15th October


The old man was clear: no service, no ceremony, no eulogy. As for his ashes – ‘Let the crematorium dispose of them. That’s what it’s for.’

We remonstrated but he would not relent. ‘If you want to talk about what a pain in the neck I was over a few drinks, there’s money in that jar on the mantelpiece. That’s as much fuss as I want.’

‘You’re not a pain in the neck,’ we said.

‘Don’t be so sure,’ he said. ‘I haven’t told you what to do with the stone yet.’

‘What stone?’

‘The one sitting on the ledge beside the bath,’ he said, ‘next to the soap. Fetch it through.’

Two of us helped him sit up a bit and the third went for the stone. It was beautiful, cream-coloured, smooth but not glossy, perfectly oval, dense and weighty. When you held it, its solidity felt reassuring.

‘It comes from a place called Rackwick, on the island of Hoy, in Orkney,’ the old man said. ‘A long way away. I don’t want to be scattered anywhere, but I’d like that stone returned to its place. The bay is a sweeping curve covered with thousands of stones like that one. It should never have been removed.’

‘If there are thousands still there –’ one of us began, but he held up an admonishing finger.

‘That’s irrelevant. I went there once, fifty years ago, and I took that stone. I should not have done so. I took it out of selfishness because I wanted a physical memento of the place. I always meant to take it back and now it’s too late. But somebody else can go.’

We passed the stone among us. As we did so, aeons stretched before and after the moment of our being together in that room. Its perfect texture and shape were the result of uncountable rollings and rubbings and polishings with other stones, of the washing cycles of innumerable tides.

The old man could no longer hold it, but he let his fingers trail across its surface.

‘Take it,’ he said. ‘I forbid you to take me!’ he added, suddenly anxious. ‘I am immaterial. But the stone must go back!’

Reader: Cathy Macdonald
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
Subscribe here for more stories & music