by Rachael McGill
I was leaving the home, its stink of porridge and skin, Granny Elspeth’s stuff in a Co-op bag for life (also useful for death). There was a woman with my face: small, round eyes, button nose, flat space above the upper lip. I wouldn’t have paused – my features aren’t those of my ancestors, just of anyone whose mother was pissed throughout their gestation – except this person was in a floury apron. It was a photo from 1906.
Kathleen, the care assistant, breathed by my ear, ‘That’s from when this building was a poor house.’
The pickled at birth woman in 1906 looked like she’d just tasted someone’s shortbread at a Sunday tea and it was the kind that breaks your teeth, not the melt-in-your mouth sort Granny Elspeth made. Or like me when I’ve got murderous rage inside, but I’m telling myself it never helps to make a fuss.
‘Recognise someone?’ Kathleen asked. Then realised that sounded rude, went pink. I wasn’t looking at her, but I know her mother and aunties. They insult, then go pink. Unless the person they’re insulting isn’t present. Then they’re pale as ice.
‘She looks like me,’ I said. ‘And she’s been baking.’
‘She could be your…’
‘Great great grandmother?’
‘Do you know your great great grandmother’s name? Maybe there’s a record.’
‘It’s the same as mine,’ I said. ‘I was named after my grandmother. She told me she was named after hers. She never knew her, though.’
Kathleen said, ‘oooh!’ though this was hardly novel in a place where 90% of the women were called Jean. ‘If you want to find out, I can ask…’
All I wanted was to enjoy the feeling that now Granny Elspeth was gone, I could get back to my big city, never see the freezing rock I was born on again.
I went to the beach. That swoosh and suck of sea, slate blue horizon, empty dome of sky. Soothing like nothing else. To get there, though, I had to nod at bitchiness disguised as small-talk from six different fat, permed wifies. Everyone offered their opinion on Granny Elspeth. While they were at it, they chucked in their opinions of my mother and me:
Elspeth the baker (Granny Elspeth): ‘ran that bakery all on her own. Most successful business woman we’ve ever had.’
Not a compliment, an insult. Normal women didn’t run things on their own.
Poor Anne (my mother): ‘poor Anne, she was always delicate (or sometimes: ‘Anne was so funny! She used to dance behind the sofa!’). Such a pity when she lost the bakery. It was the drink that killed her in the end, wasn’t it?’
To which I replied, silently, ‘It was Tesco’s that killed her.’
Elspeth that left (me): ‘You don’t come back much, do you? South’s got more to offer, has it, lots of opportunities?’
I said, ‘it’s difficult in the cities too.’ That was dismissed with a ‘your generation don’t know difficult’ look, then ‘didn’t want to bake bannocks like the rest of your family? What is it you do?’
‘I trained as a youth worker, but at the moment –’
‘Playing with bairns for a job! So you do like bairns! You’ll be back, maybe, when you decide to have your own?’
If you trained in a new-fangled profession like youth work, ‘cause there were no jobs for bakers, then left the island when its only youth centre closed, that wasn’t the island’s fault. It was yours.
I walked till the tide stopped me. The sun wasn’t shining, of course, but I wished I’d brought sunglasses. That glaring, white light. Air so clean it makes you dizzy. Or maybe I was dizzy cause of not having lunch. Food was pricey here. I was making the leftovers from the funeral last.
I followed the shoreline back to town, trying to calculate the best route to avoid my close-knit community. Grey clouds drowned in the sea. The whole sky stretched towards the north.
Elspeth couldn’t sleep. Hunger gnawed at her insides. She’d been cooped up in a room the size of a cupboard all day, fretting about what she was going to do that night, at the quietest hour. Even when she did doze off, she couldn’t dream. Her dreams usually contained scones, bannocks, yeast cakes, treacle biscuits, shortbread. She ate in her sleep to make up for having only turnip soup all day.
She stared out of the small window at the yard. Light from the candles in the night warden’s room illuminated the flagstones. They shone black from the day’s rain. A smashed egg near the hen house reminded Elspeth of her shame. She was in confinement for stealing an egg. She didn’t care about being alone – the other ‘poor ladies’ didn’t speak to her anyway. Her flat nose disturbed them. They thought she was touched. She cared that her baking privileges would end. For the last week she’d been allowed in the kitchen to make bread. The cook and warden had realised it saved money. On the third day, oat biscuits had been authorised too.
Baking brought memories and tears at first: learning to make shortbread in her brother’s shop while her daughter Jean slept in a cot made of two fish boxes, in the warm place by the oven. Longer ago, baking in her own cottage for her husband and three children, when they were all still alive. After a while, the past retreated. She was in the happy present of fingers in dough. Until that stolen, hastily scrambled egg: the most delicious thing she’d ever tasted.
She hoped the bakery was thriving, her daughter learning the trade. Elspeth’s brother thought it best for Jean not to know Elspeth. Perhaps she’d be told when she was grown up, might choose to visit her real mother in the poor house. Elspeth wasn’t planning to live that long. That night she would do what Kathleen had done with the cord from her dressing gown. Since Kathleen, the cords had been taken from the dressing gowns, buttons sewn on instead. A torn up pillow case would do just as well.
It was not that Elspeth’s life in the poor house had become unbearable. Her life had been unbearable since the sea took her husband and the fever her two boys. It was that it had got better, when they let her bake, turned their backs long enough for her to scramble an egg.
I was only away a week – trying to organise more time would’ve been a hassle I didn’t have the energy for – but a week on the island’s like a month anywhere else. When I got home, the bins on my street looked space-age modern, my tiny, damp flat pretentiously high-ceilinged.
I was jumpy, always am after being back in that place. I got it into my head that baking a pizza would calm me. Maybe even some shortbread, a goodbye to Granny Elspeth, my flat-faced possible great great grandmother, the other sad, drunk bakers. I went round the supermarket at bargain time, pleased to find a pock-marked courgette for 20p. My card was declined. I had some copper in my purse for the courgette, had to put the flour and tins back. No one paid any attention: that felt good.
Nothing I could do till offices opened in the morning. No food in the house. I fried the courgette. Not the worst dinner I’ve had when they’ve messed up my payments.
OK, it was more of a mini-omelette. There was an egg as well. I swiped it from the big stacks in the Indian shop, pretending to look at toilet roll. The bloke might’ve seen. He didn’t say anything either. The city’s kind.
I was on the phone with the bastards for an hour the next day, irritable cause I’d only had black tea for breakfast. I explained I’d got permission from my job-seeking advisor, rearranged my interview at Superdrug. But Superdrug claimed I hadn’t. Benefit suspended for a month. I’d have had spare cash if it wasn’t for the coach fare and the boat to the island. Apparently, the new policy is to stop payments immediately. You get the letter telling you they’ve done it a week later. When I asked why, the teenager at the end of the phone read off a sheet: ‘so people understand the consequences of their actions or inactions.’ My action was to bury my Granny. I didn’t say ‘what about the consequences of your actions or inactions?’ They note you down as a troublemaker, then they’re more likely to sanction you again.
I was kicking myself for not keeping some of the egg. The bins at the back of the shopping centre were empty. They must’ve got sick of hungry people hanging about, found a secret stash for the out of date sandwiches. I couldn’t face going to see someone to sponge off them. I went to the food bank, stood in a queue behind women with kids.
My three day emergency parcel included a packet of Tesco’s own brand value shortbread. Looking at it made me feel like never eating again. Never doing anything again. At the door, I stopped a woman with twin babies in a buggy, and said ‘take it.’ She muttered ‘cheers,’ didn’t look at me. One of the babies did. It chuckled, said ‘arba.’
At least I don’t have kids to support. First off the island, first not to be a baker, the end of the line.
Rachael McGill was born in Shetland. She lives with one foot in Britain, the other in Lisbon. She’s a professional playwright and has recently finished a novel. Her fiction has been published in The Asham Award anthology, the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday Short Story Collection, and by Far Off Places, The Pygmy Giant and Litro.