.’ He picked up the two suitcases. ‘Leave the rest of your parcels and I’ll come back for them later on.’ His voice was terse, making plain his impatience to get moving.

‘Oh, no,’ Mairi insisted. ‘The rest of the bags aren’t heavy at all and Thomas and I are quite strong enough to carry them ourselves, aren’t we, Thomas?’ She smiled encouragingly at the boy. ‘But first Thomas must say a proper how do you do to Ben.’ She called to Ben, who had already started to follow his master but who, at her summons, bounded back happily to be fussed oven. ‘You and Ben will soon be good friends, I’m sure,’ Mairi said.

Glancing back, Sandy saw Thomas’ stiff reaction to Ben’s vigorous welcome. His mouth twitched cynically. The boy looks as if he’d be scared of a wee spider never mind a great lump of a sheepdog, he thought.

Arriving first at the cottage, Sandy took the larger of the two suitcases into his and Main’s bedroom where he left it on the bed ready for her to unpack. The smaller one he placed on the bed in the back room.

‘There now!’ Mairi smiled warmly at her husband as she came into the kitchen. ‘Just look at that, Thomas! A lovely fire and a singing kettle to welcome us home. Is that not good to see?’ So far as Sandy could make out she was still getting no perceptible response from the boy but undeterred she went on, ‘I will take off my hat and coat now and put on my gumboots. You come through into your bedroom and do the same. And put on that jacket you got from Andy. We must hurry if we’re going to feed the hens before they get tired of waiting and go off to their roosts for the night without any supper. And we’ll look to see if they’ve laid any eggs for our breakfast in the morning, like I promised you.’ She turned to dart a questioningly conspiratorial glance at Sandy before taking Thomas off to his bedroom. When she returned she was carrying the small suitcase. ‘Oh, Sandy,’ she called as he was about to go outside, ‘it’s the big suitcase that is to go into Thomas’ room. This small one has my own things in it.’

Sandy took the larger suitcase through to the back room where Thomas was standing looking out of the window. ‘That’s yours, I believe,’ he said. ‘Will I put It on the bed?’

Thomas nodded spectrally.

‘He seems to be well provided for if he’s needing a suitcase that heavy for his things,’ Sandy observed to Mairi as he closed the door of the passageway behind him.

‘That’s because he’s had so many things given to him,’ she explained. Seeing his brows lift uncomprehendingly, she went on, ‘While I was telling Buddy I would need to get Thomas some good weatherproof clothes, seeing he’d only thin ones suited to city life, Buddy’s neighbour came in. A few minutes after she’d gone she was back again with a big parcel of clothes her own son had grown out of. Good ones they were too, and she was so pleased at being able to pass them on to someone she knew, I hadn’t the heart to refuse them.’ She caught her husband’s glance of annoyance. ‘I insisted on giving her something for them, of course,’ she placated him, ‘but it was nothing like they would have cost new.’

Sandy seemed unappeased. ‘Surely, Mairi, you knew I would not have begrudged having to spend on new clothes for the boy,’ he reproved her. His pride was hurt. Although he had not her interest in the boy he was willing to accept it as his duty to provide for him as lavishly as she thought needful.

She came and leaned against him and as her hand went up to caress his cheek his arms closed round her. ‘Dear,’ she explained, ‘it’s not just as simple as that. When you’ve been in an orphanage you kind of get used to hand-me-downs. You long for new clothes, of course, but I can still remember how strange it felt when I was given a complete brand new outfit to wear. The prospect was exciting and I felt as proud as a peacock, and yet there was this strangeness because not one of the things I was wearing had belonged to any of the bigger girls before me. They hadn’t the right feel to them somehow. I suppose it’s a little like getting into a bed and lying beside someone who’s already taken the chill off it, rather than getting into a cold empty one and warming it yourself.’ Her lips curved in a small, nostalgic smile. ‘The strangeness didn’t last long because I was staying on at the orphanage then, but remembering it made me realize that leaving the orphanage and coming to live here with us is such a tremendously new experience for Thomas. To be dressed in all new clothes, I thought, might accentuate the feeling of unfamiliarity.’ She shrugged, keeping her shoulders lifted as she went on. ‘It’s not easy to explain but I feel strongly that we must try not to thrust too many new experiences on him too suddenly. I think he should be gentled into his new life.’ She waited, looking up at him as if wanting his approval. ‘You see, he’d already met Andy and obviously he admired him a lot so I think he was quite thrilled to be presented with the clothes Andy had grown out of. Maybe he thought they’d help him to grow more like Andy.’

Sandy nodded slowly, accepting her reasoning though only half appreciating it. As so often happened, he felt humbled by her perception and understanding. Swiftly he lifted her until her face was level with his. ‘Glad to have me back again are you?’ she murmured, her cheek against his.

‘Would you believe me if I said I wasn’t,’ he teased, his hard mouth softening as it moved over her fair halt Abruptly he set her down. ‘Go and feed your hens, woman,’ he bade her, though his strong hands made no effort to relax their grip on her shoulders. His eyes dwelt on the sweet curve of her lips as she smiled at him provocatively. He knew himself to be a stem man — stem even with his own emotions - but this small shining woman he held imprisoned in his grasp could so easily shatter his composure. His voice rasped in his throat. ‘Go now, while I can still let you go,’ he told her.

Laughingly she broke away from him. ‘Aye, and if you don’t get out and see to your sheep, you’ll need to be chasing them with a lamp,’ she warned him.

He lifted the smaller suitcase from the table where she had put it and took it through to their bedroom. As he stood recovering from the effect of her nearness he heard her calling Thomas. Returning to the kitchen, he was in time to see them both go past the window on their way to feed the hens.

You can purchase A Shine of Rainbows from Amazon.co.uk
You can purchase A Shine of Rainbows from Amazon.com


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