The windows at the back of the house – in the bedroom, living room and dining room – face east, across the loch. In the morning, if the sun shines, it shines into these rooms.
Being very easily distracted, I often find myself staring out of one or other of these windows before I start work in the morning and again at various points during the day. When light allows, I stare out in the evening too.
I suppose that I must look as though consumed by thought at these times – troubled, perhaps, or at least engaged in sober contemplation – for I am often asked “What’s wrong?” or “What are you worrying about?” My answer – “Nothing” – rarely seems to suffice.
But the truth is, for the most part, that I am not thinking. Or at least I am not thinking consciously or purposefully. I am not seeking solutions to problems. I am not, more’s the pity, crafting perfect lines of prose. I am merely watching, and seeing how the pieces come together.
This morning, looking northeast to where the loch slips under the bridge and into the sea, a mirror calm wedge of water was broken by swirls and splashes. My view was obscured from the bedroom window by tall bushes in the garden, so I moved to where the binoculars were sat on the sill in the dining room and looked again.
The swirls were still there, and in that uncertain movement the disturbance became a black shape, which became, in turn, an otter.
I saw the head first, then as it rolled to dive the arc of its back lifted, followed by the tail, like a thick eel protruding momentarily from the water.
It was hardly gone ten seconds before it returned, swirling again, swimming in the direction of the house. Slipping just beneath the surface, it careered sideways, dragging a shallow bow wave behind it. For a moment I couldn’t see the animal, only the wake it left as it swam. And then it was up again, spilling broad circles of light over the loch.
While otters in Shetland do most of their hunting in the sea, they must swim in freshwater regularly to wash the salt from their fur and keep it in good condition. Since there are certainly otters living somewhere close the village, it is surprising how few times we have seen them over these past six months. In the summer, one individual bumbled down the path, past the front door and then disappeared into the garden. But for the most part they have been remarkably elusive.
Visitors to Shetland are generally keen to see two things in particular: puffins and otters. The former are easy, at the right time of year. They are bold and camera-friendly, posing unhurriedly at cliff edges, with their brightly coloured beaks resplendent in the summer light. Otters, on the other hand, are masters of invisibility. Even the best local guides would not be so foolish as to guarantee a sighting.
And yet sometimes, like this morning, they are apparently determined to be seen. They make no attempt to be discreet, even in a place like this, with houses and human activity all around. They just carry on, almost oblivious.
By this time, the otter was almost out of sight, having come so close to the house that it was hidden by the bushes and short wall at the end of the lawn. I grabbed my boots and hauled them on, slipping quietly out of the door and making my way down to ‘the forest’, where I thought I’d have the best chance of getting nearer.
Stepping slowly and (I thought) quietly down from the gate I saw no sign of it, so kept going. Then, as I reached halfway towards the water, it was there: the dark shape on the surface, now very close to the shore. I could see the strange, serpentine movement of it, as though the animal had no backbone to contend with. It splashed and curled and dived and rose, hunting perhaps, though in a perfectly leisurely way.
The morning was colder than I’d expected, and I was uncomfortable there without my coat. It made me impatient, and I took my next step without looking where I was going. A twig broke loudly in the still air, and when I looked up again I could see the place where the otter had been. Several moments passed, but I saw nothing more – only the memory of it spreading out in bright loops across the loch.