Ever since the war, James Fraser had lost any sense of what a restful night of sleep was supposed to be like.
Tossing and turning, he could never get comfortable, the scars on his back a painful reminder of the past. Most nights, he laid awake on his side, his eyes transfixed onto the window — watching the wind blow through the trees of the garden, illuminated by the moonlight.
Sometimes, he would close his eyes and succumb to slumber. Whenever that happened, as rarely as it did, she would visit him.
Curls flying from her bun, khaki uniform stained with blood, whisky eye that encaptured the world.
She would come to him at night and keep him company, soothe his wounds and his fears. For a brief moment, he’d feel like his old self again. The man he was before the war.
He’d feel at peace, his soul healed by her touch the same way she had healed his damaged body.
Until the guilt would wash over him like a wave and he’d wake up again.
The painful reminder of where he was — of what his life was like.
Jamie often wondered what it became of her — wondered where she was, who she was with?
He wondered if she was alive at all but he did like to dwell on that question too much.
In his mind and in his heart, she was.
The silence in his room was deafening, the clock ticking driving him mad. He’d get up, eventually, but he’d wait a little more. After all, his days were as uneventful as his nights. He’d just have some breakfast, take a walk through the village and get home to wait for the night to come again to haunt him.
What he didn’t know, then, was that this day wouldn’t be like any other days of late.
That day, his world was about to get turned upside down all over again.
Claire stood in the middle of her new kitchen, smiling pleasantly at the sight in front of her eyes. It wasn’t very big but she didn’t need more than this. With green tiles, a ceramic sink and a window that opened up the view on the Highlands.
“Ye only have those suitcases?” Mrs Bug asked, coming to stand next to her.
“Yes, I always travelled rather lightly,” she smiled, looking at her landlady.
“Weel then! If ye need anythin’ or if ye have questions, ye ken where to find me or Mr Bug, lass.”
Claire turned to her and smiled, “Thank you, Mrs Bug. I can’t wait to settle here.”
“‘Tis Orla for ye, dear,” she touched her arm in a friendly gesture and smiled warmly.
“I would offer you a cup of tea but my cupboards are not yet filled. I have to go to the general store.”
“Dinna fash! I’ll come around for tea soon enough,” she winked, making Claire chuckle.
“But first ye settle in, aye? I’ll visit ye at the library sometimes this week too, I need me some new reading material. We’ll fix a tea date then.”
“Yes, please do,” Claire smiled and followed her towards the hall.
Orla opened the cottage front door and winked at Claire, “See ye lass.”
“I ken ye’ll be happy here.” She added, touching her hand.
Simply smiling, she nodded and watched as the older woman squeezed her hand and left the house.
Slowly, Claire closed the door and let her hand linger a tad too long on the handle. For the first time in her life, she was crushed by a feeling of belonging. As if she had finally arrived home after a long and gruelling journey to find it.
And in a way, it was exactly what it was. Years of a life on the road with her uncle, until the war broke and the routine she had created for herself had been shattered to pieces — forcing her, and so many others, to adapt to the surroundings. The fear, the curfew, the rationing. She had kept sane by enrolling to be a combat nurse, the need to help overwhelming her.
Now that it finally was over. Now that was truly alone in the world, the librarian position in Inverness had been a real blessing. One she had accepted right away, packing her few things and leaving for Scotland without a second thought.
The cottage wasn’t grand but it was exactly what she needed. A place to finally call home. A place to pack with books and vases and a garden to tend to.
Yes, she would be happy here.
Claire went into the living room and opened one of the bags she had brought with her. She retrieved the paper-wrapped parcel she had bought in the village, earlier that morning, and carefully put the brand new vase onto the mantelpiece.
Such a little gesture brought immeasurable joy to her battered heart and she was so transfixed by it that she almost forgot she had to be at the library in thirty minutes for her first day.
She took another look around, decided the unpacking could wait until later and grabbed her coat and bag before leaving her little piece of heaven.
The sight of the library wasn’t exactly what Claire had expected.
From what was in front of her, it was rather obvious the place wasn’t much visited — even less dusted. And the maigre selection of works on the shelves was painful to look at.
“We do hope ye’ll bring a new life to the place, Mistress Beauchamp,” said Rupert Mackenzie, the director of the library.
“As ye can imagine, it hasna been used much since the war, not much people come here anymore and we’re a little bit out of practice.”
“To say the least,” she mumbled, walking around for a little while.
“Can I order new things?” She turned her head to look at him.
“Oh aye,” he nodded, smiling. “There’s a monthly budget for it, aye. Mind ye, it isna verra much but I’m sure ye’ll be able to bring in good things nonetheless.”
“Of course,” she turned her attention back to the shelf in front of her. Lightly decorated with a few classics such as Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. She made a mental note to bring a few books she had at home back with her here tomorrow.
“The library is opened every day from ten to three and on Saturday mornings and ye’re entitled to twenty days of leave for the year. Does that work for ye?”
“It works just fine,” she smiled and walked over to him.
“Weel then, welcome Mistress Beauchamp,” he took her hand and enthusiastically shook it.
With that, Rupert Mackenzie disappeared from the library and went back to his office, that was supposed to be somewhere on the second floor.
Looking around, hands resting on her hips, Claire let out a sigh.
It was a daunting task to be sure but a welcomed one.
As a child, her favourite sight, no matter where she found herself in the world, was the sight of a library. A place she’d spend countless hours in, sitting next to Lamb and reading about various things: from Egyptian artefacts to Peruvian folktales or a couple of classics her uncle suggested to her.
No matter the city or the country, libraries could be found and enjoyed anywhere — stacked with books on any subject she might be interested in. And given her curious nature, they were quite a lot of those.
The first one she had visited was the one in Alexandria. Barely six, she recalled vividly holding onto her uncle’s hand, following along while looking around. Mesmerized by the scale of the room in front of her. She recalled the smell of parchment and old books like it was yesterday.
The memory alone was enough to put a smile on her face as she walked towards her desk and started cleaning it. She threw away some papers, gathered the few dusty books that laid on it and put them back on the trolley.
She rolled the linen sleeves of her cream shirt and pinned back some curls before gathering a damp cloth to start cleaning the shelves.
Granted, this wasn’t the Alexandria library but, nevertheless, it had its charms and it could become a place of gathering for the village if Claire did her job properly.
Claire started by removing all the books from the shelves. A task that didn’t take very long. Then, she swiped the dust away with her cloth, going back and forth to the kitchen to wash it under the tap every time it got too dusty.
She did this for a good few hours, not noticing how fast the time had past but once it was done, she was overwhelmed by a sense of gratification as she looked proudly around her shiny and new library.
“Not bad, Beauchamp,” she grinned, putting her name tag onto her desk. “Not bad at all.”
“Excuse me, lass?” Came from a voice behind her.
A voice she swore she knew.
A voice that was the equivalent of a bucket of ice water rolling down her back.
Slowly, Claire turned around — the fear seeped in her mind materializing at the sight of the man in front of her.
He had not much changed, save for longer flaming locks and more scruff on his face. He still stood broad and taller than anybody else, with the deepest blue eyes she had ever seen. But there was something different about them — something missing from those eyes that had watched her so many times. He looked haggard and saddened.
His lips — the same ones she still remembered the taste of, the ones she still craved in the midst of the night — were parted in a shock.
For a brief second, she did wonder if he’d recognize her. A second that seemed to last an eternity as he just stood there, registering who was in front of him. An expression passed briefly through his face, like an agony gripping him by the throat.
“Claire...?” He frowned, resting onto his cane.
“Hello,” was all she could answer. In a voice that sounded so remote from her own that she wondered if someone else had walked into the library.
The silence seeping itself between them was anything but comfortable. It was thick, full of unspoken secrets and rather unsettling. They were the same two people who had met on a dreary Tuesday morning of October during the war and yet...they weren’t those people at all.
Not here, not now.
Here, they weren’t two people uncertain of what the future would bring. Uncertain to still be on earth come tomorrow. Now, safe and sound, with no war to create an illusion of freedom to feel alive, they couldn’t be the way they had been with one another.
“What are ye doin’ here?” His question came out rather venomously, almost taking her by surprise — yet, not really.
She knew why he was reacting this way. She knew why but she didn’t mention it.
“I…” she took a step closer, a careful one as if he was a fearful animal.
“I just moved here. I’m the new librarian,” she added, watching as he nodded.
“I didn’t know you lived in this part of Scotland, I thought…” she let her sentence die. She didn’t think anything. If she had thought, she wouldn’t have moved here at all.
Perhaps, if she had thought, she would have known there was a chance to see the Scotsman around. And perhaps, she had not thought simply because of the need to see him had been stronger than herself all along.
“You look well,” Claire said, unable, it seemed, to stop the words to escape her lips.
At that, Jamie let out a strangled chuckle, clutching his cane. The sarcasm of his next words did not escape her.
“Aye, I’m sure I do.”
Often, in the darkness of nights, Claire had imagined what it would be like to see him again. She had rehearsed sentences to tell him — imagining herself jump at his neck, happiness capturing them both as the embrace. All along she had known it wouldn’t have been this way.
It couldn’t have been this way.
There it was. Or, actually, there she was.
Bursting through the library door was a face Claire could now attach to a name she had heard about once or twice. A face she had seen on a wrinkled picture, a few years ago.
“What is it?” Jamie turned to the woman, her dark locks hanging in a side braid and her green eyes inquisitive towards him.
“I’ve been looking for ye for ten minutes,” she said in a low voice, not altogether ignoring Claire’s presence.
“I just heard the library opened again and I wanted to see for myself,” he said, looking at the librarian briefly.
The green eyes looked at her and she smiled, “Oh, hello. I’m Olivia Fraser and ‘tis my husband, Jamie.”
“I’m Claire...Claire Beauchamp,” she answered faintly, looking at the couple in front of her. It was odd to finally meet a person she had heard about and saw on a picture. A person she, and the man she had given herself to, never thought they’d meet or see again.
Yet, here she was.
Flesh and bones, standing next to a man that was her husband and in front of a woman who had this man for a moment. Before he slipped away from her fingers as the war was coming to an end.
“Oh, ye’re English,” she remarked, a hint of disdain in her voice.
“Come, let’s go home,” Jamie interrupted, “My leg is hurtin’.”
Olivia looked at him, nodding, “Aye, let’s go home.”
Turning to Claire, she gave her a polite smile, “Goodbye Miss Beauchamp.”
“Goodbye,” she answered, her mouth dry and her feet glued to the carpet underneath them.
Jamie didn’t say a word, he simply turned his head to take a last look at her as they made their way outside slowly. There was a mixture of disbelief and fear floating into the blue.
It was something Claire didn’t quite know how to interpret. All she did was steady herself against her desk, feeling the rumble of her heart beating fast against her ribcage. Ringing in her ears as the tears rose up in her eyes.