Pan-Ross

Moira Forsyth has published two novels, Waiting for Lindsay and David's Sisters, (both Sceptre), and a collection of poetry, What the Negative Reveals (ArtTM). She chairs the Dingwall Writers' Group, is a member of Words Inc, which organises the Cromarty Book Festival, and is fiction editor of Northwords magazine. She lives in Dingwall.

Highland Culture

 INTO THE SILENCE

Driving back from Inverness, Shona stopped at the Kessock Bridge to give someone a lift. There were always hitch-hikers standing in the lay-by there, especially in summer. Until recently, she had never done this, but had driven past with a half-apologetic smile on her face. I'm a woman alone, the smile was intended to convey, and I have children; I can't take the risk. They had gone on standing there in sunshine or cloud, some holding up signs: Wick, or Ullapool, or simply, The North. Beyond them rose the long curve of the bridge and the clutter of white houses on the far hill.

This time, surprising herself as well as the hitch hiker standing patiently with his arm stuck out, she put her foot on the brake, slowed, veered into the lay-by, and stopped. There were heavy clouds massing overhead, and it had begun to rain, fierce stinging drops on the windscreen. He'll be soaked in a minute, Shona thought, and then no-one will want him in their car. She saw his body grow alert and grateful, as her car drew up beside him. She leaned over and opened the passenger door.

'I'm going as far as Dingwall,' she said. 'Is that any good?'
'Danke,' he said, a smile broadening his tanned face. 'Schon. Thanks.' She tipped the seat forward.

'I'm afraid the boot is full of shopping,' she said. 'You can put your back pack there.' He nodded, understanding the gesture if not the words, and heaved his rucksack onto the back seat. Then he got in beside her, still holding half a Mars bar in one hand, a small plastic bag tucked under the other arm. He put this on his lap while he fastened his seat belt. There seemed to be something square in the bag. Shona was aware, as she put the car in gear, that he took up a lot of space: he was large and blond, the hairs on his forearms golden, his thighs muscular and heavy. He smelled of chocolate, and the open air.

'Thank you,' he said again. Shona smiled, signalled, and moved out of the lay-by. They drove in silence, and her passenger looked out of the window, chewing the last of his Mars bar. But she didn't mind the silence. Probably he hadn't much English, and anyway, she would begin talking herself soon, and it didn't matter whether he said anything or not.

This was not the first time she had picked someone up at the Kessock Bridge, but it had happened only in the last few weeks, during this hot stormy summer. It was September now; and she knew she must stop doing it soon. Each time it happened it was as if someone else put her foot on the brake, slowed the car, turned the steering wheel; these decisive movements taking place all in a few seconds. One minute she was driving on, sympathetic but unmoved, the next she had somehow changed her mind, and stopped.

The first people she picked up were two giggly French girls, their English good, but full of slang they had gleaned from boys they'd met on their travels. The one who sat in the back of the car had leaned over between the two front seats, her fair hair swinging forward, flicking soft as feathers past Shona's cheek. They had smelled of sweat, and of the scent they'd been spraying over themselves in Arnott's store in Inverness. They chattered to Shona all the way, showing her what they'd bought: earrings, tartan scarves, and packets of shortbread they opened and munched all the way to the Tore roundabout. There they got out, dragging their back-packs across the road, waving vigorously as she drove off. When she got home, Shona found there were shortbread crumbs all over the seats, and the car smelled of musky scent for days afterwards.

She had not talked to these girls, though she's answered their questions. They wanted to know about the Highland Games, as they meant to go to as many of these as possible. Someone they knew had told them this was the thing to do. Shona decided she had picked them up because she was a safe person to do it, and she hoped that if anyone was picking Eilidh up, it was a mother in a red hatchback, her boot full of the week's food and soap powder. Were these girls, with their glossy hair and easy smiles, different at home, sullen and difficult with their own mothers? Had they parted with them on good terms, or had they gone out on a slammed door, defiant and angry? Shona told them about the Games, described the dancing, because that was what she knew best, but she wasn't going to pick up anyone else. It hurt to be so close to other people's daughters.

But what happened was that all the people she stopped for after that were men. The second time it was a bricklayer who had missed the works bus home, because he'd gone into Inverness to buy a birthday present for his wife. It was the Marks and Spencer's bag, green and shiny by his feet, that drew Shona. She knew he wasn't a student: he was too old, he had nothing but the carrier bag and a sandwich box, and after he'd gone there was a white powdery mark from his trousers on the seat, which Shona had to sweep briskly with a hard brush.

He had been completely silent, apart from telling her about the birthday present when he first got in. She asked what it was, and he said 'a jumper' but did not show her. It was a fine clear day, and had been hot. Nervously at first, Shona talked about this, and then, filling the silence in her head as well as in the car, she began to talk about taking Eilidh to the games.

'We were relieved when it was a fine day,' she said. 'This sort of weather always reminds me of the year she was eleven;she won six medals. Four golds. It was such a good summer.'

The workman got out at the Maryburgh roundabout.
'Thanks,' he said, 'that's grand,' and strode off, not looking back, the green carrier swinging from one hand.

After that she told herself she'd been lucky, picking up such nice people. But really, she should not do it: the rule she'd made for herself years ago still held good. After Eilidh was born and they moved out from Inverness to Dingwall, she looked at the hitch-hikers and knew she must not take risks. For Eilidh's sake, and later for Robbie's and Alistair's, she had driven on by, observed the speed limit, kept them all safe.

But now it was different. Nothing was safe: Ian's job, their house, the constant presence of their parents, her children's dependant love; all these things had been breached, or were under threat. Ian's job might not survive the next round of cutbacks; the road their house stood in was no longer a quiet cul de sac;new and noisy building was going on all around them; Ian's mother had died in March. And the children. But she did not think about them as she drove. She kept her mind a careful blank, and when the thoughts that most frightened her broke in, she pulled over to the side of the road and gave a stranger a lift.

After the workman there had been others: a student from Lancashire, two Australian lads, and an elderly man whose appearance in the distance had been much more respectable than his actual presence in her car. Discreetly, after a moment, she had opened the window to disperse the alcohol fumes. He too had been silent, and for the first time a spurt of fear animated her, drove her to speech and the heady release of telling a stranger the things she could say to no-one else. The silence of her passenger ceased to unnerve: it became a comfort. When she stopped for petrol in Dingwall and he got out with no more than a grunt of acknowledgement, she was almost sorry to see him go. Some absurd impulse made her long to call him back - 'you won't say anything about my daughter, will you?' But she resisted, knowing she would never see him again. Even if she did, he was as likely to turn away from her, as she from him. Indeed, she did not even know if she would recognise him.

And now this boy, with his smile and his stillness and his incomprehension. He too, was someone she could talk to.

'It's not,' she told him, overtaking a horse box and then a lorry, breaking the speed limit, ignoring the police warning signs, 'as if we ever quarrelled. She was such an easy child, and we both loved the dancing. I took her to all the games, year after year. Those competitions; and her kilts and shoes, bigger every year. She grew so fast; well, they do, you know. One day, if you have your own children, you'll realise that.'

The words flowed from her in easy rhythmic sentences. It was as if, telling the workman, then the old man, she had been rehearsing. Now it came out like a story, no longer her own, mere confession. She began to give it shape, and in becoming shaped, practised, it lost some of its pain.

'Such a lovely girl,' she said. 'Those long dark ringlets bouncing on her back as she danced, and her feet in the black pumps darting to and fro. And the medals she won; cups too, sometimes. Those medals with the wee dancers engraved on them; she gave them names; they all had names. Ian built a little shelving unit for her to put them on. She even talked about becoming a teacher, bringing on other girls. She loved her dancing.'

As she spoke she saw less and less of the road ahead, more and more of those wooden platforms where Eilidh had danced: rainy days when they wore wellingtons and carried the pumps, waiting anxiously to see if the sky would clear; windy days when the music carried across the field, thinner and thinner; sunny, perfect days when they drove home afterwards, tired out, nursing another medal.

'And then, I don't know, I suppose she just started to grow out of it. Changed, cut her hair, wore different clothes. Those awful black boots. Started going out with boys.' She sighed, and skirted the Tore roundabout, cutting in front of a white pick-up truck whose driver flashed his lights at her, angrily.

'Not that I minded that,' she went on, gathering speed again, leaving the white truck a long way behind. 'They all grow up. I was sorry she lost interest in the dancing though. Ian and I talked and talked about how to deal with that.' She sighed again. 'Adolescence. Oh well. We thought she might come back to it, in time. But she had a lot of school work, and her exams were more important, really.' She thought about this for a moment as they soared up the hill, the sky clearing again, blue spreading in front of them, the sun dazzling. 'Only, she wasn't all that interested in school either. Just going out.'

As they came over the brow of the hill she stopped speaking, and let silence swell around them again. Then the boy beside her exclaimed softly, not at anything she'd said, but at the valley spread out below them: Ben Wyvis rising in front, purple and dark; the fields beneath lit gold and green, and to the right Dingwall, and the shining water of the Cromarty Firth. Always till this summer, coming over the hill, entering this familiar place, her heart had lifted. Home, she'd thought, I'm home. Now the landscape too was mixed with pain, spoiled. She still came home, and so did Ian and the boys, but home did not mean the same thing.

'It's beautiful, isn't it?' she said, polite and distant, wondering what on earth she'd been saying to this silent boy.
'Schon. Yes, beautiful.' His sunburned hands gripped more tightly the little box on his lap.

They came down the hill slowly, unable to pass a tractor and trailer because of a long line of traffic rising towards them. They seemed to glide, and the silence was different. She did not want so desperately to fill it.

'You daughter,' the boy asked. 'She no longer dances?'
'No,' she answered. 'My daughter has left home.' He was a stranger; she could not say the thing that mattered, but the words were so loud in her head she felt he must somehow be aware of them anyway. We do not know where she is.

She negotiated the Maryburgh roundabout sedately, and they drove the last mile to Dingwall in a sudden squall of rain.
'The weather,' she boy said with a laugh. 'It changes here.'
'Yes,' Shona agreed, 'that's the word; changeable.'
She drew into the service station just before the town centre. 'I'll let you off here. I hope you enjoy the rest of your holiday.'
He turned to her, and she saw for the first time how young and fresh his face was, full of anticipation.
'I come to see a girl,' he said. 'In Invergordon. She writes to me; we meet on holiday in the winter. Skiing.' Shona smiled back at him.
'How romantic.'

She saw, as her own fog of pain lifted like one of the clouds the sun was tearing through, lighting up the world again, that he had his own story. It was this had filled his mind, as he drove north in strangers' cars.
'I bring her a gift,' he went on. 'Many gifts, but this one from Inverness.' He opened the carrier bag and took out a musical box. It was covered in red velvet, with tartan ribbon sewn into the fabric.
'I'm sure she'll love it,' Shona said, not sure at all, but wanting to be kind, as he'd been kind to her, listening in his calm silence.
He opened the lid. 'Your daughter,' he asked. 'She danced like this?'

The music began, tinny and sweet: Ye banks and braes. Sentimental, melancholy, it tinkled through the familiar tune. And slowly, pivoting on one leg, the other held high, the foot against her knee, a little china dancer revolved, her scrap of tartan kilt spread out, her face complacent and proud. Shona watched her for a moment, the tiny dancer, and for the first time since Eilidh had left them, and gone into her own silence, she was able to picture her daughter clearly, dressed in tartan, buoyant and quick-stepping.

'Yes,' she said, 'just like that.'

Moira Forsyth's poems:

Crofter; Wester Ross

The Cattle

Her family came from St Kilda,
among the last to leave.
Now she crofts in Wester Ross
on the rim of Lochalsh;
a wild place, open and bare.

Too bare for her cattle
that go their holidays all winter.
Forres is hardly southern climes
but there's grass in February
and the vet only minutes away.

Nothing like that here.
She once cradled the head
of a cow hoof-torn, bleeding
from its newborn calf
stayed with it three long hours
till the vet came at last and too late.
I could have strung him up! Three hours;
and him only as far as Dingwall.

In Spring, she brings her beasts home
glad to see them, their comical dismay
when tumbling off the trailer, they find
they've been returned from Morayshire green
to this bleak land, all heather and hill.

But in Summer they kick up their hooves
and make for the high ground
off, she says, eight weeks or more
seeking out shielings for shelter.
Then when they come down;
oh, how they smell sweet,
of pine, and alpine flowers.

The New Calf

The motherless calf was spoiled, a pet.
Sure of a welcome, it trotted into the house
expecting company, and food.
All right when it was young and slender
but later, after it had gone to mart
she laughed to think of it full-grown
wedged in the open door
still trying to come in.

Fresher's Week

You were my charmer, my jewel, my blue-eyed boy
my sprawl across the sofa, easy-talking, TV watcher
my clang of the gate, lift of the heart
my grass mower, cat feeder, coal heaver
comforter.

You are an email address, a tidy house, a silent screen
somewhere else you stay out late, wake hungover, lie in
pizza sharing, rugby playing, music beating
without regret, a single look back
grown up.

12th October, 1999

A donkey's cleverer than any horse.

The barn cat sleeps on the donkey's back
wakes and stretches, digs in her claws
and the donkey, blissful, nudges her
up a bit, left a bit
in the ecstasy of a good scratch.

The Nanny Goat

One day when the postie, flinging a parcel
in the unlocked door, left it ajar,
she came home to find the nanny goat
sprawled by the Rayburn
and not too pleased to see her.

She'd had a good look round
sampled the pot plants on the landing
left a trail of soil on the stairs
and eaten a loaf from the bread bin.
You could tell she thought she'd moved in.

Moira Forsyth
25th February, 2001

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