A Story for December: Blowing In for Christmas

December 2018

How do you tell if a story is true? You check the details. You do that because it’s usually in the details that the flaw will be found. Ask any lawyer. Ask any journalist. They will all confirm that. Check the details and find the fatal mistake that exposes the story for what it is – an elaborate, credible invention but fatally flawed by that one false detail, that one inconsistency.

Now this story that I’m about to tell you is true. People think that authors make things up – and, by and large, that is quite correct. They do. They spin the most unlikely tales and for that brief moment when we are in the story, actually reading it, we believe that it is true. We know, of course, that it is fiction, but we suspend disbelief and go along with it. That is why the tears we cry when we read something sad or watch a tragedy unfold on the cinema screen are real tears.

And that’s always been the case. It was all very well for our parents to tell us that Lassie wasn’t really marooned on an island by rising flood waters. We thought this really was the end of the road for Lassie and, well, who wouldn’t cry in such circumstances?

But when it comes to the end of the story, we know that the author made it all up. And that means that when an author claims that a story is true, we adopt a very healthy sceptical attitude. Checking the details will unravel it all quickly enough.

So go ahead and check the details in this story. And the first thing you’ll discover if you look at the up the fourteenth of December, 2014, is that it was, as is being claimed here, a Monday. You will find that on your computer calendar simply by clicking on the arrow on the left and going back to 2014. Monday.

So that should make you think. And then the second detail: Monday the fourteenth of December, 2014, was a stormy day in the East of Scotland. Of course December in the east of Scotland is, by the very nature of things, a stormy month, and it would be unusual if it were not. But there’s more. On December the fourteenth, 2014 there were high winds in the Edinburgh area – exceptionally high winds. You can check that against the meteorological data. The wind speed recorded at Edinburgh Airport was, at times, over ninety miles per hour. That was not all the time, of course, those were gusts, but ninety miles per hour was enough to lead to the cancellation of several flights. The 2.40 flight to London, Heathrow, for instance, eventually left at 4.20, and the 6.10 to Amsterdam was cancelled altogether. Those are facts that can be checked.

And here’s another detail: Edinburgh has a famously spiky skyline. Cast your eyes upwards and you see all sorts of crenellations, ornamental features and gratuitous spikes. That’s the way Edinburgh is, and that’s why on that particular Monday there were two incidents that were reported in the Edinburgh Evening News the following day. You can check up on these and you will find that a large stone ball – about twice the size of a football – fell from a building in the Tollcross area and landed on the pavement below, severely damaging the concrete surface but fortunately missing a pedestrian who was only a few feet away.

You can read the interview with her in Tuesday’s Evening News. “I was walking home,” she said. “I was going to call in at the supermarket to pick up some sausages for my husband’s tea and suddenly this muckle stone ball comes crashing down. My first thoughts? Just as well I had stopped to look at a shop window or I would have been a few seconds later and that would have been it. And my second thought was that it was a meteorite. We’ve been warned about those, you know, and I believe it’s only a matter of time before one hits us.”

That interview is all there, as is the report of another bit of damage – this time to a building on Queen Street, where several slates were blown off a roof and caused considerable damage to a car parked in the lane at the back. Again, the report is there under the unambiguous headline Falling slates cause damage to parked car. And at the end of that report there is the sentence: “There were no further reported incidents associated with the unusually high winds. But the police have urged the public to continue to be vigilant.”

The key word in that is reports. Nobody reported anything else, but that is not the same as saying nothing else happened. Because it did.

***

On the fourteenth of December – it was a Monday – very high winds hit Edinburgh. At Edinburgh Airport, gusts of ninety miles an hour were recorded, but elsewhere it was thought the wind speed was even higher. According to an amateur meteorologist, the wind speed in Leith reached one hundred and three miles an hour – well into hurricane territory. This was not for any length of time, of course; these were gusts. But a gust can do extraordinary things, as anybody with experience of high winds will tell you.

For Tom Macdonald, the weather was neither here nor there. He was forty-four; he lived by himself since his wife, Maeve, had gone off with a man she met in a petrol station; he had a very ordinary job in a Scottish Government Department where he dealt with … well, nobody ever took any interest in what Tom did at work. He had one child – a teenage daughter – who lived with her mother and the man from the petrol station. She and Tom had a perfectly good relationship but she always seemed to be a bit distant, as if she found him slightly dull. As did Maeve, with whom he also had a courteous and reasonably friendly relationship, notwithstanding the circumstances in which their marriage had ended.

“I don’t want you to think I was bored,” she said to him. ‘I don’t want you to think that.”

But you were, he thought.

“It’s just that Iain and hit it off right from the word go,” she continued. “That’s no reflection on you.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I don’t mind. The important thing is that you and Fiona are happy.” Fiona was their daughter. “And Iain too, I suppose.”

“Well that’s very good of you, Tom,” Maeve said. “Very generous.”

Tom sighed inwardly. It was easy to be generous when you had nothing in your life. It made no difference, really. You were generous because there was nothing else for it but to be generous.

He thought of what she had said. Iain and I hit it off from the word go. How did you hit it off like that in a petrol station? And how did the word go come into it? He knew that was a metaphor, but he could not help but imagine her going into the petrol station to pay for her fuel and suddenly she hears the word go, and it is Iain standing there who has said, “Go”, and she went …

Oh well, he had the flat in Morningside and he was not hard up, and he still had his golf club membership which he would do something about next summer when he would start to play golf again, and …And that, unfortunately, was it. There was nothing else, really. Just that.

He looked at himself in the mirror. He was not in bad shape, but he was definitely a bit thin. That was because he was not eating enough. People had said to him that he should eat a bit more and put on a bit of weight, but somehow he had lost interest. When he came back from work, dinner consisted of a boiled egg and toast or some pressed cod roe from a tin, fried up on the cooker with a teaspoon of olive oil and served with frozen peas.  You do not bother too much with the frills when you live on your own and life seems a bit dreary.

Of course you could go out. You could join some sort of social club – he walked past one each day on his way to work. There was a rather scruffy looking doorway and above it a sign that said Social Club. He never saw anybody going in or going out, but that was because of the time at which he passed it, which was eight in the morning. People did not go to social clubs at eight in the morning. And in the evening, he came back by bus, along a different route, and it was too early, anyway, for things to get going at even the most social of social clubs.

But Tom had no inclination to join a social club, even if he were one day to find its doors open. He had no inclination to do anything, really, and even with Christmas coming up he had no plans. Maeve, Fiona and Iain were going to Tenerife for Christmas. Iain had won a trip for two in a raffle and they had bought an extra ticket for Fiona.

“Fiona is very excited,” said Maeve. “I hope you don’t mind if she’s not around for Christmas.”

Tom shrugged. “I had no plans,” he said.

There was a note of resignation in his voice, and Maeve felt a passing pang of sympathy for him. But it did not last long; there was Tenerife to think of, after all, and you cannot keep worrying about your ex. Exes had to take care of themselves, even if in this case she thought that he probably was not doing that, his being so thin and getting by on … what was it? Pressed cod roe?

Poor Tom, she thought. I hope something turns up for him. I hope he meets somebody who’ll sweep him off his feet. Sweep him off his feet – prophetic words, perhaps.

 

That Monday morning Tom started a two weeks’ end-of-year leave. He had no plans for the day, other than a trip to the shops to buy Christmas cards, and so he got out of bed later than usual. As he ate the half slice of thin toast that was his breakfast, he listened to the weather forecast and its dire predictions. Extremely strong winds are to be expected across Eastern and southern Scotland. The Forth Road Bridge is closed. The police have been attending several traffic incidents caused by high winds. The public are advised to be vigilant …

He wondered whether he should stay inside – the wind was certainly picking up and it looked, too, as if there would be rain. But he had almost run out of milk and as he would have to go out for that sooner or later, he felt he might as well do so before the weather deteriorated further.

Wearing his heaviest overcoat, buttoned up to the neck, he made his way downstairs and out into the street. The wind was now howling loudly and a large dustbin rattled down the street in front if him, spewing its contents, bumping against the side of cars as the wind caught it. In normal circumstances, Tom would have done something to clear up the mess, but this wind had already dispersed the detritus and it was too late.

He began to make his way along the pavement, feeling the wind pressing into his back like a pair of great hands pushing him along. He leaned back against it, concerned that he might lose his balance and he tumbled along like the dustbin. A taxi went past him and swerved slightly, blown sideways for a moment before the driver regained control. This, thought Tom, is dangerous.

And then it hit him. At first he thought that some heavy object had slammed into him – at least that was how it felt – and he uttered an involuntary cry. He decided to turn back, but it was too late. The next gust, which was more prolonged, was even stronger, and the one after that had the strength and force of a tidal wave. Tom felt himself cannoning forward and then being picked up bodily. In a moment he was upside down and the ground was disappearing beneath him. Then he was on his side, his coat billowing about him, a roaring sound surrounding him like the sound of crashing waves.

In an awful moment of realisation he understood what was happening: he had been lifted up by what must now be a hurricane. That is what happened in hurricanes – they tossed cars about as if they were nothing. They lifted them and then dropped them off miles from their original position. This was happening to him right now – I’m being blown away, he thought. I’m about to die.

He was not sure how long it lasted. It might have been merely a matter of seconds; it might have been minutes – he could not tell. Nor could he see how high he went and in what direction, although he thought at one moment that he saw Arthur’s Seat off in the distance and the Firth of Forth behind it. But then the lifting motion slackened and he felt himself plummeting downwards. The end must be very near, he thought. Now I’m going to be dropped and I shall land with a thud and everything would stop. The mind would be extinguished; there would be darkness. It would be the end.

He lost consciousness just as he felt himself hit the ground. He came down hard, and was winded, and then everything gave way to a strange, vivid dream. He was standing in front of the house he had lived in as a boy. There was a dog. There was a feeling of warmth. His head was spinning.

But now his eyes opened and he saw somebody standing above him. He was spread-eagled on the ground, his head resting on something wet and soft – the freshly dug earth of a flower bed. There was a woman, and she was peering down at him.

“Are you all right?”

His eyes regained focus.

“You’re not dead are you?” she asked.

The question struck him as ridiculous. Of course he was not dead. ‘I am definitely not dead,” he said. “The wind …”

She laid a hand on his forearm. “No, I saw what happened. You were lifted up by the wind somewhere else and then dumped down here in my garden. Amazing.”

He tried to sit up. It took a moment, as he still felt the effect of winding.

“Perhaps you shouldn’t move,” said the woman. “Perhaps I should get an ambulance.”

“No need,” he said and succeeded in getting himself into a sitting posture. From there he was able to stand up. As he did so, he looked at the woman who had found him. She was about his age, he assumed, and she had an intelligent face. Her eyes made her look as if she was about to burst out laughing, but he could see that she was concerned about him.

“Come inside,” she said. “We can’t stay out outside in this wind.”

He followed her into the house. He could see more or less where they were – on a ridge of the hills that lined the edge of the city. It was an obvious place to land if one were to be blown, unconventionally and improbably, out of Edinburgh.

She gestured to a chair in the kitchen. “Tea or coffee?” she asked

“I was actually going out for coffee,” he said. “Then …”

They both laughed.

“I’ve heard of this happening before,” she said. “Tornados can do it. I once saw a picture of a cow stuck in a tree in America. Blown there.”

He nodded. “It happens.”

“You’re very lucky,” she said. “Nothing broken?”

He shook his head. “I suspect there are a few bruises. Nothing more than that.”

She looked at him. “You’re a bit thin, if you don’t mind my saying. That’s probably why the wind was able to pick you up like that.” She paused. “Can I make you breakfast?”

“I had something,” he replied.

“What?”

“A piece of toast.”

She shook her head. “Not enough. Let me make you some eggs and bacon.”

She made him breakfast, and while they sat at her table, they talked. He had not talked to anybody this frankly, nor this warmly, for months – for years, he thought. He told her about his job, about Fiona, about how he felt life was slipping away.

“That’s exactly what it does,” she said. “Life drains away, day by day, while you’re doing nothing in particular.”

She said that she was a widow. “It’s five years now. He was too young, but there we are.” She told him that she had been a health service dietician and that she had thought vaguely about going back to work but had done nothing about it.

After breakfast, he looked at his watch. “I suppose I should be getting on.”

“I don’t think you should go out in this wind,” she said. “Why not stay for a while? I can drive you home later, when it’s calmer.”

He thought that a good idea. “And we could continue our conversation. For a little while, at least.”

She said she would like that.

He stayed for lunch. She had a frozen steak and kidney pie that she heated up. She made him a bowl of French onion soup as well, and at the end of the meal served biscuits and cheese followed by a bowl of ice cream. He had forgotten what food tasted like. How could I? he asked himself.

She asked him what he was doing for Christmas.

“Nothing,” he said.

She hesitated, but only briefly. “Would you like to spend Christmas with me?” she asked. “I’ve ordered a turkey – out of habit, I suppose. But I’ve nobody to eat it with.”

He replied that he would like that very much indeed. “And dinner tonight?” he said. “Have you any plans?”

She shook her head. “And you?”

“None,” he said. “Until now.” There were so many restaurants in Edinburgh, but he had taken no interest in them for years. Yet he remembered one that he walked past on his way to work; he would book a table there.

He looked out of the window. The sky was now clearing, but such clouds as remained were moving very quickly: the wind was still high. Where did the wind come from? He had no idea. Where was it going? Heaven knew. This wind, though, had been exactly the right wind for him. It had picked him up and taken him to precisely the place he needed to go.

She had said something that he did not catch. He asked her to repeat herself.

“I said: I’m rather glad you blew in.”

He reached out and took her hand, and smiled.