That fucking shoebox. I wrestle a duvet off the top closet shelf, and down comes the unorganized mess of a single, middle-aged man. An unsteady pile of old sheets, extra towels, and a broken space heater tumbles to the floor. And of course the shoebox, which I never seem able to pack away tightly enough, even though the layers of tape around the lid keep me from having to see its unwanted contents this time.
Leaving the mess on the floor, I unfurl the duvet, which is thin and light for the coming summer months, and toss it haphazardly across the bed. The thick winter duvet remains discarded in a pile in the corner. I wonder why I’m bothering to do this, since I’ve decided I won’t be in this house much longer, even though the land around it has been my livelihood for decades. The bank can have it. But going through the motions of past years’ routines grounds me, so I continue, pull the corners a little closer to the edges.
The phone rings. The only people who still call instead of text are telemarketers and emergencies, and I don’t accept either one. I let the machine answer.
Turning back to the closet, I use my foot to scoot the box in amongst the shoes—two sets of dirty work boots, a pair of trainers, and, in the back corner, black dress shoes long unused—so I can shut the closet door. The jangle of the shoebox’s contents echoes, and its reverberating tones force me to remember another summer that has been on my mind too much the last few weeks: the one twenty years ago that buried me within the confines of this house and my memories. That summer’s ghosts are still around me, no matter how hard I try to trap them in the box.
I hear the answering machine pick up. A woman’s voice drifts into the bedroom, bringing me back to the present. “Mr. Markel, this is Leslie from the Inverness Elderly Care Facility. I have some news about your mother’s condition. Please call me as soon as you can.” There is a click as the message ends, a tiny finale. I sigh. Today of all days I cannot deal with this. I have no energy left to worry about anything else.
In two hours, however, I’m in Inverness, because that is what sons do. They show up when the home they’ve tucked their mother into calls with news that sounds important, even when their own lives are falling apart. I hope that my own daughter, Theresa, will do it for me someday. Showing up is the very least one can ask.
When I get there, my mother is recovering and conscious, lying in bed with breathing tubes stuck up her nose. I wave at her, but the doctor pulls me aside before I can enter the room. He tells me what has happened—another small heart attack. Even though it’s the same story he always tells me, he never seems able to fix it, as if each time is a surprise. “She’s stable, but her heart could give out at any time,” he says. Like a light that is flickering and about to burn out, I add silently. I get it. She’s eighty-seven. Hearts give out at that age. Light-bulbs don’t last forever either.
The doctor looks down at me, and I consider the expected responses. I could wipe away a tear and speak with a trembling voice. I could break down. Or I could get angry and demand better care, around-the-clock supervision. All of these would indicate that I’m a son who cares. But I just nod and ignore the doctor’s heavy gaze. One day her heart will give out. Maybe it would be easier if it happened sooner rather than later, to get us both out of this constant charade. I don’t know that it makes too much difference to her either, at this point. Or maybe that’s just something I tell myself to sleep better at night.
I go in to talk to her. She is tiny beneath the blankets, barely noticeable. I kiss her forehead and sit beside her. She seems eager to talk. She always asks me what I’ve done in the past week, as if the answer is going to change. Every week I do this: work, drink, eat, sleep. And work is decidedly my least favorite of these activities, though it’s the one she’s most interested in.
“How are the sheep?”
“They’re fine.” How else would they be?
“The farm is going strong?”
“I wish I could see it. It must be green this time of year.”
“I wish you could too.”
It’s so easy to believe your own lies—the white ones, at least.
I drive back south through the Highlands to my hometown of Duntegan—born, raised, lived, and passing the years there. Waiting on the death part. With all the commotion of this morning, I’ve almost forgotten about my appointment with Tom Moray at the bank. But its importance comes to mind as I grip the wheel, its leathered solidity bringing me back to the here and now.
Here’s what I hate about Tom Moray: he’s too goddamn nice. To the point where he makes you feel embarrassed, as if you owe him something. I do not want to owe Tom anything. Which is why he can go ahead and take the damn farm. I’m not going to beg to be allowed to keep the one thing that still belongs to me. No way in hell.
“Lee, how are you?” Here he goes, fawning over me and offering a firm handshake once I’m in his office.
I clap him on the back, as if we’re chums instead of one man who has lost a woman and another who has won her. I can never look at Tom without also seeing his wife, Mary, and thinking about what she used to be to me. “All right,” I say. “I just got back from Inverness, visiting my mother. She had another attack.” That’ll show him to ask how I am. He knows he won’t get any generic niceties from me.
“Sorry to hear that.”
He waves me into his office, which looks out on the cobbled high street. I eye the back of his head as he walks in front of me, hoping for some imperfection, but at well past forty he still has a full head of dark hair, not a bald spot in sight. I touch the small one growing on the back of my head self-consciously.
“How are Mary and the kids?” I ask, throw him a bone.
“They’re good. But, you know, there’s always trouble with teenagers.” He gives me a wry smile, as if he’s uncovered some great secret and deigned to reveal it to me.
“Sure.” I slump into the chair in front of his desk and tap my fingers on the wooden arms, to show that maybe I have someplace else to be.
He takes the hint. “I’m surprised you wanted to meet without your solicitor present.”
“I’m sick of solicitors. Let’s just settle this like men, all right?”
“Lee, that’s what we’re trying to do. Look, I know you got the notice of the court date to repossess the property. But there’s still time for you to resubmit financial projections so we can try to work out a deal.”
“You’ve denied every deal I’ve tried to work out. I obviously can’t make the damn payments, and frankly, at this point, I’m not sure that I want to. I never wanted to take charge of the damn farm in the first place. Good riddance.”
I’ve made him uncomfortable. Good.
“What are you saying exactly? You’re going to voluntarily surrender the property?”
The words make the decision final.
He leans back in his chair and eyes me for a moment but takes care not to seem too surprised. “All right, then, if that’s what you want. As the lienholder, I’m pleased, but as your friend—”
I clench my fists at his use of that word.
“—I’d advise you to consider this very carefully. You could always try to sell it yourself, if you’re so eager to get rid of it.”
Does he really think I haven’t considered it carefully? That I haven’t agonized over what Mary will say, or Theresa? My ex and our daughter, both of whom must already know I’m not to be relied on, but whom I can’t bear to disappoint. To tell one that I have failed yet again, and the other that I have lost her childhood home, that there is no place left for her to come back to.
But I don’t let Tom see my doubts. “I talked to a realtor, and the only interest was from some dumbfuck luxury hotel chain, and I’m definitely not surrendering to them either.” I may not care whether I still live and work on the property, but I’m not going to be part of tearing it down and ruining the Highlands further. Let that weigh on Tom and his cronies.
Tom holds up his hands. “If that’s what you want, give me a minute and I’ll get some paperwork drawn up.”
He shows me out of the room, and I sit in a plastic chair in the lobby while he steps into another office down the hall. I rest my head against the wall and close my eyes. There’s an itch on the bottom of my foot that I can’t get at without taking off my shoe. I rub it harshly against the chair leg anyway. My thoughts swirl and settle on nothing.
Tom reappears, and we head back into his office. He fans the papers out on the desk, and I sit up straight, ready, as if I’m prepared for this.
“This is the hardest part of my job, Lee. Honest. I help out the community as much as I can, but sometimes we have to act… And I think we both knew it was coming to this point.”
I sniff and rub my nose. “Yeah, we did. It’s about time the bloody ruse ended.”
I can tell he’s still uncomfortable by the way he adjusts his shoulders, as if he has cramp in one. “We both did the best we could.”
“It’s the last small shepherding enterprise out here, you know.”
“I know. Like I said, I’m sorry. Progress isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.”
You can say that again. I remember reading Hegel at university and his idea that everything is progressing to the end of history. If that’s true, the end is going to be fucking brutal.
Tom fiddles with the cap of his pen and places a hand on the stack of paper before him.
“So now what?” I ask, forcing myself to focus.
“You have thirty days before we repossess the property to cover the amount of your loans. Depending on how much the property sells for, you may get some of the sale proceeds back.” The papers move toward me. “I need you to sign.”
I comply. The scratch of pen on paper doesn’t hold the immediacy you would think. Movies make you believe that life’s changes come at you like meteors about to smash the planet, but I’ve found the changes creep on you and slink around for a while, until you have to accept that they are there to stay. In this instance, the papers aren’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. I’ve made the decision, and scrawling my name on a page doesn’t make it any more or less real.
In another moment it’s done. We shoot the breeze for a few minutes to try to normalize the scene. Tom makes his usual offer for me to come over for dinner, which I decline—politely, I hope. Sometimes I can’t tell. But I want him to be able to tell Mary that I was at least gentlemanly today, instead of the oaf I often am.
Soon I’m back out on the street, contemplating what to do next. Automatically my feet take me up the road to the Ball and Sceptre pub, my home away, as it were. It’s a lovely late afternoon, quiet and peaceful. The walk from the bank up the hill to my destination is steep, but I don’t mind tonight. It’s invigorating to feel the pumping of my lungs.
The front of the pub is painted red. If you look carefully at the corners you can see patches where the red has peeled away, revealing the building’s prior days as a black-fronted establishment. I remember back even beyond the black to the dark green days, lost from view now. It was an odd color, that green; you were never quite sure what to call it, seeping into black in evening light, lightening to puce on the rare sunny Highland days. The red suits the building. Makes it stand out on this end of the high street, which has been emptying out slowly but surely over the last thirty years. We used to have a good set of restaurants and B&Bs in Duntegan, back when us Brits still holidayed on our own island. Now people head off to sunnier places, and here we are left with one inn, a café, and a lackluster Pizza Express.
I sigh. When did I become such a grump, yearning for the good old days? Of course, that image assumes I have good old days to yearn for, and lately I’ve had a hard time remembering them in the midst of all the other swirling memories.
I step inside. The pub is tiny and quaint, exactly what a pub should be. The bar offers only three beers on tap. The ceiling is low, its wood darkened by decades of cigarette smoke, even though it’s been years since the smoking ban took effect. I remember the uproar the law first caused among the old-timers here. Now that’s nothing but a distant memory.
Jim is on duty today. He’s young, a kid. Hoping to get out of this town soon, I bet.
He slides me a lager, no questions asked. The warmish foam collects along my upper lip, a reassuring feel and taste.
“How’re things?” Jim asks. The day is slow, and there are few other customers.
I lean on the bar to get closer, empowered to share my sob story by the promise of a full glass of alcohol. “Just getting fucked by the man today, my friend. Good old Tom Moray signed my foreclosure papers today.”
Jim stops wiping the bar. “Shit. I’m sorry. Foreclosure on the farm?”
“Well, that one’s on me.”
I raise my glass to him in thanks.
“This whole place is going down the shitter,” he says. Then his attention is captured by an old man at the other end of the bar requesting another drink. When he’s done, he comes back. “How long have your family been on that property?”
I shrug. This is the fact that ties my mother to that land, but, surprisingly to most people, it’s the things that bothers me the least about the situation. “Almost a hundred years.”
“Wow. And they can just kick you out like that?”
“To be fair, they gave me warning. There’s no money for a little business like mine nowadays. I made the mistake of taking out loans to keep the place going, and I couldn’t pay them back.” I shake my head. “I should have just let it go once it started having problems. Hindsight, eh?”
Jim nods. “Where to next, then?”
“I have no fucking idea.”
And I really don’t. For years I’ve wanted nothing more than to get out of this place, but now, with the possibility offered to me on a silver platter, I’m paralyzed. Moving requires opening those old shoeboxes, sifting through them, and rethinking my life, all things I’m not equipped for.
I contemplate Jim’s question about the family history at the farm. There are families with ties to this area that go back much further than mine. All things considered, a century is not that long. But of course, from the perspective of an individual life, it might as well be eternity.
My great-grandparents bought the property in 1919, in the aftermath of World War I and the flu epidemic. Maybe they were trying to escape, who knows. They came up from the Lowlands in the south of Scotland, so I’m not a Highlander at all. Not on my father’s side, anyway. And I’m the only family member still left here; the others have spread out, escaped, since my childhood. My mother originally came from farther north, west of Inverness, and her family has been there since at least the time of the Clearances. When was the last time I talked to any of them? I think back but can’t hit on any specific instance. I should call and at least give them an update on my mother’s condition. Add that to the mental to-do list.
While I’ve done a pretty good job at breaking the ties that bind us to this spot of land, the property has actually been doing its best to erase the family history on its own, even before my time: the original croft that my great-grandparents and grandparents lived in (and many owners before them) burned down sometime in the 1950s, taking with it a lot of personal possessions and a pair of the family dogs. The rebuilt house, so modern-looking compared to the other homesteads when it was built, is now scraggly enough to attract only buyers wanting the land, but it’s the sole home I’ve ever known.
The croft appears only as a partial background in old photos: an exterior window here, a corner of a room there. There was no need to record the presence of the building itself; like so many people, my ancestors assumed it would always be there, as sturdy and enduring as the land it sat on. Now we know how wrong they were: the house was lost first, now the land. A situation to elicit sympathy, but I’m not sure how much of a shame it really is.
Heading home, I push such reminiscent rubbish out of my mind. I jiggle the loose front-door handle just the right way, so that it turns without falling off. Then I power on my computer and head to the fridge for another beer before settling at my desk.
As I open my browser, I see that there’s no email from Theresa, and after the day I’ve had, that is one disappointment too many. Though maybe it’s a blessing—this way I won’t have to lie to her about what has happened today.
I chug the rest of my beer and open another one, standing in front of the patio doors and looking out at the land that my family worked for generations, and that I alone have managed to let slip through my fingers. The mountains are mere shadows in the distance beneath a grey sky. The dirt of this place has been under my fingernails for years, trying to claim me, but I’ve never really wanted to be a part of it. For me this land is like a wart or a sagging gut—something you don’t like when you see it in the mirror but can’t quite hate because it’s part of you, for better or for worse.
Suddenly a cloud darts in front of a far-off peak, bringing a thought of my father along with it. I imagine him dying up in those hills, an event I heard about but never saw. Heart attack it was. I shake my head. My father never occurs to me anymore. But today has been a strange day, and it’s bringing up strange thoughts.
I was on the cusp of graduating from the University of Edinburgh the morning I woke to the sound of the phone ringing. Exams were around the corner, but that hadn’t stopped me from celebrating at all hours: nothing ever did. I remember that ringing boring into my skull as my arms flailed around the bed, not quite sure where the phone was—or even where I was. Finally I managed to pry my sleep-encrusted eyelids open and see that I was splayed across my own bed. That was good—I’d made it back to the correct flat and the correct bedroom. It took another minute to untangle my legs from the sheets before I could get up to go to the living room. My flatmate, David, must have been dead to the world not to hear the constant ringing—I made a mental note to check on him before I crawled back into bed.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I said into the phone, receiver in one hand and head in the other. “Hello?”
“Lee, thank god!” It was my mother, crying.
“Mum? What’s going on?”
“You have to come home.”
“What? Why? I’ll be home in three weeks.”
“No, it’s your father. He went out to the fields this morning, and he…he collapsed…”
I couldn’t follow what she was saying. My brain was still groggy with sleep and leftover booze. “What do you mean he collapsed? What happened? Is he okay?”
“He had a heart attack. He’s gone.”
“Shit” was all I could think of to say then, and I’ve not grown more eloquent since.
In two days I was on a train back north. The funeral was the next day, a Friday morning, and practically the whole town came out to see him off—all of Duntegan shut down to honor of my old man, who had been part of the community his entire life. They tried to give him something back, at least, for his time.
Michael James was there, my father’s solicitor, whom I have inherited and whose advice I’m currently ignoring about the foreclosure. I was sick of him even then, his constant machinations about business, his fawning over me as if I was important to him for any reason other than billability.
He came up to me after the service, while Mum and I were shaking everyone’s hands and thanking them for coming.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I worked with your father for so long, and he was a good man.” He extended his hand to me, not for a shake but to give me his business card. “Call me so we can go over his affairs.”
I had no intention of calling him to talk about anything. I shook his hand, looked him directly in the eyes, and thought “Fuck you” really hard at him. He didn’t blink, so the message didn’t get through.
He called my mum the next week anyway, and had her come up to see him, to rush her into decisions I don’t think she should have been making. But maybe that’s me wanting to shirk responsibility about the bad decisions I’ve made on my own. Or the fact that I should have rung him up and not left it to my mum, who couldn’t see through him the way I could. He wanted his cut; that’s all Michael cares about. And that’s why I’ve cut him out now.
How the Light Gets In started as a way for me to write through the loss of a friend. I set the book in Scotland as a way of reaching back into my own past—like Lee, I attended the University of Edinburgh and often get “homesick” for Scotland, even though I am solidly American.
Through many iterations, what has eventually emerged is the story of Lee Markel, a curmudgeonly Scot working through a period of transition while also dealing with ghosts from his past that he has never quite been able to leave behind. In the earliest drafts of the story, Lee was a secondary character. At the urging of friends and readers, however, I realized there was a lot more to his story that I hadn’t yet explored. This also meant that the rest of the tale wasn’t adding much to the book, so I made the difficult decision to cut most of it and start again.
I think the bedrock of the story is much more universal than just Lee’s small world. The story explores one way of dealing with grief, and how the right way of grieving at one point in life may need to be adjusted later, in order to move on. The novel also explores the nature of memory: what we remember, how we choose to remember it, and how those choices influence our present. I hope that these themes will help readers accept some of the more difficult pieces of their own past. It certainly has helped me.
Beth Ford lives in Staunton, Virginia, in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, and works as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Education. She has a Master’s degree in British Literature from the University of Edinburgh. How the Light Gets In is her first novel.
Embark, Issue 10, October 2019