As soon as we heard the news, I wheeled my bicycle out of the shop yard and cycled down to the shore-houses. I didn’t wait for Ander. He was still talking with Wilson Milt at the counter. I didn’t want to delay any longer than I had to. It was my first unwinding.
“Aye, it wis yesterday she went,” said Wilson Milt, shaking his salt-cured head with an air of the serves ‘em right. “Sank into her chair in the green front, and never got up again all night nor day. By the time her mother called for her brother the doctor, they reckon she wis already gone.” He shrugged. He was halfway up the stepladder, arms outstretched for the tins, old shoulders hard. I couldn’t tell how much of that stiff posture was advanced age, and how much simple indifference. He would be along in his own time for the unwinding, people usually were. And Ander would no doubt follow him, sploshing at the fore or aft of his elderly meandering, still in his green rubber boots. Ander loved Wilson Milt with (I thought) an entirely disproportionate fervour.
The road to the shore house was yellow and clayish with January rain. The skies, which had been a depthless grey since mid-November, cast their light darkly on the island. The first or second day of this weather, I had gone through to Rilla’s little room to find her staring out of the window. “Mummy,” she said, “why do all the colours look darker than they should” I dressed her in her red coat, and her green pinafore, and I turned on all of the electric lights that day. But I couldn’t find an answer for her. When Ander came home to find us baking gingerbread with extra ginger—my silly attempt to replace colour with taste—he took me to one side and reminded me that this couldn’t go on. “How will we afford this all winter?” he pleaded, one hand poised to extinguish the porch light. And we couldn’t. So we didn’t. I taught Rilla how to light fires with dead newspapers, and she spent hours staring into our stove, mouth slightly open, colouring book abandoned in her lap.
My tires skidded to a halt at the gatepost of the shore-house. Only a stub of garden and a low wall separated it from the decline of cliff face, the pebble beach and the encroaching sea. Two dull granite faces, and at the end, daring everything, the green front. The story went that when the three homes were built in 1876, it was the inland house that was painted pale green—there was a photograph to this effect in the island museum, though of course all colours then were reduced to blacks and greys, and could have been anything at all. Over the generations, said the fanciful, the little green house took to restlessness—to moving. Another photograph, this one from 1962, showed the middle house lit by high sun, pale green. And when we’d come, the green front was the green front as if it was ever thus, balanced precariously on the edge of the crumbling cliff face. Some people called it the Runaway House. “One day,” Bea the museum attendant told Rilla, “the green front will take to its travels again, and then there will only be two shore-houses. So what do you make of that?” Rilla just tossed her red curls, a gesture she had picked up in city infancy and never lost.
I dreamed for weeks of the green front, standing up on its spindly timber legs and striding to the island’s edge, stepping over pine trees and ancient boulders and diving off the edge, swimming back to the mainland, or on further north. I sketched this vision repeatedly, in pencil and inks and watercolour, even selling a few—one to the museum, three to visitors, two on the internet. All the others had gone into my sketchbook. They would be good research, I said, for when we go back and I—and then stopped, knowing that we weren’t. Ander’s initial pleasure in my fascination with the local colour turned slowly to worry. “Don’t you think you need a new subject?” he said, delicately lifting his fingers from a still-wet watercolour, to press my temples and smooth back my hair.
Today I would have a new subject.
I realised, with one hand on the gate, having already chained up my bike, that I didn’t actually know anyone who lived in the green front. Suddenly, after the liberation of leaving Wilson Milt’s, I missed Ander. His ease, his sociability, his knownness would make my being there alright. With his hand on me, I was enveloped in his homecoming aura. It helped me belong more than three-quarters of a year resident in the place ever could.
I wondered how a native would manage the etiquette of an unwinding. Could I go up and ask for a glass of water and then, in the kitchen, add “oh—by the way…”? Of course not. It might all be happening in the kitchen anyhow. It depended on which room had the best light, I’d read. I’d read. What a typical, intellectualising interloper. Not for the first time since school had started back, I wished Rilla was hanging on my arm. A woman and her child were made welcome here wherever they were from. But that was selfish too of course. This wasn’t a day’s work I wanted Rilla’s eyes to be clouded with.
Standing for a few minutes, getting cold, I deliberated. What I wanted was for Ander to crunch and squelch up the drive behind me, even if it meant seeing his bike piled higgledy in the open back of Wilson Milt’s aged Range Rover. I turned to stare back up the gentle hill. Rivulets of rainwater meandered through the clay and pebbles, but no sound or sight of Milt’s rusty machine followed them. When I looked back to the house, someone was watching me from the doorway.
“Here for the unwinding?” The call across the garden was flattened by the damp air. Still I started and blinked. This, it seemed, was brother-the-doctor. “You’ll be among the first,” he said, beckoning me into the green front and hanging my coat for me. “It’s always the newcomers that show up on time,” he added, gesturing for me to climb the white painted steps. I hesitated. “Can I... do you think I could get a glass of water... First?”
“Of course. I’m sorry.” He led me through a door into a spacious, but reassuringly dim kitchen. The table was scrubbed and clean, but it was empty. No...paraphernalia. Handing me a clear glass of water—a very different thing to our peat-clouded source—he asked after Rilla, and for Ander’s mother. I realised, with an ecstatic shudder of awkwardness, that while I was still groping for his family name, this man knew all about my life on the island. Slipping in desperation into a specific register which islanders adopt when speaking to medical men, I doctored him again and again, as I tried to ask all the right questions:
“And how is your mother, doctor?”
“I suppose, doctor, it’s been a long and a difficult night for you?”
“Should we not wait for some others to get here before it begins, doctor?”
On and on I wittered, groping for the correct tone of voice while he listened and responded, apparently entirely at his ease. Outside myself, I began to hear soft footsteps creaking up the stairs on the other side of the kitchen door. I was almost at the bottom of my water glass, when a head peeped round, followed by shoulders dressed in cloying green and reflector tape. A paramedic. “Mike,” he grimaced, “I’m sorry but we have to get started soon,or—”.
“I know,’ said the doctor as we followed him out. ‘It’s not what it used to be, you know. Families have been doing unwindings here for generations. It’s only nowadays that we have to be observed. For ethics, they say. In our own community. It’s not right.”
“Come on Mike,’ said the paramedic, puffing at the first landing, “you’re a young man still, and a man of science. Have you no appreciation for why these directives exist?” The doctor ignored him. Instead he asked for my thoughts on anthropology and island life, and I made the right noises about the local folklore. In truth, these were the same vague ideas I’d expressed to my agent on the mainland months earlier. I hadn’t told her that the only thing I’d engaged with in the place was a silly wives’ tale about this house, and I kept quiet about it now. He seemed convinced. “We need more of your sort around here,” he told me, smiling. Fraud.
We reached the top of the house, the last flight of stairs leading onto an unadorned door. The green front was deceptively tall. All the interiors were painted very white and clean, with dark furnishings of many generations’ inheritance. Ander’s mother’s house was much the same. Caught up in the doctor’s conversation, I realised I had once again forgotten all about Ander. “Do you think we could wait for my husband?” I asked, one hand poised on the door handle, as I glanced back down the stairs to one of the little porthole windows, “He’ll be along I know. I think he’s getting a lift off Wilson Milt.”
“Milt?” the doctor frowned, “No I don’t think so. Milt doesn’t hold with our traditions, even in the name of preserving the culture. He’s stubborn as the devil, and fifty years of salt-swallowing has turned what wits he has. He’s no love for us at the green front, nor us for him. If Ander’s coming along, he’ll be coming alone.”
“In any case,” said the grimacing paramedic, “the clock is against us. I’m sure it’ll be a good story to tell at your supper table tonight, missus.” And with that, he shouldered past us both, deciding the matter.
“Please” said the doctor, politely gesturing me to follow. Torn, I took a last glance back. There were no dots on the hill signifying Milt’s rust furred car or Ander’s red bicycle. The wind was lifting, throwing the rain more forcefully against the exterior of the house. Perhaps Ander and the old man had got caught up in one of their interminable discussions of sealant and varnish and had decided to stay behind. I couldn’t very well wait outside in that blast. Ander would just have to see to himself. I don’t know why, but for some reason it never occurred that I could wait out the weather comfortably in the green front’s warm kitchen. In that moment, it seemed I was either in or out, a part of the unwinding, or standing alone, aslant the rain, waiting for my husband.
The room was whitewashed, unheated, lit by an immense, skylight. It was damn cold. I noticed that even beneath the layers of locally sourced woollens and mainland cottons that I—along with everybody else on the island—was wearing. My goosebumps chafed against all the padding. I suppose I was expecting it to be funeral, or what passed in my head for funereal: aged ten, filing past the husk of my grandfather as part of a mourning procession of black bows, myself and many sisters and cousins all reduced to so many sets of sleek pigtails. But it wasn’t like that at all. Nothing was dead, for one thing. Not nominally dead, anyway.
She was lying on another of the green front’s great tables. It was lovingly polished and evidently kept for best. She was unclothed except for a white cotton nightdress. The doctor murmured “Sarah, my sister,” and took his seat at the end of the table, nearest her head. In accounts and stories about unwindings, it’s always the eyes people talk about. But what I noticed first, was that the tips of her fingers and toes were bruised blue by the cold in the room. Her arms, which had been arranged to lie naturally at her sides, were ridged at the tops with goosebumps. Her breath was too faint even to noticeably raise her chest, but in the hollow of her throat, I could see the lightest fluttering of pulse. In fact, it accentuated, rather than detracted from the deadness of her. She was too immobile, too impossibly vacant, to be a still-living creature. Something must already have made its nest in her, I thought. I waited, expectant. But no tricksome chuckle to catch me out as it did so often in the kirk, or the community meeting. But no, the doctor was taking his sister’s pulse, lowering his own cropped head over the soft, dark mass of her hair to lay his cheek against her and feel her slight breaths. And he was muttering data to the paramedic, who was writing it all down on a clipboard with carbon paper underneath.
The forms of an unwinding, I learned later, are filled out in triplicate—one to the nearest hospital for record, one to the university for study, and one to the community museum, where they are archived for posterity.
Through all of this, we stood in a respectful silence; old-sense awful. The little group was preoccupied with not looking at her eyes. To do so wouldn’t be right, not while her signs of life were still being squared away. Then it was the gesture of the hand towards the tools. The first silvered instrument. Perfectly clean. The first bite and the crack and the surgical motion. I don’t know if I was expecting barbarity. Instead—the reverent reaching.
Each islander taking their portion and lifting it solemnly in cupped hands.
The doctor’s sister, unwinding.
The hot, shimmering steam and the hungry iron smell that filled the room.
The dear lassie, free of her trouble.
I did not anticipate that being free of trouble would like that. Meticulous. I did not think the thing would be done quite in that way. I did not think I would participate. I did not think. You do not think, at the unwinding. A deep red life takes hold of you. The eyes, in the end, are the things which catch you. You are not meant to look, I’d read. But they catch you.
Indeed they do.
I wondered afterwards, whether the doctor’s mother kept her daughter’s long, rich hair. I wondered what it would have looked like, after the unwinding. I wondered if the colour would stay. You never wonder these things at the time.
Ander arrived as everyone was shaking hands at the door and paltering off home. He arrived, as I‘d known he would, with Wilson Milt. I was leaning on the gate post, looking up at the green front. I suppose I was thinking about the story—about what I would tell to Rilla, later. I suppose I was thinking that. Ander did not speak to me. He had got his fill of talking with Wilson Milt in the car, I suppose. He frowned at me, then at the house, then back again, and then he started roughly hauling my bicycle into the flatbed of Wilson Milt’s jeep.
It was Milt who came and spoke to me. He detached my hands, one by one, from the gate post. I had yellow grit and some other thing under my fingernails. He stood rather close, and he smelled of house paint and the sea. When both my hands were free of the gatepost, he pressed something soft into the left one.
“You’ve something on your face,” he told me, and started walking back to the jeep with his meandering, elderly walk. I pressed the handkerchief to my mouth. Something lumpish, curdling in the corner. We went home and put Rilla to bed, and I stood at the window with a cup of tea looking out to where I knew the green front was. Somewhere beyond the dark outside the window. Until the tea got cold.
It is not like becoming lost in a painting. It is not like getting lost in thought. You are not abstracted for a moment from reality. You do not exist. You do not exist when you are in the airiest window of the house. You do not exist as you play with your child. You do not exist in the kirkyard in Summer as you dance a reel with your husband. You do not exis, whether he kisses you, or whether he frowns. You do not exist when he starts packing away your things. People who do not exist do not have any things. You do not exist in the ancestral home on the island and you do not exist in a tenement on the mainland. There is the unwinding. It is a folk ritual. It has happened for hundreds of years. There is the unwinding. It happens inside by degrees every day of your life, and you do not exist and you do not exist and you do not exist. There was an entire archive devoted to the unwinding. An entire archive, and they did not know this.
I tell my daughter stories at the window. I make paintings for the mainland. Sometimes I sell them on the internet. I draw meticulously square squares and colour them grey in watercolour and I number them, and I write to my agent about Malevich whom I once loved and other such flannel and I do not exist and I fool them all, every single one, except...
the green front will take to its travels
there will only be two shore-houses,
crumbling into the creepy-washy sea.
Maybe the next day.
And one day there will be nothing.
So what do you make
HELEN VICTORIA MURRAY is a writer, poet and literary critic based in Glasgow. Her writing is concerned with subjective experience; fleshly and ephemeral things. She is a current MRes candidate at the University of Glasgow, specialising in Neo-Victorian literature and culture.