On the headland, as though looking out to sea, were many cairns built of stones. They came into view as you walked up through the wicket gate toward the cliff top, and you’d think them the recent work of tourists with time on their hands, but when you got close, you could see they were whiskered with green lichen. You might fancy them the petrified remains of people who’d spent too long sitting in contemplation. The headland was covered with them, some shaped like old-fashioned bee-hives, others like houses of cards, with uprights and horizontals. With those, you could bend and look at the sea as though through a letterbox.
I found a place well back from the cliff edge, out of the wind, and sat down. To the south a headland jutted out into the sea, and round its end gannets kept coming in threes or fours, heading north, all but invisible until they tilted into the sunlight, and then their white wings gleamed. The horizon was interrupted only by the Flannen Isles, where, according to the ballad, the lighthouse keepers had so simply, so mysteriously, disappeared.
It was still early. I sat on a damp rock, took my notebook from my inner pocket, made earnest notes: south – sky thin line of rosy pink, straightened blue-pink, blue-greys. Flannen Isles, horizon fine slate-grey line. [unreadable] 3 gannets. I made notes, but the reason I’d come to the end of the road to walk along the cliffs is because language fails me there. If we work always in words, sometimes we need to recuperate in a place where language doesn’t join up, where we’re thrown back on a few elementary nouns. Sea. Bird. Sky.
Besides, it was the Sabbath, the day of rest. A sign at the wicket gate that gave onto the coastal walk read ‘Please, keep dogs on leads’, and ‘Please, avoid disturbing the Sabbath.’
It was summer’s end – I had a few days to clear my head. The summer had been hard going, with one family crisis after another. There was our grandmother, whom we call Nana, slipping into dependency, and mother, who was adjusting to life after having been paralyzed by a major stroke, and my scared heroic dad doing his best; there were the needs of small children to be met, and then my daughter had missed her first ever day at school because she was in hospital having a head-wound stitched; but the summer had passed, and already, like migrant birds, my university students were arriving, waiting for the teaching term to begin, expecting to be taught how to engage with the world in language.
Keeping the sea to my left hand I walked northwards, the way the gannets had indicated. The cliff-top land dipped into damp troughs and then rose onto promontories where bedrock broke through the thin earth. There were pools of peaty water between rocks, and foraging parties of golden plover. You might call it a wild place, what with the Atlantic to one hand and peat-bog to the other, but in each saddle between the headlands was evidence of some human intervention, an enclosure or a wall. In one I saw the undulations of old lazy-beds. Cruel misnomer: looking down from above, they resembled beds right enough, like sleepers blanketed in peat, but they spoke of hard graft, of carting creels of kelp from the shore to fertilize the thin soil, to extract a hard living from the land.
I walked up on to the next headland, and there, in the next bay, was a sea-stack, a hundred foot or so high. It didn’t stand out proud, commanding the ocean, but shrank almost shyly at the back of a dark forbidding concavity of cliff. I dared forward to look down at the water and could see it wasn’t a true stack, not truly free-standing, but joined to the cliff behind it by an untidy rocky causeway. Nonetheless, the fulmars loved it. They rested in its ledges, or tipped off the rough pinnacle to glide effortlessly about.
There seemed to be something on its summit. Not a person, surely, but perhaps another of those odd cairns. I lifted the binoculars, turned the focus wheel until I had in view an impossible little building, no more than a cell. There was a doorway of sorts, but the lintel had long slewed sideways and the whole edifice was leaning at a crazy angle. Whatever it was, hermitage or lookout post, it had the aura of something very old, possibly prehistoric, and it was falling into the sea. A saint or sentry creeping out of that tiny doorway, eyes full of light and ears full of surf, would have to be careful – one false step and he’d pitch clean over the edge and plummet down through the indifferent fulmars into the water below.
But there was something appealing about it. To live alone in a stone cell on a sea-stack, the fulmars for neighbours, the Atlantic breakers and the crying wind; so what if it was slewing to one side? To reach it, you would have to climb. You’d need ropes and harnesses, and you’d have to carry your provisions in a creel on your back. With the glasses, I tried to pick out a route. Perhaps as second, following a trusted leader on a very tight rope, I could try to feel my way up. It would smell of guano and mineral. At that moment I could almost remember, from my youth, the intimate feel of rock.
Twenty years ago I had a boyfriend called Peter, a rock climber thrilled with the stretch and fluidity of his body. He’s a senior physiotherapist now, charged with restoring broken bodies to function, if not to grace. I called him when my mother was in rehab leaning to walk again after her stroke, for an honest opinion of her prospects, and I thought about him again now as I looked through the glasses at this stack. I recall him shouting down at me once, when I was struck with fear halfway up some rock-face:
‘Remember! It’s your skeleton that holds the position, not the muscles. You can let the muscles relax.’
‘I can’t do this!’ I’d wailed.
‘You are doing it,’ he replied.
I put the binoculars away to move on. I’d find out what it was, this strange inaccessible cell. The mood I was in, it would suit me just fine. I’d look it up in Stornoway Library. I’d look it up in estate agents’ windows.
The week before I’d come to Lewis, I’d spent a day with my sister in our parents’ home town in the west. We’d come to see our grandmother. Every other weekend, someone drives over to see our grandmother. She is either in her own tiny flat, with its gas-fire and armchair and plaster dolphins leaping on the mantelpiece, or, as today, in the ward of the hospital she’s frequently admitted to. There had been a phone call: someone telling me they were even now breaking the door down, lifting Nana from the floor where she’d lain all night, carrying her to the ambulance, taking her again into hospital.
None of the family lives in that town these days. Our parents left when they were young and first married, and now that our mother is herself suddenly disabled, and our father charged with her care, and we children already approaching middle age with infants and bread-winning responsibilities of our own, Nana’s situation is a constant anxiety.
We had come together, my sister and me, with appointments to see social workers and doctors. In windowless offices we’d signed long forms and discussed doctors’ opinions and money. Nana had been a cleaner much of her life, and a single parent: not wealthy. We’d been given a list of care-homes for the elderly in that town, and then we went to have a difficult conversation with Nana herself.
She was sitting in a green high-backed chair in a hospital day-room, one old lady among the rest, dressed, like the others, in a blouse and cardigan and loose trousers. With great attention to detail, she told us what had been served for lunch. We, her two granddaughters, sat before her. My sister held her hand and at last we put the case that had been building over the preceding few years. Around us were other old women, and old men sitting on chairs identical to our Nana’s. There were tables with magazines, a TV that was always switched on. Sunlight glinted off the cars parked outside. Now and then snatches of other conversations reached us, cheery banter pitched loud enough for the hard of hearing. I longed to be back outdoors. As we entered my sister had said, ‘When she sees us both together, she’ll think something’s wrong. She’ll think mum’s had another stroke or something.’ And I, never skilled at small talk, thought of news to tell her, tried to dredge up incidents from family life. I rehearsed the story of my daughter’s gashed head, and the stitches.
We were surrounded by the very old. The woman in the next chair was asleep, her chin reaching her chest. Next along was a woman who was awake. She wore a blue knitted cardigan, or rather, because her shoulders and breasts sloped at odd angles, a blue cardigan had been arranged round her. Though we were talking to our own grandmother, too loudly for such a delicate conversation, I could see out of the corner of my eye a tiny persistent movement, as you might see a spider in a corner of a window. A little table was pulled up in front of the woman in blue, and on it stood a carton of orange juice. The old woman was struggling to get the end of the straw into the tiny foil-covered hole. The bony hand, the feeble, stabbing straw, the carton, which at any moment would go skiting off the table onto the floor – all became intolerable, so I went and asked if I could help. ‘Thank you my dear,’ she said, ‘thank you.’
The gannets had come to Dalmore, which is a surfers’ bay, but no surfers were out this Lord’s day. White waves surged between twin headlands, and the gannets, not feeding, not breeding, not going any place, were turning and lifting on the winds. Among the dunes at the top of Dalmore bay is the cemetery. It is enclosed in stone walls and defences had been built to prevent the sea from disturbing the graves. Of course, you’d be more likely to approach the cemetery from the landward side: there is a thin island road that ends at its gate. The headstones stand in neat rows; plots yet to be occupied were marked with numbered metal labels. Presumably there are people who have wandered from this parish all over the world, but who know their number, who carry in their heads an image of this burial ground at the end of the thin road, at the bay.
From the cemetery, I followed the road inland. The township’s houses were shut up for the Sabbath. Even the dogs were quiet, and only one house betrayed life, and that only by condensation on its windows, the breathing within. I walked self-consciously, noting wire fences, disused cars, peat-stacks, wondering if to be moving at all, making a display of oneself through the stillness of the afternoon, was to disturb the Sabbath. Sheep were bleating, though. Penned in the in-fields, ewes with fat lambs bleated and bleated. Perhaps they knew it would soon be time for the lambs to be taken away.
A friend said to me – we were talking about our stage in life, when we suddenly discover that we are the grown-ups, with children and parents, and even grandparents to tend to, not to mention our pupils or patients or clients or employers – that we spend so much time dealing with it all, there is scarcely time to feel. I walked up the silent road, wondering if I couldn’t reconcile myself again to the idea of the Sabbath, to the day of dreary silence and mutton broth I’d known as a child, if we couldn’t close the shops and still the traffic and institute a modern, churchless day of contemplation and rest, and if it would help at all.
The little hostel was surprisingly busy. It’s one of a cluster of half-a-dozen blackhouses some distance above a rocky shore. They’re pretend blackhouses, reconstructed for tourists, with curved thatched roofs, thick stone walls, and tiny windows. A pretend blackhouse, because there is no peat fire in the middle of the floor. There are Calor gas stoves, and electricity, and people round the table from Spain and Germany, Australia and England. There were youngsters who’d just finished college and were about to look for their first job, and, almost old enough to be their parents, the jaded and weary, like myself and the Australian chemistry teacher who’d taken a year’s leave and had been living out of a car for months.
‘Quite right too,’ I said. ‘Do it while you can. Carpe diem and all that.’
‘Are you Scottish?’ she said. We were sitting at the gable in the last of the light.
‘Not from here. From the other side of the country.’
‘Few days to clear my head before the term starts.’
‘You are so lucky. I had to come right round the world for this.’
There was a young man called Tom, who had straggly blond hair and a bike with a trailer. He must have been superbly fit, because after I’d made his acquaintance I saw him everywhere, for the next few days, from Mealister to Stornoway, beating along the single track-roads, grinning, in love with the world.
‘What did you do today?’ I asked him. He was repairing a tyre.
‘Went to church! I don’t, usually. Just wanted to know what it was about, you know?’
‘And what was it about?’
‘I don’t know. It was in Gaelic. A twenty-minute sermon and I couldn’t understand a word. You should have heard the sweetie-rustling! But – that psalm-singing was like nothing I’d ever heard before, not even like some of my African tapes, amazing.’
Then he asked: ‘What about yourself? What did you do?’
‘Me? I just wandered along the cliffs.’
It had never entered my head, this Sunday, to go to church.
I’d called all the old people’s homes on the list the social worker had given us, and for the next few days the postman had pushed through my letter box leaflets and brochures, pictures of dining rooms and bedrooms, always empty. One showed an entrance hall. The carpet was tartan, the walls were papered in a different, clashing tartan. Dolls dressed in black velvet stood like sleepwalkers on one sideboard, on another was a tank of hapless tropical fish. A huge clock, like a sunburst, ticked away the minutes of the days. It looked like the ante-chamber to hell, but when I phoned I heard much cheerful laughter in the background. I’d to ask, ‘Do you have a waiting list, and how long …’
‘Well,’ the woman had said, ‘when someone demits …’
Demit – I’d to look it up. A Scots word, it means ‘relinquish’.
‘A few days to clear my head,’ I’d said, and it was true. But where to go? To the end of the road, I told myself, and the notion pleased me. So I hired a car. I’d been to one road-end, and walked up to the strange cairns and the cell atop the stack, but there were a couple more days and there were more island roads. I thought, Why not go to them too? Go to all the ends of all the roads, and see what’s there.
So, when the Sabbath was over and washing flapped on the lines, I followed a road over peat-moor, where the peat banks were freshly cut and shone as brown as polished leather in the sun. I passed a blighted pine plantation, and a man working at his croft with a scythe. I passed newly-built, un-let business units. There were knapweed and yellow coltsfoot in the ditches, not a cloud in the sky. At times the road turned inland, across peat-bog, between lochans, and at times it followed the shore, offering sudden vistas of yellow beaches and low distant dark purple promontories. There were a few other vehicles on the single-track road, mostly vans: working lads travelling at speed. I tucked into a passing place to allow a huge empty livestock lorry, doubtless come for lambs, to inch by. It was a hot day, such vast light. Tethered in sea-lochs were fish farms and mussel farms. I drove down to a jetty and left the car to listen for a minute to a stack of lobster creels, which was twittering with starlings as they picked scraps.
Inland the hills rose stony and pale and unshadowed, as in Greece or Italy. At Uig, I pulled into a passing place to let an approaching vehicle go by. It wasn’t a lorry come for lambs, but a black hearse. Within its stately windows the coffin shone, brass handles gleaming in sunlight. The two undertakers lifted their hands in acknowledgement as they passed. There would be a walled burial ground, perhaps at the end of a bay, at the end of a road.
Feeling as though I had strayed into a film, I carried on, past the houses of Ishiving. Where the road ended, there was a five-bar gate, with a sign hung on it: ‘common grazing’.
I parked and wandered down to the shore. Half buried in the green turf were the ruins of an ancient convent. Someone had knocked together a cross out of driftwood, and hung a sign on it: ‘Tigh na cailleach dubh’: The place of the black (veiled) women. I walked within its walls, wondering what it would be like to be a nun, black-veiled and in retreat from the world. Out in the bay the sea was glassy blue, bar where waves broke to white over a hidden reef. A lobster boat moved slowly between two islands. From the corner of my eye, though, I noticed a quick dark movement about the seaweed of the tidal rocks. It was a mink, interloper and arch-predator, enemy of sea-birds.
Back on the track again, a young man was striding toward me, with blood on his tweeds. Not blood, I thought, I’m becoming over-wrought. It must be mud, he’s a farm lad, a crofter.
‘Is it always like this here?’ I said of the clear skies.
‘I wish,’ he said.
Three other men were processing down from the hill, one dragging the carcass of a stag over the rough ground, then a man with a gun in a case, then a third man, hauling another stag. They made slow progress, and looked for a moment like a framed print you might find on the wall of a country pub. There was the sudden noise of an engine, and the bloodstained man brought a pick-up truck to meet the shooting party as they gained the road. Together they heaved the dead animals into the back, so only a rack of antlers stuck up over the side. Then the truck moved off along the thin road between hill and shore.
Later in the afternoon, driving back along the same road, I pulled over to let pass a convoy of several cars coming home from the burial ground, each driven by a man in a black tie. If this was a film, it needed editing.
In Stornoway’s big supermarket, I thought: Maybe it’s a language problem. Maybe the world would make more sense if you could think about it in a different language. Once, some years ago, I’d met an angry young Gael who said he was fed up with people treating his islands like a sort of Eden, people who came to ‘escape’ but refused to learn Gaelic. I could learn Gaelic. Right here, I could learn the Gaelic for tea and coffee, cat food and tinned vegetables, from the signs hung over the aisles where the people push their trolleys. Gaelic for cornucopia. I could learn place names from the dual-language road signs, and the OS map. One language breathing down the neck of the other. The painted sign on the five-bar gate at the road end was in English, ‘common grazing’ it said. But the sign beside the ruins of the convent, that had read ‘Tigh na cailleach dubh’. When, at An Gearranan/Garenin, I’d passed two men in blue overalls conversing over a gate, they spoke in Gaelic, but gave me the time of day in English. When their collie trotted after me it was called back, and apologies offered me, in English. The librarian in Stornoway/Steornabhagh was an Englishman, a Geordie, I think. He brought me old maps and gazetteers to look at. I was hoping to find out about that wild building on the sea-stack. Someone had taken a red biro to the old maps, scored out the anglicized names and re-substituted the Gaelic. In the window of the newsagents, a few doors along the street, were two little black and white printed notices each announcing a funeral. They were in English. The language of the service, and the graveside murmurings, I don’t know. The language of the school children scaling down the hill from the Nicolson Institute, girls in black skirts, a boy calling to his mates as he skateboarded along, that was English. The people standing outside the newsagents, waiting for the English papers to come in off the plane, were speaking together in Gaelic. I could learn Gaelic, learn every language under the sun, but I don’t know if it would help.
A time to live, a time to die, a time to speak, a time to refrain from speaking. Yesterday, other than a couple of civil greetings to strangers, I’d spoken to no one, which was fine by me. Today, two or three shops had notices in their windows, saying they’d be observing a minute’s silence because it was September 11th, the anniversary of all those deaths. Minutes of silence, of remembrance. A momentary Sabbath. I’d watched the Twin Towers on TV as I knelt on the floor of a guest-house in the Lake District. I’d been booked to give a poetry reading that night, at Grasmere, home of Wordsworth. Did I want to cancel? they asked. I said no. It’s poetry’s job, isn’t it, to keep making sense of the world in language, to keep the negotiation going? We can’t relinquish that. A surprising number of people came to hear the poetry, considering. ‘Minute’s silence!’ a friend had snarled. Did they not know, the silence-keepers, how many children had died even that morning in Angola, in Sudan, just because they have no clean water? Was there to be a minute’s silence for them? A minute’s silence for each, and the world would be hushed forever.
Perhaps, though, if we join up all these minutes we are beginning secularly to observe, we could string them together in a new kind of Sabbath; where there are no men in black blighting our lives with their notions of sin, no chaining up the children’s swings for the Lord’s day. I mean a contemplative time, a time reserved to reflect. Perhaps we would feel less imperilled.
I called home, standing with my mobile phone on a street that smelled of peat-smoke. Everything was okay. Nothing had gone wrong. My daughter said, ‘Hello Mummy, I can’t find my homework.’
‘How’s your head?’ I asked
‘Oh, it’s fine.’
My husband said, ‘Elaine called. She seemed a bit upset.’ So I called Elaine, who told me what had happened. Her colleague at work had turned up as usual, then, after an hour, made some excuse to leave. He had then driven to a certain spot in a beautiful part of the country, among mountains and lochs, the kind of place one might go to think things through in peace. There he had killed himself. As she told me about this man’s solitary drive, it brought to mind the images of my own, the five-bar gate, the vaulting sky, the islands set in a turquoise sea, the mink worrying among the rocks.
Everything will fall into the sea, so far as I could tell, looking at the archaeologists’ reports in Stornoway Library. Does this matter? A team of archaeologists had walked and mapped all the features on that part of the coast, and with their expert eye, and by dint of asking local people, had measured and defined and assessed every human intervention in that landscape: illicit stills, sheep-fanks, standing stones. Their anxiety was coastal erosion, things were in danger of slipping away forever. The report itself had been poorly bound; pages slithered out and fell on the library floor.
There was mention of the little building on the stack, it had been labelled and numbered. The report said the little building was prehistoric, and in imminent danger of collapse, but I still don’t know what it was. No one had dared climb up to it.
I’d called Peter, the rock-climber and physiotherapist, and asked his opinion on my mother’s chances of walking again. He was about to enter his forty-third year, which he was doing with some trepidation, because at that age his own father had died.
‘And we’re trying to find a home for our grandmother,’ I was saying. ‘Och, it’s awful.’
‘Why is it awful?’
Not for the first time, I failed to find an answer to Pete’s brusque Yorkshire questions.
‘Granny’s at that stage in life, you’re in yours,’ he said. ‘It’s not awful.’
‘I can’t do it!’ I wailed, half in jest.
‘You are doing it,’ he replied.
Another day, another road end. I’d envied Tom his bike, so hired one of my own, then went cycling out of Stornoway on a grey, unsettled morning. I cycled around traffic islands with palm shrubs, mistook a turn and pedalled past the hospital and through a council scheme before finding the coast road north. I rode under a grey sky that threatened rain, relishing the movement of my body, its own small continuing strength. It wouldn’t last forever, that was the truth of it, but today I could cycle along a road, to see where it led.
There were low, rendered houses, a pharmacy, a big serious church, and then I was alone with moor to my left side, to the right the waters of the Minch and the distant mainland mountains. When the road neared its end it descended in a great hill to the huge beach at Tolsta. Black-back gulls and kittiwakes formed two distinct parties at the shoreline, all facing into the wind. A drizzle had set in, and then it turned to real rain. At an empty car park beside a lily-filled lochan the metalled road became a track, which in turn became a churned up peaty path leading onto the moor. But: there was a bridge. In the middle of the peat-bog was a grand single-span Victorian bridge. I leaned the bike on the parapet and watched the water coursing below. The bridge – they call it the ‘bridge to nowhere’ – was one of Lord Leverhulme’s grand schemes. Landlord of Lewis in the 1880s, he’d thought up many a plan for the island: a railway, a kelp industry, a castle at Stornoway now boarded and disused. At the bridge to nowhere, I turned back.
I’d missed, of course, the minute’s silence – I’d been free-wheeling downhill at the time, bawling old Rod Stewart songs aloud to myself. Instead I stopped in the tiny garden that encloses the Tolsta war memorial. The bronze plaque lists too many names for this small place; the same surnames recur over and again. The memorial, in the shape of an open book, also remembers the many soldiers who were returning to Lewis from the Great War, only to be drowned when their ship, the Iolaire, struck rock outside Stornoway harbour, which is a difficult one to make sense of. There are memorials, too, to the ‘heroes of the land struggle’: men who’d made it home and demanded not railways or bridges or castles, but land. ‘All the crofts of Upper Bac lie on land so seized.’
We would soon have to arrange, my sister and I, to sell our grandmother’s tiny tenement flat to pay for her care in her last years. The back-kitchen would have to be relinquished, the armchair and plaster dolphins taken away.
At the end of the road there is a burial ground, enclosed by a stone wall. But we know that. There are other roads, which may end variously. There might be a five-bar gate, with a hand-painted sign opening onto common grazing. It may end at a well-known beauty spot. Possibly, a pick-up truck is waiting, or even a bridge to nowhere, or an old folks’ home with tartan carpets, or a strange wild building on top of a sea-stack, demitting stone by stone into the waves far below. The road may end in Sabbath silence and wind, or nothing at all.
I left the memorial, got back on the bike and headed into town, ready to travel home. The students would be arriving at the university, expecting to learn how to deal with this mortal life in language, how to sculpt something beautiful out of silence. I really don’t think I can help. Perhaps I’ll take to speaking in riddles, like an oracle in a lonely cell. When they get stuck or overwhelmed, I’ll intone: ‘Let the muscles relax, the skeleton’s doing the work.’ ‘Using no words, describe your ideal Sabbath.’ ‘Remember, the end of the road is also its beginning.’ ‘You are doing it,’ I’ll say.
‘Your own room’ my sister was saying. ‘Some of your own furniture.’
‘Company when you want it …’ I added.
‘How’s your mother?’
‘She’s doing okay.’
‘ … peace and quiet when you don’t.’
Our grandmother was looking at us, one to the other. Neither her grandchildren nor her great-grandchildren have inherited her hazel eyes, more’s the pity, or that long hawkish nose. She was beginning to nod in agreement.
‘Meals all cooked, ay? No washing up.’
‘Someone to keep an eye on you …’
‘You wouldn’t have to worry …’
My sister and I glanced at each other, and spoke both at once. ‘Move in myself,’ I muttered. She said, ‘Where do I sign?’
The school bus passed, and when its noise abated all I could hear was wind in the electric wires. A man in blue overalls was closing his gate, a collie at his feet. He watched solemnly as I cycled by.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 16 Autumn 2004