When Iris Chisholm arrives in the tiny Highland community of Green Cairns, she's still in a state of shock - not so much from her husband's untimely death as from the discovery that he'd gambled away all their money and even their home. In addressing the problems of the children at the school where she becomes the only teacher, Iris finds distraction from her worries. Further distractions come in the shape of golden-tongued lawyer Michael and the gentle handyman, Chas. The locals are deliciously outraged at the scandal of a schoolmarm who seems to have a sex life, while so embroiled is Iris that she does not notice what is happening to her own children - who need her just as much as the waifs of Green Cairns...
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Isla Dewar is the author of many acclaimed novels including Keeping up with Magda, Dancing in a Distant Place, Secrets of a Family Album and Women Talking Dirty. Women Talking Dirty was made into a film starring Eileen Atkins, Helen Bonham Carter, Gina McKee and James Nesbitt. Isla lives in Fife with her cartoonist husband.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Dancing in a Distant Place
The MissieA crowded bar in Glasgow, a shiny place, chrome and glass and very noisy, a constant thrum and babble, conversations and laughter. Too noisy for Iris, really, though she loves the city, the movement, the bustle. It's raining outside, a thin soaking drizzle, streaming endlessly. Cars hiss past on the road. She watches the world through the window, slightly steamed, and glowing reflections. She can see herself, though tries not to. Her face always surprises her these days. How did that happen to it? Not the lines and wrinkles, she knows how they got there. Time and worry have done that. Like they have to all the familiar faces round the table tonight. No, it's the slightly mournful look that seeps into her eyes, a deepening sadness. She remembers times past, and always, always she thinks, I could have done better. She is hard on herself. All her life she has found it difficult to forgive herself her mistakes, or thinks, when considering a past situation or problem, that she could have done more, pushed herself further.'Bloody weather,' she says. Everyone agrees.But there is something lovely about the rain. Especially when you are looking at it from the warmth inside. Rivers of water run down the pane, lights gleam, reflected in pools on the pavement. An alluring glimmer.A chill November night. Iris sits with her friends, and her daughter, Sophy. She drinks champagne, though she claims she does not like it. 'It's fizzy. And proper drink isn't fizzy.' She laughs. Her laughter is a song, loud, rhythmic. Her face wreathes into mirth. Tonight she wears a purple silk ankle-length skirt, a matching purple shirt, black velvet jacket. Round her neck, to cover time's cruelties, a pink silk scarf. In her small crowd, all well dressed butmore sombrely, she sticks out. In fact, she sticks out in the whole room. Eyes wander over to her. And it isn't just the clothes, it's the face -- small, lively -- and the extravagant, easy laughter. Iris loves that. Basks in those sidelong furtive stares.They have come to the theatre. It was originally only going to be Iris and Chas, but then Sophy and her husband asked to come along. Then the Vernons, Stella and John, who she has known for more years than she likes to think she's known anybody. And Morag who she's known for longer even than the Vernons. But that doesn't matter because she has always known Morag. Only Scott is missing. He is an anthropologist based in Toronto.Isn't it often the way? Iris thinks, looking round the table. It starts with just the two of you, then, turn around, blink your eyes, and there's a crowd. She notices a young man watching her, and smiles openly at him. She can do that now, she is old enough for it not to matter. This smile is just a smile. There is no secret sexual inference in it. No playing, no other meaning than a friendly upturn of the lips.A drink first. A meal after the play. Then home. Iris will sleep with her head on Chas's shoulder. There are of course many, many more friends, but these, tonight, are her special people. She is seventy-four. Doesn't look it. Her face is smooth, just a few wrinkles round her eyes, and lips. 'But,' she says, 'I've earned those wrinkles. They're mine. Battle scars from a life of work and angst.' Her hair, once fair, the colour of corn stubble, is grey, but still with unruly curls that sneak across her cheeks. She notices the bottle has been moved.'Oh, look at that. You put it out of my reach. You don't want me to drink too much and embarrass you.''Iris,' says Chas, 'you always embarrass us. You don't need drink to be embarrassing.'She grins.They have been together for over thirty years, not married. Iris won't marry, though Chas has asked her often. 'I'm not doing that again. Once is enough.'She reaches for the bottle, refills her glass. 'Just a drop.'Chas makes a face.'You're cramping my style,' she says to him.'I have never cramped your style. You were messy and loud-mouthed when I met you, and you're still messy and loud-mouthed.''You tell her,' says Sophy. 'I don't know how you put up with her.''He's madly in love with me,' says Iris. 'You have to admit he's got terrible taste in women.' And laughs.'Laughing at your own jokes,' says Chas.'Well, they're funnier than yours.''That's true. I'll give you that.' He loves her.Not that she doesn't love him back. The sight of him across a crowded room, that beloved face, still moves her. Sometimes, even yet, when she sees him coming towards her she feels herself melt. He always made her smile, like she had done all those years ago when he'd turned up at her door with a basket piled high with vegetables. Over a hundred miles he'd driven with them, and all he said was, 'I brought your veg. I said I would. It was our deal.'That was what had done it. He was someone who always kept their word. At the time, she'd needed that. Though, at the time, love was the last thing she'd been thinking of.'Love,' she'd said to Morag. 'Don't want it. Don't need it.'Morag had said, 'Oh, yeah?'But love was a kind of sickness. It ruined your judgment. It made you vulnerable, fearful lest you weren't loved back. It made you worry that something might happen to the loved one. It hurt. No, she'd decided, she wasn't up for any of that.'Love,' Iris said, 'I think the world would be an easier place if we didn't have any of it.''I think I'm hearing someone who is scared to commit,' said Morag. Thinking, She's fallen for Chas.'Love,' said Iris, 'gets in the way of things. It stops you thinking. It makes you nervous. It halts you in your tracks, disrupts the flow of things. You're always on edge. What if the one you love goes away from you one way or another? No, I think the whole universe would tick along fine if everybody in the world just liked each other.'She had thought she would settle for liking Chas a lot. But liking was not enough for Iris. She needed love, and how could she not love Chas? He fixed things. Everything. Not just blocked sinks, leaking roofs, errant vacuums, but people, situations. With a look, a smile, just by putting his hand on someone's arm, or saying something that stilled the room. Something shocking, but not insulting. There would be a moment's quiet as his words sank in, then the outrageousness of what he'd said would make them smile. And everything would be all right.The young man across the room is still staring. He looks at Iris quizzically. He smiles. She tries to place him. The face is familiar, but only vaguely. But, for sure, he will be one of hers.He comes over, stands before her. He wears jeans, suede boots that were probably very expensive, Iris doesn't know. She has long lost touch with such things. His jersey is soft, grey and expensive too, she thinks. His glasses are small, wire-framed, chic.'Remember me?' he asks.Iris considers him. He's lovely. She'll flirt. At her age she can flirt with anybody and get away with it. 'Give me a minute,' she says.'Colin,' he tells her, leaning down slightly.'Colin!' says Iris. 'My God, Colin!'The whole group responds in the same way. 'Colin!' they say.It hovers on Iris's lips to remind him that he used to be small and fat, and wore lumpen woolly jumpers his gran knitted for him. But she decides against it. No, she won't say that. Besides, looking at this man, she knows he has left that small, tubby, insecure boy far behind him. Some people you meet still have the disturbed, misunderstood child they were inside them, waiting to come out weeping and tell the world their woes. But Colin seems well, balanced, happy even. How do people manage that? It's a mystery, Iris thinks. 'So, what are you doing now?' she asks.'I'm a journalist.''A journalist?' She's delighted. 'It's all my good teaching. Good grammar will get you everywhere.''I remember,' says Colin. 'You and your grammar.' He nods. For a moment he's eight again, and Iris is before him, talking aboutsingulars and plurals and apostrophes. And he's wrestling with it all, working with a stubby pencil, chewed at the end.'The grammar these days,' expounds Iris. 'I don't know. You see it in the papers, hear it on the radio. It's appalling. Of course they don't teach it the way I did nowadays. Teaching's changed. You can't even touch your pupils these days. Some of the little ones need the odd cuddle. Mind you, it's a good thing teachers don't have to do some of the things I had to do. Still, folk do not know what to do with an apostrophe.'There is a stiffness round the table, people expecting a lecture on the correct way to commit collective ownership on to a page. Where to put the apostrophe? Before or after the s?Grammar is one of Iris's passions, along with the Amazonian rain forest, the plight of whales and dolphins, oil pollution, the imminent extinction of many birds and animals, including tigers, which are her favourite. The recent demise in the population of sparrows, larks. The profusion of rhododendrons that is slowly, slowly squeezing out native blooms. Starvation anywhere it turns up. Oh, the list of Iris's causes is long, as is the list of people she writes to. Most world leaders, every newspaper in the land, MPs, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (she takes great exception to the effect the price of petrol has on rural communities) have all received a missive from Iris. Only last month she wrote to the President of the United States complaining about the mutilation of manatees by high-speed boats in the seas round Florida. So far, though, no reply. She plans to drop him another note reminding him of the manatees and pointing out how rude it is not to answer when people get in touch.Colin looks across at a woman who is waiting for him. 'I must go. But I had to come over and say hello.''Well, hello,' says Iris. 'And sorry I didn't recognise you. You're so grown-up and sophisticated.' Then she remembers. 'I thought you were going to grow up and marry me? You said you would.''No,' says Colin. 'You said you would never marry me because I couldn't tie my laces.''Ah, well, as I've got older I've lowered my standards. You can marry me now.''I don't think my wife would like it.' He takes her hand, her small one in both of his. 'I've always wanted to thank you for, you know ...' He's suddenly shy, searching for the right word. 'Caring.''How could I not have cared about you, Colin?' she says. You were such a soul, such a poor little soul. She doesn't say that, for it would surely embarrass him. The little soul he was is gone. Left long ago in a tiny village with a phone box, a sparse little shop, and a road running through it.'And how's Ella?' says Iris.'Still going strong. Past eighty now. Plays a mean game of whist. Buys a Lottery ticket every Saturday. Bakes for the WRI. She's expecting her first great-grandchild in six months, she's knitting already.''Congratulations,' says Iris, for the baby will have to be Colin's. He was the only grandchild. 'Your gran was always a knitter.' And they smile, remembering the dire garments she produced.'I have to go,' he says. 'My wife is waiting.' He squeezes her hand. 'Take care.''Taking care cramps my style,' says Iris.He moves back across the room to an elegant woman waiting for him at the door.But Iris never can resist a bit of gentle mockery. 'Hey, Colin,' she says, loud enough for everyone in the bar to hear, 'have you still got my plate?'He smiles, puts his hand to his face in shame, remembering one of those humbling moments that sneak up when the mind idles. He nods. 'As a matter of fact, I have. Do you want it back?'She shakes her head.At the door to the bar, Colin looks back. Gives Iris a swift wave.'Who is that?' asks his wife.'That's the Missie.'His wife stares. A look. So that's her.'Oh, I know that look,' says Sophy. 'She's putting a face to all the stories she's heard. She'll know all about you.' And so, she thinks, will hundreds of wives and husbands of people who sat in Iris'sclassrooms. She was one of those teachers. Ask any of them who was their favourite teacher, who made a difference to their life, and they'd all say, 'Mrs Chisholm.' Though Sophy could tell other stories. About Iris the mother, for instance.Iris watches. Notices the curve of Colin's cheek as he leans into his wife, and sees, for a moment, the boy he was. The silent, watchful child. She thinks of a line from Robert Burns: ' ... a cheild's amang you takin' notes'. That was Colin, observing the world, drinking it in, taking notes.Sometimes that's all it takes, a little thing -- a song on the radio, the sound of a blackbird making his five o'clock claim to the garden, the smell of chrysanthemums on the kitchen table, the sound of bells on a Sunday morning, children's laughter, chalk, notebooks, a lawn mower in the distance, a dog barking, all sorts of things, different things - to set her reminiscing. And she's back there, in that tiny place, all those years ago.A distant place she lived in, danced in. She always remembers the dancing in the schoolroom when the light outside was fading and music inside hurtled into a wild stomp. She remembers mornings, standing, small in the school doorway, clanging her bell, and the children coming running.Copyright © 2003 by Isla Dewar.
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