Nineteen fifty six was a momentous year,
The year of Suez and Hungary and the death
Of my father. I was thirteen. He was forty-nine.
His body stiffened in the quarry for a day or so,
His flesh submerged and became bloated
While I sat at home full of premonitions of his death.
It seemed the most natural thing for him to die,
The fitting conclusion to the warnings
And daily visits from genial policemen.
Four days we waited, then the news. Dead.
Found dead in the quarry. Circumstances unknown.
Cause of death: asphyxia due to drowning.
“William Bold/Clerk of Works/ (Dept. of Agric. for Scot.)/ …
1956/ March/ Found drowned in Bigbreck Quarry,/Twatt,
Birsay, about 4.30 p.m. on Sunday 18th/March 1956. Last seen
alive about 6.30 p.m. on/ Wednesday 14th March 1956. …”
I remember how the letters to my mother brought back
That summer on the farm in Orkney. The cabin.
The cottage. Living between the cabin and the cottage.
It was the one time I had him to myself.
On the farm Hazel used to take me in her bed at night.
I clung to her big body and felt her warm
Limbs. Hazel was kind and rather slow
And she never said much. But each night
She let me share her bed to get the warmth.
She could dribble warm milk down my mouth,
Drive a tractor and decapitate
A hen. Only she could milk the cows expertly,
Gripping their udders with her weather-beaten hands
Laughing as if she had everything anyone could want.
Her presence gave me comfort like a field of corn,
Her voice familiar as the motors threshing,
As the dogs running and barking. Once,
I fell in the cowshed. I stank
With the sloppy excrement plastered all over.
But she threw her big-boned torso round me,
Washed me down and grasped me and smiled
And the sun shone through her mane of hair.
On the same cow she sat me and held me tight.
And at night we would gape at the moon
Silently fixing our thoughts on it, Hazel
With her arms round me, smiling, glowing,
And we would go to bed after porridge and cocoa.
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am to hear of your sad loss … I pray
that God be with you to give you strength to bear your great loss.”
Snick-crack! The shot was fired. Whirr
Of wings and beat of leaves and shadows in the night.
My first time pulling the trigger. The lake.
Undulating blackness catching shreds of light.
I giggled with the sensation of accomplishment.
He winked and grinned. Then into the boat.
Silently we sliced through the black water.
We didn’t speak but listened to the ripples.
Then the illegal otter was launched: a length
Of rope decorated with murderous hooks and, sleek
As an otter, the streamlined wood that pulled the rope.
We waited, looking at each other, grinning
Conspiratorially. Then the jerk and pull
And rip! The mouth snaps and the lip pouts
And we’ve got a trout. A gleaming trout, a trout
Of subtle highlights and I thump its lovely head
Hard against an oar. One down and several
To go. It’s up to us. No rush. Our choice.
Guilty – and happy. Cold – but flushed. Two – like one.
At the farm we grilled the trout. They sizzled away
And we slobbered after them. He thumbed to me.
“He’ll make a good poacher, this one, some day!”
Cosy and loveable farm, in an hour or so the sun
Will show. The lake will sparkle and we can look
But no one else will know.
“How is Alan? I suppose he will soon be giving work a thought as
well? What a shame to think he doesn’t have his Dad to start him
off and such a clever man.”
Fiddle music, stomping feet, thrills
Whisky flowing, boozed up to the gills,
Children on the floor and cakes,
Party pieces, old repeated jokes.
Laughter linking kids and wives and daft
Workers clumping joyously on soft
Carpets – kisses innocent as sweets,
Embraces making boys and girls mates.
Secrets shared and little stories told
Peat thrown on the fire against the cold.
An old piano, floorboards worn and dark
And folk united through the heavy work.
It finishes too soon, the morning calls
And blankets cover all internal ills.
A passer-by will see another farm
Oblivious to the life that breaks the storm.
And inside as the shutters shake and creak
A child’s eyes eagerly wait for day to break
And look hard for another night like this
Hoping to God the present doesn’t pass.
“I never for one minute thought Bill would come to such an end.
I always admired his carefree personality … God knows best and
that’s all we can say about it.”
A lot has been written about Skara Brae,
Vivid first-hand impressions made on the spot.
Full of mystery or a stern sense of history,
Or perhaps some blots scrawled on the back of a postcard
In the pub.
I have a feeling for the place now, rather than a picture.
We had been building a bridge,
Watching the digger devastating the earth,
Waving off the midgies and the clegs.
And after the morning’s work: Skara Brae.
I saw burials older than I will ever be.
Remarkable reconstructions of the primitive way of life.
Immaculate patterns of rooms from stone.
The evidence of ingenuity, the suggestion
Of a rigid way of life. And the whole thing
Deep in the ground.
It did not seem amazing or beautiful.
It seemed preposterous in comparison with the farm.
And, perhaps worst of all, it was invaded by new people,
Empty of the old inhabitants. I remember thinking that.
I often think of it now as a silent tomb
For those we never could have known and never try
To know. He was there and it sticks now.
It is redolent with memorial melodies,
A monument made from destruction.
And when I saw Skara Brae
In that clear afternoon, my muscles aching,
I saw it as a member of posterity.
“… although he was only a lodger his tragic death has upset me
terrible. As you know he was his own worst friend he certainly
was indulging in spirits too much … all we can do is bless him
from the bottom of our hearts and remember his happy smile.”
I remember his happy smile.
I remember the gaps of missing teeth, the black
Spots on the white, the large lower lip,
I remember the fairisle pullover, green and rust
And white, the ruddy face, the twisted arm broken
In a car crash. I remember the way he walked
Like a big ape
His jacket open, flapping, his eyes bright.
I remember too the alcoholic breath, the false
Euphoria and, after tumbling into chasms of distress,
Depression and confessions of guilt.
These no longer matter, though they seemed to matter then.
They mattered more than they should have. It is so
In Scotland, land of the omnipotent No.
The Sunday-school picnic, the twittering old birds,
The benevolent boy-scouts, the ministers dripping
With goodwill. And the disgrace. He was drunk.
Not objectionable. Just dead drunk.
Sprawled out on the grass focusing on the sky,
With whispers hissing maliciously round about.
They were well pleased with something to feel superior
About, with half a chance to gloat.
“Do you mind Mr. Bold?” What! Grunt!
“Do you mind Mr Bold not lying there?” Mmmm!
“Do you think you could stand up?”
He tried to, tried so hard, so ostentatiously,
Arms working like a tightrope walker’s,
Legs unbuckling – then thump.
Down and out.
“It was a huge shock to us all after being here so long with us
he was in here so short before having a talk with Jim my husband
and the rest of them it was a cold day and I made tea for them all
sitting round the fire I think he missed the cabin as they all used
to call it he could take a rest when he wanted …”
He left the land rover
And stared deep into the water
Thinking life offered nothing more than this liquid pit.
Everything shrunk to the need for action,
For decision. And the audacity of the stars.
Everything at such a distance, people, family,
Friends. And headlong he fell
Slowly into the water
And swore in bubbles
And his eyelids filled with blackness.