Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Sticks and Stones

we live in a world where words don't leave bruises......




When they found him,
His face, it wore a perfect smile,
No troubles etched upon his brow.
The cause of death,
Was hard to say,
He’d smiled just once,
Just once he smiled
And then his eye-shine and soul
Went on their way.
They cut him up to find the cause,
And there they were,
In stomach, blood,
And in his brain,
He’d choked on all the words inside
All the words he’d tried to hide.
He kept each one -
Instead of spitting all them out,
They killed him in the end.



bobby stevenson 2015

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Rockets




My name is Annie and when I was nine I didn’t have too many friends except my Grandmother who always wanted to be an astronaut. 

She said that my Mother had come along and put an end to that dream, thank you very much for asking - but I hadn’t asked.

I didn’t quite understand how or why my Mother had stopped her being an astronaut but my Grandmother was not one to talk crazy like, so I went along with her story. It had something to do with my Granddad turning my Grandmother’s head with all that kissing nonsense and such like and her being in the family way, thank you very much. 

It didn’t stop me and her always talking about being astronauts and we would look at the maps of the sky and choose which of the planets we would visit first. My Grandmother was going to Jupiter and I was very definitely a Saturn girl.

When I was nine I used to think that my Grandmother smelt a bit funny which I thought was because she was in training and eating special astronaut food. 

One evening, when I was safely sitting on her knee and after she had put a large log on the fire, she told me how she had always dreamed of going to the stars. 
“One November afternoon my parents, your great Grandparents Annie, took my brother and me to see a film at a little tea room down Duchess Street, mind you that street’s all gone now, got bombed in the war and they had to pull the whole lot down.

“By day it sold the most wonderful cakes in the world but in the evening, well then it became a wonderland. Mister Guitolli would hang a white sheet on the wall and then show films from a projector which he turned by hand. He never charged anyone a farthing but at the interval Mrs Guitolli would sell some of that day’s stale cakes for a half penny each. 

“Sometimes, if he had had a hard day, he would turn the projector very slowly and every one would stamp their feet to get him to speed up. Sometimes he would just fall asleep and the film would stop, then smoke would start rising from the projector and people would run out of the cake shop, screaming. They knew it wasn’t a real fire but to us it was the only chance we ever got to scream in front of grown-ups.

“On the days that Mrs Guitolli was in a good mood and kissed Mister Guitolli on the cheek in front of everyone, well those were the days that the people in the films would move very fast as Mister Guitolli wanted to finish early. My Mother never did tell me why he was in so much of a hurry.” Then my Grandmother coughed, cleared her throat and continued.

“One day Annie I saw the most marvellous film, The Journey to The Moon, the one where the rocket lands right in the eye of the Moon’s face. Everyone was laughing but I felt sorry for the Moon and made up my mind that I would go there and apologise for what had happened to his eye.” 

Sadly nothing much happened to my Grandmother and her dream for many, many years, not until the very day of her fiftieth birthday on April the 12th, 1961 when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.

My Grandmother decided two things that day: 1 – fifty was no age, no age at all, and fifty year old people could still go to the Moon and 2 – if anything happened to Granddad, God forbid, she would marry Yuri. There was a time when she more inclined to John Glenn, the first American in space than Yuri, but in the end the Russian won her heart. He was her first Cosmonaut and that was that.

My Grandmother said that every day she would check the newspapers looking for an advert that would state ‘Have you ever considered being an Astronaut or Cosmonaut? Then telephone the following number .....” but she never did find it, “Must have been on one of the days I didn’t buy a newspaper.”  she said.

She always wondered, considering the amount of people she had told about her dream, why the rocket folks hadn’t actually contacted her. “I mean”, she said “wouldn’t it be better having a really enthusiastic astronaut than a reluctant one?” 

She even wrote to the Russian Embassy who invited her to tea one afternoon and told her that the waiting list to be a cosmonaut was so long that she would be a hundred and twenty years old by the time they got to her. She had to agree that one hundred and twenty was a good age but mentioned that if her name did come up, then could they contact her anyway? The man said he’d put her name down on the list straight away and sent her home with a signed photo of Yuri that said ‘To my comrade’.

Apollo eight was the next big milestone in my Grandmother’s life and that was the one that got me interested.
In March of ’68 Yuri died in a tragic accident and my Grandmother went into a mild sort of mourning. Other people were twisting to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones but my Grandmother had all the heroes she needed in one man and now he was gone. My Grandfather used to be jealous of a person he had never met and would refer to him as ‘that bloody communist’ but after Yuri Gagarin’s death, and I’m ashamed to say it, my Grandfather started to whistle. It led me to wonder if he hadn’t had Yuri bumped off.  

My Grandmother gave me a poster of the crew of Apollo Eight to hang on my wall, I still remember their names: the commander was Frank F Borman the 2nd, James A Lovell Junior was the Command Module Pilot and William A Anders, the Lunar Module Pilot. 

I always wondered what happened to Frank Borman, the 1st and James Lovell Senior, were they lost in space somewhere?  

In those days, the launching of a rocket was the most important thing in the world – at least to me. Every television channel would cover it and very clever people with extremely large foreheads would discuss it for hours on end. We would sit with bowls of popcorn and devour every delicious second of the programmes and when the talking got boring, Grandmother would test me on all the people who had ever been in space. 

We had a happy Christmas and we made it extra so, because my Father was off to Singapore in the New Year to work for several months. My Mother and I moved in with Grandmother in order to provide company for us all and I was more than delighted. 

Apollo 9 was a bit of a strange one and never really went anywhere, there was lots of talk of trying out modules but to be really cross-my-heart-honest, I found it boring. 

The next trip was really exciting, the guys were going to go to the Moon and try everything except land. I thought it was a shame and so did my Grandmother “Why couldn’t they just let them land on the Moon for five minutes?” she said, but it wasn’t to be and they all had to come home again. 

In July 1969, me, my Mother and my Grandmother all went out to Singapore to see my Father and we had the best time ever. It was a truly amazing place and it was there we got to see Neil Armstrong on television, not just land on the Moon but actually walk on it. It was brilliant. 

My Grandmother and I sat there holding our breaths as Commander Neil put his foot on the Moon’s surface. My Father said he thought that his foot would go right through and he’d get stuck but then I caught him winking at my Mother - my Father, not Neil Armstrong. 

I remember the day I asked my Grandmother who the first man to walk on the Moon was and she said “where dear?” and I have to tell you, I thought that was a funny thing to say. “Too late” I said, “It was Neil Armstrong”.
“Who dear?” 

Then I heard she’d fallen down the stairs which I was sure was due to her Astronaut training. She was very hard on herself. 

She never did tell me she was going to Astronaut Training Camp, my Father did. I asked him whether my Grandmother had found the advert in the paper and he said that she had and that they had accepted her. So I was pleased but I really wished she had told me herself.

Then one day my Father looked really sad and told me that I had to be brave and I said I was. He said that his Mother, my Grandmother, had gone to live on the Moon and I said stop talking crazy like as Apollo Twelve wasn’t due to take off for some months. He told me that she had been sent on a secret mission and that I was to tell no one. I never did. 

When I was nine years of age my Grandmother went to the Moon and didn’t come back.

She will soon and I bet she’s building a rocket even now.



bobby stevenson 2015



Friday, 24 February 2012

Secret Things, Sweet Things by Bobby Stevenson



Secret Things
She awoke, as she did every morning to the sound of the muffled, shouting voice and the door being unlocked before repeatedly kicked.

Slivers of sunlight were all that her young eyes could understand until she reached for the old spectacles that were her only possession.

She was in the garden shed, this was where she lived.
There was another kick, usually when her father had just finished his rollup cigarette.

She reached up to remove the old stinking blanket that covered the window. The morning light did what it always did - the shock of it burned her eyes at first. Sometimes the blanket was just her window curtain, but on frosty, snowy night it was a life saver. It just meant that she would awaken with her father’s face looking through the window – her privacy gone.

In the kitchen, her father and grandmother danced around each other; the dance of the bully and the gentle old lady. When the old woman’s daughter had disappeared, she had decided to wait on her return. As the months became years, she still had hope burning in her heart. The bully knew better, he didn’t expect his wife to come back.

The grandmother was limited in what she could do to keep her granddaughter safe but leaving was not an option. They had tried that and he had tracked both of them down, and both were badly beaten.
He took them to the hospital afterwards and told the doctor that they had been attacked by a burglar. The doctor knew from the bully’s eye’s what the truth was.

If it was a particularity cold night, the grandmother would take the young girl into her room for a few warm hours. By the morning, she had to be returned to the shed; the young girl’s sin being that she reminded the bully of her mother.

The little lost girl in her dishevelled clothes would leave her shed and look through the kitchen window. When her father was reading the newspaper, her grandmother would signal that she could enter and come to the table.

The young girl would sit very still with her arms by her side and wait to be told when to move.

Her grandmother would place toast beside the girl and then ruffle her hair.
The little lost girl would eat the dry toast as her grandmother would leave a glass of milk for her granddaughter. But on this morning as the little girl reached for the milk, she knocked it over.

The quiet old lady and the little lost girl watched as the milk ran towards, then under, her father’s newspaper.
The bully jumped, screwed up the wet newspaper, threw it at the little girl, knocking her from her stool.
Before she left for school her grandmother stuck a plaster on the cut on her forehead. The bully long gone, she kissed her granddaughter and ruffled her hair then gave her a few coins to spend.

On the bus she sat alone drawing pictures in the window condensation.
As three older girls passed her, they laughed, held their noses and then spat on the little girl. A kindly woman took out a paper handkerchief and handed it to the little lost one. The little girl wiped the spit away, then put the hanky in her pocket.

In the class, she sat as she did at the breakfast table with her arms by her side. She sat alone.
The teacher handed out exam results to each pupil and behind the little girl, a classmate held her nose letting everyone know of the smell.

The class laughed until the teacher told them to quieten.
The teacher placed the young girl’s result on her desk: 10 out of 10 – ‘excellent’.
The girl behind her stole the paper and threw it around the class. One boy ripped the paper into pieces.
When the class emptied, the little girl put the pieces of her exam result in her pocket.

At lunchtime, the young girl walked to the cafe and bought chips with the money her grandmother had given her. The woman in the cafe smiled as the little girl smiled back.

Hungrily the girl walked and ate her chips before bumping into someone. It was one of the older girls who snatched the little girl’s food and threw it to her friends. One tipped the chips on to the street then they walked away laughing.

The little girl picked up her chip paper and put it in her pocket.
Later that day, the little girl sat in the kitchen at the table with her grandmother. She drew a beautiful picture with her crayons.

Then a door slammed and the grandmother motioned her granddaughter to go out the kitchen door – quickly.
In the shed the young girl hung the blanket over her window once more, just as her father put a lock on the shed door. He made sure it was locked solid.

Under her bedding was a torch which the young girl switched on. She then took the papers and hanky from her pocket and the plaster from her forehead.

With a little pot of glue, all these things were stuck to a larger object.
The object was made up of bits of this and that. The little lost girl had built something out of all the badness that had come her way.

As she shone the torch up towards the object, she smiled at what she has made.
She had built an angel which reached to the roof and watched over her.




Sweet Things
She eventually found her mother.

Perhaps it was more correct to say that her mother had found her, having traced her daughter through a friend. The mother had been in contact just before the girl’s 21st birthday.  

It had been a dark time when the girl had returned for her grandmother’s funeral. Her father had spoken to her that day, perhaps for the first time in years. He had screamed at her from time to time but on this sad day, as her grandmother’s coffin was placed in the ground, he whispered “She’s joined your mother”. She was seventeen by then and she didn't want to believe him. She didn't believe him.

Her father had shrunk since last she’d seen him and the drinking had taken its toll; he was barley forty and comfortably wore the body of an older man.

It had only been three years since the girl had gone to school and simply never returned home. She had taken the first bus that was leaving town and had paid for it with her grandmother’s lunch money. She’d been skipping meals to save up - what was the point anyway? There was always going to be someone to take the food away from her.

Only when the bus was on the highway and the town was a distant church spire did she begin to relax. She dumped her school clothes in a bin at the first comfort stop then dressed into a sweater and jeans.

Her grandmother had given her an address in the city, “just in case” she said. “In case I go, sooner rather than later.”  The address was meant for an emergency and this is exactly what this was. She felt sorry that she had abandoned her grandmother to that madman but she could take it no longer. She had given them all a thousand chances: the school, the teachers, her classmates, even her grandmother, to change things and no one had.

Then one morning when she awoke in the shed for the hundredth time, the angel gave her a look as if to say, ‘it’s up to you, no one else is coming to help’.

The address had taken her to a Mrs Beverly Smith of Harrow, London - a kindly woman who had once been a beauty and had once been her grandmother’s bridesmaid.

“Just call me Bev, love, everyone does.”
She lived on her own with a cat called Lennon. Her husband, Stanley, had ‘been taken’ five years before.
“I’ve got me son, ‘Arry, he’s a doctor in Aberdeen. Works for one of them oil companies. I’ve got two grandchildren, Sarah and Stanley. That’s enough for me, thank you for asking.”
Bev let the girl stay in Harry’s room, “Don’t suppose he’ll be wanting it anytime soon.”

Bev knew a woman who knew the manager of the local supermarket and got the girl a job on a Saturday. She proved such a dependable hard worker that after a month, she was taken on full-time.

“If you don't mind me saying. I’ve seen them drawings you do, love. You’re too good just to doodle. I reckon you could be an artist.” Bev also knew a woman who knew a man that ran an art course at the local college in the evenings. Bev managed to get the girl on a course that ran over the winter.

By December, the girl’s art teacher was recommending that the girl go to Art School – “You are that good.”
At weekends when she wasn’t working at the store, she was working on her portfolio. She painted Lennon as a thank you for Bev and it hung on the wall next to a photo of Stanley, her husband.

The following September, the girl was accepted into Central Saint Martin’s College of Arts and Design. This wasn’t just any art school, this was the best.
When the girl worked in the supermarket she had kept to her own company, always expecting someone would take everything from her but at college she was spotted by a young girl called Leonetta, who befriended her.
“Just call me Leon.”

Leon was studying fashion and was in her second year. Her boyfriend was a footballer and insisted that Leon watch him every Saturday – so she took the girl along as company.

One Saturday evening after football, Leon and her boyfriend came to Bev’s for something to eat. The girl had never had friends home before or for something as glamorous as a meal.

The girl met a boy at one of the football matches. Eddy was his name, he was an electrician.
“You hold on to that one” said Bev, “Electricians are never out of work.”

And she did hold on to that one. She didn’t tell him of her past life, something like that would keep for another day. But one day when they were walking along the High Street, she laughed out loud and then she realised that she was laughing for the very first time in her short life.

Eddy made her eyes smile.

In her final year at art school, Eddy asked her to marry him and she accepted.
A week before the art show, she went back to Bev’s for a change of clothes, all the students had been working day and night and basically sleeping at the college.
When she walked into the front room, Bev was sitting with a woman.
“She’s your Mum.”
Bev left the two of them to talk.
“I was younger than you when I left.  I couldn’t cope. He wasn’t a bad man, not at first. He just used to come home drunk and lock me in the shed out back. You know the one?”
The girl nodded that she did.

There were several roads that the girl could have taken that day but the one she took was to place her arms around her mother and they both wept.

She invited her Mum, along with Leon and her boyfriend, to the graduation show but pride of place was kept for Bev, her other mum.

Along with the girl’s drawings of Bev, Lennon and Bev’s family was a statue she had made from glued paper.
It was a tall smiling angel and underneath it were the words:
“Everything is going to be alright.” 

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Passing Wonderful (2012) by Bobby Stevenson






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.   


Wednesday, 22 February 2012

A House Of Many Windows (2012) by Bobby Stevenson


The Cloch Lighthouse, Gourock, Scotland  (my home town) was built by Robert Louis Stevenson's grandfather. 
My name is Robert G Stevenson and I have a father called Thomas and so it was with Robert Louis Stevenson.


“The body is a house of many windows: there we all sit, showing ourselves and crying on the passers-by to come and love us.” Robert Louis Stevenson

In his diaries the Reverend Aston was a meticulous recorder of Coldharbour’s weather and in the winter of 1869 he made a note in a margin intimating that it had been the very worst of conditions within living memory.

‘It had started thus with a snow blizzard that lasted for more than seven days, followed on its heels by several more inches of the miserable stuff. At times like these one has to question why we live in this particular place, which at it rawest feels like the very edge of the world.’

Now the Reverend could never be described as a despondent soul, on the contrary it always seemed as if the Holy Spirit was forever bouncing around inside the man. So when the cold weather started to penetrate the religious shores of our good Reverend, one could only guess as to the impact of the weather on the other less sturdy residents of the town.

It should be remembered dear reader that these were the days before the rail passed within a few miles of the town. Oban, for instance, would be a good day’s ride by cart and would not be attempted lightly. Many folks found work in Fort William, Tyndrum and Inveraray and to lessen the cost would stay in those locations for most of the week. It didn’t take much to consider making the move permanent and so month by month the once healthy population of Coldharbour began to drift and diminish.

The loss was nothing new, the valleys and slopes of the West Highlands were awash with ghost towns. A few caused by the Clearances but many more were for more basic economic reasons - the young could not find employment and the severe weather only made matters worse.

Every night the Reverend Aston prayed for an answer to his problem. With his flock evaporating there would soon be no need for his services and although his faith was never in doubt, he did write a letter to his brother in Glasgow to enquire after churches that were on the lookout for a minister. Perhaps God wanted him to be of service in another way.

All mortal souls cower in the blackness of night and imagine the darkest of thoughts and, if lucky, the lightest of dreams – ideas that are washed and bleached by the morning light and very rarely crossed again until the next sleepless night. But sometimes in those sad and wistful thoughts solutions are forged. It is as if the universe has been listening and delivers hope in a routine that was not envisaged. One of those answers came in the shape of two men who arrived by coach on a summer’s evening.

They took rooms at the Covenanters Inn, an old coaching house on the Glasgow to Oban route. It was probably kindness itself to say that this establishment had seen better days. As the town’s population fell so young Stuart McAndrew, the Inn’s owner, was already making plans to move to North Carolina to join his elder brother Alex who had made a tidy sum growing tobacco.

Of the two men who stepped from the coach that evening, the younger was a gangly youth of perhaps eighteen years of age. He answered to the name of Robert and the elder gentleman was his father Thomas. 

Thomas Stevenson was one of the Lighthouse Stevensons, his own father having successfully built several lauded examples around the country. Thomas was carrying on the tradition which he hoped to pass on to his own son.

Robert was in the middle of studying engineering at Edinburgh University and in the summer months would accompany his father on his tours where they would inspect possible sites for more lighthouses. Their halt at Coldharbour had been unavoidable as the road to the open sea was blocked by a large rock fall – a common occurrence in these parts. They planned to continue by ferry on to the Isle of Mull when the opportunity dictated.

Word had got back to the Reverend Aston about the latest arrivals and he, being a man who believed that God moved in mysterious ways, sent a note to invite them to dinner the following evening.
Thomas, the father, did most of the talking that evening but the Reverend Aston's eye was always drawn to the boy who appeared to be noting many points of their conversations.

“Are you committing my utterances to paper young man?“

There was no reaction to this question from the scribbler.

“Robert, the Reverend has asked you a question, please be so good as to offer a reply. Goodness knows there are times when you try even my patience.”

“It is of no consequence” said the kindly Reverend “it is merely a light hearted exchange.”

“My son is studying to be an engineer but he is forever writing stories of one nature or another. You have no need to be alarmed, the words are not accountable to you.I can assure you."

In some ways the Reverend looked disappointed not to be considered worthy enough to be noted in the book. After a fine meal and several whiskies the discussion got around to the business of Thomas and Robert.

“Lighthouses, you say. So you are the famous Thomas Stevenson.”

Thomas was genuinely pleased at this description, after all what they were involved in was dangerous work, yet it saved so many lives and he thanked the Almighty that he was able to serve in such a manner.
When the evening was complete, the Stevensons trudged their way back to The Covenanters and as they did so, the spark of an idea flickered just behind the eyes of  Reverend Aston, one that was to gestate and present itself in all its glory the next day.

“Eureka!” was exclaimed in a full rounded Glasgow accent and woke the startled Mistress Aston the following morning.

“Have you lost your senses husband?”

“On the contrary, I may have just found them.”

And so the Reverend Aston explained to his ever patient wife about the need for a lighthouse at Old Man’s Corner. Apparently there had been several ships which had headed for Davy Jones’ locker off that particularly dangerous headland.

“And to what ends? There have been ships sinking all over the West dear husband which have never had you this excited" stated his wife with even more patience than normal.

“Why woman, to bring people back to Coldharbour, labourers will be needed, as will bricklayers and cooks and carpenters and...well you can see my point.”

And she could.
She could see it very well and for the first time, in a long time, she looked at her husband with new eyes and liked what she saw.

So with all haste the Reverend rushed around to The Covenanters Inn and placed his proposal in front of the gentleman and his boy.Money for the build would have to be begged, borrowed and raised but when they sat around the table and the finances were considered, it seemed that it was indeed possible. Plans would be drawn up over the winter and if all was well, building could start in late May when the tides would be beneficial and the weather would be more kindly.

Fund raising began almost straight away with dances being held in the village hall and in one of the larger rooms of The Covenanters. This brought in folks from surrounding farms and villages and caused Stuart  McAndrew to delay his departure for New World.

It was agreed the following spring that Robert and his uncle David would oversee the build as Thomas was already committed to the building of a new lighthouse in the far reaches of the Orkney Isles. Robert agreed to this without hesitation, his uncle was the more lenient of the brothers and this would allow time for Robert to write the stories which had begun to occupy more of his time.

By the May of the following year everything was underway. Money had been raised and although the final payment from Edinburgh was still outstanding, the Reverend saw no need to panic. He had prayed long and hard about the problem and felt assured that his prayers would not be ignored by the Almighty.

The Covenanters Inn was so full that three or more men were sharing each of the fourteen rooms. The only exception was Robert and his uncle who were given a room to themselves. However they decided to sleep in one room and use the second bedroom as offices.

Within three weeks the foundation of the lighthouse had been laid and the weather had indeed been kind. On the nights that Robert walked by himself back from the headland he would always see a forlorn face staring from the upper windows of The Covenanters which he assumed was Stuart. This type of behaviour intrigued Robert and each night it would be written into some story or another.

The Reverend’s dream of a re-populated  Coldharbour was beginning to take form. The workers at the hotel were missing their families that they had left in the outlying areas and so small shacks were built to accommodate the wives and children. This meant more money being spent in the village shop and more pews filled in the local churches.

During the long daylight hours that were available in such northern latitudes, the men would work the sixteen hours from sun up to sun set. Every second evening, and although working hard himself, Robert would set up a room in the village hall for the children and read them one of his latest stories. One such popular story was The Mutiny of The Hispaniola. For much of his childhood Robert had been confined to his bed with sicknesses and illnesses which were far from the norm. This led to a lonely existence whereupon he wrote little stories to entertain himself while the children of Edinburgh were running and screaming in the streets below. He was still unhappy with the title of the story but he knew that there should be the word Treasure in it.

His uncle David, although a kindly and considerate man, was forever chastising his nephew over the time that was wasted on such trivial nonsense – this did not stop Robert however, indeed he felt compelled in not only continuing but increasing his activities in the business of story writing and telling.

Needless to say reports were getting back to his father that Robert was a less than enthusiastic engineer and this would have prompted a visit from Thomas at some point in the summer had circumstances not dictated otherwise.

On the morning of the 7th of June a body was found half concealed on the far side of Old Man’s Corner. It was the corpse of a twenty four year old labourer from Dublin by the name of Patrick – no one used a surname in these parts as they were very rarely given with any honesty. Those who toiled in such environments were more than likely to be on the run from one authority or another. 

Reverend Aston had sent a messenger to the nearest garrison at Fort William describing the death of the young man. He did so with some reluctance as this type of news would discourage the movement of families to the area.A note was sent back to Coldharbour that due to the imminent visit of  Queen Victoria most of the military were engaged elsewhere but that a most competent fellow would be sent when available.

In the absence of any authority Robert took it upon himself to investigate the death with a mind to passing on the findings to whoever was assigned to the case at a later date.

Patrick had shared a room with three other Irishmen who all professed innocence of knowing anything about anything and Robert felt that the situation was not likely to improve any time soon.The local doctor reported back that the man's head wound was probably caused by a blunt instrument, although a fall on the rocks could have had the same effect. The suspicious element was the way the body was found, as if someone or something had attempted to hide their handy work.

Robert had to agree with the doctor, that even if he had slipped it was very unlikely that with such a grave injury to the head that the man would have crawled into the grass. It was suggested that he may he been trying to keep warm but the doctor felt that the body had been carried to that spot. So it was murder and Robert felt the hairs stand on the back of his neck. Half of him was shocked at the violence and the other half hoping that he could find a good story in it all.

Patrick, if that was his name, seemed to have been a well liked fellow with no obvious enemies. After sending the majority of his earnings home to his family, he was known to share what little he had left  with his room mates.

Robert was ashamed of his poor detective skills which were under ever increasing pressure from David who wanted him to get his mind back on more practical matters – like building a lighthouse. 
There had to be something he was missing, or rather someone, surely the culprit would have gone on the run after attempting to hide the body. If it was one of the labourers who were so used to covering their tracks, then the game was up. Robert Louis decided he would talk to the one man who knew what went on in The Covenanters Inn.

Stuart was nowhere to be seen. Apparently he had gone to Inverness to attend some business meeting or other and was unsure when he would return. A thought went through Robert’s head that he dared not speak.

So either Robert could  wait for Stuart’s return or make a trip himself to Inverness - assuming that was where Stuart was, and for a second he wanted to say, hiding.

Robert rode to Fort William by horse and on to Inverness by the midday coach. By dusk he had arrived in the town just as the centre market was packing up for the night. On the off chance Robert asked the coachman if he had transported or had known of anyone fitting Stuart’s description and by luck he had.

“Strange fellows”
“Fellows?”
“Aye, there were two of them and one kept his face covered.”
“Do you know where they were headed?”
“I heard one of them say they would try the hotel on Castle Street.”
So Robert set off with all haste for the hotel. 

The receptionist had no one of the name of Stuart McAndrew. The only fellows that she had roomed in the past five days were a young doctor and his patient.For whatever reason Robert asked for their room number and the receptionist, for whatever reason, gave it to him.

Robert knocked the door of room 12. Inside he could hear people moving around very quickly and a door being slammed. He knocked again.
The door opened an inch and an eye looked out.
“Yes?” It was Stuart. 


“It’s me, Robert Stevenson I've come to talk to you. There has been a dreadful occurrence at the Inn.”

“Please go away. Please for your own sake.”
Suddenly a door inside the room was kicked open by a person who moved in the shadows.
“Looked what you’ve done, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Robert rushed in and helped Stuart wrestle the man to the ground, a man who had the strength of four men.

“Don’t hurt him, he’s my brother.”
And sure enough when they had finally got the frightened creature under control, Robert could see just that – the man was Stuart’s identical twin.

“He’s ill you see, my brother Ian. Always has been. He killed the young Irishman for no other reason than he could. All I ask you is that you give us some time to leave and we will never be in your lives again. There is a ship leaving Greenock for New York two days from now and we intend to be on it. Alex our elder brother will take care of us in the Carolinas.”

As Robert descended the stairs he felt troubled, the poor Irishman had not deserved his fate and who was to say that Ian would not do the same in the New World.

He asked the receptionist for a pen and paper and decided to write a note to the local magistrate explaining Ian and Stuart’s circumstances and that they intended to leave via Greenock. It would be up to the authorities to deal with the consequences.

As he folded the paper he caught sight of the false names that the twins had used; Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.

Robert made a note of them in his book.