Reciting for Burns Night

 

In the room of primary colours and paper
I stood up, small, to read my piece;
shaking like a frond of heather
caught on a hillside breeze, unable
to stop the bite of a lip, the sweat
spreading my skin with its heat.

The vowels didn’t come out right;
I failed to master the harsher diction,
the bouncing consonants, flying fricatives
and tongue rolled r’s luxurious.
Words were tangled in my mouth
like a lump of food I couldn’t eat.

I felt a hundred eyes feast on me.
From the depths of the gym hall,
they watched hungrily
for my stops and splutters, my hesitancy.
For I was different, not like the others.

My English accent rubbished the nuance,
missed the beat of every lilting iamb.
Still, I stumbled on,
falling off the lines like Tam himself,
drunken on his horse, ready to cross
that brig over black water,
taking a final leap from stanza to stanza.

Finished at last, I fiddled with my tartan headband,
lifted my head to slow applause,
felt at once a strange inclusion.

Later, in the playground, I stared out
at the Carrick hills, their mist of violet rain,
and for the first time
I knew a perfect moment,
the one that burns then goes forever,
quotes a song then comes again.

Road Trip

highalnds

Picture the scene. You pass sea after sea of pines, their tall green points misted with a fine web of vapour, a greyness that stretches over, concealing the tips and the distance, and you are not sure whether it is fog or woodsmoke, the wisps of early morning or perhaps the smoulders of a landfill. Probably you’re somewhere deep in the moorlands, glens and peat bogs of the Highlands; or maybe not that far yet, maybe just the Trossachs. If you open the car window a tad, you can almost smell the midges, their damp, thirsty breath in the air. This is air so clean that its purity counts as a flavour, claimed by many who have flogged the native whisky or bottled water. You would leave the window open, indulge yourself, but there is a sharp cold breeze that tickles the fine hairs on your neck, waters your eyes. It is always windy here; or else deathly still, like a valley out of time. Mountains rise up around you, growing closer and grander as the car turns another corner. They seem monstrous, towering over your small car, and you feel like William Wordsworth (the boy version, out of The Prelude) plodding along in his stolen boat, gazing fearfully up at the mountain peak beyond the lake, the peak that gazes back like an animal: ‘a huge Cliff / As if with voluntary power instinct / Upreared its head’. You can’t help but stare at the streams which splash down from each hillside like silver belts, which glimmer in the pale light which makes it through the misted sky. They catch your eye, pull you in myriad directions. You know that rain is imminent; its scent is as clear as the water that runs on the burn alongside you.

There is always birdsong, even in the evening. You can hear the cacophony of many different species as the car rumbles on in the silent space between two tracks passing on the stereo. You and your friend spent a whole day curating the playlist for this trip. Curating. She said that word, jokingly; but even so, it makes you feel special. This isn’t just any trip. It isn’t like you get out like this all the time, free from the bustle and smoke of the city, the people lingering outside pubs, the strangers drifting through in street-lamp darkness.

You spent a childhood in the back of your mother’s car; the smell of her cigarettes always blowing straight back into your face, rolling down the window to snatch breathfuls of that sharp, fresh air – an escape. You scrambled alongside rivers which rolled on over gleaming boulders; you scrabbled together heaps of stones and logs and built dams, pools and waterways. You fell over, bruised your knees, skelfed your fingers on the pine branches. You watched the water for hours, while your mother smoked and your big brother showed off, scaling rock after rock, cliff after clifftop. You ate cheese and pickle sandwiches made soggy by the damp that seeps in everywhere, through the aluminium and glass, the plastic glovebox and the silver foil. Midges clung to your neck; constantly you felt their hot, sticky itch. Sometimes the car smelt of engine oil. The food made your cheeks flush afterwards, as you washed your lunch down with bottles of flat lemonade that had lingered on the backseat for days.

There was an innocence to those holidays which literally makes you ache to think of. You would do anything to be that small again, crouched by a river, dipping your toes into the freezing water while your brother splashed you from afar, shouting declarations of war. His always taunting words, his grand arrogance. The way your mother scrunched up the sandwich foil into tiny, crumpled balls, collected them in her purse. The day you found them all, still there, when you were digging for lunch money.

Fog coming in thick and deep from a distance. You saw it roll over the mountains like God’s own shroud. It was comforting, feeling the moisture prick in the air, seeing the landscape slowly disappear. When you retreated back into the car, packed up the camping gear, fought with your brother over the radio. He always wanted the sport – Five Live – and you wanted the songs, the music. The stereo pumped, crackling and loud, audible even through the walls of the car, drifting in and out of signal, static…

Her sadness, leaning against the bonnet, sipping from a flask of coffee, staring out into the distance. The tears that you couldn’t see – not from behind – but you always knew they were there.

And why are you going? Why set forth again into the world of fog, of deep enveloping glens and silver rivers? The soft moss and the heather, the greenness that haunts your sleep. Was there some mystery you thought you could solve? She said it would be cathartic, your friend, her name irrelevant. Anyway, it’s Eilidh. When you met her, you didn’t understand the silent letters.

The playlist comes from an iPod, the classic one with the spinning wheel and the white casing. You were going to sell it, after you lost your job and faced the end of things, but something pulled you back. Gone were the Nike trainers instead, and now you are here in the car with your best Sports Directs. What sounds pass through your head? There are many conversations you always wanted to have with Eilidh. You wanted to ask about her purple hair, the bright lilac colour of heather. What did it mean? You wanted to ask whether she was still seeing that guy she met at uni, the one who studied law and played cello for an orchestra; who spoke French in a way that defied the limits of his Edinburgh accent. But you had known her five years, and still you could not speak.

The songs were lovely, dark and deep. Miles were consumed by the roar and pulse of the engine, roadsides slipping away as easily as signs fading into hill fog. You were long gone from the city, its tall grey buildings a mere memory, the pillow of mist you sank into at night. Remember the times you shaved an inch from your life? The bus turning the corner, sharp; the tiny sliver of razor on the white bathroom china. The dark colours flowering out in water, as you watched your ex-girlfriend wash her paintbrushes in the sink. Shades of crimson, violet, blue and scarlet. You were slipping through all these images, the shock and the bruising; the little jolt to your heart as the car passed over a pothole. You were driving, then she was. It’s difficult to remember.

There’s a lot of Mogwai on this playlist. When you first hear ‘Heard About You Last Night’ it’s a bit like waking up for the first time, the blinking beat and slow entry of bass bringing into colour a brave new world of beauty and fear. So many people, you suppose, have died out on those mountains. Battles fought and lost and won. Rain that fell for so long, it seemed the whole landscape might be swallowed up in shadowy puddles. Then there’s the anxiety of ‘Hungry Face’, those infuriating repetitions which build up to the twinkling innocence of the xylophone against those quietly thundering drums. It gets in your head; you can’t help but think of ghost ships disappearing over the Clyde, a set of yellow eyes opening and closing, suspended in the dark, clouded air like the smile of a Cheshire cat. The sound of soft, steady bleeping. Eilidh says something funny about the sheep. They have an absurd look about them out here, she says, but then so do pretty much all sheep. They glance up at you, but instantly their expression fades into blasé. They have only two emotions: indifference and fear, the fear coming out when they jolt their necks back and scarper.

Soon you fall into the melancholy of ‘Cody’, so slow and serene you might as well be stoned, sinking away from your thoughts like being pulled out into a vast, shimmering ocean. The bass echoes slow through the car, its thick walls. You press your face against the glass, leaving steam marks which fog up the world outside, the tall green mountains now coated with your breath. Reality blurs with the material of sleep. And would you stop me? If I tried to stop you? You imagine this is what heroin feels like, plunging into a slow, majestic ecstasy, the kind that drags eons of time through your veins; and from all those hours draws out this kind of awesome mournfulness even as your whole body tingles with euphoria. You could sleep forever in blissful, evil dreams. When I drive alone at nights, I see the streetlights as fairgrounds / And I tried a hundred times to see the road signs as Day-Glo. So slow, the car turning corners. An elegy to a lost raver, stumbling through the darkness of some urban labyrinth, the upturned bins, old condoms and leaking glowsticks spilling out the wasted remainders of another good night, another goodbye to childhood. Would you care at all? Eilidh rests her hand on your leg.

“Stop crying,” she says. It’s a statement, not an instruction. You are still staring out the window.

Your mother used to listen to The Waterboys, maybe even Primal Scream in her more rebellious phase. She liked to dance around the living room doing the dusting to ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, all the dust motes swirling up in a maelstrom of childish untidiness and neglected housekeeping. Her voice would crack and she would laugh at herself, breathless, collapsing onto the sofa. Make me a cup of tea, eh boys?

You were at a house party once, at uni – not that long ago really – and this girl was playing a song that stirred something familiar in your memory. You knew that voice, its growl, the twists of electric guitars.

“What is this?” you asked, the joint smouldering between your fingers.

“Oh, it’s The Waterboys actually.” You resented her showiness, of course, but this was interesting. “I know, so lame right? I like it though. They put Yeats to music. You know the poet, W. B. Yeats? ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. It’s a lovely poem.” She was drinking port, of all things – you remember that too.

You inherited, perhaps, a gloomier tradition of the nation’s music. There would be no Proclaimers on this playlist.

Arab Strap, the disco beats, spat poetry and everyday apathy.  The sort of post-hardcore or drum-soaked indie that felt like having the rotten parts of your brain stripped out as you lay on a boat, slowly being drenched in dreich Scottish rain. You were always a fan of Frightened Rabbit, ever since you saw them at a festival once, danced yourself into a frenzied ceilidh of mud and tangled feet, even as the songs sung of sadness and bleakness and heartbreak. The endless drone, the refrain: it takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm. Teenage campouts in Loch Lomond, worried you would all die of the cold, of the rain and the midges. Drunk out your minds, desperate and scared of the river which burst its banks sometimes even in summer. The expectations of nothing but the prospect of falling into the same abyss as everyone else. Fag butts drifting by the edge of the river, the scorched remainders of a bonfire. Listening to it again now, well, you can’t help but think of how this seems to be coming true somehow. The same abyss. Even as the drums collapse over the screaming words, there’s a waterfall out there somewhere, maybe the one you floated in once, upside down on weird pills with the cold so deep in your bones that you didn’t feel the punches of your best friend who hated you because you kissed — no. That was another time. You are driving forward now, you are at the wheel.

Maybe there is something that you know that I don’t. 

“We should stop soon, you look like you need a rest.” The world outside is almost darkness; it is twilight spinning webs of navy and sapphire gold around the edges of trees and mountains. Trees with their shimmering leaves. Clusters of stars emerge from the velvet blackness. You wouldn’t stop for anything.

Next: There Will Be Fireworks, ‘From ’84’. The simplicity, the sorrow which isn’t yours; for how could you feel so much nostalgia for a year, a thought, that came before your time? The not-belonging is what makes you feel lonelier, the minor chord, the rustle of Eilidh in her woollen tights turning the page of a cheap magazine. Just a kid, in his room / No-one hears him howling at the moon. But you have lost touch with friends too, you have felt the strange pain that comes from seeing people you love change, grow apart. You cannot hit the high notes; you cannot sing along. So we’ll put it down to fate or bad luck. The plain, bare strumming pattern haunts you, even after the song finishes and something new comes on. You’re thinking of another lyric – sad song in a minor key – and wondering how you ever heard of this band in the first place. Why is it you love them so? Whether they’re actually any good, or just another expression of bleak Scottish winters, the lack of sunlight, the endless, down-pouring rain…but isn’t that beautiful too?

Eilidh has, perhaps, more interesting taste. The next song is hers: Cocteau Twins of course. She mutters on about how their best album was Milk and Kisses, though everyone thinks it’s Heaven or Las Vegas. Elizabeth Fraser’s dreamy soprano takes you straight through the night and into the morning; you could both listen for hours and hours, not realising that the songs were changing or repeating, just drifting into the dissonant guitars and distorted lyrics, the hypnotic drum machine loops, better than sex. You would like to float, suspended in a disco somewhere, each song playing out the pattern of a strange, intense kiss. You suppose these are all the 1990s discos your mother would’ve went to (if she hadn’t had you). What does it matter now? The sky before you bursts through in pastel smudges, which break up the dark silhouettes of the Trossachs mountains. In the distance, through the windscreen, sparkles of sunlight play upon a pale blue pool, the first loch you have seen since yesterday. There is something about the shape of the peaks, the space of the valley. You have been here before. 

The Twilight Sad come on the car stereo. There’s no mistaking the intensity of that voice, the thick accent and its distinctive rolls and howls. Each song with its own atmosphere, a haunted quality reminiscent of The Cure.

“Let’s stop here.”

The loch is so close now. You can feel something inside you, a tension breaking, the rapid increase of the beat from the heart that burns in your chest. Eilidh is humming along, though her voice crackles and breaks as easily as the gravel on the road below your tyres. When you climb out the car, cold air sucks your breath away as you slam the door. Suddenly, the signal floods back to your phone. Three missed calls from your brother, and you know what that means. Another night, another row of bottles slowly emptying, slowly being broken in a dive bar of old men, the black hole at the bottom of every street in every Scottish city. Once he was an eagle, soaring down those hillsides, ready to leap out and scale the lake with legs made strong by football, with arms that could reach out for anything they wanted. He couldn’t save her, any more than you could, weak and pathetic, wrapped up in all that suppressed panic. Hidden in your room, even when it happened. It rolls through you, the realisation. This loch, like a terrible mirror. This beautiful loch, the very one you all picnicked by, the year your brother finished high school, the year of your first kiss, the year she —

‘There’s a Girl in the Corner’ on the stereo, and Eilidh is speaking, but her words are muffled through the window, the pounding drums and resounding lyrics. She’s not coming back / And she’s not coming back again. Standing here, the cold wind at your neck, another summer nearly ending and here you are – you finally feel it.

(all embedded lyrics attributed to respective artists).