Love and Things II

The first time I saw Christine Ellwood she was getting on the bus that was taking us to the annual ‘Inter-school Camp’ in a little complex of ex-Army huts near Loch Morlich. She was tall, a bit gangly, with frizzy fair hair and blue eyes. She was wearing khaki shorts. She sat with a friend a few seats in front of me. I watched her. She was animated –laughing and gesturing as she talked. Colin Robertson gave me a caramel. As I chewed, I rolled the sweetie paper into a ball then threw it and hit Christine on the back of the head. She turned, frowning, then saw me and, half-smiling, mouthed, ‘Was that you?’ I nodded imperceptibly.

‘You’re in there,’ said Colin.

Christine and I went to different schools but I soon found out she lived just across the Spey at Carron where her father was an excise officer. She was gentle and funny. I was besotted. We were soon inseparable, held hands. We lagged behind the walking group or surged ahead and reappeared from behind rocks or clumps of trees. By the end of the week at the camp we were an object of amusement and kissing a lot.

At the end of June, we began the long holiday before we were to start at the University in October. We were both going to Aberdeen. I was to going to do Arts; Chris was to train as a Primary Teacher. We wanted to spend as much of those three months together as we could. It was easy to meet. Twenty minutes by bike, down the hill from the manse, was the bridge over the Spey. About the same distance for Christine. Sometimes we lay watching the river for hours; sometimes we biked slowly together along shady tracks; sometimes we dumped the bikes and went exploring for private spots in the woods of birch and beech and oak that clothe the bank of the river there. A couple of times we took our bathing things and swam in a pool in the Spey. I was in a state of permanent excitement. This was something new. I’d never had a girlfriend. I’d never liked any girl as I liked Christine, nor known any girl who liked me at all. And Christine liked me a lot. She liked my jokes, she liked my company, she liked kissing me. She was romantic and shy and bold and impulsive. Every meeting was an adventure. She stroked my arm when we met, hugged me close and looked at me intently with a look that I didn’t quite understand.

We arranged to meet from day to day. One day, when something occurred to prevent my going to the bridge – a relative turning up unexpectedly, or something like that – I called Christine’s house. Her younger brother answered the phone. I asked for Christine. I heard voices. Christine’s ‘Hello?’

‘Can’t make it tomorrow. See you Thursday.’ I put the phone down.

I heard on Thursday that her fourteen-year-old brother had made enormous play of this phone-call from an unknown voice. Chris had a boyfriend. It seemed terribly important to keep our relationship a secret. One day, we arranged to go to Aberdeen together on a shopping trip to buy books we needed for October and to look around. We got on the train at different stations, found an empty compartment and spent the three-hour journey marvelling at each other. Hand in hand, we walked around the city that was going to be our home for the next three years. It was hot. The granite sparkled in the sun. We found shade under trees, sat in cafes, bought a few books and arrived home around ten o’clock.

Our near-daily meetings became more intense, emotionally and physically. We breathed each other’s breath, touched and fondled, undid buttons and zips and hooks, stroked each other’s flesh.  We lusted after each other and spoke of love and of the future.

Then Christine went on holiday with her family. They were going to a cottage on Tiree, with an aunt and uncle and two cousins. A male cousin, a year older than us, was already at University. My jealousy was boundless, and I baited Christine mercilessly. She kissed me over and over and told me again and again that she loved me.

It was a difficult fortnight. I mooned about the house, was crotchety and offhand with my parents. I had to go out daily in order to maintain the pattern of behaviour that I’d established. I missed Christine terribly. Then, she returned from Tiree, and everything was good again. She talked intimately of her holiday, wanting to share her experiences with me. How often she’d wished I was there, how she’d longed to show me things. She mentioned Gavin: he had been part of the fun, but it was clear from her shining honesty that he was just an older cousin she’d known since she was a baby.

Then it was time for my family to go on our annual holiday to a hotel in Perthshire. It was a large concern with a cinema, a swimming pool, tennis courts and golf course. I promised my heart to Christine, gave assurances where none were sought. She trusted me. She loved me. The time would fly past.

In our second week in Crieff, I met Amanda. She was a pleasant, friendly girl of about my age. She was dark, buxom, rather sultry in appearance. In the course of the week, we played tennis a couple of times, had two or three games of putting. On the last Friday, I asked her if she wanted to go to the cinema to see The Maltese Falcon, but she was going out with her parents to visit friends.

On returning home, I did inexplicable things. On Monday, I did not go to the bridge to meet Christine as we had agreed. Nor did I go on the Tuesday, nor on any day again. Instead, I composed a letter to Christine that I posted to her at home on the Thursday. It was a work of complete fiction and of mindless sadism. I was sorry, I said, I could see Christine no more. I had met another woman on holiday. I had been swept off my feet. I had been unfaithful – more than once. I was sure that she understood. I hoped that we might meet up in Aberdeen in October. We could still be friends, I hoped.

Now, fifteen years later, I cringe and swear aloud at the image of Christine going to the bridge, day after day, looking and waiting for me, and at the thought of her opening that letter in her home that Friday morning. I had no shame at the time, of course. I was a man. It was time to move on.

We did meet in Aberdeen. About three times in three years, in pubs, always by accident, always in the company of others. We barely acknowledged each other. The third time she was in the company of an older student I knew slightly. He was a medic. On these occasions I said silly things, made a fool of myself, saw Chris frown.

I saw her a couple of times since then. Once, about eight years ago, I was seeing my parents off on a flight to Malta. I’d watched them through the gate to the departure lounge when I saw a couple approaching: tall, laughing. The woman looked up at her partner. It was Christine. Our eyes met. She flickered a moment and passed on without acknowledging me. The man was her medical friend from university days.

A few years later, I was sitting on the train in Aberdeen when Christine sat down opposite me. She disposed her luggage, noted my presence and settled to read. Straight-backed, slim, honey-coloured, straight, shoulder-length hair. She was beautiful.

‘Christine.’

She looked quizzically at me. ‘Oh, gosh. It’s you.’

We exchanged a few words. She was going to visit her folks for a few days.  Her father was picking her up at the station. She asked after my parents.

‘Still teaching?’

‘Yes. In St Andrews.’

She didn’t ask what I was doing. She made it clear she wanted to be left to read. I tried to read too but spent much of the journey looking out of the window and watching Christine’s reflection in the glass. She wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. What was there to talk about? We had nothing in common, except for those five or six weeks so many years ago. What did it mean, that little sunlit bubble of living that had enclosed the two of us?  Christine read on, but, as the carriages rolled and swayed through the grey countryside that afternoon, I recalled, sharply, that railway journey we’d made together to Aberdeen, back then, Christine and I, riding high on our dreams and desires and our delight in being together. Then, as the fields slowed down, we passed into rain, and the reflections began to fracture and dissolve. We said goodbye as we left the train.

 


Love and Things II

The first time I saw Christine Ellwood she was getting on the bus that was taking us to the annual ‘Inter-school Camp’ in a little complex of ex-Army huts near Loch Morlich. She was tall, a bit gangly, with frizzy fair hair and blue eyes. She was wearing khaki shorts. She sat with a friend a few seats in front of me. I watched her. She was animated –laughing and gesturing as she talked. Colin Robertson gave me a caramel. As I chewed, I rolled the sweetie paper into a ball then threw it and hit Christine on the back of the head. She turned, frowning, then saw me and, half-smiling, mouthed, ‘Was that you?’ I nodded imperceptibly.

‘You’re in there,’ said Colin.

Christine and I went to different schools but I soon found out she lived just across the Spey at Carron where her father was an excise officer. She was gentle and funny. I was besotted. We were soon inseparable, held hands. We lagged behind the walking group or surged ahead and reappeared from behind rocks or clumps of trees. By the end of the week at the camp we were an object of amusement and kissing a lot.

At the end of June, we began the long holiday before we were to start at the University in October. We were both going to Aberdeen. I was to going to do Arts; Chris was to train as a Primary Teacher. We wanted to spend as much of those three months together as we could. It was easy to meet. Twenty minutes by bike, down the hill from the manse, was the bridge over the Spey. About the same distance for Christine. Sometimes we lay watching the river for hours; sometimes we biked slowly together along shady tracks; sometimes we dumped the bikes and went exploring for private spots in the woods of birch and beech and oak that clothe the bank of the river there. A couple of times we took our bathing things and swam in a pool in the Spey. I was in a state of permanent excitement. This was something new. I’d never had a girlfriend. I’d never liked any girl as I liked Christine, nor known any girl who liked me at all. And Christine liked me a lot. She liked my jokes, she liked my company, she liked kissing me. She was romantic and shy and bold and impulsive. Every meeting was an adventure. She stroked my arm when we met, hugged me close and looked at me intently with a look that I didn’t quite understand.

We arranged to meet from day to day. One day, when something occurred to prevent my going to the bridge – a relative turning up unexpectedly, or something like that – I called Christine’s house. Her younger brother answered the phone. I asked for Christine. I heard voices. Christine’s ‘Hello?’

‘Can’t make it tomorrow. See you Thursday.’ I put the phone down.

I heard on Thursday that her fourteen-year-old brother had made enormous play of this phone-call from an unknown voice. Chris had a boyfriend. It seemed terribly important to keep our relationship a secret. One day, we arranged to go to Aberdeen together on a shopping trip to buy books we needed for October and to look around. We got on the train at different stations, found an empty compartment and spent the three-hour journey marvelling at each other. Hand in hand, we walked around the city that was going to be our home for the next three years. It was hot. The granite sparkled in the sun. We found shade under trees, sat in cafes, bought a few books and arrived home around ten o’clock.

Our near-daily meetings became more intense, emotionally and physically. We breathed each other’s breath, touched and fondled, undid buttons and zips and hooks, stroked each other’s flesh.  We lusted after each other and spoke of love and of the future.

Then Christine went on holiday with her family. They were going to a cottage on Tiree, with an aunt and uncle and two cousins. A male cousin, a year older than us, was already at University. My jealousy was boundless, and I baited Christine mercilessly. She kissed me over and over and told me again and again that she loved me.

It was a difficult fortnight. I mooned about the house, was crotchety and offhand with my parents. I had to go out daily in order to maintain the pattern of behaviour that I’d established. I missed Christine terribly. Then, she returned from Tiree, and everything was good again. She talked intimately of her holiday, wanting to share her experiences with me. How often she’d wished I was there, how she’d longed to show me things. She mentioned Gavin: he had been part of the fun, but it was clear from her shining honesty that he was just an older cousin she’d known since she was a baby.

Then it was time for my family to go on our annual holiday to a hotel in Perthshire. It was a large concern with a cinema, a swimming pool, tennis courts and golf course. I promised my heart to Christine, gave assurances where none were sought. She trusted me. She loved me. The time would fly past.

In our second week in Crieff, I met Amanda. She was a pleasant, friendly girl of about my age. She was dark, buxom, rather sultry in appearance. In the course of the week, we played tennis a couple of times, had two or three games of putting. On the last Friday, I asked her if she wanted to go to the cinema to see The Maltese Falcon, but she was going out with her parents to visit friends.

On returning home, I did inexplicable things. On Monday, I did not go to the bridge to meet Christine as we had agreed. Nor did I go on the Tuesday, nor on any day again. Instead, I composed a letter to Christine that I posted to her at home on the Thursday. It was a work of complete fiction and of mindless sadism. I was sorry, I said, I could see Christine no more. I had met another woman on holiday. I had been swept off my feet. I had been unfaithful – more than once. I was sure that she understood. I hoped that we might meet up in Aberdeen in October. We could still be friends, I hoped.

Now, fifteen years later, I cringe and swear aloud at the image of Christine going to the bridge, day after day, looking and waiting for me, and at the thought of her opening that letter in her home that Friday morning. I had no shame at the time, of course. I was a man. It was time to move on.

We did meet in Aberdeen. About three times in three years, in pubs, always by accident, always in the company of others. We barely acknowledged each other. The third time she was in the company of an older student I knew slightly. He was a medic. On these occasions I said silly things, made a fool of myself, saw Chris frown.

I saw her a couple of times since then. Once, about eight years ago, I was seeing my parents off on a flight to Malta. I’d watched them through the gate to the departure lounge when I saw a couple approaching: tall, laughing. The woman looked up at her partner. It was Christine. Our eyes met. She flickered a moment and passed on without acknowledging me. The man was her medical friend from university days.

A few years later, I was sitting on the train in Aberdeen when Christine sat down opposite me. She disposed her luggage, noted my presence and settled to read. Straight-backed, slim, honey-coloured, straight, shoulder-length hair. She was beautiful.

‘Christine.’

She looked quizzically at me. ‘Oh, gosh. It’s you.’

We exchanged a few words. She was going to visit her folks for a few days.  Her father was picking her up at the station. She asked after my parents.

‘Still teaching?’

‘Yes. In St Andrews.’

She didn’t ask what I was doing. She made it clear she wanted to be left to read. I tried to read too but spent much of the journey looking out of the window and watching Christine’s reflection in the glass. She wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. What was there to talk about? We had nothing in common, except for those five or six weeks so many years ago. What did it mean, that little sunlit bubble of living that had enclosed the two of us?  Christine read on, but, as the carriages rolled and swayed through the grey countryside that afternoon, I recalled, sharply, that railway journey we’d made together to Aberdeen, back then, Christine and I, riding high on our dreams and desires and our delight in being together. Then, as the fields slowed down, we passed into rain, and the reflections began to fracture and dissolve. We said goodbye as we left the train.

 


The Crow Trap

The first crow trap that I saw was on the line where the turf on the bank of the river changed to the heather of the moors. Inside the big box of netting wire was a crow and two enamel dishes, one with water in it. The crow was aggressive, fluffed its glossy feathers, trampolined across the turf and pecked the wire. Was this a tame bird? Did it live in the cage? Could I let it go? My father said that would be a bad thing to do. The crow was the enemy of the gamekeeper. That long black pointed beak could crack the skull of a rabbit or a bird as big as a thrush. Its main targets were the chicks of the pheasants that the gamekeeper raised in his pens and of the grouse that the gamekeeper’s master, the Laird, liked to shoot with his friends in the autumn. My father had once been watching a female mallard with a crocodile of fourteen young, when a couple of crows had swooped down and gobbled up four of the ducklings before he could do anything. By the next day, there were no ducklings left. Farmers didn’t like crows, either. They pecked out the eyes of new-born lambs.

*

Later, I was wandering with Colin Robertson through some woodland by the railway line when we came out in a clearing. There were pens and feeding hoppers and drinking troughs. The pens were filled with hundreds of young pheasants that ran and scurried, their bright eyes held high on elongated necks. I was fascinated. I bent by one of the pens and made clucking noises. Suddenly I was sent reeling to the ground by a blow to the side of my head. Tears came. I rose and faced a tall barrel-chested man with spiky black hair and moustache. He was dressed in camouflage greens. His face was distorted with loathing: ‘Get the fuck oot o here, ye little shite!’ He turned to Colin. ‘As for you, ye wee bastard, ye shud kain better! Noo get oot o here afore I kick yer fukn erses doon the road’. The voice was a hard grating bark. We ran. I was shocked. No adult had ever used such words to me. I’d never met such concentrated hatred. My head rang. It felt as if I’d been struck with a bag of bones.

*

That was Doug Chisholm, gamekeeper of the Knockriach estate.

In time I learnt what the gamekeeper did. My father told me that the aim of the gamekeeper is to protect the birds and beasts that his master and his master’s guests want to kill. Many keepers, he told me, are relentless in their desire to exterminate all creatures they regard as enemies. Over the years I found plenty of evidence of such ruthlessness. I came across the bodies of crows, in pairs, hung on poles set up in fields. And there were other gibbets. A line of corpses strung along a fence, some decayed to scraps of bone and feather or fur. Buzzards, sparrow-hawks, hen-harriers nailed to the trunk of a Scots Pine. Foxes, teeth bared in death, nailed by their brush. Kestrels, owls, a merlin, a jay, even a cuckoo. Badger bodies left to rot. The gamekeeper used snare and gin, poison and shotgun. I loathed what he did. He was an entirely negative force. I got into the habit of setting off snares that I found; kicking over stoat and weasel traps.

Once I was sitting in a stretch of birchwood above a track that led around the side of a hill. The gamekeeper came strolling along, gun broken under his right arm. Four black labradors were with him, dogs I normally saw behind the high railings of their kennels by the Gamekeeper’s Cottage, where they loudly challenged every passerby.  Their coats shone like liquorice. They scampered here and there, exploring, sniffing, returning to him and shooting off at another angle. One of them came right up to me, raised its head, sniffed, turned away. The gamekeeper looked directly at me but did not, I think, see me through the trees. He gave a sharp whistle. The dogs responded instantly, converged, fell in and trotted beside him. I was impressed.

In late August one year, Colin came for me. There was a shooting party at the big house. They were needing beaters for the next few days. The pay was good. We were to meet by the shooting huts at nine. Ten of us turned up, mainly young farm lads. The gamekeeper arrived in his Land Rover, jumped out, cast his eye around the group, saw me and came across. ‘You can fuck off,’ he said. ‘Ye’re nae needed. We only need nine. He’s only peyin for nine.’ I turned away, heard his voice raised, looked back and saw him addressing Colin and pointing in my direction. Clearly, if Colin said another word, he would be following me. Colin shrugged and turned away.

*

 

A few years later, I was standing one night, towards closing time, in the bar of the pub, chatting to two or three locals, when the door opened and the gamekeeper and two of his mates, burly young farm lads, tumbled in. They were laughing, talking loudly, greedy for drink. They were full of themselves. Their story was easy to put together. Doug had engaged the other two as water bailiffs. They had been watching a particular beat on the Spey and had spied a poacher. The poacher had been stupid enough to drive his van into a field. They shut the gate of the field. When the poacher returned to his van with a couple of grilse, they were waiting for him. They gave him a good kicking, telephoned the police and waited to hand him over. The great joy of the night was the capture of the van. It would be seen by the police as an essential part of the equipment used in the poaching expedition and would be confiscated. The real laugh was that the van was full of plumber’s tools and equipment. The poacher, whom they all knew, would lose his means of livelihood for at least a year. The gamekeeper’s high squealing laugh rang out again and again.

The poacher came into my office, two days later. He had a black eye, severe bruising to the side of his face, walked with a limp and winced as he moved in his seat. No, he hadn’t been to the doctor. He’d had a good kicking. He was a gentle soul. He was going to plead guilty. He wanted me to represent him, to plead the case for his van. I agreed. The gamekeeper gave his evidence; my client admitted his guilt. I spoke eloquently on his behalf. A piece of stupidity, a young family, a pregnant wife, difficult times. The Sheriff looked stern, accepted my argument, allowed him to keep the van and doubled the anticipated fine. My client was grateful and was back on the poaching almost immediately. I spoke to him. He knew, he said, to keep well away from Doug Chisholm’s stretch of the Spey.

*

The next thing I heard was about the gamekeeper’s wife, Mandy, a tall, good-looking, black-haired girl. She was having delusions. Everyone was speaking about her. She thought she was a character in Dallas. Electricity was seeping into the house out of the wall sockets. She was trapped. My mother confirmed that Mandy had been diagnosed with symptoms of schizophrenia. Things were very difficult. Her parents had moved in to help look after the four children. It was a dark November day of slanting rain. I left my parents about 5 o’clock. A few miles down the road I caught in my headlights the figure of a woman, half running, half walking. It was the gamekeeper’s wife. She wore a white blouse and black skirt. She was soaked through. Her black hair was plastered to her head. I stopped the car and got out. I said, ‘Mandy, do you want a lift home?’ She nodded. I guided her into the passenger seat, turned the car and headed back to Gamekeeper’s Cottage, I chatted quietly about the weather, her children. She didn’t speak. Almost immediately I drew up, the door of the cottage opened and light spilled out. I helped Mandy out of the car. The gamekeeper came forward and took her and led her up to the door where an elderly couple hurried her into the house. I saw the frightened faces of a couple of black-haired children.

‘Faur wus she?’ said Doug.

‘A good bit down the road,’ I said. ‘A couple of miles below the crossroads.’

He looked at me. ‘Cheers,’ he said. ‘I owe ye a pint.’ He turned and went in.

Mandy Chisholm was sectioned and admitted to the asylum in Elgin. She developed cancer of the lymph nodes. The cancer spread to her brain. She was dead within two years.  During those years and after his wife’s death, the community was full of praise for the way that the gamekeeper had coped with the situation and for the devotion he had shown in bringing his four children through that terrible time.

*

A couple of years passed during which I heard occasional news of the gamekeeper. There was another woman in his life, an old schoolfriend, a divorcee. She’d already moved in. The children had taken to her. Marriage was imminent. I went into the pub one evening to find Doug Chisholm and a couple of his mates at the bar. He was dressed as usual in the uniform tweeds of the estate.

I hadn’t seen Doug to speak to since that evening when I took Mandy home.  It came to me that our lives had touched quite a lot over the years, since that time he’d sent me clattering to the ground beside the pheasant pens.  I admired the commitment he’d shown his family through his wife’s terrible illness and death. There was no need for enmity. I called the barman. ‘See what Doug wants,’ I said. The barman waggled a glass below the optics and nodded up the bar at me. Doug looked up at me. ‘Na, na,’ he said, ‘we’re jist awa. Some ither time.’

Fifteen minutes later when I came to leave, they were still there and getting in another round. I stopped by the door to adjust my coat and scarf before going out into the cold.

I heard the gamekeeper grunt to his mates, loud enough for me to hear.

‘Fukn creep,’ he said.


Love and things 1

 

Apart from a few toothy collisions at Postman’s Knock at prim parties, the first girl I kissed was Patsy Munro. I was thirteen. She was a year older. We’d meet on the road to the shop. We hardly spoke but we started kissing. She’d wait for me, or sometimes I dawdled till she came.  We snogged wetly, sometimes with our bikes between us, sometimes with them thrown on the verge. Patsy was generously built, soft and pliant. Holding her was like clutching a sack of pillows. She wore her school things – grey cardigan, navy skirt, socks half-pulled-up her calves. She was generous and greedy with her kisses. To this day, I can recall her smell: newly-ploughed earth and armpits and, sometimes, a sharp ammoniac whiff I couldn’t place. Then it was over. Later, if we were in the shop at the same time, we ignored each other.  Once, when I was walking home, Patsy and Jeanette Hogg were coming down the hill. They sniggered to each other as they passed me and then shouted things and whooped with laughter.

Then there was Helen Wiltshire. She was in the same class as my sister, Lizzy, three years older than me. She was English – tall and slim with thick, shoulder-length blonde hair. I cherished her scent, her accent, grooming, and style. She never patronised me or condescended. She asked my opinion, shared jokes. At fourteen, I was smitten.

One Saturday, wires had got crossed. Helen arrived, but Lizzy had a piano lesson; she’d be back in an hour or so.  Did Helen want to go for a walk?

It was a glorious day. The sky was blue, the light never so golden, the grass and the moss and the leaves of the birches astonishingly green. Long-tailed tits chirped and flickered. I showed Helen eggshells on the track. I pointed out orchids. We watched broom pods pop. Grouse whirred, and cuckoos called. An adder sunned its length on a sandy bank before it sensed us and slithered off into the heather.

I gloried in the way her hair framed her face, in her fair and perfect skin, the delicacy of her eyelids, the down on her forearms, the swell of her breasts.

A few days later, Lizzy said to me, ‘I don’t know what you did or said to Helen last week, but she is not pleased with you’.

‘I never did anything! We walked up to the Moorloch!’

‘Well, something happened. She said you were kind of creepy.’

Helen never spoke to me again nor allowed our eyes to meet, but she was, for a long time, the primary object of my burgeoning lusts and imaginings.

*

Shortly after that, I was coming into the hall of the manse from the living room when I became aware of movement behind the grey frosted glass of the inner door of the porch. Muffled noises, whispering.

‘No. Shush. Stop it. No. I have to go. No, now.’

Scuffling. ‘No. We can’t. Go. Go.’

The big heavy outer door opened. Two heads together. ‘Yes. Yes. Go!’

The inner door opened. In came Liz. She was grinning broadly to herself. Then she saw me. ‘What’re you doing in here? How long have you been there, you little sneak?’

‘Was that Steve Robertson?’

‘Nothing to do with you. Get lost! Get lost! Little rat!’

‘Why’ve you got on lipstick?’ She ran upstairs. ‘Steve and Lizzy up a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N – …’

‘Shut up! Shut up!’ she hissed. She didn’t want our parents to hear.

‘Steee – veee … Steeee – veeee …’ I elongated the diphthongs in a soft chant.

Her bedroom door slammed shut.

*

Steve was brother of my best friend, Colin Robertson, of Gracefield farm. Colin was the only other one from our class in Primary school to go to the Academy. We did homework together on the long bus journey, spoke about school, kicked stones, played cricket and chess, became close. Colin was, from the start, committed to becoming a doctor, a matter of which his parents were immensely proud. I was a dreamer and a drifter and did enough to get by. Once, Colin came on holiday with us to Iona. My parents had rented a tiny, one bed-room cottage; Colin and I slept in a tent at the front of the house. For a fortnight we roamed the bays and inlets and fished from the rocks. In the tent at night, we talked endlessly, often about girls we fancied and what we’d like to do to them. I told Colin what I felt about Helen Wiltshire, and he confessed a long-held passion for my sister Lizzy.  I often went for tea to Gracefield where I met Steve. He was for the farm. He mocked his brother’s dedication to study. I laughed.

*

When I was sixteen, Lizzy was twenty and in her third year at University. Throughout the long holidays, Steve Robertson, a couple of years older than Lizzy, was in close attendance. She spent the holidays at home, reading for her final exams, helping her mother in the garden, talking on the phone to friends, and going about in evenings and on Saturdays with Steve. They’d had a short flirtation before – that time I’d overheard them in the hall – but this summer was different. I used to come across them, heads close in conversation, starting apart when I found them. Steve was tall, raw-boned, tousle-haired. He had a reputation with the girls. He’d just got a motorbike, a Norton 500. My parents wanted Lizzy to be happy in what they understood might be her last summer at home, but that bike was an issue. They didn’t want Lizzy to ride pillion, but she was stubborn and could twist our father round her little finger. Father spoke to them both about speed and safety and protective clothing, and soon Steve and Lizzy were out on the bike, its distinctive growl sounding along the evening roads that summer.

Lizzy and I were getting on better. We had actual conversations.

‘I really want to get away from here,’ she said one day as we lounged on rugs in the garden, eating from a bowl of raspberries we’d picked.

‘What do you mean?’

Coming here had been different for Lizzy than it was for me. She’d been the same age as I was now. It had been a big wrench. She’d had to leave close friends in Aberdeen. Some she’d caught up with again at University. Knockanriach was just a brief phase of her life. She’d no attachment to the place. She knew what she wanted to do. A degree in English, then a job in a good school, maybe in Edinburgh. She fancied the idea of teaching. She talked of going abroad, maybe New Zealand. She was clear-eyed, confident, happy.

And then she left; returned to University early so that she could work in the Library before term started. It was shortly after that that Steve started calling for me. We spoke a bit, conversation flagged, he went away. He came back. What did he want? I was puzzled and sort of flattered. He seemed on edge, nervy. I never asked my parents if I could go on the Norton, but I did ride pillion that autumn, sometimes on spins over the hills, the great sky around us, the Moray Firth and the hills of Sutherland in front.

He always asked, ‘How’s Liz? Have you heard from her?’

‘Fine,’ I said.

I saw little of Steve after the nights drew in. Lizzy came home for two weeks at Christmas. Steve appeared. They went to a couple of dances together and then Lizzy was away again. Steve’s father had bought an old Land Rover. One Saturday, Steve brought a couple of .22 rifles in the back. We drove up one of the narrow glens that cut into the hills to the west to sandy warrens infested with rabbits. After an hour or so, we had a good haul. Steve pulled out tins of lager. We drank the beer and dozed in the sun. I woke up feeling woozy and ready to go home.

As I got out of the Land Rover, Steve reached into the back and pulled out a pair of rabbits, limp and bloody. He handed them to me.

‘No,’ I said, ‘you keep them.’

‘No,’ he said. ‘Gie them to your mam. They’re big anes. Take them. Take them.’

I was surprised to feel their weight, the thin, sharp bones moving under the soft fur of the legs. When I tried to hand them to my mother, she drew back, grimacing with disgust. ‘I don’t want these.’

‘They’re from Steve.’

‘No, no. Put them in the scullery. No. Out in the shed. Your father can deal with them.’

I found out later she’d given them to Meg Wilson, her cleaning woman.

Spring drifted towards Summer. Lizzy got the degree she wanted. She was to come home after graduation for about a week, then was going away for the rest of the Summer. She and three of her friends were going on holiday to France for a fortnight, then they were going to work as waitresses in a hotel in Ilfracombe. Steve was seeing a girl down in the Craig, it was said.

The second night she was home, Steve came to the door asking for her. I saw them from my bedroom window. They stood at the gate talking for a long time. There was much shaking of heads, but voices were kept low. He seemed to be trying to press a package into her hands, but Lizzy turned and ran indoors. The Land Rover was parked just up the road every evening that week, but she took no notice. Then, on Friday night, about nine o’clock, he came to the door again, clearly drunk. He asked for Lizzy and was turned away by my father. I heard him call out in a high quavering shout. I couldn’t make out what he said. It sounded nothing like Steve.

We took Lizzy to the train on Monday. Steve turned up the next Saturday. I shouted to my mother that I was going out. We drove up a nearby glen to the uppermost farm where we left the Rover and headed up a rough track towards a derelict croft in a fold of the hills. Clouds sailed high, hazels cast wavering patterns of shadow over the track, banks of broom dazzled me. A couple of Scots pines stood by the ruins, a view down the glen across the Spey to the Ben, blue now, but still with traces of snow near the summit. Steve opened his rucksack and took out two tins of lager. He opened one, took a long pull, and handed me the other. He had a shotgun with him this day.  He started speaking about the blue hares that were rife on the hills. Better sport than rabbits. He took from his sack a whisky bottle. It was about three-quarters full of a clear liquid.

‘What’s that?’ I said.

He belched. ‘Clearac. Straight fae the still.’ He lifted the bottle, took out the cork, threw his head back and took a long slug. ‘Whooooaaa!’ he whooped, shaking his head and shuddering vigorously. ‘That’s the Good Stuff, right enough. Here, hae a droppie.’ He handed me the bottle. I sniffed it. There was almost no smell. I tilted the bottle and let a few drops fall on to my tongue. I felt its latent strength.

‘No,’ I said. I handed back the bottle. He took another swig.

‘Good stuff, eh,’ he said. He laughed. ‘I’m pished. Fukn

pished.’ He drank again.

‘You canna drive, Steve. I’m not coming back wi you in the car. I’m off.’

‘No, no, dinna go.  I’m a’right. Look. Sit doon. I want to speak to you.’

He started asking about Liz, his speech slurred. Where was she? Who was she with? Did I have an address? He wanted to write to her. I didn’t know her address in Devon. He could ask my mother. When was she coming back? Did she speak about him? Was she seeing somebody else? His voice rose in pitch to a faltering quaver.

The questioning confused and rattled me. I turned on him.

‘Shut up.’ I shouted. ‘Shut up!’ I rose and started down the track. I turned. ‘Look!’ I cried, ‘I dunno anything about this! Lizzy’s never once spoke to me about you! It’s nothing to do wi me!’

‘When’s she comin back?’

I took a few steps further, then turned and shouted. ‘I dunno. But I know one thing. She’s never, ever coming back here to bide.’

I hurried on. There was a shot.

I turned. Steve lay slumped against the wall of the ruin. I ran back. By the time I got to him, blood was saturating his trousers, staining the turf. He had shot his right leg.

‘Ye’d better go,’ he whispered.

I ran the half mile or so to where the Land Rover was parked. The farmer, Willie Gordon, called an ambulance, then we drove up to where Steve lay. He was unconscious. I couldn’t look directly at the shattered limb, the blood pooling almost blue in the grass. Willie applied a rough tourniquet with binder twine. He handed me the gun, bundled Steve into the Land Rover, and we sped, bouncing, down the track to wait for the ambulance. I was drained, shaking. Willie phoned my father to come and take me home. On Monday, a policeman came to take my statement. I told him the basic facts of what had happened – the walk up the glen after rabbits, hearing the shot, turning, seeing the wound. I missed out a lot, not because I wanted to conceal anything but because I didn’t know what to tell him. They’d found the bottle of illicit spirits, of course. Gossip flourished for a time: Steve’s cousin had, apparently, shot himself a few years ago, ‘owre a quine’; we’d been drinking; we’d been smoking pot.

Colin and I drifted apart. He never said anything, but I knew he’d disapproved of Steve’s friendship with me. Though we never spoke about what happened that day, I felt he blamed me.

Of course, it wasn’t about me. It was all to do with Lizzy and with Steve’s feelings for her. Maybe, he loved her – or something – but I didn’t know then, and didn’t want to know, what his drunken questions on the Crofthead were about.

Lizzy and I spoke in a phone-call from Devon, and she expressed horror at what I’d gone through but she didn’t want details and said nothing that suggested that she had any part in what had happened. She seemed able to detach herself, completely and painlessly, from what I came to see as Steve’s mental breakdown.

My mother and father were distressed, of course, but what could I say to them? I was confused and alone. For a long time, I’ve returned to what happened that summer, in dreams as well as waking. The edges blur and stretch, but the two Scots pines are sharp and clear, and the chimneyed gables, ruined wall, the splinters of bone, blood darkening the grass. I see the long white face, the tousled hair. Lizzy is there with crimson velvet lips. People I don’t know crowd round, chatting. A tall, grey-haired woman locks eyes and talks hard at me in words I can’t make out. Sometimes, just careening shapes, a rising panic.

The language I’d learned to use shrank desires and affections. You were ‘seeing somebody’; you ‘fancied somebody’ – as you might fancy a chocolate biscuit; you ‘got over’ somebody, as you did a cold. We used ‘love’ as an insult: ‘You love Jess Shiach’ – Jess Shiach being dirty, bad-skinned, overweight.

*

Steve lost a lot of blood. His leg was amputated at the hip. He took about a year to recover and to adjust to an artificial limb. He lost interest in the farm, found a job driving big earth-moving vehicles for a contracting firm, moved down South, got married, had kids. Lizzy became a teacher, went to New Zealand, returned to a good job in Edinburgh, married an accountant, has two children and teaches in a private school in Morningside. Things worked out just as she planned. As they did for Colin. He graduated with high distinction, almost immediately emigrated to Canada and is an eminent neurologist.

Some people know what they want and go and get it. Some people’s futures – like mine – are like dandelion seeds in the breeze. Knockanriach was a place to leave, but I stayed. I got my Arts degree somehow, somehow found myself in Law, and now drift along as a country solicitor. I have from time to time ‘been seeing’ girls I liked and who I thought liked me, but I destroyed any trust that formed, by just not being able to see what I– or they – really wanted.

Colin and I did get back in touch. The last time he came home, we met up in town for a drink. I had envisaged a good long session, catching up on things, but he couldn’t wait. A swift gin and tonic and he was off. A flying visit. He’d other people to see. Other fish to fry.


These Little Hills

 

This linked series of narratives begins in the 1950s. In most of the stories, the voice is that of an ‘incomer’ – somebody who, arriving as a boy from the city, has to make sense of his new surroundings and find or make a place for himself.

 

I        Heron

 

I was hurrying with my new friend Colin Robertson down the road towards home and supper. It was not long after I came to live at Knockanriach. Dark was falling; a thin, cold wind made us want to be indoors. A tall figure appeared, striding towards the road through the field on our right. He swung his legs over the fence, onto the road, and waited for us. It was a boy of about fourteen. He had a thin, bony face and dark, ill-cut hair. He wore a man’s suit jacket, a filthy shirt and dungarees.  Slung over his shoulder, as if he were carrying a sack, was the corpse of a heron. He held the pale legs in one hand just above the feet; the bird’s body hung down his back, the wings splayed wide, the head lolling on the road. I got down and looked at it closely. The snow-white neck, the massive, black-crested head and the grey and yellow bill were scuffed and grazed from being dragged over the ground; the eyes were filmed over.

Colin spoke in thickest Knockanriach.

‘Aye, Jimmack. Fauryegyaunwiat?’

‘Hame.’

‘Dyekillit?’

‘Stane. Brokisfuknneck.’

‘Fityegyauntaedeeweet?’

‘Fuknateit. Fitdyehink?’

‘Vyeatenatafore?’

‘Monyzatime.’

‘Fitsittastelike?’

‘Seagulls.’

‘Seagulls?’ I said.

‘Faasis?’

Colin explained that I was the new minister’s son.

Jimmack looked me up and down, said ‘cheerio’ to Colin, shouldered his load and headed off up the road, the head of the heron dunting off the road as it dragged.

‘Who’s that?’ I said. ‘Where’s he going?’

‘Jimmy Roy,’ said Colin. ‘He bides at Glenroy.’
‘Does he go to the school?’ I said.

‘No.’ Colin laughed.

Glenroy, he explained, lay a couple of miles up the road that snaked into the broad and gentle hills to the west, up the strath of the Water of Roy, one of the burns that cross the parish from west to east as they flow down to the Spey. It was the last place, at the end of the road.

‘D’you think they’ll eat that heron?’ I said.

‘I dinna ken.’

‘Do folk eat seagulls?’

Colin thought it unlikely but told me of the springtime expeditions to collect the eggs of the blackheaded gulls that live in colonies around the moorland lochans.

Jimmy, he told me, was the youngest of the family of Sandy Roy of Glenroy. A girl, Elsie, was about eighteen. She was simple. There was an older brother, Alec. He was in the Army and never came home. There was no mother.

The cooking of that heron pre-occupied me for many days and nights. How would they pluck it and prepare it? Would they cut the neck off at the base? Would they roast it over an open fire? Or would they chop it up and boil it, bit by bit? What would they do with that great scraped and muddied head?

*       *       *       *

One Saturday morning soon after that encounter, I was sent down to the shop. A tractor was parked outside. Behind the broad deal counter, Jean Macpherson was selling stamps to a neighbour woman.  Against the wall opposite the counter stood a couple of people the like of whom I had not seen before. They were a girl, in her late teens and a man. They were dressed in clothes of such age and filth that it seemed as though they had emerged from the earth itself. They wore long coats, belted with binder twine, and wellingtons caked with mud. The man wore a filthy tweed cap; the girl’s mousy hair was a tangled mess. What was remarkable, and frightening, to me was the sheer emptiness of their faces.

Sale of stamps over, the postmistress turned to me and asked what I wanted.

‘Two pounds of Self-raising flour,’ I said.

‘Your mither makking scones?’ she said. ‘Sanny, you’ll wait a meenity for your paraffin?’

She bustled through to the cavernous back shop that was hung with wellingtons, dungarees, ex-Army boots, piece bags, garden tools, an array of different kinds of brushes.

I waited at the counter, self-conscious, reading a notice that warned against Colorado Beetle. There was a slight noise behind me. I turned. The girl yawned widely. There was a black gap where one of her front teeth was missing.

I got my flour, paid and hurried out and homewards.

I saw the couple often enough after that., mainly on the old grey tractor. They always presented the same image. The man hunched, round-shouldered over the wheel, the girl standing behind him, feet apart, on the axle. They always stared to the front and, unlike most people on the road, they never acknowledged you. As they passed, they looked in profile, staring and intent, like an image from an Egyptian tomb painting.

*

My father became interested in aspects of the history of his parish. Knockanriach had always been a backwater, a poor place. No major seat of power had ever been situated there. No history of the place had ever been written, and my father considered the possibility of writing a modest pamphlet to fill that gap.  In the course of his sporadic bouts of research, he discovered that one of the places of some importance in previous centuries had been Glenroy. He knew of the existence, near the farm buildings, of the remains of some kind of defensive tower. All that remained were, under a tangle of bramble and ivy and rusting barbed wire, the scattered foundations of a square edifice, the stones of which had been used in later farm buildings. The tower had been built by the family of Roy, in the middle years of the seventeenth century, as part of their defences against cattle raiders from the hills to the west. The Roys were Jacobites. In 1689, Captain Alexander Roy fought in the ignominious defeat at Cromdale, a few miles up the Spey from his home. After Cromdale, government troops fell on Glenroy. They didn’t find Captain Roy but they took three male members of his family, including one of his sons, and hanged them on trees near the house.

Captain Roy’s grandson, also Alexander Roy, fought at Culloden. Following defeat he fled home, pursued by Redcoats. He reached the tower and was admitted by a serving maid, Kate Christie, who was killed by a volley of shots as she was in the act of barring the door behind her master. Alexander Roy escaped into the heather and lived incognito for a number of years until he was pardoned. He returned to Glenroy and built a new house out of the stones of the tower.

Tradition has it that, on that day in 1746, the guns of Culloden were heard at Glenroy, and that, every year, on 16 April, the sounds of the cannon echo down the long western sweep of the hills to that lonely spot.

A small eminence close to the farm carries the name of Kate’s Hill.

One day, I drove with my father up to the farm. He wanted to ask permission to look closely at what remained of the seventeenth century tower, to take measurements. There was no-one at home. We looked at a scene of mud and dereliction. The outbuildings were semi-ruinous. Scattered around the place were the rusting remains of pieces of unidentifiable farm machinery. A few beasts stared from the dark shadows of a fold. Some hens scratched at the mud of the close. The carcass of a sheep lay on the dung-midden.

*

It was about ten years later that word came home of the death of Sandy Roy’s older son, Alec. A corporal in the Gordons, he had been killed in an accident on Salisbury Plain. It emerged through the newspaper report of his death that Alec was twentyseven, married with two children, a boy and a girl. He was buried in Warminster. His Commanding Officer described him as ‘a model soldier, a consummate professional, who personified the spirit of the Gordons.’

I discovered later, asking in the pub, that Alec Roy had joined up at fifteen. He had returned to Glenroy a couple of times early on but had not been seen in the area for many years. His wife and children had never seen Knockanriach.

I wondered at his removal from home and family.

‘Well, their mither died, an efter that Sandy Roy was terrible hard on the loons –  Jimmack an a. He kept them aff school an made them work like slaves an then he leathered them senseless. He knocked them aboot, the loons, an took ’e’s belt tae them. He’s an affa aul bugger, ye ken. Sandy Roy.’

‘So Alec and Jimmy escaped as soon as they could?’

‘Aye, ye could say that. An they never came back. Sandy would never’ve got awa wi’t nooadays.  But in them days the Cruelty man didna ken faur Knockanriach wis.’

My father paid a warm tribute to Alec Roy on the following Sunday.

*

A year or so later, I read in The Press and Journal of the death of Jimmy Roy – Jimmack, the boy with the heron.  James Roy (26), forestry worker, had been burned to death in a fire in a caravan, near Dingwall. The cause of the blaze was thought to be a faulty Calor Gas canister.

Jimmack had headed off to work for a forestry contractor at fifteen. News had filtered back. He had an astonishing capacity for hard physical labour. With his axe, he could strip trees three times faster than any other worker, but he was a wild character. When a woman jilted him, he had got hold of a gun and been arrested while firing .22 pellets at her front door. Word came back, too, about his death. Maybe drink had been involved or maybe not. Maybe there had been a leaking gas bottle, and Jimmack, wakening up in the night, had lit a cigarette. What was certain was that in minutes the heat had been infernal. When workmates arrived, the caravan was burned out. The sight of Jimmack’s charred body, his ribcage exposed, would be with them forever.

Jimmack’s body was returned home. The funeral was on the Saturday. There were about twenty people in the church apart from Sandy Roy and Elsie. Some of the older members of the farming community were present, in black, their bald heads, that never saw a glimpse of sunlight, stark white in the gloom. Two or three of the younger ones, who had been at school with Jimmy, were there too. The rain was relentless that day. Some left before the interment. Numbers at the graveside were so few that I was called forward to take one of the eight cords.

There was a pool of water in the grave. The sides were muddy.

‘For we brought nothing into this world,’ intoned my father, ‘and it is certain that we can carry nothing out.’

One of the men lowering the coffin slipped, nearly fell into the grave, said ‘Fuck’. My father looked reproachfully at him.

And that was the end of Jimmack, the boy with the heron.

A few of us raised a glass to his memory in the pub that evening.

*       *       *       *.

Snow had fallen lightly on the night of the first of June in 1969 and, in the morning, Ian Gordon, the tenant of Lower Glenroy, the middle farm of the strath, had gone to check his beasts when he saw, standing beside the fence that separated the two farms, the figures of Elsie Roy and a Friesian cow. He hurried over to find a grey bundle on the ground beside the cow.  It was the body of old Sandy Roy. He was terribly battered and torn.  It was clear that he was dead. Around his waist was a rope, the other end of which was tied to the rear feet and legs of a calf protruding from the cow’s vulva. Ian spoke to Elsie and got no answer. He ran back to his house and rang 999 for the police and an ambulance. He also rang the District Nurse who came at once. To assist what was clearly going to be a difficult birth, Sandy had tied the rope tightly round the calf’s legs. He had then, in order to provide purchase, tied the rope round his waist.  The cow, crazed with pain and fear, had taken off, Sandy had lost his footing and been dragged for nearly half a mile over drystane dykes and barbed wire fences until the cow came to a quivering stop against the boundary fence. The ambulance arrived, and the Nurse went with silent Elsie to the hospital in Elgin and found a doctor to agree that Elsie could not live on her own. She was immediately admitted to the Asylum at Bilbohall. The police sent for the vet to deal with the cow.

Within a few hours, on that day in June 1969, the Roy family’s 300-year-old association with Glenroy was broken. Sandy Roy died intestate. Of the small amount of cash that he left, half went to Elsie, the other half to his grandson in Wiltshire.

The funeral was sparsely attended. Elsie was there, silent and clean, attended by two nurses. My father spoke of the family’s long links with Glenroy, of Sandy’s death as the end of an era. He chose the music – The Lord’s my Shepherd …, I to the hills will lift mine eyes … Again, volunteers to take a cord had to be called for.  The sun shone that morning and larks and meadow pipits sang as we looked out from the prominence of the Churchyard towards the hills of the south.

*       *       *       *

A couple of summers later, my father and I took a walk one afternoon up the strath. Glenroy had changed. Ian Gordon had sought the tenancy, and the estate had happily assisted him to combine the two farms. He was a young man with ideas and ambition. There had been a tidying up. Some of the outbuildings had been patched and re-roofed with corrugated iron. More land was under cultivation and fences were improved. The steading excited my father’s antiquarian interests. He pointed out the remains of a horsemill, stone cheesepresses, a lintel carved with the date 1762.

The estate was content to leave the house to the weather. The door stood open. Sheets of plasterboard sagged from the ceilings. Sheep had got in. A gang of grousebeaters had broken windows and scrawled their names on the walls, left beer cans. There was almost no evidence of the Roy family’s long occupation. Strips of old wallpaper had been torn down revealing that someone had lined the walls with pages of local newspapers dated 1911. And someone had, very carefully, hammered into the edge of the wooden mantelpiece in what had been the main living room, the brass bases of a hundred shotgun cartridges.

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These Little Hills

Introduction

In The Statistical Account of Elginshire (1842), referring to that stretch of the West bank of the Spey that lies between Rothes, in the North, and Grantown-on-Spey, the local minister notes the area’s ‘hilly nature, diversified by rising grounds and intervening glens with level haughs stretching along the river side’. There are ‘extensive peat mosses in which whole trees of oak, fir, and hazel have been found embedded at a depth of sixteen feet’. Along the banks of the burns, plants and flowers abound, ‘beyond the power of botanist to number up their tribes’. Agriculture is in a poor state, he writes, ‘from want of capital’, but ‘there are two distilleries, both well known for the very superior quality of the spirit distilled’. The residents are ‘exceedingly kind and hospitable, according to their means’, though ‘there are too frequent instances of unlawful intercourse between the sexes; and poaching, both in game and the salmon fishery, prevails’.

*

Little Ben Shalag, Carn a Cailleach,

Shian na Cannup, Sliabh Bainneach,

Roy’s Hill, Paul’s Hill, Carn Kitty.

 

I loved the names. These modest little hills are part of the long, brown slope that stretches Southwards from the Laich of Moray towards the Cairngorms. To the East, lies the Spey; to the West, the Findhorn.

We hear the cry of the whaup in the mist, the rattle of grouse; are suddenly conscious of the grey ghost of the hen-harrier above. We round a hummock, and a half-dozen red hinds start up. In Spring, we watch gangs of white hares parry and dance.

At the trig point the sky dominates. And bigger hills – the flattened pyramid of Ben Rinnes, the Cromdales, and, to the South, the North Face of the Cairngorms. One bitter New Year’s Day of extraordinary clarity, we look North and trace the coastline from the Souters of Cromarty to the lighthouse at the tip of the long, sandy peninsula of Tarbat Ness to the statue of ‘The Mannie’ on Ben Bhraggie. We marvel at the sunlight reflecting off the windows of Golspie and travel on over Clibreck and Morven.

The last time I visited those little hills, looking to find something of you there, I found a motorway driven into the hill. Steel gates, impressive locks. Red inscriptions: ‘SIEMENS’, ‘FRED OLSEN, ‘PAULS HILL WINDFARM’ (no apostrophe – you would have liked that). Twenty-eight hundred-metre-high turbines with forty-metre blades; 64.4MW of electricity for the National Grid.

No-one is ever going to turn the Cairngorm Plateau or the Cuillins or the hills of Glencoe into a power station. It’s our little, intimate hills they want to make money from – Granny’s Hill, the Fairy Knowe, the Hill of the Milky Breast.


Aberdeen

spelt2000

I was amused the other day to read this:

‘There are a large number of people in Scotland, and Scots abroad, – chiefly Aberdonians – who regard Charles Murray as a great poet as, indeed, the greatest contemporary Scottish poet and one of the very few of his successors who have inherited aught of the “magic of Burns”. I am not one of them. On the contrary, I say that Charles Murray has not only never written a line of poetry in his life, but that he is constitutionally incapable of doing so – his style of mind, his attitude to life, make him so, just as it is in the nature of Aberdeen granite to be non-diamondiferous.’ C. M. Grieve, Contemporary Studies, 1926

Hugh McDiarmid’s demolition work goes on for another highly enjoyable 1500 words or so. Of course, I don’t give tuppence for Murray. Dufftown’s own Mary Symon…

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Through the Poison Oak Patch

‘Through the Poison Oak Patch’ is the title of what is probably the most curious book in my possession. It is a handmade livre d’artiste, about six inches square and quite roughly bound in green cloth. The book comprises five sheets of cream artist’s paper  each of which has been folded over so as to make four pages. The 20 pages are sewn together in sets of  four then glued into the cover. A hole – square, oblong, circular – has been cut into each page, and, behind the hole, has been pasted a very delicate drypoint etching that, along with the text – two or three lines on each page – conveys the narrative. The title page carries the inscription ‘two of two trials of an edition of ten’. The cover has on the front, in yellow paint, an impressionistic sketch of a human face.

The story then, page by page:

Nellie and Gwen lived in a cabin in the mountains.

At night they locked their chickens into the chicken house so that foxes could not eat them.

One morning, after Nellie and Gwen had let the chickens out, Crofton came to visit them.

He gathered eggs, while Gwen put a cantaloup into her packsack for a picnic lunch.

Crofton helped Nellie to carry a sack of hen scratch to the shed.

Then, while the sun shone brightly, Crofton, Nellie and Gwen walked, through the poison oak patch, to the river.

They bathed in the cool water.

Gwen and Nellie splashed each other.

Crofton slept.

Then Gwen cut the cantaloup she had brought into thirds. She gave Crofton and Nellie each a piece, which they ate.

Gwen took the remaining third of the cantaloup, scooped it out, set it on the river, stepped into it and rowed away.

Crofton and Nellie waited for Gwen to return, though they didn’t mind much that she was gone. They were happy, and they didn’t know why.

The river rejoiced with them.

Even the poison oak patch took part in their gladness.

It was there that Nellie heard someone call her. She saw a little light in a tree.

It was Gwen in her cantaloup boat! Nellie out her into her pocket, and carried her up to their cabin.

Nothing was ever the same again

The foxes locked the chicken house that night.

* * * *

The little drypoint etchings appear rough but are quite delicate and charming and more than complement the written text: they are key to the narrative. We see the relationships unfold.

So what have we here? A feminist fable, where the female paradise of Nellie and Gwen, in which everything is ordered, is disrupted and finally destroyed by the rambunctious Crofton?

* * * *

I have written to the Library of Congress; they have no record of the text, and so, I doubt that it was ever published. I wrote also to a specialist bookshop in San Francisco. My respondent, Bob Haines, didn’t know the text, but offered the following:

Thank you, Richard. No photos are necessary. This kind of thing is sort of out-of-field for me. Having said that, I have seen such unique items in the past. They usually emanate from San Francisco during the Hippy era of the 60’s. Or, from over in Berkeley across the Bay. There were quite a few experimental art projects going on then, of all sorts, some pretty good.
By the way, believe it or not, when in architectural studies during the 60’s, some friends of mine and I invented (for a design class) the type of wind chime with hanging copper tubes on fish line, with a weight in the center of the tubes hanging in a circle around it. Different lengths of tube or different diameters would make a wonderful sound when the center weight was blown by the wind and hit the tubes. Yup, we did it. I have no proof. Such is life.
Cheers,
Bob
Robert D. Haines, Jr.
Argonaut Book Shop, ABAA/ILAB
786 Sutter Street
San Francisco, CA 94109
Well, there you are. Nowhere nearer finding the artist, though. If anyone has any ideas about what I should do with ‘The Poison Oak Patch’, please let me know.

 

 

 


My Blog

This is an introduction, of sorts, to my blog which is starting today, the first day of 2015. When I see the year written like that it looks like one of those dates that, back in the middle of the last century,  were used to suggest some time in the middle to far distance that we couldn’t be expected to forecast: ‘what will cars/haircuts/TV sets look like in 2015?’ ‘Of course, cars will be flying. You won’t go to school; you’ll have a mini-computer in your ear. We’ll all be living on a diet of pills.’

Well, cars are still roadbound, and TV is filled with programmes about cooking that is more about style than substance. School is more important than ever to help kids adjust to the demands and the dangers of day-to-day living. And stories still need to be told. Because we need them. To help us shape and come to terms with the world as we live in it. I’d love to be able to write stories. To be Joyce or  Chekhov or Alice Munro. But stories are hard to write. Really hard.

Anyway, enough of this. I propose to post something every week: a story or reflections or comments on what’s happening in the world or on what I’ve been reading. Now, time for a story. This one isn’t new. It was selected as the winner of the David Toulmin Prize in 2013.

Feebuie is a common enough topographic place name. There is a Feithe Buidhehigh up on the Cairngorm plateau. This one is on the slopes of the low hills that drop down to the west bank of the River Spey in upland Moray.

Feebuie

(Gael. feith buidhe – yellow burn).

I was spending a few days at my parents’ when, one afternoon, Willie Grant arrived to mow the lawn. Willie had been looking after the kirkyard and digging graves and helping in the manse garden for more than twenty years. I raked up the grass for him and trimmed the edges, and, when we had finished, we sat on a bench in the sun, drinking tea and newsing about weather and crops and the comings and goings of the district. Then, after a silence –

“Ye ken we’ll maybe hae to get oot o the hoose?”

“What do you mean ‘get oot the hoose’? What are you speaking about?”

“Aye, weel. Ye never ken fit’s gyaun tae happen.”

“The place is yours, isn’t it?”

“Aye, but it’s nae oors. That’s the thing. Peter aye said, when he went, me an Alfie, we’d jist tak ower the place an cerry on,” said Willie. “This is wir hame. We never thocht we’d iver hae tae leave the place. We thocht we’d finish wir ain days there, like. But it disna look like it noo.”

He explained that the croft of Feebuie had been in his older brother’s name. Peter had died quietly sixth months ago, leaving no will. Willie and his brother, Alfie, had assumed they would stay on in the croft, but there was a problem. It turned out that Peter had been their half-brother.

“Oh weel,” said Willie, “We’ve aye kent that. Ma mither had twin loons, Peter an Harry, afore she ever merriet wir fadder.”

“But Peter was Peter Grant, the same as you. Was your father not his father?”

“Oh, na na. I dinna ken fa his fadder wis. I dinna think Peter kent. I dinna ken if ma mither kent. Onywey, Peter had fit they cry a full-bluid brither. Harry. We wis only half-bluid.”

“Did you know Harry?” I said.

“Niver. He wis boarded oot when he wis a loon an then he went doon tae England about sixty year ago an niver cam back. As far as I ken, onywey.”

The brothers’ solicitor had tracked Harry, surname Kelly, his mother’s maiden name, to an address in Essex, only to find that he had died some years ago, leaving a son, Henry, who was the rightful heir to Peter’s estate.

“Look, I’ll speak to John Cameron. We’ll see what we can do. This Henry might be happy to sell to you, or for you to stay on in the house for as long as you need. What would he want with a place up here? We’ll not give up.”

It turned out that the existence of Peter’s twin was well-known to older people in the parish. My mother soon had the story. Rosie Kelly had been a baby when her parents arrived from Donegal. She had grown into a pretty young woman, a honey pot to the young farm lads for miles around, before she had married the father of Willie and Alfie.

*            *            *            *

Willie was stocky now and his knees were stiff, but, in some physical activities, his movement was beautiful. He dug turfs and turned soil with effortless economy and precision. I was fascinated by his use of the scythe that he used to mow the kirkyard and the manse orchard. The easy swing of arms and shoulders, the loving rasp of stone on steel, the clean slice, the deceptive speed.

He exhaled honesty. Both my parents had come to depend on him for information about the place, its people, its customs, its expectations. He had eased my translation, as a ten-year-old, from the city to this upland parish. He always had sweeties in the pocket of his jacket, mint humbugs, like golden satin cushions. He could make pennies disappear then extract them from my ear or belly button. In an old tobacco tin he kept two half-inch long capsules of silver paper. He took them out of the tin and placed them on his warm, leathery palm. They soon began to twitch, squirm, topple over. No-one was allowed to touch them. He called them his ‘ghosts’.

Three bachelor brothers lived at Feebuie. The oldest was Peter, about ten years older than Willie. He ran the croft – 150 sheep on the hill, twenty beasts for market, a bit of corn, hay. The other brother was Alfie, a year or two younger than Willie. He worked at the distillery. He brought a regular wage into the house and provided the whisky. Willie and Alfie had been in the War: on a day when Willie was working at the manse, Alfie would drop by on his way from work to see if his brother wanted a lift home. Alfie had a sly charm and a bit of a reputation as a ladies’ man. When Willie heard the sound of the little van, he’d say, “Here he goes, then – the D Day Dodger” – and then he half-sung, “from sunnee Italee”. When he caught the whiff of the afternoon dram on his brother’s breath, he’d add the line “Always on the vino, always on the spree”.

Feebuie was set back from the road beside a little burn, the valley of which was filled with broom and whin. Peter had bought the croft before the War. The house, which faced south up the Spey, was sheltered on the north and west by some trees, birch, rowan, larch. At the front of the house and at the side nearest the road was Willie’s garden, well-fenced against rabbits. Willie grew enough vegetables to see them through the year. Carrots, swedes, parsnips, cabbages, sprouts and kale. Four or five varieties of tatties to ripen at different times. There were soft fruits netted against the birds – raspberries, gooseberries, currants, red, white and black. There were hollyhocks, foxgloves, lupins, fuchsia, roses along the fences and over a couple of trellises, blackthorn down by the burn. There was half a dozen hives of bees that spent the summer months in the heather a mile or so into the hills to the west.

I loved that garden. It was a dappled, magical place of different rooms and levels and sounds and smells. It was filled with birds – linnets, goldfinches, siskins, and, sometimes, whitethroat and flycatcher. The garden was a work of love and my friend Willie was there, smelling of soil and oil and work. One spring afternoon he looked up the burn, swept his arm over the dense golden blaze of broom and whin.

“Look at that,” he said, “Noo mind, ma loon. Fan the whin’s nae in blossom, kissin’s oot o fashion.” He chuckled.

Feebuie through the seasons: thick clumps of primroses; the froth of may and meadowsweet; three o’clock on a summer’s afternoon in the perfumed garden, the sun dazzling and deadening; Willie working the bees, gloveless, the netted figure in the shifting patterns of smoke and sun; moorhens calling from the bend of the burn; clouds of rooks and gulls following Peter’s plough; drifts of rain across the black hill; the sheep a scatter of grey dots; the iron ground rutted and ringing and painful to walk on; brilliant sheets of untrodden snow in the long upland winters.

The brothers slowed up, stopped cutting peat. Willie gave up the gravedigging – a “flying squad” did the job now. Alfie retired from the distillery.

Still, there was always at Feebuie the sense of people active, busy, contented, making the most of where they were. Then Peter had a stroke while out in the fields. After a few weeks in hospital, he returned home to a peaceful death.

*       *       *       *

With the brothers’ solicitor, I composed a letter to Mr Henry Kelly of Billericay, Essex, acknowledging the death of Peter, his own inheritance and, as delicately and as firmly as possible, the situation regarding his uncles’ occupation of Feebuie for the last thirty or so years. We begged a reply and received one from Henry’s solicitor within a week. His clients had considered the position of the occupants of the property long and hard, were not without sympathy, but had decided that they wanted Feebuie cleared for occupation by the end of six months. They felt that that was a sufficient period to enable the occupants to find alternative accommodation. His clients were keen to move in. They saw it as an excellent developmental opportunity.

And so the process of the winding down of lives at Feebuie began. A two-bedroom Council flat would be available for the brothers in the village of Rothes, ten miles down-river. The beasts went to the Mart, and a roup was arranged. The roup was well attended. Implements and pieces of machinery and furniture made good prices. I found it a desperately melancholy occasion.

I visited them a few weeks after they moved into their flat in August. It stood on a dreary road of identical blocks. There were no gardens. I spoke warmly of the lightness, the nice clean walls, the convenience of the kitchen, their proximity to shops, post office, doctor. The furniture, so much a part of Feebuie, looked shabby and out of place.

*       *       *       *

The next time I visited was after Easter, on my way to my parents. I found Willie on his own.

“A hivna been up the road for a while,” he said. “I canna dee thon brae an back on ma bike noo.”

“Could Alfie not take you in the car?”

“He’s lost his licence. Ower the limit.”

Significantly, evidently. He had been given a two-year ban. Alfie had a woman friend in the village. He spent a lot of time at her flat.

“Is he there now?” I said.

“Na, na. The pub. E’ll be back seen wi some o his pals, nae doot.”

This was the daily routine. Alfie went to the pub at lunchtime and returned about three o’clock with a carryout of cans and a half bottle and a few hangers-on to play cards and watch the racing on TV.

In less than a year, Willie had become a dwarfish prisoner, entirely cut off from that world in which he was master of everything he did.

*       *       *       *

A year after he had left Feebuie, I picked Willie up to take him to the kirk for the half-yearly communion. Afterwards, he asked if we might take a run up to see his old home before heading down the road. His half-nephew Henry had been busy. In the course of the year, he had sold off most of the land, leaving a paddock of about three acres around the house. White ranch-style fencing surrounded this area in which two elegant chestnuts browsed. The house had been painted peach, the windows and doors picked out in brilliant white. A conservatory had been added. The old tin-roofed byres and barns had been pointed and re-roofed in pantiles to provide accommodation for horses and cars. Willie’s garden had been demolished, the area landscaped in grass and shrubs. The little golden valley of the burn, completely stripped of whin and broom, had been planted with what looked like azaleas and rhododendrons. There was a new sign up. White and gold. Hill Crest, it said.

I stopped the car.

“My god almichty,” said Willie. “My … god … almichty.” He was silent. “Weel, weel.”

Then, “It’s rale bonny. Aye, it is that. It’s rale bonny”. Then, “If Peter cuilda seen this … Weel, weel ,,,”

“Would you like to drop in and say hallo?” I asked.

Silence.

Then he shook his head. “Na, na,” he said. “We’ll awa hame.”

I turned the car.