When two kids discovered a greenish glass bottle, lying on cold wet beach sand in Scotland’s north, they thought a note was concealed inside. The bottle bore a few scabs of marine growth; it had been in the ocean quite a while. Perhaps the note was money but they weren’t sure. The younger sibling vainly tried to remove the stopper until the older, more impatient kid tore the bottle from his hands, dropped it to the sand and unceremoniously smashed the glass with a rock. They were right; there was a note, but not one issued by the Royal Bank of Scotland as they’d hoped. The small handwritten note read:
‘My body is my property. Not seeking permission to explore is trespass.’
Noses screwed in disappointment, they scrunched the sun-bleached paper into a tiny ball, punt-kicked it into the chilly waters of the North Atlantic, and ran off to annoy a squawking gull.
Fifteen years earlier, Hannah and Wayne Wickham from Brisbane, Australia, had been hiking the Great Glen Way between Inverness and Fort William in the Scottish highlands. It had been touted as a coast-to-coast photography ramble. The ten participants were sleeping and eating on the 100 year old barge ‘Fingal of Caledonia’ and spent most days walking and photographing along the lochs, canals, tow-paths and forests while the barge motored forward to a pre-arranged meeting point each afternoon.
Hannah was a diminutive, bookish soul. She quietly relished unearthing and photographing a myriad of fungi on the floors of the moist, verdant forests in the highland glens. With her small book ‘Fungi of Scotland’ she’d identified and categorised numerous colourful mushrooms and toadstools - edible and poisonous. Wayne, on the other hand, felt he’d been shanghaied into this trip; he’d wanted a week in Bali, but it was Hannah’s 40th birthday after all, and he’d agreed she could choose her present. This was a notable win for Hannah, she’d had very few in her fifteen years of marriage to Wayne Wickham.
The ‘Fingal of Caledonia’ had entered the canal between the east and west Laggan Locks and tied up against a wharf for the night. Tomorrow they’d enter the lock gates and be lowered 4 metres into Loch Lochy and make their way to Banavie, the eighth and final day of their trip. After dinner with the other eight passengers and four crew, Wayne had settled into a corner in the lounge with a middle-aged Canadian guy and a bottle of single malt whisky. He regaled the Canadian with his rugby prowess as a younger man and elaborated raucously how he’d earned his cauliflower ear and bent nose. Hannah quietly excused herself and returned to their cabin. She overheard herself being referred to as “the old ball and chain” by Wayne. A cacophony of snorts and laughter ensued.
She was lying awake in the darkness of their small cabin when he returned several hours later. In the lower of their bunk beds, she lay motionless. She heard the sounds of his clothes dropping to the floor. The duvet on her bed was pushed aside. Her nightie was crudely lifted. He lay on top of her. There was brief unhinged movement. Whisky breath. A stifled guttural sound. A shudder. Extricating himself from the lower bunk, he unsteadily clambered up the ladder to his top bunk from where he slurred the words, “Happy birthday.”
In the morning, Hannah was gone.
Her absence was discovered at the breakfast bell. Wayne had to be roused from sleep. The hikers, crew and lock-keeper scoured both sides of the Laggan Locks. There was concern she’d taken an early morning walk along the canal. Had she slipped in? Was she taken, injured, lost, suicided, run off, murdered? Hannah’s clothes and backpack remained in her cabin; she hadn’t left a note. Her nightie was gone; perhaps she’d put wet weather gear over the nightie down in the drying room and gone photographing at dawn. The skipper eventually phoned the Fort William police and notified them of her disappearance.
Wayne Wickham remained in Fort William for several weeks prior to returning to Australia alone. Police had questioned him and monitored her bank account for evidence of her credit cards being used. There was nothing. Wayne was not a suspect, neither was anyone else on the barge. All alibis stacked up. Even her passport was uncovered in her belongings. Somehow, Hannah Wickham had vanished into the bracing mountain air of the highlands in October 2008.
Finlay MacNeil watched in anticipation as the coastline of the Isle of Barra came into view from the small 19 seater Twin Otter plane. The 45 minute LoganAir flight from Glasgow to the Outer Hebrides was delivering him to where his heart and mind lay. A week in the city, upgrading his ratings as a first mate on the Calmac inter-island ferries, had been tolerated with a grimace. He was a born and bred Barra man, the ancestral home of Clan MacNeil. They lived on the threshold, where rocks and currents in the Minch showed little mercy. The Isle of Barra has the only regularly scheduled flights in the world which land on a beach. As they approached the tidal flat, he could make out their beaten maroon Volvo in the carpark. He wondered if she’d remembered to order in a new load of peat for the hearth. They had a small, comfortable croft house on the tiny Isle of Vatersay, linked to Barra by causeway. He couldn’t wait to hug his Katie after the week in Glasgow. Finlay MacNeil watched as the wheels embraced the wet sand and a spray of sea water enveloped the small plane. They taxied towards the terminal at the end of the beach and LoganAir flight LM451 shut down its engines.
Almost skipping across the sand, he reached Katie and swept her tiny figure up in strong, sinewy arms. He squeezed her lovingly and planted a loud accentuated smack on her lips.
“Did ya miss me, Finny?” she implored, eyes twinkling, giggling like a kid.
“Aye, course I did, Katie my love. You’ll always be mae wee little woman. What yer been doin’ while I’ve been away?”
“Oh this and that Finny.” She giggled. “Watched the northern lights dancing last night. Ordered a load of peat. Tossed another bottled affirmation into the sea.”
“Och, and how many’s that now?” he laughed.
“Maybe fifteen, Finny. About one a year. But they all heal.”
“Aye good fer ya, lassie. Still can’t believe my luck to hae such a gentle wee Aussie stumble into the remoteness of my life. Nigh on 13 years ago now, Katie.”