I REMEMBER that time as if I am living it now, the days before. Not the afterwards, Not the noise and the headlines and the wails of the women. It’s just before that I remember. Calm.
It was one of those amazing moments when things seem like they were meant, there seemed to be signs everywhere, and I read the signs and knew what they meant. The world made a kind of sense.
All that summer the sea had been spewing up German bombs. They were old, and made a damp phut and sizzle on the water but the lights were beautiful.
They explained on the telly: during the war a German submarine was hit and dumped the bombs just outside the harbour. The bombs tumbled down the side of a deep dark valley, nestling there in their cast iron coats, waiting for their time to come. The when the summer storms came up it sucked them out of their nest, pulled them along the valley so they shirked their casings and rose like bubbles in ginger, up up to the surface, bursting when they reached the air and drew their first breath, sending flashes and splutters of blue and red and orange fire over the water.
They’d been sitting down there for 60 years. All that time they’d been under the water, waiting for the salt to eat through the casing. I know what it takes to wait.
It’s dark down there. and cold: They sent an MoD unit to have a look at them and one of the divers got his equipment caught. We watched them drag him onto the boat from the loading bay doors.
They arrived in the town just when I did. How could that happen? Both coming to the town at the same time?
A tiny, tiny chance. I thought they were beautiful. You’d be looking out at this grey water and then see a rip, a bob and bright sudden fire defying that broad, grey consensus.
The fishermen hated the bombs. They had to steer around the unexpected fires in the water and the town was loosing visitors. In the soap factory they all gathered around the loading doors every lunchtime, looking out to sea and watching, moaning about the tourists not coming and the bed and breakfasts empty and the seal boat trips making no money. I didn’t say I liked them. I just watched with the others and tried not to smile. I’m a private person. Being private came to be a precious thing to me. Small spaces that no one else went into. My room, my head and so on. Especially then.
The calm time stays with me. Even now, years later, when anyone says ‘soap’ I have that sore smell in my nose. The walls smelled, the doors smelled, if you touched any surface it got on your hands and then anything you touched got the smell on it. A stab of smell. When I blew my nose the hankie was full of stinking silver trails. You could tell who worked there if you passed them in the street because they gave it off, sweated it. Disgusting.
Highland. Kelp. Authentic. Traditional. Organic. I don’t even know what those words mean. They mean six quid a bar. They mean you’re a tourist and don’t want to buy a tea towel with a picture of a cow on it.
Remorse. Sorry. Apology. Families left behind. They’re all just words.
The village had big hills behind, small white cottages, fishermen going broke and jagging up on smack and being lost at sea. Nothing special. Quite a nice place. You can buy postcards of the sea front in Edinburgh they tell me.
They sent me there because my people were from there.
My gran. she’d just died so they offered me her house. It was too big, had two bedrooms and a garden and neighbours. There would have been plumbing needing done and the roof to fix, they said I’d even get a new kitchen but I didn’t want to have people to deal with, to have to talk to people. I’m only used to a cell. I took digs. a small room in a house with old Mr Mackay: He used the front door and I used the back. I’m not mental, I’m just private and that’s not wrong.
What I remember most about the time is the driving test, before the driving test. I’d been eating beans and second day bread, smoking rollies, saving all my money for the lessons and the deposit. They learn to drive young up there, the instructor said. I was the oldest student he had. I remember before the test. Calm.
I talk about the driving dreams a lot, I know, but it means so much to me. When I have that dream I’m happy all day, even now even when the other meaning is so clear. I can’t help it.
In the dream I’m driving my van. There’s a space in the back where you could sleep if you got tired and no one could see you, bother you. You could go where you want.
I’m driving my van through a summer valley, and my hand is resting on the wheel, warm in the sunshine and my arm’s bent, like I’ve been driving for a long time and I’m tired or something, I don’t know. The window’s open and maybe the radio’s on, I don’t know. I feel happy all day when I have that dream.
In the soap factory I just kept my eyes down. To them I was a big city mystery, taken by his dad to live in Glasgow when he was ten and my mother left behind, shamed that her man left and never mentioned me. The factory people asked me about the fashions and the night clubs and the football. I cut it all short.
Everyone knew I was sitting my test soon. I had a deposit down on a van as well but they didn’t know that. That was private. one of the supervisors came over to me one day and said even if I did pass the test he’d never let me drive for him, because I’d been in prison. He said it in front of everyone, to shame me because some of them didn’t know. I said nothing. When he left I went to the toilet. Locked the door before I let myself smile. He didn’t know what I’d been in for. He was the kind of man who’d have said if he knew.
That’s the kind of man he was. They knew I went to the police station every week but they must have thought it was just a parole thing. They didn’t see me sign and the polis never told anyone. cause of my gran I suppose. out of respect.
Come out of there, someone knocked on the toilet door.
He kept talking and talking so I told him I’d been done for armed robbery. Next day they were all nice to me. Some of the women tried to talk to me.
The women didn’t drive the truck or anything, they wrapped the bars and making bows on them, they kept them kind of separate and I was glad. It was so long since I’d met a woman, I don’t know what to say to them. It’s been so long now I don’t know if I’ll ever meet another one.
Sandra, she didn’t talk to me. She blushed when she saw me. I thought she hated me, actually, I‘ve never been good at reading women. I’d heard that her man died on the boats and she didn’t go with loads of guys so she wasn’t a slag or anything.
I never thought I’d miss the group but I did, not the team leaders that ran it, just the other guys.
We had our own group. We had our own everything actually because we couldn’t mix with the other prisoners.
They’d kill you if they got you alone. They killed one old guy, found him in a garden and stabbed him with a shovel.
They hated us but I didn’t see how we were different. We all took things we shouldn’t.
In the calm, the signs made me feel that things would be okay, that I’d pass and things would become clear. and then they did.
It was a week before the driving test. We were standing at the factory doors, lunch time, a storm the night before had sucked some bombs up and they were bursting once in a while and we were all watching while we ate soap sandwiches. I saw her looking at me. Sandra, yellow hair, no ear rings, no holes, I liked that. she kept her face to the sea but her red eyes were sliding to the side, looking at me. she likes you, one of them said, you should come to the pub tonight, we’re all going. she’ll be there.
I didn’t go. I don’t know what to say. I’m not a confident talker.
They made me talk in the group. I learned how they teach you to talk and I can do it but I’d rather sit in my room or listen to the radio or watch through the window for the bombs on the water.
Next day Sandra’s friend came over. Come to the pictures with her. I thought that was good because it would be dark and we wouldn’t need to talk. We could just sit.
We saw a film about a pig. after we went back to the her house and she made us chips. She had two sons and a daughter and her name was Morag.
I walked home. Smoking. Feeling heavy. We hadn’t talked too much and that was good. she was good looking.
Not flash but tidy looking. Wore brown, but still I wasn’t right about it. And when I stopped I looked out over the harbour wall and saw the next sign. As I watched that exact spot two bombs came out of the water at the exact same time and went off, their flames touching in the dark. I knew then. It would be okay.
Once in the group, we had a laugh. Jamie started telling his story. He got the words in that they liked: remorse, damage, impulse. We knew before they did that he was telling it the wrong way, we were all smiling at each other, hands hiding mouths. He went a long way into it before they stopped him It was a story about creeping through houses, moving in the dark, about smells from hair.
Mum left the village when she heard I was coming. She left. I don’t even know why I’m surprised, to be honest. I should have known. That’s exactly the sort of woman she was. she didn’t write to me, not once. She only came to see me once when I was in prison before and she didn’t bring me smokes or anything. It was all sobbing and god-forgive – wicked – wicked man, that child that child.
I know she was going to takes sides but if she was going to take anyone’s side it should have been mine. I mean I understand better now, since being in the group but I’m her only son. other guys in the group had family. They sent letters. One guy raped his wife and battered her to death with a brick and his sisters came every month, for Christ sakes. Brought his kids.
I passed my driving test. I went home and cried. A man. crying. Sitting on the end of my bed and crying. I couldn’t stop, I just couldn’t make the breath get into my lungs.
When I looked up, eventually, it was dark outside. The wind was up. I heard shutters slamming all over the village. Rain was sheeting down over the water and the streets emptied.
It was the biggest storm of the summer.
I left my digs. I climbed up the hill overlooking the harbour, higher than where you’d walk, up to where I was scrabbling on scree and I sat down, sweating from the walk.
Bombs were bursting all over the water, as far as the eye could see, like a million Viking funerals and I was out of denial now. I undid my flies and slipped my hand inside. I was Jamie now.
I was driving through the summer valley, with my space in the back where no one can see. The window is open, a breeze coming in, and the sun is warming my hand. and on the seat next to me is Morag, not yet crying, not yet afraid, and the smell of soap is far far behind us both.