Pan Ross Collage
Michel Faber moved to Ross-shire in 1993 from Australia. His Whitbread-nominated novel, Under The Skin, now sold into twenty languages, is set in this area, particularly Tarrel Farm near Portmahomack. His other books are Some Rain Must Fall, The Hundred And Ninety-Nine Steps and The Courage Consort. All are published by Canongate.

Highland Culture


"What's so horrible about family life that you have to run away from it all the time?"
"I'm not running away. I just like to be with my friends."
"But don't you ever get tired of hanging around the High Street in the rain, eating crisps and getting chatted up by boys in cars?"
"I don't get chatted up. It's not raining. I'm going."
This, with minor alterations, was the standard evening conversation Lisa had with her parents, Fiona and Colin. As for her grandmother, who was supposed to have gone back to her own house when she got over her stroke but had stayed on for years instead, what was there to say to an ancient old wifey who vegetated on the sitting room sofa, reading books like
The Splendour of Scotland? Forced to study all day at school, Lisa would come home and want some action, not another dose of Scottish history in a deathly quiet room with a clock going tick-tock above a silent TV.
"Home and Away is on just now, mam," Lisa would complain to her mother in the kitchen, "why can't I watch it?"
"You know Gran doesn't like the TV being on before tea-time."
"Well, why can't she sit somewhere else?"
At which Gran, who was not deaf, would pipe up, "Because the sitting room is the hert of the huse!"
Then Fiona would say, "We bought you a TV for your bedroom. Why don't you watch that?"
"Because it's tiny. And the picture's crap." And out Lisa would go, either slamming the door or leaving it wide open for someone else to close.
"Very confused, that lassie," Gran would comment.
It was true. Lisa was confused about everything, and her confusion had an intensity about it that could only come with being fifteen. She felt she ought to have been an American actress with hair like in the shampoo advertisements, flying between New York City and Hollywood, rather than a plump Scots schoolgirl living in fear of botched bleach jobs and pimples.
Another recurring fantasy was of being an orphan, living by her wits on the streets of Glasgow or London, dodging the busy-body social workers who would be out to put her in a home. At school, she nodded off while teachers tried to convince her that these Highlands where she was privileged to live were a paradise of unspoiled beauty; at home, she nodded off while Gran protested yet again that the Highlands only got to be so 'unspoiled' because the English had driven the original inhabitants away to the cities. Whose point of view was she to adopt? Neither. She hated nature, because it was so boring, and although she also hated the English on principle for driving Gran's great-grandparents away from their crofts, she couldn't imagine why anyone who wasn't stupid or senile would want to live anywhere but in a big city. On the other hand, maybe if more Scots had been allowed to stay in the Highlands, a little place like Tain would have been a big city, and the Americans would have come and built a McDonalds here, or maybe even a Disneyland. Lisa hoped that a Disneyland might still come to Inverness one day.
In the meantime, here she was, stuck in Tain, with nowhere to go and nothing to do except hang around the High Street (weather permitting) with her pals, saying up-yours to the ancient monuments with cigarette smoke and four-letter words.
But the monuments didn't seem shaken up at all; their ancient smugness was invincible. The young people longed to do some major damage, something people would really notice, but it never came to anything. Everyone knew everyone else here. The only blow Lisa could ever hope to strike against Tain without living to regret it would be to kill herself ­ a fate she considered often, if only in the poems that she wrote instead of her homework.
"Be sure you're home by eleven!" her parents would say, and so she was, always. But by that time, Fiona and Colin had usually gone to bed already, Fiona tired out by another working day in the Co-op, Colin done in by another day of granny-sitting and fruitless searching for jobs.
"We don't see you all day, and in the evening when we've got the chance, you go out!"
"I want to see my friends."
"You see them all day at school!"
"Not properly."
"Well, we don't see you properly."
"How about going out somewhere together, then?"
"You know we can't leave Gran. And anyway, what's so horrible about staying at home?"
"Nothing. I just want to be with my friends. I'll be back by eleven."

One night, though, Lisa came home at two o'clock in the morning, or to be more exact, she was dropped off, literally, on the doorstep by some boys who drove off with a screech of tyres. She was paralytically drunk, and Colin had to wait until she'd finished vomiting on the welcome mat before carrying her upstairs to bed. Lisa swore every step of the way. An hour later, just as Fiona was finally falling asleep beside her husband, the sound of Lisa's weeping got her up again. Her daughter, for the first time in ten years, had wet the bed. In the few minutes it took to change Lisa's nightie and the sheets, the little fragment of history that was their family life was changed forever. Neither person said a word; Lisa only wept and sniffled, her little body shaking as she raised her arms for Fiona to lower the fresh nightie over them, just like it used to be. There were no four-letter words now. Fiona tucked Lisa in, and on impulse kissed her goodnight, something she hadn't dared attempt for years. But Lisa was asleep already, her little face angelic on the pillow, her breath lethal with alcohol.
In the morning, Fiona discovered that Gran, too, had wet the bed. In all the anxiety over Lisa not coming home, Fiona had forgotten to wake Gran up at midnight and help her to the toilet, a little chore which had developed over the years, so stealthily that Fiona recognized it only now for the routine it was. Until now, she'd imagined that what she did was sort of 'look in' on Gran from time to time, just if she happened to awake herself, just every now and then. But she realised now that it was nothing like that. In reality she was getting up every night at the same time, whether she was in bed or not, to take Gran to the toilet. And what's more, she was getting up every morning at six, a good hour and a half before she really needed to, to take Gran to the loo again. She'd convinced herself that she liked to get up so early, that she didn't need a lot of sleep, that she enjoyed watching the sun rise and getting some of the housework out of the way, hanging the washing on the line while the early morning birds chirped and the smell of fresh-baked cake wafted out from her kitchen.
She did like those things, but not every day of the year, not when she was tired and underslept and the bags under her eyes never went away and she seemed to be turning into an old woman. Colin never made love to her anymore ­ maybe she was too old for him already ­ but no, she was just too tired to be interested herself ­ anyway, what use was a husband if you had to support him? Fiona looked at her lined and bitter face in the mirror and had to admit Lisa wasn't the only confused person in the family.
That evening, Fiona talked it all over with Colin, and he admitted that the real reason he was still out of work after all this time was probably that he hadn't been as available for it as he should have been. He'd actually had to cancel appointments with employers at times, because of some little disaster at home, like having to bath Gran.
Bath Gran? What? Yes, it all came out now: he'd been bathing her, helping her dress, preparing her food, washing and drying her clothes, taking her to the toilet two-hourly. Colin almost broke down when he told Fiona this.
"I can't believe it. This is my mother, the woman who used to take me to the cinema in Tain ­ in the days when there was still a cinema in Tain. I remember once when we'd been to see a Disney film from America ­ I'd just turned six ­ and I had to go to the toilet, and I didn't want her to take me into the ladies loo anymore, because the sign said "Children under six only", and I was scared of doing something wrong and getting arrested. So she stood outside the gents loo and waited for me, and it took me about fifteen minutes to get my trousers back on, because they had buttons. She didn't say a word, didn't tell me to hurry up. Now here I am, taking her to the toilet, and it's got to the stage where I just have to go in there and help her with her pants..."
Colin suddenly started to sob, and Fiona took him into her arms. His shuddering body felt awkward and unfamiliar. Were they going to make love? She wasn't sure she wanted it now.

Three days after Gran had gone to the old people's home, Colin and Fiona had a furious row over satellite TV, a subject they had never even thought about before. But last week Colin had brought home a brochure about it. It would make a good present for Lisa, he said, because there were channels that broadcast Australian soapies and music videos day and night. Lisa would love that, and it would be an unmistakeable signal to her that the rule of iron which Gran had imposed over the TV was over. Fiona objected that rather than letting Lisa watch oversexed pop videos all day, Colin should try talking to his daughter ­ wasn't that what had been missing while Gran was here? Colin objected that he was very distraught about losing his mother to an old people's home, that he was doing his best to be positive, and that this satellite TV idea was something he'd thought of with good intentions. Fiona accused him of doing what he'd always done since she'd first married him, which was to try to solve emotional problems by buying things; Colin then accused Fiona of marrying him only because Roddy Guthrie had rejected her for not being good-looking; and then Fiona accused Colin of wanting satellite TV so he could sit at home and watch pornography while she was at work. After the row had exhausted itself, Fiona agreed to rent the satellite TV after all. A man came to install it during the day when Lisa was at school; Colin and Fiona told her about it at tea-time. "I've got homework," said Lisa, and disappeared upstairs for the rest of the night. Not a sound issued from her room except the faint murmur of drama from her tiny crap television.
"Kids!" shrugged Colin exasperatedly.
"She'll get over it," sighed Fiona.

But family life after Gran's removal never did get back to normal; getting back was against the laws of time, and besides, there was no 'normal' to return to. Lisa moped around, complaining (with exquisite teenage perversity) that she missed Gran; unexpectedly, she turned sixteen, shot up two inches, grew breasts and bought a special cleavage-making bra to put them in. She swore all the time, smoked in her room, wept frequently, had nostalgic conversations with her dad about the things they'd done together when she'd been a very little girl, and then went out to discos and got drunk. Soon she was pregnant, finished with school, moving out of home to live with her boyfriend. A year later when the boyfriend left her during her second pregnancy, she confounded her parents' expectations yet again, by not coming back home.
"This is our home now," she told them over the phone. By 'this' she meant her tiny place in Portmahomack. By 'our' she meant herself and her children.
Colin and Fiona tried to do the things that people do when they stop being parents years too soon. They gardened a bit, cooked less and went to restaurants more often, went to Corfu on holiday, Fiona enrolled in aerobics, Colin finally found a job but resigned from it after six months. He felt old: shouldn't people whose children have left home be retired? He and Fiona argued a lot: it had been her idea to come to the Highlands where there was no work, it had been his idea to quit his new job, she had let herself go, he was useless. Half-hoping it would force them back together, he had an affair with Fiona's aerobics teacher. The marriage caved in like a delerict house undergoing demolition.
"What's happened to this family?" pleaded Colin as he was loading some of his things into the car they'd agreed he would keep.
"Call it the Highland clearances," said Fiona bitterly.

In the old people's home, Highland House, there were prints of traditional northern Scottish scenes hung up everywhere, with titles like 'The Old Croft'. The proprietors believed these were the sorts of things the residents would wish to end their days looking at. Of course, after the first week or two, the residents lost all interest in looking at these pictures, because they didn't move. Instead, they watched the moving pictures on the television. They watched all day, even though the glowing box seemed to be celebrating everything they disapproved of: violence, modernity, sex, bad language, loud music, women priests, and television itself.
But at least it had life in it.
By the time Gran had been at Highland House for a couple of years, she was wheelchair-bound. Colin and Fiona almost never came to visit, because they found it to painful. Lisa came though, almost every week, with her two small children.
Callum really was very small, even for his age; Lisa had given up smoking for the next child, and Nicola was much more robust. They were sweet bairns, and Lisa was going out with Bill Mackenzie, the ironmonger's son, hoping he might grow to like her enough to marry her. All the old folks at Highland House (except one very staunch Free Churcher) were hoping the same thing; their gossip about Bill's slow, slow progress towards moving in with Lisa was better than Coronation Street.
On sunny days, Lisa would take Gran out for walks, a little train consisting of Lisa pushing Gran in her wheelchair and Gran pushing Nicola in her pram, and Callum toddling on behind. Of course, the bairns could be naughty at times; Callum in particular was heading for that 'difficult' age. One day, when both children were misbehaving badly, Lisa said that if Gran was bothered by them, they needn't come anymore in future ­ Lisa could leave them at home, with Bill. But Gran just smiled and said no, it was nice to have children about.
"You must be joking," sighed Lisa, struggling to lift Callum out of his tantrumy sprawl onto his own two feet.
"A bitty pushing and pulling's all part of family life," winked Gran, impatient to go back inside and tell her friends.

Michel Faber

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