Alan Warner extract: Sullivan’s Ashes
Elsewhere theme at Edinburgh Book Festival
This article is from 2010.
As part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, 50 authors have been commissioned to pen a short story or essay under the umbrella theme of ‘Elsewhere’. Here is an extract from Alan Warner’s Sullivan’s Ashes
Myself, Cousin John, Sullivan’s third wife Aileen and the sergeant all sat together in the police station at Tobermory. We read once more the photocopied clause in Sullivan’s will:
I wish for no funeral service but to be cremated privately and then for my ashes to be spread from the specific silver urn, by a semi-naked and beautiful woman, galloping a white horse across the sands of Calgary Bay, Isle of Mull – irrespective of expense, inclement weather and the challenge of finding a beautiful woman on Mull.
‘Aye. He had to get that last wee dig in, right to the bitter end,’ said Aileen – the only native among us.
We looked to the sergeant, a pleasant and practical man. But new to the job.
‘It’s no an urn. It’s his bashed up old champagne bucket from The Grand in Brighton,’ Cousin John revealed.
‘Yes,’ said Aileen. ‘And if it hadn’t been full quite so often, he might have had something to leave me. Us.’
‘But it said here he’s leaving you the bucket.’ John rustled the pages to quote it.
Aileen gave Cousin John a hard look. ‘I’ll use it too, once I’m rid of his leftovers.’
Practical as ever, the sergeant asked, ‘How are you to keep the ashes in a champagne bucket, with the great probability of a howling gale?’
Quickly, Cousin John said, ‘I was thinking a good dose of yon kitchen clingfilm stuff over the top, and the lassie can pierce it with her long fingernails?’
The sergeant and I both nodded, though we all felt Cousin John was getting a bit ahead of the game. He went on, ‘And we’ll need Doc Fraser standing by. To treat the lassie for frostbite. Best if we get a healthy young lassie. One of them strip-o-grams. They stand up best to the cold. I respect those lassies.’
Aileen said, ‘I don’t want the doctor there and I doubt he’ll attend. Sullivan never invited him back up to the poker evening, not when he got the house off him but after he stopped prescribing those sleeping pills.’
‘So you intend to proceed?’
‘This is what we wanted to ask, Sergeant. From a legal point of view. The possible ramifications?’
‘Round here, that could depend on exactly how … ’ he flicked the page and read aloud, ‘ “semi-naked” any young lady actually is.’
‘Topless,’ Cousin John demanded.
I said, ‘On Mull, semi-naked is a bikini.’
‘A bikini doesn’t break any law. Topless might be indecent exposure. It’s certainly exposure, in this climate.’
Aileen took another Dunhill out her pack and told us, a bit nostalgically, ‘On Mull, semi-naked is a skirt above the knee. Can I smoke in here?’
‘I’m afraid not,’ said the policeman.
‘Couldn’t you lock me in one of your cells, Sarge? I’d even close the peephole.’
I gave Aileen a look. She wasn’t a day under fifty-five but still well-preserved and hopelessly flirty. The sergeant ignored her. What can you say about Aileen? Her life was like all those Dolly Parton songs. Or maybe just one: Down From Dover.
I said, ‘So we have a week or so.’
Cousin John pondered, ‘Unless we wait to watch the weather. For the sake of the beautiful lassie on the horse?’
Aileen erupted. ‘I’m no having Sullivan’s ashes waiting up in that house. They’d crawl out and make for the drinks cabinet. Why the hell couldn’t he have them scattered off the South Downs in a gentle English breeze?’
The sergeant looked troubled now. He stood. ‘I might need to phone Edinburgh about all this.’ Then he thought aloud to himself. ‘But what department?’
‘Another thing.’ The cousin held up a pointed finger – and he was a farmer. ‘There’s no a white horse on this whole island.’
‘Oh good god,’ Aileen groaned. ‘Use a Highland cow.’
‘It’ll no gallop,’ the cousin shot back, in a voice revealing too much experience in such a matter.
Aileen, Cousin John and I drove back up the tiered roads to Sullivan’s modern holiday bungalow, high above the bay. In the disused connecting garage sat the scandalous American pool table.
The house had been won off Sullivan by Doc Fraser in a two-day poker marathon years before, to legally pass to the doctor at the time of Sullivan’s death. The doc had already been up to measure for new carpets.
Plumpton, the fat cat – named after the Sussex racecourse – sat by a bowl on the kitchen floor. He’d brought round some semi-feral acquaintances for a meal. Four of the beggars. They all sat, turning their snooty heads expectantly. Aileen stamped her heel and there was a rough scuffle around the catflap as all five fought to exit first. ‘Wait till the good doctor deals with you,’ she screamed.
Cousin John said, ‘Fred Pinder over on the mainland has a stables. Supplies horses to them movies that come venturing up round here. He can get you a whole bloody cavalry troop. He’ll bring you over a unicorn in his horse box.’
Sullivan never passed a penny on a pavement without picking it up. He had been Sussex-born and bred. He owned this long playing record, Old Songs of Sussex: Agricultural Labourers’ Ballads From Both Sides of the Downs. I loved that: ‘Both Sides.’ I wanted to ask the doc if I could inherit the disc.
In the seventies and eighties, Sullivan had made his money from slot machines in Brighton and Eastbourne. One time I asked him what it was like as a livelihood. ‘Brighton Rock meets parking meters,’ was all I got.
Aileen once told me that Sullivan collected the coins in straining plastic buckets every night of the week and loaded them into his Volvo hatchback. The rear suspension broke. Apparently there were one hundred and fifty unused mops in Sullivan’s Brighton garage.
A What the Butler Saw machine still stood in the front lounge at ten pence a go. I’d have loved to have inherited that too, but the doc had got the house contents as well in a later poker game.
Sullivan had fallen in love with Mull after just one drive around it. He must have seen Calgary Bay for the first time that very day. I never once heard of him going round the island again, so it made an impression.
Above Tobermory, Sullivan’s fine view over the bay and across the Sound of Mull, our poker evenings and those few winning dinners at the Western Isles Hotel seemed enough.
I once asked Sullivan why he loved it up on the island so much and he swung open all the bay windows. ‘Listen,’ he yelled. ‘Just silence, isn’t it? It’s the elsewhere. When you’re an Englishman you have England and you have … elsewhere. And you have to pay to get elsewhere, sonny boy.’
Alan Warner, Fri 20 Aug, 3.30pm (with Denise Mina), 8.30pm (solo event). Both events at Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, £10 (£8). See edbookfest.co.uk for more stories plus full details of all Elsewhere events.