HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

CAROLINE

It is coming on a fortnight since the birth, but still your son has no name. It was a breezy spring day when you collected mother and baby from the town hospital, but you eased the old Renault around the country bends as if the January snow had never lifted. When you pressed the brake to keep the car halted by the home-farm gate you thought you felt a tingle of excitement spreading up from the pedal. The wee boy stirred in the back and you caught sight of smoke flying flat from both chimneys of the farmhouse, like streamers in the wind. The car idled and you watched a wagtail draw a worm from the fallow hayfield, the diesel clattering away like an old taxi. Then you realised that your wife had not shifted from her seat and you were going to have to open and close the gate yourself.

This morning you rose as usual while the house was still. You waited outside the baby’s open door while a rain-shower rattled through, wanting to be certain you could hear the shallow thimbles of your son’s breathing. Heading for the fields you saw the early sky was pale as a blue hen’s egg, the cauliflower heads of the horizon clouds spotlighted in the west. You heard woodpeckers drilling that dead ash in the thicket and thought you might get the kale sprayed today. Now you are back at the farmhouse for breakfast, kicking off your boots in the storm porch and the four collies are settling outside to wait for you like ships at anchor. The big kitchen is sweet with bacon and steam, the baby restless in your wife’s arms. You think she holds him like a bag she’s been asked to watch by a stranger. Your mother-in-law, Mary, is here for another month at least.
‘Will you take him Mum?’ your wife says.
The boy’s blank eyes pass over yours as he’s lifted, his neck as weak as the bent daffodils, kinked when that big south-easterly blew through. The last day for registering your son’s birth is tomorrow and you bang your pockets as you hunt for the words to bring up the subject of the deadline. You notice the hospital tag still hooped on the rhubarb stick of his ankle, “Baby Armstrong” scrawled in blue ballpoint. Mary is watching you.
‘Do Mummy and Daddy still not know what to call you sweetheart?’ she says it soothingly as if her grandson is hurt. She inspects Baby Armstrong until his lip starts to curl then tucks him onto her shoulder, her hands confident and strong, shuffling frying pans on the range as she holds him. ‘You’ll take cooked Colin,’ she says.
‘Toast will do.’
‘I’ve two eggs on for you, any sign of a lamb?’
A window shudders and a cold gust threads the kitchen. You want to turn and see what your wife is doing but then you hear her on the stairs.
‘Colin?’
‘There’s ewes getting restless at the dyke in the top field,’ you tell Mary, rinsing out your flask. ‘I’d say there’ll be a lamb today.’
At the table you pull out the chair that gives a view over to Loudon Hill, the peak of your farm that’s crowned with a giant television mast. You’ve never missed any deadlines but you know that John Rutherford had his farm-subsidy cut when he put-in late for it. If the baby is not named there could be another woman to be dealt with, sent from town in a shiny Ford and low-cut shoes.

‘That’s us,’ Mary says, giving the baby an extra pat on the back then chasing spitting eggs onto a plate one-handed, ‘Daddy’s breakfast.’
Your wife is still upstairs when you pull on your boots again, the dogs stretching in anticipation. They slink behind as you gain the top field, passing the place where you normally tell them “come by”, brown eyes and blue flitting between you and the scattered sheep. Could your wife be disappointed in the boy, his thick hair already untidy, the nose that everyone says is yours?
‘Ca’way’t’me,’ you shout and the collies bolt left. You are sending them to lift two hogs that have got through that fence you must patch. You were right about the ewes, keeping your distance from a blackface gimmer who’s slumped by the dyke, watching her strain before the new lamb slithers out of her. The wee tup is in fine fettle and tries to suck your finger as you spray a red number 1 on its flank.

You decide to wait until you are sitting at the table for dinner: a sludge of grey mince and tatties. You slurp ketchup onto your plate but no reprimand comes when the bottle backfires. The evening news is running on the small television bracketed high on the wall, your wife and Mary watching it between mouthfuls. The forecaster mentions hail, Mary says she worries for the lambs, you think about number 1 and the spaghetti drip of its drying umbilical.
A sports quiz starts and the women look into their food. Your wife’s parting appears flat, as if the two sides are escaping each other, revealing too much of the chicken-skin of her scalp. You remember the young-farmers’ harvest dances. The way she’d lifted her chin, curled a pale hand to her cheek when you said her hair stood deep like the barley. You heard the rustle of crops when you finally touched it, as light as hay, your other hand stretched over the small of her back, the dress too thin to mask her sweat.
You let your fork strike the plate, there is laughter from the quiz and the last gulp of mince clips the words you have wanted to say all day, ‘We must name the boy tomorrow.’
Your wife looks up at the quiz as if you haven’t spoken. Mary’s eyes are suddenly lively and you are thinking she might help you, but she scrapes back her chair and says she’s going up to check the baby.
You watch your wife while the stairs creak, you say her name and eventually she pulls herself away from the screen and stares as if she is trying to recognise you. You wonder when you will see the quickness in her eyes again, as keen as the swallows darting through the steading. The eyes that once teased you into the threshing barn when you were supposed to be fetching dosing-records for the Department inspectors who’d called in. Eyes that held yours as she tugged you into the mountain of crushed oats by the bruiser, the men outside starting to call out before you were finished. ‘You do it,’ she says now, her knuckles pale around her knife.
‘What.’
‘I said you do it.’
‘Do what?’
‘Go and get him named.’
You run your hand over your neck and your cheeks as if you are lathering away midges. ‘I can’t just go. We need to pick a name.’
‘You managed last time,’ she says.
You look out the window. The red lights of the television mast on Loudon Hill are on now and a whorl of starlings darkens the sky. You can see the alders above the top field, already busy with rooks, their nests lodged in the bare branches like spiky footballs. You must soon take up the gun. Your wife is watching the television again.
‘You don’t really want me to,’ you say.
‘I do.’
‘I don’t want to.’
‘What do I care.’
The old kettle on the range has risen to a boil, its brown lid clanking for attention.
‘I mean I don’t want to do it myself. I want to pick a name together.’ You start getting up, ‘I’ll go and get the book.’
She keeps her eyes on the quiz when she says, ‘That book’s in the fire.’

You don’t head to the lambing fields after dinner. You rattle up Loudon Hill in the patchwork Landrover, letting the four collies sprint ahead like lowslung greyhounds in the gloaming. You drive as far as you can then start scrambling up the steep slope towards the root of the television mast. You’ve had the heifers on here this winter and they’ve broken up the ground, it’s hard to get any grip and you can hear the dogs splashing through the mud like it’s a river.
You reach the top, the dogs bark, and you hiss,
‘Get down!’ their tongues like dripping spoons. It’s not the first time you’ve stood close to the cloud-ripping dagger of the mast, gazed up the conductor of red lights. You feel safe inside the perimeter of iron shrouds that lash the mast down, the wind always humming through the lattice steel. The quiz-show must be transmitting from here and you think about yelling up, seeing if you might get through to your wife on the television signal.
The late-evening sky is rough-sawn and purple but you throw back your head and see that the high-grey is studded with bent-crosses of gliding gulls. Is she angry because it’s a boy or because of the surprise pregnancy, a dozen years after the first? You agreed not to ask this baby’s sex before it was born. I would be past thirteen now if I’d ever taken a breath outside your wife’s womb. She did not want to see me. You thought I was as blue as a skinned rabbit when I came out but you held me anyway, limp as a dead lamb.
They asked for a name, you had no idea why, telling them Caroline Anne, thinking that’s what was chosen. You came up here to the mast before collecting your wife that time, empty-handed, from hospital, fingering the splinters you’d left in your hands from smashing the cot .You are thinking about me now, buried with the single teddy you spared when you burned my clothes and my toys. After a gale you always come and pick knots out of the tangled windchimes by my headstone.
Tonight you get a glimpse of the sea from the television mast, the loom of the island lighthouse you were all ferried out to in primary. The cropped grass of the cliffs bristled your bare legs and you were promised bright puffins if you were patient. You were first to throw your hand in the air for a turn at the winding stair of the lighthouse instead.
You can still smell the polish in the sunny circle of the lamp room, greenhouse humid, the glass and brass like being inside a clock. You remember the clean cut of the sea air when you asked to step outside onto the balcony, the pipe-smoking keeper whose hand made a knot of your shirt to keep you from the edge. He pointed down to where the giant foghorns lay bolted to the rocks below and asked did you not think they looked like a pair of crocodiles with their jaws flared open.
You are trying to remember the keeper’s name now, as you stare like the unblinking red lights of the mast towards the pulse of the lighthouse; four flashes every twenty seconds. One of the dogs, Nell, snuffles the palm of your hand. You let her lick, the warm ham of her tongue clicking, while you assess the high fence that squares the bottom of the mast. What would it take to get to the ladder that runs up the core, how long to climb up? Something inside you is a choked ditch, swelled up by the winter rains and now stagnating. Like the scummy water you are waiting for the kick of a spade, a stab to free the dark mushroom clot of leaves, fleece and thorns.
‘That’ll do Nell!’ you say sharply and the bitch retreats from your hand, lying flat without being bidden. On the neighbouring farm you can see fresh furrows running true, combing the curve of the land in the dusk. You must weld the Massey-Ferguson’s axle if your oat-field is to be harrowed by Easter.
You freewheel the mile back down towards the farmhouse, engine and headlights off, the collies jostled in with you, bracing themselves to stay upright in the cab that’s like an aeroplane in turbulence. The name of the lighthouse keeper comes as you let the clutch catch on the last of the slope and the diesel shudders to life. It was Duncan, Duncan Ogilvie. The track begins to smooth. You’ll name my brother Duncan.
You pass the farmhouse and see the curtains standing open, the light from the television ghosting around and you get the taste of thick soup in your throat, the smell of the house when it’s been vacuumed. You must whitewash the walls this summer, best to leave your wife be. You pull into the shed and kill the engine; the collies cock their ears. The farm won’t look after itself, you say out loud and Nell tries to lick your face.
‘That’ll do,’ you say, without enough menace in your voice to stop her. ‘That’ll do.’