Category Archives: Short stories

Till Houletgless an the Messenger o God

Farm-Art-

Mony’s the holy man wha wad be gled tae absent hissel fae this marounjous warld an aw its coorse realities, but it coud niver be said that the Bishop o Dunkeld wis yin o them. Yon messenger o God wis a man o action; an whenever there wis tithes tae be collectit, or dens o ill-daein tae be leukit ower, the bishop wis shuir tae be richt in there wi baith his sleeves rolled up. He especially liked distreebutin the alms, if that’s whit ye wantit tae caw it, and that wis jist whit he wis daein in front o the kirk yon sunny Monday morn.

“Here!” he shoutit at some aumous auld wumman, “Ah’m jist efter giein a penny tae yer man – is this you cadgin yin as weel? Whit, dae ye think ah’m made o money?”

The bishop had lang syne makkit alms-giein intae a kind o game wi hissel, wrastlin tae see hou mony gaberlunzies he coud turn awa empty-haundit, an hou mony o his pennies he coud manage tae hing ontae. But he’d had a sair couple o weeks o it in the kirk, whit wi wan thing or anither, an this Monday he wis airtin tae beat even his ain record.

“Aye, weel, tell yer faither ah dinnae care hou seek he is, he comes alang himsel or he gits naething. Ah’m no giein ony pennies tae ony bairns.”

“Awa wi ye! Ah’d be as weel giein yer penny straucht tae Tam the tavern-keeper an cuttin oot the middle man!”

“You! Ye’ve a cheek! Gin ye can affuird that egg ah saw ye ramshin Seturday past, ye needna ony catter aff o me!”

An sae it went, until the hale sorry munge o them had been sent awa yin bi yin, an the bishop wi eneuch siller still in his pootch tae mak a cantie jingle. But as he turnt back taewart the kirk, the bishop’s hert sank tae see yin mair body waitin there, leanin wi his rig anenst the doorframe o the kirk. The man’s airms wir foldit thwart his chist, his richt cuit crossed ower his left.

“Faither,” the chiel said, noddin.

Tho the man had cam tae toun anely a fortnicht afore, the bishop awready kent Till Houletgless for a smatchet an a God-left wratch. It wis weel-kent that he’d nae suiner lowpt doun aff his mare than he’d been oot cuitlin the laubourers no tae pey their tithes tae the kirk, as weel as a hantle o ither ongauns for which there wis nae proof but plenty o suspeecion. The bishop ee’d Till waurily as he climt the staps.

Yer Grace tae you,” the bishop said, “An ah’d hae thocht a chiel that knaws the Guid Beuk as weel as you mak oot tae wad ken eneuch tae ken that.”

Till smirlt an noddit his heid in greement.

“Aye, ah must hae misst that bit,” he said, “Mynd, it wis awfy haird tae concentrate on ma readins the morn wi the laundlaird pappin aw ma stuff oot the windae.”

“Aw aye?” the bishop said wioot meetin Till’s gaze. Till unfoldit his airms an crosst them again.

“Ah dinnae faut the loun, ken. Telt us the guid fowk o the toun had been pushin doon on him. Noo ah’m no shuir wha the guid fowk o the toun are, but ah’d howp tae ken them when ah saw them.”

The bishop said naething, but glenced nervously at the sliver o space atween Till an the doorwey.

“Sae onywey, faither,” Till went on, “That’s me rooked. Ah’d gied the fella the next week in advance, an shuir ah’m no gittin that back again. Ah’d ride on if ah coud, but ma wee dun mare’s needin shoddit, an ah hinnae a penny tae ma name. Sae when ah heard fae a carlie ye were dolin oot siller the day, ah thocht ah’d come doon an see for masel.”

The bishop, suddently sensin a shift in the balance o pouer, strauchtened hissel up.

“Ask an it shall be gien ye,” he said importantly.

Till thrust oot his haun an leukt at him.

“Weel, here’s me askin,” he said.

At the sicht o Till’s empty palm in front o him, the bishop’s ain fist clencht ticht aroond his hantle o pennies. They crinched aroond in his pootch like a haunfu o gravel.

“Ah didnae mean ask me,” he snashed, “Ah’m jist the messenger. Ah meant ask the Laird. Aw things are in his boonty. He giveth…”

“An he taketh awa,” Till said, staunin up. “Aye, it’s got the lot, that beuk. Weel, ye’ve gied me plenty tae think aboot, faither. Ah’ll see ye later.”

An Till Houletgless dicht his hauns aff an walked across the square.

**

When the letter fund its wey intae the messenger’s hauns the next morn, he didnae ken whit tae mak o it. There wis some unco airticles cam his wey, makkit oot tae the maist unlikely addresses – but he’d niver yet tae deleever a message backit oot tae ‘God’, an he wisnae shuir at aw whit tae dae wi it. Wi nae sma embarrassment he scleusht alang tae the kirk an haundit the letter tae the bishop.

“Ah ken it’s no for yersel, yer Grace,” he yammert, “But ah couldnae think wha else tae…”

The bishop wheesht him wi a wave. The letter wis unsealt, an its attercap haundwritin furlt oot alang a pagefu o inkblots an stourie fingerprints.

Dear God,

Ah howp this message finds ye weel. Ah’ll no fash ye wi aw the uisual havers, as ye’re nae dout a busy man these days, an ah ken ye ken wha ah’m ur.

Listen, ah’ll tell ye whit it is – ah’m needin a wee tap o a penny tae git ma mare reshod, an when ah asked yer freend the bishop for it, he said ah shoud apply in writin directly tae yersel. He micht no hae said writin, tae be fair, but ah tried shoutin an that didnae seem tae wirk. Onywey, ye ken yersel, when ye ettle at tellin a thing in person, it ayeweys comes oot wrang.

Weel, ah’m no wantin tae pit ye on the spot, but ah coud dae wi yon penny suin as ye’re able tae spare it. Ah seem tae mynd ye’re no awfy keen on usury – or is that some ither body ah’m thinkin o? – but ye’ll hae yer money back in full bi the end o the month.

Thanks again. Ah’m an awfy big admirer o aw yer wirks, especially the trees an aw that. Brilliant.

Aw the best,

Till

The bishop’s mynd wis racin as he read the letter, yinst an then a second an a third time. On yin haun, he didnae want tae gie a faithless skellum like Till Houletgless onythin mair than a guid lounderin. But then, on the ither haun… Tae send a haithen sic as Till an actual message frae God, an breeshle him oot o toun intae the bargain – yon wad be veectory sae hale-an-hauden as tae mak the bishop’s heid birl jist bi thinkin aboot it. Efter hummin an hawin ower it hauf the mornin, the bishop finally wapped up a haufpenny in an orral o paper an haundit it tae the messenger.

“Tak this tae the scoondrel yon letter was frae,” he said, “An mak shuir he thinks it’s fae God.”

The messenger left, an for the lave o the morn the bishop idly imagined a newlins repentant Till ridin slawly oot o toun on his wee dun mare. Sae vogie a thocht wis it that anely nou an then did he think tae rue the loss o his haufpence.

**

When Till Houletgless did quit toun, the bishop wisnae there tae see it – it wis a Monday, an he wis still sleepin things aff. But frae the clip-ma-clash he wis shuir it wis a chynged an chastened Till wha had troddelt aff intae the distance that morn, wi hardlins a wird or a backwart glence. The througate Till had set aff upon wad tak him tae St Andrews; a fact which gied the bishop nae end o satisfaction, as the Archbishop there had lang syne owed him some siller fae a caird-game. Tae hae got shot o his ain scourge bi dumpin it ontae his enemy seemed itsel like a blissin direct fae the Awmichtie.

It wis wi a licht hert an a lichter purse that the bishop went oot that efternuin tae dish oot the alms. He wis in the mood for a celebration, an he wis in that much o a hurry tae get back inby for a swallae that he even let gan a couple of bawbees he micht itherwise o hung ontae. In nae time at aw the croud wis skailt awa, an the bishop turnt back tae the kirk anely tae find an unco man leanin anenst the doorframe, waitin.

The bishop speelt the staps huily an fairly, no leukin up. When he raxed the tap, the man finally spoke.

“Ah ken it’s no fir yersel, yer Grace,” he said, “But ah couldnae think wha else…”

The bishop opened the letter. It wis in the same spidery script as afore, wi the same tentless merks aw ower it.

Dear God,

Muckle thanks for yer help wi the siller. It wisnae eneuch tae pey for the shoddin, but the blacksmith widna tak ony catter fir it onywey, so it aw wirked oot in the end. Wad ye credit it? Ah guess that’s whit fowk are gettin at when they say that ye wirk in mysterious weys. An there’s yon blacksmith thinkin he wis jist daein me a guid turn.

Onyroads, here’s yer money back. Aw howp ye wirnae ower pushed wioot it. Let me ken if ye’re ever needin a lend yersel.

Aw the best,

Till

P.S. No wantin tae tell ye hou tae gan aboot yer business, but the next time somebody asks ye for a haun, cut oot the middle-man an gie it them direct. Yer messenger stole the hauf o whit ye sent me.

An doun in the letter’s bottom corner, aneath a muckle reid daud o sealin wax, the Bishop o Dunkeld carefully peeled aff a bricht an shiny penny.

Selkirk FC vs the World!

Selkirk FC Vs The World CoverWith the new Lowland League season kicking off today, Selkirk Football Club and myself are awfy pleased to announce the publication of “Selkirk FC vs the World!”

“Selkirk FC vs the World!” is the end result of the first season of my poetry residency at Selkirk Football Club, and collects together twenty-five poems and short stories I wrote for the club throughout the course of the year. From a Subbuteo league in post-apocalypse Glasgow to the 1930 World Cup Final, these pieces are, I suppose, a wee mind-map to what I think about when I think about football; or, in other words, the whole book is a kind of 200-page paean to the act of being grimly resigned.

Not that I’m done thinking about football just yet, or writing about it, for that matter. But the residency has been a fantastic platform to write about the things I’m really interested in (i.e. post-apocalyptic Glaswegian Subbuteo leagues) and also to learn a bit more about how lower league football (i.e. the vast majority of football played in this or any country) actually happens. Huge thanks to Selkirk FC and everyone involved with for that.

You can pick up a copy of the book here – you can even review it, which would be lovely and make me feel as if I’m not just banging my head repeatedly on the dangerously low overhang of the Selkirk dugout. It’s nicer than macaroni pies, better for you than Bovril, and cheaper than actually going to a game. Best of all, if you buy it this weekend it’s completely gratis. There’s not a lot in Scottish football nowadays which is free, Kris Boyd apart. So you can’t really say much fairer than that.

Writing in Scots.

I’ve had a couple of things see the grim light of day since I last posted. “Auld Hughie’s Losin It” – a rip-roaring tale of bauchles and bowling clubs – is up on McStorytellers, whilst I have a couple of poems and a wee interview on writing in Scots over at Poetandgeek.com.

It’s a fraught business, writing in a minority tongue – though Scots, of course, is a minority tongue only on paper, which is what makes it an interesting exception. The argument against, say, Gaelic in the mainstream can always be reduced to market forces and economic factors – not enough readers/writers, ergo not enough money. Not so with Scots, which has millions of de facto speakers, and enough mutual intelligibility with English to be broadly understandable even outwith our borders. Trainspotting, duh.

So it’s easy, as a Scots writer, to ascribe rejection to political motives. It might even be true, sometimes. But by and large the problem is simply that Scots has been so effectively pigeonholed that many people find it difficult to understand why anyone would want to persist in using it, except as a device for telling stories about Glaswegian lowlifes, and the occasional folksy tale about one’s childhood.

That point of view is wrong about Scots, but it is in many ways right about people’s perceptions of Scots. If you can speak English perfectly well, why bother writing limiting your audience by writing in Scots? And it’s understandable, really. Writing in Scots can seem to other folk like playing the kazoo. You might be world class at it, but it’s a kazoo, for crying out loud. Why not play something proper?

I don’t have all the answers, of course – there are loads of them – but here’s one just to be getting on with. I was reading some of my poetry in Scots at “Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon” at the Mac Arts Centre the other day. It’s a great event with some superb poets, well worth going to. People are usually very receptive to Scots poetry, though there will always be one who says “I really enjoyed it, though I couldn’t quite understand it…” So that’s what I was expecting when a lady came up to speak to me afterwards. But she didn’t say that. Instead, with a certain thrill in her voice, she said:

“I didn’t realise before that I was bilingual!”

Most of us, in this country, are. And most of us are delighted to find it out, when finally we do. What better gift can you hope to give anyone than a whole other language, especially when it’s their own?

Stories of Home.

Had a great time at the launch of “Stories of Home” last week, the Scottish Book Trust’s anthology for Book Week Scotland. As well as my story “All Addresses Are Approximate”, there’s some really superb pieces by the likes of Des Dillon and Alan Warner. Definitely worth looking out for!

The Hawick News and the Border Telegraph have both done nice write-ups about my inclusion, links below.

http://www.hawick-news.co.uk/news/local-headlines/thomas-in-book-win-1-3595509

http://www.bordertelegraph.com/news/hawick/articles/2014/11/07/514842-stories-of-home/

Zen in the Art of Writing.

So, things have been quiet recently. Quieter, anyway. I have a couple of stories coming up in the next issue of The Eildon Tree, but that’s it. Mainly I’ve been working on redrafts for the plethora of deadlines coming up at the end of the month. It’s reminded me of Ray Bradbury in ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’, and his insistence on zest and gusto in the writing process.

On one hand, it seems fairly obvious, doesn’t it, that if you’re not enjoying writing it, no-one else is going to enjoy reading it. If you don’t actually like what you’re working on, why are you doing it? That much is straightforward.

But as against that, there’s the whole Wordsworthy thing about poetry being emotion recollected in tranquillity. Most of the early blunders of writing come from excessive enthusiasm/optimism about a project blinding you to its faults. What you’re initially aiming for (or I was, anyway) was a certain level of detachment from the act of writing, to not feel as if the whole process was life or death. Once I got to the stage where I could just write without self-romanticising, I was able to just scribble away for hours on end and not worry about it. Life, it seemed, was good.

I suppose what I’m saying is that no matter how you go about it, some writing is just dead on the page. It’d be easy to say that it’s because of too much zeal or too little gusto, but it’s simply a fact of business. I can work away for several drafts on what seems like a nice little story with some nice little characters and some nice little ideas, then read it and realise straight away that it’s boring. Not bad, not silly, not self-indulgent, just boring.

It happened to me just the other day while I was redrafting. After working my way through to the terrifically unsatisfying stopgap ending, I realised that I couldn’t think of a better ending because I simply didn’t care about the characters or what happened to them. All the endings I could come up with were perfectly acceptable, but I couldn’t write them because they didn’t matter to me. None of it did.

You’ve got to write through the bad stories to get to the good ones, I already knew that. I guess I never thought there’d be a stage where I was writing through the mediocre stories too.

Scatter My Ashes At Claggan Park.

Much cheer. My story “Scatter My Ashes At Claggan Park” finished second in the Derby QUAD’s Offside Stories competition. There were some very good writers on the shortlist, too. Here’s the link: http://www.derbyquad.co.uk/news/offside-stories-results

Claggan Park, by the way, is where Fort William F.C. play. The team themselves have finished bottom of the Highland League virtually every year since their inception (which means that’s who I’d have played for, if I’d been from the Highlands), but have a very striking ground, which can be seen here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claggan_Park

Most non-league grounds are picturesque in a similar way, especially in rural areas like the Highlands and the Scottish Borders. Picturesque perhaps isn’t quite the word: touching, maybe. Hans van der Meer has a photography book called “European Fields” (stupidly expensive now) which consists entirely of amateur and lower-league football games across Europe. It captures footballers often so tiny that their struggles are almost completely lost against the sprawling landscape; just to be seen becomes a titanic endeavour. Also very funny too; a photo of a Dutch goalkeeper staring longingly into a canal where a misplaced ball bobs enticingly out of reach. Even if you can’t get hold of the book, some of those marvellous photos can be seen here: http://www.hansvandermeer.nl/projects/europeanfields