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If someone had asked me ten years ago, my favourite place, I’d have said by the water.  I love water.  Any kind of water.  Whether it be the sea rushing to shore, a river flowing, a pond glinting, a burn, a puddle, a shower, a hot tub, I don’t care, just allow me to be by or submerged in water.  I swim amongst the fishes, float on waves, reflect on swans dancing on the glaze.  The deeper and larger the mass the better.  Here there is danger, excitement, sparkle, spirit.  Being by water is like being shushed to sleep.  A dream.  Living in a life lived before it became hard to live. 

I was always attracted to water, so my mother said, and she taught me to swim as a result.  In a freezing natural sea pool.  In summer.  Our summers where I lived weren’t always warm and days by the sea could be brisk.  Water gives us something. What can that be?  Walking by a river revives us, the strength of the flow changing as with our moods.  The rocks steady, unmovable, are always there in the cold invigorating tide, froth gathers, leans for a moment of respite.  Knobbly arms stretch over from gnarled trunks, and birds sing through the airstream.  The mystery of where it comes from and where it goes entices, it calls, and one walks by open, sunny spots, waterfalls, sheer banks, meadows, disused rail tracks, ruined, and fairy castles.

When my mum passed, I wasn’t drawn to the water.  I didn’t think her passing could be washed away with the current.  As if I could forget it in its choppy dance, hide it in the seaweed covered rock-pool.  It was real.  Death is real, it comes to us all and my mother would have told me, it was her time, and she wasn’t scared. 

Not for me the happy pier, the sound of the masts like a familiar song, a lullaby sung to me as a child, the water lapping against the boats, sucking, spouting comfort.  Here, the sun would shine, despite the gloom in my heart.  It would skip around my eyes, determined to make them curl.  No chance. 

After my mum passed my favourite place to be, became my bed.  I became cocooned in a nest of tears.  My bed was the island surrounded by stormy seas, white capped waves bashing the frame.  In bed I slept.  I lay awake.  I slept some more.  I remembered.  In my bed I tortured myself with the thought of other beds. 

The flower bed we hadn’t planted in mum’s garden.  Mum loved her flowers.  Each year we took her for new bedding plants, and we’d plant them, she would nurture them.  The hospital beds.  The temporary kind in A&E.  Those high plastic-coated beds she struggled upon, and off, when the water tablets did their job, her dignity flying through the ward, screaming holy murder.  We left her there.  There wasn’t a bed.  She insisted we leave her there; she’d be home soon.  And she was.  The death bed where I found her.   If only she’d waited an hour or so, until I was there.  I always came Monday mornings around nine.    

In my bed, my haven, I drowned in a midden.  It became a ritual.  Rise, eat, read, bed.  But then when my mum passed, we were living a ritual.  Had been living this ritual for some time.  The lockdown ritual.  When Covid drifted towards our rugged shores I grew worried.  Protect the vulnerable, we were told.  I protected my mother with all my might, in case she was to die.  Call me paranoid.  Worry tugged at me.  Mum could die.  I couldn’t let that happen, but as worried as I was, and as uppermost in my mind her possible death was, the shock of her death struck me a physical blow.  How could this be?                                                   

Almost two years later, the healing process contemplating leaving me, I’m coming home from a trip away, on a road I’d been before with my mum.  My eyes lay upon a familiar line of water skipping alongside the road.  It appears from nowhere, a stirring of movement attracting the eye.  It meanders backwards and forwards, further from the gaze, further still, out of sight and then gradually appears closer, closer.  Each time the glittering ribbon of water runs from the road, into the undulating, merciless land, my neck stretches a bit more from my shoulders.  Each time it runs off into the icy tussocks, and hides in its shallow stony banks, I fear I’ll lose it. 

The road falls away, continually, under the tyres, and the swish of the slush and snow sings to me, up through the air, through glass, through ringing ear drums, through the car radio murmurs.  The burn continues to flow, from and away from me.  Each time it disappears I’m on edge.  My eyes follow it as far as they can and then my imagination takes over.  I see it wind along the meadows, in the shadow of the hills.  These giant mounds follow me, my eyes follow the river.  The road is in a valley of hills and cut down trees.  I take my eyes from these.  Bleak broken trees freeze me.  Cold, rough, trunks laid bare, one on top of the other.  Nothing moved.  No bird, no mole, no deer.  Only the drifting snow moved in icy formations, blown with the wind and the rush of cars.  My heartbeat, as it most often beat, now.  Slowly.  My shoulder blades are tense, a knot formed in between them.  A nagging. 

I continue to follow the river.  I needed it to stay nearby.  I wished it near, wanting to look forever upon its glittering form, the current taking with it small white rushes of superfluous energy as it breaks over boulders, as it splashes faster, faster, wider, wider as it moves inland, but I know it will disappear eventually.  I know it will glide away, through the hills, the part of the hills with no road.  It will wind off into valleys I can’t go.  As much as I want to go, as much as I want to keep watching the river, have it percolate alongside me, I know it is impossible. 

Roads are not made to follow rivers.  Roads are car filled arteries carrying travellers to town, to city through country, villages, farms.  Parallel roads leading to the same place.  The puzzle of the crossroad.  Which way to go?  Roads are manmade.  Rivers follow the course evolved for them, wiggling, rambling, rolling. 

Another wide arc and it’s out of sight, the traffic slows.  I keep flicking my eyes to the land.  I know the river is there.  I hope it’s there.  It isn’t there.  Cars pass.  Someone speaks.  I don’t listen.  The only thing I want to hear is the river.  The rush of water calming, drawing me to it.  I idolise it.  The river brings me peace.  I’d almost given up hope of seeing it again when a bridge comes into view and there it is.  It’s there again, dancing through the bridge.  My eyes come alive with the flow.  I watch and watch, my heart beats.  Then the road winds southwest, the river east towards its journey end, joining the sea with open arms, surrendering to its powers. 

I remember two figures standing, still, contemplative, each silent as the waves come forth in huge rolls, and bash against the rocks, surging back upon themselves, pulled by invisible ties.  My heart tugs, tributaries of blood rushing, gushing.  My eyes look forward onto the open road, knowing that my mum is urging me on. 

left unsaid

‘You’re not a rabid Tory, are you?’ he asked out the blue. 

Why would he think that?  Why would he care?  Would he take back his welcome if I replied in the affirmative.  Of course, he couldn’t see my face.  We were on a phone call. 

I was always told, from the age of eighteen, to tell no one whose box I ticked at the voting polls.  It’s a secret.  I never did tell.  One of the many secrets I’ve kept in life.  It’s as if my head is a trinket box, full of cute little whispers, big brassy surreptitious sniggers, clandestine chains, shrouded brooches.  Some charms have slipped through the cracks in the jewellery box, lost forever in the realms of forgotten memory, some cradled in my secret haven, but some undisclosed and proudly displayed.  If the eyes are the window to the soul, how can folk not see my secrets simply by looking at me?  Or can they?  What do they see?  If only I could see what they see, especially if it’s as much fun as the things I see.

‘I’m surrounded by rabid feminists,’ I said another day, to a group I’m in, smiling over at them. 

‘Ah, an interesting word,’ one said.  I owned up to stealing it from someone, just a few days before. 

‘Do you not believe in equal rights for women then?’ the woman asked. 

‘Of course, I do.’ 

‘Then you’re a feminist,’ said our leader.  ‘It’s plain you’re a feminist, it shows in your writing.  I’m one too, and I’m a man,’ he said. 

‘But I’m not actively so,’ I said. 

‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said to my passive boot, which was waggling, close to the coffee table, as if trying to speak. 

‘Let me speak,’ it said.  ‘I have something to say.  I have a secret to tell.’  But the boot was tightly zipped, and words were left unsaid, wound up with all my other words, unsaid.      

Laughter broke out from the woman next to me. 

‘I thought you said you were surrounded by rabbits,’ she said, the reading we’d just analysed having a snippet in it about rabbits.  At it like rabbits was how the snippet read, to be precise.  Three minutes later, an echo. 

‘I thought you said you were surrounded by rabbits,’ the woman opposite said. 

More laughter.  It was as if she was an alien on another planet.  But maybe I was.  Surrounded by rabbits.  Surrounded by rabid rabbit Tory feminists.  Where am I going with this?  What is the theme?  Is there more than one?  Do I even know?

Is it about secrets?  Is it about being asked questions I wasn’t happy to answer?  I think those go hand in hand.  Two parts of the same foul.  So, the question is, what did I answer?  You know, the rabid Tory question.  I body swerved it but didn’t quite body swerve it enough. 

‘Well, I’m not an SNP follower,’ I said, which only left three other parties. 

The name Boris was mentioned a couple of times, the elderly often living in the past, and then there was silence on the phone line.  He was waiting on an answer.  It was as if he had the white light of inquisition on me.  I shook with fear, I curled in my fingernails, walked up and down the small bedroom, the one I go to for privacy during phone calls.  I don’t like my phone calls being overheard, being judged.  This may be the traumatic after affect of having worked in an industry where calls were taped for training purposes. Ha.  Not only am I left with a weakness in my ears, (I wore a headset at work) the little hammer inside fused and inactive, but I’m left with a fear of being spied on.  Big brother is out to get me. 

‘Get on with it,’ I hear you all saying, but things must be mulled over, thought about, properly ingested before one can answer such leading questions, and the double yoked egg I’d had for breakfast didn’t help.  It was as if it had congealed, two yokes acting together, around my brain stem, shutting off the power of thought, stealing my words, stiffening my furry tongue.  The silence grew more alarming.  Was he still there?  Had he dropped dead with boredom?  Had he nipped out to join a protest group in the area?  In those situations, of large pregnant pauses, I become uncomfortable, and I did this day too.  He was waiting on an answer. 

‘I’m not a rabid Tory,’ I said, putting the emphasis on the word rabid, hoping he would realise the ambiguity. 

‘That’s good,’ he said.  ‘I’ll see you next week and we can chat some more.’ 

Branching Out

It’s Sunday afternoon.  The month and year January 2023.  The vicinity, my daughter’s married home town, Bonnyrigg.  I was minding my grandsons.  Life does indeed go in circles.  My paternal granddad lived in Bonnyrigg, but I’ve yet to find out if that was his birth town, and one day, I will.  The large cast iron gates to the churchyard stand open and we walk through them towards the church. An electric blue bicycle leans small against the huge dusty red sandstone wall, greeting us.  ‘Excuse us pretty bicycle, we are here for a task,’ I silently say.  It’s cold but bright, and sparrows sing their winter song, a song almost as bright as the chirruping chap walking by my side.  My younger grandson. 

It’s not exactly the riveting Sunday theme people do with their grandchildren, visiting graveyards, but to be fair, I treated him first.  While my older grandson watched the Hearts match with his friends, we dined out, at Burper King, filling ourselves with salty, starchy grub, not to mention fizzy raspberry Fanta.  The youngest is seven, so still easily pleased.  He was very excited to be sitting in a half empty fast food joint with his granny, as well as a bit puzzled at her lack of skill with the fizzy drinks machine, which spat out ice slithers, and then refused to produce the sugary liquid.  A little buttering up and a laugh before a bit of grave searching does no one any harm. 

The grave yard had spreadeagled further up the hill from the church, and in the distance, we see a lot of black shiny stones with gold or silver leaf words.  Those indicate the more recent dead.  Flowers adorn them, along with ornaments and tokens of love.  We turn to the job at hand and begin walking around the graves next to the church, along a path fringed with brown crusty leaves from the beech trees.  A large yew, the grandfather of trees, stands behind a railed off section with large monuments to the dead, and I know we won’t find our lair here.  We look at the many smaller stones, the writing faint, some covered in moss, some totally wasted, fallen, unknown.  Needle in haystack comes to mind. 

David J. H. Currie.  That’s who we’re looking for.  He was my grandad’s brother, so my uncle of sorts.  We, my brother and I, came across him while doing a family tree.  Bro is concentrating on the close family, grannies, grandads, great grannies, great grandads and the like, but I’m branching off, due to a splinter of information I came across in the local library.  Here I found a book which attracted my attention.  A book of remembrance, noting and naming all those killed at work in the mines.  My grandfather was a miner, and although he survived working down mine shafts my curiosity drove me to look through this book.  I came across the name David Currie from Cockpen.  Knowing my grandad lived in Cockpen, Bonnyrigg, I took note of this David Currie, killed aged 37 in 1937.  The very morning of my library visit, my brother sent me a list of our granddad’s siblings.  There was a David Currie.  Further investigation, ploughing through names on the Scotland’s People site, proved it was him.  My grandad’s brother.  I was therefore now compelled to look for his grave, only assuming he’d be buried (not sure cremations were as common in 1937) and in Cockpen Churchyard. 

‘Great uncle David was a miner,’ I say to my grandson.  ‘An ordinary working man.  Those large, needle stones, or the ones holding urns, or large iron egg timers are the graves of the rich.  We’re not looking for one of those.’  We pass lots of large pillared grave stones, some behind ironwork, some under the trees, but we’re looking for a small stone, a grave stone for an ordinary working man.  We tread through leaves, feet sinking into the spongy damp layers, we tread on mud on the edge of the path, we try not to tread on the graves.  ‘We must respect the dead,’ I say. 

‘David Currie had been killed underground, when a roof caved in,’ I say.  ‘Why was he in a cave?’ my grandson asks.  ‘He wasn’t in a cave, he worked in a mine, digging for coal, and the roof of the mine collapsed, killing him.’  ‘He should have got money for that.’  ‘What?’  ‘Digging for coal, like digging for gems.’  ‘He did get money.  He got paid for working down the mine.’  Only not enough for a big pillared grave stone, I thought.  ‘Jesus had one of those,’ says the child as we pass a large cross grave stone.  ‘The cross,’ I say.  ‘It’s a symbol of Christianity.’ The child nods. The ground is uneven but we step carefully, up and down the rows and rows of stones.  There’s no one else here.  Just us.  Cars pass by, over the wall, on down the road as people go about their business, totally unaware of our quest to find David.

We walk around to the back of the church, still checking grave stones, eyes flicking from one to another, names upon names, beloved people, interred below.  We come to one, protected by the large walls of the church and a dyke behind it.  It’s under a tree.  The carving in the stone tells us that this person had died in 1937.  Would David Currie be nearby?  There was no one by that name around, and some blank, the names scrubbed from the surface by the elements. 

We walk around to the other side of the church and see a hill down to the bottom wall of the churchyard.  Hundreds of stones are laid neatly out, in arcs and lines.  I shiver in the late afternoon breeze.  ‘If we don’t find David Currie in the next ten minutes, I think we should give up,’ says my grandson.  ‘I agree,’ I say, holding onto his hand, worried that the large stone tablets would somehow or another free themselves from the iron pins holding them, and fall upon him.  We carry on, up and down, side to side, the land dipping into a valley.  The river is close.  Not close enough to hear, but it can’t be far off.  More graves.  Some legible, some not.  Fraser, Johnstone, Dalhousie, Brown, Hamilton.  ‘Another few,’ I say.  ‘Let’s just check another few.’  We walk on the grass, tentatively, along the rows of graves, peering at the writing.  No David Currie.

‘If we don’t find him in the next 2 seconds we should give up,’ says my grandson.  ‘Ok,’ I say back, walking just that little bit further, down the hill, now on the gravel path.  Grave after grave peers up.  Doleful.  We keep on searching, praying that we’d find it.  We must find it. 

‘Wait,’ I say.  ‘Look.  That’s it.  There he is.  David J. H. Currie, killed in Burghlee Mine in 1937.  Sadly missed.  My eyes water, my heart skips a beat, and I hug my grandson.  ‘We’ve found him.’  Just then a robin appears.  Sits on a stone right by us.  It flutters from one stone to another and eventually flies onto David Currie’s stone.  We stand in silence thinking of this man neither of us had ever met, watching the little red breast, as he watches us.  It’s surreal.  Like it knows, in that small moment, we’d brought David back to life. 

Keep Granny Alive

I’ve lived in Penicuik most of my life, but it is only now, after sixty-six years, that I find the threads of the past unravelling.  The local mill women I’ve researched in the library thrive in my imagination, now not so faceless.  The vision is strong.  I see them cut and de-button rags.  History reels around me, pulls me in, and further in, my mind rolling like the huge mill machines chugging and clicking and producing.  The potchers, (big vats) the calendars, the overhauling, the dispatches tickle my curiosity.   

It began with an ending, as it so often does. The twisted side of nature.  The desire, once your parents have gone, for answers.  Answers to questions you should have asked but were too busy in your own world to ask.  My mum died recently, some thirty-seven years after my dad, taking with her, her knowledge.  Although I’ve retained a lot of what she told me about her family, I have only snippets about my dad’s.  Snippets no longer cut it.  I want it all.  I want the whole story, not a clipping.  My dad was a Penicuik man and I’m out to find out more about him and his forebears.  My forebears.  I am the oracle, shipping his past back to life.  I’ve roped in help.  My brother is on board, at the wheel, sister is at the stern.  They also have a vested interest.   

I’ll begin here, with my dad’s dad.  James Currie.  We discovered he was a stoker on HMS Pegasus towards the end of WWI.  The documents are hard to read, so details are sketchy.  My grandfather came from Bonnyrigg, lived somewhere on Polton Street.  I think of him now when I pick up my oldest grandson, Daniel, from Lasswade High School.  I’ve told him about his great, great grandfather.        

One day, I’ll spout out the list of my dad’s mum’s siblings to him, like my mother did with me.  I must share this.  Here we go.  Jessie, Bessie, Aggie, Molly, John, Ruby, Belle, Jean and Mime.  Nine.  Jessie was my granny.  It transpires she worked in Eskmill Papermill, lived at 1 Oakleaf, which was down by Eskbridge, and may have been a mill house.   

These houses are no longer there, haven’t been for a long time.  They weren’t there in the sixties when my brother and dad rummaged around there one summer day and got ravaged by wasps.  I’m glad I wasn’t with them.  Was my dad seeking knowledge of his roots, I wonder, but there’s no one to ask.  I walked down there not so long ago, to see if there was any sign of Oakleaf.  I mean, could there be an old street sign, a stone, an old foundation, anything, but all I came across were some self-built bungalows and a murderously steep drop down into the river. 

I’ve had a bit of an obsession for a few years now with our river Esk, so it all fits in. It lies down a ridge, deeper than our town.  It’s hidden, in parts it is dark and dangerous, unlike the picturesque part of the river Esk in Musselburgh.  I’ve walked the length of it from one end of Penicuik to Roslin, under a canopy of trees, along the old railway line, mostly alone, despite the remote nature of it, the long dark history hanging from every limb.               

I’m prone to obsessive behaviour.  Like my sojourns to the local library.  After my mum passed away, it gave me an interest, something to keep my mind off the awful day I found her.  Anyhow, I’d been given information about a collection of material by James Black and his son, and I was able to go and look through it.  The town and surrounding areas came to life.  I read a lot about the millworkers.  I didn’t know then that my granny was one of those, although I admit to always looking for connections.  

A book has also come into my possession. It’s called Through The Mill, by Ian MacDougall. It’s reminiscences of mill workers, from 1927 until they closed. My granny was born in 1895, so she may have worked in the mill around 1910.  The conditions were hard.  Long hours, heavy work. Living conditions too.  They spoke of outside, dry toilets, no running water.  A man in a horse and cart would come around lifting the mill waste and the human waste from people’s houses.  Water for cooking and washing was got from wells.  Now that I know my granny was among those immortalised in both Through The Mill and the Black Collection it all means much more to me.  She probably knew James Black, perhaps even spoken to him.        

There’s a photo.  It was in this collection of historical material.  It displays some young girls, probably children of The Free Gardeners society members.  Immediately one of the girls at the front jumped out at me.  It was me.  It looked just like me, as a child.  That’s why I took a photo of it.  At that point I was unaware that my granny came from Penicuik.  Could this girl be my granny or her sister?  I’ll never know.  I have no photos of her as a young girl.  I’ll share it with you.  The girl in question is in the front row, second from the right.  She’s biting her lip.   

This is only the start.  We have so much more to do.  I have a great aunt to find, who, rumour has it, played the mandolin in an orchestra. That mandolin is now with me. I inherited it, along with the musical traits. Now can you see why I relish the challenge of family discovery?    

transform the tanka

Have I

moulded into mum

say dad

I thought I was you

musical and fun

Mums are

the one’s who say no

you can’t

follow my leader

do as I do


rationalise it

or not


hormones strung too tight

These melt

Or derange themselves

go aft

sailboat to somewhere

if only I say

I’m mum

turned into my mum

her leave

created the space

her blood runs into mine. 

The Crypt

Whenever I play the organ at a remembrance service, I think of a story told to me by a vicar.  I believed his story.  There was no reason to disbelieve him.  Each service, from my position in the organ well, I leant with passion towards Rector Beaumont’s every word.  The pulpit shone as light beamed from him.  The congregation were enrapt.  They loved the new vicar, he was filled with enthusiasm, until this particular remembrance service.  He seemed to come undone.  The emotion of it all was clearly carved upon his face.  The sound of the bugle’s Last Post sent shivers down my spine, and the lone piper slowly fading as he walked into the darkness, brought me to tears, as an unexplainable sadness filled me.

‘How haunting that service was Rector Beaumont,’ I said in the vestry after everyone had left.  ‘Indeed,’ he replied, removing his cassock.  ‘You have your flock in the palm of your hands.  They trust you.’  He took on such a reflective gaze, that I was concerned for him all of a sudden.  I asked him if he was alright, but my words seemed not to register with him.  After a moment he thumped himself down in a chair, laid his head in his hands, and he moaned.  ‘He couldn’t be saved,’ I thought I heard him say.  ‘Who,’ I asked.  It seemed like hours passed before he spoke, the silence, a void, pulling us in.  I was perched on the arm of the chair opposite him, his ashen face chilling me, his eyes glazed, a faraway look held within them.  When he spoke, his voice was faint.  

‘It was a number of years ago,’ he began.  ‘I was asked to take the congregation of a church in a nearby village, but I had other almighty ideas.  I had a city parsonage to consider.  I suggested my colleague, a man who’d followed in my footsteps, who’d shadowed me for some time before looking for a placement of his own, be recruited as vicar there.  I knew Mr Forbes as a real country gent and felt he would fit in wonderfully with the locals.  

He visited me in the city a short time later, and he looked happy with life in the country.  The locals were personable and friendly.  The ones that had been there for years told him a bit about the town, and it interested him greatly, being a history man.  He told me of a battle in 1303 which took place around the town.  Many were killed, mainly the English.  The Scot’s were hugely outnumbered but they won.  Probably down to knowing the lay of the land.  The land there was precipitous.  A forest disguising the dark and dangerous ground.  The pathways are flat to begin with, gradually dipping towards the river, and then out of nowhere a ravine so dark, and deep, lined with black sneering rock, and boulders bundled under the sparkling flow of the river.  It’s the most awesome place I’ve ever seen, Mr Forbes told me that day.  Many of the English, on chasing the dark knights, were led to this ravine, falling to their death.  Prisoners were taken for their value, to be used for bartering, but those surrendering, and having no value were bludgeoned towards the steep gulley, where they fell to certain death.  The Scot’s went to pray afterwards, knowing that they had gone against the chivalric code.  Yes, Mr Forbes spoke so excitedly about the place that I felt appeased at my refusing the offer.  

A few months later, he came again to my vicarage and his hair was tinged with grey, his eyes were lined and he wore an expression I couldn’t quite pin down.  He told me he’d taken walks in his spare time.  He was propelled into the rugged and dim land.  It was so dreary, no sun ever reached the bottom of the gulley, springs broke free from the sheer rock face only crows dare inhabit.  He feared he was becoming obsessed by the land, that some unearthly being had infiltrated his mind.  I tried to calm him, aware that a man of his standing could not be seen to be so disturbed.  He laughed at my account of a member of the congregation wanting to be baptised but being afraid of the holy water, then he left with a promise to return again soon.  

His return in the summer was markedly strange.  His words were disjointed, he seemed distracted, his shoulders stooped.  He spoke of superstitions, of the darkness of the land, of caverns and ghostly hounds and horsemen.  Parishioners were dying, as were visitors to the village.  Desperately awful deaths, young and old, victims of the vicious land.  After a glass of port and a prayer, he left.

He didn’t return until the fall of that year, when the trees were displaying their fiery colours, when images of witches and warlocks hung from windows, when the sun shone faint, and low.  He was thin, the bones across his neck sharp and protruding, his hair was almost white and his eyes were dim and lifeless.  He spoke little.  I tried to cheer him with antidotes from my parishioners, how one man would nod off, how the women sang loud, each trying to outdo the other, and how the organist, (he did apologise to me later, saying he exaggerated simply to jolly up his dear friend) would pretend there was no wrong note, by playing another, and another, in an odd major, minor plonk.  But he wasn’t to be cheered.  He said only that he had work to do and couldn’t linger long.

Some time passed and I hadn’t received a visit from my vicar friend, so I decided to visit him.  On reaching the vicarage I was told Rector Forbes was down by the chapel.  I left the house immediately and made my way downhill to the ancient chapel.  There I found him, sitting on a wall outside.  I didn’t recognise him at first, his hair was snow-white.  He was gazing at the ground.  ‘What ails you, my friend,’ I asked.  He looked up, lifting his head as if it was a boulder resisting being taken from its base.  His eyes were glazed, red, as if he’d been crying.  I moved closer and laid my hand on his shoulder, to offer my support.  What has happened to you, my friend.  He licked cracked lips, and asked if ghosts were real.

I was puzzled by his question, as well as concerned.  I saw in his eyes a disturbed man.  ‘I only know of the Holy Ghost,’ I said.  But he shook off my words and began ranting about men working in the crypt, and how three sets of three men, each after a night working down there, refused to work another.  Someone was watching them, they said.  They spoke of shuffling, chanting, bells tinkling.  Something wasn’t right.  Each set of three downed tools, and turned their backs away from the chapel.  Forbes looked up at me hopelessly and told me that on the fourth night, having no more workers, he stepped into the crypt to finish the job.  

It was cold and it was damp.  He began to tap at the worn step, the hairs on his neck rising.  He heard shuffling and he shouted out.  In the name of the lord who are you.  It was at that moment a monk appeared at the far end of the crypt, his hands tying and untying the cord around his robe, his hood hiding his face.  Who are you, what do you want? Forbes asked, but the monk remained silent.  He only stood, teasing the cord around his middle, and then he began chanting.  Tell me who you are, my friend insisted, by now feeling very unnerved.  But a reply did not come.  The silence screamed at Forbes and he stepped forward only in time to catch the glare beneath the hood.  Held within was such a look of regret.  Forbes couldn’t think what ailed him.  He needed to help.  As he stepped further forward to touch the monk his hands came upon only the cold moist stone.  The monk, no longer at the back of the crypt, had dissolved in holy sheen.  ‘He couldn’t be saved,’ said Forbes.

‘Those words keep me awake at night, especially this night of nights,’ ended Rector Beaumont.  ‘But why should they?’ I asked.  ‘A mere two weeks after I’d visited Mr Forbes, a letter arrived.  It was the 11th of November.  Mr Forbes had taken unwell, down by the chapel.  He was found on his knees, his hands clasped in front of him, blabbering incoherently and they lifted him, and they carried him to the nearby asylum.  He never came out.’  ‘How sad,’ I said, distressed to see this fine man so low.  ‘But don’t you see?  It was me who sent him there,’ said my pastor, on that Remembrance Day.  Now when I play at church it’s another cassocked man who leads the flock, Mr Beaumont leaving to preach in the country, but it’s always him, and his friend Forbes, in my thoughts. 

Walk into History

History stepped into the inevitable and yet shock fluttered its wings.  Queen Elizabeth II passed away.  This a polite phrase used to soften the harshness of reality.  The Queen had freed one’s horses, had taken her last breath.   This event occurred on the 8th September 2022, when crown orb and sceptre were loosened from her hold.  This monarch, the second longest reigning monarch in the world, after Louis XIV, served the united nation of Britain for seventy years against Louis’s seventy-two.  He became king aged four.  Some may argue that you can’t rule at age four, but try telling a four-year-old that.  To be more precise, a four-year-old in the 2020’s.  Children who lived a long time ago were seen and not heard.  Louis XIV fell heir to the crown of France aged four and held onto it until he was seventy-six therefore his reign, whether or not he was in charge throughout, lasted seventy-two years.  He also died in September but in the year of 1715.  It seems to me that someone who has two hundred personal servants and lots of money, made through taxes, had more chance back then of living to age seventy-six, than the French peasants dotting the land.  The French came to realise this as you may remember.     

The British Queen also had people looking after her.  They were called ladies-in-waiting and she also lived a long life.  She was ninety-six when she died.  She died at Balmoral in the highlands of Scotland, which was her holiday home.  Some would call it a palace.  Do you think she went there to die?  If this was her intention, travelling there after her platinum jubilee celebrations, that is seventy years on the throne, who are we to criticize?  The reason I say this is because I know how beautiful the Scottish land is.  It is craggy and green and has lots of lochs, one homing a monster called the Loch Ness Monster.  This beast is portrayed as a plesiosaurus, a water dwelling dinosaur with four fins, a short tail and a long serpentine neck.  Loch Ness has the most amount of water than any other Scottish lochs and in fact contains nearly double the amount of water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined.  The temperature does not often rise above 5% Celsius which I should warn you is enough to freeze off your… toes. 

The Queen lay in state, firstly, in St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, the streets being lined with people wanting to say thanks to the lady who did a lot for Scotland.  The Queen’s mother was Scottish, and loved Balmoral, so this love, no doubt rubbed off on her girl.  Because the Queen’s main residence was in London, she had to be taken back so a large grey Airforce plane came to carry her there.  Her coffin was draped in the lion rampant.  This is the royal standard of the King or Queen of Scot’s.  It’s the personal banner of the monarchy and it bears a lion rearing up as if fighting.  The sight of the plane in Edinburgh airport, with the Pentland Hills in the background filled the Scots with pride. 

Once back in London the Queen lay in state and people stood in a four-mile queue, it might have been longer, to pay homage to her.  The nation was given a holiday on the day of her funeral and hordes of people lined the streets of London. The Queen had four children, her oldest being Charles, the Prince of Wales.  He became King Charles III on his mum’s passing, the first King Charles being the grandson of Mary Queen of Scot’s.  She had her head chopped off.  So did Charles I.  Charles the III is probably glad that Kings and Queens are no longer beheaded.  The Queen was a monarch, but she was also a mother, and her four children, Charles, Ann, Andrew and Edward were visibly sad.  The second Elizabethan era had ended as history proceeded to walk forward.       

The Red Pony

As I look at the TV screen, distanced but part of the demise of an era, the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I see a country swollen with people.  Queues, traffic jams, tears, sorrow, confusion in the very young.  I’m saddened by the Queen’s death, which with it brings poignant memories of my mother, a true supporter of the Queen.  I think of her passing, a year earlier.  I’m not at home.  I’m on holiday, out of the country where I shed a silent tear.  I see my mum’s face in the face of the Queen. 

I read on holiday and this holiday it’s a great distraction.  I’ve read and analysed The Red Pony, a book by Steinbeck.  One of his best a reviewer said.  I read it and agree.  The writing is wonderful.  The descriptions, the dialogue, the homestead horrors, the truth of the times.  I’ve learnt that it’s banned from schools.  The reason quoted as being because of the violence and bloodshed in it.  There is violence.  Jody’s new pony is given a very graphic tracheotomy as he’s contracted strangles, then escapes the stable and lies dying.  Jody runs to find him and sees a buzzard fly down to the pony.  The boy rages, runs forward but is too late to stop it pecking out the pony’s eye.  Jody grabs the bird by the neck, then bashes it to death with a stone.  He’s later seen throwing stones and killing another bird, struggling to deal with his grief.  Another episode where the mother of his new colt-to-be struggles at the birth, the colt is lying wrong, and the farm hand bludgeons the mare to death, to save the colt. 

There’s also a hint of prejudice.  We read of an old Mexican coming home to die where he was born.  This was in the next ranch which was no longer there.  Jody’s father gave him food and water and a bed for the night but sent him off next morning.  He couldn’t afford to keep a dying man.  Next morning the old man was seen on their old horse, the one which Jody’s dad had said was also on his way out, heading into the mountains, to die.  Then the grandfather appears, tells stories of the Oregon Trail, of fighting the Indians, sad that his job was done.  There was no more west to travel.  They were stopped by the ocean.     

These scenes would be the harsh truth of the times and while yes, the images are violent, the reader has to put it into perspective, and understand this.  After all many young people are watching worse on their Chromebooks and I-phones.  I have seen a few examples of the games they play, and these are far more violent.  Visuals of shooting, killing, bombing, shattering bodies.  In my eyes, damaging, horror fuelled digital games should be banned, not books, classics amongst them.    

The Red Pony is a simple book, written not from the interior lives of the characters but brought alive by the sparse but creative descriptions of the land, like the sense of mood every time the cypress tree is mentioned, this being where the ‘pigs were scalded,’ and the buzzards sailing close to the ground.  ‘Some animal had died in the vicinity.’  He shows the characters’ lives through dialogue and actions.  I’ve read a story of adolescence, the experience of death, and dying, and life from death.  It’s the story of another country, another era. 

We’ve travelled into another era.  What will that bring for our up and coming young?  The Queen and my mum lived through the same times, but with entirely different experiences, but for me, far from my country, I see them together in this encounter.  The harsh truth is my generation, my era, is the next to go.   

Child Labour

Times are hard.  We’ve had a pandemic, money is tight, our children have had disruption in class.  It might seem like things haven’t evolved very much, after all we heard about the Spanish Flu in 1918 when more than fifty million people died worldwide.  Soldiers returning from war carried the virus onto trains, into cities and into the country.  Pity the poor soldier surviving the horrific conditions of WWI to then have life puffed out by a virus, drowning internally, no one to blame.  The economy suffered and there were strikes.  People were bolstered up to fight against governments.  People partied hard and protested loud.  Much as now.  Children were seen and not heard. 

I imagine a soot speck of life as it was, way back in history.    

It’s September 1893 and two boys are being questioned in the local police station.  The one boy is small, in my mind.  Stooped.  Under his nails black.  His neck is smudged and grubby.  ‘I never saw nothing,’ he says looking at the four bare walls of the police station, the strong late summer sun barging its way through the high window, raining down on the lad’s chubby blush bruised cheeks, not even his bunnet hiding the flush of guilt.  ‘It was my idea,’ says a bigger boy, kicking the skirting, eyes shameful as the policeman stands over him.  ‘Why would you play such a dangerous game?’  The bigger boy shrugs, rubs his neck, kicks some more at the skirting.  The questioning policeman is kindly but firm as he speaks to them, he knows what lads are like, he has two of his own. ‘You could have killed yourselves, or others,’ says the amenable bobby.  At that the smaller boy gasps for air.  ‘We were never out to kill anyone officer.  We knew what we were doing.’  ‘No matter lad, things can go wrong.  To put dynamite with fuse wire in a tin can, tie it to a kite and set it free into the air after lighting it is folly indeed.  You were lucky that the only harm done was the fright and worry of the local people.’  The boys scuff their feet on the stone floor, hands in pockets.  ‘One woman ran in screaming, worried about her young girl who worked in the papermill and thinking the boilers had blown up,’ the policeman adds.  The small lad murmurs sorry.  He has two sisters who work in the mill, and three brothers down the pit, she would be worried too. Every day without fail she watches them go and thinks about the sixty-three men who died in the pit disaster, only four years before.  ‘Be on your way boys, and be careful what games you play in future.’  ‘We will,’ the two lads say in unison and leave the building, making their way to the mines.  They were late for work and their pay would be docked.    

Money will be tight for a while, in the here and now, children may have lost out on schoolwork, but they are sent to school and not into factories or coal mines.  The hope is they will catch up.  No one can tell them how lucky they are.  We can’t be told how lucky we are.  Knowing you’re lucky happens when we see and know how others live or have lived.  Life for most of us has greatly evolved.           

Unfurl the Curl

Two years.  It’s been two years.  A lonely two years, relationships put to the test, tempers tempered, on some heads, not all.  Yes, the world has twirled madly on its axis for two years, a whirling dervish of disease and other things.  What other things?  Video group singing, guitar playing, saxophone, trumpets, drums.  A veritable table of music.  To cheer the mass.  Zoom heads, talking, listening, laughing, articulating.  Except when not.  Articulation comes naturally to some, but zooming in on open pores, red eye, bed head, can numb the tongue. 

But now, ye he, after two bloody crappy years, here in our fair isle, anyhow, we can unfurl our curl, stretch our arms, and legs.  Isolation is at an end.  The work force can officiate, or not, depending on dependency.  Planes fill, buses fill, trains fill, the thrill of getting out and about creating a buzz.  The sun joins us.  Warms us.  Our tentacles reach up and up towards it.  There are deer, there are rabbits, birds galore.  Hootie hoo, says one, admiring the show beneath him, whatever that may be.  More ramblers, perhaps, joggers, cyclists.  Ting.  The exercise scene which was set in lockdown, not much else to do, is raging on, a nod to fine mental health.             

So, keep it up, head up, shoulders down, step up, step out, shed those built-up pounds.  Pound away from the isolation blues, home brew barrels, gorging TV shows, star gazing, statistics, and edge closer to the people.  Mix and mingle, maskless.  Let’s laugh at the games we played, our art projects, our musical feats, our precarious yoga positions, the barkingly mad downward facing dog, take the swab from the nostrils, and yet save quiet time to weep for the ill, the grieving, the dead.  We can’t forget.  Hold tight to the memory bank, as well as releasing the future.  Let’s shout out to camaraderie, loosen our belts, breathe in, laugh out loud, face to face, in the flesh, and let go.   

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