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The first time I seen her, I was with Nikky leaning against the van, having a vape. My motor, you’ve probably seen it around: yellow and green with pictures of cheeky wee pooches with the company name- Dolly’s Dugs- Walking, Grooming and Boarding- all over it. My cousin Liam done the graphics for me at his work. Me and Nikky usually get together at the car park, the one near the grotto, when we’ve finished the afternoon walk. We shove the wee ones in our vans, and have a natter, before they go back tae their ain hooses. I’ve got five regulars: the terriers Roy and Trigger, Tyson (the Staffie, what else?), and the two wee Schnauzers, Kyle and Robbie.

Nikky’s got eight. She was ayeways a bit greedy.

Croy Hill is where we walk the dugs. There, and down by the canal past the old quarry.

On the opposite slope looking across the valley is my wee cottage, number three Shuttle Row. It’s the Kelvin valley, like, though the river’s no more than a ditch round here, running alongside the canal. That wee valley, that’s my whole world. From my living room I can see the boats going by on the canal, up above the fields where the horses stand ankle-deep in mud. When there’s a mist, and that’s most mornings in the winter, it looks like the barges are floating by on a cloud. Then there’s the hill behind that, where my grandpa worked back in the day, in among the clart of the mines, the kilns, and the railtracks.

And way before that there was The Wall. Like I said, that’s where we seen her, one afternoon, back in October. So, she’s walking along the old Roman road, it follows the wall— just a ditch and a mound now— all the way from the Clyde through to the river Forth. Most folk think Hadrian’s Wall down at Newcastle was the frontier for the Roman Empire, but there was one here too. Yes, right here between Kilsyth and Croy.

Nikky told me the old miners said that down the pit, when the machines were shut down, they could hear footsteps above their heads. ‘Some of them thought it was Roman soldiers marching,’ she said. I told Nicky she was soft in the head if she believed that kind of spooky crap.

So, we watch the mystery woman go down the hill, and I says to Nikky, ‘what’s that on her head?’ Had on a sort of grey hood, so she did, though it was hard to see at that distance.

‘Hijab,’ says Nikky.

‘What, an arab?’

‘Aye, Dolly, I seen her in Lidl getting messages. She had thae vouchers.’

‘Oh. Asylum seeker?’

Nikky nods.

‘Syrian. Nice enough lassie all the same. Gies ye a smile if ye say hello.’

Then, as if she knows we’re talking about her, the woman speeds up and scuttles down towards the canal. Well away from thae two strange women all trussed up in hands-free belts, giving her the evil eye!

‘Shy though,’ Nikky says. ‘Stays down the Bottom End.’

The Bottom End was the crappy houses naebody else wanted. So the Cooncil put the refugees in there, right next to the sewage works. At night you could hear the shit-paddles going roon and roon. Slap, slap, slap.

Nikky turned away. ‘Mylo, get out o’ there! He’s sniffed a fuckin’ dead rabbit again,’ and off she waddled after that ugly wee pug. She’s put on another couple of pounds. Nikky, no’ Mylo. Vegan diet my arse. I’m sure she snaffles the dugs’ food.

When Nikky comes back I ask her: ‘She on her own?’

I look down at my feet and Mylo’s slavering all ower my trainers.

‘Aye, I heard her man’s in the jail over there.’

Nikky yanks Mylo back: ‘Sorry, Dolly, he’s a bit het up.’

I gie Nikky a ‘frosty’. She knows fine when I’m no’ happy. ‘That’s a shame, Nikky.’ I say, ‘Poor soul.’

‘Aye, she walks all over the place, all the time. I seen her out at the Banton Loch on Sunday.’

‘D’you ever talk to her?’

‘No’ really, Dolly. Whit would ye talk aboot?’

‘Wonder what’s she’s like.’

‘No’ like us, anyway,’ says Nikky, squeezing her key fob. Her van chirps back at her.

‘Huh. Who knows?’ I say. ‘See you tomorrow, Nikky.’


So, a couple of days after that I was picking up some books in the library. I like a good horror, and some history books, about round here, and that. I see her over at the computers.

I think, why not say something?

‘Hello there, did I see you up the hill?’ I ask.

She’s tiny, not much more than five foot; like a wee mouse with big shiny brown eyes and dark lashes. She peers over the top of the monitor and gives me a big smile. I’m telling you, it was like a ray of sunshine.

‘I’m Dolly,’ I say, and reach over my hand.

‘Mona,’ she says in a quiet voice, and looks back at the screen. I pretend to read the book I’ve just borrowed.

Mona gives a long sigh.

‘You managing OK on that computer?’ I ask.

‘Actually, I have got little problem. I don’t want to bother lady,’ she says, tilting her head towards the desk.

Lauren, the library assistant is on her phone to the boyfriend.

I tell Mona: ‘I don’t think she would be bothered. Here, let me help,’ and I pull up a chair next to her. She smells kind of sweet and musky at the same time. No’ like me- Eau de Wet Dug.

Mona’s struggling with sizing the screen—searching some history website or something. I’m no expert, but I managed to set up the business, and that. I soon have her sorted. Those computers in the library, they’re antiques.

Mona clocks the book I’m holding- Scotland’s Roman Remains.

‘Are you a student of archaeology?’ she asks.

I goes, ‘No’ really. I walk the dugs up at the wall every day. Thought I’d read a bit about it? Daft really, I suppose.’

‘This is a good book,’ she says, picking it up. ‘My subject, at home, before I escape.’

‘Home?’ I says.


‘Oh right,’ I goes. Like I haven’t guessed.

‘You know the wall was the most northerly frontier for the Roman Empire…’ she says.

‘Aye, I know that much.’

‘…but the Romans occupied it for twenty years only. It was there to keep the barbarians out.’

‘That was us lot, then. Scottish folk. Huh! Couldn’t keep us down. Naebody can.’

‘The people who lived north of here—the natives—were not exactly Scots back then.’ She shrugs and says, ‘the Romans thought it is too expensive to keep legions here after all—a poor place—not worth it.’

‘Cheeky buggers!’ I’m feeling a bit defensive. An edge creeping into my voice.

She looks out the window, its ten in the morning and the library lights are still on. It’s pissing with rain.

No point in falling out over a bit of history, so I say: ‘Put your parka on, Mona, come and have a cuppa.’ I take her over the road to Carlotta’s cafe.

‘Fancy a bacon roll?’ I ask … ‘oh, I’m sorry, you won’t…’ I feel my cheeks going red.

‘No, no its OK,’ she says, waving her hands in front of her. ‘I just don’t like it. Too salty. I like Lorne Sausage.’

‘Righty oh!’ I says. ‘Thought you weren’t allowed…you know.’

‘I’m not a Muslim. Christian…at least my parents were.’

‘But you wear this,’ I said, making a circle round my face with my finger.

‘Hijab?’ She says, ‘It’s just tradition, and cosy too.’

I laugh. ‘Right enough my Nan wore a headscarf, even when the weather was boilin’.’

Cosy, it’s correct?’ she asks.

‘Aye cosy is right enough,’ I say. ‘Bonny colour that, goes with your eyes.’ And she smiles again.

‘Not sure if I’m anything now,’ Mona says.

‘Me neither,’ I says. ‘The Sisters of Mercy battered that out of me.’

Carlotta comes up for the order. ‘What are youse havin’’ she says, looking at me, ignoring Mona.

Mona says, ‘A roll and sausage with broon sauce, please.’

Carlotta looks at her like one of my pooches had sat up and spoke. She writes in her pad. Short memory Carlotta- and I don’t mean for taking food orders. Her Nonno, new arrived from Barga, got his shop windows panned in back in the twenties. Just for being a Tally.

Broon sauce?’ I says to Mona.

‘Yes, I have that at the holding centre in Edinburgh.’

‘Oh right,’ I says. ‘Broon’s an east coast thing. Round here its tomato- red. But seeing as we’re kind of in the middle of Scotland, borderline, I suppose you can have either.’

When Carlotta’s gone, I ask. ‘You married?’ No point beating about the bush.

Mona picked the crust, like dried blood, off the top of the ketchup bottle. She kept her nails nice, though.

‘My husband, he is prisoner.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ I says.

I’d learned no’ to ask questions about that one. Not first off, anyway.

‘Any weans?’ I ask.

How’re ye gonnae find out anything if ye dinnae ask?

She frowned. ‘Please?’

Children,’ I said. ‘You got any children?’

‘We are married four months only. No, not yet.’


So me an Mona got to be quite pally. Bit by bit she opened up and told me stuff: about her man. ‘My husband George, He can’t leave Syria,’ she says.

George worked in a museum, a ‘curator’ she calls him. He was looking after some monuments up a valley in the middle of nowhere, and Isis, they come in and blow them all up. George’s mate was killed, but Mona doesn’t know what happened to her man. And government there are no’ bothered, because George used to write a blog saying this and that about the President. It’s a bit of a mess, but Mona clings on to hope. I feel real sorry for the lassie.

I says, ‘I’ve been single for eight years, and I’ve no’ looked back.’ But I could tell from the way she screwed up her mouth it was the wrong thing to say.

‘Tell you what,’ I says, ‘it’s the bowling club Burns Night tomorrow. Songs and poetry and that. You’ll no understand whit they’re saying, but the haggis is good. And you can have broon sauce on it.’

‘Oh I know about Burns,’ she laughs.

‘How come?’

‘I study one year in Moscow. There I have Russian boyfriend and he is Burns fanatic.’

‘So you’ll come?’

‘That would be nice, thank you.’ She laughs and wipes her eye.

We had a ball at the Burns supper. Tuns out Mona’s a rare singer. She knew all the words to The Slave’s Lament that Rabbie wrote, all about a fella that got shipped out from Africa to Virginia.

‘Have a dram,’ I says to Mona.

After the third she lifts her plastic glass up to her eye and says: ‘Dram…Dram…Dream,’ trying the words out like a toddler.

Then she says, ‘I have a dream.’

I goes: ‘Me an’ all. I dream I win the lottery and cop a fit man. One who disnae snore.’ I don’t know why I say that…It’s no’ what I really want, but sometimes I just say stuff to be funny.

‘No, I mean,’ Mona corrects herself with a wee smile, ‘I had a dream. A real one.’

‘Oh aye?’

‘I dream I am back in Aleppo, and I give a lecture.’

Mona was a doctor, you see. Not a GP, not a medical doctor: an archaeologist. Roman remains and that. Seems there’s a lot in Syria. Who knew?

She says, ‘well, in my dream I have to talk to students. The topic is the Antonine Wall. Oh my goodness, what a panic’s in my breastie! I didna’ know my subject.’

‘I ken thon dreams. Mine’s is when Tyson craps on the cream shag-pile of that bitch of a bank manager. Oh my God!’ Mona gives me that look that says, gonnae be serious for a minute.

‘But I thought you were clued up on all thae Roman things? Big temples, and that,’ I says.

‘Yes, in the Eastern Mediterranean, but not here. Hence my anxiety.’ She spoke funny English sometimes; picked it up at the Glasgow Uni I suppose. See, she volunteered to help out the archaeologists there. In the better weather, at the ‘evacuation’ in the old fort on the hill. She’s no’ allowed a paid job.

It’s then I spot it.

She reaches across the table for the sugar. She takes her tea that sweet you can stand a spoon in it. I see it: the bangle, a copper bracelet on her wrist. My Nan used to wear one for her arthritis, but no’ like this. Mona’s was made out of, like, copper wires all twisted round each other, kind of greenish too, and the ends carved like snake-heads. I never seen her wear any jewellery before; she said it all got robbed off her in the camps.

‘That’s nice,’ I say, leaning over to take a hold and get a good look. Well! You’d think I’d touched her with a red hot iron. She