About The Book
A novel of the Iolaire disaster.
In the small hours of January 1st, 1919, the cruellest twist of fate changed at a stroke the lives of an entire community.
Tormod Morrison was there that terrible night. He was on board HMY Iolaire when it smashed into rocks and sank, killing some 200 servicemen on the very last leg of their long journey home from war. For Tormod a man unlike others, with artistry in his fingertips the disaster would mark him indelibly.
Two decades later, Alasdair and Rachel are sent to the windswept Isle of Lewis to live with Tormod in his traditional blackhouse home, a world away from the Glasgow of their earliest years. Their grandfather is kind, compassionate, but still deeply affected by the remarkable true story of the Iolaire shipwreck by the selfless heroism and desperate tragedy he witnessed.
A deeply moving novel about passion constrained, coping with loss and a changing world, As the Women Lay Dreaming explores how a single event can so dramatically impact communities, individuals and, indeed, our very souls.
Shortly after meeting me, Great-Uncle Calum grabbed my thigh with his left hand, giving me the most powerful horsebite I’d ever felt.
‘What do you think of that then?’ His face lit up with a wide smile.
‘It was really, really sore.’
‘Aye. Just remember that. I may only have one hand that I can use, but it’s a pretty powerful one. That fist was hammered out on an anvil. Strong as a pair of pincers. Hard as steel.’
I rubbed the place he’d gripped, trying to remove the red marks on my skin. They remained there for a time, each blemish a reminder of the force and power of his hand. ‘But you didn’t cry. That’s good. Not soft like an Aberdonian or a keelie from Glasgow. It’s obvious you’ve got more than a fair share of Lewis blood inside you. You
even look like your mother. Same shade of brown hair. Same sturdy-looking chin. And always that look of defiance. She had that on her face at all times.’
I grinned, my eyes watering at the same time. I felt especially glad that I looked more like my mother than I resembled him. There was his head, bald apart from his straggly, white sideburns, and his unevenly shaved chin. And then there was the way only half his face moved when he talked, every word squeezed from a corner of his lips, his right hand tucked away inside a jacket pocket, as useless and feeble as the other was strong. In the one time he ever spoke about this, he told me that the whole thing had occurred one day when he mocked the minister as a youngster (‘I pulled a face in his direction, and the wind went and changed. I’ve been like this ever since.’)
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Let’s go out and see the place.’
I was glad of that. For too long, it seemed to me, I had been confined by the strangeness of the house. I felt awed by much of what I saw there at our new home, 16b South Dell: the pictures of praying hands and the gospel ship with texts printed on its sails; the black, polished range fuelled by peat that was the source of much of the house’s heat; the large wooden dresser decorated by porcelain. Much of this was ornamental, souvenirs of visits to various towns on the mainland and beyond. Welcome to Liverpool, a plate with a portrait of the Liver Building read, a memento of my great-uncle’s only one time away. A souvenir of Portsmouth, another declared, with a picture of a ship.
On the bottom shelf sat the Bible, black and stern. I watched my grandad open it every morning and evening, his voice becoming sonorous and slow each time he read from its pages. Beside this item of furniture was a large green hooped wooden barrel which my grandma used to both empty and fill at various times of the day, doing the latter each morning she visited the well on the croft. ‘In a wee while, you’ll be the one doing this,’ she told me, ‘so you’d better watch carefully.’ I did as she asked,
looking at the bubbles rising as she dipped the pail, but even as I watched, I was aware this change she mentioned would never happen, that this task would be hers for the
remainder of her life. Her hands were continually drawn to liquid, hovering over it for hours throughout the day. This attraction would even apply to the fish that belonged in it. Sometimes she’d work outside on a catch she had been brought, lifting up ling and coalfish, placing fingers deep into their bellies and tearing out their guts. Seconds
later, she would whirl the fish’s entrails in the direction of some gulls nearby, watching as they flocked down to eat, squabbling over the food. She would rinse the fish in water before laying it down on a board, stretching it out neatly and precisely alongside the others. A few seconds later and the entire movement would be repeated, her gestures flowing as if it were all occurring in water, swimming through the
air of a warm summer’s day.
And then there were the meat and potatoes she used to boil above the fire; the blood she would stir every time an animal was killed, preventing the fluid coagulating and becoming thick and impenetrable; the milk she used to churn and transform into butter and cheese; the way she washed clothes that were often soiled with soot or peat, performing miracles with washboard, tongs and tub. Occasionally she even carried water to the cows who stayed beyond the small door leading to the byre. There was one there that terrified me, pitching her horns in my direction as if she intended to skewer me one day. In my dreams, I sometimes imagined her breaking loose, her black hooves trampling me.
But there were fewer terrors when I was with Calum. Even his smells brought reassurance, constantly reminding me he was by my side. There were the clouds of tobacco smoke swirling from his pipe, the reek of heather that came from his clothes. Sometimes he even captured seeds and petals from that landscape on the bottom of his trousers. Remnants of tiny purple flowers. Grains from the rough grass he sometimes limped upon. The damp reek of peat that dried on the cloth, leaving eventually a dry brown stain.
He took me through the village that morning, showing me a place that – unlike the city I had left – possessed few walls or narrow, tight confines. There were gaps between the houses. Even the new ones with their whitewashed walls and tarred roofs. Or the smaller ones – like our own – with thatch and stonework, steps that led up to the hay layered over years on the roof. Many of them seemed to be occupied by women, who sat by windows, shifting curtains whenever people passed, or stood beside their doorways with brushes in their hands, sweeping their floor clean or hauling a creelful of peats from the stacks beside their homes. They would smile and say a few words in greeting, never letting you slip out of gaze. It was as if they saw me as the ghost of the son they would never have again, cheated out of that presence by some distant field in France, waves washing over the hulk of some ship lying in the Dogger Bank or off the coast of the Falkland isles…
From As the Women Lay Dreaming by Donald S Murray, published by Saraband Books. Out now in paperback £8.99 and ebook £6.99 @SarabandBooks