M y seed for writing was planted twenty years ago, when I set off to pick the brains of Mary, a tradition-bearer and relative who lived in the coastal area of Aberdeenshire.
I half-joked about writing a book, told her I’d been toying with the idea of telling the world my life story, with several old ghostie tales thrown in. She knew cracking spook stories, I wanted inspiration and if ever there was a tinker tale-teller, it was her.
‘This book,’ I told her, ‘is in its wishful stages, an array of handwritten bits and pieces about my childhood on the road in our bus-home.’
‘You mean life as a human sardine, with seven sisters, parents and some mangy dog.’ She grinned and slapped her thigh, at the memories of Daddy manoeuvring the bus alongside her wee cottage, engine revving, us tumbling over each other to cuddle the life from her, escaping like kennelled pups from the narrow door of our bus-home.
‘Not much of a life though,’ her smile gave way to a frown, ‘to write a book about, I mean. Are you sure it would work?’
‘Of course it would, I have memories galore. For instance, like you said, living like sardines—in deep winter, when Jack Frost clung to eyebrows and toes, our closeness kept away his icy stings. Or that incident that had travellers the country over in awe—you know, that time when Daddy took on four drunkards who would have murdered us all on yon dark moor up Dalwhinnie way. Wee gladiator he was that night, beating them to pulp. What a braw story, don’t you think?’
A blank look told me she wasn’t impressed, nor believed in the feat of my five-and-a-half-foot father; so I tried the academic approach by saying, ‘Surely, as part of Scotland’s travelling community, you think it’s important to preserve a lifestyle, one which has been in place for two thousand years; wouldn’t you say?’
‘Ach, who cares about our kind? Nobody jumps through hoops to preserve a rat, my girl, and in society’s eyes we’re no better. You’ll be hard pressed to sell a book about tinkers, they’re next door to an ape; sub-humans, little else, surely you know we’re nothing more.’
She sank into a floral patterned armchair, leant forward with her arm on a bent knee, threw a sour look in my direction, then went back to ponder fond memories. ‘Do you mind how each year you’d rush in here, wee face all red and rosy, full of excitement to share your latest epic tale of shroudwashing banshees and fierce werewolves? I told your folks at the time, even as a wee lassie, there was a gift in that head of yours. But never mind ghost-shockers and bus-dwelling, I know a story that would make a great book, one tailor-made for you: listen!’
So while I sipped hot tea with my host, who was a sort of cousin of my father’s (to explain connections would take far too long and prove a novel in itself) she began to recount a saga of epic proportions. About someone called Megan who searched the country for her husband, the strangely named Bruar—one single casualty amongst the millions of the First World War.
World War One is definitely not my favourite period in history; those were dark times when souls were lost to pride and greed. Nations with guns for brains slaughtering each other at the raising of an old general’s finger. World War Two was just as bad, it took my daddy away, leaving mammy to go it alone with four children for six tortuous years. No, wars weren’t my thing.
Mary, though, was on a roll, galloping out words of past times, and only by clanking the kettle against the kitchen sink and turning the tap full on did I manage to halt her charge. I hadn’t the heart to tell her that those kinds of events didn’t hold me one bit. Innocent people dead, the guilty left to gloat. It was disrespectful of me, yes, but I could only see war as a game of winners and losers; and what was it all for in the end? We have tongues! Surely, if they were used truthfully, the wise of all nations could find common ground.
I’m a placid kind of body, whereas Mary could skin a cat without touching the poor thing, so while we were discussing her tale I asked out of curiosity, rather than any real interest, were the characters real people?
That didn’t matter, it wasn’t important, it was a grand tale and she continued pressing me to write it down.
Yet it was a monster epic and it terrified me. My brain at that time couldn’t contemplate a paragraph, never mind
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