– The Legend –
You would see them then, before social workers invented the elderly and began to care for them, before the cocooned regime of sheltered housing: old biddies, widows usually, tough and independent, tramping up the braes on their spindly legs, their backs bowed from the weight of the meagre provisions just purchased at the shops on the main street.
Kate was like that; turned eighty-one, and still making her rounds in all weathers. Most days she trekked down the long, winding brae to the High Street; stopped at Walkers for her messages and the gill of whisky, and at the paper shop for her Woodbines; into the Arms for a seat and a few nips; then the slow climb back up the road at closing time to stoke the fire and doze through the rest of the afternoon.
She lived on her own, but didn’t need to. Her daughter, Annie, and Cherry, her son-in-law, stayed at the end of the road. Annie was small and wiry like her mother, and growing old quickly. Cherry was a gruff, kind giant, an outdoors man with sparkling eyes and that big, healthy, ruddy face that gave him his name.
Annie nagged her with helpless guilt. ‘Mother,’ she would plead whenever Kate was found shivering in front of a dead fire, ‘what’s the point of staying in that auld hoose on your own. You’ll die there, and we’ll not know about it. For heaven’s sake, come and stay with me and Cherry. There’s a room aye ready for you, you ken that. I owe that to you at least, mother.’
Kate was a stubborn, old biddy, though. It was her home, the home that she had set up with Dan McKay, where she had reared Annie and Jock, and much later Derry, her grandson, when Annie could barely cope with the children from her second marriage. The house was much the same as when Dan died: the same dark, heavy furniture; the same big, framed picture of Dan glaring down at her from the mantelpiece. The rooms were mustier now, the Janus stove not as black as she used to keep it, but it still boiled her kettle in the mornings and warmed the sitting room through the long nights. It was her home, her sanctuary. It kept her memories undisturbed, intact. She wanted no other.
You can see Kate now, setting off for the High Street, the worn leather shopping bag clutched in a bony hand. The long blue coat with the big, tulip-shaped lapels was fashionable twenty years ago. It hangs loosely on her narrow frame. Her faded, patterned pinny peeks below the hem of the coat. Skinny pins clad in thick elastic stocking are revealed in the gap between the pinny and her black leather bootees, which seem small enough to fit a twelve-year-old. Her steps are slow and measured, her back slightly stooped.
The sun is shining this morning, and there’s little wind, but the old cardigan below Kate’s pinny is buttoned to the top, not quite covering the white woollen scarf that’s wrapped tightly around her thin, leathery neck. As if giving token acknowledgement to the sunshine, she wears no hat today. Her hair is full and thick and white, drawn back over her head and captured in a neat bun. Her face is round and crinkled like an over-ripe peach. Her eyes are small and bright, set below bushy, silvery, close-knit eyebrows. Her nose is pitted and flattened, her mouth long and thin and almost toothless. There are clumps of silvery hair along her top lip and round the curve of her chin.
She’s passing under the bridge now, the concrete monster that killed the ferryboats and changed the town beyond recognition. The traffic thunders and rumbles high above her. With a growl, she spits into the gutter, signifying her disgust. The phlegm lands noisily in the echoing shadow. The deep furrow in her brow and the thin, tight lips render her expression grim and ill-tempered.
The big glass-panelled door of the public bar is latched back today. The soft tang of the sea wafts in from the street to mingle with the rich smells of beer and rum and whisky. If you’re passing by in the brightness, you can peek in and catch the amber glow. Everything in the bar seems to reflect that warm, seductive glow: the long, varnished oak counter; the gleaming brass pumps, standing like proud sentinels behind it; the rows of polished tumblers along the bottom of the mirrored gantry. Higher up the gantry, whisky bottles glint wickedly in a line, tempting you with the promise of their heady, golden ware. To the left of the doorway, the sun streams through the thick, frosted window; dust motes dance in its beam. The place is still and restful and inviting. Linger at the doorway, and it’ll tug you in.
It’s just gone twelve o’clock. The customers are few. Old Kate is perched on a stool in her usual place at the far end of the bar. Her thin arms rest lightly on the counter top, and her tiny feet tap a fidgety tune on the brass rail that runs the length of the counter. Her coat is unbuttoned now, and the shopping bag leans idly against the foot of the stool.
‘A fine day, Kate,’ says Jimmy Lees, the owner, as he sets down the dram and the half-pint of light. ‘On the hoose, hen,’ he adds.
Kate nods her thanks. It’s a daily ritual. The skin on her hand is stretched and shiny and mottled with liver spots. Her hand trembles as she clutches the nip glass. She hunches over the counter and gulps down the whisky. Then she shakes the last few drops into her beer and sets the glass down. She smacks her lips, heaves a long sigh of contentment as the whisky warmth spreads through her belly.
‘Aye, a fine day, Jimmy, son,’ she remarks. The voice is low and husky. ‘No call for my bunnet the day, son,’ she chuckles now, a throaty chuckle.
Jimmy returns the chuckle. He’s a big, beefy man in his fifties. His white shirt is open at the neck, the sleeves rolled up over forearms like mutton hams. ‘On a day like this, Kate,’ he says, ‘a fine woman like you should be away along the Shellbeds with your bathing costume.’
‘What?’ There’s a loud cackle. ‘With a body the likes of mine, son, I’d frighten every bugger away!’
Jimmy laughs and moves off lightly to serve at the other end of the bar. Kate snorts into her beer. Her grin is like elastic, splitting her face, bunching up her wrinkled cheeks at each end, revealing the stained, stubborn remnants of her teeth. Her eyebrows are arched high, and her eyes are brighter now, as if they’ve begun to dance a merry jig.
Kate digs into the big pocket on the front of her pinny, pulls out the Woodbines and matches. Her hands are still trembling as she fumbles for a cigarette and lights it. She draws hard, sending the smoke streaming through her nostrils. The smoke matches the misty greyness of her eyes. She wheezes, coughs for a while, then spits out tobacco from the tip of her tongue.
The grin disappears, and her eyes grow mistier as she remembers. She was a bonnie lassie once, a long time ago. Young, slim, with long, wavy black hair. Hair that shone blue like a raven. They said she was so bonnie that she made men weep. But Dan won her heart, swept her off her feet. A big, handsome galoot he was. They were a braw couple then. Young and wild and cocking a snoop at every bugger in the Ferry.
Kate sips her beer again and smiles a thin, mischievous smile. Aye, she thinks, my body’s old and wrinkled, but my spirit hasn’t changed. She still cocked a snoop: still the only woman to sit in the public bar and drink with the men, while the others sneak through the hotel door and into the wee room at the back to ring the bell for Jimmy’s discreet attention. ‘Aye, the auld prudes ring the fucking bell,’ she mutters and chaps her glass on the counter for another nip.
A long shadow falls on the tiles at the doorway. It sways there for some moments. Then the gaunt giant of Sam Corsen marches into the bar, back stiff, chest out, shoulders square, like an old soldier. As if to begrudge the sun its warmth and brightness, he’s still wearing his cloth cap and his heavy black overcoat. He’s twenty years younger than Kate, but you’ll not be able to tell it from his big, etched face. Bushy eyebrows climb wildly across a broad, flat forehead, which juts out over dark, staring, sunken eyes. His jowls are also sunken and permanently grey. His nose is long and bony, and his jaw strong and square. It’s a face chipped from flint.
Sam sweeps off his cap and slaps it on the counter. He runs a hand through his shock of spiky grey hair. With another resounding slap, he palms down a crumpled five-pound note. His hands are as big as dinner plates.
The voice is deep and stentorian. ‘A pint of stout and a wee glass of rum, publican, sir!’
His palms are pressed down on the counter as he waits for the drinks. He hums quietly to himself, a low growl. His head turns suddenly. ‘Kate McKay! Kate McKay!’ he booms. ‘It’s not you again, propping up the bar?’
‘Och aye, Sam, son,’ Kate nods.
Sam lurches over to Kate and stoops down. Last night’s rum is still fetid on his breath. ‘Kate McKay! The Queen o’ the Ferry! You’re a legend in your own lifetime, hen.’
Kate snorts, a twinkle in her eyes. ‘Wheesht, you big, daft eejit. I mind you when you were a wee laddie with snot running from your nose and the arse hanging out of your breeks.’
Sam moves closer until his eyes are level with Kate’s. He winks and smiles. ‘And I mind you, hen. The bonniest wee lady ever to grace the streets of the Ferry.’
Kate chuckles and slaps her knees. Sam stands straight again. His eyes are swimming now, and he sways a little. ‘Publican!’ he calls. ‘Give this young lady here a glass of whisky, sir!’
‘You’re a big saint, son,’ Kate croaks.
‘And you’re a wee legend, Kate McKay.’
Slowly, carefully, Sam dons his cap, then pockets his change. With a glass in each hand, he sets off unsteadily for the corner seat, his seat. He’ll sit there, humming, muttering occasionally, surveying his kingdom, until the drinks are gone and it’s time to go to Walkers for the half-pint of rum. He’ll spend the afternoon down at the harbour, gazing out to sea, getting drunk quietly. Then he’ll stumble home, alone and old and wasted before his time.
Kate’s still smiling, but it’s a wistful smile now. She lights another Woodbine, stares into the clouds of smoke. A legend, she thinks. Aye, maybe. It’s been a long life, right enough. Some of it good. A hellish lot of it bad. It’s the wildness in me that’s kept me going. The good times are the ones to remember. I could spend all day talking about them and still not be finished. The weddings. The funerals; aye, sometimes. The christenings. Diddling my bairns on my knee, and my grandbairns, and my great grandbairns. The Hogmanay parties: fu’ to the gunnels, singing like a lintie, jigging like auld Nick, the De’il himself. The Ferry Fairs. Christ, I shinnied up the Greasy Pole every year until I was near to sixty!
She clucks quietly. Aye, the good times. Gone now, though, and all my friends with them. Even auld Johnnie’s dead. Christ, I knew him for years, since we were bairns. My, what times we had, what parties, with Johnnie and his auld fiddle! But everything’s different now. Even the town has changed, gotten too big. I mind when I could walk from one end of the High Street to the other and know everybody I met, and everybody knew me. No, it’s not my town anymore. All I’ve got now is my auld armchair, my whisky and my fags … and my memories.
The lunchtime patrons have gone, leaving Kate a dram or two better off. The place is quiet again. The big clock above the gantry ticks solemnly. Jimmy Lees is polishing tumblers. Sam Corsen stares blankly from the corner, his big hands resting on his knees. There’s a whisky flush on Kate’s cheeks, and her eyes have a glazed look. Old tunes whirl in her mind. Her feet tap lightly on the brass rail. Her head nods back and forward. She raises her glass, makes a silent toast to Sam.
‘Poor Sam,’ she mutters. He was a braw, strapping man once. A doctor. Then the War called him, the last one. He was a field surgeon, they said, in France, where Jock died. But the War destroyed Sam, like it did Dan before. Sam came back in one piece, but he was a casualty nevertheless. He’s been drinking to forget ever since. He still hasn’t escaped.
She remembers Dan again and that picture of him above the mantelpiece. The bonnet, the kilt, the sword hanging at his side, the fierce whiskers, the proud look. Aye, Dan, you were a bonnie sodjer! Off to the Great War! Your big sword’s still in the hoose. It’s black and blunt now, but it does me for chopping the kindling.
Kate’s eyes harden. The flush fades quickly. The memories come in a flood, dark and painful. You left me, Dan, to scrimp and scrape to feed and clothe our bairns. You didn’t care. You came back, Dan, a different man. Cold and hard. You drank and you whored and you broke my fucking bones. But you couldn’t beat me, you big bastard! You couldn’t break my spirit. And then the next War came, and you goaded poor Jock into going. He went to Normandy, and they killed him. Aye, that did for you, you bastard! You were wasted after that. But I wasn’t. I survived. I was always stronger than you.
Kate’s wee fists are clenched now. She hammers them into her lap. Her head is bowed, and tears have begun to trickle down her cheeks. We lived together all those years, man and wife, but there was no love in it, Dan McKay, no caring. Life with you was pure hell, you big bully! Och aye, you’d sing to me when you were mellow with drink. You’d tell me that you loved me. I can hear you now, that soft Irish lilt of yours … ‘I’ll take you home again, Kathleen …’
She tries to hum the tune, but falters and breaks off. You sang like you meant it, Dan. Aye, and I would sing, too. But not to you. To the young Dan who was warm and kind and hardworking. Not to the Dan who came back twisted and soured by that fucking war. Aye, you liked me singing. You liked the song … ‘Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling …’
Kate hums again. This time, the tune is stronger, more sure. Her fists unclench slowly. There’s a crumpled hankie in her pinny pocket. She takes it out, dabs her cheeks, then gives her nose a good, loud blow. After the War, their love existed only in old songs; it was never expressed in any other way. She remembers another song now. A more modern one; a jazz number. Catherine, Annie’s daughter, would sing it, but she put different words to it for her gran … ‘Katie and Danny were lovers; oh, how them cats could love …’
Aye, she smiles, Cathie was never scared of coming forward. She got it right. She had the right words … ‘He was her man, and he was doing her wrong …’ Aye, Dan McKay, you twisted bastard, you did me wrong all those years!
There’s a light tap on her hand. Jimmy Lees stands smiling. ‘It’s near to closing time, Kate,’ he says. ‘One for the road, hen?’
‘Thanks, son,’ she replies, dabbing with the hankie again. ‘You ken, Jimmy, I’m a daft auld bugger. Sitting here greeting for nothing.’
The Jubilee clock across the street strikes the half-hour. Kate’s standing outside the pub now, blinking in the glare of the sun. Her coat is still unbuttoned, and she seems more hunched than before. The whisky and beer have made her light-headed, woozy. She shields her eyes and peers at the wall below the clock-tower. There’s a memorial plaque on the wall. It bears the names of the local men who fell during the two Wars. Her son’s name is inscribed on it. ‘JOHN McKAY, M. M.’ it says. The Military Medal, for courage on the field of action.
‘You caused that, Dan McKay,’ she says softly. ‘And what, apart from your badness, will you be remembered for?’
She moves off in slow, sad steps.
There’s a bench at the far end of the High Street. When Kate reaches it, she sits down. She’s peching hard now, the whisky fumes sweet and sickly on her breath. A wee rest before the brae, she nods. She lights a Woodbine, and again shields her eyes from the glare as she looks back along the street. For just an instant, the place seems strange and unfriendly and she an intruder, alone and unwanted. She shrugs of the thought, blames the drink. Christ, she thinks, I ken every stone and every brick of this auld toon! Every shop and every shopkeeper. Every pub and every landlord. And all the folk, too; all the local ones, anyway.
A shadow falls suddenly over the sun, and Kate remembers another part of the town, a darker place. Up the distillery brae, up past the chapel and the school and the park, there’s the graveyard. Dan’s buried there, and poor, young Derry alongside of him. I can feel that wicked auld man. He’s chuckling with glee, biding his time, waiting for me to join him.
Kate shivers. Tears well up in her eyes. ‘Dan! Dan!’ she cries inwardly. Don’t you know I’m scared? More scared than I’ve ever been? I’m auld and lonely and just hanging on here, but I don’t want to join you in that cauld grave. You were bad to me in life. What’ll you be like in eternity? Can you not give me a sign, Dan? Can you not show me that you’ve changed, that you’re kind and warm and caring again? Then I’ll come and join you. Honest to God, I will!
The tears are streaming down Kate’s cheeks. She stifles a sob. The shadow passes. The sun shines again. She stamps on the cigarette dout, wipes away the tears with the sleeve of her coat, then stands up. The shopping bag is clutched in her hand. She’s ready for the climb now.
She’ll go to Annie’s today. Stay the night, maybe. Annie’s right, you know, that auld hoose holds too many bad memories. It’s the good times I should be remembering. The parties. The knees-up. The Ferry Fairs. The times when Killiecrankie turned up, fu’ as a puggy, with the red Heilan’ jacket and the sodjer’s bunnet and the pair of black boots tied to the pike over his shoulder. What a sight he was! He would ring the toon crier’s bell, the one he kept polished all year, and he would belt out the proclamation at the top of his voice. Aye, Killiecrankie and me, we’d drink and sing and dance the night away …
– o –