‘Along the Old North Road’ by Emma Kinnear

Old North Road
Illustration by Andres Garzon


Chained-up whimpering farm dogs, Brexit signs, and lucent yellow fields slowly disappeared. Hedgerow dissipated into copses, pebble-dash farmhouses to rows of limestone cottages. It became hard to concentrate on the tale of Treasure Island once we were on the road.

‘Was it written by an ancestor?’

‘Yes, a distant one. His full name was Robert LewisBalfour Stevenson. A different branch of the same Balfour stem as us.’

No one was listening by then though. Children liked questions more than answers. The wind rose and the rain returned. Everything in the new campervan was modular, had multiple purposes, metamorphosed. Somehow, despite that, it was hard to be excited. Disjointed words were texted.

Sorry for the confusion. I’m just so muddled. Don’t think I am fit to do this. It is an idea though. Sorry.’

Accompanied earlier by a long voice message, unintelligible, between sobs. Everything had shifted, changed, roles realigned. Reincarnated. I was once a daughter. She was once a mother.

Hills rose, the endless flat fields of Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and South Lincolnshire were gone. Lambs and calves hovered by their mothers, heads down amongst meadows with poppies and marigolds. Midges returned.

Sheep encaged in small metal boxes were ferried alongside us. Alice, a new vegan, glared.

Grey skies pulled back. The sun lingered above the new landscape: spruce, oak and copper birch. Flowering gorse lined verges. It was early summer and there was so much roadkill: doe, pheasants, foxes, some no longer identifiable, just the bloody innards. A chap I once knew picked up all roadkill, filling his many freezers. Home-grown vegetables, roadkill, and self-caught fish  were his diet.  Dead human bodies are treated with such composure, restricted carefully by legislation, kept cool with the chemically-induced appearance of life until lawful disposure. Yet other animals’ bodies can be hung from butcher’s windows, pickled, stuffed, turned on rotaries, wrapped in freezers, or just abandoned.

Leaning on each other, the children slept while my husband listened to his audiobook. There was no one to ask—did it matter—my anthropomorphism of everything?

An ewe mourns her dead lamb. She was unable to leave his side, curled around his body, lamenting, refusing to eat. She might have never moved, had his body not been pulled from her. When my old mottled guinea pigs lifelong companion died, she cleaned his body, licking him from head to paw, then laid beside him. Hours later, Guinea would not rise; eventually she hid. She would not eat and died soon after.

The signs for Sunderland passed. Briefly I lived in that proud north-eastern city, developed an obsession there for running. Ice, darkness, or sea fret were no deterrence. The ritual was ten miles, thrice a week, along a desolate coastal path—around coves, sea arches, chalky bays, and lighthouses.

Great-great grandfather, George Thomas Balfour-Kinnear, boarded a while at the Grange School in Sunderland.  At noon on 2nd October 1845, a procession of Grange boys were led over abandoned quarries and around what became a coastal park with anchors and driftwood, down to the sandy seashore. You can imagine them chattering, whistling, the sun in their eyes. George Thomas wanted to bathe that day too but was held back on account of failing to finish his Latin homework.  All along the North Sea the currents quite suddenly shift as the tide turns. Their power could drag you back, out, tear the sand away from underneath, knock you to the ground. You forget its strength when floating, staring up to the evening sky, or tugging the children around in a dingy. Likewise, on that day in 1845, all was calm and warm, until the sky darkened, the gentle waves reformed. One of George Thomas’ friends struggled and four others, including the boy’s brother, and their master, tried in vain to rescue him: all five drowned.

Angel of the North, Gormley’s memorial statute, glimmered ahead, momentarily stretching, desperately, above the trees. We stared at her bronze-like beauty. Built with steel from the closed-down pithead baths where coal miners washed before returning home.  Soon she too was gone. So many times I had visited her: built snowmen beside her, sat in the rain eating,  touched her metallic skin,  watched the sunset. Then we moved away, forgot her.  Now we did not even stop.

Off the main road, small squat trees leaned eastwards in the saline breeze, reached towards the sea. Two old men chatted, fiddling with their cufflinks. Both wore faded suits:  one grey, one black. Over the stone humped bridge and into Alnmouth, multi-coloured houses curved around the horseshoe bay. We thought so many times about living there, viewed several houses and never moved. That was long ago, it makes me feel mournful to return, like seeing an old lover, all those unfinished or unformed memories.  Why didn’t we move there?

Parked up, we headed for the beach, wood-fire smoke curled up, sedated us. Onto the dunes, we removed our shoes. There was an acrid stench of salty fish. Sea coal scattered across the beautiful expanse of sands, black shiny lumps from closed mines. Quickly the tide came in, the estuary filled with such velocity, red flags fluttered, the sea surged, and the landscape changed shape. St Cuthbert’s cross on the hilltop, where the estuary meets the sea, stretched further away. Winds rose. The children, who had been lulled into a mesmeric pensiveness, sharpened again, lamented their hunger. Bickered.

Inside the daytime café and nighttime bistro, all was as it always was: prints of the village and surrounding Northumberland covered the walls, the sideboard was brimming with rich four-layer cakes, the waitresses were ever young, fresh-faced and friendly,  the menu still had gunpowder and blue lady tea.

It was time to send mother another message. ‘How are you now?’ She was new to texting and disliked it. Likewise, the first time Granny used the internet, she said it was, ‘Astounding. Simply astounding,’ yet looked away mournfully towards the view she had always known, the heather across the moors.

‘What are we doing tomorrow, Mum?’

‘We’re going to Melrose to see the Abbey.’


‘Another ancestor, Saint Waltheof, great-grandson of Earl Siward, step-son of King David, he was the founding Abbot of that Abbey. Imagine that, a family saint!’

Waltheof’s Cistercian life of self-inflicted austerity, near starvation, sleeplessness (rising at 2am), devoutness, often solitude or silence, led to hallucinations which exalted him, apparently, to see Jesus impaled on his wooden cross with nails pierced through his flesh and the crown of thorns upon his head. Corpus Christi.

Our food arrived and we start to talk about what to cook for supper and about what they’d do the day I was to visit Edinburgh. They didn’t moan about any of it.  Last holiday we went to Orkney by train and boat; next holiday we’re planning to return to Scotland. I wanted to justify myself, reiterate my interest in our ancestral lands, as a way of addressing ownership and land justice. Remind them of the authenticity of this, backed up by academic research on land rights and years of work for charities in  housing law, mental health law, running a law centre and helping out at the foodbank, but it all sounded pious. They knew the dirty secret too: there is an inner part, ashamedly, which almost relishes in such illustrious ancestry, which whispers. ‘I have direct lineal ancestry from the ancient baronial family of the Balfours of Muquhanny! I have direct lineage back to Robert the Bruce and William the Conqueror!’

It was recorded by Burke, in numerous other books and in dusty archives. This mantra gives courage when nervous, allowing me to hold my head up high. It shouldn’t be true, but it is. My beautiful, auburn-haired son examined my face, reminded me – ‘This is a holiday.’ To show I remembered, we bought some takeaway cake; yes, it is a holiday!

A text message came back, ‘Bit better today. Doctor said to stop the meds.’ Despite beta-blockers, she had a blood pressure reading off the scales. Her young doctor put down the monitor, removed his glasses and rubbed his dark eyes, she relayed. Unable to say anything, apparently, for quite a while, pondering what to do, what to say, then he looked to her as though really, she should be dead. Mother reassured him, made him feel better, it was okay, it was just white coat hypertension. Everything was just absolutely fine. Doctors, though, can be anxious; lives rest in their balance, or so it must seem, so the dose was rapidly and drastically increased. Quickly, Mother became utterly disorientated, confused. Many years ago, a pharma psychiatrist explained that increasing dosages beyond a said point drastically increases the side effects whilst only producing limited positive results. Prescribed way beyond the tipping point, Mother likewise suffered extreme side effects. My daughter tugged my arm.

‘You’re not even listening. Do you care more about your dead relatives than us?’

The sun was low, I lifted her up, though she had suddenly grown so tall and feisty, her golden hair curled down to her waist.  My son stood back to back with me, he had outgrown me. Less than a week ago, I was the tallest.

‘You’ll have to have another baby. We aren’t babies any longer,’ they laughed.

It was hard to pinpoint when that happened.

‘Have a baby, please,’ they insisted. ‘Three children wouldn’t be too many. Go on, please Mum, have three children.’

I corrected my son and daughter, ‘No, it would be four children. Not three.’

They were confused.  Swifts dived between the dunes; sails chimed in the breeze. I whispered, That would be four children. Luminescent blue forget-me-nots and cow parsley rose up the hillside. We all paused, stared in different directions: to the meadows, out to high tide,  up to St Cuthbert’s cross,  west, towards the sailing club. It never got easier. We had three children. One died. My eldest daughter died at birth, fully formed with beautiful dark red hair, tiny fingers and toes, a snub nose, wrapped up in a patchwork blanket which had taken nine months to knit. A decade on, the words still barely came out, fell to a murmur, even after years of counselling. Time makes it easier to forget for longer periods but then it hits, drags you down, pulls you under. Everyone said we should tell our living children, so we did, but it sticks in the gullet each time,  sounds wrong and harsh. My nails dug into skin; the saline air made my eyes water.

Back in the campervan we clambered to our seats—onwards, on our ancestral trail to Scotland.


EMMA KINNEAR trained as a lawyer but has worked in the charity sector within housing and mental health law and at Toynbee Hall’s legal centre in east London.

She has published academic and professional papers internationally but after recently finishing a creative writing course is re-focusing. After travelling the length and breadth of the UK, she has settled in Norwich with her two children and novelist husband.

Copyright © 2019 by Emma Kinnear. All rights reserved.