“It’s another losing year, another year of coming out on the very bottom.”
When she holds the tin up to her ear, she could swear that she hears a voice. Not enough to recognise. It is, without doubt, one of the boys there for the season. One of the new friends her brother recruits every summer. Never the same — they seem to outgrow him, all of his games, from one year to the next. And then, buzzing resolves itself. The words are clear.
“Come in, Dan Dare, come in.”
Pa has already hauled Euan away to have the skin off him for wasting the twine on his tin phone. For wasting time. For doing something, anything at all.
Rhona puts the tin to her mouth. Pulls the string as taut as she can.
“Mayday, Digby. Mayday.”
The twine goes slack. The voice doesn’t return. She hears the dull thudding of shoes across the turf as he runs away.
Even in the dark, Euan’s eyes are very blue. Not like some that go grey on a dark day. They are bright, even from beneath his bed.
“Come on, come with me,” she says. She can always talk him out from under. “There are all sorts of nasty things under there. Mice. Beasties.”
He holds on to the bed slats. If she pulls him, those slats would be wrenched out of the frame before he would let go. She doesn't have the heart or the strength to do that.
“Did you see the frogspawn by the gate?”
There is a silent nod and she tries to think of other things that boys might like. The big barn cat and her latest litter of kittens, he likes them. And there is the chance that the shop might have the latest copy of The Dandy or The Beano. He shakes his head: No, they do not. Some other boy has already been and reported.
In the end, she lies on her side on the floor and he slowly creeps toward her. She holds him and feels his little boy heart pounding under her hand. They both listen for the door.
When does he stop telling her everything? The year he comes home from university at Christmas with a green scarf instead of the red one that she had packed him off with, the one that she had bought. Rhona tells him that green is a fairy colour and that the fairies will steal him away from her. Just a wind up, the kind he gives her.
But in the summer, it isn't him that comes home. He doesn't speak any more. Not the way he had. She goes to his room, sits on the bed, and asks him if he remembers when the men used to come for work. Travelers, he says to call them. Not what their father did. There was the woman with the sad, sad songs, the man with the sea shanties. Even Pa would get out his whistle and play. Euan ran every morning to walk to school with the other boys and she envied the girls’ ponies.
And one morning, when the work was over, he would run out and the barn would be empty. All the children gone. There were some bright boys and girls there, she had thought, boys and girls who would have been something if they’d gotten more school. The teacher had said as much.
“You’d stand and cry. You’d cry for days. Do you remember that? Crying for all your little ti — Traveler — friends that had gone away.”
“Because they hadn’t taken me with.”
He was the only child for miles who couldn’t be frightened by the idea of someone taking him away in the night. Of being stolen. Peter Pan was an escape manual to him, the plan for the way things could be done. Kidnapped was a recipe for the kind of wild life he wanted to live. It would have just been off and away to adventure for him. No thought of what would be left behind.
Euan pulls her through the crowd as it streams away from Murrayfield. This is half a lifetime ago; she is only thirty-five and he is barely twenty. No, he is older than that, he must be, but she always makes him more the baby than he is. He says something about the rugby but, between the rain and it being about the rugby, she can’t get a word of it. She would be lost without him. She could listen to him forever.
“You’ve got longer legs. Slow down.”
“If we stop, we won’t make the train.”
And she runs beside him until she has a stitch in her side so sharp that she can barely breathe. They make it the mile to Haymarket in time to see the train pull away.
‘“We’ll say it was my fault. I couldn’t keep up. You can tell me what you were saying about the French side again —“
The shutter has come down, though, with a snap. There isn’t going to be any more. He watches the train recede. There is rain dripping from his nose, from his hair. It’s another losing year, another year of coming out on the very bottom.
Pa doesn’t come down hard, not really. Not for missing a train. Any fool can miss a train, he says, and he’s right. Anyone can be just the tiniest bit too late for something. Euan would stay up all night, waiting for enough light to go out to the barn for his friends. But somehow he had always missed saying goodbye. Fallen asleep just a few moments before,
“You two can do what you like, after all. Best that you’re happy. Follow your whims until you’re in the ground.”
And he is right again, they can do as they like, her and her brother, like he never could. They can come and go. It has been different for him, he has had the land and the farm and the children to look after. She mustn’t forget that they owe him that.
In July, he rings to give her his news, sounding like he might as well be calling her on a tin can and a piece of twine.
“At my age, she says, I'll die with cancer. Not from it.”
But what sort of age is it? It's no age at all.
“Rhona?” He shouts down the line. “For God's sake, Rhona, I'm paying for this time.”
Euan stands in the hall. Just after Hogmanay. He’ll be away again in the morning, gone back to school with his strange green scarf. More a stranger now than he ever was before. He comes through when Pa gets Rhona by the hair. It’s only caution — he saw his own granny catch fire at a paraffin stove and die.
“You tie this up. I don’t want to be eating it for my tea.”
Euan’s back in Aberdeen, back at University, already. She can see the miles back there ticking away in his eyes, taking him further and further. He isn’t here, not with her and Pa. It makes it hard to look at him for long, so she looks away.
When he gets himself thrown out on his ear, he doesn’t dare come home. It isn’t Pa he’s afraid of, he writes. Rhona knows it is her. He’s out there with his cardboard suitcase because he has made himself too much of a stranger to know where to go.
“You can come back,” She says to him when she rings from the post office phone. “You can come home to me.”
He is quiet for a long time, until they are almost cut off. But she puts in more coins.
Rhona hears someone walking up the stair. Somewhere in Glasgow, using a phone set out in a hall. She knows that it is cold there. Bitter. She can hear his teeth rattling. She asks if he has enough for a room or if he is dossing in hallways, in lobbies, any place he can find.
“Tell me how much money you have. If you don’t have any, I’ll send some. I’ll send you a ticket. Tell me where you’re staying.”
‘“That Christmas,” he says at last. “When he let me go back to Uni after Christmas. How?”
“It doesn’t matter. Not now.”
“What did you do, Rhona?”
His voice is so small and so very sad that she has to put the phone down. She hangs up the receiver. Then she picks it up again, expecting to hear him again, but there is nothing. There is someone else waiting for the phone. It’s past time for her to be home with the shopping.
Pa couldn’t last forever, but Euan doesn’t come home for that. It’s funny how it happens: Pa is riding along in the tractor, a big yellow thing, and picking up more and more speed. It must be funny, because she laughs. He crests the hill, just as he always does, and begins to come down it. But something is changed now. The tyre strikes a rock, sinks into a burrow. The angle and speed are all wrong. She looks out the windows, even comes to the door. And in that moment, as it rears up, she knows that if she screams she can stop time, hang the tractor there forever. She laughs. One short bark, but a laugh all the same. And the tractor rolls. It rolls and rolls.
It is the neighbours who come and make the tea and who do the washing up. They carry the coffin. They do not ask Rhona if she doesn’t have a brother somewhere that could be doing these things for her. Are you all right alone, the neighbours ask her. But she isn’t alone. Euan has been there. She knows that he has been — for a few moments, anyway, while she was at the kirk. He has left things changed to let her know. The cup of coffee that she had forgotten has been tidied away. The tea towel hanging from the drawer pull is damp. He must have been there. She has only just missed him. He is already up and running ahead again.
The voice on the phone asks where she is. It’s breathy and nasal. American. Or Canadian. It doesn’t have that hollowness that transatlantic calls used to have. That sound of all the miles being crossed, of being in the past.
“Grantully. In Scotland. Grantully, Scotland.”
“Are you at home?”
Yes, she is at home. She is in her bed, making a very early night of it. She has a book that she will never finish and hot water bottle that will be cold before she puts her feet under.
“Is there anyone with you? Maybe you can get someone.”
She holds the phone away from her ear and only hears bits of what they are saying. Nothing that she understands. It’s a long way for someone to call to have a joke. She asks who it is, and they tell her again. They ask again if she wouldn’t like to get someone.
She sets the phone down on the kitchen counter and goes round to the neighbours in her slippers. The wife comes back with her. She does well not to stare too much at Rhona’s dressing gown, her baffies, not to ask questions as to why she has been fetched away from her television. They speak to her and then she speaks to Rhona. Whatever they have told her to say, not a word of it makes any sense at all. A game of Chinese whispers, though she mustn’t call it that any more.
“Do you want me to stay with you?”
It’s very kind of her, but Rhona can’t see any reason why she should. She sends her back to her family.
The train to Edinburgh is delayed at Perth, then it is cancelled. There is a replacement bus service, instead. When she arrives, she collects her forms that entitle her to a refund of the difference in price. All to be posted off at a later date, but no more than thirty days past the date of travel marked on the ticket. There is no sense in paying the price of a train journey for riding on a bus.
She leaves her bag at the bus station and walks up to Prince’s Street, past Jenners. Never the sort of place she’d shop, no, because it would be a terrible waste of money. Those clothes on this body. But there are some very handsome things there; Lovely things, shining under spotlights in the dark windows. The street and pavement are a mess of fences and hoardings from the trams they’ve been promising. They put down the rails, but with no trams to run over them, to keep them in place, they have warped. They need taken out and laid again. Their Pa was right. They'd lived to regret the day they got rid of the old trams, sold them off for scrap.
She would like for Euan to be with her here. His shoulders and elbows would get through the scrums of shoppers and tour groups. Her folding walking stick used to do the job — take it out, and the crowds would part. Now she needs it to keep from being knocked over on the torn-up paving stones. If he were here, she would turn right and walk with him back to Murrayfield, find out what it was he'd wanted to tell her about the French side outside that café. She turns left, down to the parliament.
He hasn’t seen the parliament in person, only on her postcards. She’s told him time and again that he’d like it, even if he couldn’t tell what it was meant to be. If only he’d come to see it himself. It’s a beautiful place, the low grey concrete entryway lifting up, giving way to steel, oak and glass. It’s like coming out of the darkness, out of the past, she says. Like being born. She isn't sure if she's read that somewhere or thought of it herself. It is the only time he sends the same postcard back, with her words scored out.
“Over budget. Behind schedule. Ugly, ugly, ugly,” he writes.
He apologises later and asks for another card. She sends him a new one, one with the puffins on Orkney. She sends the rugby scores, too. He can’t complain about puffins. Instead, he complains about getting the wooden spoon again. Another losing year, one bleeding into the next.
She tells Euan that the building is meant to look like boats. Like hulls and bows and sails. A fishing fleet. Like the fleet has only been pulled in for the night and is ready to set off again in the morning. When the design was first announced she’d told him that. She can't remember the year. The last year that Scotland won the Calcutta Cup, maybe. That makes sense to her, he would have had more important things to remember then. Trys and conversions. The names of captains. How many points they had beaten England by.
She runs her fingers through the words carved into stones on the Canongate side of the building, into the outlines of the old town pressed into the concrete. A wodge of green gum is packed into a corner. The guide she has says that this is the view of Edinburgh that the architect had from his hotel window. She thinks about him, the architect. He never saw it finished. Not in stone. Cancer.
Here are the swans, just as always. And Euan goes charging up toward Arthur’s Seat, storming up it, trying to find the place where they found those strange little dolls from the museum. Burke and Hare’s bodies, some people say. Witching, maybe, or guilt. Or are they meant to be the sailors that never had a grave, that never came home? Half of them are gone to dust now.
He leaps and skips and their mother is calling for him to slow down. He's part mountain goat, she says. He must be. Such wee legs, but so strong. So fast.
A car slows down for directions. They put down their window and she goes over to them, ready to tell them she’s only a tourist herself. The egg arcs over her shoulder, but the flour strikes home. They speed away. Now that she looks, she sees the explosions of white powder all up and down the path.
“What’s happened to you, dear?” says the woman behind the desk of her hotel.
“There were some lads —”
“Oh, you’ve been lucky. Sometimes it’s bottles of wee.”
The flour comes out of her coat. Enough of it, anyway, that she doesn’t feel ashamed to wear it back out. It’s her only good coat. The rest have been eaten to pieces in the cupboards.
When she heads back out, the woman at the desk calls to her that she should keep away from the dark places, the gardens and the parks. There’s no respect in them bairns these days. No one teaches them any anymore.
Euan’s voice is on the answerphone. This is an apology, too, like the one for the postcard. He knows she doesn’t pick up, not unless she knows who is meant to be calling. There are sales calls at all hours now, and the only thing she has found to stop them is not picking up at all.
‘“I’m sorry to have missed you.”
She would phone him back, only it is easier, he tells her, to wait for him. Then he can ring from places that have good lines. His calls have that sound to them, the sound that they are coming from someplace unreachable. A metallic echo. She presses the button again. And again. This voice from six hours and seventy years go.
“I’m sorry to have missed you,” he says again. His words rattle around. Buzz in the speaker.
When she finds a place to sit inside, she can’t decide off the menu. Rhona asks the boy what he would pick. Fish pie, he says, but that’s something she can make at home for herself. If you only get out now and then, it’s better to have something you’d never make at home. She asks about something that calls itself Chicken Rob Roy and he shrugs. It’s not a thing she would dream of making for herself, so she orders that. She gets a pint of beer, too, because she won’t be driving anywhere. How long has it been since she’s had a pint? A very long time. People talk when an old woman drinks alone.
Two young things come in to the ladies’ after her, a couple of classy lassies by the sound. They go in the stall together, one to hold the drinks for the other. When it’s empty again, when they have gone away laughing, Rhona comes out to splash her face with cold water. She passes her hands over her face and pulls the skin taut. She doesn’t open her eyes.
If she were to see herself now, see herself as she was, as Euan knows her —she drops her hands and blinks at the mirror. There is the ghostly spot of flour, glowing over her heart in the blue light. She can’t turn the tap off and there are grey lumps of toilet roll blocking the drain. She leaves before the water crests the side of the basin.
She should protect him more from Pa, she knows this. He's like a dog that can scent an outsider and Euan is the poor little stranger. He smiles at the world and she has tried to show him the world smiling back. It isn’t the fault of either of them that she's been left to play Mother. She will drive him back to the train, get him back to school. And Pa, if she takes enough care today, tonight, he won't stop them. She knows how to speak to him, sometimes, make him see. What to do to ask him for what she wants.
In the corner of the pub, it’s snug and warm. There’s a fine mist of rain coming down and no better place to be than inside. It’s early yet. The lights are on, the music is still low, and the fruit machine is vacant. She watches it go through its routine — first dark, then a green glow for the start of play. The lights build, moving from green to gold to orange. Winner, the top light flashes in bright red. Winner, winner, winner. It goes dark and starts again. She feels its excitement. A night out in the city, a trip to America and no one to answer to, not even the postman.
There was a postcard from Euan, not so long ago. New enough that it is still in the kitchen, still by the door, where she sees it first thing when she comes in.
“There is a girl,” he writes.
That takes up almost the whole card. He doesn’t have a sense of waste. Takes as much space as he likes. The second line is smeared, almost beyond legibility — he’s dragged his hand through the ink before it has dried. They had tried to make him right-handed at school, like they did for her, but it never took.
“A beautiful girl.”
The word ‘very’ floats between the two lines, anchored by nothing at all.
There is a picture of a home on the front. A hogan, the card says in small print, traditional dwelling place of the Navajo. The kind of card she would have picked. This is home, he says, my home, with a beautiful girl and a hogan. She minds that old comic, the one with the wee cowboy, that was meant to be in Arizona but was still, somehow, in Glasgow. The name is on the tip of her tongue.
He is her blue-eyed boy, still, and he is happy. With a house and a beautiful wife. He has stopped his running, there in the desert. It’s a lie, it certainly isn’t a truth, but it’s the kind of untruth he knows that she would like to believe. She buys a copy of The Beano. Passes over The Dandy on the racks. There is no Eagle to read, not any more, because all the little boys who loved Dan Dare and his time machine, they’re all old men now.
When the plane lands in Newark, she tells them where she is going, where she will be staying. Passes them her landing card. There isn’t a house number, she says, not out there. But there have been delays; her flight has landed after the expected time.
When she asks if she is in the right place, the woman tells her that she can’t answer any questions, she must wait in the line. She spends twenty minutes in a queue to be told that she has been waiting in the wrong place the whole time. She should have been passing through security, stripping down for her next search. And now, now there won’t be the time for her to reach flight to Phoenix.
‘You won’t make gate. It’s already closed. They’re taxiing. Now, we’ll get you a voucher to spend the night, and put you on the first flight in the morning.’
“Help me. My brother —”
‘“You can call and let anyone expecting you know. Does it really matter when you get there? Six tonight or six tomorrow morning?”
It doesn’t matter, she tells him. Not at all. Euan can't die again.
Only he does. Over and over. And she opens her mouth. Pushes her fingers in. No sound comes. And then it comes all at once.
A. S. Robertson is a writer and artist who lives near Glasgow, Scotland. Their work has appeared in Cherry Tree and Prairie Schooner.