An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 29

   

She wouldn’t. Would she? No, he assured himself. Become pregnant by someone in order to convince her father to allow her to marry someone else? Fat chance; Hal would have her married to the guilty party before she could say “cat.” Unless, of course, she chose someone impossible to do the deed: a married man, say, or—But this was nonsense! What would William say, were she to arrive in America, pregnant by another man?

No. Not even Brianna Fraser MacKenzie—the most hair-raisingly pragmatic woman he had ever known—would have done something like that. He smiled a little to himself at thought of the formidable Mrs. MacKenzie, recalling her attempt at blackmailing him into marriage—while pregnant by someone who was definitely not him. He’d always wondered if the child was in fact her husband’s. Perhaps she would. But not Dottie.

Surely not.

UNARMED CONFLICT

Inverness, Scotland

October 1980

THE OLD HIGH CHURCH of St. Stephen’s stood serene on the bank of the Ness, the weathered stones in its kirkyard a testament to righteous peace. Roger was aware of the serenity—but none of it was for him.

His blood was still throbbing in his temples, and the collar of his shirt was damp from exertion, chilly though the day was. He’d walked from the High Street car park, at a ferocious pace that seemed to eat the distance in seconds.

She’d called him a coward, by God. She’d called him a lot of other things, too, but that was the one that stung—and she knew it.

The fight had started after supper the day before, when she’d put a crusted pot into the old stone sink, turned to him, drawn a deep breath, and informed him that she had an interview for a job at the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board.

“Job?” he’d said stupidly.

“Job,” she’d repeated, narrowing her eyes at him.

He had been swift enough to suppress the automatic “But you’ve got a job” that had sprung to his lips, substituting a rather mild—he thought—“Why?”

Never one for quiet diplomacy, she’d fixed him with a stare and said, “Because one of us needs to work, and if isn’t going to be you, it’ll have to be me.”

“What do you mean, ‘needs to work’?” he’d asked—damn it, she was right, he was a coward, because he knew goddamned well what she meant by it. “We’ve money enough for a time.”

“For a time,” she agreed. “A year or two—maybe more, if we’re careful. And you think we should just sit on our asses until the money runs out, and then what? Then you start thinking about what you ought to be doing?”

“I’ve been thinking,” he said through his teeth. True, that; he’d been doing little else for months. There was the book, of course; he was writing down all the songs he’d committed to memory in the eighteenth century with commentary—but that was hardly a job in itself, nor would it earn much money. Mostly thinking.

“Yeah? So have I.” She turned her back on him, turning on the tap, either to drown out whatever he might say next, or just in order to get a grip on herself. The water ceased, and she turned round again.

“Look,” she said, trying to sound reasonable. “I can’t wait much longer. I can’t stay out of the field for years and years and just walk back into it anytime. It’s been nearly a year since the last consulting job I did—I can’t wait any longer.”

“You never said you meant to go back to work full-time.” She’d done a couple of small jobs in Boston—brief consulting projects, once Mandy was out of the hospital and all right. Joe Abernathy had got them for her.

“Look, man,” Joe had said confidentially to Roger, “she’s antsy. I know that girl; she needs to move. She’s been focused on the baby day and night, probably since she was born, been cooped up with doctors, hospitals, clingy kids for weeks now. She’s gotta get out of her own head.”

And I don’t? Roger had thought—but couldn’t say so.

An elderly man in a flat cap was weeding round one of the gravestones, a limp mass of uprooted greenery lying on the ground beside him. He’d been watching Roger as he hesitated near the wall, and nodded to him in a friendly way, but didn’t speak.

She was a mother, he’d wanted to say. Wanted to say something about the closeness between her and the kids, the way they needed her, like they needed air and food and water. He was now and then jealous over not being needed in the same primal way; how could she deny that gift?

Well, he’d tried to say something of the kind. The result had been what might be expected by lighting a match in a mine filled with gas.

He turned abruptly and walked out of the kirkyard. He couldn’t speak to the rector right this minute—couldn’t speak at all, come to that; he’d have to cool down first, get his voice back.

He turned left and went down along Huntly Street, seeing the facade of St. Mary’s across the river from the corner of his eye; the only Catholic church in Inverness.

During one of the earlier, more rational parts of the fight, she’d made an effort. Asked if it was her fault.

“Is it me?” she’d asked seriously. “Being a Catholic, I mean. I know—I know that makes it more complicated.” Her lips twitched. “Jem told me about Mrs. Ogilvy.”

He hadn’t felt at all like laughing, but couldn’t help a brief smile at the memory. He’d been out by the barn, shoveling well-rotted manure into a wheelbarrow to spread on the kailyard, Jem assisting with his own small spade.

“Sixteen tons and what do you get?” Roger had sung—if the sort of hoarse croaking he produced could be called that.

“Another day older and deeper in shit!” Jem bellowed, doing his best to pitch his voice down into Tennessee Ernie Ford range, but then losing control in a glissando of giggles.

It was at this unfortunate moment that he’d turned round to find that they had visitors: Mrs. Ogilvy and Mrs. MacNeil, pillars of the Ladies’ Altar and Tea Society at the Free North Church in Inverness. He knew them—and he knew just what they were doing here, too.

“We’ve come to call upon your good wife, Mr. MacKenzie,” Mrs. MacNeil said, smiling with pursed lips. He wasn’t sure whether the expression was meant to indicate inner reservations, or whether it was merely that she feared her ill-fitting false teeth might fall out if she opened her mouth more than a quarter of an inch.

“Ah. She’ll be away to the town just now, I’m afraid.” He’d wiped his hand on his jeans, thinking to offer it, but looked at it, thought better of it, and nodded to them instead. “But please to come in. Will I have the girl make tea?”

They shook their heads in unison.

“We havena seen your wife in kirk as yet, Mr. MacKenzie.” Mrs. Ogilvy fixed him with a fishy eye.

Well, he’d been expecting that one. He could buy a little time by saying, ach, the baby’d been ailing—but no point; the nettle would have to be grasped sooner or later.

“No,” he said pleasantly, though his shoulders stiffened by reflex. “She’s a Catholic. She’ll be to the Mass at St. Mary’s of a Sunday.”

Mrs. Ogilvy’s square face sagged into a momentary oval of astonishment.

“Your wife’s a Papist?” she said, giving him a chance to correct the clearly insane thing he’d just said.

“She is, aye. Born one.” He shrugged lightly.

There had been relatively little conversation following this revelation. Just a glance at Jem, a sharp question about whether he went to Sunday school, an intake of breath at the answer, and a gimlet-eyed stare at Roger before they took their leave.

Do you want me to convert? Bree had demanded, in the course of the argument. And it had been a demand, not an offer.

He’d wanted suddenly and fiercely to ask her to do just that—only to see if she would, for love of him. But religious conscience would never let him do such a thing; still less, his conscience as her lover. Her husband.

Huntly Street turned suddenly into Bank Street, and the foot traffic of the shopping precinct disappeared. He passed the small memorial garden, put up to commemorate the service of nurses during World War II, and thought—as he always did—of Claire, though this time with less than the usual admiration he had for her.

And what would you say? he thought. He knew damned well what she’d say—or at least, whose side she’d be on, in this. She hadn’t hung about being a full-time mum, had she? She’d gone to medical school when Bree was seven. And Bree’s dad, Frank Randall, had taken up the slack, whether he wanted to or not. He slowed his step briefly, realizing. No wonder, then, if Bree was thinking …

He passed the Free North Church and half-smiled at it, thinking of Mrs. Ogilvy and Mrs. MacNeil. They’d be back, he knew, if he didn’t do something about it. He knew their brand of determined kindliness. Dear God, if they heard that Bree had gone to work and—to their way of thinking—abandoned him with two small children, they’d be running shepherd’s pies and hot stovies out to him in relays. That mightn’t be such a bad thing, he thought, meditatively licking his lips—save that they’d stay to poke their noses into the workings of his household, and letting them into Brianna’s kitchen would be not merely playing with dy***ite but deliberately throwing a bottle of nitroglycerin into the midst of his marriage.

“Catholics don’t believe in divorce,” Bree had informed him once. “We do believe in murder. There’s always Confession, after all.”

On the far shore was the only Anglican church in Inverness, St. Andrew’s. One Catholic church, one Anglican church—and no fewer than six Presbyterian churches, all standing foursquare by the river, in the space of less than a quarter mile. Tell you all you needed to know, he thought, about the basic character of Inverness. And he had told Bree—though without, he admitted, mentioning his own crisis of faith.

She hadn’t asked. He’d give her that. He’d come within a hair of ordination in North Carolina—and in the traumatic aftermath of that interruption, with Mandy’s birth, the disintegration of the Ridge’s community, the decision to risk the passage through the stones … no one had mentioned it. Likewise, when they’d come back, the immediate demands of taking care of Mandy’s heart and then assembling some kind of life … the question of his ministry had been ignored.

He thought Brianna hadn’t mentioned it because she wasn’t sure how he meant to handle it and didn’t want to seem to push him in either direction—if her being a Catholic made his being a Presbyterian minister in Inverness more complicated, he couldn’t ignore the fact that his being a minister would cause major complications in her life, and she’d know that.

The upshot was that neither of them had talked about it when working out the details of their return.

They’d worked out the practicalities as best they could. He couldn’t go back to Oxford—not without a truly elaborate cover story.

“You just can’t drop in and out of academia,” he’d explained to Bree and to Joe Abernathy, the doctor who had been Claire’s longtime friend before her own departure to the past. “You can go on a sabbatical, true—or even an extended leave. But you have to have a stated purpose and something to show for your absence when you come back, in terms of published research.”

“You could write a killer book about the Regulation, though,” Joe Abernathy had observed. “Or the run-up to the Revolution in the South.”

“I could,” he admitted. “But not a respectable scholarly one.” He’d smiled wryly, feeling a slight itch in the joints of his fingers. He could write a book—one that no one else could write. But not as a historian.

“No sources,” he’d explained, with a nod at the shelves in Joe’s study, where they were holding the first of several councils of war. “If I wrote a book as a historian, I’d need to provide sources for all the information—and for most of the unique situations I could describe, I’m sure nothing was ever recorded. ‘Eyewitness testimony of author’ wouldn’t go over well with a university press, I assure you. I’d have to do it as a novel.” That idea actually held some small appeal—but wouldn’t impress the colleges of Oxford.

Scotland, though …

People didn’t appear in Inverness—or anywhere else in the Highlands—unremarked. But Roger wasn’t an “incomer.” He’d grown up in the manse in Inverness, and there were still a good many people who had known him as an adult. And with an American wife and children to explain his absence …

“See, folk there don’t really care what it is you were doing when you were away,” he explained. “They only care about what you do when you’re there.”

He’d reached the Islands of the Ness by now. A small, quiet park set on small islets that lay only a few feet off the river’s bank, it had packed-dirt paths, big trees, and little traffic at this time of day. He wandered the paths, trying to empty his mind, let it be filled only with the sound of the rushing water, the quietness of the overcast sky.

He reached the end of the island and stood for a time, half-seeing the debris left in the branches of the bushes that edged the water—wodges of dead leaves, birds’ feathers, fish bones, the odd cigarette packet, deposited by the passage of high water.

He had, of course, been thinking of himself. What he’d be doing, what folk would think about him. Why had it never occurred to him to wonder what Brianna intended doing, if they went to Scotland?

Well, that was obvious—if stupid—in retrospect. On the Ridge, Bree had done … well, a bit more than the usual woman there did, true—one couldn’t overlook the buffalo-hunting, turkey-shooting, goddess-huntress, pirate-killing side of her—but also what the usual woman did. Mind her family, feed, clothe, comfort—or occasionally smack—them. And with Mandy sick, and Brianna grieving the loss of her parents, the question of working at anything had been irrelevant. Nothing could have separated her from her daughter.

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