The Write Stuff: Truestory by Catherine Simpson

Illustration: Grant Paterson
Illustration: Grant Paterson
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AN exclusive excerpt from Truestory, a new book by Scottish author and journalist Catherine Simpson

I watched my jailor, Sam, all four foot five of him. He was straining with effort and concentration, his tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth as he drew a map of our world.

I gripped my coffee cup. I wanted to smack it off the table; hear it crack and smash and see the coffee splatter all over the kitchen but I couldn’t because loud noises and sudden movements were NOT ALLOWED.

Lots of stuff was NOT ALLOWED in our tiny world, including wrapped presents, wasps, flies, cloth hankies, the colour yellow, nettles, plug holes, uncovered ears, boiled eggs, balloons and a never-ending, ever-growing list of other random craziness.

On his Map of the World Sam drew Backwoods Farm, the farmyard, the barn, the workshop and The World of the Jungle at the Bottom of the Orchard. From the farmyard he drew a lane wending away between Big Hill and The Wildwood and past Wayside Cottage with its row of little gravestones. When the lane reached the edge of the paper he drew a skull and cross bones and wrote in red letters: DANGER: HELL FIRE PASS.

I forced a smile.

He’d eaten the omelette I’d given him for lunch after he’d smeared it with tomato sauce to make it red – icing it slowly, meticulously, like a precious cake, squinting at its yellowness through his sunglasses to stop his eyes from burning. Then he’d smoothed out a big piece of paper on the table and run his hand over it looking for lumps, bumps and creases. God forbid there should be any lumps, bumps or creases. Especially creases.

I closed my eyes. I didn’t need to watch him draw the confines of our tiny world – I’d seen him do it a thousand times and I knew it, every inch.

I left the house at 2 o’ clock and not a minute before. That was the deal; I was allowed out for a couple of hours at two o’ clock on a Tuesday. I pulled the door to and Bess shot out of the barn, zigzagging on her chain and barking so hard her front feet left the ground.

‘Go to bed, Bessie!’

The racket she made jarred even though Sam wouldn’t hear it because by now he’d be lying under his quilt, tucked in on all sides, his ear phones on and his bobble hat stuffed with cotton wool and pulled right down over his face.

There used to be hell to pay when I went out on a Tuesday. For years he’d beg me not to go, he’d start crying, pleading; the lot. It wasn’t that I was leaving him on his own - his dad did jobs round the farmyard on a Tuesday afternoon to be near and to keep an eye on him.

That might have been half the trouble.

Sometimes I wouldn’t go. I’d say nothing and put the car keys back on the hook and feel the walls close in another few feet. Or I’d tell him: ‘I can’t be here all the time.’ I’d try to keep calm; not to let the anger and the resentment and the frustration leak out of every pore. ‘I’ve got to get away some time.’

‘Why can’t you be here all the time?’ He’d say. ‘I am.’

But the last time he asked me not to go my patience snapped. I flung down my carrier bags and kicked them across the kitchen, where they sent a pile of Farmers Weeklies slithering under the armchair, and I yelled: ‘For God’s sake, you’re going to kill me, you are. You’re going to drive me into the Royal Bloody Albert,’ and then I started crying – big snotty tears, like a kid.

When I calmed down I went to apologise. I tried to put my arm around him.

‘I didn’t mean to shout, Sam. I’m sorry.’

But he shrank away, as if he didn’t trust me – as if he didn’t even like me – and I started crying again.

Later his laptop was open on the kitchen table and I saw he’d Googled ‘The Royal Bloody Albert’. He’d found it was actually the Royal Albert Psychiatric Unit ‘with individual rooms and en-suite bathrooms in a Grade 2 listed building, set within landscaped gardens. Put like that it didn’t sound so bad - a single room; space to think, space to breathe, space to be nothing but yourself - if you could still remember what you were supposed to be.

After that he didn’t ask me not to go into town on a Tuesday anymore. Instead when it headed towards 2 o’ clock he concentrated on drawing a Map of the World - there was a pile a mile high next to the kitchen range - or he hid under his quilt tucked in tight all round and with the full bobble hat and cotton wool routine. Or sometimes he went on his computer.

But whatever he did I could tell by the look on his face when I got back that he’d been truly terrified of me driving away down HELL FIRE PASS where unspeakable terrors lurked; too terrible to fully form in his mind and that he’d believed the whole time I was away that he might never see me again.

I lobbed two carriers into the back of the car and climbed in. I squinted into the rear- view mirror; smoothed the frizz around my temples, examined my eyes, my teeth, my forehead, the baggy neck of my baggy jumper. If I kept my eyes half shut I couldn’t see how old and knackered I looked. Or how disappointed. The car stank. The roof had let the rain in and the carpet had gone rotten. I’d chucked it on the bonfire but the smell lingered and I wondered if it clung to me. I sniffed my jumper; fried onions, fried bread and a whiff of bleach from my hands. I opened the window.

As I backed the car down the yard, the two carrier bags rolled around spewing stuff out. Today I was taking the bright yellow curtains I’d bought for Sam’s bedroom before he was born, before I realised yellow burnt his eyes; before I realised how easy it was to make mistakes with a kid even when you were doing your utmost to get it right. I’d also brought Duncan’s old suit – the one he wore at our wedding – there was no point in having that thing cluttering the place up. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen him in a suit.

The car jolted through the pot holes. I didn’t look up at Sam’s window. I felt bad enough; if he’d got out of bed to watch me leave I didn’t want to see him.

I glanced at the garden. It was a tip. The only things thriving were gooseberries because nothing can kill bloody gooseberries. On the yard weeds sprouted between the cobbles, poking through the cow muck. From the shed by the gate a cow shouted. It poked its head out and looked at me. Its new-born calf must have been taken away. It shouted again; a long, sad bellow, like cows do.

I turned up the radio.

Driving down the lane I acted like it felt good to be out; I tapped to the music and mouthed a few words. But it didn’t feel good. A sick feeling crept up my throat, down each arm, down each leg. I was a bad person, a bad mother, a monster; driving away, abandoning Sam like that and leaving him to suffer.

Every week I felt the same and I was right to worry because often I’d get back and find the place in chaos. Duncan would have said something to kick Sam off; tried to make him do something he couldn’t or joked about something he shouldn’t. There was endless stuff that could go wrong when it came to Sam and Duncan. Then Duncan would expect me to step in and make everything right.

Sometimes I thought it wasn’t worth going out in the first place.

Except it was. It was always worth going out if I wanted to stay sane and to stay alive.

I pulled up at the tip. A man was dragging old floor boards from his boot. I grabbed my carriers and climbed up the steps to the skip. I didn’t chuck the bags in, or empty them over the side because that would have been a waste – no, I made the most of it by rolling up

each item, throwing it for all I was worth and watching it slap down among the rubbish.

The man lobbed wood on top of the curtains and I thought that’s right, bury the bloody things. They were specially made those curtains – not cheap either – in what the woman in the shop called a ‘nice neutral colour; good for a girl or a boy’.

Only thing was I didn’t know I was going to get a boy like Sam.

I bundled up Duncan’s suit jacket and flung it as hard as I could. The bloke with the wood was chucking old paint tins now and one crashed onto it and the lid flew off and brown paint splattered onto the jacket’s shiny lining and dribbled down.

I remembered Duncan in that suit on our wedding day, twenty-three years ago. He’d been propping up the bar with his mates, talking about shooting and fishing and cars and motorbikes. They were all farmers and they looked like they’d put their suits on with shovels; too tight round the shoulders, too short in the sleeves, shirts poking out. He’d been knocking back the pints while I danced with the bridesmaids in their emerald frocks. The bright green bridesmaids were folk I worked with in the bank - the type who invited you to Tupperware parties and Pippa Dee parties and every other kind of party; jewellery, make-up, plastic shoes, there was nothing those girls couldn’t sell from their settees.

I’d lost touch with them ages ago.

I lobbed the suit trousers.

It felt good to get rid of stuff. The farm was full of ancient possessions that had never been cleared out because farmers don’t retire and move to the seaside, they die in the job and the next generation steps in. Duncan’s family had been at Backwoods Farm for five generations. Six if you counted Sam.

I used to drop it at charity shops; tea sets, sherry glasses, gardening books, wool - endless bags of un-knitted wool - and every time I dumped a bag I felt a bit less tied to Backwoods Farm, a bit freer. But I hated those smelly shops with their battered books and bobbly tops and saggy trousers and anyway, after a while it hadn’t been enough.

Since then I’d been coming here.

Duncan had never noticed. Except for that jumper his mother knitted him and some plastic shooting trophies, oh and the old jigsaws from when he was a lad. He’d wanted to know where they’d got to. When he asked, I shrugged. How should I know? If they were that important he should have looked after them, shouldn’t he?

• Catherine Simpson is an award-winning writer and journalist based in Edinburgh. Truestory is published by Sandstone Press, price £8.99