Chapter 1

​​February in North Berwick was miserable. Cold, grey, and dark, with only a few hours of real daylight. Skies were overcast most days and it often rained, the wind converting the minuscule rain drops into ice pellets that left painful, relatively larger welts on any exposed face that suffers the misfortune of heading directly into it. If the wind were fortunate to blow in from the south, the Law would protect the town.

The Law would protect you.

If the wind were to come from any other direction—in particular, if it came in from the icy-cold north—then God help you.

North Berwick was a ghost town in February. No tourist ever ventured out here at this time of year. The West Links and Burgh courses were closed for the season, as was any souvenir shop, the owners having the sense to do their golfing and vacationing in warmer climes. The town's wealthiest residents, who also owned property in more civilized environments such as Spain and southern Portugal, were long gone and would be absent until late April or early May.

There was no reason to suffer the East-Lothian winter.

I would never understand why my parents had decided to leave this Scottish hell and move to Canada’s capital, with its sub-Arctic, February chill and deep snow. But now, walking the streets of my home town, I understood why: Ottawa’s wintery chill in February is blatant. It cautioned you to bundle up, and you were foolish if you ignored the warning. North Berwick, with its lack of snow, did not come with such warnings. There was no snow. There were no parkas, no toques. Just the wind, just the ice that settled on the walls of the houses that backed onto the Firth of Forth to remind you it was winter.

I was ridiculously underdressed in my spring jacket, which was warm enough for early April in Ottawa but not even slightly suitable for the weather here. There had been no climbing the Law for me today; there would possibly be no climbing it on this visit. Walking up Berwick Law had been my morning ritual for years, but I only ascended it when the weather was agreeable. There was no point in risking life and limb, in slipping on a trail that took no more than twenty minutes to walk, when the only reward at the summit was a razor-sharp wind, icy projectiles, and possibly no view of the town, Bass Rock, or the North Sea because of low cloud cover or fog.

Such was February in North Berwick.

I was home. It was my first time back to my home town—my second home, really—since before the accident. The last time I was here was in May, 1995, just six weeks before the crash, before everything turned upside-down. Three months short of three years. Not much had changed; nothing, save the weather.

I walked eastward, along High Street, where the low buildings kept me somewhat sheltered from the wind. I kept close to the shops on the northern side of the narrow, one-way street. Walking toward St. Andrews Blackadder church, I would easily skirt up Balderstones Wynd, before turning eastward again, toward The Auld Hoose.

The town's oldest pub, forever associated with Dad, was where I enjoyed my first legal pint. I was eighteen, having attained the legal drinking age for this East Lothian parish. I was still under-aged for Ottawa, would have to wait for next year. Dad might have suspected that my friends and I were already crossing the border to Hull, Québec, to Shalimar and Le Crystal, but he wasn’t spoiling the illusion that he was introducing me to the pub culture. And in a way, he was; he was introducing me to the Scottish pub culture, to his favourite drinking spot in his home town. Dad cherished that moment: his son, coming of age, as it were. As I remembered, it was in the month of May, in 1983. May in North Berwick would always be marked by milestones for me: my first time drinking in a bona fide pub, my last time in visiting with Kristen and Laura. May was a lovely time here; February, however, was not.

Dad’s usual seat was vacant. It was the chair that was closest to the side entrance, where he could come and go without much ado, without notice. I also entered by the side door, my closest escape from the outdoor chill. The place itself was all but empty, with just a young woman, who I didn’t recognize, positioned behind the bar.

Where was Lyle? Back in my dad’s days, a woman landlord was unheard of, would not be tolerated, unless she was offering more than a pour of a drink. Lyle MacLeod had run The Auld Hoose since I was a child, since Lyle himself was a young man, perhaps only in his early to mid twenties. A large man with a large barrelled chest and solid frame, a deep voice of authority that commanded you to behave yourself in his establishment. Even the older men, like my father, wouldn’t mess with Lyle. The Auld Hoose was the oldest pub in town, the current building having stood since 1898, a hundred years, but the pub had burned down before then, existing since who knew when. Passed through time, through many hands, but it was Lyle who I knew. Over the years, "visiting home,” as Mum put it, I would always make a call here, would always occupy Dad’s stool when he wasn’t here. Lyle would see me walk in: his nickname for me was Wee Axam. I walked through the Forth Street entrance expecting to hear “well, if it isn’t Wee Axam.” Today, the shout of recognition didn’t come, the call of a familiar voice was absent. The young woman, only moments before who was reading today’s Scotsman, looked up to the stranger that I was, saw an unknown person. But with the new face entering her pub, a welcoming smile appeared with a “hello, welcome.” She was very pretty, with long, reddish-brown hair tied into a ponytail. A cheerful smile and twinkling eyes.

For me, a slight hesitation: where to sit? The last time I was here, I had taken a seat at the stool next to my dad’s usual spot—leaving his space open, should he walk in, however unlikely—with he being in Ottawa when I last found myself at The Auld Hoose. But now he was gone for good. Would an Axam ever fill his seat again? The regulars knew this spot was Iain’s, and if Wee Axam wanted to fill those big shoes, no one would object. Certainly not the young lady behind the bar.

​“Where’s Lyle?” I asked, fearing he had retired—or worse, that he had joined the ranks of my dad, Kristen, and Laura Elizabeth. Things were changing in North Berwick, had changed tremendously since I was a student at the high school, but Lyle was an institution in of himself. Loosing him would be like losing the heart of this town.

“Ehm, he’s away today, gone to the city.”

The city: Edinburgh.

“He’ll be in this evening,” she explained. It was still early, though dark. These short winter days. “Does he know you?”

“Yes, though it’s been a few years. He knew my dad better. The name’s Axam; I’m Roland.”

Eyes looking upwards, head tilted to the side. “Wee Axam?”

Surprised. Face warming, reddening. “That’s what Lyle called me. You can call me Roland, if you please. But you have me at a disadvantage: you are?”

“Ehm, I’m Katie. Lyle’s daughter.”

“You can’t be Katie, you’re too grown up.”

“I’m twenty-two.”

“Well then, Katie, you’re all grown up, and into a real beauty.” I remembered her, but only in vague snapshots of a murky memory: a wee lass, coming into the pub to bring her dad a message from home, or in her early teens, sitting at a corner table, completing her homework, her dad enforcing her studies and warning the younger patrons to keep away from her. She was cute then, a real looker now.

Time for her face to redden. “Thank you. Can I get you anything?”

“A pint of Best, thanks.” Lyle would have remembered: Katie could be forgiven.

“Thank you.”

The place hadn’t changed. The pub was L-shaped, a larger sitting hall with lots of tables to the left as you entered the the main doors of the bar, a games room bending off from it and towards the washrooms. A few sofas, some tables. Something new from my father’s days: electronic poker games, ready to take your cash. Most of the older locals, my dad included, preferred the bar area, with the six display barrels above the whisky and spiced rum bottles. The fireplace, now filled with electric bar heaters. The painting of Bass Rock hanging above the archway to the other side of the pub.

I took Dad’s seat, the brown covering replaced since he had last occupied it. Fitting that I could now take it. “While you’re at it, Katie, can I also have a Laphroaig?”

“Of course, thank you. Did you want some water with?”

“No, neat, if you please.”

“Thank you.”

I felt out of place. Though my surroundings were familiar, it was as though my memories were a dream. The last time I was here, I knew who I was. Iain Axam’s son, grown up, successful, married, with child, happy, healthy. Today, I was a shadow of the man I was when last I graced this establishment. I had lost so much weight, a weight measured differently in the three places in which I now called home, however loosely I used the term. Here, my home town, I barely weighed ten stone; in Canada, where I made my home, less than one hundred and fourty pounds; in Korea, my home-away-from home, shy of sixty-three kilograms. Mum dutifully accused me of not eating enough in Chŏnju, when in truth I was not eating as much processed food and a lot less meat. Mostly rice and veggies. Yes, I was thinner, carrying less fat, but I felt healthy. Grown and healthy. Now taking Iain Axam’s place at The Auld Hoose. But it was questionable whether I was successful; no longer married, no longer with child. Rediscovered love, and then lost that love.

“That’ll be three pounds eighty, please. Thank you.” I reached into my pocket and handed Katie a five-pound note. As Korea had conditioned me, I handed the note to her with my right hand, supported by my left hand. A slight bow, but I caught myself before I made a full one. “Thank you,” she said, looking at me queerly, not knowing what to think of the gesture. She had no idea where I had been, what I had experienced, what I had endured. Not in Korea, certainly, not in Canada. Or did she know? Had word spread to North Berwick, where everybody knew everyone and everyone knew everybody’s business. Of course Lyle would have heard about the accident, about the loss in the Axam family. My mother had been back several times over the years. Last July, to mark the second anniversary of the loss, Mum and Siobhan came to North Berwick, had climbed Berwick Law with a small container of Dad’s ashes, had waited until they were alone at the summit, when they removed the lid from the container and let the wind carry the remains over the town, out to the Firth of Forth, over Craigleith. Dad’s favourite place on Earth, flying above it all. Siobhan and Mum were moved and comforted by the memorial and planned to return on the date each year, carrying more of Dad’s remains until it was all gone. I wanted to be there, someday. I had missed it last year, instead climbing to the summit of Namgo-san, a small hill to the south of Chŏnju, where I remembered my family in my own, solitary way. I was teaching and couldn’t be with my family, wasn’t ready yet. And this year, I was planning to be back in Korea. I would make an effort to remember the day there. Next year, I promised, I'd join Mum and Siobhan.

Next year: it seemed so far away.

“That’s your Laphroaig,” said Katie, placing the tumbler in front of me, “and your Belhaven Best. Thank you.” The pint was still settling in the glass, the creamy foam cascading towards the base.

“Cheers,” I said, and raised my whisky to her.

The front door opened and a frosty breeze was ushered in. The rain continued to fall and I could hear the frozen droplets tapping on the windows. Freezing rain that would quickly melt, not like it was in Ottawa. An ice storm had come through from Southern Ontario into Eastern Ontario, and onwards to Montreal. Hydro-electric towers crumpled under the weight of the clinging ice, looking like crushed bugs from the aerial photographs. Trees were down, damaging houses and cars. Most of Ottawa was without power. Mum had pulled out an old camping stove, a Coleman burner, and cooked meals on the front veranda of her house—until it got too cool to sleep comfortably and she flew to Edinburgh to be with Siobhan and Bryan. Without telling me.

Of course, there was no need to let me know. I was in Korea, or so Mum thought. When I heard about the ice storm, I made the decision to go back to Canada, to spend the month between contracts with my mother. But it was to be a surprise, and so I kept silent. By the time I was back in Canada, the storm had passed but the damage was apparent: bent or broken trees along the airport parkway and in my neighbourhood. Entire maple sugar bushes were gone. The power was back on in Ottawa—still out in Montreal—but Mum had already left. I had spent a week at my house, touching base with friends and colleagues, before making the flight out to Scotland. A day in New Town and now out to my other home, and in such lousy weather.

From the front door entered an elderly woman who I immediately recognized as Mrs. Macrae, my old primary school teacher who was long retired but who now cleaned houses, including mine. She acknowledged Katie but took no notice of me and sat at a table near the fire place. Without a word, Katie picked up a fresh pint glass and began pouring a Deuchars IPA. “Let me get that,” I said to Katie, producing a two-pound coin and laying it on the counter.

“That’s one pound eighty, please, thank you.”

“Eh, what’s that?” said Mrs. Macrae, not having realized that she wasn't alone in The Auld Hoose.

“Allow an old pupil to buy his favourite teacher a round,” I said. Mrs. Macrae looked at me for the first time and gave a sheepish grin.

“You were always my favourite pupil, Mr. Axam,” she said in a flat tone that told me she said this to any of her students that she encountered. “I trust you found your house in order?”

“As always, Mrs. Macrae, as always. Thank you for keeping it so spic and span.” Mrs. Macrae checked on the house every fortnight Thursday, when she would dust it and water the few plants that managed to survive. When she knew I was coming home, she’d always pop by in the morning of and make sure that there was a fresh copy of The Scotsman on the entrance table and a fresh bottle of milk in the fridge. Worth her weight in gold, she was.

Of course the town would know about the Axam family loss. There was Mrs. Macrae. She was one of North Berwick’s most-prominent gossip gals.

The bar was slowly starting to come alive with the regulars who didn’t leave town at this time of year—with those who kept the town going, who weren’t dependent on the tourists for their livelihood. Hugh MacAdam, who ran the Boots on High Street; Alison Hunter, a librarian; Ewan Burns, fisherman; Billy Gentleman, my old schoolmate, who now drove the ScotRail train between Edinburgh and North Berwick. We had lost touch when I moved to Canada, some eighteen years ago, and we now had little in common. But we always had kind words for each other whenever our paths crossed, which was usually in the pub.

"You chose a strange time of year to take a vacay," said Billy.

"Not a vacation," I corrected, "between contracts." Billy had no idea what I was up to, didn't know I had spent the better part of last year teaching English in South Korea. There was no point in getting into it now. It was a conversation that would beg many questions, call for too many answers. Korea was too far removed from this small, seaside town. I wouldn't be surprised if Billy couldn't put Korea on a map. Before I researched it, I'm not sure that I could have, either.

It had been a tough year in Korea. An economic crisis in the Asia-Pacific rim made it difficult for so many. Businesses failed, including the language institute where I had worked. The Korean currency, the won, had crumbled. There was so much instability. It was not something I wanted to discuss. It was not something that I thought Billy would understand, living so far away in a culture with which he was unfamiliar.

Mercifully, I didn't have to delve into a conversation. Billy's girlfriend sauntered into the pub and took his attention, leaving me to my pint and tumbler.

Discomfort averted. For now.