Susan has read at Story Shop 2014, the City of Literature Trust’s daily showcase at the Edinburgh International Book Festival of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today. You can find the story she read on Thu 14th August 2014 below.
Susan MacDonald grew up in Fife. After studying English at the University of Edinburgh she became a teacher and now lives in Edinburgh. She has had work published by Education Scotland, Barrington Stoke and The Queen’s Head magazine.
The Short Story she read on the day
a short story by Susan MacDonald
It is easy to go back. We can all go back. Look down and begin with the shoes: shiny red with T-bar, high heel and shallow platform. Rebellious – but only slightly. Skinny ankles, spindle legs; black tights, laddered and mended with clear nail varnish beneath an A-line skirt, waist-band doubled over. Look at your hands, still smooth, taking notes in rather self-conscious handwriting, the slant and downward stroke still mutating. Aladdin Sane cover on your jotter. The scent of Aqua Manda, the dragging ache of a period pain and you are there.
It is easy to go back.
Predictably, I am a little in love with Mr McDiarmid. He wears purple cords and has a faintly flamboyant quiff. My big brother knew him as Frank Ifield but now he is Tarzan. Last term when we studied ‘Down the Mine’ Mr McDiarmid told us that his own father was sent to prison for refusing to comply with the means test. Now we are reading The Crucible.
Mr McDiarmid has placed walking stick on his desk, highly polished reddish brown wood topped with a brass carving of an owl’s head. He picks it up. We fall silent. Except for Thomas Henderson who continues to chatter and snigger and leans back and stretches his legs over the sides of his chair. Hendo.
You remember Hendo. Everyone remembers Hendo. You were attracted to him or you feared him. Sometimes both. You tried to win his favour or you tried to avoid eye contact. Once a week he makes up a list of the ugliest girls in the class. Hunt the Pig. If your name appears on his list you can cry like Elaine or go red like Janet or pretend to laugh like Brenda. But you’ll never feel pretty again.
“You were saying, Mr Henderson?” Tarzan waves the stick mock-menacingly in Hendo’s direction. Perhaps not so mock. Hendo joins in the joke, ducks and grins appreciatively. Perhaps not so appreciatively.
Mr McDiarmid now rests the stick in his palms, horizontally, reverentially. He tells us that the stick has been in his family for over fifty years. That his grandfather acquired it from the local minister in exchange for some gardening at the manse. That it was crafted from the same piece of wood that made the stake for Torryburn Jean, the last witch to burn in Fife.
Years later, long after Tarzan has become Stone Age before retiring and opening a second-hand book-shop, I google Torryburn Jean. I find no trace.
Mr McDiarmid reads us extracts from the annals of Fife describing the suffering and torture of innocent women. The horror is somehow intensified by the use of the Scots words that I associate with my gran. I shudder. For homework, we have to write a monologue from the point of view of a woman accused of witchcraft.
At the end of the day, I giggle and gossip with my friends but the pains in my back and sides have sharpened. Limbs heavy. Hot. I head for home. Our house is in Standing Stone Walk, right at the edge of the Scheme. There is a barn beside the woods opposite. I see Brenda Gilhooley leaning against the wall, sharing a cigarette with Hendo. A murder of crows appears from the roof, wings opening like tattered umbrellas. Ziggy materialises silently, soft black fur oozing across my ankles.
I need to lie down but my gran is sleeping in my room. She is staying with us after she stumbled in her garden and broke her ankle. My brother and I spend alternate weeks on the sofa. I go to his room and lie on the bed with my knees bent, feet pushing against the wall until the spasms of pain subside. In the alien surroundings of Ewan’s Black Sabbath posters, Led Zeppelin albums, guitar and sports equipment, ideas for my witch monologue begin to take shape. My eyes grow heavy as Ziggy breathes deeply beside me and I stroke the patch of white fur behind his ear.
A bell rings. My gran is awake. At times she can be what is described as ‘wandered’ – in the days before medical terms become household words. She complains that there are birds on her bed.
“What do you call them? Jackdaws. That’s it.”
I make her a cup of tea and we look at her book together: Those Memory Years, pictures from the 1930s. No Orwell, no miners but Little Princesses, Jack Buchanan, Gracie Fields – the singing mill girl.
“I never cared much for Gracie Fields,” says Gran who was a mill girl herself. Her hands flutter like moths as she flicks away imaginary pieces of lint, the clatter of the looms still in her mind.
The next morning in registration I notice Brenda is absent. Hendo sidles to my desk, wearing his bad boy grin. He wants to copy some of my monologue because he hasn’t done his homework for Tarzan. Usually I will do others’ homework but this time I’m reluctant. I don’t want him to see my monologue; it’s too personal. Rummaging in my bag, I pretend I can’t find the sheets and scribble some notes for him to copy. He is not pleased and I expect to see my name on the next ‘Hunt the Pig’ list.
We have a supply teacher in maths. Hendo begins a chant around the class:
The teacher over-reacts so Hendo twists up the ratchet:
Fewer pupils join in this time and Hendo is singled out and sent to the rector to be belted. He returns, brandishing the two familiar red stripes on his palm like a badge of honour but his face is pale. At the end of the period as he passes my desk he pushes his hand against the back of my head. My hair is very dark – like a raven’s wing, my gran says – but at the back I have a small blonde clump, about an inch wide. I can only see it through two mirrors, of course, but I know it’s there. I reach back and touch the place where Hendo’s hand has been and I discover that he has stuck chewing gum on the blonde streak. After much tugging and pulling, I remove most of the gum, but some I have to cut out with nail scissors. For many weeks, that part of my hair is ragged and uneven, but eventually it grows back, still blonde.
That night when I go home, Ziggy is missing.
My gran stares blankly at the TV, once more flicking away imaginary lint and humming a waltzy lalala tune, probably from the thirties. I work on my character study of Proctor. If I concentrate really hard, I tell myself, Ziggy will come back. It’s difficult to focus, though, because a motorbike keeps roaring past our house.
“Jackdaws,” says my gran.
There is still no sign of Ziggy the next day but Brenda is back at school. No laughter from her today. She is wearing lots of make-up but I’m sure I see a graze or a bruise on her cheek. When she sits down she pulls her skirt over her knees and clutches the hem. I stroke my bristly blonde streak, stare in Hendo’s direction and concentrate.
That evening I have my part-time job in William Low’s, stacking shelves. Tins and tins of cat food. I bump my shin against a ladder. A tiny trickle of blood sticks to my tights and, though it’s not like me, I weep a little.
At home, my mum is waiting for me. She looks worried.
‘Abi, Ewan found Ziggy. He was under the Donaldsons’ shed. It looks like,well, Ewan thinks he’s been shot with an air-gun. He’s up at the vet’s now.”
For the last time in my life I am a little girl again, clinging to her mother.
An hour later, Ewan comes home alone, ashen.
“No, no, Abi. Ziggy’s going to be all right, the vet thinks. He’s stitched up his leg and his paw. Keeping him in overnight. But something terrible’s happened. That Henderson boy in your class. He’s been killed. Joyriding a motorbike. I can’t believe it.”
“His poor mother,” sighs my gran as a cold, dark fear wraps itself around me…
It’s easy to come back. Start with the shoes. Still red, but a matt, soft leather, the strap held in place by Velcro; thick, spongy sole. I have to wear flat shoes now because of the arthritis in my knee. And I walk with a stick. The stick my English teacher gave me the day I left school. Crafted from the same piece of wood that was used to burn the last witch in Fife. Torryburn Jean.
(c) Susan MacDonald, 2014