The Road Home, chapter one.



1

Castles, kilts, and gravestones.

We’d travelled half-way round the world, my suitcase and me, and now we were at the end of the beginning of a journey I never realised I’d one day take. I was home, and this time, come Hell or high water, I was here for good.

I took in a deep breath and rolled my shoulders as the flight attendant announced that we would soon be landing at Inverness airport. I put my seatback up, removed my unread magazine from my seat tray and duly locked it in the stowed position. A passing attendant nodded to the window blind and smiled as I reached to slide it up.

I wasn’t prepared for what I saw below. For most of my adult life, when flying, I was used to taking off or landing at West Coast airports, such as John Wayne, or Orange County in Southern California or Oakland or San Francisco in the North.

I’d slept most of the way across the Atlantic with no thanks to my doctor who’d refused to write a prescription for Zolpidem for fear I would decide to go to sleep and not wake up this side of eternity. Thankfully I was able to resume my friendship with Jack Daniels who kept me entertained till well past the Rockies.

It wasn’t till we were on the final approach to Heathrow, and my connecting flight north, that my friendly flight attendant who’d kept delivering messages from Jack, nudged me awake to say that we would be shortly landing at Heathrow and would I sit up and fasten my seatbelt.

Now as we approached Inverness I was transfixed by the visual banquet below me. There was none of the endless miles of human habitation or sun scorched hills of the California city environs. Below me was an endless patchwork of various shades of greenery, interspersed by occasional slender dark grey ribbons of winding tarmac and off to my right, the shimmering expanse of the Moray Firth.

I undid my seatbelt and stepped out into the aisle. My backpack dropped into my arms as I opened the overhead locker. I threw it over my shoulder, grabbed my jacket from the empty seat and walked down the aisle past the now vacant seats. I was desperate to fill my lungs with the sweet fragrance of the highland air.  Pillows, blankets, newspapers and magazines lay on the seats, all discarded like debris on a riverbank after a summer deluge.

The smell of stale coffee and sweaty bodies assailed my senses as I followed the stragglers down the aisle past the deserted galley and on to the exit. As I stepped over the threshold and onto the stairs down to the tarmac of Inverness airport, the warmth of the September sun caressed my face. The refreshing breeze brought me the long-forgotten smell of drying kelp on a distant shore.

Before I walked down the stairs I felt for my passport and luggage tag in the breast pocket of my shirt, all present, I was ready. I held on to the handrail and descended to the tarmac. I momentarily looked up and back at the A320 that had brought me here. I looked at its exhausted engines hanging from the wings, its tail sticking up in the air, the rudder cocked to one side. I glanced at the nose and cockpit windows. I imagined the plane was smiling at me, I grinned and waved it goodbye.

I turned away from my friend who’d carried me here to my destination and looked at the terminal building. I was used to the sprawling monolith that is San Francisco International airport, the size of a small town, while here in front of me, shimmering in the afternoon sun, was Inverness airport terminal, a building not much bigger than my local Walmart back home.

   One of the apron crew wearing a bright yellow tabard waved me to hurry over to the arrivals hall. I followed the straggling line of fellow passengers into the terminal and over to the lone luggage carousel to wait the arrival of my case. I looked at the compactness of the terminal, down to the empty carousel and wondered if I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. I sighed and looked to see if there was somewhere to get a drink.

As usual my case was one of the last to appear on the carousel, and at least, it looked like it had survived the five-thousand-mile journey without mishap.

There wasn’t anyone to greet me, no excited faces, no smart looking chauffeur with a board displaying my name, it was just me and my suitcase. I collected my case and walked through the arrival hall and out into the September sunshine. The taxi rank was on my right. At least I had the choice of one of two taxis, I took the second one on account the first taxi had no driver. Suitcase safely ensconced in the boot we set off on my next leg of my journey to my inheritance.

Seated in the back of the taxi, I read again the letter from the solicitor and wondered why fate had chosen me for this dubious honour. According to the letter I was now the owner of Finnart, a sixteenth century manor on a remote Scottish island, complete with eighteen bedrooms. I looked out the window at the passing scenery and wondered what I was going to do with eighteen bedrooms.

My memories of the house stretched way back into my childhood; I was eleven. The family had come for a week’s holiday and had managed to pick one of the hottest on record, and of course I got heat stroke and spent several days in bed while the rest of the family enjoyed themselves.

Turn it into a hotel was my first thought, then wondered who’d travel all the way to a remote Scottish island for a holiday. Especially one that, according to my aunt, was a barren empty spirit of a place. I’d momentarily toyed with the idea of turning it into a retreat, a place for lonely souls like me to escape to.

Family records detailed the construction of the manor had been begun sometime in the 1750’s. This was to replace an earlier house that had been raised to the ground by the Royalists who, after putting down the rebellion, were doing their best to eradicate all traces of the Jacobite followers of Charles Stuart, the young pretender.

The building had seen many uses over the years. It had once been the seat of a highland clan, visited by travelling dignitaries, and the country retreat for at least one industrial baron. During WW2, it was used as a hospital for wounded servicemen and as late as the 1950’s, it had been a sanatorium for those suffering from tuberculosis. My father, the younger of two brothers, inherited the estate from his brother, who in turn had inherited it from a distant cousin. Now, according to the description in the letter, it was all but a ruin and in need of complete restoration. There was a footnote, an alarm bell had rung in my head the first time I read it. A cash offer to purchase the manor had been received. The recommendation made by the solicitor was to accept. I wasn’t sure who needed restoration the more, me or the house.

The road out of the airport ran close to the Moray Firth, quite a contrast to that of driving down highway 101 past the San Francisco Bay from the airport and of course, a great deal colder. A chill went down my spine as the taxi drove past a road sign directing visitors to the scene of the last battle of the Jacobite rebellion, Culloden.

The taxi put me down at the front of the station and once again it was me, my suitcase and the letter. I texted my aunt and told her which train I was taking, then walked through the doors to the station and looked for the ticket office. I had an hour to wait for my train so decided to try the bar, the local brew and something to eat. As I wolfed down the second scots pie with the remains of my second pint of McEwan’s best, I started to wonder if my decision to relocate to Scotland had been such a wise decision after all. I’d given up an excellent position as senior director and major share-holder with a tech start-up company in Silicon Valley. Said goodbye to Amanda, the on and off again love of my life, and hardest of all, I’d left my two ancient cats with my next-door neighbour, hers had been run over the previous week.

My only experience of hotels had been when travelling on business, how the hell was I to run one, let alone oversee the restoration of a dilapidated eighteen-bedroom manor and turn it into a five-star retreat for the rich and famous.

Finally, after downing a third pint, I boarded the train for the two-and-a-half-hour trip across the Scottish Highlands to a new form of transport, a bus to the ferry terminal.

I’d imagined the train climbing steep gradients, winding in and out of mountain passes, and rushing down steep hills. I was instead, provided with scenes of rivers, lochs, glens, and mountains. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of the beauty that inspired Hamish MacCunn to write his symphony, Land of Mountain and the Flood. Three pints of McEwan’s best and the gentle rumble of the train soon had me dreaming of castles, kilts and gravestones.

I was rudely wakened by the sound of the squeal of brakes as the train came to a halt, my mouth tasted of something akin to rotten eggs, I needed a drink. I peered out the window and saw we had come to a halt at the town of Dingwall. There was a crowd standing on the platform dressed in what could only be described as their Sunday best, they looked like they had been partying. I hoped they would get on the next carriage and leave me to my peace and dreams. But it wasn’t to be, no sooner had the train accelerated out of the station I was invaded and surrounded by the crowd I’d seen standing on the platform. At least I had the pleasure of being surrounded by three lovely ladies who were only to pleased to explain to me that they had all been to a friend’s wedding and were now on their way home.

When asked where I was going, I explained that I had spent the best part of a day flying from California to come see a house my dad had left me in his will. That lead to questions about where was the house and was I alone.

I’m not sure what it is about travelling, but before long I had learned that dark haired, blue eyed Janette, who was sitting by the window directly across from me was married, husband a fisherman and they had two boys. Hamish fourteen years old and Andrew twelve. They were both keen fishermen who helped their dad when they could. Fair haired, blue eyed Jean, seated beside Janette was also married, husband Hector, a primary school teacher. They had been married five years and had twin girls, Agnes and Senga. I turned to look at the one seated beside me, hoping my breath smelled more of whisky than rotten eggs and smiled, she had copper red hair and green eyes. She introduced herself as Fiona, and was a widow. Her husband James had died in a North Sea oilrig accident two years previous. They’d been married eighteen years and had a daughter, Sandra. She said pointing to a young girl seated across the isle reading to, I presumed, the twins. At the mention of her name, Sandra looked up and smiled at her mother and waved; I waved back.

I tried to sleep, but it wasn’t to be, within ten minutes of leaving Dingwall one of the young men in the group began to sing. The tune was so catchy I gave up trying to sleep, and by the time the song had been sung a few times, my hearing began to catch on to the lyrics. I instinctively found myself joining in the revelry singing heartily to Step we gaily, on we go. I didn’t have to worry about my thirst, by the time we’d sung, A far croonin’ is pullin me away, for the fifth time the second bottle of scotch was nearly empty.

At some point in the journey most of the revellers had got off the train, leaving me mumbling along singing songs with my companions, who by now had heard all my plans of  renovating my inheritance.

I woke as the train slowed on it’s approach to the station and looked across at the seat where Janette and Jean were both grinning at me. It took a few minutes for me to see why, Fiona, like me, had fallen asleep and her head was now resting on my shoulder, her hair cascading down my chest. I smiled back at Janette and Jean, enjoying the moment.

The train shuddered to a halt, Fiona sat up, shook her head, turned and looked at me, her face turning crimson with embarrassment.

‘Oh - I’m so sorry, please excuse me - I was tired.’

I shook my head, ‘don’t worry about it,’ and wished there was at least one more station to go on the journey.

It was a fleeting moment, one for me to reflect on. I was now becoming travel weary, forty-five minutes still to go in the bus with a ferry ride to follow.

The doors opened, and I followed my fellow travellers out onto the platform. I wasn’t supposed to notice Janette nodding at Fiona and her response of a demure head shake, so I ignored it wondering what was going on.

 Was Janette matchmaking? Who knows, I was tired, to tired to follow the innuendo. I said goodbye and watched from the end of the platform as they departed for their homes and I to a short walk towards to the bus terminal.

I walked up the ferry ramp and on to the shore, the setting sun shone gold across the landscape. Ahead in the distance stood Finnart, my destiny.

There were no taxis waiting, so I set off pulling my roll-around case behind me, backpack over my shoulder. There was a weathered note on the front door, All deliveries to the back. I wasn’t sure if I was included in that, but my curiosity was now piqued. I wandered round to the back door slowly being engulfed in the late afternoon shadows. In doing so I got a preliminary view of the decay and dilapidation to the fabric of the building. Most of the ground floor windows were boarded up, presumably to keep out the hordes of homeless people I joked with myself. Upon close inspection, and in spite of the neglect, the paint was in reasonably good condition.

Lower sections of downpipes were missing, the walls turned green with moss where the rain water had escaped and run down the stonework. I reached the rear of the building and saw that at least some of the windows were intact, the kitchen area I presumed as I peered in. I walked over to the only door I could see, pined to it was another note, Alasdair, if you’re reading this, call in at Rossmoor, it’s the first cottage on your left as you head up the island. I’ll have your dinner ready, Rachael. She had obviously got my text and realised I’d be late, did that mean she spent her days in the old house?

I retraced my steps to the front, dragging my case through the weed infested gravel path. The air had grown measurably cooler, a damp chill descended upon my shoulders. Although the sun still rode high in the western sky, one of the niceties of being so far north in September.

As I returned to the main road, or track I told myself, I wondered if the wheels on my case would last the journey. A further fifteen minutes of pulling the case with first my right hand, then switching to the left, had me wondering if I was doing my shoulders an injury. I arrived at the cottage on the left, the only cottage for miles as far as I could determine.

I didn’t have to knock on the door as it opened as I reached out my hand.

I had an image in my mind of the last time I’d seen my aunt, all of twenty-two years prior. It was the last time I’d been back to the homeland. My father had been in hospital for heart surgery and had come home to recover only to be hit with a bout of depression. My step-mother couldn’t understand why he just couldn’t get over it and instead of looking after him made matters worse by going into one of her moods and not speaking to anyone for days. Hence the arrival of my aunt, my dad’s youngest sister to take care of them both.

My parents had divorced when I was six. My American mother had won full custody and had returned with me to her family in San Francisco, California. My childhood memories of Glasgow were scant and often mixed with those of my parents arguments.

I grew up in the city of Palo Alto and attended the local high school. With Stanford University near-by an inspiration, I set my sights on attending. I didn’t quite make Stanford as Uncle Sam had other ideas and I was drafted into the US Navy. At least I missed the misery of Viet Nam, unlike many of my friends.

My aunt had aged, obviously, but the warmth of her smile hadn’t abated one degree.

‘Alasdair, how lovely to see you after all these years, come in, your dinners keeping warm in the oven. The fire’s on and I’ve made you a bed in the spare room, follow me and I’ll show you through.’

I followed her into the cottage, pulled the door closed behind me and entered a whole new world. A well-worn flagstone floor partially covered with an ancient looking runner, led towards the back of the house and presumably the kitchen and bathroom. On the left was the door to the sitting room, a fire crackling in the hearth As I followed her down the corridor dragging my suitcase, I had a peak though the door on the right at the one and only bedroom, my aunt’s. If that was the case where was I to sleep.

‘This way,’ she said beckoning me to follow her through the tiny kitchen, and out through a door at the end between the freezer and a cupboard. I was amazed, she’d led me out into what once would have been some sort of storage shed. It was now a fully self-contained bedroom, complete with a walk-in wet room and toilet.

‘You have your own front door,’ she said pulling back a curtain on the far wall, ‘no need to wake me if you are home late. Why don’t you freshen-up and I’ll get the dinner out of the oven? Just come through when you are ready.’

I pulled my case into the room, dropped my backpack on the bed and surveyed what could be my domain for who knew how long. Of course, the how long depended on the time and money required to restore Finnart.

The compactness of my room intrigued me, I was used to my California ranch-style house with its four double bedrooms, two of which had en-suites. The expanse of the open-plan living area and the kitchen which, if located in a restaurant, would be the envy of many a professional chef. Back home this room would have been considered just large enough to be a walk-in closet.

I voted for dinner first, then a shower, followed by bed.

‘I expect you’ll be hungry after traveling all that way,’ said My aunt as she dished out a huge plate of lamb stew and dumplings.

Although the flight from San Francisco had been pleasant, the choice of chicken or pasta for a meal left me wishing I had brought a cheese and pickle sandwich along for the flight to Heathrow. At Heathrow I had zipped right through immigration and straight on to my connecting flight to Inverness, so yes, I indeed was hungry.

‘A we dram to finish off your dinner,’ asked my aunt with a glint in her eyes.

She smiled as I with my mouth full, nodded yes.

‘The doctor said I shouldn’t drink alone,’ she said pouring two huge shots of a ten-year-old single malt whisky into two glasses. ‘Water?’ she asked putting the stopper back in the bottle.

I nodded yes as I swallowed the last mouthful of the stew.

‘More stew?’ she asked as I put down my fork.

‘That was wonderful, but no thanks I couldn’t eat another mouthful,’ I replied eyeing the glass of whisky in her hand, now half empty. She nodded and smiled at my untouched glass sitting on the table in front of me.

I grinned, poured a touch of water into my glass, and lifted it in a toast.

‘May the memories we have of the past, not hinder the memories yet to come,’ said my Aunt winking at me.


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