Wednesday 22 April 2020

A Message in a Bottle

by Paula R C Readman

mint tea

‘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.
‘I’ve no idea.  It does look as though it’s been at sea for a long time.’
‘It might hold a map of lost treasure,’ he said.
A 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.
Its 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.
Dylan 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.
The 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 dying seabirds.  
At 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.
 With 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?’
The question rekindled a dream I once had.
 I 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.
Sara 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 grandmother. 
‘Hi 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.’
I 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.
I 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. 
At 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 time-wasting rubbish?
Wouldn’t our lives better and healthier too?
No 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 positive benefits.

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.
As a child, I had loved the Christmas shop windows displays with their flickering coloured lights and ‘good children’ promises of much wanted new toys.
With 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.
A 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.
In 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 island.
As I 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.
After 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 said.
‘Yes, 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?’
 ‘All will be explained in the next email.’
I 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?
The 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 appearance.
‘What 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.
‘Yes, 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.
Oh, I 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.’
 I 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 Joe. ‘
‘You’re more than welcome to join me.  There’s enough room.’
‘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.’
‘I’m sorry you feel that way.’
‘Can’t you sell it?’
‘No, I can’t’
‘But 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.’
‘If 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.
 As I 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 truck driver
‘Are these all the houses?’ I gestured towards the bay.
‘Ah, 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.’
‘I’m . . .’
‘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.
‘Us islanders.’ He gave a throaty laugh, and started the engine.
 ‘So what do you reckon I stay or go?’ I asked as we left the main settlement behind.
 ‘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 wall.
As 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.
 In 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 cup down.
‘Don’t you feel isolated?’
‘Not at all. If you need help, there’s always someone about. We all help each other here.’  

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.
 I 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 way.
I 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 world?
As the sunset and some of the lights around the harbour went out, I wondered how long it would take me to repack.
Maybe Calum was right about newcomers.
I 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.  
On 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 condensation.  

One morning Calum arrived to find me struggling to stretch the thick polythene over a metal frame.
‘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.’
‘I’ve 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 with me.’  

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 carrot.
‘Yes, 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.
 ‘How long do you think they’ll stay?’  he asked.
‘I don’t think they are on holiday, but we’ll see,’ I said as their belongings piled on the quayside.
My 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.
‘How 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.
‘Our overspending… we’ve lost everything.’ Sara burst into tears.
‘We had nowhere else to go,’ Joe continued.
‘Then you’ve come to the right place,’ I said.
‘Oh 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.’
‘Life isn’t easy anywhere, Mum,’ Sara said, taking Joe’s hand again.
‘It’s 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 me.’
‘If it’s a fresh start you’re wanting, let’s start now,’ I said.  
‘Thanks, Mum,’ Sara whispered.
‘On this island, whatever we need it we grow it, make it or have a long wait for it.’
‘It’s come as a tough lesson, but we’re willing to learn to live with less,’ Joe said.

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.  
 ‘I never want to leave the island,’ Lizzie said to her parents and step-grandfather,
‘Me neither sweetheart,’ Joe said, ‘now please stay focused you nearly missed that plastic bottle.’
‘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 return.’
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 were losing.    

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