Mixed Blessings, an excerpt

Anyway, back to that fateful day. It had not had a promising start. The three of them were in the kitchen at Applecross. Unusually, Caroline was there too, although she spent most of her time at Hither House once Uncle Samuel married Lizzy. But, on this particular day, Caroline had been there too. They would have been, perhaps, fourteen. The death of Mrs Nicol had, to some extent, been the end of their formal school days. Mrs Pender taught them foreign words in her front room while tending to baby Bea. Reverend Nicol had taken their studies outdoors, to sit under a tree listening to him reading out loud. Now, that had been a pleasure, though she lacked the concentration to take in all the words. There were so many distractions outside. The birds, an occasional butterfly, small crawling insects, not to mention the buzzing of bees.

Her own mother had assumed the role of teacher of all things domestic. How to place fresh sheets on a bed, how to clean a room, how to plan a menu. On this particular day they were making sponge cakes for tea. It was not going well. They took it in turns to measure butter and flour and precious sugar on the scales, using the eggs as balancing weights, a skill apparently passed on by the grandmother she had never known. Inevitably, Heather lagged behind while she considered what her grandmother would have been like, who on earth had first thought to crack an egg to make a cake and how sugar was formed into the powdery cake that was stored in an airtight container in the pantry. Nevertheless, all three cakes entered the oven looking more or less identical. 

However, they certainly didn’t come out the same way! Two perfect yellow sponges emerged, to be placed on the rack to cool. Heather’s effort had not risen at all. It was more biscuit than sponge. 

“Oh, Heather,” said her mother, “Why can’t you ever listen to instructions?”

“Feed it to the pigs, mother,” Heather had replied before dumping her apron on the table and stalking out of the room, slamming the door behind her. There was one place the Mackenzies sought out if they were in need of a moment to themselves, and that was where James Shepherd found his granddaughter a while later. Sitting on the flat stone next to Friday’s grave, sobbing her heart out.

James Shepherd had the sense not to say anything at first, just shuffling his granddaughter along to allow room for him to sit too. The silence was not uncomfortable and slowly the sobs began to ease.

“It’s just not fair, Grandpapa,” moaned Heather.

“I know, my dear, I know,” he replied, patting her knee gently.

There was a pause while Heather formed a question in her head. “Why can’t I concentrate on things?” she asked eventually.

Instead of answering the question, James Shepherd asked one of his own. “Tell me, Heather, what is your favourite word?”

Heather thought about that for a while. Beginning at the beginning, she ran the idea round her brain. Armadillo, Bombastic, Conquistador. Lovely words, but not her favourite. Desdemona, Elephant, Fumigation, no none of those. James didn’t rush her. He knew she would be considering all options. Gelatine, Hispaniola, Influenza…..

At last, putting a single finger to her cheek, she said, “I think I know what it is, Gamps.” She used her own special term of endearment for her grandfather. “I think it may be the word ‘Why?’”

James smiled, as if he had known the answer beforehand. He probably did. “Ah, now, I rather thought that’s where you would end up,” he said. “That’s the sign of an inquisitive mind.”

“I do like to know about things,” she replied. “I want to know where they come from, why they are what they are, and how we have come to see them like that.”

“Bravo, I couldn’t have put it better myself, dearest girl,” said James, clapping her on the back so hard she almost fell off the slippery stone. “The problem is, there are side effects of a mind like yours. It is a blessing, but a mixed one, especially in a woman.”

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