’The End of Days will soon be upon us. Heed these words sinners and repent! Death is coming… death!’
From the bus stop across the street, Ann watched as two policemen waded through the tiered fountain to grab the wild preacher woman from her watery pulpit. The poor woman wore nothing but a thin, white nightdress, now soaked, leaving little to the imagination. She put up some fight, screeching like a banshee, kicking and lashing out in every direction. The taller policeman grabbed and kept hold of her, giving the other a chance to catch her legs. The crowd that had gathered to watch this bizarre spectacle let out a cheer and began clapping, some teenage boys cruelly taunting her.
The woman wriggled as though her life depended on it, but the policemen kept a tight hold of their captive. ‘You will die, sinners!’ she hissed at the onlookers, her long, grey hair a bird’s nest covering her face. ’No one can save you now, no one!’
Ann hugged her jacket tightly round her. Not that it was cold, but this scene was not good. She shuddered as icy fingers crept up her back. She had seen preachers of doomsday before in London, but they had been nothing more than a mild curiosity. Today, however, was different. Today was the biggest day of her life. She had thought about this day ever since she could remember—and now this. It unsettled her, making her anxious and depressing her mood. The feeling in her bones had always told her this would be an auspicious day. So why did this tragic woman’s situation feel like a bad omen?
‘It is you!’ From beneath the mess of matted hair, the woman stared wild-eyed at Ann, or at least in her direction. ‘It is you!’
Swallowing the lump in her throat, Ann turned to look behind, but she was alone waiting for the bus, her side of the street being deserted in both directions. She turned back, ‘Me?’ She raised her hand to her chest as she spoke, but the police were bundling the woman into their car. She no longer seemed interested in her, or in putting up resistance. Her wriggling had ceased and her head had sunk defeated to her chest.
Did she mean me? Ann turned to check the street again. She must have. What does she mean it is you? It is me what? Another shudder, much bigger than the last, slithered up her spine crystallising her blood into ice. She gave herself a shake. Snow-angels and the aurora borealis, she told herself. I am lying in the snow making a snow-angel, watching the aurora borealis. She shut her eyes and pictured the ghostly glows in an array of green and purple ribbons undulating in the night’s sky to the silent music of the heavens. They were comforting memories, capable of relaxing her into a trance should she allow them. She had made hundreds, no, thousands of snow-angels in her life while watching the dancing phenomenon. They were magical evenings. No matter what your age, or how often you experienced them, they never lost their sense of wonder. ‘Ah, snow-angels and the aurora borealis,’ she sighed as gradually the uneasiness inside her calmed.
Rolling her pendant between her fingers, Ann gazed from the hotel window. She thought about the day as a child when she jumped across the stepping-stones protruding from a frozen lake that led to a mysterious unexplored island. Her spirits had been high. The excitement coursing through her veins had increased with each leap that took her closer to the adventures that awaited her. Unfortunately, half way across she had slipped and fell through the thin ice into the deep, numbing waters, never to discover the island’s secrets. Today now felt remarkably like that day, thanks to the crazy lady in the town.
Ann had always known she would return to the village of her birth. She needed to go back. She could not explain why, having no memories of her life before her adoption. That part of her life was a black hole. But something from it, hidden deep in the shadows of her psyche, drew her back. It was strong, like the instinct of a migrating bird that knows where it must go. She had always sensed it was something big and important, something exciting—something she had forgotten. But perhaps it was wishful thinking, a fantasy she had created to fill a void, and one she had grown to believe—though now started to doubt.
Whatever it was she hoped to discover, at the least, she hoped to trace her roots, but the uncomfortable churning in her stomach did not help her confidence. All her life she had wondered who she was, who her family were. She wanted to know the history of her blood, and until she knew it would feel like part of her was missing. It was a desire she assumed most adopted children must feel to some degree, but the desire in her had always been burning, like an obsession that consumed her. Though it had taken until now, and it was only because she found herself an orphan again it had been the first opportunity she had. Her mum had died six weeks ago. For over a year Ann had cared for her until she succumbed to the inevitability of a terminal tumour.
Gazing across the row of quaint stone cottages lining the square, and beyond to the small harbour with its bobbing boats, she smiled. So, this is where I was born. It was beautiful; a classic picture postcard village. It looked an idyllic place to grow-up. She wondered how different her life would be had she been brought up in this sleepy Scottish fishing village. She would be someone different, she had no doubt, but that was not the life fate had dealt her.
Turning back to the bedroom, she sighed, knowing whatever today brought, it was beyond her control. She may not get the faerie-tale outcome she hoped for; there was as much chance of shattered dreams like the shattered ice.
Picking up her birth certificate, she wondered yet again about its sparseness. Why was there so little information on it: only her name, date and time of birth, the address where she was born, and her mother’s name, Mary Mullin? Strangely, there was nothing else, not even her mother’s date of birth. Yet, that piece of paper had brought her to Maidenboat. She had been adopted when she was two-and-a-half, six months after her mother died, that much she knew, but beyond that nothing. Her new parents had kept the name her natural mother gave her, but over time had shortened it from Annaldra to Ann.
‘Please don’t let me fall through the ice,’ she prayed under her breath as she pulled the door shut and headed outside into the brightness of the day. She turned right and crossed the road. She knew where to go having asked the old man at the reception for directions. She had been too afraid to enquire who lived at the address on her birth certificate and for how long, not wanting her hopes dashed before she had begun. It would break her heart if the people who lived in the house were not the people who had known her mother.
At the far side of the village square, gentle music drifted over the everyday village noises like a soothing breeze. Turning the corner, she discovered the source—a busker with the most tousled hair she had ever seen, sitting on a shabby blanket, humming while playing a guitar. Flicking the blonde shaggy mess from his face, he glanced up at her when her shadow rested on him.
‘Ah, a stranger in town, any requests?’ he asked with a cheeky grin.
Ann returned his smile. ‘I’m afraid I don’t know many songs,’ she replied. She could see that beneath the mess of straggly hair and dirt was the potential for a good-looking young man. He had a strong jaw with a perfectly positioned dimple in the centre of his chin. His eyes were pale greyish-blue, with dark rimmed irises that reminded her of wolves’ eyes.
‘Wow, you don’t know many songs. Where the hell do you live, the moon?’ he chortled.
‘Not quite, but almost as remote. I’m from Greenland.’
‘Greenland, wow, that’s cool.’
Ann smirked. ‘It’s certainly that.’
‘I bet it is,’ he grinned, shaking his head realising his unintentional joke. ‘Anyway I’ll tell you what. I will choose a song for you.’
‘Thank you,’ she smiled.
With that, the busker played another song, only this time he sang. His voice was soulful, and the words were sad and so heartfelt. He sang of a lost love, how death had torn young lovers apart in their prime. For a moment, Ann forgot her purpose. The nerves in her stomach subsided as her mind drifted, lost in the song as though she herself was part of the tragic tale. Moved by the song, she wiped a solitary tear from her cheek when it ended.
‘That was beautiful. I’ve never heard—’
‘Don’t give him money! He’ll only spend it on smack or booze!’
Ann turned to see who had so rudely interrupted them. A well-dressed man in his early twenties, wearing a dark, pinstriped suit, stood staring down his nose at the busker.
Ann frowned at the man. ‘Excuse me?’
‘He’s a junkie, a total waster. He will blow anything he gets on drugs or booze. Don’t give him anything!’ said the man, hands on hips.
‘And what is your worth as a person that I should value your opinion?’
The man looked bemused by the comeback. ’Eh… well at least I’m not a waster like him. I have a job, and a sports car,’ he nodded across the road at a red Porsche.
Making a small half-shrugging gesture, Ann gave the busker a confused look.
‘He’s a banker,’ said the busker with a suggestive smile as he emphasised the word banker.
Pulling her lips in to stop her mouth curling, she looked at the busker, whose face had already started creasing. Then, unable to restrain their mirth any longer, they both burst out laughing.
‘Hi, I’m Ann Falk,’ she eventually mustered through her giggles. ‘Look, I’m sorry but I don’t have any money on me.’
‘Hey, don’t worry about it. It was a pleasure.’
‘Well, how about you join me for dinner tonight?’
‘Hmm,’ interrupted the banker. ‘I’m not sure that would be a good idea—’
Even though she had turned her back on him, Ann could feel the banker’s disapproving glare boring into her. ‘I’ve just arrived in the village, and I don’t know anyone,’ she said addressing the busker. ‘You could fill me in on this place. You’d be doing me a huge favour.’
Huffing and shaking his head at being ignored, the banker marched towards the hotel looking none too pleased.
‘Gee, thanks, but you don’t have to.’
‘No, I want to.’ Now she felt awkward. ‘Look, I want to learn about Maidenboat. That is why I’m here. I was born here, and I want to find out more.’
‘Not Greenland then?’
‘Born here, raised in Greenland. Oh, and I lived in London for a few years when I was little.’
‘Wow, that’s an eclectic mix of places,’ he said smiling.
‘What’s your name?’
The busker stood up and dusted down his jeans. It surprised Ann how tall he was, well over six feet, but thin, too thin for his stature. ‘I’m Donald,’ he offered his hand for a shake. ‘Donald Gillan.’
‘Nice to meet you, Donald Gillan,’ said Ann shaking his hand. ‘Anyway, I will meet you in the hotel at six, if that suits you?’
‘Sure, six is fine. I will look forward to it. See ya then,’ he said sitting back down resuming his guitar playing.
Leaving the busker smiling, Ann’s nerves returned like a snake ball writhing in her belly. She was all too aware that these next few minutes could be the last time she would not know where the stepping-stones would lead. Her mind raced with all the negative possibilities. What if nobody is home, or they have moved, or even worse, died? What if they were old and could not remember or had gone on holiday? Being this negative was not like her, but never had she wanted something so much. No, not wanted, she needed it.
Taking her time as she walked, she studied each house. Only the right-hand side of the road possessed cottages, giving them all a spectacular view across the road to the beach, and beyond to the sea. There were no front gardens; every door opened onto the pavement. Some were single story, some double, but all were old, by at least a century or possibly two. Where there were gaps between the terraces, she could see they each possessed a long, narrow, steep back garden. All the cottages had names, some suggesting what their purpose had been in a bygone era: The Bakery, The Milliners Place, Blacksmiths Cottage, Mill House and even The Abattoir. It was clear the village had at one time been self-supporting.
This was it. The snake ball in Ann’s stomach rolled a sickening 360° when she saw ‘Sea View’ spelt out in tiles above the door. This was where she was born. The cottage was the second last house before leaving the village. It was one of the few not painted; the blonde sandstone blocks had darkened over time by fire smoke and more recently traffic fumes. A brass plaque hung in the centre of the oak door with the name Ranald etched on it. For a fleeting moment, she had déjà vu, sensing something familiar, but as quick as it arrived, it left. Clutching her pendant and taking a deep breath, she shut her eyes. This was the moment her whole life had led to. It was now. It was really happening. Slowly, her trembling hand knocked the door. ‘Please be the same people,’ she prayed, ‘please.’
Gently stroking her lips with her pendant, she waited, but from inside she heard nothing. The only noise penetrating the silence was the squawking of gulls far out at sea as they tailed a fishing boat hoping for an easy meal. A sickening emptiness filled her belly. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the fresh, salty air. One last try, but this time she knocked louder, determined to be heard if there were someone in; even if they were half-deaf. Please, please, please, beat her heart as she waited, but with each pleading pound, her hope waned.
Then, as she was about to give up, she heard heavy footsteps on a hard floor shuffling their way towards the door. Relief flooded the void in her stomach. Eventually, as if time had slowed down, the large wooden door creaked open. Ann smiled at the elderly man with thinning grey hair and a short grey beard. He dressed casually in a checked shirt and jeans and wore a pair of brown tartan slippers. So far, this was good. She had hoped it would be someone middle-aged or older who lived there, as they were more likely to be the residents who had lived there the night she was born.
‘Can I help you?’ he asked peering over his glasses.
‘I don’t know, but I hope you can,’ she swallowed hard then took a deep breath, steadying her nerves in readiness for her big announcement. ‘My name’s Ann Falk… I, I mean Annaldra.’
The man’s jaw dropped as he stared at her in disbelief. ‘No, it can’t be,’ he eventually said as a grin radiated across his face. ‘Wee, Annaldra. Is it really you?’
‘Yes, yes, it’s me,’ she blurted, her face radiating joy. The dream she had all her life, of discovering her roots, became a reality at that precise moment. She wanted to punch the air and jump for joy, but she didn’t; instead, she tried to contain her excitement.
The man leant forward and embraced her and for a moment her mind flashed with images she was sure were memories from her childhood: a doll, a musical box, a boy; laughter; a child on a boy’s back playing horses, singing and clapping.
‘Pad…’ she hesitated.
‘Padraig, I’m Padraig Ranald, you used to call me Paddy. That’s amazing.’
‘I’m not sure why I said it, it seemed familiar.’
‘Come in, my dear.’ He stepped aside allowing her space to enter. ‘This is wonderful, wonderful.’
Ann followed him through the narrow dark hall to the kitchen, still mumbling ‘wonderful’ under his breath. The kitchen in contrast was large and bright, with large patio doors that looked onto a lovely, if somewhat steep garden. On entering it, Ann stepped into a bygone age, being oldie-worlde in style, with exposed beams and a worn flagstone floor. Shining copper pots and pans hung from hooks on a pulley, and in the corner sat an old, black range cooker that looked original, not a modern replica. Beside it, a Belfast sink sat on a pedestal, with a wringer still attached to the draining board, and along the opposite wall, a large wooden dresser displayed the family crockery. However, the centrepiece was a huge, dark-stained oak table with benches at either side that could easily seat a dozen people, or more. Apart from the patio doors, the entire kitchen looked like it could be in a museum, with little having changed in over a century.
‘We’ve always hoped that one day you’d return. Let me look at you,’ said Padraig stepping back. ‘You resemble your mother, but your eyes are a much brighter green and your hair… well she had black hair like coal, and you are so fair.’
Ann smiled. She had always imagined her mother to have long black silky hair, which was probably an unusual assumption when her own hair was platinum blonde.
‘How long has it been? How old are you now?’
‘Has it been so long? Well, it is around seventeen years since you were last here. You were such a wee thing when you were adopted. Two-and-a-half that’s all… just a bairn. There must be so much you want to know.’
‘Yes, that is what’s brought me back.’
‘Well, we looked after you and your mother you know. My family took your mother in when she was pregnant and you both lived with us until…’ Padraig paused as though uncomfortable about what he was about to say. ‘Well, you know—until she passed.’
With her mouth slightly agape, Ann’s eyes widened as his statement sank in. ‘I, I lived here. This was my home?’
‘Aye,’ he nodded.
Ann could not stop smiling. She had known she was born in the house, but to find out she lived there as well was better than she had imagined. The feeling in her bones had been right. This would be an auspicious day after all.
‘The boys will be so excited when they find out you are back, especially Fin. Do you remember them, Finley and Scott?’
She shook her head. ‘No, sorry I don’t.’
‘If you were to remember anyone it would be Finley. He’s my eldest. He took you under his wing when Mary… sorry, I mean your mother, passed. Now he’s the village minister,’ he said with great pride in his voice. ‘He’s married to Elaine and they have a beautiful baby daughter, wee Gracie. They are in Italy on holiday, but you will meet them next week. You will still be here, won’t you?’
Ann thought she could detect panic in his tone. ‘Yes,’ she reassured him. Although, until now, it had not occurred to her how long she might stay. In her mind, it had always been an open-ended trip based on what she discovered, but she had never actually considered exactly how long that would be. A fortnight, a month, a year? She still did not know. However, had she found nothing, she knew a few days, or a week at the most would have sufficed. Luckily, that was no longer the case. At the hotel when she checked in, she told the old man at the reception she would let him know when she would be leaving. He had seemed happy enough with that. Returning to Greenland had been her plan, but now everything was working out better than she hoped, there was no rush. She wanted to stay and learn about her mother. She wanted to experience things her mother had, and if possible, though she knew it was a long shot, trace any blood relatives she might have, and how long would that take? Well, how long was a piece of string?
Padraig looked pleased. ‘I’m sorry, my dear. There’s you listening to me prattling on about my family, when it’s your past you want to learn about.’
Ann smiled, ‘It is fine.’ She did not mind at all. She wanted to learn everything, and these boys had obviously been part of her life for the first two-and-a-half years of it.
‘So, Annaldra, how much do you already know?’
‘Not a lot. My parents could tell me so little about my early life. All they knew was my mother had died. They knew nothing about my father, and there is my birth certificate. Well that is even more of a mystery. There is so little information on it. Luckily, it had this address, but the only information it had on any of my parents was my mother’s name, there is no mention of my father.’
‘Well, your mother kept a lot to herself.’ Padraig paused appearing to recall the past before continuing, ‘Tea?’ he offered holding up the teapot.
‘Thank you, I would love a cup.’
‘Here we’ve still got this one up,’ said Padraig retrieving something from the dresser. ‘It’s of you and your mother,’ he said handing her a faded photograph in a wooden frame.
Her mother was beautiful, with long raven hair and ivory skin. She looked happy as she smiled lovingly at the new born baby she cradled that was barely visible through the mass of pink blankets. Beside them a middle-aged woman stood, wearing a smart, navy suit.
Gazing at her mother’s face, she tried to swallow the lump at the back of her throat, but it stubbornly remained. ‘I remember her,’ she whispered. ‘I’m sure I can. Now you’ve shown me this it’s brought back vague, jumbled up memories.’
‘You can keep it if you’d like.’
She held it to her chest and wiped away a tear. ‘Thank you. I will treasure it,’ she said, and she meant it. It was precious, being the only thing she had that linked her to her natural mother.
‘We have more pictures and some of your toys too. They are in the attic. I will get Scott to look them out for you when he gets back.’
‘Who is the lady in the suit?’
‘That’s Seonag, my wife.’
There was something in his tone and a look of sadness had descended his face as though it was something that pained him. Whatever it was, it stopped her enquiring further, so she changed the subject back to her mother.
Ann felt comfortable in Padraig’s company and soon he was filling in the gaps from her past. Her mother was a runaway. Local children had found her disorientated and confused on the outskirts of the village heading towards the old Manor House. They called the police who took her to the hospital in the town as they thought she had a breakdown. Once there, they discovered she was pregnant. That was when she came to Padraig’s attention as she was to be committed to the psychiatric ward. However, Padraig was not happy about it so he took her on as a patient and arranged that she should stay with them under his care, his wife agreeing to help. She was almost seventeen. A few months later, she gave birth, while all the time Padraig was trying to discover Mary was, but he never traced her family. When she first arrived, Mary had been extremely timid and prone to panic attacks. Always nervous she appeared afraid most of the time, and Padraig was sure she was hiding from someone. For just over two years, they lived with Padraig, his wife and two young sons. Over time, they became part of their family, and Mary became more confident and happy. Padraig was certain it was because she felt safe with his family.
‘How did my mother die?’
‘I will never forget the day she died. It was tragic!’ He shook his head remembering the past. ‘Tourists found her at the bottom of Clementina Hill, which is close to where the children found her when she first arrived. She was just lying there dead, a fit healthy, young woman. We were all heartbroken… They call it sudden adult death syndrome, but the autopsy was inconclusive, so we will never know exactly what killed her. After that, the adoption process began. We tried so hard to adopt you, but sadly, it wasn’t allowed. But you got to stay with us for the next six months while they found you a suitable family and sorted out the paperwork.’
Ann drew in a long deep calming breath. Even though it was long ago, and she could not remember her mother, hearing of her death, especially being so young, was still upsetting. ‘And my father, what do you know of him?’
Padraig removed his glasses and using one hand rubbed his eyes. ‘Nothing I’m afraid,’ he shook his head regretfully. ‘Your mother refused to talk about him. I tried many times to get her to open up, but always in vain.’
She felt more than a twang of regret hearing this. She had suspected her mother had been a single parent, but even if her father had not been around, she had hoped he was known, or at least his family were. ‘That’s a pity. I will never know who he was.’ The faerie-tale outcome she had imagined, where she might meet blood relatives, was impossible now. The thought created an empty void in her that could never now be filled.
Padraig smiled sympathetically at her before continuing in a more upbeat tone. ‘So Annaldra,’ he clapped his hands together. ‘What about you, what have you been up to these last seventeen years?’
She smiled at Padraig’s effort to cheer her up, appreciating how fortunate she had been to find him. Had she not, today would have been very different. ‘Well, most of my life I’ve been living in Greenland. My dad was a marine biologist. We moved there when I was six, before that we lived in London.’
‘Greenland, that is rather remote. Are your parents still there?’
‘No,’ she heaved a sigh, ‘they have both passed away.’
‘Oh, I am so sorry to hear that, my dear.’
‘It’s okay, I’m fine,’ she reassured him. ‘My dad died over a year ago and my mum passed six weeks ago.’
Padraig put an arm around her giving a small squeeze. It was nice. It reminded Ann of the way her dad used to hug her. ‘Do you want to talk about it?’
A shudder ran down her spine as she recalled the blood curdling moment she had discovered her dad’s body sprawled on the floor of their shed, his face covered in dark, congealed blood, his eyes wide open, but their sparkle gone forever. It was like a scene from a gruesome whodunnit drama. The police report stated his death was accidental. He had been fixing a motor for the boat and his head had been under some shelves. When he stood up, he banged his head off a lower shelf, the thud making a large tin of paint fall from the top shelf hitting him on his head. He died instantly. She wished time would fade the memory, but every time she thought of it, the shock still penetrated every cell in her body and the image replayed in her mind’s eye as clear and as real as it had been that blackest of days.
‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, Annaldra,’ said Padraig, shaking his head after Ann had told him. ‘Such a waste,’ he mumbled, ‘such a terrible waste.’
‘And my mum, well her death was not unexpected. She had ovarian cancer. She got the diagnosis not long before my dad died. She thought her treatment would be better in England so when Dad died we moved to London. Unfortunately, the treatment did not work. I don’t know, it might have slowed it down, but it caught up with her six weeks ago,’ she said taking a sip of tea.
‘I’m sorry, cancer is—’
‘It was for the best,’ she said quickly, interrupting him. ‘She is in a better place now. Her suffering was terrible.’
‘And you’re okay?’
‘Yes, I’m good,’ she said half smiling, ‘but I’m an orphan again.’
Click, bang! They both heard the front door open then shut.
‘Scott, come through to the kitchen,’ shouted Padraig. ‘You will never guess who is here.’
‘Who?’ shouted Scott pushing the door open with more force than necessary.
Ann coughed, spluttering her tea as she realised the unpleasant banker she encountered in the village earlier was Padraig’s son.
‘Hi,’ smiled Scott smugly. ‘We’ve already met.’
‘Hi,’ she sounded awkward as she stood up to shake his hand.
‘You’ve met Annaldra already? Do you remember her?’ Padraig asked, oblivious to Ann’s uncomfortable situation.
‘Ah, Annaldra, so you’re the wee lassie that used to live with us. How could I forget?’ said Scott, shaking her hand with a hard squeeze.
Ann winced slightly, but she tried to cover it up with a forced smile. ‘That’s right it’s me, but everyone calls me Ann now.’ She could feel the blood rising in her cheeks with embarrassment.
‘Where did you meet?’
‘Oh, in the village, just briefly,’ said Scott, to Ann’s relief. He could paint a very different picture of her if he chose.
‘Anyway, Annaldra, would you like to stay for dinner tonight? We are having steak pie. I’m a great cook since I retired.’
A smarmy smile spread across Scott’s face. ‘She can’t. She already has plans.’
‘Oh, you do?’
‘Yes, I’m afraid so… another time perhaps.’
Scott flashed another smug smile in her direction before turning to his dad. ‘She is having dinner with Gillan.’
‘Donald Gillan?’ Padraig both sounded and looked surprised, and Ann was sure she detected a hint of disappointment.
She glanced at Scott. He looked like he was enjoying this. ‘Yes, the busker, he seems nice. We are going to the hotel. Is there a problem?’
‘No, no, no, no he is nice, I didn’t expect it that’s all. Well, do you have plans tomorrow night?’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘Well you must come tomorrow instead.’
‘That would be lovely, thank you. I will look forward to it.’