Sharing with Cat
It was difficult in those days for me to know where ‘we’, both human and non-human beings, each stopped and started, and to a degree that remains the case even now. Sometimes I seemed to overflow into other people or animals, and them into me. With Kate, Cat and, in a different way Hamish, in particular.
It is still hard to write about Cat, even now. It’s as if she crawled inside my skin when she died and, as a result, became so close as to be invisible. As girls we would tell each other everything: share gossip, dissect the grown-ups stupidity, discuss clothes we liked, food we didn’t, people in the village, the weather, songs we’d heard, everything that made up our world. We also fretted endlessly together about ‘what to do next’: about my skinniness and hair, about how I might deal with Mrs. Purvis,about our spots, Cat’s sweet tooth, and her Mama’s controlling strictness. All exhaustively andwithout restraint. Cat was less than three months older than me but started puberty well before me and, enjoying her advantage, kept me up to date with every detail. We had become friends soon after I arrived, then best friends, so I believed we had no secrets from each other.
Sometimes when we had a homework project to work on together, Cat’s papa – who had a trim black beard and was, so I firmly believed at twelve, the most handsome man in the world, would bring her over to stay on Friday night. After we’d been sent to bed and, having tried unsucessfully to gentle us into settling, dad would eventually put on his stern voice and call up:
‘Enough talking, put that light out now, please’.
Cat would slip quickly out of the the little truckle bed always Dad pulled out for her and turn out the light. Then she’d turn, pause, and whisper:
‘Faun, can I come in with you, please’?
And, happy at the trace of pleading in her voice, I always said:
‘Yes, of course’.
There was hardly room for the two of us in my little bed but somehow we fitted ourselves together like two spoons, usually with her hand over my heart. Once or twice this arrangement led to kissing and some chaste mutual touching, but it was nothing more than curiousity, not as I remember. Mostly I recall falling asleep to the slow rhythm of her breathing against my neck.
Later, whether through choice or carelessness, I forgot those nights close to Cat, something which seems inconceivable now. Then one evening staying with friends in London we had to lift little Freddy out of his bed and back into his old cot so I could userp his place. In the early hours I woke, balanced precariously on the edge of the bed, to find Freddy positioned like a car jack between me and the wall. After some gentle pulling and pushing we compromised and shared his bed fifty-fifty. His fat little stomach, impossibly hot against my back, must have triggered old memories and, a few days later, my nights shared with Cat rose back into consciousness.
When she was staying over and our school work was done, we’d spent hours in complicated worlds that spilled out of my room, across the landing, and either slipped sideways into the bathroom or else cascaded down the stairs. They grew from whatever was to hand. Chairs, a wooden dryer and blankets became a castle. A cardboard box, washing basket, and mop, a ship. A stool, pillows and old skipping-rope, a great white horse.
‘Faun, you be the great soldier who defends the castle and keeps all the women and children safe from the enemy.’ ‘Faun, you be the captain and guide us through the storm.’ ‘Faun, you be the prince and rescue me’. Somehow she always had me take on the traditionally male roles, although this never stopped her being in control or from coming up with the most violent interventions into whatever I was having us do. Maybe she just liked to maintain her new-found woman’s status.
As we started to get bored with such adventures, we spent more time locked in the bathroom while we strained to catch the wobbly music on my tiny transistor. We washed, dried, and combed out each other’s hair, swapped cloths and studied our changes, trying to make sense of their mysteries while speculating about becoming the kind of sexual beings we glimpsed elsewhere, mostly via magazines and Kate’s stories. All this in entirely unnecessary whispers. We acted as mirror images of each other, were inseparable until a month or so after Cat’s fourteenth birthday. Then, within the space of a few weeks, that entire world started to evaporate and our adolescence began in earnest.
The trigger was two quite different events. One was discovering the Borders ballads. We were mesmerised by their account of a great, raw, tragic, yet uncannily familiar world in which a lord’s wife picks up a beautiful boy outside the church and takes him home to bed. (So then they both get killed, but at least she tells her husband what she thinks of him first and, we told ourelves, had no regrets). Where the husband insists the murdered lovers are buried together, but with her on top because she was posh. Where a girl meets her dead boyfriend as a revenant, then follows and frees him so he can die properly. Where a young woman disobeys the people who tell her what she can and can’t do, runs across country to argue her property rights and gets a lover. A young woman who argues back, takes responsibility for her own fate, acts on her own choices. Who was just like we were going to be, except that maybe she turns out to be The Dame of the Fine Green Kirtle in the end, and not an ordinary girl at all.
A dangerous, very real if semi-magic world of wild rivers, vivid prophetic dreams, incest, bloody fights and murder; of canny girls who outsmart and outride soldiers, or win back their child’s father from the Elphen Queen. What, as an American said to me recently: ‘isn’t to like’ about such songs, particularly if you’re two teenage girls who need to rebel but don’t know how or against what.
Before we found the ballads we had had very little to help us imagine our way into the world where our bodies meet our particular places; no ‘young adult’ books, as Sarah had Janni Howker’s much loved Martin Farrell, a tale of the Reivers. We had no Anne Eliot, no ill-fated Bess Graham, to give us imaginative keys to the hardness and bodily hurt, the hills and black moss, the bloody world of (usually) men’s violence, the meeting of the natural and supernatural worlds in a pig’s heads or a swarm of flies. Beyond Kate’s stories (which Cat always wanted to discount), we had no way to intuit the fate of women, the particular gendered nuancing of sex, suffering, death and haunting that is the invisible marrow in the cold bone of our Borders. The ballads were our Songs of Experience by proxy.
Later we came to believe that Annie Briggs, Jacqui McShee, Maddy Prior, and Sandy Denny had bequeathed these songs specifically to us, not to boys caught up in the noisy posturings of rock music. Finding the ballads freed us from the uneasy hold of the fund of generic tales that all seemed to have been written for boys, or in which the girls’ job was to be a suffering sister or daughter. What we craved, and found in the old ballads, were stories which firmly put girls like us, brave and canny, at the heart of the story, and did so in our own familiar landscape.
The second, and initially far more unsettling, trigger was that Cat kissed Mike, shifting the whole shadowy issue of sex from theory to practice. There had previously been intense discussions after games of Doctor and Patient and, later, after we’d gone skinny-dipping with the boys. And there had always been Kate’s stories of her adventures. But this was different because it was Cat, not Kate, doing the kissing. What she told me was that she and Michael had found themselves hiding together in the big upstairs walk-in cupboard during Sunday’s game of sardines at Homehaugh. She’d whispered: ‘shove up, you’re squashing me,’ but he’d just shushed her. So she kissed him. She added, in an indigent voice: ‘to stop him shushing like that.’
When I questioned her she wouldn’t say if anything else had happened but, because she blushed furiously, I knew it had and pressed her to tell. Eventually she admitted there’d been some ‘touching’ but absolutely refused to go into detail. A refusal that, by excluding me from her experience, cut me to the quick. Our friendship never really recovered its former intensity after that. In a deliberate act of revenge I broke my promise to Cat and told Patsy everything. A couple of days later she reported that she’d asked Michael if what she had heard was true; that he’d touched Cat’s titties and she’d touched his thing. He’d stomped out of the room without answering.
Everything began to change. Cat and Michael had secret knowing that Patsy and I didn’t, bodily secrets that both fascinated and hurt us. The privilaged world Cat and I had built around ourselves began to fade. We remained good friends, but I knew we no longer mirrored each other. To make things more complicated, Patsy initially bombarded me with questions I couldn’t answer. Secrets between Michael and Cat made her quite uncharacteristically cross. That unsettled things further because for a while she obviously thought I was keeping secrets from her too. (It only came to me much later, when Michael was dead, that maybe she was jealous.) Although Cat and I remained close, our attention started running out in parallel towards our other friends, the world of the ballads, and the actualities of village life.
The day world
I think I always slightly resented that the twins’ parentsowned everything around us, with the result that they really belonged to quite another world to my own. Another world that, through Mrs. Oliver’s friendship with their mother, had always pretty much included Lizzy and Kate. As little children they’d all four gone to the same parties, played the same games long before I’d come to the village. I knew I should be grateful that I was now part of: ‘the Oliver girls’ menagerie’, as the vicar called us. (He had also been overheard to say that we: ‘let the side down’, although it was never clear to us what he meant). But sometimes my anxiety made any such graditude difficult. I also knew from Mrs. Purvis that Sir William didn’t like the Olivers, which suggested to me that ‘the menagerie’ was always somehow under threat.
I was also worried about my own status. I felt myself to be an outsider, a late-comer. As the last addition to the menagerie, I naturally became its most ardent devotee. That led me to ‘not seeing’ all manner of tensions, not least between Kate and Lizzy and between the twins. Only with The Judgement did I really begin to notice how much those tensions, many of them handed down from the adult world, simmered just beneath the surface of our childhood.
Dad and I weren’t ‘locals’ like Lizzy, Kate, Hamish, Mike and Patsy but nor, in my view at least, were we just ‘incomers’ like Cat’s parents and, in Mr. Oliver’s view, Sir William. We were, after all, distantly related to Mrs. Oliver. In my private but passionate view Peter and James were ‘inbetweens’ just like me. But then the Aitchesons were a Name, a sept of Clan Gordon, and Lady Aitcheson(née Reed) had been born here and, more importantly, was what Dad called ‘County’. At eight I simply didn’t understand these adult distinctions but, while the others, even Cat, seemed to accept them as given, I struggled to make sense of what I resented. All this was further complicated by school.
There were about thirty children in our little Victorian primary school and we did a great deal together, without any very obvious social distinction. Either as ‘the primary’ or, when necessary, as ‘the little ones’ or ‘the big ones’. Nature walks, day trips out together in the old bus, and school plays where almost everyone got to do something. All of this initiated by Miss Richardson and Mrs. Roberts but, I am certain, discretly supported by Lady Aitcheson. Not, I think, out of any desire whatsoever to promote social equality but paternalistically, because she saw all local children collectively as ‘Reeds estate children’. So I did not have to confront the mysteries of class head on until Lizzy approached eleven.
That year Lizzy went to a local private school as a weekly border where, in due course, Kate and later Cat and I, would join her. First, however, Cat and I had to sit scholarship exams. These were the final act in a mysterious process, initiated by LadyAitcheson,that involved letters to an educational charity and our having gone to church each Sunday. Nobody bothered explained the details to us, and we did not ask, but we knew our parents could never have afforded the fees and, once again, understood that we had acquired an unspoken debt of gratitude. At eleven Peter and James went away to their father’s old boarding school in Yorkshire, while Hamish, Mike and Patsy did the 18-mile round trip to the big comprehensive school, with Mary, Barbara, the two Maggies, Charlie, Eric andthe rest of our former classmates. Hamish, quick to learn if slow to speak, was happy enough. Michael, only truly at home with what he could do with his hands, was never much interested in school and indifferent to the new situation. Only Patsy really suffered. Diminished when transplanted into a bigger, less initate world, she became quieter, less assured. Once among the livliest at primary, she gradually came to dislike everything associated with school, leaving as soon as she could to help her aunt and, building on her Saturday work at the Co-op, to establsh herself in a proper part-time job.
During the holidays we initially simply reformed in our old group, walking, and occasionally riding, the woods and moorland together. We talked in an animated huddle well away from our elders and met for approved and illicit activities as before. But although there was never a clear-cut division, after a while Lizzy and Kate, the twins, Cat and I grew a little apart from Mike, Hamish and Patsy and, more radically, from our other former classmates. The sisters and twins remained the nucleus around which we all gravitated but, by the time I turned twelve, we were only occasionally nine. More often there were just the six of us.
We still met regularly in the shabby former playroom next to the kitchen at Homehaugh. That big greystone house – two spacious main floors, a small stone cellar, and three little attic rooms – stands back from the top of the village street behind a mossy lawn and neglected flowerbeds. The old, southfacing, walled vegetible garden running down the right side as you face it has, however, been renovated and a little home garth on the left is now grazed by a resident pony. The walled yard, stable block and hayloft that run along the lane at the back of the house remain unchanged to this day, as does the small home field beyond that. Built in the eighteenth century, it’s all of a piece with the church and the Big House, where Peter and James lived (located at the end of a long drive in a private domain of its own that I rarely visited).
Homehaugh was the center of our late childhood and early adolecence and the locus of the bleak, if sometimes beautiful, world into which we grew. A world of great whale-backed and seemingly bare hills; deep, twisting, hidden cleughs full of steep fast-flowing burns; rivers that carried a restless cargo of gravel and stone torn from their own banks and are bordered by green haughs. Running up from these were clusters of fields, which I later learned only appeared around eighteen hundred. Each field is defined within an irregular grid of lichen-covered dry stone dykesleading up towards the White Lands above. All this part of a larger lacework that includes the tracks, farms and other buildings, along with irregular patches of natural woodland ofoak, birch, alder and hazel, and the great dark, roughly rectangular plantations of managed forestry that, close to, remind me of the scary illustrations in a old and treasured book of folk tales in Russian belonging to my mother.
Abandoned forestry hide.
Dad passed it on to me at Christmas the year she died. (Although she never knew own her parents, my mother ‘Anna’ had actually been christened Anastasiya). The book, with a text neither she nor I could read, had beautiful, vividly coloured pictures of wolves, bears and strange beings like Baba Yaga, with her cabin on chicken legs but no windows or doors. A perfect match, somehow, for the hides to be found at the edge of any young Sitka spruce plantation.
At first this larger world seemed inpenetrable. I only began to feel differently when we walked or rode the ancient tracks and drove roads that cross the Cheviots. I learned that for centuries these had been busy routes, with drovers taking herds of cattle from the western Isles to southern markets, peddlers bringing goods and gossip, or beasts being hurried away after some raid. As I developed a sense of the histories that still haunt the region, as dense as they are invisible, I began to feel less displaced. But I remained divided between my love of the natural world that presented itself to me and the hidden world of adult power that seemed inseparable from it.
Off the coast
We rarely went to the sea when I was young and, perhaps for that reason, it always fascinated me. The second summer after I left London I badly needed both money and a change, so I got a summer job working in Oban. For three months, I cleaned and helped re-stock a variety of sailing boats hired out by the week. Towards the end of the season things went quiet and, when there was a sudden last-minute cancelation, my boss Ted decided to take a trip around Skye and Lewis with his wife, a young couple they’d befriended, and their two sons. He offered to take me with them as a galley hand and general crew. It was quite an adventure and, at one point on our return journey, we stopped in the mouth of a secluded sea loch so that Ted could gather scallops.
It took a while for me and one of the sons to row out from the boat, while Ted guided us to the scallop bed. Even when he’d found it we had trouble keeping the little dingy steady and in the right spot, given the constant tug of wind and swell.Ted, masked and wet-suited, then took his knife and basket and disappeared down into the weedy darkness.
Within moments they arrived, bobbing up to watch us with big, liquid eyes. The light was already starting to fade and, at intervals, a big black muscled head and shoulders would rise ghostly quiet out of the inky water, always disconcerting me because a seal would never appear in the same spot twice. To cut resistance to the wind we kept our bodies low and our heads down, listening to the slap of water on the side of the dingy and the dull swish of the kelp moving in the swell. The seals were so close and so curious that it was impossible to ignore them and, with the dingy sliding and twisting in the wind and tide, it became increasingly hard focus on holding the little craft in the right place. I started to feel an unexpected panic rising in my stomach.
The root of my panic was simple enough. An image in my mind had pulled me back to my childhood reading of Scottish folktales about the Selkie Folk. Then a question had risen and insinuated itself into my consciousness. How, in the gathering darkness, could I be sure that when the next great round head rose out of the sea and moved to climb over the gunnels and into our little dingy, that it was Ted coming aboard and not some vast water-black male Selkie?