TITLE: A Mother's Bequest
By Helen Clancy
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A tiny figure stood alone at the edge of the ocean. Her long black hair hung in a pony-tail, under a red hand-knitted beret. She had her favourite red woollen jacket wrapped tightly around her. Her hands were crossed, holding on to her shoulders as if she was hugging herself. The black and purple clouds formed a low ceiling which made the beach feel like a huge dark cavern. The wet sand shone like silver glass in the cool January morning-light.
Forty-year old Sheila ran down Sollas beach, in North Uist, a remote part of the Outer Hebrides. She just managed to stop herself from falling headlong, as she slipped on a slimy piece of salty-smelling seaweed.
Iona was staring into the waves: the light, icy rain mingling with the tears that
stained her face. The faint sound of her sobbing mingled with the soft sound of the waves and the crying of the gulls.
Sheila had never seen a five-year-old child looking so forlorn, so distressed:
‘Iona, darling – come back inside – you’ll catch your death of cold.’
‘Why did you let Mummy go? Why didn’t you stop her? I hate you! I hate you!’
Sheila gently pulled Iona away from the black swaying mass that was the ocean, and held
‘Come now, Onie, let’s get you warm. I’ll make you a lovely cup of hot cocoa.’
She stooped down, and picked her up, wrapping her blue woollen coat around Iona, the child’s black hair mingling with her own light brown curly hair. She staggered back up the beach towards the large house with the red roof, behind the giant sand-dunes.
Twenty years later, Sheila sat nervously in the lounge of the Sollas house looking down the single-track lane outside the window. Iona would be here any minute. She wondered how Iona would react to seeing her old nanny and this house again after all this time.
Sheila had cried for days when her employer, Rebecca and her daughter Iona had both left so suddenly. She still couldn’t understand why Rebecca had disappeared like that, on the morning of 2nd January, leaving her five-year old daughter behind. Iona had been sent to live with her Aunt and Uncle and cousins in Stornoway, and Sheila had remained as housekeeper to Rebecca’s older brother. Now he had died, and Iona had been left the house, but there was a sticking point; it was a condition of the bequest that Iona had to read the letter her mother had left before she could inherit the house.
Ah … there she was … a navy blue Toyota was coming down the track. Was this Iona? Sheila immediately recognised the striking young lady, dressed in jeans and a smart leather jacket, who stepped out of the car. Although 20 years older, she still had the same long black hair, the big brown eyes, and slightly upturned nose.
Yes, that was her Iona! Iona opened the door and let herself into the porch where she removed her boots and placed them under the hallstand. She looked around; very little seemed to have changed, although everything seemed much smaller than she remembered.
Sheila had changed though. Now sixty, she had not aged well. Her once shiny brown hair was now mostly grey and her face had a weathered appearance. She had put on weight, and her beige cardigan and tweed skirt did nothing for her figure. But Iona remembered Sheila with affection; she had been the family housekeeper, and nanny to Iona until she was five, and she had always been kind and loving, taking care of
everyone’s needs. If only she had taken care of herself a little better, Iona thought.
‘Iona, how lovely to see you again, you’ve grown into such a beautiful young lady’.
‘It’s good to see you too, Sheila. How are you?’
‘I’m OK. Come and sit down … kettle’s boiled.’
They walked into the kitchen, where a kettle was sitting on top of an old Aga. Sheila put the kettle back onto the hot plate for a minute to re-boil it and made a pot of tea. She motioned to Iona, to sit down at a square table, which was covered with a blue patterned oil-cloth. Above the range there hung a wooden clothes-dryer with an assortment of checked and striped tea-towels.
There was silence for a couple of minutes, before Iona said:
‘Sorry to hear about old Bob … you’ll miss him …’
‘He’d lived a good long life – aye – I will miss him, but it was his time, wouldn’t have wanted him to suffer a long illness, he’d have hated it - if he’d been bed-ridden.’
‘Yes, that’s true. He was always active. Couldn’t see him in a nursing home, or hospital bed for long.’
‘So you’ll inherit the house now …’
‘Will you come back to live here again?
‘I’d like to … I’ve always wanted to come back here … although … it makes me think about her …’
‘Aye, it would do, lass. She really loved you, Iona …’
‘Strange way of showing it … disappearing like that!’
‘I know … I can’t understand that … never have been able to.’
‘I’ll never forgive her for abandoning me … I was only 5 years old, the same age as my Kristina. I could never imagine leaving her. What mother could do such a thing?’
The two women sat in silence for a few minutes.
‘I’ve got the letter.’ Sheila got up and went to the dresser, where she pulled out a
blue sealed envelope, addressed to ‘My darling Iona’.
‘I won’t read it.’
‘But you must.’
‘Sheila, I told you, I won’t read it!’
‘But you really should. It might tell you why she did it.’
‘Even if it does, I’ll never forgive her. Give it to me! I’ll tear it up – right now.’
‘How on earth will that help?’
‘Don’t you understand … I want to forget she ever existed …’
‘But Iona, she loved you … I know she did. She must have had a good reason.
Besides, you have to read it. It’s a condition of the will; you have to read it before you
get the house.’
‘Oh,’ she sighed, ‘I suppose there really is nothing for it. I’ll go for a walk along the beach, and read it there.’
Iona went outside, and walked across the rough grass, and down through a gap in the tall sand dunes, on to the deserted beach. It was a July afternoon, but there was a chill in the air, and a light mist hovered around with pale sunlight peering through, making the long sandy beach seem surreal. She walked along, close to the edge of the turquoise water, following the line of the shore, as it went out into the ocean and then curved back upon itself. She sat down on a piece of driftwood at the end of a small peninsular, with shallow water all around her. Should she open the letter? She was certain that nothing could ever make her forgive her mother after all this time. No, nothing could ever justify what she had done. She sighed and took a deep breath.
She began to read:
My darling Iona,
My heart is breaking as I write this. I love you more than I could ever tell you. But I have
to leave you, my beautiful Onie. You have brought so much fun and laughter into my life.
It has been such a lovely Christmas. How I have enjoyed watching you open your presents, playing with your new doll’s house, sitting beside the peat fire, reading fairy stories together, holding your hand as we walk along the beach or run down the dunes.
Now I have to do the hardest thing. I have to leave you, knowing you will not understand and will probably hate me for it. But I do it to protect you. I am not well. I have only a few months to live; I have a dreadful disease that will change me beyond recognition – motor neurone disease.
I am going to a hospice in Dalliburgh, South Uist. No-one will know where I am, but they will look after me until I die.
I hope that one day, when you read this letter, you will finally understand that I did this because I loved you and wanted you to remember me as I am now…
Your loving mother
A solitary figure stood alone at the edge of the ocean. Her long black hair hung in a pony tail, under a red hand knitted beret. She was weeping as she stared into the murmuring waves:
‘Oh, Mother, Mother,’ she cried, ‘Forgive me. I’m so sorry! I hated you for all these years. Now I understand why you did what you did … ’
The sun disappeared behind a cloud, and the mist swirled around her, enclosing her for a moment in a strange white world, before it cleared again. Then a thought crossed her mind like a cloud crossing in front of the sun:
‘What if this disease is hereditary?’
Iona stood gazing out into the ocean for what seemed a very long time, and eventually turned and made her way back up the beach towards the large house with the red roof, behind the giant sand-dunes.
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