The Ootlin

The Ootlin

Ogston, David

Sax wiks efter a drunk driver hit the car his wife wis traivellin in, James Webster left his borders parish an cam tae Delgadie, tae the cottar-hoose belangin tae Kirkton. The hoose wis teem, an it wis far fae Lawford: an the fairm-manager at Kirkton wis a frien o a frien fae lang back. That apairt, it wis an accident, Delgadie, like the meshanters he wis rinnin awa fae- the reid Audi that coupit Sally aff the road an intae the casualty ward, faar she laisted an oor or twa, syne him in the pulpit yon day, tearin up his sermon intae rippit blauds, and yammerin aboot the pint o't, the eese o't, an the beadle staunin fite-faced at his shooder speirin 'Are ye all right, man?' A place tae hide: a life conter tae the life he'd kent, that wis Delgadie

So he beeriet himsel in the cottar-hoose, except for the odd eerin tae the village for messages, or his stravaigin throwe the wids beyond Kirkton nicht and day it wis aa een tae him. They took him on at Delgadie eence or twice bit it wis smaa cheenge he gaed them; a dour trailach, yon, some said, mair o a tink than a meenister wie his fool claes an yon baird-stibble on his jaa. A bit o a waster, they wad say, faan they lookit for him tae set doon his dowp on the kirk pews come a Sunday, an he wisna there tae obleege them.

James Webster felt an ootlin, he took up an ootlin's wyes. He began the baird as though he nott some prief, some badge o alteration, he mined on the Scots king that wore an iron chine efter his faither wis killed, the James that fell at Flodden, jinin on a new link til't wie ilka passin year addin tae the wecht he cairriet. James Webster's roch outlandish stibble wis the mark he fixed tae demonstrate his chynge fae meenister tae myginich.

Delgadie's meenister, John Sandeman, wisna sure in his ain mind faat tae dee, tae gang an see the chiel, or lat him be. His wife wis aa for cryin him in. ''He's not ready for the likes of that,'' Sandeman hid said, but he wid fain hae taen the measure o the stranger, tae see foo he wis squarin up, to get acquant wie him if only for the chunce o company, an equal, a man that maybe widna spik aboot the price o nowt or the cyaard widder or the craps bein ahin again. ''I'll let him come to me,'' he thocht, an tell't his wife, bit she wid hae neen o't.

'Havers man,'' she snorted. ''he's maybe lost his faith. That's what folk are saying, you know.''
''Well, well,'' he glowered, ''that makes a change, when folk are anxious about who believes in God still!'' He wis roosed, Sandeman, at the thocht that Webster's loss o faith should seem tae maitter mair or seem conspicuous. His wife priggit wie him tae ging up. ''He needs you, John,'' she said.

So up he gaed, his twa retrievers at his heels, an chappit at the door o Kirkton's cottar. They sat doon, the men, conscious o the mairch-dyke in atween them: Sandeman's awkwardness at bargin in, an Webster's awkwardness at bein cornered in the boorach o his bothy, the bed nae made for days on en, the fire tappit wie deid aise, brookie pots on the stove. Webster newsed tae the meenister throwe the dugs, fraisin em an clappin em, his voice comin fae some caal waal inside himsel that hidna kent for lang eneuch the flow o speech; he wis dry o wirds. Sandeman watched him, noticed the signs o his negleck- the lank hair an the baird an the clarted breeks on him, his sheen barkit wie dried glaur.

Efter a fyle, faan they meeved awa fae Webster's trauchles, he lifted his heid a bit and speired foo Sandeman wis suited in Delgadie, an he tell't him aboot the twa kirks he hid tae look efter, een in the village an the tither een in Drumhall, an foo the fowk in ilka parish thocht they'd only half a bargain.''I'm a commercial traveller,'' Sandeman smiled, ''I run from here to the Drum and back again.'' Syne he fussled on the retreivers an he wis at the door. ''Come and see us,'' Sandeman said. ''Lex would love the excuse to do a big spread.''

Webster watched him till he wis oot o sicht. He felt a test hid been set for him an he winnered gin he'd come throwe't. He didna ken if he wis gled or no tae hae a pair o lugs tae poor his story intae. There wis a gweed lot he couldna spik aboot, or widna: things he rypit the teem pooches o his memory for, the scraps that could hae been comfort except they cam in stobs o pain. Ilka glisk o Sally wis a fresh scrat tae powk at till it bled again....raxed her airms abeen her heid tae rug a maazie aff, the play o simmer licht on her bare shooders, saft hair ticklin his fore-crag faan she lay curled intae his oxter, the warm wecht o a breist...he hunted up an doon the side-roads o the map o days an nichts that waur ower an deen wie, an felt baith rage an peety for himsel rummelt throwe idder. He watched his beard growe, makkin him mair and mair unlike himsel. Fyles in the ravelled shank or dreams he wid imagine Sally's hair against his thrapple an he wid wauken syne, an he wid turn tae the bare bowster an spik her name a fyowe times an greet a fyle.

Lex Sandeman wis nivver een tae powk her neb in, but she winnert foo the chiel at Kirkton hid taen wie't fan the meenister appeared. She speired faat like a state he wis in, an Sandeman could only say he thocht it wis some sottar, yon, an the peer breet that bade in't much the same. ''He needs to get out of there sometimes,' she said. ''Go back in three weeks and ask him down for a meal, Sanders.'' So back he gaed, Sandeman, an made licht o't, an said it wid be pot-luck, bit they wid be real pleased tae see him, an Webster thanked him, bit he said neither yae nor nay. The day in question cam; Lex planned an fussed, set pans tae hotter on the Aga, laid the table an wyted. They hid socht him for seiven. Come echt o'clock she sighed an put on her apron again. ''What did you tell him, John?'' she speired, her back tae him.
''I said pot-luck,'' Sandeman growled. ''He's scared. He doesn't want to be dragged into anything.''

So that was that: stalemate. An sae it mith hae been for lang eneuch, if it hidna been for a laidder. The kirk hall nott pentin. John Sandeman hid gaen't oot fae the pulpit that there wis wark tae be deen, and wis there ony volunteers? Naebody cam forrit. So he linkit at it himsel, the meenister, wi a bad grace. He did the laich bits easy eneuch an syne he hid tae climm some, and he forgot tae check his laidder, tried the third rung fae the tap an cam cleiterin doon in a rickle o splintered timmer wie his full wecht on his left leg. A clean break, they said in Peterheid, but he would be in plaister for a week or two. They newsed aboot it in the manse faan he wis hame.

''You'll not be climbing any pulpit this weekend, me lad,'' said his wife. ''You'll have to get Joe Ritchie.''
''God preserve us,'' said the meenister.
''Well,'' she sniffed. ''Who else do you suggest? Your friend at Kirkton?'' Sandeman made a face.
''No, no I suppose not. And yet you never know. Maybe if you go up and see him, Lex?''
He wis sittin doaverin, still supperless, faan she arrived at the back o seiven.

''Mr Webster?'' said the woman in the fawn cwyte faan he opened the door. He speired her in and sat her doon. She hid nae idea foo tae ask him, so she didna try: she tell't him aboot Sandeman's predicament, an wyted for a reaction. Webster wis feart. He jaloosed faat she wis efter. ''There's surely someone you can try?'' he speired.
''There's Mr Ritchie,'' she smiled. ''Seventy-eight, and you can't hear him through a newspaper. He's been failing a lot recently.''
Webster made on he'd nivver heard.
"John wouldn't ask you,'' said the meenister's wife, "except that he feels it would do the folk good to have a new voice in the pulpit.''
He glowered at her. Obviously naebody here hid heard aboot the kirn he'd made o the last time he'd taen a service.

''It's no use,'' he said. ''I'm sorry. but I'm not a ....'' syne he couldna get the wird. She smiled again an lowssened her belt.
''Do you mind if I take this off?''
She speired, openin the cwyte.
He laid it on a cheer, an sat doon at the table. She turned tae look at him.
''You don't want to do it, I know. You didn't want to come and see us. I wish you had. You would have been good for him, you know.''
Webster wyted.
''He's very lonely, John,'' she wis lookin intae the fire noo. ''He misses having someone to talk to.''
Webster gaped at her.
''Someone to talk to...'' he said.
''I mean someone of his own profession, Mr Webster. He misses that, the talking shop and things. It's not easy to find a kindred spirit.''
''I've only met him once, '' he girned, as though tae defend himsel.
''He was pleased when you came up here,'' she gaed on, ''although he felt very sorry for you. He knew what you had been through. It happened to him, once.''
Webster couldna tak it in. Sandeman hid lost his wife? His first wife did she mean?
''What are you saying?'' he felt his wye, canny an slow.
''It happened two years after we were married,'' she lookit up at him.
He wis tint.
''I thought you said it happened to him once? I'm sorry, I misunderstood.''
''No, no,'' she said. ''He does know what you went through. Two years after we were married I became pregnant. We lost the baby. He was a still-birth. John couldn't come to terms with it. He bottled it up inside, the grief of it, and he wouldn't take time away. So this day he broke down. It was during a service, in the middle of a prayer...he was...''
Bit Webster wis on his feet.

You know about that?'' he gasped.
''Mr Webster,the church is a small circle. We have friends in the Borders.''
Webster wis dumfoonert.
''He never said. He never said,'' he ground his teeth. ''He never let on.''
''That he knew?'' speired Mrs Sandeman, ''Or that it happened to him? He got over it, once he stopped blaming himself. He thought he'd made a fool of himself, let people down. But he didn't: he just came to the end of being able to pretend, that's all. It was good for him, finding out that he was only human. So he knows what you tried to do. It's the temptation to be able to manage, always, to cope, to keep going. But we all have our feelings, Mr Webster, even ministers.''

Lang efter she wis awa, he hunkered doon in his laich cheer bi the fire, his heid in his hauns. Her revelation jeeled his bleid- Sandeman hid broken doon, the same as him. Webster saa the pulpit in Lawford again, saa the pages o his sermon sweemin in front o him, felt the pain swaalin in his kist. The faces aneth him bobbed and dipped, becam corks on watter.
''What am I doing here?'' he hid yowled at em. ''What's the use?''
An he hid shredded the haill thing afore their very een. Syne they led him, shakkin, tae the vestry, the haill kirk quaet an dumbstruck: somebody phoned the doctor, Lex Sandeman hid come tae tell him it could happen tae ither fowk- he wisna his leen. He hated her for that. He thocht his shame wis aa his ain. He claa'd at his baird; he felt as though he wis smorin for want o air. Sandeman laid up, a cripple- he could feel sympathy for him. Bit Sandeman upricht on his feet, walkin throwe his parish, staunin up tae preach wik efter wik- he wisna ready for that. Sandeman hid foonered in front o fowk, an yet he'd cowered it: he wis a survivor. He'd lived tae tell the tale. Maybe he bled still, fae secret scars- bit they waur oot o sicht, happit. Webster rose an gaed ower tae the mirror abeen the mantlepiece. He saa the ootlin he hid made himsel: the rank daberlack thick ower his collar, the strabs o hair roon his jaa. ''He just came to the end of being able to pretend,'' his wife had said. He saa throwe his ain disguise, syne. Slow an deliberate, he pickit up the shears on the mantlepiece, angled his heid sidewyes tae the licht.