“Why does it always rain
here?” Fiona complained to her mum. “I don’t think we’ve had a dry day all
Mairi McAllister looked out the window, straining to see through the
words, MacDunnie’s Tea Room and an assortment of flowers and leaves
painted with lavender and green paint across the glass. “Fiona, you know
you love it here. Where else can you see rhododendrons that shade of
pink?” She stood on her tiptoes for a better view, pointing to a flowering
bush across the street. “Let's sit and have our tea.”
The hostess seated them and brought two cups of steaming hot English tea.
“Thank you, Flora. I know it’s pretty here, Mum, but it’s so boring. All
it does is rain and there’s nothing to do.” Fiona sipped her tea and took
a bite of a butter smothered raisin scone. “Pass me some of Mrs.
MacDunnie’s homemade orange marmalade, please.”
“You’ll not find scones and marmalade as tasty as this in a big city. I
grew up not far from here and I survived just fine and so will you.” Mairi
dabbed her mouth with the corner of her paper napkin.
Fiona took another bite of her scone and watched the oyster-gray clouds
speed by, dropping rain from their puffy underbellies. “Don’t get me
wrong; I love it here in Inveralba, in a way. It’s just that everyone is
related to everyone else. I’d rather live in a big city where I could meet
new people. Look around you, Mum. We’re the only two people in here. It’s
always like this, boring.”
An open sooty-black umbrella stopped in front of the door. As it folded
up, Nellie McAllister Crawford pushed on the door and stepped inside.
“Och, it’s coming down in sheets.” She shook the water off the umbrella.
“Good day to you Fiona and to you too, Mairi. Do you mind if I sit down
here with you?
“Of course not, Nellie.” Mairi pulled the third wobbly wooden chair out
from under the table.
Nellie slipped the umbrella into the rack, put her raincoat over the back
of the chair and sat down. “I think I’ll have some tea and shortbread.”
Nellie looked up at Mrs. MacDunnie, who hovered about waiting for her
order. After she’d left to get the hot tea, Nellie whispered to Fiona.
“Her shortbread’s nice, but not as good as mine.”
Fiona giggled. “I know.”
“How’s my wee Fiona getting on these days?”
When she opened her mouth to answer, her mum interrupted her. “Fiona’s
tired of the rain and now she thinks she wants to live in the big city.”
“Och, we all feel that way from time to time dear, but it will pass. I
travel a lot, but I’m always glad to come home to Inveralba.” Nellie
patted Fiona’s hand.
Fiona’s eyes brightened. “You’ve traveled a lot? Have you been to Africa,
or Australia, or America?”
Mrs. MacDunnie brought the tea and shortbread and set it on the table.
Nellie picked up a piece of the sugar sprinkled, buttery sweet and took a
bite. “Very nice, Flora,” she said, smiling at the shop owner.
Mairi couldn’t help but chuckle.
“In answer to your question, Fiona, I’m afraid I have to disappoint you.
The furthest away from Inveralba I’ve been is to Land’s End in Cornwall. I
go there now and then to visit my sister, Penelope. Och, it’s lovely down
there. I didn't have much time for travel while I was teaching school, but
since my dear husband, Gavin, passed away, I've traveled a bit more. I’ve
seen most of Britain and I’ve even been to Ireland, but never to Africa.
It was your gran and granddad on your mum’s side who did all the
traveling.” She looked over at Mairi and saw the sadness fall upon her
face. “I’m sorry lass to mention your mum and dad. I know it’s not been
easy for you since Ian and Heather passed away in that horrible boating
“It’s all right, Nellie. Don’t worry. They’ve been gone a long time. They
did love to travel. Mum always said her favorite place was Egypt, but dad
always said his was South Africa.” Mairi smiled at the memory.
“You see, Fiona, I’ve been nowhere compared to them. Och no lassie.”
Nellie bit into another piece of shortbread.
They spent the next hour chatting away. Fiona listened to her mum and
great aunt talk about roses, pansies, and the newest shades of wool. She
sighed with boredom. When Nellie started talking about her sister,
Catriona, Fiona’s grandmother, Fiona lay her head down on her arms. Her
father, Kenneth, had passed away five years ago in an accident. She’d
heard the same stories over and over again. “Mum, where are all your
relatives? I know Gran and Granddad died, but what about the rest of your
family. Everyone here is related to Dad. When am I going to get to meet
one of your cousins?”
“You will, someday.” Mairi sipped her tea.
Fiona saw her mum’s eyes puddle with tears, so she changed the
conversation. “Callum and Elspet were born here too, weren’t they, Mum?”
“They’re McAllisters, aren’t they? You’re right, Fiona. We are all
related.” Seeing Fiona’s evident boredom, Mairi said, “Oh good. I think
the rain’s stopped.”
Fiona stood up and went to the window, wiping the condensation away with
the sleeve of her blouse. “It has, Mum. Can we go now?”
Mairi said her goodbyes, paid the bill and then she and Fiona left. “The
air smells so fresh here. Just look at this place. Tourists come from all
over the world just to fish in our lochs and rivers and hike through our
heather-covered hills.” Mairi took a deep breath of the Scottish highland
air. “Look at the River Alba. It’s full of trout and sparkles in the
sunlight. How many times have you gone fishing, or swimming in Loch Drool?
Admit it, Fiona. You do love it here. I know you do.” She watched the
river flow under a stone bridge. “Dandelon Bridge has stood there for
seven hundred years. They say the bridge was built about the same time as
Castle Athdara, but I don’t think it’s been there that long.”
Fiona couldn’t argue. “There is nowhere on earth as beautiful as here. I
know that, Mum.” She looked at Loch Doon. Small islands dotted its ebony
waters, each covered with oaks, aspen, birch and pine, now displaying
their fall colors.
“Listen to the birds, Fiona. Have you ever heard a melody like that?”
“Okay, Mum. I get it. Yes, Inveralba is a wonderful place to live.” Fiona
burst out laughing when her mum looked at her with a shocked expression on
her face. They walked hand in hand through the center of town. “Mum, have
you ever been over to Castle Athdara?” Fiona saw the ruins in the middle
of one of the larger islands.
“For all the years I’ve lived here, I’ve never stepped foot in that
castle. There’s something about it that gives me chills. I don’t want you
going there either, Fiona. It's an eerie place.” The two of them stood in
silence, staring at the crumbling ruins. Trying to brighten the
conversation, Mairi said, “There’s Dougal’s Woolens.” She squeezed Fiona’s
hand and ran across the street. They looked in the window. “Look how
lovely these are. I love Arran cardigans and jumpers, don’t you? Maybe we
can ask Callum’s mum to make you one for the winter. Would you like that?”
“I’d love one, Mum, but why don’t you knit it for me? Elspet’s and
Callum’s mums both knit. Almost everyone’s mum in Inveralba knits, except
mine.” Fiona's eyebrows arched in disapproval.
“I like to think of myself as being unique. Knitting’s just not my cup of
tea. I prefer to do other things.” Mairi walked on. “Take this shop, for
instance, It Makes Scents. What a creative name for a shop that sells
perfumed soap. I love going in here. Do you mind?”
“No, I don’t mind. I think it’s cool the way the soap is shaped like
flowers and ducks and things. It smells nice too. My favorite is Morning
Rose. It really smells like roses.” When they went inside a bell tinkled.
Fiona shut the door behind her. “Its like a flower garden in here.”
“It does smell lovely, but I prefer the fragrance of the fresh flowers in
our own garden. Have you ever gotten up early in the morning after it’s
rained all night and stood next to the rose bushes? It’s heavenly, but
you’re right, the soap does smell nice.” Mairi bought a bar of the
rose-scented soap for her daughter and a bar of English Lavender for
herself. As Arthur Dunn rang it up, Mairi whispered to Fiona. “It’s for my
underwear drawer. I like my under-things to smell pretty.”
“Mum! Shh!” Fiona chuckled with embarrassment at the mention of underwear.
After they left the soap shop, they passed The Perfect Bee. “Fiona, I need
to run in here for a few minutes and see if they’re out of honey. Why
don’t you stand out here and wait for me. It’s always so crowded in there.
You can wave at the tourist buses.” Mairi winked at her daughter.
While her mum shopped, Fiona peered in the window. She saw boxes of
Highland Toffees, Cornish Fudge, tablet, and several jars of her mum’s
famous heather, bluebell, and thistle honey. A smiling bee darted across
each jar’s label and the tartan fabric on the tops coordinated with the
ribbon tied around the lid. A tour bus drove by; it’s gears making an
awful noise as it climbed the small hill. Fiona saw its reflection in the
shop window. She turned around and waved.
“We’re okay for another day or two. They’ve got six jars left. Are you
hungry, or still full from your scone?” The bell hanging from the door
tinkled as Mairi shut it behind her.
“I don’t think I want to go to The Hogshead Inn, Mum. I’m too full for a
pub lunch, but it smells good.” Fiona knew her mum’s favorite place to
“Are you sure you don’t want a bittie sandwich?” Mairi took a deep breath,
imagining the salted, crispy, deep-fried chips on a bed of soft bread
spread with creamy butter. “The fish and chips sound good too, so does the
Ploughman’s sandwich and shepherd’s pie. Never mind, we’ll use self
control and eat at home.”
They passed the Post Office, the railway station with its chugging engines
and loud whistles of steam, and then Jimmy Noble’s Grocers, which reeked
of turnips, onions, potatoes and cabbages.
When Mairi saw the prices marked on the boxes of apples, she gasped. “It’s
a good thing we’ve got our own apple trees. Just look at the cost! Jimmy
should be ashamed of himself.” The sugary aroma floating out of McKenzie’s
Bakery reminded Mairi she needed to come in to work later in the
“Are you working tonight?” Fiona read her mum’s thoughts. “If you do,
bring home some pastries and cakes. I really love cake with marzipan
“Don’t I always bring you a surprise, Fiona? I’m not sure about marzipan
icing. We use marzipan mostly for wedding cakes. I’ll see what I can do
though. We’d better watch ourselves or we’ll soon be getting fat.” She
poked Fiona in the tummy. “Say, there’s McEwan's Butcher Shop. Would you
like haggis for supper tonight?”
“I’ll be right back then.” Mairi disappeared into the shop and came out a
few minutes later with a haggis in hand.
“Mum, there’s Elspet and Callum? Can I run and play for a while?” Fiona
waved to her friends.
“Go ahead. Don’t be too long. Be home by five for supper. I’ve got to go
to work, so please remember.” Mairi kissed Fiona on the cheek and the girl
“Elspet! Callum!” Fiona shouted, trying to catch their attention. She ran
past several typical Highland village, gray stone houses. Water dripped
from the black slate roofs, splattering on the cement sidewalks in front
and the orange tipped marigolds and blue asters in the flower gardens in
# # #
Mairi headed for home. A
tour bus pulled up in front of her as she stepped from the curb, about to
cross Methven Street.
“Excuse me, Miss.” A man called to her as he jumped from the bus's open
door. “Can you tell me where I might find someone who could show us the
best place to fish around here?”
Mairi stopped. He’s a real looker. Embarrassed by her thoughts, she said,
“Callum McAllister’s dad, Malcolm, is a gillie. He knows the best hunting
and fishing spots in and around Inveralba. Would you like his telephone
“That would be wonderful. My name’s Johnny Thomson. I’m visiting from
London. And you are?”
“I’m Mairi McAllister.”
“Hello Mairi.” Johnny squeezed her hand. “You must be related to Malcolm
“Everyone’s related to each other in this town, Mr. Thomson.” Mairi
scribbled on a piece of paper she’d pulled from her purse. “Here’s the
address. Just tell him Mairi sent you. Will you be in town long?” Why did
I ask that?
“My brother, Jimmy, is meeting me here sometime in the next day or two.
We’ll be staying here for about a week, maybe longer. I hope to see you
The bus driver stood on the steps and whistled to Johnny, who waved back.
“If you’ll excuse me, Mairi.” He ran to the bus.
I wonder if he’s married. He’s the handsomest man I’ve seen around here in
years and no ring either. Stop that, Mairi McAllister. Stop that right
now! She waved, crossed the street, and disappeared around the corner.