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The Crow Road

Iain M. Banks

  Table of Contents

  About the Author

  Title Page

  Copyright Page




















  Praise for The Crow Road:

  ῾Brilliantly done’Daily Mail

  ῾Tight with detail and close observation and creates a strong sense of a particular period of growing up’ Independent

  Banks has woven a warm and funny story, rich with characters and adventures ... an utterly enchanting piece of fiction’ New Woman

  ῾Magnificent... a poignant, very funny study of life growing up in Banks’s native Scotland. At times as wonderfully light and colourful as its setting on the west coast of Scotland, and as darkly comic as The Wasp Factory ...’ For Him

  ῾This substantial novel indicates a restless author very firmly in the driver’s seat, back on what appears to be a Scottish route with intriguing potential destinations’ The Scotsman

  ῾What makes Banks a significant novelist is the love and effort that go into his works, and his acute sense of the ways in which people can suffer ... this is Banks’s finest novel yet’ Independent on Sunday

  ῾Prentice is a most engaging narrator, self-deprecating, funny and hopelessly self-deceiving’ Daily Telegraph

  Iain Banks sprang to widespread and controversial public notice with the publication of his first novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984. Since then he has gained enormous and popular critical acclaim with further works of both fiction and science fiction, all of which are available in either Abacus or Orbit paperbacks. In 1993 he was acknowledged as one of the Best of Young British Writers. In 1996 his number one bestseller, The Crow Road was adapted for television. The Times has acclaimed Iain Banks ‘the most imaginative British novelist of his generation’.

  Iain Banks lives in Fife, Scotland.

  Also by lain Banks













  And as Iain M. Banks












  The Crow Road


  Hachette Digital

  Published by Hachette Digital 2008

  Copyright © lain Banks 1992

  The right of lain Banks to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

  All characters in this publication are fictitious

  and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead,

  is purely coincidental.

  All rights reserved.

  No part of this publication may be reproduced,

  stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any

  form or by any means, without the prior

  permission in writing of the publisher, nor be

  otherwise circulated in any form of binding or

  cover other than that in which it is published and

  without a similar condition including this

  condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

  A CIP catalogue record for this book

  is available from the British Library.

  ISBN 978 0 7481 0993 7

  This ebook produced by JOUVE, FRANCE

  Hachette Digital

  An imprint of

  Little, Brown Book Group

  100 Victoria Embankment

  London EC4Y 0DY

  An Hachette Livre UK Company

  Again, for Ann,

  And with thanks to:

  James Hale,

  Mic Cheetham,

  Andy Watson

  and Steve Hatton


  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.’
br />   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.

  ‘No, gran, I know you’re not stupid.’

  ‘Well, then?’ She waved her stick towards the outhouses. ‘Let’s see if that damn car’s still there.’ She glanced back at me again as I wheeled the chair round on its new heading, towards the green double doors of one of the courtyard garages. ‘Well, then?’ she repeated.

  I sighed. ‘It’s a matter of principle, gran.’ Stopping at the garage doors, she used her stick to knock the hasp off its staple, pushed at one door till its planks bowed slightly, then, wedging her stick into the resulting gap, levered the other door open, a bolt at one corner scraping and tinkling through a groove worn in the cobbles. I pulled the chair back to let the garage door swing. Inside it was dark. Motes swirled in the sunlight falling across the black entrance. I could just make out the corner of a thin green tarpaulin, draped angularly about level with my waist. Grandma Margot lifted the edge of the tarp with her stick, and flicked it away with surprising strength. The cover fell away from the front of the car and I pushed her further into the garage.

  ‘Principle?’ she said, leaning forward in the chair to inspect the long dark bonnet of the car, and pushing the tarp back still further until she had revealed the auto up to its windscreen. The wheels had no tyres; the car rested on blocks of wood. ‘What principle? The principle of not entering your father’s house? Your own family home?’ Another flick of the cane and the covering moved up the screen, then fell back again.

  ‘Let me do that, gran.’ I stepped to the side of the car and pulled the tarpaulin back until it lay crumpled on the boot, revealing that the car had a missing rear window. More dust revolved in the light from outside, turning Grandma Margot into a seated silhouette, her almost transparent hair shining like a halo.

  She sighed. I looked at the car. It was long and quite beautiful, in a recently-old-fashioned way. Beneath the patina of dust it was a very dark green. The roof above the missing rear window was battered and dented, as was the exposed part of the boot lid.

  ‘Poor old thing,’ I whispered, shaking my head.

  Grandma Margot sat upright. ‘It or me?’ she said sharply.

  ‘Gran ...’ I said, tutting. I was aware that she could see me very well, sunlit from behind her, while all I could see of her was a dark shape, a subtraction of the light.

  ‘Anyway,’ she said, relaxing and poking at one of the car’s wire wheels with her walking stick. ‘What’s all this nonsense about a matter of principle?’

  I turned away, rubbing my fingers along the chrome guttering over a rear door. ‘Well ... dad’s angry at me because I told him I believed in ... God, or in something, anyway.’ I shrugged, not daring to look at her. ‘He won’t ... well, I won’t ... We’re not talking to each other, so I won’t come into the house.’

  Grandma Margot made a clucking noise with her mouth. ‘That’s it?’

  I nodded, glancing at her. ‘That’s it, gran.’

  ‘And your father’s money; your allowance?’

  ‘I -’ I began, then didn’t know how to put it.

  ‘Prentice; how are you managing to survive?’

  ‘I’m managing fine,’ (I lied.) ‘On my grant.’ (Another lie.) ‘And my student loan.’ (Yet another lie.) ‘And I’m doing some bar work.’ (Four in a row!) I couldn’t get a bar job. Instead I’d sold Fraud Siesta, my car. It had been a small Ford and kind of lazy about starting. People used to imply it looked battered, but I just told them it came from a broken garage. Anyway, that money was almost gone now, too.

  Grandma Margot let out a long sigh, shook her head. ‘Principles,’ she breathed.

  She pulled herself forward a little, but the wheelchair was caught on part of the tarp. ‘Help me here, will you?’

  I went behind her, pushed the chair over the ruffled canvas. She hauled open the offside rear door and looked into the dull interior. A smell of musty leather wafted out, reminding me of my childhood and the time when there was still magic in the world.

  ‘The last time I had sex was on that back seat,’ she said wistfully. She looked up at me. ‘Don’t look so shocked, Prentice.’

  ‘I wasn’t -’ I started to protest.

  ‘It’s all right; it was your grandfather.’ She patted the wing of the car with one thin hand. ‘After a dance,’ she said quietly, smiling. She looked up at me again, her lined, delicate face amused, eyes glittering. ‘Prentice,’ she laughed. ‘You’re blushing!’

  ‘Sorry, gran,’ I said. ‘It’s just ... well, you don’t ... well, when you’re young and somebody’s ...’

  ‘Past it,’ she said, and slammed the door shut; dust duly danced. ‘Well, we’re all young once, Prentice, and those that are lucky get to be old.’ She pushed the wheelchair back, over the toe of my new trainers. I lifted the chair clear and helped complete the manoeuvre, then pushed her to the door. I left her there while I put the tarpaulin back over the car.

  ‘In fact some of us get to be young twice,’ she said from the doorway. ‘When we go senile: toothless, incontinent, babbling like a baby ...’ Her voice trailed off.

  ‘Grandma, please.’

  ‘Och, stop being so sensitive, Prentice; it isn’t much fun getting old. One of the few pleasures that do come your way is to speak your mind ... Certainly annoying your relatives is enjoyable too, but I expected better of you.’

  ‘I’m sorry, Grandma.’ I closed the garage door, dusted off my hands, and took up my position at the back of the wheelchair again. There was an oily tyre print on my trainer. Crows raucoused in the surrounding trees above as I pushed my gran towards the drive.


  ‘Sorry, Gran?’

  ‘The car; it’s a Lagonda Rapide Saloon.’

  ‘Yes,’ I said, smiling a little ruefully to myself. ‘Yes, I know.’

  We left the courtyard and went crunchily down the gravel drive towards the sparkling waters of the loch. Grandma Margot was humming to herself; she sounded happy. I wondered if she was recalling her tryst in the Lagonda’s back seat. Certainly I was recalling mine; it was on the same piece of cracked and creaking, buttoned and fragrant upholstery - some years after my gran’s last full sexual experience - that I had had my first.

  This sort of thing keeps happening in my family.

  ‘Ladies and Gentlemen of the family; on the one hand, as I don’t doubt you may well imagine, it gives me no great pleasure to stand here before you at this time ... yet on the other hand I am proud, and indeed honoured, to have been asked to speak at the funeral of my dear old client, the late and greatly loved Margot McHoan ...’

  My grandmother had asked the family lawyer, Lawrence L. Blawke, to say the traditional few words. Pencil-thin and nearly as leaden, the tall and still dramatically black-haired Mr Blawke was dressed somewhere in the high nines, sporting a dark grey double-breasted suit over a memorable purple waistcoat that took it
s inspiration from what looked like Mandelbrot but might more charitably have been Paisley. A glittering gold fob watch the size of a small frying pan was anchored in the shallows of one waistcoat pocket by a bulk-carrier grade chain.

  Mr Blawke always reminded me of a heron; I’m not sure why. Something to do with a sense of rapacious stillness perhaps, and also the aura of one who knows that time is on his side. I thought he had looked oddly comfortable in the presence of the undertakers.

  I sat and listened to the lawyer and in short order wondered (a) why Grandma Margot had chosen a lawyer to make the address, (b) whether he’d be charging us for his time, and (c) how many others of my family were wondering the same things.

  ‘... long history of the McHoan family in the town of Gallanach, of which she was so proud, and to which she so ... usefully and, and industriously contributed throughout her long life. It was my privilege to know and serve both Margot and her late husband Matthew well, in Matthew’s case first as a school friend, back in the twenties. I well remember ...’

  ‘Grandma, I mean; good grief.’


  My grandmother drew deeply on the Dunhill, flicked her wrist to close the brass Zippo, then put the lighter back in her cardigan.

  ‘Grandma, you’re smoking.’

  Margot coughed a little and blew the smoke towards me, a grey screen for those ash-coloured eyes. ‘Well, so I am.’ She inspected the cigarette closely, then took another drag. ‘I always wanted to, you know,’ she told me, and looked away, over the loch towards the hills and trees on the far side. I’d wheeled her down to the shore path at Pointhouse near the old cairns. I sat on the grass. A soft breeze disturbed the water; seagulls flew stiff-winged, and in the distance the occasional car or truck disturbed the air, making a lazy throat-clearing noise as they emerged from or disappeared into the channel the main road drove between the trees. ‘Hilda used to smoke,’ she said quietly, not looking at me. ‘My elder sister; she used to smoke. And I always wanted to.’ I picked up a handful of pebbles from the path-side and started throwing them at the waves, lapping against the rocks a metre below us, almost at high tide. ‘But your grandfather wouldn’t let me.’ My grandmother sighed.