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Papa Stronsay

Grandfather Gray was a long lean Scot from the Orkney Islands. We knew him when he was very old. Always in a thin grey ivory-buttoned sweater with sleeves that were too short. Grey baggy slacks held up by grey suspenders with silver cross bits. Sparse grey hair stroked back with a comb he kept on the mantlepiece.


My sister visited me in the sixties after actually seeing Bob Dylan have his motorcycle accident.

“We were at an ice cream stand. Suddenly there was a Triumph going about a hundred and ten this guy in black leather big hair pinned back by the wind black boots black leather gloves at the handle bars. Leaning down, forward. Some yellow orange rider on the back puffy arms around Bob's waist. Jeremy points and screams, “Look out a squirrel!” Jeremy’s triple scoop of pistachio goes flying out of the cone. Bob shifts his concentration. We saw his head turn. Eyes off the road. Then back. He sees the squirrel !

Front wheel right veer. The squirrel leaps up a fucking impossible height and lands in the middle of Bob's curls. His left hand reaches for it.

Well that’s the end. Triumph goes over flat into a prolonged spin twist, the person on the back floats skywards Bob is flung with horrid heavy bounces across the pavement awful pulpy skull whacks. We run to him. Jeremy screams," Oh my god it’s Bob bloody Dylan," and yells at the ice cream lady to phone for an ambulance.”

“Was he unconscious ?”

“No, but the squirrel was and to start with all Bob was worried about bless him was that squirrel. He says, "Is the squirrrrel okay is the squirrrrrel okay in that voice. Like Blowing in the Wind for fucks sake but about a squirrel.

And only then he says, “ Where’s Gladys?” Panic fills his eyes. Jeremy looks up and says, “ Gladys is in the tree.” Bob says, Hide the lady hide the lady.”

Jeremy climbs up and brings her down. It was a sex doll. I says, “ You’re Bob Dylan.” Jeremy says, “ Sign Gladys and we will take her away and gives him a ballpoint. Bob signed very slowly, concentrating hard then finally, heavy lidded, passes out. We sold Gladys later at a boot sale. Got a hundred dollars. If we had her today she’d be worth thousands. “

We passed around a joint and began to talk of childhood.

“ Do you have any idea what grandfather Gray sounded like? Did you ever hear him speak ?”

“Never... ever.”

“ Never?” repeated Jeremy.

“Nope," we both said at once and slow motion doubled up laughing under a magnificent starry black northern Neill Young sky.


Grandad Gray sat for hours in his threadbare, green with gold flecks chair, large blue-veined hands enveloping the daily crossword puzzle of the Evening Tribune. You could smell the black ink of the newspaper across the room. It burned my young eyes; if I walked too close it gave me sneezing fits.

He worked away at the puzzles continuously, dime store grey glasses at nose end, a stubby yellow pencil with a worn down pink rubber aimed precisely at little waiting boxes.

“Don’t stare,” my mother would whisper. But it was impossible not to.


There was an early black and white television in the corner facing grandad to the right of the living-room window. To the left of the television was the budgie cage. The budgie was named Allan and was green. During my lifetime of visits there were many Allans. They always perched on our grandmother’s glasses as she sat in her chair knitting socks. They all whistled and asked “ Who’s a Pretty boy?”

My grandmother would answer back, “Who’s a pretty boy?”

My sister said, “She should answer the question. I mean it’s the only thing it wants to know.”

We would visit every Sunday evening and sit on the carpet in the middle of the living-room and watch television variety shows. When spinning plates, acrobats, box sawing magicians and the remnants of vaudeville comedians wore out a life’s work on the tube in a ten minute set. Post war band crooners warbled and Bing and Bob pattered, tipped hats and sang duets.

When there as a really exciting act grandad would inevitably stand up and approach the budgie cage, which meant he was in front of the TV, and start to fuss with Allan.

We didn’t know at the time but my uncle explained this was certainly done to us on purpose and was called Orkney “teasing’. In other words, he said, “randomly annoying the hell out of little kids for the fun of it. Then added “What else ya got to do on Papa Stronsay?”


In the Orkneys my grandfather’s father was known, we were told, for sitting on a rock, staring out over the cold grey wind swept sea and talking to it.

“ He called it Gladys,” my dad said. Nobody knows why.”

The Gray family’s lineage was traced to Papa Stronsay by my sister. That would be the 7th or 8th century. She said, “It was a mission site for servicing the needs of the Stylite Hermits who marooned themselves on Orkney’s rock stacks. Think of it.”

We did.

Silent in his chair. Playing with language on folded newsprint. Staring at American jugglers and Frank Sinatra on a tiny black and white TV. Budgie riding bifocals.

“Who’s a pretty boy?”

“ DNA mind fuck,” I said.


But grandad must have talked at some time or other because there were stories. That he had delivered post on a pony in the Orkneys as a young boy. That one snow blizzard gale force day the pony had slipped and the post had been scattered everywhere across the rock and deep snow.

That he travelled far south to Aberdeen and became a master carpenter. Then travelled to New York for several years to build spiral staircases on great cruise ships.

That in the second world war he was in communications and had to climb up telegraph poles in sight of German sharp shooters.

That one night his company pitched up in a barn but unable to sleep he walked across the road and curled up in some bushes. That at dawn the Germans shelled the barn and everyone but grandad was blown to bits.

That one close friend was shot and left to die in no man’s land. After a few days he was rescued by German troops and taken to a field hospital. The doctor said that his wound had been infested by maggots. That they had kept it clean and this had saved his life.


George Gray married an Aberdeen girl named Jean after the war. Jean gave birth to my mother and with her siblings George and Olive they boarded a ship at Glasgow and sailed to North America. Jean’s sisters followed. One settled in Maine and one in New Jersey.

George and his family chose Canada. He built his own house and with my father built ours.

“That’s quite a life,” my sister said.


At the end of every Sunday evening, as my mother announced that it was time to go, grandad would walk slowly through the dining room to the kitchen. We put on our coats, kissed knitting grandma and then we too walked through the dining room. Standing at the top of the stairs that led down to the back door George Gray would hand both my sister and I a bottle of Coca Cola in a brown paper bag tied with a white string bow. Then he would shake our hand and secretly transfer a folded up one dollar bill into our small hands.

We knew he loved us.


One weekend when we were home from university grandad, now in his late nineties, was slowly strolling the backyard garden spraying deadly chemicals at the flower beds and deeply inhaling the perfumed mist.

In the living room we saw the folded crossword on the seat of his green chair. A small dictionary was pushed down in the space between the seat and the arm on the right side. My sister picked up the crossword.

She glanced at it, then held it out to me with dancing eyes.

In the middle of a ten word space he had put down ‘pillow’. In a three word space was ‘yht’. Another row had ‘zzzzzzck’. ‘Cat’ was at the end of a seven word space.

My sister said, “ Maybe it was a small cat” She slid out the dictionary.

It was a small book about origami.

In Japanese.

“ Papa Stronsay rock stare blues,” she whispered.


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