– The Hitchhiker –

 

 

The man recognised the box file as soon as he saw it.  It was like an unwanted heirloom: something which was of neither aesthetic nor practical use to him, but which he could never throw out because of its strong attachment to his past.  So it had just gone with him from house move to house move over many years, always placed somewhere unobtrusive like this to gather dust until the next move.

 

Abandoning his search for ... what was it now?  Ah, yes ... the Christmas tree lights, the man lifted the box file from the shelf in the storeroom and carried it through to the sitting room.  He put it down on the table beside the big, ceiling-high window.  The window gave him an unobstructed view of the narrow patio at the back of the house and the expanse of sky above the patio.  The sky was leaden today.  It would rain again soon.

 

He sat down at the table and observed the file.  He had covered the box with shiny white adhesive-backed paper all those years ago.  He wondered why.  To help preserve it, perhaps?  To make it look pretty?  To cover up any writing on it?  He couldn’t remember.  Whatever the reason, it looked soiled and grubby now.

 

He didn’t need to open the box to know that it contained the manuscript of his first novel.  His attempt at a first novel, he corrected himself; his only novel, really.  He had once been very proud of that manuscript, his creation, but now he was sure that it would embarrass him.  He had convinced himself over the years that it wasn’t very well written; the language was too dense, the characters too shallow and wooden, the plot too obtuse.  There were those obligatory lovemaking scenes; he had inserted them in order to ‘spice up’ the story – he was in his mid-twenties when he wrote it, after all – but they were bound to make him cringe now.  And there were the political messages, of course; the propaganda.  He couldn’t help himself; he was further to the right than Attila the Hun in those days, having been converted from a dyed-in-the-wool Communist in the space of a few years.  It’s funny, he thought, how extreme your views could be when you were young, how everything was either black or white.  And then, as you got older, you began to compromise, gradually forsaking the extremes, gravitating towards the middle, until you were neither one thing nor the other.  He sighed.  Whatever the novel’s flaws, he knew that he would never destroy the manuscript; it would be such a waste of all that effort, that perseverance.

 

He swung back the lid of the box file.  There were half-a-dozen folders underneath the spring clip; some blue, some buff-coloured and a pink one at the bottom.  He lifted the clip and took out the folders.  The first couple contained the typewritten manuscript.  The next couple were full of newspaper clippings: the ‘research’ for his novel.  He noticed that some of the pages of the manuscript had lots of handwritten changes in blue pencil on them, while others were pristine, as if they had been freshly typed.  It seemed that he had manually revised the manuscript and had been in the middle of retyping it when he stopped.  He didn’t know why he hadn’t gotten round to finishing the job, but it was all in a bit of a mess now.  Many years of neatness in his work had disciplined his mind, and just for a fleeting moment it urged him to tidy up the papers, to complete the job, especially now that he had more time on his hands.  But the moment passed, the notion vanishing with it, and he placed the four folders back in the box.

 

The next folder was a thin one.  He opened it to find that he had retained the letters of rejection from the handful of publishers to whom he had submitted his novel.  Looking over the letters now, he could see that the people who wrote them were very polite and helpful.  Although they provided criticisms, especially about the political propaganda, they also offered some encouragement.  Maybe the writing isn’t so bad after all, he mused.  ‘Maybe,’ he repeated out loud this time, but he wasn’t really convinced.

 

The last document in the folder was a blank sheet of paper, along the foot of which was pasted a cartoon strip that had been cut out from a newspaper.  Yes, he remembered, this was the letterhead – letterbottom, he supposed – that he had concocted to accompany his submissions to those publishers.  The cartoon strip was one of the ‘Peanuts’ series by Schulz.  It showed Snoopy studying a letter that he had just collected from his mailbox.  The letter read:

‘Dear Contributor,

We are returning your manuscript.  It does not suit our present needs.

P.S.  We note that you sent your story by first class mail.  Junk mail may be sent second class.’

He smiled, recognising that streak of self-deprecating humour; it had stayed with him throughout his life.  Then he closed the folder and put it back in the box.

 

The remaining folder, the pink one, intrigued him.  He had no memory of it and no idea what was in it.  When he opened it and saw the small pile of stapled documents inside, he was pleasantly surprised.  His stories!  He had kept them all this time.  They had been typed on an assortment of sizes of paper.  There was rust around the staples, but otherwise the documents were in good condition.  The first one was a little story called ‘The Quest’, which he had put together for fun one Christmas, a sort of irreverent poke at the Nativity.  The next one was a more serious story about Hitler, entitled ‘Fitting Retribution’.  There was an article that he had written in praise of cartoons, which was headed up ‘Animated Delights’.  Then, filling a page of foolscap only, there was a very short story called ‘The Teashop’; he vaguely remembered typing it up in one brief sitting, just to amuse himself.  Behind that, there was a much longer story entitled ‘A Room with a View’.  He recalled entering it into a competition which had invited stories that would introduce a brand new fictional female detective.  Naturally, his heroine was twenty-four years old, blonde and blue-eyed.  But, even to this day, he couldn’t explain what had possessed him to write the story in the first person!  He grinned and shook his head.  Whatever their faults, he was glad to have seen the stories again.  There was another one, written some years later, in one of the drawers of the desk in his study.  It was a futuristic tale called ‘An Immaculate Conception’.  He had come across it a few months ago when he was clearing out things.  He had read it and quite enjoyed it.  A thought occurred to him.  He could add it to the collection of stories here, and then he could try to get them all published – as an anthology, perhaps.  He laughed this time.  Behave, he told himself.

 

He put his failed detective story back into the folder and picked up the last of the documents.  It consisted of several typewritten sheets of foolscap.  The sheets had been left unstapled and had been folded neatly across the middle.  Tucked inside the fold were several postcards and a collection of what looked like receipts.  Putting the postcards and receipts to one side, he unfolded the sheets.  He saw that the first one was a title page.  In the centre of it were the words ‘Northward Ho!  The Journal of a Juvenile Jaunt’.  The next page was headed up ‘Introduction’.  On that and the succeeding pages, he read the following:

 

‘On the shore at Queensferry, in the shadow of the Forth Bridge, there stands a rock – a large, smooth, flat-topped boulder – on which I used to sit when very young.  From that rocky perch, my elbows resting comfortably on my bare, bony knees, I would watch for hours as life passed by on the Firth of Forth.  Memories of those enthralled observations and their associated sounds and smells are still very vivid in my mind: ferryboats arriving at and departing from the nearby jetty; a constant stream of coal barges chugging seawards; gulls dipping and screaming above the trail of spume left by a departing ferryboat; trains thundering and rumbling and clanking across the iron bridge above me; the steady throb of a ferryboat’s engine; the ghostly swish-swash of the sea as it lapped against the pebbled shore below me; breezes, pregnant with the smell of the sea, tugging at my clothing and winnowing my hair.  Often, my young eyes would gaze northwards, straight across the water, to the long green strip of the Fife coastline.  Shrouded in mists beyond the coastline were the Ochil Hills, and beyond them, although only visible on exceptionally clear days, were the Sidlaw Hills.  And north of the Sidlaws, I knew, lay the magical Highlands.  Even at that early age, I had managed from various sources to build up in my mind a near-complete picture of that latter region: a wondrous place of craggy mountains with snow-capped peaks; of deep, gloomy glens and swift-flowing, sparkling streams; of glistening lochs and lonely moors; of heather and bracken, buts and bens, pipes and pibrochs.  How I ached to see that exotic land!  Some day, when I’m older, I decided, I will travel north and satisfy my longing.  Just wait and see, I told myself.

 

‘To be young is to dream.  When I was young, I dreamt of many things: one day, I would become very rich and famous, and I would buy a grand house for myself and my mum; and then I would become the captain of the “Queen Mary” and travel to the four corners of the globe; after that, I would become an astronaut and be the first man to land on the moon; and so the fantasy would go on.  But with the swiftly passing years such lofty aspirations fall broken and forgotten by the wayside; great dreams are cast aside, wantonly discarded, and the young dreamer develops all too quickly into just another person.  There are, of course, notable exceptions to the general rule: those people, for example, who, by some good fortune or by the culmination of their own hard efforts, do manage to become rich or famous or both.  I was no exception to the rule; I became neither rich nor famous.  As I grew up, all those castles in the air of mine, so carefully constructed during my sojourns by the Forth, just disintegrated into fine dust, to be scattered mercilessly by the winds of time.  I became ordinary.  But, out of all the debris left by those crumbling dreams, I did manage to salvage one small ambition: I made that pilgrimage to the Highlands.  The journey was not a spectacular one, but I made it all the same, and the making of it now stands as a worthwhile achievement in my life.

 

‘The opportunity to travel to the Highlands arose when I was twenty years old.  I had at that time reached a very steep decline in my fortunes.  Three disasters – traumatic experiences – had befallen me in the previous year: my turbulent romance of some months finally and resoundingly broke; my university career of only one year fizzled out miserably (alas, the beer-shops and dance-halls of old Edina had held too strong a fascination!); and, finally, the humdrum clerk’s job in Edinburgh, which I had taken in sheer desperation, was proving excruciatingly frustrating.  By spring of the following year, I was reduced to an utterly depressed and disillusioned young man; I was a complete failure.  I had to get away on my own for some time.  I had to go to some far-off, desolate spot and think about my future.  I had to reassess myself and my life.  And what better place could there be for that purpose than the Highlands of Scotland?

 

‘For weeks, I prepared for the journey.  Using an old roadmap (borrowed from my stepfather for the duration of the journey), I mapped out a route – to Kyle of Lochalsh and over the sea to Skye, and then back.  I purchased a copy of that year’s edition of the “AA Guide to Hotels”, which helped me to work out the approximate cost of the proposed ten-day trek.  Next, I set about buying the correct gear for the journey (rucksack, jeans, hiking boots, etc.), thereby exhausting my meagre savings.  Finally, on Friday 3rd July 1970, I handed in notice of two weeks’ leave at the office, picked up my paycheque and went home to pack.  At first light on the following Monday, I would be Highland-bound.

 

‘I kept no journal of my “epic” journey; in fact, the only records I still possess are some postcards that I sent to my mum and stepfather, and the receipts from the hotels in which I stayed.  Relying mainly on memory, therefore, I would like now to set out a proper journal of the trek, if not purely for my own satisfaction, then for the general amusement of my readers.  Please, however, bear with me over my inaccuracies and inadequacies, and try to forgive my overall ignorance and neglect where much of the detail is concerned.

 

‘Well, here goes – northward ho!’

 

 

The man looked up from the pages and out of the window.  It was still very gloomy outside, still threatening to rain.  He wondered why he hadn’t gone on to finish the journal.  He reckoned that he must have been twenty-five, perhaps twenty-six, when he wrote the introduction.  And then he remembered: that was about the time when his first child had been born.  It was also about the time when he was promoted in that ‘humdrum clerk’s job in Edinburgh’.  It was the time when life suddenly got busier, and when house and family and job all became far higher priorities than writing for pleasure.  And it had gone on like that: event after event after event, one tumbling after the other, with no space between them, it seemed, no time to pause.  Two more children followed.  There were more promotions, bringing more responsibilities, more work.  His mum went, and his stepfather a few years later.  There was the break-up, the divorce, the new relationship with Alison, another marriage, a fresh start.  He became the co-owner of a company.  He worked day and night to make it succeed.  Then he helped to sell the company, enabling him and Alison to retire.  And here he was, in that retirement, poking through the remnants of another career, one that never got off the ground, a career interrupted.

 

He glanced through the pages again.  It shocked him to learn that at such an early age, with all his life in front of him, he had written himself off as ‘ordinary’ and ‘just another person’.  Wasn’t he living in the Georgian New Town of Edinburgh, a World Heritage Site, in a property worth a cool half-million?  Hadn’t he retired before the age of sixty?  Weren’t he and Alison able to live in relative comfort for the rest of their lives?  None of that is ‘ordinary’, is it? he asked himself.  He hadn’t travelled to ‘the four corners of the globe’, but he had gone to those parts of the world that he and Alison had wanted to experience.  Yes, he nodded as he recalled their many journeys.  They had honeymooned on Paradise Island in the Bahamas; sailed into New York Harbour on the QE2; crossed the Atlantic on Concorde; wintered in Madeira; watched the sun go down over the Grand Canal from a palazzo in Venice; stayed as guests of honour in Raffles Hotel in Singapore; strolled along Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg; dined under the stars on the Nile; bought jewellery in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul and in the Khan el-Khalili of Cairo; ushered in the New Year below the lights of the Acropolis; listened spellbound to a hundred Gypsy fiddlers in Budapest; seen dawn breaking over Vesuvius; and more, so much more.  Christ, they had only just returned from a six-month stay in Venice, the most beautiful city in the world!  What’s fucking ‘ordinary’ in all of that? he asked again.

 

He took a deep breath.  This is silly, he thought; getting angry about the way he had felt when he was young, before he had time to live his life.  He had gone on to rise above the ordinariness: that was the main thing.  Calmer now, he re-read the last paragraph of the introduction.  The phrases ‘please bear with me over my inaccuracies and inadequacies’ and ‘try to forgive my ignorance and neglect where the detail is concerned’ jarred with him.  He scolded his younger self.  He wouldn’t have got very far in business if he had begun everything with apologies like that.  He was shaking his head, getting annoyed again, but he stopped and looked back out of the window.  That was then; this is now, he reminded himself.  He considered it strange, though, that he probably remembered more of the detail today than when he had typed that paragraph only five or six years after the journey.  There had been many times since his retirement, laying awake in the small hours, unable to sleep, when events from his past had replayed in his head, the memories often frighteningly vivid, as if the events had taken place just hours before.  His trek round the Highlands was such an event ...

 

 

The man began to work through the detail in his mind.  It was almost forty years ago, but he could still see himself setting off on that Monday morning.  He could even remember what he was wearing: denim jeans, a denim jacket, a black tee-shirt, thick woollen socks and a pair of hiking boots; all new, all purchased from the Army Navy Surplus store in Edinburgh.  The rucksack over his shoulder came from the same store; it was very light, containing only a few more tee-shirts and pairs of socks, some pairs of underpants, a pair of canvas shoes to change into in the evening, a cagoule for when it rained, his shaving gear, and not much else.  He was skinny then – wiry, he supposed – with very short hair, almost a crew cut.  In the lift at university one day, one of the lecturers, a smart alec with a big paunch who taught economics, said he looked like a Vietcong escapee.  Cheeky bastard, the man smiled now as he recalled the insult, but the lecturer was probably right.

 

He had decided that his journey proper should begin at Dunkeld, which was on the threshold of the Highlands, far enough away from big towns and from people with their traffic and noise.  So he took  the bus from Queensferry to Dunfermline, where he could connect to another bus for Dunkeld.  There he was on the first of those buses, crossing the road bridge, off on his big adventure, butterflies in his stomach.  The sky was overcast, just like today.  Dark rain clouds loomed over the Forth estuary, serving to heighten his trepidation.  From Dunkeld, he planned to walk to Pitlochry.  It was a distance of thirteen or fourteen miles, which he reckoned would be a reasonable start to ease himself in.  After staying the night in Pitlochry, he would make his way northwards through a combination of hiking and hitching – hiking mostly, hitching lifts occasionally – and booking into hotels along the way.

 

By the time he alighted from the bus in Dunkeld, his initial feelings of anxiety had disappeared.  He was committed now, past the point of no return.  It was a case of getting on with it and enjoying the experience.  He thought Dunkeld was a pleasant, quiet, little town; verging on twee, perhaps.  He found a place to eat, and then he set off on his first ever proper hike.  It was a lot less strenuous than he had anticipated, bracing almost, and he made good progress.  When he walked into Pitlochry in the late afternoon, he felt proud of himself.  But he was also hot and sweating, the sky having remained dark and oppressive throughout the hike.  Before looking for a hotel, he sat in a café on the main street for a while to cool off and slake his thirst.  The town was very busy that afternoon.  He caught an air of excitement and adventure about it, like one of those frontier towns in the Old West.

 

The man looked through the little pile of receipts on the table in front of him until he found the one that he was looking for.  It was from Scotland’s Hotel in Pitlochry.  It had cost him two pounds, six shillings and nine pence for bed and breakfast.  He remembered how nervous he had been when he checked in at the hotel.  Although he should have been used to hotels – he had worked for years in a hotel in Queensferry; he had even been put in charge of the place for a week when the boss and his family had gone off on holiday – this was his first time as a paying guest.  His hand shook so much that he could hardly sign the register, but the woman at the reception was very nice to him, unlike the big galoot who showed him to his room and who insisted on carrying his rucksack, holding it by the straps out in front of him, as if it were disgusting.  Once the galoot had gone, closing the door behind him, he lay down on the bed.  His heart was still pounding in his ears, but he felt relieved.  ‘Made it,’ he said to himself.

 

After resting for a short while, he got up, washed his face, changed his socks, put on his canvas shoes and returned to the reception, where he purchased a postcard and some stamps.  Then he went into the hotel bar, bought a pint of lager and sat down to write the postcard.  Other than him, there was a handful of young men in the bar; all big, strapping lads, English, tanned, wearing shorts, and very, very loud.  Their noise was too much for him, so he drank his pint quickly and left the hotel to find a postbox and somewhere to eat.  He was starving.

 

The man was amazed that he could remember all of that so clearly.  He thumbed through the postcards on the table beside the receipts.  There were four of them.  The first one had a colourful map on the picture side.  The map was headed up ‘Central Perthshire’.  Alongside different locations on it were little, cartoon-type drawings of people and animals and landmarks, among them Bonnie Prince Charlie, Rob Roy, a kilted piper, a Highland cow and a castle.  He turned the card over and read the message:

‘Monday 6th July.

‘Have reached Pitlochry and am staying there overnight.  Weather rotten.’

Christ, he thought, obviously in those days he didn’t believe in saying very much.  He recalled, though, that the postcards were not intended to be descriptive or conversational; they were simply his way of letting his mum know that he was safe.  Like many people back then, she didn’t have a telephone, so he couldn’t communicate with her that way.

 

It might have been because of the sultry Highland air or because of the hike earlier in the day or because of the three further pints of lager that he consumed after his meal, or it might have been a combination of the effects of all three things, but he slept soundly that night, straight through the thunderstorm, which raged in the early hours and finally cleared the air.  When he left the hotel in the morning, the trees outside were still dripping and the ground was still wet, but the sun was out and the sky was blue and everything smelled fresh and new.  He, too, felt fresh and new, alive and invigorated, as he strode up the main street, his pace almost jaunty.  His destination that day was Dalwhinnie, which was some thirty miles away to the north.

 

He seemed to have left Pitlochry behind in no time at all.  When he came to the top of a rise in the road, he looked back to see a faint silhouette of the town away in the distance.  Ahead of him, stretching for miles on either side of the narrow strip of road, the ground was flat and purple with heather.  Mountains, blue and hazy, filled the far horizon.  This is more like it, he thought.  This is what he had come for.  And then he saw them.  They were about a hundred yards away on his right, standing beside an old, battered wooden caravan that had been parked a few feet back from the road.  A skinny-looking pony grazed at some distance from the caravan.  The four men all had long hair and wore black bonnets and different coloured kilts.  The one furthest away wore a green kilt and was fiddling about with what looked like a set of bagpipes.  Tinkers!  His mother detested them.  She said they were a blight over in Eire, her homeland.  ‘They’re not like the Gypsies,’ she once warned him.  ‘The Gypsies are a proud people.  Tinkers will rob and murder you as soon as look at you.’  He told himself that he couldn’t turn back, that that would be cowardly, that he had no option but to brazen it out.  He gulped and crossed over to the other side of the road, so that the width of the road would separate him and the tinkers, and then he marched towards them.  As he got closer to the men, he saw that their hair and their clothes were dirty and unkempt.  When he passed them, the one in the green kilt shouted something which he didn’t understand.  He just smiled and waved nonchalantly and kept on going.  It was only when his back was to the tinkers that he really became frightened.  How stupid could he have been?  He was trapped now, unable to turn back.  They could drag him out into the heather and cut his throat and leave him there, and no-one would know.  There was a boulder by the side of the road just ahead of him.  When he reached it, he sat down on it, pretended to tie one of his laces and looked back at the tinkers.  They were all too busy to notice him, though.  A bus full of tourists – Americans, probably – had come up from Pitlochry.  Three of the tinkers were selling sprigs of ‘lucky heather’ to some of the tourists, while the fourth tinker, the one in the green kilt, was starting up the bagpipes.  He got up from the boulder and continued on his way at a brisk pace.  He was immensely relieved not only to be leaving the tinkers behind, but also to be quickly out of earshot of the screeching and wailing of the worst rendition of ‘Scotland the Brave’ that he would ever hear.

 

It seemed again that in no time at all he had covered the seven miles from Pitlochry to the village of Blair Atholl.  He walked along the street that ran through the village, on the lookout for a café or a teashop, but there didn’t appear to be any.  He had almost reached the end of the street when the imposing Victorian façade of the Atholl Arms Hotel loomed into view.  Reluctantly, he went into the hotel, sat on a big leather couch in the lounge and ordered some coffee.  He felt awkward and out of place in his denim jeans and jacket and his hiking boots, even more so when the coffee arrived in a silver pot on a silver tray.  But the coffee was good.  He drank two cups of it, paid for it and left the hotel.  He was back on the road again.  It was mid-morning, the sun was still shining and he still felt fresh.

 

Only minutes away from Blair Atholl, he turned a corner and looked down to see Glen Garry suddenly laid out before him.  The scene was breathtaking.  The glen was a vast tract of moorland and sparkling rivers, which was ringed by mountains with snow-capped peaks and through which the road wound like a ribbon.  Away in the distance on his left, the waters of a loch glistened.  Off to his right, wisps of blue smoke rose up from the top of a pine-clad hillside.  The smoke was accompanied by the haunting strains of a bagpipe lament, the instrument this time sounding much more mellifluous than the one played by the tinker in the green kilt.  This is heaven, he thought.  He wasn’t to know it then, but that heaven would turn into hell for him in the space of only a few hours.

 

It began with the heat.  As he walked down into the glen, the sun grew stronger and stronger.  By midday, it was blazing down on his head and neck, and he was sweating profusely.  With the heat and sweat came thirst.  It had been hours since he had that coffee back in Blair Atholl, and he wasn’t carrying anything to drink.  His mouth and throat felt so dry that he wanted to gag.  Up ahead of him by the side of the road was a tiny stone cottage, which looked forlorn out there on its own in the middle of nowhere.  Its windows were shuttered and its door closed.  He knocked on the door, but no-one came.  He knocked again and waited.  He was certain that he could hear someone moving about inside.  He knocked a third time.  ‘Hello, I’m only looking for a drink of water,’ he said to the door, but still no-one came.  He walked away in disgust.  ‘So much for Highland hospi-fucking-tality!’ he remembered shouting back at the (probably empty) cottage.

 

About another mile along the road, he came to a small humpback bridge over a wide, shallow stream.  He scrambled down the bank of the stream and drank its water from cupped hands until his thirst was slaked.  The water tasted cool and sweet.  Before finishing, he washed his face and soaked his head and neck.  He felt much better as he climbed back up the bank.  It was only when he got to the middle of the bridge and looked down the other side of it that he saw the dead sheep lying in the water further upstream.  The smell of the carcass coming down to him was overpowering.  The water didn’t seem so sweet after that.

 

And then there was the business of getting a lift.  He reckoned that he had only hiked between half and two-thirds of the distance to Dalwhinnie, so there were at least another ten miles to go, probably more.  He knew from his map that there was no place to stop in between, just endless, bloody moorland.  A lift was more than necessary, therefore, if he wanted to get to Dalwhinnie without doing himself some damage.  He had never hitched a lift before, though, having only seen people do it in the cinema and on television.  If he thought it was simply a case of sticking out his thumb when the next vehicle approached, then he was sadly mistaken.  For a start, there weren’t very many vehicles on the road that afternoon.  When they did come, it was usually in a sort of convoy, with one or two lorries or vans closely followed by a handful of cars, and there were usually long gaps between the convoys.  He got into a pattern of walking and frequently looking behind him when there was no traffic in sight, and then stopping with his thumb out when the next convoy came closer.  But no-one was interested in giving him a lift.  It seemed to him that the drivers of the lorries and vans were preoccupied with getting as much speed as they could out of their vehicles, while the car drivers behind them were intent on keeping a close eye on the vehicles in front of them.  All of them appeared to be thoroughly pissed off.  After hours of trying, when the lead lorry driver of the latest convoy honked his horn at him and gave him the finger, he sat down at the roadside and gave up.  He was angry not only with that lorry driver, but also with himself.  He was hot, sweating, thirsty again, hungry and feeling nauseous.  His feet were hurting, and his head was swimming.  He cursed himself for getting into that predicament, for not being savvy enough to realise that a thirty-mile hike in a single day under a blazing sun was an impossible feat.  He could have taken the train from Blair Atholl and been in Dalwhinnie in under an hour, for Christ’s sake!  Now he would perish in this fucking wasteland!  It was at that moment, when he was in the depths of despair, that the miracle occurred.

 

The car was a cream-coloured Volkswagen Beetle with a sunroof and left-hand drive.  It was on its own, not in a convoy.  It drove past him, slowed down and then stopped about ten yards down the road.  He couldn’t believe it.  He hadn’t even put his thumb out.  As he ran, stumbling, towards the car, the driver got out.  He was a big man in his late twenties or early thirties.  He had a beard and a mop of unruly sandy hair, and he was wearing a checked shirt.

            ‘Could you do with a ride, partner?’ the driver asked.  He was an American.

            ‘Yes, please!’ he answered breathlessly with a big grin on his face.

 

While the man held back the driver’s seat, he took off his rucksack and slipped into the rear of the car.  He noticed that the upholstery was also cream-coloured and that it smelled new.  There was a woman with long black hair and sunglasses in the front passenger seat.  She, too, was big and probably in her late twenties.  As soon as the car moved off, both the man and the woman began to talk loudly and animatedly, taking turns to interrupt each other.  They were from the States, on honeymoon.  They were touring Britain in their car, a wedding present, which had been shipped over with them.  Did he like the car?  They loved Scaatland.  They loved the Scaattish people.  This scenery was awesome.  Where was he from?  Where was he going?  What was it like to hitchhike?  His answers were brief and monosyllabic; he was too engrossed in the comfort and coolness of the car to want to converse.  But it was all too soon before he would have to leave that luxury.  He saw a road sign, which indicated that Dalwhinnie was a mile and a half ahead.  He told the couple that he wanted to get off there.  They said that they would be very happy to take him further, as far as he wanted to go, but he politely declined their invitation.  The man stopped the car in the middle of the little village, got out again and let him out.  Standing there beside the man, he wondered if he was making the right decision.  If he thought that Pitlochry was like a frontier town, then he could only describe Dalwhinnie as a Pony Express stop in the wilderness.  It appeared to be nothing but a collection of ramshackle buildings on either side of a dusty road.  He knew from the AA Guide that there was a hotel in the village, but he couldn’t see it from where he stood.

            ‘Are you sure that you want to get out here, partner?’ the man asked.

            ‘Definitely,’ he replied.  ‘And thanks very much for the lift.  It was very welcome.  I hope you have a great time.’

            ‘Well, if you’re really sure, buddy,’ the man drawled and shrugged his shoulders, still not believing that anyone would want to stop at that desolate place, especially when there were so many other beautiful places to go to.

 

It was then, when he was putting on his rucksack and the man was climbing back into the car, that he saw the large patch of dark blue on the upholstery of the rear seat.  The patch covered the very spot on which his back had been resting only moments before.  He knew immediately where the stain had come from.  Soaked in his sweat, his brand new denim jacket, which had never been washed, had simply leaked its dye onto the upholstery.  He kept a smile on his face as he waved to the departing car, but inwardly he was screaming, ‘Please, please, don’t let them turn round and see it!’.  He breathed a sigh of relief when the car disappeared into the dust ahead, but he also felt guilty for returning the happy couple’s kindness by ruining their prize wedding gift.  He knew that it wouldn’t be long before they regretted that kindness.  His guilt was pushed quickly to the back of his mind, however, when he remembered that he was extremely thirsty; he had to find somewhere to get a drink.

 

Directly across the road from him was a large area of waste ground, in which was parked a multitude of lorries and vans, together with a few cars.  The building next to the waste ground looked like a warehouse with windows, but turned out to be a transport café.  When he crossed the road and went inside the building, he found to his surprise that it was buzzing with people.  A counter ran the length of the far wall.  In front of it were dozens of Formica-topped tables and plastic chairs, most of which were occupied.  He knew now where all the lorry and van drivers he had seen on the road earlier were hurrying to get to.  A hand-printed notice had been sellotaped to a door beside the counter; it gave the daily, nightly and hourly rates for the use of beds in the room behind the door.  He bought a bottle of Coke at the counter and sat down with it at one of the few empty tables.  He noticed that he was hobbling and wincing when he walked.  The Coke was ice-cold.  He sat there for a good while, relishing the taste of the drink, recovering from his ordeal.

 

He found the hotel not long after leaving the transport café.  It was on the other side of the road and set quite a bit back from it, a white Art Deco building which seemed incongruous out there surrounded by moorland.  The hotel was run by an elderly, grey-haired lady, the first of a number of such ladies whom he would meet over the next few days.  She gave him a quiet room at the back.  He remembered running a bath.  The water was brown, but he didn’t care; he just lay in it for a long time without moving, letting his aches ease away.  He had a meal in the hotel that evening and a pint of lager.  He didn’t need any more pints to sedate him, though; he slept like a log that night.

 

The man looked through the receipts again.  There was one from the Grampian Hotel in Dalwhinnie.  He had paid two pounds, but he didn’t know if the price of the meal was included in that sum.  He must have bought a postcard at some point as well.  There was one with a colourful map on it, just like the first postcard, but this time the map was headed up ‘Inverness and the Cairngorms’.  Its little, cartoon-type drawings included those of a stag, some castles, a man in a kilt tossing the caber at Braemar, another man skiing at Aviemore and one fishing for trout on the River Spey.  Dalwhinnie was at the very foot of the map, on the left-hand side.  He saw that he had underlined the name in ballpoint pen, presumably to ensure that his mum could find the place.  He read the message on the other side:

‘Tuesday 7th July.

‘Am staying at Dalwhinnie for the night.  Weather better, but feet sore.’

Jesus, he thought, that remark about his feet was quite an understatement.  He recalled that on the next morning there were large blisters on the soles of both of his feet.  When he tried to walk after putting on his woollen socks and hiking boots, it felt like he was standing on a cushion of hot coals; every step was agony.  He knew that he wasn’t going to get very far like that, so he jumped up and down several times until the blisters burst.  It was probably the wrong thing to do, but, although his feet felt wet for a while, most of the pain had gone and he found it much easier to walk.

 

When he set off from Dalwhinnie that morning, his destination for the day was Spean Bridge, from where he planned to strike out for Kyle of Lochalsh on the following morning.  Spean Bridge was some thirty-six miles away, but he had no intention of repeating the previous day’s nightmare by attempting to hike all of that distance.  He would definitely hitch a lift at some point.  First of all, though, he would get himself to the village of Laggan, which was about eight miles to the north.  He felt good as he left Dalwhinnie far behind.  His feet were fine, the sky was blue again, the sun was gentle, the air was clear and invigorating, and the scenery around him was tremendous.  He felt so good that he burst into song, but his rendition of ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’ served only to make him feel silly and to bemuse some sheep that had congregated at the side of the road.

 

The little cluster of buildings which comprised Laggan village was dominated by a general store-cum-post office-cum-café, in which he drank a cup of coffee.  It was there that he learned about the postbus: a service whereby members of the public could pay a modest fare to travel with the postman in his van as he delivered mail around the area.  The next postbus would be leaving soon, and it could take him all the way to Spean Bridge.  He jumped at the chance.  Ten minutes later, he was climbing into the windowless rear of the postman’s van.  Although he caught only glimpses of the mountainsides and lochs passed by the van, it was a pleasant enough journey, which he shared with a garrulous postman, some parcels on the seat beside him and a wicker basket full of clucking chickens at his feet.

 

When he alighted from the van outside Spean Bridge post office, he was well ahead of his schedule, but he was also in a quandary.  It was far too early to stop for the day and book into a hotel.  He could continue on his route northwards, but the next village, Invergarry, was almost sixteen miles away.  The sun was growing hotter, his feet had begun to throb again and he was scared of repeating yesterday’s mistakes.  On the other hand, the next stop going south was Fort William, only about nine miles away.  With or without a lift, he could get there long before evening.  If he went that way, he could see Ben Nevis and the next day he could walk through Glen Coe, two things that he had always wanted to do.  It wasn’t the journey that he had planned, but Skye could wait for another time.  He chose to go south.

 

The man tried hard to remember.  He was doubtful whether the heat and his sore feet were his prime reasons for taking the Fort William route; he was pretty sure that money was the deciding factor.  He knew that at one point he had been concerned about the cost of the trip; the hotels, the meals, the, um, refreshments in the evening were all more expensive than he had anticipated.  He knew, too, that he would have been terrified to go too far north and get stranded without money.  Yes, he concluded, it was the fear of running out of money that had really persuaded him to turn south.  He was almost certain of it.

 

Whatever his reason for going in that direction, he remembered that he had enjoyed the hike to Fort William.  The road went downhill for most of the way and was shaded on both sides by towering, wooded hillsides.  It sounded like a cliché now, but his heart did skip a beat when he caught his first sight of the might of Ben Nevis away in the distance.  When he arrived in the busy tourist town of Fort William in the late afternoon, he was hot and covered in sweat, but otherwise in good condition.  Walking along the High Street, he felt that, like Pitlochry, there was an air of excitement about the place.  He stopped for a drink at a glass-fronted café.  He recognised the woman who served him; she lived a few streets down from him in Queensferry, and she had a son and a daughter who were about his age.  She seemed to recognise him, too, but she didn’t say a word, so he followed suit.  It’s a small world, he thought at the time, as well as a strange one.

 

He left the café to look for a hotel.  The first two that he went to had no vacancies.  He had begun to panic by the time he went to the next one listed in the AA Guide.  The hotel was run by an elderly, grey-haired lady.  Unlike the helpful lady back in Dalwhinnie, this one was miserable-faced and sighed a lot.  She explained that there was one room available, but that he would have to share it with one of her regular guests, a travelling salesman from Inverness.

            ‘Don’t worry,’ she said.  ‘He’ll no’ be here until late tonight, and he’ll be away very early in the morning.  He’s very quiet.  You’ll no’ notice him.’

 

She could have added ‘Take it or leave it’, but she didn’t need to.  Reluctantly, he took it.  She showed him upstairs to a large room at the front of the hotel.  It contained two single beds.  His was the bed under a bay window at the far end of the room.  She handed him a worn white towel the size of a tea cloth and told him that the bathroom was along the corridor.  When she left the room with a sigh, he couldn’t help remembering the incident early on in ‘Moby Dick’ when Ishmael woke up to find that he was sharing a room with a heavily tattooed, tomahawk-wielding cannibal called Queequeg.

 

After taking a bath and drying himself with some difficulty, he went out on the town to buy a postcard, find somewhere to eat and get a few drinks.  He was in no hurry to return to the hotel, so he stayed out all night among lots of other similarly-minded young people.  After closing time, he went to a chip shop and bought a chicken supper, which he ate while sitting with his legs dangling over the edge of the pier and gazing at the shimmering reflection of Ben Nevis in the moonlit water of Loch Linnhe.  He was so mesmerised by the view that he found himself crunching on the bones of the chicken.  When he eventually got back to the darkness of his room, he could make out a shape in the other bed.  He tiptoed past the shape, undressed, put his money under his pillow and slipped into bed.  He drifted off to sleep thinking of Moby Dick and Captain Ahab and tattooed cannibals with tomahawks.

 

When he woke up the next morning, the shape had gone and his money was still under his pillow.  He washed, shaved, dressed, packed and went downstairs for breakfast.  The dining room was empty and in half-darkness.  Misery face appeared suddenly out of the shadows; it was as if she had been lurking there in the dark all night.  There was no ‘Good morning’ from her, no ‘How are you?’; she simply sighed and pointed to a table by the window, at which he was required to sit.  When he sat down, there was a plate of cornflakes in front of him and a tiny glass of orange juice.  The orange juice was warm, and the cornflakes tasted foosty.  He wouldn’t have been surprised at all if she had put them out the night before.

 

The man located a receipt from Fort William.  It was ‘With compliments’ from the George Hotel.  He saw that it had cost him two pounds exactly.  He tutted.  Even although he had shared a room, it looked like the miserable, greedy, old bugger had still charged him the full rate.  He also located the postcard that he had sent from Fort William.  There were some pictures on the front of it, including one of Ben Nevis and another of Mallaig Harbour.  Printed along the centre of the card were the words ‘Road to the Isles’.  On the back was the message:

‘Wednesday 8th July.

‘Have decided to go to Fort William and will be staying there tonight.  Weather very hot now.  Scenery terrific.’

He noticed that there was no mention in the message of his having changed direction.  To his mum, therefore, it would look as if he was still firmly on that ‘road to the Isles’.  The man began to wonder whether he still hadn’t made his mind up when he wrote the postcard.

 

If he did harbour any thoughts of resuming his route northwards, those thoughts had obviously disappeared by the time he set off from Fort William, because he headed straight towards Glencoe.  The road took him through more wooded hillsides, across the bridge over Loch Leven and past the little village of Ballachulish, a distance of some fifteen miles.  He was now only a couple of miles from Glencoe village and the entrance to the famous pass by that name.  The weather had changed dramatically on the way.  The sunshine and the bright blue sky that accompanied his exit from Fort William were gone, replaced by dreary greyness.  Heavy rain clouds were amassing above the peaks of the mountains ahead of him, casting even more gloom over the landscape.  He understood that the Pass of Glencoe was an eerie place even on the best of days.  He didn’t relish the prospect of hiking through it in the middle of a rainstorm, especially when that hike was at least twenty miles long.  He was coming quickly to the conclusion that if he didn’t manage to hitch a lift by the time he reached Glencoe village, he would stay there overnight and try the pass in the following morning, when he could start off feeling fresh and ready for the challenge.

 

It was while he was going through these options in his mind that he spotted the shack by the side of the road up ahead.  It looked like a café of some sort.  When he climbed some steps and went into it, he discovered that it sold hot food as well as drinks.  He bought a plate of stew, a roll and a glass of milk.  He sat down with them at one of four wooden trestle tables which took up the floor space.  One of the other tables was occupied by a couple and their two small children, a boy and a girl.  The children stared at him with their mouths open, as if he were some sort of strange being, but he just smiled at them and carried on eating.  Eventually, the children grew tired of staring at him and looked away.  Shortly afterwards, the family left the shack.  After literally cleaning his plate and finishing his milk, he put on his jacket and rucksack and followed them out.  He felt thoroughly refreshed now.  With apologies to his mum, God bless her, but he thought that was the best stew he had ever eaten.  He was toying with the idea of going on to tackle the pass when he heard the car horn.  It came from a dark-coloured Ford Anglia that was parked at the side of the shack, only a couple of feet away.  He saw that the car contained the family from the shack, the father in the driving seat, the mother beside him and the two children in the back.  The father was rolling down his window.

            ‘Hey, mate, would you like a lift through the pass?’ he shouted.  ‘I can drop you off at Tyndrum if you like.’

 

He was delighted.  It was like another divine intervention.  And once again he hadn’t even stuck his thumb out.  He got into the back of the car beside the children, who resumed their open-mouthed staring at him.

            ‘You’re lucky, mate,’ the father said, starting the car.  ‘I don’t normally give lifts to hitchhikers.  It’s not safe for the kids, you know.  You just don’t know who you’ll get these days.  But we saw you in the café back there and thought you were a good mannered young man.’  He couldn’t place the man’s accent; he thought it was either Welsh or Liverpudlian, or a cross between the two.

 

There wasn’t much more conversation in the car.  Before long, everyone, including him and the children, was gaping in awe at the grandeur of the scene around them.  The mountains on either side of them were dark and impassive and threatening; the car seemed so small and insignificant as it wound its way between them.  He was even gladder now that he hadn’t forced himself to walk through that foreboding place.  The father stopped the car at Tyndrum on the other side of the glen and let him out.  After thanking the family and waving goodbye to them, he sat on a wall at the edge of the village and consulted his map and the AA Guide.  It was early in the afternoon, and it still hadn’t rained.  The next village to the south was Crianlarich, which was less than five miles away and which had a hotel that was recommended in the Guide.  He decided to go there.

 

The man couldn’t find a receipt from that hotel in Crianlarich, nor could he remember its name.  He did know that he liked the place, though; it was quiet and comfortable, and he had a restful night there.  It was managed by yet another grey-haired, elderly lady, but a very genteel one on that occasion.  When she was checking him in, he recalled thinking that he had seen very few young people working in any of the places he had stayed at or eaten in; it was as if the whole of the Highland tourist industry was run by little, old ladies.

 

Although there was no receipt from Crianlarich, there was a postcard, the last of the four on the table.  It was a picture of Ben Douran, one of the peaks in Glencoe, against the backdrop of a clear blue sky.  In the foreground was a part of the twisting road through the glen that he had been driven along.  The man turned the card over and read the message on the back:

‘Thursday 9th July.

‘Arrived in Glencoe at noon today, and thumbed a lift through the pass.  Am staying at a little place called Crianlarich tonight.

‘P.S.  Will be coming home sooner than expected.  Running out of cash.’

The man smiled.  The P.S. confirmed his earlier suspicions about money.  But he wasn’t sure why he wrote that he thumbed a lift, rather than was offered one.  He shrugged.  Perhaps the former sounded more impressive.

 

Nor was he totally clear about the events of the following day.  He knew that he left Crianlarich in the morning and hiked eastwards until he came to Killin village about fourteen miles away.  He suspected that he made a wrong turning at some point, having intended instead to go south to Lochearnhead, which would have been the next logical stop.  It may have been because of that error, and because he was tired and his feet were sore again, that his hiking journey fizzled out in Killin.  Whatever the reason, he took the bus from there direct to Perth.  He probably considered changing buses at Perth and carrying on home, but he stayed the night in the town.  One last fling, perhaps, the man guessed.  He picked up the last of the receipts.  It was from the Queen’s Hotel in Leonard Street.  It cost him two pounds, three shillings and sixpence for bed and breakfast.  He couldn’t remember anything about the hotel, except that he went to a bar that evening not far from it.  The bar was in a basement, and it had soft lights and a great jukebox, just like the one that he used to work in at that hotel in Queensferry.  It was a Friday night, of course, so the place was full and noisy.  He sat in a corner out of the way.  There was a table full of girls on one side of him and a table full of boys on the other.  They all seemed to be work colleagues from the same factory.  The good-looking girl nearest to him took an interest in him and struck up a conversation.  At one point, he went to the bar to buy both of them a drink.  When he was returning with the drinks, he heard some of the boys shouting over to the girl.  They were warning her off him in no uncertain terms.  They continued the conversation even after he sat down again, one of them calling him ‘a fucking snake’.  It wasn’t hard to recognise that trouble was brewing.  When his drink was finished, he said to the girl that he was going to the toilet, but he slipped quietly out of the bar instead.  He wasn’t Clint Eastwood.  He wasn’t the Man With No Name who had come to clean up the town.  And he certainly wasn’t going home with a sore face.  As he walked the short distance back to the hotel, he noticed that the pavements were wet.  The rain had finally come ...

 

 

The man looked out of the window.  He saw that the flagstones of the patio were wet.  The rain had finally come there, as well.  He gathered up the postcards and receipts and placed them back in the fold of the pages.  He put the pages back into the pink folder, and the folder back under the spring clip of the box file.  Then he closed the box.  And that was it, he supposed; his Highland adventure.  The next morning, he had taken a bus to Dunfermline and then another one back across the Forth to Queensferry.  The sky over the estuary was dark, just like on the morning when he set off.  Although he had been burned by the sun and his feet would need some attention for a while and he probably looked a bit more like that Vietcong escapee, overall he was in good condition.  He didn’t get to Skye in the end, but it was still a worthwhile journey, an achievement.  He picked up the box file, carried it through to the storeroom and put it back on the shelf.  One of these days, I’ll finish that journal, he said to himself.  One of these days, he repeated.  Now, what was I looking for in here?  Ah, yes, the Christmas tree lights.

 

 

– o –

My Blog - writer's block
Foreword
Foreword
The Barman (2009)
Foreword
Synopsis
Synopsis