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It’s on a trip you take to the Isle of Rum that she mentions Kirabiti. That’s what she calls it. Kinloch Castle is on the far side of the island to where the ferry boat comes in. You wheel hired bicycles off the landing ramp and leave the foot passengers trailing. The unsealed road crackles like bubble-wrap beneath your tyres as you pass finely gritted beaches, white stucco-covered houses – one with black metal crows above the doorway – and a community centre you’ll later discover to be the only public source of wi-fi on the island.
You snort the sea air as you pound the pedals, trying to keep up with her, feeling increasingly irate that you can’t. She has good legs, egg-shaped muscles on the backs of her calves. You’ve never noticed them before. Her rucksack is strapped to the back of her bike, so her white shirt billows out behind her like an untethered sail. She always wears shirts or cardigans over vest tops, to hide her broad shoulders.
“Family trait,” she confessed once like a guilty secret, when you teased her about them, the third or fourth time you slept together.
No one prepares you for good weather in Scotland. You are carrying a daypack on your shoulders, containing your top, boots, washbag, and your new cagoule, ankle gaiters and torch. The torch jiggles against your back, agitating your skin. The decision to rid yourself of your merino wool sweater, hiking boots and alpaca socks, to ride bare chested, bare footed, seemed louche when you set out. But now you’ve sweated off the bug-spray the midges have swept in, working themselves across your chest and up the legs of your distressed jeans.
You’d mocked her optimism as you watched her pack, back in London, two days ago. With departure time approaching, her wardrobe half empty on her bed, she’d balled up sleeveless tops and cotton shorts and scrunched them into her rucksack.
“Forecast’s nice,” she’d protested, but she squeezed a couple of jumpers in anyway, to please you.
She seems unaffected by the midges now, her light clothes flapping them away. It needles you, her comfort in surroundings that make you feel so out of place.
Another irritant: this fine, unexpected weather, the sunlight bouncing off cresting waves, is making you think of Lisa. Specifically, that last holiday you took as a couple, to Liguria for Dee’s wedding. You had booked an Airbnb with Shaun and Martha: a villa high up in the hills overlooking Monterosso al Mare. It had a crescent-shaped pool, a balcony and a bar. It was hot like this, and you’d been sweating then too, basking on a sun lounger, your skin freckling and freshly pinked. Martha – ever the leader – had gone off in search of lemon trees, Recottu and triofe. Shaun was swimming lengths in the curved pool as best he could, training for his next triathlon.
Lisa had been sitting by you, flipping through an old art catalogue on Futurism that she’d found in a drawer somewhere. She had kept trying to engage you in a conversation about Balla’s “Mercury Passing”, knowing full well you had never seen it. Or perhaps you had, perhaps at one of the countless exhibition openings you’d been guest-listed into over the past three years – “Oh, you’re Lisa’s partner? She’s a force. And you’re in … research?” But it had been hard to remember anything in that fat heat, two Pirlos down with the scent of chlorine and sun cream rising.
Kinloch Castle grows steadily as you approach, red sandstone stark against blue sky. It’s a rectangular building, stocky round turrets at each corner. An outer wall fringes the inner one, unnecessarily shoring it up with archways and buttresses, as though trying to create the illusion of a building three times the height. Stained glass windows glare down at you, bisecting sunrays. Some panes are smeared: old handprints; traces of children’s nostrils pressed against the glass. The entrance is indicated by a tall pink tower, unmistakeably phallic, set in the centre of one of the long walls. As you pull up, a tour guide opens an oak door carved with lion heads.
“Welcome, welcome! What weather – can yous believe it’s September?” Spotting the bicycles, he adds: “We’ll wait for the ones on foot. Yous took the smart route.”
You prickle gleefully; the bikes were your idea. You uncurl the wire lock from the bicycle’s frame and look for a place to chain it. She slings hers onto its side in the driveway as though tipping a cow.
“No need to worry about that here, Toto,” she says. “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
You find a gutter pipe to lock the bike to then attach hers as well, to make the point. Untying the sleeves of your jumper from around your waist, you pull it over your head as you enter the castle. Your skin barks, darkening your mood.
“You alright, hon?” she asks, as you join her in the lobby. You don’t answer.
As you wait together she begins to fidget, brushing an imaginary stray hair from her forehead, shifting her weight from foot to foot, tucking the back of her shirt into her shorts. The movements hover in your peripheral vision like midges; you want to swat them away. Has she always been this nervous? You try to think back over the last five or six months but the answer eludes you. As she re-rolls her sleeve you put your hand out to stop her. She misinterprets the gesture and holds it, smiling gratefully. You shake free of her grasp – the smile drops – and walk over to one of the blood red walls to study a painting. It’s a clansman in full tartan garb: kilt, sporran, Sgian-dubh. His hands are on his hips, his right foot resting on the body of a dribbling stag.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” she says immediately, behind you. “So imposing.”
It recalls to you – suddenly, perfectly – the moment you first met. It was at the exhibition launch of some Twitter follower of Lisa’s, that you’d attended half-hoping she’d be there (she wasn’t). You were scowling at a gold frame filled with pages from Jeffrey Archer thrillers, defaced with intricate geometric knots.
“I like to feel something, I guess,” a voice sighed apologetically, addressed to the fey-looking man she was with then. “Abstract art just never lets me in.”
You give a non-committal shrug and bend down as though to study the signature on the clansman painting, which sits next to a small puddle of spittle. In your mind’s ear, you hear Lisa sigh, slap her catalogue shut and slip into the pool.
Through eyes that had refused to stay open or closed, you’d observed her cut across the water with short, determined strokes. Time took on a fluid quality as you’d ebbed in and out of sleep, images and sounds careering and colliding. Lisa’s tanned body glimmering like an eel’s as she twisted, changed direction. Lisa treading water in the centre of the pool, forcing Shaun to pull up in front of her. Shaun lifting Lisa up on his broad shoulders. She, tumbling backwards into the water, pushing her wet hair back as she resurfaced. Lisa eyeing the inverted triangle of Shaun’s torso. The two of them sharking a slow circle around each other, disappearing behind the water slide. Laughter, splashing, shrieking, silence.
When you’d awoken, they had been sitting at the edge of the pool, heads bowed in conversation. The knot of Lisa’s bikini top was off-centre, but you couldn’t remember if it had always been that way.
The castle door creaks open.
“Welcome, welcome,” you hear the guide greet the other tourists. “What weather – can yous believe it’s September?”
As the lobby fills, he strides up the stairs of the Great Hall to a mezzanine level to signify that the tour is starting. He stretches out his arms like an emperor at the Colosseum, the group looking up at him.
“Kinloch Castle,” he says, “was built in 1897 as a hunting lodge for George Bulloch, who inherited the island from his father. The sandstone was imported from a quarry on the Isle of Arran. Construction took three years and involved up to three hundred workers. The young Master Bulloch, as you’ll see, was not a modest man. In fact, this whole castle was designed to emphasise his position at the top of the Highlands and Islands social ladder.”
The group trails his steady stream of patter around the building: the Gold Ballroom, the Billiard Hall, the Lady of the House’s En Suite, bedrooms with four-poster beds, a secret passage to the maid’s quarters (her hand brushes your arse through your jeans). Stag heads adorn each wall, their antlers great skeletal hands that hold an alternative history, of the land clearances that made way for hunting reservations like these. Back in the Great Hall, the guide opens a mahogany cupboard under the staircase, revealing an orchestrion. The group oohs and aahs at a series of long brass cornets, lined up like hunting rifles, a small drum perched on a shelf at their mouths, a rusted triangle poised beside it.
“Only three of these exist in the world today,” he says, proudly. “This is the only one that works.”
He loads a cylindrical cartridge dotted with braille into the machine. As the room fills with a noise like off-tone bagpipes and childhood days at the seaside, the line loops in your head: the only one that works.
She hadn’t liked it when you told her you’d agreed to meet up with Lisa at the start of the summer. But she’d listened while you explained it to her, nodding sadly as you said it was something you needed to do, were going to do. You had always been clear about your feelings – certainly she couldn’t charge you with that. The pub was on the canal by Camden Lock, one of those awful, busy, minimalist places that Lisa knew would annoy you. You had perched on the end of a wooden bench beside a concrete table, nudged intermittently by the elbows of a girl having an argument with her boyfriend.
“I just want you to care,” she was shouting, “to actually give a shit.”
You’d ordered a cortado so you could finish it before Lisa got there, to emphasise her lateness.
When she’d arrived it was in a flurry of activity, as always: talking hands-free, smoking a cigarette, taking off her sunglasses to squint down at your face.
“Bye-bye-bye,” she’d said to the person on the phone while smiling at you.
She’d looked good: healthy, athletic. You wondered if she’d been training – then, with whom. She’d sat down as you got up to hug her, but otherwise you’d chatted away like this was any other date, like you’d never left her, like there’d been no year-long void. She’d teased you for re-reading Rilke (“Relic with a God complex”). You’d feigned offence that she hadn’t invited you to the Tate’s Clinton Hill retrospective (“The ICA’s”). She’d asked if you’d ever finished that PhD and when you’d said you had her face lit up with childish joy, an exact copy of the first time she’d ever seen her name on the RA’s Summer Exhibition programme, six months into your relationship. And for those fleeting moments it was like old times, like the oldest – those that sit inside the bones of you and make them strong and, later, unbearably weak.
Eventually, because you’d known she wouldn’t say it unprompted, you’d asked if she was seeing anyone.
“Yes,” she’d replied, carefully.
An eyebrow arched. “Of course not, silly.”
Her tone had left you with more questions than answers. She hadn’t asked if you were dating again. You’d considered telling her anyway but couldn’t find a way that didn’t seem like return fire. Besides, you didn’t even have a photograph.
“Is it serious?” you’d said at last.
“I think so,” she’d replied, offhandedly. “They bore me, though. You didn’t bore me.”
It had felt good to hear her say that, even though you’d doubted it was true.
“Leave him, then,” you’d given back.
“For who – you?”
It was like a guillotine falling.
She’d waved for the bill and paid, even though she hadn’t ordered anything. You’d stood up as she left, so she’d be obliged to peck you on the cheek, at least. Her hair smelled of oranges, which reminded you that it always had.
Back in the lobby at the end of the tour, under a bronze cast of an eagle eating a monkey, the guide’s tone turns serious.
“This house is falling down,” he says. “Such was Bulloch’s desire to show off his wealth, he demanded construction be rushed, so the structural support is poor.” You wait for him to ask for a donation on the way out, to support a roof fund or some-such. But instead he adds: “We can only work to preserve it as long as possible.”
“Like Kirabiti,” she breathes beside you.
“Kirabiti,” she whispers. “You know, the island. The one that’s disappearing because of climate change. Rising sea levels, nothing can change it.” The volume of her voice rises, becomes more animated, as she sees your interest is piqued. “There’s a weightlifter from there. I remember seeing him on the Olympics. He dances after every attempted lift, whether he succeeds or fails. It’s so that people will love him and remember him and remember Kirabiti. He came third or fourth, I’m not sure – but I remember the dancing and Kirabiti, so it works. Isn’t that amazing?”
“It’s Kiribati,” you say.
“Kiribati. You said Kirabiti.”
“Oh,” she says, going red.
That night, you stay together in a pine camping pod, the shape of a fortune-teller’s caravan. The shower is outside, surrounded by a staked fence, and charges fifty pence for hot water that never comes on. She hasn’t said much since the tour, but she makes a campfire, deftly spinning pieces of kindling between her fingers, lighting the match and slowly feeding the flames with smaller sticks until the logs can go on. She has a patience with this sort of thing that you’ve never had for anything practical. She catches you watching her.
“Girl Guides,” she says and laughs.
It’s an apologetic laugh, she uses it often: at academic functions you’ve guest-listed her into, when she’s asked who she’s reading and she replies “Karin Slaughter, mostly”; with the few friends you’ve introduced her to when she has to remind them of her name. You find it embarrassing in front of other people yet here, alone, it’s endearing. There’s an assurance she needs that only you can give her. And, away from everything, it feels like something you can give.
You read Rilke aloud to her as she works:
“Whoever’s homeless now, will build no shelter;
who lives alone will live indefinitely so,
waking up to read a little, draft long letters,
and, along the city’s avenues,
fitfully wander, when the wild leaves loosen.”
“Lovely,” she says. “Really nice.”
It doesn’t last, of course, the weather. The rain comes down, the fire’s snuffed out, and you retreat into the cabin. She has midge bites on her ankles from where she took her socks off before making the fire.
“Silly,” you tell her giddily, brushing your thumb across a blushing sore. “I told you to put the spray on.”
The cotton sticks to her skin as you try to pull her shorts down. She wiggles out of them, yanking her knickers back up as if trying for some ridiculous sense of striptease. You push them aside and lick her hungrily where her thighs meet. She resists for a moment – embarrassed by her smell, the sea, the sweat – before parting her legs, the stubble raised up on goose-bumps. You make her beg before fucking her.
Later, when the rain stops, you roll yourself carefully out of the camp bed, your back objecting. She is snoring comfortably, has been for the past four or five hours. You, meanwhile, have been staring at the ceiling of the pod, shivering and counting spiders, real and imagined. You step out on the porch, roll a cigarette and light up, idly fizzing bug-spray into the air to keep the midges at bay. The sun is rising, you can see it through the haar, a Pointillist blur. She told you earlier that the twilight hour, the pinking dusk, is called the gloaming. What is the opposite of “gloaming”, you wonder? Perhaps they covered that in Girl Guides too.
It can’t carry on, you know that. She must know it too. It’s the subtext undercutting every nervous laugh, every action designed to please you: “I just want you to care, to actually give a shit.”
The last time you heard from Lisa was two weeks ago, when she’d phoned to say she was getting married and asked you to give her a reason not to. Your heart had stalled but you’d kept your tone neutral.
“How many exes are you phoning tonight?”
“However many will pick up,” she’d answered sarcastically.
A sigh. “Of course not. Silly.”
After a pregnant pause you’d told her to send you a “Save the Date” and you’d be sure to raise a toast to the happy couple from afar.
“I keep giving you these chances,” she’d said.
Her hair still smelled of oranges, even over the phone, even after she hung up.
You hear her stir inside the cabin, call your name unsurely, as though you might have run away in the night. It grates. She’s like the weightlifter, you think, always dancing in your presence. The image is pleasing: her with a great inflated body, tucking the back of a t-shirt into a leotard, a stupid grin on her fat face. Her cheeks puff out and her skin purples as she hoiks the barbell to collarbone level, squats to the floor. Slowly, she straightens her wobbling legs, then places one behind her ready for the jerk. But the angle is bad: her arms push forwards and the weight slams to the floor. She reels backwards onto the mat, and sits there for a moment, stunned. Then she gets up, bows, laughs and starts to wriggle. Her hands draw circles as her weight shifts from foot to foot, her bottom swinging, desperately trying to draw attention to an island already drowning, already gone.
You take the last drag of your cigarette and stub it out on the wooden porch. It leaves a black mark which you press your finger against, to feel the residual burn. There’s a new bite on your wrist; the little fuckers get through every time. But there’s something else hovering just outside the frame, something you can’t swat away. It keens towards you now, steeling itself to bite.
“Because if she is the weightlifter,” it says, baring its teeth, “what does that make you?”