Scottische – By John Bolland

The short story Scottische was was a prize winner in the 2008 Fish International Short Story Competition and was published in their anthology, Harlem River Blues in July 2008. My thanks to the judging panel at Fish for selecting and publishing the piece.

For a full list of my previous publications, please see the publications page on this website.

Scottische; (To the tune of A Trip to Sligo)

Kirsten has taken Nell into the high, bright sitting room. The steading door and hayloft entry has recently been replaced with floor-to-ceiling glass. The furniture is arranged about the Chinese rug, each chair turned a little at the shoulder, distracted by the view, like people at a party always half-disposed to abandon this conversation for another. Through the new window, Tillybeg’s old kailyard and then, over the renovated drystone dyke, treetops and the rising ground beyond the Don.
Aunt Nell is given pride of place, the centre of an empty semi circle. Over a century old and sharp as all get out, her zimmer-frame is set to one side and her baroque knuckles clamp a gnurled stick, obsolete now, a mace of office. Sharp as all get out? Not quite, she thinks. Her mind is worn thin today with watching the war through the night, the flicker and the chatter on the television, endless reruns of that bomb penetrating the store room window, confirming we had reached a new level of awareness and could see the thing, now clearly and at last, from the perspective of the weapons.
Kirsten drags back the rug from the salvaged pitch-pine floor and clumps it by the skirting, clearing a space for Alexis and her boy.
“Now, Kyle. Put your hand on Alex’s waist. It’s OK. I won’t bite you and I am sure she won’t. Now. Point back – point back – side step side step. That’s it! Now the other way. Point-back. Point-back.”
Alexis is leading the loon. The boy’s arms are stiff as though he would stave the lassie off, realising where all this might end.
“Side step right. Side step left. And a hop skip round the floor.”
Nell watches – wonders.
Kirsten will be kind. For a while.
Nell’s cottage is retained, set back among the trees, a red corrugated iron roof, cold water and a Belfast sink. Wonderfully independent for her age. And comfortably affluent given what Kirsten and her man paid for the derelict steading, its location really, though the conversion itself was very satisfactory in the end.
“OK. With music,” Kirsten says. “You OK, Aunt Nell?”
Nell’s grip tightens at the neck of her stick.
“It’s a polka really,” Kirsten says. “It originated in Bohemiia then moved into the Rhineland sometime in the early 18th Century. It was very popular in Germany.”
Nell had always thought that it was French, something salvaged from the wreck of the Highlands and polished up in Jacobite exile. The dance was in the Lonach Hall.
“Music,” Kirsten says.
Alexis is a clumsy girl, pretty but flat-footed.
It was here in the steading, where this room will be. Archie.
The dance was in the Lonach. Was this the tune? Not likely but it does the business – any tune that fits the steps – point back, point back, sidestep sidestep. She had heard the rumour about the gralloching.
Archie was sitting at the side. He wasn’t in his uniform. Most boys would be but Archie was in his Sunday best, high collar, pressed flannels, moustache clipped. Nell saw he wasn’t dancing. Twenty one and a sergeant in the Gordons – that’s to say he had survived that long.
Nell was in her uniform – the required black of women in those years when every farm was missing something, for now or forever, gap tooth pews in the kirk, thin lines, fallow fields. Both her brothers and Tom Massie gone.
Archie took the shot – just perfect, was the word. Two hundred yards and the beast dropped straight down. Archie showed not a flicker. Not a tremor. And they had crossed the moor quick, clever, expeditious, keen to get the thing off the hill before the keepers caught on.
They crossed the moor, quick, clever, expeditious.
That night an eightsome reel, eddy and backflow, and Archie on the other side of it, on the bench beside the door to the kitchen, nursing his dram and staring at the pitch-pine floor. Nell rose and picked her way along the edge of that brooach of dancers.
It wasn’t till they had come up to the beast (a 14-pointer was the craic) till Alexander Findlay took his knife and disembowelled the creature that the trouble started. Archie fell into a faint and then came too and started scrabbling across the moor, running and falling, throwing himself into the bog and pressing his face and body deep into the shough. The lads had to wrestle him to his feet and bear him twisting and ranting off the hill, leaving the stag, gutted, gone to waste on the heather bank.
“Archie? You’re not dancing?”
This. Feet set together. Hands folded in her lap. Nell. The boy looked up at.
“Miss Kelso. No. The leg’s still a bit stiff, ken.”
“Looked more like self-pity if you ask me,” Nell Kelso said.
The boy prickled and anger flared in his brown eyes and Nell remembered these boys kill, day in, day out, week by month by year. The Highland Regiments took no prisoners, they said, pragmatic men content with butchery. John, her youngest brother, died of wounds at Loos. Kenny was never seen again after the first half hour of the Somme. Beasts emptied. Antlers stacked. The land needing turning still, ploughed not torn…

Click the following link to download a full version of Scottische.