As soon as it was safe to return, the people of Unst marched back into their town. Excited and defiant, they dared the lava to come spilling down from the mountain top again and send them scurrying back to the mainland.
The people of Unst were proud of their town with its humble red and white buildings nestled at the base of the fierce Mountain. They knew who they were within its confines; resilient, no nonsense people content with the simple life they had maintained for generations. They also knew too much about each other to be anything but proud. A lesser sentiment would have torn the small, isolated community apart.
The history of Unst was central it its existence. The heroes and traitors of its past, the twists and turns of its evolution provided a map for the souls of its people. The detailed folklore of Unst had been written down with great care and added to by each generation. It was taught in the school and recounted in the street. Every family knew the names of the builders responsible for their home’s construction. Every business knew the reason for its origin. It was not unusual for an illustrated history of a building to be displayed at the entrance on a large wooden board and for the characters from its past to be revered as the guardians of the present day inhabitants.
Within days of returning to their homes, the people of Unst had restored the familiar rhythms of town life. The fishing boats set off from the dock each morning and reappeared with full hauls at twilight. The school bell rang out a daily tempo for the women and children, and the hotel radiated light and music every evening except Mondays. The familiar cycles of life completed the people of Unst.
Everyone was happy to be back in the town except Margaret. She took an extra week to return from the mainland and when she did reappear, was sullen and refused to reopen the Store, causing great anxiety throughout the town.
The Convenience Store was central to local life. It stocked the things people never thought they needed until they did; needles and ear-buds, twine and tape. It’s warm, cluttered interior provided a safe place to meet and share the secrets that could not be divulged in the hotel or on the street.
The Store’s absence from daily life hurt the people of Unst, unsettling their social rhythms and diminishing their sense of self. And yet, some whispered, Margaret’s behaviour wasn’t altogether surprising. The Store had a troubling history of distinguishing itself from the rest of the town and its ongoing closure was surely just another manifestation of a bigger problem.
The Convenience Store was one of the oldest buildings in Unst yet the records were silent on its origin. There were only rumours. Some said it had been built to house the barrels of fish that kept the earliest settlers alive but others whispered that it had been the town’s first morgue, hastily constructed after the unmentionable events of 1822. Whatever the truth, no names were ever attributed to the building’s creation and the only features Margaret’s family had ever displayed at the Store’s entrance were the wooden barrels stuffed with weekly specials and fishing nets.
Then, one morning without any warning, the Store’s lights suddenly came back on. This was particularly good news for the fishing fleet which had been caught in a storm the previous day, leaving many of its nets in tatters. And if truth be told, there had been a far greater need for earbuds amongst the people of Unst than anyone could have imagined. So the Store’s reopening was greeted with a great sense of relief and Margaret was quietly forgiven for her retreat from town life.
And so it was that everything appeared to return to normal. The fishing boats set off each morning, the school bell rang out through the day and the lights of the Unst Convenience Store went on and off in time with the rhythms of the town.
But something had changed.
The barrels of specials still appeared at the entrance of the Store each morning and the fishing nets and hooks hung in their usual place. But the warmth and familiar smells of the Store were gone and Margaret, who had always been such a welcoming presence, now refused to come out from the back, replaced by a sign instructing customers to leave their money on the counter.
A town meeting was called. Something had to be done. Perhaps Margaret needed an assistant. Her life had surely become lonely since Ewan had died and it was well known that arthritis was slowly crippling her hands. Or perhaps the time had finally come to address the Store’s unacknowledged past. After all, a building in Unst without a history was like a body without a soul. Even if its origins lay in tragedy, this needed to be acknowledged and the building’s guardians restored to the town. That was the way of the people of Unst. Their heritage was their strength and Margaret and the Store had shut themselves off from the past for too long.
And so it was decided. Margaret would be appointed to head a Special Committee of History and an illustrated board would be made for the Convenience Store’s entrance. The meeting adjourned in high spirit and a small group, fuelled with excitement and beer, headed out into the night towards the lights of the Store, keen to tell Margaret the good news. But within a blink, the Store’s lights went out and when the delegation arrived at its door, they found it locked. Undeterred, they carried on to Margaret’s home a few minutes further down the path – she could only just have left the building and they would surely catch her along the way.
But when they arrived at Margaret’s house they found it was also dark and silent. Their knocks and calls went unanswered and Margaret’s notoriously pesky cat, Mercury, was nowhere to be seen. A tentative step inside revealed a home that had been abandoned. The fire had not been lit for days and the food on the shelves was rotten. Later, there were whispers that Margaret’s house had been gripped with the same still cold that enveloped the Store.
The people of Unst were proud of their town. They knew who they were within its confines and were completed by the rhythms set across generations. Their past was their present and their strength. The living history of Unst could not be denied.
Indeed, it would go down in the annals of the northern region that only four weeks after being evacuated from the base of an erupting mountain, the extraordinary people of Unst had returned to their homes unscathed and re-established their ancient lifestyle. The fishing boats left the dock each morning, the school bell rang time for the women and children and every morning, just before dawn, the Convenience Store lights came on and the barrels of specials appeared out the front as if, some said, by magic.