the butterfly bush
‘Explain to me how you came to drown?’ His dark eyes twinkled as he peered at her over round glasses that sat squinty on his broad face and a bush of luxuriant silver-grey beard and whiskers. He sported a battered, lime-coloured and broad-brimmed, galero hat and robes made out of the same itchy looking material. He was short as he was long, a green punctuation mark on the shore, waves lapping around his bare feet.
She wasn’t sure who he was, or how he came to be standing over her. They were on the beach at Loch Lomond, more pebbles than sand. But she remembered if you walked out far enough into the shock of fresh water that changed to more sand than pebbles. It was unnaturally warm for Scotland for any time of the year.
‘It’s a long story,’ she sat up.
‘That’s good. We’ve got all the time in the world.’
It was quiet, no shrieking kids running in and out of the water. No squinting mums parked on towels, sunning their legs, creating an oasis of calm between warring tribes with warming bottles of ginger and diluting orange, crisps and wilting sandwiches with sweating cheese fillings. No belligerent queues and runny nosed wains wailing for the ice-cream van.
Around the curve of the bay, within walking distance, was a whitewashed cottage, slate grey roof, with chimneys on the gable ends. The straight line of a privet hedge framed a post-box-red, wooden gate, a butterfly bush and tongue of grass led down to the beach. She didn’t remember that being there.
‘Where is everybody?’ she asked.
The old man smiled through a gap in his facial hair. ‘Where do you think they are?’
He took her hand and helped her stand up. The sun on her face felt marvellous. Her hand jumped to her stomach with a slap. Her boobs had shrunk and she was wearing a two-piece costume that hand once looked good in the mirror at home but seemed to be made of wool material. One arm would do the swimming and the other grabbing her bra to keep it falling sidestroke from her breasts, giving her a reddy and her cousins and her mates an eyeful. An awful waste of money. That was when she met Barry.
Barry got more than an eyeful. He took the lot and kept taking and taking.
The old man let go of her hand, but there was still a twinkling sensation in her fingers and her gold band was there. White wedding, confetti, and married young enough to regret it. She remembered taking the ring off and flinging it deep into the unplumbed depths. She turned her head to the left and right, twisted and turned her neck, where Barry choked her. No pain.
She gazed out into the lapping water, where it got dark and cold. No yachts, no buzz of speedboats, no pleasure cruisers parading tourists, only the birds and silent horseshoe of green hills and, cloudless, azure sky.
Squinting sideways at him, she asked, ‘Whit’s happened to me?’
The old man gazed at her and his eyes crinkled with tears. ‘Whit do you think’s happened to you?’
‘Did you drag me out of the water?’ She frowned and anger washed through her. She felt young and strong, like she could pummel the old man the way Barry battered her face, broke her bones, to teach her a lesson. ‘Did you save me?’
‘I’m not much of a swimmer,’ he admitted. ‘We all need to save ourself.’
‘No, pal,’ she sneered, walking away from him, the pebbles sharp on her feet, towards the cottage. ‘I’m no into that religion, malarkey.’
He seemed accustomed to walking barefoot on rough ground, strolled with his arms behind his back and caught up with her easily enough. ‘I’m glad you’re not into religion,’ he spoke in a soothing manner. ‘I’m not into it either. We rise like a dragonfly from the pagan gods.’
She stopped to confront him. ‘You sound like a priest and you look like wan. I’m no having it.’
‘Sorry!’ It’s just the clothes I’m comfortable in, in the same way you’re comfortable in the clothes you’re wearing. It’s a marker of who you are.
‘But I’m no wearing anything.’
He nodded and smiled.
‘You trying to be funny, pal?’
He shrugged. ‘Perhaps a little bit.’
She giggled, girlishly, ‘It was quite funny.’ She reached out, stepping towards him. ‘Gie me your hand and help me get to that cottage. ‘They’ll maybe let me use the phone and I can phone home. Barry ‘ill be absolutely, fuckin, fizzing.’
He held her fingers lightly, as if they were dancing a minuet along the beach. But although they walked for a few minutes, and her feet no longer hurt, they didn’t seem to get any closer to the cottage.
‘The cottage hasn’t got a phone,’ the old man admitted.
‘How do you know?’ she dawdled, no longer in such a hurry. The sun crept into her bones and she stepped sideways into the surf. Cold water washing her feet and sending a shiver up her body. ‘Is it your hoose?’
‘No, it’s your house. Don’t you recognise it?’
‘No,’ she shook her head.
Then she remembered sitting, after lunchtime, at a scratched and battle-scarred wooden school desk beside Mary McGonagle, when they did English and then Art. She had red hair and was pretty in the way that boys liked. They’d be best friends for life they declared and curled there pinkies together and pulled them apart, laughing. Mary had died years ago, with a needle in her arm.
They were rich with crayons and pencils and pens to hand and they were to draw a picture of where they went on holiday. Mary had drawn a white cottage with a blue roof and she’d added the smoke and butterfly bush outside. Her granddad had told her about butterfly bushes. She’d never seen one, but imagined butterflies grew there. She used every crayon to draw a different coloured butterfly and they’d hooted with laughter. Mrs Hosey put their picture up on the wall, said it brightened up the classroom, and it stayed there all that year, until they moved to another teacher, another life.
The old man let go of her hand. The air was filled with tiny butterflies, glowing candle-like with all the colours of the rainbow and it was a glorious sight and her head sung with the echo of the note each played as their wings quivered in flight.