Rob McClure Smith
Getting off the plane, walking in a gray mist to the shuttle stop, the rain didn’t surprise me in the least. Glasgow reminiscences are drizzly ones. I felt as if I was imposing memory on the sodden turf, just so I could feel at home in a place I once called home, though it never was. Home is where the heart is, and only the fact that a heart had packed up brought me back.
I chewed the gum the stewardess gave me so my ears wouldn’t pop. They give gum if you ask, which is nice, and my ears scream on the descent, which isn’t. I nibbled the gum in to bits, rolled them into gummy balls on my tongue, and spat them out to see how far I could make them fly, winging them off in a saliva spray. I found it enormously entertaining; partly, because I didn’t have anything else to do until the shuttle came, mainly, because I was uproariously drunk. I make a point of getting gloriously sloshed on long flights. If the plane is going up in a fireball, I’m prepared to spontaneously combust in advance. I’m not too big on flying. I’ve never liked it.
There was one observer of my consummate dissipation, but he was not in a position to comment. Arriving at the shelter, I heard him engaged in a heated discussion. He knew I had heard him. I had that on him. It’s amazing how often I find myself sitting beside a man who talks to himself. Then again, I’ve never found the ones who natter to themselves to be terribly dangerous, contrary to the popular stereotype. It’s the men who talk to me that are the dangerous ones, the degree of danger in inverse proportion to the innocuousness of the approach.
My father was the first to warn me about strange men.
“Watch oot for bearded weirdos,” he told me.
That was right before I left for university. He was talking about sex, though he never mentioned the foul deed, directly. I think he tried to once. We were leaning on a three-wired fence, looking at a cow in a field, I have no idea why, and what I recall, with the detail of acute reminiscence, it was a spectacularly ugly, brown heifer.
A pair of butterflies flew between us. “Look, they’re fighting” I said. Not because I was a naive eleven year old, although I was, but because I noticed him strangely fixated on the aerial jig of their blue-gold coupling and dreaded what I suspected, with adolescent intuition, would follow.
“Naw,” he murmured sepulchrally, “Ah think they ur making love.”
Fearing this the beginning of something really embarrassing, I commenced thrashing dementedly at a clump of dandelions, lopping their heads off with the birch twig he’d cut and stripped for me. Their yellow faces had assumed the sallow complexions of all the boys I knew in primary school.
“Ah guess ye know aw aboot that,” my father said, picking seedy white wisps out his hair. “They teach it at the academy ah see.”
“Well. . . listen. It’s important whit they tell ye, pet.” By now, he was bearing down on the wire in a way not to do it any good. “Some day ye’ll love a boy, when yir older ah mean, and ye’ll want tae marry him.”
“And then ah’ll huv tae pay fur the fuckin weddin’.”
By now the cow was looking at us. Ugliness is relative perhaps. Or maybe she wanted to eat the dandelions. And so there we stood, father and daughter, alone together, stricken with mutual embarrassment: the two of us, something slow happening inside the cold brain of a cow.
But the subject was dropped, at least until his sepulchral profundity about strange men six years later, and we’d never pick that thread up again.
The shuttle was late. My uncle picked me up at the depot. He didn’t pick me up at the airport out of spite.
“There’s something stuck tae yir coat. Looks like chewing gum. How’d ye get bits of gum stuck oan yir coat?”
Driving, he told me how sorry he was and how he’d taken care of everything except “the money side of things.” The funeral was the next morning. But he hadn’t found the key.
“The key to the house?”
“Naw, lass, tae his strongbox. There’s this big metal box. That’s where it is. He must’ve kept the lot in there. Aw his statements and life insurance and stocks and shares and that. Ye widnae ken where it’s at, eh?”
The tiny red veins on his face suffused with excitement and his hands shook on the wheel, the contours of his skin wobbling like lemon blancmange. If he thought my father was loaded, he was sadly deluded. I was worried about how I’d pay the funeral expenses. Did they have pauper’s graveyards? How did you apply for admission?
“Why didn’t you break it open?”
I knew my uncle’s curiosity, held in check for so long, would have led to him ransacking the apartment. He hadn’t been in there for years. Not since his sister died, a convenient excuse to stay away. He never liked my father. My question was mischievous. My uncle would have had to stop short of trying to break into the personal papers.
“Well, ah tried. It’s pretty damn sturdy. Ah couldnae wangle the chisel under the flap and the hammer jist put dents in it. We wur gonnae take it tae a locksmith, but it wis a Sunday and they was aw shut, and ah supposed ye’d know.”
Because he was a fundamentally appalling human being, I had a tendency to underestimate my uncle. I forget that the more base an individual’s tendencies, the more resourceful his attempts to exercise them. This is why I am taken advantage of so often.
Driving on A-74, wipers sloshing, visibility poor, he grew increasingly apoplectic. It wasn’t the weather. He didn’t like that he hadn’t noticed how drunk I was, or the sloppy, casual way I dress when I travel, or my fast fading accent, or that I was not hitched, or the Anglo-Saxon adjective I inserted before British Airways. Perhaps it was a glimpse of the father in the child.
My father would have approved of the weather. In Glasgow Fairs, we vacationed in Rothesay, which is on the current of the Gulf Stream. Anyway, that’s how the locals explain the drooping, sick palms on the shorefront like so many ravaged umbrellas. It always rained on the Glasgow Fair. Always. Not tropical rain. Drops to measure your finger by, thick, viscous rain suspended like treacle icicles from the shelters on the shoreline. I still see my father standing outside, in the torrent, engulfed in surrounding blackness, water dripping rope-like from the thick lenses of his specs. Through the hiss of the rain smashing off the tarmac and above the gale that sighed and rocked against the metal stanchions, he’d shout: “Aye, there’s a definite break in the clouds. A big bright bit. Definitely lighter back yonder. Ah can see some blue.”
I think he secretly harbored ambitions of being a meteorologist. He had this elaborate conspiracy theory that the national weather forecast was biased, that English weathermen had it raining in Scotland as a propaganda ploy.
“That eegit said it wis gonnae rain the day,” he’d scoff, gazing up at a murky stratosphere from the veranda door. “Looks nuthin like it. Ye know why they do this? So English people will think it rains up here aw the time. So they’ll no visit. So they can ruin oor economy. Whit ur ye laughing at? Whit’s so fuckin funny?”
My uncle now broached the subject of my own limited vocabulary.
“Yiv got a terrible tongue oan ye, hen. Must be a bad place tae live if ye carry oan like that. Aw them blacks carrying guns. Nasty place yon States. Huv ye considered movin’ back? D’ye no think yir auld man wid have liked his wee lassie hame wi’ him?”
He swiveled and stared at me, shifty as a cobra, but I was never one for guilt.
He pulled the Cortina up outside the flats and coughed. It was all very familiar, except for my orphan status. By the steps to the Ex-Serviceman’s Club, a little girl in a blue gingham dress leaned over her baby carriage, yelled something, and slapped her doll.
I lifted my suitcase out and staggered with it up the curb. The council had repainted the swing doors a deeper red, a splash of scarlet to pep-up those coming home from work—lipstick on a pig. The stairwell was rimed with dirt, and rows of empty milk bottles lined up against the walls like suspects in an identification parade. A faint odor of urine also, which was new.
I pushed the door shut and snibbed it, for here I would be safe from the small wreckages. The flat was peculiarly comforting, everything as I remembered it: the living room with its bird-in-flight green wallpaper; the mantelpiece, canted slightly, with its brass ornaments; the electric fireplace with its plastic shell of orange coals and rotisserie of fake flames. A brand new TV in the corner. Bad timing. My father would have cracked wise about how that was typical of his luck. I lay down on the grotesque brown suede settee. Cigarette burns etched a constellation of holes in the fabric. He was a forty-a-day man. I’d have to sell it all, every last knick-knack, to lowlife antique dealers, con men and shysters all. So many broken things.
I took off my shoes. I closed my eyes. I was home.
“Did you find it?”
The telephone startled me awake.
“The key tae the strongbox wumman!”
“No, looked everywhere though,” I lied.
“Damnation. Well, it’ll turn up.”
I hung up and the phone rang again.
“No, still haven’t broken into it,” I said, wearily.
But it was Stephen, checking in. We had a row the day before. We always fight before either of us leaves for a trip. I’m not sure why that is, but I am sure it’s unhealthy. He’d been going on and on like he does about Freud and mourning and melancholia and such and I wasn’t listening. Honestly, he has the charisma of Zeppo Marx. And here he was, upbeat and chatty, making an effort. Calling transatlantic, suggesting I look for the key in an old teapot or kettle.
That night, I opened the lid of an old teakettle and, inside, was an ancient leather purse, cracked and scuffed. Inside were two tiny, identical keys. I took the strongbox from a shoebox. My uncle had put it there for safekeeping. What was it with the men in my family, with the kettles and shoeboxes? Did they like to hoard, to bury things, a repressed pirate instinct? I took the rest out—old photographs, driving licenses, pencils and crayons, the ivory set of dominoes, air mail envelopes, the tiny key to the grandmother clock.
I found the letter I expected. A half-page typed breakdown of finances. One handwritten line—”Maggie, if anything should happen. . . ” The ellipsis to a building society account number. At the bottom, a plastic envelope, different from the others and, inside, photographs of my parents, an Irish honeymoon, vacations at St. Sirus, Lundin Links, stonewalls and cows, and putting greens, and sand pouring from sandals. And the batch of letters I had written, annotated, plastic strips attached—”Maggie moves house, new address” or “Maggie new man friend.” I liked “man friend,” an oxymoron describing a cavalcade of oxen and morons.
And yet another photograph: an awkwardly gawky, goofily grinning, grimly bespectacled eleven year old, holding her kite the way Cleopatra must have her asp. Me. I remembered the kite. My father used to build kites from bamboo and stretched polythene paper. But this one was a bought kite, plastic and metal with a hawk emblazoned on its surface so that, the further it stretched in the sky, the more it looked like a raptor, set to swoop. We’d climb that hill above the quarry, and I’d attach three reels of twine end-to-end and set the kite out in the sky until it was almost invisible, a distant dot, and there was no tug on the line. Sometimes, I thought I could never bring it back. It took hours to rewind the coil.
I unlocked the veranda and stepped outside, my bare feet chill on the concrete. Three socks slung on a rope washing line. The sky, a blue canal spider-webbed by vapor trails.
I used to wonder if the kite was so high that a plane might catch the rope and pull me in to the sky behind it. It scared me, but I felt it would be the most wonderful thing, too. It’s such an exhilarating thought: to be pulled into the sky and trail behind a plane forever.
I once asked him if it could happen.
“Ah don’t think so. It’s no that high. Once it gits a certain height it stops goin’ up and goes oot instead. Planes are way higher. Mibbe a really tiny plane could snag it. But it wid take a big jet tae pull ye intae the sky. The rope wid snap anyway afore ye left yir feet.”
“Oh.” I was so disappointed. I had set my heart on flying.
“Whit ye need tae be careful oaf is the power lines. If the twine touches the cable we wid be electrocuted. There wid be a big flash and jist black grass where yir standin. Ye widnae like that, wid ye?
I thought for a moment. “No.”
“And yir daddy widnae like it neither. Whit wid he do with himself then? Whit wid he do if his wee lassie went away frae him?”
I remember telling him that I didn’t know.
About the Author
Rob McClure Smith’s fiction has appeared in Barrelhouse, Fugue, Manchester Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, and many other literary magazines.