The Lemon Tree Writers are an enthusiastic group of poets, storywriters, novelists and playwrights mainly based in Aberdeen and surrounding areas; though their origins are from far and wide. They meet fortnightly (virtually) to discuss their writing and share their work. Click here to see more of the group’s work and see below for my contributions.
Red and the Pig
‘Red and the Pig’ was a story I had published in 2018 by the Lemontree Writers, alongside other eleven other writers, into a short publication.
Once upon a time in a story, lived a girl called Red Riding Cloak, Red for short. She lived with her Uncle above a silvery bend of the River Don. She kept white doves, and a pet pig. The doves cooed when she fed them grain and the pig followed her around which was good because her uncle was not much company. Red loved this place above the river near Kemnay. She enjoyed looking down to where the trees bent over to look at themselves in the river and up at the dove-patterned sky. She worked hard helping her uncle gardening and tidying. She was happy.
Red’s Uncle was not so happy. He was an astronomer but he was an anxious astronomer. Every day and every night he concentrated on looking at the sky through a telescope from one end of the house. He told Red that very soon an asteroid was due to crash into the earth and pulverise the world. It was as though he thought that just by looking up he could keep that from happening. Red often told him there was no point in worrying about such a huge thing. But nothing changed. It was as if he couldn’t hear her and he continued to watch and worry, worry and watch. He left Red to do all the housework and the garden because watching and worrying takes a lot of time and effort. Unlike her uncle, Red Riding Cloak wasn’t a worrier but like her uncle she was good at watching. She loved letting her doves fly free so she could follow their curved white shapes spiraling in the sky.
All summer long she paddled and swam in the river Don. In the deeper pools the water was cold but she enjoyed the feeling of chilly water on her warm skin. As autumn arrived she wandered the woodland pathways gathering nuts, chanterelles and blackberries. She watched the last honeybees flying to their hives, and saw an otter swimming from his holt. It was as if she were part-river, part tree with only a little left over to be girl.
One November day Red Riding Cloak’s uncle told her that their money was running low so they must tighten their belts. He pointed to her pet that had followed her into the house. ‘That pig is costing us money,’ he said, ‘it must go’.
‘Go? Go where?’ said Red who was somewhat innocent about the source of ham, sausages and bacon. ‘You’ll see.’ replied her uncle darkly.
Late autumn in Kemnay that year was especially lovely. Day after day the Larches were backlit by low sunshine and the Beech trees turned orangey gold. Early one morning in November when Red went out to scatter corn for the doves, she saw that in the night a hoar frost had covered the all the branches and the grass with feathery crystals. She stood by that bend in the river Don not far from Kemnay and realized her world had been made completely perfect: frost white, sky blue, tree gold. The only sounds she could hear were the tiny noises the birch leaves made when they separated from their twigs and fell, bink tink… bink dink ….bink tink.
When she went back inside to tell him…. Red Riding Cloak’s uncle didn’t want to listen to stories about small noises and frosty sparkle and he gruffly interrupted her: ‘Go and find some nuts, crab apples and garlic so I can prepare a tasty stuffing, I am very hungry’. When he said the word ‘stuffing’ Red Riding Cloak could see that he was looking at her pig and then at the knife drawer. Suddenly the penny dropped and she felt it fall ‘clink clonk’ right down inside her ‘bink bonk’. She was still clever enough to reply carefully though, ‘Yes-Uncle-I-will-do-that-for you-and-I-will-be-back… later.’ With that she put on her red cloak and when she bent to pick up her basket by the door she whispered to the pig: (who was looking as worried as a pig can)… ‘Chin up chum, you are not going to be chops with chips …go on… scarper…skedaddle!’ She threw a crust of bread as far as she could towards the woods and the pig trotted off in that direction. Red herself went down to the River Don and along the bank. She started to cross on the usual stepping-stones hoping to get help at Kemnay but that day the rocks were icy. Oh no, she missed her footing and slipped! She dropped her basket and fell ker-splash into the deep part of the river. She tried to swim against the current but her clothes dragged her down. Just as she began to make headway and was nearly over to the bank her red cloak snagged on a low branch and she became entangled. She struggled but she was caught up, stuck, quite out of luck. Oh drat and botheration’, she thought, this is it, write my obit, it’s a drag but I’m snagged… it’s curtains for Riding Cloak!
However… as it happened the pig had seen her fall in. It had been following Red along the bank. It waded into the water to snuffle at her, probably hoping for another crust. Seeing that she had no tit-bit and unaware of the crisis it turned away but Red was quick and grabbed its curly tail. ‘Ouch’ it oinked and tried to swim away as fast as it could, inadvertently pulling Red clear of the branch, leaving her cloak hanging.
Now that might just have been the end of the story and we might say PHEW! Thank goodness …Red is saved…we can unwind, relax, look about and pout while we watch her glide to the bank and drag herself out.
Yes and if that was the end, she would have been a little bit muddy but in no time she’d be up at the house with eiderdowns and a hot drink. Her uncle would have been so relieved that she had come to no harm he would have relented on the pig-eating question; he wasn’t really a bad man.
But let us take a story twist and say no…. back at the river ….the adventure wasn’t over for Red Riding Cloak. Before we could say ‘Mochachino with Marshmallows’, Pig and girl were swept off down the rapids, tumbling and tossing downstream, around the corner, under the Shakkin Briggie and awaaay out of sight. Oh dear, O dear … Red’s tidy story world has gone pear-shaped… we’ll have to bid her a sad farewell again. ‘Goodbye Red, Goodbye Pig’.
But stop, lets pull that story around as if by its nose and say that later on when his sky watching and worrying was over for the day Red’s uncle went down to the river looking for her and the pig. He was most likely still hoping for a roast dinner with a tasty stuffing. He searched the woods for the pig and he went down to the river. It was there he saw the basket upturned by the stepping-stones. Out in the river he saw her wet red cloak tangled on a low branch. From those clues he deduced that she had drowned, gone, gone forever, and he was very sad. Now he would have to do his own housework and have less time to worry about the stars. Co-incidentally, on that very day the asteroid he was worrying about did approach the earth, but he missed seeing it, because he was looking down the river wishing he had been nicer to his niece… He should have owned a ‘retrospectoscope’ as well as a telescope … but for him it was too late for looking back and trying to change things.
So there we are, end of story, a sad ending for everyone… sniff, sigh,
close book, kiss goodnight and tiptoe downstairs.
But you’re not asleep yet so let’s go back to Red and take her story even further. Let’s say she was not drowned, not drowned at all. No, a waaaaay down the river she was still holding on tightly to the Pig. You see pigs are good swimmers, and Red Riding Cloak had managed to grab onto its warm ears, lie along it’s back and the two of them were able to float and swim down the icy river avoiding the rocks and the tree roots. Of course it was cold, very cold, but pigs are warm creatures especially when they have been well fed on crusts and blackberries. Red relished every moment of the river journey down to Inverurie lying on the back of her pig, reveling in the view from the middle of the river and holding on very tightly to those big flat, hairy ears.
When they got out at Port Elphinstone, Red hugged the pig and thanked him while he shook the water off his hairy hide. She then hoisted herself back onto the pig and rode into the town of Inverurie. The friendly people there were tickled pink to see a girl riding a pig, with white birds flying overhead.
Yes yes, white birds overhead. You see Red Riding Cloak’s doves had seen the splashy ker-fuffle upriver and after flying pointlessly in circles as doves often do, they had followed Red down river calling to her mournfully. ‘Take your shoes, your shoes, Take your shoes – with you’.
In Inverurie, Red, the pig, and the doves were taken to the people’s hearts and well looked after. Red Riding cloak was given a warm green cloak to replace the one she had lost and she even changed her name. What do you think they called her?
Yes… they …did…and we can absolutely, definitely and without a scrap of doubt say that Green Riding Cloak lived there happily- ever- after.
That really is the end of the story except to mention that if only Red had kissed the pig instead of thanking him politely, he might have turned into a handsome fairy-tale prince, but Red was wise to that one, and much preferred to be followed around by a pig.
Back in Kemnay, you can still see rags from her scarlet cloak hanging from trees or floating down the River Don in the autumn or are they maple leaves? And through the branches above that silvery bend in the River Don quite near Kemnay you can still see a house with an overgrown garden. You won’t see doves in the sky there though because they all live in Inverurie now. There is just a sad lonely man who sits and stares upwards while he worries and watches an empty sky.
Grandma Comes to Tea
While exploring what the grandmother experience is today, I wrote the following ‘grandma story’. It is an attempt to write an alternative narrative about the relationship between grandchild and grandmother. One that doesn’t conform to those written, illustrated, and published commercially. Having read forty-seven picture books that are currently in the primary school library system in Michigan, I see a grandma emerging that seems more dream that reality. She is wise, traditional and skilful, living somewhere ‘other’, on her own, helpfully bridging the generations, while magically solving problems. These books, written by adults use recreated, loving memories of their childhood grandmother. They reference traditional storytelling and fairy story, and contain proven, successful, delicious, imagery. These grandma idylls arrive at a child’s bedside though a selection process by publishers, librarians, parents, and grandmothers. I offer the idea that these are contributing to a social construct, a collective subconscious even, of the grandmother figure. They are building a character who is desired, understood and recognised, by family, in community, and perhaps it affects a grandmother’s image of herself too. Does it matter that it is part construct? I don’t know.
Here is my story deliberately aiming to be an outcast in the genre of grandmother books.
Emeline, Em for short, was waiting. She was sitting on the sunny part of the floor with Patch. She picked fluff off her tights and watched the tiny bits float away. Then a clicking sound made Patch bark. Em got up and ran over to the bay window. She lifted the edge of the curtain and saw her Grandmother, Gee-ma for short, closing the front gate.
She was pleased that she wouldn’t be on her own anymore, because Patch didn’t exactly count as company. She heard the metallic rattle of a key against the door. The door stayed shut. It just rattled again. Patch barked louder. Emeline went out to the hallway, stood on tiptoe so she could reach the latch and twisted it round.
‘Thanks Darlin, sometimes that key gets away from me.’ said her grandmother as she rustled in.
‘Scuse me,’ she added, and without stopping, pushed past Emeline and over to the downstairs toilet. Patch followed her in. Hoiking sounds that Em didn’t recognise, made her stare. Then the flush sounded and the door opened. ‘Sorry ’bout that.’ said her grandmother as she bent down to pick what looked like wet pieces of egg and tomato off Patch’s back. She straightened and saw she was being watched. ‘What are you looking at? I’m a bit poorly that’s all.’ Em thought the voice sounded cross. The smell that now floated around her grandmother reminded Emeline of something, but she couldn’t remember what.
‘Where’s yer Mum and Dad?’
‘They just said they had to go out,’ replied Em, ‘and you’d be coming over.’
‘Oh well that’s alright then…get me a snack would you? There’s a good girl. Anything in the biscuit tin? Any cheese or pickle? A bottle of beer? On second thoughts, I don’t think I could manage… pickle.’
Em went to the kitchen and pulled out the step-thing, so she could reach the biscuit tin.
Patch looked hopeful. She opened the tin by hugging it with one arm and getting all her fingers under the edge of the lid. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. This time it did and she reached in, took some biscuits out and put them on her own plastic plate. She heaved hard on the fridge door with her other hand to find the cheese and one of those brown bottles Dad likes. It was hard to balance and when fridge closed with a wumpf, the sloping plate shed a biscuit almost into Patch’s mouth. Carrying the biscuits and the bottle through to the sitting room was a challenge for Em. She concentrated by taking little steps even though she could do really big steps now. Patch followed her licking his chops. In the sitting room the bottle slipped out of her hand and Patch chased it across to the sofa. Grandma had her feet up. ‘That’s going to go off like a rocket when I open it.’ she said. Emeline wondered what a rocket had to do with anything.
‘Shall I draw you some pictures?’ Offered Em, because she was a kind girl.
‘Good idea’ said Gee-ma, munching on a custard cream and twisting the brown bottle top. Patch parked his puppy bottom where he could watch for crumbs falling. In a few minutes all was quiet again except for the scratchy sound of crayons on paper and grandma’s breathing. A bit like our leaky garden lilo, thought Em.
The daylight dimmed. Emeline could still see her paper. She was using her favourite blue and had a bit more careful sky to do. Gee-ma stopped the lilo noise and eased her legs to the floor. She pushed herself up. ‘I’m cold.’ she said ‘Light the fire would ya?’ Em couldn’t remember when the fire had last been lit. The door to the wood-burning stove was stiff but she managed to open it. ‘We’ll need something to start it.’ said Gee-ma. ‘Use those pictures Em.’ Em handed them over and watched Gee-ma twist them into spills. She could see the blue sky and some of the pink coloured house with the rainbow over it. Gee-ma had her feet back up and handed the spills over to Em. pointing to the to the stove. Em. was surprised. Normally her drawings went on the fridge door or even in a little frame. Starting a fire with them was new to her. ‘Chuck in your crayons as well,’ said her grandmother, ‘the wax burns pretty colours. Got any matches?’
‘Umm no’ said Em.
‘Use my cigarette lighter then.’ Her Grandmother demonstrated how to snap the flint. Em’s small hand found it difficult and she had to practice before she managed a spark. ‘Ouch’, she said a couple of times as a tiny flame nipped her finger. Sure enough her coloured pictures flared up nicely.
‘That’s better.’ said Gee-ma. Emmeline clambered up onto the sofa and the two of them lay back. Patch joined them. It was warm and Em’s eyelids drooped as she was lulled by the sound of her grandma’s breathing. It’s like the lilo again, she thought drowsily, but sounded gurgly, as if it was in the bath. Patch’s barking and more bottle noise, startled her awake. He had heard the click of the gate again and while he jumped down to bark at the front door, he had knocked the brown bottle. Em tried to lift her grandma’s arm. It felt heavy across her chest. She pushed but couldn’t move it. ‘Gee-ma…Gee-ma … Mum and Dad are home, come on Gee-ma, open your eyes.’
As a postscript I asked my librarian friend who chooses books for schools what she thought. No I wouldn’t buy it for children to read … this is after she had told me that she tries to find books that reflect all children’s experience of the world.
by Mary Cane, Researcher at Elphinstone Institute University of Aberdeen
We are all familiar with shortbread… it is eaten all over the world. It’s a simple good-natured foodstuff. Made from butter, sugar and flour it doesn’t even mind how it is mixed. The butter and flour can be delicately rubbed together with fingers before the sugar is added, it can be rudely food processed or the butter and sugar can be beaten together, and the flour added to the creamed mixture. All those methods will make a solid lump to knead, press and mould into a baking pan before baking in a medium oven for about 12 minutes. Shortbread should be cooked but not at all brown.
So far so easy, but what about its mystery name? We know a biscuit is baked, flat, crisp and usually sweet not short or bread-like. What is short about shortbread and why is it nothing like bread? It makes no sense.
‘Ah ha’ we might say to each other, ‘Isn’t it in language that we find out things about our history? Yes, because language has a long memory. Maybe if we travel back in time together, we could work out why short bread came to be given such a strange name.
Let’s go. Swoooooosh.
It is around seven hundred years ago. We are in a kitchen by a hearth. There are two children watching their mother baking. It is smoky and there isn’t a table. She has been making bread in a clay bowl balanced on her knees. You can smell baking. She has some of the mix left over and seeing her children’s hungry little faces she rolls it in some crushed hazelnuts, some caraway seeds and adds some honey. When the loaves come out, she puts it in the oven, and it’s left until the embers die down. We wait an hour… (time travel is hard work sometimes). When it is taken out of the oven, we can see it has become a crisp rusk like snack. Her children love it dunked into milk.
This is how the first biscuits came to be, and they the combination of old bread with additions was named Biscuit bread, from the French word bis-quite meaning twice baked or the latin bis coctus meaning twice cooked. (You may be more familiar with the term Cookie from the German word Kuchen meaning cake…. Can you hear the cooking word there again?)
Various versions of this cookie/biscuit/snack were eaten all around England and Scotland and new recipes developed.
If we move on a few generations, we can see the biscuit travelling across the world to America with the early settlers. Well it didn’t exactly travel with them, but in their memories of home, in their hearts, and in their recipe books. It stayed there in the southern states as a plain scone type of bread called biscuit to be eaten with gravy or stew. Biscuit also went off to adventure with the British Navy where it was baked into hard tack and fed to the ships crew as ships biscuit. Back in Scotland butter was being added to the biscuit bread recipe. Butter in baking is called ‘shortening’ because it makes bread and pastry crumbly, less able to stretch. This twice-baked sweet bread with butter became known as short biscuit bread. That was a bit of a mouthful, (ha ha), so it was shortened, to short bread. This recipe would have been the one we know today, one-part sugar, two parts butter and three parts flour. It was making itself very much at home in Scotland by the 16th century. We are told Mary Queen of Scots was fond of it in the sixteenth century. At that time it was baked into triangle shapes called petticoat tails referring to the shape of the patterns used to make the hooped under skirts of the ladies at the court of Queen Mary.
You might be surprised to learn that short bread was a rich person’s food. Although Scotland grew oats for flour, and there were dairy cows, most people couldn’t afford butter and sugar with fine white flour all the time. It was saved for special occasions, like weddings and Hogmanay. When foods are used in celebrations, they can start to work their way into the active part of the occasion, the ritual. For instance in the Shetland Islands, shortbread was broken over the heads of a newly married couple. If the shortbread broke into pieces, it meant good luck. In mainland Scotland a bride might break a piece of shortbread when she first crossed the threshold of her marital home.
Culture is built around food, celebrations, language and stories. When people take part in familiar rituals, they feel an increased sense of identity and belonging. If we feel we belong somewhere, to someone then we know we are at the warm cultural ‘hearth’ or heart of something. Believe it or not those two words: hearth and heart are linked. The Greek work for hearth is cardia which means heart. While you are digesting that, let’s travel back to today to the supermarket. How many different types of biscuits or cookies can you see? Dried fruit, chocolate, lemon and orange flavours and ginger iced or sandwiched with sugary cream. Hundreds. The shortbread is nothing special is it? It’s just three ingredients, sugar, butter and flour in the proportions of one two three.
However shortbread has retained a sweet significance among biscuits.
The Walkers shortbread company is still exporting countless tons of it around the world. Cultural tourism will have brought to your door. For the thirty-four countries in the Scottish diaspora, it is a reminder of home. Some of us still send it at Christmas time as a present. Tourists who visit Scotland still buy pretty tins of shortbread as a reminder of their time there. You could say it has moved from being a snack, to becoming part of the Scottish culture and has become commodified. Along with highland cows and a mountain on the front and a tartan ribbon it has all the romantic associations that say, ‘Hey, I was in this strange place called Scotland where my ancestors came from and this tin of cookies is a part of it’, and doesn’t that just ‘take the biscuit’… or in America they say, ‘it takes the cake’.