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Eddie Bruce
Gulf


1981 MARGATE, ATLANTIC CITY, NEW JERSEY, USA.

Anita looks up from her lawyer's letter. "But I am interested Hon! It's just I have a divorce settlement to deal with, you know - important life or death things? Tell me again angel - you went twenty miles offshore and threw a Coke bottle into the ocean?"

"The whole class did, Mom –last year! A school project, don't you remember? Maybe I should’ve gone with dad. At least he listened to me - sometimes."

"Yeah, if you could catch him sober. You're fourteen years old, Marilyn. For goodness sake, try to act your age! O.K. So how many messages were found?"

"Six, that's all, and most of them had only travelled a few miles down the coast. A fisherman at Key Largo, Florida answered Julie Brogan's message. I bet her father drove down there and threw another one in the water, just so she could win the prize. Mine is still out in the Atlantic, I guess."

"Well, you just tell them to wait. If Julie's took that long to reach Florida, I guess yours could be on its way to Japan..."

"No Mom, not Japan. It couldn't..." She switches her pretty dimpled smile on, then off. "Oh, never mind."

1985. INVERNAVER, SUTHERLAND, SCOTLAND.

Kirsty Morrison lays her washing basket on the ground. "It's a while since I’ve seen one o' them," she says, holding the clear but roughened glass bottle up to the sunlight. She disentangles it from the flotsam her brother has raked off the field.

"Well, I can tell you this, it seemed damned determined to come ashore. I've been throwin' it back into the sea for months, but it won’t go away. I was feart it might get broken and cut the sheep."

By the back door of his cottage, on his small area of arable land, known in Scotland as a croft, Murdo has unloaded a wheelbarrow laden with pieces of wood and tree bark. In a county whose terrain is mainly heather moorland, bereft of trees, such material is coveted as kindling for the peat fire. He has collected the debris from a line of dried seaweed, deposited within his perimeter fence by the high tide. In order to protect his livestock, he has also gathered up plastic bottles and other non-perishable refuse.

"Oh, but look Murdo - it's sealed and it looks like there's something inside it. Would it be a letter from a shipwrecked sailor on a desert island, d'you think?"

The crofter straightens up, his large hands massaging his back muscles. The smile on his dark, weather-beaten features is frivolously mocking. "Well, I was reading there's a warm current flows all the way here from the Gulf o' Mexico. You'd be surprised at the weird stuff comes ashore some days, but I haven't found any desperate young bachelors so far."

She pushes him off balance with the palm of her hand. "Maybe, but hope springs eternal for the lonely old maid."

He places a hand on his sister's shoulder. "Oh, Kirsty. You're still a fine lookin’ woman and you’ve had plenty chances to get wed, if you’d wanted to. If you ask me, you're too fussy."

"Nobody’s askin’ you and what if I am? I'd rather be a spinster in my own home than a slave in somebody else's. All the same, that doesn't mean I'm willing to be housekeeper to you for the rest o' my days, and I wouldn't say no to a wee bit o' excitement now and then. Fat chance o' that 'though."

Kirsty's words seem to unsettle her brother. "Sometimes we have to make the best o' what we have..."

"You think so, do you lad?" Kirsty counters, "Jean's been gone a good five years now; its about time you started lookin' to your own future. At forty-five, you're no' too old to marry again, if you find the right lass. Young Tom'll be spreadin' his wings when he gets his degree."

The big man squirms and looks around him helplessly, conceding yet again his inability to ever win an exchange of words with his younger sister. He turns away. "I'm goin' to have to speak to that mobile librarian: you've been readin' too many Mills and Boon novels! Anyway, I'm off to the hill to stack peats."

MARGATE, ATLANTIC CITY (Two weeks later).

"Oh my God! Oh my God! Isn't he gorgeous? I have good vibes about this." Anita holds the local broadsheet at arm's length. A blown-up picture of a burly man, described as a Scottish farmer, covers most of the front page under the heading ‘Amazing Journey Of Message In A Bottle.’ Below is the transcript of an interview with Anita. "I must send a copy to what's-her-name, his sister, tell her about their free trip. Isn't it exciting Marilyn?"

"Scary more like. That lady, Kirsty, could be mad at you for telling the newspaper, especially when her brother gets to know. Anyway, you should've checked with me first. Haven't you heard of scams? I don't believe you some times Mom!"

"Don't be so provincial! That guy found your message - in Scotland of all places! If the newspaper wants to bring him and his sister over here, it’s no big deal."

"No? Well, he looks the same age as dad, for a start. That school project was five years ago, mom. Sure, that's my stupid letter they sent back, but I’m over that now - I've moved on."

Anita fetches iced drinks from the kitchen and joins her daughter on the patio. "You're still only young, honey, don't wish your life away. The editor thinks it newsworthy, even if you don't. Besides, Kirsty sounds like a really nice person - and her brother too."

"That's what this is all about isn't it? But think about it. Why would she send a photograph of her brother? And what are you hoping to do - make dad jealous? Get real mom! Maybe he's a two-time loser, but dad sure don't care about your sad little life anymore. You're divorced now – deal with it. I'm outa here as soon as I can arrange a roommate in town."

Anita makes as if to retaliate, then composes herself, studying her drink. "It’s O.K. I don't blame you honey; we don't belong here anymore. We were good enough for the gentle folk of Margate once, but you're on your own when your marriage hits the rocks." She looks at her daughter, almost pleadingly. "I'm an incurable romantic, so what? A coke bottle, with your letter in it, crosses the Atlantic Ocean and someone finds it five years later. Don't you wonder why now, why Scotland? This isn’t just coincidence - I call it fate."

Marilyn shakes her head slowly, smiling faintly. "Mom, you're crazy, but I'd love to see Julie Brogan's face when she reads about it."

"Best if you reply to Kirsty's letter first I think."

"First?"

IVERNAVER (One week later).

"Behave yourself Kirsty! If the message took that long to get here, I wouldn't think it's all that urgent. Besides, I like to choose where I go on holiday."

"Choose? Chance would be a fine thing! When was the last time we had a holiday, tell me that? This is the opportunity of a lifetime Murdo - and all expenses paid."

"Aye and who's to look after the croft, eh? Besides, the newspapermen will be following us everywhere we go. They do nothing for nothing, you know. And I’d like to know how the Northern Journal got wind of it."

"They said they had a phone call from America. Anyway, it won't kill you to smile for the camera occasionally, and Hamish'll look after the sheep." Kirsty's smile broadens and her eyes light up. "Every night when I close my eyes, I see that wee bottle bobbin' about in the sea. All those years, Murdo, imagine that! And God knows how long it's been floatin' in and out, just off the shore. It's a miracle! If you'll no' do it for me, do it for the young girl."

"Young? That was when she sent it. She'll be eighteen now. Lassies o' that age have plenty other things on their minds, without entertainin' a pair o' boring, middle-aged peasants from another country."

"In that case, maybe we should send Tom: he's fed up with university, I know that."

"We'll do no such thing! And don't you go tellin' Tom anything! That lad has a chance in life no crofter's son ever had in my day."

MARGATE, ATLANTIC CITY (One month later).

"Well, it's just been grand Anita, there's no other word for it." Murdo raises his glass to his hostess. "I'll remember this holiday for the rest o' my life." His wide grin says he means every word. The photo calls and interviews had been embarrassing, and trying to understand the code of behaviour at the first class hotel in Atlantic City proved to be hard work. He was a wee bit uneasy about the bar bill he’d run up from the ready availability of single malt whisky, but, that aside, he and Kirsty had enjoyed a shamelessly carefree two weeks. At a farewell dinner with their hosts, the recently widowed crofter acknowledges the part played by Anita and Marilyn.

"Hey, don't make it sound so final. There'll be other times - I'm counting on it."

Her guest reaches across the dining table and places his hand on hers. He doesn’t understand why, the action is out of character and will only make things worse. "I know you mean that, lass, but I can't honestly see how it could happen." He hears the mumble of conversation from the kitchen and wonders if his sister can explain to Marilyn the futility of making false promises, better than he. "It’s not the gulf between our nationalities that separates us, but the difference in standards of living. I’ve seen the posh houses on this island – their gardens are bigger than my two fields put together. I keep telling’ you, I don’t own a farm, the newspaper made the story up to suit themselves."

"Look Murdo, would it help if I told you I hated it here? My husband was rich, sure, but Marilyn wants out and I can’t afford to stay here on my own, even if I wanted to."

"Oh lass. It’s not as if we’ve…"

"Made love? Don’t look so shocked and don’t tell me it didn’t enter your head!"

The crofter squeezes her hand and closes his eyes tightly, his head moving slowly from side to side. "Oh aye," he mutters. "But I was goin’ to say we’ve only known each other for a fortnight."

oooooOOOOOooooo

In the kitchen, Marilyn pours the coffee while Kirsty stares in fascination at the dishwasher they’ve just loaded. She declines a cigarette. "I'm glad we're on our own, Marilyn, I wanted to have a wee word with you before we catch the plane home tomorrow."

"Yeah, me too, Mom can be... well, 'over the top' at times. She likes to impress, I guess."

"She and Murdo both, I'd say. I've never known him talk so much, well, not since his wife died. And as for playin' jigs and reels on your fiddle! I don't know what's come over him: you and your mother seem to have brought him back to life."

"Well, I guess it cuts both ways, we've enjoyed having you - and it's the longest time mom and I have spent together without throwing things at each other. It's weird, she and I just don't agree on anything, yet when she’s with Murdo, a total stranger, she’s a different person," Her pretty features become wistful, "like she was before…"

Kirsty loses eye contact and stares straight ahead. "Maybe it's easier for strangers, or when you're lonely...or when you’ve both had marriages that ended too soon."

"I guess. But you’re about the same age as Mom."

"Aye, but you and I won’t be seein’ each other again after tomorrow, maybe that’s the difference."

"You’re kidding! Wh…"

"The holiday's been like a dream come true for my brother and me Marilyn, but it had to come to an end. We have to return to the real world, as if it never happened."

"What d'you mean?"

"Oh, just that we live a completely different life back in Scotland."

"Sure, but..."

"How can I put it? It's to do with what you would call lifestyle, I suppose. When you’re a crofter you get accustomed to hardship, to the simple life. I’m not complainin’ – it’s just a fact." She looked quizzically at Marilyn. "Don't misunderstand me lass, we're really grateful to you both and the newspaper for the flight and everything, but..."

Marilyn looks up, frowning. "But? Go on, tell me."

"Oh, I'm no good at explaining things. It's just that we can't return your hospitality. We'd like to, but, believe me, it's impossible."

Marilyn breaks the silence that has lasted a full minute. "O.K. Cool. But I'm sure gonna miss you two."

Kirsty places a consoling hand on the young girl’s shoulder. "It just doesn’t seem right that your message didn’t change your life the way it does in the novels I read." She gazes upwards, as if considering other alternatives. "It can’t be helped now. At least I got to know a smashin’ young lass, who showed me how to live a little."

They’re embracing when the others walk in - holding hands. "Hey, what's with the tears?" asked Anita. "Trust me, this is just the beginning."

INVERNAVER, SUTHERLAND (One year later).

"We’ll talk about it in the morning hon, I’m bushed. We’ve done the difficult part, driving from Inverness to here… all those single-track roads. And this isn’t exactly the Waldorf Astoria, but we should be grateful we found a hotel at all in this wilderness."

"It’s for salmon fishers and deer stalkers. I reckon we should head back first thing in the morning. This doesn’t feel right. I guess Kirsty was right, we don’t belong here, it’s like an alien world."

"That’s crap and you know it. They’re nice people. O.K. so they feel embarrassed about…"

"No, not embarrassed mom. It just felt like they didn’t want to disappoint us. Maybe we should respect that."

"Get some sleep Honey. We’ll take a rain check in the morning, huh?"

oooooOOOOOooooo

Around about midday, following directions from the hotel proprietor, they walk the short distance down hill towards the croft belonging to Murdo and Kirsty. On the way, they pass a few renovated roadside cottages, each displaying a "B & B" sign. A crudely drawn arrow on a piece of hardboard guides them down a rough track to their destination, a small and very old, stone-built dwelling, surrounded by a dilapidated outbuilding and a neat stack of dried peat briquettes, the staple winter fuel. A small, decrepit, VW Camper Van, where Murdo sleeps when tourists occupy one of the two bedrooms, or Tom when he has a break from his studies, stands next to the lean-to kitchen. Unfenced sheep graze on sparse grassland.

A bewildered Anita restrains her daughter, as the sound of a vaguely familiar voice, now raised in anger, assaults the tranquil atmosphere.

"Well you can just go back to Edinburgh and re-sit your damned exams! Your mother saved long and hard to get you into University. Is this the way you repay her?"

"For God's sake change the record, dad. I know my mother wouldn't have forced me to put up with toffee-nosed townies givin' me a hard time. I hate it there, you know that."

An audible sigh signals a softening of Murdo's tone. "But Tom, you've got it in you to get a degree, get a future. There's nothing here for young folk; you must see that."

"You're doin' it again dad," says Tom, dismissively, "and anyway, who says I want to stay here?"

His theatrical exit is ruined as he nearly collides with the visitors, but he recovers quickly and ushers them in. He waits by the door, frowning.

Open-mouthed, Kirsty abandons her knitting to use the first of her many clichés that day. "Anita! Marilyn! This is a surprise. You should've said you were coming. I'll put the kettle on."

"Hi Kirsty!" says Anita, nervously assembling her thoughts. "Marilyn got a notion to blow her inheritance on a trip round Europe, and I guess she's not too old to need a chaperon."

Murdo is still blinking his eyes, as if hoping they deceive him. "Well, welcome to the Highlands," he says, in a voice less than convincing.

"Yeah, well, Atlantic City it aint," says Anita, "but it sure is peaceful here. I just love the scenery." Then, to Murdo, curtly, "Why didn't you answer my letter?"

The crofter busies himself finding chairs for the guests, all the while glancing helplessly at his sister. "Why didn't I write?" He holds his hands out, palms uppermost, letting his gaze wander round the room. "Because this is all we have to offer by way of hospitality. As you can see, it's hardly what you're used to over there. Kirsty's right, you should have warned us."

When his son returns with cakes from the Post Office, Murdo introduces him. "He was in his first year at university when we went over to see you. He couldn't get away from his studies."

"Over to where? America!" The youth shakes his head. "So you went a wee bit further than Inverness, then? You might've told me!"

"They’re busy at the hotel just now. I’d better go up and see if I can book a table for dinner," says Murdo, confused, embarrassed and desperate for a dram. "Kirsty can walk you down to the beach. I won’t be long." Looking back, he watches their progress, two groups of two, separated by age and culture, strolling through the field where, little over a year ago, a coke bottle had washed ashore to wake his slumbering emotions.

oooooOOOOOooooo

As the meal progresses, the crofter speaks intimately to Anita by his side. "I didn't mean to upset you lass; I was just facin' facts - we're worlds apart. I could tell you had a romantic notion about the way we live here… but we're not rich landowners. We don't even earn a livin'. Without subsidies we just couldn't exist. You know, except for a funeral, I haven't worn this suit since I saw you last."

"Hey! It's O.K. I didn't have a clue about your lifestyle Murdo, but I thought we meant more to each other than that - and you never mentioned Tom. Who were you trying to save from embarrassment, you or me?"

"Aye, maybe you're right, pride and poverty don't lie well together. But at least you know now."

Anita holds eye contact and edges closer, placing her hand affectionately on his thigh. "Don't answer me right away. Murdo, would you consider coming over to the States - to live?"

The crofter winces visibly, but returns Anita's smile. "You know, I have thought about you quite a lot, but I never flattered myself you'd be interested… and I was scared to say anything. I mean, Kirsty's quite happy here; it's just Tom. I'm determined to make sure he sticks to his studyin'. You know what they're like at that age - I couldn't just leave him."

"I sure do. I feel just as protective towards Marilyn, I guess." They steal a glance at the youngsters who are closely involved in whispered conversation. "Maybe we worry too much," she adds.

oooooOOOOOooooo

Over the days that follow, Marilyn and Tom take the initiative, ably supported by Kirsty. Pony-trekking at nearby Ben Loyal is followed by a day trip to John o'Groats, then an outing to the Orkney Islands. Murdo busies himself on the river, having made a deal with the hotel manager to act as a ghillie to resident fishermen for a fortnight, to pay off his bill for the dinner and drinks.

Most nights Tom and Marilyn attend a disco in Thurso, the nearest town. One morning at daybreak, Tom, weary and dishevelled, is entering the camper van, just as his father is leaving for his stint on the river.

"What's goin' on son? Have you no respect? Keeping that lass out to all hours, and her mother wonderin' where she is! You're actin' like a spoiled young brat."

"Leave it dad..."

"No, Tom, it has to be said. There's plenty jobs need doin' on the croft while you're here, instead o' gallivantin' about and maybe getting a young lassie into trouble. You think you know it all, but you've a lot to learn."

Tom blinks, facing up to his father. "Tell you what dad, since you know all the answers, why don't you do something with your own life, eh?"

"Aye, maybe I would if..."

"If it wasn't for me, is that it?" Tom walks back to the van, leaving Murdo rubbing his forehead thoughtfully.

oooooOOOOOooooo

For the tourists' last night at Invernaver, a dinner for four is arranged at the hotel. Kirsty has made excuses for not attending, which haven't been challenged too strongly.

"The kids are leaving it late," says Anita, as she and Murdo sip their third aperitif.

"They took the boat to go mackerel fishin' in Torrisdale Bay. They wouldn't let a wee thing like keepin' us waitin' spoil their fun." Murdo sounds tentative and irritated.

"Your Tom’s a real nice guy. I’ve stopped worrying about Marilyn. I mean, how many nervous breakdowns do I need?"

"I spoke to Tom this morning."

"That’s great. So you told him?"

"He was just getting home from last night - as daylight was coming in."

"Yeah, well I guess it must have been about four a.m. when you left here. Seems like nobody had much sleep last night."

"I know, but it's worrying. If anything was to happen… Well, you know what I mean. I tried talkin' sense to him, but all I got was impertinence. I don't know what they're teaching youngsters at university these days..."

"So you blew it, is that it? But you Murdo, have you decided?"

The crofter squeezed her hand. "You're the best thing that's happened to me in a long while, Anita. I know I'm slow to express my feelings, but I'd really like to start a new life with you in America."

"So? Let's get things moving."

"No, I'm sorry lass, it won't be for a while and I don't think you'd want to wait that long. I can't leave without knowing that Tom's settled one way or another. We may be poles apart, but I'm all he has; I couldn't let him down."

"O.K., we'll sleep on it, shall we? As for now, let's eat, I'm famished."

oooooOOOOOooooo

"Hmm." murmurs Kirsty, confirming her suspicions that Murdo's bed has not been slept in. Deep in thought, she then walks the short distance to the moorings, relieved to find the boat securely tied up there.

Murdo returns to the croft with Anita soon afterwards, looking troubled. "Marilyn didn't go back to the hotel last night. The hire car's missing. Where's Tom?"

All three rush into the caravan, the interior of which is tidy beyond recognition. A battered Coke bottle sits on a shelf, a piece of paper protruding from the lip.

Kirsty grabs it first, smiling as she scans the contents.

"Well?" growls Murdo. "I can’t see anything to laugh about!"

"I often wondered what would have happened, if Tom had gone to America instead of me."

Murdo grabs the note. "We've decided to go and get a life," he reads, "maybe you should try it sometime."


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