‘Do you reject Satan’, the minister asks in the traditional godmother ceremony, and I only paused a second before intoning, solemn as a bride, ‘I do’, no doubt to the relief of my best friend Sophie though she would never have let on as much. Naturally I neglected to mention the previous time I was assigned to surrogate welfare duties for a vulnerable charge, when the spirit of Auld Hornie overtook me to lasting effect.
The east coast in the sixties was a place where the de’il had not yet been assimilated with Mick Jagger, and most folk believed that rather than strutting about in too tight trewsers he still passed his days spreading crop fungus and curdling milk. You could summarise it as an uneasy relationship between modernity and ‘the auld ways’, a conflict roughly paralleled by that between incomers and local folk, with us decidedly the latter – my family, that is.
‘Git awa tak’ Lizzie oot tae play. Ye canna’ lay skulking indoors like a she-rat on a day like today’. So went Ma’s rant, forced out of her by my summer holiday morning malingering ‘neath the bedclothes. And I would moan and mutter but finally pull a dress over my sweaty body and walk straight out the door of the cottage, refusing the salty porridge I was offered. Lizzie like an eager dog scampered round about me, though I led the way of course – that hot summer always to the same place: the field behind the power station, where we built the Passages.
Aye, the Passages were our obsession. While Italian and French beefcakes bored under Mont Blanc, we – me as chief architect and engineer, Lizzie as general labour – were busy carving our own tunnels through the thickest, wildest growth this side of a Euro-feminist’s crevices. Tall, scratchy grasses, giant daisies, sticky willies and stray barley stalks all competing to thrust their way up; but where we willed we beat and trampled them all.
The Passages Zone was bordered on one side by the burn – across which a line of birch shielded it from the power station – and on the other the Gourlay barley field spreading itself like a wedding ring up the hill. We used sticks and our bodies to thrash out the paths, sometimes doing forward and backward rolls over and over on the same patch. I developed a technique to counter the stalks’ stubborn urge to poke back up: wet grass being less springy, you stripped, doused yourself in the burn and then did ‘the rolling pin’. The itch after was like hosting a picnic of fire ants and you had to plunge straight back in the cool burn – though even then the rashes stayed, worse on Lizzie than me it has to be said.
I need hardly tell you that no adults knew of the Passages, and even the low-flying jet pilots who could have spied us making them were too busy worrying about the red menace to slow down.