The Fower Quarters: 18 - Three Little Words
Author(s): Sheena Blackhall
Copyright holder(s): Sheena Blackhall
Three little words. Her father had been driving along a solitary glen that wound and climbed up the purple Highland hills like a tendril of ivy. The little black Morris Minor was moving slowly, so that the majestic panorama of heather, clouds, and trees could be enjoyed in a kind of ocular ecstasy. "There's always divorce," her mother had incongruously announced, the words coming out of nowhere like Banquo's spectre. Sitting on the creaky back leather seat, Margaret Macdonald, their eight year old daughter, cocked her ears in alarm. For all her youth, she knew from her friends at primary school that divorce meant families breaking in pieces, drifting apart, changing houses - and never for the better. Her friends, Dot and Julia, were both the victims of broken homes. Both their mothers had dropped several rungs on the social ladder since the D-I-V-O-R-C-E (so horrid a state, that adults spelled it out in whispered letters). Their mothers had grown lean and anxious-looking; they shopped for sticks of furniture in cheap flea-pits and - horror of horrors - dressed Dot and Julia in clothes from the charity shops.
Dot's mother, slightly more astute than Julia's, still clung to the pretences of her former existence. She saved carrier bags from Watt and Grant, that temple of middle-class pretension, to carry the second-hand garments past the sneering noses of her neighbours. Many of the clothes were originally from Watt and Grant, so it was a fair deceit. When Dot grew out of the second or third or fourth-hand attire, her mother would cut the shop labels from the garments and sew them painstakingly onto the second or third or fourth-hand wardrobe that Dot had just grown into.
Julia's mother, less resilient or inventive, had simply been crushed into slatternly ways by the sheer weight of grinding, ego-leaching, mind-numbing poverty.
Who, wondered little Margaret, could be thinking of such an unspeakable thing? It was, after all, the 1950s, when most mothers stayed at home, dusting, baking, changing nappies, scrubbing clothes on corrugated washboards and cranking them through dripping mangles before pegging them out to flap in the soot-laden air. Mothers raked out the old embers, laid new fires, knelt on cold linoleum lobbies with tins of polish, and rubbed and rubbed and rubbed till everything shone. Then they peeled potatoes, scraped vegetables, and tramped from butcher to grocer to fish merchant, before steering homewards again like small heavily laden coasters. After that, they walked the dog.
Fathers, on the other hand, went out to work. They changed light bulbs, carted rubbish, mended fuses, hammered nails, wielded paintbrushes, pasted wallpaper and dug the garden. After that, they read the papers, smoked a pipe, listened to the radio and told everyone to please be quiet when the News or the Football came on. Margaret hated the News and the Football with a passion - especially the Football, which lasted forever, and concerned rows and rows of meaningless scores attributed to teams called Rovers, or United, or Rangers, or Academicals. Margaret Macdonald profoundly wished that the fleet of rusting trawlers tethered to the quay back home would ferry them all, every inside-forward and outside-left and right back amongst them, out beyond the harbour bar and drown the lot of them. Freedom of speech would thereby be restored. The football ritual was known in the Macdonald household as "Doing the Shotties" - in other words, filling up strings of Xs on a Littlewoods coupon with the sole aim and purpose of winning a fortune.
"Why is it called Shotties?" Margaret had asked her father.
"Because everyone has a shottie at winning the pools," he said.
"Why is it called pools?" she'd persisted, stubbornly, thinking of her Scotty puppy, Monty, and the little accidents which drove Mr Macdonald to dark threats as to the dog's future.
"Little girls should be seen and not heard," Mr Macdonald had retorted, going on to chant his favourite maxim:
"The wise old owl sat in the oak
The more he heard the less he spoke.
The less he spoke the more he heard
Why can't we all be like that bird! "
Three little words. The last one, "divorce", couldn't possibly be hanging over her family's head like the sword of Damocles. Not her own mother and father! Mother went to church every Sunday and God was safe in His heaven. The sun was round and unbroken as an apple pie. Divorce was ugly and scandalous. Kings abdicated because of it. Marriage, her grandfather said, was all about setting standards, showing a good example, and honouring vows. People who divorced were loose-living folk with no moral fibre at all. Society rejected them. Divorcees were scarlet women, shop-soiled goods. Not like widows. Widows were respectable and hadn't fallen from grace. It wasn't a widow's fault if her husband upped and died on her. You knew how to talk to a widow, whereas divorcees were beyond the pale. They certainly weren't the sort you invited to dinner. Divorcees were either man-eaters or man-haters. Their children were latch-key kids, simply dragged up. Not the norm at all.
Father made no reply to her mother's pronouncement but continued to drive in silence for some miles past brooding, pine-dark hills, whistling cheerfully as he usually did when on the move. A private man, he liked solitary roads. And wherever he went the Macdonald family unit went also. Like a slab of granite, the family was solid and durable, not like some families that were as fissile as flint.
Margaret Macdonald peered unhappily through the car window. What if her parents did split up? Who would she live with? Father, she supposed. But what if ... what if Father found a lady he wanted to marry? Margaret wouldn't let him marry anyone else. She would refuse to share his affection with anybody, not even Mother. Margaret was her father's Queen of Hearts and nobody was going to usurp her. The little black car had purred its smooth, shiny way for a further half-mile when suddenly a small red squirrel appeared on the branch of a pine, bobbing up and down like a stringed marionette.
"My, just look at that," said her father. "A wee reid squirrel. Isn't he richt bonnie?"
The little girl heaved a sigh of relief. She was no carefree child ready to throw caution to the four winds. She liked set routines, breakfast on the table at eight, a life running on tramlines. As her Uncle Grant had said, with his typical military bluntness, she liked to know the ins and outs of the cat's arse.
Some months after that memorable Sunday excursion, with her mother's odd pronouncement, Mr Macdonald slipped off a ladder while painting the garden shed, and hurt his back. For a week he slept on the floor, suffering the ministrations of a Monty delighted to have a horizontal companion and who licked his face lavishly till the patient vowed that when he rose from his bed of pain he would kick the hairy bugger tae the back o beyond. Within the week, however, two brand new single beds had been delivered to the Macdonald home, complete with matching single sheets, pillow cases, and quilts. The matrimonial double bed and bedding were relegated to the loft, to "a redundant roost in the dusty eaves ostensibly kept for the odd guest who might want to stay overnight - except that no one ever popped in unannounced to the Macdonald home, and certainly never stayed over. Visitors came only when invited, when a path had been mentally laid for them, and when Mrs Macdonald had looked out the family best china and nipped along to the shops for a fine piece.
No sooner were the new beds in place than Mrs Macdonald was busily cranking the old double sheets through the wringer before drying them, ironing them, and securing them in the archives of the linen cupboard. She kept a key about her person to that particular cupboard and at one time Margaret entertained the certain belief that it held hidden treasures - family jewels or silver - and she had been greatly disappointed when, privy one day to its opening, she was confronted by regimented rows of shelving laden with neatly-pressed linen of every kind. Mrs Macdonald had keys to everything: to the pantry, the sheds, the front and back doors, the best room presses with their wines and spirits, and to the glory-hole under the stairs. It would have taken a team of burglars years to pick all of Mrs Macdonald's locks.
Margaret was playing with Monty at the foot of the garden when her mother hung the dripping double sheets up on the line. They plunged and reared against the four winds, like the horsemen of the apocalypse. Mrs McFarlane from over the dyke beckoned to Mrs Macdonald and, with neighbourly subtlety, nodded towards her own pink double bedding, skelping the breezes with all the brusque confidence of a skilled masseuse.
"I see ye've been gettin new beds, Sadie," she remarked. "Single eens an aa. Ye'll be expectin visitors then?"
"No," said Mrs Macdonald with reluctance. "They're for me an Graham."
"Hiv the twa o ye haen a faain oot, then?"
Margaret's mother snorted like a restive mare and vigorously brushed back her long mane of greying hair.
"Single beds are aa the rage noo, d'ye no ken?" she declared, with all the authority of a fashion guru. "Onywye, Graham needs a hard bed since he hurt his back. I like a saft bed. Nae mair cauld feet on my bum since the new beds moved in. I'll tell you this, though: I wish I'd done it years ago. That single bed's gien me the best nicht's sleep I've hid in years."
Mrs McFarlane was unconvinced. Maybe indeed it was all the rage. But a hot water bottle, she ruminated, was no substitute for her Bert's twenty stones of affectionate, sagging curves. Human contact in all its forms - hair, sweat, blood and semen - was infinitely preferable to the solitude of a single bed. Bert was her strong defence against December draughts, chilly sheets and loneliness. At night she would sink contentedly into Mr McFarlane's bulk as if into an enormous cushion. More supportive than any brassiere, his flabby chest enfolded her breasts in a soft, secure warmth. And lower down, Bert's abdomen moulded itself to hers with an intimacy that recorded each bodily function with deeply comforting precision. No, it wouldn't have been Mr Macdonald's idea, she knew, that single-bedded nonsense. It would have been Sadie's naturally. Mrs McFarlane had always thought her neighbour a bit of a cold fish, stiff and unbending as a broom handle.
"Well, if you're happy, Sadie, that's all that matters of course. As long as it doesn't rock the boat."
But the Macdonald matrimonial boat remained seemingly unrocked. Though storms might overwhelm other folk's marriages, the Macdonalds sailed upon a connubial vessel that was stabilised by custom, marital vows, duty and, of course, Margaret herself, Mr Macdonald's very own little princess. When Father spoke in wrath, no voice was raised in reply and, after a vocal explosion of heat and flame, his anger would fizzle out like an untended fire. Margaret, like her mother, showed no anger. One temper in the house was quite enough, her mother always said. Rage was not for women: it wasn't ladylike or proper. Temper was a luxury permitted to men, though not to be encouraged. When father raged, Mrs Macdonald put on the face she saved for Monty the Scotty when he left one of his puddles on the floor.
Margaret had raged once only in her whole life, when another child had spilled her new paints.
"Don't be silly, Margaret," her mother had said icily. "That sort of carry-on won't mend anything."
Scorn was a very effective rage-stopper. It was like having a bucket of emotional cold water thrown over you, bringing you suddenly to your senses. On one particular rage-laden day, when Mr Macdonald was papering the lobby, the paste had been lumpy, the paper wouldn't stick and he'd dropped the brush, Mother had interrupted him in mid-roar.
"Hiv you taen leave of your senses?" she cried, her thin lips straight as a taut line. And Father had huffed and puffed but stamped off without another word. How dreadful, thought Margaret, to be out of your senses. How awful if Father were permanently to be parted from them, locked out from his sanity, never to get back. Mother's temper, Margaret supposed, must be secured like the linen sheets in the cupboard, safe behind a turned key. Quite the best place for it, she agreed, in that house of locked doors and hidden, secret things.
Margaret herself would never have dared lose her temper and risk taking leave of her senses. Her father's raging against the tax man, against fate, against his bad luck with the pools, rumbled away in the back of her world like Mount Etna, occasionally erupting and so deserving to be treated with prudent respect. One day she overhead a snippet of gossip that hung tangibly in the air between Mother and Mrs McFarlane like a tasty piece of fish being shared by a cormorant and a stalking heron. Mother often assumed the pose of a fishing heron during these neighbourly chats, one leg crooked slightly up, grey hair ruffled, arms bent at the waist like two grey wings. Mrs McFarlane was sleekly stout, rather greasy and black, with a long nose, much like a predatory cormorant.
The topic of discussion was pretty Mrs Simpson from the house on the corner, who had been seen sporting two black eyes. Her husband, Joe, a merchant seaman, had come home to catch her in bed with a travelling salesman.
"Serves her right," said Mrs McFarlane. "I'd expect my man tae gie me a good skelpin if he caught me at it. At least it wad show he still cared."
"Oh, you think so, do you?" sniffed Margaret's mother. "Graham just once lifted his hand to me, just the once. I dinna even mind what it was aboot - some stupid argument I was winning. 'Hit me, my lad, if you dare, and out I walk straight through that door and don't ever come back', I told him. And he kent I meant it, tae. Any man that raises his hand to a woman is just vermin."
Margaret was not familiar with the word vermin, but her mother spat it out so venomously she knew it wasn't nice. Father, she knew, often seemed about to burst in his rage but, like a well-bolted door that rattles and shakes against a mighty wind yet never gives way, he always refrained from physical violence. And so, despite the intennittent verbal storms, the Macdonald marital home stood firm, while all around others crumbled.
As Margaret grew into her teens, she regarded her parents with grudging admiration. The marriages of her friends' parents toppled like ninepins, as wedlocks were unlocked by sheer ennui or infidelity. Middle-aged men, it seemed, were almost boringly addicted to much younger females. Wives, like cars, were traded in for younger and flashier models. Their children, innocent casualties of such transactions, either shaped up or shipped out. With conscious relief, Margaret acknowledged that the boredom and mediocrity of her parents' marriage brought her a wholesome sense of safety and stability.
The years turned slowly upon their axle. Sadie Macdonald suffered a stroke and became like an old gnarled oak, blighted by lightning. Margaret had long since moved out of the family home and into her own maternal nest. It fell to her father to look after the old woman, now increasingly incontinent. Sadie was not an easy patient. Peevish, demanding and tyrannical, she laid the lash of her tongue steadily to her husband's back.
"How do you stand it?" Margaret asked him one day when she had dropped in unexpectedly for a chat with her father. The two were as close as ever - "As thick as thieves," Mrs Macdonald commented dourly. The long-established roles her parents had assumed were now reversed. It was Mr Macdonald who cooked, and cleaned, who fetched and carried and polished. It was Mrs Macdonald who raged, railing against her infirmities.
Father was rinsing her mother's tights in the sink. The nylon was thinly smeared with excrement and Margaret gagged.
"Throw them out, Dad, for God's sake," she counselled. "Why give yourself that kind of work?"
"Would be a waste," her father said. He was a thrifty man, not mean, but canny in the old Scots way. Stumps of soap were melted down for re-use. Pennies were counted; everything was properly accounted for. It was a way of life that was quickly vanishing in an age of disposable relationships, of reconstituted families, of serial monogamy.
"Besides, she'd do the same for me if I was in her shoes. I owe her that much. It comes with the wedding vows, for better or worse, ye ken."
His face, Margaret noticed with a sinking heart, with the eye of affection and dismay, was the colour of ash, like the fine powder he scraped from the hearth each morning from the dead fire that had cheered the day before. And always, her mother's orders were goading his old bones on with their needing, needing, needing. No let up, no reprieve, no way out but one. All doors locked but one.
Like a workhouse flogged to a standstill, one spring morning Mr Macdonald fell in his tracks and died immediately. A massive heart attack. A blessed release. The family G.P assessed the situation in two minutes.
"Your mother needs constant night and day care. Far more than you can provide. You know, your father's efforts on her behalf were quite astonishing, given his own health problem."
Accordingly, Mrs Macdonald was taken off to a nursing home. For once, her locks had been useful. The small metal safe up in the attic yielded enough crisp notes to keep her in nurses and single sheets for years.
Margaret's relationship with her mother improved vastly once Mrs Macdonald was safely encapsulated in the placid cocoon of the nursing home and the oedipal triangle had at last been resolved. Maybe now it was time to start again, to get to know her mother, to open a few locked doors. But already the old woman's mind had begun the slippery, inexorable descent into senile dementia.
"She's not bad for an eighty year old," a freckle-faced nurse commented, plumping up the patient's snowy pillows. "Quite a clever old thing when she's in her senses. Her mind wanders at times, but right now she's tickety-boo."
"Tickety-boo," thought Margaret. "Tickety-boo!" What an odd expression: as if her mother's mental clock went tickety-tick as long it was allowed the occasional 'boo'.
She pulled up a chair by the bed, and, gracefully as a Bacchic bride, offered her mother a grape. The fingers querulously transferred it to the seamed, ridged bluish lips, gummed and white at the corners, just as the small grey eyes were plugged at the sides with a waxy accretion.
"I've locked your Dad out," Mrs Macdonald announced to a startled Margaret. "I've got my pride, after all. I winna sleep with ony ither woman's leavings. I've got my self-respect. I'm worth mair than that. It's aa ower."
Three little words. Three little words. "It's all over. It's all over. It's all over." Margaret left the hospital, through streets where wet leaves lay like fallen stars, toppled from their high pedestals. Through all her forty years, from child to woman, looking in from the outside at her parents' marriage, she had cast her mother as the cold one, the inferior half of the pair, a cardboard cut-out wife, a calculating, faithful, industrious, frigid drudge, in whom all joy was extinguished and who, in turn, extinguished all joy. Her need for answers took her to Mrs McFarlane's door where she pressed the bell urgently, waiting with mounting impatience as the old woman toiled through the long lobby in worn carpet slippers. She could hear her wheezing as she lifted her hand to the latch.
"Margaret Macdonald! Whatever brings you back here? Come in, my dear, come away in. We'll hae a wee fly-cup and a blether about old times. Sic a shame aboot your faither! Aye, we were neighbours a long time, a long, long time."
The old lady clattered china cups on to the tray, the ritual preliminary for an exchange of gossip. She would have liked to lead up slowly to the purpose of Margaret's visit, to tease it out, the better to savour the revelation, whatever it was. However, like a burn in spate breaking its banks, Margaret's curiosity could contain itself no longer.
"Mrs McFarlane," she said, casting all social niceties to the winds with solemn bluntness, "did my father ever have an affair?"
The withered hand, tipping the teapot forward to dispense the tarry brew, wavered slightly, then continued to pour. Without once glancing in Margaret's direction, she replied unhesitatingly. "Aye. Aye, he did, lassie. Single beds!" she snorted derisively.
"They didna fool me for a minute! Your Dad was a handsome man, a fiery lad when he was younger. Your Ma, ye see, didna care ava for thon side o marriage." Mrs McFarlane shrugged. "She telt me aince that yer Da didna mak ower mony 'demands' on her. That says it aa, dis it nae? If Mr McFarlane hidna made 'demands' on me, I'd hae needed tae ken why."
She paused a moment, her hooded eyes in their thin cowls of skin peering keenly at her guest. It was a lot for Sadie's lassie to take in, she reflected. It would be a new, raw wound, the hurt of her father's marital infidelity.
"Who was she?" Margaret inquired. doggedly. "Did I know her?"
"I shouldna think so, dearie," came the reply. "She wis naebody special. A chit o an office quine at yer Dad's workplace. A five-minute wonder. A flash in the pan." Given her mother's distaste for carnality, Margaret realised with a shudder that her very own conception had probably been a flash in the pan, a five-minute wonder.
"Why on earth did she stay with him after that, feeling the way she did?"
"Wha kens?" Mrs McFarlane replied, swilling the dregs of her tea clockwise around the bottom of the flowery cup. "I've often wondered that masel. Hate often binds fowk thegither as ticht as love, whyles tichter!"
Her visitor nodded in agreement. Oh yes, her mother would have made him suffer. He'd have known the full crippling force of guilt. The turn of the screw. His just punishment. And all behind locked doors, out of sight or sound of Margaret. Secrecy, that was her mother's way. Keeping up a douce front.
"I think maybe he stayed for your sake," continued the old woman. 'He was terrible fond of you. And if he'd left, she micht hae taen her spite oot on you. An it's nae a fine thing, divorce, is it? It's gey messy. An yer Ma liked her hoose an aa her bonnie things aboot her."
Her reason for the visit over, Margaret chatted with Mrs McFarlane over he changes in the street since she had left, more to humour the old lady than out of genuine interest. Later, making for home through the dreich drizzle, her thoughts turned to her own marriage, her own holy wed-lock. Norman was a workaholic. They had no shared home life as such. He left home at seven each morning to avoid the rush hour, not returning till ten most nights, tired and strained. "I'm doing it for us," he'd snap accusingly when she reminded him that parenthood was a dual responsibility. "I'm lining our little nest for the future."
Rubbish, thought Margaret to herself, with a flinty spark of her mother's intelligence. He's doing it all for himself. He's empire-building. A wife and kids are just camp followers. A piercing trill made her glance up with a start. Two nesting birds were taking it in turns to feed their hungry offspring. Margaret's own chicks turned to her alone for sustenance, company and nurture. And she was weary of that, so very, very weary of being a single figurehead. Small comfort in being queen of the castle when the king was always away crusading. She was still young; scrubbed up quite well when she made the effort. Nowadays locks could be picked, bolts could be slipped, doors opened. Straightening her shoulders, as a vague plan begin to form at the back of her mind, she quickened her step. Three little words flew into her head like birds of paradise perched upon a cerebral rainbow of hope.
"There's always divorce."
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The Fower Quarters: 18 - Three Little Words. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 2 March 2024, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=563.
"The Fower Quarters: 18 - Three Little Words." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2024. Web. 2 March 2024. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=563.
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