All Roles We Play by Andrea Wotherspoon
Sarah sat on a wooden bench by the war memorial, looking across the loch at the white-washed houses and lichen-splattered lumps of rock dotting the hillside. The air had a salty, sulphurous tinge from the ring of bladder wrack along the shoreline, and the water was disturbed only by the occasional movement of fish kissing the surface. Above her, the sky was colourless.
The black and white rough coated terrier at her feet looked up hopefully, presumably wanting to play, or at the very least be allowed off the lead she had attached him to.
‘Forget it,’ she muttered. He had given her enough of a run around. He looked away, pink tongue lolling sideways from his mouth.
‘Does he bite?’ came a voice behind her. She turned. A man leaned over the railings. He grinned and gestured towards the dog.
‘Not that I’m aware of. He’s not mine.’
‘Can I give him a treat?’
‘If you like,’ she replied. He raked in his pocket, then threw the dog a white, bone shaped biscuit. The dog crunched it with gusto.
‘He’s hungry,’ the man said, lifting one leg then the other over the fence with ease. ‘Mind if I sit? I’ll give him another.’
‘Looked like you were having fun chasing him round the car park earlier,’ he said, hand-feeding the dog another biscuit.
‘He wasn’t the easiest customer.’
‘Been in Lochinver long?’
‘Since yesterday evening. I’m here until Friday.’
The man nodded. ‘Thought I saw you yesterday.’
‘You’re local then?’
‘Nope, I’m from Dingwall, just over here doing some work.’ He pointed to a van in the car park, with J Lockhart Building Contractors on the side. ‘Hence the dog biscuits. We’re doing some work on a farm, they’ve got some sneaky looking collies. But throw biscuits in their direction, and away they go.’
‘How did you know I wasn’t local, then?’ she asked, curious.
‘I saw you get out a Council van and go into the Caberfeidh with a backpack, presumed you were staying there.’
Sarah frowned. ‘You don’t miss much, do you?’
He grinned, held out a hand.
‘So what’s your story, Sarah? A council worker on a field trip to Lochinver, sitting on the banks of the loch with a dog that isn’t hers. What’s that about?’
‘I’m a Dog Warden and he was reported as a stray.’
‘You’re here for a week to catch a stray dog?’
She laughed. ‘No! He was just a coincidence. There’s no Dog Warden here, and the Community Council have been creating hell about people not picking up their dog mess in the village. The Council agreed to station a Dog Warden for a week every so often, so here I am.’
‘So what are you going to do with your friend here?’
‘I’ve got a microchip reader in the van so I’ll scan him shortly and then hopefully put him home. Thought I’d stop and enjoy the view first.’
‘And your plans for later? Dinner in the Caberfeidh?’
‘Of course. The Council’s paying.’
‘Must cost them a fortune, keeping you here for five nights?’
She stood up. The dog pulled at the lead, eager to go. ‘I’ll make enough back on fines to cover my keep.’
She smiled and set off, the dog leading the way.
She had just finished her meal when he appeared in the bar. He gestured questioningly towards her almost empty wine glass. She nodded.
‘Did your dog get home safely?’ he asked, sitting beside her.
‘Yes, Ralph’s home safe and sound. His owner’s six-year-old accidentally let him out.’
‘Ah, the joys of bairns and dogs.’ He sat back, took a long mouthful of Guinness. ‘So, you’re from Caithness?’
‘Are you stalking me?’ she asked, downing the dregs of her first drink.
‘Hardly. Your accent’s a giveaway. Are you impressed with the bright lights of Lochinver?’
‘It’s a beautiful part of the country,’ she replied.
She didn’t add that she had jumped at the chance to be away from home – and from Aaron - for a few days.
‘Got a husband and kids to escape from?’ he asked, as if reading her mind.
‘Just a husband.’
‘What does he do? Can’t be much work in Caithness.’
‘He works at the nuclear plant.’
‘Ah, Dounreay. Doing what?’
‘I don’t know.’
He set down his glass, leaned back and looked at her with amusement and curiosity.
‘You don’t know what your husband does?’
She shrugged. ‘No one knows what anyone at Dounreay does. They just ‘work at Dounreay.’ Most of them probably sleep all day.’
Tom laughed. ‘You sound bitter.’
‘Just honest. I’ve grown up in a town where the majority of people work at the same place but no one ever explains what exactly they do. Perhaps no one cares. I don’t. I’ve never thought to ask.’
‘But still, your husband?’
‘What does your wife do?’
He paused a moment, looked at the floor. Swallowed. She didn’t think he was going to answer.
‘She works in Human Resources. For the NHS.’
‘Yeah, but what does she do?’
He looked uncomfortable. ‘She does…human resource stuff. Whatever that is.’
‘There you go!’ Sarah sat back and folded her arms. ‘Dounreay worker. Human Resources. Dog Warden. Building Contractor person.’ She gestured at him. ‘Husband, Wife. All roles we play. Who wants to go into specifics?’
He looked from her face to her drink. ‘How much have you had?’
She raised an eyebrow. ‘Not enough.’
But the two glasses of wine had been more than enough. She wanted – needed – more than life offered her but hadn’t known where to find it. Now though, she had been handed a chance. Twenty-one years of marriage, and she didn’t know Aaron anymore. She wasn’t sure she had ever known him. She didn’t know herself either. She had forgotten how to exist in the world without Aaron by her side. But she wanted to remember.
She met Tom every remaining evening. They walked to the Bone Caves, swarms of midges surrounding them like dark secrets. They walked along the beach at Achmelvich, marvelling at the turquoise sea and the white sand. They sat on elephantine rocks, where they spoke about everything except their marriages. They shared her hotel room with no hint of awkwardness, as if they had always been everything to each other. She could hardly believe this was just an interlude from the life she usually lived. Everything was so different.
They met for the last time, late on Friday afternoon.
‘Time to go north,’ she said with an awkward smile, dreading the long return journey in her clunky transit van. She held back tears. Four days, and she could hardly bear to leave him. Over two decades with years with Aaron, yet she would happily never see him again. She folded her arms and shivered, despite the warm day. She felt sick.
‘Well…’ He stuck his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders, squinting in the sunlight. She felt the weight of words between them, words that neither would say. ‘Been nice to meet you.’
‘You too. I’ve got to go.’
He gave a sad smile then reached out and patted her arm. She nodded in response then climbed into the van, eyesight blurred as she pulled out the car park. She didn’t dare look back, didn’t want to know if he was looking at her, because if he was, she would stop. And she would never leave. To fall in love with someone so quickly? That was more than she could have imagined possible. Although, perhaps it wasn’t love. Perhaps it was just a tangled mass of lust. It was hard to tell the difference.
She didn’t leave Aaron. She knew he deserved better though. He wasn’t a bad man, for all his faults. He just wasn’t what she wanted and it pained her to think she was only staying because it was the easy option. And what about the next time someone like Tom came long? That would never happen, she told herself. Because there was only one Tom, and she couldn’t have him. His face, touch and smell remained as vivid to her as during those days in Lochinver, but that was then. How could their relationship exist in the real world?
‘What do you do?’ she asked Aaron one evening over dinner.
He paused, fork and knife in mid-air.
‘How do you mean?’
‘At Dounreay. Your job. What do you do?’
He shrugged. ‘I just…it’s hard to explain, Sarah. You wouldn’t understand.’
She didn’t ask any further. She realised she really didn’t care.
It was after a meeting at the Council offices in Dingwall, that she spotted a note slipped under the windscreen wipers of the van.
Last weekend of the month - Lochinver? Caberfeidh Bar Friday evening x
She leaned against the side of the van and slid down until she was sitting on the ground. Her body was weak, chest tight and heart fluttering. Would she go? She shouldn’t.
She sat in the same seat as that first evening nearly seven months ago. She’d told Aaron she was going to Lochinver for the weekend; he didn’t ask why. It was fine, he’d said. He had golf planned if the weather was good, so he didn’t need her around. Didn’t need her around. The words were said with no malice, but they played in her head as she sipped on her wine. Didn’t. Need. Her. Around.
Two hours later and Tom hadn’t appeared. She walked down to the seat at the war memorial and remembered Ralph giving her the run around in the car park. He would pause and look at her, tail wagging, willing her to catch him. But the moment she made for his collar, he would bound off before starting the whole charade again.
The houses across the water glowed with yellow lights that reflected on the dancing tips of the loch, which was otherwise invisible. A mass of darkness, just like the sky about it. There was the smell of peat smoke and the chirruping of an over-excited blackbird. The water burbled and rippled as something moved. An otter, maybe. Or just a splash of tide hitting the shore. Sarah closed her eyes. Tom wasn’t coming. She was sure he had intended to, so something must have come up. A feeling surged through her, which she took for disappointment, but then realised was relief.
She walked slowly back to the hotel, enjoying the cool evening and the slow, steady pace of the village. She liked it here, even without Tom. But it was over now, this time for certain. This place wasn’t theirs anymore. It was hers. Just hers. Tomorrow, she would go home, and tell Aaron she was leaving. She didn’t need Tom in order to do that.
As she walked, a woman and a dog passed her, walking in the opposite direction. Ralph. She smiled at him. He looked up, eyes bright and mouth open. She was sure he smiled back.