So Vast A Distance


moon 2

An English guy I was sharing a taxi from the airport with told me this story about his mother. Great storyteller. Hard not to listen to him. He had one of those rich, brown voices and it was a sort of ghost story. I could see the taxi-driver leaning back in his seat so as not to miss a word…Anyway this is what he told me in that James Mason voice of his:

Valerie, my mother, he said , had reached the stage where she had to be put into sheltered housing. She was becoming increasingly deaf but poo-pooed the suggestion that being fitted with a discreet  hearing aid would improve her social life and without her glasses she was blind as a bat so if she mislaid them they remained mislaid. When the phone went and I saw who it was I guessed (usually correctly) that she needed me to find them for her, had probably spent hours groping on and under chairs and cushions in a fruitless search for them. Not that she called very oftenShe’s a very independent lady, dislikes being what she called ‘a burden’ to anyone.  It must be like taking your dog for a walk, she told me  the last time we went for a very slow stroll round the park.
Her new flat was only a 5-minute drive away. If you have any problems, just call me, I told her. Anything at all just give me a call. Seriously. Anything at all.
You’ve done quite enough for me already, she said. I’ll be fine.

The first night on her own in her new flat she called.
Richard, she said, her voice little more than a whisper.
I’m hearing voices, she said.
From the street? I asked. From the neighbours’ flat?
No.
Have you switched your computer off?
No reply.
Have you checked that you haven’t just left the TV on?
No reply. I could hear her rapid breathing.
From where then?
You’ll think I’m losing my mind.
From where?
From the ceiling.
Oh

I switched on the bedside lamp. It was 3 am.
What are the voices saying?
Voice, she said. A woman’s voice.
What’s she saying? I asked. It was 3 am. and I was tired.
Richard, she’s frightening me, she said. She  knows who I am. She knows my name.
That woke me up. She’s not the type to imagine things. But a voice emanating from the ceiling…..
This woman, what is she saying? Is she saying something nasty?
The same thing over and over.
What same thing? There was a pause then her voice dropped even lower. A little less than a whisper.
Hello Valerie. 

Hello Valerie?
Yes, my mother said with a quiver in her voice. That’s what she says. That’s all she says. Hello Valerie. Over and over again. Hello Valerie. Hello-
Okay, I said. I could hear her panic. I’ll be round in quarter of an hour, I told her. Don’t worry. Trust me, there’ll be some simple explanation.
When I got there I quickly located the voice.
Right enough, it came from the ceiling.
It was the smoke alarm’s automated voice saying  L o w   B a t t e r y  at 15 minute intervals.

When I got home I told this story to my Mary but either I told it badly or I screwed up the ending or something. Any how she didn’t find it funny. It’s one of these Reader’s Digest urban myths, she said, not even looking up from her computer. Like the legend that Kennedy made a trip to Germany in the 60′s and in a speech in Berlin, trying to win over the crowd,  he told them, “Ich bin ein Berliner”.  According to the myth however, a “Berliner” is also a type of  doughnut so the crowd just laughed at him. They thought he was telling them, ‘I am a doughnut’.
She finished whatever she was doing on the computer and  looked up at me. What do you think? Fact or fiction?  She shook her head. 
All nonsense, she said. Fiction. Fantasy. All of it. I’m surprised that people let themselves be taken in by that sort of stuff.
I just shrugged. She says the same thing about my religion – Fiction. Fantasy. All nonsense.

A hot bath and a generous glass of Glenmorangie later, I went for a stroll round the garden, watched the stars, heard a skein of geese honking their V-shaped way to wherever, whatever, somewhere South…..
Summer where have you gone?
And what was the name of that James Mason film with the Hungarian guy on the zither and Orson Welles coming out of the shadows to ask what have the peace-loving Swiss ever done apart from invent the cuckoo clock? (Which they didn’t; it was the Germans, according to Mary when I asked her what the film was called. It was called The Third Man she informed me. And James Mason wasn’t in it. Joseph Cotton was. And the Hungarian zither player was called Anton Karas. And…..)

I sometimes wonder how a husband and wife can become separated by so vast a distance.

Nightmare


miss_jessel_

She followed the little girl’s gaze
or thought she did
and saw
or thought she saw,
the nightmare  woman
just for a second,
out of the corner of her eye,
there,
on the island,
across the water,
standing rigidly still
there
among the tall straight bulrushes
rigidly still
in such a severe
such a severe black dress,
not watching
not waiting
not anything
just there then

                                                                   

                                                                                                                                    not there

 

miss_jessel_the_innocents mm

What’s it like to be dead?


 

                                   

ONE NIGHT  last week I sat up in  my hotel bed and  and saw  that what had awakened me was  the creaky bedroom door  being   opened to admit some crazy woman dressed in a green ballgown who kept banging into things and swearing not quite under her breath as she did so. She said she had been on her way to the Hunt Ball at Denholm Hall when she realised she had forgotten her spectacles, couldn’t see a thing without them, had turned back to get them, was sure she had left them on the table beside the bed, had run into a group of enemy troops, been taken prisoner and executed as a spy,  but because of the missing spectacles she was doomed to roam the earth looking for them and only when she had found them would she be released and had I seen them anywhere?

I asked her how she had been executed. She said she had been shot at dawn against the wall of  the church, blindfolded (which was sort of ironic) and that it had been extremely painful and she didn’t want to talk about it.

I asked her what it was like being dead and she said there wasn’t much to it, you got used to it after a while and was I sure I hadn’t seen her spectacles anywhere? All this while she was lifting things up and putting them down again, looking under chairs and tables and beds, even  lifting up my book from the bedside table and  giving it a good shake, losing my bookmark in the process.

I was feeling sleepy and disappointed in her impatient replies to my genuine questions, so I turned over and in spite of  her thumps and effing and blinding, quickly fell asleep again.

I woke up just as the sun was rising and was relieved to see that there were no overturned chairs or broken vases left to mark the stumbling passage of my myopic night visitor. At least she had had the decency to tidy up before she left for wherever these nocturnal peripatetics  go to during the day.

But my very expensive spectacles which I distinctly remember leaving  on the bedside table were gone.

I looked for them everywhere without success, on the duvet, under the pillow, getting on my hands and knees to look on the carpet  but beginning to come to a very unwelcome  conclusion. Yes, my night visitor  (I tend to blame other people when things  go wrong) !

However once again I searched the duvet, the pillows, on and under the chairs, the bedside table, then peering one last time under the bed, out they popped from  the breast pocket of my pyjama jacket where I now remembered I had put them for safe keeping before going to sleep. But my bookmark was between page 41 and 42 whereas I had read up to page 147 before carefully marking the place and switching off the bedside lamp.

When I went downstairs, I mentioned the woman to the receptionist who said yes there was a Denholm Hall which I must have passed on my way to the hotel but otherwise I don’t think he believed my story one little bit so I wrote a full account of my nocturnal encounter in the guest book and on flicking back to see if previous occupants of my room had experienced anything similar was relieved to read that on the night of June the 24th, a Mary Martin had been awakened by a group of soldiers looking for a woman who they claimed was a spy in the pay of the French. No mention was made of the green ballgown or the spectacles however.

GR2

Independence Day


 embra witches 2

Down from the castle
down past St Giles
towering over the masses
ever mindful of their mission
led by their strutting Italian drummer
tatatarat tatatarat tatatarat  tatat
the 3 wild witches
rattling their rattles
Make way! Make way!
stride over the cobbles
down the Royal Mile
glide down to  the Palace
bringing  the great news
first to  brave  Edwin
the proud nation’s defender
then to his mother
then to all the good people
of Edwin’s fair city.

manatwindow q

A Parcel Of Lies: final version


Yes, this is the house and this is the  field where I dug up that hoard of coins

No-one had lived here since the terrible thing that happened in the forties. The war had just started  and the woman who lived here with her writer husband came from Hamburg (she pronounced it ‘haybag’ which made people laugh) but the war was a far-off event and unlike her husband she was a friendly, good-humoured soul so it was difficult to see Helga as ‘the enemy‘ although no doubt there was someone unable to see further than her nationality.
And unlike some,  she was free with her money which endeared her to the butcher, the baker and the young lad she employed to come once sometimes twice a week to help with the garden (her husband had more important things to do than push a lawnmower or howk tatties).
Anyhow one day the postie noticed that the parcel he’d left for Helga  propped up against the front door the morning before  was still there.
” How could it have been still there when the accused had gone out of the house before you made your round?” the lawyer asked.
The postie shrugged. ” A dinnae ken, ” he said.
” He doesn’t know, ” the lawyer translated for the judge (a youngish man from somewhere doon Sooth).
So the postie pushed open the door  (nobody locked their doors in those days, still don’t, most of them) and went in and called out her name ( she and he were on first name terms ).
No reply.
Perhaps they had gone over to the mainland, he thought, to visit the writer’s parents in Fraserburgh more than was likely (the father had his own trawler, so folk said) and he was just about to leave was the postie when he heard a strange noise from upstairs, not really a cry, not so much a groan but something in between, the sound you yourself might make with a bag or a pillow-case or a letter-sack pulled over your head.

So he went upstairs to that room high up on the  left (you can just see the window)  and stood outside the door for a wee while, his ear pressed against the wood, just listening.
Sure enough he could hear a sort of muffled sound, a human sound but not words exactly, not like someone trying to cry ‘Help’  or ‘Desist’ with someone’s hand over your mouth and their arm toght round your throat, nothing like that, more like someone away down a pit shaft, deep down, shouting  up to someone, anyone, way up there, out there on the surface, shouting with their two hands cupped like a trumpet round their mouth, trying  without too much hope  to catch anyone’s  attention.
Desperate. Terrified. Lost.
Then the sound was suddenly stopped altogether, cut off (the postie made a cutting up-and-down gesture with his hand) just like that.
Silence.
He could hear  the seagulls squabbling outside and a whirring from downstairs that was probably the freezer from the kitchen starting up or something like that but from the other side of the door… no sound whatsoever.
Nothing.
He coughed, knocked gently on the door, called out the woman’s name
Helga?” 
his voice rising on the ‘kya’ bit,  
then when there was no reply, more loudly, with a note of concern in the way he said it
Helga!”
at the same time  trying the door handle which turned easily enough in his hand.

The door, almost of its own accord, swung open.

Something went past him, was all he could say later. Something cold like the draught when someone rolls down the car window in winter to chuck out his cigarette without warning you first…
Folk blamed the writer (a teuchit bugger whose only friend was his big daft dog).
The jury blamed the writer( wee eyes too close thegither).
The newspapers  blamed the writer (Novelist Held in Island Mystery).
Not that he had nothing to say in his own defence. Men who earn a living by stringing words together sometimes have surprisingly little ability with the spoken word, but not him, not Ian Stewart  Loudon Leitch. He relished an audience…
” Yes, we had a quarrel,” he said. ” No, nothing serious. Just a tiff. A tiff about nothing at all, if you really want to know: about whose turn it was to collect the eggs; about whether Lawrence was a good man but a bad writer; about why I didn’t take a solid job working for my father  instead of scribbling my life away. Something of that ilk. Anyway I took Argos for a walk along the cliff top path, to cool down, I suppose,  but I’d just gone the length of the field out there when Argos turned and as if someone had called her name raced back to the house. I thought nothing of it, capricious creatures dogs, especially the female of the species so I continued on my merry way, it was a fine morning, the sea was a shimmering sheet of green glass, the azure sky full of bird calls, the air clean as a whistle, it felt so good to be alive that the war being fought on foreign fields and soldiers dying in distant lands was the last thing on my mind…”
And so he went on. As if he was writing a novel.
” It was a woman’s scream, ” he eventually said, ” that brought me running back in time to see Argos standing splay-legged in the doorway, growling a warning to whoever, whatever, was inside trying to get out . ”
The postie wasn’t so wordy: ‘Something went past me’ he repeated over and over again as though whatever it was that passed him that sunny Summer’s morning had clean taken away his wits with it.
” In which direction?” he was asked and he cut the air in front of his face from right to left with his open hand and made a sort of whistling sound to indicate that whatever it was had been travelling left at a fair old rate of knots.
“Into the house or out of the house?” the lawyer asked in a weary voice.
The postie frowned and didn’t answer  and all he said  when the question was repeated was, Something went past me.
That’s how the trial went,
stories that didn’t match; questions asked but not answered; lines followed that led nowhere.
What about the parcel that was the thing that supposedly led the postie to go into the house? Did he pick the parcel up? Was the parcel still there when he rushed out? Was there ever a parcel in the first place? (It turned out that the writer  – like lots of  folk  hereabouts – always used the back door, never never the front door)
And Helga? Why did he do nothing to help Helga?
After a long pause and without a shrug this time he said,  not looking anywhere, ” A dinna ken ” which the lawyer again translated for the judge’s benefit.

Folk weren’t comfortable with the postie after all that and it was no surprise when shortly after the end of the trial he left the island,  joined the army, didn’t see any fighting, married a WAAF from Torquay, settled there, nice wife, two kids, good job,  never returned.
The writer wrote ‘A Parcel of Lies’  – (short listed for the Booker prize– which became a best seller  and probably did a lot to earn him his early release from Ford open prison. When it was made into a film he went to La Gomera where most of it was shot, fell in love with the place, never returned.
Only the house remained to remind folk of what once happened there, tall, grey, gaunt and  haunted, not the sort of place you would want to buy, however cheaply,  for you and your wife to turn  into a home fit for bairns to grow up in.

Unless, like me, you know exactly what happened next.

A Parcel of Lies


THE UNFINISHED STORY

No-one has lived here since the terrible thing that happened in the forties. The war had just started  and the woman who lived here with her writer husband came from Hamburg (she pronounced it ‘haybag’ which made people laugh) .
Anyhow one day the postie noticed that the parcel he’d left for her outside the door was still there and he pushed open the door  (nobody locked their doors in those days, still don’t, most of them) and went in and called out her name ( she and he were on first name terms ).
No reply.
Perhaps they had gone over to the mainland, he thought, to visit the writer’s parents in Fraserburgh  more than was likely (the father had his own trawler, so folk said) and he was just about to leave was the postie when he heard a strange noise from upstairs, not really a cry, not so much a groan but something in between, the sound you yourself might make with a bag or a pillow-case or a letter-sack pulled over your head.
So he went upstairs to that room high up on the  left (you can just see the window)  and stood outside the door for a wee while, his ear pressed against the wood, just listening.
Sure enough he could hear a sort of muffled sound, a human sound but not words exactly, not like someone trying to cry ‘Help’  or ‘Desist’ with someone’s hand over your mouth, nothing like that, more like someone away down a pit shaft, deep down, shouting  up to someone, anyone, way up there on the surface, trying without too much hope  to catch their attention.
Desperate. Terrified.
Then the sound was suddenly stopped altogether and after that there was no sound at all.
Silence.
He could hear  the seagulls squabbling outside and a whirring from downstairs that was probably the freezer from the kitchen starting up or something like that but from the other side of the door, no sound whatsoever.
Nothing.

He coughed, knocked gently on the door, called out the woman’s name,  with his voice rising on the ‘kya’ bit
“Helga?”
then when there was no reply, more loudly, with a note of concern in the way he said it
“Helga!”
at the same time he tried the door handle which turned easily enough in his hand and the door, almost of its own accord, swung open
Something went past him, was all he could say later. Something cold like the draught when someone rolls down the car window to chuck out his cigarette without warning you first
Folk blamed the writer. The jury blamed the writer. The newspapers  blamed the writer. Not that he had much to say in his own defence. For a man who earned his living by stringing words together, he had surprisingly little ability with the spoken word.
And the postie wasn’t a great deal better. ‘Something went past me’ he repeated over and over again as though whatever it was that passed him that sunny Summer’s morning had clean taken away his wits with it.
What about the parcel that was the thing that supposedly led him to go into the house? Did he pick it up? Was it still there when he rushed out? Was there ever a parcel in the first place?

Folk weren’t comfortable with him after all that and it was no surprise when he left the island,  joined the army,  never to return. Only the house remains to remind folk of what once happened there, gaunt and  grey, not the sort of place you would want to buy, however cheaply, for your wife to turn it into a home and your bairns to grow up in.
Unless, like me, you find it hard to resist a bargain.

The Night Visitor


What’s it like to be dead?

ONE NIGHT  last week I sat up in  bed and  and saw when I switched on the bedside  lamp that what had awakened me was  the  bedroom door  being   flung open to admit a woman dressed in a green ballgown who kept blundering and banging into furniture and things and swearing not quite under her breath as she did so. When I coughed a second time and caught her attention, she paused long enough to say she was sorry for being  such a damned nuisance, she had been on her way to the Hunt Ball at Denholm House when she realised she had forgotten her spectacles, couldn’t see a damned thing without them, had turned back to get them, was sure she had left them on the table beside the bed, had run into a group of enemy troops, been taken prisoner and executed as a spy,  but because of the missing spectacles she was doomed to roam the earth looking for them and only when she had found them would she be released and had I seen them anywhere?

I asked her how she had been executed. She said she had been shot at dawn against the wall of  the church, blindfolded which was sort of ironic and that it had been extremely painful and she didn’t want to talk about it.

I asked her what it was like being dead and she said there wasn’t much to it, you got used to it after a while and was I sure I hadn’t seen her spectacles anywhere?

I was feeling sleepy and disappointed in her impatient replies to my genuine questions, so I turned over and in spite of  her thumps and effings and blindings, quickly fell asleep again.

I woke up just as the sun was rising and was relieved to see that there were no overturned chairs or broken vases left to mark the stumbling passage of my myopic night visitor. At least she had had the decency to tidy up before she left for wherever these nocturnal peripatetics  go to during the day.

But my very expensive varifocals which I distinctly remember leaving  beside Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination on the bedside table were missing.  Could she –
I began to panic. Without them I’m blind as the proverbial bat.
I looked for them everywhere, using my hands to feel for them on the bed, under the duvet, beneath  the pillow,  without success, and as I was down on my hands and knees, rapidly running out of hope, peering and groping under the bed, out  they popped onto the carpet from  the breast pocket of my pyjama jacket.

WHAT HAPPENED?


That’s me batting. 77 n.o. (4 sixes, 6 fours). That’s Forbes Abercrombie bowling. Right arm over the wicket fast-medium. Teaches. History,  I think. The fielder coming in from cover point is Charlie Sneezum from Zimbabwe, put his lump sum into pigs, lost the lot, married well (financially at least) and now helps his wife run the family chain of florists, roses from Kenya his speciality. The umpire is Chris Lord, lawyer and ladies man, rugby blue from St Andrews. The time is 1530 hrs. Sunday 14 May.
What happened next?
I’ll tell you what happened next.
No sooner (or so it seemed to me) had the ball left Abercrombie’s hand than everything went dark, CLICK, just like that, switched off, The End of the World no longer nigh but now, not just murky dark either but pitch black, jet black, eyeless-in-Gaza,  ace-of-spades, down-a-coal-mine black, black as the paper this  is written on
and silence, sudden absolute silence, as if a hermetically sealed door had firmly shut me out forever from the bright noisy world outside
no light, no sound

then CLICK, back to normal, well not quite normal, sunlight, voices as before, almost back to what it had been before except that my stumps were all awry, Abercrombie and Sneezum were doing high fives, the wicket keeper was picking up the scattered bails, Lord was sharing a joke with my batting partner and I was walking past them, walking back to the pavillion,  irritably playing the shot I probably would have played if
“Well played,” Tom said as he passed me, bat tucked under his arm, fiddling with his gloves.
They applauded me all the way up the steps; I raised my bat to acknowledge their appreciation.
Mrs. Lord was bringing in plates of her neat little triangular sandwiches from the back seat of their quattroporte Maserati, their black labrador padding hopefully at her side.
“Hard luck, ” she said.

Today is August the first.
I am no nearer a solution as to what it was that  happened to me that Sunday afternoon in May when I wasn’t expecting it  but it has never happened again though now I am expecting it all the time.

A Short Life


Some smart-ass has been fooling around with this photo and if I knew how to I would erase the witless text from between the windows but anyhow this is the house, the house  where I was born and where I was destined to spend the first dozen years of my  sadly short life.  We were poor and often went without but I can’t  recall ever being unhappy. Hungry, yes, but unhappy, no.


This is one of the luggs we built to mark the solstice and the figure in the distance is one of the ingangers from the mainland we had to put up with. “Up with whom we had to put”?
Anyway even the gathering of the stones was good fun in its way –  hard work, yes,  but after we  had finished and  had  all linked arms round the cairn  to sing what we remembered of the old ingaitherin song, we would troop off to the Hall  for  games and music-making and the big meal.  It was always  a memorable day. And night.

But it was hard hard work the rest of the time, my father diligently farming the harsh land between the house and the sea,  in whatever weather,  giving up more and more of his time to the ungrateful fields,  less and less to his impoverished family.
Unlike his Ayrshire  counterpart however, one day the coulter of his plough threw up something a bit more valuable than a wee moosie’s nest – a larchwood chest containing a dozen Celtic brooches,  five rings, a couple of bracelets and the jaw bone of a porpoise. We all stood looking down at the opened box, our mouths as open as the box then  mother began to cry but not unhappy tears and father just looked at the shiny gold ornaments and shook his head then looked at us all and grinned his big grin and shook his head a bit more.

With the money he eventually got for that miraculous find, we all left Gartwick, a move about which I had mixed feelings –  leaving my best friend Callum and the hens and the pony and the fishing was only partly made up for by ( can I use 3 prepositions together like that? Anyway I have!) the excitement of  the moving to someplace new,  someplace I’d just read about.  New York.
Only I never got there. Just before we left I went down to the sea to, I suppose, bid some sort of farewell to all the good times I’d had, and

MAGGIE WALL: THE DUNNING WITCH


When  shall we three meet again?


In thunder, lightning or in rain…. 

Strange place, Dunning. Near the battlefield of Sheriffmuir. On the outskirts  I came across  this 20 ft. high monument to Maggie Wall –  burnt to death on this spot in 1657 for witchcraft, ” the last witch in Scotland to suffer this fate. ” ( Not true – the last witch burnt to death  in Scotland was Janet Horne, in Dornoch, 1772)
Anyhow the next time I passed Maggie’s monument  (this time without a camera), someone had placed a bunch of flowers on the stones at the pedestal base. I asked in the village about the flowers and who renewed the white painted epitaph but no-one seemed to know. One old woman said that there was always a card with the wreath saying, “In memory of Maggie Wall burnt to death by the Church in the name of Christianity.”

A photograph taken perhaps 100 years ago shows the lettering exactly as it is now. Who is entrusted with the task of keeping the memory of poor Maggie Wall alive by the annual wreath and the renewing of the lettering since nothing – apart from this memorial – is recorded or known about her. (And why is Maggie Wall commemorated in particular when there were altogether 6,000 ‘witches’ executed in Scotland?)

Strange place, Dunning. Very quiet. Worth a visit but I wouldn’t advise you to stay there overnight.