The Singing Sands, by Josephine Tey


IN the morning he ran into the Reverend Mr MacKay in the post-office and felt that he was distributing his favours very successfully. Mr MacKay was on his way down to the harbour to see if the crew of a Swedish fishing-boat that was lying there would like to come to church if they were still there the day after tomorrow. There was also, he understood, a Dutch vessel, that might be presumed to be of a Presbyterian persuasion. If they showed signs of wanting to come he would prepare a sermon in the English for them.

He condoled with Grant about the rough weather. It was early in the year for the Islands, but he supposed that one had to take holidays when one was given them.

‘You’ll be a schoolmaster, maybe, Mr Grant.’

No, Grant said, he was a Civil Servant. Which was his normal answer to questions about his profession. People were prepared to believe that Civil Servants were human beings; no one ever believed that a policeman was one. They were two-dimensional characters with silver buttons and a notebook.

‘You’d be amazed, now, you that has not been here before, if you could see what the Islands are like in June, Mr Grant. Not a cloud in the sky, day after day, and the air so hot that ye’ll see it dancing before you. And the mirage as mad as ever it was in the desert.’

‘Were you in North Africa?’

Och, yes; Mr MacKay had been in North Africa with the Jocks. ‘And believe me, Mr Grant, I’ve seen odder things from my window up in the manse there than ever I did between Alamein and Tripoli. I’ve seen the lighthouse on the point there standing up in the air. Yes, halfway up the sky. I’ve seen the hill there change shape till it looked like a great mushroom. And as for the rocks by the sea, those great pillars of stone, they can turn light and transparent and move about as if they were walking through a set of the Lancers.’

Grant considered this with interest, and ceased to listen to the rest of Mr MacKay’s discourse. As he parted from him alongside the Ann Loefquist of Goteborg, Mr MacKay hoped that he was coming to the ceilidh tonight. All the island would be there and he would hear some fine singing.

When he asked his host about the ceilidh and where it was being held, Mr Todd said that it would be the usual mixture of song and talk and end up with the usual dance and that it would be held in the only place on the island suitable for such a gathering — the Peregrine Hall.

‘Why Peregrine?’

‘That is the name of the lady who gave it. She used to come to the island in the summer and she was all for improving trade and making the islanders self-supporting, so she built a fine long hut with big windows and skylights so that they could weave in company and not be ruining their eyes over looms in tiny dark rooms. They should get together, she said, and have a Cladda mark for their tweed and make it sought-after, like Harris. She could have saved her breath and her bawbees, poor lady. No islander would walk a yard to work. They would rather go blind than move out of their own light. But the hut is very useful for island gatherings. Why don’t you have a look in tonight when it gets going?’

Grant said that he would do that, and went away to spend the rest of the day climbing Cladda’s solitary hill. There was no mist today although the wind was still moisture-laden, and as he went upward the seas opened under him, scattered with islands and streaked with the tides. Here and there a single line, unnaturally straight in this arrangement of nature, marked the track of a ship. From the top he had the whole Hebridean world at his feet. He sat there and considered it, this barren water-logged universe, and it seemed to him the ultimate in desolation. A world half-emerged from chaos, formless and void. Looking down on Cladda itself it was impossible to tell, so mixed were sea and land, whether one was looking at a land full of lochs or a sea full of islands. It was a place best left to the grey geese and the seals.

He was happy up there, however; watching the changing patterns on the sea floor, violet and grey and green; watching the sea birds soar to inspect him and the flutter of nesting plovers on the low ground. Thinking about Mr MacKay’s mirages and the stones that walked. Thinking, as he never ceased for any length of time to think, about B Seven. Here was B Seven’s world, according to specification. The singing sands, the talking beasts, the walking stones, the streams that ceased to run. What had B Seven intended to do here? Just to come, as he himself had done, and look?

A flying dash, with an overnight case. That surely portended one of two things: a meeting, or an inspection. Since no one had yet missed him, then it could not have been a rendezvous. Therefore it was an inspection. One could go to inspect many things: a house; a prospect; a painting. But if one was driven to write verse en route then the verse was surely a pointer to the subject for inspection.

What had held B Seven in bondage to this bleak world? Had he been reading too many books by H. G. F. Pynche–Maxwell and his like? Had he forgotten that the silver sands and the wild flowers and the sapphire seas were strictly seasonal?

From the top of the hill at Cladda, Grant sent B Seven a salute and a blessing. But for B Seven he would not be sitting above this sodden world feeling like a king. New-born and self-owning. He was something more than B Seven’s champion now: he was his debtor. His servant.

As he left the shelter he had found for himself the wind caught him in the chest, and he leaned on it as he went downhill as he used to when he was a boy, so that it supported him and he could almost fall downhill in the most surprising manner and still be safe.

‘How long do gales usually last in this part of the world?’ he asked his host as they staggered through the darkness after supper towards the ceilidh.

‘Three days is the minimum,’ Mr Todd said, ‘but that doesn’t happen often. Last winter it blew for a month on end. You got so used to the roar of it that if it died away for a moment you thought you’d gone deaf. You’d be better to fly back, when you go, than cross the Minch in this weather. Most people fly nowadays, even the old people who’ve never seen a train. They take aeroplanes for granted.’

It occurred to Grant that he might indeed fly back. That if he waited another few days, if he had a little longer to grow accustomed to his new-found well-being, he might use the air journey as a test. It would be a pretty severe test; the severest he could subject himself to. To any claustrophobic the prospect of being boxed into a small space and hung helplessly in the air was sheer horror. If he faced it without wincing, and accomplished it without disaster, then he could pronounce himself cured. He would be a man again.

But he would wait a little; it was too early yet to ask himself the question.

The ceilidh had been in progress for some twenty minutes when they arrived, and they stood with the rest of the male population at the back. Only the women and the ancients occupied the chairs in the hall. Except for a row of male heads in the very front, where the Importances of the island sat (Duncan Tavish, the merchant, who was uncrowned king of Cladda, the two Churches, and some lesser lights), the male population lined the walls at the back and clustered round the entrance. It was an abnormally cosmopolitan gathering, Grant noticed, as the outsiders made way for them; both the Swedes and the Hollanders had come in force, and there were accents that belonged to the Aberdeenshire coast.

A girl was singing in a thin soprano. Her voice was sweet and true but without expression. It was like someone trying over an air on a flute. She was succeeded by a self-confident youngish man who received an ovation, on which he plumed himself so obviously that it was funny; one waited for him to bill his breast feathers like a bird. He was a great favourite, it seemed, with audiences of exiled Gaels on the mainland and spent more time being encored there than he did on his neglected croft. He sang a hearty ditty in a rough over-worked tenor and was cheered to the echo. It surprised Grant a little that he had never bothered to learn the rudiments of singing. He must, in his jaunts to the mainland, have met real singers, who had been taught how to use their voices; even in the case of someone so vain it was astonishing that he had not been moved to learn the basis of the art he professed.

Another woman sang another expressionless song, contralto, and a man recited a funny story. Except for the few phrases that he had learned from the old folk in Strathspey when he was a child, Grant understood no Gaelic, and listened as he would have listened to an entertainment in Italian or Tamil. Except for the delight of the people themselves in the thing, it was a sufficiently dull affair. The songs were musically negligible; some of them deplorable. If this was the kind of thing that people came to the Hebrides to ‘gather’, then they were hardly worth the gathering. The few inspired songs had, like all products of inspiration, gone over the world on their own wings. It was better that these feeble imitations should be left to die.

Throughout the concert there was a continuous coming and going among the men at the back of the hall, but Grant had been aware of it only as an obbligato, until his arm was pressed and a voice said in his ear: ‘Could you be doing with a wee drop yourself, perhaps?’ and he realised that Island hospitality was offering him a share of the scarcest commodity known to Island economy. Since it would have been ungracious to refuse, he thanked his benefactor and followed him out into the darkness. Against the lee wall of the meeting-place leaned a representative minority of the male population of Cladda in a contented silence. A flat two-gill bottle was thrust into his hands. ‘Slainte!’ he said, and took a swig of it. A hand, guided by an eye more acclimatised to the dark than his own, took the bottle back from him and a voice wished him health in return. Then he followed his unknown friend back to the lighted hall. Presently he saw Mr Todd being surreptitiously tapped on the arm, and Mr Todd too went out into the darkness to be sustained with something out of the bottle. It could happen nowhere else, Grant thought. Unless in the States during prohibition. Not much wonder that the Scots were silly and arch and coy about whisky. (Except of course in Strathspey, where the stuff was made. In Strathspey they put the bottle in the middle of the table, as matter-of-factly as an Englishman would, if a little more proudly.) Not much wonder that they behaved as if there was something very dashing, not to say, daring, about having a drink of whisky. The surprising, the knowing leer with which the ordinary Scot referred to his national drink could only come from inherited knowledge of prohibition: either the Kirk’s or the Law’s.

Warmed by his mouthful out of the flat bottle, he listened tolerantly to Duncan Tavish being confident and long-winded in Gaelic. He was introducing a guest who had come a long way to speak to them. A guest who needed no introduction from him or from anyone; whose own achievements spoke for themselves. (Nevertheless Duncan spoke for them at length.) Grant did not catch the Gaelic name of the guest, but he was aware that the renegades from outside came pressing in at the sound of the cheering that greeted Mr Tavish’s peroration. Either the speaker was the real interest of the evening or the whisky had given out.

He watched in idle curiosity the small figure detach itself from the front row, clamber up on to the platform with the aid of the piano, and stride into the middle of it.

It was Wee Archie.

Wee Archie looked even odder in Cladda than he had on Clune moor; his stature more inadequate, his cockatoo brightness more startling. The kilt was not the dress of the islands, and among all these sober-coloured males in their thick, stiff clothes he looked more than ever ‘a souvenir doll’. Without his dashing bonnet with its sprouting greenery he looked somehow undressed, like a policeman without his helmet. His hair was very scanty, and was drawn in thin strings across the top of his head to hide the bare patch. He was like something out of a not very expensive Christmas stocking.

However, there was no qualification to the welcome he was given. Apart from the Royal Family, in person and in toto, Grant could think of no one who could be guaranteed the equivalent of the reception that Wee Archie was now being accorded. Even discounting the effect of libations at the lee end, it was surprising. And the silence that succeeded it when he began to talk was flattering. Grant wished that he could see the faces. He remembered that Bella from Lewis had had no use for his back-door proselytising; and what Pat Rankin thought of him would not go through the post. But what did these Islanders, cut off from the world and from the variety that alone could teach a man to judge between this and that, what did these Islanders think of him? Here was the material of his dreams; innocent, acquisitive, self-conscious, egotistical. They could not be subverted to another rule, the Islanders, because no one had ever ruled them in any real sense. A Government was there, as far as the Islanders were concerned, to be milked of benefits and diddled out of its dues. But their separateness could be played upon to alienate sympathy; their opportunism could be sharpened by dangled benefits. In Cladda, Wee Archie was not the embarrassing nonentity he had been at Lochan Dhu; in Cladda he was a possible power. Cladda and all its attendant islands represented, in the ultimate reckoning, submarine bases, smuggling points, stepping-off places, watch-towers, airfields, patrol bases. What did the Islanders think of Gilleasbuig Mac-a’-Bruithainn and his creed? He wished that he could see the faces.

For half an hour Wee Archie spoke to them in his thin, angry voice, with passion and without pause, and they listened without a sound. And then Grant, casting a glance at the rows of seats in front of him, thought that they looked less full than they had been at the beginning of the evening. This was so unlikely that he took his attention from Archie to consider the matter. He caught a stealthy movement along the trough between Row 5 and Row 6 and followed it with his eye until it reached the end of the row. There it stood upright and materialised into the person of Katie–Ann. With no fuss at all Katie–Ann, still with demure eyes fixed on the speaker, faded backwards through the standing rows of males and disappeared into the outer air.

Grant watched a little longer and found that this melting process was continuous, both among the seated audience and among the males standing round the walls. The audience was melting away invisibly under Archie’s very nose. This was so unusual — a country audience will always wait to the end however boring an entertainment — that Grant turned to Mr Todd and whispered: ‘Why are they leaving?’

‘They’re going to watch the ballet.’

‘The ballet?’

‘Television. It’s their great treat. Everything else they see on television is just a version of something they’ve seen already. Plays, and singing, and what not. But ballet is something they’ve never seen before. They wouldn’t miss ballet for anything or anyone. . . . What is so amusing about that?’

But Grant was not amused by Cladda’s passion for ballet. He was enjoying Archie’s so-unlikely disarming. Poor Archie. Poor wee deluded Archie. He had been overthrown by an arabesque, foiled by an entrechat, defeated by a plié. It was fantastically appropriate.

‘Have they gone for good?’

‘Oh, no, they’ll be back for the dance.’

And back they were, in force. Every soul on the island was at the dance; the ancients sitting round, and the active taking the roof off with their wild yelling. It was less agile dancing than Grant was used to on the mainland, less graceful; for Highland dancing one needed the kilt, and the soft thonged shoes that made no sound on the floor and let a man dance like a flame among the sword points. The Island dancing had much of the Irish in it; much of the sad Irish immobility that left the dancing a matter of foot-work only, and not an uprush of joy that filled a man to the last finger-tip of his up-flung hands. But if the dancing itself lacked art and gaiety there was a fine wholesale merriment in its stamping performance. There was room, with some squeezing, for three eightsomes, and sooner or later everyone, including the Swedes and the Hollanders, were dragged into this orgy of exercise. A fiddle and a piano gave out the lovely floating rhythm (for that one needed a regimental band, thought Grant as he swung Katie–Ann into the arms of a delighted Swede, one needed that double drum-beat and pause; it might not be purist but it certainly was effective) and the hands of those at rest beat time. The wind howled along the skylights on the roof, the dancers yelled, the fiddle sawed, and the piano thumped, and a wonderful time was had by all.

Including Alan Grant.

He swayed home through the stinging lash of hail wielded by a pitiless south-wester, and dropped into bed drunk with exercise and fresh air. It had been a delightful day.

It had also been a profitable one. He would have something to tell Ted Hanna when he got back to town. He knew now who Archie Brown’s ‘ravens’ were.

Tonight he did not look at the closed window with misgiving. Nor tonight did he forget it altogether. He looked at the closed window and was glad of it. He had absorbed the Island point of view that a window is there to keep out the weather.

He burrowed into his cotton-quilt nest, out of the wind and the weather, and fell into dreamless depths of sleep.

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