These islands lie off the west coast of Ireland as though nothing matters – Linda Norton, Patterns for Arans
When I discovered I was pregnant — as much a surprise to me as to the doctor who told me a few months previously that I would never be — I realized that there would be some time when journalism would not be possible. I wasn’t worried, I’d write fiction.
Not that I had ever written fiction or was reading it regularly in any respectful or attentive way. But what I had in mind cheap mysteries and cheap romance. How are hard could that be?
Hard enough. Even Harlequin and Mills and Boon eluded me. The fiction I like to write, even my cheap fiction (I have four historical romantic suspense novels finished in rough draft and one imitation Nora Roberts in something I thought was final draft but which has never sold) is dark.
However I did discover that I enjoyed writing, and almost could write, quick and somewhat simple women’s magazine fiction, the kind that used to appear in publications like Take a Break. Unfortunately, I made this discovery this just as that market largely dried up.
I have just read Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work and under the influence of his advising, urging, and hectoring to get your imperfections out there I am posting a women’s magazine story that failed to find its niche. It was written because of time I spent on the Aran Islands working on a travel piece (which did find someone who loved it, the Financial Times Magazine of all things), but the islands I had in mind are the San Juans off the west coast of Washington state and Canada.
“It seems to me,” my mother said, looking down at the tiny creature wrapped in baby blankets by the fire, “that you don’t even like people very much.”
“Why?” I asked and smiled. Smiling was something I was sure she didn’t want me to do when she is in the mood to scold. But a smile turnth away wrath, or something, and with my mother, I am never sure what she does want.
“It’s obvious, Diana.” She sighed and I could see her shoulders rise with the intake of breath as she got ready to tell me. “All the animals of course.”
The blankets stirred. I picked up a baby bottle, tested the temperature on my wrist, got the puppy from under the blankets and started to feed it. It is usually wild things I try to save, but some summer people had abandoned a litter of puppies and this was the only one still alive by the time someone found them. “They aren’t mutually exclusive you know, people and animals, that is.” I thought I had her there. She herself had had four dogs to my certain knowledge; the last one lived on cooked-to-order free range chicken until it died at the ripe old age of seventeen. I had only three dogs and three cats and whatever creature I was nursing at the moment. Okay, all at once, but not such a difference.
“If things are kept in proportion. However,” she continued and I knew what was coming, so, I must admit, I turned off and beamed at the puppy. Its progress from certain death to milk gulping life had impressed even the vet. I barely heard my mother’s list of complaints, I knew them all: where I lived — on an island; how I lived — by myself; how I kept house — a disaster; how I looked — like I was about to dig in the garden, which usually I was. She would end with: why couldn’t I be more like my sister, — a barrister, beautiful and married. But this time my mother switched tracks “and the way you are behaving about that Jeremy Browne, Diana, is really unfair. One would think you would cultivate someone like that.”
My attention snapped back. Getting me into trouble with my mother would be added to the long list of reasons I did not like Jeremy Browne. But I hadn’t expected my mother, on an infrequent visit, to know about any of that. Without missing a beat she added “I’m friends with his mother, didn’t you know ?” and got up to put on the kettle for a cup of tea.
The puppy fell asleep and I put it back under the blankets. It was a good thing I had been reminded of Jeremy Browne early in the day; tonight I planned to sink him altogether. I dug through the piles of papers on my desk– my mother was right on that count, I was messy — until I found Jeremy Browne’s proposal, slick, professionally printed and delivered to every house on the island. ‘Ecology based tourism’, it blared, ‘the answer to the island’s dreams’. Less than a year on the island and he already thought he knew how we dreamed. He had come from the city and some high-powered media career. To write a novel, he said, but he was so occupied ‘improving’ things it was difficult to see when he took time to write. He’d organised the committee that got the new pier and perhaps a new ferry, and had been instrumental in adding the extra room on the schoolhouse. The room, I should add, where everyone was meeting tonight.
I was in love with the way the island had been since I was a child and my father had made it our special place. Wild and isolated, it was his refuge from a marriage that didn’t work, and a place he could treat me like the son he didn’t have.
Jeremy Browne proposed boats for whale watching, trails for bird watching, lookouts for otter watching and who knew what else. I’d lived on the island since my father died five years ago and was sure that the islanders wouldn’t want the visitors, strangers and all the they changes they would bring. I’d point this out, his plan would lose, and Jeremy Browne would go look for some place else to ‘write’ or to ‘improve’ as the case may be.
I had to admit as I walked up the path that the new room on the school had been a good idea, but it was enough. Jeremy Browne was already on the platform going over his brochure with a stranger, who with his jacket, tie and shining shoes was definitely a city solicitor type. I studied Jeremy’s face as I waited for the meeting to begin. Good looking if you wanted to call it that, with lines that could have come from laughter around his eyes. In different circumstances I might have liked him.
But not now and not ever when he started to speak and heads around the room nodded in agreement. He repeated the argument of his brochure: things needed to change so they could stay the same; tourism based on the island’s beauty and wildlife was the best chance for jobs; and jobs would give the island’s young people the choice to stay if they wanted to and to preserve island life. Shinny shoes and half a dozen people around the room chimed in in agreement. I had lost even before I said my piece, but I would probably have managed to keep my temper if he hadn’t waited outside afterwards to compliment me on my contribution.
“You spoke well,” he said, stepping out of the shadows and holding out his hand. If there is anything I can’t stand, it’s someone who is magnanimous in victory. I said thank you but didn’t take his hand.
He started to walk beside me. “I agree with you about the island, it is unique and precious. But unless islanders can make decent livings here, not just fishing and the small farms, young people will leave. The cottages will be bought by outsiders, most of them will sit empty fifty weeks a year. You and I may live here all year but we’re not island born. We’re the wave of that future unless things changes.”
It wasn’t his lecturing that made me angry, although I didn’t understand why for some reason it was important to him I understood what he was trying to do. What fueled my anger was that he was right. We were intruders, blow-ins. I stopped walking. “You know why I came here? Because of people like you.” I heard myself, but didn’t stop. “You’re the brightest and the best and say you’re helping when you go around changing things to suit yourself, ‘it’s for their own good’ you say. But really its your good. You’ll probably make lots of money out of this island, you and your shiny- shoed friend.”
It was dark around us and I heard, more than saw, him laugh, “I told him he was overdressed. He comes from another island, Diana, where they are trying the same thing.”
Of course being wrong made me angrier and I turned away from him. He caught at my arm. “Diana wait…”
But I was too quick. “Just leave things alone” I shouted and ran.
My must have face given me away, because as soon as I walked through the door my mother put down her book and poured me a glass of wine. I sat on the couch, hugging my knees up to my chin. My mother sat next to me. I told her about the meeting and about afterwards. “He’s going to ruin Daddy’s and my island, ruin it.” To my surprise I felt the heat of tears. I never cry.
My mother was quiet. The puppy made a sleepy movement. She bent and tucked the blanket more firmly around it. “Perhaps it’s time for me to be a little more honest with you.” She sighed, more sadness than exasperation. “I’ve always thought of you as the one thing I got right for your father.” She put her arm around me. I couldn’t remember the last time she had done that. “When I first met your father he thought I was brave and full of life. Like you. I was quiet and shy, but I loved him very much and I let him think I was something else because I thought I could make him happy.”
I put my head on her shoulder.
“I didn’t. So in a way you were my gift to him and I didn’t interfere with the way you were brought up.” She pushed away from me a little so that she could look into my eyes. Tears began to run down my cheeks. She took the wine glass out of my hand and pulled my head back to her shoulder. “Your father was wonderful in many ways, and he could have done things for what he cared about , like this island. But he preferred to live in a fantasy world.”
Her voice changed, I was sure she was smiling. “I know I nag, I’m making up for lost time. You’re a marvel and I love you.” She kissed the top of my head. I couldn’t remember the last time she had done that either.
She was right about my father, I recognised his faults and adored him anyway. But somewhere in the cold chasm between my parents, I had lost sight that I also loved my mother — and needed her. I cuddled against her, but my mother was never one to lose an opportunity.
“You know Jeremy is right. Work with him. Don’t be like your father and live in a pretend world of things as you wish they were. Jeremy’s not doing this for money. His mother says he’s set up a trust that puts very penny back into the island. Wash your face now and go apologise to him.”
I stayed in the circle of her arm, not wanting to move, not wanting the magical found-my-mother moment to end .
She sat up straight. “Now, ” she said.
In the bathroom I scrubbed my face and hands and took my hair out of its normal pony tail, hoping a different hair style might distract Jeremy Browne from the dirt stains I couldn’t get off my fingers. My mother was giving the puppy its bottle as I left.
His cottage was on the ridge above mine and I could see that there was a light on. I knocked and waited, listening to the wind blowing around me. It seemed an age until he opened the door
“How nice to see you,” he said as though I had not stormed away from him an hour before. “Come in out of the wind.”
I stepped in and stood there feeling lumpish and awkward and not knowing how to begin.
“Can I do something for you?” he asked.
I shook my head no, then the words tumbled out. “I’m sorry for what I said earlier. It’s a good plan, I’d like to help. ” I held out my hand.
He smiled and took it, but didn’t shake hands as I had expected. Instead he raised it slowly. I knew he could feel how rough my skin was and see the lines where the stains wouldn’t wash away. I tried to pull my hand out of his, but he wouldn’t let me. Instead, ever so softly, he kissed my fingers. “Of course,” he said.
I think it was at this moment, dear reader, I fell in love.
Patterns for Arans — Linda Norton
These islands lie off the west coast of Ireland
as if nothing matters.