Merry Christmas everyone. It was a quiet Christmas day for us. We got up at our usual time, about 8.30am and opened our presents. Sadly the dogs never got all of their presents as Millie, my 10 year old lab, has sore tummy and we had to cut back on treats and food in general.
After preparing the veg, I had already made the vegan roast the night before, we took the dogs for a walk. I decided I wanted to take a wooden decoration from our Christmas tree to Finlarig castle and hang it on a tree in memory of my Mum. I scattered her ashes there in June, a day before we married there. It was such a lovely winters day that it felt nice to just linger in that space for a while.
By the time sunset came around we were sitting down to dinner. I asked Helen to pause and we told each other what we were grateful for. It felt fitting when there are so many troubles in the world at the moment.
My plans this afternoon were to make my way down to the river for sunset. It has been another damp and raw day and I’ve hardly been outdoors, preferring the warmth of the under floor heating. But at just short of 3.30pm, I ventured out. I took Kimber, my youngest dog, she’s great company and isn’t too bothered where we go as long as there is something interesting to sniff, lamp posts, bins, fox poo, you know the likes.
With a little time to spare we trotted off down the street. On the way, we met several people who stopped to chat. Due to the time and the fading light I would normally have waved and passed by, but the people who stopped needed an ear and, I felt, some kind words. It’s easy to assume that everyone is merry and all wrapped up in Christmas joy, but that really isn’t the case. So many people are grieving at Christmas, from the loss of a loved one, to family who can’t be close because of covid, etc, etc. And people have worries too, illness, finances, loneliness, addiction, the list goes on. Christmas for many can feel like an enormous burden, so it’s no wonder that the weight of those brief conversations stopped me in my tracks, I too feel the weight off worry and loss at Christmas.
I made it to the river at 15.45pm, but only after giving my best wishes, my ear, and to one person, the wish of laughter on Christmas day, I do hope they get that wish. I took a moment by the river bank to reflect on my short journey and concluded : It wasn’t important to be by the river at 15.42pm, I would get there eventually, I was in the exact right place at the exact right time for someone else, and that made absolute sense to me. Below is a short video of the river.
After standing for a minute or two, we headed to the park, after all, puppy time is fun time.
My sunset might not have gone to plan, but I hope by pausing at the right time, someone elses day was a little easier. Merry Christmas everyone. Peace xxx
Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway was not supposed to die first.
Margo pulled the front door shut and hobbled out onto the veranda. She put her mug of hot tea onto the table then pulled out one of the plastic chairs. Fastening her fingers around the handles, she began to lower her fragile body on to the seat. She held her breath, knuckles white under the patio light, arms trembling, but her elbows buckled and gave way. She gasped. Her bottom hit the seat with a thud. The chair skidded backwards – with Margo holding on for dear life – and its four legs scraped the concrete, ripping a roar into the night. She sat rigid, her heart thumping hard in her chest. She blew out a long whistling sigh. Clumsy old fool. A large brown moth tapped the light above her head. She watched as it hovered and tapped and hovered then dived, down towards her face. Unfastening her fingers from the chair, she swiped the air. The moth darted back into the light. Shug would have scolded her for swiping the moth, “God created this world for all living creatures, not just the pretty ones.”
“Oh Shug,” she wrapped her arms around her chest. Her shoulders shook and tears welled in her eyes. She coughed out her sorrow in a whisper.
“Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you were not supposed to die first.”
She wiped her tears on the sleeve of her dressing gown and inhaled the night. Autumn had begun to creep into the corners of the garden in little cold curls, and the air smelled of damp foliage and chimney soot. Margo looked out into the darkness and saw the moon, a white eyelash resting on a purple blanket.
The tea was hot. Margo held the mug to her chest and twirls of steam rose into the air, dampening her face. She turned away and caught her reflection in the patio window. How time had altered her face, it used to be so soft and smooth but now it hung in folds of sagging flesh. And those lips – sucked dry into a shrivelled line. She swept a strand of hair that had blown onto her cheek and tucked it behind her ear. How she missed her long fiery curls, her most defining feature back in the day. Now her hair was as grey as the chimney smoke chugging the air. Shug had barely noticed her changing though. “You’re bonnier than the sunset o’er the Forth of Firth,” he’d say, “as bonny now, as the day we met.” Shug had gone grey first. He was only twenty-three when it happened. In a single year, Shug’s hair transformed from bold black into fading grey. It was the year after Pearl died. Margo sipped her tea from trembling fingers. She heard the sound of a door opening, closing, and then footsteps. In the darkness, she could see the silhouette of a tall slim man walking down the pavement. It was Billy, her friend’s Grandson.
“Evening Mrs Galloway,” he waved, “Starting to get a bit nippy out eh?”
“Aye Son, it is.”
He continued walking. She watched as he stopped at the far end of her fence and lit a cigarette. The flash of orange light glowed for a moment, then he disappeared into the night. All that remained was the sound of his footsteps and a dancing orange dot. The smell of tobacco drifted through the air, lingered for a few seconds and she felt a flutter in her chest. She inhaled deeply. Margo had never smoked, never even tried it, but she had grown used to the smell of a newly lit cigarette. It reminded her of the first day that she had met Shug.
It was a warm afternoon in the spring of 1964. She was working from home at the time, a seamstress by all accounts, though a self-trained one. She had even built herself quite a reputation in the village where she lived. A craftswoman, the locals called her, “with an eye as sharp as a needle and fingers that can turn a tattie sack into a gown.” When Shug turned up at the foot of her steps, a handsome young man with a pair of trousers draped over his left arm and a cigarette paper balancing between two fingers, she stood in the doorway and watched him. He knew she was watching, but his eyes were focused on his fingers while he tore the wiry brown tobacco, spread it into a line then folded the paper, rolling and licking and rolling again. When he was done, he put the cigarette into the corner of his mouth and looked up.
“Are you Margo McNabb?” he cocked his head to one side.
“Aye.” She blushed and looked at the trousers over his arm.
“Great, my Maw said you could maybe take up the hem of my trousers,” he held them out. “Can you do it for me?”
Margo looked at the trousers and then at her visitor. He was short and stocky and the trousers would have been a good two inches too long. She sniggered.
“Aye okay,” she turned her back, leaving the door ajar, “Come on in.”
He followed her and closed the door.
“Who’s your Maw?” Margo asked taking the trousers and nodding her head to an empty seat.
“Betty, Betty Galloway. She said you two were pals during the war. Do you mind if I…?” he pointed to his cigarette and raised his eyebrows.
“Aye go ahead, but you’ll need to take it into the scullery. Do you want a cup of tea?”
“Go on then.”
He got up from the seat and followed her through. Margo filled the kettle and put it on to boil.
“So you’re Betty’s laddie. Stanley is it?” she asked dropping two teabags into the teapot.
“Aye, but call me Shug, hardly anyone calls me Stanley anymore.”
“Alright Shug,” she leaned back against the wall and folded her arms. Shug lit his cigarette. He took a long draw and blew the smoke up to the ceiling.
“Nice place you have, Mrs McNabb.”
“Not Mrs,” she felt her face burning, so she turned to the cooker and fidgeted with the kettle, “Just Margo will do.”
“Just Margo eh? Interesting.”
She turned back around and watched as he blew little hoops of smoke into the room.
“Me and your Maw, we had some good times together, she used to wash and iron the clothes that I fixed, she was always singing, kept us all going so she did.”
“I bet you could hold a tune yourself,” he winked.
“Well I tried.” She twirled a lock of hair around her index finger. “Anyway, those were hard times back then, nae money for luxuries and all that.”
“Make do and mend,” he said, “Aye, she still goes on about it.”
A car engine rattled, snapping Margo out of her memory, and abruptly back to 2010. She jumped, and looked out into the street. It was normally so quiet at this time of the night. The car drove past. Lifting her mug, she took a gulp of tea but it was almost cold. She put the mug back on the table. Television lights flickered in the window opposite and an upstairs light in the house on the left, turned on. A curtain twitched. She watched for a moment then stretched her legs out in front of her. Flopping her head back, she looked up at the darkening sky. She closed her eyes and sighed, letting her thoughts drift off again. ‘Make do and mend’, she thought, ‘just like our wedding.’ In the space of a year, they had gone from talking in the scullery to walking down the aisle. It was a shame it had been such a small ceremony. Not many people approved of the twenty-seven year age gap. Shug had looked so charming in his taken-up trousers and suit jacket, while she had worn a dress she made herself. Oh and how wonderful she had felt in that beautiful dress, satin and lace that expertly skimmed her three-month baby bump.
Pearl was born in the back of an ambulance, eight days late, and after seventeen hours of labour. She was a scrawny little pink bundle – with a temper as fierce as her fiery hair. And those eyes, those little blue eyes that looked up at her Mother and filled her joy. They had fallen in love instantly. Margo remembered bringing her home, swaddled in a crocheted shawl. It took Shug a few days to hold his daughter on his own though.
“She’s not a bomb for goodness sake,” she took the baby from him and told him how to position his arms. He sat back in the rocking chair, and she placed the little bundle back into his arms. He stared down at her, a new twinkle in his eyes.
“She’s a gem.”
“Aye,” Margo smiled, “She really is. Are we giving her a name?”
“Pearl,” Shug replied, “Her name is Pearl.”
“Pearl.” Margo whispered her daughter’s name into the night. “I’ve missed you all these years.”
A cold breeze ruffled her hair and tickled her face. It felt like tiny ghost fingers touching her playfully. With her eyes still closed, she held on to the lingering chill. She touched the pendant that hung on a silver chain around her neck. Shug had bought it for her birthday in 1968, the year that Pearl died. She could still remember him dropping the pendant into her hand and closing her fingers around it. The stone had felt as heavy as the ache in her chest.
“I don’t want it.” She threw the pendant back at Shug. She hadn’t even remembered it was her birthday. After all, she had only buried her daughter three weeks earlier.
“But it’s Mother of Pearl,” he placed it on the bed side table, “Like you, the Mother of Pearl. It’s to remember our little girl.”
“What? You think a stupid necklace is a replacement for my baby? Really?” her body convulsed and tears fell from her swollen eyes.
“You’ll always be her Mum, Margo. You will.”
“Her Mum? But it was my job to look after her, not to dilly dally at some stupid ladies group. She was only three, for Christ’s sake, my only child. I should have been with her.”
“It’s not your fault,” he sobbed, “I should have been watching.”
Margo looked away from him and clenched her teeth.
“I only took my eyes off her for a second to roll my fag. I didn’t see her run. I didn’t see the car.”
“Come on Margo, you have to believe I’d never have let anything happen to our wee girl, not on purpose.”
“Too late. Where is she now Shug, eh? Where is my bairn?”
Shug bent down to touch her face. She swiped his hand away.
“Don’t touch me!” She shouted and pulled the covers up to her neck. “Just don’t”
“I’m so sorry,” he fell no his knees and wept into his hands, “I’m so sorry. Oh God. Oh God!”
Margo could still remember his cries, even now – forty-two years later. She shook her head, dropped the pendant onto her chest, and stared out into the darkness. Poor Shug. He’d never been the same after the accident. It hadn’t been easy for either of them to – just get on. But they did – get on – or at least they did their best. The television had stopped flickering in the window across the road. All the other windows were dark. She was alone.
Margo had always imagined that she would die first. Shug had joked about how he would go off and travel the world with all of their money when she was gone. After all, the success of her sewing business had allowed her to save for many years; so much so that she had comfortably retired at sixty. She remembered asking Shug to consider early retirement from his job in the carpet factory.
“I’ve plenty years in me yet.”
“But we can afford it, and you’ve worked so hard for all these years, don’t you want to spend more time at the dancing? You love the dancing.”
“We can dance anytime. Look,” he took her hand and pulled her into an embrace, then spun her around, catching her and kissing her on the nose.
“But we could do other things. You know. Together.”
“Get on a train and go somewhere new. My goodness, we could travel the world.”
“I already told you,” he slapped her bottom, “I’m going to travel the world when you’re dead and gone. What else am I going to do with all that money you’ve got stashed.”
“Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you are a bad man.”
But alas, it wasn’t to be. Shug was forced to retire in 2004 due to ill health. He was diagnosed with emphysema and heart problems. It had begun as a cough that had lasted for three months.
“Is it no about time you gave up on the cigarettes?” she’d asked him, knowing full well that he wouldn’t.
“How am I supposed to give up the fags now,” he said, “I’ve been smoking since I was eight.”
Shug had often recalled his early childhood memories to her. He had worked in his uncle’s cigarette factory when he was just a boy. He told her how he would sweep under the machines, collecting the loose tobacco in a paper bag so him and his pals could meet in the hay field after school and smoke the scraps. Margo had laughed about it, and people didn’t know the risks back in the fifties, and most of the boys did it.
Margo worried. Shug had lost his appetite and had grown thin, adding years to his face. His bottom lip was tinged in blue. He spent much of the day asleep or sitting up in his armchair reading the paper. Margo began to sleep in a chair beside his bed. One night, at the beginning of 2005, his heart stopped.
“I saw her Margo. I saw her standing there, waiting for me,” he gripped her hand through the bars of the hospital bed.
“She’s waiting, I saw her, and she was smiling.” Shug tried to sit up, but she put her hand on his shoulder and bent over him. Her back ached and her eyes filled with tears.
“She forgives me, my little girl.” He closed his eyes.
“It’s not time yet.” She said and kissed his finger then held them to her lips. “I’m taking you home.”
“Oh Margo, I’m ready to go now,” he turned his head towards her but never opened his eyes, “Don’t let them bring me back next time. Promise me?”
“I, I don’t know.” She whispered.
“Don’t let them bring me back.”
Margo looked up at the sky. It had turned black. She was glad that Shug had managed another six years after that, and although he began to fade away, his love never faltered. And he learned to laugh again. “You better get spending that money, Mrs Galloway.”
She reached for her mug; it was as cold as stone. Pouring the remaining tea into the wilting fuchsia in the flower box, she sighed deeply. She pushed her arms against the plastic chair and steadied herself. Her legs trembled and she shivered. The night had sunk into her dressing gown. She had waited long enough. Straightening her back, she walked slowly into the house. It was just as she had left it. The armchair, the ashtray filled with cigarette ends, and Shug. She kissed his cheek, closed his eyes, and watched another white eyelash fall to his purple blanket.
“Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you were not supposed to die first.”
Tears rolled down her face. She picked up the phone.
Kelman’s novel Dirt Road is story that takes both characters and reader on a journey right from the outset, but the journey is more than it seems. The novel begins in the West coast of Scotland where we learn that Murdo – a sixteen-year-old boy – and his father Tom are mourning the death of their mother/wife and sister/daughter. Searching for solace, they embark on a journey to Alabama, U.S.A to spend time with Uncle John and Aunt Maureen. For Murdo, family is just a happy memory, a moment in time captured in a photograph, ‘The family was four and not just him and Dad’, whilst for Tom, family is the bond that holds them together. Throughout their journey, Tom strives to guide his son and keep him on ‘the right path’, yet Murdo, as we will learn, has a path of his own to find. Stifled by the fathers influence, the boy has a tendency to stray, thus when they reach Allentown Mississippi, Murdo stumbles upon a family of musicians led by Zydeco performer Queen Monzee-ay. Murdo is as drawn to music as his father is to family, the boy himself is an accomplished accordion player, and when he is offered an opportunity to play a set with Queen Monzee-ay in two weeks’ time, we watch as the road between father and son diverges and choice and risk becomes the key plot in the story.
While this may appear a simple story line, Kelman’s exploration into the fragmented relationship between father and son gives the reader an honest analysis of family and grief. The third person narrator, with bursts of free indirect discourse from Murdo, allows the reader both an internal and external insight into the constraints of family. This parallel leaves the reader feeling uncomfortable, yet with a conflicting heart. This is Kelman’s unique writing style at its best.
Dirt Road is more than a novel of grief and family relationships though; it is a novel of risk, of following new paths with uncertainties, about leaving behind the familiarities and safety of the past and following the heart. It is about deep connections; for Murdo this is through music and the feeling of freedom that he associates with music, whilst for the other characters it is about cultural connections and Scottish ancestry. Kelman’s clever use of parallels shows the reader the intensity of human connections whilst suggesting that change and progression is possible. This great novel will linger in your thoughts for weeks after you put it down, and it brings to mind a poem by Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
I wrote this poem in response to finding out an old friend and work colleague had died. While I never actually found out the cause of his death, I do know that in the months, maybe years leading up to his death, he was lonely. I spoke to him on social media on rare occasions, but never allowed myself to get close enough to ask the simple questions- are you okay, or, do you need help. I guess over the years we had drifted apart as friends, and for that reason I felt that it wasn’t up to me to respond to his very obvious cries for help. Now I wish I could turn back time and not scroll by his social media posts. Now I wish I could talk to him and remind him that he is loved and that he has brought happiness to so many people in his life time. Perhaps those words might have saved him. Perhaps those words would have given him peace in his final moments.
R.I.P my friend. A fragment of your life is imprinted on mine.
They dressed you up like Christmas day. A faux Silk blouse with ruffled trim – garnet red. Black Pressed polyester trousers with an elastic waist, The comfy yins. But the shoes, the shoes were wrong.
Unworn kitten heels – black. The yins ye bought Fi Marks and Sparks that rubbed yer bunions.
They dressed you up like Christmas day and put you on display. Painted Your face back to life, with tinted rouge and peach lipstick that puckered Like melted wax, concealing your smile, Your tea stained teeth. They put you on display – Dead Cold.
Jon brought you a school picture of your grandson Jack; slipped it under your pillow Then squeezed a private letter into your clenched right hand. I Gave you a card. A pink one with a rose. I placed it beside your left hand – sealed Happy Mother’s Day Mum
They put you on display, dressed you up like it was Christmas day but without Your love heart locket, your gold embossed wishbone ring. Those damn sentimental things that might hold tiny particles of skin, Fragments of last week – lingering in the grooves.
Since writing this poem, I have begun writing a novel titled ‘Cheese Scones & Valium’, which is biographical fiction of part of my mothers life, and is embedded in memoir. This has a direct link to my poem.
I published Funeral Parlour with Anti-Heroin Chic on 25th May 2017. The poem was originally written for an assessment at university and was difficult to write. This poem describes my own experience of seeing my own mother for the last time.
This short story was published by Fairlight books on 13th November 2017. Click here to be redirected to their site.
She pulled a bunch of ribbons from her jacket pocket, selected a red one, then squeezed it in the palm of her hand. “I wish,” she said, and closed her eyes, “I wish that today will be the day that I find you.” She took the ribbon to the large elm tree and tied it onto a low hanging branch. It flapped lazily in the breeze. From her backpack, she pulled out a folded handkerchief and unwrapped it. It held a rusty nail with a battered head, but with a newly sharpened tip. Crouching down to half her height, she traced her finger over the neatly carved lines already on the tree trunk. Nineteen lines for nineteen years, and the first, still as deep as the day her father helped her carve it. She pressed the nail into the bark, and tapped it with a large stone that she’d found by the loch. She carved line number twenty. It was still early morning and the sky was a brilliant blue. She sat cross-legged on her sleeping bag, drinking strong coffee from the lid of her flask and let her eyes trail lazily over the rugged outlines of the Trossachs. A lone osprey flew from the east and soared over the wide loch, its white belly and black-tipped wings, mirrored in the still water. “Look at the giant seagull Kim, look, look!” Kim held her breath as it dipped its wings, swooping downwards and breaking the water with its claws. “Did it steal a fish?” Blinking hard, she sighed. “Where are you Nora?” The osprey was already back in flight by the time she shook off the memory, rising to the sky, before disappearing into the forest of Scots pines on the opposite bank. All that remained was a ripple in the calm. She took the longer route to avoid the main campsite; weathered hill walkers tended to stray away from the paths and the noise of people. The terrain at the south side of Loch Chon was reasonably accessible, although rock scatterings hidden amongst the greenery at the foot of the hill could be tricky underfoot. She dug her trekking poles into the grass and took long strides, breathing in the smell of mulchy earth and sweet oily bog myrtle. It was late spring and the hills were alive with wildflowers. Smatterings of dog violets grew amongst the long grass that swished in the breeze. She paused to watch a woodman’s friend bat its tiny orange wings as it landed on the spike of a blue bugle. “Is it a moth Kim?” “I think it’s a butterfly.” The valley led down to an old stone bridge, where twenty-one years earlier, she had found a little red shoe among the reeds. The shoe was still warm, perhaps from the sun that shone on its shiny patent surface, or perhaps from the foot of her five-year-old sister Nora, who was nowhere to be seen. She climbed onto the bridge, took off her backpack, and leant over, watching the reflection of her orange cagoule flickering in the stream. “Count to fifty then come and find me.” “Fifty is too long Nora.” She bent forward and put her face into her hands. “One, two, three…” She said out loud. “Are you playing hide and seek?” Kim stood up, startled. A little girl, no more than five years old, stood beside her. Her eyes were red and her cheeks glistened with tears. She crouched down to the little girl’s height. “Nora?” “No, I’m Phoebe. Who are you?” “Oh God.” She leaned against the bridge wall for support. “Sorry Phoebe, you gave me a fright. I’m Kim, where’s your Mum and Dad?” She stood back up and looked around but there was no one else in sight. Phoebe began to cry. She held the sleeve of Kim’s cagoule while her little body shook. “I got lost,” she sobbed, “I lost my Mummy.”
“It’s okay Phoebe, don’t you worry. I can help you find her.” “Will I be in big trouble?” “No silly, you won’t be in trouble.” Kim took a tissue from her backpack and wiped Phoebe’s eyes. “Now blow your nose and we’ll find her together.” She held the tissue to the girl’s face and laughed when she blew a trumpet. “Now, which way did you come?” She asked, pulling her backpack on. Phoebe pointed her finger east and Kim figured she must have come from the campsite. It was a five-minute walk on flat land, and easy to find. “Can I take your hand?” Phoebe asked. “I’m scared.” “Sure.” She held it out and felt the tiny warm fingers grip hers. They passed through a grove of elm trees, stepping over protruding roots and clumps of moss. The temperature dipped in the shade. “How did you manage to get lost?” “I was following the big seagull.” Phoebe said. “Did you see it?” “Yeah I did. But that big bird was an osprey. They look a bit like seagulls but they’re bigger and prettier.” “Offspray,” Phoebe giggled, “Off. Spray.” “Osprey, aye.” Kim laughed. They emerged from the grove and found the man-made gravel path that led to the campsite. Kim could see a group of walkers ascending a softer hill in the distance. The odd tent was dotted around the flat ground while others clung diagonally to the side of the hill. When she saw the loch glistening at the far end of the horizon, she knew they were close. “Kim. Who were you playing hide and seek with?” “Oh. I was just pretend playing. I used to play with my sister Nora, she was five.” “I used to be five. I’m seven now,” she smiled showing a gap where her front tooth had fallen out, “How are you going to find her if you’re taking me to my Mummy?” “I’ll find her,” Kim pressed her lips together, “One day.” “But isn’t she too wee to be left alone?” “She’s lost Phoebe.” Kim took a deep breath before continuing. “She’s been lost for a long, long time. I come here sometimes just to look.” “My Grandad got lost. He was in a home. Mum said he went to heaven but I heard her telling my Auntie Kate on the phone that they lost him.” “Oh.” Kim squeezed Phoebe’s hand. “If people get lost then they can get found too, can’t they?” “I guess.” “I think they can.” She nodded her head. “My Grandad leaves me clues. Like one time when me and Mum were out walking Timmy, that’s my dog, and we found a card with a number eight and a heart on it…” “Uh-huh.” “Well, eight is the number of his old house, before he went to the home, and the heart is because he supported the Hearts.” “That’s a brilliant clue. Maybe you could be a detective when you grow up.” Kim laughed. “Aye, that’s what my Mum says.” Phoebe’s little blonde bunches looked so much like Nora’s did on the day she disappeared. “When I’m big, I could help you find your sister.” She put her hands on her hips and raised her eyebrows. “I’d like that.” “Good. Does Nora leave you clues like Grandad does?” “I’m not sure. I think so,” she said, “maybe I’m just too grown up to see them now.” “How can you be too grown up to see clues?” “You’re right Phoebe. Maybe I just forgot how to find them. Thank you for reminding me though.” “You’re welcome.”
“Oh my God. Phoebe. Where on earth have you been?” Kim stood by the door of the park ranger’s cabin. She smiled warmly as Phoebe’s mother ran towards them and scooped her daughter up into her arms. “I got lost Mummy. I’m sorry but I was following an off spray, it’s like a big seagull you know, and then it flew away over the big mountain and then I didn’t know how to come back. But I found Kim.” She said, pointing at Kim who nodded her head. Phoebe’s mother mouthed a thank you and pulled her daughter in for another hug. “You shouldn’t run off on your own. I’ve been worried sick.” “It’s okay Mum, I only got a wee bit lost.” “Well thank goodness you found Kim.” “I know. She was playing hide and seek with Nora when I found her, but Nora got lost. Like Grandad.” “Oh.” She lowered Phoebe to the floor and rubbed her hair. “Is your daughter lost Kim, do you need some help?” “Twenty-one years ago, I’m afraid, and she was my sister.” “I’m Kim, I’m so sorry. That must have been awful for your family.” “Yeah, it was. Mum passed away the following year and Dad never forgave himself for losing her.” “Is your Dad with you?” “Gone too. Four years ago.” Kim coughed and looked out of the window. “Sorry Kim.” “It’s okay, but thanks.” She felt her chest tighten. “I come back at the same time every year hoping to find something, you know…” “Clues.” Phoebe interrupted. “Yeah, clues.” Kim laughed. “I don’t know how to thank you for finding this little rascal.” They both looked at Phoebe who stood with her tongue out. “I’m Sandra.” Kim took Sandra’s outstretched hand and shook it. “Nice to meet you. She’s a good kid.” “I’m so glad you found her, she tends to wander. I only nipped to the toilet, she must have run off.” “Well, no harm done.” Kim smiled. “And it was Phoebe who found me, honestly. In fact, I think she might even have been sent as a clue.” She winked at Phoebe who clapped her hands in delight. “Can I get you a coffee or something?” Sandra asked. “or a hot chocolate?” “No thanks,” She said. “I need to get on, I’ve a bit of walking to do and I’m heading home tonight.” “Please Kim.” Phoebe took her hand and pressed her face against it. “Not just now,” She whispered, “I need to go looking for clues.” “Oh aye,” she whispered back, “I hope you find some good ones.” “Me too. Hey, maybe you could both come around to my tent after dinner. I’ll let you make a wish on my faerie tree.” “You have a faerie tree?” Phoebe’s eyes opened wide. “Do faeries live in it?” “Yes, they do. Now, do you have a ribbon?” “Have I got a ribbon Mummy?” “Erm, I don’t think so.” Sandra said. “Don’t worry, you can have one of mine.” Kim smiled. “I’ll come by here at six.” She patted Phoebe on the head. “See you later detective.”
She climbed down the rocks blow the stone bridge. Gripping onto a dangling root, she lowered herself onto the pebbled bank and walked into the cold shadow of the bridge. “Watch out for creepy crawlies.” She ducked her head. The water echoed around her like whispers and she hunched her shoulders to her ears. She found the line she’d etched into a large rock the previous year and set down her backpack. Using the ends of her trekking poles, she flicked pebbles one by one into the water. After each plop, her eyes scanned the ground – searching. She got to her knees, cupping the stones in her hands, sifting through them with her thumbs, before throwing them into the stream. “Where are you?” She dug her fingers into sand and mud, scooping up wet clumps, and throwing them to the side. “There must be something.” She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the sleeve of her jacket. Just then, she saw the surface of a rounded piece of glass partially hidden in the dug-out hole. She pushed her finger into the mud and edged it out slowly, discovering a glass marble, cold, and smooth with green and yellow swirls through the centre. She washed the dirt off in the stream then rolled it around in the palm of her hand. Was it Nora’s? “Come on Kim, play with me.” She squeezed her eyes shut, searching her mind. Nora tugged her sleeve, blue eyes staring hopefully. Her pink freckled cheeks dimpled as she smiled. A smile that stretched over decades in Kim’s memory. The red velvet dress with white trim was as clear as the photograph in her purse. Shiny red patent shoes. “Count to fifty and don’t peek.” “One, two…” Did Nora play with marbles? “Three, four…” I can’t remember. “Five, six, seven…” “Damn it!” She threw the marble into the stream and it barely made a splash.
The sun had begun to dip behind the mountains by the time Kim had led Sandra and Phoebe to her pitch. They stood beside the slow burning wood fire and Kim looked over the loch. It lay flat and still, reflecting sky and mountains and creating the illusion of endlessness. “It’s like the sky is upside down.” Phoebe pointed. “I think it looks like the edge of forever,” Kim said, “like you could walk right inside the belly of the world.” “Forever-land.” Phoebe said. “Like Peter Pan.” “That’s Never-Never land.” Kim laughed. “It’s pretty though, isn’t it?” Sandra said and put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder. Phoebe nodded. “This is the best time for wishes.” Kim said, “It’s when the faeries come out to play. Come on.” They walked up the stony bank. The oak tree stood alone on the grassy hill at the rear of Kim’s tent; its wide trunk topped by a full head of leafy branches. “Where are the faeries?” Phoebe asked as she stepped into the shadow below the tree. “You can’t see them, but listen.” They huddled together, listening to the tree branches creak, and the leaves rustling gently. “They whisper to one another,” Kim continued, “Can you hear them?” “I think so.” Phoebe put her ear to the tree trunk. “What are they saying?” “They’re waiting for your wish.” Sandra said. “That’s right.” Kim smiled and took two pink ribbons from her pocket. She pulled down a long thin branch to Phoebe’s height, then held it while Sandra helped her daughter tie the first ribbon. “Don’t let it go yet.” Kim said as she fastened her own ribbon to the branch. “Now make a wish.” “You first.” “Okay.” Kim took a deep breath. “I wish that one day I’ll find a great big clue that’ll help me find my Nora.” “I wish,” Phoebe squeezed her eyes tight shut, “that my Grandad will look after her until you find her.” Together they let go of their ribbons and watched as they flapped freely in the breeze.
Everything is hushed, even the waves hemming the sand seems to hold their breath. Dawn is breaking and teasing the horizon. The world seems warmer. Tiny orange crabs scurry sideways into jagged rocks and now I am alone. I feel naked. Alive. All that I hold are my most intimate thoughts and a new respect for life.
Visiting the Maldives had been a distant dream of mine, since – well since forever. I had lost my mother seven months earlier. Her sudden departure from my life was not only tragic but deeply confusing. Life as I knew it had changed. I found myself searching for answers instead of comfort and could not see beyond the noise. Seven months had passed and I found myself frustrated. I spent too much time sitting on my doorstep, looking to the sky and searching. I found nothing. Waiting for nothing is the most desperate way to pass the time. You feel the outside expanding rapidly from your doorstep while you slowly shrink inside your own head. After receiving a small windfall, it didn’t take me long to find my escape. “If I can’t find you, I’ll try to find myself.”
I watch the sun climb. Shocking red and orange slices flash upon the placid sea. Blood rushes around my body; my head feels light and my skin tingles. I want to grab this vision and stamp it urgently in my memory; nothing had been or ever could be this beautiful.
Sunrise is followed by nature. The salt water and wet sand creep up and swallow my legs. Schools of fish swim daringly close to me examining by pale white limbs. I enjoy teasing them with my toes. A stingray skims the surface of the shore, round , large and flat like a piece of old leather being carried by the waves. I stand up and follow it until it disappears into deeper water. “Time is irrelevant. Time is unconnected to the world outside. The world outside is now extinct”.
I am walking. My island has opened up to people. Swimwear – bright and cheerful which somehow looks dishonest here. Every soul I see equally treasures the silence. I see the emotion on every face that turns toward me. Passion has touched their soul. Passion has touched my soul.
I find a spot under a palm tree. It is a light relief from the burning sun as the fan like branches shade my skin. A tiny lizard scurries up the rough bark and hides from me. I have stolen its place. I close my eyes and breathe in a smell of warm salty sea and dry foliage. It is the pure and clean smell of the natural world, stripped back to its rawness, undeveloped and unpolluted. Unspoiled. All of my senses are kick-started. I am alive.
Hours pass, or perhaps it is just seconds but the next thing happens alarmingly quick. The brilliant blue horizon turns charcoal grey. In the blink of an eye the neighbouring island vanishes. The atmosphere feels instantly charged. Excitement and fear presses heavily on my skin and I watch in wonder as the sea trembles and spits out her waves as she chokes in the dense air. Colossal globes of water pelt from the heavens onto the world below. All at once I am alone again. Noise booms in my ears from the waves and rain and the intense screeching from the unhappy bird high above my head in my palm tree. I am motionless. I watch the storm gather itself, teasing my island with its wildness and ferocity, and I long for it. My heart pounds in my chest, my ears scream as I suck in the humid air and hold it as my body wretches. My eyes explode with tears cascading from deep inside my broken heart. I clench my fists and my eyes stare ahead, finally seeing myself through my blurred vision. I sob for my mother, I weep for the loneliness I feel without her and for my uncertain future.
Almost as quickly as it begins, the rain stops. The world stops. Only for a moment.Like I am caught between when time began and when time ended. I am nothing but am everything. The sea throws its last wave onto the wet sand then lies still, tranquil. Silent. Before my eyes is a florescent sea. A bright shocking bath of glory against a cruel bleak sky.
My eyes dry. The grey moves along the horizon until all that remains is a flawless sky that never ends. The sun lies down on the clear and rested water and time resumes.For the first time in a long time I understand. My close encounter with a tropical storm has awakened me. Like the storm, my grief is fierce but beautiful and will eventually pass. I am alive. I can be whole.
Midnight, On the blackened sand. Waves crash upon the shore, unfamiliar darkness yet I’ve seen this place before. Lying flat, eyes to the sky; the stars are out of reach, I’m all alone without you, on this cold and lonely beach. The gnawing cold snags my breath. I wrap myself up tight, I’m shrouded in a veil of grief yet bathing in the moonlight, I close my eyes and ponder this melancholy mind, I’m seasick from the universe vanished from mankind. Onto my feet I wander, to the gentle lapping tide, I asked the stars to help me, in the moon did I confide, but the burden was too heavy, and my face a sorry frown as I walked into the ocean I said goodbye and drowned.
I sat on the doorstep. My head was filled with a itchy buzz that drowned out the noise from the road fifty yards away. The afternoon was damp and humid and a smell of rotten leaves hung thick. The air licked my skin and my scalp prickled as I sucked life into my lungs, attempting to clear the fog that stifled brain. I had been grinding my teeth ever since I received the phone call at 11am that morning and now my jaw ached. Outside, the doorstep was my reprieve, a place to escape. The mourning. It was the crying; the fear, it was the look of desperation etched on faces; pale, ashen and distorted. Outside I was alone, raw and separated from the solid hugging arms of collective grief and crumpled bodies. Fat blobs of rain began to fall, and I looked up to charcoal clouds scribbled over the sky.
“This,” I thought, “is how the sky ought to look today’.
From behind the rooftops of an adjacent tenement block of flats, a single black helium balloon appeared. I watched it stagger over the sky, bashing into thick air then sucked into jets of cold.For a moment it hesitated.
“Where are you Mum?” I shook my head and watched as the balloon skittered off into the distance. The world above was black and white.
How was I meant to feel today? How are you supposed react when you get a call at 11am on a Sunday morning telling you that your Mum is dead?
I had often tried to imagine how I would feel when this day arrived, especially more so in the last year as I noticed how fragile my mother looked and how tiny she had become. One thing was certain; I had always known my heart would break. What I did not expect was confusion, fear, emptiness and a feeling of no longer being safe. I got up and went back into a house that was no longer home.
Loss. I had experienced it before.
It was a Wednesday afternoon and I was off school. I wasn’t even sure why my Mum had let me have a free day but it was bound to be great. I got to pick my own clothes because Mum had gone out to see Granny in hospital. Before she left, Mum told me to be good and remember to brush my teeth. When I went downstairs to see who was looking after me, loads of aunties and uncles had come to visit. I felt really excited because that usually meant a party. The room was filled with pipe smoke and old lady smell.
“I got a free day off school,” I said, and tried to squeeze in between Uncle Jimmy and Auntie Agnes.
Everyone was looking at me and pulling weird faces. Auntie Phamie was crying. Auntie Isa had a crumpled up face and was looking at the floor. Uncle John coughed and left the room. I was afraid I had done something wrong.
“Your Granny died this morning,” Auntie Isa said, looking up.
I laughed because I didn’t believe her. My Granny was in hospital. Auntie Phamie started wailing so I turned around and stood in the corner.
“Poor Eleanor, not getting there on time,” Uncle Roberts voice came from near the kitchen.
I knew my Mum was called Eleanor, and I wondered if she had missed the bus this morning.
“And Chic, poor man, going home to an empty house,” one of the Aunties said. I wondered who Chic was and if he’d been burgled like the folk on Jackanory yesterday. I nervously picked wood-chip off the wall, and it fell in between my feet and on to the green carpet. I was hungry because no one had made me anything to eat. This didn’t seem like a party to me at all. I was scared to turn around, partly because I could still hear Auntie Phamie sniffing and grunting, and also because there was now a pile of wood-chip on the floor at my feet. I stood and looked at the mess for ages and thought about my Grannie. Why did they say she was dead? I thought this was a nasty lie to tell.
After what felt like hours, I heard the front door open and turned around. Mum walked in with Auntie Nan and Papa and everyone got up and started cuddling, just like at Christmas, except no one was singing. Papa was crying, and I felt like I should be crying as well but didn’t know why. My Mum took ages to come over and see me and when she did she crouched down so her face was close to mine. I wondered if my Mum would like what I had picked to wear.
“Your Granny died this morning,” she said.
I frowned and turned my back on my Mum, then felt warm pee dribble down my leg and into my sock.