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martes, 28 de febrero de 2012

Andrew Williamson 1.0

        The deep-set eyes look out from under a thatch of dark auburn hair. The face is thin with a short ginger beard, high forehead and straight, regular features, the hands large, the tallish frame sparse of flesh but strong and straight. It is November 1857 and he takes a last look at the group of landowners gathered in the shelter on the Kirk before turning away. The filthy mire of the common has soaked his ill-shod feet and the autumn drizzle runs off the nondescript tam o' shanter and down the back of his neck. The Crawfordjohn hiring fair is drawing to a close, and Andrew has not got his shilling. He rests, with hands crossed on the bow of a shepherd's crook worn to a smooth silvery grey by his father's hands, staring at the bleak wall of the church. His expressionless face betrays nothing of the conflicting emotions welling up inside: desire, frustration and embarrassment, disappointment, resentment and fear. Especially fear, the fear inherited from the famine he had barely survived as a boy.  Not even his natural defiance can banish the images etched on his brain since childhood: the hopeless appeal in the eyes of classmates dying of starvation; the train of skeletal Highlanders in bare feet, naked except for a threadbare blanket or cloak, with their big-headed hood-eyed children with swollen bellies passing daily through the village on their way to Glasgow in a phantasmal procession of walking dead; Tom falling sick from eating boiled grass; the shrunken face of his dead mother. But there is no outward sign of turmoil as he stares at the Kirk, his eyes as still as the mist-shrouded line of birches on the ridge behind the village.

"You'd be John Williamson's boy Andrew, wouldn't ye?"
Andrew lowered his eyes to take in the squat figure of Douglas Macgregor, farmer.
"Ye've got my deepest sympathy young Andrew, your father was a good hard-working man".
"Aye, that he was".
"How old are ye now, lad?"
"Two and twenty come January".
"Aye, time flies". Macgregor looked down, avoiding the level gaze of the younger man. "Still, I won't be needing another shepherd this year.  Good luck t'ye!"

The landowner stomped off through the mire. Andrew looked around. The fair was over, at least the hiring part. Now the dancing and drinking was beginning in front of the tavern across the way. He followed the movements of a yellow bonnet amongst the throng of other dancers, seemingly lost in thought. His reverie was interrupted by a tinker, a small nuggety man of about forty who was rolling a shiny new shilling around the fingers of his right hand.
"I got me shillin'," he offered, "I seen you dinna get a place lad. Can I invite ye to a dram?" Andrew shook his head. "I tell ye what lad", continued the tinker, "ye canna stare at the gentry. They'll not hire ye. Ye gotta be 'umble or ye're goin' to starve".
"Go to the devil man! Who asked your opinion?" Andrew spat out. "I've got better things to do than get drunk with a stinking tinker".
"Aye, I seen you lookin' at 'er", said the tinker. "Fat chance!"

He had arrived when the hiring fair was in full swing, taking his place amongst the
shepherds each holding a crook or a tuft of wool as a sign of their trade. Next to him, a group of cowmen with pails and dairymaids with milking stools chatted and laughed together, and further off housemaids held brooms or mops. There was a festive atmosphere, a great deal of flirting and joking and some red faces that betrayed early visits to the inn. The smell of sweat and steaming clothes assaulted his nostrils and his ears rang with the noise of shouting voices, laughter, and the screams of excited girls whose petticoats were menaced by the scissors of a jovial tailor. Standing on tiptoe Andrew tried to look over the heads of the crowd to find his brother Robbie who, because he was only seventeen years old and without a trade, could only aspire to a place as a general farm hand. Instead, he caught sight of the yellow  bonnet, and under the bonnet a pair of black eyes unflinchingly met his. A derisive smile played around the red mouth of Kathleen Morrison as she stood only a few yards away wagging her big wooden cooks' spoon at him across the sea of bobbing heads. Andrew's stomach contracted and the blood rushed to his head in a wave of desire that left him stunned. He could only return a weak smile, and knew as he did so that it made him look silly and inept. He dropped back on his heels but it was too late: in a second there she was, confronting him with a taunting grin.
"Oh, young Andrew Williamson, are you going to dance with me later?"
"Err... I can't come to the dance. My brother..."
"Oh yes, poor Tom. Isn't he any better? What a pity, you are so good looking Andrew Williamson; I'm just dying to show off with you. Do come!"
Andrew felt the flush rise to his face. The desire to take her wet shoulders in his hands overcame him and he raised them, crook and all, unable to speak. "Oh, he's blushing, poor boy. Don't worry, your reverend William Goldie isn't here. He's gone over to Leadhills".
At the mention of the minister's name Andrew's arms fell back to his sides and the crook rattled to the ground. As he bent to pick it up his face brushed her gown and he smelt the musky reek of her and when he stood up it was on trembling legs. "Never mind", she said. "If you can't you can't. There's plenty more who will. But if you change your mind you know where to find me".

Andrew pushed open the door and stooped to enter the cottage, pausing and rubbing his eyes to accustom them to the smoke. It was late afternoon and the cottage, with its one small window, was in darkness except for the dull glow of the coal fire. He hung his cloak on a peg behind the door and peered through the smoky air. Thomas, his eldest brother, was huddled as usual in the corner next to the hearth that sent puffs of acrid smoke into the room every time the door was opened, his white face with its stark orange freckles staring with mute reproach at the newcomer. Nobody else was home.
"Where's Robbie?" asked Andrew. "Did he get a place?"
The cottage had two rooms: the 'but-end' with its open hearth was kitchen, dining room and living room, and the 'ben-end' with its three box-beds the sleeping room.
"Hasn't been back home", said Thomas. "What about you?"
"No luck. Macgregor said he don't need shepherds this year. I reckon he's got some Paddy on the cheap. Nobody else even put me the question. How are you Tom?"
"I'm alright, don't you worry about me, I don't need nothing".
So Robert, the charming, carefree Robbie, was their only hope of surviving the winter. Andrew knew they could expect little help from the married brothers James and George who now had their own children to feed. And John and David, the other two single men still living at home, barely earned enough to keep the five of them in oats and coals. John had finished his apprenticeship and was working as a draper's assistant in Abington, three miles away, and David, who loved horses, was a stable hand at the inn, but even their combined incomes would not be enough. Andrew knew that Tom would not survive the winter if he couldn't get meat, eggs or milk to vary the constant diet of porridge and boiled potatoes.
It was dark when John and David arrived, together as usual. They already knew that Andrew hadn't got a place, having passed though the common on the way home. And they had news about Robbie: he had got his shilling as a general farm hand.

Tom did not survive the winter, dying in March. After the funeral the four brothers returned to the cottage and sat around the smouldering fire. David, Andrew and Robbie waited for John to speak first. Not only was this deference his right now that he was the eldest unmarried brother, but his pragmatic intelligence, steady character and ambition endowed him with natural leadership. "I've been corresponding with a drapery in England, in Wiltshire. It's a good place they've offered me and I am going to take it. There's more and better work in England than here, a man can make a living. Robbie, you'll come with me. You others can decide for yourselves".
"I'm not going to England", said Andrew. "I'd rather emigrate and live with savages than with the English".
"Oh, Andy, take me with you!" burst out Robert. "Why don't we go to America and find a fortune in gold?"
"How can you emigrate if you haven't got a penny to your name?" said David. "Besides, you've taken the shilling and probably spent it too. You've got to stay here until next Michaelmas. As for me, I'm going with John. There's work with horses in England. I'm not going to risk drowning or getting eaten by cannibals. England for me. Who cares if you hate them?" he turned to Andrew, "don't you hate the gentry here?"
"Aye, but at least I know them. I'll be going over to Greenock next week. There's assisted emigration, I've seen the notices. You can go to Australia for four pounds." He was silent a moment. "I know I haven't got four pounds, but we have to sell the cottage. A hundred and twenty pounds I reckon we could get, that makes twenty pounds each counting Jamie and Georgie and us four.  You two are going to England, you need money to make a start. Robbie can go too after Michaelmas, it's only seven months 'till he gets his wages. He can stay with James or George even if he has to sleep in the but-end. That only leaves me and I'm not staying here. Lot's of men are emigrating... and women too".

He stopped, suddenly aware of the bare silence that greeted his words. He looked around: three pairs of eyes stared mutely back. The freehold on the cottage went back to their great-grandfather George, the first Williamson to arrive in Crawfordjohn from Lanark more than  100 years ago, in the days when the village was a busy and prosperous  junction with stables, inns, schools and its own market. Now, a decade after the potato famine, it had become a stagnant backwater. New roads had left it stranded far from the main thoroughfares. But for all that the cottage was still the family. If they didn't live there they would no longer be the Williamsons of Crawfordjohn. Each brother stared into this new chasm, and the sepulchural silence was broken only by the moan of the wind in the eaves.
Andrew stood up. "I'll never get on here", he murmured. "I need to know. Tomorrow".

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