For disclaimer see part one.
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I lay in bed trying to clear my mind of the thoughts swirling around, but to no avail. Sleep was a long way off. I had been tossing and turning for what felt like hours, the silence of the night punctuated by my heavy sighs. Every time I thought of Toni my stomach would flutter. I can’t believe I kissed her, it wasn’t just a peck, and I had lingered too long for the kiss to be called chaste. I didn’t know what to think. It was a sin. Would Toni be angry with me? Have I ruined our friendship? Will Toni be disgusted? I knew my father would never approve, girls shouldn’t kiss each other like that, it wasn’t normal. Then why did it feel so right? Why did I want to do it again? I was so confused, I prayed for sleep, just so I could be free from the turmoil inside my head for a few hours. It was a long time coming.
The next morning, I awoke feeling awful, lack of sleep and the stress of the situation taking its toll on my usually bright eyes. They were bloodshot, with dark circles beneath them. I showered and dressed for church, determined to continue with my normal routine. If I gave into the desire to stay in my room, I knew I would do nothing but think about my rash actions from the night before. Normally in stressful situations, I would look forward to Monday night so I could talk things over with Toni, but now the very thought of seeing her made me feel even more miserable and, even worse, what if there weren’t any more Monday night chats?
The rest of the day passed in a blur. I felt strangely numb and detached from what was going on around me. I had attempted to study, but found that I could not concentrate on the words. I decided instead, to go for a walk along the promenade. The brisk wind coming off the sea was refreshing, helping to clear my head a little, and the walk was easing my churning stomach. I took in the seafront, the dull lifeless sand held the distinct odour of oil and chemicals. It was nothing like my own white sandy shore back home. Even the seagulls were different. Here in the city they were more often to be found eating bits of discarded burgers and chips, as opposed to their natural diet of the crabs and fish I would watch them scavenge for at home right now. I missed home so very much. I missed the corncrakes that would be on the island in great numbers at this time of year. I missed my family. I don’t think I had ever felt this lonely since I left North Uist, I recited a Gaelic song, humming slowly under my breath.
A’ siubhal a’ mhonaidh ‘s na rudhaichean caol;
‘S gur maiseach an canach air uachdar an t-sleibh,
Ged a tha I gun chraobhan gun duilleach air gheug
‘Nam eirigh ‘s a’ mhaduinn bi m’intinn lan sunnd
Bi ‘n uiseag ‘s an smeorach an togail an fhuinn,
Bi caithream aig lachain ‘s eoin eile a tir chein
Ann am mointeadh ‘s na lochan, aite comhnaidh an fheidh.
I long to be in Uist when the heather is burning,
To wander its moors and the narrow headlands;
How bonny the bog-cotton on its banks,
Even though it is without trees and leafy twigs
I rise in the morning with my mind full of joy,
With the lark and the thrush singing their songs,
The sounds of the ducks and other birds from their own lands
On the moors and the lochs, the home of the deer.
At that moment I felt there was not a soul I could turn to on this earth. I wearily made my way back to the boarding house.
As teatime approached I began to dread going anywhere near the club. I picked at my roast beef dinner, fearing that it may not stay within the confines of my stomach. Mrs. Ramsay making sure to voice her disapproval at my lack of appetite.
Full of trepidation, I opened the door to the club. Stepping inside, I was greeted by a couple of regulars. I smiled politely in return and, my legs trembling made my way to the bar.
Toni wasn’t anywhere to be seen and I had a sudden sense of hope that she wasn’t working tonight which was quickly quashed by thoughts of what that might mean. Eddie and Cath said a quick hello as they served customers on either side of the bar. I swallowed hard and nodded my greeting, heading straight for the cupboard to hang up my jacket. As I was about to start filling the sinks with hot water Eddie popped his head into the back bit of the bar with an ice bucket in his hand and asked me if I could do him a favour and fill it. That was no problem for me, my start to the evening was always quieter than the bar staffs, since they had to serve the drinks before the glasses could start to empty.
I took the bucket and headed to the cellar, which housed the ice machine. I never particularly enjoyed hanging around long in this part of the club on my own. It was cold and had a damp smell to it. It was a little eerie in truth. I pulled back the heavy door and stood there stunned. Toni was in there, organising the crates of bottles. I wanted to turn around and head back to the bar, but I couldn’t make my feet work. I just stood staring at Toni, wondering what would happen next.
She rose up from her crouched position and walked towards me slowly. She gently pulled me into the cellar and closed the door, leaving us dimly lit by the one bare bulb hanging limply from the ceiling. I felt her remove the ice bucket from my hand and then she enfolded me into a hug. I cried tears of relief as she murmured words of reassurance to me. Everything was going to be all right. I felt so safe in her arms.
I pulled back after I don’t know how long, to find Toni offering me a gentle patient smile. I swallowed hard, trying to find my voice to say something, anything.
“I’m so sorry, Toni.” I whispered.
She shook her head, “You don’t ever have to apologise to me.” Tilting my chin up she looked directly into my eyes, “If I thought you were ready for a relationship of this nature, I would happily pursue one with you. I mean that, Shona.”
Toni pulled me to her again and I felt her kiss the top of my head. I sighed deeply into her embrace, feeling a blanket of warmth engulf me, despite the cold temperature of the cellar.
“Will you give me time?” I asked into her shoulder.
Toni was silent for a few moments before she answered. “I think you need time to sort out what you want in your life. Not just romantically, but in terms of your family life also. Don’t ask anyone for permission to do that, just take all the time you need. Do what feels right for you, Shona, that’s all I ask. I will respect any choices you make and I will always be here as your friend if you need me.”
I knew I could ask no more from Toni. She was right in that I did need to sort myself out. I was certainly running the gamut of emotions. I felt guilt about my actions and the potential effects they could have on my sisters and brother. I was angry and frustrated with my father. When I was around Toni, my hormones were all over the place. I had all these feelings and yet, right at that moment, I couldn’t even put a proper name to any of them.
I didn’t go to the club the following Monday. I needed time away from Toni to organise my thoughts, I had a lot to consider. With only five weeks left of the academic year, I would be sitting my year end exams very shortly and, in truth, although I felt that I was keeping up pretty well, I didn’t want any distractions. I decided to put everything on hold until after my final exam. Then I would have a clear head and be in a better position to start making decisions about my life in general and Toni in particular.
The following weekend, I told Toni that with finals coming up I would be too busy to pop in on Monday evenings. I think Toni saw it for the feeble excuse that it was, but she graciously accepted my reasons and wished me well with my exams. After that, I put my head down and channelled all my spare time and energy towards study. It was a welcome distraction from the chaos inside my head. In my more introspective moments, when my mind would wander to thoughts of Toni and where I would live and work next year, I would be flooded with feelings of guilt and confusion. I knew I was delaying the inevitable decision-making, but I just couldn’t find the courage to do so. I finished my last exam on a Thursday and would be heading back home on the Monday morning after I finished working in the club that weekend. I had made a decision, in truth it had been there all along, I had just finally faced up to it. I was going home to tell my father that I would respect his wishes. I would remain staying at Mrs. Ramsay’s and give up working in the bar to find another more suitable job that he approved off. I had already informed Hannah, that I wouldn’t be taking the room in her father’s flat, now I had to tell Toni. That would be the hardest part, but I had to do it.
I waited until Toni dropped me off on the Sunday night. She parked in front of the house and waited for me to exit her car. I sat there trying to find the words I needed to say. This was so hard.
“Is everything alright, Shona?” Toni enquired with a puzzled look on her face.
“No!” I blurted out. “It’s not alright, nothing is.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m going home to tell my father, that I will continue to stay with Mrs. Ramsay.” I looked at her, “I’m sorry, Toni, I have to stop working at the bar.”
“I see…and us?” she enquired ever so softly.
I shook my head, my eyes filling with tears, “Please forgive me?”
Toni looked so sad, when her eyes met mine. “Will I see you again?”
“I would like to remain friends, if you would be agreeable. I really don’t want to lose your friendship.”
Toni nodded and composed herself, I could see the moisture gathering in her eyes, but she fought resiliently to not let her tears fall. “I would like that, Shona.” Her voice sounded raspy - like she was having difficulty speaking, much like myself.
“Thank you,” I whispered, then hugged Toni to me almost desperately. “I’m going to miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too, very much.” Toni pulled back to look at me, “ I’ll see you when you get back after the summer, and remember, if you need me, for anything, you know where to find me.”
I nodded, knowing Toni was being absolutely sincere. I guess that’s what made everything so difficult; Toni was a wonderful individual, a fantastic friend. Giving up the room in the flat, giving up my job, those things were easy compared to giving up my time with Toni; that hurt tremendously. Although we had just resolved to remain friends, I feared I had lost a part of her, forever.
I opened the front door to Mrs. Ramsay’s, I had broken curfew and I didn’t care, it was 11:05 pm. If she wanted to write and tell my father, I’d offer to take the letter back for her myself. Save her the cost of a stamp.
As the ferry pulled into the harbour I wondered if my father would be waiting to give me a lift home. I had written to inform my parents when I would be arriving. I gathered my bags together, having made the decision to remain at Mrs. Ramsay’s, I was travelling lighter than I would have been otherwise. Making my way carefully down the bridge and onto dry land, I spotted my father parked towards the top of the car park. I walked towards him, and he made no offer of assistance with my bags.
“Father,” I nodded in greeting.
“Shona,” was his stern reply, this was not going well, I decided the sooner I told him my news the better it would be for all concerned
“So, you have finally come to your senses, it’s about time. Your mother and I have enough to worry about without you adding to the mix. None the less, you’ve seen the error of your ways and made the right decision. Let that be an end to it.”
“Yes, Father.” And that was that. Life was back to normal; everything was as it should be, for my father at least, anyway.
I spent my days as usual helping my mother around the house with chores and preparing meals. With both my sisters helping as well, the chores were finished pretty early in the day. I had taken to cycling into town in the afternoons, catching up with folks. It was on one such afternoon, while going to visit my grandparents that I bumped into Billie Lewis on the main street. He told me he had finished his apprenticeship at the garage and was now a fully qualified mechanic. I was pleased for him; it was all he ever wanted to do. He asked me out that night to one of the pubs and, before I had really given it too much thought I found myself accepting. So, I had a date and better still, he had his own transport, which meant I wouldn’t have to cycle home late.
My grandmother was a feisty woman, who spoke her mind and took no nonsense. I always enjoyed visiting with her. Today I found her in good form, barking orders at my grandfather, who merely rolled his eyes and did her bidding. No one ever really retires on North Uist; you just keep working until you are no longer able. My grandfather had been very astute in predicting where to put his money and was currently moving into fish farming as the Lobster is becoming ever more scarce in these parts. My grandmother is still knitting. She uses undyed fleece from the Hebridean sheep, their wool is a peat colour, to make many items including hats, scarves and throws, that she sells to the tourists.
We exchanged polite greetings before my grandmother got right down to it.
“I hear your father is getting his way as always.” It was a statement, not a question. My grandfather made a tutting noise and declared that he had an appointment to see a man about some fish.
“Yes, Gran. I decided it was the best thing to do.”
“Mark my words, Shona, you will regret it. That man never did know how to respond around women. Three daughters, he cannot cope with. I think it’s growing up without a mother’s influence that lies at the root of his problems. His father never did settle here, especially after the death of his wife.” My gran poured more tea from the pot, which was covered with the same knitted tea cosy that had been warming her pot for years, gesturing to my cup before continuing. “It was a sorry business, your father being all alone in the world from such an early age.”
I was intrigued by this information. My father never spoke of his parents.
“What did my grandfather do?”
“Well before coming to North Uist, he did the same as all the men on St Kilda, he was a fowler. Scaling the cliffs to catch the seabirds.
“St Kilda?” I asked, not understanding. I assumed my father was from North Uist.
“Yes, lass. Don’t you know that?”
I shook my head. “I had no idea.”
“They came here when the island was evacuated, back in 1932. Your grandfather and mother. Your father too, he would have been just a young lad, around four or five I would guess.”
“What were they like?”
“Well your grandfather, Dougall, was just like your father and brother, when he arrived here, he was a strong, agile man. Liked to walk around barefoot and he had the strongest looking feet you have ever seen. I think it was from gripping the rocks, you see – the men of St Kilda, their feet changed over the many years, becoming more suitable for climbing the rock face. His toes, they were so very wide apart and they gripped the land, almost like wee fingers. His ankles were so thick and muscled looking, I had never seen anything like them.”
“Do you remember my grandmother?”
My gran favoured me with a sad smile. “The thing is, Shona, the people of St Kilda, once they evacuated and were split up, they lost their very essence. The spirit just seemed to drain from them. Many died shortly after leaving the island – just like your grandmother, her name was Rachel, a lovely looking woman she was. After she died your grandfather lost his way. He was a hard worker, making his living as a peat farmer - just like your father, but he never really managed to settle here.”
“Did he leave the island?” I wondered if he had left my father behind.
My gran shook her head, “No, lass, he…died here.”
Something in the tone of her voice told me there was more to it than that, I decided not to push, but I was curious about something else.
“Gran, we live in the family croft?”
“Aye, lass – the MacDonald family croft. When your father asked for your mother’s hand, your grandfather and I decided to give them the croft. Dougall had been working the peat for your grandfather since he was a boy, moving them into the croft made sense. It’s your family home, Shona, just not the side you thought.” My grandmother patted me on the cheek affectionately, her warm hand rough and calloused. Testament to years of hard work.
I asked her a question I had asked many times before, since learning her maiden name was MacDonald, when I was ten years old. “Am I related to Flora MacDonald?”
She laughed lightly, “Ah, wouldn’t it be something - you could be sleeping in her room.”
“Oh, Gran, don’t tease!”
“You’re a smart lass, Shona.” She replied cryptically, again leaving me with no clear answer. Still the thought that my ancestors may have assisted Bonnie Prince Charlie to escape from North Uist to the Isle of Skye was very thrilling.
While I was getting ready for my date later that evening, I had told my sister Isobel, that Billie was picking me up. She seemed completely nonplussed with the news and simply shrugged her shoulders and mumbled something about my father being pleased.
Billie picked me up at 7:00 pm. My mother was still fussing over my hair as I was stepping out the front door. My father reminded me to make a good impression, as Billie Lewis was a worthy young man.
We spent a couple of hours in the bar, drinking soft drinks and making small talk. Billie spoke enthusiastically about car engines. I could see the traces of oil on the hard skin of his hands and under his fingernails, a stubborn testament to his love of being under the bonnet of a car. I attempted to hold up my own end of the conversation, but it was very apparent that Billie had no interest in history, or even feigning polite interest. At one point in the evening I offered to get us a drink at the bar. I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the look on Billie’s face. It was a mixture of shock and horror. I had in my time away forgotten that ladies do not purchase drinks from the bar on North Uist. The entire evening left me with a feeling that I no longer belonged. It was odd really, I was moving at a different pace from most of the people I had grown up around. A short while after that Billie offered to drive me home, what he forgot to mention was the detour he decided to take to a quiet secluded spot first. I went along with his aggressive kisses and the invasive feel of his rigid tongue forcing its way into my mouth. I thought of Toni and how soft her lips had felt in that short kiss we shared. I tried desperately to stop thinking of that and attempted to focus instead on Billie. I called an abrupt stop to the make out session when he groped my breasts.
Billie dropped me off at home and we made another date for Thursday evening. That was two nights away. I spent the next two days contemplating whether I should let Billie go further on the next date. Maybe with more practice I could start to enjoy kissing him, maybe letting him feel my breasts would enhance the experience. I was also trying to figure out what was going on with Isobel, I considered us to be close, but she was acting out of sorts around me. My father still said very little, but he no longer seemed to be angry. My mother was the only person interested in how my date had gone with Billie; she was certainly more excited about it than I was.
The second date came and went and we had made plans for the Saturday night dance. I hadn’t been dancing in such a long time, and I was quite looking forward to it. Billie seemed to have developed a permanent case of wandering hands that Thursday night. If I moved them from my bottom they went to my breasts, and vice versa. It was a strange experience, one that did not enhance the kissing. I still had images of Toni floating around in my head, at one point I had gasped which had in turn spurred Billie on and he got more hot and heavy. The gasp had nothing to do with Billie’s actions, but everything to do with the thought of Toni replacing Billie. Surely I must be wrong? I couldn’t feel that way about Toni. I couldn’t, because I wasn’t willing to contemplate what that would mean.
Isobel was going to the dance on Saturday night with her boyfriend. I had no idea she was seeing Rory MacAulay. Rory was the same age as Isobel; his father was the local butcher. Billie had offered to drive us all to the church hall where the dance was being held. I felt a sense of relief, kind of like safety in numbers. If there were others around then Billie would have to keep his wandering palms to himself. Boy, was I wrong. I found out things on that Saturday night that made me question so much in a very short space of time.
I really enjoyed the dance it was a lot of fun. Swimming every morning back in the city kept me in shape, but I so missed just letting go in this manner. I danced as often as I could, letting myself be hurled, twirled and burled with abandon, knowing that you would be caught by the next boy in line before you flew into the wall with the sheer momentum of the pace of the dance. I laughed more than I had at home in a long time. By the end of the night we were all in high spirits and Rory and Billie suggested a stroll on a quiet stretch of beach. It sounded so romantic; I was looking forward to it. The night was unusually still for this part of the country, it just seemed perfect.
My sister and Rory quickly slipped out of sight, I assumed for some privacy and to let myself and Billie have ours, not that I minded them staying one bit. I would have been happy for the four of us to remain together. Billie started kissing me forcefully, he was moaning my name and I could feel his excitement. He unzipped his trousers and guided my hand to his erect penis. My first reaction was to push him away, but then I forced myself to calm down. It was as if this were a test. It was now or never. If I was ‘normal’ this was how it should be. Billie was breathing heavily and his hand began to work its way under my dress, up the inside of my thigh. I had a rather odd thought at that moment. My mother and father would not have let me go to the dance in anything but a dress, because that was the most ladylike thing to wear. I’m not sure they would agree right now if they knew, that very same piece of attire was allowing Billie Lewis the easiest route towards my virtue. Then, suddenly, I knew it was all so wrong, why should I give my body to Billie? It would prove nothing beyond the fact that I would no longer be a virgin.
“No, come on, Shona.” Billie began to fumble with my underwear, attempting to remove my panties. I pushed him hard and he stumbled backwards.
“I want to go home, Billie.” I said, as I rearranged my clothing.
“Fine,” he managed to hiss between his clenched teeth. His frustration was obvious, I almost felt a bit sorry for him.
He gestured to himself, “Can you give me a moment, Shona?”
I was finally beginning to catch on, I knew he wanted to do something about his arousal.”
“Of course, I’ll go find the others.”
I wandered off in the direction I had seen Isobel and Rory go in. At first I couldn’t find them so I walked further into some long grass. It was the strange sounds that drew me to the spot where they were. I stood frozen in place as I watched my younger sister stark naked and in the throes of passion, Rory thrusting into her as though they had practised this dance many times. I turned quickly on my heel and hurried back to where Billie was waiting, hopefully finished with whatever he was doing. I was flustered, shocked and concerned all at once. My sister was having sex, I had seen her having sex. If my father found out he would kill them both!
I got back to the car to find Billie calmly sitting on the bonnet.
“I think they need a little more time.” It was late, but up here in the islands it remained light till almost midnight. Billie easily read my blush.
“Ah, I see.”
“Look, Billie, I’m sorry about earlier, it just wasn’t the right thing for me to do.”
“It’s alright, Shona. I understand.” We were silent for a few minutes then Billie continued. “We don’t really have much in common you and I. I love working in the garage, I don’t want to be anywhere else. I’m surprised some lad in the city hasn’t snapped you up. Someone that can understand the things you like and enjoy, someone with similar interests. I can’t imagine you back here settling down. I have a feeling your future lies elsewhere.” He smiled at me.
I hugged Billie, “Thanks for understanding.”
I said nothing to Isobel when she and Rory returned to the car. The journey back to the house was very quiet, we said goodnight to the boys with polite pecks on the cheek. Our father wouldn’t allow for anything else. As we walked to the front door I saw some dry grass in her hair. I stopped her and removed it before we entered. Our eyes met in a silent communication of solidarity. We would have to pass our father’s inspection before going to bed. It was the first real communication we had shared since my return; I hoped perhaps, we could build on it.
Sure enough when we entered the house my father was waiting for us in the sitting room. He looked us over with a critical eye before nodding and, with a terse “Goodnight,” he went to bed.
The stony silence Isobel had been subjecting me to since my return, finally broke the following afternoon. I decided to broach the subject of the evening before; perhaps the root of Isobel’s problem lay there. I found her napping on her bed.
“Hi, how are you?” I asked as I slipped into our room, closing the door behind me.
“Fine, thank you.”
“I didn’t know you and Rory were an item. He’s a nice lad.”
Isobel rolled her eyes, “Billie’s a nice lad too, he doesn’t deserve to be led on by you because you feel you have something to prove to father.”
That comment really hurt, probably because Isobel was right about me leading Billie on, but she wasn’t even close to the reason for my doing so. I said nothing, instead I turned to leave the room.
“How could you do it?” Isobel’s words stopped me in my tracks.
I turned to answer her. “I know what I did to Billie was wrong…”
“Not Billie! The business with father, how could you do it?” she asked forcefully. I was momentarily taken aback as things began to click into place. I offered her an explanation.
“I know I was selfish, Isobel, but now I’m trying to do the right thing. I thought a lot about the effect it would have on you, Moira and Dougall, so I changed my mind. I’m obeying fathers wishes to help all of us.”
“Are you serious?” My sister was furious. “Now Moira and I have to do the same as you when we decide to get off this island. We were behind your decision all the way. We were proud of you standing up to him. Now you are acting as meekly as mother does in his domineering presence. He is a cantankerous fool, who expects all of the women in his life to bow to his wishes and you and mother are only making it worse. Do you really want to stay at Mrs. Ramsay’s?”
“No. No, I don’t.” I said firmly – it was the truth.
“Then for the love of God, Shona, don’t do it. What have you really got to lose? His love? His respect? You will never have those, even if you do everything he wants you to.”
I shook my head vigorously, but I knew Isobel was right.
“You can’t lose that which has never been given, Shona.”
“I know,” I whispered. The truth hurt, my father didn’t love us.
“Moira and I will always love you, as will mother. Who knows about Dougall, father is moulding him in his own image.”
I had noticed that, he even walked around the place like a mini version of my father. ‘Please let it be a passing phase,’ I thought to myself.
“Don’t make this decision because you think it’s the right one for us, Shona, make it for yourself.” Isobel stressed.
When did my younger sister get so wise? It wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to be back in the city. No, not just that, I wanted to be back in the city with Toni, working behind a bar, living without a curfew and set meal times.
“You’re right, Isobel, of course you’re right.” I swallowed hard, “There’s more,” I blurted. Needing to talk to someone, keeping everything bottled up inside had left me feeling like I was ready to explode.
“I’m here for you, Shona. Anything you want to talk about, I’ll listen.” Isobel offered compassionately. It was my undoing.
“I’m so afraid, Isobel, you might not want to know me after I tell you this.” I was shaking. Isobel sat beside me on the bed and took my hands in hers.
“Shona, I can’t imagine what could be so bad that it would come to that. Tell me, I won’t judge you, I’m not like him.”
“I’ve met someone.” I said tentatively.
I felt my eyes widen in shock. I was stunned, how could she know?
“Father might be too unaware to join up the dots, but between what Mrs. Ramsay wrote and what you said in your letters to me, I had wondered if there might be something between the two of you.” Isobel smiled, “If that’s who you are, Shona, I’m happy for you.”
“That’s the problem, Isobel, I don’t know if that’s truly who I am. I have never before considered the remote possibility that I could be…” I couldn’t even say the word. I had never given voice to it for fear it would make it true
“A lesbian.” Isobel finished the sentence for me.
“Yes, a lesbian,” I whispered. “I’m so scared, Isobel, I’m so scared of what I feel for Toni.”
“Dating Billie Lewis isn’t the answer,” she added sagely. In that moment I thought Isobel to be a lot like our mother, but in many ways, she was so much more like our grandmother. She had that feistiness to her.
“I know, if anything it’s making me more miserable. I felt nothing when I kissed him, I wanted to be kissing Toni, but, before I left, I told her there couldn’t be anything between us. I’m so miserable without her in my life, but I’m not sure I’m ready for there to be anything more.”
“Call her. Call her and go back,” Isobel implored as she squeezed my hands.
I thought about Isobel’s words and a smile came unbidden to my face as I realised it was what I wanted to do.
“Toni said if I needed her for anything…”
I smiled exuberantly at Isobel through my tears as I nodded, having come to a decision. My sister jumped and yelped excitedly as she pulled me to my feet. “I’ll go with you into the village to make the call – this is the most exciting thing to have happened around here in years!”
“We need a plan, Shona.” Isobel declared as we started out on our thirty-minute walk to the nearest phone box. We were arm in arm, just like we used to be and it felt wonderful.
“You speak to Toni, tell her you’re returning. She will be so over the moon that she will offer to come get you and look after you for the rest of the summer.”
“What? Of course she will, I bet she would do anything for you, who wouldn’t? You’re adorable.” Isobel shrugged, confident with her observations.
“You are incorrigible!” I instead informed her of my own idea, “I’ll tell Toni of my plans and ask for her help in finding somewhere to stay until I can organise a more permanent solution.”
“Hmmm. Okay – but I still think my plan would have worked. So tell me about her?” she enquired enigmatically.
“Only if you tell me more about Rory?”
Isobel proceeded to tell me that she and Rory had been dating for almost a year.
“I saw you, you know.” Isobel looked blankly at me, “Last night, I came to tell you I was ready to go home and well…you know.” I gestured feebly at her, bravely trying to stave of my embarrassment.
“Oh, Lord, Shona. That’s kinky!”
“Stop! It was not, I was utterly shocked.” I declared, adding as much indignation to my voice as I could muster.
“You would be,” Isobel, said knowingly, “So, did you stay long?” She waggled her eyebrows suggestively. I was learning more about my seventeen-year-old sister than I ever wanted to know.
“Enough! Behave yourself, Isobel MacLeod!” I playfully swatted her; “I’ve never, you know?” I admitted more seriously.
“Yes, I know.” Isobel said not unkindly. “Come on, tell me about Toni, I’m desperate to know what kind of girl you go for?”
“Well, let’s see. She’s twenty-four…”
“Wow, I take it back. I want to know what type of woman you go for.” Her emphasis on the word woman caused me to blush – again.
I laughed at my sister’s antics; she really was a hoot. I had so missed her company.
“Toni is tall, a little intimidating and in control on the outside, but below the surface she is exceptionally charming, warm and caring. She’s quite something to look at, with her long dark hair, and lean frame. You should see her in action around the club, Isobel, she doesn’t take any nonsense from the patrons and can handle herself with ease,” I sighed. “Did I mention she drives like a maniac?”
Isobel laughed, “Only every time you write.”
“She’s intelligent, witty and a terrific friend. We have so much fun together.” I was warming to my subject now. “She has a really sexy smile. Oh and a cute bottom, every time she leans over the bar I have to fight the urge to give it a pat.” I could feel myself blushing furiously at this admission.
“Oh my, my big sister is all grown up!”
When did Isobel get to be such a tease? I cleared my throat. “Tell me about you and Rory?”
“Not much to tell really. Like I said, we’ve been together for about a year and have been having sex for the last six months. We had talked about it a lot, and then when we both agreed we were ready, we tried it. I have to say, it wasn’t that great at first, but it’s really good now. Must be all the practice we put into it.”
“Is he the one?” I asked sincerely.
“I don’t know. We’re both so young, you know. We have plans to go to university but in truth, I think that getting into the right place will take precedence over being together. It does for me anyway. We will both be on the island for just over a year yet. I’ll wait and see how I feel a year from now. Things can change.” She shrugged.
I was really in awe of Isobel; she was so sorted compared to myself. She knew where she was going and was comfortable enough with her choices. I really envied her that, I wasn’t jealous, I was more proud of her. I decided that I really should tell her before I go back.
We got to the red phone box, opened the door and both huddled inside. I was praying that Toni would be working this Sunday afternoon. I dialled the numbers with nervous fingers; my heart was in my mouth as I waited for the phone in the club to be answered. I could picture the scene, most folks walking past the ringing phone, not interested in answering it. I would have to wait till someone was fed up with the noise.
Eventually it was answered. I heard the pips and quickly fed my ten pence into the coin slot.
“Can I speak with Toni please?”
“Toni Martin, the manager.”
“Aye, Toni, hang on, I’ll just get her.”
I waited patiently; Isobel was bursting at the seams, shaking me excitedly and acting like a jack-in-the-box within the small space we were crammed into. These boxes were built for one.
I heard a melodic, “Hello,” come through the receiver.
“Toni? It’s Shona.” There was a silence on the other end, I was looking helplessly at Isobel, I didn’t know what else to say. Isobel took charge and grabbed the phone from my weak grasp.
“Is this Toni?” There was a pause, “I’m Isobel, Shona’s sister.” Another pause, “Well no, nothing is wrong, yet…Shona is about to tell my father she isn’t going to do anything he asks anymore and then she is heading straight back for the city…Okay, I’ll put her on.”
“Hello,” I was glaring at my sister; I couldn’t believe she did that…well actually I could, especially after the last twenty-four hours.
“Shona, what do you need?” You, I wanted to reply. “Do you need me to come get you?”
“No! No, I can catch the ferry tomorrow then get the coach to the city. I’ll arrive back around 10:00pm. I don’t have anywhere to stay.”
“No problem, come straight to the club, if you’re late I’ll wait for you. I’ll sort something out.”
“Oh, Toni, thank you, thank you so much.”
“Are you sure you don’t need me to come up there? I can get someone to cover my shifts tomorrow.”
“No really, I’ll be alright.”
“Call if you need me, you have my home number right?”
“I’ll see you tomorrow.” I added tentatively.
“Yes, you will,” was her firm reply.
I hung up and let out a deep breath.
“She offered to come and get you didn’t she?” I nodded, “I knew it!”
“I declined, I can make my own way back, but I’ll need a lift to the ferry.”
“Billie!” We both exclaimed at once.
We headed back to the house, both of us dizzy with excitement and fear. Entering back into our home was like a splash of cold water being thrown onto my face.
“Where have you two been?” My father demanded.
“We went for a walk, Father.” Isobel replied meekly, using the exact tone that my father would find acceptable. It worked like a charm.
After dinner, we took another short walk, allowing us the privacy to finalise our plan.
Billie had very kindly agreed to pick me up tomorrow morning and drop me off at the harbour. I would be gone before my father knew anything about my sudden departure - in theory. It was the coward’s way out. I would tell my mother after my father left for work.
Isobel helped me pack my bags for my return. We would store them under my bed out of sight until tomorrow.
“I couldn’t have done this without you, Isobel. I don’t know how to thank you enough.”
“All you have to do is live your life for you, the way you want to live it. That’s all the thanks I will ever need.”
“We won’t lose touch ever, and when you leave here we can meet up regularly. You’ll let me know the minute you find out where you’re going to be studying?”
“I promise you, I will. And you have to keep me up to date on how things are going with Toni. I can’t wait to hear more about that.”
“Tell me again, I’m doing the right thing.”
“You are, Shona. You are doing the right thing.” Isobel said it with such conviction I believed her. I was just second-guessing myself; I knew deep down it was right.
I hardly slept at all that night. I kept tossing and turning, worrying over my decision. Eventually I heard my mother and father get up around 5:00am, he always set out early. My mother would start her day with him, making his breakfast. I heard him leave the house and drive off on his tractor. I would be gone before he returned. I closed my eyes, taking some comfort from that thought. I still couldn’t relax. I doubted I would be able to do that until I was with Toni.
After breakfast I helped my mother to clean the kitchen while my sisters made the beds and swept the house. I took the opportunity to speak to my mother about my plans that day.
“I’m leaving today, Mum, I’m going back to the city.”
“Oh, has something happened?”
“Yes and no.” I paused, trying to remain composed. “That is to say, nothing has happened in the city that’s forcing me to return. I just can’t do it, Mother, I can’t give in to his wishes and demands any longer.”
I bit my lip as tears sprang to my eyes. I wanted my mother to understand, I desperately wanted her blessing, I could go on without it, but it would mean a lot to me.
“I was young once too, Shona, I know what it is to have hopes and dreams. I never had the opportunities you girls are carving out for yourselves. I doubt I even had the presence of mind to work out how it could be done. Instead, I married young, your father was the first one to ask and I accepted. I had dreams of becoming an artist, I love the scenery around here, and I have always wanted to paint it. I told your father once and he said it was a silly notion. Instead, I should concentrate on the important duties of being a wife and mother, and I did. It’s only recently that I have come to realise that I gave in too easily. I could be painting now, I should be painting now.” She stressed. “I would still be a good wife and mother…. and you know what, Shona? I’m going to paint, come hell or high water, I’m going to do it.”
I smiled; I was heartened to hear my mother speak this way.
“It occurred to me recently, that had I painted all those years ago, you girls may not be in the bind you are right now. No one has ever said no to him, he has come to expect that as the norm. I’ve raised good intelligent girls, now I want you to be good intelligent, independent girls. Go paint, Shona. That will make me happy.”
I knew my mother was speaking metaphorically. What she said made perfect sense to me. “I’m sorry I’m leaving you to face his wrath after I’m gone.”
“Whether you tell him face to face, or I tell him, he will deal with it the same way. He will continue on, but you will no longer exist for him, at least outwardly; he won’t discuss you, he won’t acknowledge you, inside, who knows? At least this way, he won’t put you down before you leave. You don’t deserve that, none of you do.”
I hugged her fiercely. “Thank you, thank you, Mum. You have no idea how much this means to me.”
“I think I do, and you have no need to thank me. I’m your mother, I just wish, I had offered encouragement the last time instead of censure. For that I’m truly sorry.”
“I love you, Mum, I love you so much.” The tears sprang to my eyes. I would really miss her, probably now more than ever.
“I love you too, Shona, I’m proud of who you are and I know you will be successful in the future.”
We both stood in the kitchen for a long time, crying and holding each other. We didn’t stop until my sisters joined us after finishing their chores.
“So it’s true, Shona? You’re really going to do it?” my youngest sister Moira asked. She was only thirteen and looked a lot like my mother with her long auburn hair and hazel coloured eyes.
We hadn’t spoken of this at all, Moira hadn’t acted any differently around me, but clearly my decisions mattered to her also.
“Yes, Moira, I am. I’m leaving shortly.”
“Good for you. I wasn’t sure if I could believe Isobel when she told me. She’s always teasing, I thought it was another of her pranks.” She favoured Isobel with a look of mild exasperation.
“I wouldn’t tease about that Mo, it’s too important for all of us.” Isobel declared haughtily, we both gave her a dubious look.
“Promise you will write often,” Moira pleaded.
“I will, same as always. I promise. I’ll come back and visit too, even if it means I have to stand outside the gate. I’ll come back to see you, Mo.”
Moira hugged me, “I really miss having you home, Shona.”
“I know, I miss you too, but there will come a time when we can all do anything we want. Meet up with each other anywhere we want, you’ll see. I know it seems like forever now, but it’s not, I promise you.” We hugged a little longer. I really was going to miss my little sister more than ever.
I hugged Isobel next. “I love you, Izzie, don’t you ever go changing on me. I’m so proud to call you my sister.”
“You never know, come next year we might even end up living in the same city.”
“Don’t go scaring me.”
“Did you just make a joke, Shona? Quick, Mum, mark it on the calendar?”
We all laughed and it felt wonderful and sad all at the same time
I stood at the bow of the boat, looking forward for the first time, instead of back towards the island. I put on my Walkman and the sound of Madonna’s Live To Tell filled my ears. I was free and it felt fantastic. I could live with the knowledge of my father not wanting to know me. He couldn’t stop me going back to the island to visit. I would stay at the hotel if I had too. I was excited about seeing Toni later. I had called her knowing she would make everything right. I didn’t know where I would be staying, but I felt safe in the knowledge that Toni would have it sorted out. I was extremely fortunate to have a friend like her. She was a godsend.
As I settled into a seat near the back of the bus for the long coach journey ahead, I wondered where I would end up working for the rest of the summer. Having given up my job at the bar, I would have to act quickly to find something. There was also the issue of where I would live for the duration of my second year at university. I doubted the room at Hannah’s father’s flat would still be available. Finding a place to rent could prove to be difficult this late in the summer. Most students organised their accommodation prior to the end of the academic year. I would worry about that later, at that moment I was so tired I just wanted to close my eyes and sleep.
I had made great time getting into the city centre and then catching a local bus out to Portobello. I lifted my bags from the baggage hold as the maroon and white double Decker approached my stop. I was feeling extremely nervous again. I shouldered one bag and carried the other as I made my way down the main street towards the seafront. It was 9:45pm and still light. It must have been a warm day in the city as I could still feel some heat radiating from the sandstone buildings in the gently cooling night air. I stood outside the double doors of the Railwaymen’s club and took a deep breath before opening them. Inside the air held its usual mix of stale cigarettes and alcohol. I walked towards the door of the bar knowing Toni would be on the other side and knocked gently.
Toni opened the door with a smile and I felt myself smiling in return. She ushered me behind the bar, opening the door wide.
“Go put your bags in the cupboard, I’ll be with you in a minute.”
I did as she said, glad to be able to take the weight from my shoulder, I turned to find Toni standing in the doorway. She took one long stride and enfolded me in her arms.
“I missed you! I missed you so much,” Toni said without reservation.
“I missed you too…I,” about to say more, we were interrupted by the sound of an empty pint glass being tapped on the bar. A sure sign someone wanted a drink. Toni chuckled and released me.
“Welcome back.” She mocked, while rolling her eyes, alluding to the nature of bar work.
Toni was finished thirty minutes later. That was the good thing about a Monday night, the bar closed at 10:30pm.
“Well, I’m glad that’s over,” Toni said wearily.
“Yeah.” That was all I could find to say. We had reached an awkward moment and neither of us knew quite how to proceed.
“I’m assuming that you still don’t have anywhere to stay?”
“Yes, that is, I mean no, I don’t have anywhere to stay.”
“It was short notice, but I do have a couple of options for you. For as long as you need them.”
“Okay.” Now it was Toni’s turn to hesitate.
“Ah, well Cath offered to put you up for a little while. She has a couple of kids, but they are both young and you could share a room with them for a while.”
She paused briefly, “…And ah, the other option is my place.”
Quickly continuing with, “I’m not expecting anything from you, Shona, and I would understand fully if you wouldn’t feel comfortable at my flat. That’s why I asked Cath, I don’t want you to feel like I’m pressuring you…”
“I don’t, Toni, really. And if it’s all right with you, I would like to stay at your place. I really like Cath, but in truth, I would feel a lot more comfortable with you.”
“Great, that’s great. Come on then, let’s get you settled.”
Fifteen minutes later, Toni parked, rather expertly, outside an old tenement building. She lived just outside the city boundary, in a small fishing village called Musselburgh, which was only a short drive from the club. We took a bag each and made our way up the stairwell to the fourth floor of the tenement building.
The flat was small, but I immediately liked it. Toni explained that there was only one bedroom, before hastening to add there was a sofa bed in the living room, which I could use. I think we both found the situation a little awkward, but we got through it without any misunderstandings. Toni was being so careful to ensure I knew her intentions remained honourable. I flashed back to having Billie grope me on a first date and appreciated her efforts all the more. The truth was, had she kissed me, I think I would have kissed her back.
“Is that all the stuff you have?” Toni gestured towards my two bags.
“No, it’s not. I left all my books and some clothes at Mrs. Ramsay’s.”
“We could pick them up tomorrow if you like, and maybe have some lunch somewhere?”
I was really appreciating Toni’s efforts to help me get settled and organised. She was being so kind and thoughtful.
“That sounds great. Thank you, Toni, for everything.”
She gave me one of her brilliant smiles adding, “You’re welcome,” before showing me a cupboard in the hall, which contained spare bedding. Toni demonstrated how the sofa bed operated, and then we made the bed together. “You know where the bathroom and kitchen are; help yourself to anything you need and I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Goodnight, Shona, sleep well.”
I did, I slept really well. Better than I had in some time. After breakfast we headed to Mrs. Ramsay’s. Toni insisted on accompanying me inside to help me pack up my belongings. She had picked up a couple of cardboard boxes from a local shopkeeper to put my stuff in. Mrs. Ramsay was shocked to see me. I had travelled faster than the Royal Mail, so she had no idea I was leaving for good. I introduced Toni with one breath, then apologised for my sudden departure on the next. Within fifteen minutes we had everything boxed and ready to go. I thanked Mrs. Ramsay for her hospitality on the way out and she offered me a terse goodbye. Toni made a face and said something, which was only for Mrs. Ramsay’s ears on the way out. Whatever it was certainly seemed to change her attitude, as she became very civil to me and wished me well. When I asked Toni later, she would only say that no one was perfect, and Mrs. Ramsay had her skeletons to hide like everyone else.
We returned to Toni’s flat to drop off my belongings. I certainly felt the impact on my lungs of the four flights of stairs, especially trying to keep up with Toni.
“You get used to the stairs after a while,” she mentioned, noticing my plight.
“I’m sure you do, but I thought I was in pretty good shape.” I huffed.
“You are, that is, I mean…” She gestured at my body with her hand.
“It’s alright, Toni, I know what you mean. I swim to keep in shape.”
“And it works. I run, I think that’s why I handled the stairs better, running is probably a bit more aerobic, you know, fitness being environmental. If we did something in water, I bet you would be better at it.” Toni rolled her eyes, shaking her head at letting her mouth run off. It was so unlike her, she was normally much more self-assured. I took a little piece of comfort from knowing she was affected by the situation too.
“What I mean to say is, you would perform better at a task in the water.”
“I don’t know about that,” I mumbled. We both looked at each other, there was a tension between us, one that had existed before I left, but it seemed to have increased exponentially since my return.
“Shona, can we talk?” Toni asked sounding a little exasperated.
“Sure.” I know it didn’t sound as casual as I tried to make it.
Toni gestured towards the sofa. I sat down and, nervously clasped my fingers together. I didn’t really want to have any kind of talk. Thoughts and possibilities were racing through my head. Did Toni no longer think of me that way? She had said after I kissed her that if she thought I was ready she would be willing to have a relationship with me, didn’t she? I’m sure I couldn’t get that wrong. Maybe she had met someone while I was away? I had, after all, told her there couldn’t be an ‘us’.
Damn! I had been so stupid, thinking I could return and just pick up where I left off. Why should Toni put her life on hold for me?
“Please don’t be nervous?” Toni requested.
“It’s hard not to be right now.” I answered honestly.
Toni nodded and motioned for me to take her hand then suddenly withdrew, unsure of her actions. I hated that. I didn’t want us to be so uncertain around each other. I took Toni’s hand in mine anyway, feeling unnaturally bold. Her hand was warm to the touch and it soothed my frayed nerves a little.
“I don’t want to push you into anything, Shona, I never would, but I have to admit, it’s hard being around you…I’m very attracted to you, but I never want to make you nervous or afraid of me. That would be too painful. I don’t want to put you in a difficult position.”
I nodded in understanding.
“If you being here causes you to feel any pressure, I would prefer that you moved somewhere else, somewhere you can be more comfortable.”
I think I fell for Toni even more after hearing those words. I felt the urge to hug her for being so thoughtful. Her honesty deserved to be reciprocated with my own.
“The reason I’m nervous has nothing to do with being afraid of you, Toni, nothing at all. When you said you wanted to talk, I thought that you might have found someone, or that maybe you didn’t feel anything for me anymore.”
“Far from it. I was miserable when you left, Shona. Ask Eddie; he kept telling me I was going to drive away customers. Then he thought it was great when they cleared out quicker at the end of the night to avoid getting the brunt of my frustration. All I had to do was glare and they were grabbing their jackets. He said it was my fault Archie left his walking stick behind, he was in such a rush to leave, the poor man forgot he had a limp.”
We both laughed. Eddie was so funny; I had missed his great sense of humour.
“I would like to try and find out what there is between us, that’s the real reason why I called you. It’s also the reason why I went running home after university finished for the summer. I was so scared, Toni. I still am, but never of you. I’m scared of what I feel. It’s all so new to me, but I don’t want to run anymore. My sister…”
“Isobel, the phone terrorist?” Toni pretended to be terrified. I appreciated her attempts to keep things relaxed despite the tension surrounding us.
I laughed, “Yes, that’s her. She helped me to come to terms with what was really motivating my actions. She was fantastic, Toni. Well, that and a few other things actually.”
“I can imagine, quite a take charge kind of girl?”
“You have no idea, I now know more about Isobel then I ever wanted to, but that’s a story for another time.
Toni was laughing, “I can’t wait. She sounded like a right bossy little madam on the phone.”
After a few moments of basking in the comfort of being around one another again, I decided to ask the big question.
“Where do we go from here?”
She thought for a moment before answering. “Why don’t we take things slowly? Go out on dates, generally have fun and enjoy each other’s company. Things can happen at a pace that you’re comfortable with, Shona. Then if a time comes when we are both ready to move our relationship to another level, we can explore that avenue together.”
Toni was saying all the right things and I had no doubts that she meant what she said, but I was concerned that she would be sacrificing too much.
“What about the things you want, Toni? Won’t you be sacrificing a lot to allow me so much time?”
Toni smiled her wonderful smile. “It’s true that I’m ready for a physical relationship. I won’t lie about that. The thing is, Shona, I want to be sharing this journey with you. The stages we move through and the joy it could bring. I truly believe it will be worth every cold shower I take.
The thought that I could cause Toni to take cold showers left me feeling immensely pleased with myself.
“Don’t be so smug and yes, I know you won’t ask, but you’re curious. I’ve already started my cold showers.” Toni laughed at my wide-eyed expression, she was as bad as my sister.
“Lunch?” I nodded my acceptance as she continued to chuckle.
We went to a small Bistro on the waterfront. It had a terrific fresh seafood menu. We sat at a table outside making use of every ray of sunshine we could bag. It was after all at a premium in Scotland
“I haven’t mentioned this yet, but your old job will soon be available.” Toni said casually.
“Couldn’t you get anyone since I left?” I felt terrible, imagining the extra work that would have caused for the bar staff.
“Yes, I hired a young guy who is going into his final year at school. He answered the ad and did a half-decent job. He finishes up in three weeks when school re-starts. You really have no need to wash glasses though; you could work behind any bar serving drinks and getting better pay.”
“I could, couldn’t I,” I smiled at Toni. I felt quite pleased about that. “But I don’t want to…”
Toni put her knife and fork down and said earnestly, “Shona…”
“No, let me finish Toni, please?” Toni nodded. “I know I could work somewhere else, but I really enjoy working at the club. I know it sounds crazy, but I miss it. I want my old job back, if you’ll let me?”
Toni smiled, “Of course I will. I have to tell you, Cath and Eddie will be delighted to have you back, as am I. The entire weekend goes a lot more smoothly when we have you working with us.” She returned to attacking her salmon with gusto.
“Great, I’m going to have to try and find another job during the week though or I’m going to be bored and penniless. Which is a very bad combination”
“Eddie and Cath have summer holidays coming up. How would you feel about standing in for them behind the bar?”
“I would love to!”
“I thought you might. Eddie starts a week’s holiday on Monday, his brother is home on leave from the army and he wants to spend time with him. Then Cath is on holiday for two weeks after Eddie returns. She is off to sunny Spain with her family. I’ll sort out some shifts for you starting next Monday. You will be working on your own sometimes but don’t worry, I’ll show you all you need to know on Monday night.”
I was delighted to be getting my old job back. Toni was right, I could go work somewhere else, but I had really come to like the club. The bar staff were great and I had got to know a lot of the customers and there were some real characters among them, before I left for the summer I could hardly walk along Portobello high street without being stopped several times for a chat with patrons of the club.
I had come back to spend time with Toni and that certainly wasn’t going to be a problem now. Between working at the bar and staying in her flat, we might end up sick of the sight of each other.
I really wanted to make the most of the next few weeks. I would be back at university soon enough, which would mean a lot of my time would be taken up with lectures and study. Between that and working all weekend, my time alone with Toni would be in short supply. I wanted to enjoy what was left of the summer.
The issue of my accommodation was also unresolved. It was very kind of Toni to allow me to sleep on her sofa, but I needed to find a more permanent solution to my living arrangements. I would have to start searching the local newspaper ads to try to find something both suitable, and within my budget.
The following day, Toni was working two shifts at the club. She had left just after 10:00am to open up for 11:00am. She said she would be home around 5:00pm, for some dinner, and then back to the club to open up for 6:30pm. Wednesdays were bingo nights and I knew it was a busy time for her. I decided to spend my day exploring the local shops near Toni’s flat, and then I would prepare some dinner for us, as a surprise for her. I didn’t know any fancy recipes but my mother had taught me the basics well. Cooking was something I enjoyed, very much.
Toni arrived home just before 5:00 pm her timing was impeccable.
“Something smells fantastic!” she declared as she walked into the kitchen. I was instantly pleased, I just hoped she would be as enthusiastic after she tasted it. Toni glanced over at the small kitchen table, which had been set for two.
“You’ve been busy,” she remarked, raising an eyebrow.
I blushed, “I hope you’re hungry?”
“I’m starving! I usually just manage to fit in some beans on toast between shifts. What a surprise.”
I decided right then, I would gladly cook for Toni anytime just to get her to smile like that. She looked so beautiful.
“I made some chicken stew,” I told her as I opened the oven door and used the mitts to remove the casserole dish. I placed the dish onto a hot plate and proceeded to serve the stew.
“Shona, this looks fantastic! Really.” I sat down and waited anxiously for Toni to take her first bite.
“Mmmm…. oh, wow. I haven’t tasted anything this good in so long. It’s delicious,” she mumbled around a mouthful of hot food.
“Really?” I had hoped, but I worried she was just being polite.
“Absolutely, I hardly ever cook for myself and even when I do, it never tastes as good as this.”
We ate in silence for the next few minutes, Toni really was hungry and she did genuinely appear to be enjoying my cooking. I was quietly pleased, a half smile I was unable to smother, testament to that. Inside though, I was absolutely chuffed to bits.
“I’m so touched by your thoughtfulness, Shona, I don’t know what to say, but thank you. I really wish I had more time to spend with you, enjoying your fantastic cooking, and the rest of the evening, but I have to grab a quick shower and change before I head back to work.” Toni looked very apologetic.
“It’s alright, I understand.” I did really, but I also wished Toni could stay. I cleaned up the kitchen as she dashed off to get ready.
Twenty minutes later, her hair still damp from her shower, Toni popped back into the room.
“I’m heading back to work now…”
I nodded, “I’ll see you tomorrow then?” I asked hopefully.
“About tomorrow, would you like to do something? Maybe head to the Funfair?” Toni looked almost shy. I thought I must have been imagining that.
“I would love to, I’ve never been to one.” I replied enthusiastically.
“Great…” Toni lingered for just a moment. “I’ll…I better get going.” She grabbed her car keys from the table.
“Thanks for dinner.” Toni added, giving me a quick hug, which I welcomed, smelling her coconut shampoo and another light fragrance.
Toni touched my cheek lightly. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I nodded, “Tomorrow, looking forward to it.” I watched Toni hurry out of the front door. I went into the living room and sat down on the sofa to replay the last few moments in my head. I was sure that Toni had intended to kiss me, but she had pulled back. She did as she had promised she would, and was letting me set the pace and direction of our relationship. I wondered what I would be feeling had Toni gone with her initial impulse. I’m sure I would have enjoyed kissing her, but I wondered how I would have felt afterwards and what about tomorrow? Had Toni asked me on a date, or was it just a fun thing to do as friends? Boy, this relationship stuff was tough.
I looked around Toni’s sitting room noting the differences from the one back home. The furniture was much more modern and the floor was carpeted, but the main difference was that Toni had a television and a stereo. All we had back home was a radio. I had watched a little television at my grandparent’s on occasion, and we sometimes had a need for television in school with the educational programmes, but it was still a bit of a novelty for me. I switched it on and it buzzed into life.
Edinburgh was enjoying its third consecutive day of sunshine – Toni and I were both dressed in shorts and vests for our day at the Funfair. I had initially opted for a dress, which Toni thought looked lovely, but pointed out it may not be the best attire for a visit to the fun park. I flushed pink then quickly changed into an outfit similar to Toni’s. We parked in the car park at the back of the Railwaymen’s Club; Toni said the good weather would mean all the surrounding car parking spaces would likely be occupied. It was only a ten-minute stroll along the promenade to the fun park. As was typical of Scotland, the beach was full of sunbathers, and most would have been pasty white when they woke up that morning. They were now looking like lobsters. My fellow countrymen had the same attitude towards sunshine as a starving man being introduced to a feast, and I was no exception. I glanced at Toni taking in her long legs. It was the first time I had seen them out of trousers. The skirt at weekend rule for the club never applied to Toni, she instead wore dress trousers. I had often wondered what her legs would look like. I had initially glanced to see if they were tanned, but couldn’t help examining them further. They were lean and well toned from her running. Toni would be tall in anyone’s book, but in a country like Scotland she was almost unusually tall for a woman. It looked like her legs were the cause of her extra inches. I lingered longer, noticing her skin was a light olive colour, the type that would tan easily. I raised my eyes, eventually, back to Toni’s to find her peering at me over the top of her sunglasses, a knowing grin on her face. I had a sudden need to look out towards the water suddenly feeling like taking a refreshing dip. Hoo boy was it hot today!
We walked through the Fun Park entrance, in truth I was really quite excited, I hadn’t been to a proper Funfair before. The place was just a hive of activity and noise. Every ride we walked past had a different upbeat song playing from the booth. I could feel the energy pulsing through me.
“What do you want to do first?” Toni asked, as she looked around.
“I don’t know.” I was wide eyed at all the different rides available.
“Is there anything you have always wanted to try?”
“The Dodgems?” I asked hopefully.
Toni grinned and grasped my wrist, gently pulling me in the direction of the cars.
“You want to share, or get your own car?”
“Share.” I said decisively.
You know it’s at times like this when I really questioned my ability to ever lose my naivety. I had just made two mistakes, the first was suggesting the Dodgems, or as Toni referred to them, the Bumper cars. The second was deciding to be her passenger. I soon found out that the minute Toni gets behind the wheel of any vehicle, no one is safe from the risk-taking maniac she becomes!
She went after everyone, women, children and grown men with gleeful abandonment. Ramming into their cars before speeding off after her next victim as soon as the first was left stranded against the side of the rink.
Toni laughed in triumph as her victim’s cars had to be pushed back into the main part of the rink to get them going again. The guy in charge kept shouting at her to behave, but she just waved at him and carried on regardless.
Her attitude was contagious; she seemed to have an effect on everyone behind a wheel. It kind of turned into a free for-all, with everyone looking for a victim!
“I can’t believe you did that!” I stated attempting to admonish her.
“The whole point of the Fun Park is to have fun. There’s no fun to be had in driving around in a circle being polite,” Toni replied showing absolutely no remorse whatsoever.
“Toni, I don’t think they’re going to let you back on the Dodgems.”
“Sure they will.” Smiling confidently she asked, “What’s next?” while rubbing her hands together.
I decided then and there that my choices would be governed by where Toni could do the least damage and not get into trouble.
“What about the Waltzers?” I asked hopefully.
Her eyes lit up. “I love the Waltzers. C’mon.”
We waited on the outer edges for the current ride to finish. I was enjoying listening to the music. The Waltzers seemed to be a favourite hang out place for people around my age. I could see why, the music was great and you were able to lean on the outside of the structure chatting with friends. The ride stopped and Toni headed towards an empty car. We waited for one of the guys to take our money as we listened to the last strains of an Erasure song. Toni paid a guy and whispered something to him. He smiled and then a few moments later the ride started up slowly as the sound of Funky Town boomed out of the speakers.
The Waltzers quickly got up to full speed and then the guy returned, he smiled at Toni and asked me if I was ready? I nodded vigorously and the next thing I knew we were spinning rapidly, gravity pushing us into the back of the seat. I knew I was screaming, but I didn’t care, it was such a rush. As the car slowed a bit from the spinning Toni grinned at me.
“You want to have more fun?”
I nodded. I was hooked. “Yes!”
“Just copy me.”
Before I had time to ask, Toni had flipped her long legs over the back of the seat, in the reverse of how we should be sitting. I looked down into her grinning face.”
“Are you serious?” I shouted over the din.
“Yes! C’mon, try it.” She motioned for me to mimic her position.
I quickly copied her and found myself looking at the world upside down, then in the next breath we were spinning madly and it was crazy. We screamed and laughed at each other, just having a blast. When the ride finished my legs were like jelly. I grabbed onto the rail to steady myself. Toni put a hand on my back to assist.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes! That was amazing!”
“Come on, I’ll win you a teddy.” She grinned that infectious grin and I was ready to follow her anywhere, knowing it would be fun.
We walked over to the stalls that lined the wall of the Fun Park. The vendors were all trying to tempt us to try their stall. Toni stopped in front of one that had air rifles. The object was to shoot down the five little figures and win a prize.
Toni paid the stall-holder and he put five pellets into a small tray on the counter which had the air rifles chained and bolted to it. At least no one was going to be accidentally shot, well except maybe the vendor. Toni looked at the pellets and beckoned the guy back over.
“Can you swap these two pellets please?”
“Why?” The guy scowled.
“Because these two are made of tin, not lead,” Toni replied reasonably.
The guy looked really mad. “They’re all the same,” He said a little forcefully.
“Is that right? Well, I suppose I could hang around your stall a little longer, see if anyone else gets tin instead of lead.” Toni offered.
The guy changed his attitude after that. “You know, I don’t know how that could have happened. Let me replace those two pellets for you.”
Toni gave him a charming smile, and proceeded to fire the rifle and hit all five figures. I picked a really cute looking teddy bear.
Afterwards we took a break and went for a hamburger. “It’s lucky you spotted those tin pellets, Toni. I wonder how they got there?” I was truly puzzled.
Toni smiled at me, “Everyone gets two tin pellets, Shona, that way no-one ever wins the big prizes.”
I opened my mouth, but found I was at a loss for words. Toni gently closed it putting a finger under my chin. “Don’t worry about it. Not everyone is as honest or trusting as yourself.”
“I know, but sometimes I feel so stupid.” I knew I sounded downbeat. I had taken to referring to times like this as my ‘chookter’ moments.
“Listen, I grew up here at the seaside, surrounded by pubs and the Funfair. Making money is the name of the game; unfortunately it’s not always made honestly. Some people will do anything to ensure they make money. Here they rig equipment, in the pubs they change the brands of the alcohol, or serve a smaller measure than advertised. You are like a breath of fresh air around here, Shona. I would far rather you stayed exactly the same, than become even remotely like them.”
I nodded. Sometimes it was like stepping into a whole other world in more ways than one.
“Ready for some candy floss?” Toni asked.
My enthusiasm returned; I loved the sugary treat. Toni had once again managed to lift my spirits.
The rest of the day was fantastic. We won more cuddly toys, went on the Dodgems again and then tried the Big Wheel, which was a bit hairy. Vertigo was not my friend. My stomach lurched perilously, every time the wheel descended.
At my insistence we had even gone on the Ghost Train. Toni had begged me to reconsider, she said only the kids went on it cause it was the lamest Ghost Train ever, but when I said please, she relented. I was glad she changed her mind. We sat together and held hands; it may have been the least scary Ghost Train ever, but it was my favourite ride that night.
Monday night saw me back at the club for the first time. This was to be my training night, where Toni would teach me the things I would have to be able to do when I was on my own. Lesson one was changing a barrel, a very important chore Toni said. Having the beer and lager on draught at all times was crucial. The other important chore was locking up. Everything else could wait.
“If it isn’t Snip and Snap.” Eddie said in a loud cheery voice.
Toni glowered at him. “What’s this, a busman’s holiday?”
Eddie continued to keep his grin plastered to his face. He gestured to the young man with him, “Toni, you remember my brother Andrew? Andrew, you remember Toni, and this is Shona, she’s been working here for a few months now.”
Andrew nodded to Toni, “Nice to see you again, Toni,” He turned a toothy smile on me, “Hi there.” Andrew’s eyes travelled over my body, I was more attuned to this look after working here the many months. My father had been right about that. Men did ogle me. I felt a little self-conscious under his intense gaze. Toni broke the moment by asking him what he wanted to drink. As Toni poured their drinks, Andrew brought his attention back to me.
“Has Eddie been treating you well here, Shona, because if not I can have a word with him?” He winked at me.
Andrew was nothing like Eddie. Where Eddie was tall and lean, Andrew was shorter with a much stockier build. “Eddie treats me very well, he has lovely manners. It’s great working with him.” I replied.
“Yeah, he’s a good guy, I feel sorry for him though. It’s got to be tough having a better looking younger brother, eh?” Andrew threw me another wink and a smile. I heard Toni grunt something as she waited for the second pint glass to fill with lager. Eddie was busy trying his luck, putting some money in the bandit
I wasn’t sure what to say in reply, I had never really considered Eddie in terms of looks. He always dressed well, wearing neatly pressed shirts and trousers, even when it wasn’t the weekend. And his hair was always nicely styled too, but I wasn’t about to choose one brother over the other. I didn’t want to encourage Andrew in any way.
“Ack, I’m only pulling your leg, Shona. That’s a lovely accent you have by the way, I could listen to you talk all night.”
“Uh, thank you.”
I was glad when Toni put the two drinks in front of Andrew, I was sure I didn’t imagine the slight thump they made when they contacted the counter, or the smile that didn’t reach Toni’s eyes.
“There you go, Andrew, on the house. Your brother’s waiting at the pool table, enjoy your game.”
As she turned away from the bar, Toni made a face and rolled her eyes, “Cocky wee sod, thinks he can charm the pants off any woman he meets.”
I grinned at her, inordinately pleased with her small show of jealousy.
“So, what did Eddie mean when he said Snip and Snap?”
“Oh, that…nothing, just Eddie thinking he’s funny.” Toni quickly dismissed the question, but I took the opportunity to ask more generally about the names he gave to people.
“He has nicknames for a lot of people, can you tell me where they came from?”
Toni pursed her lips, “Okay. Who do you want to know?”
“Lets start with Sinky.”
“That’s easy, his surname is Sinclair.”
“Makes sense. What about Popeye?”
Toni laughed, “Have you ever noticed how his right eye looks kind of glazed?”
“It’s made of glass…one night he fiddled with it and it popped right into his pint of beer.”
“No!” I squealed, “I don’t believe you.”
“That’s what they say.” She shrugged.
“Alright, I’m afraid to ask, but you call Pete, bum flesh?”
“Ha, ha, another easy one. His surname is Erskine.”
I had a blank look on my face. I just didn’t get it.
“You know, erse being slang for arse?”
“Oh – yes! That’s funny.” I laughed. I hoped Pete wouldn’t mind.
“What about my nickname? I know I must have one.”
Toni made a face. “Island Girl.
“Eddie came up with that? Not very original, I quite like the song.”
“So do I.”
We both smiled.
“Hmmm, lets see who else? Well Betty Beehive I can work out for myself, but what about Barry, he gets called Snake?”
Toni’s eyes narrowed. “Are you sure you want to know this one?” I nodded in the affirmative.
Toni extended her hands about twelve inches apart. “He is a well endowed guy.”
My eyes widened in shock. Toni winked, “Just remember not to stare at his crotch the next time he’s here.”
“You know, I always wondered what the attraction between Barry and Val could be, but now…”
“Shona!” Toni scalded in a mock school teacher voice, “I’m shocked at your assumption…however, you’re not wrong and Val was my source.” She winked.
“Okay, one more. What about Snip?”
“Right that’s it, games over.” Toni waved a hand in the air, indicating she was serious.
“You’re no fun.” I pouted.
Toni stopped and gave me an intense look. “Trust me, I can be lots of fun.”
She delivered the line in a voice that made me blush furiously, whilst sending a shiver through my body.
I had spent the early shift on Tuesday alone in the bar and it had gone well.
Today was Wednesday, bingo night. Toni and I would be working both shifts, as she had to take deliveries from the brewery that morning, I would work the bar. Right now she was off to do the banking. The bar was very quiet, so I decided to take the opportunity to pop to the cellar to refill the ice bucket.
I called to the two guys currently in the small hall playing dominoes, to let them know. I always tried to make these trips quick, I still hadn’t been able to get over the spooky feeling I got from the cellar.
I was using the scoop to ladle the ice into the bucket when I heard the door open. I didn’t turn, expecting it to be Toni.
“Hey sexy, you fancy a quickie?” The voice was female, but unfamiliar. I turned so quickly from the ice machine that the cubes scattered over the concrete floor.
“Christ! Who are you?” The owner of the voice yelped.
I glared at the stranger. I wasn’t good with guessing ages, but she looked to be in her thirties. She had long blonde hair and was dressed in a short skirt, with a fitted blouse. She wore high heels and make-up. Her lipstick was a ruby red. I don’t know why I immediately took in all these details. Perhaps it was because this woman intimidated me.
I finally found my voice.
“You shouldn’t be in this part of the bar.”
“I was looking for Toni. One of the guys in the bar said she was down here, I assumed he meant Toni, not you.”
“She’s gone to the bank, and should be back shortly. Can I ask you to please return to the hall?” I had said this with a degree of venom in my voice. It was partly due to the fright this woman had given me, but mostly to do with her suggestion to Toni.
“My aren’t you a feisty wee thing.” She gave me a smirk, which I didn’t appreciate one bit. I wasn’t sure where all my animosity was coming from, but I continued to glare at her.
“Alright, keep your knickers on, I’m leaving.” She turned to go and I followed her as she walked back towards the bar. She was heading for the exit when, just as she was about to leave, Toni entered the bar.
“Oh, hi, Carol. What brings you here?”
“Just popping in to see how my favourite barmaid is doing.”
“Sure you were. What are you after?”
“First, can you call off your Rottweiler?”
“What did you do, Carol?” I could tell from the question that Toni was familiar with Carol’s behaviour.
The woman was the picture of innocence. “Me? I only went looking for you in the cellar, where I might add; I got the fright of my life. I was then ordered out of the area by this young thing.”
She pointed at me, while looking at Toni, clearly expecting some kind of action from her.
Toni sighed. “Carol, meet Shona. Shona, this is Carol. She is the owner of The Flying Dutchman, the bar down on the corner.
I nodded my recognition of the place. I had always thought it had such an interesting name.
“I’ve told Carol not to just walk behind my bar acting like she owns the place, but she never listens.” Toni turned to Carol, “Maybe you will after today?” she asked hopefully.
Carol shrugged. “I’m all out of Glenfiddich, someone messed up the order. Can you loan me a couple of bottles?”
As she asked, I was certain I saw her batting her eyelids.
“Carol, you are the only one in your bar that does the ordering, but yes, I can loan you some. One week, that’s all you have to return it. If not I’ll be down the road and behind your bar to take it back.”
Toni went to the store cupboard and returned with the bottles. “One week. I mean it.”
Carol accepted the bottles from Toni. “Nice meeting you, Shona.”
I knew she didn’t mean a word of it. She turned back to Toni, “Walk me out?”
She was looking at Toni, the same way Eddie’s brother had looked at me and I was shocked by the sudden urge I had to scratch her eyes out.
I had promised myself to try to handle my feelings better and to stop trying to run from them. I knew this one. It was most certainly jealousy. Reverend Halliday said that to be jealous, was to be controlled by our own desires and that was not a good thing. Right now I was thinking it was a very good thing. I didn’t want that woman anywhere near Toni!
I was quiet for the rest of the afternoon. Toni had driven us home after our shift so we could shower, change and grab a bite to eat before the evening one began.
I couldn’t stop thinking about what Carol had said when she opened the door to the cellar. Had something happened between her and Toni? I was still on the naive side, but I knew exactly what Carol had meant.
Perhaps she was just teasing? But then there was the way she had looked at Toni in the bar. I was so confused.
That night behind the bar followed a similar pattern to the way the afternoon had ended. I was still pretty quiet, but I kept myself busy in the small hall while the bingo was being called.
I was, in reality, avoiding having a conversation with Toni about what had happened with Carol that afternoon. I thought if I wasn’t around she couldn’t ask me what was wrong. Then I wouldn’t have to tell her how upset I was, or ask any of the questions I had running around in my head. Toni had made no secret of the fact that she dated. I really had to let this go.
By the end of the night I was feeling no less miserable. Several customers had told me to “cheer up” which wasn’t very helpful to say the least. When we were finally able to shut the bar down and finish clearing up, Toni turned to look at me and I knew the question was coming.
“You want to tell me what’s wrong?” she asked in a patient tone.
“Not really.” It was the truth.
Toni sighed, “Shona, if this has something to do with us, which I think it has, it’s important that we try and discuss it. If we don’t, it could become a bigger problem.”
“It’s Carol.” I blurted.
“What did she do?” Toni seemed a little angry. “Did she say something?”
I shook my head, “No, well not to me. It was something she said to you.”
Toni looked confused, “Tell me? If you don’t, I won’t be able to help.”
I couldn’t look at Toni; it was too difficult. She lifted my chin, so that she could look into my eyes. “Please, tell me?”
“She thought it was you in the cellar.” Toni nodded for me to continue, but I couldn’t repeat the words Carol had used.
“It’s alright, Shona, I can pretty much guess what she said. What I can tell you is that there has never been anything between Carol and I. She flirts terribly with me, she always has. She has a husband, not that it would stop her, but more importantly, I’m not attracted to her.” Toni spoke very deliberately.
I nodded, I believed Toni, but I still didn’t like Carol.
“The thing is, Shona, although what I’m telling you is true, I do have a past. I have ex girlfriends and we might bump into them. A couple of them occasionally pop into the bar. What I can tell you is, they aren’t anything like Carol.” Toni smiled and she got what she was after, I smiled back.
She bumped my shoulder with hers, “Want to go for a walk, it’s a nice night?”
“I’d like that.”
We walked down to the beach, where we removed our socks and trainers and strolled along the water’s edge, enjoying the cool air. It made a welcome change from the smoky atmosphere of the bar.
Toni reached for my hand and I welcomed hers into mine.
“You know there used to be a chain pier here. Like the ones in Blackpool and Brighton.” Toni broke the silence with her information.
“Do you remember it?” I asked curiously.
She chuckled, “No, it was demolished in 1917.”
“Oh, what a pity.”
We stopped at one of the wooden barriers that lined the beach every few hundred yards.
Toni leaned back against it and I didn’t hesitate to move into her arms. Welcoming the embrace wholeheartedly.
My heart was beating wildly as I attempted to gather up my courage and kiss her. I really wanted to kiss her. I had never wanted anything so much in my life.
I slowly tilted my head up towards Toni’s and there she was, waiting for me.
It was all the encouragement I needed.
As my lips touched hers I knew…this time I wouldn’t run away.
Toni’s kiss was tender and gentle, so different from any other I had shared.
Her lips were so soft and warm and when her tongue caressed my lips, it was a gentle request for entrance, no pressure or force behind it. I opened my mouth and welcomed her.
I had never experienced anything so wonderful. No feeling of invasion here. I felt her tongue caress me, then retreat, urging me to follow and then, before I was really even aware of what I was doing, I was inside her mouth, tasting and teasing.
I felt like I was in a dream, time really did seem to slow down during that kiss. Then we were breaking apart, gasping for air. I held onto Toni tightly, I wasn’t even aware of when I let go my trainers and socks to hold her. I buried my face into her shirt and she held me close, caressing my back and placing soft kisses in my hair. We kissed again and again. I couldn’t get enough of this newfound pleasure. Eventually it was Toni, who called a stop to our make out session.
“Much though I hate to stop this wonderful activity, I think we’d better head back.”
She smiled and started to lead the way back up the beach after we picked up our shoes. It was only when we broke apart that I started to realise just how cold it was.
We hurried to the car and Toni started the engine to drive us to her flat. I just couldn’t keep the grin off my face. My smile was so wide I was sure my cheeks would hurt tomorrow. I was happy, really happy, for the first time since arriving in this city.
We drove back in silence to Toni’s flat. I could still feel my lips tingling from the kisses we had shared. I kept stealing glances over at Toni, as she focussed on the road ahead. We stopped at a red light and she turned to me and smiled. I wanted to lean over and kiss her again. As Toni parked her car on the street, I suddenly became nervous as I began to think of what would happen next. We were going to be alone in her flat together. I wanted to kiss her some more, but I was uncertain. Afraid of where it might lead.
As Toni opened her front door, I headed straight for the living room and began to unfold the sofa bed. I wasn’t sure how I should act now so I fell back on routine. I glanced up to see Toni standing in the doorway smiling softly at me.
“Can I come in?” she asked quietly.
“I uhm, sure.” I was so nervous.
“Shona…” Toni took my hands in her larger ones and held them gently. “I had a wonderful time tonight and I hope you did too?”
I nodded vigorously. I really had enjoyed this evening. She pulled me into her arms and I buried my face into her neck.
“I meant what I said, Shona. I won’t try to push you to do anything you don’t feel ready for.”
I nodded again, “Thank you.” I whispered.
Toni pulled back and looked into my eyes. “No. Thank you.” She smiled, “Can I have a goodnight kiss?”
The kiss was gentle and soothing, it calmed my nerves and left me feeling much more settled. As we said our goodnights a part of me longed to be close to Toni for the rest of it.
As I lay in bed waiting for sleep to come that night, I couldn’t keep the smile from my face or my stomach from fluttering every time I thought of the kisses we had shared. I couldn’t wait to write to Isobel and tell her all about this new development. Most of all, I marvelled at how wonderful Toni had been. She was very in tune with my thoughts and feelings. Whenever I was having difficulties or became uncertain she was constantly able to put my mind at ease. With each passing day she was becoming more important to me. My doubts seemed to be gradually disappearing one by one with the help of Toni’s patience and gentle reassurances.
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