Ten miles off the north coast of Scotland are the Orkney Islands, wild and beautiful, beaten by the clean cold winds of the North Sea. Life there in the last century was simple, but hard.
Captain Torvald has returned home to Orkney after a lifetime as a seaman on the world's oceans. He lives alone with his memories of the past, a past he has tried hard to forget...
Andrina comes to see me every afternoon in winter, just before it gets dark. She lights my lamp, gets the fire burning brightly, checks that there is enough water in my bucket that stands in the hole in the wall. If I have a cold (which isn't often, I'm a tough old seaman), she worries a little, puts an extra peat or two on the fire, fills a stone hot- water bottle, puts an old thick coat around my shoulders.
That good Andrina - as soon as she has gone, I throw the coat off my shoulders and mix myself a toddy - whisky and hot water and sugar. The hot-water bottle in the bed will be cold long before I climb into it, after I've read my few chapters of a Joseph Conrad novel.
Towards the end of February last year I did get a very bad cold, the worst for years. I woke up, shaking, one morning, and was almost too weak to get to the cupboard to find my breakfast. But I wasn't hungry. There was a stone inside my chest, that made it hard to breathe.
I made myself eat a little, and drank hot ugly tea. There was nothing to do after that except get back to bed with my book. But I found I couldn't read - my eyes were burning and my head was beating like a drum.
'Well,' I thought, 'Andrina'll be here in five or six hours' time. She won't be able to do much for me, but it will cheer me to see the girl.'
Andrina did not come that afternoon. I expected her with the first shadows of the evening: the slow opening of the door, the soft spoken 'good evening', the gentle shaking of her head as she saw the things that needed doing. But I had that strange feeling that often comes with a fever, when you feel that your head does not belong to your body.
When the window was blackness at last with the first stars shining, I accepted at last that for some reason or another Andrina couldn't come. I fell asleep again.
I woke up. A grey light at the window. My mouth was dry, there was a fire in my face, my head was beating worse than ever. I got up, my feet in cold pain on the stone floor, drank a cup of water, and climbed back into bed. I was shaking with cold, my teeth banging together for several minutes, something I had only read about before.
I slept again, and woke up just as the winter sun was disappearing into the blueness of sea and sky. It was, again, Andrina's time. Today there were things that she could do for me: get aspirin from the shop, put three or four very hot bottles around me, mix the strongest toddy in the world. A few words from her would be like a bell to a sailor lost in fog. She did not come.
She did not come again on the third afternoon.
I woke, shakily, like a ghost. It was black night. Wind sang in the chimney. There was, from time to time, the beating of rain against the window. It was the longest night of my life. I lived, over and over again, through the times in my life of which I am most ashamed; the worst time was repeated endlessly, like the same piece of music playing again and again and again. It was a shameful time, but at last sleep shut it out. Love was dead, killed long ago, but the ghosts of that time were now awake.
When I woke up, I heard for the first time in four days the sound of a voice. It was Stanley the postman speaking to Ben, the dog at Bighouse.
'There now, isn't that a lot of noise so early in the morning? It's just a letter for Minnie, a letter from a shop. Be a good boy, go and tell Minnie I have a love letter for her... Is that you, Minnie? I thought old Ben was going to bite my leg off then. Yes, Minnie, a fine morning, it is that...'
I have never liked that postman - he is only interested in people that he thinks are important in the island - but that morning he came past my window like a messenger of light. He opened the door without knocking (I am not an important person). He said, 'Letter from far away, Captain.' He put the letter on the chair nearest the door.
I was opening my mouth to say, 'I'm not very well. I wonder...' But if any words came out, they were only ghostly whispers.
Stanley looked at the dead fire and the closed window. He said, 'Phew! It's airless in here, Captain. You want to get some fresh air...' Then he went, closing the door behind him. (No message would go to Andrina, then, or to the doctor in the village.)
I thought, until I slept again, about the last letter people write before dying...
In a day or two, of course, I was all right again; a tough old sailor like me isn't killed off that easily.
But there was a sadness, a loneliness around me. I had been ill, alone, helpless. Why had my friend left me in my bad time?
Then I became sensible again. 'Torvald, you old fool,' I said to myself. 'Why should a pretty twenty-year-old spend her time with you? Look at it this way, man - you've had a winter of her kindness and care. She brought a lamp into your dark time; ever since the Harvest Home party when (like a fool) you had too much whisky. And she helped you home and put you into bed... Well, for some reason or another Andrina hasn't been able to come these last few days. I'll find out, today, the reason.'
It was time for me to get to the village. There was not a piece of bread or a gram of butter in the cupboard. The shop was also the Post Office - I had to collect two weeks' pension. I promised myself a beer or two in the pub, to wash the last of that sickness out of me.
I realized, as I slowly walked those two miles, that I knew nothing about Andrina at all. I had never asked, and she had said nothing. What was her father? Had she sisters and brothers? I had never even learned in our talks where she lived on the island. It was enough that she came every evening, soon after sunset, did her quiet work in the house, and stayed a while, and left a peace behind - a feeling that a clean summer wind had blown through the heart of the house, bringing light and sweetness.
But the girl had never stopped, all last winter, asking me questions about myself - all the good and bad and exciting things that had happened to me. Of course I told her this and that. Old men love to make their past important, to make a simple life sound full of interest and great success. I gave her stories in which I was a wild, brave seaman, who was known and feared across all the seas of the world, from Hong Kong to Durban to San Francisco. Oh, what a famous sea captain I was!
And the girl loved these stories, true or not true, turning the lamp down a little, to make everything more mysterious, stirring the fire into new flowers of flame...
One story I did not tell her. It is the time in my life that hurts me every time I think of it. I don't think of it often, because that time is locked up and the key is dropped deep in the Atlantic Ocean, but it is a ghost, as I said earlier, that woke during my recent illness.
On her last evening at my fireside I did, I know, tell a little of that story, just a few half-ashamed pieces of it.
Suddenly, before I had finished - did she already know the ending? - she had put a white look and a cold kiss on my cheek, and gone out at the door; as I learned later, for the last time.
Hurt or no, I will tell the story here and now. You who look and listen are not Andrina - to you it will seem a story of rough country people, a story of the young and foolish, the young and heartless.
In the island, fifty years ago, a young man and a young woman came together. They had known each other all their lives up to then, of course - they had sat in the school room together - but on one day in early summer this boy from one croft and this girl from another distant croft looked at each other with new eyes.
After the midsummer dance at the big house, they walked together across the hill under the wide summer night sky - it is never dark here in summertime - and came to the rocks and the sand and sea just as the sun was rising. For an hour or more they stayed there, held in the magic of that time, while the sea and the sunlight danced around them.
It was a story full of the light of a single short summer. The boy and the girl lived, it seemed, on each other's heartbeats. Their parents' crofts were miles distant, but they managed to meet most days; at the crossroads, at the village shop, on the side of the hill. But really those places were too open, there were too many windows - so their feet went secretly night after night to the beach with its bird-cries, its cave, its changing waters. There they could be safely alone, no one to see the gentle touches of hand and mouth, no one to hear the words that were nonsense but that became in his mouth a sweet mysterious music... 'Sigrid.'
The boy - his future, once the magic of this summer was over, was to go to the university in Aberdeen and there study to be a man of importance and riches, far from the simple life of a croft.
No door like that would open for Sigrid. Her future was the small family croft, the digging of peat, the making of butter and cheese. But for a short time only. Her place would be beside the young man whose heartbeats she lived on, when he had finished his studies and become a teacher. They walked day after day beside the shining waters.
But one evening, at the cave, towards the end of that summer, when the fields were turning golden, she had something to tell him - a frightened, dangerous, secret thing. And at once the summertime magic was broken. He shook his head. He looked away. He looked at her again as a stranger, a cruel hateful look. She put out her hand to him, shaking a little. He pushed her away. He turned. He ran up the beach and along the path to the road above; and the golden fields closed round him and hid him from her.
And the girl was left alone at the mouth of the cave, with an even greater loneliness in the mystery ahead of her.
The young man did not go to any university. That same day he was in Hamnavoe, asking for an immediate ticket on a ship to Canada, Australia, South Africa - anywhere.