North by Morag McDowell-Smith

Louise has bought a one-bedroom apartment in a desirable part of the commuter belt north of Glasgow because she’s reached the age where that’s what you do. It’s on the top floor and has a balcony where she stood one clear August morning, saw the Campsie Hills spread out on the horizon and calculated there were at least two motorways and a stretch of water between her and Stewart, so he couldn’t feel unduly crowded. She arranged to move in the third week in September, glad she would have a place of her own to come back to after a bad day at the office, a wide-open, precipitous sanctuary.

Now it’s November and Louise has realised the balcony faces north and is in shadow twenty three hours a day. She knows that plants shrivel and die in the gales that scour the paint off her patio chairs and whistle through the cheap double-glazing. She knows the walls are paper thin. She can hear the people next door and recognise their voices - a man, a woman and a child, a boy. Their bedroom is through the wall from hers. Some nights they fuck noisily to Frank Sinatra singing New York, New York. Some nights they argue. The woman weeps, the man roars like a bull, there are crashes, screams, silences - then Frank Sinatra at full volume. She purchases earplugs, which keep some of it out. When the boy starts whining ‘Stop it, stop it’ in a voice high and reedy with distress, she gets out of bed, wraps herself in her duvet and sits on the balcony, waiting for her hour of sunlight.

She meets him in the lift a lot. He seems to wait for her and jumps in just as the doors are closing, already in his school uniform at eight o’clock. He has dusty brown hair that might be blonde in need of a wash and a face that looks like it’s just been slapped. She sometimes attempts conversation, but

‘Hello’, ‘What’s your name?’ and ‘Do you like computer games?’ are met with suspicious silence. She starts to take the stairs and calls her solicitor, who says listlessly:

‘The vendor and surveyors gave no guarantees, Ms McDonald.’

*

When she gets the party invitation from Rhona, she accepts immediately, even though the last time they met was at Rhona’s wedding to Joseph in London eighteen years ago. She’s had letters, which she sometimes answers. She gets chatty phone calls at Christmas and other significant events like the birth of Rhona’s daughter and, just after they were married, a postcard telling her they’d moved to Thurso, a small town on the North Coast of Caithness, whose sole points of interest are a nuclear power station and the ferry to Orkney. Louise had been planning to visit anyway, for she likes bleak places. She’s always reading masochistic travel books. There’s ‘Greenland - an Odyssey’, ‘Bed and Breakfast in the Outer Hebrides’ and ‘Trekking in Eastern Siberia’ where she once read Ostrov is a fine place to visit but almost unimaginably remote and immediately wanted to go there. The party’s on a Saturday night. She plans to leave early, take the scenic route, stay over then come back late on the Sunday. She gets up at seven on Saturday morning and tiptoes to the lift. The doors open promptly. She puts her bag down and leans back against the wall, with her eyes closed.

‘Where are you going?’

He’s standing in the opposite corner, dressed in a tracksuit and shiny new trainers with red lights in the soles that blink arrhythmically at her as she tries to work out how he’s got there. The lift was empty when the doors closed. She’s sure.

‘Where are you going?’

‘Caithness.’

‘Is that far?’

She nods, tries to place his accent.

‘Why?’

‘To see a friend. It’s her birthday party.’

‘How old is she?’

‘Forty.’

‘How old are you?’

‘Thirty-six.’

‘I’m ten.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Andrew. I’m from Manchester. I hate it up here. But Mum says we’ve got to stay with him for a while.’

‘With who?’

‘Ron.’

‘Don’t you like him?’

He shakes his head and looks away. She starts counting down the floors, wanting to be in the car.

‘Will you take me with you?’

She doesn’t reply. The lift bell pings. She picks up her bag and walks out to her car. ‘Please’

She put her bag into the boot, gets into the driver’s seat and starts the engine. She winds down the window,

‘I’m sorry, Andrew. You’d better go back up.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Why not?’

He shrugs. ‘Take me with you.’

She feels something inside her drain away, her plan for the day, a slow relaxed drive through forests and glens, past bracken-furred slopes that turn to black rock then disappear into cloud, then a stop for lunch somewhere where they serve fresh mussels, a glass of wine, just one.

‘Go back up and talk to your Mum. Tell her you want to go home.’

He looks at her as though she’s stupid. She lets off the handbrake and edges the car forward. He doesn’t try to follow her. As she pulls onto the main road, she sees him in the rear view mirror, one hand rubbing an eye, the fist scrunched up like a baby’s. By the time she’s on Great Western Road, her heartbeat has slowed to normal.

*

It’s a clear sunny day as she speeds up Loch Lomondside, but she doesn’t notice. She’s still thinking about him, wondering if she should have taken him back upstairs and waited while he knocked on the door. She switches on the radio.

‘And now a report from the Middle East.’

She switches it off, imagines him sitting there in the passenger seat beside her, asking, ‘What’s this Rhona like, then?’

‘Well, she used to be great fun. We went to university together. She was clever, good-looking. Long black hair, tall and skinny, ate like a horse, always knew the gossip, always last to go home at parties, always sitting there at four in the morning cracking jokes and giving you advice about your life, whether you wanted it or not. We called her the Otago Street Oracle. And a lot of other things besides.’

She stops at Fort William for lunch, but can’t find fresh mussels so settles for haddock and chips in a pub with tartan wallpaper. She sits at a table in the corner of the lounge watching a television which lurches out from a bracket on the opposite wall beside a menu board advertising mars bar suppers and haggis a la cordon bleu. A news report shows footage of a vast cuboid building with mirrored windows reflecting a blue cloudless sky. One of its walls seems to ripple, a whole side explodes into flames and metal, glass and smoke billow out and down into the street below. The camera lurches and people start to scream. The waitress makes a tut-tutting noise and switches the channel.

She eats quickly and leaves, taking the A82 through the great glen then the A9 past Inverness. The landscape flattens out, submitting to the weight of water and sky. She crosses the Dornoch Firth watching them melt together as the sun goes down. The inside of the car is dim and shadowy. She stops on the other side and calls Rhona on her mobile.

‘Louise! Natasha’s staying with her pal tonight so you can sleep in her room. You’re only an hour away, I’ll tell Joseph to put the tea on.’

The coast road becomes a faint glimmer in the dusk. She follows it over undulating cliffs until the lights of Thurso appear below her at the bottom of a long gentle slope. She’s been told to stay on the main road, so she follows it down into town past a bar called The William Wallace, where a man dressed in a football strip is kneeling on the pavement throwing up, then out of town again and round the headland as instructed until she sees a turn-off. Louise has a mental picture of Rhona’s house. She’s been told it’s ‘cottage-style’ and she imagines one of those white-painted ones you see in tourist posters, with children playing outside, dogs yapping, an Aga in the kitchen and cannabis growing in the vegetable patch. Instead, there’s a warren of streets lined with small terraced council houses that wouldn’t look out of place in the poorer parts of Glasgow. She parks near to Rhona’s house number, checking the address over and over again because there’s a rusting mini in the front garden and, more disturbing, lace curtains in the windows. Just as she gets out of the car, the door opens and a teenage girl with Rhona’s dark hair and long pale face runs to the front gate.

‘Louise? I’m Natasha. Mum’s in the living-room. See you later.’ The theme tune to Eastenders starts to play tinnily.

Natasha takes a mobile phone out of her jeans pocket and walks away talking into it. Louise steps through the front door into the hallway, squinting in the sudden brightness from the bare light-bulb hanging from the ceiling. From behind one door there is the sound of a television set. She opens it.

‘Louise!’

Rhona jumps up from an old leather sofa. They embrace then stand back laughing. Rhona’s still dark-haired, skinny and good-looking and still talking for Scotland – about Natasha, about Joseph, about the party. Louise can’t quite shake off the feeling that she’s visiting some place from her distant childhood - there’s the coal fire, the television on a wall-bracket left of the mantelpiece, the table set for dinner facing the wall, and the air warm and heavy with cigarette smoke.

Rhona is asking her something and Louise realises she’s tuned her out, just as she does when she talks to her on the phone. To her relief, Joseph appears in the doorway.

‘Louise.’

He looks different, older. His face is deeply lined, his hair is grey, long and thick giving him the air of an Old Testament prophet, except that he’s wearing an apron and carrying a dish of spaghetti.

‘Joseph. That looks good.’

The fire crackles and spits. Rhona says, ‘Let’s eat then’

The table is set with cutlery, plates, a dish of grated cheese and three glasses of water. She takes a sip.

‘I should have bought some wine. Sorry.’

Rhona waves the words away with one hand and they eat in silence. The food is good. She remembers vaguely that Joseph might have trained as a chef, before having to give up work. She considers asking him what he’s doing now, but tells them instead about the boy in the lift. Rhona is completely unsurprised.

‘Kids do strange things. When Natasha was ten, she ran away. Left a note in her room saying not to look for her, that she knew she was adopted and her real parents were the descendants of Viking kings and queens. We found her up at Scrabster, waiting for the ferry to Orkney.’

Joseph shook his head. ‘I wanted to run away when I was a boy. Never felt I belonged in London – knew I’d end up somewhere exotic.’

He looks ruefully round the living-room. Rhona laughs merrily on cue then stands up.

‘Time to get my glad rags on.’

She skips out of the room. When Louise has finished her pasta, Joseph goes to the sofa, rolls a cigarette and switches on the television. The sound is turned down, but Louise sees the burnt-out shell of the building she saw earlier, photographed from the distance through a telephoto lens, shimmering in a heat haze. She doesn’t recognise the city, and is about to ask Joseph to turn the sound up when Rhona re-appears. She’s wearing a black T-shirt with a heavy metal logo, black satin trousers with appliqué silver butterflies, leather thong sandals and a green velvet cape. Joseph takes a deep appreciative drag on his cigarette.

‘Looking good, girl. Looking good.’

*

They walk against the wind round the headland and down into town. At The William Wallace, the man in the football strip is sitting on the pavement, crying. Joseph walks towards him, nods hello, then heads round the back of the building to a side door. It leads into a small function room, which is hot and smoky and bursting with people. At the far end, an older woman in a black lurex dress is fussing over tables laid with plates of sandwiches and sausages rolls. She turns, sees Rhona and hurries over smiling. Rhona waves.

‘That’s Mary. Used to be my boss before I gave up work.’

Everyone is dressed up, the men in suits and ties or kilts, the women in satin dresses and sparkly shoes with feather boas and bridesmaid hair with diamante clips, all slightly drunk and chattering and moving towards Rhona over the stained and worn carpet. Apart from Louise, the only other person in jeans is Natasha, who drifts over from the bar towards her mother. Rhona is surrounded by people. They hand her presents, she smiles benignly, opens them then passes them back regally to Natasha. Louise buys some drinks and finds a table. A group of young girls wearing silver-blue eye shadow, halter-tops and cowboy boots start to do a pre-rehearsed dance routine in the middle of the floor. The crowd cheers and claps. Rhona comes over and sits down, flushed and grinning. Louise looks at her in mock appraisal.

‘Popular as always.’

‘I was worried that no-one would come. How’s the new flat?’

‘Okay. Apart from my neighbours.’

‘Ah. The boy in the lift.’

Rhona leans over and says in her ear.

‘Joseph’s given it up.’

‘Given what up?’

‘What do you think?’

Louise looks up to where Joseph is standing on his own hugging a can of diet coke.

‘Good. Has he – given it up before?’

‘Lots of times.’

‘What if he starts again?’

‘I’ll get stoned, take a boat to Stromness and find myself an Orcadian chambered cairn to lie in.’

Louise says drily, ‘As long as you’re happy’

‘I am tonight.’

‘So what do you think I should do about him?’

‘Who?’

‘The boy in the lift.’

‘Oh, him.’ She blows out a plume of smoke and watches it curl slowly up towards the ceiling, ‘Forget the boy. Find yourself a man’

‘I’ve got one.’

‘Where is he then?’

‘At a conference in Prague.’

‘Am I supposed to be impressed?’ She winks. ‘Only joking. Let’s dance. We’ll sort out your life in the morning.’

She jumps up and weaves into the crowd using the same rock-chick belly dance movement that Louise remembers from twenty years ago. Somehow it still works. When the pub manager throws them out at two, the party continues in Rhona’s living room. Louise stays up dutifully drinking less whisky and more Irn Bru as the night progresses. At four she says goodnight, climbs the stairs to Natasha’s room. There is something hard under the pillow of the single bed. She reaches in and pulls out a diary. As she puts it on the floor, it falls open at that day’s entry.

Mum’s Birthday hope she doesn’t start dancing, hope Jo drinks Diet Coke hope London calls they said they would if they don’t I’ll go anyway I’m out of here if it’s the Wick coach, a rapist’s car or a sheep truck I don’t fucking care and God please don’t make her wear the green cloak tonight

She closes the diary and falls into a deep sleep.

*

It’s still dark outside, when she starts awake a few hours later. She makes herself toast then goes to the car, thinking she’ll call Rhona later and explain. She takes the quick way back via Stirling and is home by noon. She almost throws up in the lift, but it’s passed by the time she reaches the twentieth floor. All she wants to do is sleep, but she needs to find out about the boy. She walks to her neighbour’s door and presses the bell. There is a long silence, then footsteps, the door opens and the man she assumes must be Ron is standing there, barefoot. He’s small, with dark hair, a fine-boned face that’s blurred with sleep and a soft feminine mouth. She tries to imagine the bellowing voice she hears through her bedroom wall coming out of it, then wonders what she expected - a string vest and tattoos?

‘Hi. We’re neighbours.’

He looks at her blankly.

‘I was wondering if Andrew was okay.’

‘Andrew?’

‘Yes. Andrew. The boy.’

For a moment she wonders if she’s imagined it all, but then he says, ‘They don’t live here anymore.’

He starts to close the door, but she leans into it, ‘Where have they gone?’

‘South. Back down South.’

*

He says it too quickly. His eyes waken up as he speaks, meeting her gaze, holding it, not letting go until she smiles, ‘Right. Sorry to have disturbed you.’

The door’s shut before she’s finished speaking. She goes into her flat, drops her bag, walks straight through the hallway and living-room and steps out onto the balcony. The wind tickles and moans around her ears. She sits down with her coat still on and watches the storm clouds boiling in.

***

Morag McDowell-Smith is a writer, mother, European Scot and works in access and education. From Glasgow originally, Morag has lived in Germany, Brighton and abroad but now lives in Paisley with her family. She is an award-winning short story writer and has been published by New Writing Scotland, Bloomsbury (The Asham Awards collection) and various online zines and journals. Recently she has also been working on poetry and spoken word performance and was shortlisted for the Chochoderick poetry prize 2018 and the annual Federation of Writers (Scotland) poetry competition 2018.

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top