TIL A' THE SEAS GANG DRY
The young man opened the door to the pub.
It was dark inside, as always. The crackling scent of the peat fire tickled his nose as he entered into the suffocating warmth of the pub. The walls were blackened from years of smoke, from the peat-fire, from the pipes. The wooden tables and chairs made up a sparse environment, but the attraction here were the inhabitants rather than the decoration. It was Ayr, after all, not much more than a tiny farming village unheard of by the rest of the world.
One day, the young man with the dirty face and torn clothing would be the reason the world had heard of Ayrshire.
He sat down at a table, unsure of himself. He had a few coins in his pocket but that was all. His stern father believed him to be too much of a dreamer, always mooning after young women and not keeping his mind on his work. He sighed, and scrubbed a hand over his face. It had been a long, hard day. They all were, for a ploughman; up before dawn, backbreaking work in the fields until it was too dark to see. His family was poor, and he was often hungry. His clothes hung off his frame. He would be handsome – devilishly so – if he'd been well-fed and taken care of. As it was, he simply looked gaunt, peering out at the world with too-large doe eyes that broadcast his innocence to the universe, and made him the perfect victim.
“Can I buy you a drink?” rumbled a deep voice near his elbow.
He looked up into eyes so green he couldn't believe they were real. Even in the darkness of the pub, they shone like translucent jade. The hard lines of the man's face spoke of a harsh life, and the pipe he held in one hand curled smoke as he put it to soft, full lips.
“Yes?” said the young man cautiously. He wondered why he'd focused on the man's mouth.
“What're you having?” he asked.
“Wh – whisky,” he stammered.
“Like your eyes,” said the man, dropping him a wink, and pushed off towards the bar.
Robert's mouth hung open. Did the man just -
“Robert,” said another voice. This he knew – it was an old friend.
“Dougal,” Robert nodded.
“It's been arranged,” Dougal said.
“Dougal,” said Robert, starting to panic, “I really don't think that's -”
“Robert,” said Dougal, insistent, “You are made for more than this. You have a real talent! You'll be a great poet, you just need to be able to accept it. The only way anyone is ever going to know is if you stand up and do it.”
“My father -” Robert protested. Dougal sighed.
“Your father is not your king and commander!” he said, “He can't live forever. No one can.”
“So you're a poet,” said the stranger, returning to set a large glass of whisky in front of Robert.
Dougal nodded, and made himself scarce, Robert staring after him with questioning eyes.
“I – sometimes I write,” he said.
“He mentioned you're doing a recitation?” asked the man.
“Yes,” Robert mumbled, “Next week. Dougal is...forceful.”
The man grinned. Robert's heart nearly stopped.
“The best kind,” he said, “So. What do you know about monsters?”
Robert cleared his throat and stuttered.
“M – monsters?” he asked.
“You'll have to work on that,” said the other man, “you're never going to be able to recite poetry if you're nervous. You remind me of a snake charmer I met in Penang once. Told me he couldn't handle the snakes if he was scared and they always knew. Almost got killed by his king cobra, too. They can sense it, Faisal said.”
Robert's eyes were wide.
“You've been to Malay?” he asked. The entire world opened up like a gulf at his feet when the man nodded and grinned.
“People aren't snakes,” Robert said then. The man just quirked an eyebrow.
“Where...where else have you been?” Robert asked.
“You're very handsome,” said the man suddenly, ignoring his question, “It's breathtaking, really.”
Robert stared. He'd never heard anyone say something so direct to anyone else, man or woman. There was a coiled strength there, in this man, whoever he was; quiet and calm but clear as the build of an ocean wave that would rain desolation, an unexpected force of nature, irresistible, resisting. His eyes were so green Robert was having trouble believing they were real, lit up from within, as though the man was made of light barely contained and beautiful.
However, at this point in Robert's career as a poet, what came out was “Er?”
“Some island cultures don't have bards to speak of,” the man continued, as if he hadn't just destroyed Robert's composure, “but they sing their histories, and they believe that if you can't, you have no soul.”
“Where else have you been?” Robert repeated.
The man grinned. Robert was lost.
“Everywhere,” he replied.
The man began to recite stories from across Scotland, from across time, and Robert was drowning. Adventure did not often come to Alloway, and until tonight, Robert had consigned himself to the dreary existence of a ploughman in a tiny corner of the world, his heart full of love and poetry but knowing that wasn't going to get the chores done. Here it was – world travel, adventure, stories of strange sunsets and a flash of green, green like his eyes, of deep jungles of arid deserts of long empty beaches white, white, soft and pure as this man's skin. Robert wondered, briefly, through the haze of alcohol, if there was something fey about the man, because he was hypnotised, swaying, falling...drowning, drowning in that eternal, endless green.
“But what about you?” asked the man.
Robert was jolted back to reality.
“M – me?” he asked, “What do you mean?”
“Tell me about yourself,” said the man, “What do you do? You write poetry, about what? Have you ever been anywhere?”
“Why?” asked Robert, defensive. Nobody had ever asked him this before. Nobody had cared. He was just a stupid peasant farmer, one out of countless thousands living out the eternal birth-to-death of working the fields so the rich could eat, pausing on the way to create children and perpetuate the cycle.
“Because,” said the man, grinning, leaning closer, conspiratorial, “that's how you make friends.”
“Well,” Robert began, “I was born here in Alloway – my mum said that the door blew open when I was born, the wind was so strong. I live with my parents on our farm and – but this is very boring, you don't want to hear this.”
The man only leaned forward, engrossed, as if Robert's story was just as interesting as his endless travels, as if Robert was a thing beautiful and beloved.
Robert took a deep breath and continued.
“My father and I don't get on,” he began, “and they don't approve of the poetry – they don't think it's worth much to a poor farmer, but I can't help it, it's just there, I'm just compelled to write. I don't think I could stop even if I tried.”
Robert must not have realised how much he needed this, because he poured out his life and soul to this man who sat there looking at him, smiling fondly, not interrupting, laughing when the story was funny, brow creasing when the story was sad. As Robert talked, he took in the careworn lines on the face, on the hands, the fingers wrapped delicately around the stem of the pipe, and sensed that this man had suffered greatly, and for a long time; he could read this unspoken sorrow in the drawn-down cast of his mouth, especially when Robert talked about his own difficulties. The man's expression would change, subtle and fierce, the look of someone that would seek out and destroy anything that hurt Robert, or anyone he cared about. Military, Robert thought at one point, or a warrior built of other blood and bone.
The man kept buying drinks – good whisky, too, not the terrible low-quality kind Robert could afford, but the type usually kept away from most of Ayr society and brought out for weddings or visiting dignitaries. As the night wore on, he grew bolder; his shyness fell away and he began talking with feeling about the small animals he encountered in the field, about his father, about his life. The man simply sat there and listened, drawing on the pipe and gently exhaling smoke from a mouth Robert first thought was beautiful and then was hungry for.
As he watched those lips tighten around the stem of the pipe once again, he forgot where he was, who he was, about his father or his poetry or his future or past. He wanted to touch those lips with his, to breathe the smoke into himself, to take this man into himself.
Somewhere a voice in his head was speaking in a frantic tattoo
what are you doing this is Alloway this is your local the vicar is probably still here what you are doing is illegal men get hung for this Robert get ahold of yourself
and he leaned forward as the other man dropped the pipe from his lips and breathed out, tendrils of smoke rising around the face lined with sorrow and darkness.
The other man abruptly stood, offering his hand to Robert.
“You'd better get home,” he said, and Robert was startled out of his reverie to notice the loud ringing of the bell signifying closing time. He groaned. His father would be very angry, as he had never stayed out quite so late before – nor had he ever been quite so drunk before. It was not alcohol that ran fire and light through his veins, and he allowed the man to lead him out the door. In the darkness, the man bowed to him, and Robert watched him walk away, smoke curling around him like a lover, til he disappeared into the darkness.
Robert turned in a daze, taking the path through the forest home to his farm. As he fell into his bed that night, alight with love, he suddenly realised he'd never asked for the man's name.
He woke to sunlight streaming into his room, and groaned with the headache pounding through what seemed like his entire body.
“Robert!” his father was calling. He sat up quickly, and immediately regretted it. He was late – very late – and the field needed ploughing. He was going to hate today.
As he pushed the plough forward with all his strength, thanking God and his angels for the sticky porridge breakfast he'd never much liked before, he considered the events of the previous night.
You just fell in love, said his mind, with a man.
Robert considered this, worried.
Did that mean anything? He had heard of it before. He considered.
No, he decided eventually, love is love.
He could not deny the way his heart felt, his entire being, and he decided that his current goal in life was to get the man's name. He wondered if he would be interested, or horrified, or if he felt the same.
He compared my eyes to whisky, thought Robert fondly.
And I know I will see him again, because I am going to recite my poetry, and he promised he would not miss it for the world.
Determined, Robert Burns ploughed the fields, and for the first time looked forward to his performance.
His heart leapt in his chest when he saw through the smoke, pushing through the door into the warm, cloying darkness of the pub. The chill of the cold grey evening had dampened his skin, his arms clammy; he did not even have a plaid to keep himself warm, and had soldiered on to the pub and the warmth he knew was waiting. If the audience liked his poem, he hoped for enough whisky to convince him he was warm inside on his long walk back to the farm later that night in the darkness.
There was the man he had met, as he'd promised to be, at one of the dark wooden tables nearest the leaping fire. Robert felt his heart twist when he saw another man sitting next to him, a man slender and so intensely beautiful he wondered if the other patrons had noticed. Jealousy streaked through his veins before he was quite aware what he was feeling; was this other man a lover? A friend? Either way he'd known those green, green eyes longer than Robert had, and it made him irrationally furious; the stranger's companion had an ethereal beauty made him feel inadequate and sad.
And then the man looked at him – those bright, too-bright green eyes glowed like embers, and Robert recovered his strength, his confidence, as Dougal grinned and shook his hand, and almost pushed Robert in front of the audience.
He turned, looked out across the darkness at the eyes trained on him, but he only saw the green, the green of the jungles this man had walked through, of the oceans he'd crossed, of the soft earth and grasses he had walked on every continent from here to Siam, and it was there, his anchor and safe harbour, becalmed, a fringe of green palms around the white sand of a lagoon, green eyes and fair skin and the histories of the miles underneath this man's feet.
Robert knew he was in love, believed with all his soul that it was with a man, and in that moment, did not care.
Robert Burns opened his mouth, and began to recite his poetry for the first time in a history that would follow him down.