Chapter 2

Katie Axam was a strong woman, no matter what your eyes led you to believe. Not large, not brawny. To see her was to be utterly deceived of her nature, her might, her determination, and her will. A petite woman in stature and in frame; a mighty woman in substance.

It was only when you paused and took a good look at her, when you gazed into Katie's ice-blue eyes, which she never turned away once she locked on to your eyes, would you know not to mess with this island woman.

Born of a hardy stock, Katie was a woman who found solutions to any problem, who never let an obstacle hinder her, who persevered until she attained success or until every avenue was travelled. She looked beyond any situation to find a way forward, to find a solution that was outside one that was generally understood and accepted. Where a situation seemed hopeless, Katie found hope.

And, where she came from, there were many obstacles to success. Many who came from her birthplace seldom left, rarely moved beyond its borders.

Born Katherine Mackenzie MacInnes, of Laphroaig, Islay—pronounced eye-lah—a small community of only a few hundred residents, Katie was determined to achieve more, was determined to move beyond the lands of her family. Her father, Angus MacInnes, a master distiller from the whisky distillery of the same name and sworn ancestor of Oengus of the clan Aonghais, the founding son of Islay, always wanted more for his only daughter, who showed so much promise. Angus didn't make much money at the distillery, but from what he earned he set a bit aside for his Wee Katie. He wanted more for her, and though his love for his island would keep him there, he wanted his daughter to get off the island, to settle on the mainland, wherer there were more opportunities.

Katie's mother, Flòraidh Senga MacDonald, was also strong in spirit. Her ancestors could be traced back for centuries to the famous and infamous MacDonalds of the island. Yet she was not as hearty as the land that formed her was, and died shorty after bringing Katie into the world. Which made Wee Katie all the more precious to her dad.

Katie saw that her father wanted the most for her, wanted to give his only family all that he couldn't give to his departed wife and kids that would never come to be, and she did what she could to fulfill his desires. It wasn't difficult, for even she saw little future for herself in this remote village on this harsh and barren rock of the southern, Inner Hebrides.

For her part, she did well in school, dreamed of being a doctor. Her will to succeed took her far: all the way to the University of Edinburgh, where she earned her MBChB. For her father, the capital city might very well have been the other side of the planet: having never left Islay before he helped his daughter move to the big city, Angus was a wary traveller, trusted no one, feared for Katie's well being, out of his caring and watchful eye. He trusted Katie's judgement: he just didn't trust strangers.

In her final year, with studies out of the way and her career before her, Katie let the strangers come. It was at a post-graduation celebration in a Grassmarket pub that she met a feisty telcom engineer named Iain Robert Axam, known by his peers as The I.R.A.: a terror to behold and a lad who was capable of mayhem. At first, it seemed like a meeting of opposites. A quiet, petite west islander from a whisky community was she; a boisterous, larger-than-life east-coaster from a community loyal to its local brewery was he. But when Iain and Katie met, it was love at first sight. A love that could never be broken.

Upon graduation, in 1960, Iain and Katie married and moved to Iain's home town of North Berwick, in East Lothian, east of Edinburgh. Iain, successful in his vocation, found a job with British Telecom, in Edinburgh, and took the ScotRail line into Waverley Station every day. Katie was hired at Edington Cottage Hospital, a short walk from their newly built home on the corner of Westgate and Abbey Roads. Katie quickly found an adoration—not just of her life with Iain and the career for which she studied so hard, and her father scrimped and saved to give her the means to realize, but for her new home in the small seaside resort town.

With their careers secured, thoughts turned to raising children and, five years after settling in North Berwick, a son—Angus Roland, named after both of his grandfathers—arrived. Nearly three years later, a daughter—Siobhan Flora, named after both of her grandmothers. Their house was large but would easily house a family of four. By the early seventies, it would also house her private office, where neighbours preferred the warmth of intimate consultation to the antiseptic coldness of the town's hospital.

In the late spring of 1980, Iain was offered a lucrative position as a partner for an engineering firm in Ottawa, Canada. It was a giant step. Both he and his wife would be leaving their country for the first time. It would mean starting over. Katie decided that she would open her own private practice, and the transition for them was effortless, marked only by her minimal name variance, to Kate. The move for their children was a little harder, as they had to adjust to the different education system. Their youngest, Siobhan, had the easiest transition. She would be entering into middle school, where she would be joining a hoard of fellow students who would be just as lost as she. Roland, on the other hand, was entering into the second year of high school. Friendships would already have been formed. The soft-spoken but witty and mischievous lad would have to do some catching up. But Kate wasn't overly concerned. Her children had the same charisma as their father.

They'd do well.

Kate kept her Ottawa practice away from their Sandy Hill home, preferring to stay close to the Ottawa Civic Hospital, where she had courtesy privileges, could visit any patient who found himself or herself in a bed. Her office, on the second floor of a yellow-bricked building that housed a pharmacy, looked south, across Carling Avenue, toward the Experimental Farm. Looking out of her office window and slightly up, on the corner of the building, she could always see the brightly coloured letters of the pharmacy, C-I-V-I-C.

As much as Kate tried, she could not get her dad to come to Canada, to check out her life first-hand. It had been tougher than pulling teeth to get him to return to Edinburgh to give her away at her wedding, had been easy to get him to come the two times to North Berwick to see the birth of his grandchildren (North Berwick, he said, was as big a town as he wanted to navigate). Angus was content to speak to her on the telephone, to read the letters and receive the photographs of his kin. But if they were to be reunited, Kate had to make the journey back to Laphroaig, which she did every summer, at the most-seasonable time of year. Iain would not always join her, but Roland and Siobhan did. The kids came to know the small village as well as North Berwick, better than the whole of Ottawa.

It wasn't hard: the village was smaller than their Ottawa neighbourhood. Apart from the distillery and a couple of farms, there was nothing but rugged, rolling fields of peat.

Hers was a storybook life, Katie's was. It wasn't perfect, but it was nearly so.

Until the accident brought it all down.

***


No one was happier this week than my mum. She was back in Scotland with her two kids. She didn’t expect for me to be here—I even told her, after the crisis with Kwon but before Tanya left, that I wouldn’t be returning to either Canada or to Scotland for the holidays. I was expecting to surprise her in Ottawa, where I had gone directly from Seoul. Because I knew she had already spent the Christmas holidays with Siobhan and Bryan, in Edinburgh, I expected her to be in her Sandy Hill home. Little did I realize the damage inflicted by the ice storm that struck Eastern Ontario and extended all the way to Montreal. After a few days without power, Mum had decided to seek refuge in Edinburgh. Though the storm had blown over before I touched down at the Macdonald-Cartier International Airport, evidence of its presence was apparent in the aftermath of broken trees throughout the city. The red maple on my front lawn was missing some of its larger, older branches, luckily missing my house. My mother’s tree, having been planted much longer and had grown to a ripe-old age, hadn’t fared as well. Most of the main structure had given way under the thick coating of ice and had fallen onto the street, taking three cars with it. When I arrived at the Blackburn Avenue home to surprise my mother, city crews were carving up the remainder of the old tree. It was then that I learned that Mum was not at home, but in Edinburgh.


I spent a couple of days in Ryan Farm, my Nepean neighbourhood, filing taxes, purchasing supplies for my second year in Korea, and contacting the few friends I had left in the city. Many of them had been neglected after the funeral, and I was hoping to touch base before I was written off altogether. I purchased a round-trip ticket to Edinburgh, fully intending to return to Ottawa to collect my supplies, which would not be coming with me to Scotland, before continuing on the second leg of the round-trip ticket I had bought in Seoul.

The surprise I had for my family had been too unexpected. I hadn’t even told Bryan (there was no telling Siobhan, who couldn’t keep a secret to save her life). Once in Edinburgh, I took the shuttle bus to Waverley Station and then walked the ten minutes to Northumberland Street, on the north side of Queen Street Gardens, in New Town. Siobhan answered the door and took a second to register me, standing in front of her.


“Can I come in?” I asked. “It’s cold, dark, and I’m wet from this rain.”

Siobhan shrieked, sounding more like she was being robbed at gunpoint than she was being greeting by her absent brother. Bryan came quickly to the door, followed by Mum. It took even longer for her to recognize the man that Siobhan was embracing. She could only see part of my face and my arms, wrapped around Siobhan. When she recognized me, her hands went trembling to her mouth, the tears flowed freely. And then she lost her balance. I panicked, fearing she would hit the hardwood floor, but Bryan had lightning reflexes, put his powerful arm around Mum’s shoulder and helped steady her, helped guide her to her son, where I received another warm embrace.


We retired to the kitchen for tea, to help steady Mum’s nerves. She was speechless, could only look at me, stroke my cheek, and whisper “My Roland,” over and over again.


I was home.

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