|Tam and Scabs an the empty boattle a Buckie.
“Pure dead borin, so it is.”
“Doggin school. Near as borin as gaun.”
Shops to the back: nae dosh but, an awready barred.
Motorway fankle to the front. Nae motor.
Hooses tae the left. Security entrances.
“Heh, Scabs!” Tam points to the right.
Physogue dead shiny and no a hair oota place. Heid and violin case stuffed wi learnin. Afghan jaiket and designer blue jeans.
“Heh, you lassie!” swankin sideyweys. “Wherr ye aftae?”
Eyes dead straight, nose dead high, dead fast an edgy.
“Here, here!” waltzin roon, chuckin her under the chin.
Roon blue eyes, roon reid mooth.
“Ooh-aah! Hear at, Tam? Nippy sweetie, eh?!”
Grab at the hauns, roon the dunny, up agin the jaggy wa. Wiggle the bahookie.
“Gies yon wee shimmy again, doll.”
Scabs sooks the air, gallus, waants Tam tae get right in therr, feart an waants him tae stoap, but.
“Heh, goanny no….Err someb’dy comin ….come an we’ll shoot the craw?”
Tam looks her in the physogue.
Rachel stares him down.
Shifty his gaze, steady hers. Beetle his brow, aquiline hers, plebeian his tones, patrician hers, lumbering his gait, gazelle‑like hers, rotting his teeth, gleaming hers, rancid his breath, fragrant hers, scrubby his hair, glossy hers, sweaty his clothes, laundered hers, peppered with blackheads his skin, creamy hers.
Rachel, winner of the gold cup in the 500 metres hurdles inter-schools championship, en route from her music lesson to her self-defence class. Bringing all three skills into play, she knees Tam in the groin, banjoes him with the violin case, spits “Bloody Neanderthal!”, races for the school. Adolescent braying and broken-voiced squeaks follow in her wake.
Rare talent and rarer pedigree. Pinky-blue blood, truly blue genes.
Current palaeontological fashion denies her very existence.
35,000 years ago, a bird circling near the coastline above the present-day Basque country would have looked down on a man, combing a parting in metre‑high grass. One of a few moving flecks on the face of Europe between tree line and ice.
The man had spent that afternoon in fighting, pebbles against poison darts, wooden spears against stone axes, trapped with the acquaintance of his world between a superior force and death by drowning.
The man spent the evening in running, all lost, jagged rocks scraping the skin off his hands and feet, scrubland where roots sent him sprawling.
The man spent the night in weeping, in a stunted tree, back against the trunk, feet against a fork.
The man spent the morning after in wandering, bright day over the grasslands. Following the path of the watery sun, eating plants, insects, rodents. Defending himself with his spear against a lynx.
Whirling to each rustle by day, eyes half open by night. In solitude and without fire, he would walk unto death.
The end of the fourth day found him squelching by a burn. Knee-deep in icy water, he refilled the roebuck’s bladder at his waist, inspected the depths for movement. Above the wood on the opposite bank, plumes of smoke rose to the greying sky.
The warmth drew him, cheered him, led him towards a clearing in which blazed several fires.
Very unlikely these would be his kind. From way back, there was only ever his own tribe, enough men and women to cover a hillside, a scattering of children. They trailed the plains, clambered the hills, scoured the forest. By night, the grannies told of friends and kinsfolk, other groups long ago and far away. Waiting to greet them, sea of homely faces, around the next bend, over the next horizon, the other side of death.
The man drew near. If only
close enough to reach
an ember. An ember to swaddle in his bosom and blow into cheer at the gloaming. Heat, light, cooked food, a weapon! A precious ember to carry and protect by day, as it would comfort and protect him by night.
The people who squatted and talked around the fires resembled those who had slaughtered like vermin his mother, his brothers, his sisters and their children, who had smeared their blood on the pebbles, scattered their broken bodies on the rocks, quenched the tribal embers in the waves.
He would stab them, brain them, hammer them, hear them scream in agony, cry in sorrow. He would water their fires, scatter their food.
The man grasped his spear and waited.
A woman rose, lifted a skin bag, walked out of the firelight. She struggled through the trees, down the jagged bank. The man shadowed, edging his bulk past springy branches, avoiding the twigs underfoot.
The woman bent towards the burn. Her fur mantle slipped back. Small head covered in dark hair. Moonlight chased the shadows at her neck.
In curiosity more than lust, the man laid plans. Before taking revenge, he would unwrap this creature, investigate and use her body.
Lunge from behind, massive paw over her mouth. Flimsier than other women, offering no more resistance than a child.
Strange, repellent baldness about the scraped, dirty, dark-skinned body. Usual pendulous breasts and sagging, stretch-marked stomach.
Her light, fluid quality aroused him and he carried out the first part of his plan. Novelty overcame revulsion, and what he started in a spirit of rage he ended on a note of pleasure.
Afterwards, the spear, to finish the job.
Large eyes catching the moonbeams, irises black as soot. Her look unnerved him. The man was unused to war, and until the day of battle had never killed another human.
He took his hand from her mouth and she spoke. Jerky sounds uttered with sobs. Whatever she said, she talked across to the humanity in him, appealed to a dim interest in the scattered species.
The man released her, gathered his furs and his spear, turned to face his aimless journey. When he was out of sight the woman arose and limped back up to the clearing. She showed her bruises and her brothers ran here and there with brands, but found nothing.
What of the man? Grasslands, forests, dwindling days and freezing nights. Everything too damp to make fire. Without fire, no means of drying his garments. Every dawn finding him weaker than the night before.
When rain lashed him, when gales cut into his bones and he found no shelter, the man fixed on reaching the next mound, and the next, and the next. When hailstones came, the man closed his eyes, bowed his head and pushed for the next tree, the next rock…and the one beyond. When the rain let up, the man struggled to the brow of the hill, and the next and the next, scanning the glens for traces of his kind.
He tried walking towards the sun, away from the sun, with the sun to his left and the sun to his right. The man ran out of directions to try, and still he did not find the homely faces.
With the darkening of the days, with the thickening of the snow, however, the familiars he longed for loomed into view. An after-shadow in the sky, a murmur of comfort half heard as he sought sleep in the biting gale. Later his friends grew bolder, approached him, reached out their hands to him.
Smiling at the faces in the mist, answering the whispers on the wind, the man froze quietly in a drift against a trunk.
What of the woman? In weary stoicism she knew the signs, tasted the sickness, hauled her belly from camp to camp. She denied hope, awaited despair.
However, this time the baby, born after three days of agony, proved sturdy. Proudly she presented her son to the other women, to the head of the tribe. Her new status brought her popularity and more food. Her son was a burden gladly borne on her back or at her breast, when gathering roots, when cleaning hides. She was too busy keeping him fed and warm to care that he looked a little different from the three she had buried.
One thousand births later – the whale of them on earthen floors without anaesthetics ‑ one thousand lifespans later ‑ of between fourteen and ninety years, averaging forty-four ‑ one thousand deaths later ‑ of hunger, plague, war, leprosy, accidents, smallpox, murder, cholera, childbirth, tuberculosis, diphtheria, strokes, cancer, heart disease and old age ‑ what of Rachel?
She will win a scholarship to a conservatoire in Vienna and become a celebrated solo violinist, filling concert halls, performing on television. At thirty-two her combination of talent, brains and refined good looks will attract the son of a millionaire, who will marry her in a society wedding in Beverly Hills, attended by media stars and minor royalty. He will whisk her away with him to live on his yacht off St Tropez until the divorce.
Whit aboot Tam? He’ll jack in the school early and skive aboot, in and oota trainin schemes; oan an aff the panel. He’ll be intae the auld chib-cerryin, car radio screwin, chong-dealin, onward an upward tae glessin a bampot, and, at the hinner end, murder reduced oan appeal tae culpable homicide.
Scientists claim genes are constantly mutating, that after 30 generations or so little remains of the old order. However, human genes can be constant and true. The whole human race today, Papua to Pennsylvania, Spitzbergen to Santiago, has less genetic diversity than a single tribe of chimpanzees.
Tam o the plooky physogue, like near awbody the day, is pure intae the boady o the kirk; genome datin fae a hunner thoosan year o self‑appointed Homo Sapiens Sapiens.
Rachel of the delicate air stands a little apart. Long ago, the lights went out on a 1500 century long party, and every cell of Rachel’s body bears witness to the last guest’s rude farewell.
Palaeo-geneticists, trying to prove a negative, have peered at a few thousand scrapings and concluded there was no hoochmagandie between Neanderthals and our noble forebears. They simply never fancied each other. Traded, certainly – Neanderthal tools found their ancient way to Africa, where no Neanderthals lived – but did not fornicate. Murdered each other but did not ravish.
No passion on the ice-floes. No rapine on the rocks.
In calling Tam a Neanderthal, Rachel mocks him with the origin of her own species. But no one will ever know. The wild gene on her maternal chromosome No. 8 keeps mum.
As do blue genes seeded into cells around our planet.
Maybe into yours.
Maybe into mine.
(Published 2007 in MARKINGS Issue 24)