October 30, 2016 § 2 Comments
my neighbour’s cockerel
crows twice –
image courtesy dnews
August 20, 2014 § 25 Comments
September 21, 2013 § 5 Comments
Paulina did not know why she’d invited him to dinner. Neither did she know his name, did not want to know it; but everyone called him the birdman. The old man was coming tonight, and meeting him had triggered a remembering in her that shone like a bright light and was feeding upon itself.
That first day she had seen him in the square she thought her mind had been playing a trick. Surely he was an illusion; yet the birds knew he wasn’t. He stood quietly under the cherry tree with his arms raised as if saluting the sun. The sparrows swooped down from the tree, then swaying like pendulums, landed on his shoulders. Some fluttered around his head, then dropped like soft stones knowing it was safe to be in his open palms.
People talked. Some said he had been in the war and it had addled his brain, others said he had no family and the birds had become his kin. No one knew where he lived. He always wore a dusty satin dinner jacket with a white bow tie – not the sort that fastened with elastic – and clean white socks that were visible because his trousers – which he wore with red braces – were always too short.
This morning he sat shivering on the bench by the cherry tree. His mouth was turned down at the corners. A robin appeared and perched quietly in the palm of his hand. It cocked its head, then flittered away and landed beside a woman reading a book on a bench. She looked up and smiled as the robin fluttered around her head. After that the old man’s mouth turned upwards.
Paulina thought he looked very alone in the early morning mist – like a statue, a megalith, hardly moving and always there. He stared at the pavement. The first leaves were falling and skittered at his feet. Strands of moist, white hair fell forward over his face. He drew his fingers through the thinning strands and smoothed them flat. He seemed to be waiting for something; and today, even more than other days, he looked so like her father.
She sat down on the bench beside him.
‘Most of the birds have flown, ‘ she said.
‘They always do,’ he replied.
She pointed to a branch on the cherry tree. ‘Look. The robin’s back.’
They sat awhile and talked about everyday things, then Paulina suddenly stood up, clenching her fists tightly until the knuckles turned the colour of the mist. ‘Would you do something for me please?
‘Of course. And what would that be?’
‘Come to dinner.’
The old man looked surprised and blinked. ‘But why?’
‘Why thank you. I am not used to receiving kindness.’
As she left the square, she knew exactly what she would cook.
She trimmed the flesh from the neck of lamb and set the bones in a saucepan of water to boil. She chopped the meat into chunks, rolling each piece in flour, and sealing them in hot fat. She sliced onions and carrots, cutting away the coarse outer leaves of the leeks and rinsing away the grit. She had cooked this dish so many times for her father. She sighed, peeling the coarse fibres from the head of celery – they always got stuck between his teeth. She peeled and sliced potatoes, arranging a thick layer on the bottom of the casserole dish. She mixed the vegetables with the lamb, seasoned it with herbs, and poured it into the pot on top of the potatoes. She arranged the remaining potato slices in a spiral on the top; then removing the hot bones from the saucepan, strained the liquid and poured it over the stew. She slid the casserole dish onto the bottom shelf of the oven, and began to cry.
She dabbed at her eyes with the tea cloth and remembered. She peeled and chopped apples, mixing them with blackberries she had picked from their thicket at the bottom of the garden. She rubbed margarine into flour, and stirred in soft brown sugar. She tipped the fruit into a pie dish and poured the crumble topping over it. The cream was in the fridge – he had liked his crumble with cream.
Paulina laid the table carefully. He would sit on one side, she the other. She took a large winter overcoat from the cupboard under the stairs, shook the dust away, and draped it carefully over the back of his chair. Then she curled up in the window seat, clasped her hands together on her lap, and waited.
September 19, 2013 § Leave a comment
This might be a first chapter. It’s a first draft and needs some hard editing. What I am primarily trying to do is to create a strong sense of place.
‘This is the place.’ I pointed to the gravel car park hewn out of the granite. The wall of rock was stained with vertical lines like old blood where the iron had leached out in long, untidy ribbons. Stephen pulled off the winding single-track road. There were no other cars parked. As I remember, few people came in the winter months, although I have no idea whether my memory was serving me well, for it had been over twenty years since I had left this, my first home, in such strange circumstances. Now it was a place where there was little evidence of hardship – it was purely for recreation; and the tourists came only when the weather was hospitable, which wasn’t often. This was now climbing country; but before that, when I lived in the lee of Coigach, it had been a place where crofters tried, and often failed to make a living.
‘Breathtaking,’ Stephen sighed.
‘Desolate,’ I mumbled.
The landscape looked the same – its colours, its shapes. I suppose I remembered it so vividly because of what had happened here, and also because it marked the end of one phase in my life and the beginning of another – although I did not know it then. I knew I was lucky to be alive, and even now, I regard myself as being fortunate to have possessed sufficient common sense to take the postman’s path along the loch leading to Lochinver. I must have known intuitively that there were crofts dotted along the waterside ready to take me in if I got into difficulty. I had travelled quietly, hiding where I could if I heard voices or got close to a habitation – skirting the uncertain boundary – holding my breath – watching where I put my feet – for it was boggy. I remember clumps of carnivorous pitcher plants along the path, but did not stop – I knew I must keep moving. I had no idea why the crofters took no notice of their dogs alerting them to a stranger – perhaps they thought I was a sheep or some wild animal. Dogs would bark at anything after all – particularly if they were bored.
Stephen interrupted my thoughts. ‘Do you think you can remember the way after all this time?
‘Yes. But the path will be overgrown. I think it was by that tree.’ I pointed to a lone pine, now much taller and thinner than I remembered, but the same shape, and now bent like an old man braced against the wind. It marked the beginning of the path up the mountain.
We walked, with difficulty up what used to be a stone track. The cobbles were covered with red and yellow lichen, and the moss, which shrouded everything if it was not managed, made the going slippery. It did not look how I remembered.
We reached the top of the plateau, and in front of us was the loch. The countryside had been almost monotonous here, but over the years it had grown bumps and creases that made it look like a blanket that needed pulling flat. The fresh water loch was long with kinks in it, like a crooked finger beckoning us, and there was a small island towards its most distant edge with a straggly pine, which my father used to say was one of the last remnants of the ancient Caledonian forest. The water was black, like an oil slick, from the peat. It tasted sweet and stained my mother’s kettle and the cooking pots brown.
‘Are we close?’ he asked.
‘Yes. Near that waterfall. Be careful. There used to be bogs.’
We picked our way along the loch edge towards the rock face where the waterfall splashed, making a strange mist as it hit the water. He took my hand, which made it difficult to walk, but I squeezed his tightly, feeling the tension growing in both of us, my eyes fixed to the ground.
A watery sun appeared and shone coldly on our faces. The sky was benign today, a perfect wash of cerulean hue with streaks of wispy grey cloud that flowed down from the mountain summit like liquid.
We were nearly there. I tried to imagine that we had come here for another purpose, but I knew the truth – there was no other reason for me to bring him here, and he had been so insistent.
The croft was almost invisible; it was sinking back into the earth. The slates were long gone, and the rafters fallen inwards into the house where I had been born all those years ago. The glass that had once glazed the windows lay in muddy shards in what had once been the garden, and the door was strangely ajar, hanging at an odd angle on a single rusty hinge.
‘I don’t want to go in.’
‘I’ll go,’ said Stephen. ‘There is nothing there,’ he shouted from inside, his voice sounding strangely flat. ‘Just debris, brambles. Sheep have been using it for shelter.’
‘But this is not the place,’ I said. ‘ It’s here, behind the croft.’ I took his hand again, and led him to the ditch, the old place of the peat cutting. ‘This is the place. This is where I found the body.’