Friday, 23 December 2016

The Elf-Kin

Adam Macqueen
Christmas 2016

In that far north country the nights are dark and they are long, and when winter fastens its jaws about the great forest it feels it may never let go.

The men of that land are hardy, and they are strong and they are brave, but there is not a soul amongst them who would let himself be caught beneath the knotted boughs of the trees after darkness has fallen. The mothers call their children in from play the moment that twilight begins to draw out the shadows and thread them together, and there is not a boy or girl who does not heed their first call. Each tries hard not to be the last in the crowd as they hurry back across the snow, and the unlucky soul who finds themselves the hindmost must fix their eyes hard upon the footprints of their playmates, follow as fast as their little legs may carry them, and never, never look behind.

The bolts are drawn across every door in the village before the dusk has even dimmed the snow to grey. All hands in every house rush to light the candles and test the casements before the blackness can thicken and fill the windowpanes. And in each home the fire is stoked till it roars in the hearth. Each father knows he must keep it fed through to dawn and flaming beneath the chimney’s great black mouth. Every mother knows she must keep her candles trimmed and her windows rubbed with whale-oil so nary so much as an icy draft can find a crack to come creeping in. And every child knows that if, in the depths of the night, they should hear a cold, small hand tap, tapping at the glass they must turn away and wrap their blankets tighter round themselves and stop up their ears. For they must never, never, listen to the voices that whisper out on the wind and the whirling snow.

There was a family that lived at the heart of that village. The father was a huntsman, like all the men in those parts, and his son a strapping lad already near six feet tall and fast approaching the age when he too would be blooded in the hunt. The mother had been a beauty in her day, and she kept the remnants of her beauty still, though life in the north land was not easy, and hers had been harder than some. They had a daughter too, as beautiful as her mother had ever been, and already when she would walk out through the village the boys would laugh and blush to see her, and some of the grown men too.

Her father knew this, and he was proud to see it. And he knew too that the day was coming when a suitor would take him from her, as he had taken her mother from her own father, and as that man in turn had taken his own wife, for this had been the way in those parts for as long as anyone could remember. And earlier that year, when the bite of winter was but something that hovered between a memory and a suggestion on the north wind, he had strapped on his boots and his travelling-coat, loaded up the sled with bearskins and wolfskins and barrels full of smoked meat and left his family for the long journey to the trading post with a special purchase in his mind. Returning after three long weeks he brought with him the usual provisions of oil and spice, of liquor and linen, and musket pellets, tobacco and trinkets that his family fell to cooing-over, but he brought back a special package too, one which stayed wrapped in its waxed paper and ribbon and was even now tucked away in the topmost drawer of the linen press where only he knew. A beautiful gown all stitched in gold, the finest he could buy, and a pair of silk slippers with beads of coloured glass that sparkled in the light.

For it was fast approaching the low time of the year, when the villagers would exchange gifts and good wishes for the return of the sun and the summer when it was at its most distant. But the shortest day cannot come without the longest night, and that, in that village at the heart of the great dark forest, was the time of most danger.

For that far north land is riddled with the elf-kin. They hide themselves in the gnarled trunks where the trees press close in the forest, pursuing a hunt of their own. They bury themselves deep in the slippery leaf-mould beneath the crust of the snow to pull down unwary travelers to join them. And they seek out the places in ill-kept homes where the wood is rotten and bad, and they push themselves into the cracks and bring sourness and blight in their wake.

But the longest, darkest night of the year is when the lord of all the elves himself rides out, looking for children to snatch from their homes. And though no man, woman or child alive can say they have caught so much as a glimpse of him, they say you will know him by his wild white hair and terrible laugh, and by the cloak he wraps tight around himself. For it is as red as blood.

That family were well prepared for his coming that year. The father set to chopping wood all day, his axe flashing red in the light of the dawn and the sunset too. The son trudged back and forth from axe-block to house, his arms filled with logs, so the fire would be well-stocked all through the long night. The mother busied herself at the stove, and the daughter helped her to butcher the deer that had hung in the cottage for seven full days now, and she set to mixing the blood that had gathered in the bucket beneath it for the puddings herself, for her father insisted she learn the skills that would make her a good wife when that day came.

The peaks of the snow were still sparkling rose when the father closed their door and pulled the great bolts across it, and he carried the largest midwinter candles himself and set them in their places on the window ledges as the light beyond faded to blue and on into blackness. Then he bade the mother and the daughter take off their bloody aprons, and the son take off his boots and his cap, and all kneel at the hearth with him at prayer.

“Let this our family circle be joined, and never rent asunder,” he said, “and if any of us have sins to confess, let them confess them now.” And the candle in the left-hand window sputtered and went out.

“Mother, you have not trimmed your candle-wicks well,” he scolded, getting to his feet and snatching up a taper to relight it. But though there was a good length of wick, and more when he took his knife to the candle-tip to shave it, it would not light again. It would only spark, and give off a foul smell.

The father bade them kneel again, and bow, forcing his children’s heads down with his rough hands. Again he said in a louder voice “if any in this family have sins to confess, let them confess them now, lest the elf-kin take them.” And though the mother and the daughter tried to keep to their prayers they could not help but open an eye to look to the candle in the right-hand window, and so they both saw it flicker as if caught in a great gust of wind, and go out.

This time the father did not leave the hearth, though he leaned forward to hurl a fresh log into the heart of the fire. He pushed his children’s heads down until they were brushing the floorboards, and he said once more, in a voice which echoed throughout the darkened house, “confess to your sin.” But his family said nothing, and all that could be heard was the wind.

So the family knelt on in silence, as the flames that had leapt up towards the great black mouth of the chimney but minutes before fell back and sank back into the glowing ashes. And the embers themselves began to lose their glow, and a cold blackness began to close on the room.

The father’s voice was hoarser now. “Speak!” he ordered. “For surely one of you has sinned.”

And at that moment a spark seemed to catch in the dying fire, and a glowing ember loosed itself and floated out into the room above their heads. It was not orange, as would issue from an ordinary fire, but a bright white. And it did not dance in the air like an ordinary ember, but bore steadily out across the room, and up to the linen press on the far wall where it lingered at the very topmost drawer.

The father let out a roar, and he strode to the press and yanked it open. Inside lay the package, still in its waxed paper, and tied with a ribbon, but even with his rough ways he could see that the paper was crumpled and the ribbon re-tied by a clumsy hand that belonged to no shopkeeper. He caught up the package in one hand, and took his daughter by her hair with the other, pulling her to her feet as she let out a scream.

“Confess!” he urged her, brandishing the package in her face. “You have sought out the gift that should have been thine, and been looking upon it with covetous eyes! Well, for your pride, you shall not have it!” And though it had cost him dear, he made to throw the gown and the silk slippers, paper and ribbon and all, onto the fire which let out a little heat still. But his hand was stopped by another scream, and this one came from his wife.

“What is it?” he hissed as he looked at her in the light of the low flames. But the woman had clamped both her hands to her mouth, as if to stop any further noise issuing from it.

The man let loose his daughter, who fell sobbing back on the hearth. And he crossed instead to his wife, and hauled her up by the shoulder. “So, it is you, is it?” he demanded. “Could you not bear to see your own daughter’s beauty? Are you so envious? Did you think you should have it yourself?” And he drew back his arm, and gave her such a blow across her face that it swelled and blackened her eye and she fell sobbing to the floor.

At that the light of the fire dipped yet lower, so that the family could barely see one another. But the father’s rage was still blazing. And he spoke to his son without looking at him, telling him “fetch my whip, boy.”

But his son’s voice came back from the darkness. “I will not.”

Still the father did not turn, for he was looking down at the sobbing women at his feet. “What did you say to me, boy?” he said in a voice that was low like the growl of a bear.

“I will not fetch your whip, father,” said the son in a voice that quavered between the reedy treble of a boy and the boom of a man, but was ever firm. “For it is I that have sins to confess.”

“Speak them then, boy,” snarled his father, who knew full well that for many long years he had been the only one tall enough to reach the topmost drawer of the linen press.

“It was I who was covetous, father. For I looked upon the package, and I wished that it should be mine.”

There was so little light in the room now that all the boy could see was the shape of his father towering over the women where they lay in front of the fireplace.

“It was I who was envious, father. For I took out the gown, and I ran my fingers over its golden stitching, and I wished it could be mine.”

The very last light of the embers showed the black mouth of the chimney gaping wide.

“It was I who was proud, father. For when I took down the silk slippers, with their beads of coloured glass that sparkle in the light, they fitted me perfectly.”

And at that the father turned, and whip or no whip he raised his arm to strike down upon his son with all the force that was in him. But the boy did not flinch, and though the tears ran down his face he stood firm, and shouted into his father’s face in a voice which cracked and fluted:

I have listened to the voices on the wind, father. And they are full of music. And there is laughter!”

And at that very moment the cottage was plunged into a blackness so total that the father could not tell up from down or which from what, and a great whirling wind and choking ashes filled the air around him, and a terrible roaring laughter that seemed to come from everywhere at once. The boy felt a pair of arms fasten about his waist, as strong as knotted oak branches, and as he was pulled backwards and upwards it was all that he could do to reach out in the darkness and clutch his sister’s hand in his left and his mother’s hand in his right and hold on to them as tight as never-let-go.

******

In that far north country the nights are dark and they are long, and when winter fastens its jaws about the great forest it feels it may never let go. The men of that land are hardy, and they are strong and they are brave, but there is not a soul amongst them who would let himself be caught beneath the knotted boughs of the trees after darkness has fallen. For that far north land is riddled with the elf-kin. They hide themselves in the gnarled trunks where the trees press close in the forest, pursuing a hunt of their own. They bury themselves deep in the slippery leaf-mould beneath the crust of the snow to tempt unwary travellers. You may hear their music and laughter on the wind and the whirling snow. And though no man alive will admit that they have caught so much a glimpse of them, they say that you will see them sometimes in the distance, in the shadows of the trees or just beyond the candle light that spills from your window.

They say that their lord wears a cloak as red as blood. And they say that amongst his retinue there are two ladies, an old one and a young one, both of whose beauty is beyond compare. But the tallest and most beautiful of them all is clad in a gown with golden stitching, and when he passes over the snow his silken slippers leave no footprints.


Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Gift That Keeps On Giving


Adam Macqueen
Christmas 2015

Darling Lucy,

I don’t have very long. But I can’t go without trying to explain to you. There’s so much you still don’t know. I can see you rolling your eyes at me when I write that: you think you know everything. You do when you’re 17. Believe it or not, I remember how it felt. Before life knocked the certainty out of me.

There’s one thing I have always been a thousand per cent sure of, though, and that’s how I feel about you. From the very first moment I saw your scrunched-up little angry face, bellowing at me as the doctors laid you on my chest, I felt a fierce, fierce love for you. It was so white hot it seemed to burn my insides. And believe me, despite everything that’s happened since, I’ve never stopped feeling it for a single moment. I would do anything for you, my darling. I have done things for you that most mothers would never be able to imagine. And I will again. Because it will keep you safe. And that is the only thing in this world that matters to me.

I know you hate talking about when you were little, but maybe tonight after what has happened – and I am so, so sorry my darling girl, I wish it could be otherwise – you can understand a little of what it was like. Sitting by the side of your hospital bed, holding on to your tiny hand. Carrying you to the bathroom when you were too weak to make it. You used to protest that you were too big to be carried, and I would pretend to stagger under your weight to make us both laugh, even though you were less heavy than a child of half your age should have been. Watching how brave and unquestioning you were with the needles and the pills even when I could see how much you had to struggle to swallow them and fight to keep them down, and not even being able to promise you that everything was going to be alright because I didn’t know whether that was true.

Because by then it had turned out not to be alright so many times. Because you weren’t just small for your age. And whatever the chances probably were, it had turned out not to be nothing. And you weren’t bringing up your dinner because of allergies, or food intolerances, or any of those other things that kids eventually grow out while their awful parents without a clue strut about wearing it like a badge, as if it’s something to be proud of. And you weren’t even lucky enough to be one of whatever percentage of kids it is that don’t react badly to the chemo, and your hair – your beautiful chestnut hair, with that heartbreaking baby smell I can still summon up to my nostrils even now – came out in clumps on the brush that I had to drag over your head as you sat patient and brave and unquestioning on my lap with me trying to avoid your bewildered eyes staring back at me in the mirror. Both of us pretending for each others’ sake that this was ok, it was fine, this was just something we were going to get through and come out the other side.

I don’t think you’ve ever known how close you really were to dying. Sure, you used it as a playground boast – “I nearly died,” I used to hear you saying to your friends after you started hanging out with the sort of kids that think that kind of thing is cool – but it was just words you were using in the way children do, words they’ve learned the sound of but not the true meaning. That only comes in all its clarity when you’re a parent, wide awake in the early hours of the morning and staring sightlessly into the darkness. Or at the emptiness of a long hospital corridor, with its harsh, antiseptic overhead lights melting away all euphemism and flattery to expose the skull beneath the skin.

That was where he found me, all those years ago. I couldn’t tell you what day it was, or what time, only that it was an hour when everyone is fast asleep except for the best and the worst in the world.

He looked like just another doctor. He was dressed like a doctor. A surgeon, in fact, though his loose blue scrubs were so spotless and uncreased that they made me suddenly aware of my own tired grubbiness and wonder just how long had passed since I had even managed to rub a finger over my teeth or a paper towel beneath my armpits in the Ladies, which was about all I could manage by way of hygiene at that point. But he was a lot younger than Dr Woodville, the surgeon who did your first operation, and who had assured me that they had almost certainly succeeded in locating all of the tumours and there was a very good chance little Lucy will be up and about in no time, something else which turned out to be more empty words. And he didn’t look much like the junior doctors I’d seen dragging themselves from ward to ward in the early hours either. His face was as fresh and unlined as an airbrushed model in a magazine, not a strand of his slicked black hair was out of place, and he had the most incredible green eyes that seemed to look right into me as he sat down opposite me and asked the only question that mattered.

“How is she tonight?”

It took me by surprise. You’d be amazed how many people in those weeks had come up to me to ask me “are you alright?” even though most of them had more than enough medical qualifications to know there was no possible way on earth I could be. I told him all the answer that I could fit into words, which was that you were sleeping. Pure exhaustion was doing at last what the drugs no longer seemed to be able to. And I was trying to make myself comfortable – no, that’s another empty phrase, I was slumped on a hard plastic chair trying to relish how uncomfortable I was because that way I could kid myself I was somehow taking some of your suffering for myself, even though I knew the world doesn’t work like that, however much it ought to.

Except that that night it turned out that maybe it could.

“Dr Ramakrishnan is a very good doctor,” he told me. That was the paediatric oncologist in charge of your treatment. “I’m sure she’s doing all that she can for Lucy.”

I could barely hear my own voice as I trotted out another of my practised phrases. “Everyone’s been very good to us.”

He nodded, and he seemed to know that I couldn’t manage a conversation, so we just sat together for a while. I suppose looking back, that was another thing that should have given me a clue that he wasn’t a junior doctor, because when do they have the time to just sit around? But right then what I needed most was some company from someone who seemed to understand, and I was long past asking questions. After a bit I realised I was crying, and he took out a handkerchief – a proper, white cotton handkerchief, all folded neatly into quarters and then diagonally again to fit in his breast pocket – and passed it over to me as I nodded my thanks, and we sat there in the corridor opposite each other, the only sounds my sniffling and the quiet hum through the door of the machines that were keeping you alive.

After some time had passed he leant forward, steepling his fingers – he had long fingers, I remember, with perfectly manicured nails – and looked at me like he had come to a decision.

“There is… one thing that we haven’t tried yet for Lucy.”

It was like a little jarring jolt of hope had gone off somewhere deep inside me, where I thought nothing was left but emptiness. I suddenly felt more awake than I think I have ever been. “What? What is it?”

He explained that it was an experimental treatment. Not one that was on offer to everyone. And that there was a risk involved. But I wasn’t interested in any of that. If it gave you a chance, I would take any risk there was.

He asked me if anyone had talked to me about donors. Of course they had. Even back then you could barely get out of a GP’s surgery without them trying to push one of the little red and blue cards on you. But they had also told me it would be no use in your case, even though I had said again and again how happy I would be to give up any one of my own organs in place of your tiny ones as the tumours worked their way through each of them in turn. And I told him as much, again.

He gave me an apologetic smile. “I’m afraid that wouldn’t be suitable in this case. The process does not leave the donor in a… functioning state. And Lucy would need you after the treatment to look after her and nurse her back to health. Unless… there’s anyone else?”

The tears were coming back again. His handkerchief was sodden through. “I’m on my own.”

“Ah. Lucy’s father isn’t -?”

I shook my head. He nodded sympathetically. “Naturally it’s every parent’s first instinct to do anything for their child. To be prepared to give up everything for them. At least, that’s how it should be.”

It felt like I was being given hope, just to have it snatched away from me. Although at least now I had someone to blame for it.

I told him all about your dad. How we hadn’t had any contact with him in years. How you didn’t even remember him. I told him things I’ve never told you, my love, although I think you always understood more than you let on. I always wanted to protect you from the details. But you need to know them now. To understand.

Your dad and I met too young. And although I’ve never regretted it for a second, we definitely had you too young. When you’re only a teenager you’ve barely got enough love for yourself, let alone anyone else, and your dad had a big problem even liking himself. I don’t even know what he thought he felt for me. And then you arrived, and there was never any question where all the love I had to share was going. Which I suppose, looking back, left him feeling even more on the outside, just like he was always saying he did. But that’s not to make any excuses for him. He had more than enough of those for himself. 

I should have spotted the signs so much earlier than I did. On our second or third date he tried to batter some lads from the college rugby team who were making laddy remarks at me in the bar, but somehow at the time I made myself think it was romantic – my own knight in armour, defending my honour. Only after he came off the worse in the encounter, and I was left doing DIY first aid in my bedroom because he flatly refused to go to A&E, he somehow managed to turn it back on me and tell me that he wouldn’t have to risk getting a kicking on my behalf if it wasn’t for the way I dressed and acted. And after it happened a few more times I started to believe him, which is why I started wearing all those drab jeans and baggy t-shirts you used to laugh at in my old photos. But I never minded you laughing: you were right, they were terrible, and old-fashioned even then, and secretly I loved the fact that once you were interested enough to want to look at them.

But gradually I realised that I was growing apart from all my friends, and stopping doing the things I used to love to do – do you remember years ago how amazed you were when I told you I used to act in the drama society at college, and you said You? No way! I kept telling myself that it was just part of growing up and discovering who I really was when actually I was being turned into the person he wanted me to be. And it turned out he didn’t like her much, either.

And then I got pregnant. You don’t want or need to know the details but it’s the reason I’ve tried damn hard all your life to make sure you’re not the sort of girl who’d let something like that happen to her. And he insisted he had to drop out of college and get a job to support me while I carried on studying, and then devoted himself full-time to resenting me for both those things.

You know he used to hit me, because I’ve been honest about that ever since you first traced the scar on my forehead with a tiny finger and asked me in a solemn voice how it got there. But the bit I couldn’t explain to you, because as a child you wouldn’t understand, was that it wasn’t the violence that hurt the most. It was the way he always looked at me and talked to me. Like I was some kind of vermin that somehow had got into his house and was fouling the place up. Something like a slug, that however successfully it manages to stay hidden and out of your way can’t help but leave a disgusting trail behind so you know it’s been there. The slaps and pushes and dragging grips on the arm only happened when he had been drinking, and I got to be an expert at spotting the signs and finding excuses for getting you out of the flat then, whatever time of the day or night it might be. But that look – that contempt – that was there was there all the time. And I lived with it right up until one day when I came into the front room when you were playing happily in your playpen, gurgling away without a care in the world, and I saw him looking at you with exactly the same expression. He didn’t do anything else, just sat there looking down at you in utter disgust and resentment, but the next morning as soon as he left for work I packed a bag for you and one for me and walked out of that grotty little flat and never once looked back.

I told the stranger this, and much, much more, right there in the hospital corridor. The words just came tumbling out of me, maybe because I’d been keeping them pent up inside for so long. And by the time I’d finished he couldn’t have been in any doubt exactly how I felt about your – no, he doesn’t deserve to be called your dad, he never did anything to earn that title.

At least, he never had until that night.

I said I didn’t even know where he was these days. It had been years since I’d heard anything about him. His mother knew better than to include any mention of him in the Christmas cards she sent each year if she wanted there to be any chance of you getting to read them.

He reassured me that wasn’t a problem. “We never have a problem finding donors. Our register is very comprehensive. All we need is your consent to proceed.”

I could kid myself that I didn’t know what I was signing up for, that he somehow tricked me into it, took advantage of my vulnerable state. But we talked for a long time that night. And I understood.

He held out his hand, and I passed him the wringing wet handkerchief. He took it, and he folded up neatly like before, but before he tucked it back into his pocket he pressed it hard to his lips, and those green eyes were looking right into mine the whole time.

“Go in and see your daughter,” he told me, and I nodded dumbly. My legs had stiffened beneath me and it took me a moment to find my balance and cross to the door of the room where you were still sleeping soundly, the machines beeping and whirring around you. And when I turned to look back, the long hospital corridor stretched away empty in both directions.

You stayed asleep for a long time that night, and well into the next morning, and when you woke up you looked more refreshed than you had in weeks, with a little colour creeping back into your cheeks. Your test results still weren’t good, but by the next day they had crept up, and they carried on rising all that week until Dr Ramakrishnan gave the first genuine smile I think I’d ever seen her give and told me you really did seem to be making progress. By then you had managed to sit up and eat a whole meal – chicken pie and vegetables, I’ll always remember – and most of your jelly for afters, and the nurses were so pleased with you that they even managed to persuade me to go home and sleep in my own bed for a night, and when I got back not long after seven the next morning they were laughing and telling me I wasn’t going to believe it but you’d already had your breakfast as well.

From then on there was no stopping you. You were scooting around the place on a walking frame before we knew it, making friends with the kids on the other wards, and getting cross with me if I tried to come in to the bathroom with you because you said you didn’t need me any more. After a few weeks I was taking you off the ward every afternoon for walks in the park, or out for pizzas, or trips to the cinema, whatever you demanded. And the mornings I spent talking to doctors and social workers about the care and support package we would need in order to have you home for Christmas. And we managed it, too. And after that, except for regular outpatient checkups that became less and less frequent as the years went by, you never went back.

In the midst of it all I was too busy to notice that we didn’t get a card from Nana Barnes that year. She wrote me a letter towards the end of January, to say sorry but she had some bad news: her son had passed away. He had been found with knife wounds in an alley behind a pub in Portsmouth, where he’d apparently been living. The police thought he must have got into a fight with someone – he’d been barred from the place earlier in the evening, which sounded like him – but they didn’t have any suspects, and they thought in the end it wasn’t the stabbing that killed him, he froze to death out there by the bins. She said that although she understood how things were she thought I would want to know.

She was wrong. I didn’t want to be told that at all.

I put the letter away. I wasn’t such an irresponsible mother that I wasn’t going to tell you, but with everything else that was going on you didn’t need to know right then. And somehow, like a lot of other things, I never did quite get round to telling you. So that’s what this letter is for now. To make sure you have the full picture. You might have stopped listening to anything I say a long time ago, but you at least deserve to have my side of the story.

When people ask me how the teenage years are going, I tend to say things like “ooh, we have our ups and downs.” But we can’t kid ourselves, can we Lucy? There have been a lot more downs than ups, especially lately. At first I was so relieved and happy just to have you home and well again that I didn’t see it, or I just told myself you were catching up on all the things you’d missed out on because of your illness, and everything would settle down. And of course, I blamed myself, for all the usual reasons single mums do, convincing myself there was something missing in your upbringing that should have been there. But that wasn’t true. It was actually the opposite, wasn’t it?

“She’s got the devil in her, that one,” my mum once said in exasperation after you’d pushed her right to her limit. It was after that awful incident with the kitten that you insisted till you were blue in the face was an accident, and we said we believed you because we wanted to so much. But it wasn’t the devil. And I know, because god forgive me, it was me that put it there.

I wasn’t sure at first. Not for a long time. I made excuses for your behaviour, apologising endlessly to the parents of other kids at your school, begging your teachers for extra chances and pleading special circumstances right up until you finally got yourself permanently excluded. And I made excuses for the bruises too, hardly believing the same words could be coming out of my mouth again. You were so little when it started. I told myself you were just lashing out, that you didn’t know your own strength.
 
Maybe you didn’t. Is that how it works, Lucy? Is there still a frightened little girl somewhere in there, terrified of the brute she’s forced to share a body with and unable to control him? Is that maybe the reason for the boozing, and now the drugs? Are you trying to blot him out, escape from him?

If that the case, I can’t blame you. I don’t resent all the money you’ve stolen from me over the years to pay for it all. I’d gladly hand it all over, and more. Because the alternative is even more awful. If you’re telling the truth, that means you really do hate me. That I’m worthless, the worst mother in the world. And I know that’s not right.

And so will you, now. I’m proving it to you.

This shows you how much I’ve been clutching at straws lately, but I even thought Charlie might be the one to save you. Because I could see how much you cared about him. Alright, I don’t think much of him – you could do a lot better than a drug dealer, and I know that’s what he is, Lucy, I’m not stupid, however often you tell me I am. And I hate the way he’s treated our home like a dosshouse from the very first time you brought him home, and me like the hired skivvy, but I suppose he was only picking that up from you. And I wouldn’t trust him not to hurt you, or cheat on you, or break your heart sooner or later. But there was one time, when I got back from a late shift and found that the pair of you passed out on the sofa in the front room in a stinking haze of weed, and the look you had on your face while you were cradled in his arms was one I thought I’d never see again. You looked happy. Content. So full of trust. I’d forgotten you could even look that way. It was the same expression you used to have when I was carrying you in the hospital all those years ago. And for once it made me not mind that you’d used up all the food I’d got in for my dinner and left most of it crusted onto the pans and the plates with half-crushed roaches in them that were scattered all over the kitchen for me to clear up as usual.

So you were so wrong when you screamed at me after the accident that you hoped I was “happy now”. Yes, I was always going on about his bike and how dangerous it was, especially when he was stoned, but surely you can see that was because I knew something like this might happen? And when I said thank god you weren’t on the bike too, that was pure relief speaking. And when you yelled at me that you wished you were, that if he died you would rather be dead too, it was like a knife going in to me right then. Because I could tell that you actually meant it.

So what I’m telling you, Lucy, is I get it. I understand. And you have my blessing. Because you see I came back after the nurses told me it was best for me to leave. I waited outside the Casualty department at the edge of the car park, watching the ambulances come and go, until I thought you’d have had enough time to calm down. Until after the last of the office party drunks had been bandaged up and sent home, and the waiting room had emptied, and the nurses had gone off their night shift and the cleaners arrived, though the sky was still black as could be. And then I crept back. I got as far as the doors, stopping just outside the circle of light that spilled out of them, not close enough to trigger the sensor that sets them sliding open. I looked in through the glass, and I saw you sitting there with your back to me, looking so vulnerable, and so young, and so broken. And I saw who was sitting there opposite you. He was dressed just the same as before. And when he spotted me, his green eyes locking on mine over your shoulder as you sobbed into that neatly folded handkerchief, I realised something else. He didn’t look a single day older.

I know how it works, Lucy. It has to be someone you’ve loved, once. He explained that to me, too. Otherwise everyone would be doing it, wouldn’t they? If you could just pick some awful criminal, or a politician, and wipe them out just like that to save someone who mattered, think how much better the world would be. But that would be too easy. No, it has to be someone who cared for you, who did their best to love you in their own way, and made mistakes and didn’t always get it right. And it also has to be someone who you’re now prepared to sacrifice without a second thought.

And I accept it. I’ll go happily. Because I know I can make you safe, my darling girl. Charlie may not be all you need him to be, or love you as much as you need him to, but I can. I can straighten him out, make him behave like he ought to. With me pushing him, he can become the man that’s good enough for you. Who can save you from yourself.

And I won’t ever have to let you go.

That was a knock. It’s him, or maybe some of his people. I must go and open the door to them.

I don’t know how it will happen. I think we will go for a walk together, somewhere far away from the house. It’s a cold night again, but I won’t bother with a coat. I will leave this letter here on the kitchen table for you. You sit tight at the hospital and wait for news of Charlie. It should not be too long now.

I will see you very soon, my darling girl.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The Old Folk



School finished early at lunchtime on the last day of term, but no one had told Mrs Wilson the peripatetic music tutor, and since she had struggled all the way over on the ferry Isobel felt she really ought to go to her flute lesson as usual. “I do feel terrible, keeping you from your holidays,” her teacher fretted while she split her instrument and tucked the pieces away neatly into their case. “But I never know how many times I’ll be able to make the crossing in January and February with the winter storms, and I’d hate you to fall behind.”

It meant that by the time Isobel got to the school hall there was only one parcel for the old folks left, with the headmistress standing next to it seeming more than a little put out.

“Ah, there you are,” she said distractedly as she stuffed the marking she had been getting on with into her tapestry bag. “I was worried you weren’t coming.”

“No, I had a flute lesson,” Isobel said apologetically, adding as a sweetener: “I’m trying to keep up as many activities as I can for my UCAS form.”

“Mmm, well, yes,” muttered the headmistress, not meeting her eye. She was searching through her bag for her car keys. Isobel crossed to the table that had been set up in the middle of the room to look at the address scrawled on the outside of the cardboard box. Her heart sank. It was for the lone cottage far off at the end of the Black Loch, one of the most remote on the island. She should have skipped her lesson after all.

“You’d better get moving, or you won’t make it while the light lasts,” the headmistress ordered as she shouldered her bag. She obviously couldn’t wait to get away from the school herself.

“It’s alright, I’ve lights on my bike,” said Isobel, lifting the box and shifting it to rest on her outstretched forearms. It wasn’t too heavy.

“Oh, you’re going on your bike?” The headmistress paused, biting her lip. “Will you be able to manage that box?” She discreetly tucked away her own car keys as she spoke.

“It’ll be fine. I’ve got a basket.”

“You won’t be able to manage your instrument as well, though,” said the headmistress briskly, slipping the flute case from Isobel’s shoulder and setting it down on the now-empty table. “Better to leave it here. It’ll come to no harm. I’m locking up as I go.”

“What about practice?” asked Isobel, but she was being bustled to the door and waved on as the headmistress wrestled with her key ring. Never mind. The caretaker would probably be around tomorrow, and Imogen reckoned she could charm him into letting her in to collect it. And if not, it wasn’t as if she was going to get much practice done over the holidays anyway. Not with what she had planned.

The air that hit her as she walked out of the school was crisp and sharp, but not overwhelming. She was going to have to do that irritating compromise with her scarf as she cycled, ensuring her throat wasn’t numbed as she panted up the hills but enduring a steamy neck and sweat trickling down her back and chest. And her winter coat was far too warm to wear for cycling at all, but too warm not to when she was doing anything else. First world problems, she reminded herself as she dumped the charity box on top of her bike’s wicker basket. But she was already looking forward to a long hot soak in the tub when she got home after this: it was her traditional start to the Christmas holidays. The rest of her family, who had just the one loo in the house, weren’t quite as keen on the custom.

The box, annoyingly, was too corner-y to sit tight in the cut off oval of the bike’s basket, and she realised she was going to have to cycle with a balancing hand on it whenever she was going round corners or up hills. She briefly tugged it open – the flaps had just been tucked into one another – to see if she could get away with rearranging its contents in the basket itself, but the thought of handing them over one by one seemed measly. These few cans and packets might be the only thing the poor old lady got to unwrap this year.

Instead, she shoved the box as firmly down into the basket as it would go – one of the sides crumpled a bit, but she could push that back out again before handing it over – and pedalled out through the school gates, pleased to find it balanced fine as long as she remembered what she was doing. The headmistress’s car was the only one left in the car park. Isobel had a feeling she was watching from inside to make sure she had left before she drove away herself, and wondered if she would have to take the long way home to avoid overtaking her and having to pretend not to see her.

She followed the north road out of the town. The school, a 1960s replacement for the Academy that still stood on the High Street but had long since turned into the tourist office and library, was on the outskirts, so the few straggling bungalows were soon behind her and she was out in open countryside, rolling moorland on either side of the one-track road and no one to be seen but the odd sheep hunkered down on the verges or in the meagre shelter offered by the few rocks that broke the surface of the grass. She could hear nothing but the sound of the wind, which had already turned the right side of her face to ice, and the calls of the hooded crows she occasionally saw hopping about in the heather and squabbling over the few scraps they could salvage in these depths of the year.

The sky was still bright, or at least white. She’d started off full of confidence that she could make her delivery and be back before dark, but as her thighs started to burn as she struggled up the first hill on the route she realised she’d been overambitious. With a start she remembered that this must be the shortest day.

Still, as she’d told the headmistress, she had her lights, and there was very little traffic on the north road, with only a few farms – and of course, Black Loch Cottage – to go to. Her mother worried about drunk drivers at this time of year, but she could see for miles on most of the route, and would easily be able to pull over to the verge if she saw headlights coming.

It was satisfying to reach the peak and pause at a spot she still couldn’t help thinking of as the top of the world. The moors stretched off to the east, rolling down to the jagged coastline where she could just make out white rollers breaking and fizzing onto the barely paler beach. To the west the land stopped even more abruptly, ragged barbed wire marking the point beyond which only sheep and suicides should venture, and then there was just a great nothingness all the way down to where the vastness of the Atlantic filled the distance. The shapes the teeming currents drew on its surface never ceased to amaze her; it was as if half a dozen oceans met were tangling in an endless battle around the island’s shores. Her grandmother used to say that on a clear summer’s day you could stand here and gaze on four kingdoms, but that only worked if you let the Kingdom of Heaven be one of them, which Isobel always felt was cheating. Today the haze of winter dampness meant nowhere at all was visible beyond the island’s shores. They stood alone.

She shook off such gloomy thoughts – she missed her granny at Christmas most of all – in favour of a more thrilling form of nostalgia as, steadying the box in the basket, she began to freewheel down the other side of the hill. She and her sisters had done this a million times when they were little, hurtling down at what felt like light speed, screeches of part-terror, part joy trailing out behind them all the way. Sometimes they dared any tourist children who were staying on the island to join in, jeering and cajoling until they either gave in or sloped off, sobbing, back to their families. Only once had it ended in disaster, when a boy – she didn’t think she had ever known his name, but he had an English accent – came off at the turn at the bottom where the road twisted to skirt the dark plantation tucked into the foot of the valley. He had ripped an impressive amount of skin from his legs when they got down to him, but insisted he was ok to walk back up even though he quite obviously wasn’t. “You can cry if you want,” Isobel remembered assuring him helpfully. He turned out – when one of his friends had been sent to fetch his dad from the caravan site – to have broken his kneecap. Isobel and her sisters felt a bit guilty, but mostly disappointed that he didn’t need the helicopter ambulance but just got taken off on the ferry instead.

Afterwards she wasn’t sure which came first: this memory surfacing in her mind or registering the icy patch where the trees began to throw such shadows on the road that daylight never touched it at this time of year. All was confusion for a moment – she squeezed instinctively at her brakes, but she was using one hand to steady the box so only one, thankfully the back one, locked on. The bike skidded, the box began to topple, she stretched out a leg to try to stop herself from tumbling and felt her ankle twist and the cold black surface of the road coming up to meet her.

She took the worst of the blow on her right leg and shoulder. It was lucky she had abandoned her flute: its box was flimsy and the instrument, which belonged to the school, might have been badly damaged. Instead only she was, she thought grumpily as she pushed herself up into a sitting position. Her shoulder and the top of her arm hurt, although her winter coat had cushioned the worst of the blow. Her thick woollen stockings – uniform ones, that she wasn’t obliged to wear in the sixth form, but by god they kept the cold out – hadn’t done quite as effective a job. The right one was torn and laddered from ankle to knee, revealing a leg that was bleeding quite badly and pitted with black grit and dirt. It hurt like fury.

“Bollocks.” The road felt cold and damp on her bottom despite the thickness of her coat, but she didn’t feel quite up to standing yet. Instead she satisfied herself with a few more yelled expletives. What was the point of being in the middle of nowhere if you couldn’t swear at the top of your lungs?

She disturbed something in the plantation, and peered round to squint into the darkness between its neatly-serried rows of trees and try to see what it was. The spruces, so pillared and separate at their bases, netted their higher branches together so thoroughly that neither light nor rain could penetrate, and she could see only a few dozen yards into the interior. As kids they had always been intrigued by the dry softness of the forest floor, creeping in just as far as its perimeters to run their fingers through the carpet of soft orange needles and point out to each other the alarming fungi that spurted amongst the roots or jutted from the trunks like ladder rungs. She had heard her father say the plantation was filled with alien species, and though she knew now he meant the Scandinavian spruces that the Forestry Commission had imported as the only species capable of withstanding conditions on the island, as a kid she was convinced it was these freakish growths that had somehow descended from outer space to take up residence there.

She couldn’t see what it was that was moving. She thought she could still hear a muted rustling and cracking somewhere in there, but it was probably just a deer, or even a bird. It had given her quite a start, but no doubt it was more frightened of her than she should be of it.

Although… another memory came swimming to the front of her mind, of another summer bike outing, when she and her screaming sisters had had to pedal for dear life to get away from a great black dog that erupted from nowhere and chased them down this road, its hot breath, it felt, right on their heels. That was years ago though. The dog was probably dead by now, and it had almost certainly been a visitor anyway. No islander would be stupid enough to leave a dog roaming loose with sheep grazing. Anyway, that hadn’t been here. Come to think of it, it had been further down the road, by the Black Loch, where she was headed now. They had actually dared each other to cycle as far as what someone had told them, or they might have just told each other, she couldn’t remember, was a witch’s cottage. She suspected they might even have been planning to go up and knock on the door and run away. Nasty. Anyway, they never made it – the dog intervened, and scared them so badly they had never cycled so far down the road again – and hopefully her charitable mission today would make up for their cruel intentions then.

Although it wasn’t going to be quite as nice a gesture as she had intended, given that her crash had burst the box open and scattered its contents all over the road. She hauled herself to her feet, giving her leg a perfunctory brush down and looking forward to her hot bath even more, and began to gather the stuff together. A packet of Angel Delight had flopped into a puddle and was probably beyond rescuing, and a couple of the tins – one beans, one soup – had been dented out of shape. She pocketed the pudding and packed the tins back in at the back of the box hemmed in by things that had survived better. They would still taste the same, she assured herself. Only as she revolved the bean tin round so the kink in its side was less obvious she suddenly noticed that the best-before date stamped on its top was the previous year. Her heart sank. How horrible. Everyone at the school had been asked to donate for the Old Folk’s collection, and she and her mum had gone out and bought stuff specially. Someone had obviously just emptied out their cupboards of everything that was stale and out of date, figuring that that poor pensioners should be grateful for it. How out of order was that?

She thought she had better check the rest of the contents, too. To her horror, the diabetic jam and the pasta sauce had gone off the previous year as well. One of the tins of tomatoes had a best before nearly three years ago. It was awful!

For a moment she thought about calling her mum, and asking her to take the car out the Co-op and pick up a whole new selection – she would pay for it herself out of her Christmas money – but you couldn’t get a phone signal at this end of the island, and besides, her mum had sounded quite crotchety that morning when she had tentatively raised the prospect of a lift, telling Isobel that she had all manner of Christmas preparations to be getting on with and she was 16 now and shouldn’t take things on if she wasn’t prepared to see them through. She had been in a foul mood that morning, although she obviously felt guilty about it because when Isobel called from the door to say she was leaving for school her mother came rushing through from the kitchen and wrapped her into a bear hug, kissing her hair and muttering “goodbye love, I’m sorry,” over and over again. And when she pulled away, she actually had tears in her eyes. She’d been funny like this a lot lately. Isobel wondered if it was the menopause.

She supposed she could head back into town herself and buy new stuff, but that would probably take an hour or more, and the old woman had presumably been told to expect her that afternoon. She might not like opening her door to strangers after dark. Isobel’s granny never had, putting the chain on at dusk and telling anyone who would listen that “nothing good ever crossed a threshold after sundown.” No, there was nothing for it but to press on, and make her apologies when she got there. Does stuff in tins really go off anyway? She couldn’t really see how. It would probably be ok.

She set off again, wobbling slightly unsteadily on a bike she no longer totally trusted. She couldn’t help casting sidelong glances into the plantation as she pedalled along. She had always enjoyed the optical illusion where the long avenues between the trees rearranged themselves into different formations as you passed, flipping from organic chaos to regimented straightness and back again. Now, though, all she had eyes for was brief glimpses of what might or might not be movement deep in their shadows.

Her right leg smarted every time she pushed down on the pedal. She looked down, and saw that the blood was still flowing and had started to blot across her stockings. That was all she needed. She had shaved and plucked and taken every other possible precaution to look good for Billy on their first time together, and now she was going to have to ruin the moment when she stripped off by revealing a great gash in her leg. She supposed for a moment she could just keep her tights rolled down, but dismissed the thought. That wasn’t the sort of scene she had in mind at all. She wanted everything to be perfect.

They planned to head over to the mainland on the day after Boxing Day under the excuse of sales shopping. Billy had booked them a hotel. It was only one of the budget ones, but he’d been able to do it online, and they were both prepared to face down any funny looks they got on reception. They couldn’t say anything anyway. Billy was 17, and he looked even older now he had stopped trying to grow a beard. And what they were doing was perfectly legal. (Actually, Billy’s friend Jamie said that some of those hotels had automated check-in, which is what they were secretly hoping for). They had decided to buy the condoms on the mainland too. You could supposedly get them from the nurse in school if you made an appointment, and there was Boots too obviously, but both of those carried too much chance of embarrassment and gossip. It was a very small island they lived on.

She lost herself in thoughts of Billy as the trees receded behind her and she struggled up the second, thankfully not quite as steep hill. Of how he had looked in his board shorts that summer, when they had spent day after day on the beach. Of the way that his nipples hardened and stood out like little pink cake decorations when he came out of the water, and when she had pointed it out he had laughed and demanded, half-jokingly, to know if hers did the same, and she had shown him. Of the 18th birthday party on one of the farms where they had slipped off into one of the barns for more than an hour and it had felt like they might actually – but then they had been interrupted by some idiot coming in and throwing up everywhere.

She’d been going to keep their plan a secret, but in the end she couldn’t help confiding in her mum. They’d always been close, and it felt right to (although obviously she spared her the gory details). Mum had gone quiet for a bit, and dabbed at her eyes, and then given her a hug and said she was just being silly and she always knew this day would come but she could hardly believe her little girl had grown up so fast. That night when dad came home mum shut herself up in the lounge with him, which was a bit alarming, but when Isobel came down from doing her homework he just grunted at her over the top of his mug of tea and didn’t say anything, although she thought she had caught him looking at her in a funny way a few times in the days that followed. Still, she translated this as her parents having given if not quite their approval, their acceptance of what was going to happen, although she thought it might be pushing it to put some sexy new underwear on her Christmas list. She might have to actually go to the sales on the mainland for that. And if it was too expensive, she had spent plenty of time working out which matching bits she already had which would do.

She reached the summit and caught her first glimpse of her destination, the tiny cottage a grey mark on the far bank of the loch that filled the bowl of the valley beneath her. The hills to the west rose high, their long shadows falling right across the water’s surface. It was thick peat that darkened the loch and gave it its name, but the low winter sun rendered it literal. Not a reed broke the water’s surface, barely a ripple disturbed it; it lay like a dark mirror reflecting an impassive sky. Isobel shivered, and not just from the cold wind that had sought her out again as she crested the peak. She had remembered something else her granny had liked to say: that the reason no fish swam in the Black Loch, and no child ever should either, was that it had no bottom and went “all the way down to hell and the de’il.”

She knew really it was just a clever old woman’s way of keeping them safely away from deep water – if she’d issued a flat out ban, they’d have been in their costumes on the bank within minutes – but right now, with the sun sinking colourlessly behind the hills and the darkness seeming to ooze out beyond the loch’s banks and spread inkily over the landscape around it, it felt all too easy to believe.

She shook the thought from her head and, more cautious on this descent, rode on down to the water’s edge, keeping her gaze focussed on the cottage which was already beginning to fade into the encroaching gloom. It stopped her from turning to look at the road behind her and check it was empty, an impulse she had been fighting for several miles now.

The wind had vanished now that she was down in the valley. There were no birds any more either. All she could hear was the lapping of the water at the edge of the loch, tiny waves throwing themselves out at the narrow shore only to be endlessly sucked back into the black depths.

She paused for a moment to switch her bike lights on, for comfort as much for safety. Maybe the old lady would be looking out of her window and see them as she wobbled towards her, and know she had not been forgotten. Isobel began to picture her throwing open the door delightedly with open arms and inviting her in to her fireside to for a warming drink to fortify her against her journey home; in her fantasy she had her own grandmother’s face. She knew it was hardly likely. The whole point of this exercise was to help those who had barely enough food for themselves; if she was offered as much as a cup of tea, she was probably ethically obliged to turn it down. And besides, she had seen enough of the cottage before it was swallowed up by the darkness to make out that there were no lights on, or smoke coming from the chimney. The poor woman might not even be able to afford to switch her heating on.

Imagine living out here, beyond the edge of everything. Doubly removed, as if the island was not isolation enough itself. An exile within an exile. Isobel loved the island in the fierce way that all those born there had to, loved it at least by daylight and summer when a constant stream of visitors arrived to remind you of its beauties anew and bring reassurance too that there was a real world out there beyond its shores. But she felt just as strongly within herself that her future lay on the mainland. For as long as she could remember every picture she had of her grown-up self – an Isobel with longer and mysteriously straighter hair, who wore less-is-more make-up and clothes that weren’t compromise buys from the few online places that offered off-shore delivery – was of a resident of the mainland, with all the comforts and opportunities those born there took for granted. But it was a truth she had only finally spoken out loud at the parents’ evening that term, when the headmistress sat her mum and dad down to talk through her higher education options and started pulling out leaflets for remote learning modules, and Isobel had interrupted the adults’ cosy exchange about the things technology had made possible these days to say no, she wanted to apply to universities on the mainland and she had even researched which course. She would never forget the dismay on her dad’s face, though she was surprised to see the headmistress giving her the same look.

Of course Isobel knew why, she had heard all the worried talk over the years about how the island would die if its young folk kept moving away. But she had watched it happen, too – Suzie McAllister, in the year above her, so glamorous with her hockey-player’s legs, and Bridie McAllan the year before, head girl but gone before the school year was even out, never to return for as much as a visit – and if anything, the island was thriving. Life went on in the same old ways. There were still fish in the sea, and sheep on the moors, and kids being born and filing their way through the gates of the primary school year after year as sure as spring came round and the flowers bloomed on the machair again and again. In fact, life was so much better than in her grandmother’s day, when the winter storms used to cut the island off for months at a time, the boats hauled up uselessly on the beach and rats in the stores and children taking sick and just wasting away in the cold and the darkness. But with her grandmother gone, no one seemed to speak of those days any more. Just as, for all their fears for the future, no one ever seemed to mention the girls that had gone ever again. 

She had arrived at the end of the water. The cottage was ahead of her, barely there in the gloom. A rorschach blot of once-white wall was all that showed through a mess of dark ivy clutching both garden and house in a choking grasp. No lights burned in the windows. It looked as if no one was living there. It looked as if no one living had been there for a very long time.

Isobel dismounted onto legs that were trembling not just from the exertion of the ride. She leant her bike against a mass of greenery from which a few rusty spikes of railing protruded like ribs, twisting its handlebars so that her front lamp would light her way up the mossy path to the front door. All she could hear was the lapping of the water at the edge of the loch. She slid the Christmas offering from its basket.

It was only as she reached the door and stretched out a gloved hand to rap on its peeling surface that she glanced down at the box and realised the address had no name with it. She didn’t know who she was meant to be delivering to. She had no idea who might be waiting inside.

---

The morning after the winter solstice was clear and bright, but the headmistress had lived on the island all her life and knew that blue skies could be fleeting and you must grab a chance to use the sunlight when you had it. She roused her husband and the two of them were out of the house before any of their grandchildren had even awoken.

They drove in silence, seeing few people, and fewer people chose to see them. The town’s two constables, parked up in their panda car near the school on an early patrol, gave them a nod of acknowledgement as they passed. Part way up the north road, just before the plantation, they had to pull over to allow a tractor to pass, and while the driver, whose family had been farming on the island for ten generations, raised a hand in thanks he was careful not to meet either of their eyes.

Outside the cottage they realised they should have put down the seats of the Volvo ready for Isobel’s bike, and there was a brief row, in hushed voices, about this. The headmistress left her husband hurriedly sorting it out while she scurried up the path, her eyes sweeping from side to side, carefully not glancing up at the door of the building. She spotted the box half-buried in the greenery to the right of the step. The ivy looked as if it had already made a start on smothering it.

Once they were safely back on the other side of the loch and speeding back towards the town, the bike rattling in the back as the front light spilled the last of its battery power uselessly up at the car’s roof, the headmistress prised the soggy cardboard open and did a quick inventory of its contents. A couple of the tins had somehow got battered out of shape and would have to be replaced. And the box itself was clearly beyond further use. But everything else would do for at least another year.

Adam Macqueen
Christmas 2014