Anna stood on the first floor balcony overlooking the gallery as the midday sun flooded through the rooftop windows throwing shafts of amber light onto the pale boards below. A lone visitor sat on a bench encircled by a halo of shadows, seemingly deep in thought. Anna remembered the times she had come to that very bench in the years since her Mum had died. It had been their bench, the place they would pause in their tours around the museum, and open up their bags to pull out treats and a thermos flask of sweet tea. They shared together as pilgrims pausing on a sacred trail, taking in the wonder of their surroundings, satisfied with all they had seen and yet hungry for what was still to come. It did not matter how many times they came, there was always a sense of excitement – a mixture of visiting all that was familiar and favourite alongside discovering what was new and temporary. Anna wondered, not for the first time, what her Mum would say about her working here. She knew she would be proud but longed to hear her voice tell her that for herself. She felt close to her Mum in here, knowing that she was in a place her Mum had loved, where she had spent many happy hours. There were a few exhibits that shone clearly in her memory. She had learned the meaning of the word intricate as they studied the ancient brooches and jewellery in one of the design cabinets. When they walked through the animal kingdom the two of them would try to imitate the noises of the various creatures they encountered, each trying to make the other laugh with their impressions. But the place where Anna could see and hear her Mum most clearly was right down there on their bench.
“Time for a little something, don’t you think?” she would suggest, looking at Anna with a smile before leading her to sit down and opening up her bag on the bench between them. On taking out the flask she’d unscrew the cup lid and pour out a little before offering it to Anna, always singing the Doris Day song ‘Picture you upon my knee, Just tea for two, and two for tea, Just me for you, And you for me alone.’ This memory had come dozens of times before, but today it caught her right in the gut.
“Have you had your lunch break yet?” a voice asked, pulling her back to the present. Her colleague Stephen was gesturing her to follow him as he kept walking around the corner of the balcony.
“Eh no, I haven’t,” Anna replied, almost running to keep up with Stephen’s long strides.
“Right, well why don’t you stop now and then when you come back can you go to the Kingdom of the Scots for the afternoon please?”
Without waiting for an answer he disappeared into another gallery and towards another guide issuing further instructions as he went. Anna made her way back to the staff room to gather her bag and coat before heading out for some fresh air. Standing on the corner of Chambers Street she enjoyed a few moments of cool air while deciding where to go. Across the road a small gathering of tourists huddled around the statue of Greyfriar’s Bobby before making their way across the road and into the churchyard. It was a glorious October day, bright and clear, and Anna began to wander along the road reaching for the sandwich in her bag as she went. She took her time, still lost in the thoughts of the morning, until her feet led her to St.Giles. As was her habit she made her way right into the middle of the sanctuary, to a seat towards the front where she could sit and look up at the colourful window and drink in the quiet splendour of the place. Even when it echoed with the murmur of visitors and guided tours there was always a stillness here in which Anna found great solace. When the chaos and uncertainty of this life felt overwhelming there was something immensely comforting to be cloistered in these ancient walls where people had gathered for hundreds of years. In each visit Anna found a sense of peace that somehow sustained her when the rest of life was hard. Today she let her eyes drift upwards, following the stone arches to the vaulted blue ceiling above, letting her eyes dance around the sacred space as her heart followed in quiet contemplation. When the time came for her to leave, she gathered her things together before nodding her appreciation towards the altar. She wasn’t sure about belief in a higher power or deity but she was always grateful to the building itself and liked to acknowledge its steadfast welcome and strengthening presence.
Most of the afternoon passed without incident until shortly before closing time when a lady approached Anna wearing a look of consternation. Anna had noticed her earlier, making her way around the exhibition, occasionally muttering to herself in an agitated tone. When she finally spoke to Anna it was with a Caribbean accent and a strong sense of feeling aggrieved.
“This history you have here,” she began, gesticulating towards the room, “it’s not quite right is it?”
“I’m sorry?” Anna replied, a little taken aback.
“Well it’s all very nice and interesting, but it’s not the full story is it? Where’s the other side of Scotland’s history? Where do you talk about what you did to my country, my people? Is that in a separate exhibit somewhere else?
Anna searched her mind for some knowledge of what the woman might be referring to.
“I, eh… I’m not sure I understand.”
“No I didn’t think so. I don’t suppose you like to think about it. You need to know your history,” she continued, pointing a finger at Anna, “and tell the whole story, not just these bits that make you look good. A half-truth is no truth at all. Cha!”
Looking thoroughly disgusted she turned and walked away from Anna, leaving her feeling more than a little put out. In the time she’d been working at the museum she’d had a few unusual questions but no one had ever suggested she didn’t know her stuff. No one had ever been angry about an exhibit and certainly Anna had never felt personally accused of misrepresenting her country’s history. A prickle of indignation ran through her body, flushing into her face. Standing there, alone in the gallery for the last moments of the working day, the conversation played over and over in her mind, and each time she found her voice, interjecting to tell the woman that she did, in fact, have a degree in history and that it was very rude to speak to her in that way. By the time the museum closed, she had reworked the confrontation so many times as to feel satisfied enough to let it go for the night.
Cartons of Chinese take away lay strewn on the kitchen table as the two friends lay at either end of the sofa each nursing their third, or maybe fourth glass of wine. Julia struggled to reach across for the remote and switched off the tv as the credits rolled.
“An absolute classic,” she declared slumping down into soft pillows and tucking her legs under the blanket stretched between them. This had been their Friday night ritual since primary school, although back then it tended to be burgers and milkshakes followed by popcorn and hot chocolate to accompany the film, but the feeling was the same. Many times at the end of the night Anna would ask to stay over, until it became the accepted norm and Fran would have the camp bed already made up in Julia’s room before she’d even arrived. When they were a little older Julia’s dad Richard had suggested that Anna might be more comfortable in the proper guest bedroom rather than squeezed into Julia’s room sleeping on something he’d had from his days in the Scouts. But all three women had looked at him with such scorn and incredulity that he quickly realised his mistake. As he recalled the happy times he’d had using the bed on expeditions with his troop, he remembered in those moments that if someone had offered him a comfy bed away from his pals he’d have given them much the same look as he received at the suggestion.
The noise of the front door closing and the rustling of keys and coats announced the return of Julia’s parents from their evening out. Richard appeared through the door first, striding over to walk behind the sofa and greeting both girls with a kiss on the tops of their heads. “Daughter number one, daughter number two,” he said in greeting before standing in front of the fire to face them, warming his hands behind his back. Anna looked up at him and wondered how he could be so similar to her own Dad and yet so completely different at the same time. Richard Cameron was tall and distinguished looking, with his greying hair and moustache, gold-rimmed glasses and penchant for colourful bow ties. With his warm and gentle manner, he was every bit the paediatric consultant. From the first time Anna fell in their garden and scraped her knee, his loving care and attention had told her that this home, this person, was a safe place for her. Like her own Dad he was obviously driven to excel in his chosen field and was a man who valued doing things well. He certainly didn’t suffer any fools, as several of Julia’s boyfriends had found out to their cost. Yet he retained a personable, even affectionate demeanour that drew you in to his company. As Anna looked up at Richard she recognised the familiar ache of what was lacking in her own home.
“Anyone for a nightcap?” called Fran popping her head in the door.
“Ooh yes please,” Anna replied as Julia responded with a thumbs up.
“What about you darling?”
“No I need to head upstairs. Early clinic in the morning. Shall I get the camp bed out for you Anna?”
“Yes please,” Anna smiled, acknowledging his kindness.
“Alright my loves, I’m off to bed. Sleep well.”
A chorus of goodnights rang in Richard’s ears as he made his way up the stairs, knowing he would fall asleep in the room above to the lullaby of gentle laughter from the three most important women in his life.
The fire crackled and hissed in the grate as Pickle the cat stretched and yawned before switching allegiance from Julia’s lap to Anna’s, her contented purr filling the room. Nudging the chin of her newest companion, Anna responded with a rub of her ears.
“Waifs and strays together again, eh Pickle?”
Anna hadn’t been the only one to find refuge in the Cameron household over the years. Pickle was the latest in a line of animals who had either been rehomed from shelters or picked up from abandoned corners of the city and taken into Fran’s care. Richard had long ago given up being surprised at the appearance of a new member of their household arriving unannounced, in the same way that he no longer commented upon the rearrangement of their furniture at the start of each new season or at whatever whim had overtaken his wife on any particular day. The house was his wife’s domain and she had a way of making it feel warm and welcoming that he recognised was truly a gift, as the constant stream of new arrivals and visitors confirmed. He was simply happy to be a quiet part of this beautiful world she created within their four walls. Julia had inherited her father’s easy warmth and gentle demeanour with her mother’s zest for life and eye for style as well as her love of animals. It had been no great shock when at the age of eleven she announced her intention to become a vet, never wavering from that plan until she had secured a place at Edinburgh University to do just that. Having just started her penultimate year she was currently on a placement with the practice they had always used as a family.
Fran backed through the door with a tray of steaming glasses and a plate of cheese and biscuits.
“It felt like a night for hot toddies so I did us some port. Is that ok girls?”
“Ooh lovely, thanks Mum,” Julia replied crawling across to the coffee table, never able to resist the lure of cheese.
“Here Anna, let me reach some across to you so you don’t have to disturb her ladyship there,” Fran offered, looking at the cat the way most people look at new born babies.
“How has the museum been this week?”
Anna let the rich aroma of port, cloves and orange fill her nostrils as she closed her eyes to cast her mind back over the past five days.
“Mostly fine, although today I had a bit of a strange encounter which left me a bit ruffled.”
“Oh? Tell us more,” Fran mumbled trying to keep hold of a cracker crumbling in her mouth.
Anna relayed the conversation she’d had with the lady that afternoon.
“I mean, history is my thing, it’s what I know. And she suggested we weren’t telling the truth, that’s what really needled me. She seemed really cross about it, whatever she was talking about. I don’t know. I was pretty put out about it at the time but now I don’t know what to think.”
“You know, I remember a young history student sitting around my table talking to me about how historians had to be careful because the accounts of what happen are always written by the victors or those with the most power and influence. She waxed lyrical about how good historians would dig that little bit deeper, always looking for the other side of the story, trying to get the fullest picture. Do you remember that?”
Anna looked sheepish.
“I do. I guess I just started to drink it all in at some point, believe what I was told from the people I thought knew best. There were exams to pass and jobs to get. Maybe somewhere along the way I’ve forgotten to ask good questions.”
“I don’t know what that lady was talking about, but we all like to show our best sides don’t we? There’s no reason why that wouldn’t apply to a country as much as to an individual person. Sounds like it’s time to dig a little deeper.” Fran winked across to Anna in the way she always had when Anna needed a gentle nudge to do better. “And what about the family tree? Any digging done there?”
“I spoke to Abigail and she didn’t know too much, but she thought Mum might have done something on it if I can find some of her old paperwork. I’ll head over to Elie when I have a spare day or two this month and see what I can find. I haven’t been there in a while so it’ll be nice to go anyway and feel close to Mum.”
“Ah Elie. Did you know that’s where Richard first asked me to marry him?”
“First asked?” Julia exclaimed. “You mean he had to ask more than once?” Her eyes were wide and wild. “How have I not heard this before now?”
“Well,” Fran began, with a tone that immediately made you lean forward for all the details. “We’d had a lovely walk along the coastal path and it was a beautiful day and I think the mood just took him to ask. I was quite taken aback as we hadn’t discussed getting married, but I knew he was the one. He was a darling man even then, but he’d caught me off guard, and frankly I also wanted a little more fuss. So I told him I’d consider it.”
“Well I had to be sure he’d really thought about it; I didn’t want to get engaged on a whim.”
“Poor Dad. He must have been crushed.”
“We talked about it in between times, now that he’d raised the subject, and made sure that we knew how we felt about certain things. He was in no doubt that when he asked again I’d say yes. And he did put in considerably more effort the second time around.”
Fran sat back with a satisfied smile.
“Don’t leave us hanging Fran!” Anna was sitting up now, on the edge of the sofa, sending Pickles scuttling off for a more peaceful spot in which to sleep.
“It was Christmas Eve and he took me out for lovely meal at the Balmoral. We were all dressed up and it felt very special. I wondered if he might ask again but we got to the end of the evening and he hadn’t. We got a taxi back to my parents’ house where I was staying and he walked me to the porch. He dropped to one knee, produced the ring from his pocket and asked me to do him the great honour of becoming his wife. The Christmas lights were glistening, the wreath was on the door, it was really perfect.”
“That’s gorgeous,” Anna beamed, her face glowing from the fire and the story.
“Well then he led me inside and showed me into the living room where our parents were waiting with champagne. He’d set the whole thing up and I couldn’t have been more delighted.”
“Aw Dad. What a legend.” Julia raised her glass to the ceiling, toasting her father in the room above.
“I wish I knew that part of my parents’ story,” Anna thought aloud. “I can’t imagine Dad talking to me about stuff like that. I feel like I’m missing a part of myself in not being able to ask Mum these kinds of things. I get little bits from Abigail and from you Fran, but it’s like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle without the picture and one person holding lots of the pieces behind his back.”
Julia moved across from the other end of the sofa to link arms with Anna and the two of them leaned together resting heads on shoulders, love and comfort moving unspoken between their bodies. Fran looked across at the two of them entwined on the sofa, seeing in the young women the same girls who had sat that way over many years and was thankful to have such a friendship under her roof.
“You got a little something from him recently, when you went for lunch. I know it wasn’t much but perhaps it was a start. And maybe when you go to the house at Elie you might find some old photos or letters that will tell you a little more and may even open up the conversation with your Dad.”
“Maybe,” Anna pondered. “Thanks Fran.”
“Always my pleasure. Now, time for bed I think.”
They gathered the plates and glasses on to the tray and as Fran and Julia took them through to the kitchen Anna paused on the stairs, looking back at them standing side by side as they carried out the most mundane of tasks in effortless coordination, the well-worn familial path of a thousand small everyday movements that together carved out a unique space that was only for these people in this place. One bends as the other stretches, a silent dance that is uninterrupted by a bump of elbows or a mistimed step. This ordinary ritual which to its participants feels like the least noteworthy part of the day raised in Anna’s heart a profound sense of loss and longing as even in this house where she felt most at home, there were still reminders that she was on the outside of something looking in.