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Martyn Clayton   Contributor -- England




                            






Martyn Clayton is a writer and photographer based in York, England. He's been published widely as a magazine and newspaper journalist both nationally and internationally. He is the author of a non-fiction book about the Roma people. He writes fiction as a distraction and has published two novels. His photography began as a necessity to accompany feature articles, but has developed into a full-blown passion over the years.














Short Story: "The Shining Place"

Photos: Wester Ross, Scotland





































                          








                   











 

The Shining Place

By Martyn Clayton 

 

 This village, if you can really call six houses scattered between hills and fenced in by the ocean a village, was built on a site the ancients once called ‘The Shining Place’. That sounds almost Native American or something. But it’s not. It’s authentically north-west Scotland. It predates the Gaels, it might be Pictish, or even earlier. Something ancient and aboriginal, handed down from people to people, revered by invaders and settlers too superstitious to change it, carried in local folklore until it reached my ears. It was Bruce who told me. He had never seemed to me to be one for old poetry. He couldn’t speak of love, or emotions. Instead he told me of field boundaries and the best ways to build a rudimentary fishing boat. Which I’m sure he must of thought would come in handy for a single female writer living miles from civilisation. Needless to say it never has.  Before you begin thinking that Bruce is some weather-worn crinkle faced crofter born of this village and of generations of toil against the odds I feel I should paint a slightly more accurate picture. He’s a blow-in like me. An Edinburgh divorcee, former teacher at a public school, famous for producing former prime ministers. You know the one I’m sure. It sounds like a Greek cheese, rather than a grey walled seat of learning for the Scottish establishment, and the offspring of countless wealthy Macs and Robertsons in the US of A, wanting to give Hamish Jr, ‘an authentic Scottish education.’

   Bruce doesn’t seem to suit this place. He looks awkward. I saw him yesterday morning, hammering in a gate post at the end of his little drive. I was driving past on the way to Ullapool. They’ve got a supermarket. A small one, but being inside makes me feel that I’m not really living at the end of the earth. I get to see humans doing 21st century human things. I take an inordinate amount of time at the cheese counter mulling over the double-Gloucester and the Orkney cheddar. I beam gleefully at checkout girls who must think I’m a member of some peculiar cult of  manic overfriendly Englishwomen cast out of the Home Counties for  looking strangers in the eye when you spoke to them. But they’re always polite.

   I wound down my window to speak to Bruce. He put down his mallet and stood with his arms awkwardly at his side, as if he were on a parade ground. It made me want to shout ‘at ease’, but I resisted.

   ‘Good morning Annabel.’

I hate being called Annabel. It makes me think of my father. My natural one, not the one I call dad. He would never refer to me as Anna. Likewise the teachers at school. ‘Annabel Williamson, yet again you take crass stupidity to new heights’. That was Mrs Browning. She hated me. With her fusty tweed skirts and ridiculous pussycat bow blouses in awful man-made fibres that always had sweat patches under the arms by the end of double history on a Thursday afternoon.  Weirdly, Bruce reminds me of her. Not that I could ever see him in a tweed skirt, although I’m fairly certain he’d rock a kilt on ‘ceremonial occasions.’ He’s just the type.  I could well imagine his weedy walking-stick legs shivering below a Ferguson tartan as he watched some second cousin or other wed their loved one outside a grey little church. I doubt he’d smile all day. Even if he was half-cut. More than likely he’d go from dour solemn sobriety, to mournful drink-filled regret. Maybe with a measure of self-hatred thrown in. For his own failures on the marriage front perhaps, but he’d never show it, or talk about it. He’d just grimace, and look down his nose at you as if the existence of the rest of humanity was part of the problem. I could write something glib and obvious here about Presbyterianism but I’ll try my best to resist. 

   I said my good mornings, and hoped to getaway quickly, before he began to address me on some random matter. I think he’s suspicious of my solitary life. For him it’s OK of course. He’s your heroic Scottish male.  I on the other hand must appear to be the frivolous, sociable English female. Surely, my adventures in the landscape should be accompanied by a man capable of handling whatever this beautiful but treacherous place can throw at us. But I manage well enough, and besides, I’ve done the appendage thing and he was the first to flee not me.

   ‘Did you hear the wind yesterday evening?’ He asked. Of course I had.

   ‘It was pretty wild.’

   ‘Yes. I wondered if I should come across and see you.’

   ‘Why?’

    ‘Well it must have been alarming.’

    ‘We did actually have wind in England. I have heard it before.’  As soon as I said it I realised just how funny it sounded: ‘Englishwoman admits to national flatulence.’  Someone with a sense of humour would have come back at me immediately. Not Bruce though.

    ‘Yes of course. I did think though…’

    ‘Well tell you what Bruce, you keep thinking and tell me when I get back. I’m in need of supplies.’ I hit the accelerator and started to pull off. Bruce just stood there staring at the car, watching me disappear up the winding single track road that skirted the jagged bay. I glanced at his rigid figure in the wing mirror. He looked eerily ancient. He’s only a decade older than me, in his mid-forties but he seems like someone from another era entirely. Not for the first time I found myself wishing I had a different near neighbour, at the same time as I felt guilty for allowing my impatience to show. It’s always been a fault of mine.

   I’m grateful for Shona. She and her husband have become like surrogate family. They live in the next house along from Bruce, and are the authentic local article. They find Bruce equally odd.

   ‘You know it’s because he likes you don’t you.’  Shona had teased.

   ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ I couldn’t even contemplate that thought. It was just too, well, weird.

   ‘He does, even Cam says so and he’s clueless on relationships normally. You know that day he took him fishing up the loch he said he spent all his time talking about you.’

   ‘Really?’

   ‘Aye never stopped apparently. How capable he thought you were, how lonely it must be for you, how friendly you were.’

   That was the point that I decided I needed to stop showing him even the slightest bit of affection or interest. I say hello when I see him but leave it at that.

   ‘But you must find it flattering.’ Shona pulled her feet underneath her on the sofa, and looked at me with a prurient knowing grin.

  ‘No way! Not at all. Not in the slightest. Him? That’s just wrong.’

To be honest I find any attention difficult. Why do you think I stayed here after Tom left? It wasn’t because I loved it or felt at home.  It was more the lack of population that I needed. I wanted to hide my face. Out here it was easy to be unlovely. There wasn’t the constant querying and comparisons from friends and colleagues I’d have got back in the city. Those obsessed with ending my single status, those newly guarded against me, as I prowled around their men folk like a, like a…what exactly? A dowdy weather-beaten on the shelf blow-back from the hills. Yeah, some threat to their domestic contentment I’d represent.

   When you lose the one great love of your life, the man you’ve staked everything on, built castle upon castle in some dream lit bubblegum sky, it’s hard then to admit you made a mistake. I believed in a fairy-tale. I followed my photographer boy to this isolated little bay so he could commune with nature through the means of his mystical viewfinder.

   ‘It’s primal Anna; the technology I use is irrelevant. It’s just me, and the sky, and the wind, and whatever gets trapped in that little rectangle.’

   ‘And what do you most like to trap.’ I was leading him of course. I wanted to be flattered. On cue he obliged.

  ‘I try to trap you, but I’m not sure anyone really ever could. You’re like an eagle. Something I can only ever fleetingly capture in flight, but never hold or predict. That’s why I love you.’

   Who wouldn’t fall for talk like that? Now I write it down it looks so clichéd. Like something from pulp romance, too tacky to come from the mouth of someone you used to think was impossibly poetic and wise. But he wasn’t really wise. He could talk the talk, push the right buttons, my responding to it confirming that underneath my postgraduate degrees and my former ability to talk high-flown bollocks on the literary cheesy pineapple circuit, I’m just a stupid believer in fairy-tales and pauper-princes. Sadly, neither really exists.  Tom was no prince even if at times he was a pauper.

   I remember telling him about what Bruce had told me. About the village and the bay being known as The Shining Place. I asked Tom if he knew what it meant. He wasn’t really listening. I was throwing diced peppers and a tin of water-chestnuts in the scratched old wok for yet another veggie stir-fry. Tom sat at the kitchen table, dismantling some old Russian camera he’d bought off Ebay, spreading its intricate innards across pages from old copies of The Scotsman. Holyrood politics always provided an inconsequential backdrop to any potentially messy job. I’d lost count of how many times I’d polished my Doc Martens on Alex Salmond’s large grinning visage.

   ‘What sorry?’ He gave me a look that screamed tetchy impatience, and I flinched, hurt but trying not to show it.

   ‘Oh nothing.’

   ‘Right.’ He shook his head dismissively and returned to his camera. He shook his head. He dismissed my question with a brief shake of his (admittedly handsome) head. I’ve repeated myself to emphasise my disgust at this. Just in case that isn’t already clear. When I tell you what came next it will be clearer still.

   I was incensed. I picked up the burnt old oven gloves which stank of too many casserole dribbles and my personal failure to buy a new pair, and I threw them across the kitchen to where he was sitting. I hoped to hit him. I didn’t, instead they flew into his camera, sending the intricate workings of an expensive Soviet antique flying every which way across the room. He looked at me with a face shocked into thunder just before the storm broke. I leaned back against the unit and looked at him not quite being able to decide whether to play this defiantly or display some sympathy making guilt. As it was I fell between two emotional stools leaving all the undefined space Tom needed to launch a full-frontal verbal jab right into my over-exposed guts.

   ‘You silly fucking cow!’ He jumped to his feet, leaning forward leerily. ‘You’ve fucking gone and fucked up my camera! What the fuck were you thinking?’

I flinched, wounded. I hated to see him like this but it happened and it shouldn’t. It really shouldn’t. Someone who spoke like he did about stars and eagles shouldn’t be full of words like these, or have feelings towards me like the ones now on display.

They jarred too much with the former. I backed off telling him that I was so, so, sorry, that if we looked we could find all the bits, that it wasn’t the end of the world, that we could put the thing back together, that I’d look online immediately and buy him a new one. He just shook his head again. The ever-present negative gesture that I now seemed to permanently inspire.

   ‘What’s the fucking point?’

   He blustered agitated out into the little back garden. I call it a garden, it’s more a small fenced in patch of rough land good only for Cheviot sheep, and maybe even they would find it fairly sparse fare. He took a spade from the outhouse and started digging. God knows what, just turning the land over. He had once said that if he found a couple of old windscreens he might be able to grow stuff underneath them, shield baby pumpkins and courgettes from the worst of the weather. That was it, he was digging for that reason. Laying plans for the future, contemplating a more bountiful harvest a year from now, putting down roots. Except, as I watched him and told myself this, I knew that it wasn’t the case. He was sweating me out of his system, exerting himself to displace his anger, his growing irritation with my presence in his presence.

    He was out there for two hours. It was getting dark and he didn’t have a coat. In December, in the north-west of Scotland? Yet he didn’t seem to notice, just kept digging until the whole of the grass was dug over revealing soft black peaty earth. When it was done he leaned back on his spade and admired his work.

   The sun was setting over the bay, out across the sound twilighting the black uninhabited islands that sat in the middle. Tom had said he was going to buy a boat and sail me across to see them. One of them had once been inhabited by a tiny settlement, but they’d left one by one and now their homes were nothing but ruins, the island belonging to an estate that had neither the funds nor the inclination to do much with it.

   He came in, showered, changed his clothes and took himself into the study where he stayed all evening. I grabbed a sleeping bag and a pillow and laid it out in the front room anticipating a night on the sofa. When he entered these kinds of uncommunicative moods he was impossible to reach and being in his presence felt like being whacked repeatedly across the face with an iron bar. He didn’t have to say anything to make me feel bad.

   Later I would hear him doing something upstairs, moving stuff around, going in and out of the wardrobe. I must have known what he was doing but I couldn’t admit it to myself.  Eventually the noises from upstairs fell silent. The hours passed. I could hear his gentle snoring as I used the bathroom. I listened at the door of our bedroom unable to enter. His breathing. I stood still and meditated on it, seeing if I could find anything within it that told me of his intentions, where I now came in his affections. Then I cursed my ineffectualness my inability just to open the door, turn on the light and say, now listen here Mr, I only made a mistake and you’ve no right to give me the cold shoulder just because…

   But I didn’t. I went back downstairs. I didn’t cry or do the poor me thing. Tears are rarely my style. Instead I stood in the kitchen and made a cup of tea, placing a solitary teabag in a mug. In it I thought I saw my future. A destiny based on largely redundant teapots and the meal for one.

   I was about to let down the kitchen blinds when I saw a flash of light in the sky. It made me jump. I looked again, something coloured flew across the horizon. Was it a plane? We were on several flight paths. No, it didn’t move like any kind of aircraft? I must be seeing things I thought. I looked again and it became clear. The sky was alive, a rolling patchwork of translucent colour, filling the horizon across the bay. It was the lights, the Northern Lights. I knew they were not infrequent here, but this was the first time I’d ever noticed them and it felt auspicious. I quickly grabbed a torch from under the sink, pulled on a pair of wellies and picked up a little digital camera from the draw of the Welsh dresser. My camera, not Tom’s. It had remained there, hidden for the past ten months. Since I’d lived with him I’d taken very few shots with it, whereas previously I used to love to lose myself in composing an image of something or other. Living with such an accomplished professional ‘photo-artist’ as Tom I’d started to be embarrassed about my efforts. He’d look at them with a critical eye, offering well-meaning advice about how I could improve the finished article until I reached the point where I decided to leave it all to him. He was just so much better than me. Tonight though, Tom slept, and the Northern Lights had come to my studio to be photographed by Anna Williamson, fearless photographer of the North-Western frontier. Or something.

   I stood in the garden, barely noticing the cold despite the fact I was only wearing a long thick cardigan over a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, and watched the display through the viewfinder, snapping shot after shot after shot whilst the lights grew brighter, then waned, then changed colour, lighting up the waves on the beach, the islands, the headlands, the mountains beyond the horizon and all the colours of the hills in reflection of the full-spectrum in the skies. It was awe-inspiring. My insides trembled as rush after rush of sublime natural forgetting washed away the pain of the evening. As eventually they faded and my memory card was full I let the camera from my eye and stood there in the darkness. From the corner of my vision I saw a spot of light up the road. It was a torch. It was coming from Bruce’s garden. I turned on my torch and flashed it once, then twice in his direction. There was darkness for a second, and then it flashed back.

   I smiled. Of course. The Shining Place. That was what he’d meant and I’d shared it with him, the awkward stiff outsider miles from anywhere by a bay at the ends of the earth, the last two souls on the planet with a torch to their name.

   The next morning I stood on the rough-track by the cottage as Tom threw his bags into his battered old Range Rover and ran through his ‘I quit’ repertoire ;

   ‘I just think to stay here would be doing us both a disservice.’

   ‘I’m getting creatively frustrated and taking it out on you. I hate myself for that.’

   ‘I don’t want to be a burden any longer.’

The only thing that was missing was ‘it’s not you, it’s me’, but that was about the gist of it. He hugged me once, and wiped away a tear from the corner of his left eye. It was quite a display.  I still didn’t cry. I just looked down the road refusing to fully engage eye contact.

   ‘Don’t make this difficult for me.’ He implored, but I still refused to be swayed into some kind of easy ‘lets still be friends’ rapprochement. Instead I switched my attention to remembering the lights, how they had made so much sense, how they’d made me forget myself and forget about him.

   As the Range Rover drove up the track I decided not to stand and watch it leave like Meryl Streep in some god-awful woman scorned melodrama. Instead I went inside, boiled the kettle, put a solitary tea-bag in my favourite mug and grabbed my notepad. On a clean page I wrote down the words ‘The Night I First Saw The Lights’. I underlined it and put the date:

 

21st December 2007

 

    It’s nearly a year since that night and I still wait for their return but I’m confident they’ll be back. Then I’ll stand, all alone in my dug over rough little garden and watch something beyond my comprehension fill my empty black horizon. Then it might be time to forget myself again and  for a moment at least the world will turn just that little bit easier.























































            





 









            
















             





























































































             



































               
























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