Northern Lights – Episode 05

Lilias slept soundly, waking at dawn to find her grandchildren still abed. She roused the fire and was stirring a simmering porridge pot when Maggie came into the room, rubbing sleep from her eyes.

The lassie stopped when she saw Lilias.

“You’re up early,” she said accusingly.

“So’s the sun,” Lilias remarked cheerfully.

Maggie made no answer, scuttling off to the outside yard to visit the privy and wash at the scullery sink.

The others appeared soon after. If they were heartened to find the room warm and steaming hot porridge ladled into bowls with a pitcher of milk on the table, they took one look at Maggie’s face and held their peace.

After breakfast Maggie scrupulously measured equal shares of bannock and cheese into four small canvas bags and doled them out to her siblings, reserving one for herself.

The lassies draped working shawls around their heads and shoulders and Alec shrugged on an old jacket and bonnet that had seen better days. They stood in an awkward group, avoiding Lilias’s eyes.

“You’re for off, then?” she said mildly.

“Aye. We’ve decided ye can bide the seven days,” Maggie answered brusquely. “There’s cheese and bannocks for yer dinner. I’d be obliged if ye’d soak the dried cod hanging in the larder, ready for supper the night.”

They left, but not before Lilias caught a wistful look in Amy’s eyes. She felt the wee soul would have welcomed a hug.

She lost no time flinging wide the bedroom window to allow the sea breeze to stir the musty air, before attempting to dispel the dust which lay thick on every surface.

She carried all the rugs outside to a yard with outhouses and a tangle of neglected garden. She beat them till the colours shone brightly and clouds of dust rose in the keen air.

Replacing the rugs on newly swept floors, she surveyed them.

“It’ll dae for now.”

She made her way to the larder. A line of dried salt cod hung from hooks. Good enough fare in winter if hard pressed, but Auchmithie folk had an ancient, tastier supper – if it could be done.

Lilias unpicked a small section of her skirt’s lower hem and extracted a coin before resewing the stitching that guarded her life savings.

Wrapping her shawl around her, she picked up a creel left in the scullery and set out for the harbour.

Boats had returned from the fishing grounds and the harbour throbbed with bustling activity, gulls fighting over fish guts and laden fishboxes thudding on to the quayside.

Shouts, laughter and some colourful cursing came from men come safely ashore after long, dangerous days at sea.

The sounds were music to ears homesick for Auchmithie Bay. Memories of her fisherman husband, dearly loved and sadly lost seven years ago, brought tears to Lilias’s eyes.

The thud of a box landing close by jerked her head round to the nearest craft. The fisherman straightened and eyed Lilias warily. He could have wished for a more auspicious landfall than the sight of this old woman clad in black widow’s weeds.

Lilias studied the full fishboxes on the dockside and more coming up from the hold.

“You had a good catch.”

“Aye, finest haddock.” He noted the empty creel. “They’ll fetch a high price.”

He turned away.

It offended her to beg, but the need to feed the children made Lilias speak.

“Maybe a wee creelful sold at the dockside wouldna go amiss? It would be a God’s blessing tae a grandmother wi’ four hungry grandchildren.”

He paused, suspicious, though her voice had not the obsequious begging whine of the tinker.

“I ken most o’ the hungry grandchildren in Arbroath, missis, so whit four would yours be?”

“It’s Walter Cargill’s orphaned bairns.”

Lucy Crichton

Fiction Editor Lucy is always on the look-out for the very best short stories, poems and pocket novels. As well as sourcing enjoyable content, she enjoys working with our established contributors, encouraging new talent, and celebrating 155 years of 'Friend' fiction!