Authors: Candia McWilliam
‘I gave her the dog to hold and she held on to it as usual like grim death and it pulled its wally dug face.’ They looked up at the china dogs, one either side of the mantelpiece, their snub noses, big eyes, painted whiskers, unbearably appealing pathos. Each dog had a clownish sorrow to its face. The baby and the living dog played below the china dogs, the pleated white fan behind them in its fire basket. The two were staring into each other’s faces, seeming to grow more alike as they stared. On the mantelpiece the china dogs made a quaint guard for the drift of invitations and reminders ranged along the mantelpiece. Carl and Ailsa were a busy couple. It was unthinkable that they would be halved, one half or the other bereft. Death wouldn’t get an appointment squeezed in, their schedule was that busy.
‘She’s ageing fast, now. The winter might just do it.’ Carl was realistic. Everyone had to go sometime. They’d put the dog down then with an easy conscience. Rhona would for certain be too young to notice.
The baby gave up the staring match and grabbed the dog by both ears to pull its face to hers. The pair kissed and began to roll about and yelp and wag before the grate empty of warmth. The china dogs had a wily look to their faces if you looked harder. The painted freckles on their flat muzzles were just like those of the Peke. Fluent painted lines feathered their china feet. Ailsa knew for a fact wally dugs were not the same as china bluetits. They were vernacular Scots ornaments, not substitutes for love.
Something quite warm and tender was about to take place in Ailsa’s dream. She felt its approach like the opening of a door which has been ajar.
‘Esme came in to it a new way, today,’ said Carl, turning the pinky finger of his left hand around in the deep hairs of his left ear. He’d been feeling furred-up, slow, lately. ‘I wasn’t even angling for him yet, and up he leapt into the conversation. The old thing just looked me up and down after I’d eaten and said, “Esme Stewart was a lovely-looking man, slim, with remarkably mannerly ways.” How I had put her in mind of him I don’t know, but I took it as a compliment.’ He cleared his throat, pulled up his trousers by the belt which encircled the flesh below his belly, and rose to fetch another drink.
Catching on the silky loops of dog and baby at his feet, he tripped heavily, only saving himself by grabbing at the mantelpiece and keeping a hold on it to keep from falling on the two small creatures. Shocked, child and dog disentangled in one movement, like springs, and sat up alert, paired, huge-eyed, frozen by the hard tinkle of china all about them from the smashed wally dug whose widowed companion stared Ailsa hard in the eye as she felt the beautiful, romantic thing that had been approaching her recede.
‘I’ll get you another drink,’ Ailsa said to Carl, angry enough to want to kill him.
‘Doesn’t look too good, does she?’
The women were not talking quietly. They were loading up for the week. They did this together, after yoga. Gert was a lot older than Sophy; Sophy admired Gert because she had had cancer and got it beat. That took mind-effort. Gert had taken up yoga after the cancer, in gratitude for God’s irrational dispensation. She’d taken up Sophy then too. She found Sophy funny, she was so eager to have something to believe in. Gert believed in a number of things, none of them comforting. She was trying out fads now, things about which she as a rule felt sceptical. She was relieved by the short lives of fads. She did not believe in the future.
Now they were at the healthfood shop. Gert could not have cared less about carob chocolate substitute; she had been raised on bread and dripping, so meatily, richly, delicious, its memory gave you a wet mouth. But coming to the healthfood shop was for Gert like going on safari. You saw a number of alien and touching pieces of the creation. While Sophy was stocking up with sacks of organic puffed rice and pots of smooth cashew butter for her three boys, Gert collected her own requirements for the week. She had throughout her life eaten modestly and without much interest. Yet she had somehow managed to induce, encourage and nourish a poisonous growth within herself. She felt responsible for her cancer, as though she had become carelessly pregnant. Now she continued to eat modestly, but she took an interest. She read labels and lists of ingredients. Provenance concerned her. She felt that, at least, if she were to get another go of cancer – for her it had no nickname – the monster would be fed on good food. Meanwhile, she did wonder how well her diet of moulded glutinous rice and seaweed extracts was maintaining her self, the self outside where the cancer had been. She found the notion of such care expended upon unimportant choices intriguing. Would she have chosen thread with such care, or paper? Where did the discriminating consumption end? Was not everything in the end corrupted and poisoned? She had been taught that the pollutant was original sin, but now she was told to believe that sin had begun again, with the partition of the atomic apple. A bite taken from the rounded whole, and invisible poison, considerably less visible than sin, had seeped out, burned those close to it, and stained all air.
Who was to say where it ended? If we are all to live in fear should we not find each other equally appealing in our common humanity, victims together, illuminated by the flare of threat?
The truth was, Gert found the couple who ran the healthfood shop very unhealthy looking. She was amused when Sophy, who was of their generation after all, agreed with her that they did not look well.
‘Doesn’t look too good, does she?’ asked Gert, conscious she was breaking a convention, and was gratified to hear Sophy reply, ‘Nor him.’
The broken convention was twofold: it was not right in Sophy’s opinion to make judgemental remarks; it was not good to imply that a – presumed – diet of perfectly screened foodstuffs conduced to anything but a perfect body, not perhaps in terms of beauty, but of health.
Sandy and Janet had come down from Kintyre to run the shop. There weren’t many shops like this one up there, though there was something of a community of beardies round Oban, and a big demand for tofu from all the Chinese in Stornoway. But round Campbeltown there wasn’t much in the way of a herbivorous movement. Pasties, bridies, mutton pies, puds and saveloys in batter were the thing up there, and bags and bags of crisps, also the kind of ice-cream which looks like turbans made of fat with a Tunnock’s snowball on the side on a good day, making an ice-cream oyster to be eaten in the hand. And ‘broon coos’, the same ice-cream in a big paper cup of Coke, like frothy gravy to look at.
What made Sandy laugh was when folk down here said, ‘You must miss all that delicious fish.’ He knew they were thinking of sturdy fishing smacks and fresh cod like a steak of sea-meat. No dice there, with the French diving deeper and deeper for clams and sending the stuff down to London places. Anyhow you’ve to do a hell of a lot to a fish or a mollusc or whatever till you get it a convenient morsel fit for leisure eating. Only dead-rich folk want to bother with food that’s hard to eat, lobster and oysters and all. Crab sticks was the shape of the future. Sandy had two aunties who gutted white fish on Barra and hadn’t felt their hands in years. They couldn’t fancy fish but when it was in finger form, out of the deep freeze in the post office.
As for heritage foodstuffs, sod that. The laird’s well-hung haggis with venison and blaeberry on the side, and ‘partan bree’ and ‘crowdie’ to you, missus, three bags full, would madam care to pay in guineas?
But health food down here in the south, now that was big big money. Janet laughed most at the ones who came in the shop in fur coats to get their meat-free roasts. But she was fairminded, mind. She sniggered right enough at the ones who wore raffia shoes in case of cruelty to leather. The guys of those couples always seemed to be pregnant and did they belong to a secret society that telt you not to clean out your ears? Janet was careful about her appearance, she liked stilettos in white patent and Sandy liked her curvy. No one down here did their hair like Janet. She’d the top bit puffed up and longer bits all down her neck, the Slade look it was known as in the clubs back in Campbeltown. Slade was a great group, a bit old but great for dancing, dead rhythmic. She’d not found someone to colour it the very way she liked it; Shena’d done it for nothing in the house twice a month. But there were advantages to not living with the family as well. It didn’t matter that much for example that she and Sandy were not married, though maw’s letters made such a hefty deal of not mentioning the situation it was amazing the envelopes didn’t bust with the effort.
Not homesick, or not very, Janet would say to the people who picked up on her accent, saying it was that attractive and how it reminded them of some holiday they’d been on, never in winter and never with a holiday job packing kippers for dirty Donal Forteith.
‘Never mind four teeth, he’s four hands’, the kipper girls would say. In the lounge bar of the Argyll Arms hotel, dirty Donal had said something about the smell of kippers to Janet’s father who had stopped the holiday job, ‘Forthwith, Janet, forthwith, and that means now even if I’ve to employ you myself.’ So it must have been bad, because there was nothing at all to do in Janet’s father’s shop in the winter unless you counted the odd poke of rock to some daft tourist the bus had left behind in a portaloo in the summer months.
Health food, now, that was not seasonal. People seemed to fancy trying to feel well all the time. Sandy said that they felt better because they lost weight the instant itself they left the shop. It was a weak joke. The goods were dear, it was a good living. Sandy and Janet even ate some of the foods, the ones you could ginger up till they tasted normal. Still, neither of them felt quite a hundred per cent.
Maybe this was just how people felt down south? Was it how people felt anywhere at all now the water wasn’t recommended for drinking (even watered down) nor the air for breathing? Did Janet imagine it? Had she once felt better than this?
‘I don’t feel too good,’ Janet said to Sandy.
‘Nor me,’ said Sandy. It was not a proper feeling of illness, just not feeling perfect. Not as bad as sickness, more a kind of ache.
‘Everything’s touched with poison, you can’t be too careful,’ Sophy was saying to Gert. The little wooden birds in her ears had been made by children in Chile. Sophy had bought them from the Quakers at their meeting house fair against war. Two bright little wooden birds against war.
‘It’s everywhere the sickness, in our bodies, our homes . . .’ said Sophy.
Gert had heard it all before. She was glad she had had that solid bit of death inside her instead of just the vague sense of pervasive mortality these young ones had.
‘Do you think it might be homesickness?’ asked Gert.
This story is for Peter and Kathryn Kuhfeld
‘It’s perfectible so long as you keep it wet and moving,’ said Lorne, and he made a beautiful subduing swoop over the wall to flatten the blushing plaster whose chalky convalescent smell filled the half-tamed room.
Intrigued by the idea that her lover, her betrothed now, or she herself might say the wrong thing in response to Lorne’s words, and hoping that neither of them would at quite this moment, but might use the very words later, Nora idly offered herself the idea of being about to live with the gentleman-plasterer rather than his employer, whom she would wed and who had done so well hereabouts in animal feeds.
done well. Here was the pink-faced house, two hundred years old, at the head of the sealoch to show for it, and frail tough little Nora to put in the house.
Thornshields looked out down a low belt of islets that seemed at dawn and twilight to be attached to one another. The sea between them at other times was defined in colour in apposition to the mood of the little drops of land themselves, that often was itself at odds with the temper of the mainland. You could stand in front of the house and collect eight ways of seeing blue before your eye had met the furthest island, to which Lorne had moved with his dog, his dinghy and his son long before Gavin Whelan bought Thornshields from old Lorne.
Lorne’s parents were relieved but shy about the transaction. Since the sale, having driven into Campbeltown on a weekday morning to see the world, Grizel would hide from those she had most hoped to see, from the butcher where she had for forty-three years bought old Lorne’s favoured cuts of meat, from the tweed ladies over whose counter she had never bought anything but thread, from the postcard-lady who had a past and smoked behind the counter of her shop, where there was a sign: ‘Patrons will understand it is discourteous to Smoke inside this shop.’
Having lived at Thornshields for her entire married life, having been raised only a nibble of shoreline along, but three and three-quarter hours away by the road, Grizel could not bear to explain what might seem a sudden defection, her husband’s and her own subsidence in the face of their son’s apparent exhilarated uninterest in the house since his widowerhood – and Gavin Whelan’s friendly, cleansing, money.
What Grizel made of Nora Cronin was not clear, and she would not have uttered it even to her confidantes, those people with whom she enjoyed the conversational luxury of uninvolvement, to whom she was not related by blood or obligation. She lived, as do many women of her class, under the sense that she was closer to those who were innocent of her life’s actual drudgery, thinking it easeful and slow as pears in a bowl, than to those who knew how she swabbed and stitched and sat silent over papers that would not agree with each other as the place swelled in demand about her.