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A Seashell Full of Grandkids
The first question began to emerge when we dropped off our youngest in her student accommodation, eager to start her new life as an independent adult. Over the years, we had waved off her older siblings, each time with a chest full of pride and a throat full of tears that we swallowed until we were out of sight. My husband and I waved goodbye to our little ones, our ankle biters, our tired little warm bellied babies, with the smell of vanilla on their onesies when they woke from their afternoon naps.
‘Why are we living in this big empty house on Anniesland Cross?’
It was a fair question, albeit shapeless at this point and far from fully formed, a notion, unspoken yet clearly perceptible. We had chosen the location due to its proximity to good schools in the West End of Glasgow – safe and close to their friends. But what would be the attraction now? To us? To the kids? Once they’d started travelling, once they’d fallen in love with partners and scattered across the world – a new world, faster, brighter, unrecognisable, a world that no longer belonged to us but to them? What would be the justification for the cost and effort of travelling all the way back here – to a busy crossing in the North West of Glasgow? Nothing wrong with Anniesland, mind, it had been good to us, offering its concrete pavements as a solid base for the kids to hopscotch their way out of childhood. But why were we paying a mortgage on a four-bedroom house, when there were just the two of us left. So, within months, one of us, I don’t remember who, asked the second question, driving along the shoreline of a small peninsula, about an hour from Glasgow:
‘We would never move out this far, would we? I mean, we’re city people, aren’t we?’
It had started almost as a joke, a way to fill empty weekends: we searched online for houses near water, then took a day trip to look at them. Neither of us were entirely serious about this.
‘I think it’s the neighbour that’s supposed to show us around. The guy isn’t even home,’ I said.
‘I feel a bit bad about this,’ my husband agreed. ‘They’re going to a lot of trouble, and it’s not like we’re actually going to buy it.’
‘Do you want to cancel?’
‘I don’t know. Somehow that feels even meaner. I mean, they’re already waiting for us.’
The closer we came, the more we felt like fraudsters. It was freezing cold, and only a few boats were moored on the loch, their silhouettes sharpened by the crisp winter light, colours faded to sepia.
‘Worth it just to see all this,’ we both agreed.
When we finally found the right house, I felt my heart pounding in my chest. We slowly rolled down the steep driveway, lined by trees on both sides. Gravel was crunching under our tyres, and an elderly lady appeared from one of the outhouses as soon as we got out of the car.
‘Hello, lovely to meet you. I am Mhairie. Tom said you might be interested in buying his flat?’
It felt like lying when we nodded.
‘Why don’t I show you the outside of the house first?’ she offered. We followed, sheepishly. She walked along the side of the house, explaining that it was split into three different flats, and that ours would be the one in the middle.
‘The house was built in the 1870s, one of those Victorian children’s homes, you know, for the Glasgow Fresh Air Fortnight.’ We must have looked confused, because she explained: ‘They offered two weeks of fun and fresh air to children from Glasgow’s poorer areas.’
My husband took a deep and greedy breath. He smiled.
‘No wonder they brought them here.’
I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the scene, twenty or so children, in white pinafores, playing, shrieking with fun.
When I opened them, I was struck by my husband’s expression – the face of a child laying eyes on his first Christmas lights. I followed the direction of his open-mouthed gaze: The emerald green water of the loch, vast and achingly beautiful, lined by snow-topped hills above, with their counterparts reflected below the perfectly still surface. Only a few houses were dotted along the shore opposite. My husband and I looked at each other, and the next question formed, silently, telepathically:
‘How the hell are we ever going to walk away from something this beautiful?’
‘That’s a nature reserve’, Mhairie said. ‘There’s only one small village over there, with a lovely wee pub. My husband Charlie claims it takes him about half an hour to row across, and three hours to get back. One of life’s mysteries, I guess.’ We chuckled.
‘Do you get any wildlife out here?’ my husband asked.
‘Of course! We get seals, porpoises, gannets, they even spotted a family of Orcas here once, but I didn’t see them myself.’
I bent down and picked up a seashell, beautiful and spiral-shaped. How did this get here, I wondered? Did the waves wash up this high? Or did a seagull drop it onto the stones? I peeked inside and held my breath: I saw grandchildren playing on the lawn. I saw swings built by my husband, I saw him kick a ball around with a little girl, or boy. I saw kayaks lined up for fishing trips. I saw barbecues with freshly caught mackerel, and picnics on the grass. I saw our children and their partners sit on the bench, overlooking the loch, sipping a gin and tonic and letting the stress of adulthood wash away, more and more relaxed with each wave.
We were quiet on the drive back. Finally, my husband broke the silence with the last question:
‘We’re going to buy this, aren’t we?’ I felt for the seashell in my pocket, and the answer came easily:
‘Yes. Yes, we are.’