First Chapter: The Incomers by Moira McPartlin

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Ellie closes her eyes and squeezes the baby tight against her churning stomach. The plane is descending, a voice tells her this, but where is the ground? She sees only dirty clouds. The cabin shakes and rumbles like the ground at home when the mine blasts new rock. Her ears hurt and her head fills with mud. They are going to crash; this she knows for sure and she clutches the beaded juju round her neck and prays to her God for forgiveness. Her poor baby, to die so young. The stewardess asks the gentleman in the seat next to Ellie to extinguish his cigarette and fasten his seat belt.

The sudden sunlight hitting the small portal makes Ellie blink. She picks out the shadow of the plane in the dark grey water on the earth below. The plane dips to the right until the wing tip almost skims the surface of the waves and Ellie sees the reflection of the fuselage rush up to meet her. Why does stewardess walk up and down, calm? They are going to crash into the water. A voice speaks all around again and instructs everyone to look out of the right hand windows. The passengers turn their eyes towards Ellie and stare now, where they avoided her gaze before. ‘The Forth Bridges,’ the voice announces. ‘The famous red railway bridge is over sixty years old but look at the lovely new road bridge, opened only two years ago by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.’ Ellie can tell this is a great excitement and hugs Nat and smiles. They are not going to crash. When Ellie steps out of the airplane door she gasps as her breath leaps back to hide in her mouth. As she touches her feet onto the hard concrete the hairs on her arms jump out of their pores, she feels a tingle creep then shake her body; her teeth rattle in her mouth. Her toes go numb and her legs cannot move. The baby begins to cry and she forces her legs awake to trot to the airport building. There is no problem with her passport; this was dealt with in London.   James grabs her and Nat and hugs them tight as soon as she walks into the arrivals hall. Her husband has lost weight, Ellie thinks as she pats his back to confirm she is now here with him. As their lips close around their world she tastes again the cool mint of her husband and remembers that first time she tasted his toothpaste, in the hot cab of the white Landrover he drove in her homeland. He had leaned towards her and jabbed his ribs with the gear stick and she had giggled; he only smiled confidently, took her face in his cool hands and pulled her towards him. Ellie had been scared one of the nuns would see them but if they did, they never mentioned it. James loads her two bags onto a trolley and takes the baby into his arms. Ellie marvels again how such a white man can beget such a black baby. The dirty clouds have parted revealing a piercing blue sky to welcome Ellie to Scotland, and yet she hesitates to go back outside. James hands her back the child, shrugs his jacket off and throws it over her shoulders. ‘Oh Ellie, I’m sorry, I brought a coat and blanket for you but they’re in the car; it’s not far, if we hurry it will warm you up.’ He tries to grab her hand but Ellie pushes him away. ‘’S ok, ’s fine.’ She takes a deep breath and pulls the baby’s shawl tighter around his body. He begins to cry again as if he too knows what is coming. Ellie grabs the bottom of her skirts and stamps her feet before allowing herself to be ushered toward a green Landrover.   The baby stops crying as soon as Ellie wraps them both in the blanket and gives him her breast. Her feet now throb as they begin to warm under the hot blast from the heater. She is surprised to see the shiny new bridge so soon after leaving the airport. ‘The Forth Bridges,’ she says. ‘Yes, how did you know?’ ‘A voice on the plane told me.’ James laughs. ‘A voice? That was the captain.’ ‘I know it is the captain. Do you think I am some ignoramus?’ He points to the other side of the bridge. ‘The Kingdom of Fife.’ ‘So I come from one Kingdom to another. Where are the King and Queen of this Kingdom?’ ‘Gone, hundreds of years ago.’ ‘Then we shall be the new King and Queen of Fife,’ she holds up the now sleeping baby, ‘and Nat can be Prince.’ James pushes his hand under her blanket and grabs a chunk of her thigh. ‘I can’t wait to get you back to our palace.’ Ellie bows her head and smiles, but her voice remains closed. Their silence stretches. James coughs. ‘How was your flight? You must be tired. You must be hungry.’ He stretches round to reach the back seat. The vehicle swerves and Ellie gasps as she sees a bush come towards her. James pulls the steering wheel round and drops a packet on her lap, all in one move. ‘I asked Cook to make you a sandwich; I thought you might be hungry.’ Ellie finds enough breath from her fright to say, ‘Thank you, ’s ok, I am fine.’ Her mother had packed some food for her journey and she could not eat even that. She knows she will eat when she is ready.   Everything is green and grey where folds of fields ripple towards hilly horizons. The road is smooth, a black scissor-cut slicing through the green. At one point on this road the Landrover stops and lets another car from the right pass, but it is not a crossroads. There is a concrete circle topped with a mound of earth in the middle of the road, but the road goes round the mound. James laughs. ‘You want to see your face – it’s called a roundabout.’ ‘A round-a-bout.’ Ellie says to herself and wonders if she will ever be able to learn to drive on these roads with such obstructions. And so many different cars to avoid. About a mile later James pulls the Landrover hard over into a single track road guarded by a brick house with a roof like the hat of a witch. ‘That’s one of the Lodges, the beginning of the estate grounds.’ James smiles towards her. ‘We’ll soon be home.’ Even though it is cold, James drives with his sleeves rolled up and Ellie finds her fingers twitch with the urge to stroke the golden hair on his arms, but she stops herself. It has been three months since she last saw him and she finds she is shy. She hugs her son instead. He feels warm against her stomach and Ellie realises she is still cold despite wearing the thick wool coat James brought her. ‘I need to pop into the big hoose before I take you to your new home. The Fairbairns aren’t at home this season and the cook needs more money for provisions.’ Ellie wonders if this big hoose is bigger than the Fairbairns’ house in her country. ‘This must be an extensive farm.’ The baby stirs with her voice. At home her own family has some land to farm, but it is out in the open where everyone can see how far it stretches to the horizon and they can see the herd of goats and the crops failing when the rains do not come. ‘Here,’ James says, ‘all the fields around are owned by the estate but farmed by tenants who pay their dues to the big hoose. The estate grounds are for hosting parties and shooting birds and deer, for fun as well as to eat. When the shooting season is over, the family will move to their other concerns in other countries.’ ‘My country.’ Ellie realised when she met James that these people make their living off others’ labour and by agreeing to marry their Factor, Ellie had signed into that deal. She will have to learn to live with that. The black road bumps over a ramp to a crunchy grey gravel track. A tall symmetrical line of shiny green bushes shelters a square house standing proud of its three storeys; its door is framed by pillars. Many, many windows, even windows on the roof, reflect the late afternoon sun. To the side of the main house, a squat block which looks like an afterthought, gives the house the shape of a lopsided L. Ellie wonders how many people it takes to clean such a house and where do these people go when the family moves to shoot larger wild beasts than deer. James stops the Landrover at the bottom of a sweeping staircase of stone steps. ‘You stay here, I won’t be a minute.’ Windows at the base of the house blank Ellie. The engine noise dies now that the ignition has been turned off and leaves a silence that fills with bird song. A brown bird flutters to the ground and hops and jabs, hops and jabs at the lawn until it is rewarded with a plump worm. Ellie has never seen such a drab fellow before. Nat wakes and wrestles with the blanket, wriggling to be laid down on the floor. ‘Shsh, shsh.’ Ellie pushes the blanket back and offers her swollen breast again and he grabs at her with his chubby fist and greedy mouth. Her tummy tugs as he latches on and she lays her head back to wait for the scrape of tiny teeth. Nat, still in his first year, is too old for breast feeding; James advised her in his last letter. She knows her husband is jealous; he wants her breast for himself. Even though she wishes to please James, it is too soon to wean her baby. What did men know of children? James bounds down the steps two at a time, clearing the last three in one jump to land square at the vehicle door. ‘Right, let’s get you two home.’ He climbs into the seat and stares at her. ‘What are you doing? Someone might see.’ He pulls the blanket up over the baby’s head to cover her breast. Ellie can feel her scalp itch with anger. ‘What is this, are you ashamed of your wife and baby?’ James rakes his hand through his thick curls. ‘No, it’s not that, it’s just that women around here don’t feed their babies outside.’ Ellie tugs the blanket off the baby. She can feel her face hot while her feet still throb with cold. ‘Well, I am not from around here, Mr Mason, and I will feed my baby where and when I want.’ She tucks the blanket around the baby’s rump and strokes his head then rests her own on the back of the seat and closes her eyes. Now she thinks she wants to hurry to her new home and close the door on what others might think.   The house James takes her to is a short drive down a lane to another witch’s hat, with tiny windows staring out to an overgrown garden. Dense forest crowds the sides of the house. When Ellie steps down onto the gravel the breath is whipped from her lungs by what she now knows is the sharp cold air of Scottish winter. James leads her past a green door hidden by tangled rose bushes and ushers her around the corner towards the forest. They squeeze through a rusty wrought iron gate that James fastens behind him. ‘Do the Fairbairns cut down the trees here for their mine as they do in my country?’ James laughs. ‘No, these trees are part of the estate. This forest is tiny compared to the forests in your country. There is no money to be made from these trees.’ He points to a stone wall with a back gate that leads to a track. Beyond this Ellie can see another forest. ‘That is the biggest forest around here,’ James says. ‘No more than a wood really. It belongs to the Scottish Co-operative Society, and they will keep it safe from loggers.’   The back garden is perfect for her. A small patch of tangled bush could be pulled and the ground cultivated. A rickety shed needs fixing but it has a good roof. She frowns at the trees shading the northern end of the garden then remembers where she is. This is good, she thinks. James leans into her. ‘Don’t worry; we’ll soon have those weeds cleared.’ Weeds? Where she is from there are few weeds, only food growing in the wrong place. James leads her through the back door into a kitchen and Ellie closes it behind her. She feels safe in here, even though the house is colder than outside. James dashes round flicking light switches and fiddling with a green stove in the corner. ‘The house has been lying empty for a while but the cook said someone had been up to air the place.’ He kicks the green stove and rattles its front door open. ‘They’ve put this on but it’s died down. It just needs a kick up the backside.’ He moves to Ellie and Nat and crushes them in a cuddle. ‘Once the stove is roaring we should never let it die.’
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