With its rough and prickly love, Lochdubh welcomed him home.
Before he'd been ashore five minutes, someone started telling him he really had to see to old Anna, did he know what she'd been at, up in that cottage of hers? And someone else asked what he meant to do, Hamish, about the bicycles, Hamish, shouldn't he see to that, Hamish, as it was a living disgrace, Hamish, really it was. The air was salt and chill on his skin and he was tired and sore, and they'd wear a man to death with their schemes and their feuds and their pet problems, and he loved the place like it was the whole of the earth. He felt like Lazarus.
Jock snuffled lovingly at his calf, and then ran in circles of doggy delight round and round and round. Doc Brown bundled the old lady away off somewhere where she'd be warm and comfortable (and very likely high).
Lachie and John and the rest had been up to something; he didn't need to look to see it, could smell it like rain in the air, the lot of them sniggering up their sleeves like a load of children. It had been his life, cleaning up after this brood of idiots. Today he'd thrown that away. He was no one to be trusted to look after a single soul. Hadn't he proved it?
John and Isobel were talking rapid and serious as a pair of generals planning a campaign, and Hamish just stood there, stone of home under his feet, loving the place, loving it with all his heart. He'd given the care of Lochdubh up and given up his life, and hadn't those been much the same things?
Isobel took his hand, after a while, and led him away. He followed, and hardly knew where he was save Lochdubh and home until he felt the heat of a mug on his palm and knew he was sitting on Isobel's couch.
She sat beside him soon after, and took his other hand in between hers, which were tiny and cool, and rubbed it. He sat frowning into his mug. "You're chilled straight through, Hamish," she told him, stone-firm tone despite her breathy voice that was like a child's. "Drink up, get some warm in you."
He did as he was told. "You don't have to look after me," he said.
"Do I not?" She snapped. "Do I not? Well someone does, Hamish. If you want me to go, then I'll call John to come, and I'll go stay in the caravan."
"What? What about -- "
She sighed, looking at him, as ever, as if he was the stupidest man she'd ever met. "Did you not listen to a -- no, of course you didn't. That replacement constable's at yours, Hamish. John says he's got to clean the place up before it's fit to live in again. Do you -- Hamish, if you'd rather have John, I understand." Now there was a fracture in her voice, the threat of crumbling.
"No, no, I -- no," he said. And couldn't say more. He hadn't the words, never had.
He took two mugs of tea, and then a sandwich, and the time passed in a series of skips. "Where's Jock?" he said, after some time.
"With John," she said. "He kept barking at Jacky."
"Jock doesn't chase cats." Hamish didn't particularly like Isobel's big tuxedo tom. Too often when he'd been by, the thing had crawled into her lap and writhed there ecstatically as she petted it, staring at him all the while so smugly. But he'd made sure to teach Jock from puppyhood to be polite to man and beast.
"Not on any normal day," Isobel agreed, "but the poor thing's got overexcited, Hamish. You went off and left him with a stranger, and he can tell how you've been, how you -- "
Abruptly she stood up and took his empty plate and mug away.
When she came back, she had two tumblers. "In case you were ever wondering what it really means to take whiskey for medicinal purposes," she said, and handed one to him. There was a bare inch in it. Hamish downed it quickly, and saw her tip back hers the same.
It burned golden down his throat and brought tears to his eyes, and then out of them. He'd been done with all that, hadn't he? He'd made sure of it, waited until it had passed, so he knew he was stone sober and no longer drunk on grief when he'd gone out to the island, when he'd made his choice.
Isobel's hands tugged his shoulders toward her, but he slipped down off the couch, to his knees on the floor even as she said, "Hamish -- " and he buried his face in her jeans, clinging to her with all his strength. He was so tired, and the pain he'd tried to stop was still there, still slicing right through the belly of him.
Isobel stroked his head and the back of his neck and his shoulders and said, softly, "Hamish, Hamish," not trying to hush him, but just there, just there for him.
He'd saved the old lady, refused to give up her life, and that had touched something in him, but it hadn't solved anything, hadn't fixed what he'd done, the mess he'd made, the life he hadn't saved.
"Do you want me gone, Hamish?" she whispered, after a while. "If you… if you hate me, if you -- I could understand, if you blamed me."
He could hear tears in her voice. He raised his head and saw her wet eyes, her wet face, but her hands stayed stroking his shoulders and she didn't try to hide, tears no more to her than rain on the stones of the headland. He shook his head back and forth, back and forth, until he could get his throat clear enough to say, "I don't want you gone. I don't want you gone," And he buried his face back in her lap, buckled with his weakness.
Want her gone? He wanted to burrow into her, carve out a crack just wide enough for him and live in her forever. She was maddening and harsh and foolish and strange and soft and home. The first time she'd held him, after they'd nearly fallen off a mountain together, it had shocked him, that such a slight little thing should be so strong, such a comfort. He'd felt she had depths he could sink through forever. He'd never wanted to let her go.
But he had. He'd let her go, and all that had gone wrong after that had been his fault. If they could have stayed there in the car forever, with his face in her shoulder and her arms round him, it would all have been fine, and Alex -- Alex --
He'd been so stupid, so blind. He'd managed to work out that, mad as it was, he preferred tiny Lochdubh to all the cities, to all the culture, to all the bright world outside. And yet he'd seen Alex, who so obviously, obviously belonged in London, who was a thing of sparkle and high streets, and told himself she belonged here too, because she'd been born here. Because he wanted her -- beacause she was beautiful. Because she was like a princess and like a prize, so clever and so funny and so sweet.
He'd been happy with Alex. They'd laughed, and he'd been so proud of her brilliance, and so proud of himself for meeting the challenge of her. It had been happy and easy and so comfortable and he'd nearly been able to ignore that all the time he'd felt like another man, like someone who wasn’t himself. Sunny Alex had been everything he was supposed to want. But he was supposed to want London too, and rank, and money, and --
And he didn't.
He wanted the cold air and water and a fish on the line and a long walk with a dog trotting at his ankle, and a lazy afternoon when nothing got finished but a lot of cigarettes. He wanted to keep his daft people out of trouble and keep the wide world out of Lochdubh.
And he wanted Isobel. He wanted her scolding him and holding him and the sweet way she'd gone to the grass under him that one night, the only night they'd had, in the cold and the dark, while Alex had waited for him at home.
He choked on a sob and realized his cock was hard and pressed to Isobel's calf. He whimpered. He'd felt like an animal with her on the ground that night, and he wanted to be no more than an animal now. Isobel stroked him, and moved her leg to a different angle and let him hump against it.
He groaned, shamed and miserable, and shuddered.
After another moment, Isobel shifted again, pulling her leg back, and gently pushing at his shoulders.
He rolled away from her, curling against his own knees. "Sorry -- I'm sorry, Isobel -- I don't -- "
She stood up, and bent down and grasped one of his hands in both of hers and pulled him up. "Come along, Hamish," she said, coolly. "It's time we were in bed."
He got to his feet and let her tow him to her bedroom, and when she guided him he sat on the side of the bed, head bowed. He ought to tell her he'd sleep on the couch. He ought to tell her he'd go away and sleep on TV John's floor. But he couldn't say a word, and all he wanted in the world was for her to tell him what to do. If he could have been a cat permitted to curl up on her lap and be petted for the rest of his days, he'd have taken the job without a thought otherwise.
Only recognizing the way she was moving out of the corner of his eye brought him back from his gloomy stare at the carpet. She'd pulled her jumper over her head and shimmied out of her jeans, and was standing there in her bra and knickers and thick wool socks. He stared at her slim little body. He'd seen only glimpses in the moonlight before, only as much as he'd bared by pushing her clothes out of his way.
She took a deep breath as he watched, and then took off the underthings too.
Then, naked, she walked up to him and tugged at his own salt-stiff jumper until he let her pull it off over his head. She pushed at his bare chest until he tipped back and then opened his belt and his button and his zip. She stripped his jeans and pants away together, peeled him of his socks, leaving him stark naked. Then she walked away.
The mattress dipped under him and he realized she'd just gone round the bed to climb in the other side.
"Get under the covers, you stupid man," Isobel said.
So grateful it felt like a great sore hole in the middle of his chest, he got in under the blanket, and only a moment later felt her skin press up against his.
His erection had waned, but the feeling of her skin was all he wanted. He pressed close, and shuddered with relief when she slipped her arms tight round him. It was a bit of an awkward tangle, but he was safe here, good here, himself here. If he'd only stayed here, it would all have been all right.
"You can blame me, Hamish. You can hate me for it," she told him.
He shook his head back and forth, over and over. "No, no, no, no, no, no," he repeated, helplessly, into her shoulder. Blame and hate were the last things he felt for her. She was all that was right, all the rightness he could have been, if he'd been man enough to have it. She wasn't high and fine. She wasn't a bright and beautiful prize. She wasn't what the whole world would say he was meant to want. She was cold clear air for breathing and cold clear rain on his face and all the strength of stone under his feet.
He wept for that, for the life he'd let slip through his fingers by his cowardice. And he wept for the death he'd chosen and been denied. And he wept for Alex, for the grief of the Alex-hole he'd made in the world, for bright Alex in London, brilliant and far-away and loved by someone who'd not hurt her for anything.
And he wept because he was so tired, more tired than he had been in the whole of his life. He wept and held Isobel's naked body, and she was all slim strength and welcome, and tired as he was, his body hummed with wanting her, wanting to be alive and to take back what, though he'd not deserved it he still needed.
In the dark, in the grass, that first and only time, he'd been in a rush to let his body and his heart stay ahead of his guilt, in a rush to have her. They'd both of them been frantic and impatient, and once he'd felt how wet she was, how wet his kisses had made her, only his terror of hurting her -- she was so small, she looked fragile as a child -- slowed him. But once he was inside she'd dug her fingernails into his back as if trying to tear him free of his skin and begged him for more, whispered his name and wrapped her legs around him and pulled at him until he'd fucked her with happy abandon on the little pile of clothes, there on the ground. He'd rutted, feeling like a bull, feeling like a ram, feeling like an animal and like a god and like sex with a pulse and like the man he'd been born to be. With the smell of the river and the grass all round him, he'd fucked her until she moaned and clamped herself round him, and then fucked her still more until he came inside and kissed her and they laughed over nothing but the sheer joy and mess of sex.
The next time for them, still a year and more away, now, would be in a cave, in what might as easily be a dream, the two of them bare under furs while money burned to warm them, and when that time came he'd stroke her all over, and kiss her all over, and bite her all over, and make love languidly, to fill an hour, both of them chuckling and happy and hazed with relief.
But this time he rolled her under him and pressed inside desperate and needy, with a groan of shock at the sensation but with no hope of satisfaction, only release. She held him gently and stroked his back as he got his knees under him to thrust. And her mouth was open under his when he bent to bite at it. And her little hand rode the small of his back as he wrapped his hands over the edge of the mattress for leverage and slammed into her, harder, harder, harder. He was still in tears as orgasm wrenched through him, and he held her bruising-hard even long after it was done.
At some point in the night he slept, and woke in the morning with his head on her chest, between her tiny breasts. "Isobel?" he said softly, tasting what it was like to say it, here, in her bed, in her arms, in Lochdubh, at home. No more lies, nothing to hide.
"You could sleep longer, Hamish," she said.
He nuzzled into her warmth, and felt her hand stroking over his hair. "What you said," he told her, knowing that this much needed saying and for once he was capable of saying it. "I don't blame you. Never. None of it was your fault."
"It wasn't yours either," she murmured. "Not what happened to Alex. You hurt her, but you didn't kill her, Hamish. You didn't save her, and I know you think that's the same thing, but it isn't."
That wasn't quite it, but he hadn't the words to explain it to her. "How could you think I'd want you gone?" he said, burrowing closer into her warm body. "You're the only part of all this that makes sense. Me and you. At least something good can come of this."
Her hand went still on his head for a moment before she stroked his head a few more times, and then slipped out, away from him. "I'm after a shower. Sleep a bit more, if you can."
Was that a wince, as she stood? He'd used her so roughly, and she was such a little thing.
"I've not hurt you?"
"No, Hamish," she said, "you've not hurt me," but her voice said it was a lie. And when she came out again Hamish could feel something had changed, like the weather up where the land was high and rough: she'd gone from clear air to a cold headwind that pushed him slowly ever away from her.
And he couldn't fight it, in those days after, even when she left Lochdubh, left him entirely. He wondered sometimes if he'd just been wrong, entirely wrong, again. But it never felt wrong. She was part of the village, part of the land, part of the world that was his, the world he loved. She'd not be gone forever. She'd be back, she'd be home.