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Buntàta ’s sgadan.’
The old man had requested potatoes and herring for supper as if the Gaelic feast were already in his mouth that May day in 1983. Seumas had dug up the big potatoes he had planted, washing them under the tap in the chipped stone sink in the scullery. He filled a pot from the sea to cook the herring he had been given off a boat in the town because you couldn’t catch them any more with feathered hooks off Rubha nan Ròn. While supper was cooking on the open flames of the range he spread the local paper out on the table, then carried the two pots through to the scullery to drain them, returning to tumble out their contents into two heaps on the paper before helping the old man to the table.
After his stroke the old man’s right arm was like a useless flipper across his chest. Once the most sure-footed of men, especially in a pitching boat, he now lurched to the table as if he had a cargo of whisky in him. They sat opposite each other, using only their hands. The old man picked up a potato, imprinted with ink from the death notices, breaking it in his fingers and when the steam had escaped he put a piece into his mouth before peeling the silver skin from the fish and breaking off a portion.
'Tha seo blasta,’ this is tasty, he pronounced.
The old man was wearing an open shirt and trousers with braces, sagging at the waist, like a clown’s outfit, completed by his bulbous red nose. He had sandshoes without laces on his feet for the comfort of his corns. He wasn’t tall but he had wide shoulders and had been a ferocious fighter in his time, on one memorable occasion, stripped to the waist in a blizzard, taking on two big men off a Fleetwood trawler and thrashing them. As his son fondly watched him eating he smiled at the thought that the old man looked like a seal, with his bald head, his whiskers, and no neck on the powerful physique. He was eating potatoes and herring, representing the two toils of his life, the earth and the sea. There was a little pile of fish skins by his left hand, but he ate the potato skins, with the dark soil in their crevices. He was laying the fish bones at the edge of the paper as if engaged in creating an intricate puzzle.
‘Tha mi dol don taigh-bheag,’ I’m going to the little house, the old man announced suddenly, hobbling towards the door.
Dìleas, faithful, the collie dog, came back alone ten minutes later, whining and pawing Seumas’s foot. He ran round the corner of the house. The old man had fallen asleep in the stifling taigh-beag, on the plank with the hole in it, his head on his chest, trousers round his sandshoes, a bluebottle sounding mournfully in the enamel pail under him.
‘Tiugainn,’ come along, the son coaxed gently, catching the old man’s hand.
The old man pitched forward, his face among the buidheagan an t-samhraidh, the buttercup, little yellow one of the summer, on the bank of Allt a’ Ghobha-Uisge, the burn of the water ouzel, as it swung behind the house on its way down to the bay. Seumas knelt, turning the old man over and opening his shirt before putting his mouth to the old man’s white moustache and trying to pump life back into his chest. Seventy three years of the scent of peat fires were ingrained in his skin. But the old man was getting cold, and his eyes had rolled up into his head as if to show that he was finished with the world. The doctor would have to walk over the hill to tell the son something he already knew, that his athair had gone, and the undertaker would have to come to measure him, then take the coffin over the moor on a hired tractor. He couldn’t afford it.
He wiped the old man’s tòn with torn-up newspaper from the rusty nail in the taigh-beag and carried him on his back, grasping him by the wrists, the sandshoes slithering through the grass in which the ticking of the grasshopper sounded like a lost watch. He removed the old man’s clothes and sat him naked on the plain wooden chair in front of the fire, holding him in place with a length of rope wound round his chest and secured to the chair back. He used the hot water in the kettle to wash the old man tenderly, as though he were an infant, taking a wet cloth to the moustache to get the pieces of his last feast of herring out of it. He thought about shaving him, but it would be difficult, the way his head kept slumping forward.
Seumas went upstairs and brought down the only suit the old man had possessed and the white shirt last worn for his wife’s funeral, but leaving off the black tie. He dressed the old man, putting the sandshoes back on his bare feet. He pulled in the dinghy on the rope and waded out to it with the old man on his back. He had to take the dog on this final journey because she had been the old man’s and because she adored her dead master, which was why Dìleas, whom the old man claimed understood Gaelic like a human, was whimpering and licking the old man’s ankles.
He transferred the corpse to the launch and laid out the old man between the seats with one of his creels as a pillow. The old man whose name was Murchadh, Murdo, had made the creel on the shore in a long-ago summer, bending the steamed hazel wands over the flat stone for ballast on the board, then plying the big wooden needle to make the lattice pattern with the twine before brushing on the pungent pitch from the pot.