Home > The Skylark's Secret

The Skylark's Secret
Author: Fiona Valpy

When I’m lonely, cridhe gaolach,

Black the night or wild the sea

By love’s light my foot finds

The old pathway to thee.

From ‘The Eriskay Love Lilt’, traditional Scottish song

 

 

Lexie, 1980

It’s one of those days, on the cusp of early summer, when the sky and the sea alike are awash with sunlight. Days like this are rare enough up here in the Scottish Highlands to be remarked upon and stored away in the memory, hoarded as talismans against the long darkness of the winter. I button Daisy into her coat and pull a woollen tammy over her curls. Even though there’s warmth in the sunshine, the wind on the hills above the croft can still nip noses and chill ears, turning them cherry pink. Then I buckle her into the carrier and hoist it on to my shoulders. She chuckles, loving the sensation of height, burying her fingers in my hair, and we set off up the path.

Climbing steadily, leaving the waters of Loch Ewe behind us, my breath becomes more laboured as the path steepens, twisting through the pines alongside the burn that chatters and babbles companionably on its way down the brae. Finally, we emerge from the darkness that pools beneath the trees, into the sunlight of the higher ground. Calf muscles burning, I stop for a moment, my hands on my hips, taking gulps of air that is as clear and cold as the water in the stream. I turn to look back the way we’ve come. The clusters of whitewashed croft cottages fringing the road here and there along the lochside are still just visible, but in a few steps more they will disappear as the heather-clad arms of the hills fold us into their embrace.

Along the edge of the path, half-hidden among the scrub of rowans and birches, primroses turn their faces to the sunshine while shy violets attempt to hide theirs. The climb evens out a little and Daisy and I sing as we go, our voices chiming in the clear air.

‘And we’ll all go together

To pull wild mountain thyme

All around the blooming heather,

Will ye go, lassie, go? . . .’

Higher still, when we run out of songs of our own, a lark bursts from the cover of the yellow-flowered gorse, soaring like a tiny skyrocket into the blue above us. Against the silence, its song seems to hang, suspended, each note cut with perfect clarity, creating a necklace of sound. I stand stock-still and Daisy and I hold our breath, listening, until the bird is a tiny dot, high above the hills and its song is stolen away by the wind.

The path becomes a narrow, grassy track, more accustomed to the hooves of sheep and deer than to the soles of walking boots. At last, we turn the corner and there is the lochan, sheltered in its dip in the hillside. Daisy waves her arms in delight and laughs at the sight. Today, the water of the pool is scarcely visible. In a magical transformation, its peat-blackened depths are obscured by a coverlet of white waterlilies whose petals have been coaxed open by the sun’s warmth.

I ease the carrier from my shoulders, rubbing the ache where the straps have pulled, and lean it against the lichen-spotted remains of one of the stone walls of the old bothy as I undo the buckles, lifting Daisy out. She immediately takes off on her sturdy little legs, red wellies sinking into the mossy ground, and I grab her, hugging her close and burying my face in the warmth of her neck. ‘Oh no you don’t, Miss Speedy! Water can be dangerous, remember? Here, hold my hand and we’ll go and have a look together.’

We potter at the water’s edge, peering between the reeds and the broad blades of yellow flags at the spot where an otter’s tracks scar the damp ground, the telltale furrow of a heavy tail winding between the scrapings of the animal’s sharp claws in the mud.

Once we’ve finished exploring the bankside, we settle ourselves in a little moss-lined hollow and sit on my coat, side by side, out of the wind in the shelter of the bothy’s gable wall. The roof of the ancient building – once someone’s home, perhaps, or a summer shelter for a hill shepherd – has fallen in completely, leaving only the collapsing shell of the walls and a blackened hearth beneath the chimney. While Daisy plays at making a cup and saucer with the waterlily that I’ve picked for her, humming busily to herself as she pours out imaginary pots of tea for me, I gaze out from our hillside perch beside the lochan to where the wider waters of the sea loch spread out below us. The light skims across its surface like a skipping stone, splintering into fragments that dazzle eyes more used to the grey of the winter sky.

It must be a trick of that same light because, for a moment, I imagine I see the hulks of great ships anchored there. Perhaps they are ghosts, shadows left behind from those years when the loch was a secret gathering place. I blink and they disappear, leaving only the water and the island with the open sea beyond.

A cloud passes across the face of the sun and, as the light shifts, suddenly I become aware of the deep, dark waters of the lochan, hidden beneath their drift of lilies. On the crest of the hill above us, a red deer hind watches silently, slipping away when I lift my head to meet her gaze. And then the shadows pass and the sunlight is back. From the slopes above us, I can hear the lark’s song again. I wish it had words so that she could tell me all she knows.

For this spot, too – hidden above the sea in the arms of the hills – is a place of secrets. This is a place where lives began and lives ended. A place where the only witnesses were the skylarks and the deer.

 

 

Lexie, 1977

As I hurry along the street, weaving in and out through the crowds, the clock at Piccadilly Circus tells me what I already know: I’m late. And this audition is my big chance, a shot at a major female lead in a West End production. In my haste, I catch the platform toe of my boot on an uneven paving stone and trip, gasping with the sudden pain of it, stumbling against a passer-by.

‘Sorry,’ I mutter, but he doesn’t even raise his head to acknowledge either the contact or the apology and we both hurry onwards, caught up in the rush of our busy lives.

I’m used to it now, the impersonality of the city, although at first, all those years ago, I found the move to London pretty tough. I missed Keeper’s Cottage so much it hurt. And I missed my mother even more. She was my friend, my confidante, my greatest supporter and I thought of her often, alone in the little whitewashed house beside the loch. The city was full of people and lights and the sounds of the traffic. Even a cup of tea didn’t taste the same as it did back home in the Scottish Highlands because the kettle in the galley kitchen in my digs was encrusted with phlegm-coloured limescale that tainted the water as it boiled.

But, at the same time, a part of me was relieved to have left Ardtuath. The anonymity of the city was welcome after the claustrophobia of living in a tiny community where everybody made it their business to know your business and no one was ever backward in coming forward with their considered opinion on it. My new life gave me a freedom that I’d never had at home and I was determined to move forward into my bright future without so much as a glance back over my shoulder.

I’d soon made friends at the stage school I was attending as a scholarship student and begun to adapt. The long hours of gruelling classes – dance, singing, acting – and the novel excitement of my urban life quickly replaced my old reality with a new and far more superficially glamorous one.

Of course, that reality wasn’t really so glamorous at all. Up close, the costumes and make-up lost their magic under the glare of the spotlights, revealing their makeshift tackiness. We would change in cramped dressing rooms, vying for space in front of the mirror among a clutter of clothes, eyeliner and hairpins, where everything was covered in a fine layer of the powder that we used to set our make-up and kill the shine. The air would be heavy with the smells of sweat and stale perfume and the damp soot carried in on our coats from the London streets, and we would snap at each other, releasing little bursts of pre-performance nerves. But all of that would be forgotten in an instant with the adrenaline rush of the five-minute call.

Hot Books
» Buy Me Sir
» Daddy's Pretty Baby
» Ruckus (Sinners of Saint #2)
» The Greek's Forgotten Wife (The Boarding Sc
» Mastered (The Enforcers #1)
» Kept (The Enforcers #3)
» The Dom's Virgin: A Dark Billionaire Romanc
» Filthy Marcellos: The Complete
» The Chosen (Black Dagger Brotherhood #15)
» Wet
» White Hot (Hidden Legacy #2)
» Wake A Sleeping Tiger (Breeds #31)
» The Hot Shot (Game On #4)
» If You Were Mine
» Fallen Crest Home (Fallen Crest High #6)
» Latest books
» Hot Author