The Crow Road

By: Iain Banks

CHAPTER 1



It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.

I looked at my father, sitting two rows away in the front line of seats in the cold, echoing chapel. His broad, greying-brown head was massive above his tweed jacket (a black arm-band was his concession to the solemnity of the occasion). His ears were moving in a slow, oscillatory manner, rather in the way John Wayne’s shoulders moved when he walked; my father was grinding his teeth. Probably he was annoyed that my grandmother had chosen religious music for her funeral ceremony. I didn’t think she had done it to upset him; doubtless she had simply liked the tune, and had not anticipated the effect its non-secular nature might have on her eldest son.

My younger brother, James, sat to my father’s left. It was the first time in years I’d seen him without his Walkman, and he looked distinctly uncomfortable, fiddling with his single earring. To my father’s right my mother sat, upright and trim, neatly filling a black coat and sporting a dramatic black hat shaped like a flying saucer. The UFO dipped briefly to one side as she whispered something to my father. In that movement and that moment, I felt a pang of loss that did not entirely belong to my recently departed grandmother, yet was connected with her memory. How her moles would be itching today if she was somehow suddenly reborn!

῾Prentice!’ My Aunt Antonia, sitting next to me, with Uncle Hamish snoring mellifluously on her other side, tapped my sleeve and pointed at my feet as she murmured my name. I looked down.

I had dressed in black that morning, in the cold high room of my aunt and uncle’s house. The floorboards had creaked and my breath had smoked. There had been ice inside the small dormer window, obscuring the view over Gallanach in a crystalline mist. I’d pulled on a pair of black underpants I’d brought especially from Glasgow, a white shirt (fresh from Marks and Sparks, the pack-lines still ridging the cold crisp cotton) and my black 501s. I’d shivered, and sat on the bed, looking at two pairs of socks; one black, one white. I’d intended to wear the black pair under my nine-eye Docs with the twin ankle buckles, but suddenly I had felt that the boots were wrong. Maybe it was because they were matt finish ...

The last funeral I’d been to here - also the first funeral I’d ever been to - this gear had all seemed pretty appropriate, but now I was pondering the propriety of the Docs, the 501s and the black biker’s jacket. I’d hauled my white trainers out of the bag, tried one Nike on and one boot (unlaced); I’d stood in front of the tilted full-length mirror, shivering, my breath going out in clouds, while the floorboards creaked and a smell of cooking bacon and burned toast insinuated its way up from the kitchen.

The trainers, I’d decided.

So I peered down at them in the crematorium; they looked crumpled and tea-stained on the severe black granite of the chapel floor. Oh-oh; one black sock, one white. I wriggled in my seat, pulled my jeans down to cover my oddly-packaged ankles. ‘Hell’s teeth,’ I whispered. ‘Sorry, Aunt Tone.’

My Aunt Antonia - a ball of pink-rinse hair above the bulk of her black coat, like candy floss stuck upon a hearse - patted my leather jacket. ‘Never mind, dear,’ she sighed. ‘I doubt old Margot would have minded.’

‘No,’ I nodded. My gaze fell back to the trainers. It struck me that on the toe of the right one there was still discernible the tyre mark from Grandma Margot’s wheelchair. I lifted the left trainer onto the right, and rubbed without enthusiasm at the black herring-bone pattern the oily wheel had left. I remembered the day, six months earlier, when I had pushed old Margot out of the house and through the courtyard, past the outhouses and down the drive under the trees towards the loch and the sea.





‘Prentice, what is going on between you and Kenneth?’

The courtyard was cobbled; her wheelchair wobbled and jerked under my hands as I pushed her. ‘We’ve fallen out, gran,’ I told her.

‘I’m not stupid, Prentice, I can see that.’ She looked up at me. Her eyes were fierce and grey, as they always had been. Her hair was grey now, too, and thinning. The summer sun cleared the surrounding oaks and I could see her pale scalp through the wisps of white.

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