Home is Where the Heart Stops

Part one

The smell hit her the instant she opened the door. A mix of cats, geraniums and cigarettes. Isabel hated smoking and potted geraniums in equal measure. She didn’t own a cat. She shoved the mountain of accumulated mail out of the way with her crutch. The paramedic placed her bags inside the hall and disappeared down the overgrown path without saying goodbye, still grumbling about how you were only allowed one piece of luggage in an ambulance.

Isabel closed the door behind her and locked it. Her hands shook and her heart threw summersaults of joy to be home, in her own private space, finally away from the prying eyes and probing fingers of the white coats. She’d thought this day would never come. She’d thought it was over, the end of the road, kaputt, finito, nothing left except bedpans, pain and humiliation. No future except days lying in her own stink, face down in a bowl of hospital porridge while the fat lady sang.

Panting with exertion she shuffled slowly into the living room and sank into the cane chair by the French doors that faced onto the garden. She’d missed her mountains, the light and emptiness of the vast sky. Her solitary room on Ward 3A looked out onto a brick wall. She couldn’t see the sky at all, not even a sliver. The only way she could tell if the sun was shining was by the light reflecting in the brickwork, the changes in hue. On a bright day the bricks gleamed like tiger’s eye. On a grey day they were a dull flesh pink.

Now Isabel surveyed her garden, still marvellous despite the weeds and rampant lawn. The hollyhocks blazed magenta. The roses drooped with lush scarlet blooms, the honeysuckle smothered the archway and on the horizon Morven and Scaraben glowed purple in the evening sun. She sat there for a long while, just breathing, in, out, in, out. She was alive. She was home. No one could hurt her now.

And then she saw the boots. Dirty workmen’s boots placed casually in the middle of the kilim rug she’d brought back from Turkey. They were caked with mud, one boot tilted as if they’d been cast off in a hurry, the soles worn, the brown leather wrinkled with age. Her chest tightened in panic and she scanned the room for other signs of disturbance. Everything seemed much as she’d left it the day of the accident other than a layer of dust and a few cobwebs. There were books and magazines in a tidy pile on the coffee table, logs stacked by the wood burner and dead daffodils in a stained glass vase on the window sill. Her grandmother’s vintage clock had stopped at five to five.

Isabel couldn’t bear to touch the disgusting boots with her bare hands so she nudged them closer with her crutch. One of them tipped over and a tiny square of paper fell out. Leaning unsteadily from her chair she picked it up and unfolded it with trembling fingers.

Written in red biro on a torn piece of graph paper was just one word, ‘remember’.

To be continued…

image by the author

Opportunity Knocks

Calling for submissions


Makarelle is a new online literary magazine, offering a platform for writers and visual artists.

For our Spring 2021 issue, on the theme of ‘Coming Unravelled’, we invite submissions of – fiction and non-fiction of up to 2,000 words- poetry of up to 40 lines- visual art (photos, drawings, paintings etc).

The submission deadline for this issue is 28 February 2021.If your piece is accepted, we are happy to showcase a brief author biography and any website/social media links with your publication.

For full guidelines, visit www.makarelle.com/submissions.

photograph by Dini Armstrong

The Floating Road

A dark tale from the mysterious peatlands of Scotland….

A small man wearing a hard hat waited at the side of the road just before the bend. Behind him a Toyota pick-up loaded with drainage pipes was parked in a passing place. On the opposite side a gravel track led up through freshly churned peat to the brow of a hill where a JCB digger was silhouetted against the winter sky. The man checked his mobile phone and shuffled his boots in the dirt at the side of the road. He noticed a dead rabbit lying at the edge of the tarmac. It’s rear legs had been chewed off by a predator but one eye was moving in the socket…alive.

A cold easterly wind blew in from the sea. All around him the ochres, rusts and browns of the mossy peat bog dissolved into a pattern of undulating stripes stretching out as far as the horizon. The man had twinkling blue eyes and a rosy complexion but his mouth was permanently twisted into a thin grimace as if he was trying hard not to laugh at a secret joke.

His name was Douglas Macleod but everyone called him Slip because like a fish he would always slip and slide away from troubled waters and swim towards the easy money. Slip Macleod thought he was born lucky. He inherited the family business, a Victorian farmhouse and five hundred acres at an early age. Within three years he made his first million. His wife was slim, blonde and never asked inconvenient questions, even when he indulged in ‘playing away’ and drinking weekends with his best mate Alec. At fifty he had good health. He could drink nine pints of lager, entertain one of those Glasgow tarts all night in the back of his Jag and still manage the seven hour drive home to the Far North without any sleep. A good weekend like that would set him up on a high for at least a month and the best thing was there were no consequences.

The sky darkened and the wind threatened rain. Slip had decided to continue his vigil from inside the truck when his phone exploded into the opening bars of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. The screen displayed an unknown number and for a second Slip hesitated in case it was one of his dissatisfied customers, but then he pressed the green answer button.

‘Yep?’ he growled into the phone. There was a silence. ‘Yep?’ he said again.

‘Hello…hello…can you hear me?’ said a woman with a Glaswegian accent.

‘Yep…who’s that?’

‘…first day…return…mind the way…Gordon please…’, the line was breaking up.

‘Ye what? Gordon who…? I canna hear ye woman!’

‘…got to listen…safe please…it’s coming…’

‘Ye what?’

Slip held the Samsung up above his head trying to get a signal and moved away from the truck into the middle of the road. The screen briefly registered one bar and then none at all. The call disconnected and there was silence. Suddenly there was no wind, just stillness in the grass. Slip gazed into the distance where the silver ribbon of the floating road disappeared into the twilight haze. There seemed to be something moving towards him, a blurred shape too big and too dark to be the familiar blue car he was waiting for. Ferry traffic perhaps or a freight wagon loaded with refrigerated fish heading down the line, no headlights showing despite the November gloom. His phone rang again, now there were two bars of signal.

‘Bloody Vodafone,’ Slip said out loud before he answered. ‘Yeah, what is it?’

‘Watch out, it’s coming,’ said the woman.

‘Ye what?’ asked Slip for one last time.

He didn’t feel much. Just an immense pressure in the back of his head and then all the air was sucked out of him. The final moment he was lying at the side of the road looking into the rabbit’s eye.

Artwork by the author

Lockdown Pondering

Instead of writing my novel I am staring at a bunch of bananas, or more precisely at the juxtaposition of the fruit with a box of Gourmet cat food, a calendar, jars of pasta, a face flannel and a pack of hair grips. The randomness of this arrangement reflects the insanity of my life during these Covid months. If ever there was a plot I have truly lost it along with any desire to keep a tidy house. The absence of visitors due to the restrictions has eroded my inner hausfrau. Instead I have developed a taste for the creativity of chaos. I used to be one for everything in its place, now I think there is a place in everything.

I keep thinking about the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat. If no one speaks to me or sees me or hears me for several days there is the equal probability that I am both dead and alive at the same time. The reality of my existence is not validated by others. For ten months I’ve been living in a grainy gritty twilight zone like a scene from a movie shot on Super8. I need to keep looking in the mirror just to check I’m still here. There’s always a tingle of surprise when I see myself, relatively unscathed, looking back.

I am writing this with a yellow pen and therefore prone to optimism.

image created by the author

Moving On

Another piece of flash fiction mined from an old notebook. I wrote this just after my relocation to the Far North of Scotland fifteen years ago.

Tuesday morning
Seagulls wail the sound of loss and loneliness as I make my way down the hill to the harbour. The road unfurls a paper scroll and the turquoise shimmer of the sea beckons. On the horizon I see a small red dot, faltering, almost lost in the haze; a warning, a sign, an anticipation of homecomings. Or unwelcome return. I stop on the bridge and watch the ochre discharge of peaty water cascading down the brae. The wind blows cold carrying the stink of diesel from below. I don’t want to go on. Nauseous, I lean against the railings while my stomach spasms, ejecting the loathsome bile of my fear into the river. I’m glad there’s no-one around, only a dog chasing ducks and barking.

Tuesday afternoon
A small red dot on the road behind me, shrinking, getting smaller and smaller until I have to pretend I can still see him in the rear view mirror. An imaginary dab of scarlet on the tarmac like the smudge of a blood stain on a clean white blouse, an embarrassment, something quickly washed away and forgotten. No longer real. Just a story I made up or a dream or the memory of a dream. Ahead lies a clear horizon and an open road. If I look carefully I can see a small yellow dot; a pale circle of gold, insignificant, like a wary hitch-hiker hovering and waiting but getting closer, swelling bigger and brighter and more beautiful. Until I can see nothing else, my vision obscured by glorious yellow light.

And the past is dissolved away, reduced to a pile of bleached old bones at the side of the road.

Photo by the author

Something Fishy

I was looking through some old notebooks today and came across this short story I wrote about twenty five years ago and had forgotten about. A simple tale of revenge written not long after my divorce...no coincidence!

The suitcase waited by the front door while Morven took one last look around the house. The bedroom had an abandoned air; the usual bric-a-brac missing from the dressing table and only her sequinned party frock hanging in the wardrobe. For a moment she paused at the foot of the double bed and memories both happy and sad raced through her mind.

When first married they spent entire weekends cocooned in this room, oblivious of the world outside. The passion and laughter of early times had soon faded into the silence of lonely nights when the bed felt like an expanse of lifeless desert. As she left the room Morven gave the duvet a final pat, smoothing out an imaginary wrinkle in the cover.

The lounge was polished, tidy and still. The gleaming fish tanks lining one wall were empty of the bright colours and flickers of usual inhabitants. Only silver bubbles gurgled through the water and reminded Morven of the way the fish pie was simmering in the oven. She laughed when she noticed Neil’s favourite collection of books:- The Secrets of a Healthy Aquarium, How to Look After Your Angel Fish, Discovering Shubunkins and The A to Z of Water Plants.

She gathered them up into a large casserole dish, added half a pint of milk, salt, pepper and a dash of lemon juice and placed it on the bottom shelf of the oven where the fish pie was doing nicely. Pulling on her coat, Morven checked the note on the hall table.

Dinner is in the oven. Just popped out for a new life.

She didn’t bother to lock the door and walked down the driveway without looking back.

photo by the author

Looking for Bluebirds

This post is a little different – not poetry but the first short story I’ve written for a long time. It’s loosely based on my family history. Any feedback or comments would be greatly appreciated.

image created by the author

The passenger sun deck was anything but sunny. It was deserted except for a man with two huskies sheltering beneath an orange cape. A casual drizzle swirled from a concrete sky. Alina realised for the umpteenth time since arriving in Scotland that she was inappropriately dressed in her chic wool coat and cloche hat. The world around her spun shades of grey. Glassy waves frothed by the railings leaving lacy patterns of spume across the deck and marking her boots. The wind pummelled her eighty year old body like an invisible giant.

Alina clung to the metal rail and gazed into a whirlpool of cloud and water. She managed to suppress her nausea. The Pentland Firth felt as hostile as the English Channel in 1947 when she first arrived in Britain clad in her refugee rags. She looked down into the churning troughs of waves and imagined the exhilaration of jumping overboard, the shock of the cold. How long would it take to drown? Would it be peaceful or would her lungs fight for breath despite herself? She hoped the cold would take her first. As a small child she witnessed a Jewish woman drown in the River Dniper before the Nazis invaded. It was a hot afternoon and her family were picnicking on the shore when her brother spotted a body floating near Monastyr Island, long black hair trailing in the water like a death veil. Papa swam out but it was too late. Afterwards, Papa wondered if it had been suicide. Rumours were circulating about what the Germans did to conquered cities but no one wanted to believe them.

Alina peered into the opaque void looking for The Old Man of Hoy in the same way she’d searched the horizon for the white cliffs of Dover exactly sixty years ago. She was haunted by Vera Lynn’s song ever since she learned her parents had been granted EVW status and that they would soon begin a new life in England. On the boat crossing the Channel the idea of beautiful bluebirds and white cliffs filled her with hope even while helplessly vomiting.
Alina was the only one in her family to be sea sick. Her brother, Ivan stuffed his face with salami sandwiches like there was no tomorrow and raced around the boat exploring. Alina arrived in Dover stinking and humiliated without achieving a single glimpse of the famous cliffs or bluebirds. Years later she found out bluebirds did not exist in Britain and she felt cheated.

There was no sign of The Old Man of Hoy. She’d seen postcards of the sandstone landmark in the Hamnavoe gift shop and bought one for her husband Dmitri together with a small box of Orkney fudge. For herself she chose a block of handmade lavender and calendula soap coloured blue and yellow like the Ukrainian flag. The soap was called Forget-me-not. She
was groping around in her bag for a handkerchief when the ship reared and bucked like a wild horse. She lost her balance and grabbed at the rail wrenching her arthritic elbow. Her heavy bag slipped from her shoulder spilling objects across the wet deck.

“Let me help”, said the husky man. His face was weathered and unshaven. He crouched down picking up her purse, powder compact, lipstick, hairbrush, a packet of Jelly Babies and a leather album embossed with gold lettering in Cyrillic script. The man carefully shook off droplets of water from each item and wiped them on his trousers before replacing them in Alina’s bag. He released the dogs who began sniffing her feet. One of them jumped up
placing paws on her shoulders and tried to lick her face. Alina recoiled, lurched sideways and began screaming at the beasts. “Get away, get away!”

She was suddenly back in the camp, tangled in barbed wire with the fetid breath of a German Shepherd in her face and strange guttural cries echoing in the night.

“It’s okay,” said the man, “they won’t hurt you. They’re just saying hello.” He steered her toward a seat. “Take a minute”.

“I’m alright, thank you,” she said but she was trembling. Her hat slipped askew half covering one eye and she straightened it.

A woman appeared beside them. Her face was scrunched up like a ball of wet paper. She held two plastic cups of coffee.

“Here you go, love. Have one of these”, she said to Alina. “I think you need it more than I do”. The kindness in her voice was unexpected and she patted Alina’s arm.

Alina suppressed tears. “Thank you,” she murmured. The coffee was too sweet but it was hot and soothing.“My name is Moira, by the way and this is my husband Alastair. Our scary fur balls are Snowflake and River. They’re completely harmless you know.”

“I am Alina Stepanivna Kravchuk”, replied the old lady. “I am sorry, I am afraid of big dogs”.

“Wondered what your accent was,” said Alastair. “Where are you from?”

“I am from Yorkshire”, said Alina. She put the empty coffee cup down on the seat and the wind swept it away in an instant. One of the dogs lunged after it, barking. Alina pulled her hat down covering her ears which were pierced with tiny gold hoops.

“You don’t sound like a Yorkshire woman” said Moira. “But it’s a lovely accent whatever it is. So are you a tourist? It’s the wrong time of year for a holiday”. The woman laughed revealing a broken front tooth.

“I am not on holiday, I do not believe in holidays. I am looking for my daughter”, said Alina.

She produced a photograph from her coat pocket and held it out to Moira. It showed a teenage girl with long dark hair wearing a gypsy dress, strings of beads and a serious expression. She was perched on the bonnet of a vintage Land Rover surrounded by moorland. The image was over exposed and faded with age. “She’s called Vita. Do you know her?”

“Golly Moses! I doubt it. Don’t know anyone named Vita. Do you Alastair? That looks like an old picture. My mam had a similar dress when I was a kid. Whereabouts does your daughter stay?”

“I do not have her address”, said Alina. Her pale eyes suddenly brimmed with tears and Moira noticed her cataracts. “I only have this”. She unfolded a crumpled newspaper cutting.

“Disabled artist storms Scotland”, Moira read out loud. “Orkney based Vita Kravchuk launches solo exhibition ‘Making Waves’, An Lanntair, Stornoway, October 2005. Her abstract drawings are inspired by the dramatic seas of the Far North.”

Moira looked closely at the small publicity photograph before passing it to Alastair. “Is that her in the wheelchair?”

Alina’s face contorted. “Yes, she is a cripple. A disappointment but we did our best.”

“My brother is visually impaired,” said Moira, “and he’s just as good as anyone else. Your daughter is obviously talented”.

“It was always art, art, art with Vita. All that modern stuff and fancy ideas. She never wanted anything normal like babies or a steady job. Such a difficult girl.”

“Well, you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family”, said Moira.

“Pah friends! I do not believe in friends.” Alina rose abruptly and offered a pound coin to Moira. “For the coffee,” she said.

“No money required. The coffee is a small gift from a new friend,” said Moira. “Perhaps we can help you find your girl? We own a guest house in Stromness. You can stay the night with us and tomorrow we’ll take you to the art gallery where someone might know Vita. Alastair can carry your bag. It’s too heavy for a lady your age.”

The ship’s tannoy made a garbled announcement about their imminent arrival on the island. Moira grabbed Alina’s arm. The huskies were circling around and growling.

“No, no, no…” Alina protested, her eyes widening in alarm as she was escorted away.

Alastair interrupted, “Look, a puffin!” He pointed towards the stern.

Looking back, Alina saw a strange bird like a parrot, black and white with a curved orange beak and orange feet. It flapped extended wings in a menacing manner before landing on top of the ship’s emergency lifebuoy. The bird and Alina looked at each other for a long, frozen moment as it’s feathers slowly changed to blue.