For all her infant life and some way beyond, Jane hated the sea. It was always there in all its forms lapping gently at the rocky shores of Clyth, like some friendly faithful dog, or giving a harvest as generous as a fertile field. Yet Jane believed that below that heaving surface lurked a vicious devil-form that worked with the winds that came howling out of the north to produce mountainous waves that crashed and roared on the rocks, and worse, overturned the fishing boats of men. That sea had taken her Da.
She hated it.
Jane’s memories of that tragic time were a mix of what she actually lived through and what her Ma or local gossip told her long afterwards.
As she grew, looking out over that sea, her young mind would try to single out what she could really recall herself. In her mind’s eye, frantic fisher wives, aprons flapping in the morning wind looked, to Jane, as though they didn’t know which way to run. But inevitably they seemed to end up in each other’s consoling embrace.
Yes, she recalled the hugging and clinging among these women, their howling and keening as they sought the solace that no one could give. Her Ma stood tight lipped, holding out one arm to share in the comforting while her other arm clutched baby Jack, and Jane clung uncertainly to her skirts. Looking up at her Ma, Jane would remember seeing the tears but no sobbing.
Her Ma’s tears provoked her own even though, at that time, she could not make sense of the notion that her Da would never come home. Nor would her Da’s brother, Uncle William, or Uncle David, Ma’s sister Elizabeth’s husband.
One event, deeply impressed on her memory, occurred two days after the loss of the boat. Folk were scattered along the bank above the harbour, weeping widows, and many of the fishing families. Only later would she recognise the significance of the approach by one of the many sympathetic fisherwomen, who came to offer kind words.
This lady, her black dress covered by a large grey shawl, had a dark-haired boy holding her hand, and behind her was a trail of older children. While the two women exchanged words, the boy holding his mother’s hand looked directly at Jane and said, “My Da’s sick, an’ all.” As though that made them equals. “I’m five.”
Jane shyly replied, “I’m three.”
The woman had released the boy’s hand to touch hands with Jane’s Ma. Now she reached for her son as she turned, “Away, James,”
Jane’s Ma issued her words of gratitude, “So kind of ye, Mrs Baillie.”
As they moved away, Jane heard her Ma murmur, “Poor woman.”
She would only realise some time later that she’d had her first encounter with James Baillie.
The crowds on the clifftop were there to observe a man with, what Jane thought was, a funny round ball over his head, being lowered into the sea from a small boat.
Jane had only a vague sense of why he was going down under the water, and the waiting and watching, with fading hopes had gone on, for over a week. Gradually as the months moved into years up to her sixth birthday, Jane was able to assimilate more of the facts that had taken her father and other fishermen in the family. She’d sit and listen as small groups of fishermen discussed the troubles with life in general on the north east coast.
Occasionally, talk would drift onto the tragedy, “Yon fyfie, their too wee and light a boat, ye ken when the Sutherlands were lost.” And Jane would prick up her ears. “Full sail yon boat was when they righted her off the Skerries. Squall’s caught her side on likely.”
Couple of the men gave a quick glance to where she squatted before going on, “Only young Willie Mackay they found six fathoms doon. Five widows and him the only unmarried one. Typical.”
The three years after the tragedy were full years for Jane. Two months before her fourth birthday, she was pushing little Jack up and down the rough path outside the cottage in the wooden buggy cart her Da had made. Jane loved making Jack giggle, because she thought he coughed more often than he laughed.
Suddenly, from inside the cottage, her mother’s voice, half yell, half scream, called her name. Hurrying to the door, Jane saw her mother, usually straight and erect, slumped low in the only easy chair in the room. Her face looked tight and drawn, her hands were clasped over her swollen tummy, and the floor was wet under her seat.
“Run and get Mrs McDougal. She knows what to do. Tell her it’s my time.”
Jane knew where most of the nearby fisher folk lived, and as soon as Mrs McDougal, large in a plain apron, saw Jane, she didn’t need telling. “Ah, bit late this ‘un. Run and tell yer Ma I’m on my way.”
As Jane ran back she heard Mrs McDougal shout, “Hetty! Better help here. It’s Isabella.”
Jane saw Mrs Gordon come from the next cottage. When the two women saw the state Jane’s Ma was in, Mrs McDougal, sighed, “Aye, very close, eh, Isabella.” She turned to Jane, “Ye take yer wee brother down to the cleaning shed for a while.”
Jane knew the large stone building beyond the cottages and had once or twice watched as the women cleaned and took sharp knives to the freshly landed fish. The day’s catches had been dealt with and only two women were swilling and taking brooms to the remaining mess.
One of the women, her sleeves up over her elbows, her younger face frowning, saw Jane in the doorway, “What ye’s want here?”
The older woman, who Jane knew to be Mrs McKenna hissed, “Shush, it’s Isabella Sutherland’s bairns. Ye’re Ma’s time, is it?”
Jane nodded uncertainly, as Jack excitedly pointed to where two gulls had fluttered down to settle on a fence.
Mrs Mc Kenna shook her head, “Another mouth to feed. Good job they got that money, the widows.” As Jane turned the cart away, the older woman called, “Dinna go near yon cliff.”
Jane had been warned many times about the cliff. Now, as she headed back towards the cottages she was remembering how many times her Ma had dragged her to dreary meetings for the widows to talk about the money that had been donated by, as Ma had called them, ‘kindly folk’.
As she reached the cottage door it opened, and Mrs Gordon came out carrying a small rolled up piece of sacking. She gave a little smile when she saw them, “Aye, ye’s have got a wee baby sister. Bonny bairn for ye to look after, Jane.”
In the dim light inside the cottage, Jane saw Mrs McKenna on her hands and knees wiping the floor, and covered up to her neck by a sheet, her Ma, all pale faced, smiling wanly, as she said, “Come and see your wee sister.”
She held out the tiny bundle she had been clutching to her chest, Jane guided Jack ahead of her and he looked and could only say a rattling, ”Baby.”
Jane leaned close to her Ma, who smiled, and Jane found herself looking at a tiny unexpectedly wizened face, topped by a mop of black hair. “She looks funny.”
Her Ma laughed weakly, “That’s just how you looked when you were born.”
Although she thought that didn’t sound right she was glad her new sister wouldn’t stay all red and wrinkled.
From behind her, Mrs McKenna asked, “Have ye thought about a name, yet, Isabella?”
“Aye, Dora. If it had been a laddie it would have been Robert, after my man,” she said, and for a moment she looked as though her face would crumble. But Mrs Mckenna’s next suggestion seemed to revive her.
“What about Bella after yourself’?”
Jane saw her Ma’s head shake, “I’d like to keep Robert’s name alive.”
“Roberta?” Dora McKenna offered.
Ma pulled a disapproving scowl, “That’s an old woman’s name. No—I want—“Her face suddenly lit up as she turned to look squarely at a rather confused Jane. “How’d you like to have your sister called---aye—Robertina---Aye—Robertina.”
“Sounds nice, “ Jane said uncertainly.
“Aye,” growled Dora McKenna, and she laughed. “not many of them around.”
Within a couple of days, Jane’s Ma was back on her feet, and life fell into a vague pattern, in which Jane found herself being given more and more tasks. It was a delight for her to hold her new sister. Even though she had always loved looking after and loving sickly Jack, it seemed that there was something special about having a sister.
She quickly learned under her Ma’s supervision, at first, how to change, without any qualms, the dirtied cloth napkins Robertina wore.
Her Ma earned a little extra cash by helping the fish cleaning in the shed and at those times Jane found herself, at barely four years old, in charge of her two young siblings. After initial worries, she began feeling quite proud of herself.
At least twice a week Jane’s Ma would put on the funny black bonnet she rarely wore, and they took the long walk to the grocery shop. Robertina should have been occupying the wooden buggy but Jack, always rather weak, and unable to walk a far at the age of two, it became necessary for Jane to push him in the buggy while her Ma carried baby Robertina.
The journey could be very trying during the winter months, when the wind was constant from the north and snow would often be a major problem. Then kindly Horace Brice, brought the horse and cart down from his father’s farm, and ferried fishwives to the shops.
Jane always looked forward to the trips to the grocery shop, where wrinkle-faced kindly old Mrs McTiernan was always very generous with toffee sticks for Jane and some smaller sweet for Jack to suck.
Jane did notice that as the weeks passed that her Ma spent more time chatting with Mrs McTiernan if the shop wasn’t busy. That talk became extra important as Jane approached her fifth birthday.
Her Ma, looking more excited than Jane had ever seen her , took her on her knee one evening and said, “We’re not havin’ any worries for now, pet. When ye start ye schoolin’ Mrs Mc Tiernan has given me the chance to run the shop. Says it gettin’ too much for her now.”
“Does that mean we get plenty of toffee, Ma?”
Her Ma laughed and gave her a gentle squeeze, “No it doesn’t. Katie McTiernan is still in charge. But she loves you.”
So, the next big event in Jane’s young life was starting school. The small brick building in the next village was not far from Mrs McTiernan’s shop and had fascinated Jane long before she started there. Seeing boys and girls chasing, shouting, and screaming when they were out in the schoolyard, contrasted vividly in her mind with the silence when they were inside. But often there had come strange chanting noises from a classroom window.
Soon enough, Jane was part of it. Already knowing many of the pupils was a big help, but to mix with larger groups than she had ever known Jane found exciting.
Having her own seat in a long desk with lids that held her slate and as she learned, a book from the small collection the school held.
Miss Kirton, her teacher, was a very kindly lady, and Jane liked her gentle manner immediately. In no time she found herself involved in the chanting she had heard from the street,
“One times two is two, two times two is four—”
Miss Kirton was full of praise when, after just four weeks Jane was up to “six times”. Jane loved to hear her teacher read out poems and fairy tales, and she would delight her Ma when she revealed parts of the tales she had heard, or the questions she asked, “Ma, can you really get magic beans that would grow up into the sky?”
Her Ma’s job at the store fit very conveniently into Jane’s school day. Katie McTiernan had no objection to two-year-old Robertina and Jack, three-years-old and coughing worse than ever, being either out in the garden at the back of the shop, or occupied in a convenient storage room when the weather was unsuitable.
Her Ma would collect her from the school and would listen to Jane gabbling all the way home about what she had learned that day.
On extra part of interest at school for Jane, although she paid little importance to it was the fact that she often saw James Baillie from one of the older class groups. She didn’t know why it pleased her at the time, but it had made her happy when he showed that he recalled their first meeting.
“Bad time that,” he said to her, coming up to her in the schoolyard, “The boat goin’ over. My Da’s still sick.” And that was all. An occasional nod of recognition and the next time they really met Jane was to recognise as the real commencement of a growing friendship.
But until that time with her Ma, she faced another tragedy. Little Jack, to Jane, always loveable, but always coughing and throaty, had an occasional check up from a doctor who did it every half year for the fishing and farming families.
This time he spent a long-time examining Jack, who coughed the whole time. Afterwards Jane saw him lead her Ma to one side, spoke in low tones and slowly he shook his head.
Her ma’s nod before jamming a clenched fist to her mouth told Jane that whatever the doctor had said hadn’t been good. Sure enough, her Ma petted and fussed over Jack for three days, saying only “We’re losing him, Jane. God’ll take him and make him well.”
Her Ma’s face took on that firm line that Jane recalled but all she could say was, “Tell God he can’t have him.” And that had brought a sad, poignant smile to her Ma’s face.
On the third day, God did take him, and this time Jane learned something of what grief was like. This time it had nothing to do with her Ma’s obvious grief. But seeing the still, under-developed form of her little brother, lying on his palette, unmoving, and knowing he wasn’t going to move again set her sobbing uncontrollably. Her Ma, more set, less tearful, hugged Jane to her and whispered, “Ye see how God has rested him, my dearie. He doesn’t cough.”
Jane asked, “Does God not know he’s been cruel to him, having him cough like that.?”
Her Ma found no answer to that one.
Later it would come to Jane that the passing of her poor little brother opened a door to her becoming more and more involved with James Baillie. Not that the tall, older lad paid her that much attention at first
But in Jane’s mind, time became squashed into a rare mix of learning and getting to know James Baillie.