forgetting

Henry Hietala

Where is it?

 

          Amelia stops searching and looks out the kitchen window. The sky is grey, the rain constant, and the peat wet. Pneumonia weather—or, as Lorne calls it, a Scottish heat wave.

          She scoops an egg off the pan and slops it on the plate. Oil drips down the sides of the spatula. She checks the breakfast. The base of beans, baked into lumps and lathered with juice. A galaxy of black pudding, starred with oats. She has always relished the moment a fitness guru American tourist asked where it came from. Sausage, blackened at the tips. Half a tomato—fresh, leaky red, never the canned shite other Bed and Breakfasts serve. Everything is fried, even the toast. No bacon.

          Amelia checks the pans on the stove. Only grease and water. Not on the counter, in the cupboard, or the rubbish. Where is it?

          She looks at her list of kitchen supplies, checking the date of her last supply run. Two days ago, as she thought. No note on bacon. She reassures herself with a chuckle. My memory has not gone yet. She picks up the incomplete breakfast plate and curses in her mind—never out loud, she is forty years past her profanity prime.

          “One Scottish breakfast for you.” She sets the plate in front of the young Dutchman in the dining room. “Sorry, we are out of bacon. Would you like more tea?”

          “No.”

          The Dutchman has stayed at the MacLeod House for the last two nights, setting out for long treks after breakfast. Amelia cannot decipher his dreadlocks; to her, they look like paler, longer links of the sausage on his plate.

          He finishes breakfast. Amelia offers him a ride to the bus stop, which he takes as an insult. Her face goes red with shame. First the mess of a breakfast, now this. She prides herself on her service, taking the disappointments of guests personally, no matter how trivial. A forgotten mint on the pillow makes for some head-racking; anything beyond that and she broods for hours on end. When the Dutchman tries to underpay her for the stay, she fully expects it. But she can’t move on price, even if the breakfast was incomplete.

          The Dutchman sets off down the road. She crosses his name off the guest list, taking long breaths.

          Lorne’s colossal snore echoes from upstairs. She lets him sleep. Endless years of marriage and he has gone from tea at five to dozing past checkout-time. Lorne has slowed down.

          She checks the meal cards for her other guests: American family, due in the dining room at 9:15. She starts cooking their breakfasts. Minus the bacon.

          On her way to the car, Amelia hides the ‘No’ on the vacancy sign. Her mood has improved, mostly due to the American family’s lovely little girls. She drives south along the Skye coast, headlights skimming the haze. The rain has eased up. A car approaches and she veers on to one of the pull-offs, letting it pass on the narrow one-lane road. No wave or nod from the driver; surely a tourist. She wonders if, in ten minutes’ time, her husband will be checking the driver in. A scarf of mist wraps around the mountains.

          Amelia knows that, somewhere beneath the vapor, Greg Thomson’s sheep are grazing. Lorne used to work the croft with him, until he could no longer distinguish the numbers on the wool. Now he receives two pensions a month: one from the government and one directly from Greg, who, unlike most of the highland renters, always appreciated his friend’s labor. Greg still drives him to the pub for football matches.

          Amelia stops at the store just north of Portree. Greg’s sister Catriona owns the store, which is stocked with essentials: toiletries, Talisker, groceries, hardware, and plaid umbrellas (the only consolation for the tourists).

          It was an easy decision to travel there for bacon; she needed flour anyways. She brings the two items to the counter, bracing for an exchange with Catriona. By some demographic fluke, Catriona is the only other old woman within thirty kilometers of the MacLeod House. Aside from age, proximity, and a resounding hatred of Labour, the two have nothing in common. Catriona runs her store ruthlessly, overcharging locals and tourists alike; Amelia gives out free biscuits to her guests. Catriona walks ten kilometers a day; Amelia has a lavish belly from years of fried haddock. Catriona drinks Tennent’s at Portree pubs, berating footballers or rugby flankers or dating show contestants or whoever else is on the telly; Amelia sips Scotch in her living room, hearth crackling, a McEwan novel open in her lap. The two are far from friends, and Amelia only speaks to her when necessary. She prefers the company of Lorne, her guests, or her irregular book club at Broadford.

          “Bacon again?” Catriona asks with raised eyebrows.

          Amelia ignores the insult. “The bag disappeared this morning.”

          “Lorne didn’t eat it?” “No, he doesn’t like bacon.” She hands Catriona a five-pound note.

          “One of the tourist shites then.” “They’re good people.” Amelia’s usual response. She bags the bacon and flour herself.

          “Bye.”

          “Aye.”

          The “No” is up again in front of the vacancy sign. Rain falls fast. Amelia rushes inside, not bothering to lock the door of her car.

          Aside from Lorne, the house is empty. The family has already set out for the day. He sits at the counter, eyes distant, newspaper upside down in his hands.

          “You never told me you read like that,” Amelia says, laughing.

          Lorne turns it right-side up and looks at her.

          “Was it another American?” she asks.

          His cheeks flush with confusion.

          “Our latest guest. You flipped the no sign.”

          He glances at the front door.

          “I had it down this morning,” she says.

          Lorne thinks, his beard clutching his chin like a hand.

          “No one came in?” He shakes his head and mumbles sorry. His hands tremor, a condition that has worsened in the last year. She shrugs.

          “At least you’re getting outside.”

          She walks to the kitchen and sticks the bag of bacon in the freezer.

          Greg Thomson’s car honks outside. Amelia calls upstairs to her husband.

          “I can’t find it,” he shouts.

          “What?”

          “My Staggies scarf!”

          She finds him tearing through the closet, coat hangers piled on the floor. He unhooks and re-hooks them as she rifles between flannel sweaters and worn leather jackets. She digs through the dresser and checks the briefcase under the bed, peeling a cobweb from the latches.

          “Lorne, you don’t want to miss your match.”

          He picks up the final hanger. She hopes for one of his curses—gobshite, aw dobber, that’s a wee jobby—because she hasn’t heard one in months. Instead, he stares blankly at the mess of dust and fabric.

          “Go on,” she says, “I can tidy this up.”

          He nods thanks and heads down the stairs. She watches his wobbly steps, his unsteady hold on the railing. He puts on a coat and walks outside. The car engine fades into the sound of the downpour.

          Amelia sighs. The scarf is the third piece of clothing he has lost in two months.

          The American family returns after dinnertime. The wife leads the way reluctantly, tired eyes pulling her down the hallway. The two daughters spar with stuffed animals, no longer lovely. A budding Catriona Thomson, Amelia thinks, watching the shorter one catch the other in the face. The husband windmills his arms around, trying to wrest the fluffy weapons from their hands. Amelia can tell he is unaccustomed to Scotch; he hobbles along like a three-legged terrier.

          “Get some rest girls,” she says. The family brushes past without acknowledging her.

          It could have been any of them. The door to their room slams and the mother’s voice carries through the wall. Amelia once read an article about a woman in California who only ate fruit, vegetables, and meat—the paleo diet, as if our Cro-Magnon ancestors lived long healthy lives. Maybe the mother is on the diet, and she got a little hungry. She also read somewhere that American kids love bacon—at least that burned, streaky variety. Those girls sure misbehave enough. The dad appeared slim and short, a rare breed for an American man. Amelia tries to remember if he was drunk when the family checked in the previous night. Too much Talisker gives you an appetite.

          She finds her book in the living room. A little girl’s cry pierces the quiet. Amelia stirs the log in the hearth, charred parts collapsing into flame. She reclines in her reading chair and opens her book to the next section. Once in a while, between sentences or paragraphs, her eyes flick towards the kitchen.

          She wakes. Her book is butterflied on the floor below her feet. Embers tick in the hearth. A humming fills the room. She walks to the kitchen, tracing the sound.

          The freezer door is open. Cold air coughs out. The interior light clicks off, as if it has not been on for long. Where is it? Amelia tears though the shelves, searching for the bag of bacon.

          A crash comes from the stairwell. Her face echoes with worry, imagining Lorne back from the pub. She shuts the freezer and rushes across the kitchen tiles, recalling the last time Lorne was too pissed to negotiate stairs.

          It was six months earlier, right before he started losing things. Ross County—his Staggies—had just lost to Rangers. No shock there. He stumbled through the front door, back from his weekly pub pilgrimage with Greg. Amelia was irritated; it was after midnight and she had made the mistake of staying up until his return. He stood by the closet, his sozzled grin reminding her of Friday nights out in Dingwall, when she stayed home worrying. He looked thirty years younger; it scared her.

          “What time is it?” she asked curtly.

          “What time is it?” he slurred, kicking off his shoe. “I can’t even see the fucking clock.”

          She held back a laugh. “Well up you go.”

          He moved past her, scarf skimming her cheek. He turned around at the base of the stairs. She let him go without meeting his gaze, playing strict, knowing she should be less amused at her eighty-two-year-old husband coming home off his head.

          He took two steps, and tumbled. The next morning, he was all apologies and laughs. A bruise bloomed on his skin, otherwise he came out unscathed. All in good fun. Amelia played along, feeling guilty about the moment he waited at the bottom, when she could’ve taken his arm and guided him.

          She hopes this fall won’t be worse.

          First she notices the bag on the doormat. Her gaze passes over the plastic, tallying the bacon within. She rounds the corner and sees him. His body is slumped on the stairs, chest swelling with each breath, eyes open and still. A contrail of blood drips from a cut on his cheek. Alone, he resembles a man marooned, the oak steps his life raft.

          Amelia rushes to his side. “You alright?”

          He tries to stand up and slips, thumping down a stair.

          “I’m sorry,” he says.

          Amelia sits on the step below him. She wants to apologize, but the words catch in her throat. The American mother emerges from the hallway. Amelia cannot look at her, the shame is too complete.

          “Should I call for an ambulance?” the mother asks.

          Amelia is overcome by a great numbness. She can’t move or speak.

          “Just a bit of blood,” Lorne says, suddenly lucid and smiling. “I’ll be alright, love.”

          The mother lingers for a moment before returning to her room. Lorne coughs. The scent of whisky seizes Amelia. She places a hand on his knee and turns towards him.

          “Let me help, Lorne.”

         

          It took a bit of blood for her to believe what she already knew: he was forgetting. Amelia has heard of this happening: retired lords stepping into strangers’ cars; wheelchair-bound women switching their daughters’ names. Memories unmade.

          When she first married Lorne, they were making memories. Weekly dinners at the restaurant by the quay. A drive to the Quiraing and a short trek. A ride from Armadale with the ferry stumbling underfoot, the water drunk with sun. The vacation in Wrexham with Amelia’s extended family, when Lorne got guttered and called her aunt a sheep-shagger. Nights at the pub with the Staggies game on—Lorne watching intently, Amelia reading conspicuously. Where has it all gone? Now he loses his clothes, flips the vacancy sign, and steals bacon. Before long, she despairs, he’ll forget my name.

 

          It is morning. Amelia looks out their bedroom window. Colors comingle in the distance—short reds, long yellows, clouds in between. The remaining sky is dark blue, a reminiscence of night, the sunrise mirroring a sunset.

          Lorne sits up in bed. Amelia meets his gaze, trying to peer past his wary smile.