Am Bratach No. 225
July 2010

A brief history of time (in the Mackay household)
by Willie D Mackay

My mother, Jessie, never used Greenwich Mean Time, yet I never knew a more punctual person. Being the postmistress in Coldbackie for over thirty years, it was essential for her to keep an eye on the clock. She had a phobia about good timekeeping, and to achieve this, and unknown to us, she had the infuriating habit of always having the clock set half an hour fast. When I was young and waiting for Sherlock Holmes to come on the radio, I could never understand why such a clever man was always half an hour late. In fact, every clever man around our house was half an hour late — the driver of the bus to Thurso or Lairg, the butcher, Burr’s van, Knox, the fruit man from Brora, and even Big Ben.

But Mother had a wisdom we did not understand, and this action was born out of necessity because my brother, John, from an early age, showed a complete lack of respect for time, and this “secret half-hour” was her method of ensuring he caught the mail bus or kept any other appointments he had. To him time simply did not exist, and on one occasion when I offered him an “instant coffee” because I didn’t have anything else, he accepted and added in his usual dry humour that there was no need to rush.

On one occasion when he was doing his apprenticeship in Glasgow, we both went to the famous Barrows Market one Saturday morning where most of the traders were already fencing last night’s swag. John paid seven and six to a shady fellow, whose entire stock was kept in his back pocket, for a wrist watch which the seller claimed had the finest movement ever manufactured in Switzerland and more jewels than the State Crown.

After admiring his acquisition every four seconds for the next hour the novelty eventually wore off and when he checked it again a little later the minute hand had come off. To firmly convince himself of this unfortunate circumstance his arm and wrist took on the motion of a car windscreen wiper and the minute hand tumbled from side to side like a goldfish in a jam jar. By way of comfort I suggested he go and get his money back but John was more familiar with the type of people who sell things in the Barrows and assured me that he would not need a watch if he even dared to ask for his cash back, and being one of the few people I know who could turn a calamity into a joke, he said it didn’t really matter because he never used minutes anyway, and that he only worked to the nearest hour. Mother’s efforts appeared to be in vain. A little later we reached the Clyde Bridge and with a mighty throw he committed the remains of his purchase into the river accompanied by a eulogy in language not worthy of repetition in this sophisticated publication.

Many years later I flew to Australia, where John now lives, and, true to form, he was late to meet me off the plane. I wondered if he had met another swagman with a barrowload of one-handed watches, and being weary after the long journey, I hoped that if he had that it was not the hour hand that was missing on this occasion.

Sadly, for someone who showed such respect for time, it eventually got the better of Mother and three months after she died in London we took her ashes back to her plot in Tongue and held a remembrance service for all her friends and family. Three months gave my brother ample time to get over from Australia and John Hood and Son to have her polished black granite headstone, with her dates of arrival and departure and our message of eternal love from John, William and Elizabeth etched in gold lettering already on her grave and I know that she would have smiled if she knew that we had her memorial, and John, in position before she arrived herself.

With the last throw of the dice she got her result and our clock is now back on Mean Time.

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