Where The Streets Are Paved With Silver
by Fee Johnstone
I walked the long way to work that morning, following the Don Burn as far as I could. It took twice as long but it meant I didn’t have to navigate my way through the slums, snaking through the squalor of existence. The path of the burn, on the other hand, promised sunrise and solitude. Hands in pockets, my fingers would find comfort in the fragments of stone embedded in the lining and I’d allow myself a few minutes to watch the kaleidoscope of pinks, oranges and reds. Those few minutes were enough to prepare me for the rest of the working day. At the quarry, it was only safe to work to the hours of daylight so although summers were warmer, I preferred winter. The frost bit my extremities, the north easterly breeze slapped my cheeks but daylight was limited to just six or seven hours. Just when your fingers were set to snap like dried twigs, it was home time. That gave me a whole evening to read whatever salacious penny dreadful I’d acquired from my Uncle Billy, or to sit around the kitchen table amongst the rabble of my five younger siblings.
Morag, my youngest sister, was the other reason I liked to stroll by the burn. It was our place. We’d get lost in the greenery, a vivid shade to which we were not used. As we lived in the shadow of the slums, most everything around us was muted in colour. Morag and I would hide in the undergrowth, weave crowns of sweet little flowers and giggle our way through games of tag until the dark crept in.
Now, when I watched the sun rise I spoke to her as through she were still here, concealed amongst the long grass. The surprise plop of a pebble in the burn or the sudden whoosh of wind that stole my cap was her way of bidding me good morning.
Morag was playful that morning; she was the curious blue-feathered bird who was quite the songstress; she was the cascade of conkers on my head when the air was calm; and she was the jowly frog splashing into the water who wanted to play. Frog’s eyes bulged and it leapt onto a leaf floating downstream before jumping back to where I stood. It dared me to touch its mottled skin but every time I got within a finger-breadth, off it would bounce, just like Morag would have done with those spindly legs of hers.
Frog kept up the game of chase but the arrival of a gentleman and an agitated child caused it to bound off. I wanted to chase away the child for ruining our game but as frog bounced off without a second glance, I realised I was going to be late for work. I took flight, my lunch pail rattling with last night’s potatoes which weighed me down as though made of granite. I branched away from the burn and ran along the bumpy roads avoiding the steaming masses of horse manure but tripping on the cobbles. My face throbbed through exertion but the adrenaline furthered me on. I reached the quarry just before the gates closed, tagging onto the end of my fellow quarrymen. I could see Uncle Billy up ahead, his orange hair the only flash of colour amongst a sea of brown and obligation.
“Hey! Billy! Wait for me!” I yelled, scooting under arms and between corduroy-legs.
“Oi! I don’t think so, laddie!”
A clip around the lug jolted me forward but then I was lifted off my feet by my collar, my legs dangling in mid-air. I was set down and pushed the way I had just come much to the annoyance of the crowd. The workers were pretty dour at the best of times – even those who dreamed of earning their steerage to America restricted their comradery until the light began to fade.
“Back you go wee man!” said a craggy-faced man and he grinned at me with his two black teeth.
I screwed up my face and stuck out my tongue at him. Well, I was just a ‘laddie’, a ‘wee man’ after all.
I pressed through the crowd until I was at the back of the line once again. Thank you, Morag, I huffed silently, and entrusted the breeze to carry my sentiment back to the burn.
The grumpy foreman hushed us and gave the orders for the day, splitting us into teams. I would work the bottom of the quarry and take the second lunch shift.
No one liked working the bottom of the quarry which is why you didn’t want to be at the back of the queue. To reach the core of the expansive quarry which deepened every day, you had to manoeuvre over a network of rickety wooden bridges and ladders, often with rungs missing. It was dangerous: hundreds of men trekked those perilous walkways every day, wearing out the rope and the wood. When your feet hit the floor with a puff of white dust, you were safe and could take a breath, filling your lungs with particles of stone. Of course, the walkways weren’t the only cause of accidents: our tools were weighty and sharp, and it was not unusual to hear cries in the last weary hours of daylight. But it was no more hazardous than working in the ship yards or at sea. At least here you didn’t reek of fish, an odour I’m told never leaves the creases of your skin. Everything was a risk so you just had to choose which profession offered the most opportunity.
When ma said it was time to start contributing to the family, I’d told Billy I was going to build ships.
“Aw no! Why would you want to do that, son? Why build a boat when you could build a city?” He’d been so impassioned that his face turned the colour of his fiery hair.
My farming village, the Village of Don, was to be united with the fishing village at the opposite end of the burn, the Village of Aber, to become one sprawling city, the City of Aberdon. Aberdon would be the largest city in Scotland and made almost entirely of granite, a beautiful igneous rock that Billy said emanates beauty and prosperity. Enchanted, my ship-building dreams were quickly replaced with that of city-building.
Lunchtime was signified by a familiar groaning in my stomach, a groaning that my porridge had done its best to quell until now. Usually I’d stop by Billy’s scathie but that day as I was on the last lunch shift, he would have already had his. I made my way back up, losing my footing (and almost my porridge) on several occasions. From my pail I liberated my potatoes and herring rolled in oats and stuffed them in my mouth, missing the lubrication of Billy’s whisky to push down the thick lumps. Billy, huge rock wedged between his knees and chisel held high, waved at me across the quarry. Although I couldn’t discern his features, I knew he’d be smiling, he always was. He’d probably be whistling too, even though he didn’t carry a tune well. He enjoyed his job more than most – having progressed from labourer to sett-maker meant he didn’t have to venture into the depths of hell, as we called the pit bottom.
As I raised my arm to return the gesture, a tremendous blast rung out then nothing was visible but a vast plume of smoke and white dust that quickly converged to become a dense grey. We were used to quarry blasts. There’s no other way to dislodge the granite from the face. But a blast is usually preceded by a warning to allow us to vacate the area. The trembling underfoot slowly diminished and from the cloud emerged what looked like spectral snowmen. It took me a minute to realise that these silent apparitions were my colleagues. Likely they were not silent at all but my hearing had been temporarily suspended by the explosion.
I stared at the space once occupied by Billy’s hut; the flash of orange was gone and the ache in my chest told me I’d never see him again.
It transpired there were many people I’d never see again after that day: Charlie, the youngest lad who kept a small wooden figure in his pocket for luck (for all the good it did), or Black-toothed Bert who always had a song to boost morale. Or even John, the grumpy foreman. They’d all perished, along with around a hundred others. I had been lucky. Morag had been looking out for me that day. Her frivolity had made me late and kept me alive. Although I missed her and often wanted to join her on the terribly bleak days, she’d made it clear it wasn’t my time.
Those who survived, and who had the stomach for it, assisted in the clean-up. A slaughterhouse stench permeated the quarry and although I vomited frequently, I persevered – I owed it to Billy and my colleagues. An entire wall of the quarry had been blasted away and we had to remove the larger chunks of those not blown entirely to dust. Even after months passed we came across a jaw bone, a tin whistle or flat cap. When an item or body part was unearthed, the finder would blow a whistle and we’d all gather to discern if it was a piece of someone we knew. I never found trace of Billy, no single strand of orange hair drifted through the quarry to tell me he was with me.
The more grey matter I scrubbed from the granite, the more I thought about America. It would mean giving up on my dream, and Billy’s, but maybe it was time for a new purpose.
Our weekly wages were increased considerably following the explosion – they probably expected a revolt – so it didn’t take long to save for our tickets.
Many were only seconded across the Atlantic and would return home richer within a year but I had no wife or no children, being a boy myself, so I stayed on in Barre, Vermont. Barre’s fine granite was not dissimilar to what I was used to and the foliage of New England in fall comprised colours I’d only seen in a Scottish sunset. I always felt at home there. Morag was also at home here and kept me company in the dark times. Even though I spoke to Billy every day, he never came to me. I wondered if it was because of the way in which he had died. Maybe there was truly nothing left of him, even his soul had been eviscerated. I missed that orange hair, always peppered with dust; I missed his smiling face and I even missed his wonky whistling.
It was decades before I braved the journey home. I disembarked the boat to an entirely new city, the promised City of Aberdon. I recognised nothing: the slums had all but vanished and in place of our beloved burn now stood Silver Street, resplendent in its granite glory, shining silver in the spring sun. I soaked in the spectacle of what loomed before me from the grand, gothic Town Hall with its decorative arcades to the polished portico of the Music Hall to the smooth paving on which my feet were planted. All around me the stone shimmered like the sea on a frosty morning. From nowhere, I felt gentle, sporadic bursts of air, hot against my neck as though someone were whistling without making a sound. I didn’t need to turn around to know there was no one there. I knew then why Billy hadn’t come to me before; why he remained lost to me… Because he was here. That wasn’t the mica that glittered in the surrounding granite, illuminating the city. That was Billy. Him and all the other poor souls whose bone and enamel became one with the granite that day. Here they were, forever ensconced in the city for which they died.