‘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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‘Cats’

The envelope merely stated: ‘To the young lady who lives in the basement flat’.

There was a single sheet of paper inside, upon which was written a poem, in firm black ink. Catriona read it quickly, unable to take in the words.

To “The Lady‑with‑the‑Sky‑in‑her‑Hair”

Your black hair, glossy,

Reaches out

And entwines the blue sky,

Wraps it

In shining fingers

And pulls it down

Around your head,

Like a blue, silk shawl.

You are a celestial pillar,

Rapt

In beautiful, fierce anger.

And even the cat

Is cowed.’

There was no signature. She read it again, and now she knew who had written it. She saw herself, raised high above the viewer’s head, enhanced through his vision, and she was moved and excited. But she was also fearful, that he should interpret her in this way, and thus ensnare her.

As she folded the piece of paper, she saw another line of writing, on the back: ‘What you need is a Tom!’ Even as she read this suggestion (or was it a proposition?), she thought she knew what was in the black plastic sack, upon which the envelope had been propped: and she was disgusted.

***

There was another dead cat in the lane behind the terrace. Catriona could just make out its shape, where it lay stiffly in the mud. She hung her tights on the washing‑line, then leaned over the railings to stare down. The lane was a dark, rutted gorge, its cobbles long since displaced by heavy lorries and an endless sequence of men with road‑drills, spades and inappropriate tarmac. It was bounded by stone walls that were pierced by wooden doors, some strong and locked, like Catriona’s, others broken and hanging. Behind the walls and their backgardens and dustbins rose even higher walls, four storeys high, of stern Victorian terraces.  The cat, once so large and vivid orange, was diminished and darkened by the surrounding stone. Would this corpse, too, suddenly vanish overnight?

The terrace in which Catriona lived curved around the top of the hill, so that the windows and back‑door of her basement flat opened onto a steeply‑sloping lawn. Her garden was small ‑ the grass ragged, the few shrubs alive but stunted, and the patch of soil that nourished nasturtiums and daffodils was adequate but sooty ‑ but she was happy to use it as an extension to her tiny flat. Yet it was a constant irritation that the neighbourhood cats used it, too. It was not only their noise that irritated (and sometimes, in the night, frightened) her: it was their casual acceptance that any patch of sunlight was theirs, that the dustbin and shrubs were parish boundaries to be sprayed with pungent stink, and that the powdery soil had been provided as a public cats’ convenience. The cats clawed open dustbin sacks, then sat and chewed, heads tilted, at stringy offal and kitchen towel soaked in miscellaneous juices; they formed small gangs that paced, with twitching tails, glaring at the opposition; and they hunted for newly‑parked cars, searching out the warmest engine, and stamped their muddy feet in triumph on the bonnet.

Catriona hated them. She rapped on the window or she opened the door and threw things. Once, she threw her shoe and, so powerful was her anger, the shoe sped the length of the garden and dropped over the railings, out of sight. When she went to fetch it, treading cautiously down the steep, slimy steps towards the wooden door, the cat (amused and undeterred) peered down at her descending head, and purred.

There was so much food: not merely carelessly thrown junk, but purposely‑placed food, offered by cat‑owners and by cat‑less people who felt sorry for the strays. There were little bowls and dishes, and opened tins. When Catriona walked down the street, past the rows of doorbells and empty milk‑bottles, there was even the occasional saucer left on a top step, the surface of the milk crusty with floating dust. There was also the man who put out meat. She had seen him in the back lane; he looked about sixty, and wore a suit, and he came out of the green back gate, the one with peeling, scabby paint, the house that had sixteen door‑bells at the front. She wouldn’t have paid him much attention except that he held out a bowl and called for the cats in a strangely high, thin voice. The cats clearly recognised the call: furry heads lifted and turned, backs were arched and stretched, and cats of all colours leapt lightly off resting places, slunk around corners, and bounded towards the bowl. The man’s feet were lost in a multicoloured snarl of fur, and within seconds the bowl was empty. A few of the lucky ones ran off to sit and crunch at bones, little delicate bones that splintered like chicken. Catriona hoped they’d choke.

drawing from 'cats'

There was a lunchtime in early spring when Catriona escaped from her office to sit in the unexpected sunshine in the park. The trees were still bare, but blue and white crocuses were piled like  carpets on the lawns. She chose a bench in the sun, and sat with eyes closed, head tilted towards the imagined heat. But soon a shudder indicated that someone  had joined her on the bench. She opened her eyes slightly and saw a man, and tried to suppress her annoyance that she could not be permitted to sit alone. But then it seemed that the man was familiar, and she peeped again, and puzzled. She was almost sure it was the cat‑man from down the lane, but he wore an unfamiliar tweed jacket and a matching cap, and he was a little older than she had thought. It was annoying, the way he fidgeted and muttered, and she was just making up her mind to move when he said:

‘Excuse me … I wonder if you could help me. What is the name of the spice that one obtains from crocuses? Or croci, I wonder if one should say?’

‘Oh! I’m sorry … I don’t ‑ ‘

‘You see, I’ve temporarily forgotten ‑ wretched memory!’ His voice was gentle, self‑deprecating. ‘It’s from the stamens ‑ you know, the yellow rods, inside.’

‘Yes, I know which are the stamens.’ Catriona was offended. ‘Saffron.’

‘Ah yes. Saffron.’

‘Why? Are you thinking of collecting some?’ She was prepared to be judgmental.

‘Oh no! I merely needed the word. Thank you.’

The man turned away, and watched the squirrel that had been stopping and starting among the flowers. His lips were moving, though, and occasionally his hands twitched impatiently.

The squirrel reared on its hind legs, then dropped down and scuttled towards a tree. The man gave a pleased little snort.

‘Did you see?’ he asked. ‘That’s what I find hard to capture. The skeleton itself must flow, and loop and turn.’ He was trying to explain with his freckled, bony hands, as well as with his words. ‘But the words must flesh it out, do you see ‑ almost disguise the structure. That’s what I can’t get right.’

Catriona was embarrassed; she was prepared to dismiss him, possibly as a victim of some sort of dementia. Yet he seemed harmless, and one didn’t often meet interesting people in the park.

‘You don’t see what I’m getting at, do you? Listen!

Sinuous snake‑shape,

slithering

through saffron ‑

you see there, that’s why I needed your help ‑

through saffron.

That suddenly curls,

furry fluffball,

grey among blue and yellow

goblets,

uncoiling and stretching

its bristling, prickling

whiskered tail …

I haven’t got any further, yet.’

‘Yes. I do see. I think.’ Catriona wasn’t sure whether to be impressed, or wary of the old man’s pretensions. ‘Have you done poems for other animals?’ She tried to think of a suitable example. ‘How about a cheetah? Or an ordinary  cat? You’re fond of cats aren’t you?’

Catriona was sure it was the same man; but his face closed and his expression was blank.

‘Fond of cats? No. No, I’m not fond of cats. There is no fondness in them, they do not reciprocate ‑ they can only take . Good heavens, look at the time!’ (He didn’t even consult his watch.) ‘I must be going. Goodbye!’

And he was gone, moving surprisingly briskly through the lunchtime strollers.

It was a few weeks before Catriona saw him again. She hid behind the damply‑hanging towels and watched as he called the cats. This time, he held the bowl high, out of reach, and he pushed the cats aside with his foot so that one, and only one, could receive his gift. He walked backwards, encouraging the brown Burmese to follow, enticing it in through the garden door. The graceful animal stepped daintily out of sight.

He didn’t notice Catriona that time, but he saw her, a few days later, when the scarred grey cat leapt over the railings.

Catriona had flung open the door and chased the cat down the lawn. The animal bundled itself together, then unfolded like a flying fox and hurled itself at the far wall. It scrabbled and bunched its body against the stone, then pulled itself up, to sit, panting and glaring at its pursuer. She burst out laughing at its anger and then realised the cat‑man was below her in the lane. He held a plastic bin‑bag that hung heavily as the wind rattled rubbish on the stones.

‘No, I’m not fond of them,’ he said, ‘and nor, it seems, are you!’

‘It was ‑ defaecating ‑ on my lawn.’

The elderly man continued staring up at her, wordlessly, until she became uncomfortable.

‘Mmmm …. a lion rampant, gold on green.’

‘It looked more like a suction pad with claws,’ Catriona said, puzzled, but trying to be helpful.

He looked at the angry cat, and smiled. ‘Yes. Oh yes. That’s a nice idea. Thank you so much.’

Catriona smiled back, and then went inside.

***

She poked the black bag with her foot, but it was ungiving and hard. She patted it cautiously with her hand and its contents were curved and tall, so, since the bag was not heavy,  she took it, and the letter, downstairs to her flat. She read again the poem ‑ and was no longer frightened. She cut the string and rolled back the neck of the bag, and stared into the unblinking glass eyes of the ginger tom. His broad face glared at her, his back was arched, his hair bristled stiffly round his neck, and every part of his body signalled ‘Keep off!’ Catriona stroked him gently; so cold and dead, yet skilfully reincarnated to such heat and fury. His legs, fixed firmly to the stand, were stiff and straight. She expected him to raise his tail and spray the cupboards, marking the kitchen as his territory.

The ginger tom, captured, then recaptured in such rampant gold perfection. As she, too, had been immortalised in words, and petrified, azure‑tipped.

It was not until the weekend that Catriona felt confident enough to respond. The poem had been unsigned, there had been no address, but the gift had laid a burden of uncertainty upon her that must be cleared. In her handbag she carried a small replica of a fossil fish that she had purchased at the Museum gift shop and had wrapped in blue metallic foil. The bones of the fish, compressed and preserved by aeons of hardening sediment, were starkly drawn as though by an engineer’s pen.

Catriona’s feet crunched on the poet’s basement step and, thoughtfully, she pushed aside the small, crushed shoulder‑blade with her shoe. She rang the bell, but there was no answer, and the curtains were closed. A girl, going up the front steps, saw her and told her that he had gone.

‘Three days ago. He’s flitted ‑ he was way behind with the rent.’

‘Do you know where?’

‘No, he didn’t tell anyone, just skipped. I hope he’s got somewhere to go, though, he left loads of stuff behind. He must’ve been a bit weird, though ‑ do you know what they found in there?’

‘No.’ But she could guess.

‘Cats! The place was full of dead cats, all stuffed and mounted. Gross!’

Catriona shook her head in amazement, laughing with the girl, and walked away. She wondered if there had been a stuffed squirrel, too.

 

This story was published in Chapman, Scotland’s Quality Literary Magazine‘, volume 81, in 1995.

 

‘The Fiddler’s Leg’

 

fiddler's leg cover

ISBN 0-7472-5297-1
Headline Review
Published 1996

Available from Amazon (for an exorbitant price – ‘rarity value’, perhaps?) or from the author (for considerably less – contact me)

Julian Kersland, a talented but crippled violinist and leader of a baroque ensemble in Glasgow, is the focus of the needs and theories of a diverse range of people. Early on, his school chaplain convinced him that the accident to his leg and the subsequent pain were necessary for the expression of his musical talent. Now, when Julian is in his 30s and wondering where his talent should lead him, both Margaret Gillespie, a solicitor’s wife, and Isobel Hutchinson, a medical student, are intrigued and attracted by his disability and his good looks. Julian, unaware that those around him see the leg rather than the man, is approaching crisis. He becomes obsessed by Isobel, harried by Margaret and tortured by the trauma associated with his talent. But one evening he tells Tom, a Scottish folk-fiddler, the story of his accident. In confronting the truth, he can begin the journey to acceptance.

Ann Lingard’s powerful new work proved to be my favourite book this year … extremely well written. – Helen Peacocke, Oxford Times.