Story: Beatrice

This is one of the first stories I ever wrote, and I still love it. I can’t remember what prompted me to create a story about two monks leaving their monastery and retreating to Moscow as Napoleon’s army advanced. It was only after I had written it that I found out that the invading army had arrived in Russia at the end of June 1812 and arrived in Moscow on 14th September, so the very clear picture I have in my mind of peasants retreating through the snow as their villages burned comes entirely from my imagination. Some things I do remember researching: the Cycle of prayer; the forty-day fast before Christmas; the hole made in the ice by the priests so that they could bless the water. Mostly I think I wanted to write a story about ‘incarnation’ and suggest that a woman who was a ‘follower of the camp’ could bring healing through her flesh.  


When our fear finally drove us north, I had no alternative but to take him with me. 

“You are like a son to me,” he said.

 In quieter times I had led him from the chapel, worried lest he slip and trip on the flagged stones riven by subterranean icy rivers. His blind eyes focused on nothing, and I used to think what a blessing he had been given, a gift.  Never to be distracted by the world outside – lost inside your soul – to go deeper inside oneself so that in the sacred place of that inner core something ineffable could emerge.

Sometimes, when the searing cold of those flagged stones splintered inside my limbs, I would shut my eyes and try to find that searching light in the darkness. It always eluded me. For me, faith was purely practical. If I could complete the tasks allotted to me, then God would fulfill his part of the bargain; that was the pledge.

‘Have faith’ he would say to me as I guided him through the narrow, dark doorways towards his cell. ‘Have faith – because one day she will find you.’

‘You live so peacefully with such mystery,’ I would answer. 

And I never knew whether he understood that for me there was no mystery; nothing but endless hours of sung words, the Cycle of Prayer, and of course interminable years of digging. Digging the sodden, fruitless earth. Each turn of the spade deep into the clogged ground was for me like each heavy word, the weight of the earth dragging my spine as the weight of each word dragged my soul into salvation.  I had all the words and so missed what was beyond words.

So when news came that we must take our few provisions and walk to Moscow, and there was nothing to take because the ground had given nothing, I went searching for him, determined to save something precious. It was as if he was the vessel that held the mystery. 

‘Napoleon’s army is advancing” I said when I found him.  ‘We have been ordered to take all we can – to leave nothing.’

His shrunken shoulders turned towards me, eyes that were not eyes, heavy with cloud. Hands, small like a child’s, clasping an icon. 

‘I will not leave her,’ he muttered. ‘Beloved.’ 

He lifted the square of wood so that I could see it. The gold paint shimmered, iridescent in the soft winter light. The face of Mary, head and shoulders draped in blue, the veil trimmed with tiny beads. Three stars to mark her virginity caught in a sudden shaft of light from the narrow window of his cell.

I understood and yet did not understand. Perhaps he could feel her beauty. Perhaps his sensitive fingers knew the contours of her body, the arch of her eyebrow, the rim of her gown, the outline of her thin fingers as her hands reached out to beckon the faithful to besotted devotion. 

He stumbled and I caught his arm, felt his thinness through the rough fabric of his robe. He thrust the icon further towards my face, as if suddenly aware of his own mortality and his inability to protect this precious thing to which he had given his life. 

‘Take it … wrap it … there’s a cloth on the bed.’

 He was becoming agitated. I could see the lines of anxiety etched on his brow and could smell the old-man smell, pungent with fear.  I was angry. I wanted to throw him and his precious icon on the ground.  I wanted to obliterate, to take the only thing that had given him comfort and to grind it to dust under my feet.

His Beloved? I had given twenty years of my life to devotion, but never love. This symbol of God’s grace was for me, just that, a symbol. I had looked and reasoned but never adored. And now this pitiful old man was asking me to save something that was just wood and paint, created long ago in better times, an image that he couldn’t even see.

And there had been better times. Times when we had felt safe and when I was full of hope. For years I had waited, determined to be patient and to keep searching. And there was always the ongoing battle to bring sustenance from the cold earth. In a strange way the digging and the planting had kept me sane when I was beginning to suspect that for me at least, there was to be no transcendent moment that would set my heart aglow, to put a fire in my belly that would sustain me.

It was on Christmas Eve, just as we were ending the forty-day fast, when the first group of refugees arrived at the monastery. They asked for food and told us that soldiers had ordered them north. They were to take all they could carry. When they looked back they could see their hovels burning in the freezing light.  The enemy must find nothing. No wood to burn, no grain, no livestock. We had a little dried bread. We gave them water, and on Christmas morning, they shuffled off into the bitter wind, the mystery of the incarnation, a cruel irrelevance.

But I took the icon, and I wrapped it. He heard the sounds of my work and I saw his face gently soften. 

We took the path to the lake, the path already trodden to slush. There would be a hole in the ice, made by the priests who went to bless the water, and there we could drink, and take an easier route north across the frozen water.

 At times it was all I could do to keep him upright. His body was heavy on my arm and his feet dragged in the mud.  

Mary, Mother of God, have mercy on us. Mary, Mother of God, have mercy on us, Mary, Mother of God, have mercy on us.

The prayer whispered again and again into the utter silence of the still, white world.  

When we rested as dark descended, on a piece of earth warmed where a doe had recently calved, I knew that he would not live through the night. His body curled, foetal-like, and I wondered about the womb that had given him birth, the mother who had suckled him at her breast, and the hard, unyielding body of the Virgin.  

I lay next to him and listened hour after hour to the agony of each breath. And then, sometime before dawn he spoke.

‘Confitemini Domino quoniam bonus.’

‘Trust in the Lord, for he is good.’

From the dawn sky, flakes of snow began to cover us – and I knew he had died. I stood and repeated his last words. Without looking back, I stepped back onto the path. 

I crossed the lake. The horizon was utterly flat, and I felt crushed by a sky so immense and oppressive that its weight bowed me to submit to its power.  Land that was bare save for the trees that lined the path – bent over from the wind, crabby and stunted like the old man whose body I had left in its tomb in the snow. And all the time I clutched the icon to my chest.

And then, in the evening – a church rises out of the land, huge and black against the palest pink of dusk.

I look across the expanse of snow, and in the doorway is a woman. The light comes from three candles; three stars against her breast, and her head and shoulders are draped in blue cloth.  And I know she is flesh – soft and warm, and I see her breath, mist in the cold air, and I see her eyes, clear, like water from a spring when the snow melts.

Somehow, I walk towards her. She leans forward and takes my hand, pulling me into the sacred darkness.  

‘I have made a fire in the stove,’ she says 

And now I know that death has been very close. She opens my robe and one by one, pulls my fingers away from the piece of wood. My flesh has been ravished and deadened by frost, but she seems quite unconcerned by the rankness of my body.  Like a mother she removes my clothes, and then she holds me so that the warmth of her body brings life back to mine. 

‘I follow the camp’ she says. 

And I am flooded with relief because I know she is not the dream I am afraid of. I look into her face, and I see the pain. I see the pain in her eyes that comes from resignation, from assent, again and again to a giving that again and again has caused her soul to scream.

 I had mistaken the three pricks of light at her breast for the Virgin’s stars of purity.  

 ‘My name is Beatrice’ she says.

Her words are numinous. A prayer hanging in the air.

I take the icon, remove the cloth, and place it on the altar. 



Winner of the ‘Dragon’s Pen’ award from The Glasgow Women’s Library.

She made up her mind to move whilst she was washing her hands in the ‘rest room’ of the crematorium. It was the dusty plastic gardenia arranged in a yellowing glass vase on the windowsill that hardened her heart. She looked at herself in the mirror. The face that looked back at her was oddly composed, as if she had arranged her features that morning whilst putting on her lipstick. Well, better keep it that way. No point in succumbing to emotion now.

A woman in a black coat, black gloves and a high black hat welcomed them into the chapel. She was very short and stood on her toes to speak. Sophie pictured Steve’s spirit hovering somewhere near the ceiling.  She imagined how the colour would drain from his pale face when he saw that his wife had chosen a firm of funeral directors run by women. But then, since her son had been born he had always looked cross.   

‘For my own peace of mind,’ the woman was saying, ‘For my own peace of mind, I have to ask you to make sure that your mobile phones are switched off for the duration.’  

For her peace of mind, Sophie thought, why did she need peace of mind? It wasn’t as if it was the body of her husband they were sending into the furnace. What if she, the widow, now that she was ontologically changed, decided to take a phone call just as the curtains were closing? 

Surely, if she wanted to, on this day of all days, she could do anything she liked. She could pull down the arrangements of pallid silk lilies that hung in bleached wicker baskets on either side of the aisle. She could run outside, where the trees were drunk with colour as if they had sucked up barrels of burgundy and vats of yellow sherry, and gather up armfuls of amber oak and copper beech and bronzed ash.  She could cover the floor with branches and throw handfuls of rusty red leaves on the coffin.  She could take off all her black clothes and tie her teal coloured bra and panties to the handles.  She could remind his friends that she had once been strawberry blonde. Her pubic hair was still as ginger as the day they had married. 

When it was all over, and his friends had eaten sandwiches and sipped champagne in the front room, she and Freddy stood and watched the last car back out of the paved area in front of the house. Twenty years ago, Steve had insisted that they cover the whole garden with concrete, ‘so we won’t have the effort of a lawn.’ Only Steve’s Honda had used the space, until eventually they had put up a basketball net above the garage door.  At least that had meant that Freddy’s school friends had come to play with him.  She had wanted more children, but Steve had put his foot down after Freddy was born. So she had moved out of their bedroom and into the guest room.  

She turned and looked up at her son. ‘I’m moving out. You can have this house if you want it … or sell …. I’m going as soon as I can.’  

His dark eyes smiled back at her and she touched his cheek.  His silky skin as nut brown as the conkers he had hoarded as a child.

She didn’t wait for a reply, but went inside and climbed the stairs, noticing that the beige carpet was worn on every alternate tread, as if the occupants of the house had been at pains to keep their imprint to a minimum. She crossed the landing towards the room she had slept in, and then on an impulse, opened the door to the master bedroom. 

She pulled back the curtains. The day before she had taken out all Steve’s suits and laid them on the candlewick bedspread. Methodically, she began to search the pockets. She looked through the chest of drawers, and then under the bed and then finally stood on a chair to look on top of the wardrobe. She lifted down a box. The disturbed dust danced in a shaft of autumn sunshine.  

As she lifted off the lid, she guessed what she would find inside.  For twenty-five years she had refused to think about that time and that place, certain that if she locked away the memory and refused to go near it, she could keep it safe and unsullied, a golden memory to be treasured in a life of drab grey. 

She pulls out some documents, and a photograph of her and Steve standing outside a painted house by the sea. It must have been taken soon after they were married, because in the picture she is holding Steve’s hand.  She rummages through the papers. So he never sold the yellow house, she thinks. After they moved away, she never asked. She had known that to talk about it, to talk about anything, was too dangerous.  

She bundles up the papers and puts them back in the box. She can still remember the telephone number. She picks up the phone on the bedside table and dials. A woman’s voice says hello.

‘Hi, my name is Sophie Drake,’ says Sophie. ‘My husband was Steve Drake. He has died and so I now own the house you are renting. Can you tell me how long you still have to go on your contract?’ 

‘We will be moving out in a month,’ says the woman. ‘My husband has a job down south. Didn’t meet your husband. We’ve only dealt with the agents.’

Sophie puts down the phone and crosses to the window, pushing it open. The sun is setting and the buildings behind the house are silhouetted against a salmon pink sky. She breathes deeply.  The air smells of wood-smoke from a neighbour’s bonfire. A month is just long enough to pack.


The First Attack: 16 October 1939

A short story. 70 years ago tomorrow…

She stood on the platform at Haymarket and waited. Someone will come and help, she thought. The afternoon was cool, but the train brought with it a blast of warm air heavily laden with dust and the acrid smell of burning coke. Her heart sank as each coach passed by, finally coming to a stop too far away for her to clamber aboard with her bags. Then a young lad came up. 

‘Can I help with those?’ He pointed to the bags.

She nodded and he dragged them along the ground to catch up with the train.  He reached the last carriage and hauled one bag and then the other up and onto the high step. The guard was blowing his whistle when the boy grabbed her hand and pulled her on board. 

She gasped for breath, and her head spun so she sat down where she was on the hard floor. 

‘Are you all right? Are you …?’  He couldn’t finish the question. ‘I could get help?’

She smiled and shook her head. 

‘I’m here, that’s all that matters. You are very kind. My bags are heavy.’

‘Can I help you to a seat? 

He didn’t look any older than sixteen and had a thin face with extraordinarily blue eyes and hair like stubbly stalks of hay.  He helped her stand as the train began to pick up speed and he pulled back the door of an empty compartment and helped her inside.

‘I’ll lift your bags onto the luggage rack.’  

She managed to steady herself and sit down. The boy sat opposite. 

They both stared out of the window.  At first they saw rows of blackened tenements and dismal backyards strangled with washing lines. An old mangle and a rusty bike had been abandoned on an embankment. But soon there were flat fields of ploughed earth and the horizon opened up under an immense sky of steel grey. A flock of starlings furled and unfurled, disappearing into a copse of yellowing oak trees.  Lilly settled back into her seat and allowed herself a long-drawn-out sigh. For the boy it was too much.

‘Are you sure you’re all right? 

‘Don’t worry, not due for a month. Where are you heading?’

‘Dundee. Dad’s got a job there. Commercial traveller, sells soap.’

‘I’m going to Leuchars. If you’ll give me hand with my bags when I get off I’ll give you sixpence.’

The boy suddenly stood up and pointed to the sky. An aeroplane came into view. It flew alongside the train and then looped off towards the north. It was dark green with a yellow circle painted on the body. 

‘Spitfire,’ he said. That’s what I’m going to do. Be a pilot.’ He kept watching the plane until it disappeared. 

‘Have you ever been up in an aeroplane?’ asked Lilly. 

‘Nope. But I’ll get a chance one day.’

‘That’s what my husband does. Fly spitfires I mean. He’s based at Turnhouse. The 603. Perhaps one day he could let you see inside one.’

The lad’s cheeks turned pink and the blue of his eyes intensified.

‘Do you think he would?’

The train curved northwards, and the afternoon sun broke through the clouds.  They approached the bridge and leaning her head against the window, Lilly could see ahead of them the rust red arches.  She closed her eyes and felt the familiar fluttering inside her belly. 

She opened them with a start when the train screeched to a stop and the boy was thrown across the compartment onto her lap. The weight of his body against her chest left her gasping for breath. As she pushed back he stumbled and fell on the floor, banging his face on the wooden edge of the seat. Blood began to pour from his nose. Her heart beat wildly, as if desperate not to deprive her baby of oxygen. 

They were under the first arch, and outside she saw men half climbing, half jumping from scaffolding. Even from that distance she could see fear in their eyes.

The boy struggled to his feet, rubbing his face with a handkerchief. As the train finally shuddered to a halt, he pulled back the compartment door and went out into the corridor and looked downstream. 

Lilly was still shaking. And then she felt a tightening across her stomach. It was painful, and the shock made her cry out. 

The boy ran back inside. ‘You’re hurt. I’ll find someone.’ His nose had begun to bleed again and he wiped it with his sleeve.

They heard the drone of an engine coming nearer and nearer, until it seemed as if their eardrums would burst. Both of them instinctively slid between the 

seats to the floor. Lilly found herself holding his hands. When the next contraction came she squeezed hard. 

A long thin aeroplane with a triangular fin came into view. It was flying parallel with the bridge and they could see the gunner in his cockpit at the back.

‘Ouch,’ he said, pulling his hands away, and then with another look out at the sky, ‘Germans.’

At the same time, an explosion and a huge plume of water rose into the air and then seconds later, the grinding of train wheels as the train jerked and began to roll forward. Someone must have decided it was safer to be off the bridge. 

‘We’re moving again,’ Lilly whispered to herself. She began to cry and wrapped her arms around her baby. Again, a plane passed them, this time so close they could see the pilot in his cockpit. They saw the single engine of a spitfire. 

‘The 603,’ shouted the boy. ‘Up and at ‘em.’

A minute later the train was over the bridge on its way to Dundee. 

‘So it’s begun,’ sighed Lilly.

She felt another contraction, but this time not so strong. 

‘What’s your name?

‘Sandy,’ he said. He was pacing the carriage up and down. 

‘Same as my husband,’ she said, cradling her bump.