A wickedly offbeat look at a Scottish Holden Caulfield trying to make his way out of his small, native village even as he pursues sex, laughs, and a witches' Sabbath.
Duncan McLean has been called "Scotland's answer to Roddy Doyle" (Cosmopolitan), but he has his own unique, scruffy voice full of quirky humor and surreal images.
In the highland town of Blackden, things have gotten overheated despite being overtaken by the chill of winter. Inside the head of eighteen-year-old Patrick Hunter, an auctioneer's assistant, the blood is boiling. Fueled by a potent mix of yankee doodle pie and beer, Patrick spends a November weekend on his own when his off-balanced mother goes to the city. Racing around the hills and dens of his hometown, he is half in escape from worn-out friends, drudging work, and painful memories, and half in pursuit of a girl, his father's ghost, and a new life. "Brilliantly funny: fast, sharp, constant banter, even when the narrator is only talking to himself."Times Literary Supplement "A hilarious and touching insight into the mind of a young man, balanced between naivety and maturity."The List
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The track down from Goodman's Croft was rutted with mud, kirned up into a furrow of dried dubs and sharn in the middle, with more muck flung onto the long grass and tangled whins that lined it all the way to its junction with the denside road. For twenty years the only thing to come up the half-mile hill had been Dod of Goodman's old grey Fordson, a bogey of neeps for the beasts bouncing along behind, Dod himself perched on top, bony arse padded from the iron seat by a thickfolded tattie-sack. But this morning the Murray Marts van had won through the dirt and shite and parked at the top of the brae. It'd stayed there all day till a few minutes before, when it rattled off downhill again.
Now the van was pausing near the foot of the track, and I was lining up the front wheel of my bike in one of its tyre-tracks, hoping to get a half-smooth run down to the road. I slung my leg over the crossbar, and the van turned right and motored away along the road into the depths of the wood that covered the den. As I pushed off and jolted down the first stretch of the track I could see the steady red of its tail-lights and the occasional sweep of its main-beamers cutting through the trees, but inside half a minute it was right into the denseness of the woods and I'd lost it.
I looked back to the track. The bike was juttering and my bones with it as the wheels ran over rocks and holes and skites of muddy grass. I kept my hands on the cool metal brake-levers to check my speed, and balanced my weight on the pedals, hovering just off the saddle, butthere was no use: it was a rough ride down and that was all the story.
What made it worse was the darkness inbetween the trackside dykes and the high straggly bushes. The sky above was mostly clear, except for some long streaks of browny clouds lying across the howe like muck shot out of a spreader, but the woods along the den were black ahead, and the chinks in the dykes and the neuks round the roots of the whins were black as well, and they sucked the light out of the air leaving only shadows across the way, till my eyes were straining to see where I was heading. And all I could hear was the clattering bike, the rusty chain creaking, chuckies skittering out from under my tyres.
At last I was down the worst of the brae, and the track flattened out, less worn and rutted here by channels and pirls of rainflow, less broken up by the hooves of Dod's beasts cloitering to get a grip on the steepness of the slope on their way from park to byre. I eased off the brakes and picked up some speed, feeling for the first time the coldness of the early night air as I cut through it steering on the level straight and easy, fingers loose on the rubber grips, backside resting on the saddle. My body relaxed forward into a curve, tired after the work of the day. And now I was out of the tunnel of whins too, coasting along in the open for a spell before I'd be back into the darkness of the woods ahead.
I raised my head as I rode, looked up at the stars pricking out all over the darkening sky, felt the cold air pressing against my throat. And as I came towards the end of the track I could feel dampness, a cool clammy dampness rising from the pools and bogs of the den, the smell of mouldering leaves and bracken and other dead growth seeping up with it. Down in the wet cleft of the den the winter rot was already setting in, the willows and birks stripped bare, the giant bracken and hogweed, half-strangled by an undergrowth of brambles all summer, grey and dead now and sinking down on top of the briers to rot and fume.
Reaching the junction, I skidded round in a half-circle to stop. I wanted to rest a second to settle my jarred bones back into their joints before setting off along the road to the village at the head of the den. My backside was still aching, so I eased forward off the saddle and propped my elbows on the handlebars, feet flat on the ground. A piece of board with a Murray Marts poster tacked on it had been hung from the signpost at the end of the track, the red marker lettering saying: ROUP ALL GOOD'S AND GEAR, Saturday 14th November, 10 a.m. viewing from 9.
I'd been told to get there two hours before the selling started so I could finish getting the lots all laid out and numbered and tables set up ready for Mrs Murray to serve the teas and pieces on. Me and her and her man Bill had been trying to do it all in a oner today, but the shortness of the notice for the whole sale meant we didn't realise what a heap of stuff there was to be sorted. Also, Bill Murray had had to shoot off smart to canvass a couple Donsiders about business for next week's cattle mart. This gave me an early start in the morning, but a sharp finish now and a free evening ahead.
It was Friday night and the lights were coming on at the Auld Mill Inn. I pushed off and cranked full steam for Blackden.
* * *
I arrived in the village just as the evening bus from Aberdeen was pulling in at the shelter, and coasted to a stop to see who'd be getting off. A couple kids in uniform: the vet's lads back from their private school. Half a dozen low-ranking commuters returning from their jobs in banks and shops and offices. Crabbit Miss McAndrew who used to run the post office: she set off towards the council houses, walking at a running pace as usual, the weight of three laden carrier bags in each hand making her lurch from side to side as she went, till she looked in danger of toppling right over and rolling into the gutter, where she'd lie all night, legs still whirring away in mid-air.
Last off the bus was Dek Duguid; who I've kent since primary school. I waited till the bus drew out of the square then shouted on him.
Hey man, Dek!
Aye, Paddy. He nodded and looked both ways along the silent street before crossing to where I was sitting. Still riding this old cunt of a bike? he said as he approached, and kicked at my front spokes with the toe of his trainer.
Still riding that old cunt of a bus?
Pff! He shrugged, started scuffing his heel into a patch of crumbling tarmac. Looks like I won't be getting the bastard much longer if I don't start pulling my finger out at the old fucking college.
What! Three months in, you bastard, and they're giving you the boot?
He shrugged again, looked down. My spokes had printed a web of greasy black lines on his white toecap. Well, maybe, just ...
And you were so keen to get there and that! Nights of swotting for the resits! What's up with you, man?
Dek shook his head. There's a lot of distractions, ken? It's hard to mind you're there to learn about fucking trees sometimes. Maybe you had the right idea, Paddy: straight into the fucking job, bit of siller in your pocket and that.
Not much though, Dek, not what you'd call ...
Christ, I might as well be at school sometimes! Do this, do that ... Fucking homework: disaster!
I looked away down the street. The last of the folk off the bus had disappeared and the whole of the square and the streets off it were empty, no cars parked outside the Auld Mill even. Teatime: the place was dead.
Fuck, that's atrocious, I said.
Dek hadn't raised his head. Ken what they had us doing theday? Ancient history. The prehistoric woodlands of Caledonia. What's that got to do with fuck all?
Well ... I don't know. But it'll be good when you finish and that, eh? I mean the pay with the Forestry, you with your degree and everything.
It's all so miles off though, Paddy. I'm in a limbo, hanging in limbo just! Give me a chainsaw now and I'll cut their bastarding trees down, I don't need a college degree to do that!
I pushed off on the bike and started to cycle slowly round the square. Well, I shouted in Dek's direction, The great thing is you'll save a lot of energy with your education. Instead of sawing the trees down, you can just argue with the buggers, persuade them to lie down for you.
Ach ... you don't understand, Paddy, it's not funny. He stopped watching me arsing around and walked off towards his street, piecebag of books dragging along the pavement at his heels. I stood up on the pedals and nipped alongby him.
Here, never mind fucking trees, Dek! Maybe you could persuade some woman to lie down for you!
Shut up, he said, and swung his bag of books in my direction. You're a pain in the butt with your fucking wisecracks all the time.
Butt! I cried, What's a butt? He didn't reply. I biked on ahead a wee bit, then swung the old crate round in a skid to block his path. Can I help it if I'm a cheery soul?
Can I help it if I give you a smack on the chin? he said, stepping around my back wheel.
I shoved off again. Does the college give you lessons in that andall then? I said. Cause you were piss-poor at fighting last I saw of it.
You learn a lot of things at the college, he said.
Here, Dek. Mind at New Year when you blootered that Kemnay loon over the skull with your mope helmet? Skill! They couldn't teach you that for sure.
Dek was grinning, remembering. Christ aye, Paddy: that was a brilliant laugh.
Aye, I saw the guy giggling as they carried him away ...
Oi, cried Dek, stopping in the middle of the road so I just about collided with him. Who're you to slag off my fighting anyhow? Least I do lash out from time to time!
I stopped the bike and looked at him. You saying I don't lash out?
Course I'm saying you don't lash out, you cunt! He laughed, started walking again. What a nerve, he said as he passed me.
Well, I'm not going to hit just anybody, I said. I mean they'd have to really deserve it, ken.
Bollocks! You're found out. He laughed some more, striding away up the street.
I biked towards him in a wavering curve across the road. What's so funny?
You! Trying to be all fucking logical about putting the boot in. It doesn't work like that: if you thought about it logically you wouldn't fucking do it at all.
We turned into Dek's street, and my spine jarred as the bike ran over a hole in the road.
That's your problem, Paddy, he went on. Trying to be logical all the time. Fuck it! Go with the flow!
I do! I do go with the flow! Christ, I'm always trying to go with the flow ... I leant over the handlebars and heaved away at the thing for a few seconds, till I'd gone right past Dek's house. My face was burning and my heart battering. I slowed and looked back. Dek had turned up his garden path and was trudging along between the skeletons of his father's roses, hands stuck in his pockets, eyes down. I wheeled the crate round once more and freewheeled back down the incline. He didn't look up, but I shouted as I passed, See you in the Mill thenight, then we'll go along to the stovie dance, eh? I'll show you going with the flow man!
He didn't answer, or I didn't hear him if he did. All that came was the bang of the front door shutting behind him. I laid into the pedals and dreeled back through the village, heading for home.
I had my head down over the handlebars, so I didn't notice the car was gone till I rounded the last bend in the track and came to a stop at the side of the house. It was a cold night up there on the hill, but sweat was dripping off me, and I had to shake my head like a dog to fling it out of my stinging eyes. I looked around till I got my breath back; there were no lights on, no smoke in the lum, and the Lada was gone from the lean-to port against the shed. I got off the bike and wheeled it through the chuckies on the turning-circle, then leant it against the wall of chopped logs piled at the gable-end of the house. I took my piece-box out of the basket over the front wheel and walked, whistling a bit of nothing, to the door. It was locked. Nobody had ever bothered to give me a key of my own, but most of the time it didn't matter. In fact it didn't matter now either; under a fallen slate on the sill of the window next to the door was a spare. I got it out, opened the door, slipped the key back into its hiding place, and walked in.
The first thing I saw in the kitchen was a great screed of a note in the middle of the table. I took a kind of swerving step towards it, just close enough to see that it didn't have big letters saying GET OUT NOW, THE HOUSE IS GOING TO EXPLODE, then went on along to the lavvy.
I pished and washed. My ma's a great one for notes. It started a couple year ago, when she was having difficulties speaking without bursting out greeting. Writing seemed to be easier for her. One morning around that time, the end of the summer holidays, I came down for breakfast to find a note in my bowl. It said:
Patrick Remember you start back at the school today. Up sharp and out of here by 8. M.
I laughed over this, then I said to her as I was pouring out my cornflakes cause she was right there at the table, she wasn't away to work or anything I said, Ma, what's the point of you leaving me a note saying to get up early? You should've given me a shout. If I hadn't got up early I'd be late already! She shrugged and took a slurp of her tea. Sorry, she said. Sorry? I said, Don't be daft, there's nothing to be ... It's funny, that's what it is, Ma, funny! I took another mouthful of cornflakes and a trickle of milk escaped from the corner of my mouth as I laughed. Honest, Ma, if the house was on fire and I was in my bed, I bet you wouldn't wake me up, I bet you'd just leave a note stuck to the bedroom door:
Patrick Run for your life, we're all going to die. M
Hmm, she went, getting up from the table. Maybe I should write that up anyway, even without the fire. And she tiptoed upstairs with a cup of tea for my da.
Up in my bedroom, I put on some new clothes, ran the electric shaver over a couple places on my face, then slapped on some aftershave. I have this theory that you have to really fucking belt the stuff onto your face, not just pat it on gently. If you give it a good whack then the smell of the stuff gets pushed right into your pores, right under your skin, and so takes longer to wear off. I'm determined to get my money's worth.
Cheeks tingling from the slaps, I headed downstairs, the memory seeping into my brain that the aftershave was actually a present from my gran and granda last christmas, so it wasn't my money I was getting the worth of, but the old folks. All the more reason. One day, five years after me getting them first, my granda noticed that my face was all broken out in plooks. In fact there were so many of the bastards that they were just about all joined up, my whole face was one big plook more or less. I was scared to squeeze them, in case my whole head came spurting out and my skull caved in completely. You should try some of that extra strong Old Spice, my granda said. The reek of that'll burn them off in no time. I didn't believe him to begin with, but that christmas a bottle of the stuff turned up under the tree and I slapped it on and ... it worked.
Patrick That's me off then. (4 o'clock.) I'll be leaving Ed early on Sun, so will see you when I get back. The roads should be quiet. If anything comes up, Helen's number is in the book. Have a good weekend. M.
P.S. Janice next door is doing it tomorrow but can't tonight, so could you? Yankee doodle pie in the fridge, stick it in the oven 20 min 200 stay till your granda's taken it out, otherwise he'll likely forget and burn it to a crisp, and crisps get stuck beneath his plate. M.
M for Ma and also for Moira. I went to the fridge. There was a casserole with a tinfoil lid that would be the grub for the old folks. There was also a bowl with cooked mince set in it, white fat formed on the surface in all the pits and crannies, like ice fastened round crumbly dark lumps of soil in a ploughed park. Delicious. I took the mince and marge out and got a couple slices of bread from the bin marked READ. My sister whited out the first letter just before she first went away to college, after getting food-poisoning off an out-of-date packet of potato scones. The idea was that the message on the bin would remind her to check the labels before stuffing anything in her mouth in future. I suggested writing on something clearer, like BEWARE THE SKITTERS! but Helen told me this just wasn't funny, and Ma backed her up. I shouldn't've been surprised: Ma was always siding with her, even then.
Waiting for the kettle to boil, I spread the bread, piled on the mince, then squidged the whole thing together between my palms and started eating. Excellent grub. Which is a shame, cause I've been thinking recently about stopping eating meat, even borderline cases like Butcher Wolfe's mince. I have this theory that you should only eat an animal if you've slaughtered it yourself in fair and equal combat and are willing to take it home, cut it up and cook it with your own fair hands. And wear the shrunken head of the thing round your neck for luck afterwards like the cannibals do.
By the time the water was boiled, I'd finished my sandwich, so I made another one to go with my coffee: jam this time. I took the cup and sandwich over to the table and sat there eating and drinking, trying to work out which tasted better: a mouthful of half-chewed bread having coffee sluiced in after it, or a mouthful of coffee having dauds of bread dropped in to float and gradually soak it up, or maybe the mouth being completely emptied by swallowing one thing before introducing the other at all. The bastard of it was, none of these seemed to be better than the others. Typical. You get presented with what looks like a great choice between a wide range of options, then when you get to the bottom of it the whole lot are all the fucking same: plain old sandwich and coffee, however much you try and kid yourself.
The jam was definitely good though, extremely excellent: bramble jam, made by my gran. As I ate, letting seeds stick inbetween my teeth quite happily knowing I'd be able to pick them out with my tongue later and get that wee burst of taste as I nipped them open I was minded on the night a couple weeks before, when my ma had first taken this particular jar of jam out of the cupboard and put it on the teatable. I'd been sitting there, eating my chips, when I noticed her kind of frozen, staring at the slip of paper sellotaped to the lid. What's up, Ma? I said.
I've just noticed the date of this, she said. It's probably the last jar of jam your gran'll ever make.
Oh no. Is that the last of hers? The shop-bought stuff doesn't taste half so good!
Oh Patrick ... She let go of the jar and it fell onto the table from about ten cm. up, then rolled over against my plate. I looked up at her in amazement, then looked again, more amazed: she was greeting.
Ma ... eh ... what's the matter? She shook her head, took a hankie out from her sleeve and began mopping up around her eyes. Look, I said, The bought stuff's not that bad! She turned away from me, went over to the cooker and started stirring the stock-bone round and round in the broth. The bone clunked on the metal, and she grat. Ma, I said, You'll make the soup salty.
One of her sobs was almost a laugh.
It was embarrassing. I looked down at my chips, then back at her. I didn't know what to say. I'd never known what to say, but in the past it didn't usually matter much. Now I had to say something: there was nobody else around to do it.
Alright, so Gran's maybe no fit to be boiling jam and jelly any more. I paused, she sniffed, I went on. But you ken what like Granda is. Come the season he'll be out on his bike, away all the banks and braes, filling his carrier bags with rasps and brambles. No sign of him slowing up! He kens all the best places: redcurrants, gooseberries, blaeberries ...
Och ... She sighed loudly, staring into the soup pot still. That makes it worse, she said. Your granda collecting pounds of fruit and Gran stuck in her bed. It'll all just rot away. It's a waste, a terrible waste.
It won't rot! Get it up here, we'll make the jam!
Oh Patrick, when have I the time to make jam these days? Inbetween the job and everything.
Alright, alright, I'll make it. You tell me how, show me the cookbook even, and I'll make the jam. It'd be good, I'd like to do it!
It's not out of a cookbook, she said.
Shortly after, she went down to see them with their evening meal. She did this when nobody else had volunteered. She did it most days, except once in a blue moon when a neighbour did. The idea was that they should get something hot once a day at least; my gran couldn't get near her kitchen now, and the only thing my granda could make was porridge.
By the time she left for the village she'd cheered up a bit, and she clapped me on the shoulder as she passed to go out to the car. Me and her get on fine, I'd say we get on well, even though she prefers Helen really. The way we get on well is this: she never interferes with anything that's important to me, only stupid wee things like getting to work on time or talking to the old folks, which I'd do anyway. Anything that's important to me she never touches on. In fact she has no idea what's important to me, that's how she doesn't interfere with it; if she did know, probably she would. But I keep her out by keeping these important things buried deep down; I never let her get a glisk of them.
I'd finished eating long syne, and was sitting at the table, staring at nothing. I became aware that my cock was hard, hard as a stick of Edinburgh rock. I put my hand down and rubbed my fist up and down against it through the denim of my jeans. Spunk would be running the length of it like lettering through Edinburgh rock.
I stopped, I'd washed, I was just away out, tonight might even be the night I'd need a full cockful. Imagine the humiliation of pulling yourself out of some lassie and her looking down at the frenchie and going, Christ, what's that, cuckoo spit?
I stood up, eased my breeks down between my legs a bit, and walked around the room. No use. Jesus, what had I been thinking about? Nothing at all! Fucking jam recipies! Sex hadn't come into it!
Cold shower time.
I went over to the sink, took the plastic basin out, then turned on the cold tap and let it flow till it was icy. I opened the spaver, eased down the front of my ys, then leant forward on my tiptoes and pointed my stiff cock under the jet of water. Fuck! Cold! Immediately the thing began to shrivel. I wiggled it around a bit, watching it shrink away, then looked up as something caught my eye. A grinning face was looking in the window at me, directly above the sink.
What People are Saying About This
Disarming but touchy as a ripe pimple, Paddy Hunter roams us through a true picture of working reality in a rural culture in decline, with an ancient, darker world brooding beneath. Always humorous, Black Den gives you one of the infinite Scotland's within Scotland today.
(Alan Warner, author of The Sopranos)