The Loud Halo, Chapter
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The Loud Halo from Amazon.com
The storm-force wind was
blasting squalls of incredibly wet and heavy rain across the loch,
blotting out the hills and the sky and flaying the rusty grass of the
crofts until it cringed back into the ground from which it had sprung so
ebulliently only a few short months earlier. All day there had been
semi-dusk and when I had returned soaked and shivering from the moors
that morning after a long hunt to give Bonny her morning hay, I had
promised myself I would do nothing but change into dry clothes, put some
food on a tray and then sit by the fire with a book. Nothing, that is,
until It was time for me to don my sticky oilskins and my coldly damp
sou’wester, strain on wet gumboots and go seeking Bonny again with her
There was no doubt Bruach
cows were hardy creatures, and it took hardy humans to live up to them.
Left to roam the treeless, craggy moors for nine months of the year the
cattle had to seek shelter where they could from the fierce winds,
lashing hail, rain and even snow which beset the Hebrides from about
September onwards. The cows, being wise creatures, could be relied upon
to find it. The humans, being not so wise, were not nearly so reliable.
So, with a milk pall In one hand, a stick In the other, a sack of hay
roped to our backs, we plodded the thousands of acres of moor, more
often than not in combat with a gale-force wind that hurled stinging
rain into our faces. Panting and praying, we climbed up rocks with the
intention of gaining a better view; dejected and swearing, we wallowed
in bogs with no intention at all.
I use the plural pronoun
because on the surface this was what we all appeared to do, but I
suspect privately that I, being an acolyte, was the only one who was
really exasperated by the weather, by the cantankerousness of the cows
or by the time it all took. The rest of the crofters knew their weather
better, they knew their moors better and, in the short days of winter,
time to them was only a hiatus between getting up and the evening
ceilidh and they had no particular preference as to how they helped it
‘But why don’t you put
bells on the cattle like they do in Switzerland?’ asked a woman tourist
to whom I once described our sufferings. It was easy to discern that she
was dreaming pleasant dreams of ‘a little cottage in the Highlands and a
cow for milk’ when she retired. It was then an evening of summer calm
when the protesting cry of a disturbed heron seemed to stab the night
with its volume and one could almost hear the whisper of gulls’ wings as
they dawdled homeward.
‘It wouldn’t work here,’
I told her. ‘The wind’s far too strong in winter. You wouldn’t be able
to hear a peal of church bells in a good gale.’
‘But surely if you had a
telescope you could just climb the highest hill and then you could see
She made it all sound so
easy and I tried to explain to her how impossible it would be for
anyone, burdened with hay, to climb the highest hill and then hold a
telescope in the teeth of a gale and that even a telescope won’t bend
and look into innumerable secret conies.
I recognised in her
remarks the suspicion a stranger is 50 apt to form on first acquaintance
with the Hebrides — that the crofter prefers to make life difficult for
himself and that he has a built-in resistance to progress. But
experience had taught me there was no other way to keep a self-willed
Highland cow in a village where crofts were traditionally unfenced, hay
was as traditionally scarce and where the cows themselves were as
suspicious of a bowl of concentrates as they might be of a bowl of hot
cinders. The majority’ of them tolerated only three additions to their
heather and hay diet: a ‘potach’, which is scalded oatmeal pressed into
a ball; a bowl of boiled potatoes dried off with oatmeal; or a bowl of
boiled seaweed mashed up with salt herring and dried off with oatmeal.
As you could always smell out the kitchen of a crofter who fed his cows
on this last delicacy Bonny never got the chance to try it. I had once
tried to ingratiate myself with her by buying a bag of turnips and
offering them to her at first whole, then chopped up in a bowl and
sprinkled with oatmeal, and then, desperately, piece by piece in my
fingers. She merely blew her nose over them and me and I formed the
opinion then that there can be few creatures in the world that can
express disdain so sublimely as a Highland cow. I offered the remaining
turnips round the village but neither the cows nor the humans evinced
any interest whatever.
‘Not even that queer
beastie of Kirsty’s will so much as look at them,’ reported Morag, ‘an’
yon’s the one will eat chocolate cake and jam sandwiches and oranges if
she’ll get the chance.’
Morag and I shared the
rest of the turnips between us and ate them ourselves.
I was thinking of these
things as I put on dry clothes, poured out a plate of soup, drew my
chair close to the fire and put my book in readiness on the table. As I
turned to sit down my eye caught an unexpected flicker of movement
through the salt-encrusted window, and dreading that it was part of the
byte roof or hen house blowing away I hurried to peer out.
‘Oh blast!’ I exclaimed
as the movement resolved itself into the wind-flapped edge of a man’s
overcoat. I had lulled myself into thinking that the malevolence of the
day would have ensured for me an afternoon of complete privacy but I had
forgotten that there was one man who was completely undeterred from his
ramblings whatever the weather. ‘Oh well,’ I thought resignedly, ‘better
him than to see the byre roof taking off, I suppose.’
Johnny Comic came in
through the gate and turned to shut it, patting it tenderly as though
telling it, as he would a dog, to stay there quietly until he returned.
This curious tenderness for everything, animate or inanimate, was
typical of Johnny and he would no more have dreamed of hurting the
feelings of a gate by rushing through it and slamming it after him than
he would have of hurting the feelings of a friend by refusing to
acknowledge a greeting. He was a strange-looking man, so oddly shaped it
looked as if his mother might have made him herself from a
‘do-it-yourself’ kit and that he had then blundered rather than grown
into manhood. He was slightly built, his legs being disproportionately
long and hampered with large feet like road shovels; one leg was longer
than the other so that it dragged as he walked. His arms were short,
while great hands with thick fingers hung from them like bunches of
bananas. His eyes were the guileless blue of childhood; his skin pale
and smooth as a woman’s, and the grey curls around his head were soft
and fine as the seed-head of a dandelion. Indeed, one felt one needed
only to puff once, twice, perhaps three times, to disperse them all.
I opened the door to him
and he stood on the threshold smiling broadly, confident of his welcome,
while the kitchen door slammed with a vehemence that juddered all the
china on the dresser.
‘My, but it’s coarse,
coarse weather,’ he paused to say politely before he stepped inside,
despite the fact that the
rain was 5luicing
in through the open door ana me wino whipPed the hall pictures into a
frenz’ of swinging and was now wrapping the wet doormat around my legs.
‘Go in to the fire
quickiy, Johnny,’ I urged, smoothering my exasperation as I leaned hard
on the door to shut it against the bullying rush of the wind.
He writhed out of his top
layer of clothing, which comprised various pieces of oilskin of assorted
shapes, and threw them down on the stairs. Still murmuring faint
comments on the weather he wandered into the kitchen, pulled my chair
away from the fire where I had placed it and sat himself down.
‘I’ll make a wee strupak
as soon as I’ve had my soup,’ I told him, and sat down opposite him. It
was no use offering Johnny soup, that I knew, for his diet was
restricted to a plate of porridge and three hard-boiled eggs. For each
one of his three meals, every day, it was the same, varying only when he
took a ‘wee strupak’ with neighbours, when he would permit himself a
piece of girdle scone with jam. He ate neither meat nor vegetables, nor
even bread and butter. I was staggered when he had first told me and had
sought confirmation from others who knew him.
‘Aye, and it’s right
enough,’ they told me. ‘Ever since he was old enough to take it that’s
all he’s lived on.’ Which made me suspect that death for Johnny, like
Peter Pan, ‘Would be an awfully great adventure.’
As I ate my soup I
watched Johnny, who had extracted a piece of wood from deep in his
pocket and was whittling away at it inexpertly with a knife that I knew
from experience was as blunt as a stick of rhubarb, and pondered on why
he, specifically, had been dubbed ‘Comic’, a label which I felt could
have been much more aptly bestowed on so many other inhabitants of the
village. No one seemed to know how he had come by it. Old men, drawing
the ‘pension’, recalled that even in his schooldays he had been ‘Johnnie
Comic’ to schoolmaster and scholars alike.
‘He was always the clown,
was Johnny,’ they invariably added, ‘and he took in no learning save
what the schoolmaster leathered in through the seat of his breeks.’
I had first met Johnny
the day I moved into my own cottage in Bruach when, as soon as the
furniture had been carried in and the willing helpers had left to attend
to their cattle, he had suddenly appeared outside the window, where he
had settled himself, elbows resting comfortably on the sill, and had
subjected me to an embarrassing mute scrutiny as I wrestled with a
reluctant stove and endeavoured in the midst of chaos to cook myself a
meal. When I appeared to be looking for something he would peer
anxiously into the room, pressing his face against the glass. When I
seemed to have found whatever I was looking for he would grin and nod
with satisfaction. He did not live in the village and I had never seen
him before but eventually for both our sakes I called him to come
inside; for a moment his expression was one of horror and then he almost
fell in his anxiety to get away from the window. By the time I had
reached the door he was hurrying across the moor as fast as he could go.
‘Ach, but mo ghaoil,
he’ll not be knowin’ you and he’d be frightened likely that you’d seduct
him. The lath tease him, the wretches,’ Morag explained when I told her
of the incident.
Once I was settled in my
collage Johnny, apparently having no more fear of or less aversion to
losing his pudicity, got over his mistrust of me and became a regular
visitor. Every couple of weeks he would walk to Bruach over the moor,
his awkward shambling gait seeming to carry him rapidly across country
in all kinds of weather without any sign of distress. He came, as he
because he thought I’d
like a ceilidh, but his real reason for visiting me, though It was never
allowed to emerge until towards the end of his stay, was to sell me some
article he had made and thereby earn a few coppers for ‘wootpines’, for
he loved a clandestine smoke and his sister Kirsty, with whom he lived,
appropriated all his pension. Sometimes it would be a small model boat
made from driftwood, sometimes a glass netfloat in a piece of herring
net, but more often than not it would be a heather besom. The frequency
with which he offered me these indeed suggested that he himself had
little faith in the lasting quality of his handiwork; if he ever noticed
the ingenious windbreak I contrived of upended besoms he never commented
I brewed tea, spread some
pieces of scone with jam and put them beside him on the table. Then I
made some excuse to go upstairs. My first attempts to entertain Johnny
had been embarrassing for both of us. I had poured out a cup of tea and
placed it beside him along with a plate of scones. He had sugared the
tea and stirred it, wiping the spoon carefully on his coat sleeve before
replacing it in the basin. All the time I was thinking my own tea he had
talked politely, never so much as glancing at his own cup so that it had
got quite cold. I had offered to empty his cup and refill it with hot
tea and he had accepted with alacrity. Once again he had repeated the
ritual of sugaring it and wiping the spoon, but despite my urgings he
had again left it to go cold, and still had not touched the scones.
Feeling a little piqued I had filled his cup yet again with hot tea and
then quite without design I had gone to get something from the shed.
When I returned after only a very brief interval the tea had disappeared
and so had all the scones. The next time he came much the same thing had
happened but by the time he paid his third visit I knew what was
expected of me and obliged accordingly.
When I came downstairs
after a discreetly judged interval Johnny had finished his strupak and
was leaning back in the chair.
‘More tea or scone,
Johnny?’ I offered.
‘No, thank you, I’ve done
lovely,’ he replied, lifting one of his large hands in a gesture of
repression. He waited expectantly until from the dresser I reached down
a jar of baking-soda and a spoon which I kept especially for Johnny.
Avidly he dug in the spoon and with obvious relish swallowed three or
four heaped spoonfuls of the powder, spilling It down his jersey in his
eagerness to get the spoon into his mouth. Then he replaced the jar on
the table, dusted down the front of his jersey and leaned back in his
chair to stare tranquilly at the ceiling and to remain splendidly
indifferent to his own loud and fulsome belchings which when I had first
heard them had filled me with consternation but which now I accepted
with only slight uneasiness. Once, thinking I was doing Johnny a good
turn, I had refused the baking-soda, but when I had returned to the
kitchen the trail of white powder from the dresser to Johnny’s chair had
told its own tale and I was so ashamed of myself for causing the look of
guilt on Johnny’s normally ingenuous face that I never had the heart to
The belchings diminished
in volume and I started to move about the kitchen, wishing that Johnny
would realise that it would soon be dusk and that I had yet to go and
milk my cow. It was unthinkable that the solicitous ‘Ach, but I’m
keeping you back’, which is the polite Bruach way of telling a stranger
it is high time he went, should be used by an English woman to a Gael. I
groped for an alternative. On the dresser was a bowl of peanuts still in
their shells which had been sent to me from England. Taking a good
handful I put them into a bag and offered them to Johnny.
‘Take these home to Kirsty,’ I said.
Johnny turned them over suspiciously.
‘Which is these?’ he asked me.
‘They’re peanuts~’ I told him. ‘Very good
to eat.’ He still continued to turn them between his large fingers.
‘I’m taking some with me to chew while
I’m looking for the cow.’
‘Aye?’ he agreed uncertainly. He put them
in his pocket and went through into the hall where I heard him
struggling into his jigsaw of oilskins. I rushed out of the back door to
get meal for Bonny’s potach and to collect the milk pail. When I came
back into the kitchen Johnny met me with an approving smile.
‘Them things is good, good,’ he asserted.
‘What things?’ I asked stupidly my mind
on the task ahead.
‘Them nuts, you say. They’re good I’m
‘Oh, have you eaten some? I thought you’d
like them,’ I said. ‘Here take some more to eat on your way home.’ I
took another handful from the bowl. Give me your bag and I’ll fill it
up,’ I said, anxious to hurry him on his way so that I might look for
Bonny without the dubious assistance of a torch. He proffered me an
empty bag. ‘Have you eaten them all, Johnny?’ I asked, mildly
Aye, an they was good I’m saym’.’
I dribbled more nuts into his bag. ‘You’d
better give me the shells and I’ll throw them into the fire,’ I said.
‘Otherwise Kirsty will be complaining that I encourage you to fill your
pockets with rubbish.’
‘Shells?’ he repeated vaguely.
‘Yes, the shells off the peanuts. Have
you thrown them away, then?’ I glanced down at the floor hoping he had
not scattered them at random as he did his wood chippings.
‘These has shells?’ he demanded, taking
one from the bag and holding it up.
‘Why, yes, of course,’ I began to
explain. ‘Look’, and then I broke off to stare at him with mounting
concern. ‘Johnny, you didn’t eat the shells too,’ I accused.
‘I eat them,’ retorted Johnny proudly. ‘I
eat all of them an’ they’re good, I’m tellin’ you.’ With great bravado
he popped a couple of nuts into his mouth and chewed them noisily.
‘But, Johnny,’ I remonstrated, ‘you
mustn’t eat the shells. They’ll give you terrible indigestion!’
Completely unperturbed he continued to
pop nuts Into his mouth, still chewing with gusto. ‘Never have
indigestion in my life,’ he assured me happily.
‘Never had indigestion!’ I exclaimed.
‘Then why on earth do you take all that baking-soda?’
For a moment he looked vaguely perplexed,
and then, wagging a finger at me, he recommended: ‘Take plenty
bakin’-sody and never no indigestion. Just plenty sody.’
I opened the door and the wind charged
in. Johnny met it with a magnificent belch which had such a repelling
effect that in the brief respite I managed to slam the door behind him.
‘Thank you for that, Johnny,’ I murmured
with a smile and went to the task of getting into my gumboots and
oilskins once again.
You can purchase The Loud Halo
You can purchase
The Loud Halo from Amazon.com