(This sound file is 5842K in length)
Please read the HELP NOTE below for the best way to listen to this audio
'Russian Dolls' was one of the 'Highly Commended' entries in the adult prose section of the Neil Gunn Writing Competition, 2007. It is read here by the author, Vivien Samet, from Strathpeffer.
To celebrate Highland 2007, Scotland's year of Highland Culture, the theme was 'Highland Spaces'. Judges for the adult prose section were Scottish writer Margaret Elphinstone and Ann Yule, Convenor for the Neil Gunn Trust.
The Neil Gunn Writing Competition is organised by library staff from The Highland Council Education, Culture & Sport Service with support from the Neil Gunn Trust. It was first established in 1988.
'Later that morning a letter arrived for Alec from the Highland Council. His wife, thinking it might be important called out to him from the kitchen window.
'I'm just coming, wait until I fetch my glasses" - he shouted back as he returned to his workbench where they rested on top of the newspaper.
"By the way, Muriel what's SWISS COTTAGE beginning with C and has six letters?"
"That's not difficult Alec, CHALET!" she called back.
'Spot on!" he said glancing at the crossword." Six down, correct, and we already have the T in RETIREMENT and if I hadn't lost the lorry myself because of the bloody MOT I wouldn't be retired and having to keep myself busy with the bloomin garage!'
In the kitchen Muriel pushed aside the unwashed breakfast dishes, wiped clean the butter knife and slit open the envelope as her husband walked in and sat on the kitchen chair.
"Here, Alec it's from the planning department- you'd better read this "she said, passing over the letter. He pulled out a rag from his boiler suit pocket and wiped his glasses before putting them on to read the letter aloud:
"Dear Mr Macrae,
It has come to the notice of our department that you are building a garage at Benview which has not been granted planning permission. Furthermore a planning application has not even been requested.
I regret to inform you that under present building regulations you are obliged to remove the garage.
"It's signed by Finlay Armstrong, the planning officer. Sounds a bit final to me" said Alec "It's ridiculous, I mean when you think of it there's the boathouse already been up for over half a century and I decide to build a garage only half the size inside it. What possible difference can it make? Same space! The argument defies logic."
A fortnight later another council offices brown envelope arrived with a letter inside, again signed by the planning officer.
"Well" said Alec "I can't see why they should be funny about granting retrospective planning permission - seemed a reasonable request to me. They get blinkered in those departments. No imagination- couldn't exist in the real world!"
His wife took a break from the washing- up and sighed as she looked out of her window at the kitchen-sink view of the scrap yard.
"I sometimes wish you had got rid of the yard and created a cottage garden for me before embarking on your garage project."
She visualised a white fenced cottage garden with paths of flag-stones lined with lavender, wooden archways dripping with climbing roses, trellis entwined with aromatic honeysuckle and sweet peas clinging delicately to lines of woven string held tight by rustic stakes. A garden to counteract the still pervading diesel smell, but she kept that thought to herself. Alec was quick to justify his untidy yard and anyway hated gardening.
"That patch you are condemning has proven to be the creative playground for our son's genius, so don t rubbish it! That scrap-heap of dumped junk, distressed wood, abandoned machinery, rusty metal, crushed cans and empty barrels - not to mention the signal box he used as a blueprint for a one-off flat-pack - they were all a stimulus for our lad's imagination."
"Excuse me but you forgot to mention the unexploded bomb he unearthed from the far corner; now that really would have fired his imagination! Good thing it was defused in time!"
"Listen Muriel, when you look today at his sought -after sculptures think back for a moment; they are not the result of some tidy upbringing and sanitised environment - he had his own space, that's what he had." While reminiscing about his son Alec realised that if his garage could possibly be saved in time then perhaps what he most needed was an ideas man - someone capable of some lateral thinking in order to defeat Finlay Armstrong and the damn planning department.
The son had always been a rebel, a bit of an independent thinker and although a modernist sculptor also a traditionalist. For a time he had tried to get the boathouse listed - or at least have it served with a preservation order; it was a subject close to his heart. He had also been one of the red phone-box preservationists but thought there should be a ban on spider-lines in favour of washing lines suspended between apple trees.
Alec, by now angry at the thought of all the wasted time and money spent on his garage tried to phone the Glasgow studio but the answer phone put his hopes on hold and it was another twenty four hours before the call was returned.
Alec was simply told by his son to send down digital photos of the boathouse but not the original sepia ones. Also, he would need to look at the garage drawings with all measurements, including those of the boathouse, before his next visit.
In the end, many weeks and trailer loads of corrugated iron and bricks later, Alec was satisfied that although the planning officer had not been defeated there were in fact no losers. Reflecting on the outcome Alec took great satisfaction in sending one more letter to Mr Armstrong.
Dear Mr Armstrong,
This is to confirm the garage I was building at Benview, which your planning department served with an enforcement notice for it to be removed has now gone. However, as one garage door closes another opens.
When my son, who is what they call an installation sculptor, came up recently to help with the dismantling job he got the inspiration for his iron and bricks piece of garage - art now on show in a London gallery. What he did was rebuild the boathouse using the original corrugated iron, then he created a series of garages all in diminishing sizes fitting one inside the other.
Here I shall have to quote some of the blurb from the catalogue:
'This piece of work shows how the artist creates adventures by using internal space which, for the viewer can become an extraordinarily liberating and sensuous experience.'......... .....
I have enclosed a copy of the exhibition catalogue, also an invitation for you to attend the awards at the Tate Gallery of this year's Turner prize.
Mr Armstrong closed the exhibition catalogue he had been looking at and put it back on his desk. He re-read the letter, returned it to the white envelope and glanced once more at the invitation, putting them all back into the brown A4 envelope one inside the other. Like Russian dolls, thought Finlay.'
Find out more about the Neil Gunn Trust
To use the built in player, you'll need the Adobe Flash plugin (version 8.0 or later) for your browser.
You can download a plugin here.
Alternatively, you can download the MP3 directly by right clicking on the "Download MP3" link, and selecting "Save Target As...".