Short story: Shredding the Icebergs

The men prefer breadcrumbs, the women batter, and they all find their way to the small stall selling seafood at the end of the world. By Candia McWilliam. Illustration by Matilda Harrison
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Candia McWilliam has written three novels: A Case of Knives, A Little Stranger and Debatable Land, all published by Bloomsbury. She has three children

The hot days when the wasps came and trudged all over the scallops with their legs and feelers and the Fantas sold faster than the teas at the seafood stall; on such days I used to see these types congregating and I would ask myself where will the human race end? Looks like a contest between in the gutter singing glory and so neat you'd need to wear a headsquare to procreate.

I would think: Where did these different kinds of souls get born and how do they hatch? Do they take one another in as they dither about, or do they walk right the way through each other like ghosts? It was my job to hand out the sustenance to these tribes, so that meant I was implicated, just like a keeper in the zoo handing over the bucket of sprats or peelings. It was my doing these folk got the energy to stand up, stick around, walk about the town, pull out their wallets in exchange for a few more items to lose, and struggle onto the boats without fainting from hunger on account of not having had a snack between after lunch coffee and early afternoon tea, or between that one last drink and the first of the evening.

These hot days were when the body paid for carrying on as if your skin could be forever hidden under wool. In this context, Scottish people come off particularly poorly. Unpeeled, we have a selection of looks, unless there's been a genetic accident and the body's holding up against the punishment. We're spare and sandy, or red and beety, or sweaty and soft with burning cheeks and meeting eyebrows, or blue-skinned blondes with the junkie posture who go old overnight at 28 or the second baby. The men are redhaired or blackhaired and mostly wronghaired, sprouting at the shoulder blade or tail end or inner arm. I'm not complaining though. Duncan is a freak of nature and the kids take after him. They've all got his sweatless skin and black eyes, his white teeth and tidy form. They look like kids in a film made for childless adults. I look like a mother. What people have aye said about me is, 'It's a mercy she's nice eyes. Her eyes are nice.'

They're nothing like me at all, to look at, the kids. The wonder is that he took me and the answer is the usual one. He was tired of the success and the freedom. He never understood why he had been given them, did not know how to use them, and was relieved when they weren't there any more and I was there instead, keeping them off, success, freedom and the women, all the three.

We run the stall together and Joanne and Ian and Dougie help in the school holidays. Joanne's gone veg so she does not do cockles or whelks but she is neater at garnish than the boys and she washes up the crocks with the water out the tea urn faster than any of us.

In the cold, we keep a brazier outside the stall, and we've a plastic tent with stripes like a seaside one, where we get a bit of shelter from the wind. We tried selling the snacks right indoors, but it slumped. There was no spirit of adventure for the customers eating prawns in Marie Rose sauce off a clamshell in a shelter.

It's more of a sport, more of a holiday, to do it outside in the biting wind or salty rain. And on the hot days, though there are fewer of those, they swarm around the stall, but they won't go inside for fish, only drinks and ices, and even then they prefer to walk around with those. When they've finished, they leave their tins and cartons and implements right there, with less thought than a dog shitting. It's as if the wrappers and cans and wee wooden forks are as natural as leaves.

I'd go round, or Duncan would, with a big bin lined with a black liner, like someone collecting pennies after a Punch and Judy show. They'd all look baffled and turn to their friends or family in order to avoid our eyes. I never approached them till they were finished the tub of mussels or the ocean stix, and you'd think they'd welcome a place to put the rubbish, but they seem to need it to talk with, like a beast marking a place before feeling at home.

Occasionally, you'd get one who was considerate. They'd pick a piece of debris off the ground, carry it carefully to the bin, drop it in with a little twitch of distaste, repeat the operation and then keep this up with ever smaller specks of rubbish till you looked up and thanked them, which was what they wanted, because then they could explain to you how much better it would be if you packed the whole operation up in cabbage leaves, or offered a fully automated rubbish chuting device such as they know a man who makes fine examples of not far out of town, it's a starter enterprise on a wee grant from the Board and he's heard we're not doing so bad how about a partnership with his friend? OK, he won't be modest, it's the man himself standing right here on this spot my word but those shrimps were good and that pink sauce was unusual.

On the hot days, the smells from the kitchens of the steamers that go out to the islands hang around this pier and the gulls don't bother to move off further than three feet away from the stall. Then we cut the lettuce into ribbons round the back and I sort it into clamshells ready for the fish when the orders come. We don't reckon to sell the sample dishes we put out the front under cling, so they're what the gulls get. In the sun, the shellfish turns. It goes a grey pink and smells of primary school pants.

The sunset comes so late sometimes I'm counting shellfish into lettuce at eleven at night. The wasps are gone by then, but the cats come and lie right on your feet, buzzing with the assumption that all fish is theirs by law. Ian and Dougie shoogle them off their trainers, but Joanne and her dad slip them soused herring over the sell-by and the remains of milk crushes. In the stall, it smells of vinegar and commercial strawberry and smoked fish. If there's shredded lettuce over, I bag it up and put it in the fridge for tomorrow, and any fish that won't stretch another day, I take it over to the bench on the esplanade where there's always someone been slowed down on their evening struggle home from the hotels. I can usually offer them a roll or two as well. They sit there shouting out intimate comments to the closed-up face of Woolworths and the Royal Bank, standing up to attack the night from time to time till it beats them down to sleep.

We start at five in the morning, even after a hot day. In summer, it's blue and you can hear the day beginning on the islands close-in, the doors opening, the outboards coming to life. Later the tractors start up, bringing the children down to the jetty to come over to school here on the mainland. The fishing boats are coming in after the night, their men making coffee. I watch the boats come in off the edge of the sea. There are mornings the water's flat and silver over beyond Lismore and the boats seem to tug the skyline in with them as they come tight behind each boat in a V., till it's pulled so thin it melts away when the boat's alongside. I used to watch Duncan fretting these mornings and I'd fetch his tea and quiz him about it, is it sweet enough, would he be wanting more and so on.

This annoyed him but it kept him off the thoughts he'd been having. His brothers Tam and Gordon go out on the boats. They've part ownership of the Hera, out of Islay, and they make a living that can be good depending on the catch. They've a deal over the clams and crabs with a man runs a restaurant for rich tourists up at Port Appin. They would pour scorn on Duncan's and my booth and our prices to fit the pocket. Their wives shop in Glasgow for their clothes. Tam has a woman as well down by Dunstaffnage he'd buy the coats for and take out for meals while Moira bides in and gets her pound of flesh in the form of a car. At family occasions, their kids wouldn't mix with ours. They'd ask them the odd question so's it'd look normal, but the questions would be phrased like geography questions to remote tribespeople. It's like they'd never met kids before that didn't have the things they had. They couldn't rightly see people that weren't dressed the way they thought was right.

Duncan's and my kids carried on the rivalry, if you could call it that with only the one side competing, by looking like their father. Their cousins are all decked out in their loose, grubby coloured gear with the words on it and the slobbering trainers with the tongues out, but the spots and tufts and bulges aren't away just because your shirt says Quicksilver Surfwear and cost three lobster dinners and a half of Smirnoff. And they scratch. They scratch in under these clothes and pull out from their body's crevices small finds they sook out from their nails with a sleepy look, or rind off on bits of paper, or ball up and flick without looking where they're going.

I anticipated no change but heaviness, no new life, in these young cousins of my children. These are the ones, I would think, will live as they do till they burst from heart or get shrunk by the cancer. It's a tussle which thing they take's going to get them first. Suffocation from the cigs, gagging from the takeouts, blootering into extinction from the drink, or the shove out into the morgue from one small pill or a final poison smoke. At least with our kids, I'd say to Duncan, there's the option of a climbing accident. Don't mind me, I just used to say these things.

The kids swore the other things are out of the question, though I would never be sure they'd played safe till I could see them certified pure on the autopsy table aged 75, like all mothers of my sort, the anxious kind, the ones can't believe their luck.

In the snow, that comes more rarely to us here beside the sea than in the ways a few miles and up by the Ben, the snacks we sell go in the deep frier Duncan and I bought for our 12th anniversary from the mail order. It's a lid goes on over the squiggling fish pieces inside, you scoop it all out with a slotted spoon, dish it out on greaseproof and shake over the vinegar. Hand it out fast as you can fry it up and the hot smell moves along the pier with the wind.

Strangers talk to one another eating hot food in the snow. They don't eating the cold snacks in the heat. It's to do with my theory that folk don't enjoy things that come too comfortable. Standing in the snow, with the white islands on one side and the raw hill on the other, the sea actually under their feet that slip about on the pier, these people behave as though they've made their way over 20 miles of ice to make it to our wee booth, even though there's the hotels over the way, the railway cafeteria and the Chinese up the alley behind Chalmers and MacTavish's selling the 20 different carryout potato fillings.

The best day in snow we've had at the booth was this January, right after the New Year. It was that chilly I'd invested in the gloves with the cut- off fingertips and a wee flap goes over like a mitten, so you've got the movement of the fingers and the recovery period for them after inside the top bit that goes over like an egg cosy.

There was one of these groups of folk around that isn't any shape, just humans not seeing each other, the tall ones with guncases letting dogs in and out of cars, the other ones not wearing enough clothes and shouting at one another from close up and telling jokes without listening. There was some call for the soup I keep on the go, it was kidney bean and lamb skirt, Duncan was busy at the frier, and Joanne was cutting monk tail for the mixed seafood medley. The boys were preparing the two coatings in the back, batter and breadcrumbs. It offers a choice to the mouth. Men take crumb and the women batter, I find. But I can be wrong. After all, it's a crude division, sorting people into sexes.

Then up the pier comes a wee thing on high bootee heels, with an umbrella covered with yellow flowers. Her feet leave treads small as marks in pastry in the snow. She's giggling like a bird. The seagull next to her looks as if it could pick her up by its beak with the one orange dot on its hook. She's Japanese, come to see this other wee country that's made such a success out of the whisky.

Her man is reversing down the pier away from her but towards us, his black loafer shoes going blacker with the snow, and the turnups in his trousers collecting it. He's snapping her of course, and she's posing with a soft handful of snow, her face up squint to it like a bunch of flowers, breathing in the crystals, and blowing them off the snow in her hands out to him and to us. It's the kind of snow takes its time about landing. It twirls and rests in any light it can get.

We're watching her as she leaves these little steps as small as the gulls' triangular plods, but pointing the other way, the way she's coming. The light is the snowlight of glary grey though the mountain is all white, and the islands are blue and yellow in the folds of their whiteness. The brazier is black and blue and red and the frier fills the air with a bottled up hissing. I notice that the characters around our family booth have become a group. They have been woken up for a while from themselves.

Down the pier she comes with her snow posy and we watch her yellow-flowered umbrella come closer behind her, her bit of private weather.

Just as the Japanese man's about to catch his raincoat on the brazier, two men budge and pick it up to move it, taking care to adjust it between the relative heights of their grips, so the coals on the top stay level. Nothing disturbs the glow of the brazier. The heat between the coals is like red mortar. Only the ash shifts and falls, leaving a grey trail in the snow.

The Japanese man turns round, perhaps feeling the heat moving back and away from him in the cold Western air, and seems to be taking it all in, the plastic striped tent, the fried food in paper, the redfaced people of differing largeness, the brown dog with a tuna-coloured nose, the black one whose tail has drawn a fin in the snow, and he includes us all in his greeting, "Good evening."

By the time the girl has arrived and shaken the snow off her woolly gloves, he is half way round the individuals who now compose a group around the brazier outside the tent where I hoped to keep my family safe from the world outside. I flip back the knitted snoods of my mitts, and begin to use my fingers, until I am almost enjoying the sensations they are prey to, bitter cold, a stinging where the vinegar gets into the cuts I'm never without, the chill glittery ribbons of iceberg, the hot stubbled shell of the fritters made with crumb, the light deflatable sheen of the battered fish. I enjoy the dexterity the exposure has given me.

Ian and Dougie and Joanne are posing for the camera in the snow outside our small striped plastic tent. The couple take several more snapshots of the group. More snacks are ordered. I thin the soup to make it go round, it's so thick after its day reducing in the stockpot.

In Japan, someone will almost certainly think that the booth is where we live, up here among the snows and floating islands of the West Coast. They will see our brazier and the people around it and in their minds will arise some idea of the tribes within which we live, huddled together for warmth, waiting for boats to take us away to islands in warmer waters, accompanied by dogs and protected by taller men with guns.

You can take it any way you need to.

Since round about then, I've been letting the children out and about that bit more. Duncan has gone shares with a man sets creels not far out beyond Kerrera. We'll sell the lobster here from the tent on the pier, when we get some.

The year is outwith my control, as it always was. I am letting the days come in with what they carry and leave with what we can give them. When I cut the icebergs into these light shreds, the thing that was the size of a head is spun out and the gaps between its smithereens filled in with a thousand layers of air so you get a basin of stuff airier than lawnmowings and sparkling like fibreglass. And so the days go on, chopped into finer and finer shreds of lightness that I think at last I can feel, each one, just before it goes.

'Shredding the Icebergs' is taken from the collection 'New Scottish Writing', edited by Harry Ritchie, and published by Bloomsbury at pounds 9.99

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