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.

Night Nurse

After the blister-bubble panic-burst, he understood that Nadine had been right. He had begun to let himself go lately, it was perfectly true; he had been a silly-billy, getting all agitated at the thought of the bother of it all:  the chilly-strip, the watery hot-rush, the soapy eye-sting. But now that it was all over he felt ever so much better: cleaner – obviously – and also somehow stronger. Tomorrow, he fancied, he might even go out for a bit if the rain stayed off.

“You were quite right, Nadine,” he conceded, taking from her his customary Ovaltine. “I don’t know why I made such a fuss. I feel so much better now.”

“Silly billy!” Even her irritating stock response seemed all of a sudden quite endearing. He smiled fondly after her receding form, giving a little head-shake of self-surprise.

Tomorrow, he resolved, he would go out for a bit. If the rain stayed off. He snuggled down a little further in the ruggy-wool, enjoying this time of drowse, imagining the morrow-outing.

******************************

“Yes – out out! And it was a lovely day, bit of sunshine, not too cold…No, no-one I actually recognised but plenty of young folk, y’know, with dogs and children and their bicycles and what not, all very friendly… Yes – oh yes, most definitely; I shall make a point of it!…”

Nadine stood on the threshold, humming to herself contentedly. He radiated positivity: it was infectious. This week’s report would be a most satisfying submission. Gwen would be delighted.

“A turn-up for the books?.. Oh, yes, ha…I see what you mean now… Yes, yes, as Nadine would say, a silly-billy!.. I’m sorry if I’ve been a bit, y’know…prickly, yes, quite right Gwen pet, that’s just the word for it, ha…No, you’re quite quite right, I was… What’s that? A night nurse? Oh no, no… No need for anything more… Not at all. Absolutely not. Nadine sorts me out just lovely before she goes. Yes, I’m sure, pet. Yes, of course I’d say…”

Standing unseen on the threshold, Nadine empathised fully with both parties and registered the continuing requirement to remain undetected between the hours of 2130 and 0900. She recognised Gwen’s long-distance anxiety for her father’s safety, and his pride-push against his neediness. Neither phenomenon, however, was sufficient to trigger any adjustment to her input.

******************************
“I’m just surprised, that’s all…She’s so capable in every way; nothing’s ever any trouble…Come to think of it, half the time I don’t even have to ask – she’s got there before me! Ha, yes exactly…my wish is her command, ha…no, can’t say I do, Gwen, to be honest… Can’t really see what’s so tricky about a shave…Well, all right, if you say so…”

Nadine helped him out of his chair into his outdoor clothes into his other chair, into a better frame of mind, softly sing-songing behind him along the corridor and into the elevator. By the time they emerged into the spring-fresh air, he found himself really rather looking forward to this, long-time-no barbershop.

But once arrived in the sharp-shiny premises, he could not prise his shy-stuck tongue from his mouth-roof. The barber greeted him and prompted with politeness, for a kind time waited with patience but at last looked to Nadine for guidance. There ensued several seconds of fretful confusion and he could not quite see himself in his reflection but his vision gradually returned to him his clean-shaven self. And

“Good Lord, Nadine – have I had… a haircut?”

They both hummed on the way back. The birds harmonised.

*****************************************************************

“Gwen pet, please don’t worry…I’m really not hurt…Bruising?.. ah, only a very little, nothing at all really…Gwen, I shall be very cross if you come all that way…don’t be….ah…(tippy-tongue, tongue-tip)… melodramatic!”

Nadine was by his side, now doing something to the screen, the opposite thing that she did earlier so that now it went blank and quiet. She often stayed there now, by his side, calm and still. He liked that about her; she sensed his needs.  His night-night fall had caused a head-blank: when he had around-come, he knew not how long after, Nadine was there, shushing and soothing. Then someone else came, a clippy-boarded bossy-boots.  He took her to be a night nurse and he did not take to her at all.

Gwen was coming. She was her mother’s daughter: gainsaid she was not to be.

“Time I saw you anyway, dad. Fall or no fall. Do you realise it’s over a year? A whole year!”

He felt a heavy headiness; a heady heaviness. He wished he could be sure his accommodation was spick-span but he was not sure that this was part of Nadine’s remit and shied from the enquiry. At least he was himself presentable. Neat, clean, and presentable. Nadine saw that his clothes were daily-fresh;  his nails were toe-clipped and finger-trimmed. His hair was washed and combed; he was a barbershop regular. She assisted now with the more intimate aspects of care with such gentle pragmatism that he felt neither embarrassment nor resentment. Indeed, there was a tiny pleasure-squirm to all this care and attention and he had long ago left behind any vestigial guilt about the lack of reciprocity because Nadine needed nothing he could offer.

The thought of Gwen’s arrival – seeing her, embracing her – quite overwhelmed him. He wanted Nadine to intuit this and proffer reassurance: he may even have voiced this desire but his windpipe was timid-tight and he feared the sound of his own reedy wheeze. For her part, Nadine remained the consummate professional: constant, consistent and conscientious.

*****************************

Gwen’s middle age took his frail breath quite away, so strongly did she resemble her mother. What a fool he had been to worry so! She was his daughter, for goodness’ sake! His own blood-flesh! What a silly-billy! He was giddy-glad, he was punch-pleased when she praised his appearance; played to the gallery of her compliments, a sudden harlequin-sprite. She was delighted further when she saw for herself the orderliness of his living quarters.

“All thanks to Nadine,” he beamed. “She really is a treasure. What a silly-billy I was to begin with, thinking I could manage just fine by myself. I hadn’t realised, is all, Gwen…little by little, y’know, after your mother…well, you live alone long enough, no-one to tell you what you need to hear…I had rather stopped caring about myself, y’know, about cleaning up after myself…or even cleaning myself, come to that. Ha!”

He paused, momentarily abashed by the uncharacteristic revelation. Gwen clasped his soft white hands in hers.

“Exactly, dad. That’s why I so wanted you to give it a try. Nadine, I mean. And look what a success you’ve made of it!”

He felt a little puff-swell of gratification; Gwen sensed it too, and rode its wave:

“And since it’s been such a success….well, we would all like you – we would really urge you – to reconsider the, ah, night nurse option.”

He was surprised now by the realisation that it was Gwen’s turn to be anxious. She was stroking his hands in the same distracted mechanical manner as Nadine and her eyebrows were raised in slightly asymmetrical arches of appeal.

He did not reply because he was drinking her in, this fully formed, wonderful daughter of his, so uncannily like her mother. His silence must have disconcerted her, because she leaned in knee-grazingly close and moved her strong brown hands to cup his rapt face.

“Dad, you know I wouldn’t upset you for the world. You know, don’t you, that I would never – will never – force you to do anything you didn’t want. You do know that?”

He nodded, his head a slow rock in the sling of her palms.

“But – well – time’s marching on and none of us is getting any younger – ” Deftly she caught her own throat-catch, netted it in a hiccup – ” I’m beginning to think I could use a Nadine myself, haha.”

For a moment they regarded one another in silence. He moved his own hands over hers: reminded him of a hat he once had: sheepy-flaps over the ear-skin.

“Gwen. Are you saying you’re…not well?”

“No! Oh no!” Her gaiety gave her away and she came clean, deflating with a sigh: “It’s Rob, dad. He’s…well, it’s not good. I can’t bring him back here: you can’t move over there. So we’re stuck, you see?”

Her smile was brave-bright. The heart-bang in his chest was like corn-pop in a pan.

“Anyway, dad…what I’m trying to say is, what with these falls you’ve been having and all…well, would you… re-consider a night nurse?”

She winced her way to her winning wheedle: “For my sake?”

He stared at her for a moment. Stitch-drop. Thread-loss. Then, mercifully, penny-drop:

“Ah! You want me to agree to that whatchacallit – round the hours care, is that it, pet?”

She nodded. He nodded. He removed his hands from his cheeks. She followed suit. Simon says.

“A night nurse,” she supplied: his beloved, beseeching.

“I want Nadine,” he said.

******************************

Clippy-bossy board-boots returned. She took Gwen and Nadine with her, away from him.

When Gwen returned to the sitting room, it was his turn to wheedle:

“Not her, please. I can’t take to her. I don’t want her! Can’t I have Nadine?”

Gwen shushed him, Nadine-style.

“It won’t be her, dad. She’s an administrator, not a nurse. Well, I mean, she used to be a nurse but not a carer, not like Nadine is I mean, and – um – now, now she…organises – things, from an office, if you see what I mean…”

“So it won’t be her? And – I can have Nadine?”

Fake-ahem behind him heralded the entry of clippy-boots bossy-board.

“Mr Hawker, if I may – ?”

The wire across his forehead unexpectedly tensioned in anticipation. He knew himself captive.

“Ahem. I should start by saying how delighted we all are by Nadine’s success here. Truly. The – eh – the issue is that…well, Nadine does not meet ISO 13482 which governs safe interactions between – well, ah, interactions duly protected against litigation in the event of…um…an accident. Now, I know that won’t mean much to you. But in simple terms what it means is that – well – Nadine is a bit, ah, old-fashioned and we’d like to offer you a more, ah, up-to-date care package.”

“I don’t understand,” he said, turning to his daughter for clarification.

“Dad, it’s really nothing to worry about. You know, they’re updating models all the time. Mrs Daniels simply means that we can get you a newer Nadine. Exactly the same but – better! Doesn’t that sound great? Can you imagine?!”

“No,” he reedy-wheezed. “I can’t.”

********************************************************************

When they were at last alone again, in the gentle humming silence, and he had from a couple of stiff brandies (long past their sell-by date, he assumed, much like himself and if the powers that be were to be believed Nadine also) – from these brandies he had courage-plucked, he addressed her:

“They say we can’t go on, Nadine. You don’t conform to some – I don’t know what. Some standard.”

She hummed, motionless.

“You don’t conform, dammit! To a standard!…what a – what a fucking miserable goal! Conform to a standard!  Did you ever in your life hear such a fucking lacklustre criterion for success?”

Exhausted by his sudden traverse across the strange terrain of polysyllabic invective, he sank back in his chair. Eye-ache. Popcorn-chest.

Dusk gathered. Nadine moved to draw the curtains against the blackly thickening sky but he stopped her. She glided smoothly back to his side and when he began to weep she drew him into her three arms and tenderly stroked his fragile spine with all twenty-four of her digits.

Inventory of a Beach Bag

Inventory of a Beach Bag

Apart from the oddness of the circumstances, what struck Olivier most was the extraordinary precision with which it had been packed. The contents nestled snug and neat against each other:
he was reminded – though he was no surgeon – of the graceful, fluid organisation of the human body. Anatomical, he thought.

Such care had been taken to arrange the contents that Olivier felt a spasm of anxiety about disturbing them, rather like a pathologist faced with the gruesome task of displacing the apparently perfect organs of an apparently perfect cadaver. Such care, and time, and attention – one could almost say the packing of this beach bag had been an act of love. And this was all the more disturbing given the circumstances.

Olivier loved the beach at first and last light, when it belonged only to him. Daily, starting up his tractor, he drew the same comforting parallel: as his forebears had worked the land, now he farmed this long, long field of sand: just as they had wrought from the clay their harvest of grape, olive and almond, so too his plough work brought forth the cash crop.

The constitutional morning-dippers always arrived just as Olivier’s early shift finished. The beach bag did not belong to one of these habitués: they came with towel under arm, they bathed and left, predictable as the tide itself. Olivier had assumed, then, that the beach bag had been left by someone who intended to return, no doubt someone who would take root with all the other shoots around mid-morning. By noon, Olivier knew, his lovely loamy furrows would be invisible beneath a forest of parasols; armadas of beach towels and sun beds would ride the rills of dun, sights set firmly on North Africa. Olivier’s field blazed hour after sweltering hour with colour, noise and movement. But at the end of the day, it belonged once more only to him.

Today, however, the beach bag had been there before him, just the bag, neither tucked up under the sand dunes nor dropped at the waterline, just there, provocatively, slap in the line of his drills.

There it was at six o’clock in the morning, and there it was still, at nine o’clock in the evening.

There was no protocol for such an eventuality. He should take it to the police. He would. But it was too late now, the police station was closed and it would do no harm just to have a look.

Fastidious by nature, Olivier began by taking photographs. On the outside, the beach bag was unremarkable: a boat shape, cream canvas printed with citrus fruits in citrus shades. Orange rope handles looped on either side of the orange zip fastening.

But inside! When he saw the assorted plastic containers, his first thought was that he was looking at an elaborate picnic, a variety of dishes, separated by colour and texture. Olivier licked his lips, not with greed or appetite, but with the nervous understanding that he was about to do something irresistible, something irregular and ill-advised.

He removed the containers gently, respectfully, one by one. He counted seven in total, six identical oblongs measuring about ten by fifteen centimetres, the lid of each bearing a stuck-on, handwritten label in black ink and a foreign language Olivier did not recognise; and, lastly, a box twice the size of the others, square and unlabelled.

Olivier laid them out on his work bench and stared at them, baffled. Who would leave foodstuffs on a Mediterranean beach all day long? Was the beach bag intended for someone who could not or would not collect it?  Had a romantic tryst gone wrong?

The contents of the smaller containers looked distinctly deliquescent under the strip light. Olivier balked at the thought of the stench and decided not to remove the lids. But the large box was a different matter. Its contents were quite visible. Olivier took the precaution of slipping on disposable gloves, resolved to compile a meticulous photographic record, and pushing away his conscience, unclipped the lid.

Inventory:

1 small yellow cotton drawstring purse containing
1 Tour Eiffel plastic key ring, 2 security keys

1 Navigo card, expired

Polaroid photographs – 20 ?

Twenty? Yes, give or take. But Olivier had already seen too much. His eyes flicked to the six oblong containers lined up on his work bench. A wave of nausea broke over him. An act of love, he thought. Anatomical.

The Island

The Island

It was harder than he remembered and it took him longer than he expected, but at last he reached the highest point of the island. Panting and sweating, he made a conscious effort to slow his breathing and his heart rate, and when he felt himself sufficiently recovered he made confession: Dear God, I am perhaps too old for this.

Indeed, he was old. He was aged enough to feel as much a part of the island as the ancient oak woodlands, part of its geology and archaeology. Yet, squinting northwards against the sunlight at the expanse of the loch, he felt equally that he could just have arrived, could have been gazing at the sight for the very first time.

His very first time had been, in truth, so long ago not even he could recall the date. His arrival on this island had been unforeseen and unintentional – or apparently so, for of course it had been part of a divine plan. He had accepted the invitation as witlessly as he had accepted the description of “glorious confessor”, as a servant of God and instrument of his will.

He reckoned they must have built the chapel around 620 or so: certainly Kessog had already done the spadework and established the new order, no-one could deny him that. And really it had all been plain sailing – barring the odd political problem – until 1260 or thereabouts, when the fiendish Magnus had marauded the loch, devastating all that had been peacefully established and nurtured for a good five centuries, give or take. The old man sighed deeply as he recalled the image of the longships, strangely beautiful as they went about raiding and destroying the length and breadth of the sacred water.

They named the island after him: Inchmurrin. He accepted the honour with humility, embarrassment and gratitude, mindful that pride was a deadly sin. He gave thanks to the accident of his noble birth, and to his patron, Comgall of Bangor. He was already a venerable figure when he built the chapel on this, the largest of the Loch Lomond islands.

Inchmurrin lies at the southern end of the loch, right on the Highland fault line. Of course, he knew nothing of this: continental drift, seismic shift – these were quite beyond his ken. What he did know was the faint trace of earlier, higher shorelines; the contours and colours of the soft sedimentary rocks on the beaches – red sandstone, mudstone, limestone and lavas; the lush spread of heath, birch, pine, hazel and oak.

He knew and loved Inchmurrin, in all its seasons, in all lights and in the absence of light: he was there to bear witness to the ebb and flow of settlers, raiders, the exiled, the entitled, and the dispossessed.

He had been there when Lennox built the castle and escaped the mainland plague, and when The Bruce there took refuge. He saw the deer park grow to house around two hundred fallow deer: James IV used Castle Lennox as his hunting lodge. He recalled the black sorrow of the Lady Isabella, exiled to the island after the battle of Stirling where she lost father, husband and both sons in one day. She remained on Inchmurrin until her death some forty years later. And the benighted Mary, Queen of Scots had been briefly, secretly incarcerated in the silence of the grey walls.

He had witnessed the brutal murder of Colquhoun of Luss, shocking enough, but somehow rendered more abominable for its having been committed in the ruins of his chapel. Then there had been the infamous Rob Roy and MacGregors, who stole the cattle and the deer – and every boat on the loch in order to prevent pursuit.

More recently, the island had been used as an asylum for the deranged, and for unmarried mothers. Mirrin’s heart grew heaviest when he thought of the sights he’d seen during this time: the mad tearing at themselves and each other; the women drowning their babies, or burying them alive rather than relinquish them to the cruelties of others.

Now, Mirrin felt a change, a stirring of something different beyond the meadow and the alder and holly; a force hitherto unknown on the island. Slowly, for he was very old and so fatigued these days, he made his way northwards, following his instinct. Sure enough, a cluster of wooden cabins had sprouted on the north eastern shore and to his astonishment a group of men, women and children were peaceably, nakedly, going about their day: they sat in the sunshine, they collected driftwood; some were washing clothes, others were swimming, eating, chatting, kicking a ball, laughing. Mirrin, suddenly aware of the heft of his cassock, could not repress a twinge of envy. He looked upon the scene as upon the garden of Eden, for surely these people, in their unfettered happiness, had somehow returned to a state of grace?

This was new to Inchmurrin indeed, this liberation, this celebration of the natural, this sense of community. Mirrin bore witness, as was his duty. He examined his conscience. Dear God, he prayed, I am perhaps too old for this. Then he peeled off the rough hessian, joined the group and gave thanks for the heat of the sun on his skin.

July reviews

Evening, all,

I’m glad to know I was not the only one to find Peter’s topic devilishly difficult – but thank you for that, Peter, because it’s good to leave one’s comfort zone, as they say.

My thoughts on the July stories:

James and Frank and Jebb by Capucin/David Goodwin
This was an appealing use of meta-fiction (if I’ve got the terminology right!) – and of the context of the writing group, the brief, the writer’s personal details and honesty about the writing process. I would have enjoyed these three characters actually colliding in time, and perhaps even meeting their maker, rather than the reader simply being presented with extracts from the stories in which they originally appeared.

Amibanu by Archie
I found the preface very wordy and over-elaborate, which is always, for me, a turn-off. The register was inconsistent with the result that the narrative voice of the eponymous character fails to convince me (I recognise that this may have been deliberate because of the time displacement brief…eg “My body didn’t want to play ball”, “primp”, “phew”, “pong”, “I mean like they have…”). And having said that, the inconsistency has some success later in the story, adding humour : “pious little prat”, “a freakin’ tent” . There was well-handled humour in the contrast between Amibanu’s earthiness and Jahan’s pompous verbosity too. However, I still found myself not entirely engaged.

I was confused by the section beginning “Get a Past Life – Your Way”… The building has a luminous sign: The Center for Research into Past Lives. I’m afraid I didn’t follow this!

The pedant in me can’t hold back from pointing out the tautology of: “We lived and breathed horses, as did I.”

I’ve been waiting for You by Colmore
Ignorant as I am about the battle of Edgehill, I struggled to keep track of who was who and what was what. The picture of Cecil’s sword vs the poker fails to convince me, I’m afraid.

Echoes Through the Years by EXPATANGIE
I was initially confused by Caterina’s overhearing Rex’s violence towards Katie and Tommy but then understood it was a subtle flash of what might have been; and I really enjoyed the collision of other worlds – Michelangelo choosing his David marble; the church of St Anna; the women weeping as their sons left for distant lands…and all due to the elegant simplicity of Caterina’s inherited ability to “feel sensations from other lives and times”. This narrative had a fitting fluidity and seamless grace.

What then is Time? by Araminta
I enjoyed this take on the vampire and witch worlds, and the universality of love.

Anne’s and George’s… By furryfeatures
A clever premise: the uncharted effects of medication for malaria + statins, followed by period of hibernation, followed by TV chat show fame…an amusing and apposite comment on modern everyday medicines and entertainment!
I thought the “PO Box arrangement was just a little too convenient from a story point of view, and despite the proffered rationale, I could not believe that A and G were not missed for 3 years…although I’m aware that this too could be an astute social comment.

Through the Wormhole by Atiller
This was my fiver this month. Having checked with an officionado, I applaud the faithful Pokemon detail (!) and really loved the manipulation of this and other phenomena such as the smartphone and gaming sites. Ingenious!

Demerara Sugar by Peter Barnett
As above, what really appealed to me was the use of an everyday – and yet extraordinary – fact of life to trigger time displacement. The juxtaposition of the old-as-time extramarital affair added a dimension at once cynical and poignant.