‘Fresh Mussels’. At least that’s what I think the very dishevelled, bearded man is scrawling onto the wooden board in white paint. In fact, it is. ‘Fresh Mussels’. That shows you the kind of place this is I suppose. A sleepy, at-their-own-pace, sell-what-you-can-when-you-have-it kind of place. Of course, the fact that I’ve got time to read the sign as I wait at yet another bloody Passing Place somewhat hammers home that point. This isle, Mull, is full of the buggers. Passing Places that is. Not mussels. Or it might be, I haven’t a clue. First time here you see. 38 years of age, lived in Scotland all my life, and yet this is my first experience of the Inner Hebrides. Shameful I suppose. Took the Calmac from Oban this morning. Early morning. Far too early in the bloody morning if you must ask. Early enough to be high-jacked by the seemingly self-appointed tourist representative for Mull when I nipped into the shop at Craignure once the ferry landed. Nice woman, yes, but by Christ I could write an anthology about the place after that chat. Oh you have to try this restaurant; say hello to Jill the postie and be sure to let her pass you on the road; watch out for any white tailed sea eagles etc etc. I only nipped in for a bottle of juice! Having said that, I’m glad she warned me about the eagles. Jesus, I thought I was being attacked by a bloody pterodactyl just back along the road. A wingspan of 8ft!? That’s bigger than this motor! A bright red motor at that. A big bright red, slow-moving, passing-place-stopping target. Fills me right up with confidence that one. And you can couple that with the random sheep sauntering casually along and across the road at various points along the journey. I tell you, if the animals and wildlife of Mull ever decide to gang together and try to seize control of the place I doubt the humans would stand a chance.
‘Aye, aye, you’re welcome’ I raise my hand in acknowledgment at the passing car as I sit, foot firmly on the clutch, at what must be, I assume, the four millionth Passing Place I’ve come across so far. Stunningly beautiful place this though, I have to admit. Serene yet majestic all at once. Calm measured solitude. Something I could be doing with at this point in my life. Ah look at that. That’ll be Ben More (More? Mhor? Moore?) the island’s Munro slap bang ahead in front of me. Breathtaking. All fed by, what was it she called it, Loch na Keal, on the left hand side there. I can see why he decided to move here. It’s a different life here. Another setting. Another world. A different…atmosphere, almost. Well, certainly compared to my flat just off bloody Union Street in Aberdeen city centre, that’s for sure. You barely get a moment to come up for air in a setting like that. Here it’s nothing but air. Calm. Settled. Yes, I certainly can see why he moved here anyway. Understandable in certain ways. Doesn’t make him any less of bastard mind you.
Mr Hughes. Alan. Our nice, friendly neighbour Mr Hughes. Mr and Mrs Hughes. Pillars of the community. Liked by all. Never a harsh word spoke about either. Strange that, in a place like Aberdeen, where the bastards have a harsh word for damn near every bugger. No kids of their own of course but you were never to ask questions about things like that. Alan was always quick to come out for a game of football on the street, or at the park round the back though. I mind once he offered, quite clumsily now I think of it, to take me to Pittodrie. Not my two older brothers though, just me. My Dad was a Celtic man you see whereas I was a Dons supporter through and through. As was Alan. It never happened of course. I can remember my Dad being mightily pissed off when I broached the subject with him. I just assumed it was an Aberdeen-Celtic thing. At the time I never assumed there was anything more to it. Why would I? But of course when I start to piece things together that was round about the time my folks started arguing relentlessly. Fighting. Swearing. Screaming. And suddenly any interaction with Mr and Mrs Hughes ceased. Literally overnight. My Mum had been good pals with Mrs Hughes, Gina, for a good number of years. They’d often nip round to one another’s for a fly cup now and then. But again, that ended abruptly. Ah shit, it’s started to rain, that’ll make this drive all the more enjoyable right enough! But aye, there was one night in particular I mind a vicious argument between my folks. Then the door slammed. There’s me peering out the slit in my bedroom curtains watching as Dad marches around to Mr Hughes’, battering at his door, calling him every bloody name under the sun. My Mum chasing after him in her nightdress. Catching sight of me and screaming up at me to ‘go to bloody sleep! Shut those bloody curtains! Now!’ I never did get the full story, I was too bloody frightened to ask. And then very soon after that Mr and Mrs Hughes moved away. Out of the street. Gone from our lives. I vaguely recall my old man, I think, snidely commenting one day that he’d heard they’d ‘split’. ‘Hardly surprising’ I remember him saying. I couldn’t understand why given they always seemed happy together but again I never bothered following it up. Relations at that point between me and him were far from perfect and were about to go downhill rapidly. But that was that.
Or so I thought. Until my Mum’s deathbed revelation, that is. Well, hardly ‘deathbed’, but it was in her final few days anyway. Always one for the dramatic was Mum. She thrust a piece of paper in my hand as I sat by her bedside. ‘Andy Hughes’ written on it. And an address. And a phone number. Confused, uncertain, perplexed. The whole gambit of ‘eh’ ran through my mind. Swiftly followed by an outpouring of ‘What’s this for?’, ‘Why have you given me this?’ etc. But all she would say, all she would repeat in fact, was ‘Just phone him Mark. Phone him. Just phone him. I’m sorry. I’m sorry son, I’m sorry.’ No elaboration. Nothing else. But then there was nothing else she needed to say. Why just me? Why not Ian and Peter aswell? It was obvious. Loaded with a hundred questions of course but obvious nonetheless. It’s damn near impossible to shove something like that to the back of your mind but I had to. To get through the funeral. The grieving. To say goodbye to my Mum. But it was always there. Nagging. Gnawing. Waiting.
So I phoned. And we spoke. And both of us knew. Neither of us explicitly said it but both of us knew. Through the condolences. The half-uttered, meaningless platitudes from one to the other. The banal ‘what are you doing with yourself’ type questions. And just like that we agreed to meet. In any normal circumstance it would be ridiculous, nonsensical. But we agreed all the same, both of us knowing why. I agreed to come to Mull, fancied seeing this renowned island rather than letting him traipse up to the pokey bugger of a flat I call home. And that was the call done. No remonstrations, no apologies, no volleys of abuse at the bastard for fucking off out of my life at such a young age and not even bothering to try to make any kind of contact since then. Nothing. I’d bottled it. He’d bottled it. Just like he’s bottled the last 38 years of my life. I’ll tell you though, my Dad, or at least the man I thought was my Dad, might have been an absolute bastard to me growing up, a horrible fucking bastard of a person in fact, but at least he had a fucking spine. At least he stuck around, John. At least he gave a shit. Suddenly it becomes obvious why he was how he was with me. With both of us, me and Mum. Bastard. No, bastards. The two of them. Look I know it can’t have been easy for Mr Hughes…or should that be Dad?…no, Mr Hughes. I understand that but…come one for…I…ah, I don’t know.
Anyway, I’m here. In Mull. Prepared to meet him. To talk to him. To do whatever my brain decides to do. Shout? Swear? Talk? Accuse? Who knows. He knew what ferry I was getting on but we never actually arranged a meeting place or time or any of that nonsense. I would phone ahead and let him know I’m on my way down but there’s bugger all signal here for me. Unsurprisingly. So that’s why I’m inching my way down to Fionnphort at the foot of the island. Off to meet Mr Hughes. Alan. Dad. That bastard. All things to one man. To this man. Ah jesus, that rain is battering down now! The bloody wipers are barely moving it’s that heavy! And oh joy, here’s another car. So in I go once again. Into yet another bloody Passing Place.
Passing Places. Perfect for this type of weather. Thundering down with rain. I can’t even begin to imagine trying to negotiate past cars on this road in this weather without these Passing Places. A nice shiny wee red card that one. Well, everything’s shiny in this rain isn’t it. Haven’t seen that one in this area before. Maybe Barbara’s got that new car she was threatening to buy for so long. Or it could be a tourist on their way down to catch the ferry to Iona. Good luck in this weather pal. You’ll need it. I strain my eyes but can’t make out the driver in the red car thanks to the shower of rain pelting both our windscreens. Just a raised hand. Ah well, thanks all the same kind sir or madam. Bloody awful weather this.
Just as well I’m on my way to pick him up. Mark. My son. The son I’ve not seen in over 30 years. He never asked me to of course but I’m sure he’ll appreciate it. This road is bad enough for a first timer let alone in this weather. His ferry should be in by now so he’ll likely be sitting waiting in his car. Or at the pub possibly. I don’t know if he takes a drink or not. It’s no use being out in rain like this though. So aye, call it surprise, call it whatever. I’ll meet him there and drive him down to the house for a sit down. Or join him in the pub. If he’s there. If he drinks obviously. Ah bugger it. It’s fair to say I’m a bundle of bloody nerves.
Right out of the blue that phone call. I didn’t even know who it was at first. How could I? I was sad to hear about Sandra. Very sad. We were never star-crossed lovers or love’s young dream or anything approaching that but there was something. There was definitely something once. We found each other. Needed each other. She was loaded down with two kids, getting no help from John. He used to treat her like garbage but you don’t say anything do you, it’s not your place. And then there was me and Joan, the first and only Mrs Hughes. Ah the perfect couple. To the neighbours at least. Always with a smile, a kind word. A shared joke. So perfect that we could barely stand the sight of one another after a few years. We were both to blame for that though. No. I’m not blaming her. She was a good woman. It was my fault. Entirely. I broke our wedding vows. Happy marriage or not, that’s unforgiveable. But Sandra. Me and Sandra. Sandra and I, we just…got one another. It was good. Stressful but good. For a while. And then of course we found out about Mark. A ticking timebomb. Joan and I never had kids of our own of course. She wasn’t able to. I’d always told her I was fine with that, happy that it was just the two of us. But I’d always wanted. There was always a part of me that wanted a son or daughter of my own. I told Sandra we could run away, start a new life, come clean. Anything it would take for us, the three of us, to be together. I would tell Joan everything. Confess all. Chapter and verse. But she wouldn’t have it, Sandra. She was married. She had two children that she couldn’t and wouldn’t uproot for the sake of a fling. And besides it all, no matter how much of cruel nasty bugger John was, she was adamant that she still loved him. I was heartbroken. Heartbroken. I didn’t just lose Sandra but I’d lost a son. My son.
And then Mark was born. Their third son. John’s ‘third’ son. I watched him grow up on that street. Right before my eyes. Rolling past the window in his pushchair. Walking, running. Kicking his first football. It was agony. He was there. In my life. And yet I couldn’t get near him. Sandra wouldn’t let me. As far as she was concerned he was John’s and that was that. An end to it. But I would fight back. Bit by bit at a time. I would talk to him and his brothers, him and his pals, about football. Even join in now and then when they had their kickabouts. I would speak to him whenever he’d pass. Trying to get to know him. Trying to make any connection I could. And then came the offer. The tickets. For the Dons game. John blew up. Called me all kinds of names. Kiddy fiddling pervert peado this, that and the other. I was to stay the bleep away from him and his two brothers in future or he’d effin kill me. There’s only so much I was willing to take. I lost it. Hit him back with the truth. Right there. With Joan sitting next to me. Completely oblivious. Unaware. He went for me. If it hadn’t been for Joan stepping in between us and physically restraining him I haven’t a clue what kind of damage he would have done. She got him out of the house before quietly stepping back inside and asking me if it was true. A few hours later of course there was the rammy in the street where he marched along for round two, Sandra in tow screaming at him, at me. Joan saying nothing. Silent. And that was it. We moved away very soon after. Joan was adamant. It was either that or the marriage was over. So we did. To Mull. Of all places. You couldn’t get much further away from the North East. And less than a year later the marriage was over. Inevitable really. I don’t blame her. I blame myself for all of it.
Maybe I should have tried harder. Should have attempted again, and again, to force my way into Mark’s life. There’s no maybe about it in fact, I absolutely should have. If I had my chance again I would…I’d…in all honesty I’d probably do the same thing all over again. Not through choice or intention, no, but simply because I’m a coward. I was scared. Scared Sandra wouldn’t want anything to do with me? Scared John would kill me? Scared Mark wouldn’t want anything to do with me? Probably all of the above and more. Coward. And I’m still at it. I could have told him. On the phone. The other week. I could have just told him as clear as day. ‘Mark, I’m your father, son.’ But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Christ I’m not even sure I will today. But I have to. Must. I’m a bloody coward though so who knows. A 68 year old coward, how’s that for you. That’s why I’m glad he phoned. God knows how Sandra managed to get my number but I’m glad she did. If the roles had been reversed and I’d had Mark’s number I very much doubt I’d have had the courage to pick up the phone. Or dial the number anyway, that’s for sure. Oh there’s Jill out with the post. I’ll nip in here and let her pass.
At least it’s drying up now. You get them here. These sporadic, hellish rainstorms. Here one minute and gone the next. Even the sheep don’t bother retreating for them any longer. Ah, Donald’s got a fresh batch of mussels in I see, shall have to nip in there on the way back. That’d be a nice fresh taste of Mull for Mark I’d bet. If he likes mussels that is. Or fish in general. So much. So much to talk about. To hear about. 30 odd years of my boy’s life that I’ve not got the slightest inkling about. He mentioned working on the rigs. That must take him all over the world. Some life I’d expect. Interesting. Unlike mine. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mull. Its home. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. But it’s hardly the most exhilarating of places. Especially now I’m retired. Although I think that was the point when Joan moved us here. There was something about this place that I took to instantly though. It was quiet, so peaceful. Serene. You really could have solitude here. Even when Joan left me, headed back to the mainland, I never once thought about leaving. It worked. For me. For who I am. Hiding? Maybe. Probably. But I found my life here. I would have given it all up in a second if Sandra or Mark had asked me to mind you. In a heartbeat.
Here we are. Craignure. And that’s the sun coming out. That’s the second season of the day, still plenty time for the other two before we’re done. I scan the seafront, scouring for any new or ‘visiting’ cars or vehicles. Nope. Just the usual few. I’ll maybe nip into the shop and ask Arlene if anyone’s been in before I try the pub. That’s if she’ll let me get a bloody word in edgeways. And that’s another ferry coming in. Ready to dump another load of sightseers on the island before setting back off again. Probably set for Tobermory up north. That’s all we are on the south of the island, one big passing place. That’s a good idea mind you, I’ll maybe see if Mark wants to take a drive up to Tobermory. That’s if I can find him, of course.