“What do we do when we feel time is passing too fast?” she asked.
“Do ye feel that already?” her father asked, looking mildly surprised.
“Never mind,” Carrie said. But they had stopped.
“It’s not what I mind,” her father said. “It’s what ye mind. And maybe we haven’t been that much together in the last 20 years but I know my daughter. What’s wrong?”
Carrie breathed deeply. They were both standing on the side of a hill overlooking the Bay of Portree. It was crisscrossed with small paths that were barely visible but her father knew them all and she had followed him this far, and he had allowed her to set her own pace.
“Megan died,” Carrie then said. “She was my age – a year younger actually. 37 … ”
Her father nodded gravely: “That’s sad.”
“Yeah … ” Carrie shook her head as if she had been hit by sudden nausea. “Yeah, it is. She worked at that organization I told you about. Didn’t know her that well, but … “
“But enough,” her father concluded.
They both looked out in the distance. There was mist, as always. In the harbor below small boats darting to and fro and there was a slight hum from the small town around it, giving a faint but reassuring indication of life. And it was a life that – in later years when she got in touch with her father again and more and more often thought of Portree and Skye – had often appeared to her as … uncomplicated. Much more so than the life, she knew in the big cities in the States, where she had lived since she was a teenager.
Of course, that was all very much in her imagination. She was keenly aware of that. Especially now. People died at 37 or younger in Scotland, too.
“I had a close friend – Mike Conners,” her father began “ … Ye never knew him. We met at work after ye and yer mother left for America.”
“And he died?”
“In 1999,” her father confirmed. “Cancer. He was 40 years old.”
“Same for Megan. Cancer, too.”
“Just does nae make sense, does it?” her father remarked and smiled a sad smile.
“No,” Carrie said, her voice trembling a bit. She kicked a pebble on the ground to distract herself. Then she motioned for him to follow her further down the path.
“Well, do ye want to talk about it?” her father asked, then quickly added: “Ye and Jon came over here with the kids for the first time, so I can understand if ye do nae want to talk about it.” He made an effort to make the next smile less sad. “If ye want to continue just having a holiday.”
“If only my mind would take a holiday,” Carrie replied, with an edge of bitterness. “Oh, I’ve been screwed up in the head before, but I always thought that was because of the booze, and … “ she trailed off and her father didn’t pursue that. He knew a bit about her younger years, from a few frantic calls from his ex-wife. He didn’t really want to get into that now.
“The thing is,” Carrie said and stopped again. “I didn’t know her that well, as I said. And my best friend from high school died almost twenty years ago – out of the blue. And, you know … others. So it shouldn’t take a toll on me – not like that. I liked Megan, sure, but she was just a colleague – and not even a close one.”
“But she was your age,” her father added, nodding again. “And that kind of death tends to leave ye thinking … “
“Too much,” Carrie said. “Too bloody much.”
“What about?” her father asked.
This time they had come to a forking of the path. The smell of highland moss was particularly strong here, and it seemed like it was the only vegetation, aside from the sharp grass that had the will to cling on to the rocky ground.
Carrie kept looking out across the bay, squinting, as if she was trying to decipher some hidden patterns behind this seemingly innocuous, postcard-like vista.
Then she turned to him: “About how much time I have left, and what I should do.”
Her father looked as if his spirit had been lifted somewhat, and that didn’t make Carrie feel any better. Where did that grin come from? Was he thinking she was … childish? She had thought about not sharing this, as a topic while they walked. Not with all the bitterness and despair of past years apart that still had to be healed. It would be too early to do anything but small talk. You had to start slow, coming over here to a father you had not seen for over a decade. And you had to just be together, and feel like you were a family again. Gain trust. And then – only then – could you perhaps share more. Wasn’t that how it was supposed to work?
“I believe it’s called a midlife crisis”, came the conclusion from her father which interrupted her somber thoughts. The way he had said it, she felt, was the same condescending way he had said everything in the years before the divorce. To her. To her stepbrother. To mother. To his previous wife, when she called. Like he always knew better, and everyone was stupid.
Of course, she had not known that he had been deep into the bottle back then and had found nothing but bitterness and that that bitterness had taken on a life of its own. When you are a teenager these things don’t make sense, because it is hard to understand that life is not there for you – all the way. Even if life continues to spit you in the face.
Carrie hated that tone, or even the ghost of it. She hated that conclusion. What the hell was she going to use that for? She wanted to say nothing and just walk on but she couldn’t.
“You know,” she said, “that’s a pretty arrogant thing to say.”
“What is?” her father asked, pokerface.
“Saying it is ‘just a midlife crisis’ – like it’s just going away. Like I’m a child who is not yet ready for the big bad life.”
“I never said that.”
“When did I?”
“Well, so many times … before.”
“Right,” he said bitterly. “‘Before’ – ye never let me forget ‘before’ … “
Her father shook his head and increased his pace. His steps sounded firmer now in the gravel. And it was not a beautiful sound here in the otherwise quiet Scottish countryside. It was a determined angry sound.
For a while ago neither of them said anything. They were like soldiers, marching at the same pace, but alert to each other. Neither wanted to make the first attack. Or wave a flag of truce. Like so many times …before.
So they trotted down the hill and watched the Bay of Portree in front of them: the people, boats, and even the sun – which eventually cast a few rays through the fat mist across the bay and wasn’t much of a lightbringer today. As was often the case in Scotland. And there was no promise of improvement, for darker clouds gathered over the Cuillin Mountains behind them …
Then the path suddenly ended.
“ … So where do we go now?” she said.
They had arrived at a small grove of trees and an old stone fence. It was low and they could easily make their way over it if they wanted. Then they would come to the cobbled path and then a few minutes later, one of the smaller streets leading to the first houses.
She felt her father’s hand on her shoulder.
“We go wherever ye want to. It’s your holiday after all,” he said gently.
She turned towards him and felt rotten. Had she been too angry? Why? Did it matter? She had ruined it. Their walk – together. The first in years.
Then her father took her in his arms and held her tightly. Reflexively she wanted to pull away at first, but she did not.
“Aye, time passes too bloody fast,” he said. “And it makes one skittish being reminded of it. Especially when the Lord takes good people home like that … and a man wastes time picking fights with those who are left. I’m sorry, Caroline.”
Carrie slowly pulled away but kept her hands on his shoulders.
She felt a raindrop on her cheek. That was another part of Scotland that always stayed the same. The rain or mist would catch up with you, even on the brightest of days.
“I’m sorry for being so whiny,” she muttered. “I have a good health, I have Jon, the kids … you.”
“But ye never know for how long,” her father added. “I understand that … Lord, I do!”
She winced, but she knew it was the truth and that it was as important as ever to say it out loud.
Perhaps because she felt they had so much less time left than when she lived here and the future still looked promising.
Carrie nodded in silence and looked towards the fence.
“Shall we go over and down to the harbor? We could go in and have a coffee somewhere.”
The drizzle that had started a minute ago quickly became more intense. They might make it back to the house, but Carrie calculated that even if they did, they would probably still be quite wet. The town also presented a more alluring destination; she didn’t feel like going back to Jon and the kids just yet. But the town felt warm and inviting, even though it might still be her imagination. Maybe Portree was never as cozy as she remembered it. And they would surely get soaked no matter which way they went before they reached shelter. They had gone too far.
“Aye,” her father said. “Let’s go to the town. – And Caroline?”
“Ye are not ‘whiny’,” he said and grinned. “What kind of word is that anyway? Something ye learned in America, no doubt!”
It was a rough grin, and it was easy to be reminded that his voice would never be smooth again – not because he was 64 but because of everything he had drunk since he was 34.
Still her father’s grin made Carrie feel a lot better this time.
“We learn a lot of stupid words in America … ” Carrie said and wiped the moisture from her cheeks, even though it was hopeless. The wind had shifted and she was rewarded with a new gust of rain in the face moments after.
“I don’t doubt that!” her father exclaimed, in a mock self-satisfied tone. Feigned superiority of the Scottish way of life, language, and everything. He still loved doing that, too – silly as it was.
“Yeah,” Carrie continued. “One of those words is ‘I’m busy.’”
“That’s two words,” her father interrupted smugly.
“Technically it’s three.”
“When I say it’s two – it is two.”
Carrie just shook her head, her long slightly faded blonde hair getting even more filtered than the wind had managed to make it.
“Again you want to be right,” she said and knocked him lightly on his chest with her fist. But she kept her smile up this time.
“Aye, and sometimes I am right,” he said gravely. “Ye have to have some advantages, being older.”
“Let’s go over,” she said.
“Very well,” her father replied and helped her, as she first climbed over the stone fence. Then he followed.
He moved with deliberate slowness as he lowered himself down on the path on the other side, and for a moment Carrie briefly considered lending him a hand, too. If nothing else then because it might help them reach the inn at the harbor with a gallon less of water in their clothes. And the stones quickly became slippery in the rain, so …
But she waited patiently instead. It was better that way. She didn’t want to remind him – or herself – too much of his age.
When he was down on the other side, she took his hand, though, but now so they could walk together the rest of the way to the harbor.
“So what is the answer then?” she asked while they put up a brisk pace to at least make a show of trying to escape the rain. “What do we do when time passes so fast?”
“I do nae know,” her father replied. “But it helps doing it together.”