I am in the garden listening with Kate to someone singing on the little radio my mother bought for me last summer from a door-to-door salesman driving a white Morris Traveller. She also bought 4 grapefruit spoons from him which we never use because we’re not really grapefruit people. Too bitter. Too fussy. But mother likes rituals. “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,” she has told me more times than I care to remember.
“Would you like me to take your picture?” the salesman asked when she brought out lemonade for us all on the big silver tray with ice cubes clinking against the sides of the crystal glasses in time with her steps. He had unclipped the camera dangling from a strap round his neck even before he asked, big, black and expensive-looking. “I’ll bring you the prints next time I call, ” he promised. ”No charge. Free, gratis and for nothing. Now where shall I put you? Over there, I think.” It was like he was some big Hollywood film producer and we were his actors. “Yes, over there. By that tree, ” and he took picture after picture of us sitting on the lawn under the apple tree, with Kate jumping for a ball which he kept throwing up into the air for her to catch and which she kept bringing back to him, dropping at his feet then looking up at him, watching , anticipating his every movement, poised to go, tense with excitement. ”Perfect…Just one more…” he kept saying. ” Last one…wait for it…watch the ball…… watch the ball.. now….that’s it…..perfect.” He had to move quickly after he had thrown the ball to press the shutter button at exactly the right moment to get us all in the picture, especially Kate, and in exactly the right position.
I think he was a pretty good photographer.
He must have taken at least a dozen pictures before he was satisfied then he drove himself out of our lives.
That was about a year ago.
Since then a lot has changed I think as I switch off the radio. Since then my mother has re-married, my best friend has moved to some place abroad – Kenya or Nigeria – one of these African places, and I have stopped eating. Oh and a 4th thing – the apple tree has gone – some sort of tree disease that couldn’t be cured.
I keep hoping the salesman will pitch up in his Morris Traveller with the photo of that day when we still had the apple tree and were all smiling and drinking lemonade.
I’m not banking on it though.
Of course I haven’t stopped eating altogether and I know all about anorexia and bulimia and all that eating-disorder stuff, who doesn’t? Pick up any magazine and there’s an article either on ‘How to tackle obesity’ or ‘What makes your daughter want to look like a stick insect’. It sometimes seems that half the world can’t stop eating and the other half can’t start.
I have to go once a week to talk to Mrs. Hunter who used to be a Modern Studies teacher but couldn’t take it any more and moved into Guidance. She’s about mother’s age, always bronzed as if she’s just come back from 2 weeks in Benidorm. Very intense. She gets more upset than I do when I talk to her. Because I’ve read so much about it I probably know more about what causes stuff like anorexia than she does. I make things up. ” I just hate the way I look, ” I tell her. ” I’d like to look like you. Do you work at it or is that just the way you naturally are? ” She ends up telling me all about herself while I listen with a sympathetic nod now and again to encourage her when she slows down which I don’t think is how it’s supposed to be.
Of course I do eat but not when anyone’s watching. I’m sort of a secret eater. I don’t have much of an appetite any more but I’m not daft – I know that if I don’t eat I’ll die.
But then we all will.
I fiddle with my radio but there’s nothing I want to listen to so I shout to my mother that I’m taking Kate for a walk and she comes out of the kitchen drying her hands on her apron and hands me Kate’s lead. We saw a depressing film on television around Christmas time about a farmer whose young dog slipped out of its chain and chased a whole flock of sheep over a cliff. Killed the lot of them. The dog got shot but it was really the farmer’s fault – he hadn’t trained the dog properly, hadn’t made sure it was securely chained, and ever since, mother has seen Kate as a potential sheep-killer and warns me not to go near Collithie farm or if I do to keep Kate on her lead.
We don’t go near Collithie. Instead we go in completely the opposite direction, across the river and the railway line and up the hill to what’s left of Balwearie castle, just an archway really which you can see from miles around on either side. We’re in sheep country again so I put Kate on her lead. Something to do with the chemical composition of the soil gives the saliva of the sheep which graze on this hill a sort of yellow colour so that they seem to have gold teeth. It’s a funny place. I like it.
I can see someone standing in the archway and as I get closer I hear someone talking. I’m glad I’ve got Kate with me. I let her off the lead but when I get to the archway there’s no-one there. There’s a cigarette stub on a flagstone and the usual bits of plastic litter but that could be from weeks ago. Kate sniffs around, pees against one of the stones, sits down and looks up at me, awaiting instructions.
“No…… no can do……. (I can hear someone talking again, on the other side of the archway. Kate pricks up her ears.) No….. sorry …( a man’s voice - a young man – foreign accent ) …. because I can’t that’s why..(getting angry)…don’t say that…….nobody……..the other side of the bloody world, that’s where……… okay…(apologetic now )……okaydokay….. ( irritated)…okay…..If……if I can…. sure…..tomorrow then…… I suppose so…… yes……..yes, me too…..(but he doesn’t mean it)…just listen…. ” but just as we are all listening – Kate, me, whoever’s on the other end of the phone – he materialises in the gap in the archway and Kate immediately jumps between me and him and snarls, lips drawn back to show wicked fangs. “No problem… we’ll talk about it tomorrow,” he says then pocketing his phone he says to me, “Hey! that’s some racist hound you’ve got there and him as black as me!”
He is so tall I don’t know what to say, he is like one of these basketball players you see on television who reach up and drop the ball DOWN into the net, so I just tell Kate “SIT!”and Kate sits and immediately loses interest in him and I smile and drop my eyes to his trainers which must be whatever the number is for really outsize shoes. He takes off his rucksack and sits down next to Kate who begins to look uneasy again. He’s quite thin, really, perhaps ‘lean’ is a better word. A red, short-sleeved shirt that looks great against the colour of his skin and….”Would you like to know who I was talking to back there? ” he asks, unzipping the front pocket of his rucksack and taking out a carton and a glass and putting them on a conveniently table-shaped stone in front of him. His voice is quite high-pitched. I sort of expected a deep sound. But okay. I like the way he sounds. I can hear laughter there.
” All the way up the hill and but for your racist hound here all the way down again. Some folk are like that, they just go on and on and on. And then some. Would you like something to drink?” and he holds up the carton for me to read that it’s freshly squeezed orange juice. I nod and smile and he pours me a full glass. He scratches Kate between her ears. She looks mildly surprised. ” I kinda like it up here, ” he says
I sip my glass of orange juice and wish I’d brought my camera with me. The orange juice is cool and sweet and just what I feel like.
He looks at the countryside spread out below us. The river glints in the sun. I know how he feels. That’s why I come up here. It’s not a particularly happy feeling. Not a sad one either. On a nice day with the sky so big and everything down there so small…it’s a sort of religious feeling.
“Me too, ” I tell him.
” Did you know all this used to be a big mining centre? ” he asks. ” Not all that long ago. And what with the rising price of gold and stuff there’s every chance of it being reactivated. Know what ‘reactivated’ means? “
” Know how much gold was worth when this mine was closed?
I shake my head.
” $20 an ounce. ” I don’t know whether that’s a high price or a low price but I look as if I did.
” Know what it’s worth now?”
I shake my head.
” Go on,” he says. ” Take a guess. “
A hundred, ” I tell him after a pause.
” More. “
” Five hundred? “
He makes a lifting gesture with his hand.
” A thousand?”
He takes a swig of orange juice straight from the carton then points
with it. ” What’s that hill over there called?”
” Stronmore, ” I tell him. ” It means ‘big nose’.
” Yep, Stronmore, ” he says. ” It’s another one. It’s on my little list. Listen. I’ll tell you something really interesting but keep it as a secret, okay? Between you and me.” He looks round, left and right then leans towards me, lowering his voice. “The mine here is going to be reopened. It’s expected to produce 154,000 ounces of gold and 589,000 ounces of silver over the next 10 years. That’s the good news. The bad news is that in 10 years time this won’t be the same place. You won’t be allowed up here for a start. Ever heard of Atta Whalpa? “
I shake my head.
” Or Midas?”
I make ears with my hands. “Ee-aw ee-aw!”
He laughs and finishes off his orange juice.
We sit for a long time as if we were under a good spell and the first person to move would be the one that broke the spell. Or that’s how it felt for me. Perhaps not — I don’t even know his name.
” I miss my best friend, ” I tell him. ” She’s gone to Kenya. Or Nigeria.”
” She a white girl? “
” She’ll like Kenya, ” he says. “Not so sure about Nigeria though.”
“And my mother’s remarried. “
” Did your father run off with someone else?”
” Well? “
” He died.”
” How? “
” He drowned.”
” How? Where?”
” Ireland. He was fishing. In a loch. “
” And? “
” He had to step from one boat to another. He slipped and fell in. He
couldn’t swim. “
” Do you like the man she’s married?”
” He’s all right. “
” How’s your mother feel about all this? “
” She worries. “
” Ah. She doesn’t know the trick. “
” What trick? “
He looks at his watch, gets to his big feet, stretches, yawns, hands me the empty orange juice carton. ” Do me a favour, get rid of that down there, ” he says. ” What’s the hound called?”
“Kate, ” I tell him.
” Well Kate, ” he says, “tomorrow at this time I’ll be half a world away from here but I’ll remember this place. And you. And you, my little soul-mate, ” he says and holds out his hand not to shake, but to be smacked in such a nice friendly way.
” What’s the trick? ” I call after him.
He stops, turns round.
” You’ll learn it, ” he calls back, waves then carries on downhill.
” But what is it?”
He stops again.
” Not to care. “
” About what? “
” About anything. “
Kate and I sit in the warm sun long after he has gone and then I realize I still have his glass but it’s too late to do anything about it. I’ll look after it, keep it till he comes back. And the orange juice carton. I’ll keep that too. And the secret.
A plane crosses the cloudless sky, high up, heading for Spain. Or Africa.
“Well, Kate, ” I say. ” I’m feeling hungry. Let’s go.”