Authors: Daniela Sacerdoti
Also by Daniela Sacerdoti
Watch Over Me
Take Me Home
Set Me Free
The Sarah Midnight Trilogy
Really Weird Removals.com
First published 2015
by Black & White Publishing Ltd
29 Ocean Drive, Edinburgh EH6 6JL
This electronic edition published in 2015
ISBN: 978 1 78530 029 5 in EPub format
ISBN: 978 1 78530 001 1 in print format
Copyright Â© Daniela Sacerdoti 2016
The right of Daniela Sacerdoti to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Ebook compilation by Iolaire Typesetting, Newtonmore
To Francesca Meinardi, my sister
Many thanks from the bottom of my heart to my families, the Sacerdotis and the Walkers. Mamma, Beth, my lighthouses in every stormy sea â thank you. And Beth, thanks for the proof reading!
Thank you to everyone at Black & White, in particular to my editor Karyn Millar, to the goddess of foreign rights Janne Moller (that's her official title), and to Campbell Brown. Thank you Ariella Feiner, whose emails and calls from London leave me with a scent of oranges and a sense of sunshine all around me.
Many thanks to my friends, who put up with me and my writing obsession: Irene Parfimon, Joan Grassie, Roy Gill, Phil Miller, Simona Sanfilippo, Giancarlo Ferrari and Alison Green. In particular, many thanks to Phil Miller, wonderful poet, who wrote âOn Gullane Beach' for
Don't Be Afraid
. Phil: it's a privilege, thank you.
Thank you Sorley MacLean for the quote “but if I had the choice again”, from the splendid poem “
”, “The Choice”.
Thank you Scotland, my dear, dear Alba, and all the people I met and loved and laughed with these last fourteen years. You've been an adoptive mother to me â I feel like Ruth, who was welcomed into her husband's tribe. As the time comes for the family to go home â my birth home â to look after our elders, I turn back and promise I will never, never forget.
I always leave you last, Ross, Sorley and Luca: but only because you are the foundation of everything. A special thanks to Ross for the image of the long journey on foot and the deer keeping watch. I hope that one day you recognise your own talent for writing.
A woman stands in a field of swaying grass, a red handkerchief in her long, wavy hair and her skirt blowing in the breeze. The light of spring dances on her face. She is smiling, wrinkling up her nose, her eyes like half-moons as she squints in the sun. Not far from her, a little girl is trying to stay upright in the grass, which comes up to her chest. Her cheeks are red; her face is like an apple, fresh and pure and new. She is laughing and waving her dimpled hands like a little windmill, overwhelmed with joy at something so simple, so special: standing in a field of grass for the first time in her life. Suddenly, she loses her balance and falls sideways â the blades of grass have overtaken her now, they cover everything from view. She is frightened. Her face is about to crumple, tears are gathering in her eyes, her lips begin to form the only word she can say, the only word that matters for now, in her baby life â
â but two white arms appear from nowhere and lift her upwards, towards the blue sky, then against a soft chest that smells just right, that smells like everything is good, everything is fine. “Isabel,” the woman says, tasting her daughter's name, sweet as a song, “don't be afraid.”
Where I was, time did not exist. My heart did not beat and I did not breathe â so I couldn't even measure it in heartbeats and breaths.
It took me a while to fully comprehend that the fog around me would never go away, that I would always wander lost and alone in the mist. Sometimes I caught a glimpse of another lonely soul in my same predicament, sweeping close to me and yet so far. Solitude was my choice for refusing to go, solitude and despair. The absence of love.
And then, one moment in this multitude of moments that followed one another, each identical to the one before, I felt something shifting. At first it was like the tiniest whirlpool around me, in this windless place â and then a trembling all around, ripple after ripple in the mist. Suddenly, something began enveloping me and wrenching me backwards: it was pulling, pulling, like a rope tied around my waist. I was frightened, but the force dragging me began to feel more like a ribbon, a gentle, velvety ribbon that grew bigger and embraced me, a mantle of warmth, a mantle of love. I began to cry â Do dead souls cry?
And then, in the fog, a soft mother-of-pearl light appeared, and I saw the one who had been pulling me. She stood in a sea of little flames, some glowing feebly, some strong, some dancing to a mysterious wind, some still, all surrounded by light. Her words resounded in my mind â she was thinking inside my head. Her voice was so warm and full of love it made me cry: cold, dry tears that only I could feel and nobody could have seen. Another gust of soft wind came, and a faraway sound, a sound like slowly moving wings, invisible in the shimmering light and mist.
She told me everything, her voice a chorus of voices, some male, some female, in a perfect symphony.
They told me why I needed to return, and what I had to do. It was what I had been waiting for all along.
I couldn't find my voice â I couldn't even find my mouth to reply. Did I have a mouth? I looked down, searching for my hands â and there they were. I searched for my lips and I found them, and they felt cold. I looked down at my feet, and they were there too, bare and white. I smacked my lips together and prepared to speak, but nothing came out â I tried again, and in a croaky, feeble voice that hadn't been used in a long time, I said the word I'd kept in my heart all that time, all the time I'd spent in the misty, silent, lonely place: “Isabel.”
I blinked, my eyes sticky with sleep and tears, and in a few bleary, desperate moments, I realised I was still alive, unless heaven looked like my bedroom. Shadows danced in the corners â a soft noise of fabric flapping â the window was ajar. I had a vague memory of opening it last night, to drink in the view of the loch one last time, to take it all in before I did it. Before I fell.
My plan was perfect, or so I thought â Angus was away on a gig and Morag not due to check on me until the evening. When she brought in the groceries, she would see that I was asleep and let me be â I often slept during the day, because I struggled to sleep during the night.
Except this time I would not be sleeping.
And then Angus would try to get in touch with me once, twice, but even if he became alarmed by my lack of reply, I would still have time to do it before he sent someone to see if I was all right. Then, the morning after, Morag would stop by again with milk and eggs and bread, and she would notice that I was still sleeping, that I was exactly in the same position as the night before â and then she would
It was all set up so that it wouldn't be Angus who found me. It couldn't be. I couldn't allow my husband to see me like that, dead on the bed we shared â I could never, never do such a thing to him. Weird, isn't it? I was ready to put him through the torture of losing me, but I didn't want him to be the one to find me dead. Even in my despair I could still follow some strange logic that didn't make sense to anyone but me. It was hard to find lucidity in my thoughts. It would be hard to find lucidity in just about anything, if you had not left your house in a year and every day when you woke up you wondered why you weren't dead already, you wondered why the black hole in your heart hadn't swallowed you whole yet.
So I'd decided to give the black hole a helping hand.
But there I was. Alive. Though I wasn't supposed to be.
It had all gone terribly wrong.
I shivered deeper than I had ever done before, three times, as if my body could not believe that it was still working. I had time to register the horrific pain blooming in my stomach, the strange chemical smell seeping off my skin and the little orange dots in the crook of my body, underneath me â the pills I had taken too many of, but still not enough â when I realised that someone was there. I blinked again and again. There was a pair of feet on my carpet. Attached to legs. Attached to a woman I didn't know.
In my bedroom.
Nobody comes into my bedroom, apart from Angus and occasionally Morag. Nobody but us had crossed that threshold for a year.
My heart started pounding, and it was sore â like it was learning to beat again. Like the heartache I'd felt for so long had become physical.
I shut my eyes tight, as tight as I could, and tried to feign sleep â but the trembling of my hands must have given me away.
“Isabel,” she said, and all of a sudden her voice came from somewhere closer to me â she was standing by my bed. I opened my eyes, but as soon as I tried to raise my gaze above the woman's legs, a wave of nausea hit me and everything spun. A stranger. A stranger in my room, beside me. What did she want from me? The million imaginary fears that plagued my mind cut me again â imaginary, yes, but real to me. She would kill me. She would make me sick with the invisible illnesses she carried on her skin. She would tell me I had to pull myself together. She would tell me that if I had any decency I'd leave Angus to live his life. And on and on, the catalogue of fears in my soul unfolded, like entries from my own personal Book of the Dead. Somebody whimpered â it was me, deep in my chemical haze, somewhere between sleep and waking.
I was alive; I was still to suffer.
“Isabel,” the stranger whispered for the second time. I wanted to tell her to get out and leave me alone, but I could not form words. I tried to shape my lips around the syllables, but they would not move. A kitten noise came out of my mouth instead, and something cold and wet rolled down my cheek. I could see, but I was immobile and mute â come to think of it, maybe I
dead, after all, and the woman was an angel come to take me to heaven. Except people who do what I had done don't end up in heaven, they go somewhere else: my father had always been clear on that, and on other things.
The woman kneeled beside my bed and her face came into view. I felt too ill to be afraid any more, to be anything any more. “Isabel,” she said again â but this time, as she was so close, her voice did something to me.
Something I hadn't felt in a long time.
My heart, instead of beating even faster until I couldn't breathe, slowed down.
I looked into her eyes, and I met a winter-green gaze. Her face was crowned by wavy brown hair and she smelled of cinnamon and sugar. How weird â she smelled of Christmas.
“Who are you?” I managed to say finally, and it came out like a croak. My throat was burning, and oh, all down my chest was agony, and my side. A horrible chemical slush coated my mouth and I longed for water.
“I came to see you. I came to help you.”
I was ready to say
I don't want to see anyone
, but as I opened my mouth a searing pain shot through my side again. My whole body was sore, my soul was sore, my heart was withered up, and once again I prayed for all this to be over. I turned my head towards the wall and closed my eyes again. I was so tired.
And then I felt something touch me â the woman was caressing my hair, so softly, so tenderly that something overflowed inside me. I sobbed.
“Sleep now. I'll come and see you again,” she said. As if her words had been a command, I felt myself drifting into sleep. For the first time in months my dreams weren't full of terror and grotesque images, haunting me. I dreamt I was standing outside, in the sunshine, looking over to a pack of wild horses across a swaying field â there were little lochs of shimmering waters and multicoloured clouds dotted all around. It was like I had jumped straight into my palette and all the watercolours and paints that lay abandoned in my studio.
It was a dream of hope.