The Search for Slate

“Like lost children we live our unfinished adventures.” Guy Debord

Foreword

I think it was Rachel who told me there were some interesting slate to be found on the west coast of Scotland, just south of Oban.  I am familiar with most types of slate found in the UK but have not come across Easdale slate before, and have never visited the Slate Islands.  So, early last summer I took a trip up north, in search of slate.

Actually, I think it was Tilly, not Rachel.

JL

A café near home

Although it is sunny today, it is surprisingly quiet on the terrace. The café sits alongside a large open grass area known fittingly as the Park, near the middle of the city, not far from the University. It is largely an outdoor café although there is a small room inside for inclement weather and for those who prefer the shade. The café is popular with those who use the Park, in particular students, joggers, young mothers and dog walkers. I sit on table 21. You need to know your table number to order food and hot drinks.

I am sipping my flat white when I notice a man sitting cross-legged on the grass about thirty meters away. He has a sketch pad resting on his lap and appears to be drawing the café. He looks up, towards me, he may even be sketching me, sketching me writing while I write about him sketching. We are both creating a record of this moment but they are quite different records, quite separate. I may never see his sketch and he may never read my writing. In fact, this seems quite likely.

This leads to me thinking about what Lisa del Giocondo saw while being painted by Leonardo da Vinci. What was it that she saw that made her smile like that? What was her perspective on the encounter? That’s what I’m thinking while I watch the man sketching. I have no idea what he’s thinking.

Tebay Services, Cumbria

I buy a ham salad roll which turns out, disappointingly, to have ham and cheese in it. I expect whoever prepared it thought I would be pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of cheese but in fact I am unpleasantly surprised as the combination of ham and cheese is not one I enjoy. I could complain but as I suspect they were doing it with positive intentions, I don’t.  I am hungry so I eat the roll anyway even though it is not what I expected, and is not as nice as I expected.

However, although I have eaten something less pleasant than I expected, it proves just as filling as something that might have been as pleasant as I expected, or even more pleasant. The pleasure is not incidental but since the main function of eating the roll was to satisfy my hunger, I conclude that it doesn’t matter how pleasant it was, as long as it is not unpleasant. In which case, in future, I might as well buy the cheapest item, as long as it doesn’t turn out to be unpleasant. But I probably won’t. As I say, the pleasure is not incidental.   

Tarbet

At a pleasant picnic spot on the shores of Loch Lomond an elderly woman throws a ragged tennis ball for her dog, but the dog is not looking and the woman has to go and fetch the ball herself. She walks slowly and awkwardly and finds it hard to bend down. I think she has a bad hip, maybe two. Only after she has picked up the ball does the dog show any interest, so she throws it again and this time the dog retrieves it enthusiastically.

‘Good boy Walter,’ she shouts.

Another woman, younger and fitter, also walks with a dog, a small dog on a long lead.  She wears jogging gear and walks briskly towards the quay where a cruise boat is moored and is slowly filling with passengers. She talks to a man by the quay who appears to be selling tickets. Maybe she is asking if dogs are allowed on the cruise boat. The conversation ends and she walks away. I surmise that either dogs are not allowed on the boat, or now that she knows they are she will take a later cruise. Or maybe the conversation had nothing to do with dogs at all.  The presence of the dog might be irrelevant.

I don’t know what her dog is called.

Ardkinglas

Here in the attractive woodland garden there is a poetry gazebo made from Argyll Oak.  According to the leaflet I acquired from a friendly woman at the entrance gate, the gazebo “houses a scriptorium of tree-related poetry, from Voltaire to Spike Milligan”.  Inside the octagonal structure, it is festooned with some thirty or more wooden plaques, each with a short piece of poetry or prose carved on it. I read them all. There is too many really but I think my favourite is by Thomas Traherne:

A stranger here,

Strange things doth meet, strange glories see;

Strange treasures lodged in this fair world appear,

Strange all and new to me;

But that they mine should be, who nothing was,

That strangest is of all, yet brought to pass.

I walk from the gazebo down towards the river that runs through the garden towards the loch, and pick my way carefully along the side. Here I collect a few flat sparkling stones from the edge of the water. They are not slate but I think they might still be useful.

Inverary

A rusty steamship, flattered by the orange glow of evening sunlight, lies aground in the dock. It is called ‘Vital Spark’ and is black with a red funnel and a patchy red hull – much of the paint has flaked away. It looks distressed, abandoned, sparkless in fact.

There is another boat next to it covered by a pale green awning so I can’t see what it’s called, or what colour it is, but it is smaller than ‘Vital Spark’. Both boats lie alongside a pier overgrown with weeds and fenced off from the quayside by a row of tall metal barriers, linked together but clumsily arranged, sitting at awkward angles to each other.

Everything here is sea-salt rusty; the boats, the buoys on the pier, the iron dock piles, redundant chains, the metal fencing. Even the sign for the Inverary Hotel drips rust. 

I am sitting on a bench outside the hotel, overlooking the quay, when the Glasgow coach pulls in to the bus stop. I know it’s the Glasgow coach because it says so on the front. A handful of passengers disembark, another handful alight. A young man with bulbous headphones and a long black coat who has been waiting at the stop doesn’t alight but wanders away, head bowed. The driver climbs wearily down from his cab, looks at his watch and lights a cigarette. 

The fairy lights adorning the garden of the Inverary Hotel brighten slightly.

Kilmartin Glen

There are three distinct Neolithic monuments in the glen, arranged in a triangle of roughly equal sides. Each monument is about two hundred meters or so from the other two.  I don’t think they were deliberately arranged in this way although I can’t be sure. Together, the trio of monuments comprise a set of large standing stones, a stone circle inside a small wood, and a cairn atop a small stony hillock.

As I pull into the car park, a young couple are leaving the car park on foot and heading along a narrow path towards the nearest monument, the standing stones. He is wearing a black kagool, she a yellow one. By the time I have put on my walking boots, exited the car park along the same path and approached the first monument, they are already on their way to the second monument, the stone circle in the small wood. By the time I depart the first monument, I can see they are already at the stone circle, and by the time I reach the stone circle they are on their way to the third monument, the cairn atop a small stony hillock. By the time I reach the cairn I can see they are on their way back to the car park, and by the time I am back in the car park they have already gone.

I take off my walking boots although I don’t think they were really necessary.

Oban Seafood hut

A young couple sitting opposite me are consuming, with considerable relish, a large platter of seafood – lobster, mussels, whelks, prawns, the works. In the cramped, covered outdoor area we share in the rain, there is no self-consciousness at their indulgence; they are confident, comfortable in their extravagance, happy to share their pleasure with the small group of fellow diners with more modest lunches. I enjoy an excellent crab sandwich.

Alongside the hut, an elderly ruddy-faced man leans on the bonnet of his Land Rover talking loudly on his phone. He is asking someone if it is true that Loch Nell is poisoned. He is concerned as he had been there with his dog that morning. He is satisfied with the response. He then asks if he can pay over the phone, which he can, but I don’t know what for, and how that relates to his enquiry about the poison. Sometimes, things simply don’t make sense.

Oban

Standing on the harbour front, two women walk past me slowly, in deep conversation. They both have long black hair, wear sunglasses and short dresses and smoke long cigarettes, which they hold away from their bodies at hip-height between drags. I suspect, from their shape, their gait, their voices and their age, they are mother and daughter.  They stop further along, out of earshot, and continue to talk, and smoke, and look mildly anxious, glancing around as if expecting something or someone to approach them. After a while, first one (the mother) and then the other (the daughter) discard their cigarettes and stub them out on the path with high heeled shoes. Then they continue on their way, heading in the direction of the distillery.

Later, I am walking back along the front and I see them again, the two women, sat at a table outside a bar, drinking cocktails and smoking, but not talking. The younger one, the daughter, is engrossed in her phone. The mother looks around, still seems anxious. She takes a greedy swig of her cocktail. I walk past and they ignore me.  When I walk back along the front later, they are gone and I don’t see them again.

Thyme Restaurant, Oban

I ask for a glass of red wine and the young waiter brings me rose. I send it back, politely. He returns with two small bottles of Barefoot Merlot. I accept these under the impression that the additional one is by way of apology.

I eat fish and chips, which are palatable but at the seafood hut I could have had half a lobster for the same price, had it been open at this time of the evening. I could have eaten there earlier but that would have meant a long evening with not much to do. I have already read a short story today, and I only ever read one a day. It was about a Bengali woman coming to terms with living in America with her new husband.  While he is at work, she spends her days tracking down the ingredients to make the Bengali meals he likes, but over time he begins to resent her efforts as he wants to eat and live like an American. He thinks she is stuck in the past, their past in Bengal. Things don’t go so well in the bedroom either. At least, that’s the implication. It doesn’t end happily.  

A middle-aged man, one of three on the next table who I imagine are on a work trip, sends his compliments to the chef. His burger was even better than the one he’d had the previous evening in Wetherspoons.  The young waiter says he will pass the message on.

When my bill arrives, I see I’ve been charged for the two bottles of wine. When I point out to the young waiter that I hadn’t ordered two he says he’ll consult his manager. His manager, a short wide women in a dark suit with peroxide blonde hair, attends my table and gruffly points out that I had ordered a large glass. I could respond that one small bottle alone is about the same size as a typical large glass, but I don’t. I pay the bill. I probably would have had two large glasses anyway. But I don’t leave a tip, or send my compliments to the chef.

Calmac Ferry (Oban to Mull)

Once I have left the car deck, I stake out the territory, work out the lie of the land: the lounge, the bar, the restaurant, inside seating area, outside searing area, observation points looking forwards, and backwards, toilets, shop, information point. I take in the dimensions, directions and functions of all the spaces available to me. This way I can make best use of my hour on board the ferry. I settle in a suitable location, in this case the lounge, sit back and begin to enjoy the voyage, taking intermittent excursions to remind me where is where and what is what. I may even settle in a different location at some point, but for now this is fine.

Tobermory

Sitting on a bench near the distillery, overlooking the sea, a car passes behind me. I don’t turn and look so I don’t know what sort of car it is or what sort of person is driving it, whether they are alone or have company. The car passes quickly but as it does I hear a short burst of loud music, loud enough to be heard clearly above the sound of the engine.

“…on the road to my horizon…”

I recognise the singer, it’s Glenn Campbell, but I can’t identify the song. The next line doesn’t come to mind.

So all I have right now are a those few words, spilled from a car window, whilst the rest of the song continues onwards, somewhere into the distance, without me, unknown to me.

It was like that before the car passed by. The song was playing but I couldn’t hear it, I had no idea it was happening. The song didn’t exist for me before or after those few familiar words escaped and found me. A few words and the glimpse of a tune are alone now in my head, they are all I have.

Iona Ferry (Fionnphort to Iona, and back)

On the short ferry crossing from Fionnphort to Iona I sit inside on the lower deck while most of the other foot passengers sit outside on the upper deck. On the way back from Iona to Fionnphort, I choose to sit outside on the upper deck while most of the other foot passengers sit inside on the lower deck. The weather on the way out is dry and blustery with some cloud cover. On the way back it is more cloudy, still blustery with a little drizzle.

Most passengers are foot passengers as cars are not allowed on the island unless for a specific purpose such as deliveries or if you are disabled. Drivers are not allowed to leave their vehicles during the journey, which only takes about ten minutes. There are two vehicles on board on the way over, a black car and a white van. There are no vehicles on the way back.

Iona Abbey

The tour of the Abbey is fully booked and has a maximum of twelve people. Only nine turn up so an elderly man with straggly grey hair and a full beard who turned up on the wrong day is able to join us.  He doesn’t express any great pleasure in this, no more than he showed any disappointment when he was told that he had come on the wrong day, despite travelling all the way from Glasgow. Initially he is asked to wait to see if everyone turns up. Two arrive late, two women who have already been to the gift shop and bought souvenirs, but there is still a spare place so his journey is not wasted after all. The tour guide, and those of us on the tour, seem to get more pleasure from his reprieve than he does himself.  

Our tour guide is Irish, from the mid-lands of Ireland, she tells us. Not midlands, as in England, but mid-lands. County something or other, I don’t quite catch it. She is bright and breezy, like the day, speaks loudly, clearly and confidently, even though she’s only been here two weeks.  She is otherwise a student of Medieval Studies at Trinity Dublin, here for the season and loving it so far. Her name is Mairead.

As we walk around the Abbey, Mairead tells us – me and my fellow pilgrims – all about St Columba, but I confess little of it sinks in.  This is not Mairead’s fault, she is doing an excellent job. She knows so much and imparts it with such vigour and enthusiasm. We are so immersed in her words that none of us have a single question for her throughout the tour. Our interest is fully sated. We have been an excellent group, she tells us at the end, exemplary all round. She gets a smattering of applause from the grateful pilgrims, most of whom now head for the gift shop. 

I do now ask Mairead a question. I ask if there is a public toilet in the Abbey. She apologises and says no, but there is one at the Ferry station.

Aosdana

I am the only person in the jewellery and gift shop, apart from the grey-haired woman in a black sweater standing behind the counter who smiles and says hello. I browse the jewellery, which I find hard to appreciate although I’m sure it’s very fine.  I am waiting for the ferry to arrive and it is drizzling outside so I spend more time in the shop than I had intended, to the point where I feel I should at least buy something. I buy a card that shows a photo of a heart-shaped piece of slate. The grey-haired woman is delighted and puts the card carefully, lovingly, into a paper bag as if it was something fragile, or holy.  She pops in one of the shop’s business cards and seals the bag with a sticker, also emblazened with the shop’s name. She presents it to me like a gift.

I decide this is a lovely shop, that she is a lovely woman and the card is a lovely card.

I tell her that I plan to add the card to my collection, which is pinned up on the wall of my studio. She smiles again but doesn’t say anything. I think perhaps she is disappointed that I am not planning to send it to someone. Maybe I will send it to someone. Maybe I will send it to her.

Calmac Ferry (Mull to Oban)

In the ferry lounge, the Trooping of the Colour is on TV but nobody is watching.

Over the tannoy we are instructed what to do in the unlikely event of an emergency but nobody is listening.

The bar is doing a brisk trade in teas and coffees but nobody is drinking alcohol.

As the ferry pulls away from Craignure I realise with a degree of consternation that I’m at the back of the boat, not the front as I had thought.  I am not inclined to move now I’m settled, but I do move around my table so at least I am facing forward not backwards.

I can no longer see the TV but I wasn’t watching it anyway. I can hear the marching band cross Horse Guards Parade as the ferry marches on towards Oban.

There is no emergency.

Atlantic Visitor Centre, Cullipool

The Centre is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

It is misty with a slight drizzle. In the car park, a small white Nissan pulls up next to me and a family of four, and a dog, climb out. Parents, and two grown-up daughters perhaps. They may be Chinese. The man has a bulky camera hanging from his neck. They walks towards the Centre but don’t seem perturbed by its closure, or the drizzle. They continue past the Centre towards the abandoned slate quarry. He takes some photos while the three women and the dog head off along the coast path.

In the car next to me on the other side a woman sits in her car smoking and talking on her phone. On the seat next to her is a leather handbag which she rifles through while she speaks. It seems like an intense conversation although I can’t hear what she is saying. She glances towards me and I look away.

It is not a good day for collecting slate.

Easdale

It is not raining.

I am walking at the back of the small island of Easdale collecting exquisite pieces of slate from the shore. It is the back of the island because the front faces the village of Ellanabeich on the larger island of Seil. You could argue that the front faces the sea and it’s the back that faces Ellanebeich, but it feels to me that I arrived at the island via the front, not the back. Via the occasional ferry which brings the occasional visitor across to Easdale.

There are remnants of the slate industry here but it is largely abandoned; rows of small, white-washed workers cottages line both sides of the narrow channel between the islands though few seem to be inhabited now.  Large piles of slate are scattered all around the island and along the shoreline. I have come to the back of the island where it is less obvious that I am collecting slate even though I doubt anyone would mind, and there is hardly anyone around to mind anyway.  

I collect small pieces of slate because they are the most useful for my purpose. Not much more than shards of slate really. I focus on picking small pieces that have the characteristic Easdale colouration. This slate contains small square nuggets of iron pyrites, also known as fool’s gold. When exposed to the elements, the iron pyrites decompose to produce smears of red, brown and yellow that stain the surface of the slate. It is as if the slate itself has rusted. Some still have the small square holes, empty now of their crystals. The effect is very pleasing if you are a slate collector, particularly so for my purpose. I collect as many small pieces as I can carry in my rucksack, and one large piece for display purposes.

There is little else to see on Easdale. There is a small café, closed today, a small heritage centre, closed for lunch (where do they go?) and a few other isolated cottages strung around the island. A dog barks somewhere as I walk back towards the ferry. A sea mist blows in and it begins to drizzle again.

Ellanabeich

A major slate quarry once dominated the landscape at Ellanabeich but it now filled with sea water. I walk along the path that skirts the quarry, away from the village. I pass numerous piles of slate stones, typically about a meter or so high, some higher. These are clearly manmade structures, similar to the cairns you find on hill tops, except these do not mark out any routes, and they are grouped together, several dozen of them, on a wide patch of stones between the path and the sea. It is like some alien landscape. I doubt they will survive to become ancient monuments but you never know.

Maybe there is little else to do here these days but build piles of slate, and little else to do with pieces of slate.

Tebay Services, again

The young woman who serves me has a high-pitched voice that makes her seem younger than she probably is.  She enquires as to the sort of day I’m having. I offer a non-committal reply but that appears to satisfy her curiosity.  She seems surprised when I ask her the same question. ‘Good, thanks,’ she squeaks. ‘What can I get for you?’ I place my order, a flat white coffee, and she proceeds to fulfil it, proficiently, while at the same time exchanging words with a colleague about the need to replenish the semi-skimmed milk. She asks if there’s anything more that she can get me today but I decline. She hopes I enjoy my coffee, and enjoy the rest of my day. I hope she does too.

The coffee is better than many I’ve had. 

On the way out of the café there is a touch screen that invites you to press a smiley face if your experience today has been good, or a miserable one if it hasn’t.  I press the smiley face and a green arrow appears with a message thanking me for my feedback. It’s the least I can do.

The Fleece Inn, Dolphinholme

My dinner table is booked for 7.30pm.  It is now 7.27pm.

Outside my first floor bedroom window, I hear voices, happy voices, tipsy voices. I look out and see a bunch of people climbing into a mini-bus, maybe a dozen or so. They are all well-dressed, over-dressed, wedding party-dressed perhaps. They are already having a ball. This is a happy day. 

I switch off the TV mid-match, just as a player is being stretchered off, surrounded by concerned medical staff. I pick up my mobile and a book, although I have no intention of looking at either. It is enough to know that I could if I wanted to, and for others to know I could if I wanted to

It is now 7.30pm.

The café near home

On a nearby table a young male, possibly a student, is talking to an old woman, too old to be his mother but possibly his grandmother. She is small and wiry, bird-like. He is solid, wears shorts, not just today but in all weathers I expect. He likes to look sporty, maybe he is. She is asking him questions, intensely, and he responds with animated answers. He appears to be explaining something to her, maybe something about his course, or perhaps he’s been away and is describing where he’s been and what he’s done. She is attentive, has a fixed smile and nods frequently while he speaks. She is enjoying his explanation, his company. She is interested in what he says. I like that.

Studio, home

I pick up a shard of slate, hold it in the palm of my hand, feel the cool weight of it. It has a shape that I could liken to something, the island of Borneo perhaps, but that wouldn’t help. I think of a shard as something ‘of itself’, a piece of stone typically grey with a few flecks of colour perhaps, but also as something broken, separated from something bigger, a mere remnant but a precious remnant. Each stone is a glimpse of something bigger, something too big to hold, too heavy to carry. All I can possess are glimpses, all I can ever hold, but it remains possible to create a collection, my very own collection of glimpses.

I place a shard of rusty-red Easdale slate alongside a group of others, twenty or so in all, laid out across the tabletop. It adds something new to the array of shapes and shades and textures that already exist but would now be incomplete without it. There are subtle, visible nuances in the array of small pieces that interact dynamically, cohere as something more than the sum of its parts. Not just the shards themselves but the gaps between them; the interstices have shapes, form their own relationships, with each other and with the slate, to create a complete unbroken surface. This is not a bunch of cells but a living organism, not a scattering of stars but a constellation.

I stare at this mosaic and identify some elements that are vaguely familiar, some shapes that conjoin, colours that seep seamlessly across from stone to stone, contours echoing landscapes I may once have visited.  There is no sense in it, perhaps, but there are connections, patterns I can discern, and maybe others can too.

That’s the way I carry on, by creating unique combinations, complex and dynamic juxtapositions – collective wholes that justify the journey, make it all worthwhile. I could move the pieces around, produce new combinations, new dynamics. There is no end of possibilities, almost infinite combinations, but at some point I have to reach a conclusion. I will leave the pieces in a particular combination, particular positions, particular relationships, at least for the time being. The time being now.

Jack Lethbridge

About Jack Lethbridge

Jack Lethbridge is a writer of short stories and fictiones. His work has been short and long listed for the Fish Flash Fiction and Fish Short Story prizes, New Writer Prose and Poetry Prizes, Flash 500, Words with JAM and has been selected for performance at Story Fridays, Bath and for recording by A Word in Your Ear. His stories have been published in the Fish Anthology 2011 and in Kissing Frankenstein and Other Stories, Flash Fiction South West, 2012. A collection of his stories, Neil Armstrong in North Somerset (and more than 50 other short tales) was published by Troubador, 2017. A scientist by background, he contributed The Other Lab column to Null Hypothesis: The Journal of Unlikely Science. Jack studied creative writing at the University of Bristol and has a particular interest in exploring the hazy boundaries of fiction and non-fiction, particularly while wandering aimlessly around his home city of Bristol, UK.

Jack Lethbridge is a writer of short stories and fictiones. His work has been short and long listed for the Fish Flash Fiction and Fish Short Story prizes, New Writer Prose and Poetry Prizes, Flash 500, Words with JAM and has been selected for performance at Story Fridays, Bath and for recording by A Word in Your Ear. His stories have been published in the Fish Anthology 2011 and in Kissing Frankenstein and Other Stories, Flash Fiction South West, 2012. A collection of his stories, Neil Armstrong in North Somerset (and more than 50 other short tales) was published by Troubador, 2017. A scientist by background, he contributed The Other Lab column to Null Hypothesis: The Journal of Unlikely Science. Jack studied creative writing at the University of Bristol and has a particular interest in exploring the hazy boundaries of fiction and non-fiction, particularly while wandering aimlessly around his home city of Bristol, UK.

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