Anna felt the tension leave her shoulders as she drove across the new Queensferry Crossing and into Fife. Lowering the car windows an icy blast from the Forth sharpen her senses and she challenged herself to make it the whole way across without succumbing to the temperature. A shiver crept across her shoulder as the November morning made its presence felt and she cried out to urge herself onward.
“Come on!” she cried, thumping the steering wheel, “no cheating, you can do it. I believe in you.”
She clasped a hand to her mouth at the outburst, recognising the words her Dad would say to her as they crossed the Forth Road Bridge taking this journey years earlier, as he dared her to hold her breath for the entire crossing. Glancing across at the old bridge to her right she recalled them making that trip together as a family, Anna squashed between her brothers in the back, both of them well past the age of Dad’s games. As they approached the bridge Dad would catch her eye in the rear view mirror and ask if she was ready.
“This time Anna, you’ll do it this time. On my mark, here we go…..deep breath…now!”
She would gulp in as much air as her little lungs would carry and clench her fists together trying her best not to breathe. The first time she made it to halfway across the bridge her parents had given her a round of applause from the front seats, Dad reaching his hand around to squeeze her leg.
“That’s my girl,” he beamed, “let’s see if you can do it again on the way home.”
Each time they drove across the bridge her time improved, but she never did make it all the way. Mum was diagnosed and after that the few trips to Elie together were quieter affairs. The boys were off at university and so Anna was all alone in the back seat. The first time they approached the bridge and Dad didn’t give his usual speech she leaned forward.
“I’m ready Dad. Count me down.”
She remembered how he looked across at his wife, her eyes closed and face pale, before looking back at Anna with a sorrowful expression and whispering, “Not this time pet. Mum needs to rest.”
“I can try again when she’s better.”
Anna could hear her young voice speaking with such certainty and felt an ache for the carefree little girl she had been and the truth that was about to come crashing in on her young life. In the weeks that followed it became clear that Mum wasn’t going to get better and the day came when she sat on the end of her Mum’s bed with her Dad’s arms wrapped around her as she was told the truth. It was Sarah who had done all of the talking, reassuring her daughter that she was going to a good place and would always be looking down on her. There were encouragements to be kind, to find happiness and for the two of them facing her on the bed to look after each other.
“Will you be able to see me in the Christmas play at school?” Anna had enquired, concerned that Mum would miss her upcoming role as shepherd number 3 in the nativity.
“I don’t think I’ll be in the room darling, but you can be sure I’ll see it, and I know you’ll be brilliant.”
Somehow in the moment that was enough for Anna and she wriggled up the bed to wrap her arms around her Mum before going to practice her two lines. It was the last specific memory she had of her mother alive and speaking. There were several more weeks of hushed conversations, people coming and going, adults crying and trying to hide it from her and Anna tip-toeing in to stroke her Mum’s sleeping body, before one of those days held the news that she was no longer sleeping but had now died. She had very little memory of the days that followed, other than her Dad leaning over a coffin distraught before she was ushered from the room by Fran and taken to stay at their house. There was a trip to a headstone holding Abigail’s hand and placing yellow roses there, because Mum loved all yellow flowers. And there was her father’s haunted expression, trying to hold it together when she was in the room but never quite managing. Somewhere in those days something was lost between them, as though they both began to speak a different language and had no one to interpret for them and help them understand one another. Over time they learned enough words to get by but were never again fluent the way they had been when she was there.
Anna was well past the bridge and absolutely frozen when she came back to the present. Putting the windows up in the car, she cranked up the heating and the radio to chase away the cold and shake herself out of the past. By the time she made the turning for Elie she had sung herself into a more cheerful mood. This was where she came to get away from everything. Her family had been coming to Elie for as long as she could remember, to a house overlooking the beach and the harbour. One of the reasons Anna loved to come was that it helped her feel connected to her mother. The house had belonged to Grandpa Mac who left it to Sarah and Abigail when he died. Having always preferred East Lothian to Fife, Abigail was more than happy for Sarah to buy her out of the property and, as such, the Elie house became Sarah’s project, renovating it inch by inch and stamping her personality in every nook and cranny. Being there gave Anna a warmth and peace that she didn’t experience anywhere else. Their home in Edinburgh was lovely but sometimes these days felt like a space where she didn’t truly belong. The Elie house couldn’t be more different. Fresh and eclectic in style, feminine touches here and there, with pieces that her Mum had gathered arranged together just so. Any time Anna brought someone to stay who hadn’t been before, they instantly loved the place and would tell her that her Mum had great style.
Dad didn’t come too often anymore. Perhaps for him the reminders were too painful, and so when he did come it was mainly to play golf before spending the evenings in the clubhouse or the Ship Inn with his old friends and several rounds of Glenmorangie. There were always Edinburgh people in Elie and he was sure to meet folk who he knew to pass the time with. The town itself was only really one main street with a few little shops, a couple of pubs, the golf club and the beach, but it held a great attraction to people from the city precisely because of its simplicity and beauty.
Anna preferred Elie when she had it to herself, rather than having to share it with all of the other Edinburgh exiles who headed there every pleasant weekend or bank holiday. Today it was empty and wild, exactly what was needed. As she drove down towards the harbour the tide was in, crashing on to the rocks and throwing spray over the wall and onto her windscreen. Putting the car into the drive and turning off the engine, she sat for a moment to feel the car move with the wind. She stepped out to face the sea, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath of salty air, letting the wind whip her hair into a frantic mess. Rather than head into the house she decided to stretch her legs with a walk along to the pier. Passing the sailing boats safely sheltered on land, Anna nodded to the couple of other hardy souls out braving the weather. On reaching the end of the pier she paused and gazed across at the town. A pale row of buildings formed a sliver of light between a dramatic and ominously murky sky and the green grey mass of waves swirling in the bay. A solitary red sail pulled its owner in towards the safety of shore as the first drops of rain began to fall. She had thought of walking in the opposite direction, to visit The Lady’s Tower, a 17th century summer house perched on the edge of the rocky coastline. Built for Lady Jane Anstruther as a place to recover from her sea swimming excursions in Ruby Bay, it was also the location of many a Ferguson family photograph, with five smiling faces clustered in the stone doorway. That visit would have to be postponed until tomorrow, and the rain began to fall in earnest.
Anna pulled her coat close to her body and hurried back towards the house, pausing briefly to lift her bags from the car before pushing past the mound of circulars piled behind the door and stepping into the hallway. She switched the heating on and tidied the mail into a pile on the old hallstand before making her way upstairs. The grand old house was split into two properties now and so while their entrance was at ground level, most of what was theirs were the first and second floors. Huge windows let in what little light there was on such a day but also provided the means for the now pouring rain to hammer against the glass, filling the whole house with noise. Anna put the kettle on and pulled the duvet from the nearest bedroom before curling up in the bay window to wait for the place to warm up. The world on the other side of the window had turned into a milky mass of indeterminate grey and Anna stared into the middle distance letting her mind freewheel.
After a while she turned her head from the gloom outside to the cosy interior of her mother’s creation feeling once again the nearness of her in every detail. The deep cornflower blue of the back wall was offset by a huge painting full of colour and vibrancy with the pinks and greens being picked up by carefully selected cushions filling out the cream sofa. Over the marble mantelpiece hung an enormous mirror and the hearth was covered with multiple candles in an array of golden or glass jars. Even though it was early afternoon the dullness outside prompted Anna to go hunting for matches to light some of them for additional light and warmth.
In the kitchen she turned on the radio for company and fixed herself some lunch before setting about the task at hand. She began a search of the house for paperwork or clues of any kind that her Mum might have unearthed about their family tree. Beginning with the bookcase in the lounge she established fairly quickly that there was nothing of note among the shelves or in the cupboard below. Picking up a framed photograph of the five of them at the beach, she paused to look at this family unit that seemed so fleeting. The boys must have been about fourteen and Anna four. She stared at her tiny arms wrapped tightly around her father’s neck with such adoration. What would happen if she showed him this photo now? Would he remember this day? Would it jog his memory for the closeness they had once shared? Making a mental note to take the photo home with her she set it to one side and moved on.
Upstairs she glanced into a couple of the bedrooms knowing full well they had nothing to offer before finally arriving at the room which held the most promise. The converted attic space was just big enough for some twin beds and an old mahogany box chest and it was into this that Anna went hunting for clues. Lifting the lid, she found something of a time capsule, not of her mother’s as she had hoped, but of her brothers. There were scraps of paper with rockets and footballers drawn in crayon, medals from swimming competitions and tiny toy cars gathered together in a draw string bag. She pulled out a school jumper and looked at the label which read Age 9-10. It struck Anna that these were the brothers she never knew, the ones who had an entire ten years of life before she made an appearance in the world. The big boys who so quickly became men to her and seemed so different now took on a new persona. As she looked at their childhood things, scrapbooks, toys and clothes, she felt a connection, a closeness to them as never before. She smiled as she opened the front of a reading book to find that Robert had written his full name at the top and underneath, just to be sure, had stated “This book does NOT belong to James.” Setting it to one side Anna began to gather a small pile of items to take back to Edinburgh ready to share them with her brothers when they returned home for Christmas. Perhaps it would open up conversations and reminiscences that would be helpful for them all.
Having established that the chest held only her brothers’ belongings she sat back on to the floor dejected. There didn’t seem to be any obvious places she hadn’t considered. Had her search been in vain? Noticing the ache in her back she lowered herself to lie on the floor and stretched her hands behind her feeling the satisfaction of her body releasing all of its stiffness. The tips of her fingers just reached the very short wall which rose to meet the slanting eaves of the ceiling and she absentmindedly tapped her nails on what she thought would be solid material, but the sound she made caused her to sit up, suddenly intrigued. Turning onto her knees she tapped the wall and realised it was actually a thin wooden panel and as her eyes followed along to the end of the room she saw behind the chair in the corner a handle. Pushing the chair out of the way she pulled the handle, sliding the wall to the left revealing an extra bit of storage space behind. A waft of cold air escaped, prompting Anna to wrap her cardigan a little more tightly around her body. Two plastic boxes sat immediately within reach and she pulled them out into the room before activating the torch on her phone to check further and see if anything else was hidden in the darkness. Deeper behind the wall lay another two boxes and she had to crawl into the space to slide them towards her before wriggling back out of the door pulling her treasure behind her. One final sweep from the torch confirmed that the space was now empty and Anna slid the door back across to keep out the draft. On a quick search of the plastic boxes it was clear that they belonged to her brothers and were full of school reports, certificates and other long forgotten pieces of writing.
The other two boxes were cardboard and appeared to be much older. The first came wrapped in some cobwebs and Anna found a tissue in her pocket to give the lid a cursory wipe before diving in. The contents were disappointingly mundane, consisting mostly of old paperwork connected to her father’s legal practice. A quick sift down through the folders confirmed there was nothing of note as far as Anna was concerned. As soon as she opened the lid of the second box Anna recognised her mother’s handwriting adorning the sheets at the top. She knew her mother’s hand well as Sarah had written several letters to her before she died ready to be opened at key points in her life. There had been one to read after the funeral, another when she finished primary school, as well as letters for significant birthdays. These were among Anna’s most treasured possessions and she revisited them often, not always to read the whole thing, just sometimes to run her hands along the lines of ink as a way of keeping touch with what was lost. Anna’s natural first response on seeing her writing again was to do exactly that, stroking the page before lifting it out to see what it actually was. On closer examination it seemed to be a collection of essays, probably from her history degree, and below that a series of teaching notes and lesson plans. Glancing at the dates Anna guessed they were from the first few years of her mother’s career when she had taught at a school in Fife. While it wasn’t exactly what she’d been hoping for Anna was warmed by the prospect of some time in her Mum’s company and so carried her find down to the warmth of the lounge, made herself a coffee and settled herself on the sofa to go through the contents at her leisure. She found herself smiling as little pieces of her Mum’s voice came to her so clearly. For a while she simply sat and held the papers gathered close to her chest, enjoying the feeling of her mother’s presence.
As she reached into the cardboard crate to lift another pile of folders, she noticed that underneath them was a large shoebox held together with an old red elastic band. Setting the folders to one side Anna carefully removed the band to release the lid. A familiar smell rose to her nostrils, a smell that thrilled her. History. Old cloth and ancient paper had a very particular scent and Anna knew immediately that she’d found something of note.
One half of the box held a bundle of letters bound together with a faded blue ribbon. The one she could see the front of was addressed to a Mrs E Mackenzie at an address in Edinburgh’s New Town. The other half of the box contained a yellowing piece of cloth and as Anna lifted it out she could feel that it was wrapped around something firm. Carefully she unfolded it to discover it was a baby’s christening robe – perhaps early Victorian? – and inside were two leather bound books, battered, delicate and clearly devoid of many of the original pages. As Anna opened it up her eyes swam greedily over the page catching first the date 4th August 1827, and the name of the author, Molly Mackenzie.
“Mackenzie,” she muttered to herself. So had her Mum explored her step-father’s family rather than that of her birth father? Scanning further down the page she saw where the book had begun its life.
Anna was captivated. Who were these people? What had her Mum discovered exactly? For a few moments she simply sat and stared at her findings, a little overwhelmed by a discovery so much greater than she had anticipated. Glancing back into the shoebox she found that it held two more items sitting flat on the bottom. A smaller piece of paper lay face down on top of a larger one which had been folded in half. Lifting the smaller of the two she saw that it held a series of notes about the Chambers family. There were dates of her grandfather’s birth and those of his siblings and parents, along with scribbled places and jobs, possible leads for further information. Was this as far as her mum had managed to dig for information about the father she had never known? Had she hit a dead end, or was it waiting for her to return to when she had finished with her step-father’s family? Anna opened up the second, larger piece of paper and saw an extensive family tree. At the bottom there was her own name and those of her brothers and as her eyes followed the lines up the page she saw her step-grandfather George Mackenzie. She knew very little about him, as he had died before she was born. Her grandmother had been treated very badly by her first husband, Arthur Chambers, before he disappeared and left her with two young daughters. George Mackenzie had been a truly good man, marrying Mary Chambers and raising her two girls as his own. It was his family that filled the top half of the page as inch by inch, name by name they travelled back in time until finally at the top Anna recognised the name from the notebook.
Anna beamed with gratitude and appreciation of her Mum’s efforts. She ran her finger down the list of names counting six or seven generations, with names and dates, some gaps and question marks, but overall a pretty complete picture. This was diligent work. How long had it taken her mother to gather all of this information? Where on earth had she found it?
Just as she was about to set the family tree aside and make a start on the other items her eyes came to rest on a name written alongside her father’s. Her brow creased into a furrow as she struggled to make sense of how there could be a name she didn’t know sitting right there on the page. Then she saw the dates beneath and a realisation dawned. Here was a significant piece of history from more recent times, and one that could explain so much. This was the key she’d been looking for, one that might help her understand a bit more of her closest living relative. In a moment Anna’s priorities changed. The secrets of the living had come to light. The dead would have to wait for another day.