The story of the week: the 2008 Booker Prize winner in the category

This is a story by Clare Wigfall, which I found very interesting if a little meandering.

Let me know what you thought, as usual, after the break!

The Numbers

All that I ken of numbers I learnt afore the age of 10. 1st on an abacus it was taught me, the instrument propped on the lady schoolteacher’s desk. After, we progressed to numerals, copying the digits cannily on our slates with pieces of chalk, and rubbing at the answers with our sleeves if we made a miscalculation. The lot of us could fit on 2 benches at 1 time – wee 1s on 1 end, the seniors on the other. That’s how wee the school is. Addition, subtraction, division, multiplication; I was always fond of numbers.
When I was 9 I received a prize for recitation of the multiplication tables: a gilt-edged book donated by a religious mission on the mainland. Spiritual Salvation the book was called. They kent we were a godless folk, but it didn’t stop them trying. Faither placed the prize on the mantelshelf for safe keeping because we’d never had a book in the cottage afore and daren’t to dirty the pages of this 1 by handling it, but after some time the soot from the fireplace clouded the paper dust-jacket black, and the heat made the cover-boards curl. You could say it was a shame, but the truth is there are worse things have happened in this world.
There were some on the island who wondered what we might need numbers for. These were the 1s who had never learnt to work with them in their day. They could count on their fingers if they were lucky, and hadn’t ever felt lacking in their lives. They didn’t approve of filling our heads with a subject so vague-like as numbers. Not that they’d say this afore the lady schoolteacher, mind, because she hailed of good family from the mainland; and besides, the woman was so awfy bonnie. Miss Galbraith was what she called herself, while the rest of us favoured identification through our faithers. Peigi daughter of Finlay is what they call me, Peigi NicFionnlaigh. The women held their tongues in Miss Galbraith’s presence and tried to affect that they were gentlewomen, and the men kept quiet altogether, which is a rare thing, I can tell you, and I believe was because they felt themselves abashed, she being that upon which they found themselves hankering when they awoke all feverish from a particular type of night-dream. (I ken this to be true because my brother Iain told it to me when he was 14.)
Thus it continued that the lady schoolteacher would teach us numbers, and we’d learn them until we were 10 and it came time to leave the schoolhouse. And beyond that, apart from the odd occasion when you wanted to count out the eggs to bag up for the mainland, or read the clock perhaps, or work out how many ewes you’d lost in a sudden frost, you could say that numbers weren’t of much use to us. Not practically speaking, that is. Which means that in the eyes of many there’s little excuse for my fondness. Yet the way I view it, numbers lend a logic to the world. They explain things. Throw light upon problems and make you recognise truth. They can be a comfort.
Take, as example, the issue of marriage. There are 33 of us on the island, myself included. Of these, 6 are kin. Of the remaining 26 (I’ve subtracted myself), 10 are below the age of 15 and can thus be excluded. 8 remaining are male. 5 of these are wed already. 8 – 5 = 3. 3 unwed males above the age of 15, 1 of whom, it should be noted, is feeble-minded, 1 of whom is unreasonably ugly and kent for his crabbit temper, 1 of whom has been widowed already a good 4 decades, and all 3 of whom are owerly fond of whisky – although that last could be said of almost all the male folk on this island (some of the women folk, too), so perhaps shouldn’t be held against them. But you grant where the arithmetic is leading me?
Which is the beauty of numbers. They lay down the facts with such plainness and order you realise it’s simply not worth upsetting yourself ower. Even if the solution isn’t quite to your liking, in the end it is just a question of arithmetic. Simple arithmetic. Numbers.
And who would be foolish enough to rail against numbers?
When I was 7 and a G a team of men came to our island. They were from a place called Cambridge, they told us, which is in England. We kent about England from the geography instruction the lady schoolteacher had learnt us. We kent our country was divided into 4, and that England was down near the bottom and that they have such things as motorcars there, which are vehicles rather like a dray but which can move of their own accord.
These men wore their face hair clipped into neat shapes and had coloured belts of silk tied about their necks and spoke to 1 another in a language we couldn’t understand.
They walked across to the north side of the island and erected a wee canvas tent beside the blackened tarry limb that our men had uncovered some 2 seasons back while cutting peat, and left untouched out of deference to a body taken afore his time.
I have told you we are not a religious folk, and believe not in the existence of gods in the sky above, but there is not 1 child on this island who does not ken of the darksome boggarts who lie beneath us. They bide in the peat bogs, and are looking for any opportunity they can to lay their fingers upon life and pull it to the depths they do inhabit. They are clever, we are told, sleekit with it, and on foggy nights they have been kent to call in thin voices to those they wish to lure unto them. Men, walking home late of an evening, tight after a few drams of whisky, have heard the voices of young lassies calling to them from the fog. Tempting them with that which they desire. It takes a steely heart to walk by.
I once saw a bull that had stumbled into a bog. It was sunk neck-deep already by the time it was found, and was slipping deeper so very slowly it almost looked as if it wasn’t going anywhere. It took 8 men to haul the creature out, their ropes looped about his horns.
These men from England did not own the caution of our menfolk. They set about the peat with metal tools and scrapers and eventually were able to lift a body from the clutches of the dank soil once liquidy enough to drown this poor soul. We islanders were allowed to observe their prize. It looked asleep, its spine curved like the line of a ram’s horn and the knees pulled up against the chest. The skin was a horrid black-broon with a silver-grey shine to it, and drooped upon the bones beneath like the flesh of a fruit that has turned. The hair was red-broon, but without any shine, like a hank of wool afore it has been spun. Upon its feet remained a pair of leather boots, black-broon like the rest of the body.
I stood afore the trestle table and stared and stared. We had been instructed not to touch. The adults too, as if they were children needed learning. So I don’t ken what came ower me, but the truth is there are instances when you are propelled by possibilities you might ken are without reason. I moved my hand swiftly, as if it were a dare made to me by Iain or Mairead. As quickly again my faither slapped my hand away. ‘You think you’d like it?’ he scolded. ‘To be stared at like that? And then prodded by a horrid wee lassie?’ And he cuffed my ear sharply as if I deserved the blame for everyone’s curiosity.
Each January sees the beginning of the herring season. Salt herring is what we eat most nights, alongside tatties, and is responsible, some say, for the stomach crampings so many of us suffer from. The drifters from the mainland ports return laden with catches of the fish that must be gutted and packed in barrels of salt for export.
If the north wind is not too squally, a boat is sent ower and us girls, or those that can be spared, go athwart to help with the gutting.
Ower a decade now I have been aiding at the gutting, and yet I still have not found my sea legs. I am afeared of the water, and confess the journey is a torment for me, with the boat tipping us this way and that, and myself praying my stomach shan’t pitch my breakfast porridge ower the edge.
Last year was no exception. I left the cottage afore sunrise, and walked 4 miles in lantern-light to reach the beachfront. I couldn’t help but count the steps down to the shore, and told myself that if the final tally was even, the journey athwart the water would not drown us. The final step was odd. But then I considered the return journey I would have to make that night, and agreed with myself that I could factor this into the sum, allowing me to multiply the number by 2. After that I felt much more at ease.
3 other girls were waiting already, their faces pinched against the cauld and drizzle, their shawls wrapped tightly around them. The bonnie sisters Anna and Caìtriona NicPhàdraig were there. And young Màiri, daughter of Alasdair the fiddler, who was joining us for her 1st gutting. Maureen NicAindreas, Domhnall MacAindreas’s feeble-minded sister, was absent. We all agreed this was for the best, considering the incident at the previous year’s gutting. It had been discomfiting for all involved. Besides, Maureen had been laid poorly for some time and we none of us had seen too much of her for a while.
We shared some pleasantries, and in the gloaming of the early dawn saw the rowboat coming towards us athwart the waves.
You will imagine my surprise when I found I recognised the fellow at the tiller. Willeam MacGhobain, who studied in the schoolhouse with me. I remembered him a bone-pale timid laddie, who caught the croup when he was 13 and was sent ower to his aunt on the mainland where he could be nursed in the hospital. A few of the other schoolchildren used to take a rise out of me on occasions, once or twice driving me into quite a temper, saying that Willeam held something of a fancy for me. But after leaving us, he never returned to the island, and I had not spared him too much thought in the years that had past.
With the oars in his gloved hands, he was still pale as I remembered him, but harsh winds and cauld weather had thickened his skin. He had a long sheepish face now, with yellow hair sticking which-way from his crown. Even his eyebrows and lashes were yellow. He lifted a hand to help each 1 of us into the boat, and as he took my own and looked up at me I saw recollection flash athwart his face. To my great shame, he blushed like a lassie.
I dipped my head as I took my seat and let go his hand quickly, but out of the corner of my eye I could see the red flushing at his cheekbones and creeping along the curlicues of his ears. ‘Why,’ I thought to myself, ‘he is just as foolish as ever he was.’
‘Willeam MacGhobain?’ I said to him, hoping the other girls had paid no heed to his colouring. ‘It is a full 14 years since we saw each other last, is it not?’ Which meant that I had not kent him for 1 full year longer than I had kent him, so really I did not ken him very well at all.
The others in the boat were a good deal younger than us, and thus had never afore seen Willeam in their lives, but we 2 spoke as he pulled us athwart the grey water.
‘You are not married?’ he asked, for married women do not so normally go athwart to the gutting.
I replied that I was quite content as I was, and very busy with it. My faither would surely not get by without me now our mother was gone. I explained that Iain had taken ower the croft, and had a cottage nearby with his wife and their 3 young 1s.
‘And you had a sister,’ he said.
‘We lost Mairead,’ I told him, but did not feel able to say more on that matter. Besides, the wind was up, and the tipping of the boat was rather beginning to affect me. I took a deep breath to steady my wits, and as solace reminded myself that the number of steps had come out even. Then I counted 8 a few times in my head, for good measure. Anna and Caìtriona were singing – a hearty sea ballad – and I wondered how they could manage it. ‘You must have a wife and family, no doubt,’ I ventured, so he wouldn’t think me snubbing him, ‘ower on the mainland?’
Now it was his turn to look away, and for the wind I barely heard him tell me that his wife had passed.

He came at the end of the day and took us home. ‘You will come again tomorrow, Peigi NicFionnlaigh?’
‘I daresay,’ I told him. ‘And you will row the boat, Willeam MacGhobain?’
‘I daresay,’ he replied with a smile.
I tried not to think about that smile on my walk home. The fog had crawled in, and the path was hard to see, even in the light of my lantern. It is dangerous to let your concentration slip on such a night. But I found my mind turning ower the things that he had told me, and imagining his life on the mainland, living in that tall brick house with his 2 wee motherless bairns and his maiden aunt who was suffering so now from arthritis.
So occupied was my mind, I almost didn’t hear the voice in the fog.
At 1st I thought it a wee beastie. A lamb that had got lost, perhaps, and was greiting for its mammy. But it wasn’t the lambing season. I held up my lantern in the rainy mist and listened. I ventured the sound could be far off perhaps, carried on the fingers of the wind. There was naught to be seen beyond the yellow halo the fog made about my lantern. Again came the sound. A thin, eerie wail. A chill shivered through my bones and my breath quite stopped.
I listened, and now I could hear nothing beside the wind howling athwart the treeless land. ‘You’re letting your foolish imagination carry you away, Peigi daughter of Finlay,’ I told myself sharply, and turning back to the path took a few hurried steps, wanting to be home and in the warm, cooking up the herrings in my bag for Faither. But then it came again. Closer this time it seemed, or louder at least. A sound quite aching with loneliness.
My feet halted. ‘You silly creature, ignore it,’ I said out loud. ‘It is nothing but the call of the darksome boggarts trying to trick you. Walk on. Walk on, you foolish girl!’ But my heart would not allow it. The thin cry I heard in the darkness touched a deep and trembly chord inside me, and against all sense and reason I could nay ignore it.
Each step I took from the path was made cannily, 1 toe feeling ahead to confirm solid ground, and betwixt each step I paused to listen for the sound. Sometimes, it seemed louder, at others it would hush completely. ‘Helloo?’ I called into the night. ‘Be anyone there?’ But the wind seemed to carry my words instantly up and away into the dark sky.
I had taken 8 paces 3 times ower into a fog that closed behind me with each step I took, and kent that the further I went, the harder it would be to find my way back. I confess I was just about to gather my senses and turn around again when I saw in the lantern light a dim pale shape on the ground before me. Silly thing that I am, it made me leap. I thought it perhaps a wraith, crouching before it jumped at me, but the shape did not move. I daresay I have never felt so afeared in my life. But I had come this far, and kent I could nay turn back. I knelt carefully, set my lantern upon the gorse, and inched my hand forwards through the dense fog. What my cauld fingers touched was a rough woollen blanket, the oldest blanket you could imagine. All torn and dirtied and studded with burrs as if it had lined a cowshed. I pulled back 1 corner and that which I found made me gasp.
This was no spectre beneath my fingertips. No darksome boggart. No wraith. This was flesh and blood.
Disturbed by the icy draft, the wee infant began again at its greiting.
When my grandmother was a wee lassie, a blight turned the potatoes soft. She could recall helping her parents to pull them from the earth. Tattie after tattie, each 1 shrivelly and threaded with rot. They sorted through them to see if any could be salvaged, then collected the rest into a pile in 1 corner of the croft and left them there. Her parents talked of quitting the island, of taking a boat as others were doing far athwart the seas to a land called Canadia. But our family have lived on this island for generations, and my grandmother’s elders were not certain they could conceive of a life beyond it.
She was never schooled, my grandmother. The schoolhouse was closed for cause of the blight. It was not a time for education, and besides, the children of the island were too weak to walk all that way each day. Thus she never learnt about arithmetic, she never learnt how to read a page from a book, she never learnt geography, she never even learnt to write her name. But my grandmother could sing. Even in later years her voice was clear and tempered like the movement of water through a burn. ‘Ach, I filled my empty stomach with song,’ she told me, explaining how she survived when so many others did not.
There were lullabies she used to sing to me, songs that had been sung to her by her own mother, and that she had sung to my mother afore me. I remember lying beneath the blankets in the same bed I sleep in now but at that time shared with Iain and Mairead. I can recall with great clarity the crackle of the fire and the sound of my grandmother’s voice as I fought to keep my eyes from drooping.
I sang those same lullabies to the baby, and they seemed to soothe her. ‘Hee balou,’ I hushed. ‘Hee balou.’ So wee was she. So very fragile I feared she might break. The dome of her head pressed slightly, it was not firm like my own, and the broon hair was like the softest down you can imagine.
At 1st Faither wanted naught to do with her. He told me to take her back out again and leave her where I’d found her, but I told him straight I would do nothing of the sort, and in the end he had to let it be for he could see I was full determined, and he is an old man now, and no longer as strong as he once was. I told him to banish his ridiculous fancies from his head and fill the biggest cooking pot we had with water and warm it on the fire.
She was wee enough to fit right in the pot, and I joked that she could make a bonnie stew. Faither laughed at that. He hadn’t had his herrings yet and I daresay he was awfy hungry. All the while, as he helped to scoop the water ower her, I was taking care to hold her safely, and support her head. I was not used to holding such a wee infant, especially when slippery with water and soap. I counted each finger and toe, and all was perfect. ‘She is not long of this world,’ Faither told me. ‘Only a day or so, I would venture.’
As we were drying her afore the fire, she started again to whimper and we agreed she must be hungry, so while I wrapped her in a pillowslip and then the softest blanket I could find, Faither went out and fetched a cup of milk from the cow. I used my little finger and a silver teaspoon to drip it in her mouth and it seemed to calm her until eventually she fell to sleep in my arms.
‘You will have to cook the herrings,’ I told Faither. ‘For I don’t think I can move.’
For sure all folk ken that 2 crows flying ower a house foretells a wedding, or that a grave dug on a Sunday will lead to another being dug for the body’s kin afore the week is out, or that a slip of rowan tied with a red thread and kept on 1’s person on the eve afore May Day will be a charm against ill luck and avert evil from 1’s flocks and herds. We grow up with these superstitions. We learn them afore we even ken they are being taught. We all put on our right shoes 1st of a morning without ever asking ourselves why.
It is bad luck to let the moon shine on an infant’s face, or to have them sleep in a new cradle. Their clothes should be passed through a fire, and a dobbet of butter should be dropped in their mouth and swallowed if they are to be protected from malignant spirits.
I did all that which I could for her.
But still my brother Iain warned, ‘Peigi, folk will not take well to that bairn. Not when you found her in the mist like you did, with no indication of where she might hail from, and that blush you won’t acknowledge upon her face. There is some darksome magick surrounding her and she’ll bring bad luck to the island, that’s what they will say.’
I turned from him and walked back alone to the cottage, holding the baby close against my chest.
They came to look her ower. I kent they would. And of course I could not turn them away from the door, that would not be proper. We went flat through our supply of tea-leaves, and my arm was quite aching from the pouring of whisky. I cooked butter-saps in the pan, always a dainty at a new birth, until we were out of oatmeal.
Out of politeness they kept their tongues quiet, but I saw the looks between them, and when I quit the room to check on her, lying in the cradle begged from Iain and his wife, the walls weren’t thick enough to block out the speculatings Iain had predicted. To drown their words I counted 8 ower and again. I did look hard at her bonnie wee face, but I could see no darksome magick.
Domhnall MacAindreas even came to our door, and he has certainly never shown interest in a bairn afore. There is little amity shared between the 2 of us, and never has been. A rough, ugly man, with a temper to match. His horrid eyes have a way of lingering on your flesh.
‘Folk are saying you’ve found a bairn out in the fog, Peigi NicFionnlaigh, with the markings of the Deil upon its gruntle, isn’t that so? I thought I’d better come and have a wee look.’
‘Are you sure it’s not our whisky bottle you are wanting a wee look at, Domhnall MacAindreas?’
‘Ach, but I’ll be wanting a look at that too, for sure I will. But 1st this bairn.’ And he stepped inside without even wiping his boots.
I didn’t like his manner, but I felt obliged to show him through to the bedroom. As he pulled back the coverlet from her chin with his hairy fat fingers, a crabbit look came upon his face. I had to halt myself from spitting at my handkerchief to rush and wipe at her cheek where he had touched.
‘Oh, but Peigi NicFionnlaigh,’ he said unpleasantly, ‘no good will come of this 1. No good at all.’
I didn’t see this to be a comment fit for reply.

I cleared 9 plates and 12 glasses and 2 spent whisky bottles at the end of the night, and found just 1 glass unemptied. The wee 1 Mother used to favour, with a lick of blue paint around its rim. It was the glass that Domhnall MacAindreas had been sipping from. That man has nay been kent to leave even a single drop at the bottom of his whisky glass, so I kent he’d done so out of spite. For all folk ken that it is dangerous to the health of a newborn bairn not to finish your glass.

I had missed 1 full week of the gutting. And as I walked again athwart the hills I realised I had not thought once about Willeam MacGhobain. In fact, it seemed a lifetime now since that morning when I’d 1st climbed into his boat and said helloo. I wondered if he had noted my absence.
As I drew closer to the beachfront, I began to grow apprehensive, and had to count 8 for a while. The others surely would have spoken to him already. I had to stop myself from running the last stretch because I wanted to grab him and shout, ‘No, none of it’s true. She’s nay bad luck, that’s foolish talk. There’s naught unnatural or darksome about her. She’s beautiful. Beautiful. You’d ken it too if you could see her!’
But to my shock, as I took his hand and climbed into the boat, I didn’t see that look of discomfit that I expected. Instead he smiled, that halting smile of his, and asked me what I’d called her.
‘Sine,’ he repeated after me, as if he wanted to taste the sound of the word in his mouth. It is our word for gift.
‘Sine,’ I replied.
He came on a gustery afternoon.
I was alone with her, Faither having gone up on the croft to help Iain with a sickly ewe. The sky was greying up outside, and I’d been forced to light the lamp. I had a batch of wool for carding, but 1st wanted to set a pan of milk on the fire to warm because I could tell she’d be getting hungry. You would not believe how she had grown. How healthy the wee creature was looking.
The shock of him banging at the door like that caused me to spill the milk all ower the hearthstones. Like a madman he was banging, and a moment later he came storming through the door, letting in the wind and the cauld with him. ‘Where be the bastard?’ he roared. ‘Where is it hiding?’
I have never seen a man so filled with fury. His eyes were blazing with it, and it seemed to charge the air about him. He burst into our wee living room afore I could say a word. Cursing, he knocked against the side table, and in his anger hurled it athwart the room so it broke in 2. His hair was all uncombed, and he was reeking of drink, his breath dank with it. Unwashed he was too. I could smell the sweat and grease of him, like the wool afore it has been soaked. He was like a man possessed, not seeing of me at all, just focused on his purpose. His voice was raging and his words coarser than any I’d ever heard spoken by any man.
They asked me later why I did nothing, but what they don’t understand is that it all happened so fast.
He saw the basket beside the fire and grabbed for her, his hairy fingers snatching her from the cushions and shaking the poor thing as if she were little more than a sack of potatoes.
I did cry out. That I did. But his arm smacked me sharply around the head so I fell hard against the wall, and by the time I had arisen he was already out the door again.
I ran straight after them, hollering at him to let me have her back, but he is a big man, Domhnall MacAindreas, and more than once he sent me reeling. I was like the irritation of a fly to him, easily swatted away.
I could not catch him, even stumbling as he was for all the drink in him. And I tell you how I did try. I grabbed at his shirtsleeves, and caught a lock of his hair, and clung on 1 leg even, afore he kicked me away. I did try to stop him, harder than anything afore in my life.
But then it happened.
When I look again upon it now, in my dreams, in the recollections they forced from me, I see it all occur so slowly. It can nay have been that way, but certainly it was time enough for all colour to drain from my face. He appeared just to wobble backwards a moment on the dry gorse, his arm lifting as he did, and then he let her go and hurled her in a steep arc through the air. Where she fell, the lace coverlet she’d been wrapped in trailed milken athwart the black surface of the peat bog.
‘Bastard,’ he cried, stumbling, his legs criss-crossing and threatening to topple him. ‘Bastard, be gone with ye,’ he cursed.

I lost my senses, I’ll confess it now. When they pulled me from the bog, my skirts and hands and hair heavy with the thick black sludge, Iain had to slap me about the cheek afore I was able to collect myself again and see the matter straight. There is no use greiting ower spilt milk, was what my mother used to say.
I went again this year to the gutting, and again Willeam MacGhobain was at the tiller.
‘Greetings to you, Peigi NicFionnlaigh,’ he said to me, with a short smile of sadness.
‘Greetings, Willeam MacGhobain,’ I replied.
The sickness started almost as soon as we pulled away from the shore, and I closed my eyes, feeling sure that this time my breakfast porridge would not have the strength to stay fast.
We did not speak either of us on the journey ower, and I believe it was because he did not ken what words to say to me. But on our return he touched my knee with his fingers as the oar stroked past, and said, ‘Why do you count like that, Peigi NicFionnlaigh?’
‘Pardon?’ I replied, for it took me a moment to work his meaning.
‘No,’ he said with a shake of his head, ‘no matter.’ He gave me a smile. ‘I heard you were ower on the mainland a few months back.’
‘That’s correct,’ I replied plainly. ‘And I don’t think I’d be wanting to return. All those folk and filth. I can nay ken how you suffer it.’ It had been the 1st time I’d ever ventured beyond the herring yard.
He tipped his head, and I saw the cauldness of my words had hurt him. He always was a soft lad. ‘Well, at least it looks as though the trial will reach its proper conclusion,’ he said thinly.
‘It looks that way.’
He pulled a few more strokes, his mouth tight, his eyes not looking in my direction. I felt suddenly sorry for how I’d treated him, when he was showing only kindness. But I didn’t ken how to right it.
‘To think that he’d been doing such wicked things with his poor simple sister,’ said I. I had to swallow hard, and for sure it must have been the tipping of the boat.
The numbers wouldn’t stay straight, they kept jumbling as I tried to order them.
Out of the corner of my eye, I glanced his way again and saw that he was watching me sadly, while his fine strong hands pulled the oars through the dark water.
I felt the lurching of my stomach, and thought how ugly I must look, green with the desire to vomit. My hands reeked of fish guts and salt and harsh carbolic soap. For a moment I thought how easy it might be to simply tip back ower the edge of the boat and sink beneath the grey waves.
But of course now, that would have been against reason.

Clare Wigfall

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