Monday, December 7, 2009


It was still quite dark at six that morning, and there was frost on the windows when he came downstairs. He stirred the embers in the kitchen fireplace, crouching in his khaki greatcoat, and in minutes the fire was ablaze again; its light flickering on the low ceiling.

A thin blanket of snow had fallen during the night. In the yard outside, the old man filled the blackened kettle from the pump by the back door, and set it on the iron grid over the kitchen fire.

When he carried her tea upstairs on the Chinese lacquer tray his wife lay in just the same position on the pillows. Her face was gray and taut, and she gave him no sign of recognition.

He put the tray on the table and sat beside her on the bed, poured the tea, and took her hands, warming them.

"How d’you feel, then, Janet?"

She smiled. It was a detached, affectionate smile, but she said nothing.

She left the tea untouched and lay still, her eyes fixed on the patchwork quilt.

It was lighter now, but there was little to see in the room. The bed, a small night table and a narrow, painted closet. On the table was a colored photograph of an auburn-haired young woman. She stood in brilliant sunshine in front of a big, colonnaded gray stone building, dressed in a nurse’s uniform.

The old man made some comment about the cold, but Janet made no reply.

She’d never been like this before. He could tell she was fading, and inside him he knew she’d be gone before the day was over.

Without shaving on this December morning, he dressed in clothes he had worn yesterday and the day before. Down in the kitchen he took a writing pad and a stub of pencil from the drawer in the table and wrote a brief letter. The writing was clear, rounded and labored, and the words unlettered and elementary, but a blend of candor and affection compensated for whatever the note may have lacked in fluency. It assumed what was now inevitable, gave a compassionately untruthful reassurance that there had been no pain, and added that there was no need to come all the way home to Invercairn.

He folded the letter and slipped it into his pocket. It took more than thirty minutes to walk to the post office in the village. On his way through the beech wood he heard the sharp crack of shotguns, and voices calling through the trees.

He walked down the sweeping road to the wrought-iron gates at the entrance to the park. Beyond the gates, on the road to Invercairn, one or two cars passed, the sound of their wheels muffled by the snow.

Across the fields, between the road and the river, pheasants strutted, their tails rigid, and hares froze as he passed. At the water mill, icicles hung from the rotted woodwork of the wheel, like frozen stalactites.

It was warm in the post office, with the sweet smell of kerosene. Behind the counter, Lizzie McPhearson, post-mistress at Invercairn for more than forty years, was writing numbers in her ledger.

"Hamish Jackson. Look at you squinting, man. You've left your spectacles at home again!"

“Aye, I have too, Lizzie. I think I’ll forget my own head one day soon!”

He drew his own and his wife's pension money and, stooping to read his shopping list, bought a few small items: some tobacco, a new pencil, six envelopes, and an air-mail postage stamp.

"How's Janet, Hamish? Is she any better today?"

"No. She's sleeping. That's all she does now -- sleeps."

"Never you mind. Winter's nearly half-way gone. She'll soon be right as rain. And Ian Lawson's the best doctor in Aberdeenshire . . ."

The telephone rang, and Lizzie McPhearson was no longer with him.

Hamish filled the envelope, addressed, sealed and stamped it, and mailed it in the red pillar box outside.

Snow fell over the fields as he walked home. Not far from the edge of the village the big black Rolls Royce from the castle drove past, traveling in the same direction. He recognized McLeod, the chauffeur, who seemed not to notice him. As it passed, a small girl waved from the rear window.

When he reached the cottage Ian Lawson, the doctor, was waiting, his estate car parked in the yard outside the back door. A black Labrador dog crouched on the passenger seat, its nose pressed to the windscreen. It barked as the old man approached. The two men shook hands, even though they met every day.

"Hello, Hamish, how is she?"

"Nae so bad, doctor. She slept all night again. Hardly stirred. You've put something strong in them tablets."

"They'll give her some rest, and take the pain away. Shall we take a look at her?"

Hamish led the doctor up the short, steep staircase, and paused at the door, uncertain of what they might find in the cold room.

Janet was asleep. He touched her arm and she opened her eyes. Leaving her with the doctor he went down to the kitchen, putting on the kettle for the doctor to wash his hands.

Through the kitchen window he could see the shooting party from the castle leaving the wood -- four men, three women, some children, and a cluster of jumping dogs. Several loaders walked behind them, their guns under their arms, their barrels broken. Each carried a clutch of game birds.

The black iron door bell jangled in the kitchen on its coiled spiral. Then, at the door was a small boy, dressed in a blue Arran jersey, corduroys and boots.

"Hello, Master Alexander."

"Good morning, Jackson." The child's manner and self-assurance were more those of a grown man than a boy of eight.

The boy carried two cock pheasants, their limp necks tied together with coarse string.

"Grandfather says would you like a brace of pheasants? We shot them this morning."

Hamish thanked the boy, taking them.



"Grandfather says Mrs. Jackson’s dying. Is she really going to die?"

Hamish paused. "Aye, Alex. I do believe she is."

The boy did not reply. Hamish looked down at him. The child stepped back a few paces, his eyes fixed on the old man. Then he turned and ran back to the shooting party, who were by now half-way up the slope to the castle. He was calling them excitedly, but Hamish could not hear the words.

The doctor was upstairs for nearly an hour. When he came down he did not, as he usually did, reach for his coat from the hook on the door. Instead, he sat down by the fireplace.

Hamish waited by the window, still in his Army coat, his hands deep in the pockets.

"We've . . . we’ve done all we can, Hamish. You were at the hospital during the operation, and here for the past few weeks. You've seen it all. We've talked about it often, haven’t we? If she was younger there'd be some hope, but you're both in your eighties . . ."

"She's going to die today, isn’t she?"

"Well . . . yes, I think it’s likely, but --" He shook his head. "-- I can’t be certain."

The doctor rested both hands on the old man's shoulders.

"I'm sorry, Hamish, but there's little we can do now."

In the yard, the dog barked again as they appeared together. The wheels spun on the snow-covered ground, and in seconds the car was gone.

Throughout the afternoon Hamish sat by the kitchen fire. From time to time he made hesitant visits to the upstairs room. Each time she was in the same position with the same expression. Her breathing was barely audible. But there was a little warmth under the blankets.

It was dark shortly after four in the afternoon. He lit the lamp and put it on the kitchen table. There were no more callers from the castle. Outside the window half an inch of snow had settled on the sill.

At seven he went back to the room, but this time there was no breathing, and no warmth. Her eyes were closed, and one arm seemed to reach toward the door of the room.

For a moment he sat beside her on the bed holding her outstretched hand, which he had done so many times during the past months, to comfort them both.

He slipped under the covers, lying with one arm across her already cold body. After months of broken, watchful nights he slept until mid-morning; waking to see the garden under heavy snow, still falling.

* * *

Six days later, on Christmas Eve, radio station 3XY forecast 90 degrees. Dressed in her uniform, Sister Christie Jackson steeped out into the already hot Australian summer sun and unlocked her mail box in Glenhuntly Road, Melbourne.

There were three Christmas cards, a Telecom reminder and a letter postmarked Invercairn, Scotland.

Her father rarely wrote, but she always looked forward to his letter at Christmas, in time for Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year.

Standing on the sidewalk, waiting for a # 67 tram, she opened the envelope. On a sheet of yellow ruled notepaper, the writing was clear, rounded and labored.

But there was no letter; not the usual end-of-year family news. There was nothing in the envelope but a hastily-written shopping list, in pencil:

pension, stamp, envelops, tobaco, pencil.

Standing among strangers at the tram stop, Christie Jackson laughed aloud.

"Oh, Dad," she said. "You silly old fool! You forgot your spectacles again!"

Still laughing, she stepped down from the tram at Prince Henry's Hospital, screwed up the note, and tossed it into a nearby trash bin.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


I met my first American when I was about twelve years old, and it was maybe four or five years more before I met another one. I was about twenty when I encountered more than one of them simultaneously. Now, of course, I’m surrounded by them. Indeed, I actually live with one here in Manhattan.

It’s probably hard for an American to accept that, to the average stay-at-home Brit, an American is just another brand of foreigner, no different from a Moroccan or a Madagascan. They look just as foreign (take a trip in the New York subway), they speak a quite different language (if you really listen), and they have a very very different culture. George Bernard Shaw -- note how we say that, Bernerd (not Bernard) Shaw -- wasn’t entirely joking when he wrote of “two nations divided by a common language.”

The British have a complicated view of Americans. On one hand they have huge respect for their attitude to freedom; they’re grateful to “The Yanks” for saving their butts in two world wars; they have a healthy respect for their innovativeness and technological genius, and most of them appreciate the changes the Americans have wrought in almost every aspect of public entertainment -- especially in movies, TV and jazz. And of course there’s a healthy regard for their contribution to pretty well everything else in life you can think of – space science, medicine, and the convenience if not the delights of (some) fast food.

But it has to be said that, mostly because they’re envious of Americans in so many ways, the British have one or two negative attitudes, too. Many of them look on Americans as over-indulged. They think they’re over-fed, over-paid, over-medicated, and over psycho-analyzed. I suggest that envy is the cause of these views because the British are traditionally pitifully underpaid, and tend to live far more Spartan lives. They’ve always been jealous of what they see as the average American’s material standard of living, believing, after watching endless TV sitcoms that all 260 million Americans live in spacious homes with walk-in closets and walk-in refrigerators, driving Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals. They also see America as over-opinionated and over-assertive on the world stage. Though they wouldn’t admit it this, too, is almost certainly because the Brits are envious of America’s replacement of the British and their empire as the leading world power.

This envy goes back a long way, but reached the British man-in-the-street in a real and understandable way during World War II, when hundreds of thousands of US sailors, soldiers and airman arrived in Britain at a time when the country was desperately short of almost all of life’s necessities. The average GI earned several times more than his British counterpart. In the village pub and dance hall he had much, much more to spend. His gabardine uniform was far smarter and form-flattering than the British Tommy’s baggy, ill-fitting serge battle-dress. It’s not surprising that the GI’s, with their romantic, movie-star accents and boxes of nylon stockings under their arms, made wall-flowers of the local girls’ local boys. British officers, too, found themselves playing second fiddle to their Allied counterparts.

The first American I ever met was a shy, self-effacing boy of my age called Lou Taylor. He was the son of a diplomat. Tall for his age, he had a slight stammer, and his hair fell over his eyes giving him the look of a myopic sheepdog. Lou, who suddenly arrived at my boarding school in the middle of a term, and soon earned the nickname of ‘Long Island Lou,’ was about as nice as any one in the school, but I remember that even he was cause for envy. He had more toy guns and tanks, more enviable ‘stuff,’ and much more food in his tuck-box than any of us. It was Lou who gave us our first taste of bubble-gum, home-made brownies and Hershey bars. It was Lou whose parents came down from London to the school in the country most weekends in a chauffeur-driven car, while our parents’ cars were on wooden blocks in the garage because there was no gasoline for private use. We never saw our parents from one end of term to the other. For no fault of his, this quiet American in miniature was a victim of just the same resentments as his uncles in uniform.

But for all this talk of envy and resentment, it has to be said that both peoples tend to view the other with a degree of affection. The Brits, stuffy and repressed, love the openness and lack of inhibition of The Yanks. Although they may not admit it they get a kick when they see images of the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. They get a buzz out of old John Wayne movies, and the wide open spaces of the West. They don’t know there are ugly strip malls in Phoenix and El Paso, and ghettos in Washington DC. They used to look on the late Alastair Cook with almost Old Testament reverence. And when their chill wet winter sweeps in, it’s to sunny Florida they flock.

As for the Americans, they’d be lost without Keeping up Appearances, or Masterpiece Theater, with the latter’s plum-in-the-mouth lords and ladies, and tea parties in fussy drawing-rooms in Bath, which they pronounce Barth. They don’t know that an English muffin’s a crumpet, or that you should let tea infuse for five minutes and always, always put the milk in the cup first. American tourists never see the dark, Satanic mills in the North and the Midlands. They think every Londoner lives within earshot of Big Ben, and that there’s an everlasting mist on the Yorkshire moors. And did they weep any less than the Limeys when Princess Di died?

It’s all a matter of perception. Our attitudes and judgments about history, politics, religion, morals and, yes, about other races, are shaped not only by what we see and hear, but equally by what we don’t.