By Tim Porteus

THE snow was crunchy underfoot and the morning sun shone streaks of golden sunshine across the East Lothian landscape. It had been a hard winter but now there were signs that spring was finally winning the battle.

The man arrived at the doorstep and hesitated. He wasn’t sure whether to knock or walk in. He decided to knock. There was the sound of children inside calling out. Then the door opened and a wee girl peered out.

“Wha is it?” called out a young woman from inside.

The wee girl studied the stranger: “Dinnae ken.”

The young woman came to the door.

“Oor faither is awa the noo,” she said.

The man smiled. “You’re Margaret,” he said.

She was taken aback. She didn’t recognise the man, how did he know who she was? Everybody knew everybody in this corner of East Lothian and so he must be from elsewhere, she thought.

Then she froze with anxiety. Was he a debt collector, come to demand money. The last few winters had been hard and their father had been unable to pay all their creditors. This was why he was away, working.

“Aye I am,” she said, hesitatingly.

The man smiled: “I dinnae ken these bairns.” He looked at the wee girl and her smaller wee brother.

“Wha are ye?” Margaret asked, cradling her younger siblings in a protective arm embrace.

“Oh aye, sorry, o’ course. Ye’ll no recognise me but I’m yer uncle, ye remember me noo?”

Margaret’s eyebrows curled up as she studied the man’s face. He was well dressed and had a tanned complexion. It couldn’t be, she thought, but then as she studied his features she recognised him.

“William, Uncle William?”

“Aye, lass, and may I noo come in fir I’m richt hungry.”

“Aye, aye, o’ course,” and she let him in.

“Weel this place husnae changed much,” he said as he studied the interior. “But there’s something different, it feels different, I cannae think exactly whit it is.”

He looked at his niece with concern on his face. “Where’s Helen, yer ma?” he asked.

Margaret’s face clouded over and William immediately understood. No words were needed as she glanced down at the wee boy. Helen had died giving birth to him.

William felt a wave of sadness sweep over him. He knew how much his brother had loved Helen. She had been a wonderful woman. He felt the need to sit down and absorb the news. That is what was different. There was a sadness hanging in the atmosphere.

“When is ye faither due tae return?” asked William.

“Today, he has been tae Dunbar, but should be hame soon.”

Margaret did her best to provide her uncle with some food and he asked if he may lie down for a while as he was tired and sleep deprived from his travels. And so when her father arrived, William was sound asleep in the back of the small house.

“I’ll wake him,” said Margaret.

“Naw hen, just let him sleep, he’ll need it. There will be time a plenty tae talk when he wakes himsel.”

When the sun set and darkness descended in the cottage, William eventually rose from his deep slumber. It took him a few moments to recall where he was and when he turned he saw his older brother standing by him.

“Welcome hame, William,” said his brother.

“George! Yer an auld man afore yer time,” said William as he rose from his bed to give his brother a hug.

“Aye weel, life deals us a’ wi different cairds,” George replied. “Come hae some supper.”

And so they sat at the small table, in flickering light, and ate and talked. There was much to catch up on. When they spoke of Helen they did so at first in whispered tones. It was still too raw for George to remarry, as tradition would have dictated. Poor Margaret was bearing the brunt of her mother’s old responsibilities while just 16 years old.

The family were in debt and George had been in Dunbar to arrange more work. Times had been hard but it was the tragedy of Helen’s death which had been the biggest loss. The smile had gone out of their lives with her departure and had not yet returned.

But the evening wore on and the conversation got lighter as William began to recount tales of his adventures in far-off lands. He had seen camels in the desert, the ancient ruins of Greece and he recounted how he had escaped from pirates. He transfixed the children with his stories.

George watched as his younger brother told his stories. Their mother had been a storyteller and they had both sat by this very fireside and listened to her with the same mesmerised look that his children now had. For the first time in a while. George now told some stories as well.

“Aye,” said William with a warm smile, “I loved thae stories, especially the faerie yin.”

Then William began to tell a story about Helen. George almost stopped him but it was the younger children’s reaction which stopped him. His son never knew his mother and now at the age of four he was being introduced to her. It had been a taboo subject until this moment but it was as if something was thawing.

Soon laughter was heard as different memories were shared – and tears. There was a tune Helen always used to hum while working. Margaret remembered it. It was infectious and soon they were all humming in her memory. The tune had originally come from William and George’s mother, whom Helen had loved also.

That night the two brothers sat up talking while the children slept, the wee boy hugging the embroidered cover his mother had made and whom he now had an image of.

“I dinnae ken whit was true o’ yer tales o’ travel, if any o’ it wis,” said George.

William smiled. “Weel mebbe nane o’ it, or mebbe a’ o it,” he said, giving nothing away.

“But thank you,” said George, “the bairns needed that, especially Margaret, fir she has borne the brunt o the grief, poor lass.”

There was a silence as William scanned the house: “Ye’ve fa’en oan haird times, brither.”

“I failed masel and ma bairns aifter Helen’s. . .” he still couldn’t bring himself to say the word. “Faither’s siller is a’ gone and we hae creditors prowling like wolves, I hae fear I’ll end in the debtors prison.”

William nodded sympathetically: “I’m afraid I huvnae come hame wi ony riches, brither, otherwise I wud gie ye them. But let’s gang fir a walk in the morning tae Stenton Well.”

“Stenton Well, fir whit reason?” asked George.

“It’s where I said goodbye tae the county afore ma travels, sae I’d like tae mark ma return.”

And so the next day the two brothers walked together to the well. Stenton village was a busy place with a weekly market and many tradesmen doing business, and the ancient well stood on the edge of this bustling community.

The two brothers stood by the ancient structure. It is called The Well of the Holy Rood, and local tradition says the beautiful conical stone finial on its roof dates back to the 13th century and was originally a part of the old kirk nearby.

William studied the flower-shaped finial on the summit of the well as if he was searching for something. He was acting awkwardly, even suspiciously, as people passed by, and George began to wonder what he was up to.

Then William saw an opportunity. There was nobody to witness as he scrambled onto the well and grabbed hold of the finial at the top and pulled himself up.

“William, whit are ye daein?” George cried out in horror.

William’s face lit up.

“I can hairdly believe it! Thanks be tae the Lord,” he said, and he started picking something from the stonework. Then he slid down to his baffled brother.

William unfurled his fingers, revealing three silver coins in the palm of his hand.

“I left these afore I gaed awa; fir guid luck. I vowed I’d return tae collect them. And noo I am returned and they are still here!”

William handed the coins to his brother.

No words were said, none were needed. The clasp of the hands was both thanks and acknowledgement. The money had been part of the inheritance from their father, given to William before he left by George. Now William had returned the money to his older brother, who needed it more.

The gift of one brother giving to another was the inheritance of their mother’s upbringing of her sons.