The Last House at Kinnaird Head
Old age had not been slow as it worked its way into Marjorie’s bones. Instead, it had stood like a fisherman in a loch and waited till he could hook and reel her in. She was his prize catch. It seemed to the town that one day she was down by the harbour in her old green mac, Tig yapping at her feet, the grease from the chips moisturising her cracked fingers (one for her; one for Tig; the last she’d throw to Domhnull) and the next no one had seen her for a week.
Rabbie, the Postie, went to check on her on his day off. Marjorie had lived in the last house before the sea for as long as anybody could remember. She was a squat lady, her weight great enough that it went some way to smooth out the furrows of time from her face. The only real indicator of her age was her hair, which was so white and wispy that her scalp could be seen through it. For years people had been asking her, ‘Marjorie, far yi movin’ doon?’ and she’d reply,
‘Yi ken am no movin awa from ma hoose.’
In the pub that night Rabbie could hardly enjoy his bitter for all the people asking, ‘Is she deid?’ and he’d reply,
‘She nae deid, she blames the mutt, says its tae old ti walk.’ But when she next made her way into town they could see her face wincing whilst Tig skipped along beside her, yipping around her ankles.
She got her fair share of visitors after that. There had been some talk of her son, Graeme, coming back to look after Marjorie, like he had in the month or so between the accident and the funeral, but, as he hadn’t been heard from since then, most of that had died down. He was a baby when Hitler dropped the leftover bombs on The Brock, and Marjorie would hold him in her arms as she ran for shelter when the sirens shouted warning. He used to love to wind her up and whenever there was a fresh pair of ears he’d tell the story of how his Ma had forbidden him from playing on the rocks at Kinnaird Head, but he did it anyway and slipped on the seaweed and broke his arm. He went home crying, but instead of giving him sympathy Marjorie threw him over her leg and slapped him on his buttocks. Every time he told it Marjorie would hiss with laughter and warn him, ‘Aye, yi were a nickum, but Ah’ll chaap yis on yi dock far yi clype again!’ No one really knew why he left. Some say he’d married a city lass from Edinburgh, which, in Marjorie’s eyes, was almost as bad as marrying an Englishwoman. If she had any other family, they were either long dead or she never mentioned them. The closest thing she had was Alasdair.
Alasdair was the only person in the town who knew Marjorie before she was a McTaggart. He was Domhnull’s apprentice and they worked together on the trawlers for nearly forty years. Alasdair would always greet Marjorie with, ‘Why hello wee quine’ and receive a clip round his ear for his charm. Since the week Marjorie vanished Alasdair had made the drive up to her house more frequently than he used to. On days when the weather wasn’t too bad, he’d take her down into town. They’d always end up at the harbour, licking the sea salt from their lips. Sometimes, Marjorie would treat Alasdair to a bag of chips.
‘Ah still expect tae see him sometimes, yi ken. Comin’ in aff th’auld Maggie.’
‘Aye lass. Ah do too.’
Marjorie picked out the last chip from her packet and threw it into the sea. It floated there for a moment. The seagulls dove for it as it began to sink and Alasdair threw his chip into the mass of feathers. She reached into her pocket, pulled out an envelope and passed it to Alasdair, leaving grease on the paper.
‘Look whit came with Rabbie today.’
Alasdair wiped his hands on his cords before reaching down his jumper to retrieve his reading glasses from the top pocket of his shirt.
‘Oh, so th laddie’s finally comin’ home. Ah see. Well, tha’ll be nice, aye?’
The fire was burning all year round in Marjorie’s house and she’d throw anything on it to keep it going. Walking in the living room on Friday morning to see Marjorie toss an empty biscuit packet into the flames, Alasdair told her, as he always did, ‘Yi cannae do tha lass, is nae good for yi. They say it gives yi cancer.’ Marjorie shrugged, an extra chin forming on her neck as she did so.
‘Don’t yi worry, Ah’ll do it.’
‘Am no havin’ yi makin me ma tea, yi always make it tae watery!’
Marjorie’s palms sunk into the wadding on her chair as she pushed herself out of it. Alasdair pulled up the legs of his pine corduroys, revealing a pair of Scrooge McDuck socks, and sunk into an armchair covered with the garish McTaggart tartan that Marjorie hated but Domhnull had insisted on. He whistled tunelessly as he waited. The living room looked tidier than it had when he’d dropped her back on Tuesday afternoon: the coffee table was free from its usual load of used cups, spam letters and scraps of notes from Marjorie to herself; the floor had been vacuumed for the first time in a couple of months; and the rug in front of the fire had been turned over so the ash stain couldn’t be seen.
‘Here yi go.’ Marjorie shuffled into the room, moving slower than usual to try to stop too much brew slopping over the sides.
‘Whit time’s he comin’?’
‘Ah dunnae ken. Aboot four?’
Alasdair slipped on his reading glasses and squinted at his watch.
‘It’s nearly quarter tae!’
Marjorie took a gulp of tea and winced as it burned the back of her throat, and reached towards the coffee table, ‘Bugger Ah forgot th’ shorties!’ She set down her tea and began to push herself back out of her chair.
‘Seet down quine, Ah’ll get em.’
She started to shake her head, but Alasdair was already out of his chair. She took another gulp of tea and checked the time. When he returned, Tig followed him through.
‘Whit yi gon and dun lettin’ the dog in here fur?’
‘Is no ma fault he can jump tha gate lass! Whit’s th problem anyway?’
‘His lass hae got allergies.’
Alasdair raised his eyebrows and set the shortbreads at the end of the coffee table nearest to Marjorie. ‘So he’s bringin’ his lass here, ah see.’
Marjorie grunted and stretched for a biscuit to dunk. Alasdair removed Tig from the room, ‘Am no havin’ yi say anythin’ aboot her, yi hear? Wee laddie’s travellin’ a long way, ne’er mind it’s aboot bludy time, but yi best be nice, aye?’
‘Aye, Ah’ll be nice.’
They sat dunking biscuits, the crackling fire mixing with the whisper of the sea.
‘Should hae bin here by now.’ Marjorie muttered, swirling the biscuit crumb sludge at the bottom of her drink.
Alasdair performed his glasses retrieval routine and checked his watch. ‘Aye, but tha’ dunnae mean he won’t be. Tell yi whit’s for whit, Ah’ll pop th kettle on agin, see if tha dunnae hurry him up!’
Marjorie grunted and set down her empty cup. The doorbell rang twice as Alasdair re-entered the room with a pot of tea, ‘Now, whit did Ah tell yi!’
‘Ah’ll get it.’ Marjorie began a battle with her joints.
‘Nae yi won’t. It’ll take yi half an hour tae get oot o tha chair.’ Alasdair placed the tray down and left to answer the door. ‘Graeme! How nice tae see yi! An yi brought yi lassie tae Ah see. No, dunnae be botherin’ wi those, leave em on! Yi mam’s just in the front room, an th kettle’s just boiled.’
The door of the living room opened and Graeme scanned the room, his eyes stopping on his father’s armchair, before spotting Marjorie, her chair next to the door.
‘Mam. Yi look well.’ Graeme bent down to peck Marjorie on the cheek. She pushed her face towards him for a moment, then pulled back to look at him properly.
‘Yi skin an bone, laddie, haenae yi lassie bin feedin’ yi right?’
Alasdair walked in, shaking his head, ‘Whit did Ah say?’
Alasdair was followed by a woman with fuschia lips which ran in a small line across her face and smudged onto her teeth as she smiled.
‘Marjorie! How lovely to finally meet you!’
‘Mam, this is Claire.’
Marjorie offered her cheek. They stood in the doorway of the living room, crowded around Marjorie’s chair. ‘Sit doon the both of yis. Cannea huv yis stood there like lemons.’
‘Tea?’ Alasdair stood by the coffee table.
‘Yi looking well Alasdair.’ Graeme nodded as he was passed his cup.
‘Aye, well, they say it’s th sea air laddie. Keeps th bones young.’
They slurped to the sound of the fire.
‘Graeme tells me you’ve always lived here, Marjorie.’ Claire leant forward to rest her cup on the table.
‘Aye. E’er since Ah was a wean.’
‘Well, it’s a lovely place. I can see why you wouldn’t want to leave.’
‘Ah did a wee bit o travellin’ before Ah had Graeme, yi ken, back when Ah was a fisherlassie. Did Graeme ne’er tell tell yi tha? No, well Ah supoose it was ’fore his time. Ah met ma Domhnull at th harbour, covered in herring guts, oh aye.’ Marjorie hissed with laughter.
‘Graeme mentioned that his father was a fisherman. Such a shame I never got to meet him.’
‘Well, if Graeme had followed in his Pa’s footsteps like he was supoosed tae huv dun,’ Marjorie stopped at Alasdair’s glance.
Claire picked up her tea, ‘Graeme did say he was meant to have been a fisherman.’
‘Aye. Broke Dohmnull’s heart th day he moved tae Edinburgh.’
‘Pa was fine with it, Ma, it was yi who had the problem.’ Graeme set down his tea.
Alasdair and Claire made conversation in between biscuit dunking, and found out that the area of Edinburgh Claire had grown up in was where Alasdair’s sister lived. It was dark when she stood to leave.
‘Well, it was lovely to meet you both.’
‘Yis tae.’ Alasdair kissed Claire on the cheek.
‘Nice to see yi again mam.’
There was a moment of quiet as they collected up their belongings before they made their way into the hall.
‘Ah’ll see yis out, yi stay doon Majorie.’ Alasdair followed them through to the hall way. Marjorie heard Graeme say that he’d get the engine running to clear the windscreen. Once he left, Claire and Alasdair chatted in the hall as she put on her coat.
‘It’s such as shame Marjorie and Graeme don’t talk anymore. They’re so alike! Both so…’
‘Well, I didn’t want to be the one to say it!’
‘She does love him, yi ken, jus…’
‘I know. He does too. Talks about her a lot. He always tells the story of the day he broke his arm on those rocks,’
‘An Marjorie chaaped him on his dock, aye, Ah ken th one.’
Marjorie laughed to herself, set down her cup of tea and began to push herself out of her chair.
‘Well, it was lovely tae meet yi.’
‘Ah was thinkin’,’ Marjorie stood panting in the doorway ‘If yis nae goin’ tae early tomorrow, yi could join Alasdair an Ah for chippies at the harbour?’