‘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.
‘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.