Northwords Now Issue 38

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Loaded for bear

by Hilton Shandwick

When mist came weaving its way through the shallow coastal hills and kissed the mossy creeks of old Harmster, the children fled its bitter chill, its hollow damp caress, and huddled by the peaty glow of a homely hearth. But on another morning, when the wind was light and from the west, the great outdoors might truly deliver what a highland spring promised and adventure might be a footstep away.

    In the joy of such a cool April morning Angela swept round the deserted croft at Milngower and down the hill to Inveraber, past the glorious ice cream parlour, not yet open for the season, in search of that adventure.

    The dark and miserable tenure of winter was a testing time for crofters in that bleak and feral place, but, though winters were hard, they were never quite as harsh as the winter of her heart. For loneliness is a winter landscape. Now, however, that spring had sprung and the long glen would fill with tourists, the pleasure palaces, as the minister called them, would be opening for sinful business. Peddling tea and blueberry muffins, crab cakes and pickled herrings, even on a Sunday! And another spring would come creeping upon her, thrilling and unexpected, that would change her life forever.

    Logan Nicol was heading out of the village as she arrived. His shotgun was heavy with expectation.

    ‘Still efter yon sleekit Tod?’ she teased.

    ‘Ah’ll get im yet,’ said Logan, ‘this time ah’m loadit fur Bear.’

    She smiled at his optimism and admired his determination. He’d been chasing that cunning old fox for two years, but never yet succeeded. They both knew that sometimes, with a cunning adversary, going loaded for bear was the only option.

    She thought of a poem her mother was fond of about a hunter home from the hill. It was her mother’s ‘guilty pleasure’, the love of books. But, though she tried, Angela could not remember the words.

    At Carsemore she met Nancy Wilson. Red headed and on the verge of adulthood, she stretched the cotton of her blouse in a way that Angela did not, yet, and Angela felt a pang of envy.

    ‘Ah’ve jist been howkin cockles an ah’m fer bait,’ she dropped her bucket at her feet.

    ‘Its a braw haul,’ said Angela, as she noted a few razor shells in the bucket too, ‘im aff doon tae the herber fur fresh partans, if they hiv ony.’

    They discussed the merits of frying cockles over boiling them and making crab cakes with cream cracker, and they let the morning turn to afternoon as the teuchat and the whaup sang their chorus. But a catch of cockles couldn’t lie in a bucket forever and eventually Nancy took her leave.

    Along a sheep track, past the old kirk, the breeze whispered the sedition of an early summer, as Angela watched crab boats cruise past the breakwater.

    At the harbour Evan McKay, broad shouldered and rough chinned, hauled trays of succulent crabs off the Siller Crest. He smelled of fresh labour and old habits and had a smile that could melt butter, and big rough hands that looked like they could tear a sheep apart.

    ‘Aye,’ he said.

    ‘Aye.’

    ‘Twa partans is it?’

    ‘Aye.’

    He picked out the best looking two for her and put them in her bag. She lingered, coyly making small talk. She couldn’t find a smile to match his and turned the conversation to the catch. Crabs and lobster were the usual haul and though they’d had lean seasons recently, things were looking up.

    On days like that you could believe that the world turned so slowly that time might stand still. Forever seemed to be a place, not a wish, and the landscape of the heart was populated with possibilities. And though she had no idea what those possibilities were, she understood that they existed. Then he spoke the words that brought an urgency that shattered the enchantment. He’d seen her father at the Bay Inn the night before ‘birling fur Scotland,’ and she almost let her purchase drop.

    Now she thought of the lonely mother waiting at the croft for her return. He’d be heading back with distemper, if he was out of money, and there was always safety in numbers on such mornings. She said her farewells and hastened home.

    As he watched her leave Evan thought that this time next year, if she wasn’t careful, she’d pushing a pram. The boys round those parts took no hostages when their sap was rising. Such were the ways of sinful boys and lonely girls, and the summers in the highlands are short.

    Before Angela, the river came creeping through the wooded strath, swept past the sloping croft lands, and spilled its burden into the little harbour. She retraced part of this passage on her way home.

    Despite her obvious urgency, she was stopped beneath the hill they called the Raven’s Crag by the school teacher. She was prim and proper and godly and irate in a way Angela had never seen before. She had just been propositioned by Angela’s father, and was disgusted enough to say so, even to a pupil, even to his daughter, such was her distress.

    Angela sympathised with that and felt some of her own. He’d certainly be home before her now. But the teacher had more to say than Angela had time to listen to and, having tackled the issue as delicately as she could, Angela said goodbye and, once the teacher was out of view, ran helter skelter for home.

    At the Loon Pool she ran straight into Conor MacLean.

    ‘Wow, easy Tiger,’ he said, helping her up and gathering her spilled crabs. His proper English always sounding incongruous, but charming, to Angela’s ears.

    ‘If ye find ony teeth, they’re mine,’ she said looking past him.

    He chuckled and asked, ‘What’s the rush? Don’t you have time to speak to an old friend?’ and though Angela had never thought the day would come when she didn’t have time for Conor, that was the day.

    ‘Its ma da, he’s on ae o his binges,’ she said.

    Conor understood the situation, they’d been to school together and everyone had heard the stories of the father’s excesses. On the beach at Balinholm she had told him of the night her father had thrown kitchen knives at her mother’s feet and told her to dance. She danced.

    ‘Ah best git back,’ said Angela, ‘or he’ll be giein her dule.’

    The landscape that had been full of possibilities a few minutes before, seemed suddenly barren and bleak, and filled with an isolation that no heart could bear.

    ‘We’ll go together,’ said Conor, smiling. They took the short cut over the Doonie Brae.

    He helped her over a wooden style with secret glances, unconscious and yet lingering, at her newly shapely legs, and teased her for her severe expression till they passes the cruck-roofed barn onto the rise beside the Croft house. And there they saw Angela’s father standing ten yards from the front door rubbing his chin.

    It was one moment in time when, though they didn’t know what, they understood that something had changed. It was a moment they felt they could not intrude on. They were rooted to the spot.

    Presently her father turned and walked away with a resignation that Angela had never seen in him. The two old friends ran to the house to find Angela’s mother and the policeman’s wife sitting by the front door on old driftwood Caithness chairs. Her mother was holding a court order in her hands. No one was smiling.

    The father turned east at the gate and headed back toward the pub.

    Conor looked at the sombre mother and said, ‘I see you’re loaded for bear.’

    ‘Fit happened?’ Angela asked.

    Her mother quoted, somewhat cryptically, ‘In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.’

    And though she was never quite so fond of music as her books, and misery always casts a long shadow, in the days that remained to her, she danced.