Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Savage Writing: Mhairi

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Task for this week was “unpronounceable”. I’ve been homesick.


 Mhairi didn’t know which to regret: that written Gaelic was so different from spoken Gaelic, or that her parents had moved her down to England in the first place. Back in Ayr, everyone knew how to pronounce her name, and everyone knew Gaelic words were never pronounced as they were spelled. Here in Leeds, Gaelic was a mythical language akin to Elvish, and the girls and boys in her class thought that “Varry” was a name she had made-up, a joke that the new girl was playing on them all. She could have lived with that, but on her second day in class, James Robinson walked by Mrs Rowntree’s desk and saw the class register. He burst out laughing.

‘Who the hell is Ma-Hairy?’

His friends gathered round the desk while Mrs Rowntree popped out to the staffroom, and they all laughed, saying:

‘Who the hell is Ma-Hairy?’

Mhairi kept quiet, until Lucy Parker pointed at her and said ‘It must be that new girl, her last name’s Jones, in’t it?’

‘You’re called Ma-Hairy?’ they said, gang of five short, spotty boys with bad haircuts rounding on her.

‘It’s pronounced “Varry”,’ she replied, but they didn’t hear her.

From then on, she was Ma-Hairy Jones, or more often, Ma-Hairy Balls, as James Robinson and his pals liked to call her, shouting out in the corridor and grabbing their crotches. ‘Ooh, Ma-Hairy Balls!’

‘It is a weird name though,’ Karen Gilligan said, two days later at lunch. Since Monday, Mhairi had been inching closer to her group’s place on the long cafeteria table, because Karen and the others seemed the most approachable clique in the year. Finally, on Thursday Karen acknowledged her, and she saw a way to get in and make friends. Ten seconds later, one of the other girls whispered loudly “Who’s that?” to the one beside her, and the one beside her replied, full-volume: ‘That’s Ma-Hairy Jones.’

‘It’s pronounced “Varry”,’ Mhairi repeated, to which Karen replied ‘Ah, cool,’ then added that it was weird.

‘Yeah, Em and Aitch don’t make Vuh,’ one said.

‘In Gaelic they do.’

‘Do you speak Gay-lic?’


‘How come your name’s Gay-lic then?’

‘Coz my mum liked it. Loads of people have Gaelic names in Scotland.’

‘Is it nice up there?’

Mhairi stopped and didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know how to describe Scotland as a whole, because it was never whole for her. There was Ayr, which was a bit shit, but a lot less shit than Irvine, or Kilmarnock, or any place where there were loads of neds. Arran and Troon and all the west coast and islands were pretty and boring as fuck, from when she and her family went camping around there. Glasgow was where it was at, for shops and things to do, but could get sketchy as fuck. Edinburgh was posher, but brown and full of tourists. Aberdeen was grey and cold and she couldn’t understand the way people talked there. Orkney and Shetland barely counted as Scotland, and nowhere else was important, just hills and neds and rich people on holiday.

‘Yeah,’ she replied after a second.

‘How come you’re down here?’

She explained about her dad’s work, and then the conversation fizzled away. She tagged along as the group went outside to sit by the bushes, Karen and another girl discreetly smoking away from the security cameras. It was a gorgeous day, with the sun beating down on their heads and sweat-stains forming in the armpits of their shirts.

‘I want my mum to take us up to Scarborough this weekend,’ Karen said. ‘Since weather’s meant to be really nice til next week.’

They talked about the beach, and how nice it’d be to wear a bikini, and how much nicer it’d be to be in Spain or Ibiza or somewhere like that. Mhairi zoned out at the thought of the sea. Her parents had taken her through to Harrogate last weekend, and she had found it weird to look out the window and see nothing but fields and trees, for miles around, with only modest hills every once in a while. No mountains, and no sea. On a day like today the Clyde would be sparkling, and everyone would have their dogs out by the beach, and the air would smell of salt and seaweed instead of trees and grass. She’d never thought about the sea while it was there, but now she knew it was far away, she wanted to be by it more than anything – running about writing her name in the sand and building sandcastles and skimming stones like a wee kid.

She felt an urge to talk about the sea back home, but Karen had turned the conversation to clubbing, and dancing. And then Mhairi wanted to talk about ceilidhs, and highland dancing, and all those boring old-people things that had been so lame before, but were now pretty cool in her mind, because they were from back home and no-one down here knew what they were. She wanted to explain how “ceilidh” was spelt, and how Gaelic was weird like that but you just put up with it being everywhere, along with all those other Scottish things that had stayed in the background her whole life, taken for granted until just now, when she was away from them. Like being beside the sea, and only a few hours from honest-to-God mountains. It sprung up on her as weird, and unfair, that all these things that had been normal, like her name, had suddenly become abnormal now she was away from home, and would always be abnormal, as long as she was here.

The group was talking about music now, and she let the urge to talk about home pass, because she didn’t want to seem even weirder than they already thought her, and she didn’t want to seem obsessed with Scotland. She joined in the talk about pop hits, and for a while she forgot about her home-sickness, and thought she was getting on alright, until James Robinson and his pals walked by and saw her.

‘Look! It’s Ma-Hairy Balls! Ooh, Ma-Hairy Balls!’

Karen and her friends giggled as the boys gestured to their crotches. Mhairi turned away, embarrassed, with the piercing desire to go back home, to where she came from.


The day after the meet, a 15-year-old asked me “Is it cold in Scotland?” then, since he had only ever been to Edinburgh to play rugby, asked if we watched a lot of rugby up there. I laughed at the timing. The truth is we all do this kind of thing – I was just never used to being on the receiving end until recently.


Written by G.J.

12/07/2013 at 11:18 am

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