The furst soond wis the prehistoric cawin o a cacophonie o gulls.
The laddie oped his een as he skelped throu space at six hunnert miles an hoor, his back pressed intae the grun by unseen forces. Ayont the fleein beasties, hazy cloods coored the sky an diffused the licht lik an unlikelie lampshade.
‘Whit am A daein here?’ he thocht. ‘An whaur is Here?’
He richted hissel. Here wis a lawn lined wi common aik trees. It wis reasonablie weel tended, bit cuid dae wi a trim. Describin whit the Hereawa luikit lik wis nae bother. Hoo he came tae be here wis mair bleart, tho, as if muffled by the waddin o the cloods. He sterted tryin tae build a mindin fae wee buildin blocks.
‘Whit did A dae yestreen?’ he winnert. Naucht.
‘Whit did A hae fur ma denner?’ Naucht.
‘Wha’s ma lassie?’ Naucht yet.
‘Whit dae A cry ma mither?’ Dae A hiv a mither?
‘Whit dae A cry masel?’ Awricht. That’s jist streenge.
An auld shouder bag lee oan the scoorie girse aside him. Made o thick nylon, it wis white wi red trim, an decorated wi twa overlappin white globes. Loganair, it proclaimed tae the warld. SCOTLAND’S AIRLINE.
Did he wurk fae this Loganair? As a pilot? Cabin crew? Mebbe he fleed here fae… whaur? He hearkened tae the voice in his heid, his voice, an tried tae hear an accent. Bit the voice didnae hae an accent tae him. It felt lik he hud jist bin drapped ontae the lawn fae space, foulie-formed. Haein a guid luik roond aboot hissel, he didnae see a sowl. The bag mustae bin his ain. Mebbe it wid gie him some answers.
He fund a bottle o pink ginger, brewed to be bitter. He wis richt drouthy, an the seal wis unbrucken. He bruke it. The drink wisnae bitter ataa. It wis mingin. He screwed the tap oan again.
‘Fur after,’ he muttered, an resumed his ransackin.
Ah! A tottie wee wallet. The furst treasure it yielded wis a leebrary caird. Keep your city EDENBURGH, it tellt the warld.
Wis this Edenburgh? He rolled the wird aroon in his mooth. It didnae mak his environs feel onie less strange. Bit it didnae cause an uptick in his sense o dislocation, richt eneuch. The scrawl wi in the white signature box oan the ither side o the caird wis illegible. Then – ya dancer!
An identity caird. A wee pictur, mebbe twa centimetres square. The face smilin aa crooked-lik back at him wis unremarkable. Eyes haufway doon the heid. Lugs tucked in. Choppy broon herr, langer at the front. He poud doon his fringe. A wee bittie mair licht, bit. Aye, OK. In lieu o oniethin else tae grab ontae, this wid dae. He wis…. Nummers, nummers, a bar code, mair nummers . . . .
‘Allan Harrison’. It fit nae mair or less weel than the face.
‘Hullo, Allan,’ he said tae himsel, an smiled.
The soond o Allan’s voice focussed his lugs. Apart fae the flappin craiturs aboon, thare was nae noise. Feelin the need tae act, Allan got up tae gang fur a dauner an map his steid.
The bonnie flooers roon the lawn were identified by wee black plaques sayin thay were Azaleas or Rhododendron Hinodegiri. He hid a wee keek at them. The pink petals openin an strainin tae reach the sin steered somethin in him. He wanted tae experience the azaleas, an beeried his face in them. The flooers’ delicate scent wis oerpooered by the mulch roon aboot, an the smell o life an rottin organic material.
Still an on, as he gazed at the flooers, a sense o grace an peace raised Allan’s hairt. Suin he returned tae his survey o the steid.
‘A’m gonnae caw this The Azalea Lawn,’ he declared tae the burdies.
Noo that his hairt wisnae sploshin aroon in it, Allan’s stamack felt richt hungert, an this wis whit drove him tae explore mair far-aff sae quicklie. The sin hud begun tae burn aff some o the haze, sae efter sweepin aroon the Chinese Hillside, Allan fund it wis mair comfortable tae walk awa fae the licht. The drookit, slitterie sin boonced low on the horizon. He skirted the gless biggins at the corner o the lawn, wannerin insteid throu an open shaw. The shaw led doon tae a herbaceous border which seemed tae Allan tae reflect a mair intelligent design. Ilk an ilka time he passed a new item o vegetation, he wid luik fur its wee black plaque an mooth the wurds tae hissel. The aik trees led tae the European beech trees, led tae a gatherin o poplars, led tae the Scotch Elms, fell awa tae a rouk o snawdraps, led tae…
…a thicklie green wrought iron fence which Allan follaed fur aroon a mile-an-a-hauf until it returned him tae a spot nae far fae whaur he hid furst stumbled upon it. He niver felt onie compulsion tae trespass the exits he passed. The sturdy fence felt protective, nae enclosin. Ootside the gairdens, on each of the fower sides inby the fence, thare were sturdy, muted structures o stain that spoke o a permanence he didnae feel. The silence that wis accentuated by the cawin gulls wis lik anither fence warnin Allan tae stay in this couthie stied, or risk a naistie shock.
Then, methodicallie spirallin in tae the centre o the pairk, Allan happened on green, leaf-lik matter that luikit appetizin. Bit it wis eclipsed by the riches that were supplied fur him when he wauked in the open doors o the biggin cawin itsel the Terrace Café. He suin formed a plan whereby his days wid be framed by brakefast berries fae the Woodland Gairden, leafy salads, an the denners he carefullie apportioned fae the cafeteria. He fund comfort in the sense o structure he hid devised. Ilka day when he did his chin-ups fae his liefest tree, he felt gey virtuous.
It wis efter his sixth brakefast o berries that Allan seen his claes were mingin. It wisnae lang till he wanted tae gie his heid an his airms a richt guid clawin. His claes felt lik thay were quick wi midges or somethin, an he cuidnae bear tae wear them anither saicant. Allan’s wanderins hid revealed a muckle big lough naurby the East Gate, sae he set aff fae the Azalea Lawn on a wimplin way throu the peat gairden an past the Rockform sculpture. The East Gate wis his favourite o the gates, an his mind wis fou eneuch o ideas tae dawdle an admire the paitren o steel rhododendrons protectin him fae The Ootside.
Then he stapped short. Anither nut-broon bodie hid kythed itsel, nae sae far aff, aboot as far fae the lough as he was, bit oan the ither side. Allan quicklie scurried aff ahint a tree as she came closer. A muckle big cardigan, big eneuch fur a bodie twice her size, flottered aroon the lassie. It onlie brocht his mind tae thinkin that she seemed tae be ber-scud unnerneath.
The laddie’s mind raced wi possible reactions. He wis nae mair discomfited by his own lean, scuddie, berry-fed bodie than he wis by that o the approachin lassie. He wisnae even fasht by the erection that hid sprung tae life. Still an aa, the approach o anither left him nae sae blythe. Hoo wuid this ither bein react when she seed him?
Allan took a threid o his ain thocht, an spun an internal life fur the lassie in his ain eemage. The lassie wid be uneasy an aa. Sae he shoud jist introduce hissel, aa casual lik. Bit the time fur thinkin wisnae lang. She wis still heidin richt at him, laist in thocht an no awaur o his presence an waukin on, her airms sweengin awa, gallus as oniething. Lang, straucht herr, bleck an sheenin lik the tags o the flora aa aboot, boonced in a business-lik echo o her gait.
Sae the furst hing she wid see o him wid be a gadgie, wi aboot eicht inches oan her, lowpin oot fae ahind the tree whaur he wis hidin. That didnae feel richt. Naw richt at aa. Her inner mind widnae react well tae that. Allan hud tae think gey quick. Hoo did thae legs o hers skiddle alang sae fast? Thare wis nae rush in her movements, bit she wis eatin up the grun.
Suddenlie, she wis keekin aroon the tree.
‘Hullaw. A’m Allan,’ he said wi a wee smou. ‘Awfie nice tae meet ye…?’
The silence hingit atween them lik a busy signal as she scanned her heid.
‘Och, aye.’ Allan tossed up a Hail Mary pass. ‘Dinnae worry aboot it. Is thair onie ID in yer wee bag thair?’
The lassie kennt exactlie whit he wis taukin aboot.
‘Och naw, it isnae that. It’s mair, A’m pickin which name ye shoud cry me. A’ve goat twa IDs, wi different names.’
‘Weel. You’re intriguin, arna ye?’ An then, ‘Hoos aboot ye run them baith past me?’
‘Aye, awricht. Mebbe ye can gies a haun pickin ane. In this wan,’ she flashed a thin wee buik the colour o bluid an embossed wi sparklin stars, an flicked tae a page wi an impression o her face, ‘A’m 张秀英. . .
‘. . . an in this ane’ – a close facsimile o his identity caird – ‘A’m Niamh.’
Allan mulled the relative merits o the twa names. ‘Weel, the first ane’s awricht, bit A think lik A’d make a hash of pronooncin it. Can we try Niamh furst?’
Niamh seemed gey blythe aboot this option, an agreed, ‘Aye, A think if I wis gonnae chuse ma ain gien name, A’d pick that.’
‘Barrie. A’m richt pleased tae meet ye, Niamh.’
Thay hadnae met afore, richt? The identity cairds were similar, an thare wis a knowin wee smirk playin at the corners o her mooth. Bit thare hadnae bin onie flash o recognition when she hid roonded the tree. The enigmatic wee smile wis the luik o a smairt wumman. The kind endlesslie entertained by new knowledge. The kind o lassie Allan liked? He widda liked tae think sae.
Sae the nakit mannie didnae reveal his ootlandish fear that he micht be fae anither planet, anither dimension. It didnae feel tae him lik that wid be a demonstration o guid judgment. She widnae hing aroon if he wisnae a guid man to raise a bairn wi.
Raise a bairn wi? Och, wheesht, man. Ye’ve goat tae be to be kiddin yersel.
‘Luik, Niamh. A’m gonnae huv to spier ye a wee question, an A want ye tae ken A ken it’s weird, an aa. Jist sae yeken A’m no aff ma heid, aye?’
‘Gie it a go, Allan.’
She wisnae pre-committin.
‘Richt.’ A wee hesitation. ‘A huvnae spoken tae oniebodie fur as lang as A can mind. A’m gonnae hae a wee dook an wash ma claes, bit… D’ye want tae have denner thegether? A ken a barrie wee cerry-oot place.’
An sae it wis that thay fund themselves sittin in the shade o the aik trees while thair claes dried oan the haird surfaces aside the burn in the Rock Gairden.
‘So, ye said ye huvnae spoken tae oniebodie fur as lang as ye can mind. Bit, hou lang can ye mind?’
Allan told his new pal aa aboot the lines he’d bin scrapin intae the grass efter each nicht hid passed intiae themirk o history. Giein the final answer oot loud made his een watter. It felt lik a loss.
‘Och, thanks tae the Big Man!’ She smiled. ‘A’m sairie, bit, aye. Me an aa. Noo ye’ve shared yer terrible secret, let me tell ye anither ane. A raellie appreciate ye invitin me ower tae yer wee patch o grass fur denner. Bit A think this scran has seen better days.’
Allan admitted that the fizzy, citric tang had bin worryin him. An that wis when Niamh telt him that she’d bin thinkin aboot expandin her fid sources.
Allan tried tae luik nonchalant as she began to talk o a warld ootside o his experience.
‘A took a wauk ootside the gairden the ither day, an A fund this muckle great store o fid. Wannae come help us check it oot?’
Allan judged the wecht o the dread that hid pressed in oan him fae ootside the green bars. Each time he tried tae formulate an explanation fur the feelin, it disintegrated lik the saft brouk in the Herb Gairden. He opened his moo a third time, an brieflie thocht aboot admittin that the feelin jist came fae the sky. He wished he cuid jist blame some ither bodie wha hid told him tae feel this way, cus it felt important.
‘Come oan!’ Niamh persisted. ‘Whit dae you think? It’ll be a richt guid laugh!’
The pair o them left the gairden an wauked past a Gothic edifice that luiked lik it hid grown fae its grey surroondins oan a richt scunner o a day. Its wecht sunk intae the grun, sae that a lang facade stretched across the grunds, an at ilka end thare wis a column squattlin faurer intae the Eirth. Allan felt even mair uneasy. Hoo cuid somethin lik this exist? If he an Niamh wurked taegether fur lang eneuch, fund or made tools, suiner or later they cuid build somethin like the Terrace Café. Bit this hing wis oan a different scale. Thay were baith richt happy taegang rund a corner an leave the monstrosity ahint them.
‘This is whit A wanted tae show ye!’
Niamh poud Allan alang as she broke intae a run. Then thay hid a wee keek at each ither an smiled.
Allan swallowed the slavers that hid rushed intae his mooth an gaped at the scene ahint the flair-tae-ceilin screens o anither muckle great biggin. Ahint a rack o newspapers, fruits o ilka colour were arrayed in a demonstration o tantalizin temptations. Thay luiked ower guid tae eat. He hid a wee smou at Niamh, drapped her haun, an wauked taewards the gless panels merked Entrance.
‘Thay dinnae wurk,’ his siren told him, haein brocht him tae this exhibition o delichts. Bit Allan wisnae ready tae be discouraged.
‘Awricht. Bide here a wee meenit,’ he said. A’m gonnae check somethin oot.’
Some time later, Allan tramped back taeward the intersection, no relishin his story o the muckle heavy unopened metal doors inside the wide, ramped side entrance tae the biggin. Each stairwell hid led tae anither door forbiddin entry an bearin a cartoonishlie threatenin image o a lichtnin bolt. Ilka ane locked shut. Aa ower kenable, Allan thocht. Bit he cuidnae beleve his een when he turned the corner.
‘Niamh! Whit the hell are ye daein?’
Her triceps an lats were picked oot, an fur a saicond he cuid pictur Niamh’s inner workins an get an idea o thair complexity an the pouer stored inside her compact wee frame.
This wis shawn an aa by the fact that she wis haudin a shoppin trolley wi baith airms high aboon her heid. The wumman that Allan feart he awready fancied an wis feart o in equal, overwhelmin proportions, flashed a wee smou at him, an heaved her missile, turnin her back in anticipation o the explosion o gless afore the trolley splashed throu the surface o the windae. Then the anely hing tae dae wis tae follow her intae the store.
Niamh’s teugh wee feet, hardened by waukin barefoot in The Gairden, fleeted throu the puddles o gless. Even in his gutties, the laddie wis mair circumspect, nudgin slices o silica oot the way rather than steppin oan them. He caucht up wi her in front o an amphitheatre o aiples.
‘This is whit A wanted,’ Niamh declared. ‘Even throu the windae, they looked richt bonnie. Sae shiny angreen. A’m gonnae sink ma teeth intae wan o them, an it’s gonnae feel barrie in ma mooth.’
Somethin aboot this made her laugh. ‘Come oan! Dinnae be such a misery guts,’ she said, grabbin his cheek atween forefinger an thumb.
‘A thocht ye were gonnae be a richt guid laugh. Wha else is gonnae be ma pairtner-in-crime?’
Allan kennt he had tae say whit he had tae say, even if his hairt wisnae in it.
‘A am a fun guy.’ He patted her doup tae prove the point. ‘Bit did ye nae wirrie fur a saicond that we micht be bein watched? Did ye see the sign oan that muckle biggin we jist wauked by? POLIS HEADQUARTERS!’
Niamh rolled her eyes. ‘Huv ye seen onie ither bodie roon here?’
Syne it wis Allan’s turn tae sulk. ‘That’s no the point.’
Bit it wis too late noo. The soond o teeth rippin throu skin heralded the aroma o fresh aiple juice, droplets o which ran fae the corners o Niamh’s mooth as she made gledsome noises.
‘Och! In the name o the Big Man! Try this, ya hingit-faced so-an-so!’
He catcht the arcin aiple instinctivelie. An of coorse he took a bite. It was divine.
‘Guid lad. That’s better. Now, gie’s a haun gaitherin some fur later. We can dae oor proper messages the morn.’
It mustae bin the succar, kis efter six days o increasin inertia, Niamh wis fou o plans. Bit she’d need help, sae she didna mention the newspaper covered in footprints an symbols that looked lik her ither name. The furst flickerin flames o knowledge were lattin themsels on tae the young lassie. An if her accomplice cuida readit the characters that he hid stepped ower, thay widda readit something lik this:
PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC DENIES TESTING
FIRST NEUROMAGNETIC PULSE DEVICE
Gathering of NATO forces off Korean Coast Denounced:
“We will not rise to naked Western aggression,”
declares Minister for Defence
Ricky Monahan Brown’s memoir Stroke: A 5% chance of survival was one of The Scotsman’s Scottish Books of 2019. The night of music and storytelling in Scots, Gaelic and English he produced and co-wrote, Interrobang: Field Work, was included among Bella Caledonia’s Top Scottish Alternative Media of 2018. Ricky is currently completing a collection of short speculative fictions and working on a feature film script set in nineteenth century Sutherland.