“Don’t tell me Stinking Maggie’s been round already.”
“Round already and had two cups of tea and a shit. Maybe the smell woke you up.”
Granny Mack was using one hand to crack eggs into a pan of bacon as she spoke. The other hand wasn’t a hand at all. No. It was a hook. Nobody knew how she’d lost her hand; everybody knew it was an off-limits subject. Presently, the hook was resting on the shelf to the right of the cooker, with a smouldering cigarette skewered on the end. Granny Mack was pretty dextrous with the hook. She said she was so used to it now she wouldn’t swap it for her old hand even if she could.
The front door of the cottage was open, and a brown hen wandered in with its feathers fluffed up, pecking at the filth on the carpet with its broken beak. One of its feet was swollen with some sort of ghastly hen-disease.
“High time that one was in the pot,” she said, taking her cigarette and placing it between her lips. “We’ll wring its neck tomorrow and have a nice dinner.”
“Was anyone hurt?”
“Not to my knowledge, no.”
“Do they know who did it?”
A gust of wind blew the ram-shackle front door shut and then open again.
“People are talking,” said Granny Mack.
I took a handful of grain from the sack at the front door, and threw it on to the grass to make the hen go outside, which it did.
“People always talk,” I said, leaning against the jamb, and reaching into my trouser pocket for my tobacco.
“Don’t bother with that,” said Granny Mack,” Your dinner’s ready.”
“I said I didn’t want any.”
“I know what you said.” She slid the bacon and eggs from the battered old frying pan on to a chipped dinner plate that had once been decorated with something akin to Willow Pattern .
I sighed and took the plate, and went outside to sit on the upturned cast iron bath by the front door.
”Knife and fork.”
“You’ll take some bread and butter as well.”
“Oh now nothing. Come on lassie. Body and soul.”
Granny Mack sat down beside me.
We ate in silence, apart from the sound of the gulls and the rushing of the sea against the rocks, which was such a constant that we barely noticed. In front of us the hens clucked around the coal heap and the washing poles; a yellow-eyed ginger tom patrolled the cliff edge beyond, hunting for mice and fledglings among the hummocks of grass and the foxgloves. Far out to sea sailed the eleven o’clock ferry to the Outer Isles.
“Do you ever think,” I said, wiping my plate with a piece of bread, “That we’re in a strange place here?”
Granny Mack belched slightly behind her hand, and wiped her mouth. “Everywhere is strange. “
“No, but I mean where we are, on the island. We’re between the mainland and the Outer Isles. We’re half-way between there, and somewhere else. It’s almost like we’re nowhere at all. The ferry doesn’t even stop here. No wonder they built the asylum.”
If we’d walked half a mile up the dirt track which led up behind the cottage towards the metalled road that led to the town, and turned the corner beside the burn and the stand of stunted alders, we’d have seen the smoking, blackened ruins high on the hill at the far side of the island.
Granny Mack pressed her lips together and stared at the horizon. Her eyes were the same blue as the rain-washed sky at that time of day.
The ginger tom had returned, and jumped on to my lap. I rubbed his ears and scratched the scabby, hard-to-reach bits where the fleas were. He produced an obligatory purr, staring all the while at the doomed hen.
“Why did they build the asylum then?”
“I’ll tell you over a smoke. Roll us a cigarette, and I’ll put the kettle on. And remember…”
Granny Mack winked as she got up. “Back in a minute, “she said.
She was still remarkably spry. I had no idea of her age. Granny Mack. She wasn’t my granny, or indeed closely related to me in any way. She was just Granny Mack, who had always been.
The cat jumped off my knee, and followed her into the kitchen.
I rubbed my hands on my trousers to get rid of his fur; then I made two good, fat cigarettes, and put them carefully on the bath beside me.
Then I leaned back against the grubby, white-washed wall and closed my eyes.
"You were going to tell me about the asylum." Sometimes I didn't speak aloud. Sometimes I attempted to communicate using telepathy. Sometimes it worked, such as the time when I willed Granny Mack to use a new teabag instead of the one shrivelling on top of the marmalade jar that had been used four times. Or when I willed her to kill the white hen instead of the brown one that I liked. I was just developing it really.
On this occasion I spoke aloud, because I was afraid that telepathy might work both ways, so to speak. I didn't want her finding out about the three bodies in the black hut unless she absolutely had to.
"Yes. Well I don't think I can do it sitting here. There's an awful smell coming from somewhere."
I bit my lip and pulled at a strand of rye grass in what I hoped was a nonchalant manner. "Stinking Maggie must have blocked the toilet again," I ventured.
"Likely so. I told her before not to try to flush those rags. They've to be rinsed off in the burn and re-used. She tries but she's got no idea that woman. She's just not accustomed to mod cons."
I stubbed my cigarette out on the wall. "Coming inside then?"
"I'll be in in a minute. I just want to kill that hen with the diseased foot first. Get a pan of water on the boil, will you?"
As I headed indoors, I glanced across to the black hut. The hen was perched on the roof.
I decided to try telepathy after all.
"Do you ever wake up in the morning and feel like you want to fucking kill everybody?" I asked Granny Mack, in an attempt to divert her as she made her way towards the black hut.
"Och I used to feel like that every day," she replied, without turning round."But now I tend to think it's best to leave well alone, except for HENS!!"
Suddenly her right arm (the one with the hook) snapped out like a whip and before you could say, well, hook! or death! or kill! or anything appropriate with one syllable really, the hen had been seized round the neck by the hook and was now securely but understandably rather glumly gripped under her oxter.
"That's tea sorted," she grinned, revealing her three brown and misshapen teeth. "Now don't you think you should get rid of those four bodies? The neighbours are going to start complaining and the nearest one's two miles away."
"FOUR bodies? But I thought - I thought - "
"Yes four. Did you really think I didn't know about that key in the manure heap? I added Stinking Maggie this morning. Now fetch the dumper truck and get them shifted."
I did what I was told and went to fetch the dumper truck. Driving back to the croft I saw a piece of torn paper with something printed on it fluttering on a fence post, so I yanked on the handbrake and skidded to a halt. It isn't often that you see a piece of paper with something printed on it, hereabouts.
I don't have much book-learning but I know a few letters and I always recognise a face. I certainly knew this one, even though it was in black and white.
That square-jawed, chisel-featured, stetson-totin', nudie suit-a-wearin', geetar-twangin' sonofagun. (Country and western singer, to the sane half of the population.)
I screwed up my face and stuck my tongue out as I spelled out the rest of the lettering, just the way Granny Mack taught me. And she taught me good.
"CLINT CLANTON - MISSING. There was a bit torn off after "missing", then REWARD £1, then another torn off bit.
I felt sure that the reward must be more than £1. And I needed that money. I needed it real bad. It would help me to make a new life, away from Granny Mack and her hook and her three brown teeth and her half-witted homespun wisdom.
I revved up the engine and sped off down the track in a cloud of dust and sheep-droppings, rolling a fag on the top of the steering wheel as was my wont.
In the distance the blackened walls of the old asylum still smouldered. But I had no time to think about that now.
As I lurched down the dirt track I began to worry about that £1 reward. How many noughts after the one? None, perhaps. In which case, why bother? There'd have to be at LEAST one before I'd even think about considering looking beyond the end of my own boot. For anyone - and that most especially included close family, or "clan".
I also began remembering (quite coincidentally!) what an utter shafter Clint was, according to what his drink-sodden rival Clant Clinton said in his tell-all autobiography, On the Road with an Utter Shafter...I'd found it in the skip behind the burnt down asylum some weeks previously...
I'd gone up there for a walk to get away from Granny Mack and her endless platitudes. Oh yes, she looked the part, with the hook and the three teeth and the roll-up cigarettes and the hand-on-hip and the narrow-eyed stare, but her conversation! God! it was like listening to an early 1960s edition of the People's Friend being read on a loop-tape. Mind you, she HAD murdered Stinking Maggie and dumped her body in the black hut, with the others....or so she claimed...
ANYWAY - I'd found Clant Clinton's expose of the nastier side of life on the road with Clint Clanton in the skip behind the old asylum, just before it mysteriously burnt down. It was a pretty racy read and only a shame that half the pages were missing. I'd raked through the skip in an attempt to find them but there was only so long I could stand waist-deep in strait jackets, used inco-pads, discarded syringes, rubber clamps, polythene sheeting, blood-stained white coats, funnels, naso-gastric tubing, bottles marked "POISON" and these huge rectangular metal food containers that nobody ever cleaned because the food (usually liver stew) was so badly-burnt-on that they just binned them. Anyway from the half I'd read it was pretty clear that Clint was a total shafter and Clant was a thoroughly decent bloke and the one with all the talent.
!!!!! CRASH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! BUMPITTY BUMP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Suddenly a half-clad body landed on the the truck and immediately slid off leaving me with a burst windshield and a large smear of blood on the bonnet. I hadn't even time to think as far as "What the -?" never mind slam the brakes on, and before I knew it I'd run whoever it was over.
I glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw - to my amazement - a blood-stained hand raising an equally blood-stained stetson. Was it Clint, or was it Clant? It had to be one or the other, but who knew? Who cared? And in any case I'd be doing whichever it was a favour by putting them out of their immediate physical pain. I wrenched the truck into reverse and stepped firmly on the accelerator... ...meanwhile........
The lame hen had escaped Granny Mack's clutches by fluttering on to the top of the Black Hut and hiding behind the chimney.
And Granny Mack herself was up at the smoking ruins of the Old Asylum, with a large wheelbarrow.
"Sod the dumper truck. I'm 93 years old and I can still manage to push three dead bodies - no, make that four - up a steep hill. In a wheelbarrow. A large one mark you. Now I'm going to wheel them down again, just for the hell of it. And I'll think up some fresh homilies while I'm doing it. Might even whistle a wee tune on my comb and paper as well. One of Clint Clanton's mebbes. Here goes.
#OH MA GEE-TAR'S A-TWANGIN' AN' MA BACK DOOR'S A-BANGIN'
LIKE A SHIT-HOUSE DOOR INNA GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYLE!# EEE-WWWW.......YYUKKK........"
Suddenly Granny Mack halted and wedged the wheelbarrow against a rock. Niftily, she hefted the handles into the air and tipped the top-most body on to the turf, where it tumbled down the steep embankment on to the cliff's edge.
"Sorry Stinkin' Maggie. I liked you, I really did, but I couldn't stand the smell a minute longer. The wind'll get up tonight, and you'll have a decent sea burial when the tide comes in."
#OH MA GEETAR'S A-TWANGIN'.....#
Granny Mack continued wending her way downhill with the remaining three corpses.
Behind her, on the cliff-edge, Stinking Maggie opened a bloodshot eye, and began to growl......
"Ah wisnae always called Stinkin' Maggie," growled Stinkin' Maggie, as she hauled herself to her feet. "An' thon Granny Mack thocht she'd feeneeshed me aff wi' her poisoned cup of tea in the cracked cheeny cup. But she didnae. Ah'm hard as fuckin' nails me."
Stinkin' Maggie pulled a clay pipe from her apron pocket and stuffed it with shag.
"When ah wis young - an' am no' that auld noo mind - ah wis oan Page 3. Ah wis a Page 3 tapless stunner. Page 3 o' th' Bunfettle Enquirer, that is. Ah wis Tapless Stunner o' the Year 1982. We a' took pairt in a competition at Bunfettle Public Baths. We hud tae parade roon' and roon' the swimmin' pool, tapless, prancin' along in high-heeled mules like a right bunch of erses. Weel ah say "bunch", but there wis jist the twa o' us. Me an' Granny Mack, an' she wis weel-pastit. But try tellin' her that!
Onyway. Stuff this fur a game o' sodgers ah thocht. Nae mare prancin'. Ma bunions are killin' me. Ah deid-legged her when naebuddy wis lookin'. Even if they WUR lookin', ah didnae care. She fell intae the pool heid-first an' cracked her face aff the flare. That's how she lost a' her teeth. She's hated me ivvir since.
Ah dinnae hate her back tho'! Ocht no. Ah feel richt SORRY for the wummin. Ah find sympathy is much more corrosive than hate. Altho' the two do go rather nicely thigither.
But enuff aboot me. How are YOUSE a' daein'?"
Stinkin' Maggie drew deeply on her pipe and cocked her head to one side. Of course there was nobody else there…