Wednesday, 20 July 2011


a story

People who'd never been there - if they had cause to think of the place at all - pictured a dank outpost on which a handful of sheep and peasants grimaced against a perpetual storm. Often they didn't know about the solid glare of sunshine that settled itself there in midsummer days, and lasted from day through night. The white sun burned on, the fishermen continued to cast their nets, the sheepdogs kept skittering about. Visitors got hectic and confused and didn't know when to sleep. That summer, the summer that Shona Rae was seventeen, it was especially bright, and there were special visitors, because of the film. A film was being made; the local boys were working as crew, and tossing out film-set language as if they'd grown up under the Hollywood hills instead of the black cliffs of the very far north.

Shona and her friend Alan Bone sat on the grass outside the Rae's croft and talked about the filming. Shona was knitting quickly as they spoke, and Alan was throwing a ball repeatedly for Duff, his dog. As he did so he explained to Shona that one of the island dogs had been employed to perform in the film, and that the London people had all fallen in love with him, and were making a great fuss of him. This dog was walking around all puffed up; he waited with his ears all pricked up each morning for the film people to collect him from his croft and then strutted off with them waving his tail. Alan joked about Duff being put out. Then he said that the film people had
been looking for girls who could sing, to perform a folk song.

Shona was absorbing this when her father emerged slowly from the front door of the croft. James Rae was a very old man, and Shona could not remember him ever having been anything else. She was not even sure what colour his eyes were, so squinted-up had they always been against the sun and the wind and the ceaseless disappointments of life.

Alan got hurriedly to his feet. Duff looked excitedly for the ball and then stood still and asked where it was with his ears.

'I hope you're well, Mr Rae,' said Alan.
'Sit ye doon, Alan Bone,' ordered the old man. 'As ye know, I've no been well since my Jenny departed, and nor will I be until I can join her in heaven.'

Alan, sitting back down on the turf, threw Shona a knowing smile. Fourteen years had passed since her mother had died, and her father had lived every day since in a state of aggressive grief. He sighed more than he spoke. It was with one of his long, sad exhalations that he now positioned himself on the weathered chair that sat outside for him in the summer months. He looked out at the bay, which glinted merrily back. He did not catch its mood.

'We were jist talking,' ventured Alan, 'aboot the film they're making, Mr Rae.'
'Aye, well - I for one dinna ken fit we need a film for,' the old man declared. 'It will only bring mair folk. Incomers. Motorcars. Actresses in next to nothing.'

Shona and Alan exchanged a quick glance, and she looked away so as not to laugh. Alan threw the ball. 'Mair folk is what the islands need, Mr. Rae,' he said as Duff sped off low to the ground. Shona widened her eyes at him and cuffed his arm. There was a loud pause, then: 'Thank you, Alan Bone. Mibbe when ye've lived on this earth for half of the time that I have, folk will look to you for your opinions. But I'll no be here to see that day.'

Duff the dog thudded up to Shona, and Shona grabbed him by the ruff and buried her face into the long rough hair there. He smelled of old food and the beach, and Shona breathed into his fur the thought that most disgraced her: that one day, perhaps soon, she would know a life without James' scorn. The croft would be hers then, and she'd marry, and - there she ran out of certainties. The future was a vast empty room in which she moved around those two pieces of furniture.

'I've heard nothing but that they're fine people, and that the story they're telling is a good one,' Alan was saying. Shona, releasing the dog, shook her head at his boldness. No-one spoke back to old James. It was the light again, thought Shona, making folk reckless.

A growling sound came out of her father. 'I heard there's a bairn born out of wedlock,' he said. 'I hear there's mocking of wir ways and of wir kirk. And that they're taking the young girls of the island and making them dance.' Then came one of James' abrupt attacks, which Shona had known since she was a child. 'I suppose she thinks she'll dance for them too. Well, Shona?'

The usual hard blush hit Shona, and she said nothing. Even with her hot face turned away she knew that Alan and her father were both looking at her, and with the same look of indulgent amusement - kinder in Alan's case, but no more tolerable for it. She stood up and took the ball from the innocent Duff and threw it very fast and hard down the hill. 'I know nothing aboot it,' she said steadily.

In her mind, she was singing for the director from London, and her note held true.

The next day was Sunday, and Shona and her father went to church. The minister spoke on envy, and through it all the congregation in the small church kept collectively flicking its eyes over the the smartly-clad group in the corner: the film people, showing their respect for the community by participating in its rituals. The young director was there, but not his wife. When the hymn came, Shona sang especially loud, and it seemed easy; the notes came out of her long and right, though her father shifted beside her all the time. After the sermon, the group from the film stalked off, all turning back and waving. An imaginary, alternative Shona raced after them, presenting herself, offering them a song - but her real self remained stubbornly where she was. She hovered and listened to the talk, while her father was speaking with the minister. The director's wife, they said, had been seen walking alone, with a sadness about her. The women wondered at her height and grace, her waved golden hair; the men just looked at one another and laughed when she passed, because her looks went beyond the sort of prettiness that they would comment on outside church or at a dance, and into the realm of dreams and moving pictures. Meanwhile, the film people were still recruiting locals for work and to appear in the picture. Shona was about to ask how she could speak to them, where they could be found, when she felt Alan next to her, giving her his amused look. 'Ssh, Alan. I'm no good enough,' she muttered. She hoped to be contradicted, but instead Alan just patted her on the back as if she was Duff and turned to talk to someone else.

'Shona. We'll be away home now,' barked James.

The Sabbath dragged and Shona saw no-one. She passed an anxious night, imagining. The next day, early, she offered to run the errands. The fishermen massed at the harbour told her that the film people had gone, but that the director's wife had been by, in a white dress, and had waved at her husband as he departed on a wee boat. He had not waved back, they said. 'And there's a lassie come in from Lerwick,' added Thomas Leask, 'to sing a song for them. She'll be in the film, and be famous.'

Shona swallowed hard, and wished the fishermen good day, and went home with the messages. The white sunshine persisted, and she spent the afternoon away from it in the shaded kitchen making a stew for her father. She cleaned the house until no dust showed anywhere, and then she knitted while her father read in his chair. The entire time she pictured herself strolling confidently up to the huts in which the film people were staying, perhaps in a white dress, although she didn't have a white dress, and asking to speak with the director. When her father fell asleep, she dragged her hair out of her face and tied it back and wrapped a shawl around herself and stomped off into the bright night, across to the west of the isle where the film people had set up their row of huts. There were a few women sitting on chairs outside, holding sheaves of paper, smoking cigarettes and laughing. Shona felt her face begin to boil as soon as she was in view of them. The final stretch was torture. Just what is the natural way to behave, she wondered, when walking towards people who are watching you approach?

'Can we help you, my dear?' asked a woman with black hair.
'I just came to - I wondered. I was passing. I wondered, was the - is the
director man here?'
'He's not, dear. He went off by himself. Is it anything that we might help
'Oh - no. No, no. I was passing. I - no.'
'Were you wondering about a part, dear?'
'Well. The singing. I - sing.' Shona's blush had reached a new intensity of
colour. The Englishwomen, with their petal-pale complexions, smiled gentle
upon her, but it didn't soothe her cheeks.
'Oh, love.' Another woman had chimed in. 'We've done all that - I'm sorry.
We recorded the song yesterday. What an awful shame we didn't meet you
'Oh. It's all right. It's all right. I only wanted to - ask. Och well. I'll
be away. I'm - sorry.'

Shona turned her back and scampered down the hill as fast as Duff after his ball. The women's kindness had stung more than rejection. She headed, without thinking, in the direction of the cliffs. The sun and the humiliation combined and made tears, and on a flat expanse with just the sea and sky in front of her, she stopped to shed them. The only thing that would ever happen on the island was happening without her; her father would never stop laughing at her, and would never die; and Alan smiled on her like a
sister. She sat down, and the sea stared back. A black figure was poised on the very edge of the cliff. She blinked. It was still there. It moved
towards her. It came into focus, as a youngish man with a fair bald head. She was just registering that it was him, the director, when there was a cataclysmic shriek and a torpedo movement from above. The man yelled out and bowled towards her. He fell on her, and she said into his chest, 'It's all right - it's all right. It's just a bonxie - just a bird,' but his arms stayed hard around her. She butted against him to free her face and speak. Since the time when her mother had died, Shona had never been held that closely by anyone. The bird came back, still screaming - then was gone. After a moment, the director loosed his grip and laughed.

'I say... I hope I didn't smother you,' he said. 'I'm not so keen on birds.'
'They protect their nests,' said Shona, smiling.
The two of them settled next to one another, and looked out onto a sky in which both moon and sun could be seen. The director recited, 'The sun was shining on the sea/Shining with all its might/He did his very best to make/The billows smooth and bright/And that was odd, because it was/The middle of the night.'
Shona looked at him, blinking, and blushing, again.
 'Why were you crying?' he asked.
'Oh. It's nothing, sir. I'm sorry. I'm awful embarrassed to say. I had a bad day. I wanted to see you. I wanted you to hear me sing. But I'm no good. I'm no good.'
'I had a bad day too.' He didn't look at her, but out into the crazy sky. 'You could sing now. Sing for me now. Quick - it's getting stormy over there.'

He was right; the sky was blackening at last. With the last of the sunshine came the last of Shona's boldness, and she sang against the sky and the birds and her father and Alan, while the director looked away from her, and smiled gently at how her voice cracked, and thought about his wife.

the end

this was commissioned for a Radio 4 Afternoon Reading. Don't stop commissioning stories, Radio 4!

Monday, 4 July 2011

Dressing Natalie

a story

Dear Mr Overton,

What a time it has been! I expect that things have been busy for you too, what with the ongoing financial disarray about which we hear so much. Although perhaps for providers of financial advice such as yourself, a recession provides a business boost - much as roofers must prosper in the wake of a hurricane? It must be a peculiar feeling to make one’s greatest profit at times of human woe. Now I come to think of it, though, there must be a lot of it about. Ratcatchers applauding infestations, and psychiatrists living in dread of a cure for human misery! Mr Overton, it only strikes me now: could it be that the reason most of us dwell in such dissatisfaction is that an outbreak of generalised contentment would put so many people out of work?

But I digress. I apologise. As you know, I have a habit of digressing. Although perhaps my observations are not as random as they may appear, since Derek and I have of late endured what might be regarded as our very own private hurricane, and there has been considerable cost to our contentment - or at least mine. Nonetheless, I am happy to say that things are beginning to improve. My reason for writing is to assure you that certain unusual activity on our joint account should not be regarded as untoward. Since Derek’s period of illness and consequent departure from his job, you have been striving so nobly to keep us from the debtors’ jail; and I felt that you would be understandably concerned by what you might regard as a splurge. I also know from past experience that sudden spates of largesse can set off alarm bells, in these days of identity theft. (In truth, Mr Overton, I sometimes rather yearn for someone to make off with my identity. I was once telephoned by my bank at an unseemly hour and asked if I was in Skegness and the proud owner of a new motorcycle sidecar, since my credit card had just been used there to buy one. Alas, no. It was my sidecar only in name.)

So, anyway. I wish to alert you to these purchases and assure you of their validity. You see, Mr Overton, I recently spent a full day shopping for Natalie. I realise that this will come as no small surprise to you, antipathy towards Natalie having been a significant motivating factor for me in recent times - if not, indeed, the sole spark motivating me to rise from my bed of a morning. But Natalie and I must find a way forward; and it struck me as selfishness on my part not to attempt a rapprochement. Shopping is a bonding exercise, or so they say. Has it ever struck you, Mr Overton - the extent to which we women are encouraged to combat personal difficulties by buying things for ourselves? Particularly things which make us appear more attractive from the outside? Does that ever strike you as strange? You would not expect a man to spend a day shaving, or buying shirts, to make himself feel better. A man such as you - a man, come to that, such as Derek, or at least the Derek I married - would play a game of golf, or drink himself insensible. A woman is encouraged to pamper. To increase her acceptability. I mentioned this to Natalie, while we trawled the aisles, but she was not compelled by my argument. She was busy oohing over a faux-fur stole, from which I had to physically part her. Natalie inclines toward an Old Hollywood look, and in my opinion often finds herself an opera glove or two away from being in fancy dress. Much of my usefulness during our ‘pampering’ day lay in toning Natalie down. And in managing her expectations. She has considerable expectations, does Natalie, and they require management. You might be familiar with that standing joke among hairdressers - the heavy-set and ill-favoured client who brings in a photograph of some slip of a celebrity sylph and demands to look just like her? Well, Natalie, I now know, has over a number of years maintained a scrapbook in which she collects images of ‘looks’ that she admires and wishes to emulate. This was how she phrased it: ‘I like this look; this is a look I like.’ I hardly need to note, Mr Overton, that these ‘looks’ rather neglect to accommodate the specifics of Natalie’s own appearance. I was driven to point out, I’m afraid, that one set of false eyelashes does not a Katy Perry make. Natalie got rather emotional at this. False eyelashes, Mr Overton, forsooth. They have come back into fashion, I’m told. Along with wigs, and corsets, and all sorts of troublesome items that my generation of women were rather keen to cast off. Bras! Bras are everywhere, and though they do look more flammable than ever, it does not appear that anyone is burning them any more! (Not that I ever personally felt more liberated or equal when I was flopping about all over the place, but I suppose I understood the symbolism.) And the shoes that the girls wear now - have you seen? Natalie showed me racks of the things, and though I managed to steer away from the more extreme styles and towards something more age-appropriate, her eyes were wet with yearning as she pointed out her favourites. They looked like medical equipment, Mr Overton! Like calipers. But in pink snakeskin. Look, I like nice things. I have some patent leather court shoes from Russell and Bromley that give me a quiet thrill. Looking at Natalie’s choice of shoes, though, I was put in mind less of fashion and more of a museum display I once saw of shoes that had belonged to Chinese women with bound feet. Those shoes had nothing to do with the shape of a foot, and nor did the ones that Natalie liked. I couldn’t quite believe that they were, as she assured me, the norm. We found her some nice, discreet slip-ons with a low heel.

We also bought Natalie make-up - a lot of make-up. We were approached now and then by those can-I-help-you harpies, who were obviously excited about taking on a challenging case; but I flat-out refused their services. I was not going to subject Natalie to that. One of those women once peered at me, screwed up her orange-painted nose and said, My, you have to be brave to wear as little make-up as you do! Mr Overton, I was fully made up! And she called me brave! Later, my friend Beatrice, who has worked on a beauty counter for twenty years, told me that they insult you ON PURPOSE to make you feel insecure so that you buy things. I didn’t know whether to feel better or worse. Beatrice said that she and her colleagues always pretend to estimate a woman’s age, and add on an extra decade, so that the woman flies into a frenzy of terrified self-loathing and spends forty pounds on a jar of grease. I must admit, I felt compelled to distance myself from Beatrice after that conversation.

I still haven’t got to the point, have I, Mr Overton? What a blabbermouth I am. Derek told me once that he felt as if he’d barely got a word in edgeways over thirty years of marriage. Well, I didn’t think that was quite fair, but people see things the way they see them, I suppose. The list of items. Here it is.

Those low-heeled shoes, in red
Various dresses, blouses and skirts in size 14 (Natalie is more realistically a 16, but she did insist - despite my protestations that the fit was more important than what it said on the label)
Control-top shine-effect tights, in nude, biscuit and barely black
Several sets of special medical-looking elastic underwear, which according to Natalie is all the rage in Hollywood ‘for ensuring a smooth silhouette’
Four padded push-up bras
Eight pairs of matching panties, in various styles - ‘g-string’, ‘bikini’ and ‘boy short’
Waxing procedures: legs, underarms and elsewhere (I left the room)
Soothing aloe vera ointment for waxed areas
Light-reflecting matte foundation
Eyebrow pencil
False-lash-effect mascara
False lashes (I did question why these were necessary, if the previous item did what it claimed; but Natalie pouted, and I let it go)
Lipsticks, various
Spray-on tan (Natalie feels she is too pale; she wanted a sunbed tan, but I told her not to be ridiculous)

It seemed so much, Mr Overton! As I said, I badly wanted a cessation of hostilities between us, and for Natalie to come away happy; but as we amassed more and more spangles, potions and support garments, I confess I felt my head begin to spin. When, at my insistence, we made a brief stop for a reviving cappuccino, I queried whether Natalie really needed so much. ‘This,’ she insisted, ‘is the bare minimum!’ And then she got out her new compact to check for froth on her top lip. ‘Il faut souffrir pour ĂȘtre belle,’ she said. Noting that her French accent is no better than Derek’s, I pondered the phrase. It struck me that it might be bilge. You don’t see trees suffering to be beautiful, do you? Or sunsets. Or, come to that, Johnny Depp. Those things just are, and everybody jolly well swoons.

Natalie said that she knew what I meant, but that it couldn’t be like that for her. ‘Besides,’ she said, with a little panic in her voice, ‘the rituals are part of the fun, aren’t they?’

Well, Mr Overton, I’m just not sure any more that they are. When I think of how much time I have put into ‘the rituals’, over the years - and when I look at where it’s got me - I can’t say it seems like time well spent. To be quite honest, the more I see Natalie embracing her new beauty routines - gliding around the house daubed in mud or wax or chemical-smelling dyes - the less I feel like making any alterations to myself. I even told her that she could have my make-up, which she politely declined, saying that there was a risk of infections. (Nonsense, I said - my friends and I shared the same eyeliner pencil for most of the 1960s! - but then I remembered that we did all have conjunctivitis most of the time.)

I must sign off and let you go, Mr Overton. I hope that if you have any immediate concerns about the finances, you will give me a call. At the present time, it is better if you talk to me, although I don’t expect that always to be the case. We will get ourselves together, and function like a family again.

Which brings me to the other point I wanted to raise. I was so touched, Mr Overton, by your offer to take me to dinner. A man as distinguished as you - any woman would be flattered, and I’m sure most would jump at the chance. And I can imagine why you would suppose me in need of male company, under the circumstances. But the fact is, I am still married.

Though Derek now intends to live as Natalie all the time, we have no plans to separate. What we are planning is a party, at which we will introduce Natalie to our friends and families. I’m even hoping that she can reconcile with some of Derek’s old workmates, and see about getting her job back... We would be so honoured, Mr Overton, if you would come along? Natalie is going to wear the blue, in which, I have to say, she really does look beautiful...

(the end)