The northeast corner of Fife is not like the rugged high cliffs of the Scottish west coast, but is mostly gently rolling farmland wandering haphazardly into the sea. Layered rocks exposed by centuries of storms rise to greet gray waves that surge in endless rows toward shore.
A blanket of clouds hung in tatters as young Oscar Brown walked along the shoreline footpath, a narrow strip of packed dirt hugging the slope between shore rocks and farm fields. He was distracted by two gulls squawking over a dead herring that bobbed in the gentle swell. Their shrill cries invited a dozen more gulls. The largest one, unblemished white with a patch of red on his yellow beak, swooped down, snatched the herring and flew toward the open sea, chased by a shrieking string of also-rans.
Oscar’s wind-chapped cheeks were used to the spring chill, so too his small and calloused hands. A sweater was all he needed, but he wore a coat to conceal the revolver he had taken from his father’s cabinet that morning. The thick wool absorbed the sea breeze as he abandoned the path to scramble among the rocks.
His father went to Glasgow searching for tractor parts made scarce by preparations against the mounting threat of Hitler’s Third Reich. Ordinarily, Oscar would be at work in the fields, already ploughed in long rows for an early planting of turnips and carrots. This afternoon he headed toward the Sea Bird Tavern in Cellardyke, a three-mile walk from his father’s farm. He enjoyed the walk along the braes, especially at low tide when he could wander far out on the rocks looking for treasures from long forgotten shipwrecks. Since leaving school, much of Oscar’s free time he spent alone. He preferred the solitary tasks of feeding the pigs and lifting the heavy rocks needed for repairing the boundary walls. Girls weren’t an interest, always giggling and acting silly. The few near his age considered him small and immature, and strange, with dark eyes that made them shiver.
Oscar climbed back to the path that ran past the Anstruther Golf Course and stopped to observe the old men in white shirts, woollen vests and tweed jackets. He was angry that they wasted so much time playing such a worthless game. “Golf is daft,” he would mock the boys that caddied, “hit a wee ball and chase after it.” Oscar watched Mr. Mayglothling, the retired newsagent from Crail. The frantic man wiggled his large bottom from side to side like a walrus wobbling up the beach and swung violently three times before the last swing bounced the ball thirty feet along the ground. Red-faced, he threw down his club and swung his fist in a wild roundhouse at the sky. He screamed for his caddie to follow as he stomped after the ball. Oscar turned away disgusted with the men. He had no patience for nonsense. Like his stern Calvinistic father, he demanded an unwavering dedication to do things that needed to be done, do them right away, and do them well. Life required hard work and allowed no time for foolishness. Oscar’s face lit up with a boyish grin, convinced he would perform his duty well.
After he reached Anstruther harbor, he sat on the stone wharf to review his plan. He had to make sure to do his task right. His father would still be gone tomorrow giving him another chance if it couldn’t be perfect today. Both Nigel and his brother John had to be in the Sea Bird. Martin didn’t matter. If Alan was there or any women, he wouldn’t do it.
Near the harbor mouth, the open deck lobster boat Gallant Lady gunned her engine to make the starboard turn to head out to sea. At that moment, the sun burst through the clouds and turned the gray water a brilliant blue. Oscar’s smile grew at this sign from God that his was a right and proper mission. He took a deep breath. His smile faded and his eyes darkened as he stood to walk the last half mile. He felt no joy in what he had to do, only the satisfaction of completing what should have been done already. He walked proud of how grown up and responsible his duty and how clearly he knew what was right.
The town boundary lay only a quarter mile away on East Shore Street, a dilapidated row of vacant storefronts. Cellardyke was an old fishing village dating from the Middle Ages, long past its glory days of clipper ships and the legendary tea races from India to London. In the eighteenth century, the sons of Cellardyke and neighboring Anstruther sailed the seas, from China to Australia, from Rio de Janeiro to San Francisco. The timid or perhaps wiser stayed closer to home, piloting the fishing boats into the rough waters of the North Sea to harvest herring and cod. But those days are as long gone as the herring. Now Cellardyke was for fishermen too old for anything but memories. Some money could be had in bottom fishing from inboard dories or for those with a piece of land to grow root crops and raise pigs and sheep. It was a quiet, peaceful place, where time had slept for a hundred years.
The town of Anstruther ends at Shore Street and the village of Cellardyke begins at James Street, marked by the eastward jog at Tollbooth Wynd. Exactly halfway between Tollbooth Wynd and Cellardyke Harbor, on the sea side of the street, sat the Sea Bird Tavern. The buildings on this street had been built in the glory years between 1705 and 1790 and except for the odd ones that had been torn down, they made a quarter mile long wandering wall of stone two and three stories high on both sides of the narrow road. Each house was painted white, the only differences being the degree of fading and the color of the door and window trim. A few doors had been lovingly lacquered deep browns or reds while most were left to chip and peel in silent, dust-covered indignation.
Amongst these dwellings, the Sea Bird Tavern distinguished itself with fresh white paint and a pair of two-foot wide shiny black stripes running up the wall, one on each end. In the middle of the eye-jarring lime green door hung a brass knocker of a scowling Oriental face, a gift brought back for the third owner of the tavern fifty years earlier by a homesick sailor. Oscar paused for a moment staring at the knocker, took another deep breath, opened the door, walked in, and surveyed the dimly lit room.
Directly in front of him at the tall wooden bar Martin sat with a pint talking to the barman. To Oscar’s left two small wooden tables lined the rough stone wall. Nigel and his brother shared the table nearest the wall. All were near enough, Oscar thought. The room was less than twenty feet wide and only twenty-five feet deep.
“Is Margaret here, Mr. Grayson?” Oscar asked as he walked further into the room.
“No lad,” Mr. Grayson answered, barely looking up. “She’s oot with her mum the noo.”
Good. No women and no Alan. He could do it right now. He reached under his coat and fingered the hidden gun. Mr. Grayson looked over at him. “Did you want to leave a message?”
Oscar hesitated. “No, that’s all right,” he answered, unsure if the question was a sign to continue or to stop. He watched as Mr. Grayson returned to his chat with Martin. The brothers had looked up when Oscar came in, but had returned to their ales. Oscar pulled out the revolver and aimed it at the center of Martin’s back.
The explosion reverberated off the walls like claps of thunder. Martin died before he hit the floor. Oscar pointed the gun at the brothers. Even before the echo of the first blast had died, he shot both of them in the chest. John spun around from the impact into a macabre dance with the wall, his face and arms smacked into the stone blocks before he fell in a heap under the table. Nigel fell straight back off the stool into the wall, then slid down along a cushion of blood to finish sitting upright on the floor, staring at his executioner.
Nigel watched wordlessly as Oscar brought up the gun once more and pointed it between his eyes. He probably could see straight down the barrel and the bullets waiting in the cylinder and the three dark empty spaces where bullets had been. Then Oscar pulled the trigger and blew apart his friend’s head.
“Mr. Grayson,” Oscar shouted in the eerie silence that followed.
The barman had ducked behind the bar, trapped without an exit or hope of escaping the shooting. He was on his knees. At Oscar’s call, he mumbled a quick prayer and stood up to meet his fate.
“Mr. Grayson,” Oscar continued. “I’d like a pint and would you be kind enough to cook us a wee banger? I know I’m underage, but do us a favor for the pint. I have the money.” Oscar pulled a purse out of his pocket and counted out the coins. Grayson stared at the bodies, the blood on his walls, and the slow-growing red stream winding its way toward the door. His eyes bulged when he saw Nigel and he gagged at what was left of the young fisherman’s head.
“Mr. Grayson, my pint, please,” Oscar insisted.
The voice brought Mr. Grayson’s attention back. “Are you going to shoot me?” he asked.
“Why would I shoot you?” Oscar answered, confused by the question. Mr. Grayson composed himself enough to stop asking questions. “I’ll draw you a pint,” he said.
Mrs. McHendry had just finished hanging her washing on the Cellardyke laundry lines strung along the lower level of the harbor, quick at her task for there was no one there to gossip with. As she walked up the stone pathway back to her house, she heard the rare crack of gunshots. She rushed toward the excitement, her progress hampered by having to carry two wicker laundry baskets. Likely some sort of celebration. Maybe someone won the Derby or more likely Janice has finally delivered her baby to that fool Thompson and he’s shooting into the sky outside the pub. She waddled up the cobblestone road as fast as her short fat legs would go.
There was no one outside the Sea Bird. She poked her head into the dim light of the pub. Oscar sat on a stool. Mr. Grayson stood at the grill where, by the sound of it, he was frying a sausage. She turned to leave when her foot caught on a sticky substance. Her eyes followed the liquid’s path from her feet to a heap of clothes at the foot of Oscar’s stool. She narrowed her eyes to see better in the dim light. The crumpled pile oozed the blood that pooled at her feet.
Reflexively, she moved forward, tripped, and fell to her hands and knees, landing level with what remained of Nigel’s face. She leapt like a scared cat, legs and arms straight out, screamed and staggered into the street, one hand over her mouth while the other reached forward and upward as if hanging onto an invisible trolley strap.
Constable Owens heard the echoing screams from two blocks away. He was in his third week of regular duty after two weeks training in Leven. He wanted to join His Majesty’s forces like his brothers, but poor knees and deafness in his left ear ended his chances. Responding with the exuberance of a man eager to please, he dashed up the street. Like desperate lovers after months apart, Mrs. McHendry ran east as Constable Owens ran west until they met in clawing embrace in front of Mrs. Grovener’s flat. “Murder, murder,” she wailed when they met, “murder, murder, murder.”
Mrs. Grovener and her feisty terrier Toby stuck their heads out the second story window in unison at the commotion below. “What’s all this aboot?” she cried, the dog adding barks to the din. “Calm down, Missus,” Constable Owens pleaded to the mad woman still tearing at his tunic. “Calm down and tell me what’s happened.”
“Two, five, ten dead and him calmly drinkin,” she panted.
“Now, Missus.” Officer Owens reached into his pocket for a notebook, took it out and licked the tip of his pencil. “Slow down so I can understand what you’re sayin.”
“Go,” she said, running behind him and pushing at his back. “Go. They’re all dead.”
“What is it, Mary?” Mrs. Grovener shouted down from her window.
“Murder. Murder,” Mrs. McHendry screamed again as if reliving the memory. “Murder at the Sea Bird.”
“Please, Missus, what exactly did you see?” Constable Owens asked again, his pencil at the ready.
“Willie Brown’s boy drinking at the bar, like it was a never-you-mind and lying on the floor. Ohh,” Mrs. McHendry held her head in her hands. “The poor man lying dead as any mackerel and lookin’ like the devil had claimed him.” Her voice rose into a blood-curdling howl and she covered her face with her apron.
The young constable called up to Mrs. Grovener to take mind of Mrs. McHendry and went off to investigate. He strode the fifty yards to the Tavern, confident in his ability to respond to any crisis. As he reached the door, he hesitated. He had never actually seen a dead body. And though the chances were small of one lying on the other side of the door…
The inscrutable oriental face on the door mocked his hesitation. “Ach,” he said out loud, shaking his head. “There’s been nae murders in this wee town for over a hundred years.” In that same span, he knew, there had been enough pints drawn in this one pub to float every ship of the British fleet and to drown every seaman. Someone fell down dead drunk and bumped his thick head. Mrs. McHendry has read one too many three-penny novels. He pushed past the eyes of the Chinaman.
“Morning, Mr. Grayson, what have we here?” he asked the man behind the bar before his eyes adjusted to the smoky haze.
Grayson didn’t answer, but motioned with his eyes and nods of his head to where Oscar had placed the revolver on the bar.
“Morning, Mr. Owens,” Oscar said, turning to look at the young policeman. Then, responding to the uniform, he added guiltily, “I’m only having a wee pint. Only one.”
Owens turned toward the lump of clothes on the floor under Oscar’s stool.
“What’s all this then?” he asked taking a step toward the body.
“He’s dead. I shot him,” Oscar told him. “And then I shot those two over there.” He pointed to the dead brothers.
Owens turned and stared at the faceless body, moving toward it to make a closer examination, innocent as a lamb to slaughter. Nigel’s coat. His hat. That bloody mass had once been Nigel’s face. The poor constable’s stomach heaved twice before he threw up over his dead friend’s chest and legs, his vomit mixing with the trickle of blood that had joined the other stream and crept toward the door.
Oscar watched the scene unfold and took the opportunity to gulp down the rest of his pint before the policeman could take it away from him.
Constable Owens tottered back to the bar taking deep breaths to control his stomach. “A little water if you please, Mr. Grayson.” He sipped at the water until the color return to his face. He looked at Mr. Grayson, all pretense of being in charge having evaporated, “What happened?”
Mr. Grayson, eyes again motioning toward the pistol, didn’t answer, but Oscar did. “I told you. I shot them. Didn’t I, Mr. Grayson? I shot them wae this.” Oscar held up the gun.
“Heavens,” said the policeman glancing at Mr. Grayson before looking back at Oscar. “Let me have the gun, lad, while I figure out what to do.”
“Aye,” Oscar said, and gave him the gun.
“Mr. Grayson, please be kind enough to run down to the call box and inform the station of the situation here.”
Alone with Oscar, Constable Owens did his duty. First, he had to put the suspect in custody. “Oscar, you stay put on that stool,” he told him.
“Yessir,” came the immediate reply.
Then, the evidence must be inspected. He knelt by Oscar’s stool to look at the body. Martin, a poor fisherman, as quiet and peaceful in death as he had been in life. Owens stood up and walked toward the front of the pub. Knowing Nigel was dead, he avoided looking at him except to note with a look of dismay where he had vomited on the man’s pants. The other body faced the wall and had to be turned over to be examined. He gingerly pulled at the man’s jacket until the body flopped over. Dead eyes stared at the policeman. Blood covered the body and the wall and now his hands.
Owens turned to catch Oscar pouring himself another pint from behind the bar. “Sit!” Oscar scrambled back to the stool.
“You shot these men?”
The constable had to secure the gun. Tiptoeing past Martin’s body, he placed the gun on the bottom shelf of the bar. He left it there but stood next to it until help arrived.
As he waited, another problem presented itself to the young constable. Mrs. McHendry had evidently convinced Mrs. Grovener to come look. She brought her dog and every neighbor within earshot to peer into the dark pub. As the curious crowded around the door, Toby struggled from her arms and ran in to sniff the bodies.
“Now, now, the lot of you, out.” Constable Owens moved to push them away when he thought better of it. He had to stay behind the bar to protect the gun. The crowd didn’t move back, but pressed closer, the latecomers at the back straining to see and pushing those at the front much nearer than they wanted to be. The terrier had a field day rushing from one pool of blood to the next, sticking his nose into all manner of gore.
Oscar sat oblivious to it all. He wished he could go home and lie down; the first two pints of his life had gone to his head and made his eyes lose focus and his stomach queasy. The constable again told the crowd to step away. Oscar turned, visibly upset and yelled at them to be quiet. The group hushed and fell back, bumping into Sergeant Marsh who had been squeezing his way past the gawkers. “Make way. Make way, please. Stand back, there’s nothing tae see,” he kept repeating as he moved through the crowd. Mrs. Grovener dashed in to snatch her dog with one hand and cross herself with the other before running out again.
Sergeant Marsh was fifty years old with twenty-two years on the force and distinguished service in the Great War before that. He ordered the bobby who had accompanied him to take charge of the spectators, push them far out to the street, then close the door to await the doctor. The sergeant looked around and knew that an undertaker and a clean-up squad were more needed than the doctor. Another look suggested that Owens would be better off returning to the station. The young constable left his post, tripping over Martin’s body in his haste to escape.
The tall sergeant in his crisp black uniform leaned on the bar to question Oscar, learning little more than the constable. Yes, Oscar admitted, I shot them. I shot them because I had to; they wanted to die and hadn’t died yet. This went round and round until the sergeant realized that he and the boy were not speaking the same language.
“Son, you’ll have to come down to the station with me.”
“But why?” Oscar protested. He was sure the pint would be forgiven. His dad would tan his hide if he got in trouble with the police.
“Three men have died at your hand. In spite of your youth, you have committed a horrendous crime.”
“I only did what was right.” Now Oscar was fed up. He did his duty and then he stayed put. His head was spinning and he just wanted to go home.
“We’ll straighten this out at the station lad. Come wae me.” Sergeant Marsh took Oscar by the arm.
At that point, the boy’s uninitiated stomach rebelled against the beer. Oscar threw up over the sergeant, the bar, the floor, and much of poor Martin.
The sergeant sighed. He had come from Glasgow to the village to get away from the memory of the gas and the trenches, from the crime of the declining city, to help a few hard-working men home after a pint too many and to play a game or two of links golf. Now three men were dead and a boy too young to own a razor destined to spend the rest of his days under lock and key. “Laddie, we have tae go.”
Two days later, in an early morning rain, three caskets lined up next to three graves scattered on a small hill in the churchyard. The pastor stood in front of a thin ring of dark-suited mourners preaching about how God weeps at human folly.
Nigel’s casket was lowered into the grave by four of his friends as the black police van passed on its way to Carwell Psychopathic Hospital. As the van bounced on the narrow stone road, Oscar sat alone in the back on a wooden bench, still trying to fathom why he was in trouble. He had done his duty as well as he could.
* * *
The thick leather belt lashed across Oscar’s bare back. Four pairs of hands held him flat on his stomach and pressed him hard against the bare metal springs of the bed frame.
“That’s five. One more to go, maggot.” The thickly muscled arm rose again to strike the boy. The final blow was especially cruel, landing where the last had broken the skin. Punishment was necessary. In a spurt of adolescent bravado, he had made fun of an attendant, evoking a laugh among the patients and even the staff. The lashing was for control and to define reality. Patients could not be frivolous. The staff made the rules, set expectations, evaluated progress, and determined who could return to the light and air upstairs and who stayed below.
With a final insulting shove, the attendants swaggered back to the office for a smoke and their postponed tea. Oscar, left alone, cried to himself. He was not yet old enough or strong enough to remain stoic like the others who watched from along the walls. They showed no sign of pain, and did not wince, even when they used electricity.
He was the youngest, the one they wouldn’t leave alone. Oscar tried to survive by doing what they asked, but the beatings got worse. He pleaded and begged them to stop. Over and over he promised to be good but they didn’t care and they didn’t stop this time until the six had been laid on.
The attendants called him “Killerboy” and made up stories about how he murdered innocent men, shooting them in the back. Oscar tried to explain, sometimes yelling, sometimes in tears. No one listened.
Oscar pulled the thin, soiled mattress back on his bed. There were no sheets or pillow, only his worn army blanket. Like he had a hundred times before, Oscar knelt next to his bed for his prayers, then curled up on the bed with the blanket pulled around his shoulders and cried himself to sleep. His entire world was his bed, the corner farthest from the staff office, and sitting alone at the long wooden table after everyone else had eaten. This is how it was for twenty years at the Carwell Psychopathic Hospital, through the entire Second World War, the death of a king, the Coronation of the Queen, a handful of Prime Ministers, and man’s first flight into space. It got worse for short periods whenever new attendants needed to prove themselves.
On the upper floors of the hospital, sunlight, fresh breezes and a few primitive medicines offered the appearance of therapy, enough for seven or eight lucky souls to walk out the front door each year. Ward Nine housed criminals, those society ignored and families forgot. It was below ground, a shallow hell with barred windows thick with dirt admitting little light and no sounds from the outside. Up a steep flight of worn stone steps was the door to civilization, a massive steel dam protecting polite society from the maniacal rages of insanity.
Eight ward attendants, some sicker than their charges, ruled this buried kingdom of five dozen subjects. A doctor descended once a week to check on conditions, always found them deplorable, and retreated up the stairs as quickly as he could. The uncrowned King was the Chief Day Attendant, his nemesis the Night Chief. Occasionally they waged war, when one of the Chiefs got bored, drunk, or mad at the other. Junior attendants, the sadistic pretenders to the throne, tormented the patients just for fun. The caretakers and inmates of Ward Nine created a society, the former by force, the later by natural selection. Neither kindly attendants nor weak patients lasted long. This was Oscar’s world until Barry entered his life.
Oscar first connected with Barry in the treatment room. Every Tuesday and Friday, Oscar was wrapped head to toe like a mummy in white sheets soaked in ice-cold water laying on a raised platform of wood slates the height of a table. He was third in a row of four others wrapped the same way. An attendant leaned against the dirty gray wall of the tiny subterranean treatment room, observing the chilled bodies, waiting for his shift to be over. All of them prayed to escape upstairs to breathe fresh air, far away from this fetid atmosphere, heavy as wet wool, reeking of urine and vomit and fear.
Patients in treatment were not allowed to talk and could not move, remaining in frigid wraps for two hours. Their joints stiffen, nerves become numb and muscles cramped. The treatment, thought to purge them of the demons that haunted their minds, made them docile and was another way to teach them the difference between sane and insane.
On that day in the treatment room, on Oscar’s left was Barry Hardon, the wise old man of Ward Nine. At the worst time of the treatment, after the cold had become a sharp pain and tremors shook the body, but before numbness offered relief, Barry caught Oscar’s eye and winked. Barry was a stooped, small-boned man of seventy with fire in his pale blue eyes and a wild thatch of pure white hair and a wilder pair of white eyebrows, sticking askew like windblown corn stalks. He ruled over the sixty inmates being wise in the ways of handling despots, gentle when grown men were broken and lost; and with fellow patient Harvey Applebloom as his friend; six-foot-six and two hundred sixty pounds of muscle and mayhem with the simple mind of a ten-year-old. Harvey was an imposing reality even the most sadistic guards had to accept. Barry entertained a lot of thoughts, Harvey not a one; an effective combination.
Barry was what Oscar wanted to be, dedicated to an honorable and true life. He was born in the late nineteenth century in the small harbor town of Montrose, the last of seven children. His mother supported the family by selling fish in the market while his father travelled about the country as an itinerant preacher and one of the then new breed of competing golf professionals. In most towns, his father was welcomed. But only for the first two or three days, then his strange ideas made people uneasy. Rarely did he make any money, preaching or golfing. In matches arranged by club professionals or wealthy businessmen, his drive to succeed pushed him to compete against players of the highest calibre; the likes of Horace Hutchinson, Hugh Kirkaldy and James Braid. More often than not, he lost. After a while, he had to put up his own money and sometimes couldn’t pay. Matches dwindled then ceased altogether. Few towns would accept more than once his climbing their pulpit or even standing on a box in a corner of the town square. Over long and arduous years, trekking narrow dirt paths to more and more remote villages, from the windy East Coast, to high into the rugged mountains, even to the stormy outer islands, Barry’s father searched for matches to play and to tell others the message from the spirits.
Often he would be on the road for months at a time, alone with thoughts too numerous to fit into his head. Sometimes the ideas exploded and he would tremble, raise his hands to the sky and shout God’s new laws into the wind. Most often, his wisdom carried into peaceful glens and deep forests, heard only by startled rabbits and disinterested deer that hardly raised their heads.
After too many villages and towns to count, he found peace in the solitude away from the people and the game that had broken his heart. Alone he could mull over the messages from the voices and begin to understand how golf made his hands shake and his heart grow weak. His ideas were precious and fragile, too wonderful for the unworthy likes of him. Someone innocent of men’s sins was needed to carry on what he had begun. In mid-stride one day he turned around and headed home.
Four weeks later, Barry Harden left the little stone cottage of his boyhood to follow his father to the far north, his mother wailing and crying on the doorstep, pleading with her boy not to go. His father pulled on his arm, promising him the wisdom of the ages. Barry returned at nineteen, a full year after his father had drowned in the Irish Sea. He was a man when he came back, strong spirited like his father and even more dedicated to seek the answer to the universal questions. But that was before.
In the times they were not wrapped in icy sheets and had to be silent, Oscar and Harvey spent much of the day sitting at Barry’s feet listening to his stories. For long months, Barry conducted a Socratic dialogue, egging Oscar on with question after question. “How do you define the ultimate goal,” he would ask, and “what is adversity?” No matter what Oscar answered, Barry had more questions. Harvey would patiently listen, sitting quietly, watching himself flex his muscles, smiling when he didn’t have to answer any of the questions. One day, the prize pupil found the courage to ask a question of the master.
“Well then, Barry Hardon, just what is the meaning of life then? You have me thinking in circles.”
“Aye, laddie. That’s the meaning I was after. The circle.”
“The circle. That, the open sky, and all things natural. The everlasting balance between heaven and hell. That is what I mean. Triumph, tragedy, human nature and the wrath of God. That is all in the meaning too.”
“How, Barry? How do I understand it? You haven’t told me.” The youth was an empty vessel, seeking to be filled with the wisdom of the master, or perhaps just wishing to stop the daily headache caused by Barry’s ceaseless mental meanderings.
“The circle. The circle, lad, the simple hole that started it all in God’s earth by the shepherds long ago and now is a steel cup thrust deep in the hallowed ground. That circle is our goal to find, to find, to fill, and to confront over and over again like the sorrows that begin at birth. We seek until we have become a circle, of life and death and our final hole in God’s sweet earth and the circle is finished.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Golf,” Barry said.
“Golf?” Oohhhh, he moaned in his head. That could not be. No silly game, especially golf, could be important, certainly not as important as Sunday worship, listening to the voices, and finding salvation for all men.
“Aye, golf,” Barry continued, holding out his thin, upturned arm. “An entire earth we can hold in our hand as a pure white orb. With God’s gifts, we move it about. It is the search for the circle of harmony over God’s green pastures. The application of wisdom, the effort of our bodies, the torment of our souls, the acceptance of our frailty and the exaltation of victory over the devil. That is the meaning of life. All of it in golf.”
How could he say such a thing, Oscar wondered. Golf is such a silly game, a daft game, not good for anything except to waste good farmland, effort and time.
“Golf,” Barry insisted, standing more erect and stronger than he had in years. His eyes took fire and he shouted as his father did to an assembled throng or alone into the wind from a remote hilltop. “It portrays the harmony of torment and joy, suffering and salvation, the mind and the body, the heart and the soul.” He bowed his head, close to tears. “Oscar,” he said, almost in a whisper, his eyes pleading for the young man to understand, “golf is a journey to hell and a taste of paradise.”
Daily, Oscar sat at Barry’s feet in rapt attention. He must understand this meaning of golf and what Barry said, “a beauty equal to anything found in heaven.” At first, in spite of forcing his eyes tightly closed and banging his fists against his head, he could see only the scruffy nine-hole course in Anstruther and the silly men dressed in their silly clothes, taking silly swings playing a silly game. No matter what Barry told him about the spirit of golf and the magical symbiosis of human nature and God fostered by walking the links, golf was just a game, an unproductive waste of time. Righting terrible wrongs, as he did at the pub, and working hard on the land to produce nature’s bounty were the ways to meaning and to honor God and man. Occasionally, Oscar had his ears boxed when he failed to pay attention to his mentor. “One day,” Barry would tell him, “you mark my words, what we discuss today will bring important changes. You must be ready when called. Ready to act and do what yer told and do what’s the right thing to do. Listen well, my boy.”
Slowly, as time passed and he asked many questions, Oscar began to understand. “The grip,” Barry would say, “is like touching a beam of light from a star. The knowledge of the universe is in the grip.” He made Oscar practice the grip on his thin forearm since they were not allowed to have anything resembling a club, not even a cut down broomstick. “The swing is as powerful as the atom and as elusive as the path of a fluttering butterfly. The flight of the ball is as real and as constant as the laws of physics.”
During one lesson on the swing, Oscar asked Barry a question that had been on his mind from the beginning, how he had lost the little finger on his right hand.
“I cut it off,” Barry told him. “After I saw them from my window.” Barry began another story. “The wee lad cried and his mum smacked him aboot. He had been playing in the puddles, not hurting a soul when she comes along and yanks him by the arm. I should have stopped her, but I didna. I was sick and couldn’t get out the bed, but that was no excuse. After they left, I realized how selfish I had been. I had tae be punished. So I forced myself up, crawled into the kitchen, got down the cleaver and cut off my little finger. I kept it in a matchbox as a reminder tae do my duty and since then I have, though I’ve long ago lost the box and the finger. But,” Barry winked, “I’m no daft. Ye ken I cut off the finger on my right hand?
“The two left fingers are needed to pull the club down from the top of the backswing. Ye have tae do the right thing and sometimes accept the penalty for not doing so, but you’ve not got to be stupid about it.”
“And the meaning of it all,” Barry said one day while his two disciples sat on the floor in front of him, “is found in the heart of the player. It is he who adds irrefutably to the upward march of human endeavour with his every stroke. Honest, forthright, sloppy, uncaring. What is in the heart goes into the stroke, and every stroke, missing not a one, is counted on the card. Anyone who plays the game plays for us all, a symbol of man’s triumph over himself and the devil. The man who cheats at golf cheats us all and the devil claims another soul. And the ignorant golfer must stand aside like the parting of the seas and let the player through who knows the importance to try, to succeed, to prevail. These gentle souls are the Keepers of the Game.”
Oscar drank in everything that Barry said, encouraging the old man with how much he was learning and surprising his master with his own ideas. They talked endlessly, taking time out every once in a while when Harvey got bored and stood to mimic the full swing, going “Whoosh” at impact and putting his hand up to shade his eyes, pretending to watch the ball fly out of sight. Barry had become Oscar’s guide, the man he would follow all his life. Barry knew what was right.
One day a new doctor interrupted their talk with a new tray of needles and new vials of medicine.
Ward Nine rarely had any family visitors. In the prior year, it had none. Chemical companies found it expedient to use the ward as a final test for medicines before administered to the patients upstairs. They came down the steps a lot. A handful of patients suffered grand mal seizures, a few became blind, and others developed odd assortments of tics, twitches and habitual pacing. A few died early on and a few got crazier with the medicine, but it was hard to find fault with those results since no one official complained.
Barry was one of the early failures. In the morning he was fine, in the afternoon they took him out on a stretcher never to come back. Harvey was one who got violent and hurt his caretakers before being subdued. It took a straitjacket and five men over an hour to get him under control. Then he was gone.
Oscar was a lucky one. It took a few years and a few bad times, but after many injections, they moved him upstairs onto a nicer locked ward, a place where the patients had visitors. He did not, but he could see the sky and trees and the broad expanse of lawn through the large screened windows. After they gave him different medicine later on, he moved again and they let him walk outside for the first time in thirty-five years. He liked taking his shoes off to feel the grass and to think about golf.
Every day they gave him medicine. Once a week a doctor came to talk with him. The doctor asked him about the killing at the pub. Oscar said he was sorry. He said he didn’t know it was bad and that he didn’t know that the men didn’t want to die. They just said that, the doctor told him. They were unhappy about the village football team losing again.
“You’re an intelligent man, Oscar,” the doctor told him. “We’ve given you tests and you have done well. But you sometimes don’t see things the same way most others do, and you have to remember the voices in your head are just your imagination. You listened to them years ago, and that was wrong. Don’t listen to them, Mr. Brown, or you might cause a lot of trouble. And,” he added, “don’t stop taking your medicine.” The doctor was kind and well-meaning. Oscar told the doctor he understood, but the doctor didn’t know Barry. Oscar knew Barry would never tell him to do anything wrong. Oscar also told the doctor that the medicine made him feel better which it did. He didn’t worry about being responsible when he took the shots and the pills. They made him feel happy.
Early in the morning of Oscar’s fiftieth birthday, Mrs. Donaldson, in her starched white head nurse’s uniform, strode down the walkway between the two rows of beds straight for his. Gently, she shook his shoulder until he woke. “Good morning, Mr. Brown,” she said. “Today is your birthday and today you’re going home.”
The rest of the morning he stuffed his few belongings in the small cardboard case they gave him, said goodbye to a few of the other patients, and was driven in the hospital car to the railway station. Oscar had paused at the front door thinking about the last thing Barry told him. “I will be with ye laddie. Have nae fear.” All he had in his pocket was two pounds sixpence and a ticket to St. Andrews. He was to stay in a house next to the community hospital until the doctors decided he could live on his own. He needed to have his medicine every day and his family didn’t want him back. To pay his room and board, the head of the house had arranged for Oscar to start work as a third class bag carrier at the St. Andrews golf courses. It was a good job for him, one that would not demand more than carrying a golf bag and learning the land, something he could do well. Oscar knew Barry approved and he silently vowed to be perfect at it.
Every day, for more than twenty years; in the cold, in the rain, even during the blizzard of ‘64 that closed the roads and all the shops for an entire week, Oscar made his way to the caddie hut at dawn and sat waiting to carry a bag. For the first five months, no one asked for him and the caddie master did not send him out. Slowly, sporadically, he would carry for a tourist when everyone else had gone out. Each time he carried, he earned the standard ten shillings paid for a bag carrier, third class. Once he began making money, he mailed no less than twenty shillings a week home to the farm. He never travelled the ten miles to visit his family because they never invited him.
Oscar spent his nights in a room behind the furniture shop on South Street. Each Thursday morning he would walk to the hospital outpatient clinic for a new supply of his medicine. He had to take three pills a day to stop his mind from thinking too much. Varieties of major tranquillizers called phenothiazines were tried over the years. Every once in a while, Oscar did something bad, and spent time in jail or in the regional council hospital. After almost thirty years of working as a caddie, Oscar was one of the old men of St. Andrews, too ancient to carry a bag any more so he spent his days wandering the street, sometimes silent, sometimes shouting at the top of his lungs, sometimes to be avoided, sometimes to be humoured. It all depended on how regularly he had been taking his medicine.