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Bennibister

Alastair Macleod

Bennibister


Orkney is an island archipelago off the north of Scotland. There are few trees and the landscape is open, almost like the steppe. The people raise cattle and sheep. To the men and women of Orkney horses were always important, and today the sign of the horse is as present as ever. While surnames of characters in this northern novella are those frequently found in the islands, the story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred.


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Bennibister (or the sign of the horse)

 

He was nine, walking across the paddock at home in Qeensland, a halter in his hand. He could hear his father’s voice shouting “go on, rope the bloody thing”. The Brumbie was backing away, its ears went back then it reared, hoofs lashing out. He awoke with a start, that same dream again, so vivid; he could smell the fear of the horse and felt his own shirt drench in sweat. Then the alarm was sounding in his ear. Outside the roar of London traffic heralded the new day.

 

 

The Trader

 

 

He made it to the pavement café and sat down. His leg began trembling again. Around him tall cliffs of shimmering glass and bright metal soared upwards. Before him the aluminium table stabbed the sunlight into his eyes. He clawed his sunglasses from his pocket. His cuff caught the untouched paper cup, a coffee to go, spilling it.

He looked at his watch; today he wasn’t trading, he had an appointment, with his consultant.

 

 

“Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,” said Dr Hafiz, the consultant, looking up from his notes.

“In a nutshell, too much adrenaline, wears everything out, you need to change what you do or you’ll be heading for an early grave.”

 

Like the sea draws sailors, the Market drew men. There was the same daily act of pitting yourself against a vast continually changing entity that had the power to break you; there was the lure of navigating between tranquillity and chaos, of the tension between fear and greed. Like the sea you had to read the signs, know when to be patient and when to act confidently.

These were the things that had drawn Charles Learmonth to trading and the fact that he had a head for figures.

He was of medium build, athletic, his body agile from running and gym work. His face was well proportioned with attractive grey eyes beneath black eyebrows. He kept his dark vigorous hair short. A man among men, handsome and successful, still certain of his own physical invulnerability but yet, like many men, having only a surface awareness of emotional skills.

When he was younger he had been able to take the early rising to check the Asian markets, then return to bed for a short while only to rise at 5.30am again for a morning run, then into the office by 7 am to peruse the numbers. By 9 am the markets open, then begins the stress of deciding to trade or not to trade, to go long or go short. And like the sea it could be lonely. You trade on your own; yes in short breaks he would talk superficially to fellow traders, but it was not a game where you shared anything deep, either about business or in an emotional sense. They were all, after all, alpha males.

The stress was enormous for some trades would be worth a quarter of a million pounds.

Because of this stress, when he was 28, he had moved from pit trading to working from the computer. Even here, as time went by he felt the pressure.

When Charles demurred, the consultant said,

“Look, you claim you’re an expert in reading the signs, well so am I, you need to employ some of your thinking skills to how you are, how your health is and how your body is. You’ve probably got enough money now,” he said, thinking of the useful advice he’d received himself from the young man before him. He had known Charles for some time. Dr Hafiz had several city clients. Charles, when he first met him, had been a typical young trader, with that aggressive ballsyness that some women found attractive. Full of testosterone, maths smart, and super confident.

The man he saw before him now was becoming a husk, his body racked by stress and over indulgence, his spirit dried up by a life of self centredness.

Hafiz recalled the word of a fellow consultant, a Doctor Heilari, a psychiatrist who also had city clients. Heilari had once remarked “You know these fellows think they are masters of the universe, until it comes up and bites them in the arse. What they eventually realise is that there is nothing noble about what they do; they make nothing, nurture no one. There is no altruism in their behaviour. When the hero realises he is no hero, he starts to crumble psychologically.”

“What’s the cure? Said Hafiz.

“If I was an eastern philosopher,” said Heilari, “I would say it was down to karma. They’ve built up a lot of negative karma, lots of unskilful grasping. They need first to become aware of that, then to seek ways to use their skills to help others. “

 

Charles coughed; Dr Hafiz seemed to be deep in thought. Then he turned to Charles.

“My recommendation is that you take off to somewhere quiet and restful, where not very much happens. But," and he paused, “before you do I want you to see someone else, another consultant, a colleague of mine, Dr Heilari.”

It is said the beginnings of a journey always start in the mind.

For Charles, the results of sessions with Dr Heilari fell on fertile ground.

Finally Heilari expressed his analysis. He talked about karma and unskilful grasping but, he said, fully getting to grips with these concepts takes time.

“Part of the cure, initially, is to find a stepping stone, to find another hero image for yourself.”

It took work; Heilari asked him for one session to bring in a significant object or a photo to centre the session. Charles had few things from his past; he brought in two photos, one of his great grandfather as a young man ploughing by horse in Orkney, the other was of his father in Queensland breaking “Brumbies”, the wild Australian horse; a cruel process by all accounts. From these Heilari led Charles gently through a painful unfolding of his difficult childhood in Australia with a cold and demanding father, and the impact of a mother’s early death. Gradually Charles reached a deeper understanding of why he had felt the insistent urge to be first, to be top dog, to prove he was worthy to a father now not even alive.

And so it was, almost a year later, that Charles Learmonth, having put his foot forward on a psychological journey, took a further step and found himself on a physical journey, heading north to Scotland and beyond , to a quieter place, to a place of his ancestors, to Orkney, with hopes of a new life.

 

Orkney

 

Travelling north through Britain means some things diminish and some things increase. Gradually there is less houses and roads, less people the trees thin out , hedges grow lower then turn into drystone dykes ,the fertile farmland gives way to moorland, then after a brief return to lushness in the central belt of Scotland and Perthshire, the train enters the mountains, birches and alders cling to the wide rivers, pines clad the slopes that lead up to the mountain tops. But if you keep going north beyond Inverness and the fertile land at Alness, the heather covered hills crowd back then you break out of the river valleys onto the tundra that is the Flow Country of Caithness. Low stick like trees break up the vast peat bog and the track is lined by broken railway sleepers, set like teeth against drifting winter snow. Then once again as the train sweeps towards Thurso, large open fertile fields appear filled with fat cattle and sheep and then the land stops abruptly and you look out at the green jigsaw pieces that sit on the horizon; Orkney.

 

How could I describe the Orkney Islands? I could say “A woman, lying part submerged, bathing in shallow sea of blue; her smooth rounded hills rising from the ocean, bringing forth an archipelago of islands in the blue water.” This would be true.

Yet this is the North of Britain, the real North where gales and rain lash the treeless landscape and the sea pounds the cliffs. This also would be true. Against this backdrop people make their lives here much as anywhere, they live, they die, they love, they give birth. They reach for things beyond themselves. And Charles was to find that, for him what seemed to be an edge, a new frontier with new discoveries, was already an old community where social interactions had always been complex and shifting, and that other men’s lives were changing too.

 

Gary of Nether Brekkan

 

 

When great aunt Jemima died her wee croft was put up for sale. None of the family alive today actually wanted it but they couldn’t for a long time agree on a sale.

The roof leaked through the stone slates and the Orkney flagstone floors were cold. Its meagre plumbing was noisy and unreliable.

It had a quaint garden, with lots of old flower varieties and a vegetable patch of dark soil cultivated for generations to feed the inhabitants. The house windows were small but on a good day she had sat on an old bench out front looking over Harray Loch to the Hoy Hills.

It was slow to sell and advertising it was expensive. After a while they took it off the market officially and so it sat through that first summer, the weeds unchecked and the spiders spinning silently in the windows.

So when Gary broke up with his wife and needed a place to stay his sister suggested Nether Breckan, his aunt’s old place.

He opened the rusty lock and stepped in; it smelt of earth and stone, mould patches like continents on an atlas stained the wallpaper; a kitchen, a bedroom, a dilapidated WC. There was electric – round bakelite light switches and plug points stood out from the door facings.

It was still furnished, drifting out here in the green sea of Harray like the Marie Celeste. True, there wasn’t a table to be set but there was cutlery in the dresser drawer even a few plates on the shelf above.

He’d bought a kettle. After throwing the dangerously ancient electric mains switch in the hall cupboard he tentatively turned on the cooker. There was a blinding flash followed by a lingering smell of saltpetre.

“Damn,” he cursed under his breath. Out in the van he found his plumber’s blowlamp and set it at an angle on the floor so the blue flame played upon the kettle side. He needed a brew before he faced anything else.

From a cardboard box he pulled out a mug and a milk carton. The rest of his domestic moving possessions looked pitifully little, a frying pan (one she’d never liked), a loaf, some marg, some bacon and tea bags.

His sleeping bag he’d thrown on the bed.

A new life! Maybe, this was better than constant arguments. Things had come to a head when the last contract went wrong. They’d been bumping along just keeping the head above water financially but he’d under estimated badly on that job at the big house. It had solid stone interior walls that took ages to cut through. People thought you were well off when you were self-employed. He sipped his tea and looked out through the cobwebs of the kitchen window.

His van had not gone unnoticed. Maisie Flaws put down her binoculars. “There’s someone at Nether Breckan.” Her sister lifted the cat off her lap and joined her, almost wrenching the field glasses from her grasp. “My your hands is cauld Maisie.”

Their house was heated by a coal stove but they were careful with the coal. It was alright next the stove but if you moved to the leaky window you were assailed by a cold November draught. ”Don’t see no smoke,” said Frieda

“It’s a while now since Jemima died.”

“12 months gone.” said Frieda adjusting the glasses to her particular set of focussing requirements.

“Maybe they’re having it fixed up?"

“Not that lot.” said Maisie “tight as a chicken’s arse. They’ve not got a penny atween them.”

“Well neither have we come to think of it,” said Frieda curtly.

Maisie didn’t like to hear that but it was true - all they had now were their pensions and their ailments. Yet Maisie was hot on dignity, they had that, and she felt they had gathered some status. She had been the chairwoman of the SWRI for 6 years running and her sister the treasurer.

They kept their house clean and bright and every Thursday they had a “gas ring” round; a group of ladies of a similar age, who knew each other well and who met to “gas” about the parish and “ither folk”.

They looked forward to that. But less mobile now than they once were, news to contribute to the gas ring was hard to come by so action at Nether Breckan was doubly important.

Maisie and Frieda had by now worked out the sign on the side of the van, “Gary Bews Plumber”.

“Oh a ken who that is, its Jemima’s nephew.” said Frieda.

“Great nephew “corrected Maisie.

“Isn’t he married?”

“Probably left her,” said Maisie.

The prospect of a lengthy, perhaps unending source of gossip was opening up.

Meanwhile the object of their attentions was crawling fully clothed into a polyester sleeping bag and drifting off to sleep.

 

Bennibister

 

Glued to his computer, Gary’s last client, Charles Learmonth of Bennibister was checking his shares. The house was moderately warm; the plumbing wasn’t quite working properly yet – the plumber kept appearing then disappearing.

Charles’ stocks were up. Although he was now officially retired from trading, each day he studied the market and adjusted his portfolio. He’d been in the city for 15 years - it was enough, and he’d invested his bonuses wisely in stocks and property. His net income now was around £85,000 per annum.

He hadn’t always been alone in life. He’d been married for seven years and had two children, Bethany and Jon, but they were with his wife in Devon. She had hated the long hours he spent in trading and one day just left the London flat. A year later he met an old flame on the internet and they clicked once again but she had three grown up children now and they resented Charles. It had been awkward and eventually undermined the relationship.

Here he was now, emotionally battered and wary. He hoped that Orkney would create a new challenge and, he loved fishing, or he had. He’d discovered rather belatedly that women don’t like fishing and that he was therefore statistically very unlikely to meet the opposite sex on the end of a rod unless it was of the trout variety.

He had Orkney connections; his great great grand parents had moved away in the eighteen hundreds, first to Australia then back to London. Somewhere here, he was sure, he had relatives but he’d hardly had time to look what with the house renovations.

The truth was he was beginning to find this semi-retirement business limiting. It did not offer the risk and challenge he was used to.

He wondered if he should invest in some local enterprise that was both risky and interesting.

He also realised he lacked links into the local community. People said hallo in the shop and the garage but he didn’t know what was going on in the parish.

 

The house was two storied and large. Bennibister had been an eighteenth century Laird’s house, in the Georgian vernacular, built, they said, with money made from the collecting and burning of seaweed to make fertiliser, before guano was imported from Chile.

Under its slated roof, dormered attic and many chimney pots, the walls, harled with beach pebbles, as was the custom in the north, were punctuated by white painted substantial sash windows, and, from its south facing frontage jutted a small portico, the door of which was elegantly corniced and pilastered.

There were eight bedrooms, three reception rooms, a kitchen, a boot room, various outhouses and a walled garden. He’d bought it for £350,000 pounds, to him a bargain. In London this would have gone for nearly a million.

He’d had a cleaner in London so he advertised for one here. There were few applications. Apparently domestic work was not popular and there were plenty of other local jobs to be had.

So he recast the advert – secretary/housekeeper required.

The only applicant was the girl in front of him. Tall, short close cropped red hair, punk clothing, and bang earrings.

His head said no and his heart said no. She was outwardly unsuitable but came with glowing references.

“Please try to see beyond the outward appearance,” said her referee, “Chloe is a caring, hard working girl who needs a break in life,” remarked her YT tutor.

“Risk”, he thought to himself. “Why not,” He hired her.

One day as he drove out of the drive and along the county road, Chloe passed him at great speed on her Honda supercharged bike heading for town.

Her approach to cleaning was noisy and aggressive. She would enter a room unannounced and belt round wielding the hoover vigorously.

“She’s a bit rough round the edges, “said her tutor on the phone. Understatement thought Charles, used to his Venezuelan cleaner in London, all smiles and discrete quietness.

One day Chloe asked for a lift.

“Bike’s buggered,” she said. “Gasket.”

He drove her into Kirkwall. All the way they had this detailed technical discussion about gaskets, timing, performance; not his usual man-girl conversation. She never mentioned men or boyfriends – was she gay?

Gary the plumber fleshed out a few details. “See you’ve got a cleaner.”

“Yes, “said Charles cautiously.

“Did you know,” Gary whispered, “her father’s an alcoholic, mother ran off with a sailor from south - she’s been in care.”

These revelations were said in a way that seemed to indicate that Chloe was fated to be a bad lot, an “edge of society person,” as his first wife had once described a street beggar in London. “She’s kippin on her friend’s couch, “ added Gary who, if he stopped to think, was in somewhat similar circumstances.

But Chloe proved reliable and mostly punctual, give or take the odd puncture or other mechanical failures.

By now the painters were in the house and Chloe’s activities were restricted. Dusting and hoovering were out as dust could stick to the paint, so Charles set her to cleaning and polishing the car out front in the drive.

“Chloe, what ambitions have you got?"

“Get a bigger bike," She said.

“Nothing more? Houses? Marriage?, Career?"

“Well that seems so far off for me. I like where I am. I’ve got a job and the bike, that’s enough for me; my tutor says I’ve got to be stable.”

Charles turned back to the house. He’d never been content with his lot like Chloe, he’d always wanted more, more money, a better house, and even now when he had it he still wanted more of something, but what?

 

Something did arrive next day. The council refuse men delivered a green cone for the disposal of foodstuffs.

I

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