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Tang By J.J. Haldane Burgess

An extract from the 1898 novel ‘Tang’ by J.J. Haldane Burgess, which portrays life and relationships in a Shetland community.

Two of the main characters in ‘Tang’ are Inga Bolt, a merchant’s daughter, and Bob Ertirson, a fisherman. But this passage concentrates on another important character, the new parish minister, Mr Mann, who is seen here paying a visit to old Magnus in his workshop.

Magnus was sitting on his stool near the big window, in his blue shirtsleeves and leather apron, his grey head bare and bent towards the floor. He had just laid the boot he had been stitching up on the broad window sill, and was lifting his lapstone from the floor.

‘Good day, Magnus,’ said Mr Mann, entering.

Magnus raised his head till the light gleamed on his spectacles, making his small black eyes almost invisible, but they were looking sharply at the minister, who had not before come into the workshop though he had often saluted Magnus in passing or when they had chanced to meet outside.

’Yes, it’s been a fine day, sir; bit I dont winder at it,’ said the old man in a decided tone, and seemingly taking the greeting as a statement of fact rather than as a form of politeness. He began to hammer a piece of bend upon his lapstone.

‘You dont wonder at it,’ said Mr Mann, with a slight smile, ‘how so, Magnus?’

‘I sall tell you; I sall tell you’; returned Magnus, ‘bit ye’ll set you doon first, edder here upo da window-sole or ower yundru upo da boy’s stöl. I’m sory I hae no a shair ta offer you.’

‘No, thank you,’ said Mr Mann cheerily, ‘I’ll just stand for this time. I’m on my way home, and I must call at the shop too. Well, how so, Magnus?’

Magnus ceased beating for a moment, and his spectacles, his little black eyes, his nose, and in fact the whole of his brown, wrinkled face peered up at Mr Mann.

‘Weel, ye see,’ said Magnus, ‘da Loard is hed a göd dael o practice at makkin days nu, an I dont winder ’at He turns oot a fine ean, nu an dan.’ He began to beat again.  He was not in the habit of going to the kirk. Mr Mann knew this well enough. It was for that reason he had come in along. He wished to lead the old man into other ways. He felt the old man’s levity.

‘Don’t you think,’ he said, in a voice kindly but severe and with a troubled look in his dark eyes, ‘that it is very wrong of you to speak in such a way? Are you not afraid that God may punish you for your irreverence?’

‘Me oonreverent!’ said Magnus, hammering vigorously at his bend. ‘Na, na, sir; an as for poonishment, da Loard’ll never pit Himsel aboot ta hairm a pör body laek me.’

‘This is worse and worse, Magnus,’ said Mr Mann sadly, but with some little irritation, ‘and you have persisted so long, too, in stopping away from public worship.’

‘Public worship,’ echoed Magnus, stopping abruptly again, ‘Yea, it’s public anoff; bit I dont know aboot da worship. Hoo mony o da folk, tink ye, goes dere ta worship? Da most o da lasses goes ta shaa aff dir bits o cloes, da most o da lads ta sit an glower at dem again, an da most o da aald folk becaase it’s da custom ta go an dey’re frichtend for what dir neeburs wid say if dey didna. Tink ye ’at da laek o Hansi Bolt wid bodder wi da kirk if it wisna for his shop? Not he, feth, sir. An as for me, I went ta da kirk reglar wance upun a time too; bit da aald body ’at wis afore you – rest his saal! he wis a göd, kind man tho nothin o a praecher – wis for ever grapplin wi texts ’at wis da same as guddiks. As I mony a time said, he wid lay a passage doon laek a shaef o coarn atween him an ean o da commentaators ’at he wis aye fechtin wi an dey wid turn to an wallop awey at it time aboot, till deevil a grain o sense wis left ’ithin it an dey wir raised a stoor o wirds at wis anoff ta blinnd a body. He keepit wis a whole winter sittin wi Job upun his middenhead, an anidder whole winter waanderin here an dere among da peerie prophets, an what, can ye tell me, kent da laek o yon Naaum an Malakki aboot wis awa nort here in Shetland an dem dead thusans o years afore we wir boarn?’

’Probably more than you imagine, Magnus,’ said Mr Mann quietly. He saw, however, that he would need to come oftener to Hooll. He did not get time to say more, for Magnus, who after his speech had looked through the big window, suddenly ejaculated,

‘Yea, I toucht dat! Dere’s Hansi’s boat, da “Inga”, comin in ta Da Point. I wis jöst tinkin at Bob Ertirson wid be comin haem dis helly. Hansi haes anidder Inga ’at Bob wid laek a hantle better ta be skipper o. So, so, wir Magni’ll be wi him. Dis is a pair o Sunday böts ta Bob ’at I’m finishin even nu.’

Through the open door Mr Mann saw the herring boat gliding in towards a little cove among the black rocks of Da Point from which the dark strip of heather ran up between the glebe and Taft.

‘Well, Magnus,’ said Mr Mann, holding out his hand, ‘I must be going now, but we must have a talk on church matters again.’ Magnus took his hand and shook it heartily, with a smile of mingled cynicism and good humour on his dried, old visage.

‘Yea, yea, dat we sall,’ he said, ‘d’ill be nae want o taalk. Feth, I tink it’s little else but taalk aatagedder.’ Mr Mann went out and walked slowly away, leaving Magnus chuckling to himself, as he gave a big knock on his lapstone.

Bi mi sang! I tink dat did him.’

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