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Authors: Candia McWilliam

Debatable Land

BOOK: Debatable Land
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The tropics vanish, and meseems that I,

From Halkerside, from topmost Allermuir,

Or steep Caerketton, dreaming gaze again.

Far set in fields and woods, the town I see

Spring gallant from the shallows of her smoke,

Cragged, spired, and turreted, her virgin fort

Beflagged. About, on seaward-drooping hills,

New folds of city glitter. Last, the Forth

Wheels ample waters set with sacred isles,

And populous Fife smokes with a score of towns.

There, on the sunny frontage of a hill,

Hard by the house of kings, repose the dead,

My dead, the ready and the strong of word.

Their works, the salt-encrusted, still survive . . .


– From
Songs of Travel

Robert Louis Stevenson


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10



About the Author

By the Same Author

Chapter 1

The washing that went on in Alec’s house when he was a child was carried out with a fervour that had something in it of atonement. There was no washing out, though, what lay deep in the flesh of his mother and father, the distant coastal whiff of fish.

Today, a man of almost forty, he looked from the window of his hotel out to the southern sea to whose care he was preparing to commit himself. He had packed for the voyage and now had only his thoughts to collect. Over the boulevard from the hotel was one edge of the Pacific, docile and oily at this margin against the sea wall, imponderable further out under its blue reception of the wide sky. His own North Sea never brought itself to so melting a blue. The hot air here did not move but hung and sank on its own weight. He thought of the argumentative air of Scotland. The thought punched aside his homesickness somewhat.

He had come so far from home in order to see it clearly. As a painter he lived by light, and he feared that the light in his head was going. Having taken the decision to live on water with strangers, he had to keep his own respect by sticking to it. He could sail, he would be fed, even paid a little. He had found a boat. It remained only to cast off.


An uncertain passage in the
has Tiresias speaking of a land without salt. Odysseus mentions this place to Penelope even before they first sleep together after their long parting. Is Odysseus preparing the ground for another great journey, this time to the saltless land? Is Homer ensuring that his epic has the ragged edge that adventure has in life? Or is he describing, perhaps even unwittingly, that saltless state of being that makes people take to the sea or to another sure source of fear when they have no need to, when they have come to feel the savour gone from their daily life and a deathly blandness consume their works and days? If a land all salt will not support life and a sea greatly salt is called dead, it is also the case that deprived of salt we long for it and will lick stones to get it.

It was in such a saltless state that Alexander Dundas was collected from his hotel on the seafront at Papeete by Elspeth Urquhart and brought to
Ardent Spirit

No one now on the yacht needed to be at sea. Her owner-skipper was happiest there but also had more than one anchorage on land. Logan Urquhart was a Scots American of fortune who doubted his own courage and was timid though successful with women. Each time he wrestled physical fear he needed to do it again a little sooner; metaphysical fears assailed him but receded after each trial of the body and will. In common with many rich men, he confused enlightening introspection with womanish indecision, and in so doing he lost the feline self-knowing power of the transcendent tycoon. Moreover, Logan Urquhart was young, only forty, and had morals, for which he respected himself.

Elspeth was his wife, and was grateful for it. She loved the boat and had suggested the name
Ardent Spirit
for reasons of her own, when asked by Logan to think of something to call the material beauty that was slowly forming in a cold concrete barn on the East Coast of Scotland. For all the miles she had sailed, Elspeth did not yet consider herself, as she did her husband, a sea creature.
Ardent Spirit
she had named for the old name of the liquid that has shaped Scotland as ornamentally and destructively as seawater. Its own place in her life lay deep and only tidally admissible. It was not she who was the drinker, but often enough she wished she were. She feared she had not the allure of firewater, that her own spirit was not ardent.

Because of the presence of others, Elspeth was able to conceal her maritime insufficiencies with forms of overcompensation that she felt made her monstrous but could not hold herself back from. She undertook the housework on the boat with a masochistic vigour that newcomers noticed, speculated about, and then took for granted, imagining it to be to do with being spoilt on land, or perhaps childless. The four-hour watch system was the only reason for broken nights known to Elspeth, a soft-looking woman with an untidy body that she kept hidden. Logan had the blond hair of a man with brown hair who spends half his life at sea, and arms hard with muscles from winching up sails the size of castle walls.

Ardent Spirit
’s wardrobe of sail was kept in a bin just astern of her main mast, each heavy-sided billowing sail folded down to tameness and at last silence and kept in its own bag, labelled in black stencilled letters on the whispering Terylene: Genoa, Big Boy, No 1 Spinnaker, No 2 Spinnaker, Storm Jib. The rarer sails were kept in the fo’c’sle, under whose floor lay the sewing machine for mending sails shot through by the wind or in a bad gybe punched in by the spars.

In the fo’c’sle were to sleep two men, Alec Dundas and Nick Pedersen. Alec had found the job advertised between old suits of sail and exhausted moorings on the thinning English coast, in the back of a sailing magazine he picked up waiting at the hospital for Lorna, the nurse with whom he lived, to stop working and come home with him. The magazine seemed in that hospital to be the leavings of lives unimaginably emancipated, lived between sea and sky, not bandages and botched periods of perforated sleep. He read the advertisement:


Strong man with some experience of sail required for last leg of Pacific voyage. Keep and fair wage. Apply box THA7A55A.


The simplicity was enough. He flew to it from the life he had organised around himself, to which he had become averse. He had sailed a little around the river’s mouth at Cramond, and knew many words out of books of the sea. His contained manner and the enthusiasm that unfolded from him had recommended him to Logan Urquhart; those, and his being a Scot. Alec wrote a letter and they spoke twice by telephone; Logan sent an air ticket, explaining that it was more usual to hire in port, but that he had taken to something about Alec. From this Alec realised that he was about to enter a world with freedoms and restrictions he had not contemplated ever before. He felt as though he were joining up. A lightened sense of duty and a beautiful unnatural surrender came over him.


Alec’s mother Mairi said that her hands had been cured to salt hams by a working life gutting and filleting the fish brought in to the processing works. She’d hold up her hard-rinded hand, and take a shivering thin knife up to it, to show where she’d carve off the salt slices, snick along the side.

To keep a grip on the fish, to hold them from squirting out of the grasp, his mother and the other fish girls would salt both hands regularly, pressing them into deep vats of rough salt. Each girl had her own knife, black steel with her name burned with hot wire into the wooden handle. These knives were left behind at night. Like a pen, each knife in time became modified to suit its user. Some knives had come down from mother to daughter. The rate was forty fish a minute for small fish, say herring.

His mother said she could feel down her knife, with a faint near-magnetic charge trembling through the blade, if there was roe in a fish, if she’d not already been able to tell from a jowly look to its belly. She could sense the grain of a fish along the knife, the way its flesh pulled in arrows of muscle away from the backbone, and the freshness of a fish was for her not crudely a matter of smell. When the flesh began to sicken, she saw it and knew that the fish had been kept waiting by the weather.

The floor in the processing works struck a cold up your legs bitter as ice. It was slippery with the snarls of guts that had been thrown to the bin and missed it. The guts of these small fish had the look of dropped yarn and the cats that haunted the place played with them, making cats’ cradles. Swim bladders beaded the floor like bits of mercury, tough as seaweed to tread on even through a rubber boot. The floor was hosed down twice a day with a disinfectant that stank of tom-cats and someone in a city’s idea of fir trees. The floor was faintly canted, its lowest end at the dockside, so the water and guts could run out through small drains that ran down to roans over the harbour water where gulls waited.

She told him that these gulls took kittens from time to time, blind and newborn or just emerging into seeing, with milky marble eyes. The gulls took out the eyes at a swoop without even the mercy to devour the rest of the creature. His mother had dropped a stone on one such kitten, though it pained her to do so. The wee cat was mewing at the gulls. Their own kitten cries out of their hard screaming beaks mocked it. The kitten had been so surgically murdered that in every way it appeared new and hopeful but for its absent eyes.

The cats sometimes had their kits among the salt sacks behind the sheds. The babies could not keep out the salt, being born bare and blind. So there were preserved litters, pink and rigid, among the straining jute sacks. If you pulled the salted kittens away from the fat woven sacks, they were printed with the coarse weave and flaked in their folds with crystal salt. You could see everything that was to make this small thing a cat hardly begun but present, flaps of ear, tricorne nose, distinct pads like white raspberries. It was all there but the late flattering luxury of fur and whiskers.

There was one persistent orange tom who would walk away from work with Alec’s mother, sometimes as far as her bus stop on Leith Walk. He would rise up on his back legs and biff her hands as though he were heading a feather. His balls stuck out behind like an apricot under his tail. Alec’s mother thought the smell of the fish had sunk to her bone. She could imagine the cats digging her up to chew on her, so she told him, to suck on her fingerbones.

Jim, Alec’s father, said he could not smell it, but that was no surprise. He was a fishmonger. Certainly she smelt it on him, for all he was so clean and had a different white coat each day. Her own nose detected each distinction; she suffered, like Alec, from perfect nasal pitch. She caught the lot: the oily smell of herring; the salt-blood tang of mackerel; the gloom of cod; the washcloth vapour of cooked roes; the pipe-smoke and zoo smell of smokies; they were all there, in his hair, on his hands, folded in his body.

BOOK: Debatable Land
13.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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