“Aye it can get a wee bit lonely up here, it can indeed.”
“I like my own company. Besides I’ll be busy.”
“So you will, laddie, so you will.”
As Angus Macready and I looked up at the sheer majesty of the fine stone walls of Cregallan Castle a wind whipped up and I felt the stirrings of the headache that had begun this morning. A nasty tense stab that disappeared as soon as it arrived. It was twilight on Blantyre Island in the Highlands of Scotland, and an interesting formation of dark clouds had gathered above the blackened stone of the castle’s Nairn Turret, where I was going to be working for the next few days.
“Well, I know it’s all prepared for your stay,” he went on. “There’s plenty of food and drink in the scullery, and the master bedroom is all prepared. “When do you think you’ll be finished?”
“I’m not sure,” I told him. “There are over 200 paintings inthe Nairn Tower, and many of them need quite a bit of drastic restoration. How about if you call for me in a week?”
“A week, aye, right enough, I’ll be back away here on the morning tide.” He turned back from the boat after we’d unloaded the third of my large wheeled suitcases. “You do know that there’s no mobile phone coverage,and the phone land-line has broken down again?”
“Yes, I know I’m going to be completely cut off from the world.” I smiled at the friendly sailor’s weather-beaten face, detecting a frown of concern in his kindly eyes. “But the McGregor family are paying me well to restore their collection of paintings, and I think I can put up with my own company for just a few days. I know there’s not even a signal for television or radio, but I’ve bought plenty of books, and I can even get on with some of my own painting if I get really bored.”
“Oh aye, Alistair, I forgot, you’re a bit of an artist yourself, are you not? Are you sure you dinna need a hand to take this stuff up to the castle?”
“No, Angus, I’ll be fine, you get off home. I really appreciate you coming out specially for me like this when you’re off duty.”
“Aye well, see you soon, laddie.” Angus prepared to cast off the mooring at the makeshift jetty and to turn his boat around to get back to the mainland village of Killicrankie. “And dinna you worry about the ghosts. I never believed a word of it.”
“A word of what?”
“Never mind, laddie, better I don’t fill your head with silly ideas. I’ll be seeing you soon.”
As the boat engine puttered away and Angus’s tiny craft appeared smaller and smaller as it moved towards the horizon, I walked back down the steps and across the pebbly sand to the main castle entrance, and took a perverse pleasure in using the large heavy key to open the huge, gleaming wooden door that led into the main hall. At once I was aware of the overpowering aroma of old stone, aged timber and furniture polish. In one way it was nice to be all alone in this wonderful place. After a nasty divorce, peace and quiet had never before had quite such an appeal, and besides I was going to be very busy.
Someone once told me that loneliness was a state of mind.You could feel complete, totally at ease, utterly relaxed and just bask in your own thoughts. However, hearing nothing at all from the outside world, not even the news on the radio, was going to be strange. But on the other hand, not hearing about terrible calamities such as floods, fires, wars and political infighting might even be a tonic. As Angus had said, there was plenty of food in the huge scullery’s frig and freezer, and the McGregors told me to take as many bottles of wine from the cellar as I wanted, so if I wanted to I could get sozzled every night to forget my troubles.
After bringing in my equipment and spare belongings from the jetty, I wandered around the huge building, along the fine passages and up the spiral stairs to the turret rooms and even got lost for a few minutes until I made my way back to the huge palatial living room with the log fire with its detailed instructions of how to light the logs in the hearth.
It had been a strange day, and a sad and happy one in equal measures. I reflected on the attractive woman I had met in Killicrankie village this afternoon, while I was waiting for Angus to arrive to take me across to the tiny Island of Blantyre.
Ellis Thomson had been a wise and worldly American girl who was in Scotland to trace her ancestry. We had met in the graveyard of St Bride’s church, where Ellis was on her knees, sliding a swatch of her uncombed long blonde hair away from her large bespectacled eyes, as she tried to decipher the wording on an old gravestone. I’d noticed her fingernails were dirty and her jeans muddy at the knees, and her lively voice and expressions made her face exquisitely animated. She told me excitedly that she was almost certain that this was the grave of her four-times great-grandmother.
Fortunately I had my small magnifier in my pocket, and we spent a long time peering at the engraving and attempting to decipher the letters that were so largely eroded. Instantly we felt into an easy rapport, seemingly almost knowing what the other was going to say before speaking. She told me, coming to Killicrankie was an unplanned detour in her holiday in the UK, and she was on her way to Edinburgh, many miles to the south, which had been home to more of her ancestors. As we’d shared a pot of tea in Granny Smith’s parlour, the tea shop in the tiny high street, she’d taken a great interest in my life as a struggling artist, and how I cleaned and restored valuable paintings in order to make ends meet.
“But, Ellis, tell me about your life in the States,” I asked her.
“Me? I work as a curator in a small museum in a tiny New-England town, I guess what you’d call a village. See Alistair, I just love anything old, I always have, especially old coins and medals,” she told me enthusiastically. “And I sure love it here. Scotland is such a beautiful place, especially way up here in the highlands. Guess I wouldn’t mind settling down somewhere like this.”
“What do you think of this?” I took off the chain with my St Christopher medallion and laid it on the table in front of her.
“Is it old?” she asked.
“Not that old. But it belonged to my grandfather. See that round dent in the corner? He told me that in the battle of El Alamein, during World War Two, he was hit by a German bullet and that medal saved his life. He bequeathed it to me in his will and I’ve worn it ever since.”
“And has it brought you luck?”
“Not yet. But I love it. Mostly because I loved grandad, and it reminds me of him.”
“It’s beautiful. Keep it safe.”
After that everything went to pot. Archie, the local bus driver, came into the tea shop, asking if anyone was heading for the nearest town, because he was leaving earlier than planned and there’d be no other bus leaving today.
And so, in a rush and panic, I helped Ellis gather her things up from the table, and then went with her to the hotel to fetch her suitcase, so that she could hurriedly board the bus, with Archie looking on in frustration.
And when she’d gone I realised two things. I hadn’t had chance to ask for her phone number. And then to my horror I discovered that I hadn’t got my St Christopher medallion, and remembered us both grabbing all her bits and pieces off the table and pouring them into her large handbag, no doubt gathering the medal along with everything else without either of us realising it. I had searched all around our table in the cafe, so that really was the only explanation.
So I’d lost my lucky medallion, along with any chance of seeing Ellis again. What’s more, my nasty headache was getting steadily worse. As to any ideas of seeing her again, of course Ellis’s life was in the USA and mine was in England, so I knew fate was against us. Besides, after my recent divorce I had lost a lot of confidence, and I couldn’t believe that a lovely woman like Ellis might be interested in me, what with my big nose and sticky-out ears.
Next day I was up in the top of the Nairn Tower, where I’d setup my equipment, and I was making great headway with the paintings, many of whichI knew to be priceless. Cleaning and restoring old paintings is a very difficultprocess. Some of them were so affected by the atmosphere that small areas ofthe paintings had faded away completely, and it takes the experience of yearsto know precisely what colours and types of oil paints can be used to copy the originalartist’s intentions.
But on the second morning my raging headache woke me up at dawn. It was so bad that I couldn’t think properly. I staggered down the majestic staircase into the grand lower hall, finding that my neck was so stiff that I could barely move it.
As I struggled to rummage through the bathroom cabinets in the hope of finding aspirin or paracetamol I felt my face and body burning, and I knew I had a high fever.
It was hard to think, but at the back of my mind I remembered someone telling me about the symptoms of meningitis, and as the horror of this possibility took hold, I tried to assess my options.
I was done for.
As Angus had told me, there was no contact with the outside world, and I was on an island. Even if I could summon the strength to go outside and try to start a fire on the beach no one would see it anyway, for hardly any boats or ships seemed to pass and the mainland was quite a way away.
I lay down on the hall’s flagstone floor and dreamed that I was in a land of bright burning lights. But every time I woke up I saw the grey cold hardness underneath me, and I knew that I was completely alone.
And that this was where I was going to die.
The next thing I knew there were confused images, movement. And I was dreaming of Ellis, the wonderful girl I’d met in Killicrankie. I dreamed that she was looking down at me.
And behind her were people walking around: nurses, doctors. There was that antiseptic ‘hospital smell’, so different from the stone and furniture polish and oil paints and turpentine aromas I had been living with.
“He was very lucky you found him in time,” I heard someone saying. “It was touch-and-go. Just a few more hours and the brain swelling would have been fatal. Meningitis has to be treated urgently.”
And then the girl, Ellis, came into view. Her beautiful smiling face was like that of an angel.
“I’d been in Edinburgh for a day by the time I found your St Christopher in my bag,” she told me. “I knew how much it meant to you but I couldn’t get a return train for a few hours. Getting to Killicrankie took time too, but Angus immediately agreed to take me across to the Island. We found you in the hallway and we managed to get you back on the boat, and the hospital helicopter took you from Killicrankie to here.”
The doctor came into the room and prodded and poked at me. “I’ll let you and your girlfriend have a bit of privacy,” he said, smiling as he left the room. “You’re not out of the woods yet I’m afraid. She’s going to have to look after you for the next few weeks.”
“He’s right,” Ellis said, taking hold of my hand. “No arguments.”
As Ellis smiled down at me I knew that my St Christopher had done more than just save my life. . .