Sitting In Close

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Big Hole, Kimberley, Northern Cape, South Africa.

The plastic bags that flag in the wind remind me of the township. But that was long ago and this is Fife and the rare Scotland-winning-the World Cup like phenomenon: a sunny Bank Holiday is underway.
The ugly plot next to the monster size signs for a new catalogue shop is where they desperately protest life. It is like the shredded flesh in white and red ribbons that would be wound round the South African township barbed wire.
The devil’s tongue metal fence tops were kept clean. They marked the perimeter of the houses-Mandela houses and adapted shacks too. As clean as the shoes where the red Martian dirt would be banished for a special night in the shabeen.

I am going into the Dunfermline garden centre this Bank Holiday and these memories leak in. First the thrashing end life of our detritus from both continents then the hospital here.
Driving into town the hospital comes into view. The red Lego-like pile sits to the right of the town on the hill. Denuded of the Accident and Emergency services its slow neglect was mirrored in the pale atmosphere when I visited Jean. The unsung and heavy work of the nurses looking after her as the cancer finally made an end was at odds with the building.
So why think of that and sitting in close in Oma’s front room in Northern Cape, South Africa?
It was an ANC group in Oma’s front room. They spoke and drank tea and some wore headdresses that spoke of the joy in a country where five official languages meant watching the soaps was a Pandora’s Box of delights.
The ladies were all were survivors of cancer or had it. The Front Room was usually left alone. The kitchen and Sitting Room was where all the action was. I had finished at the school-sharing the love of learning (not paper work) we were sharing from east and central Scotland. We were a battalion of five Scottish teachers.
I was back from school and had nipped to see what was happening. The biscuits on the table also promised a sugar feast as the heat had risen (for a pale Fifer anyway) in the afternoon and had made for a hot walk back to the house.
I got some tea and said hello to Oma. She spoke in Afrikaans and I knew it meant come sit and had enough love in it to smooth down some of the Titanic-sized wrinkles on her face.
I sit down next to Angana. She introduced herself and immediately asked about my parents and what they did as well when would I bring my family to see the Big Hole in Kimberley? The tea flowed and the small chunks of meteor-hard rusk biscuits were dipped in.

Waiting in Dover

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Nancy Town Square.

Waiting in Dover

The hitch down to Dover was uneventful. The metal flow and flash of metal, fumes and stolen air was interrupted by some Scottish rain then English rain. I was hitching down from near Dumfries over to Nancy in Northern France. It was a kid of sod it I’ve left university and I don’t know what’s next so let’s jump into something or stick a thumb in the dark.
I got a lift from one guy who was off to Brussels to pick up a German Porsche. It was fine but veered to the right once it went over 100mph. He was looking forward to the reverse journey up the M1 once he had it across on the ferry. The last leg was to Dover. A Scottish truck from a Borders company picked me up in the north of England. Halifax, I think it was.
So here I was cooped up like a sardine with a few centimetres above my head. I was in the other bunk bed with Laurie underneath me in the other bunk. In the days before the Twin Towers fell and illegal (western) wars I was okay to be signed in a Driver’s Mate on the cross-channel ferry.
There was a ferry strike in France-not unusual and we had missed a ferry. Thus being crammed in like a malt biscuit in a packet was the order of the day. I was thinking about my time in France to come when there was a loud metal crack. It wasn’t Laurie’s rig but it was near.
We were next to a few empty lorries. The drivers had headed off to the comforts of a pub. I had had a shower and rummaged in my dad’s ancient rucksack to get a book.
This time a whispered echo of voices that were hiding something seeped into the cabin. This time Laurie trundled out a comment.
‘I’m going to have to have a gander at what’s going on. It’d be what I’d want done for me.’
I could hear he was slipping on some clothes. I couldn’t believe it when I’d seen the Long Johns. Grizzly Adams in the deep English South. Laurie’s whippet like frame hadn’t fitted that image.
‘Andrew, I want you to switch on my headlights if you hear an “Okay”, from me-right?’
‘No problem’.

He went out in the dark. The pathetic light from the lorry parks high lamps had a swing of light rain run through them. I felt a long way from Fife and a Pittenweem fish supper.
‘OKAY’.
I switched on the lights.
In the semi-dark to the right of Laurie’s side of the truck.
Laurie was standing-a small knife in his right hand. He flew it to his left hand and kicked the front leg of a tall, young guy.
His right leg. The heavy tawny-coloured boot was up and down quickly. There was a pivot with the left foot. It seemed slow. But all his weight had gone in.
He was down and in pain.
Bet over with both arms around his knee he still faced Laurie. The other small but older man seemed to move from foot to foot to the others’ right.
Laurie said nothing. He flicked his fingers and put the knife back to his right hand. The white top of the Long Johns seemed to make that more, not less menacing.
The romantic notion of baguettes and French beauties disappeared. I felt every breath draw in and out.
The small man moved to crouch down near the other man. Both looked at Laurie.
Laurie closed the blade into its sheath.
‘MOVE’.
**

Later in the Driver’s Lounge Laurie told me about his new house-his wee one only a few months old. The time as a squaddie in the Rhine army and the time in Northern Ireland we barely touched upon. He became that chatty and food-mad truck driver again.

On the open French highway I opened the window on my side, seeing everything from my truck throne. I passed a map to another company truck. At 50 mph and two trucks going side by side it must have been some sight.
Continuing the journey after that relay he looked straight ahead. And the silence between us and in him was an easy one.

Smash

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Years ago. In the hiatus between creating a family, being locked into a mortgage and the reality of some bosses who serve themselves here I was walking home in Edinburgh. The bar job had finished in the Grassmarket and the hike to end of Morningside had increasingly become less populated by Saturday night revellers or workers. Only the vast light baths of the double decker night buses broke the monotony.
Near the junction with the clock and the church where I had seen the Sam Shepherd play the car raced by and stopped just around the side. The two men walked out like getting an ice cream. The carrying of the sledge hammers seemed incidental. Within the stride they smashed and walked through the ceiling to pavement glass of the bank which was right on the corner.
Waiting to cross at the lights just ten or so metres away I wondered what I was seeing, where I might put myself and the size (not big) of the two men. The clatter and ring of the alarm bells seemed hushed as not a thing moved in the semi-darkness of this three am time.
The light full stop of a telephone box was round the corner but within sight of the bank on their side. Waking up from the rush of the job and the sweat of the night walk I wondered if as in the films one would be watching. I also wondered if being half decent at cross-country in Ainster meant something if an Edinburgh criminal was after you.
Walking, being drawn to the phone box.
‘You might want to have a wee think about that mate? Anyway we will be aff soon afore the polis get here?’
Maybe about fifty without front teeth he was directly opposite me across the two roads. Standing clearly in the streetlight he was as tense as me as I had nodded some sort of agreement.
‘Nothing doing without going into the safe.’
I surprised him and me with dropping the words into the frosty air that seemed to tinkle like ice in glasses.
‘Don’t be so……’
The second man ran out with a cache of blue bags in his hands and headed into the car followed by my night friend. The Metro screeched off followed by the sound of the inevitable police car.
The police came and both walked over to where I still stood. My conversational partner gone and fled. My personal details given-the novelty of an American birth address: Toledo, Ohio-‘yes. As in the city in Spain’. And the rest. These were all given to the police. I walked on to the ground floor flat up near Calton Hill.

Like all true stories the ending can be messy or softly famished. In a supermarket a good city distance away near the airport I met him. I had picked up a few things and was scanning them. A good few years had passed. He recognised me but couldn’t think where from. The dirt on his jacket and collar and the deep lines under the eyes told me of things he would never.
Leaving having forgotten the change coughed out by the mouth of the machine I only made a nod of the head. Still no glimmer but simple watchfulness. I left him holding the bottle of wine three back in the queue of a main till.

Toys

The small car was a Fiat or maybe a SMART car. It lingered as if going backwards. The mass of cars this late teatime surged past it. I was in the third car to make a dash for the freedom of open space in this rat run home when I saw the jumble of pink, purples, brown hair and assorted limbs. There was a high row of lifeless but moving toys in the back of the small car. They made a small Roman amphitheatre of nylon and furry animals. Appearing on the driver’s side a large mop of curly dark hair could be seen.

Now the large call centre round about was coming up and the opening to the artificial football pitches was leaking cars into our way. I was connected by that glacial slow umbilical cord which connects cars in the seated semi-coma of traffic jams.
We both had to let some cars in from the parents taking kids back from the clubs at the football pitches. Blonde haired women in miserable face masks in demon eyed four by fours forced a way in. While the male counterpart sped into the line of metal like dye working itself into an intravenous drip.

Relief. A short line of one bus, one Volvo and a personalised number plated Audio.

The roundabout was about to free. I, waited with the clutch up and saw the giraffe and whales near the other side.
The alloy wheel like a chunk star was what I caught. The rest of the sporty Vauxhall Corsa smashed into the zoo.

And time slowed as the dumpy capsule rolled smashing and laying fragments all around the road till it finished roof down half on and off the roundabout. He had stopped dead-losing only the front left headlight. His adapted seat had him lower down like a ship on the horizon.

Turning left and getting right onto the wide grass verge I stuck the hazards on. The bus driver had ran back from the stop leaving passengers on and off the bus. I ran past some drivers angry they had been stopped from inching home.
There was only a hairline cut on the lady’s scalp. She spoke as she lay hanging.
‘Hold her head, son.’ The bus driver said.
‘Your hands son.’ She said.
The toys were everywhere as the sirens’ sound came from the town centre’s direction.

Frozen

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Sometimes she knows she is angry shouting at the twilight shift workers on the freezers or restocking the tinned goods aisles. The American experience hadn’t been good.  This was after two years back in the windy city. Not Chicago but Edinburgh.

This night getting ready to don a freezers jacket she was angry. Again. The American Dream is just that a vision designed to fill and occupy hearts and land. Who would get there and get the dream would be the Chosen like her grocery manager promoted above her in Texas. They had been there five years and her husband had lost his job at a motorhome manufacturing plant. She had just been about to try for that promotion with the chance to move to Oregon. Now they were back here. Her husband had lost his mum and they had stayed in the small house. The need to go back and gone and gone when the house went to them and the small savings she had also went to them and not her sister-in-law.

And mum was ill with motor neurone disease.

The long night shift was hellish in January. They always lost workers who did the night shifts and she would put on the freezer jacket.

Loading up a trolley full of burgers, steaks and ready meals she picked up some gloves from the warehouse office and headed on to the supermarket floor.

The sight of her blonde hair and small figure meant misery for her twilight pickers who shimmied and knelt down in their light blue nylon uniform. She had control of the Grocery aisles most week days. The total lack of interest in them and their lives meant she was disliked and hated by whatever target she would pester that week or month.

‘You’ve got to clean and check the freezer before restocking. And don’t be bringing stock into room temperature too soon.’ She said to Kerry this month’s victim.

Her workers got finished their stocking the quickest of all the Twilight managers. It meant the complaints and subsequent punishment by her (although it had been dealt with confidentially) was usually ignored by the Senior Manager. Mostly a person who complained would leave. If they were to stay and then be off at any point she would phone a few times with a message that had nothing obviously malicious in it. That would come face to face when no one would be in her earshot. Just two people in a deserted aisle with windows that were blackened eyes beyond the strip lights glare of the shopper free supermarket.

Her venom was also reserved for students who were sometimes clueless and unused to anything resembling hard work. They were game but she would usually see them off. Her one year at university had been spoiled by a relationship and the rumour was a failed pregnancy too.

 

**

It was two am. The re-styling and arrangement of several aisle ends was behind. It was seasonal promotions and they had to be laid out and finished well for the morning opening.

Derek who was about sixty avoided her anger and bullying. Twenty years as an army squaddie in Germany and more as a truck driver meant he did his job quietly but thoroughly. He would take control of the warehouse picks and would, carefully, shield those he thought about to go under or collapse in tears from her words.

He was in the warehouse getting boxes of French mustard from Level Four. The ladder he was on slipped and as he fell he used the better arm he had to grab out. The right hand got the steel edge of the shelf but it slipped and as his hand left the edge of the shelf he managed to get back on the ladder which only his left foot had been on. But then both feet went as the wobble in the ladder continued. Slipping down his left hand was the only one to just about to get a grip. The weaker one due to the accident that had finished his HGV driving it slipped and the wedding ring that he wore caught on a rivet. The small rip he felt and the scoop and tearing pulse of pain made him shout. He fell hitting his back on the side support of the shelving unit.

Blood was streaming down his hand on to his trouser and the sandy coloured concrete floor. The scream of her worker who had gone in with a trolley for the boxes of mustard brought her and the shift in.

Derek was the First Aider and he was semi-conscious. She froze. The sickness and vomiting she would feel or bring up since her miscarriage when she loved a man that didn’t want her was there. Years of it when she or her husband would be sick.

Bending over and looking at Derek writhe in pain with a bloodied stump of a finger she struggled. The angry and familiar black bile she could felt like warmth and lay on others was gone. A small figure with red hair came under her left arm that had been stuck to her side. Kerry.

 

The security guard came and began wrapping the finger while putting Derek into a recovery position. Well, enough to swear he asked after her as the one weakness she could not hide behind her won door eased off.

‘You cannae stand the sight of it, then?’ Kerry asked.

The moment and tightness in her stomach went with the silence. She could say nothing back to her. Taking her arm off Kerry’s shoulder she looked up at the full crew of twelve from her shift.

‘Is the ambulance going to take long?’ she said.

The small amount of liquid from her was just away from the plastic entrails: the curtain flaps that marked the entry from the warehouse. It was round the corner from Derek’s black boots.

‘It’s something I’ve always had happen. Sometimes I can help it.’ She said.

 

The small explosion of activity and the bright jackets of the paramedics meant the shift finished late and by 6am everyone was tired. The hour she spent on her own in the café next to the vending machines was a long one. Kerry’s tears from before the accident had come back to her. The smell of her light perfume and the conditioner in her hair.

It reminded her. Brought to the front that her love for that man had not left her but she didn’t know where the never being able to have a child began from that hurt.

They all noticed the silence when she returned. A few shrugged and nodded heads-perhaps their faces smiled but most might not have been sure as they left the floor. She was speaking to the security guard who was a bit of an idiot but didn’t enforce all the petty rules. They passed her as they clocked out.

San Francisco Garage

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The flight on an Air Canada plane seemed peopled by a few passengers uninterested in any return to North America. The air seemed freezing for the entire flight and the air hostesses hostile to the idea of personal service. The palatial and glacial emptiness of the stopover at Toronto airport didn’t go down well either.

On arrival at San Francisco airport the feeling I had was of unease given the journey and the wait for someone to turn up.

Her arrival. Meeting me at the airport my business contact was lethargic. She barely spoke and said the vineyard owner had been unavoidably delayed. She didn’t say why. I had flown slave class on the plane where my six foot frame had lost touch with its own leg circulation as I slept like some intestinal worm. I was tired and wanted to get to my hotel before we/I would cross the Oakland Bridge tomorrow.

I had been, was, a green keeper in Scotland who had worked three summers in California in a vineyard. After fifteen years soil and course management my American cousin had helped get me this job in the Napa Valley. I would be on trial for six months then they would propose to support my Green Card application at the end of a nine month period. From the intense slate skies of autumn to the searing heat of a Californian summer.

We headed on the freeway while my head was still seeing grey skies and the shrunken roads in Scotland.

The soft top convertible we had gotten into had the chink and slide of automatic seatbelts. This turned out to be deceiving. As we drove along she said,

‘The front left is kinda soft. I think we have to stop and sort the tyre.’

We turned off the freeway at the next turn off and headed into what was an anonymous street with a few stores or shops and a bar with a rusting and faded neon sign outside.

We pulled into a gas station. The booth was manned by a small guy who looked bored and unable to cool himself down.

The lady who was maybe over fifty looked at the tyre while I stayed in the false iciness of the air conditioned Mitsubishi. The lady went to the booth and spoke to the guy. He looked up and pointed strongly to the vehicle.

‘I got the car here and they won’t call someone to come fix this tyre. I have had nothing but problems.’

She was sitting in the driver’s seat. The air conditioning was now off. With the time difference and the heat I was tired. The company was closed as this was a Saturday.

‘I am sick of this crap with this garage. And the apartment.’

She began to weep. Quaking and fumbling in her purse she gulped air.

‘Can I help? What is it? Is it the car problem? I can get a taxi to the hotel.’ I said.

It seemed a long time before she swept back her bobbed red hair.

‘No its fine. The landlord at our apartment is wanting us out and our lawyer turns out to be wanted for fraud when she ran another company under a different name.’

 

The car engine had to be started as the heat was so intense. This was not a foggy day she explained. She was finishing wiping the smears of the mascara and explaining the owner of the vineyard would see tomorrow. I small car pulled in that looked like an old Datsun. A man got out and headed for our car.

Her short stare out the front windscreen and a held breath got through to me as I fought a sore head.

‘Terri, you gotta a problem. I read the message about you being here and being late’ the man said.

The smell of booze was reeking of him and the words had a slurry end on them.

‘I just finished at the airport.’ More reek of drink.

 

They went around the corner to the snack stand. I got out and went into the 7-Eleven store across the busy road. Feeling like I had gone somewhere light in my head I spoke to a tall guy who seemed like he should be on an NBA court.

 

After translation from another guy he got me a phone in their small office.

 

I got back and sat in the car. The sweat on my head and back was running in lines.

‘I’ve arranged for a taxi, Teri. Now don’t be worried. I’ll be saying not a thing’. I said to her when she sat back down and turned to speak to me.

The small car had headed off with her husband perhaps walking with his head higher than before.

I got the taxi to the hotel. The cable cars and view of the Bay with Alcatraz seemed false. Drinking a beer in the hotel bar the aches and tiredness in my head didn’t hide things from me. I’d probably be back in the grey, the sleet and the wind that can cut on a Fife beach.

Six months to learn. Feel a different dirt under your nails. And the boss at the golf course had said give him a ring if you needed it. He’d said that at the leaving party they had all organised for me.

Listening to the bar staff they warned a Japanese tourist not to carry his camera round his neck down at the pier. You had to watch you see.

Morning

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Morning

Karate. Kata. Movement and easing the body’s joints into this January day. A young blue tit watched unafraid as he did Godan then Sochin. Like an expert rock climber it hopped along, gripping the sheer face of the fence as a friend watched from the small silver birch beyond the fence. It was only four metres from him.

He is out on the grass near the road at the back of the flats. The frost has been severe and the sharp January sun is welcome. For the first time since he moved to these new flats the gritter has come into the estate. In their low lying area which is marshy and where years ago deep mines bore into the Scottish mantle they get all the rain, fog and frost.

Entranced by the small bird’s fearlessness he lightens the kata movement. The road beyond is light with the Sunday traffic. On the other side of the road is the path that leads alongside the road.

Beyond the fence where the bird is a bay shaped patch of earth which is planted with small shrubs. It is next to the pavement that loops round the corner of the estate with the road. At the end of this patch of earth he sees the small West Highland terrier with its owner. He is a tall man. It’s been years since he spoke to him.  He thinks it was maybe five or more years ago. He had come to the door with a leaflet about his daughter’s birthday. She would be twenty-three. It would also be her last. She had cystic fibrosis. The leaflet was to say she didn’t have long and we could donate to a charity. No asking for pity and the picture of his daughter was of a girl as happy, open and alive as a father could hope for. A businessman it was taking all his control to be light and business like.

Everyone knew each other by sight, by the car huddled in its familiar parking space or the pet they had to exercise. But everyone is the walking wounded somehow he thought miming his friend’s occasional mantra.

Just before the tree line began they stopped. It was only about another eight metres away from where he was practising. He had leant down to the dog and spoke.

‘It’s been six years and a day now, Fergus,’ he said.

They soon moved away. And by now the bird and its kid brother had left and the birch was without its winter tourists. He finished and picked up the makiwara and washing basket and headed round to the front.

He wondered when he could say hello to them both as they walked out of the estate.