uncorrected proof two.
Woke up this morning, start the day with a prayer that my van will kick-over. It’s an Escort, underneath the grime, the faded red insignia of the Post-office livery a reminder of grandeur. I’m visiting my sister Jo and her husband George. It’s not far, a twenty-minute drive. They live in Bearsden with all the other nobs. I’ve not seen her in about three or four years. Jo was about twenty, and absorbed in making it as an accountant, when our mum died of breast cancer. Can’t really remember her. I was five. My sister was the only parent I clung to, but she didn’t want to be a mum, certainly not to me with my endless devilment and my selfish ways. It was a testing time for her. Home could be a lonely place.
I pull in and park in their driveway behind a lime-green Discovery Sport Land Rover. Jo’s puttering about in the garden, dressed neatly for company in a blue blouse and skirt. A shiny pair of secateurs are in her hand. She’s probably using them to trim down every blade of grass to a uniform height. Jo’s wiry as a terrier, wide eyes, fine straight nose for sniffing out trouble and a small mouth that I recall never shut up moaning.
‘Hi-ya,’ I say, getting out of the van. ‘You look as if you’re doing a bit of work there.’
‘Just tiding up.’ She smiles and walks towards me.
Our eyes are the same slate-grey colour. We stand ungainly between path and the border as if we’re overbalancing, meant to shake hands, or formally introduce ourselves. I glance over her shoulder at the line of fir trees blocking light into the far away bedroom.
‘Would you like to come in for a coffee?’ she asks.
‘Tea’ll be fine.’
She shucks flat gardening shoes off in the lobby before opening the front door. Walking barefoot with quick steps she leaves no smears on a finished jigsaw of hard flooring. The walls of the dining room and living room are muted yellows and lime green. I’m wise to the scuffing of rigger boots and the scratching noise my nylon bulky body warmer makes. We pass sterile silent rooms.
We sit in the kitchen, overgrown children on high stools at the breakfast bar, while waiting for the kettle to boil. Gazing out through bay windows the tiered-garden lies below us with a stream at the bottom. Chaffinches brambling, rise up in a cloud, and plunge into willowy leaves and branches.
Jo sticks down a cup of tea in front of me. ‘I’m sorry, we’ve no sugar. I never thought.’
Her coffee is black in a white ceramic cup the size of a thumbprint.
‘That’s alright.’ I sip at me tea. Then I pat my pockets for my fags. Her left eye slightly twitches when she smiles.
‘Best go outside.’ She unlocks the side door and pushes it open.
A set of worn stone steps lead down into the garden. I make a comfortable chair of the third step, sip tea and have a fag in the cool morning air.
‘How you been keeping anyway?’ She stands with her hand pressed against the jamb of the door peering down at me.
‘And Linda?’ Her voice rises up a tad as she speaks.
‘We split up a good while ago.’
‘Shame,’ she says.
‘Yeh.’ I stub the fag out. Instead of flicking it away, I shred the remaining tobacco and stick the butt in my pocket. ‘What about you and George?’
‘What about us?’ she asks.
I swill what remains of the tea and gulp it down. ‘Best get on sis.’ Hand her the cup.
My mind slackens when I stand in the garden and my body has a certain way of moving as if I’m part of the landscape. The fir trees have grown forty-feet and made themselves comfortable in ground elder, fertile black soil and powder-blue sky. But they’re easily brought down. No overhead cables to worry about makes the job immeasurably easier. It’s only the bulk that needs getting rid of, shredded, and that takes a bit of time. But it feels good starting a job and finishing first to last. In a way money doesn’t even matter. I drop down under branches, the smell of pine as refreshing as a bucket of snow, needles crunching underfoot. The stream gurgles quicksilver and lunar-greys as I start pacing the job out. Birds hush, living statues, waiting to figure if I’m friend or foe.
The stench of something rotten catches hold and my nostrils shrink and harden. I stumble upon a half-eaten moggie, maggots crawling out of an eye socket. With big gardens to feed off, brambles and bushes, it’s the perfect fox run. I catch the threadlike mewing coming from the bole of the tree nearest the stream. Then it stops. On hands and knees I crouch looking underneath the lateral roots at the twitching of heads, flattened ears and a hanky of kittens knitted together in the tree’s pocket. Reaching in I pull out the brood. The dead are stiff beyond age. I place their bodies reverently down between moss and a tussock of grass. Their brothers and sisters, a scroll of soft pinkish fur are cupped in my hand, eyes not yet opened, yet they bend their neck look up and search mine. I carry them cagily up to the back door.
‘Jo!’ I shout, broadcasting my arrival into the house.
But it’s George that ambles through to the kitchen, tan slippers on his feet. A few tufts of hair flourish round his ears, and he has a ginger moustache, liquid blue eyes and no eyebrows that gave his face the appearance of constantly being surprised. ‘What you got there?’
I open my hands like a book and two little fur balls tumble onto the gleaming work surface and they began to mew. ‘I don’t know if they’ll make it.’ I gather them into the sheltering warmth of my hands. ‘But if we can heat a little milk, perhaps feed them with an eyedropper or something with a teat.’
He stares at me as if he’s not heard.
‘Or even a handkerchief with warm milk sopped through it and dripped into their mouths might work.’
‘What about fleas?’ George says. ‘Can’t you take them somewhere?’
‘You want me to take them outside?’
His jaw tightens. ‘Just until you decide what to do with them.’ He spoke with a softness that belies a clenched jaw
‘What am I goin’ to do with them?’ The kittens squirm in my hand. I take a step forward, push them under his chin. He takes a step backwards. ‘You mean what you’re goin’ to do with them? I found them on your property. So technically they’re yours. What are you goin’ to do with them?’
‘You’re being ridiculous now. Can’t you just put them back where you got them?’
‘Fuck off George. The mother’s been halved in two and a few of their wee family is dead. You want me to put them back outside. Out of sight. Out of mind? You’re nothing but a selfish fuckin’ asshole. Always have been. Always will be.’
Jo’s bottle-black hair appears through the glass panelling behind his back and she pushes forward into the kitchen and stands between us. ‘Is there a problem here?’ Her mouth crooks her face. She eyes me, then George for a longer time. He about faces and shuffles away.
Tears spill out of the corner of my eyes. I feel as if I’m seven again and been captured telling a fib. I place the kittens down near the sink. One crawls on its belly away from the body of its brother or sister and its head drops. Neither of them move. ‘Fuckin’ fleas,’ I spit out.
George wanders back into the kitchen. He gawks up at my face. ‘You didn’t tell me we had visitors sweetheart. Who is it?’ He turns to Jo, ‘bring him through to the sitting room and we can have a good chat.’
Jo takes his elbow and leads him away.