Ferryman of Ramrash
The strangely shaped rock Aisla Craig had been a volcano’s cap waiting to blow, Brosin, sometimes called the Brutal, had said. Suzanne on the other hand considered beauty, not volcanoes, which, she had said, was a little space we hold in our mind like an island. It could be carpeted by fields and woods and entered by rivers from the sea. Seals could frolic in its waters full with kemp and moon jelly-fish that did not sting, far from killer sharks that would not harm. To Scott Suzanne had personified Beauty herself. That was to go beyond what was considered beautiful. He might have compared it to the goodness of rain saturated earth. But it went beyond good too and wasn’t soggy.
Though ‘his’ people talked of islands they were mostly involved with trees. Suzanne had worked as a planter in forestry, cutting the pit, dividing the clod, checking the tree’s collar, erecting its guards. Then she’d got promoted to chief harvester and been transferred east, and though she wouldn’t go with Scott to Holy Island any more its stillness would still prevail. Still the wind would flutter the prayer flags and rustle the bracken. Still Scott would hear the many waters that gushed downhill drowning out the silence, and even be able to ignore the ugly imagery of his next visitor who likened it to the sound of a toilet, perpetually flushing.
That was Brosin, who he was to take today instead. She worked for the same forestry firm as Suzanne and had recently returned from their centre in Chile. Today she’d be collecting wood samples from the island while Scott would be picking up his mother who’d been on silent retreat at a monastery on its far side. As they left the stone cottage on the shores of Lamlash Brosin remarked that it was strange his mother didn’t want to speak, but Scott had said that that was the problem. She did.
The ferryman knowing Scott gave him a wink, ushered them to their seats besides eight others - ten was cut off number – and started the engine. As it rumbled across the divide he whistled ‘over the sea to Skye’ and no one corrected him. Then with one hand on the wheel he talked to Scott quietly, pointing out the controls for powering the craft and inviting him to steer. Scott brought them all in, he’d done it once before, and now the ten were disembarking on to his exquisite island, still as a gem, all too soon it seemed.
For on it Brosin saw just bad things. Symbols on wooden poles leading to electrical cables with images of little match stick people frazzled by zig-zagging arrows and the sign that said, ‘Danger of Death by Electrocution’. Slippery paths. Incompetent rock paintings. Evil to her who evil thinks he thought as she condemned the manifold tales of Buddha’s life meticulously painted on boulders, art critic lauding it over simple messages of peace.
He’d liked to have told her the story of a boy whose teacher had nothing but bad things to say about him, and of the poor boy’s mother who’d asked, was there anything her son was good at? And of the teacher who thought for a few moments before saying, ‘yes, he’s very good at paragraphs’ as if paragraphs could be turned into world leaders.
If he had would Brosin have asked was that him as a little boy? He’d not know. The tranquillity all about them held too much sway for speech, a memory of beauty between him and Suzanne which must, he thought, have died when they parted, before reminding himself that beauty - whatever they meant by that, and however attached it had seemed to be to them - never could. Not even when he or she or they did.
Brosin had been in her element when Scott first met her, darting like a smart little silver fish through rooms of the woodland firm’s office on the hill - Scott’s father as director had hired Suzanne for outdoor work, Brosin for a desk job here - then out to the heart of the city and Thames Valley spread out below in a world full with the pageant of coral reef colour. To the cafe in Piccadilly where they could walk to St. James’ church and look up from its nave to the ceiling as into an upturned hull. Bask in light-beams that dropped straight from a fixed dove from tower to chancel, spreading through the astonished aisles. Go ‘secular’ in the market outside, fingering a sixteen-ways-of-wrapping velvet and silk scarf, Scott wondering if he should get one to give to his mother for her birthday before remembering she already had a thousand scarfs. Enough to tie into a very long rope to throw from the top window of a tower. And climb down.
Like he was glad she did from his father’s, her husband’s, controlling negativity, which when he came to think of it wasn’t unlike Brosin’s. The list of disparagements was long. ‘Scott’s disproportionate preoccupation with women’; his distraction by Suzanne in sixth form; his only just scraping through his exams for university; his flunking of his finals because Suzanne had left saying she needed a change; his giving up of his forestry studies to work in a bar; his inability to have a ‘proper’ job; his continued, compulsive, pre-occupation with Suzanne, and so on.
Why was he so needy, his father had persisted? When they thought they’d done everything right what had they done wrong? Nothing, Scott’s mother had said, but his father had blamed her. When he’d urged Scott to finish his degree in forestry, get some qualifications under his belt, it was she, he said, who’d done the nothing.
As St. James Square with the homeless huddling outside was closed Scott and Brosin had ascended the bannistered and carpeted stairs of Hatchards, Scott’s eyes alighting on a Polkinghorne about the coming together of religion with science, then in Fortnums and Masons on chunks of orange chocolate laid out on silver trays for tasting that he savoured slowly, one for science and one for religion, before discovering about things in motion - Frank Bowling’s Bridges in Journeying, Degas and Movement at the RA. In a gallery in Cork Street a goopy but seductive collection of black and white polyfila trees, Scott had to laugh, was called, Faith Dies Science Rises.
His father, on his way from the Chilean Embassy to meet them, had walked across St. James Park, Regent Street, past Blake’s birthplace at Marshall Street, through Berwick Street market, Walkers Passage and the Soho Book Shop towards the White Horse, glad, now he wasn’t working full time, not to be thinking of trees, once his raison d’etre. Straight, balanced, noble things maybe, but also a template in his mind against which less noble things jarred up. Like Brosin - though he couldn’t quite put his finger on why - the office woman sent out of the office. First to South America. Now to his son’s island. Scott might have been amused to know how one of the two disparaging people in his life was thinking badly of the other.
The story that Scott’s father didn’t know was that Brosin’s father had left before she was born. Her mother had killed herself when she was thirteen and she been put into a foster home. There’d been no affable but sad separations from her husband, a schizophrenic, who’d tried to stab her once but quickly been put behind bars. Brosin had many dismal claims that were probably true, but they weren’t ones Scott, perhaps unkindly, wanted to dwell on.
Nor on his way to meet his father was he not thinking of trees, those things he hadn’t used to make a living, that grew and spread anyway like the burgeoning self, sap with trunk, blood with body, fluid with form, Susanne had said, but as always, of things to do with Susanne herself.
Such as the drink he’d had with his parents at the White Horse after Suzanne had left him at home as ‘house father’ to look after their child to pursue her well-paid career. His father had called him a ‘kept woman’ and his mother had asked, ‘what’s more important than caring for a child?
When Susanne had left him for good, they couldn’t love each other anymore like a man and woman should she’d said, she flowed for him still within his very blood, a Holy Island stream tumbling downhill through every bracken leaf, trickling over every pebble, surrounding every touchable object around him, knife, fork, pen, stone or book with her own special liquid gloss. This was the book she’d read. The stone she’d turned. The pen she’d written with. The knife and fork she’d washed up.
‘Sounds like a slug’s glossy trail’, Scott’s father had said. ‘Haven’t I encouraged you to be independent? Stand on your own two feet? But, his wife had said, wasn’t it in love that we were made and in love would disappear? What better reason for a man to stand up than for his woman?
Exactly, said Scott for whom Suzanne was, as has been said, Beauty personified, as well as all the space and openness he’d liked to have taken into himself. When she’d alighted on Holy Island he said she’d breathed the air into her lungs, easily and deeply. Stooped down to let the sandy earth run through her fingers. Gambolled through wild flowers. Scrambled over Mullach Mor. Dripped St. Molaise’s spring water over her head. Rippling and flowing she’d made it through the heather to Pillar Rock lighthouse before him.
‘If she flows so well might she not just flow right off the edge?’ Scott’s father had said, ‘Strange to be so tied to someone who makes you feel so free’. And this time Scott’s mother, considering that such light had no edge, wondered if that meant it went on forever or never got off the ground at all. This time she said nothing, but soon after went on silent retreat.
So lost in these thoughts was Scott that it was only when he bumped into the person he was walking with shoulder to shoulder that he was reminded, as he fell from the kerb, it was Brosin. At the White Horse conversation between her and his father was as usual strained. Recently he’d seen some good films he said to make conversation, Silent Light, Tree of Life, Melancholia, Nostalgia for the Light, and would like to see the last one again, but, they both groaned, they’d seen it. Set in Chile it featured people they knew and anyway his father said, cutting the drink short, he had to get back to the Embassy for a work visa.
As he went the crowds of people seemed like islands banging into each other; molecules jostling about that dispersed when heated. Heat inclined to cold and order to mess and us as molecules busily buzzing around trying to hold cold and mess at bay like those thoughts he didn’t want to keep to himself. On his way to the station Scott too thought of islands, of how wrong Donne had been when he said no man was one entire unto himself. In as much as our bodies had outlines, we were islands, always alone at the centre of our sensing and entire unto ourselves.
‘Sourcing’ Suzanne’s island, might we not despite this, have a little space held high in our minds, a little beauty, a little lighthouse shining out? That was one signal. The other, Brosin’s, flashed out the double message, a warning. Approach but beware of moorings. Go carefully and diligently towards our body’s shores. If she’d made a wake like the ferry Scott had thought, it would be brittle, like the fear of fear itself. Then she’d not alighted on the island like Suzanne, picked up the earth in her hands, taken the beauty deep into her lungs or been at ease in the joys of her surroundings. Always something stopped her flowing.
She’d scoffed at the thirty seventh practice of a bodhisattva inscribed upon some wooden board, ‘For the benefit of all beings cultivate joyous effort, the wellspring of positive qualities’, calling it turgid, liking, she said, words and thoughts to be specific. The monks’ retreat looks like a prison she’d said. Its lonesome visitors lost. Peace a facade with dark and dismal undercurrents. Was that, Scott wondered, what she’d meant by specific?
In old Gaelic Holy Island was the island of the water spirit or the cave he tried to interest her. The healing well of St. Molaise. The Lama Yeshe had made it a centre for world peace and health. And look at the Soay sheep or the horned faced Saanen goat with its long white woollen coat staring out at us defiant from behind the bracken. Brosin shrugged. She was here to take stock of the woodland trees. So why he asked her this time, did she just seem to notice match people frazzled to death, slippery paths, incompetent paintings? She didn’t answer. Yet she had, it was also true, brought Scott in very close to her, closer than Suzanne had ever been able.
Beside the light-house Scott’s mother walking under the monastery’s arch dragged a suitcase. She was glad to be able to talk again after three weeks silence she said, but living there right on the edge of this continually changing shoreline over waters sometimes so utterly tranquil they looked like an iridescent millpond, had given her a chance to consider, as her husband had pointed out, a beauty so soft it flowed away. Like his and Suzanne’s all-too-light unity heavy with the goodness of an earth saturated now with tear-loads of running rain, he thought. A Lamlash lamb-lashed with innocence alright. A nowhere beauty everywhere. An everywhere beauty nowhere. The label ‘beauty’ he’d attached to Suzanne suddenly dropping off like a price tag.
From the cottage that evening the sun sunk behind a rain cloud. Two seals basked on rocks near the shore. ‘I’ll call Lamlash, Ramrash’ said Brosin suddenly coming too. ‘Look again at the whip lash that remains long after the cloud has passed. The crimson slashed across the sky. The long shadows cast over Holy Island. The scarlet wound born by the prodding male sheep’s battling horn. The awe-full sublime. No shame in this stain, beauty’s rhythm long and strong, etching into heart and mind, a flame, a song, a crepuscular rhyme every sunset time. Scott could dwell on that abstracted detail better than any family torment. See beauty now not just in his eyes, the eyes of the beholder, but as huge and independent as a single god, wholly transcendent and wholly impossible to possess.
In Chile, place of trees and desert, Brosin had known the women of massacred husbands who’d looked down, scrabbled in these scrublands in search of pieces of their loved ones’ bones, and despite that, looked up. The film Nostalgia for the Light told that in the calcium of these bones was the calcium of stars that gave birth to them, and though we were stars always collapsing we would always collapse into something else. Could there be any consolation in that? Perhaps, if just for an instant they could find relief from the personal, subjective and intimate in the joy of that very impersonal, objective and distant spark.
At full tide tomorrow Scott could tell his father he’d be starting his new job as ferry-man operating the boats to and from the island. As if between density of city and space of land he’d be steering his passengers between tight edges, heights and depths. Crossing a seam between sanctuary and Aisla Craig waiting to blow. He wouldn’t talk to him about the beauty he’d mistakenly thought he’d lost but tell him about his new and ‘proper’ job doing back-and-forth-between-brutal-beauty trips.