Bonus points (but no prizes) for guessing which island plays host to today’s story.
Uisge beatha – by Fiona Dorchester
If you didn’t already know you were dying, the sea of faces at the bottom of the bed when you woke up, might have given the game away. Doreen and Kevin down from Mallaig, Jess and Brian over from Oban. It’s a long time since your wee house was this busy and you’re glad they’ve come.
It’s nice to see your sisters. And their husbands. You’ve always liked a full house. You just wish that they’d maybe come a bit sooner. That way, you could’ve enjoyed the craic. You can’t even take a drink with them and it’s a sad day when you can’t share a drop of the island’s finest with your visitors. Now, the best you can manage is a half-hearted smile, an imperceptible nod, or a barely-there shake of your head.
You’ve never been one to hold your tongue; to keep your opinion to yourself. Never one to sit back and listen to the opinion of anybody else either, if truth be told.
Dr McKenna wanted you to go to the mainland. He still does. He said they could make you more comfortable over there. But really, what would have been the point of that? Dying in a place full of strangers when you’ve a perfectly good bed here in your own house, and your family all around you? You had enough of the mainland during your treatment.
Mind you, it would’ve been nice to take one last trip on the ferry. Top deck of the Finlaggan with the sea breeze ruffling what’s left of your hair, and putting a bit of colour in your cheeks. To see the mist fall over the Paps of Jura one last time. Aye. You’d have enjoyed that.
‘She’s looking a bit brighter this morning,’ says Jamie’s wife. And then, as if you’re deaf as well as dying, she adds, ‘She looked terrible yesterday.’
Jamie shushes her. ‘She’s no deaf, Emma,’ he says.
You’ve never really taken to the lassie. Not that there’s anything really wrong with her; except for a mouth that doesn’t know when to stay shut. But you don’t suppose you can like everybody, and she does make Jamie happy. You turn your eyes towards the pair of them; take in the size of Emma’s belly, and the way Jamie’s hand caresses it. If you’ve one regret, it’s that you’ll be gone before their baby arrives.
Imagine that. Wee Jamie, old enough to be a daddy. You still mind the time he turned up on your doorstep in his new wellies, with his Spiderman pyjamas and a clean pair of socks in his rucksack. ‘I’ve run away from home,’ he said. ‘Can I stay with you, Granny Pat?’
You sat him beside the fire with a bowl of broth and a hunk of your homemade bread, and waited for Mhairi to turn up. Little did Jamie know that his mum was in the back kitchen drinking tea and telling her side of the story before he was even half-way through his soup. You doubt that any one of you remembers what the falling-out was about that day. It would have been something and nothing, no doubt. The two of them were always falling out and it was always your door that Jamie ran to.
Mhairi’s in the kitchen now. Crying. Her and Jess and Doreen. You tried telling her that you’re ready to go. That you’ve had enough. That you’re not scared of dying. But she wouldn’t listen then, and now it’s too late. The walls of this wee house have never been particularly soundproof and you know what’s going on even if they are in the next room. If they’re this bad while you’re still here, God only knows what they’ll be like at the funeral.
You’ve said all along that you don’t want a miserable funeral. You want a celebration of life, with fine whisky, good food, and music to dance to. You saw it on the telly once. Some famous person or other had died, and their husband, or wife, or daughter or something said, ‘No flowers, and no black.’ They said mourners had to wear something bright. And a smile.
You like the idea of that, but you can’t see it happening. Jess has always been awful set in her ways and she’s never worn a bright colour since the day she turned sixty.
Mhairi pops her head round the door. You can tell that she’s had her compact out. The tell-tale signs of crying have been dabbed away and there’s a slash of No. 7’s Highland Mist across her lips.
‘Are you alright in here?’ she says and you open your mouth to answer, but it’s Jamie she’s talking to.
You feel the weight of him as he sits down on the edge of your bed; the reverse of all the times you sat with him through sleepless nights and childhood illnesses. ‘We’re doing fine, aren’t we, Granny?’ He takes hold of your hand and gives it a wee rub, as if you were the bairn and he was the grown up. You manage a bit of a smile for the lad and a nod to Mhairi as she fusses around the room, straightening covers, plumping up cushions and opening the window a notch for a bit of fresh air.
‘Nurse Kennedy’ll be here in half an hour,’ she says. ‘She just texted.’
Doreen shouts that there’s a pan of stovies ready in the kitchen and that Mhairi and Jamie and Emma had better get through there quick-smart or the good-for-nothing husbands will have scoffed the lot. Jamie says it’s a chance he’s willing to take and you don’t blame him. You’ve tasted Doreen’s stovies.
It’s quiet with just you and the lad left in the room but it’s a good quiet. A peaceful quiet. A ray of low winter sun dances dust motes across the room, and through the open window you pick up the scent of burning peat from the distillery as it blends with the cool sea air. You’ve known this smell your whole entire life.
Jamie reaches into the rucksack that he left on the chair earlier and produces the ’89 Bowmore. You watch as he pours a dram into the plastic sippy cup, that is all you can manage these days, then he puts the cup on the side table and sits back on the bed.
‘You didn’t think I’d forget, did you?’ he says.
For the first time in weeks you feel tears pricking your eyes, and instinctively, Jamie takes your hand and holds it up to his face. Such a familiar face with its thick hair, lightened to gold by the outdoor life, the same square jaw, and the same strong chin with just the hint of a dimple. The wide honest eyes that aren’t quite blue and aren’t quite grey. If you didn’t know better, you’d say it was James sitting there, even though James has been gone these past twenty years and you know that.
Folk have always said that Jamie takes after his grandpa. James’s double they say. Maybe that’s why he’s been such a comfort to you through all this. Or maybe you’re just a fanciful old woman seeing things that aren’t even there.
‘Slainte mhath, Granny,’ says Jamie as he tips the cup towards your mouth and holds it steady while the slightest trickle touches your dry, cracked lips. ‘Don’t you be telling my mum that I’m giving you whisky, though.’
You close your eyes and savour the tang of the fine old malt as it settles on the tip of your tongue.