Dirt Road

James Kelman

July 13, 2017 
The following is from James Kelman’s novel, Dirt Road. After his mother’s death, 16-year-old Murdo & his father travel from Scotland to Alabama to be with his aunt & uncle. The father & son experience attempts & failures to communicate in the midst of loss. James Kelman is the author of A Disaffection, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and How Late it Was, How Late, which won the Booker Prize.

It was half five in the morning when his father wakened him. Murdo lay in bed an extra few minutes. There was a lot to think about. But that was all, thinking; he finished the packing yesterday. Soon he was up and downstairs for breakfast. Dad had eaten his and was doing the last-minute check to electric switches and gas taps, water taps and window snibs. In a couple of hours’ time people would be going to school. Murdo and his father were going to America.

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Then they were off, walking down over the hill and on down to the ferry terminal, Dad pulling his suitcase, Murdo a step behind, rucksack on his shoulders. Dad had wanted him to bring a suitcase too but what a nightmare that would have been.

It was a good morning, fresh and new-feeling. An old neighbour and his dog were returning from the newsagent. He saw their luggage and was ready to stop for a chat. He told long stories and Murdo quite liked listening but just now there was no time. Murdo gave him a wave. Dad had barely noticed the old guy anyway. Father and son carried on down to the pier.

A guy Murdo knew was by the entrance to the ferry terminal. His young brother had been in Murdo’s class at school. The guy was working and there was no time to blether. The early morning ferries were busy. People crossed to the mainland on a daily basis to get to their work. Murdo’s father was one of those and must have recognised a couple of the passengers but he didnt nod to any of them, not that Murdo saw. Dad didnt talk much anyway. As soon as they sat down he brought out his book and began reading. Murdo sat thinking about stuff. If anybody had asked what about he wouldnt have known. All sorts and everything. Soon he got up to go outside. I’m just going out a minute, he said.

Dad nodded and continued reading.

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Murdo had made this ferry crossing a million times but it was still enjoyable. He leaned on the barrier seeing down towards the island of Cumbrae. Next thing they would be flying over it. But they would hardly see it because it came so close on the take-off. Murdo had only been on a plane once before, for a holiday in Spain. So that was twice, there and back. All he remembered was a happy time. What made it so happy? He stopped the thought. But it was not even a thought. The image from a photograph. His mother and sister were there.

When Murdo thought of “his family” that was what he thought about. The family was four and not just him and Dad. Mum died of cancer at the end of spring. This followed the death of Eilidh, his sister, seven years earlier from the same disease, if cancer is a “disease.” He could not think of cancers like that because the way they hit people. One minute they were fine but the next they were struck down. More like a bullet from a gun was how he saw it: you walk along the street one minute and the next you are lying there on a hospital bed, curtains drawn, nothing to be done and nobody to help. The cancer his mother and sister suffered struck through the female line and ended in death. Males cannot help. All they can do is be there and be supportive. What else? Nothing, there is nothing.

That was weird, not being able to do anything, thinking of doctors and all medical science yet nothing. Murdo found that difficult. His Dad must have too. Murdo didnt know. It was not something they spoke about.

He was standing by the rail, enjoying the sea-spray, that freshness. Nobody else was there. Too blowy. Either they were inside where Dad was or else had stayed in their cars. Boats were better than planes. Even wee ones. If ever he made money he would buy one. Even before a car he wanted a boat. With a boat ye could sail anywhere. Depending on the engine, or maybe the sails. Guys he knew had boats; their dads anyway, or uncles. It would have been great. His father didnt bother. When ye take one back and forwards to yer work every morning ye dont want to be doing it in yer spare time. As if traveling on a ferry was the same as sailing a boat. It was the kind of daft thing Dad said, because he couldnt be bothered talking seriously about stuff.

Then the guy was there whose young brother was in Murdo’s class at school. He already knew they were headed for America and was wanting to know how long they were away. Murdo said, Two weeks I think.

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Ye think! The guy chuckled.

Well maybe it’s two and a half. Murdo grinned.

The guy clapped him on the shoulder, still chuckling, took a last couple of puffs of his fag and flicked it overboard. Murdo knew it sounded daft, not knowing how long they were away for but Dad hadnt told him. Or had he? Maybe he had. Sometimes Dad said stuff and he didnt take it in. He would have had to ask to know for sure, and he didnt like asking. One question at a time.

The truth is he didnt care how long he was going away. Forever would have suited him. It didnt matter it was America. America was good but wherever. Things closed in. It was not Dad’s fault, just life. Murdo was nine when his sister died. With Mum he was sixteen. People die and you cannot do a thing. All the cannots; cannot cannot. Nobody nothing nothing nobody. Cannot cannot nothings for nobody. The person is just nothing. You cannot help. Nobody can. People say how it eats inside you. It is true. That was it with Mum. Every moment of the day thinking about it from first waking in the morning till last thing at night: is she asleep or awake, and what do her eyes look like, is she seeing stuff or are they that other way, just nothing, her eyes just nothing.

People say about getting away. Yes to that. It was the best thing ever could have happened.

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The ferry was set to dock. Dad was waiting for him. He shrugged when he got there. It was a particular shrug. It meant Murdo should have been there two minutes ago and should watch it in future. This was a bit daft. Ye could miss getting on a boat but not getting off. How could ye miss getting off? The ferry docked and that was that. Dad was like this when it came to stuff. Maybe he thought they would miss the train. But how could they miss the train? It was there to connect with the ferry. If for some reason it was postponed they would just jump a bus. Dad had left time for emergencies.

They walked fast with the other passengers. Some raced to get the best seats on the train. On board Dad said,You got everything?

Murdo shrugged. Yeah. He was unsure what Dad meant. Dad had the passports, the visas, the tickets; everything, Dad had everything. All Murdo had was himself and his money which was just about nothing. He went in for his phone, the pocket where usually he kept it. It wasnt there. He tried other places. Maybe it was in the rucksack: he never kept it in the rucksack.

Dad was back reading his book. Dad read books. The train started moving and the ticket-collector was coming. Murdo gazed out the window, then tried his pockets again. The idea of leaving it behind! What a nightmare. Surely not? How could he have? He couldnt. Yes he could.

Dad was watching him. Alright Murdo? Yeah Dad.

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Dad nodded, turned a page in his book. Murdo waited until the ticket-collector had passed along the train then unzipped the compartments in his rucksack one by one. Still nothing. He really didnt have it. He actually didnt have it.

Dad was watching him again. Murdo said, Dad I’ve left my phone. I’ve left it. I had it on the kitchen counter ready to take. I dont know, I just, I forgot to lift it.

Dad said, Have ye checked all yer pockets? I’ll check them again.

He checked all of his pockets again and every part of the ruck-sack but the phone wasnt there. He really had left it. Murdo said, Dad I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.

Dad nodded. A bit of peace without it I suppose.

Murdo sighed, zipped up the rucksack and stared out the window. That was him now, nothing. What did he have? Nothing. This was the first stage of the journey then there were all the rest.

The flight to Amsterdam was an hour and forty-five minutes. Then twelve hours to America! Twelve hours! Once the doors closed that was you; locked in, barred and bolted. And nothing except some stupid movie. Or else whatever, like if they had some kind  of  in-house sound system,  maybe iTunes or something.

Imagine a pill. Ye went on board and they gave you it to swallow. Next thing ye were getting off. They could hit ye on the head with a hammer. That was you out until ye got there. Memphis was the place they were landing. Although dont speak too soon. People said that. They touched their head for luck. Touch wood so touch yer head, as in a joke; which was stupid when ye thought about it. Yer head is not wood. So dont touch it for serious things. People say that too. If ye do need good luck never ever touch yer head. Not even as a joke. Murdo understood this way of thinking. Never say a thing until it is done. Dont take the fates in vain, they dont like it. Mess about with luck and it might turn nasty. Amsterdam to Memphis was a very long way. How far? Murdo was not quite sure. The lucky thing was his rucksack, it was light enough to carry on board.

Imagine the whole Atlantic Ocean. Having to swim it. Thousands of miles of water. Although if the plane crashed ye would be dead in five or ten minutes. He heard that someplace. Unless the pilot managed to land at a good angle so the plane could skite along like how a sea-plane lands on the water, and if ye had enough time ye would grab the rubber dinghy. The pilot signaling the Mayday emergency. Other boats coming to the rescue. Fishing boats and cruise-liners; all sorts; even yachts. Some yachts sailed long distances. It depended whereabouts they crashed although the middle of the ocean would be hopeless. Then escaping the plane, who was sitting beside you? What if it was a big fat guy? Imagine it was an old lady, or a wee kid or a baby, they went first and might need help unless if the baby’s parents were there they would be the rescuers. So it was the old lady left behind, and other old people, depending how strong they were, and the ones that were disabled and needed pushchairs. Then all the luggage in the hold, what would happen to it? The luggage would all be lost. Bobbing about on the sea. People would want to save their own stuff but there would be no room on the dinghies.

Water can be calm this time of year. It was maybe a good time for flying. Murdo liked the water at night, seeing the waves glint. Then if it was a night where ye could see all the stars. Olden-day sailors used the sun and stars to guide their boat. There was good stuff online about it. The joke in school: please sir if Mercury is in Venus is it a bad day for geometry? Although things like stars and luck irritated Dad. Especially luck. Dad didnt believe in luck. He was wrong.

Ye cannot control yer health. If something goes wrong and has nothing to do with you, what else is it but luck? Genes is luck. If it is there in yer genes then that is you. People said it was “meant.” That annoyed Murdo never mind Dad. It was like God decreed. God would never decree somebody dying. It was complete nonsense. What about the ones that didnt die? What was decreed for them? Were the ones that died only put here for the sake of the ones that didnt die? What was decreed for them? Was Dad only put here to marry Mum then for their daughter to die then his wife as well? Then if the plane crashed and Murdo drowned but Dad didnt. So everything was for Dad, and God was decreeing it all for him? Is this why Murdo was on an airplane, so he would die in the crash? What about the pilot and the other passengers? Did they all die for the benefit of Dad? It was total nuts.

In a movie there was a woman in a crowded airport kept seeing this figure and it was a ghost flitting here and there. The woman knew the ghost was “for her” and was looking to find it. The ghost kept one pace ahead and the woman could never reach it till then she missed the plane. The plane crashed and was never seen again. So the ghost there was good, more like a friendly spirit. Murdo didnt believe in ghosts but spirits were different; spirit worlds, “presences.” There could be a presence. He used to get a feeling when he was doing something like eating a nectarine. It was Eilidh, his sister. She loved nectarines.



From Dirt Road. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2017 by James Kelman.

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