At a book fair in a church on a square in Inveraray, I read a poem by Liz Lochhead. It’s the only poem she ever wrote about her husband dying, a friend I’m there with says as she shows me the book. My eyes pass each word slowly, while I travel up the road with her, Liz Lochhead, and her late husband, savouring the Gaelic names of towns and expressive phrases, sitting down on a wooden bench at a book fair in a church on a square in Inveraray.
We would be snaking up Loch Lomond, the road narrow and winding after the turn at Tarbert and I picture my gran and granddad, their black hardback atlas opened on the table, the tips of their fingers trailing up the Scottish roads they have never travelled on, following my movements by bike, train, or foot in their house at the edge of the sea back in the country where I come from.
I write to my gran about the book fair and the poem so we can travel with Liz all the way to Skye together, but I fear the atlas is too heavy to carry to the table on her own, the roads not so easy to find without my granddad next to her, the trip not as enjoyable without him by her side. The world is still beautiful, though you’re not in it— I imagine or hope my gran is thinking as she makes her way to the small, sheltered cemetery in that town on the edge of the sea. The chapel has exactly the angular shape of houses I drew when I was younger; its white setting off against the clear blue colour of the sky with everything else grey, but for the flowers held tightly in the small hands of my youngest cousin, before he lays them down with all the others at the grave. I cry on the plane back to Scotland, about how his fingers were wrapped around the stems of the flowers as if to never let them go, or maybe just about the book that I’m reading. Autumn, by Ali Smith, about a man who eventually wakes up in a hospital bed, and many other things, which I also send to my gran so we still go on journeys, together, on either side of the Channel.
We walk up a hill later that day to Dun na Cuaiche monument, a watchtower overlooking Inveraray and its castle, the arches in front of which our bus from Glasgow stopped, the yellow ship on the quay, Loch Fyne stretching all the way to the Atlantic, and endless, endless green, rolling hills. I never knew the absence of safety and splendour of being surrounded by mountains in a landscape until I left my flat homeland to come to a country where hills are ever-present. I think again of my gran, wondering if she misses the Irish hills surrounding her hometown, and of the poem I read at a book fair in a church on a square in Inveraray. There would be blood-red rowan berries, that bold robin eating from my plate again, or — for a week or two in May — the elusive, insistent cuckoo, and I listen for the birdsong that reminds me of my granddad and how he would walk silently, hands in his pockets, until he would point something out to us – a bird, plant, or change in weather. Being far away means it feels like he’s still there, sitting in his big brown chair next to the window with a pressed leaf from Kelvingrove Park I sent 6 months ago.
But he’s not there anymore. Not in his chair and not in the kitchen and not walking somewhere along the sea that will keep moving infinitely without him. And this will not be a consolation, but a further desolation.
Image courtesy of Aike Jansen