Burnt Sugar by Conner Milliken


Creative Non Fiction by Conner Milliken

This one is called Cercidiphyllum japonicum because when its leaves fall it smells like burnt sugar. Gentle said this, pointing to a nearby tree when we left the bedsit he has been given for the year at Threave House. He was accepted into the National Trust’s School of Heritage Gardening and this is the first time I, or anyone, has come to visit him since he moved here six weeks ago. I arrived in the middle of the October night, stepping off the bus outside of the swimming pool of Castle Douglas, a place so far removed from the city of Glasgow where I travelled four hours from. We walk through the town on the Friday night, the lights from the streets fading behind us the further we move along the country roads towards Threave House. It’s so black and viscous that we can’t see in front of us. Gentle confesses, I think I might be afraid of the dark, and tells me about walking down the road at this time often. He points out two bats overhead as we proceed. The Threave Bat Reserve was established here a few years ago and Gentle had told me about the bat walks he’d been taken on soon after he arrived. I couldn’t wait to see them but they’re hard to spot as their black form skates against the dense blacknesses all around us. I marvel at the velvet night; it is never this dark in the city and it wraps around my senses like a blanket. We stop for a moment because, in my attempt to orientate myself, I have gazed up at the stars and I gawp. This is the Milky Way, well that streak down the middle of the sky is, he says. I find it hard to speak because I’ve never seen the stars and the sky so clearly. He informs me that the sky is protected. It strikes me that this is an odd sentiment. Gentle wants to get moving again, but I find it hard to take my eyes off of the crystal-clear image above us. Further along my attention is drawn upwards again. A bright, burning orange shoots across the azure canvas and stops us in our tracks. It looks like it’s breaking off into multiple pieces and we speculate that it’s a plane breaking up in the sky, but it’s so deathly silent that we can’t tell. I place my hand on his shoulder, because it’s good to see him and something about that trail of light urges me to hold onto him, until we realise, as it progresses across the scene in front of us that it’s a shooting star or comet. I’ve never seen anything like that before, Gentle says, Neither have I, I reply, looking at him. The rest of the walk remains pitch black and it’s impossible to see the abundance of trees and plants that surround us the whole journey. It’s so dark that I miss the Cercidiphyllum japonicum that sits outside the old mansion that he now lives in as we clamber inside, out of the darkness. 

The next morning, he takes me out to explore the grounds and to practice the fake Latin names he’s had to learn in his time here. Threave Estate is massive and sprawling. We spend hours walking around, cutting through thickets and down paths, Gentle pointing out the names of plants he knows and stopping to answer my questions. He draws my attention to my favourite trees, Acers, every time we pass one. I decided it was my favourite when he took me around the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh where he once studied and I was taken by it’s soft, luscious bark; a dark reddish-brown that looks like a tinfoil chocolate wrapper when it’s peeling. The Acers encourage me to ask more questions about more of the plants. I want to know what he knows because he is thriving here, like a tree transported from another part of the world to rainy Scotland, thriving in Threave. He has this joy in his voice when he tells me all about his life here. We’ve been speaking since he moved to this place but it’s hard to communicate often as the signal is so bad. On top of that, he is working outside from 8am until 5pm and he has studying to do after he feeds himself. It’s part of the reason he wanted me to come and visit him, so that I could get a feel for the bubble he currently finds himself in. The first hint of joy in his voice was when he pointed out the Cercidiphyllum japonicum. I’ll make a horticulturist out of you by the end of my time here. I vow to him that I’ll at least remember the name of this tree, the one whose leaves smell like burnt sugar when they fall, whose leaves are an odd colour; green with a creeping hue. I want to remember it to impress him and I know it will bring him joy that I am trying to learn. Or at least I hope it will. 

Heading into the grounds we arrive at the path where he has been hedging in the walled garden all week. The garden was established in 1872 and was where the food was grown for the mansion that Gentle now lives in. We walk around, joined at various points by elderly couples out for a Saturday stroll, and Gentle shows me the things he has planted or trimmed or grown. He offers me a pea to eat straight from the allotment before he takes me into the glass house, a recreation of the original one. We stop in the Orchid room first. Gentle knows I like Orchids because I have two in my house, seemingly the only plants I can keep alive. We proceed through to the pond where the Koi carp are and I gawp. I tell Gentle about the aquarium I used to have as a kid and how I used to try and pet the fish when it was feeding time. He sticks his hand in the water and introduces me to Guzzler, the biggest Koi carp, who swims around with a big stupid face and gulps constantly. We both do impressions of what he sounds like. This scene is so familiar. It’s one we have played out in both Glasgow and Edinburgh and it wraps around my senses like a blanket. We can pick stuff from the garden to make dinner with since you brought the gochujang paste with you. We’re making ramen but we have to go into town to the Wholefoods store to get some mirin and rice wine vinegar to pickle radishes from the garden. Along the journey, Gentle informs me that the last of the Gordons donated the mansion for students who wished to study horticulture. In fact, Major Alan Gordon, a descendant of the “Black” Douglas line, donated the mansion to the Trust in 1957 after his death. The first student cohort moved into the house in 1960 and the grounds have been added to year by year by each group of students. The last head groundskeeper, Magnus, was horrible; dragging students out of bed by their feet if they slept in and making people garden in their pants in the winter. This is what Gentle tells me. 

Castle Douglas is different in the Saturday daylight. Like any town on a Friday night, small groups of people walked the streets: heading home, heading to the pub, heading to the cash point. Today it’s mostly families and older couples, like the ones I spot so frequently on the grounds of Threave. I note to Gentle that old men tend to have three ways of walking, my favourite of which is the hands-cupped-behind-the-back-chest-out. Gentle walks like that at many points during the weekend and I snort-laugh every time because he looks so unlike himself. CD (that’s what the locals call it) feels like a seaside town but it’s not near the sea. I haven’t visited that many seaside towns but there’s a familiarity in the bustling streets and the brightly painted window panes of the local businesses and charity shops. Based on the grid pattern plan of Edinburgh’s New Town, CD was built by William Douglas, the Douglases who built Threave. There is familiarity in the small-town landmarks of the clock tower, old kirks and the library, which was opened in 1904 with funding from Andrew Carnegie. We stop at Earth’s Crust first. 

We’ve been walking around for hours, Gentle constantly talking about getting some focaccia and cake here. It’s massive inside, with an exposed kitchen and huge ovens where everything is baked fresh. On the counter, there are lines of fresh focaccia, bread, tarts, cakes, rolls, scones and we decide to sit in and recharge before the walk back. One of the people on Gentle’s program walks in, coming over briefly to make small pleasantries down at us in our slumped-couch position. He moves off to another table to eat as the server brings over our coffee. We thank her and Gentle flicks through an old copy of Dumfries and Galloway Magazine. He points out that his teachers and the school have been featured in this issue and informs me that he and his classmates recently took part in a photoshoot for an article on this year’s student intake. I have to write something for the magazine as part of the course, he says. Oh a published author? You’re so fancy, I laugh. Eh, I’m already a published author thanks. As the server comes back with our food she comments, Oh the photographer for the magazine comes in here all the time. This is unsurprising; we’ve already run into Gentle’s colleague and between him leaving the table and the server making this comment two of his teachers have come in for lunch. It’s another part of the haziness of this place. Castle Douglas seems to exude a dream-like quality as soon as you step off the bus. We walk back, full up on focaccia and tart and coffee and hazy dreams. 

The evening is spent at home. There isn’t much to do in a country mansion haunted by the former lady of the manor, Kitty, (a closeted lesbian -Gentle thinks she was anyway) who would gaze out at the gravel drive from the window in the turret where she spent her days and would refuse entry to those approaching that she didn’t like the look of. We’d picked the radishes and some kale, purchased the white wine vinegar (we couldn’t find any rice wine vinegar) and mirin but before we were to make ramen together it was decided best to have some tea and settle in to watch something. The Wi-Fi there was so bad that I had downloaded movies and tv shows for the trip. We had watched the first episode of Drag Race UK the first night I arrived but this time around we opted for The Dark Crystal. Gentle had been outraged that I’d never seen it because it’s a classic. We squeeze together on top of his single bed, he tucks his 5” 9 frame into my 6” 4 one and rests his head against my shoulder. This is the first time he’s done anything like this, a small intimate gesture of affection, in a while. He falls asleep in my arms and I find it hard to focus on the screen in front of us. I find myself drifting in and out of a fuzzy sleep and the film seems to play for hours and hours. Time here cascades like treacle, thick and warm, entangling in your fingers and binding you to a day that at once proceeds gently and coyly but when you blink has reached the climax of evening molasses. Your sense of daily rhythm disintegrates: one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two- What? I wasn’t sleeping, Gentle rubs his eyes and shuffles himself in further against my body.

The night I arrived proceeded much the same as this one was going to. I hadn’t eaten anything since lunchtime and Gentle had asked if I was needing fed when he came to meet me at the bus stop. He was going to pick up supplies for us at the Tesco in town. He had to go there anyway to buy the blow-up bed for us to sleep in. The thought of the two of us having to short ourselves to fit into his single bed was a no from the offset. We got in and sat at his table, the first time we had done so since March, albeit a different table and a different place. We were both exhausted as we stuffed pizza and garlic bread into our faces, the cursory salad, an afterthought at the table, being finished last. We drank beer and decided to watch something. I had been nervous on the journey down that too much time had passed, too much had happened and we had changed with the passings and happenings. Yet, sat there and gazing across at him, laughing at something I said, I felt at home. It struck me as an odd sentiment, home in a foreign place you’ve never been to before. I wondered if it was the beer and the weariness that made me feel so relaxed as we got into the double bed Gentle had blown up while I filmed him. 

The second night I realise that it definitely wasn’t just the beer. We make ramen in his small kitchen that is across the hall from his bedsit. He tells me that everyone else has all of this contained in the one space, like his friend that shares the room next to his, who we met on the way back from town. Gentle tasks me with peeling and grating the ginger and the garlic for the ramen while he prepares the pickling and the noodles. This weekend seems to be filled with familiar firsts. I realise that I’m probably getting in his way like I used to so I opt to clean his room and wipe the table, like old times, distant memories across the loch. We finish dinner and drink wine and gin. I say No one understands what it’s like between us cause no one has seen us together and he says Yes, exactly. I go further, It makes sense when we are together and he replies, That’s what I was trying to explain over the phone, badly. Nothing has changed except the place to which he laughs,, dropping sarcastically, Oh sorry nothing has changed. I protest, Except you, you’ve changed. Our legs dangle over the respective armchairs we are sitting on, side-by-side. Our feet touch and we go on talking into the night as music lulls on in the background, Angel Olsen’s voice playing out before we squeeze together into the double bed and fall asleep in each other’s arms.

In the morning we head out to go see the castle in Castle Douglas. We pass the Cercidiphyllum japonicum and Gentle pulls off the leaves and holds them to his nose: nothing. He encourages me to do the same: nothing. Instead, the taste of burnt sugar sticks to the air and drips off the wind. There is a faint rustling of rain in the distance, angry skies in the opposite direction from the one Gentle takes me in. We take a shortcut past the greenhouses and nurseries. A wheelbarrow of picked apples sits outside one of the units not far off from a waterproof black jacket that someone has left out in the overnight rain. We get to the gate that leads to the country roads and Gentle shifts the numbers around on the padlock. We see a horse coming down the road and Gentle reiterates that he hates horses and I make the old joke that he needs to get over it: over the boy he had a crush on as a kid, the one he used to go to the stables with, the one who didn’t love him. On the country paths between field after field, Gentle continues to ask me what the name of this or that plant is. This one is easy, it’s my tattoo. My mind draws blank and I try to think back to when he got it, but I never knew the name as this was the time we parted ways. I’m not sure I like horses much either.

Plodding on, we come to the second of two Osprey hides. We sat in the first one and gazed out across a sea of barley-coloured reeds and grass, listening to the sounds of Geese honking in the distance. This wetland site is protected as a Ramsar site, an intergovernmental treaty for the protection of wetlands created by UNESCO in 1972. We move down to the second one for a better view, not that we can see any Osprey as they’ve all flown away for the winter, and for a lot of the time we sit in silence. This makes sense as the wetlands around Threave are an important place for arctic migratory ecology – hence the Osprey exodus that occurred before I got here. I put my hand on his knee and listen to the sound of the wind moving the grass. I wonder to him, I think that might have something to do with why time feels so weird here. He blinks at me. Listen to that sound, the wind I mean, it’s moving through the grass and making this kind of blanket noise that plays on the ears in a weird way. It’s making everything foggy. I can’t hear if he replies as the Geese seem to for him, honking in unison. Gentle likes Geese and I feel lucky to be sharing this moment with him. I try to count, one, two, three, one, two, three, one two- We better get moving, the sky looks angry. The castle is over the hill.

I take a picture of Gentle as he walks through the yellow grass towards the peak. The colour always looked good on him and it matches his coat. We get to the top and I gawp, the castle clearly visible across the banks of a body of water. It looks old and black. I stop to take a picture and the image of black butterflies, high up in his bathroom and hibernating for the winter, flashes into my head. I noticed them when I was peeing while Gentle pottered in the kitchen with the gochujang paste. I made a note to ask him about them and I wondered how old they were. Do you want to ring the bell, Gentle asks. What?, I’m snapped back to the hill, There’s a bell that you ring to call over the people who have the boat. It’s how you get over to the castle. We proceed down towards the banks of the water and as we get closer we see a sign that reads, Castle Closed. I ring the bell anyway and we begin the walk back towards Threave House in a hurried attempt to beat the pending rain from the angry sky. Gentle wants a cup of tea and we decide to settle in and watch something before I get the bus back to Glasgow; Laputa: Castle in The Sky

He promises he won’t fall asleep during this film. He does anyway. Like a shooting star or comet that flashes across an October sky, Pazu catches Princess Sheeta after she falls from an aircraft and floats down to earth in a bright light: Gentle lies in my arms. It’s a familiar scene, one we’ve played out in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Trying to count the rhythm of Castle Douglas, and by extension Threave, is difficult but the lucidity I feel with Gentle asleep and Laputa (the flying old and black castle) floating through the sky is the first cut through the haziness I’ve felt since I’ve been here. I think I understand the bubble he now finds himself in and, in all honesty, I’m sad to be leaving it. I’m sure it has everything to do with leaving Gentle but the time I’ve spent here has been a much-needed respite from my work and from the congestion of city pavements. He sleeps peacefully, only waking up towards the end of the film. I pack up my bags and we pass the Cercidiphyllum japonicum, Katsura, one last time. On the walk to the bus stop, we swing by the chippy and eat chips in the bus shelter waiting for the 55 to arrive. The bus services from Castle Douglas to Dumfries don’t come often so it’s hard to plan travel and even harder if you miss the bus altogether. This is the last bus to leave CD on a Sunday and it means I won’t get back to Glasgow, and my flat on the south side, until 11 pm. I finish the last of my chips (Gentle finished his fast) and swallow my sadness. We make small talk and pass some laughs back and forward. The bus rounds the corner and I get up. I think I thank him and we say goodbye. He kissed me on the lips and watched me get on the bus. Apart from the kiss, I’m not sure what was said, the dream-like fog of this place descending on me once more and for the last time. The bus pulls out and I begin the long journey home. I say to myself, remembering the name of the tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum. Burnt sugar: this strikes me as an odd sentiment. 

Conner Milliken is an AHRC-funded PhD student in the Theatre Studies department of The University of Glasgow. His work focuses on queer autobiography and the writing of the self. He is a Creative Scotland-funded artist for experimental dance performance, GAYBOYS in collaboration with Craig Manson. Conner is a Total Theatre Award Winner under FERAL Arts who he is an associate producer of. He resides in Glasgow with his two cats.

11 September 2020