Buisneachd by R M Murray

Mairi Bunion, a squat lady with the aspect of a small, armoured vehicle, goes to her local shop in Poll-na-Mòine where she buys a bag of onions for 79 pence. The following day, chopping one up in her kitchen, she sees it is rotten and drives back to the shop to demand a full refund.

The manager says, she is entitled to compensation to the value of one onion, which is about 11 pence. Or, she can have a new one. No, the Bunion wants the full 79 pence. He asks if she has got the receipt. Indeed I do not, she says indignantly.

My offer stands, says the manager.

Her next stop is the office of the local MP. Who listens, patiently. ‘Fàg agam e’ he says, ‘Leave it with me.’ It is a cast-iron, copper-bottomed, gold-plated guarantee that absolutely nothing will happen.

So, she decides to take it up with her councillor who is known locally as the Balloon.

He is also her husband.

To soften him up, she cooks him his favourite meal: Boiled salt-flank of mutton. But afterwards – although his big face is greasy with satisfaction – when she broaches the subject, they argue.

They can’t help it. It’s just what they do. It’s why they’re still together.

More ingenuity is required. Later, that night, even though it’s not cold, she decides to wear her heavy, oily, bristly fisherman’s jersey to bed. She knows that he finds this irresistible.

Sure enough, the following morning, pleased with himself, he tells her that he might, after all, take the matter up with the Council.

It is the beginning of Onion-gate. It will sweep the country. Soon, the party leader will phone the MP to ask what’s going on up there. The tabloids will deploy reporters. The story’s got legs.

Even so, it’s not enough for Mairi Bunion. She wants to take things further.

There is a formidable woman in the village called the Doll-Wife. She has thick, red hair piled-up in an enormous bun and is thought to be a witch. People have seen her on a moonlit night circling a neighbour’s barn anti-clockwise. Later all the animals escape. An owl is found in the rafters. Another time she returns from the moor on midsummer evening with her hair soaking wet and down to her waist. All anybody knows, is that no good will come of that.

The Bunion is friends with her and goes to see her. The Doll-Wife listens intently and asks if the Bunion still has the onion. Yes, she has it in her handbag. ‘Leave it with me, Mairi’ she says. ‘I will make a charm out of this onion, and you will soon have satisfaction. Mark my words.’

A day or two later, the shop manager arrives home late and leans forward to kiss his wife. She grimaces and turns her face away. Your breath stinks of onions she says. What? All I’ve had since breakfast is a ham sandwich. She doesn’t believe him. Later she will burn all his clothes. Eventually, she will ask him to move out, shouting ‘I can’t live like this!’ For some reason she cannot stop crying.

No one will come near him. He is sacked from his job. Becomes an outcast and acquires the nickname Mac an Uinnean (Son-of-an-Onion).

At home, the Balloon and the Bunion are watching the news on TV. Near the end the attractive blonde newscaster, shuffles her papers, smiles and says ‘Finally, we go to the Outer Hebrides where I hear, John, they’re in a bit of a pickle about an onion.”

‘Yes, thanks Gillian, they are indeed. It seems an altercation about this humble vegetable has escalated and driven a deep rift through this close-knit, God-fearing community. I am joined by Councillor Donald Beaton who can tell us a bit about it.’

The Balloon shakes his head, sorrowfully. ‘It just shows the lack of respect for the decent working folk of this island’ he says. ‘It began when my dear wife was refused a refund on a rotten onion and – well, it might not seem like a lot to you – but we are talking about a fundamental point of principle here. Yes, things are better now, but I can remember as a child when often all I had to eat was a boiled onion. And to think that a local shop is so out of touch with the people of this community.’

And with a flourish he takes an onion out of his pocket and jabs his finger accusingly in the direction of the Council building.

‘It is also shameful, that the local Council, on which I am very proud to sit, has failed in its duty to take up this important issue.’ His face is crimson.

The reporter signs off by saying “Well there you have it, Gillian. Onion-gate. A story with many layers. And if that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, I don’t know what will.’

Now, an almighty storm rampages across the island. Lightning strobes like a cosmic disco. Thunder shakes the peat-stacks. The heather shivers and cowers. Moss and lichen cling to the rocks for dear life. The water in the myriad rivers and lochs, flees and climbs the banks. The only tree on the island bends into a hairpin and groans like a wounded animal. The battered land begs for mercy.

The Doll-Wife covers the mirror in her living room with a bedsheet, to stop it attracting the lightning into the house. Overhead, the wind washboards the roof. There is a power-cut. She puts on her rabbit-skin coat and goes out to the barn to consult the owl. Illuminated by a blinding flash of sheet lightning her huge beehive is an incandescent flaring orange. The gale tears it apart and it flails madly over her head, as if she is on fire. Like an avenging angel.

In the morning an Atlantic grey seal is found 3 miles inland on top of Cnoc na Cnàmhan (The Hill of Bones). It is rescued and taken in a trailer behind a tractor to the shore, given a string of herring as a packed lunch and returned to the sea. It is also given a name. Noah.

That Saturday, in the town, a tall, spindly, white-haired old man called the Coileach (the Cockerel) steps off the seven o’clock bus from Poll-na-Mòine. He is dressed in his father’s suit. Perhaps tonight, he thinks, he will meet his future wife. Although it is a calm, pleasant evening this harmless, hopeful thought seems to summon a violent gust of wind out of nowhere. It catches his carefully woven combover which now streams away from his head like a plume of snow from a mountain summit. He plunges into the Clachan Bar and stands in front of the mirror in the Gents where he re-constructs the complex architecture of his hair.

Looking into his own eyes, deep in the mirror, the years fall away.  Wistfully, he remembers his youth when he had a full head of thick, black hair. His crowning glory. And how, inexplicably, it fell out, almost overnight, only a matter of days after he broke-off his engagement with Dolly from the village. Her red hair still haunts him.

Maybe he is destined to be alone. But hope springs eternal. The night is yet young. He goes to the bar and orders a double whisky and a half pint. In the corner seat by the window, he notices Mairi Bunion and the Balloon. Their shiny red faces suggest they’ve been there for quite a while. He thinks he might go over to join them, but as usual, they are having a heated argument.

Idly, he wonders if any day soon, Mairi might come onto the open market. Instantly, almost like a warning, an enormous thunderclap rattles the glasses behind the bar, and the large mirror behind him falls off the wall, and smashes into smithereens.


*Buisneachd: Witchcraft, witchery