Poet Kathleen Jamie examines a troubling memory from her childhood and a ramble taken during her father’s dying days
You’re losing their voices. When did that happen? You’re forgetting the sound of your mother’s voice, and your grandmother’s. They died within 18 months of each other a decade ago and today you realise you can’t quite bring their voices to mind.
You make an effort, and recall a story. Not a story, they were neither of them storytellers. They placed no value on that. But you recall Nana telling you about her father being brought to the surface after a blast below ground. He’d been laid off, maybe it was during the Depression, and in his time idle he’d lost the sixth sense which warned miners if something wasn’t right. He’d only been back at work a few days before he was caught in a blast and brought to the surface with a sheet laid over him with holes cut for his eyes. He was sent to a convent hospital, where the nuns often tended injured miners. A Protestant, he would never again hear a word against nuns.
Are you making this up? How could you? But you can’t recall the sound of the telling. Something remains, however: the cadence. You recall the less patient cadence of your mother. She seemed to expect you to know and understand things without them ever having been explained. Nana’s speech was lower, her accent richer with the Scots she’d never regarded as an impediment to progress, because she was never going anywhere.
“Brought to the surface” is the recurrent phrase. There is a desperate list of mining accidents in Ayrshire, as in every coalfield. Fatal ones, that is. The many non-fatal injuries went unrecorded. Blasts were not so common, more frequent were crushings caused by roof-falls or runaway wagons and hutches. Like the time a shift of miners was being hauled up an incline to the surface in wagons, four men to a wagon, but the chain snapped. Or the Knockshinnoch Disaster of 1950, when a new working broached the bed of a glacial lake, causing countless tons of peat and sludge to empty into the tunnels deep below, filling the escape routes, leaving 129 men trapped down there. Thirteen were lost for good, but the others were there for three days, until fellow miners rescued them by cutting through from old disused workings nearby, which were gas-filled. They were all led to the surface wearing breathing apparatus.
Nana’s voice is coming back, it was just mislaid. You hear her short phrases and pet words. She often sounded a bit bewildered. The world was complicated, puzzling. Then there was the time of terrible silence, when she forgot how to speak at all, when for weeks or months, God it felt like years, she sat straight-backed and mute, trapped in the black mine of depression. It was during the school summer holidays, she’d been brought to stay with you. One morning Mum sent you three kids to McColl’s for sweeties and so you skipped off. Sweeties! First thing in the morning! But it was a ruse. You realised that when you turned the corner home and saw the ambulance, the neighbours watching and the crew bringing her out, covered by a sheet.
You must be misremembering. Why covered? She was overdosed on sleeping pills, not dead.
Dead to the world. She had ECT, to shock her to the surface of her own mind. She was to be hauled through tunnels up and out of that place, for a while at least.
Once, she told you about having diphtheria as a small child. Her throat was closing, the spent air unable to reach the surface, the new air couldn’t enter. Her father was preparing to cut her trachea. How did she know that, did she overhear, despite her fever? And with what would he operate? Doubtless his own razor, called a “cut-throat” for a reason. But it didn’t happen; the crisis must have passed, maybe a doctor arrived with a better idea. And where did they put her, to isolate her and her infection in that crowded house? You can’t reach her now to ask.
The deep mines are all closed, the pithead buildings cleared. Some efforts are being made to heal the wounded land by planting trees, and blocking drains to restore the moor, so the curlews might return. Bings and old railway beds are grassing over. The opencast scars are deep gouges that might one day become lochs, maybe. Sometime deep in the future.
Once, in Nana’s tenement flat that smelled of town gas and coal (her voice comes to you), she caught sight of herself unexpectedly in the mirror that hung above the mantelpiece.
“Oh, I look like ma mither!”
“What was she like, your mother?”
A pause, as if puzzled, as if she had forgotten. As if no one had ever asked, which they hadn’t. Why should they? What was her mother but a miner’s wife, a mother of seven.
“Ma mither was very kind.”
Under the plastic lid, a tundra landscape, as seen from the air. Blooms of bottle green, circlets of paler green, of fawn. “Dad!” I said. “You can’t eat this. Why in God’s name won’t you keep it in the fridge?”
My father is shrinking. He leans on a stick.
“Why don’t you eat them when we bring them? On the same day?”
Down the toilet went several small, once-nutritious portions. We are good daughters, my sister and me. Trying to be. We’ve taken to bringing round food because, we insisted, a daily bowl of soup and the innards of a white bread roll is not enough.
My dad’s bungalow is comfortable. He can afford – we can afford – to keep it heated. He has been widowed for a decade and, before that, he was chief carer for my mother following her stroke. Hence the move to within a couple of miles of me and my then-young family. We weren’t going anywhere, not then, so my parents moved close.
Friends say it’s a good arrangement. Not having to do state visits. Not having to drive half-roads across the country every weekend.
Round the corner, out of sight, I text my sister: “At Dad’s. Just chucked all that food we brought, trying not to boak.” Later, I confess, I shouted at him: “Dad, what are we to do?” He snapped back, “Just leave me to my own devices.”
On the Friday, two friends arrive to collect me. We’re going north for a long weekend. They are both older than me, retired, and skilled and competent hillwalkers. I think they’re glamorous. One of their chief hill-sports is to receive the slightly patronising comments of men, then turn the conversation to reveal that they have both done all the Munros, and even climbed Himalayan peaks. Both were widowed quite young, for very different reasons.
Into the car go boots, ice axe, walking poles, and myself bearing another small dish of mashed potato.
“Can we stop at my father’s, so I can nip in?”
“Of course!” they say. One of the two recently lost her own mother, who had been very elderly and confused.
Forests and peatbogs and abrupt snow-shining mountains. Buzzards on tilting telegraph poles. Passing places. Snow and deer creeping down to the roadside, because it was February, still winter. We have hopes of climbing Ben Loyal. We stay with friends in their cottage, where a peat-fired Rayburn warmed the wood-panelled rooms.
In the evening, the talk ranges over land ownership and politics and life-choices. Housing, or getting round to thinking about it. How and where it’s best to live, now they were retired. What was affordable. If you were able to make choices. We all know people who are now in their seventies, still with parents alive. People who will never know life without a living parent until they are elderly themselves.
“We should live together in a commune,” someone suggests. Yes, we should.
The forecast is not great, but we go anyway, for a look-see. In a deserted farmyard we gear up, and from there begin walking to the hill over land which is boggy, reedy, heathery. The hill is clear of cloud, its complex snowy summits bright against cold blue sky. Though not a Munro, the hill looks high, rising alone from the moor. Its summits come and go, out of the cloud.
But the sky soon darkens and a squall drives down the glen. The three of us fan out, hunched, battered on our right shoulders by sleet, each picking our own way among bog-pools, thinking our own thoughts. None of us likes chatterboxes on the hill. We enjoy the freedom of our own interiority. The squall passes, we gather to cross a river by a ford. Then the land climbs steeply and we follow a burn up toward a low ridge. It’s heavy going and the snowfield above looks like it might be windhoned, icy. Soon the sky darkens again and a fresh squall drives in.
Now we’re glancing at each other, laughingly. Who will speak first?
We descend back to the car, peel off gaiters and coats and muddy boots, enjoying ourselves.
I trust these women deeply, who are older than me. As we drive back down to the Kyles of Tongue, I feel free to voice what I’d been thinking about of late, out of this phase of my life. I tell them I feel as if I have a window of opportunity, but it is closing fast. No, rather I feel it has barely opened at all, because I’m being delivered straight from childcare to eldercare, without passing “Go”. And the day job, of course.
But this is my chance, or should be. My own health is good, the kids are grown. Soon they might even be making their own money. My husband is older than me and he’s fine for now, rich with his own interests and happy to wave me off on adventures; but give it a few more years…
Life has been good to us.
“Chance for what?” they ask.
“I can’t actually say. But sometimes I think about going on a gap year, backpacking. Or sailing south, somehow, through the tropics. Somewhere out of Scotland! Get a sense of the majesty of the world.”
“Do it!” they urge. “Before your joints give out!”
I’m not sure I can imagine it. Anything can happen, as we all know. Life can turn on a sixpence. The walking axe I’d brought was my mother’s. She’d used it before the stroke. She was 60. Had she ever felt free? She was the only child of a single parent who needed a lot of help.
We congratulate ourselves several times on making the right decision, in retreating from the hill.
“Imagine the headlines,” the others say. “ ‘Pensioners rescued from mountain blizzard!’ ”
“Speak for yourselves,” say I.
I nip round to Dad’s the next day. “Well, did you eat your tatties?”
“Good. You know, there’s a company that delivers frozen meals... small portions. You could give that a try, too.”
Two months passed, to the day. The late snow was gone, the daffodils were in bloom and Dad was in his chair where he often sat, next to the table with the chair turned toward the window so he could see the railway through a gap between houses. He watched the trains pass, noted their numbers. He had a dram at his elbow and also on the table lay his notes and letters in his neat handwriting. It was the morning. A kindly neighbour had called us to say she was concerned because his milk was still on the step.
The milk was on the step, and oh, we all agreed, wasn’t that the best way? Everyone, everyone said it. That’s the way to do it. Isn’t that the best way? In your own chair at home. Who wouldn’t want that? Och, he even got to finish his whisky.
Extracted from Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie, published by Sort Of at £12.99 on Thursday