‘Anna, are you all right? I don’t know what you’re thinking about, but you haven’t been listening to a word any of us are saying.’
With an effort, Anna dragged her thoughts back to the conversation in the living room.
‘Sorry, Roddie. I was miles away. It must be the effects of all the wine I’ve been drinking.’
‘Jake asked you when you’re leaving for Islay.’
‘I’m not sure. I may decide not to go to Islay.’
‘Oh, you women, you’re always changing your mind about something,’ Jake said, trying to move even closer to Yvette on the sofa, if that were possible.
‘But what about your research?’ Roddie asked, taking a sip of his wine. He leant back, easily filling his armchair. Anna knew his bulk was all muscle, having seen him working out at the local sports centre several times a week.
‘Oh, I don’t know, Roddie,’ Anna said, more sharply than she intended. ‘It’s a bit late to discuss it tonight. I’ll decide tomorrow.’
Anna was aware of his scrutiny. He was looking at her in a puzzled way, as if he was sure there was an explanation for her possible change of plan, but she’d made it clear the matter wasn’t for discussion at this point.
‘Where exactly is Islay?’ Yvette asked in her rather thick French accent. Her guileless question succeeded in taking the tension out of the atmosphere.
‘It’s an island off the west coast of Scotland,’ Anna said. ‘In the Inner Hebrides. The job I’m doing is about The Lords of the Isles, and that was the centre of their operations.’
‘I don’t know much about the Lords of the Isles,’ Jake admitted.
‘They controlled parts of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland from around 1330 to the 1490s. The title still exists today, but there’s no power attached to it.’ This was Anna’s short version of a complicated era in Scotland’s history, but it seemed to satisfy her flatmate.
‘So, for this project,’ Jake said, pulling the conversation back to the subject under discussion, ‘don’t you have to go to Islay? To do your research and take pictures?’
‘Yes, I do. But… I may have to see to something else first.’
‘What’s your deadline?’ Jake asked.
‘I don’t have one. He’s a private customer, and he wants the information and the photos to use in talks he gives. He’s a public speaker, working with an agency in America. I don’t know much more than that about him. I usually email his secretary.’
‘I thought you were really keen to go to Islay,’ Jake said.
‘Oh, Jake, you can be so persistent at times.’ Roddie stood up to refill their glasses. ‘If Anna wants to talk about it, it’s up to her.’
Undeterred by the tone of Roddie’s remark, Jake continued with his questions. He even managed to take his eyes off Yvette for a moment.
‘So how did you land the commission?’ As a student of business administration, he was interested in small businesses.
‘My client’s name’s Mel MacDougall and he has Scottish ancestors. He’s always on the lookout for interesting topics to use in his speeches, but there are times when he’s unable to come over here to do the research himself. He’d seen some of my work on my website, and his secretary, Cindy, contacted me.’
Roddie interrupted at this point.
‘Jake, this is Anna’s birthday and we’re attempting to have a pleasant evening. Stop badgering her with questions, and let’s all relax.’
Jake shrugged and cuddled up closer to Yvette.
‘You look comfortable there, Anna. You’re not about to fall asleep in the chair, are you? Have you recovered from your mishap this morning?’ Roddie asked.
‘Mishap?’ Anna’s tone was sharp.
‘Yes, you banged your toe. How is it?’ Roddie had a cheeky grin on his face.
Anna felt heat rising to her face. In her teenage years, she’d become aware of her inability to conceal her embarrassment when she knew her pale skin could not hide her blushing. Although she loved her red hair, she wished she had the complexion of a brunette or a blonde. She’d even tried when she was in her last year of junior school to erase the freckles across her nose, using a product that promised to turn any hair colour to ash blonde. Needless to say, it didn’t work on the skin of her nose.
‘Oh…’ she mumbled. ‘It’s fine, thanks.’
‘Your toe? What’s wrong with your toe?’ Jake emerged from a tortuous position on the sofa.
‘It had a fight with the doorstop when the postman arrived this morning – and my toe came off worst,’ Anna said.
Jake burst out laughing. ‘Temper, temper,’ he said, wagging an admonishing finger at her.
‘She can’t help it,’ Roddie said. ‘It goes with her hair colour.’
Anna stood up. ‘If you think for one minute I’m going to stay here to be insulted by you lot, then you have another think coming. I’m off to bed.’ Her tone made it clear that she was used to the banter which was part and parcel of the relationship among the four residents in the flat.
Roddie stood up and swept her into his arms in a comforting bear hug.
‘Good night, birthday girl. You know we all love you… and your temper. Life would be pretty boring around here without it.’
‘Oh, I doubt that,’ Anna said, making her way to the hall.
A chorus of ‘goodnights’ rang in her ears as she left the room.
When Anna closed her bedroom door, she stood for a moment, leaning against the cool panelled wood. It was such a relief to be alone. She had spent the day pretending that her only concern was whether or not to arrange a trip to Islay. Now that she was on her own, she could let her thoughts roam over the real issue which was bothering her.
She lowered herself onto the edge of her bed and buried her face in her hands. How could she set off for the island of Islay when every instinct was pulling her to the Isle of Mull? The letter, which she’d received that morning, was on her bedside table; in her mind’s eye, it had become an object of ill-will, hinting she might burn her fingers if she touched it again. How she wished she hadn’t opened the letter as soon as it arrived, hadn’t read the contents, hadn’t faced the unforeseen rejection.
When Roddie’s gentle knock at her door interrupted her train of thought, she jumped up from her bed and let him in.
Almost falling into his wide-open arms, she surrendered to her pent-up emotions and wept.