The Last Midgie On Earth
by Andrew Crumey
Published in Headshook, ed. Stuart Kelly (Hachette, 2009)
I was on a gap year before beginning my degree in celebrity studies; I packed a few clothes, beach-wear, my battered old guitar, and flew to Scotland where I’d never been but had often dreamed of. I’d seen a picture in a book when I was a kid, long sandy beach, waves breaking gently, one or two bathers. This was Scotland: a peaceful, unhurried place where life was easy. There was that movie about the guys who ran a little tavern, they’d sit around staring at blue sky from under their broad hats, dreaming, philosophising, falling in love. Sure, I wanted some of that northern bliss, being able to stay outside nearly all of the day and never burning too much, even with only low-factor protection. I wanted to strum my guitar and hear cicadas chirping, watch pelicans alight on shoreside gantries.
I decided I’d get myself to an island called A-Ran, heard it was good for full-moon parties. First ride I hitched was in a sugar-truck, couldn’t believe they still ran those things, must have been a hundred years old. Driver was called Dizzee and smelled of bacon, took one look at me, heard my accent and said, “Welcome tae God’s own country.” I liked that. They’re such religious people.
Dizzee had this little thing hanging inside the cab of the sugar-truck dangling over the control board, not much bigger than my thumb, kind of a geodesic shape with black pentagons on it so I figured it must be like an icon or something. He said it was called a football: you touch it for luck. Dizzee told me about his two wives and six kids, he was about seventy, I think, though it was impossible to guess his age, the climate’s easy on these people, they pick fruit the whole year round. Dizzee was delivering a consignment of kyleberries and not in any hurry. The spoiled ones had been juiced to power his truck.
“Where I come from, they banned these things a long time ago,” I told him.
“It’s these things gave us all the life we got now,” he said.
He told me this long and important story I forget, too busy looking through the cracked side window at the scenery slipping past. Whitewashed houses with their windows flung open to greet the balmy air; old ladies on rickety chairs gossiping cheerfully outside brightly painted front doors. A tavern whose sheltered terrace seemed an island of calm within calm. Something else went by. “What’s that?” I asked.
“Football. Needs a lot of watering though.”
I twisted to watch the retreating rectangle of yellow-green and thought of all the holy services that must go on there, people on their knees bowing east or west or whatever they do, wearing their traditional tartan bonnets. “You a student?” he asked.
“How come you’re on your own?”
I had to think about it. “Better travelling alone.”
His stubbly chin curved into a wry smile. “Just you and your guitar, eh? That’s nice. Expect you’re looking for some female company, though. Not that I’m presuming, mind.”
I felt embarrassed but reminded myself these are passionate people, open-hearted, frank. They live outdoors, baring their skin to the not-too-hostile sun. I’d even heard they made love on their roof terraces. Well, it was in that movie.
“So what’s your place like, son? For girls, I mean.” I told him how we all mostly have to stay covered up so it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. “Aye, I’ve heard about that. Suppose it could add to the excitement though.”
I thought of telling him about 27, my girlfriend. I could show him the picture on my memory card, the one she zoned when we met on the interpoint. I thought of the voice of her text and wondered if we’d ever get to meet each other in ambient space, wondered what it must be like to live wholly in flesh and blood, like these people, not digitally enhanced. My world was artificial and theirs was real. While I thought all this, Dizzee kept talking. “Stanley Baxter... Robert Burns.” He was giving me a history lesson. “Fafnir Trolsdottir... Manjit Raj.” I don’t think I’d heard of any of them but I could see that Dizzee took it all very seriously. Mostly they were poets, philosophers, revolutionaries, I think. Also one or two chefs.
“I saw the movie about those guys opening a tavern,” I said.
He glanced at me with playful scorn, then indulgent pity. “Aye, that. It was OK, I suppose. But the Chinese always get Scotland wrong.” Dizzee drove me to a town called Krankie where our routes diverged. He dropped me at the town square, place like something from a story-book, a real open-air paved area with a fountain in the middle and short-sleeved people strolling. There were tottering infants, geriatrics walking arm-in-arm, and wherever I looked my eyes couldn’t help falling on the slim, gently tanned legs of tall, exotic girls.
“Giesa a chune then.”
I turned and saw one standing right next to me, less than an arm’s-length away. I instinctively backed off and put my hand over my mouth.
“Ah’ll no bite ye!”
I reminded myself I wasn’t in the Dome now: there were no viruses to worry about here, only food poisoning and malaria if I didn’t maintain standard precautions. She nodded at the guitar neck protruding behind my shoulder.
“Ur ye gonnae play that thing or is it just for show?”
I pulled it round in front of me and strummed a chord. “I need to tune it...”
“Aw, don’t be shy. Bet you’re dead good.”
Her voice, strange and melodious, was like primal music, wholly natural and infinitely mysterious. She was pretty as a ripe tomato. I played Peace Song of the United Workers.
“No bad, that. Catchy.” She said it as a way of making me stop. “I’m March.”
“You’ll never guess what month ma burthday’s in.”
“Wannae meet ma pals?” She pointed to a cafe terrace at the other side of the square where a large group sat round two or three tables, everyone gesticulating and talking at once, way they do. I followed her there, a couple of them looking round when we arrived and March introduced me. “This is.... whiss yer name?”
“This is Carlo and he’s gonnae play a chune for us.”
A few more broke away from their conversations, sipping chilled bubblegum lattes while I began reprising Peace Song of the United Workers.
A dark-skinned girl asked, “Zat a hit where you come frae?”
“Know any we’d know?”
She suggested a few titles that must have been religious songs. Seems they do a lot of singing at the football.
“Moan an sit here wi me,” she ordered, but March wasn’t having it.
“He’s mine!” she laughed.
I’d been in Krankie all of ten minutes and here were two beautiful girls fighting over me. I wished 27 could see this, I said to myself. Wish everyone in the Dome could see. In the end I sat between them, once some people had swapped places to accommodate. The other girl was called Purple; she pointed to a muscly guy with a bandana at the far end of the group and said he was her boyfriend, I didn’t catch his name but he smiled hello. Purple said he was a health consultant in the evenings and a gym instructor by day. I’d thought all these people were farmers and fishermen or tourist industry workers but I suppose you’ve got to have other jobs to make an economy work. They all kept talking about money.
“Thing is,” Purple explained, “we’re a poor country, backward, been like that for decades, centuries, whitever. So we’ve got tae work hard if we’re gonnae catch up wi the likes o yous.”
March agreed. “Postcolonic, that’s whit we are.”
Purple told me about her cousin who emigrated. “He wis in that dome o yours, cleaning supervisor, fourteen-hour shifts every day, made a packet, sent it all back here tae his family. Now they’ve got a big place on A-Ran.”
“I’m heading there.”
“Y’are? Look him up - ah’ll gie you his contact.”
“You mean it?
“Seriously. Tell him ah sent ye.”
“You’re not just saying it? Where I come from, when you give someone a contact and tell them to get in touch, you don’t really expect them to show up at your door.”
“Aye, well, we’re different. Here you go.” She brought out her mem-card and flashed the details to mine, then scrolled up a picture of her cousin’s island home. “Look at that, no bad, eh?” A sprawling villa with an arcaded portico. “They’ve got horses and everything. He’s loaded.”
“All from working as a cleaning supervisor in the Dome?”
“Och no, it’s from the business he started efter he came back.”
March butted in. “He’s a gangster.”
“No he’s no!” They both laughed but I couldn’t tell how close the joke was to the truth: in this country everything was done with bribes and kickbacks, that was what I’d heard. It was in that movie. Only way they could open the tavern was by settling things with the local mob.
“How ye getting to A-Ran?” March asked.
“On a copter? Jetfoil?”
“Could always swim there,” Purple chuckled.
“Ma dad knows this skipper,” said March. “He’ll gie ye a lift.”
A few texts were enough to settle it, though not on the sugar-boat she’d thought, instead a hoverboard taking oranges and a few tourists later that day. There was space for me too if I didn’t mind standing.
“You’re all such kind people,” I said. The hours slipped like sand.
It worked out just as March promised: the hoverboard was bumpy but it felt good to be so close to the gentle sea, watching endless whitecaps and the occasional rise of dolphins. One kid swore she saw a flying fish while her mother unwrapped sandwiches in the salty air whose tang on my parched lips was like a kiss. A-Ran rose through heat haze but by the time we shored the sun had dipped behind mountains and a welcome coolness had arrived. At the quayside I stopped to look at a shrine to a famous ancient poet called C John Taylor who summed up the spiritual effect of so much natural beauty in a verse I can’t remember except for the last line: “It’s nice to be nice”.
There was an old woman in a bikini with a beach towel round her waist, plump and sun-leathered, sunglasses perched on her head. I showed her the house I was looking for on my mem-card and she recognised it at once, nodding with appreciation. “The big fella, eh?” Everyone on the island knew Purple’s cousin. “Moan and ah’ll show ye.” She led me along the esplanade, sandals flapping on the warm asphalt, and when eventually she paused I thought it was to admire the pelican we saw squatting on a capstan being fed sardines from a bucket by two small children. In fact she wanted to point out the hilltop overlooking the sea where the villa stood. “Ten minute walk,” she informed me, and in her bluntness I noticed for the first time the pride that for these Scottish people lies just beneath the simple friendliness. It made me suddenly aware that she was old enough to be my grandmother yet was wearing what in the Dome would not even count as underwear.
Time means nothing to them - the ten-minute walk was more like twenty. But eventually I reached the villa, looking just like the image I had of it except for a new extension on one side. Fixed to the gate was a neatly made sign: Big Fella.
I walked up the path and rang the bell, a dog barked inside, nobody came. I rang again and the barking was joined by gruff shouts; I saw through the frosted door-pane a large approaching figure and when he opened I found myself looking at Big Fella himself, unshaved, in a string vest and with a drink tin in his hand. He stared suspiciously while I explained myself, but as soon as I mentioned Purple he smiled broadly and welcomed me inside, taking me to a spacious marble-floored room hung with abstract oil paintings. He said they were by his wife. The Scots are highly artistic people. In the Dome you only ever make contact by appointment but straight away this man was treating me like part of the family, inviting me to sit down, wanting to know all about me, and about the Dome he hadn’t been to in years, asking when I’d be going back, and if I wouldn’t mind taking a package for him as long as it wasn’t too much trouble.
“What sort of business do you do, Mr Fella?”
Import and export, he told me.
“Anything in particular?”
I found myself staring at the large canvas hanging behind him, a lot of dark blue with streaks of red that looked like they might be part of someone’s anatomy. It made me think of those beaches I’d heard of where they don’t even wear swim-suits, only sun-cream.
“Fancy a beer?”
I didn’t know what he meant at first, then worked out he was offering me the same kind of traditional beverage that was in his hand. He went to fetch me one and I looked at more of the paintings. They all had those splodges and swirls that looked vaguely rude. Big Fella’s wife was obviously very talented.
He came back and handed me a chilled tin but it was such an old fashioned kind I didn’t even know how to open it. He helped me crack the lid and a button of foam spat out.
“Thank you, sir.” It tasted disgusting, like mouldy bread. I guessed they didn’t put sweeteners in their drinks because they needed all the sugar for their transportation vehicles. “You mentioned a parcel...”
“It’s nothing, son. Friend of mine’s needing some medicine, that’s all.” There were rules and regulations, apparently, stupid laws that meant he couldn’t post it. “Like the pictures, eh? That wee one there’s a cracker.”
“Is your wife a professional?”
“Ye could say that.”
I sipped the beer as slowly and politely as I could, wondering what it was made from. In the movie they only ever drank stuff called wine that was really grape juice, they pressed it themselves from the fruit of their own vines. But the Chinese always get Scotland wrong, I’d discovered. In reality those grapes would more likely power a smoke-belching hoverboard. Beer must be a way of recycling bakery by-products. Might even have some kind of religious significance.
He told me he was a collector, pointed to a cabinet in a corner of the room and we went to look at what was inside: old coins and credit cards, a printed circuit, a bag made of polythene. His home was stylishly uncluttered, but a few ancient objects, carefully placed and thoughtfully displayed, created an air of taste and beauty. He showed me an antique device called an iPod, with parts a person would put inside their ears. Something to do with telepathy or mood control, I think, and although it obviously no longer worked, he still wanted me to try. I thought of all the infectious agents that could have accumulated on those porous buds over the years and politely said no. In another part of the room stood an archaic microwave oven that still pinged, and near it on a plinth I saw Big Fella’s most precious relic, a glass box whose tiny occupant was held on a gold pin I could barely bring into focus beneath my eyes. Big Fella supplied a magnifying glass. It was, he said, the last midgie on Earth.
“Ye’ll be stopping wi us after the party won’t you?”
I hadn’t known about it, but Big Fella said there was a full moon - I was in luck. He insisted I stay. That was one thing the movie certainly got right: the kindness and generosity of these people.
I’d drunk hardly any: Big Fella suggested I might like to try a different beverage and brought out something called whisky. It looked promising because the measure he poured was a lot less than what was in my beer tin, though when I tasted it I could see why. I believe they make it by steeping chillies in oil for several years. Big Fella suggested adding water and in this way I was able to drink quite a lot, being thirsty from the long day’s heat. I started to feel dizzy. Perhaps I’d picked up something blown from those ear buds because really I wasn’t right at all though I didn’t want to say anything to Big Fella who was being so friendly. What happened during the next few hours is not completely clear. At some point his wife Angelica arrived, blonde and beautiful and many years younger than Big Fella. She wanted to hear me play guitar so I suppose I must have sung Peace Song of the United Workers while she sketched my portrait in charcoals. When she was done she turned her drawing board and showed me what she had seen: a pile of geometric shapes in need of shaking. I think the next thing that happened was she started taking off some of her clothes.
Suddenly there were other people, many of them, and we were all on the beach standing naked beneath the bright round Moon. There was some woman doing a lot of shouting who taught degree courses in shamanic drumming. And we burned a dead dog, or perhaps I only imagined that part. Well, here I was in the land of love and peace, the place I’d come in search of, even better than the movie about the guys opening a tavern. Everybody gets Scotland wrong, they think of beaches and hydrosurfing and don’t realise it’s a state of mind, it’s about having the freedom to discover who you really are. Big Fella took me to one side and started explaining about the parcel, only some white powder in a little plastic bag for his sick friend, though on account of those stupid rules and regulations I’d need to hide it in an unusual place if that was OK, not the sort of place I’d ever thought of putting anything at all but a natural pocket of sorts, I suppose. And I said sure, no problem, because Scotland is a land of spiritual freedom and in Scotland nobody says no to anything, only an everlasting yes, in fact they were all shouting it in unison while that woman was banging away at her drum: “Yea! Yea! Yea!”. But Big Fella must have detected a flicker of doubt because he said to me, are you really sure? You won’t go telling anyone? He got Mrs Fella to contribute to the discussion and she was pretty persuasive. And all the time I kept hearing the shouts of the revellers, seeing their beautiful moonlit bodies. Never anything like that in the movie, I can tell you.
A very long time ago, maybe hundreds or thousands of years, I don’t know exactly, midgies were these creatures that gave you plague and made Scotland a miserable unhappy place of war and famine. Kind of a symbol you could say, symbol of a nation that was sick and needed healing. But now the midgies were gone, and here were all these joyful, welcoming people, cured and free, and it was places like my own that were sick, the Dome, with its endless artificial daylight and sanitised air. “You need tae live a little,” Big Fella advised. And you know, that is so profound. It’s like in Scotland everyone’s a philosopher, everyone’s a poet. So let’s do it, I thought. Let’s live a little. Because when you really get down to it, it’s nice to be nice.