Epiphanies and Robberies Chapter 1 January – Rising Water

She had finally said it. After months of trial by separation, the verdict had been reached. The marriage was over. Spending time together at Christmas for the sake of the children, or in some forlorn hope of reconciliation, had failed monumentally. It was no fun being around a distracted academic who throughout the holidays compulsively checked emails, text messages and innumerable social media feeds. It was insulting to be told that some of his scientific collaborators around the world weren’t even celebrating Christmas. He’d been tested for the last time and found wanting. It was work or family. His work had won. There was no one else involved.

Michael Gilmour wanders into the lounge of the Lowther Arms in the Nithsdale village of Kirkgate. Heading towards the open fireplace, he peels off his green puffer jacket and stretches his long frame into a battered leather armchair. His coffee ordered, Michael begins to review the events and tensions of the recent holiday period. The words of his wife roll over like stones in a burn, already losing their sharp edges and getting smoother. Scratching at his beard, he has to admit, there are some compensations to this whole business.

He can see the girls as often as he wishes and is happy to ferry them around. Yes, the pick-ups and drop-offs can be a bit stand-offish, sometimes tetchy. Money is going to have to stretch further too, just as the cost of living crisis is biting.

On the other hand there’s the 7.30am swim to enjoy and the café breakfast before work. What hitherto were occasional luxuries, are now regular routine. Likewise the late finishes whenever it suits him. At the flat, books and journals piling high in the sitting room with no one to complain. Obscure post-its on the fridge raising no criticism. A notebook by his bed, where he can jot down nocturnal inspirations, causing no arguments. This has been his way of living since the separation first began, last autumn. In many ways, it works.

Yet in his gloomier moments, he wonders how it has come to this, when times had once been so optimistic, exciting even.

The move here had begun eight years ago in a brief conversation with Esme.

‘I see there’s a job going at the University of Dumfries and Galloway’.

‘Really! Are you serious? I’ve never thought of that as one of your options. Weren’t we hoping to get back to Edinburgh one day?’

‘Well it’s for a Senior Lecturer and they want a hydrologist who does work on peatlands and river catchments. Plenty of opportunities for local research, a rural campus. Maybe it could be for me. For us …?’

A lengthy silence had followed. But one thing led to another. The application form. The interview. The job offer. Each step gathering momentum.

‘Really, why not?’ asked Michael the day after the Head of Department had ‘phoned with the good news.

 ‘But why leave Glasgow?’ she’d countered. ‘Our friends and families are here. I’ve got my work too, you know that, and what about nursery, school, somewhere to live?’

He’d already rehearsed his replies. ‘Ninety minutes away by car, I’m assuming they bring up children there too, and you know very well that being a proof reader means you can work pretty much anywhere you like’.

The following Friday they’d left the girls with his parents, travelled down through the Dalveen Pass and stayed right here in the Lowther Arms. After what turned out to be a surprisingly romantic first evening in Dumfriesshire, it was love at first sight.

Saturday was crisp and invigorating. Springtime. Wild daffodils in profusion. White painted buildings, sharp in the clear light, the sandstone a gorgeous deep rosy pink.  Friendly people wherever they went. A café-bookshop-gallery in the village to rival Byers Road. A newly built ‘through-school’ for ages 2-18. A castle up the road and another one down on the Solway coast. In between, the majestic River Nith, rolling green drumlins, ancient beech trees, boglands, and the spectacular sight of migratory geese by the thousands, preparing to leave for Svalbard and the breeding season.

By Sunday some kind of magic was working. A few miles outside the village a plot of land was for sale with planning permission for an ‘eco house’. It had plenty of space and open views across to the Galloway Hills in the west. A few mental calculations later and Michael and Esme were already planning their own migration.

Within a year, established in their new home, they were living the dream in south west Scotland.

Ironically, thinks Michael, a visit this weekend may not have achieved the same result. The night of 29/30 December had seen continuous, heavy rain. People all round the Nith catchment area had awakened to rising water and elevated assessments of risk. With the river at higher levels than ever recorded, the consequences were dire.

Evacuated homes. Business premises knee deep from the deluge. Stranded cars. Roads blocked. Livestock drowned. Rubble and debris everywhere. The clean-up was immense and ongoing. A perfectly dystopian setting for his marriage to come crashing down just as a New Year begins.

He tries to push these thoughts away, pulls out his laptop and gets to work editing a new research paper on freshwater acidification. Just a few feet to his right there’s a group of older men enjoying their regular Friday evening drink together. Seasonal greetings out of the way, they are debating the whys and wherefores of the recent flooding and what should be done about it.

Michael keeps hearing snippets and is soon actively eavesdropping on what seems to be a judicious mixture of science and indigenous knowledge. He’s impressed by the quality of the discussion, which is no doubt still coloured by a general feeling of New Year goodwill.

Sitting across from the fire and at times gazing far into it, is Andrew Carlyle Stuart. His sharply etched face is drained of colour and two dark half-moons have taken up residence below his eyes. Thoughtful, yet distracted, he zones in and out of the men’s conversation, nods occasionally but says very little and at times is far away from the varied opinions.

A local GP for decades, Andrew retired late last Summer. His farewell to medical practice came just in time for him to support his wife Sarah through the COVID-19 infection that ended her life. His festive season has taken place in a tunnel of grief, in which no light is visible. He turns awkwardly in his seat, willing himself back from his despondent thoughts and dreading the months ahead. It’s Epiphany, and like Eliot, he feel it’s just the worst time of year.

Beyond him is the dining area, with its muted lighting and soft earthy shades.  The revamped Lowther Arms has come up in the world from the run down fishing hotel it had once been. No doubt, it had its own charm back then. But the food is better now.

Anne-Marie Maxwell is at a table for two with her old friend Caitlin. They were at school together in Kirkgate, and have always stayed in touch, despite their differing origins and subsequent paths. Now in their early thirties, they always have plenty to catch up on. This evening they’re already into a three course menu of life experiences, travails and fulfilments. Well, at least those relating to Anne-Marie. As usual on these occasions, Caitlin is the listening ear, underplaying her own achievements as a solicitor, rarely touching on her problems and always relentlessly encouraging Ann-Marie in her efforts to become established as a professional musician.

From the toes of her multi-coloured Doc Martens to the land girl headband, Anne-Marie looks ready to go onstage. But the main item on her set list this evening is a question. Breakthrough or bust: will 2023 be her year?

‘It was hard going through the lockdowns, Cait. If it wasn’t for my one-to-one teaching and going online with that, the money would have dried up completely’.

‘But you did get some gigs from last summer, right? I thought you went down  a storm at the Eden Festival’.

‘Yeah that was really the start of the new good times. Then we did a wee tour in the autumn, finishing up at the Barrowlands, with a great Glasgow crowd in that night. You know, I reckon we have some serious material for an album if we could get the needful together for studio time and production’.

‘All that training at the Conservatoire must count for something, eh Anne-Marie?’.

‘That’s been the upside of the pandemic, the writing, especially after Jake moved out and I had the space to do as I wanted. Got loads of stuff worked through in my head, then written out and some of its already going down well at gigs. Best thing about COVID that was, seeing the back of him’.

‘Well I don’t remember those words at the time Anne-Marie’, Caitlin observes with a grin. But as my old grannie from the Isle of Lewis used to say “’s fhearr deireadh math na droch thoiseach “’.

‘Beautifully put’ smirks Anne-Marie, guessing at the meaning.

‘But seriously Cait, I haven’t mentioned this to anyone else in the band, but I’ve got something else lurking in the back of my mind just now, something much bigger, more experimental. So … this year, a new beginning and all that, I want to push things to the limits. But if it doesn’t happen in 2023 I’ll have to check out on my dreams’.

‘And do what?’

‘I could always go back to Uni and train as a teacher’.

Caitlin makes a face and dismisses the idea at a stroke. They order some more wine and start talking about favourite teachers from their schooldays. ‘I swear some of the things we heard about them must have been true’ declares Anne-Marie, to her friend’s mock horror. By the time the meal is finished, they are in good spirits and Caitlin reminds Anne-Marie that it’s not time to give up yet.

‘You might just find that 2023 has a few great surprises in store’.

‘Oh really?’

‘Yes, I’ve got a good feeling about it Anne-Marie, despite all the terrible things in the world right now. I reckon you and that fiddle are going to make things happen, big time!’

Around 9.30,  groups of the early arrivals are paying bills, picking up bags and pulling on coats in readiness to leave. Such departures have a habit of sparking new greetings, conversations and diversions. With Caitlin already out of the door, Anne-Marie nods to Michael, who she vaguely recognises as ‘The Lecturer at the University’, and then says a goodnight to Andrew, who of course most people know round here. He’s fastening his overcoat, knotting his scarf and getting ready to go.  The three of them leave the lounge, more or less together.

It’s then that Andrew notices a corner table where two people, unfamiliar to him, are at the close of what seems to have been a good meal.

They are immaculately turned out in tweedy country attire. The collective wardrobe is very House of Bruar and looks to be on its first outing. ‘A bit over the top even for the blow-in toffs who come here for the shooting’ thinks Andrew. ‘And why the travel guide on the table at this time of year?’  A couple drinking whisky and coffee, glancing quickly around the room, looking just slightly conspirational, and yet dressed to the nines. ‘What could that be about?’

Andrew ponders his own question, as he edges out through the big swing doors. He waves a goodnight to Michael and Anne-Marie, then steps into the cold damp of the early January night. For some reason his mind is suddenly feeling a little sharper than it’s done for a quite a while. 

The walk home clears his head still further. The night sky is peppered with stars and the moon is full, lighting his path. As the village disappears over his shoulder, he gets a clear view of Castor and Pollux, the twins of Gemini, forming a curious triangle with the Wolf Moon. 

He reaches the old farmhouse, slightly elevated among a stand of beeches. He’s left a light on but it doesn’t give much of a welcome. Their home for nearly 30 years, he and Sarah had bought Townbrae with a big family in mind. But children had not found a way into their lives. Then the practice demanded more and more of their time, and gradually work filled the parental void.

Still, they’d managed to expand into the space of the rambling house, each with a study, plenty of bedrooms for visitors and a huge dining room for entertaining, which they loved to do. Many a time, the house, now so quiet, had echoed to bright conversation, raucous laughter, and music of all kinds. Beautiful memories were ingrained into the very fabric of the place, and in his grieving, Andrew is sustained by them.

He goes into the sitting room, kindles the wood burning stove back to life and pours himself a small malt whisky. He’s already been through the perils of drinking alone late at night, and is now more prudent. The light of the flames gutters patterns on the wall. The stove can be curiously good company at the end of the day.  A sort of secular Compline.

But he’s not yet ready for sleep. Invigorated by the walk in the night air,  Andrew goes back in his mind to the tweedy couple in the Lowther Arms. Something was not right about them. It seems to him they were making a display in order not to be noticed. ‘Isn’t that called hiding in public?’ he thinks to himself. Surely, he’s read about this sort of thing before, but racking his brain, he can’t for the life of him think where …

For Chapter 2 of Epiphanies and Robberies, go here: https://davidgrahamclark.net/2023/02/27/epiphanies-and-robberies-chapter-2-february-2023/

Copyright © David Graham Clark 2023

AUTHOR’S NOTE: In this story I mix up and blur chronologies, geographies and biographies. Any resemblance to a person living or dead is purely coincidental. The 12 chapters of the novel Epiphanies and Robberies will appear sequentially throughout 2023. I welcome comments and feedback on my novel, which is being written in real time. Many thanks go to AG, FG, MB, SS and TH for advice and encouragement.

Published by David Graham Clark

I am a sociologist and writer. Pieces on this site include reflective writings, stories, and memoir on aspects of daily life, along with associated images and videos. In these various ways I try to illuminate what I call the quotidian world, particularly my own.

4 thoughts on “Epiphanies and Robberies Chapter 1 January – Rising Water

    1. Thanks Barbara, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Please share the link with other people who might be interested. I’m hoping to get a community of people following the story and chatting to each other about it. I anticipate quite a few twists on the way. One reader has already been in touch with me and asked to be introduced to Andrew! Good wishes David

      Liked by 1 person

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