Skip to content


Only 1 left!
Original price $16.95 - Original price $16.95
Original price $16.95
$16.99 - $16.99
Current price $16.99
"Supremely humane.... Kay leaves us with a broad landscape of sweet tolerance and familial love." —The New York Times Book Review

In her starkly beautiful and wholly unexpected tale, Jackie Kay delves into the most intimate workings of the human heart and mind and offers a triumphant tale of loving deception and lasting devotion.

The death of legendary jazz trumpeter Joss Moody exposes an extraordinary secret, one that enrages his adopted son, Colman, leading him to collude with a tabloid journalist. Besieged by the press, his widow Millie flees to a remote Scottish village, where she seeks solace in memories of their marriage. The reminiscences of those who knew Joss Moody render a moving portrait of a shared life founded on an intricate lie, one that preserved a rare, unconditional love.

ISBN-13: 9780375704635

Media Type: Paperback(Reprint)

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Publication Date: 07-11-2000

Pages: 288

Product Dimensions: 5.13(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.60(d)

Series: Vintage Contemporaries

Jackie Kay was born and raised in Scotland. She is the author of four collections of poetry: Other Lovers (winner of the Somerset Maugham Award), The Adoption Papers, Off Colour, and Life Mask; almost all of which were collected in Darling: New & Selected Poems. She lives in England.

Read an Excerpt

I pull back the curtain an inch and see their heads bent together. I have no idea how long they have been there. It is getting dark. I keep expecting them to vanish; then I would know that they were all in my mind. I would know that I imagined them just as surely as I imagined my life. But they are still there, wearing real clothes, looking as conspicuous as they please. Each time I look at the photographs in the papers, I look unreal. I look unlike the memory of myself. I feel strange now. It used to be such a certain thing, just being myself. It was so easy, so painless.

I have to get back to our den, and hide myself away from it all. Animals are luckier; they can bury their heads in sand, hide their heads under their coats, pretend they have no head at all. I feel pain in the exact place Joss complained of for months. A stabbing pain on my left side. We couldn't die of the same thing?

There's a film I watched once, Double Indemnity, where the guy is telling his story into a tape, dying and breathless. I feel like him. I haven't killed anyone. I haven't done anything wrong. If I was going to make a tape, I'd make it for Colman.

I crept out of my house in the middle of the night with a thief's racing heart. Nobody watching. I drove into dawn. Relief as I crossed the border into Scotland. I let down the windows to sniff the different air. I am exhausted. Every morning for the past ten days, someone has been waiting outside my house with cameras and questions. I have seen the most awful looking pictures of myself in the newspapers looking deranged and shocked. Of course you are going to look demented if some hack hides behind your hedge, snaps and flashes the moment you appear. How else are you going to look?

Even here now the sound of cameras, like the assault of a machine-gun, is still playing inside my head. I can't get the noise to go no matter what I do. I hear it over music, over the sound of a tap running, over the kettle's whistle — the cameras' rapid bullets. Their fingers on the triggers, they don't take them off till they finish the film, till I've been shot over and over again. They stop for the briefest of frantic seconds, reload the cartridge and then start up again. What can they want with all those pictures? With every snap and flash and whirr, I felt myself, the core of myself, being eaten away. My soul. I met a man once who wouldn't let me take his picture with Joss. He said it would be stealing his soul. I remember thinking, how ridiculous, a soul cannot be stolen. Strange how things like that stay with you as if life is waiting for a chance to prove you wrong. Joss's soul has gone and mine has been stolen. It is as simple and as true as that.

Once, I came out of my house and at least ten of them were waiting, two days after Joss's funeral. I was still in a daze. I didn't react quickly enough. I couldn't find cover. I couldn't hide. They took me walking towards my car, entering my car, wild behind the steering wheel. I looked like an actress in an old black and white movie who has just bumped off her husband and is escaping. The wipers on, the rain on the wind screen, my face, crazy, at the wheel. The blinding white light, flashing and illuminating me. I could barely see to drive off. Of course, the minute I am placed in front of that raging white light, I am not myself any longer. I am no more myself than a rabbit is itself trapped in front of glaring headlights. The rabbit freezes and what you see most on the road is fear itself, not a furry rabbit, fear flashed up before you for a second until your brakes screech to a halt. I have stared at the woman who was captured by the light for ages and ages to try to find myself in her. I have never seen my own fear. Most people don't get a chance to see what they look like terrified. If I had died they would have continued shooting, one shot after another. They would have taken me dead. The next day I was splattered all over the papers again, more lies, more lurid headlines.

I had to get away. So I drove here. I've been here a million times and never noticed that left turn at Kepper. I threw a bag together and chucked it in the boot and took off. I've no idea how long it took me to get here. Time feels as if it is on the other side of me now, way over, out across the sea, like another country. I don't live inside it any more and it doesn't rule me.

I have a fire going. It is working itself up into a state of survival. The only noise inside here. Dry cackle, sputtering and spitting. It sounds possessed. It seems a strange fickle, flickering company to begin with, as if at any moment it might just die out, the flames pale and uncertain, but after a while it has transformed into my loyal, dependable friend. I sit here like this for an age admiring the full colours, looking right into the wild soul of the fire to try to find myself. I can see Joss bending down to light the fire, making his base with newspapers rolled and then tied to precision, then kindling. 'There's quite an art to building a fire,' he says, lighting it, smug, satisfied.

Colman is the only one who knows I am here. I left him a message on his machine. I think I didn't say much except that I was going to Torr. He can get hold of me if he wants, though I doubt he will. I don't know if he'll ever speak to me again. Bruce, the butcher, would always take a message. I won't hold my breath.

From the small sitting-room window, way down below, I can see the waves in the damaged light, lashing out at the rocks. My eyes follow the waves backwards out to where the sea is suddenly deep. It seems as if Joss has been dead for the longest time now. Every day feels like a week. I am awake for much of the time, staring out into the dark or the day; it doesn't make much difference.

My hand was shaking when I lit the fire. That's how absurd I've become. I can't even light a tiny cottage fire without shaking. It might be the beginning. Animals do that, don't they, when one goes first, the other follows later, often of the very same thing. I don't know what is real and what is not, whether the pain in my side is real or imagined. The terrible thing about pain is that it doesn't matter, it still hurts. It hurts like hell.

They will never find me here. Torr is off the beaten track. We never mentioned the existence of this place to any of the media through the years. We kept it private. Colman is the only one and he won't be speaking to any of them. He told me he was too ashamed to go out. I never imagined that people could make such a fuss. I know now why they call reporters hounds. I feel hounded, hunted. Pity the fox.

Joss's holiday clothes are all here. Colman's model aeroplanes, fishing rods, old green bottles dug up from the sea. Colman's little antique collection. His coins. Joss's records. A box of his mild cigars. Everything that mattered to us, we celebrated here. When we first adopted Colman we brought him here, not long after. We chose his name here too. Joss and I nearly divorced when it came to naming Colman. Joss wanted Miles; I wanted Campbell. Joss wanted Louis; I wanted Alastair. Joss wanted a jazz or a blues name. What about Jelly Roll, I laughed. Or Howling Wolf, Bird, Muggsy, Fats, Leadbelly. I was bent over double: Pee Wee. Joss slapped me across my face. 'That's enough,' he said. 'White people always laugh at black names.' I rubbed my cheek. I couldn't believe it. I just gave him a look until I saw the first bloom of shame appear on his. We gave up on names and went to bed. Sex is always better if you argue before. After, we compromised on Colman spelt the Irish way and not like Coleman Hawkins. That way we could get an Irish name and a jazz name rolled into one. Colman comes from the Latin meaning dove, I told Joss, pleased with myself. 'Is that right?' he said. 'Well, I hope to Christ he brings us peace.'

I must go out. It is a terrible day, the sky all gloomy and bad-tempered. It could turn sour. It could pour. But I need to get out. I put on my old mackintosh and sniff the salt in the air outside. I lock my door, just in case. I take a couple of steps down the road and realize I just can't do it. There are people here who will nod and say hello and ask me how I am. It's been four months or so since we were last here. I can't face them. Not today. Maybe later when it's dark I'll go out. I unlock my door. Take off my coat and sit down by the fire. It is still there, glowing. feed it an extra log, the long red fingers snap it up with great gusto.

Most people here are oblivious to the happenings in the jazz world. Never heard of Joss Moody, Britain's legendary trumpet player. Some of them might have seen the papers. There's one thing: most people here just read the local paper. That was what we loved about coming here, the complete anonymity. Not a dicky bird out of anybody until the day that Joss told Angus, the fisherman, about himself. Angus came off his old leaking boat one day, reeking of fish. 'What's this I hear, eh? You didn't tell me your husband played the trumpet. Why the big secret? Can we no have a wee shindig?' Before the week was out I was showing Angus the trumpet: the big jewel in the huge jewellery box. I'd sometimes catch Joss stroking the velvet insides of that box with the same tender concentration that he stroked cats.

I first brought Joss to Torr in the middle of the winter. 1956. Our tyres skidded in the black ice on the road up here. When we finally arrived Torr was thick in snow and Joss was for turning back. The cottage seemed as if it possessed a memory of its own, one of those memories that remembers the distant past better than the recent. It clung to smells of people who'd lived here years ago. The rug was worn down to the bone. The paintings on the wails were old oils by local artists with plain titles. Fishing Nets. Mist on Sea. Early morning, Kepper. Only one title disturbed me, Skeleton. A watercolour of an abandoned fish on the beach. I remembered it from when I was a child. I stared at the shape of the bones. I could see how simple it would be to choke to death. There were large cobwebs everywhere, hanging from corner to corner like fishing nets. Two mouldy coffee cups sat on the table. Duncan was last here. I was feeling the old excitement I've felt since I was a girl coming here on holiday, arriving to the smell of the past. The past had lived on in those small airless rooms whilst we had been away living our life. The past had been here all the time, waiting. It was wonderful. The dank musty smells of last summer. Punching the old spicy pillows. Sleeping in the noisy, creaking beds, the smell of rust and old blankets, the smell of damp walls. By the time we left after our fortnight's holiday, the cottage smelt different again, as if it had suddenly come into the present.

'Is this it?' he said. 'Right, the only way I'm going to get to like this place is if we christen it right now.' And we did. I slid down the wall and knocked a few cobwebs off when I came.

Once I was a fearless girl. I came to Torr every summer, climbed rocks, ran down the hills, dug graves for my brothers till the tide came in. Combed the beach for strange shells. It feels so long ago, it is as if it was somebody else who lived that part of my life. Not me. The girl I was has been swept out to sea. She is another tide entirely. Way back in the distance. I can't imagine what she'd think of my life now, whether she'd think it was the life she was expecting to have or not. She always wanted marriage, I remember. Marriage, children. She wouldn't have been surprised at that. I married a man who became famous. He died before me. He died recently. Now what am I? Can I remember? Joss Moody's widow. That's what I am, Joss Moody's widow. She never imagined being a widow, did she? Of course she didn't. What little girl ever imagines becoming a widow?

Tonight, after dusk, I go out into the half-dark, wearing my bottle-green windcheater with the hood over my hair. Joss used to comb my hair every night. It was one of the few feminine things he did. I loved it. Him sitting behind me, pressing against me, combing my thick dark hair in firm downward strokes.

I follow the road down to the sea. This walk is so familiar the memory of it is in my feet. I don't even need to look. So many times with Joss, down the steep hill from Torr, round the corner of the harbour and up the other side towards the cliffs. Arm in the crook of arm down the hill, then when we came to the cliff path we'd separate, single file, Joss always behind me. It is muddy with all the rain. Slippy, dangerous. I keep on, taking one step up the cliff path at a time. The sea is moaning like a sick person. I can't take my eyes off it. No matter how many times I am near it, it never ceases to frighten me. I stand and watch the sea's wild movements, the huge awesome leaps. I can hear Joss saying, 'The great beast.' Down below, the upturned fishing boats look lifeless, lonely. I know which boat belongs to which man. Their oars, like long sad arms waiting to be lifted and brought to life. I am tense; afraid somebody is going to pounce on me. I shouldn't have come out. I'll need to head back. It is even harder coming down. I must be mad. I could tumble and fall into the sea. The idea is strangely attractive to me. There is nothing behind or in front of me: just me and the wind and the sea. Everything is so familiar it is terrifying. I try to hush my breathing. I break into a run. My legs are shorter. Grief is making me shrink.

I unlock my door and rush inside the house. My heart is in my mouth. It feels wrong; there is something the matter with this place. I listen for noises. It is as if somebody else is here or has been here. I go from room to room looking. My own coat hanging on a door hook startles me. The sudden flashlight of a car sweeping past outside. Nothing. This fear is taking me over. If they are not stalking me, I am doing it to myself. I try to make light of my fears. It was our secret. That's all it was. Lots of people have secrets, don't they? The world runs on secrets. What kind of place would the world be without them? Our secret was harmless. It did not hurt anybody.

There must be a mistake we made. A big mistake; hiding somewhere that I somehow missed.

I sit down on Joss's armchair. I am not sure what to do with myself. I find myself getting agitated, now wondering what to do with my hands. I pick up a book and try to read a paragraph but it doesn't go in. The words spill and lurch in front of me making no sense. I close the book and turn on the television. But the sound of the chat-show host's voice, the speed of his talk, distresses me. I turn it off. I put on some music. I can listen to music. I try and breathe with it because my breathing still isn't right. It is still too fast. Joss's breathing became very fast in the end. Fast and shallow. When I think of the breath he used to take in and out to blow that trumpet! When he was dying, I thought if only he could have one big trumpet breath, he'd get some relief.

The summer before I met Joss, I was here at Torr with my brother and his family. I felt restless, discontented with my life. I wanted a passion, somebody to speed up time with a fast ferocious love. We didn't have hot water then. At night, I'd sing in the freezing cold bathroom whilst I washed myself with the pot full of hot water in the old cracked sink, Some day he'll come along, the man I love; And he'll be big and strong, The man I love ... Maybe I shall meet him Sunday, Maybe Monday — maybe not; Still I'm sure to meet him one day — Maybe Tuesday will be my good news day. Then I'd lie on my thin hard bed trying to paint him in watercolours. I gave him a strong jaw.

I can still picture him the day we met in that blood donor's hall in Glasgow. How could I have known then? He was well dressed, astonishingly handsome, high cheekbones that gave him a sculpted proud look; his eyes darker than any I'd ever seen. Thick black curly hair, the tightest possible curls, sitting on top of his head, like a bed of springy bracken. Neat nails, beautiful hands. I took him all in as if I had a premonition, as if I knew what would happen. His skin was the colour of Highland toffee. His mouth was a beautiful shape. I had this feeling of being pulled along by a pack of horses. In my mind's eye I could see them, galloping along until they came to the narrow path that led to the big house. The huge dark gates. It was as if I had no say in what was going to happen to me, just this giddy sick excitement, this terrible sense of fate. We both give blood, I thought to myself. I wondered what made him give blood, what family accident, what trauma. We didn't speak that first time, though I could feel him looking at me.

The fire is shrinking too. Collapsing in on itself, turning to ash. I get up and put the guard over the fire and go into the kitchen. I stand next to the kettle for an age, rubbing my hands till the shrill whistle pierces through me as if I wasn't expecting it. I make myself a cup of tea to take to bed. Sleeping in our bed here is so terrible, I considered sleeping in Colman's old room, or sleeping on the couch downstairs, or sleeping on the floor. I felt as if I'd be deserting Joss though. I climb into our old bed and place my cup of tea at my side. The space next to me bristles with silence. The emptiness is palpable. Loss isn't an absence after all. It is a presence. A strong presence here next to me. I sip my tea and look at it. It doesn't look like anything, that's what is so strange. It just fits in. Last night I was certain it was a definite shape. I bashed the sheets about to see if it would declare itself. It won't let me alone and it won't let me sleep. I try to find sleep. Sleep is out there where Joss is, isn't it? That's what the headstones tell you. Who Fell Asleep On. Sleeping. Fell Asleep on Jesus. Joss is out there sleeping behind the sea wall. I can't sleep any more. Not properly. Sleep scratches at me then wakes me up. I dip down for a moment then surface again, my eyes peeling the darkness away. I don't know how many hours I have had of it since he died. It can't be many. It was a form of torture, wasn't it, sleep deprivation?

If I don't try to sleep, it might sneak up on me, capture me. I won't try to sleep. I will try to remember. The next time is six months later. We are back giving blood on the same day, Tuesday. I am brazen, full of knowledge. I approach him and ask him out. It is 1955. Women don't do this sort of thing. I don't care. I am certain this man is going to be my lover. When you are certain of something, you must take your chance; you mustn't miss your opportunity or life is lost. I remember my grandfather telling me that; how he knew with my grandmother, how he courted her until he had her. I tell him I've noticed him here before. We talk about giving blood, how we both hate it, but like clenching our fist and the biscuit afterwards. I ask him if he watches the blood being drained out of himself. He says he looks away at anything else. He says he is quite squeamish. What about you, he asks me, what do you do? I tell him I like to watch the blood filling up, the wonderful rich colour of it. He laughs as if he suddenly likes me. Then we both fall silent and he stares at me awkwardly, puzzled by me just coming up to him like this. But he isn't trying to get rid of me. He is looking me up and down as if appraising me. I am glad that I am wearing my good dress, with the polka dots and the straps. I know I look good.

We go for a drink in Lauder's bar. He tells me his name is Joss Moody and I ask him if that is his real name. He is offended. I see a look cross his face that I haven't seen before. Of course it is his real name, what am I talking about. I tell him it sounds like a stage name, like a name that someone would make up in anticipation of being famous. He laughs at that and tells me he is going to be famous. I laugh too, nervously. I know he's going to be famous also. I could have noticed then, I suppose. The way he was so irritated with me asking him about his name. I say, 'My name is Millie MacFarlane,' as if I'd just heard it for the first time, as if my own name was miles away from who I am. I say, 'Millicent MacFarlane, but my friends call me Millie,' suddenly shy. We talk about anything. He tells me he plays the trumpet. He is so pleased with himself for playing the trumpet, I can see that. He says the word, 'trumpet,' and his eyes shine. 'Would you like one for the road, Millie?' he asks. Him saying my name makes me weak. I hold onto the table and watch him go to the bar for his whisky and my gin.

He walks me to my flat in Rose Street, Number 14. And leaves me. 'I know where you are now,' he says. A little kiss on my cheek. I get in and throw myself on my bed, punch my pillow. Then I stroke the side of my cheek Joss Moody kissed and say, courting to myself, courting, courting, courting until it sounds like a beautiful piece of music.

We court for three months. A kiss on the cheek at the end of the date. Meeting at Boots' Corner, at The Shell in Central Station, or below the Hielan' Man's umbrella under where the trains come out of Central Station on Argyle Street, between Hope Street and Union Street. The times I've waited for Joss sheltered from the rain, under the Hielan' Man's umbrella, imagining the Highland men years ago, fresh down from the Highlands talking excited Gaelic to each other. Either we go drinking or we go dancing. Great dance halls in Glasgow. Dancing at the Playhouse, at Denniston Palais, at the Locarno, the Astoria or the Plaza, it seemed nobody would ever get old. Nobody would ever die. Even the ugly looked beautiful. Joss was a wonderful dancer; he loved to strut his stuff on those dance floors. A hive of jive. He was showbiz itself already. They all were. I remember laughing till I cried, watching one man after another get up at the Locarno and imitate Frank Sinatra singing 'Dancing in the Dark'. The Carswell Clothes Shop competition. I remember loving the names of those bands at the dance halls — Ray McVey Trio, Doctor Crock and the Crackpots, Joe Loss, Oscar Rabin, Carl Barritean, Harry Parry, Felix Mendelson, and, my favourite, the Hawaiian Serenaders. Dancing makes us both happy. Big steps. Quickstep. Dip. We dance at the Barrowland way into the early hours. The atmosphere, jumping. The dance style, gallus. There is no tomorrow. There is just the minute, the second, the dip. The heat and the sweat. That feeling of being your body. Body and soul.

We come out of the Playhouse full of the night. Joss takes me home and walks off again, hands in pocket. I watch him turn the corner of Rose Street into Sauchiehall Street before going in. He never looks back. Never waves. I begin to think that there is something wrong. Either Joss is terribly proper and old-fashioned or there is something wrong. He never tries to touch me. He holds my hand or we walk with our arms round each other. We kiss, short soft kisses. Three months of kisses on my left cheek, soft timeless kisses that grow into buds and wait. Each night I go home madly in love with Joss and terribly frustrated. I am twenty and he is thirty; perhaps the age difference is making him shy. Still, I am not a schoolgirl any more.

At night, I watch Joss walk up the street, hands in his pockets. He has a slow deliberate walk, like he's practised it. I go into my small bedroom. I have a single bed in the room, a dresser and a small wardrobe. I stare at myself in the mirror. Rub night cream into my cheeks for a long time. Imagine Joss standing behind me. Undress. Drape my bathrobe over my shoulders. Rub more cream into my cheeks. Use a powder puff under my breasts. Joss, behind me. I sigh, put my white nightdress on and climb heavily into my bed. I can hear Helen, my flatmate, up and about. I listen to her noises and fall off asleep where I'll dream of Joss again and again and wake myself up in the middle of the night.

I know I am waiting for something to happen.