Tuesday 23rd August
Anne was the eleventh reader at Story Shop 2016, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.
Her appearance was on Tue 23rd August 2016 at 3 pm in the Spiegeltent. If you can’t make it to the Spiegeltent, the reading is also broadcast live through the Periscope app.
Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.
A short bio
Anne Hamilton has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow, and is the editor of online magazine Lothian Life.
Anne’s previous career in community health inspired her non-fiction travelogue, A Blonde Bengali Wife (2010). Anne has also won the New Asian Writing short story competition, and was shortlisted for a Fresher Writing Prize.
You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
The story she read
The Merry Dancers
a short story by Anne Hamilton
They had reached that time of the afternoon when the spring sun played catch-me-if-you-can amongst the trees and bowed low in the sky. Isla turned her head right, then left, brightness and shadow a mottled dancing Harlequin on the insides of her eyelids. She could sense Richard glancing over at her, knew he only saw nerves in her restlessness. They hadn’t spoken much since Inverness; she had worn her dark glasses and he probably thought she was dozing. She had been, on and off. Decades hung unspoken between them.
He cleared his throat. ‘The house is just ahead, Isla. Five minutes, tops.’
A long shivery inhalation, and another, sharp as contractions, sliced through her. The journey had tricked her, motorways and fast cars replacing the leisurely twists and turns of the country lanes that were once her markers.
“Stop. We have to stop.” Isla heard her old-lady whine, but – but Caithness was at the outer reaches of her world. This was too soon.
“I need a cigarette anyway,” Richard said.
It was kind of him to pretend, she thought, as he changed gear and bumped the car onto the grass verge. It was forty years, more, since she had been this far north – and it still felt too soon? (You mean it’s too late, others had corrected her). For days, and weeks that might have been centuries, she weaned herself, until a song, a scent, a casual word nibbled her new life’s edges. It still did, only now it didn’t break her.
They – Richard and Paula, her daughter – described how the village Isla remembered was becoming a vibrant town, their children secure in a two-teacher primary school, a new Co-op at the redundant cattle market. She would like to have seen the changes; not for her the rose-tinted nostalgia that stalked her contemporaries. Way back then, even with – particularly with – a husband and two children – freedom became isolation became her prison. She wasn’t bitter anymore; it was what it was, and she was glad for her family that the community had come respectably of age.
Everyone remembered that gold-standard summer of nineteen-seventy-six. That’s what Isla believed. She did. It was filed, far too grandly, in the chronological misery of JFK, Elvis Presley, Mrs Thatcher’s accession and Princess Diana. It was the summer the colour in Isla’s life starting fading, and life changed forever. Not with a false book-blurb kind of promise, she’d tell people, but literally. Blurred by time, it was chicken and egg now though; Jack’s crankiness, her aching head, their combined oddities of behaviour.
Isla’s memories flashed past like the view from an express train. She fumbled to release her seat-belt and open the car door.
‘Richard?’ she called. He hadn’t gone far; she could smell the smoke and suddenly craved it. ‘Light me one,’ she said.
‘Paula will kill me if she finds out.’ He was handing over the cigarette even as he said it.
‘Not today, she won’t. Any day but today.’
They both knew it, were complacent as they exhaled. I haven’t lost the knack, Isla thought.
‘We could walk from here,’ Richard said. ‘If you want to–’
‘Yes. Yes, please.’ She did, oh, she did; sometimes Richard was more guardian angel than son-in-law.
He took her arm and they moved slowly. Isla knew it was fanciful but she could feel the house drawing her in. It was neither Manderley nor River Cottage, never had been, but there was warmth in that blandness. She carried a snapshot in her head; sturdy pre-teen twins posing on stone steps, the garden bleached and burned with drought (in Scotland! They had laughed at the idea). The house was a cool and benign shelter for Paula, smiling shyly, Iain with his hands in his pockets, bored, and Jack – still the old Jack, just – between them. Its paintwork, they told her now, continued to fight a losing battle against the North Sea – Paula had finished the front door a rude orange; an artistic two finger salute to the elements – but the rotting sash windows had given way to aluminium frames and the unruly creeper was long outlawed.
Isla sniffed at the air. Their tobacco shame gone, and she strained to catch the smell of freshly cut hay, then to hear the trickle of water from the hidden stream. Her memories lurked in the trees like the ghosts of whispered stories past. They had made their imprint on this house, their secrets lay in its walls; the draughty cavernous kitchen, the attic bedroom where Jack first took her into his arms, unzipping her best taffeta dress to fall in an inky pool at her ankles. Somewhere, lost on the wind, she heard bright snatches of little children’s voices. Iain insisted his hair was receding now, that he had grown stout; Paula complained she was not the beauty Isla imagined. Isla knew better; a mother’s privilege.
‘We tried,’ she said out loud. She almost stamped her foot. ‘Dear God, we tried until the day we ran out of things to try.’
‘I know.’ Richard squeezed her arm. ‘What else was there to do.’
The unthinkable, she thought; and that’s what we did: rented out the old farmhouse and ran. They lived in worried transit in Glasgow, before settling – more or less – in London’s claustrophobic security.
It took two more years for the colours in Isla’s life to fade completely.
She was doped to hell when she saw them last. Flat on her back; the three of them lined up in a dim row beside her, smiling rigidly. She’d wanted to hold her arms out and hug them, her beloved son and daughter, Jack as well, but the distance was already too great. She shut them out of her life until even the snapshot in her head faded to sepia.
Stop all the clocks, the poem said. Isla had. When she lost the sight she took so much for granted, she made herself into an island; invisible with the density of icy waters. She stood still for an eternity, then falteringly she carved out a new life for herself, a happy life. She and Jack divorced – it would have happened anyway – and first Paula then Iain, grown-up, with their own families, returned home. Home. Isla was released from the role of protector that burdened her even as she craved it. She was comfortable enough being a grandmother – great-grandmother almost – who was blind, but a wife, a mother? Never.
‘I’m glad you and Paula took on the house.’ Isla stopped and turned her face to Richard but she was talking to herself, mostly. ‘It’s a different place now, with a new identity and that is how I approach it.’ She’d said it before, but so what? She was an old woman and old women repeat themselves.
Richard stopped walking exactly when she knew he would. ‘Isla?’
Nervousness, a dog with a cold nose, nudged her.
‘Isla, you’re home.’
Suddenly the merry dancers swooped. A blanket of green shot across the sky, a red and purple fringe in its wake; the Northern Lights as she saw them last and the only colour in her life for four decades. It happened at rare times of heightened emotion and was, the doctors said, impossible – her imagination not her sight. ‘Does it matter?’ she’d asked. It was a signpost either way. A delight.
Paula must have been watching, so soon was she by their sides. Isla touched her face, traced the wetness of tears.
‘Welcome home, mum,” was all she said, a hitch in her throat.
They linked arms easily, years of practice behind them, and automatically Isla counted the wide, smooth steps up to the front door. The paint smelled fresh. Perhaps the echo of their feet on the tiles and the sudden coolness of the hall was familiar. Isla stood still and let the last of the merry dancers fade. They left behind them the aura of a polished, flowery scent, one grown elusive over the years.
‘Beeswax,’ Isla murmured. ‘Beeswax and daffodils.’
Recognition was bittersweet, intense pleasure and pain. For that second, she was home.
(c) Anne Hamilton, 2016
Part of Story Shop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival
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