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A Few Luxuries

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The birds have long since gone. No snow has fallen yet, but its bitter foretaste is in the air. Over an hour ago I went out to the stack for peats, and the wind tore through my thick winter coat as though it was a flimsy cotton dress. I'm still cold. It's freezing here. Bloody freezing.

He hates when I swear, says it's a bad example in front of the girls. Wants them to grow up right in the head, not like him—heard too much swearing as a bairn, he says. He's right, I know it, but the girls are at school. There are times, when I'm on my own like this, that I stop working and just scream obscenities. Nobody can hear; the nearest house is quarter of a mile away. It eases the pressure.

I've thought about leaving. God knows, I've thought about it often enough.

"I couldn't live withoot de, Laura," he says.

So I stay.

I know what they say round here. Through the shop window I've seen the mouths wagging, and I've seen the suspended lips when I walk through the door. By the time I've picked up a basket, thrown in a Shetland Times, and headed for the frozen vegetables they recover their wits.

"You're looking well Laura." That would be Winnie.

"How are da bairns? Is Marianne enjoying da school?" Nessie.

"She's never dat age already is she?" Winnie again.

"It seems no time since you came here, a slip of a lass, and Callum saying he'd have to settle down noo he wis married." That was the dig. Carefully chosen words intended to pierce me. For I was the outsider who stole Callum from Nessie's daughter. Of course marriage didn't settle Callum down; we all knew that. And we all knew the husband Hazel eventually got was a much better catch than mine.

"My Hazel's boy started at da school dis year too. In Jeddah." A flick of the head to emphasise the importance of Jeddah, before she lands the final stinger. "Mick's company pays for him tae go tae an English speaking one."

I leaned into the freezer and picked up some peas and sweetcorn. I noticed a black forest gateau in Nessie's basket, and my mouth watered. There was another one in the freezer.

"Hazel and da bairns are coming hame for Christmas. You'll hae tae come along and see dem." I couldn't say if she was talking to Winnie or me.

Winnie answered. "She's done well for herself, your Hazel."

I put the cake back and squeezed past them; balloons of women, squashed into Crimplene frocks, their faces bursting out from nylon parka hoods, and thick nylons wrinkling around swollen ankles. I threw a wholemeal loaf into my basket.

Nessie whispered loudly to Winnie. "Aye, it's a good job she never married Callum, dat ane is welcome tae him."

I was meant to hear it, but not admit I'd heard, and I played my part as always instead of telling her how he built the kids a playhouse in the yard, how he put up a swing, taught them to swim and tells them bedtime stories, and how they adore him. All she knows is the drinking, she doesn't want to know anything else.


I used to work in a bank, but it's too far into Lerwick every day when you have kids, so when I fell pregnant I did a machine knitting course at the FE College. Ever since I've made jumpers. Day after bloody day I blend rows of beige, brown and white into 'natural' Fair Isles. He lost the first job when I was five months pregnant, so I began knitting three days after Colleen was born. His next job lasted six months, and after that he was on a fishing boat. Silly fool that I was I thought we would do fine then, but when they couldn't put out to sea because of bad weather the money he'd made went down his throat.

"It's a miserable job Laura, I need some escape when I get hame," he would say.

"And whit aboot me? Whit aboot the bairns? Whit sort of escape do we hae?"

"You can't imagine da hell it is oot dere Laura."

"I ken the hell it is here."

That's how it stayed till he'd had enough of being wet and stinking, and I'd had enough of him boozing away money that should have fed the kids.

I suppose it was pride that made me stay. I couldn't bear to let my mother know she had been right. I couldn't bear to imagine the muttering from Nessie and Winnie as I left. And not just them. I used to go to the dancing; in the toilets I'd overhear the women re-touching their make-up and gossip.

Click, the lipstick snaps open, and the mouth with it. "Has du seen da state of Callum again?"

Hairspray fizzes before someone replies. "God, he asked me tae do da Boston Two Step. He could hardly stand let alone dance, and his shirt was covered in sick." I recognize this laughing voice: Sheila, niece of Nessie, cousin of Hazel.

"Imagine dat coming tae bed wi you—yeuch. Damn dis mascara has smudged."

"Here take dis tissue. God kens why she puts up wi him; I'd hae kicked him out long ago."

"Well, dey say she's a terrible nag, so you canna really blame him. She drives him tae it." Handbags click closed, the door creaks and they have gone. In the silence they leave behind I wonder—did I drive him to it? I wait a while before I come out, long enough to avoid bumping into them outside.

I seem to live my life in shadows, hearing other people's lives going on around me. It gets that way when you are ashamed of your own life; it's hard to go out at all. So I daydream instead. Though this knitting can get boring, it gives me plenty of time to dream. I watch the birds flying south and think about the designer garments I make doing the same. Everything I knit is exported, every garment labelled Designed and Hand Framed in the Shetland Isles. I imagine well-heeled women in Japan, Italy, Singapore and Los Angeles strutting about in their Fair Isles. I doubt if they ever wonder about the person who made their fancy clothes, and God alone knows what they want with woolly jumpers living in places like that. We went to Majorca on our honeymoon, and the last thing I'd have wanted was a woolly jumper.

I'm thinking about this when I notice the snow, the first flakes of the year, swirling in the darkening air, blown by the gale onto the window. There's a myth that since we're surrounded by water it never gets cold here like it does down south. Sure, without the Gulf Stream we'd be six feet in snow from November to March like in Newfoundland or Norway. But the wind. It can sniff out the tiniest crack in a window, the minutest gap under a door. I've got draught excluders at every door and a fire burning the devil would be proud of, yet still the wind manages to find me. Sometimes I think the chill is inside me, coming from my heart.

He's due home today. He works in the oil now, on a survey boat; he's finally using his degree. He rang me from Aberdeen last night, after his boat docked.

"I'll never make it Laura. I canna manage through Christmas," he said.

"Du's managed nearly a year," I said. "Du'll be fine."

"Du kens whit last year was like. I canna do it Laura."

"We can stay at hame, just da four of us. Nae visitors, nae visiting."

"Dey always come. It's expected. Can du imagine my faither when I say I'm no haeing a Christmas dram? He'll go crazy. And I can guess whit folk'll say if I stay at hame all Christmas and New Year. I canna do it Laura," the pips went.

Callum's right. Every year his folk come over, and his dad is usually well oiled before they even get here, been out around the neighbours. He staggers in with his half-bottle, and the pair of them sit down for a Christmas dram. I try to finish making the dinner while his mum nips my head about the size of the turkey (too big, though that doesn't stop her wanting seconds), the size of the tree and the quantity of decorations the girls and I have put up (a total waste of money).

"Is anybody watching dis rubbish?" She says year after year, switching the TV off. "Dat's better, da noise aboot sends me crazy."

It's a silly habit I suppose, but since I was a teenager, I've liked to watch the Christmas Top Of The Pops. I really prefer Country and Western or a bit of Soul music to all this Rap and House nowadays, but I like to keep my own little tradition. Still, I bite the urge to remind her whose house it is.

"Why don't you take Granny into da sitting room and show her your presents?" I ask the girls, even though it always elicits the same response from Granny.

"Bairns these days get far too many presents; I was happy wi a doll and an apple and orange frae Santa. Dere's no enough hours in da day tae play wi all dis trash." But they are already dragging her from the kitchen. I switch the TV back on.

The arguments start while we're eating. Callum's dad wants to know when he's going to stop arsing about and put all those years of college they paid for to some use.

"You paid for, dat's a good ane," Callum replies. "I never saw a penny frae you."

Then his mum wants to know when he's going to come over and fix their car, Hoover, transistor, and could somebody please switch that racket off, she can't hear herself think. Colleen learned fast; she's been switching the TV off since she was three.

"Dat's better." Granny heaves a big sigh, and gulps her alcohol-free wine.

"Could we no hae a proper drink instead o' dis rabbit piss."

The girls giggle, then sensing the atmosphere, study their food.

"Granddad!" Granny slams her glass down.

"Ach shut de moaning du auld fool."

"It's Christmas. Can du not be civil just one day of the year?"

"Does anybody need more turkey?" I ask, my voice shrivelling in the heat of their rage.

"Stuff da turkey!" Granddad yells, and he roars with laughter.

It gets worse every year.

While the men sleep it off Granny watches the Queen, I do the dishes, and the first carload of drunks tumbles into our yard.

"Yoho lass, Merry Christmas," they bellow.

"Come in by and hae a dram," Callum shouts, and they tramp through my kitchen in mucky boots, brandishing half-bottles of whisky.

The girls come running, "Yon men smell, and dey're blowing cigarettes."

"Why don't you sit at da table and do your new jigsaw?"

Granny appears. "Da Sound of Music is on. I think I'll watch it in here."

There have been times when the boozing has gone on till daylight, which mid-winter in Shetland is nine in the morning. More than one Boxing Day I've come downstairs to find four or five men lying on the sitting room floor. And more than one Boxing Day Callum has been reviving himself and his cronies with the hair of the dog when I've driven with kids and excuses to my folks.

"Callum is sorry he canna make it, but he's full of da cold and he doesna want tae smit you."

"Hah, I'll bet dat's not all he's full of," my mother snaps. "I don't know why you couldna hae come yesterday. Noo da bairns are getting deir presents late."

"Dey don't mind, it makes Christmas last longer." Colleen and Marianne run inside to find the cat.

"It's no da same," my mother says, stamping around the kitchen filling a teapot. "Boxing Day is for giving tae da poor, not tae your grandchildren."

"It would be too lang a day for da bairns after dey've been through all Santa's stuff. You could come tae wis next Christmas if you want."

"You ken we have animals to attend to." As if to prove her right, my father comes hobbling past the window, carrying a bale of hay. "Deir idder grandparents get tae see dem on Christmas day."

So we go round in circles year after year, getting nowhere. It gives me a headache thinking about it. I realized when I came off the phone from Callum that he was right. Whatever way you look at it the pressure is too high. If we stay at home the drunks will come trying to drag Callum back into their pack. If we go to my folks for the entire Christmas day I just might turn to the drink.

I couldn't sleep last night for worrying. I rose about two and went downstairs. The kitchen fire was almost out, but I put on a few peats and sat slap against it trying to think. My knitting money used to go on necessities; now with Callum off the drink and in a good job I keep knitting so we can have a few luxuries. Last summer, for the first time since Colleen was born, we had a proper holiday. We had a cabin in the mountains in Norway; we swam in a lake, and took the girls on nature hikes. The holiday used up all my knitting money and more besides. It was a couple of months before I could begin saving again, so we can't really afford it, but this morning I rang Callum at his hotel. I told him to stay where he was, and then I made some phone calls. Maybe it's just running away, but we're off to Tenerife for Christmas, leaving the danger zone. As soon as the bairns get off the school bus there's a taxi coming to pick us up, and we're flying south, migrating like the birds. My mother flew in a rage when I rang her, and said she didn't know what I was thinking about taking the bairns away from their grandparents at Christmas. "It's a time for families, Laura," she said. "You should be spending time wi wis while you still have da chance, not gallivanting halfway round da globe. We winna be around for ever you know." His mother just said I was a selfish bitch, and slammed the phone down.

As I wait, watching for the school bus, I wonder if she's right. There's pecking at the window; it's a chaffinch that has been hopping about the garden all week, a straggler that forgot to fly south with the flock. I get some bread from the bin. It will be stale by the time we get back; he might as well have it. I put on my coat and go outside, tramping into the snow just as the bus pulls up. Colleen and Marianne tear the bread into pieces and throw it to the bird while I go back inside for the suitcases. Out of the corner of my eye I notice movement from the tree. The darkness makes it hard to see, but I want to believe the fluttering isn't a leftover leaf, but another bird.

Glossary:

du/de: you
dy: yours
dat: that
yon: that
tae: to
hae: have
hame: home
frae: from
ane: one
dis: this
idder: other
wis: us
wid: would
winna: won't
bairn: child
no: not
couldna: couldn't
doesna: doesn't
smit: infect

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