Sent to flap about the washing, we tried
to stay good. But what's a kid to do? Bored by
the slimy scent of bins, by the oppressive
woodsmoke air of Avonbridge, which in its vale
wears a cap of smog in all but summer, we spied--
her window. Next to my gran's, Mrs Craw's:
the crone who dressed in black, like her namesake,
over selfsame spindling legs. So, what to do?
We peered in. Her scullery, empty; a yawning sink
like my gran's, ragged lino, Belling cooker.
And there, beneath her open window—soup-pot,
primed with tatties, carrots, split peas, for putting
on later. I ask you, what were we to do? Then
the laughing thought of it made us mad: it was all
we could do to stop ourselves from throwing in
stones and dirt from her back path. Which we did.
When her bad drunken son came home later,
to find no soup for his tea, he hammered her.
What could we do? We listened through the wall.
His roars detonated in my dreams; I crammed an ear
to the rubber sheet to drown them out; and her
emptied face—seen as we idled in the back court
by her door next morning—haunts me still.
Now, when I take a fill of my own mother's soup,
as much as it is good and warm and tasting
of all the consolations of childhood, still a part of
me expects one day to break my teeth on a stone:
or find the dregs of muck we left her with.
Published by Northwords Now.
Just had a weekend back at Barra and Vatersay, which was fantastic. (particular thanks to everyone at Buth Bharraigh for making me so welcome at the talk.) Following on from that, thought I'd write a tongue-in-cheek blog about travelling there.
How to get there?
If you take the ferry then it's five hours from Oban: initially sheltered as it threads the channel north of Mull, becoming livelier as it picks up Atlantic swells out past the Isle of Coll. Barra will be clear on the horizon, or a rumour daubed in cloud, or entirely lost in mist. You might see basking sharks, whales, pods of dolphins, seabirds surfing the ship's bows, or perhaps someone losing their Calmac breakfast through their fingers on the way to the toilet if it's stormy.
Prefer to fly? Yes? Fancy landing on a beach? You do? What about when the tide's coming in and the plane kicks up huge plumes of spray either side as it lands? Still fancy it? Yes? The scheduled flight to Barra is spectacularly scenic, but not always easy on the nerves. You'll fly up to Loch Lomond, towards the Firth of Lorne and then Mull, then out over the Atlantic. And in summer I guarantee you that a waving line of tourists will be there beside the terminal to cheer your arrival. Note to newcomers: that’s not a bus shelter, it’s a baggage reclaim. And do not get freaked out by the pilot's desolate humour. Or by the slightly leaking emergency exit you've been placed beside. Or by the lady in seat 12 who's counting her rosary beads. Or by the nerve-shredding bit when the pilot reduces throttle at cruising altitude somewhere over the ocean and pretends to fall asleep and you hear the wind whistle and moan around the fuselage rather than any reassuring twin-prop engine drone…
How many islands?
Loads. Barra and Vatersay, the two main islands, are joined together by a causeway. But there’s a host of (uninhabited) others: Berneray the most southerly; Mingulay, with its jaw-dropping cliffs and the ruins of a township; Pabbay, the priest’s island; then Sandray, Muldoniach, Fuiay, Flodday, Hellisay and Gigha, Fuday and Fiaray, plus countless smaller isles and stacks. Climbing Heaval, Barra’s highest hill, from Castlebay (the main town) affords view of nearly all of them, along with Eriskay and South Uist to the north; and on a clear evening with the sun going down in the west, St Kilda can be seen on the western horizon.
And there’s an amazing hidden lagoon between two of these islands. But I’m not going to tell where it is because I want it to myself.
What’s the weather like?
If someone asks, 'Have you heard there's a storm coming?' The correct response isn’t to talk about isobars: instead you should say, 'Yes, and I've bought extra milk / bread / whatever was left in the shops.' Hurricane force winds can be routine in winter, which means that the ferries will be cancelled and all the shops emptied of produce. The water in the toilet will become lively (tending towards a gentle bidet.) Small children in the outdoors will begin to levitate sideways, so keep them tethered at all times with lengths of string and stodgy home baking.
Of course the weather can be lovely too. It can turn fair for weeks on end in summer. The white beaches will become luminously white, the shoreside shallows the turquoise colour of tropical lagoons. And with the skylarks up, and the machair vivid with flowers, as a Scot it’s hard not to think: Oh but we’ll pay for this.
What are the people like?
Warm, funny, a mixture of incomers and oldstayers, predominantly Catholic (as are all the southernmost Western Isles - Vatersay, Barra, Eriskay, South Uist). Quite a few people have two or three jobs. Gossip is rife (the islanders call this island scrutiny 'the goldfish bowl') but there's a sense of community which is, as you would expect, incredibly strong.
Many of the Barraich (Barra folk) have nicknames. These might relate to jobs, physical appearance, or have a meaning long since forgotten - perhaps even given at school, or birth. This isn’t a major impediment to the occasional visitor or even recent émigré - unless you decide to take part in a pub quiz, like we did, and finds that there’s a nickname round. In which case you will need to pressgang a wise member of said Barraich onto your team. Or lose badly.
Island humour can be surreal, which suited me well. Typical example overheard during lunchtime serving at a pub in Castlebay:
Island man 1: (thoughtful, looking out of the pub window.) See how the bay we live in is called Castlebay?
Island man 2: Hm.
Island man 1: See how it's got a castle in it?
Island man 2: Hm.
Island man 1: Wonder what they called it before the castle was built?
(Pause; me expecting an ancient and mellifluous Gaelic phrase-name)
Island man 2: Bay?
Any wildlife of note?
There are many birds, and several of them will cause you no trouble. But if you visit from April onwards then there is one bird to avoid: the corncrake. The Gaelic word for corncrake is trèan-ri-trèan, which roughly translates as: Dear God make it Shut Up. The male's call has been likened (by me) to a chair being scraped across a patio over and over by someone intent on destroying your mind with sound alone.
In addition, his favourite time to call is four am, which closely corresponds with your body clock's maximal desire to wring his neck. They are a protected species, unfortunately.
Why should I go there?
Beaches, culture, scenery, fantastic people, fresh seafood, pubs, kayaking, windsurfing, wildlife, and great curries just about sums it up for me. Mainly because there's nowhere else like it.
Not knowing how the rain came next day.
Probably hearing the arrival of the siren.
Never having a beard, or a paunch, or lunch
in Venice or any other city you never saw.
Knowing your iwi, your whānau, your hapū.
Not believing in Father Christmas until the bike.
Eating whitebait fried straight off the point and
knowing nothing could ever taste as good.
Sensing the shift of air, yet not feeling your skin
dead as we had to split your sides for breath.
Not knowing that the blackened nub of your nose
collapsed as your mother tried to hold you.
Hearing a cautionary tale somewhere about
matches. Not knowing how it ended.
Published in The Rialto 73.
Rapture of the deep
Here is the Human Zoo, in this old theatre-turned-dance-venue. It's a big space, with adjoining bars, plenty of room to groove and breathe in. The DJ's John Kelly, over from the UK. You see him up on stage behind the decks. He's playing a totally wild-school mix. It's def. It's rad. It's nearly too much to bear. There are stacked speakers either side of him, and lasers illuminating the crowd, scanning upwards out of sight.
Everyone: in front of you, beside you, dancing in the auditorium behind you, is going crazy. And you're in the steamy centre of it all. What a guy! You turn to see these people rising behind, and you think: this is the Human Zoo. This is where all the mad animals come to rattle at their bars and foul up their cages and bite at the hands that feed them. Here are the strutting peacocks and the vainglorious stallions and the preening meercats and the baboons with their mad arses and hallucinogenic faces; here, all of the skins of the world, black and white and yellow and reds and in-betweens, with all the same wide smiles. Look at the movement, look at the colour, the outrageous clothes, luminous bikinis and silver romper suits and Superfly wigs and naked torsos and tattoos and t-shirts with logos on them like Orgasm Donor and Fucker and Betty Ford Clinic.
Your name's Marcus. You were born here in Sydney and grew up under its oceanside spell, and you have the sun-kissed skin and easy-going charm to prove it. You're a very beautiful young thing. You make top dollar working as an IT consultant for a PR company on the sixteenth floor of a very shiny office block in the heart of the CBD. You like Aussie rules and vodka Redbull and sushi and casual sex and going to the movies stoned. You smoke hydroponically grown Sydney skunk, and you blast coke Fridays and Saturdays, with diazoes for the heavy comedowns. And you surf: at Maroubra beach weekday evenings, maybe the southern beaches on the weekends when the swell's on, provided you're not languishing at a recovery party somewhere.
You have a luxurious condominium in Double Bay. In your garage there you have a quiver of ten boards to choose from, including, in pride of place, a 9'2" custom shaped hand painted Bob McTavish, worth a cool twenty five hundred bucks. You also own a BMW Z3 roadster, a Toyota Prado, and an immaculate 1964 Ford Futura, which does for cruising out of town.
Tonight, your clothing is the hetero side of camp. Sleeveless white lycra top, cargo pants, denim jacket, moosehide moccasins. Hugo Boss underwear.
Most important though, there's a Chupa Chup lolly in your mouth. They're de rigueur in the clubs at the moment. Your one is strawberry flavoured. You suck hard at this lolly; waves of kickass saccharine pinch your cheek. Sucking stops chewing which stops teeth grinding. Your teeth are soooo beautiful. You have to protect them. Chupa chups are free at the bar. Most folk have them twisting around in their mouths.
How dangerous could it be to suck on a lolly?
There's a change in tempo: Kelly mixes in a particularly slamming track, and you and the rest of the crowd respond with frenetic dancing. The club goes off its rocker – for a while there you were flagging, but now you're resurgent. All around you, face lift, wind tunnel smiles. You're whooping and thinking: where does the warmth come from? Why's it not always here? Where do I end? Where do I begin? Why do we go back to the same old scene on Mondays, exchanging polite convo, always keeping the respectful distance? We need to change ourselves; it could and should start HERE.
This and much more of the same. The music washes near and far. You get all removed. Your head becomes a new planet with its own red spot and ring system and coterie of moons. The faces of the people around you register pain, confusion, but you're way in control. A warmth, a sensuality rising into your neck, then you're gone, thoughts tunnelling ahead, mind gone, ego dissolved, eyes upward, following the tracers, people in strobing standstills, the music distant and happening somewhere, not here.
The sexiness is so great that when you reach around yourself to check you're still there, you fall in love with your own caresses. You forget everything outside of your own singular heaven, and perhaps that's what heaven's about: a vaunted detachment, nothing to reach you, nothing to annoy or frustrate you, inhabiting a vast, empty space, a space of time and light which belongs only to you, never sleeping, a chemical pharaoh, like Anubis watching from twenty miles up the unimportant people of the world turning circles swerving colliding like bumper cars on Arctic ice floes--
Huh? Hold up.
Hang a U-ey. Bumper cars on Arctic ice floes?
You try to remember how you got to this thought—but the way of your thoughts, the path, the process, is gone. You think: Whoa. What a trippy pill.
Then you're back. Kelly mixes in a new uptempo song. You and all the others detonate into life. It's too awesome. What a world!
A wild guy, tattooed neck, shaved head, blue shades, dances like a feral rabbit with myxomatosis behind you. He rocks around so hard in fact that he misjudges, and his elbow strikes hard the centre of your back.
The Chupa Chup lolly that you were sucking on falls into your mouth, and is pulled with a gasp of inspiration into your throat.
The lolly lodges a good way inside, stopping just over your vocal cords, preventing completely the flow of air into and out of your lungs.
You try to cough, bent over, hands at your neck, face red, the veins on your forehead standing out. You're shocked into reality. You pull vainly for breath. The Chupa Chup will not shift. Unhappily for you, the lolly stick has lodged into one of your throat muscles. The stick is, if you could see it, acting as a wedge against expulsion.
Your hands tremble at your neck. You keep trying to cough, but the lolly doesn't shift. Your panic becomes extreme. You push around the dancers, reaching for their help, pulling them by the arms, grabbing at their funky clothes, but they're gone—blind, lost inside their own raptures. You gesture to your throat, but no-one will see. Some spangled guy even tries to dance with you, giving you a damp hug, shouting yeah man! and copying your agonal movements by dancing with his own hands agitating at his neck.
You recoil, try to scream, but of course you're unable to do so.
You have a pressure in your head: the burn of a forced breath hold. Your stomach muscles convulse, moving in concert with your diaphragm. You stagger away from the crowds, the dance floor, and you try to reach the door, get to a quiet area where people will notice, but your legs are way weak. Your eyes brim with tears. Sounds swim as if in distance, or underwater. You look down on a floor covered in plastic cups and lolly sticks and cigarette ends and this seems odd, an abstract, meaningless mess.
You stumble, fall to the floor.
There you lie with your chest heaving.
Vital seconds go.
Someone's face swells into view. Shouting into your ear, repeating, asking rather hopefully, You alright, mate? Mate, you alright?
Yeah, of course I'm alright. No worries! I'm just a little tired, you fuckin drongo.
The voice startles you. It's loud, internal, yet removed. Is it yours? God's? The devil's? Then you understand: yeah. It's yours. Or rather, it's the voice of your superego and your id combined. The same scathing accent heard every morning at the mirror; the same gloating voice beside you as you thrust over your conquests.
A scrum of faces above you. One person runs for assistance, while another helpfully slaps you in the face. The penny begins to drop that you're not alright: in fact, you're definitely not very well at all.
You're dragged from the dance floor, legs sliding inelegantly behind you, to the light and lesser noise of a corridor. There are individual voices: shouts, someone calling for help, urgent interrogations.
What's he taken! Has he taken anything?
Is he breathing?
What the fucking hell's going on?
Now you can hear your friends, their voices small, panicky: answering questions, admitting to your ingestion of ecstasy and coke and even, from the sublime to the ridiculous, a wee bit of dope. You picture their faces, their self-reflected concern, hands at their cheeks, wondering if it's bad form to slink away.
Party's over, dudes! Enjoy the show. Hur-hur-hur.
You curse the voice and wish for more time, wish times ten that you had more time. You promise to be a better citizen, a More Giving Person, selfless to a fault.
Is he hot? Does he feel hot?
He's not breathing! He's not breathing! How much water has he had to drink?
Didn't you hear me, he's not bloody breathing!
What else did he have?
Could the coke stop his heart?
OOHH! I had the same coke! Will my heart stop too?
I heard that ecstasy can cause your lungs to fill up with fluid and you die. Your eyeballs explode and your heart splits in two.
There was this article in GQ about this coke fiend whose legs and arms went black and he had to have them amputated…
Oh my word! What about me? I dropped at the same time as him!
This is great. Having a debate about the potentially life-threatening side-effects of recreational drugs, while I lie here dying. And no-one has even considered the lethality of choking on a Chupa-Chup.
Does he have a pulse? Oh Marcus!
A voice, butting in: Is that a dead guy? Seeek, mate!
Get lost, asshole!
Another voice: It could be a case of hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy, you know.
Who are you – bloody doctor Gregory House?
The voice admits: I'm a medical student.
Then do something!
Silence. Then: I don’t know CPR.
You're fucking joking! Does anyone know CPR?
The shout's taken up. It appears someone does. An irritating alpha male voice replies, I Know CPR! You feel fingers at the hollow of your neck.
He's got a pulse.
No shit, Sherlock. I coulda told ya that.
Is he breathing? A hand on your forehead, another firmly gripping your jaw, tilting your head back. No breathing.
Pursed lips, rough stubble, sour breath, the alpha male blowing into your mouth.
This is a bit better. Now let's see how long it takes him to work out I've got a Chupa-Chup stuck here bang in my windpipe.
Alpha male tries another couple of breaths. No chest expansion. Then are another two breaths, then a flummoxed silence. Alpha male thinks aloud through his ABCs.
Did you call an ambulance?
An ambulance? Anybody? Hey you fuckin lame-o's, an ambulance?!!
It's on its way, chill out.
Erm.. danger.. responsiveness...
As you lie flaccid and awaiting resuscitation, the numbskulls in your head play a naughty, cruel trick: they put on the jukebox in your mind.
My girl lollipop, by The Chordettes, comes on.
Ha Ha, very bloody funny. What an idiot I am.
It has been three minutes since your last breath. You are reminded now of the worst surf hold down you ever had: pearling on the lip of a massive set wave, in four-times-overhead conditions on a howling day at the Fairy Bower, Manly.
The ocean boiling. Paddling hard. A dark impossible shape beyond the wave you just crested. You pull for it, pull into it, strain as it lifts you, then gasp to see the guts of the Bower opening up way below. You take a short drop, then nothing: then the violence begins, down and up, over the falls, over again and down, down, down. Held there in the darkness, pulled along underneath, almost surfacing, but then hit by the next wave as you claw through the foam. Pulled along by this wave underwater way past the point, forgetting to relax and desperately trying to climb up your leash to the surface.
Being held down beyond the point was very heavy indeed.
But nothing like this.
The alpha male recovers himself. He gives more breaths. Then he wonders aloud: Is there something stuck in his throat?
Bingo! Check out the big brain on Brad!
You feel your mouth being opened and a finger pushed inside, poked around.
Come on, there must be something…
The alpha male sits astride your hips. He puts his hands together in the middle of your abdomen, asks everyone to stand back.
Performing abdominal thrusts!
Come back to daddy, come back my boy….
Now your body tightens around you. You begin to shake, the onset of a fit. It's been four minutes since your last breath, and soon you'll begin to die. You've entered a bloodless limbo, where you flex between disconnected serenity and moments of consciousness and panic. Thoughts form in your mind, but you can't register them, and will not later remember them.
Please, oh please, not me, not here, not now, please…..
You don't experience the stock in trade near death phenomena: floating above and looking down on your recumbent body, or ascending through a black tunnel to a blinding white light. Nor do you relive your life in moments, in a flickering series of snapshots, back and back to wind-whipped sunshine days of ice-cream and slip slop slap.
Instead: you're underwater. Warm salt water. The sea. Opening your eyes, you see a tropical realm of immense undersea boulders. You drift over these monolithic stones which form hillside slopes and crannies and grottoes and pinnacles for countless types of fish. The stones are dotted with corals: soft corals, gorgonian fans, sea pens and whips, all caressed by the currents. The fish sashay around you. You swim on your back, looking up on the shifting mosaic of light formed by the waters' surface, and you turn again, look down to a sandy sea floor with coral bommies dotted around.
The water's so clear that you can see a hundred metres in every direction; the deep blue eliding with depth and distance to black.
…my girl lollipop! You make my heart go giddy-up, you taste as sweet as candy, you are my sugar dandy…
You hear the steady crackling of a million, million coral mouths. This sound will be the last impression within your dying nerve cells, and it's really not a bad way to go.
One, two , three--
The alpha male is delivering sets of five liver-splitting thrusts to your upper abdomen. He pushes up and in to your chest. Fireworks go off underwater.
Dynamite shattering the coral.
A high pitched whine in your ears, then:
The Chupa Chup lolly is dislodged. It appears with a froth of vomit at your blue lips. Alpha male falls backwards, amazed, triumphant. He holds up the lolly.
You take a harsh breath. You cough, breath again. Your breathing falters, then returns to regularity. There are calls for oxygen, and applause.
A rude consciousness slips around you, the strangest wakening of your life, lying in a star on the floor of a corridor with a huddle of strained faces over you. Pain in you head, nausea. You try to speak but cannot. You wonder where you are, what this is.
Things happening. People looking at you. Someone saying, just like in the movies – You're gonna be alright, mate. Then being lifted by some other people, moved down a stairway on some kind of stretcher. Pretty blue lights. A fast drive across town.
You'll be admitted to hospital for investigations. Your voice will return in a few hours, a whisper at first, then a croak. Visitors will come and cry to you.
The sun will shine on and on in your window. Flowers in vases will flourish on your windowsill. Nurses will sooth your early nightmares with sleeping pills.
You'll be discharged from hospital after three days. Then you'll stay at home for two weeks, anxious, haunted by what has happened. When you first return to work, on commute you'll panic at the sight of Chupa Chups on display in the newsagents. But this will get better.
And you'll be driven by an odd desire: to throw it all in, quit your highly paid job, quit the cars and the boards and the condo and take up scuba diving instead.
Published in Granta's New Writing 15.
My dad was a great speaker of Lallans Scots. Some of his words reminded me of the German I was taught at school: dochter (tochter) for daughter; kirk (kirche) for church, and so on. Other words I've come to realize were more Scandinavian: flit (move house) and braw (great) and bairn (child) similar to the Swedish flytta, bra and barn, for example.
Still other words he used were maybe pure Lallans: bow-hough'd (bow-legged), and slew-e'en (squint-eyed) were favourites of his I never heard used by anyone else.
And so too, dirl: to vibrate, or tingle, and listed in the dictionary as being used in Scotland and the north of England. The sonnet below records, I guess, the last time I remember him using it.
When we broke up the patio, that last good summer,
you tried to hide your smile as I swung my pick
and the earth kicked back. Dirling, you called it:
arms pranged, handle made so illogically hot
I had to drop it. Later, you used the same word
for treatments turning hands and feet opaque:
after you'd lost bulk, grown wings in back, absurd
hollows at neck, face. That day you surveyed
the patio's brute rectangle, took a brush and swept
dust to its edges. I joked at the housekeeping:
Stoor absorbs shock, you said. I swept, in the end.
You wedged, undermined with sticks too thin.
Tap it there, you said. And the solid concrete split
like dropped chalk. In an hour, a field of rubble.
Published in Magma 53.
Here are another five favourite stories:
1. Room – Emma Donoghue
This is the book that made me want to write The Last of Us. Jack's voice and the sense he makes of his constricted world is an amazing achievement. In Room he has so little to play and interact with that ordinary objects become Capital-letters important (Bed, Wall, Plant, Zigzag Knife), and the way he struggles to understand the reality of things on TV is heart-breaking. Survival here is about the hardest decisions, impossible decisions; then having to survive what comes after.
2. I am Legend – Richard Matheson
Matheson was already my hero for being the mind behind The Incredible Shrinking Man (whose final scene of our guy turning to dust on a windowsill haunted me as a kid and, later on, inspired some very bad teenage poetry). Robert Neville has to battle the vampires - alone. Actually what impressed me most about this book was how deeply Matheson had invested in the reality of his world - I never really believed in vampires until I read this. I am Legend is about survival, yes, but maybe even more about loneliness. Which leads me on to…
3. Night Work – Thomas Glavinic
One character. Alone. Jonas is a young Viennese man who wakes up one day to find everyone has gone. Not just his family or friends, or immediate neighbourhood: everyone. Glavinic's descriptions of empty cities are brutally convincing – so much so that you begin to fear who might be out there, hiding. As the book goes on it becomes clear that Jonas's survival is threatened not so much by a lack of water, or food, or shelter, or even sleep: but by loneliness. Is it a dream? Is it purgatory, heaven, or hell? A compelling nightmare of a book.
4. The Patrick Melrose novels – Edward St Aubyn
I get to cheat by including this book which contains all five Patrick Melrose novels (Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, At last.) Survival here is about surviving childhood trauma: which is the subtext for everything Patrick does after – from his prowling for heroin in the Bronx, to his failures in marriage and relationships and family life – and we forgive him all because we saw what happened at the start, and so will root for him for ever. (David his father is one of the nastiest pieces of work in fiction.)
5. Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller
Peggy and her father James, hiding out in their forest retreat in die Hütte, are the last survivors of the end of the world. Except that they aren’t. Claire Fuller gives us some of the most icily brilliant descriptions of privation (physical, spiritual, temporal, and most crucially of all, parental) you’ll ever read. I love the way she drops bombshells mid sentence (check out lower down page 53) where other writers would drag it out. And from someone who really struggled to name his novel – what a great title. Survival of the hardest sort here, when memory fails and fantasy grows in its place, and you can't even be sure what it was you endured.
Real life survival stories are hard to beat. Surely fiction can't hope to be as compelling? Fiction can't rely on suspension of disbelief, for starters. But it can go where the eyewitness or reality can’t: into the realms of fantasy, up to the point of death and beyond; into the far future or back to the distant unrecorded past. And it can give voice to those too young or traumatized to bear witness.
When I was writing The Last of Us I was aware I had to get the balance right: it had to feel real life (so lots of weirdly particular details – discarded gloves, masks, pills; child's eye descriptions of people's houses) while at the same time function as a work of fiction. There had to be an arc, a build of tension, while retaining something of the outlandish, dreamlike and downright queer verve that true stories have.
Here then are five novels (in no particular order) which I really admire, and where survival is a key theme, or key to the plot. I'll blog another five in the next few days.
1. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy did appear to be in a bit of a hurry to dispense with the mother figure, who simply gave up (there are some brilliant feminist readings of The Road online which you should look up) but after that it’s all lads on tour!, though with not much in the way of road trip comedy. The few hours of respite that Man and Boy gain as they discover the hidden cell haunt me still: as do McCarthy’s odd stylistic twists of cranky, sometimes fussily precise language, so perfect for describing the fractured remnants of our world. Not a lot of romance in this one.
2. Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones
Love the way this starts. Like Lloyd Jones was setting himself a challenge: let's have a character called Pop Eye, who wears a clown's nose and pulls Mrs Pop Eye with a bit of string attached to the trolley she's standing in. Go on Lloyd: write the rest of that! This marvellous book uses a child's words to describe adult horror: the worst of all in half a sentence which breaks the heart. Now I can't think of Great Expectations without also thinking of young Matilda, and what Pip finally meant to her.
3. Jamrach’s Menagerie – Carol Birch
You know those books that start in one place – but then take you down an entirely different path you never saw coming? When the penny dropped and I began to realise where Carol Birch was taking this story it blew me away. It also contains one of those instants where you sense a writer in full flight and seeing crazy stuff… I'm thinking of the komodo dragon overboard, gazing around the sea until it begins swimming purposefully for land. (There's a wee nod to this in The Last of Us.)
4. William Golding – Pincher Martin
Pure story. Pure adventure. Surviving on the smallest of things – rainwater, weeds, sea anemones – and on the smallest of places, a rock in the north Atlantic. An amazing evocation of someone's last hours, or maybe last few seconds…
5. Life of Pi – Yann Martell
Why did five publishers turn down the chance to publish Life of Pi? Ok, it was his third book (death to the midlist author! cries the publishing industry) but also I reckon because it starts with a description of the habits of the… eh, three-toed sloth. But this is exactly right for setting up Piscine Patel's voice, which Yann Martell sustains brilliantly for the rest of the book. And what a book. Didn’t make me believe in God, but did make me want to be vegetarian.
This short story is set on Shetland, and was the first I ever got published. There are early hints of The Last of Us: the unnamed boy and girl's walk reminds me of Rona and Elizabeth and Alex on their coastline scramble to Message Rock.
Northern dialect words to look out for: Tirl (wheel of a Shetland mill); Tammie Norrie (Puffin); Bonxie (Great Skua); Voe (narrow sea inlet) and Böd (bothy, fisherman's shelter.)
The children take a grass path skirting the edge of the voe, kicking through summer flowers as they approach the turning click mill.
The boy, following behind, watches the girl's bare feet: admires their shape, their sure grip on the stones. She has a basket on her shoulder and a headscarf tied at her chin. At the underhus of the mill they stop – to watch the tirl turning, gasping as the sharp cold burn water runs over their feet. The boy puts an arm in - letting the feathers of the water wheel rap on his hand.
The girl puts a finger to her mouth, gestures for him to be quiet. In a huddle they listen over the water's noise for the mill-wife inside - throwing in her barleycorn handfuls and singing or whistling, but there is no sign of her.
They climb over a low wall, sun in their faces. Further on the grasses and wild flowers are bright around them: cream-pink of meadow fescue, deeper pink of ragged robin. Purples of standing thistle and clover, red of common sorrel. Yellows of ragwort and bird's foot trefoil, and blues of thyme and milkwort and sheepsbit.
The boy collects a posy of flowers for the girl. He presents it to her with an uncertain, bashful smile.
Here ye are, he says.
Fur what? she demands.
The girl takes the flowers. She makes a contemptuous noise.
The boy explains in a hurry, Ah like flooers, when ye see am da gither.
The girl turns and goes on ahead, carrying herself like the lady of the house on Vaila. She cannot think of how to reply. She's not used to the idea of thanking other children. Thank you, she understands, is for the elders of her family, or the laird, or the minister.
The boy follows the girl for a while - until she turns on him and presses the flowers back to his chest.
But don't ye like them? he asks.
She sighs. Ah like them scaittert, grawin wild.
Aye. All about the place.
A pair of Arctic terns chase by, turning around each other with paper wings, calling in thin rasps.
The girl goes on again, sending up clouds of white moths as she strides over the flower field.
They sit together by a small rocky bay.
The day goes. The sun turns high over them. They listen to the sucking and draining sound of the ebb tide on the nearby pebble beach, and the crackling sound of drying seaweed. Strewn around, the empty shells and blue arms of crabs.
The boy sniffs, and throws his posy down to the water.
He says, Tell ye what. Ah'd be a Tammie Norrie.
Ach! Why a daft birdie like dat?
He answers, Dey look grand, so they do! Dar wings are funny, and dar beaks as weel.
The girl looks away, shaking her head. Ah'd be a bonxie dan, she says, And steal awa me da Tammie's fish, ah wad.
They sit in silence.
The girl asks, Whit else dan?
A selkie, the boy ventures.
A selkie! Whit far?
The boy shrugs. Dan ah could swim in the sea.
Oh, right well.
The answer seems reasonable enough.
The girl feels a tickle at her elbow. She finds an earwig squirming there. Jumping up, she throws the insect at the boy and says,
Du is mair like a forkietail!
And then she runs off, laughing.
The boy hesitates. He wants to follow her, but fears that he will seem too eager or stupid. He swats at the earwig instead.
The voe: flat, deep indigo, only breeze rippled. A red throated diver on the water calls mournfully to a pair in flight, turning in circles at the head of the voe. Oystercatchers, piping from the dark intertidal belt of a small island.
The boy counts to twenty, then follows, as the girl walks around the headland to the Voe's Atlantic mouth.
He finds her sitting on a point of shattered rock. She's taken off her basket and her headscarf. Her face on the sea horizon, eyes bright with the sun. Foula in the distance, wearing a cap of cloud.
The boy sits beside her again. Her smell: earth, peat smoke, carbolic, sun warmed skin.
Ah love thee, he says in a hurry.
The girl laughs, delighted. She turns and smiles at the boy: then throws back her head and laughs more harshly, surprising herself, roaring at the idea of romantic fancy like one of the fisherwomen on the wharf.
She doesn’t want to laughter, but finds it hard to stop now that she has started.
The boy's eyes shine. He runs back the way he has come, past the wall and the flower field and the turning click mill.
The girl knows that he will not come back to her.
A tin box.
A tin box in his hands.
Picking through the objects inside. Hands: clumsy.
Unwrapping the cloth lining, taking them out one by one.
Christmas cigarettes. Not smoked. A keepsake. Cigarettes made for the whole battalion. Bright red box, and a drawing of a smiling officer. Wishing them all a Happy Christmas. For what that was worth over any of the Christmases gone.
He reads the lettering on the front of the packet. The words: bright, hopeful, meaningless. Reading them over.
He looks up from the recess, the narrow space that he's backed into. Dirt walls. That cloying smell of mud and rotten sandbags. Sweat running on his face. A pain in his foot. His hearing starting to return. Someone running past - someone falling past – the last man's kit and gun spilling on the duckboards.
He begins to hear all of the noise again. Swelling to drown out the dull earthquake sounds: all of the other noise. The boom of artillery. The crack of machine gun fire, distant, then louder replies on his side. Shouts heard in between the volleys of gunfire. Machine noise, strangely unrecognised. Air pressure shifts of explosions, with that twin feeling in the pit of his stomach, and the usual encore of dust falling from the wet planks over his head.
It occurs to him, dumbly, in this moment, how little of it he generally hears.
His hands, disconnected. They fumble through the items in the box. A rat streaks past. An old rotten glove across the way, not salvageable. He can see in his mind's eye the corpses outside the recess: fallen into the ditch, pink and torn like the whales turned up on the wharf back home… How fascinating these large creatures were to him as a boy: how improbably large and hopeless they appeared. He would look into their foul-smelling mouths, to the yellow bristles there, and worry that the animal would reawaken, and he would be sucked in like Jonah, swallowed and gone.
This act of remembering, of being elsewhere, is a customary relief.
His hearing starts to come back. A ringing sound remaining. He's had this ringing in his ears before. He knows that it's usually temporary, and sure enough: everything is there and too loud again, and he retreats, falls back to the box in his shaking hands.
His fingers turn over the objects inside. The cigarettes. A sheaf of letters. Woodcarving of a small bird with wings outstretched in flight. A penknife, with ivory handle. Pen and ink. Cards.
And a slim soldier's bible. The pages marked by his hands, his dirty fingerprints. Pressed flowers spread through the pages of the bible. All of them turned to dry, flattened husks, ghosts only of the long summer light. Now as brittle and sun-starved as he was.
She'd given him the flowers before he left her.
Sees her still: standing on the pier.
Her expression, warm and defiant.
Dese flooers are for you, she'd said.
They'd looked at each other for a long time.
Then she'd said, nearly smiling: Ah like them less weel scaittert, now.
His ship drifting away. Looking back on the pier, with the elbows of his friends jagging into his ribs.
The home folk waving until they rounded the voe, and then the sea-swells beyond Papa Stour.
The flowers had kept their colour on the journey; but were dry and flat by the time they reached France.
Turning over the tin box. His reflection underneath.
A hand waving at his face.
An officer - standing over him. His mouth opening.
The sense of the man's words lost. The officer putting a rifle in his hands. Get up, Jock. Then grabbing him by his lapels, pulling him to his feet. Your ear's bleeding.
Answering, Is it?
Consternation on the face of the officer. Who's line are you on?
Answering: Twelfth, Highland. Heavy artillery.
Get in back with the others, then.
The officer's hands shaking. His smile a thin grimace; the very same drawn out fear there on his face.
Three summers later.
Drinking at the Böd, long hours in the company of the friends that had returned. The voe under cloud: flat and grey as if filled by oil, the wind sharpening its surface as the evening goes.
They drink and sing to the roof and shout for the fiddler at the window to play for them, which he does until he falls drunk.
His uniform beer-stained and trampled by the time he sets back for home, and then with the light coming again in the northeast.
On the next day: all of the islands are there, under a blue sky. High streaks of clouds and a cooling wind.
He walks along a winding road, following the sun. Solitary bees patrolling the hedgerows, nettle-fed butterflies swimming around.
He visits the girl in her resting place, by the edge of a white sand beach. Sweet high stands of cow parsley in the fields surrounding. He has a warm coal still in his chest for the girl with the harsh laughter. The girl who was gone with Spanish Flu before he could come back to Shetland to claim her.
Clouds, dropping on the western slopes of Ronas Hill.
He gathers a posy of flowers, again, and stands before her bright stone.
Sees a collection of flowers nearby, wilting in a small glass jar.
Then lifts up his hands, scatters his gathered flowers to the wind.
Barra and its sister island Vatersay are five hours by ferry from Oban, or forty minutes by ferry from the nearest inhabited island, Eriskay. Take a plane there and you land on a beach: allowing for tide and weather, strand-walkers, cockle-pickers. Climb Heaval (Barra’s highest hill) on a clear evening and you can see the faraway isles of St Kilda; also the nearer uninhabited islands south of Barra itself: Maldoanich, Sandray, Pabbay, Mingulay, Berneray. There are ruins of houses on some of these islands: the people long gone, the townships that once were just shells of stone infilled with nettles and brambles and docken.
In cities we feel the push of thousands, millions, even tens of millions. But with Scottish islands, it’s the opposite. The land and the emptiness crowd in, and you notice the elements: sea, sky, wind, rain, the summer sun. Drive home through fierce weather in the middle of the night and you're on your own: seeing just a few metres ahead, wipers tugged by gusts of wind, tinny-sounding longwave sometimes the only station available on the car radio, the only sign of life beyond yourself.
You can begin to understand, perhaps even ask the questions that the people of St Kilda and Mingulay once asked. How many are we? Are there enough of us? If someone becomes unwell, can we get them to the mainland on time?
My wife and I worked as GPs on the Hebridean islands of Barra and Vatersay for two years, between 2008 and 2010. When we arrived in early January the weather was benign - but just days later there were hurricane force winds. The ferries and flights were cancelled, and so supplies began to dwindle: no milk, no newspapers, no fresh produce. It felt like the end of the world to us, but everyone else just laughed at our lack of know-how. Canny islanders are used to stockpiling beforehand, shrugging and weathering out. Generators run on oil to power fridges, chest freezers. The shelves empty in the supermarket, but stockpiles are good for a while after that. Still, you wonder: what if the weather doesn’t break? What about next week? Ten weeks? Six months, a year?
When islanders became unwell they occasionally had to be sent to hospital on the mainland: to Glasgow, or to Inverness. The scheduled flights or ambulance helicopter wouldn’t fly if there was a bad storm, but the RAF Sea King helicopter might… unless there were hurricane force winds, that is, which could mean they were stuck until it blew over.
A year after our arrival on the island there were reports of a new strain of influenza in Mexico. Swine Flu reached the UK in April 2009, with the first two cases arriving, as it happens, on a flight to Scotland. It turned out to be a mild illness for the vast majority, with the chief medical officer describing it as ‘considerably less lethal’ than feared. We had many meetings with the local health board – videolink, face-to-face – first relating to the policy of containment, then to the treatment phase. We had antivirals, though it was unclear how much they would help; facemasks, the same.
Spent a lot of time beachcombing with my children. One Spring morning we were walking the shore beside our home in Eoligarry – looking for crab-moults, cowrie shells, that one stone more perfectly-shaped than all the rest – and they got ahead of me, and out of sight. I ran after them, but they were gone, too quick. But then I saw them: down in a huddle at the edge of a rockpool, looking at a single piece of green glass smoothed into roundedness.
All the way back home I wondered what would happen if they were left on their own. Would they go on with life: forage, find food, make a new home in someone's house, try to learn, teach each other, hope to make everything normal by going to school even though there was no-one left to teach? Would they cope? Survive? Thrive?
The weather presses in: and the land begins to as well. Bones of sheep in the dunes, wishbones of gulls. Bones of whales. Bones of houses.
Islands force you to think of abandonment: of how the tides will still come twice a day to rub smooth those stones when we are gone.
My novel The Last of us was published by The Borough Press in April 2016.