The Grey Man




It is only after death that the depth of the bond is truly felt.
And our loved one becomes more a part of us than was possible in life.

Voices from the Moon

There are dozens of them - mainly women and children. Stooping, delving with bare hands, digging with little trowels or spoons in the loose, fertile, recently harvested soil. Hundreds of tiny potatoes can be seen lying on the surface, between shredded leaves and stalks. In the huge field next to the caravan site from where most of the scavengers hail, hundreds of tiny potatoes can be seen lying on the surface, between shredded leaves and stalks
But there are bigger ones, hiding below the dirt; the survivors of the mechanical onslaught of previous days. Like treasure, these are eagerly sought and grasped by the hunters; organic equivalents of a Hope or Kohinoor Diamond. A whoop of glee sounds when a kid strikes it lucky, and eyes turn in mild envy to a child running clumsily over the soft earth, big tattie held high as a trophy.
Most though, are content to bag the wee ones. Picking them up and dropping them into whatever container they've managed to conjure up. Message bags, cartons, cooking pots. Those who've come unprepared, simply collect the spuds in the folds of skirts and jumpers.
Lily calls over to her husband, as she holds an armful of potatoes close to her chest, before depositing them in the bag lying nearby.
"Robert! Will ye take a look it him ower there!"
She nods towards a gent in the distance, obviously not a holidaymaker. He is dressed in what appears to be a suit and tie. His opened, upturned umbrella, spike stuck into the ground, provides a huge collecting bowl which is rapidly filling up.
"Hiv ye evir seen anyhin lik thoan in yer life!" he laughs.
"Gawd, eh better remember tae clean it oot well eftir eez finished wae it, urr eez gonnae hiv a helluva dirty heid eh nixt time it rains!" adds Moonwatcher.
The three of them laugh at the thought of this businessman, in the company of executive colleagues, opening his brolly in the streets of Edinburgh or London the following week, only to be showered with Ayrshire dirt and potato leaves. The city gent continues unabashed, ignoring the derisory comments from of those around him.
Free Ayrshire tatties - an opportunity too good to miss.

Ayrshire potatoes, harvested at their peak, are known in Scotland as 'New Potatoes'. Characterised by paper thin skins, they need no peeling. A simple rub with the fingers removes the skin to reveal the shiny white flesh beneath. They cook easily and, with a knob of butter, taste delicious; second to none. In season, they command high prices in the shops. To be able to get them for nothing, is worth the effort involved.
When two message bags have been filled, Lily calls a halt.
"No point in bein greedy." she repeats a number of times, as they head out of the field.
But Moonwatcher and his dad cant can't help repeatedly bending down and to pick up 'Jist wan merr', as they approach the gate.

The first of the potatoes have been washed and dropped into a pot ready for tonight's dinner.
The spluttering of the water tap, and the absence of water, signals that the container sitting outside at the back of the van is empty, and, despite energetic pounding of the foot pump, no more water flows. Moonwatcher resigns himself to the fact that the Puggy needs to be refilled. It's a chore he hates.
The large red plastic container holds a considerable volume of water, enough to last a few days of cooking and dish-washing. Unfortunately, with volume comes weight, and the barrel-shaped Puggy is heavy when full. As children, In their younger days, the same container would be carried by Moonwatcher and his brother; both arguing, and dropping it frequently. The scuffs and scrapes, gouged into its red plastic, are witness to the abuse to which it has been subjected over the years.
As he waits his turn at the water tap on the outer wall of the shower-house, Moonwatcher feels more than a little envious of the guy currently at the front of the queue. He has one of those newfangled rolling containers, like a barrel on its side, with hoola-hoops and a long pulling handle for pulling it. He takes his time as he screws on the metal cap; making a big deal of manoeuvring the thing out of the concrete standing area, and past the waiting line of water bearers with their kettles, pots, jerry cans, or - in Moonwatcher's case - Puggy.
The nickname had always confused him. No one else used that term. Years ago, he had asked his dad why he called it a Puggy.
"Cos that's whit the Indians call thir watter containers - Puggys."
And that was that; explanation over.
So Moonwatcher continued to believe that the Red Indians of the Wild West called their water containers Puggys, despite never hearing the term in any cowboy films, books or the many TV Westerns of the time. And certainly, no Conestoga wagon, rattling westbound over the prairies, sported on its side, anything resembling the red plastic thing now being positioned under the water tap.
He was sure that Tonto never had one. The Lone Ranger would have remarked on it for sure.
[It would be years in the future, before he discovered that the reference came from his dad's time in INDIA after the war, and that it had nothing to do with native Americans!]

The queue resigns itself to a long wait, as the the red monster is slipped under the tap, and the slow filling process begins. They say nothing, but the thought is going through everyone's mind.
"How the hell is he going to carry that?"
Under normal circumstances, Moonwatcher would consider half-filling the beast and hoping hope it wouldn't be noticed back at the van. The Puggy was opaque, and the water level couldn't be seen, although the premature spluttering of the kitchen tap and subsequent drought would be somewhat of a giveaway.
But today, knowing that all these guys are secretly willing him to chicken out, he fills it right to the top, with the water spilling down its sides, before he screws on the cap. Taking a deep breath, he lifts the container by the handle at the top. Muscles strain as it rises a mere three inches off the ground. Smiling to his audience, he attempts to walk smartly away with an air of nonchalance.
But Unfortunately, the bulging neck veins, congested face, and noticeable limp give the game away. His left leg and Puggy play out a bizarre dance that would have Jimmy in stitches, if he could see them. Out of view sight of the queue, he drops it to the ground and takes a breather. Changing hands, he limps another few feet then stops again. Soon, smirking kettle and jerry can bearers are passing him. Another 'wheelie' guy zooms past, as if trying to make a point.
"Ah'll bet bliddy Aquarius never hid this bliddy trouble." Moonwatcher mutters as he struggles over the two hundred yards back to the van.

"Is it no aboot time you guys goat a new Puggy?" he shouts through the open rear window as he connects up the hose; sweat dripping from his nose and muscles aching.
"Nuthin wrang wae aht wan!" shouts back his dad.
"Bliddy heavy. How aboot wan eh them new wheelie wans?"
Moonwatcher pushes home his argument.
"Hiv ye seen the price eh thim. Urr you buyin like?"
The argument was lost before it had begun. The Puggy would remain until the caravan was finally sold a few years later.

Moonwatcher checks over the bike. Stripped of baggage it feels pleasantly light. He replaces the brake blocks, and tightens the callipers. He checks that yesterday's puncture repair is holding, and pumps some more air into the tyres.
"Ah'm away furr a wee run." he calls into the van as he mounts.
"Well dont you bae too long. Dinner's at seven." warns his mother.
"S'okay ah'll bae back in time."
He pushes off and pedals up the hill towards the road.


The Electric Brae is taken without difficulty, the unloaded bike responding easily regardless of any optical illusion. A quick glance to the left over the caravan site below, and the distant coast beyond Culzean all the way to Girvan, before freewheeling round the bend sweeping north. Only a couple of miles are travelled before turning off the main route. He follows the narrow road which hugs the edge of the cliffs, slowing to admire the precipitous drop, before shooting downhill, past the ruined castle, into the tiny harbour village of Dunure.

The village is bustling with tourists. Unlucky timing! A couple of tourist buses have just disgorged their contents on to the small car park, leaving crowds of elderly, infirm and curious to spill out in all directions. Cameras are clicking, handbags swinging, purses being rummaged for the change needed to buy ice-cream cones, cups of tea, postcards and souvenirs for the grandweans. All to be accomplished in the allotted 20 minute stopover; the fear of being left behind ever present.
The chatter of the 'coffin dodgers', as one irreverent local calls them, competes with that of the seagulls.

"Naw Annie, pit that back in yer purse! You goat it the last time, it's mah turn."
"Oh aye, in Prestwick! My, thae done a lovely scone in aht place dinthae?"
"Netta! Wher's eh toalyits? Ah'm burstin!"
"Ther thae irr ower ther hen."
"Oh aye! Ah see thim."
"Haud oan! Ah'm comin iz well!"
"How diz iss cemra wurk?"
"Iz thir a spool innit?"
"Ah need tae get a postcerd fur Wullie, wher's eh shoap?"
"How long hiv wae goat Maggie?"
"Werzi castle?"

Moonwatcher secures the bike to a convenient lamp post, and squeezes through a group of old biddies arguing about whether to walk around the harbour, or go up to the castle.
The dark entrance of 'The Dunure Anchorage' beckons, and he dives into the cool, welcoming hostelry, like a fox going to ground. He's on his second pint, the first having slaked his thirst within minutes of being poured, before he ventures cautiously to the door. It's quietened down now; the masses having migrated to selected points of interest or, pictures taken and shops visited, have returned to the buses. He strolls out into the hot sunshine, sipping his beer and casually making for a low wall near the quayside. Placing his glass on the rough stone surface. he sits down on the wall and watches the small fishing boats, as they go about their business in the small harbour.
Dunure is not as old as it seems. It was built in the early 19th century, as a safe harbour for fishing boats. Only the ruined castle can claims any serious heritage.
Sitting close to the village on a grassy promontory, its shattered tower is the most prominent feature that remains. Originally the birthplace and stronghold of the Kennedys, once the most powerful family in the south west, a sign now warns people to keep away because of its dangerous condition.
Today, the surrounding grass is covered with the blankets and deckchairs of sunbathers and picnickers. From his vantage place on the wall, Moonwatcher observes them as they devour chicken legs with relish.
He wonders how many of them are aware, that it was within the 'Black Vault' of this building, that the 'Commendator' of Crossraguel Abbey was once roasted before an open fire ,in an effort to force him to sign away the title of the Abbey lands. Ayrshire's historical novelist, S. R. Crockett, included the scene in his novel 'The Grey Man'. It was the title character from Crockett's book, that inspired Davie Bell, and his band, to name the face in the rock 'The Grey Man of the Merrick'. This train of thought draws him on to his own quest. He finishes his beer, and mounts the saddle.

As he swings into the caravan site, a quick look at his watch shows 6.50pm. The aroma of mince and tatties tantalises his nostrils, even before he steps in the door.
"Good. Yer back. Wurr aw waitin oan ye. Get yer hauns washed and sit doon." Lily orders.
They sit down to plates heaped with steaming mince, soaked in thick gravy, accompanied by mounds of the potatoes gathered earlier in the day; all accompanied by fat green peas. Plates are cleared and swabbed with bread to soak up the gravy. To round off the meal, bowls of ice-cream and fruit appear.
"My, lass, that was braw." says Jimmy, as he leans back, and undoes the top button of his trousers, letting out a loud sigh as he does so.

Jimmy is sitting outside watching the sun sink into the sea, puffing contentedly on his pipe, when Moonwatcher unfolds a deckchair and sits down beside them him.
"Uncle, wid ye dae meh a favour?" he asks hesitantly.
"Ye kin only ask son. If ah kin help, ah wull." he responds, without taking his eyes off the scene before him.
"Ye see, ah boat this pipe."
Moonwatcher holds out his previous day's purchase.
"An ah wiz wundrin iff ye wid show meh how tae smoke it?"
He expects a laugh and a dose of ridicule, but instead Jimmy, straight faced and serious, takes the pipe and examines it for a few moments; turning it in his hand, running his fingers over the smooth wooden bowl.
"Nice pipe." he says finally. "An whit's made ye decide tae try the pipe smokin?"
"Well... Ah've been thinkin aboot it furr a while ah suppose, jist tae try it like. Wher ah'm gaun's reckoned tae bae really bad furr midges, an sumdy telt meh thit pipe smoke wiz the best thing tae keep thim it bay."
Now Jimmy laughs.
"Aht might bae right son. Midges certainly hivnae evir boathirt me! Hiv ye goat baccy ther?"
"Aye ah've goat this." producing the pack from his pocket.
"Ready Rubbed. Aye, aht's a good stert. Burns a bit fast furr mah likin, bit good furr sumdy lik yersell jist stertin oot. Ah prefer the block massell."
Jimmy digs out his pouch, and takes from it, a tiny green pack about the size of a couple of Oxo cubes.
"Aye ah've noticed you use that." acknowledges Moonwatcher.
He watches as his uncle empties the bowl of his pipe and returns it to his mouth. Talking between his teeth, Jimmy explains ...
"Ah'm gonnae use a bit aff this bar, aht means ah've goat tae rub it. Yours is already rubbe,d so ye don't need tae dae that. Watch."
Bringing out a well worn penknife from the pouch, he cuts off a tiny piece of the black tobacco from the compressed block, and rubs it vigorously between his palms until, like magic, it fluffs up into the recognisable fibrous consistency of baccy.
"Right noo, open yir pack" he instructs his nephew.
Moonwatcher does so.
"Noo dip yer pipe intae it, an stert tae fill the bowl wae yer finger."
There's much fumbling as the younger man tries to follows instructions.
"Don't fill it too much, jist aboot a third. It's a new pipe an ye want tae break it in. It's important thit ye get the boatim eh it well burnt, afore ye stert smokin it wae a full bowl. An don't pack it too tight urr ye'll hiv sore cheeks fae tryin tae sook through it."

Once Moonwatcher has loaded the bowl, Jimmy quickly and skillfully loads his.
"Okay, noo wurr ready tae light up. Watch me furst."
Using a lighter, he fans the top of the pipe, igniting the tobacco and sending plumes of blue smoke into the evening air. He stops, tamps down the scorched baccy and lights again. Taking a couple of draws, he puffs the smoke from the side of his mouth before removing the pipe, and looking at Moonwatcher.
"Right! your turn."
He hands him the lighter.
The first attempt ends in a life threatening convulsion of coughing, wheezing and wet eyes.
"Aye, Ah furgoat tae mention son, don't inhale." says a chuckling Jimmy.
"Pipe smokin isnae like smokin cigarettes. Jist sook an blaw. Sook an blaw." he demonstrates, with the confidence of a lifetime of 'sookin an blawin'.
A few minutes pass before Moonwatcher has recovered sufficiently to try again, but, by the time Lily emerges from the door of the caravan, both of them are sookin, blawin and puffin away like a couple of Hobbits in the Shire.
"Whit the...!"
Lily, rarely speechless, now has difficulty finding her words.
"Robert! Come an see this perr. Ah've never ..."
"Whit the hell urr ye daein smokin a pipe?" Robert asks of his son.
"An whit urr you daein encouragin im?" Lily launches at Jimmy.
"Aw steady oan lass, eh boay's auld enough tae make up eez ain mind.
An anyway, he asked mae tae show im. An anither hing - wurr dain yeez a favour."
Jimmy gives Moonwatcher a sly wink as he puffs on.
"Daein us a favour? How the hell urr yeez daein us a favour bae pollutin eh site wae smoke?" she says, screwing up her face in puzzlement.
"Cos wurr keepin eh midges away lass! Aht's how."
"Eh? Bit thirs nae midges!"
Jimmy goes for the kill.
"Exactly lass, exactly. Ah rest mah case!"
He roars with laughter, as his niece purses her lips and shakes her head, annoyed at being caught out so easily.
"Smokin aht stuff's no gonnae dae yer health any good." Moonwatcher's dad says in comeback.
Before his son can reply, Jimmy is in again.
"Damn sight better than thae cigarettes you smoke."
"Tell meh." he says, removing the pipe from his mouth and looking the man straight in the eye.
"Why iz it ye usually only ever see auld men smokin pipes, hiv ye ever thoat aboot aht, eh?"
Lily and Robert retreat into the caravan. Jimmy replaces the pipe in his mouth and folds his arms in triumph.
"Aht told em! Smoke yer pipe in peace son. Don't let em pit ye aff."
The two men sit puffing. Watching the sun go down over the Firth.

The lights are out. Moonwatcher lies in the dark on the single bed that has served as a seat during the day. Across from him, over the space which, until an hour ago, was occupied by the table with its Ludo board, nibbles, beer and laughter, Jimmy lies puffing quietly with his pipe. In the darkness, Moonwatcher can see the intermittent orange glow from the bowl, accompanied by a soft puffing sound from the old man's lips.
"Ah jist need a few puffs at night." he had said, before the gas mantle was put out.
After a few minutes, the pipe is retired retires to an ashtray sitting atop a Zane Grey paperback novel on the floor. Jimmy turns over and all is silent.

Moonwatcher loves it here, and feels a pang of regret to be moving on come morning.

He lifts himself on onto one elbow and peers through the curtain into the night. The site is bathed in a silvery glow. He looks up at the sky, and sees the moon shining down on him.
His thoughts return to this same place, same bed, on a night, four years previously in the summer of 1969. He had lain in the darkness, tiny plastic earpiece in place, listening to the crackling, broken voices of two men treading a dusty landscape, a quarter of a million miles away. While the rest of the world sat transfixed to television sets, Moonwatcher lay on this bed, in the dark, transistor radio strategically placed for best reception; following every word of Armstrong and Aldrin as they made history at Tranquillity Base.

Since then he would always consider this place his Tranquillity Base.

Top of the Page

Original story and material © 2005 Bob Wilson
Layout, editing and additional material © Dave Sloan 2005, 2012, 2016
'tachras' and 'Winding Yarn' © Dave Sloan 2005, 2012, 2016

tachras Home Page
Talk to tachras
Translate into English
Darwin's Mouse
The Grey ManAnnexe