Fiction - Rebecca Burns

Island Honeymoon by Rebecca Burns


He had found the cottage on the internet – just to prove he could – and when they arrived, he was relieved. Clean, modern, warm. Walls painted egg-shell white; bright, robust rugs on a timber floor. Tasteful beams pinning back a low, but not imposing ceiling, and – thankful heaven – a deep, billowing bed. Kate made a pleased little noise down in her throat when they opened the bedroom door, and laid her long limbs on the plump mattress. She wriggled, shaking out the seven hours on the train, the three on the ferry, and the bumping taxi ride across the island. She threw her half-smile at Andy as he stood in the doorway.


“Lucky, lucky...” she murmured.


He dropped their bags and edged next to her. “Not lucky. It’s called research. Isn’t it exactly what you wanted?”


Kate snorted and rolled onto her stomach. Her fleece slid up; an arc of pale skin, and he wanted to kiss it. She slapped his hand away, though not unkindly. “I bet you spent all of ten minutes online before you picked this place.”


Andy sighed and peered at his nails. “Five minutes more than it took me to pick you.”


She pinched him, but was pleased.


Later, they walked out into the blundering cold, sucking in their cheeks. Andy couldn’t stop shivering, tugging his thin coat around narrow shoulders. Kate pulled his ungloved hand into her pocket. “I told you to pack warm things,” and she smiled properly for once, baring her teeth.


“Whose bright idea was this?” he muttered. Inside her pocket, his fingers sought the gold band on her hand. He rotated it.


“Hush. Just look at where we are. Look at the sea.”


He liked the rich mellowness that had come into her voice and followed her gaze. A curved strip of yellow stretched out for a hundred yards or so from the cottage gate. Spongy, custard-like, it captured their footprints as they strolled forward, listening to the gentle surf pulse against the shore. Flat and milky-calm, frigid in the bitter air, the water stretched out into the Atlantic. Grey rocks banked the inlet, the striped, smooth shingle rolled and buffeted by a thousand liquid tongues.


“I didn’t expect it to be so peaceful,” Andy said, his teeth chattering slightly. He picked out a seabird, out on the water, skimming the surface. A steady flap of wings, and its plump body settled upon the gelatine stillness. The bird started to preen. 


Kate eased her fingers from Andy’s grasp, twisting the wedding band back in position. She stretched her arms above her head and brought them low, slowly, spreading her hands on Andy’s chest. “It’s just perfect.” Her breath came out in smoky bubbles, dissolving against his face.


They kissed and Andy, delighted and a little delirious with fatigue, held her close, squeezing out his love. Kate allowed the embrace for a moment, a few seconds longer than normal.


The white of the morning sun woke them, breaking through the gaps in the curtains and painting brilliant streaks over bare limbs. Clothes, spilling from their bags, were drawn out of the shadows; empty, formless shapes seeking the light, waiting for the warmth of bodies and blood. At the breakfast table, Kate curled around a cup of tea, rubbing her cold fingers against the hot earthenware. Mrs McLeod, the cottage owner, had been overexcited at the prospect of honeymooners staying for a week, so had filled the fridge and cupboards with “nothing but the bare essentials, hen, for a happy couple.” Picking up the keys, Kate’s face had frozen when the goodly stout woman pinched her cheek; walking the half mile or so from the McLeod’s croft, the cottage a chalky block in the distance, Kate had stroked her face; bewilderment at such demonstrative, maternal affection stained her skin in red streaks. But they were glad of the teabags and bread, listening to a now-transformed, angry sea.

Wind buffeted the little stone building. Sitting opposite Kate, buried in a borrowed jumper, Andy considered pulling his new wife back to bed, where they could warm each other. After all, wasn’t that what honeymoon couples did? Caress, stroke, hold, drive each other crazy? Even Greasy Lee – an unfortunate nickname for a man tarred in motor oil – had returned from his honeymoon and strutted his sexual prowess around the rest of the lads, winking over at Andy; “it’ll be your turn next. You’ll see what they’re like – she thought a honeymoon was a license to wear out my todger.” Andy had guffawed and sniggered with the rest of the garage, silently counting down the weeks until he met Kate in church. But that had been before, before everything changed.


The line of tension across Kate’s face warned him off, should he be foolish enough to suggest a return to their bed. The little pink scar on her jaw glowed and shined. Andy drained his own mug, and walked over to the fridge next to the stove.


“Good old Mrs McLeod,” he said, standing up with his spoils. “Bacon? You know, I don’t think we’ve eaten since Ullapool, and I’m starving.”


He rummaged around for a frying pan and started to peel out the bacon slices. The kitchen’s square window was directly above the stove and he looked out at the water. The wind had whipped the surf into white briny peaks, and they crashed weightily on the shoreline. In the distance, over a few miles of bracken and heather, a black cone pricked the horizon; a Broch, the taxi driver had informed them. One of many old fortresses they’d find on the island. In years gone by, islanders retreated to the stone honeycomb and sat out the winter. Rock piled upon rock, warmed by fire; hardy Lewis men lived like swaddled kings in their granite citadel. Andy had been fascinated and listened to the taxi driver intently.


“You know, we should take a walk over to the Broch this week,” and Andy swung round to look at Kate, holding the frying pan. It was a mistake. The slices of uncooked meat, edges curling up like private flesh, its sanitary pinkness – Kate made a gulping sound and slid from her chair. Holding her stomach, she tottered back towards the bedroom, shaking away Andy’s hand on her arm.


“It’s bacon!” he shouted. “It’s not... Oh Christ.” He threw the pan in the sink, appetite gone.


After Kate had slept, they took another walk on the shore. Alone in the kitchen, Andy had eaten toast washed down with tea and fags. He knew better than to mention the events of the morning. In return, Kate didn’t mention the cigarettes, but could not resist scuffing the butts by the door, her lips turned up.


They walked on the wet sand, hand in hand. Mist settled over them like a moist blanket, turning their coats into bejewelled cloaks. The delicate diamond shine of the haar kissed the shore, drawing forth tiny holes that broke the surface of the sand. Andy ducked down, probing. Up to his wrist; a scrabbling of the fingertips and the hole spat out its bounty - a cockle. Andy grinned, pleased with the discovery. Kate took the rounded shell from his fingers, her lips parting with interest.


“I’ve never eaten cockles before.”


“Never?” Andy bent over to retrieve another one. “My granddad used to treat me to a cup on a Saturday night, down at the White Horse. His mate was a fish man – you know, they came round the pubs with a basket? Granddad always got me a big helping and smothered it with vinegar.”


“Sounds disgusting.”


“No. It was gorgeous, actually.” Andy rolled the molluscs in his palm. The scrape of a toothpick in a polystyrene cup, a billow of vinegary, beery breath; a grandad’s ropey, tattooed embrace and the feeling he was cherished. He loved these tiny, fleshy bubbles from the sea for so many reasons.

Kate stared at the brown shells. She could smell the water and sand on them; a bracing kind of scent that seemed to open up the skin. The cockles squatted in Andy’s hand. Now they looked like hardened cankers, poisonous mounds of venom. She wondered if she resented them. They were like magnets, drawing Andy backwards, into that happy, chaotic past she’d rather he didn’t talk about. She moved away, further up the beach, away from his probing eyes. She looked for the Broch in the distance. Solitary and solid. When she found it, peeping up from behind a dune, she sighed.


Andy hummed a tune as he crouched, knees and elbows wet, tugging up handfuls of brown sludge as he hunted for more treasure. He thought of a cup of cockles, eating them slowly at the kitchen table, swigging from a can of beer. He didn’t know his eyes were wet as he gathered them in his jumper. Kate’s jumper.  


He had no idea how to cook them. Kate sat watching, silently, offering no advice. Andy washed the shells and then, debating, decided upon steaming them in a colander. The steel frame shook and shivered as heat rose. Shells parted sensuously. Andy found some wraps of vinegar in a cupboard, left-overs from a distant trip to the chip-shop, and slid the chattering sea-morsels onto a plate. He tipped the vinegar over them.


“Good?” Kate’s eyebrows were raised.


Andy bounced the firm white flesh on his tongue. In the distance he could hear the toot and beep of a slot machine, and the tap of a pipe on teeth. “Very.”


She hadn’t eaten all day, but the salty pile on Andy’s plate did not inspire hunger. In fact, Kate realised, her stomach felt oddly detached, like a shivering animal set apart from the warm-blooded pack. She had felt like that for days; when she bought her dress from the department store, knowing the assistants would never guess what it was for; as they stood with Andy’s bewildered parents making their vows; when they boarded the train.


Watching Andy fork pale slivers into his mouth, she was struck by something. “Did you remember to cancel the cake?” 


Andy paused. He held a cockle in the pouch of his cheek. Shit. “No.”


Kate ground her teeth. “Great. That’s five-hundred quid wasted, then. I hope they don’t turn up with it at the bloody hotel.”


Andy swallowed awkwardly. “Surely they’ll phone your parents?”


“Oh, even better. I’m sure Dad would love to tell them how much money he’s lost on the deposit.” Kate reached out for Andy’s beer and took a swig.


Andy watched. He laid his fork down on the table and tried to catch her hand. “He decided to cancel everything. So it doesn’t matter what he says. I’m sorry about the cake.”


“It’s ok.” But she pulled her hand away and covered her face. He stared – could she be crying?


She was. Fat, heavy tears slid down her face, and she made a savage sound as she fought for control. More than anything, Andy wanted to hold her; relief that she’d finally showed emotion almost pushed him into an embrace, into hugging her and encouraging her to scream out her grief. But he knew. It would not help. Instead Kate sat rigidly, fortified and solid. The heat of her sorrow was contained within. Her shoulders were rock-like and immoveable.


“Do you know -” and her breath burst through in quivering words – “the first thing Dad asked about was the car. Was the car ok? Was it an insurance job? Not ‘how are you? How is...Claudia?’”


Andy had wondered if she would ever say Claudia’s name again, and the shock of hearing her name caught him like a hook under the ribs. He glanced down at his plate, the shells resting easily on white porcelain. His appetite disappeared for the second time that day. “Kate,” he began slowly, not knowing what to say.


Kate hissed through clenched teeth. “Why did I have to be late? Claudia was on time. She waited for me in the office. The girls liked her – who wouldn’t?”


“She was lovely.”


“I drove too fast. Why? It wouldn’t have mattered if we’d missed the fitting. Claudia didn’t need her dress to be taken in much either. She was always so skinny.”


“The police said you were under the speed limit.” Andy tried to keep his voice light.


“But the road was wet. It had been raining. There was so much glass. When I saw what it had done to her skin, her beautiful skin...” Kate’s voice trailed away. She stared out of the window.


Andy sat back in his chair, longing for a cigarette. He knew any words he uttered, however carefully chosen, would fall like pebbles against Kate’s hardened heart.


“Your poor parents,” she said, quietly. “They were looking forward to our big day so much.”

“My parents are fine. They just want us to be fine.” Right now Andy wished he was with them.

“At least they came to the registry office.”


“They don’t blame you for any of this. How could they? In time, your parents won’t blame you either.” But his words were hollow, pricked clean of substance.


Kate stood up and walked over to the sink. She bent low, her hair hanging down. Salt-water dripped from her face, down her nose. Outside the wind picked up again, blowing away the sea-fog and ushering birds from the water. It whirled and funnelled around the cottage, up and up, chasing over heather towards the Broch, silent and black against the heavy sky.