Northwords Now Issue 34

The FREE literary magazine of the North

The Night Visitor

by Duncan MacInnes

Last night she came to him again, the lovely fetch winding round him as he slept.

The room where they used to meet, thirty years ago, was above the newsagent on the Promenade. It must have originally been a store. You got up a fire-escape at the back. There was a bay window overlooking the Firth of Forth where it runs out to the North Sea. An old cast iron stove sat on the lime-washed floorboards and there was a sink with a cold-water tap. That was all. He could use the newsagent’s toilet when it was open, but it was understood that the arrangement was not official. At night when trying to sleep, he could hear the sonorous cries of the ships’ horns out at sea.

He was grateful for the room as he needed somewhere to bring the kids. Some months after he left his job, his marriage also ended. As he was falling asleep one night, he murmured to his wife, ‘Now, when we fuck, it feels like you’re being unfaithful to someone.’ In the morning, he woke to find her crying. She was having an affair with her boss, who reminded her of her father.

The division of spoils led to him getting the chaise-longue, which improved the look of the room, until he sold it to pay for a set of bagpipes. A couple of years previously, on a trip to Ireland, he had watched an old man playing the uilleann pipes, the expression on his face ardent and spry. The honeyed tones of the pipes rose through the room like the thrum of bees in summer. By then his low spirits had exhausted the sympathy of even his kindest friends, and previously that of his wife. When finally he emerged from the bog of depression, all he wanted to do was play like that old man. He began to practice first thing in the morning before the newsagents opened, and at night after it closed.

The kids were great. On their way round to see him, they scavenged along the beach collecting driftwood for the stove. To them, Daddy seemed to be on a camping trip without end. They brought round a TV-with-video that their granny had bought for their bedroom. Their mother had finished with her boss, but the freedom from marital ties had opened up a world of potentiality, and she was, after all, quite beautiful.

By now he had found a couple of discarded pallets to form a base for a bed, and blew one week’s unemployment benefit on a mattress. They sat on it wrapped in blankets and watched old Doctor Who episodes. The tiny cracks in the stove glowed red in the darkness.

To give his days some structure he attended college, on a back-to-work scheme. Not caring what he did, he picked IT. On the first day, a girl entered the lecture room with the swagger of a young thug. She was tall with short red hair and a wicked smile. She scanned the room until her eyes met his and then she grinned.

A week later they met in a queue for the toilet at a student party. By the time they hit the street, he had revealed his age, his kids and his impending divorce, and then he left her at the corner so he could piss behind a wall. He was surprised, when he came back, to find her still waiting.

When they got to the room, there was no wood for the stove that wintry night. She pushed him back onto the bed, and they climbed in without having kissed. Their bodies folded into one another almost by accident, and a little while afterwards she got up to be sick. She left in the early hours of the morning and he lay on in happy disbelief. Each time they met thereafter, he noticed their first touch relieved some previously unrecognised pain.

All that year, they got away from lectures as soon as they could, to race through the leaf-strewn streets at dusk, their shoes ringing out like iron, guided by the small orange blossoms of the lamps in the fog. For years afterwards, he would associate the grey skies and soft breezes of autumn with her.

She was a former hairdresser from Paisley who had become allergic to the chemicals used in her work. Since that alteration, she usually dressed in jeans, an old pullover, converse sneakers. It was the first time he had slept with a woman who wore her femininity so casually. One day she wanted to cut his hair, which she did without allowing him a mirror, all the while in silence. He wondered if he had caused offence. In the middle of cutting she put down the scissors, put her head against his, kissed him, and then carried on. Another time they were in bed and he was inside her, when she began to cry. He withdrew in alarm and looked at her face. ‘I’m so happy’ she said.

He tried talking about the kids to her, but she just changed the subject. When they came at the weekend, she stayed away, and he and the kids took a bus out to the hills, trying to climb a different one each time. Once when they were leaving the room, he started to cry. The boy turned away but the youngest was affected and wrote about it in a ‘what I did at the weekend’ essay at school.

One morning they met before the first lecture, caught a bus back to the room, and spent the rest of the day in bed. In the evening, he got up to fry bacon on the stove, and they took sandwiches down to the sea wall, where they sat as the moon emerged from the clouds, to throw a gleaming path across the water. Usually she did not stay all night, but that evening they fell asleep and did not wake until dawn. Later on, she caught the bus home, and at the stop outside the flat she shared with her boyfriend, the doors opened to reveal him waiting to go to work. He passed her by without comment.

She was the kind of girl that men talked to without predatory intent. They chose not to banter with her and she did not flirt. They might talk about motor-bikes, which she knew about. They might talk about music, which she saw as a vast city, whose main thoroughfares were to be avoided, while in the back-streets treasures were to be exchanged. The folk tunes he played were nice, but museum pieces. She thought the world had produced too many people, that time was impossible to measure, and that the planet was doomed. Sometimes after she had smoked weed, which she did often, she seemed to inhabit a separate domain and could not be reached.

There were times when she was absent for long periods. One day when he was expecting her, she didn’t show up, nor was she at college the next two days. It seemed her pal’s boyfriend had been holding some crack cocaine for a dealer, and she and her pal thought they would give it a try when the boyfriend was out. They only stopped when it was finished. When the boyfriend returned and discovered the loss, he started beating her pal up, until she intervened with a baseball bat and put him in hospital.

In her absence, he would retreat to the pipes. He hung onto each note, feeling the two slips of Spanish cane in the chanter vibrating against each other; the resonance filling the room. He loved especially the playing of a slow air, the melody yearning for what is lost or what cannot be. It was during these times she began to come to him, his night visitor, the haunt continuing through the waking day.

In the end the absences simply got longer, until finally the course was over. They both passed and she got a distinction.

One last Sunday afternoon, long after their exams were over, she appeared on the fire-escape. He was surprised that his feelings were as acute as ever. As usual, she only wanted to fuck, but on leaving she turned at the door, and looked long and hard at him. ‘Ye take care of yerself, see? For I’ll no be back.’ Then she vanished through to the West forever.

It took a long time to get over her leaving, but as much as he missed her, he felt she had left him with more than when they began, and that was himself really, and the moon and the sea and the pipes and the room.