An Island Winter

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Soap maker Julia’s new life was idyllic – yet sometimes she felt the chill winds of loneliness…

The sea glittered in the sunshine as light winds stirred the yachts at their winter moorings. Julia leaned against the doorframe of her harbour shop and nursed a steaming mug of coffee.

It was a relief to be outside in the crisp, frosty air. The little shop and workroom were always stuffy with the heater on. Her morning had been slow, with just a few early customers so far.

Julia took a deep breath and smiled. She would never tire of this view. You could see right out to the snowy peaks on the mainland today.

Childhood holidays had first brought Julia to the islands off the west coast. She and Martin had continued the tradition when their own boys were young. Freedom to roam was something they had all come to value when they escaped the busy suburbs where they lived.

Jack, her eldest, had moved to Australia now and her younger son, James, was busy globe-trotting in a bid to find himself. After her divorce, there had been little left to tie Julia to their old home in the capital.

Her eye had been caught by an online article on following your dreams as an antidote to stress. It was never too late to change direction, the writer claimed. That thought inspired Julia to move her small soap business out here to the island.

In spite of the risks, it had been a success. Julia had refreshed her packaging and marketed the soap with local ingredients, like heather and oatmeal. Visitors enjoyed watching her at work and there had been a steady stream of tourists keen to take home presents that were made on the island itself. Julia had been rushed off her feet all summer and Christmas had brought a fresh flurry of business. Things had only recently begun to calm down.

Julia put her coffee mug down on the doorstep and flipped the sign to Closed. This was definitely a good moment to pop next door to the grocery store for an emergency chocolate bar. She was bound to make it back before the next customer arrived.

Sure enough the shop was still quiet when Julia returned. She looked around with pride at the neat stacks of colourfully wrapped soaps on the wooden tables and shelves. Arranging them was like playing a private game of Jenga and she always enjoyed it.

The mirrors Julia had hung up on the whitewashed walls reflected back the sparkling waters of the harbour outside. Ripples of morning light lit up her workspace behind the screens in the rear of the shop. It was her favourite time of day to make a fresh batch of soap.

Julia took her apron down off the hook and got to work. She had always loved baking when her boys were younger. Jack and James were instantly curious if they came in from school and she was cooking. James was the most eager, especially if he was in with a chance of eating the results before his brother. Weighing out ingredients and mixing them was something all three of them had done together, under Julia’s subtle guidance.

It had often been a messy business, with delicious smells and unpredictable consequences. That had all been part of the fun. Making soap was not so very different, Julia thought to herself, although a bit more peaceful these days.

She lined up the essential oils and dyes on the table in front of her and began to stir her soap base on the hob.

Julia glanced out of the shop window while she worked. She liked to watch the comings and goings outside from this vantage point. She was an observant person. The good thing about renting a business on the harbour front was that there was always something to look at.

Getting to know people properly in the town had proved tougher than Julia had anticipated. In such a close-knit community, there were only a handful of newcomers like herself. Nevertheless, she was starting to recognise more faces and knew quite a few of her fellow shopkeepers by name. Ivy, her older neighbour from the pottery next door, was friendly in a gossipy kind of way so they sometimes shared a mug of tea together at lunchtime.

Grey-haired and tanned, even in winter, Ivy wore bright scarves and had a glint of mischief about her which made Julia wary. Luckily her acerbic wit seemed to be tempered by a good sense of humour.  She had grown up on the island and knew exactly who was who. Julia learned more about some of her fellow islanders from Ivy in a five-minute chat than she would have done in months otherwise.

She still spent most of her working day talking to her customers, who usually turned out to be tourists. Julia had experienced a couple of disappointments that way. There had been at least two potential friends, with whom she had found herself chatting easily and warmly on several occasions. One was a visiting artist, who had promised to return next summer, but the other was from New South Wales and was more likely to cross her son’s path than her own.

A couple of seagulls started squabbling noisily outside. Julia lifted her gaze from the soap she was cutting. Some local children were huddled on the quay with crab lines and buckets beside them. She wondered what they had caught to attract the birds’ attention.

Flicking open her mobile to check the time, she was surprised to discover that it was four o’clock. The day had flown by and the children were out of school already.

Julia laid her knife down and inhaled deeply, savouring the delicious scent of honey from the bars that were taking shape in her hands. She had achieved a lot today.

A tall figure hovered outside in the winter twilight, perusing the window display. It was not the first time Julia had seen him there. He seemed to pass her shop most evenings. Julia was suddenly conscious of her own visibility. The bright lights on her desk were lighting her up like a candle while he remained in shadow. Should she be alarmed, she found herself thinking?

Julia scolded herself instantly for overreacting. Whoever he was, he had a lovely smile and looked harmless enough. She was sure he was local. Julia moved towards the door and he hurried off, raising an apologetic hand. She was good at spotting potential customers and this one had clearly just been browsing.

That’s Mark MacLean,” Ivy called out helpfully, as Julia stepped out onto the pavement to bring in her blackboard. “He’s a manager at the whisky distillery down the road.”

Ivy had clearly been watching him too. Julia smiled.

“He never used to walk this way after work,” her neighbour added, raising an eyebrow. “He seems to have developed a sudden interest in soap. I’ve seen him looking in your window every day.” The old lady cackled with amusement.

Julia resolved not to rise to the obvious implications of Ivy’s suggestion.

“I expect he needs a present for his wife or his mum,” she responded calmly.

“Not likely,” Ivy continued. “He’s been on his own a while now. His mother passed away, oh must be two or three years back.” Ivy rolled her eyes up thoughtfully and Julia could see her counting back on her fingers.

“Cancer, it was,” Ivy continued. “A pity really. Everyone liked Jean. Never forgot a name and always first to ask about your family. She was a lively soul.

“Not like her son. He’s quiet, that one. Wife didn’t like him or the island much. City girl,” Ivy spat out scornfully. “Back to the mainland like a shot, she was. Never took to her.”

“No skeletons are safe in their cupboards with you around, Ivy!” Julia teased.  “And careful there – I’m a city girl too,” she added.

“You’re different!” Ivy retorted swiftly. “Taking to the island like a fish to water, you are,” she called over her shoulder as she headed back to close up her own shop.

Julia decided to take that as a compliment. In her experience, those were few and far between with Ivy.

The next evening Mark was back in front of the shop, and on the following few nights Julia watched him pass by on the pavement by the harbour’s edge. She noticed too that he had started to park his company van directly opposite. You couldn’t miss it. The doors were a distinctive blue with the island logo on the side.

After a few weeks, Mark began to smile briefly whenever he spotted Julia looking over at him from the shop window. Sometimes he waved a greeting from a distance in the street.

On one or two occasions, Julia even had the chance to study him more closely, from a few rows behind in the queue at their local store. She liked the way his dark hair curled down onto the collar of his coat, usually turned up against the bitter island winds.

It was early February before they finally spoke. Mark was on his hands and knees beside his van when Julia emerged from the shop. She saw him digging around in the mud.

“That’s the culprit!” he exclaimed grimly.

Julia ventured closer to find out what was wrong. Mark held up a broken beer bottle and glanced at his watch in exasperation.

“I’ve got a flat tyre now and I’m going to be late for my meeting!”

“Can I help?” Julia enquired casually. “My dad was a mechanic and I’m a dab hand at changing tyres. He taught me well.”

Mark smiled with relief.

“I’m rubbish with cars,” he admitted. “I know where the jack and the spare are kept but that’s about it. A bit of help would be wonderful.”

Soon Mark was holding Julia’s jacket while she fitted the new tyre with brisk expertise.

“You’re a lifesaver,” he said gratefully, as they both stepped back to admire her work. “Thank you!”

“No worries,” Julia replied. She wiped her hands on the cloth he offered and wriggled her arms into the jacket he held open for her. She could feel his warm breath on the back of her neck.

“I’ve got to head off,” Mark rushed on, his tone still uncertain. “Perhaps I could buy you Sunday lunch at the pub tomorrow, only if you’re free of course?”

Julia nodded with a tentative smile.

“There’s a lovely walk along the shoreline to the loch on the peninsula. We could do that together first?” he added with more confidence.

“I’d like that,” Julia replied. “I’m still getting to know the island really.”

She stood back to wave as Mark drove off. A cold gust ruffled the waters of the harbour. Julia raised her hand to pull her hood up over her damp curls and her fingers closed around a snowflake drifting softly down from the darkening sky above. She watched it turn to water in her palm. It might be bitter out, she reflected, but she sensed that the ice in this new friendship would soon be broken.


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Claire Gill