Northwords Now Issue 35

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Eden in the Morning

by Roddy Murray

‘There’s someone coming’ I said, ‘there’s a car on the machair’.  I looked at Morry and said ‘It’ll be him.  It’ll be him.  I told you I fucking told you he’d check’.  Morry said ‘Shut up. Where?  No way.  He never checks.’   She looked through the narrow split in the drawn curtains in the caravan window.  A dark blue Volvo estate was slowly undulating its way over the shimmering grass and flowers towards us.  

It was a Saturday morning in July, early enough for the machair to be still damp with dew.  We’d only been there a night.  I’d been in the bunk-bed when I first heard the engine.  I noticed because it didn’t recede, it got louder.  

Morry was already up.   She wasn’t paying attention.   Rummaging in her bag.  Hadn’t yet bothered getting dressed.   Well, she had better get her kit on pretty damn quick.  Then I thought, oh Christ, I hope the caravan wasn’t rocking when he turned off the main road towards us.  

There was no doubt.  It was him.  Doctor Grieve.  Our landlord for the weekend.  Morry knew him through being a patient in his practice the couple of years she lived over in Valtos.  She’d cleaned house for him.  Still knew him just well enough to ask if she could stay in his caravan sometime.  By herself, obviously, otherwise there would have been no point in asking.  Not without a wedding ring on her finger.  

‘Remember Lot’s wife’ he had said when he took his family from their enclave in the Midlands to head for Lewis all these years ago.  To a place where there was still some decency left to protect and conserve.  Like a theological national park.  A kind of Eden unscathed by moral collapse.  And where better?

What the fuck did he want?

There was less than a minute to react.  Morry was already dressed.  I’d never seen her do it so fast.  Still haven’t.  The situation hadn’t so much unfolded as fallen on us like a collapsed roof.  I had two options.    Get dressed and try to act normal, or hide under the duvet, flatten out, throw some stuff on top and hope he wouldn’t spot me.  

No chance.  Not with all my gear lying about.  It was bloody obvious she wasn’t alone.  I could see him pulling the duvet off.  Me underneath.  Naked.  Mortified.  It didn’t even bear thinking about.  What a fucking farce.  Christ, I was thirty eight years old.  And Morry wasn’t his daughter or his wife.  

But she wasn’t my wife either.

I jumped into last night’s shorts, scrambled a t-shirt, grabbed my paperback of The Crow Road and desperately threw myself into a sprawling, casual, been-up-for-a-while pose along the bench-seating at the other end of the caravan.  

As a pre-emptive measure, Morry had already gone out and I could now hear them talking.  Sounded amicable enough.  Couldn’t make it out.  Pleasantries.  Maybe it would be ok.  Maybe he wouldn’t look in.  

But he did.  The door opened.  Morry said “Donnie, this is Dr Grieve.”  I raised my eyes lazily from the book and said “Morning. It looks like it’s going to be a nice day”.  It really was as lame and phoney as that.  My voice sounded like it was coming out of an old transistor radio.  

There was eye contact for a frozen fraction of a second.  The moment expanded.  And petrified.  

Later when replaying the encounter, we were unable to recall anything that was said or happened within that blank space.  It was like we’d had a spontaneous black-out.  I think he wore a khaki waistcoat.  With pockets.  But I’m not sure.

The next thing I did remember was Morry’s voice coming through the open door.  She was saying “I’m sorry Dr Grieve, please don’t misunderstand …”   He said something about being disappointed, that he was an old-fashioned sort and how he felt let down and expected better.  And then, just when I thought he was going to leave it at that, the cheerless incantation went on.  How he’d misjudged her.  A betrayal of trust.  

It brought to mind a Victorian dad thrashing his kids.  More in sorrow than in anger.  For your own good.  One day you’ll thank me.  This hurts me more than it hurts you.  

It sure was old school.  And it took me right back to it.

He didn’t even have to say we had to leave.

When the car door shut and the engine faded-off, Morry came back in.  She looked wrecked, drained, beaten.  She said “we have to go”.  I said “I know”.  She slumped down beside me on the bench-seat and we sat with our backs against the end-window.  Didn’t say anything else.  It felt like we’d been ambushed, ransacked.

I had glazed-over.  I was looking vacantly towards the other end of the caravan where barely five minutes earlier I had lain in a woolly-headed, semi-conscious cocoon.  

I became aware that I was staring at something under the bed.  Last night’s bed.  An object.  No.  “Jesus, Morry” I said “There’s a dead bird under there.”  A glimpse of iridescence.  “It’s … a starling.  How come we didn’t notice it till now?”  I stood up, walked over and crouched down to investigate when, with another start, I saw that it was breathing.  “It’s alive” I said, turning round “How is it alive?  Did it come in during the night?  The window wasn’t open.  Was the window open?  How come we didn’t hear it?”

But when I looked again I saw that it wasn’t alive.  It was still moving though.  Its entire chest cavity was crammed with a seething, heaving colony of maggots.  

For a second I was sure I was going to retch.

I thought about leaving it where it was.  Just ship out.  Lock the windows, shut the door.  Bottle it up.  Let the larvae consume the host and ripen into a dense, black swarm of flies.  So that when Grieve returned the following weekend, he would find Beelzebub in residence.  

But I didn’t.  I swallowed my disgust.  I gripped a wingtip between thumb and forefinger, whipped the bird out and flicked it through the open door onto the lush, verdant machair.

Then I sat down again.  And breathed.  And put my head in my hands.

Soon the sun would grow and gather in brightness and heat.  I went outside, shaded my eyes and looked across the brightly-speckled grass towards the dazzling white sands, the turquoise water and the islands beyond.  It was a rare, perfect day for the beach.  That had been the plan.

Instead, I stuffed our gear into bags and put them in the car boot with our box of food and bottles of wine while Morry freneticaly wrote out a letter of apology to Grieve in her sketchbook.  It ran to three long pages and there wasn’t much punctuation.   When we drove through the village on the way back, I stopped at his house and she leapt out of the car and shoved it under the front door.  

We headed back to Stornoway in silence.  

Forty miles later we sat opposite each other at the window in her first-floor flat overlooking Church Street watching the traffic and the usual Saturday people.  More silence.   Morry said “I’m going to make some coffee.”  

I looked at my watch.  It was 8.57am.