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posted 18 Aug 2016, 16:02 by Fran Brady

This piece, which I read at Howden Park Centre in Livingston on 19th August 2016, is from my fourth and forthcoming novel, ‘The Ghost of Erraid’, which is set in the 1920’s on the Isle of Mull. It revolves around a lighthouse keeper’s family, recently arrived on the island. The voice is that of twelve-year-old Liza. 


The Northern Lighthouse Board supplies furnished accommodation and carries out regular inspections without warning.  A man from the Board is coming to inspect the family’s cottage the following day . . .



    ‘We’ll be fine, Mother. I polished the doorstep and knocker a couple o’ days ago. And everything else is  . . .’ I glanced round the kitchen. It looked fine to me.

    ‘What are you talking about?’ demanded Father. ‘What’s the Board man looking for?’

   Mother made an effort to sound calm. ‘It’s just to make sure we’re looking after the stuff they’ve given us. Like Liza says, it’s nothing to worry about.’

     Father too looked round the room, trying to see it with an inspector’s eye. But he had no yardstick for this kind of scrutiny and quickly gave up. He stomped out of the house shouting over his shoulder: ‘God help the pair o’ ye if we fail this inspection.’

    ‘Will I put on my ‘dirties’ apron, Mother? Are we going to be cleaning?’

    ‘No, we are not,’ she said with a defiant tilt of her head. ‘Inspection indeed! I don’t need any pipsqueak pen-pusher from the Board showing me how to run my house.’

    ‘But Father said . . .’

    ‘And what does he ken about keeping a house clean? All he ever does is make a mess of it with his socks and drawers flung on the floor and his cigarette ash everywhere.’

    She was brave was Mother – when Father wasn’t there.


   For all her bravado, she soon had me black-leading the range and shining the knobs of its four little doors while she changed the bed linen and polished the furniture. She had us up with the lark next day, on a dark, dingy November morning. I would not have believed there was anything left to dust, wash or polish but, as Gerry and I sat supping our porridge at the table, she was rubbing away at the carvings on its legs with an old toothbrush.

   ‘Now, finish up your breakfast and get ready to go out,’ she said.

   ‘Where to?’ asked Gerry.

   ‘Just out to play. I want you two out of the house before the man comes.’

   ‘What for?’

   ‘So that I can get the last minute jobs done and know one of you won’t undo them again before he comes.’

   ‘What sort of jobs?’

   ‘Tidying the shoe-rack, sweeping the floor, going over the windows with the shammy . . .’

   ‘Why is it called a shammy?’ asked Gerry.

   ‘How would I know? Get on with your porridge. I’m clearing this table in two minutes whether you’ve finished or not.’

   ‘Is it because it’s like a kiddy-on thing?’

   ‘What are you talking about now?’

   ‘Like when we say something’s a sham. Is it a sham for a duster?’

   ‘Oh, Gerry . . .’

   ‘Stop pestering your mother!’ Father burst through the chenille curtains that covered the bed recess like an actor on cue. His voice, always rough, was like a dog’s bark first thing in the morning. He strode across the floor and gave the side of Gerry’s head a backhand slap as he passed on his way out to the ‘lavvie’. Gerry squawked as if mortally wounded and dropped his spoon into his bowl. Milk splashed over the table and few tiny porridge lumps slid down one of the recently tooth-brushed legs.

   ‘That’s it.’ Mother seized both our bowls, although I still had over a half of mine to eat. ‘Get away out NOW! No arguments. Coats on and OUT to play.’

   ‘Dinna panic, Mother. The house is like a palace. You’ll pass with flying colours. Bound to.’

   ‘Who’s panicking?’ squeaked Mother.

   I dragged Gerry, still sulking about his thick ear, along the path. ‘Let’s go an’ see Seamus. Maybe we can take him out for a walk.’

   By the time we returned the big dog to his garden, the inspector had left.

   We went cautiously along the path to our own house. I tried the handle carefully but the door was locked.

   ‘How can we no’ get in?’ demanded Gerry. ‘I’m wantin’ my dinner.’

   ‘Look out!’ I snatched his arm and dragged him sharply away from the house as the window exploded into a shower of splintered glass. I felt needle-sharp rain on my face and cried out again. Something heavy struck me full on the chest, knocking me off my feet. I went over backwards, still clutching Gerry’s arm and pulling him on top of me. Another missile flew over my head, missing it by inches.

   I lay winded on the path while Gerry struggled to his feet, screaming like a banshee. Then the whole row of keepers’ houses seemed to erupt with women, children, dogs and even a couple of curious cats. But of Mother or Father there was no sign.

   I staggered to my feet and took in the sight: our kitchen window completely smashed; and three cast iron pots lying among the broken glass.

   ‘Oh, no,’ I whispered. ‘The brass pots under the bed. We forgot about them.’ We had forgotten the Board-issue brass pots which Mother had consigned to a hiding-place under the bed when she had unpacked, preferring her own cast iron ones. The inspector must have demanded to see the brass pots, wanting to see how shiny they were. After more than a month gathering stour under the bed, they would be dusty and dim. We had failed the inspection and Father was furious. Furious to the point of throwing the cast iron pots out the window.

   ‘Where’s Mother?’ I lurched unsteadily toward the door. If Father was angry enough to smash the pots through the window, what might he have done to Mother?

    Even as I raised a hand to hammer on the door, it flew open. Father’s hand shot out and pulled me into the house.

    ‘Get away home the lot o’ ye!’ he yelled. ‘Have ye nothing better to do than stick yer damned noses in where they’re no’ wanted?’ He made a menacing step towards the gaggle of women and children and they backed away. He dragged Gerry by the hand, almost lifting him off the ground, and threw him into the house. I grabbed Gerry and bolted up the short passage into my bedroom. I shut the door and dragged a chair up under the handle. Then I put my arms round the hysterical Gerry and we fell on my bed, sobbing, in a tangle of wet coats, muddy boots and rumpled blankets.