The Wrong Side of the Ocean, by Rachel Carmichael

I stared out of the window at the moor. I couldn’t remember why there were no trees on this part of the island. My mother knew, but it wasn’t the time to ask her. She pressed her lips together as she drove.

I’m not going, I said again. She ignored me again. She wasn’t looking at me and I tried not to look at her. I could just see her freckled arms holding the steering wheel. I could imagine the pink triangle at the open neck of her blouse.

I looked at my watch. My friends would be enjoying themselves now. I should have been there with them, but my mother made me miss the last day of term, and the film we were going to watch in French class. Aunt Joan had organised a gala day and pestered Mum to start our holiday early.

I wasn’t that interested in the film. The teacher said it was a classic and very funny, but Julie’s dad told her that French humour often didn’t translate, so we weren’t expecting much. I was thinking about sitting in the assembly hall, with the curtains pulled shut and the lights switched off and the boys sitting behind us.

This morning Mum decided to get out of Joan’s way before she could be roped into helping her sister. She could only escape by doing something else useful. She made me go to the peats with her – for company – while Dad had said he’d promised to take Duncan to see the fishing boats.

Mum turned off the bumpy track across the moor and onto the long road that passed through the string of villages that were taking part in the gala day. She pulled in at the community hall.

Can you try not to moan while we’re here? she said.

When we had eye contact it was like looking into a mirror. My brother’s eyes were the same. There was nothing I could do about it.

The hall was crowded. We had to squeeze past people and tables to get to Aunt Joan. It made me dizzy, after a morning spent on the moor with just Mum and no other humans in sight.

Aunt Joan looked like she was going to a wedding, in matching dress, jacket and shoes.

What colour would you call that? Mum said.

Pistachio, said Joan. Now, Eilidh what are you wearing? Are you not going to join in?

She put down her clipboard, took my arm and led me to a small group of girls standing in line at the back of the hall, steering me by the shoulders to the end of the row. I looked at the floor in case any boys my age were there.

It’s only for fun, Eilidh, Joan said, holding me in position. There’s Alec, doing the marag-eating competition.

My uncle was standing at a trestle table by the window and gave me a thumbs-up from his boiler suit. Cold black pudding was revolting, but there was no comparison with what I was to endure. The man next to Alec winked at me.

Trust your mother to have you at the peats the first day of your holiday, Joan said, wiping black stoor from the sides of my nose and smoothing down my fringe. At least it isn’t a fashion contest. From the neck up you look like a woman. Just about.

The girl beside me, with hair like Agnetha from Abba, giggled in her summer dress.


Dad and Duncan met us back at the house.

Tell them your news, Mum said.

I glared at the wall. She knew I couldn’t escape to my own room here.

What’s up? Dad said, helping Duncan out of his jumper.

Show them your sash. What have you done with it?

I pulled out the shiny satin loop I’d crumpled into the pocket of my cagoule. I wondered who had made it. Probably Joan. Nobody else here would get involved with something so ungodly.

Let me try it, said Duncan.

I threw it at him. He pulled it on and wiggled out of the kitchen with his hands on his hips.

Congratulations, pet, Dad said. Don’t be embarrassed.

Joan came in from the car and clattered a crate of leftover food onto the kitchen table right next to the goldfish bowl, which wobbled, splashing water over the side. Mum began to put things in the oven.

That was a long shift, Joan said, shaking off her shoes. I could murder one of those pies.

Duncan wiggled past her.

You should be wearing that, she said to me. Any other girl would have a smile on her face.

She’s contrary, said Mum.

You’ll have your picture in the Gazette. I’m sending it in.

I groaned. Of course, the world had to know about Joan’s gala day.

What’s wrong with you now? Mum said from the sink.

Listen, said Joan, grabbing my arm. Can you hear my stomach rumbling? I can’t wait any longer.

She plunged a hand into the goldfish bowl, shoved the little orange sliver into her mouth, and chewed.

Duncan howled.

For heaven’s sake Joan what are you doing? said Mum, suds dripping off her hands onto the floor.

He’s crunchy, Joan said. She swallowed and laughed, bent over and gripping the edges of the table. I wondered whether there was something mentally wrong with her, and whether it ran in families. She spluttered and Mum thumped her back, then Joan wiped her eyes and tried to speak.

It was a piece of carrot, she said. The goldfish died weeks ago.

She coughed again.

Would serve you right if you’d choked, Mum said.

I went outside to the back of the house, away from the laughter, and sat in the old wooden wheelbarrow beside the peat stack, swinging my legs. I knew they’d be watching me from the kitchen window. I counted the sheep to distract from the urge to turn and look. I wondered which ones would be off to the slaughterhouse in the autumn and whether they knew that Joan and Alec ate their brothers and sisters.

At the end of the croft was the machair and at the end of the machair was the ocean. And that was all you could hear, the waves beating and the lambs bleating. The place was dead and the gala day was pathetic. I wished I’d been born on the other side of the Atlantic. Why did I get Mum and Joan and not Auntie Sheena who emigrated?

Damn sure they don’t have bloody gala days in Vancouver Island, I said to the nearest sheep.

Dad came outside.

Mum saved you a mutton pie.

He stood beside me with his arms folded, looking towards the sea.

I was just thinking, he said. You know they don’t sell the Gazette at home.

You know fine Mum gets it every week, I said. I wiped oily juice off my chin with the back of my wrist.

She has a special order for it. You pick it up at the shop sometimes, remember.

Well I don’t want to be in it anyway, I said. I felt stupid for not remembering. But still entitled to be angry.

Joan says you can’t see your wellingtons in the photo.

I didn’t speak. He hadn’t a clue.

Duncan came running out, still wearing the sash. He leaned forward with his hands on his knees, panting like an Olympic sprinter.

Mum says to come in because Peigi’s had her puppies and we’re going across the road to see them.

I jumped off the wheelbarrow, brushing stoor off the backs of my trouser legs.

Excitement overtook me. Dad had said maybe. I was sure there was enough room in the car. I could house-train it before we went home.

Dad. Please? I said.

Whoa, Eilidh, not this time. Maybe when you’re both more responsible.

I kicked at the peats.

Both of us? Just say never if that’s what you really mean.

I walked down to the fence at the end of the croft. I’d shouted at Dad, instead of using charm to persuade him like Mum said. I’d forgotten because of the stupid gala day. Nobody understood how awful this was.

I stood by the fence pulling at the long stems of grass, making the seeds clump together and fall off, until my fingers were sore. There were trees here once, I knew, their roots were buried in the peat, rotted down over centuries to a tough mass people cut into clumps, then dried and burned. It was clever how they figured this out, getting something free that would keep you warm. Something made of trees and heather. Any old dead plant or animal, when you thought about it.

But all of it rotten, and the whole island made of it.

It didn’t seem that special any more.

It was getting dark and I got tired of thinking, and imagining life in Canada, and wondering what Mum meant when she said I was my own worst enemy. I could see Joan smoking a cigarette at the open window of her bedroom, pretending not to see me. I remembered the cakes she’d brought back from the hall.

They were all in the kitchen. Duncan was talking about Peigi’s puppies, and reeling off the names of all his friends’ dogs.

One’s called Alfie, one’s called Milo, one’s called Dora.

Shut up Dunky, I said. You’re not choosing their names.

He threw a piece of scone at me. Female dog, he said.

Duncan, enough. Bed, Mum said. Mary Ann said the barn isn’t locked if you still want to see them, Eilidh.

I got my wellingtons from the hall and picked up the sash from where Duncan had left it on the floor. I didn’t want him parading about in it again.

Joan told me not to go too close. Peigi knew me, but she’d be protective. She’s had a hard day too, Joan said.

The puppies were in a low-sided wooden whelping box in the far corner of Mary Ann’s barn, lying in a heap at their mother’s side, curled around and piled up against each other, a collection of black and white shapes I couldn’t separate into individuals. I tried counting pink noses. Eight, maybe nine.

Peigi raised her head to look at me. We’d be back at home before you could tell whether any of the puppies had one blue eye like she had. I heard the barn door open and turned to see Mary Ann.

You’re nice and quiet, she said. I don’t think they enjoyed Duncan’s visit.

She put her arm around me and gave a little squeeze.

You’re getting tall right enough. Come early tomorrow and help me milk the cow?

I nodded. Mary Ann was tiny. Mum and Joan had always said so, but this was the first time I understood. It was a miracle the cow had never squashed her when it wasn’t in the mood.

I remembered the sash in my pocket.

I heard all about it, Mary Ann said. Good for you, Eilidh.

It was only for fun, I said.

I thought of something.

Can I give this to Peigi?

Mary Ann laughed.

If you like. We can hang it up here behind her.

She draped the sash over a hook on the wall near the whelping box, pulling it round so the title – Peigi’s title – could be seen.

There, she said. If you change your mind you can always have it back.

I shook my head.

She deserves it. Look what she’s done today.

I walked back to the house, eating Mary Ann’s shortbread. I made a decision. Tomorrow at the beach I would find a dead crab for Duncan’s bed. It would be worth the trouble I’d get into.

Dad waved to me from the front door.

Here she comes, he said.

I said nothing and walked inside.