Just after eleven, Colin raced down the hill to tell Johnny Dey that one of Marjorie’s cows was calving. No more than eight years old, with hair cropped so close you could see the bones of his skull, his face shone with a look of wonder and self-importance. When he told Johnny the news, Johnny simply gazed at him with an expression of unselfconscious weariness. He was sitting on the front step, elbows resting on his knees, his stomach like a medicine ball between his thighs. The sun fell onto his face from the right making him squint a little. Next to him, his collie was stretched out on her side, the sound of her breathing rhythmic and intense.
Colin stared at Johnny and felt like he did when he saw something strange emerge from the sea. He’d run down the hill with the message held like a special package, not sure exactly what it meant, only that it was important. It was also unclear to him why he was telling Johnny Dey, and now, standing awkwardly in the mid-morning sun, he realised he didn’t know what he was expected to take back in return. For the sake of something to say he repeated his message, and stood squinting and fidgeting.
‘Aye, that’ll be Frieda,’ Johnny replied eventually, putting a large hand to his face to shield his eyes. ‘Tell Marjorie to keep an eye out and let me know what’s happening. Can you remember that, Colin?’
Colin looked at him with all the indignity an eight-year-old could muster, turned tail and with a final dismissive look over his shoulder sped off back up the hill, thinking that the man was as strange as the myths that swirled around him had always made him seem.
At one o’clock, Colin was sent down the hill again, steeling himself for the same frosty reception. Johnny was still on the front step, but Colin immediately felt the difference in him. The sun was now high in the sky and the squint had been replaced by a mysterious, sly wink. His frame, which had seemed laden down only a few hours earlier, had become rooted and unshakeable. To Colin, he was more mysterious, more intriguing, more unnerving than ever. The tremor that shook his insides made him approach with caution, ready to take flight like the birds he’d once seen on a nature programme that cleaned the teeth of crocodiles by walking right into their mouths.
Johnny was talking to Neil the Bog, who lived a mile from the shore and whose clothes and skin seemed to have taken on a grey-green colour like they’d been left standing in bog-water too long. When he walked, his long limbs and thin, pot-bellied body moved with the cautious pace of a toad on wet grass. Johnny broke off from the conversation and turned his glittering eyes on the boy.
‘So, how are things going up there. You’re coming to tell me a new calf’s been born, eh?’
Colin’s brow furrowed, sensing the laughter in Johnny’s voice.
‘No, the calf’s not born yet, Mr Dey’ he said, adding with complete sincerity, ‘but Marjorie says to tell you that things are going well enough, and you can stop brewing your potions.’
‘I can stop brewing my potions?’ Johnny gave a low chuckle that felt like a cat’s tail slipping under a leg. ‘Tell me, how did things look?’
‘Well…’ Colin began, pleased to be asked his opinion, but not sure how to answer. Everything seemed to be the same as they had been when he’d come the first time, Frieda on the floor breathing heavily, occasionally lifting her oblong head into the air and blowing violently through purple nostrils. ‘Things were looking well enough,’ he concluded, trying to sound authoritative but casual.
Johnny smiled broadly at him and gave a quick wink at Neil, who returned the gesture with an almost imperceptible nod of the head, before announcing that he had to go. Johnny and Colin both watched him walk down the path into the bog, then Johnny turned back to Colin and studied him carefully.
‘How old are you now, Colin?’
Colin told him, and Johnny looked at him again, rocking back so that his stomach was lifted up and stuck straight out above his thighs.
‘I was about your age when I had my first nip. What do you say, something to put hairs on your chest?’
‘What’s a nip?’ Colin answered, making Johnny let out a ringing laugh.
‘Come on, let me show you,’ he said.
Inside Johnny’s house it was dark and smelt strange, and the heat from the Rayburn made it hard to breathe. On the worn, front room carpet, which had a lurid, multi-coloured pattern, were piles of old newspapers some of which had bits of machinery sitting on them. Johnny threaded his way towards a rough wooden cabinet in the corner and extracted a bottle of light brown liquid. There was one glass on top of the cabinet and he’d cast round for another. He found one on the floor, gave it a quick sniff then polished it with his jumper. He poured himself two inches of the whiskey, drank it swiftly, poured himself another couple of inches and put significantly less in the glass he handed to Colin. Cautiously, Colin smelt it and looked up.
‘Go on, give it a go,’ Johnny urged him.
He put the glass to his lips, screwed up his eyes and took a sip. It felt like his mouth was burning, and he coughed and spat it out.
‘Not to worry lad,’ Johnny said laughing loudly and rubbing Colin on the back. ‘I was the same when I had my first one.’
Tears in his eyes, snot and whiskey coming out of his nose and still coughing, Colin couldn’t help laughing along.
At two Colin asked if he should go and let Johnny know the news. What news? they answered, Frieda’s condition having changed little in the previous hour, but still it would get the boy out from under their feet. It wasn’t for another taste of the whiskey but he was drawn to Johnny. He was different from all the other people Colin knew, who were serious and talked mostly about the weather and church and who was getting married to who.
When he got down to the house, he was surprised to find that Johnny wasn’t on the front step anymore. He wandered round the back and found him sitting on the ground with his back against the wall of the house, his eyes closed. He seemed to be asleep, and Colin didn’t want to wake him, but equally didn’t want to go back up the hill straight away. Just as he was about to go, he saw Johnny’s eyes open and look straight at him. Caught in his gaze, Colin felt his stomach turn; the eyes didn’t show any signs of recognition. Then Johnny gave his face a rub, shook his head once or twice, and his face cracked into a smile.
‘Give me a hand up, lad. I’ve got something to show you,’ he said.
Colin went over and took hold of the large hand Johnny offered him. It felt leathery and hard, but he pulled on it and Johnny started rising, but then his weight pulled him back to the ground, with Colin almost on top of him. They tried again, and this time with the aid of Johnny’s other hand pushing against the wall of the house, they got him upright. He wavered for a few moments, then found his feet and gripped Colin’s shoulders, looking at him with meaning.
‘Watch this, my boy, just watch this.’
From out of his pocket Johnny took two L-shaped metal rods that looked like wire coat hangers, except they had wooden handles. He held them out in front of him, his elbows pressed against the sides of his body.
‘What you do, you see, is you hold them angled down slightly, so they have to go against gravity to cross. And when they do, that’s where the water is.’
With surprising steadiness, Johnny started walking forwards, his head at an angle so that he was looking at a spot about two feet in front of him. Colin walked sideways beside him, watching the metal rods. After six or seven steps, he saw the wires move towards each other and then cross. Johnny looked at him with triumph in his eyes. He stepped backwards, they uncrossed, then forwards again and they crossed once more.
‘Now, I know that there are water pipes here,’ he dug his heel into the ground, ‘because when the water board came, they couldn’t find them, so they asked me to.’
Colin looked at him with a new sense of respect.
‘Here, lad, you have a go,’ he said, and his eyes weren’t laughing. He rocked slightly, but kept looking steadily at Colin, his hand outstretched, offering the divining rods. Colin stepped forward and took them gingerly, and felt the warm wood settle into the palms of his hands.
At five Colin was sent down the hill to fetch Johnny back. Frieda was in trouble. Colin knew that from the look on their faces and the way they were talking, but he could also tell from Frieda herself. There was something about her, the way she was breathing, the hopeless look in her eyes. When he got down there, Johnny’s house was quiet and there seemed to be no one around. Johnny wasn’t on the front step or round the back, and he couldn’t see Mrs Dey in the kitchen when he stood on a log and pressed his nose to the window. He decided to knock at the back door. There was no answer, so he knocked again and called out, but the house remained silent. He didn’t want to go in, but the image of Frieda came into his head and he knew he couldn’t go back, not without Johnny. So he pushed the door open and stepped inside.
It was cooler than before but still dark. He crept along the corridor towards the front room. At the doorway he stopped and peered inside. It looked just the same, with the newspapers and bits of machinery, but a clock he hadn’t noticed before was ticking loudly somewhere. Then near a corner he saw a chair with Johnny slumped in it. His head had fallen forward and one arm was stretched awkwardly over the side of the chair, on the floor below was a glass on its side. He walked towards the chair, and was relieved to hear the sound of Johnny’s breathing as he got close.
‘Mr Dey,’ he whispered. ‘Mr Dey, it’s Frieda. They say you’ve got to come.’
Johnny didn’t move. Colin gritted his teeth, then repeated himself more loudly. Still nothing. He shouted, and Johnny stirred, then was still, so he shouted again, and this time shook Johnny by the shoulders and he finally woke up.
‘What’s going on?’ he said blearily.
‘They say you’re needed. For Frieda, up at Marjorie’s,’ Colin replied breathlessly. Johnny grunted an answer and got up and stood swaying. Colin waited, but when Johnny didn’t move, he started edging towards the door as if to encourage him, saying he thought they should hurry. Johnny started moving and followed Colin out of the house. Up the hill he could see Marjorie’s blackhouse, long and low with its new tin roof glinting in the evening light. On the way, Colin kept encouraging Johnny with little movements and comments of how they were nearly there, like he was coaxing the township bull back to its field, all the time desperately aware of how long it was taking and that on his own he could have made the journey in an instant.
At half six, Colin led Johnny out of the blackhouse, both the cow and her calf doing well. Johnny’s hands had seemed to know what they were doing, like the hands of the girls who gutted the mackerel. It was hard to believe, looking at the enormous figure walking next to him. On the brow of the hill they stopped and looked out across The Minch. Close to shore they could see small islands where seals basked, and further out the jagged outline of the outer isles on the horizon. Johnny was lost in his own world, and somehow the sun seemed to be passing right through him like a stained glass window. Then Johnny looked up to where the stars were emerging in the sky.
‘Wouldn’t it be something to catch them,’ Johnny said, half to Colin half to himself. ‘Catch them and sew them so they’d grow diamonds. Great big diamonds hanging on trees, and all you need to do is go and pick them off like apples.’ He stretched up, standing on tip toes, imagining what it would be like to pluck the stars from the sky. And Colin watched as Johnny’s fingers grasped delicately for the small dots of light, half expecting him to catch one.