Writing Scotland remains the most accurate barometer of new trends in
– Simon Hall, The Herald
New Writing Scotland is an annual volume publishing poetry and prose from both emerging and established writers. Every piece appears here in print for the first time, and has been drawn from a wide cross-section of Scottish culture and society.
My first published short story, Pandrops was included in the New Writing Scotland collection Full Strength Angels in 1996.
It wasn’t a crime story, but a comedy. Ian Crichton Smith launched the collection in Waterstones Argyle Street branch and after his short speech he came over to ask me if I had written Pandrops. I was a big fan of his work, so I was a little overawed. He told me he had really laughed when he read it. You can imagine how pleased I was about that.
The first piece you get published is the one you will always remember. It certainly is for me.
New Writing Scotland’s collections over the years have given voice to so many new writers.
I urge you to send your work in this time round.
Click here for details of how to submit your work to New Writing Scotland.
Of all my friends from school I remember Janice the best. For a while she was my best friend but that’s not the reason.
It was the summer of sixty four. We were both thirteen, but Janice was nearer eighteen, if you know what I mean. Next year would see her dancing at the Cragburn in Gourock, having downed a vodka and lime and a Carlsberg Special before she got there. It was July, the school holidays and that weekend we were going to Kilgreggan to Guide Camp. We were catching the boat from Gourock. There were twenty of us. We were told to meet under the clock under the big glass dome of the station. My dad left me at the entrance and I ran down the echoing glass tunnel, as if I was late, my bag hitting my legs. The sun shone through the glass roof and I was hot. The tunnel of light ended at Miss McBeath.
The stairs from the pier to the boat were slimey green. I remember looking down and thinking about slipping slowly between the rotten planks into the dark water. The metal rail shook under my tight grip. It’s funny. They wouldn’t allow that now. The rickety stairs and the rusted rail. Then I covered my fear with laughter, now I know I have vertigo and I wasn’t just a coward.
When we first got a car, a wee green Morris Minor, we drove out on a Sunday just for the fun of it. My dad would drive along Greenock pier. We were miles from the edge but I was sick with fear all the time. At least when you’re older you can say no. No I don’t want to drive along the pier because I suffer from vertigo.
Miss McBeath moaned at us most of the journey across but we didn’t care. You can’t spoil a journey like that. We sat at the very front. The way the water whipped over the front of the small boat and made us scream. The taste of salt on our tongues. Like ready salted crisps.
Every time the boat hit a small wave we screamed, showing off to the old man in the wee cabin and the boy who helped with tying up at the pier. The boy was a bit older than us, not much. I remember his hands because they were oily round the nails. I’ve always looked at hands, men’s hands. I discovered when I was in my twenties that I had to go out with hands that were big and square but looked as if the could touch gently. I don’t like soft hands on men and I hate filed nails and pinky rings. Hands are important. They don’t have to be clean but they have to be right.
The water at Kilgreggan pier had a bit of a swell on and the boy had to help us step over the side. I remember he wiped his hand first on his blue jersey and his face flushed at the touch of us.
We stood outside the shop while Miss McBeath and the other Leader went to order the milk and bread. Some of the local boys came along and shouted at us from across the street. One of them looked like the boy from the boat but brave now. When Miss McBeath came out they walked away.
We set off along a dirt track up a hill. The hedge on either side was high. Catriona was breathing funny so I had to stop with her a while until she got her breath back. I think she had asthma but she never said anything about it. We were behind the others now. I told her not to hurry it didn’t matter. I could see Janice’s red hair in the distance anyway.
There was a noise in the hedge beside us and one of the boys, not the one from the boat stuck his head over and shouted something. It sounded like ‘Fuck you,’ but I told Catriona to ignore it. My heart was pounding but I wasn’t frightened. It did cross my mind that at the next gate one of them might show us his willy like that stupid man at the Larkfield shops. I told Catriona not to look round it just encouraged them.
When we caught up with Miss McBeath she was making everyone walk in twos and we had to put our berets back on. Janice hated that beret. She made a face at me and pinned it on the side of her head. I saw Miss McBeath look over but she wasn’t in the mood to argue. The other Leader didn’t care. She just did what Miss McBeath said.
The hedge on either side of the dirt track became trees. The nearer we got to the end of the road, the thicker the trees became. We were walking through a tunnel and all the time the light seeping through onto our shoulders.
The gate to the field was closed. We scrambled onto the bars and looked in.
What can I say about the field. A green womb of a place. The sun dripping through the leaves dancing on the grass. In shafts of light, tiny flies billowed in clouds. And the smell of the place. A thick heady smell of damp earth. I could smell it growing.
It made me scared, scared and excited at the same time.
The tents were in a big pile in the middle. Miss McBeath made us sit round her and she gave us our orders. We scurried about like ants. We had practised the tent in the back garden already but we pretended not to be sure, shouting ‘Miss McBeath, is this right?’ every five minutes. After we put the tent up, our group; Janice, me, Catriona and Kirsty were told to dig the toilets. I’m sure it was because Miss McBeath was annoyed at Janice’s beret. We didn’t mind. We went down to the bottom of the field with the spades.
‘You have to dig deep or else!’ Kirsty held her nose.
‘It’s disgusting,’ said Catriona. ‘I won’t be able to go all weekend.’
‘In France,’ Janice said, ‘they have bogs like this in... well everywhere.’
‘No.’ I couldn’t believe that. Janice was always telling us things like that. She told me there was no God, for example and that there had once been a volcano in Edinburgh. I didn’t believe her, especially about God.
We looked down into the holes and giggled. The holes gaped back at us in anticipation.
Catriona straddled over one. ‘What do you do with your knickers?’she said.
We exploded in laughter at the thought.
Janice never really worked at the holes, not really, or the tent. But when Miss McBeath appeared she always looked busy. It didn’t make Miss McBeath any less suspicious.
‘Have you done your bedroll, Janice?’
Janice always had an answer. ‘Just starting that Miss McBeath.’
When we finished our tent, we flattened the ground sheet, threw our sleeping bags in and crept inside.
I loved it. The way the sun danced on the green canvas and dappled it like the field. If you put your hand on the canvas you could feel the beat of the sun. And the smell had followed me in. Warm grass. You could hear it rustle under the ground sheet when you moved. We put our sleeping bags along the sides. I wanted to go to bed right away.
Miss McBeath told us to go and get ‘freshened up’ before tea. The washrooms were in the opposite corner from the toilets or latrines as Miss McBeath called them. You had to pour some cold water into a basin and splash it under your arms. No one wanted to take off their shirt. I opened three buttons and poked in a wet hand with a rub of soap on it then stuffed in my towel and dried myself.
I was sharing my basin with Janice. Janice waited until I was finished with the water and then unbuttoned her shirt and took it off. She pulled the bra straps off her shoulders and pulled the bra down to her waist and leaned over the basin.
Her breasts were big and creamy white. The ends were pink circles. I remember wanting to touch one. I’d never seen a real breast before. One you could cup in your hand. One that would weigh something.
I was staring. Although the others were behind me I knew they were staring too. Janice ignored us and rubbed soap on her facecloth and carefully circled the breasts, then lifted her towel and patted them dry.
‘Watch this,’ she said, and lifting one in each hand she pointed the pink eyes right at us.
In those days, bras were made of white cotton. The cups were concentric stiffened circles that ended in a point. Except no one could fill that point, no one was that shape so the point curved inwards, a concave. Janice had finished tucking the breasts inside the cups. Even she didn’t fill those end points. She reached in her toilet bag and pulled out a packet of pandrops. She opened the packet and took out two pandrops and pushed one down into the tip of each white cup, popping it forward.
‘Keep these warm for later,’ she said and we laughed. I turned away. My face was pink and in my heart was the sharp green stab of envy.
After tea we sat on the ground round the fire, our knickers damp from the grass.
‘We’ll get piles from this,’ Catriona whispered in my ear.
We sang ‘Land of the Silver Birch, Home of the Beaver’ in three parts. It was my favourite but my mind wasn’t on it. I was wondering what it felt like to roll over in bed with breasts that size and I wanted to be in my sleeping bag, lying in the tent in the dark, thinking.
‘We all have one you know.’ Janice was the only one who didn’t whisper.
There was a short silence and then Kirsty’s voice said.
‘What d’you mean?’
‘We all have a v..u..l..v..a.’ Janice said the word carefully making it longer and sharper than it was.
When the word finally escaped her lips it rose above us and hung there waiting for somebody brave enough to pluck it down. You see we all knew if we asked for more that’s exactly what Janice would give us. More. Then things would have to be faced. Things would have to be thought about.
‘What’s a vulva?’ This time the word was staccato.
I tried to guess the owner of the voice. Was it still Kirsty? My heart was beating faster. I laid my hand on my chest looking for the suggestion of a curve.
‘I thought a vulva was a car.’
The puzzled voice brought screams of hysterical laughter, while the word floated away beyond our derision.
‘Shssssh. Miss McBeath will hear us,’ I said.
We smothered our laughter with the sleeping bags.
‘Catriona! Don’t be stupid!’ said Janice. ‘You’re thinking of a volvo.’
We felt Catriona shrink back in embarassment and sent out waves of comfort into the darkness, but Janice held us now, close to her, like the pandrops.
‘A vulva,’ she said. ‘is a secret place in women, that men like, because it’s moist and inviting.’ The words were chanted like a poem committed to memory.
We thought about it. I remember thinking it sounded like the field to me.
‘Where. Where is it?’ Catriona had returned, undefeated.
‘Between your legs of course.’
I felt my legs move together, the sharp knee bones grind against one another. So there was more than the softness of heavy breasts.
‘Does Miss McBeath... have one?’
There was an intake of breath. It was something I wanted to ask myself. Kirsty’s forthrightness impressed me.
‘Of course.’ Janice was matter of fact. We were beginning to bore her with our silly questions. She yawned loudly and turned on her side. ‘She’s probably playing with it right this minute.’
I closed my eyes and tucked my hands under my pillow to stop them from slipping between my legs and tried not to think about what Miss McBeath might be doing.
The next day was Sunday and we had to go to church.
Janice pinned up her long thick auburn hair in a bun on top of her head.
‘You won’t get your beret on that,’ I said. ‘Miss McBeath will go mad.’
Janice reached up and patted the bun, then pinned the beret jauntily on one side. The blue material of her shirt pulled itself tightly across the cotton pyramids. I noticed the pointy ends and wondered if the pandrops were still there.
We began to line up in twos. I tried to get with Catriona, knowing I would be included in Miss McBeath’s wrath, but my luck was out. Catriona and Kirsty were already together at the front.
‘Janice McVeigh. Put your beret on properly.’
Janice looked innocent. ‘I can’t get it any flatter Miss McBeath, my hair’s too thick. If you like I’ll take my hair down again but it’ll take me five minutes.’
Miss McBeath tutted, her lips thin. ‘We’ve no time now, Janice. We’ll be late for church.’
A green gleam of triumph shone in Janice’s eyes.
We marched in twos down the leafy lane.
At the bottom of the lane three of the boys sat on a fence, waiting for us. The boy with the blue jumper was there. I remembered his hands and looked down. I wondered if his jumper still smelled of the sea. Everyone stopped talking. I suddenly felt silly with my beret and my blue tie and my brass badge. And I kept thinking about things like standing over the toilet hole and what we spoke about in the tent the night before.
The boys started to wolf whistle.
Miss McBeath and the other Leader marched on, ignoring them. Janice slowed down, slanting her eyes towards the boys then away again.
‘Nice baps,’ the boy with the blue jumper said. The other two laughed.
Janice stopped. Suddenly we were left behind as the rest squashed past, anxious to get away. Janice was staring at the boy in the blue jumper. I tried to walk on.
‘Come on Janice.’ I said, tugging her arm.
She’d begun to unbutton her shirt. The boy’s face changed. His hands let go the fence and he sprung down. He was close now. I could smell oil and salt from him. A flush began to spread up his cheek.
Janice slipped her right hand inside her open shirt.
‘Give me your hand,’ she said.
The fingers were thick and the nails circled black.
‘Here,’ she said, dropping the warm white pearl into his hand, ‘have a pandrop.’