At the Writing for Pleasure Group that I attend, one of the members suggested that, as a stimulus for our monthly writing task, we should find a place on a map that we have never been to and, following a little research, write a story set in that place. This is my story.
Fin sat in the passenger seat in silence, headphones on, listening to music on his phone, gazing morosely out of the window. It had been a long journey, by car and ferry, and he would be glad to get there and stretch his legs. This had all been his sister’s idea. Ava had thought it would be good for him to ‘get away’. Get away from what? He couldn’t escape his thoughts and feelings. Lisa leaving him just months before their wedding had knocked him for six. He felt like he would never get over it. It would be good to have a break from his friends and workmates though, who looked at him with pity and kept trying to drag him out to have a bit of fun.
The scenery was beginning to distract him though. As they travelled further north they had left the towns and motorways behind and now, on the island, the scenery grew wilder. Settlements were few and far between, especially since they had got off the ferry from Aberdeen. He had slept for most of that ordeal fortunately. Countless nights tossing and turning had taken its toll and he had slept like a log.
“Not too far now,” said Ava. “We’re in Esha Ness.” They had booked a cottage near the western coast of the mainland for a week. Neither of them had visited the Shetlands before, but Ava, a keen walker, had researched the area and was looking forward to walking along the volcanic cliffs.
Their little cottage was near Esha Ness lighthouse so the sight of that in the distance, along with the Sat Nav, easily led them to it. Aside from the light house it was the only building in sight. There was not a soul to be seen. Luckily they had the code for the key safe and soon got out of the wind into the cosy cottage. It seemed well equipped and Ava had packed some food, knowing they would not be able to pop to the shops very easily, so after a bowl of soup they wrapped up well and went exploring. It was cold and windy, but the air was fresh and clean with a tang of salt. The scenery was dramatic and it was easy to see how the fury of the Atlantic had shaped these dramatic cliffs. They walked as far as the inlet at Calder’s Geo and then turned back. The light would be failing soon and they would be safer returning the next day.
As they sat by the log burner drinking hot chocolate, Ava looked up from her ipad.
“There is a circular walk starting at the lighthouse and continuing along the path by Calder’s Geo where we got to last night. ‘A geo is a linear cleft in the sea cliff created by erosion. Calder’s Geo has the largest cave in Britain,’ she read from the ipad. “Unfortunately it can only be reached by kayak. But the walk continues north to the bay of The Burr and then back by the Loch of Houlland. Sounds amazing.”
Fin begrudgingly agreed. He could feel himself relaxing in the warmth of the fire.
“This is interesting,” Ava continued. “There are legends in the Shetlands about selkies, or ‘seal folk’ who are mythological beings, usually female, who can change from seal to human form by shedding their skin. After experiencing life on land they replace their skin and return to the sea as a seal. There are tales of them beguiling men and taking them into the sea never to return, and of men falling in love with a selkie and hiding her skin so that she has to stay on land with him forever. How romantic.”
“Only if she wanted to stay with him,” returned Fin, darkly. “Otherwise it would be hell for her, forever yearning to return to the sea.”
After a tasty cooked breakfast, they wrapped up again and set out for the lighthouse. They repeated their walk to Calder’s Geo and carried on north along the coastal path. Sea birds floated on air currents above the surging waves and the occasional seal could be seen popping its head above the waves. The wind and the views took their breath away.
They walked in companionable silence, each lost in their own thoughts, while enjoying the sights and sounds of the coastline, and the feel of the wind. The exercise and fresh air worked wonders on Fin’s mood and he was glad he had agreed to come. They rounded the headland to the bay of The Burr and were rewarded with amazing views. Turning south they walked along the shore of the Loch of Houlland. There was a small island in the middle of the loch that could be reached by a causeway. A ruined building could be seen on it. They passed a water mill and crossed a stone wall back to Calder’s Geo and back to the lighthouse.
“I enjoyed that, Ava, thanks,” said Fin, giving his sister a quick hug as they turned back towards their cottage. “It was just what I needed. I’m starving. I’ll treat you to lunch at the nearest pub.”
They had to drive, but it wasn’t too far, and before long they were tucking in to a traditional ‘reestit mutton soup with bere meal bread’. Chatting with locals they discovered that if they drove on a bit further they would come to a village with an excellent butcher and bakery.
They headed home with some lamb chops to grill and some fresh bread and cakes.
Ava, tired after the walk and the filling lunch chose to relax in the cottage for the rest of the afternoon but Fin was restless and found a path that took him down to a rocky beach. He sat on a suitable rock and gazed out to sea, rethinking his future. He could see a seal bobbing about out to sea. It was swimming parallel to the coast. Sometimes he lost sight of the round head as it disappeared under or behind the waves, but it would reappear and continue towards the rocks, whereupon it turned and swam back parallel to the shore in the other direction.
Eventually the seal turned back but this time it turned to swim to the shore. Fin stayed very still. He didn’t want to scare it away, he would like to see it on the beach. The ‘seal’ swam up the beach and then stood up! It wasn’t a seal at all but a woman! For one crazy moment Fin was reminded of the legends of the selkies, but no, this was a woman in a wetsuit. She was not aware of his presence as she stripped off the wetsuit, revealing a slender body in a black swim suit. Rummaging in a backpack hidden by the rocks she took out a towel and clothes and proceeded to get dry and dressed. Fin felt a bit awkward, she had not seen him but if he made himself known now it would look like he had been watching her. The best thing would be to stride down the beach towards her and try to look as though he had just made it down from the path.
“Hi,” he said loudly to avoid looking like he was creeping up on her. “I bet the sea is cold.” What a stupid thing to say but he found he couldn’t think of anything except how pretty her face was.
“Certainly is,” she replied. “I love it. I swim as much as I can. I’m like a seal,” she laughed as she put her backpack on her back. “Better get back now and get warmed up.” She started to walk away, but Fin stopped her.
“Don’t forget this,” he said as he handed the woman her ‘skin’.
They walked together back to the lighthouse where her car was parked, exchanging names and Fin was glad that he had several more days in this beguiling place.