Alicky's Watch by Fred Urquhart, 1950
by Fred Urquhart, 1950
By the end of the nineteenth century there flourished in Scotland a development in fiction that was classified by its opponents as "the Kailyard," meaning "the cabbage patch." The implication was that the writers' vision went no further than the kitchen garden. Thomas Knowles described the school: "In its 'classic' form, the Kailyard is characterized by sentimental and nostalgic treatment of parochial Scottish themes, often centered on the church." Some writers specialized in idealized, tear-jerking death scenes and sentimental funerals. The more skillful Kailyard writers—Barrie was one—spread their interests wider, but a refusal to allow readers to face the facts remained characteristic. This distortion of rural life gave rise to the fierce reaction in fiction of George Douglas Brown and Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
It might be thought that such subject matter as a funeral would not attract Fred Urquhart, yet the entire tale of "Alicky's Watch" is taken up with the preparations, the journey to and from the funeral, and the festivity thereafter. Indeed, add one word to the title of his story, "Little," and a potential reader ignorant of the author might well have placed it in the nineteenth-century Kailyard. It is, of course, the treatment of the subject that matters: the difference is between a travesty of a reality and what appears to be a transcript of reality. The conventions and rituals at a funeral of working people are faithfully recorded, and each character is treated as an individual within the context of the story. The final imaginative touch is the perspective on grief determined by Alicky's concern for his grandfather's watch. A cursory reading will reveal the tale's perfect simplicity and attract by its humor and pathos. But the ironies that rise out of the discrepancy between the attitudes and feelings the solemn occasion demands and their actual attitudes and feelings bring the whole affair close to the theater of the absurd—close to but not into, for the genuineness of boyhood at the end claims the attention.
Far removed in content from the rest of his Collected Stories, Urquhart considered "Alicky's Watch" worthy to be one of the 25 selected. He also selected it for inclusion in Scottish Short Stories (1957). In his preface he shows himself keenly aware of the Kailyard School, as when he refers to Ruthven Todd's Big Wheel as "a welcome antidote to the sickly, sentimental stories of the Kail Yard school." But no other story in the book is as immediately sharp as "Alicky's Watch"
The first word of the first sentence displays the gap between what Alicky is to himself and to his friends and what he is presumed to be for the solemn occasion: "Alexander's watch stopped on the morning of his mother's funeral." The grandeur is sustained for the announcement of his inheritance, his grandfather's watch, given him on his seventh birthday. He was nine when his mother died, and now the death of the watch bulked much larger in his mind than it should, not that he was alone in the problem of sustaining the correct atmosphere: "And there was the genteel bickerings between his two grandmothers, each of them determined to uphold the dignity of death in the house, but each of them equally determined to have her own way in the arrangements for the funeral." A feature of the tale is the apportioning of nice distinctions of sensitiveness to propriety, "genteel bickerings," and of the guffaws of rude men on the return journey with the tragedy already far out of mind. Alicky's mind is on his broken watch. He shows no interest in the games the others play: "He put his watch to his ear and shook it violently for the fiftieth time." For him time has stopped.
At the funeral tea as the minister prays, Alicky notices the cat nosing a large plate of ham but is held back from action by the thought that he might be called "a wicked ungodly wee boy for not payin' attention to what the minister's sayin' about yer puir mammy." But the minister saves the situation: "He stopped in the middle of a sentence and said calmly in his non-praying voice: 'Mrs. Peebles, I see that the cat's up at the boiled ham. Hadn't we better do something about it?"' After the minister has gone the party is free to give vent to its own double standards, to its rough enjoyments, its gentility, while Alicky, ignored, pries into his watch. Also on the sidelines is Alicky's father. His wish to have his wife's body cremated was overruled. The information that he is 31 years-old surfaces and is ignored.
In this imagined world there is a place for the free expression of coarse enjoyment as part of a human comedy, but the unnoticed players on the sidelines, the father and Alicky, are in their integrity the measure of behavior. The absence of the author's explicit judgment is the measure of his art.