Lavender’s Blue, Lavender’s Green

Lavender’s Blue, Lavender’s Green

“I didn’t think Mum had any family,” Bonnie said.

I swung the car around the outcropping of rock that jutted out into the loch, keeping my eyes on the narrow road.

“We never really talked about it.”

“Oh, Dad.”

I smiled. “This is your mum we’re talking about.”

I wasn’t watching her, but I knew Bonnie would be rolling her eyes at that.

“Didn’t you ever ask her?” she said.

“Once.”

“And?”

My voice dropped to a whisper that was almost lost behind the grumble of the car’s engine. “She told me she was the queen of the fairies. I believed her.”

Another impatient roll of the eyes. Didn’t kids believe in anything these days? We had believed everything. That had made it true, in every way that mattered.

The woods thinned and drew away from the loch. The road began to rise away from the shore.

“Wasn’t there anyone?” Bonnie asked. “No family? You met Mum at Uni. How about at graduation? Didn’t anyone come for her?”

Both of my parents had been there, Dad dressed up like he was at a wedding or a funeral, his pride all buttoned into his one suit and almost bursting out. For once, he hadn’t even said anything about the length of my hair. We’d all gone out for dinner together, me, my parents, Angela. Her parents, if she’d had them, weren’t there.

“There was someone,” I said. “A brother.” I had almost forgotten him. In fact, I had until now.

“Does the queen of the fairies have a brother?” Bonnie asked. There was a touch of derision in her voice. She was upset. I didn’t blame her. Her mum had just disappeared, without warning, only leaving a note.

“We were young,” I said.

“Not that young.”

Bonnie was younger than Angela and I had been when we had met. She seemed so much older. We had been such kids.

The road curved up to meet clouds and a spattering of drizzle that was enough to dirty the windscreen but not enough to wipe clean.

Bonnie slumped down further into the passenger seat and fumbled for a CD.

“Jeez, Dad, didn’t you bring anything decent?”

“Just put one in,” I said.

She flipped open a case and slid the CD into the player.

“What is this?” she said as the music started.

“Marillion,” I said. “Misplaced Childhood.” A good choice.

“Don’t you have anything from the last thirty years?”

“Doubt it.” I could have told her that Misplaced Childhood came out in 1985. She would have said I was proving her point. It didn’t seem worth it.

We didn’t talk all the way up to the junction at Crianlarich. After ten minutes, I switched the windscreen wipers on and squirted water until they could clean the glass. I slid the car under the bridge, paused at the junction then pulled out left.

“Penny for your thoughts?” I said.

“You are so sad.”

I blinked. “Okay…”

“You still believe it, don’t you?”

“What?”

“That Mum was the queen of the fairies.”

I shifted gear.

“Yes,” I said. “I do.”

“She isn’t,” Bonnie said. “She’s just Mum.”

#

My generation had dreamed. We had dreamed that the world might be a better place. We had dreamed of miracles. Sometimes I thought we had taken all the dreams and left nothing for these new generations. We were the selfish generation. We had wanted it all, so we had taken it, and we held onto it jealously.

We pulled into the Green Welly Stop at Tyndrum in the grey drizzle for a break and petrol.

“Stupid name,” Bonnie grumbled, but she went in anyway.

I loitered by the sandwich counter until Bonnie had disappeared to the bathroom, then pulled out Angela’s note again. I have to go, it read. There are some things I need to sort out. I will come back. Then there was an address.

I flipped the paper like I had a dozen times. There was nothing else on it. Not even my name.

I bought a couple of cheese sandwiches and, on a whim, a small bundle of dried lavender for the car. Then we set out again.

#

“Tell me about Mum’s brother,” Bonnie said.

“I don’t remember much,” I said. “I only met him that once. He was…tall. Black hair, like your mum’s. Quiet.”

“What did he do?”

“He was an engineer, I think,” I said.

“An engineer.”

“Yeah. On an oil platform.” I smiled. He’d been big, solid, his skin hardened and reddened by the sea winds. Not exactly fairy material. “Anything else?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “The dead flowers stink.”

#

We finally reached Tobermory at around six. The weather had cleared during the ferry trip over from Oban, leaving patches of sunshine racing across the sound. We had driven slowly up the island, watching the liquid dapples of green-tinted gold slip across Mull’s mountains and hills.

The address on Angela’s note was at the back of the town, up the hill near where the fields began.

I had expected something old, a low stone house, perhaps, with a thatch or slate roof. Instead, it was a late forties, maybe early fifties, concrete creation, its paint fresh but with a long crack down the front that had been patched with a smear of concrete that didn’t match.

“Are we just going to walk in without any warning or anything?” Bonnie said, hunching her shoulders.

“Yep,” I said. I turned off the engine and let the silence and stillness rest against my skin for a moment.

“That’s so rude,” Bonnie said.

I opened the door and climbed out, stretching my back. There was a light, damp wind that smelled faintly of salt and seaweed.

“Come on.”

I started up the path to the gate in the hedge and heard Bonnie following.

The front door opened before we reached it. A slightly overweight but still beautiful older woman stepped out. I stopped, peering at her. Bonnie came to a halt beside me.

I could see Angela in this woman. She had the same liveliness of face, and although her hair was white, I could tell it would once have been as black and lush as Angela’s.

She smiled as she saw us. “You must be Ralph and Bonnie. Come in. We’ve been expecting you.”

I frowned. “Expecting us?”

“For years. Come on in. Eric’s putting tea on.”

#

“Angela told us so much about you both.” Angela’s mum poured tea into a series of small, floral, china cups. “It’s wonderful to see you at last.”

Bonnie and I exchanged a glance.

“She did?” I said.

“Oh, yes. Milk?”

“Thanks.” I took my cup. “When? Sorry.”

Angela’s mum smiled. “Every Wednesday.”

“Never missed a week,” her dad said. “Not our Angie.”

Bonnie was staring down at her tea. “We didn’t know,” she whispered.

“Angela always kept things to herself,” her dad said.

I took a sip of my tea. Bonnie kept staring into hers, swirling it gently. We’d come all this way to–what?–find out about Angela, I guessed, but now I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I didn’t know these people. Angela and I had been married for twenty years and there was this whole vista of her life that I knew nothing about. I hadn’t ever asked her about it, except that first time. Maybe I hadn’t wanted to know, hadn’t wanted the baggage.

“She’s gone,” I said.

“We thought she might have,” Angela’s mum said.

My fingers tightened on the delicate china.

Bonnie looked up. “Do you know where she went?” The hope in her voice was painful.

“No. We’re sorry.”

“Oh.” Bonnie looked down into her tea again.

“You look like her,” Angela’s dad said. “Like she did when she went off to University.”

Silence again. It made me want to get up and stride around, turn on a radio or something. I didn’t know why the hell we were here.

I put the tea down. “I’m sorry,” I said. “This was a mistake.”

Angela’s parents looked at each other. Her mother couldn’t keep the disappointment from her face.

“Look, it’s not that we…” I started. “It’s just…” I shook my head. “You know, this is a bad time. We didn’t know anything.” I stopped again.

“When Angie went away,” Angela’s dad said, “we knew she’d never come back. We knew she’d meet someone and that would be her life. She’s all or nothing. She always has been, ever since she was a little girl. Just like her brother.”

“I guess,” I said.

Angela’s mum got up. “It’s true. When she was only five she decided she was a fairy.” She pulled open a drawer in the dark-wood chest of drawers that stood opposite the window. “I made her these.” She reached in and took out what seemed to be two small sheets of muslin stretched over frames of bent sticks. It took me a moment to realise what they must have been. “Fairy wings,” her mum said. “She wore them every evening until she left home, even though the wood had snapped.” She stared down at them and shook her head. “Our little girl.”

#

They gave Bonnie Angela’s old room. When she was done unpacking–in all of thirty seconds; I guessed she’d just emptied her bag onto the bed–she came and helped me.

“They’re sweet,” she said as she took one of my shirts and put it on a hanger. “Gran and Grandad. How come we don’t know them?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“We should have.”

“I know.”

I closed my suitcase and sat on the bed. Bonnie came and sat next to me.

“None of this feels real,” I said. “I know your mum must have come from somewhere. She must have had a family, friends, people she hated, a history. It’s just–I never believed it. Now I’m here, and I still don’t know if I believe it.”

Bonnie looked at me for a long while. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. Then she said, “It’s late, Dad. We should get some sleep.”

After she had gone, I turned out the light and got undressed. I went to the window. It was a clear night, but there was no moon, so the fields and the stark hills that rose beyond them were dark. To the left, just beyond my line of sight, a yellow glow rose from the harbour and town.

Angela would have seen this view every night. It was passive, still, peaceful. A view to grow an imagination. How had she populated this view? Here was where she had dreamed and grown and become the woman I had married but never really known. The queen of the fairies, or just a girl who dreamed in the still darkness.

The house door cracked open below. I leaned further forward to peer down.

Bonnie stepped out into the star-lit blackness. She was carrying something. I squinted. Angela’s broken fairy wings. They hung loose, diffidently from Bonnie’s hand.

She stood in the darkness for several minutes, staring ahead. Then she turned and came back into the house. As she closed the door, I saw a glint of purple light like the edge of glass beyond the hedge.

I watched the night for a long time. The light didn’t return.

#

“I’m going for a walk around town,” I told Bonnie after breakfast. “Do you want to come?”

“Nah,” she said. “I’m going to hang out and talk to Gran and Grandad.”

“Okay,” I said. It was good for her to know her grandparents. Me, I wasn’t sure I was ready for that. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to believe in them.

Before we left Kent, everyone told us it rained all the time in Scotland. Not today. Today was blisteringly hot. I walked through Tobermory’s steep, twisted streets, feeling the sweat soak into my T-shirt, trying to imagine Angela as a kid walking or running through these streets, laughing or shouting. Whenever I passed someone middle-aged I couldn’t help but stare at them and wonder if they had known Angela. There could be pieces of her in them, stories and memories and touches, things that would make her past real. As I walked, I was building a solidity to the Angela-that-had-been that she had never had in my mind before. It made me sad and happy at the same time. The queen of fairies was slipping away and a girl was taking her place, like a dream fading into tangible reality when you wake.

About midday, I slipped into the cool darkness of a hotel on the harbour and ordered a glass of Laphroaig fifteen-year-old. It was slightly oaky with a lingering taste of the sea and a hint of peat smoke. I sipped it in an armchair in front of the cold fireplace.

When I was done, I crossed to the waterfront, sat on the quay, and watched the boats rock gently on the sun-silvered water.

I still didn’t know what we were doing here.

#

I got back home in the middle of the afternoon. I’d been out in the sun too long. I could feel the prickle of sunburn above my collar and on my scalp.

Bonnie was sitting on a bench under an apple tree at the other end of the garden, talking to a tall lad who was leaning on a lawnmower. She had a book open on her lap but was making no move to read it. Angela’s mother and father were weeding the flower border by the path together.

I nodded as I came in. “Who’s he?” Trying not to sound like an overprotective father. Bonnie was seventeen.

“Jack,” Angela’s mum said. “He does odd jobs for us. Don’t worry about him. He’s a good boy. Not terribly bright, but a good boy.”

“Angela and his father were sweet on each other at school,” Angela’s dad said.

“It didn’t come to anything,” her mum said. “They weren’t meant to be together.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m not about to get jealous.”

#

Angela’s parents went to bed at around nine again that night.

“We’re old,” her father said. “Can’t keep up with you kids anymore.” Bonnie rolled her eyes at me, and I tried not to glare at her.

She followed me up to my room.

“I saw you’d made a friend,” I said, then cursed myself for sounding prying.

Bonnie shrugged. She crossed the room to the window and stood looking out. Evenings lasted long this far north. The last of the sunlight was casting vast elongated shadows across the fields and trees.

“I used to hear you and Mum arguing,” Bonnie said, not looking at me. “I used to turn my music up and put my head under my pillow, but I could still hear you.”

“Bonnie…”

“I knew she’d go. I knew it every day.”

“It wasn’t like that.”

She turned abruptly. The light behind her was so bright I had to squint.

“Then what was it like?”

I lowered my gaze from the blaze of light. “Sometimes we got stressed. Work. Bills. You know.”

“And you didn’t even know about her family. You didn’t know she talked to them every week. You didn’t know where she came from.”

“I knew she was from Mull–“

“You didn’t know where she came from.”

I dropped onto the bed.

“She didn’t tell me.”

“You didn’t ask.”

“I did.”

“Once. Just once.”

“She’ll come back,” I said. “Her note said so. You saw it.”

Bonnie came across from the room and lowered herself into a crouch before me. “But she has to have a reason to stay, Dad.”

#

I heard the outside door open then close again as I lay in bed that night. I didn’t get out of bed to look.

If there were lights again, I didn’t see them.

#

“Jack’s going to show me around,” Bonnie said at breakfast. She looked at me. “If that’s okay?”

“Of course,” I said, not knowing if I meant it.

“Cool,” Bonnie said. “Then I’m going to get changed.”

“Just like her mum,” Angela’s mother said when Bonnie had gone.

“Really?” I said.

“Oh, yes,” her father said. “She was always running around with her friends. We hardly saw her some summers.”

“Off with the fairies, we used to say,” her mum said.

I frowned. “The fairies?”

“Our joke. She and her friends used to gather down by the water, at the end of town, when the weather was fine. Otherwise, they’d be in someone’s house. They were good kids.”

“Right,” I said. More pieces of reality sliding in, nudging my dreams aside.

“You never came to visit us,” I said.

Angela’s mum shrugged. “Eric doesn’t travel well. And it’s a long way.”

“So,” Angela’s dad said, pushing aside his cup of tea. “What will you do today?”

“I think I’ll take a walk again,” I said. “It’s a beautiful place.”

#

I went down to the harbour again and waited there until the hotel bar opened. It was empty this early. I took a stool at the bar.

“Did you know Angela MacEachern?” I asked the barman.

His eyes focused on me. “I did.”

“What was she like?”

He squinted at the question. “She was…fine. Normal.” He smiled. “She was in the year below me. I asked her to a dance once. She said she didn’t dance. It was kind of her, but I knew she was sweet on another.”

I nodded. Normal.

“Tell me,” I said, and took a mouthful of whisky. “Do you have stories about fairies here?”

The barman nodded. “Of course. All the islands have stories.” He shrugged. “I’m the wrong generation to ask about them. The old folk know the stories better.”

“How was one supposed to see them?”

“See them?” The barman wiped his cloth along the bar, cleaning away the ring my glass had left. “A gift, I think. You had to bring them a gift.”

#

I waited until Angela’s parents had gone into the house to make dinner. Then I went to the car and took out the dried lavender. I sat on the bench under the apple tree and crumbled the flowers.

“A gift,” I whispered, as I scattered the flowers. “A gift.”

No one came. Eventually, I went in for dinner.

#

Bonnie sat on the edge of my bed. “What’s up, Dad?”

I turned to her. My face felt numb.

“Your mum was never the queen of the fairies,” I said.

“I know.”

“Why did she go away?” The words squeezed up my throat like stones.

“When she told you that,” Bonnie said. “When she told you she was the queen of the fairies, it was just a joke, just a childhood game. You treated her like it was true. I think she just wanted to be treated like a normal woman.”

“She never said.”

“Yes, she did,” Bonnie said. “That’s why we’re here. This is her saying it in a way that you would believe.”

I swallowed, felt the stones sink away. Normal. That was fine. That was just fine.

#

From my darkened room, I watched out the window. The stars were high, sharp points in a depthless sky. The fields were pooled with blackness.

Below, the door cracked open. In the denseness of the night, Bonnie came out of the house and waited, broken wings in her hand, staring away over the hedge and the fields and the hills. Shattered purple lights gathered in a firefly swirl around her, and she began to walk forwards.

The boy, Jack, stepped out of the shadow of the hedge. The lights rushed to surround him. In their sharp light, the king of the fairies took my daughter’s hand. Even in my bedroom, I smelled lavender.

#

We left the next morning, promising to return soon. It was early and I was tired, but we had a long way to drive and I wanted to be home when Angela came home.

In the seat next to me, Bonnie hummed a bright tune.

-End-