Vegetarian Weather

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Short story written over the past three days in a bout of illness, in-between working Christmas shifts that veered between the hectic and dead, drinking quantities of whisky and waking up to sunlight and ice-beams.

The waves here are not like other waves, on other shores. They seem to billow backwards, suck lines of bright froth back into themselves. This town is bordered by a self-consuming ocean, so there’s no other way to go. A bulimic rhythm of prolonged fulfilment; nourishment interrupted. You try to look out but the horizon devours what darkness might lie beyond as within. Everything is overcast. Even in summer, people lick pastel ice-creams to a backdrop of failed, VHS-flicker grey. The sky shivers and glitches with rain. I was on a train once and a drunk man had slept through the changeover and there were no more trains to the city till morning. He asked how to get back from the port, what time the last bus was, was there still time to get a cab from my town, and I said there was no time here. No time at all.

People have been stringing up lights for weeks, but now we are used to the change it’s as if they’ve been here forever. Blue and red, mostly, like sirens; like morse code blinking in darkness. When I was a kid, I used to lean against the harbour wall and watch the lights, spotting a pattern that made sense. I’d write out words with sticks in the sand, trying to parse the lights. Now I see the decorations, the decorative function, and it’s more or less fully tasteless. I have seen how the city looks at this time of year, the city where silver and gold are everywhere. Then there is the town, the red and blue; the spent fire and the melancholy.

Mother washes dishes until her skin blisters. I have bought her gloves for Christmas, year after year, but she refuses to use them. She enjoys some sort of searing, primitive contact with soap and water. They say she is the best kitchen porter the hotel has ever known, and even when there was a corporate takeover, they let her keep her job. She sings festive carols to piss off the chefs, who love her so much they say nothing. Every year, a bottle of ginger wine for a bonus. She hates ginger wine, but accepts graciously. I’ll admit, I inherited little from my mother.

I am guilty of staring at the sign on the church: CHRIST DIED FOR YOUR SINS. One time the minister caught me and he tried to hold my wrist and look up with me, like we were having A Moment of Glory. I remember his stories from school, trite morality tales about betrayal and friendship. Blood trumps all. My mother once had him for tea, and I mean this pretty much literally. She ate him up with her eyes while my father supped lentil soup in silence. She wanted him to say, I suppose, you are all good people. But the minister merely thanked her, politely, letting breadcrumbs sift through his fingers into the soup, like this was a perfectly normal thing to do. I don’t suppose it’s right to crave forgiveness or bliss from a minister. At least my sins are pure, like the sharp silver of restaurant cutlery.

When people pass each other on the street, they nod. Sometimes, a thrusting remark about the weather, a painful stab at some petulant vegetable. The chat doesn’t stick. But still in its smallness I polish it.

The grocery store is selling handmade Christmas wreaths, which smell of true pine. I don’t know what truck brought them in from the forest, came west with the logs and the spindling needles, the twigs of fir and gauze of twine. It’s maybe a job I’d want when I’m older. The driven coastline, the smell of the pine. For now, I gather up trash from the beach, all the stuff people forget about. I glue it together, leave sculptures in the community arts centre for the children to prise apart with sticky fingers. Father once mumbled something about college but never mentioned it again. Sometimes I can sell them, in tourist season. You lay down a blanket and drunk people will come talk to you, like you’re some sort of guru. I imagine my tacky statuettes in homes across the district, mournful little symbols of emotional debris. Luke used to walk along with me, picking up odd bits. We shared a vision, which is more than you can say about most brothers and sisters. I hope people smash them, my sculptures, in the middle of arguments; I hope they instate a sort of catharsis.

Sin. Waves. Sky. Signs. I used to work in a café serving Battenberg cake to gossiping pensioners, whose tongues would loll out like soft bits of dough, even when they were catatonic and staring at the lashing waves, crumbling onto their laps the pink and yellow. The town devours itself, sloshed and watered by endless tea. Scandal is rare and thin, mostly a case of mystery fire, a missing dog or crooked insurers. Once, two men moved in together as lovers but that was diffused by the presence of their pekinese, who used to come snuffling into the café so even the old folks were won over, nursing their social phobias for other occasions. All these dogs kept coming from nowhere.

I feel the presence of others as generally tepid, unwanted. I went to school a couple towns away, got that bus every morning or walked out before it had even reached my door. I’ve never needed eduction to remind me of a world beyond. I only had to look in the weathered face of my father as he returned each time from fishing, the crinkles in his eyes like a tiny clam had nestled in each pupil and was sucking the skin in for energy. Anemone. The way he plodded in the door with such reluctance, trailing sand and silt in his wake, interrupting my mother’s ordered domesticity with the thick, ineluctable lore of the sea.

“Heavy waves out west,” he’d say mysteriously, chewing a lump of bread as if in each crusted pore was the bloom of an oracle. Mother would shuffle a deck of cards, clink the dishes. Oh baby don’t make me cry. She attended bridge nights on Wednesdays at the Schooner, she kept herself busy. Our tiny bungalow was always polished to a sparkle, as if she was afraid the deceased grandparents could tell whether there was tarnish to the silverware. Father doesn’t talk much, doesn’t touch our lives. He helped assemble the tree with usual obligatory gruffness, then retired to his almanack and chewing tobacco. When Luke died, he didn’t say a word for months. He disappeared on trips that got longer and longer, as if trying to make his reckoning with the sea. If I drain you, will revenge be complete? Do fishermen respect the sea? Great shivering nets of metallic shoals looped in and deported up north, a great operation exchanged between strangers with a fetish for the slivery, salty heaps of lamé. He used to keep a logbook of all the good stuff he’d caught, would bring home glistering samples of mussels and carp for tea, but now he throws it all back, unless it’s for work. Does the minimum necessary, but still brushes with death. Don’t we all…

I sometimes think, god if I went away would I miss this place? I picture myself stepping off the train with the arrogant smile of the rest that leave for places east, for the city. Coming home in summer wearing neat tight suits and smart-person glasses. How small the town would seem, a dolls house of trivial troubles compared to the vast expanse of the city, where I’d make my fortune studying law or medicine or working in some department store where all the women wear Chanel and talk as if talk were merely unfettering. The delicate unravelling of a silken scarf, the spritz of expensive everything. In contrast to such gauzy dreams, the town, I fear, is inscribed with too much of me; I need to keep an eye on it. The sedimentary deposits of my human existence, time made language. All the rocks with my name scratched deep by shards of flint and granite. If I came back, this would all seem impossibly empty. The cave where I gave my first handjob, to a boy who smelt of liquor and mint. I still remember how slowly his breath synchronised with the rhythmic lisp of the sea, quickening with the gulls that squawked and circled ever closer, concealing each blood-warming grunt.

I stopped eating meat after Luke died. The smell of fish near enough killed me, so I slept in deliberately each day to avoid the hour when the men came onto the docks with their morning haul. I burned so much incense in my room that Mother was concerned I was having a religious awakening. I grew what they call lithe and thin; I honed my time to a solitary point. Luke used to run along the beach at dusk, but he’d always bang the sand out of his trainers before stepping in the house. He shared Mother’s sense of boundaries, territory. He used to talk about the nesting patterns of gulls. Recursion, he said, was the order of birds. They knew to come home, and when. There was something magnetic, a tiny program inside their skulls.

We still don’t have his body. It never washed up; the sea hasn’t returned it, the police packed in the case a year ago now. The other boys talk solemnly and seriously about moving away: getting out of it all, the mess and the memories. I’ve drank with them down the Schooner many a time, matching them pint for pint as we flick peanuts across the table and wish we were children again, reminiscing our games on the lips of the bay. When Adam kissed me in the freezing sea mist of six in the morning, clutching me like a piece of driftwood that had wound up on his porch, I felt as though I were pressing into the deepest history, its secret flesh. I felt that final capsize, that upsurge of tide. I was glimpsing what I had missed, the darkest moment of shock and extinction. He pinned back my hair, deftly, when I vomited onto his mother’s petunias. He said ‘good girl’ after we slept together, and I was a waif in his tangle of sheets, hardly the siren I supposed myself to be. He said ‘good girl’ but he was only two years older. It was like none of us knew what to do anymore. When I asked him what the last thing Luke said was, Adam couldn’t tell me. He said they were quiet, they were fishing—that was all. They didn’t talk much at sea, like that was unlucky. The focus was always upon the catch. I stopped visiting that house on the border of town, stopped going anywhere beyond my room. I was folding myself inward, like the waves that brushed the skin of the shore. I pictured twenty black pills like black bits of bladderwrack and swallowing my mother’s precious tonic. Every day felt like a new kind of bruising. I’m not there yet. 

I still remember my first lobster. How I had slipped apart the lock of the cage, the lobster pot, to see this gangrenous thing with terrible black eyes that twitched erratically from side to side. Mother used to tell me the chef at her work would go around clacking lobster pincers near all the waitresses’ bums, until one day a woman called Meggie, the old restaurant manager, thumped him in the face and he had to finish service with his nose bleeding into the sauce. “Be more like Meggie,” she’d say sometimes, scrubbing a wine stain out of Father’s trousers, like that was lust itself. You have to twist off the legs, the claws, break at the joints, scoop out the meat from each fat claw. Iron-rich. I watched the blood-red thing die a death in boiling water, could hear a sharp hiss that sounded like more than steam. What else you had to scoop out: the long dark intestinal tract, its tangled, bedraggled remains of a life. An Escheresque recursion, a spiralling fold into self. I wonder what lobster hunger feels like, the in-suck of clams and asterisk starfish. How it feels to enter that deep, freezer sleep, among the ice cubes and packets of plastic-wrapped, soldered meat? Father clapped me on the back when I held out the shell; when later, tactfully, I stuck my fork in, needling around for the richest flesh. My body knew appetite, knew what to look for. It tasted good and strong. Now I see those orange buoys and I wonder what starving thing is perishing underneath, ready for consumption. I reset my computer because the internet never works. We are out at sea here, lost in our mutual devouring. Nobody comes to fix the signal. Nobody questions my diet at all.

My breath still sours on the windowpanes of strangers. There is no time in this town, not even at Christmas where the hours bleed together like the masses of plastic that gather along the shore. I pass the minister, who quips about the weather. Overcast as the darkness that meets us all. He doesn’t understand the patterns, the names of the clouds.

Sometimes I still see Adam. He stripped me till I was thin as cirrus, in smoky entrails of evening light. Boxing Day and I looked out with the blankets scratching my shoulders, the horizon grey and wasted. I could see Father’s boat trailing in at the dock, the shape of his cap against the grey. My skin looked grey. Something a teacher explained once, glassels: those stones that look shiny and lovely under the water, but dry a dull, disappointing matte on land. I was back in the house on the border of town. I left a little ornament, a piece with old speakers, all copper wires twanged into ersatz smiles. It’s the creepiest thing I ever made, maybe. Luke would’ve hated it; would’ve snapped it apart, made food for the waves. Sometimes we go backwards, return to the place. I think of him most when splitting vegetables, drinking Mother’s ginger wine, scrolling through Facebook on delayed connections. It’s different, now that you’re not around. I grow fragile with anaemia, spend time trying to name your fate. There’s a toast to be made to the absent, a manner of feedback; but all of that pain was already in the weather. You just had to notice.



 

Christmas Traditions

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Christmas begins with a different ritual for everyone. For some people, it’s when the radio stations start playing familiar Christmas hits from the 80s. For others, it’s the first bite of a mince pie crumbling its buttery sticky sweetness in your fingers. For most supermarkets, it’s the day after Halloween, when the shelves are quickly stocked with tins of Roses and Quality Street and Celebrations and a Christmas tree is rather humbly erected in every store’s entrance. For me, it used to be when we started making cut-out paper snowflakes at school; when they would play Christmas songs on the old stereo system that crackled when anyone walked near it, as if it were possessed somehow. Or a trip to a pound shop to buy our dog an artfully tacky sparkly collar and/or chew toy and/or basket of treats. These days I’m involved in buying sparkly socks more than dog collars, but the sentiment is still there.

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Some people are super keen for Christmas and have their trees up right from the first of December. In the library during exam period the festive jumpers are out in full swing, as are the seasonal lattes (Praline and Pumpkin Spice) retrieved from the Byres Road Starbucks. In our house, the tree usually doesn’t get put up until Christmas Eve; since our cousins from England would sometimes come up to us, we would wait for their arrival to decorate it, late in the evening, before leaving out a carrot, mince pie and brandy for Rudolph and Santa.

Traditions, however, change just like people. At school, Christmas came with the baggage of P.E. becoming training for social dancing throughout December. No Scottish child has been exempt from the painful awkwardness of having to choose a sweaty-palmed partner and learning to dance often incredibly complex steps (I’m looking at you, Strip the Willow) to the amusement of all their peers. And that’s if they’re lucky enough not to be left last and paired with a teacher. Of course, the older you get, the less embarrassment tends to dominate your entire consciousness, so dancing becomes more fun. You know, I would even go to a ceilidh of my own free will now, although back then I thought it was a form of torture cooked up to torment children out of enjoying their Christmas. It didn’t help that the school dance also involved the necessity of buying a compulsory sequined party dress (not a fun enterprise when you are a ten-year-old tomboy that hates shopping) and a dinner whose only option for vegetarians was salt and vinegar crisps (I swear I’m not really complaining). Still, the brutally hilarious fights over ‘he wiz dancin with ma girlfriend’ that you could witness outside afterwards while waiting to be picked up made the night somewhat worth it.

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At secondary school, playing in the brass band forged new festive traditions. There were the rehearsal days for the Christmas concert, where you got to take a whole morning out of class, carrying your instrument down to the tinselled town hall and sit for hours munching snacks from the local Spar and watching everybody else perform. Then there were the primary school tours, where we would pile into a mini van and play in the surrounding school assemblies for the generous payment of a box of chocolates that were swiftly devoured before lunch. You felt so important, playing up there on a stage and being praised by your old teachers while all the little kids watched you with wide-eyed wonder and you remembered that you were in that crowd only a few years ago, hoping that someday you could be the big kid on stage with the shiny instrument adorned with tinsel.

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When Glasgow’s shoppers’ wonderland, the aptly-named Silverburn, opened its doors, a new tradition was created. Picking me up after a hard day at college, Mum would drive me up to the shopping centre and we would do the last bits of our Christmas shopping. There’s a certain magic to the indoor consumer paradise, with all the lights and the giant snowglobe for kids to get pictures in and the seductive glow of expensive shop windows. Everything was warm and clean and once we’d done our shopping we’d go for a mince pie at Starbucks, where we could look out over all the people dressed in reindeer jumpers and laden with glossy shopping bags. These days, traditional Christmas has become more fashionable and you can go to see the Christmas markets in pretty much every British city. It all has a German and Scandinavian flavour which still feels a bit refreshing. We used to always go up to see the lights at George Square, a tradition that seems very sad and innocent now after yesterday’s heartbreaking incident, but nevertheless retains importance in my memory – and many people’s memories, I should imagine. There’s also the lovely, extravagant decor of traditional department stores which resonates the Christmas magic of the early twentieth century: I’m thinking Princes Mall and House of Fraser in Glasgow, then Jenners and Harvey Nichols in Edinburgh. I’m sure London too has much to offer, although sadly I only get to experience that through my half-hearted attempts to join my family in watching the terrible Christmas specials of Made in Chelsea.

George Square
George Square

It used to be that we’d go to Culzean to collect twigs and fir cones and sprigs of holly for decorating the house. We’d spray them with gold and dip them in glitter. Sometimes we still do that, as if living out the old ritual of making Christmas cards that Mum made us do every year when we were at primary school. I love crafting and firmly believe that it’s one of the most relaxing things you can do. A few years ago I went through a phase of making loads of candle holders out of glass jars which I painted with acrylics. At school there was always the last few days of term where people wandered about not doing much and hardly going to class. Teachers would wave us away with a ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of teaching us and we’d sit and watch Meet the Fockers on repeat (at least in primary school we had the enterprise to bring in board games) and wish we’d decided to skive. Often I retreated to the art department where we could make snowflakes and paint bottles and pretend we were little again.

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At uni, the last classes are a bit more exciting. For one thing, mulled wine often factors in. Also, the fear (in first and second year at least) of Christmas exams. I used to hate how university decided to give us exams in December, with only a week to study for them. It was incredibly stressful, but in the long run I suppose it was a good thing because we didn’t have to study much over Christmas, as we did with the January prelims for Highers and Advanced Highers. Sometimes, the fear makes Christmas all the more sweeter. I remember in my first year at uni, I’d just gone with a friend to an impromptu gig at Brel on Ashton Lane. It was Rachel Sermanni and the singer from Admiral Fallow who were playing acoustic sets and it felt very wintry and magical. And when I left, to go back to my flat to cook chilli bean soup and study, it began to snow as I walked up Great George Street. It was one of those enchanting moments when you feel everything swell up and really seem to mean something. Like you’re in a movie. I was finally so happy to be in Glasgow and a student, even with three exams that week. It’s hard to not love your university and city when it looks like this:

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After exams (and more recently, essay and dissertation hand-ins) comes all the comforting Christmas rituals that I love so well. Buying sparkly nail polish and the December edition of Vogue which weaves a fantasy of luxury office Christmas parties thats nowadays I have the (privilege?) of serving if not just imagining. Seeing fairy lights being put up in the restaurant where I work and all the Black Friday and Christmas bookings looming before us. Decorating the Christmas tree at home each year with new decorations got in our stockings. I missed out on decorating the Christmas tree at school, but came back from Belmont one day to see that we’d managed to procure one for the sixth year common room, and someone had decorated it artfully with ornaments worthy of any John Lewis special collection: a load of empty crisp packets.

My flat at Christmas time, 2012
My flat at Christmas time, 2012

Still, sometimes makeshift Christmasses can be fun, or at least interesting. My brother and friend Jack randomly phoning in and singing ‘Last Christmas’ live on BBC Asian Network radio. Stringing a half-hearted bit of tinsel and some Poundland fairy lights over my bookshelf. In first year at uni, we had a festive dinner party in halls, but seeing as I’ve always prioritised exams and studying over pretty much everything else, I ended up cooking my own vegetarian option which was incidentally the only thing I had in the fridge: a fried courgette. Even so, the party poopers (obviously I was included) were the ones who had to scrape all the meat scratchings and grease off the dirty pans like a band of Cinderellas until one in the morning while everyone else was having a good time at the QMU’s Cheesy Pop. Still, it was a lesson in the underside of hospitality…

My Mum's nutroast
My Mum’s nutroast

Arguing about who will do the washing up is a regular feature of our household at Christmas, as it probably is pretty much everywhere. It’s not so bad when you do it together. That’s the festive spirit, anyway. Then on Boxing Day we tend to go for a nice long walk – one year it was along Ayr Beach and through Belleisle, another through Maidens and Culzean, in past years it will have been places in England. Christmas Day used to be an early dinner and then sitting in  the hallway stuffing myself with Quality Street and playing the new Pokemon on my Game Boy Advance while everyone else watched the Queen’s Speech and boxsets of Only Fools and Horses. We still retain the tradition of eating bagels for breakfast (I wonder is this some kind of strange nod to our Jewish ancestry?), but nowadays it’s more a cheeky Amaretto or some Bucksfizz (maybe it should adapt and be Buckfast) and a lovely walk up to Maybole monument through the golf course and dinner at about eight when the crappy oven we have at home has finally decided to roast the parsnips. Both have their magic. The best part is still the waking up early to open my stocking. This year, I’ll be working Christmas Day, so I’ll have my Christmas on Boxing Day. But that’s okay, because Christmas is what you make it.

A typical Christmas scene...Bella worn out from opening her many presents...
A typical Christmas scene…Bella worn out from opening her many presents…