Excerpts from Chris Dolan’s Potter’s Field and Aliyyah
ALIYYAH – an excerpt
Once Haldane woke everything was white. White ceiling, white walls, a white door open just enough to reveal a white corridor beyond. He moved his head and felt a murmur of pain somewhere. On the far wall the white was finally broken by an open window looking out on to a perfectly green tree with bright red buds. He dozed off and woke again to the same scene, several times over, until he was fully awake and strong enough to move his body. The same pain no matter which limb he moved. He pulled the white sheets back and saw that his left leg was bandaged from the ankle to the knee. He managed to sit up, and then stand without the pain becoming much worse. He hobbled towards the half-open door, and called out.
Glancing back into the room he saw it contained only the bed he had been lying in and a chair, over which was a neatly draped uniform. Under the chair was a black box, about the size of a car battery, bent and battered. He turned and limped out into the long white narrow corridor.
After about ten steps it opened out in to a landing, at the left hand side of which another window framed another green and red tree waving in a perfectly blue sky. The steps down into the rest of the house looked steep.
Leading with the bandaged leg and holding on to the banister he made his way slowly down. There were pictures on the wall, portraits, of men mostly. But he had to concentrate on the steps, each of them of different depth, like the ones in the old manse.
The hall below had more portraits on the walls and a brightly patterned rug on the floor. There was a door to his left which must lead, he thought, out to the fruiting trees. A door behind the steps probably led to kitchens. In front of him were three more doors, one of which was open a crack and gave Haldane the impression of being occupied. On the flat he found he could walk more or less normally. He knocked and opened the door a little more.
The room was huge, several rugs or carpets, intricately patterned, covered less than half the floor. There were low tables made of carved wood, numerous chairs and divans, cushions of many colours on the furniture, all set on the floor’s bright green tiles. On a table at the far end sat a samovar and two glasses, and at the window stood a small figure staring out into the sun and a garden.
‘Sir? I’m sorry but I…’
The man turned around. He seemed to Haldane, perhaps because he was at the other end of such a vast room, tiny. Dressed in a long white robe, a light brown waistcoat over it, and an embroidered hat, the little man smiled and held both his hands in the air. Behind his little groomed beard his smile was welcoming. Haldane thought it the most perfectly uncomplicated smile he had ever seen.
‘Captain Haldane! What a wonderful surprise. And you came all the way down yourself?’
‘Sorry. Yes. I called but…’
‘Forgive me, my friend. I was listening for you but unfortunately my listening is not as reliable as once it was. Come in, come in. Sit. Here, let me help you.’
But the little man was already scurrying towards him, around chests and dressers and cushions. He took a hold of Haldane’s arm and led him gently, as if the younger and taller man were the older and frailer, towards the table with the samovar. He sat him down on a chair then sat himself at the other side on a large upholstered cushion.
Seated now, Haldane took in the room around him. On the walls hung tapestries woven with rich blues and reds with gold threads gleaming. There were thick rugs on the floor and smaller ones on top of the carpets. The silver samovar in front of him was one of many. The cup and saucer seemingly waiting for him were elegantly painted china.
‘Cardamom tea. It’s all you’ve been drinking since you arrived.’
Stained-glass lanterns and giant urns etched with Cyrillic script sat on the floor and on marble cabinets with filigree woodwork doors. Above, candelabras hung from the painted wooden ceiling.
‘Well,’ the old man giggled,’ I administered it to you. I have great faith in cardamom tea!’
Haldane reckoned that every colour known to man could be found in this room. There were four double windows on the left-hand wall, each of them open, letting in the cool breeze and the scent of fruit and blossom that mingled now, as he took the cup to his lips, with the spice of the cold tea.
‘Since I arrived. … I’m afraid I don’t remember exactly how…’
‘Yes, of course. You have plenty of questions. Plenty of questions!’ The old man laughed merrily at the idea. ‘And all of them shall be answered. You have nothing to worry you. Nothing at all. All you must do, Captain Haldane my friend, is recuperate. Get back your strength. Cardamom!’ And the old man drank deeply.
Haldane felt that he did indeed recognise the taste of the tea though he had no memory of ever having had it before.
‘Are there others here?’
‘Others? Ah, you mean other soldiers. Like you. No no. Not at all. Just us.’
‘You and I? I’m sorry I don’t know your name.’
‘Duban. My name is Duban, Captain Haldane. Pleased to meet you…’ and again he giggled, ‘now that you are awake.’
‘Please, call me Thomas.’
‘May I? Thank you, Thomas.’
‘So, only you and I?’
‘And Ma’ahaba. You will meet her in due course.’
‘Ma’ahaba? Did she put on these bandages?’
‘Not at all, not at all. All my own work.’
‘You’re a doctor, Duban?’
‘Alas no. But I am old and have learned one or two tricks along the way. I do not think you are too badly hurt,’ Duban laughed gaily. ‘At least not beyond repair. And now that you have made your way down here and are sitting comfortably drinking cardamom tea, I am altogether more convinced you will make a full and speedy recovery. But my advice is – the counsel of an old man, not a physician – rest! Peace breeds, strife consumes. Not too many questions. Till morning. Do not tax yourself, Thomas. I shall make you a little light supper, while you sit perhaps for a few moments in the outside in the shade.’ He opened one of the French windows. ‘Some air, a simple dish of rice and lemon and cilantro, and you will be ready to face the world in the morning.’
Duban smiled beatifically, his dark eyes glittering as he bustled towards the door. ‘Enjoy the garden. It is quite lovely at this hour.’
‘Excuse me? Sir? Where am I?’
POTTER’S FIELD – an excerpt
The morning’s sweetness had curdled, the sky a simmering grey gruel. Maddy, heading west, waded against the flow of Sauchiehall Street shoppers. She’d worked till ten on Monday, had taken enough files home on Tuesday to bury an elephant, gone in early Wednesday and worked late last night. She could afford a little time on a Friday afternoon to tidy up her flat before the estate agent came.
Her route took her past the southern edge of Kelvingrove. There was nothing to connect the tranquil greenery, the perpetually dormant bowling greens, with the little corner of horror deep in the park’s belly. Boards outside shops blurted the deadening news. ‘Bodies Found in Kelvingrove’.
Glasgow spreads like a stain, weeping along the least line of resistance in every direction, between mountains, down valleys, draining into the sea. But there’s a secret geometry to it, a nervous system that makes death in the west felt and feared as keenly in Easterhouse or Giffnock. Today’s double portion was pretty much on Maddy’s doorstep. An incursion into her heartland.
At Lorraine Gardens she admired the street, as she always did, before opening the door. She’d been here for ten years, the only house she’d ever owned. The HQ of the private Maddelena Shannon, hybrid woman. A Mediterranean kitchen – terracotta tiles, colour-washed dresser, pots, pans and dried peppers hanging round the hob – that somehow looked absolutely nothing like a Mediterranean kitchen.
‘White’s the problem’ Dan had said. He’d run his hand over the paint daubed straight onto the plaster, to give that Mexican adobe look. ‘Blue-based white doesn’t work in the north. Looks great in Andalusia, looks like dogs’ piss in Glasgow. What you need’s a yellow-based white.’
She’d salvaged from her childhood bedroom in Girvan a saccharine picture of Christ The Shepherd. Golden-locked boy in a soutane stroking a lamb. The irony hadn’t come off. The whole house was a botched blend of attempted modernity and beefy auction-house furniture. She’d considered making a move, selling up, finding somewhere new. Roddy Estate Agent looked around the flat and said: ‘Declutter. One little word, one big task. But worth it.’
Inspecting each room in turn, he’d propped himself up against the door jamb as if the vision before him might overpower him. He had the smile of a man consoling a bereaved but distant acquaintance. ‘Get rid of the books. Only leather-bound volumes sell a property.’
Unread books, in other words. Hyndland had changed. When she had arrived, she’d sneered at the dusty pretension of the place. Lecturers, doctors and dentists with clapped-out bangers rusting between doric pillars in driveways. Art collections clustered behind unwashed windows. Patched elbows and unkempt haircuts reading on threadbare sofas. The violin and piano practices of a screech of Gails, Robinas and Leos. Maddy had shaken her head at it all, yet here she was, a decade later, mourning its passing.
It was Roddy’s area now. His soft-top silver sports car not conspicuous anymore outside her window, winking between SUVs and Beamers. At 36, Maddy was Old Hyndland while Roddy talked interactive tellies and surroundsound. Maddy blamed footballers. Once, they stayed safely out of the way in the southside and Bothwell. Since they’d started migrating from warmer climes they preferred the liveliness of the west end. She’d spoken the thought out loud to Roddy Estate Agent, and immediately wished she hadn’t.
‘Bulgarians, Hungarians, Australians.’ Roddy had rapped on her theme. ‘I’ve sold houses to Czechs, Latts, Poles, Danes and Swedes. Organised mortgages for Spaniards, Germans, Portuguese, Uruguayans and Geordies. Makes you wonder why our teams aren’t doing better than they do.’
‘Cause they’re all too busy poncing up their west end flats?’ suggested Maddy. And putting them out of her price range. Still, they looked nice, the thick-locked and dark-curled foreign footballers, outside the cafes.
Roddy scanned his eyes over her bedroom like a client making up his mind in a Bangkok brothel, his gaze resting for a moment on the open-topped Moroccan laundry basket, tastefully bedecked with a pair of yesterday’s knickers.
‘Roddy’ she’d said pleasantly. ‘Could you do me a favour? Could you get yourself to fuck out my house? Thanks.’
This section: stories and poems
Filed under: stories and poems
- Corona Virus Stew – poem by Leela Soma
- Baked With Love – a poem by Leela Soma
- Three New Poems by Rizwan Akhtar
- Town Hall Meeting U.S.A. Leela Soma
- Two poems by Finola Scott: ‘Garlic’ and ‘Rhubarb’
- Flowers – poems by Leela Soma
- I Deserve This – a poem for Christmas by Calum Maclean
- Bluid Muin – Lunar Eclipse by Finola Scott
- Some Wintertime Poems by Finola Scott
- Goldie by Pat Byrne
- Reading Palms by Stephen Watt
- Poetry: Lahore, I am coming by Rizwan Akhtar
- Autumn Makes Me Sad by Muriel Baker
- Three Haibun by Robin Lloyd-Jones
- The Indian Shawl a poem by Muriel Baker
- Plum Stone Throat a poem by Jenne Gray
- Autumn Visit to USA by Leela Soma
- Lochwinnoch – a poem by Lindsey Stewart
- Living in Shoes – poem by Gail Winters
- The Big Chair – Autumn Voices – Robin Lloyd-Jones