This extract from an early draft of And the Land Lay Still (Penguin, 2011) represents an episode absent from the final, published version of that novel. This is its first appearance in print.Peninsula 2012 will feature a further two exclusive pieces from James Robertson.
Catriona MacKay, New Year 1973–74
For a while Catriona had the nickname Scoop, on account of her ability to knock back vast quantities of drink. White wine, red wine, lager, vodka, gin, Bacardi, cider – she was the queen of whatever bevvy was put in front of her. The only drink she couldn’t stand was whisky. An old man’s drink. Her old man’s drink. The blends were too rough and the malts were too dear and the smell of any of them made her feel sick. But give her a pint of wine or a gallon of Tennent’s and she could dance, sing and fall over with the best of them. At getting legless, she was the champion.
She was back in Inverness for the holidays, and she and her sister Chrissie reconnected almost as if she’d never been away, as if being at the university wasn’t changing her at all. Almost as if. She knew in her heart she was different already, that she was growing out of the place even though she loved being back. All the other girls she mixed with in Edinburgh felt the same: some were the first members of their families ever to go on to higher education, many were the first females ever to go, and nearly all were of the first generation to go. It marked you out. Your family were proud of you but resentful too, they wanted you to go but not to leave, they wanted you to succeed but they didn’t want to stand in your shadow, they thought it a fine thing to see so many bright Highland youngsters heading off to Aberdeen and Glasgow and Edinburgh, setting out into the great world, but they still wanted to claim you, they thought your place was where you were from, the Highlands couldn’t afford to lose all its talent to the South and who did you think you were anyway, to be gallivanting off like that? And that was just Inverness. If you were from Cromarty or Tain or Brora or Bettyhill or some place even smaller than Bettyhill that she couldn’t imagine, what must it be like? They’d have a piper to pipe you when you went away, and a collie to nip your ankles when you came back.
Chrissie was a year older than her. She worked in a carpet shop six days a week on a crap wage but she earned a bonus based on the sales she made each month, and she was good; she used to say she could sell Axminster Turkey to a farmer for his byre if he would just give her twenty minutes to talk him through it. She was saving like mad so she and her boyfriend Danny could get married. Danny was making good money as a fitter at the oil construction yard at Ardersier, and he and Chrissie had their names on the waiting list for a corporation house, but what they were really aiming for was to buy their own place – and that would be a first in the family to match Catriona’s academic achievements. ‘You might have the learning in this family,’ Chrissie said good-naturedly, ‘but I’ve got the brains. I’ll be living like a queen when you’re still sitting exams.’
On Hogmanay the two of them hit the pubs early in the evening, bought a carry-out before closing-time and clinked their way round to Danny’s folks for a breather before the real drinking started. It was icy cold, the pavements were white with frost and beyond the street lights the sky was clear and bright with stars. Catriona thought of the daft lassies getting pissed on Hogmanay on other planets in other universes. She could beat the lot of them if it came to a stand-up drink.
Morag, Danny’s mother, expressed her love for anybody who set foot in her house by filling them with soup, sandwiches, black bun and shortbread, and mugs of tea from a bottomless teapot. The girls sat at the kitchen table for a while, then took their mugs through to the front room where Jim, Danny’s father, was sitting in his usual chair beside the fire. ‘Aye,’ Jim said, loquacious as ever, and they sat on the sofa opposite him while Morag bustled back and forth with fresh supplies on a tray. Jim stared placidly at the television. Seemingly he had been zombified by too much of it over the years; at any rate he was immune to the tartan nightmare unfolding on screen as midnight approached, while Catriona and Chrissie snorted and giggled on the sofa, groaning at Moira Anderson’s singing and then having to behave themselves when Morag came back and joined in with the chorus.
Occasionally Jim would say ‘Aye’ in a meaningful way, and smile at them, which (Chrissie said later) was about as much as she’d ever got out of her prospective father-in-law but it was better than abuse or ignorance. She did worry that Danny had the same non-verbal genes, as he didn’t say a lot either, but at least he could string a sentence together. There was a selection of glasses set out on the sideboard along with a bottle of whisky, a bottle of port and half a dozen cans of Export. They knew that none of it would get poured till the bells so they bided their time, the tea wouldn’t do them any harm and they had a long night ahead of them.
Danny had gone out earlier with some of his workmates and came in steaming at twenty to midnight. Morag made him sit between the girls and brought him a towering plateful of sandwiches. At three minutes to the hour Jim said, ‘Aye,’ cracked open an Export and handed it to Danny, poured three wee glasses of port for the women and a huge dram for himself and said, ‘Slainte mhath, everybody.’ ‘Auld Lang Syne’ started on the telly and there was cheering and kissing and handshaking and Jim, almost loquacious with a drink in his hand, said, ‘Happy New Year,’ and went round the room doing the same thing only without the cheering, and Morag followed on behind and told Chrissie she was like their own daughter and then said the same to Catriona in case she felt left out. Danny and Chrissie had a kiss and a cuddle and then Danny said, ‘Excuse me,’ and disengaged himself very rapidly and lurched out of the room and a few seconds later they heard him being sick in the toilet.
‘I hope it wasn’t the egg sandwiches,’ Morag said, and Chrissie said, ‘I don’t think so, I think it was when I gave him that wee bit squeeze,’ and Catriona said, ‘You should never do that to a man with drink taken,’ and Jim, you couldn’t hold him back now, said, ‘Aye, not when he’s taken that much anyway,’ and they all laughed. Chrissie went to see how he was doing and found him unconscious face down on his bed, which, she said, was probably the best place for him.
‘It’s just you and me tonight, then, sister,’ she said, and they took their leave of Jim and Morag, Morag arming them with a sausage roll each against the frosty night, and off they went with their carry-out still intact.
It was nearly one o’ clock. The streets were full of drunk young people swaying their way between the houses of friends and neighbours, singing and shouting, slipping on occasional stretches of black ice, a few fighting in a slapdash fashion, nothing serious though for it was New Year after all. Older folk were heading for their beds or already in them with the lights out. The girls were just getting started. Chrissie knew of some all-night party supposedly happening out on Clachnaharry Road, so they headed off in that direction, across the river, past the football park and out over the Caledonian Canal. And here was a familiar figure coming towards them, their father. He was heading for home from the Clachnaharry Inn where there’d been a lock-in. The three of them clutched each other in the middle of the tarmac, and kissed and wished each other a good New Year.
‘Now,’ he said, fumbling inside his jacket, ‘will you not take a drop of the old craitur before you go.’
He pulled out a wee flask and Catriona pushed away from him, ‘Feech no! I hate that stuff, you know that.’ The push made her lose her balance and she fell over and Chrissie was helping her up, the pair of them in hysterics as she scrambled back on to her feet.
‘You’re a disgrace,’ their father said. ‘Look at the state of you. A bloody disgrace, the pair of you. How can you get in that condition and not even a drop of whisky has passed your lips?’
‘My lips are sealed,’ she said in a spectral voice, and Chrissie went into fits.
‘What kind of Highland lassies are you?’ her father said, laughing himself. ‘You’re a bloody disgrace to your father and your father’s fathers,’ and he staggered off back towards the town. ‘When are you going to make something of yourself, girl?’ they heard him shout, though which one of them he was addressing was anybody’s guess.
‘Don’t fall in the Caledonian Canal now!’ Chrissie yelled back at him.
‘You watch your mouth, lassie!’ came his voice, distant now. ‘It’s your old man you’re speaking to.’ Ach, he was a good soul, their father. Good-humoured. At least when he had a drink in him he didn’t lash out or go into the black sulks like some. He just shouted a bit, got over-excited and then fell asleep. He could take a drink but not like she could, no sir, nobody could.
‘Do you know what . . . ?’ she started to say, but a belch interrupted her.
‘What?’ said Chrissie.
‘No, I’d not finished. Do you know what the Caledonian Canal sounds like?’
‘It doesn’t sound like anything. It’s not moving, it’s a canal.’
‘The name,’ she said. ‘The name, not the bloody thing itself. I’ll tell you,’ she said. ‘This is a joke, by the way. No, not a joke, an observation. It sounds to me,’ she said, ‘like a special Scottish section of the intestinal system. Something genetically unique to Scots. Without it we’d all be dead.’
‘Because ordinary human guts couldn’t cope with the amount of alcohol and fried food we consume.’ She burst, sort of, into song: ‘The Caledonian Canal for me.’
‘Is that it?’ Chrissie said. ‘That’s crap. And, anyway, it’s the Crinan Canal.’ And she started, sort of, singing herself:
‘Oh! The Crinan Canal for me,
I don’t like the wild raging sea,
The big foaming breakers would give me the shakers,
The Crinan Canal for me.’
‘The Crinan’s not long enough,’ Catriona said. ‘Can’t process the chips. Sailing chips, steam chips, fish ‘n’ chips, doesn’t matter. Only the Caledonian Canal is long enough and strong enough to deal with the fat and vodka. Plus, of course’ it contains a monster.’ She started on another song. ‘Nessie, Nessie, Nessie the bush kangaroo.’
‘Christ you talk a lot of pish, Scoop.’
‘I know,’ Catriona said. ‘Total pish. But I’m fucking good at it.’
‘Don’t let it be all you’re good at,’ Chrissie said.
‘What do you mean by that, girl?’ Catriona said, in a mock-belligerent tone, with an extra nasal bit of Inverness in it because she could hear herself sometimes, not as Inverness as she used to be.
‘Well, you’ve got to make a life for yourself, haven’t you?’ Chrissie said. ‘I’ve got Danny. He maybe can’t hold his drink but he’s a grafter and he’s solid as a rock. We’ll do all right, him and me. He’s a good man. What about yourself, though, do you not get a hankering for a good man down there among all the toffs and boffins?’
‘Boffs and toffins?’ Catriona said. ‘What are you on about? I’m all right,’ she said. ‘It’s early days. I’m not wanting to settle down for a whilie yet.’
She was thinking about Michael, the quiet lad with the camera. They were friends and she kind of wanted them to be more than that but it wasn’t going to happen. She knew that, even if he didn’t. Poor boy. When was he going to find out about himself? She wondered how he was spending the night, and with whom – whether he’d stayed at home with his mother or gone back to Edinburgh to get away from her, as he’d said he probably would. She half-wished to be back there herself, with him and the others down at Jean Barbour’s, where no doubt there was a ceilidh in full swing. Better that, surely, than traipsing along this empty road to a party that probably didn’t exist with just her sister for company.
‘Ach well, suit yourself,’ Chrissie said. ‘Just don’t leave it too late, that’s all. You don’t want to be left on the shelf.’
‘I’ll not be,’ Catriona said. ‘Don’t you worry about me. I’ll be fine.’