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
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.