Northwords Now Issue 38

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Achanalt

by Donald S Murray

1

The man who made the request stop
for Achanalt never left the train;
though we looked to see his foot or suitcase drop
upon the platform, no one ever came

from either carriage, not to claim
possession of the kirkhouse, rusted shed,
loch stretching out beside the rail.
Instead, there was an absence, 'Reserved'

flapping above seat, the fact that some had seen
him stepping on the train at Kyle or Plockton,
or reading 'Mail' or 'Scotsman' at Duncraig or Achnasheen.
But after that, he'd vanished. It was as if he'd gone

to gain absolution for his role
in how empty that this landscape was, a child of those who left
or cleared its barren acres, sailing either east or west,
but now travelling back on this line to gain comfort for his soul.  


2
 
Winter’s chill. A snowdrift blocks the line
leaving lives stalled on the rail to Achnasheen.
A Merchant Navyman travelling to Kyle
to meet the child he’s never seen
or wanted. A Lewisman in exile
returning to the wife who’s lain for years in bed.
There’s a Portree housewife whose laughs and smiles
belie the way her head’s a storm of whispers. (The doctor said
she isn’t long for this world.)
They’re together in this carriage where hard frost
swirls patterns on the windows, snowflakes whirl
outside the doors. And shivering down the aisle, a draught,
as those on board encounter all they have loved or lost,
the sceptres of their past, their half-forgotten ghosts.

3

Heart thumping like the piston of that engine
the time he got off at Garve to purchase that half-bottle
before running hard to catch it once again
as wheels hissed and bubbled, guard puffing whistle
to send it up the rail to Kyle. 'Almost bloody missed it there,'
he laughed, thinking of his parents’ home in Ness
and what they'd see as a sad betrayal
of pious hopes and dreams if he ever once confessed
of this time when he slipped right off the rails
for a splash and swirl of whisky.
But hell, how his throat needed it to cleanse a belly full
of dust and concrete, fire washing his mouth free
of the taste of last year on the Hydro, bringing light to these dark hills.


4

‘You from Valtos too?’ the Lewisman smiled
the last day of the year
as they travelled home from war.
‘It’ll be great to be home. Spend a while
blethering with the folks I know back there.’
He’d nodded, looking forward to the croft,
and lifting high his peat-blade and hay-fork
instead of the Lee Enfield he’s been forced to bear
while cramped in that dark uniform. And he’d reached his home
the morning after, sailing out with other Skyemen war had long exiled
on the ‘Jenny Campbell’ out from Kyle.
But not that man from another Valtos, his body left by sea-foam
on the Lewis shoreline. He thought of the long hours he’d sat
on that train from Kyle or Mallaig, how he spoke of his young wife
waiting back in Uig, how he had never reached her,
how she would spend her life
without him, always dressed in unrelenting black

5

One night, when that train stopped at Achanalt,
the full moon settled in the window of a carriage
and illuminated glass, giving lustre to the frenzied love
of a couple in their early years of courtship or marriage
half-undressed in their seats.
It caught a ghillie’s eye
as he stepped out in the half-light, stalking deer,
not thinking for a moment he’d come by
a scene like this, but it woke a longing in him.
Not for Loch a’ Chroisg or grouse or endless moor,
but for both the lust and urgency he glimpsed
before gaze dipped and lowered. He stored
away that moment till the hour he asked
the train to stop there once again – to take him far away from this,
the loneliness he felt here,
that aching desolation when he longed for tenderness.