THE GREAT MIGRATION

It was a beautiful scarf.   I found it in an odd, Far Eastern Emporium in Fife, shining out of a heap of inferior fabrics.   It was made of some lustrous, lovely material, light but warm, perhaps some mixture of cashmere and silk, expertly woven and hand finished.    The colours were restrained – shades subtly intermingling of cream, beige and grey – my kind of colours.    There was only one of it.   It was everything I like – luxurious, understated, individual, elegant, expensive.    For a mere wisp of fabric, it was prodigiously expensive.   The scarf called out to me as though it knew it was mine.   I did not buy it.

But before we left Scotland that year, I took my husband there.    The scarf was still unsold.   He bought it and gave it to me.    It was and to this day remains the most expensive scarf that I have ever owned.

I took it home and was delighted with it.   The scarf went with every outfit I had envisaged.   I bought a few more for good measure.    It suited my face.   It added about £100 to the cost that would be guessed for every outfit it graced.     I folded it carefully into my scarf drawer, the pearl of my collection.

Weeks passed into months.    I wore all the outfits.    I took out the scarf and tried it on.   It always looked terrific.    I just never wore it.   I knew then that it would need a special occasion to call it out of its box, and I was content to wait.

John’s venerable Aunt, a lady ‘of the first degree’, beloved by him, valued by me, died in the fullness of days.    She had been an elegant lady and I hoped to look my best in tribute to her.   As I packed, I laid out the scarf.   Under my blacks, it would lighten my dress, so I did not cut so sombre a figure at the post funeral reception.   Yet, come the day, the scarf did not appear.

I had not been in the best of order before we left, and the effort of the journey, plus some bug that we both contracted, rendered me quite poorly, and our hostesses, tender and lovely women one and all, had to go to increasing lengths to look after me.

So we arrived at the day before we return, when we visited my mother who had been in increasingly declining health in her care home.   I was in such a state of panic and fear as to how I would find her that I was barely able to dress.   My outfit was so plain, I thought it would depress my mother, so I snatched the scarf out of my suitcase and put it on without looking at it.

We took flowers and chocolates.   The road to where she lives seemed to be ten times as long as usual.   There was ice on the puddles.

My first impression, on seeing my mother – that impression that is not received through the visual eye – was that her skeletal frame is no longer connected by muscle or flesh so she appeared to me to be a heap of bones in tangled disorder, with a living head, disproportionately large, in the middle of this jumble, and great burning eyes.     She knew it was me as soon as I appeared, and these great eyes followed me as a baby watches his mother.   I was so distressed by her appearance that I was only just able to kiss and greet her and then fussed over trivial things, hiding my face.

Generally, when John and I present for an encounter where some emotional exchange will be required, he sets it up for me.   He makes sure I am comfortable;  that I receive the person I’ve come principally to talk with;  that there’s privacy, etc., and then he leaves me to it, either standing behind me, mostly silent, or watching from a discreet distance, or if it’s a trusted friend, leaving us to it.     But this time, God bless him, he did it all.   He talked valiantly about my mother’s health, the flowers we had brought, joked about the chocolates, our journey, the tribulations of the Arran ferry, on and on, an endless flow of easy small talk, while I gathered my wits.    Eventually I felt able to talk.

My father – may I meet him in the after life – blazed through our lives like a fiery comet with all its beauty and potential destructiveness, and in my youthful folly I had blamed my mother for not mitigating the fires of his passions.    But I had come to see – and now to say – that at last I had understood that though in my ignorance I had perceived her as merely a dusky asteroid trailing in his wake, in fact she had been a dark and lovely planet in her own right, who had exerted a powerful counter-balancing influence on his erratic orbit.    Life with him was precarious – though he gave us many gifts – but without her it would have been perilous in the extreme.

Facing her now, it appeared I had left it too late.     Her sentences did not connect from beginning to end.   Her replies did not apply to our questions.    She seemed obsessed by a large ornamental china dog and many of her remarks were addressed to it.    But I could  sense that she herself still sat behind the huge eyes that never left my face.

In previous conversations I have talked of things in our joint memories that she had been able to share in, even though her present memory was deficient.   This time, I talked of how we used to walk, Eugene and I and our parents, down the valley of Strathmore in darkness;  how I had loved the velvety night, sometimes bright with moonlight, sometimes black as Hades, and how we would see the Milky Way emblazoned across the night sky like a bridge of light.   I spoke of her childhood with her parents on Lewis, and of her siblings, Lewis, Mairi and Margaret, and Margaret’s daughter Sheena.   I spoke of Eugene and myself;  of our children, and her great grandchildren.   She listened with pleasure, as to a fairytale, and there was no connection to her memory at all.

Finally I found something she could take an interest in:  my scarf.   She and I had always been interested in fabric.   She fingered it and  admired it and I told her this was the first day I had ever worn it.

Previously we had taken her back to her room so we could talk in some privacy, but there was no possibility of doing that now.   One felt she would just disintegrate into dust if you tried to rearrange her.   All the while we were there we were annoyed by a disturbed woman who kept saying to John she knew all about us, all the tricks we were up to, the police had been called.    My mother, who would once have got very annoyed about this, watched it as though it were on the far side of the lake.   John bought us some respite by suggesting the woman go and fetch a policeman, or one of higher rank.

After about 45 minutes, some of my mother’s powers of speech returned.   We asked her if she needed anything, to which she made a very typical- of- her reply, ‘I have decided I should no longer bother my visitors with  my wants, so no thank you.’     She said to me that I had ‘ever been dutiful’ and now I had done my duty and come to visit her.   But I could see her in her burning eyes, and I took hold of her hands and said I had never come to visit her as a duty.   Then, three times, she said we had spent enough time with her and we should leave.   (This makes her sound cold and grudging, but she wasn’t:  in her day she was loving, sympathetic, tender, attractive, amusing, fun.)

Usually she says to me, ‘When will I see you again?’ but there was none of that this time.   I stood up and said to her, ‘I am going to leave you now.’    I pointed to the china dog.   ‘That dog is a friend.’    Then I took off my scarf.    My mother said, (again how she always tended to receive a gift), ‘I hope you are not proposing to give me that scarf.’   But when I put it round her neck and arranged it, she made no further objections.    I kissed her and said good-bye and walked away.    The deranged woman caught my hand and I said, God bless you too, my dear.   At the last point where I could see my mother, I looked back – she was still watching me, and raised my hand in farewell.    As soon as I passed out of her line of vision, I began to weep.

I left John to make his good-byes, thank the staff, unlock the door.   He parked the car along the roadside for me to recover myself.   In the sky were hundreds, if not thousands of geese, in a huge circling mass, in quantities I had never before seen together.   The air was full of their cries.    We watched in wonder as they circled round and round and in a little while they headed off North, skein after skein of them, some in small family groups, some more than a hundred strong.

Oh my mother, I thought.    It is time for the great migration.    Go North with the grey geese.

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CROW

CROW

Our book group recently read the wonderful Crow Country by Mark Cocker.    I really enjoyed it.   The whole book is a prose poem in praise of the crow, all the better because this bird tends to be a demonised and despised object.

From our childhood in Central Scotland,  I remember a  boy who lived near us, who used to go searching for crows’ nests (involving considerable risk to him as of course he had to climb high into the trees, no doubt harrassed by crows, to get at them).     He would boast of killing all the baby birds.   He invited me to accompany him on one of these delightful expeditions but I declined, and he seemed very disappointed, as though a girl could have no more inviting a prospect for killing a few hours (and birds.)   I have since occasionally wondered whether he graduated onto murdering anything else.   But actually I would guess not for he was not a wholly unkind fellow.   Aged about 9 himself, he appeared to have almost sole charge of a little brother aged about 3, whom he perpetually carried in his arms.   When the brother would cry and therefore was liable to get his guardian into trouble, the crow killer would cry anxiously, jiggling the child up and down, Laugh, Willie!    This expression has passed into family usage and is used to indicate an occasion when you’re invited to laugh though it’s not at all funny.   I hold the murder of the baby crows against him, but I acknowledge that he exhibited some grace and kindness in what was a difficult childhood.

If you actually look dispassionately at the crow, it is a handsome bird in its glowing black plumage with the jewel-like green sheen.   It has a strutting walk, and a bright and intelligent eye.   In their rookeries, some of which have stood in the same places for a thousand years, their raucous cawing as they build their nests is one of the first harbingers of spring.

I had noticed, when occasionally we stay at the Westmorland Hotel, a delightful find at Tebay Services, en route to Scotland, that crows roost near your window overnight in large convocations, leaving in a noisy departure en masse at dawn.   The author explored and researched some of these sites, finding references to crows being in that same place hundreds of years before now.

When we were on Orkney last Autumn, we had a lovely apartment at Finstown.  We used to get up quite early and sit in our comfortable armchairs before the large picture window, having a  leisurely breakfast and watching the wildlife – mainly seabirds, seals and leaping large fish.    Imagine our delight when suddenly our silent view of the sea was filled with crows just leaving their rookery which was behind our house.   The  empty sky would be full of them, noisy and active.   Some of them exhibited that curious ‘falling out of the sky’ dance that they do when they freefall and tumble from a great height, and then seize control of the flight again just before they hit the ground.    John likes crows and so do I.  Realising this happened every morning, he was ready with his camera, and took the lovely photograph below.

When John and I were at the Grand Canyon in the USA, the scale of the canyon filled me with horror and a kind of mental vertigo and I mostly clung to walls and longed for flat places, so I spent some time sitting waiting while John explored places with more enthusiasm than I could muster.     There I watched with delight – wonderful things can present themselves to you if you sit still and silent –  – crows doing what I took to be a mating or pair bonding dance, where two birds would come together and at first rotating slowly around one another, they would tumble and fall and glide on the thermals, while far below them the terrible abyss yawned.

Crows leaving the rookery. Finstown, Orkney.   September 2011.

I hope you share my delight.