Like somewhere people escape to

The night time silence in Urcladach was different from the night time silence in Edinburgh. It was gentle and comforting here, with no car engines or sirens making up background noise that Andie didn’t notice until it wasn’t there to hear. The air smelled different too, fresher, as if it wasn’t even the same substance she was accustomed to breathing at home. Great rocky hills rose around the road, a deeper shade of black against a sky filled with more stars than Andie had ever seen before. She thought for a moment about how the earth was in the Milky Way, yet you could still see the shape of the galaxy as if from a distance, and about how being inside something but having a clear view of it at the same time was a really unusual experience.

Urcladach was barely even a place in its own right. It had no shops. It didn’t even have a pub, something Andie felt was required for somewhere to be considered a place. There were a few small crofters cottages with thick stone walls and windows facing away from the best view to keep them sheltered from the strong winds that came in from the sea. And there was the hotel, the Teicheadh Inn, facing down the hill to the bay. Its windows bravely pointed towards the beach, the modern strength of double glazing and complex mechanisms challenging nature to do its worst. Beaches still tugged at what was left of Andie’s heart strings, pulling her back to a time when Kim was still with her, still giggling drunkenly and smoking menthol cigarettes in the dark while small waves rushed and dissolved against the shore.

There were still lights on in the Teicheadh Inn, which was a relief. It wasn’t that late but Andie wasn’t sure what time things closed and when people went to bed this far away from cities. The front door was locked but there was a doorbell. In the time between ringing it and being answered, Andie texted Hugh, “I’m here. I’m fine. I’ll see you tomorrow. Don’t go fucking everything up.” She slid her phone back into her pocket and put on her best customer-with-money smile for the benefit of the woman who opened the door.

“Hello dear, can I help you?” The woman was in an unplaceable area of middle-age, with grey hair tied up in a messy top-knot and a landscape of a face forged in a lifetime of relentless seasons.

“Yeah, could I get a room, please?” It suddenly occurred to Andie that there might not actually be any rooms available and perhaps she should have phoned before she started walking. Too late now. “If there are any rooms, I mean.”

“You surely can dear. You can have your pick of them—you’re the only one here.”

“Is cash OK? I mean, is it OK to pay in cash?”

“Of course, dear. Is it just yourself?”

“Yeah, just me. I was with…umm, work. Friends. Friends I work with. But they’re doing my head in so it’s just me now, just for tonight though. We’re going home tomorrow. You maybe didn’t need to know all that. I’m sorry. I’m tired.” As soon as Andie saw the chair next to the desk in the small lobby, she flopped down into it and yawned before she was able to stop herself.

“Where did you walk from, dear? We’re quite a way from everywhere here.”

“Kinlochmore. It’s fine, I’m fine, thanks, it wasn’t far. I’ve just had a long day.”

The woman introduced herself as Morag and Andie shook her hand, unsure if that’s what you’re supposed to do in a hotel situation. When Andie said her own name, Morag asked, “Are you an Andrea or an Alexandra?”

“Andrina. It’s a family name.”

“It’s a good name. I’ve met a few Andrinas around these parts but they were of my mother’s generation. Not a name you see much of these days, so it’s nice to know it’s still alive and well. Now, would you like a room overlooking the beach? It’s beautiful in the morning and good for lifting tired spirits.”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Alright then, room four is just at the top of the stairs, first door on the right.” Morag handed Andie a key attached by a metal ring to a piece of driftwood. “You look like you could do with a cup of tea and a bit of a feed, if you don’t mind me saying. I can rustle you up a sandwich if you like.”

“Yeah, that’d be amazing. Thank you. I need a shower first though.”

“Alright, dear. You have a shower and then come back down and I’ll get something ready for you. Just come on into the dining room when you’re ready. I always like to have a wee chat with the guests, especially when it’s not busy, but if you’d rather be left alone with your thoughts, that’s fine too.”

“No, it’s OK. I mean, it’s nice to talk to someone. Thanks.”

Andie stood under the jet of hot water, wondering how many times she said thank you in the last five minutes. She was always a bit thrown by strangers being kind. It’s not that she expected the world to be full of assholes all the time, but genuinely nice people were unusual and she was never sure how to react. After she’d dried off and thrown on her jeans, a fresh vest and socks, and a sweater that she realised with a hint of resentment and annoyance had been borrowed from Hugh, she wandered back downstairs to find Morag.

After all but inhaling the best cheese sandwich she’d ever encountered, Andie sat back in her chair and poured tea into a cup from an actual teapot. It was strange drinking tea that hadn’t been brewed with two bags in a stained mug, but tea was tea.

“So, dear, what have these work friends of yours done that you’re annoyed enough to vanish off into the night and find your way here?”

“We were doing…a commission, and it ended up being sort of different from what we’d expected when we…agreed to the contract. They were fine with it and I wasn’t, cause it was…there was a risk involved. I don’t think I want to do any more work for that…client, but the others maybe do, even though it could really mess up our…business.”

“Ah, mixing business and pleasure can be awkward sometimes. When I first came to work here, it was owned by two lovely ladies, Lexie and Pearl. They were friends before they opened this place and they bickered constantly, always arguing over everything but still friends again afterwards. To be honest, I think they were more than friends, you know, they were together like. But no-one really talked about that sort of thing in those days, not up here. Anyway, I used to worry about them when they disagreed but they never stayed angry for long. And then they took themselves off to Florida for their retirement with all the money they’d saved from this place, and I took it over, and here we are.”

“That’s really lovely. Did you ever think they might disagree so much that they wouldn’t get past it?”

“Not really. I knew they’d be alright in the end. Is one of your work friends a more-than-friend?”

“Oh, god, no,” Andie laughed. “No, Hugh and Jamie, they really are friend-friends. I mean, they’re more like family, but not the other thing. I’m…umm, like Lexie and Pearl. I had a…Kim, she was my…we were together. We were in love, like properly in love. We lived together and everything.”

“But it sounds like that’s in the past. Are you not together anymore?”

“No. She…she died.”

“Oh, Andie, I’m so sorry dear. I shouldn’t have asked. Me and my big mouth.”

“No, it’s OK. I’m OK to talk about it. About her. It’s actually kind of nice to talk about her, to have someone ask. She took her own life, two years ago. I was a mess for a bit, but Hugh and Jamie helped me through it. I love them but I don’t know that I can keep working with them cause our…ideas about how to run the business are kind of different. I don’t want to end up hating them but I don’t know that I can keep working together if things are going to change so much, you know?”

“Well, dear, you have to follow your heart, even in business. Whereabouts are you from?”

“Edinburgh. I’ve lived there my whole life. I have a wee flat and I work in a coffee shop as well as the other work. I’ve worked there for years. I know some people complain about doing that kind of work, but I’m good at it and I like it. And I like Edinburgh, or at least I think I do. I’ve never really thought about it.” Andie frowned. “It was where my gran, who I lived with, was before she moved away. Then it was where Kim was and now it’s where I am because…it just is, I guess.”

Morag poured more tea for both of them. “It sounds like maybe you don’t really know where you want to be?”

“Yeah,” Andie paused for a moment, considering. “I guess not. After Kim, I sort of stopped thinking about what I wanted and now…I don’t know. It’s nice here though. It feels safe, like it’s really far away from everything. It’s like somewhere people escape to.”

“Lexie and Pearl thought so too. The name of this place, it means escape, or flight. Or elopement. It’s funny because people who come here see it one of two ways. There are the ones who won’t go to the beach at night, who are afraid of the hills watching down over them, who keep looking for more light than the moon and the stars can give. They aren’t really meant for places like this. Then there are the ones like you, who walk down the road alone in the dark and find their way. I think those ones are meant to be here. Oftentimes, those are the ones who stay.” Morag smiled, far away for a moment, remembering.

“Beaches at night are the best though,” replied Andie. “I always feel safe on a beach at night. And the hills here are amazing, like a big cradle made of rock, wrapped around everything and looking after it. I get why someone would stay. Or at least I get why they’d come back. Is it OK if I go out for a smoke?”

“Aye, dear. Just leave the door off the latch and come back in when you’re ready. I’ll put these dishes away. It’s such a lovely surprise to have a guest arrive, especially a wee lass like yourself who’s such good conversation.”

Outside, Andie lowered herself to the ground and lit a cigarette. The moon was high in the sky now, casting a silvery road across the rippling darkness of the sea. The breeze was fresh but not biting and Andie let herself imagine for a few minutes what it would be like to call this place home. She shook her head, put her cigarette out on the heel of her boot, dropped the butt into the ashtray by the door and went back inside to say goodnight to Morag and head to bed.

The next morning when Andie was paying for her room, Morag said, “Before you go dear, I’d like to run something by you. It gets busy here around June and wee Jenny who used to help me out over the summer moved away. I could do with an extra pair of hands. A person with experience of the hospitality industry would fit right in. Say, if they’ve worked in a coffee shop or something like that. I’ll need to be taking someone on before the end of May.” Morag handed Andie a card with the Teicheadh Inn’s address, phone number and email address on it, and smiled. “Do get in touch if you can think of anyone who might like to spend a summer here, or maybe longer if it suits them.”

When she reached the high road that led back to Kinlochmore, Andie stopped and looked out over Urcladach bay, the sea a rich turquoise blue against white sand, sheep on the rocky hills defying gravity in their quest for new grass to eat. She texted Hugh, “I’m on my way back. Meet you at the bed and breakfast.” As she started to walk she felt, for the first time, an attachment she couldn’t explain to a place where she had spent only one night, and an unfamiliar sense of potential.

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