Castle (trip 1)

by haywardhelen


Edinburgh is plunged in darkness as we emerge from the terminal late afternoon. Leaving warm stale air behind, an icy wind bites into our bare faces and hands. Heading for the hire car office we walk Indian file, trailing suitcases and back packs, dazed to be using our legs after a day and a half of flying.


There is, alas, no trace of the car I so carefully booked three weeks ago in Hobart. My husband raises his eyebrows, sighs and finds a seat. My two teenagers feign patience and also find a seat. An hour later we set off in a car far larger than the one I booked, closer to a minibus than a car.


The highway north is teaming with rain and cars. Feeling excited and scared, I stare at the lane in front, fishing under the dashboard every now and then for the elusive high beam switch. At last the Sat Nav directs us off the highway through a string of small towns, and then on to a smaller road. We make a steep ascent, climbing so high that thick mist surrounds us. Slowing to a crawl, we chase the tail lights of the car in front. Still we climb, the fog even whiter and thicker than before.


My husband’s temper frays. He curses the Sat Nav for directing us over a mountain pass in order to achieve the fastest possible route. My son tells him to calm down. My daughter snorts. I train my eyes on the road ahead.


As we swing into my sister-in-law’s drive, the only lights on in the house are upstairs. When I knock on the kitchen window there is no response. Next we try the sitting room window. Still nothing. Then my mother-in-law switches on the kitchen light and beams a smile through the window.


My sister-in-law, who spent the day making beds and getting her house ready for us, warms soup and bread, all the while making welcoming gestures. We eat gratefully and fall into beds in various rooms.


Frost covers the garden the next morning. A pale light, so different from the blue sky we’ve just left, gently illuminates the bedroom. Children’s giggles waft across the hall.


After breakfast my brother-in-law takes my son and I up a small mountain, rising out of the forest behind the town. Leaving the dog walkers behind, we take a path that runs with water from recent rains. I stop to exclaim how beautiful the land around is – bare birches, brown heather and green pines are spread out below. My son strides on alone, leaving my brother-in-law and me behind. By the time we get to the top of the hill, deep in conversation, my son is waving from the top of the tower. ‘You’re so slow’, he calls down the spiral steps.


That afternoon my daughter, who has spent the morning playing babies with her two young cousins, accompanies me to Tesco’s. The choice is overwhelming. No wonder nearly every small shop in the town is folding. Next time we visit, I think to myself, Tesco’s will be selling mortgages and funerals, along with slabs of organic cheddar and Aberdeen Angus beef sandwiches.


It’s my husband’s birthday the next day. I give him an electric razor, a duty free present, and a DVD. My daughter gives him a watch from Tesco’s. He thanks us warmly, pointing out that they are both what he calls self-improving presents. On the breakfast table downstairs his mother has left two presents, a book about Raphael and two boxes of chocolates. Neither of these, I note, are self-improving.


Feeling hopeful we set off for Stonehaven, a small coastal town just south of Aberdeen. However as we enter the town and park my husband’s face falls. Wearing leather-soled shoes and a woollen coat, he struggles with his umbrella against a fierce wind that whips off the sea.


While he heads off in search of coffee, and a quiet cafe to work in, my son, daughter and I zip up our rainjackets and take the cliff walk to Dunatter Castle. Buffeted by wind and rain we round two headlands before the castle appears, like an apparition, a grey sea crashing below. We pass a determined Italian couple carrying a pusher down two hundred steps to the entrance of the castle. It’s a wild and glorious walk there and back, with plenty of mud and wind.


Returning to the town harbour, I know immediately that something is wrong with my husband. ‘It’s my birthday and I didn’t choose any of this’, is written on his face. My suspicion is confirmed when he describes the town centre in wildly unflattering terms. Deciding not to risk lunch in the town, I suggest a short drive to Aberdeen. Admittedly I have another motive. A city of the size of Aberdeen, I tell myself, is sure to be awash with mobile phone shops selling cheap phones that will make our trip easier.


However little do I realise quite how big Aberdeen is. When at last we reach the city centre, an imposing set of buildings hijacked by chain store glitz, parking is nearly impossible. Thinking a guide book might help a hungry family of four find somewhere special for lunch, I head for a big bookshop. On the first floor of the bookshop my husband explodes. Surrounded by best-selling book titles piled up for Christmas, a number of which are by his peers, he stamps his foot, seething with what looks like anger but could be disappointment. My daughter, after pleading for a sandwich at the bookshop’s café, disappears. My son, momentarily mature, escorts his father down the escalator and waits outside for his sister and me to appear.


The Scottish Rough Guide’s number one café in Aberdeen is taken over by a women’s raucous lunch. We take the table by the window and, struggling to make the best of things, order lunch moments before our combined blood sugar collapses.


Clearly this is not the day my husband had in mind when he woke to pale light this morning. If the publishing world isn’t against him, his wife quite possibly is. She must be, his expression suggests, to even suggest finding a mobile phone shop before returning to the underground carpark after a pleasant but unmemorable lunch.


‘Did you have a good day?’, asks my sister-in-law cheerfully, on our return. ‘Mostly’, I reply, and bring up photos of our walk on the computer screen. ‘Oh’, she says, ‘it looks lovely’. ‘Yes’, I reply, ‘it was’.