This story is about a poor man who needed access to forgiveness, and how he found it.
A Ticket to Port Shee.
Robbie Macdonald, a former shepherd, long workless, tried to settle on the hard bench in the waiting-room of Borvebeg Railway Station. He re-arranged his faded tartan blanket, the gift of a wheelie-bin in Inverness. It had only a few holes and it had served its master well, much like his old, long-gone Collie, Dileas, had, thirty years ago. Unlike Dileas, whose body-heat once saved his life, the old blanket was not the best for warmth. Robbie could choose either to suffer a stiff neck, or numb, frozen ankles, on his bench.
He was glad to be in that waiting room, at least, on that bitter night, when the unseen snow could be felt, like the ancient predator it is, threatening the very air in a man’s throat with its icy teeth. The cold itself might have made Robbie look forward to his journey to Port Shee, on the coast, which always felt slightly warmer to him. But there was a reason for his night journey, which he could not help but fear: it froze his mind, shutting it up in hungry oblivion.
Borvebeg junction was his favourite place in the middle of nowhere, a few miles from where he used to live, Ballecorp, back when he had a house. It was the place where the local tracks jointed an old, Victorian Highland Line. This was going to be Robbie’s first train ride in thirty years, with an unused ticket long kept. He did not have much else, he reflected. Here he was: a man lying on a bench, who had once had a bed. He was seventy, much shabbier and slower than he used to be and, as he daily regretted, not much – if any – wiser.
In his pocket lay the dregs of that Glenmorangie he had found in a bin outside Cansay Post Office. It was the unintended gift to him of someone’s mean-spirited wife, who threw out her husband’s last pleasure-source while the bottle of amber treasure was still half-full. Over the days, Robbie had sipped his way down through its glorious depths. He would savour its final drops before he got aboard the late-night trundler to the Port. As a man with one, simple aim in life – which was not to make things any harder than they needed to be – Robbie would taste the last swish of pale, golden nectar before placing its lingering beauty in a receptacle. As he did that, he would put his nose up to its neck, breathing in those joyful memories it had given him. He had no idea when another might come.
Apart from his rucksack, clothes, tartan rug, an old Bible of his mother’s that he dared not part with, and one other pair of socks with a network of holes, that bottle was all he had in the world. He had suckled at it on the coldest nights, letting the cleansing thrill run through his blackened teeth. He was a lover of malt whisky, as his poor father had been, when the old man would hoard it, keeping like a secret fellow-conspirator between them at lambing, or on winter days when drifts mocked men, like giants sneering down at the little folk.
Being on his own all these years, he had let things slide. Often, he tried not to think of it. At other times, he was self-conscious to be so unkempt. He would find the nearest lavatory and make it past the suspicious eyes of the attendant to splash some water around his neck.
He suspected he smelt rank, but it was hard to tell, because he had gotten used to his own smell. It was home to him. Sometimes, offended people gave him a second glance, with wrinkling noses.
There was a change at Christmastime, when he went to the Bethany shelter in Aberdeen, having hitched a ride beside some kind person, who said nothing but simply opened the window. There, in the granite city, Robbie met warm hearts, young believers with hope in their eyes and a kind way to treat everyone. Robbie loved Christmas: it meant a warm shower. Young folk took away his evil-smelling clothes to offer him new ones. But he always asked for his old clothes back. They would look at him, puzzled, then go and wash his ragged shirt and baggy trousers, bringing them back all folded, darned and ironed.
“These are the clothes I left home with,” he explained apologetically to one fair-haired youngster of twenty. “Sentimental value. I don’t feel right about leaving them.”
The younger lad’s eyes were bright. “How long is it since you left home, Robbie?”
“Oh, years. Years.” He did not like to probe the past.
“God loves you!” the boy burst out suddenly.
“Does He now?” Robbie replied, respectfully. “You could be right. I’m here, anyway.”
“There’s more to life than this, you know.”
Robbie saw the beam of hope in the eyes. This lad had seen bad times. Drugs, maybe. Now he wanted everyone to share his new joy. But Robbie knew that everyone had a different story. “I am sure you will tell me more about that later but, for now, I’ll get into these other clothes, if that’s alright. Just till mine are ready.”
“Have you heard this story, Robbie?” the boy said, ignoring his request. “There are two men speaking on soap-boxes in Hyde Park.” His eyes were bright, enthusiastic, unseeing.
The words sparked a memory. “Hyde Park?” Robbie said. “I was there. Once.”
Robbie instantly regretted saying it. It was their honeymoon, his Joanne and he. Such happiness there was then, when all that existed was love and hope and a future. Until the future had come upon them. “Oh, long ago. Go on.” He was going to have to hear anyway.
The youngster warmed to his familiar tale. “Well, Robbie, there’s a Communist speaker and a Christian evangelist, standing side by side in the park. And they start a competition, like, each one commenting on the other one. The crowd are really starting to enjoy it – you know, the free-for-all. And….”
“But, is that Christian, would you say?”
“What?” The young man faltered, bewildered.
“A shouting match. I was always told, as a boy in church, not to make a noise.”
“The preacher wasn’t really shouting, Robbie. I mean, he wasn’t not being rude. Really.”
“No,” said Robbie, “because the Bible says, He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.” It was one of the texts that Miss Mackenzie taught him at school.
The young man dived back with triumph. “But it wasn’t a street. It’s a park. Hyde Park!”
Hyde Park, the grass so green. He had not stopped to hear the speakers. There was only her. Joanne. The memory was too painful, so he forced his attention again to the young man. “True. True. Carry on.”
The young man nodded, glad to be back on track. “Well, the Communist looks at the crowd around the evangelist and he sees a travelling man. Like yourself. Oh! Sorry – no offence.”
Robbie assumed a look of kindly patience he had perfected. “None taken,” he murmured.
“Anyway, the Communist says, When the Revolution comes, it will put a new suit on that man!” The boy smiled in anticipation. “But then the Evangelist says, When Jesus comes, He will put a new man in that suit!” The youngster splayed his hands. “Good! Eh?”
“Yes, indeed. An entertaining and instructive story. Er, shall I get dressed now?”
“Yeah, of course.” The lad hesitated, disappointed. And somehow Robbie knew the boy would not stay silent. Suddenly, the youth strode forward. The derelict flinched at the closeness. as the boy stared into his eyes. “I was on drugs, Robbie. And Jesus saved me.”
“That is a good thing,” Robbie murmured. “We all hope for the same. If we’re spared.”
“Jesus can take you out of the pit!” The youngster’s stare was becoming intense.
“I’d just as soon not put Him to the trouble right now,” Robbie said, as if pleading for the eyes to leave him alone in his accustomed sadness. “I, I do really need to get dressed.”
The youngster sighed, then left. He never spoke to Robbie again. Robbie was grateful for that. It is one thing to look into a man’s eyes and commend things, but quite another to know the darkness of his experience – the agonies, disappointments, failures, sins and sheer bad luck that have shaped his unique life but then dumped it, beached at a given time and place.
Tonight, in Borvebeg, however, there would be no warm shower, no exhortations from the hopeful young, no borrowed, Bethany blanket to cover his shoulders and his feet at the same time. The waiting-room seemed colder than usual. For all that, Robbie managed to fall asleep. Yet, even when dog-tired, this was not something he usually welcomed.
The dream was always the same. The lamb was playing by the cliff but he did not notice, because he was too busy eyeing a strange, black dog that haunted the edge of the moor. He roared and threw a stick at it, and the dog was gone. But, when he turned, so, too, was the lamb. He ran, heedless of his safety, to the edge of the cliff, but was stopped, like a heavy blow to the chest, looking down at the lamb, seeing blood on the stones and her indelible expression of smiling playfulness, left behind by the fading life within her. It broke him.
He was glad that his wife would be on the train tonight. He was going to talk to her about this thing he could never talk about, the sorrowful agony so great that it broke their hearts, and them. He would use the ticket he failed to use once, so that they might finally be reconciled to life’s dire cruelty.
“Hello?” He was startled from his half-sleep and looked over at a strange woman. Her face said that she perceived him as a problem. She was plump and well-fed, and not ugly, as such, but expressing a darkness of intent through the strained expression she was directing at him.
“Well,” she said briskly, affecting embarrassment, “I don’t wish to be rude, but…”
He was used to this. “Let me guess,” Robbie interrupted her. “You’ll try.”
“I only want to point out that you could do with a bath.”
“Oh, I agree,” he returned, in false affability. “Is your own available, perhaps?”
She blushed, stiffened, offended. “No. I’m going to my sister’s home for the weekend.”
“Lucky her.” He settled down. He was beginning to doze when he heard her again.
“O, for pity’s sake! There’s an unbearable stink in-side, and it’s freezing cold out-side!”
He looked up. “Would you like me to go outside and freeze, so that you can sit in here minus the smell? Then I suppose you could step over my frozen body, onto the train.”
“Why can’t you just find a place to wash? There’s a toilet next door.”
“The taps are frozen. I tried to get some water to drink, earlier, so I know.”
“By the other smell on you, I’m guessing you had something more than water in mind!”
He sat up grumpily. “You know, it’s a funny thing. My collie, Dileas, that I kept as a pet after I stopped working – she went everywhere with me, God rest her soul…”
“Animals don’t have souls!” the woman broke in dismissively. “That’s just ignorance.”
“Dileas had. The most loving creature I ever knew. If God says Love thy neighbour is the test of a soul, there’s not a human being in the world more faithful and loving than a dog.”
“Now, that’s the drink speaking. Utter nonsense.”
“It’s not nonsense! Dileas would come and sniff between my legs, then wag her tail, happy. There you sit – ten feet away – a human being, and all you can do is complain!”
“I have a right to!” she snapped. “You stink!”
“Well,” Robbie said, seeing – but ignoring – the warning signs of his temper being lost, “it only proves that a female dog can be less of a bitch than some I’ve met!” He knew it was wrong. His mother always told him it was better to say nothing. Now this had happened.
The woman was outraged. “Coarse talk from a coarse man! Don’t think I don’t recognise you! You’re that pathetic soul, Robbie Macdonald, who used to live along the street from me in Ballecorp. Your poor wife was Joanne Smith, before she was married, wasn’t she?”
He sank down again and pulled the rug over his head. “Leave my wife alone.”
“Oh, but that’s what you did, isn’t it? Left her alone – to face the music when your child died through your neglect? It was in all the papers. She never knew what happened to you. The very day of the inquest, you ran away – like a coward. So, I know who you are, Robbie Macdonald, under all that filth and stink!”
“Good night!” he hissed, vainly to ward off her piercing words. Sleep, at least, would welcome him. This time, he would not dream. He could not afford to remember, again.
When he heard the train, he awoke. The complaining woman had disappeared. He smiled at the idle thought that either she had suffocated from his smell and was lying unconscious in the Ladies’ room, or she had boarded already. Robbie went out to the waiting train. Seconds passed before it lurched out of the Station. He suddenly realised, with surprise, that he had forgotten his planned last rites with the bottle of Glenmorangie.
These local trains, he reflected, never changed. When you went to London, as he had once, you would see carriages worthy of the name: clean. One had even had little curtains on the windows and young waiters with napkins over their forearms But up here, in the far north, the trains looked like old stock. Thirty years he was away, and the train looked no different.
He looked up and down: a smattering of faces. Some he felt he recognised but then thought how ridiculous it was to think he would know any neighbours, so long forgotten. Still, the unpleasant woman in the waiting-room had recognised him, hadn’t she? So, maybe he did recognise some of those faces. Nonetheleess, Robbie knew that none of them would want to speak to him anyway, so he chose a corner seat and dozed on its threadbare but comfortable cushioning, until Ballecorp. The train slowed as it entered the station and he opened his eyes.
It was then that he saw her, Joanne, on the platform, waiting to board. Beautiful despite the passing years, for a second, she seemed timeless as a memory and as unreal as a dream. Yet after a hiss of brakes, the clunking doors opened, letting sound barge in, and he saw her rise to step on board. Doors closed, shutting them in. The station beyond started to shift away.
He panicked. His filthy condition suddenly bothered him, blazing upon him like an attack, like the shock of a man who complacently enters a clothing store, but then sees himself in a full-length mirror, surrounded by elegant examples of everything he himself is not. Robbie realised then that he could not bear to see his shame reflected in her eyes; so, he unfroze and jumped up, almost over-balancing. He scrambled to push himself out into the aisle.
It was herself. Herself with whom he had once lain, clean and in love, the one whose laughter was once like a bell to call him home, the one whose arms were strong and yet graceful. His Joanne.
“He-llo,” he managed to say. His voice was hoarse, like a man approaching his death.
“I’ll sit here,” she said quickly and sat down. He lowered himself into the seat opposite her. She had no bag with her, except her purse and she pushed it towards the window-side of her in that unconscious, confident way of women who live daily in constant awareness.
“Joanne, I – how have you been?” As soon as it was out of his mouth, he thought what a stupid, inadequate thing it was to say to a wife he abandoned three decades before. He felt deep shame overwhelm him. He would say no more.
But she did not react. She simply said, “I got on fine, Robbie – after, you know. How have you been? I heard that you took to the road. I heard reports from here and there. Then, nothing.”
His answer took him by surprise, as if his frozenness was being over-ridden by some power of memory: “I have been wandering… for thirty years, wondering what I could say to you.”
“Really?” She gently brushed strands of hair from his eyes. “What do you want to say to me?”
He wept. Tears and sobs wracked him utterly, as he poured out all the pain of his broken heart and his groans over their little lamb lost: Eilidh. He told Joanne of his fear and shame, that he could never forgive himself that – on the day of the inquest in Port Shee – after they had separated because of the pain and recrimination he had felt in himself, he had bought a ticket to Port Shee. Yet, he had sat in his sister’s kitchen in Borvebeg, heart frozen, listening to the train arrive, then leave. And he had left the ticket in his pocket and walked away in his blind fear, in a lasting curse of cowardice that had blotted him out from among men – until this cold day when he knew that he had to see her again. But, oh, he understood – how well he understood! – that he had no right in the world to meet with her. He was a wretched man, a failed father who let his fragile child die through inattention and did not have the decency or strength to face up to the bitter home-truths pronounced over him at the inquest. He had wandered like Cain, with his own mark – the ticket to Port Shee – accusing him every day.
“Where did you go?” was all she asked.
He told her of his wanderings from the beginning, north and south, Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth, and even Glasgow. But after only one hour in that western city, while drunk, he had seen a little girl on a street corner, her back to him, and he cried out his daughter’s name, for he thought it could even be herself – alive, gentle, lovely, with her playful smile.
But when the girl turned and looked at him in his rags, his filth, his hair unkempt, his eyes fixed in a stare of hopeless joy, he saw that she was not Eilidh. And the girl wept sorely and called for her mother, who ran back to her little girl and looked at Robbie with an accusing look of sheer loathing. Shocked and afraid of any repercussions and suspicions, although he had intended to stay at a homeless shelter nearby, he turned and hurried away again. He kept on walking north, out of the city, past suburbs where he dared not rest, lest any man find him and accuse him of something dark and awful. He felt like the most grimy, repellent creature on the earth and he had not stopped until he had collapsed, exhausted, in a ruined graveyard.
“Poor Robbie,” she said softly, laying a hand on his arm. “I think you’ve had the worst of it.”
Feeling her gentle touch after so many years, he cried out in pain. He was like a bellowing creature in his last throes at the end of a hunt. The question he always wanted to ask, the question he was afraid even to contemplate asking, was now wrung out of his soul like his last breath. “Oh, God, Joanne! Can it ever be possible to forgive me?” And his heart cracked at last, in tragic finality, like an earthen pot that could never be fixed, nor ever hold anything precious again.
“Robbie,” Joanne responded, her hand moving to his, “I forgive you with all my heart. I was wrong to blame you. You had a great burden and I was so bitter with grief, I made it heavier.”
He wept for a long time, as they sat in tableau together. He did not look round to see if anyone was listening. He sobbed, until his weeping subsided, and he could speak again.
“Look at me,” he admitted, miserably. “A mess: outside and in.”
“I hope you feel better now. You’ve carried your pain a long, long time.”
“But what about you? I am talking only about myself.”
“Me? I regretted every day that I failed to share our grief, for it was ours, not yours or mine.”
He sighed, a long sigh of healing. He sat, hunched, almost collapsed, but feeling lighter somehow. “I was the man. I had a responsibility and a time and a place to go to. And I failed. I ran away. I was a coward.” He began to heave and weep again.
“Ssh,” she said. “We have both suffered enough. Let’s help each other now.”
He recovered something like sense. “How can I be with you now?” he cried. “Look at me.”
“How do you mean, Robbie?”
He blinked. “Isn’t it obvious? I’m filthy and shabby. I haven’t shaved in years.”
“I think you suit the beard, Robbie,” said the beautiful face opposite. “And look at yourself.”
“What?” He looked at the reflection in the window. It was too vague to see anything.
“Not, not at the window. Yourself. Look at yourself.”
He looked down and he was no longer ragged. He was clean. And his clothes were new, even newer than at the shelter. They looked like they fitted him and had not been worn by anyone else.
“I don’t understand,” Robbie said.
“Hello, mo ghraidh,” Joanne said to someone beyond his line of sight.
He turned to see a little girl standing quietly there, waiting. It was their Eilidh, her smile unfading, her fragility unmarred. For a moment, Robbie could not speak. Then he understood that he was not to question but simply trust. As he stood up, Eilidh hugged him round his waist and sat down with him. He stared at her as the most beautiful jewel is admired in a museum full of exquisite gems, not one in all the world more precious.
“Time to go,” said Joanne, matter-of-factly, rising. Robbie rose and walked with her and Eilidh along the train. Every person he had ever offended, cheated or stolen from was there, as many as he could remember, and he apologized to each one, his joy rising with every pardon on his soul. Some rose, even before he could discern the memory, or find words: they hugged him, as if he were their family, wordless. Robbie was overwhelmed with joy and relief. The years of bitter pain drained from him, like poisoned fluid from an afflicted body.
He saw the woman he had met earlier in the waiting-room. He spoke to her solemnly and sincerely. “Dear lady, I was very rude to you, earlier. I hope you can forgive me.”
The face she turned to him was different, beautiful with hope and understanding. “Of course,” she smiled. “Besides, Mr. Macdonald, I see that you are a changed man.”
He looked down. Indeed, his hands were clean and his clothes more elegant than he had ever worn. Even the young fair-haired boy in Aberdeen would be pleased with him now.
“Look!” said Joanne, gripping his arm in love, stepping close. “Port Shee, in dawn light!”
There it was, as they curved around the bay, the little town of Port Shee, with every house brightening with colours, like a little rainbow. As he watched, the colours blended into white light and the train window seemed to be bathed, not in one but a thousand, growing suns, till he was washed clean. Robbie felt tracing winds reach in through the windows, like warm arms curving around them, and he, Joanne and Eilidh were lifted up and out and far beyond the train, beyond Port Shee, beyond earthly light itself, up, up, towards the Purest Light of all.
Jeremy Watkins, a determined, twenty-six-year-old, winter walker from Leeds, chanced to take the unfamiliar path along the disused railway line near Borvebeg. Had that not been the case, it might have taken weeks to find the body of Robbie Macdonald in the ruins of the old, disused station on the long-abandoned side-line. Robbie lay on a broken bench, amidst the rubble. In his pocket was a bottle of Glenmorangie, drunk almost to the dregs. The man had frozen to death. It would be recorded, briefly but decently, in the local press, that a poor soul had passed away in very sad circumstances. The inquest findings would surely be a foregone conclusion, so as to cause as little distress and exposure as possible to any remaining family.
Yet, there were two things the hardy hiker was puzzled by. First, in the dead man’s pocket was found a faded, tattered ticket to Port Shee. “No train has been on this line for years,” the plain-clothes officer said, staring down at the covered body. “Dr. Beeching did for it.”
“Aye, DS,” the constable chipped in, lowering his notebook. “He probably just picked it up off the ground. Drunk, most like.”
The hiker then voiced his thoughts. “But the ticket’s dry. It would be soaking wet. And how would he have found it under this snow? How could it even be here, after all these years?”
The policemen looked at each other. The constable smiled back at the detective’s rolling eyes. They were used to amateurs. Everybody thought they could be Taggart. Or Rebus.
The CID man glanced at the ticket, then handed it to the uniform. “Note it, then ignore it.” He turned his face to Jeremy Watkins, and held his gaze, talking sideways but firmly to the other policeman. “No complications. No suspicious circumstances. See you back there.”
“Good night.” the constable returned affably. It was not his problem either.
“Don’t hang around too long in this freezing cold,” cried the retreating detective over his shoulder to him, nodding towards the shrouded corpse, “unless you want to end up like him.”
“Right you are. Finishing up,” the uniform called back. The CID man did not look round.
The little ticket to Port Shee would not be mentioned again. It wasn’t relevant to the case.
But, still, there was that second, nagging detail about the body, the other thing that Watkins did not understand and could never forget – the look he had seen on the derelict’s face. Sure, the old man was pallid, ungainly in that rigour which will shock anyone who has never seen a human being dead, alien and strange. Yet, for all the fact that the life had departed, Robbie Macdonald’s face wore an expression of joyful peace, as if some power had healed his heart.
The life had drained. Yet, it had left behind it an enduring expression, of smiling playfulness.
© Bruce Gardner, 2019.