Telling the tale of one man and his terminally ill wife, alone in the Aberdeenshire countryside, ‘Chestnuts’ is a car journey, an exploration of the landscape and its bitter memories. This short story delves into a life once lived and lost, a community dragged into the 21st century, and a marriage surrendered to time and age. A mixture of contemporary rural concerns displayed with all the accoutrement of the great gothic tradition.
We are abandoned walled gardens. The Laird, millions of years of evolution and billions of chemistry has created us, and left us to the elements. Behind the high walls grow such wondrous things; the ripest fruits and fragrant flowers imaginable. From the outside all we see is the facade and artifice. But climb those walls and you’ll be rewarded so. Within there, the synaptic vines and petals of personality contort and crawl towards the sun. It’s something wonderful to behold; the most blessed corner of the universe. There, behind those slowly decaying walls; the splendours of nature. They’ll weather the worst of winters, the longest of droughts; steadfast they remain, safe, still growing ever more complex and beautiful. But they cannot forever be immune. Blight may come; the plants wilt and leaves will fall. Eventually everything ends up part of the earth below. The walls may crumble to dust, exposing the life within. The walls may remain but all inside is in decay.
They said she hadn’t spoken now in over a week. He knew that. He had been there every day but one in that time. Every visit was made in devotion rather than hope. He was under no illusions. All he got was the occasional vacant, hopeless look that cut to his very being. He had held her hand, read from the newspaper, helped feed her, but all she was was a distant flicker of reverie. She existed long ago, in black and white, in photographs; sun dresses and sweetly crooked white teeth. This chimera was the cruelest of denouement. She was still the love of his life. Fifty-six years he’d been hers, and even in this room, in this building, amongst the nurses and wardens, he was as beguiled as he ever was. But was he holding onto something that had long since given flight, leaving behind this soft, frail and lost woman. How he could chide himself for thinking such a thing; reproaching himself, afraid perhaps he was looking for justification for something he didn’t quite understand. So still he came, so still he doted on his Alice.
They had spent their lives together in the countryside. She had grown up in a small croft, about ten miles from where she now sat in that grey town. They had met at the tattie-hairst, spoke from their hearts for the first time after a dance, and married the next summer in the kirk. And so, life was rather kind to them. It gave them two children, and many more grandchildren, it gave them a beloved home just outside the village. It gave them friends who liked to drink tea outside in the summer, it gave them trips to Canada and Australia. It gave them victory over cancer, it gave them the esteem of some treasured people; people who raised a glass to their health, and who would stop for a news in the village. But then it took her core away; a slow embezzlement of her memories. The family tried to cope, to keep her as safe and comfortable as possible, but within time, necessity brought her to that town, to that building, to that room. Now she sat amongst photographs, disassociated; bouquets cared for by others, and treasures of a life long since forgotten.
For the most part he was as fit as he’d ever been. Mentally sharp; sharp enough to be heartbroken as he was at the sight of his Alice. In darker times how he wished to be struck by the same malaise as her, and to just fall into dementia’s gears. It seemed all the crueller that he had been left with such acuity, to bear full witness to this decline. What punishment could be greater than seeing such preciousness slip away before his very eyes? He wondered what sin of his had wrought such a lamentable fate. In the bleakest moments he wondered if ‘He’ was there at all. If ‘He’ was, he decided, then he was a brute of an architect.
They encouraged him in his drives. He enjoyed getting out of that building as much as he hoped she could. Aided by two nurses she would shuffle out of the warm confines, into the chill air of the town. With some manoeuvring and gentle force they would sit her down into the passenger’s seat, closing the door with a wave and a smile, wishing them both a good afternoon. Turing back inside, leaving him alone with his Alice, he would drive gratefully away from that place, away from them all, as well meaning as they are. And so, it was on this day.
They expected him to be gone for several hours, so he could take her so many different places. But so often it was familiar ground they returned to. Familiar – inwardly castigating himself a fool for thinking in those terms; nothing was familiar to her, or outwardly it seemed so. He could but only hope somewhere deep down, past the murk of the disease, there did flicker some faint centres of recognition. And within the gaol of her mind, some light would be shone, and it became a brighter place for those fleeting hours. That was all he could wish for as he took her out of the town and into the countryside, heading for the village.
She sat with hands clasped on her lap. Her knees far back from the glovebox; her pale legs looking so fragile under her tights. She stared forwards mostly, but sometimes as he would point and begin to speak, she would turn her head, away from him and out her window. Nevertheless, he still spoke happily away. He would lose himself in this running commentary of the houses where friends used to live, of fields bare this time of year, of all the people who had been asking for her. She didn’t respond, but still he talked, as much as for himself; he felt he would break down the moment he paused for too long in her sainted presence.
The village slipped into view around the bends by the walls of the Estate. Scattered across a valley, spanning a languid river, it was a place that could be missed easily from the main road. It therefore retained the village air; cats strolling across empty roads, summer hanging baskets on the main street. The village had of course changed so much in their years. Gone were the tailors, watchmakers, and butchers, in was the small supermarket. There were many friends still in the village; there was many more now in the grey town, there was as many in the kirkyard up the brae.
He took her up the main street, past the primary school where their children went, past the house where her friend June had lived. All the while, he talked, having memories dislodged as he spoke, jumping from subject to subject, feeling the warmth of the reminisces within him. He doubled back at the turning circle, and took another sweep down the street, turning onto an adjoining road and heading out past the kirk where they had married that July so many years ago. He considered a moment driving down by the graveyard but decided against it. She wouldn’t know to miss it. She wouldn’t know that her parents were there, that a grandchild was there, and that so many old friends all now lay under those skeletal trees, behind those high grey walls. There was no reason to take her there.
Now they were headed out of the village, climbing the winding hill towards the house they had called home for so many of their years. It sat back from the road as it twisted towards the tops of the valley. It could only be seen from the road at this time of year when the bare branches offered slivers of the house’s pink sandstone gable end, the ivy climbing the walls, the two upstairs windows where their daughters slept, and the sloping fallow garden. It was gone in a second as the road steered away. He gave a little smile and turned to her, as if to search for some flicker of recognition but still she stared at the road ahead; hands wrung on her lap, her fearful eyes never deviating from their empty gaze. He turned back to the road and let his mind drift.
It was no longer his home either. Home was back down the hill, in the village. Sometimes he could enjoy life there: he had neighbours he was fond of, the girls in the shop knew him by name, and he could attend the kirk and get all the news after the sermon. He had moved down after Alice had to go to the town. His daughters were away living their own lives, with homes of their own in the city. They weren’t interested in an old house in the country. He couldn’t face his life’s winter in those blessed halls, without her. With so little ceremony it was sold to an English couple and that chapter of their lives met its denouement. He moved into a little bungalow in the village and settled on bestowing his grandchildren with the spoils of the reluctant sale. Often at night however, as he closed his eyes down in the village, he would allow his thoughts to climb that hill, to return to that garden, to those rooms, and delicately he would place her there. Sleep would come to a warm heart, and on fortunate nights his dreams allowed him to stay up that hill. Morning always came, though, a thump to the heart, as he turned over in his empty bed.
He turned his thoughts away from his loneliness and concentrated on the afternoon, on her, on hoping somewhere she understood all this. It was getting later in the afternoon. The sun was long past it’s apogee and slunk slowly towards the hills in the west. It would be dark in about an hour, so he better get a move on, he thought. He had a destination in mind, only two miles further along.
They first passed through a small hamlet. With its bright postbox, its empty kirk, and its soulless new builds, hitherto it had been a little of nothing, now it was spreading out into the surrounding fields, swelling. Soon though they were through and after a long straight flanked by naked willow trees they came towards the place. He turned off the road, and onto a small lane with tufts of grass growing down its middle. A few hundred yards further, they arrived at it, and he slowed.
It was a ruined croft; no roof, a window either side of a low entrance capped by a blackened beam. It was of simple stone, with the local pink sandstone around the windows. Through the door one could see the thistles and nettles which thrived within. It was enclosed by a neat barbed wire fence and a line of newly planted trees. Beyond was a field, muddied by the melting of the morning’s frost, where a lone horse grazed. Beyond that was a garden with its furniture under cover, all loomed over by an enormous modern house; sprawling and jutting out in several directions. Inside the lights were beginning to shine, it looked at once warm and inviting, but totally sterile. Alongside the house stood a large double garage. This is what had become of the land she grew up on.
Several years before the croft had gone up for sale. It had long ago been left to ruin. Her mother died not long after she had married. Her eldest brother had moved in with his family. A year later it burned down, leaving just the stone walls standing. Her brother and his family were spared, and they eventually decided upon a new life in Australia. The home was left to nature, and the land around was leased to the farmer; the rents making their way to the other side of the world. As it was, when her brother died in his eighties in a cosmopolitan Australian city, the land was turned over to a son, long since divorced from the fields of his youth. The sale went through with little formality. One day a sign appeared by the roadside, advertising the sale of four acres of land; the croft, quite incidental to it all. A few months later the sign was taken down, and after several more ground was broken. By the next year stood the mansion before them, glowing in the coming dusk. A new family looked out upon those fields as home. The croft would soon be hidden by the new trees, left finally to its lonely fate.
He turned to her searchingly; nothing. Nothing at all. His heart sank. He didn’t hold out much hope for her response, but this was less than nothing. He couldn’t fully comprehend what he felt. But it settled the matter in his mind, that much was sure. He felt the resolve wash through him, and he was calm. “Wheel Allie, we shid be ga’ang”.
The sun was just beginning to greet the western horizon. The sky was clear, and it was going to be a starry night he thought to himself. He gently moved off, leaving the croft to its silence, and they carried on down the lane. A forest to their left spoke of the coming gloom, it was already night down in the trees, and the houses they passed to the right were dark inside, their owners not home from work yet. A metal gate appeared along the fringe of trees. He wanted to take her further, beyond the gate, down into the forest. With a little difficulty, and muddying his shoes, he forced the gate open wide enough for the car to pass through. Getting back into the car he noticed she was looking out of the window. “D’ye ken far we are?”, but she didn’t answer.
She had talked often of this forest with him. Sat in a hanging valley running gently down the valley sides to the river far below. A burn ran alongside the track the car now bumped along. It was dark amongst the trees; putting on full beams, he revealed a long-intertwined tunnel amongst the cadaverous deciduous, the stream black as ink. Had her condition allowed, she would have recognised the forest from many happy constitutionals over the years with him, but more pointedly, from her spring.
In this forest of her youth, she whiled away halcyon summer days, skipping down to the river to catch eels, scaring the deer into flight, and turning over rocks to see what scurried away. In the autumn when the days began to draw in, and the leaves wilted and fell, she would come down with her mother’s basket to collect sweet chestnuts. She could spend all morning on the valley sides, singing gaily to herself, not seeing another soul. Once filled, she would carry the basket of chestnuts back up to the croft. For her the taste of those days was the roasted nuts. On the open fire she would cook a small batch for herself, while her mother set to pickling the rest. Remembering her reminisces on the chestnuts, he raised his eyes to the tendrils above, and remarked silently to himself that by now they would probably have all been collected by the red squirrels.
They passed a ruined mill. The track turned slightly as the mill receded into the dusk and was cut across by a tributary brook of the black stream. Here the track became quite waterlogged and the car began to labour, but gravity and momentum carried the car through the boggy ground, further down the way. Below all was night.
Soon he came to the end of the track; an opening in a little clearing in the trees. What little light there was left of the day shone only dimly into the darkness around them. Switching off the engine and the lights, he felt a fleeting disorientation. Slowly emerging, came the muscular trunks of the winter trees; above their veins casting across an emaciated canopy, standing jet-black against the dimming sky. He opened the door to hear the crashing fanfare of a waterfall. “Shall we gang fir a walk?”.
With a little difficulty he guided her out of her seat. Lifting her legs out and easing her up by both hands, she now stood there, unaware with him, in the forests of her youth. There was already a chill in the air, it told of a coming frost, the throes of winter starting to nip. Taking her arm into his, he began to walk, and as if her body seemed reluctant, she did likewise, shuffling her feet through the leaf litter as she went. They drifted down the hill away from the car and the sound of many waters and passing through a dense tangle of vegetation they emerged into the clear; they were standing on a bridge across the river.
Over them, the first stars were beginning to appear. Their exhalations were met with mists of vapour, and somewhere in the gods of the valley the crows lamented the end of days. He let her arm down gently and took her hand in his tenderly. He felt the bones and the weathered, leathery skin; she felt at once so delicate, and so powerful. He let her hand drop and turned to look over the edges into the sluggish waters.
The bridge had been there long before the motorcar. In bygone days it had allowed farmers and cotters alike to cross to a kirk a mile up the hill. With the automobile it allowed those of greater means to travel north expediently. In her childhood, however, she would be met by a car only very rarely. For the most part it was a forgotten link between the quiet agricultural south, and the restful rural north. Decades since, it was decided the bridge, and the road itself, wasn’t suitable for the modern car. A gate was erected to the south, and a tree planted in the north, forever closing the bridge to all but those on foot. To the north, the farmer kept the track clear for the shooting, but the bridge was left to its half-lives of decay. Someday a winter torrent would surely come and wash it away, but for now it stayed, stubborn and resolute.
He turned from the river and noticed she was shivering. He was feeling the cold too, his nose was beginning to run, and he could feel the air nip at his cheeks. He spoke aloud; to her, to the crows, to the trees, “I think that’s us, Allie”. And with that he reached into his coat pocket, feeling a chill of glass before extracting. He reached back in and produced a syringe. Calmly, but unable to look at the oblivious dear soul before him, he removed the sheath with his teeth, and placed the needle into the vial. His hands shook as he drew up the pump and filled the tube, before carefully placing the vial on the wall. He removed his jacket, getting a blast of cold air across his shoulders, and untucked his shirt. Pulling up the shirt, exposing his stomach to the twilight, he pushed the needle deliberately into his abdomen, and pressed the pump down. Withdrawing the syringe, he could feel the sting of the injection site being teased by the frigid air. Turning back to the wall, he again filled the syringe, and turned to her. He wondered if he should say anything, to explain what he was doing, but he realised the futility of anything at this point. With a delicate motion he pressed the needle through her thin shirt, into her abdomen and pushed down. She didn’t appear to notice.
The consequences of these actions seemed quite incidental. With little fear or moral pangs, he was able to inject them both a further four times each. After his wife’s final injection, the vial empty, he dropped the syringe onto to the ground. Suddenly feeling the needle’s bite on his stomach, he tucked his shirt back in, and collected up his jacket. He approached her, and with the utmost care, placed her thin arms into the sleeves and draped it affectionally over her slight shoulders. With a little difficulty, he manoeuvred her down to the ground and eased her back against the wall of the bridge. He sat down next to her. He had injected them each with five-hundred units of insulin.
The sky was black now. He shuffled his body into hers and took her hand. He wanted to say something to her, but in that moment, and with that beauty enveloping them, it seemed unnecessary. He rubbed his head against her shoulder, before lifting his head, kissing her softly on her cheek. He turned his eyes upward and picked out Cygnus flying proudly overhead, and the Great Bear undyingly patrolling the northern sky. He let out a long breath and let his chin fall to his chest. He felt her head fall onto his shoulder. He could hear her drawing in breath as if to speak and his heart quietly swooned. Instead she remained silent as the fallen night and squeezed his hand. Within half an hour they were both unconscious. By the painless morning, they were gone.