The Mull ferry is busy; swarms of foot passengers head straight to the top deck, armed with a binoculars, raincoats, walking boots, walking sticks and bird-watching gear. Rana feels out of place here. Ted knows these sorts of people, and starts up conversations easily as she shivers by his side, nodding and smiling. The nature lovers describe their most recent and most impressive observations and sightings. They feel comfortable with Ted, swept effortlessly into conversation like old friends, or an old marriage. Rana frowns at that. If her mother’s marriage and subsequent complaints was anything to go off of, the silent killer was not children or money or affairs, but merely boredom. Thick, heavy, impenetrable boredom.
Ted is chuckling with an older couple. They wear matching shiny rain caps and chunky grey walking boots. Rana doesn’t listen to the conversation, she nods and smiles when they direct a comment at her, letting Ted do the talking. It has begun to drizzle, and the huge green slab of island is hidden beneath a thickening layer of haze. She peers through the fog, squinting upwards into the rain – she is looking for birds. That’s why they’ve come here – the Isle of Mull is one of the only places in the UK where it is possible to spot golden eagles in their natural habitat, and it was Ted’s idea that they came here together for that purpose. She wonders if she’ll spot one now, her heart leaping as she sees the familiar silhouette cut out across the murky sky, shouting to Ted and slapping his arm, pointing to it excitedly. All the Mullers would turn their heads to where her finger directed, the buzz of bird-fuelled excitement juddering across the top deck of a ferry like ripples across a calm, unsubstantial sea.
She doesn’t see anything. The sky is bare, dry, cold, and the people continue to murmur in their groups, munching on cold damp sandwiches and sipping tea or soup from their Thermos flasks, dabbing thick swathes of sun-cream across their noses and cheeks although the weather doesn’t show any signs of brightening. These are Ted’s sort of people.
Rana hadn’t noticed it at first, when they met seven years ago at a bar in student Nottingham. Ted looked sheepish and sick, clutching a bottle of something bright and obnoxious as he stood to the side of the dance floor, his eyes darting anxiously from girls’ bottoms to the ceiling, to open blouses and skin-tight skirts to the dance floor and his feet, both protesting his male innocence and desperate to break out of his sweaty ball of self-conscious sexually-frustrated self-loathing. It was Rana’s favourite place; she liked the music, she fancied the bar tenders, they had a three-hour happy hour, and she could see the window of her flat from the doorway.
Her flatmate Teresa had pointed him out –
‘Ran, look. I have to take that pale little baby boy home with me. I bet he’s never even seen a pair of tits, let alone a pussy.’
Rana slapped Teresa’s arm. ‘Don’t be horrible.’
Her desire to protect poor Ted from Teresa’s egotistical dominatrix advances had felt like a good idea at the time; for many years, she had considered it a blessing that Teresa was quite as terrible and aggressive as she was, for she never would have seen that sweet, weedy smile and the way he relaxed as they walked further and further from the bar, the way his demeanour changed as he chucked his alcopop in a rubbish bin, how he had looked at her so thankfully when she pulled up her shirt, the panic that slid from his face as he unhooked her bra on the first try. From then, Rana lived in a constant state of Ted anxiety.
‘Rana?’ Ted was poking her arm. The older couple had been replaced by a younger one – two women, one with long thin braids and the other with a short boy cut.
‘You remember Alice and Mel? From Bentons?’ Rana nodded without recognition.
Ted drove, and Rana watched out. ‘You didn’t remember them? They were part of the nature walk at Emmetts, don’t you remember? We talked to them the whole way. Maybe four hours. They’re raising money to build a forest school on an estate in North London – are you sure you don’t remember? I think we even volunteered to help fundraise.’
Mull is quiet and still; the watery wash of grey and green passed the car window without change, endless miles of hill and mountain and cloud. Rana brushes her fingers against the cold of the window, barely acknowledging Ted’s voice as he continues to reminisce over Alice and Mel, who to Rana’s sudden recollection were an incredibly boring, monotonous, same-same, surface-level couple who smelled of dirt and Earl Grey teabags. She remembers them now; the walk through Emmetts was four hours of daydreaming, misquoting television shows and singing along to The Cure in her head. Ted was in his element – lesbians were non-threatening, and the interests of these women were so lukewarm and diluted that there was no pressure on him to make clever remarks or pretend to understand complexities of government.
Ted’s sudden bellow jolts her awake, and he is swerving the car into a road-side ditch, slamming on the brakes and yanking the door open, wrenching his binoculars from around his neck and running into the road. And there it is –
It soars, quiet, magnificent, peaceful – wide, strong wings beating against the breeze propelled by the mountains, a limp white deer dangling from its talons. Ten meters above them, a hundred meters, two hundred. And the thrill, the shiver of electric excitement and momentary wonder that rushes through Rana’s blood, prickling the hairs on her arms and numbing her legs, shooting through her, static, alive.
Another car parks at the side of the road, and another, and another. Excited birdwatchers leap out, gathering together with cameras and travel telescopes. Ted chats eagerly, pointing upwards, telling the fellow ornothologists that it was just metres above us, it almost brushed the top of the car, he felt the air from its wing across his face, he caught the glare of its beady eye directly staring at him. Ted is alight, and Rana stands behind. The nervous man from the bar is long gone, drifted from the quiet days, and the golden bird beats the air above her in knowing. If its golden eyes had caught hers, it would have seen what she already knew to be true.