Welcome to chapter 2 of my serialised novel. You can find the first chapter here
Anne-Marie has become totally absorbed in her new score. It’s an ambitious homage to Nithsdale: 12 inter-linked pieces, each representing a month in the year 2023. She’s given it a name: Calendarium. It’s being created in ‘real time’, and scored for saxophone, cello, vibes, violin, percussion, keyboards and analogue Moog synthesiser. To her delight, progress is good.
Suddenly desperate to share the idea with Caitlin, she decides to call her.
‘Good evening my dear, how are things in the soliciting world?’
‘Ach, not so bad Anne-Marie. Maybe not on the same rollercoaster of excitement as yourself. But things are ok’.
‘That was a fine get together in the Lowther Arms, can’t believe it’s almost a month ago’.
‘I know … But how are you getting on with your mysterious new composition? You were a bit tight-lipped about it that night.’
‘Well, that’s exactly why I’ve called Cait. I just had to share a bit of it with someone. I’ve already written the first section and rehearsed it with the band. Recorded a demo too. So if you want to come round one night next week, you can have a sneaky listen’.
‘You’re on’ said Caitlin. ‘How about Wednesday? Straight after work. I’ll bring the Prosecco’.
Andrew is out with the dog on a long early morning walk, the waning Snow Moon still visible in the western sky. He feels especially in need of the exercise, looking pale and a little puffy round the gills. Always keen on the outdoors and keeping fit, now he seems to have put on weight and his down jacket feels just a little tight. A run of three Burns suppers last month can’t have helped.
Today the route is a bit more strenuous than his usual stroll around the ruins at Linn Castle, a favourite haunt of local dog owners. Too haunting in many ways. He and Sarah had often gone there. When time was at a premium, a quick walk out of the village was often all that they could muster.
Married doctors working together in a rural practice sounds idyllic, but over the years the workload had increased and the problems, especially of their ageing patients, seemed more and more intractable. The two of them would often go up to the castle ruin just to let off a bit of steam and think things through.
Sarah had always been more feisty than him about the health service, more left wing, more fiercely opposed to creeping change that undermined its founding principles. He was never so political, but there’s no doubt they made a good team.
They’d met at medical school in Dundee, had their first date the day after graduation and then kept the relationship alive through all the training years. When they emerged as qualified GPs, they were already married and desperate to work together in a country practice. The Kirkgate surgery advert in the British Medical Journal could have been written for them. A single-handed doctor was looking for new people to take over. He stayed for six months after their arrival, then satisfied with what he saw, retired to bag some Munros.
That was 28 years ago. They had built a life here, worked hard for the local community, gone the extra mile for their patients, even run the community hospital for several years. When that was closed by the health board, the writing was on the wall. Both approaching 60, they made plans to retire in Summer 2022.
It was two years into the pandemic when Sarah got COVID. Three times vaccinated, she simply assumed all would be well. Just get over this and it would soon be their turn to hand the reins to someone new.
But it didn’t work out like that. Within two months Andrew was going every day to talk to Sarah. In the village graveyard.
Now, on the trek up Scaur Glen, he ponders his situation. The pounding river rumbles and turns. Along its banks, thin oaks, birch and alder seem to catch the weak sunshine, in readiness for spring. The path rises before him, twisting with the river. Looking down at his boots, he is following the advice he’s given to others on countless occasions: taking one step at a time. But it’s now six months since Sarah died. Maybe this is the moment to look a little further down the track?
Next week could be a case in point. He’s off to the community Hub to get the latest update on proposals for re-opening the Kirkgate railway station. It’s been a herculean effort on the part of a diverse collective of activists seeking to restore the local train service, but for once ‘speaking truth to power’, as some of them might say, seems to be working.
Maybe he could start to get involved in projects like that? The other day he’d taken delivery of a load of firewood only to find to his embarrassment that he’d forgotten to go to the bank. ‘Don’t worry Doctor’ said the log man with a smile, ‘Your reputation’s good in the parish!’
The log man had a point. Surely, thinks Andrew, there must be more than daily dog walks, Friday drinks in the Lowther Arms, and reading novels late into the night when sleep won’t come.
Overhead, he watches a red kite circle round several times without apparent purpose. Then suddenly relinquishing height and moving swiftly across the Scaur Water, it disappears beyond the trees. Could there be something for a bereaved retiree just across the metaphorical glen, difficult to pick out perhaps, but there just the same?
As February unfolds in Kirkgate, the wider world feels a turbulent place. Industrial action is pervasive, involving ambulance drivers, nurses, paramedics, railway workers, teachers, and countless others. At times it’s like a general strike in everything but name. The year is less than two months old, but once again, leading politicians are tripping over their principles, from trans issues, to tax evasion, to statutory fines. More military hardware is pledged to Ukraine but its President is struggling to get the fighter jets he requires. A new Russian offensive is expected in the spring, but the future shape of the war is hard to predict. Meanwhile a massive earthquake in Turkey and northern Syria has killed tens of thousands of people, injured and made homeless many more, and laid waste to whole cities.
Michael has been following all this with a mixture inter alia of interest, despair and sometimes anger. In coffee breaks with his academic colleagues, the topics recur and spin. They speculate on how things will all change when a Labour government is in power in Westminster or when Scotland is an independent country. But no one seems to know what can be done about wars and earthquakes.
Michael is an active and vocal member of the UCU picket line. There is a kind of camaraderie among the woolly hats and banners of the picket that brings together colleagues of otherwise very different worldviews. But like many others, he’s concerned about the effects of 18 days of industrial action planned up to the end of March. Bad for the students, egregious amounts of time lost to his research, and of course bringing a significant reduction in income, which he can ill afford.
On the domestic front, things have worsened somewhat. Michael and Esme don’t seem able to agree on anything at the moment. She insists that he has more flexibility than her for looking after the girls when their teachers are on strike. He’s only willing to take turn and turnabout. She’s started talking about ‘access’ weekends and is pressing for these to be once a fortnight on an agreed schedule. On ‘his’ weekend she will drop the girls with him at 4pm on Friday and pick them up again at 4pm on Sunday. That’s quite a shock to his system and a further dent in his writing time.
The realities of marital separation and shared parenting are beginning to hit home to Michael. Some of the advantages he’d perceived only a month ago are already looking problematic and although the girls seem to be taking things in their stride for now, who knows if bad feelings between parents may quickly spread to the children? He’s picturing marriage counselling sessions, or worse still – family therapy. A few people at work are divorced or separated. They seem content enough. But he has told no one about his own situation, let alone asked for advice on how to manage it.
Tomorrow however, he’s putting all this to one side and plans to attend the meeting in the village about the station reopening. Rumours are going round Kirkgate that an important announcement is to be made. Michael is excited about it. A functioning station would mean easier trips to Glasgow and even the possibility of travelling to work by train. Last week in the baker’s he’d bumped into Anne-Marie, the musician who lives on the edge of the village. They chatted for a while and she told him about the meeting. She seemed keen for him to go.
Caitlin responded well to “January”. Nervous at first, Anne-Marie played the demo to her a couple of times. They’d sat in complete silence, Prosecco flutes in hand and candles flickering. But the piece didn’t need external stimuli to create its own ambience. The opening soundscape was a shifting combination of electronics with violin and cello. Evoking feelings of beginning and awakening, here and there Anne-Marie had introduced some shifts of key or tempo that created an hints of unsettling turbulence. Then the extended inter-weaving of vibes and soprano sax conjured up bubbling, moving water, gathering momentum. Lyrical at first then becoming more urgent and threatening. As it built to a crescendo with all instruments playing, the riser suddenly stopped, cut off without the expected flourish.
Normally quite reserved, Caitlin, looking incongruous in her grey work attire jumps out of her seat and starts to dance some kind of Bharatnatyam, no doubt inherited from her father’s side of the family. This is followed by loud whooping and hugging and kissing Anne-Marie. Caitlin clearly knows this is something different and very special that her old school friend is working on. As they kick back on the sofa and top up the Prosecco, there is only one question to be asked. ‘What’s “February” going to be like?’
With that in mind, a few days later Anne-Marie has come to Nithsdale Lodge to see its acclaimed display of snowdrops. An old shooting property a mile to the north of Kirkgate, the place had been deteriorating for years until it taken over by a new owner a couple of years back. A semi-retired rock guitarist and singer of some fame, he hasn’t lacked the wherewithal to restore the place to its original Edwardian elegance, albeit with modern facilities. It’s not open to the public of course, but word is that the interior is sumptuously comfortable. The grounds, no doubt heading for some similar transformation in due course, are open for folks to wander at will, so long as they don’t get too close to the Lodge.
There’s a small parking area just inside the imposing stone pillars at the entrance. Anne-Marie leaves her ageing VW there and sets off up the driveway, following a finger post marked ‘Snowdrop Trail’. As she heads up the gentle climb, admiring the large Douglas firs and mature beeches on either side, the drive sweeps round to the left. It’s then she sees them.
The snowdrops drift and spill down the slope. Beneath trees, growing in the leaf mould, or in swathes of mown grass, they are completely naturalised. She has seen Galanthus many times. Around here it grows in hedgerows, under garden walls and along the sides of tracks and roads. But never has she seen something on this scale.
She walks around and carefully picks her way through the snowdrop carpets, dropping to her knees with her phone to take pictures from ground level. But mostly, she just gazes at the splendour of it all, leaning against a tree, her eyes melting into blurs of white and green, until finally the cold seeps in and she turns back towards the car.
For some reason she hasn’t been here before, but she’s glad about that. Her first exposure has given just the inspiration she needs to think further about “February”.
Back at home, she starts to reads about snowdrops. She discovers their connection with the Christian festival of Candlemas on 2 February. It’s the one that marks the first appearance of the infant Jesus in the temple. In the Middle Ages the white ‘Candlemas bells’, often planted in graveyards, were gathered into bright bunches for church decoration. They were deemed unlucky to pick before then. But these things overlaid something much more ancient. Now Anne-Marie gets really excited as she reads that the day in question is in fact the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Known as Imbolc in pre-Christian times, it is the very middle of winter. A time for light, hope, saying goodbye to the darkness, and waiting for the harbingers of spring.
Bolstered by this new knowledge and fizzing with musical phrases, Anne-Marie suddenly feels replete with ideas to inform the next sequence of Calendarium.
The village Hub is packed. It’s a beautiful, warm contemporary space created within the Victorian shell of the old primary school. The interior is strong on the use of local timber, re-purposed sandstone, exquisite colour schemes and beautiful furnishings. The reclaimed hardwood floors are works of art.
Sitting empty and sad for years, the old school has been rescued by a group of local creatives who’ve taken their ideas from whimsy to reality. These people may look like second generation hippies. But appearances can deceive. They are cool and savvy. They know how to lobby policy makers, write business cases and craft grant applications. They talk knowledgably about things like design principles, place-making, and co-production.
It’s paid off. Their efforts have resulted in a multi-purpose resource for the whole village. Shared work spaces, places for networking, charity meetings, after-school clubs, music and writing groups. It’s a long list. The collective that made it all happen comprises people who smile a lot, and also get things done.
Tonight the Hub is hosting a meeting to share more good news for Kirkgate. A spin-out group has been working on the question of restoring the local railway station. It’s been a long campaign and this seems to be a big moment. Anne-Marie is sitting with Michael, in the fourth row back. Just in front of them is Andrew, to whom lots of people are helloing and nodding as they take their seats and join the meeting. There’s a good turnout from across the village.
A water glass is tapped. ‘Welcome everyone’ says the invited chair for the evening, a well-known Tory councillor, looking slightly uncomfortable in a room packed with local green energy. He coughs to clear his throat and then proceeds, in clipped tones.
‘Everyone here knows that our railway station was closed down in 1965 (boos from the meeting). Of course, that was before many of us here were even born (ironic laughter). You also know that a team of people has been working to get the station open again (cheers). Let me therefore invite the convenor of the action group to describe the work to date and share with you the latest news’ (thunderous applause).
At this point, a woman known to the whole village as Lofty walks gracefully to the front, looking splendid in a long black velvet coat and heavy boots.
‘Wow everyone’ she nods. This is amazing! So many people! Thanks for coming out. You might say that restoring the station has been a long journey. There have been plenty unscheduled stops and a few timetable delays’. ‘Nice one Lofty!’ shouts a woman in the third row. ‘Thanks Em’ Lofty replies.
‘If you follow our Facebook page, you’ll know that we’ve had to deal with a lot of different folks and organisations. The Council, Scottish Government, MSPs, the rail companies. Our little group – Meg, John, Amanda and Finlay – have been incredible. I’m not going to bore you with the details of our case. You’ve heard them already, I’m sure. So let me cut to the chase’. Now raising her voice to maximum volume, Lofty declares with evident delight, that: ‘Reopening of the station has been approved by all relevant authorities and is going to happen very soon!’
The meeting rises to its feet. There’s tumultuous cheering, foot stamping and rhythmic clapping. It’s a spontaneous outpouring of positive community sentiment, not always seen at such gatherings. Meg, John, Amanda and Finlay are brought to the front of the room and together with Lofty, they all hold hands and take a deep bow.
The chair allows things to quieten down and then announces the next steps.
‘I’m delighted to say that work has already been completed to render the existing station platforms, north and south, fit for purpose. In due course it will proceed to the building of two completely new platforms with associated facilities, just to the north of the existing station. The first passenger train to stop at Kirkgate since 1965 will be on Wednesday 22nd March: the 17.28 from Glasgow, arriving at 18.50. Please be sure to take all belongings with you on alighting’, he quips, to more groans. ‘A special event for that evening is now being prepared by the action group. Do make a note in your diaries to be there at Kirkgate station. We’ll be celebrating an historic moment in the life of our community’.
The participants are ecstatic. As they pour out of the Hub and into the main-street of the village, the atmosphere is akin to Hogmanay, the Millennium and this month’s two Scottish rugby wins – all rolled into one. Swept up in the excitement, Andrew, Michael and Anne-Marie fall in step together. ‘Well I think this calls for a celebration’, says Andrew. ‘Anyone fancy a drink in the Lowther?’ ‘Sounds great’ says Anne-Marie with immediate enthusiasm. ‘Well I guess so … er, yes …’ adds Michael, more hesitant and wondering if he can spare the time.
Minutes later, they are sitting at a table in the hotel lounge, raising their glasses to the Kirkgate station.
But once they’ve reviewed the excitement of the meeting and shared what the new train service will mean for their day-to-day lives, a longueur begins to fill the space between them. Nor do the non-verbals look promising, not least when Michael starts checking his phone.
Sensing a personal responsibility, Andrew gets a hold of things.
‘So, I know you a little bit Anne-Marie. But … it’s Michael isn’t it? Are you living in the village too?’
‘Yes, that’s right. Been in the area for a while, but still new to village life’.
‘And you’re an academic?’
‘Yes, I specialise in hydrology’.
‘OK, so between us we’ve got music, medicine and water’.
‘Correct’ says Michael, ‘and in recent weeks rather a lot of the latter’.
The stilted conversation begins to pick up momentum.
‘So what’s your take on the flooding Michael?’ asks Anne-Marie. ‘You’re the expert on this one!’
‘I wish I was’ comes the modest reply. ‘But I do think some points are quite clear.
First, there’s the question of climate change’. As is common, he puts an emphasis on the second word. ‘That’s undeniable and it’s the source of these increasingly erratic and disruptive weather patterns that we’re getting. Hotter summers. Milder, wetter, winters. Storms and gales. All causing major problems, including a danger to life’.
‘I really started to understand that during COP26’ says Anne-Marie. ‘Even went up to Glasgow for a few days to hang out with folks and go on the big march’.
‘I was there too’ smiles Michael, ‘though I can’t say I spotted you in the throng!’
‘Oh dear’ confesses Andrew. ‘I only followed it on the news. But if we are agreed that climate change is happening, I’m assuming none of us is sceptical about that, and we accept that we have to get to net zero by whatever year it is …
‘2050’ says Michael.
‘…then what can be done in the meantime about things like the flooding?’
At this point Anne-Marie straightens her back, and tapping hands on knees, asks: ‘Well before we get to that, who fancies another drink?’
‘Well, actually’ says Andrew quite spontaneously, ‘I haven’t eaten tonight. Does anyone feel like staying for a bit of food? My treat!’
Looking slightly doubtful, the other two flick a glance to each other. But then Michael surprises himself by saying ‘What a great idea!’ Followed by ‘And then I can tell you all about my second point – flood mitigation’.
‘Hold me back’ thinks Anne-Marie as she goes off in search of menus.
Perhaps to everyone’s surprise the meal is a success. All three opt for fish and chips and chuckle with delight as the battered haddock, baskets of hand-cut frites, and pots of mushy peas are placed before them.
Michael takes a few mouthfuls of the hot comforting food, sips at his beer and then resumes his narrative. He gives a brief outline of the river Nith from source to sea, along with its associated catchment area. Yes, flooding has been a problem in the past but now it’s getting worse. Farmland is still being protected by earth bunds along the Nith banks. This means in places the river becomes more like a drain, causing problems downstream. Plus the bunds sometimes overflow or burst, creating a danger to livestock and ruining crops. The flood plain is not being allowed to do the work for which it is intended.
It’s all about something Michael calls ‘ecosystem services’. This isn’t a new stopover on the M74, he says, a joke doubtless used with his students. It refers to ‘the many and varied benefits provided to humans by the natural environment when it’s not degraded’.
Anne-Marie and Andrew are attentive, so Michael presses on.
There are problems further upstream too, in the tributaries. Clear felling of timber, draining of peat bogs, the installation of wind farm roads – any of these can cause rainwater to run off the hill at speed and contribute to flash flooding. There’s a need to slow down the run off, re-wet the peatlands and plant varieties of trees that will absorb moisture, capture carbon and reduce acidification of the water. It’s all inter-linked.
Michael not only seems to know what he’s talking about, but he can also tell the story without scientific jargon, digressions and obscure detail.
Andrew, himself a scientist at heart, is hugely impressed. He wants to know who other than Michael is studying this, what is being done to act on the findings, and crucially how landowners, farmers, and communities, are responding.
Anne-Marie, by contrast, quietly muses on the creative potential of it all. She sees that her hymn to the Nith needs many dimensions. It’s going to require some rational elements, musical figures that depict scientific enquiry, the tussle between different forms of knowledge, and the need for change. Later months will need to take on a new edge to capture this. She’s thinking formal and structural.
Over a post-meal coffee, the conversation briefly turns more personal.
Anne-Marie shares her career worries. The band have got a few dates in the diary, but that won’t pay the rent. She’s wondered about sub-letting her cottage and taking in a lodger. But with so many house shares in her back- catalogue, she’s not keen to go there again if she can avoid it. At the moment it’s private teaching for violin and singing that’s keeping her afloat. A few of her pupils did well in the Dumfries and Galloway School Burns competition last week, so that might bring in a bit more business.
Michael explains that since he and Esme separated he’s been living in a flat above the hardware shop. He’s never short of a screwdriver or some fuse wire, but it is a bit cramped and he’d prefer a place with somewhere to sit outside. Since COVID everyone is more aware of the need for this, but such accommodation isn’t easy to come by. There’s more and more demand for decent rented property at an affordable price and he feels awkward about pushing out people whose needs are greater than his own.
Nudged by the relaxed atmosphere and the slightly confessional turn in the conversation, Andrew, to his own surprise, embarks on some of his story.
‘You’ll perhaps know that my wife Sarah, died last year, just as we were both about to retire. I’ve been in a bit of a dwam ever since. For years I’ve told bereaved people in the surgery that there are stages to grief and everyone has to pass through them to get out the other end’.
‘I’ve heard of that’ says Anne-Marie.
‘It’s baloney of course. Grief is a gaping hole. You can’t fill it. You don’t want to fill it. But gradually I’m realising I have to do something with it. After the flooding there must have been a lot of sorrow for people who lost their possessions, saw their homes ruined. But then the waters recede, there are things to do, cleaning up, restoring what you had, even at its worst, having to move somewhere else. With the gaping hole, where do you begin?
Michael and Anne-Marie shuffle in their seats, unprepared for Andrew’s disclosure, which is unprecedented for him too. Yet the silence that develops is not uncomfortable. For at least a minute, nobody speaks. The background hum of the Lowther Arms hovers gently around them. But inside their heads, there is only quietness.
Andrew continues, now on a different tack. He has been close enough to the wind for one night.
‘Do you mind if I change the subject completely? Nods in response and a raising of eyebrows. ‘The other morning, just before the First Minister’s resignation announcement, I came across one of those memory things on Facebook. It was about something that had happened years back. Do any of you remember the Henry Moore sculpture theft?’
Anne-Marie and Michael look blank. Not sure at all where this might be heading.
‘Well it caused something of a stir at the time. At least among lovers of modernist art. A piece called Standing Figure was taken from an open air sculpture park at Glenkiln, up in the hills not far from here. It had been on display there for over 50 years before it disappeared one night in October 2013’.
‘Oh yeah … that’s ringing a bell now. It happened when I was at the Conservatoire. I don’t think it stirred up the locals much though. Not many of them had ever been up to Glenkiln. But after it was nicked, didn’t the owners take away most of the other sculptures as well? Closing the stable door, I guess.’
‘That’s right Anne-Marie. There were five other works by Moore, Rodin and Epstein that were brought into safe keeping. The Glenkiln theft came on the back of a number of other Henry Moores’ that had been stolen down south around the same time. There was speculation they’d been melted down for the metal. With one exception, the other thefts remain unsolved’.
‘That’s quite something’, says a bemused Michael. ‘But why are you mentioning it now Andrew?’
‘Well, I decided to dig a bit deeper into the art theft world and of course, rather more interesting and certainly better known, was the robbery at Drumlanrig Castle that happened even longer ago’.
‘Oh I can just about recall that one! I was in Primary 7 at the time and we had the local bobby come to talk to us about it’. Anne-Marie is getting drawn into the story.
‘I can vaguely remember that too’ Michael interjects. Wasn’t it a Leonardo da Vinci painting that got stolen?’
‘Indeed it was and the date was 27 August 2003. The whole thing looked a bit amateurish at the time. A guy in some kind of Aussie hat walked into the Castle one morning just before opening time, lifted the painting from its place in a hallway, and was then swiftly driven away by his accomplices. It was daylight robbery in the extreme’.
‘But the painting was recovered, right?’ asks Michael, dredging back in his memory.
‘It was, albeit in rather odd circumstances. The Leonardo, which rejoiced in the name of Madonna and the Yarnwinder, was said to be worth £37 million. I remember being reliably told at the time by the village barber that it had been stolen to order for a South American drug baron. But when in fact it was recovered, a full couple of years later, it turned out to be a gang from Preston that was behind it all’.
At this the sheer improbability of the story has them laughing. But then Andrew intervenes again, now more serious.
‘Well what do you think I might be driving at here? Have you noticed anything about the two crimes?’
‘They were committed exactly 10 years apart’ says Michael, quick as a contestant on University Challenge.
Andrew waits for effect, his raised eyebrows urging them onto the salient point.
Then: ‘Oh no, wait a minute, it’s 2023. The last robbery was 10 years ago and the first one 10 years before that!’ Anne-Marie was getting into the spirit of this like someone in a game of charades.
‘That’s it precisely’ says Andrew. ‘I know you might think this sounds like the deranged thoughts of a washed out doctor. And you could be right’.
He pauses here. Michael and Anne-Marie don’t know where to look.
‘But who knows’, Andrews continues, ‘could history be about to repeat itself?’
The three of them step out of the Lowther Arms as their unusual evening comes to a close. Something very strange is happening above them, for the night sky is layered in moving bands of blues, greens and purples. The colours drift and merge like ink drops in a tank of water. They gaze amazed. It’s a portentous moment. The Aurora Borealis has arrived in Kirkgate.
The three of them step out of the Lowther Arms as their unusual evening comes to a close. Something very strange is happening above them, for the night sky is layered in moving bands of blues, greens and purples. The intense almost digital colours drift and merge, like ink drops in a tank of water. The three gaze upwards, amazed. It’s a portentous moment. The Aurora Borealis has arrived in Nithsdale.
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 are appearing sequentially throughout 2023. I welcome comments and feedback on my novel, which is being written in ‘real time’. My thanks go to AG, FG, MB, SS and TH for advice and encouragement.