‘Come in,’ I said to the stranger. He shook his head. A young man. Pale as the full moon of Spring shining above. He wore a surgical mask. Glittering raindrops bounced off him. He was shivering, soaked-through.
‘No, I can’t,’ he said, breathless. ‘I’m, I’m just a bit lost.’
‘You’re on the Isle of Harris,’ I said to relax him. ‘In the Outer Hebrides. And you need to come indoors and warm up. And take that stupid mask off, I’m a bit deaf.’
‘I can’t. Wait, what age are you?’ he asked, which I thought rude. When I was a child I got thrashed for speaking to my elders if they hadn’t spoken to me first.
‘Old enough,’ I said, ‘to know you need to warm up beside a nice gelly. That means “a decent fire”. Come in, it’s warm as Hell on a Sunday.’
He looked pitiful as a lamb. ‘I can’t risk…I’ve got the virus.’
‘I don’t care if you’ve got the bubonic plague, Hebrideans do not leave people shivering on their doorstep. It’s only a bothan, a wee shambles of a cottage, but you’re very welcome and that’s that.’ I clasped him by the shoulder – he flinched like a child – and I dragged him in.
There he stood, gormless as a scarecrow, clothes dripping a mini-monsoon on the floor, non-stop apologies chattering through his mask.
I gave him a change of clothes and persuaded him to leave the mask off, which in any case was more rainwater than mask by now. We’re good at clothes in the Hebrides – a nice geansaidh (a knitted jumper), thick warm bobban socks; I soon had him kitted out.
‘You look almost human now,’ I said.
‘I can’t thank you enough – ‘ he began.
‘Your thank yous are as welcome as your apologies. I’ll start a politeness swear jar if you don’t stop thanking and sorrying!’
‘You don’t understand – ‘
‘Don’t I? I reckon I have a good half-century of life experience on you, a bhalaich. You know we speak the Gaelic up here? But don’t worry, I speak your language, too.’
‘I didn’t stop to think. All the shops down South were empty. I jumped on my motorbike and headed north.’
‘To the “wilderness”. The Hebrides.’
‘I needed to get away from people.’
‘Are the people who live up here not people?’
‘I said stop apologising. Do you work in an office or something? You look so skinny you wouldn’t cast a shadow. I’ll make a wee drop of soup.’
‘You wouldn’t have a “wee dram” instead?’
‘You’re right. I wouldn’t. Fifth precept.’
‘Uh – what – ? ‘
‘When I was your age I had enough of that poison to last me a lifetime. Did you see the stunning moon tonight? I brew the best coffee this side of Hadrian’s Wall.’
‘Thank you. Can I just make sure that you underst-‘
‘Where is it?’
‘She broke down. I couldn’t get the engine going. Eventually I gave up and started hiking that track. The full moon saved me.’
‘It does that. And you never even brought a torch? You do, don’t you, you count paperclips for a living?’
‘I’m an artist. I do paintings. Abstract express – ‘
‘It’s alright. You can use big words with me. I was around the world twice by the time I was your age. I am fully aware – I am cognisant – of what abstract expressionism is.’
‘I panicked, left the city in a hurry. Headed North, kept moving. I started to feel symptoms. I took a ferry, kept my head down, mouth shut. And when Nina Norton conked out – she’s my motorbike – I thought – I hoped – that little track would lead to a village or something.’
‘A virus is like a war – it brings out the best and the worst in people.’
‘The ironic thing is, Nina my – ‘
‘- motorbike – ‘
‘- motorbike, yes, she broke down beside a cemetery. Is that where the road ends?’
‘It certainly does for some.’
And the cove – the guy – made a noise that was half snort-of-laughter, half sob. ‘I’m afraid it’s the end of the road for more than just Nina.’ He sniffed.
‘So your vehicle died by the graveyard, and you saw the track and hoped it would lead somewhere interesting. Instead you ended up here!’
‘I did not want to have any human contact. Just to find shelter. I thought maybe I could sleep in someone’s shed.’
‘Byre. You know, you folk from down south might think we’re savages up here, but we are in fact famous for our hospitality. Would you like a top-up of coffee? I have some Paracetamol as well.’
‘God yes, thank you. To both. No, it’s just…’
He looked round the room.
‘You’re wondering if we have internet up here. That radio in the corner is analogue. And this one on the table is digital. There’s no tv because I don’t need one. The router is over there.’
‘You have internet. So you know abou…’
‘Of course I do. What symptoms have you had?’
‘My throat’s made of razor blades – hot drinks help, thank you – I’ve been sweating and shivering. When I touch my chest or back it’s like putting your hand against a boiling kettle. I’m breathing too shallow; my lungs are like teaspoons. It’s like flu, but different.’
‘There are no cases of the virus in the Hebrides.’ I paused. Couldn’t help but give a laugh. ‘I suppose that’s not strictly true.’
His eyes began to stream like his nose.
‘C’mon,’ I said, ‘I have a sense of humour six feet deep and as dry as your cough. Don’t take it seriously.’
‘This is serious. I brought the virus here.’
‘You thought you were doing the right thing. Prob’ly said to yourself, “I gotta get away. The Antarctic is a bother to get to, I’ll self-isolate up in the Hebrides where no one exists”.’
‘I feel awful.’
‘You look it.’
‘No, I meant – ‘
‘I know what you meant, a bhalaich. Och, you meant well.’ I got him some blankets and a pillow. ‘Here,’ I said. ‘Lie back. Rest and be comfortable. It’s interesting to have someone to talk to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m never lonely. I like solitude. I love listening to the radio. But to have a someone visit is – a novelty.’
‘A very unwelcome one.’ His chest crackled.
‘Have I made you in the least bit unwelcome?’
‘No, it’s just…I’ve put you at risk. Proper risk. You’re over seventy.’
I shook my head. ‘Nope. I’m over eighty.’
‘I’ve had a long, good life. Never wanted material things. I preferred to learn. I went to school aged five without a word of English. I could only speak my mother tongue, Gaelic. And from the first day of school we were taught through the medium of English. I was taught through a foreign language.’
‘For what? Decimating my culture?’ I laughed. ‘Oh, I don’t think you can singlehandedly take the blame for something that’s been happening for centuries. The education system didn’t even acknowledge my culture or my people existed. But I’ve probably lived in more countries than you’ve even visited.’
‘I thought if I came up here I could discover a nice spot by a river or a hill and get what I needed safely and find an old house to squat in.’
‘That’s not so different to the life I had. You look at me and see an old man, a living corpse!’ I laughed; he didn’t. ‘Death is part of life. The two mistakes young people make are firstly that they think the old were never young like them, and secondly that they, the young, will never get old.’
‘I won’t. Get old.’
‘You will,’ I said. ‘You’ll live. It just won’t be very comfortable for you for a while.’
‘I won’t be able to live with myself if I’ve passed it on to you.’
‘That,’ I said, slowly, ‘is exactly what I meant.’
‘If, if we keep two metres apart – ‘
‘Listen, a bhalaich. I grew up in a house like this. Basic. We ate…organically, you’d call it now: fresh herring, potatoes and vegetables from our own back garden. Never needed a doctor. We poached fish, kept sheep, cut the peats, helped our neighbours. But something was missing from my life.’
He grimaced. ‘I’m listening, I’m just settling back.’
‘The church here was more powerful than God. They literally chained the swings together on a Saturday night. Children weren’t allowed playing on the Sabbath. If anyone hung their washing outside on a Sabbath her family would be ostracised by the community. No one locked their front doors. People left their car keys in the ignition.’
‘It’s another world.’
‘Whenever you stepped outside, the curtains would twitch. Neighbours knew where you were going before you did. Islanders invented claustrophobia. People come to these islands expecting seclusion and privacy but it is a thousand times harder to find seclusion in the Hebrides than it is in London.’
‘But you live here, miles away from – ‘
‘I chose this. I travelled the world and eventually I came back home, at peace with everything. All I need is the moon. I can read the moon like a book. I got the most isolated shack I could find.’
‘You won’t believe the answer.’
‘To emulate the Buddhist monks I admire.’
‘Okay, that is probably the answer I least expected to hear.’
‘I spent ten years in Japan, five of them in a Zen Buddhist temple. That mask you were wearing – people wore them all the time in Japan.’
‘A Zen Buddhist..!’
‘People always underestimate us islanders, if they think about us at all. People think of stereotypes – ‘Whisky Galore’, and now they have all these crime novels and tv programmes about murders on the islands. Murders! Do you know how few murders have been committed on these islands? To crime writers and tv folk the islands are moving wallpaper…Crime! This is practically the safest place on Earth…Present company excluded.’
‘In Japan, I learned that everyone is dependent on everyone else. Even we Gaels, the Gaelic people, exist. We might be a minority, and a near-invisible one at that, but we exist. Interconnectedness, interdependence, is a fact, neither good nor bad. It just is. So, you see, I learned to forgive those who denied me my culture and who killed my language…I comfortably forgive you.’
‘I hope – ‘
‘No. Listen. You will live for a long time and I will not. It is simple.’
‘Please don’t think that way – ‘
‘I have no fear. Look at the moon through that window. The moon is our future memories. When I gaze at the moon I see a Japanese moon. As a child I thought the moon was God’s eye scouring the island, looking for children to punish for playing football on the Sabbath. Then I read science books and saw the moon as a dead chunk of rock floating, tethered, in the vast nothingness of space, reflecting stolen light. Then I tried to be a poet and I learned that the moon was nothing but a canvas on which an artist projects their own ego. No offence. But now my moon, the Japanese moon, is lit like a paper screen – and look at the beautiful calligraphy on her surface.’
‘Calligraphy. What would it say?’
‘It says “Forgiveness. No raindrop fell in the wrong place”. And it says “Farewell”. Which ought to be the single most natural and meaningful word in the world. Because everything, everyone, is temporary. To most people, farewell’s own parting gift is a yearning for more of this life. But not me. I know my place. I found peace. I’m ready for the next life.’
He was asleep, snoring.
‘Sleep well. One day you will understand. We pass things on, then we pass on. Maybe this Hebridean moon will be your version of my Japanese moon. But you have many more moons ahead of you than behind you in which to find out.’
Born and raised in the Outer Hebrides, Kevin MacNeil is a multi-award-winning author. He has published six acclaimed books, edited a similar number, and written for stage, screen and radio. He has performed his work and taught writing classes in many countries, from Ireland to Colombia to Japan. He is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Stirling, and is a Buddhist, cyclist and owner of a rescue greyhound. He wrote this story the day before coronavirus arrived in the Outer Hebrides.