Chapter 11 Making sense of it
“Are you sure you’re well enough to be here,” Mrs. McLaren said, watching me nervously as I stepped out of her battered Land Rover.
“Fine, I’m fine,” I lied. I’d been out of the hospital two days and had convalesced impatiently in a hotel room until, ready or not, I could stand it no longer and called Mrs. McLaren, who had promised to take me out to the cottages as soon as I was up to it. I had driven to Portree and endured another night and day in a hotel room in the pounding rain until the weather cleared enough that Mrs. McLaren would even consider taking me out. As it turned out, it was just as well. The trip up from Glasgow had exhausted me, and I wasn’t fit to do much but sleep and order in when I was hungry enough to eat anything. Every time I slept, I hoped that I would wake up back in the cottage with my piano player. But I didn’t. He didn’t even haunt my dreams during those nights of exhaustion and sickness.
The landlady watched me with a jaundiced eye as I walked slowly, carefully, through the cottage I’d stayed in, remaining close enough that she could catch me if I stumbled. Everything was exactly as I remembered it, but that was no real surprise. “As I said,” she reiterated, when I turned to her expectantly, “this is the only cottage that’s finished.” She didn’t repete the obvious, the obvious that I’d heard a thousand times, that there’d been no one here but me. She knew it would do her no good, and she wasn’t given to wasted words. It was just as well. I knew what I’d seen. I knew that I hadn’t been alone.
She opened the back door, and we stepped outside into the anemic sunlight. My first view of the other cottage felt like a gut punch. There was no patio. Instead a small earthmover stood to the side of a rectangular hole filled with muddy rainwater where the patio, no doubt, would be when the builders finished. To the side under heavy plastic stood several stacks of large paving stones.
“The place won’t be ready to lease until next summer.” She sounded almost apologetic. Then she gently threaded her arm through mine. I figured it was so she could catch me if I lost my footing. There was no disguising my trembling. Though more than a little of that was from the shock of what greeted me as I looked out at the other cottage.
With a bit of careful tugging, she pulled me away from the flooded would-be patio and around to the front door, which was not locked, the reason became obvious with the pounding of hammers and the mumbled curses of workmen coming from inside.
As we entered the front door, two men dressed in paint spattered jeans and ratty t-shirts, looked up, then laid down their hammers and nodded their greetings as though I were some strange creature they weren’t sure how to approach. No doubt they knew the tale. The story of the crazy American lady who was found wandering the cliffs in the middle of a storm had surely made its rounds in a place where I figured I was the most entertaining news that had happened in awhile. Mrs. McLaren motioned them to the door, and they left without a word.
Where the wood floor had been, there was, instead, bare concrete, and the fireplace had been newly bricked, the trowel and other tools of the trade still on the floor on plastic sheeting. There was no piano. In fact there was nothing but sawhorses and cans of paint with odd bits and pieces of lumber scattered around, along with a several half-empty bottles of water and sports drinks. The kitchen was exactly as I remembered it, unfinished and covered in drop cloths. As if she knew what I’d ask next, she led me to the bathroom. The tub in which I’d made love to my pianist was there, but sitting in the middle of the floor, and the plumbing was only half finished. Without waiting for me to comment, she led me into the master bedroom.
It was suddenly hard to breathe, and I saw the room through a haze of tears I blinked hard to control. The big bed sat in the middle of the floor exactly where it had been, but it was battered and weather worn. On top of a bare mattress that didn’t really fit the wooden slats, a sleeping bag and a pillow lay rumpled and tossed. An empty teacup and an open can of Red Bull sat on a backless chair to the side.
“Ian, he’s my nephew, he stays here when the weather is nice and he wants to work late, or get an early start,” Mrs. McLaren said. “Mostly though I think he just likes the place what with the sea and the cliffs.”
“The bed?” I managed, feeling like my throat was closing off.
“It was here when we bought the place,” she said. “No sense in having it restored until the cottage is a little closer to finished. Ian likes to sleep there.” She smiled indulgently. “Makes him feel a bit like a laird.”
There was little left to say after that. Mrs. McLaren walked me up to the cliffs where I’d been found, not far from the standing chimney and the ruined foundations of the manor house, all the while, in my head, flashes of the house in its glory days and broken strains of piano music made me dizzy and even more unsure on my feet. When I dropped down onto a rock near where Mrs. McLaren said I’d been found, she only stood next to me patting my shoulder, until the younger of the two men, the one I assumed was Ian, joined us. “Ms. Alan,” he said quietly. “You’d best go back to the cottage now, have some tea, get warm.”
I didn’t protest as he helped me up and the two flanked me, Ian close enough that if I should stumble he could catch me, even carry me if he had to. And to my embarrassment, he had to. We were nearly back to the cottage when a view of the earthmover and the whole where the patio should be made the ache in my chest bloom until it felt like the icy blasts of the storm that had raged all the while I’d stayed her with my pianist. “He asked me to find him and I don’t even know his name,” I whispered, and then the ground tilted around me and strong arms lifted me. I humiliated myself further by burying my face in Ian’s chest and sobbing all the way back to the cottage. Inside, he settled me on the sofa and covered me with a blanket. He sat with me until Mrs. McLaren returned with a cup of tea, which tasted like it might have had a nip of something stronger in it. “This’ll warm your belly and make you feel better,” she said.
When she was sure I wasn’t going to humiliate myself further, she motioned Ian into the kitchen, where I could hear them mumbling quietly. Occasionally their voices rose in what sounded like an argument, but it took me a minute to realize they were speaking Gaelic. Not that I cared that much. My own thoughts were too confused trying to sort reality from fantasy. But in spite of everything that I had seen, everything that was obvious, I was still certain that what I’d experienced with my pianist had been real.
In a few minutes, they returned to the living room and Mrs. McLaren sat down on the sofa next to me. “You’ve got no business traveling alone,” she said, “not in your condition. You shouldn’t even be out of bed yet. You’ve had a terrible shock. I’ve got guests coming and I can’t get away, but Ian will take you back to Portree and then on to Glasgow and help you arrange a flight home if you need.”
“I’m fine,” I said, setting the teacup aside and pushing to my feet.
“You shouldn’t be alone.” Ian gently took my arm with a rough hand and guided me back down. “If you don’t feel comfortable with me, I can get my sister, Mary to take you.” At this suggestion, I couldn’t help noticing that Mrs. McLaren stiffened.
“No.” I sighed half in defeat, half in relief not to have to make the trip by myself, one I wasn’t sure I could manage. “I’m all right with you taking me.”
Twenty minutes later, Mrs. L had me bundled up in Ian’s Land Rover like an invalid with a flask of tea and a basket of sandwiches. It was only after I was settled in that she handed me the coffee table book on the manor house and its history. “Maybe this will help,” she said, then waved us off.
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