Read Whirligig Online

Authors: Magnus Macintyre


BOOK: Whirligig

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for Lucie

, n.

1. A mechanical instrument or toy that whirls or rotates.

2. A fickle, giddy or inconstant person.

3. An instrument of punishment or torture.

Nimble Men, Blue Men and Green Ladies

hat can I be, then?' he said.

The girl paused, looking at the boy. They stood there, blinking dumbly at each other. Her eyes were sky blue, his mud brown. They had been alone in the glade for only a minute so far, and the rules of the game had not yet been established, except that she was Princess of Land-under-Waves.

‘Um…' She hooked her finger in her mouth. He was tubby and awkward, this boy. An ill-fitting, thick-knit jumper barely covered his round tummy. His wellies were too big and had no mud on them, and he had on an alarmingly yellow cagoule. She would not have chosen this boy to play with, but he was the only other child for miles around. Anyway, she was curious about his tight curls of bright-orange hair. She had rarely seen such electrically ginger hair, and she had lived in Scotland all her life.

‘You can be Black Pig,' she said at last.

The boy squinted at the girl, wondering what to do. He didn't play much with girls. At school he stuck very much to the weed-strewn edges of the playground, consorting only with the fat and the spastic. Of that group, he could be the leader. This girl was younger than him by two years, but he felt somehow junior. She was pretty with her long black careless hair and red corduroy dress, and it was her grandmother's house. The girl had taken charge of the game as soon as the grown-ups had gone back towards the vast and imposing house with their gins and tonics and crystal laughter. He was frightened of the house. It was a castle, or very nearly, and had turrets that reminded him of bats. And he was frightened of the garden. It was overgrown, huge, and drippingly moist even though this was summer. The girl was proprietress of everything here, but he was not going to be owned by her, and did not like the idea of being ‘Black Pig'.

‘Why can't I be The Man?'

‘What man?' she said, pulling strands of hair from her eyes.

‘That man you said.'

The girl continued to stare at the boy, her nose screwed up in confusion.

‘You said there was a man,' he said uncertainly. ‘And another man as well.'

‘Oh!' The girl gave a patronising giggle. ‘There are Nimble Men, Blue Men and Green Ladies. It's a Scottish story from the Olden Days, called a miff.'

‘OK. Yeah.' He knew what a myth was, and chose not to correct her. It simply wasn't worth adding more incomprehension to the dynamic.

‘Well,' began the girl, ‘you can't be any of them, because you don't know how to reel.'

The fact is, as the girl explained to him, there is no point trying to teach an English boy who can't dance how to do so. At least, not when the boy is ten, and you yourself are eight. But she didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings.

‘Black Pig is what they used to call the devil,' she went on. She stared again at the chaotic nest of ginger hair on the boy's head, and added, ‘Come on, it'll be fun.'

The boy had to admit to himself that playing the part of The Devil did sound fun. But he did not like the imputation that he was less of a Scot than her. He was half Scottish, as his mother reminded him whenever they came on these trips to Scotland to rent a holiday cottage with Granny – although only then. His mother had, for her own convenience, dropped her Glaswegian accent some years ago. But he was reminded of his heritage every time he had to say his first name. ‘Gordon' might be normal in Scotland, but in southern England it received a moment's hesitation. Just a stutter in the air. But it wasn't his first name or being ‘a Jock' that got Gordon routinely bullied at low-to-medium intensity. Anyway, he thought, this girl could be no more than half Scottish. His parents had armed him with the knowledge that her father, an Indian man who now lived in America and taught people about Indian philosophy, had left her and her Scottish mother long ago. He knew that this was information he should not use. It might be

So Gordon knuckled down to the game, adapting his cagoule to become a diabolical cape. He even made her laugh with his impression of The Devil. ‘Noo, har har!' he cackled, and swooped around the glade while she danced in the middle. This continued companionably
enough for a while. But they both stopped dead when they saw the other boy.

He was tall and languid, with a shaggy thatch of blond hair, and he told them that his name was Harry in a way that made it clear he was already at Big School. He may as well have been a million years older.

‘My name's Coky,' said the girl, and they smiled at each other, blinking in the sunlight.

‘What's your name?' Harry had turned to the open-mouthed fat ginger boy at his elbow.

Gordon hesitated. He had never felt aware of his accent before. Compared to Coky's gentle tones, and Harry's soft Western Isles whistle, he felt that his English-English would grate. So he changed it, in what he hoped would be a subtle way.

‘Moi name uss Goordun, so it uss,' said Gordon. Instantly he knew he had made a terrible mistake. If Coky and Harry had been cross, he would have understood. But their reaction was worse. They paused, both looking at him for a moment in the same distracted fashion, then turned to each other.

‘We're playing a game,' said Coky, grabbing Harry's hand and dragging him to the centre of the clearing. ‘I'm the Green Lady, and you can be the Nimble Man. Can you dance a reel?'

‘Aye,' said Harry simply.

Coky gave Harry the additional title of King of Land-under-Waves. As they prepared themselves, Gordon asked, in his own voice this time, what Black Pig should do in this new game. He knew the answer before she gave it.

‘Oh,' she paused, and bit her lip. ‘Black Pig isn't really part of this game.'

Gordon squinted stupidly as the two other children
began to dance and sing. Intricate and deeply coded, this was dancing as Gordon had never seen it before. It had endless twirls, claps and steps that he couldn't fathom. It looked like it repeated, but just as he thought he knew what was going to happen next, it seemed to change. The girl tripped and skipped under Harry's careful hands, and they linked arms and twirled each other, and Coky's long black hair bounced and flicked, seeming to Gordon to dance its own jig. Then they sang together:

Where are the folk, like the folk of the West?

Canty and couthy, and kindly the best.

Gordon removed his cagoule silently, and it lay on the ground like the mangled corpse of a canary. He moved away behind a tree to watch a little more. They did not notice his absence and continued with their dance and their song.

Westering home, and a song in the air,

Light in the eye, and it's goodbye to care.

Gordon turned and slunk quietly away from the glade.

Used to being alone, he resolved to find something to do that was better than stupid old dancing. But he stomped his boots on the damp ground as he continued walking, to make some noise and give him some confidence in the face of the garden's dark and jungly presence. He pushed past odd and exotic trees and bushes, and swatted away fat flies, walking until he could no longer hear the laughter from Coky and Harry, and was lost.

As he wandered in the scary garden, it gave Gordon satisfaction to know that if he were killed by a tiger or an axe-murderer, the inevitable prison sentence the other children would serve would be justice for excluding him from the game. Nonetheless, when he emerged onto a patch of level ground and came upon a set of outhouses, he sighed deeply. Signs of nature being tamed by man came as profound relief.

The barn in the middle of the outhouses had a red tractor parked outside it, to which Gordon was automatically drawn. But as he came closer to the large barn doors, the sound of grown-up voices coming from inside made him check his ungainly stomp. There was something about the tone in the voices that made him cling silently to the wall as he approached. Crouching down outside the doors, he listened. No words were discernable, but he could tell that the man's voice was that of his father, speaking softly.

Gordon was cheered. His loud, fat, balding, ginger dad, who always made Gordon's mother laugh with his silly jokes, and drank whisky whenever he was home, was close at hand. Mostly he was Abroad, doing something with numbers that Gordon could not explain. It was the cause of much celebration in their suburban semi that his father was now being paid enough money for Gordon to be sent, next term, to a school with blazers where everyone called you by your surname. Apparently this was a good thing.

Gordon straightened, about to open the door and stride into the barn. Then there was a woman's voice, and he stopped. His mother's voice was always chirrupy, even when admonishing him – which was rare. This was a lower, soupier voice. Was this voice persuading? Denying? Gordon couldn't tell, but he
could tell this was grown-up talk, and he turned to go. He would go and find his mother. Where there was Mum, there was food.

Walking around the back of the barn, though, he saw that there was a ladder with perhaps twenty rungs on it, propped up against a small window which would allow him to see into the barn. Gordon would dearly have loved to possess a stronger James Bond reflex but actual adventure seemed always to be defeated by inertia masquerading as caution. Now, though, he tested the ladder for strength, and it seemed secure enough, so he climbed it. Halfway up, Gordon had to steel himself. His legs felt wobbly, and he took a moment to decide to continue upwards to investigate what SPECTRE was up to.

At the top of the ladder, quietly humming to himself to ward off his unease, Gordon brushed away some of the cobwebs and dust on the window. At first he could see nothing, other than some pale shapes moving. He rubbed the window again, and through the smudges and the dust on the other side of the window he began to see more. He could see hay bales. He could see some large rusty farming tools, hanging menacingly on the walls. And he could see human shapes. The bald, gingery mess was certainly reminiscent of his father, but there was something wrong. That raw and constant laugh, like cigarettes and gravel, had stopped, and there was altogether too much pink in the hazy picture framed before his eyes.

Gordon rubbed the window once more, and he peered again. Then he saw something he did not understand.

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