Northwords Now Issue 36

The FREE literary magazine of the North

The Wrong Idea

by S A MacLeod

When you think about being seven or eight, you remember the red of your clothes and your sunburn, of gums with missing teeth, and flushed cheeks in the photos of you and your sister. There was white too: the crests of waves, seashells glued to rocks and the shiny tin of the caravan you stayed in. Some days you remember blue. Not just the blue of the sky, or the turquoise of the cans of baked beans, but a magical violet-blue that was there and then gone.

As far as your mother was concerned, there was only one colour.

‘Red, that’s your favourite, isn’t it, Gillian?’ she would say, when you’d never expressed such a preference. Then she would dress you in it from head to foot, like a letterbox. It was almost a premonition. You glowed scarlet before she even had a chance to embarrass you.

‘Workers of the world unite!’ your uncle Jim used to say when your mother, sister and you arrived at his door clad in crimson. Then he would laugh and your Dad would laugh too when your mother told him later.  She didn’t get it though. She didn’t understand and that made her angry.

‘Your brother called me a prostitute again!’ she shouted, once she got home.

‘You’ve got the wrong end of the stick,’ replied your Dad. ‘Why on earth would he do that?’

‘I know what he’s like, that brother of yours. He’s always making snide remarks. He’s a nasty piece of work.’

‘I’m sure he didn’t mean ...’

‘Can’t you even stand up for me? You’re always taking his side.  I’m sick and tired of you always taking everyone else’s side.’

‘Look…’

She wouldn’t listen. She got angrier and angrier until she went off to bed in a huff.

Your Dad never usually said much when your mother was around. In fact nobody did. She was the unreliable narrator of the world around you, the sports commentator misinterpreting the game of your life. When you think of the sound of being seven or eight, you remember her voice.

And the smell of that time was the Calor gas of your caravan holidays. Your Dad said Calor gas was dangerous and to be careful. The whole caravan could go up in flames at any moment. One match and that would be it. Whoosh! And he laughed, as if he liked the idea.

At night the caravan shook when your mother stomped around and it rocked when she shouted at your Dad. Now and then you imagined the sea had come right up over the beach and you were floating and rocking on the waves.

That summer, it started to rain the day after you came to the caravan and then it poured down for a whole week. The raindrops battered the tin roof all night as if someone was up there dancing. And you thought of all the classes your mother made you go to. All that stepping and jumping, all these red outfits.

When the rain eventually stopped, you woke to the sound of hysteria in your mother’s voice. Some people are affected by the moon, but it was the sun with her. She was singing operatically, ‘Oh what a beautiful morning!’  She had burst into your bunk bed room and sang until you put your head under the pillow.

When the singing stopped, the shouting began.

‘Come on! Out of your beds! It’s a lovely day and the birds are singing and the rabbits are jumping, let’s go to the beach!’

You could hear the seagulls, but it was always a mystery to you where she got the information about the rabbits.

Your Dad was already outside, washing the car with a hose.

‘Is Daddy coming to the beach?’ You asked.

‘Let’s get you in the sun and get some colour in your cheeks.’

You tried again. ‘Is Daddy coming to the beach?’

‘It’s about time you got some sun on you.’

You remember walking through the sand dunes in your flip flops carrying your plastic bucket and spade. You loved the feeling of the sand sliding over your toes. Your sister Mairi dropped her spade.

‘Mairi!’ your mother shouted, ‘What d’you think you’re doing?’

You picked up Mairi’s spade and held her hand as you walked towards the sparkling sea.  You wanted to walk and walk right into it.

‘Where are you going? Let’s stop here.’

Your mother put down the tartan rug and your Dad started opening the navy blue windbreak. There was hardly anyone else on the beach. He hammered the posts into the sand using a big stone. You were ready in your bathing suits, but you had to wait for the command.

‘OK, get in the sea. In ye go.’

You ran down the beach. The Highland sea was always freezing, but you wanted to stay near to it. If you went up on the sand dunes, there might be trouble. Your Dad ran towards you in his bathing trunks doing a silly walk, then he sprung into the sea and splashed as you and Mairi screamed. You held hands, the three of you, and jumped over the waves.

By that night your skin had turned red and sore and the next day you had to wear long sleeves to go out. That was when you saw three boys of around your age, climbing a rock and singing a song.

I’m the king of the castle and you’re the dirty rascal.

They were sitting up on the only landmark on the beach - a weird solitary rock. One boy jumped up, pushed his friend down and shouted,

No, I’m the king of the castle get down you dirty rascal

You stared at them for a while wondering what they were doing and then one of them noticed you.

‘Why are yous wearing long sleeves?’ he said. He said words differently from you, had fair hair and sand stuck to his face.

‘We got burnt.’

‘That was stupid.’

You looked down. Why didn’t they get burnt? Why were you stupid?

‘Didn’t yous have any sun cream?’

You looked at Mairi who was looking at the boy.

‘Come on up here, if you like,’ he said.

You both ran towards the rock and climbed up beside them. You could see all around: the people on the beach, a dog, the sea and the sky.

You looked at the rock and found one of these white sun-hat shells.

‘Look,’ you said to Mairi, ‘it’s a limpet.’

‘A what?’ she said.

‘A limpet. We did it at school.’

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘is it alive?’

‘Yes, it lives in its shell. Inside it’s got everything. It’s got a foot and a tongue and teeth.’

‘Tongue and teeth? And… has it got eyes?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘What about ears?’

‘The teacher never said, but they don’t like it if another shell tries to sit in their space.’

‘In their space?’

‘Yes, they push it away.’

‘But how can they do that? It looks dead, Gillian.’

‘No, it’s alive.’

‘Is it really alive?’ Her wide open eyes stared at you.

The blond haired boy touched the limpet.

‘Look!’ he said and he pulled the shell off the rock. It was grey and gooey underneath.

‘You’ve hurt it now!’ said Mairi. ‘You’ve hurt it and it’ll die.’

‘It’s only a shell,’ he said.

His friends had jumped off the rock and were walking away. He threw the shell at them.

‘Hey!’ one of them shouted and picked up a stone to throw back.

You and Mairi jumped off the rock and crouched on the other side. Mairi’s eyebrows  wriggled and the boys kept shouting. You both looked out at the sea. It was getting choppy in the wind. Underneath each wave it was dark, a kind of hollow where the sun couldn’t get to. The light was changing to pink, like the postcards your mother sent to everyone from the caravan. She didn’t write much, just: ‘Having a lovely time’.  

‘Do you think Mammy’s having a lovely time?’ you asked Mairi.

‘I don’t know.’

The next day the boy from the beach came to your caravan when you were still in bed.

‘Wakey wakey!’ he shouted and you heard him knock on the metal.  Your mother opened the door and spoke to him.

‘They’re not up yet!’ you heard her roar.

You felt the thud of her footsteps and she burst into your room.

‘There’s a boy to see you.’

‘OK!’ You slid down the ladder out of your bunk bed. Mairi sat up in hers and her hair got stuck to the bed above.

‘Ow,’ she said. You pulled it out for her, but some strands were stuck in the wire under the mattress.

‘We’re just coming!’ You shouted to the boy.

‘Hurry up!’ he said.

You threw off your pyjamas and started getting dressed.

‘I’m just putting on my knickers,’ you yelled.

‘And I’m putting on my vest,’ said Mairi.

‘Me too!’

‘And that’s my T-shirt,’

‘I’m putting on my shorts,’ shouted Mairi.

You came out of the room and headed for the caravan door.

Your mother was blocking your way, a Cyclops in the doorway.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ she growled.

You looked down. What had you done now?

‘Do you think it’s OK to shout about your underwear to boys?’

You looked at her face, as red as her clothes.

‘It’s disgusting. You should know better. You’ll give him the wrong idea.’

‘What idea?’ asked Mairi.

‘Don’t give me that cheek. You know what I mean!’

‘Off out with you. Go out and play with your boy.’

You walked out of the caravan slowly.

‘What did she mean?’ asked Mairi.

‘Knickers and vest are bad words,’ you said.

‘Like bloody and damn and… big bum…?’

‘Shhhh!  If we say them… people…if we say them, it’s the wrong idea.’

‘The wrong idea,’ repeated Mairi.

You went to meet the boy. And now you worried that he would be different because you’d given him ‘the wrong idea’ whatever that was and it was your fault. You’d done it. And he would know. You weren’t sure what it was OK to say and not OK to say, so you didn’t say anything, just in case. But he would know. Now you knew that boys know things and that made you feel funny.

‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Let’s go to the beach!’

You remember rushing through the sand dunes with the reeds stroking your legs, the wind in your ears. The boy was saying something that you couldn’t hear. Mairi was dancing down the beach. What did the boy know? Why were you so bad for saying these words? Mairi did a cartwheel on the beach. Suddenly she was upsides down and then the right way up again. You felt heavy and stuck in the sand. The boy was zig-zagging across the beach, nee-nawing like an ambulance, or maybe it was bee-bawing because he came from down in Glasgow. The sea was sparkling. Fat seagulls were swooping from the sky. Your mother would be in the caravan angry and it was your fault. She would be cleaning in that fast way, that loud way. Or shaking something. Shaking the carpet out or the bedclothes or emptying the bins. At least she didn’t have a Hoover here. You thought of her face when she was hoovering.  The corners of her mouth turned down and her forehead wrinkled like it was her who was making the noise. Often she seemed to be attached to the machine, possessed by its shaking and vibrating.

The boy was waving now, jumping up and beckoning you to follow him along the beach. He floated like a feather, while the sand sucked you under. He went towards the harbour, ran between the rocks and then disappeared from sight.

‘Come on!’ you heard him shout, ‘over here!’

You caught up with him climbing over the stones and between the pools. Slimy seaweed covered the rocks. The sea air tasted salty. Then he disappeared again.

‘Over here!’ You heard, but you couldn’t see him. This time his voice was echoey.

He had gone and was just a voice. The seagulls were screaming. ‘What d’ you think you’re doing?’ your mother was saying in your head.

You followed the voices and found the boy and Mairi in a cave.

‘Look!’ he said. ‘Isn’t it brilliant?’

Inside you heard water dripping and there was a damp smell. Whenever you said anything your words moved around the cave and came back, even a whisper, it made you even more worried about saying the wrong thing. Mairi was skipping around. She started shouting.

‘Wooh!’

The boy joined in.

‘Arse!’ he said.

‘Shut…up!’ said Mairi.

‘Shite!’ he shouted and the word bounced around ‘Shi-i-i-i-te’

‘I’m…telling…on…you,’ shouted Mairi.

‘Who…are…you…going…to…tell?’

‘I’m…telling…my…mother… you…said…bad…words.’

‘Your…mother’s…a…nasty…cow!’

‘How…do…you…know?’

‘I…heard…her. My…mother’s…much…nicer…than…yours.’

‘You’re…a…liar!’

‘Celtic…forever!’ said the boy.

‘What’s…that?’

‘Haven’t…you…heard…of…Celtic?’

‘No…what…is…it?’

‘They’re...a… fuckin’… football… team!’

‘A fuk…king… football… team?

‘That’s…right’

‘How…many…players…in…a…fuk…king…football…team?’

The boy started laughing.

‘Jesus… girls… are… stupid!’ he shouted.

You stood at the side of the cave watching them and then you looked out at the sea again and your eyes hurt going from the dark to the light. You felt dizzy and walked away from the cave to look at the rocks and the pools around them. And maybe it was the crab that reminded you. The crab was moving sideways along a rock, clambering slowly, and then scuttling away and if you could have been fast like that it might have been alright.

If only you had been fast that time you picked the bluebells. Your mother had been angry and then you saw her watching the telly. There had been nothing on TV at the time because it was the afternoon. Just the test card: that girl with the blackboard and the hairband. That girl you wanted to be when you grew up. Your mother was staring at the test card and her face had no expression on it, but her eyes looked bloodshot. You didn’t know if she was waiting for a programme to come on, but usually there wouldn’t have been anything before Watch with Mother at 4 O’clock.

It was a hot day for spring and you went out to play and when you were on the hill with your friend you saw the bluebells under the trees, that magical violet glow. You thought they looked so lovely. And you wanted to make your mother happy so you started to pick them. You thought of her blank face staring at the telly and you pulled them out with their juicy stems. They were so small that you needed to pick a lot and soon you had a big bunch of them. The stems felt slimy in your hand and already the blue flowers didn’t look as good as they did on the ground. You set off home with your bunch of flowers. You went down the steps beside the hill and along the street, said bye to your friend at the entrance to the lane and waved, holding the bluebells like a trophy. When you got near the house you could still hear the music from the telly. The afternoon music that meant there was nothing on. Maybe your mother was still watching the blank screen. You were going to surprise her.

You went in the back door and through the kitchen. Going into the living room you could see the top of her head above the chair.

‘Hello Mammy!’ There was no reply.

You walked towards her with the bluebells, seeing the side of her stern face staring at the telly. The test card girl was staring back, at least the girl was smiling. You stood beside your mother offering her the bluebells.

‘Look, what I’ve brought you Mammy,’ you said, ‘Look Mammy!’

‘What?’ she said turning her face towards you quickly.

‘What have you brought me?’

‘These,’ you said, looking at the bluebells and noticing that they were drooping and had turned darker, kind of purple.

‘What did you pick them for?’ Her lips were close together and she seemed to snarl.

You looked at her angry face.

‘For you,’ you said looking at the flowers.

‘What would I want with some nasty withered flowers eh? Look at them, half dead.’

She stood up and grabbed them from you.

‘Out of my way,’ she said and marched off to the kitchen.

You heard the thump of something landing and the flip top of the kitchen bin. You followed her in, scanning the kitchen for the blue of the flowers, but you could only see the pale Formica and the red of the linoleum floor.

You looked up at her.

‘Well?’ she said, ‘What are you staring at? Out of my sight, go on, out of my sight ‘til I make the tea.’

And if you could have been fast like the crab, it might have been OK. The crab was scuttling sideways, but you had walked home slowly with the flowers. You had walked in the heat and the bluebells had turned purple and withered. And you couldn’t show her how lovely they had been on the hill. You thought you could make her happy, but you weren’t fast enough, you were slow like the limpet stuck to the rock, the bluebells had died and it was your fault. You’d said bad words to the boy and it was your fault.  

And you stood up and walked away from the crab and the rock pool, away from the cave. Mairi and the boy were still shouting and their voices faded as you got nearer the sea.  The seagulls screamed above you. And now you can see yourself, a child of seven or eight, standing there looking at the sea. And you can’t remember what you were thinking, but it might have been about the colour blue.