The Isle of Mull is a long way from London, so Debbie suggested we could break our journey home in the north east of England, a neglected but beautiful corner. There is the dramatic coastal scenery, spectacular castles at Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh, and you can take the one and only Billy Shiel’s boat trips out to see the puffins and other bird life on the Farne Islands. There are also beautiful beaches, although you might not wish to linger too long in the water. If the kids are happy, they say, the grown-ups have a chance.
So we had booked a holiday cottage in Seahouses, a couple of streets back from the sea, and now we made a detour to pick up the key from the owner. Mrs McCready was a kindly but rather worried looking lady in her sixties, and I sensed her quietly observing our daughters as she handed over the keys. At last we approached the cottage through tiny streets never intended for SUVs. We squeezed the car into its space, and Rachel and Alice leapt out to explore while I fumbled with the keys. Once inside, Debbie made the tea, put the welcome pack cookies on a plate and started working on a shopping list, while I brought the luggage in and the girls tore screaming up and down the narrow stone stairs. It had been two fisherman’s cottages, converted into a holiday let as far as the architecture would allow. Some of the rooms were cramped, but it was a charming place.
The weather was kind to us – not exactly warm, but mostly dry with plenty of sun. Towards the end of the week Rachel’s school friend Constance came to join us for a couple of days, and we picked her up at Newcastle station – after we had taken a wrong turn and spent some stressful minutes stuck in a bus lane. Then we drove to a section of Hadrian’s Wall, and had a rather chilly picnic.
It was an agreeable week of castle visits, clifftop walks, cricket on the beach, fish and chips…and the girls spent many happy hours pottering on the wide, rocky foreshore at low tide.
On Friday – our last whole day of holiday – when we had just sat down for breakfast, we heard a commotion from the seagulls outside. We left the table for a while to watch them swooping, diving and squawking, and agreed that something must have agitated them. When we sat at the table again, Alice was staring at her cereal bowl looking confused.
“What is it darling?”
“I’m pretty sure I didn’t put any milk on my Shreddies.” She continued to stare at the bowl, and raised a hand to pull at her curly blonde hair. There goes Cartoon Alice, I thought, always having her little dramas and adventures.
“Don’t be silly darling, how else did it get there?”
She said nothing and looked at the milk bottle. Then gave a little shrug of acceptance, but seemed subdued while she ate her cereal.
Saturday morning arrived, and we squeezed five people and suitcases full of unused clothes into the car. There were no parking places near Mrs McCready’s flat, so I left Debbie at the wheel while I went in to drop off the keys.
“Was everything all right for you?” There was something anxious in her tone.
“Yes thanks, it’s a lovely little cottage. I should mention, though, we broke a wine glass.” I proffered a five pound note.
Mrs McCready waved it away.
“Oh, don’t worry about that, they’re only cheap ones. Nothing strange happened while you were staying there, did it?”
What an odd question. “Strange? I don’t think so, no.”
“Oh good. It’s just that…there have been a few incidents over the years.”
“There’s a story about a girl who lived there in the 1820s. Quite a sad story.”
“Really?” I tried to sound interested, but couldn’t stop myself glancing back at the door. We had a long journey ahead, and Debbie would be getting impatient. But the lady wanted to tell her story.
“She lived in the lower cottage, which she had inherited. She got herself pregnant by a young lad who went out in the fishing boats. Her parents were dead, and there was no-one else who would help her.”
“The young fisherman stood by her, and promised to marry her. But three days before the wedding, his boat was lost in a storm.”
Mrs McCready paused and looked out to sea, as if expecting the boat to return.
“The girl managed to have her baby. But she had no help, and the boy’s family would have nothing to do with her. It was winter, she was nearly starving, and she couldn’t feed her baby properly. The poor scrap didn’t last a week. The girl was found washed up on the beach, with the baby wrapped inside her coat.” She stopped and seemed to be waiting for a reaction.
“Oh dear, that’s dreadful! Did you say there have been…incidents?”
“More stories and rumours, really. But there’s a kind of tradition that she still visits her cottage sometimes.”
“No! She doesn’t sound like the chain-rattling type.”
“Not at all. The story goes that once every few years she comes into her old kitchen, and makes sure the children have enough milk to drink. The poor sweet girl.”
“What took you so long?” said Debbie as I got back into the car. She looked over at me before starting the ignition. “Are you all right? You look a little pale.”
“It’s nothing. She just wanted a chat. Let’s go home.”