It is well known that the water from the Caribbean makes its way into the rivers and lakes of Scotland. It is at least equally known that our bodies are eighty per cent water. As we get older that percentage decreases, but we might notice many of the people who seek asylum, who try to cross borders, struggle because of no more than twenty per cent of their body mass. The water travels freely through the clouds and dispels the warm air it has accumulated in one place, delivering it as rain somewhere else. There are no borders for this water but, when it carries solid matter with it in human form, this is where problems arise.
He had been working on the boats for around five years. He was about twenty-eight and over six feet tall and weighed a hundred and eighty pounds. People knew him as a strong man but also a troubled one, and when any of the other fishermen would watch him hauling in the nets they could see in the forearms a strength that carried within it a frustration. Anything that struggled against his will was met with anger, and he would often curse in frustration even if he could haul the net in more easily than the others on the fishing boat. The boat he usually went out on was a compact fourteen man trawler and yet he always managed to gain for himself a sense of privacy the others didn't appear to require. He usually ate alone and would smoke on deck when he knew everybody else was down below. People would say he was a man of the sea but not of the people; that he had the habits of a man much older than his years and that he seemed prematurely disillusioned with life, or at least bored by it. On the boat, he would keep finding ways in which he could be alone. Sometimes he would say to the captain that he needed to fix a net on deck, other times when everyone was on the deck he would say that he was so hungry he needed to take an early lunch. Nobody argued when he said this: they knew he worked harder than anybody else and that he had a greater appetite than the others. What he never had an appetite for, it seemed, was life.
Ewan lived in the house his parents had left him, though he probably didn't see he was left with something, but instead that something had been taken away. When he was fifteen his parents died in circumstances that remain vague though a double suicide was suspected, even if an accident was more likely. They were keen hill walkers and one afternoon their bodies were found at the bottom of a ravine in a highland range a couple of hundred miles from the village. Some in the village would say they had gone there to take their own lives, to throw themselves off a mountain. Others insisted that one had slipped and fell and the other threw themselves off the mountain in grief. Still others thought that one had slipped and in a moment worthy of a Hollywood thriller, but without the happy ending, the other had grabbed their hand and tried to pull the falling one up, only for them both to meet their demise. For more than a year after their death the locals would hear Ewan playing the piano every day for several hours, an instrument his father had taught him from a very young age, and then, suddenly, it seemed, the piano playing stopped. People passed the house and no longer heard the sound of Schubert, Beethoven and Satie, and may have assumed he had sold the piano, though nobody had seen it being taken away.
The double suicide rumour was predicated on what the locals saw as a failing business. The MacLeans ran the village grocery store but since the supermarket had opened two years earlier, a couple of miles from the village, and halfway towards the next main village in the area, the business had been struggling. Some of the locals had still been going in but increasingly they found the items they were looking for were no longer available and the shelves became more and more sparse. Years later, the shop was still there, the McLeans name faded so that the M the N and the S were hard to make out, and the shop front, boarded up and battered by rain and wind, left it as a ruin and a testament.
Ewan, of course, lived alone in the house though it could easily have accommodated a number of other and perhaps he could have rented a couple of rooms but to whom could he have rented them? There was no reason for anybody to live there and most of those working in the out of town supermarket would live in the much bigger village a few miles away. It was there they had built a couple of council estates thirty-five years earlier, farther down the coast-line and where most of the other fishermen lived. The village now housed no more than around three hundred people, many of them in their dotage and who would have known Ewan as the young boy who served them in the shop, whizzed past them on his bike, or helped them home with their groceries. He was a happy but bored child they sometimes, thought - wondering whether it wouldn't have been better if his parents had brought other children into the world, or moved away where Ewan would have had more company. They would imagine him in the house, slowly and laboriously preparing each meal for one, listening to the radio, reading a book about science that he would have gone off to study had it not been for the tragedy that stifled any enthusiasm he might have had and freedom he may have sought. After the death, social services came but they didn't take him away. Instead one of the locals claimed to take him in, but Ewan always slept in his own bed in his own house, and it was as if he were protected by everyone in the village who at the same time would never invade Ewan's privacy, a privacy that had grown out of a secret mourning.
The villagers knew a fish factory was being built a mile outside the village but it wasn't until the employees started to arrive that it impacted very much on the locals. The factory employed a hundred full-time workers and around eighty part-timers, and people had heard that some of the money had come from a European Union initiative, some funding body that sought to regenerate moribund communities. Maybe they expected local people would take most of the jobs, but for whatever reason those employed came from all over Europe and perhaps the world. In the supermarket, you could hear Spanish, Polish and Italian, Lithuanian and Russian, even if many of the locals would have been unsure precisely which language was being spoken. There was a new vibrancy in the other village that had always been a lot livelier than the one in which Ewan lived, but in time, over the space of a few months, the locals noticed that people had moved into a house along the road, another on the road behind Ewan's. Within a year there must have been at least thirty incomers and that summer these new people in the town had obviously invited friends and family to visit too, and there was an odd but wonderful mix of enthusiastic young people speaking different languages, wearing what looked like fashionable clothes, and listening to music that could be heard, sometimes too loudly, through the newcomers' windows. Some of the locals were disturbed by this new presence, most though were amused and enlivened by the new atmosphere. They felt as if the village were no longer dying even if they themselves might not have long to live, and it gave them an unusual new lease of life. You would sometimes hear by the quay one of the retired fishermen in conversation with a Spanish lad, with the Spaniard teaching the man a few words of his language. One may have overheard the fisherman talking about his time in the merchant navy where he had visited Latin America, perhaps Valparaiso and wanted to remember again the few words that he had learnt and since forgotten. By the following summer, there was a small cafe bar that had opened and in it, you could also buy basic items like bread, milk, and cheese. There was talk of a proper grocery shop too, and of course, people would discuss the disused, boarded up and increasingly run-down building with the leftover initials from MacLean's.
During this time Ewan remained indifferent to these changes even if no one would be inclined to have seen signs of bigotry in this lack of interest. Indeed, they wouldn't have known, when a couple of youths, annoyed that others had been given full-time work over them, had scrawled some insulting graffiti on the side wall of the cafe bar, that it was Ewan who went and scrubbed it off, doing so with the turps and thinner that he used on his own small boat which he would sometimes take out when he wanted to fish in fresh water quietly and without company in a loch nearby where the boat was moored. The boys had done so unhappy that they were still on part-time hours while people from elsewhere were in full-time posts, and they hadn't listened to other local full-timers who said that the outsiders had more experience and in time they could become full-time too. Instead, one night they went and spray-painted the wall and a couple of evenings later, with the light fading but with enough light to see, Ewan filled a bucket and stood there for more than an hour scrubbing away. While everyone more or less knew who applied the graffiti, nobody had any idea who removed it, but not one person in the cafe bar or down by the quay really suspected it had been Ewan. If somebody had discovered what Ewan had done and asked him for his reason, he would probably have said it gave him something to do. While that may have only been partially true it wouldn't have at all been a lie. Ewan liked to do things and over the years he had helped many in the village, especially older people who couldn't rearrange their aerial on the roof, couldn't manoeuvre their new fridge into the kitchen, or set up the new washing machine. They would knock on Ewan's door and out he would come with no more than a nod, attend to the task and return to his house, only very rarely accepting the offer of a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit. Even then he would just sit there, unwrapping the silver foiled paper or plastic wrapping the biscuit came in, and bit off small pieces that he chewed slowly between sips of tea. He sometimes asked about the person's health, let them talk for a couple of minutes, and then he would be off, as if the question had been asked to alleviate the silence without demanding that he speak. One question was often enough. If anybody asked one in return he shrugged and said he should be going.
The people running the cafe bar were from Cuba, a couple of friends in their late twenties who had come over to visit a husband and wife who were working in the fish factory. The Cubans didn't plan to stay but liked Scotland so much, and this specific part of it, that they decided to open the cafe bar in a disused building a few feet from the quay. Nobody knew how they had gained permission for its use or even if they had most were happy that for the first time in years there was a place in which everyone could congregate if they wished. The drinks were cheap and the coffee was good, according to the internationals who frequented it the locals would usually choose tea or a beer. Somebody said that the coffee machine had come from Edinburgh friends of theirs in the city who owned a cafe in the capital bought a new coffee machine and gave them their old one. The chairs were from the local primary school whose students had steadily dwindled in number over the years, and the tables were teacher's former desks. Everything about the cafe appeared as if it came from somewhere else, and nothing more so than the two people who ran it, learning English while they would take orders. People were pleased the cafe was there and those who weren't could graffiti as many walls as they liked. But people did wonder what Ewan made of it. He never came into the cafe and one even wondered very briefly whether he might just have been behind the insulting claims made on the wall. Nobody really believed it, and everybody knew who it was because the lads would make clear they had no interest in seeing foreigners in their village even if they denied damaging property in the process of acknowledging their dislike. This was when someone wondered if it were Ewan a man of so few words might insist on another means of expression.
Perhaps they thought this because Ewan didn't seem to like company and more of it would have been unlikely to please him. But it might have been more that he didn't care to spend time with people who knew so much about him and about each other. Instead, he would go on long walks when he wasn't working or fixing things around the house. Some days he knew he didn't want to come back any time soon and packed into his rucksack a flask, a camping stove, some tins, a bit of fruit, a loaf of bread, tea and a cup, a plate and a knife and fork as well as a compact tent, a sleeping bag, a map, matches and of course a good torch. Off he would walk into the wilderness as though determined to get as far away from other humans as he could manage. But while this was the assumption of many in the village, who nevertheless didn't at all take it personally, others might have seen a man who was walking towards something, but just didn't know what that something happened to be. Ewan may sometimes have thought about travelling to other countries but the idea of it filled him with far more dread than any pleasure he believed could have been yielded from the trip, He would have to apply for a passport and on the news he saw how many people queued at airport security and thought about how cramped he would feel on the plane. He could go by boat he supposed, but would still need that damned passport. So instead he went off into the countryside, pitching his tent wherever he pleased and often near a stream if the midges weren't too intrusive. He could sit there for hours listening to the sound of a sibilant stream, a babbling brook, a rushing river, and liked going to one spot where the waterfall would loudly crash and swoosh, the noise making deaf all the sounds around him. On other occasions, he would be under a tree and hear the wind gently swaying the branches and leaves into motion. He liked remaining as still and quiet as he could and let the sounds around him invade that silence, allowing nature occupy him.
Into its second year, the cafe was popular enough for people to come from the larger nearby village, and every Saturday night there would be live music, sometimes a folk band from the county, but no less often a band playing Spanish or Cuban music, and also a Portuguese band that played Fado. Usually, the international bands came up from Edinburgh or Glasgow, friends of the Cuban couple, but while some members of the band playing Fado had come from the capital, the singer worked in the fish factory. Ewan, who would sometimes sit by the quay and listen to the music playing from inside the cafe, hearing it alongside the sound of gulls and the quiet of the water, found on this occasion the music drawing him in. Its sadness seemed to him much deeper and more yearning than the music he would hear when the other bands played, and he wished to find out whose voice it was he was listening to more with his heart than his ear.
He had never before stepped inside the cafe, and doing so seemed to him a little like visiting a foreign country. There appeared to be a force that wouldn't allow him entry but he convinced himself that in this instance the force was inside his head there would be no passport required and no security checks demanded, He could walk just a few yards and pass through a door and there he'd be. As he approached the cafe his heart started thumping but entering it nobody seemed to notice him. The cafe was filled with about fifty people and everyone's attention was focused on the five people playing in the corner. All the seats were taken and various listeners were standing. Ewan stood just inside the door, ready to leave but determined to stay. He listened to four songs and looked longingly at the singer whose small frame gave out this sound suggesting great loss. He left as inconspicuously as he had arrived.
The next morning he was back out on the sea for a few days and throughout the trip, he heard the music from the cafe as he pulled in nets, cleaned the fish and heard the chattering of his colleagues. Often when out on the boat perhaps he would think idly about how he would feel if a huge wave overturned the boat and left them all dead. He would have had less to lose than most of the others, no ties and not very much purpose. But on this trip it may have been different; that while usually he could have said to himself that there were birds he wished to hear sing, leaves he wanted to hear rustle, and streams where he would want to hear the rush of water over stones, now he wanted to hear more than that. Now he also wished once again to hear the voice of the singer of music that seemed to speak more directly to a pain than almost any music he had listened to before.
During the trip there was indeed a storm, and while his life was never endangered, he did wonder whether he had fished hoping one day that a wave would engulf him and carry him into the sea. Yet this time he didn't have these thoughts at all as his mind would keep going back to the songs that he had heard in the bar, songs he would hum to himself while he worked, unable to recall the words and of course having no idea what they meant. One or two of the others on the boat noticed that he was happier if no more communicative. They sensed he was as preoccupied with his own thoughts as usual but that somehow the nature of those thoughts had changed.
During their days out at sea, they spent one evening at another port, far bigger than the village in which Ewan lived, and where there were several pubs and where in one of them that night there happened to be live music. As they prepared to go onshore a couple of the fisherman who had noticed some aspect in Ewan had changed, suggested, without expecting that he would go, that he should join them they were going to get a little drunk and listen to a band. They were, of course, surprised when he said he would like that, even if he added he would join them in the bar itself rather than they all go altogether. That was at least in keeping with his personality. What they didn't know anything about was Ewan's motives, but had they listened carefully to the music he was humming they could have guessed that it wasn't unrelated to that sound.
Ewan didn't expect to find the Fado singer performing in the bar that night, though it would have been a coincidence worthy of the sentimental feelings he had for her, but he wanted the next time he would hear her play in his own small fishing village to give the impression that he was no stranger to such an environment. Visiting the bar in this much bigger town would have given him, in his own eyes, a worldliness that may have seemed risible to someone who had travelled widely, but one wouldn't wish to mock him, and Ewan could have claimed, if someone decided to do so, that he had indeed travelled often as a child he went with his parents to various parts of Europe, even, on one occasion to Portugal.
The music playing moved him not at all it was a covers band roaring out glam rock tunes and a few blues numbers to a crowd looking for a sound to sing along to or shout over. But he was pleased to feel comfortably anonymous in a group of people, overcoming his sense that a crowd always made him feel exposed and watched. As he stood next to the other two fishermen who chatted up women that came within their purview, so he watched people's faces, observed various social interactions and thought for the first time since he was at school that being around others needn't be a constant threat.
On his return, he passed the cafe and noticed they had on a board the bands playing over the coming month, seeing what he assumed was her name on it for a fortnight's time Maria de Vago. His work on the boats was flexible enough and he drove to the neighbouring port where the fishing boat was birthed, saying that he wouldn't be available on the given dates. He'd never done this before, never had an occasion more important than the work he happened to be doing, and the captain was surprised and paused for a moment. He only hoped that he wasn't soon to lose more permanently his best worker. He asked Ewan if everything was all right and could see in Ewan's face that there seemed to be less wrong than usual, aware that the quality of Ewan's work was the consequence of a man with too little else to love or care for. As Ewan said everything was fine, the man, who was not sentimental, was married with four children he loved but was often exhausted trying to support, felt a moment of empathic pain, hoping that Ewan was not about to get hurt by someone with far more experience of love than Ewan himself. It was an odd feeling indeed, one he might have expected would be reserved for one of those four children, but it was for Ewan on this occasion. Ewan would have only seen a look of quick anxiety, and might have read in it no more than that the captain could be losing a good fisherman soon.
Over the next ten days, Ewan remained his usual solitary self but he was anticipating the evening when he would go again to the cafe and hear the woman sing. As he went off on the boat for a three-day sail, so he mainly thought about the voice that he would soon hear once more. It was as if the singer's voice contained within it the same source as the brook and the rustling leaves; it was a voice that assuaged him as most human noises made him shrink. It seemed when he would sit there that he wasn't only escaping people but wondering why humans spoke so much; why couldn't they just listen to sounds that had no need to take the shape of meaning? Ewan might not have known very much about theories of language, ones indicating a fundamental breach between the language we use and what that language describes, but he knew better than most the breach was there. Most people he felt knew words but not things and while no doubt many in the village saw Ewan reclusively shrinking from others as he never recovered from his parents' death, he might have been more inclined, if he were given to such analysis, to say that it happened to be his parents' death that showed up how tenuous meaning happened to be. There was more certitude out in the wilderness than there was with the locals in the village, sharing stories and gossiping. And yet was he not soon to be amongst them again if he were to hear Maria de Vago sing?
That evening he arrived early to guarantee himself a seat, and though he was of course self-conscious arriving while the cafe was still half-empty, the owners, who no doubt had heard a little about Ewan, about the shop that had been closed for years, about the parents who had died in unusual circumstances, about his difficulty in communicating with others, welcomed him with a warmth that made him feel cared for without feeling special. As others arrived he noticed the welcome was always unique, as though each visitor to the cafe, whether occasional or regular, a local or a tourist, was of importance to them, and for much more than their money.
But it was a very different warmth that he heard in the voice of Maria de Vago, and he might have sensed two different notions of the welcome. In the Cuban cafe owners, he may have noticed people who wished to create a space for everyone to feel comfortable. In the singer though he may well have felt a necessary solitude that led almost to discomfort. It was that expression of inalienable solitude which he must have found so moving when he first heard her sing, and a sound that resembled, perhaps, years earlier, when as a very competent pianist after his parents had died, the music he played for several hours a day. But there was no voice to the music he had played, he had no voice to put into words the music he performed. Was that why he stopped playing or was it that after a while he would have felt self-conscious to do so again, aware that the beautiful instrument that was the piano, while not noisy, cannot be silent, and people would have heard him play as they passed his window.
And so Maria de Vago sang for two hours and a half with the band, stopping in between for a ten-minute break that felt to Ewan like an abandonment. When they returned he recognised the power this woman, who would have been no older than he was, had over him, and someone else might have been inclined to claim that Ewan was falling in love. But would Ewan have felt so strongly if there hadn't been the music? He would have seen of course a silken-skinned young woman with olive colouring and black hair, and eyes that were full of both health and compassion, yet this wasn't what he recognised when the yearning was generated in him. It was a sense of affinity, as if borders exist in the realities of space but do not concern at all the world of feeling. He knew this woman, he might have thought, and knew her in the music she sang aware that the music was no more hers than the part of his being that was listening to her. Yes it was his ear, but often he would sit outside by the quay and hear the bands play inside, but none of them before had beckoned him in. There he was listening for more than two hours to someone that he could have listened to for ten. When the music finally stopped, when the band started to dismantle the make-shift stage and to pick up their instruments, he wished to talk to her. But how was he to do so? Ewan probably hadn't instigated a conversation with anyone in the village since his parents' death, and there he was suddenly calling for social skills he had never before practised.
Yet he didn't need them as she came over, saying that she sensed there wasn't one moment where his concentration had been broken, that even during the break he seemed to have allowed the music to continue playing in his head. He didn't deny it, didn't need to, saying he needed the music like a calling, and told her in a voice that seemed not his own, in words he wouldn't have been able to formulate if she hadn't been standing in front of him, that he had listened several weeks earlier while sitting on the quay hearing only the gulls and the quiet ripple of the sea, and it was the first time in years that a human voice had carried him to a place of safety, the first time he felt safe listening to a person rather than the birds, the trees, the water.
Maria de Vago may have been within her social rights to extricate herself from this encounter. He was intense rather than dreamy, forceful rather than flattering, yet she would have seen in Ewan someone for whom the music was vital. She could well have believed that all artists seek never a reader, a viewer, a listener, and certainly not a crowd of them, knowing that art is no popularity contest. But that solitary reader, viewer, or listener is never really a person, never someone you expect to meet in the embodied form of another human being, it is an ideal. Yet there, more than ever before, that is exactly what she saw in Ewan. Instead of seeing a fan or an admirer she saw a colleague, someone who was involved in the creation of the music and this had nothing to do with the notion that Ewan could have perhaps been a very good musician himself. There were many a lot better than Ewan who Maria de Vago would not have been inclined to call colleagues. No, what she would have meant by this was that he listened to the music as a need just as she sang too out of necessity. It was this sense of one needing to hear the music, a need greater than the music and that in some ways preceded it. When Ewan first heard her sing while he sat at the quayside it was as though in the near distance was a sound that matched feelings he had been seeking to name for years. It was a feeling inside him and coming nearby from the voice of another.
Not one for asking questions, Ewan discovered that he had asked several. He wanted to know where she was from, for how long had she been singing, what made her come to the north of Scotland. She answered slowly, adding that they should sit down. He sat again in the chair that he had remained in throughout the performance, and she sat in the chair next to him as one of the Cubans called over and, presumably seeing Ewan's pint still half full, asked Maria de Vago what she wanted to drink, insisting, when she said a glass of wine, that he would open a very good bottle and have a glass of it himself later as well. She said that she was from Argentina, more specifically still Buenos Aires, and most specifically Palermo. If Ewan had been there, she said, he would know that to come from La Boca is quite different from coming from Palermo, which is quite different from coming from San Telmo. Palermo is literature and psychoanalysis, San Telmo tango and La Boca football, she said, giggling as though she had fallen into a cliche that she had for years resisted. Perhaps if she had been brought up in San Telmo, tango would have been her destiny. Instead, it was living in Lisbon that led to her interest in Fado. She said something about training as a classical musician but anyone (yet perhaps not Ewan) would have quickly noticed that there were things she was keen to talk about and others that she quietly and quickly eschewed.
As she told him how she found her way to Scotland, he listened with a curiosity that was never greater than the attention he gave to the sonorousness of her voice. It was not the same as the voice she sang with, but it carried an echo if it and he searched in it for signs of the singer from half an hour earlier. She, in turn, would have wondered about Ewan's voice. His accent wouldn't have been very different from many west coasters in the north, a little slow and hesitant with an occasional emphasis for effect. But there was also within it a tone she hadn't heard from anyone else working in the factory, as she noticed he would rush out words in one sentence and slow them right down in the next. It gave to his speech both passion and reflection, yet he was someone who gave no sense of possessing a self-image he was presenting to others there was no sense that the deliberation on the one hand and the rapid speech on the other were affectations.
For the rest of the evening, they were joined by other members of the band, and as the Cubans took turns manning the bar, one or the other would join their table. Some of the locals looked on, surprised seeing Ewan sitting with others, perhaps resentful that for years he had never sat with them. But Ewan was only there for Maria de Vago and several times he had thought of leaving, but listening to Maria de Vago's voice was pleasure enough as he listened to the others who spoke a mixture of Spanish and English, sometimes attending to the needs of a native speaker's presence, sometimes passionately lost in an argument that seemed to require the speaking of Spanish to push the point. It was always Maria de Vigo who would say they should speak English. It is good for us and fair to Ewan, she said, and Ewan heard his name as though it had never been uttered before.
Over the next few months, Maria de Vago played often in the cafe, and Ewan would always be sitting at the table nearest the musicians. In normal circumstances, perhaps an affair would have developed between them, but Ewan wouldn't have known how to indicate the feelings he had for Maria de Vago, and Maria de Vago may have worried that she would have been assuaging hers with Ewan even if he were to make advances. She hadn't told Ewan the reason she came to Scotland was because of heartbreak in Lisbon, and with a man whom she had played the music that Ewan now loved. What went wrong needn't concern us but wrong it went and when a friend of hers visited her in Lisbon and said she had taken a job in a new fish factory in the Scottish highlands, Maria de Vago decided that this seemed far enough away from Lisbon, and yet nowhere near as far as Buenos Aires, to satisfy her need for escape. In fact, Buenos Aires wouldn't have seemed like an escape at all, but a sad return. She thought she would have gone back feeling a solitary failure; going to Scotland instead seemed to indicate a search for a healthy solitude. Ewan might not have known this but he could perhaps have intuited it. He may have been able to see that Maria de Vago was always so pleased to see him sitting at the front as she sang, and keen to talk to him afterwards. But Scotland was not a place she came to in search of love but a place in which to remove herself from it. If she were asked, she may have said she wanted to be permeated by well-being rather than smothered by love and possibly the moment Ewan would have made a pass, if he found the wherewithal to do so, might have been the moment she would have decided to leave Scotland.
But it was as though Ewan didn't need to tell Maria de Vago that he wished to be with her; he only wished that she would be in the highlands and in their village to sing. Over the summer, into the autumn, and through the winter, Maria de Vago played at the cafe usually about twice a month, and during this period she no longer worked in the fish factory since she could earn enough money from the various villages, teaching singing lessons privately. During this period, Ewan was no longer so reclusive in his habits and found himself often in conversation with others in the village, and on several occasions drove others to one of the neighbouring villages to hear Maria de Vago sing there. He obviously wanted to hear her himself, but he liked the idea too of driving a small group of fellow enthusiasts to hear her. Amongst those enthusiasts were the two Cubans, who now employed someone from the village to look after the cafe a couple of days a week. The sharp smell of fish still lingered in the back of the truck no matter how many times Ewan had soaked it down, and it is true that some of those arrived at the neighbouring village fretful that they had the whiff of mackerel in their hear or on the seat of their pants, but this wasn't the case. Yet they enjoyed bumping along the road in the back of the truck as Ewan sat in the front with a couple of others crammed into the passenger seat. In all, usually six or seven of them went to Maria de Vago's other gigs and she hugged all of them when they arrived, except Ewan, whom she observed with a look of affection that others may have called love.
Within two years of the fish factory opening the region had been transformed, as another fish factory opened about ten miles away from the first, and a couple of new shops and cafes opened in the various villages that were within a twenty-five miles radius of them both. Even McLean's re-opened, with Ewan renting out the property for a nominal fee as the shop was completely redone from the inside and the facade given a makeover. The people renting it were those who had known his parents, teachers who spent their summers in the village and now that they were retiring wanted to live in the village permanently and thought a small business would usefully top up their income. Ewan reckoned they might want to change the shop's name. They insisted that it still belonged to him and liked the idea of continuity as well as change. They knew there wouldn't have been any point in opening it at all if it weren't for the influx of people from elsewhere, but as they said to Ewan and to others: while they loved that things had become so different, so it allowed for the opportunity for other things to remain the same.
It was an obscure way of putting it, Ewan might have thought, but he could also see this was how he saw his own life. He hadn't changed very much at all he was still working on the boat, he was still living in the same house and in the same village but so much had changed around him and he had surprised himself by being open to these changes. Obviously, that capacity had been predicated on a voice he heard one evening while sitting on the quay, but what had been a private need had become a public acceptance. Ewan was now part of the village community.
Yet over the next few months, during spring, he heard that some the people working in the factories had been their illegally they didn't have work visas and rather than coming down hard on the employers, the government instead wanted to make examples of the illegal immigrants. It was a term Ewan hadn't given much thought to before, but now it seemed in Europe and elsewhere, the most pressing problem in the world was the movement of people, that countries were filling up, hospitals were full, and schools unable to cope. This might have been true in the south of England but wasn't at all relevant in the north of Scotland where people were needed, and if he had been much given to thinking about politics, beyond allowing the radio to play often in the background, he may well have been infuriated by a policy that was there to serve voters in one part of the country (which according to many was a different country altogether) while proving counter-productive to another part of it. Had he studied history he might have known that at the time of the Union, Scotland had a population of 1 million while England and Wales had five million. The latter population would increase more than tenfold in the next three hundred years, while in Scotland by only five times. Since 1979 Scotland's numbers had stayed steady at 5.2 million, while England's had gone from 46 million to 53 million. Few people would have denied that the incomers had given energy and purpose to the place and there he was hearing that some of them had been asked to leave. People in the village would talk about how some of them were much better qualified than they themselves were, that many of them had come to study and just never left. They took work where they found it and some of them had found it in the fish factory.
Over the next eighteen months, most of the people who had come to work and live in the area had left, and in turn the cafe closed when the Cubans were sent home, and the McLean's shop couldn't any longer be sustained and so that closed too. In time, the owners of the two fish factories said they were struggling to find staff and unwilling to raise the wages as they decided that they would instead close the factories down and move the business elsewhere. There were momentous political changes behind what one villager joked had become a new Highland Clearances and it isn't for us to go into why this happened to be so. But what Ewan had found in the people he met, in the Cubans he had in time befriended, and in Maria de Vago, whom he adored, was a possibility that he had for only a number of years been able to acknowledge in the trees whose light branches swayed in the wind, in the waves that pushed against the quay, and the gulls that ate hungrily from the bits and pieces of fish guts they would find on the pier. Yet he also found it during that period in the local people too, as if they had been galvanised into recognising their own existence in the presence of incomers: they saw in the eyes of others a new way to see themselves. For they would perhaps have seen themselves stagnating in the village, speaking to people they had known all their life but who couldn't help them see their own very differently. If they had stagnated in their sociability, Ewan had become absorbed in his grief, though maybe he was grieving less for his parents than that he had become unable to withstand the possibility of shock. The people he was closest to had died suddenly and shockingly; he may have wished to avoid people to avoid that abrupt loss happening to him again.
But happen to him it would, as Maria de Vago announced one evening in the nearby village where she lived and where Ewan would travel to hear her play now that the Cubans' cafe had closed down, that she was leaving the highlands, in fact, leaving the country. She didn't explain why but he assumed she no longer felt welcome, that either the government had asked her to leave or the atmosphere in the country more broadly made her feel that she ought to do so. It was a beautiful last performance in a half-full pub in the main village in the area. After the gig she came up to Ewan and hugged him. She had started hugging him a while before but would always give him the briefest of hugs as if meeting her need for warmth with what she might have assumed was his need for distance. Yet on this occasion, the hug was long and lingering, like a kiss. She didn't want to go, she said, but who else was left, apart from him, Ewan, the young man around her own age who would sit each time she performed in the front row and hear her music like it was meant for him alone? Nobody has listened to her music as he had, she said, and yet would that be enough: to stay in a place where she wouldn't feel welcome, where many of the friends had been asked to leave? At that moment Ewan felt a sudden desire to ask her to marry him, even if the sentiment wasn't sudden at all. Yet he didn't, thinking, we might assume, that she would see in the gesture a practical solution to what was for him a very emotional reality. He knew also that it would have seemed too abrupt, too desperate an attempt to get her to stay. Instead, he asked if she wanted to walk along by the village front. She said she would like that very much, and so in this village which slowly staggered down to the sea, he held her hand and helped her negotiate the sharp steps. It reminded her of Lisbon she said, and maybe that was why she had chosen it. As clouds started to form in the sky, as the wind suggested that there could soon be a thunderstorm, they looked at each other, as they knew there was an affinity beyond language and beyond borders. They were sitting on a mooring boulder when she told him that though we are made of eighty per cent water it is the twenty per cent that restricts us. He looked at her a bit puzzled and she continued, looking up at the clouds, saying the clouds are water too, but they can change their shape and texture, come off the sea in one country and become a cloud in another, crossing borders with no one caring. But that twenty per cent is what creates the difficulties. He wanted to argue with her, to say birds are made up of bone and flesh too, but they pass through the skies and give to the term migration its original definition. He wouldn't have been wrong, but he knew also that Maria de Vago understood better than he did the pain of the process, the difficulty in not being made of water or being able to fly. He saw at that moment the human as a terribly, terribly sad thing, and saw in Maria de Vago both the assuaging of that sadness and the personification of it. It only then occurred to him, as someone from a privileged country, that if she would let him join her, that he too would become another of life's migrants, however heavy and burdened he would be by flesh and bone and without the wings needed to take flight.
© Tony McKibbin