Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Dead Seal Scrolls

‘Merry Christmas!’ says my Grancha, ‘who wants some sherry?’

‘It’s Christmas Eve not Christmas yet’ interjects Granny, ‘you always want to be early for things.’

‘Oh. I see darling. B’won’t stop us from having sherry though will you?’ He asks sweetly but already up and meandering over to the drinks counter. Grandparents in Orkney are the sort of people who have a drinks counter; two bottles of Castelgy Gin, bitter lemon Scheweppes - almost certainly flat, aged sherry sweet and dry, a vintage Taylor’s port, and some red wine that I drank the whole lot of last night. 

The fire is grinning and burning up, toasting the backs of old socks and yesterday, I, as the Youngest of the Lot was on my hands and knees digging ash out of the lead bucket that’s been stuck in the fireplace for over a decade. The grill has snapped in two due to the continuous fires overhead but it still works and can’t be replaced anymore. Scraping ash in the morning - and seven piles of it - when touched feels cold and smooth, like the pebbles on the beach outside. When I was six I threw a tantrum and ran down to Watersound and had a go at the sea, I was angry about something with a burning desire to kick everything to bits and to quell my rage I shoved my hand in to the cold wet sand and dug down until about my whole arm was lost in the depths of the shore that clenched it. When I pulled it up it popped out from the suction and a small yellow-green crab had it’s pincers around my middle finger! I shrieked for the tiny life of me and waved my arm about frantically yelping and jumping about until the crustacean plopped off and scuttled back in to the sea. I ran back home no longer angry or crying but at peace with whatever had just gone on. The ash in the grate was cold as silt and smelt distinctly of nothing.


‘Hello. Big fat gross dead Mr. Turkey’ it sat there as a lump in shallow pools of watery-blood, ‘We’ll eat you tomorrow. Sleep well.’


When the door bell rings twice succinctly in two onerous rhymes that means Colin’s at the door, he is my hero and 90 years old and wears a fluorescent jacket that has Duck Patrol printed on the front breast pocket and Game Warden emblazoned on the back. It was a joke present from his longstanding friend but he wears it with pride and jauntily. Recently Colin took in Lily, an abused rescue-dog who hangs by his side enduringly and always looks so nervous of being hit again, what brutality can sear in to even animals’ brains I thought, and my hero’s bushy crown of white hair and weathered toothy-smile is what brings life to our laughter. 

‘Someone to come and see you’ Colin says nodding at Lily on the end of the leash, she turns her side to me and only dares to look up with twitchy eyes when she thinks I’m not looking (I am). ‘And to drop off this.’

‘An Orcadian dictionary, perfect. Thanks.’ I bend down to touch Lily but her leg wobbles and I just put my hand out for her to sniff.

‘Merry Christmas then!’ Says Colin as he saunters off with Lily tight by his side, and Granny tuts and murmurs to herself about it only being Christmas Eve. 

Don’t say ‘noo’, say ‘now’,  
Don’t say ‘ku’, say ‘cow’. 
(C. M. Costie, Speech)

The language of Orkney seems to have passed from the Norn to the Scots and then to the “correct way” of English, taught throughout the schools during 20th Century to standardise their spelling and speech. That’s fine I see it happening that way everywhere, I think, but it’s a shame. Now the dialect is known as Orcadian and to be honest when I speak with some I still miss half the conversation or the whole meaning. ‘Back of four’ means anytime after four o’clock and I find the logic sort of odd, just as I find it sort of odd how the sun rises and settles in one low position above the horizon for half an hour in the day before it starts to set again. Darkness is here by four.


‘Maybe after lunch you’d like to go beach combing together?’ asks Dad hopefully.

‘Only if we find treasure.’ I say non-plussed, stirring my tea with a hot spoon.

Wrapped up in layers of wax coats and fleece wearing a hat with a flap on both respective heads, the two stride up the drive, atop a cliff edge and down to the Playgroup Beach. Here, if you were to walk in to the sea and carry on straight you’d arrive in Norway, tells me my father, god know’s why we talk in as-the-bird-flies hyperbole. Totally unrealistic. I wanted to look for treasure, odd bits that fell off boats or deep-sea-shells that got thrown up by the swells but all I could see were thick mats of seaweed; layering sinews dripping wet and ripped up from the ocean bed, strewn across the sandy beach and now covered in little skippers (sand midges) eating away at the decaying water-fauna. Then lying there on the shore - I was drawn to it - a body like form. Corpulent; whale-ish in demeanour not size and not yet bloated, actually very calm and still like a sleeping policeman. 

One dead seal.

A big grey body and two little paw pads where the tail should be. I asked in that swallowed-shrill-cough I save for times of shock and persistent calm - 

‘Where’s the head?!’ It was severed clean off.

‘Probably cut off by a propeller of a boat. Nice and clean.’ There’s me looking at the dead thing in disbelief and he sees that and walks away.

‘What boat?’

‘Could have been your ferry. About the right timing.’

‘Hey, I was not involved in the murder of this sacred seal.’ I protest and I have an urge to get close up to it, it doesn’t smell yet and it’s fresh just headless, that’s all.

‘Don’t go near it. Sea-knits.’ Dad walks away and so do I. I don’t believe in sea-knits but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. 

‘Merry Christmas, dead Sacred Seal, I’ll pass on your regards to dead Mr. Turkey.’ Another year washes by.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Winter / Summer

I hate winter mornings
Waking up not quite sure why
Darkness recedes oh so slow
The blue hue dissipates
To leave an awning of white
Haze, the morning mist

I miss the summers
Warm starlit nights which
Did not glimmer in ice
But laid bare stretched out
Over balmy breeze and boats
Bobbing up over the horizon

Georgia O'Keeffe - Starlight Night, 1917

Friday, 12 December 2014


‘What do you think?’

I fidgeted with the phone to my ear to get a better grip of it, it was damn cold and the train tracks overhead were causing a buzz.

‘I think Wesley used to enjoy getting the laughs more and now he wishes he could get rid of the act and become more honest –’


‘Honest. Be more honest. You know lose the act because he feels like a dancing monkey more than ever, for people like us, or so he says he thinks on stage.’

The pause that follows was him giving up on me because of my high morals or laurels, is it morals or laurels? I think it must be morals, but then why do we call it a laureate…

‘Don’t bother coming in tomorrow, I don’t know what’s come over you.’


Phone got hung up and now I’ve made it to Waterloo Station to catch some line that cuts through the Green Belt, last train on a school night is 00:14. Why do I even stick up for myself, I should let people with more power and weight come awash over me, less friction more subscription, Christ I need a job.

Come home to an empty dreary place, no curtains on the windows so sleep under a coat over my head to act as a temporary canopy. 23 unread e-mails and a kettle that takes a snail’s pace to boil, you flick the switch on before bed and you’ll have a hot cup by the morning. Sometimes Luck works in your favour, other times not at all. For the last fortnight She’s been working at ‘not at all’. Made too many uncanny promises, taken part in odd transactions I can’t see the consequences of, have a hole in my shoe and sweater, and don’t have time to eat properly cooked food. Every day is a Greggs and I hate eating a Greggs.

1 New Message: Do you want to come and get a Christmas Tree with me tomorrow?

Reply: What day is it tomorrow?


I fall asleep knackered to the hum of the kettle.

Bright and sunny as a day can be. I wake up to vibrations under my left shoulder because I sleep with a phone now, for without the possibility of human communication via a cellular-glass device that has cracks galore what’s the point of existing on the outskirts of a city. Thankfully the end of last night’s message trail said ‘Saturday’ so I could do some tinkering in the day. I had a show that was going up late in the evening, which I worked menially at; all Saturdays were the boisterous light-entertainment times for the squares (Mile) and all weekday nights were left for the students and freelance-creatives (wankers) to fill.

Stuff my head full of dry cereal due to no milk in the no fridge that I own and slap on some makeup, makeup the day in to a nice array of sweet things and knitwear, it was Yuletide after all - and one hates appearance to be dictated by mood, right? Trundling down the Estate’s path I feel nauseous from the dizzying sunlight and stress and lack of a good night’s sleep, I can see it all in colours and frozen article headlines, ‘Promising Youth Dies Inhaling Pine Needles’ or ‘Cat Aids Kills Yuppie in Shared Flat, Zone 4’ or ‘Tragedy: Exploding Pavement Kills One Whilst Leaving Many Unharmed’. Whatever direction I was heading in today it was a bleak and overtly self-involved one, blustery winds dishevelled my coiffed hair, and I almost mistook a child for a small adult and had a go at it when it scooter-ed in to my path, the prick.

Trains Cancelled.

Staring agape at the board of orange LEDs I’m privy to some desperate humdrum -

‘You know what he thinks?’ Says grey wiry hair and dandruffed shoulders.

‘No what does he think darling?’ A mother-figure wrapped up in scarves and one spherical camel coat.

Even if this vanishing grey man still had the energy to stamp his feet in tantrumic fervour it wouldn’t have helped.

‘He thinks that I am now irrelevant to his career!’

‘Oh dear.’

‘If I get another photo of my niece I don’t care about I am going to kill somebody.’ Rouge cheeks, immaculate nails, dead behind the eyes.

‘Did you try and do that no makeup in bed selfie? Don’t. I looked dreadful so will you.’ Non-plussed, fingering her phone, eyelashes elongated to perfection.

‘You know what’s really annoying me? I was doing my good deed of the year doing this Princes Trust volunteering thing -

‘When did you start doing that?’

‘Work makes us do it.’

‘Your office is so great.’

‘Trying to make us good people’, a cutesy forced laugh, ‘and you know it had to be her who got placed with Josh on this young offenders course – and what’s really annoying me is he’s stopped texting me so much now because he’s so busy with the volunteering and she’s probably all over him…’

I step in to one the saddest looking railway cafes with a little box TV perched in the corner and two bits of tinsel dangling over the counter. I order myself a black coffee, not because of my mood but because I need caffeine in a great dose and I can’t make choices anymore.

The man behind the counter in an apron asks smiley, ‘Do you want a croissant?’


He smiles back timidly, knowingly.

‘You can have it as a compliment.’

I don’t quite understand.


‘Because I want you to be happy.’

And a great deluge of emotion hits me as this chasm opens up between me, the coffee, the man and the counter, something ached from the inside out and I wanted to retch at the kindness and the lame tinsel and the swirls of hot coffee vapour. I was beside myself but I kept it clean.

‘I’ll take a croissant.’

‘You can choose which one.’

‘Thank you. That’s really kind. Thank you.’

* * *

There’s a lone vulture that hangs atop a railway line going in to Waterloo. Today he is there and tomorrow also, no body else gives him notice, why would they it’s rush hour but even on the weekends, he sits grooming his balding chest due to the stress of the city. He hangs his head down and looks at us crooked, if birds could smirk I think. But today when I pass him I hold up my croissant in defiance at the misery because today some stranger was kind to me for no reason and I show it off like a medal from the wars. Nothing will make me evil today. Not even to strangers.

Sat there waiting for a friend who needs a tree I am mesmerised by a non-speaking couple. They certainly have the ability to, but for as long as I have been sat here at this gastro hoping not to be turfed out sipping on tap water the couple don’t flinch. Is it me they are waiting for to leave so they can restart a conversation? I want them to be happy.

Sunlight floods for a second as the door swings open and a bell clatters above her head, she sees me and makes a florid beeline.

‘Oh I am so sorry I’m late!’ Two kisses on either side, ‘How long have you been here? So sorry.’

‘Don’t mind don’t worry. You look great. Beautiful.’ And she really did, what a stunner, the only woman with poise I know who can offset big golden hoops with a Yves Saint Laurent neckerchief: a catwalk pirate.

The conversation turns somersaults from foreign affairs in the political domain and foreign affairs in Florence, to the broody misanthropy of young mothers and why we find it so difficult to be fine these days.

‘He told me hated him.’

‘Really why?’

‘They had a fight over cocaine.’

I notice the unspeakable couple who were sat beside me had started conversing in hushed tones now, I knew it, they were waiting for me to look away!

‘Over cocaine?’


‘Drug politics is really dull.’

‘Over croquet.’

The couple sup at their drinks, one a stout ale the other a gin and tonic (slim line I think). When they talk they look straight ahead like they aren’t talking to anyone in particular.


‘Do you mind if I just write this one e-mail?’

‘Sure go for it.’ The perfect disguise they’ll think I’m talking with her whilst I listen to them, I don’t know why I’ve become so concerned.

‘What do you want to do?’

She doesn’t speak and he doesn’t look at her but continues to lisp things out.

‘This was my idea so what do you want to do now. It’s your turn.’

She doesn’t speak some more.

‘Maybe I’ll give Jessop a bell and get him out here and we could go have a drink over by the river.’

She doesn’t look impressed.

‘Or we could get a boat to Canary Wharf.’

‘Why would we do that?’ She draws out her words like it’s hard for her tongue to make shapes.

He pauses to have a think of why he might have suggested a boat.

‘Because it’s Romantic.’

‘Fine let’s do that.’

We find St. Peter’s church where the crypt has been converted in to a youth charity inspiring those without jobs to work, and from here we can buy a pine. There’s nothing so fresh as the smell of a pine, even when carrying it through traffic-jammed streets it smells of purity not pollution.

The rest of the day won’t compare to the smell of this pine.

It’s late and I have that pervasive feeling that drowns you after pints in the pub after the other place with pints in the bar, curdling your insides with that tacky sandwich shovelled in some place forgotten. I wish in this life we sat down and ate more. The show was described dismissively by the organiser and I couldn’t remember a scene in it either because I’m stuck in this stupor and the last few stragglers have made it over to Charing Cross Station, god knows how in time for the last train, and I feel a bit sick.

‘I think I’ll make the 32 minutes past’, young lad says on his tippy toes.

‘Yeah you’ll easily make it.’ I reply. I have to cross that bridge now, the one that gets me to Waterloo.

‘I have to cross that bridge now so I can get to Waterloo. My train goes from there.’

So I leave them like a chaffinch all flashes of colour and contained misplaced energy and hop off to the bridge. Someone is singing ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…’ and all I can taste in my mouth is rhubarb crumble. Apple pie. Custard. There’s that feeling again, that feeling you’ve forgotten something but there are things you can’t forget. I see the man. I see his feet dithering on the railings of a bridge. He’s been drinking and I’ve been drinking and he’s going to jump in to the River Thames and I’ll gladly walk past because it’s really not my problem.


‘Hey. Hey. What are you doing?’

No response. Obviously - from a man about to take his own life. Suddenly I’m sober and I’ve stopped on the bridge. And look at me I’m making other people stop too.

‘Are you ok? Do you want some help?’ Christ I really didn’t mean help in the act of suicide I hope he understand me.

‘Just been drinkin’ me’, says he. To which I nod. I don’t want to be doing this. I don’t want to be this pretend sort of stupid saviour. Can’t someone else stop and do it? And you know what, someone does. A man in a suit with a girlfriend and an umbrella. He comes over to talk with the suicidal bloke and he helps him down off the railings and they walk away together back to the safe lights not above tumultuous waters.

I hurry along now to catch that train and I don’t feel sick anymore or stupefied or confused, just a bit lost. I hope things like the croissant find me again and keep instilling hope in my tiny icicle heart.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Teen Spirit

I saw a boy walking towards me carrying two instruments slung over his left lurched shoulder, one clearly a guitar case and the other may have been a ukulele, perhaps a mandolin in disguise. He held limply on to a wireless amp hanging by his right side and wore all black; a sixth form suit, damp hair, pale emo skin with a disenfranchised smirk. Two parts apathy three parts attitude. What made me swoon pathetically at this kid who padded past me was the green-top milk riding in his pocket, just on show enough to flirt with the imagination of us city commuters that suburbia is romantic. I wanted a teenager again.