Torches roar. I mean, the old style, pitchfork-and-mob torches. Tiki torches? I had never once thought about them until December 31st, 2018, but they roar. When you light them. They roar like the wind roars in the Hebrides in the winter, for a moment. No, they roar like the crash of the tumultuous sea against the side of a stricken boat.
My great-grandfather grew up listening to those roars, lying in his bed at night while the wind howled, going to the fishing as a teenager and getting caught in a squall on the way back. Then, when he was 24, he heard another roar from the faraway shores of mainland Europe; the clash of empires, and off he was called, leaving my great-grandmother and Wee Mairi behind him. My great-aunt barely remembers him, but barely was more than my grandmother ever got.
He had been on shore leave in the winter of 1917. The war wasn’t over yet, and the time at home was brief. It wasn’t too short to produce my grandmother, though, and she was the babe in arms who awaited him when the war was over. Sara-Sine. Sarah Jane. The name was modern – very nearly English, my great-grandmother thought – and designed to impress. My great-grandfather had become worldly with his acquisition of the Sassenach tongue, it was assumed, and Dollag or Seonag would not do for his daughter.
Torches are heavier than you’d think, too. I do not know whether they are more or less heavy than a three-month-old, but walking with one held above your head is surprisingly tiring. My great-grandmother waited hours with Sara-Sine in her arms, sure her Angus would show up any minute. Auntie Mairi fell asleep in front of the fire with her thumb in her mouth. They hadn’t gone to the shore; Great-Granny had judged it too cold for the baby. The kettle cooled and the fire went out by 3am.
The cold woke them by five, and there was still no news. Auntie Mairi says you could never tell whether my great Granny was worried or not, anyway, and she was half-asleep, she was a child. They went to bed. They were re-awoken by a shout and a bang on the window at about half past seven. Apparently, my infant grandmother immediately commenced wailing. She must have got all her fractiousness over in youth. In adulthood, she was entirely self-contained and sparing with her words. If she could convey her reactions using only her raised eyebrows, she would. Her brow was lined with deep wrinkles, the scars of repetition, by the time I was born in 1978. Mum says she can never remember her saying more than two or three sentences at a time, though she used to sing when she was doing the housework alone, if she thought no-ne could hear her. Old Gaelic songs.
The voice at the window was urgent, scared. “The boats gone down. It’s hit the Beasts of Holm.”
My great-grandmother gathered herself together and began the walk towards the shore. He brain mustn’t have woken up as quickly as her body or she’d have known there was no way her little namesake daughter could have made the walk. But she didn’t need to. It was before she reached the end of the village that their next-door neighbour Calum stopped her.
“Mairi, a ghraidh. He’s lost. His words must have been like a punch to her stomach, but she baby was still in her arms. She nearly fell to her knees but Calum caught her and half-walked, half-carried her home.
She sat, Great Aunt Mairi used to claim, for three days, without moving and without eating. I accepted this without question for years, but after her passing began to doubt it in typical teenage fashion. (She must have needed to pee?) But no matter.
The torch I carried wasn’t real wood, but it was textured as though it was. The mast my grandfather and one other man scrambled up and clung to when the Iolaire hit the rocks was real wood. Despite the freezing wetness biting their fingers, they didn’t let go; the mast snapped. Their bodies were swept out to sea and never recovered, just like over a hundred others.
Their little island was devastated by the losses. They were destroyed after the botched enquiry. Months went by before my Big Mairi’s brother Murdo sat down heavily beside her, Sara-Sine crawling around their feet.
“I’m going to leave, Mairi.” He said in a voice of lead.
“Leave?” She feigned surprise, but she had known it was coming. The men were leaving in their droves; even some of those who’d made it ashore from the Iolaire, soaked to the bone and whipped by the wind, were prepared to get on the huge ships bound for Canada and the United States. Mairi just swallowed her pain and stared resolutely ahead, playing with a button that had fallen from her black mourning dress. She thought it would be wrong to rob her younger brother of his chance to get away from their bitter Atlantic rock and start again by sobbing and railing at the horror of her life, the desertion of her brother after the loss of her husband; being left alone with the howl of the wind and two crying daughters to feed. She swallowed again.
“Mairi…” Murdo hesitated. He knew what she would say, and he knew he had to persuade her. “You should come with me. You and the girls.”
Mairi dropped her button. “Don’t be ridiculous, Murdo. I’ve never even left the island.”
“There’s nothing left here, Mairi. There’s no work, no money, and you can’t possibly tend the croft by yourself.”
“This was Angus’s croft. I have no right to abandon it. What could I do there, in a foreign country?”
“There’s hotels, and jobs. There are plenty island people already there. Anyway, you’re not abandoning Angus’s croft. You’re saving his daughters.”
Mairi looked down at her widow’s dress, a tear threatening to escape her eye. “And who will tend his grave?” she asked, half a whisper.
“His own sister, Anna. I’ve spoken to her. She and her husband will stay. They can take over the croft, too.”
Mairi sobbed in miserable assent.
That was how I and my mother before me came to be not from the Isle of Lewis, but North Carolina, USA. They kept up the Gaelic for a generation, but my mother wasn’t fluent and I spoke only a little. We became Americans, and Sara-Sine never spoke a word of the loss of her father; only Great Aunt Mairi talked. I could recite the story myself by 10 years old. Nobody had ever been back. There was no-one to visit, and the distance was prohibitive in those days.
I married at 24, a man whose grandfather was Italian, and it was he who made me think of home. He visited Italy every year, and spoke Italian in what seemed to me to be quite a fluent manner, though I gathered from the locals’ occasional confusion while we wandered Calabria that he had a bit of an accent. “Don’t you ever want to go home, Maria?” he asked, Latinising my name as he always did. He was mystified by my lack of enthusiasm. He had almost persuaded me of the importance of roots by the time I caught him in bed, in our bed, with his ‘friend’ from work.
After that, I had no home. I could have fought for the house in the divorce, but I couldn’t be there. I resented renting in the meantime; no apartment could satisfy me. So I travelled, working remotely: back to Italy, to Japan, to Brazil. And finally, ‘home’.
I didn’t realise when I arrived that it would soon be the centenary of the Iolaire’s sinking, but when someone mentioned it to me in passing, I realised at once I should go. No-one would carry a torch for my great-grandfather if I didn’t. I felt ridiculous, this English-only, who’s-she American among the locals, sticking out like a bleached blonde sore thumb, but I lit my torch and walked along, near the end. We carried the torches down to the shore, in memory not only of the men lost, but of the lives we all might have had if the Iolaire hadn’t smashed the bodies and souls of a generation against the rocks of home.
I forgot it was New Year at all. It was only in the taxi back to my Air B’n’B after the memorial service that a cheery ‘Bliadhna Mhath Ur’ jolted me into realisation. When I found out what it meant, of course. Happy New Year! Happy new year, happy new home. My ex-hubby was right. I should have come home a long time ago; now I have, I’m staying.