The Western Isles

It was when I was on the deck of the ferry, making its way laboriously between islands, that I first wondered why I had let Erin persuade me into taking this journey. On the mainland the weather had been very fine, cooler than in the south but without even a hint of a breeze to rustle the trees in Oban. But soon after we set sail, the clouds had blown in and with them what I would describe, in my landlubber ignorance, as a ‘squall’. Now I gripped the rails of the ferry, my knuckles showing white, as I fixed my eyes on the horizon, trying to calm my stomach. I thought, ‘It’s just a ferry, just a bit of movement, nothing to worry about. We’ll be back on dry land soon,’ (though I knew it would be several slow, painful hours before we reached land.)

There was a scattering of people on deck, all wearing more expensive waterproof clothing than me, hoods up. As the trip had gone on, cameras had been zipped up in pockets and the poor weather had driven all but the most hardy below deck. Now we made an abject group, dotted around, either gripping the railings or sat among the rows of plastic seating. No-one spoke, but we exchanged tightlipped smiles when our eyes met.

When I went below deck to visit the toilets, I tried not to notice the prostrate forms on the cheerful, patterned seating: pillows under heads, blindfolds over eyes, headphones over ears. Somehow their efforts made me feel worse. They were the tactical sleepers, hoping they could swiftly lose consciousness and make it through a couple of hours of journey numbed to the sensation of the ship’s swaying, battered by stronger and stronger waves. Everyone who suffers from seasickness has their own technique, and mine was to stay above deck whatever the weather, keeping my eyes glued on the horizon.

Back above deck, I returned to my spot, glad of the territorial nature of the others there which meant that this position had remained empty. Erin had insisted we take the long ferry route from the Scottish mainland to South Uist, rather than the relatively quick one from Skye to North Uist. She had some reason to stop off in Oban on the way, and had heard it was the more beautiful of the two ferry routes as it weaved between islands off Scotland’s ragged shoreline before getting out into open sea. I’d told her I hated ferries, that sometimes I could feel seasick before they had even left shore and she’d said she would find ways to distract me, I could swallow some pills, and that really there was nothing like having the sea wind in your hair. That was before the plan had changed and she had arranged to arrive a day later, skipping her stay in Oban and joining me on the island at an agreed rendezvous. But my trip on the ferry was already booked, so here I was, making my way through the notoriously windy stretch of sea on my way to the Outer Hebrides.

§

The last time I’d seen Erin had been about a week ago, in London, and our meeting was rushed. I’d been coming down with a migraine – it hadn’t quite arrived yet, but I knew it was on the way and was probably wearing that clenched look of someone trying to hide their pain. Erin had told me she needed to rush off so she could get up early for some shoot in Hertfordshire the next day, but as we spoke someone slid another pint in front of her, and she darted her eyes up at him and gave him a wink. We were sat on picnic benches outside a pub and I was trying to get the address of her friend Pete out of her – she’d just told me we would be arriving on the island separately, and I wanted to make sure I knew where I was going.

She was being very vague about the details, while somehow chatting incessantly. Talking to Erin was like swimming in a river, the tide running fast. You couldn’t swim against it; you just had to go with it. She was saying something about there not really being any place names or roads on the island.

‘But there must be an address I can look up. Or how does anyone find anything there?’

‘People who live there know their way around, and everyone visiting is always lost.’ Wind played in the trees as we sat in the fading summer light.

‘Ugh, Erin, I’ve got to go. Why don’t you just let me know the address when you find it?’ She pulled a face. ‘I’ve got a shitting headache again – one of the bad ones…’

‘I’ve got it,’ she said. ‘I’ll draw you a map – it’s better that way anyway. Like a treasure hunt. Plus this way I don’t need to text Pete again… He already thinks I lose everything.’

She reached into her bag and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, smoothing it on the picnic table, and assumed a look of quiet absorption so childlike it made me forget my headache for a moment.

§

When the ferry arrived in Lochboisdale, I waited below deck for the men in high vis jackets to shoo all the cars out, until they gestured me and the other cyclists that it was our turn to pedal out onto dry land. The wind struck me almost immediately – it was buffeting in different directions, making my hair leap wildly about and slap against my face, and made me feel unsteady but invigorated. I had to go slowly, which meant I could take in my surroundings, and was amazed to discover that it wasn’t even really a town we’d landed in – more a scattering of buildings, the most interesting of which was a Post Office-cum-ice cream parlour, its facade painted bubblegum pink. Apart from the Post Office, there weren’t any other shops that I could see – the buildings were resolutely closed, and the streets deserted except for the traffic flowing off the ferry. The only other sign I could see was a hand painted one at the side of the road, saying ‘Motor home services 1 mile’.

I paused at the first junction and pulled out Erin’s map, which I’d carefully put in a plastic sleeve. It was immediately covered by tiny raindrops and as I wiped these off with the back of one hand, a gust of wind caught the paper and sent it dancing out of my grasp, and high up into the air.

§

I wheeled my bike up to what I thought must, finally, be Pete’s front door, my head down against the wind. Darkness was starting to fall, or at least the twilight of a late evening this far north, and I noticed a light flick on ahead of me. As I looked up I saw a man watching me approach, his hip resting jauntily on the doorframe, smoking a cigarette. The man’s front door had a light above it, which cast a yellowish glow on the path between us, and he seemed to be standing in the only sheltered spot of the whole island.

When I got near enough to hear him through the wind, he said, ‘You’re Erin’s friend?’ Then, bouncing his hip off the doorframe to stand up straight, ‘You find me OK?’

‘Oh yes, fine,’ I lied. ‘Sorry it’s a bit later than I thought – the ferry crossing was delayed in the gale.’

‘This isn’t a gale… You should see it here in winter. 100mph winds are totally normal. Anyway, sorry you had a rough journey. I’m told you’ve asked half the island where I live. Didn’t Erin tell you the way?’

I’d reached him now and felt the wind drop. Told by who?, I thought. Out loud I said, ‘Oh. She drew me a map, but…’ I gestured the map blowing away with one hand.

‘Mmmm,’ he said as he dropped the cigarette butt under his heel. He cleared his throat and looked up, his expression softer, ‘Come in out of the wind and I’ll show you the palace. You hungry?’

‘Starving,’ I held out my hand to shake his. ‘Nice to meet you, Pete.’

‘Nice to meet you too, Clare. I’ve heard a lot about you…’

§

That night as the wind whistled in the chimney and around the walls I rolled my mind backwards to what Erin had told me about Pete. She’d described him as ‘a blacksmith or something,’ and they’d been good friends some years ago. Erin had hinted they’d been more than friends, but had been uncharacteristically coy about it. Then Pete had moved away from London to the island where his family owned some land. I remembered Erin’s eyes lighting up as she leant towards me conspiratorially, ‘I heard his family used to own the island, the whole island, going back generations, but had to sell it to pay off a colossal debt. They never lived down the shame, apparently, and most of them moved away, but they kept this one plot. For a keepsake I guess – the land’s no good, you can’t grow anything on it and the peat’s all gone, already cut or farmed or whatever you do with it. And then suddenly Pete wants to move back up there and… I don’t know, go back to his roots or something. God knows why he moved away from civilisation, he must be mad. But it would be an amazing place to visit.’

I think that was the first time we’d discussed visiting the island. I’d always wanted to go and Erin said she’d been meaning to pay Pete a visit for years. We shook hands on it, and I remember thinking that I would have put money on our plan never materialising into anything.

§

The next morning I came downstairs to find Pete sat at the kitchen table, frowning at a newspaper, with a powerful smell of coffee in the air. Last night I’d eaten the leftovers he’d saved me and had an early night, desperate to sleep off the long journey. Pete had been taciturn and a bit distant, but in a friendly way – I’d thought he was trying to be sensitive, allowing me to settle into this new situation in my own time. I hoped he wasn’t disappointed that I’d arrived alone.

As I walked in Pete said, ‘Enjoy your seaweed mattress?’

I made a quizzical, non-committal sound.

He looked up smiling, folding the newspaper in half. ‘That’s what the mainlanders think we sleep on here. Seaweed and horsehair. Nothing wrong with a bit of seaweed, but horsehair – now that hurts. You’ll be wanting a coffee, I guess?’

‘Please,’ I said. Then, glancing at the thick, black dregs in his cup, ‘A white one.’

‘Coming right up.’ He busied himself on the kitchen counter, assuming the manner of someone who has guests rarely, but enjoys making a fuss. The kitchen was rustic in the true sense of the word – not self-consciously rustic in a weekend magazine kind of way. It was gloomy and basic, the worktops made from some roughhewn dark wood with scores of lines and ringed burns from decades of use. I assumed Pete had scavenged it or inherited it from somewhere – it clearly had more history than the rest of the house. A bunch of heather showing signs of decay sat in a chipped glass on the table. I slid the newspaper towards me.

‘It’s yesterday’s, I’m afraid,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘Today’s won’t get here until the evening ferry arrives… If it even sails today.’ He was setting an unusual contraption on the stove – a two-pronged espresso maker, with twin tubes going up and then doing a u-turn to send the coffee flowing into two espresso cups poised beneath.

‘So Erin said you’re a blacksmith?’ I asked.

He laughed at that, a short bark. ‘Is that what she said? That’s so like her…’ He paused. ‘How do you know Erin, anyway?’

‘Uh…’ I thought back a few years, ‘She’s a friend of a friend. Through Jesse, actually. You know Jesse?’ Pete nodded, his expression hard to read. Jesse was Erin’s on and off ex-boyfriend, and I knew some of her friends disliked him. I continued, ‘But more through that whole circle of people at Grove Terrace.’

‘You lived there?’

‘No. Well, not properly. Just a few nights here and there. But I was round there all the time. When I first moved up to London it was a sort of haven. A grubby kind of haven. I’d had a bad breakup, was still trying to piece myself back together. I didn’t know my way round the city, didn’t have a job, wanted to meet new people… Sounds rubbish, but it was that fun bit when you first move to London, when everything’s really exciting.’

‘Where had you moved from?’

‘From Bath. I studied there and stayed in the area a few years after.’ Pete nodded and I continued, ‘Anyway, I lived just round the corner from Erin so I’d pop round there all the time. There were always loads of people coming in and out of the house. You never quite knew what would happen. A coffee would turn into running an errand in some part of London I didn’t know, or a big improvised meal, or helping Erin assemble some fiddly bit of set for one of her shoots. And Erin was so great, it felt like she took me under her wing. She listened when I needed to talk things through, she helped me massively when I was looking for work. Set me up with a few good contacts. And she was so much fun.’ Even as I said it, I noticed that past tense, was.

Pete smiled, ‘Yep. She can be bloody brilliant, can’t she? Sounds familiar – we met soon after she moved to London and I couldn’t believe how quickly she found all these people. Some of them hangers on, you know? But so much fun, and some really good ones in the mix. I meant to ask you how she’s doing?’

‘Erin?’ Pete nodded. ‘Oh, you know, she’s good I think. It’s always hard to tell…’ I trailed off but realised he was looking at me with a particular kind of intensity. So something had happened between them. I thought for a moment, trying to find a way to describe how she was. ‘I think her work’s going well. She seems busier…’

‘She was always busy.’

‘Yes, but busy in a different way now. More focus, less complaining I guess. It’s more what she doesn’t say than what she does say, but I think she’s doing well. She’s still a nightmare, of course. Never shows up on time, always some ridiculous excuse. And she’s still got all those friends. Some of them… I don’t really understand why…’

‘They’re twats, some of them.’

We shared a smile. ‘It’s true. Some of them are twats.’

The coffee was burbling and sputtering and he turned to attend to it. I flicked the pages of the newspaper and we enjoyed a few moments of silence. Somehow I felt at ease around Pete. I couldn’t exactly imagine him and Erin together, but it was always a bit like that with her friends – a mismatched collection of people who didn’t always get on with each other.

He put a coffee down in front of me and I nodded my thanks. I noticed it was black, no milk. Perhaps he was one of those coffee connoisseurs who believed the only way to drink it was black, or perhaps he’d simply been distracted. He seemed lost in thought.

I blew across the top of the coffee and took a sip. ‘What’s it like living here? Do you like it?’

He exhaled, as if he’d been holding his breath. ‘Let me give you a piece of advice: don’t move here.’

‘Because of the isolation?’

‘Because of the people. The islanders…’ He waved his hand to indicate that they were all around us. ‘…They don’t like new people. If you’re a visitor, no problem – they’ll be great with you. Super friendly. But try and move here and it all changes.’

‘Isn’t the population shrinking? You’d think they’d be glad of a few new faces. It seems a shame…’

‘Quite.’ He was leaning with his hands against the worktop and he looked down at his feet.

I took the opportunity to tap a bit of salt from a salt shaker into my cup. Someone had told me once that if a coffee is too bitter for you, you can use salt instead of sugar to sweeten it. Worth a try. ‘But what about your, uh…’ I searched for the word, ‘connections to the island?’

‘Hm?’ He looked up with a start. ‘Oh you mean my family? Doesn’t matter a bit it seems. You have to be born and raised here, or it counts for nothing.’ He cleared his throat, then asked, ‘So what are your plans for the next couple of days?’

§

I’d spent an hour or so cycling into a headwind while trying to look around me and take in the landscape. It was extremely unusual, pockmarked with pools of water everywhere, with flat prairie-like plains and mountains in the distance – painted blue by the aerial perspective. I stuck to the roads, or rather the one, single-track road bisecting the island, and pulled over at passing places for the various cars of the island to overtake. It wasn’t always easy to hear them approaching behind, and one impatient vehicle (straight off the ferry, no doubt), had honked me until I pulled over.

Up ahead I saw a sign, ‘MUSEUM & CRAFTS & CAFE’, and felt a leap of joy at the idea of a milky coffee. It was the first building I’d seen that wasn’t either derelict or one of the many pebble-dashed dwellings, seemingly built to the same design. Stepping inside, it was a relief to be out of the wind, though I was enjoying the feeling of wildness, of being battered, quite safely, by an elemental force outside of my control.

I paid a few pounds to get in and slowed my step to museum speed. The museum was extremely old fashioned, and quite charmingly so. It had different rooms of a domestic house laid out, with objects matching a particular vintage: 1920s bedroom, 1930s kitchen, 1940s living room. In each room there was a period photo of a person in a room of their house, looking towards the photographer in a tense way that suggested to me a man behind an old camera, the hood over his head, sliding a sheet of glass into the body of the camera.

I scrutinised some of the objects, but for me they carried the association of over-designed cafes in east London, crammed with beautifully vintage objects smugly raided from car boot sales. Vintage objects had been forever ruined.

In the bedroom there were two four poster beds built with their roofs at a fierce angle, presumably to fit into the top floor of one of the many ruined crofter’s houses I’d seen dotted around the island. A few of them were still in use and had thatched roofs with stones weighing them down, to prevent the thatch from being whisked off in the next gale.

The beds had that sagging, tiny look of the past. There was a rope slung between them to stop visitors getting too close or trying them out. Just as I was about to move on I noticed that each one had a plastic zip lock bag attached to its end. One of the bags contained seaweed and the other, horsehair. They had typewritten labels saying ‘Some examples of mattress material.’

Later, I was sat in the cafe drinking my coffee and studying the sandwich menu when I felt my phone vibrate. I’d been passing in and out of mobile signal since I arrived on the island, and tended to get a batch of text messages arrive at once as they had bottlenecked somewhere in the ether. My first thought was that it was a voicemail message, some news about a job I was waiting to hear about.

It was Erin, saying, ‘Sorry love delayed by a day or two. You won’t believe it when I tell you. Hole up with Pete and try not to fall in love with him xx’.

§

I was in Pete’s house two days later, cooking him a thank you supper for letting me stay longer. It had turned out that his house was in a great location for island hopping – right in the middle of the archipelago, with causeways connecting most of them so I could cycle across giving me a great sense of accomplishment. We were getting on well, sharing evenings together with drams of single malts from his collection. He’d lit a peat fire one chilly August night, though really the weather was too warm to justify it. He knew when to give me some distance so I never felt overwhelmed in his company. And I was starting to draw out his humour. I realised he probably wanted a housemate here, or a companion. There was sadness lurking somewhere behind his kindness.

I was scrubbing and slicing potatoes, saying ‘I can’t believe you haven’t seen this film.’

‘One thing you might have noticed about this place: not chockablock with cinemas.’

I glanced over my shoulder at him to give him a sour look, a gesture of well, obviously, but he was hunched over his newspaper, his eyes on the sudoku. For a second I felt a flicker and wondered if I could be attracted to him. He seemed so self-contained in that moment. I admired his ability to maintain a conversation while keeping a continuous stream of counting in his head. I thought I would probably find it infuriating if I knew him better, could feel the seeds of that sown already. Being able to manage these two tracks simultaneously was inexplicable to me, as anything to do with numbers was always a major cognitive effort. ‘Yeah, but come on. You haven’t even heard of it? You get the newspaper every day. Or do you just do the sudoku and leave the rest?’

He exhaled deeply and pushed the newspaper away from him. ‘Not even that, it seems…’ Running a hand through his hair, messing it up, ‘I used to think I was good at these things, but maybe I just got lucky a few times.’

I pushed all the potatoes into a pan of boiling water and started slicing garlic cloves in half.

‘By the way,’ he said, ‘Did you hear anything about that job application?’

‘Ugh. Nothing yet. Tomorrow’s my last chance – they said they’d let us know Thursday at the latest.’

‘So, what, you just quit your old job and jumped into nothing?’

‘Jumped into nothing – that’s about right. In at the deep end.’ I looked over at him and saw he was leaning back in his chair with his arms crossed, keenly observing me. He wanted a real answer, not an empty metaphor. So I told him about my boss, a choreographer whose work I liked but who had proved increasingly difficult to work with. Towards the end there had been a terrible, risk averse, storm cloud atmosphere in the office. Everyone was cautiously avoiding another blow up, trying to self-filter so they wouldn’t trigger another argument. I’d handed in my notice and kept my head down, worked out that last month with a growing sense of glee and escape. And then, after I’d left, I hit the anticlimax. I’d turned inwards, attacking myself – my lack of resolve for not being able to stick it out. I was brought up as someone who would stick with things, get to the end. But, telling this story to Pete, I corrected myself, thinking it was a mistake to think of this as a character trait, that really it was an isolated incident and I was pleased to have left. ‘What I mean is, I knew I had some savings, knew I could manage for a couple of months without getting too panicky. Maybe in a way I wanted to test myself, remind myself that’s possible. That it’s possible to take some time to look around and… maybe make a better choice next time. That was the idea, anyway.’

‘Good for you. Is that how it’s worked out? You, uh, feel free?’ He winced a bit at the question.

‘Well, I’m pretty near the edge now. It’s a bit scary how near the edge I am. London rents…’ I slid the garlic cloves into a pan of hot oil and watched them dance. ‘It’s not got any easier since you moved up here. But at the same time, yes, I do feel better. Sometimes when I went to work at my old office I’d get this feeling like when you see your reflection in two mirrors, stretching out to infinity. Like this was it, for ever, and it was exhausting. I was exhausted. It felt like something important was draining out of me.’ I glanced at him, smiling. ‘Not to be melodramatic or anything…’

The centre of the garlic cloves began to pull away from their edges, pushed upwards by the steam and unfurling like petals of a flower. ‘Hey, look at this,’ I said, ‘They don’t always move like this…’

‘Hm. It looks like they’re being pulled up by some invisible force. A barn raising. Are you flavouring the oil, or…?’

‘For the mashed potato. They’ll make it amazing.’

He sat back down as I scissored some sausages out of their packaging and hunted for a pan. Clattering in the cupboard I said, ‘I’ve always wondered what it would be like to leave the city, live in the country for a while. I only go there for holidays, you know? What’s it really like out here away from the mainland? Is it lonely?’

‘Oh, you know… It goes through phases. First it was just a massive relief to not be in London anymore. I’d really reached the end with it, so glad to leave. And then I threw myself into building this place.’

‘You built this house?’

He waved his hand in a gesture I took to mean it’s no big deal, ‘Everyone does it here. You get subsidies, because of the crofters and the terrible history. Like we’re still making amends. Just build a new house, leave the old one to crumble.’

‘I’ve noticed there are a lot of derelict houses round here.’

‘And all the same, right? Blackhouses, they’re called. If they’ve still got their roofs on you’ll see them weighed down with stones. Anyway, I threw myself into building this place and settling in. That’s when I realised I’d made a big mistake. Even though my family lived here, going back who knows how many generations, it doesn’t seem to count for anything. I mean, I’m obviously not Scottish, I grew up in Portsmouth. But my blood is. The islanders, they love visitors, but you try living here… They’ll freeze you out. It’s great to have guests though, see the place through their eyes. It is beautiful. It’s just hard to hold onto that the whole time. And people tend to visit once and not come back again. It’s so far from everything…’

The sausages were sizzling in the pan now, cooking a bit too vigorously so I turned down the gas. The supply, I knew, ran from a large, red gas cannister that hugged the wall outside Pete’s house – the same improvised system used across the whole island it seemed.

‘Erm,’ said Pete, shifting in his seat. ‘That reminds me. You do know Erin’s not coming, don’t you?’

I looked round at him. ‘You’re serious? Fuck, you are serious.’ I wiped my hands on a dishcloth and turned to face him properly. ‘This is so like her. She didn’t think to tell me, that’s it?’

‘I assumed she already had, but then the way you were speaking… Making plans…’

‘When did she say this?’ I’d never seen Pete with any kind of communication device – no phone, no computer – but I knew there must be something hidden in this house because he seemed to get regular texts from Erin.

‘Yesterday, I think. Yesterday afternoon. I’m sorry, mate.’

‘No need for you to be sorry. And it doesn’t even really matter – I’ll have a nice time here, a good break. I’m glad to have met you,’ I smiled, to show him I didn’t blame him. ‘It’s just… Why not just tell me if she didn’t want to come?’

‘She probably wanted to come. Maybe something came up? A change in plans?’

§

As I crossed the causeway to North Uist and peddled towards Carinish, my stomach was still full of fish and chips from my stop off at a chip shop attached to a petrol station. It seemed to be the only one on the islands, and came with Pete’s recommendation. It was a sunny day, perfect for chips on the beach, and amazingly the wind was low so I’d decided to travel a good distance and felt a large portion was justified. In fact, I hadn’t finished it and had stowed the remains in their polystyrene box in my bag for later.

I was on an otherwise boring stretch of road, the landscape less spectacular than some parts of Benbecular and South Uist, when I spotted the sign for the Trinity Temple. My guidebook had mentioned this as a point of interest, and as there were so few sights to choose from I’d wanted to take a look, even though I wasn’t particularly interested in religious monuments. There was a church at the turn off, which seemed far too modern, but I followed the signs and found, tucked round the back, the ruins of the Trinity Temple. I propped my bike by the information panel and scanned it: an early religious foundation in North Uist, built 1263, a centre of learning as well as worship, founded by a woman called Bethag. There were a couple of cars parked by the gate, and a path through long grass that snaked its way up to the temple, which was raised on a slight mound. I remembered something Pete had mentioned and scrutinised the car doors. Sure enough, they carried the hallmark of an islander’s car: the doors had characteristic dents at the hinge – an indication that they had been violently overextended, the doors caught by the wind and bent back, denting the metal panelling.

I left my bike behind and walked the remaining distance on foot. Inside, the temple was strangely peaceful. It was half ruined, open to the elements and its stonework covered with orange lichen. Far from the grandeur I expected, it was built on a domestic scale. I imagined a group of men, studying for priesthood, in the room I stood in. The floor was dotted with gravestones, which must have been added when the building changed function. I looked out of a window at the fields of nettles and brambles, taller than me, then sat on one of the ruined walls and closed my eyes, tilting my face to the sun. After a few minutes I unzipped my jacket and took it off.

It was still and calm, with just the sound of birds calling overhead and, every few minutes, a car passing. I took a deep breath and felt some tension lift from my shoulders. It was in this moment that I thought, Yes, this is it. I’m on holiday. I remember how to do this now.

§

The next few days passed quickly. In a way, I realised, it was a relief to know that Erin wasn’t going to join me. She was always quite a dominating force on a situation, always the pack leader, always involved in some drama. She would tempt out my gregariousness, which I loved for the novelty, but it could leave me feeling depleted – something I’d particularly noticed in the last few months. Her absence allowed my other side to come out – the quiet thinker and observer, the considerate guest. I felt nourished and rested, my lungs full of Atlantic air. Plus I knew that I was definitely getting more cycling done than if she’d been with me. I took satisfaction in the ache of my limbs, the sense of having worked for my leisure. Peddling along the track on the last stretch to Pete’s house each evening felt like I had accomplished something.

I was nearing the end of my week on the islands, so I was consciously clocking a few landmarks for the last time: the roadsigns at the approach to each causeway saying ‘otters crossing’, the roadside statues of the Virgin Mary scattered over South Uist and Eriskay, the black-brown Hebridean sheep, the machair, with its astonishing fields of wildflowers covering the plains and sand dunes on the west coast of the islands. I’d had a fair bit of sun during my holiday but this day was changeable, more like the first day I’d arrived, and threatening at times. I’d forgotten my gloves and a sharp rain, driven hard by the wind, started attacking my knuckles. Looking up I could see black clouds rolling in so I looked around for somewhere to shelter.

I sought out the only place in sight – an abandoned blackhouse turned into a museum of sorts. I turned off into its lane, speeding past an empty shed where I was meant to pay my £1.50 entry fee and dismounted, leant my bike against the outside of the building and ran inside just as the downpour properly got going. It was incredibly dark inside the building, and I was struck by the strong smell of peat smoke that pervaded the rooms. Like all these buildings, it had drystone walls, a beamed roof covered in thatch and a packed earth floor. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw that there was a central hearth and that the interior was completely blackened with smoke. Some yellowed newspaper clippings from 1976 were tacked to a board on one of the walls, describing the preservation of the building for the public, a way of showing how crofters used to live. A row of steel hand tools for farming were leant against one wall.

It was a gloomy house with nowhere to sit down while I waited for the rain to pass, so I paced the two rooms, rubbing my hands together to warm them. For the first time on the holiday I felt a creeping resentment that I realised in that moment had been biding its time. Why hadn’t Erin just said she didn’t want to come with me? I felt sure now that she’d never intended to come, could imagine her telling people about the text message I sent when I found out from Pete she wasn’t coming: ‘Where are you, arsehole?’ She’d be showing it to her friends, rolling her eyes.

I glanced outside and could see the storm was hitting its stride. It could be some time that I was stranded in this place, and I tried to force my thoughts away from Erin. Instead I thought of the treat I had planned – I was going to make my way back to Pete’s house via the smokehouse and pick up some peat-smoked salmon. He’d said it was the best he’d tasted in his life, about the only positive thing he’d said about the islands.

§

Last summer: a bank holiday perhaps. I was at a sprawling picnic in London Fields, surrounded by a mismatched group of Erin’s friends, with half-eaten food and cans of beer strewn around us. It was the start of summer so we’d all enthusiastically spent too long outside and burnt to bits. Now the sun was setting and we were chasing it across the park, dragging picnic blankets in a too-slow tablecloth trick that kept them loaded with detritus.

The gathering had turned a bit ill tempered – we were a disparate group and our conversation was becoming strained. Some people had been drinking all afternoon. I remember hearing someone muttering in a resentful way about waiting for the ‘guest of honour’ to arrive. I was sat with a couple of Erin’s housemates and was irritated that a cluster of people had slowly shifted round so their backs were to me.

Then Erin arrived, hours late, freewheeling on her bike, and I had one of those rare moments of clarity that comes from the in between state – a couple of beers in, but not yet drunk. Just enough to withdraw slightly from the situation and lose your investment in it. I noticed how Erin’s friends clustered around her, and it felt like time lapse footage of a field of daisies bending towards the sun – all eyes turned to her, faces lit up. She was wearing a turquoise, sleeveless jumpsuit with a pattern of scribble marks all over it, pink socks and bashed up, maroon trainers. On almost anyone else it would look absurd; on her it didn’t exactly look great but it did make me laugh. And then I zoomed out a little further, realised I was just like everyone else, basking in her presence. As soon as she’d walked up her scattergun chatter was in full flow, as she was recounting some story about how she’d been delayed at a shop giving a witness statement to the police about someone shoplifting. No-one believed this could be the only reason for her being so late, but we all went along with it because she told the story so well and it allowed us to shake off our ill humour. The funny thing was, she said, that she’d also shoplifted something from the same place and of course she had this ridiculous torn shoulder bag that wouldn’t conceal anything. So she acted out speaking to these cops, being the good citizen, while all the time trying to angle her body so they wouldn’t notice the stuff poking out of her bag.

Up until that point I hadn’t realised Erin actually stole things. I knew she had some swindle for travelling free on buses with her Oyster card, because from time to time she was caught and fined and would tell us about it. And she was notoriously bad at paying back debts – just a few pounds here and there, which she would conscientiously keep reminding us of even though it didn’t matter at all. I tried to imagine her picking something off a shelf and pushing it into her bag, keeping an eye on the security cameras and found it utterly believable. I found I could even picture the expression on her face while she did it.

As she stood in this park telling her story I realised that an invisible switch had been flicked. This group of people, which had been irritable and disparate before she arrived, had gelled together in her presence. Where once we were separate we were now coherent. And I realised that was always the effect that Erin had on groups of people – she made sense of them. The effect only lasted while she was physically present; it was fragile, but it was extraordinary. It was one of the reasons, I realised with a dart of pain, that I was in love with her.

I watched Erin pause dramatically, then cackle with laughter at something, her bright eyes flashing, and felt this tug at me. The sunshine, the boredom of a wasted afternoon, the beer all mingled together. There was a doubling of my consciousness: I was both removed from the situation, understanding for the first time that it was love that I felt for Erin, and also very much in the situation, caught by her story and transfixed by her presence.

§

As I paced around the blackhouse, waiting for the storm to clear, the resentment I felt for Erin softened, and with it that other feeling that I still struggled to admit to. I was on an island, separated from her by a body of water, five hundred miles and at least a day of travel. We’d actually been seeing less of each other in recent months; I had thought of this as a mistake, or because I’d been busy or preoccupied or passive, but I realised in this moment that it had been intentional. It was time for me to let go of Erin. I had been carrying this feeling for her for too long, this hot ball inside my chest.

Arriving in London I’d been eager, lonely, jobless. She had replied with generosity and wild energy, filling my time with her ideas and stories and an endless succession of people. Erin was someone who thrived off new people, giving each person the impression that they were special – as they truly were to her, in those first months. I was aware, even when we were seeing each other constantly, that her relationships were volatile and friends would come and go – I’d seen housemates and close friends disappear from her life without any awkwardness or even a passing mention from her. They were just suddenly absent. And so too had things changed between us – nothing sudden, but a gradual process of separation. Over the same period I had been figuring out how to live in London, a city that can be hostile for newcomers, and I couldn’t help feeling that the two were related. Erin had made sense of the city for me, she had taught me a way I could exist in it. I didn’t need that anymore, and what she could give me felt less important, less unique. It had got to the point where I hesitated before I picked up the phone to call her, and I realised it wouldn’t be long before I’d stop calling her altogether.

The storm had blown itself out and relative peace restored itself to the island. I picked up my helmet from where it was resting on the floor, took a drink of water, clipped the helmet on and wondered whether to keep my jacket on or take it off for the rest of the ride. I rested one palm on the handlebar and thought that Erin had probably never intended to come, and that it was better this way.