WELCOME to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, an extract from The Jewel by Catherine Czerkawska
The first time Jean Armour spoke to Rab Burns of Mossgiel, she was spreading linen on the bleach green. It was a fine day, but cold: one of those sharp, sunny days of early spring. There were catkins on the willows, buds on the trees, and the grass was greening up, but nothing was in leaf yet. You could see the light growing and feel the push of it in the ground. There was already a scattering of golden blossoms on the whins, like a promise of something to come. Later the hedgerows would be ablaze with it.
‘When the whins are in bloom, kissing’s in season,’ the lads would chant, trying to catch her around her neat waist as she passed them by.
Jean had been spreading out the linen: sheets and shirts and tablecloths, including the big cloth that her mother kept for best, draping some of them over small shrubs and bushes so that the twigs would keep them in place. The frost was as good as the sunlight for bleaching linen. You would put it through the mangle to smooth the fibres and then spread it out for the frost or the sunlight or both, one following the other, to do their work, hoping that the birds wouldn’t do theirs on the newly washed sheets. Sometimes a lad could be persuaded to scare them away for a baw-bee or even a piece of bread and cheese, just held in his hand, if he was hungry enough. But all lads were hungry all the time. Her father, James Armour, liked his shirts well laundered for the kirk, although it was hard when the house was so full of the stone dust that he brought indoors with him every evening.
Jean had begun later than usual, and the other lassies had already gone home. It was one of those days when the fire had refused to blaze up properly to heat the water, so she and her mother and sister had started the laundry late. Her mother blamed the chimney although her father said it was only when the wind blew a certain way. Now everything was late and like to get later. She was working alone on the green, spreading the linen over bushes and smoothing out the sheets on the grass, hoping that the weather wouldn’t turn, that she hadn’t missed the best of the day. As usual, she was singing to speed the work.
That was when Rab Mossgiel came walking along on his way to visit his landlord, or that’s what she assumed, because he seemed to be heading in the direction of Gavin Hamilton’s house. A young dog was at his heels, a collie, more black than white, half grown and skittish. Jean recollected that somebody had killed Rab’s much loved dog, Luath, the night before his father died. That had been at Lochlea, the place where they had farmed before moving to Mossgiel, just outside the town of Mauchline. Somebody had killed the poor animal while Rab’s father, William, lay at death’s door, with his family gathered around his bedside.
She supposed this must be a replacement for Luath. Although Rab was careful to avoid the sheets and shirts, the dog, little more than a puppy, was not so cautious and ran over the linen after his master, leaving muddy paw-marks in its wake. The work involved in washing those sheets! She thought of her aching arms and the pride her mother took in the wash and her father’s complaints about marks on his Sabbath shirts. What would he make of paw prints? Especially Rab Mossgiel’s dog’s paw prints.
‘Away you go!’ she shouted.
She picked up a pebble and threw it at the dog. Her aim was true, and the stone hit the dog on his rump, not really injuring him, but stinging him, so that he sat down suddenly, turned around and bit repeatedly at himself as though a flea had nipped him there. Then he gazed at her, panting, one ear up and one ear down. He looked so comical that she couldn’t help but laugh.
‘Lassie, lassie!’ said the young man with a sort of mock indignation. ‘If you thought ought of me, you wadnae hurt my dog!’
His eyes were full of mischief. He was laughing and she was laughing and she raised her eyebrows and said, ‘I wadnae think much of you at any rate, Rab Mossgiel!’
At the time she said it, it may even have been the truth. She couldn’t have cared less about him, even though he made her laugh.
‘That’s me tellt then,’ he said, pulling a rueful face.
She gazed at him, the sheet in her hand. He wore a light blue wool coat, home-spun and homemade too, she thought, but smart for all that. Long black hair, tied back and curling down over his collar. And a book in his hand. Well they were right about that. He aye had a book in his hand.
He’d moved to Mossgiel earlier that year. Most of them didn’t yet call him Rab Mossgiel in the town because it was too soon, although she’d heard that’s what he called himself, proud of his new farm. Rab’s father, William, had used the old north-eastern family name of Burness, and Rab still spelled his name that way, although he was about to change it to plain Burns for reasons best known to himself. James Armour clearly thought that was just another affectation.
‘Who does he think he is with his tied hair and his fancy plaid and his fancy manners?’ he said, scathingly, when Jean mentioned the incident at home later that day.
Her mother had laughed and sung a few lines of a song:
‘Oh they gaed to Kirk and Fair,
Wi’ their ribbons round their hair,
And their stumpie drugget coats,
Quite the dandy O!’
James had already made up his mind to dislike Rab, although there were many people of whom her father did not approve, so there was little wonder in that. The ‘fancy plaid’ was a yellowy brown colour that put you in mind of autumn leaves. He was wearing it now. Rab fastened it around his shoulders in a peculiar way, taking time and trouble to get it just right. The lad’s reputation as something of a dandy had come to the town before him, so said Mr Auld the minister. He was known as Daddie Auld because he was practically built in with the stones of the kirk. Every town and village had its ‘faither’, the oldest and wisest man, but although Mr Auld was perhaps not the oldest, he was certainly deemed wisest. Rab did not have a very good reputation with the kirk elders, even though his new landlord, Mr Hamilton, seemed to like him well enough. But as her father said, that was no recommendation either, for Gavin Hamilton was not a God-fearing man. Jean was nineteen when the Burns family moved to Mossgiel, and she already knew all about the eldest son – that he was a lad best avoided by a lass like her, a lass with a good reputation to maintain.
• Catherine Czerkawska is an award-winning novelist and playwright based in Ayrshire. The Jewel: A Novel of the Life of Jean Armour, is published by Saraband, £8.99.