A scruffy buzzard perches on the ‘welcome’ sign in the small Highland town of Grantown on Spey, its head angled down and sideways. Its one visible eye peers into my own, a bright pulse of contact as I drive by, and as a result of this I feel expected. I have made a reservation in the same hotel where our family holidayed each summer, although it is decades since I was last here. I have no idea what I will find, and am relieved to discover that the hotel is almost unchanged. The croquet lawn at the back has gone, and new houses fill its place; the gravel drive now forms an ordered car park. But there is still a glass case on the writing desk in the lobby where a – perhaps diminished – variety of hand tied fishing flies bristle, iridescent, over their hooks.
I have never understood how fishing flies work, for returning salmon are said to starve themselves on their journey toward the source of the river – the source, ultimately, of themselves – sustained only by the fat of their sea-years. So why then would they be attracted by a fly? Perhaps it is a reflex that makes them snap at the disturbed surface. Or maybe the flies that fall into the river don’t count as eating – like canapés, or olives. Possibly they remind the fish of krill, their normal fare. I find myself regarding the fly as the salmons’ last temptation, a pretty feathered demon with a curved steel tail, complete with a vicious barb, distracting them, perhaps fatally, from their purpose.
Returning my attention back to the panelled lobby I am surprised at how small the hotel is. It had seemed vast in my recollection, but is in fact no more than a handful of rather grand rooms which our extended family of grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins, together with me and my brother, must pretty well have filled. And then there was Mr Yields, the fisherman, who used to take me down to the River Spey, and who helped me land my first brown trout, which the kitchen staff cooked for breakfast, when I was eight.
Supper isn’t for a couple of hours I so walk down through piny woods to find the river. The bilberries have gone, the blackberries not yet fully ripe. Gold lichen tufts white boulders that lie abandoned on the path; pert fungi glow translucent, and orange, running in serried ridges over black wet logs, toadstools push through moss. The forest scent is pungent and vaguely sexual; a soft sweet churchy resin over mushroom over mulch – a heavy but easy fecundity. A whisper passes through the trees, its soughing breath blowing a confetti of first falling leaves. These are the first messengers of the front that I have remained ahead of, yet has followed me all day long.
My memory of the river is black and smooth, gliding in quiet eddies, travelling between green banks, the salmon clearing the water in deep pools below the bridge. I recall occasional sandy coves, child sized beaches, where I constructed dams, and captured elvers. But I am greeted by a swollen, opaque, drowning river, matted with daisy-filled weeds, an Ophelia river, that heaves against mudded grassed banks, and understand that everywhere I am seeing the work of weeks of rain, which is strange to me after my summer on the Llyn Peninsula, safe within it’s own micro-climate, where the tales of floods throughout the country reached us, but felt unlikely, queer as fairy tales.
I try to find the place where I caught my trout. I was seven years younger than my brother, and as he was of a similar age to the cousins I was often left behind. I would often go fishing with Mr Yields. I recall, at the end of one afternoon, my aunt making her way toward the water’s edge in her PVC cream mac, approaching warily, yet sassily, in inappropriate heels, her smile a vermillion streak, her unnecessary sunglasses glinting in the weak sun. My mother and her sister are of Scottish/ Welsh descent, and these two embody complimentary aspects of Celtic womanhood. My mother is the Scot, with her light brown hair and soft blue eyes, her gentle features, delicate, and finely boned. She was always at home on the moors, on the mountains, in the air. My aunt was tall with raven hair, as voluptuous, as Welsh, as Catherine Zeta Jones. She was most at her ease with a cocktail in her hand, her fingers curved around a highball glass, her nails a calling red. For the very first time it strikes me that this occurrence might have been unusual, my aunt coming down to the river, and she and Mr Yields wandering off, leaving me to oversee the rods. Now you watch the lines… Keep your eye on the float… and then they would come back a while later. I remember sheltering from the rain in a wooden fisherman’s hut, alone. Alone! My grandfather had carved our initials, mine and his, and enclosed them within a heart on one of the posts. He always carried a mother-of-pearl-handled knife, which he used for cutting apples. I devoted myself to inking in our initials with a biro, in red, and then adding an arrow, while spots of rain dropped through the water’s surface, causing circles as big as my head, each round band merging with the next, forming patterns as dense as flowers. But it hadn’t felt dangerous to me then, not like today. It would never have occurred to me to go in, or to follow my aunt and Mr Yields. I made a prop from a forked twig, to support my fishing rod, and devoted myself to my cave art, my private act of vandalism. I turn the memory, making a note of it, but I’m chilly, the rain is coming fast behind the wind now, which is rising, and I walk back through the skittering forest.
By the time I get back to the hotel I am soaked. I walk up the wax-polished staircase, feeling the burnt dark caramel of oak, its textured grain beneath my wet hand, and at a right-angled bend meet a splintered recollection, bright and translucent as film. I have a sudden, clear image of myself, crouching on this first floor landing, my hair unkempt, the laces of my damp pumps dirty as worms, and watching in fascination through the rails while my uncle, who was a jazz musician and had the floppy hair and angular cheekbones of Chet Baker, raised one hand in warning, and argued vehemently across the stairwell – presumably in full hearing of everyone, because the space would have amplified the sound – with the waist-coated and tweedy figure of Mr Yields, who blinked, and polished his spectacles, but nonetheless stood his ground.
‘I don’t need you to teach my wife how to fish!’
The first year we came, Mr Yields had Mrs Yields with him, but in subsequent years he always came alone. I think she went to stay with her sister: she claimed that the Highlands didn’t agree with her. I had the idea she was an invalid, a word that meant nothing to me, but sounded exotic, although of limited interest. I imagined it involved having breakfast in bed, only all the time. I had seen Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock in which the invalid wife is chopped up and put in a trunk. But I think I may have made the invalid part up because I couldn’t see why anyone would want to stay behind when they could have been on holiday in Scotland. With us. They lived in the North East. We lived in the North West. I recall, as a teenager, visiting my aunt after school one day, as she lay in her bed with pleurisy. My uncle was downstairs in the kitchen but Mr Yields, who I had only ever seen in Scotland, sat on the edge of her bed, engrossed in the newspaper crossword, his pipe tucked in the corner of his mouth.
One of the reasons we know so much about the Celts is that the Romans wrote about them when they came to Britain. Cassius Dio, a Roman chronicler, noted a British woman’s response to an acerbic remark made by the Empress, Julia Augusta: “We fulfil the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest.” It occurs to me now that my aunt, for whom I would have flown to the moon had I been able, may well, in her prime, have been a very fine example of her race. Although now well into their eighties she and my uncle are visibly devoted to one another, their fire burning brightly still, despite a brief and slightly hysterical decade of divorce. And I know that she would laughingly, with a full glass in her hand, see no reason to elucidate the myth.
I take a shower, pull on jeans and a cashmere sweater, and go back downstairs. A table is set for me in the dining room, silver service, a crisp white damask table cloth, but I have been alone all day, and I crave the sudden intimacy of the bar. There is a deep Knole leather sofa, next to an oak coffee table, in front of the fire, so I sink into this and order a venison salad, followed by salmon, feeling an unexpected need to keep as close to this land as I can. I watch the young barman talking to a German couple about whisky. He is tall, fair, and blue eyed, and exhibits an authority beyond his years. The guests want to know if a single malt whisky is better than a blend, and if age is an indication of quality. He answers them knowledgeably, yet evenly, exhibiting no personal preference, nor implying any hint of stigma or qualitative judgement, so that while being very well informed about whisky – in the abstract – they do not seem any the wiser, with regard to making a decision, by the time he has finished. His face is as unreadable as a poker player.
I have brought Neill Gunn’s book downstairs with me, The Highland River, and I am immersed in the opening chapter. A young boy is sent by his mother, very early one morning, to fetch water from the well-pool close by the river-mouth. He disturbs a magnificent salmon there, silver and blue-backed, and this he wrestles with, and brings to land. The fine hairs stand up on my forearm when reading this account, but the book was written in 1937, and the style is slightly archaic. I am very much aware of the presence of the storyteller, and at some level I am distracted by his voice. So although the story draws me, it does so slowly. I glance up and am surprised to find the barman in somewhat intimate proximity. He is removing my plate and asking me if I want anything, but he is standing in the space between me and the coffee table, our feet are almost touching. As if in response to my unspoken discomfiture, he glances behind him and down at the table, which is heavy, and presses into the backs of his calves. He then shrugs, creating an impression, although I could be mistaken, of a vague but deliberate insolence. Well, surely it would have been a little more orthodox to lean across from the side to clear the table? I put down the book.
I’d like whisky, I say, but I’ll come and see what you have, and I ease past him and walk over to the bar. He is attentive, professional. As before, he gives nothing away. I would say he is between nineteen and twenty-two, certainly no more. I make my selection, Glenfarclas, large, no ice, and he seems to approve of this, but he has several bottles of various ages, and I allow him to guide me through this second stage. Another young man appears. They exchange a few words, and I understand the shift has changed. My barman places the heavy tumbler on a tray, accompanied by a little jug of water. I slip down from the bar stool in order to move back to the sofa, but in this moment a couple from the dining room enter. He and I watch as they sit down on the sofa, filling it, the tray suspended between us, and then he looks at me, and his eyes darken, a momentary flaring of the pupil, as he says, would you like me to bring this to your room?
The distance between us expands, and then shrinks, very quickly, back to nothing. I am aware of the planes of his body that are facing mine, and sense a movement as silent, yet frenetic, as Brownian motion, as a thousand tiny signals course between us. Stunned, I focus on the button that secures his regulation white shirt, the top button remaining unfastened. The skin of his throat is pale, and this combined with the white of the cotton and the fairness of his hair gives him a slightly studious look, but he exudes a butterscotch warmth. I am reminded of a comment made by one of H. G. Wells’ lovers, when asked about his success with women: his skin smelled of honey. The shirt seems tight across his shoulders, which are wide, and arch taut as a bow. His waist is narrow, he is probably a climber, or perhaps a rower, the deltoid muscles pulling a ruck across the shirt-front, the hand that holds the whisky, strong.
I lift my eyes and meet his look, the causeway to an unknown land.
Crowded into this handful of seconds is the aching realisation that beauty follows a law of diminishing return. I am aware of the exquisitely finite nature of this moment. But regardless of the fact that I am a married woman, regardless of the fact that I have a child, the truth is that I do not want to wake up and see this young man’s head on my pillow, to have to step over his discarded shoes, or even speak with him.
I’ll take the whisky here, I say, thank you, and as my hand takes the glass the diamonds that form my wedding ring glitter under the halogen lights of the bar. But I keep his gaze, and am held in it, and for these few brief moments I feel all the promise and wonderment implied here, the feckless possibility of hidden joy, urgent and unfettered, ephemeral as the smell of hot bread; until quite suddenly he colours, a deep flush rising from his collar, creeping toward his cheekbones, and he dips his head, and looks away.
And in this moment he is lovely.
Illustration by Michael Faraday.