Monday, 30 May 2011

The Shipwrecked Heart by Bobby Stevenson





“But in the world where there is no stay but the hope of a better (world), and no reliance but on the mercy and goodness of God. Through these two harbours of a shipwrecked heart....”
Charles Dickens, letter, October 1865.


I want you to sit comfortably and find comfort in this strangest of tales. Some swear it is true, although there are just as many who would disagree. Perhaps in the passing of the years and in the re-telling, the shadowy remembrance of the truth has been lost. I am hoping, however, that you will be my judge and jury.


Our story concerns one warm day in June 1865 in the most beautiful Kent village of Shoreham, a day like many others where the occupants of this little haven are wrapped up in their day to day chores; all of them unaware of a train crash which has taken place several miles away. 


The centre of our tale is the Crown public house occupied by the hard working Mistress Squib and her family.

Eliza Squib has not seen her husband for many a year but we will not speak unkindly of that soul, rather we meet with Eliza as she takes the first opportunity of the day to sit and mend the clothes of her two children.
Her son, who stands beside her, is Obadiah Squib, the man of the house and full of all the life that God can give a heart. His wish is to sail the oceans and by this method find his father – but we shall leave that tale for another time. 

The boy who sits reading in the corner is the other apple of Eliza’s eye, young Benedict, who has been on this earth the merest of summers, yet he is assuming all the finer qualities that could be wished for in a son.

Finally we meet Charlotte Squib and let no harsh construct be heard against her. Charlotte is a good soul of infinite compassion and has sacrificed her life to work from morn’ through late evenings to compensate for her brother’s mysterious disappearance, Eliza’s errant husband. Ever since her brother’s parting Charlotte has been compelled to repeat the same incantation...
“He will return, I swear it.”
Eliza smiles as she has done a thousand times before and for all their worries and concerns they are a happy band and one that providence has decreed should assist our Mister Charles Dickens in his most troubled of times.

And so our story begins with an innocent knock at the door of the public house.
“Sweet bird of youth and such a times as this; tut, tut” 

At the door stands Mister Dickens, his mistress Ellen Ternan (known as Nelly) and her mother Frances. They have recently alighted from a train at Shoreham Station as Charles, having been overcome by the shakes, has been unable to continue his rail journey.

Never one to use his real name in such awkward and complex circumstances he introduces himself as a Mister Tringham esquire accompanied by his god-daughter Nelly and supported by her mother. 

“Let me rest awhile in order to dispense of this constant shaking” says Charles as he sits without being asked.
Eliza observing his distress dispatches Obadiah with all haste to prepare a set of rooms above. 
“I cannot have you abroad with such pallor as this gentleman displays, I feel you may all find a benefit in resting awhile. You are welcome, you are all most welcome” 

Although the day is splendid in heat and the windows thrown open to the skies, when Charles finally sits he asks the boy to be kind enough to build a fire and take the chill from his ancient bones. 

“May I trouble you once more, young...?”
“Obadiah, sir”
“Young Obadiah would you be so kind as to fetch me my overcoat, I believe I have abandoned it below”
As Obadiah retrieves the coat a manuscript falls from the pocket, it is several unpublished chapters of an excellent story by Mister Charles Dickens called ‘Our Mutual Friend’. Obadiah has read the early published chapters but has no recognition of these. He replaces the manuscript in the pocket and returns to the rooms above knowing that the man can only be one person. 

Entering the room Obadiah notices that the man sits unusually close to the fire.
“Is there something of consequence regarding my appearance?” asks Charles.
“None sir, it’s just that you have the look of a haunted man”
“T’is due to a change in my circumstances Obadiah, I have just this afternoon escaped from the throats of death. Not far from here was an accident of the most horrific sort, the train in which I travelled left the rails. Pour me a brandy Obadiah, there’s a good man.”

Obadiah likes being called a man and juggles the word in his head as Charles imbibes the first glass. Empty now, Charles holds the glass out for Obadiah to immediately refill.

In the adjoining room, Nelly is being attended by Eliza and Charlotte. She too is explaining their current circumstances as Eliza dresses Nelly’s wound to her upper left arm. 

“So you are Mister Tringham’s god-daughter?” asks Eliza as a distraction to subdue Nelly’s pain.
Nelly sadly replies, “He describes it as such but it is not the truth”
“I did not mean to breach a threshold with my inquisitiveness”
“You did not Eliza, if anything you are kindness itself. Mister Tringham is a writer, together with my mother we have spent a French summer in the company of the gentleman. He is my companion, not my god father”.
“It is of no consequence to me whatsoever” says an apologetic Eliza who watches as Charlotte excuse herself from the room.

“May I speak freely?” asks Nelly.
So Nelly explains that she met Charles when still only eighteen years of age and he was, even then, an elderly gentleman. She knows that Mister Tringham has a family and that she will be held to account one day but that day has not yet arrived and whether t'is the pain or the closeness of death she has tasted this day, Ellen Ternan speaks one sentence that will never pass her lips again.

“Our son lies buried in France”.

Next door, Obadiah has finished building up the fire to a roar which is almost impotent against the shaking. Obadiah knows this is not the best of times but he feels compelled to ask:
“I wondered sir, if it did not burden you too much, that perhaps you could describe the accident?”
“Why should you not be interested, after all you are a boy.”
“I am a man, Mister Tringham”.
Charles feels bad and apologies to Obadiah then implores him to make himself comfortable.

“I, and my two companions, had boarded the 2.38 tidal-train at Folkestone. All was well abroad and the world was an excellent container until I felt the carriage shaking, first this way then the other. My little Nell cried out, ‘let us all hold hands and die as friends’. A silence followed, Obadiah, one that hushed the very birds on the trees. I crawled to the window to observe that our carriage was hanging twenty feet, at least, above a ravine held by the slightest of graces. The others had been less fortunate, each having crashed to the river below. I called out to the train guards asking did they recognise me......”

He has said too much.

“You mean did they recognise you Mister Dickens?”
Charles smiles at the boy. “It is our secret Mister Dickens”
“Once my two companions were safely at the top of the hill I returned to the ravine, it would have been less of a chore to have walked into the jaws of hell. 

“The valley was awash with the dead and dying, I climbed the side of our train and re-entered our carriage retrieving my top hat and a brandy flask. 

“I filled my hat with water and took it to a young man who lay a short distance from me. What I could see, but he could not, was the fatal damage to his upper head. He asked that I slake his thirst, asked me not to leave him then closed his eyes for the last time.

“Slightly to the north was a lady of similar age to myself who lay on the ground. I lifted her and sat her against a little pollard tree and wetted her lips with brandy. She smiled at me with one half of her mouth and I instructed her to wait as I fetched for help. The next time I passed the tree she had expired. It was then I remembered I had left my manuscript in my pocket of my overcoat and that that was in the carriage we had vacated. I climbed as the carriage threatened to crash along with all the others. Yet I did not relish rewriting those chapters. I recovered the document which I am assuming you must have identified.”

Charles did not instruct Obadiah on all the facts regarding the three hours that he had spent tending to the dead and dying. In all ten people perished and forty nine were injured. He could not talk of it to others for fear of the scandal in his choice of companions. 

When he asked Obadiah what would ensure his silence regarding his true identity, Obadiah asked for only one thing, a new story written by the greatest of all writers. 

The source of the crash was a deadly simple one: the foreman at the site in Staplehurst had read the wrong timetable. His times were for the following day, the Saturday, when the next train was due shortly after five o’ clock but on that day, the 9th of June, Dickens’ train was due to pass the bridge at several minutes after three. Thinking that the workmen had two clear hours of maintenance, the foreman instructed the gang to lift the rails.


Shortly after Dickens finished his recounting of the tale, Charles, Frances and Nelly were on a train to Charing Cross. They were met at the station by Willis, Dickens confidant, who saw the ladies on to their London home at Mornington Crescent.

Charles had intended to return to his family that evening, a family watched over by his sister-in-law Georgina at Gad’s Hill in Higham, but the shakes overtook him once again and he spent the night at his London office.
Charles’ panic attacks increased over the following years and once it was noted by his daughter that he seemed to sink into a trance and relive the day of the crash. His concentration suffered too and he found it difficult to complete ‘Our Mutual Friend’. He brought it to such an abrupt halt that his publisher asked him to think again and extend it. This he did reluctantly but it was to be the last novel he ever completed.

It was love that kept Charles silent about that day and it was love that nurtured him in the final years of his life. He died five years to the day of the train crash while writing ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’. 

As for Charles attendance at the crash, there is a postscript by him at the end of ‘Our Mutual Friend’ and as for the presence of Nelly, there is a letter sent by Dickens to the Station Master at Charing Cross instructing him of Mistress Ternan’s lost jewellery at the crash site. 

Regarding our Shoreham friends, Eliza’s husband Richard came home several months after Dickens’ visit and they settled into running the Crown Public House together; both are buried in Shoreham churchyard.

A few weeks after the crash a letter was delivered to Obadiah containing a story, true to his word Mister Charles Dickens, the most famous man in all Christendom, had penned a ghost story called ‘The Signalman’. 
Aunt Charlotte was committed to Bedlam where she died in 1877. Benedict, the youngest son took over the running of the Crown and Obadiah, after many years in the Royal Navy, settled in Australia.

And so dear friends we are almost done with this remembrance and whether or not you believe my story, I hope it has amused you. I wish each and every one of you a wonderful life.

Friday, 20 May 2011

The Pied Piper of Mandalay Street by Bobby Stevenson




My Grandmother remembered him as a small man which, next to her, meant someone around five feet tall. Yet, as a kid, I can still see him smiling in our front window as he passed us on the way to the corner shop which means he had to be taller. To all of us he was, and always will be, one giant of a man and not just Freddy Stalwart from number thirty-two; he will always live on in our hearts as the Pied Piper of Mandalay Street.

The first time I met Freddy he had only moved to Mandalay after his family had been bombed out over in the east side. He was older than me, probably eighteen or nineteen at the time, with a wide face you could take to. His hair was short cropped and I guess he was going into the army any day soon. I watched as he walked up towards the railway viaduct and rolled a cigarette at the same time. When he approached the viaduct, he stood under the biggest arch and by means of looking up and sideways he seemed to be positioning himself. I smiled over at him and he waved back. He looked at his watch and a few seconds later a train passed over, not just any train but the one transporting the American troops from the port to the city. He waved up with both arms crossing over each other and immediately the American soldiers threw cigarettes and sweets from the windows. Freddy signalled his thanks with his two thumbs up and some voice from above called ‘see you on the way back, buddy’.

“I think it’s a good luck thing with the boys” he said and he seemed satisfied with that.

You’d think I’d remember after all these years how exactly tall he was but I don’t, I just remember him being like the big brother I never had. He told me he couldn’t fight in the war as his leg had been crushed by a tractor, it was then I noticed he walked with a slight limp which he tried to hide by walking like Gary Cooper. I guess that sounds stupid now but that’s how it felt.

On the way back to number thirty two, he pushed what was left of his sweets and cigarettes through the letter boxes of the houses he passed. Some doors opened but the occupants were always late as Freddy was too far down the street to hear the shouts of ‘thanks’. There were some down Mandalay Street that saw his kindness as a weakness and one that should be exploited. 

“How come you’ve given number twenty-six a pack of cigs and left me out? No one smokes in that house”
Freddy would just apologise, smile then wander on - he never really took it to heart. 

One day there were bags and suitcases being enthusiastically thrown out the door of number thirty-two, followed by Freddy’s mother marching purposefully into the street. She jumped on to a waiting horse and cart that was being driven by a rag and bone man and she promptly rode into the sunset. It seems his mother had never been happy in that house and wanted to take her chances with her old neighbours. Their place had been relatively untouched and she didn’t need to be asked twice when they offered her a room in their attic. Freddy’s father was still overseas which left Freddy the sole occupant of number thirty-two. 

To make ends meet he got a job driving a single-decker bus from Albert Street to the north end of town, even with his bad leg he was still a better driver than most. His cheery disposition and his smile were always a winner with the passengers and he’d break into a George Formby song just to lift their spirits, especially if there had been a raid the night before. He was known as Freddy the Bus and everyone knew and liked him. 

On a Saturday evening, if he wasn’t working, he enjoyed a dance in the hall. This was a half constructed building at the bottom end of Mandalay Street, its completion having been halted by the war. Locally it had been known as the ‘broken hut’ but the gaping hole in the roof had resulted in its new name, the Skylight Club. Many a time, a dance was interrupted by the sudden downpour of rain and of course they weren’t allowed to use it during the hours of darkness as this would provide a beacon of welcome for the Luftwaffe. 

When they could, they held the Sunday school in the hall and I remember Andrew Cassidy, my best pal at the time, shouting that the hole was there so God could keep an eye on us. We never felt comfortable on a Sunday morning after that. 

Mandalay Street managed to survive from day to day as most of the bombing was over by the shipyards and towards the east side of town, Then one week, when there had been no raids for several days, we all got together and threw a party for the children. Some of us dressed as clowns, some came to the hall in their uniforms and looked ever so smart but the highlight was Freddy and his George Formby songs. Every one joined in and it seemed to cheer us up. 

Freddy and I were walking home and joking when the incendiary bombs hit the far end of the street. One had started a fire in the middle of the road and was being dealt with, when someone shouted that the Skylight Club was on fire. I don’t know how much difference a roof would have made but it seems the bomb dropped through the hole on a small parachute. 

By the time we got back to the Skylight, some parents and their children were staggering out with blackened faces and coughing. Some of the older ones attempted to start a line of buckets and water but it didn’t do much good as the hall was burning fast. 

Freddy ran straight into the building and returned with two small children over his shoulders.
“I can hear the others; they’re trapped by the smoke” 

By our reckoning some twenty of the children and parents were still stuck in one corner of the room but the smoke was so dense that neither they, nor the rescuers cold locate where they were. That was when Freddy came up with an idea. He ran home and fetched his father’s old bagpipes and returned with them slung over his shoulder.
“Can you play them?” I asked.
“Not a chance” he joked, then Freddy entered the burning hall making the biggest racket I’ve ever heard, but it worked. Nearly all of them made it out by following Freddy’s pipes. 

“Anyone left in there?” asked Freddy when we’d counted eighteen.
“My mother and my sister” said the small shivering girl. 
Freddy ran back into the building, it was the last time I saw him.
After the war, when the hall was rebuilt of brick, it was named The Freddy Stalwart Building.

His father’s bagpipes still hang from the wall.



Viaduct Photo by Tom Stevenson


Shake The Heavens by Bobby Stevenson



The couple in front of him lit their cigarettes from the same match, kissed until the smoke was coming out of their noses, then each slumped into a big red balding seat ready to wallow in another Saturday night at the Regal cinema. 

Ricky was his usual late self and arrived out of breath just as the rousing newsreel music was starting up.
“Hurry up and sit down”, demanded James.   
“My mother...”
“It’s always your mother, just shh...there’s something coming on that I want you to see”

They impatiently sat through a story of the latest spring fashions for the young ladies of 1951 then a report on Tottenham Hotspur and the Arsenal football teams fighting for the top place in the English First Division - although James, with a snigger, dismissed talk of any team other than the Arsenal
“This is it now, watch”

The excitable announcer talked over some film of London’s Southbank. In only a few days time the Festival of Britain would open and the focal point was be the breath taking three hundred foot structure which gave the impression of being unsupported.

“Bloody hell” James was pleased at Ricky’s reaction.
”It’s like one of those Dan Dare rocket ships...” the couple in front came up for air, told James to shut up and then just as quickly returned to kissing, “..and I am going to climb that bloody monster.” James whispered. 

“Why would you ever want to do that?” asked Ricky already knowing the answer.
“Because I can”.
Yep, that was the reply Ricky was waiting for.

The guy in front, whose face was now covered in lipstick, told them if they didn’t shut up right this minute he’d hit them. Then the guy in front of him, told him also to shut up; you could be here all night with this stuff.

“Excuse me, my crazy friend but weren’t you watching? It is three hundred feet high” a fact that was worrying Ricky.
I know, ain’t it brilliant?” this time James talked in a cheap American movie kind of way. 

You see, to James everything was brilliant and brilliant acted as the base level for his life. If it wasn’t brilliant he wouldn’t give it the time of day but somehow every brilliant thing that James attempted to do would result in Ricky getting into more serious trouble.

The alternative for Ricky was not being James’ friend and that was too awful to even think about. It would mean Ricky going back to being shoved around the British Library by his parents. It would mean Ricky’s mother cleaning his face in full view of people with a handkerchief, into which she had just made him spit.
Somehow getting into trouble was his only salvation.

One Saturday, James had suggested that Richard call himself ‘Ricky’ after Bogart’s character in Casablanca. Richard hoped that James would soon tire of it but yesterday when he knocked at Richard’s front door and asked if Ricky was in, Richard’s mother belted her son’s ear.  
“James is such a sweetie, why would you ever let him call you by that awful name, you wicked boy? It’s not very clever, not in any way is it clever, Richard, do you hear me?” 
Ricky wasn’t listening to his mother, instead he was contemplating greater ideas such as there must be a time just before a person is born when the gods decide if you should be blamed for everything in the universe or be allowed to get off scot free. Ricky knew that the gods had voted him into the former group and James had, most definitely, been voted into the latter; even when James blatantly lied to peoples’ faces they always ended up thanking him for something or other, Ricky knew he could never beat those odds.

On the morning of the 2nd of May, the boys boarded the London bound train weighed down with paraphernalia, most of which was a mystery to Ricky. 

“I’ll explain on the way” said James and over the sandwiches that Ricky’s mother had supplied, he did just that.
For several months, working with his college and pretending to be studying architecture, James had contacted the manufacturers of the Skylon- the new name for the big rocket - and they had supplied all the specifications. So he knew it was aluminium and steel and James reckoned on two ropes and a couple of small hammers should do it.

“So you’re going to climb the thing then come down again?”
“Hell yes, but I’ll leave a souvenir at the top to let them know I was there.” James was smug.
He thought maybe a bottle of whisky but Ricky had to remind him what would happen if it fell. 

“What about a flag?”
“I don’t have one” 

Then James noticed the scarf that was around Ricky’s neck but Ricky argued that it was the college scarf and anyway it had cost three guineas and since it was the college scarf it might give the game away. James said he wanted to give the game away and blow the consequences, so Ricky reluctantly handed the scarf over. Ricky never liked blowing the consequences, he could see trouble ahead. 

When they arrived at the Southbank, the workmen were still putting the finishing touches to the Festival Hall. James had reckoned this might happen and had brought working clothes for both him and Ricky. It worked as they managed to walk straight past the security man who mentioned that it was getting a bit cold and James had to agree. 

“What now?” asked Ricky, still thinking about the consequences being blown.
Apparently the plan was to wait until midnight when the lights on the Skylon were switched off. Was climbing in the dark a good idea?
“Hell yes”
Ricky wondered about James, who had never actually been to America but still talked like them. 

They found that they could crawl under the Pavilion and it seemed a great place to hide and was relatively warm. After a long wait and a bit of cramp, James attempted to stand up and hit a trap door with his head, this led into the Pavilion itself. 
“Bloody hell” shouted Ricky. “Shh”
“But look at this place it’s got food and more food and champagne” 

James ruled that they would return to the room after he’d climbed the tower, assuming that he survived. Anyhow he had a backup plan that if things got too dangerous or the wind picked up, he’d just jump into the Thames.
“And hope you don’t drown”
No wonder Ricky’s mother hits him, thought James.

So a few minutes after midnight James got ready to start the fifty foot climb which would bring him to the bottom of the Skylon. It was all a matter of shimmying up the cables that held the tower in place. Ricky knew his friend and knew he was more scared than he was letting on, so Ricky started their game that had seen them both through troubled spots in the past. 

“Who would you rather kiss Dinah Shore or Doris Day?” asked Ricky.
James opted for Doris Day, every time. Then they discussed who the better singer was between Frankie Laine and Bing Crosby, both of them opted for Bing. Ricky reminded James that he better not fall off as he still needed to go with his pal to see ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ when it came to the Regal. 

Ricky then asked who was the best player between Jackie Milburn and Stanley Matthews. James knew that Milburn had scored against the Arsenal and so ignoring the question he quickly disappeared into the night.

“Be careful” whispered Ricky, to himself.

It was the most difficult climb of James’ life. The overhang was more than he expected and a couple of times he thought that his great view of Big Ben might be his last. By four am he had made the top and Ricky had been right, there was no way you could leave a bottle of whisky up here. He caught his breath, enjoyed the view for a minute then tied the scarf to the top of the Skylon. 

When he’d lowered himself halfway down, he noticed the policeman standing at the bottom. Where was Ricky?
James’ options were limited, he was still high enough to jump into the river or maybe he could take his chances with the copper. It was getting light and it was cold, going down by rope was his only choice. He could easily outrun the policeman so that is what he did. As he slipped down the support cables he jumped off earlier than he or the copper had expected. Luckily nothing was broken and on a hunch he headed towards the Pavilion. Sure enough Ricky was hiding under the building and without being seen, James rolled under to join him.

“Let’s find that trapdoor” the words crept slowly out of James’ mouth.  

Within ten minutes they each had a bottle of champagne to hand and were swigging it back good style; the policeman was nowhere to be seen. Without realising, both sat down behind the big fancy sofa and fell asleep.

It was Ricky who saw her first; there she was staring at him, Queen Mary as large as life. Ricky shook James awake, who grumbled all the way into consciousness. He was about to say ‘bloody hell’ but Ricky realised what was coming and slapped a large hand across James’ mouth.
“What are you boys doing here?” whispered Queen Mary.
“I’ve climbed the Skylon, your majesty” said a bit too loudly.
The smile on her face was subtle but definitely there. She nodded to the boys to look around the sofa, which they did.
“Blood....” the hand got slapped over James’ mouth again.
There was King George the 6th, Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill.
“Bloody hell” exclaimed Ricky, who couldn’t help himself and had no one to slap a hand over his mouth. 

An army officer came over to tell Queen Mary she was required outside whereby she smiled at the boys and left.
“Think she’ll tell?”
“Don’t know, but we don’t want to chance it”. Quickly the boys dropped through the trapdoor and stayed there until it was dark again. 

The next Saturday night at the Regal cinema James and Ricky watched, from the comfort of their red balding seats, a newsreel report on the mysterious appearance of a scarf at the top of the Skylon. 

They laughed and laughed until everyone in the cinema told them to shut up.



Saturday, 14 May 2011

Passing Wonderful by Bobby Stevenson



Coldharbour: Part two.


If Alexandra McMillan had been born in any era other than her own, she would have most certainly been burned as a witch. Luckily for her, she popped into the world the same year as Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone; inspiring her father, Robert, to name his new daughter after the Scottish inventor.

Robert McMillan came down from the Isle of Skye in 1870 with the intention of working on the Oban railroad; a few days later, he fell hopelessly in love with the best looking girl in Coldharbour. They married several months before Alexandra’s birth and neither of them ever regretted the haste of their marriage. Ian, their healthy robust son, who followed three years later, was to join what everyone agreed was the happiest of families.

Robert’s hard work and honesty brought him promotion within the rail company and he was assigned the difficult route of Tyndrum to Oban; a line that was pestered by constant rock falls from Ben Cruachan. One night when Alexandra was only six years of age, she drew a picture of a train being struck by a large boulder. The following afternoon the rail crash came to pass just as it had been prophesised and no one in Coldharbour ever looked at little Alexandra in quite the same way again. She never found her own behaviour, in any way, odd and neither did her mother, and in fact they would sometimes imagine the same things at the same time. The story was often repeated in the family that at the very moment Ian fell from a ridge in Glencoe, both Alexandra and her mother felt his leg snap. 

She once visited an ‘old wifey’ who lived just outside Dalmally and of whom it was said had the gift of the second sight. So one afternoon when Alexandra had finished the big school, she walked the nine miles to the wifey’s house. Alexandra apologised that she couldn’t afford to pay the woman for a reading but the woman patted her hand, told her that everything happens for a reason and that one day she would return the favour. Alexandra was told that she would be loved and not loved in the same measure and at the same time.
“You will be loved by one who does not know you are there”, whispered the old wifey “You will have your dreams but in a different flavour from the wanting of it and not within the confines of Coldharbour”.

So on the long walk back home, Alexandra came to the conclusion that she would have to leave the village at the earliest opportunity to fulfil her dreams.She would study hard, she told herself, for therein would lie the escape route. Reading and the getting of knowledge was relatively easy for Alexandra, for more than anything else in the world she loved books. Walter Scott was her favourite author and Ivanhoe, her hero, but for her, the greatest of all writers was a mister Robert Burns from Ayrshire. It was always with a hint of regret to Alexandra that she found herself born too late to marry the great man. 

She could break hearts with her rendition of ‘My love is like a red, red rose’ but she knew that the breaking of hearts in Coldharbour was a waste of her time and theirs. 

There was never any chance of her attending college or university in Glasgow, so she read and studied and taught herself French which, she had to admit, had limited uses in Coldharbour until one day in early spring a French family visited the village. They had heard stories about the pretty church founded by the Vikings and it had proved so interesting that they delayed their trip to Fort William. 

Alex, as the French family called her, was employed as an interpreter. Monsieur Picard felt that Alex’s accent was “a little unusual but your grammar is delicious”. High praise indeed as she’d never actually heard anyone speaking French until then. She found the family both exotic and exciting and in a very short time they became close, so much so that on the day they left, they kissed a startled Alex on both cheeks and insisted she visit their ‘little chateau’ in Montparnasse, Paris. Life came looking for Alex McMillan and found her packed and ready to take the journey. 

She fell head over heels in love with Paris the moment she stepped out of the train at Gare Du Nord. This was a city in the middle of the Golden Era, la belle époque, a city that was impossible to resist. 
Deciding to save the little money she had, Alex walked away from the station and turned left down a narrow street clutching her five centimes map. Every open door she passed had its own smell and its own personal story. There are slivers of time, when just for that second, you know that your life is almost achingly perfect – Alex would later call these the ‘passing wonderful’ moments – those moments when you are happy to just to be alive. 

She crossed the Rue De Rivoli and lost her breath with the beautiful splendour of it all, but the best was yet to come. As she rounded the back of the Louvre and crossed the Pont Neuf, she saw reflected in the sparkling River Seine the Notre Dame cathedral and she wept. If there was anywhere in the world or any time you could wish to exist then it was here Paris, autumn 1896. 

A little ginger man with a large straw boater pointed out the Picard’s ‘little chateau’. No wonder he had a wry smile on his freckled face, it was such a monster of a building, easily the largest on this stretch of Boulevard Raspail. After she had pulled the black lever which tipped the wooden block which rang the bell, she was told by a woman who was in the process of bleaching her moustache to go to the rear of the building. Alex sat in the servant’s kitchen scared to even breathe when suddenly Madame Picard swished into the room and screamed out “what have they done to my little Scottish friend?”

Madame showed Alex into a bedroom that was larger than her entire Coldharbour home. “You will be happy here and you may stay as long as you wish, dinner is at seven thirty”.Alex outstretched her arms, looked heavenward then fell comfortably back on to a big soft bed, life was good and she was still just ‘passing wonderful’.  

At dinner that evening, Alex was seated beside an elderly gentleman whose hands were ravaged by arthritis but whose heart was still relatively untouched. “I noticed you admiring the painting hanging on the wall. It was a gift to my very dear and close friend, Alain Picard” 
Alex recognised it as a Renoir or at least an excellent copy.
”It is called ‘Dancing at Bougival’, you like it?”
“Of course” said Alex.
“I am Pierre-Auguste Renoir and you are Alexandra, the fortune teller, I have heard much about you” 
Monsieur Renoir told her of his new neighbour in Montmartre who had recently arrived from the south of France and who was in want of an English teacher.  

So the strange girl from the West Highlands became a teacher and a friend of one of France’s greatest painters. By December, she had moved to a flat in the Pigalle only a few minutes’ walk from Montmartre. By the following summer, her growing number of pupils had led her to set up a small English language school near the Sacre Coeur, although it didn’t pay well, she supplemented it by charging for fortune telling. By the light of day she was the paragon of sobriety but by night she sat with her comrades in cafes, smoking, sipping brandy and discussing the current troubles. On one such evening she was given a pencil drawing of herself by Toulouse Lautrec, it lay undimmed in her suitcase until it was found by her son many years later. 
In late August of 1905, Alex had saved enough money to take a short holiday in the fashionable resort of Deauville on the north coast of France. It was populated, every summer, for several weeks by the international rich. Alex was hoping that maybe this was a place to find a husband before she was thirty and past her prime.

One day, as she was leaving the beach, she leaned against a post to put her shoes on when one of the straps broke. She hobbled for a short distance along the promenade before she was stopped by the most gigantic of men who asked in French, but with a distinct American twang, if he could help. Alex said of course he could.
“I’m assuming you’re not French...English?”
“Scottish”
“Ah, the land of Robert Burns” said the very confident, very tall black man with obvious good taste, thought Alex.
“He is my most favourite of all poets” she said proudly.
“Is he indeed...is he, indeed?” and with that Jacob took her small hand in his and led her to the Saint Bernard cafe, where over a glass of cheap wine she found out all she needed to know. He had recently left the French Foreign Legion where he had spent many a happy year, he was originally from west Philadelphia, a city in the United States of America, but had left that country suddenly for reasons he would not expand upon.
“And that, my Scottish, is the story”. 

When she first made love to Jacob it was on Bastille night, just as the whole of Montmartre had turned into one large firework celebration; it was her time for true happiness, right here and right now, and so another ‘wonderful’ was about to be passed.

On Christmas day, Alex found out that she was pregnant. In Montmartre there were many combinations of couples, all one had to do was throw a stone and you were sure to hit an unconventional pairing. Outside of this environment life was very different, very different indeed. Even before Isaiah’s birth, Jacob’s family had found out about the baby and were begging him to bring it home. Whatever troubles had occurred to make him run in the first place, they must have now been settled as he felt it was safe to return.

One morning Alex woke to the silence. This was about the same time as Jacob was boarding a ship bound for New York with a baby. If ever a heart was broken, it was Alex’s heart; broken all the way through and quietly done. 

She returned to the family home at Coldharbour where now only Ian, her brother, remained. No one in the village saw her light a bonfire early one morning, a large bonfire which contained all the souvenirs and memories of France. When the fire eventually faded away to embers and died, so did her eyes.

It stayed that way for many years until a letter arrived from a young American by the name of Isaiah Dupont who, he believed, may be Alex’s son and he wondered if she could meet him in Glasgow.She knew from the moment she stepped nervously into the Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall Street that this was her son - no doubt about it, he had Jacob’s face. He told his mother that he had met an English girl while studying at Temple University in Philadelphia and that they were now engaged and living in London. He showed Alex the letter that Jacob had asked to be sent to his son if he should fail to return from the Front. It explained what really had happened to his mother and how very sorry his father was. Then Isaiah told his mother he was to be married in August and he wanted her to be at his side. 

Before Alex left Coldharbour, she visited the cottage of the ‘old wifey’ who’d once lived just outside Dalmally. The woman’s daughter thanked her for the years Alex had sent money from France and told her of the difference it had made to their lives. A letter lay on her mother’s fireplace to be read by Alex when she returned. 

“I can never thank you enough for your kindness and for the beautiful way you have repaid me. I know by the time you read this you will have found what you are looking for. Once you were loved and not loved at the same time and now that time has passed. Go to them.”

Alex lived well into her nineties and was lovingly looked after by her son, his wife and their three children. She never went back to Coldharbour. 

Each night, as she closed her eyes, she would clutch a book of poems by Robert Burns and within seconds sleep would paint a huge smile on her face.   


Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Ice Ghosts by Bobby Stevenson




She could taste the sea on her lips as she drove her Hudson Super Six towards Summertown, Nova Scotia on a day that only God could have made. Amy and Ben, her grandchildren, whooped and hollered as they stood on the automobile’s back seat, arms flapping wildly in the wind. “We’re eagles, Grandma, look we’re flying” 

“No, we ain’t” claimed Ben “We’re areo-ma-planes”. 

“You children can be whatever or whoever you damn well want to be, always remember that” said Sadie talking out one side of her mouth, the other side being the occupied territory of a Turkish cigarette; Murad being her current favourite. 

“Don’t say ‘damn’ Grandma, it ain’t right”. 

“She can if she’s a wanting”, gasped Ben through the rushing air, “I can too, Amy, you see if I can’t – Damn! Damn! Damn!” 

“You’ll go to hell Ben, I swear you will” Amy worried far too much about other people going to hell.

The large red automobile whisked through the outskirts of town throwing up large masses of dust. White laundry didn’t remain clean as Sadie’s machine did its worst along the potted roads but there was no one to object – the streets were deserted. 

She moved the cigarette to the other side of her mouth just as her big automobile screeched around the corner into Main Street. 

“Shit”, the word escaped from Sadie’s mouth.
“Shit” repeated Ben.
“Ben” said Amy, worrying about his soul again.

In front of them stood a wall of people, all facing the other way and the big red Hudson was just about to mow them down. 

Sadie braked just as hard as she had been cussing, throwing Amy on to the floor and Ben straight over the seat with the boy laughing all the way. Now with a little luck and providence those at the back of the crowd stepped aside, letting the automobile slide through to the front. It came to rest in the middle of Lincoln Street just as the soldier boys were marching past. They had to work their way around the car and pass Ben who was standing on the hood saluting, one or two of them returned the salute; this was Summertown, 1918 and the men had finally come home from overseas.

“In no time at all your father will be home too, he can’t stay in Paree forever, although lord knows he’s tried” added Sadie quietly. One of the older soldiers at the back of the parade waved her through the crowd and on a whim she leaned out of the car and kissed him; if she couldn’t kiss her son John then this boy would have to do. 

It must have been all of fifty years since Sadie first came here and today was to be the final trip to this peculiar little town at the edge of the world; this time she had brought John’s kids. In the old days she would bring her husband but now he was way too sick to travel and so she normally came up this way alone.
Sadie had promised herself that this was to be her last time and that she would say farewell to The Ice Ghosts forever, someone else would have to remember.

It was a long hot drive from New York City to the little town that clung on to a continent. Summertown’s one hotel, The Prince of Wales, looked proudly over the bay and surprisingly little had changed in it over the years. The hotel had opened its doors in 1860 to celebrate His Royal Highnesses’ visit to Nova Scotia but the external wood was now in need of a fresh lick of paint but just like an old friend, it always wore a warm smile on its face.

As the Hudson parked up alongside several other automobiles there was a noticeable swell blowing in from the Banks; a big storm was coming and forcing Sadie to consider waiting until the following morning to visit the stones. 

Like all the other fixtures and fittings in the hotel, Umbrosia was still here, still laughing, and still known as Old Umbrosia even although she was younger than Sadie.

“Well I declare it warms my heart to see you missus and you’ve brought the little chill’ins this time. They sure look like ya, they surely do missus” then she laughed all the way up the stairs like an angel had whispered the funniest joke in the world into her ear.

“Here we are missus, your usual room nice and clean as always” Umbrosia managed to hold the luggage, retrieve the keys from her pocket and open the door all at the same time. She needed to give the door a slight nudge with her shoulder which had her laughing wildly all over again.

“Just been newly painted, we couldn’t get the paint during the war but the boss lady insisted it be ready for missus Sadie and here we are”

Umbrosia dumped the bags on the floor and sat on the edge of the bed. “Just needs to catch my breath missus ‘cause Old Umbrosia just keeps getting older. Now what’s your name young un’?”
“Amy”
“Well Amy, you sure is unusually pretty, you sure is, and is this your brother? What you called boy?”
“Ben....Mam” 
“That little urchin called Old Umbrosia ‘Mam’, did you hear him missus? I do declare” And with that Old Umbrosia laughed her way out the door and slammed it behind her.

The bedroom was just as Sadie remembered it, the one room that never changed and the thought of it always kept her warm. Each night as she nursed her husband Alex through the bad times, she closed her eyes and dreamt of this room.

“It’s getting dark, Grandma”
Amy watched from the window as the frothy sea horses were being chased on to the shore by the gathering storm.

Crack!

The first lightning bolt startled the little girl who began to let tears flow down her cheeks. 

“Come away from the window Darling, come to Grandma”
Her granddaughter rushed to the safety of her Grandma’s arms.
“How ‘bout you Ben, you want a hug?”
“I ain’t scared Grandma”
“You ain’t scared, huh? Then maybe you can fetch Old Umbrosia and tell her to bring up some lamps”
Ben, like the man his father would expect him to be, walked along the corridor slowly until the next crash drowned the hallway in white light and as no one was watching, Ben found a place to hide.

By supper time the storm had continued to grow in strength and ferocity so Umbrosia had delivered cheese, milk and wine to tide them over. Sadie and Amy were sitting together on the big bed eating the last of the Monterey Jack while Ben sat grownup like, by the door. 

“Don’t you want to join us Ben? I think we’ll be safe, I honestly do”
“No thank you kindly, Grandma”

But just as she finished talking, the biggest flash and crash in the history of storms found Ben sitting next to Amy and Grandma.
"Well then, ain’t this cosy, ain’t this real cosy? What shall we do then children? Amy?” 

“A story Grandma, please” 

“What about you Ben, do you want a story?”
“A boy’s one, not a girl’s one”.

“Well let me see, I could tell you how I came to this country and why I come to Summertown every year”.

“You came from far, far, away didn’t you Grandma?” Amy was proud that she knew this fact.

“I did indeed” said Sadie, kissing her beautiful little granddaughter on the forehead.”Tell you what, let’s close the curtains and hunker down”. 

When they’d made themselves comfortable and Sadie had built up the roaring log fire, they all sat close on the bed and readied themselves for their Grandmother’s story. 

“Truly, it was all so, so long ago but I always try my best to remember everything and everyone, just as it should be.
“The year we are talking about, 1868 was so long ago that your Mom and Dad weren’t even born. I had just turned fourteen years of age and I lived in the town of my birth, Greenock on the west coast of Scotland. I was without any word of a lie a wild child but I had a bunch of friends, The Nelson Street Gang as we called ourselves. Apart from me, there was Will, he was sixteen and the leader, there was Alex and Rory, the twins, they were thirteen years old and although they lived in Glasgow they would travel the twenty miles to come to the town for the day. James was much older, I think he said he was about twenty years old and it was he who came up with the idea that changed our lives. James had a pal John Paul or Pauley, as we called him, who would also have been about sixteen and it was he who gave us the name of a ship.  

“It was a game that many of us were involved in, a game of stowing away aboard a ship and then revealing ourselves at the last minute as the vessel was about to leave the Firth of Clyde; that, my darling children, was the river I grew up beside. 

“My mother, Isabel, was not an unkind woman but she did have to love and care for seven other children, so each of us was overlooked from time to time and if I disappeared for a few days it would not cause her a great upset. Will’s idea was to see how far we could travel without being discovered but it was the older boy, James, that sealed our fate, he wanted to work on the railroads of North America and knew of a ship that would get him there. The vessel was known as the Arran and its first mate was a friend of Pauley’s father, so even if we were found quickly Pauley felt we’d be well looked after.

“We made our move when old Dreamer, the harbour master, had fallen asleep from his daily rum potion and the crew were out in the streets of the old town. We weren’t the only ones that night looking for a ship to board. I reckon this happened most evenings at the harbour. The crews weren’t too concerned as they knew they would catch most of the stowaways in time and those they didn’t, well they would be set to work.

“Our ship was headed for Quebec, although we were unsure where that was, it sounded far away and that was good enough for us.

“I, James, Pauley, Alex and the twins managed to find our way into a cargo hold and lower ourselves behind the rope store. We’d bumped into five others, three boys and two girls also boarding the Arran that night but they had made their way to the stern of the ship. Little did we realise at the time that they would be the lucky ones.

“Between the movements of the vessel and the rancid smell of the ropes I felt I was going to be sick and found sleep hard to come by. I heard the crew return just before dawn and the Arran set sail soon afterwards. The sun was shining through the spaces in the deck and so the hold warmed up fast. Within an hour they were calling for the hatches to be battened down, this is when the crew do their final search before heading out to the high seas. I could see the boys holding their breaths as our area was searched but no one thought to look behind the ropes. ‘I’ve found some’ I heard one of the crew call out but it turned out it was the five from the stern. They were transferred on to the pilot cutter and that was that, we, on the other hand, were bound for some foreign land called Quebec. 

“I heard someone call that we had passed ‘Paddy’s milestone’ and that we were heading out into the Irish Sea. Will felt it was time to make a move and since the first mate knew Pauley, Will suggested he should go up with him. What was the worst that could happen to us? We would be made to work to the next port, a life on the open seas then a trip home. 

“Things,however, didn’t work out like that, the boys had been gone only a few minutes when we were all being hauled up to the deck. I knew almost immediately that something was very wrong. Standing next to Pauley was a man I will remember for the rest of my life, his name was James Kerr and he was the first mate of the Arran and probably a drinking pal of Beelzebub himself. He came from Lochranza and was thirty one years of age at the time. The skipper was Andrew Watt, twenty eight and married to Kerr’s sister. By all accounts, Andrew Watt was known as a kind and fair man but whatever hold Kerr had over him had poisoned his good nature. 

“I don’t want to scare you kids, suffice to say that life aboard the Arran was far from heaven. We were beaten regularly and given only water for days. When the ship’s cook threw the potato peelings over the side, James and Will jumped over to catch those pieces that were stuck on the side of the ship. Some days we had one piece of peeling each. As the eldest those two were whipped ever day, only Pauley escaped the cruelty. Some of the crew tried to smuggle dried meats to us but paid for it by being whipped in front of us. On other days Captain Watt tried to dampen Kerr’s anger but one look from the first mate and Watt would fold. I will always wonder what he had over him. 

“Days passed and the air grew colder, much colder. Sometimes Will was tied to the mainsail without a shirt and left there for hours as ice formed on the sails. Then that day came – the ship stopped. All around the Arran was an ice pack which had stuck the vessel solidly. On that day Kerr ordered Will, James, Alex, Rory and I off the ship on to the ice floe but Watt countered this decision and told us to return to the Arran; perhaps his conscience or God made him reconsider but the next day he was back on the devil's side.

“Pauley watched as we were marched back down the gangplank on to the ice floe again. Watt told us that the provisions on the Arran would not support all six of us as well as the crew. He went on to say that another ship, The Dark Shadow, was stuck about a mile to the north of the Arran and would accept us with all haste. How or why he knew this did not strike me at the time. Pauley had tears on his face and the smirking Kerr had his arm around the boy as we stood on the ice. ’God bless’ was Watt’s final words. I will always remember those words.

“To add to the pain both the twins had travelled in their bare feet and that was all they had to stand on in the ice. Will had been given a knife from one of the kinder crew members and had succeeded in hiding it in his turned-up trouser bottoms. As you may have guessed no such ship as The Dark Shadow existed or at least we never saw it. By the time we realised this fact we had lost sight of the Arran and had no idea if we were five, fifty or five hundred miles from landfall and perhaps Kerr had expected us all to expire.
 
“As darkness fell James made each of us tie a piece of clothing to one another, so that if the ice broke in the night we could at least keep together. We huddled closely and with God's grace made it through to the morning. 

“Of the twins, Rory was not faring well and the frost bite was starting to blacken his toes. As we continued to walk into the white wilderness, the ice began to break up. Sometimes there were small gaps filled with water that had to be jumped. All of us made the other side except for Rory who fell in and it took all our energy to pull him out again. Alex tried to carry him but it was almost impossible and Rory began to fall behind. When Rory fell in once more we pulled him out but we all felt we had no energy reserves left. He asked to remain to catch his breath and we moved silently on, even Alex didn’t look back but I heard ,as I’m sure we all did, Rory slip back off the ice and into the water for the last time; a small part of me died that day. 

“As it grew dark towards the end of the second day we saw a bonfire neither from a ship nor a lighthouse but from a building on a distant shore, the problem was that the ice stopped about a mile from the safety of a landfall. We called, shouted and screamed but no one called back so Will decided we needed to make our own way across the water, it was now almost dark and if the ice broke we would not survive. Will used his knife to cut blocks of ice for each of us, we could sit astride them and paddle our way across. Being the heaviest, Alex and James tried first and it worked, the blocks floated and supported their weight. After another two blocks had been cut Alex and I took to the open seas. Will felt the three of us should start out and send for help when we got to safety, he would cut one final block of ice and follow us over.

“James drifted off to the left and I could only hear his voice grow fainter. Three times I fell off the ice and it was only with Alex’s strength and help that I survived. Somehow James made landfall first and attracted the attention of the farmer who was tending the bonfire. He and his sons cast a rowing boat out  to sea and collected me and Alex but no matter how hard they looked, and believe me they did, all through the night and the next day and the following night, no trace of Will was ever found. 

“When the farmer’s wife found out about Rory and Will she told us not to worry, she said the Ice Ghosts would take care of them, they take care of everyone lost out there and in turn our lost boys would look after the others. I didn't  know what others she meant. 

“A couple of days later James announced he was moving on and would head to the nearest town for a train. That turned out to be Summertown; we had been washed ashore at Nova Scotia. He was going on to Philadelphia to meet with an uncle who worked on the Pennsylvania railroad, we never heard from James again.

“When the farmer told the locals about the Arran, the council contacted Quebec and the good folks of Greenock. When we recovered most of our health Alex and I returned home to Scotland by means of a schooner skippered by one of Summertown’s great and good, he had heard of our plight and wanted to help. 

“News had already hit my hometown before we arrived and there were many at the quayside to welcome us, including the mother of Alex and Rory who was unaware of her son’s demise.

“When the Arran finally returned to Greenock both Kerr and Watt were arrested, initially for their own safety as the crowd were ready to lynch them. They both stood trial at Glasgow High Court and were sentenced to eighteen months in prison. On their release, Kerr went back to sea but I hear tell that Captain Watt died soon after in Pensacola, Florida. 

“I married Alex, your Granddad, and we moved to New York City in the summer of 1873.The following year I promised I would return to Summertown to remember absent friends and to thank the farmer and his family. I collected two stones on the beach, one for Rory and one for Will, and I laid them on a rock. Each year, your Granddad and I would return and lay more stones in remembrance and so my lovely grandchildren that is what I hope you shall help me do tomorrow”. 

By now Ben and Amy were fast asleep and Sadie wasn’t sure how much of the story they’d heard but it didn’t matter, it felt right telling it even if it was only to the lamps. Sadie put the kids to bed and took a look out of the window. The storm had passed and all was right with the world again. 

In the morning Sadie, Amy and Ben went to the beach early. The sun was shining and the shore was chock full of souvenirs from the storm. Sadie went to pick a stone from the beach when she suddenly changed her mind.
“Ben, Amy why don’t you kids bring me a stone each”. The children loved the game and Amy returned with what she thought was the most beautiful and Ben with the biggest stone.

“Now come with me” as Sadie guided them to a pile of stones on the ridge.
“What are these?” asked Amy.
“These are for the Ice Ghosts, ain’t they Grandma?” smiled Ben.
“You heard?”
“I heard Grandma, I’ll tell you about it later Amy” said her brother then both of them ran off. 

Sadie laid the two stones on top of the others and was about to say a short prayer when she was interrupted by a scream. 

“Grandma, come quickly, Amy’s stepped on a jellyfish”, Sadie, whispered ‘goodbye’ to the stones and knew her life now rested with her family and the future and that the past was the past.

The Nova Scotia summers came and went and the stones lay undisturbed for many years, then one sunny morning a man and his son walked towards the pile of stones and each placed a rock upon it.

The man smiled at his son, “That’s it, Rory my boy, that’s it” then Ben took his son’s hand and led him back to the car.