What Joy Is

What Joy Is

When I arrive, I think the water is wine. It is tinted a very pale brown, but looks brilliantly gold because of the light shining through the large windows. The water goes through the peat, Vanessa tells me, pouring me some. By the end of the week I will find it strange to drink or bathe in water that isn’t ochre. Clear water will suddenly seem unnatural, an unfortunately wan iteration of something that could be golden.

The mornings are punctuated by the sounds of doing: Vanessa’s Duolingo notifications, bathroom doors opening and closing, five eager dogs scampering about. We join in the doing, shake off yawns like errant mosquitos, and hike the island. There is the wet snap of twigs, tree trunks carpeted in plush green moss, the rush of waterfalls. I realise I have not actually heard the squelch of mud before, my foot has not sunk through ground so saturated with water that the very sound of it is comical, the warmth of it hugging my shoes, almost up to my ankle. We come across scat that looks like pomegranate seeds and I wonder where I am, this magical place that seems so unreal, then remember J.M. Barrie found his inspiration here.

We get back to the house and strip, run from there to the pontoon in our swimsuits and dressing gowns. I am giddy with excitement like a child at the sea's edge for the first time. I go down the steps and into the loch, clench my teeth to stop from squealing. Tiny raindrops fall, kissing the untouched water, making it ripple. It is so cold, my body turns from ice to fire and back again, muscles unsure what to do. When my feet realise there is no ground, nothing solid to keep me in place, I feel suddenly free but also terrified, and swim strongly against the current. I find that I am now neither warm nor cold, I just am.

Staying in place because of the strength of the current, I look around, eye level with the loch. Blue-grey water, cliffs, sky, earth – I am part of it now, a tiny ant in this vast and beautiful puddle.

When I get out, I want to get in again. This is how every day begins for the rest of the week – we start sweaty from discovering looming peaks and earthy troughs, and then submerged, laughing, in frigid water surrounded by the first light of the day, birdsong, and the endless wide and open world.

There is the smell of coffee in the air when we return. After a hot bath in brown water, we eat fresh jam made on the island, bread and eggs, a sharp salad with rocket and balsamic, freshly baked flaky croissants and fruit. Daylight bounces off the dark table and the walls which are painted splotches of bright colours by Fred Pollock. We talk about our dreams and books, about midwifery and astrology.

Then we sit down in the living room, ready for class. Raff talks to us about silence, about profundity, and what that can feel like. We feel it, on this car-less island that seems to breathe on its own, for itself, and for us.

And then we write, the heat of the fire permeating the room, slightly wet dogs nuzzling into our laps, claiming space on the sofa. It is as if someone has fired the starting gun at the beginning of a race and new stories wriggle to the surface of my brain. The walls look like melting butter, the smell of coffee is ever-present, there are midmorning elevenses, and a comically large teapot. There are new characters and old themes, forgotten possibilities, new narratives, and excitement.

We share our writing and hear stories about marriage and parental disapproval, about a dog shot in the head with a pistol, about a teenager living in a derelict house. There is that thing of loosening, the parts of ourselves that we usually keep hidden away come to light as we speak our sentences aloud. It is like sitting by the fire after a day in the cold, the warmth slowly but certainly radiating from the embers, moving from our collective fingertips all the way through to the centre of our bones.

After lunch, we write, and read, and walk. Some of us will play the piano, some will sit in silence. There are pockets of time where there is only the crackling fire and the tapping of keys on a laptop. All you are supposed to do in this time is be. It feels radical and religious somehow, liberating and luxurious.

One afternoon, we pack our sandwiches and hike to Shoe Bay. Out of breath, we reach a steep drop and Shona says this is the bit we abseil down. I think she’s joking but then I see the rope. Shona used to be part of mountain rescue, someone says. Thank god, I think. Left, right, left, right, she says, guiding me down from below. Don’t look down, she says at exactly the same time I think it. This wouldn’t be a bad place to die, I consider.

When we get there, we swim in the clear-blue water, shocked by how cold it is. We drink hot soup from thermoses, wind whipping through our hair. We are the only people on the world, or at least on this island that is its own world.

On the way back, I wade into the water to get to the boat with no thought as to my shoes or jeans. The journey back is blue and white, waves and spitting foam, and then, as we reach Eilean Shona, there are the rugged and gorgeous contours of rocks, greenery and cottages. At the steps to the house, I take off my boots and turn them upside down. Water pours out, exactly the way it does in cartoons. Unreal things are real here. I’ll see my first toadstool the next day, on a hike, and wonder at the fact that I thought they only existed in the world of Mario.

At dinner, the candles flicker and the noise is made from many. Conversations about lives, and loves, and deaths, about the things that keep us going and have broken us. Cutlery against plates, wine glasses against the table. On the last night, at the last dinner, we read from our favourite books. I am on the edge of giggling with delirious joy and crying with the knowledge it will soon be over. We settle for laughing, spluttering because we have had just enough wine and there is talk of incredibly lush lairds, of a lush of lairds because we know we can invent collective nouns and deserve only the best.

The thing that has been loosening all week, that comes with sharing ourselves, has come undone completely and here we are, in this vibrant house on this beautiful island, lit by candlelight. We have built something between us that is warm and kind and real and rare.

And then Martha plays Wild Mountain Thyme on the speakers, the Gerry Rafferty version, and everyone sings, the harmony of the tune ringing around the room, the edges of everything soft and gorgeous. No one notices, but there are tears in my eyes. Oh. I look around. This is what joy is.

We end the night at the pontoon. We stumble outside and it is darker than I have ever experienced. I can’t see my hand in front of my face, scrabble for my phone’s torchlight. I search for Shona; I know she will rescue me if I need. When we get there, we huddle together to make sure we don’t fall over the edge and after shushing, feeling like we are schoolchildren on a class trip, there is nothing but the melody of lapping water and the stars in the sky, pinpricks of light that wink at us. We don’t dare move. And why would we?

I sleep like I am dead and when I wake in the morning, we hike to Vanessa’s Bothie. I have no idea what a bothie is and will find, after another abseil (I remain alive, somehow) it is a cottage on a hill with a fire and wild flowers on the long wooden table. We talk about weddings, writing software, and staying in touch. We drink steaming coffee from little cups, then move on to rosé. I settle on trying not to cry. I spend too much time trying to place the surroundings and realise, on the way back (abseiling up, scrambling with hiking sticks and empty bottles and feeling like Bear Grylls) that this is the sort of cottage I imagine to exist in fairytales.

Tight hugs, sad goodbyes. It feels like no more or less than leaving a place of colour for something less, and there is nothing to be said. Only that we hope to be back soon. That we will miss each other. That this was something from a dream.

This is the problem with finding paradise, I think, in the car back to Fort William. At some point, you leave and things seem tepid and dull, so lacking in vivid colour and groundless possibilities. The grey of pavement, the sound of the tube, it feels bizarre and so far away, belonging to a different world when compared to green silence, and magenta-tipped heather, and flashes of champagne coloured mushrooms nestled into soft ground. But then, I suppose, that is the whole point of writing – to conjure the magic of a place so it might be imagined or recalled, even when you aren’t there.