The Singing Sands, by Josephine Tey


THE wallpaper consisted of far too heavy roses hanging from a far too slender trellis-work, and the insecure character of the whole thing was increased by the fact that the paper not only hung away from the wall but moved about in the draught. It was not readily obvious where the draught came from because the small window was not only tightly shut but had patently been tightly shut since its manufacture and original insertion in the house structure about the beginning of the century. The little swing mirror on the chest of drawers lived up to its promise in the first respect but not in the second. It would swing with ease amounting to abandon through the whole circle of three hundred and sixty degrees; but it did not reflect anything to any noticeable degree. A last year’s cardboard calendar folded in four kept its gyratory talents in check, but nothing of course could be done to increase its powers of reflection.

Two of the four drawers in the chest were capable of being opened. The third would not open because it had lost its knob, and the fourth because it had lost the will. Above the black iron fireplace with its frill of red crinkled paper brown with age was an engraving of a partially clothed Venus comforting a quite unclothed Cupid. If the cold had not already eaten into his bones Grant thought that this picture would have finished the process.

He looked from the little window down on the small harbour with its collection of fishing-boats, at the grey sea slapping drearily against the breakwater, and the grey rain beating on the cobbles, and thought of the log fire in the sitting-room at Clune. He toyed with the idea of going to bed as the quickest way of getting warm, but a second glance at the bed dissuaded him. Its plate-like thinness was made even more plate-like by the meagre covering of a white honeycomb cotton cover. At the foot, a turkey-red cotton quilt suitable for a doll’s perambulator was folded into an elaborate pattern. Above it brooded the finest collection of unmatching brass knobs that it had ever been Grant’s fortune to meet.

Cladda Hotel. The gateway to Tir nan Og.

He went downstairs and poked the smoky fire in the sitting-room. Someone had banked up the fire with the potato peelings from lunch, so his efforts were not very successful. Rage came to his rescue and he rang the bell with all his might. The wires jangled in a crazy dance somewhere in the walls but no bell rang. He went out into the lobby where the wind was coming soughing in under the front door and shouted. Never, even in his best form on the ‘square’, had he used his voice with so passionate a determination to produce results. A young female creature came from the back regions and stared at him. She had a face like a rather practical Madonna and legs the same length as her body.

‘Wis yu bawling?’ she asked.

‘No, I wasn’t bawling. That sound you heard was my teeth chattering. In my country a sitting-room fire is designed to give out heat not to consume refuse.’

She looked at him a little longer as if translating his speech into a more understandable idiom, and then moved past him to look at the fire.

Oh Dé,’ she said, ‘that will never do. Stop you and I’ll get you a bit of fire.’

She went away and came back with what seemed to be most of the kitchen fire blazing on a shovel. Before he could remove some of the packed dross and vegetable matter from the grate she had dumped the flaming mass on top of all.

‘I’ll be getting some tea to warm you,’ she said. ‘Mr Todd is down at the pier seeing did the things come on the boat. He’ll be back in no time at all.’

She said it comfortingly, as if the presence of the proprietor would automatically be warming. Grant took it for granted that she was apologising for the absence of an official welcome to a guest.

He sat and watched the kitchen fire gradually lose heart as it became conscious of the bed of potato peelings on which it had been cast away. He did his best to rake out some of the damp black mass from underneath so as to provide an encouraging draught, but the thing merely settled down in a sad heap. He watched the glow fade until only little red worms of incandescence ran to and fro across the surface of the blackened coals as the passing wind sucked the air from the room into the chimney. He thought of putting on his waterproof and walking in the rain; walking in the rain could be a delightful thing. But the thought of hot tea held him where he was.

After nearly an hour of firewatching, no tea had come. But ‘N. Todd, Prop.’ came back from the harbour, accompanied by a boy in a navy-blue jersey pushing a wheelbarrow laden with large cardboard cartons, and came in to welcome his guest. They did not expect guests at this time of the year, he said; he thought when he had seen him come off the boat that he would be staying with someone on the island. Gathering songs, or something.

There was something in the way he said ‘gathering songs’— a detached tone bordering on comment — that made Grant sure that he was no native.

No, said Mr Todd, when asked, he did not belong to the place. He had had a good little commercial hotel in the Lowlands, but this was more to his taste. And, seeing the surprise on his guest’s face he added: ‘To tell you the truth, Mr Grant, I was tired of counter-rappers. You know: the kind of chap who can’t wait a minute. Out here no one ever thinks of rapping on a counter. Today, tomorrow, or next week is all the same to an Islander. It’s a bit maddening now and then, when you want something done, but for most of the time it’s fine and restful. My blood pressure’s away down.’ He noticed the fire. ‘That’s a poor sort of fire Katie–Ann’s given you. You’d better come ben to my office and warm yourself.’

At this moment Katie–Ann put her head in at the door and said that it had taken all this time to boil the kettle because the kitchen fire had gone out on her, and would Mr Grant now think it a good thing to have his tea and his high-tea at one and the same time. Grant did indeed think it a good thing, and as she went away to prepare this evening repast he asked his host for a drink.

‘The magistrates took away the licence from my predecessor, and I haven’t yet got it back. I’ll get it back at the next Licensing Court. So I can’t sell you a drink. There isn’t a licence on the island. But if you’ll come ben to my office I’ll be glad to stand you a whisky.’

The office was a tiny place, tropical in its breathless heat. Grant savoured the oven atmosphere gratefully, and drank the bad whisky neat, as it was proffered. He took the indicated chair and stretched out his feet to the blaze.

‘You’re not an authority on the island, then,’ he said.

Mr Todd grinned. ‘In one way I am,’ he said wickedly. ‘But probably not the way you mean it.’

‘To whom should I go to learn about the place?’

‘Well, there’s two authorities. Father Heslop and the Reverend Mr MacKay. On the whole perhaps Father Heslop would be better.’

‘You think he is the more knowledgeable?’

‘No; they’re about fifty-fifty as far as that goes. But two-thirds of the islanders are R.C. If you go to the priest you’ll only have a third of the population against you, instead of two-thirds. Of course the Presbyterian third are much nastier customers to be up against, but if numbers count with you then you’d better see Father Heslop. Better see Father Heslop anyway. I’m a heathen myself so I’m an outcast from both flocks, but Father Heslop is for a Licence and Mr MacKay dead against it.’ He grinned again and refilled Grant’s glass.

‘I take it the priest would rather see the stuff sold openly than drunk on the sly.’

‘That’s it.’

‘Did you ever have a visitor called Charles Martin staying here?’

‘Martin? No. Not in my time. But if you’d like to look through the visitors’ book it’s on the table in the lobby.’

‘If a visitor doesn’t stay at the hotel where would he be likely to stay? In rooms?’

‘No, no one lets rooms on the island. The houses are too small for that. They’d stay either with Father Heslop or at the manse.’

By the time that Katie–Ann came to say that his tea was waiting on him in the sitting-room the blood was flowing freely again through Grant’s once-moribund body and he was hungry. He looked forward to his first meal in this ‘tiny oasis of civilisation in a barbarous world’ (see Dream Islands by H. G. F. Pynche–Maxwell, Beal and Batter, 15/6). He rather hoped that it might not be either salmon or sea-trout, having had an elegant sufficiency of both in the last eight or nine days. He would not turn up his nose at a piece of grilled sea-trout if it happened to be that. Grilled with some local butter. But he hoped for lobster — the island was famous for its lobsters — and failing that some herring fresh from the sea, split, and fried after being dipped in oatmeal.

His first meal in the isles of delight consisted of a couple of bright orange kippers inadequately cured and liberally dyed in Aberdeen, bread made in Glasgow, oatcakes baked by a factory in Edinburgh and never toasted since, jam manufactured in Dundee, and butter made in Canada. The only local produce was a pallid, haggis-shaped mound of crowdie; a white crumbly by-product without smell or taste.

The sitting-room in unshaded lamplight was even less appetising than it had been in the grey light of afternoon, and Grant fled to his freezing little bedroom. He demanded two hot-water bottles and suggested to Katie–Ann that since he was the sole guest she should filch the quilts from every other bedroom in the house and dedicate them to his use. She did this with all her native Celt pleasure in the irregular, heaping his bed with borrowed luxury and suffocating with giggles.

He lay under the five meagre bits of wadding, topped off with his own coat and Burberry, and pretended that the whole thing was one good English eiderdown. As he grew warm he became conscious of the cold stuffiness of the room. This was the last straw and quite suddenly he began to laugh. He lay there and laughed as he had not laughed for nearly a year. Laughed till the tears came, laughed until he was so exhausted that he could no more, and lay spent and purged and happy under his fine variety of bedclothes.

Laughter must do untold things for one’s endocrine glands, he thought, feeling the well-being flood through him in a life-giving tide. More especially, perhaps, when it is laughter at oneself. At the fine glorious absurdity of oneself in relation to the world. To set out for the threshold of Tir nan Og and fetch up at the Cladda Hotel had an exquisite ridiculousness. If the Islands provided him with nothing but this he would consider himself well rewarded.

He ceased to care that the room was airless and the covers insecure. He lay looking at the rose-heavy wallpaper and wished that he could show it to Laura. He remembered that he had not yet been transferred into that newly-decorated bedroom at Clune which, up till now, had always been his. Was Laura expecting another visitor? Was it possible that her latest candidate for his affections was to be housed under the same roof? So far he had been happily free of female society; the evenings at Clune had been family evenings, peaceful and long-breathing. Had Laura been merely holding her hand until he was, so to speak, able to sit up and take notice? She had been suspiciously regretful that he was going to miss the opening of the new hall at Moymore. A ceremony that she would have in her normal mind not expected him to attend at all. Had she expected a guest for the opening? The bedroom could not be meant for Lady Kentallen, because she would come over from Angus and go back the same afternoon. Then for whom was that bedroom redecorated and kept empty?

He was still turning the small question over in his mind when he fell asleep. And it was only in the morning that it occurred to him that he had hated the closed window because it made the room stuffy and not because it was closed.

He washed in the two pints of tepid water that Katie–Ann brought him and went downstairs rejoicing. He felt on top of the world. He ate the Glasgow bread, still another day older this morning, and the Edinburgh oatcakes, and the Dundee jam, and the Canadian butter, together with some sausages from the English midlands, and enjoyed them. Having given up his expectation of primitive elegance, he was prepared to accept primitive existence.

He was gratified to find that in spite of cold wind and wet weather and thinly covered hard beds his rheumatism had entirely gone, being no longer needed by his subconscious to provide an alibi. The wind was still howling in the chimney and the water spouting up from the breakwater, but the rain had stopped. He put on his Burberry and tacked round the harbour front to the shop. There were only two places of business in the row of houses that fringed the harbour: a post-office and a provision merchant. These two between them supplied the island with all that it needed. The post-office was also a newsagent; and the provision merchant was a combination of grocer, ironmonger, chemist, draper, shoe-shop, tobacconist, china-merchant, and ship’s chandler. Bolts of sprigged cotton for curtains or dresses lay on shelves alongside the biscuit tins, and hams hung from the roof among strings of locknit undergarments. Today, Grant noticed, there was also a large wooden tray of tuppenny buns baked, if the paper round the queen cakes was to be believed, in Oban. They were crummy and depressed-looking, as if they had been tumbled about in one of the cardboard cartons that were such an indispensable part of island life, and they smelled very faintly of paraffin, but he supposed that they made a change from the Glasgow bread.

In the shop were several men from the fishing-boats in the harbour and a little round man in a black raincoat who could be nothing but a priest. This was a fortunate thing. Even the Presbyterian third, he felt, could hardly hold against him a fortuitous meeting in a public store. He edged in beside His Reverence and waited with him while the fishermen were being served. After that it was plain sailing. The priest ‘picked him up’ and he had five witnesses to it. Moreover, Father Heslop deftly included the proprietor, one Duncan Tavish, in the conversation, and, from the fact that Father Heslop called him Mr Tavish and not Duncan, Grant deduced that the proprietor was not one of his flock. So he was very happily parcelled out among the islanders over the paraffiny buns and the margarine, and there would be no internecine war over the possession of his person.

He went out into the gale with Father Heslop and strolled home with him. Or rather they beat up against the wind together, staggering a few steps forward at a time, and shouting remarks to each other above the noise of their flapping garments. Grant had the advantage of his companion in that he wore no hat, but Father Heslop was not only lower on the ground but had a figure ideally streamlined for life in a gale. He had no angles anywhere.

It was good to go in from the blast to a warm turf fire and silence.

‘Morag!’ called Father Heslop, into the further end of the house, ‘Some tea for me and my friend here. And a scone maybe, like a good girl.’

But Morag had not baked, any more than Katie–Ann had. They were given Marie biscuits, a little soft in the island dampness. But the tea was wonderful.

Because he knew that he was an object of curiosity to Father Heslop, as he was to everyone on the island, he said that he had been fishing with relations in Scotland, but had to stop owing to a bad shoulder. And because he had been bitten with the idea of the Islands, and more especially with the Singing Sands on Cladda, he had taken the chance of coming to see them; a chance he might never have presented to him again. He supposed that Father Heslop was well acquainted with the sands?

Oh, yes, of course Father Heslop knew the sands. He had been fifteen years on the island. They were on the west side of the island, facing the Atlantic. It was no distance across the island. Grant could walk there this afternoon.

‘I would rather wait for fine weather. It would be better to see them in sunlight, wouldn’t it?’

‘At this time of year you might wait for weeks before you’d see them in sunlight.’

‘I thought spring came early to the Islands?’

‘Oh, I think, myself, that’s just an idea of the people who write books about them. This is my sixteenth spring on Cladda, and I have yet to catch one here before its time. The spring’s an Islander too,’ he added with a little smile.

They talked of the weather, the winter gales (which made today, according to Father Heslop, a thing of zephyrs), the penetrating damp, the occasionally idyllic summer days.

Why had a place of so few attractions captured the imagination of so many people, Grant wanted to know.

Well, partly it was that they saw it only at high summer, and partly it was that those who came and were disappointed, were reluctant to admit their disappointment either to themselves or the friends they had left behind. They compensated themselves by talking big. But it was Father Heslop’s own theory that most people who came were unconsciously running away from life, and they found what their imaginations prepared for them. Through their eyes the Islands were beautiful.

Grant thought this over, and then asked him if he had ever known a Charles Martin, who had been interested in singing sands.

No; Father Heslop had never met a Charles Martin, as far as he could remember. Had he come to Cladda?

Grant did not know.

He went out into the blast, and was blown back to the hotel at an undignified trot, teetering on his toes like an elderly toper. The bare lobby at the hotel smelled of unidentifiable hot food and sang like a choir as the wind came shrieking in under the outside door. But they had managed a fire that looked like a fire, in the sitting-room. To the scream of wind in the passage and the yowling of wind in the chimney he ate beef from South America, carrots tinned in Lincolnshire, potatoes grown in Moray, milk pudding packaged in North London, and fruit bottled in the Vale of Evesham. Now that he was no longer conditioned to magic, he filled his stomach thankfully with what was put in front of him. If Cladda had denied him spiritual joy it had provided him with a fine physical appetite.

‘Don’t you ever bake scones, Katie–Ann?’ he said, when he was arranging the time of his high tea.

‘Is it scones you’ll be wanting?’ she said surprised. ‘Indeed, yes, I’ll bake you some. But we have baker’s cakes for your tea. And biscuits, and ginger-snaps. Would you rather be having scones than them?’

Remembering the ‘baker’s cakes’ Grant said enthusiastically that he would, he would indeed.

‘Well, then,’ she said kindly, ‘of course, I’ll bake you a scone.’

For an hour he walked; along a flat grey road through a flat grey desolation. To his right, distant in the mist, was a hill; the only visible height. The whole thing was as inspiring as the fens on a wet January day. Every now and then the wind on his left flank would send him spinning sideways off the road altogether, and he struggled back half amused, half irritated. At long distances, odd cottages lay cowering close to the earth, blind and limpet-like, without any sign of human habitation. Some had stones slung from the roof by ropes to weight the structure against the wind’s importunity. None of them had fence, outhouse, garden or bush. It was living at its most primitive; inside four walls; everything under hatches and battened down.

And then, suddenly, the wind smelt salt.

And in less than half an hour he came on it. He came on it without warning, across a great waste of wet green grass that in summer-time must be starred with flowers. There had been no visible reason why the long levels of grassy land should not go on for ever to the horizon; it was all part of this flat grey endless world of bog. He had been prepared to go on walking to the horizon; so that he was startled to find that the horizon was ten miles out at sea. There it lay in front of him, the Atlantic; and if it was not beautiful it was, nevertheless, impressive in its sweep and simplicity. The dirty green water, dirty and ragged, roared on to the beach and broke in a flash of white that was vicious. To right and left, as far as eye could see, were the long lines of breaking water and the pale sands. There was nothing else in all the world but the green torn sea and the sands.

He stood there looking at it, and remembering that the nearest land was America. Not since he had stood in the North African desert had he known that uncanny feeling that is born of unlimited space. That feeling of human diminution.

So sudden had been the presence of the sea, and its rage and extent so overwhelming, that he had hung there motionless for several moments before realising that here were the sands that had brought him to the fringe of the western world in March. These were the singing sands.

Nothing sang today but the wind and the Atlantic. Together they made a Wagnerian tumult that buffeted one almost as physically as did the gale and the spray. The whole world was one mad uproar of grey-green and white and wild noise.

He walked down over the fine white sand to the edge of the water, and let the tumult roar over him. At close quarters it had a senseless quality that dissolved his uncomfortable sense of diminution and made him feel human and superior. He turned his back on it almost contemptuously as one would on a bad-mannered child who was making an exhibition of himself. He felt warm and alive and master of himself; admirably intelligent and gratifyingly sentient. He walked back up the sand, absurdly, and extravagantly glad to be a human being and alive. The air that came off the land when he had turned his back on the salt sterile wind from the sea was gentle and warm. It was like opening the door of a house. He went on across the grassy levels without once looking back. The wind hounded him along the flat bogs, but it was no longer in his face and the salt was no longer in his nostrils. His nostrils were full of the good smell of damp earth; the smell of growing things.

He was happy.

As he came at last down the slope to the harbour he looked up at the hill in the mist and decided that tomorrow he would climb it.

He came back to the hotel ravenous, and was gratified to be given no fewer than two items of local manufacture for his high tea. One was a plate of Katie–Ann’s scones, and the other was ‘sleeshacks’: a delicacy he had known of old. Sleeshacks were mashed potatoes fried in slices; and they certainly helped to make appetising the remains of cold beef from lunch which was the pièce de résistance of the meal. But as he ate his first course he kept smelling something more evocative of those early Strathspey days than even sleeshacks could be. An aroma both sharp and subtle it was, floating and circling about his brain in a nostalgic tantalisation. It was not until he had put his knife into one of Katie–Ann’s scones that he knew what it was. The scone was yellow with soda and quite uneatable. With a regretful salute to her for the memory (platefuls of yellow soda-laden scones laid out in the farmhouse kitchen table for the farm-hands’ tea: Oh, Tir nan Og!) he buried two of Katie–Ann’s scones under the glowing coals in the grate and made do with the Glasgow bread.

And that night he fell asleep without looking at the wallpaper and without remembering the closed window at all.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01