Kirsty Gunn


My sister Ailsa didn’t talk much. She didn’t want to. It was because she listened instead, and she watched. She saw things and she noticed but she didn’t have to say “I saw”. She kept it in.

This was during those summers when we used to go up to the Highlands to stay with our cousin Bill and my sister was still only a little girl. She followed around after me then, whatever I was doing, and she copied Bill too, always just wanting to do the same things. Go out in the fields, say, to look for baby rabbits but we never caught one. Or make up a secret picnic using the cakes Aunty Pam had just baked and we’d find the place Bill said he used to go to with his dad, when they used to go deer hunting, when his dad was alive and he took a gun.

They’d be away for days at a time then, Bill said. He always told so many stories about his father. How his father showed him how to camp out in the hills and stay the night there by a tree where it was sheltered. How they would build a fire and pitch a tent and sleep until morning, his father  getting up when it was dark to let off a shot with the rifle, scare anyone away who might come close. He was making all of it up, of course.

I say that now – “of course” – but that’s because I have always been the oldest. Older than Bill even though he acted so grown up and six years older than my sister who, as I said before, was always just a little girl. And “of course” I write, because I know now that my cousin was telling stories, but also knew, I think, back then, that stories were maybe all he had. So thinking of them as lies then? Something far from truth? I can’t answer that, remembering. Sort of, I suppose, is what I could say. Some part of me understanding that Bill could have never spent time with Uncle Robbie in that way, that Uncle Robbie was never around to take Bill anywhere, to do any of the kinds of things Bill talked about – but another part of me swallowing the stories too and being believing. It was who I was, those summers when we went up to the far north. The kind of cousin who said “Yes” when Bill asked me if I believed him. Saying “I believe you” when he told me that his father was killed by a murderer, a mean farmer who used knives on him or poison or a rope. Or that someone else had pushed his dad, and robbed him first, then lied about it because he was jealous. Because his father was much too strong and clever, Bill said, for anyone to dare to be his friend. Did I believe that? In that father of his who had loved him best? “Yes” I said. Always, to everything, “Yes. Yes. Yes.”

And Ailsa, she just watched and listened. With Bill’s dad dead, well and truly, driven off the edge of the cliff down onto the rock one night when it was late only none of the adults  talked about it. So it was Bill’s stories we were left with, and nothing like the real one, that his father was a failure and lost his money and couldn’t care for his family at all, only drink on his own out on the hills, stay away for days at a time and not come home… Only these other stories instead, that got bigger and more exciting and the stories changed. With the poison, say. Or a strangling. Or saying that the motorbike his father rode was racing, not his own, and someone fixed it, like in James Bond, or some other film, so it lost control. Or how Bill and his Dad were out late one night and a helicopter came down and took his father away.

So my sister listened and she didn’t say much. When Bill told her about him and Uncle Robbie getting lost in the snow sometime and Aunt Pam had to send out the whole village to look for them. Or about Bill’s dad being charged by a stag so he had to wrestle with it, bring it down onto the ground and its antlers had sliced up his arms all the way down to the bone.

“What do you think about that, girls, eh?” Bill asked. “What do you think about me and my dad being so tough and strong?”

“I think it’s good” I said.

But Ailsa just looked at him, she didn’t reply.

Thinking about this now, writing it down… I can see those stories of my cousin must have started long before this particular summer I’m talking about here. For years we had those holidays, in that house where Aunt Pam and Bill and Uncle Robbie used to live, way up in the top of Scotland. Every July we went up there, my sister and I, while our mother had to stay in town and work. So we were used to it, Uncle Robbie acting the way he did, drinking whiskey and going away, those gaps in the days when he wasn’t there… We were used to the way Bill’s stories could cover all of that up. That place, you see, that farm where my cousin lived, was so known to us, the house and paddocks and the hills… Everything about it, even the way Uncle Robbie went off and we didn’t see him… Was familiar. It was our way of doing things, being used to him and then not seeing him at all. The strangeness of his behaviour was the the order of our days. It was only that last holiday when Ailsa was four and I was ten that it changed then, the house felt different and the farm too because the farm was taken away from Bill’s family and it didn’t belong to them any more, it turned out – though that’s a another story and not one to tell here – it never had.

For sure there was no longer the same feeling of being able to play all over the fields like we used to – with the animals gone and the land was going to be used by some other man for his own farm and his own family. So that last summer we had more time inside. And maybe thinking more. Making up other, different games.  And there was Aunt Pammy starting to pack up all their things in boxes, the house already half empty, she and Bill getting ready to move away. “From memories” Aunt Pammy said to me. “I can talk to you girls about this” she said. “But I can’t tell Bill.” She was tucking us in at night and Bill was already in his room with the door closed. Aunt Pammy was sitting on my bed and I could smell her lovely scent, the thin cotton feel of the pretty dress she was wearing. “It’s hard for Bill to be here without his Dad” she said to Ailsa and me. “It’s why we have to leave. You girls understand that in a way my little boy can’t.”

Even then, Ailsa didn’t say a thing but she nodded then. She did understand. More than Bill who was nearly ten. “It’s because” she said to me, “they have to leave his ghost.”

That is what she said. Those words. And when my sister spoke you noticed it, you listened, because, as I said, when I started this new story, my sister, well… Mostly she kept her thoughts right in. This night, though, when it was late and after Aunty Pam had been in and said goodnight and then she’d gone out of the room and I was just lying in bed and through the window I could see the outline of the hills against the sky that was a sort of green so it wasn’t dark at all, not really, but trying to get dark is what the dark was like in those long high summer nights up north in those days, long ago… Just trying….

Ailsa sat up in bed and told me what she’d seen.

The ghost of Bill’s dad, she said. He was in the house.

“He’s in the old bedroom” Ailsa said. It was scary. The room where Auntie Pam and Uncle Robbie used to sleep. “He’s in there and Bill knows about it. He’s been in there and he’s seen him too.” She was sitting up on her bed in her white nightdress and with her blonde hair sticking up like a little bad fairy. Something about her strange and queer, something in her seen a scary thing.

“The ghost’s in there now” she whispered. “I could show you. Sometimes he goes into Bill’s room. I can hear him in there too.”

All this… I’m saying. Writing it down. Out of her silence, suddenly there were my sister’s words. Knowing these things. Telling them. How the ghost had always been in there, and that’s how Bill knew the stories. Because the ghost had always told him what to say, his father always told him. That ghost had been with Bill for just about as long as Bill remembered, she said, telling him things, talking about adventures, giving him instructions. So Ailsa had been listening around the place, and seeing, understanding somehow something I dared not believe in. Though I knew, too, that she could not be lying – still… I asked her would she would show me, take me there so I could see him for myself, that man who’d once been married to my mother’s sister, was father to her child, though no one had ever seemed to know him at all, and though he’d been towards them so unkind. I knew I couldn’t sleep then, not possibly even close my eyes, until I could prove to myself something about this, find out about this thing though I was scared and it was like I couldn’t swallow and my heart had got big in me and full up like I wanted to tell someone else, a grown up, but there was no one around to tell.

So quietly we got up, Ailsa and I. She held my hand and went ahead into the dark that was not dark but was quiet and full of shadows and that darkest green. It was like Ailsa was the big sister and I was just the one who would follow. Even so, through we went to Aunt Pam and Uncle Robbie’s old room where they used to sleep together in the big old bed that belonged to Uncle Robbie’s mother and then she gave it to Aunt Pam as a present on her wedding day. There in the room it was, that same great big bed, with the matching set around it, the chest of drawers and the cabinet and the big old wardrobe in the corner and the door of it a bit open. And it moved.

Ailsa gripped my hand. “There!” she whispered, and pointed. The door seemed to open a  bit more, creaked, and inside the wardrobe, sure enough, I saw a man’s form, the old tweed shape of Uncle Robbie. He was standing there with his back to us and murmuring something, he was speaking the low words a ghost has to say.

The light was deepening in the room, from green to grey as though the room itself may as well have been a coffin, with the window darkening and only open the tiniest bit to let in some air, but everything dusty and closed-in and silent – apart from that creaking wardrobe door moving just a bit and the thing inside it talking to itself, Uncle Robbie’s tweed suit that he was wearing.

“Sshh” Ailsa said to it. “Shhh. We’re not here to hurt you.”

For the suit was his favourite suit. I could remember. It was that suit he wore on those days when he was still a father, those days that I could barely remember. When he’d been a husband and he had a farm and he lived there with his wife, my mother’s sister, and her little boy. Before he started leaving, and went off on his own and before he went off and left them for good, driving himself off over the edge of the cliff at the bottom of the paddock and everyone knew he did it himself, on purpose, that was the story that was true… Before any of that, there was the suit that  Uncle Robbie used to wear on sale days or when he went out with the other men, the farmers, to go to the Agricultural Fair and the Highland Show, the thick tweed suit he was wearing now to come back and visit us all.

“That’s him” Ailsa whispered, and just then I remember the feeling exactly – it was like a spell that was cracked. That’s him. In the second of those words I took a step towards the wardrobe so I could see… That’s him.

And not Uncle Robbie at all. Not him. Not who he was. Just his suit hanging, that’s what was there. Just hanging, thick and tweed and warm but no body in it to wear it. No man. No ghost. I went closer, and closer, right up to it, to touch it. To put my arms through. And as Ailsa stayed behind at the edge of the room – even as I touched the suit, for I did touch him, my uncle – I felt for myself how thin he was and not there, how there was nothing there.

Yet still the murmuring sound went on. Though I had by now my arms among the empty arms, the jacket against me like a chest that was collapsed and flapping, never had a body or a heart inside… Still I could hear a murmuring on. Secrets. Stories. What I thought had been the ghost’s quiet talking to itself, my uncle telling all his secrets out, about why he’d left his family in the way he did, his own child, leaving him and Aunty Pam not to have him any more with her in the big old bed… All his secrets…All talking quietly in the grey, darkening room, just a low hum, of talking, murmuring, just the sound of that was all that was left of him, of Uncle Robbie, of his awful, lying ghost…

But then knew that it was coming from my cousin’s room. The voice was there. Bill in there, in his own bed with his dad’s old jersey that he’d taken in with him like he did every night since he was a little boy, to sleep with him. And it was Bill talking to his dad I could hear – making up the stories he would tell Ailsa and me the next day, and fill the air with them, fill the day. “My dad said” and “My dad and I” and “My dad told me” and “My dad is going to”… All of the words to fill the space, to make the stories real, whispering them out on his own in the night that by now was going green no more and into grey but into dark.

“See?” Aisa whipered to me now, as I went over to her, where she stood at the doorway, but I was a big sister again, taking her hand and leading her back to our room. Passing the closed door of Bill’s bedroom and hearing his low voice coming from behind it.

“See?” Ailsa said again, as we passed his door, and her hand tightened on mine.

“Shhh” I was the one who told her now. Not wanting her to speak. For enough of speaking. Enough of words. Of stories and of lies. Of saying someone was a hero when he’d killed himself, not died at all those other ways, like in a film, but did it himself, because that’s what he most wanted, what he chose, to plan it for himself to be that way, leave his family, be alone. Leave them without him on their own.

“Shhh” I said again – but not to quieten her. Because in a way Ailsa had not made it up at all, about Uncle Robbie and what she had seen. It was true. What she’d thought. What she knew. That he was like a ghost exactly in that house, that man. The clothes still hanging there but empty. Only the jersey, like a body brought down, in a little boy’s bed.


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