AUGUST 2, 2013

It’s a beautiful summer’s day. Ian, Mabel and I have come to the Sidlaws and are now looking for a parking space in the shade. Usually we park in the open, looking down over the fertile strath. But today I put the car under trees and point it up a lane that stretches towards the top of the gentle range of hills..

Having helped Mabel eat a cream cake and drink some tea while being perched on the edge of the back seat, I realise I could do with a leg stretch before my back starts to ache. So I take off up the lane.

I’ve only gone a few yards when I become aware of the riches that surround me. I don’t mean the fields of ripening wheat on either side of the lane, being criss-crossed by swallows. I mean the lane itself, which is a blaze of wild flowers. The pale purple-pink of willow herb is the dominant colour. But there is bright hard yellow too, courtesy of ragwort. Goldfinches, usually the most colourful of birds, can hardly compete with the display of the flowering plants, but that’s what they try and do, fluttering from where I’ve disturbed them to a perch further up the lane, showing off intense yellow and red. Bees are clambering over the large soft purple heads of the thistles. Yes, a few bees, those fast-disappearing pollinators of the countryside, each bumble trying to do the work of ten of its ancestors.

Strangely, it’s at this time, surrounded by nature’s rarities and its bounty, that I realise I’ll never hear my mother saying my name again. What a moment of sadness. I look back down the lane to the car, its usually bright red muted by the shade and by the mist over my eyes. Mabel and Ian will be holding hands in the back. I know Ian will be speaking to her or will have given it a go in the last few minutes:

Mabel: “Where’s Duncan gone?”

Ian: “Oh, he’s just gone up the lane to get a bunch of flowers for you, Mabel. Because he knows you can’t get out into the flowers yourself these days.”

Mabel: “Will Duncan (Duncan,
Duncan) be back soon?”

Ian: “Well, he wouldn’t want to stay away from us for too long, would he, what with you and me having brought him into the world and everything?”

Alas, that doesn’t count as hearing my mother saying my name again. Not quite.

When I get back to the car, I don’t in fact have a bunch of flowers, just a few spikes of willow herb. They don’t look as good away from the flock, as it were. So I try and get over the majesty of the willow herb bank using words:

“The display is on one side of the lane in particular. As you’re walking you’re looking through the willow herb towards the sun, and the number of flowering heads, the pale purple spikes and the blushing pink spikes, take your breath away. You just have to lose yourself in the colour. What brings you back to reality are the butterflies, those cabbage whites fluttering amongst the flower towers. Do you get the idea, Mum?”

Mabel does not get the idea. She hasn’t heard my words as far as I can tell. Though whether she’s able to sense the tone in which I’ve spoken, the warmth behind my message, I wouldn’t like to guess. In any case, Ian has heard my words. I appreciate this most fully when he begins to sing a Burns’ song as we’re driving home:

"In ev'ry glen the mavis sang,
AII Nature list'ning seem'd the while,
Except where greenwood echoes rang,
Amang the braes o Ballochmyle."

As I’m helping Mum out of the car at journey’s end, I notice that a guy is loading up his own vehicle. His shock of white hair marks him out as the musician who was playing when I arrived at the home earlier. I tell him that I enjoyed what little music I heard from the lounge as I pushed Mabel along the corridor in her wheelchair, and he stops to introduce himself.

We swop notes about care homes. The group that owns this home must be well down the league of investing in musical activities, I suggest. Eddie confirms that he has to be persistent in order to get bookings from the group at any of its homes, but he is persistent because he knows how important music is to the vast majority of elderly people, including those with dementia.

I’m not in a hurry to move on, as I know Mum is comfortable sitting in her chair in the late afternoon sun. And Ian will be fine sitting in the back of the car for a few minutes more, perhaps able to overhear our conversation. In due course, we mention our own creative activities. Eddie tells me about his project to compose music for the hundreds of song lyrics that Burns wrote.

“Don’t they have tunes already?” I ask.

Eddie tells me that Burns didn’t write original melodies for his songs. Although it’s true that the poet did adapt existing tunes to fit his words.

So far Eddie has come up with melodies he thinks are fitting for several hundred of Burns’ songs and poems. Where can I hear a few? He tells me that if I type in ‘Eddie Cairney’, ‘Burns Revisited’ and ‘Youtube’ into Google, I’ll be able to watch him play several of his versions of Burns songs on the same instrument that he was playing at the home today.

That evening, having sampled both Eddie Cairney’s admirably original versions of Burns and more traditional ones, I realise there is only one person who can render Burns entirely satisfactorily to my ear. And that’s Dad.

Several decades ago, I read that it’s a good idea to make a recording of your parents’ voices, and that if you didn’t it was something you would live to regret. At the time of reading I could see that the article was probably spot on, and yet I’ve never done anything about it.

Now that I can no longer capture Mum’s voice, perhaps that will motivate me to record Dad’s while I still can.

“Duncan!” says a voice in the middle of the night, rebuking me, “listen to your father.”

“Yes, Mum, I will get round to recording Ian’s voice. You can leave it with me.”