A little place for stories. I wrote this first one as part of the Luminate Festival and performed it at an open mic night. Based on family tales. I hope you like it.
An Island Tale. A romance.
Once upon a time a young man lived in a city in the centre of a large ragged island. Now this island was surrounded by smaller islands and these little ones could in (their) turn look beyond themselves and see smaller islands still, smaller and smaller until the islands became rocks on the shore. Though rocks on the shore are only islands at high tide when the sea swirls in, (but islands they become.) Waiting for the unwary. A doomed sailor or a stubbed toe.
But here I am stretching far from my subject like the seashore. I was telling you about the young man. A fine strong young man he was. So that when the war came, as wars do, he went away to fight. (As young men do.)
Our young man was a lucky young man and he came back from the war. But machines had stretched his city so it ranged up the hills and the sheep were rolled into bales in the market hall. Everywhere was the noise and the clamour of looms and forges, dust and bustle, noise and fire and dirt. But didn’t I tell you that this was a lucky young man? For he was able to find one of those small islands and settle where the scratch and swish of the sea on the shore could bring him peace , and he grew strong again on the salt and the tide.
So strong in fact that he could return to his city and raise his eyes above the smoke for a place to put roots. And though the hillside can be harsh and cold, his roots held and a family grew.
So our young man is happy, not quite so young now, counting round the seasons on the hill.
And back on the island? The seasons turn there too. A little cottage missing voices to bind its rafters grows creaky and stiff. But islands are sirens and this one calls in more young folk.
This time two young people meet, and they are masters of numbers. While the young woman chalks hers onto walls, the young man conjures his into metal and paper, sorts and keeps them safe, sends them out into the world. Their own numbers add up, and multiply then send themselves out into the world, teachers, doctors, soldier, s….singer. Not sailor? Well…….
But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Lets stop for a moment and think about islands. Floating on the tides, washing in, washing out; tides bearing people and goods. In and out, across and back, warp and weft. People, cloth, sheep and stories. Families split, families form. The twine unravels and knots again. The story changes, the story grows.
And so it was. Our young woman had been washed from her island, out to the city and back again, to other shores and other ties, she found her young man, made her family. And not alone. Her brothers, like so many others, did the same, out from their island to the city. And like the earth with the moon which drags the tides, the big island draws things and people in. But the outward tide washes them back, though not always to the same shore.
Why am I telling you this, all the warp and the weft and the sea and the shore? Well, do you remember that first young man? Where did we leave him? Not out on his island finding peace in his cottage? He was back in the centre, rooted well up on the hill with the city clattering and spooling below. A child grows, becomes a woman; called bride, mother, widow. Another little girl grows up, up in the hills, far from the sea. But one day a sailor catches her eye. A sailor whose father, had a sister. A sister who sailed from her island right down to the city, then back to an island where she chalked on the walls and met a young man, a master of numbers who lived in a cottage.
A cottage on an island where a young man now an old man, a grandad, found peace.
(bits in brackets work better when I’m reading it)
2021 Friendship, a 10,000 step programme. Monday January 8th. Geordie Robb grumbled but laced up his boots and set off down the road. He’d agreed to give it a try. He walked past the house with the green fence then its neighbour where a woman was taking in her bin. At the end of the row a black and white dog sat guard. He reached the newsagent. 4,500 steps. Bus back home. A cuppa with the paper. Monday February 12th. Geordie checked the weather, sighed “rain later” and put on his boots. He first smelled, then saw the grey painted fence, next door a woman was planting bulbs and beside the last gate a collie wagged her tail. He picked up his paper from Hardy’s then popped into “Blooming Lovely” for a bunch of daffs. 5,364 steps. Monday March 19th. Not a bad day right enough, dry and bright but a fair old breeze going, whipping the “For Sale” sign at Ardshiel and giving Mrs Webster’s poor daffs a beating. It doesn’t worry Floss, it means more and quicker sniffs, she twirls for her biscuit and ear scritch. Geordie picks up his paper, some eggs and a packet of Bourbons. On a whim he pops into the bookies and has a look at the runners in the Gold Cup. You never know. 6,513 steps. Monday April 9th. What a day to have your flit! At least the removal men seemed to be working hard but it couldn’t be nice having the door open all day and a wee one to contend with. Geordie had to walk out into the road to get past, they’d pulled the truck right up onto the pavement. Sadie waved from inside, even she couldn’t face the garden today. Ah, here’s Floss, a bit bedraggled but what’s a drop of rain when there are biscuits about? Good girl. Busier today on the High Street, kids still off school? Oh yes a queue at the sweetie counter and wrappers round the bins. Dropped a cheque off at McHugh’s, they’d made a nice job of it. 6,893 steps Tuesday May 8th. Such a lovely day, little Isla’s having a rare time in the garden, her Mum’s given her an old washing up bowl to play in. Sadie’s borders are looking a treat, those blue ones, what are they called now? They were Jackie’s favourite. And for a minute the blue sky fades. Does anyone else feel the cloud? Geordie shakes himself and scrabbles for Floss’s biscuit. “Good girl, not such nice weather for a hot dog eh? You go and lie down”. “Blooming Lovely” doesn’t have any of the blue flowers but it has those ones that are like big pink buttercups, she liked them too, and some sweet peas. Geordie was glad he could blame his eyes on hay fever. The shop lady was sympathetic, “…it’s all this good weather sends the pollen raging”. Six months, no time really. No time and all time. The flowers wouldn’t last long this weather. Maybe he should ask Sadie about planting something? Geordie sat for a good long time before heading home. 7, 283 steps Monday June 11th . Geordie grumbled to himself, it wasn’t the walk, he liked that now but he couldn’t be doing with that nurse talking to him like he was a kid. Six month review. Oh well, it had to be done. Isla gave him a big grubby grin from her garden, there were bits of grass and dirt stuck to the suncream on her cheeks. Sophie’d rigged up a tent from some old sheets but it was hard work keeping the wee one in the shade. Sadie was waiting on her porch, Geordie took one of the bags, it had a little lavender plant, compost and the kneeler, Sadie carried the trowel and some other tools. Geordie wasn’t sure of their names he’d never been one for gardening. They were a bit later getting to Hardy’s, Sadie treated herself to a Raspberry Mivvi and said she’d wait at the cross ‘til he was finished at the doctors. The nurse turned out to be not so bad, she was pleased with his blood pressure, his weight was down. He wasn’t so sure about the questionnaire thing but it pleased the nurse, so did the data from the chip. No not “the nurse” she’d called herself Caitlin, introduced herself, it was on her name badge. It was still sunny when he came out, Sadie had a drip of sticky pink on her blouse, “Look at me, what a slaister” . They walked up to Cnoc nan Caorann and planted the lavender. 8,054 steps. Monday July 9th . Hottest day of the year. Geordie had woken up feeling sweaty and unrested, these warm nights were murder. Isla was squalling, Geordie could hear her from his garden. As he reached Ardshiel he could see Sophie trying to strap a bone stiff Isla into her buggy. “Oh Geordie, she’s a nightmare today, wants to walk but it’s too much in this weather. And there’s no way I can carry her and the shopping” It was an easier task for two but he could hear her sobs right up the road, Geordie thought the little girl was probably suffering from the hot nights too. Sadie would be fuming, all that money to go to Portugal and we get a heatwave! Still she’d be having a good time with Cammy, Jodie and the boys. He’d pop around later when it was a bit cooler to do the watering but he popped in to cut some flowers, she’d said he could take any he wanted. Those big ball-y ones, Dahlias? Jackie hadn’t been overly fond of them but Geordie fancied a bunch to brighten up the house. He’d take some of the daisy types for the grave, and maybe one of those tall blue ones? He called into Hardy’s for his paper and a bottle of water, maybe get an ice cream on the way back when his hands weren’t so full? It wouldn’t be bad , just this once. A wee treat. He was sweating cobs by the time he got up to the cemetery but he tidied up the grave, the lavender was doing well. Full of bees. Happy Birthday love. He knew she couldn’t hear but it made him feel better. It was almost more of a birthday than her last one, he hadn’t been able to take in flowers and she didn’t feel like eating. He’d wanted to make it special but she was too sick to care. He sat a good long time, listening to the bees. 8,054 steps. Tuesday August 21st . Gosh was that really a nip in the air? Not cold exactly but a hint of Autumn, like a word on the tip of your tongue. Geordie had reset his internal calendar when they’d moved. Back…..was it home? Back down South then, years had started in September; Jackie at work again, new term, new kids, new year, much more than in January. Taking turns with the cooking, picking up bargains on the way home, trays in front of the telly, wine at the weekend. No more experiments with holiday spices, long chatty suppers. It wasn’t always easy getting away, his colleagues didn’t see why he had to take leave then, but Jackie liked flying off with the chalk dust still on her hands. The house seemed quieter once term started. Not that Jackie spent all day there, no she was always out and about meeting friends, or busy gardening. She filled it, she filled it with…Geordie didn’t know what. Sophie might have said energy. This new place though, there hadn’t been the time. No, this is no way to be thinking, let’s get on down the road. All quiet at Ardshiel, Sophie was away at her Mum’s, wee Isla would be loving that. “Hi Sadie, how’s things? Are you coming today?”. “But it always looks braw, well I won’t turn down a few courgettes if they’re going spare”. “I’ll look in on my way back”. “Hello Floss, here’s your biscuit, good girl”. 9,000 steps. Monday September 17th . “Morning Sophie, hello Isla how are you today?” “Hi Geordie, she’s a bit grumpy about being in the buggy but she’ll cheer up when we get to the park, is Sadie coming today?”. “Yes, managed to drag her out of the garden, she thinks the weeds’ll take over if she misses a day!” . “Hiya Sadie, nice to see you”. “Hello love, oh and hello to Missy Isla, you’re full of beans”, “how old is she now?”. “Two and a half, I’ll need to register her for pre-school in the spring”. “They’re not babies for long these days are they?”. “I think she’ll be ready, it’ll be good for her to be around children more”. “Hello Doggy” . “Does Floss get out for much?”. “Maybe we could ask Moira if she’d like us to take her sometime?”. “Isla’d love that, not sure if Floss’d be so keen”. “Oh she’s very placid”. “Even with tail pulls?” . “Do you want anything while I’m in?”. “Just some water please Geordie”. “Nothing for me thanks”. “Swings!”. “Just wait a minute Isla we need to get you out. Don’t pull you’ll have the buggy over”. “Have you been to the new café on the Broadgate?”. “Oooh, it’s a bit pricey”. “Mmm, it didn’t look too child friendly, I’ll have to leave it until she’s at nursery” . “As long as it lasts” . “She’s having a great time, aren’t you lovey”. “Higher!”. “Aye, she’ll sleep tonight” . 10,000 steps Monday October 15th . It was hard getting going but Geordie knew he couldn’t let the grey back in. Lace up the boots and get walking, never mind the rain. No sign of Sophie, she’d be busy with Isla, up at the library maybe. Sadie had said she was going down to look after the boys, letting Cammy and Jodie away for a bit of late sun. He turned in at number three and clapped the door. “Hiya Geordie, come on Floss, Geordie’s here, it’s walkies time” “Mind you have a cup of tea when you drop her back”. Not the High Street, up along the canal path, he could let Floss off the lead there. What were smells like to a dog? Geordie had once seen a picture showing a dogs nose proportionally to the amount of input it got. A normal sized dog with and outsize schnozz. Oh God, he was back with Jackie, her trying to explain autism to him, sensory input all different. Not wrong, different, she’d been on a course. Aw Jackie pet, you’d have loved this. We always planned to get a dog. 12,000 steps Monday November 19th . Review time again, it wasn’t quite the six months but he wanted it done before Christmas. “Mr Taylor, I don’t think I’ve met you before, can you roll up your sleeve please……” Her name badge said “Elaine” , she was sterner than Caitlin, old school, but ok really. He’d see if Moira wanted him to take Floss out later. 10,974 steps Monday December 17th . Geordie groaned, it looked icy so he’d have to wear his boots. He hoped the new place wasn’t too fancy. The others were getting a taxi but he’d got a key from Moira so he could pick up Floss. What was he thinking? It couldn’t be that fancy if it let dogs in, or at least not bothered about the floor. He needed to set off a bit early, some of the cards were too thick for just a stamp, he’d have to take them to the counter. On the way back he’d see if they had any trees at the grocers. He thought he could manage one this year. Just a small one. 12,450 steps plus one.
I threw out the last of Andrew’s stuff today. Surprised there was so much of it left. It’s been nearly eight years since he disappeared. Most of his clothes, well the ones that were fit to be used, I gave to charity. After a decent interval. When it was clear he wasn’t coming back…
You ask yourself questions… Get asked questions. ‘Had he been worried about anything?’ And I’d said no, had a bit of a stomach upset but that was all. Spent the last night on the loo. Folk said he’d maybe needed time to his self? Gone off to the highlands or something. But then it got too long. Weeks. Nobody stays off in a bothy for all that time, do they?
After a bit, when it got into months, I went through some more stuff. That’s when I reported that his passport was gone. They said there was no record of him leaving the country, but a lassie at work’s cousin got back in without a passport, so maybe they’re not that good at checking. I didn’t believe her at first, listened with a sceptical ear. It was tea-break, and people were sharing their ‘oh you’ll no believe this’ stories, you know the type of thing. Friend of a friend and all. But afterwards when I had a think about it, Marsha, that was her name, she was really boring. No imagination, so it most likely was true. Seems that the cousin left her passport at the friend’s house where they were staying. There were three of them in the car, but one was a wean, with his, I think it was a him. Anyway, the kiddie had his own passport. So when they got to the control bit, Marsha’s cousin picked up the two passports, her friend’s and the wean’s. The wean belonged to the friend, or partner, that bit doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that the passport control bod, saw the three of them, two adults and the wean, and just waves them through. Assumes the wean is on his da’s passport. Or they may have thought Marsha’s cousin was the wean’s ma, and he was on hers. Either way they didn’t look. Two respectable looking white adults and a sleeping wean,
and they just wave them through. If she’d been making it up there would have been more detail. Like I don’t know the names, not of the cousin or her friend or the wean. Even what type of wean it was.
So, yeah, after a few months word went round that he’d done a bunk somewhere. Spain, I think they said. Although he never was that fond of hot places. And it was around that time I changed jobs. ‘Cause at first, everyone was nice. Too nice. All ‘have you heard anything?’, ‘such a worry’, and ‘anything I can do?’. Which there wasn’t but it was nice of them to ask. And then about three months in, the silences started. Like when I walked into the room. Could feel the fluster. They’d be all bright and cheery, and ‘hiya’, heads all on the side, and asking if I’d seen that new TV show. You know that one with the four women in New York, about sex and clothes… But really I knew they were talking about me, and I’d catch snatches like, ‘can’t really blame him’, and ‘a bit odd’. Even Marsha, so then I was mad about believing her story, when she couldn’t be bothered having my back. Though to be fair, she didn’t know. That I’d believed her story.
I needed a new job in any case, because with him gone I had to pay the mortgage all myself. Lucky it was in my name. We didn’t have joint accounts, he was tragic with money. It was much better I looked after all the bills and stuff, and he paid me. That went on for a bit, ‘til his mother took over his account. And stopped it. She was a funny one, was ages getting in touch. But then I wasn’t surprised. When she did, she was all like she knew where he was, and I had it coming. Would have been just like her. Keeping a thing like that quiet. She didn’t like me very much. Not since I got left her mother’s engagement ring. Wasn’t my fault. I hadn’t asked for it or anything.
I think people wondered why I stayed here. Got stuck in a rut maybe, or didn’t have the energy to do the place up. But it was my home, an’ the garden was good. Nice to have that. Because I didn’t really get away that much. Didn’t want to go back to places where we’d been… and always, you know, expecting to see him somewhere. It was stupid, but …
Months turned into years. Saw a couple of other guys, nothing that worked out. Don’t think they would have remembered anything from the papers. I’d changed my hair and everything. I think having this place still may have put them off a bit, but by then property had gone through the roof and I’d never have got somewhere as good. It wasn’t that it was full of his stuff either. No, his clothes had went, like I said. Not thrown out or nothing. I took them to a charity shop. It was one time that I did go on holiday, and I took three, no four, big bags of clothes. Dropped them off in some town off the M6, I’d taken a detour to avoid the services, you know, go to a real café. And the high street was chocka with charity shops so bingo! This is it I thought. Got rid of them all. Mind the coffee was rank. In the café. Pretty much everything was, all the windows were steamed up, and it stank of fat and nappies. Only one there was on the high street. Next to the bookies. Instant in a mug, I didn’t bother with anything to eat. And I regretted that, the coffee, about twenty miles down the road, because there was no way I was using the toilet there. Good to have gotten rid of the kecks though, I didn’t want to chance seeing them walking about round here. Would have been a bit weird.
It was a mix of holiday and a funeral. Andrew’s gran, the one with the engagement ring. Got a few funny looks when I turned up at the crem. Where thankfully the toilet was clean. But why shouldn’t I have? I’d always kept in touch with her, sent birthday and Christmas cards, the odd present. Ok those were mostly recycled from secret Santas, but still. One year it was one of those bath gel gift sets, Magnolia. I mean, as if. So I found them a good home. By this time it was, what, three four years after, so I was used to the shuffling and whispers. At events like funerals I was good at brazening it out, getting a bit of sympathy even, looking a bit sad and into the distance. Dropping off the end of my sentences…
I reckoned it was a waste to drive all that way just for a funeral, it wasn’t even as if there was a really good do after. We went back to… Betty, Brenda? Beryl. That was it. Anyway we went back to her house. There were sausage rolls and tea and awkward conversations but I managed by doing a fair amount of sad face and skipped out early on account of having to drive a few hundred miles back north. And then I was free to have a couple of days in London, saw some shows. I’d just missed Bryan Adams. If the funeral had been a couple of weeks earlier. Still can’t expect everyone to die when it’s convenient. Was annoying though, Del Amitri were support. That song they did was my teens in a tune.
Back to today. I put the remains of it all, bundled up with an old carpet and drove it to the dump. Guy there started sniffing about, skip diver type. Saw the car and though I might be throwing out good stuff. But I gave him the cold shoulder, and when that didn’t work I let him get a whiff. “My mum’s things” I said. “Poor thing had a bit of a continence problem.
Her and the dog.” That stopped him. He went to poke around in the small electricals after
that. Then one of the dump guys came and helped me with it, because they were just finishing off one of the big skips before it all went in the compactor. He worked there, would be used to the smell. I was glad too, because I’d have had trouble lifting it in, even though I’d reversed the car right up close.
In it all went. I stayed and watched while it went on the lorry and into the compactor. Then I drove home. On the way I had a look in at the estate agents. It’s been seven years. His mother had him declared dead. So I can claim on the policies now.
The day they didn’t care
Malcolm didn’t care that he was a good few decades older than most of the crowd. He was feeling younger and more useful that he had for years, certainly in the years since he’d retired. If he felt self- conscious at all it was because of the hat Elspeth had insisted he wore, but his wife was right, his hair was beginning to thin on top. And today, as so often lately, had above average temperatures and enough sun to cause damage. So he was a little too warm and afraid he looked like an infiltrator, though for once he was glad to look his age. No-one would mistake him for a police officer.
It was a shame he hadn’t been able to persuade Elspeth to join them. She’d cited staying home to look after Fred, and he had to agree this crowd would have put the dog into a frenzy, but one of the neighbours might have helped. His wife was always more conservative, with a small ‘c’, even back in their university days.
It was good to see Gilly and Mat looking happy together again, and he adored any time spent with little Bobbie. His granddaughter was too little to understand what was happening. She was simply being wheeled along in her buggy waving to everyone, she probably thought everyone was there for her. Which in his case he was. For Bobbie, and all the other young people, and the ones not yet born. Trying in some little way to safeguard their future. A future which was scary even for Bobbie, born into affluence and a wet climate.
Flò didn’t care that she’d only had a few hours sleep. She was happy to be here, with Beth speaking to her again. It was just that at the moment, talking, but it was a start. And to be honest Beth had spent most of the past week working so there wouldn’t have been time for anything else. But after the months of blocking it was more than Flò had let herself hope for. It had been a mistake the two of them moving up to Glen Bruach, it had seemed a good idea, plenty of space and potential for Beth to work. But it hadn’t worked out that way, and Beth had been isolated and grown depressed. Working here had given her some purpose, taken away a little of the hopelessness that had swamped her back there. Which hadn’t been helped by the mocking she’d got from Flò’s family, well her dad and brother, Mum had been ok.
Being back in the city had cheered Flò, she’d had enough of Callum’s nonsense too, all his chat about ‘nicer weather and decent summers’. He had no idea how his industry would be decimated by climate change. Added to that, he was forever moaning about the number of tourists and incomers they already had, add in a few decades of sunshine and Glen Bruach would become like the Costa del Sol. And it would be the landowners who’d benefit from that, not the likes of him. Same old, same old. It wasn’t just Callum and her family though, she’d missed seeing people who didn’t look like her, missed the crowds, missed the cone on the Duke of Wellington’s head. Even missed the drunks, not that they lacked them in Glen Bruach. Ok, so she was still doing the same kind of work, only swapping her mum’s shop counter for a bar, but the liveliness had revived her. She’d even started writing again.
Gilly didn’t care that she hadn’t had time to wash her hair, she joked it was her little bit to help the environment, in truth they’d taken advantage of Bobbie waking a little later than usual. What did how she looked matter? They were all here together. Only a month ago that wouldn’t have seemed likely. She’d been an idiot, but there was no point dwelling on that, turning things over and over. Same with this, stay in the present, focus on the positive. Even if it was unlikely to have any effect on the people at the summit, at least they’d tried. It was good to be part of something bigger. And nice that Dad had come along too.
Val didn’t care that her feet hurt, or that the young people around patronised her. They thought she didn’t catch the ‘oh bless’s, couldn’t see their glances. She didn’t care, she was a veteran. She was on the first of the Aldermaston marches, she’d been at Greenham Common, protested against the Poll Tax, campaigned for a Scottish Parliament. Now she was marching to save the future of all the children she’d never had.
All around her there were faces, of all kinds and ages. A few as old and weathered as hers, some she even recognised, others seemed to have been born yesterday. All of them here because they cared. All of them trying to make those other people care, the other faces, the ones inside the halls of the SECC.
Did they care? Did they care enough to be unpopular? Did they care enough to be less comfortable? Did they care about the animals that weren’t cute and fluffy, or didn’t swim elegantly in the sea, the plants which were small and not beautiful?
How long would they keep on caring once the conference was over?
How many did not care at all?