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Wish You Were Here

Colin Brzezicki

It was silly to panic over a postage stamp. Even a little worrying at her age.

What did Matt say last time he was home? Life’s too short to sweat the nickels and dimes, Mum. The facile mantra of a free spirit, but still.

She’d always fretted over trivial things—a forgotten birthday, an overdue bill—and now a postage stamp threatened to spoil her Cape Wrath adventure.

Yes, she should have allowed more space on the card for a larger stamp, but she wrote the address before buying it.

It was a ridiculous size for a stamp, even a special issue on the Queen’s ninetieth. An archived photo of Ma’am wearing a lemon coat and sponge cake hat, smiling in an open car beside Barack Obama, he waving to the crowd and happy as Larry.

She had the card with her now, hoping to find a post office with normal stamps. But all she’d seen on the roller-coaster road from Ullapool were highland cattle and sheep, some isolated hill farms, and a gas station.

There would be nothing at Cape Wrath, though that was half the attraction of going there.

The other half was going it alone.

She could make it there and back before dark, the car rental assured her, especially this far north with the long daylight hours. Angelika, the tour chaperone, approved her going.

Gems of the Highlands were headed for John O’Groats—a touristy place that didn’t top her list of attractions, despite being at the top of the country. On the way, they were to stop at castle Mey, but that didn’t appeal either. It was too soon after Urquhart for another castle, especially a lived-in one. She always hung back while the group poked around inside any castle where the family still resided. When she put her own house on the market after Clayton died she disliked having to vacate her home on open days so strangers could traipse through her rooms gawking at family photos and personal effects.

Today she had cut loose from her mirthless tour companions to see Cape Wrath. The name made her think of November storms pounding a bleak coastline.

Driving north on the lonely road, she reckoned the chances of finding a post office were, like the landscape now, more remote than ever.

The card must arrive home before she did. To show up ahead of one’s postcard was slipshod. Life was about shipshape and Bristol fashion, as her dear father used to say. A place for everything, wee Grace, and everything in its place. And due dates observed. She hadn’t been a university librarian for nothing.

The card was perfect. She found it in the shop at Urquhart Castle—a striking photo of the spectacular ruins etched against the deep blue of Loch Ness under a moonstone sky. Liz and Ken would be pleased to imagine her touring the castles of Scotland in glorious weather—their retirement gift.

A bus tour was never her choice, but Urquhart had stirred something, no question.

For starters, the weather was anything but glorious. She had stood transfixed above the ruins watching a magnificent storm move up Loch Ness. Its dark sleeves hung like a weeping cypress, draping the hills and blackening the waters as it approached.

The group dashed inside the visitors’ centre when they felt the first fat drops; but Grace zipped up her anorak, yanked the hood over her head and descended the wooden staircase to the castle. The storm soon shrouded the ruins, giving the scene a melancholy aspect as she picked her way along the broken walls. It felt oddly exhilarating to be there alone in the rain.

On the bus afterwards, Myra Gladstone said to her, “You look like a drowned rat, Grace. Did no one ever tell you to come in out of the rain?” Then she looked around, smirking at the others.

Myra was quick to establish herself as the group’s mother hen during the meet-and-greet at Toronto International. Grace could imagine her at school, haranguing the meek and uncertain, making life miserable for anyone who resisted her will. Her husband, a tall, tailored man with a sweep of white hair and a rueful expression, had been something in hedge funds. Myra assured everyone they had done very well thank you.

The rest were a prickly lot, mostly. The way they competed over their grandchildren—little prodigies, every one—and their own busy-busy social lives, the charities they quilted and biked and baked for now that they were retired.

Smartphones would come out, the photos stroked and tapped and shared, but the proud smiles tightened a little when it became someone else’s turn.

Their husbands stared out at the hills, mostly, or nodded off in their seats. A coach tour wouldn’t have been Clayton’s cup of tea either.

Grace sat with Inara Di Franco, because she too liked to gaze out at the still lochs and the hills yellowed bright with gorse.

Among challenging types like Myra Gladstone, Grace made herself disappear, like this morning, slipping away to Cape Wrath.

Anyone seen Grace since breakfast? Inara Di Franco would ask, and Angelika would tell them. She wouldn’t be missed.

Making herself invisible was a skill she acquired during her forty-year marriage to Clayton. Invisible but never idle. Something else she owed her father.

She did the lion’s share of raising Liz and Matt while working full-time at the McLuhan Library. Clayton, for his part, paid the hefty school fees from his substantial salary. He flew business class across the country, selling technology and riding high on back-slapping camaraderie at executive retreats and marketing summits. He cut a dashing figure with his expensive suits and easy charm, but those hand-made Italian shoes could run roughshod over his competitors—and poor Matt, who seemed to disappoint his father whatever he did.

Clayton wasn’t much impressed by Grace’s employment either, and once joked that her own shelf life would soon expire. She thought the marriage was in trouble, but he meant libraries.

“Books are done, Grace. It’s screen, not page anymore. Unless you upgrade you’ll be left behind.”

Sure enough, she was blindsided when the University Board approved a complete makeover for the McLuhan. Bookcases to be replaced by a user-friendly space with computer hubs and wide screens, and a student café where lattés trumped silence as the order of the day.

“What’d I tell you, Hon?”

Yet, it was his demise—how sadly ironic—that ensured her early retirement and enabled her to walk away from a library without books.

Now this wild, impromptu charge up the coast to Cape Wrath. So impulsive, so unlike her.

Mum, be sure to send us a card, okay?

She hadn’t written anything important; one never did on a postcard. It was the sending that mattered. Letting family know they were in one’s thoughts.

Having a lovely time. In Edinburgh, I found Spottiswood Road where Father grew up. Silly me, I had a little cry when I saw the house. Then Oban and now Ullapool. Castles everywhere! Weather amazing, just like Urquhart in the pic. Forever grateful. Love and hugs to Arn and Bub. Gram. XO.

What names now. All stripped down to monosyllables. Apt, somehow, with everyone too rushed to spell things out anymore. Those ciphers in Liz’s text messages— sentences clipped like a telegram. At least a telegram communicated something important. Anyway, names had shortened with the times. Matt. Liz. Ken. Arn. Bub.

Bub isn’t short for anything, Mum. We just like the name.

Thankfully, Grace was irreducible.

Though Gram now.

She wasn’t comfortable with Gram. She didn’t know how to be Gram because little Arn and Bub always seemed keen for her to leave almost the minute she arrived, so they could get back to their devices. They had long lost interest in the stories she read to them and, yes, that was natural at their age, but even when she asked them to show her the games they played on their devices they became impatient. The thought occurred—and she wished it hadn’t—that they were glad she’d been sent away.

You’ll have a fabulous time, Mum. You’ll make lovely new friends. And you had a rough ride before Dad died.

That was true enough. After as well. The sharp guilt rose now like reflux. She had wished him away in the end. Every day she spent in ICU holding his damp, spongy hand, staring at the blips on the monitors and pretending he even knew she was there, was another day lost.

And then that evening when she spoke those terrible words—more to herself than to his comatose form, but still. “Do you suppose you might let go anytime, Clayton? Don’t you think you’d be better off?”

And the shock when he died an hour later. Flat-lined just like that. The doctors had their own explanation, but he had heard her, she knew. Somewhere inside that disease-bloated body he heard her ask him to let go. And for once he obliged.

Matt took it harder than Liz, surprisingly. He never seemed to miss his father when he was away, and he kept his distance when Clayton was home; yet at the service he was almost inconsolable.

He was in Moldova now, or was it Azerbaijan—an unstable country regardless—riding his Vespa and living off what work he could find. He came home that one time when Grace sent him the fare. But after two weeks he grew restless and headed back to wherever he’d parked his scooter.

She loved her aimless, wandering Matt, but missed him in a different way now, more like a phantom limb.

He would text to tell her he was okay, puttering through a country whose location she sometimes had to look up. Did some of these places even have postcards, she wondered.

“Don’t you want to come home and settle down? Find a job here?” she asked him during his visit.

“Wherever I am is home, Mum.” He made it sound simple. Home is where you are.

Same for mollusks, she thought. Or were they gastropods? Whatever. Creatures that carried their homes around with them.

She once read how the earliest cameras photographed only stationary objects—buildings, say, or trees—because imaging took forever. If someone walked through a scene during exposure they left no impression. Like Matt.

Kilroy was here.

Like her.

For all her family and career, what impression had she left after sixty years of making herself invisible? Like right now. Driving to the remotest point in the Kingdom in search of a postage stamp.

She parked at the jetty across from Cape Wrath and joined the small group awaiting the ferry. She spotted it, a simple outboard, slicing through the water from the opposite shore.

She paid the ferryman, a laconic old salt, and took a seat in the stern.

The group included a blond, Nordic-looking couple, he with ice-blue eyes and perfect teeth, she with a tattoo of musical notes trickling down her neck. A paunchy man in a Red Sox cap squeezed in beside his possum-faced wife who kept eyeing the high water. A slim, elderly man with a creased, narrow face sat in front staring back at the jetty like he was having second thoughts.

No one conversed over the wail of the engine. She watched the gulls wheel above the boat as it troughed the surface on its way across the kyle. A yellow minibus waited to take them to the headland.

During the bone-shaking ride across the moor, Eric their driver delivered his spiel on Cape Wrath. Most remote part of the British mainland—army artillery site—spectacular views—“Wrath” from the Norse meaning “turning place”—Viking ships turned at the headland and headed home.

Nothing to do then with November storms hammering the coastline.

An hour’s drive took them to the rim of the world: a lone lighthouse, two naafi huts and the abyss beyond.

Eric led the others into the canteen hut. The minibus stood empty, shimmying in the gusts.

Leaning into the gale, she climbed the grassy slope to the cliff edge. Turning her face to the sea she raised a hand to shield her eyes against the wind. It tugged at her lashes and roared in her ears. Above the rush she heard the clink clink of the rope ties banging against the metal flagpole and looked up to see the blue and white Saltire snapping in the wind. The whitewashed tower lit up whenever the sun broke through. Far below, gulls cried and reeled on the crosswinds that swept in from the sea.

To the north she could see Orkney, suspended between sea and sky, and to the east, Dunnet Head, a dark leviathan brooding on the wrinkled surface.

She stood for a time, her mind vacant, then turned to look across the grassy moor at the world she had come from. Somewhere to the right was her daughter’s family—but what were their names? How absurd not to remember. Liz, of course. And husband Ken. The boys, Arn and Bud.

Looking left she imagined where Azerbaijan might be. Matt riding his Vespa, alone or with a friend. She hoped with a friend.

The party emerged chattering from the canteen and walked up the rise to where she stood. Then everyone grew silent and gazed out to sea, surrendering to the emptiness.

Inevitably, the phones came out and selfies taken against the lighthouse. Red Sox and the possum woman posed solemnly, his phone extended on a stick like he was toasting a marshmallow. The Nordic couple laughed when they looked at their photo. The elderly man aimed his camera at Dunnet Head, now luminous in a bright sun.

Grace hadn’t thought to bring hers.

Stepping away, she opened her purse and took out the postcard. She unfolded her wallet and, finding the stamp, peeled off its backing and stuck it on, covering the address. Raising her arm she held the card up to the wind.

When she let go, it seemed to hang for an instant as if uncertain what to do. Then a gust snatched it away and it vanished in the glare. Air mailed at last.

She smiled.

The possum woman looked away.

Eric suggested a photo before they drove back. Grace positioned herself between the elderly man and the girl with the musical tattoo. Eric took their email addresses so he could send them Cape Wrath moment.

A turning point.

On the ride back, half-listening to Eric talk about Orkney myths, she heard him mention selfies and wondered what cellphones had to do with Celtic folklore. When he elaborated on the magical seals that once came ashore to be transformed into young women, she realized he said selkies.

Gazing out at the moorland she felt her heart race with a new excitement she couldn’t explain.

She would forward the photo to Matt when she got back to Ullapool.

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