Seagull’s Rest, Stonehaven, Scotland
From its lone vantage point overlooking the North Sea, the whitewashed exterior of Seagull’s Rest blends like a ghost into the mist drifting up from the sea. The only sign of its presence is the density of mist, where the stone structure solidifies within its wispy shading. On clear days, you can see the seals as they accompany the fishing boats into the harbour with their catch. A short distance from the sand, buildings look out to sea.
This is the first time I have visited the cottage since the death of my grandmother, Lillian Elizabeth Lawrence, several months ago. Jane Anne, my great-grandmother, had a strong aversion to using traditional family titles, preferring to be called by her first name. Her commanding personality and my need for approval has left me wavering between the customary and the unconventional.
An air of coldness hangs over Seagull’s Rest. The drop in temperature sends goosebumps crawling up my arms, nipping at my skin. My grandmother’s passing leaves a vacuum. Death has sucked the life from this place. For once, the seagulls that give the cottage its name remain silent. Seagull’s Rest is waiting for its heart to be returned—but Lillian Elizabeth Lawrence isn’t returning.
With shaking fingers, I insert the large, old-fashioned, metal key into the lock. The latch drops and a cold tremor runs along my spine as I take the irrevocable step in accepting Lillian Elizabeth’s death. Pulling at the cuffs of my hoodie, I slide the fabric over my hands, scrunching the material into my fists. The frosty morning dampness penetrates the layers of my clothing, and the cold eats into my flesh. To suppress the overwhelming sadness, I hug myself. Perhaps Seagull’s Rest hasn’t changed. The shift is mine. In a mix of loss, anguish, and heartache, I have projected my grief into this once-happy place.
Nostrils flaring, I reach for the handle and step inside. My grandmother’s scent lingers, and the blade of loss slides deeper into my heart. Inside, everything remains the same, and yet different. These differences punctuate the area, signalling her absence. The clay vase, usually filled with white roses, sits empty on the small oval table. At the foot of the stairs, my grandmother’s shopping basket waits to be filled with groceries.
From memory, Lillian Elizabeth descends the stairs, singing. Arthritis causes her face to wrinkle further, slowing her pace. Her bony hands grip the handrail as her ghostly form stops at the foot of the stairs. She smiles, her green eyes settling on me. “Goodness, Lilibeth, if these bones get any older, I swear they’ll cease altogether. I’m not running too late, I hope.”
My lips twitch at the apparition, and the cloak of grief I’ve been wearing since her death diminishes. It has taken Seagull’s Rest, and the vivid memory of my grandmother, to strip away my sorrow. I’m not normally one to brood or allow negative emotions to dictate my actions, but the last few months have been difficult. On losing Lillian Elizabeth, I have allowed grief to consume me. It is time to let go.
I move the thermostat dial, and the boiler rumbles into action, sending the radiators clanking. With footwear unacceptable inside, I kick off my trainers, walking to the stairs and making my way to my old bedroom. Despite the long gaps between my visits, nothing has changed. Seagull’s Rest remains my home.
With my mother, Pearl Alexandra, the global wanderer, never around, this became my childhood residence. My muscles tense in a natural reaction to my mother. With a deep inhalation, I let go of my angst. Today isn’t about her shortcomings. Velvet curtains rest at the side of the large sash window in my room. Sunlight filters, bouncing off the pale blue walls. Jars of forgotten cosmetics, perfume, and body lotion sit on the dressing table. The Aran cardigan my grandmother knitted drapes from the peg on the door, and I toss my hoodie onto the bed, grabbing the woollen garment. Its thick cable knit warms my chilled skin, enveloping me in comfort—as it always has. Lillian Elizabeth’s scent fills my senses, and I snuggle deeper into the woollen fibres. Tears falling, I walk further into the room as memories, long forgotten, surface. The warmth and love Lillian Elizabeth poured into Seagull’s Rest ignites a bubble of belonging inside me. I am home. Her love soaks into my heart, comforting me.
In the middle of the bed, a small brown box sits. Curious, I stare at it. A handwritten envelope lies on top. Lillian Elizabeth’s distinctive writing forms my name, Lilibeth. Time freezes. Transfixed, I gawk at the sealed envelope, a zillion questions whipping around my head. Blood gushes through my veins. My heart beats in rapid thumps, and adrenaline rushes through my system. Outside, my body remains stagnant, my eyelids frozen open, my hands resting at my sides. My breath catches in my throat, my lungs refusing to release it.
For months, this letter has sat waiting for me to come home. Lillian Elizabeth Lawrence had known for over a year she was dying—thirteen months and two weeks longer than the rest of us. Her bones, as she liked to refer to her coming demise, had stopped working. Still, her bones had found the strength to carry this box into my bedroom, waiting for my return. Visions flash, and her slow, laboured walk burns its way across my optics. Thud. Her walking stick hits the carpeted floor as she makes her painful journey into the room she knows only I will enter. On an exhausted sigh, her ghostly image places the box on the bed, laying the envelope on top. For several months, I sat at Lillian Elizabeth’s bedside until her heart stopped beating. What secrets lay hidden inside the box that she could not reveal until her death?
A box carries more significance than I could ever imagine.
“Ogling it won’t make it go away.” My grandmother’s voice fills my head. She is, of course, even in death, right.
My bottom perching on the edge of the bed, I pick up the envelope, running my fingers along the inside, pulling back the lip. Each swirl of the pen stabs at my heart. Tears blur my vision. The long breath I expel sends my fringe flying. Time ticks, and seconds turn to minutes before I can focus long enough to read her words.
I know you are hurting, trying, without success, to adjust to life without me. Remember what Christina Rossetti taught us within her solemn poem. “When I am dead, my dearest, sing no sad songs for me …” My passing from one plane to the next reunites me with those I have lost. I am delighted to see them again. So, please, no tears. Remember me with a smile in your heart, not the stab of grief’s blunt blade. Turn up those lips and let this old woman see your beautiful smile.
Seagull’s Rest is your home, and I have ensured it will remain that way, but it comes with an old woman’s selfish request. Secrets are, for the most, harmless. Half-truths that allow us to carry on and maintain our sanity. To safeguard another’s feelings, as well as our own. Such secrets flutter away like cherry blossom. But some secrets are too big to be silenced. They must be told. Rather cowardly, I have waited until now to expose mine. A promise made to your grandfather, and the passing of time, have left it too late.
Without the strength to disclose my secret in person, I am asking you to do what I couldn’t. Only your Aunt Morag and your grandfather, Joseph Lawrence, my head now resting at his side, knows the truth.
The need to give my secret a voice has never dampened. Like an irritable imp, it has plagued me all my life. Find him, Lilibeth, find Alick. Let him know the truth, and may he forgive me for what I have done. This burden I place on you gives me no pleasure. I wish I’d been stronger. Your grandfather’s death released me from my promise, but I no longer had the courage to exercise the freedom I gained.
Take care of this Nightingale, Lilibeth. Don’t let her song be one of unfulfilled longing.
Love you forever and beyond,
Lillian Elizabeth Lawrence
The letter falls to my lap. My reflection in the dressing table mirror blurs as incoherent thoughts and questions run through my head at high speed. Who is Alick? What secret is so grave it robbed Lillian Elizabeth of her inner strength? Do I want to find out? The box next to me is no longer just a box. It is a message to deliver.
What secrets lay inside?
Where will it take me?
If Lillian Elizabeth didn’t have the strength to reveal her secret, will I?
My stomach churns, and I wonder, on revealing my grandmother’s secrets, will I still feel the same unconditional love I hold for her? This thought prevents me from opening the box, its dimensions growing in metaphorical size. It silently waits for me to find the backbone to remove its lid. Like a band-aid, I can peel off the lid in slow tortuous motion. I could hide the box under my bed and spend the next few days ignoring its presence. Or I can rip off the lid, now, and uncover the truth. Find out what was so important to my grandmother she left me Seagull’s Rest, providing a place of comfort and safety, to learn her secret.
The latter of my options wins, and I whip the lid off the box. Once opened, there is no going back. Inside is a worn, black leather diary. In gold lettering, the name Lillian Elizabeth Nutman stares back at me. Nutman was my grandmother’s maiden name. It appears her secret started long before she met and married my grandfather. On a deep exhale, I prepare to unearth her secret and the message I am to deliver. A secret she was determined never to be forgotten.
And so, this is it, a Nightingale’s last song …