From a valley place he came. A north man. The Scotsman. Fatherly to see, hardy spined, here in lowland Howwood a fortnight to fix a chapel rooftop. Eight till five daytime shifts. Grey then black hours. He the gaffer, a one man service, jacketed and booted, given hammer-tap at the slates.
Afternoons, December crept dark up on him. This 1951 December the blackest he had lived. Black cold. His hands sleetwelt. Windwhack stiff. Fast-thud working to seal the roof. Winter shield it. His tradesman reputation broad as his back.
No watch or clock or rooster timetold him. Four-fifty-nine he downtooled and roofwalked and downladder sang, ‘I once had a dear old motherrrrrrr,’ his shift spent.
Big winters big roofers had sworn he learned timetell from blacksky star fields. There was no explanation for his four-fifty-nine downtools nack. Years he had did it. Most elder roofers headscratch admired him. Skywatch wished for his stars telltime knowhow.
Some bumscratchers agreed he was a satanist. Behind your back types whispered it. Said he was a Devil cahootser. A moon dancer. Sacrificer goat slayer. Like all kilty gibberers were. Jealousers teabreak smoked and wink concurred this.
Grace or spite he didn’t spare them a thought. Roofers lazy on roofs and land and general lazy in dignity.
He appeared rooftop on a Monday. Smart on eight o’clock. Hammer-tap in the high dark. There blended shadowy. As he toiled he sang. Old songs passed down from old kin. Old winds lifted and carried and laid his voice on doorsteps and gardens and lanes and roads. Beyond midday he saw the girl. He turned on knees and heels and slackhammer waved at her.
Three days she came to the fence and stoodstill watched him. Priest-collar white hair. Shoulder rest locks. Scarfed and gloved and coated brown. Wellington boots too big. Her face pearl as the grass frost. She smiled when he waved. He waved at her singing fully. Ever the wind taking and sharing his voice.
Each day he looked for her. Singsong watchy. Her presence unpredictable. Sometimes morning, sometimes early or late afternoon. But every day there fenceside. Thinface smile her.
Thursday he bedrose in the guesthouse at six. He dressed and went to the kitchen and topped the teapot at the sink and put it on the stove and struck a match and switched the gas on. Blue flames clawheld the steel pot. The landlady yawny came in bathrobed and said, ‘That wind out there, oof,’ and she checked the teapot and lifted a pan from a wall hook.
‘Aye,’ he said, tableside sat.
‘How’s the job coming?’
‘Good, good,’ she said, and lit a gas ring and placed the pan on it. She cracked four eggs into the pan and poured milk into it and stirred with a wooden spoon. ‘Good you’re getting on.’
‘There’s a lass. Sees me singing.’
‘You sing there?’
‘Working like, aye.’
‘Oh,’ the landlady said, and poured tea into two mugs.
‘My wife says I sleep sing. If she hadn’t telled I’d a never known it. You’d think I’d wake me up.’
‘Maybe you’d better quiet down. On your job here.’ She lay slices of bread in the pan and turned and handed him the mug of tea. ‘That’s a sanatorium next to the chapel,’ she said, and soft moved back to the stove.
‘My Lord, no.’
‘Wee souls are bedridden there.’
‘I thought it were a manse.’
‘It was. Before the war.’
‘Girls go there. From the Quarriers Orphanage. The consumption is all through them. Bonebags.’
‘That wee lamb.’
‘Breaks your heart.’
‘Lord Lord Lord. If you hadn’t telled I’d a never known it.’
Five more days she came to the fence. Buttoned up to her chin. Her face collar tucked. Her hair blowy. He waved and she waved back. Or she waved and he waved back. He didn’t sing.
On his tenth shift she didn’t come to the fence. All day she wasn’t there. The next day and the day after she wasn’t there. He worked silent and darkness early cast and the wind madder shouted at him.
Christmas Eve, end of his last shift, a nun waited bottom of his ladder. A young lady rosecheek serene. ‘Sir, could I ask you something?’ she said, and shy-eye stepped back.
‘Can I ask you to sing?’
‘You want me to sing.’
‘For the children. They miss your songs.’
‘Lord,’ he said, and lost his breath some.
‘Molly liked seeing you. When you sang.’
‘Molly.’ He pointed at the fence. ‘Her name is Molly.’
‘Yes. You made her day.’
‘I saw her there.’
‘She took a poor turn, sir. She hasn’t long.’
‘Molly. She is Molly. How old is she?’
‘Molly is seven, sir.’ The nun warm touched his arm then windswept walked away.
On the rooftop he held the spire and arched and stared up into the blackness and sang ‘Ave Mariaaaaa,’ his voice sent, his eyes fires, and a higher gust cried.