Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 15

   

He’d thought she was joking, but she wasn’t. The resort’s sole business, it seemed, was “ethnic fairs,” as one of the food vendors explained.

“Polacks dancin’ polkas, Swiss yodelers—Jeez, they musta had ten million cuckoo clocks here! Spanish, Italian, Japanese cherry blossom festivals—you wouldn’t believe all the cameras them Japs have, you just wouldn’t believe it.” He shook his head in bemusement, sliding across two paper plates filled with hamburgers and french fries.

“Anyways, it’s something different, every two weeks. Never a dull moment. But us food vendors, we just stay in business, no matter what kinda food it is.” The man eyed Roger’s kilt with some interest.

“So, you Scotch, or you just like wearing a skirt?”

Having heard several dozen variations of that pleasantry, Roger gave the man a bland look.

“Well, as my auld grand-da used to say,” he said, thickening his accent atrociously, “when ye put on yer kilt, laddie, ye ken for sure yer a man!”

The man doubled up appreciatively, and Brianna rolled her eyes.

“Kilt jokes,” she muttered. “God, if you start telling kilt jokes, I’ll drive off and leave you, I swear I will.”

Roger grinned at her.

“Och, now, ye wouldna do that, would ye, lass? Go off and leave a man, only because he’ll tell ye what’s worn under the kilt, if ye like?”

Her eyes narrowed into blue triangles.

“Oh, I’d bet nothing at all’s worn under that kilt,” she said, with a nod at Roger’s sporran. “Why, I’ll bet everything under there is in pairrrrrrfect operrrating condition, no?”

Roger choked on a french fry.

“You’re s’posed to say ‘Give us your hand, lassie, and I’ll show you,’ ” the food vendor prompted. “Boy, if I’ve heard that one once, I’ve heard it a hunderd times this week.”

“If he says it now,” Brianna put in darkly, “I’ll drive off and leave him marooned on this mountain. He can stay here and eat octopus, for all I care.”

Roger took a gulp of Coca-Cola and wisely kept quiet.

There was time for a wander up and down the aisles of the vendors’ stalls, selling everything from tartan ties to penny whistles, silver jewelry, clan maps of Scotland, butterscotch and shortbread, letter openers in the shape of claymores, lead Highlander figures, books, records, and every imaginable small item on which a clan badge or motto could be imprinted.

Roger attracted no more than a brief glance of curiosity; while of better quality than most, his costume was no oddity here. Still, most of the crowd were tourists, dressed in shorts and jeans, but breaking out here and there in bits of tartan, like a rash.

“Why MacKenzie?” Brianna asked, pausing by one display of clan-marked keychains. She fingered one of the silver disks that read Luceo non uro, the Latin motto curved around a depiction of what looked like a volcano. “Didn’t Wakefield sound Scottish enough? Or did you think the people at Oxford wouldn’t like you doing—this?” She waved at the venue around them.

Roger shrugged.

“Partly that. But it’s my family name, as well. Both my parents were killed during the war, and my great-uncle adopted me. He gave me his own name—but I was christened Roger Jeremiah MacKenzie.”

“Jeremiah?” She didn’t laugh out loud, but the end of her nose pinkened as though she was trying not to. “Like the Old Testament prophet?”

“Don’t laugh,” he said, taking her arm. “I was named for my father—they called him Jerry. My Mum called me Jemmy when I was small. Old family name. It could have been worse, after all; I might have been christened Ambrose or Conan.”

The laughter fizzed out of her like Coke bubbles.

“Conan?”

“Perfectly good Celtic name, before the fantasists got hold of it. Anyway, Jeremiah seems to have been the pick of the lot for good cause.”

“Why’s that?”

They turned and headed slowly back toward the stage, where a gang of solemnly starched little girls were doing the Highland fling in perfect unison, every pleat and bow in place.

“Oh, it’s one of the stories Dad—the Reverend, I always called him Dad—used to tell me, going down my family tree and pointing out the folk on it.”

Ambrose MacKenzie, that’s your great-grandfather, Rog. He’ll have been a boatwright in Dingwall. And there’s Mary Oliphant—I knew your great-grandma Oliphant, did I tell you? Lived to be ninety-seven, and sharp as a tack to her last breath; wonderful woman.

She was married six times—all died of natural causes, too, she assured me—but I’ve only put Jeremiah MacKenzie here, since he was your ancestor. The only one she had children by, I did wonder about that.

I asked her, and she closed one eye and nodded at me, and said, “Is fhearr an giomach na ’bhi gun fear tighe.” It’s an old Gaelic proverb—“Better a lobster than no husband.” She said some would do for marrying, but Jeremiah was the only lad bonny enough to take to her bed every night.

“I wonder what she told the others,” Brianna said, meditatively.

“Well, she didn’t say she didn’t sleep with them now and then,” Roger pointed out. “Just not every night.”

“Once is enough to get pregnant,” Brianna said. “Or so my mother assured my high school health class. She’d draw pictures of sperm on the blackboard, all racing toward this huge egg with leers on their faces.” She’d gone pink again, but evidently from amusement rather than distressed memory.

Arm in arm, he could feel the heat of her through the thin T-shirt, and a stirring under his kilt that made him think leaving the pants off had been a mistake.

“Putting aside the question of whether sperm have faces, what has that particular subject got to do with health?”

“Health is an American euphemism for anything to do with sex,” she explained. “They teach girls and boys separately; the girls’ class is The Mysteries of Life, and Ten Ways to Say No to a Boy.”

“And the boys’ class?”

“Well, I don’t know for sure, because I didn’t have any brothers to tell me. Some of my friends had brothers, though—one of them said they learned eighteen different synonyms for penile erection.”

“Really useful, that,” Roger said, wondering why anyone required more than one. Luckily, a sporran covered a multitude of sins.

“I suppose it might keep the conversation going—under certain circumstances.”

Her cheeks were red. He could feel the heat creeping up his own throat, and imagined that they were beginning to attract curious glances from passersby. He hadn’t let a girl embarrass him in public since he was seventeen, but she was doing nicely. She’d started it, though—let her finish it, then.

“Mmphm. I hadn’t noticed much conversation, under those particular circumstances.”

“I imagine you’d know.” It wasn’t quite a question. Rather late, he realized what she was up to. He tightened his arm, pulling her closer.

“If you mean have I, yes. If you mean am I, no.”

“Are you, what?” Her lips were quivering slightly, holding back the urge to laugh.

“You’re asking if I’ve got a girl in England, right?”

“Am I?”

“I don’t. Or rather I do, but nothing serious.” They were outside the door to the dressing rooms; nearly time to fetch his instruments. He stopped and turned to look at her. “Have you? Got a bloke, I mean.”

She was tall enough to look him in the eye, and close enough that her br**sts grazed his forearm when she turned to face him.

“What was it your great-grandmother said? ‘Is fhearr an giomach.…’?”

“ ‘…na ’bhi gun fear tighe.’ ”

“Uh-huh. Well, better a lobster than no boyfriend.” She lifted a hand and touched his brooch. “So yes, there are people I go out with. But I don’t have a bonny lad—yet.”

He caught her fingers and brought them to his mouth.

“Give it time, lass,” he said, and kissed them.

The audience was amazingly quiet; not at all like a rock concert. Of course, they couldn’t be noisy, she thought; there weren’t any electric guitars or amplifiers, only a small microphone on a stand. But then, some things didn’t need amplifying. Her heart, for one, hammering in her ears.

“Here,” he’d said, appearing abruptly out of the dressing room with guitar and drum. He’d handed her a small brown envelope. “I found these, going through my dad’s old bumf in Inverness. I thought you’d maybe want them.”

She could tell it was photographs, but she hadn’t looked at them right away. She’d sat with them burning a hole on her knee, listening to Roger’s set.

He was good—even distracted, she could tell he was good. He had a surprisingly rich deep baritone voice, and he knew what to do with it. Not just in terms of tone and melody; he had the true performer’s ability to pull aside the curtain between singer and audience, to look out into the crowd, meet someone’s eyes, and let them see what lay behind both words and music.

He’d got them going with “The Road to the Isles,” a quick and lively clap-along song with a rousing chorus, and when they’d subsided from that, kept them going with “The Gallowa’ Hills,” and a sweet slide into “The Lewis Bridal Song,” with a lovely, lilting chorus in Gaelic.

He let the last note die away on “Vhair Me Oh,” and smiled, directly at her, she thought.

“And here’s one from the ’45,” he said. “This one is from the famous battle of Prestonpans, at which the Highland Army of Charles Stuart routed a much greater English force, under the command of General Jonathan Cope.”

There was an appreciative murmur from the crowd, for many of whom the song was plainly an old favorite, quickly shushed as Roger’s fingers plucked out the marching line.

“Cope sent a challenge from Dunbar

Sayin’ ‘Charlie, meet me, and ye daur

An’ I’ll learn ye the art o’ war

If ye’ll meet me in the mornin’.’ ”

He bent his head over the strings, nodding to the crowd to join in the jeering chorus.

“Hey, Johnnie Cope, are ye walkin’ yet?

And are your drums a-beatin’ yet?

If ye were walkin’, I would wait

Tae gang tae the coals in the mornin’!”

Brianna felt a sudden prickle at the roots of her hair that had nothing to do with singer or crowd, but with the song itself.

“When Charlie looked the letter upon,

He drew his sword the scabbard from,

Come, follow me, my merry men,

And we’ll meet Johnnie Cope in the morning!”

“No,” she whispered, her fingers cold on the smooth brown envelope. Come follow me, my merry men…They’d been there—both her parents. It was her father who had charged the field at Preston, his broadsword and his targe in his hands.

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