Walking with Joyce MacDougall on 3 December 2011


It is Saturday 3rd December – my 42nd birthday – and I am walking with my Aunty Joyce, down the single track roads of Kilchrenan. Kilchrenan was the first place I lived – from 0 to 8 years. Eight years is a long time for a child – especially when it’s the first eight years of life. It’s a life time. Aunty Joyce is not a blood relative; but she was my surrogate mum when I was young. I’d spend as much time in Joyce’s home as my own. Joyce’s youngest son, Colin, was my best friend. My heart broke when we left Kilchrenan, left Colin. He was my soul mate. I thought I’d never recover.

Aunty Joyce lives in a new house – new to me at least. Cuilreoch used to be a derelict shell of a building, the old home of Joyce’s husband Duncan’s mum. It lay at the bottom of the track on which our own house stood and Colin and I would be frequent visitors to the abandoned site. Joyce and Duncan have reclaimed it from the ruins, their old croft house now home of their eldest son, Alan. It’s this other house, just across the field, which was my second home.

It’s a cold, grey day so we set off from Cuilreoch with our large umbrellas, hats, scarves. The field to our side looks small, though when I used to walk across it at dusk or through the herd of cows, it felt massive, never ending. I would sing to the cows as I walked – a feigned nonchalance or a gesture of appeasement I can’t now remember.

We pass by what used to be the Minister’s house, and then my old house. A sun porch has been added. And decking out the front. It’s a small matchbox of a house, now named Tarn Haws. It used to be 1 Forester’s House (giving away my dad’s occupation). I mostly remember the bushes at the back, laden with berries, which my mum would pick and turn into jam. And the abundant stalks of rhubarb – dipped in sugar and eaten raw. At the end of the track, the huge steep hill to the right bringing back memories of a green bike with fat white tires, and the thrill of the speed coming down.

Past what used to be a short row of council houses, semi-detached. Arthur’s and Barbara’s first – their garage door the scene of some crab-apple graffiti by my older brother and Colin’s older sister (other partners in crime). I can’t remember what they smeared on the door in apple flesh, but I do remember Arthur being livid and the pair of them having to scrub the door clean. Next to Arthur and Barbara, the Binnies – and my class mate Gordon. Gorden Bennett, Joyce says – that was his nickname. At the end of the row of council houses, the patch of scrub land still there – site of bracken-den igloos, complete with blood-sucking tics.

I may only have lived here for the first eight years of my life, but the route we walk is imprinted deeply in my body and mind. The steepness of the downward slope, the bend in the road, the cottages that run alongside, the bridge over the river (pooh sticks), the Sinclair’s woodshed at the bottom of the hill – still there, just as it was (but it too seems smaller), the Sinclair’s wooden house, and there at the gate, Mrs Sinclair, as if she’s been standing there these past thirty years or so. She tells me I look like my mum, remembering June and those good old days. Lots of newcomers now. Things have changed.

The rain is holding off, the dark browns and reds of winter warming up the landscape in spite of the cold wind. At the end of the road, we turn right towards Taychreggan (opposite direction to the school), heading down towards the shore of Loch Awe . Past the Nurse’s house, the sign of which still says ‘Nurse’s House’, though Joyce tells me it’s not. And past another pair of bungalows, which I had always thought were Council too, but Joyce tells me were for the labourers who worked on the Lambie’s farm. Images of Irish Moira and Richard flood in (my mum and Moira became friends), and other less rosy memories of a couple of sorry kids from the house next door who always smelt of wee. (Were we horrible to them?)

The water on the loch glints through the bare trees as we walk towards Port-Na-Mine. Port-Na-Mine looks like it always did – a corrugated tin house (or shack might be more accurate). This is where Joyce’s mum, Nana K, would come and spend her summers, and where we in turn would also spend most of the long summer days too, when school was out. I remember the sound of the rain on the corrugated tin roof, like a storm hailing down. And Nana K’s Pekingese yappy dog – a rare exotica in these parts! Port-Na-Mine is owned by somebody, but it lies empty for now.

At the foot of Part-Na-Mine, a small sandy sliver of ‘beach’, with a row of huge, uneven stones creating a sort of short jetty for walking along. One of the stones looks like a boat’s hull – at least that’s what I turned it into. I learnt to swim in this Loch – or this little part of it (it’s 24 miles long). Like most things, it seemed larger then. It was as large as we wanted it – needed it – to be. It was our whole world.

This was a perfect spot. I was a lucky girl, growing up here. It remains a perfect spot. And I remain a lucky girl, standing here all these years later, with my Aunty Joyce standing beside me. It’s good to be home.

Retracing our steps, Mrs Sinclair is waiting for us. Her son, Ian, stands near by, a bit bemused, bashful, not wholly sure who I am. In Mrs Sinclair’s hands, a sheet of photos encased in plastic pockets. And there we three are: Ian, Colin, and me, looking right out at me, grinning, summery, bright, young. 42. Blink of an eye. Time travelling.

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