Granny Ower The Green (Part Four)
Tiny shrugged. She wondered if he had just lost interest or if there was something else involved, or just collusion between two individuals who had a strange knack of separating themselves from the small world of the village. Tiny’s differences were evident every time she looked closely at him. Most of the time his actual presence was so elusive that she had to concentrate hard to give him the requisite scrutiny. He was definitely growing taller and his puppy fat was dissipating because of his constant stravaiging over the dunes. His other changes were harder to discern, either because of her other distractions or the psychic smokescreen which he seemed intent on throwing up in her presence.
Dave noticed one change in the boy which had definitely alluded her. She noticed him keenly listening to Tiny one morning when he was bringing Stevie back home from town. They talked allusively about Stevie’s aberrant teenage character, though his uncle did not seem overly concerned about him. He kept a discreet eye on him when he was in town and even amusingly supplied Helen with a substantial list of his current girlfriends.
‘Strange thing is,’ Helen said worriedly. ‘When he’s in town, he wants to stay there. But when he’s home he doesn’t want to get up, go out, even get back to town.’
‘He’s just being his age,’ Davie said dismissively. ‘What about the other one? Tell me how he’s settling here.’
Helen laughed. Did it seem he was too keenly concerned about Tiny? She ran through what she knew about what he did in the village: where he roamed, who he befriended.
‘Have you noticed his voice?’ he asked.
Helen didn’t know what he meant and asked him.
Davie laughed. ‘He’s sounding like an old teuchtar.’
‘I haven’t heard that word for years,’ she admitted. What did it mean: farmer, bumpkin, old fashioned country person? After Davie went, she found herself attuning to Tiny’s speaking. At first she noticed only that it was deeper than before, then she heard a definite inflection that had not previously been there. She noticed he was saying f’s for wh in his speech: ‘fen’ for ‘when’; ‘fit’ for ‘what’. It was an antique dialect peculiarity she supposed had long died out, but here it was on the tongue of her youngest. Trust him to be awkward.
There was, besides, something strange going on between the old woman and her son. She looked out the window one morning to see Tiny whistling down the lane. Unseen by him in the distance, Miss McDonald was hobbling along, and when she spotted him she gave an almost comical start and disappeared back around the corner before he spotted her. Helen did not know whether to laugh or feel insulted that the old woman was avoiding her offspring. She had no idea Miss McDonald could move so quickly. Tiny was oblivious and absent for hours. When he came home from school he ate his dinner voraciously, then either did homework or sat glassy eyed in front of the TV for half an hour, and then almost always, in all weathers, he bolted outside and headed god knows where.
Autumn seemed to suit the village more than it suited Helen. For a start, the atmosphere in the shop seemed chillier as the temperature dropped. There was an odd collusion between the two new girls and conversation between them lapsed to coded whispers when she approached. Henry said she was imagining it and hinted she was affected by a seasonally affected disorder. There could be something in that, she thought. Sometimes the autumnal light appeared like harshly grey spikes invading her brain; and other times the town was awash with an ochre effect, as if everything was sickly filtered in sunlight transformed by strange, watery foliage. And the noise from the sea seemed oddly magnified at all times, awash in her ears so that she struggled to hear what people were saying, and booming at night, invading her sleep.
The effect induced a vertigo like illness that led to her having time off work, and it was accompanied with a dizzying, brooding anxiety about an unspecified but imminent event. On her recurring sick days she kept a worried weather eye on the comings and goings at the shop. She was surprised to see coach loads disembarking every other day. Only one of two of the very strange looking passengers went into the shop; the rest filtered across the green and vanished from sight. They looked like a Church group, but not from any kind of Church that she would have cared to be a member of. If she had asked Henry about it, she knew there would be a steely glint ignited in his eye and he would say something like ‘who cares what they pray to as long as they spend their hard cash in the shop’, flippant but meaning it all the same. She did hint once or twice to him, offhand like, that he knew more about the strangers than he was saying, but the coldness of his responding stare stopped her saying more.
Winter was eddying into the village and the drab greyness rose up from the bottom of the North Sea and took over the settlement. She recovered from illness but felt no better for it, nor less unreal. Odd things happened which failed to enliven or shock her back to herself. Two minke whales were stranded on the beach on two successive weeks. An instinct told Helen not to go down and view the carcasses, though the whole populace trooped down there like a pagan horde for the first occurrence. Her elder son was one of them and said the beast was shuddering as if seized by a massive epileptic fit before someone illegally ended its suffering and put a spade through its head.
Strangely, no-one seemed surprised enough to care when the second whale stranded itself on the beach. Only Tiny seemed to take the trouble to go down and view it close up, saying that he thought someone at least should go and feel sorry for it close up. Helen wished he hadn’t, for the experience seemed to shake him up. All he would say to his mum was that he thought some animals had been tearing the body apart and that it smelled worse than death when he went near.
‘No as bad as going in the bog after you’ve dropped one, surely,’ Johnnie tried to joke, though mother and brother were not amused.
Another, equally sad thing which happened was the madness which affected the rabbit man, Hector. After he exploit burrowing under the fence his profile in the village had diminished
to the extent that it was thought he had been reclaimed by whichever alien civilisation had deposited him here. One morning there was a cacophonous influx of emergency vehicles from town, rushing down towards the beach. Helen, like most of her neighbours, rushed out to see the screaming convoy disappearing from sight. Someone remarked that it seemed a lot of effort to remove two massive dead mammals from the beach.
‘No, it isn’t that.’ Helen shook her head, sure there was something worse happening.
It was poor old Hector, they found out later that day. He must have gone off his head for good. The least lurid version of events that was bandied about the village was that he was trying to push the whales back into the sea. Whether he thought they were still alive, or whether there was some other addled reasoning behind his actions, nobody knew.
Some malicious gossips said Hector was found stark naked, and it was soon being said that he was dragged away and was being held in a psychiatric unit in Dundee. Best place for him, said some; God help him, said others. Johnnie brought Helen the unsavoury rumour being bandied about by the younger residents that Hector had being trying to interfere with the dead whale sexually.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ Helen scolded him. ‘I better not hear you repeating that, and I better not find out that it was you who made up that story.’
He took the warning seriously for once and went away mumbling his innocence.
Still she was worried by the happening, and she didn’t discover what happened to the man for several weeks. That did not stop her brain working on the problem, specifically at night. She dreamed stupidly of Hector the merman, Hector transformed as a whale, Hector dancing with the said decomposing mammal, and the two of them performing a ghastly strathspey reel three leagues under the waves. The vision became fixed on a recurrently dead Hector, white and naked as Moby Dick, bobbing about the North Sea on his back, a look of primordial astonishment on his unseeing face. There were some amorphous animals and the shadow of her dead husband uneasily involved in the underwater melange.
She woke up one morning thinking she knew what it meant: a reciprocal exchange of life. It had taken her husband, as a kind of token, a request. In return, something had given up an offering of the first dead mammal, and the second once was given as an advance exchange. The poor, gone man, had known and tried to give it back.
‘Who’s mad now?’ she asked herself when the realisation struck her like lightning.
She was looking in the bathroom mirror when it happened, and (apart from a momentary expression) she did not seem any more insane than usual. The thought was banished as soon as it arrived. It was anyhow buried beneath a more pressing trauma. The shop was closed when she turned up for her shift that morning and, peering through the window, she saw the stock had been removed and the fittings were bare. She went off to find the two girls who also worked there. They were equally mystified and perturbed by the closure. They all went back down and stood outside the shop, where a small clutch of angry customers demanded entry. They retreated to Helen’s house, where an attempt to call Henry’s landline and mobile numbers revealed only a monotone sound meaning disconnection.
‘I’ve a good mind to go around to his house and drag him down here,’ Emily said angrily. ‘I’ll bet he’s bunked up with some married slag and is laying low for a while?’
‘Do you know where he lives?’ Effie asked. ‘Do you, Helen?’
Helen admitted she only knew the village name where he said he lived. A quick scan of the internet on her laptop did not reveal his name in the phone directory.
‘What can we do except trawl the streets of Eggleskirk and hope to bump into him?’ Helen asked hopelessly.
‘Well, it’s better than nothing,’ Emily said, and she went off in her car to do that.
But the other two knew it was a forlorn task. The lassie came back to the village two hours later, white as a sheet. Effie asked her if she found Hemry’s house and Effie giggled nervously.
‘I did all right, it was quite easy. Only house in the village burnt to ashes. Still smouldering a wee bit. Neighbours standing gawping, said nobody was hurt, but “good riddance to bad rubbish” and all that claptrap. Nobody would say where he was gone.’
There was a painting that Tiny did that day that seemed linked in her mind. It was a dark image of the tower with someone locked inside it, fiery red and blue, hues of madness. Water swirled, green and seaweed sick all around the stranded building. Tiny had torn it to shreds and then carefully taped it back together. The scrunched surface was pock marked with water stains, from sea spray or Tiny’s tears.
Helen woke next day with a phrase resounding in her mind: It does not understand why the offering was refused.
There was nothing happening that day, all tension and no events. She went to get the bus into town, but came back, convinced something would happen behind her back if she was absent. The sea churned in her stomach all afternoon. She saw no one and did not go out again. Tiny came back and voraciously ate his tea. Instead of watching telly he bolted out the door. When Helen shouted, ‘Where are you going?’ he yelled back something about going to see his other granny. Surely he couldn’t have said that? Once or twice he had called Miss McDonald his granny. His real grannies were long dead.
When he came back he had thin and livid scratches down one cheek.
‘Who bloody well did that to you?’ Helen screamed, grabbing him. Though she shook him, he wouldn’t say and he wouldn’t cry, though she tried to force the release of tears from him. He wrenched free from her spite and ran upstairs howling. In his rage he shouted something about his mum owing her for causing the death of his dad.
That night she watched, watched out of the window. Nothing happened and nothing came. The sea whispered like silken ropes moving over stones. Her brother-in-law appeared briefly next day. Helen didn’t know if Tiny had summoned him (he wouldn’t do that), or if he showed up in response to some psychic radar sensing danger. He urged her to see a doctor; she wouldn’t. When he told her that she had to leave this place, she just laughed.
‘That’s not going to happen,’ she laughed. ‘It’s not allowed.’
He went away in actual tears.
Tiny forgave her. He had to because he was acting for someone else now. Somehow he didn’t go to school that day. After Davie left, he came out of hiding, very quiet. But he was confident with the light of something else, not himself. Helen allowed herself to be led by the hand, out of the house, beyond the green, whose grass was like spring velvet. They made a path through the dew and there were other trails, meandering to a point of exit on the far side where the hummocky moorland began. They wended through the mounds, ruins of the old clachan. She looked back once. Nobody else in the whole village. The zig-zag sea waved her on.
‘Not far now.’
She was out of breath with excitement or trepidation.
When they reached the place she could not speak for a while.
‘How come I didn’t know about this?’ she asked. ‘Why haven’t I been here before?’
It was a stone, rising sheer out of the moor. Mica glinted in its pock marked surface. There were cup and ring marks on one side, landward. But it leaned towards the sea, always. On this face there was the resemblance of a wind carved old woman, eyeless but watching.
She put her hands upon it and said its name.
No bad thing to have lost this war.
Then she knelt down before it.