Tag Archives: short story

A message in a can

The body was floating face down, half on and half off a lump of driftwood. Wearing a kilt that rode up, exposing a buttock so pale it was almost translucent. Seagulls’ll be at that soon, I thought. Prometheus, like.

Daft eejit.

It had bobbed a bit further past the end of the jetty. Time to start working out what to do. That was when I saw it. A can, bobbing too. Half in and half out the water. Red T of Mr JVR Tennent emerging and submerging, but remaining upright, on an even keel. Had to be something left in to give it that stability. An idle thought in the circumstances, you’d reckon.

The swell was drawing them closer. Body and can, both tiny in suspense above the black depths. On the other side Fife, a few miles away and god knows how many billion gallons. The black waters full of history, back to the Reformation and beyond. The abbey on Inchcolm where you had to fight your way past the seagulls defending their nests – like Mona last time I’d tried to see the weans.

The fingers moved first. Twitching. I wondered if I’d imagined it, if it was just the waves manipulating them, like tendrils on the sea bottom. By this time can and man were just a metre apart. Collision course. Stable though it was, the can wouldnae survive.

An arm snaked out. Fingers trailing over the surface. Reaching, searching. The head lifted a fraction, just enough to make sure the hand found what it was after. Closed on it. Lifted. Careful to keep it upright, moving back to the owner. Now the head raised itself properly. Past me by this time so I couldnae see the face. Lifted the can to the lips and tilted it back. Cautiously at first, then further. Drank. And drank, until nothing was left.

The fingers tightened. Relaxed. The crushed can dropped into the water.

‘I’m coming to get you,’ I shouted.

No reaction.

‘I’m coming to get you.’ Louder this time.

With a last effort the hand waved me away.

‘Dinnae – worry – boot – me – ah’m – alright.’

And the head nuzzled back down, as if the driftwood was a goose-down pillow, plump and newly washed, perfect for sleeping on for the night.

Aloycious Kirby


Creation myth – part two

I cannot recall who saw the artist first. Maybe I followed a sudden widening of Lizzie’s eyes just after we emerged from our main passage beside the burn at the spot where it was deep enough to bathe. She looked right into my eyes but carried on painting as if nothing had happened.

‘Stay put’, I told Lizzie. We were both already stark and I swam the burn to the flat bank opposite, where the artist stood by an easel taller than herself. I had seen her before in the shop and the post-office and I knew from those few sightings that she was the only person in the village truly worth impressing. As I crawl-stroked a voice in my head whispered that the Passages were a rude and dirty project next to elegant painting on a canvas. Approaching the artist I knitted my brow and summoned to mind all the library books and radio programs I had absorbed in my life.

‘I have located a feral child. I believe she has been raised by dogs… or perhaps foxes. It appears she has made a system of pa – of tunnels, in the long grass.’

The artist put down her brush, I thought in response to me but then larger drops began falling from a sky that had turned dark and glowery without my notice. She had been painting merely the field and there was no sign of us on her canvas.

‘You had better get your dress on,’ she said, ‘and then you can tell me about your discoveries. And why not bring the feral child over too?’

I recrossed the burn to Lizzie who was still gawking, silent in the face of strangers, as it came naturally to her to behave. I stuffed her dress away among the stalks and we swam back, me holding my own garment out the water. The artist draped her shawl over Lizzie’s blotchy flesh while I borrowed her painty rag to dry myself.

‘It’s a short walk to my cottage. Would you like to come?’

As we walked I deplored aloud the society that had permitted Lizzie’s state to go unnoticed for so long. I described her diet of field mice and raw barley seeds, her total absence of shame, and the pitiful limitation of her language to grunts and snufflings.

‘I’m surprised she can walk on two legs,’ the artist commented.

When we arrived at the tiny cottage the rain was drumming down in jets, but we were sat on a magnificent sofa, dried again by a gas heater, and given hot milk and biscuits. The cottage was a single room heaving with paintings of familiar places, though none I saw revealed the truth about the Passages.

‘These are very good’, I said, at which the artist thanked me, but her next words piqued me a great deal. She said she drew more pleasure from the evident admiration of the feral child, ‘because that one is closer to nature, and so the better critic.’

It was teatime when a phonecall – I never knew who from – brought Ma to the door, at which point Lizzie regained the power of speech while I avoided the eye of the artist, and Ma delivered thanks through gritted teeth. When we got home I took a sound spanking for disgracing the family, and the following words were drilled into me:

‘It’s all very well tae prance like a savage when no one’s watching, bit do it before a painter and you can be fixed that way for life.’

And that was when I decided to become an artist myself.

Aloycious Kirby


Creation myth – part one

‘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.

Aloycious Kirby