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Sally Huband
©Sally Huband

The rain is torrential and rebounds from the tarmac to form a layer like spindrift. A blunt gust of wind nudges the car towards the edge of the road. I dread being on a boat in this weather but the crossing is not long and it will be worth it. Two days of solitude. At the pier I stay in the shelter of the car and feed unpliable limbs into wet weather gear whilst two men in bright yellow workwear ready the ferry for the crossing.

I’m the only person going in to the island but the younger of the two ferrymen assures me that islanders will be coming out. He points me in the direction of the passenger saloon. It is small and homely with blue wipe-clean seats and orange life jackets bright and neat on shelves and rope ladders coiled in a cupboard. There are a few books, a local newsletter and notices of social events on the table below the instructions for placing an infant in a Baby Crib Preserver. We joke about the weather, he warns me that the day is set to stay wet. I nod to confirm that I already know this. I ask if the swell will be bad but he explains that the island shelters the crossing when the wind blows from the west. This I did not know but am glad to learn.

 A while later the older of the two men enters the saloon and asks me for the fare. He wants to know when I will be coming out of the island. In two days, I reply, and then he asks me where exactly I will be staying. My answer seems to reassure him. I realise that my backpack has made him wonder if I am camping. He adds that the ferry will return to the island in the afternoon if I decide that the weather is too much. There are no ferries the next day, he adds. He welcomes me to stay on deck, if I wish to, and tells me to watch the sky. If it lightens, better weather will follow. I know this, but he is not to know.

At the island’s pier, the older ferryman comes to my side to point out the passenger waiting room, a small hut. He reassures me that I’ll be fine in the waiting room if the weather stays wet, it is warm and there are many books, a kettle and coffee. He then describes how to reach the house that I will stay in and points to a lum that is only just visible over the rise of a hill. He looks down at my bags and suggests that I make two trips and reminds me again that the ferry will return in the afternoon, if I change my mind.

I leave the bags in the house and walk to the nearby beach in gentle rain and sharp pain. I find nothing of note and allow myself to consider leaving on the afternoon ferry but I stay and feel the happiness of uninterrupted reading even though the house is cold and damp. The pages of my book buckle and I learn the phrase hyper-oceanic. At bedtime, I find that the lock on the front door is broken. I sleep fitfully, with the light on.

The next morning, the mist is too thick to safely walk the cliffs. I meet a crofter feeding his sheep and we chat for a while. He points the best way to the beach that I hope to reach. Walking is leaden but painless. I curse the mist. There is much plastic to sift through, a flood of it. The strandline is high above the beach, on sea-slicked grass. The waves of the last storm reached high and then the wind pushed further, plastic lies strewn over the slopes of the hillside. I find the muscled torso of a doll, an empty vial of rectal diazepam and a plastic tag embossed with the name Laura Lee. I pull the length of a curlew skull from a brackish tidal pool and for a moment, the island feels mine.

At the point when I feel sated and lose all interest in the strandline, I notice that the mist has lifted and the sky has lightened in the direction that the wind is travelling from. Hope rises, maybe I will reach the cliffs after all. I walk slowly up the low hill and stop to gather the hook beaked skull of a shag, still feathered in places. From the top, I see that all the ground that I would need to cross to reach the cliffs is flat and inviting. I cannot stop smiling and begin the walk. The land is scalped and flecked white with the translucent bones of fish and the herring gulls that regurgitated these bones chide me, it seems, as they take flight. A raven calls from within the mist that still lingers over the island’s eastern edge.

Along the line of the cliffs I find the fissure, where the rock that once formed the roof of a sea cave has fallen away to leave a deep and gaping cut in the land, a wound that will never heal. I stand at the edge of the fissure but not close enough to be able to see the sea below pulsing through the land, it is too deep and the drop is vertical. Part of the cave’s roof is still intact and bridges the void like a dare. I sense the energy of the burrowing waves through the soles of my feet and they begin to feel warm and fleet and this feeling spreads upwards through my body. I laugh and swear in delight. The ground does not give.

I walk on, to the beach that shelves steeply into white water. A great black-backed gull calls from the height of a sea stack. I find the ripped skin of a lumpsucker fish and a wave finds me and pulls the pebbles from under my feet. I carry the sea home on my skin, the pockets of my coat bulge with plastic, rock and bone.


The morning that I leave, the ferrymen greet me like a local, with friendliness and little attention and in the passenger lounge, I compare beach-combing notes with a man who lives on the island. He asks me where I walked and when I tell him, remarking on the fragility of rock in the face of the ocean, he pauses for a moment and then counsels me that it is not wise to walk those cliffs alone. I nod. I do not tell him that I am well used to walking alone, even when it is not wise.

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