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,
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
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
"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
"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
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
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."
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
"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
"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."
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
"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."
"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
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
"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
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
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.
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
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
"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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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
"That’s great. So you told
"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
"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."
"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