The Northern Crack 1st April, 2021. Exclusive Interview Reveals All: Were they really Sirens?
I was driving home after night shift at Wick General. The sun was rising and it was quiet on Cliff Road. I approached the roundabout at 15 mph. Visibility was poor. A whisky mist hovered over the river. At first I thought they were new road signs but then I saw wings. So I thought maybe pelicans or those big birds with fancy feathers, ostriches? Perhaps they’d escaped from a zoo? But then I saw the bare chests (in April!) chiselled, bronzed and sleek like Chippendales and I thought they must be three guys letting rip on a stag night or hungry patients on the run looking for a cooked breakfast. They had long blonde hair like the Angel Gabriel and one of them strummed a guitar. I forgot to keep left or look right and never saw the red Fiesta crash into the wall of Mackay’s Hotel or the Transit van fall off the bridge. The old lady with the cocker spaniel walked right in front of me. It was too late to stop. I’ll never forget her torn face and the blood. I could see the three of them in my mirror peeling her skin like gold foil from a chocolate Easter bunny. I was listening to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell full blast to stay awake so I never heard them singing. That’s why I’m still here, I suppose…
The Haar is the name for my new bimonthly magazine slot. I’m inviting writers, poets, artists, photographers, cartoonists or anyone with something different to say to send in contributions on a theme. This is an online community feature and everyone is welcome so long as the work is original. All work will be clearly credited to the author who retains copyright. Please use the contact form to get in touch if you want to submit a piece. There are a limited number of slots. I want to keep this feature small scale so sadly not all work will be selected.
The word limit for short stories is 2,000. Poems must be no more than 40 lines in length.
The theme for April’s The Haar is ‘Behind the Mask’
The deadline to send in your contribution is 31st March.
I’m looking for the broadest interpretation of the theme, not just Pandemic related. Who are we when we remove our masks? What lies behind the personas we create to survive in society. We are all different people in the privacy of our own homes and we behave differently according to where we are. We all try to fit in one way or another. I’d like to see and hear what happens when we let our hair down and truly open up…our loves, fears, jealousy, anger, hopes, worries, mistakes, secrets…
Looking forward to receiving your contributions.
For those who don’t know, as well as being a cool name for my creative arts e-zine, Haar is a special type of fog that suddenly rolls in from the sea transforming the world into a mysterious dream. Even on a sunny day in Scotland nowhere and no one is safe from the Haar!
Even on the sunniest Scottish day, the Haar can come in out of nowhere. For those who don’t know: Haar is a special type of fog that rolls in from the sea transforming the world into a mysterious dream. Everyday objects like the washing line or a garden chair take on alien forms and the other side of the road might as well be the planet Neptune.
But right here on The Purple Hermit The Haar is the name for my new bimonthly magazine slot. I’m inviting other writers, poets, artists, photographers, cartoonists or anyone with something different to say to send in contributions on a theme. This is a community feature and everyone is welcome so long as the work is original. All work will be clearly credited to the author who retains copyright. Please use the contact form to get in touch if you want to submit a piece. There are a limited number of slots. I want to keep this feature small scale so sadly not all work will be selected.
The word limit for short stories is 2,000. Poems must be no longer than 40 lines.
The theme for April’s The Haar is ‘Behind the Mask’
The deadline to send in your contribution is 31st March.
I’m looking for the broadest interpretation of the theme, not just Pandemic related. Who are we when we remove our masks? What lies behind the personas we create to survive in society. We are all different people in the privacy of our own homes and we behave differently according to where we are. We all try to fit in one way or another. I’d like to see and hear what happens when we let our hair down and truly open up…our loves, fears, jealousy, anger, hopes, worries, mistakes…
I probably inherited the creative gene from my maternal grandfather. He was a writer, photographer and political dissident in the former Soviet Union. He wrote for an underground newspaper and spent time in prison because of his views. Every birthday and Christmas he would send me a card with a specially written poem. He encouraged me to read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn at an early age. After his death in 1974 my grandmother gave me his camera which contained a roll of exposed black and white film. Years later I developed the film in my home darkroom and found images of myself as a young adolescent. It was a spine-tingling moment, alone in the dark watching the images slowly materialise and seeing myself the way my grandfather saw me. The images were faded and decomposed because of the length of time they’d spent inside his camera. They had aged, they had scars – like myself.
In the beginning was the word, according to the Gospel of John in the Bible. We experience and interpret the world through language. We write the words and the words write us. I’ve always associated writing with the desire to make the world a better place. It’s a way of getting inside someone else’s head, a chance to see life from another point of view. Writing has a therapeutic value but it’s much more than that…it leads to greater understanding and tolerance between people. It is a powerful tool for personal and social change. Writing can break down barriers, build bridges.
As a disabled woman I have been marginalised by a society that treats people as disposable commodities within the Capitalist machine. Throughout history disabled people have been ignored, silenced, treated as if we are stupid, useless. Alas, the ‘does she take sugar?’ attitude persists even in the 21st century. Disability is the last great taboo which feeds on society’s fear of death, illness and impairment. This is an issue which affects everyone, disabled and non-disabled, because we all age, sooner or later our bodies start to let us down and no-one is ever perfect. We live in a society obsessed with superficial appearances, it’s a kind of body fascism and it creates a lot of misery.
Creative writing and art have given me an equal voice. They have empowered me, helped to counter the negative stereotypes of disability that underpin mainstream culture. Visual arts and writing are two sides of the same coin for me. I often incorporate text in my artwork through collage and photography. I enjoy unexpected juxtapositions. I tend to use abstract and surreal imagery and a lot of colour in both poetry and art. They are just different ways of communicating my unique experience of the world. In recent years I’ve focused more on poetry as it feels purer, more precise. It satisfies my obsessive compulsive streak! Poetry works through the construction of images, as well as metaphor, rhythm and rhyme. And there is the important visual element of words typed on paper, black on white, the shape of the poem on the page. Concrete poems, ekphrastic poems, black-out poems, cut-up poems, acrostic poems all rely on our visual sense.
I am often asked about my working methods. Like many writers I keep a journal. I try to write every day even if it’s just a few words. Ideas and phrases frequently come to me at night and I record them on my phone otherwise they are lost. Sometimes the first line of a poem will take root in my mind and I can’t rest until I’ve put it down on paper. Once it gets a hold on me I can’t let go until it’s finished. Stephen King said that when he’s writing it’s as if he’s just a channel, a conduit for a story that already exists in a mysterious parallel universe. I agree. Like King I believe in what the psychologist Carl Jung named the collective unconscious. Creative people and mystics are able to tap into universal images and stories that we need in order to navigate our path through a complex and difficult life.
There have been many tines when creativity has literally saved my life. I survived several long hospital stays trapped in a bed alone in a small room because I had paper and pencils. I was able to make my mark on a world that seemed to have forgotten me. I have a vivid memory of drawing a vase of anemones on my bedside locker when I was in intensive care at the age of nine after spinal surgery that left me paralysed. Looking at those delicate flowers, the pastel colours, the shapes and recording them on paper reminded me of the beauty of the world beyond the horror and pain of the hospital.
We all need art, we all need stories, we all need to survive.
The smell hit her the instant she opened the door. A mix of cats, geraniums and cigarettes. Isabel hated smoking and potted geraniums in equal measure. She didn’t own a cat. She shoved the mountain of accumulated mail out of the way with her crutch. The paramedic placed her bags inside the hall and disappeared down the overgrown path without saying goodbye, still grumbling about how you were only allowed one piece of luggage in an ambulance.
Isabel closed the door behind her and locked it. Her hands shook and her heart threw summersaults of joy to be home, in her own private space, finally away from the prying eyes and probing fingers of the white coats. She’d thought this day would never come. She’d thought it was over, the end of the road, kaputt, finito, nothing left except bedpans, pain and humiliation. No future except days lying in her own stink, face down in a bowl of hospital porridge while the fat lady sang.
Panting with exertion she shuffled slowly into the living room and sank into the cane chair by the French doors that faced onto the garden. She’d missed her mountains, the light and emptiness of the vast sky. Her solitary room on Ward 3A looked out onto a brick wall. She couldn’t see the sky at all, not even a sliver. The only way she could tell if the sun was shining was by the light reflecting in the brickwork, the changes in hue. On a bright day the bricks gleamed like tiger’s eye. On a grey day they were a dull flesh pink.
Now Isabel surveyed her garden, still marvellous despite the weeds and rampant lawn. The hollyhocks blazed magenta. The roses drooped with lush scarlet blooms, the honeysuckle smothered the archway and on the horizon Morven and Scaraben glowed purple in the evening sun. She sat there for a long while, just breathing, in, out, in, out. She was alive. She was home. No one could hurt her now.
And then she saw the boots. Dirty workmen’s boots placed casually in the middle of the kilim rug she’d brought back from Turkey. They were caked with mud, one boot tilted as if they’d been cast off in a hurry, the soles worn, the brown leather wrinkled with age. Her chest tightened in panic and she scanned the room for other signs of disturbance. Everything seemed much as she’d left it the day of the accident other than a layer of dust and a few cobwebs. There were books and magazines in a tidy pile on the coffee table, logs stacked by the wood burner and dead daffodils in a stained glass vase on the window sill. Her grandmother’s vintage clock had stopped at five to five.
Isabel couldn’t bear to touch the disgusting boots with her bare hands so she nudged them closer with her crutch. One of them tipped over and a tiny square of paper fell out. Leaning unsteadily from her chair she picked it up and unfolded it with trembling fingers.
Written in red biro on a torn piece of graph paper was just one word, ‘remember’.
A dark tale from the mysterious peatlands of Scotland….
A small man wearing a hard hat waited at the side of the road just before the bend. Behind him a Toyota pick-up loaded with drainage pipes was parked in a passing place. On the opposite side a gravel track led up through freshly churned peat to the brow of a hill where a JCB digger was silhouetted against the winter sky. The man checked his mobile phone and shuffled his boots in the dirt at the side of the road. He noticed a dead rabbit lying at the edge of the tarmac. It’s rear legs had been chewed off by a predator but one eye was moving in the socket…alive.
A cold easterly wind blew in from the sea. All around him the ochres, rusts and browns of the mossy peat bog dissolved into a pattern of undulating stripes stretching out as far as the horizon. The man had twinkling blue eyes and a rosy complexion but his mouth was permanently twisted into a thin grimace as if he was trying hard not to laugh at a secret joke.
His name was Douglas Macleod but everyone called him Slip because like a fish he would always slip and slide away from troubled waters and swim towards the easy money. Slip Macleod thought he was born lucky. He inherited the family business, a Victorian farmhouse and five hundred acres at an early age. Within three years he made his first million. His wife was slim, blonde and never asked inconvenient questions, even when he indulged in ‘playing away’ and drinking weekends with his best mate Alec. At fifty he had good health. He could drink nine pints of lager, entertain one of those Glasgow tarts all night in the back of his Jag and still manage the seven hour drive home to the Far North without any sleep. A good weekend like that would set him up on a high for at least a month and the best thing was there were no consequences.
The sky darkened and the wind threatened rain. Slip had decided to continue his vigil from inside the truck when his phone exploded into the opening bars of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. The screen displayed an unknown number and for a second Slip hesitated in case it was one of his dissatisfied customers, but then he pressed the green answer button.
‘Yep?’ he growled into the phone. There was a silence. ‘Yep?’ he said again.
‘Hello…hello…can you hear me?’ said a woman with a Glaswegian accent.
‘…first day…return…mind the way…Gordon please…’, the line was breaking up.
‘Ye what? Gordon who…? I canna hear ye woman!’
‘…got to listen…safe please…it’s coming…’
Slip held the Samsung up above his head trying to get a signal and moved away from the truck into the middle of the road. The screen briefly registered one bar and then none at all. The call disconnected and there was silence. Suddenly there was no wind, just stillness in the grass. Slip gazed into the distance where the silver ribbon of the floating road disappeared into the twilight haze. There seemed to be something moving towards him, a blurred shape too big and too dark to be the familiar blue car he was waiting for. Ferry traffic perhaps or a freight wagon loaded with refrigerated fish heading down the line, no headlights showing despite the November gloom. His phone rang again, now there were two bars of signal.
‘Bloody Vodafone,’ Slip said out loud before he answered. ‘Yeah, what is it?’
‘Watch out, it’s coming,’ said the woman.
‘Ye what?’ asked Slip for one last time.
He didn’t feel much. Just an immense pressure in the back of his head and then all the air was sucked out of him. The final moment he was lying at the side of the road looking into the rabbit’s eye.
My third and final guest poet is Mandy Beattie. Here is her mysterious poem inspired by a local Scottish landmarkof standing stones.
A pantry of organic nettle tea and skeins of wild raspberries tumble through the turnstile between times of concrete & standing-stanes where sky sits a duck-egg blue ceiling on the Hill O’ Many Stanes
The Land O’ The Cat where Hairy-Brottachs hatch into Louded Yellow and Green-Veined White butterflies and dandelion clocks puff among mosaics of standing-stanes
Kneeling at a silver stane-pew palming ley-lines with my life-lines I am litmus among lichen waking-dreaming of way-back-when the Wee Folk jigged in amethyst heather and fairy rings in The Land O’ the Cat where the veil’s still thin between worlds.
Poem Copyright of Mandy Beattie
Note:- The Hill o’ Many Stanes consists of about 200 small stones arranged in rows running down a low hill in East Caithness, Northern Scotland. They were erected about 4,000 years ago, possibly for gatherings and religious ceremonies. Caithness was once known as the Land of the Cat People, a reference to an ancient legendary tribe of Picts who inhabited the area.
Mandy Beattie, is a feminist from Caithness, with an MA in Social Work Practice & Research. Her poetry is a tapestry of stories and imagery, rooted in people, place & the natural environment, set at home and abroad.