Shadows rooted in the sour grooves that framed her mouth. Invisible at first, they bloomed in the living map of her face, festered in the lines on her brow, in the web of crow’s feet perched on cheekbones and in every pore of once perfect skin. Within the purple moons beneath shuttered eyes darkness multiplied spread along the wrinkles of her neck, the valley between breasts, the soft folds of belly and genitals, filling hollows and dimples right down to the pink tips of her toes. Eventually shadows enveloped her like a miasmic cloak. In the mirror she saw memories of memories and not the shudder of dust she had become. In the street, folk saw a swirl of fog and not a woman named Margot. They walked straight through her and shivered. Her words became a wild keening of wind, creatures of night her only friends. Bats, moths, owls gathered safe in her twilight wake.
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.
Tackle it when thrust through the window.
Look difficult when leaving the control area,
keeping right. Drive gentle up the road.
There may be more than you.
It will contain the time and distance you.
Get to the first junction as somebody else
and set off again. Beware of blindly following.
He may know where he is going or he may not.
Keep trying to make the fit and keep an eye on.
You may end up lost off route, being baffled
on route! Alternative. Pull up, obstruct and try
the hand better than clutter. With practise
you will plot the move keeping at least two.
If you are baffled it may be your opinion
-miracles do happen and he may see. Do it
or provide the clue. As a last resort guess.
Don’t stumble on a code. Use a magnifier.
Don’t discard handouts, keep them safe.
Engineer the maps in alphabetical
to easily locate you in the night.
Note:- Plot and Bash is a navigation technique used within British Road Rallies during the 1980s.
We drift in the wind, nomadic, elusive,
mercurial as scraps of tinsel, we hunt
human gatherings, crossing forests, seas
and cities, passing from home to home
we reap your memories, your secrets
that doze like fish in a torpid pool.
Small, almost invisible, you mistake
us for sunbeams, for insects floating
in the sultry night, for snow melting
on your child’s face or candle light
glinting in your lover’s eyes. We are
constant as the air you breathe, entering
your nasal passages, your mouth, seeping
into your skin and every private cavity.
We grub deep into the coils of grey
where you hide. Without you we are empty
as a church without the presence of God.
We can’t love. We can’t hate. We can’t sing.
So when you reach the top of the stairs
and forget why you are there, when you fail
to recall your mother’s voice or the taste
of beer, when you forget the meal you ate
ten minutes before and your own name,
please don’t mind too much.
The blizzard began, cherry blossom from a flame sky. The road home
vanished. Pink ice floes shape-shifted in the river, bumping
and grinding like clubbed seals. We tended the fire
and played strip poker. In bed you wore lipstick and a balaclava.
On the third day we tracked through the crystal forest. The valley
was a fandango of silence. I clawed at it with my bare hands.
You held your phone up high, immobile as the Statue of Liberty.
We returned to the cabin and played Scrabble with four letter words.
The windows became peepholes. I saw no footprints in the virgin drift,
only the farmer’s wife floating silver between the tree tops.
She was wearing a wolf jacket, her face upturned to the falling snow.
That night you thought you heard singing in the wind.
On your last day, you stopped speaking, stayed in bed, a tender huddle
of bones. I roasted meat on the log fire and drank Jack Daniels. I recited
the tale of our first New Year’s Eve, kissing in Times Square
while rockets fell. I could still remember the neon taste of your flesh.
One by one they pass blind
through the living arch,
the children of loss following
Mother’s twisted path of breadcrumbs.
Blue birds peck at their bare feet.
The sun bubbles over yellow fields
where fat cats sleep away the shadows
of the deep purple wood.
One by one they stray,
broken children with tender skin;
tawny robin’s wing, freckled amber,
cuckoo spit, sun kissed pebble, raven’s
feather, morning mist and midnight pools,
following Mother’s cinder path
through the crystal orchard where apples
hang, red and flawless but out of reach.
One by one they stumble, feet bleeding
on Mother’s razor path of barbs
into the dark. Silver snakes encircle, whisper
warning but the children do not hear.
Their fingers seek between the snapping
branches but find no-one. Their tears
blossom roses no-one will ever see
in the depths of the purple wood.
The ancient hermit snips and sews silence
in her cave in the deep purple wood.
She threads her needle with the fine hair
of a nameless girl, makes painstaking
stitches, a cloak of perfect skin; tawny
robin’s wing, freckled amber, cuckoo spit,
sun-kissed pebble, raven’s feather,
morning mist and midnight pools.