Authors: Daniela Sacerdoti
A hand touched my shoulder lightly and I jumped â I'd been dozing in the chair. It was a nurse. She smelled of nicotine and something vinegary.
“Your brother is here,” she said. Bell was sleeping soundly, her eyelids still, her arms by her sides, her chest falling and rising softly, so I slipped out to the waiting room, where Torcuil was waiting for me.
“How is she?” he asked, concern in his eyes behind his glasses. He looked shattered. I probably looked worse.
“Well, I suppose she's out of the woods. Physically, I mean.”
“Come. I'll get you a coffee.”
“I need a
of coffee to keep going,” I replied. After Morag phoned me I drove up from London through the night, clutching the steering wheel until my knuckles were white. I was exhausted from fear and lack of sleep. Everything around me seemed to blur at the edges and every time I moved my head quickly I felt slightly sick.
We sat in the hospital cafeteria, both dazed, terrified of what could have happened, what
happened, had Morag not found Bell in time.
It didn't bear thinking about.
“Is Izzy sleeping now?” Torcuil asked as he placed a mug in front of me. I noticed that he had slipped into using his old nickname for her, and I was too overwhelmed to feel even a twinge of jealousy, like I normally would.
Sometimes I wondered how much Torcuil and I had dealt with the past. Our history with Bell, I mean.
“Yes. Thanks for coming.”
“That sounds very formal.” He nearly smiled, but didn't quite manage. “It's the least I could do. How is she doing, did they tell you anything new?” I'd filled him in during an early morning call.
“Nothing new. Physically, she's in okay shape, apart from her stomach being a bit battered, the doctor said. But I have no idea what she's thinkingÂ . . .” I shrugged. “I don't know anything any more. She insists she's fine, but clearly, after what she did . . . Well, she isn't.”
“Did she tell you anything? About her reasons . . . about what was going through her mind?”
“Not really. She said she won't do anything like that again. I'm really trying to believe her.”
“God, how did we not see it coming?” Torcuil ran his hand through his hair, his nervous habit.
“I don't know. I blame myselfÂ . . .” And I
. Clearly I'd been too wrapped up in my work, or maybe I didn't want to see. Probably a combination. Or maybe, who knows, you just can't predict this sort of thing. Maybe some people carry a darkness inside them that not even the ones who love them can detect. And my wife was one of them.
“Honestly, Angus, I don't want to hear any of that. You can't blame yourself for this. I won't let you.” He looked down. We were both stiff, unsure, embarrassed about this outpouring of emotion. Our family doesn't do
“Oh yes, I can blame myself,” I snapped, and all of a sudden I realised how angry I was. At myself, at the world. At Bell. “She refused to take her medication, and I let her get away with it. She had this counsellor coming to the house, but she stopped that, and again I let her. She swore she was better, and I believed her. I
to believe her.”
“We all believed her. She told us what we wanted to hear. And she is an adult; she makes her own decisions. You can't force her to do what she doesn't want to do.”
“No, no, I should have convinced her. And now this happens. I should have put my foot down. But it's so hard, she is so . . .
Â . . .” I struggled to find the right word. I felt my voice breaking and I rubbed my forehead with my hands. I really was at the end of my tether.
“Angus, listen. You didn't slip those pills down her throat. It's not your fault and it's not hers either. It's an illness, and you know that.”
Torcuil's face was full of worry. He cared for both of us, even after what we'd done to him. Thankfully, he forgave us, but he was alone for years before he met Margherita. Some say I stole Bell from him, and maybe I did, but I'd tried to suffocate my feelings, and so had Isabel â we'd resolved not to act on them, to be apart â but we kept falling back together, like a planet and its moon. She was definitely the planet, with her vitality, her love of art, her beauty. Her
. I was her moon.
And so we had to break my brother's heart. We broke mine too, because within my family he was the only one I felt truly close to. When Margherita came on the scene, though, it looked like all memories of past hurt had gone â finally my brother had found happiness again.
Happiness. It felt like a completely alien concept to me at that moment.
“I have to quit the orchestra.”
Saying it aloud was like a blade in my side â but I had no choice. I was on trial with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, hoping to gain my place soon. I'd wanted it all my life. I'd clung to my work while my family life was falling apart. Maybe I wasn't allowed to do that any more; maybe now I had to look reality in the face: a local teaching job. The occasional gig, not too far. Looking after Bell had to be my priority.
I'd worked so hard to get to where I was.
To give it all up felt like cutting off my right arm.
But to lose Isabel would be worse.
Torcuil took a sip of his scalding coffee and winced. “No chance. Isabel will kill you if you leave the orchestra now.”
“I don't see how I can manageÂ . . .” I began. There was an acid taste in my mouth. Like fear. Like sacrifice. “I'm travelling to and from Glasgow all the time. If they hire me, and I think they will, I'll share my time between Glen Avich, Glasgow and, let's face it, the rest of Britain. But how can I do this if my wife is so ill? How can I leave her?”
“Angus, you can'tâ”
“Well, do I have any choice?” I must have raised my voice, because an elderly couple sitting at a nearby table turned to look at me.
“There is always a choice. We'll find a way,” Torcuil said, but I didn't believe him.
I loved Bell enough to quit, I was sure of that, but whether I could find it in myself not to ever be resentful, I didn't know.
I'd been faced with this choice before, when my father was ill: I was touring all over the place, and I barely saw him for months, towards the end. I couldn't make the same mistake again.
Torcuil knew what I was thinking. The words unspoken hung between us, my father's plea for me to keep playing, to keep going, while he lay sick. And Torcuil there, shouldering the burden for both of us, like he had so often.
We were at a crossroads, Bell and I, with this change looming in my life â both of us fragile, in different ways. I loved her more than anything. And still, my music . . .
It was never a case of everything revolving around me and my job â Bell had always been her own person, determined and passionate herself, in love with her art. I remember after we'd been going out for only a few months I was given the chance to go on tour with a band, and I asked her if she'd come with me. The summer was about to start, and I was already tasting warm nights and music and Bell and I together. But she refused. She was going to stay with Emer in Galway and work on her first illustration job for a children's publishing company.
“Are you sure? It would be amazing to have you with me,” I said, a bit stung. Didn't she want to be beside me? I thought of how it would feel to have her waiting for me when I walked offstage. From the stage into her arms. It would have been perfect.
She smiled, and I remember noticing how the sun had already sprayed a few freckles on her nose, even if it was only May. “Not yet,” she said, and held both my hands playfully.
“Why? What do you mean ânot yet'?”
“I mean, if we start out this way, you playing your music and me tagging alongÂ . . .”
“You wouldn't be tagging along!”
“I know, I know. What I mean is, this is your dream; drawing is mine. Would you stay with me and hang around while I work in Ireland?”
“Well, I couldn'tâ”
“See? I can't live somebody else's dream, and neither could you. But, I promise you, as soon as I get some time off I'll be coming to you wherever you are and we can be together.”
And she did. While she was there we had three days of starry skies and balmy nights, and as soon as she left the heavens opened. Which was more or less what happened in my heart too â sunshine when she was around, grey clouds when she was gone.
She'd always been adamant she wouldn't be living
dream, but hers; now there wasn't much left to dream all around.
“We need to find someone to stay with her while you're away from Glen Avich,” said Torcuil.
The “we” felt incredibly supportive and out of place at the same time. Like he had responsibility for Bell too. And still, I needed his help so badly. I needed all the help I could get.
“The doctor wanted to keep her here. I convinced him to let her go, that staying in hospital would harm Bell instead of helping her, so that was okay . . . but then he said she was going to be visited every day by psychiatric nurses.”
“Oh, God. She'd hate that.”
“Exactly. She freaked. I don't know how, but we managed to convince the doctor to release her into the care of Dr Robertson. Bell's satisfied, but I don't think it's enough.”
“Do you think I made a mistake? Do you think I should have acceptedâ”
“No. With Izzy's state of mind, the last thing you want is to force her hand. But the fact remains, I suppose, that she needs to be looked after, right now. She really does. On her own terms.”
“It's just that to phone an agency and find a nurse would make her bolt again. It has to be someone we know, and that will be hard enough anyway. You know the way she isÂ . . .”
A moment, just a moment, of complete silence.
Yes, Torcuil knew the way she was.
He knew her very well.
But all that was in the past.
“Wouldn't Morag do it? It would be ideal. At least Isabel lets her into the house,” said Torcuil.
“Morag works part-time, remember?” And then a thought hit me. “You don't think that MargheritaÂ . . .” Torcuil's girlfriend was warm, compassionate, cheerful â she would have been the perfect choice.
Torcuil took another sip. I'd given up on my brew. Hospital coffee was disgusting. “Not at the moment. Things are crazy with her work right now: her catering has really taken off and we have the National Trust visits at the weekends. And she has the children, of course. I don't think she could spread herself any thinner.” Margherita had two children, Lara and Leo â a teenager and a four-year-old â who had moved with Torcuil too. Torcuil loved being a stepfather â he had come into his own.
Suddenly, I had an idea. “You know who I would ask?”
“Peggy,” we said in unison. Torcuil had come to the same conclusion.
Peggy was the hub of the village of Glen Avich. She knew everything that went on, or nearly everything. From her little shop, a web of information departed and covered the whole village. The lovely thing with Peggy was that her gossip was never malicious â she was simply someone who loved people and their stories. If you were looking for something or someone in the Glen Avich area, Peggy was your woman.
“That's the plan, then. We'll see if Peggy knows someone who could stay with her while you're away, just keep an eyeÂ . . .” he said, and I finished for him.
“To keep an eye on her. To make sure she doesn't try to kill herself again.” Oh, just thinking about it . . .
“Angus, don'tÂ . . .” my brother said, looking away.
“Well, that's what it is, isn't it? We might as well call things by their name.” Just thinking what my life had become â what our life had become . . .
He lifted his chin.
“Thank you,” I said, and looked away. Meeting his eyes would probably have made me cry.
“Oh, it's the lairds!” Peggy said in a gently mocking tone as my brother and I walked in. Her small shop sold just about everything â food, toys, toiletries, stationery, even knitted outfits for babies. It was Glen Avich's little emporium, where the whole village went for goods and a chat. I wasn't often in the village, being away for work so much, but Peggy had known me and my family since we were children and she always greeted us warmly. I think she had a weakness for my brother â Torcuil's kind, shy manners made him a hit with old ladies. He was every granny's dream grandson.
“Hi Peggy. I was wondering if we could ask you a questionÂ . . .” I began.
“Let me put the kettle on,” Peggy said cheerily, beckoning us to go through to the back. Torcuil and I exchanged a glance â she certainly didn't need to be asked twice. Right at that moment, the little bell above the door rang â a customer.
“Excuse me for a moment.”
I busied myself looking at the community noticeboard while Peggy served the woman who had come in. I decided to turn my back to them and not look at the customer â rude, I knew, but I just couldn't bear small talk at that moment. Probably the whole village knew about Isabel having been taken to hospital â some must have seen the ambulance and some must have heard it from Morag, who, most likely, just said it in confidence to a couple of people, with the promise they wouldn't tell anyone. That was how Glen Avich worked. You couldn't even cough in your own garden without someone asking you at some point, “And how's your cough? Feeling better?”
From where I'd retreated, I could hear Peggy and the stranger talking.
“What can I get you?”
“Just the paper, thank you.” She had a pleasant alto voice.
“Did you find somewhere to stay?”
“Not yet. I'm still at the Green Hat.”
“Oh, that's quite nice, but surely not suitable for a long stay. I wish you could come and board with me, but my eldest daughter is home for the summer . . . She's here with her family and there's just no room.”
“That's no problem, I'm sure I'll find somewhere.”
“How long do you plan to stay anyway?”
“I don't know yet. Weeks, maybe months. Who knows?”
Torcuil chipped in. “I'm sorry to interrupt . . . but I know someone who rents rooms, Debora and Michael from La PiazzaÂ . . .”
“Yes, of course,” Peggy said.
“La Piazza?” the stranger asked.
“The new coffee shop. Well, I say
, but it's been there for over two years now. They have a small cottage they rent to tourists. I'll give you their number, or you can just drop by. Have you seen it yet?”
“No. But what an exotic name! You need to tell me all about Glen Avich's tourist attractions.” There was a smile in the woman's voice.
“Oh, we have an Italian coffee shop and a Chinese takeaway, and just a few months ago Ramsay Hall opened to the public,” said Peggy. “And these are the owners, Angus and Torcuil Ramsay. This is Clara; she only arrived from Canada a few days ago.”
“Nice to meet you,” the woman said just as I raised my head.
“Hello,” I replied, quite distractedly. But Torcuil greeted her too, and something in his voice made me look at him. He was studying her.
His expression was unreadable. A ripple of electricity ran over my skin.
I didn't have any of Torcuil's strange intuition â powers, some might say â but when my brother had that look in his eyes, I paid attention. My gaze moved to the woman â brown hair in an old-fashioned braid, a face that would make a sculptor happy, with her high cheekbones and striking features. Her eyes were a dark shade of green. Anyone who saw this woman would do a double-take, either because of her beauty or the timelessness of her attire â a long, folksy dress, a wooden necklace and long, dangling earrings.
“Why don't you drop by tomorrow?” Peggy continued. “Eilidh could cover here and we could go to La Piazza for coffee.”
“Great idea. Around ten?”
“Perfect. Do you have a mobile? Somewhere I can reach you?” Peggy took out her own mobile phone from a nook behind the counter, holding it gingerly as if it could bite her and I smiled inwardly in spite of the circumstances. Torcuil and I exchanged a glance. “My niece, Eilidh, gave me this,” she explained.
Clara rummaged in her bag until she found her phone. “I have one too, but I don't know my number and I don't know how to use it anyway!” She laughed soft and low and her eyes lit up. They were mossy green and seemed somehow familiar, though I'd never seen that woman before. She must have been just a little older than me â little lines around her eyes and the occasional grey strand in her hair gave her age away.
“Let me,” my brother said, taking the phone gently from her hand. “Your number, Peggy?”
“Oh, there you are, here is my number, I have it saved under
. See?” Peggy looked very proud of herself as Torcuil punched her number into Clara's phone.
“I'm going to phone you now, Peggy, so you can save Clara's number.”
“Oh. Oh, sure. Wait. Do I have to answer?”
“No, just let it ring and her number will flash up, so you can save it.”
“Oh dearie me, I've never done that before. Eilidh does that for me usually. I need to get my glassesÂ . . .” She was all flustered now, and I had to suppress a smile.
“Don't worry, I'll do it. There. I saved it under
,” Torcuil said to Clara, returning the phone.
“It's ringing!” Peggy said, mildly panicked.
“It's okay! There. Done. Now you have Clara's number,” my brother said with a straight face. And then, to Clara: “I also put Debora's number in there, so you can give them a call if you're interested in the room.”
“Thanks Torcuil,” said Peggy. “Oh dearie me, these things there is always something to learn!”
“Well, I'll see you tomorrow, Peggy. Thank you, Torcuil,” Clara said, and the way my brother said goodbye to her made me look at his face. He followed her with his eyes as she left.
“What a lovely woman. Come, I'll make you a nice cup of tea and we can chat.”
We followed Peggy into the tiny kitchen in the back. It was the first time I'd stepped through there, and I wondered how many stories those walls had heard. Peggy had this gift: people
to her. They knew that she would keep their secrets; even if she loved a bit of good-hearted gossip, she wouldn't betray anyone's trust.
“So, how can I help you?” She put the kettle on and prepared two mugs for us â each had a little cartoon of the Loch Ness Monster painted on it.
Torcuil looked at me silently, as if to say
“It's about Isabel,” I replied, squirming a little. In spite of trusting Peggy, it always felt somehow weird â even disloyal â to talk about my wife's illness.
Peggy, of course, knew that there was something wrong with Isabel. The whole village knew. It was just hard to talk about it. “Right.”
“She . . . she's really unwell. I mean, she tried to do something very stupid.” I felt my voice breaking.
I was slightly taken aback at that. People knew about
too? I must have underestimated the power of the Glen Avich grapevine. For a moment, I was speechless.
“She's coming home soon, butÂ . . .”
Torcuil came to my rescue. “We can't leave her alone, of course.”
I continued. “And I need to work. It's hard as it is, to make ends meet with my job.”
“So you're looking for someone to be with her. A nurse, maybe?”
“No, that's exactly what I
want. A nurse will freak her out. See, that's part of the problem, she hates doctors and nurses and hospitals.”
“You might have to . . . I'm so sorry to say this, Angus . . . But you might have to find a way to convince her to be looked after . . . properly, I mean. By someone who knows what they're doing,” Peggy said, as delicately as she could.
“She's followed by a consultant at the hospital, and we're going to speak to Dr Robertson, so we have that. But I want to try to see if she can get some help at home. Something like a . . .
,” I said, looking at Torcuil for help in explaining.
“Yes, an old-fashioned expression, but that's what were looking for,” he continued. “A companion. Someone who makes sure she eats, takes her meds, and doesn't . . . doesn'tÂ . . .”
“Yes. I understand,” Peggy said.
doesn't harm herself,
I finished in my mind, and my stomach clenched.
“She would have to sleep there too, when Angus is away for work.”
“I see. And Margherita couldn't do it, of course; she is so busy with her work, with Ramsay Hall and her children . . . Eilidh has taken up some hours at Sorley's nursery and helps me here as well, so she couldn't either. Leave it with me. I'll have a good think, andâ”
“Well, thank you, Peggy,” I said, standing up. In spite of Peggy's kindness, all of a sudden those four walls were suffocating me. I needed some air. “If you hear of anyone, you know where to find me.”
“Of course,” she said and, to my surprise, rested a hand on my arm.
“Don't worry. We'll sort it all out,” Torcuil said to me as we stood in front of Ramsay Hall. I considered how many times Torcuil had “sorted it all out” for our family, and what he'd got in return. Our father dying under his eyes. His brother marrying his fiancÃ©e. Our mother's patronising, unloving letters. And in the face of all that, Torcuil's unfailing loyalty and generosity.
My brother got smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror as I drove to the hospital to see Isabel, wondering what I was going to find, hoping against hope that she would have shed the sadness and that I would find her smiling again. Hoping, as ever, for a miracle.