It’s three in the morning and I am wide eyed, waiting for the dawn. I’ve long since given up on sleep and abandon my mind to the swell and break, waves of ideas, the possibility of having a boat. All my life of African drought stands dumb in fascination at the prospect of so much water; being on water, working on water, living on water. The Forth & Clyde Canal. Closed 60 years, now to be opened again, reconnecting the sea to east and west, and the western isles. Making Scotland an island.
In my mind I conjure up a map of the world and marvel at diminutive Britain, then swell with premature pride and fascination at the canal that can be pin pointed even at this elevation. Fancy that. Fancy pointing a map of the world and saying “Here, in this narrow waist of Scotland, that is where I live”.
A yawn of exhaustion stretches through me but I know I will not sleep now. I snuggle deeper into the little bed in the corner and cast my eyes about this enormous Auchmar attic room, imagining for the hundredth time the maids of the house slumbering towards their busy dawn, imagine their trinkets on dressers and the echoes, late giggle and chat of tired and happy cleaning. But the panel of bells is silent now and there is just me, in this tiny cosy bed in the dormitory of a room, looking through the gloom at the dark shapes that history has left on the wall. Loving Auchmar and dreaming of boats.
The faintest of light shows in the sky, so I make a pot of tea and settle into my armchair at the wide open window. The autumn air nips. I snuggle deeper under the blanket and watch the dawn seep through the heather and dying bracken on Conic Hill. A warning wind bends the firs but then stills to let a pheasant cry through. I marvel again at how few birds there are, even here on the edge of the wilds of Scotland. I think briefly of dawn walks in the garden back in Harare, my magical nine-year-old nephew tiptoeing with me to identify birds by their song and silhouette in the half-light. Weavers, Louries, Bulbuls, Flycatchers, Barbets… The pied wagtail dives at the window to grab my attention, reprimanding my distraction from the breathtaking masterpiece unfolding in front of me. This Scotland I love… so rough but all at once gentle. Raw beauty.
But the wagtail is to be eaten later today. Snatched from the air by one of the blasted cats as he dances his morning welcome along the drive… abandoning himself to that fatal acrobatic display.
As the weeks pass I make myself ill with the sleepless wanting of the waterways. Boat business figures just don’t work out and the hours spent hunched over them shrivel my lungs. The daily race of my glitzy television job becomes ever more desperate with the growing realisation that it will not give me the means to this end. I grow angry with workmates and spurn all in my existence that is holding me back from the dream. I forget to watch out of my window and don’t see the autumn waning to wicked winter, till suddenly the chill spears my weedy lungs and I am left helplessly choking, feverish and pained. Alone and afraid in the freezing great dormitory of Auchmar. The sleepless small hours grow longer and colder, the shadows on the wall, more sinister, and the chatter of the maids becomes a scornful reprimand at how I dare succour this idea so far above both my station and everyone’s sensibility.
The fever finally breaks with a dream in which I set my boat ideas adrift in a cough bottle, let go the mad idea and settle back to just loving Auchmar. I stop trying, sit still, just slip into the rhythm of the days and season
I heal into delicious stillness. The Lomond light casts balmy warmth into the ancient rooms and the fire crackles valiantly in the grate so that at least one room is toasty. The dormitory bedroom is closed now, too huge to heat, so I have claimed the attic room beside the lounge. But still sometimes I sit at the window with blanket and hot water bottle to watch the sunrise over Conic Hill. Cosy in my eerie, I look down at the comings and goings, the duke and duchess, the red post van, the white milk float, the yellow coal truck. The comfortable rhythm of life, the assuaging predictability that trickles like warm milk through my existence. Lovely.
And when I am well enough to go out I stretch my perished lungs with the purest Scottish air in the ancient garden, see the changes in the duchess’s Rhododendrons, the rush of the little burn of Mar. When I finally get back to work my colleagues are full of welcome and concern. I see past the exhaustion of this ridiculous world of advertising, and understand that all my irritations were ill founded. I say a silent sorry that I blamed them for mess in my own reality…mess that was just my own distraction from the here and now.
The days and weeks settle into a gentle rhythm, delicious doing and being. The old ache of injustice in Zimbabwe is still there but more bearable now as I consciously nurse my awareness into this place. I am so content that even the hysterical Christmas TV buying doesn’t faze me. Auchmar becomes less habitable with leaks and drafts… stag horn mushrooms grow out of the dining room skirting and there is a noxious orange fungus on the bedroom wall that puffs spores into the air when you turn on the light. But still the garden and the hill are beautiful.
Snow falls under a full moon and I take a walk in it with the kittens. As we round the dairy and come to the top of the steps leading down into the garden, the kittens freeze. There in the moonlight and the snow is a deer with her fawn. She is poised, listening for a sound in another direction and so does not see us. We are all still except the fawn who skips and noses in the snow. For an age we stand there frozen in the moonlit scene. Time too has frozen, and all I know is that here is a piece of heaven on earth.
Then one of the kittens turns, gives me a quizzical look. She flicks her fluffed up tail, the deer leaps and the moment is gone. I race down after her with the kittens, laughing loud, setting the silent scene ringing. I miss the steps, slip, tumble, roll down the slope still laughing and one of the kitten prances sideways and then onto me before darting away into the dark, mad, daring and delighted at this unusual communion with her part time human. I laugh till my sides hurt, devour the moon and the chill, not even afraid for my repairing chest because I know that soon I will mount the worn carpeted green stairs to the great hot bath, the crackling fire and a steaming cup of tea.
So life is good. Life is so good. Sweet as the sleep after a long fever. And then I get an email from Mark in Oxford. There’s a boat for sale in Glasgow. And I’m so cosseted in my new found abandon that I nearly don’t go to see her. But then I do.
And she is Peccadillo.
And she is mine.