The Fower Quarters: 12 - The Smiling Horse of Troy
Author(s): Sheena Blackhall
Copyright holder(s): Sheena Blackhall
The child shivered and fidgeted in his chair. Usually, he would have been warmly wrapped in old cord trousers and baggy woollen jersey. Today, for some reason not yet made clear to him, he had been dressed in short blue trousers that exposed his knobbly knees like two round moons gleaming under the stretched skin. Then his mother had buttoned him into a starched white cotton shirt that cut into his neck as if a halo had dropped from above and was intent on throttling him. She had also knotted a strip of coloured cloth around his throat quite tightly, telling him that it was a tie and that, now he was four and almost a big boy, he would often have to wear one. It straggled over his chest like a limp snake, not unlike the halter that the bull, Beelzebub, always wore when Uncle Dod led him out from the byre on a Sunday, after the family had arrived for their weekly visit to the farm.
Both Morrison parents were of country stock and town life needed the added spice of a regular return to their rural origins to make it tolerable. Like a nest of weasels, they settled uneasily into the urban environment but tholed it for little David's sake. Good job opportunities, reasonably cheap housing, a decent education and a future for the Morrison line made up their vaguely articulated reasoning. Such considerations were naturally lost on the little boy. His mother kept him close to the house like a sheep in a pen, letting him out only when his sweating hand was firmly in her grasp. Like some exotic hot house rarity, he was carefully protected in a carefully regulated, uncontaminated environment.
The language spoken within this family cocoon, however, was exclusively Doric - the rich, rolling Scots of the north-east. The soil that nurtured David was a rich loam of traditional bairn-song and myth. Whenever he was taken out, it was to replace one cocoon by another - the family car. And the car only pointed in one direction when David was in it, always heading out of town and shaking off the grime and constriction of the congested, noisy streets like a collie emerging jubilantly from a dip in the water. The child's one glimpse of the wider world came on a Friday, when the veggie mannie's cart clattered up the cobbled street behind the veggie mannie's huge shire horse. And today, he suddenly remembered, was a Friday.
"Dauvit!" his mother cried. "Rin ben the lobby wi Mam's purse like a fine loon. The veggie man's sheltie's at the door wytin. Hash on noo!"
The child wriggled from his chair like an eel, snatched his mother's purse from the table and raced through the long narrow lobby, seizing his mother's hand as she sallied forth, down the five granite steps to the puddle-pocked pavement. There the veggie man handed David a carrot for the horse, while Mrs Morrison went to the rear of the cart to select her weekly ration of fruit and vegetables. These provisions all came fresh from their own kinsmen's fields: Duke of York tatties from cousin Neil at New Deer, sweet mauve neeps from Uncle Dod at Skene, golden brown eggs from cousin Belle at Tarland with the straw still sticking to the shells, and bronze liquid honey from Aunt May's hives in Birse. A countryman from Turriff, the veggie man wore a flat tweed cap and a cracked waterproof cape. A knotted hessian sack round his broad waist served him for apron and his hands, as they handed the carrot to David, felt rough and hard. Deep hacks bit into his fingers, and the fingernails that weighed the fruit on the tin scales and flicked open the paper bags were half-moons of midnight black.
"G'wa an feed the cuddy," the veggie man told the boy. "He's a guid, quaet breet. Nae mony shelts staun as still's Auld Waltams yonner."
Auld Waltams rolled his hairy top lip back and snickered, baring his great yellow teeth to accept the proffered treat. As his lantern jaws crunched sideways, making the slack skin at his throat wobble, David ran his hand over the oily, powerful neck and under the long, black, tangled mane. To him, Auld Waltams was a cuddy or a shelt. He had never heard it called anything else. His mother emerged laden from the tail of the cart.
"Fit aboot a dizzen fine dyeuk's eggies fur yer man?" asked the veggie man slyly as Mrs Morrison made to leave. "Fresh frae Turra this verra foreneen?"
The little boy tugged his mother's sleeve. "Go on, Ma," he cajoled. "I like dyeuk's eggies."
Cousin Neil at New Deer kept ducks and geese in his farm pond - great, white, ungainly waddling birds that wobbled from side to side like drunken skippers in convoy around the farm yard. Whenever David had visited there in the past, he had been allowed to feed the dyeuks and for reward had been given for his tea a beautiful pale green egg in a wooden egg cup, together with a shining horn spoon. Cousin Neil had sliced the head off with his pen knife and the bright yellow yolk had spilled over the sides like nectar. "Free range," his father had observed. "Ye canna beat free range. It's nae life fur a bird, bein hickled up wi ithers in a battery."
"Jist like yersels in the toun, eh, Chae?" Cousin Neil had joked. But neither Mr nor Mrs Morrison laughed at that remark. Somehow it had spoiled the visit.
Once the veggie man had been paid, and Auld Waltams had clattered on up the street with his iron shoes drawing sparks from the stones, Mrs Morrison led her small son back into the house to smarten him up still further.
"Noo, we're gaun tae veesit a very nice lady the day," she informed her son. "An ye've tae answer aa the questions she speirs o ye, like a fine loon, an nae hae her thinkin ye gypit."
Then David's mother passed him over to his father, to go over his naming of colours, whilst she put on her going-out face. This special face came out of a small plastic bag that reeked of scent. She performed the transformation in front of the parlour mirror, contorting her mouth into oos and aas as she smeared a thick buttery substance over her lips. Once her mouth was suitably incarnadine, her cheeks made as powdery as a red admiral's wings and two pink dabs of rouge had been carefully added, she began on the preening of her hair. Meanwhile, Mr Morrison got down to the serious matter of expanding his son's education.
He lifted a cherry from the fruit bowl. "Fit colour's this, Dauvit?"
"Reid, Da," came the reply.
"Aye, that's braw. Clivver laddie!" His father bent to the cardboard box of toys, that sat in the comer of the parlour. He fished around for a moment before raising aloft one of his son's favourites.
"An fit aboot the grumphie?" he asked, dangling a pig before David's gaze.
"Yon's a fite grumphie, Da," laughed the child. He particularly liked the grumphie; it reminded him of Aunt May's albino grumphie, Sotters, at Birse - a huge, hairy and very intelligent beast. Sotters was also very docile for a pig, allowing David to ride cowboy fashion on her back while he fired pretend bullets from his silver cap gun. Next, his father drew from the box a handful of small plastic birds.
"Chukkens!" cried David, warming to the game. "Fower yalla chukkens! "
"Ken this?" remarked his father proudly. "Yon wumman'll think yer a secunt Einstein!"
Then, seeing that one his son's curls threatened to spoil his immaculate image, Mr Morrison spat on his hand and flattened the offending lock.
"We mauna hae a coo's lick spylin yer luiks."
Suddenly, a shadow fell across his face, like Cousin Neil's fields when the sun hid behind a cloud. "Mind, Dauvit, a lot hings on foo ye win on the day. Gin ye dinna tell this wife fitiver she sikks tae hear, she'll nae let ye jyne her skweel. An if she disna let ye jyne her skweel, ye'll hae tae wauk miles an miles tae anither skweel hyne awa. Ye'll hae tae spikk up weel."
David's father had never addressed him solemnly like this before. He had seldom met anybody outwith his close family and was warned not to talk to strangers, who either ate you or terrified you out of six month's growth. And even at Cousin Neil's, or Uncle Dod's, father had always told him not speak in company.
"Littlins should be seen an nae heard," his parents always admonished him. Now, today, they seemed to be telling him the exact opposite.
On matters requiring a representative from the Morrison family to appear in the flesh, Mrs Morrison played the dominant role. Chameleon-like, she changed her linguistic colours to suit the hue of the social context and could discard her Doric as easily as a snake sheds its skin. Mr Morrison, however, was quite unable to do so. His palate seemed constitutionally unable to articulate the English sounds. Nevertheless, David was unaccustomed to hearing even his mother speak in proper English. So he jumped in surprise when she suddenly cried, "David! Straighten your laces at once!"
Thrown by this sudden shift in dialect, he stood immobile, staring at his mother and wondering why she should be speaking with those strangulated words.
"Dauvit dearie, strauchten yer pynts," his mother wheedled, wisely lapsing into the familiar Doric once more. She produced a blue blazer, buttoned him into it, and led him once more to the door.
"It's nae far," she said, as they left the house hand in hand and tramped through the wet streets. Her legs covered the distance with long, rapid strides, while little David's feet went pit-pat, pit-pat, pit-a-pat like a racing heartbeat, struggling to keep up with her. After a brisk five minutes' walk, his mother slowed down as they reached the door of a huge, sprawling granite building. Two or three stunted bushes were boxed into a small strip of grass that bounded it like a monk's tonsure. One solitary starling sulked on a wet, black elm.
David's palm, gripped tightly by his mother, began to ooze sweat like a wrung sponge. Mrs Morrison rang the bell and far, far away in the interior wastes of this alien edifice a weak sound echoed. Feeling like a fish out of water, David gulped and swallowed hard. Then he screwed his toes up and rolled them under inside his polished shoes. The starling stared coldly at him, its aggressive beak, sharp as a dart, pointing straight between his eyes. The echoes of the tinny bell were replaced by the metallic clink of high-heeled shoes, approaching smartly. The big blue door yawned open and he found himself staring into the brass buckle of a lady's belt. His eyes travelled up, past a plain cream blouse, to the equally plain cream face of a woman of forty or fifty, with greying faded hair pulled severely into a bun. She was tall, very tall, it seemed to the little boy, and she made him think instantly of a giraffe.
"Mrs Morrison, I presume?" the giraffe asked loftily. "Allow me to introduce myself. Miss Helen Troy. And this - the voice descending into a weak attempt at ingratiating -"will doubtless be young David. Just you leave the little chap with me, Mrs Morrison. Call back in half an hour. We'll be finished by then."
"Mummy's going to leave you now, dear, with this nice lady," said David's mother, who was suddenly not his mother but a very different person indeed. Unable to comprehend the change, he stared at her as if she had suddenly turned into a pantomime dame. Like Hansel and Gretel, he was about to be abandoned to nameless dangers. The pantomime dame, however, was not going to take leave of the giraffe so easily.
"I'm quite sure he'll pass your test," David's mother whispered.
"If he doesn't, the other schools are miles away. And the town's so busy and the roads are so dangerous."
Miss Helen Troy gave a dismissive wave of her hand. "I appreciate all that, Mrs Morrison. But the school has standards to uphold. Our places are much sought after. We can afford to be selective. Rest assured, however, that the test is completely fair."
David stood like a tennis net, while the ball of dialogue was volleyed back and forth in fast, clipped English between the two combatants far above him. When his mother finally turned and left, Miss Troy grasped his hand and purposefully steered him into a narrow, dingy room with a lone window overlooking the stunted bushes in the grounds, which by now were dripping dankly with rain. The room was unheated and contained only a long, low table, with one child-sized seat drawn up to it, and an adult-sized chair nearby where his inquisitor would sit. On the thin blue carpet, over in one comer, reclined an ancient teddy bear, regarding him glassily with a disapproving eye.
"Sit down now, dear," said the giraffe. "Make yourself comfortable."
Miss Troy, David decided, was a Radio Person. The only people he knew who spoke like that lived inside the radio. He had always thought they must be tiny people, real midgets - but maybe they only shrank when they went back to work inside the wireless. He hadn't realised they could exist at all outside the radio. He wondered if there were many of them and, if so, where they all lived. He decided that they probably all looked like Miss Troy, emaciated and wan, like dried-up straw.
The woman opened a wooden chest and set out a series of animals on the table before him. "Now, dear," she lied, "We're going to play a little game. I'm going to say an animal's name, and you're going to point to it, to show me you know which one it is. That's a nice game, isn't it?"
Miss Helen Troy produced a booklet with rows of boxes on each page and rummaged for a fountain pen in her leopard skin handbag. She then poised the inky tip with its slit nib over the page, ready to mark off the scores.
"Cow. Show me a cow," she demanded. The boy sat, swinging his legs sullenly. He didn't like this Radio Person. He didn't like strangers at all. And no adult had ever asked him questions like that before. It was a silly game. Adults knew the names of everything. Why then, did she have to ask him the answers? She was a bad person. She was trying to trick him. There wasn't anything called "cow" on the table. David had never heard the word "cow" used of anything in front of him. On the table, there were a coo, a grumphie, dyeukies, chukkens, yowes, a tyke, a kittlin and a cuddy.
As his silence stretched into truculence, Miss Troy's patience became strained. "You're not trying, my dear." she badgered him. "Well, all right; we'll try another animal. Show me a sheep."
David looked up at her blankly. She had thrown down a challenge that he didn't comprehend. Only one word in every two of her utterances did he understand. He decided to ignore her and play with the animals instead. They weren't as good to play with as real animals of course. Last week, Uncle Dod had let him into the byre after the new calfie was born and had let him pet it. It had sucked his fingers, making them all slimy and milky, but he hadn't minded; he'd dried them on the straw around its mother's bed. He'd stayed close beside the calf all that afternoon, listening to the sounds of the byre, the clank of the beasts tethered in their stalls, the soft lowing of the heifers, the squeaks and scuffles of the mice in the bedding, and the flurry and whiff of resident martins under the byre's eaves. The Radio Lady might not be nice but he rather liked her plastic farmyard.
Another woman suddenly poked her nose round the door. "How's it going?" she whispered.
"It beggars belief," sighed the giraffe. "I wonder if he's autistic. I've had more response from a two year old. He's certainly very low on the scale. I'll get him to do a drawing, and then try one last animal."
"David, dear," she called loudly and deliberately at him as if he was deaf. "If I give you a piece of paper, will you draw me a house?"
The boy nodded slowly. Paper and pencil were duly produced and, very carefully, David drew a blue rectangle, with a single large window in it. Had the lady asked, he would have told her he had drawn her house - a radio. She stared at the finished article in dismay.
"Is this all? Don't you want to add more? A garden, maybe? A roof? Windows?" Her voice, the tones of the unfamiliar language steadily rising, unsettled him. Everyone knew that a radio didn't have any of these things. She was a bad, silly lady.
With an effort, the Radio Lady recovered her composure and made one last attempt at communication. "Show me a horse, then. All little boys like horses. Everyone knows what a horse looks like. Show me the horse."
He knew then that she thought he was stupid, thick as porridge. Desperately, he looked around the table. Finally he picked up the dog, though he knew it was wrong. But he did it just to please her. To show he was trying. He didn't want the Radio Person thinking he was gypit.
Miss Troy frowned. "No!" she said sternly, pointing to the plastic cuddy. David's eyes followed her jabbing finger. The sheltie seemed to be smiling - no - grinning; laughing at him, making a fool of him. And he couldn't answer back. Adults were always right, even when they were wrong. He began to rock to and fro on his seat, hands tucked tightly between his legs. Rain continued to dribble bleakly down the window. As if in sympathy with the rain, water began to trickle slowly down his legs, a wet, hot flow soaking into his socks. It collected in a neat puddle on the Radio Lady's carpet.
Abruptly, she left the room. He could hear her speaking to some other big person. "The wretched child's wet himself. Is there any sign of his mother yet?"
And then, after a rustle of paper - "Of course he's failed. Not the sort we'd dream of enrolling here anyway. I doubt if he could string two words together. Didn't even know what a horse was. A horse, for God's sake!" And the Radio Person gave a high, shrill whinny.
Later that day, bathed and towelled and cosy in pyjamas and slippers, David sat down to play with his toys before bedtime. Out came the yowes, the coos, the grumphies and the dyeuks. "Are ye nae takkin the shelt ooto the barn?" his father asked. "Ye ken ye aye play wi the sheltie. Gin ye're a guid loon, we'll veesit Uncle Dod on Setterday an gie ye a turn aroon the park on his cuddy, Major."
The small curly head, bowed over the farmyard, shook a firm no. "I dinna like shelties noo," he stated firmly. "An I dinna think I ivver will again."
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The Fower Quarters: 12 - The Smiling Horse of Troy. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 2 March 2024, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=557.
"The Fower Quarters: 12 - The Smiling Horse of Troy." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2024. Web. 2 March 2024. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=557.
The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech, s.v., "The Fower Quarters: 12 - The Smiling Horse of Troy," accessed 2 March 2024, http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=557.
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