If Alexandra McMillan had been born in any era other than her own, she would have most certainly been burned as a witch. Luckily for her, she popped into the world the same year as Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone; inspiring her father, Robert, to name his new daughter after the Scottish inventor.
Robert McMillan came down from the Isle of Skye in 1870 with the intention of working on the Oban railroad; a few days later, he fell hopelessly in love with the best looking girl in Coldharbour. They married several months before Alexandra’s birth and neither of them ever regretted the haste of their marriage. Ian, their healthy robust son, who followed three years later, was to join what everyone agreed was the happiest of families.
Robert’s hard work and honesty brought him promotion within the rail company and he was assigned the difficult route of Tyndrum to Oban; a line that was pestered by constant rock falls from Ben Cruachan. One night when Alexandra was only six years of age, she drew a picture of a train being struck by a large boulder. The following afternoon the rail crash came to pass just as it had been prophesied and no one in Coldharbour ever looked at little Alexandra in quite the same way again. She never found her own behaviour, in any way, odd and neither did her mother, and in fact they would sometimes imagine the same things at the same time. The story was often repeated in the family that at the very moment Ian fell from a ridge in Glencoe, both Alexandra and her mother felt his leg snap.
She once visited an ‘old wifey’ who lived just outside Dalmally and of whom it was said had the gift of the second sight. So one afternoon when Alexandra had finished the big school, she walked the nine miles to the wifey’s house. Alexandra apologised that she couldn’t afford to pay the woman for a reading but the woman patted her hand, told her that everything happens for a reason and that one day she would return the favour. Alexandra was told that she would be loved and not loved in the same measure and at the same time.
“You will be loved by one who does not know you are there”, whispered the old wifey “You will have your dreams but in a different flavour from the wanting of it and not within the confines of Coldharbour”.
So on the long walk back home, Alexandra came to the conclusion that she would have to leave the village at the earliest opportunity to fulfil her dreams.She would study hard, she told herself, for therein would lie the escape route. Reading and the getting of knowledge was relatively easy for Alexandra, for more than anything else in the world she loved books. Walter Scott was her favourite author and Ivanhoe, her hero, but for her, the greatest of all writers was a mister Robert Burns from Ayrshire. It was always with a hint of regret to Alexandra that she found herself born too late to marry the great man.
She could break hearts with her rendition of ‘My love is like a red, red rose’ but she knew that the breaking of hearts in Coldharbour was a waste of her time and theirs.
There was never any chance of her attending college or university in Glasgow, so she read and studied and taught herself French which, she had to admit, had limited uses in Coldharbour until one day in early spring a French family visited the village. They had heard stories about the pretty church founded by the Vikings and it had proved so interesting that they delayed their trip to Fort William.
Alex, as the French family called her, was employed as an interpreter. Monsieur Picard felt that Alex’s accent was “a little unusual but your grammar is delicious”. High praise indeed as she’d never actually heard anyone speaking French until then. She found the family both exotic and exciting and in a very short time they became close, so much so that on the day they left, they kissed a startled Alex on both cheeks and insisted she visit their ‘little chateau’ in Montparnasse, Paris. Life came looking for Alex McMillan and found her packed and ready to take the journey.
She fell head over heels in love with Paris the moment she stepped out of the train at Gare Du Nord. This was a city in the middle of the Golden Era, la belle époque, a city that was impossible to resist.
Deciding to save the little money she had, Alex walked away from the station and turned left down a narrow street clutching her five centimes map. Every open door she passed had its own smell and its own personal story. There are slivers of time, when just for that second, you know that your life is almost achingly perfect – Alex would later call these the ‘passing wonderful’ moments – those moments when you are happy to just to be alive.
She crossed the Rue De Rivoli and lost her breath with the beautiful splendour of it all, but the best was yet to come. As she rounded the back of the Louvre and crossed the Pont Neuf, she saw reflected in the sparkling River Seine the Notre Dame cathedral and she wept. If there was anywhere in the world or any time you could wish to exist then it was here Paris, autumn 1896.
A little ginger man with a large straw boater pointed out the Picard’s ‘little chateau’. No wonder he had a wry smile on his freckled face, it was such a monster of a building, easily the largest on this stretch of Boulevard Raspail. After she had pulled the black lever which tipped the wooden block which rang the bell, she was told by a woman who was in the process of bleaching her moustache to go to the rear of the building. Alex sat in the servant’s kitchen scared to even breathe when suddenly Madame Picard swished into the room and screamed out “what have they done to my little Scottish friend?”
Madame showed Alex into a bedroom that was larger than her entire Coldharbour home. “You will be happy here and you may stay as long as you wish, dinner is at seven thirty”.Alex outstretched her arms, looked heavenward then fell comfortably back on to a big soft bed, life was good and she was still just ‘passing wonderful’.
At dinner that evening, Alex was seated beside an elderly gentleman whose hands were ravaged by arthritis but whose heart was still relatively untouched. “I noticed you admiring the painting hanging on the wall. It was a gift to my very dear and close friend, Alain Picard”
Alex recognised it as a Renoir or at least an excellent copy.
”It is called ‘Dancing at Bougival’, you like it?”
“Of course” said Alex.
“I am Pierre-Auguste Renoir and you are Alexandra, the fortune-teller, I have heard much about you”
Monsieur Renoir told her of his new neighbour in Montmartre who had recently arrived from the south of France and who was in want of an English teacher.
So the strange girl from the West Highlands became a teacher and a friend of one of France’s greatest painters. By December, she had moved to a flat in the Pigalle only a few minutes’ walk from Montmartre. By the following summer, her growing number of pupils had led her to set up a small English language school near the Sacre Coeur, although it didn’t pay well, she supplemented it by charging for fortune-telling. By the light of day she was the paragon of sobriety but by night she sat with her comrades in cafes, smoking, sipping brandy and discussing the current troubles. On one such evening she was given a pencil drawing of herself by Toulouse-Lautrec, it lay undimmed in her suitcase until it was found by her son many years later.
In late August of 1905, Alex had saved enough money to take a short holiday in the fashionable resort of Deauville on the north coast of France. It was populated, every summer, for several weeks by the international rich. Alex was hoping that maybe this was a place to find a husband before she was thirty and past her prime.
One day, as she was leaving the beach, she leaned against a post to put her shoes on when one of the straps broke. She hobbled for a short distance along the promenade before she was stopped by the most gigantic of men who asked in French, but with a distinct American twang, if he could help. Alex said of course he could.
“I’m assuming you’re not French…English?”
“Ah, the land of Robert Burns” said the very confident, very tall black man with obvious good taste, thought Alex.
“He is my most favourite of all poets” she said proudly.
“Is he indeed…is he, indeed?” and with that Jacob took her small hand in his and led her to the Saint Bernard cafe, where over a glass of cheap wine she found out all she needed to know. He had recently left the French Foreign Legion where he had spent many a happy year, he was originally from west Philadelphia, a city in the United States of America, but had left that country suddenly for reasons he would not expand upon.
“And that, my Scottish, is the story”.
When she first made love to Jacob it was on Bastille night, just as the whole of Montmartre had turned into one large firework celebration; it was her time for true happiness, right here and right now, and so another ‘wonderful’ was about to be passed.
On Christmas day, Alex found out that she was pregnant. In Montmartre there were many combinations of couples, all one had to do was throw a stone and you were sure to hit an unconventional pairing. Outside of this environment life was very different, very different indeed. Even before Isaiah’s birth, Jacob’s family had found out about the baby and were begging him to bring it home. Whatever troubles had occurred to make him run in the first place, they must have now been settled as he felt it was safe to return.
One morning Alex woke to the silence. This was about the same time as Jacob was boarding a ship bound for New York with a baby. If ever a heart was broken, it was Alex’s heart; broken all the way through and quietly done.
She returned to the family home at Coldharbour where now only Ian, her brother, remained. No one in the village saw her light a bonfire early one morning, a large bonfire which contained all the souvenirs and memories of France. When the fire eventually faded away to embers and died, so did her eyes.
It stayed that way for many years until a letter arrived from a young American by the name of Isaiah Dupont who, he believed, may be Alex’s son and he wondered if she could meet him in Glasgow.She knew from the moment she stepped nervously into the Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall Street that this was her son – no doubt about it, he had Jacob’s face. He told his mother that he had met an English girl while studying at Temple University in Philadelphia and that they were now engaged and living in London. He showed Alex the letter that Jacob had asked to be sent to his son if he should fail to return from the Front. It explained what really had happened to his mother and how very sorry his father was. Then Isaiah told his mother he was to be married in August and he wanted her to be at his side.
Before Alex left Coldharbour, she visited the cottage of the ‘old wifey’ who’d once lived just outside Dalmally. The woman’s daughter thanked her for the years Alex had sent money from France and told her of the difference it had made to their lives. A letter lay on her mother’s fireplace to be read by Alex when she returned.
“I can never thank you enough for your kindness and for the beautiful way you have repaid me. I know by the time you read this you will have found what you are looking for. Once you were loved and not loved at the same time and now that time has passed. Go to them.”
Alex lived well into her nineties and was lovingly looked after by her son, his wife and their three children. She never went back to Coldharbour.
Each night, as she closed her eyes, she would clutch a book of poems by Robert Burns and within seconds sleep would paint a huge smile on her face.
bobby stevenson 2017