by Clare Bamber
chamomile tea in a bone-china mug
For the first time since March, Morag realised that she had not called out as she came in through the door. Pulling off her dripping coat, she laid a clean towel in Baxter’s basket and told him to settle there. She put the kettle on, took a mug from the cupboard and dropped in a teabag from the caddy. Normal, everyday actions. So, she wondered, was this normal now? Did she need to accept that her daughter was not coming home? Five months and three days since Ayla had left and no word, no sightings. As elusive as the monster that they had scanned the Loch for when Ayla was small.
‘Why don’t we ever see Nessie, Mummy? Is she real?’ Ayla would stamp her feet, frustrated.
‘Keep looking sweetie. I’m sure she’s real. We’ll see her one day.’ Morag would soothe.
Now, sitting by the kitchen window, Morag watched the rain as it battered the beech hedge that lined the garden. It was August – hard to believe when looking at the dark clouds that hung like heavy blankets over the hillsides – and although the seasons had changed since the day Ayla had left, Morag’s daily re-living of that cold March morning had not. Each time she tried to imagine a happier outcome, perhaps with Ayla slamming the kitchen door and stomping up the stairs, then coming down for a hot chocolate when her rage had subsided; or maybe the doorbell ringing and one of her sixth form friends turning up with perfect theatrical timing to diffuse the toxic atmosphere. But the reality had been far more dramatic – traumatic.
The row had escalated fast on that March morning, when Morag had tackled Ayla about the daily emails she had been getting from college.
‘I don’t understand. I dropped you off at the gates yesterday – and yet they’re saying you weren’t there. What’s going on?’
‘Nothing’s going on.’ Ayla pulled a face and banged a cereal bowl down onto the kitchen table.
‘So where were you, if you weren’t in college?’ Morag was insistent. ‘It’s only a couple of months ‘til your exams.’
‘You don’t say!’ Ayla yanked at the cutlery drawer, catching Morag’s hip as she did so, and grabbed a spoon.
‘You’re not answering me, Ayla. Where were you yesterday? And the day before?’ Morag was aware that her voice was rising to a pitiful screech.
‘It’s up to me if I go or not,’ Ayla spat with venom into her mother’s face, eyes furious and black rimmed. ‘Just piss off and leave me alone.’ Throwing her Coco Pops into the bin, she ran upstairs.
Morag’s eyes had stung. She loathed confrontation and had rarely exchanged a cross word with her only child, until recently. She thought better of following Ayla upstairs, but instead had grabbed Baxter’s lead and headed out to the Loch to clear her head. The cold east wind that had buffeted the shore for the previous week had finally subsided, and tender spring sunlight warmed Morag’s cheeks. She threw sticks for Baxter for a while – his enthusiasm for retrieving them from the icy water never waned. The habit of shouting ‘Go on Bax! Find Nessie!’ had stuck since she and Ayla had started it when he was a puppy.
Once she felt calmer, she picked her way back along the path past the village and up the lane. She had smiled to herself as she opened the cottage gate – this tension would blow over now they had both had time to simmer down. She went straight to the kitchen, making tea to take up to Ayla and grabbing a couple of chocolate digestives to complete her peace offering. Knocking gently, she had hesitated before tentatively popping her head round the door, only to find the room empty, discarded clothes strewn across the carpet.
‘Ayla! Ayla. Where are you?’ Morag’s voice rang out as she moved from room to room, with a rising sense of desperation.
Radio 4 filled the void until lunchtime, while she hoped that Ayla would come in through the door at any moment, fresh from a walk or from meeting up with friends. When there was still no sign of her daughter after the one o’clock news, Morag thought it was time to text. Where are you, sweetheart?... Can you ring me? …Sorry I shouted… Have you gone to your dad’s? …Getting worried. Please ring asap! …Ayla, where are you? Morag could almost hear her texts becoming more high-pitched as the day went on. She waited until the evening to ring Ayla’s father. As usual, he would accuse her of being neurotic. Ayla’s stepmother had answered the phone. No, they hadn’t heard from Ayla since she’d been to stay a couple of weeks before. Of course, they would call if she got in touch. Morag had been too anxious to be irritated by the abruptness. It had been later, in the dead of night, that she had felt the sinking loneliness of single-parent worry.
Sleep evading her, in the early hours of the next morning she had ransacked Ayla’s bedroom for clues. Her purple rucksack was gone, the stash of cash earned pot-washing at the Red Lion – Ayla had told her just a week ago that she now had £420 saved – no longer in the Betty Boop tin on the dressing table. Morag felt nauseous. In the mayhem of a teenage girl’s wardrobe, it was difficult to know how many clothes were missing. The denim jacket, a favourite since her dad had given it to her for Christmas, had not been on its usual hanging place behind the door. Morag had felt her legs turn to rubber and she had dropped down into the aching softness of Ayla’s bed. She closed her eyes, inhaled the fruity smell of the pillow, which only twenty-four earlier had cradled the head of her child. Days later she would collect the long strands of auburn hair from the fabric and place them in a china trinket box. It reminded her of saving small locks from Ayla’s first haircut.
Morag spoke to Ayla’s friends. None knew where she had gone, nor had they heard from her. Ayla’s best friend since primary school, Helena, was devastated by her disappearance. There had been a boy that Ayla had mentioned – she had met him when he was staying at a holiday cottage by the loch for the New Year with his family. Helena knew nothing more about him; Ayla had been uncharacteristically secretive about it, which had put a strain on their friendship of late.
The police had added Ayla’s details to the long list of missing persons in Scotland. She had taken money, packed a bag; she obviously intended to leave, they said. There was no reason to suspect that anything untoward had happened to her. They’d asked if Ayla took drugs. She’d hesitated, said no, certainly not. She would have known. Her daughter had decent friends, a part-time job, had been predicted good grades for her Highers. The ugliness of drugs had never touched her family, she’d told the kindly police officer. The police suggested she monitor Ayla’s social media. They would check whether her phone was being used. It wasn’t.
With a sense of unwelcome clarity, Morag had faced the sickening truth. Ayla had run away, three weeks before her eighteenth birthday.
Days had bled into weeks, weeks into months. Morag had not returned to work. Colleagues had been kind, sending her flowers and dropping by with cakes and bowls of optimism. Friends rallied whenever she needed them, joining her on the many days she spent traipsing through the city centres of Inverness, Aberdeen, even Glasgow. So often they had thought they spotted Ayla from behind in a crowd, only to catch hold of her and find an unfamiliar face staring back. Each time she returned home from one of these exhausting, draining trips, Morag would crumple in a weeping heap in Ayla’s room, desperate to feel some connection to her child.
Morag’s daily walks along the shores of the Loch got longer and longer, much to Baxter’s joy. She would tell herself that if she could stay out of the house for just one more hour, then maybe another, when she returned home Ayla would be there, waiting for her at the kitchen table. She would feel her heartbeat quicken as she turned the key in the lock each time, only to be deafened by the silence that descended as no reply came to her desperate calls of ‘hello’.
Until today. The day that the silence had become normal.
The rain was easing now and a gentle knock at the front door startled Baxter into a fit of barking. Morag was always on high alert, but never allowed herself to believe that unexpected visitors could be in uniform, bearing terrible news. That was unimaginable. But still she was relieved to make out a sturdy build and grey hair through the glass. Her dear old neighbour Gillian, who dropped by regularly, sometimes bringing scones, or a bone from the butcher for Baxter. Occasionally she would use the excuse of needing some small favour.
‘You’re looking a bit peaky, dear,’ she said as Morag welcomed her in. ‘Is this dreich weather keeping you in?’
Morag started to reply but Gillian was already heading though the hall towards the kitchen.
‘Let me make you a cup of tea, dear.’ Gillian was a force to be reckoned with when she took control. ‘You go and sit on the sofa. I’ve brought us both a teacake.’
Morag knew that to resist was futile, so she complied and slumped into the sagging sofa, pulling a soft cushion to her chest. Gillian bustled in a few minutes later.
‘Now dear, are you sure about heading down to Edinburgh tomorrow? I heard Harry telling someone in the shop this morning that the A9 is awful congested just now. Road works. And then there’s the weather. Shocking for a drive. Maybe you could hold off for a week or two? Wait until after the festival?’
Morag knew that there was little chance of spotting Ayla in Edinburgh, but it had been a couple of months since she had last scoured its streets and neither roadworks nor rain could extinguish that spark of hope.
‘No, I must go, Gillian. Before it gets too crowded with tourists. I’ll walk Baxter first thing, then head off.’
‘As you like then, dear.’ Gillian would try not to fret and would pop in to check on Baxter during the day, maybe leave a lemon drizzle for Morag to return to. A sponge to soak up the inevitable tears of disappointment.
Morag pulled on her wellies the next morning as the sun was still pink behind the east mountains. The rain had cleared, leaving a fresh peaty smell in the air as she headed along the heather-lined path, Baxter running ahead and sniffing – the rabbit scents were always stronger after a few wet days. As she reached the shore, she stopped to throw sticks for him, disturbing the still, smooth surface of the water. Find Nessie, she willed him. Find Nessie and let me find Ayla. She stared out across the water and let herself imagine she could see the arching coils rising from the depths. Ayla! Ayla! Look - there she is!
Around nine a.m. she climbed into the car, but since the previous day’s revelations on the new ‘normal’, she realised she was setting off with less sense of hope than on previous searches. She shook herself and turned the key in the ignition. She must never give up. Ayla’s dad had given up looking for her within a few short weeks. Ayla would come home when she was ready, he’d said. Morag had obviously made her unhappy, he’d said. He’d given up on his daughter as quickly as he had given up on their marriage, all those years ago.
She pulled up outside the village shop. If she was going to sit in roadworks, she’d need chocolate for company. Harry, the shopkeeper for as long as Morag could remember, looked up from his newspaper and smiled as she walked in.
‘Gillian tells me you’re away to Edinburgh this morning. Well, good luck then. At least the weather’s looking softer today.’ Harry’s tone was kind, and Morag didn’t bristle that she was still the talk of the village. She nodded and was glad that he didn’t expect a full reply as she gathered up her sweet supplies and left.
The first bus of the morning was pulling up at the stop opposite her car. As always, Morag waited to scan the people disembarking. Hikers mainly, some with rucksacks, Nordic walking poles and serious expressions; others with flimsy trainers and plastic carrier bags, blissfully unaware of the unpredictable nature of weather by the loch.
Morag’s breath caught in her throat as the last figure stepped down off the bus, long auburn hair ablaze in the morning sun. A faded purple bag pulled over the shoulder of a denim jacket. She felt a dragging ache in her belly, a tight pulling as though an umbilical cord was still attached to the girl who turned to face her as the bus drove away.
About the author
As her children flew the nest, Clare decided to act on her long-held desire to pursue a career in writing. She now holds a BA (Hons) in Creative Writing and her next challenge is to obtain an MA in Creative Writing, to support writing her first novel.