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Authors: Candia McWilliam

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BOOK: Wait Till I Tell You
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The best day in snow we’ve had at the booth was this January, right after the New Year. It was that chilly I’d invested in the gloves with the cut-off fingertips and a wee flap goes over like a mitten, so you’ve got the movement of the fingers and the recovery period for them after inside the top bit that goes over like an egg cosy.

There was one of these groups of folk around that isn’t any shape, just humans not seeing each other, the tall ones with guncases letting dogs in and out of cars, the other ones not wearing enough clothes and shouting at one another from close up and telling jokes without listening. There was some call for the soup I keep on the go, it was kidney bean and lamb skirt, Duncan was busy at the frier, and Joanne was cutting monk tail for the mixed seafood medley. The boys were preparing the two coatings in the back, batter and breadcumbs. It offers a choice to the mouth. Men take crumb and the women batter, I find. But I can be wrong. After all, it’s a crude division, sorting people into sexes.

Then up the pier comes a wee thing on high bootee heels, with an umbrella covered with yellow flowers. Her feet leave treads small as marks in pastry in the snow. She’s giggling like a bird. The seagull next to her looks as if it could pick her up by its beak with the one orange dot on its hook. She’s Japanese, come to see this other wee country that’s made such a success out of the whisky.

Her man is reversing down the pier away from her but towards us, his black loafer shoes going blacker with the snow, and the turn-ups in his trousers collecting it. He’s snapping her of course, and she’s posing with a soft handful of snow, her face up squint to it like a bunch of flowers, breathing in the crystals, and blowing them off the snow in her hands out to him and to us. It’s the kind of snow takes its time about landing. It twirls and rests in any light it can get.

We’re watching her as she leaves these little steps as small as the gulls’ triangular plods, but pointing the other way, the way she’s coming. The light is the snowlight of glary grey though the mountain is all white, and the islands are blue and yellow in the folds of their whiteness. The brazier is black and blue and red and the frier fills the air with a bottled-up hissing. I notice that the characters around our family booth have become a group. They have been woken up for a while from themselves.

Down the pier she comes with her snow posy and we watch her yellow-flowered umbrella come closer behind her, her bit of private weather.

Just as the Japanese man’s about to catch his raincoat on the brazier, two men budge and pick it up to move it, taking care to adjust it between the relative heights of their grips, so the coals on the top stay level. Nothing disturbs the glow of the brazier. The heat between the coals is like red mortar. Only the ash shifts and falls, leaving a grey trail in the snow.

The Japanese man turns round, perhaps feeling the heat moving back and away from him in the cold Western air, and seems to be taking it all in, the plastic striped tent, the fried food in paper, the red-faced people of differing largeness, the brown dog with a tuna-coloured nose, the black one whose tail has drawn a fan in the snow, and he includes us all in his greeting, ‘Good evening.’

By the time the girl has arrived and shaken the snow off her woolly gloves, he is halfway round the individuals who now compose a group around the brazier outside the tent where I hoped to keep my family safe from the world outside. I flip back the knitted snoods of my mitts, and begin to use my fingers, until I am almost enjoying the sensations they are prey to, bitter cold, a stinging where the vinegar gets into the cuts I’m never without, the chill glittery ribbons of iceberg, the hot stubbled shell of the fritters made with crumb, the light deflatable sheen of the battered fish. I enjoy the dexterity the exposure has given me.

Ian and Dougie and Joanne are posing for the camera in the snow outside our small striped plastic tent. The couple take several more snapshots of the group. More snacks are ordered. I thin the soup to make it go round, it’s so thick after its day reducing in the stockpot.

In Japan, someone will almost certainly think that the booth is where we live, up here among the snows and floating islands of the West Coast. They will see our brazier and the people around it and in their minds will arise some idea of the tribes within which we live, huddled together for warmth, waiting for boats to take us away to islands in warmer waters, accompanied by dogs and protected by taller men with guns.

You can take it any way you need to.

Since round about then, I’ve been letting the children out and about that bit more. Duncan has gone shares with a man sets creels not far out beyond Kerrera. We’ll sell the lobster here from the tent on the pier, when we get some.

The year is outwith my control, as it always was. I am letting the days come in with what they carry and leave with what we can give them. When I cut the icebergs into these light shreds, the thing that was the size of a head is spun out and the gaps between its smithereens filled in with a thousand layers of air so you get a basin of stuff airier than lawnmowings and sparkling like fibreglass. And so the days go on, chopped into finer and finer shreds of lightness that I think at last I can feel, each one, just before it goes.

Carla's Face

An undertone overlaid the proceedings, escaping through the small crevices between what people said and what they meant. The whole day had taken its toll, from the first unfair bright promise after dawn, until now, when they all sat around with nothing to do after the funeral itself but to drink, or not to. Either option demanded a dedication Carla considered she was short of. She'd come to the island right the way over from Stirling where she'd built up a loyal clientele who appreciated her and the facilities offered by her discreet salon opposite the steakhouse. You'd not get women on an island coming to a person known to be a hairdresser/beautician, not regular enough at any rate to make it worth Carla's while. Twenty-two women on the island, each one prepared to visit a hairdresser maybe the twice in her life – for her own wedding and a daughter's. At the outside, if there were more daughters, up to five times, including baptisms and other people's funerals. So that made a maximum of, say, sixty visits to the hairdresser by each generation. Supposing Carla could expect her working life to last forty years, that averaged out at one-point-five clients per annum, not overwhelming. Topped up, she'd to admit, by doing the hair of the dead. But that was quiet, too; vital, but quiet.

They died at two peaks, the islanders; too young, or very old. The old ones looked prettier, more silvery, less troubled, than the young ones, who as a rule died violently, by drowning or in drink. They got very green as to the complexion when they'd lingered below the water for a good while. The drink made them blue or purple. These were colours you could not massage back to a natural shade unless you caught the body fresh, with the blood vessels suggestible. Carla loved soothing the skin of the dead, it was like putting a quarrel straight for good and all, but the business was slow in a place where there lived no more than a hundred souls, all known to her so well that they seemed like part of herself. As they were. The old ones were the cousins of her grandparents, the middle-aged ones cousins of her parents and the young ones her own cousins, some of them by now parents. On the mainland they fell pregnant as young but were not always as young when they carried a baby the whole way up to the birth. There was no hiding a baby on a piece of land the size of a hill dropped into the sea, dwelt on by more gulls than sheep, more sheep than people and as many herons as children, as many eagles as professional men, and those two eagles soberer.

The doctor was speaking just now, in the front room after the funeral, looking out through the window at the waves that pushed closer as the day advanced. The graveyard was in sight, stones leaning away from the sea and few enough in number to look sociable not military. If rain came suddenly, a family could picnic among the stones for shelter, passing around the salt for the hardboiled eggs. On the stones grew lichens like dried lace and damp velvet. The grave that was newest, around which the men had all stood at the funeral today and thrown earth down on to the coffin in quantities that did nothing to cover its nakedness, that new grave was bright and freshly made now, with a puffy quilt of mainland-grown flowers high upon it. The flowers would be taken by the rain and the wind even before the rabbits could get them.

Between the two commitments, to take drink or not to, the doctor had taken the high road to heaven and was not drinking. From time to time he went out to his car to remedy this position he had assumed as a man deserving of respect, by taking a nip from the quarter bottle in his glovebox. There were further quarter bottles, to the total of two and a quarter bottles, in places known to the doctor. When it sank below the two bottles in reserve, he became edgy and was a less effective physician. Since there was but the one shop, it was known well what dosage of liquor the doctor prescribed for himself.

So, today, he was not drinking, in contrast to the minister, who held it only right that he, in his position of confidant and comforter of the mourners, should share with them in the loosening and rinsing out of their grief.

‘He was a fine specimen,' said the doctor.

‘Rare,' said the minister, thinking of the broken heap of flesh and breath that Andrew had been in life. He'd had arms like the sides of feeding sows, loose and pendulous below the one defined strip of lean.

‘Rare? That he was. No one like him at all, at all.' The doctor's stern sobriety was catching up with him quicker than the minister's dutiful boozing.

‘All God's creatures,' said the minister, seeing an opening to an area where no one could gainsay his superior rights of access, ‘are differently wonderful.'

‘Differently wonderful,' said the doctor, who, truly sober, would have been turned away by the soap in the words.

‘Are you telling me,' asked wee Ian, who had been drinking all the way since Glasgow, which made a train's worth followed by the ferry's worth followed by the welcome from the island followed by last night followed by the freshener before the funeral, the stiffener in the kirkyard and now the serious drinking, ‘are you telling me that you came over all the way, Carla MacDougall, just to do Andrew's make-up for his coffin?' If, in life, a man had worn make-up in sight of wee Ian, his voice suggested, he'd've laid him out cold. ‘Make-up,' he said. Indeed the word did sound unseemly and dishonest in his mouth. He said it so's you heard what make-up was, thought Carla; a made-up thing, a lie. She didn't think lies were so bad. You might need the odd small one. Wee Ian was too big for the front room, though it was his wife's; he worked on the mainland and came home for a long weekend once a month. He was in quarrying and wanted to get into stone reconstitution. The only work on the island was old-fashioned work, with no future. From time to time wee Ian stretched out his hand for a pork pie and popped it on the end of his tongue like a pill. The acids in his saliva made short work of it before even he reeled it in to the shelter of his teeth. Gratefully his stomach took the liquefied food and dismissed it, needing more soon after.

‘Andrew, now; did he look good, according to your estimation, when you'd finished with him?' Ian seemed to be, thought Carla, quite interested in the technicalities, for a man who'd never taken her profession that seriously before. She sipped her wee drink, couldn't mind what it was, she drank that rarely. Anyhow, it warmed her in the head, and she thought kindly of Ian as she spoke to him. He'd been a handsome boy for one summer, and beautiful light on his feet. She'd never had the luck. Now no woman would call him luck if he came her way; all the veins in his face had risen and flowered red under his big hide. Whereas she, who had been a mouse, was, say it herself though she did, transformed since a girl. Getting away from the island had started that. No one in Stirling knew what she had started out with, or why exactly she had each feature, like the people on the island did, on account of knowing every exact last detail of her ma's pregnancy and labour. In a place as small as this everything was explained because there was nothing to do but talk and little but one another to talk about.

‘Jesus, Carla, you're different fi how ye was,' said wee Ian. She could not deny it. She'd been a plain kid with legs like pudding pushed in tight to its bag. Her hair had been a mat of turfy brown, and her teeth all over the shop. She'd known nothing of presentation and the art of making the best of herself. Her skin had freckled up like a blotched bird's egg then and she'd no clothes to speak of. And absolutely no poise.

She recrossed her legs and tugged at the jacket of the ensemble she'd ironed this morning on the same kitchen table where the night before she'd worked on the scunnered dead face of Andrew. She ironed at the table on an old yellow blanket so stiff it squeaked under the iron. It had been nice working at that table because of the view down to the churchyard and the flickering advances of the sea, lifting the small blue creel boat that was tied to an iron loop under all the yellow seaweed. She curled a sleek loop of red hair behind her right ear; it was a semi-permanent tint called Unfair Advantage. In her ears shivered silvery sections of what looked like chainmail for fish. These were cool against her neck, calming her when she made herself take another sip, for the conviviality. Her legs began to get the tense feeling they had when she'd held a pose for too long for the Stirling Amateur Photographic Club. She could feel all the tendons twanging for release. But, even though it was just Wee Ian, she decided to give him the full toe-balanced, calves-tensed treatment. As a matter of fact, she could do her exercises at such snatched moments, she'd found, and men never noticed, though women could deliver funny looks. It was pure envy.

BOOK: Wait Till I Tell You
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