Border Post by Charlie Gracie

I’d nearly given up on the idea of building a border post when I met John in a bar and fell into drinking and chatting, the way you do. He told me about these three acres of scrub and scraggy woodland, damn all use for growing or grazing. The arse end of nowhere John said. Until then, I’d have preferred the bit that sits at the end of the 74, just before the M6 takes over. A big road, a big border. My wee spot has none of that majesty, but I enjoy the way Scotland just spills into England here. It’s more intrinsic to the nature of the thing. Perfect for the bothy.

I’ve been needing to fix this bit of fence for a while now. Hurdles, made from offcuts. The ground is squidgy, even at the roadside, and my wellies stick at almost every step. At this time of the morning the sun has yet to properly appear. The thickness of Kielder to the south, across the border, is a silhouette of black green.

The bothy is two shipping containers, bolted together side by side. It’s post-use, industrial. They have numbers, shipping containers, and you can check where they’ve been if you know the right people. Mine went to Thailand, Singapore, all through the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, across land in France and England and Belgium and Germany and Poland and Belarus and into Ukraine. Ended up in Wales. I painted them blue, sky blue, the colour of flying high.

The containers are forty-foot long. It wasn’t that difficult to work out how to do it, so many things like this on the telly these days, amazing spaces from the insides of people’s heads. John was great: when he was quiet with the sheep he helped me lay the hard stand, then fix the steel boxes together once they’d been lowered into position, one slightly back from the other, to shake up the rectangular shape. I got the company I bought them from to cut a hole in the side of each so they could squeeze together into one thing. The containers came from Swansea, two men in two trucks, and they swung along the tiny roads up through the Kielder Forest. Two borders crossed to get them here.

The kids don’t like it. When their mother died they’d both begged me to come and stay with them, very near fighting over me the way they did with the piano she taught them to play on. It was nice of them, but they know now I won’t be moving back to the city. Sometimes, when the really bad weather starts, when the winds sweep up the Tweed valley and into this scratch of hillside, I’m tempted to give one of them a shout. But that temptation never lasts long. Better hunkered down, listening to the echoes of the outside.  

There are no grandchildren yet. I say yet, but it’s been seven years each of the twins has been settled: Stephen with Rachael, and Laura with Sara. I’d always imagined that Stephen would be the bringer forth of the next generation, but it’s as likely to be Laura I suppose. 

I could fit a set of bunks in there. I can just imagine wee ones waking up and straight out into the wood. They’d be squealing one minute and hiding as quiet as mice the next. Quiet as a stealing fox. Quiet as sweeping owls. 

The French doors on the back and front of each container mean that the bothy’s a bright place. Until you shutter it up of course, then it’s dark and just a big tin can again.

I’ve a double bed and three easy chairs and one of those mini kitchens from Ikea designed for cubs leaving home for the first time. I’d thought about a single bed to make better use of the space, but it seems a shame to give up hope of an occasional tumble. It’s cosy enough, insulated, and I’ve a couple of wood burners that make the place right toasty on the dark days.

Nearly two years I’ve been here, and I don’t talk to that many folk, apart from John. Nice enough big lad he is, even let me stay with him for a few weeks when I was getting the bothy sorted. But he’s up over the brae and has hardly anything to do with me now except the weekly dram at his bit or mine. We alternate. He’s like me, John, a single fella, left on his own with the farm, having looked after his mother since his dad died. He told me that the day we sealed the deal on my land.

Listen to me: my land. A toty corner, right on the end of the country. 

I’ve occasional new neighbours to the south now. They began arriving last autumn. They don’t so much visit, just sit in their vehicles at the side of the road or on chairs in the field and stare over at me. The first two came with dogs in a Fiesta and shouted bastard and scumbag and the likes, and waved a St George’s Cross. They stayed for twenty minutes and drove off again, their horn blaring all the way till they were out of sight. A fortnight later they returned with a white van and a minibus full of people. They pitched two tents and lit a fire. A mixture they were, three or four lassies and a clutch of men and boys. They sat and drank and shouted things until it got dark, then packed everything up and drove off, horns going mad, into the dark of Kielder. They appear every so often and it’s always the same.

Stephen and Laura came down to talk to me after the second time. I knew John must have phoned them because I’d said to him at our weekly dram about it. 

‘Dad. Stephen and I are just worried about you.’

Then he came in. ‘They say anything to you?’

‘Did they hurt you Dad?’

They were only trying to help. I know that. But I chucked them out anyway.

‘Get yourselves to blazes and leave me to live my own life.’ Something like that I said.

They knew well enough to go, and I could see them yattering to each other as they headed to Laura’s fancy motor and away back up the road to Glasgow.

John admitted it was him that told them, just worried a bit about me, didn’t want to cause too much of a fuss. Well, I made it clear to him what kind of fuss you get behind folks’ backs. I was still up at his bit for a dram the next week but. No hard feelings.

When Eileen died there was a bit of money. I gave the kids a few quid, a few thousand in fact, and stuck the rest in the building society. Then I thought, well what the heck, I’d better get it used before I’m fit to be buried.

If I hadn’t bumped into John that time I’d probably have given the rest of the money to Stephen and Laura. Or maybe got a camper and taken off on a road trip: Hull to Zeebrugge, then wander a bit, end up in Italy and back over to France and across to the Têt valley. Then Lille to see Hélène and Luc, stay in their bit for a few days, get the Metro to Roubaix and take in the sculptures at La Piscine.

When you drive from France over into Germany, the back roads from Mulhouse to Freiburg, and you scoot along listening to cheesy Europop, having a grand old time through rough French fields; all of a sudden, with hardly a crackle on the radio, the fields are trimmed and even, rolling over soft hills like a Tellytubby landscape.

Not no border, mind you, only the insinuation of one. A bit like Ireland is now, but not how it was back when the Troubles were bad. 

I got the flagpole up when we were laying the hard stand for the containers. Right deep in I put it, so’s the wind wouldn’t take it down. I just had the Saltire at first. I went for good quality, hand-stitched. Nice flutter it gets. Laura and Sara brought the Standard down a few weeks after I moved in. I alternate them now: month apiece. 

If he’s free, John comes down and salutes while I lower one and raise the other. He shouts Freedom! Just for a laugh. Sometimes people driving past slow down and shout it too. 

Today it’s the lion waving in the blue sky. Red on yellow, and a carrion crow sat on the crown of the pole checking out everything around it. I’ve had a buzzard up there too, crouched and waiting, then wheeling off past the edges of the forest, a squeal when the wind lifted it up.

Once I’ve the fence sorted, there’s logs to be chopped and stacked for the winter. Soup to get on the go too. That’s how to make things last, soup. I try to go to Jedburgh no more than once a fortnight and stock up at the Co-op. It’s only a half hour along the road, but there’s no point being here at all if you don’t be here most of the time. Especially since those bams from down by started arriving.

The funny thing is they never cross over, least not what I’ve seen. It’s not as if the border post has a machine gun or barbed wire or a concrete bunker. Just a flag and Welcome to Scotland. They don’t even seem to enjoy themselves too much, all the shouting and bawling. Whenever I went camping with my pals, even protesting about stuff, we always had a good time. Even when Eileen and I got lifted at Faslane, even then we had a good time, laughing our way into the back of the meat wagon, shouting No Polaris! at the tops of our voices, and being all floppy to make the coppers’ job as hard as possible. Even they seemed to be having a good time. Not these ones over the border but.

Whenever they leave I go across and clear up the cans and crisp packets and milk cartons and bottles. I make sure the smouldering fire’s properly out too. Our bin men must think I’ve a wee problem with the drink with all the cans and bottles I leave in the recycling.

Shortly after the bams first visited I gathered a load of seed heads from thistles and planted them in their bit. It was just for a joke really and I wondered if any of them would get it once the plants appeared. They didn’t seem to notice. Last time I was up at Jedburgh, I saw there’s a patch of giant hogweed near Langlee. I’ll get some of those seeds and scatter them among the thistles, see how they like that. The problem is, right enough, it’ll probably spread right back over here; no respecter of borders the hogweed.

John said it was a bad idea, illegal even. Sometimes I think he sees me like some old fella beyond being able to completely do for himself. He’s right about the hogweed of course, but I’ll do it anyway. 

I de-spludge my welly and fetch the next stab for the fence. Three of the original ones got broken; must have been a car nicked them or something. I said to Stephen yesterday on the phone that I’d replace the whole line, move it all back a bit, make it stronger. Of course, he started on again: ‘Dad, was it them across the way?’ And then he said it might have been John. He’s an awful eejit sometimes, and I said to him. ‘Do you think John’s been bashing my hurdles, son?’ I tried not to laugh when I realised it sounded like a euphemism. It’s not really Stephen’s sense of humour, that. A bit too strait-laced the boy, but I still love him of course. Thank the Lord Laura’s more of a laugh.

The ground here doesn’t rot the wood too badly, but the stabs need to be deep enough in to take the wind buffeting. The problem with digging in boggy ground is that it’s hard to get a hole to stay open long enough. I’ve a pile of flattish stones to bash down beside the stabs to keep them stable. A bit over-engineered, but you have to do that sometimes, make things tougher than need be for the sake of keeping them true.

My spade sticks when I try to pull it out. It needs a tug to get it free. I place the stab in, give it a tap with the flat end of the spade and stand back to check if it’s straight. A wiggle this way, then that way. Stand back again. Dandy. When I put the stones in I know fine it’ll knock the line off, but another wiggle’ll sort it. I’ve a big stack of branches and I’ll use them to fill out the fence. It took me a couple of days to whack them all down with the machete. I cut a load out to head height in a meander through the trees and there’s a better path now, better for me and better for the deer. The light works differently too, as if the place is breathing in the air, and I can see it circulating. 

The sun’s reflecting off the big windows at the front of the bothy. At dawn, it’s still in the shade, but a bit later in the morning there’s usually a moment, like this, when it takes me by surprise. Sometimes it’s the clouds parting that does it, but today the sun has just emerged over the hill. The forest at Kielder is edged bright green, and the grass and the birch trees on the other side of the road are tipped out in gold. The sun is nearly blinding me off the windows. I sit down on a log and look into my own trees. A wee breeze, the light flitter of birch leaves, the songs of birds. There’s a scuffle through the undergrowth just beyond where I’ve been working, but I can’t see what it is. I breathe the air deep into me. Time to brew a coffee before I finish the fence. Above me, on the top of the flag pole, the crow arches itself, then sweeps down over the border, calling.

About the contributor

Charlie Gracie is originally from Baillieston, Glasgow. His novel, To Live With What You Are (Postbox Press, 2019) was long-listed for Bath Novel Award. Diehard Press published his poetry collections, Good Morning (2010) and Tales from the Dartry Mountains (2020). He now lives on the edge of the Trossachs.

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