(first published in Scribble, No. 90, pp.67-72, Summer 2021)
A group of raucous, young, Edinburgh lawyers and bankers, with a collective misplaced sense of entitlement, were drowning out civilised pub conversation (‘Hey Charles, why did the woman cross the road?’ – ‘Search me Alistair, how the hell did she get out of the kitchen?’). So Jim McLeish and his old shipmate, Davie Donnelly, decided to drink-up and leave. It was then, just as he was going out the pub door, that Jim saw the face.
Jim opened the door and turned to check that Davie was right behind him. He was. But behind Davie, in the middle-distance, Jim saw Nonoy – the bosun from the tanker – staring at him from a table beside the Gents. Jim stopped dead and Davie cannoned into him. The tide of lawyers and bankers, mysteriously ebbing and flowing, then covered Nonoy from view.
‘I think I saw Nonoy, my Filipino bosun, over the far side of the bar.’
Davie peered back into the bar: ‘Nae Filipinos in here, Jim. Surely, he’ll be on his way back to Manila by now wi’ the rest of the ratings?’
Jim shrugged and sighed: ‘Aye. Let’s away then, Davie.’ He didn’t speak his thought, that after four months of working 16-hour days, seven days a week, he was maybe starting to hallucinate. When the chemical tanker had docked at Grangemouth that afternoon, there’d been a complete crew change. A ships agent had been there to meet the tanker and take the Filipino ratings, Nonoy included, off on the first stage of their long journey back to the Philippines to await a new contract and a new ship. Jim hadn’t seen them leave: he’d been busy briefing his replacement as the ship’s mate, Nigel Walker, about the unfinished maintenance schedule. Nigel wasn’t best pleased that it was unfinished – he have to try and finish Jim’s schedule of work, as well as his own. Jim had the excuse of the filthy weather they’d been through, but he knew that the real reason was the continuing sullen uncooperativeness of the bosun: no ship can operate efficiently without a good bosun, who acts as a kind of foreman to the rest of the crew.
The next day, Jim awakened feeling sluggish. Seafaring is a young man’s job and Jim’s forty-two year-old body needed more than a single night’s sleep to recover. Nevertheless he was heartened by Mary’s porridge and Davie’s home-made loganberry jam, and he set off for his beloved cottage about half past ten.
The Sma’ Glen is a couple of hours drive north of Edinburgh. In 1745, two score of men had taken communion in Amulree Kirk, before marching south with Prince Charles Stuart and his Jacobite army. But now Jim’s cottage was the only surviving dwelling in the glen. As he came over the hill from Crieff and saw the cottage, and the glen winding away in front of him, he felt the relief of the returning exile.
It was only as he indicated to turn into the track to the cottage that he noticed a Ford Focus still behind him, one that had been in his rear-view mirror since Crieff. It now pulled out to overtake and, for an instant in his rear-view mirror, Jim saw (or thought he saw) Nonoy behind the wheel.
For a long minute, Jim sat stunned, watching the Ford dwindle into the distance as it progressed up the glen. He recalled the glimpse of Nonoy in the pub last night: two brief mystery sightings or two hallucinations? A practical man, he decided to postpone further consideration until he’d settled in.
Mrs Forsyth, his cleaner, had been in the day before. The cottage felt warm and welcoming: she must have put on the central heating. He dumped his case in the bedroom and his shopping in the kitchen. He filled a kettle, opened a bottle of milk, and stared sightlessly out the window while the kettle boiled. Waiting for the tea to brew, he lit the kindling that Mrs Forsyth had left in the grate. It was only after he’d cooked and eaten an omelette, opened a can of beer, and sat down before the fire, that he then returned to the subject of Nonoy.
Nonoy’s sullenness had made Jim’s last months a bit of a nightmare. It was all down to a stupid misunderstanding. Jim and Nonoy had got on well for the first month of the trip. Jim had noted and approved that Nonoy, who was tall and muscular for a Filipino, kept the crew working well. He and Nonoy had fallen into the kind of bantering, friendly relationship common in all-male societies. Nonoy had been particularly taken with an old British seafarer saying that Jim had quoted: ‘If you’re looking for sympathy on board ship, you’ll find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis.’ Nonoy had then found occasion to repeat this wisdom pretty much every day, each time with accompanying it with a great gust of laughter. This might have become tedious, but Jim found Nonoy’s laughter infectious and he was too experienced an officer to wish to prejudice a good shipboard working relationship, just for the sake of quashing a stale joke.
Nevertheless, his and Nonoy’s working relationship was heading for the rocks. The wreck happened very early one morning. Jim had just come off his bridge-watch and had headed for the ship’s laundry, to collect some dry clean clothes before turning in for a few hours of precious sleep. The officers’ cabins had en-suite bathrooms, but not the crew cabins – their lavatories and showers were beside the laundry. As Jim emerged from the laundry, he saw Nonoy come out of his cabin heading for the showers. He was dressed only in a large, ragged t-shirt which failed to fully cover all his masculine bits and pieces. Jim smiled a greeting and sang out: ‘Wee Willie Winkie ran through the toon, upstairs, doonstairs, in his night-goon.’ Nonoy had looked at him in surprise and passed silently on into the showers. Jim had thought no more of it.
It was a couple of days later that he noticed a change in Nonoy’s behaviour: poor performance by the deck painters that Nonoy was leading, a failure to catch Jim’s eye, monosyllabic responses, and so on. But Jim had been too busy to give it much thought, until Gerry Malone, the Chief Engineer, remarked on it.
Gerry Malone, an elderly, over-weight, slovenly Liverpudlian, was in charge of a modern, automated engine-room and left all the routine maintenance to Darek, his hard-working, Polish, second engineer. This left Malone largely free to drink endless cups of tea up on the bridge and to distract Jim from his work with his rambling, irritating chatter: “What crap have you been talking to that big nutter, Nonoy? ‘E sez to me, ‘Why does the Mate call me Wee Willie Winkie? I know what a wee willie is, but what is a winkie?’ I told ‘im, a winkie is jus’ another word for a willie.”
Jim raised his eyes reluctantly from his chart corrections and gave Malone a long stare: ‘You said THAT?? Noo the man thinks I’ve been insulting his manhood. Damn it, that’s why he’s been sae broody. He’s gonna brood an’ brood on that, eh? Like as not, he’ll be comin’ after me wi’ a machete. Why did you nae tell him about the Wee Willie Winkie nursery rhyme? Jeez…’
‘You’re a big, strong fella, Jim, you don’ wanna take any crap from these Filipinos. You don’ wanna get too friendly with ‘em.’ Malone smiled stupidly and took a sip of his tea. Jim continued to stare at him. The tension was broken by the arrival on the bridge of the ship’s Master, Captain Sandy Morrison, with an urgent email from head office. One thing drives out another. While Morrison and Jim discussed the email, Malone quietly left the bridge.
The sea rolled on and the days rolled on. The tanker shuttled back and forth between Grangemouth and a scattering of Baltic ports. To Jim’s mind, Nonoy’s sullenness seemed to pollute the whole ship, but Jim could never find both the time and the determination to have it out with Nonoy. Shipboard conversations can be pretty wide-ranging, but for one seafarer to explain to another that he had no intention to belittle the other’s penis would certainly be pushing the boundaries of permissible messroom discussions. Initially, Jim told himself that Nonoy would maybe get over it. When it was plain that Nonoy wasn’t getting over it, Jim weakly told himself that the trip would be over soon; he and Nonoy would be unlikely to ever crew together again, and so he’d never have to deal with the problem.
Still staring at the cottage fire, Jim now recognised that – if he hadn’t hallucinated Nonoy’s fleeting appearances in the pub and the glen – he would indeed have to deal with the problem after all. But everything could wait til morning.
September is often a wet month in the Highlands, but the next morning promised to be a fine day, and fine days in September should be taken advantage of. As Jim fried his bacon, he could see from the kitchen window that the sun was burning away the tatters of mist from the mountains that crowded up against the glen. Four months on a ship barely forty metres long had stoked an almost hysterical need to walk and walk and walk. He knew it would torture his wasted leg muscles, but he decided to climb Ben Chonzie, to the west of the glen. Ben Chonzie was a popular hill, not least because of the large population of hares and ptarmigan that lived on the plateau summit, but almost all walkers approached it from the other side, where there was a car park and an estate track that ran most of the way to the summit. The route Jim would take, especially on a weekday in September, pretty much guaranteed that he’d have the climb all to himself.
The first part of the route took Jim along the public road, which took the same line as the military road built by General Wade in the aftermath of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion (and gratefully followed by Bonnie Prince Charlie and his men in the 1745 rebellion). He passed the great rough-squared boulder (‘Ossian’s Stone’) and crossed the River Almond at Wade’s bridge. Typically, on Jim’s walks, for the first mile or so, his mind would be distracted by concerns of work or family. Recurrent themes were his divorce and the deaths of his parents, both of whom had died at times when he was away at sea. On this occasion, as he tramped, he recalled old stories he’d heard about brooding Filipinos: a simmering cook who had eventually snapped and chased his friend Kosta round the galley and the messroom with a knife; a vicious brawl that had erupted, seemingly out of nothing, outside a club in a Brazilian port. He understood the brooding: the white senior officers had permanent contracts, the Filipino ratings were casuals on short-term contracts; their future contracts depended on favourable reports from senior officers; the disparities in earnings were grotesque. And he understood the sudden violence: it was the explosive revolt of the slaves. He understood it, he deeply disliked it, but he couldn’t remake the world to his liking.
Eventually, the physical rhythm of the walk soothed away troubling thoughts. He breathed deeply the air of the North, noted the purpling of the heather and the deep green of the braken, and tried and failed to distinguish whether a distant circling bird was an eagle or a buzzard. He struck upward from the glen, passing through a large clump of ragged birch and scattered boulders. Almost at his feet, he noticed a large brown mushroom on a grey, stippled stalk. Years at sea had made Jim a careless and indiscriminate eater, but he dearly loved mushrooms. He recognised the brown mushroom as a boletus, one of his favourites, and noticed several more of them – deeper in the wood. He took a pork pie (his lunch) out of its plastic bag, put it in the side pocket of his rucksack, and – cutting through the mushroom stalks with his knife – quickly filled the plastic bag with half a dozen boletus mushrooms, which he promised himself would be the highlight of his evening meal. As he was tying the bag and sheathing his knife, he had a shock…
Passing at the edge of the birchwood, treading Jim’s former path, was Nonoy. Jim watched Nonoy move past the wood and start to pick his way up the steep side of the glen. Nonoy had gone onwards a hundred metres when Jim made his decision. He emerged from the wood and hailed Nonoy like a long-long friend:
‘Nonoy! Nonoy! What on earth are ye doin’ here? Fantastic!’
Nonoy turned and retraced his steps. Noticing the sheath-knife Jim was still holding, he smiled uncertainly.
‘Seein’ ye here, of all places, Nonoy! A walkin’ holiday in Scotland afore ye head fur hame?’
Jim gestured towards Nonoy’s trainers: ‘Hope you’re nae lookin’ fur sympathy fur your soakin’ trainers.’
Nonoy shook his head, paused, and then smiled broadly: ‘I find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis, eh Chief?’
Jim smiled in return and showed Nonoy the contents of his plastic bag: ‘Been pickin’ mushrooms.’
Nonoy examined them carefully: ‘You sure you can eat these, Chief?’
‘Yep. Gonna cook ‘em for ma tea. These ‘re the most delicious mushrooms in the entire world. Want to come back to mine, for your tea?’
‘And eat mushrooms?’
‘OK Chief. We both die together.’ Nonoy thought this was funnier than Jim.
They sat down on a couple of rocks and shared Jim’s pork pie and flask of coffee. Nonoy thoughtfully compared Jim’s walking boots to his own dew-soaked trainers. Jim noticed their feet were about the same size. He said he had an old pair of leather walking boots at the cottage that would fit Nonoy: there was nothing wrong with them, they were just a bit old-fashioned – heavier than his current pair. Nonoy was impressed by the fact that they were made of leather. Jim pulled out his map and indicated a couple of walks that Nonoy could take on his fictional walking holiday, once he was properly shod.
The wind was now freshening from the north, funnelling down the glen. By silent agreement, they abandoned the Ben Chonzie objective and retraced their steps. They passed the tumbled remains of a couple of crofts. As Jim’s own cottage came into sight, Nonoy said: ‘I see several ruined houses, Chief. Yours is only one left. Why everybody go away?’
Jim ignored the fact that Nonoy already knew where he stayed. ‘It’s an auld story, Nonoy. See yon big boulder squeezed in the space between the river and the road?’
‘Well, nearly three hundred years ago, an army general was supervisin’ building a road through the glen. He also built this bridge.’ They leaned on the parapet.
‘The general decided that the boulder was in the way o’ the road. He had his soldiers move it aside, tae where it rests now.’
‘That’s some job, Chief. Very heavy.’
‘Aye, right – very heavy. And what they didnae realise was that the boulder was a gravestone. It marked the grave of a very great man, a poet called Ossian, who lived a thousand years ago. When they moved the stone they found some bones underneath. The folk that lived in the glen were afraid of the soldiers, but that night they cam up wi’ torches and gathered up Ossian’s bones, and took him away to a secret place for re-burial.’
‘Mm. That the right thing to do.’
‘It wis the right thing tae do, Nonoy. But it wis too late. The bones had been disturbed. An’ so a curse cam on the glen: freezing winters an’ wet, cold summers – crops failed an’ cattle died; young men went awa’ tae war an’ never returned; people starved.
The wind was rising at their backs and a few heavy drops of rain began to fall. Nonoy shivered: ‘This place is haunted, Chief?’
‘Aye, that’s right. Finally, there wis only a few folk left. Eventually, they all either died, or left the glen to the ghost, and moved away.’
‘But you’re still here, Chief?’
Jim nodded: ‘That’s right. But I’m sort-of-protected. Ye see, I’m the last man that kens where those bones wis re-buried.’
Both men had been looking away down the glen at Jim’s cottage. Nonoy now turned to look at Jim. It was a long look. ‘Forget the mushrooms and the boots, Chief. I go now.’
Nonoy walked back across the bridge, hunching his shoulders against the storm.