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.

BEATHAG

There are five of us in the room: nothing like a crisis to bring a family together. Here we are, generation upon generation like layers in sedimentary rock, each one telling its own and the collective story.

Needless to say, everyone is talking and no-one – apart from me – is listening. Mhairi MacNeil and Sorcha are perched with their customary ramrod posture on the undulating edge of the ancient sofa; Marlene paces the rug in front of the fireplace. Beth has her back to all of them and is standing at the right hand window. And I – well, we’ll come back to me in due course.

Mhairi MacNeil is the oldest and the testiest, for she has never enjoyed these emergency meetings and cannot warm to the mainland: even if they do now have place names displayed in the Gaelic as well as the English, she’s not fooled by the tokenism. Beside her, at as safe a distance as the sofa will allow, her daughter Sorcha is very still: the only discernible movement is in her black eyes, flitting between Marlene’s incessant pacing and the unfathomable blank of Beth’s back.

When I say everyone is talking, I really mean except Beth, but when Beth speaks at last, there is instant silence.

“I can’t do it.”

Marlene on the rug stops pacing and looks the back of Beth up and down. Sorcha turns to look at Mhairi MacNeil, who in turn rolls her eyes but keeps the clasp tight shut on the purse of her mouth.

“I can’t. I cannot!…I – I’m not…ready!”

Behind her, all three women exchange glances in an elaborate instinctive choreography that ends with the silent consensus that Marlene needs to say something.

“You feel that, my love, I know. I do know. But I – we – are here to help. Please, no matter how difficult things seem right now…” She peters out, aware that she sounds like Platitude Central. She looks to the sofa for help.

Mhairi MacNeil, having long since reached an age that airily disregards the feelings of others, clears her rusty throat and addresses her great grand-daughter with a tenderness that surprises the others:

“Mo bhilis, mo bhilis,” – despite Marlene’s fine effort to raise her Gaelic-free, Beth recognises the endearment, “my sweet” – “What is it that makes you so fearful?”

Beth continues to gaze out the window. “I’m not fearful. I’m just – not ready. Nor brave enough, I suppose…”

She begins to worry the skin on the inside of her right thumb nail.

From the rug, Marlene fights down the maternal reflex and succeeds in not saying, Stop biting.

Sorcha seems to feel a need to mediate between two centuries:

“Màthair,” she begins gently to Mhairi MacNeil, “things are not how they once were. For a start, this is not Castlebay, and – ”

“Sorcha, mo gràdh, I need no reminding of those facts,” retorts the old lady with impatience. “But really, it’s not so very different for all that…” her voice softens again as she contemplates her great-granddaughter at the window…”I understand matters of this sort every bit as much as the rest of you. Better, even.”

“No-one underestimates you here, Màthair.” Sorcha cannot help a sigh. “But – well – we have to accept that we find ourselves in a much more…permissive society, and – ”

Mhairi MacNeil is having none of it: “Sorcha, Sorcha. Human nature is human nature, be it Castlebay or – or -”

“Castlemilk!” Marlene triumphantly supplies the name of one of the city’s more infamous districts. She and Mhairi MacNeil share the moment with a mutual and startlingly similar arching of eyebrow. “And for goodness’ sake, Mum,” she continues to Sorcha, “please let’s not have that old sermon again. Nice Barra girls didn’t, and all that.”

Mhairi MacNeil bursts into robust laughter, so disconcerting that even Beth now turns towards the sound. “She never told you that, Marlene, surely?” The old woman – the cailleach – is shaking her head with mirthful disbelief. “Heh heh, what nonsense. Half the population’s illegitimate! Ask any of the Barrafolk. Heh heh heh.”

“Màthair!” Sorcha is appalled. “I really don’t know what to say to that!”

“Well, thank God for that,” Marlene begins, “because -”

But now Beth cuts across her in quiet despair: “Christ! I can barely look after myself, never mind…” She tails off, turns her back to the room once more, and tugs on the now ragged skin.

Mhairi MacNeil considers the implacable back view. “Marlene. Beth. Firstly, please do not take the Lord’s name in vain. Secondly, Beth, mo bhilis, you won’t solve anything wailin and greetin at the window all day. At your age, I had already lost a baby – ”

“My father’s, one hopes,” interjects Sorcha: embarrassment emboldens her.

” – and I was by no means the only one. Choice never did enter into it. So the readiness is not at you, no more the bravery? You think any of us is ever ready? You just have to get on with it. The bravery – well, that arrives when you need it. ”

Sorcha has hunched herself into a huff, but Marlene is grateful: her beloved Grannaidh has returned all of them – us – to the matter in hand.

At the window, Beth is nodding. “There’s too much choice, that’s the problem. Too many options. A hundred years ago, I’d just have had to get on with it.”

On the sofa, Mhairi MacNeil allows her face an expression of smug vindication. Sorcha harrumphs something in the Gaelic.

“Mum…” Beth’s voice is a melancholy minor chord reverberating around the heart chambers. Even I find myself attenuated.

Heavily, silence falls.

This was – still is – a beautiful room. Elongated twin Georgian sash windows give on to the gracious sweep of crescent and the central leisure gardens. (For Residents’ Use Only. No Ball Games.) The ceiling is high and the ornate cornice work is intact. The rug on which Marlene restlessly paces is worn, but of good quality; below it, the floor is parquet. The mantelpiece is grey-veined creamy marble with black cast iron slips and grey slate hearth: a heavy embossed gilt over-mantle reflects Marlene’s anxiety right back to her. Originally, this was the drawing room of a town house, designed in 1831 by the esteemed architect George Smith for a doctor of medicine: he saw his patients in the basement. Now, of course, each storey has been converted into an apartment and Beth rents the first floor.

Sorcha turns to her mother beside her on the sofa and says, in a sly slowed-down voice, “What do you mean, at Beth’s age? She’s nineteen. I thought there was only myself and Aonghas?”

Mhairi MacNeil smiles forlornly and shakes her head, momentarily closing her eyes. “No, mo gràdh. Brighde came first, she was with me only a few hours… Then there was Eoghann…” The old woman’s voice is a whisper: we all strain to hear. “He succumbed to the scarlet fever when he was four years old. He had the face of an angel…”

“You never told me.” Sorcha is too touched to be indignant.

“Auch, whatever would be the point of that, Sorcha? To put the fear of God on you? To have you fret and fash at the thought of what might happen to your own bairns, come the day? Bad enough that you saw what happened to wee Aonghas. I’d have spared you that too, if only I could.”

They lapse then into a tender private exchange in Gaelic. Marlene rolls her eyes at Beth’s back.

“Typical!” Counterpointed by the crooning from the sofa, her voice is a strident clang: she wants Beth’s attention. “That’s exactly the reason I left that bloody island!” When Beth fails to respond she elaborates:

“That backward, inward-looking mumbo bloody jumbo. Speaking in tongues, your father called it, and how right he was. They would do that, you know, whenever they wanted to exclude a mainlander, talk about them in front of their face, insult them, poke fun at them.” Her ire bubbles up in her lungs: she runs out of breath and has to stop.

Beth appears not to have heard. “Mum,” she repeats in the same low sad voice, “help me. Tell me the right thing to do.”

“My lovely girl,” Marlene says softly, “only you can decide that.”

“Oh, God!” Beth cups her hands over her face; on the sofa her great-grandmother scowls at yet another blasphemy. “I wish somebody would just tell me what to do!”

“I’ll tell you what to do, Beathag – ”

“No, ma, you will not! And her name is Beth, not bloody Beathag!”

Marlene’s ire resurges. She is trembling; she holds on to the mantelpiece to steady herself.

“Indeed you will NOT tell her what to do. Nor will you, Grannaidh -” Mhairi MacNeil looks affronted at this pre-emptive strike – “though I know you both mean well enough. We are here to support, hopefully to guide, but certainly under no circumstances to lecture, hector, bully or – or -”

“Bulldoze?” suggests Mhairi MacNeil, pleased with her alliterative self.

Perhaps at this juncture you could use a little Intel. Mhairi is Sorcha’s mother; Sorcha is Marlene’s mother; Marlene is Beth’s mother. Mhairi was born in the year 1907; Sorcha was born in 1937; Marlene was born in 1967 and – yes, you’ve guessed it – Beth was born in 1997. (We’ll come back to me.) You are no doubt sceptical, but spare a thought for the coincidence and pattern of dates in your own family: it happens, does it not?

We dearly beloved (although sometimes we lose sight of the fact) are gathered here today because, as I have already intimated, there is a crisis. Beth is pregnant.

Three weeks ago she sat on the edge of the bath and stared at the clear blue line and said aloud, “I am pregnant.” She said it again. And again and again and again but still she could not quite believe it.

Two weeks ago, her GP confirmed the fact.

A week ago, she began googling abortion.

Beth is pregnant. She is also single, ambitious, selfish, and ashamed. Hence the spontaneous appearance of her great-grandmother, granny and mother. And I – well, I was here ahead of them.

Childbearing in this family has never been straightforward. Beth’s predecessors (as you will have gathered) hail from Barra, at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides. Her great grandmother, Mhairi MacNeil – the illustrious maiden surname always used (Clan MacNeil of Kisimul Castle, don’t you know) to distinguish her from all those other Mhairis – was raised a Castlebay Catholic and was duly confirmed in the poetically named Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea. Here too, her daughter Sorcha – her only surviving child, as we have learned – lived and prayed and expected to remain, until she met and married a handsome Glaswegian merchant seaman and moved with him to his home town. Sorcha’s first pregnancy was complicated and the child – a boy – died during delivery in 1963. Marlene is her only surviving child.

As a name, Marlene is quite a departure from the Gaelic and an entirely subconscious homage to the travelling cinema that monthly projected an impossible glamour on to the back wall of Castlebay Village Hall. As if thus predestined, Marlene long ago eschewed her Hebridean heritage, turning her back on Gaeldom just as resolutely as Beth has turned her back on the forces in her living room.

Not that Beth has done so with any disrespect: she’s just more than usually self-absorbed today. She is looking at the leisure gardens, but what she sees are two parallel futures. She can choose to have this child or not. She can be a mother by February next year, or not. She is dimly aware that she is lucky to be fertile in the first place, and lucky to have the choice.

She senses, rather than sees, her mother behind her. Marlene has been dead for about the same time that Beth has been pregnant: ruefully, Beth recognises that the loss of her mother propelled her into a (brief, very brief) phase of promiscuity, as though she were one of the last representatives of an endangered species, the sex act a defiance of death.

She senses Marlene, and behind this whisper of her mother Beth senses also her beloved Grannaidh Sorcha; and behind her – or perhaps alongside, weirdly – the shadowy suggestion of her great-grandmother, the redoubtable Mhairi MacNeil (of Clan MacNeil of Kisimul Castle, don’t you know.) She need not turn around to verify that these women are with her in spirit.

“Help me to do the right thing,” she says.

Mhairi MacNeil, Sorcha and Marlene exchange looks in a soundless, nameless strategic game for three players. At length, Marlene speaks to her beloved daughter’s back:

“Beth, my love…there is no right or wrong here. You must do what you think fit. Whatever you decide will change your life forever…” She wants to leave it there, knows she should, but she cannot help herself from adding, “Just remember, this may be your only chance.”

Beth hears her and understands: she knows her mother suffered five (was it five? Why did she pay so little attention?) miscarriages.

And now Sorcha speaks, more to Marlene than to Beth: “Let’s not forget Joyce, either…”

“God, yes,” breathes Marlene, and this time Mhairi MacNeil does not object to the blasphemy, “That poor woman…Joyce Munroe, Beth, you remember her? For years I thought she and Bob had voluntarily not had kids. It took her years and years to tell me she’d had an abortion at eighteen – private, mind – and it was botched and she couldn’t have children afterwards.”

Beth suddenly remembers Joyce with painful clarity: everyone’s favourite honorary “auntie”.

Sorcha says, “You think this is the end of the world, ban-ogha. In a sense it is: the end of a world in which you are central and your needs are paramount. But consider this: when God closes a door, he opens a window; the end of one world is the start of another. And ask yourself: which decision will be the harder to live with, hmmm?”

Privately, I applaud Sorcha, Joyce and Marlene: wise, wise women. We are all pleased to witness Beth rubbing her hands contemplatively over her still completely flat belly: it’s encouraging to us all.

“I can’t give it up for adoption,” declares Beth, her voice suddenly her own: strong and decisive. “That I absolutely cannot do. To know that somewhere…that some day we may pass on some street….No.”

A respectful yet expectant silence falls upon the room. Minutes – perhaps hours – pass: we are indifferent to time.

In the end, and perhaps inevitably in retrospect, the last word goes to the cailleach Mhairi MacNeil. She begins by expressly addressing her great granddaughter:

“Beth, mo iar-ban-ogha. Try to believe me – all of us – when I say to you, you must decide for yourself. But be aware, please, that life is a gift, no matter how inconvenient or badly timed it may be. Your family – teaghlach – is where you – like all of us – begin and end. We are here, all of us, such a short time! Be sure to fill that time with actions and decisions you can look square in the face.”

There seems nothing to add. Consensual silence prevails.

Beth finds herself thinking about her mother, her grandmother and her great-grandmother. Marlene, Sorcha, Mhairi MacNeil: all dead and gone. She knows something of the family history – stillbirth, infant death, disease, accident, miscarriage. She senses the mass of a collective consciousness gathering in the darkening room behind her.

Surprising herself, she says aloud, “Thank you.” And for good measure, “Tapadh leibh.”

On the sofa, there is a soft chorus of “You’re welcome,” from Mhairi Macaneil,and Sorcha, followed for good measure with “Is a do bheatha.”

Beth attends an adult learning Gaelic class: she knows the literal translation is: It is your life.

We all sense a movement towards resolution. Never slow to meet a cue, Mhairi MacNeil announces,”Thai mi agith.”

Sorcha replies, “I’m tired too, Màthair…”

After a bit, Marlene nods in the direction of the unavoidable and apologises to Beth that she can stay no longer: “Thai me duilich.”

Beth appears not to hear them (of course not!), but as they fade she feels the room behind her empty and darken. Finally, it’s just the two of us in the gloaming of early evening.
She stirs herself and lights the table lamps. The residents’ gardens grow indistinct in the dusk. She thinks, I will keep it. Maybe. Probably. Definitely. If it’s a boy, I’ll call it Aonghas. If it’s a girl…(and I am: and rightly she has a strong presentiment thus) I rather like Beathag. (I do too.) She does not yet know that this means offspring of life.

THE PIVOTAL SUMMER OF LENNOX L (with apologies to J P Donleavy)

Shirley knew who he was, all right: he drove the only remaining Mobile Library in Argyll, a painfully bright yellow abomination that she was often obliged to tail for tortuous miles on single track roads. He was a terrible driver, or at least terribly slow. He clearly never looked in his rear-view mirror.

She knew who he was because she often found herself queueing for the same ferry, or re-fuelling at the same filling station. She knew his name was Lennox Livingstone and that – when he wasn’t on the road – he lived alone up some track somewhere down the peninsula. She had risked the odd consciously casual hand gesture or nod of recognition but could not be sure that these had been registered: Lennox Livingstone seemed to be in the grip of a perpetual preoccupation that was attractive yet, from a pragmatic viewpoint, disadvantageous.

Lennox knew who she was, of course: she drove a mercilessly pink Skoda Yeti breezily emblazoned GIRLZ BY SHIRLZ. He could see her quite distinctly in his rear-view mirror: she clearly had no idea about braking distances. It brightened his day to slow down and hold her up in the knowledge that she would execute an ill-advised overtaking manoeuvre accompanied by a deranged light-show of indicators, headlamps and hazards. This may have been acknowledgement or admonition, but either way Lennox was rewarded with a fleeting view of her face as she drew alongside. Their paths crossed with regular intermittence at ferry terminals and filling stations, where she would nod and wave with an air of inattention that somehow discouraged reciprocation. He knew her name was Shirley Watt and – when she wasn’t on the road – she lived alone somewhere in Knapdale. She was, indisputably, very pretty.

“She’s indisputably very pretty? That’s it?” Dave slapped the heel of his hand against his forehead. “Come on, Lenny mah man – surely ye can dae better than that!”

“Please, Dave – gimme a break here. I’m out of practice. Been a long time, y’know?”

“Aye. Exactly. You, mah man, are in need of some tactical advice. Not tae mention a visit tae the Turkish barber…”

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

“Thing is, Betty, I’m terminally romantic. I don’t actually want anything to – (here Shirley rolled her eyes and made speech marks with her index and middle fingers) – happen. I’m not looking to -(idem) – progress anything, force the issue. Not that there is any issue. In fact. If you get my meaning.”

“Shirley, dear,” Betty bravely squinted through the miasma of hairspray, “I believe I do. Get your meaning, I mean. I mean, you mean that actually you can’t stop thinking about him. A bit more lacquer, dear, got to last me until the christening on Sunday. And quite honestly, I don’t know why you’re dithering. He’s a lovely man. Kind, funny, educated….och, I could fair fancy him myself!”

Shirley, smiling ruefully, held the mirror to the back of Betty’s head, was rewarded as usual with “Perfect, dear”, brushed the fine stray hairs to the floor and whisked away the pink apron with the aplomb of a matador.

“Trouble is, Betty, I’m out of practice. It’s been a long time, y’know?”

Betty cocked her newly coiffed head and considered Shirley in the mirror.

“He stays the night on Jura every second Monday. My poor old neighbour’s at Leargybreck these past five years: she’s a great reader, is Ina, sees him regular as clockwork at the home, Monday afternoons. He’s that considerate, he spends that long there with all those old souls, he canny make the last ferry. There you go, Shirley love, a pound for the sweetie jar too, and put me down for a fortnight hence.”

Betty donned her coat and arranged her rain mate around her hairdo as one might bubble wrap a Ming vase. She stepped down from the fragrant micro-climate of the Yeti into inner-Hebridean smirr.

“Jura. Every second Monday. That means next week. Toddle-oo.”

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

Lennox parked up the Mobile Library in the lay-by on the B8025. Dave, a strong advocate of social engineering, had ensured that his grandmother would be one of Shirlz’ Girlz on a Tayvallich Mobile Library day.

Lennox had considered, constructed and recreated the scene so often that he could almost have stood in the dock and sworn it had happened just so, but of course now that he was confronted with the vagaries of possibility he was in the dry-throated throes of profound anxiety.

With shaking hands and diminishing conviction in the plan, he placed the warning triangle at what he gauged to be the appropriate distance from his vehicle, and positioned himself strategically: he would see traffic approaching from fore and aft but was himself not immediately visible.

Sure enough, one motorist, and then another, pulled over to come to his aid. To each he gave thanks, thanks very much, very good of you, just waiting for the recovery vehicle, yup, Stag Garage, think they’re on another call-out, just a matter of waiting, aye, at least the rain’s stayed off, thanks again, take care now.

Lennox, unaccustomed to dissembling, winced at his own deceit. Why had he allowed himself to be talked into this ridiculous ploy? All he’d said was that she was pretty. Albeit indisputably.  And – he hadn’t told Dave this – undeniably, she appealed to him. He was sweating now and his breath was stale and ah god here was the pink Yeti appearing over the blind summit.

Shirley was running late and therefore speeding, struggling simultaneously to steer on this narrow winding road and to wolf down her Shapers chicken and pesto sandwich, so that when she espied the yellow abomination and Lennox Livingstone emerging shiftily from the ditch where presumably he had stopped for a slash or worse, she was simply too constrained by time, etiquette and food deposits between her teeth even to flash her customary lights as she passed.

Shit, she thought a full five minutes and several bends later: was that a warning triangle?

Shit, thought Lennox as she blurred by, pinkly: what am I doing? Pretending to break down, for God’s sake. Like some weirdo sick woman-abductor in a crap novel.

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

“Broken down, you say? Och, that’s a bugger. I’m expecting a couple of books I reserved weeks and weeks ago…I think they’re coming from Dunoon, very popular, big long waiting list. That Denise Mina, d’you know her? Hails from Glasgow. Great writer.”

“I don’t. Never even heard of her. I used to read a lot but nowadays I’d be hard pushed to name a contemporary writer. Never seem to have the time these days.” She stole a look at her watch.

“Um….will – er – the Library still make it today, d’you think?”

Dave’s granny smiled broadly, whether at her shampoo and set or the mention of the Library Shirley could not determine.
“That Lennox Livingstone is a lovely person,” she said. “Do you have a library card, dear?”

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

At Leargybreck, Lennox said to Ina, “It’s you I feel bad for – don’t you be worrying about me. I’ll be all right – to be honest, if it weren’t for my readers I’d probably have given up by now anyway…quite fancy a change, you know? A new challenge. But of course I’m truly touched by the petition, I really am. You never know: maybe the Council will sell me the van – lock, stock and barrel – and then perhaps we can all work something out.”

At Tayvallich, Dave’s granny said to Lennox, “I’ll tell you what it is – a disgrace! Cutbacks my Aunt Fanny. Mibbe they should start by paying themselves a bit less up at Kilmory. Well. Better reserve me all they Denise Minas whilst the goin’s good. An mibbe I’ll just no’ be returnin them!”

At Lagavulin, Betty said to Shirley, “Of course we’ve known for a while now that it was only a matter of time. What with the internet and young folk just not reading any more. There’s a petition right enough, we’ve all signed it needless to say, but och I doubt it’s a foregone conclusion.”

Shirley said, “To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll be carrying on much longer myself. Just don’t have the business any more – you know, most of my clients – well, all of them really – are – ”

“Poppin their clogs.” Betty supplied grimly. “And what about the young women -?”

“Och, I’m old school: curl it up or cut it off! Now it’s all about straighten it out or add it on – hair, nails, lashes. And then there’s all that other stuff. Fake bake, massage, wax, God knows what else.”

She leaned in towards Betty, conspiratorially. “There’s this double decker, converted, does the rounds from – dunno – Inverness to Oban, maybe. Called The Beauty Bus. Does the lot, apparently. Manicure, pedicure – coiffure, obviously – tanning, reflexology, hen nights, pregnancy packages….you name it. How can I compete with that? Can’t! Don’t even want to!”

Shirley caught her shrillness, brought it down with a soft laugh, then confessed, “To be perfectly honest, Betty, if it hadn’t been for all my lovely clients such as your good self – well, I’d have given up long ago. Och, don’t be looking so sad. A change would do me good!”

“Oh, love…” Betty shook her head (gently, mindful of the curlers) and then, brightening, “Been to Jura yet?”

*********************************************************************************************************
It was a quintessential summer’s morning at Kennacraig: misty, damp and cold. The mad west coast topography dictated that, although Jura was the closer island, the ferry must nevertheless circumnavigate its southern half to land at Port Askaig on Islay, and travellers must then take a second ferry across the sound to Feolin. Leargybreck Care Home lay on the east coast, a short drive along Jura’s only real road, known as The Long Road to distinguish it from all the other roads that may have been.

Shirley had been to Jura once before, in the long ago and far away. With friends who assured her she’d love it, she had tacked, jibed, close-hauled, reached, retched and spewed. Like the islands themselves, she had been smeared by relentless rain into one desolate smudge of indeterminate colour on the grey Atlantic canvas. At last, in the hotel in Craighouse, she had lain in an enormous cast iron bath tub filled and refilled with the miracle of hot running water, vowing never to return.
So what was she doing now, chuntering along the bloody A846 in a pink Yeti in uncertain pursuit of a not-for-much-longer-mobile librarian?

“Betty, Betty…” Shirley growled softly in time to the windscreen wipers, “you’re a besom.” Then, for the next few miles past Jura House and through Cabrach and Craighouse, warming to her theme: “Betty Besom, Betty Besom, Betty – ”

And then there it was: the yellow abomination, its colour running somewhat in the rain but still bright against the muted aquarelle facade of Leargybreck House. Shirley sat very still for a few moments. No need to panic. Every right and (contrived) reason to be here. Just get the parcel out of the back for Ina. From Betty. Proceed to foyer, ask for Ina, who was expecting her, chat for an appropriate length of time, leave parcel, leave building, register neutral pleasant surprise at sight of mobile library, stick head round door, say hello to Lennox Livingstone, sorry about driving past you the other week there, hope you got towed away all right and the midges weren’t too bad…

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

Ina’s parcel contained, amongst other items, half a dozen tins of ready-mixed gin and tonic and a lemon. Ina dispatched Shirley to the kitchenette for ice – “For our bunions, dear” – and insisted she could not drink alone: “Simply not the done thing, dear. Now, about that lovely Mr Livingstone…”

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

Lennox, emerging into the late afternoon with Mr McGinlay and his large-print Clive Cussler, did a classic comic double-take: GIRLZ by SHIRLZ? At Leargybreck? The cosmos obligingly confirmed: there was Shirley, just turning away from the main entrance and into his path. He would have stopped dead but for the surprisingly determined onwards trajectory of Mr McGinlay, who wheezed at Shirley as they passed, “Afternoon! No time to lose!”

“No, indeed!” agreed Shirley in genial incomprehension. “Afternoon!” She aimed a nod and a wave at the old bampot and the apparently disorientated Lennox whose own hand jerked upwards, though in response or spasm she could not divine.

To drive away now would be cowardly and a waste of the ferry fare: Shirley, swallowing hard, stepped out of the rain and into the mobile library. The signs of recent enthusiastic patronage were manyfold: a neat pile of books on the counter, alongside some scribbled-on post-its, a biro and a pair of reading spectacles; a couple of volumes open upon a round table; several more books stacked like jenga; an empty bag of Foxes Glacier Mints; an eightsome reel of damp footprints on the purple carpet.

Behind her, Lennox cleared his throat. “Sorry – ”

“No, no – I’m sorry – ”

“You’re sorry -?”

“Yes, yes! I’m sorry I drove past you the other week there. I thought – ”

“Oh God, that. No, no – forget about that. That was – a mistake. No, it’s me who should be sorry, and I am, because you see – ”

Shirley, surprising herself, stopped him by holding up her hand, and then swept it round, indicating the shelves.

“Do you happen to have any J P Donleavy – ” she cleared her throat – “Lennox?”

“Don – Donleavy? You like Donleavy?”

“Certainly do. And Beckett, goes without saying. Joyce, obviously…”

“Well I’ll be damned…” Lennox was smiling at her and shaking his head. “I don’t think I’ve ever met another human being who’s read Donleavy… And sorry, no, there’s none here – but I do have all of his works. At home, I mean. If you’d like to borrow them…er…Shirley.”

They stood silently for a moment then, in the doomed mobile library, and smiled foolishly at each other. Later, she would tell him how she came to be a hairdresser instead of a teacher; he would relate the history of the first perambulating libraries. She would confide her desire for change, how she was thinking of a distance-learning course in English Literature; he would describe to her his plan to buy this yellow abomination – actually a 2004 Iveco-Ford – and take it wherever he fancied, running book clubs and reading groups and carrying on the noble tradition of democracy, diversity and delivery: the Hippocratic Oath of the Librarian. He would suggest, only half in jest that he – they – might go to Kenya, where mobile libraries were carried by camel; or to Zimbabwe, where donkeys drew wooden boxes of books. In Thailand, he would tell her, they used elephants.

But right now, there was the evening ahead. It was a thirty minute drive to Craighouse, Lennox said, and if they were quick they could get some wine from Spar before it closed.

“In that case,” Shirley reasoned, “I’d better go ahead.”

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

She was waiting for him outside the shop, triumphantly clutching chilled white wine, red wine, and a picnic of sorts.

“Your place or mine?” she asked, indicating the two vehicles now parked shore-side.
“Because let’s face it, between the rain and the midges, the beach is off.”

They opted for the Iveco-Ford. By the end of the second bottle, feet up on the dashboard, they had covered the recent past and the near future.

“Yup,” Lennox began, by way of conclusion, “we’re both ready, Shirley. Ready for a change. Be not afraid! Change is healthy! Change is dynamic!”

“You’re not wrong, Lennox. Change is good for you…your personal development and growth…and on that subject – ”

” – Bring it on! Change your life! Embrace the change!”

“Lennox, there’s a change I’d like to make for you right now,” announced Shirley, suddenly sombre. For a giddy moment, he pictured the big cast iron bath tub she’d mentioned earlier.

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

An hour or so later, they were in bed, chaste and separate. In Room 7, Shirley had fallen asleep smiling at the thought of all that reading she would do, and book-bearing boats gliding along exotic waterways. In Room 15, beneath his short back and sides, Lennox was dreaming of Shirley in that big bath tub, a beatific smile on his freshly shaven face.