Saturday, 29 August 2015

The Haunting

                            Largs, Ayrshire, Scotland...once upon a time

Going home was all that he had left. 

The family and friends had long since gone from the little town on the West coast of Scotland but it had been home once and would be again. 
The snow fell as he stepped from the railway station. It had been a long, long journey from London and all of it spent travelling in third class. Like his family the money had disappeared, some through his own carelessness and some through the dishonesty of others. Now all he had was a few pounds to rent a small room in his old town. 

Mrs Trelawney was expecting him and she seemed cheery and homely.
“Your room is all prepared Mister Lawson and I’ve had my daughter light a fire to take the dampness out of your bed. If you would like to go straight up and get settled in, I’ll show you the way.” Mrs Trelawney climbed the three floors but hesitated at the final floor. Sam Lawson assumed it was because she was out of breath and so he went to help her.

She pulled away, adding “I am fine, Mr Lawson.....really, I am fine.”
Sam thought that the woman spent as little time as possible in his room.
“If you need anything Mrs Lawson my daughter will bring it to you. These stairs are a killer for me,” said Mrs Trelawney. The thing that struck Sam as strange was that she was younger than he was.

Once he had unpacked he sat down to write a letter, the main one being to the Carters in London who had so graciously helped him in his time of need with a bed.

He placed his paper and pen on the old wooden table that sat in the corner. It would have to be used for all things considering it was the only table in the room. He had just laid his pen on it when there was a knock at the door. 
“Coming, Mrs Trelawney,” he called but when he opened the door the hall was empty and his, was the only bedroom on that floor. He noticed an old store room across the way and he wondered if the person had disappeared in there. He knocked on it quietly and when there was no response, he tried to open it. It looked and felt as if it hadn’t been opened in years. Sam returned to his room.

He closed his door and sat down to write the letter but suddenly a cold chill ran up his neck for on the paper that he had left blank were scrawled the words ‘help me’. He crushed the paper wondering if there was a child in the house who perhaps had thought it all a joke. It was something he asked about the next morning as he ate breakfast.

There was a crash as Mrs Trelawney dropped her knife on the kitchen floor.
“A child you say? There’s been no child in this abode for many a year. Isn’t that right, Isabelle?”

Isabelle, Mrs Trelawney’s daughter, nodded her head but neither seemed that convincing. Sam decided he must be imagining it all and apologised.
Sam took a stroll and bought the local paper in order to look for a job. The local paper was always the best place to find something. He took it back up to his room but just as he reached the top floor he could distinctly hear a man’s footsteps run across the hall. It ran into his room and then the door slammed. His heart skipped a beat. 
“Hello? Is there anyone there? Hello?”
He knocked his own door gently then decided to open it. It was so small a room there was nowhere for anyone to hide. He carefully bent down and looked under the bed; satisfied there was no one there he opened the door of the small cupboard – nothing. The window was locked from the inside so he could not have escaped that way. Sam wondered if he was having a break down, it probably was deserved given the troubles he had found himself in.

He sat down to read the paper then noticed that scratched on the table, by a fingernail by the looks of it, were those words again: ‘help me’.

He must get a job as soon as possible and get out of Mrs Trelawney’s rooms. She had been unexpectedly cheap and Sam was beginning to understand why.

He circled a few jobs in the newspaper. The first one he was going to try was the ice cream shop at the corner of the street. He had turned his hand to working in restaurants in London and in Paris and felt he could hold his own in an out of season Scottish town.

It was snowing harder as he pushed open the shop door. Mister Bertolli, the proprietor was cleaning out the ice cream making machine.

“Hold-a on, I be-a with-a you in-a minoote,” he said in a half Scottish, half Italian accent. He wiped his hands, took off his gloves and then shook Sam’s hand warmly.

Mister Bertolli offered Sam a job in helping with the ice cream making. It was hard work and long hours but he surprised himself with how much he enjoyed it. When the shop was busy, he was even allowed to serve the customers.

One day, when things were quiet, Sam and Mister Bertolli were having a coffee and Sam brought up in conversation his problem at Mrs Trelawney.

“So what-a you think it is, Sammy?”
Sam told Mister Bertolli that he thought it might be a ghost.
“I don’t-a know much about ghosts, but maybe it’s-a trying to warn-a you,” said a very serious Mister Bertolli.
“About what?” Sam asked.
“Search-a me.”

Every night when he got back to the top of the stairs at Mrs Trelawney’s, the scuttling and running of the unseen man would welcome him.

“Are you trying to tell me something?” Whispered Sam but every time he spoke to the room nothing was forthcoming.

At 2.27am every night there were cries from the fireplace of ‘help me’. Some nights Sam lay there waiting on it and other nights, especially if he had had a busy day at the ice cream shop, he would just turn over and go back to sleep.

“Help you what?” shouted a frustrated, Sam.
It got so common and frequent that Sam was starting to get used to it all and on the nights that there wasn’t the scuttling or the noises, he would feel that there was something missing.

Finding his room unwelcoming, Sam  spent more and more time in the Trelawney’s company. It was not unusual for Sam to spend the whole evening with Mrs Trelawney and her daughter, eating, reading and talking about the troubles of the day.

He even felt comfortable enough to mention the noises in the top room but neither of the women had heard any disturbances or even heard it mentioned by previous tenants.

Sam was happier than he had been in a long time, now that he finally had a family of sorts and a place to call home.

One morning a telegram was delivered to the house to inform Sam that his old boss in London had died and left him some money. Not a fortune but enough to keep him in comfort for a few years. His first action, as a thank you for their friendship and company, was to take Mrs Trelawney and her daughter on a holiday to the Isle of Man. They all stayed at the best hotel in Douglas and fine dined every evening.

Over the next few weeks Sam spent time and consideration buying his new family presents for Christmas and hiding them in his room. It was going to be a great celebration this year.

One Saturday evening Sam tried a new soup that Mrs Trelawney’s daughter had made that day. Sam thought the soup delicious and said so, but felt he should retire early as it had been a tiring day and he went up to his room.

When Mrs Trelawney and her daughter came to check on him at 1am he was already in a coma. They realised that this would make things a lot easier. They tied him up and dragged him from the bed; they had both already worked out what they would do with the corpse.

Mrs Trelawney’s daughter tied the body into the crevice and then they both started to place bricks over the fireplace, he would be dead soon enough.At 2.27am they had finally bricked up Sam and as mother and daughter went back downstairs, they were already discussing how they would spend his money. Mrs Trelawney would inform Mr Bertolli that Mr Lawson had been called unexpectedly back to London.
  Just before he died, while he was entombed in the fireplace, Sam Lawson managed to whisper his last words: ‘help me’.

bobby stevenson 2015

Thursday, 27 August 2015


Everyone knows where Goodlands is.
It’s not too far from where you’ve been and not too close to where you’re going. It’s the kinda place where you find what you’re looking for, one way or another.
And so it was on that Saturday, “Jalopy Saturday” as the Sheriff called it.

“Always frightening those damned horses, what with all their tooting, and smoking and noise of those infernal combustible engines.”
Saturday was one of those days when The Big Man upstairs had painted the sky an azure blue from one horizon to the other.

“Hey, it feels good to be alive,” said folks to each other. Well not in so many words but in their looks and smiles, each knew what the other meant.
As you perambulated up the boardwalk, waving to friends and neighbours, you could smell the cooking and baking coming from Mrs Lent’s open window. It sure did make the nose feel that it had a reason for living on those kind of days. That was followed by the sweet sound of musical tunes which lifted the spirit, coming from the old Bakelite radio that sat in Mrs Well’s front room. I tell you that radio always smelled as if it was just about to burst into flames. It never did, because things like that just didn’t happen in Goodlands.

Saturday was the day that the pastor made his weekly trip to the bakery on the corner of Cherry Street and Chew Avenue. I’m thinking that calling Chew an avenue, was a name too far for the founding fathers, ‘cause it barely stretched from here to there.

For some peculiar reason of which I have no understanding, everyone in Goodlands would go to their front door on a fine Saturday morning and wish the pastor all the best on his trip to Sankie’s Bakery. Then, when he’d filled his arms with enough bread to feed a biblical crowd, he’d turn around and walk back up to the church with all the folks still standing at their front doors wishing the pastor well with his meal.

If you didn’t know Goodlands, you’d probably think they’d all gone Johnny Sidebar (he was the man who really discovered electricity but fried his brains before he had a chance to tell the world and ran out of Goodlands and into the Birkmire Desert. He was never, ever seen again). Although some folks tell of lonely howling that can be heard on Moonboys road on a quiet night.

Like they good folks say, you don’t have to be crazy to live here, but it really does help.

Old Sheriff James was out on his porch, rocking and rolling on his chair, shaking 
his head at the way the jalopies were careering around town.

“Never had such stupidity in my day,” he’d sigh. “A man knew where he was with a horse.”

Now don’t get me wrong with the picture I’m painting here. The sheriff was a good man, sure enough. He was just coming to the end of his time on this earth and new-fangled stuff always looks out of focus to each of us who have lived high on the hog in earlier times. We all have our season, and the sheriff’s was nudging up against winter. His leaves were falling from his tree and he knew there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Sure it was sad in its way, but everyone had to make way for what was to come, and life made sure that happened by making folks uncomfortable in the newness of things.

The ‘old days’ wasn’t really a place, it was a way of thinking, of doing, a place where everyone thought that manners and morals had been better. Things weren’t really getting worse in Goodlands, just different.

No one, and I mean no one, came to this town and wished they hadn’t. It had a sap in its veins and it was a sap that oozed happiness and sunshine.

You see there are some folks who think that such places don’t really exist, but they do I tell you. Everything you see in a town has been a dream once in a head, and if you can dream nicely, then Goodlands is what occurs.

Now I don’t want you to say to me that I’ve been sitting too long out in the sun, ‘cause I ain’t. I think that if you’re passing one day, you need to come to Goodlands and have a look at the pastor or the sheriff and you’ll say, hey, kid you were right. This is the happiest town this side of the mirror.

I said that everyone gets what they need in Goodlands, but that don’t mean, it’s what they want. You can come to Goodlands and get advice that you weren’t keen on hearing. No sir, but it will be a truth that you needed to hear.

Something that puts you on a straight path for the rest of your journey.

That was the funny thing about Goodlands, no one remembered just why they came to the town in the first place but they were all pleased that they had.

Now I ain’t saying the place was magical or anything, far be it for me to be the crazy one but there were little miracles that popped up here and there, enough to make you go – ‘well, I’ll be………’.

‘Cause that was the thing, no one came to a bad end in Goodlands. There was no hospital and the doctor used to spend most of his days playing cards with the sheriff. People only left Goodlands in two ways; either they had decided that they were in the right mind to move on to somewhere else, or they just got plum tired and decided it was time to close their eyes.

Seriously. Old Man Peters, last June watched the pastor and his bread for one last time, then just said, “I’m ready” and closed his eyes. The doctor, who was holding a straight flush, came over said, “yep, he’s gone,” and then went back to his cards. Now, he wasn’t being mean or anything, he just knew that Old Man Peters had chosen that time as his end time and that he was ready to leave.

Sometimes your eyes just get tired of seeing everything and everyone and when you’re tired of Goodlands, (as a wise man once said), you’re tired of living. 

The big miracle on that Jalopy Saturday was when little Susie Cartwwright wandered away from her mother and walked on to Main Street. Desmond, the painter, couldn’t see her and would have probably knocked little Susie into a million pieces with his bright red jalopy - but like I say, no one dies in Goodlands, not unless they want to.

It was like this, as the pastor was wandering back up the street with his arms full of the warmest, freshest bread, he saw the danger that little Susie was in and threw a stick of that French type bread. It hit Desmond right between the eyes and stopped him in his tracks. Little Susie’s mother, grabbed that little girl by the hand and pulled her back on to the boardwalk.

Susie’s mother thanked the pastor but as he says, “It’s all part of the plan, Mam, all part of the plan.”

And you know what, he just might be right.

On those warm, endless summer evenings, just as the sun is turning blood orange and the insects are starting to sing, you can stand in the middle of the street and look up at all the open windows. Friends shouting to friends in apartments across from each other.

“How’s life Mabel?”

“Why, just deevine, thanks for asking, Melanie.”

Music and smells, and arguments, and love, all flowing out of the windows into the street and making you feel warm, somehow. But why take my word for it, why don’t you come down some night and listen? 

Bobby Stevenson 2015


Monday, 24 August 2015

Jeremiah and the Birds

He wasn’t sure if he was the last man left or not. He hadn’t heard from any other living soul in about 45 full moons and Jeremiah wasn’t even sure what the current month would have been called in the old days.

It still felt warmish, so it was probably August or September. Although that didn’t mean much now, it was only when you shared events with others that the hours and days found some significance.

Jeremiah had stopped feeling lonely when the birds had arrived, the first lot had come from the north and settled in a field across the river.

Whatever had happened to the world, it had left Jeremiah and the birds to share the Earth. Jeremiah had been in the vault at the University when it had happened. He used to go down there to read or write on his lunch breaks as it was the only room where one could find real peace and quiet.

Perhaps he had been anti-social, perhaps that is why he had survived when the others had perished. His type of behaviour was a luxury – you needed other people around you to make you feel that isolation was a reward of sorts. When you were on your own there was no such thing as isolation – it just you and no one else.  

When the birds had arrived, he had felt that the universe had sent him a message, that he hadn’t been forgotten – here were other creatures to keep him company. Although the birds were reluctant at first to come to his side of the river, he eventually tempted them over with seeds he had found scattered in the forest.

Once the birds felt safe on Jeremiah’s side of the river, they started to arrive in their numbers. Some built nests and raised families, then when the colder months arrived they all left and headed off in different directions. Some to the north and some to the east.

By the third year, Jeremiah looked forward to their arrival. He set up little areas to help them build their nests, he piled high the seeds he had collected through the dark winter and he sat watching the heavens for the return of his friends.

It was while he was observing a little bird pick up leaf and head off into the trees that it gave him an idea. By now the birds and their chicks had grown accustomed to Jeremiah’s presence and almost treated him like he was one of their own.

He coaxed some of the birds into a little hut he had built. They were allowed to come and go as they needed but at night they tended to settle down and sleep in the hut.

Jeremiah knew that the birds started to leave around the eighth month of the year – or what he thought was the eighth month – so he would hand feed each of the little birds in the hut. On each one he would write a note and attach it to their legs, the way people had done with pigeons in the old days. It didn’t seem to harm or disturbed the birds.

When he felt the time was right, he took the birds up to the highest hill and released them one by one. One or two returned to the hut below but most of them flew off either to the north or the east.
Jeremiah watched and hoped as his little friends flew in to the air.

On each note he had written.

‘My name is Jeremiah and I may be the last human alive. I am living three days walk from what was the big city. If you find this, write where you are on the other side of the paper as the birds will return to me, and I will come looking for you. If you know where I am, then come and find me. I am just another lost soul.’

For the rest of his years, Jeremiah watched and waited. The birds returned every year but none had another soul’s writing on their papers.

The sad thing was that a few days before Jeremiah died of a broken heart, in the forest one of his birds had built a nest on its return, too high for Jeremiah to see. On its leg was a note,

‘I am coming to look for you. Stay where you are.’ 

bobby stevenson 2015


Agnes could smell the winter fires as she stepped across Princes Street for the umpteenth time that day. Somewhere high above the whispering smoke the sky was an azure blue. Agnes knew that for a fact even although she might not always see it; just like she knew that things were about to change and no one had bothered to tell her.

She had been christened Agnes Lily on the first day of the War. She didn’t meet her father until she was nearly a year old as he had suffered some sort of breakdown in the early days of the fighting. To be honest, her father never really recovered and even as he was approaching his fortieth birthday his left hand would still shake and shake until Agnes was certain that it would fall off. When he thought no one was looking he would grab the wild arm with his right hand and hold on it until it surrendered and shook no more. When her father did return to the bank in the spring of 1918, he walked past his old desk and sat in the chair of the former manager, Mister Stephen Andrews, who now lay undisturbed in a field in Northern France.

In the year of 1927, The Edinburgh Linen Bank was struggling. Not that it was the fault of Agnes’ father , this poor soul worked every hour that God allowed him, even roping in Agnes to deliver pamphlets to the good folks of the city as they strolled along admiring the castle. Agnes would stop off at Nancy’s Sweet shop for a quarter of pineapple chunks bought with the money she’d earned. It was on one of those days while walking home and enjoying the chunks that she realised she’d never seen her father smile.

The War had stolen her father’s sleep along with his happiness which meant most nights watching the daylight bleed in from the Firth. God knows he tried, but being a complete man was just beyond his ability these days; he could no longer carry his head high nor look after the business and his family, he was just too tired. So on the day that he walked out of the Edinburgh Linen building it was to be for the last time and as he strolled through the Saltmarket, Peter, father of Agnes Lily, broke down and wept.

To Agnes, home had been a strange landscape for weeks; doors were always being closed leaving her on the wrong side. It was weeks of whisperings and of quickly swallowed conversations as she walked into a room - then the day came when her father stopped going to the bank altogether.
“Maybe he’ll try next week, we’ll just have to see how things are sweet pea” her mother would say but next week would come and go and her father would be sitting so still as to be almost invisible. Agnes had her own worries; no father at the bank meant, no pamphlets, which meant no income earned meaning no visits to Nancy’s.

Then one night just after Easter, her mother came to Agnes’ room to tell her that the family were moving.

“Time for a change sweet pea, indeed it is, time for a change” and by June the family had moved lock, stock and barrel to a strange little village by the name of Coldharbour, nestling in the West Highlands.

As they arrived on the charabanc, Agnes considered the village to be ‘fabulous’, everything in Agnes’ life was fabulous these days, ever since she’d heard a rather absurdly dressed woman use it when she was handed one of the bank’s pamphlets.

Now as luck would have it, the little school that Agnes was to attend had stopped for the summer holidays and would not restart until August; a whole blooming summer to herself, blooming fabulous.

Coldharbour had two shops, a church and a small hall which doubled as a library. Monday to Saturday were the working days and in this village everyone had at least two jobs. Sunday on the other hand was a day of rest which allowed the villagers a time to let their belts out and breathe a quiet sigh.

Alexandra McMillan was petite and bright and lonely. Known as Alex to most of the village, at 51, she had no family to speak of, least not since her brother Ian had passed away a couple of years back. Alex ran the library every second Tuesday and every Saturday in the village hall when it was not needed by the council for something or other. She may have been small but she could fight her corner especially when the library’s needs were being overlooked by the council. It wasn’t a permanent feature, meaning that each time the library had to be set up and dismantled; an arrangement which suited Alex as she loved being busy. It wasn’t so much that the devil finds work for idle hands so much as Alex had far too many thoughts blowing through her mind and possibly too many secrets.

On the morning that the new family arrived in Coldharbour, Alex had been searching out of the window for a sign to lift her spirits when she noticed the strange little girl with whom Alex assumed were her parents. The mother had a healthy ruddy complexion where as the father was ghostly pale with that same demeanour her brother had brought home from the Front. The woman and the strange little girl were doing all the carrying of cases as the man seemed to have enough of a problem shifting himself and every few steps would let out the most heart breaking sigh.

The family moved into the old dairyman’s house. It had sat empty for over a year, ever since Stuart Mills had moved to Canada. It would be nice to see a light in the window again - Alex could look across the hill and imagine Stuart was still there. She missed him; the way they always ended up together at the dances, the way they were always discussed in the same breath as if they were destined to spend what was left of their lives together - but it wasn’t to be. Stuart had met the young Canadian girl on one of his trips to Inverness and that was that. Never make plans, thought Alex.

She didn’t think any more of the new family until the young girl came to the library on the following Tuesday. Alex saw that strangeness again – the little girl was blessed with a beautiful face topped off with wild blond hair, but the eyes - they belonged to another - someone whom God had put on the earth without giving them instructions on the rules of life.

Agnes loved books and the library was her kind of place. When she went missing in Edinburgh her family always knew to look in the nearest book shop; to Agnes they weren’t just books, they were people sitting on shelves waiting to tell you about their lives, their loves, the universe and everything in it. How could you possibly not love books? Agnes took her large selection to the old lady who stood behind the counter.

“I’m sorry dear but you’re only allowed two books at a time, otherwise there wouldn’t be enough to go around”. Agnes felt this couldn’t possibly be true but nonetheless returned four of the books.
“My name is Miss McMillan. What is yours?”
“Well Agnes, why don’t you come with your family to tea on Saturday at my house? I live in that little yellow one across from you. I have shelves of books there I’m sure you would appreciate.” Agnes carefully lifted her two books and ran off. Alex smiled.

On the next Saturday, Agnes’ mother dropped her daughter off at the librarian’s house. Agnes’ father was still too sick to visit or entertain anyone or be left alone and since they only lived across the way, her mother didn’t see what harm it would cause for Agnes to visit Miss McMillan on her own. That is how Agnes and Alex became the best of friends.

All summer long, Agnes would either be carrying books to or from the little yellow house across the street.

To Alex, Agnes was a light in an otherwise dull life but to Agnes, Alex was a mystery. She knew little except that Alex McMillan had taught English in France prior to the War.
Looking back over those years from the distance of her retirement home in Hastings, Agnes, the great grandmother, finds it difficult to remember when she first set eyes on Isaiah. She is almost sure it was as he stepped off the bus from Inveraray but even her, as an Edinburgh girl in 1927, had seen very few black people but now there was one standing in Coldharbour and all eyes were upon him. Some stared unashamed, others held conversations but never fully listened as their attention was spent looking over their companions’ shoulders probably feeling this was polite. One little boy ran up to him and kicked him. This was the day that Isaiah, twenty three years on this planet and as black as coal, turned up on the steps of Miss Alexandra McMillan.

Mrs Edith Huckerby told anyone who would listen that Mac - for that is how she referred to Alex - had taken a lover, and a black one at that, and he was inferior in years and therefore Mac would most certainly burn in hell. Agnes thought she detected a hint of jealousy in Edith’s scrupulous face as she was casting Miss McMillan into the fire and brimstone.

The following Saturday the library was closed as Alex was preparing a tea party. Many of the villagers had tried to ingratiate themselves in order to partake of a scone and a wee cup of tea but Alex was having none of it and only Agnes and Isaiah were guests.

Agnes marvelled at the light that reflected from such a black skin. Isaiah glowed, she could think of no better way to put it and the glowing made him seem constantly happy. He laughed a lot, mostly at things he has said himself. Agnes wasn’t sure if this annoyed her but she was willing to put up with it to find out the story. Was Agnes nosey or just full of a healthy curiosity? To be honest she didn’t care as this was all far too interesting to let it slip through her fingers.

“There is something I should tell you Agnes. Isaiah is my son.”
“But he’s...”

“I met his father in France. He was such a kind and brave man who marched into my life. I had never seen such an exotic sight, I was swept away. He was the only man I ever loved, apart from my beautiful boy Isaiah - who has indeed his father’s eyes. I saw those eyes in so many people through the years. I can never seem to forget them.”

“I discovered I was carrying Isaiah on a wild Christmas day in 1905, but the baby was taken away from me shortly after he was born and given to his father’s family. I could never bring a child, much less a black one, back to Coldharbour.”

“Why did you not stay in France?”
“His family did not want me there and I was no longer allowed to teach.”
“Where is he now?” inquired Agnes.
“He died in France two days before the war ended” said a sorrowful Isaiah. “He joined the Buffalo Soldiers, as they called themselves, all American and all black. I only discovered my mother was alive after my father died. When I found out that fact I arranged that we meet in Glasgow, that is, if she was willing....”

“and I was.”
“...but no one had told me my mother was white. It was a shock but she is beautiful, is she not?”
Agnes nodded.
“Isaiah is to be married in the autumn in London and I am to be the guest of honour” said a very proud Alex. There was a warm wind blowing through her hair as Agnes headed back home with her head spinning.

Now all these years later in her retirement home, Agnes’ thoughts drift back to remembering how Alex went to Isaiah's wedding and never returned to the village; Agnes kept the village library going in hope and she remembers how her own father never really existed properly in that room again and on one lonely Tuesday he died of a broken heart.

Agnes closes her eyes knowing that war can change lives forever.

bobby stevenson 2015

Friday, 21 August 2015

Passing Wonderful

    A Coldharbour Story 

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?”
“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 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.   

bobby stevenson 2015