It was four thirty in the afternoon and pitch dark. The four of us sat huddled in front of the small gas fire, on the floor so as to be closer to the warmth. Peter tried to persuade his reluctant younger brother and sister to play scrabble or cards with him.
"You always win," said Jacqueline. "It's not fair."
"It takes too long," said David, never one to sit still long. "I'm playing with Lego."
"Let's have a game of scrabble," I suggested, "and you can have handicaps. We'll take our scores from last time and add enough points to make them even."
That effectively filled an hour until teatime.
Peter got out his stamp albums and began to rearrange stamps methodically. David helped him for a while, then decided to draw one, which appealed to him. Jacqueline, sprawled on the floor, was reading 'Harry the Helicopter'. All I had was a long-winded and not very interesting autobiography. It was so unbelievably dull; I wondered how it got into print. Why persevere? With no television, not much choice on the radio, I only had this book until the library reopened. There were still three hours until bedtime.
My eyes looked at the words, but my mind kept wandering to the autobiography I intended to write one day. Our year in Britain must certainly be recorded so that we would not forget the details. My life had been far more varied, and full of unusual events and interesting people... much more exciting than the book in my hand. At times I had kept diaries, in the vague knowledge that one day it would all be collected into a story. Of course, since we had arrived in England, I was keeping a diary, and all sorts of other bits and pieces, even bus tickets. The biggest problem connected with my story, was what should be the theme?
Inspiration came suddenly when I had put aside the boring book and was studying maps of Scotland. Although it was still mid-winter I had begun to think about our plans to go north in the summer, Skye being one of the main attractions. Some place names on the map caught my eye... Cuillins... Tummel... Shiel Water. A song came into my head, "The Road to the Isles"
"By Tummel and Loch Rannoch and Lochaber I will go
By heather tracks wi' heaven in their wiles."
My father used to sing that when I was a little girl. He had told me about my Scottish ancestors, but this information didn't mean much to a small Australian child. However during nearly forty years many "Far Cuillins" had called to me, and on many occasions I had been able to answer the call. And now here I was in Britain, recently divorced, planning to answer the call to Skye with my three children.
Of course! That was it! The theme of my story will be my wanderlust. How many women set out to explore Europe in a campervan without the support of an adult male?
My notion that this was the year for me to take up writing was suddenly heightened, when they began to play that very song on the radio. It was an extra-ordinary co-incidence and made me wildly excited. I rushed over to turn up the volume, and cried to the children to listen, and joined in the chorus with gusto. My lethargy vanished.
"Oh the far Cuillins are puttin' love on me
As step I wi' my cromak to the Isles."
David and Jacqueline were not much impressed, but Peter was sufficiently stirred to beat time with his foot. At least some reaction from my eldest son.
"That's a song about the Isle of Skye and the Cuillin Mountains. I must get a copy of the words and we will learn it next weekend while we are going to London in the van."
We always spent some time singing while travelling, mostly children's songs of course, but I regularly added a sprinkling of songs I had learned around the campfire while bushwalking. "The Road to the Isles" had not so far been included, but it was suddenly imperative that it immediately become part of our repertoire, as it had suddenly become imperative that our adventure be committed to paper.
I looked at the children, now playing cards, and sitting closer than ever to the heater. All three blond and blue-eyed, Peter and Jacqueline having curly hair and good suntans which they had brought with them from Australia, David having straight snowy hair and freckles like me, and a skin did not tan well. It always flattered me enormously when people said they looked like me except in their colouring. My brother and I, now brunettes had been much fairer as children. When we said goodbye at Sydney airport, I had noticed his slightly receding hairline. I still had plenty of hair, but found it necessary to cover the grey every few weeks. My freckles were becoming less noticeable. Most people looked surprised when I mentioned them. I was no longer called Spotty Dotty.
Peter at twelve was reliable, serious and quietly confident, successful at anything he undertook especially Maths. David was twenty months younger, imaginative, absent minded, creative affectionate, he still conversed with his Teddy Bear. Jacqueline, just turned nine, was willing to respond with her Puppy. She was pretty and made friends easily wherever we went. 'Little Fairy Jacquie' my neighbour at home had called her.
We had been in Britain for six weeks, and were about settled into the house I had rented for twelve months. Many things had dismayed me at first, but we were becoming used to the weather, going to the laundry to do the washing, the milk standing on the doorstep all day (it arrived after we left in the morning), the clothes-horse eternally in the living-room, the prices of petrol and meat. I still found teaching very strange and made many faux-pas, was still struggling with unusual features of their school, their particular reading scheme and organization.
My children were always at a 'loose end' in the evenings, not being used to staying indoors so much. We felt dejected. The dark evenings dragged by. None of us was feeling exactly delighted with our situation. If we were at home...
"But," I told myself, "you accepted an exchange teaching position. You brought the children to Europe to visit their Grandma in Germany. Now you just make the most of it. Regrets are not allowed."
We would see what we could of Europe during the year, and gain as much as possible from the experience. I was not going to be dispirited by the endless winter, the unfamiliar teaching methods, the loneliness or anything else. I would set my mind to the coming summer and in the meantime, begin those reminiscences. The dark evenings had a usefulness.