Caleb turned to face the lighthouse. The long white beam wandered the island’s shoreline, swung its wide sweep away and vanished—for only a second—into the horizon. The light repeated its slow arc, swung away again, and Caleb sighed. It was a dark night, well, weren’t they all? Some seemed darker than others. Tonight the sky was black, the clouds black also, blocking out stars. But the moon still shone, if only dully, on the thin line of water it streaked white. There were no waves, no swell. The only sound was the wash of the ocean on the rocky outcrops, and Caleb’s breath, still heavy from running through the darkness.
“No time like the present,” he said.
Who told him that? Was it mother? His grandmother, perhaps. It was the kind of thing women told him. His father was much sterner with words. When Da spoke he didn’t repeat someone else’s wisdom; he was too proud for that.
“Wrack will be the ruin of the soil.” That was Da’s words. He still saw him, stooped over the spade’s haft, a back broad but bent now. The boots thick with mud, the hands hardy, cradling a cigarette in cupped fingers. The white of the smoke’s trail hovering among the yellowing whiskers as it always had.
“The soil,” said Caleb. “A roar for the weeds… so like Da.”
It had come back, as it always had, to the soil. The four fields, the muck, the gore that sat under his father’s fingernails and in the creases of the skin above and below his eyes. It never left him, no amount of scrubbing loosened its mark on him.
“Muck savage.” A boy from school had said it. Not a boy from the island—from over the water, his name Dev. He didn’t talk like the other boys at first but he did now. Just like all the others.
“What do you man?” said Caleb.
“Muck savage. What is that?”
The boy, Dev, laughed. “I mean a bogger, a ditch digger.”
“But why the muck?”
“The muck’s the main part of it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Aren’t you a bit of a bog-trotter yourself.”
“I don’t know.”
“I wasn’t asking.”
Dev laughed again. He was still cocky then, as the new boy everyone wanted to know more about. “I’d say so, since you were asking, like.”
They became friends, inseparable in spite of the early words they had exchanged. They rolled eggs on the island’s hill at Easter, stored conkers in white vinegar and captured wild wasps in jam jars laced with sugar and sweet jams. But neither mentioned those early words, even though Caleb often brought them back to mind, just like now.
“Muck savage.” He said it over again.
There had been muck, just a handful thrown over the coffin. Then more muck, by the spade-full, covering the blond wood, the brass plate, the shiny handles and their pintle fasteners, and at last the hole in the ground.
“How long was it now?” he whispered to the island’s blackness.
Five years, or maybe ten. Did it even matter? The time passed, the days begun and ended and we never knew what our part in them meant until it was too late. Only when something went wrong, when the days’ steady trail was halted, did we ever consider the time we’d had or still had left.
“No time like the present.”
What did it mean? Surely only the best times were worth remembering. Only those times from the past that were worth bringing into the present again. But again, there it was, again, surely the best of times were to be enjoyed in their moment. They were gone, you couldn’t bring them back.
“Stop it now!”
His head was hurting. The throbbing in his temples came from running but the running had come from an earlier hurt in his head. It was too much to contemplate, or try to understand. These four fields only. Four small fields filled with rock and wrack and soil and perched on a cliff’s edge on an island in the sea. He had come to the shore, following the lighthouse beam, thinking that was all he had left. It wasn’t enough, even for the son of a muck savage—a muck savage himself—and Eilidh had never known and now she never would.
The beam of light raked over the ocean and lit the ripples in the water as they leant into the land and Caleb looked into the night that was like any other, only newer and somewhat darker than most, but really nothing special when stacked with all the nights that the island had ever had to offer.