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The Loud Halo
by Lillian Beckwith

The Loud Halo, Chapter 1
You can purchase The Loud Halo from
You can purchase The Loud Halo from

The Loud Halo

Johnny Comic

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 evening feed.

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 along.

‘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 all round.’

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 explained,

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 on it.

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 refuse again.

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 tellin’ you.’

‘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 astonished.

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 from
You can purchase The Loud Halo from

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