Easter Sunday, 4 days later
Village of John O’Groats, Canisbay Parish, Caithnessshire.
The voyage from Mull to John O’Groats seemed longer than the four days it actually took. Eilidh took over the forward stateroom and spent much of her time there. She wasn’t closed off or surly and her door was usually open. Because she spent so many hours of her young life alone, below decks on an offshore sailboat while her parents socialized topside, spending time by herself was not the jail sentence it might be for others.
On our second day out of Mull, after we passed beneath the 21 year old Skye bridge, the span linking the Isle of Skye with mainland Scotland, I began to question the whole reason for this trip to the north. I sat alone again, up on the bow with my legs dangling over the side. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed we were headed to my old hometown, not because it was my idea, but because it was Swede’s. The green pulsating trident, the mysterious stories he told me of his previous trips past John O’Groats; this was his story, his search for answers, not mine. I still didn’t know why I emerged with no prior notice or preparation; it was all such a surprise. If Swede hadn’t appeared, would I still be on my way to this nothing little village not worth two shots of snot? Yes, it was “home” but I felt contemptuous of this place even back in 1853. Back then, I harbored no regrets as I watched the village recede and disappear into the carriage’s dust cloud as I began my journey to America. What did I hope to learn by coming back? My assignment? Perhaps. But without Swede’s story and his desire to transport me to the end of Scotland, ten kilometers west of nowhere, there was no reason on God’s green earth I would have made this trip. And yet, here I was, on my way... “home.”
Each day, the three of us woke before dawn, started the coffee pot, the tea kettle, the stove and the engine, in that order, before weighing anchor and getting underway. And though we kept our concerns to ourselves, each morning as we put to sea the three of us hoped TODAY would be the day the stateroom door would fly open and Swede and Viviane would appear to tell all. It never happened. We knew they were alive; at least that was a relief. At various times in the middle of the night we heard noises coming from their stateroom. So we sailed and waited, hoping John O’Groats might answer our questions once we arrived.
On the afternoon of our fourth day out of Mull, we came into the dangerous waters of the Pentland Firth. We thought it best to drop sail well short of our destination and motor the rest of the way. That was fine with me.
Eilidh took the helm which gave me the opportunity to look towards the land I hadn’t seen since the early 19th century. Other than a few homes, businesses and the occasional radio or cell phone tower, the Northern Coast of Caithness looked pretty much like it did 179 years ago: windswept, mostly open, with few trees to break the northwest gales blowing strong from Iceland, 325 miles away.
Eilidh guided the long sailboat into the snug, well protected harbor where the ferry to The Orkney Islands landed. After tying up, we stepped on land for the first time in four days, a welcome leg stretcher and change from the cramped confines of the boat. Though we were glad to set foot on terra firma, the absence of Swede and Viviane hung over us like a brooding rainstorm. Nevertheless, Eilidh was well rested, her sarcastic sense of humor, cadged for four days, was primed, ready to engage.
“OK, Yank, I got us here. Now it’s your turn. What’s next on our holiday in hell?”
I hoped the creepy green trident stored in the bottom of the closet might start to beep and glow and talk. It didn’t even squeak. And I hoped Swede might come out of his cave to tell me something I wanted to hear. We saw how well that was going. I guess it WAS up to me.
I decided to take my sea faring tourists on the two bit tour of my old home town. It only cost two bits because it would be over in two minutes.
“OK,” said Eilidh, her sense of adventure, stoked. “If that’s all there is to do in your toaty town, then that’s what we’ll do. Are you going to introduce me to all the rat-arsed toonsers around here? Meet the mayor, meebe?”
“I’ve been gone a long time, Eilidh, I don’t know a soul. Marcus, any requests?”
“Is your old home still standing?” he asked.
“It is. That’s it, right over there,” I said, pointing towards a small, white, one story building a short walk up from the dock.
Walking up to my childhood home after all these years was surreal. It had a name now: the Ye Cannae Go No Further Gift Shop. The original part of the house, the part I lived in, was in the rear now because a modern addition was added to the front. It made me sad to stand outside this small, insignificant building because I could only think of the past, to my youth. I saw my father’s angry face, still furious with me two centuries later because I wanted to immigrate to America. His face was soon supplanted by that of my older brother, the one who died in the great storm, his life cut short by the unforgiving ocean just outside these whitewashed walls.
Eilidh walked inside, unaffected by the emotional strings which still held part of me prisoner. I followed her inside, the room’s modern ceiling and walls unfamiliar. What I saw inside was as unremarkable as the village itself. They sold trinkets and towels ablaze with the name: John O’Groats. I saw coffee mugs and tea cups adorned with cheap, water-colored thistles. For those who crave such things, a raggedy, white textile brandishing the name Ye Cannae Go No Further Gift Shop could be had for a good price. They were on sale; who would have guessed? But mostly these, so called, “gifts,” were the same crap you saw in every cheesy gift shop in every toady backwater in every corner of the globe. It’s as if the New Jersey Turnpike gift shop’s manager duplicated her inventory and sent all that shit here to Scotland, fuzzy dice and polyester rabbit’s feet included.
Enough was enough; I couldn’t take it anymore; I felt claustrophobic. I left without asking the young girl at the cash register if I could go to the back of the house to look over the part of the building where I actually lived those many years ago. As I exited my old home, reinvigorated now by the stiff rush of salty air blowing strong off the ocean, I vowed never to return to this place…ever.
What I didn’t expect to see when I exited was Swede, walking up the boat ramp, alone. Where was Viviane, I wondered?
“Did you find what you hoped to find?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I wasn’t expecting some great revelation. I was a bit curious what this place looked like. But it’s always been a sleepy, boring place. Nothing’s changed. It’s just a village at the end of a long road.”
“Or the beginning, if you look at it from the other direction,” said Swede, correcting me.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“If you’re one of those bicycle groups riding the length of Great Britain, from Land’s End to John O’ Groats, then you’re right, it’s the end. But if this is where you start the journey, then John O’Groats is the beginning. From now on, maybe you should look at things that way, like this marks the beginning of something,” he said.
“Hadn’t thought of it that way,” I said. “Is that what this place represents for you, some new beginning?” I asked.
“No, not really,” he said, averting his gaze, his eyes looking down. I noticed a new sadness in Swede’s voice. I started to worry that the fear Marcus displayed at Tobermory, just became real.
“I don’t understand; you were so eager to get here,” I said. “After all those years sailing past this place, the trident homing in on this position, I’m surprised you aren’t thrilled to be here. I guess it’s your question, too: Did you expect to find something once you got here?”
“Magnus,” he began, “I found what I was looking for a week ago when you first came on board. What I was looking for was…YOU. This place, John O’Groats, was just a clue in how to find you. That white house there; it was a better clue. Ten years ago, when I came ashore and touched the trident to the walls and it went berserk, that’s when I knew; whoever lived in this house was the person I was looking for. When you confirmed that, I knew my search was over.”
A dream, realized. A long story, finished… with a happy ending, no less. You would think he would be happier, but he wasn’t. Swede wasn’t that same happy-go-lucky, optimistic guy. The man who entered that ocean going stateroom five days ago and the man who came out were different people.
But my stomach jumped up into my throat when he looked me in the eye and said, “Magnus, we’ve got seven days, that’s all.”
It was one hell of a way to celebrate Easter Sunday morning, I thought, so ominous, so foreboding. It became even more surreal when Eilidh and Marcus came out of the gift shop, smiling broadly, bags in hand. Marcus was already wearing his new tee shirt and he modeled it, striking a pose. On the front, written in a stylish cursive font, were the words: John O’Groats. On the back, superimposed over a photo of what long distance bike riders see when they coast down the home stretch towards the sea, was the phrase: The End Is Near.
“I’m going to call this my doomsday shirt,” he said, proud of his double entendre.
Easter? Resurrection? Yeah, Right! It felt more like a Good Friday death experience.
Eilidh was surprised yet glad to see Swede after four days apart. “Decided to wake up, did ye, Mr. Sleepyhead? Nice of you to join us.”
“Indeed,” said Swede, smiling again. “It is nice to see you all again. Four days IS a long time. I’m sure you have a lot of questions about what went on and what’s up with Viviane. Let’s head back towards the boat and I’ll try to answer them."
Couldn’t argue with that. I’m sure Eilidh felt the same way. But Marcus was harder to read. After what happened in Tobermory, Marcus probably had a different point of view, but he said nothing and the four of us walked back towards the boat.
I untied us, climbed aboard and used the boat hook to push the large sailboat away from the dock. When I returned from the bow, Eilidh came up from below. She had a puzzled look on her face.
“I looked around and didn’t see her. Where’s Viviane?” she asked Swede.
“She’s left the boat,” said Swede.
Eilidh’s eyes widened, thinking the worst.
“If you will indulge me for a couple of days,” Swede continued, “I’ll answer all of your Viviane questions later. Until then, let’s head towards Wick; we’ll put in there for the night, then head towards Inverness tomorrow morning. Eilidh, if you’d be so kind, dear, take the helm. I’ve got a lot of work to do before we get to Inverness. If you need me, I’ll be in my room.”
Swede left the cockpit, descended below, returned to his stateroom and closed the door.
Yeah, right, like I’m going to knock on his door. We’d have to be heading straight towards Titanic’s iceberg before I would do that.
It felt like the last fifteen minutes never happened and yet, a lot had. It’s just that Eilidh and Marcus didn’t know about the conversation Swede and I had by the gift shop wall. Nevertheless, Swede and Viviane were absent, again, the stateroom door, closed, hiding all secrets, and the three of us were still on the roiling sea, sailing towards an unfamiliar place for reasons we did not know.
Having traversed the entire northern coast of Scotland, we now left John O’Groats in our wake but continued to follow the Scottish coast as our journey to Godknowswhere took us south. The trip to the seaside town of Wick was a short journey, just 14 miles. We easily made it there before dusk. We topped off our tanks with fuel and water, pulled into our slip for the night and tried to get some sleep.
When dawn arrived, I was still groggy. But the smell of freshly brewed coffee was persuasive. I made my way across the boat’s beam, just a short distance to the galley, then into the nearby dining area where Eilidh sat, wide awake, sipping her hot tea.
“He’s gone,” she said, taking another sip.
“What?” I exclaimed, not wanting to begin yet another day of drama and uncertainty.
I moved towards the stern of the boat, to Swede’s stateroom. The door was open, the room, as clean as if a maid just finished her duties. There was no sign of any of the “work” Swede said he needed to do. All he left behind was a boat load of unanswered questions. I returned to the galley, poured some coffee into the Ye Cannae Go No Further Gift Shop mug and sat down across the table from Eilidh.
“Any ideas,” I asked.
“Yeah, I’ve got an idea,” she said, her anxiety and sleeplessness clearly showing. “It feels like we’re stuck inside a bad Hollywood creature feature. Just when things are calm and the girl least expects it, like now, some fuk’n whale shark comes up from the bottom of the ocean and eats everybody.”
“If it will make you feel any better,” I said, “whale sharks only eat plankton. They live in the tropics.”
“Pooch me hame!” she hollered. “Who asked ya, Yank Bawbag? Think’n yer so much smarter than the daft teuchter lassies, are ye? Think’n I’m glakit cunt?”
“WHOA!!! Back off, step away from the edge. I don’t have any idea what the hell you just said, but I’m thinking my answer is… NO.”
This was new territory. Even though I was born in Scotland, I only spent my first eighteen years here before immigrating to America. All my experience talking to women was with the relatively calm, American variety. I had no experience going face to face with a pissed off, 21st century, Scottish dragon. Yikes!
I waited, said nothing. Silence. After a short time she seemed a bit better. But I thought she still was too dangerous to think things were back to “normal,” whatever that meant.
During this interlude I thought, ‘maybe that’s how to deal with a pissed off Scottish woman.’ Let her flame it out, like excess methane burned off at an oil refinery. Yes, it represents a lot of wasted energy and that’s a shame. But if all that fire doesn’t burn off, dang, the whole planet could explode in a messy fireball, killing billions of innocent people. No, don’t want that!
Tak’n notes; lesson learned.
“I got to get off this fuk’n boat,” she said. “Six days trapped here with you and Marcus and the two of them hid’n out below, it’s too much. Too much fuk’n drama. So cummon. You’re coming with me. We’re gonna see what this fuk’n little town’s got to offer.”
“OK, OK,” I said, “But enough with the F-bombs. Fuck this. Fuck that. Where I come from, only total losers talk that way. They aren’t smart enough to speak differently. Are you a total loser? No; I don’t think you are. But if that’s the way you’re going to talk all the time, I don’t want to be around you, especially in public. I’ll dump you like a bad habit.”
“Who are ye, me faither?”
Now, I was pissed off, too. I stepped it up a notch… and went there.
“No,” I said, coldly. “He’s dead. And so’s your mother. I bet they’re rolling over…”
Before I finished my sentence she reared back, elbow straight, arm fully extended and slapped me across the cheek, hard. Her teeth, clenched; her hair, flying in front of her face; her piercing blue eyes, engorged with rage. It stung; she caught me good.
But now I had the advantage because I sensed she knew; she crossed the line. What would be my response?
I thought about the lesson I taught myself moments ago: keeping my wits about me, letting time be my ally. I said nothing. Did nothing. Her excess flame burned bright, letting the moment play out. But I kept a lock grip stare on her, eye to eye, like an Alpha dog establishing dominance over a challenger. Who would cave first? 12 seconds went by, an eternity. But then, she blinked, averted her stare and moved into the galley.
I let her think about it, alone, for twenty minutes. If we were to live peaceably together, for whatever time we had, days, weeks, who knew at this point, I couldn’t ignore this nasty episode. I…no, we, needed a satisfactory resolution.
I made my way into the galley and spoke, deliberately.
“I know you’re upset. All this Viviane stuff is unsettling. It unsettles me, too. And I’m sorry if I offended you. That wasn’t my intent. But you crossed the line with the physical stuff. That’s unacceptable. I’ll give you a little bit of time to think about it,” I said before leaving.
I hoped for an apology, a sincere apology, but didn’t want to demand one. If that apology came sooner rather than later and there was still enough time left in the day, then maybe we could explore this nice, little town together, maybe get something to eat. But if no apology was forthcoming…well, then, I don’t know…
I left the galley, climbed the steps topside and received a sobering jolt as soon as my head emerged outside, a face full of icy sleet. Powered by the cold, bracing, Scottish wind coming off the waters of the North Sea, the ice pellets hurt when they hit my face. Nevertheless, just hanging over the eastern horizon was the precursor of a most beautiful sunrise.
Sailors are a privileged lot. We experience sunrises and sunsets in their purest form, out at sea, with no obstructions to mar the light’s transmission from star to sailor. Having watched so many day/night transitions over the years and mulling their significance, I’ve come to this conclusion: sunrises and sunsets are like different actors who play to different audiences.
Sunsets are for everyone. You kick back at the end of a long day and relax, pour yourself a beverage and take in the beauty of the fading light. The warmth of the late afternoon’s high temperature still lingers and envelops all as you reminisce about the accomplishments of the day. A sunset is about appreciation and the past. Everyone loves this transition from day to night.
A sunrise is different, its audience, smaller, more devoted. These are the hearty few, the joggers and dog walkers, the bundled brave who venture outside at dawn, often alone, able to ignore the overnight’s lowest temperatures and their frosty residue. They are handsomely rewarded for their courage. The day’s first light pierces the night, a laser of hope, giving birth to words like: optimism and opportunity, words which crush the shadows of failure. To the early riser, the sunrise boldly exclaims, ‘what’s past, is past. It’s the wake behind the ship, the dust trailing the wagon.’ If sunset is about thankfulness, appreciating the past, sunrise is about hope, anticipating a better future yet to be written.
Eilidh was no fool; she was highly intelligent. She was also the product of good parenting. Before they died, her parents imbued her with moral clarity. When she knew she was wrong, she owned those mistakes and accepted responsibility for them. When she came out of the galley and emerged topside, Eilidh sat down next to me and said, “I’m sorry. I won’t make any excuses for being tired or stressed or anxious. There is no excuse. You didn’t deserve that. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
I knew she was sincere. It was in her eyes, those all too beautiful eyes. They were flawless, sapphire blue, tinted bloodshot red by her tears. Yet they still sparkled with passion’s fire, the depths of which I’d never fully understand.
“I accept your apology,” I said, getting straight to the point.
“Thank you,” she said, still contrite.
“Whew!” I thought. Glad that was out of the way.
I sensed it was my turn to lighten the moment, so I said, “It’s funny, we just had our first fight. Before we even had our first date. How dumb is that?”
“Date? What date? There’s no date.”
“Sure, there is,” I said. “In the midst of all those F-bombs, you asked me out on a date. ‘See what the town’s got to offer’ is how you put it.”
“That’s not a date,” she said. “That’s a… well; it’s not a date. A date is when you ring me up and ask me to join you, entertainment, a movie, a concert, something like that.”
“Darl’n… you are VERY entertaining! Just sitting there in that chair, you entertain me. I guess we’re on a date right now, eh?”
She smiled that toying smile, knowing we were getting back to that good natured teasing way we had with each other when we first met back at Glen Watt. She picked up on it and replied, “Yeah, but it doesn’t count. You didn’t ring me up first. It’s not a date.”
“If you don’t think we’re on a date, that’s fine. You’ve got some pretty stupid rules over here and there’s nothing I can do about that. But you’re the one who asked me to hit the town, a phone wasn’t necessary. All the judges in America would agree with me, it’s a date. But just so we can clear up any confusion, I’ll ask it, officially.”
I held up my hand to my ear, thumb and pinky extended, imitating a phone, and I began to talk into my fingerprint. “Hello, Eilidh?... It’s Magnus…yes, Magnus Cook. That handsome guy you met the other night on the boat. Would you like to join me and go check out this nice, little town and be entertained by whatever stupid things we discover…on a date?”
She lifted her hand up to her ear the same way and we completed the stupidest looking pseudo phone conversation in history.
“Yes, Mr. Cook. I would be glad to accompany you.”
“So let’s go then; a plateful of eggs awaits,” I said, glad this dramatic interlude was over.
After we got off the boat and started to walk towards the center of Wick, Eilidh whispered into my ear, “You know, Yank, I don’t fuck on the first date.”
Not missing a beat, I replied, “Eilidh, I don’t think you fuck on the second, ninth or twenty seventh date.”
She laughed that big, hearty laugh of hers, knowing she had regained the upper hand.
“That’s Riii---iight,” she said.
The previous hour was the perfect metaphor for this wild and beautiful land, inhabited by such wild yet beautiful people. If the Scottish left hand is unnecessarily harsh and cruel, and it is, then the right holds an equal counterweight, possessing superlatives with no ceiling. The Scots claim the highest highs, succumb to the lowest lows, a manic-depressive, puzzling paradox. It’s SO Scotland and Eilidh MacEachern is its poster child.
It wasn’t even 7am yet and I was already being entertained by this enigma of Scottish brine and beauty.