Bonny in Black
Author(s): Eddie Bruce
Copyright holder(s): Eddie Bruce
This document contains language which some may find offensive
When his classmates at Aberkinnie School picked up on it, the nickname became personal, but the more the scruffy youngster fought against it, the more the label stuck. At fifteen, when the pain of loneliness really hurt, he tried hard to change his appearance - but the die was already cast.
At sixteen, with tractors and farm machinery making horses and farm labourers redundant, John’s father found him a live-in apprenticeship in the village of Craigellachie, sixty miles away. During the train journey his self-esteem was so low that when crossing the River Spey, he wondered if drowning would be quick and painless.
It took him less than a week to come to terms with the miracle - that he’d left Strushle Jock back in Aberkinnie. Bill Stuart, the owner of Spey Valley Cooperage, welcomed the shy young lad, taking him under his wing and treating him like family, while teaching him the art of making and repairing whisky barrels for local distilleries. In time, though his wife frowned on it, Bill also shared with him his appreciation of the flavour and comforting effect of a good malt whisky. Later he demonstrated how an empty hogshead straight from the blender’s warehouse, could magically generate a gallon of whisky or more from its staves if left in the sun for a day. John repaid his employer’s trust with diligence and hard work.
As the years flew by, he visited his parents only as duty demanded, studiously avoiding Aberkinnie where the dour Strushle Jock had been moulded. Yearly he would help with the harvest at the Home Farm where his father worked and on such occasions he’d mutely identify with the farmer’s daughter Mary, especially when her older brothers rebuked her. “Glaikit Mary” they had called her at school and preoccupied as he had been then with his own problems, he’d noticed how she always blushed and panicked and got things wrong.
Although he made no close friends outside Bill’s family and acquaintances, John became respected in Craigellachie as a keen fisherman and a darts team regular at the nearby Fiddochside Inn. If his boss wondered about the lad’s background or his desperate shyness with girls, he was never disposed to embarrass him over it.
When Mary’s father was crushed to death on the hill under his new tractor, John bought a black mohair suit for the funeral. After the ceremony he waited near the churchyard gate, just far enough away to be ignored and near enough to respond to an enquiring glance. “I, eh…I’m real sorry Mary…aboot your father. It’s hard to believe…”
“Aye…thanks…it was a terrible shock.”
Their eye contact was lasting and meaningful.
“Well…I jist wanted to ask…”
“Whit? Whit is it Jock? They’re waitin’ for me.”
He scowled. “I dinna like Jock. It’s John – my name’s John.”
“John’s fine wi’ me - but I have to go.” She placed her gloved hand on his shoulder, glancing back at her brothers, towering protectively over their distraught mother. “Look, I ken I shouldna be saying this at my father’s funeral, but there’s a dance at the Drill Hall in a fortnight. Will ye be hame that weekend?”
“Aye,” he answered, then “definitely. Ye ken Mary, you look right bonny in black.”
“Aye, and you look bonny in black yersel', lad.’”
As the weekend of the Aberkinnie Harvest Festival neared, John was scared. He knew deep down he had to go; something in Mary’s look had told him so, but tormentors from his school days haunted his dreams, daring him to show how the years had changed him – or not. On a good day he knew he could handle it, but most days he recoiled from the prospect.
Bill Stuart kept a well-stocked cabinet of Speyside Whiskies, gifted by visiting distillers. On special occasions, or when Mrs. Stuart visited her sister, he and John would break open a prized malt over a serious game of chess, which would often be abandoned unfinished in favour of a sing song. If Bill suspected his stocks were dwindling fast, he didn’t broach the subject, maybe mindful that his lodger was of an age where learning came mostly through making mistakes.
On the fateful Saturday evening John arrived early. With half an hour to wait for Mary’s bus, he strolled up and down Aberkinnie’s deserted High Street, glancing at shop window displays, which had changed little over the five or so years since he last saw them. The walk from his parent’s cottage had sharpened his mind; he felt good.
“I’m real proud o’ you son,” his father had told him the night before - for the first time ever. “You’re a big improvement on the scruffy little bugger you used to be.” Then he’d poured another measure of the twelve-year-old Glenfarclas his son had brought. “Aye and a cooper’s niver short o’ a dram or two, either.”
“I was thinkin’ I might go tae the harvest dance.”
“Aye, an’ it’s nae afore time. Wi’ that suit on you’ll hae a’ the lasses chasin’ efter ye. I was tellin’ Mary up at the ferm she should get oot mair. But they’re a dour pair, the brithers – treat ‘er like dirt ye ken? An’ they dinna treat their mither ony better.”
Reaching the square, John looked at his watch then walked smartly downstairs to the public lavatories. Whisky no longer caused him to throw up or do daft things; indeed he’d long since learned to judge his own tolerance level. In a cubicle he took a measured swig of full strength Scotch from the half-flask he carried in an inside pocket. He gasped and breathed deeply, a smile forming on his ruddy features, then flushed the toilet before ascending the steps sucking a super strong mint.
The bus disgorged an assortment of incoming revellers. Girls flaunted their figures, decked in tight-fitting fashions, while young men fidgeted in too tight collars and suits that saw the light of day maybe twice a year. Some trotted lively towards the sound of dance music, while younger ones studied the tarmac, embarrassed at being escorted by their parents. As the stragglers disembarked, John was resigning himself to disappointment when he heard the shout. “Look lads, it’s that scruffy bugger, Strushle Jock – in a new suit by God!”
Probably a year or two older than John, the speaker’s name escaped him, but the smirk was familiar. Speechless with anger he returned the stare, but more intensely, then walked forward. His hands grabbed for the throat, squeezing hard, forcing the young man against the bus shelter wall. He was relishing the power of his physical strength as much as the look of abject fear on his tormentor’s face. He raised his right fist, memories of years of mental torture crowding his mind. “John – my name’s John!”
He tightened his grip, fiercely. “Say it you bastard – loud this time!”
“John! John! For God’s sake I’m chokin...’”
The anger left him as quickly as it came, but the self-belief stayed with him. He loosened his grip, straightened his tie and made eye contact with the others, testing their resolve. As he slowly and smugly turned away, he realised he no longer had any destination in mind.
“This is a fine way to greet a lass!” The relief he felt was as exhilarating as his newfound confidence.
It was the dress she’d worn at the funeral, this time enhanced by a light pink shoulder scarf and a red carnation attached to the square-cut neckline. “Bloody hell, Mary,” he whispered, shaking his head and smiling, “Bloody hell!”
“Well, if that’s a’ you can say…”
His grin was as broad as the street. “No…no…I’ll think o’ something.” Her complexion shone as she blushed and smiled, her neatly combed shoulder length black hair accentuating her pretty features. Remembering their schooldays, he marvelled at the transformation. “You look…great – lovely in fact. Black suits you.”
“You look gie smart yoursel’ John. I couldna get dressed ‘till my brithers went oot. They act like I’m a ten year old quine.”
“C’mon,” he said, taking her arm and leading her down the lane towards the swing park. “There’ll be plenty o’ time for dancin’ later.”
John walked even taller when they eventually arrived at the Drill Hall just after dusk. He’d shared the whisky with Mary and they’d talked about the years between and the pain of being branded when you’re young. As they’d kissed on the swings and later when groping and fumbling behind the bushes, although uninhibited in their mutual desire, their combined ignorance of the sex act brought only the frustration of premature climax. But they’d laughed contentedly, their intimate knowledge of each other signalling a bond that united them for life.
The whole building seemed to be pulsating in time to the music. The country dancing they’d learned at school should have come easy, but the combination of a slippery floor and alcohol intake caused them to slither around helplessly, gripping each other for support, all the while giggling uncontrollably. It was as they embraced, moving their feet imperceptibly to the strains of a slow waltz, that Mary remembered her promise. “I have to catch the last bus.”
“Aye. I was forgettin’. I have tae go tae the toilet.”
In the scratched and pitted mirror above the urinal, John saw a man – a real man: a man who, in one never-to-be-forgotten night, had confirmed his new identity and taken one gigantic step into adulthood. He leaned forward to confirm the contented smile he’d been wearing all evening.
“Tak’ a good look Jock – ye’ll maybe nae look sae braw in the mornin’.”
Above noise of the band playing a rousing reel and somebody being sick in one the cubicles, John recognised the harsh voice of Tam, the elder of Mary’s brothers. He zipped up his trousers, turning as he did so, feeling annoyance more than fear. “I have tae go,” he said, side-stepping the burly farmer, “Mary’s waitin’...”
His found his way barred by Angus, the other sibling. “Aye, I thought she was schemin’ tae meet somebody on the quiet. Mary’s nae for the likes o’ you, lad.”
Tam was quick for a man of his size, pinning John’s arms to his side in a vice-like bear hug. He saw Angus’s punch coming, almost in slow motion, but could do nothing to deflect the impact. He was on his knees watching the blood from his nose mingle with the urine on the tiled floor when the first kick to the solar plexus rendered him helpless.
In the days that followed his late return, Bill Stuart tried to motivate his sullen lodger, who showed little interest in his work, his normal pastimes, or even his personal hygiene. Letters from home were thrown away unopened. And he was drinking more than was good for a man who seemed to be in bad physical condition. On the one occasion he went out with the rod, Bill followed at a distance and was dismayed to find him sitting near the river bend by the old railway tunnel. The rod, still in its cover, lay on his lap, while he sipped slowly from a half bottle, staring transfixed into the bottomless whirlpool a few feet below.
Next day Bill stayed behind after breakfast, retrieved a letter from the bin and read it. He placed a call to the Home Farm, Aberkinnie. Mary arrived on the Saturday, carrying a suitcase.
The wedding was a hastily arranged affair at Elgin Registry Office. Besides Bill and his wife and John’s parents, only Mary’s mother attended.
When he was twenty-one, Glenlomas Distillery, Bill’s biggest customer, accepted John’s application for employment as distillery cooper, at tradesman’s rates and a two-bedroom bungalow rent free. There was little that the couple had hoped for that hadn’t come to fruition – in a magically short space of time. Within a year Mary gave birth to their daughter Jenny,
Although Glenlomas employed only one cooper, John was seldom called upon to demonstrate the skills of his craft. Much of the day was spent patrolling cold and damp, bonded warehouses where the whisky was stored to mature, tapping each hogshead, butt or American barrel individually to detect leakage. The job was lonely, with only rats and mice for company. “I miss the open air,” he told Mary, “and the satisfaction of making a sound barrel – jist like you must be missin’ the ferm.”
“I never notice,” she’d reply. “Jenny keeps me busy. Times I miss my mither, but I can never forgive my brithers, so that’s that.”
John thought himself a connoisseur, a man who appreciated the bouquet and flavour of a whisky matured in an old Sherry cask for twelve or more years. And a distillery cooper has daily access to the best. Most of the stock belonged to large blending establishments in the cities, but some individual quarter casks or firkins had been purchased to honour the birth of a son and heir, the owner intending to pay duty and take the cask home to toast his twenty-first birthday. In twenty-one years people die, fortunes change, dreams are shattered; foundations laid sometimes lie neglected. Sometimes John would conjure up a picture of skulduggery in high places to explain such unclaimed property, while taking a sample to make sure the contents hadn’t gone woody and unfit for drinking.
The long copper tube sealed at one end and capped at the other, was a going-away present from Bill. Two inches thick and twelve inches long, it slipped neatly through the bunghole of a cask with a string attached so that could be concealed inside the trouser leg, attached to the belt. As well as management and the Customs & Excise Officer, it was traditional that the cooper took a discretionary dram home occasionally and John’s well-stocked cupboard soon rivalled the distillery sample room for its versatility. “A good servant but a bad master,” Bill had told him after his last binge, and for a while John tried to drink only in company and in moderation But not for long.
He was bright enough to recognise a familiar pattern emerging. He became disinterested in everything around him, retreating into his shell, even washing and shaving only when Mary nagged him to, until one day she used a name that awakened the pain of the past. “Strushle Jock,” she’d called him. When his best friend visited Glenlomas on business, John sought a word with him in private.
“I canna get through the day or even the night withoot it noo,” he confessed. The public bar at the local Delnashaugh Hotel was empty; they’d given up on the game of darts, concentrating instead on John’s concerns. “I remember whit you said, but I canna fight it. I hide bottles on top o’ the wardrobe, under the sink, oot in the shed, onywhere I can drink in secret. I hate mysel’ for daein’ it – but I canna stop.”
Bill observed his young protégé closely, before answering. “I’ve seen some strong men lose that battle, lad. It’s a mystery how some can cope wi’ it and some can’t. It’ll nae be easy, but you’ll have to leave your trade an’ tak’ anither job.”
John’s shoulders dropped and he drained his glass. “Oh aye, and whit then? Whisky’s the only thing that…that maks a man o’ me.”
“It’s easy tae think that, but believe me lad, you’re a better man withoot it.”
John thought for a while, before walking to the bar and pointing to the bottle of Macallan. “Twa doubles please.”
If Bill had noticed any casualness about John’s driving, he refrained from puncturing his pride. On their journey home the tiny windscreen wipers of the old Ford Popular were proving no match for the torrential rain, yet John kept pressure on the accelerator oblivious to the skidding and wobbling of the box-shaped vehicle as he negotiated the bends.
After they’d sung about the tenth verse and chorus of The Ball o’ Kirriemuir, John reached over and squeezed his friend’s shoulder. “Listen to this Bill, I made it up the ither day…the brewer’s daughter, she was there…” He realised they were travelling too fast when he saw the Glenlomach turning looming up only a few yards away. But the message to turn sharply reached his brain before the instinct to slow down.
Hamish Mackie, the local policeman, having paid his weekly visit to the distillery on whatever pretext, was cycling home. Reaching the main road, he lingered for a while in the bus shelter, waiting for the rain to ease, and relishing the euphoria of two large drams of Glenlomach coursing through his veins, soothing his mind and body. He recognised the approaching car; there were only two black Ford Populars in the district and the minister never drove that fast. But surely he should be slowing... One second the car looked to be tearing past and the next it was jerking violently, then spinning out of control before slamming into a telegraph pole backwards. It reared up like a can-can dancer’s skirts, displaying a rusty underbelly before crashing back down on all fours.
The constable walked forward cautiously. Close up, the front of the car looked immaculate; he could even hear the engine ticking over gently as he leaned on the bonnet, staring through the windscreen, which was still intact. He blinked and shook his head then looked again, but could see no occupants. As he stepped gingerly towards the driver’s door, the full horror of the accident was plain to see. The car was now wedge-shaped, the bodywork flattened from the top of the windscreen right down to the boot. The door offered no resistance, but he stared in amazement at the position of the two bodies inside. The tubular metal bucket seats had folded right back with the impact. Both heads lay snugly on the rear seat, with the crushed roof only inches from their faces. Both faces appeared to be smiling. “Are you a’right?” seemed a daft thing to say, but he said it.
“I’ll phone for an ambulance,” Hamish suggested, after he’d helped them into the shelter. Both were trembling a little but seemed to be able to move about, albeit slowly.
“No, there’s nae need,” said John, then turning to his friend, “whit do you say Bill?”
“We’ll be a’right.”
The policeman made to open the top pocket of his uniform, then looked back at the distillery and changed his mind. “Will ye be able to drive it?”
“Aye,” said John, “nae bother Hamish.”
“Ye can never be too careful in treacherous conditions like this,” he said, mounting his bicycle again with a half grin on his face.
“You’re right there.”
He moved painfully into the backless diver’s seat. “Jump in Bill, I’ll tak’ ye back tae your car.”
“I dinna think so lad. I’ll wait for a bus an’ pick it up tomorrow.”
When he got home he drove the damaged car round the back of the house and threw a sheet over it, before staggering indoors and into bed. As the intoxication wore off, shock and pain replaced it. At midnight Mary phoned for an ambulance.
Jenny started primary school when her father was still in hospital. They kept him in for a week, X-rayed his back, and gave him painkillers for the broken ribs and bruising and tablets to help him sleep. The medication dulled his senses, allowing him to focus on other things besides his craving. In lucid moments he remembered the good times and the love he felt for his wife and daughter. Some nights he cried himself to sleep in shame over his selfishness.
At home he made a fuss of young Jenny, while Mary fed him home made broth and laughed as he struggled to walk again unaided. They came to visit and wish him well, the manager, the brewer, the mashmen, the stillmen, and the maltmen – all his workmates. He felt proud that he could now pour them a dram without resorting to one himself. Then the excise officer brought him the two things he needed least – a bottle of mature Glenlomach and the influenza virus.
An Edinburgh man, Donald Chisholm habitually wore a suit and had that civil servant’s air of authority, which, in John and Mary’s psyche, entitled him to the same respect as a minister or a doctor. “Bring two glasses Mary,” he instructed as he shook John’s hand.
“I’m nae sure John should be drinkin’ – whit wi’ the medicine an’ a’,” she ventured.
“Nonsense lass! Whisky’s a cure for all ills; I could do with one myself – I feel as if I’m coming down with the flu’.”
“Aye, but I’ve managed tae stay off it a’ week,” John added, as Mary complied with the request.
“No wonder you’re looking so peely-wally.” He poured two generous measures. “Get it down you lad – you’ll be back at work in no time.”
He recovered from the slip and stayed dry for three days, although the strain made him edgy and bitter, but when the flu’ symptoms hit him, he mixed a hot lemon drink with sugar – then added some whisky. Mary looked on helplessly as he distanced himself from her, moping about the house, refusing her every offer of help or even sympathy. Medicines were left unopened as he dosed himself on toddies that were mostly straight whisky. When bronchitis set in, he took to keeping a bottle under the bed, reaching for it regularly and automatically as his sleep pattern changed. During the third week Mary asked Doctor Grant to drop by. “I canna tak’ much mair o’ it, Doctor. It’s like the lad I merried has left me, an’ I’m nae strong enough tae manage withoot him.”
“It could be depression. It’s common enough after an illness...”
“No, I ken whit it is - it’s the whisky! Everybody roon’ here likes a drink, I ken that. God knows we’ve had some rare parties an’ I like a drop mysel, but noo he jist canna leave it alane.”
“I see. Well all spirits are depressants; that would explain the mood swings. Does he become violent?”
“No Doctor, we never fight. I’m thinkin’ it might be better if we did. Surely there’s something…”
“I can prescribe tablets that’ll make him sick every time he drinks – but I don’t think he’d take them. He needs to dry out – get the poisons out of his system.”
Mary leaned over and squeezed her husband’s hand on the eiderdown. “Hear that John? You can get treatment…”
The patient coughed and opened his yellowish, bloodshot eyes. His lips barely moved. “I ken you mean well Doctor, but I’ll manish fine,” he mumbled. “I’ve got my appetite back…I’ll be back at work on Monday…I dinna drink while I’m workin’.”
“Aye, we’ll see,” said Mary. “I’m ashamed to face the dustmen, wi’ a’ them empty bottles in the bin.”
That’s all it would take to be in control again. He had a responsible job that he’d proved he could cope with. Life would get back to normal. It was bad enough being at death’s door, without a wife that treated you like a bairn and a bairn that treated you like a stranger.
Getting up was easy; the bottle under the bed was long since empty and he craved another dram. When the fourth one hit the spot he realised that shaving would be a risky job after days of neglect. Mary hadn’t bothered to get up, but that was fine. He stuffed the sandwiches in his pocket, ignoring the thermos flask.
As he approached the cooper’s shed, the brewer tooted and waved on his way to the car park. He would see the manager and Exciseman later for access to number one warehouse. Best to check the older stock first. He felt a familiar nervous twinge in his stomach - funny how the effects wore off so quickly these days. He listened to the billings sloshing around inside as he rolled a hogshead in from the yard. The markings told him it had previously contained ten-year-old Glenlivet. Maybe half a gallon had seeped back from the staves. He removed the bung and fetched a bucket.
On the first Monday of the school holidays John came home to an empty house. Although devastated, the note didn’t surprise him. “Dear John, Jenny and me have gone to stay at my mother’s. I hope you see the doctor and get help. Mary.” He sat for nearly an hour, staring at the message. He phoned the doctor.
When the shakes and sweating started on his second dry day, he put it down to lack of sleep and not eating properly. The hallucinations were terrifying. At the end of his third day he had an epileptic fit which seemed to last forever. When he finally made it to the nearest bottle, he could think of only one way to get rid of the anxieties.
At Aberkinnie Home Farm, Mary was helping her mother with the washing up. “He canna help it mither; he was a good man tae me ‘till the drinkin’ got oot o’ hand. Maybe he’ll come tae his senses noo.”
“It’s a wonder there’s anything left tae drink the way he’s been knockin’ them back.”
“Oh, he brings bottles hame an’ planks them a’ ower the hoose.”
Tam looked up from his newspaper. “And you never thought to find them an’ pour them doon the sink? Your as bad as him, you daft limmer.”
“Mind your ane business, Tam! You dinna ken whit you’re speaking aboot.”
“That’s whit you said the last time, but as lang as you’re under our roof lass, it is our business and we’ll dae what we think is best.”
In his stupor, John had been only vaguely aware of the crashing sounds and other loud noises around him. At six in the morning he reached under the bed for what was left in the dock sample bottle. At nine he woke to another panic attack, his guilty mind racing through fearful scenarios while his stomach churned. Trembling, he staggered to the wardrobe, his arm sweeping the dusty top, vainly searching. In the kitchen he realised the futility of looking under the sink when he saw all the cleaning materials scattered on the floor. Still in his underpants, he staggered to the garden shed, but the door was already open and the contents lay scattered on the lawn. Moaning and crying out, he wandered from room to room collecting every box and bottle of medication he could find.
Mary brought her mother with her when she came back to Glenlomas. Jenny played with her friends while they busied themselves tidying up the bungalow. They brought John back the next day. Mary waited till they’d gone before going to the bedroom to see him.
She caught her refection in the dressing table mirror and she was glad she got dressed for the occasion. What was it he said again? Oh aye - “You look right bonny in black.”
He looked much better now - clean and smart for the first time in months. Visitors would notice. In the black mohair suit as well – and that canny smile. She leaned over the coffin and kissed him gently on the lips. “You look right bonny yersel,” she whispered.
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Bonny in Black. 2023. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 10 December 2023, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=724.
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