The most dilapidated house in Marabay stood on an outlying croft, aloof from most of the other houses in the village. Structurally it was still solid enough, with two substantial stories, two pointed storm windows, and a central porch topped with a rusting iron thistle. It was a testimony to its builders back in the thirties that it had never lost a single slate in year after year of gales, but it now needed serious renovation. The fence around house and croft was ruinous, despite the fact that the land still supported a band of ill-kempt, marauding sheep that stravaiged the village like gypsies. The front garden was lush with docks, thistles and any other vegetation that the sheep wouldn’t eat. The interior of the house was little better, but since few people ever bothered to visit its lone occupant, it didn’t really matter. That occupant was spoken of either with an amused shake of the head, or else a pious tut, depending on the moral outlook of the speaker. Either way, Smeckan didn’t give a damn.
The main thrust of Smeckan’s career was similar to that of hundreds of island men of his generation. Born just after the war; left school at fifteen; a seasoned fisherman by eighteen, and sailing deep sea with the Merchant Marine in the sixties and seventies. At this point, the details can veer in various directions. Some progress to high rank and some don’t. Some see the wonders of the world and learn, while others see the wonders of the world’s brothels and bars and learn what it’s like to get the clap. Some manage to combine all of these things. Smeckan’s career had been moderate in all ways but one. He had achieved the moderate rank of Second Mate; he had moderately marvelled at the wonders of the world, and had done his moderate share of whoring. He had also got utterly and immoderately plastered on every possible occasion.
Out in the East Indies, Smeckan suffered the drunken sailors’ curse of the short run – a regular voyage of less than a week’s duration. Given a lengthy spell at sea, a man can dry out and save some cash. Given a run ashore every few days, he can cripple his liver and sub so deeply into his wages that he has to work his leave for the next five years. Smeckan’s liver was made of some indestructible super-plastic, but by the time he managed to get his credit into the black and return to Marabay, his elder brothers and sisters were all dead, and he found himself sole proprietor of the family house and croft.
Somehow, Smeckan never got back to sea. One almighty bender blurred into the next, and one day he awoke to find that he had been absent without leave for ten months. He had no cash, and his Mate’s ticket had evaporated, for he had been thrown off the Merchant Navy pool. Still, he had the croft, and at that time there were plenty of modest little numbers around the island. Smeckan tried most of them – millhand, quarryman, road labourer. The big problem was dry land. With hundreds of miles of ocean between him and the nearest bar, Smeckan was a solid worker. With the pubs of Stornoway all around him, he was as reliable as the average bolt of lightning, and it was not long before he was completely unemployable.
Smeckan began a new career as a public landmark. From Marabay, clear to Stornoway and beyond, everybody soon heard of him. Who blundered on board the Spanish trawler one night, fell into a stupor in some cranny below deck, and had to be repatriated from Vigo? Who, when the Queen came to visit, made vigorous attempts to present HRH with a large haddock, and had to be restrained by the royal detectives and the Lord Lieutenant of the Isles? Who – when up on a breach of the peace charge for the same incident – constantly interrupted court proceedings by insisting that the magistrate had been sailing with him on a freighter out of Yokohama in 65, and should therefore stop being such a frosty-faced bastard and join him for a dram in the Criterion Bar?
He was constantly on the Marabay bus, wearing the same old overcoat, whatever the weather. On the way to town he sat alert and upright, surveying the passing moorland as if scanning for U-Boats. On the way back he was a drunken wreck, talking to everybody and nobody, his head sometimes hanging on his chest, flopping like a dead fish with the motion of the bus as he muttered and mumbled. Those near him could just make out a series of names – the names of various political figures, past and present, repeated in a slurred litany. Caspar Weinburger. Sir Alec Douglas Home. When the bus stopped at the long track up to his house, he would stagger up the aisle and occasionally fall down the stairs and into the ditch. Children would giggle and holy, virtuous women would cluck. Smeckan would give a dismissive wave and slowly lurch his way up the track to the house.
* * *
One of that house’s few visitors was Calum Handy. He would pop in on a Thursday night, for Smeckan often stayed reasonably sober to watch ‘Question Time’. Despite his lifestyle, Smeckan loved a good ding-dong political debate, and avidly watched all the news programmes that ever came on. These and the weather forecast were the sum total of his viewing. Everything else he considered just make-believe. Calum’s wife Dina had an ambivalent attitude towards these visits, for while she clucked with the best of them, she was keenly interested in any new snippets of depravity that Calum might bring back.
The next time Calum Handy went to visit he froze in mid-stride. The back door had been stained and varnished. He was astounded. That door hadn’t seen a lick of paint in years. In fact, if it hadn’t been made of prime, solid oak, it would have rotted long ago. He walked closer and examined it. The smooth finish showed that it had been blow-lamped, wire-brushed and meticulously sanded before the coats had been applied. He opened the door to find that the action of the handle was smooth and the hinges gave not even the suggestion of a creak. He was met by the smell of bleach and disinfectant.
At this point Calum Handy seriously thought he had blundered up the wrong track, for the kitchen was sparkling. There was new vinyl on the floor in place of the ancient, cracked linoleum. The walls were freshly painted and the cupboards varnished with a satin finish. Yet it was the right house. There was the same old, deep sink of heavy porcelain. Not many of those left in the village. It had been scoured into dazzling whiteness, and contained not even one disgusting piece of crockery. To top it all, there was a brand-new electric cooker in place of the encrusted antique that had festered there for decades. Right enough! He remembered seeing a Hydro van up at Smeckan’s a few days ago, but assumed it was line or meter trouble.
“Anyone home?” Calum called, after shaking his head in total bewilderment.
Smeckan appeared from the sitting room. He was sober, shaved, and dressed in clothes that Calum couldn’t remember seeing before. The trousers had a broad kind of fifties look about them, but they were spotlessly clean, as were the shirt and tie. A tie! Calum could no longer contain himself.
“What the hell’s happened to you man?” he shouted.
“Isht. Keep the noise down,” Smeckan chided. “You’ll disturb the visitors.”
“Aye. Just off the ferry. They’ve had a bite and they’ve gone off upstairs. Plumb knackered. They’ll be sound in the morning. Want a cuppa?”
Normally Calum refused all sustenance offered in Smeckan’s unless it was at least seventy proof. That way, he thought, the alcohol would disinfect the filthy cup. “Have you nothing stronger,” he asked.
“No…no. I’ve nothing in. The Colonel would disapprove. I know I’m under my own roof and all, but…well! I don’t want the boy to feel on edge.”
“The Colonel,” said Calum.
“Aye. Colonel Ghaddaffi. Saddam wouldn’t mind. He won’t take a dram himself but he wouldn’t mind you and me indulging. He has more of a western outlook. The Colonel’s a real zealot though. A bit of a monk if you ask me. No tea, no coffee, no booze. Just boiled water. I’ll make you a cup of Rosie Lee.” He placed a kettle on the new cooker.
“Boiled water,” said Calum weakly. “Er, this Saddam. Would this be…er…Saddam Hussein?”
“Saddam who-the-hell-else? What other Saddams do I know?”
“I don’t know,” Calum replied, recovering his composure. “Do you not have cousins in Harris? They go in for some funny names down there.”
Smeckan gave him pained look, and set about making the tea.
Calum Handy walked into the sitting room to find that a similar transformation had been worked. There was the same old furniture, but dusted and polished. The piles of bottles, cans and old newspapers had been spirited away.
“These two coves upstairs,” said Calum, when Smeckan emerged with a pot of tea on a tray, along with a clean plate containing two Kit-Kats. “How long are they here for?”
“Four coves,” Smeckan corrected.
“Who else have you got up there? Lawrence of Arabia?”
Smeckan looked even more pained. “That man’s long under the turf, you imbecile. There’s the Colonel and Saddam. And there’s Mikhail and Nelson.”
Calum Handy’s amazement had given way to deep interest, and he was starting to enjoy himself . “Oh, Nelson,” he nodded sagely. “You’ll be swapping sailing stories then.”
Smeckan’s look could have removed paint. “I’m beginning to question your sanity, Macdonald. Nelson was never at sea. He’s a landsman, through and through. Locked up for decades by the South African government. Everybody knows that.”
“Ah, that Nelson,” said Calum. “I thought you meant the English one. Horatio.”
Smeckan sat down and brandished a finger of Kit-Kat. “Horatio fucking Nelson! Lawrence of Arabia! Do you take me for some kind of nutter?”
“Not at all,” Calum emphasised. “I presume this Mikhail is…the Mikhail?”
“Of course.” Smeckan ceased admonishing Calum with his Kit-Kat and took a bite from it. “Greatest politician of the 20th century,” he said through a mouthful. “What a vision! What a man! Because of him, the whole world changed.”
“Yet he made a fatal blunder. “
“Well, that’s just it with these visionaries. They just see the bold thrust but not the detail. They have the power of conception, but they’re…they’re shooting stars in the political cosmos. They’re not plodders like you and me. They don’t have their noses pointed at the ground, and so they sometimes miss the snakes in the grass.”
“Aye,” mused Calum. “ I wonder if he can pinpoint the exact instant when he let it all slip. I bet he can. He must have brooded over it a thousand times. He must be brooding still.”
“You can ask him yourself tomorrow.”
Calum shook his head. “My Russian is terrible. Not fluent at all.” He looked Smeckan in the eye. “I didn’t think yours was up to scratch either. In fact, I didn’t know you had a blind word of it.”
Smeckan finished his biscuit and washed it down with tea. “You’d be surprised what I know,” he said smugly. “I think I’ll put on ‘Question Time’.”
“Why bother man? You’ve got a better line-up here than the BBC can produce. Gordon Brown’s going to seem tame by comparison. He’s not planning a visit by any chance?”
“Gordon Brown! I wouldn’t have him under my roof, even if he paid me. Smeckan got up and turned on the television set.
* * *
Calum Handy couldn’t keep himself away after work the next day. He approached the house to find it being thoroughly prepared for painting. The walls had been high-pressure hosed, and Smeckan was aloft, sitting astride the porch while vigorously wire-brushing the iron thistle.
“You’ve done a power of work here,” shouted Calum.
Smeckan swung his leg over the apex of the porch and started down the ladder. “I had the boys to help me. Many hands make light work. Man, you should see that Saddam graft! No-wonder he managed to survive his own execution. A hanging obviously meant nothing to him. Water off a duck’s back. Today he did the work of two strong men.”
Calum surveyed the house walls and nodded. “Aye, he’s done a grand job. How about the others?”
“Ah well! Not quite as good, but still willing. The Colonel…well he’s a thinker, you see. He has to go off to meditate. He’s up there right now. Nelson’s not too handy up a ladder. No head for heights at all. He’s too used to the broad expanses of the veldt.”
Smeckan patted his nose. “Not so good at the heavy stuff, but you should see him with a paint brush. Come and I’ll show you.”
Calum followed around to the rear of the house, where he saw that the metal windows had been neatly painted in gloss blue.
“See,” said Smeckan proudly. “An artist. Not one speck of paint upon the glass. He’s a real man’s man, but he has the hands of a lady. He could be a surgeon. Come on inside.”
The kitchen was as clean as the previous night, a stew simmered on the stove and the table was neatly set with cutlery for five.
“Are the rest upstairs too?” Calum enquired, as Smeckan scrubbed his hands in the sink and took off his boiler suit.
“They’re down at the shore, rock fishing. They need a bit of relaxation before their supper, and they like the sea. Especially Saddam. He says he finds the sound of it therapeutic.”
“Aye, I suppose he would. “ Calum Handy was a keen student of life’s foibles, but this was suddenly all too much. The not-so-late Saddam Hussein rock fishing! “Well man,” he said. “I won’t wait. My own supper will be on the table shortly.” He said goodbye and walked thoughtfully down the track.
* * *
During the next few days, everyone in Marabay who could walk found an excuse to make the detour out past Smeckan’s house. Even those few who hadn’t heard of the visitors felt compelled to make the journey when they woke up to find that the former Slough of Despond was now completely transformed and painted a very tasteful shade of slate grey. On coming closer, they would also notice that the garden jungle had been expertly scythed, and the fence was undergoing replacement. What somehow set the seal on the transformation was the iron thistle, now resplendent in black, green and purple. Those who sought to exchange a few words with Smeckan were sometimes disappointed and sometimes completely agog. The visitors it seemed, were not a permanent fixture, but would change in number, fame, and political persuasion. Smeckan’s international salon was catholic in both senses of the word, as demonstrated by the visit of Pope Benedict XVI. Ishbal Solomon in Marabay Store was driven scatty with requests for unusual foodstuffs. Kosher products were required during the visit of the Israeli premier. Jacques Chirac would only accept the finest of paté. Jeremy Paxman was more than partial to Stornoway black pudding so at least there was no problem there. The shop was the chief source of news, for Calum Handy shut up like a clam and refused to pass on the smallest detail. He was in a complete quandary. Smeckan was undoubtedly well-gone in the head, but on the other hand he hadn’t touched the booze in weeks and the house was restored to the very model of neatness. Smeckan himself had shed the disreputable old raincoat and now wore clothes which hadn’t seen the light of day for years, but which were invariably clean and pressed. Furthermore, he was affable and polite to all comers. True, there had been a slight flare of temper when someone tried to sit next to him on the bus and ended up in the lap of Condoleezza Rice, but this incident was relatively trivial.
Almost three months after the arrival of the first batch of visitors, Smeckan attended the Marabay Free Church for the first time since childhood. The silence was electric. Smeckan was the personification of discretion, although he did insist on occupying three seats in the pew instead of one.
“This is Osama,” said Smeckan, when Calum Handy was propelled over to speak by Dina, before the service had got underway. “And I’m sure you know Seòras.”
“Seòras?” repeated Calum.
“Seòras Bush. From the white house up the road.”
“Aye-aye Mr President,” said Calum.
“No… Seòras,” said Smeckan. “He’s very accessible. Doesn’t stand on ceremony at all. A very casual man” He nudged Calum Handy. “I bet you never thought you’d see these two together,” he said, winking. “Dialogue boy! That’s the secret. Bring people together, get them talking, and who knows? The sky’s the limit ”
The service was about to start and Calum went back to join his wife.
“Who’s with him,” she asked, and merely nodded when he told her.
The service passed by Calum Handy like a gentle stream. He was lost in his own thoughts, although he did note that Smeckan had a fine baritone voice that contributed handsomely to the psalmody. His visitors were now part and parcel of the village landscape; accepted and of no more than passing interest. Osama bin Laden and George Bush were worshipping together at the back of the Marabay Free Church. The ‘fact’ pleased Calum so much that he launched into the psalms with a vigour that made Dina give him frequent sideways glances, which he either ignored completely, or returned with the most beatific of smiles.