BY DON J TAYLOR
The first time I seen her, I was with Nikky leaning against the van, having a vape. My motor, you’ve probably seen it around: yellow and green with pictures of cheeky wee pooches with the company name- Dolly’s Dugs- Walking, Grooming and Boarding- all over it. My cousin Liam done the graphics for me at his work. Me and Nikky usually get together at the car park, the one near the grotto, when we’ve finished the afternoon walk. We shove the wee ones in our vans, and have a natter, before they go back tae their ain hooses. I’ve got five regulars: the terriers Roy and Trigger, Tyson (the Staffie, what else?), and the two wee Schnauzers, Kyle and Robbie.
Nikky’s got eight. She was ayeways a bit greedy.
Croy Hill is where we walk the dugs. There, and down by the canal past the old quarry.
On the opposite slope looking across the valley is my wee cottage, number three Shuttle Row. It’s the Kelvin valley, like, though the river’s no more than a ditch round here, running alongside the canal. That wee valley, that’s my whole world. From my living room I can see the boats going by on the canal, up above the fields where the horses stand ankle-deep in mud. When there’s a mist, and that’s most mornings in the winter, it looks like the barges are floating by on a cloud. Then there’s the hill behind that, where my grandpa worked back in the day, in among the clart of the mines, the kilns, and the railtracks.
And way before that there was The Wall. Like I said, that’s where we seen her, one afternoon, back in October. So, she’s walking along the old Roman road, it follows the wall— just a ditch and a mound now— all the way from the Clyde through to the river Forth. Most folk think Hadrian’s Wall down at Newcastle was the frontier for the Roman Empire, but there was one here too. Yes, right here between Kilsyth and Croy.
Nikky told me the old miners said that down the pit, when the machines were shut down, they could hear footsteps above their heads. ‘Some of them thought it was Roman soldiers marching,’ she said. I told Nicky she was soft in the head if she believed that kind of spooky crap.
So, we watch the mystery woman go down the hill, and I says to Nikky, ‘what’s that on her head?’ Had on a sort of grey hood, so she did, though it was hard to see at that distance.
‘Hijab,’ says Nikky.
‘What, an arab?’
‘Aye, Dolly, I seen her in Lidl getting messages. She had thae vouchers.’
‘Oh. Asylum seeker?’
‘Syrian. Nice enough lassie all the same. Gies ye a smile if ye say hello.’
Then, as if she knows we’re talking about her, the woman speeds up and scuttles down towards the canal. Well away from thae two strange women all trussed up in hands-free belts, giving her the evil eye!
‘Shy though,’ Nikky says. ‘Stays down the Bottom End.’
The Bottom End was the crappy houses naebody else wanted. So the Cooncil put the refugees in there, right next to the sewage works. At night you could hear the shit-paddles going roon and roon. Slap, slap, slap.
Nikky turned away. ‘Mylo, get out o’ there! He’s sniffed a fuckin’ dead rabbit again,’ and off she waddled after that ugly wee pug. She’s put on another couple of pounds. Nikky, no’ Mylo. Vegan diet my arse. I’m sure she snaffles the dugs’ food.
When Nikky comes back I ask her: ‘She on her own?’
I look down at my feet and Mylo’s slavering all ower my trainers.
‘Aye, I heard her man’s in the jail over there.’
Nikky yanks Mylo back: ‘Sorry, Dolly, he’s a bit het up.’
I gie Nikky a ‘frosty’. She knows fine when I’m no’ happy. ‘That’s a shame, Nikky.’ I say, ‘Poor soul.’
‘Aye, she walks all over the place, all the time. I seen her out at the Banton Loch on Sunday.’
‘D’you ever talk to her?’
‘No’ really, Dolly. Whit would ye talk aboot?’
‘Wonder what’s she’s like.’
‘No’ like us, anyway,’ says Nikky, squeezing her key fob. Her van chirps back at her.
‘Huh. Who knows?’ I say. ‘See you tomorrow, Nikky.’
So, a couple of days after that I was picking up some books in the library. I like a good horror, and some history books, about round here, and that. I see her over at the computers.
I think, why not say something?
‘Hello there, did I see you up the hill?’ I ask.
She’s tiny, not much more than five foot; like a wee mouse with big shiny brown eyes and dark lashes. She peers over the top of the monitor and gives me a big smile. I’m telling you, it was like a ray of sunshine.
‘I’m Dolly,’ I say, and reach over my hand.
‘Mona,’ she says in a quiet voice, and looks back at the screen. I pretend to read the book I’ve just borrowed.
Mona gives a long sigh.
‘You managing OK on that computer?’ I ask.
‘Actually, I have got little problem. I don’t want to bother lady,’ she says, tilting her head towards the desk.
Lauren, the library assistant is on her phone to the boyfriend.
I tell Mona: ‘I don’t think she would be bothered. Here, let me help,’ and I pull up a chair next to her. She smells kind of sweet and musky at the same time. No’ like me- Eau de Wet Dug.
Mona’s struggling with sizing the screen—searching some history website or something. I’m no expert, but I managed to set up the business, and that. I soon have her sorted. Those computers in the library, they’re antiques.
Mona clocks the book I’m holding- Scotland’s Roman Remains.
‘Are you a student of archaeology?’ she asks.
I goes, ‘No’ really. I walk the dugs up at the wall every day. Thought I’d read a bit about it? Daft really, I suppose.’
‘This is a good book,’ she says, picking it up. ‘My subject, at home, before I escape.’
‘Home?’ I says.
‘Oh right,’ I goes. Like I haven’t guessed.
‘You know the wall was the most northerly frontier for the Roman Empire…’ she says.
‘Aye, I know that much.’
‘…but the Romans occupied it for twenty years only. It was there to keep the barbarians out.’
‘That was us lot, then. Scottish folk. Huh! Couldn’t keep us down. Naebody can.’
‘The people who lived north of here—the natives—were not exactly Scots back then.’ She shrugs and says, ‘the Romans thought it is too expensive to keep legions here after all—a poor place—not worth it.’
‘Cheeky buggers!’ I’m feeling a bit defensive. An edge creeping into my voice.
She looks out the window, its ten in the morning and the library lights are still on. It’s pissing with rain.
No point in falling out over a bit of history, so I say: ‘Put your parka on, Mona, come and have a cuppa.’ I take her over the road to Carlotta’s cafe.
‘Fancy a bacon roll?’ I ask … ‘oh, I’m sorry, you won’t…’ I feel my cheeks going red.
‘No, no its OK,’ she says, waving her hands in front of her. ‘I just don’t like it. Too salty. I like Lorne Sausage.’
‘Righty oh!’ I says. ‘Thought you weren’t allowed…you know.’
‘I’m not a Muslim. Christian…at least my parents were.’
‘But you wear this,’ I said, making a circle round my face with my finger.
‘Hijab?’ She says, ‘It’s just tradition, and cosy too.’
I laugh. ‘Right enough my Nan wore a headscarf, even when the weather was boilin’.’
‘Cosy, it’s correct?’ she asks.
‘Aye cosy is right enough,’ I say. ‘Bonny colour that, goes with your eyes.’ And she smiles again.
‘Not sure if I’m anything now,’ Mona says.
‘Me neither,’ I says. ‘The Sisters of Mercy battered that out of me.’
Carlotta comes up for the order. ‘What are youse havin’’ she says, looking at me, ignoring Mona.
Mona says, ‘A roll and sausage with broon sauce, please.’
Carlotta looks at her like one of my pooches had sat up and spoke. She writes in her pad. Short memory Carlotta- and I don’t mean for taking food orders. Her Nonno, new arrived from Barga, got his shop windows panned in back in the twenties. Just for being a Tally.
‘Broon sauce?’ I says to Mona.
‘Yes, I have that at the holding centre in Edinburgh.’
‘Oh right,’ I says. ‘Broon’s an east coast thing. Round here its tomato- red. But seeing as we’re kind of in the middle of Scotland, borderline, I suppose you can have either.’
When Carlotta’s gone, I ask. ‘You married?’ No point beating about the bush.
Mona picked the crust, like dried blood, off the top of the ketchup bottle. She kept her nails nice, though.
‘My husband, he is prisoner.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ I says.
I’d learned no’ to ask questions about that one. Not first off, anyway.
‘Any weans?’ I ask.
How’re ye gonnae find out anything if ye dinnae ask?
She frowned. ‘Please?’
‘Children,’ I said. ‘You got any children?’
‘We are married four months only. No, not yet.’
So me an Mona got to be quite pally. Bit by bit she opened up and told me stuff: about her man. ‘My husband George, He can’t leave Syria,’ she says.
George worked in a museum, a ‘curator’ she calls him. He was looking after some monuments up a valley in the middle of nowhere, and Isis, they come in and blow them all up. George’s mate was killed, but Mona doesn’t know what happened to her man. And government there are no’ bothered, because George used to write a blog saying this and that about the President. It’s a bit of a mess, but Mona clings on to hope. I feel real sorry for the lassie.
I says, ‘I’ve been single for eight years, and I’ve no’ looked back.’ But I could tell from the way she screwed up her mouth it was the wrong thing to say.
‘Tell you what,’ I says, ‘it’s the bowling club Burns Night tomorrow. Songs and poetry and that. You’ll no understand whit they’re saying, but the haggis is good. And you can have broon sauce on it.’
‘Oh I know about Burns,’ she laughs.
‘I study one year in Moscow. There I have Russian boyfriend and he is Burns fanatic.’
‘So you’ll come?’
‘That would be nice, thank you.’ She laughs and wipes her eye.
We had a ball at the Burns supper. Tuns out Mona’s a rare singer. She knew all the words to The Slave’s Lament that Rabbie wrote, all about a fella that got shipped out from Africa to Virginia.
‘Have a dram,’ I says to Mona.
After the third she lifts her plastic glass up to her eye and says: ‘Dram…Dram…Dream,’ trying the words out like a toddler.
Then she says, ‘I have a dream.’
I goes: ‘Me an’ all. I dream I win the lottery and cop a fit man. One who disnae snore.’ I don’t know why I say that…It’s no’ what I really want, but sometimes I just say stuff to be funny.
‘No, I mean,’ Mona corrects herself with a wee smile, ‘I had a dream. A real one.’
‘I dream I am back in Aleppo, and I give a lecture.’
Mona was a doctor, you see. Not a GP, not a medical doctor: an archaeologist. Roman remains and that. Seems there’s a lot in Syria. Who knew?
She says, ‘well, in my dream I have to talk to students. The topic is the Antonine Wall. Oh my goodness, what a panic’s in my breastie! I didna’ know my subject.’
‘I ken thon dreams. Mine’s is when Tyson craps on the cream shag-pile of that bitch of a bank manager. Oh my God!’ Mona gives me that look that says, gonnae be serious for a minute.
‘But I thought you were clued up on all thae Roman things? Big temples, and that,’ I says.
‘Yes, in the Eastern Mediterranean, but not here. Hence my anxiety.’ She spoke funny English sometimes; picked it up at the Glasgow Uni I suppose. See, she volunteered to help out the archaeologists there. In the better weather, at the ‘evacuation’ in the old fort on the hill. She’s no’ allowed a paid job.
It’s then I spot it.
She reaches across the table for the sugar. She takes her tea that sweet you can stand a spoon in it. I see it: the bangle, a copper bracelet on her wrist. My Nan used to wear one for her arthritis, but no’ like this. Mona’s was made out of, like, copper wires all twisted round each other, kind of greenish too, and the ends carved like snake-heads. I never seen her wear any jewellery before; she said it all got robbed off her in the camps.
‘That’s nice,’ I say, leaning over to take a hold and get a good look. Well! You’d think I’d touched her with a red hot iron. She pulled her hand away and yanked her sleeve down over it.
‘It’s nothing,’ she said. ‘Just …a small gift. From a friend.’
Friend, I think, that’s a new one. Mona keeps herself to herself, except for me, of course. I say nothing, but I know there’s more to it. That was the first time I felt Mona’s no’ being straight with me.
I never seen her until a couple of weeks after that. I’d just dropped Kyle and Robbie off home. I’m running late, so I think, I’ll swing by Tesco’s on my way home. They’ll be marking down prices the now. I might bump into Mona. Right enough, there she is in the ‘reduced’ section, sniffing a pair of yellow label half-price chops. Well, we’ve all done it.
Mona looks kinda tired, dark circles under her eyes. Lost weight too.
‘Hello stranger,’ I says. She jumps.
‘Oh, Dolly, I didnae see you there,’ she says, all nervy.
‘Naw’, I say, ‘you were preoccupied. How’r you getting on? You been avoiding me?’
She opens her mouth to speak, like she’s going to spout all the usual crap folk say when they’re feeling rubbish but won’t let on. Then her shoulders drop, and she says. ‘Oh Dolly, I’m no’ very good. Got time for a chat?’
She’s near greeting. I give her a wee hug and says, ‘Aye, c’mon, hen.’
So we went off to—you guessed it—Carlotta’s, and I ordered up tea for her and Irn Bru for me.
‘I’ve no’ been well, Dolly,’ she starts up.
‘I know what you mean. The flu’s about, I took to my bed half of last week.’
‘No,’ she says, a bit annoyed. ‘It’s no’ flu. It’s…it’s in my head. I think.’
‘Oh aye?’ I’m no’ surprised really, after the things she’s went through.
‘Dolly,’ she says, ‘I tell to you a lie, before.’
‘Is that right?’ I say, not letting on that I’d sussed that one good and proper.
‘This, this amulet…’ she says, fingering the bracelet.
‘Bracelet. It is ancient…nearly two thousand years.’
‘I didnae think you got it off the shopping channel.’
‘I was on the dig…in the fort…where we think the auxiliaries were.’
‘Archers. Soldiers on the frontier were not all from Italy. Many were recruited from across the Empire: Germany, Morocco, and …Syria.’
‘They werenae here, but.’
‘Yes, here, there is evidence. This,’ she says holding up her wrist and touching the bracelet, ‘is evidence.’
I seen scratches on her arm, under the bracelet; weeping blood.
‘Tell me more,’ I says, taking a slug of my Irn Bru.
‘One day I’m on my knees—at the dig—with the trowel and the paintbrush. You need to be so careful. I see something solid. Its green and metal, and round. Now this is something I never do before, but for a reason I cannot explain, I loosen the object and slip it in my pocket. It’s so unprofessional! I cannot believe myself.’
‘A Roman bracelet,’ I say.
‘Not Roman. Syrian, second century.’
‘Syrian? How come?’ I says.
‘I tell you before,’ she said. ‘Archers from Syria were here.’
‘Aye, so you did,’ I say, taking my telling-off. ‘Och, Mona hen. Everyone’s half-inched something once in a while. Who’s gonnae bother?’ I point at her wrist, ‘you just want tae make sure you don’t get a wee infection in that.’ She ignores the paper napkin I push towards her.
‘But that’s not all,’ she says. ‘There’s Seema.’
‘Seema, what’s that?’ I ask.
‘ Its a woman’s name. It means moon,’ says Mona.
‘OK, so who is this moon-lady?’
‘I don’t know how to explain. I think I’m going mad…’ She put her fingers to her temples.
‘Something happen to me, something strange, at the shrine.’
‘What shrine?’ I ask. It’s like she’s talking in riddles.
‘What you call The Grotto, on the hill.’
Up against the bank, below the quarry, there’s the grotto. It’s been there for ever. My Nan said she prayed there with the nuns when she was a wean. It’s built over a spring coming out of the hill. It’s not ‘official’ with a car park, a restaurant and a gift shop, like the one over at Carfin. It’s just something the local folk cooked up.
Somebody made an arch with big round stones, and they’re all painted white. Then there’s a back to the arch, concrete, that’s a powder-blue colour. The wee cupids on each side are blue too. Whoever done it’s no’ a proper brickie cos it’s all a bit ramshackle. There’s a cross, and a statue of Our Lady, with candles in jars in wee alcoves. Then some folk have put flowers—real ones in purple cellophane—and some of the cloth ones you get out of Home Bargains. It front of the grotto there’s flagstones and a brick bench.
Mona goes on, ‘I call it the shrine because there,I research this, people worshipped Fons, the Roman god of springs and wells. So one day I go there. I’m resting, and I hear a voice.’
‘That’s no’ surprising, there’s ay kids up there with a carry-out or a bit of blaw.’
‘No, this was a woman’s voice, about my age I think, and she is speaking to me in my own language!’
Now I am hooked. Something very weird; in her head, or what? I’m no’ sure. And here’s a funny thing too—not that the whole thing isn’t absolutely strange—but I feel a wee bit jealous when she talks about another woman, and one that speaks her language. But I soon forget about that when Mona goes on…
‘I said—to the voice I hear, you understand—‘Bless you sister’. She stop weeping and replies, ‘and you too, my sister.’ Oh my God, what a shock I get, but still there is no one I can see. I find her words hard to understand. She speaks Syriac, but like some strange dialect. ‘Oh my sister she say, help me, help me!’ And she weeps as Rachel wept for her children.’
Mona’s getting more and more wound up.
She says: ‘and so, this woman, Seema, tells me her story. Her husband was a Syrian soldier- a fine bowman. Eighteen years she tells me they live here, on the Wall. It’s hard with the cold and the wet, but they have food and shelter and she looks after him. And in one year, she tells me, he will finish twenty five years’ service. Then he will retire. He, and Seema, his wife, will become Roman Citizen, with pension.’
‘Sounds alright—so he can retire and put his feet up anywhere in the Empire, right?’
‘You make it sound very comfy…cosy. It is not. If she does not stay with her husband then she becomes an alien, abandoned in a strange country, with no income. Any man can use her: the barbarians to the north, or the camp followers in the village behind the Wall. She will be lower than a slave.’
‘But she’s with her man, a citizen…so what’s the problem?’
‘Seema is accused; accused of stealing. She took something from the wife of the Commander, when she is cleaning her quarters.’
‘Tricky,’ I say. ‘I think I know where this is going. I’m guessing the thing she filched was a bracelet?’ I can’t believe I’m saying this.
‘She must return it, or her husband will suffer. He will reject her. He must. But the bracelet is lost, she looks everywhere: in her larder, in her water jars, in the woodpile. But there is no sign. Every day she comes to the shrine to pray to Fons. She needs my help. Dolly, will you help us?’
You know me—never keep my trap shut when I should—so I say, ‘Aye, if I can.’
‘Thank you, thank you,’ she says, and grabs my hands and kisses them. My God, you’d think I had promised the sun and the moon and the stars.
‘No bother,’ I says, near greeting mysel’, ‘what do you want me to do?’
Two days later, my mobile pings in the middle of the night.
A text from Mona: ‘Pick me up plse, I must go. Tonite is the nite.’
It’s black as hell outside. I check the time—four in the morning.
I’ve got three dugs boarding overnight. I open the kennel and shove them in the van. I’m not sure why, they would have been ok on their own for a bit. Maybe I’m a bit rattled.
Mona’s watching out her front window when I drive up.
‘Where are we off to?’ I ask, but I already know.
Fair enough, I say to myself. In for a penny…There’s not much scares me, but I’ll admit that the way she’s writhing around in her seat fair puts the willies up me. Her right hand’s clamped onto the bracelet, like she’s in agony. Every now and then she gives a wee whimper.
I drive down past the old quarry, over the canal and up the brae. It’s a mirky night. Just a faint orange glow on the clouds from the street lights. Left at the sign: Antonine Wall, Ancient Monument.
I swing into the wee track, down through the woods, and park up. I clip on Kyle, leaving the other two in the van, I take my phone out to use the flashlight. Of course Mona’s no’ thought to bring a torch.
The birches and rowans all crowd together down there, and you’d think you’d not get through. But if you take a wee deer path in between the brambles you come to it. Mona stops twenty yards from the grotto. In the gloom I can just make out the statue of Our Lady.
‘Wait here,’ Mona says.
‘Whit am I here for then?’ I ask. ‘Am I just the taxi?’ I was getting a bit pissed off by now.
She turns to me: furious, desperate.
‘Dolly,’ she says, ‘I am going to do something that I do not understand, not one little bit! I need you, my best friend in the world, to watch out for me, to…to…have my back.’
That shuts me up. I know it’s serious. I take a drag on my Vape. Something to calm me doon.
Mona moves towards the Virgin. There’s just enough light to see her way. She crosses herself and sinks down, kneels on the slabs. Then she starts speaking, very quiet, like praying. I take a few steps forward, to hear better. She’s having a conversation. I hear another woman’s voice.
‘Seema!’ Mona says.
Kyle starts that wee wh