The Mountains Shake

The Mountains Shake

 

The rumbling begins a long, long way out and deep, deep down.

No-one can know the exact moment when this particularly sly shift began in a lithosphere that remains rigid for very, very long periods of time, deforming elastically and through brittle failure; only later will science specify that 0059 hours GMT was the time when the Indo-Australian plate subducted below the Eurasian.

The rumbling begins and grows and in the dark undersea kilometres an earthquake along a mid ocean ridge allows new magma to erupt and causes the sea bed to uplift. The waters of the ocean are displaced.

On the early morning beach at Khao Lak, Morven Gillies props her tanned self up on her elbows and squints into the turquoise waters where the slender stem of her fiancé’s snorkel has just disappeared from sight. My fiancé, she murmurs. She turns the words over in her mouth as if they were the lucky stone in her pocket. Until yesterday, Craig has been her boyfriend, and now he is her fiancé.

Behind her, closer to the bungalows, one half of the Harrison family is establishing itself for another glorious day on the beach. The mother places the baby under the shade of the big orange beach umbrella, and rigorously applies sunscreen to the squirming toddler.

The rumbling grows to a low growl, but in the open ocean it is surely as nothing compared to the primordial grinding of tectonic slabs losing their footing on the boiling asthenosphere.

The other half of the Harrison family is still in its third floor hotel suite, where the father ministers to the older siblings’ tummy bug. He is impatient to swap places with his wife on the beach, towards which a low, broad hump of water is now rolling at a speed of eight hundred kilometres an hour.

Morven watches the Harrison toddler as he teeters his unsteady but determined way to the water’s edge. The sun block gives him a sickly white sheen and his chubby arms are held at an unnaturally wide angle from the rest of him by the tourniquet-tight sunshine-yellow water wings. There’s a mother who’s taking no chances, thinks Morven and sure enough, when she glances behind her, Mrs Harrison is squinting anxiously along the distance lengthening between herself and her son.

The low, broad hump of water is approaching the northern tip of Indonesia; as it meets shallower waters it must grow in height. When it hits Banda Aceh at around 0130 hours GMT, the wave is over thirty feet high.

Morven speculates about the sort of parents she and Craig will make. She thinks about the wisdom of her own parents; she thinks of her lucky stone, safe in the saucer in their bungalow. She’s carried this stone with her everywhere for over ten years, since the day her dad found it on Carradale Bay. It’s a small grey boat-shaped pebble stamped with the inclusion of a white quartz sail. It’s her lucky charm, her talisman, her mascot.

There are several pleasure craft at anchor in the bay, bowing in polite greeting to each other. Further out, the first of the jet skis carve white gashes on the silver surface.

The Harrison toddler is engrossed in something he’s found in the smooth damp sand at the water’s edge. From the third floor balcony, his father watches him fondly. The other two kids seem to be over the worst; they’re even quite cheerful. Maybe they will all go down to the beach shortly. Harrison checks his watch: it’s just gone 0900 hours local time, still the middle of the night in London.

The wave hits Burma and Malaysia.

Craig comes back into view and beckons his newly affianced girlfriend to join him. She grins at him and carefully removes her Raybans to their case. She stands up and straightens her bikini bottoms with a swift practised movement and sashays into the sea.

They are strong swimmers. Morven was brought up by the sea and has been in and around boats all her life. Craig is a keen water-skier and wakeboarder. They strike out against the tide, away from the beach. When they stop and look back, treading water, elated and a little breathless, the magical early-morning glow has been burnt away by full sunshine and brightly coloured umbrellas have bloomed all along the shoreline.

Mrs Harrison is standing with the toddler in the gentle lap of the ocean’s edge. He chuckles and gives a dance of delight every time a wave breaks against his solid little legs. The baby, cradled in its carrier, is asleep. She realises, slowly, that the water around her ankles is no longer there. Puzzled, she looks out to sea, as others around her are also doing. What’s happening? The tide seems suddenly to have gone out.

Morven and Craig have just enough time to give each other a look of incomprehension before they are sucked backwards.

On the balcony, Harrison sees, and knows. He screams his wife’s name. At least, he thinks he does, but in truth he cannot hear himself, merely feels the vibration in his throat. The wall of water appears on the horizon and grows and grows closer and grows. Oh dear God, says Harrison. Oh God. Inside, the kids start to cry. It’s okay, it’s okay he tells them. Just stay inside. Stay inside. Hastily he steps into the room and yanks shut the patio doors, frantically scanning the beach for the tiny figure with the big sunshine-yellow water-wings. Too late, too slowly, like characters in a dream fleeing on the spot, people are beginning to run. Harrison is having difficulty believing his own eyes as the water towers, curls and breaks over the land in apocalyptic fury.

For several seconds, there is no orientation: no earth, no sky, no scale. Harrison clutches his children, pressing their faces against his ribs so that they cannot witness, so that they cannot remember the sight.

The landscape is unrecognisable. There is no demarcation of land and sea: the ocean is all around them, as if they are in a cabin on a liner. The water is surging and sweeping inland like a great river, filthy and fast-flowing, pulling with it all the detritus of the world. Trucks and trees collide mid-stream. A shoal of bright blue sun loungers is held aloft by the current. On its treacherous slipping banks, the newly-formed waterway heaps buckled bicycles and broken bodies. The flimsy holiday bungalows, uprooted, bump and jostle against each other. Half-submerged strips of brightly coloured cloth snake along like tropical fish.

Thirty minutes later, the wave will hit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Sri Lanka and Southern India; thirty minutes after that it will hit the east coast of India. The aftershocks will be felt around the globe and it will later be said that the entire planet vibrated by up to one centimetre.

One half of the Harrison family survives: the other half joins Morven and Craig and the estimated quarter of a million others.

Toppled gently from its saucer, the small grey boat-shaped pebble was briefly trapped in a narrow gap in the thin floorboards of the upturned bungalow, but the surge of the torrent quickly dislodged it and carried it inland. On its way, the lucky stone has slipped through a sunshine-yellow water wing and an increasingly kaleidoscopic tangle of shade, sound and shape, until finally – finally, it washes up on a strange, newly-formed, ruinous shore. It has neither scratch nor scrape: it has, after all, already sustained worse.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Buttered on Both Sides

 

Stan had misgivings, but he had long since passed the point of any choice.

They needed money. The old lady had money. It was Wednesday, and on Wednesdays the old lady was not at home. At nine o’clock sharp every Wednesday a small black Citroen drew into her driveway and disgorged a large white man: presumably a son or nephew or son-in-law; a relation at any rate, because he did not rush as a carer would, but was leisurely in his movements, and brought with him a small dog proprietorial in its behaviour between descending from the vehicle and ascending the steps to the side door.

An hour or so later, the large man and the small dog would re-emerge, bringing with them the old lady, and the Citroen would take its recurring cargo away for several hours – until, in fact, around six o’clock in the evening.

So it was agreed: it would have to be a Wednesday.

Stan chewed the inside of his cheek contemplatively while he rehearsed his course of action. He was confident that none of the neighbours would challenge his being in the garden of Number 5 because he had been part of the squad renovating Number 7 for several weeks now: he knew he could spontaneously come up with a plausible explanation for being in the adjoining garden, and besides this was a friendly, relaxed sort of community where crime was virtually unknown and therefore unsuspected.

He was to let himself in by the side door, the spare key for which was kept under a large flat stone on the crazy-paving patio. The homes on Sidcome Crescent were identical in design, a feature of British housing developments much beloved by burglars: thus, Stan was already familiar with the interior layout. They reckoned the old lady’s stash would be in one of the two upstairs bedrooms, probably in an underwear drawer, less probably under the mattress. Otherwise, Stan would try a sideboard, a desk, or the cutlery drawer in the kitchen. There was bound to be some good jewellery too. They were counting on the old lady to be predictable. He would be in and out in under an hour.

The Citroen was nowhere to be seen. Reluctantly but ineluctably Stan let himself in, taking care to lock the door behind him (wouldn’t want the old lady running out and raising the alarm) and put the spare key in his pocket. He found himself – as he knew he would – in the kitchen. Directly ahead of him were the double doors to the dining room and beyond that, Stan knew, lay the large square hall. His sneakers made a faint sucking sound on the slightly sticky vinyl flooring; it reminded Stan of his sister’s asthmatic breathing.

He reached the double doors, and attained the dining room. Here, despite the drawn curtains, Stan quickly took in the sideboard to his right and the display cabinet in the left hand corner of the room. He skirted the handsome dining table and was reaching for the door to the hall when –

-Richard! Whatever are you skulking around in here for?

The old lady, confusingly for Stan, looked more amused than afraid. Up close, she was both older and smaller. A long-length knitted cardigan curled around her in a faded blue that almost exactly matched her eyes and her thin hair wisped out of its approximate bun in strands of palest grey.
-Well? She looked him up and down. -You look as if you don’t know whether you’re coming or going, Richard! Are you coming, or are you going?

She broke into a wide display of admirable dentistry. Stan realised that something was expected of him.

-I – he risked.

-Oh, don’t stand there in the gloom! Come in to the sitting room, why don’t you, so that I can get a good look at you!

As the old lady turned carefully to lead the slow way across the hall, Stan had a moment of mad invention in which he grabbed a heavy object – that cut glass bowl would do – and brought it down with all his might upon her helpless cranium.  Instead of which he meekly followed in her steady wake.

-Ah, that’s better, isn’t it? The old lady eased herself with practised increments into a high backed chair by the monstrously ornamental fireplace. -Sit, sit! She waved him in impatient invitation towards the nearer wing-backed armchair. -Let me look at you!

Trapped, he perched on the worn green velvet and allowed himself to be looked at. After a moment of silent inspection, the old lady asked –Are you Richard? You are Richard, aren’t you? Are you my son Richard?

-No – admitted Stan, absurdly relieved. I’m here about –

-Well, I’ll be buttered on both sides! You’re here about the broken window, aren’t you? Silly, silly me – it’s just that I always think any young man in my house must be Richard. He’s my son, you see. He should be coming along any minute now, I imagine. Sometimes he gets delayed, you know, walking Saveloy in the park. Saveloy is his dog, you see. He’s a sausage dog. Silly name, just the same. The old lady rolled her faded blue eyes in wicked disparagement.

Stan grinned broadly at her drole expression, and because she had thrown him a life line.

-Yes, the broken window! Suddenly he was all earnest, eager to please. -So, Mrs.. er

-Oh, I’m being very rude! Only, I thought for a moment you were Richard. That’s my son. He should be here any minute now. Do you know Richard? Are you one of his school chums?

-No, I am here for the – ah – broken window, Mrs –

-Hawkins! Mrs Hawkins! Yes, yes, the window! Did Richard ask you to come by? I’m so sorry – can I offer you some tea, dear? What did you say your name was again?

Stan, grabbing the chance to get her out of the room for a few minutes, accepted the offer of tea with alacrity.

-Stanislas, you say? That’s not English, now is it?

Stan, realising too late that he had given his real name, now attempted to erase the reflex:
-Oh yes, Mrs Hawkins. I am totally English.

-Ah, pity. I’ve always had a penchant for foreigners. They add a little je ne sais quoi to the suburbs. My late husband was foreign, as a matter of fact. That’s him there. She pointed to a black and white photo on the marble hearth; a handsome angular face, dark hair slicked back from the high smooth forehead. -He was Polish. Well, Lithuanian, actually. But wanted so very much to become English! Changed his name by deed poll; the works.

She fell silent, her unfocused gaze moving off somewhere more exotic that Sidcome Crescent.

-We met after the war, of course. I was evacuated during the war. Birmingham being such a target.

-Yes, of course, agreed Stan.

-Were you evacuated during the war, dear?

-Er, no.

-Pity. Such an adventure! I went to Wales, to stay with my aunt and uncle. I attended a funny little village school, cycled ten miles there and back every day. The local children were sewn into their undergarments for the entire winter. My goodness – the stench!

Mrs Hawkins gave a low rumble of laughter, showing her fine dentures again. Stan began to form the impression that she could be really very good company, if only she hadn’t lost her mind and he hadn’t come here to rob her.

-Can I offer you some tea, dear? She was suddenly, decisively, back in the room.
-Did you say you knew my son? I must say, I am most surprised that he finally asked someone to come by. Never believes a word I say. Were you at King Edwards together? She closed her eyes and smiled a little, then -You were all such scallywags! You thought we parents had no clue what you were up to… I had two dogs when I was a girl. One was called Scallywag and the other was called Pig.

Mrs Hawkins looked at him expectantly. Stan offered -What kind of dogs were they?

-Well now…Scallywag was a cocker spaniel and Pig was a dachshund. What a pair they were!  Would you like to see some photos of them?

Stan, pinioned by a sort of anxious compassion, acquiesced.

-Oh good! Mrs Hawkins’ ancient face lit up, then instantly crumpled: -Do you know where I’ve put them, dear? The photos?

Stan seized his chance. -I think you have left them upstairs, Mrs Hawkins.

-Do I have an upstairs? Well, I’ll be buttered on both sides…

-I can go, offered Stan. -And you can make the tea, he ventured.

-Oh my goodness, how rude of me. Only I was rather waiting for Richard. I can’t think where he’s got to. He must still be walking Saveloy in the park. Sutton park, do you know it, dear? Did you say you were Richard’s school chum? Barney, did you say? I bet you were a scallywag!

Stan, increasingly fearful of Richard’s late but certain arrival, made an attempt to get back to business.

-The broken window, Mrs Hawkins. I have come to fix it.

-Yes! Yes! The broken window. Richard tells me I imagine these things, but I don’t. I do not! He tells me off as if I were a naughty child. I telephone him to tell him. I say, Richard you have taken my house keys and he says no mother they are in your handbag and I say how do you know that Richard. Then he says because you always think I have taken them and they are always in your handbag and I say where is my handbag and he says it is on the chair in the hall where it always is but I will come over and then he comes over and he has my handbag and he opens it and there are my house keys. Then he says I told you they were there and I say what were you doing in my handbag and he says getting your keys and I say well in that case they weren’t lost at all were they.

Stan, head reeling, tried again: -The broken window. I will fix it now.

Mrs Hawkins leaned towards him, grabbing his forearm with surprising strength.

-Stanislas, that’s your name! Dismayed, Stan cursed the luck that had made this one fact stick with her.

-And you’re Eastern European! No, no – don’t fib to me. I can tell from your bone structure.  Now, if you would care to join me in a little slivovitz…and we’ll save the tea until Richard arrives. Have you met Richard? He’s my son. Did he ask you to come about the broken window? Because I’ll be buttered on both sides if he did; he never believes me about anything. Says I make it all up!

The ring tone of an unseen telephone offered some respite. -Please excuse me, dear. I think this may be an important call. The slivovitz is in the sideboard, and the glasses…hmmm, I think they must be in the dining room. Mrs Hawkins set off towards the source of the ring tone, while Stan prayed for the caller to hold on until she got there.

He gave himself a moment to be sure she was speaking to someone other than him or herself, then dashed to the sideboard, retrieved the liquor, swept a skilled eye over the unusually orderly contents of the drawers, and cursed in disappointment. Next he dashed into the kitchen, found a couple of none-too-clean glasses, and felt under the cutlery tray in the drawer: nothing.

Mrs Hawkins was still, apparently, engaged in conversation with the unexpected ally of a third party. Stan came into the hall and, seeing his access to her downstairs bedroom blocked by her faded blue presence, pointlessly mimed to her bowed back a request to use the bathroom. Under cover of the flush mechanism, he performed a fruitless probe of the medicine cabinet and permitted himself to sit for a moment of silent anguish. If Richard arrived, he would explain that there had been a misunderstanding; that he had come to attend to a non-existent broken window. He would enlist the sympathy of this long-suffering son of Mrs Hawkins, a son for whom Stan now had the greatest respect. The two of them would part on good terms, sharing the tacit agreement that the old lady had made up this tale of the broken window and that he, Stan, had simply been asked by the foreman next door to see what he could do to help. It would work. He would extricate himself. He would still need the money, but at least he would escape deportation.

Stan’s momentary optimism was quickly quashed: was that some sort of music coming from the sitting room?

It was. Mrs Hawkins was swaying more or less in time to something unidentifiable, a glass of slivovitz grasped in her right hand.

-Ah, there you are, Stanislas! Take your drink. D’you like James Hammond? Mr H and I did so love to dance. Swing! Big band sound! Let me turn it up! Let’s turn it up! And she fiddled with a dial on a solid block of wooden furniture Stan had taken for some sort of commode.

It was a long shot, but he was a desperate man:
-Mrs Hawkins, I am going to fix the broken window. It is in your bedroom. Please excuse me.

She waved her glass; the contents lurched alarmingly. She bestowed upon him a beatific smile. The music, he noted with gratitude, was blaring; he could rummage with impunity.

Her bedroom had the peculiar smell of old lady: sour perfume on seldom laundered clothes; stale, over-heated air; the dry, musty concoction of shed skin, talcum powder and creeping dust. He saw that the dressing table was of the one-drawer, kidney shaped variety, and there was no chest of drawers. Where was the money? One glance told him it was not in the drawer; one expert sweep under the mattress told him it was not there either. He wrenched open two sets of double closet doors. Orderly rails of clothes, neatly arranged pairs of shoes – then salvation! Built-in drawers – labelled!

Underwear: nothing. Nightwear: nothing. Hosiery (what the hell was hosiery?): nothing.
But protruding from the fluted hem of the floral nylon bedspread: a handbag. Within the handbag: a set of house keys, a gold wristwatch, and a brown paper envelope bulging with banknotes. Fifties and twenties – a grand or more, surely.

Sure, Stan had misgivings, but he also had family, and creditors who would wait no longer.

When he returned to the sitting room, Mrs Hawkins was a little flushed in the face. James Hammond was still in full swing. It seemed to Stan the perfect moment to take his leave, but even as he attempted to bid her farewell above the music, a dark mass appeared in the doorway and made its way across the room to the gramophone. The silence was brutal.

-Ah, smiled Mrs Hawkins, –there you are, Richard! You remember Barney, of course. From King Edwards.

Stan opened his mouth to begin his recitation, but the other man spoke first.

-Barney. The eyes were as the mother’s may once have been, a blaze of blue steel. -Yes, of course, he deadpanned. -Barney. How are you?

Again, Stan’s mouth opened; again he was pipped to the interlocutory post.
Thank you for arranging his visit, Richard, dear. Barney has come to fix the –

-Oh for God’s sake, mother! her son interjected. -I told you I would be later today. I’ve been to the bloody hospital, haven’t I? For a scan, remember? No, of course you don’t. I left you post-its all over the house to remind you. What did you do with them?

Mrs Hawkins turned to Stan, puzzled. -Whatever is a post-it?

This time, wisely, Stan kept his mouth shut.

Richard slumped into the green velvet wing backed armchair, leant forward with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He looked as exhausted as Stan felt.

-I’ve been worried sick. First I come home to the usual message about your house keys. When I ring you back, you’re firstly engaged, then unobtainable. I have visions of you collapsed by the phone in the middle of calling 999. So I rush over here and what do I find? The doors are locked and the music is blaring down the far end of the street. The spare key is missing – I have to break the bloody window to get in!

-Well, the old lady beamed, -I’ll be buttered on both sides if Stan here hasn’t come to fix that!

 

 

 

 

 

DO IT YOURSELF

Once upon a time, there lived a very happy family. The parents were devoted to one another; the children – one boy, one girl – were perfect.

This family lived on the edge of an enchanted forest in a picture-postcard village in a beautiful Victorian house. They were blessed with good looks, intelligence, health and wit. They were wealthy: they skied at Christmas; they spent their summers in Provence. Ken was wont to whisk Samantha away for wildly romantic long weekends in European capitals.

In short, the Mitchells enjoyed all the finer things that life has to offer a certain clientele: beauty, success and harmony. We may be tempted into envy were it not for their kindness and compassion and their generous donations both of time and money to the less fortunate. They were emotionally smart and politically astute: they were well aware of the privileges conferred upon them by nature, chance and endeavour.

Now, it came to pass one day that Ken found himself alone and adrift in the perfect village and the perfect house on the edge of the enchanted forest. In fact, he was not so much on the edge of the forest as deep in the heart of it; and now he saw it was not enchanted at all, but dark, cold and terrifyingly senseless.

It so happened that this day began like any other. Sylvie returned from her morning run and awakened the household with the usual jingle of radio, tinkle of shower, boil of kettle, and chink of crockery. The Mitchells took up their customary places at the kitchen table and consumed a perfectly ordinary breakfast. They engaged in the ritual exchange of gentle pleasantries and reminders and confirmation of how the day was expected to unfold. Ken’s Audi left the driveway the routine ten minutes ahead of Sylvie’s Alpha. Life was as lovely as ever for Mr and Mrs Mitchell and family.

But fairy tales are cautionary, and the Wicked Fairy will sometimes have her way.

The End.

When the two young police officers were shown into his office some hours later, Ken’s first thought was – well, “thought” is too definite, because he had no thought as such, just a sense of falling, of weightlessness perhaps; a dream moment with no gravity, wherein he could have been under water, where vision was blurred and sounds were muffled. But if for convenience we may call it a “thought”, it was this: My God, these poor kids having to come here and tell me this. He buzzed Pam and asked her to bring them all some good strong tea.

Ken knows that this is the phenomenon known as shock. He knows it is a survival tactic, a trick of the traumatised mind.  He floats just beyond himself and observes with bewildered detachment his own mechanical manners. When the poor police officers have left him alone with his executive view over George Square, Ken takes care to shore himself up with all the banal components of normality. He attends to the more pressing files, he tidies his desk, packs some paperwork into his briefcase, replaces the tea things on the tray, checks his desk diary – he still uses the classic A4 burgundy faux-leather variety; doesn’t entirely trust technology – and buzzes Pam in, whereupon he confirms what she has already deduced.  He explains that he will take a few days’ leave. He hands her his white lawn handkerchief, pats her on the shoulder, and steels himself to absorb his loss.

We could wring our hands on his behalf. Indeed, we may exhort him to give way to his emotions; to scream, weep, throw abuse at the Furies and things against walls; prostrate himself and beat the cruel earth. But we may as well not, because Ken cannot permit himself to grieve. Not yet. And let’s face it, that is in itself a part of the bereavement process.

Two vehicles, five fatalities – one survivor, seriously injured. Just in that moment, a shameful hope had flared: perhaps from the wreckage he would salvage just one of them, however damaged, disfigured or disabled – but no, the back-seat passenger had been in the other car. Did he need a priest, minister, rabbi? No, he said. That’s very thoughtful, but I have no religion. No buoyancy aid of belief to bob him along: he would simply have to hold fast to the life raft of routine.

He telephones Natascha and tells her what has happened. She sobs so hard he has to raise his voice as he explains he will still require her to do the – his – laundry, but she must touch nothing else. Like a greedy curator, a crazed archaeologist, he will catalogue and preserve the last traces of his precious family.

In the no-man’s-land between the accident and the cremation, Ken drifts like ash and dust through his beautiful, still house. He wanders in and out of his children’s bedrooms, closing the doors quietly behind him as if fearful of disturbing their slumber. On that first night he curls into a ball on the floor by the Aga and whimpers like a wounded dog: the sound appalls him but he finds he cannot stop. After that he makes himself sleep in the bed he has shared for two decades with Sylvie. He swaps sides in an attempt to superimpose the imprint of himself on the memory of her body; holds her nightgown to his face, breathes her in.

Friends come bearing casseroles he cannot eat.  Mark telephones from London: I’ll be back by the end of this week, mate. Hang on in there.
Ken knows he has no choice. To kill himself would be unkind and cowardly.
His sister offers to stay with him, just for a bit. He declines, politely.
Neighbours and the postman push notes and cards through the letter-box: shock, sympathy, disbelief:
Anything you need. Anything at all.
Colleagues are wonderful: Get some rest. Take all the time you need.

In the huge fridge, the perishables perish. The freezer is neatly ordered with containers of soft fruits and freeze-dried herbs from Waitrose, vacuum packed haunches of venison and beef, and countless bags of homemade soups and stews all neatly labelled and dated. He can’t bear to look at Sylvie’s handwriting.

Somehow, on the day, he pulls through. It helps that the humanist service is so personal. It helps that the church is crowded. It helps that he has love and support all around him. He repeats in his head a brave little mantra:
Better to have love and lost.  Better to have loved and lost.   Better to have loved and lost.
Only when the absurd golden velvet curtains are decorously drawn to signal respectful conclusion, only then does he falter:
Better to have loved. Better to have. Better to have.
He takes long slow breaths and grips the  back of the seat in front, recovers himself:
Better to have loved.

At the purvey afterwards he drinks only tea; he knows that if he has a drink now, he may never stop.  He excuses himself early and Mark drives him home:
Sure you’ll be all right by yourself, Ken?

Ken is not at all sure. However, he has widowers amongst his friends and associates, and he knows that he will just have to learn to adapt to it, this monstrous loss that manifests itself – the suffocating presence of an infinite absence – as a great boulder pressing down hard on his chest. He thinks of Colin, whose wife died only a few months back. At least Sylvie had not been ill. But Colin still had his daughters, and his wife had had time to leave things… well, tidy. She had bought the next year’s school uniforms, had sewn in the name tapes; she had written letters of farewell. Christ! When you thought about it, Colin was bloody lucky.

We may now find ourselves nodding slowly in approval: that’s the stuff, Ken! Be mad! You’re allowed! Ken, though, is ashamed. How could he even momentarily have had such a thought?  He wants to be worthy, for Sylvie and the kids. He wants to be courageous. Most of all, he wants to be dead.

Returning to work is a relief. He works harder than ever and puts in hours far longer than before, for there is, of course, no reason to go home. He avoids the weekends by working through them.

Consider counselling, hazards his sister.
Reading can take you out of yourself, blandishes his mother.
Come round, implore the neighbours, drop in, nothing fancy, very casual.
Come back to squash, mate.
Ever thought about golf?
You used to enjoy hill walking.
Join a club.

A half of a year goes by and he considers this a milestone. He has made it through Christmas and Sylvie’s birthday.  He is beginning to form a symbiotic relationship with the boulder on his chest. It’s here to stay, so there’s no point in fighting it. He barely notices the neon sign across his forehead that reads WIDOWED & BEREAVED. He hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol and he hasn’t taken sleeping tablets. He has imaginary conversations with Sylvie, with Abbie and Jake, tells them about his day, berates them for leaving him, beseeches them to return, begs their forgiveness that he is still here. He goes into the kids’ rooms and sits on their beds and looks around, carefully displacing nothing. He opens the closet and runs a hand, pointlessly, back and forth along the racks of Sylvie’s clothes.

A good night’s sleep remains beyond him and he cannot weep, but nor has he fallen apart. He has learned not to lean in too close to the wound. At times like this we have to dig deep, his father says. There are moments when Ken is in need of a bigger spade.

Beyond his office, Ken has no concentration. Evenings, he fidgets through the television channels every three minutes or so. The radio valiantly pits itself against the silence of the house but Ken’s not listening.  He mows the lawn but otherwise avoids the garden; he does not notice the growing air of neglect.

One morning, Pam brings him his cuppa and says, casually:  You didn’t happen to catch that wonderful programme last night, did you? Mind Over Marathon, BBC One?
I may have done, he replies ruefully. But you’ll have to remind me.
Oh, I think you’d like it, Mr Mitchell. Very moving – inspirational, really.  It’s a two-parter. Nick Whatsisname presents it – you know him off  that DIY SOS.
We used to watch DIY SOS, replies Ken: he finds the title bleakly resonant.

He goes home and fiddles inexpertly with Sylvie’s iPad. At length, he finds the programme on her BBC iPlayer app, and moreover he finds this makes him quite pleased with himself. He sets the device on the worktop, expecting not to pay much attention – he’ll just get the general idea, throw the Waitrose steak pie in the microwave and a pod in the Nespresso machine. But he’s hooked. He’s astonished not only that he sticks with it for the whole hour, but also that he’s impatient to be reunited with the cast – these real people sharing their sad and salutary stories, training for the London Marathon to combat their phobias and demons. Perspective, Ken, he says out loud, that’s what you’ve been missing. By the end of the episode he realises he is weeping – softly, gently and not for himself, not yet; but it’s a start.

When Pam brings him his cuppa the following morning, he volunteers: I looked up that programme you mentioned.
Ah! And what did you think?
Yes, very interesting, interesting. Food for thought, isn’t it?
Certainly is. Second part’s on tomorrow night, I think. Glad you found it worthwhile.
She waits until she is closing the door, so that he can’t catch her eye, then, dissembling, just-occurred-to- me: Mrs Mitchell was a keen runner, wasn’t she?

She was, she was. She had taken it up a few years earlier, after her mother died.  It was something she just did for herself, she used to say.  They made fun of her and her gear tracker, her nutrition guides and her training plans; called it her middle-aged crisis.  She knew that they were proud of her.

When Ken leaves the office that evening, he goes via Waitrose and buys some fresh fruit and vegetables, and a sirloin steak. When he returns home he reaches for the pile of running magazines still stacked on the side table in the snug, and he flicks through them as he eats his first real meal in a long time. It’s like a knife in his gut when he comes across Sylvie’s annotations here and there: a trail run that she has asterisked; a training chart she has completed with distances and times; kit against which she has scribbled comparative online prices. His right index finger grazes the arches and loops of her handwriting as if they were the curves and hollows of her body. He is afraid that he will forget what they looked like, Sylvie, Abbie and Jake; the shapes of their fingernails, the creases at their elbows, the exact colour of their irises. He fears he will forget the smell of them and the feel of them and the sounds of their voices.

This won’t do, as we all know, this picking round the edges of the scab. Ken knows it too, and takes action. Firstly, he rummages bravely and single-mindedly amongst the familial contents of the cloakroom cupboard for his old squash kit. He decides it’s dodgy but serviceable. Next, he browses idly, but lengthily, some of the websites mentioned in the running magazines. Then he tasks himself with downloading a running app to his iPhone – Map My Run, the one Sylvie used, he remembers. Finally he experiments, gingerly and surreptitiously, with a little jogging on the spot and a couple of runs up and down the stairs. The effect on his breathing and heart rate is unpromising, yet he goes to bed feeling oddly encouraged.

Ken ensures he is ready for Part Two of Mind Over Marathon: he cooks a simple supper of salmon fillet, boiled rice and green beans, and he eats this sitting down at the kitchen table. He announces to his wife and children that there’s something he wants to watch at nine o’clock: they do not demur.

He watches, he smiles, he laughs, he weeps – softly, gently and not for himself, not yet; but it is, as we’ve previously noted, a start.

He sets his alarm for six and in the pre-dawn half-light he sidles like a burglar out of his beautiful house. He skirts the picture-postcard village and slips into the enchanted forest and runs. He moves slowly, nervous of twisting an unaccustomed ankle on the uneven track. He concentrates on no more than the pound of his feet and the rhythm of his breathing, which he notices is laboured but manageable. There is a metronomic simplicity to this; he finds it soothing.

He runs until the voice in his pocket tells him Fifteen Minutes, at which point he turns back. He begins to see the trees, and the foxgloves. He inhales deeply; the air is heavy with pine, dew and approaching rain. Tomorrow, he decides, I’ll go five minutes further. On Saturday, he resolves, I’ll go to that sports shop on Great Western Road, get myself fitted with some proper running shoes.

What next? Well, for all we know, he may even join a club.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

USED TO BE

Used to Be

“I have to say – ”

“Then do say it, Mum, by all means,” sighed Judith, shifting her weight to her other leg. She really must do something about her varicose veins.

“ – that air travel is simply not what it used to be.”

“You can say that again.” Judith squinted up the straggle of the Other Queue, noting with dismay that it was infinitely longer than the Priority Queue, and was shuffling forward at the same rate as rush hour traffic on the Kingston Bridge.

“Now in my day, ” her mother leaned close in confidential mode, “it was an occasion! One dressed up to travel. There was a certain – well, glamour, I suppose is the word. The air hostesses were all so beautifully turned out; so well-presented, stylish – high heels and so on – and slim. And,” – she narrowed her eyes at the effete young man making his way down the line, solemnly placing a cardboard box over everyone’s cabin luggage – “female.”

“Welcome to the low-cost twenty-first century, Mum,” Judith smiled pluckily. She was beginning to worry a little about the others: they seemed to have been gone a very long time. In fact, she was beginning to worry a little about this whole idea. She had allowed herself to be swept along on a tide of optimism, or blown by a wind of filial duty, or pushed by an irresistible force of family obligation. Whatever the planetary phenomenon, here they all were now, perched on the edge of the abyss that was The Extended Family Holiday.

Judith knew, of course, that she had simply been too cowardly to resist her brother’s logic.

“Jude, it’ll be fine! Think about it – you, me, all her grandchildren and a place big enough for us all to just chill and take time out if that’s what we want to do. When will we get everyone together again, eh? God knows where the kids’ll all be in a year’s time This is it! A one-off! And she’s made her mind up about not renewing her passport. None of us is getting any younger, least of all Emmy.”

“Did you know she hates you calling her Emmy? She said that to me once.”

( – Judith, I want to thank you. You are the only person who ever calls me Mum. Your brother has called me Emmy since he was about eighteen. And, of course, it used to be the case that one called one’s in-laws mum or dad. So, you know, I always called your father’s mother Mum Galbraith; he called mine Mum Dalgleish. Bill, Lena – they’ve never called me mum. But I quite understand: fashions change. Not always for the better.)

Gordon, unabashed, continued: “She and Dad loved France, and I just think it would be a really great thing to do, just this once, to get us all together out there for her eightieth. Celebrate that, celebrate the family. A family celebration in the south of France! Go on, Judith. Say yes. Say yes quickly before I lose the option on this accommodation!”

It was always impossible to resist Gordon when he cranked up the boyish enthusiasm. Besides, he was right. Their mother would soon be eighty, against all the odds: surely everyone could give two weeks of their lives to make that a very special event.

Giving the glad tidings that evening over dinner had gone as well as could be expected:

“…So Uncle Gordon and I thought, wouldn’t it be just wonderful to have Grandma’s eightieth birthday do in…FRANCE! All of us together. Uncle Gordon, Aunty Lena, Vicky, Valerie and Veronica – ”

This being further than she had expected to get before the collective outburst burst out, Judith felt quite encouraged.

“Come on, team! It’ll be so great – two weeks of sunshine, our own swimming pool, all that fab French food and – ”

“Your mother,” Bill intoned.

“Grandma,” the twins gloomily concurred.

“And,” Mark winced, “The Cousins From Hell.”

And thus it came to pass that the accommodation was confirmed and the low-cost flights along with preferential partnership car rental were finally wrested from the website. Someone somewhere in this tortuous process had decided that there was no need for priority boarding, seat selection, hold baggage, sports equipment, travel insurance, baby seats, winter tyres, special assistance (although that would have useful in terms of navigating the online booking process) or sat nav (ditto).

And now Judith was keeping calm and carrying on in The Other Queue, fretting about where the other others had got to, and which amongst them, brother or husband, or – less likely – sister-in-law, was taking shameless advantage of those ridiculous airport licensing hours. Two of them – i.e. herself and one other – were going to have to drive at the other end.

“…appreciate of course the entire experience has been what you might call democratised,” her mother was saying. Judith put her considerable will (inherited, in truth, from said mother) towards making Emmy the focus of her attention.

“Well, quite, Mum. I mean, flying from Glasgow to Marseille in peak season for eighty quid each return – who could argue with that? Even,” she added hastily, heading her mother off at the rhetorical pass, “if it does mean all this standing in line. Oh, look!” She felt weak with relief. “Here come the troops!”

So relieved was she to espy the missing cohort making their sly way up the queue, she quite neglected her assessment of relative consumption of alcohol. At any rate, everyone was smiling and firm of footfall.

The Other Queue inched infinitesimally towards the aircraft, on the threshold of which there was a slightly undignified scuffle by all four adults to avoid sitting by Grandma. Fortunately this latter individual was so intent on bagging a window seat she did not notice the underhand means by which those seated beside her happened to be Mark and Valerie.

Mark drew the shorter of the short straws, and found himself in the middle seat. Valerie promptly cut herself off from any possible in-flight interaction by inserting her earphones and, for good measure, feigning sleep. As the Boeing 737 picked up speed, Emmy grabbed her grandson’s arm.

“Oh, Mark!” she beamed. “I just love taking off! Isn’t it thrilling? It’s the one thing about air travel that is just as it used to be. That and a smooth landing, of course, let’s hope, hah!”

Taking her eldest grandchild’s polite smile for agreement, she continued, “You know, when your grandfather and I first travelled to France, an aeroplane was completely out of the question. Oh my goodness, yes. Back then, air travel was only for those and such as those. You know, the rich and famous. Our first flight was on a very small propellor plane to the Isle of Man. Yes! But even so, it was a special occasion.” She stole a glance at Mark’s baggy fatigue shorts and crumpled tee shirt. “We all dressed up to travel in those days.”

Mark, ever the diplomat, replied, “Yeah, Grandma, I bet back in the day you had a little pouch in the seat in front of you, am I right? No need to ask for a sicky bag, yeah? And I bet the drinks and snacks were complimentary too.”

Emmy stared back at him aghast. “If you mean we have to pay for refreshments, well…I certainly won’t be having anything!”

Sure enough, she ignored the call to order hot snacks, on principle of course, but also because she had no idea what a panini was. When the bar trolley appeared, however, she ordered a double G & T for herself and an orange juice for Mark, who smiled inwardly that she did not order for his “sleeping” cousin in the aisle seat.

“Hmmm,” she opined after several tentative sips, “I suppose one must be grateful for a decent gin. And at least there’s ice. But I have to tell you, it used to be that the drinks were included. And, of course, they were served with peanuts or the like. On paper doilies. And one would be served breakfast, or a light lunch or supper. And hot scented towels afterwards. It all used to be so much more…special.

Emmy had a second double in due course. Sipping it with growing contentment, and gazing at the French countryside stitched together below her in hues of gold and green and amber and ochre, torn intermittently by rivers and lakes, she grabbed Mark’s arm again.

“This was such a lovely idea, Mark! All my family together – I really had not dared to dream! I just want you to know that I am so excited. Your grandfather and I travelled all over France, did I ever tell you that? Yes, yes, silly me. Of course I did. Aah. I feel him with us now, I truly do.” Here she paused to wipe with great delicacy an imaginary tear. “Now tell me, dear: do you think there’s any possibility of another wee gin before we land?”

At Marseille, Mark gallantly assumed responsibility for his grandmother’s carry-on suitcase. She grumbled about the inconvenience of having to take charge of one’s own baggage. “It used to be that one could expect a baggage handler to do all that,” she observed. “I cannot see for the life of me how this arrangement constitutes any sort of progress.”

She had a point: at Marseille airport the preferential partnership car hire took over forty minutes to complete, and the porta-cabin office was perfectly airless.
“It used to be,” Emmy confided to her daughter-in-law, Lena, “that one’s onward transportation was included. And that way, one could relax and appreciate the passing scenery. That was the beauty of the package holiday, I suppose.”

It was a three hour drive in two MPVs to their accommodation. The motorway was fast and furious, and Emmy – whose seniority gave her the passenger seat beside Gordon – found to her private dismay that she recognised nothing of this stretch of coastline, the Golfe du Lion she had at one time known so well.

She and Douglas had come here first as students. She had had to lie to her parents, of course, because it used to be that nice girls did not go on holiday with young men. Lying had been so easy then, before all this gadgetry. She stole a glance behind her at her grand-daughters, each of whom was plugged into one of those infernal devices, locked in to a virtual world that shut out the beauty of the real one through which they were now travelling. God help them. This generation could know no real freedom, whereas she and Douglas had been utterly unfettered. The occasional long-distance telephone call had been all that was required, and a post card or letter. They had travelled overnight to London on the sleeper, then taken another train to Dover, then a ferry, then another train to Paris Gare du Nord, and then yet another train…

They had loved the south of France. She could recall with perfect clarity that first train journey to Menton; the starch-stiff couchette sheets with their blue laundry stamps; the coffee and croissants served by a porter at five in the morning, and the absurdly picturesque dawn beauty of the station at Aix-en-Provence. And here, or somewhere close to here, there had been the camargue, and the horses and flamingos and that extraordinary landscape of salty étangs, and endless miles of vineyards. It used to be unspoilt and undeveloped and underpopulated, but of course she knew that could no longer possibly be the case.

She had always felt a great affinity with France. With her first fiancé, she had even talked about moving permanently to this very region. He had been heavily influenced by the Colourists, and waxed lyrical about the light of the Midi. Andrew was five years her senior, a hugely gifted student at the Glasgow School of Art, but oh dear so very earnest: in her heart she knew he was not for her. He was devastated when she broke it off, but she had met Douglas and there was no denying what she felt for him. She smiled to herself at the recollection of herself as quite the femme fatale of the Athenaeum. Judith and Gordon used to roll their eyes when she referred to it as such, but it used to be that everyone called it that. Only those on the outside called it as the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. And now, her children informed her, it was a Conservatoire!

At school, Emmy had been gifted not only in music but in languages,  excelling in Latin and French. In fact, she still knew the words to La Marseillaise, having been taught them by Killer Dawson in 1946. She cradled within her wired-up, post by-pass breast even now a secret ambition to sing them out loud in France on Bastille Day.

They settled with swift and surprising harmony into their accommodation. The nearest village dated back to pre-Roman times, and lay at a distance of about two miles of vineyards from the property, itself a two hundred year old wine domaine that had been tastefully restored so as to afford just the right level of modernity without losing its rustic charm. There were extensive grounds, where rosemary, iris and lavender sprawled with insouciance. A series of stone-lined terraces led from the living quarters to a large swimming pool, and no matter the time of day, the gardens offered blessed pockets of shade.

Judith joined her mother on the wrought iron bench under the shade of an ancient fig tree.

“Happy?”

“Judith, dear, it’s quite, quite perfect. So beautiful, so peaceful. I am truly so grateful to you.”

“Ooft, don’t thank me: it was all Gordon’s idea. I – well, I was worried you’d be forever comparing it to…you know…how it used to be.”

“Ah, well, of course, it’s not quite as it used to be,” Emmy elucidated. “For one thing, there are far more foreigners than before. Far more people in general. And there used to be no supermarkets, you know? One shopped at the boulangerie, at the boucherie, at the épicerie.”

“Ah, come on now, Mum! Isn’t that what we’ve been doing? Apart from the practicalities of catering for the masses, I mean – bog roll and charcoal and Badoit. For that sort of thing I grant you, we’ve gone over to the Dark Side. But in general – ”

“Yes, yes, of course, Judith. I’m not criticising, believe me. It’s just that it used to be that there simply was no supermarket. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Yes, well, okay Mum. But then once there was no running water or electricity either, know what I mean?”

“Oh yes, I do. I do appreciate your point. One must move with the times. And I want you to know that I had the most wonderful day on my birthday. The food, and the bunting and the music – everything was absolutely perfect. I can never thank you all enough. Truly.”

Emmy took her daughter’s hand and squeezed, and they sat in happy silence for several minutes.

“It’s so funny,” Emmy said at last. “In all those years that your father and I came to France, we never once went to a Bastille Day celebration. Isn’t that the oddest thing? I can only imagine that we must have been travelling, or perhaps we were just never here on the fourteenth of July…”

“Well, it should be good for a laugh if nothing else,” smiled Judith.

The oompah band was already in full swing and the plane trees lining the village square had been decked with white fairy lights. They joined the queue – noisily good-natured – for the welcome apéro and hovered a little awkwardly on the fringes of the crowd, sipping from their plastic cups. Four long rows of trestle tables had been dressed with white paper table cloths, on which were written in biro the names of those who had reserved places. Bill went to reconnoitre, and having found their allocated seats beckoned them over. Two-litre plastic bottles of rosé from the cave co-opérative were placed at regular intervals on the tables, along with bowls of potato crisps and olives. Great pungent vats of moules mariniers were placed to one side of the podium, on which the musicians were precariously placed. The air was filled with the scents of the garrigue, garlic, perfume and perspiration. An individual they took to be the mayor signalled for silence and addressed the crowd in an impenetrable Midi accent. There was much cheering, clapping and foot stamping and then the musicians started up La Marseillaise.

Everyone rose to their feet for the national anthem. Suddenly, above the mumbled and muttered and tuneless generality there rose the most astonishing mezzo-soprano:

“Allons, enfants de la patrie…”

Emmy, word-perfect.  Emmy, radiant as she used to be.

They all looked at her, not just Judith and Gordon and Bill and Lena and the grandchildren, but the entire assembly. She stood ramrod straight , her gaze fixed on some unidentifiable spot that used to be, her voice pure as a bell, the wires in her chest only very slightly raised, like surface veins.

The burst of applause at the end was entirely for her. She scoffed her moules and frites with relish.

The mayor asked her to dance. She graciously acquiesced.

Her family watched her as she gaily exchanged pleasantries with her dancing partner. Gordon leaned over to Judith.

“That’s it. She can die happy now!”

And that very evening, aged eighty years and four days, that’s exactly what she did.

The Bridge

When at last everyone had gone – or more precisely, when she had been able to make her excuses to those few remaining diehards and be gone herself – then there was only really one place to go: the bridge.

Lying west of the bay, it had been hyphenating Kintyre and Mid Argyll for a century and a half. It was not elegantly arched or sweepingly curved, but short and humped because it spanned a width of water barely ten feet across. This was the point where the Glenalsh Burn, having cautiously picked its stony way for ten miles or so from Kilmartin, briefly found its stride only to meet the loch a hundred yards later in a messy splutter of surprise.

She had first seen him on this bridge. It had been one of those wonderful Indian summer days and she had been killing time before her secretarial studies adult education class. She had no ambition to become a secretary, but had signed up for the course because her mother held that a girl who could type a letter would never be stuck for work. Ditto a girl who could pull a pint. She was already the latter and she figured she may as well also be the former, and the adult education class slid easily into the split between her shifts, and she had nothing better to do in this bloody backwater.

So there she was, strolling along the footpath and pretending not to be a square peg in a round hole when he came in to her line of sight. Whenever she replayed this moment over the years, she fancied she had stopped dead in her tracks but she could no longer be absolutely sure of this. What was certain, though, was her desire to stand still. She stood there and took him in and knew that this was the instant before the course of her life changed forever.

He had not been in Lochgilphead long, of that she was sure. Firstly, she would have noticed him. Secondly, he was dressed differently from the local boys. Thirdly, no Argyllshire boy would sit on the bridge like that, all alone, eyes closed and face upturned to the autumn sunshine. Her appraisal of the whole was swift and sure but the first thing she noticed about him was his arms. He had arms like Bruce Springsteen’s. He had the most beautiful arms she had ever seen.

Those arms, she said to herself, would look good wrapped round me.

A few moments later, she fell at his feet.

“Oops a daisy!” he said as he helped her up. “You all right there?”

“Yes, yes thanks,” she replied, a little more breathless than anticipated, having thrown herself to the ground rather too hard. “Sorry! Wasn’t watching where I was going…” She was aiming for charmingly dishevelled, slightly disorientated.

“Here – take this. You’ve grazed your cheek a bit, just there -“ He held out to her a spotted handkerchief. She felt her whole face blazing. She had difficulty meeting his gaze. Her breathlessness seemed not to be abating. Perhaps she really was disorientated.

“Oh,” she managed, batting away the proffered hanky, “um, thanks. Be a shame to get blood on it…”

She watched him fold his beautiful arms and watch her lick her index finger and rub her face.

“Right, then,” – she shot him her much-practised winsome smile – “Better get going. Thanks – “

“- Leo.” They shook hands. It felt to her like electricity. “I’m Leo. New kid in town.”

That had been thirty four years ago. Now she ran her hands lightly over the cope stones. This was not the sort of bridge you would deface with graffiti or carving, not the sort of bridge to which you would attach commemorative padlocks. There was no impression, no imprint, no physical trace of their younger selves. She found that oddly comforting.

One night, after a protracted pub crawl, they had quarrelled and gone their separate ways, each brimful of alcohol-fuelled fury. She had returned home and wept bitterly, sure that this was the end. Leo was crossing the bridge on the way to his digs when he was suddenly overcome by weariness and, with the simple logic of the drunk, decided to stop and rest. He lay down on the wide copes and gazed at the night sky. Suddenly he was soaking wet and the stones beneath him seemed inexplicably smaller. It was very dark now and the booze had dulled his senses; he could not at first remember where he was supposed to be. He lay still, trying to make sense of his surroundings. He recalled, little by little, the events of the evening – the hard drinking, the inexplicable escalation of resentments and recriminations, the embittered parting.

He had been on the bridge; he remembered then. He had felt very tired and he had lain down. He remembered thinking how easy it would be just to bob along, to be a pebble carried away by the tide… And then he was gasping for air, stumbling in the shallows, scraping his knees and knuckles against the shale and the shingle, struggling upright.

He told her about this later that day, after having somehow made his way to A and E.
And that, having somehow not lost his life, he was somehow not going to lose her.

Yet somehow, she had now lost him.

The bay was darkening in front of her and the town was lightening behind her. The bridge seemed brighter than she remembered; perhaps the street lighting had been augmented along this stretch of road, those fancy new eco-friendly electric coils they used these days. The bridge of her memory was either sunlit or moonlit; the water of the loch was forever glassy and flat. Glory days. Bruce Springsteen days. She pulled her coat tight and folded her arms against the chill.

She had first seen him on this bridge. They had kissed and quarrelled and drunk and danced on this bridge. She felt very tired. She leaned over the stone wall and contemplated the untidy conclusion of the Glenalsh Burn and how easy it would be just to bob along, to be a pebble carried away by the tide.

 

 

A Tale of Two Weddings

“Okay, okay. I’ll come, all right?  Just promise me there won’t be a chocolate fountain.”

Fiona burst into one of her incongruously ribald barks of laughter.  Earlier in the evening, a loudly appreciative audience of their peers had reacted with similar raucous mirth to his account of the Garthamlock Wedding.

Now they were in her flat, and she winked at him across the kitchen table.  “Knowing the Hay-Stevens, it’s more likely to be a Bolly fountain.”

They grinned and raised their glasses to each other, and Alexander McCadden knew that the moment should have been perfect.  Here they were, a golden pair of promising undergrads, lately repaired from the sort of West End bar the Herald invariably described as trendy. They were good looking, clever, ambitious and In A Relationship. The moment should have been – would have been – perfect, had it not been for the Garthamlock Wedding.

Even as his mother had sealed his fate by appealing to his sense of family -“Yer goin Eck an that’s that” – he had known it would be worth it for the comedic value it would later assume with Fiona and his university friends, in a wine bar and of an evening such as this.

“Please stop calling me Eck, mum.  I’ve told you a thousand times, it’s Zander now.”

Expertly deaf ears.  “Ye’ll need tae hire a kilt.  An none o they stupid lime green wans.”  Then, relenting: “Ye can leave the buttonhole tae me, darlin. Ah’ll speak tae oor Gemma. Her next door neighbour’s daughter’s got a gardin.”

He had edited out this conversation, of course, because how else was he to deal with domestic ennui such as his mother’s accent and the familial contraction of his forename?  He had always been Wee Eck, in order to distinguish him from his late father, and it had never bothered him, not until some Freshers’ Week wise guy  had changed it to Shrek.  “She’s Fiona, see?  So you must be Shrek! See?  Geddit?” It was tiresome, and it had stuck, and his pride was dented, so when Fiona began some time later to call him Zander he felt at once flattered and liberated.

The Garthamlock Wedding had swept through the scheme like a pandemic: resistance was futile.  The bride-to-be was Zander’s cousin, a cherished only child, and the occasion of her marriage was to be lavish.

“Ridikkilus. They’ve damn near bankruptit theirsels.  A horse-drawn carriage! Through Garthamlock! Hope tae God they don’t get mugged.”

Now, four days after the event, Zander the raconteur was on form and in his element:  “No muggers were harmed in the making of this marriage.  Alas, however, it did rain upon the parade.”

The resultant hilarity had been a little exaggerated, no doubt on account of the hours of drinking they had all put in.  Zander silenced it with an authoritarian shake of his right index finger.  “But!  But!  Bridal spirits remained buoyant, even though no-one had thought to bring a brolly so her temporary tattoo – My Little Pony – had run something dreadful and her hair extensions were coming undone.” Guffaws. Sniggers.

He didn’t mention the admirable resilience with which Michelle had carried off the ruination of her fairytale entrance.  She had stood in the doorway, drookit but undiminished, attending to a squawk of  little boys and girls, some of whom were gleefully shaking loose the few remaining petals that clung to their dripping bunches of flowers.

“God love her,” empathised Zander’s mother, looking on fondly as the bride righted her collapsing up-do. “If only yer dad wiz here!  It rained on oor wedding day too, y’know.” She fished a long length of loo paper from the new handbag.

Zander had turned away from his mother’s misty nostalgia and watched, with the professional detachment of the social commentator, the now receding form of the bridal party as it made its way down the aisle to the accompaniment of Celine Dion belting out with startling incongruity – or perhaps prescience –  My Heart Will Go On.   Progress was halting on account of the ten or so bodies jostling for space:  the bedraggled but brave bride and her father, Uncle George, himself a bit damp and shiny; the bride’s best pal and maid of honour (surprisingly comely); two further bridesmaids, and an unruly throng of flower girls and page boys.  The colour scheme was an indisputably eye-catching combination of purple and yellow.

“Think Orange Walk,” the wag Zander instructed his wine bar audience.  “With that unmistakable sweaty sheen of polyester.” Whoops and wolf whistles.

Deliberately, he missed out the patience, kindness and good humour of this extended bridal group.  He did not describe the moment when bride met post-conflict wheelchair-bound groom at the altar and he took his large starched hired white handkerchief, reached up to her reaching down, and gently dried her face.  The love was unmistakable.  The congregation burst into cheers, tears and applause. But such a moment was not the stuff of satire.

“An extended bridal procession,” he elucidated, “in every sense: veil, hair, eye lashes, nails.  A cast of thousands.”

To be fair to Zander, he did not know that three of the younger members of the bridal group had recently lost their mother to cancer, and that they had been drafted in late in an attempt to give them something to look forward to.  And how could he have known, from behind, that one other child had Down’s Syndrome?

Bride and groom – husband and wife – proceeded at the ponderous pace of The Power of Love up the aisle and into the rain of Garthamlock.  Out came the smartphones. Photos were snapped and video footage was shot on the rain-slick steps of Blawarthill Parish Church.  Coloured raindrops of confetti showered through the smirr.  The tight knot of hopeful kids unraveled on the pavement into its component strands and scrambled for the coins flung – shining slipstream! – from the bridal limo and Big Jim McCann’s private-hire coach.  Zander remembered suddenly and with absolute clarity the childhood excitement of this moment:  the push and shove for small change, the later bitter-sweet comparisons outside the Paki’s once the gains had been spent on Dainties, Fruit Salads and Black Jacks.  But this was a strictly private series of thoughts.

“And when finally we get to the reception, what awaits us in the foyer but….” And here Zander paused for effect, “yes, yes; an unavoidable expanse of vertiginous swirling carpeting – and?” he demanded theatrically. He gave the gloating assembly a moment to make its own outlandish suggestions before delivering his punch line: “…a chocolate fountain.”)

Once the general glee had subsided, Fiona said, quietly, at his side, “You should have taken me along.  To ease the pain.”

His showman’s adrenalin rush was replaced with a hot wash of shame.  Because another editorial cut to the Garthamlock Wedding had been his amorous encounter later in the evening with the maid of honour.

“Ah, Fi,” he breathed, raising his eyes to the ceiling rather than look directly at her, “you know I would have loved to, but -”

“Liar.” Her smile softened the truth for them both. “Don’t tell me on the one hand it’s no-expense-spared and then expect me to believe there was no ‘and partner’ on your invitation. You know,” she continued, still smiling, “you can’t put it off for ever.  Sooner or later you’re going to have to out me to your family.”

“You’re not ready.  They’re not ready. Christ knows, I’m not ready!” He camped up the horror, but he was quite serious.  How could he begin to reconcile Fiona and family? How could he effect the requisite psychological morph to be simultaneously Eck from Garthamlock and Zander from Gilmorehill?

A month passed.  A month in which he struggled to forget the incident with the maid of honour, whilst still extracting maximum amusement amongst his clever chums with tales of the speeches (impenetrable syntax); the buffet meal (fusion cuisine: pakora, KFC, haggis fritters); the first dance (The Woman in Red. Confusing); the karaoke (come back Jimmy Shand, all is forgiven); and the increasingly chaotic collection of all ages around the chocolate fountain (a monument of scatological splendour.)

And now, Fiona had received a wedding invitation and wanted him to accompany her, and whilst he really did dread the moment when the two poles of his planet would meet, he felt perfectly confident about moving in Fiona’s circles.  After all, he was intelligent and personable, quite the young man about town these days: cultured and educated; smart, witty and confident. Without being vain, he knew he made attractive and interesting company.  And so, whilst he was not ready to take Fiona to Garthamlock, he embraced this second wedding in as many months as an opportunity to showcase his reinvented self.

If only he hadn’t done what he’d done with the maid of honour.  An indiscretion he interpreted as an atavistic imperative to conform to type, though that could just be the Social Anthropology talking.

He borrowed a kilt from a friend of a friend.  It was, as his mother would have opined, a stupid lime green wan, and somewhat too large on the waist; but it saved him the hire fee, and sat fashionably low-slung on his hips.  Edgy, he thought.

The venue was a red sandstone Scots Baronial pile in the country and Zander felt the faintest tingle of apprehension as they alighted from the guests’ coach.  It appeared that this was not a hotel, as he’d assumed, but a private home such as one saw only in waiting room curly copies of Scottish Field. The grounds rose behind the building and disappeared under azaleas and rhododendrons in full and showy bloom.  From the facade, archetypically clipped lawns obliged with the proverbial sweep to the shores of the loch.  He stood up straight, regretting but ready to brazen out the outlandish kilt and the Doc Martins.

Fiona slipped her arm through his as they made their way to the marquee.

“Welcome to the Hay-Stevens’,” she murmured.

“Christ.  Tell me again how you know this girl.”

“Ah, you know how it is.  Shared history and all that…Of course, I haven’t seen her in a long time. Apart from her parents I probably won’t know anyone.”  She leaned across and seized both his hands in hers.  “That’s why it’s so great you came, Zander. Having you here just makes it so much easier.  Plus,” she gave him an arch look, “I get to show off my gorgeous boyfriend.”

For all his painstaking sang-froid, Zander blushed with pleasure.  “You’re the gorgeous one, Fi,” he replied, surprising himself with a rare sincerity.

He would push the memory of the maid of honour to the back of his mind. An aberration, that was all. He had left all of that behind him: the council scheme and the comprehensive school and the careless shagging.  He loved Fiona, and with her by his side he would move onwards and upwards.

Posies of creamy buds and a single but vast arrangement of lilies adorned the interior of the marquee, where gilt chairs were set in orderly readiness for the ceremony. A string quartet strummed some classical stuff, very softly. Kilted ushers – in real, owner-occupied tartan – smilingly distributed vellum orders of service and smoothly escorted guests to seats.  Real hymns were sung and everyone knew the words.  Some famous soprano sang some famous aria. The groom kissed the bride.  Zander followed with strict observance the perfectly modulated restraint of it all and surprised himself with a sudden longing for the unfettered emotions of Garthamlock.

The congregation emerged to brilliant sunshine and the accompaniment of a single piper.  Zander and Fi found themselves by mysterious but natural gravitational force attached to the cluster around the bridal group, now smiling and mingling on the sloping lawns while aproned waiters proffered champagne and canapés. The bridal gown was an ivory silk sheath, inviting (amongst other thoughts) an unfavourable comparison with the rain-spotted punctured puffball of  Garthamlock. With some pleasure, Zander noted the sun-kissed slenderness of the female guests: no fake baked muffin tops here. With some equal dismay, he noted that their escorts all looked like Bear Grills or Dan Snow: chiseled, capable, confident.  Reminding himself that he was not afraid, he looked everyone in the eye, grasping hands in a firm handshake.  Innumerable self-introductions were successfully negotiated.

They made their way to Table Six in the deftly reconfigured marquee.  The gilt chairs had been gift-wrapped in pale linen, big bows tied at their backs.  Further introductions ensued. Giles. Piers. Ben.

“Tim, “clipped a lanky, poofy looking bloke. Zander did not so much follow as intuit the reptile flick of the glance down the lime-green, too-large, not-owned kilt.

“Eck. Um, Al.” Christ. What was the matter with him, striving for the requisite monosyllable?

“Zander, actually.”  Fuck, messed that up.

The lanky poofy bloke had lost interest and moved off anyway, but Zander’s relief was to be short lived:  he had seated himself on Fi’s other side.

The speeches were witty and engaging, though the rugby in-jokes were a little too esoteric for Zander and he was distracted by an increasing need to keep tabs on the lanky poofy bloke trying his luck on Fi’s far side.  The food was classy British simplicity. Conversation was a polite and impersonal hum.  Fiona pressed her thigh against his. He felt an enormous sense of well-being.  All he needed to do was to keep the maid of honour in her place.

Out on the lantern-lit terrace and partaking freely of the free fizz whilst the marquee was cleared yet again – this time for dancing – Zander waved his arm in vague consent when Fiona said she was just going off for a minute.  He perched on the cope stone of a low wall and watched with proprietorial pride as she weaved away down the lawns.  He saw how she moved with the same languid ease of so many of these guests, the lazy pace that said, why would I want to rush anywhere when life is so pleasant right here?  In Garthamlock, people moved with graceless speed, heads down in readiness to storm the exit before fire, flood or some other socio-economic fate caught them up.

“May I?” A cultured voice spoke over his shoulder.

Without waiting for a reply, the speaker settled herself beside him, gently easing off her shoes.  LK Bennett, he noticed.

They exchanged unfocused smiles.  He searched for an uncharacteristically elusive opening gambit, but fortunately she took the lead.

“That’s quite a kilt.”

He glanced down ruefully at the lime green.  “S’not mine.  Jus’ wearing it for a friend.”

“No, no – I like it.  It’s…distinctive.  Singles you out from the crowd, yeah?”

More vague mutual smiling.  Then, “But to be honest, I know who you are anyway.   Zander, right?”

He felt a sudden weight, an exhaustion.  He was drunk, and also very thirsty.  In fact, it seemed to him that Fiona had been gone a long long time, and he could really go a pint of heavy.  He had a momentary urge to correct her, to tell her No, my name is Alexander.  Proudly polysyllabic. But she cut across his reverie.

“Fiona’s bit of rough.”

He blinked at her stupidly.  “Sorry?”

She laughed.  “That’s what she calls you, isn’t it?  It’s your pact,” and here she made that really annoying inverted commas gesture with the index and middle fingers of each hand, “Bit of rough” and “posh totty”, isn’t that what you call each other?”

Zander made a sound as unintelligible as it was non-committal.  He was struggling to assimilate the knowledge that Fi had revealed that much of their private chat to….well, anyone, really.

“Ah, don’t be angry,” she soothed, perfectly unperturbed.  “She’s just, like, so happy to be with you?  She really does love you, yeah?”

Zander looked at her, concentrating hard on conveying the correct level of silent interrogation.  It was difficult, the fresh air having colluded with the champagne to render him a bit slower than he would have liked.

She laughed, blithely unaware of the glower gathering on his face.  “She’s over in the marquee;  she’s had us all in stitches about that wedding you were at last month?  Your cousin’s, yeah?  That chocolate fountain? Hilarious!”

Zander nodded weakly, hoping thus to indicate that their tete-a-tete had reached its natural conclusion, and carefully got to his feet.

“Lovely to talk to you, er…” he hazarded.  “But – duty calls.  Y’ know how it is…”

Without waiting for her response, he lurched away from her sly comments and her expensive footwear.  He must find Fi.  Where the fuck was she? By Christ, he was going to let her have it.  Bit of fucking rough? Posh fucking totty? And worst of all:  how fucking dare she make fun of the Garthamlock Wedding?

 

At Tchesma

At Tchesma, Sister Akulina paced and prayed. The waiting was long and hard. It was late in December and the Tsarskoe Selo road had been an icy exhalation all the way from Saint Petersburg. No-one had spoken to her until the police guard locked her in this great dismal hall and said – Wait.

The stone walls sweated chill but the cold was nothing against the heat of her anticipation. None other than the Empress herself had entrusted and honoured her – her, Akulina! – with this most sacred mission. And this, Akulina knew, was because He had chosen her. He had chosen her for the end, and let his choice be known to the Empress.

With her left hand she clutched her crucifix; with her right she felt again and again for the Empress’ letter, patting it for her own reassurance, smoothing the pocket in which it smouldered. She had been warned there would be a delay, possibly of some hours. God knew Sister Akulina had learned patience; her vocation had instilled a great forebearance; but nevertheless the waiting tested her.

She paced and prayed and pictured quite clearly the bickering imperial surgeons, each of them aching to dissect their demon. She fancied she could feel their thrill. To verify that the heart was indeed blackened by sin; to see for oneself the rumoured putrefaction of the organs. To ogle with infinite distaste his reported priapism. Her pace intensified and her breath came harder as she painted the scene on the sly dark canvas of her imagination: the royal doctors with their scalpels and teeth drawn back, licking their lips, aflame with the desire to draw and quarter the peasant who had caused them so much embarrassment.

What self-serving fools they all were, the acolytes and aristocrats alike: those who had conspired against him were nothing but jealous fools, impotent gainsayers blasted by the potency of his healing powers. She, Sister Akulina, was one of so many whose salvation had been his gift: it was no wonder the Tsar himself called him the true Christ. She had been guided to repent and she had been cleansed by pure love, and forever after she would follow the one sure path as his devoted servant.

It was true that he had – unwittingly – attracted the self-seeking and the shallow. Sister Akulina scorned those cheap bribes of trinkets and wines, tapestries and flowers, those who lay in wait, jostling and vying with one another for keep-sakes and miracle cures, daring to pay their way to a private audience.Yet she understood those who came as true pilgrims, those who hoped simply for a healing glance.

Sister Akulina felt a sudden light-headedness at the recollection of his eyes upon her. She had just turned fifteen, and was not yet, of course, Akulina. She had gone to the banya with Cousin Sofia who wanted to see for herself if the reports were true. Naturally, it was beautiful, wild Sofia who had initially caught his eye but, as his wife was purported to have said, he had enough for all. When it was her turn, she felt herself – here, she struggled for expression – laid bare, stripped of pretence, freed from all constraints. He knew her, and her desire for purification and so he led her into the forest, and there they had danced and rejoiced.

She knew right then that she was changed forever. She craved him by day, dreamt of him by night, awoke racked by ecstasy, wretched. Her mother, desperate and uncomprehending, at length had her admitted to the care of the good sisters of Okhati.

The good sisters were avid followers of the vile reports of his excesses: the drinking, the gambling, the promiscuity. But there were other accounts of this strange seer: stories of visions and premonitions, miraclulous and mystical cures: even exorcism. The novice Akulina saw her chance. After all, she felt herself already possessed by a force beyond her control.

At Okhati, once he had been warmly welcomed by the good sisters, she had his full attention. He had been tender and patient, explaining to her the one true way to expel the devil. He warned her that it may take several days, but promised that at last she would be purified. She had succumbed, she supposed, to some sort of delirium, suspended somewhere in a stupor of the senses.. She recalled the same opacity of the forest: incense, candles and the smell of cognac. Fingering now the crucifix on her breast, and stroking the letter in her pocket, Akulina licked her dry chapped lips and tried to ignore the fluttering between her legs.

She had been exorcised and was pure, and now she had been chosen. Shivering, blessed with the written order of the Empress, she continued to pace and pray. She alone would lay out the body. She would soap him, anoint and embalm him, then dress him and lay him in the coffin. The waiting was long and hard, but Sister Akulina could be patient. She would honour him. She would have all night.