Monday, January 16, 2017

The City of Stationers

(While I was in Brno on a reading tour of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland back in 2014, I passed my time in the evenings writing the opening of a story called 'The City of Stationers'. Then, as is my wont, I forgot all about it. Or rather, on the trip itself, I was distracted by visiting Wrocław (Breslau) into digging out the works of Marek Krajewski, and his marvellously perverse detective, Eberhard Mock, and so read and read, but wrote no more.

I looked at the draft again about a year later, and puzzled about whether I had or had not done a scene I half-remember writing about secret message being passed in a fruit and vegetable market, then put it away again.

Until a conversation on Twitter about another 'lost' manuscript, this time a genuinely misplaced, hand-written novella called Virtual Sideboard, written late at night while drinking cheap three year old whisky on a package holiday to Lanzarote while my wife and infant daughter slept the sleep of the sun-wearied holidaymaker next door. (Ah, the glamour!) 

This piece, a most likely dreadful series of recursive riffs about the contents of my grandmother's old sideboard as the springboard for memories and fantasies, struck me and me alone as being inspired - if only in the sense of being a pale imitation of - the works of Bruno Schulz. But when a fellow Tweeter remarked on the Schulz-like nature of the ongoing conversation, I was suddenly reminded instead of 'The City of Stationers'.

Of course, when I looked up Schulz's hometown of Drohobycz (Drohobyczka on Google Maps), I found it further from Łodz than I'd imagined, and nearer to Košice, which I'd visited by rail with a splendid retired actress on the Slovakian stretch of the tour, both of us speaking in garbled French for want of a common tongue as we reclined in the dining car, drank wine, and watched the occasional lake sweep past.

And so the City re-presented itself, neither Moravia nor Silesia, and certainly not Bohemia, but somehow invested with their narrow streets and sudden spires and tightly coiling rivers, as though it could somehow lead to the Street of Crocodiles, as though one could climb into the dusty neglected old sideboard in the asbestos-ridden garage by my mother's house, remove a panel at the back, and unfold oneself painfully into its stationery-obsessed streets, reproduced below. Perhaps I'll post another section next week...

- And so, I must add, while I was rummaging through my blogs to post it here, I happened upon an untitled piece from Dec 2010 which happened to be about Schulz and which I had not lost, just completely forgotten having written, and so link to here.)

It was then that I arrived in a city where the only shops were stationers. These were all narrow-entranced little spaces, invariably stone-arched, with a complex iconography of disproportionately large grotesque heads and pine cones.

Their signs were painted onto curved enamelled metal in a language thick with diacritics but stingy with vowels. The windows often had blinds half rolled down or were hung with thick layers of old orange plastic in an attempt to protect the products laid out on display.

Staplers and geometry sets were popular, with various types of exercise book, usually soberly numbered according to a gradated scale for lineation and weight of paper, but now and then with a gaudy spread of children's cartoon characters - though not from the usual stables of recent movies or famous studios. These were unknown figures that nonetheless sparked some vague recognition.

Pencil sharpeners featured strongly - metal, wall-attached, electric, or more adventurously shaped plastic examples: disguised as golf balls, cigarette lighters, cars (usually vintage); or presented as the mouths or anuses of what were presumably figures from politics, showbusiness, sport (all of these were also unfamiliar, but possessed of that same aura of recognisability: you knew the type).

Bottles of ink of various grades and colours were stacked in pyramids or stood proudly on sheets of paper (often printed on the premises), extolling their virtues - such density, such lustre; so quick to dry, so permanent! Various anthropomorphised cephalopods, themselves executed in swift strokes, or set in impressionistic, billowing clouds, queued to endorse their favourite brands with that interest cows seem to take in cheese and butter, according to the ad-men.

Giant nibs rotated slowly; glowing cases of fountain pens, their inner dynamics revealed by cross section like the anatomies of fossil, somehow chitinous fish, commanded the eye.

Inside, you knew, would be the tiered rows of pencils, graded by the darkness of their graphite, and smelling of the woodwork class; the full range of ballpoint pens, ranked by colour and thickness of stroke - though not produced by the company elsewhere famed for their invention.

Rainbows of felt-tips, watercolour pillules, brushes in their hoggish and equine herds, oil paint tubes; paper of all thicknesses and sizes from the kite tail flourishes of origami squares to the deckle-edged sails of what felt like unevenly bleached rhinocerous hide; rulers and slide rules, wooden, transparent and opaque as femurs; sporadically, as if reluctantly, calculators and their batteries; compasses like wingless insects.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Midge Drapes

(The seismic results of the 2015 General Election remind me that the concept of a Virtual Scotland - a nation that exists primarily in the imagination - is as much with us now as in the 90s when I first conceived of a book of intermingled short stories and prose pieces. For me, the evanescent, unhamely nature of that Scotland not only infuses this short short, but, perhaps, the neglected slumbering nature of this blog itself. Scottish Informationism is, perhaps, the ism that got away. Here I think it's operating if only in the sense that this piece borrows a discourse from journalism - the lifestyle piece - in order to interrogate/poke fun at both it and a subject matter normally thought of as inappropriate to it.)
Midge Drapes
I was bought my first set of midge drapes by an enthusiastic climber friend who explained, “It’s just like being on the islands but with none of the inconvenience.” Fired by his enthusiasm I hung them in my bedroom and lay down to admire the effect. Each curtain consists of thousands of thin strands with innumerable small carcasses of Scotland’s most feared insect attached to them by glue. Apparently lengths of this gummy thread were dragged behind vans moving slowly across the Isle of Skye. More than six hundred thousand midges, the packaging assured me, had gone into the six foot curtains I was now contemplating.

My windows were open, and the impression was of a shimmering semi-solid mass of insects grouped just inside the room. I found this a little alarming at first, but soon had to concede the drapes gave off a soothing, meditative ambience. At least, this was the case while the lights were on. When I retired that night I left the windows open as the manufacturers claimed midge drapes prevented other insects from entering, while allowing a cool flow of air. The night was warm, and I soon dropped off to sleep.

I woke up abruptly at about two with an overwhelming sensation that the room was full of insects, and snapped the bedside lamp on in a panic. All seemed well. The drapes swung coolly in the window, no mosquitos were visible on the walls. I switched the light out and closed my eyes. Instantly the sensation returned, and it seemed a great swarm of midges was hovering over the bed.

I put the light on again and got up, fetching my dressing gown from the back of the door and getting a pocket torch from my desk. Then I pulled a chair over to the window, put out my light, and went and sat down. This time it seemed as though the cloud surrounded the chair, but when I flashed the torch on the drapes everything seemed intact. I put it out, but was so overwhelmed by fear I had to go and put the light on. I passed the night sitting up in bed with the light on, and experienced no further attacks.

Several conclusions came to me in the course of the night, and when I packed up the drapes in the morning to return to the manufacturers, I included a brief note:

“Either your midges are not as dead as they seem, and are capable of extraordinary acts of light-activated coordination, or these drapes are in fact haunted by the tiny spirits of six hundred thousand midges. In either case I would like my money back.”

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Zombie Smokie (Self-Delivering)

Scientists at Aberbrotherick U have invented the self-delivering Zombie Smokie! 

 'Simply by injecting the fish with this deadly virus we found at the back of the lab larder (or 'labrador', as we also call him), then smoking them, we found that this delicious traditional Scottish fare retained enough consciousness to be able to swim.

(An undead fish, yesterday)

‘Hacking into government databases for customer info meant we could simply write someone's address on the side of the fish with our Crackerjack pencils, pop the Zombie Smokie back into the foaming wave, and hey Tesco! It would turn up at the required location, ready to eat or be eaten!' said crazed Broughty Ferry boffin, Professor Stewart Granolithic.

'We have at present no concerns that the Zombie Smokies will form into shuffling undead shoals, bite all the other fish in the sea (of which, sad sacks, we can assure you there are plenty), causing an apocalyptic sea-to-land invasion thing like in that episode of Dr Who. 

 ‘But we are scientists, so we're always prepared to consider new evidence as it develops mutant legs, strides out of the North Sea, and simply fastens its slavering jaws upon our fragile egg-like skulls.'

Friday, March 16, 2012

Corby Slap

A form of endearment confined to Kirkcudbright and its hinterland. First, a crow must be obtained, usually by netting, but occasionally by determined lovers crawling out on roofs and snatching the birds by their feet from crawstep gables.

Then the object of their affections is approached with the struggling crow concealed as efficiently as possible in a bag or beneath a long coat. Finally the 'corby slap' is administered: a blow to the head at the climax of which the irate bird is released in a single smooth motion.

This practice has been illegal for more than fifty years, but partially-sighted sweethearts, fondly stroking each other’s facial scars, can still be found tapping their way through Kirkcudbright’s streets and lanes.

(Note: Corby Slap is the name of a small lane off the High Street in Kirkcudbright.)

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Neurotic Stick

(Here's one of the 'Wee Man' stories I wrote about 20 years ago and forgot about. The resurrection of this one is occasioned by this report in The Guardian about talking benches.)

The wee man felt somewhat baffled by beauty. Not by his own good looks or lack of them, but because of something he had incidentally observed. It seemed to him that the expression on the faces of beautiful people was no happier than that upon the faces of less attractive folk. Exacerbating this perception was the fact that he had no idea what expression played across his own face. This was due to an unusual accident in his childhood.

He had been taken by an aunt to a variety show during the course of which he, along with several other children, had been hypnotised by a conjurer. Some of the children found themselves impersonating chickens when the conjuror said a certain word, others found certain vegetables to be too hot to touch. He had found himself unable to see his own reflection in a mirror. A sudden disturbance caused by a boy pecking out the conjuror’s left eye meant that some children were never deprogrammed. Of course the adults who had taken them to the show in the first place did not believe in hypnosis, and so these traits were allowed to remain.

So it was he had no idea how attractive or ugly he was.

This gave him an unusual perspective on people’s beauty problems. He was therefore able to discover the First Principle of General Beauty. This is when people conform absolutely to a social ideal, so they come to resemble marble covered in skin, or bones with magazine covers stretched across them. Such people were often thought dumb or heartless, but, he discovered, it was merely that they felt lost in a meaningless sink of beauty, in the great approximation to a standard. It was not that they failed to reach an ideal, but that, having reached it, they recoiled, baffled by simplicity.

His intuition that such people were as miserable as those who had failed in some detail to be beautiful, led him on to formulate the Second Principle of General Beauty. This was basically the revelation that the language of beauty has not been deciphered. It is possible to talk about beauty, but you cannot be sure of anything you say in it. Those who looked on a beautiful face as a sentence composed of eyebrows and lips were bound to be deluded. They were like those children who were forever doomed to impersonate a chicken on the pronunciation of one innocent word.

When he saw the intolerable suffering on the faces he passed in the street, the wee man resolved to do something to help humanity. Both men and women, he reasoned, were rendered powerless by their own appearance, and many of their difficulties seemed compounded by looking at members of the opposite sex. He remembered the fairy tale of Snow White and the mirror which spoke to the Evil Queen. Because of his own post-hypnotic problem, he was only able to conceive of the mirror as a piece of talking wood. Nonetheless, he found the notion of a therapeutic explicator, a kind of translator from Beautyese into normal speech, to be immensely helpful.

He began experimenting with tape recorders cunningly embedded in pieces of wood. These would be activated by pressure on their handles, and would then inform the person who had picked them up about the two principles of general beauty. However, because he had not understood the purpose of a mirror, he found that few if any individuals actually picked these devices up. He took to leaving them in public places, leaning against park benches and jutting from restaurant tables.

This brought him marginal success, but, again because of his failure to understand the nature of mirrors, he found people complained about the apparent irrelevance of messages thus received. Park attendants and waiters, though naturally concerned with questions of personal beauty, did not find they had much time to consider the issues raised by the pieces of wood during a normal working day.

He realised that the intellectual gap between seeing a piece of wood and thinking about beauty was too large. Obviously the principle behind the fairy tale would have to be updated for the modern sensibility. It was at this point that he conceived of the neurotic stick.

Theorizing that people might prefer to empathize with the piece of wood for its own sake, rather than be lectured to, he tried giving the stick a short monologue of complaints about its own personal beauty. Then he stood it in its own space, like a tree or lamppost. The voice was activated by pressure pads beneath the surrounding paving stones. Soon large groups of people could be found clustered around his sticks, listening sympathetically to their complaints about being too long, too thin, about having a coarse grain or too dark a varnish.

These neurotic sticks became so popular that the wee man devised a hand held version, based on his original design. People simply held on to it when they felt any anxiety about their appearance; tapes could be personalised to suit the individual’s particular beauty problems (translated, of course, into the stick’s terms). Within five years the concept of the neurotic stick had become such a commonplace that he was able to dispense with the tapes: people had begun to identify with their own sticks.

Paradoxically, this brought about an enormous focus on the appearance of the sticks themselves, which became the subject of an aesthetic cult, complete with magazines announcing seasonal choices and articles from tree surgeons about rare timbers. People’s attitudes towards their own appearances became lackadaisical, whilst aspects of traditional festivals like the Maypole, the Yule log, and, most importantly, the Christmas tree, took on an entirely new significance. Christians became obsessed with obtaining sticks fashioned from the Original Cross, and the use of wood for anything but neurotic sticks was frowned upon. Extremists would descend upon items of furniture, tear them limb from limb, then declare them “liberated”.

The printed word became an endangered concept.

All of these developments deeply saddened the wee man, who had hoped to free people from their sufferings. Now it looked as though as though large proportions of poor people might be dehoused in the massive reforestation programmes set up by private industries producing pirate sticks. It was at this point he remembered the conjuror’s trick from his childhood.

He began to secretly reintroduce tapes into his neurotic sticks. Instead of discussing anxieties these tapes broadcast subliminal messages about temperature, along the lines of “I’m such a hot tomato!” or “I’m a courgette that will burn your fingers!” He hoped this would cause people to drop the sticks, like the poor children who were still afraid of certain vegetables. But he had made one miscalculation.

People by now so identified with their neurotic sticks that they received these statements as messages about their personal identities. At the same time their image of themselves had so atrophied that they no longer knew whether they were beautiful or not, they just accepted the word of their sticks. So these announcements, because they contained a level of innuendo of which the wee man had been entirely unaware, in fact led to a massive increase in sexual behaviour of all kinds. The streets were filled with drab gray couplings and the apparently excited mutterings of countless neurotic sticks.

At this point the massive risk of disease finally caused governments to act. The wee man was hauled before commission after commission, and put on trial for his invention. The neurotic sticks were banned, which gave black marketeers total control of the industry, and the wee man was declared criminally insane and imprisoned. He ended up in a cell with an older man who had one eye and who seemed strangely familiar. This man, who had been imprisoned for many years and couldn’t understand all this fuss about pieces of wood, found the wee man so attractive that he fell deeply in love with him.

The wee man felt that there was some small detail he had overlooked in his life that if he could just recapture he would be able to solve the mess he had gotten everyone into. His admirer suggested he allowed himself to be hypnotised, to see if such a detail could be recovered. Whilst he was in a trance the incident of the botched hypnotism came out and the conjurer (for it was he) was able to finish his ancient act.

The wee man was now able to contemplate his image in the mirror for the first time with a sense that it related to himself. He found the experience intensely disturbing. His features seemed average, neither conventionally beautiful, nor conventionally ugly. But whilst he had never had any sensation of expression whatever, and had therefore supposed his face to be immobile, he found that it was actually extremely fluid, registering every nuance of emotion with painful intensity. He felt naked and ashamed. It was (he thought) only too clear why the judges had found him insane.

As he stared into the mirror, aghast, his companion gave him a supportive hug, and instantly the Third Principle of General Beauty came to him. This is the message that he smuggled out to his supporters in the forests, the message inserted into thousands of neurotic sticks, and infiltrated through the hundreds of thousands of illegal sticks. This is the message that finally brought nations to their senses, and made people everywhere look on the world around them with new vision and new hope, as though awakened from an ugly nightmare by a single phrase.

Recently there have been detractors who have claimed that the subterfuge necessary to get the message out resulted in it being accidentally edited. These sceptics claim that the Third Principle is actually nothing more than an old cliché. But until the wee man and his companion are released, the world will continue to engrave this message on its neurotic stick and in its heart:


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Kong of the Picts

(Another story from Virtual Scotland: just as 'Horse Island' should have concluded the collection, this somewhat lewd fable was intended as its opening piece.)

Insemination had been spectacular enough: Fay McWray bobbing on an unending spurt of giant gorilla semen like a ball at a fair, clutching her outflung ankles and screaming “WHEEEE!”

But pregnancy was the real nightmare; Fay literally ballooned, her belly expanding to a pink sphere twenty feet in circumference, her head and limbs dangling from it like the fingers of a rubber glove. She was only comfortable floating in the Tay, and a great plastic sac had to be created to contain her, so that the water could be heated. Meanwhile Kong amused himself hopping from multistory to multistory and squatting on the Law Hill, playing with bits of broken jets. (He’d been more sensible this time round, stomping on Leuchars before he arrived in Dundee, taking the RAF totally by surprise. The government had been sensible too, treating the whole incident as a money-saving exercise.)

When Fay’s breasts suddenly started growing too, rivalling her enormous belly, teams of divers had to be organised, to keep her now submerged head supplied with oxygen and sandwiches. She had a terrible craving for grilled banana and gouda cheese.

Delivery was a logistical nightmare, as it was by this time impossible to move her. Ultrasound had established there were at least forty children to be accounted for, and as the birth took place at night, the scene was a chaos of small boats equipped with searchlights and midwives in wetsuits. “Eh felt like the wreck o the bloody Braer,” as Fay commented later.

When her waters broke, so too did the protective sac, and the river level rose by six inches, slapping the Discovery Quay with a false tide that was greeted by a crowd of well-wishers with cheers and applause. By this time Kong, having imbibed freely in most of Dundee’s pubs, lay on his back, filling the Murraygate, while teams of male friends scrambled up ladders to empty can after can of export down his gaping throat.

“Eh wis that pished Eh trehd tae pit oan twa buses fur the Ferry, thinkin they werr meh baffies,” as he bemoaned the following afternoon (after a year in Dundee, his command of his first language was impeccable).

When the babies started appearing no-one quite knew what was happening; suddenly the waves were full of seals and black shapes like large dogfish sacs. It transpired the seals were catching the birth-pouches as they appeared, and nudging them towards the nearest boats. Fifty one in all were recovered by this method, but reports were received by Broughty Ferry police that crying voices had been heard floating past the Castle Rock. “Ye canna mak an omelette withoot braakin eggs, as ma mammy yaised tae sey,” Fay commented stoically. Kong had to be restrained from attempting to dredge the Firth after drunkenly putting a foot through the Earl Grey Hotel.

By the time the birth-pouches were brought ashore the rubbery material had already started to split at the restless kickings and scratchings of its contents, and doctors quickly removed the babies from their purse-like prisons. There were thirty two males and nineteen females. The children were humanoid, if slightly large, and the only abnormality appeared to be that they already had a full head of curling blue-black hair and, in the case of the boys, the beginnings of a stubble. Their eyes were extremely large, and a pale watery blue: “Jist like thir da!” exclaimed the proud mother, after being hoisted from the water.

In the next few months all was busy industry, as Kong set about repairing the various buildings damaged or obliterated by his sozzled perambulations. “See if Eh’d been wan o you wee fellas,” he commented philosophically, “Eh’d be makin thae model boats and sailin them oan the Swannie Ponds wi the best o ye!” Fay’s body began the extraordinary process of reabsorbing the extra lengths of skin generated by her pregnancy. Her breasts remained something of a burden, and together with her offspring she took up two wards at the DRI.

“But,” as she triumphantly announced, “Eh fed every wan o thae bairns wi ma ain twa breists: Eh felt like Christ wi the fehv thoosand, ken, him wi a pan loaf and a tin o pilchards.”

The children themselves grew at an incredible rate, as befitted the gene carriers of the mighty Kong. After six months they had gained the size and appearance of adolescents. As their first birthday approached they were complete, if speechless, adults. Their average height was seven feet, and it had become apparent that their eyes were twice the normal human size, with a corresponding variation in the proportions of their skulls. This made them especially sensitive to light. “Cost us a bloody fortune in designer sunglessis,” Fay complained, not without a touch of pride. The oversized sunglasses became, briefly, a fashion item amongst Dundee youth.

From an early age the children of Fay and Kong displayed a remarkable capacity for creativity: plasticene was seized upon, paints and pencils eagerly manipulated, and their manual dexterity more than made up for their continued silence. “See, they’re tellin me and thir daddy things wi thir haunds that ye widnae expect a bairn tae be able tae sey wi its mooth,” Fay said, staunchly defending her offspring as the psychiatrists’ diagnosis of autism became more and more likely.

It was from about this time, as school age approached, and it seemed increasingly unlikely that the McWray children would fit in, that public opinion began to turn against Fay and Kong.

“See when they’re aa oot waulkin through the toon in a big lang line,” said one woman, who declined to be named, “Eh dinna ken whaur tae pit masel. Thae bairns arena natural, starin at aabody wi een the sehz o ashets.”

“It is an affront to Christian families everywhere,” commented a minister anonymously, “that this couple should continue to get state support, even whilst flaunting their marriageless condition. Not that a gorilla can get married in the Church of Scotland anyway,” he added, off the record. “Especially if he can’t get through the bluidy door.”

The police received complaints from mothers fearing for their infants’ safety, and it could not be denied that the fifty one children were an intimidating sight; all with waist-length curling black hair and massive black shades, the boys bearded and almost Hassidic, and everyone clad in dark blue jellabas donated by a childless Arab emir.

Not even the discovery of their exceptional facility as sculptors improved the light in which the McWray children were viewed. Kong had apprenticed the boys to a monumental sculptor in a desperate attempt to make ends meet. (A earlier plan to enrol the girls as nurses, in honour of the support given to the family by Dundee’s hospitals, had ended in ignominious failure when they refused to perform the simplest tasks of cleaning or cooking.) Unable to inscribe lettering, the boys had instead produced a phantasmagoria of animal and symbolic imagery which threatened to dissolve the stone beneath their chisels. When reunited with their sisters this frenzy ordered itself under the girls’ mute directives into a repetitive series of motifs that had both archaeologists and art critics reeling in disbelief.

“While it is impossible to establish a direct route of influence,” commented Dr Granolithic of Dundee University, “there is a strong link between the McWray Family’s work and that of Pictish stonemasons from the eighth and ninth centuries.”

Collectors gathered the ceaseless outpourings from the studio of the mystified but gratified monumental sculptor, who later made a lucrative career for himself producing copies of his erstwhile apprentices’ work. Kong and Fay’s financial security was assured. But, if anything, this new-found wealth only heightened the tension between them and the ordinary community.

“Eh’ve hud shite through meh letter box, ma waashin stole, and fowk huv pennted “Picts Out” oan ma waas,” Fay said tearfully. “Eh’m at the end o ma bluidy tether.”

“If Eh catch them Eh’m goanae pit them atween the crack o meh erse and squeeze,” growled Kong, in what his lawyer attempted to dismiss as a stress-related outburst.

But when a perfectly-flattened fifty one year old man with a aerosol in the remains of his pocket was found not a hundred yards from Fay’s block of flats the idyll was over. Kong was arrested and held in Dens Park, whilst Fay and the children vanished to relatives “up north”.

Blood samples recovered from the sole of Kong’s foot matched that of the two-dimensional victim, and, separated from his loved ones, the giant gorilla broke down and confessed, asking for eighty seven incidents of wilful damage to jet fighters to be taken into consideration. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on a small island in the Pacific already playing host to the notorious serial Tokyo-crusher and dinosaur impersonator, Godzilla.

Fay and her now six year old brood had quite literally disappeared from the public eye. The art market demanded yet more McWray Family sculptures, and agents and dealers descended on Scotland in droves, but were unable to uncover the least trace. Relatives maintained a wall of silence almost as formidable as that of the children themselves, and the commotion gradually died down.

Fay aged gracefully in a tiny port on the North-East coast. Her breasts, once the size of pilot whales, now had to be rolled and contained within an ingenious bra devised for her by Kong, far away on Monster Island. The children, still mute, confined themselves to reworking the sandstone cliffs and caves around their safe haven. The locals accepted them with a disdain for the world’s opinions entirely typical of the area, and a number of marriages were consummated, wordlessly and underagedly on one side at least. Fay’s grandchildren, to her immense relief, could speak. “When I hear them yammerin awa in thir mammies’ airms, Eh think Eh’m hearin aa the words Eh waanted ma ain bairns tae sey,” she confided to relatives. Then came the news of Kong’s escape, and, such was the focus of media attention that Fay’s location was soon discovered.

Confined to their homes while news-teams and arts programme-makers swarmed the streets and cliffs of their small town, the McWray family stolidly endured the ceaseless media speculation. Where was Kong? Would he come for his lover and their children, now a considerable tribe of over a hundred souls? The navy patrolled the entire coastline nervously. Fay was photographed again and again, seated at the window of her small shorefront cottage, staring wordlessly out to sea, ignoring the window-tapping of the journalists, and their endless questions, mouthed or scribbled in felt pen on sheets of paper and held up to the glass.

Then, one morning, shortly after dawn (she had not slept in her bed for weeks) she saw the longed-for, fondly-remembered sight. Breaching the chill waters of the bay like a great hump-back whale, Kong’s erect penis jutted abruptly from the waves and hung there for a moment, signalling to her in their old secret code. Grey-haired as she was, she rose like a young girl, her shawl falling from her shoulders as she left the house, unbuttoning her blouse and stepping out of her old tweed skirt, rolling off her pantihose on the shingle as the film-crews slept on in the cosy if over-crowded guest houses and hotel. Wading out towards the point where Kong’s member had appeared, she undid her bra and let her breasts unfold, trailing behind her in the swell as the enormous penis broke the surface once more, showering her in droplets of foam.
Onshore, behind the windows of their quiet houses, the offspring of the giant ape and the woman, together with their wives and husbands and children, watched as Fay McWray clambered back onto the genital organ of her beloved and, employing a lazy backstroke, their father swam out of sight.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Virtual Scotland: a vigorous sample

Virtual Scotland was, at one point, a book of linked short stories. It went round a few publishers in the 90s who all explained short stories were all very well, but I needed to write a novel instead. I suppose they didn't think they (the short stories) really were all that very well, but nonetheless a few got published elsewhere, including 'Horse Island' -- where, even I don't remember.

Horse Island

When I crossed the small strip of causeway separating Horse Island from the rest of Scotland, I had a fleeting sense of leaving not just one country but one dimension, and entering another. The sun gleamed on the cobbles as though they were metallic, the sky boomed blueness, shattering the small clouds that clung to its corners. I felt light-headed, as though on a mountain-top rather than -- literally -- at sea level. It would not be long before the tide would sweep back into the narrow channel, and water had already begun to shine between the stones.

Upon arrival in the village I was examined by the Doctor and the Magistrate. Notes were taken as to my occupation, date of birth, height, weight and the colour of my eyes; all the usual passport stuff. Then the samples were taken. Small squares were cut from each item of clothing and gummed to my form. Snippets of hair, blood and urine samples, even some excrement (I had been advised by the tourist board in Ullapool not to “go” before I went, as it were). Most of these items were placed in little cubic compartments in a plastic tray that was then frozen. I had to politely but insistently refuse the Doctor’s requests for “a wee drappie sperm”. She pursed her lips at this and made a note I couldn’t read.

I then signed a document which stated in English, Scots, Gaelic and Neo-Latin, that any drawn, painted or photographed images, cuttings of plants, clippings of the local paper or any literary work found on Horse Island, as well as any writings I might do, should all be listed on my departure. If at all possible copies should be deposited with the Chief Archivist. When this was done I was introduced to the Assistant Archivist, a Dr Tully, who issued me with a camera and some black and white film, and two notebooks, one blank and one ruled (narrow feint). I signed for all of these and thanked him, whereupon he bared his rather sallow teeth (he was one of those gentlemen who have triangles rather than rings beneath his eyes), and presented me with a card.

“The shop belongs to my brither-in-law. Ony pencils, pens, paints or ink, ye can buy them there.”

The Magistrate now presented a card of his own, advertising another shop where I could purchase or hire tape-recorders and camcorders, if I so wished. He did not specify his relation to the owner of this establishment, and I was so bamboozled by details by this point, I considered this a kindness. He then introduced me to the Town Geographer, a perky round man who looked as if he spent a great deal of time outdoors with a shooting stick and a flask of malt. He briskly issued me with a thorough guide to both village and island, with historical and literary sections as well as maps. The Magistrate now pressed a small card into my hand. It had my name and home address on it, as well as a picture of me crossing the causeway (which I had not been aware had been taken). In it I was squinting a little against the light, and concentrating on my steps. There was also an incomprehensible computer coding symbol.
Then, finally, I was introduced to the Town Photographer, who I cannot describe, as he did not remove his head from the black cloth hanging from the back of his upright camera, merely extending a burnt-looking hand for me to shake. I was then photographed an extraordinary number of times: straight passport, then casual, then as the photographer imagined me (as Napoleon, for some reason), then with the Doctor examining my genitals (I thought at the time that this might have been revenge for refusing the semen sample), then with the Magistrate apparently condemning me to death, then shaking hands with the Assistant Archivist, shaking hands with the Town Geographer and, at last, a group shot on the steps of the Incomers Building.
I stepped down onto the main street of the village (indeed its only street) in a complete daze. Perceiving my distress, the Magistrate took my arm, saying “Come on, I’ll tak ye to the Hotel. Ye’ll need a wee drink after aa that.”

It still seemed to be daylight, though it had been late afternoon when I arrived. I was unable to focus much on my surroundings, as the paving-stones and the walls of the houses all glittered intensely in the late light. I couldn’t tell if this was some quality of the stone, or my own slightly dazzled state of mind.

“Mind yir caird,” the Magistrate went on. “It’ll see ye into the Archive and into the Restaurant. The Sergeant will accept it as confirmin yir identity and oor local Madame will tak it as guaranteeing yir guid health and freedom from infection.”

Had I heard that right? He was staring straight into the distance as he spoke, as though addressing the horizon.

“Ye cannae imagine how that’s simplified oor bureaucratic system, jist having the one caird. Ye can even use it to hire bools or gowf clubs. Dye play chess at all?”
“Not really...that is, I used to prefer backgammon.”

“Ah well, we’re lucky to have a very good backgammon club here on the Island. Not that I play it masel, but the Doctor’s very keen. That’s the medical Doctor, ye understand, whom ye’ve aaready met. I’ll sometimes play her a bit, but I’m no a bettin man, and she’s jist...well, jist a wee bit ruthless with the bettin.”

As he finished we arrived at the door to the Hotel, a rather grand Victorian structure which towered a floor above the houses around it. I suggested he joined me for a drink, but he smiled no, and strode off down the street at twice the pace I’d been able to maintain. He seemed the most active man imaginable, apart from the Doctor and the Town Geographer, who had both given off this manic sense of energy. And yet he was clearly old, if not venerable, in his deeply-creased pepper-and-salt trousers and dusty frock coat.

I realised I was grinning involuntarily as I watched him pause abruptly, tilt his grey head at something on the ground (exactly like a hen), then nimbly bend down to snatch it up. He stuffed this objet trouvé, whatever it was, into a weskit pocket without looking at it, and carried on briskly. I shrugged and stepped into the Hotel.


It was the exceptional purity of the malt (the Island’s own) that had stopped me fully taking in my surroundings. I didn’t have a particularly discriminating palate, but I could tell this was something neither from the great islands to the south, nor from Strathspey. It was almost a small sensation, mellow after the Irish model, though with none of that dangerous drooping toward sweet blandness, but then it just kept coming. The second sniff yielded more than the first, the second taste was bigger, broader. It was a dominy of malts; it taught you about itself as you took your third sip, and suggested, like all the best teachers, that beyond this beginning was more discrimination, and yet more vigorous detail. It was also, I realised, setting the glass down reluctantly, potent enough to cause instant blethering in the drinker. It was then that I first allowed myself to look around.

I had kept my head down as I registered, wary that another ritual of identification might begin, and hadn’t glanced about me on entering the bar. I didn’t want any ostracising glares from the regulars until I’d had a seat and a dram. Now I realised I was alone, alone, that is, apart from the art.

Every inch of wallpaper appeared to be covered by drawings and paintings in every conceivable medium; crayon, oil, watercolour, pencil, collage -- even a few peculiar-looking specimens which I guessed were made of juice rubbed from plants. My head started reeling again and I sacrificed the rest of my whisky in a good, stabilising slug: I had to come to terms with all this. The profusion of subjects was equally bewildering: there were views of what I presumed to be the other rooms, both full of people and emptied of them; there were views from all the rooms, in various weathers. There were views of the Hotel from different angles and at different times of year; there were views of the ramshackle inn which (I supposed) must have preceded the Hotel’s construction. I ordered another drink before continuing my mental catalogue, and enquired as to when dinner was served. The girl handed me a very bulky menu that would probably take a further drink to read through. Perhaps I could settle in to the intensity of life on the Island before cirrhosis got hold, but at this rate it would be a close thing.

Of course, the reason I had not felt alone in the bar was because it was full of portraits, both of regulars and hosts, stretching back across the generations. Family resemblances were noticeable across the walls; a certain pink-tinged idiot grin, the same extraordinary eyebrows, a dogged persistence in wearing a deerstalker rather too small for several heads (perhaps the same deerstalker?). The room was replete with a sensation of absent but imminent laughter, of conversation deferred but not done, of arguments and feuds still to be resolved. It was impossible to be lonely in such a bar; simply glancing around fitted you in. In fact there was one figure (I got up and peered closely at a faded interior) who looked rather like me, reading by a lamp in the middle of the last century. Were the others listening? Smiling again, I finished my drink and took the menu upstairs.

Ten minutes later, dumbfoundered and more than a little pissed, I ordered “whatever’s first on the list” down the telephone, and was brought a bowl of porridge by a giggling maid. She deposited a card with my tray, saying “It’s ma sister.” The card said:

Dr Eileen MacMorrow
Tourist Guide & Councillor
8, The Square,
Kinawe, Horse Island.

Clutching this small talisman in one hand, and my porridge spoon in the other (“supper” was delicious, by the way) I fell into a deep, comforted slumber.


“Maist people date the Tendency back tae the first Statistical Account and an unusually enthusiastic minister called McIlwraith, but ye should note that a bardic college was maintained on the site of Kinawe for mony hundreds of years afore that, and the poets of Gaelic Scotland were trained tae perform considerable mnemonic feats.”

“How absolutely fascinating, Dr MacMorrow.”

“Caa me Eileen, please! Anyway, be that as it may, Horse Island has certainly had mair than its fair share of lads -- and lasses -- of pairts, mony of whom went to the University in Glasgow.”

“But not the girls, surely, Eileen. You’re not suggesting that Scotland was a haven of equality in the nineteenth century!”

“Not at all. But Edinburgh’s first lady lawyer came frae Kinawe. And we had mony stalwarts amang the Scottish Suffragette movement. Blackwoods first remarked on us in 1819, suggesting that it was something tae dae wi the importation of exotic airs via the Gulf Stream Drift, that gave us a combination of “Scottish wit and Latin temperament”.”

I couldn’t have phrased it better; Dr Eileen MacMorrow was that perfect marriage of pale complexion and thick dark brows one sometimes finds among Italo-Scots. She had an energetic hairstyle (it seemed to be swept up in an otherwise impalpable breeze), a long powerful nose and high, rounded cheeks, and very brilliant, rather fierce blue eyes. Her mouth was brightly lipsticked in what seemed to me a continental manner. Sitting with her at this small café in the town’s central square was like clinging to the rail of a yacht being expertly thrown about a rough bay. I tossed back another espresso, noticed the Town Geographer crossing the park, and suppressed an impulse to yell “Ahoy!” Instead I knuckled down to what I saw as the task in hand; getting the good Doctor to steer me through the bewildering profusion of information on Horse Island.

I had already successfully negotiated the strange interior of the café under her careful tutelage. I was surprised at first to find a café with pavement tables so far north, but, thinking it was a nice day, I had sat down gratefully. “No, no,” she’d insisted, dragging me in to meet the owners.

“It’s awfy rude to treat people as though they are unimportant, simply because you’ve never met them.”

Once indoors we met the two old women who had run the café together for thirty eight years precisely: Jenny Baxter and Shona McCafferty. Jenny took our order, while Shona showed me round the exhibits. The café was divided into tall booths covered in red leather, and between the booths were large glass cases filled with ancient ice-cream making machines, beautiful Italian cappuccino machines, and a great deal of packaging from the early part of this century, of biscuits, chocolates, sweets, coffees and teas. There were samples of the different china the café had used at different periods, the two women’s extensive collection of butter dishes, each carefully labelled, and, their especial delight, doilies, napkins and tea towels of many nations.

They had apparently travelled widely, and the tea towel genre was very well represented. They had a tea towel map of Sarawak, a tea towel listing the principal nineteenth century poets of Argentina, with small samples of their verse, a tea towel depicting in blue and yellow the shellfish of Maine. They even had two tea towels displaying ground rice recipes in French from Africa. When Jenny had tugged my sleeve to indicate my breakfast was ready, I was in the midst of the terrible realisation that I found tea towels interesting. They were jaunty, colourful, useful for saucers and cups, and unfailingly informative. Hurrah (with suitable ironic reserve) for the tea towel!

I had noticed, as I sat down shakily in the sun’s first heat, that Eileen had been regarding me with a quirky smile in one corner of her mouth. She was watching me with the same smile now, and I realised I must have lapsed into a benign but vacuous silence after spotting the Town Geographer.

“Okay, let’s talk some more about the Tendency,” I said, as breezily as I could muster. “How does it operate? How does it, say, affect you personally? Is it itch for order, for tidiness?”

“Well, I wadna go as far as to say that the Tendency exists in precisely that way. It was a humorous term, you recollect, invented by rival students at the university. As such, it carries undertones of uncontrollability, almost of infection.”
“Yes I know, this is one of the things that interests me: is it catchable?” This was said, I must admit, with several undertones of my own, while peering as deeply into those startling eyes as I could.

“I think it wad be mair accurate to say it is attractive.”

Attractive? I had been so busy trying to present my “witty” subtext to the conversation, arching imaginary eyebrows and so on, I realised I had no idea of which level her response was intended on. Again, as with the Magistrate, I had a sense the people of Horse Island had simply dispensed with several layers of “normal” responses. “How do you mean?”

“Since the 1860s we have been defying the demographic statistics of the ither islands. People actually come here from the cities, rather than vice versa. Not in large numbers, of course, but the brilliant few are always welcome. So we are attractive, magnetic. The Magistrate was an incomer once, you know.”
“Really, but he looks as though he’s always been here.”

“Even the Chief Archivist came frae the mainland, though he’s the first wan to haud that post.”

“But you yourself, I hope, are Island born and bred.”

“I am indeed, though my faither was an Italian painter, fleeing Mussolini. Anywhere else in Scotland he would have had to give up his work and open a fish and chip shop.” She laughed gently at this. It was clearly an old family joke. I bunched my hands into my pockets, delighted: I had known she was an Italo-Scot!

“What does your father do on Horse Island, then?”

“Oh, he rins the fish and chip shop.” This time she burst into hoots of laughter, as I realised I’d fallen into the second half of their family joke. “But here...” she continued through snorts, “here he can paint as well.”


Eileen MacMorrow palmed me off on the Town Geographer effortlessly, for all my “witty” subtexts. I was clearly not the first holidaymaker to hope for more than instruction. This man, Kintail, seemed to spend his days orbiting the island in various wobbling ellipses, most of which included the two pubs and the distillery. Over the next few days we always seemed to be coming on the whitewashed walls and round houses of “The Sweat of the Mare” from new and surprising angles. One short chalky tower within the distillery compound was his indispensable landmark.

“Keep that ahent ye and ye’ll hit Kinawe. Keep it ahent ye the ither way, and ye canna miss Kinell.”

This piece of information, so simple on the surface, didn’t really stand up to further scrutiny, as I told him one lunchtime in “The Wicker Man”.

“Aye, well, the ither thing tae remember is the waater. Once ye’ve hit the waater ye’ll no be that far aff either place.”

It was on my fourth day that we struck the Island’s cemetery, or rather the combined cemetery and sculpture park. These two little towns of stone face each other across a valley, and had clearly been sited so that the rays of the setting sun struck the gravestones, while those of the rising sun hit what Kintail called “the merrystanes”.
Apart from this detail, it would have been hard to tell the two apart, as there was little exclusively sombre about one, or “merry” about the other. How people wished themselves to be remembered, it seemed, was indistinguishable from those forms in which they had celebrated life. Each featured a number of people dancing; whole stony reels, in which animals, birds, fish and more abstract shapes joined in. There were also blockish stones, with reliefs and copious lettering in a wide range of languages and calligraphies. Some people’s sculptures crept along the ground, or impersonated parts of shipping. Since it was midday, I confessed myself at a loss after wandering through both parks as to which was which.

Kintail pointed to one with the stem of his pipe: “Mair angels,” he observed.

“The dead prefer angels, do they? Why are there no straight inscriptions?”

“Everybody kens wha’s here. The bare facts are in the Archive. And it’s no that they prefer angels, it’s jist that they canna avoid them ony more.”

“I wouldn’t have said that the people of this Island are in the habit of dodging any experience.”

“Aye, well I’ve had a few I’d like to see comin next time.”

“Such as?”

“Did ye ken the haill clanjamfrie was swappit ower, fifty year ago?”

My goodness, my first instance of issue-ducking. I made a mental note to ask Eileen about Kintail’s background: another incomer?

“What, dig them all up? Why on earth would they do that?”

“He. Why on earth would he do that.”

“Who’s he?”

“The Chief Archivist.”

“Of his day, you mean.”

“Of his day. He decided one fine morn that the symbolism was jist as interesting the ither weys aboot. So, up comes Granny.”

“That’s a lot of power for an Archivist to wield.”

“Aye, well the Archive is very important on Horse Island, as I’m sure you’re beginning to appreciate.”

I photographed him as he said this, so splendidly had his brows gathered; if golf-balls had been crimson, he would have made a smoulderingly intense golf-ball.


“'Up comes Granny!' Oh, I like that!” The Magistrate and Eileen MacMorrow were in fits. I was feeling rather po-faced, having convinced myself I’d hit upon some ructions beneath the smooth surface of Horse Island. We were sitting in the Hotel bar that same evening, with the violet light beating through its small windows and off the innumerable pictures within. The bar was full of locals, few of whom were distinguishable in any way from their predecessors. Had the walls been lined with little mirrors, the effect would have been much the same.

“Kintail’s an obscurantist, he’s a millenarian,” said Eileen, guffawing.

“He’s a reid aboot the heid!” said the Magistrate, and they were off again.

“Doesn’t the Chief Archivist wield an extraordinary amount of power here?”

“Nae mair than Kintail does, but he jist likes to scandalmonger as well,” replied Eileen.

“Still, digging up the dead.”

“Every one of those people signed a medical form giving permission to the Doctor or the Archivist tae dig them up and dae whit he liked wi them. Deid’s deid. They ken we wadna dae onything that was too disrespectful,” said the Magistrate.

“What about MacPhail’s Tea Party?” countered Eileen, and they both went spiralling off into hoots of laughter.

“MacPhail’s tea party?” I enquired, when they’d recovered a little. The Magistrate smoothed down his beard and inserted a small nip of whisky before replying.

“MacPhail’s the Toun Photographer. People said he shudna’ve done that, but they were aa neatly stacked in the kirk atween interments, and he’s an awfy man wi a drink on him. The Doctor’s nae better; it wis the pair o them.”

“What did he do?”

“He recreated Lady Croma’s soirée,” said Eileen.

“Who was Lady Croma?”

“She was a great patroness of the arts on Horse Island. After we dispossessed her husband, she threw the family resources into the theatre, the art gallery...”

“Wait a minute, you dispossessed her husband?”

“It wis his idea,” interrupted the Magistrate, puffing up his whiskers as though a shot of static had just gone through him. “It wis him that cam back tae the Island fuhl o Prince Kropotkin and started posting pamphlets on the Toun Hall.”

“It’s all in yir guide,” said Eileen. “Huv ye no read it yet?”

“There’s been no time,” I spluttered.

“Och time. That’s aa you incomers go on aboot. As if there wis onything but time. And yet ye come lookin to us for amusement because ye don’t know what to do wi your precious time.”

I was alarmed by the note of contempt in her voice, and determined to stick to the point: “What was Lady Croma’s soirée?”

“She held a salon every Thursday evenin, and MacPhail thocht he’d recreate the one she’d held in honour of Alexander Smith.”

“Smith? Didn’t he write the Life-Drama?”

“And some very fine work on Skye. He visited Horse Island in 1872. MacPhail simply got all the relevant bodies thegither in appropriate costume, transported them to the theatre, and “boom boom!” -- as his flash tends to put it.”

“This is outrageous.”

“Nae mair ootrageous than Taggart prentin the picter in the Chronicle as though it hud jist happened,” muttered the Magistrate, with the beginnings of another smirk.

“Is Smith buried here? Surely his heirs would have protested.”

“Naw, naw. Young Morton stood in fur Smith, richt doon tae the whiskers.”

“Sam Morton is a local poet of increasing standing nationally,” Eileen said, in her best Guide’s manner.

I stomped off to the bar to get another round. Horse Island had flabbergasted me yet again. Were they kidding? I decided I would go to the Archive the next day and look up the appropriate issue of The Free Horse Chronicle.


That night I woke up with a ravenous desire for food. A snack, a sandwich, a four course dinner: anything would do. I hadn’t eaten because I’d gotten so caught up in our conversation, and I’d been out all day with Kintail on the hills. I picked up the menu, thinking forlornly that I could at least read about food. It was a stunning document, typical of the Island, or, as I’d come to think, amply displaying the Tendency. It was divided into main meals, which then broke down not just into lists of courses and delicacies, but also recipes, drawings and reminiscences from previous generations of Hotel cooks.

There were exotic foreign dishes, plus sparkling little vignettes of where and how they had been picked up. There was a stunning array of local and Scottish dishes, the former seeming to quite overwhelm the latter, with quotes from various literary diners. This last category included an account of a dinner had in the Hotel by Boswell during Johnson’s Highland Tour, which sounded distinctly apocryphal, if not downright phoney. The main dish was, appropriately, fish. Burns, too, had apparently stayed in the Hotel, and had left a small stanza on “Mrs Sempill’s Bannocks,” which contrived to sound remarkably lewd, something about “slappin’ doon the farls” and flour flying about like powder from the buttocks of a fine lady.

The menu was turning out to be a damn good read, but it did nothing to relieve my pangs of peckishness until I came across the statement at the foot of the last page: “Guests please note the kitchen maintains a twenty-four hour service and can be contacted via Reception.” This stretched even Kinawe’s bounds of credibility. I reached for the phone, then, on an impulse, slipped out of bed and into my dressing gown and slippers. I opened my bedroom door as quietly as I could, and crept downstairs.

As I creaked down the large central staircase, with the hall light flickering through its dark wooden banisters, I began to detect little noises from the kitchens. These were located in some indeterminate space behind the Reception booth, and connected to the Dining Room by a long corridor. I negotiated the darkened dining room by light filtering from the hall and through the smoked glass door which led to this corridor. The breakfast settings were already in place, and the dim light played with silver and cut glass as I threaded between the tables.

The noise was much more distinct now, a round of clatterings and voices raised, half in dispute, half in instruction. Every now and then the tone would break and a gale of laughter would blow down the corridor, or a great cursing and wailing would arise. I pressed my forehead to the lightly swinging door and pushed.

The corridor was dimly lit. Obviously they weren’t particularly expecting anyone to come down it. But light exploded from the far end of it as though from a blast furnace, and, unmuffled by the opening of the door, voices roared over a continual timpani of pots banging, whisks whirring, knives sharpening and thudding dully into boards, chopping interminable vegetables.

There was a squealing of oven doors swinging this way and that, clunking shut or creaking open, and the bubbling, hissing, scraping and sighing of meats and sauces, custards and potatoes being manipulated by what appeared to be an army of cooks and assistants. Just then I distinguished the voice of the maid who had brought my porridge, Eileen’s sister Rosa:

“Mrs Sempill, Mrs Sempill,” she was saying, “Ur these roastit enough yet?”

A sensation of stark terror flooded over me, and I was gone in a second, before even thinking why, back through the dining room and heading up the stairs to my room. At the top of the flight I calmed down a little, concluding that of course it was a small island, and family names persisted, and, what’s more, it was quite likely a descendent of Burns’s cook would be working here still. I proceeded to my room with my dignity restored, but the little nerve thrumming in my brain said, “So what made ye jump, then?”


The following morning I breakfasted with Eileen inside the café. It was a little dull outside and I was secretly hoping to get round the rest of the tea towel collection before I visited the Archive. She was looking wonderfully sober, despite or perhaps because of the ravages of the night before. Her hair was tied back and there was a dark vertical stroke between her brows, as if from a soft pencil. She was concentrating on a few shapes I’d made with our paper napkins, folding them into hats and boats.

“How dye initiate new shapes? Is there a free-form version or is it always the same opening steps? Show me the Bird Base again.”

I did so, opening and refolding one napkin, and explaining, “This is my favourite shape. I don’t usually bother making all the next things. It’s really pure, abstract.”

“Like a meditation,” she said, smiling to herself. Jenny brought our coffees and rolls. “Oh Jenny, can we get some more napkins?”

“Ye can get proper origami paper at the Art Shop,” Jenny pointed out, but brought some more anyway. Eileen set to folding them neatly to form squares, then tearing the extra length off.

“Are ye allowed to mark them in any way? I mean can ye decorate the paper, not jist one face but specifically, so the particular effect is intensified?”

“You can do what you want. I think drawing on them looks a wee bit naff if it’s representational, though.”

“How can we no tear it? Does this work wi thin metal?”

I sipped my coffee, amused. After nearly a week, the vitality of the Islanders no longer astonished me. Everywhere I had gone I had been politely quizzed as to my intentions, my circumstances, my politics, my opinion as to their shop’s lay-out or their garden’s symbolic resonances. I had signed visitor’s books (always having to include a comment), rendered up a considerable portion of my hair (more, frankly, than I was willing to part with), and even contributed a short verse to a renga drive.

I had sat in bars with complete strangers discussing my politics, their politics, other people’s politics, my thoughts on art, their thoughts on music, my hopes and plans, the disappointments of my past life, their strongest childhood memories, their extensive travels. Anything which two casual acquaintances elsewhere would have considered taboo was to them the very bread of life.

“Why do you do it, Eileen?” I said fondly, not just for her, but for Horse Island as a whole.

“Do what?” she replied, rather shortly.

“All this,” I gestured vaguely, “all this...focusing. I mean, take the cemetery: all that labour, the sentiment...”

“Sentiment?” The word clearly did not agree with her. “Until you actually perform an action, you cannot understand it. Do you understand the experience of childbirth?”

This was a little sharp, and my face must have shown it, as she softened instantly.
“This is why the Archive is so important. If we didna make every effort to assimilate aa the material relevant tae ony given subject, then we micht be forced tae experience its consequences, however far-fetched.”

“So it’s a kind of response to...are you familiar with chaos theory?”

“We have been concerned with this matter since Lord Croma advanced his principle of Incremental Anarchy.”

“Incre...what? You let the gentry...”

“You’re being incoherent, my dear Osmond. Mebbe you’ve had too much caffeine. Incremental Anarchy is based on the famous statement by Archimedes, you know it? “Gee me somewhaur tae staund, and I shall muve the warld.”

“I didn’t realise Archimedes spoke in the Doric.”

“That is beneath even you, Osmond Dips. Why ye have to mock yir ain language escapes me. Anyway, treating pig ignorance wi the contempt it deserves, I shall continue my point. If ye’re still interested.”

“Where does it come from, your energy?” I interrupted, taken by her charming fury as she had clearly intended, striking the pose of pugnacious explicator, fist on thigh and nose in the air.

“The real question is: where do you lose yours? For us, life is an indivisible mystery. It’s because your energies are so low that you resort to compartmentalising everything, or rather a few wee portions of it.”

“Oh scathing, scathing. You people compartmentalise everything. You itemise butter dishes, you scalp strangers, you reduce the world to a list of lists!”

“On the contrary we are constantly looking for ways to simplify our systems. We are against specialisation in any field, but we do not fall into the pathetic trap of assumin ye can jist abandon some phenomena afore ye’ve examined as much of its effects as possible.”

“But...where do you find time?” I was losing ground, I realised, falling back on an old, weak argument.

“How do you avoid it? Look at ye, you’re not a lazy man. From what I’ve seen of yir sketches, ye’ve got some skill, and you claim to be a writer. But your drawing line looks podgy, and you mainly jist moon aboot. Were ye a hyper-active child? There’s a theory that they suppress creative energies out of guilt for their parents, ye know. You lose two, mebbe three hours a day navel-gazin.”

“I like to think,” I protested, sounding peevish even to my own ears.

“How exactly is it you can stop thinking?” she snapped back.

“I don’t always understand how I behave...” I began.

“Then visit our Archive,” she concluded triumphantly, and went back to her folding. I watched the dark line reappear between her brows and sighed.


The Archive itself was a single-story building of Victorian design, a cross between Greek temple and Scottish bungalow. It was set on a rectangular grassy mound which suggested much material was stored below ground, and it hived off at the back into several extensions which in turn lost themselves among the buildings at this end of the village. Inscribed above its doors was a Latin inscription: “Non omnia possumus omnes.”

As I stood staring up at this, the Assistant Archivist came out and took me by the elbow. “We can’t all do everything,” he whispered. “Virgil.”

I allowed myself to be drawn into the main hallway of the Archive as I pondered this statement of humility. It was full of the inevitable glass cases, here displaying ordinary household objects from every period of the village’s history. At least in these surroundings, the appearance of a museum was not unsuitable. The Assistant Archivist murmured something about seeing “if he’s ready,” then disappeared down a stair which descended from a trapdoor behind a desk. I noted it had no banisters.

I turned my attention to the Archaeological and Natural History sections. Here were geological samples, fossils, prehistoric tools, the skeletons of small birds and mammals. A few cases contained very badly stuffed rabbits, pine martens, red squirrels and the like. Some of these, I realised to my horror, consisted of those Victorian genre scenes, in which the animals are positioned to display human foibles. Here was a recreation of a pub, with a drunken rabbit floundering on the floor while the landlord, a capercaillie, stood over him threateningly. Mice and rat regulars studied their pint pots carefully, ignoring the fracas. Here was a traffic scene, with rakish young guinea fowl in a little trap drawn by a kitten, and a fox cub in police uniform taking their particulars.

“I see you’ve discovered our Unnatural History section,” said a thin, dry voice from the stairwell. “This way, Mr Dips.”

I turned in time to see a small bald head vanishing jerkily down the stairwell. So this was the all-powerful Chief Archivist. By the time I reached the first step, I could just see the tips of his shoes in the shadows. I hurried down towards these as the precise quaver of his voice floated up: “Do mind your head.”

At the bottom I was in a narrow corridor apparently walled in carpet. My companion was concealed by a hanging flap of some material labelled “Mrs Erskine-Lamond, own design, 1923”.

“This is our domestic section, Mr Dips. Follow me.”

I brushed aside the curtain-like material and found myself following a tiny grey-suited man down a sloping passage lined with samplers, antimacassars, lacework of all kinds, cushion covers, and so on. It was impossible to catch a glimpse of his face, and quite difficult to fathom our direction. I noticed en passant that the samplers did not confine themselves to alphabets known to me, while the cushion covers were dyed a dazzling range of colours, showing little restraint when it came to bluebottle greens and electric oranges.

“Are you familiar with the phrase “Rancho Malaria”, Mr Dips?” shot back the dry voice. “It describes the kind of dwelling where vividity rather than modulation has been the guiding principle behind decoration.”

We came out into a large gloomy space piled high with furniture, including chaise longues and entire three piece suites, some of which looked as though they had been made by amateurs, so misshapen and misaligned were their appearance. Somebody at some point had been very interested in futurist design, it would seem, judging from some rather dramatic and unsteady pieces heaped to one side which looked as though they might not be comfortable, but would certainly be capable of a fair lick of speed.

“We’ll get round to all this one day, I suppose,” the old man muttered disconsolately as he picked his way through the ruins. I caught a glimpse of a sharp little profile as he glanced at some derelict sofa, which sprawled like a punchdrunk walrus.

Next we plunged into another, rather poorly-lit corridor lined with glass cases filled with a miscellany of objects. What looked like ancient legal documents were mingled with stamp collections, prints of the various geological wonders of the island were mingled with a photographic encyclopaedia of human types done in the late nineteenth century. As I tramped along after the Chief Archivist, I was scrutinised by all the tribes of humanity, gazing imperturbably through tattoos and head-dresses, feathers and crowns, collars and ties and hats of a supposedly “civilised” nature. Men, women and children in a olive-coloured monochrome, with the focus always on the tip of their nose, watched me descend deeper into the Archive.

We turned a corner and were in a section where the lights worked properly and the floor did not lean to one side or descend imperceptibly. Here the walls were panelled in wood and had cases in glass cabinets. This whole stretch of corridor was devoted to lepidopterae. Vivid colours shone in neatly regimented rows as we continued, as though a miniature nation had turned out in their finest garments to watch us pass. I had not realised the world possessed so many species of butterfly.

“Did you know the butterflies depicted in the scrolls of the Chinese ancients very frequently have no counterpart in the real world?” inquired my enigmatic guide. “And yet there are so many real butterflies. I wonder what is the characteristic which prompts humanity to invent still more?”

“Surely we just reflect Nature’s own talent for variation?” I ventured, determined not to be overawed by all this.

“I’m sure you’re right, Mr Dips. I’ve often thought we must diagnose Nature as an omnipotent schizophrenic, whose every uncontrollable whim is, uncontrollably, possible.”

That shut me up for the remainder of our travels, which ended in yet another dim room of uncertain proportions, filled with metal shelf units which reminded me of the storage section of a supermarket. Here and there stood entire bookcases full of old leatherbound tomes and great tea-chests crammed with rumpled paperbacks. The fact that none of these was ranged against a wall made them appear thrown down at random. There was a very large wooden table in this room, stacked with more books, old microscopes, bowls and racks for bottles, some of which did indeed contain old bottles in apothecary blue. There was a TV with no insides, and numerous heaps with dirty sheets flung hastily over them. Standing at this table was the Doctor who had examined me on first arriving on Horse Island.

The Doctor was a tall brusque woman in her early fifties, with a rather long face and beautiful soft black hair with long threads of grey, bound up rather severely. She wore a grey pullover and a tartan skirt which seemed to be entirely in tones of charcoal. The slender gold chain which was attached to her spectacles had the air of an extravagance thrust upon her by a courageous admirer. I remembered the Magistrate’s comments on her skills at backgammon and wondered if it could be a trophy.

Extraordinarily, she looked very like the Chief Archivist.

Not in build of course, as the man could only have been half the Doctor’s height. But about the face and in her bearing especially, there were the signs of relation. The Archivist was clean-shaven, with a long upper lip and a small dagger of a nose, but his brows were similarly querulous, and they both shared the intense gray glare of the typical Islander. They were undoubtedly father and daughter.

“Doctor Vaisey tells me she has not yet obtained a sperm sample from you, Mr Dips. We don’t normally experience any difficulty of this nature with our male visitors.” The little man regarded me momentarily through his brilliant eyes, then turned his attention to the Doctor.

“You did explain, Deirdre, about payment and pornography?”

“She did indeed, sir,” I interrupted, determined to take control of this delicate issue. “I said at the time I didn’t understand the need for such a...personal detail of documentation.”

“Most masculine incomers appear to have spent a great deal of time spreading their seed hither and yon with no apparent signs of delicacy or squeamishness,” the Doctor said, pursing her lips in the gesture I remembered from our first meeting. I glanced at the Chief Archivist in mute appeal and saw the same expression. Then it registered that this was the family’s version of a smile.

“Do you collect eggs from your female incomers, Doctor Vaisey?” I asked, determined to be as challenging as I was being challenged.

“Ah, a smart one indeed,” the old man interjected. “Come sit down Osmond my boy, we have much to discuss before you leave us.” With this the Chief Archivist beckoned me over, while the Doctor produced two armchairs and a stool from the shadows behind a shelf. The stool she commandeered for himself, and leaning an elbow on the gutted TV, she watched us sit in silence.

“We do indeed collect eggs from our women guests,” Mr Vaisey said, leaning forward and tapping my knee in a conspiratorial manner. “But they are generally asleep and unaware of the process.”

“Isn’t that highly unethical?”

“This is not a place for moral vertigo!” he exclaimed abruptly, and sank back in the armchair, studying me closely. “What do you think, Deirdre?” his dry voice emerged from the wings of the chair.

“He has a fine head,” the Doctor announced.

“What do you do with all this genetic booty?” I asked.

“Do? Nothing. Nothing at all. We merely catalogue it, as we catalogue everything.”

“Why do you catalogue everything?”

“Do you know Virgil, Mr Dips? ‘Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas.’ I translate: he is a lucky man who understands the causes of things.”

“You want to know how things change, don’t you.”

“Quite right. We want to understand how all change occurs. Social change, psychological change, genetic change, mythic change. You have a fine head on your shoulders, Mr Dips.”

“What is it that you want to change?”

“Ah, that is where you come in. We have computers working on that problem right now.”

“Computers? I don’t know anything about computers. Are you offering me some kind of job?”

“A very interesting way of expressing it. Deirdre.”

The Doctor stretched across for a corner of sheet and tugged at it, bunching the sheet up as it came. This process gradually exposed a complicated mass of machinery bunched around a big jug. Doctor Vaisey clicked on an overhead lamp illuminating this jumble of stuff. In the jug was a human head.


To say I was not prepared for this vision is to present my reaction in a restrained manner. I screamed quite suddenly and very loudly, and succeeded in alarming myself, the Archivist, the Doctor, and the Head. I refer to this last personage impersonally because, although I was told his name I could by no means associate this entity with a merely human title. For me he must remain the first Head. There were more, many more. There were, apparently, corridors of them.

The Chief Archivist led me off down one such corridor, briskly pointing out faces he thought I might know, whilst urging me to reconsider my decision. He kept tapping at the glass cases behind which the Heads swam in their individual jugs, as though checking some monstrous barometer. My decision had been, wholeheartedly, “No!” The request I can only explain in terms of what happened next.

“These people are no longer in any pain or any distress,” he said. “Their personality maintains itself for a few hundred years, though latterly it becomes a dream-like unit, as more and more of the brain is directed to the work in hand. They tell us that there is a definite cut-off point -- if you will pardon the expression -- at which the kind of person they once were no longer relates to the manner in which they think. They evolve through their consciousness into a greater being, one that participates in all their thoughts and dreams.”

“Explain again how they are still alive at all.”

“They are not. Look here.”

We were at the end of one corridor, and the beginning of another. He clicked on a light, and I saw that the cases were full of skulls, some of which looked primitive, prehuman.

“All our containers and chemicals and monitors only enable us to maintain easy contact with the Heads. In the old days it was necessary for the shaman to enter the world of the captured Heads in order to communicate with them. A perilous operation, as not all of those Heads were voluntary sacrifices, like ours.”

“You can’t expect me to believe that this is behind Celtic head-hunting.”

“I present you with theory and example. Your conclusions are your own.”

“And these heads are your computers?”

“The mind that has been freed from physicality can harness all its energies, not just the miserable percentage we are able to spare. In such a condition they dwarf the capabilities of existing technology. Most importantly, they are not limited to logic. They are dreaming virtual worlds, whole countries every bit as complex as the one we inhabit. They are dreaming of other islands, other Scotlands. You know Chuang-Tzu’s dream of the butterfly? Perhaps it is the Heads who are dreaming us. There is raw myth in your skull, Mr Dips, wouldn’t you like to harvest it?”

“Let me talk to one of these Heads, prove to me this happens.”

“That is exactly where we are going, Mr Dips. Really, you do not think we are -- how would you put it in that quaint Americanese into which I hear you lapse now and then? some sicko skull cult?”

We now entered another of the cavernous chambers filled with shelves, books, monitors, and other peculiar pieces of apparatus. Here Eileen MacMorrow awaited us by another suspicious-looking box with a sheet over it. She dragged up a stool as we approached.

“Here, Osmond, you perch on this. I told ye he wouldna go for it Mr Vaisey,” she said to the Chief Archivist. He shrugged youthfully and stuck his hands in his pockets.
I sat down facing the box and she began sticking wires to my forearms and head with sellotape. She pulled the sheet off it and I realised I was gazing at a head encased within a TV.

“This is Marian. She’s still keen to keep in touch. Dinna worry aboot the TV, ye’ll find the shape gives yir subconscious the right sort of signals. Dye want him drugged?”

“No, no,” said the Chief Archivist. “I want him to realise how powerful and clear the signals are for himself.”

“Okay. Dinna close yir eyes till she gets through, then ye’ll find it helps.”

I stared at the discoloured face squashed up against the glass of the set, not two feet away from me. The hair was blonde and smeared here and there about the face. It was impossible to guess an age; the skin looked quite wrinkled, but that might have been the solution it was in. The eyes were closed, and one corner of her mouth was open. I could see dirty little teeth within. Her right cheek pressed against the glass, alarmingly white, a soft amorphous shape, like the underside of a snail.
All at once I began thinking in disjointed blurts. Jagged colours and shapes came into my head involuntarily. It was very frightening, as though you were in a plane and the clouds had suddenly cleared. I felt I was much closer to the ground than I had realised, and that the “ground” consisted of a startlingly unknown territory.
None of this was linguistic, there were scarcely any images in the visual sense. It just seemed like great slabs of something “other” were being intruded into my consciousness. These slabs seemed composed of infinite numbers of small squirmy things, like animated numbers or letters. It made my head feel like it was full of insects. I had a sudden insight that these squirmy things were individual thoughts, and that the slabs were therefore whole nations of insects, large amounts of related information.

None of it felt like facts and figures, however. It felt like driving through a plague of locusts, or being caught in a cloud of midges. It was as though a book, instead of staying flat on the page, dissolved into its component letters and flew at you. It was all intensely disturbing: my every nerve was being set on end and I could find no way to calm them down.

Abruptly these sensations ceased and I became aware of being enveloped in a medium. It was like floating in a swimming pool, except the pool was sentient. This was Marian. She was utterly calm, utterly accepting; she understood all my disquiet and revulsion at once, and accepted them without reservation. There was still no verbal communication, but neither was there any sense of impediment to communication. I was understood through her absorbing me, her holding me, weighing me, and accepting me. She was understood through her opening herself to me, and concealing nothing from me. I recognised the sensation immediately, though I could not articulate from where or how. I knew that time had ceased to operate for the duration of this sensation, and that this reformation of the very principle of duration would sustain itself as long as we maintained this contact.

Then, quite suddenly, starkly, I was back in the gloomy room covered in wires and sellotape and the contact was over. I found that I was shaking and that every nerve in my body felt like it was audibly jangling. I felt awful and the sight of that head lurching in a jug of pickles made me nauseous.

“Okay, cover her up,” sounded the voice of Mr Vaizey, the Chief Archivist. “She’s seen enough.”


I was back upstairs in the Archive’s main hallway being force-sipped sweet tea by Eileen. Doctor Vaizey had reappeared briefly to take my pulse and my temperature, but after pronouncing me “perfectly normal for a justified paranoiac,” she had vanished back into the body of the Archive. The Assistant Archivist was fussing over me, but of Mr Vaizey himself, there was no sight.

I felt totally disorientated and somewhat ashamed. I felt I had failed in some test and now could never redeem myself. I felt like crying and was only restraining myself because I was sure Eileen would treat me with total derision. She was being brisk and efficient, and was completely unreadable.

“How did I do, Eileen, how did I do?” I finally mumbled in my misery.

“How did you do what, you silly man? You’ve not been taking a driving test, you know.”

“What happened? I feel so ghastly...”

“What didn’t happen! But you want tae know how you got on, don’t you. You met Marian, is what happened. She tried you out wi a bit of real thinking and your brain seized up. So she grabbed haud of ye and lulled ye back to a condition where we could pull you out. That was it.”

“So I’m not up to it, is that it?”

“Not at all! Most of us cannae thole the way the Heids go on, but ye get used tae it. The important thing wi you was the recovery time. Very quick, jist as the Chief Archivist predicted.

You’re adaptable, Osmond ma boy. We’re jist a bit concerned you lack stamina.”
“Stamina? What do you mean stamina?”

“Well, could you do that mair than once a day? It gets mair familiar, but no that much. Could you tolerate mair than one Heid? Could ye answer back?”

“The way I feel right now, I don’t think I ever want to go through that again.”
“Aye, he predicted that as well. But see how ye feel in a week.”

“In a week? My holiday runs out in three days! I’ve got a job to get back to.”
“Correction, pal; your holiday runs out the morn. You’ve been talking to Marian for twa haill days. And ye don’t have tae worry about your job. You’re Junior Archivist while you choose tae stay.”

At that I gave up altogether and allowed the Assistant Archivist to give me a blanket, and nodded vaguely whilst he spoke about sorting out a desk for me with his brother. Eileen decided I should try and make it back to the Hotel and got me wrapped up in the blanket. Then, as I tottered gamely for the door on her arm, she battered down the final shreds of resistance.

“Oh, by the way, Doctor Vaizey said to thank you for the sperm sample.”

“What? Oh, you don’t mean I...”

“Oh yes. It’s an invariable first reaction. We were expectin it, though not sae suddenly. Still, Doctor Vaizey said it was “fine and vigorous”. So that’s aa right, isn’t it.”

Soot: Chapter One

Soot is an old-fashioned children's story in which resourceful lass goes on a quest accompanied by enigmatic familiar. In fact most of the creatures and people she encounter turn out to be a little less trustworthy than they at first appear: fortunately her life has taught her to be wary, but is she wary enough?.


The strangest thing was that she wasn't frightened, not at all, not at first. Though it was hard to say when 'at first' had actually been. Did it begin when her father left her alone in the little old house on the mouth of the firth? Or did it really start before that, when her mother left both of them. Certainly, the first incident dated from his mad dash to patch things up, when it was perfectly obvious that her mother was never coming back.

She'd been perfectly calm that morning when she had read the scribbled note on the kitchen table: 'Got a text from yr mum. Wants to sort things out. Back soonest. Love, Dad.'

He'd obviously driven off at midnight again, drunk probably. She'd made herself a cup of tea and boiled an egg while she studied the note. What exactly are 'things', anyway? Not, apparently, clothes or books or plates or pans or furniture, which both parents left wherever they were, whenever they moved, which had been every three to four years for as long as she could remember.

She'd sighed, and resigned herself to a spell alone in this latest unfamiliar house with its draughty-panelled front room and its creepy landing with too many doors. (One was only a cupboard, but when you went to the toilet in the middle of the night you could never remember which.)

Then there was the tree that stared in through the window in her loft bedroom, with those shapes in its branches you couldn't help but see when you lay there and couldn't sleep. And she wouldn't sleep -- he could be gone a week, he had been in the past, on other hare-brained schemes, though at least in the past her mother had still been around.

But you couldn't say she was seriously alarmed then, nor was she three days later, which was when she realised something was actually wrong with the house as opposed to her life.

It was then, on the third morning, when she had come downstairs and found the paw-prints. Sooty black paw-prints, everywhere. On the grim grey carpet and the thready table-cloth, on the fake-wood kitchen worktop, and all over the neat desk he had set up in the hope of tempting her mother here, to the frozen north-east of a country she had never liked. As though she'd be prepared to work in the same room as them like that, as they presumably sat and gazed at her lovingly.

There were paw-prints on the two unhappy armchairs he had salvaged for them, and on the week-old newspapers. In the minute downstairs bathroom, there were paw-prints in the sink and in the chipped old bath, and on the already grimy green towels. (How she hated that lime green.) There were even paw-prints all round the seat of the toilet.

Obviously some neighbourhood cat had got in -- first into the coal-shed, and then into the house. She checked the shed but the door seemed securely shut, and the only window still slightly open was in her dad's bedroom, the door to which had of course been closed since he left. God knows how it had got in. She fretted over it all morning, as she cleared up the mess (the house was due a clean anyway, she'd just been putting it off). Could a cat get down the chimney, she wondered? That would explain the soot. She peered up the flue dubiously.

Her father had insisted on big banked-up fires for their first few weeks in the house, but then she hadn't really been sure how to prepare those, so she'd dragged an old three-bar heater downstairs from his bedroom. As a precaution she pulled the fireguard in front of the ash-filled fireplace. It was one of those copper wire jobs, hinged in three sections, and she leant the coal scuttle in front of it to hold it in place, then went and shut his bedroom window.


The next morning was even worse, but at least the cat's mode of access was clear: the fire-guard had been pushed over and there were identifiable paw-prints in the ashes, large and neat and white against the grey. As there were most other places, though neither neat nor white.

As well as the carpet and the kitchen and the bathroom and particularly the writing-desk, the cat had apparently climbed the curtains and left paw-prints all up them; it had stretched itself as far up the walls as it would go (and it was obviously pretty elastic), and left a rim of paw-prints all round there. In the kitchen it had walked on the tops of the storage heater and the cooker and the fridge. It had even, as she discovered when she tried switching on the TV and ignoring the mess, pressed its big sooty paws to the screen, so that nothing at all was visible of whatever the people on it were shouting about.

Everything smelt of horrible greasy soot, and it took nearly the whole day to sponge the house kind of clean, during which time two questions rattled round her head, both unanswerable: why would a cat do that? And then, why would a cat do that again?

Late that afternoon she went outside and looked around. A few hundred yards away was Mrs Dalrymple's place, pretty much the same cottage, but with its back turned to them, a little like Mrs Dalrymple, from whom they were renting the place, but who had spent the few brief meetings she and her father had with her staring at both of them in bewildered indignation, as though she couldn't quite work out what these awful people were doing on her property.

Mrs Dalrymple favoured scratchy heather-coloured tweeds and blue and turquoise silken scarves she wore over her shoulders so they didn't touch her neck. She gave them to understand that their money wasn't quite as good as that of fishermen of a certain social class, who normally stayed in the cottage, but that she would somehow force herself to accept it.

Mrs Dalrymple definitely didn't have a cat, in fact she'd be surprised if any living creature could come within half a mile of her without dropping down dead, felled by that forcefield of sheer disdain. She wondered if her fishermen ever caught anything living. She certainly didn't feel like going and asking about weird cats.

Beyond there the road petered out by the salmon house, a little old stone building which more or less marked the point where the river bank turned into beach. Her father had explained this was where salmon fishermen would store their catch upon great heaps of ice. Proper fishermen with nets, not rich hobbyists with rod and line, as he had put it, still smarting from Mrs Dalrymple. So that gave the salmon no chance whatever, she had thought.

Either side of the stream (it was so narrow at this point, it was hard to think of it as a river), the white pepper beach and open grey sea stretched away. 'The Northern Riviera!' he had declared it, though it had been too cold and blowy since they'd arrived for that title to stick.

She turned to look in the other direction: it was a three mile walk to the town, though cottages and farms could be sighted every mile or so. She didn't know anyone who lived in any of them, though. In fact, just about the only person she did know was the second-hand bookshop owner in the town, since that was the place where her father had spent most time with her. Shopping for groceries was done in a flash (an inefficient flash, usually); the pub was where men went by themselves, for hours; but bookshops were where father and daughter hung out and socialised with...well, second-hand bookshop owners, basically.

This one was a short woman with flyaway grey hair designed to cover up sticky-out ears, two pairs of glasses on silver chains ('For near-seeing and far-seeing'), flyaway blouses in mauvish tints, mohair shawls in lavender and purple, silver brooches with cairngorms and other semi-precious stones -- presumably jaspers and agates, whatever they looked like, since there were numerous books on that sort of subject. Well, the bookshop owner it would have to be. It was a pity she couldn't remember her name. Wondering how many miles she could walk per hour and when second-hand bookshops shut (when they felt like it, in her experience), off she set.


'You have a soot-kitten!' the second-hand bookshop owner (her name was Katriona, as it turned out) exclaimed with delight.

'A what?'

'It's a supernatural being, dear, part of the folklore in these parts. I've read about them, of course, but never encountered one.'

'Yeah, that'll be right.'

'Well, let me describe it, and you tell me whether it's right or not,' Katriona had retorted, with a flinty little flash of her far-seeing lenses.

'Soot-kittens are made from all the soot that builds up inside a chimney year after year. The story is a bird will come and try to nest on top of the chimney in an abandoned house. Then someone new moves in, lights a fire, and smoke billows out into their living room. Then they get a sweep in to poke brushes up it and drop weights down it.'

'We had to get a sweep,' she reluctantly confirmed.

'Well, this gets rid of the bird and all the twigs that are choking up your chimney, but it also annoys the soot. Imagine all the soot that lines a chimney after long disuse. Suddenly there's the heat of a fire -- usually too big a fire -- then brushes poke their beards up and weights crash their cannonballs down. Naturally, it wakes the soot up.

'Now, when soot wakes up it gathers into a furious black ball on the ledge just above your fireplace. It has two red hot-coal eyes and long fine black ash ears and sharp coal-black claws. Its fur and its tail and even its crinkly whiskers are made of fine black soot, all sticking together into a cat-shape filled with annoyance and spite.'

'Look, there's no such thing as soot-kittens, but thanks for the ghost story.'

'You might as well know the story's end, then I'll give you a lift back to your house which definitely doesn't contain a soot kitten.' This time Katriona's eyes were glinting with good humour. It was getting dark: she knew when she had a captive audience.

'When soot-kittens are still little they are messy but they're just playful, and they can be kept quiet by lighting a fire and keeping it burning, so that they drowse during the day. But the more coal you burn the more soot you send up the chimney, and the more soot there is, the bigger it will grow.

'And when you've got a full-grown soot-cat, then you're in big trouble. A cat can blow out of the top of your chimney and form a black cloud that drops soot on everyone’s cattle for miles around, spoiling the milk. Washing doesn't exactly stay clean either. A soot-cat can burn a whole house down. You know those black cats that bad witches have in the drawings, perched on the end of their broomsticks? Those are always soot-cats, arsonists to a mad, quivering whisker.'

'So when that happens I'll pass it on to Mrs Dalrymple, she's the baddest witch I've met round here.'

When Katriona was dropping her off back at the house she pulled a book out of her glove compartment. 'Here,' she said, 'just in case it is a soot-kitten, you might want to consult this.'

It was a warped thing, not very thick, more of a booklet, its cover so blackened she couldn't read the name on the spine. She flicked it open and read the title page in the light from the open car door, 'Soot: the Keeping of Its Kitts and Containment of Cats Fashion'd Thereof'.

'I'm not really sure I want to keep it,' she said, then remembered the purse was still in the kitchen. 'How much is this?'

'No charge for the time being. Just tell me how you get on.'


That night she settled down in front of the nearest to a roaring fire she could build, and read the book. Almost the first thing it said was 'Do not bank the fire up at night. While a lit fire during the day keeps the soot sleepy, a banked fire at night will only feed and make the kitt larger.' Great, that had taken an hour to get wrong.

'You must feed the soot-kitt on a proper diet by night,' the book went on, 'to keep it even-tempered.' But what was a proper diet? 'Field-mice, headless, well-scorched. Milk, boiled till the pan burns.'

That was a good one. She amused herself by imagining where she might get field-mice at this time of night: a rodent kebab shop? What about that 'headless'; were you supposed to chop them off yourself? And as for burning a pan of milk; she knew from six months of her father's cooking what that smelt like -- no way.

She realised that she had advanced a certain amount of the way towards taking the book (and the bookshop owner) seriously. Funny how darkness influences your decisions in these supernatural matters. She thought for a bit, and then remembered a tin of pilchards her father had bought without thinking whether either of them actually liked pilchards. It was tucked away at the back of the larder.

(The one thing she liked about this house was that there was a kind of triangular cupboard built into the corner of the living room nearest the kitchen, lined with shelves and filled, when they'd arrived, with rusty old tins. They'd thrown most of those out, but christened it the larder, and put it to the same use. It reminded her of a similar-shaped cupboard in her grandmother's house -- what was it called again?)

'Cats like fish,' she thought, 'even supernatural ones.' So she went to the cupboard (the 'aumrie', she remembered), opened the tin and threw the pilchards on the fire to hiss and burn. Then she went to bed. For once she slept right through.

The next morning -- apart from the stink of scorched pilchards -- everything seemed fine. There were no paw-prints in the living-room or the kitchen or the bathroom. She sighed with relief, and went to treat herself with the last clean white top from her cupboard.

It was horrible. Every top (she only had four) was covered in black paw-prints. She went to the chest-of-drawers and both drawers were the same: paw-prints on her winter vests, paw-prints on her pants. She went to the ottoman on the landing and lifted the lid: paw-prints on the spare sheets, paw-prints on the change of towels. How had it got into the drawers then closed them again, how had it lifted the lid?

Then she had a horrible suspicion. She went to the kitchen and opened the sugar jar. There it was, a single black paw-print. She checked the flour jar: another paw-print. 'Fooled you,' she thought bitterly: 'I never touch the flour jar.' She remembered when her mother would make them pancakes on a Sunday morning, then, sighing, she went to the bathroom and slowly unrolled the toilet paper; there was a single paw-print spoiling each sheet as far as she cared to look.

'Two things,' she told herself. 'Firstly either cats can open jars, or there is such a thing as soot-kittens.' (Even here, perhaps because it was morning, she didn't feel afraid.) 'Secondly,' she thought, 'this particular soot-kitten does not like pilchards.'


She went to the butchers in town to see if he had any headless field-mice, but, after getting her to repeat herself so the whole shop could hear, he had just given her a very funny look. As indeed had the whole shop, including, it felt like, the pigs' heads. She hung about outside the pet shop for a while, peering in at the little pink-nosed white mice, but couldn't bring herself to buy one, just to chop its head off.

Eventually she went back to the bookseller and told her what had happened.

'It screwed all the lids back on the jars and rolled the toilet paper up neatly?' she laughed. 'That is a very clever little kitt. They're so playful at that age.'

Of course it wasn't her clothes and food getting covered in paw-prints when there wasn't money to buy new stuff. Katriona grasped this after a while and stopped grinning so broadly. 'Clearly only fresh field-mice will do. Have you tried the spells at the back of your book?"

'Spells? I didn't realise it had spells in it. Would that work?'

'Oh, you need to know some magic if you're going to keep a soot-kitten,” Katriona replied airily.

'I never said I wanted to keep it.'

That night she studied the spells at the back of the little black book. There was one for forming a cloud-mouse in the sky, but that was for a full-grown cat to play with and it was very long. There was one for getting soot out of your laundry; she made a note of that. There was one to conjure up a fire-dog to chase your soot-cat off, but fire-dogs, whatever they were, sounded even worse than soot-cats, and the book stressed that this spell was only to be used in the direst emergency.

But here it was: a spell to call up all the mice caught in traps around your neighbourhood that day. The book advised you to stand on a chair to recite it.

'Yeah right,' she thought. 'That's for elephants and the wives of elephants.' So she stood in the middle of the kitchen, and recited the spell, which, as it was in old language, was by no means easy to get right:

May ilka breidless, heidless moose
Cam intae this guidly hoose --
May aa the prancin, dancin mice
That deed the day
In trap or hay
Appear afore me in a trice.

She threw some stale breadcrumbs on the floor (the book said they had to be stale, and fortunately she just happened to have a loaf of pretty stale bread to hand). And then she waited. Nothing happened.

She waited some more, thinking, 'I am an idiot for believing any of this,' and then thinking, "How will they get in if I don't open the back door?'

She glanced towards the door and back to the floor, and then, for the first time, she was actually afraid, since, standing around her in a circle, balanced on their hind legs, and without a trace of a head on their blood-streaked little shoulders, were twelve dead field mice. She began to tremble and realised she couldn't stop, but neither could she bring herself to step over them and get away.

'If I'd been standing on a chair I could've jumped,' she thought, and realised that, even if this was all madder than bats, at least the book was giving her straightforward advice. There was something here she could cling onto. She clung to the book, though her hand was trembling so much it made the print wobble, and recited the next part of the spell:

Noo I have spreid
A feast o breid
Sae in ma hoose
Be unca gweed --

Dinna loup aboot ma legs,
Dinna sowp ma hennies’ eggs:
Follow faur I dae retire
And rest yirsels upon ma fire.

With that you were supposed to lead the mice to the fire, keeping your eyes on them all the time (the book said not to look away even for an instant, and, given what had happened earlier, she was determined to follow it to the letter). She led them into the living-room, pulled the guard from the fire, and one by one they leapt into the flames. She shivered, despite the heat, and thought, 'I hope twelve is enough.' Then she went off to burn the milk.


That night she was woken by a most curious sound. It was like that noise a fire makes sometimes, a sort of hissing and wheezing, as though there’s some water trapped in the coal and it’s trying to get out. But it was also like the crackling, snapping noise that wood makes as it burns. In fact it was like both those sounds, combined, and really loud, and coming and going. It was like having a food-blender with a blocked nose in the bedroom. She opened her eyes cautiously and saw two red hot-coal eyes floating in the darkness at the bottom of her bed. Then she knew she was looking at the soot-kitten and it was looking at her.

Curiously, once more, she was not afraid. Not like when she had seen the mice. In fact she felt oddly calm. Of course, she thought drowsily, two things were happening back then: the thing I didn't believe in was turning out to be true, and that's always a shock, and then the way it was true was pretty gruesome. Now, however, I already know it's true about the soot (though a bit of her still couldn't quite believe it), and it's nice. Well, sort of.

She couldn't make out its shape, but sensed that the darkness was denser where its body should be. It seemed a lot bigger than any kitten she had ever seen. Thankfully, she also sensed that it was pleased. That horrible ratchety noise was only purring. The bedroom was really hot and sweaty because the soot-kitten was giving off a lot of heat, so she carefully peeled a blanket off the bed. It showed no signs of moving, so she settled down and went to sleep again, lulled by the peculiar noise. The last thought she had before dropping off was that the kitten should really be called 'The Soot' -- not 'Soot,' but 'The Soot.'

That morning the house was spotless (apart from the foot of the bed, where the wood was scorched). It was also very snug and warm. At breakfast she was trying to remember the name she had given the kitten before falling asleep, so she opened the little black book at the chapter called "Benefits of The Soot-Kitt", and ate her stale toast, and read:

'A well-fed kitt will radiate warmth and well-being throughout the home. It can also help with cooking: fish should be hung up in the fireplace. The Soot will come down and breathe upon them overnight. Ham and cheese can also be treated in this way.'

'"The Soot" -- that was it,' she thought. 'Perhaps I should invite the bookseller over for breakfast tomorrow.' She didn't want to be owing her for the book, and perhaps that would make it alright. She'd have to buy some unsmoked fish first, though.

She wondered how much money she actually did have left. Sometimes there were five pound notes scrumpled up among the receipts her father jammed into his pockets or the desk drawer. Then she saw the heading 'Soot Magic' which was followed by a warning in brackets: '(For the Adept)'.

'Cool,' she thought. And that was when everything started to get seriously frightening.