EVERYONE said that the old man by the harbour knew things about the future. But nobody asked him what he knew about the past. An exclusive, evocative story from Angus Peter Campbell.
He was an interesting character right enough. There he sat, day after day, on an old wicker chair, down near the harbour watching the boats sailing in and out. He was dressed all in black, except for his hat, which was brown.
“Hi,” I’d say, and he’d nod, not saying a word.
I didn’t want to ask. For who bothers nowadays.
“Alasdair,” the woman in the shop said. “That’s his name. Alasdair MacKenzie. Been here forever.”
So I stopped the next morning and introduced myself.
“Joanna,” I said. “Joanna MacKenzie. My grandfather, Angus, was from here. Angus Campbell.”
“I know,” he said. “I was at school with him.”
His face didn’t give any clue as to whether memory was good or bad. Maybe just indifferent.
“An excellent lad,” he then said. “Saved me from drowning one day.”
I didn’t want to prompt. And he didn’t explain.
Folk said I should talk to him. That he’d help. That he knew things. Had seen things. Weeks before the ferry sank he’d warned the skipper. So the younger boys asked him for numbers for the Lottery. As if that would annoy him.
“Twelve, Fourteen, Twenty-Seven, Thirty-One. Forty, Forty-Five, Forty-Nine,” he’d say. And they spent their money on his numbers the first few times until they realized they were as random as their own.
“Daft old bastard,” they said.
And yet. There was something. Perhaps. Maybe. For who can really tell.
“I wouldn’t go to Inverness today,” he said to old Mrs Johnston and she didn’t. And that afternoon the bus she’d have been on plunged down the scree by Loch Ness.
It wasn’t a PhD. It wasn’t that academic. It was more of a research towards an album I was working on. It began simply, I suppose like everything does. I was in Tarbert with my then boyfriend, Arthur. Tarbert in Kintyre, for there are so many of them, since the Vikings never did anything by half. Arthur was a wannabe rock-musician and we were down there for one of those open-air festival weekends which have replaced the old communions in the new Scotland. Franz Ferdinand played and we all sang together on the Friday evening as the sun set in a purple haze. I know I won’t be leaving here, I know I won’t be leaving here, I know I won’t be leaving here, I know I won’t be leaving here with you.
I left him in the tent on Saturday morning and walked down into the village. It was a clear, sunny morning and I could see everything as if it had been newly drawn with the brightest of crayons. My Mum had kept my childhood drawings in an old box and last time I was home had gone through them with me. There was a girl and a boy and a donkey.
“That’s Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem,” I said.
An animal stood on one leg on a box.
“And that’s the monkey at Edinburgh Zoo. He was called Bongo.”
All the drawings were what they were, though my Mum couldn’t decipher them.
“This?” she asked.
It was a red line above a blue line.
“That’s the racecourse at Musselburgh. Remember we went there for Grampa’s birthday? The red line is the horse running. The jockey had a red cap on. And the blue line is the sea behind him.”
For our childhoods ring with a clarity which no one else can hear. That doll, that table, that chair, all standing in isolation from one another as if they weren’t in the same room. Or as if they were, but had no connection whatsoever with one another. Though maybe it was the opposite: for the chair was always pulled over to the table when we had our meal together and the doll sat on it to have her food with us. And what glorious, exotic food. For as we ate our spaghetti bolognese, she’d have chocolate soup and chocolate mince and chocolate pudding, unless she had been bad and would have to eat sheep’s dung for starters, Granny’s crushed toenails for mains, and that horrible Johnny Miller’s smelly socks for pudding. In the drawing, they all declare their independence.
And Tarbert, Loch Fyne, was equally as pellucid on that Saturday morning. The harbour just there, and the pretty little houses, one after another, and the gorgeous gardens all in full bloom and all the birds of the air singing their hosannas to the freshly made June day, as if it couldn’t ever be anything else.
I’d been clean for a year, which may partially explain why that June morning was illuminated. For after the darkness we are of course blinded by the light for a while until we get used to it again, when it becomes as common as dust. Imagine, said John Donne, if you woke up one morning and saw a ball of fire rising in the sky to the east, and that ball of fire then crossed the sky all day and sank into the sea in the west in the evening – imagine how amazed you’d be. And yet because we see it every day we become familiar with it, and as we all know, familiarity breeds contempt.
And yet there are moments when the original wonder resounds. The fishing boats shone green and blue and red. A mother with a baby in a pushchair walked by and said,
“Morning. Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
Four teenage girls went cycling by, each of them steering with one hand, an ice-cream cone in the other.
I sat down on a bench at the pier and I suppose because the light was so dazzling put on my sunglasses so that I could hear as well as see. The diminishing of the light, I knew, magnified hearing. And I heard someone singing, as if a voice was emerging from the bottom of the sea. As indeed he was, for I could see him climbing up the fisherman’s ladder as he sang. The song was so simple – so clichéd even – that it’s hard to understand the impact it made on me, but I suppose it was just the liquid architecture of the morning.
It was simply “The Shoals of Herring”, with its story rising into the air. I think that’s what struck me: that the man’s voice was so clear that it seemed as if he paused on every rung of the ladder to tell the verse before ascending to the next rung. It was like my doll and chair and table: everything was in perfect balance. So that I heard about the nets and gear, then about Yarmouth harbour, then about the long hours, and the Sward, and the hundred cran of silver darlings, and right on to the million fishes and when I now put on my sunglasses I can still see him walking across the other side of the pier and disappearing and singing the last words which hung in the air long after he’d gone, growing old and dying as you hunt the bonny shoals of herring.
After Arthur and I split up the song became one of those earworm things which eat away at you. It signified so many things, like one of those long old stone walls which divide fields all over Scotland. Nowadays they’re mostly in ruins and separate nothing, but then they divided wheat from hay, cows from sheep, pasture from arable.
For when I returned to the tent in the afternoon he was gone and the evidence of his crime all around: the open sashes and the needle and the scum that was our love. I later found a full explanation for it, discovering that the real significance of crime is in its being a breach of faith with the community of mankind. Thank you, Joseph Conrad.
And somehow that breach of faith was repaired by the shoals of herring which the unknown fisherman sang as he climbed the steps. I was certain that he would have ascended the rungs singing at the very moment Arthur would have injected the poison. So that the song became a stile into a different field where – good God! – words like “bonny” became redeemed.
I suppose that the current fashion for pared-back music has helped. Reflecting the spirit of austerity, who really believes anymore in lush strings and complex arrangements while the Arctic dissolves and militants slaughter children in classrooms? And I began to think of sea shanties and women’s work songs and lullabies in light of the fisherman’s basso profundo version of “The Shoals of Herring”, so here I am, back in the ancestral home, stripping back the elements.
But the more I listened to the original songs, the more I realized they were just a way of saying things. Of seeing things, I mean. Which is why I became interested in Old MacKenzie in the first place, because rumour had it that he thought truth (if one can use such a word) lies in what is imagined rather than believed.
“He saw the laird’s funeral cortege driving down through the village exactly six months before the old bugger died,” they said.
And so that morning, I broke the ice. And the next morning I paused and asked him.
“So. Did you know my grandfather well?”
“I said I was in school with him. I grew up with him. I knew him like my own shadow.”
“You can only see shadows in the shade of the sun.”
“Except when you’re very young and very old. Then you see them all the time. Everywhere.”
I dared to ask.
He looked at me and said,
“Since you ask such a stupid question, I cannot tell you.”
“Is there a better question?”
He smiled. His teeth were yellow with tobacco smoke.
“There’s always a better question.”
“So’” I asked. “Why do you see shadows.”
“Because I see time. Running backwards.”
“The things that are happening are just the consequences of what’s already happened. There’s no mystery to it.”
“So’,” I asked. “You don’t see the future at all? Only the past?”
“Not even that. I only see the inevitable.”
“Which is what?”
“You mean to say everything is inevitable?”
“No. Just that everything is imaginable.”
And he gave me a song. Which is the first and last song on my forthcoming album. For I split his song into two, called “Backwards and Forwards”. It goes like this:
As I walked out on a bright summer’s day,
My shadow kept moving ahead all the way,
And the faster I strode the quicker it ran
Till at last I fell down like an old drunken man.
And when I got up I returned the same road
And this time he followed so steady and slow,
He froze when I stopped, as if he was me,
And refused to behave like a man who was free.
So I learned that a shadow is nothing to fear,
It’s only the blocking of light, my young dear.
And when you’re out walking, in pain or in joy
He’s always there with you, to mourn and enjoy.
So learn to caress it and love it to heart
For it walks with the present, the future and past,
When it’s ahead, it’s what’s yet but to be,
And when it’s behind, it will never catch thee.
“And the drowning?” I asked him. “What about the drowning? You said Grampa saved you?”
Old MacKenzie stood up at that point and took off his hat. He led me down to the harbour and as we stood at the edge of the pier he flung his hat out into the water.
“That was me,” he said. “I jumped, for a dare. Even though I couldn’t swim.” He looked at me.
“And your dear grandfather did this for me.”
And he dived into the water, and swam westwards, out towards the shoals of herring.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Angus Peter Campbell (Aonghas Phàdraig Caimbeul) was born and brought up on South Uist. He is an award-winning poet and novelist, with his Gaelic novel An Oidhche Mus do Shèol Sinn voted into the Top 10 of the Best-Ever Books from Scotland in the List/Orange Awards in 2005. His poetry collection Aibisidh was selected as the Poetry Book of the Year in Scotland in 2012.
He works as a writer and actor and was nominated for a Scottish BAFTA for the lead role in the film Seachd. He is a Double Honours graduate in Politics and History from the University of Edinburgh. Sorley MacLean reviewed his first collection of poetry as “a masterpiece”, and he has elsewhere been described as the Mark Twain of modern Gaelic literature. He lives in An Caol with his wife and children, who are musicians.