(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Jan 9th 2021)
The train pulled into Aberdeen station just after midnight; it was almost empty. As I walked along the carriage to the exit door, I noticed the bag lying on a seat: one of those re-usable bags that the supermarkets sell. Quite bulky – evidently something was inside. I took a look: there was something rigid, wrapped around with what I guessed to be linen cloths. The cloths were secured with gaffer tape, but I pulled open a corner…
Gold glinted in the carriage light.
I count myself an honest man, by normal standards. I do have one conviction, for criminal damage. But that happened when I was off my face with drink twenty years ago. And other customers agreed that the barman had been unnecessarily violent in ejecting me from the pub in question. Of course, on the present occasion, I should’ve turned the bag over to one of the station staff. And I’m sure that, under different circumstances, I would’ve done just that. But that night I was in a bad place.
I was coming home from a failed job interview with a shipping company in Glasgow. Seafaring is a fine job when you’re young and haven’t a family; I’m forty nine with a sick wife. Latterly, I’d been working as the mate on supply ships servicing the oil rigs in the North Sea, but as the oil was running out, so the jobs on the supply ships were running out. The job in Glasgow was an office job as a ships superintendent. Unemployed, with Dorothy sick and a mortgage to pay, I really wanted that job. Needless to say, I didn’t get it (wasn’t even close).
Needless also to say, I’d had a few consoling drinks in Glasgow before I caught the late train. You might say my judgement was impaired – an explanation, not an excuse.
So I picked up the bag and headed out the station. I’m not a native Aberdonian, but in my years working on the supply boats, I’ve developed a fondness for the city. Stepping out of the station, you’re only a hundred metres from the harbour, and straight away you get a lung-full of sea air. The last buses had gone and I couldn’t afford a taxi, so I was walking home. On Union Street, the main drag, I noticed that the gates to St. Nicholas’s kirkyard had been left open: they’re usually closed at night to deter underage drinkers and courting couples.
They’ve been burying folk in the kirkyard for 900 hundred years, so there’s a lot of distinguished old bones about the place. A particular favourite of mine is buried there: John Henry Anderson (1814-74), ‘The Great Wizard of the North,’ the first of the great showmen-magicians. Indeed, he was the first magician to produce a white rabbit from a hat, to the wonder of his audience. Houdini himself paid for the upkeep of the grave when it fell into disrepair. (No doubt you’ve guessed that I’m an enthusiastic amateur magician). I was burning with curiosity about the contents of the bag, so it seemed a natural thing to do: to slip into the kirkyard and, illuminated by the streetlights, examine my find beside the mortal remains of the Great Wizard.
The contents proved to be a small painting, incorporating quite a lot of gold leaf, on a rectangular wooden board. It was a very old painting, that was evident from the state of the wood. I guessed right away that it was an icon. Years ago, I served as a mate on some Greek-owned ships: each ship had a small icon on the bridge. My icon portrayed a saint in a tiny clinker-built ship, with a single sail and an expectant, bearded crew. I knew I was looking at St. Nicholas, the patron saint of seafarers, and, moreover, I was looking at him in St Nicholas’s kirkyard.
Now, I’m not religious, but I admit it: I’m superstitious. There’s good luck and there’s bad luck. Sitting there in the saint’s kirkyard, I figured my luck had turned at last. I walked on back to the flat with a very good feeling.
I let myself into the flat quietly, hoping not to disturb Dorothy: she was halfway through the chemo course, and needed her sleep. I was planning to sleep on the couch, but she heard me in the bathroom and called me through to the bedroom. Dot knew about the the job interview fiasco; I’d called her from Glasgow. I thought the icon story might cheer her up, so I carried St Nicholas through to the bedroom.
It certainly brought her fully awake. She touched it lightly as I told the story. When I finished, she asked: ‘Why didn’t you hand it in at the station?’
As soon as she asked the question, I realised I’d behaved like a drunken idiot. Again. What on earth was I planning to do with it anyway?
Dot smiled at me: ‘It’s a bit big for a good luck charm.’ I promised to hand it in at the station in the morning and got ready for bed.
* * *
The guy at the station was surprisingly friendly, taking down my details: ‘We’ve never had an icon handed in before. You came off the late train and maybe couldn’t find anyone to hand it over to, eh? Only a skeleton staff on then.’
And that was that. ‘Til three weeks later. Dot answered the phone: it was an orthodox priest in Dunblane. The wealthy old lady who’d previously donated the icon to the Dunblane church was offering a reward for it’s return. And the picture restorer in Montrose, who’d left the icon on the train, was offering a fortnight’s holiday in his holiday home in Sutherland. It had turned out to be a talisman after all: I’d pulled a white rabbit out of a supermarket bag.