True Tales From A Highland World. By AKA.
Beware Of Sheep!
Alan the Art organiser was a shock-haired bouncing gnome with an inspired gift for story-telling. His accounts of events sprouted and grew as he gave them air. Fascinating passageways proliferated from the main chamber of his story into weird caverns where strange stalactites hung in candle-light. Each time he paid a visit he had a new tale of farce or wonder, or an old tale had grown shoots: how he climbed out of the girl's school at night to visit the inn and got stuck in the pantry window coming back. How he buried his father's ashes by climbing over the cemetery wall in Lewis in the dead of night because the gravedigger wouldn't perform for cremated remains.
His stories were too extravagant and tortuous for print. As he would say himself: 'They tell me I talk like a corkscrew, which I can hardly credit because I seem to myself to be as silent as the grave. The fact is, I can always tell where I came from and where I'm going but I'm not always just so sure where I may be in between. Where's the harm in that? Only a dead man is certain where he is.
'Talking of stories, did I ever acquaint you with the events the last time I was here? No? Then I'll need another wee drop to encourage me. Well, I was in need of one wee drop then, just as I am now, and went into the bar of the hotel at Ard. There was no one at all in this bar but myself and although I gave call here and a call there and poked a nose where I could find space for it, not a body could I find, and no sound told me it wasn't the Sabbath. My thirst grew till I could have taken water had a man offered it, and I even crept into the back parts of the house but heard nothing but a clock ticking and saw no living soul but a cat.
'When I got back into the bar there was this fellow, sprung from the ground, standing among the bottles. I ordered my drop and he poured it with a generous hand and I paid the man his due and began to give the same to the drink, but when I looked up considering a scrap of conversation he was gone'.
'A moment later a man the size of an oak tree with its sleeves rolled up came in and apologised that he'd not been there when I arrived because his grandmother had stolen the cow or his hen laid lino or Something of the sort. What could he get me, said he, and I said the same as before and he said before what and I raised my drink for him to inspect and he gives a run to the door like an elephant chasing a mouse and peers this way and that way uttering a fine round curse in Gaelic. It appears that this supposed bartender was a bogus operator well-known to the owner but difficult to locate in daylight. I said how sorry I was to be the recipient of such a disgraceful swindle and my deep understanding of his plight caused me to buy just one more Glen Livet in order to apply metaphorical salve to his wound. I wonder if that crafty opportunist of a non-barman is still alive? The owner fellow was large, legitimately aroused and called Mackay.'
Alan didn't get on with the County Dental Officer who visited the scholars on behalf of the authority and as we drove towards Ard he told me with a wealth of gesture about the gleaming pantechnicon with which this Officer had been provided, filled with drills and washbasins and scientific contraptions of all kinds. 'And the terrible thing is,' said Alan,'the man couldn't drive a hearse on an empty race course and is a great danger to the public in every capacity whether as dentist or motorist. He gets in a state of dither on a single track road and ends up drilling the wrong tooth.' As he talked Alan twirled the wheel with an abandon that the Dental Officer would do well to avoid.
'Look at that notice, Alan said. Beware of the sheep! 'Would you believe it? The world gets more dangerous every year. Now the sheep are going to fang us to death. Aargh! There they are, some of the monsters, sheltering behind those rocks, We must make our getaway. And he drove even faster.
As we sped round the next bend there was a squeal of brakes and we came sliding to a halt in a shower of gravel. There, canted over in the ditch, was a huge van, and beside the road, seated on a boulder, looking pale and dejected, was the Dental Officer.
'It was a sheep!' he said. 'It sprang into the road. I tried to miss the brute, and its standing there grinning, and look where I am! Look at my van!' Alan did look at his van, mainly to avoid looking at the Dental Officer, and he kept his face as expressionless as a plate of porridge. It took us an hour to find a farmer with a tractor which could pull the van back onto the road.
One night I was riding home from the village on a motor bike.
It was late, and moonlight. The humps and hollows were rich with shadow. On top of the hill a lorry was drawn off the road with two wheels in the ditch. Thinking the driver might be in trouble I pulled the bike onto its stand and walked over to the lorry. The cab was in thick darkness and I could see no one. As I drew close an arm grew suddenly from the window with a bottle in the hand at the end of it. I took the bottle and raised it to my lips. The surprising fluid that flowed warmly down my throat was vintage port. I restored the bottle to the waiting hand and the arm withdrew.
I returned to the bike and drove off.
A huge white moon shed pale brilliance over brooding hills and the silver water of the loch. It was a night for ghosts.
I was escorting a visitor named Barbara down our track to the cutting where she had left her car. We were about fifty yards from the main road when a strange chant grew from faint distance into weird resonance on the moonlit air. It was like some incantation in an unknown tongue, and it was moving closer.
Barbara was pale and clutched my arm.
'What is it?' she whispered.
I didn't know. It seemed extra-terrestrial, uncanny. There was no movement, no sound anywhere but this alien gibberish floating on moonlight. Then gradually, with a sense of shock and disbelief, I began to make out syllables, which were not those of an African dialect, but a litany of English swearwords repeated over and over again with an appalling concentration of malice.
No local inhabitant, however deep in drink, would utter such a psalm. In which case it must be a tramp, and if it was a tramp it was Happy Harry, who came from Newcastle, and was notorious for his grotesque transformation from Jekyll sober to Hyde drunk. A moment later we saw his figure reeling down the hill, semaphoring wildly.
'Come on,' I said . 'Quick!'
'I can't,' said Barbara. 'I can't move.'
She was trembling from head to toe and I had to coax her towards the car, step by step. Her eyes were shut.
She could not control the key when she got there and stood shaking by the door. I got in and started the car, leaving the engine running. She sat at the wheel without moving, her face like a white apparition at a stance.
'Drive straight past him,' I said. Go!'
The car fled away in a series of mad jumps. The chant went on, rising and falling, and as the headlights rushed towards him Happy Harry stood in the middle of the road, both arms in the air. Barbara accelerated, swerving anywhere in a squeal of tyres, and raced on up the hill, bumping on and off the verge.
I stood in the shadow of the bridge over the burn and in a few minutes Happy Harry wavered past, still swearing, as if peace and moonlight were his deadly enemies. He didn't see me.
When we drove North the next morning Barbara would not believe that the beaming fellow sitting on a boulder by the roadside rolling a cigarette was the same man.
The following year Happy Harry fell face down in a shallow pool and drowned.
Tunisia, Taffy and The Cow
The Robinsons kept a sheep and a cow. The sheep was a Border Leicester with a haughty aristocratic nose and a supercilious expression. To view her basking in the sun was to see the ruling class practising the highest form of complacency.
Although she had a whole field at her disposal to sleep in, Tunisia favoured our doorstep and the traces of her occupation were piled high each morning. We took to erecting every night a formidable barricade of planks and herring boxes. In the small hours a tremendous clatter would signify that Tunisia was barging about amid the wreckage, and in the morning there she was.
This habit of hers filled me with a tremendous desire to kick her and I spent a great deal of time trying to do so. In vain. She wasted no energy on me, but ran the precise speed necessary to stay out of reach. The moment I stopped, exhausted, she fell to browsing contentedly, one eye cocked. If I sidled forward she moved a few paces, still negligently cropping the grass. The moment I made a rush she was off at a nonchalant lollop.
One day, however, she met her match. Taffy, a local Skye terrier who haunted our house, used to accompany me up mountains by bounding four-footed over tufts of heather until he collapsed panting, and then had to be carried to the top. He always got home before I did. He too disliked Tunisia, and on this occasion chased her all over the field and clean into the living room, where she stood, breathing heavily, her eyes rolling. Taffy lay down and went to sleep. It was a heavy job to get Tunisia out of the house. She seemed to feel at home.
The Robinsons' other livestock was a large black cow called Daisy who provided rich milk and a kind of mild companionship to Mr Robinson as he moved about his evening tasks.
One day I saw him digging a hole. It was of enormous width and I went over to see if I could help. He could hardly bring himself to speak. Daisy had died suddenly of a mysterious complaint and he was preparing her grave. We spent most of the day digging. Getting Daisy into the hole was a complex business. She seemed to have a great many legs and it was necessary to manage the process in such a way as to avoid wounding Mr Robinson's sensibilities. He was a big, grey-haired man who stood head bent on the mound of fresh soil and said in a low voice: 'Ah, Daisy, litlle did I know as I milked you two days ago that I should be standing above you now and you under the earth forever.'
He never bought another cow.
The Wandering Man
It was impossible to avoid helping Donnie with the harvest. His back was eloquent. 'How can a decent man,' it said, 'sit footling with a typewriter when there's real work to be done? Search your conscience and come forth! Come forth, 0 sluggard!'
Mrs Mackenzie and I came forth. She was well on in her seventies and very small and thin, but tough as an old root, and could tie sheaves at the speed of no-thought, and lift potatoes as if bending were more natural to her than standing upright.
That's how I met the wandering man. Donnie hired him at times of need. He was pale, slight and anonymous, with no-coloured eyes and a veiled, set expression. He wore a long raincoat and a stamped-on trilby hat.
Geordie reported coming upon him in the abandoned Customs House on the hill. He was washing his hands over and over again with a large bar of soap. He had a camp-bed in there and an alarm clock. Whenever he had a job to do he donned a pair of rubber gloves which he kept in the pocket of his raincoat. He wore both raincoat and trilby hat while working, although it was hot that summer. He rarely paused for breath and had an air of narrow intensity as if his energy were directed inward, driving him on.
One day I passed him walking down the track from the main road and offered him a ride. He got in carefully without a word and sat with his head averted. His silence was neither restful nor stiff.
A few days later I saw him again, coming towards me with his faint, drifting gait. As he drew near he stretched out his hand before him and I saw that he was holding a toffee by its wrapper so that our fingers would not touch. As I took the toffee and thanked him he averted his head and walked on.
Gales blew from October to March. The roof cracked loudly, windows rattled, sparrows clung desperately to whipping twigs, then blew away into the distance, hens fled squawking before the blast, sheets of spindrift streamed across the face of the water, the loch seethed, near the point the sea stood on end and crashed against the rocks, all sights were swallowed in a room of changing air, in the night we heard tins and boxes blow by and clatter against the wall.
One day when the car rounded the bend and faced the sea the whole frame shuddered and the engine seemed to falter and draw breath. I crawled along in low gear, hanging grimly to the wheel, half expecting the whole thing to rear up, tip backwards and blow away. When I drew level with Donny's barn I steered the trembling machine into the shelter of the cutting and at that moment the whole of Donny' s stack flew in a solid lump from its moorings and spread flat against the gate where it stuck whipping its straw fragments. As I tried to struggle from the car the door flung back and then slammed against me, alive and fighting. It would have been as easy to get out under water.
Callum, oilskins flapping crazily, head down, was tacking towards the creaking gate. I tried to shout. Wind choked me.
Mrs Mackenzie, seventy-two years old and light as a straw was crawling on all fours in the shelter of the drystone wall, determined to help. When she moved beyond the wall the wind rocked her and she reversed, gasping. But as Donny and I fought with a viciously heaving and flickering tarpaulin to capture the remains of the stack we saw her coming in a series of slow, diagonal staggers towards the gate. The tarpaulin tugged and shook us like leaves. Ten minutes of wrestling got it secured at the corners. We could do nothing with the quivering mass still plastered against the gate.
I helped Mrs Mackenzie into the car and drove slowly home. She was as chirpy as a sparrow. She said they had worse gales when she was young.
I was trying to build a drystone wall when the old man came round the corner of the house, tapping firmly with his stick. He halted to watch, his head wobbling faintly, both hands laid trembling on the knob of the stick, his expression stern and sober. Then out went the stick and pointed at a stone of complex shape. He pointed at the would-be wall. I lifted the stone and laid it in place, staggering a bit. The stone fitted, of course.
The stick shot out unerringly to another stone, and so we went on building the wall.
Needing a rest, I asked after his health. He looked as if he were about to laugh, then thought better of it. His eyes twinkled frostily. "I went to the doctor," he said. "The doctor had a good look at me over his spectacles. Like this. You've been here before, he said. Yes, Doctor, I have, says I.
Well, it's not worth your while, he says. I'll tell you once and for all, there's nothing I can do for you, you may just as well go home, you're beyond repair."
The old man couldn't restrain a chuckle. It burst out like steam from a kettle. Beyond repair, he repeated. "That's what he said. And so I am. So I am. But wait you. That was eight years ago. And here I am. A ghost that won't lie down." He laughed aloud, and moved off very slowly, his stick tapping the stony path.
One day a tinker arrived in a lorry. He drove the lorry through Donnie's gateway into the field and since the field was damp and soft after heavy rain the wheels bedded deep and he couldn't drive out again. He set off walking at a swift and steady pace. Fifty yards behind came his wife carrying the baby.
The two figures remained that distance apart all the way up the hill towards the village.
The same afternoon two ancient trucks arrived laden with men, ropes and chains. Their movements as they descended, entered the field and rigged up a system of pulleys were smoothly organised and of a remarkably silent, deft precision.
My father was staying with us at the time and showed a dangerous interest in the proceedings. He was unwilling merely to watch from a distance, and started to walk up the track to a position directly opposite the performance itself. I warned him earnestly as he went against preferring advice to the tinkers.
He stood there for a while smoking his pipe. Then I saw him wihdraw the pipe from his mouth.
Damn it, I thought, he's going to speak.
The next moment six men were swarming towards the fence behind which he stood. I stood stiff with horror. The scene was more than a hundred yards away. I had no hope of getting there in time to help him. You can't run fast in Wellington boots. The speed and co-ordination of the tinkers' movements gave the spectacle an air of sinister inevitability. It was like watching a silent film. The next moment the tinkers were flowing over the fence and round him as if he were a stone by the wayside. They lifted boulders from the hill slope snd climbed back over the fence. As far as they were concerned he was invisible.
'Strange people,' he said when he came back. 'They didn't take any notice of me.'
'Thank heaven for that,' I said.
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