|Look, no snow! Fionchra a week ago.|
Today snow is coming in from the mountains across the Sound of Rum. It is so cold that condensation has formed on the windows in the night, and Hallival is covered in ice. Hard to believe that just a week ago we were up on Fionchra in our T-shirts and bare feet, looking out at the blue blue sea and putting sun-cream so that we wouldn't get burnt on our way down from the beleach. It's a long way down, criss-crossing the bog and riverbeds in that basin exposed to the sun under Orval and Ard Nev.
I'd never climbed Fionchra before, and was slightly scared, as it is higher (446 m) and steeper than anything else I've climbed on Rum so far. But we did it, Bonnie the dog leading the way up the green, soft hill (technically a mountain, but more like a lovely green cushion that you can lie down on to stare at the sky and fall nearly asleep with just the sound of the wind as a lullaby). Now I can look across at Fionchra's remote peak and be proud: it was something I was determined to do before I leave Rum.
And the second half of that sentence is now recurring far too often. The thought of leaving is constantly present, as we know that Mel's contract will expire in July and we then have only four weeks to pack up our stuff and leave – if nothing happens before that.
That doesn't happen here. On Rum, the passing of time is marked by annual tasks and annual events. The emergence from winter as the days lengthen and we begin to cautiously make proper forays out and have proper conversations with each other; the frantic spring-cleaning of homes, the hall, shops, hostels, campsites in preparation for "The Season"; then "The Season" itself, taking us as always by surprise despite all the preparations, as the ferry timetable changes, the tourists start to arrive and the island suddenly becomes other people's property too (strangers in the village!); craft fairs, tea-shops, daily castle tours, deer in the paddock, cuckoos in the trees and kayaks in the bay; not to mention the curve of a minke whale back or the flash of a dolphin breaching out at sea, and finding random pieces of outdoor wear strewn around the village that tourists have left by accident. Summer with its short but so sweet days where the skies are blue and cloudless and it is hot enough to swim. And realising that the midges are here and swimming is not going to be any fun today. Then in September, the annual Blasda meal, a gradual quietening in the island before in October, the ferries change back and autumn brings us the chance to make the most of the light while preparing our homes and land for the winter months ahead, when we batten down the hatches and retreat from the darkness to our firesides, with only the few lights of Christmas and New Year to mark the passing of the months.
Now, thank God, it's spring again, even though the 'Arctic Plunge' we are experiencing is putting our time slightly out of joint. This is my second spring (Mel's third!), and I know what to expect, or think I do. Some things repeat themselves as effortlessly and miraculously as the change of the season. The first cuckoo entrances us – this time not from the morning mists on rainy green trees but from a hot moorland, the sun blazing down as we make our way along the Dibidil track on our first walk of the summer.. A swallow appears on 8th April, Lady Monica's birthday and the first day of tea-shop, darting across the river outside the village hall. Eagles float across the horizon and soar above us as we walk up the glen, two parents with their young, as we climb Fionchra. Even our friends return for Easter, marking the season's delights with us and helping us create our Easter Tree and Easter Bunnies, as well as helping us eat lots of pasta and chocolate. Less pleasingly, Nato carry out their springtime military exercises around the Hebrides, with huge grey boats moving silently around like a game of Battleships (yesterday a submarine crossed in front of our window at top speed, shiny and silent). And tourists appear, like the eagles seeming to emerge from the Highland winter without warning, and like the eagles suddenly making us aware of the limitations of our little island.
Experiencing this whole cycle for the second time is both reassuring and disconcerting. Many things are no longer new; I'm more at home here than I thought, and it makes me realise how a year ago, every single day held the stress and excitement of immense surprise. How would I manage to run a tea-shop? How would I cope with tourists? How do I grow tomatoes? Can I look after a dog? How amazing to run a castle tour and tell new people about the castle every day! There are swallows nesting in the castle eaves! I've cycled up a whole hill without getting off my bike! I'm taking part in a meeting and making things happen! The realisation that I was in fact doing all the things I was so scared of was itself scary- something that seemed more like a miracle at the time, rather than something I'd actually done myself. Now I miss that sense of surprise, however hard it was at the time.
But another aspect of this cyclical time is that you notice when things ought to change and don't. Life here is not an ever-onward progression, with us gradually all getting on better, hostilities between various groups gradually being overcome, learning from past mistakes to achieve better outcomes - or whatever it is you're meant to do. Just because no-one cleaned up after the last party, doesn't mean anyone will have learnt to do it this time around ("Oh well, someone will do it eventually." Yes - normally someone who wasn't actually at the party and shouldn't have to - not that I'm bitter or anything). Just because it has proved totally counter-productive to harbour ancient resentments against SNH or other groups on the island, doesn't mean people will stop doing it. Sigh.
The biggest danger on Rum is not the mountains or the weather but cynicism, and now I have this awareness of leaving in the back of my mind, my frustrations with the island grow more insistent, threatening to overload me with cynicism, maybe my mind trying to make it easier for me to leave Rum. Even though I can now hardly imagine returning to that other kind of time, I still have many expectations and wishes that can never be realised here. Yet it's still hard to remember that the whole point of being here is that it's nothing like the mainland. For some people, the whole point of Rum is that you are not part of a community at all, are not subject to rules and regulations, and paradoxically, one aspect of becoming part of the community is to learn to just accept this, however odd it may sometimes appear.
Is resigning to circumstances and accepting them cynical or wise? One of our residents died – a heart attack – on the very day the first swallows arrived. He was a fixture in the village, his daily routine as invariable as the sun rising and setting (though involving more Tennents). He would greet everyone from his place outside the shop and never fail to wish you a good morning or good evening, sometimes in French or Italian, no matter how grumpy you might look or what else had happened during the day. Every now and then his rock music would boom out from his little cottage where his tousle-haired terrier, Zappa, would sniff purposefully about the path or try to out-stare the chickens. He was our oldest resident, and after an eventful and exotic life in the Navy and working in the Middle East, had settled down on Rum seemingly to live a life that from the outside appeared to be like the Rum year, cyclical and unchanging, with hardly any visits to the mainland in all his years here, a life centred – in its externals – entirely around the village and the daily routine.
From the outside, from a high-achieving point of view, this might have appeared like a pointless kind of way to spend your days. But the longer I live here, the more I realise that every day is different no matter what you do with it. Every day is a gift, in the sense that you don't have to do anything to get it except stay alive, and the fact of being alive and free at all is pretty much a miracle. It's not about winning prizes for meaningfulness or achieving the most transcendent experience. From another point of view Norman had a life to be admired. He had chosen where to be, created a life for himself with which he appeared to be content, in one of the most beautiful places in Britain; a place where he could do his own thing, be himself I suppose. A lot of people here miss him because of this. I do too.
And as my time on Rum gets shorter and I feel more and more aware of how precious it is, the more I realise how entirely strange it is, and how valuable that strangeness is. At the moment (this is another very strange thing, which didn't happen last year) we have a film crew on the island. Even the appearance of the film crew and their inappropriate vehicles (a Londoner's idea of a 4x4 suitable for the island being a low-slung shiny white Volvo) makes us aware of ourselves, of our "Rum-ness" in a way that we forget to do when we're "on our own". I worry about assumptions they'll make or whether they'll try to tell the story of our community as if we were just simple rural folk with no notion of the world beyond (a common misconception; one tourist recently told Mel how he'd gone into the school with a bunch of bananas: "The kids were amazed! Amazed they were! They'd never seen bananas before!" More like they'd never had a tourist coming into the school with a bunch of bananas before...). But our community here is so complex, and if I was asked to characterise people here in just one easy sentence (not that you can) I think I would have to say that everyone here, absolutely everyone, is doing something they could not possibly do if they lived on the mainland. We're all experimenting. And I love this. I love that we are all doing weird and wonderful things. And when I think this, I realise that it's true for me too; I've stepped out of the "normal" and into something far more exciting. Which I guess is kind of worth exchanging a few cynical weeks for. Bananas or no bananas.