‘The Leech and the Pearl’

Synopsis

Catherine Maitland was born in Madras to an Anglo-Indian mother and a British father but, unlike her pale-skinned mother, Catherine is brown. Sent ‘home’ to boarding-school, she endured loneliness, and then the trauma of her mother’s death. Later, when mining engineer Hugh Oates is attracted by her ‘difference’ she is happy to marry him and move to a village near Glasgow. After Hugh’s death, she finds out that her biological father was a doctor, Donald Leishman. Married and with a son, Terence, his last-known address was in Edinburgh. Catherine, without a family of her own, resolves to find her half-brother.

Ciggy is homeless and a story-teller, and by cleverly manipulating people to do his bidding, he acquires a hut in the woods above Catherine’s village. He persuades Catherine to befriend him, and soon she asks him to help find Terry Leishman. Her own search, by ‘phone and rail and road, takes her to Aberdeen and then the highlands, and the information she uncovers leads to some surprising insights into not only her three parents, but also her husband: she discovers friendship in surprising places.

Catherine’s search ends when Ciggy shows her where Terry Leishman died, and her eyes are opened to Ciggy’s lies and deception. Moreover, Ciggy’s retracing of the life that he shared with Terry has uncovered some unfinished personal business. He sets out on the road again, to a village in the highlands…

The story is set in Scotland in the 1980s, with back-story in 1950s Cornwall, and 1930s Madras.

Background

I wrote The Leech and the Pearl in the 1990s, after I left Glasgow, where I had been a lecturer and research supervisor in the University’s Zoology Department. So why have I published the novel now?

After several rejections by agents (one well-known agent who went on to lead a publishing house told me ‘I loved it, but it’s not going to make me mega-bucks’) and a couple of publishers, I lost heart and was ready to move on to another project (background research for Seaside Pleasures), so I put the ms in a metaphorical drawer.

But throughout the years it has always been my favourite of the six novels I have written: I am still sorry that Ciggy and Catherine don’t exist in real life so I can meet them (they are very real to me, nevertheless).

I no longer have an agent, nor do I any longer have the patience for the slow business of finding a publisher – so I have decided to publish The Leech and the Pearl as an ebook in the hope that other people will read it and become involved with Catherine’s story.

Although I’ve revised and edited sections, I have not transferred the action to the present day – for Catherine had no access to a mobile phone or a fax machine. She could not have hunted down information though the internet and emails – she had to use telephone calls and letters, and summon up courage to speak to unknown people or wait for posted replies.

The idea for Ciggy as a character developed from one of my short stories, Garden Birds, which was short-listed for the Ian St James Award.

Background to Catherine’s and Ciggy’s stories

Catherine in India

My father and his two brothers were born in Madras (Chennai) where my grandfather was working as Chief Engineer on the Madras & S.M. Railway. The boys were sent ‘home’ to England, to boarding school. as was normal for children in this situation, they were ‘farmed out’ to the family of a vicar in Sussex in the holidays, and usually saw their parents once a year when they came to England on leave. I knew very little of my father’s life in India, other than that his family had lived in Madras, gone to church at the Presbyterian St Andrew’s Kirk and, in the summer, would leave Madras for the cool of the ‘hill station’ at Ootacamunde. His parents and sister came back to England on the last boat through the Suez canal in 1945 and eventually retired to the Bournemouth area.

My father had been only about 8 years old when he was sent away to school and didn’t often talk about his childhood, but when I decided I’d like to write about ‘Catherine’, he began to remember little details of aspects of his life in Madras, and looked out his collections of postcards and a few faded family photos. His cousin, John Edmonds, had also lived briefly in Madras and been sent to school in England – before he died, Canon Edmonds (as he became) wrote me a long letter in response to some of my questions.

Living near Oxford during the period when I was writing The Leech, I frequently visited the fascinating Indian Institute Library at the Bodleian, to browse through its wealth of papers, letters and maps. Reading about St Andrew’s Kirk I discovered that the inside of its dome was deep blue and painted with depictions of the stars that would be seen over Scotland.

I had bought a street map of Madras from ‘Books from India’ in Museum Street, London, and when I later wrote to the proprietor to ask if he knew who could help me find out more about the Kirk, he immediately sent me the name and address of Mr S Muthiah, editor of the Madras Musings: “If anyone can really help you, it will be this man!”

And ‘this man’ did!

In November 1996 I received a letter and a package from Mr Muthiah, containing photos and a booklet that reprinted an 1881 article by the Kirk’s architect, Major de Havilland. Mr Muthiah had managed to visit the Kirk (“getting any information or permission from the Kirk is like pulling teeth”) and persuade someone to open it, then had photographed the painted stars inside the dome. Sadly, they no longer depicted the starry sky above Edinburgh, but had been repainted with a random pattern of stationary and shooting stars. (Now those too may have vanished – twenty years after I posted that letter to Mr Muthiah, the Kirk has its own website and photo gallery, which seems to show the inside of the dome as an unembellished blue .)

Catherine in Cornwall

I grew up in Cornwall near Minions Moor, and at 10 years old was sent to boarding school in Truro. Although I was there slightly later than was ‘Catherine’, her description of a Saturday outing, walking in a ‘crocodile’ and wearing uniform and wellies, then skating on the estuarine mud, are – surprisingly – based on fact. (There was no dead man.)

As for Catherine’s husband Hugh Oates, and his fascination with stone and slate: my long-time friend Dr Peter Stanier, an industrial archaeologist with a special interest in Cornish quarries, helped me with information, and a colleague of his, Dr Tony Brooks at the Camborne School of Mines, answered my many questions about the career trajectory of Hugh’s life.

Catherine in Glasgow

To live in Glasgow in the 1970s and ‘80s felt like living in a series of closely linked, yet separate, small towns. The area around Glasgow University was much less developed than now, and there was indeed a low wall on Byres Road where people would sit to watch the world go by, to wait for the pubs to open (at 5pm), and to wait for friends. It was always a meeting place, by accident or by intention. (But Catherine would never have sat there herself, so she would not have seen the homeless man, Ciggy.)

The Finnieston crane, which appears later in Catherine and Ciggy’s stories, was at that time surrounded by a fairly derelict, bull-dozed area by the quay. The Garden Festival had not happened, the current fine buildings that surround the crane had not even been designed. In its heyday, the crane was used to lift steam locomotives from the dockside into the holds of ships: many would have been destined for India.

Catherine in Aberdeen

I took the train to Aberdeen to meet up with a former colleague, Dr Les Chappell, then lecturing at the University, who had kindly offered to show me the geography of the city. On the train I was ‘entertained’ by a fair-haired man who was on his way out to the oil-rigs – he offered me rum and coke, and (seeing that I was trying to read) dug around in his kitbag to find his own book for me to read. He was not unpleasant, and eventually wandered off to find the drinks trolley. Unfortunately for Catherine, her ‘Sandy’ was a misogenist and racist; my British Indian research student had been subjected to similar sorts of abuse on public transport elsewhere.

Catherine’s search for information about her half-brother required her to write and wait for letters and make phone calls – she could not have used a mobile phone, a fax machine, or the internet at that time.

Catherine in Torridon

Anyone who knows the Torridon area will probably recognise the small coastal village as Shieldaig, but none of the characters Catherine meets are based on real people. There are indeed small, mis-shapen pearls to be found in mussels gathered on from a shore not far away.

scottish mussel pearls
Pearls from Torridon mussels

Ciggy and the ‘green huts’

For several years my family and I lived close to the ‘green huts’ at Carbeth by Blanefield. The range of ‘designs’ of the huts and their gardens, tucked in amongst the trees, was hugely diverse, and we got to know some of the hutters well. The University of Glasgow owned the fishing rights to the loch down amongst the huts, and I’m indebted to my then colleague, Dr Ken Lockey, fisherman but not poacher, for explaining how poachers so regularly depleted the loch of stocked trout.

The green huts were initially built during the war, as a safe place to decant families from the city, and the subsequent stories of the hutting community have taken many turns. At the time when Ciggy lived there, the land was owned by the Barnes-Grahams  who lived in the nearby ‘big house’ (we had permission to clear up fallen timber from their wood, to burn in our open fire).

In 2013 and after several well-publicised disputes, the Carbeth Hutters bought the land from the Carbeth Estate.

carbeth from big issue
Big Issue, no.136, September 11th 1997

The history of the Carbeth huts, with a photo gallery (many of the huts are now much grander than in Ciggy’s day), weblinks and other information is now on a website.

Ciggy at the marine station

The marine station is based loosely on what was then the Universities Marine Biology Station at Millport (UMBSM) on the Isle of Cumbrae.

UMBSM in the 1970s
A postcard of UMBSM in the 1970s

None of the characters Ciggy meets at UMBSM are based on real people.

For three years I helped run marine courses at UMBSM for our Glasgow University students: I have very happy memories of that time, and still remember the smell of the aquarium, and the excitement when RV Sepia sounded her horn as she returned with her catch. Several colleagues (Professors Geoff Moore and Jim Atkinson, Dr Alan Taylor) and the skipper of the Sepia subsequently helped me with details about trawling methods, specimen preservation, and animal species found in the Clyde.

Ciggy in Glasgow

When writing about Ciggy and the homeless shelter I was much influenced by an exhibition, ‘It’s a Roof‘, of photographs of homeless men at the Great Eastern Hotel Hostel, taken by the internationally-known photographer Jane Evelyn Attwood, and shown at Glasgow’s Museum of Transport in 1996. (Strangely, and unlike some of JEA’s other photographic projects, they remain unmentioned, let alone shown, online.)

And what did Ciggy do next …?

 

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