The short story A Good Place to Get was runner up in the 2007 Royal Society for Literature’s V.S. Pritchett Short Story Prize and was published in The London Magazine in June of that year. My thanks to the judging panel at the RSL for selecting my work and to The London Magazine for publishing the piece in its June 2007 Issue.
For a full list of my previous publications, please see the publications page on this website.
A Good Place to Get
Words never flew faster than a man could walk or a ship sail. There was a stranger at her door. Crouched at the step, tapping the hot ash in his pipebowl with a scarred fingertip. Flora paused on the hill, the peat creel a heavy ache across her shoulders.
Beyond the cottage, the bay paced north and south, manacled to its stacks and headlands. The seaweed on the tideline had dried to crisp funeral crepe.
The path from this little ridge turned left, turned right, stepped up and down and found its own descent across boulders, burns and shough so that Flora had to glance, to pause to look, then carry on wondering blindly about her visitor. Two sheep and Flora moved in the stillness of the summer afternoon. The man could not fail to notice her progress in jerks and steadyings yet he himself remained still. He did not stand to welcome her to her own door. He did not shift anxiously about the in-by field. He crouched. He smoked. He watched her.
She paused by the dyke. “Good day to you,” she called in her native tongue.
“Good day to you, Flora,” the stranger replied. “Do you not recognise me?”
He recalled a time when they were bundled virgins, face to face. Not much had changed between them.
Iain’s fingertips had grown so hard he could not feel the softness of her skin even in those secret places she has rescued from the wind. In those first moments, just inside the door and stooping beneath the low ceiling of the house, his thumb dug deep inside the neckline of her dress but the pads on his paws were too hard to savour smoothness.
“You’re back,” she said.
The moment was a hinge. It swung open to who knew where. A view of the bay. The midnight sun. A sail on the horizon.
“Lerwick. Yesterday,” he said.
“A whaler heading North.”
He pulled a sour face. “You’re full of questions.”
“Your mother’s dead,” she said.
“I knew.” His face grew calm.
The house smelled of the land and sheep and women but there was only Flora and the sheep.
“Five years ago. In February, “ she said.
Five years before Iain laid up in Surabaya whilst in a short gloaming of grey sleet his mother ceased. More washing, folding, more dirt to delve. And relief.
“Well?” Flora said.
He embraced her again for he had not held a woman in a while and Flora was his wife and might expect it of him. His thumb slipped once more beneath the neckline of her dress and guessed, and kissed. A loving cup of herring and tobacco, oatmeal and tatties, whisky. He remembered his still-soft and hungry hands thwarted by the sheath of bundling cloth and their faces touching and her breath like a summer breeze.
“Are you hungry?” she asked, remembering herself. “There’s broth in the pot.”
“I’d like to bathe,” he said, looking towards the tin bath on its nail.
His mother bathed him – not often (it was not their way) but in the summer months. He would stand naked in the puddle of warm water and let her wipe away smoke-grime and beach-tar and grass-stains until he was white and ruddy as a girl.
“A bath?” she queried.
“I’ll fetch water,” she said after a hesitation.
He tapped his pipe out on the lintel.
“There’s driftwood stacked, Iain,” she said, and embraced him, her strong fingers raking over him to check he was no ghost. He smelled of salt and sweat and spirits. The sea had scarred his face and lined his eyes and leached the redness from his hair. His body startled her after all those years of absence like an unfinished sentence regained by a waking drunkard.
“Did you never write?” she asked, lifting the pail.
“I was never going to be much longer.”
She nodded. He watched her walk across the field towards the burn. The peats had spilled from the creel onto green sward seasoned with broken shells and pebbles. The tattie-leaves were spotted and yellow-green too early in the year. She had not added furniture or ornaments to the house’s dark interior. If anything, the household was diminished. One life – enough for that and nothing more. And Iain should have a purse of coins to stack upon the splintering table. Aye, he should.
He soaked like saltfish in a zinc bath before the fire.
Flora had watched him struggle out from boots and breeches, stand bare legged in long shirt tails, pipe still clamped in the moistness between thick moustache and tangled beard.
“You’ll get your shirt wet. Take it off,” she had said.
He had pulled the rough shirt over his head. Muscle twisted about his shoulders. Scars, livid under-linings or faded scribbles, hinted untold anecdotes. The dark fur on his chest and belly faded into the pale fankle of flesh between his thighs. His legs were hard. He sat down in the bath and soaked. She watched.
“So tell me,” Flora said.
“Tell you what?”
“Where you have been and what you did there?”…
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