Being a fur’ner in a strange land, people sometimes ask me “How did you wind up here?” or “How did you meet your Problem Husband who is twice your age but we’re good-hearted people so will pretend that’s not odd?”
Here is how it happened:
My parents sold me at the age of 12 for a John Deere tractor, a pair of nylons and a bottle of Jack Daniels. Weaving drunkenly off down the road, my parents turned and yelled “Take care, young’un, and be sure always to be kind! Yeeehaaa, this rig rocks, Seonaig! Next stop, Ullapool!” They honked their horn as they turned the bend in the road and that was the last I ever saw of them.
Weeping silently, I turned and looked into the cold, fish-like eyes of my new life, but not before looking into the cold, fish-like eyes of my new “owner”. Her name was Mrs. Billingsgate, like the market, and she ran a boarding house “for those wot weren’t welcome elsewhere”. For this was Near London and they talk like that Near London.
We left Near London straight away. Mrs. Billingsgate (how I would come to hate that name!) drove and I rode with her spotty son Roland on the back of a wooden cart and, through my woe, was almost oblivious to the anachronism of this as Toyota Avenses and Nissan Micros sped past us on the highway, spooking the cart-horse, Ted, who passed away from nervousness soon after that trip. I wept for Ted because he was my only friend in those early days in London.
At length we arrived at the boarding house which was in a dark, gloomy lane (it’s the gloomy lane on London’s famous “Take The Gloomy Lane Tour!” tour for which the bus-drivers demand extra compensation on account of the screamings and stabbings and wailings and, unexpectedly, the cluckings.) Ted, (God bless that horse!) parallel-parked our cart skillfully between two similar carts despite being lashed all the while by the boy, Roland (a more odious youth, I have yet to encounter).
I alit from the cart, clutching my thin woolen shawl around my shoulders as the settling London fog was making the air nippier than a bowlful of teething pirrhanas. As we had travelled straight from the island that morning, I was still wearing our traditional garb of a long, plain but becoming dress with crinolene petticoats, thin-woolen shawl and a biannac (a kind of headscarf that speaks Gaelic). I also had my Nike trainers on because when I heard we were ” just going to take a wee trip down South” I decided I wasn’t going to let these London kids think we don’t know about fashion in the Hebrides. Upon lifting my skirts to avoid a puddle, Roland spied my Nikes and his piggy little eyes shone greedily in his scone-like face. Later, he would steal them for money to support his absinthe habit.
I looked up at the grey, lowering building in which I was to be indentured as a scullery maid, patting Ted’s nose absently, and an iciness took its unforgiving grip on my soul and squeezed.
“‘Ere, watch aht, young miss, that’s moy naahose you’re squeezing”, said Ted, sounding not unlike Dick Van Dyke’s cheerful sweep, Bert.
I doubted my ears, but they were still there, and then my sanity, but I didn’t know where that was and I thought it might be squishy to go poking for it. So I thought the only sensible thing to do was to reply politely, as I had been taught always to do. (My parents may have sold their own daughter into a life of servitude but they were lovely really; quite irreproachable people – when not on the mainland, which, after all, is known to temporarily turn even the most stoic of island heads – in possession of impeccable manners, and there were always paper doilies at teatime. I’ve never held my sale against them.)
“Oh, I do beg your pardon!”, I said.
“Don’t worry, ” said the inestimable Ted (may choirs of unicorns neigh him to his rest!) “I expect it was the iciness gripping your soul and squeezing. Best run along now, dearie. Roland’s in a rum mood, tonight and I’m already terribly nervous from that big-rig back at the M25.”
Roland whipped and yeehaed Ted round a corner and I was alone in the street. I could have run then. Don’t think I haven’t replayed that moment over and over in my mind. But I still had hope at that point, contrary to my every instinct, that I might find some small measure of kindness in my new life with the Billingsgates.
“Well gerra move on, you dozy bint!” cried Mrs. Billingsgate from the gate. “There’s supper to fetch for 22 ‘ungry men and you ain’t no use to man nor beast gawping out there.”
I went in.
I’m sorry. I’m going to have to finish this another time. I can’t go on right now. Too awfully moving and difficult, you know, revisiting these dark chapters.