THE MOUSE by Donald McKenzie
I was just sitting the other day. Quietly. Having a wee think. Remembering when I was wee. Well, trying to. Things are a bit blurred these days but there are some things you never forget, and one thought leads to another of special times and places that never lose their brilliance in your mind.
Benbecula is like that to me. When I think of what it used to be like all these years ago; when it seemed that the sun was always shining - and it was always warm.
Cula Bay was a favourite spot with its big white sand dunes, like castles, and the sound of waves crashing on the beach. Pure magic. I also loved walking around the coastline, exploring all the gullies and the pools where the rocks had been worn smooth by the waves. Some of them looked like surreal sculpture to me, like Henry Moore statues. And there, high above the tide line and the stagnant puddles, there was an old Second World War American landing craft that had gone overboard from a ship in a gale before it even had the chance to be used in action. Still brand new when it had been washed upside down onto the shingle, but you were able to play in it. It was already rusty when I first discovered it, paint weathered and gone and the metal plates on its side flaking with brown and red shards falling like autumn leaves that stained the pebbles below. You had to be careful of terns there during the nesting season – they were dive bombers that screamed like Stukas!
I would sit and look out across the sea. Just on the horizon you can see Heisker, and I used to wonder what life would have been like on that small island, but it must have been hard with no shelter from Atlantic storms. It had been a long time deserted, and all the houses in ruins - apart from one used each year during the time for shearing. Even its lighthouse was unmanned and automatic - but it still winked at you.
The ocean and the sky seemed endless; made me feel really insignificant in the scheme of things. But what a feeling it is when you’re there looking out across the deep, and it’s easy to imagine you’re the only person on earth. Like the bomb’s been dropped and you’re the only one left. It’s not a bad sensation, I think it’s kind of spiritual, just you and nature. It’s as if you’re at one with it, like you have a real sense of belonging to the place. And all around you is beauty. Yellow lichen on black rocks and bright red seaweed piled up in purple sided gullies, the silver shell sand, and the green, purple, and blue striated colours in the shallows. Mind you, if you stood on old seaweed and broke the crust it didn’t half stink, but even so, I wasn’t averse to the smell. There’s a lot of grey and white shingle there too - spilling out into the fields where the machair flowers in spring sunshine are dazzling. And I’ve always liked the wee sea pinks on the rocks that dance in the wind.
It was also a great place for beachcombing. There’s nothing between you and the Americas, so all kinds of bits and pieces are washed up. Rubbish mainly, dumped from boats when it shouldn’t be, but also fishing gear – nets, ropes, floats, and suchlike. I used to like finding these old-fashioned floats made from glass, dark green or sometimes chocolate brown. Amazed at how you might find one wedged in the rocks and it would be completely intact!
I’ve even heard tell that you could find coconuts on the shore, but I never did.
There was the treasure contained in rock pools, the sea in miniature. I would spend an age lifting out every stone and observing all the wee animals that had been hidden scuttle, dart, or swim to another hidey-hole until I managed to remove every bit of their cover to study them. It was just so interesting. Kicking limpets off the rocks – wondering if they got a sensation of surprise, liked to touch their suckerry foot. Right rubbery so they were. And the feel of the top of a jellyfish or to watch one of these wee red sea anemones change into a bright red blob of jam when you poked it.
What a feeling it was just being by yourself. Even now I can just shut my eyes and when I think of being there again it all returns, the sounds, the aromas, and the touch of the wind on my face.
I wish I could go back – frozen in time.
My folks used to take me to my grandparents at the beginning of the school holidays and after a fortnight they would leave and go back to the mainland, and I’d be left for the rest of the summer.
I remember once when I was sitting at the table drawing pictures on the wax-cloth with my finger in spilt milk. Grandpa was supping his porridge, chewing it like it was a chop. He didn’t put the milk in the plate, kept it in a cup. He’d take one spoonful of porridge, dip it in the milk, and then sook it off the spoon. Tweed, the collie was always lying at his feet pretending he wasn’t interested but you could tell he was when he raised his eyebrows and glanced upwards at him every now and again.
My grandmother told me, ‘You should be out playing on a day like this.’ She started clearing the table and wiped my drawing away.
‘Can I take Tweed?’ I asked.
‘Of course,’ she said.
Tweed glanced in my direction when he heard his name, but he wasn’t for moving.
‘Come on then, let’s go.’
He still didn’t move, and I was already halfway out the house, but I knew when my grandfather finished his porridge, wiped his moustache with the back of his hand and pushed his plate to the side, Tweed wouldn’t be long in chasing after me. Sure enough, as I reached the front door, I could hear his paws scrabbling over the linoleum behind me.
‘Race you,’ I said as I ran out into the sun. My wellies slurped into the squelchy turf, and I almost got stuck in the mud. There had been heavy rain during the night and the sun would have its work cut out to dry the land in one day. And it became muddier in the field as I ran across to the byre and before I knew what was happening, I was on my Nellie. Head o’er heels when I tripped and one of my wellies left sticking out of the ground. I had to hop back to retrieve it. Anyway, when we got to the byre my Uncle John was still at the milking. I was standing in the door watching him when he turned around and suddenly squirted a jet of milk at me straight from the cow. Right down the front of my jersey as if I wasn’t in enough of a mess already. Aye, it was a good laugh we had about that.
I hadn’t gone into the byre as there were three cats in a line blocking the way, their tails twitching with expectation. They also wanted to be squirted at with milk – and Uncle John duly obliged
The cow was annoying my uncle because it kept flicking his head with its tail and he was swearing at it in Gaelic. Don’t know what he was saying but I knew he was swearing. I suggested he should tie a brick to its tail. ‘Aye, that’ll be right,’ he said. ‘Archie did that once and the cow knocked him out.’
Anyway, he managed to finish the milking, gave the cats a saucer each and half a bucket of milk to the calf. Then, as he was walking to the door, he surprised a mouse out of hiding and it made a bolt for it, but before you could say winkie Uncle John stamped on it. Crunched it.
It was over so quickly it gave me quite a fright.
And I felt terribly sorry for it.
One minute alive and the next dead – made me kind of think about things.
To be honest I didn’t know exactly how old my grandparents were in those days. My grandmother was lovely though. Had loads of stories and knew about a lot of things. She was quite wee and bent and was always dressed in black, apart from her pinafore, well it was also black, but it had a pattern of small, coloured flowers across it. She wore round horn-rim glasses and her hair in a bun - but there were always a few strands of wispy grey that escaped - gave her a kind of dotty professor look. The veins on her hands stood out and she had red knuckles. There were liver spots on her skin like you see on some old folk; comes from working outside in the sun at the peats, the hay and suchlike I believe. I also remember her pulling out nettles in the garden with her bare hands. I didn’t understand how she wasn’t stung but she told me that if you gripped the nettles hard enough, they wouldn’t sting. I believed her but I wouldn’t take a chance on it myself, not even these days.
They say I look like her and I suppose I do.
One morning I took tea and some bread and butter upstairs to the box room for my grandmother. The stairs were quite narrow, and the tray was really heavy, but I arrived safely. The tea was in a small silver pot with the milk in a separate jug, so it was posh-like. And when I entered, she was sitting at her dressing table brushing her hair. I had never seen it except in a bun and the length of it was a surprise, as silvery as the teapot, and I wondered what colour it would have been when she was younger. She was singing away to herself, and strange to see her dressed in a long white goonie. Just for an instant the sun shone through the skylight and lit up her face, and she looked like a little girl having a dream. She turned, smiled at me, and that was like the sun coming out as well.
She slept in this tiny space on her own. My grandfather and Uncle John shared the north room, and the south room was for visitors. But it was a grand wee place. The ceiling had the same slope as the roof, with a single-pane window, and there was a small box bed at one end. There was hardly any space to move what with chests, bags and suitcases piled up on each other. The furniture she had was squeezed in between this accumulation and the room was musty with a whiff of camphor and chamber pot pee. The dressing table was covered with all her treasures. Buckram bound books full of old photos of people I never knew that were long dead. There were small dark-brown cardboard boxes full of bits and bobs, brooches, buttons, wee silver sixpences and the like and many jars and bottles, blue and green and clear, containing perfumes and creams. In the middle of the table sat a cherry-red lacquered Chinese box with a beautiful design on its lid of exotic birds that looked as if they had been created with butterfly wings. Framed photographs hung on the walls, yellowed with age, soldiers with curly moustaches, and young men with tight collars and bright staring eyes.
I watched while she drank from the green mug, my favourite, and ate her bread and butter. I was happy that she seemed to be enjoying it and that I had done something to please her. Her false teeth clacked on shrunken gums. I found that amusing but somehow it made her seem even older. I saw the laughter wrinkles she had at the corner of her sparkling eyes, eyes of the palest blue. Profiled against the light you could see she had downy fuzz above her thin lips and even though she looked so small and frail there was something about her that was strong.
Can’t explain it.
She was still chewing away and smiling, and I was smiling back – as I watched a crumb on her bottom lip moving up and down.
She would always ask as summer drew to an end when would I be coming home again, but by the December of that year she was dead. Just like that. Sudden-like.
One minute in my life and the next minute she was gone.