by Paula R C Readman
‘Nana, look what I’ve
found!’ Dylan cried, making me turn. He ran towards me holding out a glass
bottle covered in barnacles and seaweed. ‘Do you think there’s a message inside,
Nana?’ Dylan held it up to the light and we both squinted at it.
no idea. It does look as though it’s been at sea for a long time.’
might hold a map of lost treasure,’ he said.
sudden heart-wrenching cry made us both look skyward. A lone gannet sailed
across the evening sky. For a fleeting moment, the virginal whiteness of its
body flashed red as if to mark it with a bloody death.
melancholy cries mingled with the sound of waves crashing onto the beach as it
searched among the craggy escarpments, and outcrops for another of its kind.
Then it turned towards the setting sun and vanished.
lowered the bottle, his excitement gone. He slipped his hand into mine and
asked, ‘Nana, will the birds ever return?’
Fifteen years ago, I
arrived on the island hoping to escape from the rat race and to live in
paradise. I swapped the incessant sound of traffic noise for the cries of
nesting seabirds that crowded the ragged coastline until one stormy night.
following morning we islanders combed the shoreline looking for driftwood to
burn, but instead made a horrifying discovery. Among the collection of plastic
bottles and other rubbish that washed ashore, there were thousands of dead and
first, we assumed that overfishing had caused their starvation, but on closer
inspection, we found their bellies were full of tiny pieces of plastic.
Twenty years ago after
the sudden death of my husband, I downsized. My daughter, Sara had moved in with
her grandparents years ago, so I moved into a tiny flat on my own.
no time for a social life, I joined an online self-sufficiency group. One
evening as we chatted, a friend posted the question, ‘What if you could live
off-grid, would you?’
question rekindled a dream I once had.
read the comments posted by others. Their main concerns were about what missed
opportunities the modern world might have to offer their children. I thought
about my own daughter’s needs and wants.
laughed at my dreams of a simple life. For her the high-tech world was perfect.
I recalled how she announced via an online link that I was soon to be a
Mum. Sorry, forget to mention Joe and I are having a baby. Must dash! Online
shopping is brilliant! A van has just arrived with the things we’ve order for
the nursery. Byeeee.’
knew I had no worries with Sara. We hadn’t been a part of each other lives for
quite a while. She contacted me mainly through social media, texting, and
occasionally an audio birthday, or Christmas message. Their next email contained
a photo of Joe holding their newborn, Lizzie.
could’ve understood, if I lived abroad, but we lived in the same town. I had
offered to visit them, but Sara never texted me with a convenient date or time.
Tired of waiting, I made an impromptu visit, but this caused more friction.
least I got a few precious moments with Lizzie, before they strapped her into
her car seat, and were gone.
In answer to Jeannie’s
question about living off-grid; most said, yes, reasoning it couldn’t be
difficult to revert to using old technologies. Who couldn’t live without fast
food, online banking, mobiles, integrated TV, online gaming and other
Wouldn’t our lives better and healthier too?
one argued against the fact that our modern society gave us a longer, more
productive life, with better medicines and faster access to vital information,
and no forgetting greener technology, but in truth, the negative outweighed the
As the rain turned to
wind-driven sleet, I hurried through the board up shopping centre, pleased to
find some shelter as I took a short cut home. I rushed along in hope of
avoiding any of the homeless people who took refuge there.
child, I had loved the Christmas shop windows displays with their flickering
coloured lights and ‘good children’ promises of much wanted new toys.
my head down, I rounded the corner and stopped abruptly. The scene before me
wasn’t the usual nativity depicting the shepherds, three kings and cattle
surrounded the Virgin Mary cradling a sleeping baby Jesus.
skinny, barefoot four-year-old dressed in a faded pinafore leaned against the
grimy glass. She smiled up at me from under her lanky blonde hair as she
cluttered a grubby baby doll to her chest.
Scattered at her feet were a collection of broken
toys, torn books, empty beer cans, and fag ends. The spell was broken as her
mother tugged her away the glass, and dropped a torn curtain in place.
that instance, all my childhood Christmases melted away in a sea of
overindulgence as I stood there, wondering what the future held for this
homeless child and her family.
One Sunday, I woke to
find my neighbours battling out their differences with cussing and door
slamming. I pulled my duvet over my head, trying to imagine what it would be
like waking to the rhythmic sound of the sea washing the shoreline on a peaceful
drank my morning coffee, I read an interesting article about self-sufficiency in
an online newspaper. At the bottom, I spotted a competition, with only hours to
go. I took a gamble and purchased a ticket.
tidying my cramp flat, I strolled in the local park. There I watched the
squirrels leaping from branch to branch as they searched for their hidden food
stores. It disappointed me to see the lack of care by others. I picked up their
discarded bottles, sweet wrappers and even dog mess with the bags I had brought
especially with me.
Arriving back home, I
showered and made a cuppa, before settling down to check my emails. My stomach
flipped at the sight of one.
‘Competition Results’. The email instructed me to
phone a number. My hand shook as the phone rang.
‘Hello, can I help you?’ a broad Scottish voice
I’ve just received this email.’
‘Congratulations, Monica on winning the holiday
retreat on the island of Canna.’
Stunned, I muttered, ‘Where on earth is Canna?’
will be explained in the next email.’
wondered how my daughter would react my amazing news, but I needn’t have
worried. As my calls went unanswered so I left a message instead.
To my surprise, I hadn’t
won timeshared holiday home, but a house. That’s when Jeannie’s online question
hit me. Could I live off the land, with no experience of self-sufficiency?
prize included a one-way container for transport my belongings. Once settled on
the island, if I wanted to turn, the expense was all mine.
I had just signed the
removal man’s clipboard when my daughter and son-in-law suddenly put in an
the hell’s going on?’ Sara bellowed as she climbed out of their car.
‘Hello, I tried to get hold of you,’ I said, as Joe
hovered behind my irate daughter.
but just a text message! So typical of you, mum, just the same as when dad
died,’ she snapped.
‘That’s not fair. At sixteen, you left me to nurse
your father alone while you moved in with your grandparents, because you didn’t
like living in hospital as you called our ‘home’.
‘You’re so unfair,’ she snapped, climbing back into
their car. Joe shrugged his shoulders and joined her.
understood Sara’s devastation. Having lost my own parents when I was young too.
My husband Colin was my world and to have my daughter walked out just when I
need her most was too much to bear. Our relationship finally crumbled when I had
no other choice, but to sell our home, and go back to full-time work.
As my belongings sailed
off without me, I leant into my son-in-law’s car and said to my daughter, ‘Let’s
go inside, it’s time to talk.’
switched on kettle. The sound echoed around the empty flat. Once we were
comfortable on the remaining furniture, which I had to leave behind, I passed a
copy of the email to my daughter. As she read it, her face transformed from
outrage to blind fury.
‘Moving to where?’ she spluttered.
Without consulting us first?’ She passed the email to
‘You’re more than welcome to join me. There’s enough
‘You’ve got to be joking.’ Sara spat the words out.
‘Your holiday retreat isn’t exactly in the Bahamas. Just some piddling little
rain-soaked island off the west coast of Scotland, forget it.’
sorry you feel that way.’
‘Can’t you sell it?’
it must be worth a fortune?’
‘Sara, I’m starting a new life. If you ever change
your mind, you’ll know where to find me.’
that’s how you feel, mum. Come on, Joe, we’re going home.’
Canna’s Compass hill
rose like a shadowy blue rock out of the misty rain. The highest point on the
island served to remind us on the ferry how insignificant we were against the
forces of nature as we tried to dock for the second time.
waited on the harbour for my belongings to be unloaded, the dense rain clouds
lifted. The sun highlighted the white washed buildings that crowded along the
edge of a sweeping bay, and I wondered if my new home was among them.
‘Right, lassie time to go,’ called a tall, rugged
these all the houses?’ I gestured towards the bay.
that’s the main settlement. There are a few more empty ones scattered around.
Newcomers don’t stay long, especially if they’ve children. I’m Calum Blackburn,
by the way.’
. . .’
‘Monica Keyes. We know,’ he interrupted me as we
climbed into his truck. A broad smile lit up his dark brown eyes.
‘Who’s ‘We’?’ I asked, fastening my belt.
islanders.’ He gave a throaty laugh, and started the engine.
what do you reckon I stay or go?’ I asked as we left the main settlement
‘We’ll see.’ He gave a deep chuckle.
Just as I began to
wonder where we were heading, Calum turned off a main road. Soon a large solid
built house came into view. It stood on a flat piece of land. Behind it, acting
as a windbreak, a steep bank of fir trees mingled with stunted and twisted oak,
silver birch, and juniper grew. Edging the property at the front was a high
Calum unloaded my belongings, I took the bare necessities through to the kitchen
ready for the evening. We dumped the rest in the two front rooms. I offered
Calum a drink and something to eat.
‘That’ll be grand,’ he said.
the kitchen, we chatted while the kettle boiled. I guessed he wanted to know
more about me as I did him. He had returned to the island three years ago to
look after his parents.
‘That’s when I decided to stay,’ he said, setting his
‘Don’t you feel isolated?’
at all. If you need help, there’s always someone about. We all help each other
After Calum left, I
explored the outside in the fading light and discovered I had inherited a
pigsty, a chicken coop and a vegetable plot.
hastily unpacked some bedding and went in search of a bed, pleased that the
previous owners had updated the property, with all the latest reusable green
power to supply the mod cons. At least I didn’t need a candle to light my
choose the front bedroom. The view of the harbour with its flicking lights made
me feel less isolated. I unpacked a few boxes to give the room a homely feel and
hung some clothes in the wardrobe. As I filled the bookshelf with my
self-sufficiency books, I recalled how I had memorised the best way to dig up
peat for burning. As I crawled into bed, I was relieved to know there was one
job less for me to do.
The next morning I
checked out my provisions. Part of my prize was a year’s supply of the basics to
get me started. Of course, I had brought as much as I could pack into one
container, but that would not last forever. The well-stocked larder made me
realise just how much I took for granted. No quick dash to the nearest 24/7
shop, if I ran out of anything.
That evening as I sat on
the front step, sipping my coffee, a daunting feeling washed over me. Could I
really rely on my own ability rather than the practicalities of the modern
the sunset and some of the lights around the harbour went out, I wondered how
long it would take me to repack.
Calum was right about newcomers.
closed the door behind and wandered through to the kitchen. For the first, I
became aware of the silence. My flat had been a constant flow of noise from
traffic to people arguing.
opening the kitchen window to let out the steam as I cooked I heard the rhythm
sounds of island life as I became aware of the sounds of seabirds and the waves
crashing on the shoreline. All thought of leaving vanished along with the
One morning Calum
arrived to find me struggling to stretch the thick polythene over a metal
‘You’ve been busy in the garden,’ he said taking hold
of polythene. ‘If you can keep a polytunnel
going through one winter here, I’ll invest in one of my own.’
always dreamt of having an opportunity like this, Calum. I just hope I’ve made
the right selection with these seeds,’ I said pointing to the box I’ve brought
After a light lunch,
Calum introduced me to my neighbours as we went for a drive around the island.
By the time, we arrived back home his truck was overloaded with my welcoming
gifts from the islanders; chickens, two pigs, and three goats. Once we had
settled them into their new homes, Calum left.
During the night, I woke to the sound of the
polytunnel rattling and banging as the first strong winds of winter arrived. I
pulled my duvet over my head and hoped my animals were safe. In the morning as I
checked for any damage, I was pleased to find everything had survived.
For the last five years,
Calum and I celebrated Christmas together. A tree was a piece of driftwood I had
decorated with glass baubles, holly, and ivy from the woods behind my home. As
we settled down to enjoy the food I had prepared, my phone bleeped.
‘Right on cue,’ Calum said, stabbing a piece of
I expect it's Sara wishing us a Happy Christmas.
We stood on the harbour.
Calum held me close as we watched my family alight.
long do you think they’ll stay?’ he asked.
don’t think they are on holiday, but we’ll see,’ I said as their belongings
piled on the quayside.
heavily pregnant daughter had not said a word since leaving the harbour, while
Lizzie chatted about everything she had seen on her journey to the island.
was the crossing, Sara?’ I asked glancing into the mirror. Behind us, Calum and
Joe followed in a borrowed truck.
‘Okay, I suppose,’ Sara said, dismissively.
After dinner, Sara
settled Lizzie into bed while I cleared the table and washed up. Once we were
all in the living room, Calum handed around drinks. I noticed Sara looked tired
as she kept glancing sheepishly at Joe.
‘Whatever it is, just say it,’ I said.
‘Because of the world crisis, Monica, I’ve lost my
job…and…’ Joe said clutching Sara’s hand.
overspending… we’ve lost everything.’ Sara burst into tears.
had nowhere else to go,’ Joe continued.
you’ve come to the right place,’ I said.
Mum,’ Sara sobbed as she rushed into my arms. I held her as she shook
uncontrollably, tears streaming down her face.
‘You’re welcome to stay here, but life on Canna
isn’t easy anywhere, Mum,’ Sara said, taking Joe’s hand again.
a tough existence here,’ Calum interjected.
‘We’re willing to give it a go.’ Joe stood and held
his hand out to Calum. I’m sure we can work together, if you’re willing to teach
it’s a fresh start you’re wanting, let’s start now,’ I said.
‘Thanks, Mum,’ Sara whispered.
this island, whatever we need it we grow it, make it or have a long wait for
come as a tough lesson, but we’re willing to learn to live with less,’ Joe
It’s wonderful to see
how quickly Sara and her family adapted to living life in the slow lane. As
Calum and Joe moved slowly towards us gathering driftwood and rubbish off the
breach with Lizzie’s help, I finally feel we’ve become part of the Island
community, but what the future hold for us all, I’ve no idea.
never want to leave the island,’ Lizzie said to her parents and
neither sweetheart,’ Joe said, ‘now please stay focused you nearly missed that
‘So…rrry,’ she sang out as she dropped it into the
bag Calum was carrying.
I answered Dylan’s
question just as the others joined us. ‘I don’t know if the birds will ever
Dylan’s glass bottle didn’t contain a treasure map,
but it was the seabirds that did. The plastic they had unwittingly consumed,
carried a stark warning of our own destruction as they were the real treasure we