Non-Fiction / Fiona Gifford

His Face

Issue 3. January 15, 2022

The sky is grey as steel. Clouds of various shades lend a subtly varied texture of velvet. They float slowly, west to east, constantly diffusing and reforming their shapes. The thick canopy ensures low light and no shadows.

          Below, the landscape is largely flat, interrupted only by old pit bings and Benquhat (Benwhat) Hill. The hill is often hidden in cloud, but the wind has left it clear and the low light gives it a brooding mood; waiting, longing, maybe even a little menacing.

          Grey-woolled sheep graze in small groups on the rough pale-green grass. Little else grows here. There are hillocks of hairstail grass dotted like stepping stones across the bog that spreads in front of the hill; clumps of rough, spiky stalks topped with bright, white fluffy flowers. The hill itself manages to sustain some purple heather, but otherwise the scene is textures of brown and green.

          It is a wet and muddy climb of 435 meters to the top through peat bogs and sheep and over dry-stone dykes. The reward is a view over a moody, moorland dotted with old mine shafts and slag heaps. To the east runs the Burnhead burn and the scars on the land left by the Pennyvenie and Minnivey pits. All around there is water; muddy pools in the bogs and graphite-grey lochs that glitter light sapphire blue on better days.

          Below to the west and south west, you can make out the ruins of the miners’ rows. These are the remains of the villages of Benquhat, Corbie Craigs and Lethanhill.  The last families were decanted to their post-war palaces in the forties and fifties. Pre-fabs. Pre-fabricated rows of identical boxes with the luxury of heating and indoor bathrooms.

          The pit bings are discernibly unnatural, shaped like pyramids, they mark the sites of the former mines and ironstone pits that fed the Dalmellington Ironworks. In the sixties, the skyline glowed at night with the gases burning from their bowels. Now they are dormant and being gradually reclaimed by nature. A network of disused rail tracks links the mines to the towns and villages through the valley, all the way to the harbour at Ayr.

          Right at the top of Benquhat Hill there’s a war memorial. A grey granite obelisk on three sandstone steps, surrounded by a wrought iron fence. Its inscription reads;

 

 BENQUHAT 1921

ERECTED BY THE PEOPLEOF THIS VILLAGE WITH
PRIDE AND AFFECTION TO THE MEMORY OF THEIR

GALLANT SONS WHO LAID DOWN THEIR LIVES FOR

THEIR KING AND COUNTRY IN THE GREAT WAR 1914-1919

      "GREATER LOVE/HATH NO MAN THAN THIS”

 

In the abandoned village, the ruins of the red-brick miners’ rows evoke the hardship of that life. Two rooms in each terraced dwelling; one for cooking, eating and washing, the other for sleeping. A single fireplace heated both rooms and there is a brick outhouse toilet. Small back yards would once have been vegetable plots for kale, potatoes, neeps and rhubarb. A midden at the very end of the plot served to compost waste that was recycled back into the plot.

          Benquhat School served all three villages and is the most substantial of the ruins. Two sides of the school room stone walls are above head height and the fire place still stands. The school room floor is littered with fallen bricks and over-grown.

          This is where my mother grew up and attended school. She once showed me the outline of my grandparent’s house, and just a few doors down, her uncle and aunt’s.

          There is a huddle of people on the top of Benquhat hill on this wild, blustery, inhospitable day. They are gathered around the war memorial; dark shapes of indeterminate age and gender from the distance. This is my family, and we are here to say goodbye to Uncle Wull.

 

~

 

Uncle Wull was a giant of my childhood. Not the type to swing you around, carry you on his shoulders or spend hours in childish pursuits. He was a quiet, solemn, still presence. Tall and broad shouldered, with a shock of blond-faded-to-white hair. His hands were huge; rough and calloused from decades of hard work down the pit. Clear, pale blue eyes reflected his intelligence and his soft, deep voice spoke with wisdom.

          If I could relive any childhood moment, it would be any that I spent with him.

          When he was not on shift at the pit, Wull would walk the hills and moors with his border collie, Meg. My mother remembers following him on his long, silent walks over the hills to the loch. We did the same.

          The passage of time determined the number of children in the pool of possible companions. The colour, shape and name of the dog changed over the years.  The tableau however remained unchanged for decades. The tall, strong white-haired man, dog at his heels and a procession of children jogging and skipping to keep up.

 

 

~

 

After the Benquhat pit closed, the miners moved to Dalmellington, Bellsbank and Patna. The men went to worke at the Pennyvenie and Minnivey pits.

          At first Wull and his wife Peggy moved to a post-war pre-fab at the edge of the town. Later they, rather reluctantly moved to a council house in Dalmellington.

          Peggy was small and neat; she boasted that she was the same dress size as when she was a teenager. You could tell she’d been a pretty girl; a tiny, heart-shaped face framed with soft curls that had been sooty black before they turned silver. Dark hazel eyes brimmed with warmth and love and a small, slightly turned up nose. I never saw Peggy wear anything other than a floral dress with a pinny on top.

          Their house was always a scene of chaos; largely due to Peggy’s impulsive nature. She was the opposite of Wull in almost every way; noisy, demonstrative, full of mischief and always on the go. When we arrived at their house she would be in the kitchen making scones, pancakes, lemon curd or tablet. Her philosophy was that no troubles could survive home baking and a good cup of tea.  The daughter of a rogue of an Irishman railwayman called Paddy, Peggy had had a rough childhood and had kept house for her hard-drinking father and six siblings. I never asked her where her mother was, I wish I had. She used to tell me stories of the “old days” before Uncle Wull recognised the diamond in the rough and courted her quietly until she accepted him as her husband.

          “I thought he had a bank book!” Peggy would joke. “Listen to me hen, always check they have a bank book before you take the ring!”

          Everyone was “hen” or “son” in Peggy’s house. She made no distinction between close relatives and friends passing through. It was as if she had the capacity to love us all the same. Perhaps it was also the language of convenience; the house was always full and the through-traffic fluid; she’d have been hard-pressed to have every name on the tip of her tongue.

          Peggy was as loud and brash as Wull was quiet and gentle. Even then, as a young child, I could tell they were soul-mates.

 

~

 

In what passed for the quiet time after lunch (quiet only because Peggy was washing up and making tea in the kitchen). Wull would sit in his habitual armchair, Meg lying snoozing at his feet. He’d silently and deliberately clean and fill his briar pipe. Taking a piece of newspaper from the kindling basket by the coal fire, he’d screw it up tight and use it like a taper to light the tobacco. The nut-spice fragrance of the pipe smoke filled the room and the blue-grey smoke curled and danced around his head. Relaxed and leaning back in his chair, he would gaze from the window across his beloved hills, anticipating the pleasure of his walk.

          We children would run inside and out, absorbed in our various games and make-believe role-play. We played “peevers” on the pavement; hopping between the numbered, chalked squares with an old shoe-polish tin filled with gravel as the peever. Sometimes we’d invent stories of kings and queens, princes and princesses, and of course dragons. The older children took their favourite roles to play, while we younger ones squabbled over the left overs.

          Peggy would finish the washing up and bring her man his cup of tea. They’d chat about the “weans” and the comings and goings of the village; at least Peggy would chat and Wull would answer when he had something to say.

          After an hour and without a word, Wull would unfold his six-foot frame from his chair. Unhurried, sun, rain or cloud, he would head for the hall. Saying nothing, collecting his scarf, gloves, raincoat and cap he would let himself out of the back door; Meg silently following at his heel. A ripple of realisation would flow around the collective of children and there would follow a frenetic dash for outdoor clothes.

          No-one ever suggested these excursions; no-one ever questioned why or suggested an alternative. Peggy never had to ask where we were going. It all happened as naturally as the sun rising and setting every day.

 

~

 

 

Once out on the open hills Wull’s childish stalkers would make their way in his wake. Wull striding silently along. We “weans” would do at least double the miles as we tripped and traipsed around him with Meg. We would pick up treasures; sheep’s skulls, wild flowers for Peggy, brambles that left our mouths’ bleeding with juice and wet trouser legs from ill-advised forays into burns and ponds looking for frog spawn.

          Wull never looked back, never was distracted by our antics; it was as if we weren’t there. He loved his moors and hills. He loved us too. He just showed it in his own way. We knew he loved us; he just never said.

I can’t tell you how many of those walks there were or how many I followed, but I’d do anything to have just one more.

 

~

 

Much later, in the late 70’s, I recall sitting in that same room with Wull in his chair. Now much shorter in stature and seldom far from the oxygen mask that kept him alive after the poison of fifty years down the pit had finally crippled his lungs. He still held his pipe in his hand, now empty and unlit; an old habit dying hard.  He said then that the closure of the pits would, in the long term, be the making of a generation.

          “There’s no dignity in earning your living on your knees under the ground.” He said. “The dirt fills your eyes and ears and fear fills the heart of your family until you come again to the surface. I had no choice perhaps. I couldn’t even go to war, because war needs iron and iron needs coal.”

          By the time Wull died, I was an adult. He died as he had lived. Quietly. His poor tired heart gave up the fight to keep him alive on what little oxygen his lungs could take in.

 

~

 

Auntie Peggy’s love for her Wull was palpable in her loss. She grieved and wept and on the day we scattered his ashes, she said “I’ve lost him and I canna get his face, hen.” Her dark eyes locked onto mine as if Wull’s features might float from my memory to comfort her. “I just canna get his face.”

          I held her wrinkled and age-twisted hand, not sure what to say or do. Gazing out of the window to the hill beyond, she repeated in a whisper, “I canna get his face.”

          After more than sixty years of seeing Wull every day, it must have been agony not to recall his face? His beloved face on the pillow morning and night; his tall, upright frame in his chair after lunch; through the window working on his vegetable plot; filling the kitchen doorway when he came home from his walk or the pit. Now gone.

          “In my mind, hen. I could always see him in here.” Peggy whispered pointing a bony finger to her head.

          At last she fell into sad sleep and I prayed that Uncle Wull’s spirit would release that memory of his face to her again as she dreamt.

 

~

 

Auntie Peggy wouldn’t go to Uncle Wull’s funeral. She said she wanted to remember him for himself and not as a wooden box in a cold church. Her daughter stayed home with her. The rest of us trooped off in uncomfortable black skirts or trousers and white shirts, boys with unaccustomed ties; looking for all the world like new recruits to the waiting staff at the Station Hotel.

          I remember little of the service or the cremation. At the wake, I was surprised to see so many people. Given his age, most of his contemporaries had gone before him. Even so, here was a room full of people, each with their own stories of my great-uncle; many passed on from their own parents. Wull, the young man with dreams for his future. Wull, the working family man and respected friend and neighbour. Wull, the trade unionist. Oor Wull.

 

~

 

A week later we all congregated again in Peggy’s front room. Uncle Wull had asked to have his ashes scattered from the top of Benquhat Hill next to the war memorial. Auntie Peggy could not have gone even if she wanted too. It was a hard walk and in February it would be wet, cold and windy.

          Despite the formality of the event, the family were dressed for comfort rather than to impress. We had all made that climb before many times and knew it would be a trial rather than a pleasure at this time of year. Three generations of Wull’s family set off along the paved track to the end of the village. Neighbours and friends hailed from their gardens and some came to the front door to show respect. Wull’s son Billy carried a smallish carpet bag containing the urn of ashes and “a few beers to toast my father’s life”.

          Billy had loved his father fiercely although they had clashed in his youth. Being the mix of Peggy and Wull would not have made for an easy adolescence. When he became a young man with a family of his own, they had become friends and very close. Although he had Wull’s strength and resolve, he had Peggy’s strong emotional drive too and this journey would be hardest for him.

          At the end of the village pathway, we clambered across a stile and followed the rough path around the hill, over the burn to the bottom of the narrow sheep trail that led up to the war memorial. By the time we got that far most of us were wet up to our knees from the long grass, boggy ground and dripping heather and gorse bushes we’d waded through. The morning rain had stopped however, and although the sky was far from blue, at least the purple and black bruised clouds that had threatened the expedition had lightened to pale grey.

          Billy stopped to let everyone catch up and then shepherded us, panting, up the hill path. I though of Meg at that moment; the way she used to run ahead and then turn in a wide circle back to round up all the stragglers on a walk.                     Perhaps that’s why Wull didn’t watch us all the time; he knew that Meg was looking out for us and she would soon let him know if anything was amiss.

          We slipped and sloshed our way up the hillside. Two of the youngest had to resort to cockey-backs from their dads. Shouts of “stick to the grass, it’s less muddy”, rallied by “aye, but it awfy slippy too”. Finally, reaching the top, there followed a few moments of normal banter.

          “It’s further than it looks from the bottom.”

          “I’ve no done that in a long time.”

          “Man! I’m out of shape. I have to get more exercise.”

          “Janey, hen. Dinny go too near the edge there, it’s steep and you could fall.”

          We gathered around the memorial, reading the inscription we had read so many times before. Below the inscription is the list of soldiers lost in the war. As a mining community, most of the men were exempt from the war. As a result, most who died were very young; conscripted straight from school before they could be apprenticed to the pit.

          The fourth name on the list of twelve is “Hodgson, D”. My great uncle and brother of my grandfather and my Uncle Wull. Davey died in Normandy, France. His body never came home.

          The wind whipping our hair and lifting our coats, we eventually all settled and a silence fell. Billy walked slowly to stand by the memorial and cleared his throat with theatrical gravitas.

          We all gathered beside him looking from the hilltop down to the loch. Each lost in our own memories and thoughts of Wull.

          As I looked out over the moor below, the wind in my face, I thought again of those childhood walks. I remember the sounds and smells of the hills. My child’s–eye view of those days; long, strong legs striding out in front, Meg running between her master and his charges, my cousins and siblings discovering their world. I was never so free and vulnerable and yet, never so safe.

~

 

“Dad, you were the best father to me that anyone could be. I promise you I will look after Mum.  I’ll miss you. We will all miss you.” Billy raised his beer bottle to the skyline and others followed suit. They take a sip and pause for a moment of silence. Then Billy pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket.

          “When Dad’s brother died, Dad wrote this poem in his memory;

 

My brother now, my friend always,

We walked together through our days.

A smile, a word, a thought, a hand,

By your side I’ll always stand.

Though the parting brings great pain,

I know I’ll find you once again.

 

          I hope you find him now Dad, and we’ll all look and find you too again some day.”

          Billy bent to the bag at his feet and lifted the urn, turning the lid as he straightened and lifted it shoulder high. The clouds overhead seemed to grow darker and a light rain blew horizontally. I lifted my face to the sea-like spray and felt it’s cold mix with my warm tears.

          Just as Billy freed the lid, I heard a sharp gasp from the throng. I looked around at the faces of my family, they are reddish-blue from the icy wind and wet with tears and rain. Then Billy shook the urn and Wull’s ashes fluttered and blustered backwards, brushing our hair and skin, sticking to our shocked faces.  For a moment no-one speaks. Then Billy smiled, “Well, it looks like we found him again sooner than we thought!”
 

~

 

Once back down the hill, the trek back to the village took on the feel of one of our walks with Wull. The youngsters ran about chasing each other, squealing with the excitement of being nearly caught. The adults chatted and reminisced; everyone congratulated Billy for his words.

          Back at the house, the kitchen table creaked under the weight of a morning’s baking and the huge tea pots, steaming with welcome, hot drinks. Peggy has changed into a pink-flowered dress and a fresh cardy under her pinny and smiled a weak smile. The children instinctively collected around her and she “hens” and “sons” them as she encourages their appetites for her food-love goodies.

          Later when most of the families have gone and Billy has taken the dog for a late walk, Auntie Peggy and I share the drying up.

          “I got his face again today, hen” she smiles “I got his face”.

 

 

 

Born in Ayrshire, Fiona Gifford had somewhat of a nomadic childhood. At four days old, her mother took her to Canada on the ocean liner Corinthian. Thereafter she lived in Edinburgh, Bellsbank, France and back to Ayrshire. She went on to study both under and post graduate degrees in Edinburgh and has lived there ever since. Her career had been in management in large corporates until she left to set up her own company as a leadership and team coach. An avid people-watcher. Fiona mostly writes character-based fiction.