Authors: Candia McWilliam
Pushing out from the shingle in the wooden boat, Bill called to the dog, twice, ‘Shona, Shona!’
Shona ran to and fro on the pebbles. Bill heard her nails tap and skid.
‘Come on, girl, come on now.’ Shona was a black collie with a bit of Jack Russell in her. She liked water and hated boats.
Soon she was swimming alongside, when she saw Bill would not abandon his oars.
‘Too late now, girl,’ said Bill. ‘You get along in and go home. Home, now!’ The blur of black in the water turned and Bill saw the reproach in the edges of the bitch’s eyes as she made for shore. When she got back up on the shingle the water poured off her, splashing the grey stones black. She whirled the drops off herself, seeming to keep her white pointed snout still, pointed out towards Bill in his boat as he made for the small island in the middle of the loch.
In the bottom of the boat a plastic bag containing a bottle and two tins rocked between the timbers. There was a clatter under the boat as the centreboard scraped on the rocks around the island. Here it was not shingle but leaning brown rocks. It was an island you could imagine sticking up out of the floor of the loch like a stalagmite, sheer and showing only its short green summit. Built among the dull ponticum and streaming mosses, though, was a house, fourteen feet wide, fourteen feet deep, twenty-eight feet high. In only one of its seven windows was the glass unbroken. The top window was an oval, under the slate gable; in it was set a lozenge of glass, painted with a standing bird, for which Bill had named the house the Heronry.
Bill pulled his boat close in and tied the painter to a standing rock, where an iron ring had been set. He looked back to the shingle beach and saw that Shona had gone. Up the hill he saw her tail whispering like smoke above the heather. She’d be home in twenty minutes.
When he looked at the Heronry he could not believe that this small house contained all it did, an unbroken confident peace that was like a delay before certain fulfilment of trust. He could not remember in how many places he had looked for what he found here. He took his papers out and the tobacco and made a cigarette without looking, just pinching, holding, folding, licking, rolling. When he put the thin thing in his lips, he looked down the once to strike his match.
The air was so empty the smell of the match filled his stomach like meat. The black loch water promised rain. Bill listened to see if it had reached the hills. He heard the faint interference of distant weather, a premonition between the notion and actual drops on the face. He saw the settling grey cloud with its violent edge of light lie up against the hill and breathe into it. The cigarette drew blue feathers on the air.
In the first house he’d imagined had held all this one did, he’d settled and lived for two years. It had been at the gates of a ruin, just outside the city. He’d lived invisibly, as he liked. The falling big house had been a safari park in its last throes. Bill’s gatehouse was in the shadow of a gigantic placard that read: ‘These may be the only lions between here and Crianlarich.’ It was the uncertainty that charmed the very few visitors to the place, who were diverted rather than disappointed to find the lion-headed red lemurs, often flu-ridden, in the rickety aviaries of the old house. In the hall of the house were two stuffed lions, precariously fighting, at the top of the trembling stone stairs that were covered most mornings with feathers from the pigeons that had got in overnight and battered themselves against the great bland oval skylight in the roof’s height.
By the end of his time in the gatehouse, Bill had developed a touch with the lemurs, golden lion tamarins. He could tell when they sneezed if it was cat flu or worse, and he was horribly pained when their long forearms and small hands had to be folded at the end. Their hair was the glowing golden red of lily pollen. When the last one died he could not stay. The owners of the big house had yet more good ideas as to how to keep the place afloat, on the road, whatever wrong words they used, and Bill could see how each one would end. There were the usual misty fantastic ideas. In the end it was down to a dope farm or an agricultural machinery museum. Bill could see it all, the rusting thresher and the untended hemp in unsuitable pots taking over the greenhouse and then turning out to be entirely legal. He knew too well the uningenuity of the family, their suicidal love of the recessive plaster and subsiding stone.
Moreover, other people had begun to come to his gatehouse, not people he invited, but lovers and other conspirators. He heard them in the night, their voices, and, far worse, their pencils or their knives as they wrote their names, their feelings, their bodies’ intentions on the walls of his house, in the plaster or, with incisions that filled Bill with grief, in the stone. He heard them enact the words they wrote. He heard Jim loves Sandra, and he heard Sandra does not quite so much love Jim. He heard Alan 4 Bruno. Leah and Daniel he heard weekly for one summer and was to a certain extent let down when it changed to Leah is Crazy Over Liam.
Daniel had used words that seemed beautiful to Bill in the summer nights. He heard about Daniel’s feelings and he understood them. For once it did not make him think of the mess, the scribbling mess of it all. With Daniel, Bill could tell, it was romance, with a capital R. Leah loved it and then had had enough of it by the autumn. By the time the days were getting short, she wanted the smaller words and the quicker dates – with Liam – by the gatehouse.
There were boys buying and selling there too. He found the equipment and swept it up with his metal pan and wee wooden brush totted off a skip. The foil went all soft and black but nothing could destroy the plastic bottles and disposable syringes. He threw them out and understood as he never had before his mother’s feelings towards his own unexceptionable private squalor of skins and butt ends, bottles and cans.
In a country so rich in emptiness, you would have thought there would be places to live in that’d not been written on. You’d be wrong. Bill had moved north to the Black Isle, he’d moved west to Ardnamurchan, and he’d tried out Ettrickdale. Always the place where he settled started off unwritten upon, but he began to hear the movements and the breaths and the sighs and then the scratchings and even cutting and he knew that the marks of love or commerce or loyalty to God or football were about to be made, as though people could not act or think or speak without making a record of it in writing, writing that was not especially good to look at nor that ever said much that was new, nor that would be revisited. They wrote, it seemed to Bill, in order to attach their flimsy human selves to something that would last longer than they might. They were weaving themselves into time.
‘Why not write on trees?’ Bill had thought of saying, one night when he heard a man who had grunted for over an hour in the porch of a folly at Achiltibuie saying,‘Ech, Moira, wait till I get my felt pen.’
Buildings had no defence against those who wrote on them. They were bound to hold the record of the visit as an ear holds a note. These were not visitors who wrote one line of verse with a diamond in an upper window, or initialled out of sight a hidden sill. They were writers who did not know more of what they wrote upon than that it was old and might last. The knowledge seemed to spur them on.
Bill’s present home lay up the loch from the Heronry. He lived in the game hut of a shooting lodge. It was, naturally, draughty, but Bill appreciated it by moonlight when the silver came in through the thousand slats and he lay there under the lead bell of the roof like a bird himself, but alive. He hung boughs of fir from the game hooks and slept in the striped and scented green listening to the words of love and then the frustration of the writers when they could find so little flat upon which to inscribe their most recent version of the truth.
The nearest town, Lochgilphead, was a good hitch away. He’d a reasonable living housesitting and was getting a tremendous weekend sideline in marital counselling, the demand for which rose in the winter. From the years of residence in trysting places, Bill had an acceptance of folly that made his clients determined either to surprise him by behaving a great deal better or by trying ever harder to shock him.
Now autumn was coming. Bill had sought a new home throughout the summer but most places he found had been too comfortable, too draughtless, well-appointed, visible, to be shelters for the secret people whose lives nourished his own.
He felt the existence of these people like wiring running through a house or like strings essential to the performance of a puppet show. He loved to know that things were more than what they seemed, that you could never expose it all. It made his own unpromised life feel light and simple as a creature’s. He had Shona, and he had his own ways, and that was it. It was what he wanted.
He had found the Heronry on a walk. He saw it across the water, and wondered at the blue-grey slate gable pointing out of the ponticum. It was so neat and finely finished that he was sure it must be a place that was known and full of confided transactions, written and scratched into it.
He puzzled at first about how to reach the island, but he asked one of his weekend problem-bearers sidelong one Saturday if he knew where Bill might come by a wee boat. The man had a repair yard and hated writing cheques, so the dinghy, clinker-built and trim, was Bill’s, plus oars, if he’d pledge another six months of his advice and leave the boat behind when he left the area.
‘Good enough,’ said Bill. ‘Good enough.’
When he got to the place that first time, he checked it over, every bit of its stone, and its smooth coved interior. There was birdshit and there were feathers and the light bones of mouse and bird. There was dust and fallen plaster and the odd splint of lath. There were brambles curling in at one of the lower windows and in the doorway there was bracken. Half the egg of a blackbird had been blown behind an interior door. It was as bare as that, a building apparently unwritten upon except by the hand that had depicted the heron on the oval of glass, but even it was not like the words, that had come eventually to disturb Bill at each of the homes he found.
He pinched out the roll-up, took out his army knife and hooked the lid off the bottle of beer he had brought with him in the boat over from the shingle shore. He drank it so slowly that it was never related to thirst, only to the gradual relaxation of his body and the invasion of his mind by a mild forgiving warmth. Bill did not take drink in company. He liked to receive its blessing where he couldn’t be seen, when his unguarded self could come free of the outer, controlled, invisible man.
The rain on the hill had fallen out of the cloud that was now all silver. The black loch was shining blue. The floor of the island around the small house was all red mast and shooting bracken.
There was a grinding, then a clopping, and the resolved sound of a boat being pulled up.
Bill looked around. He was not thinking of where to hide himself – it was clear that he or someone must be here since there was the boat – but of where to hide the bottle.
This took on such significance that he began with his heel to dig at the soft soil with the heel of his boot. He knelt to bury the bottle, after pouring the last of the beer away.
He was arranging leaves tidily over the place the bottle lay when the new arrival came.
She was not only a woman, he knew her. She visited him at the carefully neutral drop-in centre for counselling in Lochgilphead. He could not forget the story she’d told him, though he tried to, in order to make his getaway.
‘Oh,’ said Ina Maclntyre, née Binnie, soon to be Paterson. ‘Oh, Bill Petrie.’ She’d pale hair the inside of beech-nut cases in colour and feather downiness.
‘Uh huh,’ said Bill. ‘Did you see a dog?’
‘Was that what you were scrabbling for down there, then?’ said Ina.
Bill felt the beer gather in his skin and go red. Red beer filled the epidermis of his normally pale face.
‘You looked like you were burying a bone,’ she said lightly. She was trying to get off the subject, but what one would they get on to then? Paw Binnie’s beatings, Davey Maclntyre’s drunken demands or Malc Paterson’s touch of fraud with the White Fish Promotion Board?
Ina looked at Bill. She was right, she knew that. When she saw the wet dog she’d known he’d be here, and alone. He must be twenty-two, she thought. Twenty bloody two and all he’s ever had to cuddle’s a dog.
‘Cigarette?’ she said.
‘No thanks, I’ve my own,’ said Bill.
He doesn’t even know what to say, she thought.
He was bothered the way she was speaking from a set of flirtatious words he had heard often enough, but never joined in with. Yet the beer on his empty stomach – he’d been saving the beans and macaroni till later – came between him and his understanding. He did not yet hear the words for what they were. The Heronry’s clean face and untouched interior had taken anything like suspicion from him.
‘Will we go in?’ said Ina.
The small house seemed to grow. The blue bird in the top window looked curiously submissive, its neck curving down, its beak also downcast, till he saw the fish painted in the lower part of the glass, never thinking of the beak.
‘You go first,’ she said. ‘I’ll be with you right away.’
He stood in the plaster-bare high single room, its every plane revealed by daylight, and his teeth chattered, though his body was warm.
‘My, it’s pretty,’ she said, as she stepped in from the bright door. ‘It’s so plain. Like only us had ever been here. Even although it’s old.’