What springs from earth dissolves to earth again,
and heaven-born things fly to their native seat.
‘It’s about a third full,’ I say, clutching the mobile phone to my ear as I hang my head into the water tank, my voice bouncing off the metal sides and echoing back at me.
‘Does the pipe reach the water?’ Vanessa asks, her voice fuzzy down the line.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘but there’s no water coming in from the feeder pipe. Could there be a blockage?’
I sit back up, the ferocious wind whipping at my hair. Ahead of me sits Shillay, Vanessa’s Scottish bothy that has two big windows either side of a blue-painted door where my partner, Owen, stands smoking a cigarette. Both he and the house look tiny and vulnerable in the vast landscape of this Hebridean island which is flat except for a ridge of hills to the east. Below these hills are the bents, small hillocky sand dunes covered with the wind-bent grass that somehow thrives in the relentless Atlantic wind. The beach beyond is a crescent of fine white sand with rocky outcrops that are three million years old, some of the oldest and hardest rocks on the planet, and on a clear day the sea is a luminous turquoise with wispy clouds brushing a vast sky.
But we haven’t discovered any of this yet, instead waking up this first morning to find the bathroom taps producing a brown sputtering of water but nothing more.
‘It might just be lack of water, hon,’ Vanessa reassures me.
When we arrived the previous day it was raining and even now I can hear water flowing from the feeder tank further up, so I’m sure the problem isn’t a lack of water. But if anyone is qualified to know what’s causing the problem, it’s Vanessa.
She was twenty-six when she bought Shillay, then just three rooms with no electricity or running water. She’d been holidaying on the island with her family for years so she knew everyone and everyone knew her. She says it felt like the obvious thing to do, scraping together everything she had to buy a small piece of her childhood and making it permanent, even though everyone told her she was crazy.
In the following thirty years she added two bedrooms in the attic, installed electricity and heating, as well as the convoluted and evidently unreliable plumbing system. These are the only concessions to the modern world though, as there is still no Wi-Fi, no TV or computer, and only one mobile phone provider.
I listen down the line to Vanessa’s voice now, distant and a little sad in her house in Exeter. ‘Sorry, hon,’ she says, ‘not a lot I can do from here, but I’ll make a few calls and see if there’s anyone on the island that can help. Otherwise you’ll have to wait until next week.’
She hangs up and I look out across the weather-lashed landscape, the only sign of human life a farmhouse about a mile away, and I wonder how we can survive without water until she arrives with her husband, Ben. I tramp up to the Byre, the wood store at the side of the house, where I press the switch on the pump again. There’s an optimistic series of clicks and clunks, the sound of flowing water, more clunks and the water stops, the motor switching off with a red light glowing as confirmation.
Owen appears at the doorway.
‘Anything?’ he asks.
I shake my head.
* * *
Our journey from the West Country began two days previously with a leg-numbing nine-hour drive to Oban where we slept overnight, then an early morning ferry bringing us to the island’s small harbour that was busy with fishing boats and dinghies. We drove out of the village to the flat featureless landscape, the narrow road ending at a sandy patch of land where the tarmac made way for open grassland, the car bouncing us along to the final gate. When we climbed out of the car we could see the roof of Shillay above us, so we loaded up with cases and bags and walked through the boggy glade, up the steep stepping stones and through the long grass that made us wet to our knees, until finally we were at the blue front door, wet, tired and cold, but immensely relieved we were here at last. Once we’d unpacked and the wind had died down, the stillness of our first evening was blissful, an expansive silence punctuated by the occasional flock of geese honking as they flew overhead.
But now, on a morning of cold wind and bone-chilling damp, it feels as if the island can smell our mainland blood and has decided to initiate us into the realities of remote living. We feel we’re up to the task though, beginning a routine of flushing the toilet with a bucket of water from the water butt outside, filling plastic bottles to leave beside the dry taps, and driving to the village every few days to collect drinking water from the communal tap.
There is no sign of Vanessa’s island saviour to fix the problem, but I find that I love being plunged into the basic necessities of food, warmth, and a stout pair of wellington boots, our days dictated by the landscape of the sky and the circadian rhythms of our bodies. We drive the lanes that criss-cross the island, tramping through the boggy lowlands and up and down the bents, across the white beaches and dipping our toes into the shivering ocean, once sitting on a cliff top to watch the seals dip and swim and play.
We visit the harbour-side cafe and a small handful of shops: one packed with store cupboard essentials, a cheese fridge and obscure luxuries such as pickled lemons; another mostly basics with deliveries of fruit and vegetables every Thursday. If anyone goes shopping on a Wednesday they’re likely to find only a couple of shrivelled carrots and a solitary apple for their dinner. The scarcity of fresh food leads many islanders to grow their own in polytunnels or greenhouses, some playing Russian Roulette with outdoor planting, the success of any variety dependent on levels of rain, wind, sunshine and greedy rabbits.
The following week Vanessa and Ben travel up from the South West to join us. It’s another murky, drizzly morning and I stand with Owen at the window, waiting for their car to appear at the end of the track about a mile from the house. We watch in the silence, time drifting immeasurably with no sound to mark it against, no spot on the clock that holds any importance. At some point Owen wraps his arms around me and I sink into his warmth, the perfect fit of his body against mine, and I drift off into my own thoughts until he says, ‘They’re here,’ and I look up to see their car bouncing across the grass, lights blazing like a rescue mission coming to save us.
We pull on our wellingtons and raincoats and tramp down to meet them, a bittersweet feeling with our time alone at an end, although they do bring fresh food to restock the fridge: fresh salad, plump tomatoes and peppers, enough fresh fruit for the week and a large bottle of whiskey. There’s a quick conversation about the water problem, but the situation no longer seems pressing as we’ve been invited to lunch at Blairdaff, the house of Vanessa’s childhood friend Ned and his partner, Kate.
Blairdaff is perched on the edge of the bay, a five-minute drive from Shillay and a ten minute cross-country walk from the road. It is small and dilapidated, and I imagine a fisherman living there a century ago, looking out at the same transient sky, the sea beating at the window on stormy days. Ned works as a builder in Manchester and for years he’s made plans for renovating Blairdaff, but the logistics of shipping materials and labour from the mainland are just too difficult, so nothing ever happens and everything stays the same, the house shambolically charming in its practical necessity.
That lunchtime the narrow lean-to kitchen is filled with people Vanessa has grown up with, adults, children and a big old corn-coloured labrador with a sturdy head and a good few lines of slobber. Ned fetches us a glass of double-strength gin and tonic while Kate makes pies and fills a roasting dish with mackerel caught fresh from the bay. At one point Ned sticks his fingers into Vanessa’s glass and casually fishes out a quarter of lemon for the fish, as though he’d left it there for that very purpose.
After drinks we drag tables and chairs out to the grass beyond the kitchen and lunch is brought out haphazardly; an onion tart, a bowl of salad, fragrant red cabbage jewelled with raisins, baked mackerel and a basket of bread that’s unleavened and densely flat because Kate had forgotten to put the yeast in. After three weeks on the island this is the cobbling together of what’s left in their cupboard or scavenged from the shops, and under the circumstances it’s an impressive feast. One thing they do have in abundance is wine, which is sloshed into glasses while much catching up is done, stories told and legs pulled with comfortable camaraderie. Food has the ability to do that, to welcome strangers into a different kind of life, to catch up with old friends as though you only saw them yesterday, to eat and breathe and belong.
Later in the afternoon Kate’s brother, Alec, takes us out on his boat with his thirteen-year old son, Tom, who has softly tanned skin and a friendly smile. The boat looks like a flimsy dinghy but Alec reassures us that it’s sturdy and the motor on the back means it moves at a good pace.
I’m in two minds about going, feeling the beginnings of a wine-induced migraine as I watch Alec drag the boat into the water, but I push on and before I know it I’m sitting on the bouncy edge of the boat, the brisk sea breeze clearing my foggy mind into that blissful feeling that you don’t always recognise when it’s happening, that I was totally in the moment, the whole world in this small boat on a rocky sea.
Alec is a tall man with the same deep-set eyes and high cheekbones as his sister. He has a salt and pepper beard and an easy smile, gentle and encouraging to Tom who he calls ‘my boy’, letting him start the engine and giving him the best fishing rod.
Tom and Vanessa catch plenty of fish, but when she passes the rod to me I don’t catch a thing. When I finally pass it back, the line still dragging in the water, she hauls it in with four mackerel hanging like silver treasure.
Alec sees my disappointment so he hands me the good rod, which feels like a significant privilege, and we trawl around again until I catch a solitary mackerel, my sense of renewed dignity obliterated when the fish shoots out a streak of shit while it’s still struggling on the line, hitting my cheek and the collar of my coat with a white splat.
Alec kills all the fish quickly by pushing his finger into their mouths and pulling their heads back to snap their necks. There are strings of blood and other liquids swilling around in the bottom of the boat and my jeans are soaked through with sea water.
By the time we get back to Blairdaff, Ned has heard about the lack of water at Shillay and he gives me a towel, showing me into the bathroom which isn’t much bigger than a cupboard. The inside of the old enamel bath is stained a rich dark brown, the water that’s gushing from the tap the same disconcerting colour, coming as it does from the peat bogs and processed through a tank on stilts in the garden. I sink into its thick heat, as unctuous as soup and deliciously silky. I expect to be the same brown hue when I finally climb out but instead my skin is soft and I feel as if I’ve bathed in the essence of the island.
Back in the kitchen Kate and Ned are gutting fish in the sink, about fifteen of them in all including a couple of pollock that Tom caught, and Kate wraps up six mackerel for us to take back to Shillay.
We also get to bring Alec, who spends an hour clambering between Byre, water tank and attic, identifying the problem as a clogged filter and various glitches in the complicated physics of water and gravity. Alec is able to fix all these things and finally the taps are flowing again, both me and Vanessa falling a little bit in love with this big man who’s so gentle with his son, who can catch food for the table and fix plumbing problems, an island man if ever there was one.
We cook the remaining mackerel the following evening, simply wrapped in foil with some lemon quarters (sadly not soused in gin and tonic), the creamy white flakes falling off the bone, perfect with a green salad and plain boiled potatoes. Mark Twain wisely wrote that he knew the ‘look of an apple that is roasting and sizzling on the hearth on a winter’s evening, […how] winter apples, cider and doughnuts, make old people’s tales and old jokes sound fresh and crisp and enchanting.’ The twenty-six year-old Vanessa understood all these things, condensing life down to the basics of food, warmth and community, with the added nourishment of land, sea and sky all she would ever need to sustain her.
The following day we pack our bags ready to embark on the long journey home, but I don’t want to leave this place. I want to stay isolated in a slower century listening only to the rhythms of the natural world, looking out at a landscape that combines wildness and peace in perfect harmony, where the geese glory in the blusterous skies, the granite rocks welcome the plundering waves, and the coarse grass bends in time to the will of the wind.
This is a place where nature is stronger than any human will or desire, where the earth- and the heaven-born can mingle together in their transient adventures, where nature will endure beyond any lifetime we can even imagine.
We are mere spectators.
Sally Gander writes fiction and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Litro, The Real Story, The Blue Nib and A Word in Your Ear. She has also performed for Story Fridays in Bath. She teaches Creative Writing at Advanced Studies in England, and has recently taken redundancy from Bath Spa University after 12 years of teaching. She hopes this will give her more time to continue building a collection of personal essays.