Another hike (trip 3)
Clachnaben beckons the next day, a small mountain that was the favourite of the local scouts when my brother-in-law was a boy. The stony path, when eventually we find it, is streaming with water. Parts of it are frozen into thick sheets of ice. My son strides ahead, becoming a speck on the path that snakes around the mountain. My daughter, complaining of period pains and nausea, walks slowly. I suggest stopping but she refuses, soldiering on. Looking up, I spy my son on the highest point of the mountain, on the top of a rocky outcrop, his head in the sky. I hold my breath and smile.
Gingerly, my daughter and I join my son on the rocky outcrop. The view is breathtaking. Two fighter jets speed past, splitting our peace in two.
The ice fight that I start never really gets out of hand. There are rocks to hide behind and my son is less madcap than usual. Besides the ice is too heavy to throw anything but small shards. Once more my son strides down the path, his thoughts far from family, so that by the time my daughter and I reach the car he has doubled back to find us.
When we get back my mother-in-law announces that she will be driving home the next day. Have I, I wonder, talked enough, shared enough, with her? Kind, tactful, loving, she has made no demands. She understands that our children are now teenagers and that much harder to draw out. She knows that my life, and marriage, has its strains. But she doesn’t probe or judge. Instead she makes cups of tea and takes herself off into another to do word puzzles, when enough is happening in the kitchen. Or she offers to take my husband, her son, to the café where he has taken to working each morning. Or she makes a list for morning shopping in the village, and heads out to fill it.
On our last night in Scotland my husband and I go out for dinner. The country house hotel is quietly grand, with roaring log fires, partly for effect above the central heating, and moose heads on the wall. Risking being the sole diners in the large oval dining room, with its wooden floors and shuttered casement windows, my husband and I take a table near the fire.
Having left Scotland at the age of seventeen, and never returning for longer than a visit, my husband describes what it feels like to be a welcome stranger in the country he was born in. He works hard to express his feelings. He sighs. I can never, he tells me, fully understand how he feels. I agree, silently wishing that the conversation might turn to me. But we persist, and I leave our dinner in that beautiful room a little the wiser.
Before driving south the next morning, the three of us walk up Scolty Hill, while my husband writes in a café. Our little ritual. I can’t face a long drive without a walk first. Besides I want to say goodbye to the town, and our stay in it, on foot.
Up until today, my son, daughter and I haven’t enjoyed our visits to Scottish castles. They don’t look their best during winter, and the three castles we’ve visited so far have been – bar the flying foxes – joyless mouldy places. Stately yes, but inspiring no.
Stirling Castle, atop a sudden hill surrounded by cliffs on one side, is a joy. I know this because we all spontaneously want to explore the courtyards and castle inside the stately ramparts. We are rewarded immediately. The castle has a quiet majesty, an aura, that buildings in Australia just don’t have. Most of all I love the cliff-top rose garden behind the castle keep, and imagine the stories that must have unfolded in it.
It is dark and wet when we finally find the track that winds behind Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, and drive up it to the house we are staying in. When we find it the drive looks so steep that I don’t even consider driving the car to the house. My son and daughter find the hidden key and light up the house, long before their suitcase dragging parents open the door. A tray has been set up for tea. There is central heating, three bathrooms, and generous beds.
While I get the hang of cooking in the kitchen, banging cupboards in the kitchen, the others play a board game with hoots and bangs. We eat gratefully and – with no technology to keep us up – collapse into bed.
The next morning the three of us walk a steep track, past Postman Pat farms, to a high up tarn. It is wet yet wonderful, another world. Walking around the boggy tarn, or upland lake, I follow in my son’s large footsteps until I squeal as my feet disappear into the spongy marsh. Again I feel a swell of gratitude that I have two teenagers who still love doing what I love doing. I know they feel the beauty of our the lake because they take lots of photos, my son surreptitiously on his phone, my daughter fiddling with the settings on her metallic blue camera.
I chose to stay in the Lake District with my father-in-law in mind. A long weekend at Grasmere, no matter the weather, seemed the right setting for what I knew would be, on booking the house from Hobart, an important few days. Thankfully I was right about the house. And, as it turns out, the dire weather.
My father-in-law and his French partner arrive only a little late. Despite a long drive, they are immaculately turned out in tweed suits, and I inwardly salute them. My father-in-law’s French partner is once more charm itself, kind, warm, interested and supportive. Within minutes I feel as relaxed with her as I feel awkward with my father-in-law, despite having known him a lot longer.
As we sit at the long wooden table my husband carves a roast chicken, all the while trying to keep the conversation flowing, despite the undercurrents that pull us in different directions. My son, who longs for his friends at home and the cycling holiday they are now on, eats quickly. Does he, I wonder, ever ask himself how he will get on with his father in thirty years’ time? My daughter, just to my right, where she feels safe, gives me a long look. Why, her look asks me, can’t why family life be easier? I meet her gaze and smile encouragingly. At the end of the table my husband puts down the carving knife and fork. He, I know, is hoping to connect with his father, who clearly longs to connect with him. And my father-in-law’s partner? Well she, like me, just wants everything to go well.
That afternoon it doesn’t just rain, it hails. Not satisfied with a light storm, it buckets down with rain, even though my husband and father-in-law have headed out for a walk through the slippery garden, in the dark, to the lake below.
My daughter, sitting cross-legged on her bed upstairs, has tears in her eyes. ‘Please stay with me’, she begs. ‘I can’t’, I explain. ‘I must go down and have tea with your grandfather’s partner. They have driven such a long way to see us’. ‘Please’, she persists. ‘I’m lonely up here by myself.’ ‘I’m so sorry’, I say. ‘It’s a lovely room, and we have done such a lot of travelling and walking. Besides you have all your drawing things. Draw me a picture of the lake before the light goes off it, or that bird on the drain pipe. You will always remember this view, and this cosy bedroom. And I promise I’ll come up and see you very soon’.