The Shelly Coat: part four

Waiting.  Just waiting.

It seems like a very long time to have been here.  But also no time at all.

It isn’t possible to remember where I was.  Before here.  But I must have been somewhere.  Or, maybe not.

Nothing has changed but everything has changed.  There’s a pile of rocks over there, just before the broken tree but after the little river.  That pile of rocks used to be bigger.  And there were people living in it.  Before them there were other people.   And the pile of rocks was tall.  And other people came to the place and threw fire at it.  And the people inside were eventually pulled out and cut down on the flat earth outside.  Then they all went away and I was left by myself.  Waiting.  As the rocks began to fall, one by one.

And the trees!  The trees have been and gone many times.  Once, about as far back as I can remember, the trees were everywhere.  There were trees in the very bottom of the valley, right up to the tops of the hills.  There were hardly any people, which made waiting all the more boring.  But, still, there were trees and trees and trees.

I’m not even sure why I am waiting.

But I am good at it.  Every now and then, someone comes close and I stop waiting.  But it seems that in the past little while, there have been fewer people coming close.  So, I have started to not wait.  But to go.  This has made all of the difference.   The last one.  That was funny.  He made…I think it was he…he made funny little noises, like words but not like words.  Just sounds.  He looked sad at the end.  It made me feel sad.  But not for very long.

I walked to a new place.  I went very slowly, so that he wouldn’t hear me.  I do this sometimes.  It makes the surprise better.

This new place is a very old place that I knew a long time ago.  There’s a rock in the middle of a field.  There were many more rocks here before, but not now.  The man who lives in the big, white house in the valley is the last of a line of men who took the other rocks away a long time ago.  But I remember when there were many rocks.  There were people here as well.  They thought no-one could see them, but I could see them, through the trees.  While I waited.

I think I will go back there again.  Yes, I will go.  And when I get there I will wait.  I will not have to wait for long.

The Shelly Coat: part three.

The mist was rippled by a slight breeze as he walked across the gravel to the porch and the front door.  The tops of the pines at the far side of the field over the road were still hidden, but it looked as if the mist was finally moving away.  The eerie, quiet whiteness unnerved him.  It was when the world was at its most still that unfortunate things happened.  Or so it had seemed.

He looked back along the road as he reached into his pocket for the keys.  He was expecting a delivery this morning and didn’t want to miss the lorry.  He was completely out of Thomas The Rhymer and his regulars wouldn’t let him off another night without any.  Silly buggers, there were plenty of other bottles of cider, ales and spirits.  Creatures of habit, though, the local ale was his best seller to his regulars and he’d be buggered to lose money if he could help it.  No sign of the lorry,  he unlocked the door and walked into his pub.  Turning on the lights, he smiled as he looked around the bar.

The Hoppringle was his pride and joy, which he knew was a bit of a cliché, but one that was true.  Once a large farmhouse with a stone courtyard, for at least two centuries it  had served the old road as an Inn.  Built of solid, stone walls, it was, he thought, a rather beautiful place.  Bare wooden floors shone with a polish and colour that only the passing of time could provide.  The grey walls inside showed the old prints on the plastered walls to good effect, sharply contrasting with the golden wood that panelled parts of the room.  Just right.

The marks in the wooden door and window frames were all intact, he was relieved to see, and he’d already noted that there was no sign of any disturbance in the gravel outside the pub.  All good, then, he sighed.

He took the log basket he’d filled the previous evening from the log store outside up to the pot-bellied stove in the corner and started building a fire to warm the bar up.  He could see his breath in the air, even inside, on days like this.  It was always noticeably colder up here on the ridge road, compared to down in the village.  He shivered and stood up from the stove, taking from his pocket the red yarn wound tightly around an old bobbin.  In his other pocket, he felt for the little plastic envelope which contained the berries and rowan twigs.  He’d see to this later, he thought.

A sharp blast of a loud horn announced the arrival of the draymen.  At least Janey wouldn’t have to endure another night of moaning from the locals, providing the keg of Thomas was here.  And where the hell was she anyway?  Not like her to be late.

He walked across the room, checking that the fire in the stove had taken, towards the door.  He pulled it open and met Lanney, his regular brewery drayman.  Lanney was scratching under his wooly hat with a pencil.  He liked Lanney. One of the good guys around here.  He was also a regular, which still struck John as odd.  He’d be as well drinking at work and saving time and money than trecking up to the pub.

‘Alright, Lanney,’ he said.

‘Hiya John.  Six kegs, aye?’


It was at least half an hour later than Janey finally arrived.

‘Afternoon, Janey’, said John.

‘Aye, very good, John.  I’m not that late.  I’m sorry, the bus was ridiculously behind,’ she replied, as she hurried across to behind the bar, taking her coat off as she walked. ‘I’d have called you, but you know what the signal’s like at the stop?’

‘Aye, alright Janey, no bother.  The brewery delivered, so at least we’ve got Thomas for tonight.’

‘Thank God for that.  I couldn’t be bothered having Roddie whining on and on again, like last night’.

John smiled.  Maybe it was going to be a good day after all.


Around five o’clock, the pub was warm, cosy and beginning to get busier again. Outside, the land had disappeared into the night.  The mist had cleared during the day and now it was cloudless and very cold.  A slight frost was glistening already and, judging by how many stars glowed overhead, it was to be colder still.  The sky had that faint snow smell that the farmers knew well.   By the end of the week, the snow would cover the hills, much later than normal this year. Inside, the lamps gave off a warm, subdued glow.  The music in the background was just right with Maddy Prior’s voice just audible above the friendly conversations that were taking place.

Roddie was perched on his usual stool by the bar, a pint of Thomas in one hand and a vaporizer in the other.   He was chatting to Janey, his left leg bouncing up and down repeatedly, as always happened when he was talking about something he had an opinion on.  On this occasion, Brexit.    John watched them both from the corner of his eye as he collected empties from across the room.  The pub has been busy that afternoon, thanks to the ramblers from Gala.  Janey was smiling slightly at Roddie, whilst she twisted willow stalks in her hands.

John could tell that Janey was enjoying the chat, even if her expression  said otherwise.  She was used to the peculiarities of his customers after all these years.  Roddie was harmless.  Just lonely.  And far too bloody chatty.  It must be difficult for him, though, stuck up at Cauldhaugh ever since Malcie had gone.

Thinking of Malcie always made John’s cheeks burn red and he was thankful that no-one was watching him.  He gathered up the empty glasses and took them behind the bar to the sink.  Roddie was still talking, but John wasn’t listening.  It was only when Janey touched him lightly on the arm that he began to listen again.  Janey leaned in closely, turning her back on Roddie.  Roddie didn’t seem to notice, or care, that his audience was moving away.  Maddy Prior had been replaced by Toni Arthur and Roddie was now in full song.

‘Did you see that there’s been another one, John?’, she asked.

‘Another what, Janey?’

‘You know what.  At the Sentinel Stone, this time.’

‘Ach, Janey, that was early last year.  You must have seen the posters, surely?  It was all over the news, too’, said John.

‘No.  I didn’t.  I don’t know why.  That was when I went to Edinburgh, to the University, to see Bethan.  But, John, The Sentinel Stone.  It’s getting closer.  That can’t be good, can it?  What does it mean?’.

Janey looked a little scared, he was surprised to see.

“It was last February, Janey.  I think we’re okay now.’

Janey wasn’t convinced.  ‘You saw the marks on the wood, didn’t you?  That daft bugger’s been trying to erase them, hasn’t she?  She thinks if she rubs them out, it’ll let it loose, doesn’t she?’

John stopped polishing the pint glass he was holding.  He turned to look at her, smiling.

‘Janey.  The marks are all still there.  Not that that matters a bit.  If that daft old bitch wants to play games, then let her. We’re safe.  We follow the rules and we stay safe.  Now, don’t worry.  Go and see what Roddie wants, will you?  He looks like he’s never had a drink in his life, the way he’s waving that pint glass at us like a loon.’

As she walked away, John’s eyes flicked to the dark grooves and patterns in the beams by the window.  They all looked right.  Didn’t they?  He picked up another clean glass and polished it, without thinking.






The Shelly Coat: part two.

The bus was late again.  This wasn’t unusual and she didn’t mind at all.  The sooner it arrived, the sooner she’d have to start work and that could wait.  If only it was a bit warmer.

The mist still hadn’t shifted and that made her feel sad.  This time of year usually did, but something had changed in the last month that she couldn’t quite explain.  She shivered, drawing her collar higher up.  Sighing, looking at her watch again, she shifted her position against the bus shelter seat that wasn’t a seat.  It was more like a shelf that you had to prop up against.  At her age, she could have done with a proper sit down.

She smiled.  At her age, she shouldn’t be working at all, in which case she could be back in her cottage in front of the fire.  Life hadn’t quite worked out as planned, though, had it?

She stood up, trying to stamp some warmth into her legs.  She turned, glancing at the notices someone had taped to the scarred plastic windows in the shelter.  Two new homemade posters begged for help in finding missing cats.  Peachy and Sparky.  One black, one white.  Ebony and Ivory, she hummed.

The older posters carried other photographs.  Missing: Jakob Drewes, 23, from Bonn. Last seen, 17/01/18 on the Borders Towers Way near Scarrigg Water.   And, next to the fading photograph of the German student, his friendly, bearded face fading as the seasons bleached the printer ink, another face.  Missing –  Aylie Liddel, 17, from Galashiels. Last seen walking near the bus stop at the Sentinel Stone, February 2019. 

She sniffed.  The hopes that these folk had, desperate to see their loved ones again.  She  had felt like that once, long ago.  She remembered putting notices up, full of expectation and terror, checking every day for months that her posters could be seen.  She had walked the paths around the village and beyond the valley every other day, terrified of missing a call from the Police but fearful of doing nothing but wait.  That’s when she had started going to The Hoppringle.  At first, it was to talk with the landlord, John, to see if there was any news.  Then, to talk with the customers to see if they could help her; locals mostly but with hillwalkers and cyclists regularly visiting.  No-one ever had any news of any use.  Visiting more frequently, she had become a regular herself without realising.  After a few months, John had asked if she needed work, with money not coming in any more.  Her job there had now lasted a little over fifteen years.  And still, she had no news. Or, rather no news that anyone sane would believe.

The Hoppringle Inn  was one of the best old pubs in the county.  Everyone said so.  At least two hundred years old –  the souvenir T-shirts and mugs claimed 400 years – the pub was a  sturdy stone building, two storeys tall and cosy in winter with the fires burning.  Halfway along the Towers Way, the pub had become increasingly popular with walkers and cyclists and less so with locals.  Nothing to do with the influx of strangers and more to do with drink driving checks and the smoking ban, there was still a loyal following of Borders who still visited regularly.  Real Ales, dogs welcomed and football barred, she loved it.  John’s only concession to the outside world was a jukebox and a fading Saltire fluttering outside, the word Yes printed across it.  Were it not for these intrusions, the pub could be a hundred years ago.  That’s what folk said.

She shivered again.  Where the hell was the bus?  It was definitely getting colder.  She took out her mobile, wondering whether to call John.  The wind picked up, her coat flapped around her legs and she tightened her belt, hugging her arms together and hopping from foot to foot.  No cars had passed on the road for some time.  She wondered if Alasdair would be on his way soon.  Or, maybe, Mary.  Either would be able to give her a lift, as the pub quiz would be sure to include them both.  It usually did.

It was beginning to get dark, now.  The bus stop was in an exposed spot, overlooking the river valley.  The dry stane dykes that lined the verges on either sign of the road providing a bit of a shelter, but this was a bitterly cold place to have to wait.   The Hawthorns and Scots Pines that managed to grow here were more twisted and stunted than elsewhere, showing their shared history of storms and high winds that blew along the valley.  Only gorse seemed happy here, and the rough, shaggy grass that grew in strange waves and bumps on the ground.  Too far outside the village to be useful to most, she normally had the shelter to herself.  Only occasionally did anyone from Calzeanie Farm use the stop, preferring their pick ups or ATVs to the infrequent buses.

She began to think that maybe she should retrace her steps, back down the hill and home.  She could call John and explain.  He’d understand.  She turned round, unsure of what to do next.  Her eye caught the face of Jakob Drewes, 23, from Bonn.  Glancing again at his poster, an email address begged for information to be sent to Helmut and Suzie Drewes.

Oh, Helmut, Oh, Suzie.  That’s not going to happen, is it, loves?  Not now.  She had received no good news fifteen years ago and nor, now, would they.  Eventually, she was sure, they would move beyond grief but they would never be able to understand what had happened to poor, handsome, friendly Jakob.  Nobody could possibly understand.  Except the Shelly Coat, of course.  The Shelly Coat knew why, when and where.  But would never tell.

The red and cream bus was announced by the sound of hissing breaks, bringing her back to the present.  She climbed aboard, nodding her usual greeting to Tam the driver.  Wearily, she sat down, thinking of the Hoppringle and the work that awaited.


The Shelly Coat: part one.

The mist which was hiding the tops of the hills and sinking, reaching, down into the valley, had not budged in two days.  The trees which, when lit by bright autumn sunshine, had looked golden, ruby red, now looked ill.  Diseased.  Jaundiced.  Most had lost their leaves, almost overnight.

Every frond on each fern he could see, looked sharp and slick, moisture glistening in the pale, grey light.  The relief in which he saw everything seemed far too sharp today, despite his pounding headache.  The brambles’ long stems which were covered in sharp thorns, seemed to reach toward him as he slid and slipped and tried to find his way back to the path.

He had left the farm very early, when it was still dark.  All he wanted was quiet and to be alone.  Already, though, the record player had been opened, with a very old recording of Annette Hanshaw’s Little White Lies playing.  Again.  Leaving the song crackling away in the empty kitchen, he’d slipped out of the door, trying to close it without the usual loud clunk of the latch.

Clear of the house, crunching as quietly as he could across the frosty gravel, he’d felt his mood lighten just by leaving the farm behind and climbing up the gentle slope that led from the house to the stile beside the tree-line and the way to the hills above.  That had been four hours ago.

Now, as he reached the crest of a small, pointed hill, he sat down on a large rock.  The rock was one of his favourite places to walk to, the size of a door, rounded by centuries of frost, wind and rain.  When his brother has still been here, they had played up here as children, performing their spells at the ‘Druid temple’.

As he sat here now, he realised that his biggest problem was not that he wanted to be left alone.  No, his biggest problem was that he was being left alone.

On social media, when he looked at what his friends were doing, he was one of the many Thumbs Ups, Hearts or Likes , retweeting the hell of out of others.  He watched the interesting, exciting lives of others: he watched the nights out and celebrations his friends were gathering at; the birthday parties that his friends with kids were organising; the holidays his old school mates were travelling to, grinning in anticipation of the sun to be.  And he was never there.  Years ago, he had been, in the background, smiling shyly.  Or, overcompensating, he was in the forefront, drunk and performing – glad to be someone else for a night.  But, now, he gave his unasked for approval to remote and increasingly distant folk who neither valued his Likes, or missed them when he failed to.

He could, he thought, sit on his rock, here, until he mouldered to a carcass and no-one would notice.  He could retrace his steps back down and just wade into the winding river at the heart of the valley and disappear into the silver water.  No-one would rise up in alarm, looking for him.

You could drown in a puddle.  He was sure he’d heard that.

He could, he thought and warming to the subject, lie down on the rails that brought the trains through the valley, tracing a line close to the river or rushing away through the woods or fields.  This would show them, he thought.  Well, maybe not.  Folk would notice, but only if they were trying to catch the hourly service to Edinburgh.  It had happened before: the commutes cancelled by A Person Hit By A Train. We’re sorry to announce.   Automated indifference.  Makes a change from Train Faults.

He’d heard folk on the trains, moaning about the inconvenience of the delays, before.  Lives lost, with delay repays offered in remembrance for the living.  Providing you were inconvenienced for longer than thirty minutes, of course.

In the trees nearby, a loud sudden flapping of wings in the branches of a pine, brought him back to the present.  Suddenly chilled by the mist, he shivered. Smiling slightly, he shook his head, disappointed in how quickly he’d turned his wake up bad mood and feeling of dread into his own private abyss.  He stood up, patting his jacket pocket for his cigarettes.  Finding the packet and his lighter, he lit one, puffing out a couple of clouds of smoke which vanished into the mist.  He turned and made his way back to the path which led down the hill, though the wood.

The path he was following was really little more than a rough sheep track which ran downwards towards the river valley below.  The woods he was walking in were ancient, mostly of birch, oak and Scots Pine.  Red squirrels sometimes made themselves known to him, but mostly this was a place of buzzards and deer.  Very few folk made their way up here from the village.  The other paths that led through the big house’s estate was where the joggers, dog walkers and kids on their bikes went.  Up here, beyond their farm, the road came to an end after about a mile and then the old, old wood was all there was.  Unless you were looking for the hill fort higher up, the other ruined farmhouse, or the stone he’d been sitting on, there was no other reason to come up here.  The valley stopped beyond the wood, ending in a steep hill, beyond which there was nothing but a wind farm.  No-one ever bothered coming to this wood, except him and the sheep.  The wood, dense and dark, had been left alone for a very long time and he hoped it would always be left alone.

After twenty minutes or so, he emerged from the wood and continued to walk down over the rough pasture that covered the slope of the hill.  Now and then, he passed alongside the stone dykes, covered in thick green moss, many of which had collapsed.  Cubist, alien plantations of pine interrupted his view and his path, forcing him to follow their sharp outlines and rough, awkward corners and climb over a number of metal gates.  The path, heavily rutted by the tractor now,  led along a level that led to an older, wooden gate.  This  marked the end of the farm and the start of the neighbouring estate, vast and empty.  Up here, the south felt like the north, rugged and remote. It could be Sutherland or Caithness, if you didn’t know better.  He liked this empty place, the path continuing to another, ruined farm.  No-one had lived here for over one hundred years and the farmhouse was a broken, stone shell.


Surrounded by an intricate maze of stone dykes that led to a courtyard, the old house had long ago lost its roof, windows and floors.  All that remained was a gaunt, stone wall, broken by where folk had once sat, looking out at the weather, their rooms cosy by firelight or lamps. He went inside what had once been the front door.

Chimney pots perched on each gable, like fingers pointing, while in one space that had once been a room,  a cast iron fireplace still stood.  Looking out of the space for a window, he would have been able to see up the valley on a good day.  Today, though, with the mist still thick, he could only look across the empty, rough grasses of the former fields.  Beyond, the valley and village remained hidden.  In what had once been a small garden, the metal support for a single bed mattress lay flat, grass growing through the diamond-shaping gaps between the stretched wires still held by the bed frame.

He sat on a stone step and lit another cigarette.  At his foot, a faded Irn Bru can lay rusting in the dirt.  He kicked it aside with his boot, angry at this modern intrusion to his own private world.  Raising his eyes, he looked for the old milk bottle he’d found here years ago, half-buried in the ground.  It was still there, where he had left it.  The word Kelso raised along one side.  He wondered again how long it had been here.  Had it been here on the day the tenants left this house for the last time?  The farm, still known – if anyone ever bothered speaking about it at all – by the name Rowancross – was one of the oldest settlements in the valley.  It survived for hundreds of years, until the twentieth century.  He didn’t know why it had been abandoned, but imagined some great tragedy.  Maybe war?  Or murder?  Or maybe, the folk were scared away.

He shivered again.  It was here that his brother, his stupid, annoying brother that he missed with all his heart, had first told him about The Shelly Coat. He stood up, nipping the cigarette between his thumb and index finger, dropping the scraps of unburnt tobacco on the ground and putting the cigarette butt in his pocket.  Turning out of the front door, he looked round and, as always, said quietly, ‘Bye again’.

With lighter steps, he walked away from Rowancross, down the path to the road.