Two Deserts

Ashley Robertson

Carol is my neighbour, my best friend and a pain in my arse. She knows—I have told her husband to tell her—that if there is a red Christmas ribbon on my doorknob she is not to come in. She is not, if it can be helped, to get out of her truck. I would have told her this myself, but she has never let me finish the thought. Glen listened. Perhaps he’s more sympathetic to the realities of not being able to piss in a straight line any longer. He can make enough sense of that shorthand to see the full list of the ways in which I am being betrayed. But he still has to ask.

No fooling?

I ken that he has, in fact, told Carol, because when she visits next the ribbon disappears from its place by the door. It appears again in the back of the freezer, behind a brick of spinach. She has put them both there, the bow and the spinach. Then it was the kitchen rubbish—it is not anything that I would bin. She is telling me what she thinks of my plans. When I show her the evidence, she asks why she should make it easy for me. She has brought my mail in. To save me the bother, she says.

It isn’t the words on the postcards. It’s the pictures; the grey and purple expanses, the soldier’s leap at Killicrankie, the view of Schiehallion from the train station at the other end of Loch Rannoch, the King’s House at the edge of Rannoch Moor. Every time is alive in them at once. They come with a smell of burning heather, with the billowing black smokes of autumn. They come with the silence of the hillside above the loch, the only sound the constant churning of the hydro dam.They come with yellow gorse, flowering through the spring snow. Do you remember this place, my sister writes, and I do mind it. I suspect she thinks that all those places have disappeared into haar for me, but they are clearer than she knows. They are making flats out of Slains Castle, she writes and I can mind the claggy mud of the path through the woods that leads out to the cliffs. I do not want to remember these cliffs. But I feel the soft earth of the edge beneath my feet. There are other cliffs, other places, ones that she wouldn’t ken at all. When I collect them from the post office, Rhona’s postcards are swollen with the damp. The ones that Carol brings are dry. The smell is gone out of them.

Snow falls on the cobbles streets, on the crown of King’s College and on the prostrate figure of Bishop Elphinstone himself. In the quiet of the morning every flake seems to make a sound. We walk home from the pub. I stop to scoop a handful of snow from the bonnet of a car.

This is not a place or a time that Rhona knows herself, though she has sent me a card with this crown on it. It is the Scottish Imperial crown, she notes on the back, not the British one. It signifies a desire for reclaimed independence.

Dan throws his own handful of snow up at it, but it smashes against the clock face, instead. This is the sort of thing that is a good idea after a night of hauf and a haufs. The two of us, we are funny, we are dashing in wool coats and long scarves. It does not matter that mine are second-hand. We are blazing.

Will you go home for Christmas? he says, and his voice bounces all around the arches and stone.

Dinnae ken.

I simply haven’t thought about leaving at all. I do not want to go home. If I do, I don’t know that I will get back out again. My fingers are going numb and red. My handful goes squint and hits nothing at all.

He’s not afraid to use his nice, round, English voice. It’s his way that makes people look past it here. Next to his voice, mine sounds glaikit. A thing to laugh at, not listen to. Dan, he is nobody’s fool. He looks and talks like the movies. The Texans, who don’t like anyone here, like him.They buy him drinks. He says that if they’re buying him a drink, they have to buy for his friends.

Is your friend English, too?

No. He’s one of the locals.

One of the locals has no standing here, not with the roughnecks and not with the Russian sailors who come in off the freighters. They buy us whiskies and half pints and tell him about the girls in Houston, the girls in Dallas and the pussy in Vladivostok that has to be thawed out first. They ask him about the women here. The Texans told him about a hurricane that leveled an island, blew away a hundred orphans. Bet you’ve never seen anything like that, they say. I haven’t.

We decide not to go inside, not yet. Instead we walk across the golf course to the sea. There is snow on the beach, covering the sand and rocks. He thinks he will stay the winter, he says. Find a job and do something instead of heading South. The Beach Ballroom is empty, deserted. Someday, they say, it will wash into the sea and I am still waiting for the day. There is a postcard of this, too, and the disappeared red brick baths. These printed places, they are not the ones in my memory. The buildings there are dark and silent, peaked with frost. They glitter, hard and cold.

How did it go with Michelle?

Nae bad.

Asking me is just a courtesy. She will have told him already. She has already said where we went and what we did there and what we did not do there. It is only fair. She was his lassie first. She is Northern Irish, but deadens her accent the way I do now. No one here would give her a row for it, but she does anyway. No, we give her plenty of rows for it and plenty more when she doesn’t. I see her run howling from the refectory. If I were to see her again, if she were to find her way to this desert, if she appeared before me undimmed—I am quite sure that she would not know me. But I would know every inch of her, her red tam and long black hair, her mittens and her soft lower lip. I would tell her that I know, that I understand. Thirty years late and only just a few minutes ago. I couldn’t then.


We take the bus to Cove. She tells me that I must go to Seaton Park in the spring to see all the daffodils there beside the cathedral and she rests her head on my shoulder, her arm hooked through mine. We ride out like this. I have two bottles of stout, one in each coat pocket and in her straw bag she has sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper. We aren’t dressed for the walk, not in her light shoes and skirt. Her black hair hangs loose. It isn’t quite black, but such a deep shade of brown that it looks black in all but the light that comes through the bus windows. In this light, her eyes are blue. Inside, they are as grey as granite.

Dan has said that Michelle and I will get on like a burning house. He tells me to take her and he tells her to go. We walk to the cliff path. There’s no bus back now and we will have to walk the whole way back to town. She swings her bag out wide and I whistle. I am good at whistling and I sing in the kirk as well as anyone else at Christmas.

Do you like it? The view?

Let’s find a place to have our picnic.

I might as well not ask her a thing. She bolts ahead, down the path, sure as a goat in her little brown shoes. When I speak again, the sea takes the sound so that I can’t even hear my own voice.

We find a place in the mossy rocks, down off the path. I open the stout and give her a bottle. Now it is the water that she looks over, not me. The sandwiches are stale, the bread and ham curling up at the corners. I wash down my own and half of hers. She wipes the butter from her fingers into the wax paper and settles in.

The sandwiches were good.

She isn’t listening to me, but she puts her head back against my shoulder. I wonder what we must look like to the people that can see, wonder if we can be seen. Who is there to see us? No one, but she seems to expect an audience. Rhona has sent a card for this, too, though she doesn’t know it. These are the boys who used to climb the cliffs to collect gull eggs, her tiny letters proclaim, since their demise the gull population has exploded. There is no place name, not on her card, but I ken it’s the cliffs at Cove Bay. And the gulls, the hover up, lifted on drafts and invisible currents. Theirs are the cold yellow eyes on us, on me. One laughs and then they all do.

Michelle slides her skirt up. Here are the Outspan orange tops of her stockings, the elastic and metal of her suspenders. She takes my hand and puts it on her leg, just where her stockings end. Her skin is stark white here, blue veins running just under. I hold my hand where she has left it until she sighs and then I slip it up further, under her skirt. As I feel the slight hollow on the inside of her leg and soft hair, she turns her face into my coat. She guides my hand again, pushing aside her pants, because I am doing something not quite right. Her breathing has changed. It isn’t my coat that she burrows into, but the argyle jersey I have borrowed to go with the flares that I have saved for. I remember now that I did not ask for the jersey, but Dan has told me to wear it. Her hand moves to me, to unfasten my flies. She keeps her eyes closed, smelling him and sighing. I, too, close my eyes.


Later she is hirpling long before we make Torry. Her silly shoes. I walk ahead now, sometimes waiting for her. By the Victoria Bridge she has to take her shoes and stockings off. There are red and raw patches on both heels, on her toes. The ends of my trousers are heavy with wet sand. Nothing is left to be said, so we walk without saying anything, past the harbour and the fish market. I walk her back to the Victoria restaurant. She lives above it with other lassies who work there. She waits at her door for a moment, as if waiting for a kiss. But then she remembers who I am and who I am not and goes in without a word. Dan has told me there are miles of dark-carpeted hallway up there. A couthy rabbit’s warren with a lass behind every door. I will never see it. He’s opened every last one.


Dan balls a handful of snow and sand and throws it far out into the black water and the waves. It is too cold now for me to do the same. He has wool gloves. I have lost mine and can’t afford new. If there is any money left after Christmas, it will need to go for books. The snow is heavy enough that we can’t make out the lights of the ships anymore, only the broad sweep of the lighthouse.

I’m sorry, mate. I really thought the two of you would get on.

It wisnae her.

I have to say this, because he knows that it wasn’t Michelle’s fault at all; she has cried me down to him, told him how it wasn’t worth a damned penny let alone her time. We are still friends, Dan and I. This hasn’t put an end to it. He hadn’t given her up just for me.

We’ll find you someone nicer. One of the girls from Gray’s. Margie knows lots of them. We’ll get you one that’s not up herself.

Aye. One fae Gray’s. That will do me.

Margie is his new lassie, a Divinity lecturer’s daughter and at art school. She is far too important to be passed on to me, in her smart tweed skirts and merino jumpers. Margaret will be married and taken South, some day. She will not be accused by his mother of planting bombs in pillar boxes. He will teach her the right vowels, the right sounds.

To prove to me that we are still friends, the very best of mates, he throws himself into every hedge on the way back. He springs away out of each of them, laughing and dotted with bits of green. Every hit sends up an explosion of snow and ice shimmers on his coat, bright as metal spangles. He comes away out of one hedge to find his watch is gone. We cannot find it again. It’s nothing to him, a sacrifice to friendship. I dive into a hedge to prove myself and he pulls me out again. He thumps me on the back and the snow comes off me in sheets. I smell the whisky on him, the pints of eighty. He wraps his long green scarf around my head and I give him my red one. Early Christmas, we say. My ears are burning, my hair sleek it and dripping, and I do not want to go. I want to stay out here—all night, all winter long.


I stamp my feet to keep them warm. The train runs along the coast for a while, past Stonehaven. Seagulls chase us along, still laughing. We drink tea from flasks and eat cold rowies until our fingers shine with lard. We are all going home. Some of the others are familiar, at least until I must change trains. After that, I don’t ken anyone. I wind my fingers into the fringe of the scarf and watch my breath steam against the cold air. The train is late—they must stop it to clear the line. Rhona is at the station, waiting for me. She’s only just come, she claims, but she’s been there for hours. Snow is collecting on her umbrella and falling into the tops of her boots. They aren’t hers, but our father’s. She’s made up the difference in size with a pair of socks in each toe. I’ve never seen her look so wee as she does in her man’s boots and coat.


I come back to university late. It is unclear, to the very last, if I will be delivered to the station to make the journey. In the end, I go. It is Rhona who bullies our father into it, though I do not know how. I am more use gone away than on the farm, she says. And there is a truth in that. It is also Rhona who tells me that I shouldn’t wear a green scarf. Green is a fairy colour and they have the rights to anything wrapped in it. I put it back on after she leaves me on the platform with my case.The holes in my coat pockets are big enough for my hands to come through. Michelle’s voice follows me up Guild Street, down Union Street and down King Street. It follows me home and sits on my sagging bed. You’re going to be a doctor, she says, but you don’t even know what to do with a girl. I have missed the three days of the new term. I must plead to be allowed back.

She meets me outside the Machar, where she stands between me and my first pint. Her eyes and nose are pink. Her hands in their grey mittens will be pink, too, and swollen at the joints from the cold. She points at the scarf, where it hangs over my heart. It is obvious it did not begin as mine.

You weren’t here.

I missed my train, Michelle. Couldn’t get a lift.

There is thick ice in places and she is unsteady on the cobbles. Her feet slip and her knees shake. For the first time, I look at her face, not just her red tam and her dark hair. Her lips are bloodless, her face all peely-wally and I know only that there is something I have missed.

It was in the papers.

We don’t get the P+J, I say. We do not get the papers at all, unless it is to look at the livestock auctions and for those we need the Courier or the Advertiser out of Perth, not Aberdeen. If we do get them, I do not read them. It would mean asking my father. She doesn’t bother to change her voice now and I don’t, either. We are not pretending anymore.

You do know?

I hold her shoulders so she doesn’t go over on the ice. So I do not. There is the sweet smell of cider and smoke from inside when the door opens. The snow starts again, big and light as feathers. Or I imagine it does. I do not know what she means. But I must know because I am already greeting, the tears thawing my face in stripes, scalding the skin. Michelle would never have anything else to say to me. The first day back his parents had come up for the service at King’s Chapel. He was pulled out of the water with no coat, no shoes. Not even my scarf. There is no telling if it was himself or the sea that undressed him. I have to crouch in the vennel between the pub and the next house, with the bins, my back against the wall. Everyone else has gone and the barman comes out the side in his apron to tell me that I cannae stay here.


Carol tells me that it’s snowing in Flagstaff, that she stopped and watched it for a while. She says she knows that I don’t like it, and holds up her hands to flex all her fingers. Arthritis, she means. She missed the snow all the years that she lived in LA, though, and always stops. The red bow is exactly where I saw it last. Carol has left off fighting. A policeman’s exit, as I have heard it called, is to do it in the bath or shower. Nae mess, nae disorder. I tell her this. All I will want for then is someone to turn on the water. It should not be her.

Do it right, when you do it.

I promise her that I will.

The postcards Rhona sends, they still come and Carol picks up my post for me when I can’t make it into town. Sometimes they arrive in trickles and sometimes in a great spate. There is General Wade’s brig at Aberfeldy, Ben Lawers and the place near Loch Tay where all my people are buried and where I will not be. Carol says that it looks like the loneliest place on earth. That’s what Rhona says about Arizona, I tell her. My two deserts.

Whatever Rhona may think of my memory, there are things that have not been lost. These are the hard and crumbling cliffs of Aberdeenshire, one where I had died a death and walked back to town empty-pocketed and one where he had come too close to the soft edge or simply stepped off. Rhona’s cards and cramped writing add no order. But the letters advance row on row in that tiny script that she was taught because of the paper rationing: This is the famous Slains Castle, she writes, which inspired Bram Stoker’s masterpiece. Boswell and Johnson stayed there when there was still a roof on it. There is nothing to say that while I sat in my kirk, in my pew, and sang The Holly and the Ivy to my jealous and greedy God, the lifeboats were searching the jagged granite below.