My Father's

Candia McWilliam
My father was always attending to the residences, abodes, castles, byres, doocots, follies, palaces, huntingtowers, keeps, but and bens and ruins of Scotland. The country then was full of houses lying open to its consuming rain, their roofs dynamited off by owners no longer wanting to pay rates.

I grew up jealous of buildings. Buildings were inexhaustible work and recreation. The matter of saving houses is associated now with styles of life and with an upholstered luxury that is as destructive as the death-watch beetle. My father was suspicious of comfort; he preferred cigarettes to food. Tentative and ironic in speech, he mocked the gap between gloss and truth. He trespassed everywhere (in Scotland there is no law of trespass, he said, and scaled a fence blaring with prohibitions) hunting the forgotten, the untraced, the deserted brides among houses.

When involved with a house, he was dangerous. I do not remember often suspending a tension and concern for either of my parents. He climed up ruins and along cracking beams, with more relish the higher and fainter the structure. Then he would forget his camera up there, so that he had to go back, past the willow-herb and toads and lifting roof-lead, or on his stomach along the splintering joists.

Once, we broached a house whose facade was a big classical dishface, curving in to a pediment yellow and crumbling as demerara sugar. A deer-faced woman in many old garments answered. Prepared by my self-consciousness and by experience for someone deranged or very old, I wasn't expecting this alert character. My father asked about the house and whether he might come in, somehow making it clear he was not selling anything nor wanting to do more than share his enthusiasm for William Adam.

The lawn was full of groundsel and plantain. It was moving by entanglement over the gravel to the house.

"Go away, we fly to America tomorrow," lied the I realized beautiful woman with spirit. Fly to America! A place so other that it might be brandished in that way, to hold off the little man. The woman used the exotic name as a spell to keep the sleep on her house that was swooning into ochre dust.

My father, understanding but frustrated, got back into the car, and we spun and jarred our way back down the drive under the settling rookeries, pursued by a blue dog the height of the brambles, heavy mayoral fat on its walrus back.

Suddenly the dog fell back, recoiling on to its crupper as though pulled. We caught on a high stone between the wet ruts of the drive. Fists pummelled the back window and then, holding on to the car for a footing, the beautiful liar came round to my father's side window and put her hand flat up to it till the palm was pale. He wound down the window with a can-opening movement, and the woman's voice said, "Come in for a drink. We think we like you." Like another deer, her husband had been watching us from the wet roses beside the house.

In the drawing-room that was cold as a disused quarry the dog was the source of heat. Batons of Brussels sprout tops like green maces stuck out of a jug in the fireplace. Perhaps the deer couple cracked off some sprouts when it was time to dine, in a dining room whose ceiling rested for the most part on its long, oxblood-red, plaster-dimmed table.

--- From The Many Colours of Blood
in The Granta Book of the Family,
Granta Books, London (1995)

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