Authors: Iain Crichton Smith
A FIELD FULL OF FOLK
IAIN CRICHTON SMITH
This eBook edition published in 2015 by
Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd
West Newington House
10 Newington Road
Copyright Â© Iain Crichton Smith, 1982
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.
eBook ISBN: 9780857907318
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
peered into the mirror and thought, “It is true. I am going to die. My face is thinner than it was a week ago. I feel lighter and more frail. It is not that I'm afraid of dying, it is rather that I've lost my faith. Not only that. But I feel that I've not lived, I do not understand the world.” And he was filled as he so often was these days with a deep and bitter melancholy and a sense of obscure injustice, as if fate had in some way played a trick on him. Nor did the Bible help him in any way so that when he climbed into the pulpit it was as if he was climbing a ladder into a high wind, and when he arrived there he found it difficult to speak. What should he, the wounded healer, say to them since he himself did not know what comfort to give? The words of the Bible lay dead before him on the page: they had lost their resonance and their power to move him, it was as if he had become too familiar with them. In fact he had retreated from the Bible and now more and more read the poems which belonged to that Saxon period when endurance was everything and hope was scarce. Thus he would chant the lines from âThe Seafarer' and âThe Battle of Maldon' over and over, having been led to them purely by accident, having found them in a corner of the manse library which he had not hitherto explored. Their world became more real to him than that of the Bible partly because it was a world of ice and snow, of deprivation and loss, of courage in the face of despair, of a sea which stretched towards an iron horizon, of the return of the double-voiced cuckoo from the locked graves of winter, of armour worn without hope, of an infinitely overcast sky.
It seemed to him more and more that his life had been lived on the surface of things, that he was ignorant of the agony and grief which many people suffered, and that when he preached he was not speaking to anyone in particular but only sharpening literary phrases: and this though he was married and had two children now grown up and departed from home. I have lived my life, he thought, in the pleasant places, I haven't suffered enough, I haven't the right to speak.
And now as the crab clawed at him he felt more and more soured as if someone somewhere had prevented him from coming to grips, as Beowulf had done, with the monster of the deeps.
As he looked into the mirror he said to himself, “You have, I would say, another year at most.”
Dr Stewart had wanted him to go into hospital but he had said, “No, I have something to do. I can't afford to go to hospital now. Give me some drugs to keep me going.”
Stewart had raised his head absently from the table at which he had been writing and had stated simply, “Whatever you like.”
Stewart of course was very young and it was with difficulty that the minister had stopped himself from saying, “Why do you keep on doing what you are doing? What are you trying to save them for? If there is no meaning in it all why should you bother?”
But he knew that Stewart had never asked himself such questions, though the time might come, and he had after all decided not to embarrass him. He realised that the doctor was staring at him when he left the surgery, but by that time he was thinking about something else.
“I feel,” he thought, “as if I should go on a pilgrimage.”
But he knew that that was not possible. After all he had a wife (though his children were away from homeâone a lawyer and one an accountant) who had helped him a great deal in his work, was popular with the congregation, and quite a lot younger than him. He himself was fifty-nine, she was forty-five.
But the idea of a pilgrimage haunted him. He imagined an autumn through which he could travel forever among the acorns and the fallen apples, among the trees which were losing their crowns and abdicating, among skies which were clear and pure and simple. He imagined houses nestled in the middle of woods, with red roofs, and men and women sitting outside their doors as in pictures. He imagined a paradise of the fulfilled season. But he knew that he would never go on a pilgrimage, and, even as he thought that, he heard his wife driving across the gravel in her busy red Mini.
She came in rapidly carrying her bag with the messages from the local shop. As usual she was brisk and lively, continually in motion, with stories from the village which she had culled like a bee.
“Morag Bheag was in the shop,” she told him. “She bought a big cake. Her son George is home from the army. Did you know that he was in Northern Ireland?”
“No,” said the minister, “I imagine the army will make him cut his hair.”
Some years ago he had trouble with him at Sunday School but all that was forgotten now. No one wanted to have a son in Ireland.
“And,” said his wife, “the saga of Chrissie and her boy friend continues. Everyone is trying to find out where exactly they went to but nobody knows. Did you know that all she took away with her when she left was a transistor radio?”
“Isn't that odd?” the minister thought. She had made that break into the blue leaving behind her her husband and her two little girls and all she had taken with her was a radio. He imagined her playing it in a field outside a city where the smoke flowered into the air. What courage it had taken, what irresponsibility, what, perhaps, love! And yet he liked
her husband, John Murray, who was a joiner. There was something deeply symptomatic about the girl disappearing into the south with her radio, something gaunt and brave, like a swallow departing.
Mary took the messages out of her bag and laid them on the table. “I love you,” he thought. “We have travelled this world together and I love you. What would I have done without you?”
It astonished him that his wife was so continuously in a good humour as if the furniture of the world sufficed for her and she did not want any more than she already had.
“Apples, oranges, and bread,” she was saying to herself as she placed the messages on the table. “Milk. How are you feeling today?”
“Better,” he replied, though he wasn't. His wife didn't know that the crab was busily eating him and he hadn't told her. She suspected naturally that there was something wrong but not that it was so serious. She glanced at him quickly and then said, “Would you like to go for a walk?”
“No,” he said, “not just now. Perhaps later on.”
“I had a look at the gift shop,” she said. “There's nothing in it. Not really. I can't imagine who will buy the bits and pieces that they have.”
“The tourists, I expect.”
“Maybe but there's nothing there. Really. I was also speaking to Annie at the butcher's. She has the Jehovah's Witnesses at her house all the time.”
“Good,” he said. He had visited her a few times and once he had tried to make sausages for her and the kettle had boiled over while he was looking for the milk. She had told the whole village that he might be good in a pulpit but he couldn't boil a kettle and that was a fact. He smiled briefly and almost with affection.
“How about a cup of coffee,” his wife asked him and he said, “That would be fine, Mary.”
He only called her Mary when he wished to be close to her, and she smiled again, knowing this. He found her movements so exact and harmonious that he would have been quite happy to sit and watch her. Sometimes at certain times of the month she would flare with sudden lightnings and angers, but these would soon pass and she was herself again.
She poured the coffee into the cups and, as he watched her doing so, he thought again of the transistor set playing in a field by itself, or projecting its bright notes from a cemetery as if it were a small gossipy gravestone.
down to touch the petals of a rose in her garden, the gate of which was flanked by two stone lions set in the posts. Her blue-veined hands were encased in gloves. She had been alone now since her husband had died but she had not allowed herself to become sad and mournful. She had her own routine which she cultivated assiduously, the garden, her grandchildren, her housework. Sometimes she thought of the days when she had been a nurse in Edinburgh, cycling through the city (because of course she could not afford to buy a car), taking down interminable notes from lecturers. How windy and fresh life had been in those days, how full of promise, and in fact hadn't she had a good innings? She remembered, smiling, the day the Jehovah's Witnesses had come to the door quoting their texts and she had stood there and told them,
“Do you see that hill up there?” The two of them had turned and looked at it.
“Well,” she had said, “many people can climb that hill. Some may take one way and some another but they all reach their destination at the end.” That had shut them up and she had turned away. She was quite proud of that metaphor.
She also remembered incidents from her early days such as when they had an old woman come into the hospital in Edinburgh and she had wakened up and asked her, “Where am I, dear? Can you tell me where I am?” and she had told her (oh, how mischievous she had been), “You're in heaven, my dear,” and the old woman had said, “Well, then, can I get a cup of tea?”
She was slim and fit yet, she had a good few years to live. Her mind was keen and fastened on the world around her. She liked bending down in the early morning and putting the small blocks of coal (much of it stone nowadays) into the bucket. She wasn't frightened of death, not at all. Let whoever was there come and take her any time, she wasn't worried. She would meet Angus, her policeman husband, when the time came for her to do so. In his latter years he had grown very stout and she had made him do physical exercises, certainly not as hard as the ones she had made him do when they were young and she had given him the scythe into his hand and said, “Get that flesh off you and do some work at the same time.” He had been much more placid than she ever was but well able to deal with the mischievous boys from the village who stole apples or knocked on windows at night. She raised her head and looked down at the railway line. There was a train passing and Lachlan waving to her again. He did this every morning and had done so to her children and now to her grandchildren. On a fine misty morning it was good to see the train sliding along the rusty rails, while beyond them she could see the cattle grazing in the fields and behind them again the hill.
She heard her two grandchildren racing towards the house. Peter, the younger, had said to her one night, “Granny, why does Rhoda have whiskers?” (This was a lady who worked in one of the local shops.) She had almost died laughing for Rhoda had a slight moustache, right enough. The things they came out with.
Peter stopped and looked at the gnome in the garden among the leaves.
“Has he got a letter today?” he asked. She often put a card in with the gnome and read it seriously to him. “It says,” she said, “Peter has to be a good boy and I will visit him at New Year.”
“Is that right, granny?” he asked, dancing up and down and looking at her with grave unhaunted eyes.
“That's what Mr Gnome says,” she answered. Sometimes she saw in Peter a shadow of what her own husband had been, as he stood there so solidly in the sunlight gazing at her with such an unclouded stare. The girl was older, more private, more poetic, and she was called after her mother. Not her own mother who had died of a heart attack at the age of ninety and whose back had been so upright, she who had gone to the lawyer about the croft and had said to him, “I don't want to see any of your letters which I don't understand anyway. Tell me face to face what you are doing about the croft.” And she had stood there in the lawyer's office with her hands resting on the knob of her stick. That was the story which had justified the saying, “Touch the flag and hurt the nation”, a precept by which to a great extent she had lived.